QUICK SHORT STORIES

TONACO by Danny Thornber (2017)

The couple drove back from the grocery store through a dry, brown landscape with piles of rubbish on the roadside and many stray dogs loitering in the stinking heat. He was baked red by the sun. She was baked brown, but in contrast to the location, beautiful. Barry loved what he saw when he gazed at her, but this was still an alien world for him. Those scrawny palm trees were a long way away from East London. Barry didn't speak the language here nor understand the culture. It had only been three weeks.
They saw a dog lying dead on the roadside.
'Was that Tonaco?' she asked nervously.
'I don't think so. Different colour.'
'It looked like Tonaco.'
She slowed the car down and made a u-turn.
Tonaco was done for. Strangely his fur had turned a lighter shade.
'Oh, Tonaco! No!' she gasped and broke down in tears.
She took the animal's large head in her hands and gazed into its lifeless face.
'Are we sure this is Tonaco?' he asked.
'Look! It's him! Maybe, maybe the trauma changed colour of his fur?'
'I guess it's possible.'
'He was such a great, great dog.'
Barry was edgy, worrying about packs of wild strays roaming nearby as they put Tonaco into the boot of the car.
She arranged for a local agricultural worker to come with a tractor, scoop up Tonaco and bury him on her land. She was handing the man liquor and food in jars to thank him for helping when another rural worker appeared, making jokes.
Barry watched from the shade of the porch.
The joker didn't look pleased, after further wisecracks when there wasn't a smile on the young woman's face.
'What's wrong?' he asked her.
'Tonaco's dead.'
'What do you mean?' he says, turning and gesturing towards the space behind him. 'Tonaco's here.'
The dog came running out from the orchard. His name was shouted as the beast leapt into her outstretched arms. She cried with relief to see him alive. The hound licked her tears as she laughed loudly.
Barry began to feel a bit disgusted. He never liked dogs. He thought they were one of the ugliest species of creature on Earth with their arched backs, salivating grins and threatening noises. He wished Tonaco really was dead because, truth be told, they didn't like each other.
The first night he arrived, Barry couldn't sleep because of the heat and went out onto the porch. Insects buzzed in the trees and the side of the house was covered in geckos. He pinched one of their dry tails and bizarrely the thing screamed like a woman and leapt off the wall leaving a trembling, dismembered tail between his fingers. At that precise moment Tonaco appeared from around the corner. The dog growled deeply, staring Barry in the eyes, who initially took slow steps towards the side entrance of the house and then bolted as Tonaco moved forward to attack. Barry ran inside and slammed the door behind him.
Nor did he like the new place he was living in. He was here because a resort-style hotel had just been built half a kilometer away from his girlfriend's parent's house. The operator of the hotel and his girlfriend's uncle had harrassed her back in London with phone calls almost every day, imploring her to return and manage the business. So she went from being a waitress in London to a receptionist/waitress here, whilst Barry was employed with under-the-table tasks that didn't require communication such as vacuuming rooms, washing dishes, watering plants and cleaning the swimming pool. Such activities made him wonder what the hell he was doing with his life. Did he love her enough to go through with all of this? The heat was too much and he hated work, especially manual labour.
The swimming pool was the worst. The hotel manager wanted it cleaned every morning by 08:30 when it was relentlessly cloudless and that burning ball in the sky blasted its rays with full brutality. It was also a sad scene. The local frogs hadn't understood yet this stretch of water wasn't designed for their kind. A dozen of them were found struggling to escape, brain damaged from chemicals. Barry took a net to fish them out and give the ones that hadn't been in there so long a chance to live on.
The pool needed more chlorine tablets. There were several openings, round holes with lids to lift up where Barry deposited the chemicals. These often had dead frogs inside. After clearing a couple of the amphibians out and dropping some tablets into the hole he moved to the next lid and as he opened it a viper's head darted out coming extremely close to dropping its fangs into his arm. Barry jumped back then slammed the lid down above the snake's head with a quick reaction that saved him from venom poisoning.
Barry was alright. He took the net and managed to trap the snake inside it then walk ten minutes away to a large pond and let the viper loose.
Frogs croaked incessantly. The sun beat down something ferocious as he watched the snake wriggle away into long grass. He looked up and caught sight of another kind of beast. It seemed like its eyes were about to pop out of its face. The dog's teeth were glistening as it whimpered, gone mad with hunger. Two more of them, black and orange, appeared from behind the trees. They were filthy. Their tongues hung from their mouths.
Barry's knees trembled. He felt hot blood rushing up to his face with a surge of adrenaline and held out the swimming pool net as though it could be of some use as a weapon. Their instincts commandered them. The agressors inched forward as a pack on the hunt, snarling and growling. Barry dropped the net and reached down pretending to pick up a stone. This was an old trick he'd heard of to scare away dogs. It didn't work. They moved closer and started yapping excitedly with the anticpation of murdering him. Then a deep barking sound rang out through the countryside. The wild dogs paused. Tonaco appeared from behind the trees. Two of the mongrels suddenly looked terrified and bolted away swiftly, but the orange one decided it was time to rumble. He malevolently gnashed and clawed Tonaco and put up a brave front for a while, but in the end the bigger bastard won the battle and the orange canine ran away like the others.
Poor old Tonaco! One ear had been torn in half and he had a deep, bloody scratch on his nose. His tongue hung out disgustingly as he panted for breath and walked over to sit in front of Barry, who reached down and caressed the animal's skull.

NIGHT OWL by Danny Thornber (2017)

Helen's been living in this old wooden house in the New Zealand suburbs for nine years since her husband died. Now daughter Zoey stays with her and that disagreeable boyfriend she has who's always broke, says he's looking for the right job but has been making barely enough to feed himself for years on a part-time job answering telephone calls. He sleeps all day and stays awake all night.
