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In late 2020, my nan sent me a letter containing the opening to a short story, which she had written during lockdown. She doesn't usual...

November 5th

In late 2020, my nan sent me a letter containing the opening to a short story, which she had written during lockdown. She doesn't usually write fiction, but she told me this had just come to her one day, so she had written it down and sent it to me, hoping that one day I'd be able to turn it into a full story for her.

I was thrilled. I had spent 2020 trying to write, but finding that whenever I sat down to do so, my inspiration well was completely dry; so perhaps this would be the perfect thing to jolt me out of that dissatisfying cycle. I love my nan (obviously), I wanted to make her proud, and I had always wanted to write a murder mystery - which seemed like the perfect kind of plot to follow the opening she'd given me. It was, surely, the ideal recipe for a visit from the Muse.

But every attempt ended in failure. I wanted to get the story done by Christmas 2020, but I missed it; then I wanted to finish it by November 2021, but by then I had only written a couple of hundred words, and I hated every one of them. By mid-2022, I had pretty much given up on ever finishing it, and I hated myself for it. I was a bad grandson, a bad writer, a let down in every way. It's no exaggeration to say I thought about it nerly every day.

And then, when I had nearly given up hope, a different idea hit me. Yes, my nan had written something that leant itself well to a murder mystery ... but it didn't have to be. There was something else there, something closer to the kind of story I would normally write. I could do it, I reckoned, if I just let myself walk down that more familiar road, instead of trying to be the kind of writer I wasn't, at a time when being a writer at all was hard enough.

From then on, it wasn't exactly like the tap had been turned back on, but some inspiration was definitely starting to flow. There was a trickle, at least. And despite missing the November 5th deadline I originally set myself, I managed to finish the story by Christmas, and give it to my nan at the great big Heinemann get together. I might still be a bad writer and a let down in every other way, but at least I'm not that bad a grandson anymore.

The story I wrote follows. The bold text at the beginning is the intro my nan wrote. Enjoy.

Guy Fawkes night, November 5th. The evening was still and quiet, except for the occasional hiss of a rocket as it rose into the night sky before bursting into a spray of stars and dropping to earth, or the bang of an exploding squib. The smell of smoke from bonfires still lingered in the air. The festivities were nearing their end.
   The cat moved silently and stealthily through the churchyard, eyes alert for any movement in the long grass between the ancient tombstones – their names and inscriptions long since forgotten – that would denote a tiny field mouse or vole which would provide a tasty meal.
   Suddenly, the night air was shattered by a blood-curdling scream, which seemed to come from the spire of the ancient church, which had stood in the village for over three hundred years.
   The cat bolted, all thoughts of hunting for rodents – tasty or otherwise – banished from its panicking mind. It weaved in and out of the stones like it would know the route with its eyes closed, barely touching the ground; and the only close call it made as it exited the church grounds was with the vicar’s legs, between which it dived so quickly that the vicar was nearly knocked over by the surprise.
   ‘I’m so sorry, Mrs Moody,’ the vicar said, gently touching the arm of the squat woman in front of him, ‘but I’m going to have to go and see what that noise was. We can continue this conversation tomorrow – please do come see me. Though, as I say, I really don’t think I’ll have the authority to order the rotary club to reduce the volume of the fireworks. Now, must dash.’
   He returned to the church at a nervous jog, pretending not to hear Mrs Moody’s further complaints.
   Entering through the main doors, he walked down the aisle cautiously, checking between each pew as if he expected an attacker to be hiding between each row. Why there would be a lethal assailant in this small church in this sleepy old village, he did not know; but from the sound of that scream, he could not think of many other conclusions to draw.
   ‘Katherine?’ He called into the half-lit hall. ‘Katherine, are you here?’
   Receiving no answer from his wife, he proceeded into the hallway at the back and toward his office, the door to which was closed for the first time in… well, as long as he could remember.
   ‘Katherine?’ He called again, turning the handle.
   Locked. His heart missed a couple of beats, before attempting to correct the error by doubling its previous rate.
   ‘Katherine,’ he repeated, his voice cracking, while he fished his keys from his pocket, ‘are you in there?’
   Fumbling with the keychain, all fingers and thumbs, he struggled to unlock the door for much longer than he should have, and when he finally did manage it, he burst through it as if trying to break it free from its frame; but he was stopped just as quickly, by the sight of his wife, shaking like a drenched puppy, staring at the air in front of her as if he was not even there.
   ‘Katherine, I was calling,’ he said, approaching her slowly. ‘Didn’t you hear me?’
   Katherine continued to stare at nothing for a few seconds, before eventually replying: ‘Hm?’
   Her skin was as pale as the moon outside.
   ‘Katherine, what’s wrong? What happened in here?’
   Finally, Katherine’s eyes moved, and she allowed them to meet her husband’s, as she twisted her lips into a thoroughly unconvincing smile.
   ‘Sorry, Vernon,’ she said slowly. ‘I just had a bit of a fright, that’s all.’
   ‘What do you mean, “a bit of a fright”? You look like you were petrified. What happened? Did someone break in? Was it those kids trying to get at the iPads again?’
   Katherine seemed to be spending a lot of energy on re-entering the room, and she straightened her skirt and tried to add warmth to her smile as she said, ‘No, no. Nothing like that. Don’t worry darling, I’m fine now.’
   She tried to rise from the wheely office chair, but Vernon pushed her back down into it, which seemed to jolt her out of her robotic cover-up routine for just a second. She looked up at him with an expression that was at once pleading, fearful and confused.
   ‘No,’ said Vernon, his resolve cracking slightly under the weight of his wife’s stare. He squatted down next to his wife, placing his hand gently on her knee, and looked up into her frightened eyes. ‘You’re to tell me what happened, so I can help. You can’t shut me out again.’
   Not after the last year. Her father, organising the funeral, sorting his estate. The mess she had been in, having idolised him her whole life. And, let’s face it, it was his fault she bottled all her emotions up – after all, you don’t get to own half the real estate in this village, and a third of each of the three nearest villages, by showing weakness. Vernon had heard him say words to that effect more times than he could remember.
   Something about her husband’s tone of voice must have made Katherine understand, because she seemed to soften. ‘It’s just… so silly,’ she sighed.
   ‘I don’t mind. Tell me anyway. Please.’
   She thought for a long time, her eyes fixed on her wringing hands and her brows furrowed. Vernon could see her fighting the urge to keep it all in, to play it down and try to brush it off, so he squeezed her knees tighter, to let her know her husband was right in front of her and waiting to be let in.
Eventually, she came to a decision.
   ‘I was going to come and fetch you so we could lock up for the night, and I’d tidied up in here and all that, but when I went out into the hallway there was this… thing… standing at the end of it, just staring at me. It scared me, that’s all.’
   ‘Thing? What kind of thing?’
   ‘It was…’ Katherine sighed again, rolled her eyes. ‘It was a straw man in a tattered old suit. Taller that you, really tall, probably seven feet. Just standing there, straight as a statue and dead still.’
Vernon looked over his shoulder out of the door to the hallway. ‘Straw man? As in, someone in fancy dress?’
   ‘No. A man completely made of straw. Like a Guy.’
   ‘But… he must have been human, or…’
   ‘Look, it was just my imagination. It must have been, or you would have passed him going out, wouldn’t you? I must just be tired or something. So come on, let’s go.’
   Katherine stood, shook herself off, massaged her cheeks with her hands, and began to gather her things. There would be no more talk of what had happened tonight, that much was clear.
   ‘Yes,’ said Vernon, still struggling to take it all in. ‘Let’s get you home.’
   He put his arm around her, and they left the church together.

