I really don’t need this in my life, I was thinking. I looked at his face as he stared at his phone. Jesus, you know? Monday morning, clocks went back yesterday. Or forward. The one where it’s lighter in the morning so it was lighter this morning, bright, nice autumny weather and I’d foolishly gone and let myself think that today might be the dawn of a great new week. Ha, nah, not a great week, I’m not that stupid, but at least a good week. Well, more fool me. You can’t have a good week with these pumpkins. I swear, they’re worse than kids.
“It’s a prototype,” I said, hoping, but knowing it wouldn’t, be the end of it.
“It’s a prototype now but it works!” whined Sub, turning his phone to me, like I hadn’t seen the clip from BBC Breakfast. The clip he’d already shown me. He showed it to me again like I hadn’t just watched it. The clip ended and it was Naga Munchetty on the sofa. Sub sadly turned his phone back to himself.
“Look, that suit can only fly for about three minutes, I reckon. Tops. Maybe not even that.”
“Yeah, for now,” he replied.
“They’re never going to get enough fuel in it. Where are they going to put it? It can’t have a big fuel tank.” I sat back in my chair with my arms crossed behind my head. The video, which had completely dulled my slight buzz, was of some guy who’d decided to make a rocket suit! Like that’s something somebody just decides to do! A proper sci-fi suit with jets on his arms and legs. I mean, it was cool as anything. Like IronMan. I didn’t say that to Sub, I just pointed out the flaws. It was hard not to think that on some unconscious level the guy, who I didn’t know and who lived in a different country, had built the suit just to make my life worse. In the clip they were demonstrating the guy wearing it and going up a hill to rescue somebody. Somewhere an ambulance couldn’t drive to. “I mean, he couldn’t carry them down,” I said, waving an arm, because I was still thinking of things that would shut Sub up.
“Nor could I!” he replied, turning my kind words back on me like a cartoon gun with the barrel bent right around. Sub couldn’t carry much. I beat him at arm wrestling. What did he want me to say?
“What do you want me to say?” I asked. I put my hands flat on my desk then picked up a pen with my right one. I was a bit fidgety because there was somebody in my office.
“I’m thinking of getting a job, a proper job.” he said.
“Oh, come on, mate. You’ve got a job. Don’t be a dickhead.” I dropped the pen to show disgust.
“A proper job, before it’s too late.”
“Oh, why do you do this? Eh?” I leant forward. Yeah, my good mood was completely gone. It always goes and every single time I’m surprised and disappointed! Every few weeks I get this shit. Oh, but that’s okay, I’m the manager so I have to manage people! It’s my job! It’s why I get twenty-seven grand a year. Because they, grown-ass adults, can’t manage themselves. I knew why he was doing it, that’s the worst thing. He wanted reassurance. He wanted to come into my office and suck some positivity out of me like a sad drab vampire. I’ve got problems, you know? I deal with them myself. Take some personal responsibility, I thought as I watched him. He was looking at his legs with his sad face. He was thinking. I knew he was about to mention drones. I was ready for it. He drones on about drones!
“First drones and now th-“
See. “Look, Sub, you’re amazing. You can fly. Without a suit! How many people can do that?”
“Two hundred and thirty.”
“Two hundred and thirty out of billions and billions of people. You’re incredible. You’re so special,” I lied. “You’re the…” I lowered my voice, “you’re the best one here. Don’t tell the others, but without you we’d be nothing. How many people in Europe can fly?”
“Yeah, fifty-seven, including me.”
“How many in the Channel Islands?”
“Just me but-“
“No buts. Just you. Remember that,” I said with an earnest mouth arrangement and a slightly nodding head. I continued slightly nodding. Was that it? Had I said enough. I looked at him. Nope.
“A drone can fly,” he continued, wallowing around in his self-pity.
“Subsonic, mate, forget drones. Forget that guy in a suit. You’re a superhero and you know what? It’s good you haven’t got laser eyes or…”
“Or super strength. It’s good, you know why?”
“Or bullet proof, it’s good, you know why?”
“Because it makes me human,” he said in a goofy voice which was making fun of all the other times we’d had this exact conversation, but it worked. I like the human thing, which I’d come up with just like that, during one of our discussions. He liked it too, despite his protests. And that’s why I make the big bucks. That’s what being a manager is about. It’s not about planning missions and logistics. 90% of it is massaging these great big babys’ egos. And it is better than working in the carpark.
“Yeah, being human. You say it like it’s nothing but it’s a good thing.”
“Yeah, I know but-“
Interrupting, that’s another important skill to have in your managerial arsenal. Don’t, whatever you do, let them finish. “Guernsey would kill to have you,” I said. They only have one superhero. Granite. Really strong guy but weighs, like, three tonnes and moves slower than a snail. What’s the point of that? Stupid.
“Might fly over there, see what they’ll offer,” said Subsonic and he was joking which meant his mood was lighter which meant I’d done great managing and it was only 9:20.
“Yeah, you do that, now go on, get outta here.”
“Yes boss!” he said, standing and smiling. I shook my head as he left my office. I rolled my eyes and exhaled through my nose when the door was closed. I heard him dicking around with the others. I then remembered I’d meant to tell him to go up and see if he could see where that leak was coming from. It was the first dry day in a while. It was probably a good thing I’d forgotten. Enough drama for one day. I’d ask him later.
“This is good, seriously,” I lied. My lie was saying it was good. It wasn’t good, it was really boring.
“It’s really boring,” said Firelighter.
“Just because it’s not the Bake Off, doesn’t mean it’s boring,” I said, but that wasn’t me being misogynistic. I actually like the Bake Off as much as women do. I was as surprised as anybody that Lottie got sent home last night because, let’s be honest, Laura totally fucked that ice-cream cake. But then Lottie did put baked beans in her quiche and I detest baked beans. I’d have sent her home there and then. I can’t believe some people like them. Prue and Paul hate them too. “I hate baked beans,” I said.
“I like them,” said Subsonic and I screwed up my face and turned back to the TV on the wall of the big room. Absolutely nothing had changed. For hours. Biden seemed to possibly be winning but who really knew? It was so boring. The news person was trying to make it exciting while at the same time going on about how a result might take days and go to court. I guess that would make people even angrier so, in that respect, it was kinda good.
“I don’t mind them on a baked potato, covered in cheese,” said Firelighter.
“Nygh,” I said. I looked over at Tan. Tanned Surfer. He’s originally from Portugal where, it would seem from his confused silence, baked beans aren’t a staple. I turned back to the TV. Had any of those numbers changed? The blue and red ones? I didn’t know, or really care, it was good it was close but yeah, we probably didn’t need to come in early. I hoped somebody would suggest making a drink. I wasn’t going to because the sink is manky.
“I thought this was America?” said Subsonic, pointing at the TV and I stopped thinking about coffee. The TV was saying Biden had won Hawaii.
“Dunno what that’s about,” I said.
“Should we have voted?” asked Firelighter.
“Nah!” I said, with my face screwed up a bit, but actually I wasn’t 100% sure. “They must have just got Hawaii’s opinion or something. Maybe they ask islands around America. We…we’re… we’re not near America. We’re definitely not in it.”
“We’re not in the UK, we’re not in America, where are we then?” asked Firelighter.
“Google it,” I said. She looked at her phone on the table but didn’t pick it up. We go through this shit every time we try and set the region for the Freesat box. Google says we’re not in the UK. I think. But we are in Great Britain. But not in the British Isles, despite being a British isle. It’s crazy really. “We’re definitely not in America.”
“So why we watch this?” asked Tan and I rolled my eyes and sighed loudly. I thought about going through it again but I really couldn’t be bothered. It’s so obvious.
It’s selfish but to us it didn’t matter if Biden or Trump won. Putting aside their policies we just wanted a civil war to break out. I say we but I mean I, because I have to do all the thinking in this place. America burning would be good for us. And then, hopefully, it would spread to the UK. And then, hopefully, spread to Jersey. Because what do you need in a civil war? You need superheroes. The Brexit shit had sort of fizzled out. Then Covid. Covid! Global pandemic. That sounded like something you could use us for but nothing had really changed, apart from people had started washing their hands.
We’re in a funny advert on the Government’s Covid page. We’re the Hand Stand Band. Dressed up as rappers. It’s funny.
Hand (wash ’em both) Stand (stand two metres away from people not in your group of six if they’re from another household unless they’re from an amber zone or lower, in which case it’s one and a half metres.) Band (use bands to attach a mask to your face). It’s clever. I’m not in the video but I helped direct it.
“Okay!” announced Tan, slapping his thighs. The sound of the slap stopped me thinking about the video. I realized I’d been smiling. I don’t think anybody noticed. “Who wants-“
“Me!” I said.
“To make me coffee!” He pronounced coffee ‘cawfy’, the wanker, and then he shouted, “ahh!” while pointing at me. The other two hooted and leant over to give Tan a high five and so grumbling I went to the little kitchen. I didn’t wash their cups. I just made the drinks in their dirty cups. It’s their own filth. Worst thing is Firelighter has tea and I hate that faff. Putting a tea bag in. Taking a tea bag out. Putting the tea bag in the bin which is covered in drips of tea. Why haven’t they invented instant tea yet?
Afterwards we watched two episodes of A Place in the Sun. They never buy anywhere, the people on it. It’s always left up in the air.