They make the place feel smaller with their physical presence and giant egos thrashing around. Having them about constantly makes her cherish the years of living alone. She often wishes they would suddenly come up with a plan to move out and leave her in peace.
They have no kids, no career, no goals in life. Financial losers hitting forty years old, basically freeloading children that never learned how to be adults. Zoey does temporary jobs so she's got some money for a while, then takes a few weeks off, spends the lot and is scrounging from her mother again which is such a drag on the savings account.
An aroma of fresh coffee fills the small kitchen every morning.
Zoey eats cereal while Helen pours herself a black one.
'Is he awake?' Helens asks.
'Yeah, he should be almost ready to go.'
'Will he want breakfast?'
'How do I know?'
Helen grunts sarcastically.
'I doubt it.'
Billy appears wearing a suit jacket and smelling of aftershave.
'Oh you look lovely, darling.' Zoey says.
'Well, Billy, are we actually having the pleasure of your company for breakfast this morning?' Helen asks.
'I'm not really hungry.'
'Of course you're not! You probably only went to bed a few hours ago.'
'Mum, stop it!'
'It's the truth, isn't it?'
'What's wrong with not eating breakfast?' Billy asks, 'Am I bad person if I don't scoff a piece of toast in the morning?'
'Can you just be nice, Mum?'
'Ok, sorry. If you're not eating, would you like some coffee, Billy?'
'Yes, please.
'I guess you need it.'
'I do. Thanks.
'So, you think you'll get the job?' Zoey asks.
'If it's not this, it'll be another one soon. It has to happen. I gotta go back to full time.
Billy wants to move into his own place and Helen sincerely hopes the interview succeeds so they can both vacate the premises, but it's just a disaster. Billy stumbles on a few classic questions. They ask what motivates him to get up and go to work. All he can answer in truth is the money. An awkward moment elapses as he pretends not to understand the question for time to think. 'I like working in a team' is an inappropriate and completely untrue response, but that's the one he gives. From there it's all over.
In the early Autumn humidity he feels weak and unhealthy as he gets off the bus and the mid-day sun scorches his skin. Blackbirds, thrushes and sparrows whistle relentessly in surrounding gardens. His stomach wobbles and sweat drips down his neck on the path back towards his bed.
He's nervous. His heart pumps hard and every step feels like some kind of gravitational force is making it go more slowly than usual. He curses the company and people working in it he interviewed for, vowing to only apply for jobs he had an actual chance of getting in future and never another interview before 1 PM again.
Billy finally gets to flop onto the mattress but it takes him more than an hour before he can fall asleep, then he's soon woken by a hammering sound. A man is changing the curtains in the lounge room next to him. He's a young Australian who doesn't stop talking. The guy's voice is like a machine whirring incessantly. Billy listens to his wife and mother-in-law harping their sweet responses, obviously both attracted to this young buck. He puts a pillow over his face to block out the noise. He yells obscenities into the cotton and curses Helen for arranging such an inconvenient time to renovate the house.
After the Australian has gone, Billy is still conscious and seething with resentment towards the engine of a lawnmover in the next-door property. Zoey enters the bedroom.
'I thought the guy was coming to change the curtains tomorrow.'
'Apparently it was better for him today.'
'Oh, good for him. I need to sleep.'
'Can't you just stay awake today?'
'No. I'm tired. I feel like crap.'
'Tired from doing what?'
'Err, a job interview, outside my normal pattern of hours.'
'There's not much pattern to your hours, darling. I mean really, just 'cause you need to snooze it shouldn't prevent all day-time activities.'
'If we had our own place, I could sleep in peace whenever I want. I'm being persecuted here.'
'Stop exaggerating!'
'Your mother hates me because I'm nocturnal.'
'She doesn't hate you.'
'I've got to get a full-time job, or at least another decent part-timer that fits around my hours now. We've got to get out of here.'
'Ok, so do it! But you're not getting a night-shift.'
'One that starts at noon?'
'How many jobs start at noon? You can't be too picky or we'll never get out of here.'
Billy is grumpy for the rest of the day. As night falls, he mellows out and in an attempt to be sociable suggests they all watch a movie together. He falls asleep half way through and a few hours later is awake again. The darkness in the bedroom makes him feel good. It's a shot of tranquility as he senses the peace of the night around him.
He loves the night. That dull glow of orange street lights and crickets chirping, it's the only time he feels alive, experiencing not just a semblance of life but truly living it. How the night clears his mind so he can think deeply. It softens the edges of ugly objects. He's free from the churning of industry and away from those who are skitting around trying to make a profit or just survive in feeble economic times.
If only he were truly liberated though. If he had his own place he could move around freely at all hours, play Beethoven at 04:00 AM, laugh out loud and talk to himself, but here he has to creep around like a rodent because others are sleeping. The last thing he wants to do is wake Helen and listen to her groaning at him about his lifestyle, then get into a possible argument.
A dusty old electric clock reads 02:34. Billy moves as quietly as he can through oppressive clutter and worthless furniture, past large shelves holding books that never get touched, small tables with tacky ornaments on them and too many framed photographs. To quench his thirst he tiptoes into the kitchen for a glass of water. The fridge is opened as silently as possible. He takes out the bottle and removes a glass from a cupboard. As he begins pouring, a cat fight erupts outside, piercing the night with cries that seep through the wooden panels of the house. There is an alarming screeching noise then it's like an abandoned baby crying out for help, a chilling sound that disturbs Helen in her sleep as Billy hears her low moaning on the other side of the wall.
He sneaks back to the lounge and switches on an international news channel at a volume barely audible, then sinks into the sofa.
