Grudgelands by Steve Billings

For a man with no eyes, Randall does a remarkably good job of piloting the boat.

He stands impassively in the wheelhouse of The Vindication, his tall, hunched frame motionless except for minute adjustments to the battered oak wheel, unperturbed by the heaving of the waves or the choking brown mist seeping up from the engine room below.

I lean on a buckled rail at the stern of the boat, pulling my overcoat closer against the chill morning breeze and rolling a cigar distractedly between my fingers. It’s my last one, saved for necessity rather than celebration. I rub my free hand across my scalp, silently cursing myself for abandoning my black woollen hat with the rest of my meagre possessions.

I take one last look back at the square mile of desolate scrubland and storm-battered rocks that has been my home for the last two years. Every square foot of its ragged surface covered a thousand times as I wandered the island, trying to stave off madness and brooding over the constant visions of Vincent Kellow. The ruins sit atop a small hill, clubbed into submission by the icy winds and relentless sheets of rain, waiting for the next poor soul who replaces me there.

To think I chose these lands over Heaven.

I turn back towards the wheelhouse, shaking my head slowly in admiration, wondering what Randall can see or how he can see it.  The Vindication is an old but loyal trawler, her once-proud cobalt blue paintwork has long since lost the battle with the turgid seawater and the fact that she still runs at all is a constant source of amazement to me.

During my infrequent voyages to the mainland, Randall and I have only ever spoken once. I asked him why he was here and he told me. That seemed to be enough for him. Since then, the only times he ever shows a flicker of emotion are the rare occasions when the swell overcomes me and I wretch helplessly over the side.  He turns slowly and emits an eerie chuckle, before turning quickly back to the job at hand.  Even though I only see him a couple of times each year, I’ve come to regard him as a loyal companion and my trust in him to get me to my destination is absolute.

I still struggle to contain my shock whenever I look at him. The thing that always surprises me isn’t the coal-black sockets that stare pleadingly back, but the fact that his face seems so young. His long hair, matted by the sea spray, spills across a faded death metal hoodie, a reminder that once he had a life in another place and time, far away from these dismal landscapes. Of my friends here, very few remain. Most of the others have moved on – Marco, Jake, Carine, all tiring of these twisted lands or finally trading hatred for forgiveness.

I wonder who grieves for him, as Kim and Cassie must do for me. I hope somebody does.

 

The water calms as we head into the sound and, as usual, I smell the entrance to the river before I see it. I spark the cigar into life, the tendrils of grey smoke offering a small but welcome defence against the rank odour of the water.

The sight of the first fish owls, soaring above us in slow, beautiful circles, is preceded by a fetid stench as the sea becomes river, its argent surface glimmering briefly in the morning light. Despite all our trips here, I still haven’t adjusted to the unforgettable odour, whose effect is akin to having my nostrils skewered by shards of razor-sharp glass. I turn the lapels of my coat up to offer a token resistance against it.

The Vindication slows as the source of the stench becomes apparent. The gleaming surface of the river is actually a thin veneer of small, dead fish, floating together to form a seamless silver cloak.  Randall steers the boat through the sad little waves, which slosh meekly against the hull.

Our battered little trawler chugs onwards, navigating between two hills at the sides of the river mouth, their grassless sides covered in sad, leafless trees, which peter out as they reach a rocky summit.

“Nearly there, Randall,” I shout above the spluttering engine, “Great work, son.”

He replies with a thumbs-up and for the first time I feel the weight of our impending goodbye.

The stinking river narrows as it passes upstream, the rocky hills of the inlet gradually falling to become crumbling river banks guarding fields of flint-thorn bushes. I look down at my scar-lined hands, souvenirs from my time here clearing them. Working endless, lonely shifts in the bitter winds, I hacked away at them in a distant fugue, seeing only Kellow’s booze-soaked jowls as his car bore down upon me.

My brooding is smashed as a frantic fluttering fills my ears and a searing pain grips my forearm.

