Second Prize

“Dae I know you, pal?”

He gets right in my face as he says it, almost knocking me out with the toxic fumes. I back away, partially for the sake of my nose, but also because I’m more intimidated than I should be by a man so much smaller than myself. Then again, he was once one of my heroes.

“No, but I think I recognise you. Didn’t you used to be Rab McLaughlin?”

“Still was last time I checked.”

“I was a big fan of yours – do you have time for a chat?”

“I’ve got time for a fucking drink, if that’s what you’re asking!”

I nod my agreement and buy in two pints. I take a light mouthful of mine; Rab makes serious inroads into his before I even get to ask about his football career.

“Must have been amazing playing for Hibs,” I observe, perhaps redundantly.

“Aye, fucking barry! I used to go out clubbing and the girls were all over me. Tits half out, skirts up to there,” he cups his scrotum, “And all wanting to go home with me!”

He shakes his head in apparent disbelief even as he beams at the memory.

“That’s great,” I say, “But what about on the pitch? That goal you scored against Celtic?”

“Aye, I enjoyed that, alright!” He stands up from his bar stool to re-enact the moment. “Put through one on one with big Pat Bonner, I’ve took this big backswing and gone as if to hit it. Pat’s bought it, hook, line and sinker: he’s dived full length to his left, but I’ve just rolled my foot over it, gone past him and walked it into the net! I was looking over my shoulder and laughing at the bastard when I finally knocked it in. Celtic fans behind the goal weren’t happy. Couple of ‘em caught up with me after the game – they said I should’ve shown more respect. I wouldnae back down though, said I’d take ‘em both on, but one of ‘em landed a lucky punch and the bastards cost me a couple of weeks in hospital and a couple of months out of the team.”

“The paper said you’d pulled your hamstring.”

“So now you know the truth. Or maybe I’m thinking of another time, I was pissed more often than not.”

I nod along to that without knowing why, trying to dig up another question. “Oh, what about that second goal against St Mirren, do you remember that?”

He frowns. “Actually, no. Likesay, I was pissed more often than not.” He takes another large swig, as if to emphasise the point. “Tell you what I do remember though, that missed penalty against the Jambos. How unfair is that? All the great stuff I can’t remember, but I can’t forget that no matter much I drink.”

I wasn’t going to bring that up. We were drawing one-all at the end of the local derby against Hearts and got a penalty. Rab wasn’t the usual taker, but he must have fancied the glory, because he snatched the ball, placed it on the spot, cocky as you like, and then booted it into Row Z. One of the Hearts players got into his face crowing about it, so Rab head butted him and got sent off.

“I went on a proper one that night, I tell you! Cannae remember who I saw or what I did, but I woke up in hospital three days later with a fractured skull. I don’t know if some Hearts fan got me with a lucky punch, or if I just fell down some steps, but that was me done for the season. Done forever, actually. Start of the next season, gaffer says he wants me to go on loan to Cowdenbeath! I say I’m not playing for Cowden-fucking-beath no matter what. I stormed out of his office and spent the next few days in the pub. When I get home there’s a message telling me I’m sacked! And I’ve never set foot on a football pitch since.”

So much for his football career. “So what are you doing with yourself now, then?” I ask.

“What’s it fucking look like I’m daeing?”

“Oh, right. Sorry.”

“Dinnae be sorry pal, I like it here. As long as some doss bastard keeps buying my beer, I’ve got everything I need in this bar. I tell you what though, I could have been a wealthy man today.”

“Oh yeah, footballers today earn millions.”

“I’m not talking about football, pal – what is it with you and football, there’s more to life you know! I’m talking serious business here.” He lowers his voice for the first and only time, “The skag. I’m no fan of that shite myself, my poison’s – you already know well enough what my poison is. But my mate Rents and a few others, they got a load of it off some guy. We all went down to London, right posh hotel, to sell to this proper rich bastard. He’s got these personal bodyguards and everything, big suitcase full of cash, and it felt more big time than playing for Hibs ever did. We got twenty grand or so, I forget how much exactly, ‘cos I was drinking the whole time, but it worked out as a few grand each, nae bother. We gave it to Rents to look after ‘cos no one else could be trusted. One of us was a complete skagheid who might lose it all, one was a conniving bastard who’d rip us off given half a chance, and another was a complete psycho who’d slit your throat for a ten pound note, never mind a backpack full of ‘em. No one even asked me, cannae think why, but that was their mistake ‘cos when we got up next morning, after a bit of a session the night before, Rents was gone, and so was the money. All that way for nothing, and we never saw him or the cash ever again.” Another swig of his beer. “Fuck it though, good luck to the bastard, wherever he is.”