The birds are out again with songs accompanied by a swishing of a broom on the concrete driveway outside the room where Billy sleeps. He can't believe it. She's antagonizing him again, pushing him to the edge. He opens a window and angrily sticks his head out.
'Do you think you could let me sleep another hour or two?'
'Your sleeping hours are totally out of sync with everyone else's.'
'So what?'
'It's not normal. Ryan's up at the crack of dawn every morning no matter what time he goes to bed.'
'Why are you comparing me to your son? He's got two kids to feed.'
She halts her sweeping to look up and scowl at him.
'I'm just saying it's not normal. By the time you wake up, the day is over.'
'Exactly, that's why I sleep through it, because I want it to be over. I want the night. We're all different. I prefer night, Ryan prefers day.
'What is there to do at night?'
'What is there to do during the day?'
Helen shakes her head.
'If you could help fix a few things around this house I'd be able to save some money.'
'You want me to be a handy-man now? I've never fixed anything in my life.'
'You could learn how.'
'Yeah, but I don't want to. It's not me! Am I allowed to be me?'
Of course, she can't answer no to this question but wishes there was actually a law against it, and a bed-time curfew so the bastard would be forced to sleep sociable hours.
The night is windy and seems like a storm is coming. Billy tries to enjoy the news but a slight headache nags at him. He wonders whether he should take a pill or just go to bed. The old electric clock tells him it's 03:31, late enough to hit the sack. Suddenly a rumbling of thunder is heard. The picture on the TV freezes.
Billy gets up and goes to the window. He sees a bolt of lightening and for a moment the sky turns electric blue. He stares out in amazement for some time before returning to the sofa.
The TV screen is still frozen and also on every other channel. He notices the clock still reads 03:31.
'What the hell?'
Everything in the room begins vibrating. A framed photo falls onto the floor. There is a suspension of belief at what's happening. This is a truck rolling by? He thinks, no, it's a trick of the mind! You've felt tremours before although only gentle and passing so quickly they are soon forgotten, but this is the real thing! This is the big one.
Billy dashes into his bedroom.
'Zoey, wake up! Get up! It's an earthquake!'.
He moves swiftly to Helen's room and shouts the same warning. The entire house is then rocking.
Helen feels like she's going in slow motion on a ship through treacherous waves. Objects are displaced, things slip around as she staggers towards her front door. A fruit bowl smashes onto the kitchen floor. Coffee tables begin bouncing around as though animated. A crack appears in her lounge wall then another in the window which shatters as she escapes from the mayhem.
Once they are outside in the garden everything stops shaking, but a great creaking sound astonishes them as half the foundations of the house collapse. The roof comes down on the kitchen and Helen's bedroom. A cloud of dust begins to rise. They all gasp.
Zoey grabs her mother and holds her tightly. Helen stares at the destruction then turns to Billy, also standing speechless, gaping at the wreckage in front of them.
'Thank God you were awake.'

MEL AND THE TELEVISION by Danny Thornber (1996)

Mel sat down to quickly eat some instant noodles in front of the television. His mother was there in her usual position. Mel thought his mother watched too much television.
'Why do you watch this trash?'
'What else is there to do?'
'But six hours a day, mum? Six hours of mind-rot'.
'Well, I haven't got any friends here, have I? I can't get a job because noone wants to hire someone in their late forties'.
'Hire is horrible word. What about simply walking around the neighbourhood just to witness trees sprouting out of the ground? Listen to birds making these sounds that you don't understand, it can be quite bizarre!'
'Ah go away.'
Mel left the lounge after finishing his noodles and headed to the seclusion of his bedroom. Lying down with red curtains shut, he imagined his own death. He had hanged himself on a stormy night. The wind whistled tragically.
Once out of the visions, life seemed a little more precious, but his thoughts returned to his mother. Why isn't she spellbound by reality? He thought. After all the years she's been on Earth, what makes her induldge so heavily in soap operas? The false people they portray. The tacky fabrications produced especially for housewives to become voyeurs of unrealistic lives instead of participating in a meaningful one of their own?
He was awash with thoughts for almost half an hour until a door opened and the voices began crying out. Television advertisements, screeching through the house. Mel tried to imagine he and his mother were sixteenth century peasants in a forest living full lives with untamed nature around them and long-extinct birds and mammals in the vicinity, but the whine of sports-people and other simpletons flogging products on TV flooded the room and began to infuriate him.
After going out for a two-hour walk, Mel returned reasonably cheerful, clutching a documentary from the local video shop. Noone was home.
When Mel tried to enter the video tape to watch his documentary, he saw the machine was set-timed to record a Jane Austen mini-series at 19:30. The final straw snapped. Mel grabbed the TV, went outside and smashed it to pieces in the back yard. This was a rather barbaric gesture but not entirely futile. Mel's childish act of violence got the message across. His mother finally stopped watching soap operas and became a minor celebrity in the local theatre circuit. Mel later became an actor. Unfortunately his most prominent role in a TV show based on Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers was ignored by the public and ridiculed by critics.

THE LOCKSMITH by Danny Thornber (2010)

I live on the third floor in a block of concrete flats. The stairs smell of cold, damp, must and fungus. You need a magnet that you scan on a small circle of green light to open the door and enter the building. Your key then allows entrance to old dusty rooms that are somewhat depressing, like my flatmates. They are ignorant fools from small villages. The only thing I like about them is that every weekend they usually go back to where they came from and leave me in peace to inhabit the hovel.
Friday night, after a tough week of English teaching, I settle down to BBC World with a bottle of Merlot imported from Chile. It's a real fruity number and something to enjoy. The enjoyment soon ends though when I go outside for a cigarette. Was I dreaming of Taiwan or Vietnam? I can't remember, but as soon as I close the apartment door, I realize I've left my key inside. A wail of despair erupts from my throat. There's noone inside and nothing outside but rain and mist. I'm locked out and thrown into a desperate fit, shoulder-barging the solid wooden door. This is accompanied by some of the most foul-mouthed curses you could imagine, at a pitch most unreasonable after midnight.