“Bastard!” I yelp in a mixture of pain and confusion.

I follow a huge fish owl as it sweeps away from the boat towards its nest in a broken tree. It stares back defiantly before turning towards a pair of scrawny, expectant beaks. My anger is replaced by a sudden sympathy. What have those poor little bastards done to end up here?

Randall strolls from the bridge and tosses me a grimy rag, which I use to try and stem the stream of blood which spills onto the deck. I nod my thanks.

The first signs of humanity finally appear as we near a small fishing village. On one side a ramshackle line of old cottages, sharing barely a right angle between them, stand solemnly behind a tiny quayside. In front of them, a stout woman unloads the morning’s catch from a dilapidated wooden barge. I watch her as she unloads crate after crate of the rancid fish and I grin in approval. Good old Jan, still here when so many others have gone.

Randall drifts the boat into the mooring point with effortless precision before hopping deftly onto the quay and securing the old boat to a worn stone bollard. I collect my papers from the dry sanctuary of the wheelhouse before stepping ashore.

This is the moment I’ve been dreading. I hold out my hand and look into his broken face for the last time.

“Goodbye, Randall, old son.” I say, barely able to form the words.

“Goodbye.” he mutters, the sound of his voice shocking me almost as much as the tears streaming from his empty eyes.

“I hope you find him.” he adds quietly through a brave smile.

“Oh I will, Randall, I promise you.” I say, my mind now turning quickly from sadness to cold rage.

 

I walk slowly along the tired quayside, looking back towards the boat to offer Randall a parting wave. He stands solemnly at the stern, staring back up river, lost in his own solitary world. Without turning, he lifts a hand to the air; a final parting gesture.

Passing the barge, the hulking figure of Jan turns slowly in my direction. She drops her crate and rests her sweating forearms defiantly on her hips.

“Well, I’ll be damned! Look who it isn’t,” she says in a rich, West Country brogue.

“Morning, Jan.” I say, cheerfully. “Keeping yourself busy?”

“More or less. How about you? Not too clever, by the looks of you.” she says, nodding towards my arm.

I wave my papers at her and then pull them up sharply across my face as the rancid stink of the fish bites into my nostrils again.

“Jesus. Time up already?” she says. “How time flies when you’re having fun, eh? No chance of changing your mind, then?”

I smile and shake my head.

“Time for a farewell coffee?” she asks, more plea than question.

I glance at my watch.

“The Colonel won’t be happy about it.”

“Screw the Colonel,” she says, stepping out of her fish-stained oilskins and resting them on the side of the barge.

 

A primitive, corrugated iron shack sits forlornly at the far end of the wharf.

Jan fires a tiny gas stove into life and rests a blackened kettle precariously on top of it.

She ferrets in a Hessian sack and, after a minute’s clattering, produces two tins and places them next to the fire.

“There we go,” she mutters.

She shakes the last granules from a tiny glass jar into the cans and pours the steaming water onto them.

“No milk, I’m afraid,” she says, passing me the steaming brew.

“Cheers,” she says, tapping her can against mine.

I grimace inwardly at the bitter taste, but I obviously don’t hide it well enough and Jan roars with laughter.

Despite our years of loneliness, neither of us seems able to grasp the priceless chance of conversation. We sit and slurp our coffee in a mellow silence, both of us just glad of the company.

“So,” she says eventually, “have you got plan?”

“Not really. I’ll play it by ear when I get there, but I’m going to enjoy the thrill of the chase. I’m not sure how long I’ll have, though. He must be sixty by now, if he’s a day. Mind you, I didn’t get much time to look at him, if you know what I mean.”

“How much have they told you?”

“Just his name.”

“Nothing else? Address? What about family?”

I shake my head.

“You just be careful what you wish for.” she says.

There is another awkward silence.

“How long have you got left?” I ask, regretting it instantly.

“Five years.” she replies, her chirpy demeanour fading instantly.

