Wednesday, 20 July 2011

CASTING

a story

People who'd never been there - if they had cause to think of the place at all - pictured a dank outpost on which a handful of sheep and peasants grimaced against a perpetual storm. Often they didn't know about the solid glare of sunshine that settled itself there in midsummer days, and lasted from day through night. The white sun burned on, the fishermen continued to cast their nets, the sheepdogs kept skittering about. Visitors got hectic and confused and didn't know when to sleep. That summer, the summer that Shona Rae was seventeen, it was especially bright, and there were special visitors, because of the film. A film was being made; the local boys were working as crew, and tossing out film-set language as if they'd grown up under the Hollywood hills instead of the black cliffs of the very far north.


Shona and her friend Alan Bone sat on the grass outside the Rae's croft and talked about the filming. Shona was knitting quickly as they spoke, and Alan was throwing a ball repeatedly for Duff, his dog. As he did so he explained to Shona that one of the island dogs had been employed to perform in the film, and that the London people had all fallen in love with him, and were making a great fuss of him. This dog was walking around all puffed up; he waited with his ears all pricked up each morning for the film people to collect him from his croft and then strutted off with them waving his tail. Alan joked about Duff being put out. Then he said that the film people had
been looking for girls who could sing, to perform a folk song.

Shona was absorbing this when her father emerged slowly from the front door of the croft. James Rae was a very old man, and Shona could not remember him ever having been anything else. She was not even sure what colour his eyes were, so squinted-up had they always been against the sun and the wind and the ceaseless disappointments of life.

Alan got hurriedly to his feet. Duff looked excitedly for the ball and then stood still and asked where it was with his ears.

'I hope you're well, Mr Rae,' said Alan.
'Sit ye doon, Alan Bone,' ordered the old man. 'As ye know, I've no been well since my Jenny departed, and nor will I be until I can join her in heaven.'

Alan, sitting back down on the turf, threw Shona a knowing smile. Fourteen years had passed since her mother had died, and her father had lived every day since in a state of aggressive grief. He sighed more than he spoke. It was with one of his long, sad exhalations that he now positioned himself on the weathered chair that sat outside for him in the summer months. He looked out at the bay, which glinted merrily back. He did not catch its mood.

'We were jist talking,' ventured Alan, 'aboot the film they're making, Mr Rae.'
'Aye, well - I for one dinna ken fit we need a film for,' the old man declared. 'It will only bring mair folk. Incomers. Motorcars. Actresses in next to nothing.'

Shona and Alan exchanged a quick glance, and she looked away so as not to laugh. Alan threw the ball. 'Mair folk is what the islands need, Mr. Rae,' he said as Duff sped off low to the ground. Shona widened her eyes at him and cuffed his arm. There was a loud pause, then: 'Thank you, Alan Bone. Mibbe when ye've lived on this earth for half of the time that I have, folk will look to you for your opinions. But I'll no be here to see that day.'

Duff the dog thudded up to Shona, and Shona grabbed him by the ruff and buried her face into the long rough hair there. He smelled of old food and the beach, and Shona breathed into his fur the thought that most disgraced her: that one day, perhaps soon, she would know a life without James' scorn. The croft would be hers then, and she'd marry, and - there she ran out of certainties. The future was a vast empty room in which she moved around those two pieces of furniture.

'I've heard nothing but that they're fine people, and that the story they're telling is a good one,' Alan was saying. Shona, releasing the dog, shook her head at his boldness. No-one spoke back to old James. It was the light again, thought Shona, making folk reckless.

A growling sound came out of her father. 'I heard there's a bairn born out of wedlock,' he said. 'I hear there's mocking of wir ways and of wir kirk. And that they're taking the young girls of the island and making them dance.' Then came one of James' abrupt attacks, which Shona had known since she was a child. 'I suppose she thinks she'll dance for them too. Well, Shona?'

The usual hard blush hit Shona, and she said nothing. Even with her hot face turned away she knew that Alan and her father were both looking at her, and with the same look of indulgent amusement - kinder in Alan's case, but no more tolerable for it. She stood up and took the ball from the innocent Duff and threw it very fast and hard down the hill. 'I know nothing aboot it,' she said steadily.

In her mind, she was singing for the director from London, and her note held true.

The next day was Sunday, and Shona and her father went to church. The minister spoke on envy, and through it all the congregation in the small church kept collectively flicking its eyes over the the smartly-clad group in the corner: the film people, showing their respect for the community by participating in its rituals. The young director was there, but not his wife. When the hymn came, Shona sang especially loud, and it seemed easy; the notes came out of her long and right, though her father shifted beside her all the time. After the sermon, the group from the film stalked off, all turning back and waving. An imaginary, alternative Shona raced after them, presenting herself, offering them a song - but her real self remained stubbornly where she was. She hovered and listened to the talk, while her father was speaking with the minister. The director's wife, they said, had been seen walking alone, with a sadness about her. The women wondered at her height and grace, her waved golden hair; the men just looked at one another and laughed when she passed, because her looks went beyond the sort of prettiness that they would comment on outside church or at a dance, and into the realm of dreams and moving pictures. Meanwhile, the film people were still recruiting locals for work and to appear in the picture. Shona was about to ask how she could speak to them, where they could be found, when she felt Alan next to her, giving her his amused look. 'Ssh, Alan. I'm no good enough,' she muttered. She hoped to be contradicted, but instead Alan just patted her on the back as if she was Duff and turned to talk to someone else.

'Shona. We'll be away home now,' barked James.

The Sabbath dragged and Shona saw no-one. She passed an anxious night, imagining. The next day, early, she offered to run the errands. The fishermen massed at the harbour told her that the film people had gone, but that the director's wife had been by, in a white dress, and had waved at her husband as he departed on a wee boat. He had not waved back, they said. 'And there's a lassie come in from Lerwick,' added Thomas Leask, 'to sing a song for them. She'll be in the film, and be famous.'

Shona swallowed hard, and wished the fishermen good day, and went home with the messages. The white sunshine persisted, and she spent the afternoon away from it in the shaded kitchen making a stew for her father. She cleaned the house until no dust showed anywhere, and then she knitted while her father read in his chair. The entire time she pictured herself strolling confidently up to the huts in which the film people were staying, perhaps in a white dress, although she didn't have a white dress, and asking to speak with the director. When her father fell asleep, she dragged her hair out of her face and tied it back and wrapped a shawl around herself and stomped off into the bright night, across to the west of the isle where the film people had set up their row of huts. There were a few women sitting on chairs outside, holding sheaves of paper, smoking cigarettes and laughing. Shona felt her face begin to boil as soon as she was in view of them. The final stretch was torture. Just what is the natural way to behave, she wondered, when walking towards people who are watching you approach?

