Review of Turning Blue by Benjamin Myers

A teenage girl’s murder at the hands of a dangerously deranged man is the ring-pull on a festering can of worms. This is a story as bleak as winter in the North Yorkshire Dales which is where it’s set. As each layer of events is peeled away the reader is dragged ever further into a broth of sexual indulgence and depravity and murder.

There are no heroes here just the uneasy alliance between an obsessive detective from the big city with the usual raft of human failings and a journalist escaping a life of booze and drugs in Fleet Street to find himself and write his novel in the seclusion of this rural backwater. Together they prise from the tight-lipped community a grim tale of corruption and extreme pornography and a murderous cover-up.

Turning Blue is expertly written engrossing and satisfying. It’s also written without a single comma inverted or otherwise and that works too.

Fiction short story from John S Alty

 

The Captain

Without water and with no means to propel the liferaft he knew he was going to die.

It hadn’t been much of a ship. A converted fishing trawler carrying used oil-refinery spares from Colombia to Curacao. That wasn’t the only cargo; the more valuable cargo was going to the USA via a complex route of which this was just the first leg. Neither cargo was going to reach its destination. The refinery owner in Curacao would probably be less concerned than the desperate consumers on the streets of Miami who would have to pay a few dollars more for their oblivion, supply-and-demand being what it was.

The steel hull where it supported the propeller shaft had long ago lost its structural integrity to rust and finally disintegrated in the early hours of the morning. The sea flooded through the breach and the ship was doomed. Both crewmen had been below in their bunks at the time, the Captain alone on the bridge. The crew’s accommodation was submerged before the men knew what was happening. The Captain had stepped over the rail as the ship sank beneath him. Despite years of neglect, the liferaft automatically released itself from its mountings and inflated. Where once there had been a ship and a crew there remained only a rubber liferaft and the Captain.

*

He wasn’t a religious man but when he heard a voice calling and peered out of the canopy he was nearly converted. Gazing down at him with an expression of concern was a man with long hair and a beard. As his mind cleared and his salt-crusted eyes gained focus the Captain realised his raft was lying alongside a sail boat and the bearded man was offering a hand to help him climb the boarding ladder.

“My name is Nathan Jones and this vessel is Adriana,” the man said, “welcome aboard.”

The Captain, rehydrated and fed, was sufficiently recovered to chat with his saviour that evening. Michael Smith was his name but everyone called him Captain and he’d be obliged if Nathan did the same, he said. Over a glass of rum, Nathan explained how he’d come from San Diego and it was to San Diego that he was returning after three years cruising the Caribbean alone on his forty-foot ketch.

“Don’t you miss your family, being away so long?” said the Captain.

“I have no family. There’s just me now. My wife and son were killed five years ago. It’s why I took off, really. Perhaps I was hoping I might be lost along the way but I’ve come to terms with it all now and I’m going back to San Diego to try to start my life again. But what about you? How did you come to be hereabouts, you’re American aren’t you?”

“Yes, from Houston originally. Ten years ago, I took off on my sail boat seeking adventure on the high seas. Long story short, after a couple of misadventures I ended up selling my sail boat and acquiring an old trawler. I based myself in Colombia, hauling crap from one end of the Caribbean Sea to the other, scraping a living. She was all I owned, shit-bucket that she was.”

“Well, at least you were spared. You can replace a boat, you can’t replace people.”

“Damn right. I’ll always owe you for saving my skin, Nathan.”

“Look, do you want me to head into Colombia, we’d be at Cartagena in two or three days? No problem for me, there’s no fixed date for my Panama Canal transit.”

“Hell, no. Nothing for me now in Colombia. I’ll go with you to Panama and check in with the US embassy – I lost all my money and documents in the sinking. Besides, you really don’t want to be too close to the Colombian coast. Nice sailboat like this would be just what the drug guys are looking for.”

“Well, OK then, Captain, Panama it is.”

