Sunday, 28 January 2007

The Smallest, Tiniest Place by Kate Smurthwaite

If you are wondering – I killed a woman. It was wrong and I accept that and the punishment which goes with it. She will never again experience the thrill of life. And I may not, but I am allowed to hope. What I long for is not a particular face or voice, arms that have waited all these years for me. I know that no such thing is possible. I crave instead the bustle of public transports, merchants nodding at you, people apologising for their children. I don’t expect them to be drawn to me, why would they, but perhaps once in a while an older woman with grandchildren in tow might turn to me and ask if I’m going the same way as her or offer me directions or change for a banknote.

I wouldn’t care where I went, I don’t need to live in England, in some ways I might prefer somewhere a little less formal, India or South America, somewhere where people interact more effortlessly. It would be a joy beyond my understanding right now to sense the fertile smells of such a place, the smell of densely-packed humans, of life piled on top of life.

At night the lights are turned off for eight hours solid. When the lights are on I can hardly see out at all through the multiple layers of re-enforced glass, I have to make a tunnel with my hands to look through. While the lights are on the computer is on too and though what I can access is limited, I make the most of the opportunity to study, which is all there is really to take my mind off the longing. Sometimes I jog around my cell. It measures about 3 and half by two metres. I can do sit-ups and push-ups in it and I’ve found ways to use the chair and the desk as makeshift weights. I can even do a neat cartwheel down the wall if I move the bed to one side first. And I’ve studied things I never dreamt of: medicine, law, biology, zoology, astronomy and history. I learnt to do yoga and to meditate. The latter doesn’t help as much as I had hoped, but I am still here.

I’ve tried to hack into the computer system but it is all far too carefully monitored. I wanted to be able to send emails, to interact with people, even just people here in the cells around mine. But the walls are surrounded by vacuums you can hear nothing through and the computer system seems to have no glitches or bugs. My daily interaction is with the menu that comes up to allow me to choose my food and the hatch that opens to deliver it. Once a week I am given a mop and bucket and can throw away any waste that hasn’t been flushed through another convenient hatch that makes a worrisome sucking noise if you put anything in. I have nothing to throw away.

I have been in this exact cell for over 4,000 days, nearly twelve years. My parole has been considered twice now and the third time is coming up in a few weeks. These were just formal reviews however; there was no real likelihood of being released. Perhaps there is some this time, but only a little. Even if it is approved it would still take almost a year before I would actually be back. Along the way appeals and legal proceedings could turn me round at any time, back to this familiar cell.

When the lights are off I sit at the window and stare into the distance. I’m quite sure that I can see what I still call home there, a tiny speck of a place barely any bigger than a computer screen pixel. But if I stare for long enough I think I can see its blue, green and white shifting patterns gently revolving, unaware that I am watching with such envy.