Mid-afternoon and the news was back on but they were no closer to a result. I was thinking about telling them to go home. We could have done some training but it was a bit cold and we’d been in since 8. Then Subsonic produced a carrier bag and the way the bag spread out when it was put down made it obvious to even a simpleton that it contained chestnuts. The mood of the room changed instantly.
I. Fucking. Love. Chestnuts. Everybody does. Lottie should have put chestnuts in her quiche.
I put my coat on and we went out to the field at the back. There’s a bench and a table. I split the shells with my mutli-tool. Just made a split because that’s what you do and handed them to Sub who wrapped them, about ten at a time, in foil. He put the foil package into Firelighter’s cupped hands and she ignited. It was really nice, just standing around the fire on a crisp autumn afternoon, roasting the chestnuts that Sub had picked directly off a tree. I’d like to see a drone do that, I thought about saying. But a drone probably could. It wouldn’t then bring them into work, though.
Tan put one of his foreign cigarettes in his mouth and leant forward and lit it from Firelighter’s shoulder and even the stench from that smelled alright. Things weren’t too bad, really. The World was okay for now. It was good to take this time before shit got too crazy.
I ignored them. I saw them but I ignored them. I could see the back of Tan’s head. He was so relaxed in his swivel chair he was nearly falling off the side of it. He spun slightly so his face was further away from me. I saw from the back of his head he was looking over at Firelighter who I knew was rolling her eyes. I just kept walking across the office until I got to the blackboard. I put the equipment on the desk. The equipment consisted of a clipboard, some small cones and a doll. The cones had come with a small football goal, which we had no use for, but it actually worked out cheaper to get the goal too. Yeah, I don’t know how that works.
Around my neck hung a stopwatch and a whistle. The whistle had a red strap and the stopwatch had a black one. I’m just setting the scene here, so you can visualize it. I had my black Puma tracksuit on. It’s shiny and Firelighter said it makes me look Romanian. Well, she’d said it makes me look like a member of a gang who installs skimming devices on cash point machines. Now when they see me wearing it, they know it means training.
“Where’s Sub?” I asked the room which, apart from me, contained two people who sat like cool kids in an American film about high school students.
“He’s doing a poo,” said Firelighter who is twenty-three and has curly hair. I closed my eyes gently for a moment.
“Go and get him,” I said.
“No way!” she replied and I sighed and scratched my eyebrow for a while. Tan was deep in thought about something.
“Has he just gone in?” I asked. Give me something to work with here, people!
“Dunno,” said Firelighter.
“Tan!” I shouted and he jerked. “Has Sub just gone in?”
“Gone on where?”
“To the… to the toilet?”
“How I know?” he replied, looking slightly hurt. I looked at them both. I turned to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk from the small shelf that ran along the bottom of it. I held the chalk up to the board. I tapped the chalk on the board. Then I leant forward and rested my forehead on the board and it was flat and cool and felt nice. I could have gone to sleep, I reckon, if I’d stayed like that for five minutes. Using my neck, I pressed my forehead into the board so it propelled me backwards and I was standing up straight and I walked over to the door which led to the corridor which led to the toilet, and also the small kitchen. Before I got there it opened.
“Finally!” I said.
“What?” asked Sub, looking around.
“Come on, training.”
“Nice poo?” asked Firelighter
“What?” replied Sub.
“Shut up,” I said and went back over to the blackboard. When I got there, I noticed the hand that was holding the chalk had been rubbing against my thigh.
“I wasn’t doing a poo,” said Sub.
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, wiping at my thigh. Damn. I’d need a wet cloth.
“Why are you always lying about me?” Sub was saying to Firelighter.
“What were you doing then?”
“Shut up you two,” I said.
“What business is it of yours?” Sub said, ignoring me.
“He asked me if you were doing a poo.”
“I didn’t, I asked where you were.” I said. You following the conversation? It’s complicated when three people are talking. Luckily Tan was just silent, otherwise this would be a complete mess.
“I wasn’t even doing a poo.”
“I don’t care. Shut up. Here’s a scenario.”
“I’d say if I was doing a poo.”
“Okay, it doesn’t matter,” I said. “Here’s a scenario. And we’ll go outside. But here’s the set up.” I drew a wiggly circle on the board, near the top. Lower down a drew a wiggly line. Between the wiggly line and the wiggly circle, I drew smaller wiggly lines which I spaced out randomly.
“Throw Momma from Train!” shouted Firelighter but I ignored her and the giggling. I prefer Firelighter when she’s all depressed, to be honest. When she’s all morose and quiet. “My Cousin Vinny!”
“This is an island, obviously,” I said, pointing to the circle. “Water and land,” I continued as my pointing finger swept down the board. “Now-“
“Star Wars!” said Tan.
“See what you’ve done?” I said, glaring at Firelighter. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Tan was sort of bouncing in his chair, a bit animated. “You’re getting them all giddy.” I held her gaze. She didn’t hold mine. Her eyes darted from side to side. I turned back to the blackboard and drew a small figure on the island. The chalk was blunt and the figure lacked definition. “That’s a baby.”
“Looks like a-“
“Doesn’t matter, it’s a baby and it’s in danger.”
“What kind of danger?” asked Sub.
“Dogs.” On the edge of island, I drew a small line with four small lines going down underneath it
“Looks like a capatillar,” said Tan.
“A what?” That was Firelighter, amused.
“Caterpillar,” I said.
I drew an angled line for a neck and a curved line at the other end for a tail. Then I drew another line off the dog’s neck. Its face.
“Oh yeah is dog,” said Tan.
“We’re going to go outside in a minute, but how are we going to rescue the child?” I looked at all three of them in turn. “We’re down here.” I tapped the land at the bottom.
“That’s easy,” said Sub. “I’ll fly over and drop some meat to distract the dogs.”
“Okay, there’s no meat and one last thing. The baby’s leg is frozen in an ice block.” I drew a square overlapping the baby.
“Doesn’t matter how. This is just a scenario,” I said. “Think fast, what do we do? The dogs are closing in.”
“It’s stupid,” said Firelighter.
“Well, that’s brilliant, Firelighter, you can go speak to the child’s mother. Tell her Sarah died because you thought it was stupid.”
“She’s the one who left her baby in an ice block.”
“It’s just a scenario.”
“Yep,” I said.
“On an island.”
“Okay, got that out of your system?”
“It’s just stupid.”
“Just because you can’t get to the island,” said Sub.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up,” I said. “It’s teamwork. It’s about teamwork. Think about how you can all work together. We’ve got a guy who can fly but hates dogs. We’ve got a guy who can cross a small body of water without getting wet, who hates dogs and we’ve got a firelighter who really likes dogs. How are we going to do this? When we’re called, we can’t have a debate, it’s got to be automatic.” I clicked my fingers three times.
Firelighter stood up and walked over. “Can I?” she asked. You should see her Facebook. It’s all dogs.
“Go for it,” I said, handing her the chalk and standing back. Then she picked up the cloth rubber thing and before I could think about stopping her, she’d wiped off my picture.
“Oh, nice one,” I said. I watched as she drew a large circle. In that circle she drew a smaller circle, and then she stood aside. “What’s that?” I asked.
“A wheel?” said Tan.
“An egg?” said Sub. Firelighter looked at me.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s a Mexican in a sombrero?”
“I see it!” shouted Tan. “For sure!”
“Because they’re under the hat,” said Firelighter. She then drew a line coming from the front of the circle and one out of the back. “What’s that?”
“Is it a plane? The circle is the propeller?” asked Sub.
“Is it… I don’t know,” It reminded me of, like, a power tool. An electric saw. “Is it a power tool?”
“No, do you give up?”
“What is it?”
“It’s a Mexican on a bike.”
“Eh?” I said and then I saw it. “Oh yeah!”
“I don’t…” said Sub.
“They’re the wheels,” I said, pointing to the lines. “It’s hat and the wheels, from above.”
“Oh yeah!” said Sub but judging from his reaction I’m not sure if he really understood.
“Got anymore Mexicans?” I asked.
“That’s it,” she said. She sat back down. I wiped off the lines but left the sombrero and for the next two hours we tried to make more Mexicans under big hats doing things, and you know what? At the end we were closer than ever. Now that was teamwork.
You know those nightmares that are, like, double nightmares? You’re having a nightmare and you wake up, or think you do, but you’re still dreaming? Well, they don’t happen. Ever. That’s just bullshit people write. Last night I had a normal nightmare and that was bad enough. I can’t remember the exact details but I was being chased. I’d been found out – I didn’t know what I’d done but it was bad – and the authorities were closing in.
I woke up. Just calmly. Didn’t wake up with a gasp, covered in sweat, but I must have been moaning in my sleep because Susan knew something was wrong. I told her about the nightmare because she’s into star signs and meditation and all that. Thought she’d know what it meant. She had a think and said it meant I was gay and as she went back to sleep, I lay there thinking and I’m pretty sure the nightmare was about work.
From what I’ve read a lot of people feel out of their depth at work and, yeah, I guess that’s me. I guess I am anxious that one day somebody will come in, see us sitting around and ask me to justify Department 17. I worry about that question. I should, by now, have an answer ready. But I’m not even sure I can justify it. I mean, honestly, we’re totally useless. I don’t know. It’s like… I guess the idea is that three people with powers added together make one person with superpowers. But is it? I feel like Firelighter, Sub and Tan somehow make up one rubbish normal human.