With all that his wife had suffered over the last year, the vicar wanted her to be able to forget the events of Guy Fawkes night, so he had not asked about it again. And although she had her moments when she seemed distant or worried and was not able or willing to explain why, Katherine did not have another episode like it. The whole incident might have faded completely into the past, had it not been for the Christmas Bazaar at the beginning of December.
   They were greeting guests, making small talk, when Nicole Barker approached, carrying a box so filled with cupcakes that it looked like they might be multiplying in there, and soon overflow onto the floor around her. ‘Morning!’ She sang, her voice as warm and jolly as ever.
   Katherine grinned. They had become friends with Nicole under the most awful circumstances, when her husband had died suddenly a few years prior and she had come to Vernon for help dealing with the grief; but God giveth just as much as God taketh away, and out of that tragedy emerged a lifelong friendship of the sort that made Katherine feel like the years before they had known each other had almost been wasted.
   ‘You didn’t need to make all these,’ said Katherine, taking the box out of Nicole’s hands and placing it on one of the tables. ‘They look amazing. You sweet thing.’
   Nicole waved the compliment away. ‘Oh, I didn’t make them all,’ she said. ‘I only made one batch, and the other went wrong, so I popped over to Waitrose on the way. They sold me the better-looking ones.’
   Katherine giggled. She was never quite sure how seriously to take Nicole – which was another thing she liked about her.
   ‘Morning vicar,’ said Nicole, nodding with mock solemnity, before winking cheekily. Vernon smiled a toothy smile back at her.
   ‘So, how have you been?’ Katherine asked. ‘Feels like I haven’t seen you in ages.’
   ‘I’ve had my nephews staying the past few nights. My brother had a flood at his house, so it was my place or the Travelodge their insurance company offered. I told him I’d take the kids and he could have the Travelodge! No way I’m living with my brother again. His kids are such good boys, but they don’t half make a racket. I’ve come here for a bit of quiet.’
   ‘A flood! That’s terrible.’
   Nicole shrugged. ‘Yeah, it’s all getting sorted though. They’ll end up getting a brand-new kitchen out of it. My brother could fall in a sewer and come out with a ham sandwich, bless him.’
   ‘Oh, that’s good. How old are the boys?’
   ‘Archie is seven and George is ten. Can’t get George off his PlayStation, but Archie is a real little chatterbox. Says the weirdest things, but they always crease me up. Yesterday he was telling me that next November, I’ll have to invite him over for Fireworks Night, because this town must have the best display in all of England. I was like, “Why?”, and he said it’s because this is where all the bits of Guy Fawkes must come together. Little weirdo.’
   Vernon had been explaining to Greta Humphreys why the tombola didn’t have a cash prize jackpot, but hearing this had pricked his ears, and he turned back to the conversation to find Katherine stiff as a board, standing so straight and tight that she looked like someone who had been tasered but had not yet had enough time to fall to the ground in a shaking heap.
   ‘Oh?’ She said, her voice trembling. ‘What did he mean, all the bits of Guy Fawkes?’
   Nicole seemed blissfully unaware of Katherine’s sudden tension. She stood with crossed arms and tapping foot, surveying the village hall as if scoping the place for the best stalls to hit, while she recited her nephew’s crazy theory.
   ‘He reckons that when Guy Fawkes was quartered – and don’t ask me how he knows this – his body was distributed to “the four corners of the kingdom,” to deter other traitors from following in his footsteps. But that didn’t mean the four corners, literally; it meant the four most major cities, to achieve maximum publicity. He actually said the phrase maximum publicity. And he got his little tablet thing out, and showed me a map with the four most major cities in England at the time marked, and he’d drawn lines between them, all of which converged right here. He is such a little nutter, I love it.’
   ‘That’s… interesting,’ Katherine said, her voice barely louder than a whisper.
   Nicole continued. ‘Well, it wasn’t right here, it was in the car park of the big Tesco off the motorway; but I got his point.’
   But Katherine had disappeared before she had even finished the sentence, marching across the hall and out of the door like someone on a mission to get to the toilet before their stomach evacuated. Nicole was left shocked, staring at Vernon like she did not quite believe what had happened.
   ‘Did I say something wrong?’ She asked, after a time.
   Vernon just smiled, placing his hand on her arm.

After the Christmas Bazaar, Katherine seemed to begin a slow decline which seemed like it could not have been stopped, even if Vernon knew how. She started to sink into herself, became despondent and jittery, jumping at the quietest sounds. She could no longer hold a conversation with her husband – rarely uttering more than a grunt in response to his questions, and never asking a single one in return. She would go to bed late, and sleep in until late morning. Just like she had been when her father died.
   Sometimes, Vernon would wake to find her sitting up in bed next to him, furiously biting her nails and scrolling through websites he could never read before she’d turn off her screen and tell him to go back to sleep. When he found her tablet one day, lying on the kitchen counter, he tried to look at her Internet history; but she had wiped it.
   It seemed so strange to him that this darkness had been brought on by just two small events, two or three minutes out of the thousands that they had lived through since November. He knew that that was how these things worked – that all it took was a seed to be planted in the mind and it could grow out of control just like that – but it baffled him that there seemed to be no way of stopping it, now it had taken root. Katherine seemed to be overtaken by it now, and whenever he tried to bring it up, even as gently as he could, to help her talk it out, she shut him down forcefully and immediately. She was convinced that her life was now marked, that she was the target of some sinister shenanigans (supernatural shenanigans was implied, but never spoken out loud), and nothing would persuade her otherwise. To attempt to distract her was not a kindness, it was an insult, and one which would more likely put her in danger than make her feel safer.
   So, as his wife slipped into a kind of dark depression that he could not find the words to coax her out of, Vernon found himself getting up earlier than usual, and taking long walks around the village, just to get out of that stifling house and breathe in the fresh, wintry air.
   ‘You seen that hole in the roof, vicar?’ Dougie Tomlinson asked one morning, from his fencepost.
   The vicar had not seen him there, as he walked past the entrance to the Tomlinson farm, so deep had he been in thought; but now that he thought about it, he hardly saw Tomlinson anywhere else than leaning against his fencepost. Hardly ever saw him at church, anyway.
   ‘Dougie,’ said the vicar, jovially. ‘How’s Susan? Doing any better?’
   The farmer sighed. ‘She’s alright. Still a bit winky, bless her. But she’s on the mend, and none of the others have caught it off her, so there’s that.’
   ‘Oh, that’s good to hear.’
   ‘I don’t like to let em know I got favourites, but I was whispering it to her before the doc came. Thought it might help her fight it, y’know? To know someone was rooting for her.’
   ‘Oh. That’s nice. I’m sure that helped her.’
   ‘I think it did, vicar. I think it did. She looked at me with those big eyes, even with one of em filled up with gunk and that, and I knew she was gunna fight it off good an proper, just so she could see me again.’
   Vernon smiled, nodded. ‘What was it again? Conjunctivitis?’
   Dougie nodded solemnly. ‘Pinkeye, vicar.’
   ‘Is that often fatal in cows?’
   ‘Not this time,’ the farmer replied, his voice almost cracking, as if holding back tears. ‘Not this time.’
   The men stood in silence for a few uncomfortable moments, while Dougie Tomlinson silently regained his composure, and the vicar built up the courage to leave.
   Finally, Vernon began, ‘Well, I’d best be…’
   But he was interrupted.
   ‘How’s the lovely wife?’
   ‘Oh, she’s alright,’ the vicar nodded, before at length deciding not to leave it there. He picked up a stray piece of hay that was stuck to a cobweb on the fence and began to play with it, turning it in his fingers and running his skin along its dry edges. ‘She’s just been a bit all over the place, lately. Doesn’t know if she’s coming or going. The other day she thought there was someone in the church with her when she was locking up. Frightened the life out of her. But there was no one there; never had been. Hasn’t been the same since.’
   Dougie nodded sagely. ‘Still getting over her dad passing.’
   ‘Yes, I thought that too. She just hasn’t been the same since he went. Can’t believe it’s been nearly a year. I just hoped it would have got easier by now, not harder.’
   ‘Been four years since I lost old Betsy, and I still think about her every day.’
Betsy was another of Dougie’s cows. Vernon could not quite remember her cause of death – it certainly had not been pinkeye.
   ‘So you should,’ said the vicar, smiling politely. ‘She was a lovely girl. Now, I must be…’
   ‘Have you seen that hole in the church roof, vicar?’
   Vernon did not allow his eyes to follow the farmer’s finger, no matter how tempting it was to check whether the hole could be seen from here. You couldn’t even see the church from here – you could just make out the ancient spire over the roof of the little post office.
   ‘Yes,’ he said, trying not to let impatience creep into his tone, ‘it’s been there a long time, unfortunately. We’ve been fundraising, as I’m sure you’ve seen, but times are tight for everyone at the moment. But we’ll get there, eventually. Until then, I’ll just be filling up the buckets whenever it rains. But for now, Dougie, I must be off, so I’ll see you next time you’re at church, shall I?’ He waved his hay at the farmer, and began to walk away before he could receive a reply.
   He tried to forget his conversation with Dougie, but his walk had already been ruined, and it couldn’t be taken back. The hole in the roof wasn’t the only problem with the church: there was rising damp in the office; a substantial stretch of fence was sitting at a 45-degree angle, after having been blown over in a storm in the summer; and something – mice, he suspected – had chewed through the wiring of the outside security lights three years ago. With everyday expenses constantly rising and fundraising efforts bringing in less and less money, he didn’t know how he would ever be able to make the repairs this old church so desperately needed.
   Having stewed on this for the rest of the walk, he arrived home in a miserable mood. He threw his coat at the hangers by the front door and walked on without checking it had landed on a hook, then prodded the power lever on the kettle as if he were stabbing the very heart of all his problems. He stood and watched the frosty garden out of the back window, while the kettle boiled and the first sounds of his wife stirring upstairs began to thud through the ceiling.
   The beauty of his ice-whitened olive tree swaying in the gentle breeze, and the size of the hydrangea in the flower bed that just kept growing larger and looking healthier every year despite his almost criminal neglect, began to calm him. Maybe everything would be okay, after all.
   But then there was a scream. A shrill scream, so loud that it sounded not like it had come from one particular location, but was a sound that had simply erupted throughout the house. He ducked out of some danger-dodging instinct, then ran out into the hallway, to find his wife.
   She was standing on the stairs, as white as the frost-bitten plants outside, staring at the floor of the hallway as if it were made of hissing, bubbling lava that would burn her up on contact.
   ‘What’s wrong? What’s happened?’ Vernon asked, following her gaze to the floor. There, he found something he had not been expecting: a small puddle of dropped hay blades under his coat, and a thinner scattering of hay from there to the kitchen. He looked back up at his wife, still trembling and staring at the strewn grass, and had to think much longer than he should have before he made the connection.
   ‘Oh!’ He said, stepping toward his wife to put his hand on hers on the banister. ‘This was me. It was me, don’t worry. I’ve walked this in. Must have been on my shoes, or on my coat, or something. I got talking to Dougie, leaned against his fence, you know…’
   Katherine lowered herself to sit on a step, and pulled her hand away from his so that she could put her head in it. She was shaking violently.
   Vernon stepped up a couple of stairs and put his hands on her trembling shoulders. He stroked her softly. ‘It’s just hay from Dougie’s fence or path. It’s nothing to be scared of, honestly…’
   But she would not be reassured. She sat curled up in a ball, rocking softly and breathing heavily, until Vernon gave up trying to lull her out of it, and went to make her a cup of tea instead.
   And as he did, he wondered: how deep had these delusions of ghostly Guys burrowed into her, while he had been trying to ignore them until they went away? How was it that she had become so obsessed with this idea that now it only took some scattered hay on the hallway floor to make her believe that Guy Fawkes had come back from the dead to come and inflict violence on her, for completely unknown reasons? What had started this, and what could be done about it?