Rab drains the last of his pint and stares at a spot on the wall for a minute, before turning back to me once again. “Dae I know you, pal?”

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BristolCon 2017

The ninth running of the Bristol Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention took place on the Saturday before Halloween, and for the second year running I was there as a panellist. Last year my appearance was in the 12 o’clock slot, but this year was much later – in fact I had to ask them to bring it forward, because it coincided with my train home.

So it was reset for 6pm, which meant I could take part, but it also meant that unlike last year when I could get it out of the way early, the nervewracking spectre would cast a shadow over the event. I also lacked 2016’s protection, when I was flanked by Jo Hall and Sammy Smith.

Nevertheless, there was fun to be had, and people I was looking forward to seeing. And I had extra time to do so once a late running train kiboshed the first panel for me, so I went to the dealers’ room, specifically the Grimbold Books table, to meet up with my stablemates from this BFS Award winning publisher.

By 11am I was with the programme, starting with the sadly Snarf-hating Jen Williams’ interview followed by Steve McHugh’s reading and subsequent panel appearance in which spiders were revealed to be the most terrifying creatures in this or any other universe.

After that I switched to Room Two for the only time, a scientific panel predicting a future which could be very bleak indeed. Although the consensus was that humankind will get through it, because we always do.

And until the end of the world as we know it, I’m going to keep on augmenting my signed book collection, and the mass signing came next. I was very happy to add titles by Anna Smith Spark, Paul Cornell, Janet Edwards, Joel Cornah, Ellen Croshain, and Pete and Emma Newman to my growing list. It was also quite amusing for me, coming at a time while I’m working on a story in which a crazed book fan murders the authors of his signed books to increase their value.

Getting into mid-afternoon, I saw the panel on mapmaking in SFF, moderated by Grimbold’s own Sophie Tallis, and featuring another Grimmie in Joel Cornah, after which I moved away from the panel room for refreshments and to listen to some soothing theremin music as my own appearance approached. This in turn led to my favourite moment of the entire convention, when as many of the Grimmies as we could find gathered together for a photo opportunity with the BFS award trophy. I’m so proud of this group, not just for the quality of their books, but for the way they’ve opened their arms to me and made me into a family member in a world where I’d previously felt like an outsider.

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The 5pm panel passed me by a little bit as I psyched myself up for my own appearance, where I was joined by Danie Ware, Elizabeth Jones, Nick Hembery, and the moderator Jo Lindsay Walton. These late panels are always tough, with many people having already left or decamped to the bar, and the remaining panellists and punters alike starting to run low on energy. However, I think it went well; Jo surprised us with some smart bomb questions, and crucially, both myself and Nick remembered the prefix “award winning” when we mentioned Grimbold Books. And at the very last moment I remembered to recommend the Phineas and Ferb episode “Nerds of a Feather” as an alternate take on our debate about the divisions between Sci-Fi and Fantasy.

I needed a quick getaway after that, but just had time for a quick goodbye with Jo Hall, along with a see you next year, when she will be a Guest of Honour! That in itself makes it unmissable, regardless of its proximity to FantasyCon.

 

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Non-League Day 2017

So, that was the Non-League Day that was, one for which I found myself torn between two games, one with the biggest crowd of the day and the other watched by 110 people, which was a good crowd for that level.

Having fallen victim to a Non-League Day curse last year when Romsey Town’s game was rained off (we get the occasional waterlogged pitch down here!), I nearly missed out again as Totton & Eling’s scheduled opponents Weymouth Reserves dropped out of Wessex League Division 1, confirming some people’s reservations about a reserve team being allowed in. Thankfully, a fixture reshuffle brought Fawley in for something of a local derby, although most games are in that division.

I’ve lived in Totton for seven years but have yet to see the Millers. The old ground was close to me, and in use for a couple of weeks after my arrival, but I never made it there until it was redeveloped into the beautiful cricket ground which stands there now, which has hosted no less a star as Glenn Maxwell in his Southern League days, and even a Twenty20 international between Jersey and the UAE.

