The Listener in the Box (Short Story)

The air was very still and I could hear myself breathing. Low gasps of breath, the kind you take when you’re not sure what’s going on and you’re aware that your breathing sounds louder than usual. It was dark, darker than the night sky, darker than the deepest mine. I could see nothing, no lit outline of person or object. And it was mostly quiet although I could hear something. Sometimes it seemed far off, sometimes it sounded like whatever it could be was almost on top of me. My confusion was as deep as the darkness around me. And then a noise became clear. It was a voice, I tried to link a face to the words.

“WHAT THE FUCK WERE YOU THINKING!? Why didn’t you watch where you were going?

Even at its loudest and most angry, the voice remained calm and low, like they were trying to keep what they were saying between me and them. It was Steven, my best mate, and a man who I was indebted to for many reasons. He got me, and we had enjoyed many jolly japes in our time and together we, or he, had got us out of them. He could also take credit for getting me to start drinking after years of sobriety, for taking me to the pub, for saving me from the many fights I got into, and for getting me some help when it all got really silly. He was a real friend, not the kind who wants to lap up your bad news like a bad soup. What had I done?

I kept imagining the darkness would go away. I closed my eyes and then opened them again and it made no difference. Maybe I’m blind and everything around me is as real as you or me. It was just that my eyes lacked the ability to paint my pictures. It was starting to freak me out that I wasn’t able to see and I tried to sit up, but I couldn’t. My muscles refused to budge. I felt a cold bolt of lightning run down my back and legs as I realised I couldn’t move. And then I heard another voice, and knew this one immediately.

“Hi Sam……..How are you? Sorry, silly question I suppose……..Stevie’s mad at you, but I’m not. I’m trying to keep it together for your mum. She’s sobbing all the time. I haven’t cried, I still hope that it’s all going to be fine. It is Sam isn’t it. It has to be. See you later. I love you.”

I recognise that voice, Ellie, she’s my partner. Or girlfriend as I still prefer to call her. Partner sounds like we run a McDonald’s franchise. So I stuck with girlfriend even though she was constantly telling me off for it. The look she gave when chastising me was always a loving look, with just a hint of a smile, and I suppose that was her way of allowing me to be myself, despite her own strong contemporary beliefs. She was very good at letting me be me, even though I was a pain in the arse. She made me being me seem easy and that’s all a partner should be.   I’ll have to start saying partner instead of girlfriend.

I started to make out noises like footsteps. They kept to the same rhythm, becoming more emphatic as they neared. These folks were in their smartest shoes, the clip-clop kind that always cost a fortune, high heels for women and metal toes for men. The only difference was the speed, some people walked like penguins, quickly while barely lifting their legs. Others walked like they were taking huge steps every time and hopping from stepping stone to stepping stone trying not to get wet. I had never noticed this before. That’s something else to tell Ellie when I see her next. I hope she comes back soon. I miss her voice, although now that I come to think about it I couldn’t smell her when she was standing over me even though she was inches away. I can also hear the faint sound of crying. If there’s one thing I hate it’s a fuss. Give me a little time and I’ll be fighting fit, ready to take on the world again. Once again I could hear footsteps coming towards me. They were long, slow steps, as if a little nervous of coming to see me.

“You don’t know me. I’m the reason you’re here. I’m sorry Sam.”

And with that I heard the footsteps again, but much faster this time, heading as far from me as possible, shuffling with embarrassment. Well, that’s a fine thing to say to a sick man, who was that? I didn’t recognise the voice this time but I hope he gets the next train to the land of positivity. I wish I could see, I’d pretend to be asleep next time he came around.

I became aware of a continual weeping and sniffing to my left that was getting louder and louder. This was getting silly. It sounds like my mum, but I haven’t heard her footsteps, has she been there for a while? Or is she getting lighter footed in her old age? Not that she is old, she’s 54. She does sometimes act like each day is her last and that can get a bit wearing. Maybe she needs to take a train ride with that other guy. It could be the start of a beautifully miserable relationship! Anyway, she sounds very sad, if only I could lift an arm and reach out to her. I hope it’s enough for her that I’m thinking about her and if I could, I’d give her one of my legendary bear hugs. People underestimate how powerful a hug can be. I can hear more footsteps.

