‘Venice of the East’

IN FRONT OF A BLACK SCREEN A CHRYON WITH THE YEAR 2063
APPEARS AND FADES AWAY, THEN BASRA, IRAQ.

FADE IN:

EXT. SHATT AL-ARAB RIVER, BASRA – EVENING

Establishing shot in front of an Iraqi with a near shaved
head. The lights of the city are blurred and unfocused
behind him but the outline of sky scrapers are visible.
He’s wearing sun glasses, an unbuttoned fluorescent shirt
and white shorts as he performs the combined Shia Muslim
prayer of Zuhar and Asr on the wooden deck of his boat. The
boat gently rocks on the river. He lingers, still on his
knees.

In a profile shot of his head we see a theme park on the
bank of the river in the background. The camera pans out
and a ride with a giant boat and a neon sign on the side
that reads “SINBADS” flashes in and out of the background.
Music is playing, people scream in joyful terror. This is
the only type of terror that exists in this country. A
police boat passes by. Ahead of him the sun bleeds into the
water as it sets, wrapped in bandages by fog clouds born
from an oil field at the lands end, only one of the funnels
is producing flame. The boat arcs to the right towards an
inlet as the camera zooms out. On the left side of the
river, behind Sinbad’s theme park are a plethora of
skyscrapers laced with neon advertising signs and video
screens advertising Tesla.

EXT. RESIDENTIAL DISTRICT – EVENING

There are parking bays outside blocks of beige, sandblasted
flats that tower 10 stories tall. Each parked car is sleek
and hooked up to a charging bay which is Tesla branded. The
buildings are angled and jagged, the top leans out towards
the road like upside down stairs leading back to the main
body of the building. Fake Palm trees and astro-grass
surround the flats. Cowering behind these flats is a modest
two floored home with an over grown garden surrounding it,
outside is a beaten and bruised, used to be white, Kia
Frontier car, permanently stained by dust and heat.

INT. FAMILY HOME – EVENING

RIKKU is preparing dinner. She sings along to the radio as
she cuts with a blunt knife. The knife rack next to her is
empty. The edge of her headscarf sticks to her forehead.
She’s wearing a white shirt and beige trousers which flare
at the sides. Her shirt is unbuttoned to the top of her
chest and the tip of a bandage can be seen under her right
sleeve. She sets the table which takes up most of the space
in the kitchen and returns to the sink, a bead of sweat
trickles down the side of her head leaving behind a trail
of purple near her eye as it lifts some foundation.

Her singing halts as she’s startled by the noise of someone
entering. It’s her father. She buttons up her shirt. He
enters the kitchen and she turns thrusting her arms to her
side.

SAYEED is dressed in grey overalls which are wearing at the
knees and his boots have dispersed dust on the floor. He
has a visible skin defect under the tip of his nose where
there’s a gap, he removes his helmet and reveals another
which covers the right of his forehead just above his eye.
He looks as though he’s lived out a century, with a look of
expectancy that he’ll see out another.

SAYEED
Hello my love, I trust dinner is
almost ready?

RIKKU
Not quite, can you wait a couple
of minutes Papa?

SAYEED
(He chuckles after
saying)
I can’t but I will.

SAYEED turns off the radio and turns on the television
before sitting at the table. RIKKU places a glass of water
down next to him and begins serving the dinner.

RIKKU
How was work today?

SAYEED gulps down his glass of water before letting out a
contented breath, as though it’s been held prisoner.

SAYEED
Fine, my dear.

RIKKU
Devie wasn’t bothering you again
was he?

RIKKU places down his plate in front of him, taking away
his glass and refilling it.

SAYEED
He doesn’t really bother me,
Rikku. He’s a nice enough man.

Beat.

RIKKU goes to place the glass with him but she recoils
briefly as he begins again.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
Although he wouldn’t shut up about
that sellout councilor.

RIKKU
Ms. Abed Jaseem?

RIKKU places his glass down and collects her own dinner.

SAYEED
The whore who leapt into bed with
those pigs and their cancerous
legacy.

She flinches as she approaches.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
Every day I swallow this Uranium
medication. An American get out of
jail free card for the damage of
their illegal war and their
illegal arms.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
I think he wants me to convert me.
You’d sooner catch me in one of
those McDonalds before I support
her. And don’t get me started on
his gambling.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
I told him “You shouldn’t even be
fucking gambling!”. Bah! These
people want to further dilute
tradition from our constitution.

He ends his rant and turns his attention to the TV as RIKKU
takes her seat.

RIKKU
Could we-

SAYEED
(Interrupting)
TV: on.

SAYEED ignores RIKKU’S interjection. The TV switches on.

 

SAYEED (CONT’D)
TV: set volume to 25.

An automated voice responds confirming the instruction.
RIKKU sits down with her dinner opposite him. They both
look up at the TV on the counter in between bites. The
seven o’clock news begins with discussion about the city’s
council elections.

ANNOUNCER
Tonight’s main story, Noor Abed
Jaseem comes out fighting in her
bid for re-election ahead of next
weeks council elections.

SAYEED
(Snapping)
TV: set volume OFF.

There’s a montage of NOOR at a podium, the crowd appear to
be cheering, she’s seen discussing with voters and posing
for selfies.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
It might help if she sacked her
stylist.

RIKKU
It might help if the volume was
on.

SAYEED hits his fist on the table.

SAYEED
It might help if we stopped
talking about it.

Beat.

The silence is broken by RIKKU nervously cutting and
scraping at the food on her plate. Her eyes well up as she
keeps her head down trying to use the food to steady
herself.

SAYEED’S fists are clenched. He places both fists down
strategically either side of his plate, his knife and fork
erect in them.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
(Calmly)
Is something wrong, my love?

RIKKU
No… Papa.

She shovels a forkful of food into her mouth and chews to
clog her jaw’s quivering.

Beat.

SAYEED is controlled, methodical, analysing each bite.
RIKKU speeds up her eating, making more noise. He bangs his
fist on the table.

SAYEED
(Raising voice)
Perhaps if you would be quiet we
might enjoy this lovely meal!

RIKKU
I’m sorry, Papa.

His anger is alleviated.

