A Lucky Charm
I was a nurse for nearly fifteen years – worked in A&E for three – and I’ve seen some things – nasty accidents, dying people, and such like – but this really shook me up. It was a horrible thing to witness, certainly, what I saw that morning, but it wasn’t so much the what had happened and how, as the why it happened; or the why I think it happened, anyway. That’s what really got me. It doesn’t make sense, and if I tell you, you won’t believe me; but I know what caused it, and every time I think about that thing it gives me the blasted creeps. It was nine, ten weeks ago, maybe, nearly three months, but it’s still keeping me awake at night.
The day before I was in his kitchen getting his dinner ready when I heard a commotion. I dried my hands on a tea towel and went to see what all the fuss was about. Jim was shouting and Charlie was sobbing his eyes out, poor little thing. He’s a good lad really, so I couldn’t imagine what he might have done, and he always got on well with Uncle Jim, or as well as anybody could get on with Uncle Jim. He was my uncle you understand, not Charlie’s. Charlie’s great-uncle, but we just called him Uncle Jim for ease. I was in the kitchen, anyway, and I heard Jim bawling at the top of his voice. It’s more a croak than a bawl really – ciggies – and it must have absolutely terrified Charlie. When I got into the living room the poor little mite was wailing and stamping his feet and waving his hands. I’d not seen him so upset since he was ever so tiny.
‘Don’t bloody touch it! Don’t you dare bloody touch it again!’ Jim was bellowing, as Charlie flapped and squalled. It was a rotten trick, shouting at a little kiddy like that.
‘What has he done? Don’t shout at him.’
‘He was trying to get that bloody monkey down.’
‘Well, if you don’t want him touching your monkey, you should put it away. He
doesn’t understand.’ I was going to lose my rag, so I thought I’d get Charlie out of there. ‘Come on, honey. Come away. We’ll get you a monkey of your own.’ Charlie grabbed my hold of my trouser leg and went mummy, mummy, mummy, so I scruffled his hair up to reassure him. Tears were pouring down his cheeks.
‘You’ve frightened him half to death, look. What the heck do you think you’re playing at?’
Jim took hold of the armchair wing to steady himself. I thought he was going to pass out on me. I could see what had happened. His bloody pot monkey was down on the open lid of his secretaire desk. He usually kept it up on the shelves with the desk locked. It’s not a bad piece – the desk that is – mahogany, one of his better buys, but the monkey was horrible – an ugly little brute.
‘He’s not to touch it.’
‘Well, put it away then,’ I said. I wanted to say a lot more, but he’s old and he’s very ill. He was still hacking and wheezing with exertion just from standing up and shouting.
‘I’ll take him to his Grandma’s if he’s annoying you that much. Come on, honey.’
‘He’s alright, but he’s not to touch my pots, that’s all.’ By this time Jim had sparked up a fag and was puffing like a tugboat. The room stinks, and he always has the curtains half drawn – ‘I can’t see t’telly’ – it’s not really a place you’d want a kiddy anyway – unhealthy.
‘That won’t do you any good either,’ I said. He grunted and slumped back down into the armchair. ‘Did you hear? I’m taking this lad to his Grandma’s. I’ll only be five minutes. I’ll sort your dinner out when I come back.’
He was sulking now, Jim, like a great overgrown baby. Well, not a baby really. He was too gnarled and grey to be like a baby, but he sulks something cruel, and I thought Charlie was best off out of it. His Grandma’s only two streets away and I knew it wouldn’t take long, but it was after 12.30 so I guessed he’d have a bottle of red unscrewed and tucked down by the side of the chair by the time I got back. I always tried to make sure he had a meal before he started, though he didn’t eat much at the best of times. Come five thirty he’d be shouting abuse at contestants on Antiques Road Trip or some such. It was best if he’d lined his stomach earlier.
Jim was always a difficult man to like, I think that’s fair to say. He was a bit of a bloody know-all for one thing. He was in antiques for forty-odd years; thought he knew everything. He went into it after a spell in the police, the Met in London. That’s where he got the monkey. I couldn’t understand why he had his bloody rotten monkey out where Charlie could get at it. If it was so bloody precious, he should have kept it out of reach of little prying paws.
Of course, I knew the history of the monkey. We all knew the history of the bloody monkey. It was his lucky bloody monkey. It was a charm from the mysterious east.