'Can we help you, my dear?' asked a woman with black hair.
'I just came to - I wondered. I was passing. I wondered, was the - is the
director man here?'
'He's not, dear. He went off by himself. Is it anything that we might help
with?'
'Oh - no. No, no. I was passing. I - no.'
'Were you wondering about a part, dear?'
'Well. The singing. I - sing.' Shona's blush had reached a new intensity of
colour. The Englishwomen, with their petal-pale complexions, smiled gentle
upon her, but it didn't soothe her cheeks.
'Oh, love.' Another woman had chimed in. 'We've done all that - I'm sorry.
We recorded the song yesterday. What an awful shame we didn't meet you
before!'
'Oh. It's all right. It's all right. I only wanted to - ask. Och well. I'll
be away. I'm - sorry.'

Shona turned her back and scampered down the hill as fast as Duff after his ball. The women's kindness had stung more than rejection. She headed, without thinking, in the direction of the cliffs. The sun and the humiliation combined and made tears, and on a flat expanse with just the sea and sky in front of her, she stopped to shed them. The only thing that would ever happen on the island was happening without her; her father would never stop laughing at her, and would never die; and Alan smiled on her like a
sister. She sat down, and the sea stared back. A black figure was poised on the very edge of the cliff. She blinked. It was still there. It moved
towards her. It came into focus, as a youngish man with a fair bald head. She was just registering that it was him, the director, when there was a cataclysmic shriek and a torpedo movement from above. The man yelled out and bowled towards her. He fell on her, and she said into his chest, 'It's all right - it's all right. It's just a bonxie - just a bird,' but his arms stayed hard around her. She butted against him to free her face and speak. Since the time when her mother had died, Shona had never been held that closely by anyone. The bird came back, still screaming - then was gone. After a moment, the director loosed his grip and laughed.

'I say... I hope I didn't smother you,' he said. 'I'm not so keen on birds.'
'They protect their nests,' said Shona, smiling.
The two of them settled next to one another, and looked out onto a sky in which both moon and sun could be seen. The director recited, 'The sun was shining on the sea/Shining with all its might/He did his very best to make/The billows smooth and bright/And that was odd, because it was/The middle of the night.'
Shona looked at him, blinking, and blushing, again.
 'Why were you crying?' he asked.
'Oh. It's nothing, sir. I'm sorry. I'm awful embarrassed to say. I had a bad day. I wanted to see you. I wanted you to hear me sing. But I'm no good. I'm no good.'
'I had a bad day too.' He didn't look at her, but out into the crazy sky. 'You could sing now. Sing for me now. Quick - it's getting stormy over there.'

He was right; the sky was blackening at last. With the last of the sunshine came the last of Shona's boldness, and she sang against the sky and the birds and her father and Alan, while the director looked away from her, and smiled gently at how her voice cracked, and thought about his wife.



the end


this was commissioned for a Radio 4 Afternoon Reading. Don't stop commissioning stories, Radio 4!

Monday, 4 July 2011

Dressing Natalie

a story

Dear Mr Overton,

What a time it has been! I expect that things have been busy for you too, what with the ongoing financial disarray about which we hear so much. Although perhaps for providers of financial advice such as yourself, a recession provides a business boost - much as roofers must prosper in the wake of a hurricane? It must be a peculiar feeling to make one’s greatest profit at times of human woe. Now I come to think of it, though, there must be a lot of it about. Ratcatchers applauding infestations, and psychiatrists living in dread of a cure for human misery! Mr Overton, it only strikes me now: could it be that the reason most of us dwell in such dissatisfaction is that an outbreak of generalised contentment would put so many people out of work?

But I digress. I apologise. As you know, I have a habit of digressing. Although perhaps my observations are not as random as they may appear, since Derek and I have of late endured what might be regarded as our very own private hurricane, and there has been considerable cost to our contentment - or at least mine. Nonetheless, I am happy to say that things are beginning to improve. My reason for writing is to assure you that certain unusual activity on our joint account should not be regarded as untoward. Since Derek’s period of illness and consequent departure from his job, you have been striving so nobly to keep us from the debtors’ jail; and I felt that you would be understandably concerned by what you might regard as a splurge. I also know from past experience that sudden spates of largesse can set off alarm bells, in these days of identity theft. (In truth, Mr Overton, I sometimes rather yearn for someone to make off with my identity. I was once telephoned by my bank at an unseemly hour and asked if I was in Skegness and the proud owner of a new motorcycle sidecar, since my credit card had just been used there to buy one. Alas, no. It was my sidecar only in name.)

So, anyway. I wish to alert you to these purchases and assure you of their validity. You see, Mr Overton, I recently spent a full day shopping for Natalie. I realise that this will come as no small surprise to you, antipathy towards Natalie having been a significant motivating factor for me in recent times - if not, indeed, the sole spark motivating me to rise from my bed of a morning. But Natalie and I must find a way forward; and it struck me as selfishness on my part not to attempt a rapprochement. Shopping is a bonding exercise, or so they say. Has it ever struck you, Mr Overton - the extent to which we women are encouraged to combat personal difficulties by buying things for ourselves? Particularly things which make us appear more attractive from the outside? Does that ever strike you as strange? You would not expect a man to spend a day shaving, or buying shirts, to make himself feel better. A man such as you - a man, come to that, such as Derek, or at least the Derek I married - would play a game of golf, or drink himself insensible. A woman is encouraged to pamper. To increase her acceptability. I mentioned this to Natalie, while we trawled the aisles, but she was not compelled by my argument. She was busy oohing over a faux-fur stole, from which I had to physically part her. Natalie inclines toward an Old Hollywood look, and in my opinion often finds herself an opera glove or two away from being in fancy dress. Much of my usefulness during our ‘pampering’ day lay in toning Natalie down. And in managing her expectations. She has considerable expectations, does Natalie, and they require management. You might be familiar with that standing joke among hairdressers - the heavy-set and ill-favoured client who brings in a photograph of some slip of a celebrity sylph and demands to look just like her? Well, Natalie, I now know, has over a number of years maintained a scrapbook in which she collects images of ‘looks’ that she admires and wishes to emulate. This was how she phrased it: ‘I like this look; this is a look I like.’ I hardly need to note, Mr Overton, that these ‘looks’ rather neglect to accommodate the specifics of Natalie’s own appearance. I was driven to point out, I’m afraid, that one set of false eyelashes does not a Katy Perry make. Natalie got rather emotional at this. False eyelashes, Mr Overton, forsooth. They have come back into fashion, I’m told. Along with wigs, and corsets, and all sorts of troublesome items that my generation of women were rather keen to cast off. Bras! Bras are everywhere, and though they do look more flammable than ever, it does not appear that anyone is burning them any more! (Not that I ever personally felt more liberated or equal when I was flopping about all over the place, but I suppose I understood the symbolism.) And the shoes that the girls wear now - have you seen? Natalie showed me racks of the things, and though I managed to steer away from the more extreme styles and towards something more age-appropriate, her eyes were wet with yearning as she pointed out her favourites. They looked like medical equipment, Mr Overton! Like calipers. But in pink snakeskin. Look, I like nice things. I have some patent leather court shoes from Russell and Bromley that give me a quiet thrill. Looking at Natalie’s choice of shoes, though, I was put in mind less of fashion and more of a museum display I once saw of shoes that had belonged to Chinese women with bound feet. Those shoes had nothing to do with the shape of a foot, and nor did the ones that Natalie liked. I couldn’t quite believe that they were, as she assured me, the norm. We found her some nice, discreet slip-ons with a low heel.