Tan. The Tanned Surfer. Being able to walk on water? How’s that useful? Not that he can walk on water. He can slide on it if he’s going fast enough. Oh, it’s a miracle! Like Jesus! It’s, like, So? You know? When you think about it. It’s a cool trick but how does it help anybody? In Jesus times, people probably saw him walk on water three times and were done with it.
Here’s another thing I can’t justify, the text on this thing. It’s not an option. Hate that, words on the right-hand side ending all wiggledy-piggledy. Looks shit.
Sub. Subsonic. What does that name even mean? He can go slower than the speed of sound. Well, newsflash, who can’t do that? I don’t know. We’re well funded but that could all change. If somebody started asking questions.
Firelighter is good. She was at the bonfire last night. She lit it. Bonfire night, innit. That’s a crowd-pleaser but it’s once a year. And isn’t the ability to put out fires more useful than being able to start them? You know? I shouldn’t have looked at Facebook before I went to bed. Most people loved seeing her but there were two or three nobheads, and it’s those comments that stick.
I’ve got to plan something. It’s up to me. It’s not like I’ve got a fallback. I can’t go back to the car park because that’s all computerized now. So, what? Go and work in the Social Security Department? Dealing with deadbeats all day? That’s too grim to think about. I’ve got to somehow make this work. Just… I don’t know, I’ll think of something.
Hey, maybe those double nightmares are a thing. You’re having a bad dream and you wake up and life is a nightmare.
We’ll do more training today, that’s a thing, although Firelighter’s off because she worked last night. Then I’ll have a think over the weekend. Gotta relax too. And I’ll put a new fan belt on the Land Rover.
I could hear the knocking and that was through two doors, so… you know? The door being knocked on and my door. Two doors. Which meant the sound had to be travelling across the office. It had to be. In order to reach my door, and then go through my door, and into my head. That’s science.
Knock, knock, knock.
I closed my eyes. They were getting louder. They were definitely getting louder. Come on, I thought. I sucked on my upper teeth and wiped some white specks from my laptop with my fingertip. It could have been dandruff. My ears felt like a time-lapse of radar dishes from a movie about radar dishes searching for messages from space. It was like they were flexing. My ears on the side of my head were that tense. I was tense already. Before the knocking. I’d tried changing the fan belt on the Land Rover at the weekend but not only was the replacement I ordered wrong, but I also snapped a wire while taking the old one off. So, fuck! You know? You can’t just buy car wires on Amazon, it was turning out.
Useless people, I thought, standing up and marching over to my office door. I opened the door pretty aggressively. Really operated the door handle fastly, before I pulled the door towards me. Yep, they were there. Of course. “You can’t hear that?” I said, addressing them like they’re idiots, which they are.
Tan slowly spun in his swivel chair. The chair which he was spilling over the side of. “Wha?”
“You can’t hear that?” I said. Another series of knocks was due and so I held up the index finger of my right hand and waited. They looked at me. My finger, which I was holding up, slowly curled. We waited. “That!” I said, straightening it again. Nothing. And so I marched over to the door. “This!” I said, opening the door. There was a woman behind the door. “That!” I said, pointing to the woman. “Nobody heard that?“
“I thought it was workmen,” said Firelighter.
“What?” I asked, not quite able to comprehend what she was saying. Firelighter might be sardonic, and lacking in motivation, but she isn’t deaf, she heard the bamboozlement in my voice. She looked at the woman in the doorhole and shook her head slightly. I wasn’t done. “You thought workmen had just turned up, and?”
“Yeah, maybe,” she replied, sardonically. Sardonic. That was an answer in a crossword. We had to look up what it meant and there may as well have been a picture of Firelighter in the dictionary, instead of the definition, because it summed her up. Can’t remember the exact definition but it means, like, horrible.
“And, what? They were fixing the door by knocking on it?” I asked. That sentence rose in pitch more than I wanted it to. Last bit was almost a squeak. “That’s literally the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my whole life.”
“Stupider than the mole?”
“Oh, yeah, good one Laura.” Firelighter hates being called Laura. The goddamn mole. That hadn’t even been my fault.
– The mole. She was referring to the other week when we went to the Governor’s house to deal with a mole. It was really weird. The guy’s, like, 100 years-old and there was massive confusion all around. Like, somebody told us to go, to deal with a mole and when we got there the Governor was all, “I suppose you’re wondering why I called you,” and I said it was to deal with a mole and he instantly went mental. He was surprised to find out we knew about the mole and, like, demanded we find out who it was who told us. I think it was his secretary. It was an email. Anyway, the guy was ranting and I promised we would find the mole and outside we just stood around for a bit, on the lawn, which was ruined because of a mole, and, well, and then we just drove back here. –
“Sorry about this,” I said to the woman who was on the other side of the threshold. “I work with idiots.” I rolled my eyes.
“Yes, well, that’s why I’m here,” she replied and then she started talking as I tried to work out if she’d just called us idiots. I kinda thought she had so as she spoke, I cocked my head and squinted at Firelighter. Firelighter was looking at the woman.
I turned to the woman. “Sorry, what?” I asked because she’d finally stopped talking and I was now ready to listen.
“The grass? What about the grass?”
“You’ve… you’ve killed it.”
“I’ve killed grass?” I said, placing a hand on my chest. I was careful not to let that one get too high. What the fuck are you on about? I thought. I looked at the three in the office and they all shook their heads in turn. I turned back to the woman. “I’m sorry, I don’t…” and it was true, I didn’t…
“It’s just, and you’re probably not aware, but I pay for it. I don’t mind if you… if you…”
“You pay for what?” I asked, putting her under pressure. She was wearing a very big cardigan. It was almost a cloak. She reminded me of somebody. Somebody off the telly. Somebody who wore massive cloaky cardigans. Not Grotbags but somebody like her.
“You can use it, but please be careful… the grass.”
“Look, lady, I don’t know… What grass are you even talking about?”
“Over at the…” The woman pointed down the dark narrow stairway behind her, down to the white oblong which was the glass door at the bottom. “The grass at the picnic table.”
“The picnic table?”
“Well, no, you see that grass area is… in my lease, if you…” she handed me a document and I thought, yeah, I’ll just get my lawyer to give that a once over, while pretending to read it. I handed it back to her. “I actually paid for that bench, and I don’t mind if you use it, it’s just when she…” the woman nodded her head at Firelighter. “It kills the grass.”
I remembered where I knew the woman from. She wasn’t off the telly, she had the weird shop downstairs. The one that stinks. They sell crystals and ribbons. Not fancy crystals. Mad crystals. Dreamcatchers. I’ve never been in. It looks haunted.
“Okay, fine,” I said.
“As I said, you can use-“
“No, it’s fine, we won’t use it anymore.”
“It’s just the grass.”
“Nah, forget it. We’ll just spend our days protecting the Island, protecting you, and then we’ll sit by the bins to have our lunch, if that’s okay?” Tan sat up straight when I said that. “Or are the bins yours too?”
“Ha, no, please don’t. I… it’s only the grass, it won’t grow back now, until next year.”
“Okay, got it. We’ll sit in the bin and that’ll save your precious grass. I didn’t realize it’s endangered. I’ll probably phone David… Daviiiiid…” shit, I couldn’t think of that old naturalist’s surname.
“Look… You really… I didn’t want to…”
“Is that it?”
“Well… I just-“
“Okay, well thanks a lot!” I said, closing the door on her as she stuttered some more. I had to lift the door slightly to close it. It hits the frame. I think one of the hinges are loose. And then I listened for her footsteps going down the stairs. “What a witch!” I said, quietly, though I was sure she couldn’t hear. I looked at the others. “Eh? What a witch.” I said that a bit louder and looked at the door.
“You were a bit mean to her,” said Sub.
“What?” I snorted, turning to him. I chuckled. He was looking at his hands. Firelighter raised her eyebrows and her lower lip covered her upper one. “I wasn’t mean,” I told her. She made a noncommittal face.
“A bit nasty,” said Tan, tilting his head.
“What are you on about? My god! You’re all idiots. Complete idiots. She was… urgh.” What’s the point of explaining things to dimwits. “I was sticking up for you lot. Won’t do that again.”
“Obrigada,” said Tan
“She was only worried about her grass,” said Sub.
Muttering, I went over to the window by the filing cabinet and pulled up the blind. It was drizzling. The grass surrounding the picnic was marked with large yellow patches which were black in the center. Looked a bit like flat sunflowers. Or bullet wounds in a decaying Kermit the Frog. It looked pretty shit, in all honesty. The funny thing is the first time we roasted chestnuts I had actually been sort of conscious that the grass was getting ruined, but nobody had ever said anything, so, fuck it, right? And it grows back.
“Should I say sorry?”
“I think so,” said Sub. Firelighter just moved one cupped hand forward, like she was holding an invisible orb, twisted it slightly, like she was about to say something and then put her hand back to her face.
“Very horrible to her,” said Tan.
“Fucking hell,” I said.
Anyway, I went down and she looked a bit nervous when she looked up to see who had made her door jangle, but she was okay after I apologized. Told her it was a bad day. Opened up a bit. I maybe even overshared. Teared up a bit. Got to the point where I pretended to be interested in the stuff she sold, so of course that meant I ended up £12 worse off and the proud owner of a rose quartz. £12! Ah, she seems nice enough. Mark me well, though, we’re never going to use her bench again. Just for spite. I hope she feels bad about that.