A stout man emerges on the floor above me to make an authoritative announcement.
'Must you wake up the whole building?'
His use of English startles me. I've only seen old couples around here looking like they've stepped out of photographs taken before the Berlin wall came down and assumed communication with any of them in my language is out of the question. I apologize and try to explain the situation I'm in. He mumbles something about keeping the noise down and turns back towards the dim orange light framing him in the doorway.
'Wait!' I shout, 'Can you call a locksmith for me?'
'If you are paying...'
Of course I'm paying.
When the locksmith arrives, I have to fork out seventy Euro and it casts a dark shadow over the rest of the night.
The following evening after a long walk I stop at the supermarket on the way home to buy a bottle of French Bordeaux. I want to give it to the man who phoned the locksmith as a way of thanks for helping me out, because if I had busted the door down it would have cost me more than seventy Euro. I feel guilty and foolish. I think this gesture of a gift might take these feelings away.
I want to get it over with quickly, so I dash straight up to the top floor ready to present the wine. As I knock on wood, the Bordeaux slips through a hole in the bottom of the plastic bag I'm holding. The moment of closure becomes a moment of disaster. Instead of him opening to a smiling, apologetic face, he sees a guy staring down at smashed glass and a puddle of dark red liquid on his doorstep. He stares outwards in shock.
'Err, huh-huh, I brought you some wine.' I say pathetically.
'Super! That's great! Thank you!' he replies sarcastically.
'I can't belive this has happened.'
'Well, do you have anything to clean this?'
'Yes, of course. I'll get a broom. I'll mop it up.
His face twists into a waxy, somehow inorganic look of disgust as he turns around and disappears inside.
I run downstairs, open the door of my apartment and burst inside, slinging my bag onto a chair. I remove my coat in a rage, swearing blue thunder. I grab some cleaning equipment and return to the mess I've made. I'm crouched down on the stairwell brushing the final shards of glass into a bucket when I realize something. I've left the key inside again! There's nothing else to do but shake my head in astonishment and knock on the man's door. There's no answer. I knock again. There's still no answer. I take a few deep breaths then erupt into a screaming fit of hysterics, banging furiously on the wood.
'Open the door! Open up you prick!'
There's a creaking sound on the opposite side of the hallway. An incredibly wrinkled, old woman's face pokes out of an apartment, scrutinizing me with contempt. She shouts a curse which I'm unable to comprehend, then the man's door opens in front of me. His false teeth are shining out of an awful grin that is suddenly there. He says something to the old woman. She grumbles and vanishes from view.
'What do you want?'
'You won't belive this, but I left my key inside again.'
'Do you need another locksmith?'
'It looks like it, yes.'
'Ok, I call a locksmith. Next time, I call police.'
'Look, honestly, I'm sorry.'
He closes the door on me again. I take the mop, broom and bucket down with me to wait. The same locksmith arrives as the night before. He's chuckling as repeats the job, making me feel worse than I already did now anticipating handing over another seventy.
The man from upstairs comes down looking smug. He addresses the locksmith with some amusing comment and they both laugh. My fists clench. I'm ready to slaughter them both.
'How long have you been living here?' the man asks.
'Too long.' I say. 'Five months.'
'When are you leaving?'
'Probably in May.'
'I hope you go before then. Good night.'
'Yeah, me too!' I shout at his wide back moving up the stairs.
Any expression of thanks should just be a simple verbal procedure. The reason all this happened is because I went against my instinct that originally told me to just forget the whole drama, but I had to extend it by offering some material gift. I should have offered nothing and just got on with my life.

FIELDWORK by Danny Thornber (1999)

He found himself searching frantically through his pockets at the bus station and soon realised with horror that he had left his little grey notebook in the phone booth at Dublin airport. There was no way of contacting Yani. The only choice was to return to the airport.
His hands were shaking and he was full of pessimistic certainty that notebook would not be inside the booth. It wasn't.
Now what was he supposed to do?
With utter hopelessness, Steve went to the Tourist Information Desk.
'Someone couldn't possibly have handed in a notebook here, could they?'
'Is this the one?' the green-eyed girl asked.
She was holding Steve's little grey notebook.
'Oh thank the Lord!' he cried out.
The girl's eyes twinkled and her white teeth were shining.
Steve returned to the phone booth and contacted Yani, who was not pleased about the drive all the way out to the airport.
'Meet us outside Departures in 45 minutes'. Yani told Steve. 'Look out for a white Ford van.'
Almost ninety minutes had passed and Steve was freezing. He felt like crying as he cursed Yani, waiting for the white van.
Steve trudged back inside to a phone booth to make one last desperate call.
'Oh, sorry, something came up! We're on our way! Be there in twenty... no, fifteen mintues!' Yani exclaimed.
'Can you come and get me? I'm freezing here...'
With chattering teeth, Steve finally got into the white van about an hour later.
Yani looked pale and extremely tired like every man who works too many hours. He was accompanied by three young South African males, seemingly half ape, half human.
'Where's your luggage?' Yani asked.
'I left it at the bus station.'
'Oh jeez, I didn't account for all this lost time. Oh well, if we have to go back into town, let's make a night of it. Who's up for the pub?'
A cheer was raised by all except Steve. He felt completely alienated. The van reeked of soil. These guys were animals. Their sweaters were filthy. Their Afrikaans language was unnerving. When they finally arrived, the bus station was closed.
The journey went on and on, rolling through a pitch-black countryside. Steve's eyelids had quadrupled in weight.