SAYEED
You wouldn’t want to waste all
your hard work now would you?

It returns as blood drops from the defect on his nose.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
Now look what you’ve done.

He gets up and marches to the sink. RIKKU picks up her
glass of water and napkin from the table and follows him.

RIKKU
Let me help you.

SAYEED shrugs her off, forcefully. She drops the glass of
water which smashes, letting a half formed scream escape.
He takes the napkin from her hand and dabs the blood which
is trickling down his nose. RIKKU slumps to the floor,
collecting pieces of the glass in her hand. SAYEED towers
over her.

SAYEED
I’m sorry my dear. It’s not your
fault. I just wanted to enjoy this
lovely meal you cooked. Ever since
your mother-

RIKKU
(Sharply)
It’s fine.

RIKKU (CONT’D)
(sniffing)
It’s fine. Sit down, enjoy the
rest of your meal. I’ll clean this
up.

SAYEED holds the napkin to his face and walks past the
table, ignoring the rest of his dinner and pulls the door
closed as he exits the room.

RIKKU puts the remains of the glass she’s collected into
the shattered base of the glass and drops it in the bin.
She sits at the table and finishes her dinner.

INT. RIKKU’S BEDROOM – NIGHT

The bedroom ceiling light flickers under the pristine glass
casing which conceals it. Snoring can be heard. A clock on
the wall ticks, reading 9.35. It’s dark outside. RIKKU has
removed her headscarf, her hair hangs down, she’s wearing a
black dress and black, ankle length boots. She reaches back
into her cupboard and moves a panel, pulling a long beige
trench coat from behind it and puts it on. She searches
under her bed mattress at the back of the room away from
the window, and pulls out a phone from under it. A graphic
shows her hiring an Uber through the app. On a chest of
drawers next to the door and under the clock is a framed
photo of a young RIKKU with SAYEED and her mother cuddling.

Cracks are spreading through the paint on the walls,
slithering out of the cover provided by two posters of the
same woman singing. RIKKU opens the drawer and collects the
key for her window. Next to the key is an unframed photo of
a young RIKKU with her mother. She has no hair. RIKKU looks
happy, her mother’s mouth is smiling but her eyes are
scared.

RIKKU unlocks her window, carefully opening it. She climbs
out the window and leans on the window ledge, pulling the
window over but leaving it slightly ajar. She then drops
onto an old mattress outside and sneaks off towards the
bottom of the street where she gets into an uber.

INT. GRAND BASRA HOTEL – NIGHT

RIKKU stands with her back to the bar and her arms crossed,
still wearing her trench coat. She looks out at the stage,
which is lit in purple and maroon. TARIA is playing piano.
Some of the dance floor in front of the stage is left open.
The rest is obscured by purple cushioned booths littering
the floor facing the stage, which are less than half full
with people. Some are dressed in suits, some dresses and
others in traditional Iraqi clothing – there’s a diversity
of people represented through the clothing.

TARIA finishes playing and receives reserved applause, as
though this music is as common to the people watching as
hold-music is on the telephone. She walks down the stairs
off stage and heads towards the bar.

The Iraqi from the opening scene walks past carrying a rum
and coke with a Japanese couple.

TARIA approaches dressed in skinny jeans and a sleeveless
black jacket over a white t-shirt, removing her glasses.

TARIA
You’re a little late.

The two hug.

RIKKU
Hey. I’m sorry.

TARIA
You’re lucky you’re talented.

RIKKU allows a grin to spread across her face, but she
hides her face in a way that suggests she’s trying to
contain it. The two lean against the bar and face one
another. RIKKU, with her right arm and TARIA with her left.

TARIA (CONT’D)
Speaking of which, it’s about time
you accepted my job offer.

RIKKU
Oh Taria. I-I can’t right now.

RIKKU faces the bar, her forearms rest there.

TARIA
You still can’t, huh?

TARIA faces the stage looking up.

RIKKU
(Nodding along to each
excuse)
No. I’ve got too much work to do.
And I just don’t know if I could
spend so long away from home…
living on a cruise ship.

TARIA
If you ask me, spending so long
away from home is the only thing
you should be doing.

They face each other.

RIKKU
Taria…

TARIA
I’m worried about you Rikku.

TARIA grabs RIKKU’S forearm which leans on the bar and
RIKKU recoils, snatching her arm away.

TARIA (CONT’D)
(Startled)
What is it? Whats the matter?

RIKKU
N-nothing.

TARIA
Rikku!

RIKKU lets her arm go loose and TARIA takes her hand,
slowly rolling up the sleeve to reveal her bandage.

TARIA (CONT’D)
Are you kidding me? He’s done it
again?!

TARIA starts unraveling the bandage.

RIKKU
I’m sorry, it’s not his-

She’s interrupted by a glare from TARIA, tears well in
RIKKU’S eyes. Under the bandage is a blistering burn mark.

TARIA
I’m not leaving this city without
you. You’re coming with me and
you’re taking this job.

Beat.

RIKKU nods her head as she sniffs, fighting back tears and
biting her lip. The two embrace once more, linking both
hands. TARIA kisses the wound gently.

RIKKU
I want to sing here. One last
time.

Clasping hands, they nod and lean their heads together.
RIKKU removes her jacket, her backless dress reveals a long
scar across her upper back. The two walk towards the stage
holding hands. TARIA takes her place at the piano and RIKKU
takes the microphone.

RIKKU (CONT’D)
…One last time.

EXT. RESIDENTIAL DISTRICT – NIGHT

TARIA pulls up a comfortable distance away from RIKKU’S
house in her car.

TARIA
This is too risky.

RIKKU
I can’t leave without the photos
of my mother.

TARIA
Just get what you came for and get
out. Don’t take too long, I’ll
keep the engine running.

RIKKU kisses TARIA on the cheek.

RIKKU
Thanks. For everything. I’ll be
right back.

She approaches the house and slips round the back to where
she exited. Her window is still ajar. She moves a ladder
from the over grown grass and positions it next to the
window, climbing in.

