My recent heart scare gave me a worrying few days in an environment full of beeps and scurry. I’m chuffed to be back home & healthy, but still, there are a few things I miss from those few days.
1. The tea and toast trolley at 9.30pm.
2. Ticking the lunch and supper lists at breakfast.
3. Lounging about in a robe all day.
4. Seriously tasty chickpea curry.
5. The friendly professionalism of doctors and nurses.
6. Hiding from the world & seeing no news.
7. Mid-day naps.
8. A nurse applying arse ointment.
My beloved Shakers are dead, after 134 years, killed by a succession of stupid men, greedy men, and finally one downright immoral, bullying, despicable, arrogant parasite. Also culpable in the ‘murder’ is the ineffectual English Football League itself, who allowed such chancers to take over without having to undergo the EFL’s much-vaunted “Fit & Proper Person” tests. Others will examine the obscene imbalance of finances in English football that is at the root of all this. Here, I just want to put down a few words about what Bury FC have meant to me.
My first visit to Gigg Lane was in 1971, back when I was a young Rotherham fan. We stood on the Manny Road End and watched The Millers steal the points with a 1-0 victory. Years later I moved across The Pennines, saw the light and became a Shakers regular. I’ve watched the first team, youth players, and the women play at Gigg Lane. I’ve watched England Under-18s there. Over the decades I’ve watched games from every stand, but my true home was row G in the South Stand. In later years the seat next to me was home to my daughter; Gigg Lane was a refuge, a haven where for two hours we could laugh and shout and sing and connect with the community, and with each other. It was a place where we could forget the cruel vicissitudes of the outside world. I feel I should apologise to my daughter for infecting her with a love for a club that has now died after one of its finest post-war showings. In this last season the old ground has been home to the best football I’ve ever seen from a Bury side. Inspired by a charismatic manager, the spirit from players and staff was incredible, and the football a delight for the eyes and heart.
In its time of dying, Gigg Lane experienced the community of football at its absolute best. In the hope of the next game going ahead, hundreds of fans gathered at the old ground to give it a much-needed clean after a summer of neglect. Not only Bury fans turned up – supporters of other clubs came to help too in a heart-warming demonstration of the true football community coming together. Accrington, Huddersfield, Leeds, Portsmouth, Torquay, Blackpool supporters were among them, as were a number of Bolton fans, their own club also under a 5pm deadline for survival.
My Shakers memories will persist, of course. Forever in my head, with a thousand other visions, will be Efe Sodje’s mighty headers, Lowey’s late goal at Chesterfield, two nights of promotion at Tranmere, and Leon Barnett (playing for Wigan then) falling over the hoarding at Gigg. I’ll remember the crowd cheering Joe Murphy’s kids ‘scoring’ at the Manny Road end after one game. I’ll remember Schuey and Giles Coke arguing about who would take a penalty. I’ll remember Danny Mayor moving like a ghost, and I’ll remember Nicky Adams laughing his head off at Danny’s bloody nose. I’ll remember Joe Riley’s screamer at Bramhall Lane, Leon Clarke’s walk-in at Doncaster, Nicky Maynard’s overhead kick against Mansfield. I’ll remember the supporters, too – Beardy Martin, the two foul-mouthed old ladies who sat nearby, the witty lads who sat behind us, South Stand Shorts Guy, the tattooed stranger I danced with at Tranmere, and the singing section’s remarkable rendition of ‘Anarchy in the UK’.
And I’ll remember Ryan Lowe, his goals, his good humour, and the wonderfully exciting football he got us playing as manager in our final season. A Scouser who became a Bury legend – good luck to him at Plymouth, and to the remarkable players of the 2018/19 squad, wherever they find themselves. Thanks for the memories, everyone. My heart is broken.
A horrific short tale for Miranda Kate’s Midweeker, riffing off the picture below. TW: self-harm.
“Fuck you!” she howled, and flew out of the door, a screaming rocket trailing fire. It slammed behind her. The mirror fell from the wall and smashed as it hit the tiles. I followed it to the floor and sat there, gulping for air, my eyes stinging, my cheeks wet, my head about to explode with pain.
