The Blink Of An Eye by Ian Lewis Copestick

A dull, overcast, Sunday afternoon,
strolling around my old neighborhood.
Past the bungalow in which I grew up,
the place where we used to play 4 hour
long games of football, which no one
ever won. Past what used to be a park,
where I remember falling from the
roundabout, and grazing both of my
knees.
I find it really hard to believe that these
things happened 40 or more years ago.
It’s true what the old people say ( you’ll
find out that a lot of it is ) life goes by
too fast.
In the blink of an eye you’re 21, you
blink again, you’re nearly 50.
Now I try to keep my eyes wide
open all the time

Don’t Ask Me by Ian Lewis Copestick

Don’t Ask Me


Things, for me, always seem to go wrong,
but that’s nothing new.
It’s been going on for far too long,
disaster is my natural milieu.

I’m not sure what’s happening with my head,
I don’t know my own dialectic.
I can’t remember anything I’ve said,
and my brain patterns are too hectic.

I’ve been falling apart since before I could walk,
as soon as I could, I wanted to leave.
I was asking why as soon as I could talk,
wondering why as soon as I could breathe.

Nearly 50 years on, and nothing has changed,
the world and it’s ways still confuse me.
Is it me, or is it life that is strange ?
I try not to think about it usually. 

Teen Turf War by Scott Cumming

Teen Turf War

The school playing fields

An artillery barrage on traffic

During snowy weather

Getting chased, caught and

Fake names of accomplices a must

“Dare ye to get this car!”

In my ignorance I do

Sparking a near teen turf war

I’m tripped, kicked, drifted

For not giving a shit

Flashing blue lights signal

A mammoth rapid retreat

To gullies and meadows

Frozen boggy trenches and

High slippery branches

Fuck knows who the cop is chasing

This was the night I learned

You never return to the scene of the crime.

Worried Blues by Ian Lewis Copestick

Worried Blues

I’m sitting here, alone
in my Mrs’ living room.
Sitting in the middle of
the floor, my head in
bits.
She’s in hospital, and I
just don’t know what to
do. I try to read, the words
bounce off my brain.
Making no impact at all.
It’s the same with T.V.
I’m lost, all alone, I’m not
normally the worrying type.
” If you can’t change it, then
what’s the point worrying
about it ? “
No, now I’m worried.
I’ve got those worried blues,
but I don’t have my guitar
to try to play those old,
familiar twelve bars. 

Manic by Mark McConville

Manic.

She trembles in the snow. Her first instinct is to light a cigarette and inhale the toxicity. It’s been a long night, battling her own demons and the ones in reality. Reality is a deathtrap, and there’s no energy in her legs to run, to scatter from the position she finds herself in. The cold is unbearable and her lovely lips are chapped, her hands are rough and her whole body shakes. It has been shook for days. It is the 27th of December and the Christmas cheer finally dissipates and normality resumes, a normality that kills every ounce of jubilation. She is naturally a pessimist, void of dreams, lost in the loop of mundanity. A loop which goes on and on, tapping her mind and then resulting in mania. But this night is different, there is a concept to the storyline, a plot, a theme.

The theme is death. Death is on her mind. A bang from a gun, a bullet piercing through the skin and into the vitals, is playing over and over. It’s causing her distress, stress, a heartbeat so rapid that her heart could burst from her chest and onto the snow shrouded pavement. She’s alive with barely any clothes covering her hourglass body, she’s shaking so much that her teeth chitter, and no one asks if she’s okay, they only stare for split seconds. All these woman and men who walk past are going home or going to bars to drink their weight in liquor while this alarmed girl stands rigid.

It’s a shame as the lights shine and the people chat to their loved ones. It’s a shame that this girl, who yearns for closure and warmth, views the world through negative eyes. She’d rather die than watch couples kiss and share sexualized stories. As she dismisses the love bloom, she walks a little, trying to fix her mind into action. Empowered by manic episodes, her life has been one large disappointment, well that’s what she thinks. No mother, no father, no sisters or brothers, it has been one lonely twist of heartbreak.

Timid and sorrow ridden, she walks faster through the alleyway that leads to her apartment. Rats scurry, voices echo, the leaves crunch, and the whole city is louder than normal. The raucousness alarms her and frightens her. The recurring sound of a gun impedes her memory. She can’t dislodge the booming sound and grovels that gather pace. She doesn’t stroll now, she briskly marches towards her destination, a destination which won’t look pristine. In her mind, it will look the same, in reality, it will look torn apart.

