Tag Archives: Steve Thueson

Escape Room, a short story by John Miskelly

Illustration by Steve Thueson

Susie did a little shimmy to dodge a dog turd on the pavement.

“Whoops! They’re supposed to pick that up.”

“Sorry?” said Stewart.

“The dogs. They should pick up their mess. I mean the owners, the dogs couldn’t… opposable thumbs, et cetera. I guess maybe with their mouths? Ew. No.”

Sorry?” he repeated.

She flung a gesture back towards the dump.

“Ah,” he murmured, and raised his eyebrows in acknowledgement.

“It’s not a great part of town,” she said, slightly apologetically. “But it’s the only place where we could get a warehouse big enough.”

They both checked their soles for any shitty traces.

“You mentioned there’s a bus, though, yes?” said Stewart.

“There is. We’re actually in contact with the council about a possible express route from the train station to here.”

“The train station? So you’re expecting out of towners?”

“Well, if it takes off…” she crossed her fingers and made a show of putting on a hopeful face, like a child watching a penalty shootout. “We’re pretty sure no one else has had this idea in this county, maybe even the country.”

“Well,” he said, pushing his sunglasses up onto his gelled hair. “There might be a reason for that. But there are routes from the town centre, presumably. I mean, from your business plan, I imagine the market to be students, stag– and hen-dos, young people.”

“Yeah, there’s a couple of routes. One late night one.”

They walked on through the industrial estate in silence.

“They used to have illegal raves down here,” he said.

“You were a raver?” she asked, immediately regretting the undisguised surprise in her voice.

“It’s where I made my first few thousand,” he said. He took his sunglasses off his head and stuck them down the front of his pink shirt. “I wasn’t always a soulless city boy.”

She swallowed; “I never… I never would have—”

“Just joking,” he said, without any trace of humor.

“It’s this one,” she said.

The warehouse was nondescript, and no different in its apparent dilapidated shabbiness as any of the others on the estate.

Susie met Stewart’s eyes for the first time since she’d met him in the café a half hour before. “Just bear in mind it’s not totally finished. I mean hardly at all. There’ll be details.”

“I get it,” he said hurriedly.

She flung the door open and he stepped into a New York high rise open plan office.

“Fuck,” he said, and went to take off his sunglasses like people did in moments like that, then remembered he wasn’t wearing them. “It’s… it’s so real.”

“Well, almost,” she said. “We actually got the exact office plans of—I forget the exact floor, but the shape of the warehouse isn’t quite the same as the tower itself. It’s definitely a floor below the level of where the plane hit. Just to give the teams more of a chance I mean.”

He wandered over and looked out of the “window,” peering across the Manhattan skyline.

“So what’s the scenario then?” he said, regaining some of his dryness. “Other than the obvious I mean.”

“So, basically they need to get out—”

“‘Escape,’ one might say?”

“Yeah. Sorry. Obviously.” She took a breath and started again. “So there’s gonna be an actor playing a fire fighter. Henry actually reckons we can get a guy with a proper New York accent and everything. And he’ll be like a kind of guide. The phones are down, but there’ll be a mobile, an actual old Nokia from 2001, in one of the desk drawers.”

“Nice touch,” he said.

“There’ll be a message on there. Then we left a bag of bagels in the fridge with a key in it to the—” She threw up some air-quotation marks. “—‘back stairs.’ The main stairs are going to be blocked. Obviously, there’ll be other steps between. They’ll need to find the janitor’s jacket. Find a notebook with a computer password on it. It’s all in the file we sent.”

“Okay.”

“There’s also this,” she said, pulling out a remote control. Suddenly, the sounds of panic, alarms, flames, and destruction filled the room. He listened like an A&R man listening to some rough cuts.


“Very nice, proper surround sound,” he said. “What’s that one noise? It’s, like, quiet then loud, then quiet, like a passing motorbike or something?”

“That’s people. People falling,” she said.

“Jesus,” he said.

“Too much?”

“We’ll think about it,” he said.

“The next one’s through here,” she said.

She opened a door at the far end of “the office” and they walked into a prison cell.

“Welcome to H-Block.”

“Jesus!” he said again, as he put a hand up to his nose and retreated back into New York. He took a handkerchief out of his back pocket and put it across his face, then crossed the threshold back into Northern Ireland.

“It smells like fucking shit!” he exclaimed.

“That’s great!” she said.

He shot her an indignant look.

“It’s human shit,” she continued, “I mean, not actual human shit, but we got a chemistry student from the university to mix some stuff with some brown paint. Took ages to get the consistency right. We had a nice team bonding session smearing it on with our own hands. He said you can actually eat it if you want.”

“I’ll pass.”

One wall of the cell was covered almost completely in brown smears. He peered into it for a moment, deciphering some lettering. “’Bobby Sands forever’” he read out loud, “Teeac… tiacho… tiacfadee…?”

“Tiocfaidh ár lá,” she said, “It means, ‘Our day will come’ in Irish. I can’t say I haven’t learned a lot putting all this together.”

“Fuck. And they actually did this?”

“Yeah. Dirty protests. It evolved—if that’s the right word—from the blanket protest. In fact, what we’d really like to do is get customers to sign off on actually stripping off and just wearing blankets.”

“Will there be an actor in this one?”

“A sympathetic prison guard from East Belfast, but with a Catholic aunt in Kerry. Or something—he has a backstory to explain his motives. This one will be more interactive; they’ll have to persuade him to help. The actor we’ve got has a couple of arguments that when he hears, he’ll give them clues to finding items hidden in the cell. Eventually they’ll get hold of a set of car keys.” She grinned. “Hey, have a closer look at the shitty wall, under the ‘A’ in IRA.”

He advanced forward tentatively, keeping the handkerchief clasped against his face.


“It’s definitely not real shit?”

“No. I absolutely promise it’s not real shit.”

He squinted, reached out, and began to pick at a particularly thick globular of dissident, Fenian “faeces.” With a tinkling sound something dropped onto the stone floor. He bent down and picked up a key.

“It’s the key to this cell,” she said.

He didn’t exactly smile, but something in his eyes changed. “That’s actually almost brilliant,” he said, flatly.

