The Historical Fiction Reading Challenge – Victorian Reader

I’ve read five historical fiction books so far this year, which means I’ve reached the “Victorian Reader” level of the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. The three that I’ve read since my last reading challenge post are…

The Moth Diaries by Rachel Klein

Yes, it’s a YA horror novel, but it also counts as historical fiction since it was published in 2002 and it’s set in the early 1970s (judging by the references to the Vietnam war, bell bottoms, and Cat Stevens).

If you start this novel expecting a sapphic Twilight, you’ll be in for a surprise. It’s more like The Bell Jar with a supernatural twist. It takes a deep-dive into the mind of an intelligent, troubled girl, and explores her obsession with a classmate whom she suspects of being a vampire.

It’s intense, thoughtful, occasionally over-intellectual, and it wholeheartedly embraces ambiguity. Is Ernessa really a vampire? Is the narrator having a nervous breakdown? Is she in love with her best friend? Every question is thoroughly explored, but never truly answered, in the claustrophobic atmosphere of a girls’ boarding school.

So Many Beginnings by Bethany C. Morrow

This “remix” of Little Women (Authors are always remixing and retelling and reimagining, and never admit that they are literally publishing fanfiction) imagines the March sisters as four newly emancipated Black girls in the colony of Roanoke, North Carolina. The civil war is raging around them, and they are determined to build lives of their own making.

Being a white girl from Britain, I’m pretty clueless about African American history, and this was an eye-opener for sure. Racism and the after-effects of slavery impact every aspect of the girls’ lives, from Bethlehem’s health to Joanna’s writing career. This makes for a very different story to Little Women, as the “burdens” the girls carry are external rather than internal.

It’s not a perfect book. The male characters are thinly drawn, and a few inevitable anachronisms creep in. But it’s full of love and rage, and a true celebration of sisterhood. Two more things I loved:

1. Joanna’s portrayal as asexual/aromantic. These words aren’t used of course, but it’s made clear in conversation with Meg and in her relationship with Lori. As an aro-ace woman I usually have to seek out representation, but to find it right there waiting for me in a character I’ve always identified with felt like a gift.

2. The last line. OMG, you’re gonna cry (happy tears).

All Among the Barley by Melissa Harrison

Told from the perspective of fourteen-year-old Edie, this starts out as an evocative, unsentimental picture of life in rural England in the 1930s. It’s also a comedy of manners, with city slicker Connie being entertainingly clueless about the realities of rural life.

But about halfway through it becomes something different and more unsettling. People who seemed harmless are suddenly a genuine threat. Quaint traditions like witch bottles take on a new significance.

Maybe it’s just because I read the two close together, but I couldn’t help but notice similarities with The Moth Diaries. Once again, the protagonist is a thoughtful teenage girl of ambiguous sexuality and wobbly mental health. Once again, the lines between natural and supernatural blur. And once again, antisemitism rears its ugly head.

So, quite by accident I’ve ended up reading three female-focussed coming-of-age stories. I feel like I should balance it out with some stories about old dudes. If you have any historical fiction recs where the protagonist is an elderly gent, please leave them in the comments!

My Short Story ‘VOCSS’ and Finally Embracing the Horror Genre

My short story VOCSS (Yes, I know it’s a shit title. It’s an acronym.) is now published in Electric Spec and you can read it here. I’m not sure if horror stories are supposed to have trigger warnings, but I know a lot of people struggle with themes of domestic violence. If you’re one of these people, take care with this story.

I won’t say too much about the plot, but I will say that Tyler is a troubled and complicated kid, his dad is a bad bastard (and possibly a vampire) and Beverly is out of her depth!

I’ve been pussyfooting around the horror genre for years. Way back in 2015, I joined a writers’ group and wanted to make a good first impression. So of course I introduced myself by reading one of my creepy poems, full of gruesome imagery. Another member of the group asked if I ever wrote horror, and I was rather taken aback. A creepy poem was one thing, but horror? I’d never even watched a single Saw movie!