‘Everything changed when I got it, and I got for next to nowt.’ he’d preen. He was very proud of his haggling skills, his eye for bargain. This monkey story was trotted out periodically, when he’d had maybe one too many – which was a not infrequent occurrence – and was holding forth. I have to say, I always thought it was an ugly bloody thing, but it was the first purchase he made, and imbued with mystical powers, he insisted. ‘Oh yes. Got it off an Egyptian, grubby little fellow, in Islington. It was in them houses near where Tony Blair lives; worth millions now. Back then, they were all run down shit-holes. We were called to a disturbance. Some bloody Paddy knocking his missus about, I should think; something like that. They were always at it, jammed in cheek by jowl. Ten to a room, I tell you, even then. It was the sixties; not all so bloody swinging as folks make out.
‘It didn’t take off, Islington, for a good few years. I were offered one, you know, a house. Sitting tenants, though; they’d have been a bugger to shift. Still, it would have been worth an absolute packet now.
‘Anyway, we got called to a disturbance, and it turns out that the fellow who’s called us is this little darkie, Mr Abu Zabu or something, and he’s the landlord. He lives in the basement and has all the flats let out to Irish families and the like. Anyway, me and this young copper called Donovan arrive and Mr Abu Zabu’s locked himself in because there’s some great, drunken Mick creating upstairs. We tap at the basement door and it opens a chink and Mr Abu Zabu peers round the corner, and he’s obviously terrified. He’s a tiny little chap, bald with a comb-over that keeps flopping down, and wearing a mustard-coloured tank top stretched over his pot belly.
‘”Police.” I say, “Someone has reported a disturbance.” He cringes and raises his eyes to the heavens, you know, to indicate it’s upstairs. “We’re looking for the landlord. Do you know where he is?”
‘He says it’s him, and naturally I’m suspicious because you don’t expect darkies to be owning property, let alone a big place like this, so I think, we may as well check him out while we’re there. You never know what you’ll turn up. I invite us in; he un-slips the chain and makes way. It’s a grubby little hole and it absolutely stinks of spices and bloody garlic.
‘Donovan flicks out a notebook and starts asking him questions. He was a bloody good copper was Donovan. He knew instinctively to slip into the good cop mode. I never had to tell him. He would just, quite spontaneously, be polite and reasonable; had this calm reassuring way with him, which, of course, meant I could catch the buggers off guard, give ’em the third degree if needs be. You’d nearly think we invented that modus operandi.
‘Anyway, aside from being a complete dump, this basement flat’s a proper little Aladdin’s cave, so to speak. I wish I’d known a bit more about porcelain then, but he had shelves full of it – figurines, jugs, cups, plates – some of it must have been worth a bob or two. I’d like to have gone through it all. So, while I’m checking his stock, and wondering where he got it from, he’s giving Donovan the old hearts and flowers – his tenants are terrible people and this Paddy has gone mad again, and how can he talk to him because “he’s a wild man, and he’s been smashing up the furniture and fighting with his wife and fighting with his neighbours.” He says he’s at his wits end, what with all these maniacs, and he’d like to sell up and go back to Egypt. I think that’s sounds like not a bad idea, but I say nowt. I give him a hard stare and he says, would I like to make him an offer, and he’ll gladly take it and never have to deal with these lunatic people again. He’s very suspicious, though, watching me looking at his pots.
‘Donovan says he’ll go upstairs and have a word with the miscreant, try and sort it out, you know, cool things down. I say I’ll just stay down here and have a chat with Mr Abu Zabu, and while Donovan’s gone I grill him about the porcelain. He seems quite knowledgeable but, you know, not an expert by any means, and that’s what put the idea into my head. I thought, I have plenty of contacts, if I could buy up bits and pieces from fellows like Mr Abu Zabu here, and I had a lot of friends in the force who’d give me a nod if anything came up, I might be able to make a go of it.
‘He seems quite relieved that I only want to talk porcelain. I can’t imagine why. So I ask him if I can buy a piece off him. He says sure, have a good look, take your pick; and this monkey has already caught my eye. It’s Japanese, an unprepossessing little beggar.’
He wasn’t wrong there with its great, wing-nut ears, all scrunched up on its haunches, legs crossed, one arm wrapped round its head, and its tongue lolling out of its ugly little face. One eye was sculpted in detail, the other smooth, as if it was half blind.