“Andrea, how are you?” said a voice.

“I’m fine, been a difficult few days since……..” said my mum.

“I can imagine. We’re all thinking of you and Sam. If there is anything we can do, you have to promise to let us know.”

“OK, I promise, thanks for being so kind. I think we both need that at the moment.”

And with that both sets of feet wandered off, leaving me to ponder what had happened to me. I remembered little, but the last thing I did remember was the setting sun on my face and birds in the sky. I also remember Ellie. I was taking her for dinner, nowhere flashy but somewhere she liked and I remember the night we had after, full of joy, warmth and talk about what we wanted to do in life. We had been together for a year and in that time we had made vague plans of getting married and a dog, although not necessarily in that order. She loved animals, although some said that was why she loved me. I wasn’t the best choice for a future but I had dreams and hopes that I wanted to share with her. I just couldn’t always explain them. On that night I shared my thoughts and she smiled and looked almost embarrassed that I wanted all these things with her. That smile made me really happy and despite her sad words earlier, that’s the face I remember now. I promised myself that when I got up again I wouldn’t just talk about being her partner, a good partner, I would act like one. This made me feel better than I had all day.

I tried to call out, to find out what had happened, but my mouth remained still. So I tried to wiggle my fingers and I couldn’t. My toes were the same. I thought it might be funny to fart and shock everyone that was around me but that wasn’t going to happen either. Up until now my breathing had relaxed but once again it started to get faster as I worked out that I was not in a position to communicate in any way at all. And the darkness felt cold against my skin. They need to turn the heating up. The last time I felt like this was when I went to see Steven in his flat, he was a bit of a skinflint and didn’t have the heating on even though it was mid-January in Edinburgh. There was no condensation, not even a hint of warmth, just a pile of thick jumpers of various colours on a chair that got smaller as the night drew in and the haar brought in the icy North Sea air through the thin walls. As I thought about that night watching the football on the telly I felt a thud above my face and in all honesty I nearly jumped out of my skin. And maybe I would have, if I could move.

“Is it time to leave?” said a voice.

“10 minutes and we’ll be ready” replied my mum. With that she sobbed some more.

“The flowers are lovely, did you choose them?”

“No” replied my mum. “They were sent over by the idiot who caused all of this. Can you get them out of here for me? Subtly.”

No more was said. She must have been talking about the shuffler. He’s the reason I’m here then. I can understand being the reason for the pain of others. Ellie and Steven know this more than most, they have been the butt of my excesses over the years. They argue over what best for me like I’m not even there and then expect me to take sides between the two people I love the most in the world. The last time was over driving lessons. I wanted to learn to drive, easier to get a better job and also it would be great for Ellie and I to escape from the city now and then. She loves the sea. She thought it was a great idea and said I might grow up a bit with the responsibility of having a car. Steven thought it was a bad idea. I couldn’t control a beer bottle, how could I cope with a car? Fair point I suppose.

……That’s it, why I’m here. I have a vague memory of walking along the road near my flat. I’d had a couple of beers at my local, not that I would tell Ellie or Steven that. They give me enough grief over my poor choices without actually inviting their disgust. And Steven clearly blamed me even though it wasn’t my fault. As I walked I heard a scream and a commotion behind me, the rev of a car engine, the squeal of brakes and then a hard thump in the back. I don’t remember much more, but it must have been a 4×4, the thud was quite high up my spine. No wonder I can’t move, although the blindness I can’t really explain. Some sort of after effect, hopefully it will pass. I felt a strong sense of relief as the images of that day, despite how painful they were, were now returning.

I needed Ellie by my side, but all I could here was crying. It was getting louder and I suddenly felt movement all around me. A creaking noise and muffled dunts like far off thunder. I could feel myself being lifted. I was uncomfortable and as I was rocked gently to the left and right I could feel just how hard this bed was. Except it wasn’t a bed, too hard for that and the creaking sounded like wood bending. I was in a box, a wooden box. My breathing became rushed and shallow as I yearned for Ellie’s voice, but I couldn’t hear her. I wanted to cry out for her but I couldn’t. I could only listen. I knew now what had happened. In a state of shocked paralysis I waited for the inevitable resolution as to what had happened to me. I could make out music and one loud voice booming around my wooden cage.