In retrospect, I had a pretty narrow idea of what horror is, and I suspect this is true of many readers. Seven years and an anxiety disorder later, and I’m ready to write about fear. I want to explore where it comes from and how it affects us, and of course I want to write about ghosts and ghoulies and things that go bump in the night. VOCSS is my first attempt – I hope it scares you a little!

Goons – Chapter 21

Afterwards

We bury her in the Severn Estuary, under a starless sky. It’s not a fancy funeral, or even a funeral at all, really. I wear black, but I always wear black when I’m working. Bossman does most of the digging, and even in the darkness I can see sweat running down his face and soaking through his shirt. Em doesn’t dig at all, since her wound is still healing.

Patty’s remains are a liquid slop, contained in a thick plastic bag and tied with a cable tie. I pick her up and drop her in the hole. Bossman shovels mud over her, grim-faced and silent. He seems different, which makes sense, I suppose. To create something, and then have that something try to kill you because it thinks you’re a danger to the world, must be difficult to deal with. When Patty is all covered up, Bossman leans on his spade, breathing heavily, and says, “I’ve been re-evaluating things.”

#

Airports stress me out. Maybe that explains the tight, bunched-up feeling in my stomach, like I’m a dad sending his kid off to university. The kid in question is 30, and failing at taking over the world, so I should probably be glad to be rid of him. In ten hours, he will be America’s problem.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea, having the meeting scheduled for tomorrow?” says Em. “You’ll be jetlagged.”

“Nah, I’ll be fine. And these guys are pretty serious about the wound filler with the time release antimicrobial. They want it for the military, so…” he rubs his thumb and fingertips together, meaning there is money to be made.

This is Bossman’s idea of a sabbatical. He has put his plans for world domination on ice, and is experimenting with the radical idea of letting other people use his inventions. He looks up at me and says “Remember to shred all the files. Like, literally everything. We need a fresh start when I get back.”

I nod. “Remember to eat properly. Three meals a day.”

“Yeah, I know.”

There is an awkward pause, and then a slightly less awkward hug. Em joins in, and Bossman disappears for a moment between us.

On the way back from the airport, I drop Em off at Gillian’s house. She says, “See you soon” and I say it back, and we both know that we will be seeing each other in a purely social capacity from now on. By the time Bossman gets back from the States, Em will have retired to the countryside and be properly settled, with horses and dogs and roses round the door. It’s a nice image.

I go back to Bossman’s place and let myself in. At first it feels strange to be the only one there, rattling around like a divorced empty nester. I go to the office and sit at Bossman’s desk, spinning around a few times in his chair. Then I find a classic rock playlist on my phone, and start the process of tidying up.

The crazy wall is the obvious place to start. I tear down Bossman’s plans and scatter them on the floor. Then I fetch the shredder from a cupboard and start shredding, piece by piece. File by file. It’s a nostalgic process.

At some point, the insistent whine of the shredder falls silent, because I have stopped shredding and started reading. I’m pleased with how much of this stuff I understand. I’m tickled at how ridiculous it all is. I laugh, and the laughter comes out sounding like a Bond villain.

Something dirty-pink and slow-moving creeps around the edge of the doorframe. Igor.

“Still here, mate?” I say. Igor, obviously, does not respond. “Yeah, me too. Come and keep me company.”

I sit on the floor, with Igor on my lap, stroking him like a cat. I read files without shredding them. At 2am, I am still reading.

***

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed Goons, check out the ‘Published Work’ section of my blog. It has everything from urban fantasy to YA contemporary, because I can’t commit to a genre.

Goons – Chapter 20

22 years until (failed) takeover

Dad read a lot of history books. Military history, and some stuff about ships. I remember him reading a biography of Napoleon, stretched out on the settee with his legs dangling clumsily over the arm. It might have been the year I got taller than him.

“You ought to read this,” he said, without looking up from the page. “Help you with your History GCSE.”

“We’re not doing Napoleon.”

“More’s the pity. Interesting bloke.”

“He was the short one, right?”