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T&E’s new home is a three-mile trek from their heartland, the ground being in the north-west corner of the town, whereas Eling is in the south-east corner. But the long and lonely walk – no pre-match buzz or congestion here – was eventually rewarded by the sight of an impressive stadium: a big main stand on one side with plastic seats, clubhouse, snack bar and club shop, a bike shed style covered stand of bench seating opposite, and stone step terracing behind each goal.

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Unfortunately for T&E, this is the home of AFC Totton, and the Millers play immediately behind the Stags’ stadium, quite literally in the shadow of their bigger neighbours. Their own facilities are more modest, but I’ve seen a lot worse. They have brick buildings housing changing rooms and a snack bar, either side of a curious stand which has four rows of wide, flat bench seating, but also 24 pristine straight-backed plastic seats in the middle. But these are labelled as being for directors’ use only, and no one ever sits there. Most unusual of all is the tiny bus shelter style covered standing area right behind one goal. It has full to bursting capacity of about ten, and when I say right behind I mean it, like you could whisper sweet nothings in the keeper’s ear when he’s lining up to take a goal-kick.

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The match itself was, as you might expect, a glorious showcase of Route One football and bone-rattling tackles. T&E had former Premier League star and Norway international Jo Tessem in their line-up, but still the midfield was dominated by Greener, Fawley’s absolute bulldog of a skipper, and the visitors generally seemed to hold the upper hand. Nevertheless after half an hour there was no score, and I was already close to writing it off as having nil-nil written all over it.

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Meanwhile, we had the same scoreline at Prenton Park. This was the sum total of the information provided on the BBC website, before I had the idea of following the game through the Chester FC Facebook page, which enthused about a string of outstanding saves from Alex Lynch to keep the scores level.

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There was less effective goalkeeping back at T&E though, where their stopper fumbled a corner for Fawley to bundle home for half-time lead. Although he deserved better luck ten minutes into the second half when he pulled off an excellent save, and then again from the follow up, only to be beaten at the third attempt with his defenders not doing enough to help him out.

At 2-0 the game seemed pretty much decided, but it was just the beginning of the scoring, and the goals were to become more spectacular, if a little bizarre at times. T&E brought themselves back into the contest through their left-back, albeit looking like a centre-back with the build of Robert Huth. His low drive from the edge of the box was blocked, but he stuck his meaty forehead on the rebound, and it arrowed into the top corner for the longest range headed goal I’ve ever seen.

At 2-1 T&E were fighting to get something out of the game, but no one was fighting harder than Greener on the day, and it was fitting that he should win it. And in such style! Another corner was pattacaked out to the edge of the D, where the Fawley captain met it with a thunderous strike which cannoned off the post and nestled into the net. Finally the points were safe, but Fawley still had time to inflict further damage at the end, smuggling on a Tyson Fury lookalike (and former Millwall Lioness according to this pic) up front to see out injury time, and then celebrating wildly as he scored with his first touch, a sumptuous lob over the keeper with the outside of his foot. And the final 4-1 scoreline may have been a little harsh on T&E, but no one could deny that Fawley were good value for the win.

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With that game finished, my attention turned to the all-important closing stages from the local derby, from which Facebook reported yet more heroics in the Chester goal, making Lynchian also an adjective for magnificent shot-stopping, and not just for making impenetrable television which people pretend to understand and like in an attempt to look clever and cool (damn, but that that scream still chills me to the bone, though).

The BBC was channelling its inner Joe Friday and offering just the facts, which in this case was a flurry of yellow cards being waved at Chester players in the last few minutes. This painted a picture in my mind of us doggedly getting those hard tackles in, and maybe even indulging in a little bit of timewasting to preserve that precious point. And when the Beeb finally let me know that the game was over (by which time I was nearly halfway home) I imagined the final whistle being greeted by groans and boos from three sides of the stadium, but rapturous applause from the other. Music to my ears.

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So in terms of adding another sporting venue to my visited list (this was my 103rd!), seeing a few goals, and Chester getting a result, I’m classifying NLD 2017 as a success. And here’s a thought: the next one will be in an international break for the UEFA Nations League. The times they are a-changing …

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A Poopyhead goes to CrimeFest

I’ve been wanting to go to CrimeFest for years, ever since being a runner-up in the 2012 Flashbang competition, organised by Sarah Hilary and judged by Zoe Sharp, for which a place at the convention was on offer for the winner.