“Sam MacIntyre was your son, friend, colleague. His death will leave a huge hole in all your lives which will be impossible to fill.”

Blane’s Careless Wispas

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A man with a rusty tannoy and a wooden clipboard told me I was on. I stepped onto the stage and walked over to the table which stood at the front of the stage and the faces in the crowd stopped bobbling, eyes widened and the chatter of voices died away. The table in front of me was a fold away and it dipped a little in the middle and on this chocolate altar was placed a line of 10 cups of warming hot chocolate. This was my first ever chocolate eating Heptathlon. The 10th Great Annual Chocolate Ingestion was in full spring and there was a category for every kind of chocolover. There was tasting of new formulations. There were world record attempts, such as eating 8 Mars Bars in the fastest time without being sick. There were talks and lectures by expert gourmands. And finally, there were the extreme chocolate sports. You could surf on liquid chocolate or go paintballing with chocolate filled paintballs. It was the Comicon of cocoa beans and here we worshipped with awe and some silliness in equal measure.

Clipboard man took the microphone, which hung from the roof like in a boxing ring, and announced my name, age, where I lived and my all time favourite chocolate. I received a cheer for each piece of information, but the fact that Cadbury’s chocolate buttons were my favourite was met with a low dismissive buzz and a few wolf whistles. I assumed this wasn’t good. The clipboard man smiled. He had few teeth. Too much sponsors product I thought to myself.

From the stage I caught sight of Jonas Blane, a gargantuan character. He was outspoken, sneering, contemptuous and possessing of a belly that took away the view of his size 14 feet. He was well known in chocolate circles for his knowledge of chocolate and his contempt for others with lesser wisdom. For instance, he knew to smell first, and then eat. He prided himself on his knowledge and his tastes were as refined as any wine or whisky drinker. He knew the best instantly and the worst was treated with a screwed up face, which during competition made him look like a magnificently fierce chocolate monster. I momentarily sang a couple of bars of a song from REM’s Monster album. Blane had been in trouble with the law in the infamous “Chocolategate” scandal a couple of years ago. He had been filmed trying to sell Thornton’s premier range recipes to a competitor and had been jailed for industrial espionage. Blane returned and when he won the competition last year it was seen as a great return to form by some and a disaster for the respect of the competition and indeed the industry for others. He was in prison for 4 months and it had not been plain sailing by all accounts. I could see him in the crowd and he didn’t look himself today. He seemed more hunched over, his head dipped a little more than usual and it gave him a less confident posture. Surely he had known he would get caught and a chocolatier getting nabbed by the law is obviously bad news:

• Bars are for drinking in and having a merry old time, not for peering through with a tear running down your cheek as you realise the guards won’t be bringing you hot cocoa or Horlicks in bed.

• Prison officers are often no better than their captive audience. They’re called screws for a reason. They will screw you over for a bite of your bounty bar.

• The minimum wage for prison labour is 49p an hour. This hasn’t changed since 1974. If the rest of the prison is stuck in the same twisted time-warp then I’d happily live in 2012 instead. Nowadays I can only get a snack size Twix for that price and I have a preference for king size.

• Cinema has it all wrong. There is no Red or Andy Dufresne in Saughton and no Colditz style solidarity in Barlinnie. Everyone hears about the drugs stashes, but did you ever hear of a chocolate stash in prison?

• Individuality is stamped on in prison. Look at the uniforms. How could you celebrate a love of coffee Revels in that environment? And there are no pockets in the uniforms. Where do you keep your break time Walnut Whip?

• The only heat of human contact you’ll feel is when your roommate (usually called Ramon or Frankie) is snuggling into your bed late at night to tempt you with his tube of Smarties.

• Charles Bronson and Peter Sutcliffe are in prison. Would you really want to share your Toblerone with them?

If prison is for people who are master manipulators then I think anyone like me with the cunning of a goldfish should stick to paying the bills through legal means. With that I refocused my mind on the competition. The crowd was silent and not even the grass twitched under the audience’s feet. Clipboard man counted down from three. “THREE”, my hands were still shaking, “TWO”, I imagined the look on Blane’s face if I managed a favourable time, me, a novice, “ONE”, A fly was buzzing about and I shooed it away from my first cup of chocolate goodness, “GO!”.