Having been driven to distraction by those questions for a few days, and eventually reached the conclusion that he would never be able to answer them himself, he finally decided to ask Katherine to seek professional help. Had it been anyone else, he might have offered his own counselling, just as he had done for Nicole Barker and a handful of others in the village who had been through tough times; but he was too close to Katherine to see the issue clearly, too partial to give her unweighted advice. Having discreetly discussed the matter with a few friends, he knew now that this was the only way.
   So, as gently as he could, he told her that he understood her pain and he was not judging her fears, but he thought that they were getting out of control, and that the best thing for everyone would be speaking to someone about them before they destroyed both her and her husband’s life.
   ‘How would my fears ever destroy your life?’ She asked, spite in her tone. ‘You don’t care about me, you just think I’m going mad. You’re probably just annoyed I haven’t gone mad enough yet to give you all my dad’s money to fix your precious church.’
   Vernon sighed, frustratedly. While it was true that her mental state had not been his only concern over the past few days, and they had had yet another of their arguments about her father’s fortune in the meantime (which mainly consisted of Vernon explaining how much could be done to help the church if only she would donate a tiny portion of her family money, and Katherine arguing that her father’s money needed to be protected, as if he would be coming back to reclaim it any day now), it angered him to hear her accuse him so brazenly, with so much venom. ‘I don’t care about the money,’ he bit back, lying, ‘and I don’t think you’re going mad. I just think you don’t feel well, and I want you to feel well again.’
   ‘Yes, well whatever, Vernon. You haven’t listened to a word I’ve said about this since the beginning. Someone is after me, whether they’re… alive… or not.’ She cringed a little at her own suggestion, but remained steadfast.
   ‘Maybe they are,’ said Vernon, attempting to meet her in the middle, ‘but I just don’t think we have enough evidence to know that yet. And until we do, you can’t let it take over your life like this. It’s not healthy; it’s eating you up, I can see it. I want my old wife back.’
   He put his hand on hers, but she did not allow it to sit there for long before pulling away. ‘You just want me to be quiet,’ she muttered, ‘and waste my dad’s money on your crumbling building like a good little wife.’
   But she had, eventually, relented, and agreed to see someone, even if only for a couple of sessions. But she would choose the therapist herself, and she would not discuss the content of her therapy with him under any circumstances. Of course, he had said. Anything you say – I just want to see you smile again.
   And it was during one of her counsellor research sessions, while she sat at the breakfast bar staring at her tablet screen as if it, just like her husband, was conspiring against her, that the next twist in the tale unfolded.
   Vernon had been making sandwiches for them both as an early lunch before he went over to the church for an afternoon’s work, when he had glanced up at the front door and noticed a letter hanging from the letterbox. Wondering how the postman could have delivered something without their creaky old letter slot making its usual rusty wail and snap, he went to pick up the mail, eating a slice of cheese on the way.
   But it had not been the postman. It was an unmarked envelope, yellowed and rough-feeling as if it had been posted decades or centuries earlier and had been lost in the postal system until just now. It even seemed to smell a little earthy, unless that was just Vernon’s imagination. He opened the front door to see who had posted it, but there was no one there – no one on the street at all – and the freezing air that rushed in forced him to end his search without too much more delay.
   He opened the envelope as he walked back to the kitchen, and stopped in his tracks when he read its contents.
   It was a note, on paper just as old and discoloured as the envelope in which it had arrived, with just one sentence scrawled on it:


   ‘What is it?’ Called Katherine, from the breakfast bar.
   ‘Um,’ replied Vernon, stalling while he tried to establish the best way to approach the situation.
   ‘Show me.’
   The vicar looked up to see his wife standing in the doorway to the kitchen, holding her hand out. He could not cajole his mind into thinking straight under such pressure, so he handed her the note, and watched the blood drain from her face in the second it took her to read it.
   Her whole body seemed to be spasming, dancing on the spot to avoid imploding or giving up completely. She looked like she might throw up, scream, do both at once. Eventually, all she could do was whimper, before dropping to her knees and tossing the note to the floor, as if throwing it away might extinguish it forever, or open up a portal into which she could vanish.
   ‘Katherine,’ the vicar said, kneeling by her and placing his hand on her shoulder. She felt cold, hard, like a statue, all tensed muscle and intense terror.
   ‘Katherine,’ he repeated. She did not move – not even a twitch to acknowledge that she had heard his voice.
   He knelt for a long time, watching his wife quiver with fear, struggling to work out how best to ask her the question he had in his head. After a very long time, he just let it come out as it was.
   ‘Did you write this note yourself?’
   As soon as he asked it, he knew it was the wrong thing to say.

Katherine never saw a therapist. After the incident with the note and the hysterical, vicious argument that followed, in which both of them said things they would later regret and made accusations with barely any basis, she locked herself in their bedroom most of the time, leaving the rest of the house to her husband for most of the day and the spare bedroom for him to sleep in each night. She came out only occasionally, and the rare glimpses he caught of her were of a shell of a woman, haggard and unwashed, twitchy and agitated. Not someone he knew, but an imposter, an unreachable and unreasonable spectre who had possessed the body of the woman he had married.
   And after three weeks of this, and dozens of conversations with members of his congregation who wondered where his wife had disappeared to, he gave up trying to save her himself. He asked Nicole, her best friend, to come over and try to lure his wife out of her room, try to talk some sense into her and bring her back to the land of the living, the land of the sane. If she could.
   If anyone could.
   ‘Katherine,’ Nicole said, knocking softly on the bedroom door. ‘Please come out. I’m not here to tell you what to think or how to act. I’m not judging you or thinking you’re crazy, I swear. I just want to see my friend.’
   No answer.
   Vernon sat at the bottom of the staircase, listening to every sound from upstairs with his face in his hands.
   ‘Katherine, I just want to help you,’ Nicole said, her voice shaking a little, ‘like you and Vernon helped me when Kevin… when he…’
   A long time passed in silence, as Vernon listened out for his wife’s voice and wondered if Nicole was crying. She had certainly sounded like she was about to. Guilt weighed on his shoulders like an iron overcoat.
   But then, the bedroom door creaked softly, and he heard footsteps on the landing. Then, the soft, cloth-brushing sounds of two women embracing. He stood and went into the lounge, so that when they came downstairs to talk in the kitchen, he would not be there to infuriate his wife. He wanted to be here to hear the result of his plan, but could not risk its success by being seen prematurely.
   Katherine kept her eyes to the ground as she descended the stairs, arm in arm with her friend. Having spent the last few weeks only eating when Vernon was out, and even then having no appetite to speak of, the house felt unfamiliar and her stick-thin legs felt weak.
   She let Nicole lead her to the kitchen, and sat at the breakfast bar staring at nothing in particular while Nicole prepared a hot drink. Nicole was speaking, saying supportive and reassuring things in a soft and friendly voice; but Katherine was not listening. She wanted more than anything to be able to talk openly with her friend, let off all the steam that had been building up in her head while she shut herself away over the last few weeks, but she did not want to be called insane again. Because on some level, despite her resolve that something strange was happening and nobody but her was taking it seriously enough, she suspected – or rather, feared – that she might be. Saying nothing, for now, was better than hearing the last person she trusted tell her that she had lost her mind.
   Katherine sighed, stood, and walked to the French doors to look at the garden.
   What she saw there hit her like a punch, right in the middle of the chest.
   At the end of the garden, there stood a straw man in a tattered suit. Not the same man she had seen in the church, all those months ago; but a similar sort of figure. Something that should never be in her garden, or anywhere near her house.
   Nicole was still chatting away. ‘…and I said to him, “You can’t be sending people stuff like that by text, unless they ask for it,” but you know what 95-year-olds are like. He won’t take any orders from me. I’ll let him suffer the consequences if he does it again… What’s up?’
   Katherine was backing away from the back doors, trying to catch her breath. Gasping, clawing at the air as if choking on the thickness of it.
   ‘Katherine? Katherine, what’s going on?!’
   The vicar’s wife pointed at the garden. ‘There he is,’ she managed, hoarsely. ‘He’s coming.’
   Nicole ran over to join her friend, and looked out the window with her. ‘There’s nobody there,’ she said. ‘I can’t see anyone there.’
   Katherine shook her head. The way she looked at Nicole made it seem like Nicole had been her very last hope, and had betrayed her out of pure spite. Like she had taken a sledgehammer to all that trust they had built up over their years of friendship, and knocked it down with a single sentence. She turned, and marched out of the kitchen.
   But in the hallway, she was knocked back a step by something else: all the picture frames contained pictures of straw men. Where there had once been a wedding photo, a picture of her father, one of Vernon’s parents… there were now only pictures of straw men, with scraggy straw hairstyles, in damaged scarecrow hats. She ripped them from the walls, screaming at them, cursing the ghoul that was out to destroy her. She stamped on the frames, wailing swear words she had never said in her life, pushing at the walls as if they were closing in on her.
   Nicole grabbed her from behind, tried to hold her back from causing any more damage to the picture frames she knew Katherine loved. Vernon emerged from the living room and attempted to help subdue his wife, but she broke free from them both, lashing and writhing and punching Nicole in the ear to get away.
   She burst through the front door and out into the street, screaming ‘HELP! HELP! HE’S COMING!’
   Vernon and Nicole came out of the house to pursue her, but she ran, screaming and crying and staggering in a zig-zag up the road. A crowd of onlookers and nosy neighbours gathered along the pavements, but nobody approached her out of fear of being attacked by the crazy woman.
   One neighbour covered her children’s eyes, as if to protect them from the sight of such unmitigated insanity.
   ‘HELP!’ she cried. ‘HELP ME, PLEASE!’
   It wasn’t until the police and the ambulance arrived that Katherine finally calmed down.