She took the key from him and turned away to hide her own satisfied smile. She opened the cell and let him leave first. “End of the corridor on the right,” she said.

***

“Christ, it’s boiling in here,” he said.

“What do you expect,” she said. “It’s Cuba.”

“Don’t tell me—Guantanamo Bay.”

“Yeah.”

The space was long and thin. The floor was covered in sandy, rocky grit and chain-link fencing topped with barbed wire covered each wall. Two huge lights at either end lit the room in a dazzling glare. There was a crude metal contraption in one corner, something between a wheelbarrow and a gurney. On it was a hooded body in an orange jumpsuit.

“This mannequin looks a bit unrealis—”

Suddenly the mannequin sat bolt upright, and Stewart stumbled backwards in fright, his sunglasses flying from his head and landing with the faintest crunch on the bone-dry gravel floor.

“Fuck’s sake!” he said, trying to disguise fear with righteous annoyance.

The jumpsuited figure pulled off his hood to reveal a grinning fair-haired young man with a beard and electric blue eyes.

“Sorry about that, mate! I was honestly just taking a nap.”

“This is Henry,” she said. “He’s supposed to be at a meeting with the town council.”

“I just hung around to put up the last of the wire; must’ve dozed off.” Henry hopped off the metal stretcher thing and enthusiastically shook Stewart’s hands. “You must be the London investor. Whatdaya think so far?”

“It’s very…”

“Sorry!” Henry raised both hands in apology. “Sorry—shouldn’t put you on the spot like that. But just bear in mind that there are some minor details to iron out.”

“No, no it’s all very… convincing,” Stewart said.


Henry didn’t appear to have heard. “This one for instance, we’re still not sure about whether we should have it in one of the actual cells or this kind of outdoor prison yard thing we’ve got going on now. I mean, it’s fucking hard to convince people we’re outside when we’re actually totally obvs inside a bloody great warehouse. You know what I mean, dude? Suspension of disbelief, et cetera. Cynical adults and whatnot.”

“It’s not open for kids then?” said Stewart, dryly.

Henry looked baffled for a moment, then burst into a bellowing laugh.

“Good one! Could you imagine? But seriously—prison yard or prison cell?” He scratched his head and gave Stewart an inquiring look, as if hanging on Stewart’s opinion and his opinion only.

“Well,” said Stewart. “I mean, a cell could work.”

“But we’ve already got the H-Block cell.”

“Right.” Stewart felt on his head for his sunglasses again.

“They’re on the floor, mate,” said Henry, and bent down and picked up the sunglasses. He dusted them off and handed them to Stewart. “But anyway,” he continued. “I’d best be off. Should probably change first!” he said, looking down at his jumpsuit and giving a belly laugh. “And—I mean, I don’t want to, you know—but I personally reckon all this is a massive goer. It’ll twist the assholes of some people, but there’s always a market for something a bit edgier. I’ve worked in a couple of the normal places and they’re fucking boring, ’scuse my fucking French. We just need a bit more money.”

Henry and Stewart stared at each other for a second. “But anyway, yeah. Good to meet you,” said Henry, then gave Stewart a firm pat on his shoulder, leaving a dusty stain on his pink shirt. He strode out of the prison yard through a door Stewart hadn’t noticed.

“He’s a bit full on sometimes,” said Susie. “So anyway, in this one, all the clients will be in orange jumpsuits. We might keep the bags over some of their heads just to give some members a disadvantage—”

“The details are all on the file you sent me, right?” said Stewart.

“Yes. Yeah. It’s all there,” said Susie, taken aback by Stewart’s brusqueness.

“And what other ideas do you have?”

“Ideas?”

“Yeah. I mean you’ll need to rotate, right, once they’ve been solved, word gets around, I imagine.”

“Ah, yeah, of course. Well, we’ve got a whole file of them, actually. There’s Chernobyl. Vietnam. Maybe something with a claustrophobic element, like those tunnels they dug. A whole load of natural disasters, although they might be harder to pull off. The Holocaust—”

“Jesus jumping fuck,” whispered Stewart, kneading his forehead.

“Yeah, that one we’ve for sure ruled out. We’ve also considered a kind of historical fiction type thing: a soviet nuclear strike on Manchester or something. Like, did you ever see that movie Threads? Man, that really got to me. But yeah, we’ve got loads. They’re in the file, too, I think.”

Stewart sat down on the metal gurney. “Do you really need the full fifty thousand?”

Susie sighed. “Would you like a beer?” she offered.

***

Stewart spun the bottle in his hands, took a swig, and felt a bit of life and confidence returning to him. He observed the space around him. “This place is actually really nice,” he said.

“We’ve got a deal with a local microbrewery. And we want to have a kitchen, maybe even a pizza oven, so people can wind down and chat about their experiences. There’s a cloakroom, too. And toilets. I mean, obviously there’s toilets.”

“I was—”

“We’re thinking about merch, too!” She blurted out.

He fiddled with a beer mat advertising an artisan beer from Barcelona.

“I mean, we’ve made investments in things like this before. Serial killer tours of London. We’ve got a bunch of shares in a marijuana retailer in Vancouver. Loads of dirty board games.”

“This is a little like a board game,” said Susie. “I mean, if you really think about it.”

Stewart didn’t reply.

“We know it’s a little on the nose,” she continued.

“Just a little,” said Stewart with a smirk.

“But we’re not arms dealers. We’re not Saudi Arabia.”

“To be honest, public outrage doesn’t really work like that,” said Stewart, “Otherwise we’d be lynching global food market speculators from every lamppost.”

They both drank.

“Could you tone down the shit stink in the IRA one?” he said, finally.

“H-Block. Yeah we could do that.”

“Maybe the jumpers in 9/11?”

“Well… I suppose we could at least put it lower in the mix.”

“I mean, it’s fucking sick. It’s fucking deranged! I mean Guantanamo—those guys are still in there, right? I mean wasn’t Obama going to… What else is on the list? Fucking Princess Diana or some shit?”

Susie looked pensive for a second. “I’m not sure how we’d do that one.”

Stewart laughed despite himself. “And like I said, students and stag dos and young people—there’s a definite market. There’s money here, for sure.”

They sat in silence and finished their beers. “I need to catch my train back to London.”

