Thursday 30 January 2020

The Church of Despair

by Nick Gisburne

We carried the corpse to the Sinister Sea
And we rowed to the Isle of the Dead
We wept in the shade of the Misery Tree
Where a sorrowful sermon was read

The Rock of Illusion, the Church of Despair
Towered over the mist and the trees
The Brothers of Infamy beckoned us there
And in silence we fell to our knees

They murmured a mystery, words within words
Subtle whispers, each softer than sighs
They summoned the omens, the revenant birds
Swirling ravens, and rooks, and magpies

The least of the Brothers struck iron to wood
Hammered hard on a hideous door
A second, a third, then in silence he stood
Till within, from the shadows, a roar

A bellow of anger, of hunger, of rage
But a measure of anguish and pain
A monster, a beast from a Stygian age
Was it evil, or driven insane?

Approaching the threshold, we tasted its breath
As it snorted and sullied the air
We laid out the body, an offer of death
From a credo of grief and despair

The Brothers of Infamy called to the skies
With a resonant chorus of song
The spiralling birds with their murderous cries
Now a menacing, dangerous throng

With madness upon him, the elder, the priest
Threw the barricade beam from the door
It silenced the Brothers, the birds and the beast
Then, the sickening scrape of a claw

It tested the timbers of powerful oak
And it measured long hinges of steel
Perhaps something human inside it awoke
Was it rational? What did it feel?

The door, groaning, heavy, swung open and wide
Till our hearts begged our bodies to run
When it came, from the darkness, from somewhere inside
All our senses unravelled, undone

What heavenly being, what angel so pure
What illusion, what splendour was this?
He walked with a soft and seductive allure
And a shimmering, radiant bliss

His nakedness, humble, untainted with shame
Was a beacon of beauty and light
No sign of the creature, the beast without name
Only innocence entered our sight

He knelt down in reverence, mourning the dead
And a tear passed away on his face
He lifted the body, caressing the head
Not with fingers; now claws took their place

The light in his eyes burned with crimson and jet
Muscles swollen, necrotic and grey
The virtuous smile now a grimacing threat
As he howled with a cry of dismay

He turned to the doorway, but staggered and fell
As his shoulders ripped crudely apart
Dark wings, not of angels, foul torments from Hell
Marked the murderous hue of his heart

My terrified kinsmen fell back in despair
But the Brothers of Infamy rose
They chanted a savage and blasphemous prayer
For the beast, for a moment, time froze

The corpse and the creature were carried at speed
In the church they were hurled to the floor
The holding spell broken, he, waking to feed
Heard the monks lock him in, bar the door

A furious, nightmarish, powerful storm
Lashed the wood and the windows within
For seven long days in this devilish form
He resisted his prison of sin

The body, devoured, as all of them are
Now at last gave the creature his rest
The passing created a symbol, a star
And with this was our pilgrimage blessed

The Brothers, in bitterness, exiled their priest
For revealing the sights we had seen
As penance we swore not to speak of the beast
And his appetites, evil, obscene

Our faith in the gods is grown stronger, made whole
When we carry our dead to the sea
We all hide our demons, but locked in each soul
Is an angel who longs to be free

Tuesday 28 January 2020

Fade to Black

by Nick Gisburne

I am old. I am forgotten. I am feeble. I am weak
Time won’t peel away this rotten skin. The future, mine, is bleak
All my sisters, brothers, wives and children, all of them are dead
For this fragile, fading skeleton there is no road ahead

Not a part of me cooperates, these limbs are stiff and numb
My abundant flow of medication triggered by a thumb
Eyes impossible to focus, faces may as well be wood
All the rhythms of my voice are slurred and rarely understood

I am powerless, a broken doll imprisoned by a curse
Sick of lying on this stinking bed and waiting for the hearse
I have had enough of living. I am too old to pretend
I am ready. Close the gate behind me. Fade to black. The end

The beauty of using a list of random words to inspire a poem is that they present themselves as stories which could never have been imagined without them. Would I have written a poem today about an old man without these prompts? Absolutely not. But now, here it is. 12 random words this time. I replaced ‘frail’ with ‘feeble’ and ‘cooperative’ with ‘cooperate’ but the rest are all there – feeble, peel, brother, fragile cooperate, abundant, wood, rhythm, doll, waiting, pretend, gate. I switched the order of the last two, which tied everything together perfectly.


by Nick Gisburne

The whistle’s note drifts, eery, from the east
Its penetrating discord shakes the sky
It blows to rouse a graceful, iron beast
Ferocious, yet intelligent of eye

Its rider fits an arrow to her bow
A slender shaft as bright as summer straw
Pulls back, pulls to the limit, lets it go
Grips hard the saddle, knuckles red and raw

The dragon stretches, heaves its monstrous wings
Long arcs of flashing brilliance and light
With pistons, pumps and mighty iron springs
It races hard to match the missile’s flight

And with a stunning, acrobatic twist
Its teeth have plucked the arrow from the sky
The rider beats the saddle with her fist
And whoops a wild, exhilarating cry

Their games draw spinning trails of smoke and steam
Until the mighty engines burn too low
Reluctantly, with one last whistle’s scream
She turns the iron dragon east to go

And there, beyond the gaze of other eyes
The rider feeds the dragon and they rest
Tomorrow they will play and paint the skies
When fire burns again within its chest

Monday 27 January 2020

The Tiny Vampire

by Nick Gisburne

He wore the finest, silken, striped pyjamas
His onesies debonair, pure wool from llamas
At seven months he grew a tiny fang
And, quite against the grain, he joined a gang
His hip hop beats were cause for great concern
No lyrical technique could they discern
The young, ambitious bat band, to be safe
Fed porridge laced with garlic to the waif
Without his voice they stormed the spooky chart
But broke the tiny vampire’s tiny heart

More random words! I started with these – striped, debonair, fang, grain, concern, lyrical, safe (‘intend’ was there but I dropped it) – and then freely added the final three lines to complete the story to my satisfaction.

A Messy Separation

by Nick Gisburne

A messy separation
Drowned and dropped into the lake
His cheating ways perpetual
Those trendy trousers fake
She held him underneath until quite dead
Then launched him from the jetty by the head

6 random words, one little poem – messy, lake, perpetual, trousers, dead, launch. They were given to me in that order, so that’s how they appear in the poem. I cheated a little because the original list had ‘bath’ rather than ‘lake’, but I make the rules so I can break them!

Friday 24 January 2020

The Limericks of Doom

by Nick Gisburne

In which the fate of the world is foretold in four doom-laden limericks

Her eyes burn with power and passion
The mask of her face pale and ashen
From the slumber of sleep
From the depths of the deep
Comes an end to this world she will fashion

Long aeons of time gave her power
The cold bell of doom tolls the hour
Through the splintering skies
Come the terrible cries
Of the helpless below as they cower

She summons the flames of damnation
A tide of depraved devastation
Storms of acid and smoke
Cast their poisonous cloak
On the ruins of civilisation

She gazes at what she has ended
The crimes and perversions that men did
And returns to the deep
To the silence of sleep
And the nightmares from which she descended

Epilogue: An alternative, abbreviated account of the apocalypse

There once was a demon called Tina
No creature from Hell could be meaner
With her powers unfurled
She demolished the world
And destroyed all the people who’d seen her

Today I tasked myself with subverting the light-hearted form of the limerick into something much more substantial and gritty. Read it with gravitas and you’ll find a dark tale of doom. Read it again in the jaunty cadence of a limerick and you’ll discover an entirely different mood, as demonstrated by the epilogue!

Thursday 23 January 2020

Remember, You Must

by Nick Gisburne

They burned us to ashes and buried our dust
Our children, our families, slaughtered in spite
Remember our faces, remember, you must

The window-panes, smashed, though they said it was just
A city of glass turned to crystal at night
They burned us to ashes and buried our dust

Condemned to the ghettos, uncaring, unjust
Despised undesirables, hidden from sight
Remember our faces, remember, you must

Not human, worth only contempt and disgust
And after the trains, in the camps, in the night
They burned us to ashes and buried our dust

Their Final Solution, a frenzied blood lust
The world could not save us, and we could not fight
Remember our faces, remember, you must

Old empires have fallen, in ruin and rust
But we are the memories, we are the light
They burned us to ashes and buried our dust
Remember our faces, remember, you must

Written for Holocaust Memorial Day, 27 January 2020, which marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

We must all remember.