Guy Fawkes night, November 5th. The evening was still and quiet, except for the occasional hiss of a rocket as it rose into the night sky before bursting into a spray of stars and dropping to earth, or the bang of an exploding squib. The smell of smoke from bonfires still lingered in the air. The festivities were nearing their end.
   There was no cat among the tombstones this year – Mrs Moody’s moggy had had a close call with a Ford Focus in September, so she kept it indoors now to keep it safe from harm. The mice and voles twitched and nibbled under the long grass, free from danger of predators, on this unusually warm autumn evening.
   Vernon was just about to shut his computer down and lock up, when his phone vibrated in his pocket. He reached for it distractedly with one hand, while he clicked Send on the e-mail he had been typing with the other.
   The e-mail had been an acceptance of a quote for the roof repairs, which was the last of the repairs he would need to make the church perfect again, and restore it to its former glory. It had been a long time coming and more difficult than he would have liked, but now he had his father-in-law’s money to work with, he could finally give this little village the house of worship it deserved.
   ‘Hello beautiful,’ he said, answering the phone. ‘I’m just locking up. Be home in ten.’
   Receiving his answer, he smiled, and ended the call.
   In the quiet of his office, as the computer shut down, he took a moment to reflect on the year that had passed. How strange it had been, and how he never could have predicted how any of it had gone down.
   He was not proud of everything he had done – especially the scarecrow in the garden or the picture frames thing. Much more theatrical than he would have liked. And some of it had taken a lot of orchestrating, like making sure she had her meltdown in public, and sowing the seeds of her madness in all their friends’ heads. But even now, he could not see any other way to reach this necessary end. It had been horrible to live through, even worse to put someone else through; but didn’t this end justify those terrible means? Katherine was happier now, more comfortable, getting all the help she needed; the church was in the process of a thorough refurbishment that would bring it up-to-date and back to standard; and his father-in-law’s fortune was being put to good use, instead of rotting in a bank where no one could benefit from it. All’s well that ends well, as they say.
   And to think that all of this had just fallen into his lap, because someone in fancy dress had wandered into the church last year.
   He wished he knew who it was that had appeared here, to start the whole thing off and give him the idea. Not that he would thank them – he couldn’t risk anyone knowing that he had taken advantage of such a thing, just to drive his wife out of the picture and gain access to all her money – but it would be nice to know who had given him that gift.
   But the computer was off now, so he was ready to leave. He switched it off at the wall, picked up his bag, and prepared to go home to Nicole. She was preparing toad in the hole for dinner – his favourite.
   As he locked up the office, he saw something out of the corner of his eye that seemed out of place. He looked up to see a man standing at the end of the hall in a dark blue suit, staring at him in the darkness of the half-lit corridor.
   He was easily seven feet tall, and from here it looked like his skin was not skin at all, but straw. Dry, pale-yellow straw with nothing underneath.
   No bones, no organs, no mouth or nose or eyeballs, just hay.
   Vernon gasped, dropped the keys. He looked away involuntarily, shielding himself from the sight with his hand, before doubting himself and looking again. It couldn’t be what he thought he saw, his mind must have been playing tricks on him.
   When he looked again, the hallway was empty.
   There was nobody there.

It has been almost three years since I last posted to this blog, so you'd be forgiven for thinking I'd given up on it. I will even f...

Agony Art Series 3 is Complete!

It has been almost three years since I last posted to this blog, so you'd be forgiven for thinking I'd given up on it. I will even forgive you if you've given up on reading it. But only this time - give up on me again and you're off my Christmas card list.

Anyway, in the meantime, I've been working on a bookish podcast called Agony Art, in which my friends and I step into the ill-fitting shoes of agony aunts, solving listeners' problems using examples from books, films and music. It has been a lot of fun, and I'm at least 33% sure that strangers would enjoy it too, if we were brave enough to promote it properly.

But we're not, so the best I can do is promote it here, on my blog which almost no one reads. As of today, the series 3 finale of Agony Art is available wherever you get your podcasts, or on our website. Why not give it a listen, and see if it makes you giggle?

Alright, that's my job done. I'll crawl back into my hole now.

Randal moved his fingers down the length of the weed so that his knuckles were pressed against the cold, hard paving slab of his driveway, a...

She Don't Clap

Randal moved his fingers down the length of the weed so that his knuckles were pressed against the cold, hard paving slab of his driveway, and tugged. The weed’s prickly leaves tore off in his hand, leaving the thick, wet body of the plant stuck in the crack, taunting him with its stubborn resilience. 
  He sighed.
  ‘You need to rip the little bastards out by the root. We don’t tolerate freeloaders in this neighbourhood.’
  Randal stood, pressed his hand against his aching hip. ‘Afternoon, Maud,’ he said, nodding. The old woman leaning over the fence smiled back at him, unable to make eye contact for looking down at his fist, and the limp leaves hanging from it.
  ‘I’ve got some weed killer in the shed, if you want it. I’m like a dealer for this stuff, been giving it to everyone. I can leave it on a fence post, so we don’t have to touch. Lethal, this stuff; kills anything it touches – breathe it in, and they’ll be scraping you off your drive.’
  ‘No, no it’s okay, thanks. Just clearing out the big ones. If I can.’
  Maud tutted. ‘Hm,’ she grunted, disapprovingly. She said nothing more; just stood there leaning on the waist-high fence, inspecting Randal’s paving and the ugly shoots sprouting from its gaps. Randal’s gardens were not quite as well-kept as Maud’s, but then he had a lot more going on in his life. The half-hearted weeding his driveway was experiencing this afternoon was as much attention as it was going to get this season, whether Maud approved of that or not.
  ‘So, how’s lockdown going?’ He asked. ‘Bored of sitting at home yet?’
  Maud looked up at him as if startled out of some distant train of thought. ‘Hm? Oh, no. Not at all, no. I’d only be sitting at home whether we were locked down or not. Don’t like going out much, anymore. Too many criminals and foreigners about.’
  She sniffed the air, as if the stench of all these undesirables was filling even her quaint little street, over which she kept a constant, close, completely silent watch. Randal shrugged, electing to ignore the less tasteful portion of her reply.
  ‘Yeah, I haven’t been that upset about it, either. Good opportunity to get some DIY done, read some books. Haven’t missed the commute, either.’
  Maud was no longer listening – she was watching Randal’s other next-door neighbour return from her daily walk. As she watched the woman, Maud’s face remained in that same twisted grimace she had worn when she smelt the stench of all those criminals and foreigners, and even when her neighbour smiled at them as she passed, Maud did not exactly return a pleasant look. She just lifted her chin, as if acknowledging an old rival with the bare minimum amount of civility.
  Randal blushed slightly, embarrassed to be thought of as an associate of someone who could be so shamelessly rude. He waved at his neighbour, wishing he could remember what she had told him her name was, back when she and her son had first moved in last year. Shirley? Shelley? She looked too young for either of those names, but they certainly came close to ringing a bell.
  ‘She don’t clap, you know,’ Maud muttered bitterly.
  ‘On Thursdays. She hasn’t been clapping.’
  ‘Oh,’ Randal said. 
  Most people had been going out once a week, to applaud health workers in the streets. Randal had joined in the first couple of times, but since then, due to work commitments and the onset of his usual apathy, his attendance had been sporadic at best; so he could not verify Maud’s claim. He did not much care whether she was right or not – which of his neighbours were participating in the applause and which were not was not something about which he was particularly concerned. But Maud was old, lonely and bored, and he knew from his interactions with his mother that that was a combination which cultivated nothing more than unhealthy interest in everyone else’s business.
  ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’d better be getting on.’
  He continued weeding his driveway without waiting for a reply from Maud. She was the kind of person who needed more than just a goodbye to get the hint – he knew from experience that she would not leave unless he fully turned his back and walked away. And for all he knew, she had left; for the silence returned, and he was left alone with his thoughts as he tore out the last of the stragglers, with degrees of success which varied wildly between complete obliteration of the weed and any trace of root, and the pathetic, demoralising removal of less than an inch of leaf, which would likely regrow before nightfall.
  It never ceased to surprise him how small the concerns of other people could be. For instance, why did Maud care who was out there clapping every Thursday? People might have other things to do. They might not have heard what the clapping was for, or they might be so introverted that making such displays of themselves was an insufferable eventuality. Maybe some people decided not to clap because they saw it for what it was – a nice gesture, but not something which provided any material benefit.
  For all Maud knew, people who did not clap were abstaining because they had some deep-seated vendetta against health workers. He did not see why that would be the case, but it was possible. And were they not entitled to their opinions? Maud had enough hateful opinions, and none of the other residents of the street had accosted him to discuss those yet.
  For that matter, why did he care so much that Maud had brought it up? Was it just that he thought his neighbour should be able to get on with her life without being judged for something which, in the grand scheme of things, did not really matter? Or was it because of those weeks he had missed, and the fear they brought on that Maud might be saying things about him behind his back too? Perhaps, he thought, as he finished his weeding and stood with a fistful of dead plants, twigs and leaves, he would have to make sure to free himself up this Thursday evening.
  Then he looked up and saw Maud – still standing at the fence, staring past him at the house next door, her lips curled as if a sour taste lingered on her tongue – and he nearly dropped the entire clump of plants.