I wink.

“Well don’t worry, it only gets worse.”

“I bet it does.” she says.

It does get worse, much worse, but I’m not going to ruin her day any more than it is already. I’ve done my time on these docks, hauling in the rancid catch day after day until it was time to move on. Compared to some of the tasks I’d been set here, it wasn’t particularly onerous. Painting the vast, ice-crusted spans of Antipathy Bridge had been far more arduous and my time at The Quarry had been eight months of abject misery. The locations and tasks may have changed, but there was always one constant: the isolation. Week after week of brooding contemplation designed to crush any thoughts of revenge.

My final years have been the hardest, though, stuck out on that pitiless island. All alone except for the piercing shrieks of the gulls on the unforgiving shoreline, my ruminating broken only by the occasional summons to the mainland to visit the Colonel. Each time I was offered the chance to change my mind, to exchange the Grudgelands for eternal Utopia. Each time my answer was the same.

I’d learned to bury the rage and tears of being taken from my family years ago. I think of Kim and Cassie every day, but I’ve long since reached the acceptance that they’ll never be more than a distant, beautiful memory now.

The past twenty years have seemed like two hundred, but the reward will be more than enough compensation. Vincent Kellow’s blood-shot eyes fill my sights again, but they’ve taken on a distinctly worried look now.

I’ve often wondered how time works here. Is a year here the same as year in the Living World? What state will Kellow be in now? Older certainly, but many are the times that I’ve thought that he might already be dead and that all my time here has been in vain.

I finish the dregs of the coffee and thank Jan for her hospitality. She rises and gives me a final, fish-scented hug.

“Well, give my regards to the Colonel.” she says.

I nod back.

“On second thought, tell him to fuck himself.” she adds, breaking into a huge smile.

Well done, Jan, I think to myself, you’ll go the distance.

 

At the end of the dock, a buckled gate opens onto a narrow lane, its surface more pothole than tarmac. To my left, it becomes a crooked hill that clambers steeply between tiny, derelict houses before veering out of sight.

I savour the last walk up the twisting hill, past the shuttered little houses that line its crumbling surface. The view behind me becomes more impressive the higher I climb, and, as I reach the crest, I turn to look out past the village and the quayside, towards the barren lands that spill from the river to the horizon. I think of the poor bastards that are still out there, breaking their backs in some monotonous routine, driven only by thoughts of revenge.

The sun breaks through the morning murk as my eyes follow the snaking river back upstream. There’s no sign of Randall and The Vindication, so he’s obviously got another errand further inland and I’m spared a final, distant goodbye.

 

I stare for the last time at the stone elephants which sit atop the gateposts that guard The Manor. Something about their penetrating stare makes me distinctly uneasy and renders them more gargoyle than pachyderm in my eyes.

The gates swing silently open and I began the long meander towards the house, kicking the gravel absent-mindedly as the driveway weaves between immaculately trimmed shrubs and bronzed beech trees. It finally turns sharply to reveal the huge form of The Manor in all its faded glory.

A stone bridge carries me over crystal-clear ponds. I pause to peer down at the huge koi gliding between the lily pads and, for the first time I can remember here, I see some sort of contentment.

I think of Cassie again and our countless trips to the aquarium, her face pressed to the glass, staring in awe as the sharks swept past. How dare Kellow rob me of those moments while he enjoys time with his own family? I’ve always assumed he had a family but they’ve never really formed personalities in my mind, just blurred extras obscured behind a grotesque leading man.

 

Lichen-covered steps lead me to the front of the house. The vast black doors are slightly ajar, but I know better than to break the Colonel’s stupid protocols, so I pull the fraying bell rope and wait patiently for Stokes to begin his long journey.

Eventually I hear his immaculately polished shoes clatter slowly across the marble entrance floor and he peers through the gap with his usual, arrogant sneer.

“Can I help you?”

“Swann. I’m here to see the Colonel.”

