All stories

Now Comes the Battle

by Russ

Falling asleep is never the problem, it’s staying asleep that’s the struggle. Fifteen, maybe twenty minutes before my brain turns on me. An unseen pursuer and a door that won’t open; an approaching threat and restraints that won’t give; a carriage derailed and overturned as it plunges underwater. I’ll fight and shriek and wrench myself out. My heart will begin to slow, then race anew in the hazy after-seconds as I remember my brother was there but not here. Left to perish in the scene I’ve ripped only myself from (selfish). As the world trickles in, I’ll wonder if now is too late on the clock to reply to his text. Then clarity will chase him away and leave only the aftertaste of something left undone.

Now comes the battle.

Once cogs are whirring it’s no good to lie in the dark and hope. Thoughts connect too rapidly and there are new flutters of agitation; floating memories of regret, scabs which never heal because I keep scratching them; sinking doubts over decisions, past and future; those thousand tiny tests I’ve failed each day, never the ones I’ve passed; the looming threat of new things I need to blunder my way through, or worse, those I know exactly how to perform and can’t find a way to avoid (the pressing weight of what a self-important prick I am). Did I turn off the hob?

Of course, there are distractions to break the cycle: a laptop, a phone, a book, the fact I haven’t changed these bedsheets in, an amount of time. Light is worse than thought though, surely? There’s no sense in trying to unbalance your attacker by stabbing yourself.

There’s always the other world, the middle consciousness, the one I can control, imagining in the dark. How might that faded opportunity play out if I speak up with the right words this time? How might a lost relationship develop if I redeck the cards and play them in exactly the right order? If I’m lucky these daydreams will fade to nightdreams and the problem is solved. Unlucky, and they’ll reach a conclusion.

I’ll resort to base, of course, to coarse, to fantasy. A kiss, a tongue, a breast, a bum. Lower the thoughts to lower the consciousness (pretentious). Move the blood from my brain. Give a fuck to stop giving a fuck. Animals never have trouble sleeping (stop thinking). I think therefore I am awake (this is getting out of hand).

Then, there’s giving in.

Lights, kettle, action. A hot drink and something to occupy the time until the window view turns black to blue. Or grey, as is more likely the case. There’s satisfaction in paired socks or authors stacked in order; a shopping list or tidy drawer; a crossword completed or last page turned.

There might even be a calm.

It’s not the same as a full eight hours though, or six, or even four.

5 Am November 4th.

by Dan

I’m a bum, riding the rods in thirties America, denim work clothes, my face sun-burnt and my hat drawn down over it as I watch the prairie stretch behind me down the long straight track. Kansas City, Des Moines, Toledo. Anywhere there’s work I’ll go! Got a girl in Dade County, Florida, and one in Maine. There’s a faint breeze and a smell of sawbrush and one of the guys, Judd, is pickin a blues out on his beaten-up guitar.

What is saw brush? Did you make that up? No I think it’s a thing. Dade County? That’s bought you right back to the fucking election, it’s one of the real toss up counties in Florida!

That’s torn it, jogged me back to the present and my endless worry.

I need to take my mind from it, get to sleep.

What about Storyclub?

Inverted carriage? That’s a puzzle.

I looked it up on google couldn’t find anything that made sense, I don’t really like it when I can’t understand the words. Perhaps it’s a carriage that has the Victorian ladies and moustachioed gents on the roof instead and a large brown trunk containing velvet dresses inside. Horses inside too?

I felt a little let down by that carriage story in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, didn’t work nearly as well for me as the Tom Waits one or the one where the guy with no arms and legs gets thrown in the ravine by that Irish actor. Whatshisname?

But now I’m back in America, ruminating on whether the myth of the west, that vast open-skied dream was always inevitably going to produce someone like Trump. In endless space you can commit genocide and wipe out millions of buffalo and not feel guilty because the paradise you’ve found is without judgement and God made up by you and therefore, on your side.

Think of something closer to home.

My mind has wandered onto my dead sister, the one I can barely remember, she was only a little girl but in a way she changed things for my whole family.

But she has been dead so long now. Since May 1971. I know this because we heard the news during the cup final.

What would she have been like if she had lived I wonder.

I’m getting on you know and this pointless year has taken another year out of my life, I’m no closer to making sense of it than I ever was.

A slight light has emerged around the blinds. It is probably half past decent time to roll out of bed. To go downstairs, turn on the telly and see what has happened.

Steel yourself, you know how disappointing elections always are. And that bastard will come through on the same surge of madness that bought Brexit. Steel yourself and turn the television on.