'Why are you so quiet?' one of them asked.
Before he could answer, Steve began shivering uncontrollably.
'Sorry' he whimpered.
'Hey Yani! This dude's got the chills!'
'Ah, we'll soon have you next to a fireplace. A bit of whisky, and you'll be right!'
They drank a few shots and played pool at an old country pub with no windows. There was a fireplace with some gleaming coals that made the place very warm. When they went back outside, Steve was astonished to find torrential snow falling. The ground looked like a giant bed sheet. All South Africans ran out into it and started chucking snowballs at each other whilst Steve sheltered in the pub's doorway. A snowball hit Steve in the chest.
'Welcome to Ireland!'
Yani stood grinning a few metres away.
'Imbecile.' Steve hissed under his breath.
It was another two hours of driving through fields and small villages before they finally reached Yani's. The lights were out. It was full of people sleeping. Steve was directed to a sofa in a room with two other foreigners sleeping on mattresses. It seemed he had just closed his eyes when he was awoken at 05:00. An angry-looking girl had switched the light on. The two guys sleeping on mattresses got up yawning and trudged into the kitchen. Steve followed.
More people were in the kitchen, eating cereal with exhausted expressions.
'Can you tell me what's going on?' Steve asked the girl who had woken him up.
'What's going on? It's breakfast time.'
'Yes, I can see that, but how about after breakfast?'
'After breakfast, we work. The van gets here at five thirty.'
When the bathroom was free, Steve washed the sleep out of his eyes and ran some water through his hair. He was very unhappy about the necessity of returning to work.
Steve was deposited at a large shed with a small Spanish guy. The air chilled him to the bone so he felt his blood freezing.
This is a farm. He thought. What the hell am I doing on a farm? I came all the way from Auckland for this?
It also occurred to him that there was probably no heating.
A tall man with grey hair and kind features approached them, introducing himself as the boss.
'Where do we work?' Steve asked, starting to panic.
'In the fields.'
'But... but... it's been snowing! I can feel the flu coming on. This is madness!'
'Ah, you'll be alright! We'll give you a coat. Look, the sun's out!'
The sun was like a postcard in the sky, emanating no heat. The snow had melted to a carpet of grey slush. Steve spluttered into a coughing fit as a tractor went past.
Inside the shed a bunch of aging women processed vegetables. Steve drank a cup of tea in a small kitchen area with Pepe the Spaniard and a dwarf named Tommy.
'You look scared.' Pepe said to Steve.
'I'm scared of getting pneumonia.'
'Hmm, no hat. You need hat. You lose twenty percent heat from your head, you know?
'Twenty percent, really? That's quite a lot'.
'Here, you take this.' Pepe offered his own woolly hat.
Steve was very grateful for the offer. He took the hat.
'So, off we go.' Tommy announced.
Steve followed his plastic orange jacket out into the fields.
Like a working animal or an object in transit, Steve was on the back of a small truck with slush and mud splattering up onto him. They chugged into an open field with rows of cabbages. Tommy and another Irishman quickly began their task, decapitating plants from their roots with long knives. Steve's job was to follow them with lengthy plastic bags to be filled with cabbages. After a couple of hours doing this he was numb all over, barely functioning.
Steve was fearing frostbite but a cup of tea back at the shed warmed him up. Pepe had seemed docile and introverted earlier in the morning, but entered a different man full of energy and roaring with enthusiasm.
'Hola! Everything ok?'
'Not too bad.'
'It's good, the hat?'
'Yes, thanks for the hat. I probably would've frozen to death without it. The work isn't as terrible as I thought it would be. I just thought it was going to be a job in a warehouse. That's what the advert said. I've never done anything like this before.'
'NO?'
'No, never. What did you do this morning?'
Pepe explained in broken English that he picked spring onions. The more crates he filled, the more cash he made.
That afternoon the sun generated some heat. Steve began sweating a little as he bagged cauliflower and even cracked a few jokes in the rhubarb field, but by the end of the day was utterly exhausted. He and Pepe waited to be collected for almost two hours. Steve was feverish and shivering. Pepe was pissed off.
'They get all South Africans first, maybe go to pub.'
'You're joking?' Steve replied, outraged.
'They only here for the money. They don't care about Ireland. They just want the money.'
'Are you here to travel? To see the country?'
'Yes, I exist to travel. I work hard for the money but I don't need a lot of money. What do I do with it? I see so many people, they work and work and work. They watch TV to save money and live in one house all their lives. Me, I cannot do this.
'I have no home.' Steve said forlornly.
'Me too.'
Yani arrived apologizing for the delay, but there were still more farm workers to collect and drop off. Steve had to spend another night on a sofa, as Yani hadn't had the time to find him a place with a bed.
'I promise I'll sort you out a bed tomorrow Steven.'
'Any chance we can go to the bus station and pick up my stuff?'
'I can't guarantee that, sorry. I got a hectic schedule tomorrow too. Let's say it's sixty-forty possibility.'
That night, Steve dreamt of evil scarecrows and granite dinosaurs chasing him through the fields. The early morning light bulb snapped on and yanked him out of his nightmares. He was soon back in an icy vehicle with grim faces apalled to be on their way to work at that hour of the day. Cold blasts of wind were whipping through the air. When he was pulling up leeks, ice fell from the sky. Not flakes of ice, or hailstones, but shapes of it that looked like smashed mirrors.
Pepe was happy the next day to inform Steve that they were working together on spring onions, but Steve was in a foul mood. The Irish temperature had really got into his bones. He was shivering with the onset of fever. Yani had promised him a ride to the bus station to collect his suitcase that afternoon.
'There's a north-easterly blowing in.' the farm boss remarked, with a slightly worried appearance. 'Ah, but you look like a lad that's tough enough to me.'