Thursday, 21 December 2006

Professional Suicide

By David Mulholland

The find was important, nearly as important as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and for Greek scholars, such as myself, it was much more important, since the language is primarily Greek. The new find, you probably heard about it several months back, was in the papers. The cache of scrolls that was found in Turkey by a shepherd? Why is it always shepherds?
For me, it has been wonderful. I am one of the people working with them. No longer am I pouring over old manuscripts that have been pored over time and time again, trying to glean new meaning from them, or simply a clever way of looking at something so that I can write an article, proposing a new viewpoint to argue and defend, but not to actually believe.
The Anatolia find has turned my life around. Like the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Anatolia Scrolls cast light on a host of poorly understood issues, such as navigation, astronomy and trade in the Hellenic world.
Already I have been able to map some of the amber trade. I have discovered that there were two routes, the sea route around Spain and France and into the Baltic, used by the Phoenicians and a new, unexpected route through the river systems of Russia used by the Balts and Greeks. Greek wine and fine textiles were much in demand. I have also found that the Balts were unwilling to trade their plentiful bog iron, which was much stronger than the Greek’s bronze, so jealous were they of their cold and marshy land.
I was able to glean that from shipping manifests and a map that showed part of the Russian river system. A map of the Dnieper and the short overland route between what is now Smolensk and Vitsyebsk to the Daugava that leads to the Gulf of Riga. All of this two millennium before Rurik the Viking’s dynasty came and founded Kievan Rus.
It took some work to decipher the map because many of the cities that now exist on those rivers didn’t exist when the map was made. Riga then was only a small settlement by a Finnic tribe, the Livs, who lived on the muddy banks.
There is another map that is … puzzling. My colleagues and I have studied it for countless hours to no avail. It appears to be a globe, but there are no recognizable features. It had a companion map, but unfortunately, it was on the outside of the documents and exposure even to the mild climate of the cave where the documents were found was too much for the delicate image. Despite our best efforts, we have not been able to recover any detail from it.
I have taken a copy of the map to geographers. They have examined the image but have not been able to correlate it to anything. I had so many copies made that I wound up framing a large one and putting it in my living room, with unforeseen consequences.
There is debate that goes along with every discovery: do I announce what appears to be true and risk professional suicide, or do I keep quiet. If I do go public, it will endanger all the work I’ve done so far and threaten the veracity of the Anatolian Scrolls. You see, the map that has had me confounded was found in the same bundle as the rest, on the same parchment, with the same ink.
The mysterious map on my living room wall was recognised, not by a geographer, nor a cartographer, but by a friend over for drinks that does not share my musty world of human antiquity. But he nonetheless has a searching mind and is a fellow academic. He studied the map and then began pointing out features that he recognised. “Mare Muscoviense”, “Mendeleev”, “Tsiolkovskiy”, “Mare Orientale”.
“Very clever,” he said. “I like the style of this map. Where did you get it?”
“It was in the Anatolian scrolls,” I said. “Do you recognise it?”
“Yes.” he replied, “It’s the far side of the moon.”

Tuesday, 19 December 2006

Maps by Tristan Rogers

This secret-space, between the
Beams across the lights below
And birds' nests, roof-tiles, stars:
Monsters stalk the insulating foam.

Maps, spread out like a jigsaw
In chaotic non-tesselation,
A tucked-away means of
Storing mental rations.

How to make the whole world new
When tracks revolve like voles
In wheels that thieves keep
To slither back with keys?

Lakes pour into other lakes,
Roads caress each other's junctions,
Heights are making contact over
Origamic mountains.

There is no algebra for this,
No GPS up here,
Nothing granting magical peace
That one could wear.

Just pieces put together
In whatever way one can,
An ever-working-out
Of the lay of the land.

Monday, 18 December 2006

Maps by Kate Smurthwaite

“A map is a simplified depiction of a space, a navigational aid which highlights relations between objects within that space.”

ANGIE That was it! That was the turning.

KEV What that little dirt track down there?

ANGIE It wasn’t a dirt track, it was a road.

KEV Too late now, is there another turning?

ANGIE Lets see, err, nope. So I guess that’s it then. We’ll just have to spend Christmas driving about randomly in the middle of nowhere. Hey if we just keep going by this time next year we’ll have gone all the way round the world and we’ll come to the turning again and … oops, sorry, missed it again, one more year going insane in a Mini.

KEV Well if there isn’t another turning I guess I’ll have to turn round.

“MAP (Making Action Plans) is a creative tool which inclusion facilitators can use to help individuals, organizations, and families move into the future.”

ANGIE If you’re going to turn round then why don’t we go back to those services on the roundabout and have a coffee and a bite to eat and get some beers for the boot just in case.

KEV We have stacks of wine already. It’s not like they’re teetotal you know.

ANGIE All very well for you to say, you get a full glass every time, I’m lucky if I get a thimbleful. It’s like she’s hinting that I have a problem.