My hand touched the mirror, as broken as my shredded heart. I ran my fingertip along one of the cracks, slicing the sensitive skin on a jagged shard. Blood beaded there, and I licked it off. I was right. It tasted of her. She was in me. In my blood. Why did she doubt that?
I eased my nails under a section of glass and teased it free. I pressed the sharp point against the thin skin of my inner arm, just below the elbow, and dragged it down towards my wrist, raising a red welt jewelled with sparkles of blood. They too, tasted of adoration.
I repeated the action, raising more crimson to the surface. Opening my skin gave me back a level of control I had lost in the roaring fury of the argument. I could choose now. I was the one in charge.
I moved to the other arm, cutting open the skin in three long strokes. Red spattered the floor tiles. The hurricane in my mind eased a little. By the third slice, the glass had become slippery red in my fingers. I wiped them on my shirt, then pulled it off.
I began the next slice at my left shoulder, parting the skin in a long line down past the nipple to my stomach. A second cut paralleled it no more than half an inch away. The pain in my head moved to my skin. I found I could handle it better there.
I cut across the two vertical wounds, running red, and eased a point of mirrorglass beneath the skin, prising up a tag of flesh. I gripped it between my fingers and pulled a sliver of tissue away. It tasted of love, as I knew it would.
I cut more at my right shoulder and down across my belly, criss-crossing my torso, releasing ever more love into the world. My mind calmed with every slice. When she came back, I would show her the blood, have her taste it herself. Then she would see. Then she would know.
Blood coursed down to my lap, soaking my shorts, so I slid them off and cast them aside. I carved a heart into the flesh of one thigh, and her initial into the other. I continued down my legs to my feet. The glass sang whenever it parted skin, a gentle ringing keen of joy, our love song. Our tune.
I lifted my penis from my thigh: the centre of physical love. Before I could slice it open, her key rattled in the front door. She had returned! I staggered to my tattered feet and slid, one foot after the other, across the bloody tiles towards the slowly-opening door, flaps of torn skin dragging on the floor behind me.
How happy she would be to see how much I loved her.
I took a deep breath, held it, and stepped through the window. It shlukked behind me, closing, and I breathed again. First thing you learn, that is: if you don’t want shredded lungs, hold your breath when you go through.
He didn’t recognise me, of course. I’m almost seventy, bald and fat, my massive beard as white as a dandelion clock. My scarecrow eyebrows sprout more hair than does the top of my head, and my eyes have gone, well, wonky. I walk slowly, with the help of an old, twisted length of hazel that I had cut long ago and fashioned into a thumbstick. If he had looked closely at the words and symbols I had carved into it over the years, his suspicions might have been aroused, but his eyes were fixed on the shadows that fluttered and whirled above the bright field.
He leaned on an old farm gate, looking out across sunsodden greengold wheat, margined brightly by hawthorn and willow-herb. Atop the far hill my familiar old windmill stood, young and unbroken, the sails turning leisurely in the summer heat.
“Owdo,” I said. “Grand day.”
“The birds seem to think so,” he nodded towards the swooping, tumbling host above the hot golden field. The dark arrows tumbled, dashing and zig-zagging, swivelling and diving, chasing invisible insects. Our sluggish eyes struggled to track them as they slalomed across the sky. They danced upon the air, innocent of the devastation that was about to be unleashed.
“Swallows,” I said.
“Yeah?” he said. “I’m never sure whether I’m looking at swallows or swifts.”
“Look close, lad. See how the lower third of their body looks bulky when they fold their long wings? That’s because the wing-tips extend to the end of their tails. Also, swifts don’t tuck in their wings at all when flying. And sithee, the tops of their wings look oddly large an’all, like …” I struggled to find a simile.
“Like epaulettes,” he said. We shared a grin.
“You know a lot about birds, then?”
“Hellfire, no. But once upon a summerday long ago, a man older than death told me the way of swallows, and it’s always stuck in my head. I love to watch them enjoying their time in the sun, dancing in a strip of sunlight for a brief summer, while the winter darkness is at an ebb.”
