It’s all in the stops

It’s all about the stops.

And~ Go!

One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, STOP. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, STOP. One, two, three, four, one, two, three, four, STOP.

The words one and two – how long are you holding those? Long enough? Short enough? You can’t hear it in the words, you have to feel it in the beats. And when you take breath, there is silence, a stop in sound. What is in the silence? It is in the silence before the storm that cascades through your memories that lies… You know that tune… Do you remember?

Do you remember love? It is in the stops – the moment of no sound as you hear, the moment of no breath as you see, the moment of no doubt as you feel, the moment of no fear when you know.

Just as it begins with a stop, it all ends with a stop. The one, two tattoo of your heart stops, the breath stops. It’s all about the stops.

Escape

(STOP)  The voice seems to reverberate around my head, joining my own tortured and ragged breaths. It’s strange how loud I sound from the inside; in that intimate place inside my own skull. A place that this voice now penetrates. The shock of violation is sudden and disorienting. I almost do stop from the surprise of it, but I can’t afford to, not now when I’m almost there. It feels like I’ve been running away from him forever. Somehow I have found the strength to go on, even though my feet are bleeding and my lungs feel like they are being gouged with a hot poker.

(JUST STOP) Damn! I can’t believe I almost forgot about the voice. The violation of my internal sanctuary is not so horrible now. It has already been sullied; everything changed after the first time. As I ponder this, a black-on-black shape comes fast at me out of the night. I duck, but not quickly enough and its edges catch me across the temple, leaving broken skin and welling blood. Sweat immediately pools into the cuts, making them sting and burn. I cry out, involuntarily and glance behind me before I can stop myself. He’s just there, a shadowy shape heart-stoppingly close behind me. How did he catch up so fast! I can never get away.

(STOP NOW) No, I can’t. He’ll catch me and that will be the end. But the voice is compelling. It even feels a little friendly now, like it belongs in my sanctuary. So I stop.

And wake up, safe in my bed.

One Thousand and One

Scheherazade had always loved stories. Telling them to her husband Shahryar had at first been exhilarating — now the tedium of it, the stress of it, had grown tiring. So many other women were dead because they had failed to convince Shahryar that they should live — would tonight, she wondered, be her turn?

Could she begin another story after this, one to leave incomplete at the night’s end and so ensure her life for another day? She looked into Shahryar’s eyes, and said:

“River had to write a story. He worked nights on it because he spent half of each day studying, half making money. Bills, River knew, didn’t pay themselves. He was divided: not two-ways, but three. He wrote:

“Troy Packham sits in his parents’ cold, porcelain bathtub. If you listen you can hear him crying — harsh, uneven, staccato. In his right hand he clasps his father’s straight razor, but he can’t bring himself to cut.

“When he finally quietens, Troy climbs out of the tub and says into the mirror, ‘Fuck this shit.’ He walks out of the bathroom. Out of the house. Away from the city.”

“River thought that his story needed more work. A better ending, perhaps. But then so did his studies, so did his contract work. This all had to stop, he decided. He went to kitchen to think over a cup of tea.”

Scheherazade finished her story. The roosters were crowing and the sky brightening. She began no other tale.

“What does it mean?” Shahryar asked.

His wife shrugged, then said, “Love, let me sleep a bit. We can talk later.”

Nigh

These pants are itching. Of course, these are the itchy pants. There is no time to go and change. I’m late anyway. Hey! This is a pedestrian crossing, you idiot. City full of idiots. It’s 8:08 and I’m still three blocks away. And it looks like it’s about to rain. The sky – I look up. There’s something wrong with the –

“Sir, we’ve double checked. No, it’s not a tornado”, but they don’t listen. Jenny shakes her head. We’ve run the data twice, called the lab in Newark, they get the same thing. “It might be – some sort of electrical storm?” Jenny shrugs. We have no clue, but nobody wants to hear that. “Look, just keep the emergency services –“

I didn’t turn on the siren, but he knows I’m coming. The elevator is dead. Shit. This must be twenty stories. God, I wish I’d kept up the training. Jesus. The air feels thin, stretched. I pray it’s me, but damn it, it’s the bleeding inversion field, isn’t it? That’s how he said it would feel, just before –

The sky stretches around me, metal grey. It feels ready, vibrating like a violin string about to break. The inversion is mounting. I have made a little display that measures all the time left in the world. Nineteen seconds now. It’s 8:08. I hear someone thundering up the stairs. He won’t make it. None of us will. I feel compelled to maniacal laughter, but there’s just not enough –

Stopper

The door jangles closed behind you as you move into the shop’s dusty, junk-cluttered aisles. You’re mentally tallying the pitifully few notes left in your wallet after food, rent, bills. The evening’s party looms before you, a menacing imposition, but you’re here now and may as well find a cheap gift. Necessarily cheap – this month you’ve skipped four days of the grey grind with no excuse save the usual uncaring haze, and you’ll be out of a job soon.