KEV She gets drunk on about a thimbleful herself. She thinks all women do. She gives you what she thinks a woman’s serving is. I know it’s old fashioned but she doesn’t know any better. Just ask for a bit more.

ANGIE I feel like such an alcoholic if I do that.

KEV Drink slowly and then top yourself up when she’s not looking.

ANGIE I’m not sneaking around looking for left over booze. What is this? Christmas in the Workhouse?

KEV Well just don’t drink so much then.

ANGIE Spend Christmas sober? Firstly that is against my religion and secondly…

KEV Look she’s not such a bad old stick, she could be a lot worse, just make the best of things.

“Map: a relation between two sets in which one element of the second set is assigned to each element of the first set, as the expression y = x2; operator.”

ANGIE I dread to think what she’ll have got me for Christmas.

KEV Why?

ANGIE Well she always seems to get something that just smells like a big hint. You know something housey, like last year – fondue set, and that was a big improvement on the year before do you remember?

KEV I don’t think so.

ANGIE Oven gloves. Oven gloves?! I mean why not go the whole hog and get me a Victorian domestic servant’s outfit?!

KEV Yeah I remember you throwing quite a wobbly. Maybe she’ll remember and get you something more appropriate this year.

ANGIE Maybe I’ll just pick up your pressie by accident and then thank her profusely. She always gets something good for you.

KEV Well she is my mum.

ANGIE Yeah but my mum does the opposite. She wants to make you feel part of the family she gets you something extra-nice. One way or another I go home with a cooking implement and a box of toiletries and you get a couple of Faberge eggs, a Rolex, jeroboam of champagne, a weekend away at the sultan of Brunei’s personal harem oh and a yacht to stay on while you’re there.

KEV Are you really this stressed about a few days at Mum’s house over Christmas? I mean is there something else going on here? Something I don’t know about?


KEV Thought so. Right lets go have a coffee and talk about it.

ANGIE Cheers.

“Morning-after pill: A form of contraception used after rather than before sexual intercourse. Morning-after pills interfere with pregnancy by blocking the implantation of the fertilized egg in the uterus (womb).”


ANGIE Let me have a bit of coffee first.

KEV When you’re ready.

ANGIE You know we had sex last night?

KEV Yup, remember that.

ANGIE You know the condom broke?

KEV Did it?


KEV Is that going to be a problem.

ANGIE Yeah, it’s really bad timing.

KEV What should we do?

ANGIE Well in any normal circumstances I’d get a morning after pill. But you have to take them within 72 hours, preferably 48. and the 72 hours we’ve got to play with are Christmas Day and Boxing Day and no shops are open and we’re stuck in Great Yarmouth where the local chemist probably has 40 shelves of incontinence knickers and a moral objection to sex before marriage.

KEV Surely somewhere will be open.

ANGIE Sure – you want to head out of your mother’s house just before Christmas dinner to go to the family planning clinic? Your mother has a low enough opinion of me already.

KEV What other options do we have?

ANGIE Wait til the New Year, find out if I am pregnant and get a proper abortion.

KEV Sounds traumatic.

ANGIE Oh there is another option.

KEV Huh?

ANGIE Erm ruin the next 18 years of our lives raising a child we don’t want.

KEV I’d quite like kids.


KEV Not really.

ANGIE Well then.

KEV Wouldn’t be so bad.

ANGIE Well as long as you do your share of all the hard work, all the nappy changing and that stuff.

KEV Of course I would.

ANGIE Would you.

KEV Of course Angie. Don’t be daft, I wouldn’t leave you high and dry.

ANGIE Well that’d be alright then.

KEV Did we just decide to have kids?

ANGIE I don’t know.

