It usually arrives about eight o’clock.  When you first hear a diesel engine it could be a taxi or a delivery van, but as it approaches, the tone of this particular motor is unmistakeable.   It’s usually here by eight, except on days like today when it has chosen to start my morning with this smouldering frustration.  I never used to wake before the radio alarm.  Now it’s every morning, lying on my back, watching the sun pass through clouds and curtains, waiting for the frivolous chatter of the birds to give way to a deeper note.  At last I hear it – always the same note, the same rate of deceleration, the same clunk of the door and then: the pause.  Will the doorbell toll the knell of a manuscript, rejected after all these months of encouraging letters and frustrating phone calls? Or will a solid thump of heavy documents announce the arrival of something, which just might be a contract? The pause is longer than usual today. Perhaps he has started next door, or perhaps there’s nothing for me.  Belatedly, the radio bursts into life with the phrase: “pyres of animal carcases…” The automatic radio inside my head responds with a snatch of a song:

 It’s a funeral pyre
      As the flames grow higher

Images of burning cattle and burning books mingle and fade.

Down among the street tonight, books will burn…
“Another four cases were confirmed in Devon yesterday…”

The letterbox rustles downstairs.  I hit the snooze button on the radio just in time to hear the shallow slap of light letters on the floor of the porch.  Neither.

Kicking the stifling duvet to one side I wait for the surge of weakness to pass.  I hear my own voice: “This is doing my head in!”

It’s time to get up, time to open the boring mail, and do something about this situation – something drastic.

Daisies and dandelions decorate the field in front of my desk, devoid of people since the start of the Crisis.  9.28 a.m.  The Publishers are supposed to start work at 9.30 (hard life, isn’t it?) but I don’t want to risk phoning before the Editor arrives, don’t want to give them any excuse for those execrable words: “Can I take a message?”  I start flicking through the Writer’s Handbook, wondering if I should start again; send it to more publishers, or agents.

“No scripts, poetry, children’s articles, short stories or ‘unsaleable mediocrity’”, reads one entry.  Well, none of those applies to mine.  Strange choice of words for someone who deals in them; a case of the superfluous adjective, of lax editing, or is there another message here, beneath his contempt for those condemned to communicate through vacuous receptionists? The address looks as though it could be his home – a brave man, or foolish.

9.36.  I will give them one more chance.  I pick up the phone and dial.  It rings eight, ten, twelve times, then a moronic voice answers:

“Hello, Burnthouse Publishing.”
         “Can I speak to Gary O’Neill?” I ask, as confident and relaxed as I don’t feel.  Perhaps she’ll take this as a personal call.   Perhaps she won’t bother asking…
         “Can I ask who’s calling?”

No you fucking can’t! Michael Mouse.  Martin Amis.

“Dane Warner.”

The line goes dead.  I wait.  The delay is too long; she must be speaking to him. 

“I’m sorry Mr O’Neill isn’t available at present.  Can I take a message?”

Aaargh! How many people are employed to mouth these offensive words? What an opportunity for downsizing, once we’ve dealt with their bosses, the ones who have never learned to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

“I’ll give you my mobile number.  Tell him to call me before the end of today, tell him… tell him he’d better.”

My palm sticks to the desktop.  I try to remember anything like this from before: exam results, waiting for results of job interviews – unsuccessful candidates: another category of unsaleable mediocrity.  Outside, the meadow has flattened into a tableau of yellow and white spots on a green gauze.  I have to get out; I must kill this emptiness in me, before it turns to destruction.

All the footpaths out of the village are closed.  Unaware of any choices I follow a familiar route along the lanes, arriving at the bench in the clearing on the hillside.  I have brought my pen and pad, in case I want to write, in case I suddenly find I can.  Down the hillside, behind the ‘keep out’ notices, unsaleable sheep graze behind electric fences.  I stare at the blank notepad.  In the distance the tops of the moors where I used to wander for inspiration fade into shadows.  How many weeks has it been, this creeping claustrophobia? I pull out the pen, as if the act itself would spark the missing fire in my head.

“If only the bastards…”
          For the first time in years I contemplate rolling a joint – no fire without smoke.  Then it occurs to me I wouldn’t even know where to find any nowadays, impotent pillar of respectability that I have become.  I remember myself as a teenage pyromaniac and smile for the first time today, but the bars of the unmarked page are still holding me.

         I jump up, following an urge towards the farmhouse, wondering if Jim will be at home – a voice, a listening ear, anyone to talk to before I talk myself into madness.  A whiff of disinfectant flies with the breeze to greet me, a future memento of these days surrounded by barriers.  ‘Please disinfect your boots’ says a sign beside a bucket.  I watch the filthy liquid soak into the nylon of my training shoes and notice the upper half of the split door is open.  Peering inside, I call: “Jim?” No answer, and then I see it, staring at me through both barrels: temptation.  My pulse accelerates.  I call again – no reply, so I step inside, pick the shotgun off the table, fumble for cartridges in the jar on the dresser and turn to leave.  Stepping into the brightness of the farmyard I look around, and seeing no-one, hurry towards the gate.

