5 senyru

Overhead

Up there, satellites

Look down at us, wondering

Why we seem so small.

Stairs

Here is something good:

How her ponytail bounces

As she goes up stairs.

Snap

White crane in a stream

Hunting an elusive frog –

One snap!  No more frog!

Rain

Days of winter rain

Even a strong man looks frail

Protecting fresh bread.

Wares

Broken-down market

Broken-down people selling

Pots, bread, fish, pans, life.

Oma’s Secret Story

This is a story that my wife doesn’t know about. It is actually a story – one among many, I think – about her mother. Although Kim Soon-joo is my mother-in-law, my sie omeoni, I have always called her Oma. She is 85 years old and she has lived in South Korea all her life.

The story starts, as much as any story can have a beginning, when we were driving back with Oma after taking her out for lunch. We had been to a place overlooking the Han. For Oma’s benefit I had the car radio tuned to one of the silver stations. A song in English came on. It was called My Heart Cries For You.

From the back seat Oma tapped me on the shoulder. “Turn up,” she said. I did.

I could see that she was listening quite intensely, a faraway look in her eyes. Eventually, she said: “I used to sing this song.”

“To your children?” I said.

She gave a little laugh. “I used to sing in nightclub,” she said. “When young.”

Uh, what? Nightclub?

She glanced at her daughter, my wife Hye-Jun, in the seat next to me. Hye-Jun was fiddling with her phone, not listening. “Najung,” Oma said to me, softly. Later.

We had tea with Oma at her little apartment. Then she sent Hye-Jun to the store for something or other.

She gestured that I should come with her. In her room she asked me to get a box from a high shelf in her wardrobe. I did; it was dusty with age, had not been touched for years, perhaps decades.

She opened it. There were old photographs and yellowed papers. She extracted a black-and-white photograph and handed it to me.

It was Oma, standing in front of a little band: a guitarist, a drummer, and an accordion player. She was wearing a rather low-cut, slinky dress. I have to say that she looked pretty good in it.

I should say that I have only known Oma for about five years. That is, I have only known her as an old woman, white-haired and bent over. I never knew her husband, Hye-Jun’s father, he passed before I came to Korea. But I knew that he had been a colonel who had won medals in the Korean War, especially at the time of the Battle of the Han River.

So it was a shock to see her young and beautiful. And … a singer? In a nightclub?

She pointed to the words written on the drum. The Koala Club Singers. The photo was a publicity shot.

There was a date at the bottom. 1951. Which meant she would have been sixteen at the most.

“Nightclub for Australians,” she said. “Like you. Hoju-saram. But many Korean officers there as well. During war.”

She handed me another photograph. It had obviously been taken in the Koala Club. It was a young Korean officer and a man wearing the uniform of the Royal Australian Navy. They were smiling, laughing, holding empty soju glasses on their heads. Great friends, the sort of friends you can only make under fire.

Oma pointed at the RAN man. “Hoju-saram,” she said. “Australian. From ship called Murchison. It was very brave ship. Sailed right up the Hangang to shoot at the Northerners and the Chinese.”

Yes, I remembered the story, there was a note about it at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. HMAS Murchison was a frigate, it engaged in a series of artillery duels with shore batteries entrenched on the northern side of the river. It sat in a part of the Han known as Sitting Duck and fired everything it had. Took some hits but gave better than it got. Tough ship. It gave the retreating RoK troops and the UN soldiers time to withdraw in reasonably good order. Held back the tide, for a while at least.

I suddenly realised that, when we had had lunch earlier that day, we had been looking at the place where the Murchison had stood and fought. Of course, the river had flowed on. But some things should be remembered.

“His name was Jackson,” said Oma. “Was wounded later, in a battle. On the Murchison.”

I pointed at the Korean man. “Who?” I said.

She gave a smile. “He would become husband,” she said. “He would come and see me sing whenever he could. He wanted to marry me. My parents did not like. But when he came back as an officer, and with medals, they could not refuse. He was on Murchison for a while to translate and assist.

“He said to me, years later, that he tried to contact Jackson in Hoju. But he had died.”

She stared at the photograph for a long time. A little tear ran down her cheek.

“Oma,” I said. “Please sing the song. Please sing My Heart Cries For You.”

She was quiet for a long time. Then, at first softly, but growing louder, she sang, in a sweet clear voice. My heart cries for you.

She finished the song. Gently, she put her hand on mine. I don’t think she had ever told anyone else about this.

Gam sahab nida, Oma,” I said.

Gam sahab nida,” she said.

We returned the photographs to the box and I put it back on the shelf.

From the other room, there was the sound of the door opening. Hye-Jun, back from the store.

“Don’t tell,” whispered Oma. “About nightclub. She doesn’t know.”

“Alright,” I said. “It can be our secret.”

“Yes,” said Oma. “Our secret.”

END

Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant beach and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in one of the town’s bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less legal variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a painfully honest soul who had never touched a drop of liquor, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but mainly likely to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Constable Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasised that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Constable Turner was engaging the man in polite if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of tea. Constable Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over tea, reported Constable Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like a biscuit. Constable Turner said yes, she would like a biscuit, and at that moment the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Constable Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realised it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realised it was possible. So there it was.

Constable Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, quite a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Constable Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Constable Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defence, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, ham and pineapple, with a side of potato salad, to take away.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the sure and certain knowledge that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realised that it could be done, because it had been done, and then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetise the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. It seemed, according to the agent, that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or on the beach, or in their yard, looking out to sea or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.

END

Not Quite a Ghost Story

I woke up one morning and I was dead. Huh. How about that.

I hung around the house for a while, looking at my body. Damn, I really should start working out. Eventually, I dressed and left the house. No-one could see me or hear me, you know the drill. It’s what happens when you are … no longer alive. Apparently.

I wandered around the city for a while, and eventually found myself at a pleasant-looking little church, Saint Someone of the Holy Whatever. I went up to the … thing at the end.

“Hi,” said a plaster statue of a woman.

“Whoa!” I said. “You can see me?”

“Of course, I’m the Virgin Mary. Well, technically, I’m a statue, but I’m sure you get the idea.”

“Oh. Right.” She was actually pretty attractive, in a pale, religious kind of way. It looked like there might be some good cleavage under the robes. And a virgin, you say?

“I can read your mind, you know,” she said. “And your impure thoughts are not improving your chances of getting into Heaven.”

O – kay. I looked for a way to change the subject.

“What happens now?” I said.

“Well, in a while, a sort of tunnel of light appears, and you get drawn into it, and then you go up or down.”

“Really? I thought it would be more … complicated.”

“We try to keep it simple.”

Probably the best thing. “Say, you wouldn’t happen to know how I died, would you?” I said.

“Not off the top of my halo. But what did you eat yesterday?”

I considered. “A sandwich. Chicken. Made it myself.”

“Chicken, eh? After you brought it home, did you put in the refrigerator? How long was it not in the refrigerator? Did it taste funny?”

I thought about it. It was a lot to digest. “Uhh … maybe … a little funny … ” I muttered.

“Well, there’s your problem right there. Death by improper food storage. Happens more often than you might think.”

Hmm. It didn’t seem very likely. But here I was, dead, so it was hard to see that any more proof was needed. Although, to tell the truth, I had hoped for something more dramatic than inadequately refrigerated meat.

“Oh, here comes your ride,” said SVM.

In the ceiling of the church, a glow was forming.

“Where do you think I’m going to go?” I said.

“Have you done anything particularly good or particularly bad?”

I thought about it. Not that there was much to think about. “I’ve lived a fairly good life,” I said. “Well, not a bad one. You know, sort of ordinary. Kind of … well, boring, really.”

SVM sighed. “Doesn’t mean much, as it turns out. In most cases, the only thing that matters is whether you’re Catholic or not. And you’re not.”