The last cup seemed to take a depressingly unfeasible 10 minutes, in reality it was much quicker and I managed all ten cups in less than a minute and a half. The crowd cheered and hurrahed and went completely nuts. For a moment I felt like Justin Bieber on stage. The adulation was overwhelming and I walked off stage and immediately went to the toilet, pulled down the lid and sat down. My whole body was dancing with the glucose, adrenalin and excitement and I wondered how I was going to manage 8 mars bars later that afternoon.

Working for the Corporation (Short Story)

Working for the Corporation

 Message received 13th February 2032

“Group reported to be gathering near old Asda at Newhaven. Take action. Report.”

The light filled the corner of the room and threw dark shapes around the walls, leaving shadows standing at the sink and sitting on the sofa. The scratched and battered old telly in the corner had been marked, scored, the cup rings on the top too numerous to count, and somehow it still had a picture. There were no channels like I used to know them. No crime dramas, Crystal Maze re-runs, live sport or MTV. No Jeremy Kyle for the students and benefit cheats. Only a council broadcast service which delivered short fragments of text to those individuals, groups or officials in the know or important enough to know. After receiving the message I got down to Asda as quick as I could. There were a group of three smackers. Not many really. Six months after the initial outbreak, a group would easily fill Meadowbank Stadium, displaying a vicious hunger to triumph never seen in the entire sporting endeavour witnessed there since it was built in the late 60s. I walked over to the telly and punched in the code which said I’d returned home and the day’s work was completed. It reminded me of George Orwell’s world vision in 1984, but far less organised or sophisticated. In these strange times it still riled me that the remote was broken. I looked at the floor and scratched my head, trying to remember when I had last had batteries that worked. I noticed a pile of newspapers, some years old, and started reading. The top one was dated 1st April 2013. The Conservative Government in London had decided to cut the benefits of people who had spare bedrooms, so that they would be forced to move into smaller accommodation. So grandparents, who’d lived, brought up grandchildren and watched spouses die in the same 4 bedroom house were now to be moved to smaller houses or lose a fortune in benefits. Harsh, I thought. Maybe it was an April fool.

Messages arrived most days made up of terse and impersonal requests. No man management. No pleasantries. No professional review and development. I was my own boss in many ways. Each day’s message detailed another problem or area that needed cleaned up or dealt with, with few actual details. In return I was paid a fee, on verification that the task had indeed been completed, although god knows how they checked up on me. They must have bodies on the ground, because a telly message remains the height of their technical ability. My fee was paid in cash, which still had some value, or in food, water and supplies which only the council controlled. I liked to count the cash as if I was a simple bank teller so was disappointed in the weeks I was paid in kind. The city council, known as the Corporation by those of a certain age, had taken over the running of the country after the Scottish Government HQ at St Andrew’s House had been overrun, 3 months after the 21st centuries Year Dot.
While down at Newhaven, I was disappointed that it’d taken three strikes to take the third guy down. He was about 30, short and chubby, nothing about him said athlete or strongman. One clean hit on or through the brain was usually enough. Choose your weapon. Aim for the head. And don’t miss. A great government ad campaign in waiting surely. If your aim was off you needed another to finish the job before they got close enough to shred your stomach and make pleats with the strips. I could smell him as he closed in but I was just glad to still be me, Goren, and had headed home through the gardens on the side of the hill, ducking behind the wooden fences to protect me from below. The road wasn’t safe.

As I approached my back window, it had started raining lightly and the sun was setting. I clambered in with the subtlety of a dyspraxic donkey and once in pulled my jacket down from around my chest. The evaporating moisture attached to my living room and kitchen windows gave the view a more blotted, water colour effect. A watery curtain which helped block out the dreariness. The seas in the firth were dull and flat, no sign of the sparkle and blueness of the summers evenings of 7 months ago. The boats in Granton Harbour were far into the distance but you could still see them bobble together in the light swell, pointing their masts in the same direction like eyes at a tennis match.

