blackmail press 18
Laura Solomon
New Zealand

Laura Solomon Laura Solomon was born in New Zealand in 1974, and has lived in London since 1999. She has an honours degree in English Literature (Victoria University, NZ, 1997) and a Masters degree in Computer Science (University of London, 2003) and currently works as an IT consultant.  She has published two novels in New Zealand with Tandem Press: 'Black Light' (1996) and 'Nothing Lasting' (1997).  Her first play, 'The Dummy Bride', was produced as part of the Wellington Fringe Festival, and her second, based on her short story, 'Sprout', was part of the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Short stories published (or scheduled to be published) in the UK include: 'Sprout' (2004 Bridport International Short Story competition anthology), 'The Most Ordinary Man in the World' (2005 Bridport International Short Story competition anthology), ‘Alternative Medicine’, (Pretend Genius anthology 'New Short Stories 1'), 'Piano Lessons/War Stories', (Wasafiri, 2007) and 'The Killing Jar', (The Edinburgh Review, August 2007).  Her poem ‘The Latest Lighthouse Keeper’ was commended in the Ware Poets Competition, 2007.

She has published various other poems and short stories online and in various literary magazines. 

Ode To Mutt

Nobody, Laika, captured their imagination like you.
So many arrived before me, honouring you with their words, that I hardly know what to say.
They’re paying me, Laika, to make this speech.  I am employed. 
The ghost of you must be sick of it by now; the poems, the tales, the odd shrieking song –
The yapping of ten thousand dogs trapped in ten thousand kennels. 
So tedious to have become myth, when all you really want is silence, peace.
To quietly orbit the orbiting earth. 

And what of the other dogs, the ones they passed over, in favour of you?
The mutts that went on to lead full and happy lives;
Salivating, biting, yelping, humping the legs of humans and tables. 
Were they envious or grateful?  Did they want to take your place?
What did you have anyway, that made you so special?
Nothing.  You were doomed to immortality.  It was your fate.  You were the one.

It was as if a part of everybody had been sent into space with you. 
You carried our hopes for the future, for what could be achieved. 
They wanted to monitor your blood pressure, your heart rate, your breathing
To see how the rest of us would fare, if we followed in your path.
You were their experiment – they wired you up. 
They wanted to know how deeply you slept, and if you dreamed.  

You were a Jesus of a dog.  We all knew it.  Your harness was your cross.
So?  I can hear your shrug in your bark.  What about it? 

You were always nonchalant. 

There had been others before you; your comrades, Albina and Tsyganka - a few sacrificial mice. 
But they were merely suborbital.  You burst straight through to the other side
And saw, for a moment, it all; the diamond stars, the distant galaxies, so many glistening moons.  

The universe pulsed in your veins. 

Time stalled, spluttered, stopped. 

You were shot straight out of the cannon of history – fired into eternity. 

It was the sun that killed you, cooked you alive; fried your fur, charred your bones, scorched your skin.
Your eyeballs sizzled in your skull as your last bitter bark reverberated in space.
And seemed as if it might echo forever. 

The tender howl of betrayal. 

No-one knows how long you took to die – the Russians claimed, for years, it was a week
But now, it transpires, you were baked within hours. 

Could you tell us the exact time, let us know?

Laika, friend, enemy, are you out there somewhere -
Your skeleton still in orbit, your dream a universal dream? 

Only you know the truth and you are gone and can never tell. 

You have become metaphor.  Such is your wish. 

Still, the curious in our number cannot help but wonder -
If you were here now amongst us and given human voice
What would you have to say?  And who would listen?

The Misanthropic Magician

Christ, what do you want now – another bunny?
This old top hat has an endless supply,
Though most of these leporids do not leap anywhere,
Rather they flop, half-dead, to the floor.  Still you want more. 

Wait; it gets worse. 

My assistants always leave through the first exit door, claiming maltreatment, foul language, abuse;
Their outfits stay with me, are mine – the sparkling vests, the star-studded knickers, the ruby-coloured heels,
With these beneath my pillow I do sleep.  And never dream.

I keep their clothing; I forget their names.
My secret source of shame – some of these girls really were sawn in half,
By accident, though some claim by design.

In honour of their memory, well I’m pining all the time. 

Then there was that business with the water into wine.
“Cheap trick,” they said.  “These cups can be bought for £1.99 from any third-rate joke store.”
“You’re right,” said I.  “I’m a fake, I’m a fraud - a foul and filthy whore.”

You should know better yet you still want more.

There have been other girls, undone by blades,
By my knives that failed to fly true;
That stuck into faces and wrists and thighs –
Stuck deep in the heart of you. 

O, the scandal! 

I could’ve died.   