Dad finally looked up, and gave me a withering glare. “The short one? Almost done with school and all you know about Napoleon is that he was a short arse? And he was only slightly shorter than average for the time, anyway.”

“I just said we don’t study him.”

“You ought to. He basically ruled Europe. Won a bunch of wars, abolished feudalism, totally reshaped the world.

“Sounds exhausting.”

Dad blew air out through his nose, to show he disapproved of my lack of enthusiasm. But when he turned back to the book, he shook his head a little and said, “Hmph. All things considered, I think I’d rather go fishing.”

“You’d rather go fishing than rule the world?”

“Yep.”

Goons – Chapter 19

Still takeover day

Underneath many, many layers of craziness, Bossman is essentially a biologist. He can look at a person and see them as a collection of blood vessels, bones and organs, arranged together in a way that works smoothly and seamlessly. If things aren’t working smoothly and seamlessly, he can understand the flaws in the system, easy as breathing. I really fucking hope he is looking at Em in this way. I have a horrible feeling he is looking at her as an actual person.

While he tends to her wound, I get up and go to the wall with the CCTV screens. I’m half-expecting to see all of Bossman’s creations crowded outside the panic room door, like a gang of rooks in a field. Instead, there is just one. An S-type bot, standing sentry. I scan the screens, looking for Patty.

A flicker of movement in the laboratory. Patty is carrying something – a large, brown glass bottle. I can’t see the writing on the label, but I can see the blue logo for Spectrum Chemicals. There is only one chemical we get from Spectrum: Potassium cyanide.

I watch, baffled, as she puts the bottle down next to the wall. Then she waddles towards the cabinet where we keep the acids. It takes me way too long to notice that the bottle of potassium cyanide is right next to the air vent grille. It takes me even longer to notice the screwdriver. I waste precious moments figuring it all out with my stupidly average brain. Whatever chemicals she is collecting, she is going to unscrew the air vent grille and take them inside the walls. I turn to Bossman, who is still tending to Em’s wound. He doesn’t look up when I speak.

“What happens when you mix potassium cyanide with acid?”

“Sulphuric acid?”

“I don’t know. Any acid.”

“Potassium cyanide and sulphuric acid react to produce hydrogen cyanide. It’s the shit they use in gas chambers.”

“Jesus fucking Christ, we have to get out, we have to get out of here!”

Bossman finally looks at me. His face is as pale as I’ve ever seen it. His latex gloves are covered in gore.

“What? Why? We can’t move her.” He gestures frantically at Em. “I’m still treating the wound, I have to-”

“It’s Patty. She’s going to bring those chemicals into the vents and she’s going to turn this room into a fucking gas chamber!” I point at the air inlet on the ceiling, imagining curls of toxic smoke flowing out of it.

“Fuck. I should… I should talk to her. It. It’s me she wants to kill.”

He rises up onto his knees and a roll of bandages falls off his lap and rolls across the floor.

“Sit your arse down,” I say, surprising myself. I have never spoken to Bossman this way. Em has, occasionally. “You are not leaving her side, you hear me? You treat the wound. You keep her safe. I’ll deal with Patty.”

Bossman says nothing and nods, once. He looks very young. I turn to leave, moving quickly.

Outside the panic room, the S-type bot is waiting for me. I have no time for a fight so I just charge at it, knocking it down by virtue of being bigger and more afraid than it is. I step on its torso as I struggle to my feet and it grabs at my ankle, but I wrench myself free and stamp down on its head as hard as I can. There is a wet, crunching sound, like a mouthful of teeth being broken all at once. I sprint towards the lab.     

As I’m running, I feel woefully unprepared for the task of convincing a xenobot not to poison my boss and my best friend. Bossman figures out how to do things, and I do as he says – that’s the way it works. This is so far beyond my capabilities, I feel like laughing and crying.

I find Patty in front of the air vent grille, industriously unscrewing the bolts that keep it in place, and feel a bit calmer. Regardless of what is going on with Patty, she is small and soft.

“Patty,” I begin, but am interrupted by the grille falling to the floor with a clang. Patty dodges it, and turns her blank, pinkish-green form towards me.

