Death of Beauty

Perfect Garden

“How will you do it?”

“I don’t know but it’s not hard, it’s natural after all”

He was pale as he listened to her, his usual assertive strength swept away by an idea that he apparently couldn’t get a hold on for all the certainty of his usual fire and fury.

“Natural doesn’t mean in easy. And what about your family, they’ll punish them, you know that.”

Tila did and she’d expected the point to be made. Even as she’d chosen to tell him she’d known that Ich wouldn’t be able to accept her choice, never mind support it. He couldn’t ignore it either, he needed to say something if only because silence wasn’t in his nature and while he couldn’t rant and rage at her about this as he did about the Lifers there had to be some token resistance to make himself feel like he’d served his usual purpose.

“I’ll disown them, make it clear they knew nothing about my decision. Hell, they’re all Lifers themselves, they’ll disown me too before they even think about what I’ve done. They won’t send them away after they do that, Lifers don’t do that to Lifers. You should lay low though, pretend you barely knew me.”

The colour quickly returned to his face as she shifted the focus onto the aftermath. He hated the Perfect Lifers and that was an anchor that could bring him down to solid ground. If he thought that what she was doing was part of some great clash with them – and nothing else – then he wouldn’t think any further.

“Fuck them. Let them send me away, they’ll do it sooner or later anyway, I’m too loud for them to ignore and too right for them let me stay around here where I can do real damage.”

She nodded, he was only partially right, he was too loud to ignore but he couldn’t do any real damage and they probably wouldn’t send him away either. Ich was related to Perfect Lifers. Not just supporters of the movement but the higher ups, those who worked on the state level ensuring that the Sanctity of Eternity, their driving concept, was protected in schools, offices, factories and the off-world colonies. Puritans when it came to their cause and, in Ich’s case, indulgent of challengers who they had long experience of blithely dismissing as misguided. Her family weren’t high up and she wouldn’t be indulged if she acted as he did, in fact she wouldn’t even be sent away, she’d just be jailed in a stasis chamber and left to drift in a hell of her own imagining until she learnt to tow the line. Something else Ich, as he started to hit his stride, would never understand.

“You’ll harm the movement too. You know that. Doing what you plan to, it makes us all look crazy, as if we want to die. I can’t defend that, there’s too much at stake here and in the colonies.”

Any momentary loss of control was gone, Ich was fully himself again even if he couldn’t bring himself to name the act she was planning – ‘suicide’. That didn’t factor into his cause. Nor did death really, for all his fiercely declared beliefs. He didn’t understand that for a lot of people it was something they wanted, far more than they wanted a simple cause to fight for. Not that she thought less of him for it. There was never a doubt that he believed what he said, even if he didn’t entirely understand what it meant. That was why she had chosen to tell him and no one else, to give him warning that one of his associates was going to puncture his perfect ideological vision of the struggle. She knew he would be able to prepare himself for the arguments that followed if he knew, he was quick to assimilate everything into his world view. A side effect of not comprehending what it really meant, everything was just another variant to adapt to make him and his right and them and theirs wrong.

“I don’t live the movement like you do, Ich, I live my life and I’m tired of it. I just want out, I’ll leave the philosophy and politics of it to you. Anyway, that’s all I wanted to say, you won’t see me again. Say what you want about me when I’m dead, I don’t mind.”

She took a final swig of her coffee and stood to leave, pausing for only a second to see if he had anything left to say. He didn’t, his brow was furroughed and his mind already heading elsewhere. He’d adapted and she may as well have already been gone, all his attention now was on how her suicide would effect the Lived Life movement and it’s campaigning. She hadn’t expected much else.