I popped my head out of my office door. “It’s go time!” I announced. Tan spun around in his chair until he was facing me. He really sits sideways on that chair. “Is there something wrong with your back?” I asked and using his elbows he shuffled up straight. A little bit straighter. I looked past him to Firelighter who sits over by the window. “Hey! Go time!” She nodded. Sub’s chair was empty. “Tell Sub.”
I popped my head back into my office where the rest of me already was.
What the fuck are you doing? I thought. My thought was aimed at the printer. I’d turned it on and it had instantly begun having a massive nervous breakdown. I hadn’t even sent the email to print yet. As soon as I turned it on it started whirring and groaning and whining and it was still doing it. PLEASE WAIT, the screen was saying. “The fuck are you doing?” I asked it as something moved slowly and noisily inside its black plastic shell.
I put my coat on as I was waiting. I sat on the corner of my desk and stared at it. After a final strained mechanical noise, it was silent and I lent backwards and, after struggling with the upside down mouse-pad, I clicked ‘print’ on my computer and… absolutamente nada. I waited for a moment before clicking on print again. My eyes darted around the office while I waited for the printer to animate. My eyes fixed on the framed picture of us from the Jersey Evening Post, but I wasn’t looking. I was listening.
Apparently if you go blind your ears get better. You stick your tongue out when you’re concentrating because your tongue has so many nerves and stuff that taking your tongue out of your mouth lets your brain focus more on other stuff.
Sub’s tongue is out of his mouth when he’s doing the buttons up on his coat. So, while my eyes were looking at the picture it was my ears which were in overdrive.
It should have been printing by now. I sighed and stood and went over to the printer. The small screen on the printer was acting like nothing was wrong. It wasn’t complaining about low ink or a lack of paper. Most odd. I went over to my desk and, without sitting down, looked at my laptop screen. I clicked the little printer icon down by the clock. It claimed that the documents were printing. That was a lie. I went back to the email and pressed print again. And then I listened. “Fucking thing.”
I went over to the door and popped my head out. The two of them sat where they had been. The only difference was Sub was back. Why had I opened the door again? To ask them for help with the printer? What, one of them was suddenly an IT expert? I closed the door. Then I opened it again. “Nice springing into action,” I said, sarcastically. “Get ready.”
“I ready,” said Tan, slumped in his chair but wearing his coat.
“What’s happening?” asked Sub and I looked at Firelighter.
She was tapping a biro on her teeth. She removed it. “Oh, it’s go time,” she said.
“Thanks,” I told her.
“We’ve got a mission?” asked Sub, excited. I nodded with a tilted head. It’s a bit embarrassing that he calls them ‘missions. They’re jobs. Call them jobs, but I nodded to him.
“The printer’s dicking around,” I said. No reaction and so I closed the door. I looked at the printer screen, which was okay, and then I went over to my laptop. I sat down, uncomfortable in my coat. It still claimed to be printing but clearly it wasn’t and I had a pang of worry that it was printing out somewhere else. Maybe the crystal shop downstairs. That would be a scandal because these documents are top secret. Well, not top secret but, you know, private. I resisted the urge to press print again and instead delved deeper into the computer’s inner workings. I typed printers into the Windows 10 search bar and for once the search worked. Printers and Scanners appeared. I clicked it. The printer was listed. So far so good but then I saw that the computer was telling me the printer was offline. So far so bad.
I looked over the top of the laptop screen at the printer. Offline, the fuck does that mean? I wondered. It was on. I didn’t want to but I clicked ‘manage’ and then ‘trouble-shooter’ and then I waited as the computer detected problems.
I normally quite enjoy trying to fix things. It was my computer skills which got me out of the car park. I’d made a spreadsheet. Doesn’t sound like much but they wrote everything down before, so to have a spreadsheet, you know? It got me noticed. It doesn’t sound like much but this was a while ago. But I like fixing things when we’ve got nothing else to do. We had things to do.
Troubleshooting had finished and didn’t find any problems which is absolutely terrific. Great. Or would be if there obviously wasn’t a massive problem. Because of course I’d be running the trouble-shooter just for fun if there was nothing wrong. I don’t know, if I worked at Microsoft and I’d programmed a trouble-shooter I’d think that running it suggested there was definitely a problem, and so just coming back and saying “nah, we didn’t find anything” isn’t fucking good enough. Somebody runs a trouble-shooter on a computer then the computer shouldn’t fucking stop until it’s fixed it, you know? I’m running a fucking printer trouble-shooter then it’s because my fucking document isn’t printing so don’t fucking rest until the printer is fucking printing the fucking document.
I was getting stressed.
I could have just written down the address but I had one last trick. I went over to the printer and pulled out the power cable from the back. I know you’re not supposed to just rip the power cord out of things without turning them off but I kinda wanted to hurt the printer. I plugged it back in and turned it on and girded myself for it to do whatever it does for ten minutes, but this time it went silent pretty quickly.
I went over to my computer but on the way the printer made a noise. I paused. Was it the shit it does when I turn it on? Housekeeping, they probably call it. Was it? No, it wasn’t! It was actually printing. It printed three copies of the email. I closed the lid on my laptop and then gathered up the printed emails.
“Come on, go time!” I said as I marched across the big office. They all slowly stood up. “So much energy in this room!” I took the keys off the hook.
“You flying?” I asked Sub.
He winced. Looked over at the window and pretended to think. I know he was pretending because his tongue stayed in. “It’s a bit cold, I’ll fly back.”
“Cool,” I said.
“I’m driving,” said Firelighter.
“Ha! Yeah, right,” I replied.
“What’s the mission,” asked Sub.
“Is assault in progress?” asked Tan, earnestly. “I bloody hope not sexual assault,” he said. I looked at him for a moment.
“No, no assault. I’ll tell you in the van,” I said. “Actually…” I realized I had three copies. One for each of them. I’d read it already. That worked out perfectly, in a crazy sort of way. Things have a habit of doing that. “Read it in the van.”
“It’s go time!” said Sub. He held his palm up. Tan slapped it. Firelighter didn’t but Sub’s hand was still up so I did. Just with my fingertips. Then we bundled down the dark narrow staircase. I couldn’t have known then where this would lead. And I don’t know now, either. It hasn’t happened yet.
We bundled down the dark narrow staircase, through the glass and aluminium door and out onto the pavement. “I’m driving, yeah?” said Firelighter, more animated than she’d been for a while.
“No, I’ll drive,” I said as we walked over to the van. The van is a blue Toyota Hiace Powervan.”You can drive back,” I lied. I’d think of a reason for her not to between now and then.
“Well I’m sitting in the front,” she countered.
“Fine.” What wasn’t fine was that somebody had parked about four inches from the driver’s door. I looked at the gap and muttered an obscenity which I won’t repeat here. I wasn’t in the mood to climb over the gear stick from the passenger side, and so I crabbed my way into the gap and opened the door. I held my hand on the edge of the door, so it wouldn’t ding the car which had parked like a cunt, I’m a nice guy, and I got my head into the cab. Like a cat I knew if my head fit then the rest of me would, and I somehow managed to contort myself into the driver’s seat without getting snagged or jammed.
Firelighter got in the passenger seat and Tan and Sub got in the sliding side door. There are only sideways benches in the back. It’s pretty uncomfortable. Don’t know what Sub was doing in there. If I could fly I would.
“This van’s disgusting,” I said, kicking away an empty Costa cup from the footwell. “We’re going to clean it this afternoon.” I started the van and put it in reverse. “Anything coming?” I asked Firelighter. The van doesn’t have windows in the side at the back. I started moving backwards.
“There’s a car,” she said, and although we were hardly moving when I stamped on the brake Tan and Sub made a startled sound. I looked in the wing mirror and waited for it to pass. And waited. And waited. “It’s pulled in down there,” she said. Leaning forward and looking past her, I could see a car pulling in miles away.
“That was miles away,” I said and began inching backwards, and then I sped up and somebody tooted at me and again I stamped on the brake pedal. This time Tan and Sub’s startled exclamations were louder. The car tooting was on my side, so I couldn’t really blame Firelighter. I did anyway. “Just… move your head back, I can’t see past all your hair,” I said and the car which tooted sped angrily past us like a dickhead. “Dickhead,” I said. Finally, with much leaning forward and twisting, I got the van out of the parking space. “What idiot would park like that?” I said, talking about the car which had parked really close. Although, looking, it was in the lines, to be fair. We must have parked right over. Still.
We drove along the parking bay to the junction. I looked left, then right, then left. “Okay,” said Firelighter. There was a car coming on my side and I wondered if I could make it. “Is it okay?”
“If you’re quick.”
Could I be quick? Yeah, I probably could. I could make it, Could I? Yeah. I went for it. “No!” said Firelighter and I turned and saw the car approaching from her side, but I was committed, because one was coming from my side. I went for it. The van did a wheelspin and bounced, which didn’t help, and I winced as Tan said something rude in Portuguese. That’s what I do if I think I’m about to be involved in a major road traffic collision. I wince. Like that will help! I drive through a narrow gap and I wince. It’s like I think nothing bad can happen if my eyes aren’t fully open, and it’s worked for this long. Never had a crash. Not a big one.
Somehow we avoided both cars and neither tooted, though the one that was now behind us drove really close to show its displeasure. “You said it was okay!” I said.
“It was, but you were ages.”
“Just… you put me under pressure by saying okay.”
“I’m just not going to say anything.”
“Yeah, don’t. I can see fine out that way. It was only backing up.”