“What!? You mean … that’s it!?”

“Oh, if only someone had told you people! Wait, I did! Repeatedly!”

I looked at her closely. “Are you allowed to be this facetious?” I said.

“I’m the Virgin Mary,” she said, “and a talking statue. So I can be as facetious as I want.”

The glow was definitely larger now. And closer.

“Tell you what,” she said. “You seem like a nice enough guy, and I appreciated the cleavage thought. You know, most people who talk to me, it’s Holy Mother this or Blessed Virgin that. You think that your life has been tedious!? Welcome to my world. Anyway, there might be a loophole for you. If you light a votive, you might look Catholic enough to get by.”

“Great! Er, what’s a votive?”

SVM rolled her eyes, and pointed at the row of sagging, burnt-out candles at her feet.

The glow was really close now. And really hot. That was not good news.

I looked around for a church-type candle-lighting device but there was nothing. I fumbled in my pockets for a lighter. Matches. Anything. Nope, not a thing. I’d given up smoking a month ago. If I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t be facing eternal hellfire now. Still dead, of course, but … not so much.

“Sorry,” said SVM. “Wish I could say ‘see you’. But I don’t think I will.”

So there you have it. A mediocre death. Dying is the only interesting thing to ever happen to me and I blew it. I shouldn’t have eaten the chicken. Damn.

END

Victoria’s Other Secret

I

My name is Vicki and I have a secret. Had a secret. It’s someone else’s problem now.

Let me start at the beginning, or at least what might be the beginning. I had just been dumped. This has happened a number of times, often enough for me to have developed a little ritual for coping with it. I would buy some lingerie. I could only afford stuff from the Discount Everything store in the local mall. So here I was.

Dumped for being insecure, being needy, being … me, I suppose. So now I was listlessly looking through a rack of bras. No, no, not that one, wrong size, no, not that colour, no …

Buy me, said a female voice.

I jumped. I looked around. There was no-one close by.

I would be good for you, said the voice.

Actually, the voice seemed to be inside my head. I assumed I was experiencing some sort of post-dump breakdown.

You’re not, said the voice. I’m right here.

Okay, I thought. I’ll play along with the delusion.

Where, I said. Or, rather, I thought it as if I was saying it, on the basis that if I was going crazy there was probably no reason to share it with the world.

Here. In your hand.

I looked at the bra I was holding. It was a rather odd colour, a sort of dark blue. Not my thing, really. No, I looked at it again, and it was an interesting pastel teal shade.

But, wouldn’t you know it, the wrong size. Too big in the cups. I am not a well-endowed girl.

I’m perfect for you. Check again.

I did. Huh, it was my size after all. Guess I mis-read it. I looked at the tag again. There was something else written there. COLD WATER HAND WASH ONLY. And a price, a very reasonable price.

Try me on.

I hesitated. Talking bras are … weird.

Try me on, and you’ll never be dumped again.

How do you know about that.

I know a lot about you. I know you need me. I’ll be good for you.

You’re … a bra.

We’ll be great together. Try me on and you’ll see.

I went into the change room, and put it on. It was comfortable. Perfect fit. Then I looked at myself in the mirror … and gasped.

I had … cleavage! How the hell did that happen?

Told you.

I looked at myself at various angles in the mirror. I did not appear to be any larger than usual in the chest department but somehow the bra, with a decent amount of padding, was making better use of what was there. The result: cleavage. Curvy, eye-catching, fleshy cleavage.

If he could see you now, he would be crying that he dumped you. But you can do better than him. Much better.

I doubt it, I said. I’m pretty ordinary.

But when I looked at my image, I began to think that maybe the Voice was right.

I can give you … what you want. If you buy me. Now.

Well, you know, whether I was going crazy or not, I just had to buy it. Maybe I was imagining the whole thing, but to tell the truth the idea that I might be able to get off the dumping treadmill through the correct choice in underwear was not unappealing.

I took the bra to the counter and handed it to the woman. She looked at the tag. “Odd, I thought I knew all the brands but I’m not familiar with this one,” she said. “WitchyWood, eh? Where did you get it?”

I gestured in a general direction.

The woman shrugged and processed the transaction. I – we – left the store.

We’re going to have so much fun, said Voice.

II                                   

I should tell you about my life. Except there isn’t much to tell. I live alone in a little apartment, I have a small job in a big company, I have some friends but no-one I am particularly close to. I occasionally go out to see if I can find some appropriate company, with very mixed results. That’s it. I told you there wasn’t much, right?

But none of this addressed the concept of a bra that could talk – talk inside my head, anyway. I was not sure if anyone else could hear Voice and I did not want to try any experiments. Just in case other people couldn’t hear it. And just in case they could.

So what’s your story? I said, sitting on the couch with the bra in my hand.

Voice was silent.

How come you can, er, talk?

Nothing.

How did you end up in a store?

Zip.

There was a long pause. Then: we should go out.

Huh. Well, that wasn’t a bad idea. So I went to the wardrobe and selected some going-out clothes.

Not that top. That one there. The silky red one.

That’s a halter. I can’t wear that with, er, you.

Sure you can.

I inspected the bra. Somehow, it had changed into a halter-style.

I can be whatever I need to be.

It had also changed colour, ruby red to match the top. Or perhaps I was just imagining the whole thing.

You’re not.

I looked at the halter top. It’s a bit slutty, isn’t it? I said.

It’s just slutty enough.

Actually, it was hard to say no to Voice. Inside my head, she sounded very … convincing. So I put on the bra and the red halter top and a tight skirt and, believe it or not, I thought I looked pretty good. My hair seemed bouncier. Those little glitches on my skin had vanished. I swear that that annoying cellulite had disappeared. Even my eyelashes looked, well, kind of seductive. I looked like I should be in a television commercial for some sort of beauty product. Vicki 2.0.

So, it being Saturday night, I – we – went out to a nightclub. Now, usually, when I go to a place like this, I went with a little group of friends, a sort of safety-in-numbers concept. I would cross my fingers and hope that I wouldn’t be noticed, or that I would be.

But duly armed with killer lingerie, tonight I felt like going solo, leading with the cleavage and the bare shoulders. The bouncers waved me through and, what do you know, people started looking at me as soon as I entered. I took a seat at the bar.

Before a minute had passed a guy came up to me and asked if he could buy me a drink.

No, said Voice. Not him. He’s C-grade.

What, they come in grades? I said to her.

Voice seemed to sigh.

So I say no thanks to him? I said.

You say, definitely not.

“Definitely not,” I said to the guy.

He looked rather hurt.

Good, said Voice.

I saw another guy checking me out.

What about him?

B.

How do you know so much about this?

Voice said nothing.

I looked around. On the other side of the room was a handsome guy. Well-dressed, blond-ish, just the right amount of semi-shaven panache.

Him, said Voice. Go for the stubble.

So I turned towards him, leaned back against the bar a little, gave him a good view of the guns.

He came over. Yes, he was an A, alright.

“I’m Phil,” he said.

“Of course you are,” I said. Or maybe it was Voice doing the work and I was just lip-synching. “As in, Phil-me-up, is it? Buy me an expensive cocktail, Phil.”

He did. He asked me my name.

“Vic – ” I started.

Victoria. It’s sexier.

“ – toria,” I finished.

He smiled. Wow, Voice was right, Victoria was sexier than Vicki. If only I had known.

Things with Phil went from there. Some drinks, some innuendo, an invitation. To make a long story short, I ended up with a bit of stubble-rash on my thighs. Worth it. Totally.

II                                   

I would not have minded seeing Phil again but Voice was adamant that I should not return his calls. I was not entirely sure why he called me, since I had not really done much in the sex department. Mainly been on the receiving side, which was a nice change and a good place to be. Maybe Voice had got into his head in some way.

