The dangers of an online presence

If you’ve ever had any bother with family, colleagues, anyone, then an online presence – as the youngsters call it – is just asking for trouble.  You can get around the dangers a little by having an anonymous account or accounts, but you have to be so careful not to leave any clues about who you really are, especially if whoever you’re trying to avoid is good at putting two and two together.  And if those people are good with technology, you’d better be damn sure you’ve covered your tracks and left no trail for them to follow.  I left a trail.

I don’t really want to go into the details, even though it’s a bit like shutting the stable door after someone broke in and shot the horse with a bolt gun, or whatever, but I’d be pretty embarrassed to write about it because I’m just not one of life’s sharers.  No offence meant if we’ve been internet friends for a while, but I know now that I can’t necessarily trust anyone online and I should have had the sense to realise that earlier.  At heart, it’s what I believed all along but you kid yourself sometimes out of …don’t know …loneliness, perhaps?  But, that being said, I would like to get the main facts off my chest because I’m going to have to delete everything I’ve ever posted to the internet: Facebook, Twitter, My Space (I know!  Shut up!) and this, too, unfortunately, once enough of you have read it.  I might print a few things out that I’ve been proud of.  Maybe not.  Probably not.

So … deep breath and all that …it started a long time ago, so long it’s like I was someone else.  I was very young, definitely a lot more stupid, if you can imagine that being possible, and I was naive.  Maybe ‘naive’ isn’t strong enough: gullible is what I was.  I was taken in by bigger personalities than mine: more interesting, more daring, more glamorous, which wouldn’t be hard because I was never even slightly interesting or glamorous back then and I’m still not.  But I faked it really well, just so they would accept me, and it was obviously convincing; some of them looked up to me, while others resented me very deeply for that respect, which they could definitely tell I didn’t really deserve.  They were able to see through me more than most and they knew that I knew, which made for a tense atmosphere.

Eventually, I got involved in doing stuff that I’m not prepared to disclose on a public forum, even one I’m about to leave forever.  Though I fooled myself into believing I was led into it, in reality, I kind of just lost my head, believed my own bravado and dragged a few others along with me.  I’m so very sorry for that now, but sorry isn’t always enough.  Sometimes, there are only really two options: run or face the consequences; sometimes there aren’t even that many.  I had the choice and I decided to run.  I cut my ties, dropped all my friends, although by then I’d cottoned on to the fact that none of them were really my friends.  I lived for years watching my back.  But I got complacent.

Everyone seemed to be using the internet and I was curious, in spite of being a bit of a Luddite.  At first, I just used the old MSN messenger and then I was commenting on news sites and in forums.  When My Space came along I got that and I stalked Friends Reunited because I’d grown pretty curious about people whose paths had crossed mine.  Then I got Facebook and I made sure I only added people I’d met recently in the real world and nobody I’d known before; nobody from the bad times and nobody I hadn’t actually met.  I was so careful!  Then I joined Twitter.

Now, I started out doing what most people probably do at first, which is following famous people and tweeting about boring things: stuff on the telly, news stories, whatever was trending, etc.  Then I started tweeting jokes and pictures I’d made and I followed back the people who followed me rather than just celebrities.  I started to get more followers than seemed reasonable and, from among them, I made friends.  No!  I thought I made friends.  When you think someone is a friend, you let your guard down and tell them things you wouldn’t otherwise tell anyone; it wasn’t that I just blurted out my life history but instead of sticking to the jokes and suchlike, I got sucked into private conversations in which I let slip little bits of truth, then more bits and more.  The truth, people, will not set you free.

Snippets of information were being shared with people I wouldn’t have chosen to trust, long before I realised; by the time this fact filtered back to me, the grapevine had grown too large for me to shut down and the very bunch I’d been avoiding had found me again. Believe me, you never know who’s hiding behind those cartoon avis, meaningless @ names and eggs.  So, here I am. Telling you this so you know why I’m not going to be around and aren’t left wondering, because it may not have always seemed like it but I have liked some of you and I feel I owe you an explanation.

It’d be a lie if I said I was simply going offline because I do most of my work via the internet these days, but it won’t be like it is now and you won’t know it’s me, I guarantee it.  I won’t use any of the many names I already have, so it’s no use expecting to find me under @morningstar or satan@sky.com, nor @lucifer1089, and @lucifer666 is already taken – I’ve checked, so don’t bother looking.  I won’t follow you or add you or friend you again.  We won’t talk.  I’ll just be an online presence.

Advertisements

In the Headlight

The image flashed by so quickly, that it had gone before her brain could register it properly.  Just a flash in the headlights; a moth, perhaps, or something flung across her path by the wind.  She was already so tired her mental processes were a bit slower than they should be when driving, but it would be another half an hour, maybe forty minutes, before she would reach her home.