*

The Captain was a competent sailor and an engaging companion – the first to be expected, the latter a pleasant surprise for Nathan. During the day, as Adriana made steady progress towards Panama the two men talked about nautical matters and navigation. Each evening they would chat about other things. The Captain realised Nathan was relishing this unexpected opportunity to voice his feelings, rediscover the art of conversation; he showed no hesitation in sharing his personal affairs. This pleased the Captain.

“You know, after the accident I couldn’t bear to live in our house so I sold up and bought a condo in San Diego. I’ve never lived in it – just stuck the best of the furniture in it and locked the door” said Nathan.

“Didn’t you want to rent it out or, maybe, allow a friend to use it?”

“No. I guess I didn’t want any reason to return. I put my affairs in order. Everything I am is in a plastic pouch in the chart table – passport, boat papers, deeds, bank account details, the lot.”

The Captain nodded his understanding and Nathan continued.

“As for friends, well, we lived in a suburb way north of the city, and they were her friends, never really mine. After the funeral, I hardly saw anyone for months and that’s when I decided to set off on my boat.”

“And now you’re going back. A fresh start, a new life.”

“Damn right” said Nathan, “and I’m looking forward to it.”

Two days later Adriana made landfall.

*

At last it was his turn at the counter in the Immigration Office in the Port of Colon, Panama, and he addressed the immigration official behind the glass partition:

“My name is Nathan Jones of the sailing vessel Adriana bound for San Diego, here is my passport. I have no crew, I’m single-handed” said the Captain.

 

 

 

Venus of the Rags

This odd piece of, er, art is by Michaelangelo Pistoletto and it’s called Venus of the Rags. I photographed it on a visit to the Tate in Liverpool.

I think it depicts a lady looking for her cleanest pair of knickers and thinking it might be time to do the laundry. I may be wrong.

There is some wonderful stuff at the Tate Modern at the Royal Albert Dock in Liverpool, by the way. I recently saw a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition and before that a terrific Jackson Pollack display.

Hey, Venus, that pair of pink ones on the left looks OK.

Tea in Peshawar

I was nineteen when I was sent to Peshawar to supervise the start-up of a new flour mill in this city on Pakistan’s northwest frontier, thirty miles from the Khyber Pass. My boss hoped my youthful enthusiasm and enterprise would overcome my lack of experience for there was no one else to send, the order book was bulging. The tale of this three month assignment occupies a couple of chapters in my memoir, The Runner Stone, but here’s a small taste:

The client allocated to me a sort of batman, Rafik, who would take care of my laundry and bring my breakfast and evening meal. For lunch, I would join the office staff in the mill lobby, seated on the floor around a feast of spicy curries and chapattis which we ate with our fingers. Twice each day I’d be interrupted by Rafik delivering tea in a china tea service on a silver tray. He did this at ten o’clock in the morning and three o’clock in the afternoon wherever I was on the site and no matter in what activity I was engaged.

The mill had been built in an undeveloped area beside a river to the east of the city. One day in June a hoard of people and animals arrived on the far bank and erected a temporary encampment of rough wooden poles, patched tarpaulins and sheets of plastic. I was told these were Shia Muslims assembling to celebrate Muharram. The highest point on the six-story mill building was the stairwell roof and I climbed to it on a rickety wooden ladder left over from the building works, hauling with me an old rattan chair I’d liberated from the office. From this precarious perch I had a splendid view of the activities in the sprawling camp. Several fanatics were engaged in flagellation, enthusiastically whipping their own backs with chain flails. Blood flowed freely from their torn flesh while the crowd wailed and clapped; I found it fascinating if gruesome entertainment.

I became aware of some activity behind me and turned to see the ladder moving.  A china tea service appeared over the parapet followed by a black woolen Jinnah cap and then the sweat-bathed, grimly-grinning face of Rafik. It was three o’clock.

 

The Ecstasy of Betrayal – Laure Van Rensburg

Here’s an edgy piece from the talented writer Laure Van Rensburg. It was entered in a Writer’s Workshop competition last year.