We also bought Natalie make-up - a lot of make-up. We were approached now and then by those can-I-help-you harpies, who were obviously excited about taking on a challenging case; but I flat-out refused their services. I was not going to subject Natalie to that. One of those women once peered at me, screwed up her orange-painted nose and said, My, you have to be brave to wear as little make-up as you do! Mr Overton, I was fully made up! And she called me brave! Later, my friend Beatrice, who has worked on a beauty counter for twenty years, told me that they insult you ON PURPOSE to make you feel insecure so that you buy things. I didn’t know whether to feel better or worse. Beatrice said that she and her colleagues always pretend to estimate a woman’s age, and add on an extra decade, so that the woman flies into a frenzy of terrified self-loathing and spends forty pounds on a jar of grease. I must admit, I felt compelled to distance myself from Beatrice after that conversation.

I still haven’t got to the point, have I, Mr Overton? What a blabbermouth I am. Derek told me once that he felt as if he’d barely got a word in edgeways over thirty years of marriage. Well, I didn’t think that was quite fair, but people see things the way they see them, I suppose. The list of items. Here it is.

Those low-heeled shoes, in red
Various dresses, blouses and skirts in size 14 (Natalie is more realistically a 16, but she did insist - despite my protestations that the fit was more important than what it said on the label)
Control-top shine-effect tights, in nude, biscuit and barely black
Several sets of special medical-looking elastic underwear, which according to Natalie is all the rage in Hollywood ‘for ensuring a smooth silhouette’
Four padded push-up bras
Eight pairs of matching panties, in various styles - ‘g-string’, ‘bikini’ and ‘boy short’
Waxing procedures: legs, underarms and elsewhere (I left the room)
Soothing aloe vera ointment for waxed areas
Light-reflecting matte foundation
Powder
Eyebrow pencil
Eyeshadow
False-lash-effect mascara
False lashes (I did question why these were necessary, if the previous item did what it claimed; but Natalie pouted, and I let it go)
Lipliner
Lipsticks, various
Blusher
Spray-on tan (Natalie feels she is too pale; she wanted a sunbed tan, but I told her not to be ridiculous)

It seemed so much, Mr Overton! As I said, I badly wanted a cessation of hostilities between us, and for Natalie to come away happy; but as we amassed more and more spangles, potions and support garments, I confess I felt my head begin to spin. When, at my insistence, we made a brief stop for a reviving cappuccino, I queried whether Natalie really needed so much. ‘This,’ she insisted, ‘is the bare minimum!’ And then she got out her new compact to check for froth on her top lip. ‘Il faut souffrir pour ĂȘtre belle,’ she said. Noting that her French accent is no better than Derek’s, I pondered the phrase. It struck me that it might be bilge. You don’t see trees suffering to be beautiful, do you? Or sunsets. Or, come to that, Johnny Depp. Those things just are, and everybody jolly well swoons.

Natalie said that she knew what I meant, but that it couldn’t be like that for her. ‘Besides,’ she said, with a little panic in her voice, ‘the rituals are part of the fun, aren’t they?’

Well, Mr Overton, I’m just not sure any more that they are. When I think of how much time I have put into ‘the rituals’, over the years - and when I look at where it’s got me - I can’t say it seems like time well spent. To be quite honest, the more I see Natalie embracing her new beauty routines - gliding around the house daubed in mud or wax or chemical-smelling dyes - the less I feel like making any alterations to myself. I even told her that she could have my make-up, which she politely declined, saying that there was a risk of infections. (Nonsense, I said - my friends and I shared the same eyeliner pencil for most of the 1960s! - but then I remembered that we did all have conjunctivitis most of the time.)

I must sign off and let you go, Mr Overton. I hope that if you have any immediate concerns about the finances, you will give me a call. At the present time, it is better if you talk to me, although I don’t expect that always to be the case. We will get ourselves together, and function like a family again.

Which brings me to the other point I wanted to raise. I was so touched, Mr Overton, by your offer to take me to dinner. A man as distinguished as you - any woman would be flattered, and I’m sure most would jump at the chance. And I can imagine why you would suppose me in need of male company, under the circumstances. But the fact is, I am still married.

Though Derek now intends to live as Natalie all the time, we have no plans to separate. What we are planning is a party, at which we will introduce Natalie to our friends and families. I’m even hoping that she can reconcile with some of Derek’s old workmates, and see about getting her job back... We would be so honoured, Mr Overton, if you would come along? Natalie is going to wear the blue, in which, I have to say, she really does look beautiful...


(the end)

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Moon and the Spy Pencils

a story 

Moon was such a small man that if he had been one of many trapped in a burning building, he would have been able to avert catastrophe by wriggling through a skylight or a heating vent. He thought about it sometimes in bed at night. He pictured himself squeezed bullet-shaped, narrow little shoulders working forth and back, face contorted, encouraging shouts and hands at his rear. Lying in his bed, he wriggled a little, strained his little shellfish muscles. He imagined popping through like a cork out of a bottle, and being cheered and applauded as he got to work freeing the others. Fast and dainty as a cat, he would remove a window frame or force a lock, to accomodate their bulkier bodies. 

More than once since he reached his full height, Moon had been confidently informed that women went wild over tiny men. Other men - taller men - had told him with many a chuckle and wink that short men were known to be great lovers. Women, they said, could not resist short men. Look at Bogart! Look at Alan Ladd! And look at circus dwarves - they had beautiful full-sized wives and beautiful jealous full-sized girlfriends! The reason clowns were sad was because canny dwarves stole their women. 

Moon had never stolen a woman. But now that the war was bad, he found he was one of very few young and able-bodied men in town. He couldn't go away and fight because he was too small and his breath came out rough and ragged. His mother had given birth to him too soon, which she still spoke of reproachfully as if it had been his fault, but which he privately considered a failure on her part. He had been born in a bloody wrangle in the kitchen, too little and surprised to breathe easily on his own. He had not got enough oxygen. 

(He did wonder if this early experience of breathlessness might trouble him if he ever was called upon to wriggle through a skylight, or a heating vent.) 

Moon had a number of skills, though his body was weak and stunted. He knew he was cleverer and more able than many people who had enjoyed a full gestation period. His brain must have been finished, perhaps already dreaming, when he was rudely awakened and forced out that day in the kitchen. Only his body had been interrupted, and left unfinished. Moon had looked at embryos in jars and seen that they were all head, with just the smallest apologetic flicker of a body behind. They looked calm and wise, as if they had been left alone to think, without the distraction of other physical demands. The important early work goes into making the brains; the limbs and torso are afterthoughts. So Moon was made. His head was beautifully, perfectly large, his brain worked well. Some days he even felt he was superior - part of a different, more cerebral breed, constructed to think freely without the burden of muscle and bones and fat. His hands were faster, too, for being small. 