‘It was squatting on a foliated platform – nice touch,’ he’d say, as if he’d known at the time what a foliated platform was, ‘and I liked the mottling in the glaze. You could see it was really well made.’ Jim was always highly knowledgable after the fact. ‘Yes, there was something about it that really appealed. It was a lovely piece.
‘”How much for this monkey?” I say, but he can’t sell me his monkey because it’s a lucky charm, and he bought it off a bloke in Ceylon who assured him it was magic and would bring good fortune to anyone who possessed it. I’m not falling for that baloney though, and I offer him two bob, and oh! he can’t possibly because it’s been with him so long and brought him such favour in life. We settle on half a crown, and he wishes me the best of Arab luck.
‘But the funny thing is, it did mark a proper change in our fortunes. I was inspired, you might say. Inside six months I’d got a start trading, and after eighteen months I left the force and, when Marion fell pregnant, we came home to Easingwold, and I never looked back.’
I remembered all this while I was driving Charlie round to his Grandma’s. I stayed a bit and I had a cup tea with her, then I left him there and went back to Jim’s to finish getting him his dinner. When I got there he had the whisky out, and there was no talking to him. He didn’t want his bloody dinner, and what did I want to be bothering him for; he wasn’t long for this miserable world and good riddance to it when his time came – the usual. He was terrible just after Marion died, but I thought he’d been a bit better the past couple of years. I asked him again what he wanted for dinner, and then he started. He didn’t want any effing dinner, and why did I keep effing bothering him; and on and on he went. He was an awful drunk.
That’s when I saw it in the fire place, shattered into little bits, little fragments of porcelain – his pot monkey.
‘What have you done that for?’ I asked, and knelt down to pick up some shards off the carpet. It’s nasty little head was still in one piece, leering up off the floor, it’s horrible tongue lolling out.’
‘I’ve smashed the ugly little bastard. It brought us no luck at all. Bloody evil thing.’
I was mystified; asked him, what’s brought this on, but he wouldn’t give me a straight answer; just ranted nonsense. I said he ought to try and get out for a walk every now and then, chuck that drink away, stop smoking, open a window, let some fresh air in, and stop feeling so bloody sorry for his self. Well, he went up like a rocket.
I left him too it, said I’d come back tomorrow by which time, I hoped, he’d feel ashamed of himself; ungrateful beggar. He really upset me. I thought about him all night. Couldn’t get to sleep, I was so mad at him. Mostly we took no notice of his boasting, but I was that cross I couldn’t stop going over what I wanted to say to him: ‘All your rubbish about your marvellous good luck, and your entrepreneurial bloody skill; it’s just that – rubbish. You never tell anybody that you had to remortgage your house three times, that Marion lost her baby, and that you treated her like an idiot all her life, you stupid, ignorant man. Luck doesn’t come into it. You’re just stupid’
I wanted to say all this, but when I got up in the morning I thought, no, he’s a sad old man and it’s not worth it. I felt tired, and sad that I’d let him wind me up so much.
When I got to his house – and thank God I didn’t take Charlie – the back door was unlocked, and everything in the kitchen was as I’d left it the night before. I could smell something from the living room. It was acrid, made a sticky, ashy taste at the back of my mouth. I was thinking he could at least have made himself some supper, and was about to start clearing up, but the smell, the taste was lingering. In fact, it seemed to get stronger.
I called his name and looked into the hall. His bedroom door was open and light was coming through it, so I assumed he must be up. When I peeped in, though, his bed hadn’t been slept in. He must have been at that whisky all afternoon and fallen asleep in his chair, I thought. I braced myself and got ready to brittle him up – it’s easy done when he’s nursing a hangover – but when I opened the living room door the smell of ash and something sweet, something cloying, was almost overpowering. The curtains were drawn, and the television on, a blue screen, and so was his standard lamp by the armchair. It was very smoky and I started to cough. I went to undraw the curtains and that’s when I saw him, or saw what was left of him. It was a terrible thing.
I didn’t believe it at first, and flung back the curtains. The flood of light confirmed what I thought I’d seen, and I ran to the kitchen to get my mobile and call the police.