For months, she’d been searching for a job closer to where she lived.  It wasn’t just the long drive there and back that made it so hard to take; it was also the long hours in the bar, standing the whole time, dealing with idiots making the same jokes every night.  The young ones, convinced she wouldn’t be able to resist their predictable and usually offensive comments, the older, married-looking ones spouting crap about their problems.  And then there were the ones for whom she was invisible; a nobody who didn’t deserve a ‘please’ or a ‘thank you’; the ones who wouldn’t even put the money in her hand, but would slap it onto the bar and turn away, already disengaged from her existence.

Her bed welcomed her with a cool, soothing embrace and, in spite of a vague rumble from her empty belly, she was asleep in minutes.  When the light dragged her into wakefulness, she had no recollection of her dream, apart from a nagging suspicion that it had been about a moth or something.

Hours later, as she eased into the bend, the flash in the headlights caught her eye and a sense of déjà vu hit her.  Without much conscious input, her brain ran through a list of possibilities: a moth, a leaf, a ray of light, a reflection.  A reflection?  She didn’t even know how she’d arrived at that idea.  A reflection of what?  All the way home, she couldn’t shake the idea that she should know what it was that she’d seen lit up for an instant in the beam of her headlight.

Every night for the next four days, she saw the same flash at the same place.  On night three, she drove really slowly as she approached the bend: walking pace, almost, yet she still only saw the maddening flash as the compelling image appeared and vanished.  She found herself lying awake, staring into the darkness, trying to visualise what she’d seen in the hope of resolving the mystery.

On the fourth night, she rounded the bend and saw the flash again, but this time she only drove a short way further until she reached a passing place.  She pulled in and turned off the engine.  It seemed as though this torment would drive her mad if she didn’t find an explanation for the vision.  “Round the bend!” she heard herself say to the empty road.

The exact spot where the image was visible was really easy to find now that she’d seen it so many times, but as she stood at the side of the road, there was nothing that could explain it.  Turning slowly, she looked from the floor to the treetops, searching for anything that might project an image, allow a chink of light through from some hidden source or house a nest of flying creatures that might be taking turns to cross her path.  Nothing!  She stepped back a little.  Nothing!  A little more.  Nothing!  Bending, she tried to fix her eyeline to where she imagined it would be if she were in the car and as her hair swished forward she thought she might have caught a glimpse of something shining in the air.  She heard the car before she saw it swoop around the dark bend.  Just in time to glance towards it as it hit her.  One eye catching the light of the driver’s headlights.  Like a moth.

The Weird Cat

She’d been a weird cat since she’d first arrived, squeezing her way past the children’s legs one day as they came in from school. “Can we keep it?” they’d begged their mum, but she’d told them that this was somebody else’s cat and lifted it out onto the path, where it sat until the door was opened again before attempting entry once more. The girls had made posters advertising ‘FOUND CAT’, complete with a photo, but it’s hard to tell one black cat from another, especially in a grainy print. No owner had come forward and, day after day, the cat came back with little encouragement from the girls’ mum but secret treats and lots of cuddles from the youngsters. Eventually, it was tacitly accepted that she was now the family cat; a bed was bought and two bowls for food and drink. They named her Clinker and they loved her.

There was no doubt that she was getting on in years; her belly was flabby, the tip of her tail was flattened and hung at an odd angle, she had strange flecks in both eyes and she never meowed, although she often purred. The whole family made a fuss of her, but nobody pretended that she wasn’t weird. She would sit on the window sill, her back to the outside world, watching the room like a small, furry guardian. If anybody got up to leave, she would watch them until they were out of sight before resuming her original stance, rarely blinking, even more rarely sleeping. Most un-cat-like.

Clinker wasn’t very graceful for a cat either. She had an ungainly walk and would frequently fall from the furniture, righting herself as she hit the floor and continuing as though nothing had happened. The one time she displayed anything like the expected amount of feline agility was when she did the weirdest thing of all; whenever she crossed from the rug in front of the fire to head into the kitchen, she would walk in a wide arc, hugging the furniture until she reached the chair closest to the door, whereupon she would leap delicately as though she were clearing a small hurdle. The first time she’d done it, the family had laughed at her odd ways and had subsequently tried to fathom what made her do it. They’d tried moving the lamp in case a stray shadow was causing the cat’s confusion but it made no difference; over time the furniture was rearranged slightly, but she still followed roughly the same path and always ended with a little leap. It was part of her charm.

As the girls grew older, Clinker’s fur sprouted stray white hairs and she looked a little scrawny about the haunches, but she would still sit and survey the room with her almost unblinking gaze, never once facing the outside world. She enjoyed curling up in a lap, rumbling like a fur-covered Geiger counter and there was never a shortage of willing laps. All in all, it was a good life.

It was approaching winter when the burglary happened. As the family lay sleeping, their mother woke to a strange sound. Somewhere, a cat was mewing loudly and a bitter draught rattled under her bedroom door. She thought the girls might have left a window open, as they sometimes did; perhaps a local cat had climbed in, but as she opened her door to go and check, she saw a dark figure halfway up the stairs, or down – it was difficult to know which way they were heading in the gloom – and she cried out and flailed for the light switch. The burglar ran down the stairs and headed through the dining room and into the living room, making for the open back door through which he had forced an entrance.