“So why didn’t you see it?”
“You said okay!”
The car tailgating us dropped back as I accelerated. Dickhead, I thought. I was thinking about the driver of that car. Then I noticed the gauge. “We’re going to have to get petrol.” That was okay, the petrol station where we have an account is on the way. I hoped the friendly guy would be busy. When I pulled in, I told the team to read the email. Visualizing which side the petrol hole was on the van I pulled up to a pump and went to get out but couldn’t because in my haste I hadn’t undone my seat belt. I fumbled for it with one hand on the door and then I jumped out, opened the cap and picked up the petrol nozzle. I put the petrol nozzle in the petrol hole on the van and pulled the trigger and looked around. Nobody. I relaxed. And after that delay the petrol pump started dispensing petrol. I relaxed more. And then he appeared and I was no longer relaxed. He appeared from around the back of the van. From wherever it is he hides. The friendly man appeared. He came over and extended his hand to take over control of the nozzle. “Thanks, fill it up,” I said, reneging control. He smiled and nodded.
I hate the friendly petrol guy who operates the pumps. Let me fill it up, you know? I never know what I’m supposed to do when he’s filling the van up. Chat to him? Yeah, right. About what? Can’t go in the shop and pay for it because he hasn’t finished pumping. It’s emasculating. Especially when he takes the nozzle off me. I walked around to the passenger side and opened the door slightly. “Read the email, yeah?” I said before closing the door. I walked over to the shop and heard Firelighter open and then slam the door. I hadn’t closed it properly.
In the shop I looked at the stuff they sold. They sold a small selection of the stuff you’d find in a supermarket. Pasta sauce and the like. But not things like fresh ginger. I walked slowly down both aisles and figured the van should have been full of petrol, or near enough, so I went to the cashier and told him to put it on our account. He didn’t make any small talk, even when he heard it was for Department 17, so that was good.
Walking across the forecourt, back to the van, the friendly man who worked the pumps smiled at me as he waited for his next victim to pull in. “Thanks,” I said. He winked at me and I smiled.
“Where are the sweets?” asked Firelighter.
“Shit, I forgot,” I said, pausing with my seat belt held half across me. “Nah, I’m not going back in.” I buckled up as they moaned. We normally get a bag of Haribos at the garage. “Did you read the email?” I drove out of the pumps and across to the road. I leant forward to look left and right.
“It’s bullshit,” said Firelighter.
“What’s bullshit?” I looked right and left. She held the piece of paper up. “It’s a job, isn’t it?” I looked right and left and put the van in neutral and wiggled the gear stick to ensure it was in neutral then put it back in first gear.
“Yeah, fly tipping. It’s a crime.”
“Yes, it is, costs the Island… well, you read it.” I lent further forward. The garage is on a bend. It’s pretty dangerous. Pulling in is okay.
“A bin man could do this,” said Firelighter. The printed email on her lap.
“I know but…” I mean, I knew. I knew we shouldn’t be going and looking through shit. Seeing if there were any clues but… you know?
“I’m not doing it?”
“Yeah, you are,” I laughed. I nearly went but a car came around the bend going too fast.
“We’re not doing it.”
“We?” I asked, looking at her. I put the van back into neutral. I looked over my shoulder at the two in the back. “We no do it.” said Tan.
“I don’t mind doing it,” said Sub, but his opinion doesn’t count.
“Look, I know it’s… it’s not what we-“
“It’s shit,” said Firelighter.
“Yeah, okay, but… you know?”
“No, I don’t know.”
“It’s…” A car tooted from behind us. I looked all around the dashboard. All across the windscreen. “Okay.” I leant forward and looked left and right and pulled out. We drove back to the office without talking.
I stood by the blackboard. “Okay,” I said, “I’ve been thinking.”
“Did it hurt?” asked Firelighter and Tan laughed and rocked forward with his hand balled into a fist in front of his mouth. Sub looked at Tan and then at Firelighter with a confused smile which vanished when he did that eye thing he does, when he’s trying to refocus. It’s like he gulps with his eyes.
“I fucked up, mea cupable,” I said using Latin. I’d known I’d erred after a day or so. It sounds great having superheroes who are actually a bit lame. It’s a good idea. They can’t actually do anything and that’s a funny idea. Sitting around in an office. The problem is trying to put them into situations which aren’t just long-winded trips to the garage. Or roasting chestnuts. Because they can’t do anything. It had to change and it had to change now. Tan was the worst. Tanned Surfer. He could glide across water. Like a pond or something. There’s literally no situation where that would be helpful. “Tan, keep your name but you’re a hacker.”
“Surfer, it still works. Computer whiz kid. You can hack anything. I mean anything. Traffic lights, CCTV, anything.“
“I’ll need an armoured laptop and gadgets.”
“You got ’em, they’re there on the table in front of you. And I’m glad you’ve lost your slight accent. That was verging on casual racism.”
“I thought that,” said Firelighter, nodding.
“In fact, Tan, you’re not Portuguese. You’re Asian. Tan, it still works.”
“Japanese? Chinese? Vietnamese?”
“It really doesn’t matter. Nice hoodie, by the way.”
“Keep your hood up all of the time.”
“I will,” said Tan, looking at his gadgets.
“Now, Sub, I like you,” I said. He beamed. “You’re like Homelander crossed with Dougal from Father Ted.”
“That wasn’t a compliment. What would… what do you think you’re lacking?”
He thought for a long time. Too long. Firelighter helped him out. “You could have a girlfriend?”
“Oh, yeah, I could have a girlfriend!” he said, his lower half shifting around in his chair, his upper half still with his elbows planted on the desk. “I’d like that.”
“You’re not having a girlfriend. Firelighter, you could have a girlfriend, though. I was thinking about you and a girlfriend.”
“Nah! Not like that. It’s… Lesbians are in right now. Especially lesbian superheroes.”
“Transgender,” said Tan from beneath his hood.
“She could be transgender.” He started typing away at his laptop which didn’t look like it was running Windows 10. The screen was black and all his typing was green. “Positive transgender engagement is up 755% just in 2020.”
I thought about it. “I don’t know. I don’t know much about… it’s not a good idea.”
“Erm, excuse me, I don’t want to be transgender!” said Firelighter.
“Calm down, JK Rowling,” I said. “It’s normal!”
“I know it is! I just… you don’t shoehorn it in.”
“Okay, okay, how about you may or may not be transgender. It’s never mentioned. How about that? You’re a woman now, and that’s all that matters?”
“I am a woman!”
“That’s the spirit. Yeah, a woman who can catch fire. You may once have been a man but that’s neither here nor there.”
“It doesn’t matter. You’re enigmatic. A bit dangerous. And you’re still sardonic.”
“I couldn’t just be a woman.”
“A normal woman. I have to be… what? Be angry and have issues? Do I wear tight clothes?”
“Do you want to wear tight clothes?”
“What’s it got to do with you what I wear?”
“Nothing! Why are you starting an argument? Jeez, I don’t care what you wear. Wear what you want!” I said. “Make sure it’s Fireproof.” Sub was looking at her and to me with a smile even less convincing than the one he had earlier.
“I’m argumentative, nice, it’s really original,” said Firelighter, she started to clap.
“You just do you, Laura, it’s Sub we need to improve.” Sub gulped with his eyes. His head goes back as he blinks. It’s weird. “What do you want, Sub? Not a girlfriend.”
We watched him think for a painfully long time. “I guess… I wish I had more…”
“More what?” I asked. Firelighter placed a motherly hand on his back. Ha! Not really, just said that to wind her up. “Sub, more what?”
“Confidence?” he said, meekly.
“My god, did it just get Wizard of Oz in here?”
“Sorry,” he said with his head down.
“No, it’s okay. I’ve got a surprise for you!” I said and watched him twist around, panicked in his chair. “A good surprise.” He calmed and turned towards me. “Tan,” I said and Tan handed Sub a belt with loads of things attached.
“Guns and shit,” I said.
“I don’t want a… I couldn’t…” he said, warily taking the belt. He put it on and removed the futuristic gun.
“Careful!” I said as I studied him as he pointed it around the room, a grin spreading across his face. Was it a grin or was it a sneer? Not sure. He holstered it and sat back down. “Tan made all of that stuff with his 3D printer.” I clapped this time. Tan held a hand up. “So, we’re all happy?”
“It’d be good if we actually had something to do for once,” said Sub, confidently punching one of his fists into his opposite palm. I stared at him. “Yeah,” I said. Not sure I liked confident Sub. “Yeah, well, you leave that with me. Shit’s going to get crazy around here, and that’s a promise. But that’s it for today. So, yeah, it’s going to be good.” I nodded.
Firelighter stood up. “Well, I’m going home on my powerful motorbike now, that’s why I’m wearing this leather suit.” She tossed back her head and shook it. Then she put her helmet on. Tan stood up with his laptop under his arm. Sub stood and gave me a thumbs up.
“See you tomorrow, guys,” I said and poured myself a whisky.
“Oh Jesus Christ, no!” I said. At first I’d thought it was a tarpaulin billowing around, over by the barn. The light had nearly gone and it was hard to distinguish anything. Background and foreground. Everything was shades of flat, dark grey, like when I print pictures but I’ve run out of coloured ink. “Get it online!” I shouted to Tan who was hunkered down by a tree with his laptop balanced badly on his knee.
“I need more time!” he said as he typed away furiously.