Steve didn't feel that his endurance or stamina should be quite so esteemed.
They were driven to the spring onion field by a crazy old man with soft white hair and bulging blue eyes.
'You've got to keep working!' he shouted fanatically as he drove. 'When I was your age, there wasn't a lot of money around. I had to work, just to eat and survive! No smoking! No drinking! No gambling! Make your hands hard! Money! You've got to keep working for it. If you don't smoke, drink, or gamble you can buy anything you want nowadays. So don't do it! Keep working!'
He carried on rambling the entire journey. Steve hadn't realized how close they were to the ocean, which was quite a spectacle to behold. The coastline was rugged and steep with marvellous old cracks cut into it by the waves. Once they were in the mud of the field, Pepe demonstrated how to extract spring onions from the earth, by plucking three together and whacking them against the side of his boot to remove excess soil. After an hour, Pepe and a South African had filled six crates. Steve hadn't even done half of one. Flakes of snow flew about in the wind. Sickness clouded over his eyes so he could barely see through them. Cold blasts gathered strength as he became ever more feeble. His fingers seemed frozen-solid so he could hardly move them.
What am I doing here? He thought. I'm not a farmer. I'm not an outdoor man! This damn mud. It's disgusting. How much more difficult does it have to get? Of all the jobs I could be doing right now and I'm here! Why?
He tried to pluck some more but ended up screaming hysterically with tears welling up in the corners of his vision. It felt like a string of bees were all jabbing him at the same time in the throat. His hands shook violently so the onions were just snapping in half when he grabbed them.
Crying and wheezing, he staggered over towards a tractor, got inside and burst out sobbing. He was delirious and howling in despair. He didn't believe in anything anymore. The terrible chill had almost sapped his will to survive.
Pepe appeared at the side of the tractor. He opened the door looking like a mountain climber with ice clinging to the unshaven hairs around his mouth.
'You okay?'
'No, not really. I think it's time for me to die.'
Pepe crouched inside the tractor and found a key somewhere. He turned on the engine. Steve stared at him in amazement. An Elvis Presley song crackled out of the old radio. Warm air started to fill the inside of the vehicle. Steve was incredulous that someone could be so kind.
When they returned to the shed, Yani was waiting. As promised, he took Steve to the bus station.
'I'll wait here.' Yani said in the carpark.
Steve finally had his first bit of luck in Ireland. A bus was departing for the airport straight after he retrieved his suitcase. Yani waited for half an hour before wandering around the bus station in search of Steve, who was on his way back to London, humming 'Don't Be Cruel'.

ANOTHER MILLENIUM by Danny Thornber (2000)

Back in New Zealand I lived like a king while over here I'm a peasant in the bowels of Britain on the last night of 1999. I often wonder how life is going to get any worse then the question is answered with the next job. I walk towards it gingerly through mist and light rain that puts me on edge. A boring pub located in squalid darkness offset by orange streetlights with identical rows of decrepit terraced houses. The wooden sign dangles ominously under an eight level concrete housing block. I approach the pub's entrance and see a notice stuck to the door.
SORRY, NO TRAVELLERS
I stand in disbelief with a backpack on, a dedicated traveller. Oh no, not another live-in pub job gone wrong! This is without question not a good sign.
The pub is empty except for three aged alcoholics stuck to the bar. The decor is 1970s, everything cheap shiny wood. Just how crap it is initiates an assault on your senses so that something like fight or flee mode of basic human reaction kicks in.
There's a balding short guy with murderous eyes tending the bar who waves me over. He creeps towards a staircase and yells up 'The new bloke's here!'
A woman comes down with two red-haired children scurrying around her legs like rodents. She guides me into a tiny office to wait for her Irish husband to limp down the stairs.
He has parted orange hair and face lined prematurely by alcohol. He looks like he's never once laughed in his life.
'What experience do you have behind the bar?'
'Six months at a pub... south London.' I lie.
He suggests I begin immediately, but his wife starts panicking about the state of the room I am to lodge in. Apparently it's a total mess.
'Oh, don't worry. As long as I have a bed to sleep on.' I say.
'But there are the children's toys everywhere. The cat's baskets.'
I try to placate her.
'It'll be alright.'
'But... but...'
'IT'LL BE ALRIGHT.' the orange-haired guy screams. 'The man wants to work. Ok. So, you get a hundred and forty a week'.
I stare at him coldly.
'Let's make that a hundred and fifty, and tax free.'
I nod in acceptance.
'So you start straight away, alright?
'Ok, but to be honest I don't know if this is going to work out or not.'
'Why? What's wrong now?'
'Well, I was expecting more of a village atmosphere, you know. It looked so far out of London on the map, but it still feels like London to me.'
'You'll be alright here, it's fine.'.
His wife joins in.
'What are you worried about?'
'As soon as I saw that sign on your door, I got a bad vibe. I nearly turned back to the train station.'
'What sign? What are you talking about?' the Irishman asks.
'You know, the 'No Travellers' sign.'
'Oh that? What? That doesn't mean you!'
'That's for gypsies.'
'People selling stuff.'
'It did make me feel like I'm not wanted.' I say.
'Oh no, no, no. That doesn't mean you. Look, I'll take the notice down tomorrow, okay? Just keep calm, and give it a try here'.
I reluctantly accept. The poor woman apologizes again for not having the bedroom in a good state.
'I'm sorry, I just haven't had time to clear it'.
She leads me upstairs to a room scattered with children's pyjamas, toys and crayons. I'm left alone to change clothes. I sit on the bed and a horrible musty smell comes up from the mattress.