So this year I finally broke that duck in the Con’s unexpectedly sun-drenched and surprisingly beautiful resident city of Bristol. It started on Thursday 18th May, and my first perk on day one was discovering a Pizza Hut a few doors away from the convention hotel. One all you can eat buffet later I dragged myself in for the opening panel on debut authors. Steph Broadribb had an impressive tale of training as a bounty hunter as research for her book, although I found Mary Torjussen’s contrastingly prosaic setting within her own home town more endearing.

The last two panels were my favourites , with Felix Francis, following in father Dick’s footsteps, stealing the show in the Hunter Hunted panel. I worked in a betting shop for ten years and love a day at the races, but had never felt drawn to these books until now.  After that a fresher, more youthful group put on my favourite panel of the day, with Catherine Ryan Howard revealing that the best way to get away with murder is to commit it on a cruise ship, and Felicia Yap intriguing us with her forthcoming release ‘Yesterday’, which seems to veer so far into Science Fiction that it would be better suited to neighbouring BristolCon, but is no less appealing to me for that.

I was back on Friday morning at the brutally early time of 9am, which cost me a hotel breakfast. But at least two interesting panels helped wake me up, one on serial killers and the other about racing against time. And after that, quite fittingly seeing as where my interest started, I got my first two autographs of the con from Zoe Sharp and Sarah Hilary.

After lunch I returned to an excellent and useful panel on genre boundaries, after which I got my copy of Behind Her Eyes signed by Sarah Pinborough, and after sitting in on one more, returned to my hotel room to prepare for the CWA Dagger award nominations. With it mostly being longlists, and in a multitude of categories, I won’t list them all here, but I was most pleased about the nomination for The Beautiful Dead by Belinda Bauer. And the free wine; that was good too.

What with the hangover and getting a hotel breakfast this time,  Saturday’s early start was even more daunting, so I was just a smidge late for the first panel, but found Sarah Pinborough especially on top form the discussion about scaring readers, with the genres being crossed to namecheck Silence of the Lambs and M.R. James, not for the first nor last times in the con. Genre remained in focus next, in a discussion outlining all the subgenres that can fall under the crime umbrella. Quite cheering for the aspiring author this, providing reassurance that there is an audience for many more types of story than you might realise.

Alison Bruce had a brilliant idea for the next panel on good and bad guys in police procedurals, issuing red, yellow and green cards to a panel featuring two authors I’ve been meaning to read, Fergus McNeill (who I should not have missed at Totton Library) and Sharon Bolton (who proudly collected most of the reds). Unfortunately the whole theme had me ruminating on my own murky morality and cloudy conscience, so I may have zoned out for parts of a very lively and amusing discussion.

After a break in which I failed to charm my way into the hotel swimming pool, denting my self-confidence, breaking a budding tradition, and meaning I’d packed the previous day’s pants for nothing, I returned for entertaining and informative Guest of Honour interviews with Anthony Horowitz and Anne Cleeves, and the obligatory book signing afterwards, before taking an early night, the lure of Doctor Who in my hotel room proving stronger than the desire for another hangover.

It was just a short session on Sunday, with me kicking myself for booking a train that departed too close for comfort from the end of the event. I did at least have time for two panels quite useful for the aspiring writer; the first being on self-publishing, a refreshing change from the big-press bias shown hitherto. However, the eye-watering recommended expenditure of 500 on covers and 1500 on editing would alienate most bottom rung writers, and leaves me glad I have such unshakeable belief in my own editing ability (I’m available for freelance editing by the way, and cheaper than quoted above), and hoping I haven’t ripped off Karl Miller too badly (best 100 quid I ever spent, and highly recommended for anyone wanting a hand-drawn cover image).

My convention swansong panel was on short stories. I see a big market for them in speculative fiction, but less so in crime, and there were more cross-genre recommendations, once again for M.R. James, and also for my favourite sci-fi short, The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster, a dystopian story which has pretty much come true a century later, forecasting the rise of social media and the way it divides as much as unites us.