Outside of the coffee shop the sun was still shining though there was an early Spring chill in the air. People were out strolling, trying to convince themselves that, now the rain and snow had stopped, Summer proper had arrived, although thick coats and hats showed that they weren’t quite convinced themselves. She started walking aimlessly, trying not to think of anything in particular. The area was beautiful, verdant lawns and daffodils were only tentatively skirted by concrete walkways but even they were gently curved to escape the need for sharp edges or harsh angles. The same went for the few scattered buildings like the coffee shop that bubbled unobtrusively from the ground. It was a relatively new build, a pleasure garden of sorts but not too different from the rest of the city. Everything was made for beauty these days, everything was elegant in design, it was a driving pre-occupation for the state, which had resolved to keep anything jarring out of sight. A connivance that she couldn’t bring herself to hate, as Ich did. No, beauty was beauty and deserved appreciation for what it was even if she’d long ago tired of it.

The only concession to a world beyond the pleasantly immediate came in the form of occasional digital billboards promoting the colonies. The one release valve the state and the Perfect Lifers alike allowed for in their idyllic world. Life, the ads declared, was ‘Real’ out there. Though what that made life here on earth she wasn’t quite sure. Things were dirtier out there, she knew that much, there was a real frontier being pushed forward into the stars and that had to mean something different from the staid routine of life here. But even that carefully managed idea of brave new worlds was tempered by the absolute solidity of the great truth that those Perfect Lifers stood for. The Sanctity of Eternity. Human immortality, the biggest thing the species had ever done and an achievement that defined almost every facet of life, especially if you were born after the advent of the barrage of medicines, nano-technologies and scientific miracles which spawned it.

Tila was a relative child, a hundred years old in a world where that was barely sufficient age to get you anything more than tolerant nods and sighs from the real seniors of society. She stood on the wrong side, as she saw it, of the history’s most extreme generational divide. Where they, the Perfect Lifers, the ones who had lived in a world of war, disease, famine and death held their immortality as an unquestionable reward for the human struggle she, and others like her, just wanted to die. How that had become intolerable she didn’t know. History now was a stage managed story, defined by those who’d lived long enough to claim ownership of it and they were jealous in guarding their possession. Oh they knew death happened. Even now there were accidents and even in the early days, the early centuries even, after the advent of immortality suicide, murder and self-destruction had been commonplace but as they told it the sort of people who did those things had culled themselves. They had been mad, cruel, ignorant individuals who had done the world a favour by their own rush to the grave but now that was over, a sorrowful memory for some and a cautionary tale for others. Now life was perfect and the human eternity was sacred. So campaigners like Ich, or the suicidal like Tila, were deemed no more than children anxious to romanticise something they couldn’t possibly comprehend. She half believed that herself. Certainly suicide, when the idea had first dawned on her, had seemed absurd, offensive even.

Even the Lived Life people, eager in their campaigning to remove the artificial blocks to mortality and let those who chose to play out their own existences as nature dictated, saw suicide as an insult to the suffering of generations past and a madness to those still living. Their ranks were full of people like Ich though. True believers whose faith was as elaborate and artificial as the dictates of their opponents. They called for natural endings as an abstract, faced with the actual fact of death they couldn’t do much more than argue, albeit passionately. To them, as to everyone else, the finality of leaving life was abhorrent, even if they wanted – or thought they wanted – the possibility of it. A result of boredom, Tila half suspected, more than anything and almost petulant for it.

She wasn’t alone though, no she wasn’t alone. Even amongst the placid faces of those strolling around her on yet another idyllic day there would be those who, on some level, longed to end it all. They’d never say it, never act on it, never manifest their feelings in any way whatsoever for to do so would be to shatter enshrined cultural taboos too solid by far to be challenged. But Tila wasn’t special or unique, she had no delusions there and if she could feel that weighted desire for nothingness then so would others, little as that mattered.

“You need to go to the colonies, you need a change and you’re old enough to get a permit now.”

Tila nodded vaguely as the woman next to her spoke. She was a senior, although Tila wasn’t certain of her age beyond knowing that it was more easily measured in centuries than years. To look at her though there was no way of knowing it, the visible signs of ageing having been eroded away along with the intangible fact of mortality. A few smile lines, a few streaks of grey in her auburn hair, both marks Tila bore herself at a hundred years old, but beyond that Kara was, presumably, much as she had been at 30 or 80 or a hundred. High cheekboned and somewhat dramatically imperious there was nothing more to mark her out from the crowd and even if her eyes still seemed to hold life whatever fire there had been in them was tampered down to a meagre flame

Kara was a relative, of some sort, although the genealogical connection had long since been forgotten. Immortality made family a sprawling affair, constantly expanded by the addition of genetic or social connections, no less valid for that though. Kira had watched her grow up, she was close with Tila’s parents so even if the blood link was purely imagined she was still family and the speech she was giving was as comfortably familiar as the bond between them.

