And now the boring stuff!

February 25, 2017 Leave a comment

In 2006 I set up a company called That Company. We specialised in writing the matey blurbs on smoothies, artisanal crisps, and so on.

In one year we made over £800,000 just from putting ‘And now the boring stuff’ at the top of legal disclaimers.

Every time a product referred to itself as though it were alive, that was us.

‘Recycle me! I like to help the environment’ – that was us.

‘I’m made of 100% natural ingredients, and 0% sadness’ – that was us.

‘I hope you love me, but if you don’t, you can return me for a full refund – see “the boring stuff” for details’ – that was us.

Our consulting wing did nothing but recommend the wholesale replacement of the definite article with the word ‘that’ in the name for every product or business we worked on.

‘How are you mate?’ we wrote on a bottle of milk.

‘Hi! I’m a punnet of red grapes’ we wrote on a punnet of red grapes.

‘You know what we’re for ;-)’ we wrote on a packet of extra safe ribbed condoms.

We were making millions. I moved to a bigger house, then a bigger house, then a bigger house. Before long all I did was stroll into the office, suggest the word ‘man’ be replaced with the word ‘bloke’, and went home.

Three years after starting the company, we were approached by Packer Lytton, a famous and very expensive firm of solicitors. I was familiar with their work, having spent three years putting ‘and now the boring stuff’ above it. I thought for a moment they might be furious with us, but in fact they loved us. They charged us with nothing short of a complete overhaul of the way they drafted legal documents.

We threw out ‘the undersigned’ in favour of ‘the cool dude’.

We killed off ‘all parties concerned’ and brought in ‘all the funky party people out there’.

‘This contract is legally binding for an indefinite period’ was now ‘better do what we say or else 😉 just kidding! ‘

Befor long the legal profession as a whole had adopted our style, and a short two years later we were approached by the government.

Or, as we renamed then, ‘That Government Thingy’.

We worked with every department: That Department of Yummy Food and Farms, That Department of Kids Learning Stuff, That Ministry of Army Men, Sailors and Fighter Pilots Please Hum Theme From Dambusters Now.

That was the beginning of the end for our company. By the end of our contract we had successfully rebranded everything in That United Kingdom, and much of the English speaking world.

On my last day of worky at That Company, I gave a buh-bye speech to the whole gang, got into my Honda Brum-Brum Big Car, pootled on back to my home on Hamster Heath LOL, went up to my roofy lookout, and surveyed a world remade by my pen.

Then I guffed!

Shoddy Little Outfit

December 30, 2016 Leave a comment

My name is Peter Buckland. I’m twenty eight years old and they tell me I’ve gone crazy. They don’t use that word, but I read between the lines and it’s clear that’s what they mean. I’m not stupid. But they could be right about the crazy part.

I wasn’t always like this. I thought of myself as pretty normal and straightforward. I didn’t have any great ambitions or triumphs and I didn’t have any long, dark nights. I was just getting along, like a normal person. Like you’re supposed to. I went to university, I got a job, I worked hard. I went to the gym, I watched TV. I had a few good friends, maybe fell in love once or twice, and so on. Was I happy? Not especially. Did it bother me? No.

But I definitely wasn’t crazy yet.

‘You’re crazy for staying there so long,’ said my friend Kim. We were catching up over coffee; her idea. It’s one of those things you’re supposed to do now and again with old friends. ‘Honestly, it won’t even be a proper interview. It’ll just be me and you, in a room, I’ll tick a few boxes, whatever, and then you’ll have a new job.’

‘I don’t know,’ I said, but without any real strength of feeling. She was wearing me down.

‘You’ll have a new job,’ she repeated, ‘where you’ll be paid what you deserve. Where you’ll get promoted. Where you’ll have a future.’ She sipped her coffee and said through a swallow, ‘Plus you’ll get to hang around with me.’ And she smiled.

I liked Kim a lot. At university, I had lived with a guy who was going out with a girl who had lived with Kim. There was no suggestion of romance between us. I was seeing somebody else when we met, then she was seeing somebody, and so on, until we graduated and she got a job with a big company and moved away. A year or so ago that big company branched out, opening an office round the corner from my own, and Kim was in charge.

This was awkward, because Kim’s company and my company were in the same business. I worked for Daniels & Martin Workplace Training. You probably haven’t heard of it; it was a small company, and anyway it doesn’t exist now. Kim worked for TrainFirst. You probably haven’t heard of that either, but it’s the biggest supplier of workplace training in the country. You know when someone came to your office and got you to do team building exercises? Or when you got sent on a first aid course? And you were bored out of your mind? That was probably TrainFirst.

It was also awkward because D&M had been good to me, helping me to get my qualifications and giving me time off when I needed it, which wasn’t often, but I know that some employers aren’t very good at that sort of thing. I told Kim this but she shook her head and interrupted.

‘No, no. You don’t owe them anything. You’ve got to put yourself first. Are you going to get promoted at D&M? Or get a payrise?’

I wasn’t. There wasn’t anywhere for me to climb. It didn’t really bother me. As I said, I wasn’t ambitious. But short of Adrian Daniels himself giving me control of the company, there was no position for me to rise to. He was on the way to retirement age, but everyone knew his son Ritchie would probably take over. It was a family company. But, again, it didn’t bother me, usually.

As Kim went on and on, I started to see it differently. It started to bother me. What was I doing? Who did I think I was helping? Was I so scared of making Adrian Daniels sad? Was that what it was? Why? He was just my boss. He was a good boss, but he wasn’t really my friend. Okay, he’d been around to my house, and got me Christmas presents, and always remembered my birthday, and we went out for a drink every other Friday, and I went to his grandson’s christening, but he wasn’t really my friend. It was a work relationship. There’d be no hard feelings if I left, surely. It was just business.