“YES?”

“Patty, come away from the vent.”

“NO.”

“I know what you’re trying to do, and it’s not going to happen. You’re not killing the boss.”

“I MUST.”

“Why?”

The word slips out before I can stop it. The last thing I need is to get into a debate.

“HE WANTS

TO RULE THE WORLD”

Lead the world, not-”

“AND HE IS UNFIT

TO DO SO.

I SUSPECT

ANY HUMAN WOULD BE

BUT HE IS A

PARTICULARLY

BAD CHOICE.”

I think of all the times Patty has been there when Bossman was at his worst. Throwing a temper tantrum, talking down to me or Em, wanting to bulldoze any minor inconvenience whether it’s a person or a law of physics.

“You’re right.” Patty curls an upper limb around the bottle of sulphuric acid. “But you don’t have to kill him, I’ll … I’ll stop him.”

“HOW?”

“I’ll talk to him.”

“THAT WON’T WORK.”

“Then I’ll stop him some other way. Fucksake, I’m twice the size of him. I’ll lock him in an attic or something.”

“YOU WON’T.”

“I will.”

Patty curls another limb around the bottle of potassium cyanide. “YOU WON’T.”

I don’t know what else to say. Fear, frustration, the mental image of Em’s bullet wound – it is all dulling my brain, which wasn’t that sharp to begin with.

“I will fucking stop him,” I insist. “Why don’t you believe me?”

“BECAUSE HE

IS YOUR”

“He’s not my boss anymore, I fucking quit.”

“FAMILY.”

With that, Patty slides up into the air vent, quick as a weasel, taking the sulphuric acid and the potassium cyanide with her. I shove an arm into the vent but she is already out of reach. I press myself up against the wall, and when I am in up to my shoulder I manage to grab a squishy handful. She is something between dough and jelly, slipping through my fingers. But if I lose her, Em and Bossman are dead, so this is not an option. I dig my fingertips in and tug. After a moment’s stalemate, there is a sticky sound like a plaster being peeled off skin, and everything comes tumbling down the air vent.

The bottle of sulphuric acid smashes on its way out. A splash of acid hits my cheek and burns. The vapour hits my nose like a punch. I cry out, but the cry is cut short because Patty is on my face.

She has flattened her body against me like a sheet of putty, and this is so unexpected that it takes me a moment to realise she is trying to kill me. She is trying to save the world from Bossman, and I work for Bossman, and this means I have to die.

I feel her wrapping around the back of my head. I feel her blocking my nostrils. I feel how little air there is in my lungs.

Maybe it’s no more than ten seconds that I spend staggering around, blind and breathless and desperately trying to tear Patty away, but it feels like longer. Definitely long enough to regret every single one of my life choices.

But then my mouth is free and I take in a breath big enough to burst my lungs. I pull Patty away from my acid-burned face and fling her across the lab. She lands in the autoclave chamber and the metal echoes as she hits it, rumbling like a thunderstorm. It is suddenly very obvious what needs to be done.

I am at the autoclave in two strides. I wrench the bolt from the door and let it slam down, the way it slammed down onto my fingers two years ago. I punch the big, green button and hear it spring into action, heating up and sucking the air out. There is one muffled thud – Patty hurling herself against the door – and then nothing.

My legs buckle. My acid-splashed face still burns. Em is still in mortal danger. I think I just destroyed a very small, very young thing that was only trying to save the world.

Goons – Chapter 18

Little bit of gore in this chapter.

***

Takeover day

For most of the bots, this will be their first time outside. Getting them neatly lined up and ready to go ought to run as smooth as clockwork, but it feels more like organising a family of twenty children, or a school trip. Perhaps this is just due to Bossman, who is highly stressed – fingers tapping away on his thigh – and keeps shouting things like “Where the fuck is S-17?” and “You, you’re supposed to be over there! Go stand between S-2 and S-4.” Em is still quiet, and there are shadows around her eyes as if she didn’t sleep last night.

Bossman turns to me and says “Seriously, where’s S-17? We have to go now, we can’t fuck about here.”