Saturday, 30 September 2006

The End of the Sweet Life, by Ben Sheth

The End of the Sweet Life

Peter searched through the category list on eBay’s ‘Sell your Stuff’ page to find the right one for their three piece suite. Or rather, he corrected himself, his suite, since he was quite sure that he had paid for it with some money his parents had given him in lieu of a present, to help the couple establish a household. Now that married life was coming to an end, the suite had to be removed, and perhaps split up. Although neither valuable nor attractive, it had been there for almost every day of his married life. There was even a slight stain on the backrest, hidden behind one of the seat cushions: the result of careless sex in the early days of their marriage. He was planning to omit that from the eBay description.

Eventually he ticked all of the right boxes on the online sales form, successfully uploaded the photo and decided on a price: £350 for the lot. He hinted that the chairs and sofa may be available separately. As he did this, he shuffled through a cardboard folder marked ‘wedding gifts’ to look for the suite’s original documentation. Among the cards of congratulation, he found an Ikea guarantee (with a year of the original five left to run) and instructions he had used to assemble the suite. He reflected on the bitter irony that the integrity of the Ikea suite was more dependable than that of his marriage, poured himself another G&T, and logged on again to add the guarantee to the suite’s sales description. If only he had been given a flimsy, badly printed set of instructions, translated into English via Mandarin and Kurdish, on how to put his relationship together. He transferred the Ikea documents to another folder marked ‘divorce settlement’, and drained his glass.

A few days later he received two emails from prospective buyers. “How much for delivery?” one demanded, and gave an address in a council estate where Peter was not keen to leave his van (he was a painter and decorator by trade). “I only want the chairs. No room for the sofa,” it went on, and left a name and a phone number.

The second email was more forthcoming. “We are just moving in together and think your sofa is perfect for our new flat,” wrote Maria and Paul. “We don’t need the chairs, though. We’ll pay cash and would like to collect on Saturday.”

There being no other interest in the suite, he made an appointment to receive Maria and Paul, and drew breath before telephoning the bloke from the council estate. He’d never used the internet for this kind of deal before, and was wary and suspicious. Would they try to nick his van? Could they pay?

Making sure to dial 141 before the number, Peter phoned the council estate man. The voice on the other end, who introduced himself as Trevor, was older than he’d expected, but otherwise seemed genuine. Maria and Paul were due at 11, so he arranged to take the chairs around to Trevor at 9. Trevor said that he was too old to help carry the chairs up to his flat from the van, but would arrange for his grandson to be there.

He met Trevor’s grandson Chris punctually, exactly where he expected to find him, and they got on with manhandling the chairs into the lift, along the raised walkway around the concrete block of flats, and through Trevor’s front door. Trevor was clearly looking for a bargain. The furniture in his flat was threadbare and exhausted. It turned out that his wife had died the previous year, and that Trevor now needed two armchairs to replace the rickety objects he and his wife had used, from which a few springs were now peeping out. Chris had brought his laptop round one afternoon, and Trevor had chosen from the varied offerings on eBay.

Chris and Peter eventually wrestled both chairs through the front door. Having arranged the chairs in the flat, Peter stood awkwardly, hoping Trevor would pay up quickly, but not quite having the courage to ask directly. Trevor clearly wanted a longer chat, but Peter muttered, “Best be off. Shopping to do,” and Trevor levered himself up. He hobbled over to a table in the corner of the room, and to Peter’s horror, got out a cheque book. Of all of the advice he’d sought from friends about using eBay, never to take a cheque was the most frequently mentioned. But what was he to do?

Pocketing the cheque uneasily, Peter made a mental note of the route through the walkways to Trevor’s flat so that he could return if he had to remonstrate about a bounced cheque. He drove briskly into town, pleasantly surprised to find his van none the worse for its hour parked in the estate, and paid the cheque into the bank, then drove quickly back home.

Maria and Paul were also punctual, leaving Peter with just enough time to steel himself to refuse another cheque. To his great relief they pulled out a fistful of £10 notes when the time came to drive off. Before leaving, they insisted in describing in far more detail than Peter wanted to hear how well their preparations for living together were coming on. Peter felt increasingly desolate as he watched the couple walk hand in hand to their van.

