Fiction, Short Stories

No More Heroes

American Indian-23

This was a short story I wrote way back in 1995; but I still think it works, in an obvious Clockwork Orange sort of way….

VIDEO SHAKESPEARE ENTRY

PRIVATE AND CONFIDENTIAL

LASCIATE OGNI SPERANZA VOI CH’ENTRATE

 

This is my last year before moving up and I am sure, as sure as Wolverhampton Wanderers are the greatest football team that ever came into being, that it is going to be a delicious final term. For, as we all know dear hearts, once you enter Big Dorm at the Young Adult age of 12 that you face four years of torture, beating, slashing and dashing before you rise to the Sainthood.

My dear, Viddy Shaky, as you so beautifully wrote: one man in time plays many parts – so I must go from being the tormentor to the tormented. I accept my fate and take my pleasure with extra relish whilst I can. So it was that I like to start my days with a little tormenting of a classmate.

Old Chapman was snug as a bug in a rug behind his reinforced glass and steel lecture-protector, his voice booming out through the microphone and echoing around the concrete hall. ‘We should always respect each other. Respect each other’s religion, ethnic background, sexual orientation and gender. Today I want to discuss sex with you.’

How we moaned and groaned. Sex was très boring. I’ve tried most sorts, so I should know just how crappy crap crap they all were. Rape and sadizzy sex were the best because they at least offered the fun of pain, but why bother taking your clothes off when you can cause pain just as easily with them on?

Bored, I turned my attention back to William. As the roving camera eye panned away from me I jabbed him in the hand with my Stanley. O wondrous scream and the blood like a fountain and the roars of laughter from the Gangsters and Young Saints. How he cried as Chapman flicked open the door and ordered him to Nursey Wursey. Bye bye we all waved.

‘Quiet down now, please,’ Chapman shouted over the din. ‘Excitement over. Michael, report to the officer on duty for your behavioural assessment.’

Boring boring boring.

‘Would anyone like to tell me the difference between the male and the female species?’

One of The Sisters, Tao, stood and addressed Chapman. ‘There is no difference between the male and the female species, save one: one is capable of giving birth, and the other, as yet, is not.’

The Sisters were hard shit big time. You don’t mess with them, friends in high places as it were.

‘Very good, Tao,’ hummed Chapman, no doubt thinking what fun his crusty bollocks could have with femmy Tao. Grunups were always on the lookout for sex, my Shaky, as well you know.

I was so taken up with this musing that I had forgotten to rid myself of my Stanley, and it was with much pouting of lip and teary eye that I realised that mean bastard Vitz was standing at my desk with his surgeon gloved hand held out in my direction.

‘Hand over the knife please, Michael.’

I never liked the way he spoke to us littluns. I mean, he sounded polite and all, but it was as though he had eaten a suede thinking it a potato. I considered, for a moment, letting him have it right in the palm of his hand, but it wouldn’t have been an excessive pleasure to me, for I find blood on black skin not as appealing aesthetically as blood on white. Ah, now I have transgressed, for I have pointed out that Vitz is black; I excuse myself because I was explaining something that needed his colour to be revealed. Besides, this is just between thee, O Shakespearo, and me, and nothing is allowed to virus into you, my Viddy Shakespeare – I know my Data Protection Rights. I waved bye bye to Stanley, thinking what a futile waste it had been smuggling it past the friskers.

‘Now then, Michael, where shall we begin?’

I had always found our Headperson, Lippy Landon, to be very fair, always ready to go that extra mile for her littluns. Once I had even put my hand up her skirt and felt for her hole, and she had merely given me a very long winded talk about why that sort of behaviour was not correct.

She sat staring at my notes on her screen. I didn’t try to catch a sneaky look because I had already perused the file on my own gadgetry at home.

‘How did the lesson with Chapman go today, Michael?’

In reply, I took out the Lecture Questionnaire from my back pocket and passed it over the double desk. The double desk was mighty psycho, for you were never quite sure whose desk it actually was, having identical drawers and desk stuff on both sides.

‘Perhaps you could just tell me how it went,’ she said, squeezing that bit of flesh between her eyes at the top of her nose. ‘So many forms. A form filled in by every student for every lecture, and I have to read them all.’

‘It was alright, except…’

‘Except?’

‘I don’t like to say it in talky,’ I muttered, squirming as though I had ants in my pants.

‘Is it in here?’ she asked, tapping the report.

‘In the anything else you would like to tell us bit,’ I whispered.

