A shot of whisky and a cigarette
Dimly lit inside my den
Swing music and all that jazz
Hook my thumbs under my braces
And snap them back
The sound of high heels
On the floor
Outside the door
The woman in red
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It was chilly out, and snow had started to swirl in a heavy breeze. I’d sat down to eat my dinner when my golden retriever, Darwin, raced to the windowsill, standing on his hind legs with his front paws on the sill. I slurped soup off my spoon and some if it dripped back into the bowl on the table, “What’s going on?” I asked Darwin.
Darwin turned his head to look at me, his paws still on the sill, his ears twitching. Then there was a knock at the door.
I dropped my spoon into the bowl with a clatter and headed towards the door.
Snow softly fell and clung to the fabric of his peacoat, his hands deep in his pockets for warmth.
I stared at him blankly for what in hindsight feels like too long. His blue eyes stared back at me, and a strand of hair hung above the rim of his glasses, his forehead creasing with tension.
“Mr Ashworth?” He leaned in.
I licked my lips, “Yes, whose asking?”
Darwin sat next to me, his head tilted with curiosity.
“I’m Jerry, Jerry North.”
He told me his name with a look on his face that suggested I should know who he was. I shook my head, “I don’t know any Jerry North!”
“I know your son,” He turned back to me, “Well, I know him very well actually,” He bounced on the balls of his feet and looked down at his shoes with a meek smile curling the corners of his lips.
“How,” I frowned, “He…” I faltered. It had been a long time since I’d talked to anyone about my son.
He held up his hands placatingly, “I know what you’re thinking,”
I gave him a scornful glare, “You have no bloody idea what I’m thinking!” I hissed and started to close the door on him.
He jutted his foot in the door, “I know he died when he was five,”
I swung the door wide open again, “What?”
“He died when he was five but,”
“But?” I asked him, bug-eyed, “But what? He died when he was 5, and that was that. What do you want?”
“Have you ever heard about the Soul retrieval facility, Mr Ashworth?”
I scoffed, and my face reddened in anger, “You,” I pointed accusingly, “Stop with this sick prank!”
“Have you heard of it?” He asked sternly, his hand on the door.
“I’ve heard the conspiracy theories!” I spat, “It’s nonsense!”
“What if I said that it’s true?” He leaned further into the doorway, “And,” He held up a hand to ward off any protest, “And that your son was retrieved there not long after his death.”
“I’d tell you what I’m telling you now; you’re sick! Playing a sick joke on an old man who still…” I could feel it in my throat. The hot swell of tears.
The blue-eyed man placed a hand on my shoulder gently, “Listen,” He looked me straight in the eyes. His stare was intense, and despite myself, I found something trustworthy about his eyes.
“Your son is 35 now,”
“Would be,” I hissed still not giving entirely into that trust.
“I’m his husband.”
My jaw dropped, and I scanned his face for answers.
“Listen, he was retrieved along with a lot of other children in the facility and,” He took a long breath and looked down at the ground sadly, “They were experimenting with this new technology. Downloading souls into clones.”
I baulked at the absurdness of what he was saying with a wry smile tinged with sadness, “Downloading souls? Clones?” I shook my head with a sigh, “I don’t know who you are but leave me alone!”
“I swear,” He shivered, and his lips tinged purple, “I swear it’s the truth!”
I would have slammed the door on him, but his foot remained on the step, and he held the door open with a strong looking hand. “Listen,” I started dejected, “Maybe you did know my son, maybe you knew him from the nursery,” I looked at him sadly, “But you’re clearly ill or,” I raised a brow at him, “On drugs?”
He shook his head, “If you’d just let me in!”
“No,” I held up a hand, “Next you’ll be telling me Elvis isn’t dead!”
“He isn’t,” He replied earnestly.
“What? See! You’re just like those usual crackpot conspiracy theorists!”
“Bowie isn’t dead either!”
I snorted, “You’re kidding me! Surely if either of them were still alive, they’d have been seen!”
“No! Their bodies are dead; they got cloned into different bodies to help them blend in unnoticed!”
“So those crackpots that reckon they’ve seen Elvis?”
“They’re just that, crackpots. He’s still alive, but he looks nothing like Elvis anymore!”