He’d clearly spent some time in the living room, looking for valuables that didn’t exist, as every drawer of the dresser had been emptied onto the floor and the cushions from the suite had been tossed, as though someone might hide money or jewels in the furniture. The burglar stepped onto some letters and skidded a little before taking a wild step to try and right himself. He hadn’t accounted, however, for the now silent black cat prowling in the only spaces left unsullied and as his foot landed on the flattened end of her tail, she hissed and lashed out with deadly accuracy, raking her claws across his leg. He fell with a crash, catching his chin on the dresser and was already unconscious as he hit the floor. As he lay like a dead man near the kitchen door, Clinker sidled up to him and leapt in a graceful arc over the vanquished intruder, as though clearing a small hurdle.

Scotland and England on the Jeremy Kyle Show

(Scotland sounds like Nicola Sturgeon, England sounds like David Cameron)
SFX: JEREMY KYLE THEME.
JEREMY KYLE: Next on the Jeremy Kyle Show, we have a couple who are literally on the brink of breaking up and are here as a last resort. Welcome to the programme, Scotland!
SFX: CHEERING. APPLAUSE. SOME BOOING.
JK: So … let’s talk about the relationship. How long have you been together? And how was it to start off with?
SCOTLAND: It’s been more that 300 years, Jeremy, but it’s always been terrible! I never really wanted to be with him, but he wouldnay let it lie.
JK: So, for 300 years – more, even – you’ve been stuck in an unhappy relationship. Tell me what he’s like.
SCOTLAND: Well, Jeremy, he never lets me have control of my own money. He let me have a bank account …
JK: Let you?
SCOTLAND: Yes!
SFX: BOOS
SCOTLAND: But even though my name’s on the account, he controls everything I spend, checks up on me all the time. He even took control of the stocks my mother left. Said it would be better if we ‘shared responsibility’, but he always has the last say!
SFX: SHE SNIFFS
JEREMY: Is there anything else?
SCOTLAND: He’s never really stopped seeing his first wife – Wales!
SFX: SHOCKED SOUNDS FROM AUDIENCE
SCOTLAND: And then there’s Northern Ireland. He met her after me. They have a … special relationship. It’s a bit stormy, but still …
JK: Well, as always, there are two sides to every story. Welcome to the Jeremy Kyle Show … England!
SFX: LOUD BOOS
JK: Hello there, England. Scotland says you’re too controlling and you keep tabs on everything she does. Not only that, but you’re also in touch with your first wife, Wales. Is she telling the truth?
ENGLAND: First of all, jeremy, can I just say that I have the greatest respect for Scotland and I feel we just work so much better together than we ever could apart. I have worked tirelessly to make sure she knows how much I value her input and …
JK: Are you still seeing Wales?
ENGLAND: Scotland understood my responsibilities to Wales when we got together and …
JK: And Northern Ireland?
ENGLAND: If that was a problem, she had plenty of opportunities to speak up when I was making those arrangements. It seems that she’s forgetting the good times – like when we won those Olympic medals, and the men’s title at Wimbledon.
SCOTLAND: That was all me! You just take the credit for everything!
ENGLAND: We have to try to make this work! I’ll fight for you with my last breath!
SCOTLAND: I’ve had enough! I’m leaving and I’m taking the kids: The Krankies, David Moyes … Duncan Bannatyne!
JK: What do you have to say about that, England? Just how are you going to fight for her?
ENGLAND: No. She’s right! We’re bad for each other. I won’t fight this break-up any more. As long as she gets custody of George Galloway!
END

For the benefit of the non-British, Jeremy Kyle hosts a very tacky show like the Jerry Springer show and Scotland is about to hold a referendum on whether to leave the United Kingdom. This is meant in a light-hearted way and I hope nobody is offended by it.

The Long Job

It was my last job of the night.  Of course, I didn’t know it was going to be my last job when I started, but that’s how it ended up anyway.  It was just before Christmas, my busiest time, and the weather was on the turn; there’d been a bit of snow and there was one of them cheeky winds that takes a shortcut through a bloke instead of going round.  He was an old codger, this pick-up; smelt a bit funny!  You know the type – didn’t seem like he spent too much money on soap, if you get my meaning.  He seemed a bit touchy and rambled a bit.  Half the time I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or to himself and some of what he said was just rubbish.  It’s sad when they go like that, but he was getting on.  Looked as though he’d had a good innings even if it wasn’t a happy one.

He didn’t look all that well when I picked him up and, if I’m honest, I didn’t think he was long for the world and I was worried his heart might give out during the journey and then I’d be stuck answering a load of stupid questions.  It’s happened before; the other bloke had that same grey look that this fella had so I made a mental note to keep a close eye on this one.