O how pleased was I, dear heart, to see her frowning face as she read.

‘This is a very serious accusation.’

I looked at the floor and swung my legs.

‘Look at me, Michael. Now, I want you to tell me exactly how Chapman looked at Tao.’

‘It was like a sort of odd smile.’

‘Could you show me?’

I gave her my best leer, and it thrilled me immensely that she looked away from me in disgust. Perhaps it reminded her of my little piggie-wiggies up her skirt.

‘I will interview Chapman and investigate this matter.’

‘Shall I tell Tao and The Sisters?’

‘No,’ she said quickly. ‘I’ll speak to Tao myself.’

Chapman would be all right, suspended with full pay for a time, then some therapy. All right that is, as long as The Sisters didn’t actually believe he was lusting after their female forms, then there would be heavy duty doodaa.

‘What about the knife?’

O fuckity fuck fuck, I thought that my diversion had worked a treat. ‘I don’t know what came over me, Landon. I didn’t know I had the knife with me and then, all of a sudden like, it was in my hand and then Chapman did that strange smile and it kind of shook me up a bit and before I knew what was happening the boy next to me was bleeding. I think it was just that spooky feeling again.’

We know all about the spooky feeling, don’t we, Shaky? It’s the best ruse of all as an excuse, and the funniest thing of all was that it was them that taught it us in our Humanities class.

‘Now, Michael,’ she said softly. (I hasten to add, Shakespearo, should you find disfavour with my use of the words she and softly, that I use them only in the context of the timbre of voice, and do not wish to imply, in any way, that Lippy Landon is softly spoken because she is a female.) ‘Do you remember what I said last time – after that other little incident – that there is nothing wrong with emotions? You felt fear because you saw, or allege to have seen, something that you did not really understand, and the unknown is always frightening. But, though emotions are healthy, we must always be careful not to hurt others because of them. The spooky feeling can be unsettling, I know. It used to be thought of as our animal instinct in conflict with what was known as our conscience, but we know better now, don’t we?’

I nodded.

‘What do we know?’

‘We know that people are different yet equal,’ I recited. ‘That no behaviour is intrinsically good or bad. That we must be responsible in our actions and not cause offence or pain to any other human being.’

‘So why do we still get the spooky feeling?’ Lippy murmured, gazing abstractly out of the window.

I half inched a pencil, as I replied, ‘Because of our genes. We have inherited from our ancestors the notion of conscience and morality and it will take many generations before it is completely eradicated.’

‘Good,’ she exclaimed, turning to face me. ‘That’s why I like to think of this school, and all schools, as Mayflowers. We are pioneers heading for the New World.’

I smiled, as though it wasn’t the thousandth time I’d heard that allusion.

‘What’s your next lesson?’

‘Indigenous geography, with Patterson.’

‘Before you go, just a quick test,’ she said, fumbling in her drawer. ‘What’s this?’

In front of my eyes she displayed a porny pic; a particularly gruesome example, which left nothing to the imagination.

‘A person,’ I said.

‘Good,’ she said, folding up the pic and handing me another piece of paper. ‘And what’s this?’

O, Viddy Shaky, what wondrous words sprang out at me from that paper, for it was one of your very own works: the one and only Sonnet 130. Black wires grow on her head…..breath that from my mistress reeks. Verily, Big Willy, if thou had played for the Wanderers as well as writing such mighty words then I would worship at thy feet.

‘It’s a poem,’ I said.

‘Is it a good poem?’

‘It is neither good nor bad; it is just words in a certain arrangement.’

‘So what makes one piece of writing more important than another?’

‘The importance is in its effect on the culture of a society. It is the culture we must study, and ask why they praise one work above another.’

‘Good, now get along to your next class.’

I am sorry, Shakespearo, for I feel that I have betrayed you. But that’s just a spooky feeling, isn’t it?

As I left school that afternoon, I saw Vitz. He was dressed as usual for expulsion time: full helmet, boots and leather gloves, and, hanging from his belt, those weapons of subduing that I envied so much. As I passed him in the whirlwind of littluns he looked at me. His eyes mocked me, and in his wrinkled lip was the sneer of cold command. No, my Shelley and my Keats, he could not get away with such pride, and, like Ozymandias, his visage must lie shattered. As I groped for a plan in which to bring down Vitz, I saw The Sisters striding through the gates, as though they were one body with many legs, always looking straight ahead, daring anyone to stand in their way. But as they passed, I saw Tao, who brought up the rear of this gang monster, turn and glance back at Vitz, whose sneer turned to a smile, causing Tao to blush slightly.