“Just breathe,” I say, even though he hates being told to breathe. He would probably stop breathing out of spite if it were physically possible. “We’re on schedule. Look, here he is.”

S-17, aka Bill, finally makes an appearance, stalking towards us with that gentle, hissing noise that his joints make when his limbs are in motion. Patty, for some reason, has hitched a ride on his shoulder, and the contrast between the two bots is almost comical – a rounded, squishy thing on a sleek, black robot. Like a toddler on a squaddie’s shoulders.  

“Get down from there,” Bossman snaps at Patty.

Dark brown words appear on her body in response.

“I’M SORRY

BUT I NEED

TO STOP YOU.”

I don’t understand what Patty does next. I hadn’t noticed her watching Bossman, listening to his plans for the world, counting his inadequacies and coming to her own conclusions. I didn’t know she was capable of any of that. So when Bill raises his hand, I think he is malfunctioning rather than being controlled by Patty.

I also don’t understand what Em does next. I knew she’d been a bodyguard, before working for Bossman. I knew she’d provided much-needed protection for everyone from MPs to foreign diplomats to some radical feminist who wrote a book that annoyed everyone. But I didn’t understand the intensity of her training, or how certain things were hardwired into her nerves and muscles. So when the barrel emerges from Bill’s hand and the bullet shoots quietly from the barrel, I am not expecting her to intercept it.

Her body jerks, arms wide like a dancer, or someone wanting a hug. The primitive part of my brain, which has always been the most reliable part, snaps into action before she hits the floor. I dart sideways at Bill, tackling him to the ground. Patty falls from his shoulder and tumbles across the floor, rolling like a football until she hits a wall. I pin Bill beneath me, holding his outstretched arm and checking that his hand – with the gun still engaged – can’t shoot anything but the ceiling.

“Em!” Behind me, Bossman’s voice sounds ragged with fear. “Em, can you hear me?”

Bill’s body lurches under me and I flatten myself against him, pressing my weight down desperately. A quick glance to my left shows Patty, climbing the wall she just hit with more speed than I knew she had.

“She’s hurt, Jay, she’s hurt badly. Oh Jesus.”

“Get her out of here.”

Still holding Bill’s arm with my right hand, I bring my left up to the join between his head and torso. I look down into his smooth, plastic, eyeless face.

“Be still,” I tell him, voice as clear as I can make it. It makes no difference.

His free arm strikes me in the side, catching my ribs and sending me sprawling. There is a mad scramble, and by the time Bossman yells “The front door won’t open! We’re locked down, we’re trapped!” I can’t answer because one of Bill’s hands is covering the lower half of my face while the other aims blows at my liver.

“I’m taking her to the panic room,” Bossman calls. I bring my arm up sharply and twist my hips, freeing myself from Bill’s grasp but catching a blow squarely in the back during the process. I catch a glimpse of Bossman, with Em’s arm around his skinny shoulders as she limps towards the panic room. There’s no visible blood – Em’s suit jacket is too dark to show it clearly – but she looks broken.

By the time I am on top of Bill and have control of his arms, anger is blazing inside me, burning away any lingering haze of shock and fear. I pull Bill’s shoulders up towards me then slam them down so that his sturdy plastic head bounces against the floor. This is the part where the organic processor (Brain. Sort of.) is, and the part I need to destroy.

I am not angry at him. Patty has clearly re-programmed him to attack us.

I slam his head against the floor again, and this time there is a cracking noise.

I am, surprisingly, not angry at Patty. Why wouldn’t she try to kill Bossman? Doubtless there are plenty of people who want to kill him, and it’s only human laws and morals and feelings stopping them.

Another collision of head and floor. A shard of black plastic comes loose.

This is all Bossman’s fault. His stupid fucking plans and his ridiculous creations have all lead to my best friend being shot, perhaps fatally. If he refers to this as “collateral damage” I will murder him.

I picture Bossman’s face in Bill’s featureless head, and slam it against the floor with all the strength I have. It smashes like an egg, and a dark fluid leaks out. Flakes of grey-brown matter swim in the liquid. Brains and oil.

