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Michael Burton
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Red Letter

 

Michael Burton

 

 

Dear Mum,

 

It was me who pissed the Olympic rings

onto your fresh green carpet,

Who found the stereo

one month before it was the nicest surprise ever given,

Who taught your daughters

how to access the sweets

you put out of their reach,

Who ate the last sweets

and made them cry when you were suffering migraines,

Who asked your brother if he was gay,

he hasn’t spoke to me since,

did I boot a sectarian nerve?

Who used to detune your husband’s guitar

because it made me happy

to see him angry,

Who broke your polished ornaments

and then hid them from your temper,

Who gave away your sandwiches at school

as they tasted like gritty dirt.

Who drunk all your whisky,

Who locked you out in the rain

and then pretended to be asleep,

Who went to the pub and drank two pints

Instead of voting labor like you asked

and I promised just to shut you up,

Who let Bugsy out of his cage,

Who tracked my dad down

and spun a web of deceit

so that you thought he came back to me.

 

Because of you the Bee Gees make me smile

through music I hate,

Jesus will always be ambiguous

as long as freedom doesn’t care,

Mashed potato tasted better with lumps

and gravy dripping onto the table,

I’m always on time

unless there is a reason to be late.

I smoke marijuana

until I can’t see out the window,

daily,

lie about cooking Spaghetti Bolognese

to get off the phone,

steal from idealistic enterprises

so I can spend my money on hard drugs, alcohol,

and homeless people,

don’t always brush my teeth twice a day

as sometimes I’m too wrecked to stand up,

think loose women is the epitome of trash TV,

overflowing with bigoted rubble spitting narrow-minded junk

that a man could never get away with,

sorry about that one,

but it’s true,

would rather be labeled a traitor

than follow the family tradition of joining the forces

and then dining out on the stories for the rest of my life,

sleep around.

 

but I figure you knew all of that anyway

 

 

 

 

 

London

 

by Michael Burton

 

 

London is the broken man on the steps of the hospital,

not a scratch on his body, scars written into his face.

 

London is saddling a Boris Bike, half cut

on bubblegum lager and the turmoil of the cricket,

Whitechapel to Victoria, just to sit in a hollow basement

contemplating alchemy.

 

London is existing on a big red bus,

weeping in your sleep at the romance on the pavements,

only waking to cross the road for the same ride back.

 

London is sweet-voiced buskers singing of perfume in the sewers.

 

London is suits, sewn with sundry smiles,

lined with apathy, worn to live like the circle line.

 

London is not as dour as the circle line suggests.

 

London is Sunday afternoon, half-full or empty beer gardens,

Bloody Marys stinging the cracks in your lips, the sun warming your face,

three or four unknowns on their knees around the outskirts,

two condoms and no money in your wallet, that’s London.

 

London is Tower Bridge during night’s narrow hours,

collecting a swagger, dropping sticks in the Thames.

 

London is forcing a cork in your bladder, marching lone soldier the length of the tube,

trying desperately not to piss yourself as you whistle out of time

ignoring the gibberish that floats all around you like plankton.

 

London is gray like November skies.

 

London is picnics in the park with cider and football

and women and joints and rolled-up jeans and knock-off sunglasses and

music.

 

London is howling under tunnels, believing you’re a werewolf or batman

or something much darker like jack the ripper (if you’re an angry),

or some kind of immortal anyhow.

 

London is your talented mate, the dropout, the loser, the soft-hearted whimsical roamer, the reason we all know that our dreams are dreams and that our truths are self-defined.

 

London is the shabby drunk in your local pub who can’t seem to wash his face or brush his teeth or butter his toast or piss in a urinal but manages to put the over educated to shame with a few honest slurs and a raised eyebrow.

 

London is midnight snowball fights against strangers until your fingers are blue and they’re not strangers anymore.

 

London is small hours trips to the playground, trying to go over on the swings

or launch from the seesaw or achieve anything that’s as glorious

as the playground itself is at 2A.M.

 

London is cobbled streets collecting puddles, jump, splash, giggle, flirt, try and pretend that hand brushing her waist happened naturally but London isn’t Paris or Italy and we all scheme and plot and win and lose.

 

London is consoling the man whose wife caught him passed out, cock in hand with his previously-private stash of porn out, after he spent a boisterous night on MD

scolding the modern man for killing romance.

 

London is seventeen hundred Pete Dohertys, six hundred Guy Fawkes’s, two thousand Oswald Mosley’s and a handful of Charles Dickens’s.

 

London is little lion man sticking it to his boss on a Wednesday morning because he realizes life is too short to spend it scratching the backs of loose tossers, feeling alive as he walks out of the office without any purpose except the pub he shouts “WHO GIVES A DAMN ANYWAY.”

London is dreams, visions, adorations with the potential to be hallucinations, endless sensitivities creeping out from the alleyways; wild- eyed deep sea fisherman in a hopeless placid disguise, London is fucked up.

 

London is the first moments of love, found in all quarters, noticed like a gentle breeze.