Dump him, said Voice.

But he was so pretty, I said.

Dump him, see how he likes it, just like all the times they have dumped you.

I must say that when she put it that way the idea had its attraction. Serves them right. Serves all of them right. Wait, did I actually just think that!?

In any case, when you go to a smorgasbord you don’t have just the one dish. There are plenty of others to try.

Hmm, I said. Well, okay then.

So we tried some more dishes. Alex was next, as I recall. He had a Porsche. Then there was Will. He had his own handcuffs. I forget the name of the next one but I remember that he had a very nice tongue. I have a feeling there was a fellow called Steve in there somewhere. And so on.

Meanwhile, my working life continued to grind away, as I shuffled papers around for reasons that were not entirely clear. Frustrating, because I was capable of doing much more, and I had better qualifications than most people here. But at least my co-shufflers seemed rather more social these days, and the boss of my division seemed to be spending more time than usual hanging around my desk.

One day, the boss said to me: “You know, Victoria, there’s a promotion coming up. Section head. I’ve noticed in these past few months how effective you are in your job, and I feel you should be considered. What assets would you bring to the job?”

Lean forward, said Voice. I did.

Deep breath. I did.

She told me what to say.

“Assets?” I said. “Just the two.”

“Ah,” said the boss. “I see.” He smiled and walked away.

So that’s how you get ahead, I said to Voice.

She giggled. Do you want the job or not? she said.

I thought about it. Eventually, I said: Yes.

A few days later, I was told I had been given the promotion. So the lesson was obvious: all those women who have the good jobs and the handsome boyfriends and the bright prospects … cheat. Maybe they all had talking bras.

IV 

The downside of the new job was that I had to take work home sometimes. I was going through a slab of papers when Voice said: I’m bored. We should go out. Meet someone. Bring them back here.

And then dump them? I said. As usual?

That’s the point. You seduce them in order to dump them. Hurt them.

I thought that the point was to have a good time.

You thought wrong. Get dressed. The silver bandeau, I think.

Before I knew it I was in the bedroom, manoeuvring myself into the top. The bra had reconfigured to max the push-up effect.

I don’t really want to go out, I said to Voice. I’m not in the mood.

What you want does not matter much. Now, the black skirt with the slit to the thigh.

I had the skirt in my hand. I looked at it.

No, I said, putting the skirt down.

Yes.

Uh-uh.

The bra began to pinch me a little. In a sensitive area. There was the twinge of a headache at the base of my skull. It began to grow into a throb.

And then I was picking up the skirt and pulling it on. A part of my brain was saying, yes, I did want to go out, pick up some guy, do what I was supposed to do. It would be fun. Wouldn’t it?

The pinching stopped and the headache vanished.

Good girl, said Voice.

V

I’m not sure how but I ended up at a bar called Reboot. I started talking with a guy named Paul, and before I knew it we had been chatting for an hour or so. Voice was impatient, saying that he was just a B. I reminded her that this outing had been her idea, and anyway there were no A-grades in sight.

And he was pleasant company. We had things in common. He made me laugh. I would have been happy to sit and talk with him, and I think he would have been happy to do that too. But Voice was insistent. Anyway, one thing led to another, and a few hours later I was standing by my bed in my underwear, watching Paul sleep. Funny how some guys do that after pretty good sex.

He’s nice, I said to Voice.

He reminds me of someone, said Voice. Someone … someone I used to know … a long time ago … but he left me … after making promises … so many promises …

Is that why you do all this? Because someone broke your heart?

He broke … my soul.

There was a flush of heat in my head. This was some angry lingerie.

They’re evil. All of them.

Be that as it may, I said, I would like to keep this one. For a while, at least. I’m getting pretty sick of one-nighters.

There was a long pause.

Then: Kill him.

Uh, what?

Kill him. Take a knife from the kitchen and kill him.   

I recoiled in surprise, and then horror. I – I can’t, I said. I – I don’t want to – I won’t – 

But now I was in the kitchen and I was taking a large knife from the drawer.

I’ll show you how. It’s easy.

I could see a hand holding the knife. Was it my hand?

There was a throbbing in my head, like a raven’s claw twisting in my brain. The bra was tightening around me, cutting into my flesh.

Stop, I said. Please …

Take the knife and put it on his throat and pull it across and then I’ll stop.

I tried to push Voice away, push her out of my head, but she was holding on with a manic strength. I lifted the knife and tried to get the blade under the strap of the bra, hoping to cut it off. But the fabric had become as strong as iron, and now it was as dark as blood. I began to struggle for breath.

My feet were starting to carry me towards the bedroom. I could see the knife in my hand.

You can’t get away, said Voice. You’re mine now. Now and forever.

“No!” I shouted aloud. With a huge effort, I threw the knife across the room.

You will regret that.

The bra was strangling me, squeezing the air from my lungs. The throbbing in my head had become a roar now, a storm of savage anger. I sagged to my knees.

I will make you regret it. I will make you regret everything.

But something scratched at my memory. What was it … I had seen something on the day we had met … something about the tag … what had it said …

On my hands and knees, gasping, I made it to the bathroom. I managed to get into the shower. My breath almost gone, I groped for the tap. The hot tap. I pulled the lever.

There was a gush of water. Steaming, scalding. It hit the bra. Voice screamed.

Cold water hand wash only, bitch, I said to her.

But she wasn’t giving up. The bra tightened even more.

The water was so hot it was blistering my skin. But if it was bad for me it must have been agony for her. I grit my teeth against the pain, against the boiling water and my cracking ribs and my pounding skull. Hold on, I told myself. Just … a little … longer … one … more … moment …

Enough! shouted Voice.

Then get off me, I said.

The bra loosened sufficiently for me to take a breath. The pain in my head began to recede. I reached up and turned the water off. But I kept my hand on the lever.

If I do that, you will destroy me.

I thought about it. Yes, this was a truly homicidal piece of underwear. But we had been through a lot together, and it had been pretty good, up to the final chapter.

I’ll make you a deal, I said. You get off me, get out of my head, and I’ll let you go on your way.

There was a long silence.

Slowly, I began to pull the lever. A hissing drip came from the tap.

Deal.

The clasp unfastened and the straps slid from my shoulders. I was free.

VI                                   

And so the story ended where it began, in the Discount Everything store. After making sure the salespeople were not looking my way, I took the bra out of my bag and slipped it onto a spare hanger. I put it in with a row of others.

I was by no means sure that releasing it back into the wild was a good idea. But I had given Voice my word, and that has to count for something.

I looked around. There was a somewhat colourless young woman sorting through stuff on the bargain table. Huh.

I turned to go.

Wait. Please.

I looked at the bra.

I … I could be good, said Voice. If you would just –

Forget it, I said.

I walked away.

She called after me: Victoria –

It’s Vicki, I said.

END

The Bear

1

My earliest memory is of the day when my father brought a bear home. I must have been only five or perhaps six, counting by the Korean method, and my brother must have been only two or three, and my sister would have been only a baby. The bear was only a cub, I remember thinking that it looked like a ball of black fur, and it made a strange mewling sound.

My father told us that he had found it when he was leading a platoon of his soldiers on a training exercise in the forest not far from where we lived, which was in turn not far from the military base that he commanded, on the eastern edge of Seoul. He said that the bear’s mother had been killed by hunters – this was not uncommon in those days. The soldiers with him had said that the merciful thing to do would to shoot the cub then and there, it would not be able to survive on its own, it was too young. My father would not hear of it. But he agreed that, yes, the cub would soon be killed by another bear or some other creature of the forest if it was left. So the bear came to live with us.