She has lost her keys. She hurriedly locked the door and must have dropped the keys in haste. She smashes the window and climbs in, tearing her thin jacket. The kitchen is dark, and the feeling of heightened hesitation controls her. What happened? What unfolded? Is it all a dream, will she wake up and feel warm skin touch hers? Will the nightmare fade?

‘’Adam’’

She trembles again. There is no response from the living room.

‘’Adam’’

Lights flash in the window. The sound of dogs barking interfere.

‘’No, No, No’’

She utters the same sequence over and over.

She treads carefully over broken glass. The living resembles a crime scene.

‘‘Adam’’  

Adam lies on the floor with a bullet wound to his left side.

The manic girl in the frame closes her eyes and staggers into the blood soaked room.

Flashbacks cut through the psychosis, and now she remembers.

It only took one bullet, one bullet to ruin two lives….

Worst Xmas Ever by Ian Lewis Copestick

 Worst Xmas Ever


Surely this is going to be the
worst Xmas ever.
During both World Wars, and
the years of the depression
in-between, times were hard,
and then there was rationing.
But, although people didn’t have
much materially they could still
meet up for a drink and a song.
Voices lifted in unison, and singing in harmony can make things seem that little bit
better, or at least not quite so
bad. This is why we have folk
music.
The dirt poor families of the
rural areas gathering together
at night, with a guitar, or more
usually a  banjo, or fiddle, and
they would sing the old gospel
songs of ‘ better times a-comin’.
Then some started to write their
own songs, about their own lives,
Which has led to a great tradition,
one of the few traditions that has
been worth keeping.

But, no we are denied even that
fleeting pleasure.
Friends and families aren’t allowed
to meet, never mind mingle, and
laugh, or sing.
Or do anything.

Like I said, the worst Xmas ever

Man Bites Trap by John Bowie

Man Bites Trap

Jude Greyson sat at his desk in a cold room. Outside, birds sang as if Spring brought a bountiful feast, and for the time being, the cats in the neighbourhood didn’t exist.

He didn’t hear them. The song. Beauty. Not in the notes or the spaces between them.

Downstairs his friends partied on from the night before. That’s what they called him, a friend. He didn’t hear them either.

The light flickered overhead. Nothing.

A dog barked next door. Silence.

All Jude heard was the zip on a small leather case as he tentatively started to open it. All he felt was numbness. He was a cannonball somehow floating on the waves of life and he knew he was due to fall, sink and rest. Someday soon, maybe it would be today.

His mother hadn’t said a word as she’d helped him pack his bags for college. She’d ironed sheer hell out of everything as she compensated for the weight she knew he carried inside. She saw it in him, the anxiousness. Like he had a crack-filled balloon in his belly about to pop. She’d ironed his clothes so heavily. Trying to purge his worry. Without the emotional tools to do it the way a mother should — she knew nothing else. So pressed, hard. She’d made creases down the front of his jeans as sharp as razor blades. Fuck he hated that. Almost as much as the assumption that his demeanour was nothing more than an adopted artist’s aloof masquerade. Stolen and borrowed from something he’d seen in a book, or the latest band he was into. And that somehow, he was going to come true at college, out of his shell — all crap.

Jude spent a lot of time with his door locked in his shared house at college. When he occasionally ventured out, the others were drawn to his blackheart. It oozed shadows and left invisible bloody footprints as he skulked around the tired old house. What was ridiculed at school, had become a honey-trap at college. An image of something they normally saw onscreen or in music mags. He was the real deal. A walking talking fucked up idol to be built up, and knocked down. They could see it wouldn’t take much. Unlike those they’d read and seen on screen, in bands and in those mags. He was…for real.

He didn’t feel any of that either, their abstract admirations — piss to the wind.

There was no way to see the full extent of his turmoil from the outside. His internal tormentors wore virtual masks, came in many colours and rarely showed an obvious face.

The zip went back on the little black case. As he opened it up, he imagined flying insects buzzing at his head. Carriers of distraction back into life. So, he swatted them away. From the case, rusty shiny blades looked up. He pulled back a shirt sleeve and admired each one of the fresh scars. Pushing. Made them seep.

He turned up the radio, he wasn’t listening to. All white noise drowning out a world; not his. This moment was between him and the blades. His real friends. And Family.