It had to be one of the longest journeys I’ve made since I started doing this job .  We bounced all over London and stopped off at quite a few places: we went to see his sister, who didn’t look too good herself to be honest; we went to some place he used to work, which is not something I’d fancy doing if I didn’t have to, and then I took him to see his ex.  I’ve made that mistake meself before.  Never go to see your ex when you’re feeling a bit low; it never ends well.  They hadn’t parted on good terms, as it happens, so he was pretty emotional by the time I dropped him back off at his, but at least he was still in one piece, so to speak, which meant he would be somebody else’s headache if he croaked.

Not that I was unsympathetic!  I’d been in his shoes meself.  You take a wrong turn and before you know it you’re headed into all sorts of wrong and sometimes you just can’t see how to get out of it.  In fact – and again, I’m speaking from personal experience – it’s easy to get so far down the wrong road that you don’t even recognise it’s wrong and you start to think everyone else’s way is the mistake.

I was pretty young when I strayed.  I’d been a bit of a shy kid and didn’t have many friends so, when some lads who lived by us started showing an interest, talking to me, sending me on messages, sticking up for me and that, well … I suppose I was just trying to make them like me.  When they started to ask me to do things that I shouldn’t have – a bit of nicking and suchlike at first and then worse stuff that I don’t rightly like to think of now  – well I didn’t want to say no.  And if I’m being honest with you, I liked doing it!  It made me feel like someone important, seeing people scared, and I was good at it.  I had more stuff than I’d ever had, better clothes, even a decent place to live.  It was hard to see the downside even while I still knew I was out of order.

In the beginning I was telling myself it was just until I could move away; until I’d made enough money to tide me over until I could find proper work, like.  Not that there was much I could do, with me not having been all that clever and not really having a trade to fall back on; sort of felt like crime was the best option, or the only option.  As the years went on and on, I forgot I’d ever even thought about stopping and then I got into a bar fight and some big fella put a bottle through me and it was too late.  I was dead!  So I ended up doing this for me sins; taking people – like old Ebenezer there – to see their old Christmases, to try and get them to see the error of their ways before it’s too late.  Fingers crossed it works out for him; he seemed an alright sort before he got greedy.  Let’s just hope I’ve scared him straight, eh!  I wish someone could have done that for me.

O, Christmas Tree!

I looked out of the window at the empty street.  It seemed as though I had been sitting here for days and days.  For a while, I’d dozed off but not for long, I’m sure.  Nothing in the street had changed.  Glancing back at the room, I could barely comprehend that this was my home; it looked so different with all this adornment.  The tree in the corner, the shining, glimmering strings draped on every wall.  When he was home, the lights on the tree would flash, calling and repelling me at one and the same time as the fragile trinkets reflected the tree’s distress signals.   When he left, he would turn the lights off and warn me to leave the tree alone.  What exactly did he expect me to do to it?

It was decorated to his taste and his alone!  Although I’d tried really hard to help, he simply couldn’t share the task, criticising everything I did, until he actually got angry and I took myself out of his way.  In my head, I could imagine how it would look with my ideas as well as his: instead of his, even.  The decorative birds were all clustered at the top, too close together instead of spread around with some in the middle or near the bottom.  It made no sense!  He’d placed festive chocolates all over it and then changed his mind and removed them, leaving it looking quite bare in patches.

Decorating the tree was one of the many ways in which he would let his desire to control everything slip through.  He decided what and when we ate, what time we went to bed, when I could go out.  It had been so long since I had made a decision beyond when to pee that I wasn’t even sure whether I could fend for myself now and I didn’t expect I’d get a chance to find out anytime soon.

The street was still empty and rivulets of rain were racing to the bottom of the window pane as I leaned on the glass and sighed.  My breath misted up a little oval on the window and my nose cleared a streak of it as I shifted slightly.  I looked back at the tree.  I wondered how much he would notice if I just spaced out a few things to hide some bare patches.  He hadn’t taken a picture of it, had he?  Would he really pay that much attention to the exact layout of the odds and ends that were spread over it?

Walking towards the tree, I studied the patterns made by the strings, the lights, the balls, the branches.  The tree was really tall, though.  Too tall for me to reach all of it, but I could make a few adjustments here and there.  I reached out and felt the smooth surface of a golden-coloured metallic bell and it jingled sending a simultaneous chill and thrill right through me.  For some reason, I felt as though he had heard and considered the dire consequences of messing with his ordered life.  Backing away from the tree, I sat once more and just looked.

I wished the lights were on; the tree looked so other-worldly when it was lit up, but the trouble with living with somebody who doesn’t count you as an equal is that they never feel the need to let you know when to expect them back.  He could be home in a minute, he could be home in an hour or it could be more.  It was still light outside though and he often came back after dark so as I looked at the tree that had already caused so much trouble between us it was just too great a temptation to resist.