I didn’t know what to do. What was I supposed to believe? It was snowing, and we were both getting cold, “I don’t want to speak with you anymore,” I told him waving my walking stick at him, “Don’t ever return, do you hear?” I stepped forward and got in his face, “Do you hear?” I enunciated the question carefully.
And that was that. He held up his hands as if surrendering and stepped back. But there was sorrow in his eyes, and for a moment I nearly cracked and opened the door again. But in the end, I locked it up, put the chain on the latch turned the lights out and went to bed.
“You two going to a dressing up party?” Alex asked his two acquaintances who he only really knew by name from college, Drew & Drake.
Drew & Drake were a great duo because of their names. Unfortunately for them and you dear reader, they weren’t Drew & Drake the calm, collected suave detectives two names like that would make just ultra cool! Nah. Drew & Drake were just two best mates who were unemployed who wore sweatpants because they’re comfortable. Neither were they a brand of whiskey though they often smelt like they were.
“Well?” Alex gestured with his palms open in question.
Drew spun around in his pink flamingo costume, “What?” He looked at Alex blankly.
Alex pointed to Drew which didn’t help Drew because Drew knew he was Drew.
Alex rolled his eyes, “The fucking costume!”
realisation crossed Drew’s face, “Oh, you could say that.” He nudged Drake.
Drake turned around in his penguin costume, “It’s sort of a party, yes.”
“Can I come?” Alex beamed.
Drew & Drake exchanged glances, Drews flamingo beak collided with Drake’s round penguin costume. “Don’t think it’ll be your scene,” Drake explained.
“Why not?” Alex crossed his arms and looked across the road with a petulant expression on his face.
“Because…” Drake’s face screwed up hard in concentration.
Drew nudged Drakes penguin costume.
“What?” Drake flapped.
Drew pointed down the road at the hearse, “Here he comes.”
Drake followed Drew’s finger and sighed.
“I guess it’s time to say goodbye,” Drew swallowed down a knot in his throat.
More people emerged, and Alex’s eyes had widened, “I wish I’d never asked. I’ll guess I’ll be going about my business!”
Drake shot him a glance, “Yea, mind your own business next time, we don’t even know you that well!”
“God put me here to ask you these questions, so I did, my question has been answered, but I only have…” He watched as the place swelled with yet more people dressed as parrots and penguins and a few budgies but mostly a sea of pink flamingos. “More questions,” His eyes narrowed as he crossed the road to get away from them.
The bells rang out like a weapon of soul destruction; humans having been primed to know it meant goodbye.
Alex watched the procession of pink and a few other colours here and there with a brow raised and a chuckle rising in his throat despite himself.
Cars rolled by and the passengers stared out the window wondering what on earth was going on, one driver who saw his wife’s perturbed face chortled and joked, “It’s global warming. All these birds are emigrating to strange places.”
As the pallbearer’s carried the coffin through a path, the sea of people created it looked even more surreal. The pallbearers were dressed in smart suits but had owl masks covering their faces.
Someone stopped by Alex to watch, his dog pulling on the lead. “What the…”
Alex turned to the stranger, “It’s certainly….” Alex scratched at the stubbed on his face with a perplexed look, “Something…”
The little dog barked at the crowd of people dressed strangely.
The stranger looked horrified, “I better go,” He started his face pale.
“I don’t think they’ll mind a dog barking….”Alex started to say but the man had swiftly shuffled away pulling his dog along as it kept turning around to yap at the procession outside the church doors.
The vicar stood at the front of a statue of Jesus on a cross, light came shimmering in through the coloured glass behind him.
“Frank was a…” The vicar rubbed a finger on his collar, “an eccentric,” He said as he looked out at the sea of faces and beaks. “Frank lived life to the full, and though he has gone now, he will forever be remembered as a humorous, genuine, kind man.” The vicar scanned the faces and beaks around his church, “There is a lesson that can be taught by this kind man and that is not to take life too seriously. He’s known for a few sayings like, “Your arse…ahem pardon my french, is at the bottom of you for a reason, it’s the last thing you put down!””
The mourners mumbled and nodded their heads.
“And, “Window cleaners are the spies you should be most afraid of.””
The mourners chuckled.