“Like people,” he said.
“How do you mean?”
His eyes flicked, watching the swirl of swallows. “We’re born alone, pieces of rough driftwood on the shores of an endless dark ocean, and we’ll be carried away again soon enough by the swell. But in between the ebb tides of oblivion, in a single summer of life – of dancing in a strip of sunlight, if I might steal your words – we find relationships, love, and the companionship that makes us whole. Makes us human.”
“You’re a poet, then?”
“Forester,” he grinned again. A thunder-growl tumbled across the cloudless sky. Above the wheat, the swallows suddenly gathered, weaving themselves together into a dark seething cloud, and swept away across the valley.
“Ah, look, they’ve buggered off,” I said. “It’s time. Come on, poet, we’ve got to get inside.”
“Inside? Where? Why?” He laughed.
“There’s a cave just down the path here. And why? Because your dark tide of oblivion is about to flood this earth. Humanity’s dance in the sunlight is ending. Look to the sky.”
He raised his eyes, and saw, slashed across the blue like a thousand raw wounds, the blood-red streaks that heralded the downfall of humanity.
“What the hell is that?”
“I’ll tell you in the cave,” I said.
“No offence, you seem nice enough, but I’m not interested in your cave, as you call it.”
“Look, sunshine, here’s your choice: you can either die screaming in a fiery inferno, or you can shelter with me and instead live a long life of struggle against the alien invaders, and eventually, with the aid of their stolen technology, invent a time machine.”
“Besides, you already have come into the cave. I’m proof of that.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“You still haven’t recognised me, have you?”
He stared at me for a moment, frowning. Across the valley the first emerald explosion of plasma energy left the windmill a smoking ruin. Then the shock of recognition dropped his jaw and his eyes widened, reflecting more green flashes as the valley was destroyed.
“Hellfire!” he said. “Yeah, take me to your cave.”
Thanks to @alexbrightsmith for the title.
A short tale for Miranda Kate’s Midweeker, riffing off the picture below, after I noticed the creature at the top hiding his eyes.
“Just look up at the lens.”
“Kevin, we all agreed.”
“You lot agreed, Susan, I didn’t.”
“If you’ll just look up at the lens, we can finally get out of here.”
“What, and have my eyeballs sucked out like yours? Fat chance.”
“It doesn’t hurt.”
“It makes a nauseating sound, though, like somebody pulling a grape out of their nostrils. I don’t understand why they need my eyeballs, anyway. They have all of yours already, what difference would mine make?”
“The Voice Above said they needed forty pairs or they couldn’t take off.”
“Take off what? Our heads?”
“Their ship. They use human eyeballs to drive their starship.”
“Do they bollocks. Where are you getting all this?”
“I had a quiet word with The Voice Above. He told me. We had quite a nice chat, actually.”
“What? When was all this? We’d all have heard you.”
“You know when they lift us out of here sometimes and, like, probe us and stuff?”
“Oh yeah, I enjoyed that.”
“Well, it was then. I was all manacled down, having my orifices probed, and … we had a little natter.”
“What a lovely image. Nice. So when’s the wedding? ‘I, Susan, take thee, Voice Above…’”
“I’ll ignore your sarcasm about what was a very touching moment, actually. The point is, eyeballs make their space-engine work…”
“How you can say that with a straight face is beyond me.”
“… and once they’re off this planet they’ll set us all free and look after us properly.”
“And you believe that, do you?”
“After someone’s probed me I think I know whether I can trust them.”
“You’re so naive, Susan.”
“Oh shut up, Kevin. You’ve had your chance to be reasonable. Grab him, fellers! We’ll force him to look at the lens.”
“Ha ha! Sod off!”
“Shit, where’s he gone? Damn it, Kevin!”
“Can’t catch me!”
“He’s ducked down by your feet, the squirmy little bastard. Grab him, someone!”
“Oh dear, you missed again! If only you were able to look down, eh?”
“Damn, he’s like a kid in a ball pool. Kick him in the head or something!”
“OW! Ow, fucking AAAAARGH!”