I live in a flat down Freedom way, just me and my biological grunups. I had a younger sibling up to a year ago, but she had been raped and killed by Bovis Butcher, a very nice classmate of mine. I’d put him up to it of course, couldn’t stand having to compete all the time. Competition is unhealthy and sibling rivalry something from the past, and I have to admit that I certainly have felt a more complete person since her going away. That’s what the psycho said anyway when I went for counselling. Of course, I made sure that Butcher wasn’t done for the crime. We had swum our way into the police perv files and found an ageing paedy who lived near by. All I had to do was give his description to the police, saying I had seen him hanging around suspiciously, and Bob’s your uncle. O the power, Viddy Shaky, of our fingertip keyboards.

I go through the same routine every night: first I have to wait in the soft white room whilst I am sprayed with the decontamination juices, then my biological male grunup appears with his surgical mask and gloves to frisk me down for concealed weapons. I find the whole thing very boring, and often amuse myself by making sudden movements that send Dada jumping in the air. The searching is pointless anyway, as any littlun knows that all you need to do to conceal something is put it near your arse or x or y organs. They never dare go anywhere near them – won’t even glance in that direction.

After the frisk I am asked for my homework disc, which Dada plugs into his machine to acknowledge to the school that I have brought it home. Then I wander down the corridor. The rooms to the right are out of bounds, padlocked heavily, though of course I’ve broken into them, only to find nothing of interest. All the valuable stuff was in a safe, which I hadn’t yet succeeded in opening. My room is pretty plain, just a bed and a computer, with a solitary poster illuminating the grey, damp walls. A visiting psycho had once taken offence at my precious poster. She wanted to know why I had Shakespeare, a dead white male as she put it, on the wall. I’d tried to fob her off by saying that I actually didn’t like him as such, just that we were studying one of his more sexist plays at school. But she wouldn’t let it go. She was pretty young, and keen, with the mustard of The Sisters. Do you know what pacified her in the end, my dear Willy? I told her I liked dead things – the longer dead the better. She nodded knowingly and asked her next stupid question.

My dinner is always on the floor, left there by my biological x chromosome. I hadn’t seen my Mama for three months, not since that little incident when she had found me in the kitchen indulging in masturbation with the aid of a pop bottle.

After my dinner, I plugged into my homework and then swam into the school system to copy the answers, adding a few mistakes to make it look more genuine. Then, I doggy paddled into the security system and scanned the personal file of Vitz. It was big yawn time for his reports were all exemplary. Time for the mighty to fall.

I copied Vitz’s electronic signature and then penned some beautiful lines, using the fabby sonnets as my guide, and arranged for a meet. I addressed it to Tao, and e’d it to her via the school’s site. If she really tried she could trace it back to me, but I didn’t think she would bother. I was sure that she would keep the meeting with Vitz: I had seen the look she had given him. It was the same look that Chapman had given to Tao. Chapman to Tao to Vitz. Pass on the look of love.

Shaky, it is that very look which you speak so well of with your wondrous words. And I shall be Iago to the Moor Vitz.

The security bus arrived on the dot, as it always did five times a week. For some reason that I have never fathomed, they like to escort us to school but don’t mind us running wild on the way home. I gleeked at the sad workers going to sad jobs, through the reinforced glass of the bus, but not one held my gaze as they fumbled with car keys and bags. How pitiful were the grunups.

I vow to thee my country that I shall never grow old, though my face may wither and wrinkle, let my heart and belly be like Cleopatra of the asp. As long as a man has a knife, what more could he want? Ah, Shaky, cruel torment of remembrance for my long gone Stanley. How my heart beats with revenge upon the Moor who did take my most favourite knife.

Now, some Sherlock’s may be wondering how I got Vitz to go to the meeting with Tao; sending him something through the Swim would be too dangerous, with his security passes and what not to track the true sender down. So, I sat me down and dreamt a dream, of what would a girl, trapped in The Sisters, but madly in love with a man, do? She would become like olden time Bronte books and send a passionate snail mail, that’s what. Citizens don’t normally send letters now, but many official documents never see the inside of a computer. The Data Protection Act saw to that, sweetheart. If it’s not on a computer you don’t have to reveal it, just store it away for a hundred years or so. Every morning the courier brought such missives into our school, and into his satchel I did slip a love note for Vitz.