Jim’s body, what remained of it, was pitched head first into the fireplace. A bar of the gas fire was still on, fizzling away, but he was a charred mess. I didn’t look of more than a second but it’s imprinted in my mind. His lower legs were still intact, – feet still in his slippers, for God’s sake – his skull blackened and burnt away, and the rest of him was a mess of ash and charcoal. Most of the bones had disintegrated. He was a black smear on the carpet. As I say, I’ve seen some terrible injuries at work – people with limbs missing, facial injuries – but this beat them all.
The police were there most of the day, taking photographs. An ambulance came and went away. The fire brigade arrived, but they weren’t really needed. They checked for gas leaks even though there obviously couldn’t be one. I asked them all how it could have happened, but none of them would answer my questions.
I talked to Gordon, who’s a fireman, later. I gave him a ring and asked him why the whole house hadn’t burnt down. He said it wasn’t so mysterious. It’s spilt drink and fags. Jim probably fell asleep with a fag in his mouth – and that seemed highly plausible, I’ve seen him do it – set fire to his clothes, suffered a cardiac, and then something called the wick effect takes over. The fat on the body burns very slowly, but incredibly hot; it destroys the body. When the fire uses up all the oxygen in the room, it goes out. He said, there’s all sorts of nutters have theories about spontaneous human combustion, as they call it, but it’s pretty simple science.
I mean, it was a horrid thing to see, a terrible way to go, but even so, that wasn’t what really frightened me. It was when I went back on the Sunday that I noticed it. Our Roger came up from Wath-on-Dearne, and we went to start sorting things out. They’d removed the body and we needed to start clearing the house out. I showed Roger into the living room and was in the middle of telling him what I’d found when I saw it. I stopped speaking in mid- sentence.
On the secretaire was the porcelain monkey: whole, un-chipped, unbroken, as good as new, and as ugly as the devil. It was sitting there, it’s nasty little face full of mockery. I never felt so repelled by anything in all my life; and I knew it wasn’t my imagination – I really had seen it in bits.
I didn’t want to touch it, so I put on some Marigolds and shoved it in a box with a load of other ornaments. Roger helped me go through Jim’s things and we got a house-clearance firm to take everything we didn’t want away to the sale rooms.
We had to remove his paperwork of course, and that’s when I found the letter on the desk, still with its airmail envelope, from Australia. Alec Donovan wondered if Jim remembered him from their days in the Met. He’d left the force and gone into property, made a packet, and moved out with his brood to Oz. The funny thing was, he’d got his start by buying a house from a gentleman named Mr Ayoudi in Islington. Did Jim recall him?
I hope nobody buys that figurine. I hope it got broken by the clearers. The thought of its horrible leering face is still keeping me awake at night.
Tim Turnbull’s poetry is published by Donut Press. A collection of short stories, Silence and other stories – is due for publication by Red Squirrel Press in early 2016. He recently completed his first novel – a satirical horror tale, The Adventures of Kunstlicht in the Netherworld – and is working on a third poetry collection, Avanti!. He lives in Perthshire. This is his website: http://www.timturnbull.co.uk/Read More
Call me Ishmael, he said.
The name had never mattered.
It was the immediacy of it all,
creeping through the mouseness of night.
Hours to go till light would strain
the seams of other people’s sleep.
The heels were high, and clacked like
tongues. So I swung them from my fingers
and the pavement
cut my feet.
But down at the seafront, where
blank kiosks slept,
and the flat sands glimmered just beyond eyes,
I dropped the shoes
and let him lick the salt from my skin.
Sally Douglas lives in Devon, UK. She has been published in various journals, including The Rialto, Ambit and Envoi. Her collection Candling the Eggs is published by Cinnamon Press. She blogs very intermittently at http://sallydouglas.blogspot.co.uk/ where a selection of her poetry, including extracts from the book, can be found.
Previously published in Candling the Eggs, Cinnamon Press, 2011.Read More
He smells Lynx-irresistible:
sweat and leather,
dirt, blood, incense,
and other people’s sweat
but when I’m angry
he smells of horse shit.
He sounds of prayers,
and idle pious boasts.
He cares about his saddle
more than me. He’s not home much
and every single time
he goes off questing
I tell him not to bother
Natalie Burdett grew up in the Black Country. She is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her poetry has appeared in MMU’s Avis Magazine.Read More
On my father’s 83rd birthday
Unpeg each loop of guy
from the tent he saved
from his scouting days
roll up those hot July nights.