“Wait, wait! Don’t kick his eyes, though!”
“Too fucking late, you bitch! Jesus, that hurts! I hope your boyfriend’s happy with thirty-nine pairs of eyes.”
Basically #SausageLeague with pies, but with an added twist, #PieCricket runs on Twitter on Fridays, between the end of one #SausageLeague season and the start of the next. It’s based on pie-guessery, and here’s all you need to know in order to WIN WIN WIN! Yes, there’s a prize this year – the Pie Cricket champion will win one of my pocketbooks.
I’ll take a photo of the pies on display at my local takeaway. All you have to do is predict two numbers – the total number of pies on display, and how many of those will be upside-down (known in pie circles as a “whoopsie-daisy”).
You score points depending on how close you are to the total pie number: 5 minus the difference.
If you’re spot-on with the total, you get a bonus point. If you ALSO guess correctly the number of whoopsie-daisies, you get another bonus point.
But wait, there’s more! Correctly guessing the number of whoopsie-daisies allows you to take an opponent’s wicket, regardless of whether you got the TOTAL prediction right.
You start with 3 wickets. If they drop to zero, you’ll score no points at all the following week UNLESS you hit a spot-on with the total. The following week your wickets will bob back up to 3.
Here’s another short tale for Miranda Kate’s Midweeker. It’s clearly the opening for a much longer futuristic thriller that I have already plotted out, inspired by Twitter friends @mamacrow @hugeshark @QuantumTree @askceil and @cryptidbones. It stars three of my Patreon patrons, @cdlcreative, @greyduck & @lemurlotte — just a small perk to say thanks for supporting me. (and yes, I realise this has Red Dwarf echoes, but it is not that, I promise.)
Karel squinted through ice-rimmed goggles. Was the horizon getting nearer? The voyage had been long to these frozen, grey seas. Thirteen men had been lost to the ice-hearted ocean in the twelve months since The Cindered Rose left port. The ancient ship’s timbers were cracked and warped by salt and time. The rim of the world was now startlingly close.
Karel cupped the blackened rose petals in his rough hands. He had carried them all the way from Khirsh, and now was the time for them to work their magic. The time, and the right place, he was sure. His Lotte would soon be back in his arms. He rubbed his palms together, reducing the petals to powder, and inhaled the dust. Through cracked lips he whispered the first words of the spell.
“Zhe repla kij Lotte mij—”
Before he could finish the incantation his vision faded, and all sound stopped. The icy wind ceased to needle his frozen cheek. He could no longer speak. A female voice broke the silence.
“Your credit has expired. Thank you for dreaming with Such Stuff Incorporated.”
“No!” His frustration exploded from his lips. He had been so close.
“I am sorry, sir. Your purchased time has run out. Please vacate the pod, and follow the arrows on the floor to the recovery room, where you may buy a refreshing beverage.”
Karel opened his eyes. A brightly-lit sign before him announced ‘We are Such Stuff, as dreams are made on’. Shakespeare would be so proud.
“Shit,” he said. He missed his wife enormously, and had hoped to meet her once again in this dream. Oh, the SSI assistant had been friendly and open enough. She had warned him that the company could not guarantee his dream content in a short ten-minute session. Apparently the dream-machine had to build towards giving you the thing you wanted – something about the way synapses work in the brain – and in order for SSI to guarantee that you would dream about what you requested, you had to book an hour-long session. However, ten minutes was all he could afford, but he had hoped he might at least catch a glimpse of Lotte once more, maybe even hold her for a dream-second. So much for hopes and dreams.
He stepped out of the Dreampod (™ Such Stuff Inc and followed the floor-arrows. He sat at a small table and stared sadly at his lukewarm tea. His thoughts were disturbed by a man sitting next to him.
“My name is Hutchings,” the man said, “and I believe you can help me to change the world.”
“Please leave me alone. I’m not in the mood.”
“My commiserations about your wife, by the way.”
Karel looked at the man. He was unshaven, and wore a ragged harlequin coat. He did not look like one of Lotte’s friends. “You knew Lotte?”