He cut himself, to test if he was still there. To see if he could feel past the numbness. A reality. He cut himself to have control. To be done to, by himself, and only himself. His feelings, born and made fragile by an unsympathetic upbringing, could erupt at any moment with outside influence. Here, he had complete orchestration over his pleasure, pain and when it started and stopped…

He sat back. Tears came. Of pleasure, pain, in the caress of the blade.

‘Jude, we’re having a brew… you want one?’

He wiped the blood away. Put on a plaster and rolled his sleeve down. He was ready to engage again. Although he didn’t know for how long.

‘Jude?’

Silence. Then a zip. Radio turned down.

‘You knocking one out in there, Jude?’

‘I’ll just be a sec…’

‘Filthy bastard.’

‘Be down in 5.’

* * *

Byron Walters was a public schoolboy prick. The rest of the household thought so as soon as he turned up on their doorstep. He stood there, way too fucking proud in his fake-tan skin. Posed catalogue-regal style, like the shitty neighbourhood didn’t matter, and the student house was his new castle. And, his new housemates peering hesitantly around the door were his new servants. His black designer holdall bag that hung from his hand was worth more than the rent they would all pay each quarter.

They let him in.

In the kitchen, the peeling walls bellowed and the others were glad Jude was locked in his room. They could tell Byron’s brash over-confident and constant banter-shit could send Jude spinning off, either in his head or literally. They’d have to ease them both in together, maybe over a brew. At least Byron wouldn’t be mouthing off as he took a sip of something, surely.

One of them went up to grasp the nettle. To get Jude.

            Byron kept laying it on. Really trying to sell himself, all the while misjudging his audience. It was about to go even more off-track, as Jude started to come down the stairs.

The others heard the steps and looked at each other. Byron didn’t notice. He was too busy sucking himself off with stories of girls in each port… How he couldn’t beat them off with a dirty stick — how he was the fucking man. And how all these girls…barely pubescent, were his trophies.

            The rest of the housemates felt the fabric of the house and kitchen change. With each of Jude’s steps overhead on the stairs carrying more weight than Byron’s hard-sell macho shit.

Jude slipped easily into the room behind Byron. And leant in the corner out of sight. One of the others nodded, leant over behind Byron and grabbed the kettle, filled it and returned to the base and switched it on.      

Click.

            Jude rolled and lit up.

            Byron sniffed the air, looked around and jumped at the new member in the room.

Jude was all in black, as usual, a translucent shadow. Aloof. An invisible reluctant observer, wishing to keep it that way.

            ‘What the fuck? You a fucking goth or something?’ Byron barked and laughed. Slapping his leg as if riding a horse, ‘thought this was Manchester…all indie kids, baggy trousers and Reni hats n’ shit,’ Byron’s words bounced around the kitchen. The others waited for their reception to take shape. Insult, a dig or friendly intentions were irrelevant. Jude was like thin ice with a bed of nails underneath at the best of times.

Jude breathed in.

Then out.

He gripped his forearm, enough to feel he could leave the room, at any moment without moving. His recent release was fresh enough that these stranger’s words bounced straight off him. The irony of the pain making his armour thick.

‘I’m going for a piss,’ Jude said to the floor, rolly hanging from his lip. He left, his smoke hanging in the vacuum he left behind.

‘That’s quite an act. Fucking dark arts reaper or something. Watch steam doesn’t come out,’ Byron said as Jude walked up the corridor and back up the stairs.

‘Ain’t no act,’ a voice said by the sink.

‘Bollocks,’ Jude barked. ‘Kid’s been listening to too much Smiths already, that’s all. We’ll get some Boddingtons in him, pills, poppers… Get him out into the big city for fuck sake. That’s just some small-town country repressed fuck up waiting to drink through it, get laid and come out the other side. Hell, he can have one of my birds. Two turning up tomorrow. At different times. It’s a nightmare of a juggling act anyhow…’ Byron’s coffee had kicked in and the others had wished they gave him tea instead. He was off on one, again. The gobshite was churning it out double time. Hyper. Like a dog busting for a piss, hopping on the spot between two lamp posts.

Jude’s footsteps started again on the stairs overhead. Coming back down.

‘Wait… I’ve an idea. It’s a belter — check this out!’ Byron announced to the room. ‘Everyone, hide. NOW! I’ll get behind the door, I’ve got just the thing for the fucking Crow,’ he giggled. No one joined in.

