The Succubus and Other Stories

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Wet Leaves on the Track

        "I want a divorce," said June.
         "Liverpool," said Zeb. "Or was it Arsenel?"
         "Are you listening?"
         "Yes, dear."
         And he was already out of the room, humming that cat food commercial as he went.
         "Zeb!"
         No answer.
         In the school yard across the road, the blimp-sized ice cream cornet slowly melted, adding the addled creams of its corruption to the melting snow.
         "It's Mrs Taylor," said June, speaking to the man at the council in her most cuttingly precise tones. "June Taylor. You do remember me, don't you? Or have you already forgotten?"
         "I'm sorry," said the man from the council. John Figinsbottom. That was his name. But June preferred not to think of him like that. There was something uncouth about the name. "I'm sorry? But would you mind telling me exactly what all this is about?"
         "The ice cream!" said June, exasperated.
         "Oh! Oh, yes. The, em, icecream. Well, you must realise there's a shortage of, ah, bulldozers. And we've had to help out with Slough, where, ah ... there's been, em ...."
         "Yes," said June, "I know all about Slough."
         The Taylors lived in Elbright, not too far from Windsor and uncomfortable close to Slough. The week before, a shire-sized condom, swollen with obscene slop, had fallen in a swamping heap across Slough, and the authorities were still trying to rescue survivors.
         "I know all that," said June, forestalling an explanation. "But the point is there's this ice cream going rotten on my very doorstep. It's a health hazard."
         "It's just that we're so busy," said Figinsbottom, a contemptible whine creeping into his voice.
         "Wet leaves on the track," said June sarcastically.
         "I'm sorry?"
         "Are you deaf?"
         "I'm sorry, I thought you said wet leaves on the track."
         "Excuses, excuses!" said June furiously, and hung up on him.
         In the schoolyard across the road, black birds were congregating on the soft limply orange fabric of the cornet. Squabbling noisily as they tore at the feast. Big birds. Like something out of that classic Hitchcock movie. Crows? But crows - no, ravens - lived at the Tower, didn't they? With their wings cut. Were there still wild ravens flying about England looking for corpses to peck at? June, who had spent most of her life living in the ravenless environs of Clapham, quite frankly had no idea.
         She went to look at Zeb, and found him outside, staring across the road at the schoolyard.
         "It's the white noise," said Zeb suddenly. "That's why I like it."
         "He is 26," said June. "I don't think we're being unreasonable."
         "They aren't there today, of course," said Zeb.
         "Other sons have left home at that age," said June. "Other people's, I mean."
         And their two daughters had left long ago. It was just Lube who remained. All of 26 years old. Mopish and uncommunicative. Spending all day cleaning that motorbike of his. That was why she really wanted a divorce. To get rid of their son.
         "The children playing," said Zeb, explaining. "Their voices make a kind of white noise. It helps me think."
         "But there aren't any children today," said June.
         "That's what I was saying."
         Outside, the crows scattered in alarm as a roc, a huge bird of aircraft carrier dimensions, scooped up the ice cream cornet in its claws and flew off with it.
         "I wonder if it likes condoms," said June, watching the bird beating through the air in the approximate direction of Slough.
         "Condoms?" said Zeb. "No, it's not like that at all."
         "I'll say," said June vaguely. "You haven't touched me in six months."
         A vision of her son's chest. Raw in the winter. Muscular. No, no, it's not like that all. Zeb was still blathering on about something, but she had already decided. Hadn't she? Yes. See your solicitor. Today. Get a divorce. Get it done.

The End

This strange story, "Wet Leaves on the Track," was first published when it appeared in em three, July 2001, (ed. Karl Sinfield) (London, United Kingdom, ISSN 1366-3755) (pp 68-69; 668 words). It was first posted online by Hugh Cook on 2002 October 26. Copyright © 2001, 2002 Hugh Cook. All rights reserved.

Author's note for Wet Leaves on the Track, published with the story in em three:-

I'm British born, but now live in Japan, where I teach English. One startling feature of the urban life here in Japan is the crows. Huge, black, glossy - bigger than the average household cat. Beaks the ideal size for pecking out your eyes. They tear open garbage bags put out on rubbish collection days, driving away any feral cats which try to compete for the spoils of urban prosperity. At night, any earthquake of reasonable size wakes the crows in the trees in the nearby scrap of parkland; they squabble restlessly for half an hour or more before there is peace again.

Earthquakes happen all the time. But the Big One does not. Yet it will. That's not a threat, it's a promise - scientific opinion is unanimous. Thousands will die. Maybe you, maybe me. Or maybe your death will be from mad cow disease - you did eat that hamburger, didn't you? Or from the next virus, whenever that happens along. The frogs are dying, the glaciers are melting, the hurricane is moving toward the coast, and already the trains have halted because of wet leaves on the track.

But, somehow, none of this quite intersects with our daily lives. Or - it does, but not as much as you'd expect. I'm 42, old enough to remember the Cold War. Living in London and sometimes thinking of the missiles but mostly not. Thinking, rather, of income tax, and a new job, and whether to buy a new typewriter. We're all characters in these big unfolding melodramas, but we're only vaguely interested in the main plot; our lives, rather, are subplot.

And that's where the story comes from. Out of worrying about the bomb, but not enough to leave the city. Out of forgetting even about the Big One, until another minor tremblor shakes the house. Out of being kept awake by the crows at three in the morning, and then seeing the crows in the morning, wet with rain, close, seven of them, eight, nine, a lot more in the trees, and all intensely aware, and all watching me.

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GRAPEFRUIT PERFUME BICYCLE BIRTHMARK

relationship story


        They met at the gym, Maxie Bratatango and the Princess Jestalbara Lantanariva.
        "Nice tattoo," said Maxie, on the second date.
        The princess blushed.
        "It's not a tattoo," she said. "It's a birthmark."

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