“We haven’t got time!” I said. The Cowolf wasn’t fully upright yet – whatever upright was for that abomination – but already it was taller than a tractor that sat helplessly near it. Its round headlights looking like frightened eyes. Firelighter began to glow and then, before I could move, burst into flames.
“Fu… you wanna warn me before you do that?” I said, moving away and rubbing the side of my face and feeling my hair for burnt bits. I was okay. The circle of light Firelighter was emitting only extended halfway across the paddock. The Cowolf was now shrouded in total darkness but we could hear it moving and shifting over the low hum which Firelighter was making. “Tan.” I said, quietly.
“What?” he replied.
“How long, Tan!” I said, louder, as the Cowolf and its swinging head and rows of teeth made its drooling way into the golden glow.
“Oh, I stopped, you said we didn’t have time.”
“I meant much time, we’ve got a bit, but hurry.”
“I had a dream las-“
“Alright Martin Luther King,” I said, interrupting Sub who was sitting in the back of the van. On the sideways bench. Using his thighs to help him balance when the van braked erratically. I always say that when somebody starts off with, ‘I had a dream.’
Firelighter was driving and it was fine. I’ve got no problem with that. I wasn’t wincing every time she nearly smashed the wing mirror off the van on the narrow roads we were driving down.
“I had a dream that we all burned.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well, that’s cheery.” I looked over at Firelighter who was concentrating on driving but still shook her head ever so slightly. I smiled. “Was that it?”
“Yeah,” said Sub.
“What’s our ETA?” I asked.
“I know what ETA is,” said Firelighter. “Five minutes? I don’t know where we’re going, really. Ten minutes.”
“Tan, how are you getting on with the Tom Tom.”
“I just need a bit more time,” he replied.
We were on the north east of the Island. You could split Jersey into quarters. Draw a cross through the middle. The south east corner is town. A fairly advanced metropolitan area. There’s a Bella Pasta and Next, everything else you could reasonably expect, except a Starbucks.
There are no Starbucks in Jersey.
The south west corner of Jersey is like the French Riviera. Well posh with nice beaches. The north west corner of Jersey is a desolate and barren place. Sand dunes and shacks, mainly. Steep hilly fields, fertilized with seaweed, growing potatoes for which the Island is famed. The north east, where we were, is proper Wicker Mansville. It’s sinister enough on a summer’s afternoon. Late autumn? Forget about it. We drove past skeletal bare trees, which seemed to be frozen and contorted in pain, and a Co-op Locale.
“Is a Cowolf what I think it is?” asked Firelighter.
“Do you think it’s an unholy cross between a cow and a wolf?” I said.
“Is it spelled cowwolf or cowolf?”
“I’d pronounce that co-wolf.”
“Well then you’d be an idiot,” I said. Co-wolf. How stupid would you have to be?
“Jersey cows are nice,” said Sub, from the back, and I turned in the passenger seat and pointed at him.
“No!” I said. “No! I know you love Jersey cows but don’t you dare let that cloud your judgement when it’s time to take action.” I held my finger pointing at him until he nodded. I turned back to the windscreen. “This isn’t a cow. Any cowyness this creature once had has long gone. Now what we have is a creature with the strength and agility of a cow, but with the mind of a stone-cold killer.” I shook my head. “And we’re going to take out the queen.”
“I’ve got the Tom Tom working,” said Tan, handing it to me. I clicked it into its holder on the dashboard, so Firelighter could see it.
“Nearly there,” she said and the mood got serious.
“Anybody want a Haribo?”
“Stripes or Pinballs?” asked Tan.
“Stripes,” I said.
“Any apple ones left?”
“No, I ate those.”
“I’m okay then,” said Tan.
“Any coke ones.”
I couldn’t actually distinguish the colours of the wrappers of the sweets in the bag, but I knew there weren’t any coke ones. Coke are my second favourite, after apple. “Nah, there weren’t any in this bag. Think they’re only in special bags. There’s…” I tipped the bag forward to try to illuminate the bag with the light from the Tom Tom. I still couldn’t see so put the big light above the windscreen.
“I can’t see!” said Firelighter, suddenly wrestling with the steering wheel.
“Theresredorangeandyellowones,” I said as quickly as I could and clicked the light off. The instant my eyes readjusted to the darkness outside I saw the figure. Even though I was in the passenger seat I slammed my right foot down, luckily Firelighter did the same. The van has ABS so we stopped easily, though the two in the back had to extend an arm to brace themselves on the back of the front seats. The bleached-out figure which stood in our headlights didn’t flinch.
The pallid figure stood almost transparent in the headlights of our blue, 1993, Toyota Hiace Powervan. It was waving its arms in front of its face in a dance which made me think of Kate Bush. “Oh my god, is that a gho… gho… gho…” I looked at Firelighter. My eyes bulging and wet. “A gh-” I managed and Subsonic punched me on the back and that dislodged the Haribo Stripe which was jammed in my gullet. I coughed. “Cheers mate.” I croaked. “Nearly choked to death there. Is that a ghost?” I asked, unwrapping another candy. Yeah, all the good colours had gone but even the orange ones were alright. I balled the wrapped up and flicked it onto the floor with panache.
Firelighter pulled back the protruding metal and plastic stalk which was behind the steering wheel. This simple action made the headlights change from full beam to standard. “No, it’s just an old person,” she said.
“Toot,” I ordered.
“But… but it’s just an old woman,” said Firelighter.
“I don’t care if it’s…” I started. I couldn’t be bothered finishing it. I only started saying it because it was managerial. “Toot.”
“We’re here, I think, she’s the one who called us, I think.”
“What? This is Fallow Farm? And less thinking, more facts.”
“According to the TomTom.”
“Well…” I rolled the window down. The van doesn’t have electric windows. You have to crank the handle. I know, right? Old school. “Did you call us?!” I shouted at the woman.
“Wait there, I’m still blinded,” she shouted back. Only her lower half was really illuminated, but I could just about see that she was rubbing her eyes.
“Get out,” said Firelighter.
I brought my head in from the passenger side window and turned to her. “Oh yeah, I’ll just get out, on this dark lane and go and speak to the creepy woman. Yeah, I’ll do that now.” I turned around to Sub and Tan, who were sat in the depths of the darkness in the back of the van and shook my head. They probably only saw my silhouette. Not my eye rolling. I turned back to the front and clicked my fingers and pointed for Firelighter to pull forward. She did, even though the lane was narrow, until the old woman was outside my window. I pressed the long skinny button which rose up from the top of the door body and made my door lock. “Did you call us?”
“Are you from. TTS?”
“It’s not called that anymore,” I said, leaning towards Firelighter because the old woman had put her old lady hands on the door. Her fingertips were in the van. With her other hand the old woman rubbed at her upper face and then held her eyes really really open for a few seconds. Then she did some fast blinks. TTS was our old name. Transport and Technical Services, but a few years ago most Jersey States departments got renamed. Fuck knows how much that rebranding exercise cost, but we’d been Department 17 ever since. I prefer it. It’s mysterious and doesn’t give the vandals anything to work with. Seeing TTS on the side of our van was too much for them. They couldn’t resist pulling out their spray paint and making that into an offensive word.
When the light is right you can still just about see where it once said SHITTS. You have to be looking for it, though. “We’re Department 17 now.”
“Did you get rid of that flying twat?”
“The flying twat?” I said, checking that I’d heard her correctly.
“The blue one.”
“No, he’s still here,” I said.
“Hello!” shouted Sub from the back. He sounded a bit sad. The old woman did a grimace.
“So, where is it?”
“Follow me,” said the woman and she began to walk. Firelighter started the van and we crawled down the lane after her.
“I need a wee,” said Sub.
“No you don’t,” I said, correcting him. “You went just before we left.”
“I know, but I really do.”
“Yeah, well you can’t.”
“I’m really busting.”
I ground my teeth together. “Where the hell is she going?” I asked. We’d been tailing her at 2mph for, well, it seemed like ages. It probably hadn’t been that long.
“Just… pull over and I’ll…”
“Why do you always need a wee? It’s not right.”
“I’m well hydrated. Please stop. Please?”
“She’ll have a house! Go there.”
“Please!” he whined.
Firelighter stopped the van. “Don’t be ages,” I said because I knew he’d be ages. He has to get nearly completely undressed to do a piss. It’s ridiculous. Sub was already crouched over in the back of the van. You can’t open it from the inside and so after unlocking my door I climbed out and slid back the side door. It made that noise that sliding doors on the side of vans make, you know the one. Sub jumped down and turned away from me with his head tilted forward. I had to feel for the top of the zip. After finding it I began to pull it down. It met resistance pretty quickly, and then I really had a choice to make.
I could pull it down sharply. Hoping to simply power through whatever was causing the issue – perhaps it was just some stray thread from his badly made suit? But on the other hand, perhaps it was the small flap that runs down the side of zips which had become snagged? If that was the case then pulling down the zip as forcefully as I could would just increase the jam damage. I could pull the zip back up to his nape, gently, then try again, gently.
The roll of a dice.
Subsonic was dancing around on the spot, which didn’t help. I looked where the van was looking. The old woman was out of the reach of the van’s low beams but she was still visible. She wouldn’t be for long. “Hurry up!” said Sub and with the decision made for me I yanked the zip down as hard as I could. It moved about three centimetres before my fingertips slipped from the metal tag.
“Fuck!” I said.