Back out on the lane it occurs to me I might look suspicious carrying a shotgun through the village.  I stumble towards the footpath to the woods and stop on the threshold:

‘Foot & Mouth precautions.  Footpath closed by order of the County Solicitor.’

For a moment I hesitate to transgress, then realising how this notice will help my purpose, I cross the boundary, to hide my firearm until nightfall.

Strange as it sounds, there seemed more space in this bedroom when it was full of junk: bags of old dresses, fluffy toys, knickers discarded wherever they happened to fall.  At first, the writing desk seemed to neatly fill the space where the dressing table used to stand, paper turmoil replacing the carnival of lipstick and rouge which used to scatter its surface.  Then gradually, it grew to dominate the room, this desk – shrine of a new taskmistress whose demands, in my shame, I am unable to fulfil.  And strange as it may look, I prefer to sit in the dark at times like this, half-heartedly stroking my flaccid member.  A red display burns the minutes onto my face.  23.57.  ‘Before the end of today’ will last another five minutes – I think the clock is slightly fast, and in any case, I want to be reasonable – to give him the benefit of the doubt.  I check the mobile phone once more – still receiving the signal – no possible excuse there.  Watching the shadow of a body flash across the wall with no window, I try to imagine peace and inspiration behind a prison gate.  Perhaps (if he doesn’t call in the next four minutes) it will be enough to frighten him, to help him feel just a moment of this torment.  Lifting my tongue from the sticky pit of my mouth I realise, until that moment arrives, I will never know.  Three minutes still remain, but already my shadow is tracing the darker route, skirting the village up to the woods.

         The seats of the train carriage are just high enough to shield my eyes from other passengers, if I keep my head down.  Over the parapet a ginger fat-faced woman is staring directly at me.  I shrink down again as her mobile phone tinkles an inane tune.  She lets it ring, and ring, and ring.  I notice the window sticker saying: ‘Quiet Coach’ and finger the offensive object below my own belt.  The signal is still strong.  I watch the phone for a couple of minutes before dialling.

“Hello, Burnthouse Publishing.”
“Is Gary O’Neill there?”
“Who shall I say is calling?”
“Dane Warner.”  Again the line goes dead.
“I’m sorry Mr O’Neill is in a meeting, can I take…”
“Stop!” Don’t incriminate yourself any further.  “Did he get my message yesterday?”
“Yes, I gave it to him myself.”  The wounded tone of her voice provokes a twinge of pathos.
“What time does he work ‘till, usually?”
“About five o’clock, most days.”
“Nice to know there are still some jobs like that left.”
“He works very hard during the day,” the same tone with less conviction.
“I’m sure he does.”  My throat hurts as I swallow.  His excuses and mine are slipping away.  The decision is making itself.

            The bag grows heavier and more conspicuous as I walk towards my destination.  Plane trees and parked cars line the street, shielding me from most inquisitive eyes as I approach the target.  The house is one of a long redbrick terrace, anonymous to all but its owner.  As I step towards the door I notice a crack in the corner of the nearest window, partially covered with a sticker of a yellow bird rising through flames.  I place the bag on the top step, unzip it a few inches and look back to confirm – no obvious observers.  I wonder whether he lives alone, ready with an excuse as I ring the bell.  At first there is only the amorphous roar of distant traffic, then indistinct sounds of movement grow behind the door.   I lift the bag and put my right hand inside the zip, fondling the trigger as a tall man with round glasses appears above me.

“Gary O’Neill?”
I pull out the gun and point it at his chest.
“Move inside!”
The wrinkles in his face tauten as he backs slowly into the porch.  I watch his eyes fixed on the stunted barrels of the gun.
“Can I ask who you…”
“No you fucking can’t! Get down on the floor.”
I lower the gun, still aiming at his chest as he crouches.
“Face down!” I feel a faint stirring in my loins as he complies with a bleating question:
“Please, can you tell me what this is about?”

        Should I give him what he has denied me for so long – an explanation? I place my foot on his back – no more use for useless words.  Taking the bottle from my left pocket I sprinkle petrol over the carpet and the clothes beneath me, carefully avoiding my own foot.

        “What are you doing?” A plaintive voice evaporates with the rising smell of life before death.  I am closing the petrol cap on my first moped, ready for the chase, and a kiss like I have never tasted before or since.  It rises and stiffens.  Slowly I lower the gun until the jagged edge of the barrels is pressing down on the quivering skull, and then, in this moment between memory and hallucination…fire.

Mr Lionel Gray
Senior Editor
Phoenix Publishing

Dear Mr Gray,

Further to your letters of March 1st, my subsequent letters of April 15th, May 10th, three unreturned phone calls and E-mail of June 20th, I was relieved, at last, to receive the contract, which I enclose signed with reluctance.  I wondered what the Society of Authors would make of clauses 8 and 11 but as you probably expected, after all this time I just want to get on with it.

Did I tell you I wrote short stories? I thought this one might amuse you – better than doing the deed, eh?

I was in your neck of the woods recently, doing a bit of research.  Nice house you’ve got there.  It’s amazing what you learn researching for a story like this – never try to saw off a shotgun with a junior hacksaw!

Yours sincerely,

Dean Warren.

P.S. The bottle is a present, to be opened after reading – hope you like the scent.

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