O how the day did drag it’s feet. A big fag end of a day.  At last, after seemingly going through the seven ages of man in one day, the bell rang. In that mad helter-skelter of feet for exit, it was an easy thing to do to slip unseen into the scene of the final act: the basement.

It was very dark down there, but I could not put the light on lest I be exposed. Now, I don’t want you to think that poor Michael was afeared but, as I squashed myself behind some pipes and cables, I felt suddenly alone. The dark can do that to you. I plunged my hand in my pocket and played with my conkers, spinning them between my fingers. Was that a rat? I thought about my favourite Disney film to take my mind off the dark, remembering the part where Cinderella had Prince Charming turned into a eunuch. Then I thought of my mother, for some strange reason, but couldn’t remember what she looked like.

The light came on. Through the cables I watched Tao creep into the basement. ‘Hello?’ she whispered.

To my amazement, Vitz appeared from behind some packing cases opposite me. He had been there all the time, but surely he couldn’t have seen me, or else he would have kicked me out like a shot.

Ah, it was such a touching scene, Shaky – let me relate to you how it did unfold.

VITZ: I have lain here in wait, with nothing but my solitary heart for company.

TAO: The hours have seemed like days since I received your words. Tell me the words are true and I promise that your heart will be solitary no longer.

VITZ: (Aside) I sent no letter. (To Tao) If the words speak of love; if they speak of your eyes being brighter than any jewel; if they speak of your body as a beautiful paradise that I long to claim as my own, then those words belong to me.

TAO: (Moves towards Vitz and takes his hand) Often have I lain awake at night dreaming of you. Your skin is the night, and mine is the golden day; together we will be eternity.

VITZ: (Kisses her hand) I weep. It is not sadness that burns my eyes but the terrible happiness with which you have struck my heart. Will the gods allow such happiness? Promise you will not be inconstant, for it is said that the words of women are but the wind in the willows – causing much disturbance and then moving on.

TAO: Vitz, my dark Moor, there are many things to fear in this world, but my devotion to you should never be doubted.

MICHAEL: (aside) How strange that Venus is the goddess of love, and yet these two fall into my trap like insects into a Venus fly trap. And now for the jaws to clamp! Oh how Hermes himself must envy the speed of the Instant Message!

Dear Viddy Shaky, could your own Iago have done better? The star crossed lovers barely had time for a little smoochy smooch before the Sisters burst upon the scene. Their faces contorted in rage when they saw Tao and Vitz together and I do swear, with no shame, that I did cower back myself. But the fear was tinged with a delicate anticipation of the violence to come.

‘Come, Sister.’

Vitz held Tao’s hand. ‘She is with me.’

The Sister’s laughed. ‘Tao belongs to us. What possible use could she have with you?’

‘She loves me.’

‘Love? Love is an illusion invented by men to ensnare women and make them docile. Love is nothing but legal slavery and rape.’

‘Tao, come to us.’

‘Be free.’

‘He will enslave you and rape you.’

‘Free your mind.’

Tao let go of Vitz hand and stood between him and the Sisters.

Vitz reached out to her, saying, ‘It’s alright, Tao, don’t worry, I’ll look after you.’

Tao spun on him. ‘Look after me? Look after me! You think that I need looking after?’ Without taking her eyes off Vitz, she said, ‘You’re too late, he’s already violated me.’

Ah, Shaky, for a moment I thought that Tao was going to choose Vitz, but how slippery and powerful words can be and they can change hearts and minds the moment they slip through lips.

Vitz fought well, I’ll give him that, and he gave me such violent bloody viewing that I did shake with glee. His eyes were gouged out by stilettos and his male sexual organs detached from his body. Oh, gory, gory, gory!!!

When it was over The Sisters all hugged Tao, before trooping out of the basement. I was about to break cover when Tao returned, creeping into the shadows towards the body of Vitz. She gazed down upon him, and I could not gauge her emotion at all.

Viddy Shaky, they say that revenge is a dish best served cold, but I find it tasty however it is served. Perhaps, Shaky, you could have made a good play from my little escapade? Now I prepare myself for the beatings and the bullying of Big School, happy in the knowledge that, after a few years, I may be able to battle my way to the top of The Sainthood and that my name shall strike dread into all.

Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war.

 

Short Stories

The Devil Came Up To Grimesford

She wasn’t much of an exotic dancer, our Betty; she waved her feathers about more like Ken Dodd than Gypsy Rose Lee, but you had to give her an ‘A’ for effort.