Perhaps I should have stood up to Kim. Perhaps I was too easily persuaded. Perhaps if I hadn’t agreed to go to the interview, I wouldn’t have ended up like this. I suppose in that sense it’s all my fault.

Perhaps I deserved it.

This conversation took place on Saturday. On Sunday, Kim rang me to tell me she’d arranged the interview. I hadn’t told her I definitely wanted to go, but she said I had to since she had stuck her neck out for me. The interview was arranged for Monday afternoon, so I went in to work as usual in the morning.

It wasn’t a normal day at work for me; it was my six year anniversary of starting at D&M. I hadn’t expected a fuss, but as I walked into the office the team barely acknowledged me. A couple of them looked up from their desks, nodded, maybe even said ‘Morning’ or ‘Good weekend?’, but that was it. There was no acknowledgement that this was a special day for me. Yes, I wasn’t expecting anything, but a mention would have been nice. I was sitting at my desk slowly opening emails when Adrian came over. He’d probably say something. This was exactly the sort of thing he usually remembered. He was very good about these things.

‘Morning,’ he said as he walked past. He went into his office and shut the door. Now, I wasn’t asking for much. I’m not a demanding person. I just wanted somebody to say something. Maybe a card. Not a present, I’m not a child, but something. A gift card maybe. Adrian came out of his office after about fifteen minutes and came back towards my desk. Here we go, I thought, and felt ridiculous for having got worked up. But when he walked right past me again without making eye contact, I suddenly felt very deflated. I looked around the office at all the other people, and I realised I was furious with them. How could they forget? This was just symptomatic of the whole company’s attitude towards me, how they were taking me for granted. I was glad I was going to an interview. I hoped I’d get the job. That would show them. Then they would appreciate me. When I was gone, they’d realise all that I had done for them.

I did no work for the rest of the morning. They didn’t deserve it. Just after lunch I got up and put on my coat. ‘Got to nip out for an hour or two,’ I called to Adrian. He raised a thumb. He never asked questions about things like that. He trusted me. That was good, but it didn’t make up for forgetting the anniversary. ‘Cheers,’ I said, and stalked out of the building.

The TrainFirst office was just around the corner. It was an old house at the end of a terrace, all of which had been converted into offices. TrainFirst had the whole house, even though there was no way they needed all that room. Kim came down the tall and creaking staircase at the rear of the reception area.

‘Receptionist’s off,’ she said. ‘Come on up.’ She took a breath and began scaling the stairs again. ‘Second floor,’ she said, ‘Sorry there’s no lift.’

Standing at the bottom of the steep staircase I suddenly felt as if I was making a bad decision. I thought of Adrian’s warm smile, the kindness and the trust he had shown me. I knew I wasn’t the most dynamic or interesting bloke in the world, but he’d seen something in me. Now I felt like a traitor.  

Kim turned. ‘What are you doing? Come on.’ She continued her climb. I decided to just do the interview. Then I could decide afterwards. That seemed to be the sensible choice. I was exploring my options. No harm in that.

As I began to climb, I felt something. I felt a sort of resistance, as if there were some heavy, irregular object suspended in the staircase. I thought perhaps I had lost my balance, and I looked down to check my footing. I stepped forward again, and felt the same sensation. It really was as if there was something there, but I could see nothing. I pushed against the object and it swung away from me slightly, then back. It bumped into me, forcing me to grab the bannister. Whatever it was, it was cold and heavy.

Kim’s voice came from above, around a corner. ‘This way Pete,’ she said.

I stepped forward instinctively, keen not to keep her waiting, and as I did so I passed right through the space where the invisible object had been. This time there was no resistance, no weight. I felt like I had walked through a wet cobweb on a cold morning, but my face and clothes were dry. With a shudder, I continued the climb.

By the time I reached the top I had decided that these old houses were full of strange cold spots and draughts, and that I was worried about nothing. The interview was a far more frightening prospect.

The stairs curved round at the top to meet a landing. On my right, the bannister continued forwards to meet the wall ahead. Here there was an open door, with a few comfy chairs and a low table on the other side. To my left, directly opposite the bannister, was a closed door marked ‘Rich Edgebrook, Area Manager’.

‘This way,’ said Kim, ushering me through the open door. Inside the room she waved towards a second door and said in a loud and formal voice, ‘The interview will be through there. Toilets are down one floor. We’ll call you when ready.’

I sat down on one of the chairs, then realised I was still wearing my coat and stood up to take it off. As I did so, Kim came over and said quietly, ‘I’m sorry, but Rich wanted to sit in on the interview. Don’t worry, he’s nicer than he seems. He likes to give a tough interview, but you’ll be fine. Just, whatever he does, stay cool.’

I hadn’t prepared for this, and if I’d known it would be a difficult interview I wouldn’t agreed to it in the first place. Or at least I would have required a lot more persuasion. But I didn’t want to let Kim down. She’d gone out on a limb for me, personally recommended me. If I messed this interview up, I’d be landing her in trouble too. I could tell she was thinking about this as she eyed me nervously.

‘No problem,’ I told her. She smiled, seeming relieved, and went through the door to the interview room. As it swung shut I glimpsed a man, Rich I assumed, sitting at a long table and using a MacBook.

I put my coat down and went over to the water cooler. The water trickled out into a plastic cup, cool in my hand. I was calming down. It was going to be fine. D&M had a course on interview skills, and I had sat in on one a few weeks before. I tried to remember what we were teaching people. I could hear the course leader saying ‘It’s all common sense stuff.’ I couldn’t remember what that stuff was. Don’t shit your pants. That’s common sense. I doubt we were teaching people that.

