By day I teach. It’s what I do. Teaching in a troubled inner-city comp. Kids from deprived backgrounds, vulnerable backgrounds. I no longer enjoy the challenge, and wonder why I ever did. Yet I understand that work forms the only thread of stability in my life and for that I’m grateful. Without it I’d fall to pieces. I wouldn’t be here.
Throughout my life I’d always made the habit of looking out at the big wide world but never deep within. It was as if I was frightened of what I’d find: worms, maggots, rottenness. So I chose blindness, unaware of what was bubbling, pulsing beneath the surface, slowly poisoning me from within. Demons so deep they seemed irretrievable, non-existant.
I’d chosen to ignore reality; to see myself as somehow above it. But over the past year certain happenings threw this reality like acid into my face.
Cathy left me; three years of marraige dead. Suddenly I was plunged into a hell of introspection, and negativity began to shine from me like neon. I attracted it. Became a serial victim. Two muggings in a relatively short space. The first on the street, a kick in the back and I was down, the guy running off with my bag. I gave chase but stopped when he flashed the knife, issued threats, said he would kill me – you just don’t know. The second was more serious. It happened on the train, late at night, a dozen of them surrounding me, mocking, jeering. I cowered on the floor as they laid in with sticks, fists, feet, rifling through my pockets, pleasuring my pain. Other passengers hid their faces in their newspapers, refused to acknowledge a thing. The perpetrators were of school-age; the hate in their eyes wasn’t human. But the strange thing was, as I picked myself up and walked home in a bloody mess, I felt as though I’d somehow deserved it; not like I’d been singled out at random atall. Like it was some kind of brutal justice, meant to be. I didn’t tell the police, nursed my own wounds, had some kind of breakdown, but I carried on.
Then came the classroom assault. It felt like a final straw, final slap in the face; an affirmation of my failure both as a teacher and a human being. The headteacher urged me not to press charges. He was like me, didn’t like fuss; but for different reasons. After all, he’d said, the boy is a victim himself, a refugee who as a child fled the horrors of war, family members tortured, killed. It was a mistake, let it go. And I did, I accepted an apology, but not through sympathy, simply because I had enough shit on my back already. And the boy soon left the school anyway – locked up for a brutal rape where he’d left his victim for dead. But that had been out of school hours, wasn’t the school’s concern. Strangely, It wasn’t publicised atall.
Life was becoming too much. The doctor muttered about counselling, taking time off, issued anti-depressants. The pills gave me headaches; I flushed them down the toilet. I hit the bottle instead. Its abilities are impressive: alcohol can wipe out whole evenings, whole weekends. Waking up not knowing if I’m alive or dead. If I’ve killed or been killed.
I’m thinking of the man downstairs; a man I’ve never seen. The man lying in hospital, his life draining away, probably dead already. Someone old, in love with the past, leaving his windows open, answering his door to strangers, underestimating the danger, crime, evil everywhere. I’m seeing him curled up on the floor in a flat full of framed photographs and mementos of days gone by, a pack of yobs-tearaways-thugs stamping on his head, kicking him into a coma. Strangers from another age, another universe. People from a place and time – a here and now – he could never understand.
To some people, the past is precious, represents a way of life that shapes their outlook. To me the past represents hell. A hell of mistakes, regrets, disease. And there’s no escape from it. It’s always there, grainy footage flashing to harsh painful technicolor, ripping open the wounds. Images once buried that have come to haunt me…
School holidays, blue skies, lots of time to roam, the funfair sounding across the green; music, fun, laughter. But in the bushes by the edge of the park it’s a different world. A world of secrets, shadows. The man is dressed in the dull shades of the 1970s and he’s wrenching on your hair pushing you deeper with his cock stuffed in your mouth. It’s large and ugly and tastes of sweat and grime and human rot and he’s hurting your throat it’s like you’re going to choke but you know that once he groans and ejaculates, that’s it, he’ll give you change for sweets, ice-cream, rides at the fair, and the other boys are jealous wondering how you’ve always got money, where you get it, but you touch your nose and smile, you’re confident and your friends look up to you, admire you, though sometimes when it’s grey and raining and the park’s empty the man brings you into the toilets and makes you do things with other men, and one of the park-keepers is in on it, and though he’s old and grey and walks with a limp he smells and he hurts you and you don’t like him and the other men always the same faces gather to watch, baying for view, masturbating, violence flashing in their eyes.