Fold away the summer meadow
put each petal in a jar
Pour metal buckets full of river.
Wind his moss green sweater
around the spinny.
Fill up the shelves, shut the door.
Rowena Warwick is a writer of poetry and fiction. She recently won third prize in the Hippocrates poetry prize (NHS section). When not writing she works for the health service.Read More
The smell in our clothes, our sheets,
The skin itself –
Dawn of grey salt sea, the teary veil
Of diamond dew, drop upon drop, &
Beauty in the glimmering light
Scooped up –
Reflections pouring fog, the aerial
World I love –
Happily flapping laundry, Dover
Gulls knowing sun, feathers
Nestling meadows for the chill
In our spirits,
For the solitary poignancy felt,
Assuaged by mead, by rainwater,
The weather’s cup drunk daily &
Breathed back, miraculous, this
Life apart from but, as well,
A part of the dying flight, the uprush,
The very air
As a writer and artist publishing for the last three decades, Stephen Mead has finally gotten around to getting links to his poetry still online at various zines available in one place: stephenmead.weebly.com. His latest Amazon release is entitled Our Spirit Life, a poetry/art meditation on family heritage, love, and the evanescence of time. For Christmas 2014 he released a sound collage song cycle, Threnody for a Forgotten Plague, a series-in-progress, dealing with the early days of the AIDS Pandemic.Read More
Do Not Be Afraid
Above you, in the sky, a mockingbird attacks a hawk who has flown too near its nest. The hawk soars up, followed by the mockingbird who taps it again and again, as if to choose a new direction for the hawk until the hawk eventually disappears into the sky and the mockingbird returns to his tree.
Do not be afraid no matter what they say. Take it one day at a time is what you’ve heard. No matter what the chest x-rays look like, no matter how the doctor stares and awkwardly clears his throat. Do not be afraid of the doctor’s waiting room, its worn furniture of mismatching colors, its frayed magazines that you do not give a shit about. Do not be afraid. It may be something, it may be nothing.
Do not be afraid of the woman in your home. She loves you and means you no harm. That is why you are afraid. You don’t know if you can be in love anymore. You do not know if you understand a woman who doesn’t mean you harm.
It flutters nearby, alighting on the adjoining chair.
Do not be afraid of your job any longer. They withhold things, things that are meaningful in a business employment way. They keep the titles from you to keep you hanging on. They do not promise you a future raise, a future office, or even future employment. They hope this fear will keep you complicit, tame, and on your back, your arms and legs stretched apart, showing an exposed, and vulnerable, belly just waiting for a kind rub.
Do not be afraid of the world around you. Yes, it is terrible and you don’t understand it. Few do. But the fear is used to push you one way or the other. To trap you in your little blue house and its tiny yard, afraid of those who walk out front so you only peek when you hear the voices.
The mockingbird sits in the yard. Waiting.
You do not.
Ron Burch‘s short stories have been published, in print and online, in Mississippi Review, Eleven Eleven, Pank and others. He’s been nominated for a Pushcart, and his first novel, Bliss Inc., was published by BlazeVOX Books. Please visit: www.ronburch.comRead More
This is What We Find
This is what we find when we go outside:
Roads melting in the heat;
Half-naked teenage boys kicking footballs in the street;
The Indian kids playing cricket in the park,
Grass darkening their otherwise
“Hey, do you want a game?” they shout.
See, this is what happens when you go out;
People want a piece of you;
People want you for their team.
I don’t want to run around in this heat.
I don’t want grass staining my new clean clothes.
I don’t want the captains telling me what to do.
I want to stay indoors, conserving my strength,
Keeping my own company,
And my flesh and soul in harmony.
I want to sit quietly in the cool,
Cultivating the whiteness of my skin,
Listening to old Bowie LPs,
And reading Proust and Agatha Christie.
Oh, and eating till I’m clinically obese,
And need to be winched out to receive
Life saving surgery,
For which circumstance,
Having been corrupted by the BBC,
I will look for someone to blame,
And settle on the people outside,
Who want me on their team,
And will not let me be;
The captains who will not let me be me.
Robin Kidson was born and bred in a remote part of rural Northumberland, but now lives near Bristol. He can occasionally be heard reciting his poems in the various poetry venues of that city – including the Lansdown pub in Clifton.Read More