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Police cars pull up, silently, out of sight. Armed police make their way up the hill to the shack. Just as they start to approach it explodes. A murder of crows takes off with a burst of noise.

Hidden, an old man sniggers, then walks to his new secret still.

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

Rodney Franklin was a happy man. Thirty years out of the Marine Corps, he kept to himself except for a Friday night beer in the nearest bar, ran his farm single handed when he could and hired in some help for the jobs he couldn’t manage. When he first bought the farm in ’72 some of the locals laughed that he always hired in help to slaughter his livestock rather than doing it himself, but once he told a few people he’d seen enough death in Vietnam and would see no more, the story got round and people stopped laughing.

He was checking the foundations for a new hog pen when he was disturbed from his work by a voice from the past.

‘Well hello Mr Franklin. How are you today?’

Rodney turned slowly, knowing yet still dreading who he was going to see.

‘Lenny Bertrand. Back again?’

‘Why yes Mr Franklin. I think it’s about time you made me a small gift, don’t you?’

‘I paid you, Lenny. I paid you ten years ago and almost every year since. Why am I still paying you?’

‘Because you really don’t want Sherriff Hunter to know what you did with Mrs Hunter at the barn dance all those years ago, now do you? I’ve kept my end of the bargain. I left town with the money you gave me then, I only come back when I need a top up and no one ever knows I’ve been. Unless you tell them?’

‘I don’t tell nobody nothin’ Lenny. But I don’t see why I should keep paying you year after year for one fumble in my truck. Anyhow, Elaine Hunter’s been dead these last five years.

‘You think the Sherriff cares about that? You think he wants her memory spoiled? I don’t want much Mr Franklin, just enough to see me south and set up for the winter.’

‘Now that’s all you want. But you’ll be back. Again and again. You’re going to keep coming until I die aren’t you?’

‘Or until the Sherriff dies I guess, yes.’

Or until you die The thought popped into Rodney’s head.

‘Wait there. I’ll get your money, you bloodsucker.’ He said, and made to walk towards the farm house. Lenny turned, even he had the decency to give the man he was blackmailing some privacy. That’s why he didn’t see Rodney sneak up behind him and hit him over the back of the head with a shovel. He fell in to the open trench. Rodney looked over, saw the unmoving body and, realising what he’d done, retched up his lunch.

He ran to the house, thinking of different excuses he could give to the Sherriff for finding the dead tramp. He considered throwing the body to the hogs, he knew they would eat almost anything. In the end he decided to simply cover up the body. He couldn’t bring himself to look at it again, so he started up his digger and half filled the trench with hard core to form the foundation of his new hog pen.

 *

Rodney’s success continued. For five more years he lived on his farm. His hogs thrived, he made enough money and carried on living his simple life. He drove his truck to the nearest bar one night a week as he had always done, drank a couple of beers and drove home again. If anyone had known him well enough they may have noticed that he had something on his mind most of the time, but everyone had their own worries and anyway no one was that close to him, so no one noticed.

 *

But something was playing on Rodney’s mind. He’d read Poe. He could hear Lenny’s heart beat every time he went to the hog pen. He knew that one day he would have to move the body or go mad. Finally the day came. He could stand it no longer. Rodney let loose the hogs and drove his digger through the pen walls. Then he dug. He dug down to where the body should have been and saw nothing. He dug further, and still no body. He got out of the digger and dug with a shovel. Still nothing. Finally he started scraping at the ground with his bare hands. He was on his hands and knees when the trench collapsed in on him. If anyone had been there they would have seen a filthy, crying man shouting over and over again ‘She wasn’t worth this! She wasn’t worth this!’

 *

The Sherriff arrived a couple of hours later. Someone had called him after seeing hogs loose on the highway. Sherriff Hunter recognised that they were Rodney’s. He saw the damaged pens and re-opened foundations but could not work out why Rodney would have done that much damage. He assumed some sort of accident or vandalism. Worried, he went looking for Rodney. When he couldn’t find him around the farm he eventually called for some help and dug down in to the reopened trench. That’s where they found his body.