The others looked around, beyond worry. Not confident enough to rein in the ego dominating the room. And a little curious to see what was in store, despite knowing it wouldn’t end well. They knew it was a car crash coming and they were fixed to the back seat anyway.

Byron turned up the radio in the kitchen. Radiohead was playing Creep. ‘Perfect,’ he grinned and knelt down, unzipped the black holdall he’d just arrived with and quickly took something out, and put something under his tracky top before they could see it. Then he stepped behind the door and pulled it in front of himself so he was hidden.

The others all found a spot. Ducking, some in the cellar, others around a corner by the bins. All retreating best they could, out of sight.

From the top of the stairs, Jude heard Radiohead coming from the kitchen but already had Paul Weller in his head, and bits of Oasis, then Joy Division. He might have looked a Goth but his all-black uniform was a mere egoless wardrobe he didn’t have to think about. He was a broken priest of his own religion. His mind whirred on ideas, concepts, existential quandaries of abstract expressionism and broken mirrors. He was a deconstruction of himself. There was no time for public image preening.

By the last step of the stairs, New Order’s Crystal, was playing both in the kitchen and his mind. He floated to the bottom step.

His feet padded down the dark hallway. A thrown beer can had blown the bulb two nights ago and they hadn’t replaced it. The kitchen door was open but he couldn’t hear voices. This was normal over those that whispered in his head and whatever soundtrack he played there too. He heard the Chemical Brothers start and didn’t question whether it was internal or external. This soundtrack meant that rather than about to get worn down by the day, he was in a good place and mood. Ready to crack his own notions over what lay ahead.

He stood in the doorway to the kitchen.

Where had they gone?

The cellar was full of shit, nothing to see down there. And there was nothing much outside…

Longsight wasn’t a place to go sightseeing. Unless you liked boarded up windows, smashed out bus shelters and a community that could chew you up and leave you dead if you stopped still long enough.

They must be hiding.

Maybe they’d been burgled? And the rest were in the cellar tied up.

This area was rough. This city could eat you alive and you wouldn’t even make the second page of the local rag. Only last night a taxi driver had been mugged and killed. Some lads had jumped in, put a gun to his head and noose around his neck. Told him to drive or be shot. Said they’d let him know if he could stop before the rope tied back to a lamppost snapped his neck and his head came off. That was after he’d given them everything and showed them pictures of his wife and kids. His head was found by school kids the next morning and the car crashed into a fence a hundred yards ahead, motor still running as a piss and shit-soaked leg pressed an accelerator to the floor.

Jude grinned. Touched his forearm again — so be it. Muggers or not, he was going in.

Oasis’s Force of Nature played all around as Jude took a step forward. The world slowed.  At moments like this, his nervousness went past boiling point. Like when he had to talk to more than one person at a time, interact with an attractive girl…any girl. Or, just a stranger. Jude always swallowed it down and got on with it — and let a well-practiced zen-like power overwhelm him. When he stopped trying and let it win, he knew that would be the end. It was like the calm ebbs and flows moments before going over a waterfall in a small boat. Knowing…

The boat always goes over. 

He looked out of the kitchen window to the sun, felt nothing.

The door behind him snapped open crashing against the counter. Nothing, he didn’t jump.

He didn’t feel the gun barrel pressed hard against his temple or the arm gripped tight around his neck, pulling the gun and skull together tight. Nothing. But, he knew they were there.

He smiled.

‘Haha,’ a voice said, spitting over Jude’s face, ‘you’re gonna get it now… Say your last fucking words, CUNT!’

Jude breathed out, his eyes looked down. He didn’t resist the grip on his head and neck, instead embracing the moment, slowly closing his eyes as if going in for a kiss. ‘If you’re gonna do it, do it,’ Jude whispered, intimately.

Bryon started to shake.

He saw the Devil.

The others stepped out. The joke was on Bryon. They’d all been there long enough, the city was in their veins. Now it was in his.

‘Like we said,’ a voice went, ‘he’s for real.’

‘Fuck,’ Byron muttered… Gasping as realised he was out of breath. He felt small, naked.

‘Just pull the trigger, will you, so I don’t have to,’ this time Jude’s words sounding like a lover’s whisper.

Byron jumped away, scolded, as his feigned aggression faded fully away to reveal his extreme fear. He could see Jude welcomed the bullet. Any bullet. All the while seeming somehow bulletproof.