The switch for the lights was behind the tree so I slipped carefully around the side.   Turning it on wasn’t as easy as I had expected and I pushed at it twice, three times with no effect.  What was the matter?  He didn’t seem to have any trouble doing it, so why should I!  I struggled in a little closer, but something brushed my ear and, without thinking, I lashed out.  I felt a wire catch on my foot and tried to jump sideways but a branch scraped my back.  In a panic, I struck at every moving part that came near me and heard my own cries as I swiped at the cascade of items that seemed to be coming at me from every side.

With a slam and a shattering of glass, the tree stretched across the room.  As a lone bauble bounced onto the wooden floor and rolled toward the door, it opened and I looked up into his eyes.  There was a moment of silence before he yelled “I knew you’d do something like this, you stupid bloody moggy!”

Cat

“Look!  Quick!  Look now!  It’s doing it now!”

She turned to see what her husband was shouting about, drying her hands on a tea-towel.

“What?” she looked at the mess in the living room.  “What’s doing what?”

“That bloody cat!  It’s watching me again.  It wants to do something to me!”

“She’s just looking at you.  She probably wants some food.”

“Well it’s going to be disappointed then, isn’t it!”  He picked up a newspaper and brandished it in the direction of the motionless cat, laughing as it jumped from the arm of the chair and scrambled to hide under it instead.

He shot his wife a challenging look, daring her to criticise or to comfort the scared animal.  She turned back to the sink, shaking her head as she heard him stomp up the stairs.  It wouldn’t have killed him to take the some of the pile of ironing upstairs to put away; even if he just left it on the bed.

As she reached up to put the dishes away in the cupboard, she could see the cat, now curled up in a lazy ball on the back of the couch, her tail draped across her nose like a separate entity.  Walking into the room, she sighed and began to clear away the papers and empty cans that charted the progress of her husband’s day.  Wiping up the numerous spills that adorned the floor and surfaces, she could hear the noise of the Xbox upstairs.

Eventually, she was happy with the state of the room and shouted up the stairs “Tea?”

“Yeah.  And biscuits!” came the reply, followed by a burst of gunfire and curses as he dropped a life in his game.

“I’ll look.” She muttered.

While the kettle boiled, she searched through the cupboard but drew a blank; as she closed the door, the cat appeared on the worktop and she stroked its ear, enjoying the sensation of a loving being nudging against her hand for greater contact.

“You’re lovely aren’t you?” she murmured as the cat purred more and more loudly.  “Let’s find you something nice.”

She rummaged through the fridge and found a slice of ham to toss into the cat’s bowl, then watched as it finished it off in seconds.

“Where’s that tea?”

She jumped.  She had been so engrossed by the cat’s company that she hadn’t heard him come down.

“You feed that fat moggy more than you feed me.  Where are the biscuits?”

“You’ve eaten them all.”

“Just bring me some toast then!” he said as he headed back upstairs.  “With jam.”

As she watched the television alone, later, she stroked the head of the cat as it snuggled on her lap.  The film was an old one she could remember watching with her sisters and parents many years earlier, when she had still been happy.  There were some jumpy moments, but she felt safe as she exchanged warmth with the ball of fur on her knee.  “You wouldn’t treat me like dirt, would you?  No, you wouldn’t!” she crooned, as the rhythmic stroking stripped the layers of tension from her day.

During the night, she felt the bed bounce as her husband came back from the bathroom, yet he seemed to be asleep in seconds, while she lay awake for hours, listening to him snore, with the stink of his sweat pervading the room.  It was almost morning before she managed to doze off, so when the alarm rang, she felt as though she hadn’t slept, and her first thought was “I hate my life.”

As her husband slept on, she washed, dressed and headed for the bus-stop, carrying her uniform in a bag.  At the hospital, she slipped into the changing room and dragged on her work clothes, before heading for the kitchen, where she spent the day preparing food, washing dishes, cleaning the surfaces.  It was almost like being at home, except here she wasn’t expected to fetch and carry for him as well.  Her feet throbbed by lunchtime, but she barely had time to sit and wolf down her lunch before she was back on them again.

On the bus home, she rested her head against the window and the drone of the engine filtered through her skull, soothing her until she drifted into a deep sleep.  She woke with a jolt, hearing the hiss of brakes.  In a panic, she looked out of the window and, realising she had missed her stop by quite a distance, she leapt from the seat and hurried to the front of the bus to the exit.  It was raining.

“Oh God, Oh God, he’ll go mad!”

She hurried as fast as she could through the wet streets, but it seemed as though every road had gained extra traffic, specifically to stop her from reaching the house, so when she finally did … she was really late, soaked through and panting.

“What the hell are you playing at?” he roared as she pushed open the door?

“I’ve been sitting here starving and you’ve been gallivanting about for hours!  Where were you?”

“I missed my stop …” she began, but he cut her off with a slap.

“You missed nothing, you lying bitch!  It’s a bus.  It’s not rocket science!”

With stinging eyes and a sore throat, she stayed in the kitchen until his food was ready, leaving briefly just to carry in his tea.  She looked down as the cat rubbed against the side of her leg and looked up with bright, sympathetic eyes.  She knew.  She always knew.

