Jessica made her way down to the concert hall, feeling uncomfortable and ashamed in her bloodstained clothes, but no one else seemed to notice her disarray. Finn led the way. He seemed to know exactly where he was going, and on reaching the entrance he jumped up on a shelf and curled up behind a thick, velvet curtain. It seemed a safe enough spot. As she entered, she saw that the hammocks had all been adjusted. They now formed hanging chairs which allowed the occupiers to sit upright and incorporated a nifty drinks holder on the right hand side. Hers contained a tumbler full of sparkly purple liquid. In other circumstances she would have eyed it with suspicion, but in her current state of thirst she would have drunk almost anything. She necked it back in one to the obvious disapproval of the elderly gentleman on her left hand side. His twitching moustache amplified every slight movement of his upper lip in broadcasting his extreme contempt. She noticed he had some peanuts on his side table and resolved to filch some when his back was next turned.
The air was thick with excitement. The only thing missing was the sound of an orchestra tuning up. Craning her neck, Jessica saw no sign of the band. She did, however, see a rather rickety old piano in the corner, together with a solitary microphone stand stage centre placed just in front of the closed curtains.
People started to hush each other, elbowing each other through their hammocks. Just as silence fell, Ant bounded onto the stage sporting an enormous grin.
“Well good evening folks, and how are you? I’m your warm up act for the evening! Can I get a G’DAY?”
“G’DAY” the audience shouted with relish.
“Can I get an A?”
“A!” they shouted.
“Can I get a- MEN?”
“A-MEN” the audience echoed, hooting with laughter. Jessica thought she was far enough away from Ant to get away with a faint smile until her neighbour started tutting at her again. She stepped up the enthusiasm to a solid seven out of ten.
“Well fancy that, looks like you don’t need much warming up this fine evening! Which is just as well, because this lovely lady needs no introduction. But I’m going to introduce her to you anyway, cos that’s just how I roll! May I present your compere for the evening…..the simply divine, the one, the only, PATRICIAAAAAA”
The velvet curtains were drawn back to reveal Patricia descending a wide spiral staircase. She was dressed for the occasion in a silver spangly cassock with a six foot train.
Behind her a long, rectangular screen carried a rolling message:
IT’S WHAT YOU’VE ALL BEEN WAITING FOR…..
THE TALENT SHOW!
Patricia reached the microphone and basked in her applause for a good five minutes. Everyone present seemed to be aware to keep clapping enthusiastically until ordered to stop, and then only reluctantly. On the third attempt, Patricia was able to speak and be heard.
Her voice boomed out over the auditorium. “Welcome and may God be with you! Here on Spiral Dial we like to give the band a few days off so that we can celebrate the achievements of all of our crew! We want to celebrate all of your talent together. God’s will is stronger when you’re having a good time, isn’t it?”
The audience started whooping and clapping once more. Jessica realised that there was a small sign at the left hand corner of the display instructing them on how to respond. Right now it showed a small pair of clapping hands in flashing yellow neon, suddenly replaced with the outline of a finger pressed against a pair of lips.
“First up we have the lovely Ed, from Procurement! God is truly working through Ed tonight! Ed is going to share his knitting skills with us. Come on up, Ed!”
A short, plump man with a ragged beard and long black hair tied back in a ponytail rose, rather reluctantly by the looks of it, and slowly made his way onto the stage. He was clutching a pair of knitting needles, a half completed scarf and a bundle of wool. Patricia produced a plain black plastic chair for him to sit on. The audience cheered, precisely on cue.
Patricia continued, “Now then, it’s time to give thanks to God for the gift of Ed’s miraculous knitting skills! Let’s express our gratitude and give Ed the divine gift of praise!”
The screen behind Ed proclaimed,
MANDATORY COMPLIMENT COLLECTION MODE
The text was followed by graphics of exploding rockets. Jessica wasn’t sure whether this was meant to be encouraging or some sort of a threat.
“KNIT ED KNIT!” a young woman from a nearby hammock screamed as the applause hit a new peak volume. Jessica concentrated on maintaining the required level of brisk clapping and was congratulating herself on doing an excellent job when she realised that there appeared to be small birds fluttering around the room, flying from person to person. They were around the size of a hummingbird, with delicate purple feathers tipped with green. Each one would land briefly on an individual’s hand before returning to the stage. As Jessica clapped, she realised that the birds on the stage were inscribing messages on the screen with their beaks.
AMAZING WORK ED!
said the first one.
LET’S MAKE IT A TEN FOOTER!
BEST KNITTER ON THE SEVEN SEAS!
and so on.