You can cut a steak into pieces that won’t choke you but cutting up a human body, a rotten corpse included, isn’t the kind of skill you can buy at one of the many pound shops that had become more prevalent than the clap. A blade can be messy and noisy if used poorly. I’m not going to say to you that I dislike what I do. I don’t. I spent years as a boy clasping my small hands together into a gun shape and pointing my index fingers at people and animals, at first pretending to be a soldier, later in teenage angst at those who annoyed my sense of right and wrong. I imagined how the world would function without them. Would they be missed or celebrated? It wasn’t the power or thrill I craved. Just an inbuilt, DNA-approved wish to end those who neither used nor deserved their life. Guns were never an option. Too noisy, the crack drawing attention to you and your position, even more important nowadays. And after Dunblane guns were scarce. They still are. It could also be said that guns make death or killing a game for all. They open to all, the possibility of easily shutting down someone from a safe distance, with little thought or skill. Years ago when projectiles peaked with a bow and arrow, there was a knack for finding your target from 100 metres. Now it was easy, like reciting the alphabet.

A blade needs an apprentice and the hours are long to hone its use. Like a painter’s brush or a joiner’s hammer. Over time and practice you become its master and it does become a part of you, my most saleable commodity. A novel idea since no-one wanted what I sold. My skills were not unique, there were many who had the same commitment, training or nasty streak. There was good money to be had, less than what would be expected if we had some sort of guild or union like the nurses or the shipbuilders, but enough for comforts. With this thought I started to prepare for tomorrow.
I find a machete does a better job. More weight and power behind each thrust, if you wanted to do the job in one go then my tool of choice was the best option. A Condor Speed Bowie Machete, to give it its Sunday name. A straight, sharp blade that widens a little towards the tip, and a dark, wooden, slightly curved handle. This gives it the look of a Persian dagger. I took out my sharpener and ran the stone down the blade away from me a dozen times. I unpacked and repacked my rucksack, even though I’d taken nothing out of it. I pulled the straps tight, as if I was finished. Then clicked the clips open and started again. Everyone likes a routine so don’t laugh at me. When I was ready, I settled on the couch, picked up an old book of munros and once again marvelled at the pictures of clear mountains and craggy summits. I pondered how far away the nearest one was in steps. Tea consisted of crackers, ham and a cup of tea made from water heated on the stove. I went upstairs where the candle in the living room couldn’t be seen and I looked out across the water. Fife was there, but you couldn’t see it through the darkness.

Only the Mossmorran flare was visible, a major piece of one of the Scottish Government’s early plans to destroy the plague of what became known as smackers. Others knew them as walkers or zombies. They attracted their sobriquet due to their often skinny and gaunt appearance. There were rumours of drug addicts being put down “by accident” as vigilantes blamed them for another plague. I also heard of a woman who tried to protect a local junkie that was her neighbour. Turns out he’d turned into a smacker after being bitten by a young child and promptly bit three fingers off her outstretched hand. That must have been some look of surprise. The smacker moniker stuck, who’d have thought they’d be here long enough to become a brand. 20 years. Anyway, the government thought if they turned on the Mosmorran flare, which could be seen for miles around, they could attract the smackers and when the majority were close to the beacon the gas installation surrounding it would be dynamited and the explosion would kill the vermin and destroy any virus left over. No one was ready for the speed of the virus or the numbers involved in the early stages and the installation was quickly overrun. Much like Government HQ. No one went back to turn the flare off.

The Government had tried other ways to deal with the situation of course. Public health talks and messages, putting the early victims into old prisons, placing them into reality TV shows. One or two were given to families on benefits. One of PM David Cameron’s last attempts at welfare reform before the system broke down completely, a room in a house was to be padded and locked with a smacker inside and this was considered to be a service to the community in return for what the Conservatives and others saw as the mountains of cash they received. Certainly dealt with all those spare rooms…..But this was when the numbers were small. Later, they tried noisy music over loudspeakers to see if they could lead the monsters away like the pied piper, which succeeded in moving them but where were they to be taken? The army was called in and they too were eventually outnumbered and overrun. It was an especially awkward First Minister’s Questions when Alex Salmond announced that they had pardoned 50 of our most dangerous prison inmates to act as kill squads, it being assumed that they had the stomach for taking on the mass of walking human flesh in return for their freedom. They didn’t hang around to be asked for if they had fulfilled their kill quotas and added to the already dangerous streets of towns and cities around the country. You were on your own in the early days and you thought on your feet. Weapons were contrived, whether they were knives or cricket bats or spades. Old nokia phones, the early heavy ones, were nailed to wood or taped to bars and used as rock hammers. Took a few hits but not a kick in the arse off saving my skin a couple of times in the early years. An old acquaintance took a chainsaw he’d looted and attached it to the front of his motorbike and rode around the city riding into smackers and cutting them in half. Messy but effective. Until one day the top half of a smacker fell on top of him and bit him. I fell asleep grinning.