Throughout the next hours, she didn’t once look at him, afraid that he might find some reason to start on her again and thankful that he seemed distracted by the football and his evening beers.  Eventually, without saying a word, he went upstairs to spend the last couple of hours playing his game from the comfort of their bed.  She waited until she could hear his sleeping rasps before heading after him.  As she left the living room, she stooped to where the black cat lay on her blanket and whispered “It’s time!’

In the morning, she stepped nimbly over her husband’s crumpled body at the foot of the stairs.  She picked up the phone, dialled 999 and said “Ambulance.  My husband’s had an accident.  I think he must have tripped on the stairs.  I think he’s dead.”  At her feet, the cat leant against her, flicking her tail and purring.

Sensitive

I’ve always been sensitive.  Not ‘can’t use soap’ sensitive or ‘cry at Christmas adverts’ sensitive.  Just ‘knowing things without a proper explanation’ sensitive.  Don’t get me wrong; I can’t tell you what the lottery numbers will be.  Do you think I’d be here if I could?  As if! I’d be lying in a hammock on my own island with an endless supply of fresh fruit and the occasional pizza.  I’ll tell you the kinds of things I know: what sex the baby will be, the fact that there will be a baby (before the bump appears or else it wouldn’t be ‘knowing’ so much as ‘seeing’), what clothes people will have on, even if I’ve never seen them before, who’s calling when the phone rings.  Boring stuff, mostly.   Occasionally I know weirder stuff, like when somebody is going to get hurt or die or when they’ve done something terrible.  That’s the stuff I hate because there’s nothing I can do about it, except … know.

The reason I’m telling you this is so you’ll understand why I instantly knew I was being followed.  There was no doubt in my mind; it started when I was on my way home.  I was tired, wet and hungry; I had no hope of a hot meal or a warm bed for several hours and I was in my own little world of irritation, but I felt that buzz … maybe you’ve felt it too … it’s the unmistakable touch of another person’s gaze.  When someone is looking right at you, it can be as though they reach across and lay their unwelcome fingers right onto your skin.  It creeps me out.

Whenever this happens, I try not to be too obvious about looking for whoever’s watching me.  There are some bad types out there and if they know you’ve spotted them, well … that could end very badly.  So, I was discreet and just stopped to look in a couple of windows to check out the reflection of the street behind me.  It didn’t help, to be honest; I couldn’t see anybody who looked dodgy, so I tried that thing where you stop as though you’ve forgotten something and turn around as though you might be planning on retracing your steps.  That tactic bore fruit immediately.  As I turned, I clearly saw a figure come to an abrupt halt and step back into the shadow of a hedge – very suspicious behaviour.  Definitely my follower!  I rummaged in my bag for a moment, watching the shadowy figure from under my dripping hood and then acted as though I’d found what I thought I’d forgotten and resumed walking in my original direction.

You’ll probably understand why I didn’t want to lead this character to my home, yet they showed no sign of dropping back, always close to the shadows, always stopping to wait if I went into a shop or stooped to ‘fasten a shoe’.  What was worrying me most of all was that we were coming to a place where I’d almost certainly be alone for five minutes or more if I continued towards home and I didn’t want that to happen if I could avoid it.  There was a brightly lit road with a steady flow of foot traffic just around the corner and I could head in that direction rather than back myself into the corner of isolation, but it would mean going much closer to the dark figure and I didn’t really feel comfortable about that.  I knew for certain that something really bad would happen if I confronted this disturbing admirer: I could feel it as surely as I could feel my feet making contact with the hard pavement.

Looking ahead, I could see the turn-off that led to the dark little bridge over the railway, which would then lead to a series of small, quiet roads which housed an empty old schoolhouse, some abandoned shops and some severely neglected houses that rarely betrayed any signs of life within.  At the rate I was walking now, I would reach the opening in two minutes at the most and the follower could be across the road and at my side thirty seconds later.  On the other hand, I could veer towards them right now, in full view of other people and cars that were passing by.  There were few areas of shadow as the shop fronts on both sides of the road spewed their lights into the world.  In a way, I felt tempted to risk passing the person more closely for a better look; at no point had I had a clear look at a face and I couldn’t even see clearly enough to say if it was a man or a woman.  Or neither, I suppose.

In a split second, my feet made the decision for me and I swerved toward the bright lights and the shadowy figure at their edge.  Making a point of looking up and down the road, I crossed at an angle that would leave me ahead of him or her by at least ten yards; the largest distance possible.  I didn’t want to get too close.  I could sense the malicious intent building now and as I swept my eyes across the figure’s face, I caught a glimpse of light, reflecting from dark eyes and it sent a deep shudder down my spine.  My reaction would pass for the effects of the cold, I was sure, if it had been noticed at all.  But now, we were on the same side of the road and I didn’t like that; it made me feel weak, vulnerable, controlled.  No!  I didn’t like it at all.

