My Green Jumper

My Winning Poem

So last night I won the 54th Solihull Writers Workshop Annual Poetry Competition with my poem My Green Jumper. I was both honoured and astonished to be the recipient of the award as the standard of all the entries was so high.

I have been sharing the news of my success on social media and several people have asked if they could read the poem – so here it is!

I’m not a poet. I think this is the second poem I have ever written as an adult. I was inspired by the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and by the thousands of people donating their clothing to help people in need.

My Green Jumper

My green jumper

Old and familiar

Soft and soothing

Warm comfort

Scented with love

Threaded with memories

Sofa snuggles

Cosy cuddles

Winter walks

Kitchen talks

Safe and secure

My green jumper

Tossing and turning

Nestling and glowing

In bags and boxes

By road and rail

Over land and sea

To get to you

Explosions and Gunfire

Fire and Flame

Fear and Heartbreak

Blood and Pain

I cannot touch you, but my green jumper can

Put it against your skin

Let it sooth and calm

Let it warm and comfort

Let it talk to you

About my love

My care

My sorrow

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All About Audio

Exploring the world of audiobooks.

The first few months of 2022 have been all about audiobooks for me. When I first published Wait for Me just over a year ago, I had a few enquiries as to whether it was available on audio. I’ll be honest, back then I was just delighted just to have finally published the book and hadn’t even thought abut this. More importantly, I didn’t have a clue where to start.

After I published Trident Edge in October I took a break from novel writing and did a little research on how to go about creating an audiobook. I was daunted and almost gave up a few times. It seemed so complicated and, lets face it, expensive.

However, I kept going and spoke to a few other authors about the different options for an independent author like me. This was how I learned about ACX, Amazon’s audio platform. I’m delighted to say that I discovered it was not only affordable but also accessible to a terrified technophobe on a budget.

It’s as simple as creating an account, selecting one of a few different options depending on your budget, choosing a narrator and uploading your book. I went for the Royalty Share option which allowed me to create an audiobook without spending any money at all. The narrator and I receive 20% of the royalties each and Amazon get the rest. I’ve outlined the process in more detail below.

The upshot of it all is that Wait for Me and Trident Edge are now both available in audiobook formats.

If you are not a member of Audible you can join and purchase the book via this link in the US

and this one in the UK

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ACX Audiobook Process.

Go to ACX.com and create an account and a profile.

Add your book (this pops up automatically if your book is on Amazon).

You will have to upload a square version of your cover.

Submit a script for auditions and submit then sit back and wait.

When the auditions come in select the one you like and make them an offer.

You can communicate with the narrator about any character voices or pronunciations etc.

There is a 15 minute checkpoint for you to make sure you are happy with how it’s going.

Once the narrator has submitted the full recording you get a chance to request any changes before you accept and the book goes live.

1000 Paper Cranes

Chisako is folding 1000 paper cranes. Tradition dictates that when she is finished, her one true wish will be granted.

Well sadly, 1000 Paper Cranes didn’t get me through to the final round of the 2021 NYC Flash Fiction Challenge, but I did come 6th in my group with an ‘Honourable Mention’ and got some lovely feedback from the judges. By my rough estimate I was in the top 150 of over 4000 writers so I’m feeling pretty proud of that. The upside of it all is that I now have a completely free weekend, as I had planned to do nothing other than write on Saturday and edit on Sunday.

No rest for the wicked though … the following weekend I will find out if I got through to the next round of the 2021 NYC Micro-fiction Challenge with my little ghost story, Until Next Year. More on than that next weekend!

In the meantime, here is 1000 Paper Cranes. I hope you enjoy it! If you do, why not drop me a line and sign up for my Mailing List while you’re at it?

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1000 Paper Cranes

Chisako sat cross-legged on the tearoom floor as she watched her onee san, Chikafumi, perform the ancient ceremony with the poise and elegance that defined everything she did. Ever since the san san kudo, when they had been bound as sisters through the sharing of sake, Chisako had been spellbound by her Geisha mentor.

The open windows on two sides gave the room a light and airy feel. The clean lines and neutral tones of the walls, paper screens and bamboo mats contrasted with the lush green disorder of the gardens outside. A fountain gurgled, a wind chime tinkled, and the chirp of cicadas heralded the start of summer. Inside, the grassy scent of green tea mingled with the heady aroma of sandalwood incense, and the only sound was the rustle of silk and the murmured thanks of her clients as Chikafumi prepared and served tea, smiling, and nodding as she moved around the space with effortless grace.

As a maiko in the third stage of her training, Chisako accompanied Chikafumi to the teahouse and around the hanamachi every day, to learn the ways of a Geisha through observation. Some of the other maiko complained about the length of this stage of their training, which could last for many years, but as far as Chisako was concerned, she wouldn’t care if it went on forever. She would happily watch Chikafumi until the end of time.

To Chisako, Chikafumi epitomised not only the perfect Geisha, but the perfect woman. She was tall and slender. Only the smooth folds of her obi interrupted the flowing contours of her frame. Her classic Cupid’s bow lips and almond-shaped eyes were accentuated by the traditional bright red lipstick, black and red eyeliner, and white face powder. Her immaculately sculpted dark hair was sleek and shiny. She might have looked like a porcelain doll but for the tantalising glimpse of soft, pale flesh revealed by the low, dipped neckline of her red and gold kimono. Every inch of her was intoxicating, from the top of her cherry blossom hairpin to the tips of her white-stockinged toes.