‘I’ve only just started dinner, Randy,’ Francine said that Thursday, tipping vegetables from a chopping board into the hissing pan on the hob, ‘I can’t be arsed to go out there tonight.’
  ‘You can turn it off for a minute, and continue when we get in.’
  ‘I’m starving. I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast. I’m not pausing dinner to go out and clap. Why do you suddenly care so much, anyway? It’s not going to be the first one we’ve missed, and you haven’t been this concerned all the other times.’
  ‘I just think it’d be nice,’ Randal lied. ‘Show some community spirit.’
  His wife rolled her eyes. ‘Well, you can show as much community spirit as you want. I’m just going to stare at this dinner until I think it’s done enough to pour into my mouth.’
  So, Randal stood in the street and clapped alone. Found himself feeling like an imposter, as the regulars banged wooden spoons on pots and pans and waved big blue NHS flags above their heads – flags which Randal would not know how to source even if he wanted to. Feeling watched, as the burly builder who lived opposite paced up and down the pavement, perhaps taking attendance in his head. Putting so much pressure on himself that by the end of the applause, not even two minutes long, he felt queasy.
  But relieved, too, that he had probably bought himself a few weeks free from judgement, by showing his face that evening. Because that was all he ever cared about, no matter how much it irritated Francine (who had always been much more adept at disregarding the opinions of others): being a good neighbour. Not a neighbour who works hard to place themselves in everyone’s pockets, knowing all their business and popping in unannounced for tea and gossip; and certainly not a neighbour who becomes the shame of the street, the unacceptably noisy or messy or inconsiderate neighbour whose departure would make the street a nicer place. The kind of neighbour who avoids both of these extremes by sitting comfortably at the top of the bell curve, contributing enough to stay out of the bad books, without going as far as to make new, unwanted friends. 
  He wrestled with this odd mix of relief and discomfort all the way to the front door, where he was distracted by movement out of the corner of his eye. The family who lived on the other side of Sharon (if that was her name) had been eating crisps and ice lollies in the street while they clapped, celebrating as if attending a summer party; and as they wandered back to their front door, they tossed their wrappers over the fence into Sharon’s front garden, with a disregard so complete and shameless that it was obvious that this was their weekly routine. Randal was about to call out to them, to tell them to pick up their rubbish and learn some respect, when the father made eye contact with him, and stared at Randal with such intense aggression that Randal shrunk back into his shell.
  Randal spent the rest of the evening feeling ashamed. Had he not cared so much about being an unremarkable, average neighbour, perhaps he would have stood up to that man, who after all did not appear to be that much bigger or stronger than him. Even if he had called out admonishments which had been ignored by that family, at least he would have done the right thing. But he had stayed silent, and allowed a woman to be bullied for a reason he had not even realised might be brewing in people’s minds until Maud had brought it up. 
  Clearly, if one wanted to stay out of this neighbourhood’s bad books, it required more these days than simply minding one’s own business.

Whether it was because he had more spare time now to think on these things or because the injustice had riled him that much, this bad feeling bubbling away under the lid of the street began to play regularly on Randal’s mind. He began to notice things, as he took his daily walks or sat in his garden after work, that had never reached him before, but which he now regarded as symptoms of a town with cabin fever, a populous who hated being stuck at home so much that being put into lockdown for their own protection was slowly driving them out of their minds.
  ‘I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind,’ he overheard one neighbour say to another, ‘keeping your cat out of my garden?’
  ‘Well,’ came the reply, tight as a drum, ‘I can’t control where my cat goes. You can feel free to chase him out, but there’s nothing I can do to stop him going in there.’
  ‘Maybe you shouldn’t keep animals if you can’t control them!’
  ‘So, only animals we can control should be allowed to live? Is that what you’re saying?!’
  This kind of bickering – formerly the hobby only of those who stayed at home all day while everyone else was at work, and who therefore became busybodies to pass all that free time – was suddenly commonplace, and could be heard in one form or another almost daily. Fence panels were not treated often enough, and trees were growing too far over property boundaries. Children were too noisy, animals too smelly. Everyone was finding it very difficult, of a sudden, to live in such close proximity to one another. Even Randal began to find himself irked by how often Maud looked over her fence at him, the regularity with which she gave him gardening tips he did not want or need.
  Everyone’s worlds seemed to be shrinking, which meant that by comparison, even their smallest worries were growing.
  And if Randal really had thought that the weekly applause was an opportunity to show community spirit, a chance for everyone to put aside their differences and concerns and come together to celebrate those on the front lines who might eventually get them all out of this mess, he was very quickly proven wrong. Once he began attending regularly – more to keep up appearances than because he wanted to be there – he realised that it was not a celebration, but a competition. Who could clap the loudest, who could cheer with the most enthusiasm, who waved the biggest flag – these were the things that won the competition on a Thursday evening, not the good will shared or the love demonstrated toward one’s fellow man. This was not a union of hearts and minds looking forward to a better tomorrow – it was a community turning in on itself, identifying those who did not conform today, so that they could be ostracised tomorrow.
  This was demonstrated when one house drew a three-foot-high NHS logo in chalk on the front of their house one week, and the house next door spray painted a six-foot-high version on their garage door the next. It was demonstrated when two neighbours almost got into a physical altercation over whose miniature fireworks display was better. But mostly, it was demonstrated by the treatment of those who chose not to participate.
  They were not simply losers of this great unspoken competition, who should be pitied or forgotten or told to try harder next time. They were ruining it for everyone else. They were the villagers who would not take part in the rain dance, and their abstention was the reason it was not working. One house, whose sole resident was a wheelchair-bound nonagenarian who had a carer visit him daily to help with his basic needs, was covered in toilet paper before it was established that the owner was not just unwilling but physically unable to participate. Another had a front window smashed – but for all Randal knew that one was empty, as there was never a car parked outside and he had never seen anyone go in or out.
  But the brunt of the street’s ire was being borne by Randal’s next-door neighbour. When she was leaving for her afternoon walk one day, Randal heard someone shout ‘Bitch!’ from their window, before quickly hiding to avoid identification. And one Thursday night after a particularly boisterous applause, one of her tyres was slashed so that she could not even drive to the supermarket that Friday to do her weekly shop. When Randal found her changing her tyre and offered his condolences, she told him that was not the only time that week she had been victimised – she suspected the family next door had also thrown a bucket of weed killer over the fence, killing half the plants in her flowerbed. She just wished she knew why these things were happening, she said. 
  Randal did not tell her the reason he suspected, simply because it sounded too trivial to be true.
  Trivial or not, the matter came to a head the next week. Clearly sick of having to hide their identities or perform their vandalism in the dead of night, a few houses armed their teenage children with eggs and sent them toward Sharon’s house to teach her what happened to households who did not conform. Hoods up and boxes in hand, goading each other on as if none of them could conjure up the courage alone, or would even be able to stand there if it were not for his co-conspirators. Child soldiers, on the front lines of a war against outsiders.
  They had only thrown a couple – one exploding on the roof, another unable to clear the drive – before Randal stepped in, and made up for his failure of weeks before by standing up for sanity, and refusing to tolerate this cruelty any longer.
  ‘I’ll call the police!’ He shouted, waving his phone around as if it were a dangerous weapon. ‘I know all your faces and I know where you live. You throw one more egg at that house, and I’ll have all you little shits arrested!’
  Some residents of the street continued to clap, either because they had not noticed the kerfuffle or because they were pretending not to notice. Others, most likely the parents of those children (and therefore the conspirators who had planned the attack) and their friends, stopped celebrating, and although too cowardly or furious to say anything, they glared across the road at Randal as though their suspicions had been confirmed, and he had outed himself as being in league with the traitors, added himself to the growing list of targets for vandalism and abuse. 
  Even Maud narrowed her eyes at him, from the end of her driveway next door – he would be receiving no more pruning advice from her.
  For a moment, with everyone staring at him and the heat rising in his neck and ears, he almost regretted stepping in.
  But this act of courage, although small and perhaps stupid, had its desired effect. The teens skulked off, only one or two of them brave enough to mutter a swear word under their breath or show Randal their middle fingers on the way. And despite the way he was being looked at, Randal felt good, pleased that he had redeemed himself for the time he had not spoken out when he should have.