The feeling of being watched was now so much more than a buzz … it was a weight, a heat, a force and I could tell without looking that the distance between us was decreasing steadily.  There was no way I could turn around now that we were on the same side; it would be too obvious and I just didn’t want to look into the glinting eyes of this being who meant me harm.  In a panic, I veered into a cafe and stumbled to the counter.  I bought some tea and sat at the back of the shop, looking towards the street.  I couldn’t see the figure now but I knew they would be out there … waiting.  I could feel a draught on my cheek that seemed to come from behind me and I turned to look at the toilet door.  Next to it, was an open door that led into the kitchen … the empty kitchen.  Could I get out that way?  Even if I couldn’t … I had to try!

Heading towards the toilet, I walked steadily, swerving into the kitchen at the last minute and went straight for the back door.  I glanced over my shoulder to see the back of one of the women who was behind the counter; she was talking and unaware of my actions.  The door was unlocked and I was able to close it quietly behind me, but when I tried to leave the small yard I found the outer door was bolted and padlocked.  I looked around for inspiration and saw a large wooden planter, but it was too far from the wall to be of any use.  Pulling at it, I was surprised at how heavy it was, but in my desperation, I was able to drag it close enough to use as a boost to climb up onto the wall.  Unfortunately, the noise it had made as I had dragged it had attracted the attention of one of the coffee shop workers, who opened the door and began shouting and screeching.  I could hear footsteps running through the shop so I launched myself from the wall into the darkness of the alley, jarring my knee as I landed.

Blindly, I ran along the alley, heading back towards where I had come from, hoping to find a way back onto the street and into the light and, hopefully, far behind wherever my pursuer was now waiting.  But I quickly realised that wasn’t going to happen!  I felt his presence before I ran into him.  Definitely a ‘him’.  Strong hands grabbed me and rotten breath drove into my face as I saw in sickening HD everything he wanted to do to me … had done to the others … but as my twitching claws shredded his stubbled face and my growing fangs sank into his bitter-tasting throat, the tears of shame poured from my eyes and onto my fur before I lost all sense of self … again.

In the Bus Queue

She sat down in the corner of the bus shelter.  The rain pinged off the roof and formed a curtain in front of her and to the side.  Passing cars swished and rumbled through the night, their headlights streaking in front; she didn’t step forward to see their departure, but remained perched on the thin, sloped bench.  Gradually, the bus-stop filled up with familiar faces, workers on their way home, teenagers on their way out, mostly people she’d seen every day for months, but never once spoken to.

She wondered what it would be like to chat.  Just something as simple as “Rough weather tonight!” could lead to so much more: exchanging names, detailing destinations, sitting together on the bus.  Probably not a good idea.  She smiled to herself, imagining the weird scenario of unsolicited contact – of conversation.  Two women had stood in front of her and were talking about Christmas; they were discussing their preparations or, to be more accurate, lack of preparations.

“It’s not even November yet.” Reminded one.

“It will be tomorrow!” Warned the other.

The bus seemed to be taking forever to come – probably because of the weather.  It wasn’t very reliable at the best of times; even though it was supposed to come every 15 minutes, they were sometimes there for as long as 40 or 45 minutes on a bad day.  Some people were starting to grumble and even more were shivering, since most of them had been soaked even before they’d made it into the shelter and the ones at the edges were still getting rained on, relentlessly.  In spite of this, nobody had sat on the bench apart from her.

A bus appeared in the distance, its bright window-eyes visible long before the rest of it.  The would-be passengers thronged forward, creating a squash along the pavement edge, passes and pounds in hands, scarves pulled tightly to block the torrent.  The bus swished past, depositing a dirty wave on the hopefuls at the very front.  An almost synchronised groan of annoyance rose and fell.  A Doppler of disappointment.

“Typical!”

“There were loads of empty seats!”

“I’m sending them the cleaning bill!”

“You’re lucky you were at the back!  Didn’t you want that bus?”

She looked up, shocked!

“Sorry?”

“Wasn’t that your bus?”

The woman had her head tilted as she asked the question.

“It’s just I noticed you didn’t move when it was coming and everybody else pushed forward.”

“I, I just … I was waiting until there was space.

“You’ll never get on that way.”  She smiled.  “People take advantage!”

“I don’t like standing at the front while the bus is moving.  It seems dangerous.”

“That’s true; I’ve heard of accidents happening because of people pushing to get on.  Not very nice.”

The woman sat down next to her.

“It’s very cold for October, isn’t it?  Feels more like January!  You don’t look like you’re dressed for this weather at all.  Aren’t you cold?”

“Not really.  I don’t feel it.”

“You’re lucky.  I’ve got four layers on and I’m still chilled right through.  Can’t wait to get in and soak in a hot bath.  If this damn bus ever comes, that is!”

The woman turned to look along the road.  There was no sign of a bus and the stream of headlights was beginning to dwindle as the rush-hour travellers would probably be home by now, leaving just the few unlucky stranded, like those in the sodden huddle at the bus-stop.