“I was older than you when I went off-world, but it was still the best time of my life. And you’re different from me, you want something else, I’ve always been happy enough here but you need something new so go and get it. Life’s different out there, there’s an edge to it.”

Tila nodded again, the message was a staid one. The off-world colonies were as safe as Earth was. Dirtier, perhaps, the mentality rougher and more enamoured with some tenuous sense of frontier life but still people came back from them unscathed, certainly mortality rates were no higher out there than down here. The Perfect Lifers were content enough with it though, for them it was a neat solution to the disillusionment of the Lived Life types and their fellow travellers. Unhappy with the serenity of Earth? Head into space, play at gritty survivalism, life is still sacred wherever you are and even accidental deaths were only marginally more prevalent at the limits of human expansion than at its heart. Endless safety measures and inoculations made sure of that much, as well as degrading the whole mirage of a different way of living out there. Without death it was all much the same.

Kira was drumming her fingers on the kitchen table, probing green eyes on Tila. Looking, Tila thought, for a way to shake her from what Kira must have assumed was routine youthful apathy.

They were in Kira’s apartment, where Tila’s idle wanderings had led her. She had no intention of telling her about the suicide plan, Ich would be the only one to know about that, but even that much sharing had tired her so she’d come looking for comfort. She’d considered heading to see her parents, whose own house was on the other side of town but they were too lost in their own obsessions these days. Ardent Perfect Lifers they’d bought wholesale into the relatively new trend for the beautification of life, another in the long list of past-times contrived by the state and its ideological backers to keep people occupied and alive. All they’d have to offer her was a knowledgeable, but interminable, lecture on the merits of geometric aesthetics and the latest theories behind ideal design. Kira was at least harder to distract, less faddish in her attentions.

Skating over the colonies idea Tila tried to pull the conversation in a new direction.

“What are you doing now? Living in the beauty?”

Taking the hint Kara gave a hollow laugh.

“No. I can’t understand why your parents are so obsessed with it either. Between them they’re pushing a thousand years and yet give them something shiny and they’re like kittens with a ball of string. You’d think immortality would amount to at least some wisdom wouldn’t you?”

The disdain was only half meant in jest. Kara was Kara, hardly a rebel but she anchored her identity to steering away from the mainstream even if she still stuck doggedly to the periphery of it. Something which had once led Tila to almost idolise her until she’d realised how carefully managed the image was. But then the seniors tended to do that after a certain age, as if change or evolution were finished processes.

“Anyway, I’ve been making music. I used to do it when I was real young, less than a century old. I was good too. This time I aim to be even better though, re-make what I did and create something perfect.”

“Not something new?”

“Oh there’s nothing new here, not for me anyway. It’s up to you young people to create something different, out on the colonies maybe, where there’s still some chaos to go around.”

Tila smiled tiredly, young at a hundred, she didn’t feel it. Besides, age didn’t matter, there was nothing new, everything was already too cluttered to leave space for that. A fact, Tila reminded herself, not a pessimistic lament – that was an important difference to remember. Not leaving time for the tangent to grow too far from her starting point Kara started talking again.

“So, will you go to the colonies?”

“No, I won’t, but I will go home now, I just stopped by to say hi. I’ve got stuff I need to do.”

Kara didn’t rush to stop her as Tila stood to leave, but carried on talking.

“What could you have to do that can’t wait? Come on, we can get you a permit for the next ship off Earth, you’ll feel better for the change, it’ll set you up.”

“Another time maybe.”

Tila turned and left the room before the matter could be dragged out, leaving Kara to sigh to herself and ignore her departure. She’d been telling Tila to leave for the colonies for years now, there was no rush to resolve the matter.