No one in town ever worked out what happened or why. The only man who might have known saw a news report of the mysterious death while nursing a sandwich and coffee in a Salvation Army hostel two towns away. Lenny Bertrand rubbed the scar on the back of his head, hidden by his long greasy hair. Yet again he thanked his lucky stars that the one farmer who tried to kill him was probably the only one on the country too squeamish to check he was dead before leaving him alone in the trench with enough time to climb out and slip away.

(c) Chris Johnson 2019

I miss the old St Pancras

Hiding in the archway from the rain

The darkness, walls embedded

With the soot of a million trains

 

The newspaper stands’ patina

The noise, deisel fumes, dust

‘Lend us 50p mister?’

Seats all plastic and rust

 

The new station is clean and tidy

Well policed, welcoming, smart

But it’s lost some if its character

And replaced it with modern art

 

I miss the old St Pancras

The gritty, noir place of my youth

Today I closed my eyes on the platform

And returned there for a moment or two.

 

I was lucky enough to be in London on Thursday, a trip I make periodically for work. Whiling away some time waiting for a train I tried to recall the ‘old’ St Pancras, the one I remember from exciting trips as a teenager and early work trips. The poem pretty much wrote itself over a coffee.

(c) Chris Johnson 2018

Rain rattles against dark window panes.

Commuters curse as buses splash legs.

Late workers empty city centre car parks

and complain to themselves that traffic’s still bad.

The city empties for a moment, awaiting the time

when the action starts again,

at night when all is dark…

 

In corners, secret meets and dangerous buys;

drugs, sex, weapons – all available for a price

if you know where to go, if you know who to ask

anything is available in this night time town.

A different economy, a different world,

The nocturnal, the lost, those working by choice

at night, when all is dark…

 

A bell splits the night, synthetic sounds.

Scalding coffee gulped down with under-done toast,

bleary eyed bus passengers on mobile phones

take back control of the city. These streets

fill with the ambitious, the busy, the well dressed and keen.

For the next ten hours or so, the nocturnal sleep

until night, when all is dark…

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

 

Thanks so much to Michelle for the prompt and title for this poem.

Between here and nowhere
There is a sign
It marks a crossroads
That no-one uses
It says ‘Gallows Seat’
A poetic name
For the place where
So many died.

Forgotten now, overgrown
Graves without stones
No church in sight
For here lie the bones
Of the convicted and poor
Who danced at the end of the rope

And beneath the ground
Beneath the road
Decaying, forgotten there lie
The mortal remains
Of a man, much maligned
With a stake through his heart
And the lemon in his mouth

For between here and nowhere
Is where we put
The people we want to forget
The ones we hide
The ones who scare
Outsiders, criminals, the ill

‘Not in my back yard!’ We shout
About HS2, the Tram, new homes
And it’s nothing new, it’s always been
That where we want these things
Is between here and nowhere
Somewhere we’ve never heard about
Nowhere that we want to be.

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

Horses gallop across a field, their riders in red trumpeting and hooting, jumping over aeons old dry-stone walls and churning the ground to mud. Ranks of men, women and children line up against a wall. Sickles, scythes, knives and rusty shovels at the ready. Blood mud and carnage as they meet. Unearthly sounds break the day, screams from horses, men and ravens waiting their meals. Walls destroyed allow cows and sheep to stand sentinel to the madness, witness to the carnage but too afraid to get any closer. Hours later survivors pick over the corpses looking for their loved ones, their sons, husbands, lovers, or filching clothes and valuables from the bodies while Valkyries circle, waiting their moment to swoop.

In London the presses run the headlines. ‘The revolution has begun’

 

(c) Chris Johnson 2016

The University hadn’t changed considerably since Freddy had last been there, fifteen years earlier. After a couple of wrong turns he found the office he had been looking for

“Freddy, I didn’t know you were coming out today! Come in, come in!”

“You wouldn’t know, would you, Professor. When was the last time you visited me? Five years, more?”

“I wrote. It just got harder and harder to get away, you know how it is.”

“No, I don’t know how it is.”

“Anyway, you’re here now. Have you seen your probation officer? Got somewhere to live?”

“I want to talk, Noel. Do you have any students coming or anything?”

“No, I’m done for the day. You want to go eat or get a pint?”