Scary Mary

by Nick Gisburne

Scary Mary bites the fairies
Chokes them with mistletoe
Their silver spells
She burns and sells
For gritting roads covered in snow

Wednesday 22 January 2020

The Jagged Killing Knife

by Nick Gisburne

Surging, swirling tides of death
Unrelenting waves of pain
Cold, the jagged killing knife
Separates the soul from life
Ruptured heart and screaming brain
And a final, wretched, ragged breath

Twisting, sickly strands of breath
Fade before the face of Death
Wicked claws compress the brain
Squeezing one more ounce of pain
Calmly, Death collects the life
Leaves behind the body, and the knife

She, the one who grips the knife
Draws a sharp and tainted breath
Holds no more regard for life
Than a raindrop for its death
But the tastes of fear and pain
Fill the empty corners of her brain

Dark, this grim assassin’s brain
Wills her hand to touch the knife
Knows her only drug is pain
Schemes to steal another’s breath
Plans a sudden, savage death
Murder is the meaning of her life

Every squalid, slaughtered life
Burns the cancer in her brain
Leads her to the House of Death
Where the jagged killing knife
And the quickness of her breath
Feed the foul addiction that is pain

Terror, torment, panic, pain
Tools to end a victim’s life
Ice and evil chill each breath
Tortured nightmares plague her brain
Tenderly, she lifts the knife
Prays before she carves the smile of death

“Lord of Pain, free my brain
Take my life, guide the knife
Hear my breath, all I am I offer you in death”

Tuesday 21 January 2020

She Burns the Letters

by Nick Gisburne

She burns the letters, each poisonous note
The pledges, the vows, not one of them true
And rips out the lies from his dying throat

Unfaltering love, forever, he wrote
Deception, designed to break her in two
She burns the letters, each poisonous note

The ship of her dreams, a derelict boat
Her captain has sailed with another crew
She rips out the lies from his dying throat

Love’s paint peels away, the dark undercoat
A bouquet of bruises, in purple and blue
She burns the letters, each poisonous note

The last of her smiles, imagined, remote
He sold her this pain, but payment is due
She rips out the lies from his dying throat

His venom, his hate, her sweet antidote
Release, as he chokes, as the knife drives through
She burns the letters, each poisonous note
And rips out the lies from his dying throat

Thursday 16 January 2020

The Child and the Kidnapper

by Nick Gisburne

The child and the kidnapper went to sea
In a hideous, blood-stained boat
The plan was vicious, a crime so delicious
Described in a ransom note
The child looked into his captor’s grin
And coughed at the man’s cigar
“Don’t hurt me mister! Oh mister, please don’t!
What a terrible robber you are
    You are
    You are!
What a terrible robber you are!”

He replied to the boy, “This gun is no toy!
Don’t move, or I’ll beat you so hard!”
He stroked the Beretta and pulled out a letter
(It wouldn’t all fit on a card)
“The boy for the money, and do nothing funny
Or into the water he goes
Old notes in a sack, you’ll get him straight back
Any cops and I’ll cut off his toes
    His toes
    His toes!
Any cops and I’ll cut off his toes!”

“But sir,” said the nipper, “I know you’re the skipper
The person I fear now the most
But so far out to sea, please explain this to me
How that letter of ransom you’ll post”
The man went bright red and slapped his own head
And he turned the old boat back to shore
And (not quite as planned) he would very soon stand
In a prison, behind a steel door
    Steel door
    Steel door
In a prison, behind a steel door

Jack’s Wife Jill

by Nick Gisburne

Jack’s wife Jill went up the hill
To mutilate their daughter
On high ground the babe was found
And Jill ran, but they caught her

For this crime her prison time
Was life with chain gang labour
Jack meanwhile could only smile
And killed their next-door neighbour

Friday 10 January 2020

The Bleakest Show on Earth

by Nick Gisburne | V2 | How I Wrote It

Gather round, dear friends, and welcome, to the bleakest show on earth
Here the sights will make you wonder what a human soul is worth
Step inside the gates of misery, our carnival of sin
Pay one drop of blood to enter – step right up and take a pin

See the priest, whose robes of piety hide all the things he stole
See the newborn, choked by tainted milk, eyes dull and dark as coal
See the painted witches, weeping, nailed with iron to a tree
See the monster with a thousand eyes, yet none of them can see

See the murderer; aroused, he breathes his victim’s final fears
See the winter goddess, frozen in a pool of her own tears
See the wealthy man, whose bleeding nose infects his cheap champagne
See the acid on a daughter’s skin; no features now remain

See the vultures swarm and circle and attack the naked fool
See the bruised and limping boy who cannot bear to go to school
See the toxic flowers poisoning a long forsaken tree
See the doorway to a better world, but no one has the key

See the prima ballerina dance, and mutilate her prey
See the beauty of a little girl who ends her life today
See the bridge of burning gold the lepers cross with naked feet
See the twins, conjoined, born back to back, who know they’ll never meet

See the giant, last of all of them, with nowhere left to hide
See the crowd who cheer and celebrate and mock a suicide
See the wedding veil, torn clean apart, the ring not yet returned
See the books of love and tolerance an angry mob have burned

See the clown beside the loaded gun, the flower and the note
See the stockings of a mistress wrapped around the liar’s throat
See the voodoo queen mix poisons made with tongue and tooth and rib
See the nursery, the broken toys, the bloodstains in the crib

See the banquet of cadavers on a tablecloth of skin
See the wild-eyed woman, slashing at her wrists to free the sin
See the spider sisters, butchering another foolish mate
See the eyes of heathens burned inside the tombs they desecrate

See the boat which carries fugitives and misfits to their death
See the moment when a fallen angel screams her final breath
See the crying baby, silenced by the motion of a knife
See the old man, kneeling, weeping, in the ruins of his life

See the howling orphans hung above the dark abyss of doom
See the mermaid rip the stillborn from her violated womb
See the madman break his skull to calm the fury in his brain
See the warlord crush his brothers with an avalanche of pain

See the demon crown, too big to fit the head of any king
See the legless man torment the nightingale to hear it sing
See the child without a heart, pale skin as delicate as snow
See the roots of evil, buried, but forever sure to grow

See the girl who longs to feed herself, but cannot find her face
See the everlasting road to death, the journey’s cold embrace
See the child, reborn; forgotten, he will die alone again
See the sorceress who saves her blackest cruelties for men

See the vampire, sick with virgin blood; he loathes the taste, the smell
See the beast who blows the horn to summon all the hordes of Hell
See the crippled soldier, dying in a field of broken bones
See the fallen, false messiah, crushed to death with heavy stones

See the tree of snakes, the heads of infants hanging as its fruit
See the warrior who crushed a dozen nations with his boot
See the girl who stands upon a grave, her name carved in its stone
See the master of the underworld, the glory of his throne

See the burning prison, locked so none inside it may survive
See the instruments of torture when a man is skinned alive
See the wizard king, made blind and locked in chains by those he rules
See the patrons of our little show, a band of mindless fools

Take a moment, read the contract which you signed today in red
You can never leave this carnival, not even when you’re dead
Did you ever stop to wonder what a human soul is worth?
Find the answer, stay forever, in the bleakest show on earth

How I wrote 'The Bleakest Show on Earth'

I’ve just concluded a huge, intense writing session, finally completing my poem ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’. The method I used was a little different from the path I’ve followed for other poems, so I thought it might be interesting to share what just happened.

My usual way of working is this: I search for inspiration, think of an idea, come up with a suitable rhyming scheme, then put down a few lines to see if it’s going to work out. Sometimes it doesn’t – the rhyming scheme may be too restrictive, or just doesn’t seem to fit with what I need. That’s easy to change, so when I find something which ‘fits’, off I go. Sometimes I veer away from my original path, which is more normal if I only have a vague idea about where I was going with it!

The length of the poem dictates itself. ‘The Queen of Every Nightmare’ didn’t want to go beyond 4 stanzas, and those were hard-fought battles to get them onto the page. It’s a very dense, very intense poem, a hard one to craft to my satisfaction. Whereas ‘The Giant Who Could Not Sing’ flowed easily off the keyboard, is a long, long poem, and it’s a much lighter piece.

Back to ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’. I had no ideas for this poem, not at first, so my thoughts were that I could go to DeviantArt and look at some random posts and pick something which spoke to me. To avoid having to find something (DA is a big place), I usually look for an artist or a curated group which fits my own (dark) tastes. In this case I found a group called ‘Dark-Asphyxiation’ which seemed to fit the bill. Here’s a link:
There is some fantastic art there, but perhaps I was overloaded with too much quality to pick just one, and meanwhile nothing was telling me ‘here is a story you should tell’. So that in itself gave me the idea – what if I told all of the stories I was seeing?

Time to sidetrack again. Back in 2011 I wrote one of my favourite poems, ‘Who I Am’, which tells about the regret someone has at the end of their life. It’s a series of rhyming couplets, which are connected by the theme of the poem, but in actual fact could be jumbled up and put into any order (though in practice, I did rearrange the couplets to find what flowed best). There’s a ‘header’ and a ‘footer’ to lead in and out of the poem, but the meat of the poem is a list of ‘things’, which I wrote by creating those couplets as they presented themselves to my imagination, and putting them into the finished poem.