When I am certain that Bill is now completely harmless, I stand up and turn a slow circle, looking for Patty. I can’t see her anywhere, and I can’t look for her effectively with the mental image of Em – her tall, strong body hunched over like an old woman’s – being dragged towards the panic room.

When I pound on the door, it takes far too long for Bossman to let me in. When he finally opens the door I push past him, almost knocking him over. Em is lying on the floor. Her jacket has been discarded and her shirt opened. There is a wound, the size and colour of a rose, in her abdomen. Blood oozes from it, pooling in her naval, dripping onto the floor. My own blood sinks into my feet and I go dizzy, dropping to my knees beside her.

“It’s the exit wound,” says Bossman, kneeling down beside me. “The bullet went straight through.

Em’s face is bone-white, and her eyes are wide. When she speaks, she sounds like someone trapped in a snowstorm. The words come shivering between teeth that clack together on every other word.

“You b-better give me a really f-f-fucking expensive f-funeral. Like … Alexander the Great’s b-b-boyfriend kind of expensive.”

“You’re not dying,” Bossman says, in a tone that suggests he will sack her if she disobeys him. He scrambles away from Em’s side, and I take her hand. It is clammy, and her fingers don’t curl around mine, even a little. Bossman returns, and kneels the other side of Em’s body, with a green box that I vaguely register as a first aid kit. I don’t notice what he is doing, because I am watching Em fade out of consciousness. I say her name, again and again, like a mantra. Like an idiot. She can’t hear me.

Bossman pulls on a pair of latex gloves, then takes something out of the first aid kit that looks like a cross between a syringe and a tube of sealant. He opens a pack of alcohol wipes and cleans the worst of the blood from Em’s belly. More of it wells up to replace the blood that he wipes away, but he works quickly. Then he presses the tip of the syringe/sealant tube thing into Em’s wound, and a bunch of cream-coloured paste comes out.

“What’s that?” I ask, alarmed.

“Don’t worry, it’s sterile.”

“But what is it?”

“A non-adherent wound filler with a time-release antimicrobial. My own formulation.”

I have no fucking clue what that means. I try to check Em’s pulse, but my fingertips are clumsy and slick with sweat. “If she dies, I’ll kill you,” I say, and I’m pretty sure I mean it. My voice sounds weirdly calm.

“Shut up and let me concentrate,” says Bossman. He sounds like he is on the verge of tears. I shut up and let him concentrate, because what choice do I have?

Goons – Chapter 17

1 day until takeover

Tomorrow is the big day. We will drive to BBC studios, along with several of the S-type bots, and we will do whatever we need to do to ensure Bossman is able to interrupt Countryfile and say his piece to the nation. The bots are in perfect condition. We have investigated BBC studios security and rehearsed various different scenarios. Bossman has practiced his speech a hundred times. We are as ready as we’ll ever be.

The three of us go out to dinner, which is something we’ve never done before. It’s a cosy, nondescript restaurant with good food, and all around us people are enjoying date night or catching up with friends. There is a mildly rowdy birthday party at a large table in the corner. Me, Em and Bossman are just another small celebration.

Bossman, despite having an IQ of 224, can’t quite wrap his mind around spaghetti, and gets a substantial amount of bolognaise sauce on his tee-shirt. I choose lasagne with a side of garlic bread, because I feel like I ought to be carb loading. Em eats steak and chips, and she eats it like a wolf.  

When we’re done eating, Bossman raises his glass and says “I just wanted to say thank you to you both.” He looks lost for a moment, and then adds “Thank you.”

“Wow. I hope tomorrow’s speech is more impressive than that,” I say, and Bossman grimaces.

“I’m not good at this stuff.” This is the first time I have ever heard him admit to not being good at something. “But I appreciate you both very much, seriously.”

I don’t know how to respond to this, so I raise my glass and say “Cheers.”

Bossman clinks his glass against mine, smiling and maybe looking a bit pink in the face. Then I touch glasses with Em, who doesn’t look at me.