“This way please, Mr Swann.”

Why must I suffer this ridiculous charade every time I come here? I’ve been to The Manor enough times over the years, summoned to see the Colonel as he checks my progress or tells me where I’m heading next. Today will be different though.

Stokes leads me, albeit at a snail’s pace, from the vast vaulted entrance hall down a procession of oak-panelled corridors. We wander past grandiose oil portraits of the Colonel and his pompous predecessors, and dusty bookcases full of work by authors I’ve never heard of. I wonder to myself if any of these books has ever actually been read.

Eventually, I find myself standing outside that familiar oak door, except today the usual feeling of dread is replaced with one of impatience. Stokes taps meekly upon it, but is met with silence. He waits for what he judges to be a suitably respectful period before opening it anyway.

A desk the size of a snooker table dominates the far end of the Colonel’s office. Shafts of sunlight blaze through the French windows. The desk supports a bulging manila folder of paperwork, a half-full whisky tumbler, and a half-smoked cigar which sends coils of silver smoke drifting across the room. He really should open a window, but I think he spends so much time in this room that the fug doesn’t faze him anymore.

A comforting fire crackles noisily to my right, an immaculately-stacked pile of logs next to it. To the left, a polished wall of oak panels is bedecked with the work of the Flemish masters. I know them all by now: Memling, Brueghel, Bosch. Renaissance Noir, as the Colonel calls it. He stands in hypnotised admiration in front of a huge oil canvas, retrieving his pince-nez from the pocket of his tweed suit in order to study some intricate detail of the canvas in front of him.

“What do you think, Swann?” he says, without taking his eyes off of it. “The Revenge of the Unfortunates. Magnificent isn’t it?”

I join him in front of the picture, which now takes pride of place in his row of grim masterpieces. I don’t recall seeing it before and its contents leave me momentarily speechless.  A more grotesque piece of art I’ve yet to see.

“Staggering,” he says “simply staggering. Mere words cannot describe it.”

I was thinking the same thing myself.

“Still,” he says, waking from his temporary fugue, “down to business. Have a seat.”

He leads me to the desk and I remove my overcoat, resting it on the back of the threadbare visitor’s seat. The chair is a good six inches lower than the Colonel’s, presumably so that he can look down on his visitors physically as well as metaphorically. It doesn’t faze me. I’m happy to play his ridiculous psychological games one last time.

He reaches for the decanter and tops off his glass. For a moment I think he’ll produce another and offer me a farewell drink, but he simply sips his tumbler and opens the folder.

“So this is it then, Swann, the end of the road, as it were. There’s not many make it this far, I must admit. Most people soon realise how difficult it is to bear a grudge for so long.”

I don’t know if that’s meant to be a compliment, but it doesn’t particularly sound like one.

“How did you find your time on the island?” he says, leafing through the folder.

“Not much fun,” I say

“Hmm. Well if you’ve survived that then there’s not much chance of you changing your mind at this late stage, is there? You’ve still got the option of happier places if you want it.”

“No thanks.”

“You realise there’s no going back once you leave here? You’ll be back in the Living World for eternity.”

“I can deal with that,” I say, but for the first time I feel myself wavering.

“You also realise he’ll be the only person that can see you. End of story. For all intents and purposes you’ll be invisible to the rest of the human race. You won’t be able to go calling on family and friends.”

I nod. The sweating face of Kellow drifts into focus once more, making up my mind for the last time.

“As long as he can see me, then that’s all the matters.”

“You also realise that you could spend years tracking him down? You’ll be stuck there for the rest of eternity if he’s already dead.”

“Is he?” I ask, rather too desperately.

He talks a large gulp of scotch and shrugs his shoulders.

“You’ll get back to somewhere with a fighting chance of finding him, but whether it’s in a cafe or a cemetery I really can’t say.”

I try to read his face, to get any indication of what he does or doesn’t know, but he simply stares impassively back.