Other highlights of the Sunday included presenting Christopher Fowler with a whole stack of Bryant & Mays to sign (bringing my autographed book collection to 128 as long as I can find Marcus Tillett’s tome about computer programming) thinking Sarah Hilary had won the CWA Dagger for comedy(!) before realising she had in fact won the prize draw for predicting the winner, and chatting to Felicia Yap about the enormous sci-fi potential of her forthcoming book, and extolling the spec-fic convention scene, not least a return to this city for BristolCon.

The shame of the day was having to leave before the final event, in which a chance to win tickets for next year were up for grabs. I’ve taken a vow not to come to any more until I’m a proper pro writer (exceptions are BristolCon and FantasyCon if it returns to Brighton), but winning tickets would have blown that vow away. Maybe I could find another loophole in volunteering for a Con, but that’s something to think about when I get home. In any case, I look forward to returning to CrimeFest, whensoe’er it may be.

As a postscript, the lowlights of the last day came after the Fest, and are what gave me the silly title for this piece. First, about three steps outside my hotel, one of Bristol’s avian residents decided to drop that which it drops, right on my head. First time in 42 and a quarter years of life that’s happened. I went back into the hotel where the concierge told me that means good luck, which was great consolation as I went into the toilets to wash my hair with dispenser soap, then dry it by squatting unfeasibly low so I could be beneath the hand dryer. And although I dodged that particular bullet second time I left, good luck was thin on the ground as the wheels on my luggage broke, leaving me needing to push, drag, and backbreakingly carry a bag full of books the half mile to Temple Meads, which became three quarters of a mile due to my starting in the wrong direction in my poopyheaded confusion. But some good fortune occurred at the station when my train was right there when I went through the turnstiles, no waiting, and moreover, no stairs. It ends on a win!

On a very big win, in fact – during the five minutes the train wi-fi actually worked, I found this excellent review and interview: http://www.inkpantry.com/books-from-the-pantry-midlife-crisis-by-jason-whittle-reviewed-by-inez-de-miranda/ http://www.inkpantry.com/inky-interview-author-jason-whittle-by-inez-de-miranda/. I’d gladly wear a guano hat all the live long day for that kind of reader response!

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Jay’s Four Star Club 2016

Drown – Junot Diaz

Shades of Carver and Kerouac as Diaz uses beautiful language to describe ugly situations. This is often shocking, disturbing or heartbreaking, but with a daring sense of audacity running through it.

On Deadly Ground (also known as King Blood) – Simon Clark

This is one of the best created apocalyptic scenarios I have ever read, epic in both scale and execution. It cleverly juxtaposes the cosmic disaster with the personal problems and human relationships, focusing on humanity’s inevitable lapse into savagery and showing it in brutally stark detail.

Mr Mercedes – Stephen King

Utterly compelling narrative with unlikely heroes who are both likeable and believable. The pacing is excellent, moving this into the unputdownable category, with foreshadowed twists and signposted wrong-footers alike hitting the spot and the tension rarely dipping.

Bodies of Water – V.H. Leslie

Clever dual timeline narrative with tantalising drip feed of information, constructing the characters so that they feel almost cosy in their familiarity, which makes it all the more unsettling when the rug is pulled from under you. Thoughtful yet fast-paced, with fascinating information seeping through from the author’s research as well.

Accidental Death of an Anarchist – Dario Fo

This is funny, frenetically paced and with a hard hitting political message, pitching the balance just right between entertaining, satirising and sermonising, as well as repeatedly breaking down and rebuilding the fourth wall for added comedic and dramatic effect.

A Song of Stone – Iain Banks

Bleak, beautiful, and brilliant. Sumptuous prose throughout, absolutely breathtaking at times, with a highly unusual but understated second person narrative. Set against an apocalyptic backdrop, the war story retreats to show a vivid, intense, and sensuous study of the most complicated love triangle I’ve ever read about.

The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch

Judy Blume meets Jacques Cousteau as Lynch fuses a coming of age drama with the Encyclopaedia of the Sea. This is a gentle but powerful insight into small town mentality, sudden fame, love, loss and responsibility, and those feelings we feel in making the difficult transition from boy to man. That it also happens to be the most charming and emotive book about sea life you’re ever likely to read is an added bonus.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die – Marnie Riches

Riches creates a leading character who, while being brilliant, remains wholly believable and endearing, with ambitions and vulnerabilities that anyone can relate to. The story is intelligently plotted and packed with twists and red herrings, and the way two seemingly separate strands join together is ingenious.