“And one of my favourites,” He peered over his glasses, “I must forewarn there is bad language here, but for the sake of respect I shall quote him exactly as he says it, “A fork in the road gives 3 choices. Either you choose one of the prongs, you go back, or you don’t use the fucking road.””
The crowd laughed once more, and Drake turned to Drew, “That’s our Frank.”
“That’s the Vicar!”
Drake shook his head and rolled his eyes, “No I meant…” He sighed, “nevermind!”
As they swarmed out of the churches gaping mouth and onto the pavement outside, ‘I like birds’ by the Eels played.
Lankie leant against a wall down a cobbled path behind peoples houses and a pub. A cigarette between his fingers and his right leg bent with his foot on the wall. Down the left mouth of the ginnel, a penguin waddled towards him. Lankie shook his head and did a double take, “What the fuck?” He huffed through a haze of smoke.
The penguin approached closer and closer till Lankie could make out the man’s eyes.
“What the fuck is this?” He gestured with his cigarette hand with palm wide open.
“It’s a penguin costume,” Shortie replied matter of factly.
Lankie rubbed at his temples with both hands, ash falling from his cigarette. “You going for a Batman theme and took the penguin bit too literally?” He grinned.
Shortie looked up at his Lankie friend, “What?”
Lankie shook his head, “nevermind.”
Not long after Shortie appeared behind him his entourage appeared, three waddling penguins.
Lankie pulled his lips back with a sarcastic look on his face, “We’re meant to look inconspicuous.”
Shortie ignored him and turned to his boys, “Right,” he barked as if it was an order.
All the men began unzipping their penguin costumes and stepped out dressed up as women.
“Shit,” Lankie shook his head, “You’re all like some really freaky fucking Russian dolls!” He averted his eyes from the colourful makeup on their faces and the attempts at hiding their stubble rather than shaving. “Yea put the penguin suits back on, you were oddly much less noticeable.” Lankie shot Shortie a glance, “why didn’t you wear a penguin costume anyway?”
“Didn’t want our wives seeing us dressed like this!” Shortie gestured at his wig and dress, “they’d wonder what we were up to.” He said in explanation.
In his garish floral dress and brunette wig with curling strands of hair down his ears Shortie led the other three men who were also dressed garishly, one of the men had short denim jeans on with that torn effect at the rims. Lankie towered over them and followed with a scowl behind the tights on his head. They snuck across the road to the hairdressers. To any onlookers it would have been a sight, five men stalked across a zebra crossing. One tall, Lankie man in a long coat creating a further illusion of height and four men in front wearing wigs, looking not so glamorous. It would have made a good copy of the famous Beatles photo, but with one extra band member if it was taken at night. Shortie crept along the window of the shop and peered into the darkened room.
“Right,” He gestured with his arm for Johnny in his denim shorts,
Johnny looked over his shoulder, his wig flailing with the momentum before bending down to the lock on the door and picking it carefully with his lock picking tools. When the click came, he looked over at Shortie and grinned in the dark. Stepping back from the door he let Shortie have the privilege of opening the door.
“Right come on boys!” He waved a hand to gesture at the other two short fuckers and one Lankie streak of piss.
Shortie, Lankie and the two other short fuckers skulked around the shop trashing to pieces, pouring shampoo on the floor, spraying foam everywhere.
While Johnny went into the back room and picked the lock of the safe.
“You got it yet?” Shortie shouted into the back room as he took a piss in a corner of the shop.
Johnny came out in a flash with a wad of cash in his hands!
“We need Nicholas to know it was us to send him a message!” Lankie reminded Shortie.
Shortie shook a spray can of hair curl spray foam and wrote the words, ‘This is the long and short of the story,” on a mirror.
Lankie shook his head, “What does that even mean?”
Shortie shrugged, “It means this is the end.”
Lankie shrugged and led them out of the shop.
Shortie and lanky stood across the road from their target. The rain spat at the collars of their topcoats. Shortie puffed on his cigar, his hands dug deep into his coat pockets.
“How’re we gonna do this?” Lanky asked as he lit a cigarette.
Shortie bit down on his cigar and shifted it between his lips, “The usual.”
Lanky smirked taking the cigarette from his lips between two fingers, “There is no usual with you.”