Back to the present. The thing with the couplets? Didn’t want to do that. What I decided to do was look at every image in the DA group and write a single line, the first impression which came into my head. No thinking, no ‘let me sit back and consider what I’m seeing’. Look at the picture, write something down.

So that’s what happened. I ended up writing two pages of single-line thoughts, 104 in total. Here are the first 20, to give you some idea about what I ended up with:
  • Tainted angels burning high upon a bridge
  • Flower-covered maidens frozen in an icy pool of their own tears
  • A bloody-nosed young girl who could not bear to go school
  • A hand closed tight upon the eye now blinded in its palm / grasp / grip
  • A choking mass of cobwebs fill the mouth and blind the eyes
  • A wedding veil torn apart, still covering the bride’s head, bruised
  • A broken body lying in a field of burning skulls / burning body + broken bones
  • A priest whose robes hide the things he has stolen
  • A silver-haired child carrying her heart in a dirty carrier bag
  • A old man kneeling in the ruins of his home
  • A well-dressed woman, strangled by a feathered scarf around her neck
  • A girl without hands trying to feed herself, but she has no mouth
  • A woman waiting beneath the surface of a stagnant pool
  • Burning stairs, above and below, with people trapped between
  • A dying child, being comforted by the woman who killed her
  • An army of crows, circling their mistress
  • A boat carrying children to their deaths
  • A snake-eyed woman, fingers pushing into her own skin
  • A witch, cutting out her own tongue
  • An angel crying, lying on a broken shield
You may be able to fit some of these with the images in the DA group, but I should add that when I clicked on the art to look at it, sometimes that would lead to other images from the same artist, so if they steered me towards an idea I wrote that down too. It was not a strict ‘I must have one line for every image’, but I kept within the general area, made a few detours, and ended up with 104 ‘scenes’.

In ‘Who I Am’ I had many rhyming couplets. Here, I had no rhymes at all, just a list of scenes. I had no theme and no title. If I came up with some poetry, what form would it take? Could I write one couplet per scene? Possibly. But what I decided to do was find some kind of theme where, like ‘Who I am’, I could simply add the scenes in any order. I could then pick any two of the lines I’d created, make them rhyme, and add them to the poem.

So at this point I really had to find a theme. You can’t just throw something into a poem if the poem has no direction at all. How would these scenes all fit together. They would make a list of some kind, but a list of... what? Here are the ideas I went through before I settled on the final one:
  • Things I have seen but never want to see again
  • Day trip to Hell
  • Demonic job interview
  • A collection of broken/damaged souls. Is the collector trying to fix them? Or did he break them himself?
  • Museum of madness
  • Dinner party guests, or just a party
  • Carnival freak show
Right there. That was it. A carnival freak show. The first stanza is four lines, inviting you in to see the freaks and oddities inside. It’s a ‘roll up, roll up, come and see the...’ idea, and every line which follows begins with ‘See the...’, as if the carnival barker is calling out the attractions one by one.

That also gave me the title, a variation of ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, which of course was now ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’.

So, my next question: do I want to use the same structure and rhyming scheme as ‘Who I Am’? I am always wary of doing that, not wanting to re-visit old ideas, but here it was irresistible. That was decided. Compare the two poems, and you’ll see the obvious similarities, but only in the structure. This new poem’s content is a completely different beast.

I now had 104 one-line scenes, which I needed to pair up into rhyming couplets, but at first there was no need to do that. I reasoned that I could put some structure into 20 or so lines, the 15 beats per line of the rhyming scheme, and then later I would put together pairs of lines which rhymed. This would have been very effective if any of my line endings had rhymed, but I had 20+ single lines, so then I began the much tougher work of pushing new lines to couple with existing lines.

That’s the hard grind of my poetry. I use an online rhyming dictionary, RhymeZone, which does exactly what you would expect. Type in a word and it gives you words which rhyme. But, and this is so important, it also gives you synonyms and related words. In my case I could then change the word at the end of the line, to see if it could fit with any of the 20 or more lines I’d already prepared. Or I could change the end of any of those lines to fit. And so on. That is very much a simplification, but basically I use  RhymeZone as a tool to give me as many words as possible, which I could not possibly think of so effectively, at least not with my limited human capacity!

Many of the 104 one-liners did not make it into the final poem. Some were too similar to existing scenes, some were simply weaker ideas, not good enough to be of any use – remember that each time I’d written down the first thing in my head, so some ‘chaff’ was to be expected. Some of the scenes were mixed together, or elements from one were used elsewhere. If I needed a particular character doing something else, I made it happen, or invented someone, or something, new. Remember that none of this is ever set in stone. The one-liners were ideas, to be changed and manipulated at will, which is why my initial list looks less like the final poem than you might otherwise expect.

As always, the poem seemed to tell me when it was done. My list of good ideas dwindled, and I paired the last few couplets with some difficulty. I ended up throwing a few 15-beat structured lines away because they just weren’t good enough.

Now I had the poem, it just needed an ending, the ‘punch in the face’ and the ‘what just happened there?’ all in one. You may be reading this before reading the poem itself, so I won’t add a spoiler, but I will say that I am pleased with the ending, and it all wrapped everything up nicely in a single 4-line stanza.

Poems like this don’t happen every day. Using this method I’ve now written two, one in 2011 and one in 2020. Although I used the same rhyming scheme in both ‘Who I Am’ and ‘The Bleakest Show on Earth’, and the similarities are obvious if you compare them, they are very different stories. They stand apart, but they also stand together. I’ve wanted to use the techniques employed in ‘Who I Am’ for a long time, and I think I took it to a different level. I’ve ended up with a piece of work of which I am extremely proud. And that is all I ever want from my writing.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

The Queen of Every Nightmare

by Nick Gisburne

She is queen of every nightmare, sacred mistress of your fears
And she rules the darkest corners of the mind
Sable wings, a shade of evil, ride the tempest as she nears
With her crown of flaming serpents intertwined

Feel the angel-witch, enchantress, dark deliverer of pain
As she breathes upon the secrets of your soul
Cold caresses, icy fingertips, trace mysteries arcane
And the mortal flesh succumbs to her control

Taste the kiss, exquisite, breathless, pure as poison, black and chill
Sweet euphoria, the joy, the fear, are one
But the bite, the blood, the fury, as she drinks to take her fill
Leave a wretched, empty corpse, and she is gone

Fear the sorceress, defiler of the wicked and the weak
She is passion, she is poison, she is pain
Fear the witch’s wings around you, fear her breath upon your cheek
When the queen of nightmares lusts for blood to drain

Tuesday 7 January 2020

Twisted Toys

by Nick Gisburne

It squats in the alley, forgotten and lost
Where no careless footstep may tread
The grime of its windows, a filth-tainted frost
Obscures every dust-covered head

A place where the lonely, the loveless, are tossed
This parlour of disfigured toys
May sell you a secret, but high is the cost
To innocent girls and young boys

Mephisto, the bloated and mange-ridden bear
Grips tightly the skull of a cat
Long fingers bend, crooked and tangled with hair
His face is twice-broken and flat

Adenka and Olga both whimper and weep
Conjoined by their faces and knees
They long to be free but their stitches are deep
Their tiny teeth ache with disease

And Gorgo, the mannequin, stares into space
With eyes melted out long ago
Two plastic tears, rivers of hurt, scar his face
He cries with a pain none can know

The clockwork doll, Valda, remembers the way
They pulled her old innards apart
And now as the chimes mark the hour of the day
She pushes a spike through her heart

Balola, the rag doll, has seventeen eyes
But each one is useless and blind
She hangs from a noose and has learned to despise
The memories mocking her mind

Old Aldous, the rabbit, has charcoal-black stumps
Where each of his limbs were burned off
He chews his own stuffing, licks ash from the stumps
And chokes with a cancerous cough

The unicorn, Keeka, is slit front to back
And stuffed with old rubbish and dirt
They ripped off her horn in a savage attack
Her heart will not heal from the hurt

The body beside them, the baby, is real
But someone grew tired of this toy
Young Sophie won’t run, she won’t laugh, she won’t feel
A murderer stamped on her joy

It squats in the alley, forgotten and lost
Where no careless footstep may tread
The toy shop sells secrets, but high is their cost
For the twisted, the broken, the dead

Sunday 5 January 2020

The Giant Who Could Not Sing

by Nick Gisburne

There lived a tall and hairy man
Who grew much more than others can
Of all the giants he was king
Because this giant loved to sing

His words could reach the clouds, the Moon
But every note was out of tune
The giant’s voice was bent and cracked
A true but quite unhappy fact

Yet on a windy, woolly hill
The hairy giant sang, until
A tiny fairy fluttered by
And pointed at the giant’s eye

“That awful noise is not a song
The nuisance of your notes is wrong
It scares the birds, it hurts my head
It fills the bumblebees with dread”

“You must not sing! Your howling voice
Has really given me no choice
That wretched song will have to go
I cannot bear it, giant. NO!”