Chisako was aware that she was mesmerised by Chikafumi in a way that went far beyond the usual respect and admiration of a maiko for her onee san. She was completely captivated by her. She adored her. Every night she went to bed dreaming of her, and every morning her face was the first thing she saw. She had had crushes before but never anything like this. Indeed, it was the confusing and unwelcome feelings that she often felt for other women that had prompted her to enter the profession. She had hoped that by immersing herself in the most controlled and feminine of environments, such feelings would fade and disappear. In fact, the reverse was true. Being surrounded by a preponderance of exquisite and glamourous young women had made them more difficult to control than ever, and none were stronger than those she felt for Chikafumi.

But her feelings were not reciprocated. Chikafumi barely noticed her, not beyond their professional relationship that was. She was unfailingly polite and personable in all their interactions, and patient and gracious in her instruction, but she remained aloof and guarded. Chisako was amazed that Chikafumi didn’t seem to feel the tingle of electricity that passed between them every time their fingers touched. She couldn’t understand why Chikafumi never held eye contact with her for a second longer than necessary. It was as if she was deliberately preventing the development of a deeper connection between them. At the end of each day when Chikafumi left to return to her private house in the hanamachi, and Chisako to the okiya with the other maiko, Chisako would watch her until she was out of sight, but Chikafumi never looked back.

Alone in her room in the okiya, Chisako was folding origami paper cranes. She had eight to do to reach 1000 and complete the senbazuru. Tradition dictated that the folding of 1,000 paper cranes would grant the person the chance for one special wish to come true. When Chisako had begun, her wish had been that she could be like other girls and no longer be tortured by feelings and desires that she could never realise. Now, as she folded the last tiny figure, she knew that wasn’t what she wanted at all. All she wished for, and would forever wish for, was for Chikafumi to notice her and love her back.

The next morning, they were alone in the teahouse for a shamisen lesson. To help Chisako get her hand position right, Chikafumi sat down behind her and reached around her body. For Chisako, the closeness of their bodies was almost unbearable. Her heart quickened and she couldn’t catch her breath.

“Here. Place your fingers, like this,” said Chikafumi placing her hands over Chisako’s. Chisako could not stop the small moan that escaped from her lips. Chikafumi froze for a moment before sighing and moving her body away. She stood up. Chisako bent her head, deeply ashamed of her momentary loss of control, fearful of how Chikafumi would react.

“Stand up, little sister.” Chikafumi’s voice was gentle. “Look at me.”

Chisako stood and turned towards her. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she raised her head. Expecting admonishment, she gasped when she saw that Chikafumi was smiling.

“Don’t worry, little sister.” Chikafumi nodded. “Don’t be sad. I know how you feel, and it is time for you to know that I feel the same.”

Chisako stepped back in surprise. Her hands flew to her mouth. A thousand emotions flooded through her. Joy. Relief. Hope. Disbelief.

“But … I don’t understand … I thought …” she stammered.

Chikafumi took both her hands in hers and looked into her eyes.

“We must be careful, little sister. Patient. Can you do this? Do you understand?”

“I can,” Chisako whispered. “I do.”

“Then let us resume the lesson for now, little sister.”

From Venice With Love

Still in the game – NYC Midnight.

Last weekend I found out that I had done enough to qualify for the next round of the 2021 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. You might recall that in round 1 I came second in my group of around 50 writers with The Buttonologist and scored 14 points.

For the next round, I was given the challenge of writing a thriller, set in a canal, and featuring a headlight. It was M who came up with idea of setting the story in the canals of Venice and I used a recent fake news story, about Covid-19 originating in Italy, for inspiration. My story was called From Venice with Love and, while it didn’t score as highly as The Buttonologist, it came 10th in the group giving me another 6 points. This brought my total to 20 which was enough to place me in the top 5 of my group overall, and progress through to the next round.

You can read From Venice with Love at the end of this post.

My next challenge was to write a romance, set in a teahouse, and featuring a crane! I cogitated for a while then wrote a story about unrequited love in a Geisha community that featured the folding of 1000 origami paper cranes. We’ll have to wait until the 11th of December to find out if it takes me any further in the competion. It’s a big ask! Only 600 of the 4500 (approximately) participants made it through this far, so even if I don’t, I’m proud of what I have achieved so far!

From Venice with Love

“New research reveals that the novel coronavirus was detected in samples in Italy as far back as September 2019” (News International, 2021)

The boat’s powerful headlight illuminated a wide fan of water in front of them, momentarily bathing the ancient, stony-faced buildings, which disapprovingly witnessed their reckless passage, in harsh white light. The other boat was caught in the furthest edge of the beam. Ernestine could see the black headscarf and beige jacket of the woman with the briefcase standing in the stern. She was facing ahead, and she too was gripping the handrail as she was thrown from side to side by the violent twists and turns of the vessel.

Ernestine knew that the fate of the entire world depended on what happened in the next few minutes. She clung to the cold steel of the handrail as they bounced through the wake of the speeding boat ahead, each wave hitting the bottom of the hull with a terrifying thud. They hurtled through the network of canals that criss-crossed the old city in a way that would never have been possible during the day, when the waterways would be choked with drifting gondolas and other slow-moving pleasure crafts.