INT. FAMILY HOME – NIGHT

The clock on the wall ticks. RIKKU approaches the light
switch and flicks it. It doesn’t go on. She tries it
several more times but gets no response. She exhales
sharply, trying to compose herself. She turns on her phone
torch and SAYEED is sitting on her bed.

SAYEED
You’re up early.

RIKKU staggers back, pointing her phone light at him. He
grabs her in a headlock and drags her into the hall next to
the living room. He thrusts her down to the floor, standing
over her. The moonlight shines through half drawn blinds in
the front window, splicing light and dark over him. RIKKU
splutters, crouched on her knees on the floor.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
Do you think I didn’t know? I
warned you to stop going to that
hotel.

There’s a dark trickle of blood from the defect at his
nose.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
Those pigs, their war did this to
me and your mother. Now you want
to jump into bed with them, with
what they’ve built!

He kicks her in the stomach. She yelps.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
I am ashamed of your behavior.

He kneels, close to her face.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
(Slowly)
Your mother, would be ashamed of
your behavior.

SAYEED (CONT’D)
Singing on stage, dressed like
that in front of all those men…

RIKKU
(Her voice coarse but
defiant)
I don’t even like men.

SAYEED
(Snarling)
You’re a disgrace!

He kicks her stomach again, she falls to the floor. He
kicks her again and she writhes. He lifts her by the throat
trying to put her in a choke-hold but RIKKU fights back.
She crushes him back against the wall, and again, she’s
free. She slams his face against the wall and he falls. She
spots her framed family photo on the floor at the door to
her room. She picks it up, he rolls onto his belly, blood
seeps from his skin defect through the hand which holds his
face and drips onto the floor. She thrusts her knee against
his back and holds her arm around his throat. She sticks
two fingers into the defect in his nose and pulls hard, the
skin tears at the seams and he screams.

RIKKU
Cancer might have killed my
mother, but you were the real
cancer in this family.

She picks up the photo and lashes it over his head and he
drops to the floor.

Beat.

She scuttles back to her room to grab the photo of her and
her mother from the drawers. She descends the stairs to the
front door and exits, leaving SAYEED behind. The final shot
shows the broken glass, the turmoil around him, he’s still
breathing and we focus on the remains of the shattered and
now crumpled family photo on the floor.

END

Report

I wanted to challenge myself with this assignment. I did a fair amount of reading and research after I was inspired by the use of Iraq as a futuristic map in ‘Overwatch’ where the country wasn’t envisaged as war torn. It made me consider the importance of perpetuating the Middle East as a war zone in fiction and film so I set about creating a world where terror and war were absent and focus on a personal story. I also considered the legacy effect of the allied forces use of Uranium ammunition in the Iraq war.

My introduction takes inspiration from Blade Runner as a futuristic city-scape, but I also wanted to include the oil field which exists today as something winding down, symbolic of the past and the Sinbad theme park as a cultural touch point of Basra – and how that may be exploited by modernity. It was important to keep these elements so the city didn’t seem completely alien. Similarly, the Iraqi citizen in the introduction sets a tone for a more moderate and open city as he practice’s prayer, but is in casual clothing and later seen drinking. This represents a sub-plot conflict of modernity vs tradition, and the importance of balance.

The main conflict is a story of domestic abuse. Abuse can happen anywhere. Sayeed uses his daughter as a target for his anger at losing his wife to cancer, at being scarred for life from birth through the Iraq war legacy and no fault of his own. Similarly, the scars he inflicts upon Rikku are no fault of her own. After the Iraq war some of our soldiers channelled their PTSD in horrific ways, this is the other side of the coin. Can she escape it? It’s ultimately about her liberation and being able to embrace her dreams and the opportunities this modern Basra has brought her, a modern Basra which Sayeed will never accept.

‘Happy Meal’

FADE IN:

 

EXT. MOTORWAY – NIGHT

Establishing shot of blurry, unfocused vehicle lights on a
busy motorway as they pass under the camera. Rain is
attacking the vehicles. A truck changes lanes as it
approaches the camera. The blue blur of an ambulance blasts
down the outside lane on the left. The truck pulls right
and comes into focus briefly as it slips out of shot onto
an exit ramp which leads to the service station.

 

INT. TRUCK – NIGHT

The driver’s silhouette contrasts with the truck’s lights
illuminating the road outside. The weather is obstructive.
The wind is sweeping and the rain is lashing the
windscreen, the wipers work furiously. Light pushes the
darkness back as the truck emerges at the service station.
Passing a busy public parking bay, the truck approaches its
empty designated area.

 

EXT. SERVICE STATION – NIGHT

On the left is the service station, the right the gas
station. There is a sense of perpetual motion, cars and
trucks are arriving and departing frequently, people are
hurrying to and from their cars. The truck is segregated,
isolated from the normal parking area. ADAM, 30 years old,
with an untidy beard, sits with his forehead leaning
against the top of the steering wheel.

 

INT. TRUCK – NIGHT

ADAM opens his log book, there are ticks next to the last
five days, four more remain without ticks. Written across
the weekend is the word “FREEDOM”. He discards the book
with visible disdain onto the floor. The inside of the
truck is a mess, papers and leaflets litter the cabin. On
the seat next to him is a recruitment agency leaflet and
several job advertisements are circled in a newspaper.
Above the windscreen is a family photo of ADAM, he’s
wearing a novelty hat with ear flaps. His wife SOPHIE and
their son AJ, who is dressed as BUZZ LIGHTYEAR, are also in
the photo. ADAM clicks his phone screen and it reads “10
MISSED CALLS FROM SOPHIE”. He puffs his cheeks and selects
to call her. His head is bowed and he constricts his body,
huddling into himself. We only hear ADAM in this call and a
muffled, almost distorted female voice – SOPHIE’s words are
indistinguishable.

ADAM
Hey Soph, it’s me. How are you?
How’s AJ doing?
(then)
I’m sorry, work hit me hard
yesterday.

ADAM’s left hand grips the steering wheel tightly.

ADAM (CONT’D)
Of course I wouldn’t – you know
how busy it can get.

His hand caresses the horn at first, but as he listens he
enters an almost trance like state and he pushes harder,
setting it off in response.