The giant took a breath so deep
The fairy had to twist and leap
Because his nose might suck her in
She hovered, just beneath his chin

Before the song escaped his throat
Before he sang another note
The tiny fairy made a wish
And waved her pointy finger, swish!

The giant’s mouth was open, wide
But not a note could climb outside
No horrid howl, no screaming shriek
The giant could not sing, just speak

“I only want to sing my song”
The giant said, “Is that so wrong?
If only I could sing to you
That’s really all I want to do”

“I try so hard, I try my best
I breathe in deep and fill my chest
But what comes out is what you hear
It’s terrible, I know. Oh dear.”

The giant now began to cry
But when his eyes were almost dry
The fairy knew what she must do
“Hey, I can sing, so I’ll teach you!”

“We’ll need a little magic first
Your singing really is the worst
But smile and try to do your best
And fairy dust will do the rest”

“The notes are letters – A, B, C
There’s D and E, then F and G
Just seven, all you need to know
And once you’ve got them, don’t let go”

“For each new note you learn to sing
You must tell me a secret thing
A story only giants tell
And I will add the magic spell”

The giant scratched his hairy head
“I think I understand,” he said
“A giant’s stories are the best
Like songs, I keep mine in my chest”

He sat and thought and thought and sat
“You know the Moon is round and fat?
Well that’s because we feed him cake
Until he has a belly ache”

“He eats and eats, but saves the crumbs
He likes to lick them from his thumbs
And that is why the Moon is fat
Do I deserve a note for that?”

The fairy laughed, “Indeed you do!
The first of seven, just for you
A special note to start the day
It’s yours now, giant – here is A!

The note flew all around the air
Then rested in the giant’s hair
It jingled, just a little bit
The giant liked the sound of it

“I know another, let me tell
It’s why our socks all need their smell
Without the smell a sock is lost
And giant toes may feel the frost”

“But when they’re washed, all fresh and clean
At least one sock cannot be seen
You may find one but rarely two
Without their smell, they hide from you”

The fairy danced and cast her spell
“You’re really doing very well
You’ll have them all, just wait and see
And here’s another – this one’s B!”

The fairy’s gift was bold and bright
The giant tucked it out of sight
He whispered in her tiny ear
“I know why raindrops disappear”

“They splash and scatter all around
But raindrops don’t rest on the ground
Look closely, you won’t find one there
Because they have no boots to wear

“Without its boots a raindrop lands
And walks around upon its hands
But so as not to look the fool
It slides into the nearest pool”

“I hope the reason now is clear”
The giant grinned from ear to ear
He’d earned another note, the C
Which curled up, cosy, on his knee

The fairy shone with silver dust
And cried, “Go on, you really must!”
The giant, resting on the floor
Now told a tale to earn one more

“What use does every little mouse
Have for a tail inside its house?”
The fairy thought, but could not tell
And so the giant told her, “Well...”

“They hang their underpants to dry
A fact that I can verify
For never have I seen one yet
Who wears his underpants while wet”

“The D is yours!” the fairy said
She placed it on the giant’s head
It was a darling, dainty thing
A light and lovely note to sing

The giant said, “It’s time for tea”
The fairy drank some. So did he
At last, when all was put away
The hairy giant turned to say

“Another truth we giants learn
Is why no flame can ever burn
The water in a cooking pan
Can you explain it? Giants can”

“However hot the flames may seem
No smoke is made, just noisy steam
And this, the hissing, makes them doubt
They fear that it will put them out”

The fairy clapped her hands with glee
“Enjoy your note, this one is E!”
An elegant, exquisite note
It hid inside the giant’s coat

“I have a tragic tale to tell
The secrets of a ringing bell
And why that bell should ring at all
Bells hate all heights, they fear the fall”

“A bell is made to sway and swing
But when afraid it starts to ring
‘Don’t let me go!’ the bell will call
‘Don’t let me break! Don’t let me fall!’”

“Each cry for help rings loud and long
A nervous ding, a fearful dong
A ringing bell is loud and clear
But not with joy, it rings with fear”

The fairy, serious and sad
Used all the magic that she had
To make an F, a fearless thing
The finest note a voice could sing

There was but one more note to win
The hairy giant scratched his chin
“The last of all is always blessed
This secret is my very best”

“All giants love the winter night
We learn why snow is always white
I’ll share the secret of the snow
Come, listen, fairy, then you’ll know”

“The brightest snow your eyes have seen
Is white because its teeth are clean
Each snowflake brushes daily, twice
With toothpaste made from crunchy ice”

“That’s why the snow is white and clean
Not blue or brown, not grey or green”
“Behold the G!” the fairy cried
It glimmered, golden, at her side

It was the seventh singing note
And now into the giant’s throat
The fairy placed them, one by one
The giant swallowed. They were gone!

“I promised you would sing in tune”
The fairy laughed, “You will, and soon
But rest awhile, and sleep tonight
And sing tomorrow, at first light”

The giant shook her tiny hand
And watched her fly to fairy land
He yawned and stretched, climbed into bed
And dreamed of what the fairy said

The sunrise chased the stars away
The morning of another day
And up a windy, woolly hill
The giant climbed to test his skill

He breathed his deepest, arms flung wide
And felt the seven notes inside
He knew the words, he knew the song
He sang it loud and large and long

But did the giant sing in tune?
Well, are there cake crumbs on the Moon?
Must socks be smelly to be found?
Do barefoot raindrops touch the ground?

Do mouse tails hang their pants to dry?
Can water make a hot flame cry?
Is every bell-ring just a scream?
Does brushing make the snow’s teeth gleam?

So many questions we may ask
But I will set one final task
And if you meet that giant man
Please follow this important plan

The hairy giant loves to sing
He is the undefeated king
But long before he lets it go
Just plug your ears and tell him, “NO!”

Friday 3 January 2020

The Vanishing Box

by Nick Gisburne

“Jenna, what’s this?”

Professor Daley pointed at the table on which she had set up experiment 230A. To an outsider the apparatus might appear to be nothing more than a metal box, connected by means of several coloured wires to a large, heavy power source. An empty metal box.

Jenna, her laboratory assistant, was of a similar opinion. She peered at the box. All she could muster was, “It’s empty.”

Daley fished in the pockets of her lab coat and pulled out a badge, a plastic imitation police badge, upon which were written the words ‘Captain Obvious’. It was not the first time she had shown it to her assistant. Not even the first time this week.

“It’s empty, Jenna. I see that. But why is it empty? Where is the sample?”

“It should be in the box.” When she saw the same badge being waved toward her, Jenna declined to comment further and merely shrugged.

“That sample,” said Professor Daley, “is highly carcinogenic in its powdered form. A small specimen of powder is now missing. We need to find it. Would you like me to look at the video footage, or are you likely to remember where you put it, Jenna?”

She was already looking at the relevant video clip, so that Jenna knew she need not answer. Jenna waited, as curious as her superior to find out what indeed had happened to the sample once the experiment had ended.

Professor Daley appeared to be playing the video file from the same position, over and over. Eventually she moved the display forward one frame at a time, then back again, peering ever more closely at the screen as she did so.

“Gone.” The discarded police badge beside her spelled out its response to her observation.

Jenna stepped towards the experiment table. “It was definitely here. Then it wasn’t. And it still isn’t. So that means...”

“Vanished.” Daley paced between her desk and the apparatus. “Current applied to sample. Current removed from sample. But between those two points, no more sample.”

She pointed at her equally bemused assistant. “Let’s try again. Experiment 231A. Identical sample. Identical conditions. No, one more condition – we’ll add a second camera. Go and borrow Professor Morgan’s video equipment. Steal it if you have to.”

“Experiment 242A. One cheese sandwich, one green apple. Professor Daley, this isn’t sounding as scientific as I’d like. I’m just thinking of my dissertation. I will have to put this in there won’t I?”

Daley was pacing around the laboratory with the look of a child about to open yet another Christmas present, knowing that there were more gifts to come.

“Back, back. Here, Jenna. Ready? Switch on. And... gone. Vanished.” She clasped her hands together and looked around for more ‘samples’.

Jenna frowned. “That was my lunch.” She moved to defend the contents of her rucksack.