Tila’s home was a spacious apartment next to a newly constructed pleasure garden which she could see from her balcony. It was based on an ancient notion of Zen design, a minor act of rebellion from a local designer who’d decided to fly in the face of convention but ignoring the more contemporary theories on urban design. Tila had met him when he’d given a lecture to local residents on what he had planned, there’d been an argument over the hollowness of such antiquated concepts of style. He’d been elated by it, a validation of his self-aware controversy. Although the irony of revolt through an appeal to history so old that no one alive could even remember that far back was seemingly lost on him. Ich had been there too, making noise about how only people who could die could come up with something so beautiful.

Now that it was finished Tila kind of agreed. As regimented as the gardens which made up the courtyard for an array of more modernistic blocks was it still felt more alive than the usual gentle curves and organic lines. Precisely designed lawns, immaculately trimmed trees and bushes, eternally flowing streams – all the product of near constant human attention. Only a shedding cherry blossom tree broke from human control but even that had to be managed, fallen petals harvested to stop their beauty from decaying into mulch – something the Perfect Lifers would have appreciated. Although now it was Spring and everything grew. It demanded something of people, constant attention and maintenance. A difference from the sort of aesthetic people wanted now, which served but didn’t require real attention but instead rolled onwards before the force of it’s own designed inertia. This was something to do with life, rather than something to be a backdrop to eternity. Or perhaps not. Aligned with them she may have been but Tila was far from blind to the tendency towards romanticising dead ideas that the Lived Lifers had. It was childish, or maybe not, but people said so and she couldn’t help but believe it herself.

She stood there for ten minutes, watching the last remnants of light fade away from the day, before turning away and looking into her apartment.

There was a noose hanging there, a three legged stool beneath it.

Tila hadn’t told Ich it would be done tonight. She hadn’t known herself really, not until she’d gotten home and found the rope which she’d long ago set aside, before the idea of suicide had seemed real to her. Now though, this evening, everything else was done, there were no more conversations to be had, no more thoughts to think.

She stood for a moment, waiting to see if she’d shake or sweat, tensing her legs to see if they showed signs of giving way at the prospect before her. Nothing happened though, she simply stood there, breathing sedately in and out, not even thinking about what she was about to do because it was certain that it should happen. Her life was done, not in tears or horror or sadness, just done. And something else had to take it’s place, or nothing else did, either way it was time to end her immortality.

Then she was on the stool, rope around her neck. She turned her head, surveying for one last time her home. She’d been there for 30 years, it was beautiful, contoured to leave not a single uncomfortable edge. Tila nodded to herself and kicked the stool away from underneath herself.

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To The Gallery

Refugee Ship

In the act of judging I think we pretty much lose completely the capacity to observe ourselves. Refugees, immigrant crises, sinking boats, aid efforts, denunciations, attacks, insults, defences – we always have something to project outwards, seldom any reflection upon our own behaviour. For better or worse.

Which was worse? The eyes that could be seen at every crossroads and check-point? In every tree line, on every border and staring with greedy hatred from the face of every observer? Both those sent to govern and those just passing to leer. Or the unseen ones? The distant ones, omniscient and unforgiving? The ones formed in the imagination, half certain in briefly caught snippets of news and rumour where their glare was etched in pixelated images?

She no longer cared enough to attempt to know. Stalked by both the violent and the silent galleries of viewers the idea of being judged, of presenting some appeal by appearance, had been crushed to nothing beneath the simple force of forward momentum. Only when those ubiquitous eyes shifted closer, suddenly attached to grasping claws and red faced malice did they force a reply. And the only reply she had to offer was to flee.

Once the eyes had belonged to a journalist. That was when she’d been half blind herself, unaware of the stalkers’ gaze the world had laid upon them all. The journalist had been earnest, eager to soften questions of death in almost childlike language. A polite attempt to cosset his outsider status in stupidly hollow delicacy. So she’d assumed at least, what she had read as an almost oppressive awareness of their invasion of other people’s suffering could just as easily been feigned naivety for the sake of a story. Hindsight now made true innocence or empathy hard to stomach and impossible to judge from briefly curious strangers like him. She’d answered him though, tiredly indifferent to the results even early in her flight from the war. Not for a second questioning the gently constructed softness behind the man’s every word.