Over the week that followed, it seemed that Randal’s outburst had made the street see sense. There were no more acts of violence or vandalism, and Randal did not even overhear any bickering or neighbourly friction on his daily walks. He was still receiving dirty looks, but he told himself that these were in his imagination, that he was noticing them only because he expected to, and not because they were actually happening. For seven days, it appeared that he had fixed a developing madness, by turning on a light and showing his neighbours the errors of their ways.
  But at the next clap, which he attended out of habit and to monitor the situation as, he thought, the only sane member of the street, he realised that the calmness he thought he had brought to the road was just a veneer, under which still seethed a bitter rage, a roiling stew of madness and distrust that looked like it might explode at any moment, and descend the street once again into total chaos. People looked at each other with suspicion, they paced their driveways with pent up energy, they glared at Randal with unmitigated hatred. The air was alive that evening, buzzing like a wasp trapped in a glass; and although nothing of note happened, he came away feeling like it had. As if chaos was taking hold before his eyes, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
  Over the next couple of weeks, this feeling did not go away – it only matured. The atmosphere on Thursday evenings was electric, the tension so palpable that it took great effort to remember why he was out there, what the applause had originally been for. It was supposed to be a positive thing, a pat on the back for all the brave people who were fighting to bring this dreadful pandemic to its deserved end; but it had become something entirely different, something which left a bad taste in the mouth and turned neighbour against neighbour, opening cracks in the town which might never again be healed.
  Or… was that his imagination? Randal knew that he too was feeling the strain of being locked indoors all day. He missed seeing his colleagues – even the ones he did not like so much – and he missed being able to go shopping with his wife or to restaurants with friends and family. His world was getting smaller, the walls closing in on him just as they probably were on everyone else; so perhaps all this bad feeling, all that bubbling hatred, only existed in his imagination. Maybe it had no basis in reality, and since he had stopped those adolescents from egging his neighbour’s house, perhaps the street really had calmed down. After all, his fears just then were based on nothing more than dirty looks and an energy in the air – and were these things not just a matter of perception, a choice one makes when taking in the world and its contents? If he chose not to notice them anymore, would they really be there?
  And just like that, the street’s cabin fever was cured. He did not fear his neighbours, because he had decided there was nothing to fear. He no longer read bitterness or anger on Maud’s face, because he realised it had always been a bit twisted anyway, so it had likely gotten no worse since he stood up for Sharon. He had gone a little mad, become a tad paranoid, but it was all better now, and he finally saw the neighbourhood for what it was – a group of people struggling not only with being stuck at home with all their issues, fears and relatives, but also with the regret of taking too far their punishment of a neighbour who had committed nothing more severe than the laughable crime of not clapping on a Thursday evening.
  How silly he had been, thinking the street could descend into total chaos. How little he must think of people, if he thought they could turn savage and set upon each other, for reasons so petty.

But then, he was woken one night by the smell of smoke. His bedroom full of it, a fog so thick that it made his eyes water and his stomach turn.
  ‘What’s happening?’ croaked Francine, sitting up in bed. ‘Is the house on fire?!’
  ‘No,’ replied Randal, as he got out of bed and walked to the window. ‘I don’t think so.’
  Their house was not on fire. If it had been, the smoke would be thicker and the alarms would be going off. But something was, and even as he pulled the curtains apart to find out what, a heavy feeling in his stomach told him he already knew.
  His fears were confirmed: the house next door was ablaze, fire pouring out of the windows and billowing thick, black smoke into the night’s sky as if the house had been filled with kindling. The whole thing consumed by so much heat and flame that the opportunity for anyone inside to escape alive must have long since passed. Leaning out of his front window to look sideways at the devastation, Randal almost vomited down the front of his own house from the shock of it. 
  ‘What is it?’ Asked Francine, wrapping the duvet around herself as if it might be enough protect her from harm. ‘What do we do?’
  Randal’s knees began to tremble, and he had to grip the window frame to steady himself. He was sick with shock, weak with fear. Crushed to find himself correct, that the entire street had gone mad. It had not been his imagination after all, was not a symptom of his own brief descent into madness; they really had gone savage, given in to their new rage and turned on each other, like a pack of animals pouncing on their weakest member.
  Look at them now – locked in their homes, not even looking out of their windows to watch the destruction they had caused. Not a single person in the street to observe, let alone help. Things were worse than even he had imagined.
  And as he tried to form a response to his wife, the words elusive and foggy in his addled brain, he suddenly remembered what Maud had said to him, that first day he knew anything about this madness developing in the minds of his neighbours. 
  ‘You need to rip the little bastards out by the root,’ she had said. ‘We don’t tolerate freeloaders in this neighbourhood.’
  ‘Call 999,’ he said finally, closing the curtains. ‘Then we need to pack our suitcases.’

‘Good morning, Alan,’ Trixie said gently. ‘It’s 6:30a.m. Time to get up.’   Alan Briggs lifted himself onto his elbow, rubbed his ey...

Trixie is Here

‘Good morning, Alan,’ Trixie said gently. ‘It’s 6:30a.m. Time to get up.’
  Alan Briggs lifted himself onto his elbow, rubbed his eyes, struggled to bring the bedside clock into focus. Trixie, it turned out, was telling the truth.
  How funny it was that he felt the need to check, now that he had compromised her. He had trusted her completely the week before, known she would never let him down. Hers had been the only impenetrable system, the only backend into which he had never been able to find a backdoor. But no database is infallible, no server completely secure, and since that eureka moment last week in which he had finally found a way to break in, he no longer felt quite as comfortable taking her at her word. He knew that her intelligence had not been changed, that her answers would still be correct and her assistance invaluable, but the awareness that someone had access to her servers, even if it was only himself, had destroyed his trust. They would have to remove her from the house, as soon as they could find a free minute to do it. Convenience be damned.
  ‘You can shower first, darling,’ his wife said. ‘It’s your big day, you need time to do your makeup.’
  He turned and looked at Nora, smiling sweetly back at him. He kissed her forehead, swung his legs off the side of the bed, and dragged his feet toward the en-suite. 
  ‘I’ll start the shower,’ said Trixie, before the water began pouring.
  After his shower, he stood in the kitchen, pouring two coffees and trying desperately to remember where he had put his cufflinks after the last time he had worn them. Most days, he could get by with a short-sleeved shirt and scruffy chinos; but there was no way he could accept a commendation from the Prime Minister dressed like that. He had to dress up, which meant locating those cufflinks, polishing his one pair of smart shoes, even combing his hair.
  ‘Good morning, hero,’ Nora said, wandering in in her dressing gown and picking up a cup. ‘What are you thinking about?’
  ‘Oh, nothing,’ Alan replied, ‘just my cufflinks. Haven’t seen them, have you?’
  Trixie had. ‘The last time I saw your cufflinks,’ she said, ‘was when you placed them in the drawer for spare wires and gadgets.’
  Alan grunted. Of course he had thrown them there – that was where he threw everything small enough to hold in one hand.
  ‘Are you okay?’ Nora asked, stroking his arm. ‘You seem nervous.’
  ‘Yes, yes. I’m alright. I could do without today, that’s all.’
  Nora laughed. ‘Oh, you silly bean. You can’t keep on being so darn good at your job and expect to never see the limelight. Your overachieving was always going to catch up with you sometime.’
  ‘Well, I suppose I’ll just have to be a bit less brilliant, eh?’
  ‘I don’t think you could manage it. It oozes from you.’ She put her hand on his chest, kissed him on the cheek, and he blushed.
  ‘Oh, stop it,’ he laughed, as he gently pulled himself away from her and poured the dregs of his coffee down the sink.
  ‘So, who’s actually giving you this award, then?’ His wife asked, leaning against the kitchen counter.
  ‘The PM.’
  ‘Oh, it really is? I thought you were joking when you said that. Well, now I’m even more impressed. My husband, receiving a medal from our glorious, noble leader of the free world. Gosh.’ She fanned herself with one hand, swooning over her coffee.
  Alan scoffed. ‘Are you thinking of the same man I am?’
  ‘Well, yes, it’s a shame that it's that fat, bigoted, election-fiddling twit; but it’s the office that matters. The country is proud of you, darling!’
  ‘I suppose so. As long as I can keep my breakfast down when he’s wobbling those chins in my face, I should be a national treasure by teatime.’
  ‘And keep your eyes off his ghastly wig.’
  ‘And try not to breathe in his stinking breath.’
  ‘And keep out of range of his wandering hands.’
  ‘Good point,’ Alan said, grabbing his wife by the waist. ‘You’ll have to stand behind me for protection, if you plan to carry on looking this good.’
  She retched theatrically, then giggled, then kissed her husband like a smitten teenager. ‘Go on,’ she said eventually, pushing him toward the door and smacking his bum on the way out, ‘get dressed now. He can’t give you a prize if you don’t turn up on time.’
  ‘The time is 6:52a.m.,’ said Trixie, always eager to get involved.