As I was making my way back to my seat, I heard voices on the landing. They were unclear, as if from behind a closed door, but I could tell it was a man and a woman. The man was speaking calmly, but the woman was growing frantic. There was a pleading tone to her voice. I went back across the room and put my head out. There was nobody on the landing, and the voices seemed to be coming from Rich’s office, but of course I knew he was in the interview room next door. Maybe there was an adjoining door. These old buildings usually had strange layouts. I listened again to the voices, and was sure that the woman’s voice was not Kim’s. It sounded younger, less reasonable. It had begun to sob. I turned and went back inside the room, not wanting to get involved.

Crossing the room, I heard from behind the sound of a door opening and slamming. I didn’t want to spin round and look as if I had been spying, so I went quickly back to my chair and sat down, watching the open doorway. I couldn’t see anyone, but I heard a sort of shuffling sound. Whoever it was would appear any second now.

Then I heard a sudden loud crack, like a party popper going off. I jumped out of my seat, then looked around, embarrassed. Nobody had seen my overreaction, so I went out onto the landing again to see what the noise had been. Unable to see anything unusual, I peered over the bannister. There was nothing there. I ran my hand along the bannister and recoiled as it came into contact with a rough object. Inspecting the wood, I saw no unsanded or damaged patches. I moved my hand along again and found the object. Like whatever I had encountered on the stairs, it seemed to be invisible. I realised quickly what it was from its burr and coil – it was a taut rope, extending over the balustrade and down the centre of the staircase. I followed it along, across the landing, where I discovered it was tied to the door handle of Rich’s office. It was definitely a thick rope, but why couldn’t I see it? This was the strangest thing I had ever experienced.

Assuming this was some sort of advanced technology, what was it doing on the landing of an office building? I pulled on it, but something heavy was tied to the loose end, and I could barely move it. I went back over to the bannister and was about to look over when I heard a voice from my left.

‘Mr. Buckland?’ It was Kim, affecting her formal tone of voice again. ‘Ready?’

I apologised and followed her into the interview room, forgetting again about the strangeness on the staircase.

Inside the room Kim introduced me to Rich, who stood, smiling, and held out his hand for me to shake. His palm was angled down slightly and his grip was too strong. If you’re the sort of person who believes that a handshake speaks volumes, this one was screaming dickhead.

To Rich’s left, a third person was sitting down. A young woman with a blonde bob, she was wearing a grey hoody in contrast to Kim and Rich’s suits. She was writing something, and didn’t look up as I entered. I held out my hand and smiled. She glanced up briefly then returned to scrawling on her notepad. ‘Michelle,’ she said. ‘Sit down please.’

‘Thanks,’ I replied, taking my seat. Kim and Rich looked at each other and then sat as well. The interview began.

I soon began to remember that interview skills course, because the questions were reappearing word-for-word. They must have picked them out of a book or something – 15 Basic Interview Questions for Beginners. Presumably the questions were mandated by the TrainFirst head office. Kim had been given the softer questions – ‘Tell us about something you do that isn’t on your CV’ – and Rich was taking the tougher ones – ‘What’s your main weakness’.

I met the generic questions with generic answers, which seemed to be working well. Kim nodded encouragingly and although Rich was trying to play it tough I could tell he was finding little to complain about. The problem was Michelle. She continued to write in her notebook, not looking up, interjecting with little sighs and tuts. They hadn’t given her any questions to ask, it seemed. I assumed she was just there for record keeping, a secretary or something, but still I became fixated on impressing her. I began to direct my responses to her, looking closely for a reaction, but I was getting nowhere. And the more I began to address her, the less convinced Rich and Kim grew. Kim began to look confused, and Rich became frustrated.

I decided I wasn’t supposed to be convincing Michelle. After all, Rich was the boss here. I vowed to ignore Michelle and return to my winning formula, but at that moment Rich said, ‘Okay, that’s everything we have for you. Do you have any questions for us?’

I knew from the training that it is suicide to decline this opportunity, and once again I found that I had the generic responses at my fingertips. I was just about to ask about the upcoming challenges for the business, when Michelle, at last, spoke.

‘Just one from me, actually,’ she said. ‘How would you describe your current employer?’ She looked up from her notepad and stared at me.

‘Um,’ I said.

‘Pretty simple question really,’ she snapped. ‘What’s it like there? Why do you want to leave? Are they no good? Do you think it’ll be better here?’

I thought for a moment. ‘Well, I think coming to TrainFirst would be a challenge in many respects, but I also see it as an opportunity.’ I broke eye contact with Michelle and looked at Kim and Rich. They were nodding. I looked back at Michelle. She had dropped her pen and was leaning towards me.

‘We’ve heard enough of the careful answers, Peter. We’re all friends here,’ she smiled disconcertingly, ‘you can be honest. Would you say that D&M is supportive? Friendly? Understanding?’

‘D&M is a good place to work. It is friendly, and, all those things. But, I’m ready for a change. I’m ready for something bigger, and more ambitious.’

‘So you’re saying they lack ambition? You’re saying they’re small?’

‘Obviously TrainFirst is a bigger company. D&M is a family business. It’s less slick.’

‘Slick?’ she sat back in her chair, thought for a moment, picked up her pen, wrote something down. ‘So you’re saying D&M is inefficient. A little… ropier? Shoddy, even?’

‘I wouldn’t use the word shoddy, necessarily. They do good work.’

Michelle wrote something else. ‘Don’t backtrack. You’re saying it’s a shoddy little outfit, aren’t you?’

‘Um,’ I said.