It's bleak. A tiny window looks directly onto a brick wall. I shudder to think about what I've done. My fifteen year old brother was in England for Christmas visiting family. I convinced him to come down to London with me for New Year's night, but left him alone in a run-down hostel and took this job. But there is still time to go back. I stand up and march out of the room to face the Irishman again in his office.
'I don't think this is going to work out.' I declare.
'Why? What's wrong with you, Danny? What are you scared of?'
I don't want to tell him, I'm terrified my brother will get raped and or beaten.
'Nothing. I'm just kind of repulsed by the town environment'.
'Come on, you'll be alright here. Just give it a try. Just work tonight and see what you think, ok?'
I give in.
Heavy rain begins hammering down on the roof when I get behind the bar with the balding midget. Having never worked in a pub before, the first pint of lager that comes out of the tap is a glass of white froth. The alcoholics all cackle mercilessly.
'What are you doing?' the midget barks, 'Tilt the glass before you start pouring!'
'Sorry, I'm just a bit rusty.'
Then the next problem is the cash register. It isn't even electric. The draw opens mechanically. You have to consult a price list and work out sums in your head. I've always been useless at maths, but I can manage to calculate basic sums so this isn't too much a problem until groups of people start entering in prepartion to celebrate the New Year.
The manager comes down looking like he's been hitting some hard stuff upstairs. His eyes are slitted red and he's swaying a bit. He gives me the thumbs up. I try to force a smile in return.
I make another mistake with a drinks order and the midget is eavesdropping. After I quote the price he starts yelling in front of the customers with outright hostility that I've made an error. I apologize to the punters and charge them correctly.
Stuey is angry, as if the pub belongs to him.
'It looks to me like you've never worked in a pub in your whole life.' he shouts.
'Yeah, I have. It's just been a while. I'm feeling nervous, I don't know why.'
When the manager returns, I'm completing a six-drink order. Stuey calls him over and whispers in his ear. The manager stands at the bar as I announce the price.
'No, no! That's not right. What's wrong with you, Danny?'
I've almost undercharged them seven pounds. Once again I have to apologize and collect the right amount. The manager growls furiously and stomps upstairs.
Stuey softens up a little after this, and when the manager goes out to run another errand, he makes a suggestion.
'Have half a pint, it might help you to relax a bit.'
The half-pint is followed by three or four more and my confidence shoots up. Unfortunately my ability to pour drinks and calculate sums doesn't, especially after I've sneaked in a few whiskeys when Stuey's not observing. Then a giant wave of exhaustion passes through me. Stuey becomes exasperated.
'You're making mistake after mistake! Go and sit down! You're too drunk to serve the punters.'
I go to the other side of the bar, pull up a stool and my head sinks into folded arms. I'm soon shaken awake by the manager.
'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
'Oh, the exhaustion!'
'What?'
'I'm really, really tired.'
'Tired? Tired? Why aren't you behind the bar?'
I point at Stuey.
'He told me to sit down.'
'He's been helping himself to the Stella Artois.' Stuey responds, indignantly.
'Right! Right, that's it!' the manager thunders in my face. 'Noboby takes the piss out of me. Pack your bags and get out, you're finished!'.
'What, now?'
'Right now. Get out!'
I glance at my watch. The last train back to London departed twenty minutes ago.
'But there's no more transport. Where am I going to go?'
'I don't care. That's your problem.'
'Look, honestly, I didn't want to take the piss out of you; that was never my intention. I'm sorry this has happened, but I've got nowhere to go. I can't afford a taxi back to London. Please, you don't have to pay me.'
'Ok, you stay tonight, but you're gone first thing in the morning and I'm not paying you a penny.'
As I'm lying down in the messy bedroom, fireworks erupt outside and young people my age enjoy the end of the twentieth century, whilst I'm vapourised by failure and unable to participate in the festivities. Feeling like a broken, poor wretch I fall asleep again.
The morning is dark grey and cold as an iceberg. I slap on layers of clothing and wait for the manager to wake up so I can be let out of the premises.
He stares at me so very sadly before I depart.
'So you're quitting then?'
'No, you fired me.'
'What choice did I have?'
'None, I guess.'
The train ride seems to go on forever. Finally, I get onto the Victoria Line and out at Stockwell. It's a rough neighbourhood but I'm tough, I walk through it like it's a second home to me, but my heart pumps wildly in my chest when I see drops of blood on the footpath leading towards the hostel where I left my brother. I rush inside and make my way immediately to the staircase. A shrill admonishment is yelled from the reception desk.
'Hey! Where do you think you're going?'
I stop and stare at him.
'Oh, I remember you. It's ok.'
The dormitory room door is slightly open and I burst in to find my brother sleeping soundly on one of the six top bunks. His eyes open and blue light shines out of them.
'I'm sorry.' I whisper, 'I'm sorry I left you here alone.'
'Oh, hey bro. That's cool. I met some Canadians in the common room. We went down to Westminster, had a jam down there. It was a blast. I guess you got the job and they asked you to work straight away, since you didn't come back.'
'Exactly. That's what happened. But it was a total failure. I should have just enjoyed the night with you and not accepted that awful job.'
'It's cool, bro. No worries. Happy New Year!'

RUNCORN by Danny Thornber (2017)

His long white hair made him appear like a ghost on a frozen path which was part of a grey, ugly Northern English housing estate. With bloated belly and bent posture, he hobbled in the direction of the two suntanned teenagers with suitcases who had come all the way from New Zealand.
Bits of froth poked out from the corners of his mouth as he grinned insanely with false teeth. He took hold of his grandson violently by the shoulders and shook him.
'It's great to see you.'
'Err, you too.' Derek replied, unconvincingly.
The kids looked horrified as the old man explained he was on his way to the local shop to buy a newspaper and cigarettes. He handed a key to Derek and pointed toward the ugly concrete building behind him, repeating several times the number of the apartment.