 

 

 

 

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Ode to a Dead Man

 

by Michael Burton

 

 

There was a pain in his lower back. Wilson tried to move his hand to comfort it. It was useless; he couldn’t even twitch a pinky.

 

Wilson had spent the last decade snarling fearlessly at death but he didn’t want to greet it with an unfulfilled life looming over his conscience. There was his twenty-year-old daughter. He could only picture her fifteen-year-old face. His overgrown back garden, the gas bill, the electric bill, the tickets to the Fourth Test he had won in a rigged game of poker, over a dozen beers in the fridge, the frozen budget chain Shepherd’s pie in the freezer, his life story—

half-finished. 

 

Christ, he thought, alcohol and pills, they weren’t wrong when they said not to mix them.

 

Wilson worked with certainties. He knew he was flat on his back on his living room floor. He knew Jenkins and Humphries were still there. He could hear them talking about the cricket. They seemed in agreement that the Test between England and India was headed for a draw, making the Fourth Test next week the decider.

 

Why couldn’t he hear the cricket? Why couldn’t he hear the cars driving by or the kids walking home from school? All he was left with was Humphries, Jenkins, and the same chorus repeating endlessly.

 

“Oh, yeah, wait a minute Mr. Postman, wait, wait just a minute, Mr. Postman . . .”

 

You’ve really blown it, he told himself, mistake after mistake, a total and utter failure.

 

He felt dead already; it stirred from within, telling him to read his own last rites, to make any final pleas for forgiveness from the dirty beige carpet that was to be his resting place because YOU, Wilson, have punished yourself and everyone else quite enough for this lifetime.

 

He tried and failed to visualize both his ex-wives and a number of old flames but death wouldn’t let him. Instead, he was afforded a brief outline of a whore he’d got angry and violent with over a decade ago because of the jam stains on her blouse. Why her?

 

“Oh, yeah, wait a minute Mr. Postman, wait, wait just a minute, Mr. Postman . . .”

 

Wilson heard an old man’s sigh, a long and deep sigh of comfort—one of those scoundrels must have slumped into his armchair by the radio—then a burp, a long self-satisfied burp released like an opera singer stretching his vocals for the grand finale.

 

They are helping themselves to my beers, he thought. The thieving scum, just you wait, you rotten bastards.

 

“What d’ya think, Humphries? He looks a dead old bastard to me, what should we do?”

 

 “Well, I’ll agree with you on th-th-that, Jenkins. He is a d-d-d-d-d-dead old bastard. There are a few options other than the p-p-p-police, as I am s-s-s-sure you well know.”

 

“Hmmm, the son of a bitch owes us a bob or two, that’s for sure. Let’s not forget the cricket tickets, they will be buried in this place somewhere. We could take what’s rightfully ours and leave him until the stench attracts attention.”

 

The two men fell silent. Wilson imagined them looking at each other as if hoping to form an idea between them. The void should have been filled by long and winding cricket commentary. Why could he hear only them?

 

“W-w-what does he have in this gaff, anyway?” 

 

 “What doesn’t he have? That’s the million-dollar question. He’d have you believe this place is Buckingham-fucking-Palace the way he carries on. There are all them gadgets, that old jewelry he was always banging on about, that signed Cricket bat. That’ll fetch quite a bit, you know. Wilson has always been a hoarder, collecting useless bits of crap that he was too afraid to throw away. It sums up how he lived his life, no guts to make a decision. He could have learned a thing or two from me, he could.”

 

“Well, I agree with you on th-th-th-th-that, Jenkins, the old dog was al-al-al-always a hoarder, collecting useless b-b-b-b-bits of crap. What about our s-s-s-s-souls, Jenkins? Us leaving him here f-f-f-for the rats, he could r-r-r-r-rot away, his spirit staying to h-h-h-h-haunt us into an early grave, I've read about that kind of s-s-s-st-stuff happening.”

 

“Nonsense, absolute nonsense, I thought I told you to stop watching all that crap.”

 

“K-K-Karma is-”

 

“Karma is here, old man. Think it through logically, will ya? He’ll be found soon, maybe a week or so.  Everyone here spends their whole life walking the dog, one of those hounds is bound to pick up the scent and start barking like a one of those feminist bitches. He’ll still be fit for burial. And besides, he’d do the same to us, no doubting that, always was a tight, scheming old crook. That’s the only karma involved here.”

 

“I will have to agree with you on th-th-th-that, Jenkins.  He always was a tight, sc-sc-sc-scheming old crook. What’s n-n-n-next, then?”

 

“Grab some black bags from the kitchen. I only want things that we can shift, Humphries. I don’t want to be trying to flog a dead man’s shit-stained Y fronts, you got it? Crack another beer, let’s whistle whilst we work, old lad.”

 

“Oh, yeah, wait a minute Mr. Postman, wait, wait just a minute, Mr. Postman . . .”

 

They’re right, thought Wilson. He was a dead man, and what a pitiful way to go, listening to those two filthy old buggers whining on like war sirens.