Everybody knew Betty from Gallagher’s fish market. She always wore a striped apron covered in fish scales like some battered mermaid. She wasn’t much to look at with her clothes on and there were no surprises when she struggled out of them. But the crowd at the WMC greeted her with rapturous applause – though I felt they were applauding her like a group of amateurs waiting for their turn on talent night, and expecting the same when they performed.

I would never have guessed that Betty harboured a desire to perform the burlesque, but then Grimesford was full of surprises after the Devil came visiting.

It was a Tuesday the Devil came. I remember that because my mother had sworn blind it was Pancake Day, but my Year of Religious Festivals Diary 2005 had it on the following Tuesday. She insisted on cooking pancakes anyway. The Devil didn’t appear in a flash of smoke and a rumble of thunder, it’s true, but in every other way he was the image of his medieval self. This was something of a surprise to the market day shoppers as they paused between purchases of reduced sweaters and second hand Jeffrey Archer’s.

These days we’ve got a little too savvy and I guess we expected the Devil (not that we did expect him, mind) to appear as some smarmy spin doctor, so when he appeared sporting horns, a pointed tail and cloven hooves you could perhaps forgive us for thinking he was double bluffing us.

Grimesford folk weren’t much for the ostentatious so they gave him a cursory look and continued with their shopping as though that sort of thing happened every week. The Devil, not overly used to being ignored, gave a booming laugh and summoned up a rather nice looking ionic temple that he placed between the Mecca Bingo Hall and Fred’s Hardware Emporium. He stepped inside and put an open sign on the door.

That night at the WMC the men sat supping their bitters and the women their port and lemons and the talk came round to the Devil’s open sign. Some folk said they hadn’t even noticed him and his bloody temple, whilst others admitted seeing him but of course weren’t at all interested in what he was up to. The talk might easily have moved on to Mrs Benjamin’s ongoing verruca problem, if the Rev. Lucas hadn’t crashed through the doors on a Triumph Bonneville 650 that he preceded to screech round the club, before zooming up an overturned table and landing pin-point on the stage. He leapt from the bike and flicked his greying hair from his stigmatised eyes. ‘Great!’ he declared.

We were just about to return to our beers and verruca talk when the Rev. clapped his hands; he had, he said, an announcement to make. Now, we Grimesford folk are decent folk by and by and we do our bit for the church, but the WMC is something of a refuge from all things political and religious: sport, health and weather were the topics and leave it at that, so when the Rev. began sermonising we were a little put out.

He said that he understood our fears about the Devil arriving in Grimesford and was sure we were interested in what he had to say about it, but he’d been busy all afternoon trying to explain to one of his flock why Shrove Tuesday fell on a different day each year; once he’d sorted that matter out he had paid a visit to Mr Devil.

The Rev. had sampled the Devil’s angels cakes, which were wickedly good, and they had chatted about cricket for a while, but when the Devil declared he had come to Grimesford to fulfil everybody’s secret desire the Rev. was of course on his guard. But there was no contract to sign. No soul to promise. No lost eternity. The Devil would give and expect nothing in return. He was involved, he said, in a little experiment on God’s behalf. He would stay for a month and then be gone.

The WMC gave the good Rev. a hearing and then looked disdainfully away as he imitated Evel Knievel and jumped 10 kegs of beer before exiting on one wheel. Turns out the vicar had a penchant for fast and dirty bikes.

Next day I called on Bob 11 o’clock sharp. Wednesday we always went for a bowl and then a pint. But he wasn’t in. Never in five years had Bob missed the green with me. I made my way into town to see if he was already on the green but was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a queue at the Devil’s temple. It looked as if the whole village was there, patiently waiting and chatting in hushed tones with each other.

The Rev. screeched to a halt in front of me and revved his engine. ‘Barry, what you gonna get, you think?’ he asked.

I shrugged. I frowned. What was it I wanted? What desire lurked in my heart that the Devil could give me? I walked home wondering why I didn’t have a list the size of my arm.

Over the next few days Grimesford began to resemble a crazy holiday camp: Mrs Cartwright began to perform heavy metal guitar solos from her wheelchair; Mr Cartwright was a wonderful fire eater; Mavis from the corner shop sold goods wearing McQueen in the morning and Armani in the afternoon; her daughter became captain of the school soccer team; Ishana, the schoolteacher, danced Swan Lake; Trevor, the macho mechanic, became an effete Shakespearean actor; Phyllis the barmaid took up the decathlon even with her dodgy knees; George the barman became a teetotal cowboy herding sheep; and we know what Betty did.