But the wages of honesty had dogged her ever since. Manifesting in diatribes and defences, assaults and acceptances from an audience distant enough to not hear reasons but close enough to pass judgement. Her voice had been added to the tragic chorus the journalist had used to satiate the distant and greedy eyes of observers set on distilling certain judgement from a life she could barely comprehend. They’d made her a parasite and a pariah, a martyr and a mourner. Summing her and all like her up in remote conversations and uncomprehending stares cast to snippets of TV footage and profligate speculation. All while she marched on, hidden in a mess of refugees no more interested or in control of their jury than she was.

By comparison the violent eyes which leered without guile were an easily understood harassment. They asked nothing, they simply stated. Rejection, revulsion, easy cruelty. At every town and camp, setting out with an obvious passion to drive her away. Bricks and battles negating the need for spoken or written judgement. Their eyes would never be pleased, never ask for any presentation from her to satisfy them.

But the gallery didn’t matter, neither the immediate nor the remote one. She would always be too tired. Always be too reliant on that desperate forward momentum, to play to any of them. And even if she weren’t, she had long since learnt that she could never please them. The eyes would always judge and she would never, ever have anything to offer in reply.

My latest work, No Cure for Shell Shock, is a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook or paperback here.

Reviews and support are always appreciated.

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YouSir – Hostile Takeover EP

Hostile Takeover Cover

Just a little something I made years and years ago. Recently disappeared from the internet as the site it was on culled their archives, so here it is again on Band Camp. It was a labour of love, although possibly not much talent but I’m still happy to have it out there. And it’s free to stream/download so feel free to have a listen. Electronic noodlings.

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Gone Done (No Cure for Shell Shock extract)

cover thumb

‘Mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy…’ It was all he could hear. The screaming from the family in front of him had stopped, the shouted insults and encouragement from the men behind him had faded into nothing. He could still see their mouths move, all of them, almost in slow motion as he stood locked in his own mind beyond the moment.

Mercy? That was his voice, his own accusing, terrified voice. Mercy for who? For them? They were dead, they were dead, they were dead. One tensed muscle away from the grave. He couldn’t stop that, the life had been sucked out of his body, it was lost in the certainty of what was about to happen. They were dead, if not through him then through the others and if not through him then him along with them. Mercy? How could there be mercy? Where was there space for it? But it didn’t matter, the same word, ‘mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy’, screamed inside his head over and over again.

A crying family. Why should they have mercy? Why? He’d been offered none, he’d seen none, even beyond this instance, beyond this moment of decision where was there sympathy or sorrow for him? Nowhere. Dead. Mercy, sympathy, sorrow, wherever he’d ever known them they’d been left dead, executed before his eyes before he’d even realised their value. The families pitiful cries and begging, now muted into silent and numb gestures, what were they supposed to do? Save their lives? Their lives were over. Dig out something in him that didn’t exist? Mercy? More than that, sacrifice, for him to kill for them rather than the men he’d arrived with. A greedy demand, an insulting one. They grovelled to him for something they did nothing to offer themselves. Why not give themselves up? They were dead, if they could just accept it then he could be saved. If they could stop grasping for some way out he could silence the goddamn screaming in his head and do what he had to do. Mercy, mercy, mercy, but none for him.

Never any for him.

Never any for his family.

Never any for his home or friends or hopes or life – all of which had been taken without even a shred of sorrow.

He wanted to be sick. He needed to be sick. Those lifeless muscles gripped the gun in his hands. They were a million miles away from his thoughts, they were certain of what would happen. Only the desperate, near retching need to vomit still connected him to his body, the two bound by a thin thread of revulsion. Was that it? Revulsion? Mercy, mercy, mercy. No, there was no mercy and they were all dead already. So was there revulsion? Why? At what? He was doing what he had to do, he was doing what they all did, exactly the same as everyone had done since this war had started. That family who wished him dead with their pleading, the men behind him who laughed and cackled at every body. This was it, this was all of it so what was the revulsion for?