“I’ve come this far and I’m not going to fold now” I say.

“Well, it’s your decision. They say revenge is a dish best served cold.”

“I’m hoping it will be worth the wait.”

“Well, I can see there’s not much else I can do. I’ll see you out.”

He drains the contents of his tumbler, flips the folder shut and rises slowly from his chair.

“I need one last favour, though.” I say.

“Oh, come now Swann! I hardly think you’re in a position to ask for anything!”

“Go easy on Randall.”

“His sentence here has absolutely nothing at all to do with you! He made the same choice as you did and he has to deal with it. Don’t be so bloody naïve.”

“Have you seen the poor bastard?”

“That is beside the point. He was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

“What? They pulled his fucking eyes out!”

I’m tempted to reach across the desk and smash his glass across his pompous face, but I can’t risk everything. I feel a rush of guilt wash of over me, as if I’ve sold Randall out.

“Haven’t you ever heard of empathy?”

“Don’t blame me, Swann. I’m not here to judge people, just to oil the wheels and keep things moving. He’ll get his shot at revenge, just the same as you have.”

He takes a huge draw on the cigar stub.

“That’s assuming he goes back of course,” he adds.

“Oh, he will.”

We walk back through the opulent corridors in stony silence. Stokes putters past us with a gleaming silver tray bearing a fresh bottle of scotch.

“Ah, good man, Stokes. Just leave it on the desk will you old chap?”

I cross the marbled entrance hall for the last time.

The Colonel pushes open the front doors, but the manicured gardens and tranquil ponds have been replaced by a suburban winter evening. Frost-coated cars sit silently on the driveways of identical houses. I smile at the irony of cars being the last thing I saw when I was last in this world, until a nagging realisation rises from my subconscious and punches me like a stone fist.

Despite the dwindling light, the cars look instantly familiar. Their bland but recognisable shapes would have changed drastically during my twenty years away, but, even now, I could name every make and model in front of me.

This stinging revelation is almost instantly replaced by a more numbing realisation. If time hasn’t moved on, then Kim and Cassie are out there somewhere, grieving for me. I feel the tears prick my eyes as I realise they may not even know about what happened to me and have still to face that dreadful knock on the door.

“So what happens now?” I mutter distractedly.

“That’s entirely up to you now, Swann. Good luck and I sincerely hope it was worth all the suffering.”

I step through the doors into my final existence and turn to him.

“Oh it will be,” I say “don’t you worry about that.”

 

I perform a cursory lap of the cul-de-sac, secure in the knowledge that I’m invisible in everyone’s eyes. Well, almost everyone. I’m not naïve enough to think that Kellow lives near here. He could be a mile away, or a hundred.

I spend the next half an hour trying to enjoy my new-found freedom. I stroll aimlessly down alleyways that link identical roads (complete with themed street names), before my ambling is interrupted by the muted wailing of a baby. It’s the first time I’ve heard that noise for twenty years and the sound roots me to the spot. My heart aches as I think back to my own, precious memories with Cassie. The irreplaceable thrill of fatherhood and the wonder at what life would hold for the three of us. Five years was all we managed before Kellow smashed our lives to pieces in the blink of an eye.

 

I’ve found him, but it’s not exactly what I was expecting.

My prey awaits on the other side of these gates and I feel the adrenaline course through me in anticipation. I clasp the shining bars and stare at the gouges on my forearms, thinking back to the owl and its hungry chicks. It takes me a while to notice my hands are shaking.

Oak Park lurks beyond a ramrod-straight avenue of the eponymous trees, sheltered from the weekend traffic that thumps behind me.

I scan the gates, looking for a suitable foothold with which to climb over, but I am saved the effort as a delivery van peels from the road and sits at the gates. They slide open and I follow it in.

I find myself trudging towards the building rather than sprinting. Am I subconsciously savouring each footstep, or is it something more? I take one final look back over the past three years and realise how the world has changed since I left the Grudgelands.