My mother, needless to say, was not happy with this idea. It is a wild creature, she said. It has claws and teeth and when it gets bigger it will surely have a very nasty disposition. And we barely have enough food for ourselves.

You must realize that at this time, the early sixties, Korea was a very poor country, even in the area around the capital. Memories of the war were still fresh, and even though my father was a respected figure in the military – and as a colonel he had a significant role in the administration of our part of the province – there was often just enough to go round and not much more. Having meat in a meal was a treat, let me put it that way.

But my father was adamant that we would take in the orphan bear. And once my father had made a decision there was not much point in further discussion. He said that he would build a little cabin for it from scrap wood in the backyard, a bit like a cave, and the bear could live there in the warmer months and could eat leftovers.

There aren’t any leftovers, my mother said. But then she looked at the little ball of fur, and it made that mewling noise, and, well, she accepted that we could not simply throw it back into the forest. She shook her head and muttered something about another mouth to feed but the bear stayed. Somehow she managed to find food for it. Occasionally, later on, when my father was not at home, and when the bear could sit up, I would see her feeding it little bits of radish while she was cooking. She would see me watching and hiss that I was not to tell my father under any circumstances.

My father gave the bear a name but I cannot remember what it was. My mother, my brother, my sister when she could talk, and I just called it ‘the bear’. In fact, I believe that the first word my sister could say was ‘bear’.

2

I should tell you a little more about my father, I think. He was from a town that was now in the North, but he had fought for the South in the war, and had been decorated and promoted. His medals and letters of commendation, along with his photograph, are in the glass-fronted case that we bow to on New Year’s Day and other significant occasions.

Like many soldiers he could be very stern and strict, and you could sense the steel in him. But there were times when he spoke in a softer voice. He would tell us stories about the war, about the Battle of the Han River and other incidents. He called MacArthur ‘the American general’ but he used the term ‘the General’ for Park Chung Hee, the man who was now leader of the country. He had been a general but had recently assumed the title of President, and now he wore a suit instead of a uniform. My father knew the General, they had been in the same class at the military academy, we have a photograph of the graduation ceremony that shows the two of them.

I suspect that they also had had something to do with each other in some part of the war, although I am not sure what. In any case, there was some connection between them. I suppose that battlefields create those sorts of bonds.

He often had to stay at the base but I remember warm evenings when he would sit on the porch of the little house, and tell us stories. He would drink soju and tell us about the war, and also about the little village where he grew up, and how they would plant rice and cabbages, and pray that the rain would be not too much, not too little, just the right amount, and that the winter would not be too cold.

The bear would be with us, sitting on its bottom and listening to the stories as well. I remember my sister sitting there but often, since she was very young, she would lean against the bear and fall asleep. I assume she liked the bear’s soft, warm fur. I mentioned this to her many years later but she said she could not remember it. Well, she was not much more than a baby at the time.

3

The bear had a remarkable talent for mimicry. When it heard my mother singing while she cooked or cleaned, in her sweet clear voice, it would make a crooning sound as well. My mother told me that it liked to sit and watch her put on her makeup. One day, she said, she found that the bear had got into her cosmetics drawer and had put makeup on its face. I was there at the time, she told me, although I don’t remember it. I wish I could. A bear with lipstick and powder. Now that would have been something to see!

One thing I remember quite clearly was when my mother took me and my brother into the forest to look for berries and mushrooms. She carried my sister in a back-sling. Of course, the bear came with us. I guess that by this time it had been with us about a year, perhaps a bit more, so it was no longer a cuddly ball of fur. But it padded along behind us, on all fours, happy to eat berries when we found some.

At one point the bear stopped. It stood up and sniffed the air. That was the first time, I believe, that I saw it stand upright.

Maybe it happened and maybe it didn’t. I think that not all the stories about the bear that my mother and father told us, a bit later on, were true. Maybe they were just stories for children. But I like to think that that one, at least, was true.

It looked around. It looked at us, my mother and brother and sister in the sling and myself. Then it looked again at the forest.

Then it went down on all fours again and came over to us. It nuzzled my hand, and I scratched its ears in response, as I usually did.

Someday, my mother said, it will have to leave. It is a wild animal, after all, and one day it will have to leave.

4

The bear had been with us three years, I suppose, something like that, when it vanished. It was not in its little cave-cabin and not in any part of the yard, and not in the house.

My father came back from the base that evening, and I remember my mother telling him, very softly, that the bear was nowhere to be found. My father said nothing.

I was surprised that the next morning a truckload of soldiers from the base appeared at the front of our house, and my father gave them a series of orders as he climbed into his jeep.

He saw me watching. He moved over a little to make space on the seat beside him.

Come on, son, he said to me. Let’s go and find our friend.

So I climbed in and we set off through the forest. My father knew where he was going, and eventually we stopped outside a little cave. My father got out of the jeep, and the soldiers climbed out of the truck and raised their guns. From within the cave there was a low growl.

Father, I said. We’re not going to shoot the bear for running away, are we?

No, my father said. But even though this is the cave where I found the bear, there might be another occupant. So stay in the jeep, son. To be safe.

My father walked towards the cave. He called out the bear’s name.

Being a boy, I did not stay in the jeep. I got out so I could see more clearly.

My father called out again.

The bear – our bear – came slowly out of the cave. On all fours, it went up to my father and nuzzled his hand.

My father stroked the bear’s head. The bear gave a soft growl. My father said something to the bear but I could not hear his words.

They stayed like that for a long, long moment. Then my father turned and walked back to the jeep. The soldiers returned to the truck.

My father saw that I had climbed out of the jeep. He gave a little nod, and then helped me in. He looked back. The bear was gone.

You have to go home, he said to no-one in particular. You have to go home.

5

It was early the next morning when my father shook me awake. Get dressed, he said. Don’t wake your mother and brother and sister.

I did as I was told. Then he took me outside and we climbed into the jeep.

We drove along the road that led to the military base. I had not been here before, or at least I could not remember being here, but I recalled him saying that it had recently been expanded.

We drove to the new section. There was a small helicopter on a concrete pad. My father got out of the jeep and talked to a guard standing near the helicopter. I could not hear what they were saying but at one point my father pointed to his badge of rank. Eventually, the guard saluted and opened the helicopter door.

My father gestured for me to come over, which I did. Together, we climbed into the helicopter.

I had not known that my father knew how to fly a helicopter but obviously he did, and he started the engine. He put a radio headset on and spoke to someone, using the words ‘on my authority’ several times.

Then we were off.

I asked him where we were going.

North, he said. There is something I have to see, and show you.

But won’t the Communists kill us if we go to the North? I said.

It’s not a long way over the border, he said. By the time they get planes in the air we’ll have seen what we need to see and be on our way back.

So we flew on, heading to the North. Soon we passed over a long strip of green forest.

The DMZ, my father said.

I nodded. Perhaps I should have been worried, even fearful. But my father seemed to be entirely sure of what he was doing, and so I was not afraid.

Occasionally he spoke to someone on the radio. Then there was another voice coming through the little speaker, a voice with a different accent. I realized that it was the voice of a Northerner.

I just want to see my hometown, my father said into the radio. This helicopter is unarmed. All I want is to see my hometown, and for my son to see it.

The Northern voice continued to speak, even more stridently. My father turned the radio off.

Then we came to a town. We circled, and came in low. People in the town came out and looked up at us, unsure of what was happening.

My father pointed at a cluster of little houses. That was where I was born, he said. And my father was born there as well. Can you see the vegetable patch at the back? My mother was born at the other end of the town, in that house over there, you see? That one near the ricefield. They were killed in the war, your grandparents, as you know, but … that was where we lived. Before.

It was a town, like many other towns scattered across the landscape of the Koreas. A town like many others, but special. The town where my father was born.