Professor Daley had already picked up a glass beaker, one of the few remaining on the rapidly depleting shelves, and was filling it with water. “243A. 500 mils of water. In. In. Come on, Jenna. Switch.” She pointed at the empty box. “There! Gone!”

Daley threw her arms around her reluctant assistant, who quickly shuffled the locked-together pair away from the metal box. Lunch was already missing and Jenna did not want to follow it.

“Do you know what this is, Jenna?”

“Time to buy your assistant something to eat?”

Daley stepped towards the table and made an ‘I present to you’ gesture with both hands. “This is the answer. This,” she slapped the table hard, “is the answer to everything. Everything!”

“And the question was...?”

Daley scrunched up her face, disappointed that Jenna was not sharing her excitement. “How can we make things disappear? We... WE just made things disappear!”

Jenna nodded and raised her right arm, very slowly. In it she held the small plastic badge printed with the words ‘Captain Obvious’. Professor Daley grabbed it at once and threw it into the box. Seconds later it too was gone.

“Jenna, go and fetch Professor Morgan. If he’s in a lecture, tell him his wife is having a baby. Or tell him I’m having a baby.” She gazed at the metal box, then touched it, gently. “Tell him I’ve already had one.”

Jenna looked longingly at the sandwich in Professor Morgan’s hand. Every time he raised it to his mouth he shooed it away with another question.

“You’ve checked the wiring? You’ve looked at the energy readings? Radition levels? I would hope you’ve checked those. Sure?” He thought for a while, almost took a bite, then, “This isn’t some kind of practical joke is it?”

Daley grabbed the sandwich from his hand and threw it into the metal box. Ignoring the look of utter misery on Jenna’s face, she flicked the switch. The sandwich vanished. Jenna sighed. Professor Morgan scratched his head. He took off his glasses to clean them, as if the presence of some small smear would explain what he had just witnessed.

“Impossible. Physics will simply not allow this. Conservation of matter. Miss Carter.” He pointed at Jenna. “Conservation of matter?”

“Matter cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system.”

“Isolated. Yes.” Morgan thought on that for a moment. “Is this an isolated system? A box. Isolated enough. Just a box. Matter in. Energy applied. Matter... gone. No. Impossible. Conversion to another form then. Energy?”

Daley shook her head. “We’d need a nuclear reactor to convert any of our samples directly into energy. We used a high voltage, high ampage connection, but nothing out of the ordinary. That’s all we applied to every sample, and everything we put in there just vanishes.”

The senior physics professor looked at the box, looked at his colleague, looked at their sad-faced laboratory assistant, and declared, with great passion, “Lunch! Come!” He strode out of the room, heading towards the university canteen, with the folds of his gown and Professor Daley close behind. Jenna was already several steps ahead of him.

“Professor Daley,” said Jenna, “if the matter isn’t being converted to energy, could it simply have been moved away? Moved to somewhere else?” Her words were expertly woven around a mouthful of half-warm pizza.

Daley nodded. “Moving something out of the closed system would do it. And that would naturally require far less energy. Smash a brick to atoms: hard work. Move a brick out of sight: much less work. But if our samples have been moved elsewhere, where are they now? Where is this ‘elsewhere’?”

Professor Morgan’s forehead mirrored his doubts. “It would have to be far away, or we’d have found the samples. Glass containers would have dropped and smashed at the end point, unless they were miraculously sent into a nearby cupboard. And you checked all the cupboards I take it?”

There were nods.

“Far away then. But the further they go, the more energy is required. So there we are, back to our impossible conundrum. Energy is required to move your samples out of the laboratory, but your readings are clear – sufficient energy to do so was not being applied to the box when the samples... er, vanished?”

He frowned. “Could we quickly think of a different word? I simply cannot bear to imagine the faces of our distinguished peers in higher places once they see the words ‘vanishing box’ within the title of your paper. There will be a paper, I take it?”

“Eventually. Yes, of course.” Professor Daley shrugged. “Although I’m at a loss to explain anything we’ve seen so far. It would be a very short paper.”

Morgan beamed. “In science one does not always have to provide an explanation. One merely has to describe the methods for demonstrating a phenomenon. We then allow others to reproduce that phenomenon. If they can – science. If they cannot – failure. Can you reproduce what you’ve done?”

“More tests?”

“Tests. Yes. With bigger samples. Better samples. And a better box. Build another. Bigger and better.”

“And you!” He prodded at the edge of Jenna’s plate. “Late nights. Poor sleep. No money. Little thanks.” Jenna looked into the eyes of the professor, hoping to see in them a brighter future for herself. It was not to be. “Work longer. Sleep less. Spend your pennies wisely. Be grateful.” But his aspect softened, just a little. “Because alongside my esteemed colleague, Professor Daley, you will most certainly achieve some small measure of greatness.”

The canteen chair clattered behind him as he stood quickly. “I will of course bask in the light of your wonderful discoveries, while forever lamenting that I was not the one to make them. Well done.” In a rush of air, gown and bombast, he was gone.

“He seems to be pleased for you, Professor. And he doesn’t even want any of the credit.” Jenna munched contentedly on more pizza.

Daley shook her head. “We’ve made a discovery, but we don’t know what it is. And when – if – we later find that we have ‘discovered’ the next cold fusion experiment, or have built a perpetual motion machine, my ‘esteemed colleague’ will not want his name to be mentioned anywhere near it.

“Is that what we’ve done, do you think?”

“Oh, I hope not. Because if we can build a bigger and better box, and if that box works, we will publish our findings. And then we will certainly be noticed, so it absolutely must work. Finish your lunch, Jenna. I won’t be letting you out into the light again for quite some time.”

They emerged, with a new and bigger box, some eight months later. While the original box took up no more space than the average microwave oven, their new apparatus had been scaled up to a far more substantial three-metre cube.

The energy requirements for such a box correlated directly to its size, as expected, but that imposed some limits on what they were able to achieve at the university. The chancellor refused to authorise any new, commercial-grade power connection to the physics department, on the grounds of safety and cost. Instead, Professor Daley was allowed to rent some floor space from a company already working with the university on other projects.

Infinite Industrial welcomed them, as they welcomed anyone with a decent business idea and the offer of a 25% share in future profits. Non-Disclosure Agreements were signed, and once the properties of the box had been explained to the resident engineers, Daley was allowed to pay for materials and manpower directly from the company. Jenna Carter directed the day-to-day operation on site, while Professor Daley went to and from the university to fulfil her responsibilities to a number of other research projects and to her students.

The appearance of the new box was very different from that of the old one, which had been open-sided so that experimental samples could simply be placed inside, or dropped in at will. It was assumed that a three-metre square would be far too dangerous to leave open to the possibility of a random employee wandering inside. While the top and bottom were permanent fixtures, holding the field generator required to ‘vanish’ whatever was put inside, the four sides were each protected with heavy, lockable, steel swing-doors. Material could be pushed in on trolleys, or tipped in directly. The box itself would only operate once all of its doors were fully closed.

Eight months after their accidental success with the original box, the were ready test the new box for the first time. Those assembled – Professors Daley and Morgan, Jenna Carter, and two technicians from Infinite Industrial – stood above the box and many metres away, on an overhead gantry, behind a shatterproof observation screen. This was Professor Morgan’s first in-person view of the full-size box and he pointed at four large flexible tubes which fed into its roof, one at each corner. “Air vents?”

Jenna, clipboard in hand, on a mission to stride with great purpose and authority back and forth along the gantry, said, “Not quite. Those are air intakes. We determined that not only was our sample being sent elsewhere, so was most of the air inside the box. When we switch on, whatever is taken away will be immediately replaced by new air, fed in from outside, through those tubes. Without them, the vacuum inside would destroy the box as the air pressure crushed it.”

Professor Daley motioned towards two men who were pushing wheelbarrows towards the box’s only open door. “That’s our payload. Shredded waste paper. In theory we could fill the thing with anything we want to get rid of – old cars, industrial waste, anything at all – but today if the worst happens we should have nothing more than a small fire to deal with, or a factory full of confetti.”

The men emerged with their now-empty wheelbarrows and closed the steel door, locking it in place. They quickly left the area through a side door.

Jenna spoke into a small communication device. “Ready for the pre-charge.” A hooter sounded somewhere below and several flashing red lights were switched on.

On a monitor screen nearby, a series of progress bars quickly advanced from zero to 100%. The siren was silenced but the red lights continued to flash.

“Pre-charge complete.” Turning to the two technicians she said, “Confirmation please.” Each touched a thumb to an allocated area of the screen.

Daley whispered to Morgan, “Joint responsibility. If the dog explodes, we pay only for the box. They pay for the building.”

Morgan squinted at his colleague. “If the ‘dog’ explodes?”

Professor Daley’s arms moved outwards and upwards in a dramatic, expansive gesture. “Woof.”