“Em, if you don’t make eye contact you get seven years of bad sex!”

“I doubt it,” she says, and drinks deeply.

She has been quiet all evening, eyes focussed mainly on her plate. I thought she was just hungry, but now I’m beginning to suspect something is wrong. For the first time in ages, I remember that conversation we had shortly after I started working for Bossman, about how she thinks the TV broadcast is when everything will go tits up. About how she doesn’t plan on being around to watch it go tits-up. It’s the night before, and she is still here. If she hasn’t changed her mind, she is running out of time.

#

Sleep doesn’t come easily. I keep thinking about a conversation I had with my dad, not long before he died. It was after he sold the farm, and I visited him in his poky little flat and we drank beer and ate mini scotch eggs. David Bowie had died, and Dad couldn’t understand why everyone was making such a fuss about this.

“If I hear the word influential one more time,” he said, popping a scotch egg in his mouth and leaving me to wonder what exactly would happen if he heard the word influential one more time.

“But he was, though, wasn’t he? The whole glam rock thing, and androgynous fashion, and all sorts.”

“Pop songs and haircuts. Don’t get me wrong, I like some of his stuff. Starman, Space Oddity. But he didn’t change the world, he wasn’t bloody … Napoleon.”

Goons – Chapter 16

19 days until takeover

It’s late, and Bristol is lit up in the darkness. I look out of the window and see people milling around, far below me. I see colourful dresses and colourful hair, muted in the darkness. I see a bloke dressed as a baby – nappy, bib, bonnet, the works – who is possibly part of a stag do or possibly just living his best life. The windows are sealed in the lab, but I imagine the smell of Caribbean cooking wafting up into the night. 

I wonder what the city will look like, after Bossman addresses the nation. Knowing Bristol as I do, it’s hard to imagine it being any different. But knowing Bossman as I do, it’s hard to imagine it being the same.

“Fucking piece of junk.” Bossman pounds his fist on the control panel of the autoclave. He’s been tense all day, and has drunk four cans of Relentless.

“Is the door stuck again?” I ask, keeping my voice calm and even.

His response to this question is to pick up a large spanner from the bench, and attack the autoclave with it. The clang of metal on metal reverberates throughout the lab. The autoclave cost a quarter of a million pounds, and it is only a matter of time before Bossman fucks up the control panel beyond repair. I turn to look at Em, who is gloved up to the armpits, feeding Patty in the isolator. She shrugs, and I sigh.

Carefully dodging the spanner, I grab Bossman’s arm and intercept his attack on the autoclave. He’s not happy with this and I have to restrain him. I manage to get an arm around him, but he thrashes about like a landed fish, if a fish were made entirely of knees and elbows and was holding a spanner.

At this point – with Bossman properly restrained, but turning the air blue and still refusing to drop the spanner – I have a moment of what can only be described as profound job satisfaction. Nobody can do this job like I can. Other people would let him go to town on a very expensive autoclave, or get whacked with the spanner while trying to grab it, or hurt him, or hurt themselves. Whatever the hell this is, I’m good at it.

I feel very calm. Secure in the knowledge that I am earning my front row seat. I am earning my place in the history books.  

Goons – Chapter 15

Three years and nine months until takeover

“So…” Em took a swig of her cider, and gave me a searching kind of look. “How’s it going, so far?”

It was our first time meeting up outside work since I started the job. Em looked different in jeans and trainers. Softer, maybe, but only a little bit. We sat in a booth, with enough privacy and enough background noise to talk openly, albeit quietly.

“Okay, I think.”

Everything I’d seen and heard and done in the past month hung in the air between us. I drank half my pint of Carling in one go, then put down the glass and said “So Bossman literally wants to take over the world.”

“That’s right.”

“That’s mad.”

“Correct.”

I shook my head in bemusement. “D’you think it’ll actually work?”

“No. There’s never been a king of the world, even when the world was only a few cavemen. And now it’s billions of people.”

“Some people have come close though, like ruled huge empires.”

She shrugged, as if she were not overly concerned by these people. I was beginning to realise that she rarely wasted words.