‘It’s okay, you can say it. A shoddy little outfit.’

I looked at Rich. A frown was forming on his face. I looked at Kim. She raised her eyebrows and nodded to say, go on.

Michelle smiled at me. ‘Go ahead.’

‘I suppose it is sort of a shoddy… a shoddy little outfit.’

‘I see,’ said Michelle. The smile dropped off her face and she resumed scrawling in her notepad.

‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘did I say something wrong?’

Rich’s frown had fully resolved. ‘We’re just wondering what your question is, exactly.’

‘My question?’

I looked at Kim, who was nodding again.

Then I looked at Michelle.

She raised her eyes from the notepad again and stared at me. She lifted her pen and dropped it with a clatter onto the table. She pushed her chair back, scraping it on the floor, then stood. Her fists were clenched at her sides. Staring into my eyes, she drew a ragged breath.

Then she jumped. She bent her knees and hopped, just once, no higher than a few inches.

The second her feet hit the floor, her arms went limp.

There was a sudden loud bang, the same loud crack I’d heard on the landing.

It was the sound of her neck breaking.

Her head dropped to her shoulder and blood began to seep from her nose.

Her mouth hung open, her swelling tongue protruding.

She was turning blue.

She was dead.

I threw myself backwards out of my chair. Kim and Rich looked at me in shock. They began to stand. I turned and I ran.

Out on the landing, again I came up against the invisible rope. I ducked under it and hurried down the stairs. There I felt the object hanging in the stairwell, and recognised it as a cold human body. I pushed it aside and ran. Ran out of the building, down the street, around the corner, ran as fast as my feet would carry me, stumbling here and there, until I burst through the door of Daniels & Martin workplace training and heard again a sudden loud crack.

‘Surprise!’ shouted my colleagues as the confetti from their party poppers rained down.

Hanging from the ceiling was a banner reading ‘Congratulations Peter!’

I was stunned. Adrian came out of the crowd and shook my hand warmly. He grinned.

‘Told you he’d be surprised!’ he laughed. ‘And you thought we’d all forgotten about you!’

Everybody laughed. Music was playing.

‘Pete,’ said Adrian, ‘today is a very special day. Not only is it your six year anniversary, but I also have an announcement to make. I’ve decided that it’s time for me to put myself first, and I will be retiring at the end of the year.’

Everybody made a sad noise.

‘No no,’ he said, ‘don’t worry, you’ll still see me I’m sure! I’ve come to think of you all as part of my family. And with that in mind, I want to make sure this company continues to be a happy family. I know just the man to make it happen.’ He placed a hand on my shoulder. ‘Peter Buckland, congratulations!’

There was a cheer so loud I almost didn’t notice that my phone was ringing. I was grinning now, my experience at TrainFirst completely forgotten. I felt as if I’d fallen asleep and into a beautiful dream, but it was all real. Kim would be disappointed, but she’d understand. The afternoon’s stresses had evaporated as soon as Adrian had placed his hand on my shoulder, and I’d known what he was going to say.

‘Pete,’ said Adrian, pointing to my desk. ‘Your phone.’

‘Put it on speakerphone!’ I laughed. ‘Let’s all say hello from the D&M family!’

One of my employees reached over and hit the button. ‘Hello!’ we all shouted, then quietened to hear the voice.

‘Mr. Buckland,’ it said, ‘hello. Michelle here from TrainFirst.’

Shit. ‘Hold on,’ I said, beginning to push my way across the office.

‘Just wanted to say thanks for coming in for the interview today. It was great to meet you.’

That’s okay, I could explain that. I was getting closer to the phone. ‘Hang on a second,’ I shouted.

‘I’m really pleased to let you know that you got the job.’

‘Wait,’ I yelled, ‘wait a second!’ I was by my desk now, trying to grab the phone, but it was just beyond my reach. I tried to move round the desk, but somebody was holding my arm. ‘It’s okay,’ I said, ‘Just wait a second.’

‘I know you’ll be pleased too,’ said the voice. ‘I’m sure you’ll be happy to get away from that… What did you say?’

‘No!’ I shouted ‘I don’t know who this is!’ I turned to my employees. ‘It’s some sort of trick!’

‘Oh yes. “Shoddy little outfit”. We’re all looking forward to putting them out of business after what you’ve told us. Thanks for being so open about them. Anyway, must dash. See you soon!’

She hung up.

I realised that the hand on my arm belonged to Adrian.

I tried to explain. But, like I said, they tell me I’ve gone crazy. So I suppose you shouldn’t listen to a word I say.

Aliens Built the Parthenon

July 24, 2016 Leave a comment

‘Aliens built the Parthenon!’ shouted Marcus.

Imelda rolled onto her side. ‘Muh?’ she offered.

‘They built the Parthenon!’ He was sitting upright in the bed. ‘That’s it! They came to Earth and they built it with nano-bots. It’s the only explanation!’

‘Why?’ said Imelda.

‘What’s that?’

‘Why would the aliens build a parthemum. Er, parfenim. Um, you know. That.’ She was tired.

‘How am I supposed to know that?’ snapped Marcus. He thought for a moment then roughly lay back down, twisting to face away from her, coiling the sheets around himself. Her legs were exposed to the cold now. ‘I’m not a fucking alien expert,’ muttered Marcus.

‘But you’re convinced that it was aliens?’ she whispered.

‘A hundred percent. Goodnight.’

‘Goodnight,’ she said, before taking  a pillow, holding it over his face until he was still, then beaming back up to the mothership.