It could have gone another way. The lack of oxygen could have made him an idiot. For many months of his early life, doctors and other interested parties had watched anxiously at Moon's bedside for signs of strangeness. They expected that at any moment his tongue would loll or his eyes would lazily cross. But Moon was so alert that before they even knew he could speak he had secretly given them all names. He had also named his toys, his pillows and the three soft moles on his nanny's face. He hoarded words from stories and from conversations that he overheard. 

He revealed his abilities gradually to the people around his bed - starting, for tradition's sake, with 'Mama'. They kept saying 'Mama' to him, mugging with big eyes and flapping lips and wanting him to reciprocate, so he obliged. His own name for his mother, as it happened, was not Mama; it was This. His father's name was Out. 

The company that Moon worked for had been an innocuous concern before the war, producing games and packs of cards and crossword puzzles. Now they had a new project and they felt more important. They collected together useful items that could be smuggled into prisoner of war camps, and packaged them up in pretend care packages. There would be food, socks, a pack of cards perhaps, cigarettes, small comforts. Each box got stamped with the name of a fictitious charity and then they were shipped out, rich with secrets and never to be seen again. Moon's particular job was to work on tiny maps that were inked on tissue paper, rolled as thin as hairs and stashed inside the wooden chambers of pencils, where the lead was meant to be. It was a delicate process. Moon would be given a map to copy out, and would sit all day frowning very close to his work, a stack of pencils next to him, their insides mutilated to make room. Moon alternated the drawing and the rolling and the poking, and got up sometimes to wash his hands, so his sweat wouldn't buckle the tiny slips of paper or smudge the pencil lines. On his way to the men's washroom he would pass the table where the young girls sewed codes into handkerchiefs and map references into the heels of socks. Sometimes he passed by unnoticed. Sometimes the girls nudged each other and made comments. One of them was called Hilda and had two red coils of hair and a wide red mouth. She was as broad in the flanks as a horse and had rough skin around her mouth. 

'That's a wild one there,' said Harry, who had a withered leg and worked on tiny compasses, strong and resilient enough to be hidden in the heel of a boot. No-one knew how many of the little maps and other items actually got to their intended beneficiaries, or if they provided any help. But Harry and Moon and the girls all worked late into the night anyway, straining their eyes. Harry gained secret pleasure from not telling his wife anything about his new line of work, and she gained secret pleasure from not being told. 

'That's a wild one there. Eat you for breakfast, Moon. Soon as look at you.' 

Harry had a wife, a woman of virtue who was not to be discussed in the same terms as the working girls. Moon blushed when Harry talked that way. Hilda stood a full foot taller than Moon. Moon knew this because she'd once backed him against a wall and offered him a swig of something strong-smelling from a hip flask. His nose had come level with the imperious jut of her bosom. Too close to her body, he saw that it was really a collection of beautiful arches, like a church: her eyebrows, her feet in battered high-up heels, her front curved out under black scratchy heavy fabric. Her pelvis the doorway, her ribcage the rafters. Moon pitter-pattered like a rabbit, feet working for escape, heart fast. He felt the breath gather in his chest as if in a balloon. 

'You're so LITTLE. It's sweet,' Hilda hissed before he got away. 'I could snap you over my knee like one of those pencils.' After that he began sneaking glances at her knees, which were as solid and lumpy as potatoes. 

One of the things that Out did after Moon gratified him with the word 'Dad' was to provide Moon with books and paper. After the incident in the kitchen Moon's mother had made it very clear that she would not tolerate another pregnancy. She had found the experience uncomfortable, its culmination horrifying and its issue disappointing. So Out had to accept that his only heir was sickly and under-sized. The only hope was to encourage the boy to use his big head and become a great thinker. Great thinkers, Out reasoned, could be peculiar in appearance; it was tolerated, in intellectual circles. Out ordered stacks of books on random subjects from geology to Greek architecture, in the hope that Moon would display natural ability in one direction or another. Moon, curled foetus-like on his bed, quietly read everything and told his father very little about what he thought. In private he drew on all the flyleaves of the books - pictures of himself, big-headed and serene, and of This, and of Out. Next to their heads he would write things that they had said to him or about him. ALWAYS WITH YOUR HEAD IN A BOOK! This said. MAYBE THE CIVIL SERVICE OR POLITICS Out said. Because Out never looked at the books he didn't know about the drawings and it seemed somehow necessary to keep them secret. 

'That ain't a map,' said Harry, leaning over Moon's shoulder. Moon's map had turned itself into a drawing of Hilda, the dimpled side of her face and the heavy sweep of her hair. 'If you ever run short on dough, Hild, you could sell that hair,' one of the other girls had shouted once when Hilda was pinning it up. 'But if I didn't have the hair, I wouldn't get my drinks bought for me, and then I'd be even shorter on dough,' Hilda laughed back. 'Who wants to dance with a bald girl?' 

'You're a dark one. Got any more?' Harry asked Moon, with surprising urgency. 
'No,' said Moon. 'I just lost concentration for a bit.' He crushed the map in his hand - a waste. 
'Draw us one,' urged Harry. 'Not Hilda, though, she's a cow. Draw us little Jean there, the blonde one.' 
Drawing women wasn't unlike drawing maps. They had curves and fencing and wooded areas too. Jean was smaller and sharper and Moon thought her geography far less intriguing than Hilda's, but he obliged Harry. Harry whistled appreciatively and Moon felt suddenly liked. 
'Tell you what, mate. Most of those prisoners would rather see one of these than those bloody maps. Know I would if I was in the lock-up.' Harry paused. He had been in the lock-up, once, having been given to using his nimble compass-making fingers for the less noble purpose of breaking locks and opening safes. Encouraged, though shy, Moon started using both sides of the paper. Waste not, want not. On one side the map; on the other, a version of Hilda, first based upon sneaked glances across to her laughing or frowning over her work, then as he grew bolder, in imagined poses and scenarios. Harry encouraged him but then betrayed him. Hilda came in for the day in a state of high excitement, her wide cheeks redder than black market rouge. She came right over to Moon's desk and he felt littler than ever, as troubled as when Out had fired questions at him about his reading. 