ADAM (CONT’D)
(Flustered)
What? No! I’m not driving. I just
bumped the stupid horn.
(beat)
It’s only a few more days…

ADAM sighs turning at a steering wheel which is now locked,
trapped in place.

ADAM (CONT’D)
We always manage.
(then)
Is AJ there?
(then)
Sure. I don’t mind. I guess I’ll
call back before I leave.

ADAM (CONT’D)
Yeah. Love you.

He holds his phone in front of the steering wheel. The
light on the phone dims, the background is a picture of
him, clean shaven, and SOPHIE. The phone screen darkens
completely.

ADAM puts on the hat he’s wearing in the family photo and
exits the truck.

INT. SERVICE STATION – NIGHT

ADAM walks through the left side of the service station.
Exiting on the right as he enters is a family of five. ADAM
watches the family as they pass. The husband and wife are
holding hands, the family are a unit and they interact
harmoniously. One of the children, a young girl of no more
than six years of age, with blonde pig tails and a pink
dress points at ADAM.

GIRL
Look Daddy, look at his hat!

ADAM pokes his tongue out at the girl and pulls the ear
flaps. The girl giggles, the father gives a nod of
appreciation and the family pass. They are followed by a
couple, with a man holding his arm around the woman. She’s
leaning in close to him. He looks at his phone background.
Distracting himself.

When he looks up he notices an advertisement. He approaches
it, it reads “IDEAL FAMILY HOLIDAY PACKAGES”. We see ADAM’s
reflection in the plastic covering over the advertisement.
The family in the advertisement look ecstatic, harmonious,
like the family he just passed. His reflection shows his
misery.

He approaches the fast food court but before entering he
stops, noticing some BUZZ LIGHTYEAR’s in a claw crane
vending machine filled with toys. He puts a pound in and
starts playing. The first attempt comes up empty handed.
He’s visibly irritated, shaking his head as though the
machine is the against him. In his next attempt the machine
hooks the head of a BUZZ LIGHTYEAR but the toy falls before
it barely lifts from the floor. ADAM’s short lived joy
transitions to anguish. His third and final turn sees him
clutch a BUZZ LIGHTYEAR’s arm and lift it from the ground.
The claw lifts it towards the exit slot but the arm starts
to slip, the claw loses its grip and the toy slips through
its grasp. ADAM fumes and aggressively hits the machine
with the bottom of his palm. The noise takes him by
surprise and he has a quick look around as he shuffles off
sheepishly into the food court.

 

INT. FAST FOOD COURT – NIGHT

ADAM glares at the customer in front of him on his phone.
He’s boring a hole in the back of the customers head, his
frustration is visible, he strokes and scratches at his
beard, it’s almost tangible,

CUSTOMER
Babe, it was the chicken nuggets
you wanted, right?

ADAM crosses his arms, still staring.

CUSTOMER (CONT’D)
And a strawberry milkshake, my
love?
(then)
I’ll be back out in five minutes.
Love you.

ADAM turns his head away, rolling his eyes and thrusting
his arms out to each side in frustration.

CUSTOMER (CONT’D)
Love ya babe.

Customer hangs up his phone.

CUSTOMER (CONT’D)
Did you get that, yeah? Thank you
so much.

ADAM moves to the front of the queue.

ADAM
I’ll have a Happy Meal with a diet
coke, please.

ADAM (CONT’D)
With extra cheese.

 

INT. – FAST FOOD COURT – NIGHT

ADAM places his tray down at an empty table of four. There
are several families sitting at other tables. They
comfortably outnumber three other men, like ADAM, sitting
at empty tables.

He pauses before he starts to eat his meal, watching the
customer who was ahead of him in the queue rushing out into
the main area of the service station, nearly juggling the
meals and drinks he purchased. He shakes his head and
smiles wryly. ADAM spots a Father and his son at the
machine he was playing outside the food hall. They
celebrate and hug as the Dad produces a BUZZ LIGHTYEAR from
the machine for his son. ADAM takes an emphatic bite out of
his burger.

ADAM puts his burger down and removes the toy from his
Happy Meal, examining it briefly before taking another
bite. He then takes his wedding ring off and holds it up.
It’s as if he’s appraising it’s value. Is this job worth
the cost? He spins it on the table, it wobbles slowly
towards stopping flat on the table, flirting with the end.

Just before it does, he swipes it and puts it back on his
finger.

He holds the toy from the Happy Meal in one hand as he
empties the remains of the meal into a bin and exits the
fast food court. Before leaving the service station he
checks his phone again, lingering on the background of him
and SOPHIE before snapping a photo of the holiday
advertisement and sending it to her.

 

INT – TRUCK – NIGHT

ADAM leaps into his truck and slams the door shut. The rain
has subsided. His breath lingers. He places the toy next to
a row of other, similar, happy meal toys on the dashboard.
He phones SOPHIE again. This time we see and hear her. This
signifies that this conversation will be the beginning of
the end of ADAM’s familial isolation, triggered by the idea
of this holiday. It’s time find another job, to reward
themselves, time to enjoy being a family instead of working
in isolation to exist. The two are communicating. We get a
side-by-side, split screen view of the two.

ADAM
Heya Soph.

Adam is relaxed, he holds the picture of the family in his
left hand.

SOPHIE
What’s this picture you sent me?

Sophie is sitting with AJ on her lap, combing his hair
while he watches an iPad.

ADAM
Budget holidays. I saw the ad’ and
I think we should book one.

SOPHIE
Adam… are you sure we can?

ADAM
We deserve it.

Beat.

SOPHIE
Lets discuss it more when you get
home then.

ADAM
Just think, the three of us on the
beach…

SOPHIE
He’d still make you wear the hat.

They share a laugh.

ADAM
Is he there?

Sophie offers the phone to AJ.

SOPHIE
AJ, Daddy’s on the phone, want to
say hello?

AJ glances at Sophie

AJ
DADDY!

Then returns his attention to the iPad.

SOPHIE
Looks like that’s all you’re
getting.

ADAM
(raising his voice)
I’ll see you at the weekend big
guy!

SOPHIE
Drive safe Adam. Love from us
both.

ADAM
I love you too.

