Sunday, August 29, 2010

Help Wanted

Going around the bend, I saw the train limping the last few kilometres to the M’Botoan Royal National Transportation Hub. Even from a distance, I could tell the engine was a LMS four-cylinder Coronation Class. My tutor Mr Patel would have been proud of me. I could almost hear his ghostly praise: “Well done, Prince Tshepo.” Mr Patel would still be with us if it had not been for an unfortunate incident when, during a history lesson, he insisted on re-enacting William Tell’s shooting of the apple off his son’s head with a crossbow. “Let us switch roles – you play William Tell,” he had said. His last words.

Unfortunately for both Mr Patel and my lesson about the 14th Century Swiss Confederacy, I could barely lift the crossbow, let alone aim straight. I may be heir to the throne of Africa’s 17th most economically advanced country by GDP and seven-and-a-half years old, but I am small for my age. Nevertheless, as my former au pair Birgitta said: “You are beautifully proportioned – just like your father.” Birgitta left hurriedly after I heard my mother shout at her what sounded like: “You ditch.” Although why my mother would describe a Swedish staff member as a long, narrow excavation made by digging is rather strange.

However, as my ageing Phantom 1 Rolls Royce wound through the foothills towards the station, I was not alone. With chauffeur Mmusa Ohilwe at the wheel and enough fuel to get us back to the Palace, I felt confident it would be a successful trip.

The train not so much stopped as expired at the station. The driver, having made the sign of the Cross, took a swig from a bottle in a brown paper bag.

“Medicine,” commented Mr Ohilwe.

“Really?” I said. “I would have thought it was some form of alcohol.”

From the 3rd Class carriage at the rear of train, we heard a voice. A man, wearing a crushed safari suit that had once been light blue, yelled at Mr Ohilwe: “Get our bags, Ali! Chop, chop or I’ll flay your heathen hide.”

Mr Ohilwe told the stranger where he could shove the bags. I am no student of anatomy, but even I doubted the luggage would fit.

I recognised the man from the photo attached to his emailed response to my “Help Wanted” advertisement. “Harry Briggs, Tutor to the Gentry”, was how he styled himself. Behind him at the carriage door, stood the woman I knew to be his wife, Mavis “Putting the Oh in Au Pair” Briggs.

Mrs Briggs was not making the most of herself. The cigarette behind her ear was partially concealed by hair that, frankly, needed a good conditioner.

Introductions concluded, the pair climbed into the Rolls’ rear seat with me.

Forty minutes later, outside the village of Ramatlhkwane, two men sprung from behind a tree, pointed rifles at our car and shouted “Bang! Bang!”, before diving from sight.

As Mr and Mrs Briggs crouched on the floor in terror, I explained that the men were from the M’Botoan Peoples Liberation Front. Unfortunately, a shortage of funds meant the MPLF rebels could not afford bullets.

With the evening light flattering the Palace and its peeling paintwork, I felt a tug of sadness as I walked the silent halls with Mr and Mrs Briggs. My parents had passed away. Well, “passed away” to nearby Bophuthatswana to visit the casino. I expected them back by the New Year.

Thanks to our country’s National Broadband Network – installed at no cost by Chinese Government engineers under the mistaken impression that M’Boto was the iron ore rich country of Mauritania – I could follow my parents’ adventures on Twitter.

 “What’s this?” Mr Briggs asked, picking up a wooden box trimmed with purple velvet.

“My grandfather’s family jewels.”

Mr Briggs smiled. It was last time I saw him smile. Indeed, it was the last time I saw him and his good lady wife. Stealing the wooden box, they slipped out at midnight, leaving a note saying: “Follow us and your grandfather’s Family Jewels on Twitter.”

Perhaps they didn’t understand the M’Botoan custom of keeping a deceased King’s testicles as a memento mori.

Two days later, Mr and Mrs B tweeted: Help! We’re being held captive by MPLF rebels. They’ll kill us tonight unless you pay big ransom. No joke. Wire money to bank account number
What could I do without the account number? The curse of Twitter’s 140-character limit had struck.