As I woke the next day the rain still fell and I got up and peered outside. The streets were filled with rubbish and abandoned cars and the occasional body, some in a more decayed state than others. The rubbish had always been there, the Corporation having always been lax in their rubbish collection duties. This had only worsened when they decided to make bin collections bi-weekly, a consequence of council cuts and the citizenry’s love of saving the planet. We saved a few acres of rainforest in Brazil but Edinburgh suffered as people’s detritus and social conscience was piled side by side next to doorways. The telly blinked.

Message received 14th February 2032
“New job spec expected today/tomorrow at latest. Alteration to terms and conditions. Take no action.”

I put the stove on and sat down in my armchair. It seemed odd to still talk about terms and conditions. Especially when I you take into account what I did for the Corporation. I thought about the times before Mossmorran, my old job, the nights out in the Grassmarket, my friends. I used to like walking and would lace up my boots, usually still filthy from the last walk, and head into the Pentland hills or go into town and explore the darker and murkier streets and vennels. I often ventured into graveyards and tried to spot the graves of famous poets, architects or elder statesmen. For a while I kept a small notebook which listed all the famous people I found and included a charcoal rubbing of the name from the stone. I always liked history at school, even now I got a flutter of excitement when I discovered an old history book or national geographic. Graveyards are a great source historical knowledge. They might still be, but the often enclosed nature of their high walls makes them dangerous to go into nowadays. The last time I was in Greyfriars Kirkyard I remembered a tale I’d heard from my granddad. He used to tell me stories about Edinburgh’s famous body snatchers and these are the basis for a million ghost tours and tourist leaflets. Until the Anatomy Act of 1832, the newly deceased were routinely stolen and delivered during dark hours to the back door of the university’s medical school, where they were used in the teaching of medicine. Money changed hands and it was a lucrative past time. To combat the wickedly depraved escapades of Burke, Hare and their ilk, some people had loved ones buried and then short, stout walls were built, only a foot high around the grave. Metal bars or gates were then locked or bolted to the walls to prevent an enterprising thief with a shovel from being able to liberate the body. Doors down to the dead if you like. But he used to joke about digging a little deeper, figuratively of course, and said that the bars were actually there to stop the dead rising. The doors to hell? Crazy huh. I didn’t believe it either. He also said that was why some gravestones were laid flat, another obstacle to smackers breaking through the soil. And scratches found on the inside of coffins weren’t from the living, but the living dead, before they died a second time from starvation.

I know what you’re thinking. Absolute bollocks. Once upon a time I agreed, although after seeing smackers take over the city, it’s hard now not to see the logic and believe it’s not true. It isn’t too much to believe the junkies and dope fiends of this world being a contemporary notch on some kind of timeline of zombie development. With that thought, I raised myself from the creaking chair, opened the back window, climbed and almost tumbled out again into the rain.