“No.” I found the zip’s tag again and tried to pull it up. I’d jammed it good. Real good. I really pinched it betwixt thumb and forefinger and while grabbing Sub’s suit in the middle of his back, I pulled. “How the fuck have they not invented zips which don’t jam?” I pondered. “It’s twenty twenty.”
“It’s jammed?” said Sub, horrified, and then he tried to look over his shoulder. The idiot was trying to look at his own back.
I grabbed the back of his suit and shook it. “Keep still.” Three times I tried to pull the zip up. I even used my tip toes for added leverage. I twisted the zip slightly as I pulled but it didn’t budge. And you know what they say? If you can’t go up then you have to go down. So, with my left hand grasping and holding together, as best I could, the two separated bits of Sub’s costume which were above the zip jam, I pulled down on the zip toggle as hard as I could. It didn’t move even one zip tooth. Whatever was jamming it was in there good, like a cartoon cat in the gears of a machine. “I’m going to piss myself,” said Sub in a strange tone, like he was talking while inhaling.
He turned to me and the desperation and pleading in his eyes was almost too much. He turned his head away slowly.
“No, look at me, you’re not going…” I never finished that sentence.
The scream pierced the air like a really loud noise when it’s quiet. I let go of Sub’s jammed zip. We both looked down the road, into the darkness. There was something odd about the sound now. It was like thumping. Like a shrieking drum. “What the…” I murmured.
Murmured. Weird word. Mur mur.
Sub blasted up into the night sky leaving me standing next to the van. The cries stopped just as the rain started to splatter down and I jumped into the passenger seat of the Toyota Hiace Powervan. I didn’t need to ask Firelighter if she had just heard that, her face was that of a young woman who had just heard something. I nodded ahead and she started the van and we moved slowly down the narrow lane. I reached over and pulled back the small stick behind the steering wheel which activated our full beam headlights. “You wanna… you wanna not touch stuff when I’m driving?” asked Firelighter. I didn’t look at her. I was leaning forward in my chair, trying to see beyond the reach of the headlights, out into the blackness beyond.
What is it they say? If you stare into the abyss long enough it will eventually stare back at you? You’ll see yourself staring back? Something like that. They should change it to, if you stare into the abyss for long enough, you’ll eventually see this thing that at first looks like an enormous, heaving and writhing, brown snake, without a beginning nor end, but when you drive a bit closer you’ll see that it’s actually a big long line of cows, trampeding across a road.
“Something’s got them spooked,” I said as the van’s brakes squealed slightly and we came gently to a stop. We sat and watched the cows. The way the van’s headlights just lit up the happenings ahead, leaving everything else dark, made the whole scene seem like a diorama, or somehow somewhat theatrical. It was like it was a play and we were the audience. The cows were entering from the blackness of stage left, and exiting stage right. For a grunting second or two they were center stage.
“Something’s got them spooked,” said Tan, suddenly on my shoulder. He was leaning on the back of my seat. His hooded head was too close to my head. I moved my head away because it was almost like he was whispering in my ear.
“I said that about three seconds ago,” I said. “Like literally, three seconds ago.” Tan, oblivious to his encroachment into my personal space, clearly wasn’t going to move so I twisted a bit so I was sort of leaning against the passenger door. The cows kept coming, paying us no attention whatsoever. “Can we drive through them?” I asked.
“Can we drive through cows?” That was Firelighter saying that. Little bit of attitude in her voice, I thought.
“Will they stop if you go forward?” I said, holding my hand out to the windscreen.
“How could I possibly know?” asked Firelighter. “When would I ever have done this-“
“Well… fucking try it!” I sighed.
“Why don’t you say ‘try to drive through them’ instead of ‘can we drive through them’? You’re the manager.”
“I just did. I said it. I said, drive through them.” I sighed as she released the handbrake. “Drive through the cows!” I urged. “Slowly though.”
Firelighter inched the van forward. Ever forward. The cows, their heads sometimes bouncing off the rear haunches of the one in front, hellbent on reaching their destination, paid us no heed.
Haunches, hellbent and heed. Three words that begin with the letter H that I’ve never said out loud in my whole life, and yet here in the darkness they seemed apt. I’d never seen a trampede before, either, not not on telly, anyway. It was a night of firsts. The van was now only a metre or so from the torrent of cows but the cows weren’t stopping. From here, the way the van trembled, it let you truly feel the weight and power of these animals. We stopped, effectively losing the game of chicken against the cows, and one crashed along the front of the van. “There goes the number plate,” I said.
“Shall I keep going?” asked Firelighter, just before a running cow glancingly blowed the left-front headlight. The way the van shook, even without a direct hit, told her the answer to that. She reversed a little.
“That’s, like, a million cows,” I said. “Where are they coming from?”
“Over there,” said Firelighter, pointing to her left.
“Maybe they’re going around in a circle,” said Tan.
“What, like, twenty cows running in a circle, here?” said an unconvinced Firelighter. A cow went skittering to its knees with its eyes wide open in terror and its tongue lolling agog. With what looked like an enormous, desperate effort, its neck thrashing, it managed to get to its cow feet and somehow without bring down any others. “Something’s really spooked them,” she said.
“Great, we’ve all said that now.” I clapped. “Tan, is there another way in?” I asked. He stood and lent right over the front seats, and, balancing himself with one hand on the dashboard, he removed the TomTom with the other. “Is there?” I asked.
“I just need a bit more time,” he said.
“Look!” said Firelighter. And she was right. The cows were thinning. There were gaps between cows now. A moment early those gaps in the cows had been filled with other cows. And then, like a good movie from the 1980s, as suddenly as it started, perhaps – we didn’t see it start – it ended.
These days you have the natural ending point of a film and then there’s at least forty minutes of bullshit. The Karate Kid? Crane kick/bosh/end credits.
“Guys!” said Firelighter. It took me a moment to see it. On the road, sideways to us, was the old woman.
“Oh Jesus,” I said. I could hear Tan shaking his head in his hood. His head was rubbing on the sides of his hood as he tried to deny to himself that which his eyes were bearing witness to. The old woman had been crushed so completely that she looked like a Banksy. “We’ve got to go. Put an end to this.”
“Drive over her?” asked Firelighter, dismayed.
“She’s been pancaked, it won’t make a difference to her. There’s no other way.”
“If we back up here, we could drive down to that church and-“
I interrupted Tan. “There’s no other way,” I said, soothingly this time.
“I don’t think I…” said Firelighter, distressed.
“Slowly,” I said, gently, and Firelighter once again drove the van forwards. There was no bump at all. We drove in silence. Soon we got to the gate. The woman’s homestead. There were lights on in Fallow Farm. Maybe she’d been preparing supper in this space she must have considered safe. She’d so nearly made it back. Killed within sight of her sanctuary by the very animals she’d devoted her whole life to extracting milk from. I swallowed hard and then blinked hard.
We parked by the paddock and Firelighter turned off the van. It was silent for a moment. The calm before the storm. The big storm, anyway. The cows were a little storm compared to the potential this one had. It was time to take out the Cowolf. A barn stood on the other side of the paddock. The farmhouse to our right. “Can you smell piss?” asked Firelighter. I sniffed. I could a bit.
I sniffed my shoulder. “Fuck.”
“It’s here, I can sense it,” I said from the front passenger seat of the Toyota Hiace Powervan which Firelighter had just parked near a paddock.
“You can sense it?” she asked, though it wasn’t a real question. She was being a dick. Firelighter will often ask a question but it’s just the set-up, so she can be a dick to you.
Undaunted I continued because it was true. “Yeah, you know, it’s, like menacing. Foreboding.” I made my right hand look like it was screwing up an invisible ball of paper. “There’s something off.”
“Do you not think that being called out here to deal with a monster, and then seeing the woman who called us get trampled to death by cows, do you not think that might be what’s tingling your spider sense? Maybe?”
I thought about it. I mean, she had a point, but so did I. I didn’t want an argument. And I’d thought of something which I was pretty sure was funny. Too soon? Yeah, maybe, but I had to say it. “Hey, that old woman, she won’t need a coffin, she’ll need a… you know? A poster tube!” I smiled. I didn’t want to actually laugh at my own joke, and so I kept it to a smile. It wasn’t easy. My smile was really trying to turn into a laugh in the back of my throat.
“You know, one of those tubes, cardboard tubes, for posters.”
My actual smile faded away completely, though the sides of my mouth were still turned up a bit. “Because she’s so flat. Rolled up.”
“Where’s Sub?” she asked, ignoring my dark humour, which is only my way of lightening the mood in serious situations, no offense intended.
I thought about lying, then didn’t. “I think he pissed his pants. But don’t say anything. His zip was stuck.”
“I could do with expelling some urine,” said Tan from the back of the van.
I exhaled rapidly through my nose. “Don’t say shit like that, save it for your Dungeons and Dragons group.”
“I could probably go too,” said Firelighter and I exhaled noisily through my mouth.
“Next time you’re all going to go before we leave. It’s fu… it’s ridiculous.”
“I didn’t need to go then,” then Tan. I shook my head with my eyes closed.
We carefully made our way across the gravel yard from the van to the front door of the granite farmhouse. The gravel made walking stealthily impossible. Tan had his laptop balanced on his forearm, a bit like a waiter balancing a plate of dim sum. There was no doorbell that I could see. Firelighter went straight for the doorknob. It turned. The door was unlocked.