“Of course, I’ll walk you back to the station,” said Susie.

“It’s fine. I remember the way.”

They emerged back into the English summer sunshine. Stewart put his sunglasses on and took a deep breath. “We’ll get back to you,” he said simply. Then he shook Susie’s hand and strode off.

Susie turned to re-enter the warehouse, then hesitated. “Look out for the dog mess!” she shouted after him.

///

John Miskelly is thirty-three and lives in Asturias, Spain.

Cava Island, a Short Story by John Miskelly

Miskelly_cavaisland_@steve_thueson

Cava Island, a Short Story by John Miskelly

Illustration by Steve Thueson

The plane lurched as it passed through a patch of light turbulence. Several young voices whooped, others shrieked in affected, pantomime fright.

A girl of university age in a hat with a brim larger than an SUV hubcap and cat eye sunglasses talked languidly into a phone. “So, basically, my agent’s really into the old money thing, like Instagraming all over Dad’s house—the stables, on the pianos, and around the pool. That paid for the apartment in London and I left university. Then I started getting sent the clothes and going to all these lush places in Europe, just with a three post minimum to keep the brands happy, you know, ‘In Monaco hashtag Gucci hashtag blessed.’ Last year, my brand sent me to Cannes and Coachella. So yeah, it’s all pretty overwhelming,” she said, underwhelmingly.

“Are you talking to me or doing a Facetime interview?” said the confused looking ginger haired teenage boy in a large baseball cap that said “Future Pimp” on it, sitting in the seat next to her.

“Reading back an email interview I gave the Washington Post Sunday magazine.” She took a selfie, apropos of nothing. “So what do you do?”

“I play Warhammer and post the games on Twitch.”

“I don’t know what that is,” she said. Even with his age and his autism it was obvious to the boy this wasn’t a question. “Do you like my hat?” he settled on. “My agent bought it for me.” The girl deigned to flick her eyes away from her screen to glance at his hat. “It’s nice. I’d take a selfie with you but, you know, hashtag lifestyle, etcetera. There’s just no cross brand potench there.”

“I get it,” Future Pimp said. “Are you looking forward to Cava Fest?”

“Can’t wait, babe. If I get a photo with all of Maroon Five, I get a Mercedes.”

The plane trundled on. A flight attendant made a second pass through the cabin with a tray of champagne flutes, some filled with Cava, others with a medicinally coloured energy drink.

Two seats in front, a girl dressed in a sparkling gold Nirvana vest top scowled into her phone and asked aloud, “Is it lame to post two OOTDs in one day?”

A disembodied voice from somewhere up front replied, “My brand says I gotta post at least three OOTDs a day or I get nothing, not even a guest list at a shitty London club night. I missed the Golden Globes, ’cause I forgot to Insta myself drinking a protein shake some brand sent me.”

The man of unidentifiable age wearing a baseball cap and a hoodie with a hashtag motif plonked himself down beside Sparkly Nirvana girl. “Let’s do some cross-branding,” he said, then grabbed her round the shoulders, grinned and held up his phone in front of them. She arranged her face from a scowl to an unassuming, gregarious smile just in time for the camera flash.

Miskelly_cavaisland_@steve_thueson
“Hashtag… Cava Fest,” he said, his tongue poking slightly out of his mouth as he typed, “Hashtag blessed, hashtag lifestyle, at…” he gave her a sideways look. “What’s your Insta name again?”

The girl gave a roll of her eyes and mumbled a handle.

Backward Baseball Cap typed, read, and smirked. “So you put on makeup?” he said. “Is that it?”

And nail polish. And they’re tutorials. My agent says eighty percent of females between fourteen and eighteen recognise my face, sixty percent if I’m wearing sunglasses. Take a look at my views, it’s like…” But no one found out what they were like—she simply trailed off and made a hand gesture as if expecting an on-hand somebody to find the word for her.

An astonishingly pretty male youth wearing a suit jacket with nothing underneath but a thick gold necklace appeared at Backward Baseball Cap’s armrest. “Don’t you just play Fortnite and kinda shout things?” he said.

“Well, I also tell jokes,” said Backward Baseball Cap.

“Go on, then,” said the suit jacket boy man, in a Chelsea and Kensington drawl that dripped of money and hubris.

“Wha’?”

“Tell us one of your jokes.”

“Well… I don’t, like… they’re more like, improvised when I’m playing… like, if, like, there’s a foreign person, I’ll kind of do their accent? And then sometimes I’ll, like, put a mask on.”

“Sounds a bit more like a clown,” said suit jacket boy, the twitch of an Eton smirk on his lips.

“Well this clown scored a free trip to E3, just for three Insta mentions. Shit was lit!”

A voice from the front of the plane: “Three mentions? You’re working too hard, mate, have a word with your agent.”

Another voice: “It’s all about the Klout scores, though, right?”

A general hubbub of disapproval arose from the passengers.

“One doesn’t talk about Klout aggregates among colleagues,” said Suit Jacket Sans Shirt.

Miskelly_cavaisland_@steve_thueson
A blonde bequiffed youth in a gold Ramones T-shirt with a USP of farting on the sites of historical importance faced his fellow passengers and raised his phone. As if the device were some remote control, a crop of hand gestures rose into the air and faces arranged themselves into smirks, pouts, gurns and other brand-approved/marketing team developed facial arrangements.

“Hashtag Cava Fest! Blessed!” the man shouted and sat down.

“Where is this island, anyway?” asked Fortnite guy.

“Sounds foreign. And hot. Good enough for me,” said History Site Farter.

“Cava must be where they make the champagne.”

“Champagne is where they make champagne, Cava’s sparkling wine,” said Future Pimp.

“How you know so much ’bout booze when you can’t even drink it?”

“Cava’s obvs the sponsor. Lit!” someone shouted.

“Hashtag blessed!” shouted another.

“It’s in Spain!” someone Wikipedia’d.

“Hashtag sangria!”

“I’m glad I packed that sixth bikini,” said Rich Dad Girl.

“Speaking of which, shouldn’t we have seen some sun by now?”

The plane banked violently, inciting more excited shrieks that quickly turned to murmurs of confusion as the windows filled with a bird’s eye drapery of storm cloud grey jagged rocks, patched together with untamed shrubbery and grasses. The plane levelled out and stomachs jumped into throats as it began its descent.