A new virtual button appeared on the screen. It said simply, ‘GO’. Jenna turned to her small audience and smiled nervously. “We’re ready.”

Daley nodded. Morgan offered a tentative thumb’s-up. The two technicians, far from reassuringly, backed away from the observation window and averted their eyes.

Jenna’s index finger hovered over the green button.

“Press GO to collect your salary,” Professor Morgan breathed.

Jenna Carter touched the button.

Below, nothing happened. Nothing seemed to happen. The four tubes designed to feed air into the box swung lightly on their supports. But they had been motionless before the box was activated.

Professor Daley removed the hand from her mouth, found the remnants of a small voice, and said, “All good?”

Jenna looked at the monitor. “Full discharge. No structural failures. Air gauges report a total intake of 24.7 cubic metres. That’s within the expected range. Internal cameras are down though. Damn.”

Daley put a hand on her shoulder. “I think we’ll find the cameras are no longer there, Jenna. A small oversight. We vanished them. We vanished everything. Oh my. Oh Lord. We did it.”

“And now, my friends,” said Professor Morgan, eagerly shaking the hands of everyone in the room, “now the fun really begins.”

“I like it.” Professor Morgan gazed at the huge backdrop looming over the stage of the empty auditorium, a simple black wall adorned with two words: ‘Vanishing Box’. They were the only three people in the room, but the seats around them would be filled in less than two hours. They would all see those words, and so would the world.

The world was not ready for a ‘null state dissipation chamber’. Nor was it ready for a ‘quantum erasure vessel’. But the world was ready for a ‘Vanishing Box’. It was snappy. It told the story. It made for great headlines. And a striking backdrop.

“You used to hate the name,” said Jenna. “You wanted it to be called anything else but that.”

Professor Daley looked up from a laptop, where she had been scanning through the text of her presentation. “Dominic Morgan is a fickle creature. When you can convince him he is wrong about something, he will switch sides and claim he championed the idea from the beginning.” Narrow eyes dared him to question her words.

“I merely suggested that others would be less accepting of the appellation. As a populist I am of course...”

Daley snorted. “Populist? I looked at a draft of your new book, professor, and I needed a machete to hack through the impenetrable jungle of your prose.”

“Physics is a complex discipline.” Morgan shrugged. “Perhaps some light editing before sending it to my publisher...”

“Have you found one yet?”

The question was met with another shrug. Professor Morgan’s book would be published. He had an excellent editor, an editor who now snapped shut her laptop and unplugged a memory stick.

Professor Daley handed the stick to Jenna Carter. “I’ll need that on the teleprompter, and two printed copies for backup.” As Jenna reached the door she added, “And coffee. Black. With extra black. I’m too calm. It’s not normal.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, I am honoured to be able to introduce a speaker who most of us will know, if not personally, then by reputation, from her work in theoretical physics and quantum dynamics at Riverdene College, Oxford. She is an accomplished author of many papers and articles, published in the most respected journals within her field, who I am certain will today leave a lasting impression on the scientific community. Please join me in welcoming Professor Elizabeth Daley.”

The applause was warm and long, but began to falter when Professor Daley did not walk out to meet it. The host, who had turned to clap and greet her, gave a hurried apology, then rushed off stage to investigate.

“What the blazes did you put in that coffee?” hissed Professor Morgan. In his hands was the head of Professor Daley. Seated, barely conscious, she was making small retching noises. A bucket had been found, and not a moment too soon.

Jenna looked on, horrified, unable to distance herself, holding, as she was, the bucket. “Coffee. Just black coffee. I didn’t...”

“Black coffee or black death, this woman is going nowhere. You!” Morgan pointed at the man who had announced her, now fully cognisant of her whereabouts. “Professor Daley will be in this bucket for some time. This,” and he shook his head at Jenna, “is her learned assistant and part-time poisoner, Miss Jenna Carter. She will deliver the speech if, oh dear God, if she resists the urge to faint.”

Jenna had blanched to a shade of fine porcelain. Morgan wrenched the bucket from her hands. “Miss Carter, you know more about this project than anyone in this building. More than any fully conscious person that is. Get out there, read the words in the order they are written, and make those people believe that you know what you’re talking about. Because you do. Go on. Go!”

Jenna stumbled towards the lectern with all the confidence of a child at her first music recital. The announcer hesitated and whispered to Morgan, “And the 30-minute Q&A session after the presentation?”

“If I’d mentioned that, she’d be on the floor and we’d have need of another bucket. She’s a capable woman. Once she’s up there, once she’s delivered what they’ve both been working on for almost a year, she may be confident enough to hold her own with that roomful of hyenas.”

“And if not,” he muttered, “I’ll shove whoever made that damned coffee into the box myself.”

“I think that went quite well, all things considered.” Jenna Carter was beaming, brimming with new-found confidence, having delivered the full speech and taken questions for well over the allotted time. Eventually the announcer had had to gently but firmly lead her away from the stage.

Professor Daley was now fully conscious, though still seated, still weak. “Well done, Jenna. A star is born.” She sipped a little water from a paper cup. “And a woman is back from the dead. Almost.”

“Who was that onion-faced boy with the question about relativity?” Morgan said.

“He said he was a PhD student,” said Jenna. “I don’t recall where. Speaking as one myself, I’d say that he needs to conduct a little more research before he comes up against me again.”

Morgan let out a hearty belly laugh. “Indeed! Indeed he does. My word, Miss Carter, you have wrestled with the lions of the physics world and they have submitted, all of them. Of course, the lioness is invariably the stronger in the wild, as you so ably proved out there.”

“Doctor Carter, these men have asked to see you.” A young woman, one of the students employed for the evening to clean up after everyone had left, entered the off-stage area, accompanied by two middle-aged men, tall, wearing identical, expensive suits. Even their shoes matched perfectly. Only one of them wore glasses, small and round, curiously old-fashioned.

“It’s Miss Carter. I’m not a doctor, not yet.” She held out a hand to the two men. It was not taken. Instead, two ID cards were shown, first to Jenna and then to the two professors.

“Elston, Military Intelligence.” said one of the men, he with the glasses. “Hanson, my colleague. We’d like to ask you some questions. Questions about your... device. If we may.”

“Military Intelligence? Of course. But you’ll be wanting to speak to Professor Daley. She knows more...”

“We will be speaking to all the members of your team, naturally,” said Elston. “But to you first. If we may.”

Morgan rose to his feet and moved towards the two men. “I’m very sorry, gentlemen, but you may not. One of my colleagues has been taken ill and we must get her home. If you’d like to leave your cards, we will certainly try to contact you within the next few days.” He held out a card of his own. It was not taken. “Excellent. Well, I am quite sure you know where to find us. Good evening.”

He hurried Jenna and Daley through a door, which he closed very firmly behind them.

“Ah, yes. Physics. The tools with which to build a universe, or to destroy one.” He marched along the corridor at a rapid pace. “And which one of those do you think the military will want to do with our clever little box, eh? Military Intelligence. Now those are two words I would be extremely reluctant to put together.”

The next few weeks passed by in a whirlwind of media interviews, meetings and video conferences with the CEOs of various industrial giants, and messages from seemingly every science professor and PhD in the world. Everyone wanted to know how they could get their hands on a Vanishing Box.

“They’ve capitalised it, so it’s official now,” said Professor Daley. “Vanishing Box it is.”

“Someone’s set up a Twitter account.” said Jenna. “They post pictures of things they want to get rid of, then the next day they delete them again. Very clever.”

The two of them were being driven by taxi across London from one radio interview to another. Both were glued to their phones, answering emails and reading media coverage of their work.

“Are we on Twitter?” Daley asked, unsure as to how she might check for herself.

Jenna narrowed her eyes. “I am on Twitter. Professor Morgan is on Twitter. You... are not on Twitter. Would you like me to set up an account for you?”

Daley thought for a moment, seriously considering what she might do with such a thing, and said, “Perhaps not. I’m already spending too much time posting selfies on my Instagram account.” She laughed at Jenna’s startled reaction. “Joke. I know of such things, but I don’t touch them. And Morgan shouldn’t be anywhere near a social media account. He already torments people too much in real life with his opinions, face to face.”

“Sorry about this ladies.” The voice of the taxi driver cut through their conversation. “Some idiot in a van’s gone and blocked the whole bloody road.”

Both women leaned to look out of the side window. A large black van had inexplicably veered into the wrong lane, two or three cars ahead of them. It had stopped dead, and was now angled towards them, blocking both lanes. Nobody was going anywhere.

“Delivery man taking a wrong turning?” Jenna guessed. She turned her attention back to her phone, expecting the situation to quickly clear of its own accord.

“I don’t think so love,” said their driver. “Unless these two have got a parcel for you.”