Do you understand? my father asked.

I thought about it.

I understand, I said.

He nodded. He turned the little helicopter southwards. He was smiling.

6

Years later, after my father had passed, my mother told me that she had been very angry with him, but the way she said it made me think that she understood what he had done, and why.

My father continued to hold the rank of colonel but it was made clear to him, according to my mother, that there would be no more promotions, no more medals, no more letters of commendation. I said that it was surprising that he was allowed to stay in the military, let alone keep his rank. She looked at me, in her gentle way, and said: the General.

7

So that is the story of the bear. For many years I did not really think of it, but these days, as I approach the age that my father was at that time, I think of it often. I wonder how the bear fared in the woods, what sort of life it lived. And I wonder if some day I might be able to visit my father’s hometown, to talk to the people there and see the fields of rice. But when I think of this I realize that I do not know the town’s name. My father had never told me, and I had never asked.

Our Town

Our town has long been a place where not a great deal happens, and that is how most of us have always liked it. There are the locals, some of whom have been here for several generations, and an itinerant population of holiday-makers who come here to enjoy our pleasant beach and interesting forest. The two people, a young woman and a somewhat older man, who caused a certain amount of disruption to our little community were in the second of these groups, and they took a lease on a holiday house on the edge of the town, where there was an overgrown path that led down to the beach. They had been living quietly there for about a month when word passed around that they could fly.

At first this notion was dismissed as the gossip of those people who spent a bit too much time in one of the town’s bars, or those who engaged in distractions of a less legal variety. But gradually the number of claims grew. The local librarian, Miss Hudson, a painfully honest soul who had never touched a drop of liquor, said that the young woman had landed in the parking lot to return a borrowed book. Mr Pearson, who had taken a morning jog along the beach every day for perhaps twenty years, stated that he had seen the pair sitting on the high branch of a tree that could not possibly be climbed; they appeared to be having some sort of breakfast picnic.

There were those in town who were dismissive of such suggestions. After all, they pointed out, the couple had often been seen walking around the town, holding hands and carrying bags of groceries. Even more, they had been noticed waiting for the bus, which would hardly be expected of people who could fly. True, they were a little odd, friendly enough if engaged in conversation but mainly likely to keep to themselves. The age difference, perhaps fifteen years between them, was unusual but hardly a cause for recriminations, and our town has always prided itself on its open-mindedness. And finally there was the obvious argument that human beings could not fly. To this group of our people, this constituted game, set and match. End of discussion.

The problem was that sightings of the flying people – sometimes together, sometimes alone – continued. Some townsfolk took to walking around with cameras while looking upwards, in the hope of taking a photograph. Only one photograph was, in fact, taken in this period, and it was so vague and blurry that it was not accepted as solid evidence even by people who swore that they had seen the airborne pair.

The situation became such that one of the town’s police officers, Constable Hilda Turner, said that she would pay a visit to the couple and sort the matter out. She did, indeed, set off to interview the couple in their rented house, and returned an hour later, wearing a somewhat puzzled expression. When she was asked whether the couple could fly she answered, yes, I believe so. But she emphasised that she had not actually seen either of them leave the ground. The man was on the roof of the house when she arrived, replacing some broken tiles, although there was no evidence of a ladder or any other means by which the roof might be reached. While Constable Turner was engaging the man in polite if stilted conversation the young woman suddenly appeared beside her, and greeted her warmly, asking if she would like a cup of tea. Constable Turner had not heard her approach, although the ground was littered with dry leaves that made a cracking sound with every footstep.

Over tea, reported Constable Turner, she had asked the young woman point-blank if she and her companion could fly, and the woman had replied, why yes, yes we can, and would you like a biscuit. Constable Turner said yes, she would like a biscuit, and at that moment the man entered the room, saying that the roof repairs were complete. Constable Turner asked the man if it was true that they could fly, and the man confirmed that it was. The policewoman asked how was it that they could do something which appeared to defy the laws of physics. The man responded that it was an issue of belief. He had once met someone who could fly and had therefore realised it was possible. When he and the young woman met, a few years later, she had seen him fly and had likewise realised it was possible. So there it was.

Constable Turner subsequently returned to the police station where she filed a short report, and later answered a few questions put to her by the editor of the local newspaper.

The resulting article caused, by the quiet standards of our little town, quite a stir, and there was a growing movement for the mayor, Ms Thompson, who ran the popular café in the main street, to become involved. Ms Thompson called a public meeting for that evening, to be convened in her café, where beverages, scones and cakes could be purchased. There were questions as to whether the flying – the allegedly flying – couple should be invited, but after discussions with Constable Turner the mayor decided against it, although she left the option open for a later time.

The meeting, as it turned out, attracted most of the local population as well as quite a few holiday-makers. Constable Turner was asked to reiterate her report, which she did in such a clear and steady manner that even some of those who had previously rejected the possibility of flying people as a hoax or a series of mistakes began to acknowledge that there might be something in the idea.

The questions and opinions that arose from the meeting fell into several categories, namely:

  1. Could the flying couple be witches, or perhaps aliens.
  2. Was there a way for the business people of the town, always on the lookout for additional sources of revenue, to make money out of this.
  3. Should the Department of Defence, or perhaps some other agency of the national government, be informed.
  4. If the ability to fly stemmed from the belief that one could fly, was it therefore possible for other people to learn to fly.

A number of people expressed considerable interest in this last point. After all, if gravity could be overcome by simply assuming that it did not exist, then it called into question many concepts previously taken for granted. Several of the younger townsfolk remarked that they would be very pleased to take flying lessons, and would be quite willing to forgo a belief in gravity and whatever else was required in order to get off the ground.

The meeting adjourned without a clear conclusion, although nearly everyone agreed that the flying couple were probably not witches or aliens but ordinary people who had somehow acquired an extraordinary ability. Notably, there remained a hard core of non-believers who argued that human flight, aside from the airplane variety, was simply impossible and that was all there was to it.

The faith of the non-believers was severely tested the next day when, quite suddenly, the couple landed in full view of many people, outside Petrucci’s Famous Pizzeria. They then ordered a pizza, ham and pineapple, with a side of potato salad, to take away.

There were a few people who huffed that descending on a public street in this way was tantamount to showing off but most of the townsfolk were merely curious, and put a series of polite questions to the pair while they waited for their pizza.

Yes, said the couple, we can fly, and have been able to for some time. No, flying itself is not difficult but landing requires a certain amount of practice. Yes, it is a matter of belief. It requires putting aside everything you know, or think you know, about the world and how it works, and instead substituting the sure and certain knowledge that flying is possible. This leap of faith becomes much easier when you have seen someone do it, said the man. No, we do not know how the first person to fly achieved the feat. The young woman mentioned that, even after she had seen her partner fly, she had spent many hours standing in a park thinking about it. And then she realised that it could be done, because it had been done, and then she did it.

The pizza and potato salad arrived, and the couple ascended to return home. The ascension was, in some ways, not particularly impressive. There was no sudden leap into the air with arms outstretched, Superman-style. Neither was there any magical incantation or puzzling ritual. Instead, it was more like a steady drift upwards, off the surface of the planet, and then at a certain height the couple, pizza and potato salad in hand, turned towards their house. The only impressive aspect of the entire process was that it happened at all.

With the phenomenon of human flight now confirmed, our community grew strangely quiet on the issue. There was an unspoken consensus that, given that the couple had been as forthcoming as possible in their explanations, and seemed to be a pair of pleasant individuals, to notify government authorities might be an invasion of their privacy. Neither was there any further talk of ways to monetise the matter.