“Faster! Faster,” Ernestine pleaded with Marco, the lab night security guard, who was at the helm. “We can’t let them get away!”

“We’re at top speed, Signorina. We can’t go any faster.”

Then, a sharp crack echoed across the water, and she caught a whiff of cordite as something whistled past her ear.

“Get down! Get down!” Marco shouted. “Guns. They have guns!”

Ernestine dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, struggling to make sense of what was happening. What was she doing? She was a scientist for God’s sake! Not a spy, or a member of the militia! Just ten minutes earlier, she had been at her lab bench, working late as usual, when she had heard the tinkle of breaking glass from across the corridor. As she had gone out to investigate, she had seen a woman with a briefcase walking towards the front entrance but thought nothing of it. There were lots of people in the building at that time of night. It was part of the ethos of the place. High expectations that yielded equally high rewards were a strong motivator to burn the proverbial midnight oil.

The door to the sample bank was ajar. The hairs on Ernestine’s neck bristled and her skin prickled with alarm. The room was always kept locked. Only a few high-profile people had the access code. She cautiously pushed open the door and, when nothing stirred, she stepped inside and flicked on the lights. Her heart lurched when she saw the broken test tubes on the floor and the open fridge door. This too was always kept locked. Now her heart was racing, and her breathing was shallow as she looked inside at the empty space where the tray of experimental viral samples should be.

The image of the woman with the briefcase walking briskly down the corridor flashed into her head, and suddenly recalling things that had registered only in her subconscious, she knew immediately that it was her. The way she hadn’t turned her head but quickened her pace when Ernestine had entered the corridor.  The smart briefcase. The black headscarf. The tailored beige jacket. Most of her co-workers dressed casually in jeans and tee-shirts and carried well-worn backpacks suitable for a daily commute on foot or by bike.

  Ernestine ran down the corridor. She reached the front entrance just in time to see the woman stepping off the dock into a boat with its engine running. A man dressed in black was helping her aboard and another was at the helm. Ernestine shouted to Marco, who was sitting with his feet on his desk, scrolling through his phone.

“Marco! That woman! She has the viral samples! Quickly!”

Marco jumped up. Startled. Confused.

“But … chi? … come? She had a pass! Dio santo!” he muttered as he ran towards the lab’s boat moored at the other end of the dock.

Ernestine followed him. Once they were in the boat, she fumbled in her jeans pocket for her phone, considering calling the Carabinieri, but Marco looked at her and shook his head. He was right. Too many questions. The fallout would be disastrous. Not just for them as individuals but the for the organisation as whole. They were going to have to do this alone.

“They’ve entered the lagoon!” Marco shouted, snapping her back to the present. “Their boat is fast. They’re picking up speed!”

Ernestine got warily to her feet.

“It’s alright. We’re out of range,” Marco reassured her. “But they’re getting away.”

“Oh no! God help us.” Ernestine put her hand to her mouth. “God help us all.”

“It’s ok. They’re heading for the airport. It’s not too late.”

***

As Ernestine entered the terminal building, she was temporarily stunned by the bright lights and the crowds. She frantically scanned the space. A sea of heads. People moving in all directions. The soft rumble of luggage wheels. The collective murmur of a hundred voices. Cell phones ringing. Automated announcements in Italian and English ringing out over the tannoy.

Then, over by the departure gates, a flash of beige. The now familiar black headscarf. Ernestine pushed her way through the crowd, trying to keep her target in her sights. But the woman was moving further and further away. Ernestine felt as though she was wading through treacle. She finally reached the gate just as the woman passed through and out of reach. Her black head bobbed into the distance. Never looking back.

In desperation and dismay, Ernestine’s eyes ran down the list on the departure board. There were two flights about to depart. One to Paris, France, and another to Wuhan, China. Ernestine knew instantly which one the woman would be on. She dropped to her knees and wept.

Trident Edge Release

New book release.

So, the long-awaited sequel to Wait for Me is here at last and I managed to publish it, on target, at the start of Halloween week. I started writing it in Barbados soon after I got a few reviews for Wait for Me that said people wanted to find out more about what happened next to Lisa, Neil and Anita.

And now they can. You all can!

The book picks up with the trio six months after the start of the UK zombie apocalypse and follows them on their next adventure, when they have left the relative safety of their small enclave in the Midlands to travel north. Their destination, Trident Edge, is purported to be a highly secure military base that is taking in survivors and transporting them to safety. The journey is longer and more perilous than they could ever have imagined, forcing them time and again to question their decision. But Lisa has a secret.  A secret that makes it more important than ever that she gets there … whatever the cost.

Trident Edge was written during my time in Barbados and there are a number of subtle tributes to the small Caribbean island contained within its pages, not least in the title, Trident Edge. The trident is the national symbol of Barbados representing both the country’s strong links to the sea and also the three principles of its democracy – government of, for and by the people.

I should stress though, that Trident Edge is an entirely fictional location inspired by a real RAF Base in Yorkshire called Menwith Hill. Menwith Hill is jointly run by the USA and the UK and is said to be one of the most important intelligence and communications monitoring sites in the world. It hosts a spectacular cluster of enormous white golf-ball satellites and is surrounded by mystery and speculation about what goes on behind its high fences.

