Short Fiction

A sample of short stories by Howard Jackson

Stagecoach To Somewhere – Xmas Horror – Mr Iron

I am dead although I have been slow to notice.  This I find embarrassing.   Normally, I am alert.  I have to be in my kind of business.  I suppose I was too busy being indignant to realise.  I am lying on a trolley and not wearing a stitch.

I actually spent the first few moments of my death complaining about the state of the NHS.

‘Not exactly the opening ceremony of the Olympics is it?’ I shouted.  ‘No pretty nurses jumping up and down on the beds in this place.’

Of course, no one heard me.  I am dead.  I am in a room which I initially thought might be a ward or an operating theatre but it is something different.  There are no other beds, and the equipment has been placed on the waist high shelf that lines all the walls.   A tall man in a long white coat is busy working by the shelf against the wall opposite me.  He sings something about a broken heart.

I have no idea why I am here.  Nothing connects me to this death.  Before this I was in the living room of Croft the Case and happily knocking hell out of him.  I remember banging his head against the wall and his blood spilling on to the carpet.  The screams were terrible and there was a lot of blood but, fortunately, Croft the Case is not especially house-proud.  I was at his home because I had a tip that Croft the Case had done a £30,000 dope deal and had stashed away the cash.  I make my living by robbing these guys. I keep away from the mega dealers because I am sensible but everyone knows me.  I have acquired the name Mr Iron.  My weaponry is varied but I always have an iron.  Few dealers can be persuaded easily to part with their cash.  I do not mind smacking people around but it takes time and you need to mix it otherwise you and the work become boring.  And nothing succeeds as well as the iron.  Most cough up the cash after one patch of blister.  Some have taken as many as three but those are not right in the head.  Few confess in response to the mere threat.  I usually have to show that I am sincere.  Well, Liverpool is a tough town.

I must have been ambushed.  I remember putting the iron on the back of Croft the Case and him screaming and me thinking it would all be sorted in a couple of minutes.  And then I am lying on a trolley without even a goose pimple for company.

It is different being dead.  Obviously, you are obliged to be quiet.   That makes sense, I suppose.  Otherwise, what is the point, eh?  But dead, you feel different.  I have this strong sense of smell, which means that I now feel that maybe my choice in aftershave was not quite as cute as I thought.  Well, as ol’ blue eyes said, we all have a few regrets.

Everything feels cold.  The plastic sheet under my naked skin feels like it has just come out of the freezer.  Also, while I can make no sound, the noise around me is deafening.  At the end of the room the guy in the white coat is quietly arranging instruments but he makes as much din as someone demolishing a house.

The guy in the white coat turns around and walks over to me.  He looks into my face.  He has a red beard and blue eyes.  He looks a serious sort.   He holds a marker pen, and I watch him draw a line around my forehead.  I also feel his hands touch my head a couple of times which is when I realise he has already shaven my head.

I do not think I am especially vain or easily embarrassed but I think I would have preferred to keep my hair before the bonfire that waits.

If you have to go early, at least go handsome, I think.

And what was he doing with the damn marker on my head?

A woman who is also wearing a white coat walks into the room.  She is about the same age as the man.  Both are in their thirties, I think.  The woman is attractive with a fine figure, and I remember the aftershave and I think about regrets again.  She puts her arms around the man with the red beard.

‘Missed me?’ she says.

‘Am I hot for you?’ says the man with the red beard.

The two of them kiss passionately.

Oh, come on, I think.

Whether the woman is insatiable or not I do not know but, after they finish kissing, she looks at what I have between the tops of my thighs.

‘It’s a strange colour,’ she says.

This is news to me.  I sneak a look.  Yes, she is right.

‘Disfiguration, they used a lot of poison,’ says the man with the red beard.

Now I remember.  I was taking out my iron and definitely feeling queasy.  I can brush things aside easily and had put it down to anticipation and excitement. The cold rubber on the trolley helps me think it through.  I must have been set up by Torpedo Torino and Croft the Case.  This is why Torpedo wanted me to drink so much while he was explaining the dope deal.