“Hello!” she shouted and I winced. If she wanted to attract the Cowolf then she was going about it the right way. She looked at me with her head cocked and her jaw clenched and shook her head. She repeated the call. Nothing. Silence. Perhaps a clock with a large mechanism was ticking somewhere from inside, but there was no sign of life.
As I waited impatiently for Firelighter to go in first there was a thud. It was behind us. I swore, grabbed Firelighter’s shoulder, pulled her back, and tried to throw myself through the front door and into the farmhouse. “It’s Sub!” said Firelighter. I was inside now. She was outside “It’s just Sub.” I looked over her shoulder. Yeah, it was Sub. He’d landed behind us and sounded just like a Cowolf getting ready to attack. Firelighter was looking at me with an expression somewhere between disgust and even more disgust.
“Come on, come in!” I said, standing aside and making it seem like they were just being slow coming in. I’d come in the right speed, they were dilly-dallying. Sub had his old suit on but I pretended not to notice. We stood there, just inside the door, on the edge of a cosy looking living room. Traditional. That’s how I’d describe it. Wood and stone and cushions and blankets. “I feel like Goldilocks,” I said and then wished I hadn’t as I looked around thinking of something else to say.
“I’m going to find the toilet,” said Firelighter, eventually.
“Hurry up,” said Tan and Sub and I sat on a long burgundy couch. Tan sat on the arm.
“Sub, did you see anything?” I asked.
“It loves the darkness,” I said. “That’s the wolf part of it.”
“You know a lot about nature.”
“Yeah, I watch AutumnWatch,” I replied. I’d seen two episodes.
“I saw a program about the Red Arrows last night,” said Sub and I nodded. “Did you know-“
“Look what I found!” said Firelighter from the doorway. The happiness I felt at the curtailment of Sub’s boring story about the Red Arrows was curtailed further when I saw that Firelighter had her hands cupped together.
“Is that a fucking spider?” I said, in my most authoritative voice, using Tan’s shirt to help me stand up. I backed away. “Don’t fuck around, Laura, it’s not funny.” I banged my calf into the coffee table as I tried to round it while reversing, all the time not taking my eyes off Firelighter. God, she can be such a dick sometimes. “Just don’t!” I instructed. I mean, I was 95% certain that she was just fucking around and her hands were empty. But that left a 5% chance she was going to bung a spider at me. I held up my palms and began to plead with her. She kept advancing. Sub eventually stood up and also backed away. I don’t think he knew why. Tan’s not scared of spiders. He just sat there on the arm of the couch, watching the show. And then I saw the black thin legs feeling their way out from between Firelighter’s fingers. “Go away! Go Away!” I growled. Firelighter drew her cupped hands back and thrust them forward and I flailed my hands in front of me and turned and howled like a heartbroken woman in a black and white film.
“Fucking hell,” said Firelighter. I opened my eyes, she was still there with her hands cupped. “Look,” she said and slowly uncupped her hand.
“Don’t!” Then a cute little mouse thing popped its head out, like it was hatching out of an egg made from slightly chubby fingers. It could have been a shrew. I’d simply imagined the horrible probing, feeling, searching, thin black legs! “Aw, it’s-” Firelighter tipped it onto the table and that’s when I saw it for what it was. I could sense shouting but couldn’t hear it. The world started ringing – not just in my ears, my vision too, it was sparkly – and I leapt onto the couch and over it with the grace only imbued to those who are in mortal danger. I leapt up onto the larger table, which was beyond the couch, my thigh muscles working at more than their limits to haul me up. I spun on the polished wood. I was crouched on the table. My hands placed above my knees. The top of my head rubbing against the ceiling. Sub and Tan were running around the room in what seemed slow motion. The mouse spider scuttled back and forth across the coffee table. I thought about making a run for the van but if the spider mouse got off that table…
Firelighter was laughing and for a split second I felt a hatred for her that was so deep it was beyond satanic. I watched as she picked up the creature from the coffee table and, still laughing, carried it over to the front door. I slowly spun with my heels planted on the big table to keep her in view at all times. She opened the door with a rolling motion of her elbow. Opened the door fully and then casually drop-kicked the abomination out into the moonless night. I was aware of just my panting until she closed the door. I couldn’t really believe what had happened.
“You’re safe now!” said Firelighter. “I really wish I’d filmed that!”
“Are you fucking mental?” I asked, still breathing heavily. “You kicked it to the van.”
“That was nothing. It was a little tiny mouse with weird legs. You three are pathetic.”
“I only ran because he did,” said Tan, nodding at me. Sub just looked confused.
“Yeah, right, anyway, wait until you see what else I found,” said Firelighter, cocking a thumb over to the doorway she’d come in from. I jumped down off the table. My hair tickled my neck and I punched at it a few times.
“What have you found?” I asked.
“You won’t believe it,” she replied.
“Just say!” I said.
“Did you find the toilet?” asked Tan.
“Yeah, I’ll show you,” said Firelighter. We went down the hall. I was at the back. I held Tan’s laptop while he went for a wee.
“It’s not a horrible bug, you promise?” I said as behind the door the toilet flushed.
“It’s not a…” said Sub. Firelighter and I stared at him to see if he’d come up with something. He didn’t. The toilet door opened and I handed Tan his laptop.
“It’s not a horrible bug,” she said. Firelighter is a dick but she’s honest. It’s like she can’t be bothered to lie. She doesn’t care enough to lie. So when she says something, you can trust her.
Actually, that’s not true at all, she lies quite often. She wasn’t lying this time, though. There were no crawly bugs in the room that she’d found. The room at the end of the hall. None that I could see. What there was was arguably worse. Probably not worse for me, if I’m honest, because I fucking hate bugs. But I could imagine a lot of people would find the room’s contents far more unsettling. In public I’d say that I found it sickening. But I really do hate bugs. So, no bugs that I could see was a good thing, but when I gazed around my eyes somehow managed to fix upon things that were increasing in their abhorrentness. “Holy fucking shit,” I said.
“I kinda feel a bit less bad about her getting squished,” I said. I hadn’t really felt that bad to begin with. It’s not like it had been our fault. But the room. The dreadful room at the end of the hall. You can imagine what the room looked like. It was your standard, hidden Nazi shrine, in most respects. Swastikas and pictures of Hitler and the rest of the Third Reich (the Third Wrong, more like, eh?) A DVD of Amazon Prime’s Grand Tour. The only thing the room was lacking was the Ark of the Covenant.
“Maybe she didn’t know it was here,” said Sub, picking up a helmet and turning it around in his hands. “I didn’t know I had an airing cupboard.”
“How did you not know you had an airing cupboard?” asked Firelighter, amused, while I shook my head at her. I didn’t want to get into it. Not now.
“It didn’t have a handle,” said Sub, replacing the helmet and picking up a pair of spectacles. Funny round ones. He put them on briefly and we laughed.
“Okay, she knew it’s here,” I said. “In fact, I’m beginning to think that she’s involved with the Cowolf.”
“You think?” said Firelighter.
“I do, but I’m just not sure how.” I started to bite my thumb nail while I powerfully thought.
Puzzle pieces. Did I have them all? Maybe. I just had to fit them together. The Nazi stuff. Weird hybrid animals like the Cowolf and the spidermouse. Mouspider. Mouspider? Mouspider. An old woman. Was there anything else?
I clicked my fingers. “Hey! Remember Chicken George.”
“That bastard,” said Sub. Sub often seems like he’s totally gone under, but you say something and he responds. He can surprise you. Sub hated Chicken George’s decomposing remains. Some kids had found them in the woods near that shop where they sell hedge trimmers, and we were called out to investigate. Think of a Mermaid but the top half is a chicken and the bottom half are human legs. That’s what we were met with in the woods that day. It wouldn’t have been pretty if it were alive, but it’d been dead a while. That smell. You don’t forget that smell. It’s not something I can describe apart from saying it was almost sweet. A sticky smell. Like when you cut through the cellophane on a pack of chicken thighs on the last day of its use-by date. Sub took the presence of the body as a threat. He thought maybe Chicken George had been brought to the island to replace him, but the fact was nobody knew where it had come from. We’d just put it down to some weird east-side of Jersey shit but maybe somebody knew exactly where it had come from.
The puzzle pieces suddenly clicked into place.
“In the barn, I bet you there’s a big Nazi machine from the war. I bet you. One that creates hybrids when you feed two species into it. There has to be. It’s the only thing that makes any sense! Mrs Hitler here must have been experimenting. Trying to create an army to bring back her glory days. She tried to create a flying man, but that failed. That was Chicken George. But she did succeed in creating a Cowolf, the deadliest combination of land animals imaginable. That’s why she called us! We’re the only thing standing in the way of Nazi domination of Jersey!”
“Urgh, what a turd!” said Firelighter.
“Yeah, people are shit,” I agreed.
“She’s dead now,” said Sub.
“That’s true, but for now her plan is very much alive,” I said. “But it’s going to die with the Cowolf,” I added, nodding. I raised my eyebrows, “are we ready?” Subsonic stood and punched a gloved fist into the palm of his other hand. Tan stood and looked awkward with his laptop balanced on his forearm. Firelighter’s eyes began to glow a bright orange. “Not in here, you’ll burn the place down,” I said. She blinked away the flames. “Do it outside,” I said.
“I’m detecting movement!” said Tan. I looked at his screen.
“Can you get music out of that thing?” I asked.
“Yeah, if it’s on YouTube.”
“Put Sabotage on,” I said and he did.