The split screen lingers as they both hang up. SOPHIE
kisses the top of AJ’s head, her eyes widen and she pulls
him in tighter. ADAM returns the photo to its spot above
the windscreen. The split screen is gone. We see his
reflection as he looks at himself with the hat on,
grinning. ADAM picks up the circled job advertisements and
dials a number.

 

END

‘Finch’

Light shredded the darkness as Charlie opened her eyes. The room smelled like her cats litter tray had been left out in the sun. Her head throbbed, her wrists and ankles burned under her uniform. Above Charlie, a spider dangled from a solitary thread. She tried to sit but jolted back to the carpet, which barely concealed the concrete underneath. Charlie thrashed her feet, shaving her skin. Blood tickled her ankle before her sock dampened. She hauled both arms against her restraints but the cuffs stripped her flesh like a knife thinning bark.

The spider had slipped further from a sagging ceiling tile. She wrenched her neck to the left as its legs fidgeted furiously. Charlie heard voices behind the metal door. She fought frantically with her restraints. Two men armed with guns entered. She twisted her body, the smaller one remained by the door. She ground her limbs against the restraints as the bearded one approached.

“Please, sit still.” He said.

Charlie fastened her lips as she battled.

“Please. I cannot undo these restraints if you do not sit still.”

She rested her arms and legs but she kept her neck craned. Sweat stung her wrists and stained her white vest, exposed by her unbuttoned uniform.

“Why?” She asked.

“To show you how we treat our guests.”

“I didn’t ask to be your guest.”

“And I didn’t ask for you to occupy my country.”

He placed his pistol in its holster. Charlie let her head rest.

“Boy, go and collect our guest’s food.”

The smaller one left the room, leaving the door ajar.

“What’s on the menu?” Charlie asked.

“It’s a surprise.” He smiled.

He unlocked the restraints around her ankles.

“Why don’t you just kill me?”

“If you stole a hundred dollars would you just rip it up?”

“I wouldn’t steal a hundred dollars.”

“No, you people would conquer the fucking bank.”

He unlocked the remaining cuffs and stretched his arm out. Charlie recoiled, caressing her wrists with her hands. She unwound slowly, then leapt to her feet. She sprang towards him reaching for his pistol. He ducked her assault. She charged towards him again, thrusting a fist at his face, but he snatched her wrist. He kicked the back of her leg and pushed her towards the wall, slamming the side of her face next to a post-box window slot. She noticed two finger nails lodged into tears in the wallpaper.

He held her there, breathing on her neck.

“You had to try. I understand.” He said.

He forced her twisted arm further up her back.

“You’ll stop trying in time. You’ll appreciate how good you have it.”

Charlie let a whimper escape.

“Sir.” The other returned.

“What took you so long Tariq? Set it down over there.”

He loosened his grip and Charlie slumped with her back to the wall. Tears breaking out.

“My name is Finch.” He said.

“The reason you’re here…” He broke off as a jet ripped through the sky above the building. She followed his eyes to the roof. The spider hovered above him. There was a pop, then an explosion wrestled with the room. The spider fell from the ceiling, bouncing on Finch’s face before landing on the floor. He drew his pistol and fired five shots at it, taking chunks out of the floor.

“Fucking spiders!” He said, firing once more at the wall. Charlie retreated into the opposite side of the room near the bowl and Tariq.

“That!” He said, gesturing to the sky “is the reason you’re here.”

“There are two guards outside. It’s up to you whether we do this the easy way or the hard way. Come on, boy.” He said, marching out of the room.

Tariq handed Charlie a wooden dish of cold soup, its contents were cloudy. She placed her finger in and swirled around. He pulled a piece of bread from his pocket and gave her it.

“Thank you.” She said as a tear crept down her face.

He nodded.

“Wait. Wait!” She hissed.

She pointed to her sock which was smothered in blood. He left the room.

Charlie peeled a couple of strips from the bread at first before inhaling the rest of it. She carried her bowl over to the window and emptied the contents between three rusty rods which punctuated the view. A rustic red smeared down the inside wall.

She looked at the burning brown which strangled the road out of the compound, suffocating the land until it was interrupted by huts in the distance. In the courtyard below a truck growled as it prepared to leave. There were a couple of smaller buildings to each side of her window. She noticed Finch and Tariq arguing at an iron gate which blocked the exit. Surrounding the compound was a barbed wire fence; littered with tiny shoes.

Charlie approached a mattress which was decorated by vain-like yellow stains. She flipped the mattress and discovered a ripe red stain which peeled from the carpet. She resisted her body’s retching and wiped the tears which drowned her eyes. She approached the mattress and flipped it back over and then retreated to the opposite side of the room.

The spider crept towards freedom, climbing towards the slot in the wall. She looked at the bullet holes in the floor and noticed the chunks of concrete that had been chipped out of the floor. Charlie collected the pieces and sharpened them against the bars in the slot. She blew the dust away from the slot as the spider reached the summit.

“I’ll be right behind you buddy.” She said.

Charlie slipped into sleep soon after hiding the shards under the mattress.

Charlie awoke to shouting outsider her door. Water snuck through the sagging tile. She got to her feet and went to the slot in the wall. She looked beyond the spider which had remained and constructed a web, patrolling between the bars. The truck had returned. The door opened and Tariq entered the room, without a weapon. He closed the door and pulled a cloth from inside the front of his trousers. He emptied some of his flask onto the cloth.

“Thank you.” She said, sitting down and easing her shoe off.

Tariq knelt and she peeled the sock down from her ankle which left strands of fabric sewn into the scab of her wound. He caressed her ankles with the cloth, allowing her to clean her wrists.

“I’ve got to get out of here before he kills me. Will you help me?”

He shook his head.

“You don’t know what he’ll do to me.”

“Don’t be afraid of him. I have a plan. Just get him to come here. Tell him I’ve got information on an operation.”

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.

“I just need to get his gun.”

He nodded and left the room.

She checked outside to make sure the truck was still there. The spider had snared its first victim and was busy weaving web around a fly. The door swung open, nearly springing back on Tariq as he followed.

“I hear you have some information for me?”

“Yes, but first I want guarantees; that you’re not going to kill me.”