Three Black Marks

December 29, 2015 Leave a comment

The last time I saw my friend, he told me this story. He’s never been much of a liar, nor has he ever had much of an imagination. I’ve never heard him tell a story like this. According to him, it happened to his cousin last Christmas Eve. She told his mother the story, before the doctors dosed her up with all kinds of drugs. She can’t even get out of bed now, but at least she isn’t thinking about what happened.

Her name is Emily, and last Christmas Eve she went back to her hometown in Dorset to stay with her parents. Her brother, Alex, had arrived the day before and unpacked his suitcase in the spare room. Their parents had recently downsized, once the kids had grown up, once they’d started rattling around in that old place, with more rooms than they knew what to do with.

‘You don’t want to sleep on the sofa, Emily,’ said her dad on the phone. ‘You’ll damage your back.’

‘Your back is so important,’ added her mother. They always called her using speakerphone, so they could both speak to her at once. ‘You have to look after your back.’

‘That’s right,’ said Dad. ‘So we’ve borrowed a caravan from some friends of ours. It’s out in the driveway.’

‘Just a little thing really, but you’ll be more than comfortable,’ said Mum, and she began to rattle off  a list of instructions. Emily stopped listening. She opened a chest of drawers in her bedroom. Nothing inside but dust.

‘Anyway,’ concluded her father, ‘all of this is written out for you on the back of the door. I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s very nice of Bob to trust us with his caravan.’

‘Mmm,’ said Emily, closing the drawer again. Perhaps, she thought, next time it will be full of his clothes once again. But probably not.

‘Okay?’ asked Mum.

Maybe now was the time to tell them. Rhys was gone, he’d taken the dog, she was almost certainly about to be made redundant, which meant she’d lose the house, everything was falling apart. She took a breath.

‘Em, you’re doing so well. We’re so proud. I was telling Rachel about you, and her boy isn’t getting on well at all,’ began her mother. She launched into the weekly update on how terribly her nephew was doing. That’s my friend, by the way. Emily’s dad interjected now and then with words like ‘shocking’ and ‘typical’, and phrases like ‘he just needs to learn to graft’ and ‘people think they can just have everything handed to them these days’.

Emily decided she’d tell them about Rhys when she saw them in person. It’d be easier then. Or maybe she’d never tell them. Could that work, somehow?

Following her father’s directions to the letter, the drive to Dorset was long and quiet, and gave her too much time to think about everything that was going wrong. By the time she arrived outside her parents’ new house, she was in a very low mood. She parked her car next to the caravan, pulling forwards and reversing several times until she was straight. She could tell from the shadow at the lounge window that her dad was watching the manoeuvre.

She took a moment to pull herself together. She would assume the character of a successful young woman with a loving husband and a very stable job. She would pretend to be the person her parents thought she was. With a smile fixed on her face she rang the doorbell.

To her immediate relief, the door was opened by her brother Alex. He beamed and stepped forward, throwing his arms around her. His Christmas jumper was warm and soft. He knew everything, of course, about Rhys, the dog and her job. There had been a tearful late night phone call. The sound of his voice, as he softly said ‘Great to see you’ and then ‘Don’t worry’, was almost enough to bring the tears back.

But she had to be strong, as here came Mum and Dad.

Emily was passed from hug to hug to hug, and once this formality was out of the way, the usual routine began. Her mother touched her hair, adjusting it here and there, straightening a bobby pin, taking her by the shoulders and rotating her to look at the back. Meanwhile, her father asked her about the drive, where the traffic had been at its worst, what time she had left, if she’d gone in the right lane at the new roundabout coming off the A road, whether she had remembered to check her oil, her tyres, her lights, her windscreen washer fluid. Had she left her bags in the car? Probably best to get them moved into the caravan sooner rather than later. Had she had breakfast? Lunch wouldn’t be for another hour but she could have a cream cracker or two if she wanted. Had she thought about what she wanted to do this afternoon? Dad wanted to have a word about her mortgage at some point. And what a shame that Rhys couldn’t make it down, a real pity that he had to work, but then he always was a hard worker wasn’t he? Just like Em. That’s what made them such a good match.

They mean well, she told herself. Surely they do.

After this it was time for the tour. Mum and Dad took her from room to room, pointing out the improvements they had made and would make, telling her she might want to think about doing the same in her house. Needs a lick of paint in here. Going to box that pipe in, but of course you have to install a hatch these days, building regs and all that. Boarded out the loft already, so helpful to have the storage, but make sure you don’t compress the insulation or it will lose effectiveness, you can get metal stilts to rise the boards on, fifteen pounds each in B&Q but you can get them from the hardware shop in the village for fourteen fifty, look here’s the receipt so you can get the same ones. Emily said nothing. There was no need.

Finally they led her back outside and across the drive to the caravan. Her father produced a key and unlocked the door, then handed it to Emily.

‘Bob only gave us the one key I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘and I didn’t have time to get a new one cut. If I were you I’d pop into town before the shops shut and get it done. Just in case.’

‘Maybe,’ Emily said, fighting the impulse to roll her eyes.

‘I should if I were you,’ he repeated.

The inside of the caravan had a musty smell, but otherwise appeared clean. Emily climbed in after her dad, and heard a tut from her mother behind her. She braced herself for the inevitable comment about the size of her arse. But it didn’t come, as her dad closed the door behind Emily and her mother scuttled off back to the house.

On the back of the door was a laminated sheet of paper with eleven typewritten commandments. It had been left by Bob. He was a funny little man who didn’t seem to have aged in years. The first rule was ‘No Shoes’, so she pulled off her boots and dropped them by the door. Her father took her through the remaining items in painstaking detail. Fifteen minutes later this ordeal was over and she was finally left alone.