And you flash to you own stepfather, in the room he used as an office at home, working night and day, he’d call you in and you’d smell drink on him and know he’d morphed into somebody else, a stranger in the same skin, not the man you knew, same face different eyes, a slight possession in them, and you’d shiver and feel strange like your skin was crawling. You were young. Very young. He’d be stroking himself and he’d loosen your trousers, fondle you, do things, make you reciprocate, tell you it’s natural, it’s love, it’s our little secret.
But did I ever do anything to stop it? Yes. I once told my mother. She was in the kitchen, chopping onions, stemming the flow of tears. It looked like the wrong moment, but I’d prepared myself, made the decision, so I went ahead and spoke anyway. She turns around, knife in hand, snarling, tells me I’m lying, wanting attention, never to speak like that again, wash your mouth out, eyes bulging, livid, ready to turn into a witch. Then she carries on chopping, like you’d never said anything. Because maybe you never had said anything.
What you remember is not always the truth; it can’t be. I know I’m sick, suffering trauma in some way, not healthy in my mind. I might be imagining everything. A part of me reminds myself that my stepdad was a decent man, a gentle man; he wouldn’t have done those sort of things. I remember the holidays, the fishing trips, birthdays, the good times. See myself at his funeral; twelve years old. He was found dead slumped over his desk, pumped full of scotch and barbiturates. A suicide note speaking of failure that for years I thought referred to his dwindling business and rising debt – his broken pride as a provider, a breadwinner. Opting out over the shame of bankruptsy.
But now I see other things. I see self-hate and disgust. A man with a conscience battling his desires, his impulses, trying to juggle sanity with a mind frequently switching to a twisted wavelength. Battling his demons to the end. Finally confirming himself a failure as a man, a guardian, a father. Dying without dignity. Dead in a mess of piss vomit shit.
I’m thinking of the man I befriended in the park. The man who called me Boy. The leader of the ring: the cottagers, deviants, perverts who hung around the benches, the bushes, the toilets. One day he disappeared. Maybe he was dead. A dead corpse in a stinking bedsit full of pornography, full of semen. Dead for weeks, months, nobody giving a shit. Maybe he was jailed. Maybe moved away. Maybe he didn’t exist. The park certainly doesn’t; not anymore. They dug it up, wiped it away, built a new estate. Occasionally I drive out there, looking up at the ugly 80s development wondering was there ever a park there, if it wasn’t one big elaborate fantasy, wondering if I’m truly insane, scrambling for old A-to-Zs to prove me wrong, to tell me none of it was true.
I approach the window, stand there, glass and cigarette in hand, my reflection a spectre over the city; a city I’ve grown to hate. I see too much of myself out there: badness, wrongness. Police sirens wail and a helicopter hammers overhead, flashlighting into the nearby council estate, flushing out the quarry, the vermin, the enemy. Sometimes in the night I hear screams. Sometimes gunfire. Sometimes when I’m lying in bed I hear my door bursting open and the police storming in and I wake up in terror it’s all in my head.