“Look.” Hutchings laid a gnarled hand on his. “You know that unutterable hollowness that inevitably follows your sessions in the Dreampod? When you find that your dearest life, love or want is naught but a gossamer wisp temporarily made whole and then cruelly whisked away?”
“You speak very poetically for a lunatic.”
“You’re feeling it now, aren’t you? Flat, colourless, depressed beyond measure at how small and insignificant you are?”
“Well … yes.”
“SSI does that. They inject you with depressant. It keeps you docile. At the same time they introduce certain addictive chemicals into your bloodstream to ensure that you will return, whether you want to or not.”
“What are you talking about?” Karel pulled his hand away.
“They’re collecting information. Think of it – millions of people, dreaming about their desires, their secrets, their lusts. SSI collects all that information, and uses it to direct people’s actions in real life. At the same time they plant ideas and compulsions into dreamers’ minds. They control people; everyone who has ever used a Dreampod. They can shape governments. They can shape the world. They can keep us all under control.”
“You’re deranged. Just go away and leave me alone.”
“I want you to help me to destroy them. To free the world.”
“Why on earth would I help a madman?”
“Because they murdered your wife.”
A five-minute read for Miranda Kate’s Midweek Flash. Thanks to @moorseyl and @beckyfyfe for giving me their names.
Linda slid beneath the scything blade, losing a lock of hair as it barely missed her head. Who the hell built these traps? First it had been the tiled floor, some of which sent poisoned darts flying through the air. Then the stupid rolling boulder which, sorry Mr. Trap-designer, was pathetic. She had simply stepped to the side and watched it roll by. Now this massive swinging axe. Why go to the trouble of building all these overcomplicated mechanisms, rather than just a sturdy door and a strong lock? Becky would have said it was because they were designed by men, and men do love their toys. Becky would have been right, too.
Ahead, moss-covered steps curved up to a high opening in the wall. Light shone from beyond. This far underground, though, she knew it could not be the sky. The light was a sign. What she desired lay beyond that small opening.
She climbed, carefully, the slippery steps, and eased herself through the hole. She was in another cavern, maybe half again as long as it was wide. It was flooded with light, an almost blinding white glow that emanated from a vast table at the far end. Or rather, from what sat on the table: an enormous pile of jewels; sapphires, red beryl, diamond, rubies, black opals, emeralds. Scattered amongst the gems was a multitude of gold and silver objects – sovereigns, torques, bracelets, diadems. A dazzling light emanated from within the treasure heap, casting a kaleidoscope of colour on the stalactites that crowded the roof of the cave. Unimaginable wealth covered the enormous table but for one corner, at which sat a giant of a man reading a scroll.
Linda stepped forward, to a loud crunch from beneath her boot. She looked down. The floor was ankle-deep with bones. Human bones; ribcages, skulls, legs and arms. Every step she took towards the treasure table caused a crack that echoed across the cave.
The giant at the table looked up and put down his scroll. He unfurled himself. An aurora of silver hair surrounded his head. A long beard, intricately plaited with small gems, fell over heliotrope armour that shone in the gem-glow. He covered the yards between them in one stride, the muscles in his treetrunk legs flexing powerfully.
“You did well to avoid my traps,” he boomed in a voice like a mountain awakening, “but, wanderer, know this. I have guarded this sacred place for a thousand years. I am undefeated in battle; you walk upon the bones of your predecessors. I will kill you here, unless you can show me that you have that most precious quality, wisdom. To avoid death, you must now answer me riddles three.”
“Fancy speech,” said Linda, “but I’m a Dubliner. We don’t do fancy. Go feck yourself.”
She punched the colossus hard between the legs and he collapsed to the ground, clutching his undercarriage. “Fucksake!” he whimpered.
“We don’t do riddles either,” Linda said, and stepped over him as he whined softly, clutching his nethers.
She picked up the battered scroll, turned her back on the gold, and left the glowing jewels where they lay. She carefully placed the rolled parchment in her backpack.
“Okay, so. Bye. Bye-bye,” she said, and left the cave. This was what she had come for. This was her treasure. One down, four to go.