The junk isn’t interesting. Old books, battered furniture, threadbare clothes. A tray on a painted dresser holds medals, a tangle of jewellery, a meaningless muddle of useless things – just what the birthday girl deserves. Behind them stand coloured glass bottles in stupid, fanciful shapes. You pick one up idly, thinking of bath salts, and in its green and purple depths something moves.

You look more closely. The bottle is tightly sealed with wax, and full of whirling cloud. Vivid mists roil in the confined space, flexing energetically against the ornate stopper: the smooth curves of the flask vibrate in your hands, somehow tinglingly alive.

You know what this is, how it goes. The inhabitant of the bottle, his gratitude at his freedom, the wishes. Whatever you want. Yours, if you remove the stopper. Money, friends, success, happiness. Everything you don’t have.  Everything you are not. You read the tag around the bottle’s slender neck: it demands only the few coins at the bottom of your purse.

You place the bottle carefully back on the dresser and move to the door. You’ve changed your mind about the party, anyway. You never go to parties. Nothing ever comes of them: you’re still alone.

The door jangles as you step out of the dusty interior into the dreary street.

Encounter

I’m minding my own business, reading my book and waiting for the bus, when she sits down next to me. I look up from the paperback and our eyes meet. She smiles; I smile back nervously.
“Hello, ” she says, putting her hand on my knee.
I flinch a little at the unexpected touch, then stare at her, confused.
“Hello,” she says again, more slowly. “You do understand me, don’t you?”
“I, um, yes.” I look around at the two others waiting at the stop. They don’t seem to find this new arrival unusual. “I understand you. It’s just… Well… You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Ha ha! No,” she laughs, retrieving her hand. “Indeed not,” imitating my accent. Her eyes dart left and right and she leans in towards me, steam from her coffee misting my glasses. “I thought that you’d be able to see me. The real me, I mean. I saw you from across the street – you’ve got the look. You see lots of things that other people don’t, isn’t that right?”
“I, er…” I fidget in my seat, as I often do when flustered. “I see. I mean, yes, I see you. And they don’t?” I say, nodding my head at the tweed-clad lady and the supermarket-suited gentleman.
“Perception field.” She waves her hands around with a flourish, like a magician performing a misdirection. “Hides us from almost everyone. Almost,” she says, lightly elbowing me in the ribs. “Keep it to yourself, won’t you? You’ll only make yourself sound crazy if you try and tell people.”
Before I can stop her, she plants a peck on my cheek and skips off, her tail wrapping and unwrapping itself around the lamppost.

Rant

My Nana always told me, “Stop pulling faces kiddo. If the wind changes your face will stick like  that”. But it didn’t, not even when the wind changed. I like pulling faces: I did then and I do now. Nana was the kindest of the people I want to talk about: the people who say ‘stop’.

“Stop doing that or you’ll go blind”: Well I never stopped and I never went blind (and my palms are utterly devoid of hair). What motivated you to foist this untruth on me? Did an adolescent’s sexuality intimidate you?

“Stop after that one, you’re getting drunk”: Before I was 16 years old this might have been a fair warning, these things creep up on the inexperienced.  But as an adult I think you can assume that if I keep ordering drinks it’s not because I am fascinated by the different flavours.

Special mention must be made of the commonest stop phrase. I’ve been told this by close friends and utter strangers, scholars and beggars: “Stop smoking it’s bad for you”.  People like you passed legislation that all cigarette boxes have warnings on them, just in case there was someone like me, who had by some miracle, missed decades of public information programs addressing the dangers of smoking. Do you really believe that my decision to smoke is rooted in ignorance of the health risks?

For all of these people, those who choose to instruct me, I have a simple message: “Stop!”