Byron’s arms dropped. The one holding the gun raised slowly back up and he put the piece on the worktop, delicately, like a priest holding out a communion wafer as a tear welled in his once superficial eyes. He’d been christened and embraced by loss of control. Now, he felt true darkness. Living and breathing in this place, and in Jude. This wasn’t an act. Byron’s image-persona was destroyed, ‘Pint?’ his lips quivered, conceding his comfortable life was now over.

‘Yes,’ Jude said, ‘and you’re fucking buying.’

As they put on their coats to leave, Byron put a hand on Jude’s shoulder and told him he’d wished he hadn’t pulled the joke. That he was an idiot. He was sorry. It was just a toy; fired blanks.

As they walked up the road, towards the nearest pub, a rope dangled from a lamppost and trailed to the centre of the road. Up ahead a burnt-out Vauxhall still smoked.

Sitting in a beer garden, by the fifth pint, Jude told Byron not to worry. That yes, he was an idiot. He didn’t need to tell him the rest… He didn’t need to say that he was sorry too, that it hadn’t been a real gun. That he welcomed a live round.

They sat in that beer garden in the pouring rain, getting soaked through, drinking down quicker than the heavens could re-fill the pint glasses. Small victories.

Jude closed his eyes and opened them again. There was no one there. Reopened, and they were back, smoking, drinking. The clouds took a rest and the sun strained for a chance as much it could in Manchester.

Jude looked into his glass. He saw just how much Byron had been shaken. He saw what was in him. He saw blackness. Flushing, embarrassed, he smiled again, bashful. Like receiving an unworthy felt compliment — a lover’s gift. Then, it drained away, and the calm washed over.

He rolled a cigarette and eyed a broken bottle with shards of razor-sharp glass by his feet.

It welcomed him. It spoke to him.

The bottle’s neck formed the perfect handle. The glass shon. In it he saw a crossroads — choices. Each, with a welcome release. All of them red as night, dark as sinkholes, and humming like the finest everlong embrace.

He saw the Devil.

This time, he’d be in control…and it wouldn’t be a joke.

John Bowie 2020 ©

John Bowie: Biography


John’s writing has appeared online and in print for the likes of Red Dog Press, Bristol Noir, Storgy Magazine, Close to the Bone, Litro Magazine, Punk Noir Magazine, Necro Productions and Deadman’s Tome.

He writes poetry, short stories and novels. His fiction is a semi-autobiographical mix of dirty realism, crime fiction and noir. Ghostly references to a heritage that includes the Vikings, Scotland, Ireland and the North, U.K. flavour the words throughout. Often with a dark humoured edge.

He’s the founder and editor of the Bristol Noir e-zine which specialises in dirty realism, noir and dark fiction.

John lives in Bristol with his wife and daughters, where he has been since the late nineties. He is a professional designer, artist and writer as well as a proud husband, father, brother and son.

John’s first novel, Untethered, the first in the Black Viking Thriller series is out now with Red Dog Press. Transference, the second Black Viking Thriller is due February 2021.

His pulp noir Weston-super-Nightmare is out in March 2021 with Close to the Bone.

His poetry collection, Dead Birds & Sinking Ships (Little Tales of Melancholy Madness) is due August 2021 with Close to the Bone Publishing.

A collection of Bristol Noir stories (Tainted Hearts & Dirty Hellhounds) curated by and including John’s work, is slated for Q1 2021.

ACID ZOO EP – Bomb Sniffing Dogs by K A Laity

Artwork by Jason Vaughan

From the press release:

Through the bars of ACID ZOO you will hear 3 tracks – THE ICKE AGE, BLACK POOL & THE NATIONAL + – and 4 remixes by Leyland Kirby (The Caretaker), Richard Fearless, Lille Cykel (Posh Isolation) and Christoph de Babalon.

Tragically fractured like the screen of a dropped phone, THE NATIONAL + is a 7-minute symphony of absurdity and raw imagination set outside WILKO and inside TESCO’S CHAINSAW MASSACRE. 

Around the day in eighty worlds, we have caught the wrong train to a new neurotic terrain.

Come back to bed. We won’t make love. Love will make us.