I remember and I can see clearly.   That helps because there is something else I realise.  I have been dead before.  Something slipped into gear as I was searching for the truth about Torpedo and the Case.  Every time it is the same after dying, every time you eventually realise that this has happened before.   I understand that I have a few days before I move on, by when I will have again forgotten all this.  I try to remember how many times I have died before.  My memories are vague, as if I am not privy to details, but I do know that I have previously died many times.  And I know that I always have a few days of this strange state before life begins again.

It must be the same for everyone.  I think what I have probably thought many times before.  Why the need to exist in this odd period when it feels strange and you smell and hear things differently?  Presumably, the reincarnated life takes time to prepare.  It is not as if it is the latest technology that they use.  All this will have been designed and introduced before digitalisation.

The man in the white coat walks towards me.  He carries a small blade in his right hand.  He uses the index finger on his left hand to find the mark he has left on my head.

I am trying to think everything through but the damned woman has now joined him, and they are looking at one another like lovesick dopes.

The man with the red beard kisses the attractive woman on the tip of her nose.

Reincarnation must be as old as sex, I think.  It has existed from the very beginning, long before Steve Jobs, football and even vinyl.

The man puts the cold blade on my chest and turns his back on me so he can kiss his girlfriend.  How many human beings and in how many different lives, I think.  We even had reincarnation and sex before the wheel although some of those lives would have hardly been worth repeating.

The man and the woman stop kissing.  I think about how soon will I become bored in this strange state and before life begins again.

The man picks up the blade and inserts it in my stomach.  The pain is unbearable.  I watch blood leave my stomach.  The woman returns to the shelf on the opposite wall and takes the largest tool on the shelf.  She stands close to the trolley and near my head.  She stares at me, and I realise that she is looking at the line that the man in the red beard drew around my head.

I think about reincarnation and all my other forgotten lives and how God must have created it as a blessing.  But that was before we became clever, before machines and, my thoughts hesitating, before autopsies.

‘No,’ I scream.

No one hears.

The woman switches on the chain saw, and the noise is terrible.

‘No,’ I scream, ‘we can still feel pain.’

The man with the red beard puts his hand inside my stomach and pulls at my intestines.

‘I cannot bear this,’ I scream although my words are silent like before.

‘God, please answer,’ I plead.


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Stagecoach To Somewhere – Horror – The White Horse

The appearance of the white horse was a shock.  I found him close to the main road that leaves Liverpool and heads for Southport.  I had been drinking in the city centre and was walking home from the railway station.   The horse had large grey spots on his nose.  I removed my earplugs and stopped the music on the smartphone.

‘You’re going to get yourself killed, mate,’ I said.

The two of us stood on the pavement close to the busy road.  The white horse breathed deeply but was calm.  At midnight the road was quiet but the odd car appeared.   If the drivers noticed anything unusual about me standing at the side of a road with a white horse, none did anything.  They drove past.  The horse had no saddle and under the electric light his body looked especially clean.  The mane like his nose had the odd grey spot.

‘How did you get yourself here?’ I said.

The white horse brushed his nose against my arm.

‘How did you get yourself here without killing yourself?’

The white horse did nothing but I could tell that he was curious about my hands.  I stroked his nose, and he snorted.  As this obviously pleased him, I stroked his nose some more.

‘I’ve got to get home,’ I said.

The white horse lowered his head until his mouth touched the back of my hand.

‘I’m in enough trouble as it is,’ I said.

This was a lie.  My wife would be asleep when I arrived home.   We both had jobs that took a lot of time.  We rarely met.  Talking had become especially difficult, and usually we kept it to a minimum.  When the horse had appeared I had been listening to a song about a love that stretched to the moon and back.  My wife and I had been to the moon and those were the good days but somewhere on the way back we had landed on different planets.

‘I don’t think I can take you home,’ I said to the white horse.  ‘We can’t pretend you’re a present.’