“No, we’ll talk here.”

Freddy punched his half brother. Noel stumbled backwards, collapsing into his office chair.

Another couple of punches soon saw him semi conscious. Freddy tied his feet together and his hands to the arms of the chair.

***

 Noel knew that it was later, but he didn’t know how long he’d been semi conscious.

“All this because I didn’t visit you in prison?”

“No, it’s not for not visiting.”

“You killed my father, your stepfather. Frankly you should be pleased I bothered to visit you or write to you at all.”

“This is not about whether or not you visited.”

“Well if it’s about money, there’s some for you in my top desk drawer. Mum left it for you when she died, along with a letter that I’ve never opened.”

“It’s not about money.”

“So what it is about? For God’s sake Freddy, I’m your only family and you treat me like this. You’re out on licence, you’d go straight back if I so much as breathed a word of this to your parole officer or the police. What if campus security come by?”

“They won’t, these rooms are shag pads for you lecherous professors. They’ll leave you alone in case you’ve got a hot little under grad in here.”

“Freddy, what is this about, come on man, let me out and let’s get some food or a drink?”

“No. This is important.”

“What, Freddy, what’s important?”

“Innocence and guilt.”

“What?”

Freddy repeated himself, this time punctuating each word with a slap to Noel’s face; “Innocence,” slap, “and,” slap, “guilt!” slap.

Blood began to trickle from the corner of Noel’s mouth.

For a few minutes Freddy looked out over the university park. When he spoke his voice was calm, measured.

“So this is your life, Noel. The office, the undergrad girls, a view of the park, a nice home somewhere? You got a car? I bet you drive some smart sports car don’t you? Money in the bank, maybe a girlfriend?”

“It’s not my fault. What happened to you, what you did with your life, it’s not my fault.”

“Oh but it is, baby brother, it most definitely is.”

“Why? I never asked you to murder my father!”

Freddy walked back around the office to stand in front of Noel. He leant down, their faces only millimetres apart. He spoke, slowly.

“I didn’t murder your father. I didn’t murder anyone. But you know that.”

“Freddy, not this again. I couldn’t give you an alibi, it would have been a lie!”

“You didn’t have to give me an alibi, you had to tell the truth. And now you will.”

“I don’t have a clue what you are getting at!”

“Noel, you killed your father. You did it. I didn’t want you to give me an alibi, I wanted to set one up for you. But then Mum turned on me, protecting little Noel as always, and that was it. I did the time because even my own mother turned on me.”

“Freddy, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t kill my father. The police proved their case against you. For God’s sake let’s have that drink. There’s a bottle in the desk drawer.”

“No.”

“So, what now? You going to torture me until I admit to something I didn’t do…”

Freddy punched him, hard. Noel spat out fragments of broken tooth and a mouthful of blood. Then continued;

“Then what? turn me in to the police and claim some sort of pardon and compensation?”

“No. It’s too late for that. You’ve had your good life, I went away to give you that. I’m institutionalised. I’ll be back inside within months anyway, so I’m just going to collect my debt from you first.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean this.”

Freddy put his hands around Tony’s throat and strangled Noel. Afterwards he found the bottle in the desk drawer, opened it and took a long drink. Then he saw the envelope with his name on, an unopened letter addressed to him in his mother’s handwriting, just as Noel had said. He opened the letter.

Dearest Freddy,

I am so sorry. I could never bring myself to say this while I was alive, so I’ll say it now. Thank you. Thank you for taking the blame. Thank you for doing my time. I had to kill him before he killed me. I’m glad that you saw that. I’m glad that you saw that your brother needed at least one parent. I’m forever grateful to you for the second chance you gave to Noel and me. I hope you can now make the most of your second chance. Give this letter to the police, get your name cleared. There’s thousands in the bank for you, and the house is yours.

Clear your name, claim your inheritance and live well my dear, beautiful, dutiful, innocent son

Your mother.

Freddy looked at the corpse of his last relative. He opened the office window, tore up the letter and threw the pieces to the wind, took a long pull on the bottle and picked up the phone.

“Which service do you require?”

“Police please,” he replied, between sobs “There’s been a murder.”

(C) Chris Johnson 2013