Little Boy Blue – M.J. Arlidge

Arlidge takes an understanding and non-judgemental approach to the underground scene, and depicts it unflinchingly yet with sensitivity, never letting it detract from the crux of the story. And in a world full of predictable endings, this one bucks the trend, big style!

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child – Jack Thorne, J.K. Rowling and John Tiffany

After a slowish couple of acts to get into its stride, this hits hard and consistently, with increased pacing, high emotion, intrigue, and suspense. There are nostalgic, even heartbreaking looks at previously lost favourites, and new depths being added to much-loved, and also not so loved characters.

The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

Rounded and compelling characters with believable virtues, drivers and flaws, an unpredictable plot full of twists and turns, and plenty of humour and heart blended in along with the adventure. At any given time it could be hilarious, harrowing, or heartbreaking, sometimes all three in quick succession.

The Fireman – Joe Hill

This tells the story and it feels the feels. The science makes sense, the characters, good and bad, are consistently authentic and compelling, and the plot is well constructed and unpredictable. And at times it’s absolutely heartrending.

Ultimatum – Simon Kernick

Fast-paced and full of action, cinematic in its scope and with a plot like a corkscrew. This is basically a big-budget summer blockbuster on paper.

Blacklands – Belinda Bauer

Incredibly bold narrative choices, one a child, one a child killer, building a taut and tense story with compelling characters that gathers pace towards a frenetic conclusion.

Hercule Poirot’s Christmas – Agatha Christie

Does just what you’d expect of Agatha Christie, combining an upper class comedy of manners with a brutal murder, a fiendish mystery, and the brilliant workings of Poirot’s little grey cells.

To Usher, The Dead – Gary McMahon

Provides a great variety of stories, whilst still maintaining a consistent narrative voice. Even in the shorter stories, there is surprising depth of plot and character.

Pretty Little Dead Things – Gary McMahon

Solid, well-constructed plot involving two intertwining cases and the main characters personal life, a good mix of the real world and the supernatural, compelling, believable characterisation, and excellent, sumptuous descriptive passages.

Tastes Like Fear – Sarah Hilary

Expert plotting, quality prose, unflinching grittiness, emotional depth, stunning plot twists. What I’ve come to expect from this author.

The Final Minute – Simon Kernick

Breakneck, blockbuster plotting and pacing, bold choice of anti-hero narrator, and tight writing with twists aplenty.

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The Redemption Machine

New Year’s Eve, and we all stand in line, but not for a party. Not yet, but maybe later for 90% of us. At 61 years old I’m one of the oldest people in this town, but this is the first time in my life that we’ve faced this date with genuine hope that the year ahead will be better than the one just passed.

This has not been a good year, with the ever-present poverty and shame giving way to nationwide mourning after the passing of our last king. The irony that the royal bloodline ended with the death of King William in 2066 was stark to me but lost on most people. There are few schools still standing, and those we have don’t teach history. At least, not any further back than the Civil War which started nearly 50 years ago now.

We won the war, and by “we” I mean The Rich. And lucky me, I was just old enough to fight in the last few years of it. I was only 18 when I served at the Slaughter of Salford, lauded at the time as our most noble victory, lamented nowadays as our most callous atrocity. It turned the tide of the war irrevocably in our favour, and was a key component in our ultimate triumph.

It was a pyrrhic victory. After years of fighting, and wasting all our resources to subdue or kill those less fortunate than ourselves, we ended the war poorer than our enemies had been at the start of it. We celebrated VP Day with stale bread and dirty water.

Guilt over the Civil War, and our failure to restore even the most basic levels of prosperity, have shaped both our national identity and everyday lives ever since. Countless initiatives have been tried down the years to solve these dual problems and all have failed miserably. But this latest invention promises to change our lives forever – The Redemption Machine.

Some people say it’s a product of genius, others that it’s a gift from God, while some claim that it’s just an infernal contraption which tortures indiscriminately or at the behest of the hierarchy. You don’t want to know what I think. Even I don’t want to know what I think. It’s dangerous to have opinions round here, and potentially suicidal to actually voice them.