No rest

by Jenny

The seconds tick past. Propped up against a pillow that must be filled with feathers and rocks I watch the hands of the carriage clock spin backwards in the mirror, willing my eyes to feel heavy, waiting for the world to drop away.

But it doesn’t. I’m still here in my bedroom, alone with the darkness, with myself, with the endless tick of the clock, tirelessly counting away the seconds I have left to sleep. If I can drop off in the next fifteen minutes, I’ll still be able to get nearly three hours in before the alarm rings.

Those fifteen minutes pass and I’m still here. My brain is now playing all my humiliations, my defeats, my petty cruelties and my endless regrets on a loop in the dark.

I remember John and I at our parents’ when we were boys; the way the apple tree branches would tap against the window of our shared room, like witches’ fingers reaching for us through the glass. How that same room could feel like a ship when storms raged outside. How, no matter how bad things were, we’d always had each other.

As I begin to drift away to those memories of happier times I feel myself reach for John’s hand and find it clutching only the cold sheet of my bed. Of course, John has been dead for years now and I am the only one who remembers that little room in the sea.

Orange light flares down from the streetlamp outside my window. The world is as still and cold and empty outside as it is in my own blank little room with its ridiculous carriage clock and uncomfortable pillows.

I try to think of what John and I would do. We’d tell each other stories, pretend we were on a boat, so the gentle rocking would lull us to sleep, or imagine that we were camping out on an adventure in the snowy mountains. But John was always better at conjuring those images than me. Without him, they are insubstantial and my bed remains a bed, hard springs digging into the soft flesh of my bum.

I shift slightly and the resulting creak sounds jarringly loud in the silence.

I try to recall the last time I saw John. He had been smiling and joking, pleased to see me as always, pleased to be playing his big brother role. We’d been at his place, his enormous garden, his beautiful kitchen.

I remember the way his face changed when he realised what was happening. When he’d first discovered that he could no longer prise my fingers from his throat, as he could when we were children. The realisation that this time was for real. The feeling of soft, hot flesh under my thumbs.

I remembered the panic, his, then the silence afterwards and then that awful gap where remorse or guilt or triumph was supposed to flood my brain, but there was just that terrible blank nothing after all.

Back in the darkness of my room, the hands of the clock tick the morning ever closer.

Right wake, right time

by James

It was ironic; Ricky Edwards, the man who slept through a firework display and the brass band that followed, now sitting awake in his lounge at three in the morning. He had raised the roller blind over the big window far enough so he could see the lawn, but not a thing. Where were all these foxes the neighbours kept carping about? Instead it was him in the dark with his whisky, trying to fathom why on earth he could not sleep. Even when he was twenty two and trained around Europe with his brother, when the fucking train derailed putting him on the ceiling of the carriage looking up at his brother wedged in that unnatural way, he had barely missed a night’s sleep.

He topped up his glass, sat himself back and realised in that split second, something had changed. A thought went through his head – how long had it been since he had any? – because now, pressed against the glass visible below the hem of the roller blind were a pair of naked buttocks.

Of course they bloody weren’t. It was some animal, and what he had taken to be a naked bum streaked with mud was pale fur streak with dark. He went to the kitchen trying to think of an animal that took on the shape of a pert arse when it was pressed up against your dining room window. He stopped his finger flicking on the light switch just in time, then leaned carefully over the unwashed dishes piled in the sink so that he could ease apart the slats of the Venetian blind.

He had to blink three times, but no, there she was, an actual naked woman sat with her bum perched on the windowsill, arms wrapped around her body to shield her breasts, legs pressed tight together at the knees.

The police would be incessant with their questioning: why did you go outside with a knife? It never crossed Ricky’s mind to do anything but.

She was quivering, her breath coming in fast little gasps that pocked the chill night with tiny puffs of mist. Ricky raised his hand as one might to a nervous animal and her eyes went wider still at the glint of the knife in his hand. He opened his hand and let it fall. He managed a smile, nothing more, and in that cold night as the woman’s breathing halted with a slight gasp the silence became deafening enough that Ricky knew the sound of feet crunching through frost rimed grass.

Right or left, it didn’t matter, just go, get down, get out of the way, and then roll, teeth gritted against the pain you know is coming. Ricky looked up at the figure of a nightmare silhouette in the moonlight, a man with knife in one hand, burlap sack in the other, a man with knife raised, stalking for his prey.

Stalking for Ricky.

And that was it, that split-second he would describe to countless therapists, that girl in the moonlight no longer shivering in terror. That girl, so young and so slim, vision of moonlight goddess for that one split second before she used Ricky’s knife to halt the man stalking Ricky.