On Sunday I took a stroll, right there, where I’m looking now, through the estate the locals call Alcatraz. Its reputation is fearsome: I’ve heard kids boasting about it. Recently a man was bricked and set alight; he died. His crime, nothing. They did it for kicks. I’d been in the pub all afternoon, a respectable place full of the area’s new gentrified element. I drink alone, don’t see my friends anymore. I sat pretending to read the papers, couples all around me, joking, laughing, young fresh healthy professionals enjoying their day off, basking in a perfect world, not a solitary demon between them. I calmly sat listening to Cathy’s voice urging me to do the right thing, leave immediately, walk out into the nearest moving car, oncoming train; get it done violently. But I ignored it, decided it was simply time to go home. I walked through the still-sunny evening streets and feeling a sudden sense of bravado I wandered into Alcatraz. Come on cunts, do your stuff, see if I care…
But it wasn’t as run-down as you expected. In fact it seemed almost serene, the brutalist architecture bathed in a glow, an atmosphere of calm. Deep within was a playground, parents playing with their kids by the swings, see-saws, roundabouts; a little tableau of blissful normality. For some moments you almost felt euphoric. Then you wandered into a more shabby spot in the shade where there was a smell of bins and decay and spatters of grafitti and the epiphany seemed to have passed. A boy was sitting on a bench. He looked sad, alone, like perhaps his mother had banished him, told him to piss off, give her some space, get the fuck out of my hair you little cunt, and he would have played with his friends but he didn’t have any friends so all he could do was sit in this rotten little spot waiting for the sun to go down so he could say mum can I come back now because it’s dark out there and the atmosphere changes when its dark and the bad men come out the beasts the monsters it’s not safe it’s dangerous…
And you stood there exposing your penis, watching the boy flinch, a vague horror flash across his eyes, an innate acknowledgement of the dark dirty secrets of mankind; he moved slowly from the bench, his walk accelerating to a run. But that’s okay because you were running too and he doesn’t get very far and the next thing you’re in a rotten little room, the source of all the stink, some kind of litter room, pulley bins lined up against the wall and pipes and generators and the smell of maggots and shit and filth, and you force your prick into the boy’s mouth and tell him to shut up or he’ll be in trouble, big trouble, and he’s so petrified he does what you say and afterwards you tell him to run along and not tell a soul because you know where he lives and you’ll tell his mum that he’s been bad, a dirty disgusting boy, so run along and don’t tell a soul, and you get him to promise that and hand him a tenner and tell him not to worry and he wipes his eyes and disappears just like you say, and you get out of there, off that fucking estate crawling with crime and filth and every other kind of misery and get home back to your private block with a concierge and a modicum of respectability and sink a bottle of wine and fall into a drunken sleep so that the next day it’s hard to tell if it really happened or not and to be honest you still don’t know. And it’s all a mess: it’s hard to tell how many other times there’s been. Or if there has been times atall. If you’re not just falling into some mad abyss.
But now you hear Cathy’s voice. Her trusty communication. And you remember how she’d watched you the night she left you. Your eyes were glued to the screen, one hand working the mouse, the other at your penis. You felt a presence behind you and turned to see the twisted rictus of horror that was her face. How long had she been standing there? She was meant to have been out, visiting her mother, a shit-stirring old cripple that had never liked you, that told Cathy you weren’t good enough, there was something odd about you, something odd about that man, and for that reason you hated her, hated the old bitch. And Cathy was rooted to the spot. Don’t touch me, she said. But you had to shake her and say it’s not what you think, you don’t understand, and she was saying it’s over it’s over and you were slapping her saying listen to me and pinning her against the wall and she was screaming and in your head something clicked, a part of your brain switching off, another logic taking over, an exploding blackness. But suddenly your eyes were on fire and you couldn’t breathe and you were down on the floor straining through the pain, and you realised it was the mace you’d bought for Cathy and she’d sprayed you like a rapist on the street.
Cathy was screaming about calling the police, you were a fucking teacher for Christsake, you’d go to jail, it’s what you deserve, you’re twisted, fucked in the head: you were a stranger to her. But you were unable to respond. Unable to continue your actions. Her neck in your hands, thumbs pressing into the larynx, staring into each others’ eyes, pleading for tenderness through the hate, muscles trembling, pulsing, pressure applied to the end. No other way. Driving out to the country with a corpse in the boot, pulling into a desolate spot, keeping to tradition, a patch of woodland, a lovers’ lane, a copse, digging the spade into the earth with sweat on your brow and a full mad moon above. No use. Falling to your knees in despair, admitting you didn’t have the will, the staying power, the model husband appealing for information, calling for justice. And filling your car with gas just like your coward of a stepfather, the easy way out.