'We can't stay here.' Robbie said, once the old man had moved away. 'We can't stay with this madman.'
Behind a discoloured red door, a creaky staircase with worn carpet led them up to the tiny two-bedroom hovel that reeked of urine and cigarettes. Cracks and holes stood out in old wallpaper smeared with yellow and brown stains. Everything was covered in a layer of dust.
Grandad insisted on cooking lunch for everyone when he got back. Hamburgers with heavy white bread. He took some circles of cheap meat out of the fridge-freezer and fired up the grill on his small oven. Derek approached to inspect the food.
'Err, grandad, I'm a vegetarian.'
'You're a what?'
'A vegetarian, sorry, I can't eat that.'
'Just have half then.'
Derek was annoyed.
'Vegetarian! Surely you know, someone who is vegetarian doesn't eat meat!'
'How do I know?'
They needed to get some decent food, so in the cold, still afternoon they made their way to the supermarket in an alien world of Soviet-style tiled blocks and people so pale they were almost see-through. Sinister narrow pathways conjured images of murder and children clutching sticks terrified the New Zealanders with mere glances. The shopping centre was ghastly. The whole place had less than nothing going for it. On the way back, Robbie and Derek were already plotting an escape to London.
Jetlag soon made the boys succumb to deep sleep. After an hour or two they were woken by the old man.
'Come on. We're going to Liverpool.'
'Grandad, we already said he doesn't need the bed.'
'I don't need the bed.' Robbie added.
'You can't sleep on the couch, it's not comfortable. Come on, we'll go get you that bed. It's a bargain, fifty quid.'
Derek rubbed his face with fatigue. Robbie thought it was time to speak up.
'Look, we're not sure that we're staying. We could be in London by the end of the week.
'Aye? London? But you just got here.'
There was a knock at the door. The old man had called someone with a van to drive them to Liverpool. It then became embarrasssing to argue about the bed and Grandad simply wouldn't take no for an answer. He wouldn't listen either when they told him they were definitely leaving two days later.
'Oh, you're not going, are you?' he moaned, as they departed with suitcases.
Once outside, Derek began complaining about his grandfather.
'My God! He just doesn't listen! Of course we're going! It was obvious we were leaving.'
'It couldn't have been more obvious if we'd already left!' Robbie exclaimed.
They passed through Liverpool again on the train down to London, this time in high spirits because finally the adventure had begun. From the first encounter with the city on Earl's Court Road they were overwhelmed by the density of the buildings, the smell of diesel in the air, mean faces on the footpaths, people everywhere, beggars and hustlers, Brazilians, Arabs, Africans. It was a massive rush for them.
Things really began to go wrong with accommodation. Six beds crammed into a small hostel room. Clothes and shoes everywhere lying in a mess with the stink of body odour and bad breath.
'What a dump! How long are we going to have to stay in this place?' Derek asked.
'We'll look for somewhere better tomorrow.' Robbie replied.
The situation was nightmarish. They tried to doze through a fat Sri Lankan with snoring sounds like an elephant's trumpet amongst other unfamiliar noises that caused a sleepless night, draining them of all energy.
Robbie managed to secure a job interview the next day through a newspaper advert. It was the only one they found which began immediately.
'It's got accommodation too!' Robbie said happily. 'This could be great.'
'You're gonna leave me alone in that pit of despair we call accommodation?'
'Just get a live-in pub job, like me. There'll probably be another one advertised tomorrow.'
It was a dingy pub outside an Underground station on the Northern line. The pub manager was always present, seated across from the bar watching with a menacing glare every move Robbie made. An Australian he worked alongside had the hand movements of a machine and when he spoke it was like a robotic recording, as though his humanity had been erased by fear of losing his job. The atmosphere was one of incarceration in a dungeon. After a few hours the manager needed to have a word with his new employee.
'You're not fast enough behind the bar. You've got no bar awareness. You told me you've got a year's experience but you can't even pull a pint properly. I'll pay you for the hours you've done, but I'm going to have to let you go.'
Robbie felt relieved that his services were not required in that awful place, but deep anxiety began to kick in about the prospects of holding on to a life in London. When he got back to the hostel he found Derek lying down on his bed, extremely miserable.
'Every day here without a job is eating away at my small amount of cash. I'm not going to last more than a week.' Derek moaned. 'It doesn't matter.' Robbie said.
'What do you mean it doesn't matter? It's ok for you. You're employed now.'
'Nah, I got fired.'
'What?'
'It's for the best. The place was horrible. What a nightmare job! Having to pretend to enjoy the company of these boring alcoholics. Wiping tables with wet cloths. Serving men peanuts!'
Derek stared at him bleakly before replying.
'Oh, well, great, that's really encouraging! Damn it, I'm not ready for all this.'
'Let's go back to Runcorn.'
So that's where the adventure ended, which was devastating for them both after all their vows to change their lives and get ahead somewhere better than Auckland. The rest of their time in England was spent consuming unhealthy snacks and watching TV at Grandad's. They didn't wash themselves. They left rubbish lying around everywhere, which infuriated the old man. On top of all the disappointment, the two friends began criticising each other heartlessly with crass attacks and accusations. Both had good reasons why the other was to blame for the whole disaster they were experiencing.
'You're the one who couldn't wait to come over here.' Derek shouted. 'I said let's go to Sydney first and try that out, if we'd done that I wouldn't be broke right now.'
'What a pile of crap! England was always the plan. You had to insist on coming to this dump though. If we'd gone straight to London we might have had a chance.'
Robbie was the first to buy a ticket home. Derek purchased his the next day, departing a week earlier. The final knife in the guts. His grandad wasn't unhappy to see them leave this time around, strangely enough.