He couldn’t think. He couldn’t even see his own thoughts clearly. He was sure there was nothing there, no part of him which still felt anything for these corpses in denial. But mercy, mercy, mercy still screaming through his skull.

A father, a mother, a son and a daughter. Civilians. Innocent. Asking him to die. But he was innocent too. He was as innocent as any of them. He had never picked up a gun, had never sought them out, he’d never sought anyone out. All of this had been forced onto him, a rifle in his hands, these people in front of him and those men, those vicious, violent, broken men who’d dragged him into this. Never with a moment of sympathy, or sorrow, or mercy.

mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy

The little girl was the only one not joining in the pitiful play. No cries, no pawing for salvation, she just silently sat there, eyes locked on his feet, seeing nothing. She understood. No more than eight or nine and she understood, they were dead or he was dead. More than that, they were dead and he was dead, sooner or later. Just like those he’d arrived with. Those mad and violent men, dead already and driven insane by it. His finger tightened on the trigger without him willing it to. He would join them. He would do this thing, he would vomit, he would cry and he would forget the word ‘mercy’. It was no choice, no decision, it was already done, already set in stone and his limbs knew that.

He pointed the gun at her. Barrel levelled at her face. She didn’t move an inch. She should be the first. He could gift her that, she knew it was coming so better to not see it done, not to the rest at least. Was that mercy?

mercy, mercy, mercy, mercy

No, mercy was a felt thing, not just a word and he felt nothing. His muscles acted, his stomach churned, the voice in his head screamed. All separate, all alone, all decided.

The noise came back with the crack of a bullet being fired. Screams from the family, laughter from behind him.

No mercy.

The voice had fallen silent, cowed into retreat by the explosive of gunshot. Held there by another and another and another. He vomited. Crumpling to his knees he squeezed his eyes closed, trying and failing to collapse in on himself as hands slapped his back. More gunshots. Dead men making sure the corpses didn’t rise. No matter, he had killed them, he had done what he had known he would.

Hands were dragging him to his feet even as strands of sick still hung from his chin, ponderously dripping onto his shirt. More back slapping. Someone shook his hand. From the silence the world had become too loud, they were all talking, perhaps to him but he couldn’t tell. Words fell flatly around him ‘animals’; ‘dogs’, ‘filth’, ‘scum’, the words those dead men used to replace ‘mercy’. He would have to learn them now, they were his words, the language of his madness. The tears in his eyes drained away the old sounds, the old words, purging him ready for his afterlife. No more mercy, just scum and filth.

A hand clamped on his jaw. Rough, powerful, swivelling his head to face the bodies of the family. A heap of nothingness, no more begging, no more grovelling, nothing. Filth now, garbage, nothing human and nothing left to ask anything of him.

… filth, filth, filth, filth…

The word grew louder in his head. They’d been dead from the moment he’d arrived, they’d been filth from the moment he’d arrived. A final image of his own family passed across his eyes, bodies crumpled just the same as these, living, real people made garbage, just like these. Filth.

He forgot them all. The memories of a new man flooded in, madness drowning those of the child who’d passed with a gunshot.

… filth, filth, filth, filth…

No Cure for Shell Shock is a collection of short stories and poetry. It’s available as an eBook or paperback here.

Reviews and support are always appreciated.

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Prisoner of War (No Cure for Shell Shock extract)

NCfSS cover

He refused to look at me. I stared, I hated, but he refused to see. I lived through my eyes, for those long minutes. I tried to leave the rest, to let him have it so that whatever he took wouldn’t be me. I failed. For all that I placed in that stare some part of me remained for him to steal. Still he refused to look at me. He left, having seen nothing. None of my rage, none of the hatred he’d earned as he pinned me down and forced himself onto me.

He left that for me, a new self, built on that hate and anger. A replacement for the rest, for that part he’d taken as a prisoner of war.

No Cure for Shell Shock, my collection of short stories, is available for free on Amazon Kindle until the 24th of March – grab your copy here. Reviews and shares much appreciated!

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