Early feedback from my beta readers is that Trident Edge surpasses Wait for Me in terms of pace, drama and excitement. I’m really pleased with it and I hope you enjoy it!

Trident Edge is available on Amazon in both Kindle (£2.99) and Paperback (£9.99) forms.

If you do read it, and can find the time, please, please leave me a review on Amazon. Ratings and reviews makes such a difference to an independently published author in terms of visibility and sales.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition – The Buttonologist

A taste of success!

Trident Edge Update

Its’s been a while since I wrote about my writing! Since we got back from Barbados I have finished the first draft of Trident Edge (the sequel to Wait for Me) and it is currently with my editor (Get It Write UK).

Prior to that, I went on a road trip with my fellow writers in JAMS to check out some of the real-life places that feature in the book. We visited Fineshade Wood, RAF Coningsby, Kirkham Priory and RAF Menwith Hill, all highly significant locations in terms of the plot, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

After that I made a few tweaks and sent it off to my beta readers who, as ever, gave me some great feedback that I incorporated before finishing my final edit. It should be ready for my final edit in early October with a view to publication in time for Halloween.

Short Stories

In the meantime I have been working on building up a “bank” of short stories and entering a few competitions. I’ve been working through a book called The Very Short Story Starter by John Gillard. It contains some exercises and ideas and 101 Flash Fiction prompts. I also did a week long Short Story course with Arvon. So far, I have written seven short stories, some of which I like considerably better than others!

I am also starting to think about my next novel. I am pulling together all my Covid-19 blog posts into a non-fiction journal style book called Viruses and Volcanoes and that is an ongoing project. However, I’m starting to think about what my next fictional book will be. I think my Zombie Apocalypse series has reached a natural conclusion and I’m ready to start something new. My options are; to stick with the post-apocalyptic theme but do something different with the genre; or to pick up my original idea from years ago, The Ice Factory; or to have a go at something else entirely. I’ve bought a workbook called Ready, Set, Novel and so far it seems to be taking down the post-apocalyptic road but this time in a climate change scenario. So, we will see …

The Buttonologist

One of the competitions I have entered is the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. For round 1 my genre was Comedy, the location had to be a Meet and Greet, and the story had to feature a Diploma in some way. I came up with a piece called The Buttonologist and was delighted (especially as I don’t think I’m very good at being funny – not intentionally anyway) when it came second in my group giving me 14 points to take in to round 2!

Here is my (almost) winning story. I hope you enjoy it!

The Buttonologist

Peter pushed his small, round, wire-framed glasses up his nose. He squinted again at the flyer that he’d picked up from the counter in his local grocery store. It was advertising an opportunity to meet Maximus G, one of the country’s leading buttonologists, and to receive a signed copy of his latest book. He checked the address on the flyer against the street name and number on the signage above the smoky, mirrored glass frontage of the large, modern building. A glittery, rose gold logo on the door read B Hub. It wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting, but he was definitely at the right location.

He looked up and down the street. In his experience, button collectors, or buttonologists as serious collectors now referred to themselves , tended to meet in locations that comfortably mirrored both their personalities and the nature of their pursuit. Small, aging, unobtrusive buildings, tucked away in quiet, lonely corners of narrow, cobbled side streets that, when you entered, were bursting at the seams with a cornucopia of ancient miscellanea.

B Hub, on the other hand, was big and tall and shiny and minimalist, and located bang in the centre of the busiest street downtown. While this was highly unusual, and mostly made him feel wary and decidedly uncomfortable, a small part of him was pleasantly surprised and tentatively hopeful that his field might finally be beginning to emerge from the shadows into the warm light of mainstream concerns.

He took his diploma out of his briefcase and smoothed out the plastic document folder. He smiled as he traced his finger over the elegantly hand-inscribed calligraphy on the delicate, creamy parchment:

The World Society of Buttons

has awarded to

Peter Anderson Wilmington

The Diploma in Advanced Buttonology

Maybe it hadn’t been the ‘big waste of time and money’ that his parents kept telling him it had been. Maybe it wasn’t always going to be something that everyone who heard about it laughed at. Maybe this was the day he would at last meet someone who felt the same as he did about buttons. Maybe this would be the first step towards finding a job that would allow him to do what he loved and actually get paid for it. Maybe this was the day when his obsession might finally start to become a blessing and not a curse.  Maybe this was the day when his dyslexia and hypernumeracy would start to work for him and not against him. Maybe this was the day when it was finally all going to come together.

A woman brushed past him, her elbow colliding with his and almost knocking the diploma from his hands.

“Hey, be care …” he started. But the words froze on his lips as his gaze came to rest on what had to be the biggest backside he had ever seen in his life. No, that wasn’t right, it wasn’t the biggest, it was just the most … pronounced, and it was grossly – no, magnificently – out of proportion with the rest of her lycra-clad, athletic frame. It appeared to have a life of its own, each buttock moving independently of the other and the rest of her body, as she sashayed towards the door.

Her movements were slow and exaggerated, as if she knew he was watching her and was luxuriating in his attention. When she reached the door, she placed her hand on the glass as if to push it open but instead, turned to face him. His mouth, already slack-jawed in astonishment, dropped open even further as she gave him a full-on, languorous wink.

“Come on, Baby. Don’t be shy,” she said, her voice as sweet and rich as honey. Then she opened the door and slipped inside, her backside entering the room several milliseconds after the rest of her.