She was feeling a sense of unease.  Something she didn’t even realise was possible.  This was completely unprecedented.  In fact, it was so unexpected that she’d been convinced for several seconds that the woman hadn’t been talking to her, but she obviously had; it had been a proper conversation, making sense and everything.  She looked at the women from under her fringe.  She just looked normal, but she couldn’t be … maybe she was a ghost too.  No.  She’d said she was cold and in all the months she’d been dead, she’d never once felt any kind of cold or heat.  In fact, until she’d been shocked by the woman being able to see her, the only thing she’d really felt was the compulsion to come to the bus-stop and get onto the bus.  It even had to be the right one … the last one during rush-hour: the one that had killed her.

She realised that the bus had come, as she was inspecting the woman.  The passengers were filtering onto the bus in ones and twos and as the woman climbed aboard, she turned and asked her “Are you coming?”

She shook her head.  She didn’t want to be on a bus with somebody who could see her.

“Okay then” shrugged the woman “Happy Halloween”.

Down by the river

The bench felt cold against his back; his thin jacket serving little purpose beyond modesty.  In the bag at his feet there was a rug: threadbare, damp, filthy.  When the weather grew colder, he would wear it as a coat, but for now it was just his bed, coming out after dark, if he could find somewhere safe enough to close his eyes.

He watched the river spread its arms to touch both towns with rippling fingers, joining and separating in one bold sweep.  He’d loved the river for as long as he could remember; all his important moments seemed connected to it, somehow.  As a tiny boy, he’d come here with his mum and his sister so often that it felt as though this had been their real home.  If there was any money, they’d all go on the ferry and rush straight up the stairs to the top deck, hoping to find a seat where they could see the important sights as the ferry followed its timeless course, and eat the sandwiches and the inevitable bananas that their mum would have packed.  They seldom stayed in the hard-won seats once the food was finished, preferring to play among the benches and ropes, rushing in and out of the warm, inner area, tripping over bags and prams belonging to the nesh passengers who’d claimed a comfy seat out of the wind, sticking their heads through the holes to look at the foamy water below.

When there was no money, they’d walk along the prom, standing on the rails to see into the grey depths, with their mother’s concerned warnings bouncing straight off them.  One time, he’d climbed through the gap to see better and his mum’s shrieks had scattered the hopeful gull clan that had thronged behind them.  All he’d seen, for the pain of the slap that waited, was the green slime, climbing the bricks and chains and some rubbish, floating on the top of the water.

As he’d reached his teens, he’d started to come down to the Pier Head with his friends, staying on the bus until it reached the terminus, then hanging around in front of Mann Island, shouting at girls, laughing when they shouted back, terrified in case they came over.  The inspectors and drivers from the MPTE would sometimes tell them to clear off, but not in such polite terms and they’d move ten yards if they could be bothered or argue the toss, if they couldn’t.

He’d met his wife down here.  She’d worked at the insurance company that was in the main building: the one with the birds.  He’d been working at a local paper, further up into town and coming down to eat his lunch by the river and he’d spotted her.  She’d made the mistake of throwing a crust to try to get rid of them and now the greedy birds wouldn’t leave her alone, so she kept flapping her coat at them and saying “Shoo!”  They’d back off a few feet for a minute, then pour back in like treacle or like teenage boys sent packing by the bus drivers.  He’d laughed and she’d looked up and seen him.  He felt bad, but then she’d laughed too and that was that; he was hooked!

Although he hadn’t spoken to her that day, he’d placed himself nearer to where she had been sitting so that when she’d turned up the next day, he was close enough to ask “No pet seagulls today?” and from then on, they’d had their food together there every work day for the next year and a half, going to the pictures and to see local bands at weekends.  They married on a Saturday afternoon at her church and had their reception in a pub close enough to the river to hear and smell it.  They’d been happy for eighteen years.  When she’d died at the age of forty-two, he’d taken her ashes to the river and scattered them in the dead of night, barely stopping himself from following her into the hypnotic ink.

Slowly, at first, and then more and more quickly, his routines had fallen apart.  Without her, he didn’t care about work or talking to people or leaving the house and it didn’t take long for the knock at the door.  No work, no rent money, no home.  Family members tried to talk him into staying with them, as he shrank before their eyes; a youngish man, ageing like an apple before their eyes, drinking to keep the memories at bay.  Falling.

Trouble followed him like a predator, ripping the last pieces of his life to shreds.  Arrests, fights, hospital wards.  And always, the only peace he could ever find was at the river.  Until today, as he clung to the cold comfort of the Mersey, he heard a laugh that had been absent for years and he turned his head to look for his wife.  She wasn’t there.  There was just a group of office workers, protecting their food from the gulls.  She would never be there again, but he understood in that moment how much it would hurt her to see him so beaten.  He pulled himself to his feet and looked at the crowd around his feet.  He flapped his hands … “Shoo!”