Instead, I fled – town to town, station to station;
They could never leave me be, always wanted information.
With my noontime squint, my midnight swagger,
My smashed wristwatch, the cloak, the dagger –
“Where did you come from?  Where will you go?”
It was nearly, but not quite, more than I could handle.

Infamy became my mantle.  I guess you could say it was a vanishing of sorts. 

But still, unsatisfied, you say you want more.

In the end, I sought refuge on the stage – like the girls, like the green rooms, they all seem the same;
The lights, too hot, too bright, the anonymous faces in the cheap seats, in the gods –
The invisible wall that separates you from me.  A divide. 

This hall could be anywhere; in a foreign city, or some strange town,
Or pinned way out on the rim of space.  Butterfly style.

From the rear of the hall I hear you call, “The universe must have its way.”
And I know that I could give you exactly what you need,
If only I wasn’t quite so hard of hearing,
A little more bullet-proof, a little more daring -
If I could only make this circle perfect,
And just for once,
Stop myself from disappearing. 

The Tiger Tamer’s Lament.

They told me that it would be easy.  They lied. 

To the interview I wore my best black suit, a veiled hat.
I sat with my feet pressed tightly together, hands folded in my lap.  Like a mourner at a funeral.

“Piece of cake,” they said.  “They’re pussycats, really.  Obedient, not wild.”  They smiled like crocodiles. 
“One flick of the whip and they sit.  They’ll perch on chairs if you crack the thing twice. 
If you want to make them dance with you, just snap your fingers thrice.”

They made it sound like a recipe.  Fail safe.  Idiot proof.  A miniscule risk, at most. 

First day on the job, I discovered that the guy employed before me had been brutally mauled. 
It was one of the acrobats who whispered it in my ear; she followed me into the ladies’ room and hissed,
He didn’t make it. He languished in hospital for three long weeks before giving up the ghost.

They’d thought for an instant that he might pull through, but more than bones had been broken.
More than blood had been lost. 

Beware, she said.  It’s unnatural.  To make such creatures pets.  There are ramifications.
And I wondered what she meant by that.

But for me there was to be no backing out.  I had signed the dotted line.
In my tight white suit, I stepped bravely into the ring.  It was only a rehearsal, but it felt like the real thing. 

A mother and her son faced me.  “Here kitty, kitty,” I called, sweet, soft and low. 
I eyed them and they eyed me.  Part of me was already waiting for the blow.

How to explain to these animals that ever since childhood this had been my dream?
To enter the ring and have them kneel, tuck their claws into their fur,
Cease, for a moment, their incessant snarling, lay their muzzles in my lap.  Purr.

But we did not understand one another, those tigers and I -
The gap between us was as unbridgeable as that between sea and sky. 
I didn’t speak their language, nor did they speak mine.  I was no Mabel Stark.
“Make sure you show ‘em who’s master,” the boss had said.  “Keep calm, don’t lose your head.” 

I cracked the whip.  Nothing.  I gave it another snap.  The mother pounced. 
The pain split my mind in two.  It’s true that I may have blacked out,
But in the instant before I fell to the floor I saw my own face reflected in that tiger’s golden eye.

That was the first occasion.  I recovered.  It took a while. 
“No more time for rehearsals,” the ring-master cried.  Suddenly the act was live.

I was determined not to lose.  I used my whip with abandon, I kept them at bay.
“Sit,” I yelled and they obeyed, though you could see the resentment, the anger, in their eyes.
It blazed like some kind of fire.  They did not prance.   

The third time I got them up onto chairs.  I felt quite victorious until a spectator yelled,
“It all comes to nothing if there’s no dance.  What kind of act is this? Get outta here man, quit taking the piss.”

And so we learned to waltz, not by choice but through necessity, a graceless two-four affair. 
The act lacked flair.  More a shuffle than a dance, though once I thought I heard somebody say,
That if you held your head that way, just right, and half-closed your eyes, and squinted into the light,
That when I waltzed with the son, you could almost imagine (had you half a mind to) that he and I were one.

Whichever way you look at it, we have reached an uneasy truce.  Each has marked the other - whip cuts hide;
I do not walk naked.  I wear long trousers, polo-neck sweaters, scarves. 
(You have to look beneath if you want to see the scars.)

In Vitro

My children are made by me, but borne by others.
The pain of childbirth holds no appeal; the screeching, the tearing, the blood,
The whole world drowned in amniotic fluid.  A flood.  
The subsequent stitches of brightly coloured thread.

How infinitely preferable to breed them in a petri dish,
Pinch of you, grain of me, eye of something-or-other – behold, the mighty zygote.
Nothing is left to chance, I plan it all according to the law that I was handed down.
Aim, Method, Results, Conclusion – a fourth form experiment of sorts.