There were two tall, middle-aged men directly outside the taxi, one at each side. Both wore identical, expensive suits, but only one of them wore round, old-fashioned glasses. That man, whose name they knew to be Elston, knocked impatiently on the window, then motioned towards the van.

The driver pointed at his meter angrily. “If you’re getting out here that’ll be twelve quid.”

“He’s paying.” Professor Daley watched as Jenna stepped out of the taxi, but refused to follow until the other man, Hanson, managed to find a twenty pound note. It was thrust at the taxi driver, whose cheery mood returned.

“You wanna receipt mate?”

He did not.

“Have a seat.” Elston pointed at a long, leather sofa.

It was not the stark interrogation room they were expecting, but neither was it an open, airy office. There were no windows, but the lighting was warm, subdued. The only door had been closed behind them, but remained unlocked. Two black sofas, each facing the other, were the only furniture, but they were plush, rather than utilitarian. Both were empty.

“I’d like a phone call, a lawyer and an explanation, in any order you like.” Professor Daley said.

“Your phones and other belongings will be returned to you as you leave,” said Elston. “And you are free to go at any time.” He saw both of them eye the door. “After our little chat, naturally. Do take a seat.” He himself took the lead and sat down.

“We’re not spies. What are we doing here?” Daley demanded.

“Spies? Of course not. There are no spies here.” He thought for a moment. “Of course, that may not be entirely true. But you are not accused of anything. We simply have a few questions for you.”

“So you keep saying. Well, ask away. But we’re not selling secrets to the Russians, or to the Chinese. We’re not planning to start a war. We’ve invented a box, a Vanishing Box, and that’s all I have to say on the subject. Everything else is described on our web site.”

“Indeed it is. Most informative.” Elston took off his glasses to read from a printed document. “‘Our invention will revolutionise the industrial sector... make waste management redundant... pollution eradicated... clean up the environment.’ Excellent. All very commendable.” Replacing his glasses he looked up at the two women. “But these are commercial concerns. My interests, our interests, are of a more... technical nature.”

Jenna dropped into the sofa opposite Elston. She leaned towards him and said, “Ask us if we can build a weapon with it.”

Elston’s gaze flicked back and forth between Jenna Carter, seated, and Professor Daley, standing. Two formidable women.

“Well, can you do it?”

Jenna leaned still closer, her lips almost brushing Elston’s ear. She whispered, “Yes. But don’t tell anyone.”

Elston swallowed. As Jenna returned to her seat he said, “And what kind of weapon would that be?”

Daley took a seat next to Jenna. “What do you need? What do you need taking care of, Mr Elston? Can we vanish a tank? Yes. Vanish a jet fighter? Definitely. Can we take a missile and make it just disappear? Oh, we could do that. We could even take a person, maybe even someone like you, and we could make them go away – forever.”

“Is that what you wanted to hear?” said Jenna. “Is it enough? What about a city? Could we make a whole city vanish?” She looked at Professor Daley, who shrugged, and back at Elston. “Probably.”

Elston was scribbling hurried notes, first with a pen which refused to provide ink, then with a pencil, whose point was quickly broken and useless.

“Incredible. Incredible. And this weapon, this device, of course it will be for the British Armed Forces and its allies. It’s why we wanted to speak to you so urgently. Nothing can get into the hands of others. That is, our enemies must not have such a weapon.”

“Oh, they wouldn’t want a weapon like that.”

Elston froze, then looked at Jenna, who shook her head.

“They wouldn’t? Why would they not want such a weapon, Miss Carter?”

“Because of the Daley-Carter constant.”

“The... what is that?”

“A limit. A practical barrier. Mr Elston, we can make a box so big that you could vanish an entire city, but we’d need a power source to match.”

“A big power source,” Daley added.

“How big?”

“We could power it with the sun I suppose.”

“Solar power? How much solar power?”

Professor Daley and Jenna Carter spoke in unison. “All of it.”

Elston jumped to his feet. “You’re not making any sense. How much power would be needed for this vanishing weapon?”

The two scientists stood to join him. Daley grabbed the man’s pencil. “Imagine a lever. You want to lift a heavy load, so you place a pivot as close to the load as possible, then push down on the other end of the lever. Up it goes.” She demonstrated with the pencil on her finger.

“But imagine the load is bigger. Much bigger. As big as a building. As big as a city. Now you need to exert much more force. Too much. The lever will break. Or, use a longer lever. Again, the lever will break. Stronger lever? There’s a practical limit. With enough force you can bend or break anything, so the lever itself will bend or break.”

Jenna joined in. “Our box is the both the lever and the pivot. Electrical energy is the force we use to vanish things. We can build a bigger box, but at some point we won’t be able to build a big enough power source.”

Elston stared at the pencil. “But you mentioned solar power.”

“Yes. Solar power. All of its power. A box big enough to vanish a city would need to be plugged directly into the Sun.” Daley smiled. “In practice, the biggest power supply we could build on Earth, and so the biggest Vanishing Box we could ever power with it, would be much, much smaller, and that’s assuming we had unlimited resources, and 100% efficiency.”

“That’s the Daley-Carter constant.” Professor Daley pointed to herself. “Daley.” And then to Jenna. “Carter.” The words were deliberately elongated, as if she were speaking to a baby.

Jenna continued. “It’s the most we could ever vanish in one hit, given perfect conditions and materials – which we do not currently have. With current technology we could build a 30-metre cube, but that would need its own dedicated nuclear power station. For industrial purposes we are looking at 10-metre cubes at phase one, then 15, perhaps even 20 metres within a decade.”

All three took their seats again. Elston looked punch drunk, but was not yet ready to admit defeat.

“A tank. A missile. A plane? You could still build a box to vanish something like that?”

“Certainly. All you need to do is convince the owner to give you their tank or missile, or whatever, and let you transport it to one of our boxes. Just put it inside, hit the switch and it’s gone.” Daley handed the pencil back to Elston. “So how many boxes would you like? Five? Ten?”

“This is not quite...”

“Not quite what you were looking for, Mr Elston? Really? What was it you were looking for?” Daley spat the words at him. “Cards on the table. What you want is a ray gun, Mr Elston. Something you can shoot or launch or drop onto the bad people, because all you know about is guns and bombs and bloody Star Trek. You want the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but we’re telling you that you need to use a power cable and plug it in. So that’s much less exciting for you now, isn’t it Mr Elston?”

“I think we’re done here, professor,” said Jenna. Both women stood and made for the door.

It opened before they reached it. The other man, Hanson, entered the room. He was accompanied by Professor Morgan.

“Outrageous!” bellowed Morgan, as he recognised his two colleagues. “We will not stand for this!”

“We’re leaving,” said Jenna. She and Professor Daley marched through the open doorway.

“Yes! What?” Morgan turned to Elston, then to Hanson. Elston waved him away. “Quite right! And if you ever... Elizabeth! What on earth just happened?”

There were no more incidents with Military Intelligence. Once it was clear that Vanishing Box technology offered limited practical possibilities for the armed forces of any government, good or bad, export contracts with every industrialised country in the world were quickly drafted and signed.

Professor Daley presided over a corporation dedicated to the swift and permanent eradication of waste materials, a worldwide enterprise spanning every continent and country. Within two years almost all industrial waste was being Vanished, and now it was no longer a case of finding new landfill sites. Instead, old, historically buried waste, was being dug up and disposed of, using Vanishing Box technology. Toxic dumps were made safe. Nuclear waste, which would otherwise have stayed buried and radioactive for ten thousand years, was gone, forever.

Jenna Carter receieved her doctorate. Her dissertation explained how a Vanishing Box could be made constantly active, rather than being periodically switched on and off, filled and re-filled. Instead of activating the whole box, a thin, charged field at one end now took material away, and the vacuum left behind pulled more material forward onto the field, perpetuating the process. With such modifications, power stations and chemical factories could simply channel their pollution and waste products, via chimneys or pipes, into a Vanishing Box, and thereafter to... well, to wherever it was going. Still nobody knew where that was, but it was certainly nowhere on Earth, and that the important thing.

Professor Morgan’s pet project oversaw investment in desalination plants, providing fresh water from the oceans, pumping it to areas of greater need. Separating salt from water was not challenging, but the mountains of salt created by the process had to go somewhere. Now the salt was Vanished almost as soon as it was extracted. Morgan was eager to take Boxes off-shore, to eradicate the waste floating around the great ocean gyres. Research into suitable power sources for such sea-borne Vanishing Boxes now occupied much of his time.

Naturally, everyone involved found themselves ridiculously wealthy. Every nation wanted to buy Vanishing Boxes, and the Daley Carter Morgan Foundation built them and sold them, and later licensed other franchises to build and sell them. Vanishing technology was the most important engineering milestone since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed, it was now healing the scars left by those centuries of dirty energy.