The horse stood really close, and I felt the heat of his body.  The white horse breathed and his murmurs hinted at suppressed power.   His breathing was complicated enough to fill a universe.  I touched the nose of the white horse.  He looked into my eyes and he raised his nose and snorted.  A car passed by on the road, so I leaned into his neck to keep him calm.   I could feel the strength of the white horse but also something else, promise and potential.  The white horse was as tall as me, and I was aware that he could have pushed me into the road and in front of the car.  I was drunk and that helped but I was prepared to trust the animal.

The wide road to Southport was lined either side by substantial semi-detached homes, and the pavement was broad which meant that there was enough space for the horse and me.  Most of the residents were in bed and asleep like the cars in their drives.  The white horse and me walked side by side but very slowly and each time we took a step the white horse would pause to look at me.  It soon became a ritual where we imitated and approved of each other.

One of the houses had a drive like the rest but also a garden with impressive hedges and strong grass that grew high in the corner next to the front wall.  I grabbed a handful of grass and fed the white horse.  He ate quickly and his mouth, teeth and tongue left heat on my hand.  The white horse rubbed his neck against my arms.  I fed him some more grass.  The white horse and me stood outside the semi-detached house for some time.  I fed him and he ate.  In between mouthfuls the white horse would play modestly, leaning his neck against my arms as he had done earlier.  But also sometimes he would bend his head and press his nose against my chest.

‘You’re alright,’ I said.

I looked up at the closed curtains of the semi-detached and imagined a couple asleep and their dreams preparing them for the next day. I was happy to stay there and, if they woke and heard me, I was ready for an argument.

‘It’s just a horse and it’s just a bit of grass,’ I would say, ‘and I’m taking him home.’

But nobody came and the white horse and me stayed there for some time.  More cars passed but the white horse enjoyed feeding and being nourished.  If he noticed the cars, he did nothing.  Instead, we kept to a ritual that felt as if it might last forever, me feeding the white horse grass and him leaving powerful hot breath over my hands before snuggling against my chest.

‘You’re not to know,’ I said as I stroked the white mane with the grey spots, ‘but this brings back memories for me.   You’re not the first white horse that wanted to be friends.’

The white horse ate more grass.

‘I was a kid,’ I told the white horse, ‘and, instead of walking straight home from school one afternoon, I saw a horse behind the shops.  We had farmers’ fields close by.  I stopped and stroked the horse and fed it.  And like now, mate, I found it difficult to leave.’

I was surprised how well I remembered the incident.  I arrived at my grandparents so late that they called me an idiot in anger.  I thought that they might be right but I believed I had potential for something worthwhile yet unexceptional.

The garden was becoming short of grass so I caressed the white horse and let it rest his neck against my chest.  I put my face close to the nose of the white horse and took a photograph of the two of us.  I showed the photograph to the white horse and he snorted.

I thought about my wife asleep in her bed like everyone else and remembered again the first time I fed a horse and wasted time that everybody else thought essential.  It occurred to me that I might be able to walk the white horse home to a nearby stable.  The walk would be a couple of miles but I thought the white horse and me could make it because we trusted each other.  The time was very late, and I decided that I needed to tell my wife what I intended to do. I listened to the promise of every powerful but suppressed breath from the white horse and felt him scratch an itch against me.  I had the idea that perhaps the three of us could walk to the stable.  My wife could listen carefully to the breath of the white horse and feel the heat of not just the body of the white horse but also mine.

The white horse and me left the semi-detached house and we walked to the turning into the estate where I lived.   I was nervous outside my house and I paused before entering.  The white horse waited by my side in the drive.  He was very patient and stood very still as if he knew what might happen next could be very important.   Although his breathing was quieter, his power and promise was not diminished.

I rang the bell and hoped. I waited for my wife to appear and, as anxiety stretched my stomach, I became aware that the power and promise of the white horse was something I shared, nothing rare but definitely important.

The light in the hall appeared and my wife opened the door.  I saw that she was angry, and at that moment the white horse disappeared from my side.  I heard his steps in the road behind me but when I turned to look there was no white horse to be seen.  I was, though, able to hear the sound of what had once been something fabulous running quickly into the darkness.


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