As they drove off, he grinned wanly at the young wife waving from the van window and returned to his solitary rented bedsit. More for something to do than for any specific purpose, he switched on his computer. He started up his web browser. He would probably look for that porn site he’d found a few days ago offering a free week’s membership. He found that it absorbed his attention totally, and took his mind off his loneliness, as well as satisfying other needs which his single state now pressed upon him. As the home page was loading his computer bleeped. Some new emails. Probably just demands for money from his ex, who preferred the impersonality of email to voice or personal contact.

He opened the email programme in resignation. A picture was loading in the new message box. Surely the porn site wouldn’t have sent him spam already? Then, blink! And Trevor was staring out at him. He started, shocked at the incongruity between his expectation of a naked Brazilian and fat old Trevor. He looked again. Trevor was sitting in one of the chairs, holding a mug of tea and his paper. Evidently Chris had had a digital camera with him. “Cheers!” it said underneath.

Monday, 21 August 2006

Punishment, by Ben Sheth

With what delight could I have walked thee round,
If I could joy in aught, sweet interchange
Of hill, and valley, rivers, woods and plains,
Now land, now sea, and shores with forest crowned,
Rocks, dens, and caves; but I in none of these
Find place or refuge; and the more I see
Pleasures about me, so much more I feel
Torment within me, as from the hateful siege
Of contraries… (PL, IX 114-122)

Karel and Miroslav were excited. They were taking Karel’s new car (not, admittedly, new in the sense of shiny and leather-scented, for it was a venerable Lada, dating back well into the Communist era, but it was the first Karel had possessed in his own name) for its first drive. Out of their sleepy country town in southern Bohemia and into the soporific countryside, leaden and slumbering before the arrival of capitalism would shake off the dust and bring it leaping back to vivid, fecund bucolic splendour.

“This is freedom!” Karel exclaimed as they put-putted rustily round a corner. “We are capitalists now! We’ll drive to Britain, work as plumbers (they’d heard it was easy to make money this way) and find beautiful girlfriends! We’ll be millionaires!” At that moment, with a roaring swoosh, a shiny VW shot past them. They just made out a GB plate on the back before it disappeared round a bend.

“That’ll be us!” They said in unison.

Michael and Paula were tired. They had been sitting in their VW Golf all day, thrashing across the undulating, ordered landscape of central Germany and the surprisingly arid, empty plains of the western Czech Republic. What had seemed like a good idea when the wedding invitation first arrived had become a chore.

“Let’s drive,” Michael had called to Paula in between mouthfuls of organic, Omega-3 enriched muesli at breakfast at 5.30 one morning. “We’ll be able to explore those lovely unspoiled Bohemian villages and really get to know the area.” He slavered a little into his muesli as he thought of exercising the muscular 180 bhp engine of the car which, in truth, he’d bought to impress the neighbours and use up last year’s bonus. “Get those bloody peasants in their tractors off the roads!”

Paula thought of the opera they’d seen last year, in which florally-bedecked country folk quaffed foaming beer and sang folk songs about the togetherness of their village. Perhaps it would be like their own village, Notting Hill. She hoped there’d be a little deli in a tastefully restored where they could get slices of organic quiche and a bottle of organic fruit presse.

In fact, even the 140mph blast down the Autobahn which they had managed just outside Frankfurt had been a disappointment. Although it seemed scarily fast to him, Germans in Porsches and huge Mercedes kept spoiling his fun by coming up close behind him and flashing till he was forced out of the way. And by the time they reached the Bohemian countryside, he was exhausted and thinking fondly of aeroplanes.

As they got further into the countryside, they got more tired, and more bored. The roads were smaller, narrower and bumpier, and above all, less well marked. The countryside bore the vestiges of a genuinely active rural lifestyle which had long since been eradicated in most parts of Britain.