What most people don’t know is that the machine was originally called The Decimator, but the council decided that the name had too many negative connotations. Yes, it would kill a tenth of the population, but only as part of the streamlining and self-improvement of the country as a whole. No point worrying the populace by selling it on its least appealing aspect.

It’s a magnificent and terrifying sight. A colossal mechanical beast, twenty feet high, ready to unleash its wrath. The technology behind it looks about two centuries out of date; it appears to be powered by steam and clockwork. I can see a vast, intertwining network of cogs, pulleys and pistons, but there is nothing whatsoever to indicate what might actually take place inside.

I watch the first man approach the machine. He seems to feel everybody’s eyes on him, because he looks self-consciously around as he steps in. There is a moment of complete silence. A collectively held breath. And then the screams begin. His howls of terror and agony transfix all of us stood outside, and the overwhelming sense of our own dread increases with each and every second that passes. Some in the line are shocked, but it’s just what I expected; nothing comes easily anymore, and redemption has its price. This year was always going to be the worst, anyway. On subsequent occasions we will only have twelve months of sin to purge, but today it’s our whole lives.

The screaming stops, and something amazing happens. The man re-emerges looking younger and infinitely happier than he did before he went in. He beams, waves to the onlooking crowd, and hugs the machine’s attendant in a warm and enthusiastic embrace.

The next person to go through is a young woman. I don’t know if the machine is chivalrous, but her ordeal appears to be much briefer and less extreme. However, when she comes out she doesn’t seem to appreciate this. She looks as if she feels cheated out of the transformative experience that her predecessor went through.

The people around me speculate that the machine inflicts the most pain for longest on the people who deserve the most punishment, but they in turn receive the most benefit from it. There is even some indignation at the perceived unfairness of them being thus rewarded for their misdeeds. Such talk ceases when the next man undergoes what sounds like an ordeal of unimaginable suffering, for a duration that seems never-ending. I wonder what he might have done to deserve such retribution, and am curious to see what state he’s in when he leaves the machine.

But when his cries finally come to an end, there is no sign of him. Instead, the machine’s attendant appears, addresses the crowd and announces “His body lives not, but his soul is saved. He is redeemed.”

Cheers go up all around me. I suspect they are celebrating their own increased chances of survival, rather the salvation of the soul of this presumably hitherto wicked man. We are here for redemption, but none of us want to join the ten percenters.

For the next few hours I watch a succession of people receive their penance and come out altered, or not at all. I try to count them, to keep a tally of the 10% quota and also because seeing them as numbers makes it seem less real. But inevitably, my mind wanders. It wanders back to Salford, and the faces of the children…

My turn finally comes, and as I step into the machine I just have time to think: I hope it doesn’t know about-

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Zombies at Christmas

Smelly Biting People

Mummy and Daddy were in such a rush that they didnt stop at the toy shop or even McDonalds. It was so unfair! Theyd been shopping all day long for cards and presents and wrapping paper for everybody except me. I would have been glad they stopped but all the people got really mean and grumpy not just my Mummy and Daddy but everybody else too. They were all scared of the smelly biting people. I cant remember what the grown ups called them, but thats what they were.

We saw one the day before and I thought it was totally wicked cool. He was dressed up as Father Christmas but Daddy said he wasnt the real Father Christmas and he had a fight with a man and he bit him and made him bleed and then a policeman came and he bit him too and the policeman had a fight with the biting man and the policeman won because he hit the biting man on the head with his big truncheon stick and he knocked him out. Mummy was scared but I think Daddy thought it was cool too and he said Its just a random nutter. They can turn up anywhere. And later on he said Its just a coinsedents when he saw on the news that some other people were doing it too and Its not worth cancelling the Christmas shopping trip for.

So we all had to go into town and it was all boring until someone said theyd seen another smelly biting person and this time it wasnt just one random nutter it was loads of them. Theyre coming! I heard somebody shout and thats when Mummy and Daddy started walking really fast and grabbing my hand and nearly dragging me along. I tried to get them to slow down when we went past the Disney shop I said You promised we could buy toys and have burgers and Mummy said I know and Im sorry but we have to get away from here as fast as we can.

Mummy and Daddy were being really mean and made me keep going for ages. I started to cry and it wasnt just me cos all around us grown ups were crying and screaming too. And then a lady suddenly shouted Oh my God! Theyre here!