The ceremony was more boring than Nora had anticipated. She had known, of course, that it would not be an afternoon devoted entirely to her husband, a celebration of his achievements alone; but she had still allowed herself to imagine something close to that. What she got instead was more like those tedious graduation ceremonies she had been forced to attend when they had both been professors at the university, all those decades ago: long lines of students, too many to count and certainly far too many to remember, all waiting for their turn in front of some minor celebrity or other person of debatable note, who would hand them a blank roll of paper, pat them on the back and never think about them again. 
  Far from being all about Alan Briggs, there was a whole room full of Alans and Alices from different government and intelligence departments, all queued up for their commendations and their three seconds of small talk with the PM.
  But she was proud – so proud that she could not hold back the tears when Alan’s turn came – and besides, the party afterward was actually rather fun. It turned out that an old friend of Allan’s from one of his first jobs in the intelligence services, one Paula Hawkins, had also received a commendation that day, so when they bumped into her and her wife Lorna at the afterparty, they were set for the evening. They were so engaging, witty and vibrant that when Alan was led away by the PM, who grabbed his arm and pulled him halfway across the room for a private word, Nora barely even noticed.
  ‘It’s Briggs, isn’t it?’ The Prime Minister asked, his hot, chubby hand still clenched around Alan’s elbow.
  ‘It is, yes.’
  ‘I wanted to speak to you privately, just to let you know how interested I am in the work you’re doing.’
  ‘Oh, well, thank you, I—’
  ‘Really, really, important work. Vital to the old… the old…’ and he said the next words like they were a smutty secret: ‘…national security.’
  ‘Well, yes. I’m glad you think so. The challenge has always been for intelligence and crime-fighting services to keep up with the rate of technological progress that—’
  The PM pointed his glass of wine in the direction of a tall, grey man in decorated military uniform, to whom he had slowly been leading Alan Briggs. He gave Alan a smile that told him that he did not need to go on, that his words were not even going in, and then he opened his wide mouth to speak.
  ‘This is Commander Ashton,’ he said, ‘who leads many of our covert enforcement operations. The disturbing things you and your department find in your important work often end up on this man’s desk, and he uses them to keep our country safe, without most people on the street ever realising there was anything to be kept safe from.’
  Briggs smiled politely. ‘Nice to meet you,’ he said.
  Commander Ashton was long and thin in every regard. Long legs, long arms, long body, and the longest, thinnest, most horse-like face Alan had ever seen on a human. He was so pale and wrinkled that if one encountered him sleeping, one might well assume that he was a cadaver; but standing on his skinny legs, looking at Alan through icy blue eyes and breathing through flared nostrils, he was clearly alive, for now. He nodded silently at Alan, before turning to the PM. ‘Thank you, Prime Minister,’ he said. And as if Alan Briggs was a parcel they were passing around the room, he put his arm around Alan’s shoulder and led him away from the PM, who kept on smiling, even as his eyes wandered away, and settled on the buttocks of a young waitress as she carried a tray of canapes across the room.
  ‘So, I gather you have been commended today for the work you did on monitoring the communications of that small terrorist network in Cornwall,’ Ashton said, leading Alan away from the party and into a long, oak-lined corridor, the sound of bustling conversation fading fast behind them. 
  ‘Yes, that’s right.’
  ‘That was impressive work. Although having listened to those recordings your team uncovered last month, of foreign agents plotting once again to interfere in our referendums, I think you’ve done far more valuable work than that. That’s what you really should be here for.’
  Commander Ashton still had his hand on Alan’s shoulder as he led him along the corridor, the sound of eager networking and clinking glasses now just a muffled whisper in the distance. Alan smiled gratefully, unsure how to receive the compliment. ‘I suppose they can’t reward me for giving them information they haven’t used yet. No arrests have been made, I’ve heard nothing more on it. I’m surprised you’ve even heard about it; I thought it had fallen into the void.’
  Ashton’s thin, pursed lips broke, and he smiled at Briggs as if he were a naïve child, someone who had missed the point entirely, even as it stared him in the face. ‘Arrests or no, I’m sure someone found it useful. In fact, I know they did. Things like this are simply a little more… delicate. They call for action from departments like mine. A quieter approach.’
  Alan furrowed his brow, taken aback by the older man’s implication. ‘So, what happened to the people on the list I provided? Will they face trial?’
  Ashton’s smile grew wider, now more amused than polite. He closed his eyes, shook his head. Obviously, Briggs did not need to know. He stopped sharply at a door and opened it, pointing with his spare hand into a dimly lit room, directing Alan inside. ‘The point is,’ he said slowly, ‘that you might want to get used to occasions like this, if you intend to keep performing so magnificently.’
  As Alan stepped into the room, a flood of discomfort seemed to fill his abdomen. Perhaps he had been as naïve as Ashton’s smile had made him feel, when he had assumed that the criminals, terrorists and foreign agents he exposed would all face fair trials and public scrutiny. If the case that Ashton was talking about had been brought to a conclusion in secret, he was sure it must have been thought through thoroughly, that there was a very good reason to keep these things out of the public eye and resolve them quickly and quietly; but did he really want to be complicit in all that? If the people on that list were being tortured for information, or held in windowless rooms with no hope of escape… or worse, lying in a morgue, having been secretly eliminated by the state… did he really want to lend his name and his work to that kind of activity? Did he really believe that the ends justified such extreme, disagreeable means?
  He had never imagined that the information he gave would be used to hurt or detain people without trial or oversight. If he had, he might never have volunteered his services. That kind of thing made his stomach turn.
  It did not help that the room into which he had been led, by this sinister-looking old stranger, was so dark. So stiff and stuffy, the way one imagined hidden back rooms in Westminster, built for dark deals and treacherous negotiations. Dark mahogany and red velvet, drinks cabinet in the corner and secret documents in the desk drawer. It all felt so sordid, like he was being initiated into a secret society he had never wanted to join.
  ‘So, your specialty is hacking into communications devices, is that right?’ Ashton said, closing the door and taking a seat in front of an unlit fireplace, gesturing toward the seat opposite for Alan to do the same.
  Alan snapped himself out of his runaway train of thought. He was probably being dramatic, letting his imagination run away with him – he often did. ‘Well, yes, it was,’ he replied, taking a seat. ‘But recently, it has kind of morphed into gaining access to the data collected by digital assistants. Lori, Ada, Bugsby…’
  ‘And you recently added Trixie to the list.’
  ‘We did. She was the last one, so now we have access to every major personal assistant commercially available.’
  ‘I gather we are the first country to break into her backend. Impressive, I must say. But when you say “access”, what exactly does that entail?’
  ‘Well, we can read all the historical data they have ever collected. Listen to recordings, scan search histories. If the digital assistant’s servers still hold the data – which they usually do – we can pull it. We can even listen live, through the device’s microphone.’
  ‘So, we can listen in on half the country’s conversations, whenever we want.’
  ‘More than half – around 68 percent of homes have installed digital assistants now, and the number keeps on rising.’
  Ashton smiled again, his thin lips spreading wide, eyebrows raised. He was impressed.
  ‘Years ago,’ he said slowly, absently, staring into the fireplace as if he were watching imaginary flames dancing away, ‘it would be considered an outrage to bug the homes of millions of supposedly innocent people. Now they go out and buy the bugs themselves, and install them with no small amount of glee. We should find the man who persuaded the public that filling their homes with microphones was a good idea and give him a job.’
  ‘Yes. I’d like to see people’s faces if you went back to the Cold War days and told them that in the future, people would be happy with their television being manufactured in a foreign dictatorship and coming fitted with a camera and microphone. Still, I’d like to say they hadn’t fooled me, but my wife insisted we get one. Apparently flicking light switches and setting alarms with our own fingers was too much hard work. We settled on Trixie at the time, but now… Well, I don’t think she’s long for our house.’
  He laughed a nervous laugh, then felt himself blush. Talking about a subject he knew so well had given him confidence, but not nearly enough to overcome the intimidation of this dimly lit room, that stern looking man sitting across from him. Ashton did not seem to notice Alan’s silly laugh – he simply stared into the fireplace, as if trying to make it back down and light itself.
  After a few moments’ thought, he looked up and asked: ‘Do we have the ability to alter the recordings on the servers? Write data? Or, say, remove conversations which, for instance, we might not want any other agencies to ever gain access to?’ 
  ‘No,’ Alan replied. ‘Well, I mean, we do have a certain level of write access to Bugsby, and the ID we compromised on Lori practically gives us sysadmin rights – but that was no great surprise; buy cheap, buy twice. But I say no because we would just never want to use that access, even on the systems on which we have it. Reading is one thing – we can slip in, take a copy of the data, and log off before anyone who monitors the system notices – but changing the data is quite another. As soon as we write to the servers, make changes, remove data we don’t like, we’ve left breadcrumbs for someone to follow. They’ll notice something has changed, or something is missing, and at best, we’d suddenly find ourselves locked out, and at worst, they’d expose us. These companies like to make a big song and dance about how important their customers’ privacy is to them – it’s not, of course; they manipulate, sell and otherwise misuse that data all the time – but because they say it is, they’d very much enjoy an opportunity to embarrass us, catch us in the act of spying on them and shut us down very publicly. I don’t think it’s a risk anyone would have the appetite to take.’
  Ashton was nodding, looking into the fireplace again, his brows furrowed and eyes narrow.
  ‘Besides,’ Briggs continued, ‘as I say, we haven’t managed to get write access to half the digital assistants out there, so in most cases we wouldn’t be able to do it if we wanted to.’
  Ashton suddenly stood, brushed down his uniform, strode over to the drinks cabinet behind his chair. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, ‘I was so interested in getting to the heart of your work that I forgot my manners. Would you like a scotch?’
  ‘Oh, I’m fine thanks. I would love to, but it just ends up giving me heartburn.’