Shortie turned to look over his shoulder at him, “Wipe that smirk off your face!” He turned back to their target.
The women inside the building were none the wiser of their future assailants standing across from them. They chatted over the sounds of music and hair dryers with the women sat in front of them as they cut their hair.
“You can’t go in there,” Lanky pointed with the cigarette between his fingers.
“You’ll stand out! You’re a local, and you’re a short fucker!”
Shortie turned to his accomplice, “You don’t talk to me like that, Mucker.”
His hand raised so fast Lanky didn’t have time to respond before the slap hit him sharp on the cheek, “You hear me?” Shortie said with his cigar clenched between his teeth.
“There was no need for that!” Lanky cried rubbing his face.
The slap was hard enough to little a temporary red mark which Lanky felt no qualms to moan about.
“Shut it, mucker!” Shortie said as he stared across at the hairdressers. “What do you propose we do then, smart arse?”
“You’re so full of ideas you,” Shortie whistled full of sarcasm.
“I don’t see you coming up with any!” Lanky hissed through a haze of smoke. “Anyway,” Lanky dropped the end of the cigarette on the ground and twisted the bottom of his shoe on it, “I thought we didn’t hurt women?”
Shorties mouth dropped open as if to say something before turning into a scowl, “We don’t!” He dug his hands even deeper into his pockets. “I don’t want to hurt them, I won’t hurt them. But you know who their boss is!”
Lanky’s face twitched in anger, “Yea,” He looked across at the hairdressers now with hate in his eyes, “Yea I know.”
“I know what we could do,” Shortie started.
Lanky stared the building across from them down not so discreetly. Shortie turned on his heels and walloped him.
“Jesus!” Lanky rubbed his face again staggering a little, “What was that for?”
“Being a little bitch,” Shortie shook his head, “You know what for!” He rolled his eyes, “Take Lanky, he’s discreet as they come!” He shook his head again, “Discreet as they come, my arse!”
Shortie raised his hand, “Are you asking for another slap?”
Lanky stepped back a little and shook his head, holding his hands up in appeasement.
“Anyway,” Shortie began, “I’ve got an idea.” He rubbed his hands excitedly and ushered Lanky back up the street to their car.
“What is this plan of yours then?” Lanky asked impatiently in the passenger seat.
“Well,” Shortie gripped the steering wheel and listened to the ticking of his indicator. “We’ll find other men the same height as me!”
Lanky bit back a chortle, “And where are going to find these short fuckers?”
“Never you mind that!”
“I will mind!” Lanky frowned, “It’s my ass on the line as much as yours!”
They sat in silence as the car jerked forward and out of the space at the side of the road. Lanky turned the radio on to fill the silence.
Shortie concentrated on the road with his cigar still clenched between his lips.
Lanky fidgeted in his seat with huffs and puffs of breath in boredom.
“Jesus Christ, Lanks!” Shortie spat.
“Can you sit still for a second in your life?”
Lanky shook his head, “Nope.”
“Anyway,” Shortie turned the radio off, “Want to hear my plan?”
Lanky was eager to hear it, ready to lap it up like a lapdog.
“We’re gonna find some shortie muckers like me,”
Lanky couldn’t help himself, “From the Short Gangsta Society.”
Shortie turned his neck to face Lanky so fast he could’ve given himself whiplash, “How did you know?”
Lanky’s mouth dropped, “Wh…What?” He shook his head in disbelief.
“How did you know about the Short Gangsta Society?”
“You’re looking at the fucking founder of it!”
Lanky laughed, “Oh I see you’re pulling my leg!”
Shortie frowned, “No.”
Lankie stopped laughing abruptly and looked at Shortie sheepishly, “You’re…You’re serious?”
“Of course I’m fucking serious!”
“Shut it, Mucker!” Shortie pulled into the drive of a big mansion.
Their footsteps on the hallway floor echoed.
“Shoes off!” Shortie told him as he undid his own laces and carefully placed his to one side.
Shortie led Lanky to his living room.
In the middle was a grand fireplace with a sheepskin rug laid in front of it.
Lanky sat down on an L shaped leather sofa and Shortie across from him on an old brown leather chair. “So I’m going to get a team of men the same height as me,”
Lanky nodded in agreement as he listened.