Peter scurried after her. This was going to be even more interesting than he had hoped.

The interior consisted of one vast, high-ceilinged industrial space. The walls were lined with mirrors making the small crowd of people queuing to meet Mr. Maximus appear like a multitude. Harsh strip lighting illuminated every detail of their features and clothing. Like the woman outside, they were all wearing bright shades of skin-tight lycra that clung to every inch of their finely honed physiques. There was a preponderance of well-defined buttocks and above the buzz of general conversation he heard words like ‘glutes’, ‘implants,’ ‘squats’, ‘enhancements’ and ‘lifts’. As well as ‘maximus’, people were talking about ‘medius’ and ‘minimus’.

He looked down at his worn, baggy corduroy trousers. He was suddenly aware of his own concave gluteal muscles and his generally puny frame. Something wasn’t right. He pulled the flyer out of his pocket and looked at it closely. He read the words again:

Sunday October 6

10 till 4

at

B Hub

17- 23 Reede Street

Meet and Greet and Book Signing

with

MAXIMUS G

The Country’s Leading Buttologist

Wait for Me by J.M. McKenzie

In 2011, I started writing my first novel, The Ice Factory. Inspired by a personal childhood trauma, it was a difficult story to tell, and I didn’t feel able to do it justice at the time. And so, on the advice of some fellow writers, I decided to hone my novice writing skills on something “lighter”.

Something lighter turned into Wait for Me, the story of one ordinary woman’s extraordinary journey to get home to her partner after a bioterrorism attack triggers a Zombie Apocalypse in the UK! I know, its certainly not a lighter subject matter, but it was a much lighter story to tell and I’ve had a lot of fun with it!

Anyway, I started it in 2015, finished it in 2017, decided it could be better and decided to re-write it in 2018. I’m delighted to announce that it is finally finished and available to purchase on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback versions.

http://mybook.to/WaitforMe

I’d absolutely love it if you bought a copy and would welcome your reviews and feedback on my first novel!

Now, I need to decide whether to go back to The Ice Factory or write a sequel to Wait for Me!

Option 3.

Today I had some great news! My first ever smidgeon of success as a writer.

I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition this year and my Round 1 entry was 2nd in my category! This is my story:

Option 3.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

But, most of all, he suspected he was growing tired of killing.

He sat in a low deck chair on the roof of the narrow boat nursing a mug of hot, strong coffee. It was just after 4am. He’d been awake since 3. The full moon cast a rippling ribbon of light along the dark, smooth surface of the canal. The trees and bushes along its banks, dark silhouettes against the luminous night sky. A light breeze coaxed the water to lap gently against the side of the boat. The only other sounds were the occasional calls of night birds and the rustling of small creatures rooting in the undergrowth.

A blanket draped loosely around his head and shoulders. The folds of the fabric trapped the steam rising from the mug and bathed his face and hands with warm moisture. He sighed, relishing the tranquillity of the moment. He was unusually relaxed, his gun resting lightly on his lap under the blanket. But Leo was never completely relaxed, his senses always alert to anything out of place, the faintest sound, shadow, or small waft of air.

His mind kept drifting back to his last job. How close it had come to going wrong. Very, very wrong. He was good at what he did. Clinical. Always had been. That was why he was so much … in demand. It wasn’t like him. It troubled him. He was confused.

A trained and highly skilled mixed martial artist, he relied on his hands to do most of his dirty work. They were lethal, fast, silent and clean. Garottes were slow. Guns were noisy. Knives messy. Attracted too much attention. Created too many possibilities for being traced, tracked, followed.

The job had been in Addis Ababa. His mission had been to gather intel from an OC HQ. It had gone to plan until he’d encountered a meaty SG blocking his escape route. He shouldn’t have been there. Leo had done his recon. The guy was having a sneaky smoke away from his post. Leo was behind him. It should have been easy. A couple of taps to key pressure points and the guy went down. One twist to the neck and it would be over. But, Leo had hesitated. Only for a nanosecond. But it was enough. Enough for the guy to cry out, before Leo finished him. Enough to trigger raised voices and footsteps running in his direction. He only just got out.

Now, thinking back, he realised these feelings had been developing for a while now. Imperceptibly creeping up on him from a place he hadn’t known existed. Surprising him at the most inopportune moments. Causing him to think twice. To make mistakes.

As a young man he had studied many martial arts. Krav Maga in Israel, Vale Tudo in Brazil, and Kung Fu in China. However, increasingly, in the past few months, he kept thinking about his days in Japan where he trained in Aikido at the Aikikai Foundation in Tokyo with Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, the great grandson of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. He studied the teachings of Morihei and his religious mentor Onisaburo Deguchi. Their philosophies centred around universal peace and harmony, the attainment of a personal utopia, and love and compassion for those who seek to harm others. For Leo, it had taught him more about evasion and defence than any other discipline he had mastered. He hadn’t bought in to the peace-loving ideology, but recognised that his time there had been one of the most fulfilling periods of his life.

The words of his teacher, Moriteru, kept echoing in his head. Love your enemy. Do no harm.