  Ashton shrugged, pouring himself a drink with his back to Alan. When he was done, he sauntered back over to the fireplace and stared at the painting above it – some fat aristocrat, surrounded by drooling dogs – as if deep in thought. He sipped his drink, seemingly mulling over whether it was wise to discuss the idea, or problem, or whatever it was that so preoccupied him, with his new acquaintance. Alan Briggs just watched him, growing gradually more unsure as time passed whether he should leave the room and go back to the party, or wait to be told why he had been dragged away from it in the first place. 
  Commander Ashton must have finally come to a decision, because eventually, he cleared his throat, turned to face Alan, and finally sat back down in his seat, staring across at Briggs intently.
  ‘The Prime Minister,’ he said slowly, clearly, but very quietly, as if this was a secret he would only say once, so it was important that Alan Briggs listened carefully, ‘has asked me to conduct a very special investigation, working directly with you and your team. He is aware, as have been the intelligence services for a long time, that the opposition are gaining momentum, and although his party have been in power for nearly twenty years now, it looks like the election next year could bring an end to the peace, prosperity and stability we are all very used to.’
  It was now Alan Briggs’s turn to furrow his brows. He did not see how election campaigns could be his problem. Unless they wanted him to find out, by searching for keywords in recorded conversations between families in their homes, why the PM was no longer so popular. If that was what they wanted, he could probably tell them himself.
  But soon, it was clear that this was not what they wanted. What they wanted was worse.
  ‘We think that the opposition, in their current state, with their current leader, would be a danger to the country, should they ever manage to claw together a majority in parliament. What the country needs at the moment is strength, certainty, to be assured that everyone has a place and everyone is kept in their place. So, the PM would like us to do whatever we can to help… give the country what it needs.’
  Alan’s mouth had fallen open, and his nerves had been vanquished by hot outrage. ‘You can’t be suggesting we work to rig an election?’
  Ashton shrugged, like Briggs had not quite hit the nail on the head, but the idea was not out of the question. Then he shook his head, solemnly, as if the whole thing had been a silly passing thought, and he wanted to get back to the matter at hand. ‘No,’ he replied. ‘The Prime Minister would never do such a thing – our democracy is an example to the rest of the world, one of the things that makes our country so undeniably great. No, what we are tasked with is simply compiling a list of subversives. People who are saying bad things about the government, people who have a lot to say about the Prime Minister in particular. Just a list of people to keep an eye on, in case things get out of hand.’
  ‘And what’s he going to do with it? How could he ever use that list meaningfully? It’s not illegal to criticise the government; not in this country, anyway. What are we now, Ingsoc?’
  Ashton held out his large, bony hands, stopping Alan in his tracks. ‘What we will do with the people on the list is my department,’ he said, and Alan physically recoiled. In his head, on hearing the phrase do with, he heard the cries of protestors screaming to be given back their right to vote, the screams as those protests were terminated with violence. The fear and suffering of the government’s opponents, as their leaders mysteriously went missing, one by one.
  He wanted to give this man a piece of his mind, lecture him on the sanctity of the democratic process, scream at him for trying to prop up a government that had spent two decades stealing from the poor to give to the rich, selling the country to pay for their dinner parties; but he could not. The man had made him feel uncomfortable before, intimidated and disturbed him with his spindly body and colourless skin and cold eyes; but now, he terrified him. He had become, with this request which crossed the line in Briggs’s mind from simply questionable to indubitably evil, and delivered with such shameless certainty, the kind of monster timid children feared. The leering, towering shadow up a wall, warning you that someone was coming from behind to stab you in the spine. Alan Briggs remained silent, wearing his shock, fear and anger on his face like a Halloween mask he could not remove, as Ashton continued. ‘For now, you can just stick to your own, which is to scan your records, search these assistants’ archives, for anyone talking about the kinds of things the government would rather were not discussed. Things like criticisms of economic policy or foreign dealings, or people who, for instance, talk about the Prime Minister’s sex life, or his hair. We’ll get the full list of topics and keywords over to you on Monday.’
  ‘Are you serious? Is this a joke? I can’t believe what you’re asking, or that you can even ask it with a straight face. This is disgraceful. I… I refuse to do it. I can’t. I won’t. You can’t make me, I’d rather quit. If the PM thinks he can suddenly become a dictator then he’s… he’s just…’
  Ashton’s hand slammed down on the arm of his chair loudly, and he roared above Alan’s protestations without changing his expression. ‘This is not a request,’ he boomed, his face stony and his icy blue eyes staring straight through Alan, ‘it is an order. If you would like to leave your post, that is your prerogative; however, I would remind you that your level of access to information, and to top secret investigations, has been far too high for us to simply allow you to re-enter society, another bitter subversive with an axe to grind and lies to spread. We can do this without you if we have to, you have built nearly all the tools we need and we are sure that someone in your small, expert team would be more than willing to step into your shoes to finish them. But I would advise you reconsider, if not for your sake, then for the sake of Nora, and her safety and happiness.’
  Briggs had fallen silent as soon as Ashton had begun, and now he felt sick. Not because his wife had been threatened – he had hardly heard that over the blood rushing past his ears, draining from his head and filling his stomach so that he could taste the iron on his tongue, feel acid rising in his throat. Something chilling had come back to him, in that moment: the conversation he had had with his wife that morning, in the kitchen, over coffee. One of what must have been thousands of the same sort of thing, too many to count. Joking about the PM’s wandering hands, his wig, his stinking breath. All while Trixie listened.
  And having been asked to pull a list of everyone who had ever said anything bad about the PM, he saw himself shackled to his wife, dirty and naked, two broken people in a long line of subversives being marched across a concentration camp yard, with guns poking into their sides and hungry stomachs growling inside them.
  He was doomed either way. If he helped them, he was giving them the information they needed to add him to the ever-growing list of enemies of the state, and the permission to do to him whatever they were planning to do to those enemies in the near future; and if he refused, they might just kill him now. Perhaps that was why he had been led here, so far from the party – so that he could be dispatched, if necessary, without causing a fuss.
  But then he realised: there might be a way to save his skin. If only he could find a way to remove all of his data from Trixie’s servers, delete any trace of his own subversion, he might yet survive. He might save Nora from whatever fate awaited her, when the PM found out that she was one of millions who loathed him to his very core. If he could buy some time, he just might manage to save his family.
  He swallowed down the rock-hard lumps of anger and fear that had formed in his throat, and tried to affect a willing posture. Ineffective, of course, given his nerves, and the fact that he had had to be threatened in order to finally accept the job; but still, he tried.
  ‘Okay,’ he said, failing to look Ashton is those bottomless, merciless eyes. ‘Okay. I’ll get to work on it, on Monday.’
  ‘Excellent,’ said Ashton, rising to his feet again. He held out his hand and smiled that emotionless, insincere smile that Alan Briggs had already learned to hate, within an hour of meeting the man. 
  When Alan stood and took his hand to shake it, his skin was cold and rough, like a leather glove left to age on a winter pavement.
  ‘Our requirements will be over to you by the time you arrive into work next week. Since you exposed those foreign spies within a month of being asked, we were thinking you could provide a comprehensive list of names, addresses and recordings within a couple of weeks?’ 
  Then, without waiting for an answer: ‘Good show. I look forward to working with you.’
  He strode past Alan to the door of the room, and opened it once more, waiting beside it for Alan to gather his composure and walk with him back to the party. Alan Briggs walked like a man defeated, exhausted and beaten, his legs dragging behind him and his mind too distracted to call his errant body to order.
  When he eventually reached the door, he was stopped momentarily by Commander Ashton’s hand on his chest. Pulling him back to reality like an anvil to the ribs. ‘The Prime Minister would ask you to ensure,’ Ashton muttered, talking past Briggs as if he was not even worth looking at, in that same quiet but firm tone he had used to brief him on this despicable mission, ‘that the data you provide is comprehensive. If our contacts within your team were to mention, during our regular chats, that you had decided to leave any names or found conversations out of the intelligence you provide to us… Well, I don’t think you’d make it to any more of these events, that’s for certain.’
  Briggs nodded. If he had a bucket, or a bag, or even just a room to be alone in, he could have thrown up the entire contents of his body there and then. But instead, he felt Ashton’s hand drape itself over his shoulder, just as it had on the way into this terrible meeting, and lead him back to the party, a shell of the man he had been when he had gone in. One step at a time, legs moving robotically, as his mind raced to find a solution to his life-threatening problem.
  ‘Alan? Alan! Where’ve you been?!’ Nora asked, and Briggs felt like he was waking from a horrible nightmare, as his consciousness drifted once again back from images of future incarceration and torture to the here and now, where his wife stood in front of him, shaking him by the arms and shouting in his face. ‘You disappeared for so long. Where the hell did you go?’
  Alan gestured to his right, attempted a smile. ‘Nora,’ he slurred, his mouth reluctant to cooperate, declaring itself out of the union between his body and his brain, ‘meet Commander Ashton. He’s…’
  ‘Alan,’ Nora interrupted, seeming now more confused than concerned, ‘there’s no one there.’
  Alan looked. She was right – there was no one there. Ashton must have slipped off into the crowd while Alan was daydreaming, worrying, scrambling to plot an escape from the grave he had dug for himself and his loved ones. ‘Oh,’ he said.
  ‘I think we should go home. You look really unwell. I’m worried about you.’ Nora took his arm, started to lead him across the room, past laughing spies and their drunk husbands, fat politicians and their pretty mistresses. ‘What on Earth could be so wrong, darling? Do you need some water before we go? I can…’
  Alan put his finger to his lips, as she led him through the room like a zombie on a leash. He pointed his red face at his beautiful wife, and he giggled, almost manically. 
  ‘Sssh,’ he said, then he pointed at the ceiling. ‘Trixie is here.’