And then, one day, they were gone. Their rented house was empty; the real estate agent said that the lease had expired, according to schedule, and they had not renewed it. He did not know why or where they had gone but he said that, when they had returned the keys to his office, they had not expressed any ill-will towards the town or its people; quite the contrary. It seemed, according to the agent, that their extended holiday had simply ended and they had returned to wherever it was they had come from.

But their departure did not mark the end of the story. For several weeks, a number of townspeople could be seen standing on cliffs, or on the beach, or in their yard, looking out to sea or into the sky. It was a month after the departure of the couple that the first sightings of flying people began. Since then it has been a slow but steady trickle.

Over time, we have largely returned to the view that ours is a town where not very much happens. Yes, some people can fly, in that drifting, undramatic way; and others can but generally choose not to, for reasons of their own. We accept it because, putting it simply, we cannot do anything else: it is what it is. We do not find it remarkable, and we probably never will.

END

Stress test

Appearing on In the Black Digital site, July 2020

 

Tough times: how to cope with stress

Anyone who has done it knows that running an accounting practice can be a stressful undertaking. But the COVID-19 crisis has taken it to a whole new level, imposing unprecedented levels of financial and psychological pressure. Coping with this type of stress is not easy but with the right attitude and appropriate tools it can be done, and possibly the experience of adversity can provide an even greater level of personal resilience and strength.

An irony is that the clients of accounting practices are increasingly looking to their advisers as a voice of stability, reassurance, and control. While there are no firm figures, anecdotal evidence indicates that many practices have seen revenue drop by 30-40 per cent, or even more. Many CPAs have continued to provide services to clients with reduced or no charges, which will help to build relationships for the long term but puts more strain on the short-term bottom line. In other words, the pressure has gone up while the returns have gone down.

Dr Grant Blashki, Lead Clinical Advisor with Beyond Blue, an organisation dedicated to improving the mental health of Australians, explains that people in business need to consciously maintain their mental well-being.

“The usual common-sense approaches to maintaining mental well-being still apply,” he says. “This involves keeping up regular exercise, eating well, getting enough sleep, creating regular routines and making time for friends and family. “Some particular issues that are important during the pandemic are using  online technologies to stay connected with people who are important to you, and being clear about work and home-life boundaries. Don’t let the problems mount up.”

Stress mgt

Break the cycle

Warning signs that stress is turning into a serious health problem include constant fatigue, low energy and disrupted sleep. Other symptoms include withdrawal from usual engagement with work and friends, a noticeable drop in performance, and obsessing about negative themes. There may be a need for professional help, and there should be a readiness to seek it as required.

For people working from home, it is important to establish a routine, including regular contact with colleagues. There are unhelpful behaviours that should be avoided, such as staying up late and then sleeping in, or some form of substance abuse.

Richard Maloney, author of Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times*, and CEO of Quality Mind Global, a consulting firm specialising in mindfulness in the workplace, recognises the pressures that many accountants are under. He emphasises the importance of allowing yourself to de-stress and re-focus. Meditation is beneficial but simply listening to relaxing music can also be very helpful, as can ‘walking meditation’. The aim is to break the cycle of stress.

“You need to schedule time away from work pressure, to clear the mind and minimise negative thinking patterns,” he says. “Another good idea, if pressure is piling up, is to make a ‘gratitude list’ to shift your focus from your problems to the good things in your life.

“If you feel that stress is pushing you into a conflict mentality, try going for 24 hours without saying anything negative. This will make you conscious of yourself and your feelings.”

Taking the pressure off

Dr Blashki points out that Beyond Blue has designed a website called Heads Up**, which provides useful articles, videos and interviews for people in business. It includes a guide for businesses advisers on how they can maintain their own mental health as well as offer assistance to others.

Despite the difficulties of the current situation there is also the opportunity to deepen client relationships.

“There is so much uncertainty in business right now that clients will be looking for leadership, advice and initiatives from their providers – and more than just numbers,” says Maloney. “It’s okay to extend conversations beyond financial issues, and to ask a client how they are weathering this storm at the psychological level. No-one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

A related idea is to run workshops for clients on building mental resilience, and providing resources on mental health as well as business management in tough times. In fact, Maloney believes that helping others is an essential way to reduce one’s own stress.

“If you are more focused on others you are less likely to obsess about your own problems. In the end we are all here to help and serve each other, and we can attain a great sense of accomplishment from doing that,” he says.

Dr Blashki agrees with this theme. “One of the positive outcomes of this pandemic has been a recognition of the fragility of other people’s lives,” he notes. “It has reminded us how dependent we all are on each other. Assisting others, whether with business advice or simply a compassionate ear, can all contribute to a sense of community. That will be greatly appreciated.”

 

* Stress Free: How to Thrive Under Pressure in Unprecedented Times, Richard Maloney, Woodslane, 2020.

** Go to https://www.headsup.org.au/  See also the Beyond Blue documents Supporting small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing at work and Actions for small business owners to improve their mental health and wellbeing, available at https://www.beyondblue.org.au/

 

Key points for coping

  • Take regular ‘de-stress’ time, away from work issues
  • Stay connected with family and friends
  • Ensure that work and home-life boundaries are clear
  • Look to available resources on mental health
  • Be aware of warning signs such as fatigue and social withdrawal

End of the Line

Officer Peter Densus, sitting in his patrol car, stared at his watch. 8.30. Half an hour to go.

He was parked in an alley, lights out. He wondered if he should simply stay here, wait it out, watch the time crawl away. Fuck it, he thought. One last drive-around.

He started the engine and pulled out into the street. There was almost no traffic. And there were only a few people about, just some knots on street corners, doing not much except waiting for possible customers. Not likely, not until the day after tomorrow, when the welfare checks arrived. Until then, no-one in Los Través had any money. Except the gangers. They had plenty. Whatever cash dribbled in flowed relentlessly upwards.

He turned a corner at random, and then another. It had become second nature as a safety precaution. Don’t go on an obvious route, don’t go in a straight line for more than two blocks. Doing the predictable thing was how blues got killed. He glanced at the two bullet holes in the windscreen: ambush fire from a fortnight ago. Had there been another cop in the passenger seat they would have taken the bullets, but two-man patrols had ended a long time ago. Budget cuts.

And there was no money to make repairs to the car, either. There were other holes in the doors, and the lights on the top of the car had been shot out. Aside from that, there were innumerable dents and scratches in the cruiser from where people had thrown rocks and garbage. He smiled grimly: the car would make it to the end of the evening, probably, but that would be it.

He swung around another corner and for a moment could see the lights of the Big City in the distance. Long way away. Seemed to have got even further in the past few years. There had been a bus route that linked Los Través and the Big City. Had been.

He passed Angelo’s Pizza. It was once a good place: he remembered going there as a kid. It had had big glass windows then. But they had been smashed by one of the gangs, he couldn’t remember which, about five years back. So Angelo had put in new windows, with decorative metal bars. Which had been stolen within a week. So more bars, heavier and tougher, and a grill. Which went down to a ram-raid. Which had also seen Angelo lose one of his hands, for refusing to pay protection money. So Angelo had boarded the place and gone … somewhere. Somewhere else. Anywhere else.

There was still the sign: NO DELIVERIES. That was because the delivery boys kept getting shot. A gang-banger would order a pizza, and then shoot the delivery boy, if he was white, in the face. Like in that rap song by … was it Menace Clan? Wrong place at the wrong time, white boy. So Angelo took to hiring black guys and Hispanics. That worked for a while. Not for long. Apparently, working for a white guy made you a sort of white guy, so … well, there it was.

Densus wondered if there were any businesses left in Los Través. The last one he could think of was the pawn shop on Seventh Street, and that had been burned down a year ago. There had been a bail bondsman – did that count as a business? – on Fourth but that had been robbed so many times it had folded. There had been a Social Security Office on Fourth as well but that had closed because no-one would work there, not after three shootings in the space of a month and the publication of the clerks’ home addresses. Same with the school. At some point staying around to try and make things better was merely foolish.