 

My rehabilitation into this world has taken far longer than I’d ever imagined. Each new sensation sparks life into a version of me I thought had long since disappeared; aeroplane trails chalked across the sky, the glorious aroma of coriander each time I pass an Indian restaurant.

My dreams have slowly become increasingly those of my family, not Kellow, but I don’t doubt my ability to finish the job.

I’ve tried hard to live by some sort of moral code. I’ve never stolen anything other than a modest meal from a superstore that won’t miss it and shelter normally comes courtesy of vacant rooms in large, faceless hotels. It’s not difficult to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep when no one knows you exist.

The cul-de-sac I’d arrived back in was part of dreary suburb, glued to the edge of a city fifty miles from where I’d met my demise. Getting back home would have been easy, but would only have increased my desire to see my family again, and I knew I would never be able to muster the courage to do so. I preferred to remember things as they had been. I’ve suffered enough torment to ask for any more.

It also wouldn’t help with Kellow. The fact he was driving down that particular road on that fateful evening wouldn’t give any clues as to where he’d started or finished his journey.

In the end I began the painstaking task of visiting each of the surrounding villages, towns and cities in turn, and simply making a list of any ‘Kellow’s’ I found. I scoured internet pages, phone directories and local newspapers, anything that might contain a hint of his whereabouts. Despite the relative scarcity of the name, there was no ‘Vincent’ to be found, and there were still enough of them to ensure my quest would not be over quickly. The ceaseless wandering through soulless rain-washed towns took me back to the Grudgelands. Was there any real difference between there and here? I imagine the Colonel enjoying the thought of me suffering yet another laborious task for years on end. He could add it to his list of punishments: The Road to Nowhere.

Two days ago, I’d discovered his whereabouts almost by accident.

A token check on a house belonging to a Jane Kellow had looked like yet another wasted journey. I waited as a tired-looking woman hurried her young son into a car, muttering about being late for school again and making veiled threats about removing his television from his room.

The car pulled away and I approached the window for a cursory look through the window. Another of my rules is never to snoop around anyone’s property, any viewing is to be done strictly externally.

I scanned the contents of the living room. Vibrant paintings of animals on tattered sheets of paper adorned the walls, alongside a couple of tasteful prints. I nodded in approval, although I doubted they’d make the Colonel’s collection.

As I reached for my little notebook to cross-off this particular house, I took a final glance and there, in a photograph on the centre of the mantelpiece, was Vincent Kellow.

It didn’t take long for me to throw the rule book out of the window, and as they returned that afternoon, I followed them in and resolved to search the house until I found out once and for all where the bastard was hiding.

 

I finish my trudge down the tree-lined tarmac and approach the main building of Oak Park. The parallels with the Grudgelands aren’t lost on me; a walk towards an ominous country house again, heading towards a final destiny. There is one big difference this time, though. I’m the one in control this time.

I sit on a stone bench outside the front of the house and enjoy the rays of sunshine streaming through the leaves above me. I scan the ramshackle row of cars which stand on the gravel outside the front of the house. A merry cocktail of laughter and chatter drifts from the rear of the building, so I rise from the seat and head towards it.

As I walk past the gabled end of the house, a slim young woman plods past me, rambling incoherently. She was followed by a tall, kindly-looking nurse who pleads with her to return to the garden.

The picture which greets me at the rear is so ridiculously idyllic it’s almost unreal. Barefooted children scamper across the immaculate lawn or sit munching at large picnic tables with their families.

I scan all the tables, from left to right, but I can’t see him anywhere. I think about my best route inside the house, to have a good look in there, but a woman and boy sitting quietly at a table irk my suspicion. It’s Kellow’s family.

Suddenly, they turn in the direction of the house.

“There he is,” says the smiling woman, rising from the bench.

An orderly leads a shambling figure down from the house and onto the lawn.

“Daddy!” squeals the lad, sprinting across the grass towards them.