'Harry said you been drawing me!' 
'No,' said Moon. 
'Come on, show! No-one ever drew me before.' Moon was quicker but she was stronger, and with one tough move she whipped a pile of finished papers off his desk. The delicate paper crumpled in her grip. She held them too high for Moon to reach and he sat red and suffering as she looked at each one in turn. She seemed angry and then not angry. She looked at the pictures for so long that Moon stopped watching her and went back to his work. 
'You been putting these in your little pencils, then?' she finally asked him. 
'Yes,' he said, wretched. 
'Show me.' She proffered one of the drawings. 
'Show...?' 
'Put it in. Do what you do.' 
Harry was watching from the other side of the table. Moon picked a pencil up. His hands trembled as he rolled the paper up tight and slotted it in through the tiny hole. Hilda leaned in close, and giggled. 
'Look at the way you slide that in there.' 
Harry let out a rude snort. 
'I don't have any notion who's looking at me, do I? Don't you think you ought to ask a person before you send pictures of them across the bloody world, hmm?' 
'Yes. I'm sorry.' 
'Make it up to me, then.' 
She placed the papers back on his desk with exaggerated care, patting them flat. Moon watched, not understanding. 
'Draw me properly,' she said. 'A big one, like proper artists do.' 
'But how can I -' 
Hilda leaned in again and took the completed, forgotten spy pencil out of his hand. She wrote an address down on one of the finished maps in front of him. 'That's where I live. You're going to come over and do my picture. Or I'm going to tell the supervisor about what you've been up to. Dirty little man.' 

Hilda lived with Jean in a shabby two-room flat. There was just a bedroom, with twin beds, and a kitchen. There were dirty saucepans crowded by the sink, and stockings hanging limply over the door-frames like discarded skins.
'It ain't Buckingham Palace,' Hilda said, handing Moon a china cup with an inch of brown in the bottom. Moon touched his tongue to the liquid and it burned. Outside work Hilda seemed a little quieter and less aggressive. She was wearing a sober brownish jumper, assiduously darned at one elbow, and a grey skirt that didn't show her knees. Jean had gone out for the evening. 
  
'You brought your stuff then?' Hilda said, looking down on Moon with a smile that betrayed some nervousness or regret. 'We don't keep a lot of artists' materials around.'

Moon produced a sketchbook from his knapsack. Paper was so scarce that he had begun rubbing out old drawings and working over their remains. Some pages had four layers of faint lines on them. Moon still could not be sure if he was being punished, or befriended, but he suspected the latter.

'Come on into the bedroom then. Jean's out for the night, and good luck to her.' 

The thing about the bedroom was the beds, and the chamber-pot neatly stashed in one corner. There was a smell, too, of close-confined flesh and talcum powder. Moon was gripped by a sudden conviction that Hilda was going to dart back out of the room and leave him in there, locking the door behind her. He would have to sit down on the corner of one of the beds and wait, the chamber-pot horrifyingly close by and the smell of girls growing stronger as the night drew in. 

But she didn't leave the room. She did something Moon had not even considered. 

'Oh come on, little man. Proper artists always drew women starkers. You know that.' 

The brownish jumper with its thoughtful darn was on the floor, soon joined by the grey skirt, two discarded skins of stockings and a number of complex items that had long ago been white. Moon stared at the pile of clothes and then flicked his eyes up to Hilda's face, trying to avoid the skin in between. She was flushed and defiant-looking, glittering at him. The last thing she did was unpin her hair. Seeing that he wasn't going to speak, she sat down on the bed, and made an impatient gesture. Well? He had to look then, and saw the way her belly settled into comfortable folds, the sad tug-marks on her hips and breasts where the flesh had swelled too fast. The arch of her pelvis, the arch of her arm propped awkwardly behind her head in imitation of a pose she had seen in magazines, the arch of her foot pointed out. Moon sat on the other bed, and did as he was told. 

'Can't believe I took all my clothes off and you never tried a thing,' she said when he had stilled his trembles enough to execute a competent sketch of her. He looked at her. She peeled the bedspread off her bed and wrapped it round her shoulders. 

'Never say a word, do you? Just big eyes like an owl. Never ask any of the girls out for a drink. Nothing from you. You're a rare commodity, you know. Nice-looking bloke still at home. You ought to take advantage.'
'I'm so small,' said Moon at last. 
'But it's nice for a man to be gentle, though. Makes a change.' 

She reached over the gap between the two beds, and took the sketchpad out of his hands. 'Ever think about all them prisoners who might be looking at me and wondering who I am?' she said with a soft laugh. 
'We don't know -' began Moon. 
'We don't know if they get there,' she filled in, nodding, drawing him over to her bed. 'We just never, never - know.' 

A hundred pictures of Hilda, wadded between socks and chocolate bars, inside pencils that had been part of trees, tumbling in luggage holds, handled by guards, confiscated, maybe, or never found. She unbuttoned Moon with the tender efficiency of a nurse. 

'Like this,' she said. 
'Like this,' he weakly echoed. 
'Don't draw the others, Moon.' 

'I don't.'


the end.

 This was published in the Scotland on Sunday Shorts anthology around the turn of the millenium...

Monday, 23 May 2011

Praxis and the Human Band-Aid

 a story

You won't remember this, but someone had to fuck the superheroes.

And I'm not talking about the pouty, pretty creatures they used to pose with in public, the Lois Lanes and Mary-Janes. Those dames were just for show. They'd have broken in half, believe me, right at their Miss Dior wasp waists. It took a special kind of female to act as blotting paper for all the excess otherworldly testosterone superheroes could exude. Think about it - if you could bend iron rivets with your bare hands, lift trucks to free whimpering infants, and scale tall buildings in a single leap, would you be satisfied by a quick bout of orthodox in-out activity? No way. Furthermore, the satisfaction of the superheroes was considered a national security issue. If their tiny little brains were marinating in untapped sexual energy, and their tights were all clogged up with unshot loads, they might not be able to focus on the job in hand. They were liable to start busting up foreign embassies and dropping well-dressed men in reservoirs just to work off some tension.

Which is where we came in. They called us superhookers - but personally I found that a little derogatory, considering the delicate and significant nature of our work. We were employees of the govenment (that's right - the President was my pimp). So we were clean, we were licensed, and we were highly, highly trained. We had to be. Could a superhero trust any chick off the street, not only to take on a physique designed for vanquishing evil in all its forms, but also to stay the hell away from the press afterwards? Way back, the gutter press used to heave with ill-dressed sluts crowing about nights of passion with The Hulk, or the Silver Surfer, or some intriguing combination of X-Men. And you can bet your ass that two-thirds of those dumb girls ended up in Jacuzzis with supervillains, being promised plastic surgery in exchange for names and numbers. When they regulated the system and clamped down on fraternization with civilians, those girls went right back to fucking movie stars and senators, which was safer for everyone - including them. A horny superhero was no easy ride, if you'll pardon the turn of phrase. I used to keep a tiny nub of Kryptonite in my purse to slow Superman down when he got too enthusiastic. It  wasn't just the brute strength, either. When Spiderman got excited, those sticky webs would fly out of him every which way; I went through every dry-cleaner in town trying to shift the residue. And anyone who's had an ice-cream headache can imagine the painful legacy of going down on Iceman.