The thought “What utter bollocks,” crossed her mind just as one of the little birds landed on her hand. The sensation of its feet was unpleasant, scaly and lizard like. Disgusted, she shook it off. Within minutes the bird had returned to the front of the stage and was pecking out the words
WHAT UTTER BOLLOCKS
It was written in large capital letters on the screen for the whole room to read. Not only that but the bird had inscribed it in letters three times the size of all of the other messages. Jessica cringed, sucking in a long, low breath. At least there didn’t appear to be any way of identifying who was responsible for each thought. The idea of a bird reading her mind and pecking out the contents on a screen no longer struck her as particularly strange, all things considered. Patricia was occupied eulogising Ed’s stitching pattern and its relevance to God’s Divine Plan for Spiral Dial. As the birds slowed and it seemed that all of the messages had been completed, Patricia gestured to Ed to pause his knitting.
“My brothers and sisters, you know that GOD tells us that the lazy man consumes his own flesh. We can all see that Ed is in no danger of that! And we all know that goodness is its own reward. GOD has seen Ed knit, though, and GOD has decided that Ed shall have another reward!”
This triggered a standing ovation amongst the audience. Jessica leapt to her feet just in time.
Ed didn’t look too excited about the prospect of a divine intervention. Jessica couldn’t blame him. Knitting scarves for eternity would definitely trump anything dreamed up between God and Patricia. Patricia raised her hands, and immediately the birds paired up and started flying overhead in a circular pattern. Around and around they flew. As Jessica watched them, she almost failed to notice what was happening on the stage. A host of creatures were making their way down the staircase, cows and deer and elephants and dogs, all walking in pairs. Two large tigers were already prowling on stage left, audibly huffing and puffing. One of them looked like it might be half thinking of taking a swipe at Ed. Patricia gave it a stern look and it curled up meekly into a ball. Jessica spotted a pair of ostriches, antelopes and a large tank containing two small dolphins being wheeled onto the stage by none other than Ant.
“Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labour. All of our passengers have their partners. Even the birds are together! How can one keep warm alone? Poor Ed has been alone for the whole voyage so far. He sat alone in his cabin, patiently knitting, awaiting his reward. But Ed’s time has come! It has come! Now GOD will answer your prayers, Ed!”
Patricia clicked her fingers, and the two elderly ladies seated on Jessica’s right hand side immediately hopped down from their hammocks and started making their way towards the stage. They were not alone. There seemed to be a horde of excited, chattering ladies converging upon poor Ed. None of them looked a day under seventy. All of them had grey hair which had been painstakingly curled. A few had applied a pink or blue rinse, with one lady sporting a particularly fetching purple-grey ‘do.
Patricia continued. “Thank you, ladies. We know that a cord of three strands is not quickly broken! So we are here to do GOD’s will. We are here to choose a life partner for Ed.”
Jessica looked around the room. It seemed that she and Patricia were the only females under retirement age there. This surely must be a joke, although if it was, Ed wasn’t seeing the funny side. He was visibly sweating and shaking in his chair, but made no move to get up, or to leave the stage. Instead, he continued to knit, drops of sweat falling into the wool in his lap.
“So ladies! Now is your chance. Share your talents with GOD, and GOD just might share Ed with you! First up, I call Caroline! Caroline, what is your talent?”
The lady closest to Patricia stepped up to the mic. “Thank you Patricia so much for having me. Today I’m going to be playing for GOD- and for you, of course. I’m going to be playing the National Anthem using only my old knicker elastic!”
The crowd gave a polite round of applause. It seemed that musical underwear didn’t trump knitting, not on this stage anyway. Caroline reached down the front of her dress, smiling as she did so, and started wriggling. Surely she wasn’t going to dissect her knickers in front of the whole room? After a fierce struggle there was a snap. Something had clearly given way in her nether regions. Caroline waved a long, grey strip of fabric over her head triumphantly, before stretching it between her thumbs and blowing through it as one would into a trumpet. Jessica was pretty impressed by this, particularly as the tune was, indeed, recognisable as God Save the Queen. She was about to give her a good clap, but nobody else seemed to be applauding. Patricia was shaking her head and tutting audibly. It seemed that musical knickers did not meet with divine approval. Caroline was hastened off the stage and back to her seat.
The next lady was introduced as Marcy. Marcy did three perfect cartwheels, finishing up in the splits. This would have been impressive enough on its own, but the fact that these moves were executed without flashing anybody took the routine to another level. Patricia seemed to approve of this one, and Marcy was ushered to stage left to await further instruction. She seemed a little nervous, edging away from the tigers who had started to growl.
The next pair of competitors were pitted against each other to see who could say the most Hail Marys in one breath. The loser collapsed on the stage and was dragged off to the side by Ant. Jessica considered going on stage to help and make sure she was ok, but decided against it. After all, she had been officially relieved of her medical duties. The winner, who was clearly a favourite with Patricia and hence with the Almighty, took the spot next to Marcy.