You can call me clinical, I don’t care.  I don’t believe in accidents.  Fate is for fools.
My pristine white coat, my catheter of silicone, the blank white walls of the lab;
These instruments of creation are all I’ve ever known.

This is the way a world begins – manufactured in a room where there are no seasons.

There is not one mother, but many.  Fresh girls are a dime a dozen in this neck of the woods.
Where do they come from? I hear you ask.  Your steady little supply. 
Please, allow me to reply.  These girls are found all over. 
Some I discover out on the street, perched in doorways or gutters,
Some advertise in the local paper, ‘Womb For Rent’, in bold black type,
Some I kidnap in broad daylight or by the pale glare of the moon.  Slave trade. 

Some girls are cheaper than others.

One by one, they climb onto my table.  I plant those little lives. 

I monitor the mothers, pump them full of fish oils, vitamins, milk,
Snatch cigarettes from their mouths, take the vodka from their hands.
“Mind how you go,” I say.  “You girls need to be careful now.  Enough of your skylarking.”
I poke and prod and scan.  All goes according to plan. 

“A splendid diagnosis,” I solemnly declare, with voice pitched low to hide my fear.

Once the cells are implanted, I chart their progress, watch them grow.
I tend to them as you would to a garden, 
Count up the weeks in staggered steps, a rocket launch in reverse.
There are important milestones.  For instance -
Week six, when the hearts start up and the tadpole tails shrink.
The vanishing reminder of our amphibian roots.
Week seven, when they sprout spinal cords and brains.
A branching nervous system.  They are not yet old enough to feel pain. 
They will learn to tell the difference between dark and light
And at week thirty-nine they are ready for life.

They could be born at any time. 

When I am least prepared, they arrive,
A great rush - multiple mothers, multiple births,
In a gush the waters break –
An army of them, all up and down the hospital ward,
All lungs fill with air,
The shout goes out, a unanimous cry,
As myriad tiny eyes see daylight for the first time.

Somewhere, something shatters.  A pane. 
And so the future is born.

I give them no names.
I hawk them for profit, sell them on.
If you’re cunning you can make quite a mark-up.

I never said I wasn’t mercenary.

“How heartless,” you say, “how cut-throat, to give what was yours away.”
You’re oblivious to the fact that selling isn’t giving.
You don’t know where to draw the line. 

How can you say that what I do is wrong?
To whom do they belong? 
To no-one.  They were never mine.

Closing Time in the Pub at the End of the Mind

We are the dregs.  We are what’s left over when all the sane, the normal people,
The people who instinctively know
How to keep away the wolves,
Have gone home to their wives, their lives,
Their mortgages and their other illusions of safety. 

We have no nets.  Beer is our high wire; our tightrope. 

Drink up please.

See that one there, at the end of the bar
There’s a shadow that’s woven itself through all his days,
All his could have beens that never were,
There’s a darkness that’s woven itself
Into the very fabric of his being
There’s a hole where his soul should be
And nothing could ever fill it. 
He defines the word ‘insatiable’.
Don’t we all?

Drink up please. 

We are what’s left over.  Scraps of people, walking clichés,
Ordinary statistics in an ordinary world,  
The others feed on our misfortune.  It makes them feel better about their own lives,
To see us drowning in each pint of beer. 

Drink up please. 

Greatness dribbles away.  We let it leave.
It exits via the gaps in between our fingers
And we know better than to attempt
To clutch at it as it departs. 
You might as well clasp at empty air.

Maybe if we’d made it to Finishing School
We wouldn’t feel so unfinished.  Unmade, incomplete.
Somebody just had his pacemaker fitted.
Heart was beating irregular
But now he’s back in time, two-four,
And we’re all back under the table
Which is where he drank us to.

Well, we would say, hurry up,
But what is there anyway to hurry up for?
Nothing but it’s fine.

It’s dark outside but in here there’s light.

The captain bailed overboard decades ago,
But the ship sails blithely on.
Are there icebergs?  Is there ice?

Yes, we are the ones who forgot to think twice. 
I’ll only say this one more time.

Drink up please.

Who was it that turned water into wine?
Well, I never saw him
Don’t believe all that shit,
That gliding across the surface of things.

We sink.

We’re ten truck pile-ups on high speed motorways
We’re decades collapsing into days
We’re full of everybody else’s ways
We’re all the things that’ll never fit. 
We’re not really alive
We just resemble it a little bit. 

Drink up please.

We’re every book you never read
We’re fucked in the heart and we’re fucked in the head
We’re all the things that are left unsaid
We may as well be the living dead
O yea we’re doing fine. 

We’re what’ll be left at the end of time
We’re staccato rhythm and a corny rhyme.
We’re all the things you’d never want to find.

Closing time in the pub at the end of the mind.