“I’m the only person here who wants you alive. Tariq here would rather see you killed after what your people did to his family and to his village.” He said, gesturing at Tariq.

Tariq shook his head after Finch turned his back.

“What have you got to tell me?”

“I’m not telling you anything.”

“Do not waste my t-“

Charlie tossed the mattress at Finch. He swatted it to the ground but Charlie was on him with the two stones. She crushed one against the side of his head embedded in her hand and drove the other into his eye, forcing him to the ground, driving the stone deeper. There was banging on the door as he screamed. Tariq pushed against the door. Charlie grabbed Finch’s pistol. She checked the safety. He continued to yell. She pulled the trigger. He was silent.

“Open it!” She shouted.

Tariq released the door, falling back as one guard stumbled through with the other behind him. She fired two bullets at each, one in the chest and one in the head.

Charlie hung the pistol at her waist and picked up one of their rifles. She lifted Tariq up and gave him the rifle.

“Thank you.” He said.

“Let’s go.” She said, leaving the room.

“I can’t let you do that.” He replied.

Charlie awoke facedown. She was back in her restraints. She spotted her uniform in a bundle to the side, she was in her underwear and vest. The door groaned as it opened. Footsteps crept towards her. Tariq lifted her head to his by her hair.

“It’s just us now.” He said.

The spider watched on having devoured its prey.

‘The Hermit’

You approach the enclosed beach from the main road. You notice sand shimmering on the path under the stingy lights which line each side, craning their decaying necks to observe. To the left you see the cliff which wraps itself around a constricted coast, cramping the stretch of sand. You look at the town perched upon the edge guarding against the cruise ships which often sail below.

You reach the patch of grass at the back of the beach trapped between sand and stone. You squat down and squint your eyes. Doing this extends the jetty at the tip of the beach across the horizon to Kilika Straight, the passage of water which ships sneak down to the freedom of the ocean. It felt like your only means of escape until now.

The town had become your home for the last two years, but it was only at this beach where you felt any connection to it. You’d shoot this beach in a movie but the thought of it becoming a tourist attraction triggers a frown. You first met Lisa here, at a karaoke beach party. You used to hate karaoke but that night you sang for hours. She still has that effect on you. She’s helped open your eyes to a plethora of interests. You hope this won’t be the last time you can be here together but she might not give you any choice.

You watch the sun as it slips closer to the sea seeping red, yellow and orange like a nasty wound in the sky. Clouds gather above, papering over the scars. You sit on the sand, just far enough away from the tide as it climbs its way up the shore and clutches at your ankles. The tide jostles, unable to prevent its secrets spilling over the sand.

You notice a hermit crab shuffling its way across the beach, carrying its home like a worn out brown backpack. The crab approaches a marketplace of shells. It scuttles around, pausing at each of them before settling on one with a patterned blend of gold and orange stripes. If your boss were here he would swipe it and hang it in the bar; a supposed compliment to his arty aesthetic. The hermit struggles to free itself from its suffocating shelter. The sea claims the sun and you wrap your arms around your knees feeling the warmth wander from your body.

You shouldn’t have asked her to meet you here, but you couldn’t let her think that something was up. You should have told her earlier but you weren’t even sure until now. Are you sure now? You had to see her here, even if it was the last time.

Hands gently smother the light from your eyes.

“Guess who?” She said.

“Sounds like Obama.” You said.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time.” She said.

You let a laugh sneak out, despite your attempts to contain it.

“Where’ve you been hiding? I hadn’t heard from you in a couple of days and nobody at the bar had seen you.” She asked.

“Sorry. I wasn’t feeling too great. Forgot to call in.”

“Jessie! Call them when you get home, you don’t want to lose your job.”

“Yeah. I will.”

You never lied to her before this, now you can’t seem to stop yourself.

Darkness trickles across the sky. The wind creeps down the back of your t-shirt. She sits down next to you and clings to your arm. Goosebumps crawl up your skin. You are cold. You notice the hermit crab has freed itself from its dingy dungeon and has moved into its new crib, testing out the new surroundings.

“I was thinking; maybe in a couple of weeks we could go for a weekend away in the city like we talked about?” Lisa asked you.

She rests her head on your shoulder. You say nothing.

“Work’s winding down. It shouldn’t be so hard to get time off and it’d be a nice change of scenery, think of all the karaoke bars we could visit.”

That is what you want but you can’t, not after what you’ve done.

“Yeah. Great.” You can’t stop yourself.

“Great. I’ll have a look at hotels when I get home.”

You need to tell her.

“Lisa, I need to tell you something and I’m afraid of what will happen when I do.”

Her grip on your arm loosens.

“W-what is it?”

Her head abandons your shoulder.

“I got offered an internship at a film studio and I’ve decided to take it.”

“I thought you stopped pursuing that dream?”

“I did, or I thought I did. I dunno, I was angry, I’d just moved here and then I met you and I just kind of put the plans on hold.”

She discards your arm.

“You said you were ready to settle into a real job. Was that all just a lie?”

“No I-“

“Were the last two years just a stopgap? Am I just a stopgap?!”

“No! You weren’t. You’re not. I can’t imagine my life without you, Lisa.”

“Liar! Otherwise you’d never have gone for the internship, never mind taken it.”

“You could come with me.”

She rises and you follow.

“I can’t just leave and go with you.”

“Why not? What’s keeping you here?”

“My family is here, my job is here and I like living here.”

The wind whips her blonde, curly hair as you look down at her pleading eyes.

“They’ll always be here, your family and this town. What’s stopping you from moving and working the same job in a different city and building your own life?”

“I’m happy here! You want me to move for your ambitions but you don’t give mine a second thought. How is that fair?”

“I want you in my life but this is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for, that I’ve always wanted. I can’t help but want you both.”

“You can’t have everything.” You hear her voice crack and she turns her back to you.

The tide bursts onto the beach, pushing at you and Lisa but you both remain. You notice the hermit crab has abandoned its new home in favour of wriggling its way back into the apartment it dared to abandon.

“You gave up on that dream when you settled down here; when we got together. You let me believe you were happy and that I was safe. You said we had a future together, now you’re going to throw it away over an internship.”