***

Leo eased himself silently in through the window. He carefully released the line he had used to lower himself from the roof terrace and watched as it recoiled with a soft hiss. The large, opulent bathroom was bathed in the green glow of his night vision goggles. He was at the south end of the building. His target was in the master suite at the north end.
The house was silent. The bathroom smelt of vanilla and lemon. The door was ajar, as he had expected. He pushed it open and looked down the long hallway. He knew from his recon that, apart from the nanny, this floor was exclusively occupied by the family.
Seven doors. Three on his left, the boy’s room, the nanny’s room and a linen store. Three on his right, the girl’s room, another bathroom and a study. At the end, facing him was the door to the master suite. All doors except one, the boy’s room, were closed.
He moved silently down the corridor. He paused to look into the boy’s room. A child lay in the bed, his tousled mop of dark hair, stark against the pillow even with the night vision. His small features, relaxed in sleep, a mask of innocence.

Leo felt a pang of remorse for what he was about to do.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Not now, for chrissake! He shook his head. Get a grip man! Now unnerved and angry with himself, he carried on down the corridor. Outside the master suite he took a small cannister out of a loop on his belt and sprayed both door hinges. He eased the handle down and opened the door.
Two figures lay on the bed, their limbs intertwined. The woman stirred in her sleep and rolled away from the man to face Leo. The sheet fell away to reveal one small round breast. Leo noted that the nipple was dark, erect and perfectly positioned in the center of the breast. He looked away.
He moved around to the other side of the bed to where the man was lying on his back. This was going to be straightforward. A sharp knock to the pressure point on his temple to stun him, followed by bilateral pressure to the carotids would kill him in less than a minute. Lethal, fast, silent and clean. His trademark kill. He rapped a spot on the man’s temple with his knuckle. His jaw slackened and his breathing deepened. He was out. Leo positioned both hands over his carotids.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Shit! He was losing it!

His hands hovered over the man’s throat. His mind was racing. He couldn’t do it. An image of the sleeping boy flashed through his mind. The woman’s breast. In what felt like minutes, but was probably less than one, his brain whirred through his options.

Option 1. Kill him. Job done. Get out.

Not an option anymore. He couldn’t do it.

Option 2. Don’t kill him. Abort mission. Walk away.

But they’d just send someone else out to do what he couldn’t.
Then they’d come after him.
He could go off grid and lie low.
But they’d never stop looking for him.
And he’d be out in the cold.
Unprotected.
Eventually others would come too.
He’d be on the run, hiding, forever.

Option 3.

There was no Option 3.

He sensed another presence. Just a small rustle and change in air pressure. He looked up.
A tiny boy with a mop of dark, curly hair stood in the doorway.
The boy’s arms were outstretched. He was pointing a small gun at Leo. He gripped it with both hands to steady his aim. He seemed unafraid. His dark eyes were cold.

Leo instinctively went for his own weapon then stopped. He took a step away from the bed and raised a finger to his lips. The boy took a step forward and adjusted his aim. He knew what he was doing. He’d clearly been trained. Leo allowed himself a moment to reflect on the tragedy of this.

A small red light wavered over Leo’s left nipple. He looked down at it for a moment.

Then, in one rapid movement, he shifted back around the bed to stand face to face with the boy.

The boy faltered. Fear flickered across his face. His hands shook. The red light moved around crazily. It jerked and spun around the room. The boy tightened his grip on the gun. He didn’t make a sound. His dark eyes never left Leo’s face.

Leo let him settle. Waited until the light hovered over his left nipple again.

He stepped forward.

The boy fired.

Leo felt the bullet hit his chest. There was heat and light, and he dropped to his knees. A coldness spread through his body from his chest to his abdomen, flowing out to his arms and legs, his fingers and toes. His head drooped on his chest.

He was vaguely aware of what was going on in the room. The woman, naked and screaming in the doorway with her arms around the boy, who was now crying. The man, also naked, fumbling to turn on the light. Pulling his own gun from the bedside cabinet.

A rough kick knocked Leo onto his back. The man stared down at him. His face contorted with rage.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

Leo closed his eyes.

A Better Place

There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. We’d arrived just after dawn, thinking we’d be among the first, but the square was almost full when we got there. The queue was confined within a series of compact, orderly rows, by red rope barriers. Row after row of young men and women, waiting. The air hummed softly with their collective hope, but beneath that was a faint, but distinct, whine of despair.
We were three rows from the back. I’d counted seventy, as we made our way down, and there had to be at least a hundred people in each. But that was just the queue in the square. Beyond the end of the barriers, a line of people, three or four thick, snaked irregularly down, what had once been the main shopping street, as far as the eye could see.
I’d not seen so many people gathered in the in the city centre like this for years. Way back at the beginning, when the GCC had introduced some controversial new policy or something, I’d been to a few demonstrations. There had been thousands of people at some of these, but they were different to this. They were loud and vibrant. People waved flags and banners, blew horns and whistles, wore face-paint and bright, colourful clothing and carried backpacks crammed with spare clothes, food and drink. People were angry and indignant back then. We were still happy back then. We still believed in the future. A future.
Now, we were resigned, subdued, fearful. This gathering It was very quiet and orderly. People spoke very little and, when they did, it was in hushed, soft voices. No-one wanted to attract any unwanted attention, to jeopardise their chances of being selected. They just wanted to wait patiently in line until their turn came. There were no flags or banners, no horns or whistles, no backpacks. All we had with us were the clothes we were standing in, and these were dirty, dull and frayed. We’d been instructed specifically not to bring anything with us. If we were selected, everything we could possibly need in the new world would be provided.