Maybe it happened because we’d fought, or because I’d run out of reasons not to, or because it was a Tuesday, and what a shitty day that is, or maybe your anger had reminded me of my father. It didn’t matter anymore; all that mattered now was the flame licking the spoon. When it was ready, I dropped the piece of filter in and it swelled up like my heart anticipating the rush to come. Rolled-up sleeve, discarded morals, and a recycled hairband tied around my arm, I speared the soaked fibres like I ‘d done so many times before until you’d convinced me I didn’t need it, but the quiver of my skin reminded me I did.

The solution rising in the barrel stirred up a familiar tightness in my groin I thought forgotten. Lying on my back night after night I had lied to us both—you inside of me would never satisfy me as much as the warmth of heroin inside of me did. You would never compare or be big enough to fill the hollowness that needed to be filled. Your love for me was a windmill, a losing battle. What I was about to do to you saddened me but I took comfort in the thought that soon you would be like Tuesday—you wouldn’t matter.

The constellation of old scars mapping the veins running below the skin showed me the way. I tilted the needle before its tip tore the flesh. Skipping a breath, I waited until a cloud of blood uncurled in the syringe and the visceral excitement of hitting the vein uncurled in my stomach. Licking my lips, I pushed the plunger and every promise I made to you, myself and the people in N.A. dissolved in a chemically-induced ecstasy.

A flaming sun rose in my abdomen, its tangled rays creeping up my spine, firing upwards until they exploded in my mind, a tantalising wave of warmth drowning me. The radiating light bleached the memory of your face into oblivion. I let go of you. Untethered, my body collapsed back into bed and into the embrace of my old lover. I’d been so stupid for ever wanting to give it up, but it forgave me for my indiscretion. I should take the needle out and flush the blood from the syringe. I should. I should…

Days clean: zero

The Miller and the Painter – John S Alty

The millstones, four feet across and a foot thick, rumbled as they rotated one upon the other, the bed stone fixed and the runner stone in motion. The trickle of wheat fell into a hole in the centre of the runner stone and traveled outwards to the skirt, being ground as it went. Flour dust leaked from a thousand imperfections in the wooden enclosure, rising like smoke through the shafts of sunlight slanting through the windows. The meal was warm to my touch as it left the stones and slithered down a wooden spout into a jute bag strapped to a packing ring on the floor below. My fingers told me it was fine enough and would make a proper loaf, there’d be no complaints.

The apprentice, Tommy, bagged off the meal and sewed up the jute sacks with needle and twine. He’s a slight lad and manhandling the heavy sacks of meal had tested him at first but he’d the knack of it now and could swing the full sack clear of the spout using his thigh. After he’d sewn the bag he tipped it onto the hand barrow and trundled it off to join the others at the sack hoist, ready to be taken down to the warehouse. I’d do that tonight before I left.

Stepping outside, I took my pipe from my pocket and walked down to the sluice. The Stour was high, we’d had plentiful rain this summer and we’d not had to shut for lack of water. The great wheel trundled round, the river driving it with unimaginable energy. The wheel, in turn, drove the heavy axle which, through a devilish complexity of cogs and gears and flat leather belts, gave the mill its life.

I leaned against the wall and pulled on my pipe, drawing deeply; an agreeable Virginia. Across the mill pond, the painter cleaned his brushes and folded his easel, his day’s work done. His time was his own, being a son of the mill’s owner. I’d seen him in the Crown once or twice but hadn’t approached for he was with gentry and I was in my dusty smock and didn’t want to cause annoyance. I was told by some that know these things, his work was highly revered and sold for tidy sums. They said he painted at Flatford, too, to give variety, I suppose. I thought he lived in East Bergholt with his father but I hadn’t seen him for many months before he’d appeared this past week.
I finished my smoke, tapped out my pipe and went back inside to send the apprentice home and then count up the production, drop the sacks down the hoist and be away myself. The painter might make a handy income but there’s nothing like an honest day’s work to provide proper contentment. As I walked through the village the sun fell behind the church spire and shadows reached like fingers across the gravestones. I wondered briefly if I should call into the inn, perchance the painter would be there and I’d address him, but it was a grand evening for a stroll.