So the only commercial activities that were left were drugs and hookers. And even the dope business was getting too dangerous, with gangs multiplying and splintering and mowing each other down. Being a cop had actually been easier a few years ago, when there were gang leaders. They kept a sort of order, just wanted things to be reasonably quiet so they could turn a profit. But either they had got too greedy, trying to expand into some other guy’s territory, or had been displaced by some radical up-and-comer tribe with new-gen tech and heavy-grade firepower. Some of them had RPG7s, apparently.

Densus turned another corner. This was a street of old apartment buildings. He knew there were people still living in some of them, but there were heavy curtains drawn across the windows. No point in letting anyone know you were in there, it was like asking for someone to kick your door down and take whatever you had left. He wondered when the electricity company would get around to turning off the town’s power, because no bills were paid. Pretty soon, probably.

He drove around a pile of smoking garbage in the middle of the street. The collection service wouldn’t come here anymore, so people threw their garbage into the street, and eventually someone put a match to it. It was effective, in a way, if you could ignore the smell. At least the fire gave the homeless junkies something to sleep around, wrapped in cardboard or rags.

There was a burst of machine-gun fire a couple of streets away, followed by an answering burst, and then a whole fusillade. An explosion. Densus shrugged: nothing to do with him. Intervening in a firefight was an invitation to your own funeral. The gangers would stop just long enough to turn their guns on the blues. Then someone would grab the badge to claim the bounty. And then they would go back to their war. It might be over some turf infringement, a minor insult, or a … well, it didn’t matter, did it?

He saw a hooker standing on a corner, just up ahead. He knew her, had busted her several times when doing it still made sense. Her working name was Diamond but her real name was Tilly. She had had a pimp but he had ODed a few weeks ago so now she was freelance. Not much future however you sliced it. Best-case scenario: one of the gangs might scoop her up, put her on a measly commission until someone decided to cut her a new one.

He stopped the car and got out. The street was nearly empty. No trade for a working girl tonight, probably, especially one that was starting to get the strung-out shakes.

“Hi, Til,” he said.

She nodded and did her best to smile. “I thought you would have gone by now,” she said.

“This is my last shift,” he said. “Ever. Half-an-hour, I’m done and get my pension. Then I’m out. But I thought I should say goodbye.”

She nodded again. “Out,” she murmured.

Densus dug into his pocket, pulled out a twenty. “Here,” he said. “Get yourself some food, Til. Looks like you could do with it.”

She took it. She started to kneel, but he gently pulled her to her feet. “It’s … on the house,” he said.

She stared at the note in her hand, and then at him.

“Look after yourself,” he said. He got back in the car and drove off. In the mirror, he saw her walking away, holding the twenty, heading for whatever dealer was closest.

Another firefight had started, coming from another part of town. Sounded like a big one. He turned to avoid it, and then turned again to avoid Callister Park, a little patch of ground with some straggly grass. It was known these days as Bounty Square, after the incident last year when a cop – Sancini had been his name, Densus remembered – had been taken down by a sniper in a third floor window. The two cops that had tried to collect the body had also been shot. Eventually, the Big City cops had agreed to lend the Los Través department an armoured car to retrieve the bodies. It had done the job but had been so badly shot up that the Big City cops had quietly said: don’t ask again. Seemed they weren’t used to having garbage thrown at them, either.

The Callister Park thing was the first time Densus had believed in the bounty on blues. There had been talk but Densus had, like the other cops, dismissed it as evil gossip. But now he believed it. Damn, the shooter who had made thirty thousand dollars that day put it up on his Facebook page, a picture of himself holding the cash, and his scoped rifle, and grinning. #killallcops.

One way or another, the Los Través Police Department pretty much disintegrated after that. There had once been fifteen police and ten support staff. A couple of the cops transferred out, and so did some of the support people. When the remaining supports learned that there was also a bounty on them – only five thousand, less than for the blues but still good money – they simply stopped turning up. Couldn’t really blame them. 

And no new staff appeared, either supports or uniforms. There were reports of Academy graduates refusing to accept postings to Los Través. So between the casualties and the walk-aways, the number of badges had shrunk from fifteen to twelve to eight to four to … him.

Fifteen minutes left. He wondered if he would be paid his pension. It was no secret that the City Council had no money. There was no tax revenue, and ever since the mayor quit a few months ago no-one knew who was running things … if anyone. The City had been operating on emergency loans from the Big City council but that well would run dry soon, as soon as someone realised there was no way the money could ever be repaid.

Fuck it, he thought again. He turned the car for the station. On the way, he passed a few groups of people, silently watching him, standing under the few streetlights that were still working. They knew that he was the last one, and this was his last run. This time, they didn’t throw things or shout insults at him. They were on their own now. Got their wish. If they wanted to tear what was left of the place apart, they were free to do so. No more blue line. Put it in the should-have-thought-of-that-before category.

He turned into the basement car park of the boarded-up station and parked and got out and went up to the deserted administrative area. He logged onto the computer on his desk and sent a message to the Council saying that he had finished his final shift, so his resignation was now effective and he qualified for his pension. He didn’t know if there was anyone on the other end to acknowledge it, but at least he had done his last bit of paperwork.

“Hey,” said a voice.

In a moment, Densus’ gun was in his hand.

“Easy, buddy,” said the guy. “I’m just here to say goodbye.”

Densus relaxed a little but did not put his gun away. “Hello, Clarence,” he said.

Clarence Jefferson nodded.

“I would feel a lot better if you unloaded,” said Densus. Clarence shrugged and took a pistol out of a shoulder holster and put it on the desk. But Densus did not put his own gun down. Clarence shrugged again and took another gun out, and put it down. Then another.

“Happy?” he said. “Or is that a stupid?”

“It’s a stupid,” said Densus, although he put his gun away. He gestured for Clarence to take a seat. He took a bottle of whiskey from his desk drawer. There was just enough left for a glass for each of them.

“I was trying to remember,” said Clarence, as he drank, “when it was that you first busted me. Six, seven years back?”

“Something like that. And you served … was it two years?”

“Time off for good behaviour.”

They both laughed.

Clarence said: “Where are you going?”

Densus shook his head. “I’m not going to tell you that, Clarence. Especially since my wife and kids are already there. And the last guy who told people where he was going, as soon as got there the place was fire-bombed.”

“You know that it wasn’t me that ordered that, right?”

“I know, but still … ”

Clarence nodded again. “Yeah, I get it. Truth is, I’m looking at getting out myself. You know I’ve got two kids, right? Four and six. I don’t think they’ll make it to eight. May as well have targets painted on them. But … where would I go? The only thing I know how to do is … what I do.”

“Yeah, well, this is probably where I’m supposed to say something about sowing and reaping, but it’s not really necessary, is it?”

“No, it isn’t. Say, you wouldn’t consider staying on, would you? Some of the other guys and I, we got together, thought we could pay you to keep doing the cop deal. And we would get rid of the bounty thing. Looking back, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea. And maybe we could get people to show a bit more … respect. You’d work for us, of course, but you’d still have a badge.”

Densus gave a little laugh. “Sorry, Clarence, I wouldn’t stay for any amount of money. There’s no place for me, not now. For years, everyone here has been saying that they don’t want cops. There’s no-one who wants to be protected by us, there’s no-one worth serving. So, okay, you win. Congratulations. No more cops. Everyone has got what they want. Los Través is yours. Enjoy.”

“Yeah,” said Clarence. “Yeah, that’s what I thought you would say. But I wanted to ask.” He finished his drink and stood up, and took his guns back. “By the way,” he said, “you probably shouldn’t go along Lawson Avenue tonight. Take another way.”