“Why are we landing? We barely took off an hour ago?” asked Suit Jacket Sans Shirt, a touch of anxiety vibrato in his voice.

“This is sus as fuck, mate,” said Backward Baseball Cap, leaning over Sparkly Nirvana girl to better peer out the window.

The plane descended so steeply that several people squealed, in genuine fear this time. The aircraft barely cleared the black waves that thrashed and churned against the rocks. Finally the plane bumped and jolted across the uneven plain, the closest thing to a runway the island had.

The passengers emerged tentatively, placing their brand partner sneakers onto the wild grass like it was thin ice. A cold wind cut across the island and what little outer clothing they had they pulled around themselves. They scanned the empty horizon, brows furrowed and teeth chattering.

“Where’s the stage?”

“Where’s Maroon Five?”

“Where’s the bar?”

“Where’re the yachts?”

“Where’s the Michael Jackson hologram?”

“Where’s the fucking sun?”

Suddenly, there was a new voice, older and well spoken, a middle-aged man in a suit and glasses, standing at the top of the boarding stairs. “None of those things are here. Sorry about that,” he said.

They all turned expectantly towards the man in the suit.

“And who might you be?” asked Jacket Sans Shirt.

“I’m a civil servant—”

“What’s a civil servant?” someone asked.

“I think it means he’s a politician or something.”

Miskelly_cavaisland_@steve_thueson
The civil servant looked as though he might correct this, then thought better of it. “Yes, more or less…. So, all attention spans considered, I’ll keep it brief: there is no festival. This is Cava Island—nothing to do with sparkling wine. It’s a conveniently named island off the coast of Scotland and it’s uninhabited and very small.” He stood for a moment with his hands clasped statesmanlike in front of him, then, seemingly not sure what the appropriate protocol might consist of, hesitantly turned around and stooped down to re-enter the plane.

“This has to be one of GlitchBoy94’s pranks,” said Future Pimp. “I was wondering why he wasn’t here. We’re probably all on Periscope right now.” He looked in vain into the middle distance left and right in search of a device on which he may have been being filmed.

“Is that it, then?” asked Sparkly Nirvana, “This was a trap? Have we been pranked or what?”

The man straightened up again. “I mean, we probably won’t use those words exactly.”

“Okay, nice job,” said Jacket Sans Shirt. “We’ve all been owned. Can we get back on the plane now?”

The civil servant gave a chuckle. “No. No, no, no—you’ve misunderstood. You’re staying here.”

A rising murmur of indignation and confusion rippled through the group.

“For how long?” asked History Farter.

“That’s…” the Civil Servant chose his words carefully. “… until we know what the hell’s going on with you lot. It’s an extreme policy—we could’ve just put you in a Wifi-free camp, but there are certain connotations with that and this type of theatre plays well in the tabloids.”

“And what is going on?” said Future Pimp.

“We don’t know. But we know something is and you lot might have something to do with it.”

A resentful silence ensued.

“It’s for the kids or something, or something,” added the Civil Servant.

“We are the kids,” cried Rich Dad girl.

“You have your own stables,” said the Civil Servant.

“Fuck this, I’m calling my agent,” said Backwards Baseball Cap.

“Your agents are currently somewhere in an undisclosed location in the Australian outback.”

“That’s so typical of Ian to be taking another holiday,” someone said.

“Also, naturally, there’s no phone signal here,” added the Civil Servant.

Now the ripple of confusion turned to an angry tumult, complete with profanities and oaths as the group checked their phones.

“I’d like to speak to my father please,” said Rich Dad Girl.

“Actually, your father bought this plane.”

She looked around to see a familiar logo on the fuselage. “Oh yeah,” she said, and took a photo.

“Right, bye, then,” said the Civil Servant, and hastily ducked into the plane and shut the door.

As the plane restarted its engine and began its wide turning circle, the group stood dumbstruck and bovine like. The few for whom the reality of the situation had clicked began to hopelessly chase the plane as it rattled and bounced along the uneven grass plain. But even those with gym brand partners hadn’t a chance. Rich Dad Girl, vainly attempting to run in thick wedge heels, was the last to give up the chase, falling to the ground even after the plane had lifted off and was tens of feet into the air. As she fell, her sunglasses slipped off her head and smashed on an errant rock, and her floppy-brimmed hat cartwheeled drunkenly away with the wind, coming to rest in a bog.

///

Cava Island is a real place. It’s very small and makes up part of the Orkney archipelago off the coast of Scotland. John Miskelly is thirty-three and lives in Asturias, Northern Spain.

The Bass, A short story by John Miskelly

The Bass by John Miskelly

The Bass, A short story by John Miskelly

“Oh my god, Songs of Praise, change the channel.”

“Fuck you, it’s nearer to you.”

“I can’t do it; those bass strings have turned my finger ligaments to cheese string.”

“You seem to be using your phone fine.”

“Yeah, because it’s smooth glass, isn’t it? The remote’s all rubbery buttoned friction. It’s like sandpaper to these digits.” From her position prostrate on the sofa, Kat reached her supposedly incapacitated left hand towards Sharon, herself supine across a bean bag like a languid starfish.

“Well, I guess we’re stuck with Abide with Me, live from Norwich cathedral,” said Sharon, “Religious programming on the BBC. So much for the separation of church and state. Might as well put lawn jockeys on the BBC news desks.”

No reply came from the sofa.

“Hello? I’m making grownup, not trifling, Sunday morning conversation.”

“Yeah man, lawn jockeys, get in on that shit,” replied Kat in a removed murmur, lost in a detail on her smart phone screen.

Sharon scowled across at her roommate. “What’re you doing anyway?”

“Trying to sell this fucking bass. I don’t get where that whole thing about girl bassists started, those stings are heavy and my back’s all achy.”

“And another sexist creep gets his wings.”

“What are you on about?”

“I mean you’d be a shit hunger striker. Zero pain threshold.”

“You’re the one buying lawn jockeys.”

Sharon reached behind her back, tugged out a cushion, and launched it at Kat. “So you’re not going to get good and give lessons anymore then?” she asked.