“What do you think is gonna happen then? Will he get bored, and like … decide to do something else? Or will it all go tits up?”

“Definitely tits up.”

“How?”

Em muttered “Hell’s teeth,” which she had done on two previous occasions when I asked too many questions. She seemed to give this one some serious thought, though. Her forehead furrowed like a ploughed field. “TV broadcast,” she said. “It could go tits up at any point, but if I were a betting woman, I’d put my money on the TV broadcast. Y’know, when he’s going to interrupt the news and address the nation and all that.”

“You don’t think it’ll work?”

“He’ll get past security. He’ll get his fifteen minutes of fame. But he’ll end up in a secure psychiatric unit.”

“And what about us? Where are we gonna end up?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna end up buying a nice bit of land in the middle of nowhere and keeping horses.”

So Em wasn’t in it for the long haul. She had an escape plan. Before I could ask her for any details, she said “What would you change, if you ruled the world?”

“I dunno. I s’pose I’d just make everything bigger.”

When I went to bed that night, I gave the question some more thought but couldn’t decide on anything else to change. I didn’t really understand economics or politics, and the environment seemed fucked whichever way I looked at it. So the only thing I was sure of was that I would make everything more suited to people my size. Door frames would be higher. Cars would be roomier. I would re-shape the world to fit me.

I began to wonder if this was basically what Bossman was trying to do. His brain worked differently to most people’s brains, that much was obvious. Maybe he was trying to change the world so it would finally make sense to him. Not such a weird thing to do, really. Probably lots of people try to do exactly that, and it was only Bossman’s past – some odd combination of privilege and power and bone-deep loneliness – that made him think the most obvious way to change the world was to rule it.

Goons – Chapter 14

67 days until takeover

Em and Bossman are arguing. This is something they do a lot. Bossman is always eager to start an argument with Em because sometimes she’s less careful than I am. She does crazy stuff like saying things without fact-checking them, or expressing opinions. And Bossman, who has an entire Wikipedia inside his head, loves nothing more than explaining to people how and why they are incorrect. Not that Em is exactly a victim here. She’s a stubborn old goat, who knows that Bossman will abandon an argument in frustration if she sticks doggedly to her point and finds ways of making his points seem irrelevant or trivial. It’s fun to watch.

This one is not the most ridiculous argument they’ve ever had, but it’s probably in the top five. They are furiously debating whether two blokes from ancient Greece (Alexander the Great and some guy whose name I can’t pronounce) were bumming each other.

“I’m so sick of men straightwashing history, just because they like to think that everyone who’s ever done anything important must’ve been a straight white male,” Em spits. “Alexander the Great was bi as hell, and Hephaestion was clearly his boyfriend.”

“You’re complaining about people altering history when you’re doing that yourself! You’re shoehorning someone who lived thousands of years ago into a twenty-first century idea of sexual orientation.”

“It’s not shoehorning to call someone who was attracted to men and women bisexual.”

“You have no evidence he was attracted to Hephaestion.”

“He gave the guy a funeral that cost the equivalent of 240 million dollars.” Em is grinning triumphantly now, because she’s invaded Bossman’s territory – the territory of obscure historical facts. “That’s something you do for the love of your life, not just some guy you work with.”

Bossman pinches the bridge of his nose in exasperation.

“I know you lot want to turn all of human endeavour into a Harlequin romance-”

“Oi, less of the you lot.”

“I don’t mean lesbians, I mean women,” he snaps, as if that’s any better. “But men are capable of doing great things for people they have no desire to fuck. Maybe women are different, but men have sacrificed their lives for each other and thrown very expensive funerals out of respect, loyalty, and brotherhood.”

He glances at me, as if he’s expecting back-up. This is not exactly what comes out of my mouth.

“Would you throw me a 240 million dollar funeral?”

Em smirks. Bossman scowls.

“What? I’m on your side, I reckon it could’ve been platonic. I’m just asking, would you throw me a 240 million dollar funeral if I died?”

You are no Hephaestion,” says Bossman, and storms off.