Review:

From the wilds of Salford, land of bards, poets, and other non-conformists springs this EP that offers a collage of words, music and sounds that you might imagine muttered by a character from a lost Ballard novel who has gone in search of Blake’s Jerusalem only to find themselves shoved into lockdown in the midst of the spreading virus. We’ve all been discombobulated by the quarantine life but this EP speaks to fractures that were already there. Late stage capitalism blows (meet me at the meat queue) and people who find solace in paranoid fantasies of lizard overlords (is this Cafe Latte/the work of the Illuminati?) have only themselves to blame but they poison the world for the rest of us, too.

Neither waving/Nor drowning/Nor swimming/Into the world of the future.

Liam Power is the main songwriter and Austin Collings also has a hand in all the songs, co-writing ‘The Icke Age’ with Nick Power AKA BEAT LES, and ‘The National’ with Eleni Poulou & Sophie Sleigh-Johnson. ‘Black Pool’ is all Collings own and offers up a tone of reminiscence without sentimentality. In contrast to the opening track with its scathing observations of the follies of those who seek easier answers producing idiot winds, ‘Black Pool’ creates a collage of memory that captures that sense of dislocation childhood leaves behind: Everything was forever/Until it was no more.

‘The National’ is a textured soundscape that bottles the strangeness of 2020 and all its betrayals and lies and death and horrors while keeping a sense of humour about it all: the bold will define the new normal/like a load of paracetamol, falling from a drone. It spins and reels between images and ideas and voices, Collings alternating with Poulou: The revelations of the conversations I have daily/ are so different/nobody does small talk anymore. While the title invokes both the French anthem and the self-harming isolationism ripping through COVID-infested Britain, it’s really an international piece that works to evoke the strangeness we all recognise even living in our isolated spheres.

The remixes are great, highlighting passages and bringing them to new prominence in the mix as well as taking different paces and rhythms. Kirby’s remix in particular has a truly chilling effect with its lugubrious pace and manic laughter.

Or maybe I’ve just been in lockdown too long…

Buy the EP at Bandcamp and find the band’s social media links and other recordings there.

And The Bells Were Ringing Out by L A Sykes

And The Bells Were Ringing Out

L.A. Sykes

I thought she was trying to kiss me. Some mistletoe trick. Tilted my head away from hers and put my hand up between us.

She hadn’t been in long and had eyed me with something bordering on outright hostility in brief exchanges the previous day, so I was surprised at how quickly the Christmas spirit had worked its magic.

Obviously inappropriate relations between staff and patients were a no-no and as such I was trying to delicately disentangle us while trying to see the funny side. Happened to look at a group of other patients sat on the little bench watching the episode unfold and thought they’d be amused. Instead I saw their expressions were ones or either horror or incredulity. Slightly odd. As was the tightening grip. Around my neck. I reluctantly faced what I thought was my somewhat amorous acquaintance, instinctively leaned back to keep out of distance of puckered lips and chanced a glance. Teeth bared, raw hatred beaming from the screwed up eyes. This wasn’t kissing. She was trying to kill me.

This entire experience happened in some kind of slow motion in under five seconds. Prised her fingers from my throat as assistance came quickly from colleagues who had rounded the corner at my voice saying something like, “Please desist from assaulting staff.” What I wanted to shout was, “Stop strangling me, you whopper,” but you’ve got to keep professional, even while someone is attempting to murder you.

“He keeps calling me names, the bastard,” she said.

“Eh? I’ve not even met you proper yet, why would I call you names?” I said.

“Don’t take the piss, I’ve heard you all day.”

Derogatory hallucinations. Torturous affliction. In this instance, attributed to me.

I tried, “I think we’ve got off on the wrong foot. I’m here to help you.”

“Don’t come that game with me, I’ll bloody give you what for, you swine.”

The other staff led her to the clinic while she bellowed threats and expletives. The nurse in charge grinned as she said, “You’re a charmer aren’t you?”

“Fuck off. I’m just glad she didn’t have mistletoe after all. Talk about a femme fatale.”

She laughed. “Get a brew and a mince pie.”

Staffroom: strong tea and a bit of buffet food. One bite was all I managed before the bells rang out. Neither sleigh bells nor Christmas bells. Instead: the alarm bells.

The infirmary, the unit, Roy Wood from Wizzard blaring out the radio at full blast. Christmas bloody Eve.

Ran down the corridor to the electronic panel that indicated the ward below. Sprinted through the unit, bleeped myself out and clattered down the stairs, thinking please nobody hanging, nobody dead or dying or beaten to a pulp. If you’re prepared for the worst and anything less is a relief.

Doors wide open, a bank staff says, “Seclusion room.”