Kat let her phone fall onto her lap and bounced her head against the sofa’s armrest in frustration. “I wasn’t trying to get good, just better than a beginner, so I could specialize as a teacher for beginners. God! Listen for once!”

“The Homer Simpson school of business.”

Kat raised the phone needlessly close to face in an exclusionary gesture to the outside world. Sharon softened her tone slightly.

“You know, Kat, with a bit of practice—”

“It’s got to go.”

“…effort and persistence—”

“…knowing when to quit—”

“…barely three weeks.”

“I’m selling it!” shouted Kat.

A silence of finality and bad vibes descended on the living room, broken suddenly by the bathetic and frivolous chirp of a smartphone alert.

“That was quick,” said Kat. “Nope, false alarm; just some bloke asking for a tit pic.”

“Man, there is no escaping that shit. Liz from that bar we used to go to that closed down last year had a guy ask her out over those e-chat bank customer service things.”

“I don’t know what any of those things are, but I don’t doubt it. Who was that couple who met over a prank call to her work or something? Alice and… Tony?”

Suddenly, another gruffer voice entered the conversation.

“Actually it was Toby. I think they ended up setting up a falafel van together or something. Also, Kat’s right—this bass is, in actual fact, a piece of shit.” It was Wayne, standing disheveled and sleepy eyed in the doorway of the living room, holding Kat’s bass lengthways away from his face like a rifle, squinting along the length of the neck.

“When the hell did you get in here?” said Sharon.

“About 11ish,” replied Wayne, continuing to inspect the instrument.

Sharon and Kat exchanged looks of suspicion and disgust. Sharon checked her watch.

“It’s only 10:45,” she said.

“Last night,” he said, again not breaking his clockmaker’s squint.

“Jesus you’ve been here… all night?” said Kat, pulling her duvet up to her chin like a child contemplating a horror of her own imagination.

“Yeah. Slept behind the washing machine.”

“More like hiding behind it,” said Kat.

“It’s totally weird and you need to stop doing this. If you were famous, we could get you fired for being a perv,” said Sharon.

“I’m not famous. Or employed,” he replied flatly, then more hurriedly, “And I wasn’t perving.”

“Interesting order of denial,” said Sharon.

“Anyway, the action’s really high and the neck’s warped. And looking at the state of these strings, I’d recommend a tetanus jab.”

“What?” said Sharon. “Oh right, the bloody bass.”

“See!” yelped Kat, twisting her body around and smiling triumphantly at Sharon. “It’s shitty and I should get rid of it.”

Sharon looked pensive. “You bought a thing that doesn’t work, so you can’t do the idea that was rubbish in the first place. Yeah, I guess that’s a victory of sorts.”

“Damn straight!” said Sharon.

“And in the process have sided with a burglarizing voyeur.”

“Can I have some money for the bus?” said Wayne, ignoring the insult.

“The bus where? You live two streets away,” asked Kat.

“Even less reason for him to be here,” added Sharon.

The Bass by John Miskelly
“The job center. I need to sign on so I can get free money from the government. But first I need free money from you to get there.” He sighed and made a cyclical motion with his hands. “It’s a catch 22 type thing.”

Kat narrowed her eyes and pointed them accusatorily at Wayne.

“There’s a screwed up five at the back of the bread bin,” she said, earning a betrayed glare from her housemate.

“Cool. Thanks,” Wayne replied, with only a minimal suggestion at gratitude. “I’ll put your bass back in your room, yeah?”

Don’t go in my room!” yelped Kat, with such urgency she nearly fell of the sofa. “Just—just prop it up against the wall there.”

Wayne laboriously placed the headstock of the bass against the wall, stood poised with his hand inches away, and then caught it when it inevitably began to slide sideways like a drunk nodding off at a bar. He repeated the excruciating process twice while Kat and Sharon stared with a mix of pity and disgust as one would a dying animal being sick on itself.

“Jesus, just lay it on the ground,” pleaded Sharon at last.

“Are you sure? It’s gonna be blocking the—”

“Just do it,” said Kat.

He did. And left. Seconds later they heard the door slam.

“God, how do we end up with these people?” said Kat.

“He was your boss.”

“He was my supervisor, for a day. Best supervisor I’ve ever had, to be fair.”

“Because he nearly got you arrested?”

Kat gave the question a second of serious contemplation. “Well, yeah.”

Sharon rummaged behind her back for a cushion and remembered she’d already thrown it at Kat earlier.

Kat’s phone chimed again.

“This one looks promising. Some guy. Can’t spell for shit. Southampton. How far’s that?”

“Couple of hours.”

“Says he’ll pay whatever’s necessary if I can get it to him before three.”

“Guess you’d better check the train times,” said Sharon with a cheery glibness, staring up at the ceiling and smiling. “Bear in mind the service always sucks on a Sunday.”

“Well actually I was hoping—” began Kat.

“No. Too far.”

“Let me rephrase that; I was going to invite you to—”

“Invite?”

“…to the opportunity for a road trip.”

“Too short to constitute a road trip.”

“We could take in Portsmouth and Bournemouth if you’re so keen to draw it out,” said Kat, a little more tersely than she intended.

“You’ll get nowhere with a tone like that, missy.”

Kat stuffed a section of duvet into her mouth and bit down on it. “Sorry. I’d really appreciate it. You’d really be helping me out. I’ll pay for gas and whatever.”

A brief and silent clashing of wills passed, in which Kat resisted the urge to speak her true mind lest it warrant a further payment of degrading supplication. Sharon herself meanwhile was merely drawing the moment out for no other reason than the idle enjoyment of her friend’s discomfort.

Finally, Sharon chose to end the standoff.

“Okay, we’ll go,” she said.

Kat swallowed a mouthful of bile and soldiered through her best efforts at a gracious thank you. “Thanks so much, Sharon. I really owe you one for this, you’re a star.”

Sharon recognized it immediately as an adapted version of Kat’s oozy call center voice but, really, it was Sunday, they could take the scenic route and she had a new Bluetooth stereo in her car. “Go to the kitchen and make us a flask of coffee and a couple of fat doorstop sarnies. I’m not paying service station prices,” she said.

Kat got up wordlessly and left the room, her duvet dragging across the wood laminate flooring like a wounded limb.

