Short Fiction by Andrew Oldham
I am eighty-four. My mind doesn’t work. Ahsan says only one of those things is true. I shiver beneath a blanket by a dying fire before an altar, Ahsan holds my hand and says that we have known each other for a long time. He talks calmly about how we have lived since the phones died. He paints our past between the stars, by the lights of Orion he traces how we burnt our desks in the car park: we dance around the sky, wear phones around our necks and perch on the roof of Gary’s car, we caw at the burning on the horizon, our arms as crow wings, our beaks full of out of date popcorn as if we are flapping around a cinema. There is no closeup of the city, just our voices lifted up to the edge of the world, which glows brighter than the sun. We don’t talk about people in the city we know. I see my wife on a bus, hailing a cab, drinking coffee, talking on her phone.
Ahsan skips his fingers to Perseus, a bright yellow star pulls the river past the old fort, he tells me to cover up more, stay warm, as he sketches in the black things on the ebb tide, he daubs them on the night sky. I look away, as I did the morning after the crows flew away. The wings are black things that float in the water, they drift from the city and out to the estuary. I wipe my eyes on the blanket but Ahsan sees me cry, he gets out a comb and runs it through my hair because this, he says, calms me. I ask him if the prophet has come yet. Ahsan speaks of the prophet, the city is gone, he says, but if we stop looking at the black wings in the river, searching for people we know in the tide, we can be saved, if we help him.
I am young.
My arms are strong and by lunch I am thirty-four and we drag our lilac partitions out of the office and into the car park. We build a mosque for the prophet. The sun shines and the baker and his wife help, Deidre asks for an altar. Ahsan swears. Ahsan’s mouth moves with the comb, it finds knots, tugs me back, I am thirty-four and now I’m eighty-four. I am a catechism forgotten. Ahsan tells me that he agreed to the altar but not the fucking incense.
Agree or leave, Gary says.
Thank you, says Deidre.
Thank you, I say.
Fuck you all, says Ahsan and stomps off to comb my eighty-four-year-old hair by the fire. This is the past. This is a story of the past.
We build a fire by the door for Pagans and after lunch, we wait for God.
We raid the staff fridge and lay the food on the altar, tuna sandwiches, cheese, curling green pitta breads, pasta, and yoghurts all beyond their best.
As evening falls we drink the liqueurs the baker and his wife use in their cakes. Tiny bottles raised to heaven. No prophet comes for us.
Big surprise, says Ahsan. My hair is free of knots. Ahsan holds my hand and tells me slowly that the others will come tomorrow, his lips move over each word, his lips thicken on ‘others’. Deidre snorts at this. I forget what he says. I watch the baker’s wife kick embers up to the stars as she dances. I smile and nod. Ahsan is happy.
Gary is gone, I say.
The baker’s wife twirls.
On a good day I slip away from Ahsan and walk to the edge of the world. I lie where the bridge once yawned out to meet my home, where I watched television, ate food from the fridge, made coffee for my wife, watched my kids vegetate. I lie face down on the cracked tarmac, the wounds in the road getting wider as I inch my head beyond the ragged edge. I see fish down there, they are my favourite things to watch, lazy and fat; they feed on the bottom of the river among the rusting cars and bones. This is Gary’s favourite place, here we met the others, canoes full of kids. We showed them the car park forest, the roots trailing through cars, we show them the mosque in the undergrowth, the lilac partitions have grown a cover of green moss and ferns, they have folded down on one another like a vaulted church roof. As I watch the fish I remember how I hoped that one of the others were my kids but my kids would be in their thirties by now, and the others are all so young.
The fire burns by the altar, more for warmth than belief.
The others sat with us that first night and listened to what we said.
Ahsan blames our old age smells for driving off Allah.
Gary shouts back at him that there is no God. We are divine because we survived. Deidre barks that men did this to us and that Gary is a drunk.
I tell them that I want world peace and a pizza.
The baker’s wife dances in the wind rolling in from the sea.
The others decide we are the scent, the voice, the movement and memory of God.
The others will protect us, they will bring us soap, drink, and pizza.
It seems like a good deal.
I watch the fish swim and get up to find my car, it’s time I drove home, the keys are still in my trousers.
Ahsan shouts at me about my trousers. I can’t remember where I put them and until the others come, I will have to wear a roll of carpet torn up from the office. Ahsan guides me to the altar. He is cross. Gary used to calm him down. Gary was Icarus. I saw him fly. I tell Ahsan this, he tells me to shut the fuck up.
Gary tells tales as he glues feathers to his arms. Each feather he sticks down is a story about us going home. He reminds me of driving home, trying to get to my house in the suburbs, my wife making coffee and my children growing in the soil. The way home is like a kid’s puzzle with a happy meal, scribbled over and torn, the rips full of private security officers behind shields, automatics raised like a hard-on to the world; be you white? Better not be black, brown or yellow – bang – bang – bang – is you dead yet?
Ahsan tells me to calm down as I make shooting noises and shout, be you white? at the canoes getting closer. I do not like the canoes or the others. They do not bring pizza.
Gary asks the others where they came from.
They point east to the edge of the world, where islands grow fat beyond the fort. They tell us that we are in the holy place and that we cannot leave for we are the voice of God.
Gary sticks feathers on his arms and grunts.
Deidre tells them that this is sweet.
I ask if there’s any pizza for the voice of God.