Cathy never did call the police. She opted for an easy exit herself, one that wouldn’t bring shame, embarrasment. She mustn’t have told a soul. But the letters she sends are seething with cruelty. She warns me to change my profession, to get psychiatric help, chemical castration; the more poison ones written in a drunken scrawl – letters that emanate with unresolved hatred. She includes tabloid cuttings of the latest predators. Here’s some of your lot, she writes. How could something that was once love have turned so sour? What does the bitch want?
Michael Keenaghan has been here before. Click the link at the side of the page for more info.
I watched a man dive from Cromer Pier
the North Sea gobbled him up
as lovers kissed on the beach
In the caravan a goblin squealed
abandoned by its owners who gallivanted in the Kings Arms
Consuming the Seafood Special
and a bottle of red.
When they get back
the goblin will be dead
The river speaks to the sea
in between each tide,
they exchange fluids and salts
A sludge filled Fiesta chokes Dickensian smog from a battered exhaust
the bowel loosening drum and bass pummels
my sensitive ears.
Two joggers run by oblivious
A pair of black panties sit on the grass verge
the Princess must have lost her undercarriage
As streetlights flicker amber into life
I walk past dull flats
and council houses where the television shines through thin curtains.
An elderly man puffs smoke rings
coughing an evening
cursing this stranger
that walks past
Richard Wink is a writer based in Norwich. He edits the litzine Gloom Cupboard http://gloomcupboard.com
Playing football on the indoor practice field after class, as is our wont; serious stuff. The ball’s kicked deep along the right sideline, some old guy passing through the gym fields the ball and starts running straight toward me. Big old bastard in street clothes, must be middle-aged but no doubt played college ball when he was young. Got that look about him; fearless. Gonna show us what’s what, bust ass, take no prisoners. Meet him head-on, up-end him, dump him on his back. He sits there shaking his head, and I help him up.
“I don’t feel so good” he says. Not about the tackle, more like explaining why I was able to bring him down so easy. “Better come with me” I tell him. The hospital’s right outside the side door of the gym, one of the reasons people are always cutting through here. Or else they’re lost, wandering around campus. The big guy’s got his whole family with him; wife, son, pretty teenage daughter, and little baby all wrapped up tight. Maybe touring the place or who knows, not my concern. I take him to the exam room and leave ‘em there, the whole lot of ‘em.
Check back a bit later, and man was he right. The guy’s lost about two-thirds of his body weight, clothes all wet with sweat, sagging on him like a corpse; same for the wife and son. The three of ‘em sittin there looking like death, knowing its coming, with the nurses attending to ‘em. I grab the daughter to get her oughtta here, and outside on the grass she drops the little baby like doesn’t wanna have anything to do with it. I pick up the kid, all wrapped up tight, unhurt, hand it back to her and tell her we gotta get going, no time to fuck around.
See a couple a black guys hauling ass in a two and a half-ton truck, just the cab and frame and a wooden make-shift box where the truck bed would normally be. Looks like the closest thing you could find to a homemade tank that they just commandeered from someplace. They slow up, yell “come on!” and me and the girl and little baby hop in the back. The guy riding shotgun jumps up on the frame behind the cab, throws a harness over his shoulder, says “you better buckle in.” Hands me some sort of little harpoon-like thing with pinchers on the end.
We go tearing outta there, screaming down the sidewalk, hit the four-lane street, ram anything everything that gets in our way, just to be moving fast as greased lightning now and never gonna stop. Driver laughs back through the open window like aint got time to worry about it. “Hold tight” he says, ginning at us. Then I see what the other guy meant about buckling in. Some kinda flying creature comes up on us from behind, the black guy lets loose on a tether sails back toward the creature and snips a vein in its neck with the pinchers. The thing falls dead behind us and the black guy slings himself back to his position.
A couple of the creatures come at me from the front, I fend ‘em off with my forearms, but can’t get a clear shot to use the pinchers on their necks. Black guy looks at me and nods, “you’re doing good” he says. By now the sky’s all covered with the creatures and all over the ground too, people running like mad everywhere screaming, dying, like a mass stampede at the end of the world. And looks like all the flying creatures are headed straight for us.