Paula’s map-reading, never her strongest asset, was foxed by this landscape. Their Sat-Nav had long since given up, its space age technology bewildered by the proliferation of green lanes, farm tracks and woodland trails which escaped the definition of modern cartography. They blundered up and down these, in the hope of the magic sign, which never appeared. As they rounded a corner after the last of these, Michael found himself behind an aged tractor.

“Fucking Commie shit!” he yelled. He felt a bit like an American fighter pilot in a Cold War film they’d seen as he pulled out to overtake the tractor. As he did so, he strayed a little too far across the narrow lane and his offside wheel hit a boulder by the edge of the road. There was a bang, and immediately Michael knew as he wrestled with the squirming steering wheel that the tyre was punctured. And an instant later he remembered that they’d forgotten to replace the spare, which they’d already used after a previous accident.

The tractor driver, oblivious to all, continued sedately.

Paula pulled out her mobile, and seeing with relief that she had a signal, called Roger, the best man and their closest friend. He had been stayed at the groom’s house in the region many times and would know what to do. She explained their situation and he promised to come to collect them and their luggage.

“But look out for the gypsies!” He warned.

Gypsies! Paula thought of the scarily swarthy characters of that description who had occasionally stayed near her childhood home, but found it hard to reconcile with the images she saw around her: old men walking small dogs; children playing in the streets (when did that ever happen in Notting Hill these days?); fathers and sons out playing football. But still, Roger must know; he’d been there regularly for years. So they got back in the car, pressed what they knew as the ‘hoody button’ which locked all the doors at once, and made sure that wallets, designer labels and electronic equipment were all well concealed.

Paula managed a quick glance to the back seat of the car, on which the mid-market newspaper they had picked up free on the ferry very early that morning sat dishevelled. “Invasion of Poles!” It screamed above a story explaining that many east-Europeans had come to Britain to do the jobs no one in Britain wanted to do.

Paula scrutinised two characters who’d just got out of a creaking Lada with great suspicion. They certainly didn’t look like the reliable, leather-aproned rustics she’d been expecting from the opera. Michael got out of the car, clutching the spanner, all that was left of their spare wheel kit.

“What do you want?” he said suspiciously, ensuring that his grip on the wheel-nut spanner was tight in case of attack. Paula stayed inside, busily thumbing through their tourist guide book for details of local emergency services.

“But what do you need?” asked Miroslav, turning the question back on Michael in what he thought was a clever twist.

“We have friends here,” Michael asserted aggressively. “They’ll be here soon.” He hadn’t really tried to understand Miroslav’s question.

“Help?” ventured Karel, wondering whether this strange man was perhaps drunk and had strayed into the ditch under the influence. Perhaps that was why he was making so little sense?

“We have spare wheel,” Karel continued in his most conciliatory manner.

But he received no answer. With a roaring and a screeching, Roger’s car (another VW) turned up. “Here’s our friend,” Michael said, swinging the spanner aggressively now he was sure of himself.

Roger jumped out, eying the bewildered Czechs suspiciously. “In you get,” he said to Michael and Paula. “Just take essentials and anything valuable, unless it’s bolted to the floor. The locals have already found you out, by the looks of things. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it on bricks in the morning. If you’re unlucky, someone else will nick the bricks, and it’ll be in the ditch,” he commented sourly.

Michael and Paula scurried about collecting the essentials. Last of all Michael grabbed the insurance policy from the glove compartment. He’d read it carefully that night in preparation for the inevitable claim.

“Alarmed!” Michael shouted at the Czechs, gesticulating violently at the car to indicate (without success) the loudness of the sound. Then he hopped nervously into Roger’s car and they drove off.

Karel and Miroslav got back into their Lada.
“But I have the right size wheel,” Karel mused in bafflement.
“What a lovely car!” sighed Miroslav enviously.
“What strange people,” mused Karel, though Miroslav couldn’t hear him over the grinding of gears, as Karel headed for home. “They were so scared. But I thought the capitalist lifestyle makes you free?”