Personally, I would have recommended the flexibility of Facebook.

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Copyright © 2010 GREG FLYNN

Saturday, May 8, 2010


When the shovel hit the coffin, I became alive.

The cool embrace of the grave lost its hold even before I saw a chisel tip tear through the weakened nails holding down the lid. Creak. Sunlight. Creak. The smell of damp earth.

A face hovered over me. Dennis Hiver’s face.

Hiver the Driver. Young and cocky. I could have done worse than Hiver. Running his hands over my pockets, he tore at the fragile, rotting cloth, leaving it hanging. He didn’t care about my dignity. Puffs of dust rose, hovered and fell. His right hand brushed past my face. The letters L-O-V-E-R were tattooed on the knuckles.

Turning his head away – was it disgust at himself or the fear of my decomposing flesh? – Hiver rolled me on my side and ripped the silk lining from the coffin floor. “The key,” he muttered. “Where’s the key?”

Frustrated, he stood up, turned his back and pulled a mobile from his hip pocket. He was beginning to punch in numbers when he stopped. Froze. Spinning around he saw me standing just centimetres away. The scream died on his lips as I ate his soul.

I was surprised his body – no, my body now – didn’t feel awkward. Clambering out of the deep hole, I stretched my legs before leaning back against a stone cross. A mound of freshly-dug soil was piled next to my gravesite.

Patting my jeans’ pockets, I found a set of car keys, two cigarettes, a cheap lighter, and a condom packet with no use-by-date. Hiver must have been psychic.

The tobacco smoke went deep into my lungs and came out with a sigh. Flicking the still burning butt into the grave, I took a final look at my old decaying body lying twisted, half in, half out of the vandalised coffin. Sic transit gloria mundi.

I’m not quite certain why I drove past the bank. It certainly wasn’t for sentimental reasons. Beneath street level, clad in blast-proof steel, the safety deposit box vault would have even tighter security by then. But security means nothing if a disgruntled staffer gives you the codes. How many weeks had it been since we’d all stood in the vault, slapping each other’s backs, kings and queens of the world? The deposit boxes had been crammed with cash, jewels, even small artworks. While the others had filled bags, I’d prised open Box 792. I became bewitched by a slim phial of gleaming green liquid resting alongside a hypodermic needle. A slip of paper read: Prescott Pharmaceuticals. Vax-a-Life. Batch #92, followed by a two paragraph description of the contents. So, so tempting. Pocketing the phial and syringe, I’d rejoined the looting.

By the time we’d reached the safe house, the other five – Dennis Hiver, The Lamp Lighter, Vig Vigorish, Salvation Joan and D D McNally – were quiet. I found out why.

McNally had waited until the final lock clicked into place before he’d knocked me to the floor. He’d seen me shoot up on the darkened stairwell of the bank. I’d broken the code of whatever honour those thieves had – I’d stolen from the gang.

They’d circled around me as I lay on the bare boards. I’d pleaded that I had the key to the world’s greatest secret: eternal life. McNally had laughed, shook his head, then nodded at someone behind me. When the electrical cord was drawn tight around my throat, I’d seen a hand. L-O-V-E-R was spelt out on the knuckles. Karma’s a bitch.

Hiver, the fool, had thought the key was an object. The key was a man and I knew his name. I was tasting a stone cold dish of revenge. I liked it.

The lobby of Prescott Pharmaceuticals was guarded by two security men. I left their bodies laid out neatly behind the reception desk.

On the third floor, I found the laboratory. Professor Prescott was bent over a microscope, a note-taking assistant at his side. When I swung open the glass door, the assistant moved towards me, her hand outstretched. Prescott didn’t appear concerned.

“Hello, young man,” he said. “Have you come to help me?”

“No,” I said. “I’ve come to stop you.”