*

In the morning, when I’d recounted seeing the painter once again at the mill, Mollie said:
“That’ll be John, of course, Abram’s older brother.” It was to Abram that I made my weekly reports. “I heard he moved away from his father’s house and he’s married Maria. “
“Well he seems to be back. Maria, did you say?”
“Yes, his childhood sweetheart. They say her granny didn’t approve of the family and said there’d be no inheritance if she married John. P’raps the old cow’s gone to her maker and true love has triumphed.” She batted her eyelids in a most comical fashion and I laughed.
“I don’t know where you hear this gossip, my love.” I said, “Anyway, I’ll be off now.”
“All right then, Frank. I’ve put an extra wedge of cheese in your lunch bag for Tommy. That boy needs fattening up.”

*

Leaving the mill well set and running smoothly, I crossed the river at the lock, skirted the pond and approached the painter:
“Forgive me if I’m disturbing you, sir.”
“Not at all,” the painter said, turning on his stool to face me. He put out his hand, “John Constable.”
“I’m Frank Wells, miller over yonder.”
“Yes, Abram speaks highly of you, my father too. Did you know I once worked at that mill? Before your time, nearly twenty years ago now. Just labouring, really, sewing sacks and such. My father liked his boys to get their hands dirty.”
“I’ve been here nine years, now,” I said, “I was the apprentice and then assistant at Flatford mill, then this mill came free and your father gave me the chance.”
“Well, pleased to meet you, Frank. And I’m glad of your interruption for I’ve come to a halt with this damn work. I had a bad feeling after I’d done the sketch and putting the paint on hasn’t made it any better. Come and look here; the mill and the lock on the left are alright but this right-hand side with the trees is just a muddle.”
“I must say, sir, it all looks exceptionally fine to me. The only thing I can paint is a wall.” This raised a smiled.
“I suppose in the mill you have times when things don’t seem quite right? It’s like black magic to me, the way you millers set the stones to make the flour just right, but there must be occasions when you wish you were a cowherd or a clerk.”
“Oh yes, there are those times alright and they’ll have you scratching your head or kicking the cat. I find the best way is to go back to the beginning. If the wheat’s not right, nothing will be right. So, I check the wheat and if it’s too dry or too wet I’ll open a new sack. Then I’ll set the runner stone and if I still can’t get the grind, well that’s a worry because I’ll need to dress the stones. Whenever I need to do that I curse myself for the lost time and must make it up by milling into the night. Better to keep the stones in tip top condition. Mister Abram’s good with that, he lets me bring in the millwright regular and not wait ‘till the stones are hopelessly blunt, but sometimes it happens.”

“Hmm. I think I might need to check the wheat, reset the runner and dress the stones on this painting.” He seemed to ponder this idea and then said,” Yes, you’ve made up my mind for me, Frank, I’m going to start again with a clean canvas.”
The original “Dedham Mill and Lock” painted c1817 was never finished.

Snap! by John S Alty

The river below the weir tumbled and swirled and dashed to its destination but above the wall it was broad and placid and deep. The sun was setting behind the trees, the water’s surface like quicksilver washed with red and orange streaks. Only a few leaves and myriad skittering insects  marred the pond and Adam wondered briefly why no fish rose to the evening hatch. He knelt at the edge and focused the Nikon. Not long now and the sun would drop behind the far bank and just before it did he would catch that final flash of light and its wondrous effect. A competition-winning shot. 

The thing stirred. It detected movement and awoke from the torpid, energy-conserving state in which it spent most of the day. It hadn’t eaten since taking a pair of waterfowl the day before and it would need to restore its protein levels soon. It turned slowly, allowing the receptors on its flanks to locate the tiny vibrations that had aroused it. Then, with a flick of its powerful tail it slid towards the bank, its eyes seeking prey.

Adam pressed the shutter as the last rays of the sun flashed across the water. It came for him then, lunging up through the lily pads that fringed the pond. Jaws locked onto his throat, it carried him upright and with a twist of its body jerked him from the bank. It was cold at the bottom, in the slime, among the bones, but Adam didn’t feel it.

This piece was published in Reflex Fiction, Feb 2018.