Not that they were all glamour boys, you understand. There were always plenty of low-ranking superheroes who didn't get a lot of press attention. Most of them did standard kid-in-a-well jobs, although there were those whose skills were more specific. Consider if you will the very bottom of the pile: Mr Thesaurus, who dealt with synonym emergencies, or Bonus Man, who alerted shoppers to special offers they might not otherwise have noticed. That type of superhero was pretty much like an ordinary guy, except for he could go a little longer and contact Washington through his wristwatch. They were nice, actually - still grateful, which was more than you'd ever get from some swell-chested primadonna who had his own press office and put out a calendar every year.

No-one would believe it now, but I really did take pride in my job. I was one of the best. They'd ask for me by name. Special occasion? Call Praxis. As you can probably imagine, the superheroes used to absorb some pretty retro ideas about male/female relations - if you had a pair of tits, you might as well have been tied to a railtrack - so they favoured voluptuous, feminine girls. Back then my figure was a license to print money.

Still, by the time I met The Human Band-Aid, I was starting to feel like time was firmly on someone else's side. When the phone rang that fateful day, I was standing naked in front of the full-length mirror, assessing the damage. I used to do that a lot - and every time, there were a few more pounds on my haunches and a few more dimples on my thighs. Part of my appeal was always my genuine D-cup silicone-frees, but they'd started to look as if they could do with some surgical encouragement. I wasn't feeling too optimistic as I reached for the receiver.

'Miss Murgatroyd? Hilly. I'm delighted to say I have a very special assignment for you.'
'How are you, Hilly? It's been a while.'
'Yes it has, Miss Murgatroyd. Can I tell you your assignment?'
'Please do. I was about ready to heal up over here.'
'Quite. We'd like you to accompany The Human Band-Aid to tomorrow night's function, if you think you could.'
'I think I could. But tomorrow night? Isn't he -'
'Oh yes. And you're his date. You won the jackpot. There will be media attention, so be sure to dress appropriately. Meet his assistant at the Lopsthorne Hotel at nineteen hundred hours, please. She will handle all the details. There's just one other thing, Miss Murgatroyd.'
'Yes?'
'I've been reviewing the records and you don't seem to be very up to date with your Psych tests.'
'Oh... really? Did I miss one?'
'Try three, Miss Murgatroyd. I've scheduled one for you tomorrow at nine a.m. and if you don't show, you can consider yourself on suspension.'
'OK. Got it. Um - any special requirements for the Band-Aid guy?'
'He prefers low heels. Goodbye.'
'Never less than a pleasure, Hilly.'

We had monthly psychiatric examinations, along with sexual health check-ups, pregnancy tests and weigh-ins. I told you the Government took our work seriously, didn't I? They monitored our bust measurements; they demanded to know our dreams. Well, it made sense: some of the stuff we had to deal with was pretty weird, and there was a certain degree of emotional loop-the-loop. Also, and more importantly as far as they were concerned, they had to make sure we weren't dabbling in the dark side. Any hint that one of their girls had a mild attraction to weapons, or a fascination for Russian guys with big pointy eyebrows, and she'd be off the job quicker than The Amazing One-Minute Man.

Most of us didn't particularly like taking the Psych tests. The older you get, the less comfortable it is whipping out your dirty laundry. I knew I would have to come up with something pretty good to avoid that morning appointment, but first of all, I had to call Vermillion and tell her about my date.

'Honey! The guy with the healing hands? I was just reading about him in Pex magazine. He is such a cutie! And tomorrow night's gonna be big for him, from what I hear.'
'Sure is. Not bad for an old broad, huh?'
'Sweetie, don't even. You know you're fabulous. All those little twenty-year-olds with their boob jobs and braces will be spitting mad when they hear about this. This is gonna put you right back on the frontline.'
'That's if Hilly can restrain herself from putting my ass on suspension.'
'Suspension? You? Why the fuck? That would be like suspending... the Queen from Buckingham Palace! What did you do?'
'I missed a couple of Psych tests.'
Vermillion took a breath. 'Is this about what I think it's about? You have to let it go. It's so fucking dangerous. Remember what happened to Gloria Globes.'
There was a moment of silence as we both contemplated Gloria Globes, a legend among our number until she got taken hostage by Dr. Despicable and quickly decided he wasn't quite so despicable after all. Following a ten-day stand-off at his cave in the mountains, Gloria and the bad Doctor came out to face the world, and died hand-in-hand under a confetti storm of FBI bullets.
'I won't do a Gloria, Milly. This is just a glitch.'
'I hope so, honey. Be careful. Hell, even the good guys are dangerous right now. I heard that some girl landed up in the hospital with a fractured pelvis thanks to The Battering Ram.'
'God, did she miss a remedial class, or what?'
'I know. Strictly manual and oral attention for guys who specialise in the redirection of hurricanes.'
'I guess I won't have to worry about injuries tonight.'
'Guess not. Think he cures menstrual cramps?'
'I'll ask him.'

The Human Band-Aid was generally acknowledged to be fucking fantastic. He had blond wavy hair, like some kind of dandy Chaucerian knight, and fat caramel muscles bulging under his suggestive flesh-tone costume. He could also knit together ruptured skin with a single touch of his big knotty hands, which is a fine addition to anyone's resume. And every snitch in town was spreading the word that the following night, he would be named New Face Of The Year at the annual dinner and awards ceremony held by the Federal Board of Extra-Human Order-Promoting Superpeople. (The word 'crime-fighting' was in there originally, but it was dropped due to political pressure to play down the violent aspect of the superheroes' work). This was basically a guarantee of legendary status. From then on, The Human Band-Aid would be getting all the big jobs. His action figure would be on every little boy's Christmas list - and I'd be on his arm! The future was so damn bright, I had new crow's feet just from squinting at it.

It took me three hours to get ready. I wasn't taking any chances. I knew that if some bitchy gossip columnist caught the glint of a grey hair, or invited readers to phone in and guess my weight, I'd be all washed up by breakfast. So everything loose was strapped down or bolstered up; everything stubbly was plucked bald and polished to a high gloss; everything flaky was richly moistened with heavy-smelling unguents. The dress was kind of retro-ironic - Wonderwoman red and blue with a corset structure and the cutest little cape. I hoped this might help the editors out with their headlines: The New Boy Wonder Meets His Wondergirl, that kind of thing. (Robin would probably sue, but then hardly a day went by without him suing some poor sucker for misusing his trademark or casting aspersions on his pure, noble, platonic bond with his boss.) Seems funny now, but even after (whisper it) twenty-odd years in that line of work, I was still susceptible to the odd romantic fantasy. A spark between myself and Mr. Wonderful; a clandestine association spiralling onward through the years. Superheroes weren't supposed to fall in love, of course, but it wasn't unheard of. I mean, Lindy Plantagenet and The Cannonball Kid carried on like a pair of turtle doves for six years, but because they were both considered safe and steady individuals, a blind eye was kindly turned.