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Copyright © 2010 GREG FLYNN

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Chosen One

Running my fingertips over the brass plates beside each door, I could feel grooves left by an engraver. The names, however, were illegible, worn away by time and polishing. Which door to choose? Of the two, the tulip yellow one was more inviting. The reception I received, less so.

The woman who answered my knock was hunch-shouldered, her shawl so large it swept the ground. Tapping her wooden walking stick in front of my shoe caps, she insisted I couldn’t enter without an appointment.

I assured her that I had one with Doctor Mary Kelly.

There was no Doctor Kelly at 11a, she said, shutting the door in my face. A moment later, the letter box flap opened: “Try Number 11.”

I did. After the second knock, the red door swung wide. The same woman stood before me. This time, her cane was lifted a few centimetres off the ground, its rubber tip aimed at my knees.

“And you are?” she asked.

“Remember? I’m Doctor Kelly’s 10 o’clock appointment.”

“I’ve never seen you before, and there’s no Doctor Kelly here.” Slam went the red door. “Try Number 11a,” said the voice through the letter box slit.

For the second time in five minutes, I rapped on the yellow door.

She was still hunched, but the stick was raised even higher this time. “Yes?” she asked.

“Let’s not go through this again,” I said. “I just tried next door and was told to come back here.”

“Told? By whom? No one has lived there for years.”

I was tiring of the game. “So, there are no psychiatrists in this building?”

“Of course, there’s Doctor Bristow. Come in.”

“Don’t I need an appointment?” I asked as she led me down a dark hallway lined with stuffed animal heads, each with a slightly startled look on its face.

“Of course not,” she said. “Where would you get a silly idea like that?”

Doctor Bristow rose from behind his desk. A heavy three-piece suit was set off by a bright yellow tie that matched the colour of the front door. He was in his mid-60s but, possibly, had never looked young. His hand touched my shoulder as he motioned me towards a leather couch. “Lie down and tell me what’s the problem.”

“I’d rather sit,” I said, reaching out for a visitor’s chair. The moment I sat in it, the rear legs began to give way. I went to the couch.

The corner of Bristow’s mouth curled up. “Go on.”

I explained how I felt that my life was in the hands of others; that I was dancing like a puppet.

Bristow lit a black cheroot, turned it over in his fingers and blew smoke down his nostrils. “Ah, yes. We call that ‘determinism’. Determinists believe the universe is governed by causal laws resulting in only one possible state at any point in time. In short, you have no free will.”

We? As in: you psychiatrists?”

“I’m not a psychiatrist. Where would you get a silly idea like that?”

Swinging my legs off the couch, I crossed the room in three strides and flung open the door. It was a broom closet.

“Lie down,” said the voice behind me.

I refused. He shrugged. Beneath my feet I could feel the floorboards begin to creak. The creaking grew louder. I went to the couch.

“I don’t believe my life is pre-determined,” I said. “I do have free will. Look ….” I waved my hands around the room, “I chose to come here.”

“You had the illusion of choice. Two doors, some minor difficulties, the offer of a second doctor, a chance for you to feel as if you were in charge. The purpose? To lead you somewhere we chose for you.”

I wanted to ask “we?” again. But I was terrified of the answer.

The room seemed smaller than when I’d arrived, while Bristow and his cheroot were growing. Through the smoke, I could see his eyes were slowly turning the colour of the door at Number 11. It was like being trapped in a folk tale.

I had an idea. Slapping the couch with my open palms, I smiled at Bristow. “You know, this is a fine couch. Very comfortable. I love it here. I’m choosing to stay.”

Bristow’s eyes were crimson. “No,” he said. “No.”

I pinched the leather. “Frankly, I couldn’t be happier. I want you to keep me here.”

A moment of darkness, a splinter of bright light and I was back on the wide steps facing the two doors. A braver man may have stayed to wonder why. Not me. Turning quickly, I bumped into a smartly-dressed woman who was heading for the red door.

“You must be my 10 o’clock appointment,” she said. “Come in.”

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Copyright © 2010 GREG FLYNN