“Ta.”

The back end of a scuffle.

Someone says, “Take his arm off me.” We lay him down on his front on the padded bed. Well drilled staff extraction, dragging out the person in front of us backwards as we hastily exited the seclusion room, slammed shut the door and bolted it locked. The fella inside the room leaped up, going apeshit and kicking Holy Hell at the door from the inside. Me and the others, outside, catching our breath.

“You’d not make a sprinter,” the nursing assistant said with a grin.

“Six seconds it took me, you cheeky bastard. I counted.”

He laughed, wiped sweat off his forehead then came over all weary. Said, “What a bloody cock up this is.”

“Go on.”

“Well to cut a long story short, this fella,” he said, indicating with his thumb to the bloke knocking seven bells out of the woodwork, “thought his missus was cheating on him, having affairs like. She said he’s going bonkers, can’t convince him it’s in his head. Gets the GP involved, who gets the consultant psychiatrist who assesses him as delusional and brings him in here.

Been with us three months. We’ve worked with him, talked with him, tried him on numerous tablets, nothing working. He’s getting in a bad state, not eating properly and all the rest of it.

Anyway, the consultant decides we need some drastic action so he prescribes emergency ECT. Thinking hopefully we get a rapid response and he can have some Christmas dinner with his wife. So we give him something to keep him calm for the treatment and walk him up to the suite. In the meantime one of our staff has gone for a run round the flash on his break. You know the flash is a dogging hotspot. Well, he goes for a piss in the bushes and who does he see on a Christmas dogging sesh in the woods? Only this chap’s missus. Apparently she’s a regular. She’s just admitted on the blower. She had to, she’d been seen in action.”

“Bollocks.”

“Swear down. Our staff phones the ward to tell us, but obviously nobody is in the office. Meanwhile yon mon is having his frontal lobes zapped. Staff gets back, frantically explaining, we run up to ECT but it’s too late by then. Our patient is sat there chewing on dry toast.”

“Oh my God.”

“We bring him back down to the ward, and tactfully inform him of the situation. Needless to say, he went absolutely fucking ballistic.” He puffed his cheeks out and shook his head. “Can you watch him for five minutes while I nip for a quick fag.”

“Aye,” I said. That’s all I could manage. Aye.

It was important when secluding someone to ensure they could see a clock and another human through the reinforced glass panels so as not to go into sensory deprivation. Also you had to watch in case they fashioned a makeshift ligature from clothing, so I pulled up a chair and took a seat.

He came straight over and shouted, “Who are you?”

“I’m from upstairs, I’m just covering for a while.”

“Well these fucking crackpots have kidnapped me, drugged me up and run electric through my brain. Have you ever heard owt like it? I fucking told them she was messing about, I told them. Look what they’ve done! Telling me I’m delusional for months? They’re delusional. I’ll rip their fucking heads off,” he shouted.

I just nodded empathetically. What could you say to that?

Slade. Merry Christmas Everybody on the radio. Me, thinking: what the fuck is going on.

The Infirmary, the unit, Christmas bloody Eve.

Staff came to take over and another one let me out. We did the merry Christmases and the like and I went outside for a smoke myself.

Snow turning to slush.

Bewildered.

The consultant was sucking on a cig and pacing up and down under the canopy. From cocksure to a shivering wreck in three hours.

“These things happen, Doc,” I said.

“You think so?”

“It’s a funny old profession, psychiatry.”

“Yes, I suppose it is.”

He didn’t seem reassured and I couldn’t have given two fucks whether he was or not in all honesty. Saved by the emergency bleep. It was a little black pager type of thing then and the voice came over to instruct me to go to a ward the next shelter down. Dementia and alzheimer’s and other degenerative neurological conditions.

Flicked my cig and kicked up snow. Through the main doors, thinking please nobody hanging, nobody dead or dying or beaten to a bloody pulp. Very different environment from the acute, this. It needed folks with the patience of Saints and not a sinner amongst them, and that’s what they had.

Commotion at the top of the ward. A big bear of a bloke with a nursing assistant in a headlock. Was saying, “I’ve towd thee to keep out my bloody road.”

They were trying to change his trousers for clean ones and he was confused and disoriented, lashing out. Non-threatening body language, non-confrontational verbals, continual reassurances muttered every twenty seconds and they got him sorted. Clean clothes, fed, cared for. A very different type of work from the acute. Staff with the patience of Saints.