Driver rams the truck through a metal fence and propane storage tanks going ninety miles an hour not slowing down, and behind us a huge explosion of gas fire flames and black smoke covering everything you can see. “They don’t like that” he yells back to us, like some kind of fleeting victory in the midst of hopelessness. Gotta hand it to these guys though, they’re the only ones who seem to know what they’re doing.
I sit down in the wooden truck bed beside the girl and take hold of her hand. The black guy with the harpoon looks at me suspiciously. “What’s the deal” he asks. Like he’d made the girl for himself and now he’s jealous. The girl’s fingers are icy but she squeezes my hand like she’s talking to me. Saying “protect me now; care for me.” And I squeeze her hand tight, like to say “yeah, sure…or maybe we can roll in the sack, or something.” Sweet kid, though, so pretty and not like she’s scared or anything, none of us are. Aint got time for that.
The driver keeps going fast as a streak, crashing through anything in front of us, hell bent on finding someplace safe. Finally stops at the back of ice cream warehouse. “Gotta stock up” he tells us “they hate this stuff.” He jumps out and starts grabbing up gallon containers of yellow cream-colored ice cream. Me and the girl dip our heads into a big trough of the stuff and suck it out clean. The other black guy looks down, says “hey, what about me.” I grab a little container, fill it up and hand it to him “a couple a pints be enough, right?”
“Shit!” he says. But I don’t get his problem “here, take it” I tell him, reaching the container out to him.
Before he can say anything a couple of the flying creatures hit me in the back but keep on going. “They get you?” he asks. “I dunno…I think so.” We find the other guy inside the warehouse looking for more rations. Then outta the shadows come the leaders of the horrible flying creatures; three of ‘em. Some hideous looking female thing and an old rotting corpse swarm on top of me. I snip at their necks with the harpoon-pinchers but they easily dodge away while grabbing at my arms and face.
“Get out, go! Now!” I yell to the black guys. They grab the girl and the baby and make a run for it. A ghoulish creature with no skin over his oozing crawling flesh appears at my side. He’s the leader of the whole bunch. I stick the harpoon into his chest and he laughs at it, his exposed flesh moving on its own to avoid the pinchers. Then he licks at me with his snakelike tongue. Then they all vanish.
I run outside, early evening now, just getting dark; the streets awash in people running from the monstrous creatures. Most of ‘em have already been caught, bitten, become like the flying creatures, and are attacking the remaining humans. You can’t tell ‘em apart so nobody knows who’s what. Some kid in somebody’s front yard throws me a can a beer.
“You one of ‘em?” he asks. “I dunno” I tell him. Pop open the beer and drink it down, then float off high high up into the air; way way up above everything with all the flying creatures and the other humans who’ve been turned.
It is so awesome here. So all powerful feeling and completely in control of everything. I look around at all the creatures up here and all the people running everywhere down below, all the houses and buildings, seeing all of it at once. Understanding all of it. The feeling so overwhelming and so easy now. I begin to sing “bo oo ooo de layyyy ree uhhhh uuuummmmm” my voice booming out into the whole of the sky and everything beneath, so high-pitched and clear, exploding like thunder. The sound of my voice covering everything like a blanket, like a Latin chant at high mass echoing off the high
cathedral walls ‘til it’s all that can be heard felt or thought, sung by a choir of angels, and the other humans joining in with me like a chorus.
I drift back down toward the ground just above the humans and creatures there. They speak at me and reach up for my legs but I’m always just barely above their grasp. But I have to go now, to find the others, the black guys and the girl. I gotta get to them and
Mikael Covey runs Lit Up Magazine. Clink the link at the side of the page.
“I’m not a spinner of saccharine sticky love poems” asserts Erin Reardon, in this chapbook collection of poetry. That’s not entirely true. There is definitely love poetry here, and it’s occasionally sticky. The stickiness is, however not caused by anything sugary sweet and innocent.
Various bodily fluids trickle across the pages of ‘Meat’. The fluids one associates with sex, violence, heartbreak and over-indulgence. There is a coarseness in the poems that’s actually delightful, Reardon relishing dirty details like the girl in infant school showing her septic scabs to the boys. Reardon is very definitely a girl though, coarse not so she can be one of the boys but rather to shock them from time to time.