There were so many bodies. Grey in colour with a range of grotesque and dirty wounds, most of them covered in wet bugs and dried blood. The streets were watercoloured red. Why didn’t they hide? Some did, in all sorts of wonderfully inventive places. Some took boats out to sea, never to be seen again, maybe they drowned, maybe they found Nirvana. I preferred something that didn’t float. Scared of water, despite living by the sea. An impregnable house was precious allowing you to rummage for food and find clean water. A second floor could give a great lookout point and a kitchen or workshop often provided some rudimentary weapons. You just had to make sure the windows were boarded up tight to stops smackers getting in during the day and the light from escaping and giving away your hidey hole at night. I’d been lucky enough to stay in my own house so I knew the layout and escape routes well. Cars were a possible mobile home, easily moved in trouble. It did though leave you short of storage and the problem of fuel and breakdown. And if surprised by smackers they could eventually break the windows. The more creative tried to come up with more novel ideas. A high rise block ensured you were well separated from the mayhem below and the possibility of signalling for help was easy with a torch or fire. If you got caught out and they got into and up the tower, there was nowhere to go, and having an escape route was essential in my book so I stayed away from them. I heard that someone had holed up in a disused train down at Haymarket Junction. I could see the benefits. Our trains are still quite old, clunky but sturdy beasts. High sided so no-one could climb in and your line of sight would be excellent, you might find water and some stale crisps if it was a sleeper. But how would you barricade the two doors? And covering all the windows would be a problem, leaving it unlikely you’d remaining unseen for long. Other places were suggested more in humour than seriousness. Some jokers said hiding in clothes shops would be fine, after all, who’d ever spotted a well dressed smacker? Ever heard a zombie talk properly? No, neither have we they said so hospital speech and language departments were surely safe havens. Ditto dermatologists. Restaurants would be safe as cooking is optional for smackers before they feast on their food. And Jersey is an island that prides itself on being the warmest place in Britain, no smacker ever had a tan. If anyone could find Oz or Atlantis, they would be pretty quiet. Other unsafe options amongst the jokers would include hiding in Newcastle. The theory being that smackers don’t often wear jackets either, regardless of the weather. In any city you should avoid any junkie estates, where it’s still too hard to tell the junkies from the smackers. Don’t hide in any shiny buildings as the smackers are attracted to any glint of light, manmade or otherwise. Don’t try to reach the secret bunker in Fife, it’s no longer an option as the Mossmorran bomb fiasco had turned it into a smack house.

As I walked I kicked a stone or two, scoring imaginary goals with every flick of a rock. After about 10 minutes walking, I came across a smacker. There was a definite change of pace as it saw me. Its head turned first. Eyebrows raised in recognition. The rest of its frail torso eventually caught up and finally the toes were pointed at me. It wasn’t running. But I’d always laughed at people who speed walked and made outlandish claims that it was the best way to build fitness. Watching this smacker at a similar pace scared the shit out of me as it seemed to be moving and gaining ground fast. The torn, hollow face and blood soaked hands stretched upwards, as if they pulled the rest of the wretched husk of a body along like a carriage. You were considered lucky if you had time to plan your defence. If not, you aimed for the head or neck with as much dexterity as you could muster, no hard task for a 50 year old. As he closed in on me, I could see a slash and dent at the base of his neck where it meets the collar bone. I knew one clean hit would be enough to take the head off. Blood was still dripping down and staining the front of his shirt. He’d met someone else recently, but offered no clue as to whether they were still alive. It moved with purpose and what mind it had left had no room for mercy. I lifted my arm, peering behind me for safety, and drew my machete from right to left across the front of its neck. Its torso fell and hit the ground, lips and eyes flickering as the neurons and electrons died. In my head it played out like a sporting slow motion replay as the head rolled off onto the grass.

I stepped back with eyes clenched tightly when I realised I knew him, a friend of mine who was a driver for Lothian Buses. People now say that bus drivers were always inseparable in manner from smackers, but I pitied him for being caught out and a minor glint of revenge lingered inside me. These beasts were more passionate than ardent Hibees or Jambos and more surly than your local cafe waitress or 17 year old shop worker. They were indifferent to your feelings and stamped on your wishes to get their fix. An unstoppable force devoted to feasting, like a fat guy at an all you can eat buffet. The rest of the day was spent trying to remember what it was like to hold a conversation with a fellow human.

The next day was sunnier but just as cold. The telly was blinking at me.

Message received 15th February 2032
“New laws passed by council to protect reserves. Workload may increase but payment will be claimed in same way and at time and a half. Remain focused.”

About time I thought, hadn’t seen a pay rise in years. There was a second message.

Message received 15th February 2032
“Family of 5 @ 54 Admiralty Street. Ex-benefit claimants. Seen looting. Unhelpful to allow them to squander our valuable resources. Take action. Report.”

This should have shocked me. Was the fact they were looting the important factor? Or was it that they claimed benefits. I read the message again. I stepped back. I got left alone if I did my job so I picked up my bag and headed for the window, hoping to jump out with my dignity intact this time. I remembered the newspaper I’d read the other day, and wondered if the Conservatives had magically returned to power. I imagined how the world would function without the residents of 54 Admiralty Street.  And concluded that it would.