‘Lunch won’t be long,’ said her father, ‘Don’t hang around in here too long.’ The first thing she did was tear down Bob’s list of rules and throw it across the caravan.

Behind the sheet, on the back of the door, there was a rough, dark pair of lines, just a few centimetres long. It looked like dirt. Emily licked her thumb and rubbed at the marks, to no effect. She was bound to get the blame for them. She took a sponge from by the sink and tried to shift the lines, first with the soft and then with the rough side. They remained, two black marks, just as dark as before. Typical. She flung the sponge back towards the sink, and went to use the bathroom. In strict accordance with the rules, of course.

As she entered the small room at the back of the caravan, she felt herself step in a wet patch by the door. Something warm began to soak into her sock. She groaned as it made contact with her skin, turned, sat down on the toilet and pulled off the sock.

It was dry. She frowned at it. Looking at the floor, she could see no puddle. She slid off the toilet onto her knees and placed a palm on the floor. It was dry too.

Emily had no time to consider this mystery any further, as her phone began to ring. She’d left it in her bag back in the main room, so she got to her feet and went back out of the bathroom. It was her mother on the phone.

‘Lunch is going cold,’ she said, and hung up. Emily hurriedly pulled on her boots and climbed down out of the caravan, taking care to lock the door with the only key.


Lunch was horrible. Not the food, of course. That was never anything less than perfect at her parents’ house. Soft, fluffy homemade bread rolls, creamy mushroom soup, thick sandwiches, fresh fruit juice and coffee. It was the best food she’d had for a long time. The only problem was the company.

The main topic of conversation was her parents’ favourite person: Rhys. They talked about how good his job was, how hard he worked, how caring he was, how well he looked after Emily, how he doted on her, how they’d always said they were a good match, how glad they were to have set the two of them up in the first place, how they always looked out for their daughter and how they were so glad she now had such a wonderful husband to look out for her too, how Emily really deserved all this happiness.

Emily listened to it all, smiling, nodding, cocking her head. She ate hungrily and continuously, to save having to say anything, having to tell them how wrong they were. He did work hard, but he didn’t care, he didn’t dote on her, and she didn’t blame him. She didn’t deserve the happiness. She didn’t deserve him. And so he was gone.

Alex did his best to change the subject. His efforts were ignored by their parents, but Emily could have jumped across the table and hugged him anyway. He gave her sympathetic glances, checking to make sure that she was okay. He was on her side, as he always had been. Once again, he was the only thing stopping her from setting fire to the house.

With lunch finished, Emily and Alex cleared away the plates. They didn’t need to be told. It was a reflex that had been programmed into them long ago. Mum and Dad watched them, pointing out things they’d missed or better ways to carry piles of plates and cutlery. At least they had a dishwasher now. As Emily loaded it up, Alex leaned against the counter.

‘I don’t know how, but I always forget what they’re like,’ he whispered.

‘Don’t talk about it,’ she said, continuing to load the plates. ‘If I talk about it, I’ll cry.’

‘No worries Em.’ He smiled.


Emily retreated to the caravan after lunch. As she climbed inside, she noticed a strange smell which certainly hadn’t been there before. It was a meaty sort of smell, as if somebody had been frying a very fatty piece of beef. She went to the small kitchen area and searched the cupboards and the gas cooker, but there was no food to be found. The cupboards were all empty, except for a single framed photograph of Bob. He was dressed in old fashioned clothes, and it looked like a very old print. It must have been some novelty item. Then, a short gust of wind swept past her, taking the smell away with it. The musty odour she had noticed when she’d arrived returned. Emily wondered if she was having a stroke or something. Doesn’t that make you smell weird things? Can’t that be brought on by stress?

Her hands were pale and shaking slightly. She took a deep breath, leaning on the cooker. She was only there for three nights. On Boxing Day, perhaps she would phone some of her old friends who might be around, see if they wanted to meet up. So really it was only Christmas Day left. She could probably hide in the caravan until it was time for dinner, and after that make her excuses and come back again, go straight to sleep. She could do it. It wouldn’t be that bad.

But first, she had to be sick. It was that weird smell that had done it. She’d eaten too much at lunch and had been feeling quite fragile anyway, but that smell had tipped her over the edge. She hurried through the caravan, and skidded on a wet patch by the bathroom door. She almost fell, but managed to put a hand on the towel rail and right herself. It was that same patch from before, and again she looked down and saw nothing on the floor.

But this time she had no time to inspect the area, as she was about to be sick. She turned, dropped to her knees, lifted the toilet seat, and retched repeatedly into the bowl. Nothing came. Exhausted, she slumped next to the toilet, wedging herself against the bath. Maybe she would just lie here until it was time for dinner.

She had no idea how much time had passed when she heard a sound from the caravan’s main room. It was a single, low thud, and it shook the walls slightly. She lifted her head from the side of the bath. The sound came again, just the same. After a moment, she heard it again, and again, and again. It increased its pace. Thud. She pulled herself to her feet. Thud thud. She crossed the bathroom. Thud thud thud. She peered out into the main room. Thud thud thud thud.

It was the handle of the main door. Somebody was trying to get in.

She carefully walked across the room. The handle was frantic now, rattling up and down, up and down. She didn’t remember locking the door.

She came to the door, and reached out. The handle was moving so quickly she was afraid it might break her fingers. Slowly her hand advanced. Her heart pounded.

Just before she touched it, the handle stopped moving. She gripped it, drew a breath, and pulled open the door.

On the other side was her father, his face red and frowning.

‘Dad!’ she gasped. ‘The door must have been jammed.’

‘Never mind that,’ he said, and grabbed her by the arm. ‘Come inside the house.’ He set off across the driveway, dragging her with him. The caravan door slammed shut behind them.