But there was no Bob. I asked around but nobody had seen him.

Folk kept asking what I had been given. I was rather embarrassed to tell them I hadn’t been to see him yet. I sensed people began to think me arrogant for not giving in to my secret pleasures. So I fretted for a day or two and, on Ash Wednesday, determined to visit the Devil. But when I opened my door there he was in all his demonic red glory. He asked if he could come in and I obliged. I offered him tea and he took it black with lemon. He was pleasant enough but he did make the place smell a little like the morning after Bonfire Night.

We supped tea and talked of small things. Eventually he put down his cup and frowned, muttering that there was always one he had trouble with. I asked him what he meant, and he said that he was having trouble ‘reading’ me. He could sense problems with me but no desire. Nothing that he could satisfy anyway. I was the last resident of Grimesford to be helped.

I apologised to him. I meant it – it worried me that I had no dream. To cover my embarrassment I asked about Bob. Ah, Bob, he said with a grin. I’m afraid he won’t be bowling with you for a while. Then he asked me to escort him to the graveyard.

In the cemetery, where Sam the gravedigger was busy putting the finishing touches to a marble statue of himself, the Devil led me to a stone that bore two names: Beverley, mother and wife, and Mandy, daughter. Died the same day. In a car crash. Six years ago.

The Devil and I bowed our heads in thought. I knew what Bob’s desire was – to have his wife and daughter back.

‘Do you have anyone here?’ the Devil asked.

I led him over to Alison’s grave. My dear Alison, taken almost ten years ago. My wife. My love. My desire.

‘I still don’t really understand death,’ said the Devil.

‘Nor I,’ I said.

The Devil told me it wasn’t in his power to raise the dead, or heal the sick, just to grant what desire he could in whatever way he could. He pulled out a photograph and showed it to me. It was Bob with his arms around Beverley and Mandy.

‘Bob,’ said the Devil.

I looked again at the photograph. It was Beverley and Mandy seven years ago, but it was Bob as he was now.

The Devil explained that he couldn’t bring Bob’s loved ones back, but he could freeze Bob in time with them. Bob re-lived the freeze frame forever. Forever he held them and all three smiled. Forever he forgot and lived it again.

I thought about the pictures I had of Alison. Thought about her beautiful smile.

The Devil left me with my thoughts.

I knew it was a limited offer. The sign on the temple declared the Devil was open for business for 40 days and 40 nights.

That night I lay in bed thinking of Alison. Every night I lay in bed thinking about Alison, but that night was different; I wondered what it would be like to have my arm around her forever. I remembered what it was like to touch her. To smell her. To feel her. What would she want me to do? What would she do if the situation was reversed?

I slept little and what sleep I got was seasoned with tears.

In the morning I went to the Devil’s temple. He had only just risen and let me share in his breakfast of marmalade and toast. The marmalade was nice but he told me that he’d made the toast by sticking the bread near some burning souls and, though he laughed, I wasn’t sure he was joking. He knew why I’d come so we got down to it.

I asked to see the picture of Bob again and pointed out that as he was looking straight at the camera he couldn’t see his wife and child and wouldn’t see them for eternity. The Devil agreed with that but said it wasn’t a problem putting me in a photo looking at my wife. But I told him that Alison was dead; the photo was just an image, a shadow of her. It wasn’t even a memory that was alive and vibrant – it was two-dimensional.

Alison was dead. I repeated it. It had been a long time since I’d said those words and maybe I’d forgotten the naked truth of it. But she was dead.

I told the Devil that the one thing I wanted he couldn’t give me. He could make me into a great cricketer but I would always be making runs alone. And that was fine, I realised now. You still had to get up in the morning and cook meals and go to work. You have to live in this life and hope, just hope, that you can meet the love of your life again somewhere else. Somewhere other.

The Devil sighed and said, ‘There’s always one.’ He told me that every seven years he has a bet with God that he can seduce a whole town by fulfilling all their secret desires, within limits, and God smiles and says that there will always be one.

When the Devil left so did the talents: the actor returned to the garage; the cowboy hung up his hat. At first people were resentful of me for spoiling their fun, but gradually the town returned to normal.

But sometimes when I buy my fish, Betty turns salmon pink and looks away and I wonder what it is like to see deep into the heart; really deep into the heart.