“Meanwhile, I will shower,” Sharon added.

***

Sharon drummed her fingers on the wheel, then turned down the stereo. “So what do we actually know about this guy anyway?” she asked. No response was forthcoming from the passenger seat. “Kat?”

Kat sat bolt upright at the sound of her name; “Sorry, was just… thinking about something… doing the math in my head—the gas, etc.”

Sharon stole a sideways look at Kat’s groggy face, embossed on one cheek with the textured pattern of the seatbelt stitching. “So?”

“Sorry?”

“What do we know about this guy? Who’s buying this shitty bass?”

“Well, he has a fifty quid and lives…” Kat burrowed into her pocket for a note. “… on Cedar Drive in Southampton. And is called Brad.”

The Bass by John Miskelly
“Brad? Who the fuck is called Brad?”

“Half of Australia and some of America.”

“And we know he spells bad.”

“Badly,” Kat corrected her. “Let’s not throw stones in glass houses.”

Sharon risked a hard glare at her passenger, quickly noted by Kat.

“But yeah, he spells badly,” said Kat.

“How much is that bass worth?”

“Not fifty quid.”

“So…?”

“I guess it would burn as fire wood? Strings could be used as tiny washing lines, or to garrote home intruders?”

“So fuck all, then.”

A moment passed in which they both silently considered garroting, then the nature of the internet, then the nature of men, then the nature of men on the internet.

“Let’s both go to the door when we get there,” said Sharon.

“Okay,” agreed Kat. “Hey, here’s a service station, pull in here and we can eat our lunches in the car park.”

“Sounds idyllic.”

“Sometimes they have a patch of grass or a picnic table.”

Sharon pulled over and off the freeway, and wound the car along the slip road. Moments later they were leaning on the bonnet eating.

“I don’t actually mind this,” said Sharon.

“Sorry there’s no grass.”

“No, I mean it feels like a little victory coming here and not buying fast food or a sandwich for seven quid.”

“Right,” agreed Kat. “It feels even better when you take a dump in the toilets without buying anything.”

“Like I said—small victories and no risk of arrest.”

They chewed contentedly and watched a child try and retrieve a French fry off the asphalt while his mother yelled at him and tugged him along by his arm.

“I bet you could live here. I bet Wayne’s tried it.”

“I’ll remember this when worse comes to worst.”

***

Gradually, countryside gave way to shabby industrial business parks and distribution centers, then eventually to residential areas, townhouses, then the city center they’d being trying to avoid but hit anyway because Kat couldn’t call the directions quickly enough. An obstacle course of stop signs, one way systems, traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, and Sunday outdoor market shoppers engulfed them until they emerged on the other side of the storm, back into suburbia.

Cedar Drive was wide, quiet, leafy, aspirational. Sharon’s squat little Nissan seemed an incongruous and unworthy recipient of the emerald guard of honor provided by the canopy of old elms trees that lined the pavement. The houses were detached, large, and individually designed and decorated. The front gardens bloomed with nurtured vividness and each driveway had space for at least two cars. The only notable difference between Brad’s and the rest was the number of children’s outdoor toys that lay strewn and abandoned across his lawn.

Brad himself was not much older than the girls, late thirties at the most, and was wearing a pink salmon polo shirt, chinos, and deck shoes. He held a kitchen implement in his hand neither of the girls could readily identify the use for.

He seemed surprised to see them. “Hello?” he said.

“Hi,” said Kat, lifting the bass slightly as means to an explanation.

Brad looked perplexed.

“You’re Brad, right?” said Sharon.

“Yeah. Are you Julie’s friends?” In the second before the question, he’d given the girls a swift once over, and his cordial expression altered to one of skepticism even as he said the words. “Because she’s away until Tuesday.”

“No,” said Kat, “I think you wanted to buy this bass off of me?”

Brad gave a curt laugh and was in the beginnings of a slow shake of the head, “I was looking at lawn mowers this morning, but—”

From behind him came a shrill cry, then a glittering bundle of colors, hair, and noise bounced into view—a girl in a sequined skirt and rainbow boots.

“My guitar!” she shouted and bounced on the spot, using her father’s short pocket for leverage.

“Wait… okay, I get it,” said Brad, “I reckon I forgot to log off the tablet.”

“Ah, okay,” said Sharon, just for the sake of a response.

Stranded and clueless in a hitherto uncharted area of adult etiquette, nobody said anything for a moment. Then the girl crossed the threshold and grabbed the neck of the bass with both hands.

“My guitar!” she said again and bounded back into the house as best she could, hindered considerably by the weight of an instrument almost as long as she was tall.

Three sets of eyes watched her go.

Finally, Brad reached into his pocket and extracted his wallet.

“Well, she seems pretty set on it, and it’s my own careless fault. How much do I owe you?” he said.

Kat and Sharon seem hypnotized by the sight of the wallet.

“Are you..?” began Kat. “I mean to say—how old is she?”

“Eight in a couple of months.”

Sharon took a sideways glance at her friend and could see from the shape of her frown the cogs beginning to turn.

“Fifty pounds,” she blurted. “Fifty pounds sterling.”

Brad smiled. “Just as well—I left all my Cypriot pounds in the office.”

“Cypriot?” said Sharon.

“Pounds,” said Brad, his smile frozen and his arm extended with a folded fifty-pound note pinched between his middle and index fingers. “Pound sterling.”

Sharon took the note whilst avoiding his eye. “Thanks,” she said.

Another moment passed in silence.

“Thanks, then,” said Sharon, and turned to go, deliberately brushing Kat’s elbow with her own.

“Yeah, bye,” said Kat, a little brusquely.

“Thanks,” said Brad, “I’ll give you a five star review.”

“Thanks,” they said together, twisting their heads only slightly around as they hurried over the gravel driveway.

“Cheers,” Brad said.

“Yeah, cheers.”

Neither spoke as they walked to the car. Kat rubbed her eye and the rough, raw callous on her fingertip was like sandpaper against her lid. She rubbed a muscle on her forearm where the squared off body of the bass had dug into it, then stretched out the fingers in her left hand and felt the tendons in the forearm and wrist burn.

Kat hesitated with her hand on the door handle of the passenger side.