We have listened to the silence of the world for so long that we have bricked up talk of the past. I say this and the baker’s wife stops dancing and looks at me.
Gary flew. The others took his body away in a canoe, they wrapped him in a tarpaulin-covered in gull shit and stuffed tansy in between the layers and sailed back beyond the forts.
I see the canoes. I cry. I do not want to be wrapped in gull shit.
Amen, says Ahsan.
Amen, says Deidre.
Amen, mouths the baker’s wife.
Our patter to the others is still the same as if we still had phones and people on the other end. ‘This is [a thing we are selling], you [watch/listen/speak/eat] it, it does [short sales pitch to emphasise, use words: ‘bargain’, ‘last chance offer’, ‘once in a lifetime offer’, ‘value’], [repeat cost and value for money], [defend value for money], [thank client for their time], [hang up, take next call]’. [Sometimes: Sale!].
The others say Gary is coming back, for the voice of God does not die.
This is Gary, you listen to him, he talks about the past which is value for money when you have things from the past you don’t have time to identify. Gary can do this for you at only £19.99 a month, which is a once in a lifetime offer. I think you will find that this is a bargain, and if you find it cheaper elsewhere, we’ll match it.
Gary flew from the top of the car park, he flew too close to the sun and his body landed in the earth by my feet, thank you for listening to me, Gary.
Next caller please, God.
At the edge of the world is my home, it has a front room and a dining room, it cost five times my wage and though it has only four bedrooms we are building an extension over the garage. This will maximise our living space. My wife is happy and she is planting our children in the garden border because of the increased danger of terrorism. She’s dug a hole, which all our friends are doing, and she put everything we loved into it, she’s then covering it in flowers and a lawn so the neighbours won’t even know it’s there. There is a door that you can crawl through to see the children and the things we love. I edge over the end of the world to see them. I throw my trousers to the fish, let them have my trousers and car keys, let them walk on the land with them, start my car and do a better job than I did.
The others come, I see their empty canoes tied up and I skitter up the hill to tell Ahsan, they are at the altar and are holding a bag with a pizza box on top of it. They place it down before the altar. I stop, I smell cheese balls and ham, and pineapple. I dribble. Ahsan comes to me and wipes my chin. I start to walk over to the pizza box but Ahsan puts a hand on my arm and pulls me to sit down, I point at the pizza box but Ahsan says, no. The baker’s wife drifts and dances around the edge of the altar, she moves towards my pizza. I yell at her to getaway. I cry. Ahsan hugs me but through my tears I see her, I see my ham and pineapple pizza box, I see she wants it.
Ahsan is from Pakistan, I yell. Ahsan is my friend, get me pizza, Ahsan.
Ahsan yells that he was from Glodwick, you racist prick, there is no pizza.
Gary tells me that we always have the same argument as if we were still selling.
He’s dead, says Deidre, he won’t come back.
The others open the pizza box.
Ahsan slaps me.
Deidre yells at Ahsan.
We take the next call.
One of the others opens the bag and tips it out.
A pile of bones.
Hail Gary, he’s back, I say. Gary will get me pizza.
Jesus, says Ahsan.
Fuck, says Deidre.
Sale! I say.
The baker’s wife has stopped dancing, she cries by Gary’s bones, she cries like she did after he jumped.
I know her name today, we called her Mother Lulu, her husband was called Ebo; we called him Emoji because every word he said, he texted later. Emoji was kind. At the end of a shift, he would send over food, ask us what we thought, texted us later to ask us the same thing. Such pizza bread there has never been or ever will be again, I would reply, to his face, to his phone. On the night the lines went dead and the lights flickered off, we heard giant engines wash over us, wave after wave that never came back. Emoji’s hands drew the world around us, and it was a world of kindness, and his hands waved to Mother Lulu as his lips said that he would go and find his brother in the city and bring him back. He would bring all our families back in his van. Stay here, he said. Stay safe. Others will come and you must be here to save them. I see his hands like the wings of birds spiralling upwards to heaven until I cannot see him or remember his name. I stopped calling Lulu Mother, and then not even Lulu until we all just said, baker’s wife.
The others have told us that Gary will speak again.
I told Emoji last night that my family was safe in the bunker, in our garden.
Ahsan says he should have gone with him.
There is time yet, says Deidre.
They both look at me and shake their heads.
I am eighty-four. I woke late this morning, Ahsan did not wake me up, and someone has stolen my trousers in the night. When I try to piss nothing comes out. I yell for Ahsan to help but I do not hear him in our home. I go to the altar, the baker’s wife is there but Gary is not. I ask her where Ahsan is, where Gary and Deidre have gone. I look in the mosque but there are only birds in there, I caw at them, they call back.
Ebo, I say to the baker’s wife and she strokes my hair. It needs combing.
I want pizza, I say as I see the others come from the river. I go to greet them and ask them if they took my trousers. I see the canoes and I try to run for them, for there is gull shit on their fingers and tansy in their hair. They climb over the edge of the world to meet me, I cannot get past them to my home, the fish have stolen my car keys and though I can see the door in my garden, I do not have the key. I ask why they have forgotten to dig up my children from the garden or bring coffee for my wife but they keep asking me, where is Ahsan? Where is Deidre? Where is Gary?
I smile. I remember working with these people in a call centre. I remember them well.
Have you brought me a pizza from the baker’s? My shift is over, I say, my wife and kids love pizza.