The rest of the performances passed in a blur, with a tall, slender lady named Christabel selected as the third female potentially worthy of Ed’s attention. Ed himself, meanwhile, continued knitting furiously. His scarf had almost reached the edge of the stage. Unfortunately he looked to be running out of wool. As he clicked his way to the end of the ball, he looked visibly panicked at the prospect of not having anything to do with his hands. The tigers seemed to be paying close attention and their ears perked up as his hands slowed down. Luckily one of the ladies on stage had come prepared and immediately produced another ball from inside her bra. Ed forced a grin and carried on knitting, at which the tigers relaxed back to the floor.
Patricia took the mic once more. “May I present to you….GOD’s final three!” All of the animals on stage started making noises, tweeting and trumpeting and roaring and generally drowning out any sounds of human applause. As soon as Patricia lifted one finger they all fell deathly silent.
“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we will hear the finalists’ wedding songs.”
Ant sat down at the piano with a flourish.
Patricia scowled at him. “A cappella, of course. The lady with the most divine message of praise and love for the LORD will be bestowed upon Ed in holy matrimony. Marcy, you may start.”
Marcy made her way to the microphone, beaming. She clearly felt that she had this one in the bag. She sang in a low voice, rich in tone but wobblier than a three day old trifle.
“Oh LORD, deliberate
it’s more than I can take
Don’t leave it much too late
You can emancipate
The pair of grey wolves to her right cringed on hearing the stratospheric pitch of that last long note. Marcy’s lungs were clearly as impressive as her acrobatics. When she showed no sign of stopping, Patricia gestured to Ant who sidled over and removed the microphone from screaming distance, placing it in front of the Hail Mary specialist. The sheer number of prayers she had uttered appeared to have wiped her out. The poor woman had no voice at all. She croaked unintelligibly into the microphone, prompting a faint, sympathetic round of applause terminated by a brief shake of Patricia’s head.
“It looks like we have a winner!” Patricia continued before the third lady had opened her mouth. Congratulations Christabel! You and Ed shall be wed! All we need is a witness. Let me see, now.” Patricia inspected the writing on the screen for the first time, eyes alighting on the word BOLLOCKS. “Jessica! It looks like your number is up, my dear. Please come up to the stage.”
As Patricia uttered her name, Jessica felt her stomach drop to the floor. Ed’s expression made it plain that what was about to happen wasn’t going to be something she, or indeed anyone, would want to witness. The whole room turned around and stared at her pointedly, before the gentleman on her left gave her a hard shove out of her hammock. Walking slowly up to the stage, she gazed fixedly at the floor, trying to avoid looking any of the audience in the eye. On arriving, there did not appear to be any stairs. The stage itself was around shoulder height. She heard some whispering behind her and decided to pull herself up, ending up on her hands and knees just in front of Patricia. Patricia raised her eyebrows and looked meaningfully over to her right, where a flight of stairs was clearly visible. Jessica immediately felt like an idiot, crouching on the floor in her soiled and dirty clothing.
Ant hissed at her to come over to the side of stage. He pushed her behind a screen and handed her a large, white robe. Hastily she discarded her blood stained outfit, using the inside of the cloth to try to wipe the rest of the filth from her skin. The fingernails of her left hand were black with dirt. She wrapped the fabric around her fingers, making it into a tube, and gave her fingers a good rub. As she removed the material, a small object dropped to the floor. Bending down, she reached out to pick it up.
Just as she touched it she smelt that old familiar smell, the smell of decaying flesh, and saw to her horror that the object was her own fingernail. The end of her left index finger was a spongy, blackened mess. Gagging, she dropped it at once, falling backwards hard to sit on the floor. Scrambling backwards, she held her hand out as far from her as possible, as if to distance herself from it. She felt absolutely nothing in her arm. It was foreign to her. Gingerly, she examined it as she would another’s stricken limb. Her hand was already swelling, black streaks tracking up to her elbow.
“Get a breeze on! You’re on! Now!” Ant barked. Jessica felt faint and dizzy all at once. She knew she had to hide any sign that she was injured from these people. Holding up the white outfit with her good hand, she was pleased to see that it was voluminous and seemed to be designed to wind around her several times. She tore a strip from the cleanest part she could find of her old outfit and constructed a makeshift dressing for her finger, using several layers in the hope of stopping any dripping. It would not do to stain the white outfit. The end of the white material acted as a large belt, holding the outfit together. She draped the very end over her right hand and arranged it in front of her left. She hoped that it gave the impression that she was praying. Trying to maintain her composure, she emerged from behind the screen, and Ant immediately pushed her back out on to the stage.