“It’s unlocked,” said Sharon.

Kat opened the door and climbed in.

“Well, that explains the shitty spelling,” said Sharon, slotting the keys into the ignition.

“We have to go back,” said Kat, already undoing her seatbelt.

“What? Why?”

“She’s clueless. Or he’s clueless. Or he just doesn’t care and she’s just excited to have a new big thing.”

Sharon stared at Kat, hand still on the ignition, like one attempting to decipher an infant’s drawing.

The Bass by John Miskelly
Kat stared straight ahead, wide-eyed with her hands out in front of her as if attempting to summon a succinct explanation from her brain. “I can’t say exactly who’s the victim here, but I really don’t think that was an ethical transaction.”

Kat reached for the door handle. Sharon grabbed her trailing arm.

“That guy probably spends fifty quid a week on cheese alone, Kat.”

“That doesn’t make it right that we sold him a lemon.”

“So he should’ve paid more attention and learn the value of money. He barely checked it over.”

“So we sold her a lemon.”

Sharon looked ostentatiously at the looming house in front of them—the expansive garden; the two cars that made her own look like a milk float.

“I think she’ll get over it.”

“That bass is a torture device. I could hardly press those strings down.”

“So a rich kid gets a new toy and then forgets it in a week. What’s new?”

“And then some boy’s gonna come in and mansplain how it’s a piece of junk—”

“Isn’t that exactly what happened this morning?”

The Bass by John Miskelly
“Wayne just confirmed what I knew! You don’t need to be a mechanic to know a car’s probably a bit worse for wear when it’s lying at the bottom of a cliff in flames.”

Sharon removed the keys from the ignition, straightened her back, and folded her arms. “So I don’t follow. What ethical code are we violating exactly?”

“What do you mean?”

“So was it patriarchal to sell the bass to Brad or just aggressively capitalistic? I can’t keep up.”

“Don’t mock me for having values. I thought we were on the same page with that stuff, but right now I’m not so sure.”

The emphasis on “thought” hit its mark, and Sharon grabbed and squeezed the steering wheel with anger.

“Don’t try and…” Sharon searched for the word.

“What?”

Excommunicate me because I don’t believe every scenario falls neatly into a discriminatory pigeon hole.”

Both their voices were beginning to tremor slightly as the rising emotion swelled in their throats.

“What if no one explains that it’s a piece of shit and she thinks she just can’t play it, and then some other boy tells her it’s just because she’s a girl.”

“I think you’re letting your imagination run away with whatever needless sense of guilt you’re feeling.”

“And what if—”

“What if you can’t pay the rent again?”

Sharon met Kat’s eyes for the first time since they’d returned to the car. Kat turned away and looked out the window.

“How many months this year have you paid the rent in full by yourself?” Sharon continued.

No answer was expected or forthcoming.

“I know I’ve chipped in at least four times. I know your mom helps you out sometimes. And what’s fifty quid? Even that barely scratches the surface on the flat.”

“You don’t need to keep count,” Kat whispered into the passenger seat window.

“I do, Kat. Everyone does, everyone counts all the fucking time, and it’s a tedious fucking slog, but everyone’s counting rent, counting change, counting bills, counting paychecks, counting down days of the fucking month like it’s a fucking ticking timebomb, except, apparently, you.” Sharon accentuated the final few words with a bang on the steering wheel.

Sharon exhaled deeply and stared out the windscreen at the beginnings of a sunset—purples, pinks, and oranges foregrounded by gray streaks of cloud that gave the panorama a metallic, iridescent quality. They sat in silence for so long that by the time either of them spoke again, the streetlights had begun to turn on.

At last Kat refastened her seatbelt. “Are we going to go or what, then?”

Tentatively, as if handling some unstable explosives, Sharon started the engine and pulled out onto the empty Sunday evening road. She found the beltway this time, but they were still barely past Salisbury before Kat spoke again.

“I actually have a job interview on Tuesday,” she said, slightly hoarsely.

“That’s good. Where?” said Sharon.

“Just some admin stuff for that magazine group place type thing.”

“Should be some interesting people there.”

This time the silence lasted until within five miles of home.

“I do count, by the way,” said Kat. “I just really, really hate almost all jobs, and any opportunity I can think of to not do them I’m almost always going to take, even if it’s a Homer Simpson scheme.”

Sharon smiled, despite herself.

“Then I guess it’s a matter of striking a balance then,” she said. “And sometimes making… sacrifices and…” She was speaking as amiably and as tactfully as she could without sounding motherly. “… choosing where and when and with whom—or against whom….” She trailed off.

Now it was Kat’s turn to smile at her friend’s clumsy efforts at diplomacy.

“I suppose if one bad experience could put a kid off music for life, elementary school recorder lessons would’ve seen to it for all of us,” she said.

“There’d be no bands ever again,” said Sharon.

Despite her not insincere display of conviction, it took only five minutes into the return drive for Sharon to decide that while there were things that needed to merely be thought to have been done, there were also things that really should be done for the sake of the wider universe’s moral balance, and that on this occasion there was no reason why the two couldn’t coexist at the same time.

Hence, the following morning, she followed her usual Monday morning routine—she packed her bag, packed her lunch, her bike lock, helmet, wheeled the bike along the hall, out the door, and bounced it down the stairs—but instead of getting on and riding she wheeled it two blocks away from the flat and chained it to some railing, then doubled back, got in her car, and phoned to tell work she had some family business that would last until the afternoon. Then she drove to Cedar Drive, knocked on the door with a sufficient amount of mustered fortitude, maintained eye contact with Brad, and made sure to speak fluently and without equivocation. Then she drove into the center of Southampton fifty pounds worse off, got rejected by the two cash-and-carries, and eventually dumped the bass—without ceremony but with a certain amount of catharsis—in a dumpster behind the second. And then she went to work and was fired for lying.

///

John Miskelly lives in Asturias, northern Spain, where he teaches English as a foreign language and steals pens. He is thirty-two. Other examples of his work can be found on this website.