 

What a pair of ungrateful swine, barging into his house every bleeding day, drinking the contents of his fridge, listening to his radio, and giving him a headache. What miserable old farts! Putting him in his grave, a goner. His soul took such a battering, it upped and did a runner a long time ago. What exactly did he owe to them?

 

Wilson hoped the strain of carrying his treasures broke their crooked old backs. Not that they knew its value, you don’t know the value of anything, you parasites! How would they shift any gear without his input? The leeches would end up trying to sell paintings to a convenience store. If Wilson had been able to laugh at himself, that image would have been his last laugh.

 

He focused for a moment and tried to open an eyelid, straining so hard that frustration boiled over into screams of wild rage only heard by him. You stupid old fool, Wilson thought. You had it all, you had the talent, the looks, the brains, the women and you washed it down a river of whisky and ale.

 

Too late now. All those years spent in dirty grotty pubs, not coming home when you had promised, fading into the furniture until eventually you were stale and rotting. He wanted to bite his lip. All of it had left him with Jenkins and Humphries, a desperate anti-climax.

 

Give me one more chance, he pleaded to no one in particular, just one more chance. Wilson imagined a future where he read stories to his granddaughter by the fireplace as she peppered him with questions and he treated her with hardboiled sweets and applauded her efforts with the skipping rope in the garden. He imagined it vividly but as he zoomed in on that little girl’s face, she had no eyes, she couldn’t see him, and piece by piece, it all crumbled away.

 

“Oh, yeah, wait a minute Mr. Postman, wait, wait just a minute, Mr. Postman . . .”

 

 “Humphries, pop your black bag by the door when you’re done. I've done the same with mine; it’s full of junk mind! Let’s crack another beer and get back to the cricket? We will be into the last hour by now; we can head home at close of play.”

 

“Good idea, Jenkins, lets h-h-h-head home at close of play.”

 

“I’ll tell you what, the old faggot has been proven a bit of a fibber, not worth half the notes he used to make out he was. This house is full of toss. It makes you wonder what else the fella was lying to us about. All of them stories, all of them women, its codswallop. He’s not a real man, not in the same way I am, so he goes around making stuff up to try and impress me.”

 

“Aye, cods-s-s-w-w-wallop, this house is full of t-t-t-toss. Come to think of it, h-h-h-how long have we known him for? How long as h-h-he been having us on?”

 

“Best part of two decades, I’d say. Remember we used to go with him to the bookies when Thatcher was knocking about, ruining everything? I tell you what: I would have made something of me-self if it wasn’t for Maggie Thatcher.”

 

“Aye, Jenkins, two d-d-decades sounds about right.”

 

“Oh, yeah, wait a minute Mr. Postman, wait, wait just a minute, Mr. Postman . . .”

 

           Jealous sons of bitches, thought Wilson. Just because I’ve had a bit of woman, just because I’ve lived a little . . . Using my death to make themselves feel better, a sign of the weak. He had lived his life, unlike those two; Wilson was taunting from within, PATHETIC BASTARDS, why are you still here, then?

 

           He forced them out of his mind and thought of his younger years, an era of optimism, back when the world was at his feet and he was living off quick wits and charm alone. What a chancer he was. His thoughts moved on to his daughter Jane, full of youth and aspiration. Maybe she would learn from his mistakes.

 

          He was clinging on to that thought as he felt death wipe its feet at his door, entering for its one and only visit. He tried to be peaceful. His mind took him to the upstairs window and watching a ten-year-old Jane swing back and forth on the tire in the garden. He batted the memory away, for he knew if he looked down, he would see an empty bottle of scotch and a stained white blouse.

 

          A slipping sensation engulfed him, a slip that turned into a fall. This must be the end he thought. What happens next?

 

“Oh, yeah, wait a minute Mr. Postman, wait, wait just a minute, Mr. Postman . . .”

 

Nothing happened. Death was toying with Wilson like a cat dangling a mouse by its tail. He knew his fate was only seconds away, he wasn’t fighting it anymore. Just give me total and everlasting quiet, he asked.

 

There was no final prayer from Wilson, no lights flashed before him, only impenetrable darkness.

 

“A draw, it is,” Jenkins said as he rose to his feet and walked into the hallway. “Shall we collect our stuff and get out of here?”

 

“Aye, Jenkins, a d-d-d-draw, let’s get our stuff together. Shall we put an anon-non-non-ymous call in from a phone b-b-b-box on the way home? Let the s-s-s-services know something’s up?”

 

Jenkins clicked open the fridge in the kitchen and Humphries took Wilson’s wallet from his trousers, took a twenty and stuffed it in his sock.

 

“I was thinking that just five minutes ago, did I say it out loud?” Jenkins said as he came back into the living room and threw a beer to Humphries. “It’s the least we can do after 20 years.”

 

 

 

Michael has always been passionate about English. As an adolescent he loathed it as he stared imploringly out of the classroom window and now he teaches a broken version of it to children in South Korea. Some of his other short stories and poems can be found in Pinback Magazine, Word Catalyst, and A Shot of Ink.

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