My efforts were such that by 18.27 hours, I felt like I could have slain a man at a hundred paces using only my ass.
By 19.18, I knew why The Human Band-Aid preferred low heels.
Still, by 21.40, munchkin or not, he was officially New Face Of The Year.
By 02.15, the face of the New Face Of The Year was between my thighs.
And by 02.21, his dick was curled up in my hand like a sleepy baby rattlesnake, and his tears were causing some unsightly buckling on the surface of my Linda Carter shoulder pads.

'You're crying? But you guys don't... you can't...'
'I know, goddamnit! We're not supposed to cry and we're sure as hell not supposed to be...'
'Impotent. I was getting to that.'
'It's all such bull!' He succumbed to a fresh fit of sobbing, and I gently shifted his head off my dress. We were in his hotel room, which would have been a truly beautiful confection of gossamer drapes, calla lilies and embroidered pillowslips, if he hadn't tipped his belongings out all over the floor like a disgruntled teen on laundry day, and kicked a hole in the bathroom wall. He was younger than I had expected, and much less handsome; his front teeth poked forward like little arrowheads and he had a lazy eye. He was acting kind of drunk. He'd had his fair share of champagne at the awards, but that shouldn't have been an issue: under normal circumstances, it took a tankerload of tequila to get a superhero tipsy. As for the dick thing, that was just bizarre. Sorry to be crude and all, but I hadn't had a penis resist my attentions in seventeen years (not since Vladimir The Corroder poisoned Pantherboy and he started to die while I was blowing him). I'd forgotten what a flaccid one felt like - that weird, chewed-gum texture, that helpless, beseeching droop.
'What do you think is wrong?' I gently asked him, before remembering that I was a hooker, not a therapist, and adding, 'Maybe if I took off the dress..?'
'No, don't Praxis... DON'T!' he retorted with insulting zeal. 'You think you could just lie here a bit and talk to me? I don't get to talk to anyone.' Sensing my reluctance, he made a judicious appeal to my avarice. 'C'mon... you're getting paid, aren't you? What have you got to lose?'

So I got two beers from the minibar, drew the starchy lavender-scented counterpane around me, and tried not to let my wounded pride spoil this special night of ours. I sure as hell didn't want to leave without some credible explanation for his failure to perform. Otherwise I knew I would spend the next three days crying into the bathroom scale.

'What is it that's such bull?' I began, in my best nurturing voice. He made the face of a small boy staring into the sun, and gestured as if to say: it's too much, too voluminous to ever express. 'All of it,' he said. 'The whole damn racket. Having to do this. It's all totally fake - you must know that? Hell, two hours after I pose for pictures with some Indonesian arms dealer in a headlock, he's having cocktails on the White House lawn. It's all for show - they just put us up front to distract the public while they get on with the usual bribery and corruption behind the scenes. We're decoys is all. Decoys in fuckin' ugly leotards.' He snorted back phlegm and took a deep pull of beer. I've got to admit, at this point I was shocked. It's not like I was ever the most patriotic kid in the class, but there are some things you rarely hear spoken out loud, and in my twenty years of fucking superheroes, no-one had voiced this type of shit. Everyone knew there were crackpot theorists out there, who swore the superheroes were actually enemy agents, or government stooges, or emissaries of Satan at the very least. But most rational folks didn't give credence to those stories. I mean, there's enough evil in the world to get worked up about, isn't there, without turning your anger and suspicion against guys who are expressly designed to do good?

'It can't be a bad thing, though,' I implored him, 'to have healing powers. How can that be a bad thing?'
'That in itself is not a bad thing,' he said, wrapping the hotel robe around him and flopping down next to me on the bed. 'It's great. It was great when I first started, before anyone knew, out in the country... I used to zap my own cuts and bruises, mend baby birds' legs, help my mom with her migraines. But as soon as someone reported me to the Board, that was it. I was a government resource. Every move I've made since then has been strictly regulated. From who I fight to what I eat.'

It used to be that if someone you knew exhibited signs of superpowers, you had a legal obligation to report it to the Board. Knowingly harbouring a suspected superhero was a pretty serious offence. Then again, why would anyone want to hide that kind of talent, right? 'But they're so good to you. And everyone loves you. Everyone wants to be a superhero,' I said. I was suffering Santa Claus levels of disillusionment.
'Sure, they give us all this money, status, chicks.' He indicated me, and I felt slightly pleased to be counted as a perk. 'But it's just so that we'll stay docile. Sure, most of the guys dig it. They're young and they're vain and it's good fun, you know? Putting on a big show, getting your picture taken all the damn time. It's not like it's a bad life.'
'But..?'
'But it's fake as shit. We've got no choice about what we do. It's not like I get a distress call and make up my own mind to fly out to do good. I get a call and I get told where to be and when.'
'Just like me,' I marvelled.
'I guess. We're in the same game.'

Both of us thought this over for a time. We were cosied up like children and I suddenly thought: if I'd had a brother it might have felt like this. Hansel and Gretel. Praxis and The Human Band-Aid.
'What's your real name?' I asked him.
'Lyle.'
I lay back on the bed, a little drunk, a little blown away by what Lyle had said. It had never struck me that superheroes could get cynical too. It seemed OK to tell him anything now. So I yawned and said, 'I've got stretch marks on my tits and I haven't even had a baby. Now THAT's a fucking injustice. Why don't you channel all those energies of yours into stopping nature from draining me of my livelihood?'
He sighed deeply, and took me a little more seriously than I had intended. 'We can't do that stuff, Praxis. You know we can't. Moving trains, sure; nuclear warheads, maybe. But not time. I can't stop time. I can't make you more beautiful.'
'You don't think I'm beautiful enough?'
'Oh, Christ. I thought the whole attraction of hookers was that they didn't come out with that kind of shit.'
'No, dear - the attraction of hookers is that you get to fuck them any which way you please, and that seems to present something of a problem, so quit coming on like you're some fucking wise old stud.'
We looked at each other and then we laughed. It was nice; I didn't know when I'd last lain in bed with a man and not fucked him, let alone laughed instead. I got another beer. He glanced at the clock by the bed and made a whining sound.
'Tomorrow at ten I have an appointment to kick ass. It'll be the biggest thing I've ever done and... I don't want to do it.'
'Who's the lucky villain?'
'The biggest one of all. The Cuddles.'
We'd established this weird, uninhibited rapport, and I guess I couldn't prevent the blush from seeping all over my face and neck. He cocked an eyebrow. The thing is, he'd just hit on my equivalent of Kryptonite. The Cuddles: my secret weakness. My Achilles heart. The Cuddles is a major Mafioso, so-named because he was built like a brick snowman, and he'd been known to hug people to death. He's six foot six, three hundred pounds, with arms like legs and a puffy, beat-up boxer's face. And ever since our eyes had met across the carnage during a standoff between his gang and my date a year before, not an hour had gone by that I hadn't thought of him.