I think the GCC officials were a bit taken aback by how many people had turned up. They hovered around the edges of the crowd, in their high visibility jackets, glancing at us but not making eye contact, frowning and talking in low voices on their walkie talkies. Occasionally, they looked towards the large grey building at the other side of the square, where the queue began. At the front of the building, was a large set of double doors, at the top of a wide flight of stairs. Despite the humidity, all the doors and windows were firmly closed but, I was sure I could see shadowy figures watching us from inside, lurking behind the net curtains. I was also pretty sure they had air conditioning. The net curtains fluttered slightly, as if caressed by a soft breeze. But there was no breeze. I clenched my jaw against their hypocrisy.

Next to me, Grace was shivering a little. It wasn’t cold, it was almost never cold anymore, but she was soaked through. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her thin shoulders. She smiled up at me. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, making the dark shadows beneath her eyes look like bruises.
“Thanks.”
“Won’t be long now. The email said registration starts at nine.”
She looked at her watch. “Ten to.”
“See. Just a few more minutes and we’ll be moving.” I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. She pressed her cheek against my chest. Her damp hair smelled like vanilla and coconut.

It had started to rain about an hour after we arrived. It’s always raining these days. I always imagined that global warming would bring endless hot, dry days, but it appears that the opposite is true … for now at least. Something to do with warmer air holding more water vapour. I say “for now at least” because the GCC tell us that one day soon the rain will stop and, when it does, we’ll really be in trouble. As if we’re not already.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, as a sudden wave of nausea hit me. What was I thinking? What was I doing to Grace? To us? I couldn’t trust these people. They had lied to us time and time again. Imposed one crazy policy after another, and yet carried on living their own lives as if nothing had changed. I don’t even really know what we’re applying for. A new programme, a new world for young healthy young people. A chance to live, a chance to have children, a chance for a future. But where, how? It was very vague, very non-specific. But that was the point, they said. They wanted young, brave, healthy people. People who were prepared to take a risk for the future, for the human race, for the planet.

I had seen the first poster a month before. I’d been cycling back from the allotment with a basket of gnarled potatoes and a bunch of skinny carrots. It resonated with me right away. Something about the images stayed with me, smiling families, children, pets, bowls of fresh fruit, shiny white furniture. I thought about it all the way home. The seed was sown. By the time the leaflets, emails and notifications started to come through, asking for volunteers to attend an initial screening programme, it had taken root. I was convinced that this was what I had to do. What we had to do. Grace and me.

Our parents were devastated. When we told them, my mother wept, and my father just sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands.
“Mum, please?” I’d said. “Try to see it from our perspective? You and Dad have had a life. You’ve had jobs, kids, you’ve travelled, everything!”
“Son, we love you.” Dad looked up. His eyes were red. “Of course, we want all that for you, and more, but it just isn’t possible anymore. Times have changed. Just think about it. It doesn’t make sense. If something seems too good to be true, it almost always is.”
“It can’t be any worse than this! No meat, no fresh fruit and veg, except what we can grow ourselves, no power, except what we can generate ourselves, constant rain but not enough water, no cars, no new clothes, no jobs, no kids, no fucking money …”
“Ian, Ian.” Dad interrupted.
“Look, Dad, I know you don’t trust them because of everything they’ve done, but they’re trying. It’s hard. It’s really hard. We’ve gotta do something! Try something! We’re dying. The FUCKIN’ WORLD IS ENDING!”
“Ian!” Mum stopped crying. She was angry now. “That’s enough.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Look, we’re going to give it a try and that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, we can come back.”
“Are you sure?” Mum asked.
“Yes, I read it. It’s not compulsory. It’s not a prison.”
Grace’s eyes met mine. I looked away.

Now, standing in the registration queue, something didn’t feel right. Considering that we were all headed for some bright new future, there was a distinct lack of excitement. The invitations and information briefings had been upbeat and enthusiastic. Now, that we were actually here, the atmosphere was tense and apprehensive. Sure, it was a bit scary, stepping into the unknown like this, and the rain and the shifty GCC officials didn’t help, but there was something else. Something nagging at me. Something ominous, menacing.

I remembered an article about the GCC I had read the previous summer. It was on a subversive website that had popped up on my social media feed. It talked about corruption and elitism in the GCC and their belief that the single causal factor in global warming was overpopulation. It described their policies as Malthusian and suggested that their ultimate aim was extreme population control. It talked about eugenics and genocide and compared them to far right and fascist regimes of the past. It was fake news, of course it was. The conspiracy theorists had gone berserk over the past few years. Understandably so. But they were all nutters. Of course, they were. But what if … ? What if … ?

“Grace … ” I started. “I’m not … ”

My words were left hanging as the cathedral clock chimed nine. The crowd murmured. There was a scuffle of activity ahead of us. The GCC officials straightened their backs, poised and ready to officiate. The double doors at the top of the steps opened with a series of heavy clunks and a grating of metal on stone. Grace took my hand and stepped forward. I didn’t move. She took another couple of steps then turned back to look at me. Our arms were outstretched. She tugged my hand. Her eyes pleading. Still, I didn’t move.

“What’s the matter?”
“I’m just not … feeling it.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I’m …”
“Ian, come on. It’s time. Don’t do this.”
“Sorry.”