“You have to choose. The person you can’t imagine being without or the job that you’ve always wanted.”

“Can’t we work something out?” You ask.

She speaks through tears.

“What’s to work out, Jessie? I won’t stand in the way of you if you want to pursue your dreams.”

Is this really your dream? Maybe you are being selfish. She’s right, you have hurt her and lied to her. You hated the thought of that. You think about all the plans for the future she’s suggested, how happy she was, are you ready to give them up? For an internship? Not even a guarantee. What if things went wrong? Maybe you won’t like the city. You might not meet another girl like her.

You watch as the tide destroys the shell market and claims the hermit crab, dragging it back into the depths. The shells scatter across the sand and you notice the shattered remains of the now discarded shell, a faint reminder of the pattern remains. You consider collecting it for your boss.

“It’s you, Lisa. I want you. I love you.”

She faces you again.

“You need to be sure. You can’t flip flop on this.”

“I am sure. I’m happy now, here with you. The thought of losing that happiness terrifies me. I was too busy thinking what might be to stop and realise what is.”

“I love you too.” She said.

Freckles of light heal the sky as they melt through the disintegrating blanket of cloud. Your feet stick in the sand, submerged as the tide tickles your achilles and you shiver. You embrace her and she kisses you.

 

‘Between Love and Hate’

I swig my Jack and coke and a fleeting darkness is chased away. The leaves that decorate the hotel hiss behind me and I remember that familiar game of hide and seek the sun plays during summer here. Today the sun basks in a rare victory, baking any clouds that dare to impose. I look out at the sea which lethargically licks the beach, even the breeze carries a warmth that itches.

“There you are, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.”

Shit.

“Listen man, I had to bring up Lisbon-” he’s already got me by the neck.

“That was a hell of a speech Lee!” He says letting me go, no need for the nudge though.

“I thought you hated it, Stuart.”

“Nah, you nailed it. I knew you wouldn’t let me down.”

“When have I ever?”

“Seriously man, you kept me on the straight and narrow. We wouldn’t have made it this far without you,” Stuart points to his ring.

“You made it yourselves.”

“Have you spoken to Alice yet?”

“No,” I say, gulping my drink and loosening my tie.

“You can’t hide from her forever.”

“Yeah, this place isn’t big enough.”

“Take that up with the missus!” Stuart says.

“Oh look, I’m empty. Better get another drink.”

“Talk to her man, I know she’s eager to see you after what happened.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’ll get round to it.”

I skip up the steps to the door.

“And thanks for not mentioning Luxembourg!” Stuart shouted.

There are two bars in the hotel, one chaperoning the dance floor, or hell as I like to call it, and the other for the professional drinkers. I prefer the latter, she won’t be there. I consider taking my suit jacket off but I can feel my shirt sticking to my back, which affords me a shiver that I savour. I squeeze past faces in the clotting corridors recycling a smile. They want to talk about how good they’re doing but I just want to know who the hell decided curdled custard was the right choice of wallpaper and why the ceilings sagged by what I hope is design.

I stop at the doorway. Her back’s turned but I know it’s her. Sweat trickles from my armpits. She’s sitting with someone. It isn’t her short blonde hair that gives it away. Nor is it the single freckle on her dainty shoulders. When you’ve seen a person stripped bare, when you’ve lain with them, you could spot them blind. The sun beams through the window, that prick she’s sitting with catches my eye. I can feel my cheeks sizzling, I’m already looking forward to drinking in hell as I turn for the other bar.

“Jack and coke please,” I say.

The sunlight floods into battle with the disco lights through the chandelier which conducts from above the dancefloor. I lean on the counter, my arms outstretched further than my suit allows, watching the reflection of the dancefloor as those faces and their spouses jolt, bounce and sway teasing me in harmony. I drink, swinging the contents around the glass and drink again, until only the ice is left. I rest it on my tongue, willing it to caress my throat as it drains.

Then she enters. Parading him around.

“Another please,” I say.

They slip into the pack, swinging and sliding. My Adam’s apple retreats as I swallow but my chest fights back against the music, resisting their rotations, denying their demonstration. Beads flee my forehead, racing down my temples as I escape the room.

I slam the door off the wall. I run the tap and grip the sink. I look up at the mirror and cup my hands together, cleansing my face. I look into the mirror again, beads slipping down my face as I exhale.

“Pull yourself together,” I say.

The door swings open and in bounces Mark. Great.

“Eeeyyyy! Lee mate! How are you?” He says, marching over to the urinals.

“I’m good mate.”

“You don’t look it!”

“It’s the heat…” I say.

“Heat? Maybe you’ve had a few too many, eh?” He said, trying to control his aim and maintain eye contact with me.

Only you.

“I’m only joking mate. Listen, that was a hell of a speech! Can’t believe you didn’t mention Luxembourg though. You’re a good guy.”

Mark zipped up and approached slower this time.

“Listen mate, I was sorry to hear about you and Alice.”

So I keep hearing.

“I thought you two were great! Sucks she’s here with someone else, seems like a decent sort though,” Mark said.

He put his arm around me, avoiding the sinks.

“Seriously! We need to go out for a few drinks soon, been too long.” Mark pulled the door against his foot at first, before leaving.

I look up, gritting my teeth I punch the mirror, recoiling, my teeth cling together, I stretch and clench my fist. Small red cracks creep across my hand. I watch as the blood seeps from my hand, smearing the white tiles below. Why am I even angry? He was being perfectly pleasant. I shake my head at the mirror and leave.

They stutter and stop on the dancefloor as I march towards them.

“Alice. Can we talk outside please?”

“S-sure Lee.”

The heat lashes only my knuckles now. I leave my drink the steps, returning to the front of the hotel. The sea tickles the shore and a solitary cloud flirts with the sun. Threatening to smother it, but releasing it soon after.

“What happened to your hand Lee?!”

I’ve been moulding a face for months but I don’t use it.

“I… hit the mirror in the gents,” I say, looking at my hands.

“Jesus Lee! Maybe it was a bad idea me coming here…”

The temporary darkness cushions the sun, the air licks my hair.