'Praxis. What's going on?'
I don't know why I trusted Lyle, but somehow I couldn't or didn't want to lie.
'The Cuddles is my big secret, Lyle. I'm in love with him. It's ruining everything for me. It could cost me my job. Could cost me everything, if they find out.'
Lyle was looking at me quizzically, processing this. 'I guess you've noticed... the way he smells.'
Like cigars and gunpowder and horse sweat. 'Yeah, I know.'
'And the size of him.'
Six foot six, three hundred pounds. I look like the Sugarplum Fairy next to him. 'Yeah.'
'And those rings under his eyes like he's got a liver complaint. And he fact that he's purest, distilled evil.'
'I know, OK? I know it's weird. But everyone has someone they can't resist, even if it's totally wacko and illogical. I can't help it. And I know he feels it too. Sometimes I'll see him someplace, at the back of a bar or cruising in some fancy armoured vehicle, and something just zings between us like static electricity. He cancels out every other man I've ever met. '
'And that's a lot of men.'
'Fuck you, Elastoplast boy.'

So that's how it happened. That's how Praxis Murgatroyd, superhooker, missed her fourth compulsory Psych test and wound up on the run, in a Wonderwoman dress, riding shotgun in a borrowed Merc with the New Face Of The Year. Two outlaws with a trunkful of stolen hotel towels (it was his first small act of rebellion - well, his second, after leaving his radar wristwatch on the nightstand). The deal was that The Cuddles and his gang would hold up a major city bank, and shoot a couple of clerks. The Human Band-Aid would arrive in the nick of time, put the clerks back together with his magic hands, subdue the gang and await the authorities, all to the tune of rapturous public applause. In reality, Lyle told me, the authorities had planned the whole thing, with the co-operation of their close business associate The Cuddles. It was a stunt to emphasise how tough they were on malfeasants, to quell any rumours that they were in cahoots with organised crime, and to prove what a worthy use of taxpayer dollars the New Face Of The Year would be. I was having trouble accepting the fact that all the fights and feats I'd been witness to all the years, all the tales of derring-do I'd cooed over in bed, had been nothing but smoke, snake oil and mirrors - but the minibar booty in the glove compartment kind of helped. Besides, I felt freer than I had in years. I hadn't even combed my hair, or checked for extra chins in the mirror.

When we pulled up outside the Vertigo City Grand Union Bank, we immediately noticed the creepy-looking underlings lurking outside, eyeing the sky for any incoming do-gooders. We had to act fast and slick. We knew the government guys would already be on alert, because Lyle hadn't checked in that day, or responded to any of their calls. I knew Hilly and Vermillion would both be calling me too, so I'd turned my beeper off. Since I'd missed the Psych appointment, I was on suspension anyway - I considered myself off duty. Not that that was going to stop me from using my government-licensed firearm, or brandishing it at least. I'd never had to use it before - even owning it had freaked me out - but now I was ready for anything. I was just rushing like crazy on the adrenaline, and the promise of seeing The Cuddles again.

Lyle slid deep down in his seat. I kissed the top of his head, belted my fur tight around my outfit and trotted off up the steps of the bank, trying to look like a normal woman on her way to pay in one of the housekeeping cheques she was saving up in order to take the kids and leave her slob of a husband. As I pushed open the revolving doors I smiled wryly at one of the Board's public information notices - a diagram of puny stick figures ducking respectfully out of the path of a musclebound figure in a fluttering cape, with the words HELP THEM TO HELP US.

I knew The Cuddles was there right away. Before I even saw him, propped against the mortgage advice counter with a copy of the City Star held up to his face, I caught that rank circus smell of his, and my heart did a quick flip. No time for lingering glances, though: I knew he was poised to make the signal to his guys. I marched right over and pressed the barrel of my little .45 into his spongy gut.

He lowered the paper, with the insouciance of a man who came nose to belly with a gun every day of the working week.
'Praxis Murgatroyd,' he said.
Over the course of a year, these were the first words he'd spoken directly to me. His voice was like a sealion's bark.
'What the fuck?'
'I've gotta tell you, Cuddles,' I purred, as Cuddles's henchmen clocked the situation and started to advance. 'Your gang is looking kinda raggedy. How d'you feel about joining a new one?'
To his guys I called out, 'Keep back - I've got a loaded gun in his stomach.' The cashiers and customers began to panic and race around.
'Are you going to shoot me?' the Cuddles asked. I could see the perspiration standing out around his big, broad nose. 
'Baby, come with me and I'll shoot you till you beg for more.'
'What do you want?'
'Out of the racket. Don't you?'
The henchmen had formed a semi circle behind me. The customers and staff had all dropped to the floor, though no-one had told them to. I knew we had a bit of time, since the police would sit tight to give The Human Band-Aid a chance to do his work. I snapped the safety catch. The Cuddles and I looked into one another's eyes until I thought I'd melt all over the marble floor. Alarms were going off, but from where I was at, they sounded like violins. And then one of the henchmen took a chance and blew a bullet right into my lower back. It certainly was a day for new experiences. The shock and impact caused me to pull the trigger on the .45, and Cuddles and I fell together, me howling as loud and shrill as a cat at night, his arms clutching at me, blood pooling between my mink coat and his $6000 suit.

Out in the car, Lyle The Human Band Aid heard the shots and knew something had gone wrong. By 09.56, he'd made his heroic entrance and thrown each of the four henchmen into different corners of the bank. The bystanders had picked their heads up off the floor, quit praying and started cheering him on. No-one knew quite what had happened or whose side I was on, but they sure as hell trusted Lyle to do the right thing. More fool them. He laid those warm hands of his on our wounds and I felt all the pain radiate right on out of me, like petroleum burning off the surface of a lake. By 10.02, Lyle had carried both of us out to the car - and the alert had gone out all over town that there was a renegade superhero on the run. By 10.27, we were racing away from Vertigo City, Lyle singing at the top of his voice and me locked in a wet smooch with The Cuddles in the back seat. As we crossed the state line, I threw my head back and yelled: 'I'm forty-two!'
The Human Band-Aid happily rejoined, 'I'm gay!'
And The Cuddles cried, 'I hate the sight of blood!'

Someone had to fuck the superheroes, like I said. And that's how we did it. By the end of that day, the chairman of the Board had resigned in disgrace, independent factions of self-governing superheroes had sprung up nationwide, and a whole lot of girls in my line of work had woken up and asked themselves whether blow jobs were really part of their patriotic duty.

It's not that things were all bad, the way they were. I mean, the old system held together, a lot of people got rich off of it, and I guess at least a couple of rustic peasant hamlets got saved from avalanches. Sure, things are pretty chaotic now that superpowers are unregulated, and can crop up in the most unlikely places. Plus - needless to say - plenty of the guys stayed right on the government payroll. But now at least we know. We're free. I'll tell you something else, baby, since you've listened so attentively thus far: having a sitter with healing hands made all the difference when you were teething. And we still use those towels.

THE END
This was published by Canongate in the anthology Writing Wrongs in, I don't know, 2001 or something.