‘What’s going on?’ she asked, but her father gave no reply. He led her into the dining room and pushed her into the chair at the head of the table. Her mother was sitting at the other end of the table, over to one side slightly with an empty chair next to her. Dad went and sat down beside her.

‘What’s wrong?’ Emily said, but she knew the answer before she asked.

‘When were you going to tell us?’ said Mum, in a low and steady tone.

‘About what?’ said Emily, her last ditch attempt to play dumb. Her voice wavered.

‘About you and Rhys,’ said Dad. ‘We know all about it.’

Emily was furious. She searched for something to say. There was nothing. She pushed back the chair and got to her feet.

‘Sit down at once Emily!’ barked her mother and father in unison. Reflexively, she did as she was told, and hated herself for doing so.

‘So Alex told you?’ she said darkly. How could he?

‘Alex!’ Her mother was visibly shocked. ‘Alex knew about all this? And he didn’t tell us?’

Her father put a hand on his mother’s arm. ‘We’ll talk to him afterwards.’ His head turned back towards Emily. ‘Rhys told us, of course.’

Rhys! Of course. Naturally they would phone their best friend on Christmas Eve, the son they wished they’d had. And of course Alex hadn’t given her away.

‘Emily,’ sighed her mother, ‘I don’t know how you messed this one up, I really don’t. You two were perfect together. You’re throwing so much away.’

‘Mum, you don’t understand.’ She was shaking now, as much from rage as grief. ‘It wasn’t-’

‘No,’ interrupted her father, ‘Emily, you don’t understand. You don’t realise what you’ve done. That man has been so good to you, and you’re throwing it right back in his face. Don’t you feel bad? Aren’t you embarrassed?’

‘It’s not that simple,’ she said, in a tiny voice.

‘Let me tell you something,’ said her mother. ‘Marriages are very simple. You find someone you love, and you marry them, and then you stay together. That’s it. It isn’t complicated. That was all you had to do. But apparently we made some terrible error bringing you up, because even that is too difficult for you.’

‘I don’t know where we went wrong.’ Her father shook his head ruefully.

Emily felt a tear loose itself from her eye and slowly begin to wind its way down her cheek. No, she told herself. You said you wouldn’t.

‘Rhys told us about your job too,’ added her mother.

‘Oh, just shut up, will you?’ Emily felt something give way behind her eyes, some ancient wall beginning to crumble. ‘I don’t care about my job.’

Her father was on his feet. His chair tipped back against the sideboard, leaving a dent. ‘I don’t know what has happened to make you think you can speak to your mother in that way in this house,’ he roared, ‘but it stops right now!’

‘We’ve done everything for you,’ whined her mother. ‘It was all laid out for you! We found you Rhys, we found you your job, your house, your mortgage, your dog. We did it all! All you had to do was be a good daughter. But look at you now. You’ve let yourself go. Look at the state of you. No wonder he’s gone.’ Mum was crying now. ‘We worked so hard!’

‘Don’t you realise,’ her father said through his teeth, ‘how embarrassing this all is for us?’

Emily rose from her chair again.

‘Sit down,’ hissed her father.

She almost did. But that wall had broken now. They couldn’t tell her what to do. She stared at him. She hadn’t cried. She was winning. She shook her head once, turned, and walked back through the house. Her parents’ voices chased her, but she kept a steady pace as she went out through the front door, across the drive, and finally climbed back inside the caravan. She closed the door behind her, locked it, and stood in the centre of the room, shaking.

Adrenaline was pumping through her body. She’d never stood up to her parents like this in her life. Everything had been mapped out for her. She’d never had to make a choice or express an opinion of her own. They’d made a prisoner of her, and employed Rhys as her guard. Well, she was free now. The thought of this was a terrifying relief. What was she going to do? She stood there, her mind racing, and felt time flowing around her. She had a sensation that she had taken control of a falling plane and steered it away from jagged rocks with seconds to spare.

Slowly her normal senses began to return to her. She felt the frayed fabric of her socks where they had been torn on the gravel path. Her father had dragged her away without even giving her time to put her boots on. She heard the low rumble of a car passing on the main road. She saw particles of dust floating in the crisp winter light.

She smelled, once again, that strange fatty scent. This time, it was accompanied by a hissing sound. It really was as if somebody was frying something dreadful in the kitchen.

But there was nobody there, and nothing on the stove. She opened the cupboards again. Now that she was feeling so powerful, she would get to the bottom of this mystery. She looked at the framed photograph of Bob she had found in the cupboard. In the corner of the picture, somebody had written ‘1893’. Still chasing the smell, she opened the oven and put her head inside. Perhaps there was something lodged in there, she thought, but there was nothing she could see. The hissing, sizzling noise was certainly coming from the stove. She held her hand above the ring. It was cool.

The noise stopped suddenly, and the smell disappeared with it. It had provided a distraction from the enormous change that was taking place within Emily, and at once she was overwhelmed. She felt as if she were about to be sick again, and she hurried to the bathroom.

For a third time, as she entered the bathroom she felt her foot make contact with something wet on the floor. With her frayed socks, it was more obvious than ever. Again she was seized by a determination to solve the mystery. She sat on the toilet and pulled off a sock.

It was soaking wet. Dripping with a heavy, thick, red substance. It splashed on the floor, leaving dark stains. She looked across to the door. There was a deep, crimson puddle.

It could only be blood.

Frantically she checked her feet, her ankles for cuts. There was nothing there. She rolled up her jeans and inspected her shins, her calves. No cuts, no blood. She stood and looked in the mirror. Opened her mouth. There was nothing.