“No. This is on me. I’ve been so angry and I thought I was angry at you, for a while I was…”

“I understand that,” She says, she’s been looking at me this whole time.

“I’m just… I’m angry that you’ve moved on before me. You’ve moved on faster, you’re doing well and there’s a part of me that’s happy about that, honestly! It’s just, I haven’t and I’m sorry, seeing you now reminds me of that. I wish I was a better person. Everyone thinks I’m a better person Alice…”

“Grow the fuck up, Lee. You are a better person than that. Why don’t you go soak up the attention you deserve after that speech?”

Her words drag my eyes to hers.

“Be the person who delivered that speech. Enjoy what’s good in your life, enjoy being you! You’ve so much to give, Lee. Don’t waste it. I’m heading inside. I want to see the real Lee Clarke in there.”

I picked up my drink from the steps, swirling the contents. The blood from my knuckles trickles onto the glass but the only burning is in my eyes now. The sun soothes my skin and I place the glass down, determined, not to follow Alice’s lead, but to walk my own path.

‘Alone, Together’

Bingo! A match!

Aaron examined his match’s profile. Absorbing Becky’s likes and dislikes, any kind of mistake could prove costly.

“So… this is awkward. I’ve never done this before.” Aaron wrote, making the first move.

“Me either.” Becky replied.

“Maybe we should ask three questions to test this match?”

“Okay that sounds good.” She replied.

“You go first, since you’re the lady.”

“Such a gentleman! Okay, what’s your favourite food?”

“Mac’ and cheese.”

“Favourite TV show?”

“Friends.”

“Good so far. Favourite movie?”

“Harry Potter.”

“Which one?”

Aaron smirked as he wrote: “That’s more than three questions!”

“Oh come on, Harry Potter is not an answer!”

“I suppose I’ll let you off the hook. It’s the second one. Chamber of Secrets.”

“No way? That’s the worst one.” Becky wrote.

“It’s Dobby’s debut, though.”

“Snakes and secrets, though. Two good answers out of three is above average.”

“I’ll settle for a rare adventure above average, usually I’m average all over.” Aaron replied.

“Oh I doubt that.”

“How would you like to find out over drinks?”

“I dunno, you’ve sold it really well…”

“C’mon I won’t take no for an answer.”

“Sure… Sure. Why not.” Becky wrote.

“Let’s meet at Delling Station at 8.”

Aaron clicked his phone onto standby.

“The newbies are always the most desperate.” Aaron thought.

“Give them a half-wrong answer out of three and they don’t realise you’re reciting the likes from their own profile.”

He looked in the mirror, yawning and running his fingers through his hair. She straightened every strand. He cupped his hands over his face, testing his breath. She brushed her teeth relentlessly. He grabbed yesterday’s t-shirt from the floor, he always travelled light. She took three outfits from her closet. He pulled on jeans with yesterday’s creases. She unwrapped the newest of her outfits, assessing from every angle as she dressed.

 

Before leaving his room Aaron took a screenshot of the map around Delling station, then checked the train times from the centre for later.

“I’m checking out. Room fourteen.” He said.

“No problem sir, would you like to fill out this survey for a chance to win ten percent off your next stay here?” The receptionist asked.

“No thanks, I won’t be staying here again.” He answered.

 

Glass littered the pavements Becky walked along as the station struggled against darkness, only a few flickering lights resisted.

Aaron crept up.

“You look great.” He said.

“Oh! Thanks.” She said.

“But aren’t you cold?” He asked.

“Maybe a little…”

Her eyes were fixated on the flower.

“For you.” He said.

“Thank you!” She said.

“C’mon the pub’s beyond the industrial estate. I know a shortcut.”

“Oh. Okay.” She said, lingering slightly.

“So you never asked me three questions, why don’t you ask me them on our way?” She asked.

“Do you like your flower?” He asked.

“Yeah… sure it’s nice.”

“Don’t worry, that’s not one of your questions.”

The hustle of civilisation seemed to slip further way, smothered by the quiet.

“I saw the episode of Friends where everyone finds out, I think it might actually be my favourite. What’s your favourite episode?” She asked.

“That one as well. It’s great.” He answered.

Becky’s pace slowed.

“What’s part’s your favourite?”

Aaron started down an alleyway and Becky stopped.

“Come on, the shortcut finishes up behind that bit where the fence is pulled up.”

“What’s your favourite part Aaron?”

“My name’s not Aaron.”

“What?”

“Come here.”

Aaron grabbed her wrist and thrust her against a fence.

“Nobody is going to hear you.”

“Let go of me! Help!”

She wriggled to a moment of freedom before arms locked around her waist and he thrust her into a garbage bin, knocking both to the ground.

Her screams accompanied by tears.

He was on top of her now.

“LEAVE ME ALONE!”

“Your outfit says the opposite.”

He pinned her arms as she writhed and wrangled.

“Don’t act like you don’t want it.”

She sobbed, looking at the flower stricken amongst the garbage in which they lay.

“Stop crying. You asked for this.”

He ripped her top. She kicked hard. He wrestled her again, she broke free of his grasp.

She grabbed a bottle and smashed it across the side of his face.

He rolled off her allowing her to her feet. He grabbed her heel but she dare not lose her balance again and kicked off his grip. Freed from his clutches she pointed the bottle at him.

“Get away from me!”

He hesitated.

“Don’t you dare get up!”

The tears relented.

“I’m calling the police!”

“Call them. You think they’ll believe you? Dressed like that, the desperate teenager met a stranger on a dating app. You don’t even know my name, you don’t know where I’m from and my profile ain’t real.”

Becky opened her mouth but could only scream, waving the broken bottle in his direction.

“Hello?! Is everything alright?!” Voices from the end of the alleyway grabbed Becky’s attention.

Aaron fled.

 

Aaron boarded a train, destination London. He sat across from an older woman who also sat alone. He held her gaze for a moment, looking her up and down before the pulsating heat on his cheek diverted his attention.

“Suppose I better book the next hostel.” He thought.

His phone vibrated.

Bingo! A match!

He checked over the profile. Tina’s likes and dislikes.

“So, this is awkward. I’ve never done this before.” Aaron wrote.