This is very female poetry, but there are no tales of sugar and spice and all things nice. Rather, there are gin addled hangover mornings where the narrator is “vomiting the last/Of [her] rancid soul”, using the diet pills for “too many toots” not to fit into a wedding dress in time. The self-loathing is of a different stamp to the kind in Sunday magazines.
There is much more here than just girls behaving badly bodily function though, and to dismiss these erudite and musical poems as simply Beat inspired lifestyle shock smears would be to severely underestimate the depth, subtlety and shade that the work possesses.
The speaker of the poems can be predatory, hunting the male in as deadly a fashion as the girl in the Scott Walker song, but this is no ‘Sex & the City’ vapid status fuck search, but rather a need as desperate as any crackhead’s with an underlying vulnerability that does not so much feminise the hunt as humanise it. Reardon shines a spotlight on the unpretty hunger in all our souls for love or its approximation, and the inevitable disappointment and regret that ensues.
As she writes in ‘Autumnal Equinox’ they will always let you down. “He’ll lure you in with flowers…pretend he’s got a pussy too/Push your buttons of fidelity/’Til you’re squealing at the moon”, the supposed devotion driving the girl mad. ‘Acquiescence’, with its refrain of “What kind of man are you?” explores similar territory, it’s lines “when she reaches out to cradle you/And you bite her on the tit” reflecting the place we all end up in eventually, the place where the wires don’t cross properly anymore and the sparks are damp fizzles. The place where everything is mere functionality, the fulfilling of procedure described in ‘Gangrene Prophylactic’: “I will squat/On your erection/Just so you can hear me say/I need you.”
Obsession and addiction are recurring themes. Addiction not just to chemicals natural and synthesised, but also to hope and optimism, often embodied in a sick fascination with the boys who disappoint the speaker time and again as she reaches for the bottle, pill jar or syringe that can help to bleed their “medical caress from memory”. Addiction to the hope they bring, “She hated her skin/Until/It found his.” (Eating Matches) But they always leave her let down and seeking solace.
The kind of solace often found by religious faith, and Reardon’s Roman Catholic education casts an obsessive shadow of worship and abasement over many of the poems. Questions to mothers and fathers, both earthly and divine, are stamped out, the lies of their “communion wafer tongues” refuted and their roles challenged. The humiliation inherent in such abasement/worship is explored too, and the theme of a Virgin ruined by Christ Reborn recurs throughout. As she says in ‘Glory Be’, “if I can’t trust the word of Christ reborn…Who can I trust?”
At times, there is almost a twisted desire to be humiliated, Reardon’s narrator seemingly reaching the conclusion that there’s only one thing worse than having someone humiliate you and that’s having no one humiliate you. “We was born to be abused” she despairingly decides in ‘Born Into It’.
But it would be to mislead the reader to imply that this was a blood and cum, menstrual heart fuck bitch drama circus. There is much hope and beauty here too. The hope found in the eyes of the doomed boys and the steps of the dancing girls that dream above the vomit puddles and the broken glass.
This beauty can be found in ‘Black Coffee’ with its “blessed blue jay shrieks/Among the trees, a new bud lingering…Tranquil as we knew how”, or in ‘Centred’ with its “heart/As heavy as a boulder/Haunted by…love”. Throughout, a wistful regret at all the trauma and wasted days hangs on the shoulder of the narrator, best summed up in the closing poem ‘The Best Days’ with its Eleanor Rigby references and closing lines “my best days/I’m still waiting/For them/To begin” which provides a fittingly melancholy ending to a skilfully written and craftily sensitive chapbook, the sadness seasoning the coarse, vocal “Boston-Irish” clamour with a sweet beauty and dark longing.
This meat is pink and cooked to perfection, its “sulfur taste” definitely one to be savoured. Get thyself to a butcher’s.
Review by Zack Wilson. If you like the sound of ‘Meat’ then click the Erin Readon link or get in touch with us at Parasitic and we’ll let you know how you can get a copy.