Shortie cut and lit another cigar, “and then we’re going to,” Shortie knew this bit was sure to get a laugh so he readied himself for it, finding it a little amusing himself, “We’re gonna dress up as women.”
Lanky’s mouth gawped open, “you…”
“I’m not kidding,” Shortie said with a chuckle.
Lanky frowned and looked at him, his face contorting with question.
“Oh I’m for real, but it don’t mean it aint funny!” Shortie slapped an arm of the chair and laughed.
Lanky forced a laugh while he gauged his companion’s reaction, when his fake laugh only catered to further Shorties own laughing he started to laugh for real till tears ran down his face, “You’re gonna…” He couldn’t speak for laughing, “Dress up as women?”
“Yes,” Shortie smiled a short, sharp smile then a foreboding looking crossed his face.
Lanky stopped laughing abruptly and looked Shortie in the eyes.
“We’d all be a good height for that.”
Lanky had to bite back more amusement, “But for the other differences like your voices, muscles, fat, built…” He continued on.
“Are you saying there is only one type of build for women?” Shortie shook his head, “You’ve read too many Nuts magazines!”
“Just because you’re wife…”
Shortie scolded him midsentence with a look.
“Sorry,” Lanky grimaced. “So,” Lanky nodded his head toward Shortie, “You’re all going to dress up as women then?”
“Then go in there and ransack the place!”
“And if someone catches you? As soon as you speak, you’ll give yourselves away!”
“I’ll put on my best woman’s voice!” Shortie smiled.
“Go on then.”
Shortie cleared his throat, “Okay,” He cleared his throat again and jutted his neck out from his collar like a chicken, “Okay,” He cleared his throat once more.
“Oh for fuck sake stop stalling!”
“I’ll have you know I’m not that kind of lady!” Shortie said in a voice that sounded more like a teenage boy whose voice hadn’t fully cracked. He tried again, this time trying to go higher, “I’ll have you know…” His throat hurt from the effort, “I can’t go any higher than that!”
“Well, this plan already looks good!”
“Fuck you, Lanks!”
Dust motes glide in the split streams of light as people raise their arms over their heads in a colourful array of supposed dance moves. The music blasts and you can feel the bass vibrating through your bones.
I don’t know if their smiles are real, I project onto them the fakeness of my own smile.
I’m dancing along, and women are brushing against me. I’m acting like it’s the best night of my life. I’m looking around me at all these faces flashing different colours in the lights, and I’m thinking, ‘are you listening to the lyrics? “Please tell me why, oh tell me why do we build castles in the sky…” “Do you ever question your life?”‘ Why yes, yes I do I question it all the time. “I think it’s time to talk with you…..Where is the love?” These lyrics are so depressing can’t you hear them? I want to shake these people. They call it trance music, and it seems appropriate because they’re set in a trance dancing, moving their body like hypnotised robots. “Give me a reason, must be a reason to hold on to what we’ve got,” you’re still dancing, why? What I the reason, why are we holding on?
I’m spiralling. The music is too bright to lights to loud. Existential voices sing over beats that propose promise of a good time. My mind can’t get over the contradiction.
Greenlight, arms raised, purple, pose, red, pout those lips and move that butt. Do the robot. “I don’t wanna say I’m sorry, because I know there’s nothing wrong,” But there is!
“Hold me in your arms, cause I need you so.”
I rush out of the club and throw up in a side street. I can still hear the thump of every beat inside the building, feel it even.
“Don’t be afraid, there’s no need to worry…”
I go to a nearby carpark and climb till I reach the top floor. The music is blasting from across the road, the neon lights shining on the night.
I’m gonna jump.
I stand on the edge. I hear the beginnings of a song called ‘Children’ from across the road. I know they’re dancing in there like it doesn’t sound sad. It must be me and my perception. No. The world is lost and I’m drowning in an abyss.
I stand on the edge. The beat the music has gotten heavier. Like my heart.
That lingering tone behind the beat, behind the melody it reeks of sadness. Or am I just too sad to hear the happiness?
I’m dizzy from all the bouncing on the dance floor.
I lean forward and open my arms to the wind.
Close my eyes.
This is it.
Blue lights. Heavy heart.
Are those blue lights part of the club?