The queue was moving steadily now. I could see people ahead, ascending the steps and entering the building. People behind us looked at me questioningly, jostled me, started moving past us. What was wrong with me? I wanted this. Of course I did … Anyway, what choice did we have? What was the worst that could happen? I was getting paranoid. Been reading too much fake news. They weren’t going to murder us! I was losing my mind. I was just having a little panic. It’s a big deal after all.

I smiled at Grace and moved towards her.

“Sorry.” I kissed her forehead when I reached her. “Just a little wobble. I’m fine now. Let’s go.”

We turned and walked hand in hand towards the building.

Deja Vu

Since the world gave up the fight, and finally started to die in earnest, it takes longer to get to work in the morning.

 

The consequences of dietary deficiencies are time consuming. Muscle wasting and anaemia cause such extreme fatigue and shortness of breath, that the time and effort needed to shower and dress, becomes equivalent to that required to run a marathon. Creams and dressings must be applied to rashes and sores, and teeth and hair must be brushed slowly and carefully to minimise gum bleeding and hair loss.

 

Chronic exposure to toxic air pollution exacerbates breathlessness and throws in occasional prolonged and disabling coughing fits, especially in the mornings.
Breakfast is protracted and complex. Filtering, sterilising and heating water on a Calor Gas stove, to reconstitute dried milk for porridge, takes considerably longer than pouring milk from a carton in the fridge, and heating it in the microwave. Eating and drinking is slow and painful, due to mouth and throat ulcers.

 

The walk to work is mercifully short since Colin and I set up in his building two blocks away. We relocated there when the museum closed six months ago, and we were the only two left. Most of our colleagues had moved or died, and the rest simply stopped coming to work.

 

A lot of people did that. Simply stopped going out. It is as if they have come out in sympathy with Mother Earth. Given up the fight. They sit about in their bathrobes. They don’t get dressed. They smoke and drink like there is no tomorrow, which of course there isn’t. Not really.

 

Giving up was never an option for us. We are getting close and we are running out of time. Of course, we are dying, everyone is, but it is worse than that. If the long, slow decline towards a “natural” death isn’t enough, governments are threatening to hasten the end by blowing everything to bits as they squabble about the allocation of the remaining natural resources.

 

For many, the prospect of a quick and painless end holds a certain attraction, but for us it only serves to increase our urgency. Where we had previously been looking at months for the end stages of the project, we are now talking weeks, maybe days. We have taken to working in shifts. Colin works at night and I do the days.

 

It has been a seven-year project. At the time of the discovery, the whole world was talking about what we had found and what it might mean for humanity. At the start, the funding came flooding in and, at its peak, there were thirty people in the team. But the work was laborious and painstaking. We made slow progress and the world soon lost interest.

 

I pull my hood down over my face, adjust my goggles and make sure my bandana is snug around my nose and mouth, before I open the front door. Tall, grey buildings tower over the deserted street on both sides. A thousand vacant windows gaze mournfully down on cracked and uneven sidewalks, that are lined with the withered skeletons of long dead planetrees. Rusted vehicles have become one with crumbling tarmac. It is cold. Only I, hear the forlorn moan of the lonesome north-easterly as it passes through the city.

 

I walk as quickly as I can. Head bowed against the cold and the wind. Concentrating on my breathing and conserving my limited energy. When I reach Colin’s building, I am surprised. He is looking out of the window. A pale, gaunt face with hollow cheeks and dark eyes. He is waiting for me. When he sees me, his features break into an uncharacteristic smile and he motions at me to hurry. My heart quickens.

 

When I arrive at his apartment the door is already open. He is standing in the entrance grinning, a small tumbler of amber liquid in each hand.
“I’ve done it! I mean, we’ve done it! We’ve broken the code!” He giggles. I have never heard him laugh.
For a moment I am confused. Stunned. “When? How?” My voice is breathy.
“About two hours ago. Here.” He thrusts one of the glasses at me. “We’re celebrating!”
I look stupidly at the glass and then at him, before logic kicks in. “Have you…”
“Translated? No. Of course not. I was waiting for you.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t quite believe it. I just wasn’t expecting…so soon…”

I should be exulted, but a terrible sadness sweeps over me.
It is almost over. We have reached the end. I want to cry.
“I knew you’d be like this. It’s a shock. Don’t worry. Look, just drink the Bourbon and then we’ll do it together.”
I drink the Bourbon and we do it together.
We translate.

 

I am a linguist and Colin is an archaeologist. In 2025 we were part of a team that discovered some inscriptions in a cave in southern Italy, after volcanic activity opened some new fissures. The inscriptions are thought to be the oldest ever discovered. Estimates suggest that they are over 2.5 million years old, and predate the development of the human race, as we know it.

 

When we are done, we look at each other and at the translation. Colin drains his glass and a single tear rolls down his cheek. I read the translation aloud.

 

We are the last survivors of humanity. We are dying. Our planet is dying.
We have destroyed the world through greed and selfish desire. We knew what we were doing but we did not stop. We ignored the warning signs. We paid no heed to the pleas of our wise women and scientists. We closed our ears and eyes to the inevitable until it was too late.
Don’t be like us.
Cherish your planet. Respect your environment. Protect all life forms. Celebrate biodiversity. Conserve natural resources. Embrace the power and beauty of the natural world.
Learn from our mistakes. Do not do what we have done.