I look at the figure and sink slowly to my knees. It’s Kellow alright, but only just.

The state of him has completely thrown me.

Do it! Do it now! Barks an inner demon, but I feel like I’m trapped in my own body. I try to move, but I remain rooted to the spot.

The boy clutches Kellow’s pyjama-clad legs, and he reaches down instinctively and ruffles the lad’s hair.  His son yanks his arm, virtually dragging him to the picnic table.

I watch in a surreal fascination as Kellow is led to his wife.

“Sit down, dear.” She says brightly. “We’ve got lots to tell you, haven’t we Oliver?”

This is all wrong.

Kellow seems to have aged the twenty years I spent in the Grudgelands, not the three years that have passed since he killed me and I began searching for him. His sunken eyes and gaunt cheekbones have given him an almost cadaverous look, but it’s definitely him.  He gives a wry smile and slowly scans the scene in front of him, but he seems oblivious to almost everyone and everything around him.

His wife gives him a long, desperate hug and then turns to the orderly who has followed him to the table.

She looks pleadingly at the orderly and it’s obvious she doesn’t need to speak to ask the question.

“He’s not having a very good day today. Are you, Victor?” says the orderly.

I almost laugh. You’re not the only one, I think to myself.

My heart thumps as he sits at the table and takes a cursory scan of the garden. Despite the fact that I’m close enough to hear their conversation, his gaze goes straight past me. I don’t believe it.

Either Kellow’s struggling to take anything in, or the Colonel’s fucked up and he just can’t see me. Neither option makes me particularly happy.

For fuck’s sake do it now! screams a chorus of anger within me and I can hear them all now urging me on: Jan, Randall, the whole fucking lot of them.

I stare at the sky, clear my mind and walk towards the table.

As I start to form his name with my lips, the boy hoists a piece of paper from his bag and holds it proudly right under Kellow’s nose.

“Look, Daddy. I’ve drawn you a picture.”

“Thank you,” mumbles Kellow.

My God. The sound of his voice. I was expecting some sort of demonic bark, but it’s a gentle, fragile sound.

“I drew it at school for you! Do you know what it is?

Kellow smiles and nods.

“It’s a fish.” he says.

“Nearly, Daddy!” says the lad, smiling. “It’s a shark!”

My stomach turns to concrete. For a few seconds, I’m back at the aquarium with Cassie on those wonderful afternoons, but that’s enough.

Remember the thorn bushes and that miserable little island, shouts the inner mob. Don’t let all that suffering be for nothing. I descend into a surreal panic as my mind is engulfed in a war between hate and conscience.

Don’t give up, you bastard, don’t you dare! roars the dwindling voice of revenge, but it knows it’s on the losing side now.

All those years dreaming of this chance and it’s been snatched from me at the last moment. He deserves his comeuppance. I still feel that, but what about his family? Does his son deserve to see his father suffer, to have the memories lurking in his mind for the rest of his life?

I know the battle is over.

I turn my back on them all and walk back towards the oak trees.

“Poor Vincent,” says an orderly sharing a cigarette with her colleague. “I don’t think he’ll ever get over that evening.”

Poor Vincent?! What about me? I’ve spent two lives waiting for the chance of revenge and it’s been taken from me in the blink of an eye.

I look to the sky as a solitary cloud drifts across the sun.

Jan’s words ring in my ears.

“You just be careful what you wish for.”

In desperation, I break into a trot, then a full-blown sprint. Tears of frustration pour down my cheeks as I resolve to return to the point of my entrance here, to get back to The Manor.

As I run, I face a final, dreadful truth as I know I will never find it.


Steve lives and works on the edge of The Cotswolds, near the city of Bath, England. Despite a life-long addiction to bleak music and dark literature, he lives a chaotic but happy life with his wife, two children and two deranged cats. His first ever short story finished runner-up in the 2012 Aeon Award competition and was published in Albedo One magazine.

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