There was only one conclusion: It wasn’t her blood.

She turned from the mirror and looked back to the puddle. She took a step towards it.

As she did so, the bathroom door slammed shut with a deafening bang, shaking the walls of the caravan. The room was darkened. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust, but when they did, she saw it.

All over the walls, the floor, the ceiling, somebody had thickly scrawled a set of indecipherable symbols and markings. There were words here and there, but they used an alphabet and were in a language that was totally unfamiliar to her. Whatever it was that had been used to make the markings, however, did look familiar. They were deep, black, rough, dirty.

They were the same as the lines on the back of the main door.

How had she failed to notice these markings before? She moved close to one of the walls, trying to see if there was any part she could understand.  

‘Prepare her!’ The voice came from all around her. It was deep enough to shake her bones, and strangely familiar. She gasped and looked around.

Suddenly she felt hands on her shoulders, forcing her down to the floor. She fought and kicked, flailing, hitting her elbows and hands against the side of the bath, the toilet, the sink. But the hands were strong.

Then she felt another hand, on her bare right shin. It was rough and heavy. It turned her leg.

‘That’s right,’ said the voice. ‘Just there. That will be enough.’

She felt a sudden pain as a small red dot appeared on the surface of her skin, next to where she could feel the hand. The dot swelled and became a line, which extended slowly up her calf. The pain was incredible. They were cutting into her leg! She tried to kick free, but the hands tightened their grasp on her.

‘Keep her steady,’ said the voice.

The line stopped and turned at a right angle, back towards the front of her leg. After an inch or so, it stopped, and headed back down towards her foot, parallel to the original line.

They were cutting a large rectangle of flesh from her leg.

‘Almost there,’ said the voice.

‘Stop!’ she screamed. ‘Please!’

The line stopped moving. The pain did not subside.

‘She’s not supposed to be able to speak,’ said the voice. It drew close to her ear. ‘Be still,’ it said.

‘No!’ she shouted. ‘Stop this! Please!’

‘A life must be taken,’ said the voice. ‘You have been chosen.’

‘No! No! I don’t want to die!’ She couldn’t die. Not here. Not when her life was just about to begin again.

‘A life must be taken,’ repeated the voice. The line began to move again. The pain intensified. ‘A life must be taken so that I may live.’

‘Please!’ She gasped. ‘Take somebody else!’

The line stopped.

The room was silent for a moment.

‘Another,’ said the voice. ‘Bring us another.’

The hands released her. The markings disappeared. The pool of blood was gone. The bathroom door swung open.

The only remaining evidence of the experience was the deep cut on her leg. It was still bleeding. She limped back into the main room and wrapped it with kitchen paper, then pulled her jeans back over it to keep it in place. Perhaps it was the adrenaline she was still feeling from earlier that stopped the wound from hurting as much as it should have.

Regardless, it was time to get out of the caravan. As she reached the door, a hand fell on her shoulder again, and she heard that deep, strange voice.

‘Bring us another,’ it repeated. ‘Or you will be taken.’

The hand released her.

She opened the door and looked towards the house. It was clear to her what needed to happen. Somebody needed to go back into the caravan instead of her.

She thought of her parents, summoning her for her lecture in the dining room. She saw her father’s red face, her mother’s shaking head. There they were, at every moment in her life, telling her what to do. Making her choices. Keeping her prisoner. Ruining everything.

The only difficult choice would be which of them to choose.

As she walked towards the house, limping but with deadly purpose, she decided that she would go inside and wait for one of them to say something dreadful. Something designed to make her feel small. Something designed to control her, to keep her in the box they had built for her, the box labelled ‘perfect wife, perfect daughter’. Whichever of them it was, she would send to the caravan. Then she would get in the car and never, ever come back.

She’d stop somewhere on the way and phone Alex. Would she explain what had happened? She’d never kept anything from him before. Would he forgive her? Of course he would. He was the only person in that family who had ever cared for her, who had ever seen her as something other than the person her parents desperately wanted her to be.

Her father sealed his fate as soon as she stepped in the door.

‘Ah,’ he said, emerging from the kitchen, ‘Emily. I’m glad to see you’re ready to have a conversation like a reasonable adult.’

They’d never had a conversation, not once. He only did lectures.

She smiled at him. ‘Yes of course,’ she said. ‘By the way, the light has stopped working in the caravan bathroom. Would you mind having a look?’

He nodded. He could never resist fixing something. ‘Okay. And then we’ll talk.’

‘I’d like that,’ said Emily. ‘I’m just going to the toilet.’

She went around by the stairs and into the cloakroom. She was amazed at herself, how cooly she had handled him. This really was the start of her new life.

She waited there for ten minutes. Long enough for him to get his tools and go into the caravan. Long enough for whatever it was inside there to do its work.

She stood, unlocked the door, walked out into the hall. She went over to the door and looked through the etched glass window across the drive. She could just make out the caravan door, swinging shut. He’d been slower than she’d expected, but that was that. It was time to leave.

And then, from behind, she heard his voice.

‘There you are Em. Let’s have that talk now.’

It was her father.

She turned slowly, feeling the blood draining from her face.

‘Well?’ he said. ‘I sent your brother to fix that light.’

She spun away from him, tearing open the door. She scrambled across the drive, stumbling, grazing her palms on the gravel and the tarmac. She reached the caravan, wrenched the door open, clambered up inside.

‘Alex!’ she cried. ‘Alex!’ There was nobody in the main room. The bathroom door was shut, so she rushed over and pulled it open.

The room was empty.

‘Alex!’ she screamed.

Back inside the main room, the caravan door had swung shut.

There, on the back of the door, were three black marks.