Patricia gestured for her to step towards the mic. Looking out to the back of the hall for the first time, it seemed to have tripled in size. It was huge, and the people- the people were all staring at her, every single one. Her finger was now throbbing, burning, as if the infection was rushing into her bloodstream. All at once, the whole room started applauding. She felt a tingling sensation rush through her, gratification. Then she realised that everyone was looking up to the ceiling. Lifting her gaze, she realised that the birds were flying in the formation of a heart pierced by an arrow. Looking down, she saw one of the rejected ladies in the front row staring at her stony eyed. Caught in her gaze, she felt convinced that this woman wanted nothing less than to kill her and burn her corpse. She could see blood in her eyes. Blood and anger and disgust. Paralysed, she stood there in silence. A faint cough from her left hand side disturbed her and enabled her to break eye contact. She realised that everyone in the room was again looking at her. They seemed to expect her to say something, but she had absolutely no idea what. Patricia hissed. “Come on! We don’t have all day. We are gathered here today…”
Jessica cleared her throat. “We are gathered here today…to celebrate the marriage of Ed and….” What was her name?
“It doesn’t matter,” Patricia muttered at her.
“The marriage of Ed and his….bride….before the eyes of God.” Jessica had a brainwave. “Before they are proclaimed man and wife, I call upon all those present to pray in silence for five minutes so that Ed and his bride might have a joyous union. Amen.”
Immediately everyone bowed their heads and remained completely still. Jessica pretended to pray, which was not hard, as she felt that she might pass out at any moment. She sneaked a quick look towards the side of the stage to see if anyone was paying attention. No one seemed to be watching. They had all fallen into some sort of trance. A white flash caught her eye. Something was being waved to the left hand side of the stage. Squinting, she caught sight of it again. A small white piece of cloth popped out from behind a stack of props. She saw a pair of eyes emerging, peeking around the corner. She realised at once that it was Jeffrey, the drummer from the band. She found herself more than pleased to see him, and flashed him a genuine smile. He seemed to be trying to mime something, making biting gestures and then gesturing for her to come towards him. As soon as she moved he frantically shook his head to get her to stop. He held up a plastic bag containing what looked like fresh meat, and she immediately understood what he planned to do. He produced a penknife, slashed open the bag and threw its contents towards the back of the stage.
Immediate uproar ensued. The tigers stopped all pretence of being tame and dashed forward to grab the meat. Their bared teeth caused consternation among the rest of the wildlife, who started to stampede towards the back of the concert hall. Amid all the chaos, Jessica almost forgot herself and remained completely still. Jeffrey placed two fingers in his mouth and let out a piercing whistle which woke her from her reverie. She ran towards him just in time to avoid being flattened by an angry llama. He grabbed her hand and dragged her around the corner towards a small black door labelled “GREEN ROOM”. There was no handle on the door. Jessica looked frantically for another exit, but he had already reached upwards and prised it open with his fingernails, ushering her inside.
The green room was mainly occupied by a large, plush velvet sofa surrounded by shelves. Piles of books, old instruments and assorted bric a brac were rather precariously balanced on these shelves. Three hammocks draped loosely from one hook at the side of the room, two of them bearing suspicious looking brown stains. Jessica gratefully collapsed onto the sofa, and a stack of loose papers immediately fell from the shelf above onto her head. Lifting them, she saw that one side of each sheet was filled with rough geometric scribblings labelled with the occasional capital letter, while the reverse side contained the script for what appeared to be a sermon in large print. Ordinarily she was a fast reader, but tonight the words blurred before her eyes. Jeffrey did not appear to have noticed her predicament. He had been inspecting a small table filled with an assortment of drinks, some half eaten crisps and some mouldy grapes. He picked up a large bottle of wine, holding it up to the light.
“I don’t suppose you’ve got a corkscrew? Archie dropped ours at that dratted ceremony the other day. No? I suppose I’ll have to try my extra special, patented, open-any-bottle-of-booze technique. You’re going to love it. Check this out!”
Jeffrey lifted the bottle and started banging it against the wall, hard. The noise was giving Jessica a headache. After the twentieth blow, the cork popped right out and landed right in the middle of one of the vacant hammocks. “Bullseye!”, he crowed.
He leant back against the table, taking advantage of the whole available square foot of floor space to swig wine back from the bottle. “Poor old Ed. His boyfriend’s not going to like it. There’s just no stopping Patricia once she gets started. Know what I mean? Bit of a funny smell in here, isn’t there? Cleaners just aren’t what they used to be on this voyage, I tell you. It’s been nothing but downhill every month.” He looked at her as if seeing her for the first time.
“Blimey! You look like you’ve not eaten for a week. Fancy some crisps?” He offered her a rather battered bag of Mini Cheddars. Jessica realised that she was famished. She reached out for them unthinkingly with her left hand, letting the white fabric fall away. As she did so, she felt a sudden spasm in her finger, which seemed to have sucked all of the blood out of the rest of her body. She felt herself slipping away as her vision faded and she collapsed into darkness.
Written by Liza Bec
Artwork by Pushing Normal
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
© BMV RECORDS 2021