We swapped Merry Christmases and cliched jokes along the lines of, “Never mind three wise men, can’t seem to find one in this office,” and the odd flirt saying, “You playing Father Christmas, gracing us with your presence? You can empty your sack for me tonight if you want.” Banter and gallows humour flowed as fast as the non alcoholic wine. I said I’d let myself out and as I neared the exit I heard a nurse crying in the toilets.

Back on my unit. Had a good look for my assailant but couldn’t see her, thank fuck. Local church group choir were entertaining about fifteen patients in the dining area with carols.

Get handed the observation file to do my hour. Had to check certain people at specific intervals, assess their mental state. Three suicide risks, one intrusive behaviour due to hypomania, and the last one recently added to the list because her family couldn’t make it to visit given the long drive and the weather. She was the lady in the green dress, a shade of green similar to the light flaking paint on the corridor walls. Upset. Feeling abandoned. Little to no response to interactions or reassurance.

Did laps of the unit, eyes peeled, ten minute intervals. Playing along with the jollity and joviality with the patients on my route, festive cheer breaking up the usual routines of ward life. No incidents as I hand over the file to the next staff for their turn at the top of the hour. No respite as a congregation gathered at the far end harangue for smoke time. I take a walkie talkie and unclip the fire door as the folks file out with their fags out ready.

Lead them down the stairs to the courtyard with the high fence, no smoking rooms inside these days. Stand at the door lighting them up one at a time. The lady in the green dress, all done up and nowhere to go, preoccupied. Spark the lighter and she inhales but doesn’t go out. Instead she goes to my left. I light another one from the queue with my peripheral vision doing overtime. Split second. The hand with the cigarette drops from the mouth to the dress. Singe. Fuck. Snatch the fag and lash it on the floor. Press the ring of flaming green material with my palms and thankfully it stops the burn. A bit longer and the dress would have gone up like a fountain firework. She weeps softly as I speak into the walkie talkie and staff come running. I mime what she did and then do a talk mime and they nod and walk her back upstairs.

Christmas bloody eve.

The smokers are having a singsong and then they say they’ve got a surprise for us staff. I join them with a cig, not giving a fuck if they grass me up. Couldn’t care less, but they never did. “Go on, what’s this surprise then?”

“You’ll find out in a minute,” one says, and they laugh together.

They throw their stumps in the ashtray and go back inside then I lock up and follow them, flicking the door shut and reactivating the alarm.

Sat on the table at the top of the ward and saw what they’d done. They must have been out earlier in the day, those that were allowed, and had sneaked in a spread for us staff from them. Out they came out of the patient’s kitchen with plates of sandwiches and pasties and little cakes.

“Surprise!” One shouted. “Merry Christmas. We’ll look after you lot seeing as you look after us the rest of the year” shouted another. 

I could have bloody wept.

Radio on full blast. The Pogues. Fairy Tale Of New York.

No fairy tales here, in England, in the infirmary, on the unit, behind the locked doors, with the flaking paint on those walls.

Drug companies raking it in, folk like us giving what we could of the human factor, providing those intangibles that were more than just words, that seem to go missing when reducing life experience to neurotransmitters or whatever else, as best we could, on Christmas Eve.

Shift ending. Stood in the dining room near the nine foot tree the local gardening centre donated with my coat on, waiting for the handover to finish. Laughing at a funny story a patient is telling. Tired, maybe a bit emotional for many reasons, looking back. Lost in thought.

Footsteps.

“You’ll not call me a cunt again you swine.” I glimpse tinsel looped over my head and down past my eyes and round my neck as I try and place the voice. Then it dawns on me, my assailant is back with a vengeance.

Dragged backwards. Struggling with my balance. I grab the tree to keep me up. The entire thing topples towards me as I fall backwards. One set of fingers under the tinsel. The other activating my alarm, setting off the electric orchestra of emergency.

Patients shouting, “Ger off ‘im.”

“Towd you I’d get you, you bastard,” she says through a cackle.

More footsteps and another scuffle as the tinsel slackens. Me on the floor, with the Christmas tree on top of me. Baubles rolling all over.

Couldn’t help but laugh.

In the infirmary, on the ward, on Christmas Eve.

Radio blaring: …and the bells were ringing out…

The End

Bio L.A. Sykes is the author of the short story collection Noir Medley and the novellas The Hard Cold Shoulder and Benediction For A Thief (The Atherton Town Escapades).