Friend Date by John Miskelly

Friend Date John Miskelly, Illo bySteve Thueson

Friend Date by John Miskelly

A short story

Greg was married with a less-than-one-year-old and thus was unlikely to stay out longer than two rounds. He and Ewan sat two desks along from each other in the office, and by now things flowed easily between them. They spoke often during the day and had had six or seven visits to the same pub in the four months they’d know each other. All in all: familiarity. Lloyd, on the other hand, was a lengthy half-an-open-plan-office’s distance away from Ewan and their paths rarely crossed. They didn’t even share the same kitchenette.

Friend Date John Miskelly

Ewan could meet Greg at the usual place at the usual time and then catch up with Lloyd later that night. It’d be a good warmup to wherever he’d meet Lloyd, which would no doubt be a place deeper into the center of town and possibly with a set of friends Ewan didn’t know at all. It would be awkward in the first few minutes, but a bit of pre-imbibed Dutch courage and some solid face time would offer a good chance to consolidate the beginnings of a friendship with Lloyd, or at least push things over the hump of mere acquaintances on good terms. From the few scraps of conversations they’d shared, he’d felt some potential with Lloyd, a suggestion of a shared sense of something. But without a bit of effort, one could wallow in that relationship no man’s land for a short-term contract’s worth of time, only finally making a deeper connection in the last hour of the last day’s leaving drinks.

Greg was visibly tired when he arrived and made his two-pint pronouncement on arrival. He seemed hurried. They had the now customary exchange re: Greg’s baby son, and had a fluid and honest chat about this and that. Something about work or Hitler probably. They paid, making the routine small talk with the barmen.

Greg left and Ewan wondered what to do with the baggy dead time between Greg’s departure and Lloyd’s text saying where they might meet. He walked in the direction of the town center, changed his mind, rounded the block, and returned to his house. He grabbed a raincoat to protect him from the light rain that had begun to fall. For a moment he considered changing his shirt, then walked to the kitchen and snacked on a piece of bread. He returned to the living room and sat and fidgeted until, finally, Lloyd mentioned a restaurant bar in town, Rio Verde. He gave the address, then its location related to a mutually known bar on the same street. He mentioned he was with Molly, a woman four desks down from Ewan, who he’d had a vague interest in since starting at the company but had, as far as he could remember, neither articulated or acted on in any way. He left the house, and the rain grew heavier. He raised the hood of his coat and walked.

By the time he reached the halfway point, it had increased to a torrent. His shoes were well on their way towards soaked, and the water collecting on the hem of his parka was seeping into his jeans and working its way down his thighs. He sheltered under an awning. To kill time, he sent a wry text to Greg making light of the situation.

Two more texts arrived from Lloyd, slightly bleary through the raindrops. Same name—Something Verde—and more details on the location. The same street mentioned again. Strange, the repetition. He shoved his phone back in his pocket before the rain fried the electrics. The drops were hitting the asphalt so hard it was splashing his ankles, and he backed farther under the awning, then right onto the doorstep.

It didn’t stop, but it did at least slacken, so he took his chance and ran for it. Ewan slowed to a speedwalk as he neared the number, thinking about greetings and whether he should sit down first or stay standing and offer to go to the bar for a round; drape his sopping coat on the back of a chair or look for a hat stand; order food even if they’d already ordered substantially earlier; or risk being plate-less while everyone else ate. Suddenly he realised he’d walked past the place and backtracked.

The place was shut. More than shut it was closed forever, wooden boards on the window saturated with water, fly-posted bills turned to soupy sludge and dripping onto the pavement. Only the sign remained to give any indication that it was once a place called Rio Verde.

A conclusion gradually descended on him that turned his blood black with shame and hurt. Was this the reason for Lloyd’s detail, a tugging of the lure to draw him to a place that didn’t exist, to humiliate Ewan purely for having the gall to try and expand his own universe and share it with others? He’d been pranked. So much for good faith and reaching out. His blackened blood boiled in his veins as he envisioned Lloyd at home, cozy and dry, laughing at his own wit and mischievousness, and completely oblivious to the hurt he could cause, sheltered as he was by his own gregariousness and a network of friends garnered over decades in the same place. To Lloyd, he’d subjected Ewan to nothing more than a twenty-minute walk through town in torrential rain inflicting at worst a minor cold. But to Ewan…

And Molly—had that been part of the bait? How could he have known? Had he observed Ewan’s subtle observations of her? Did he read something in the way Ewan spoke to her? Was this a vindictive knowing wink to Ewan that he saw him, knew him—could work him as he wished. Another way of showing his social Darwinist superiority.

The Fucker. Fucking asshole. They barely knew each and were months away from justifiably playing pranks like this. Fucking shitting sneaky prick.

How could he respond? Could people tell when you blocked them on one’s phone? Ewan found himself savoring just the imagined image of Lloyd discovering the retaliatory gesture. Should he send a message now, a no-holds-barred admonishment? Or resort to the good old fashioned silent treatment? Or tell everyone at work except him; let it slowly seep towards him via the rumor mill?

He was still standing in the doorway—dripping wet, sensing the judgement and pity of the scurrying couples and groups laughing in the face of the weather, on their way to and from their gatherings of shared and intimate experiences—when a pertinent word struck him from farther down the street on the opposite side of the road.

Verde.

Rueda Verde, on a neon sign above a window obscured by condensation but dancing with light and life.

Slowly he crossed the road and stood outside, watching the shapes behind the glass move and the muffled sound of chatter emanate from within. He could see but couldn’t make out the details.

Friend Date John Miskelly

He checked his phone. It wasn’t repetition Lloyd had sent, but a correction. Rio Verde. Rueda Verde. The same message slightly altered. Same street, different prepositions of place. One was “river”—he knew that much from secondary school geography. He felt a new kind of shame, not of gullibility or victimhood, but reactionary judgement. The self-hate of self-pity. The self-hate of being so easily hateful.

Somewhere in there was Lloyd. Not hoping or even actively waiting, but at least maybe expecting him. But Ewan couldn’t go in. He thought about the journey from the door to the group, the tables and eyes and gazes he’d have to negotiate on the way. He thought of the minor dilemmas he’d contemplated earlier that had grown in stature and now seemed insurmountable.

He sent a wry text to Greg making light of the whole thing, and then turned towards home.

///

John Miskelly is thirty-two and lives in Asturias, on the north coast of Spain where he teaches English as a foreign language.