Densus nodded. “Thanks, Clarence,” he said. “And good luck.” They shook hands, a bit stiffly.

After Clarence had left, Densus sat for a while, thinking, finishing his drink. Then, eventually, he left the office. He turned out the lights. He went to the basement garage and got into his car and drove away, leaving the town where he had once lived, that he had once loved, to the future that it had chosen for itself.

END

Möbiuseat

1

Many people think I am a manipulative bitch but that is only because I am much, much more attractive than they are. Those people think that I only got my well-paid job in a design-and-decoration firm because I am sleeping with Jared, the CEO. Well, maybe. But I would point out that I also have a degree. It’s in, um, well, I forget exactly, something designy.

Jared, of course, has a wife, Helena. I’ve met her a few times. I didn’t like her, she didn’t like me, see above.

The company is ludicrously successful, mainly due to Dr Pandapaws, who is as close as you can get to a genius in the area of furniture design. He largely keeps to himself, until some piece of overpriced must-have rolls out of his studio/laboratory. I’m about the only one he deals with, perhaps because I do him little favours of a certain type. It’s a living.

Anyway, this is all back story. What I have to say really begins when I got a call from Dr Pandapaws saying that he wanted to show me something. What, again? I sighed and went to his lab.

But what he had wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was a new chair. Only about a foot high. Odd-looking hole in it.

“It’s a bit small, isn’t it?” I said.

“It’s a scale model,” he said. “I call it the Möbiuseat.”

“Huh. Might catch on. Umlauts are big this year.”

He sighed. “Where did you do your degree again?” he said.

“Uh, somewhere reputable, I think.”

He stared at me. “Your superficiality goes down for miles,” he said. “Anyway, a Möbius strip is a surface with only one side and only one boundary component. I’ll show you.”

He picked up a strip of paper. Then he turned one end over. Then he linked up the two ends and stapled them together into a kinky-looking loop. He ran his finger around the inside, and then his finger moved to the outside without going over an edge.

I yawned.

“When I turned it into a three-dimensional construct, I found that it had a very unusual property,” he continued.

He picked up an eraser and placed it on the model. It began to slide sideways. Then, suddenly, it vanished. Down the odd-looking hole. I looked behind the model, thinking it would be there. Nope.

“Do that again,” I said.

“Can’t,” he said. “I’m out of erasers.”

“Do they come out the other side?”

“As far as I can tell, there is no other side. Well, there might be. Not here, though. Or there might not be.”

I took a closer look at the model. To tell the truth, it was kind of hard to focus on.

“It’s a miracle of design science,” he proclaimed.

“Whatever.”

“Humph. Well, now for the full-scale prototype.” He picked up his tools and started to do whatever it was he did.

I returned to my office, slightly bemused. Then I sent a memo directing someone to send Dr Pandapaws a new box of erasers.

2

It was a few days later. When I breezed into the office, there was some sort of commotion going on. I asked Manager Maggie what was happening.

“It’s Dr Pandapaws,” she said. “We can’t find him anywhere.” She looked at me with a certain degree of suspicion. “Say, you wouldn’t know anything about it, would you?”

“Why should I?” I said innocently. Not a no, exactly.

Later, I went to the lab. Yes, there was a full-size Möbiuseat there, in a quite acceptable Alternate Sienna fabric. No Dr Pandapaws. Not here, in a very literal way.

I told the muscle guys to deliver it to my apartment. He would have wanted me to have it, I told them.

I took the model back to my office. Then I spent the afternoon making paperclips disappear. And thinking.

3

It actually didn’t go too badly in my apartment, although whenever you looked at it it seemed to have changed position slightly.

I needed a test subject. Damned if I was going to stick my hand into it. Might not get it back.

And then my cat came up to me, with that awful feed-me meowing noise they make.

Let me say that I have never really liked this cat. I only got it because women in sex-and-shopping novels usually have one. Of course, their cats don’t leave a trail of disgusting hair behind them.

The cat glanced at the Möbiuseat. It gave a little hiss.

I picked it up by the scruff of its neck. It began to snarl. Stupid cat.

“Don’t be such a pussy,” I said.

Then it was on the chair. The cat stared at me for a moment, with an expression of feline puzzlement. It began to slide sideways. Going, going, gone.

“Bye,” I said.

4

The next day was Wednesday. Jared and I usually got together on Wednesday night. I took the day off work.

I called Helena. We need to talk, I said. Come over.

When she arrived, she was clearly not a happy camper.

“Did you know that I am banging your husband?” I said. Just to get the conversational ball rolling.

She started. “Uh … I suspected … that is … sort of,” she said. “Do you … love him?”

“Who?”

“Jared.”

“Oh. Well, I don’t dislike him. He seems to be a pretty good fellow. Aside from the unfaithfulness thing, of course. Anyway, he wants us to be together. On a permanent basis. I’m alright with that.”

“Ha! Some hope, bitch! I have a pre-nup that says if he divorces me he loses everything, the money, the company, the lot.”

Ah. The pre-nup. Bimbo kryptonite. Although I will have to ensure I have one when I marry Jared – which is to say, marry Jared’s money. To ensure that any of my, you know, little transgressions are forgiven.

Helena was getting antsy now, pacing in angry circles.

“You should sit down,” I said.

“I don’t want to sit down!” she shouted. Then she looked around. “Do you have a cat?” she said.

“Not any more. Really, you should sit down. How about here?”

“I don’t want to sit down!”

“Yes you do.”

“No I don’t!”

I put two fingers on her chest and pushed. “Sure you do,” I said.

She sat down on the Möbiuseat.

She looked up at me with the same quizzical expression I had seen on the cat.

“What … ?” she started to say.

“Search me,” I said.

She started to slide. Funny, she didn’t try to get up. Now I thought about it, neither had the cat.

“And there you go,” I said.

5

In the evening, Jared came over. We did some pretty good sex, and then we were going to go out for dinner. I went into the bathroom to fix my lipstick.

“Say, what’s this?” he called from the living room.

“What’s what?”

“This brown thing. Looks comfortable.”

Uh-oh.

I ran back.

He was not there.

Son of a bitch.

I sat down on the couch opposite the Möbiuseat.

What a shame. Oh well, plenty more where he came from.

It occurred to me that there might be some official questions, what with several non-existent people around. I could imagine a policeman saying: do you know where they might be? And me saying, with complete honesty, I have no idea. Could be anywhere.

I collected Jared’s things. They went onto the Möbiuseat, and then they were no longer a problem. Damn, this thing is handy.

Anything else? Ah, Dr Pandapaws’ model. Could be a little incriminating, if you had a really suspicious mind. Which reminds me, I must invite Manager Maggie around for coffee sometime.

I put the model onto the Möbiuseat. As usual, it began to slide sideways. Then there was an odd little pause. Then it continued to slide. It vanished.

From somewhere, there was a strange rumbling sound. I looked around. Everything in the apartment seemed to have changed position, moving closer to the Möbiuseat. Furniture, walls, even me. And it was continuing.

Possibly, putting one Möbiuseat into another was not such a good idea. Like dividing by zero.

Yes, some sort of weird sucking vibe was definitely under way. I had a feeling that trying to run would be pretty useless. Like it or not, I was going … somewhere. Maybe a galaxy far, far away. Maybe nowhere.

Now I was close enough to the Möbiuseat to see into the hole. But there was nothing to see. You looked in, you saw the floor on the other side. Except that there was no other side. I thought: is this just my apartment? Or was everything on its way down … there? Okay, so I’ve destroyed the planet. Well, damn, I’m sorry. Not my fault, really. Or maybe it’s not just the planet. Maybe I’ve screwed up the entire univ

END