Mummy always told me off whenever I said Oh my God! but she never said anything to that lady. Daddy just picked me up instead of holding my hand and started running as fast as he could and when I looked over his shoulder I could see all the smelly biting people behind us. Suddenly Daddy stopped and said something even worse than Oh my God!  Thats when I turned around and could see that they werent just behind us they were in front as well.

 

Getting Into the Spirit

A few years ago, everyone was going on about the Mayan calendar and the end of days. He didn’t have time for it then, and he didn’t have time for it now. There were presents to buy, the dreaded visit from his parents to endure, and the office party coming up, where he’d finally make his move on Emma.

Anyway, these things always happened somewhere else, and were never as bad as Sky News said they would be. He remembered them making out that Foot and Mouth was the end of the world, then 9/11, 3/11 and 7/7, avian flu, swine flu and SARS. But the last time he’d checked there were still cows, pigs, birds and terrorists, and people got ill and got better, just like before. Nothing ever changed, not really. Until a routine Christmas shopping trip was disrupted first by panic buyers, and then by a legion of the undead preying upon them.

He stood and watched, frozen in shock and fear. Just a few yards away, a young mother fought to rescue her toddler from the zombies, only to find herself being dragged to the ground and torn apart by gnashing jaws. He made no move to help her; what could he do? And besides, standing motionless and open-mouthed seemed to be a good way of avoiding the zombies’ attention. They were leaving him alone, but everybody who screamed or tried to run suffered the same fate, turned into human turkeys by sheer weight of numbers and becoming Christmas dinner for the dead.

He tried to get away quickly, but the wintry ice made the ground too slippery to run. He lurched and stumbled along, seeing his reflection in a shop window and realising he looked just like the zombies. Hmm… that might work. He held his arms out in front of him and continued with his unsteady shuffling steps, adding a mournful groan for good measure. The zombies just ignored him as he staggered past, away from the carnage and towards his home. It was working! The relief flooded through him and a broad smile began to spread across his face, but he quickly suppressed it. Zombies don’t smile, even at the most wonderful time of the year.

At his ultra-slow walking pace it took him an hour to get home, and all around him he saw men, women and children overpowered, ripped open and eaten alive. He wanted to cry, scream, and run for his life, but he couldn’t do any of these things. So he met every sight, sound and smell with the same blank and vacant expression, a sick parody of a poker face, until he arrived at his front door.

He took his keys out of his jacket pocket, but the jangling noise alerted the zombies around him. There were plenty of them, and they all turned to him. Was that just hunger in their eyes, or was it…yes, it was suspicion! Of course. Zombies don’t use keys. So he just held them in front of him and stared at them as if he didn’t know what they were, before dropping them to the ground and trudging onwards. He’d have to keep up the pretence for a while longer.

He was very good at it. He managed to keep up his shambling walk and slack-jawed stare all day long, and then all through the next day, and then he lost track of time altogether. All he knew was the cold, and then the numbness, and then the hunger, but his poker face belied none of these things. He was a method actor, a secret agent, the perfect imitation of the undead. Nobody could tell him apart from the real thing.

Until one day it seemed that someone did. A woman who lingered too long in an alleyway and got herself surrounded. He was the first to reach her, and thought he saw relief in her eyes, as if he was there to rescue her. But he was still in character, and couldn’t drop the act now, so instead he clawed at her with eager fingers. The first swipe removed her heavy coat; the second shredded her flimsy blouse, and a soft breast came spilling out. He became briefly aware of some other desire he used to have, but he couldn’t afford to give himself away now. So his next touch was to pin her down and sink his teeth into her throat. He continued gnawing away until the screaming stopped, because on some level, deep down inside, it made him feel uncomfortable. But once she went quiet, he was able to enjoy the rest of his feed and slurp eagerly on her delicious blood.

That was the first time he’d eaten or drank in days, and it revitalised him so much that he had to make a conscious effort not to look happy. He was full of strength and energy now, and could walk with the zombies for as long as it took, forever if he needed to. He was that deep undercover.

He had a name once, but he could no longer remember it. He didn’t need it anymore; there was nobody left to use it. Maybe he was the last man alive. Maybe he was mankind’s last hope. Or maybe he’d already died from malnutrition, exhaustion or exposure and turned into that which he thought he was pretending to be. He preferred to think he was getting into the spirit of the season. A season that would never end.

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