Sirens reach out like a hand over the music.
My hairs a mess and my palms are wet with sweat.
I feel like I’ve had an electrocution to the head.
“You don’t want to do this, son.” A male voice says behind me.
The music coming from the club speaks for me. But he doesn’t hear it’s sadness, he hears it as people having a good night.
Dave was the smallest of the trees. “Barb,” He shouted across to his auntie, “They’re coming!” He screamed, the alarm rose up a notch in his voice.
“Who is?” Barb trilled, a blue tit perched on one of her branches.
“They are!” Dave pointed behind him with one of his branches.
“You’ve got so many branches, Dave! How am I supposed to know which way you’re pointing!”
Dave rolled his eyes, “They’re coming to chop us down!”
Barb’s eyes widened, and her mouth formed an O shape. The blue tit that was perched on her flapped its wings and flew into her mouth. “Ya iccle shit,” She struggled to say as it’s feet padded along her tongue.
“Hurry, auntie Barb! They want to make books!”
Auntie Barb stopped in her tracks and spat out the blue tit. The bird landed in a pile of leaves and looked around dazed and confused. “What book they making?”
Dave rolled his eyes again, “Listen, Barb! We really gotta catch up with the rest! Do you want to be a book!”
Barb continued to dawdle her eyes heavy from lack of sleep, “Depends what book I’d be.”
Dave formed an O with his mouth now, his eyes blinking in astonishment. The bluetit had since caught up with them and flew into his mouth. “Oh ya….” He started and spat out the little cheeky git.
“What book do you suppose I’d be?”
“You wouldn’t be one book! You’re too big!”
Barb gasped, “Are you calling me fat?”
“NO!” Dave shouted in irritation.
“Oh, you’re saying I’m tall.” She smiled and puffed up her afro of branches, “One of the things your uncle loved about me!” She looked up to the heavens opening above, “Oh for the love of all things!” She cursed, “Have you got an umbrella?”
“Why would a tree have an umbrella?” Dave asked appalled.
“You don’t have an umbrella then?”
“No! Trees don’t use umbrellas!”
“Well,” Barb closed her eyes and lifted her face proudly, “I do!” Barb huffed.
“Mum told me you were weird.”
“I bet she bloody did!”
Dave looked behind him at the men driving their big machines, “Hurry!” He started faster.
“I hope I don’t become a Stephen King book!” Barb blabbed on with herself.
“If you hurry up no one will be turning you into a novel!”
“What about a scientific textbook then?”
“Or any kind of book!”
“If I become a Stephen King book it’ll be a real fright!” Barb said, picking up her pace to catch up with Dave who was now running on ahead.
“Where is ya dad?”
“He’s at the front!”
Barb leaned closer to Dave, “Do ya think,” She whispered in a conspiratorial manner, “Do ya think that If I were a book, I could be the bible?”
“Bound in leather?” Dave humoured her.
“Oh my god! With gold at the edges of the pages!”
“Poor old cow.” Dave shook his body and trudged along sadly.
“Did you just call me an old cow?” Barb huffed, “I’ll have you know I’m an old dear, not an old cow.”
“I’m talking about Shelia.” Dave reminded her of the field across the road.
Barb took a glimpse, “What about Shelia?”
“She’s gonna be wrapped around you when you’re a holy bible!”
“She wouldn’t wrap herself around me!” Barb said dismissively.
“I didn’t say she’d do it voluntarily.”
“And I won’t be holy that’d ruin the aesthetics.”
“Come on mad Barb,” Dave started to usher her along faster, “Let’s keep up with the others now!”
“If I could choose what book I’d be,” Barb continued drawling on, “I’d be a Matt Johnson book.”
“Who the fuck is Matt Johnson?” A male tree in front of them piped up.
“You know! That Gorilla!”
“Yes, James! A gorilla!” She tutted.
“A gorilla that writes, that’s insane!” James beamed.
They stopped talking as the army of trees came to a sudden halt. An eerie stillness settled over them and a breeze flitted through their branches. The sky became grey with a pregnant silence before the shudder of thunder and a lick of lightning, but the sound of the marching trees outmatches the storm. The trees have risen and are on a rampage of vengeance; we humans shall become pulp fiction!