Already, trucks and trains were being fitted with Vanishing Box exhaust systems, and work was continuing on further miniaturisation to allow smaller vehicles to take advantage of the technology. Air pollution, in the dirtiest cities on the planet, would soon no longer be an issue. In a decade, the very idea of temperature rises caused by man-made climate change would be a filed away and forgotten.

“I knew I’d seen him before. Knew it. Never forget a face, never. Certainly not a face like that. It’s the onion-faced boy, the one from Carter’s first lecture. You had your head in a bucket and I was...”

“You were holding the bucket. Yes, Dominic. Thank you. Again.” Daley knew that it was one of Morgan’s favourite stories, and was resigned to read about it one day in his memoirs.

They were walking along the edge of the site of the company’s new corporate headquarters, wearing hard hats and high-vis jackets, as were the many workers milling around the area. Only one person was not similarly dressed, a furious blonde-haired man trying to force his way between the two enormous security guards holding him back. Their grip was never going to allow it, and eventually the intruder relaxed, defeated. The guards began to drag him away, only for his frenzied efforts to begin again.

“He’s obviously here for a reason,” said Daley, arms folded, watching with interest. “Not your typical intruder.”

“Some form of protest? Grafitti?” Morgan pondered.

“A protest against what? Cleaning up the world? Bring back the waste! Hardly. Let’s see.” She blew an ear-splitting whistle through her fingers, chuckling as Professor Morgan covered his ringing ears. “Hoy! Bring that man here!”

“What a delicate flower you are, Elizabeth. Wrestling’s loss is our gain.”

The struggling man was dragged to within ten feet of Daley and Morgan. When he realised who they were, he unleashed a stream of seemingly random syllables, which any other audience might have dismissed as gibberish.

“That’s... isn’t that one of Dubrowski’s Pocket Equations?”

“Yes! Let me through!”

Professor Morgan took a step closer to the man. “I am familiar with much of the fellow’s work. He had some quite remarkable conjectures, as I remember, but sadly not able to resolve some key issues, poor fellow. Dead?” He thought for a second, then nodded, confirming his own recollection of the scientist’s demise.

“Solved! Completed! I have it!” The man was short of breath, but was no longer pulling against the grip of the guards.

“Student of his?” said Morgan.

The man nodded. “I was. For a time.”

“Well, we’d better have your name then, unless you want me to refer to you as onion boy.”

“Frans Ekberg, professor. Please, I must speak with you, both of you, urgently. And with Doctor Carter. It has been impossible to make an appointment, at least that is what I was told, but here I am.”

“Well, Doctor Ekberg, my interest is piqued. And yours, Professor Daley? Piqued?”

Daley shrugged.

“Sorry, not Doctor Ekberg. My PhD was not... I left my studies before completing them.”

Morgan rubbed his chin. “And yet you claim to be the academic heir of Igor Dubrowski? How so?”

“When the Vanishing Box was invented, I took an immediate interest. Of course, we all did. But Professor Dubrowski’s work seemed to me to be closely connected to the Vanishing process. At the time there was no explanation for the whereabouts of the matter, once it left the Vanishing Box.”

“And there still isn’t, Mister Ekberg,” said Professor Morgan curtly. “Are you claiming to know more than we do?”

Frans Ekberg nodded energetically. “I know where it all goes. And that’s why you must stop it. Stop the Vanishing.”

They were standing around a table in the site manager’s office, a small, temporary structure close to the main gates. Ekberg was quickly fishing sheets of paper out of a battered rucksack. Some he discarded, others were arranged on the table in a rough jigsaw, in which only he seemed to see order.

There was a hole in the pattern. Ekberg, now holding an empty rucksack, gave a whimper. He dove back into the pile of unused papers, found what appeared to be the missing piece, and completed the puzzle. He pointed to the table in triumph. “There!”

The notes were all hand-written, scruffy, written with different pens, crossed out in places. The two professors gave them no more than a cursory glance. Ekberg realised he had given them a blueprint but had failed to tell them what he was trying to build with it.

“I will explain. The Box, the Vanishing Box, takes matter away, but we do not know where. But it does go somewhere. Annihilation? No. Impossible. Conversion to energy? Also no. So, somewhere. To a parallel dimension perhaps?”

Morgan said, “Disproven. Curtis and Chen. And Daley, of course.”

“Yes. Excellent work. Most excellent. But Dubrowski’s Pocket Equations describe other, partial dimensions, small pockets of space, each existing in parallel with our universe but not separate from it, like bubbles on the surface of a pond.”

“But if I’m correct,” said Daley, “pocket dimensions can never exist. Any attempt to create such a pocket would distort the fabric of our own universe to such a degree that the whole dog would explode.”

“The... dog?”

“Colloquial expression,” said Morgan. “Never mind. Dubrowski could never reconcile his Pocket Equations with the Standard Model. So... no pocket dimensions.”

Ekberg’s hands were visibly shaking, his voice quivering, as he turned to the table and stared at the expanse of his hand-written notes.

“Not pockets in space. Pockets in time.”

“Curtis and Chen are giving a TED Talk in Brussels tomorrow. Tell them to drop it and get out. I want them here on the EuroStar – tonight. Find out who’s leading our research team at MIT and get them set up for video. Is it Craven, or is it Cavallero now? And why does everybody’s name begin with the bloody letter C?”

Carter, Doctor Carter, tactfully ignored Daley’s final question, but followed her orders. Everyone made calls. Important calls. Life-changing calls. And then they waited.

In a small office in central London, the three heads of the Daley Carter Morgan Foundation were joined by nineteen of the world’s leading physicists, seven in person and twelve more via video conference screens. At 10pm Frans Ekberg, a failed PhD student with only two years of independent research and no published papers to his name, began the task of making them believe what none of them would ever have thought possible.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I will give you a brief summary of my findings, and then we will discuss the details. Forgive me if I do not follow a straight path. I have worked on this, and on nothing else, for many months. I do not speak well in public, and, other than this morning, this is the first time I have tried to explain my work to anyone.

“I will say this first. The Vanishing Box does not make matter disappear. It gives the appearance of moving matter, of course, but it does not. The matter is still there. It occupies the same space. But it does not occupy the same time.

“Using the work begun by Professor Igor Dubrowski, which I have now extended and completed, I can show that all matter Vanished from these Boxes is now within a Pocket dimension. This is not a dimension in space, but in time. When matter is Vanished, time appears to be suspended, away from our own time. A Pocket dimension contains everything which was formerly inside the Vanishing Box. Every time a Box is activated, another Pocket dimension is created. That is where our Vanished matter now exists – it is still in real space, but it lies outside of time. In the Pocket, space and time do not move in any direction. They are merely set aside.

“Of course, this is a wonderful discovery. The question is answered: where does it all go? And yes, we did ask the wrong question, which should have been: when does it all go? If that was the sum total of my discovery, I would be extremely happy. But there is more.

“Imagine putting a coin in your pocket. You forget about it. You move around in your clothes. The clothes move. Wash them, wear them again. Do not take out the coin. But eventually the movement of your body and your clothes will rub against the pocket so often that it will become weaker. The cloth will fray. One day the coin will fall out. It will return to your world.”

There was muttering in the room. Faces eyed each other nervously. Ekberg continued.

“The Pocket dimensions in which our matter, the matter from the Vanishing Boxes, currently exist, are indentical in one respect. They were all created using identical parameters. Each pocket is as strong as the next. And they will all wear out in the same way.”

The voices were becoming louder. Ekberg raised his own voice.

“My calculations, which I will share with you shortly, take into account the energy used by every Vanishing Box to create the Pocket dimensions. Larger boxes require more energy, but consequently move more matter, so that each Pocket has an identical duration. We all know the date of Professor Daley’s first Vanishing. The samples in that first box will return after 2392 days – ninety days from now.”

Ekberg was almost shouting over cries of alarm when he told them, “After that, everything which has ever been put into a Vanishing Box will return. Small things from small boxes. Big things from big boxes. Neatly packaged? No. They will all be dumped exactly where they were Vanished.

“Waste. Chemical. Biological. Domestic. Industrial. Nuclear. It will all return to us to contaminate our world again. The coffins and corpses we thought were gone, when we replaced all the crematorium funerals with Vanishing Boxes – even our dead relatives will come back, every last one of them. Every speck of dirt we disposed of and didn’t care where we put it because we just assumed it was gone forever... it will all be coming back to us.

“Ladies and gentlemen, every day we flush away our shit and forget about it, until the day our drains are blocked and our floors become flooded with filth. That day is coming, for the entire world. We have less than three months, and we need to work out how to dig ourselves out.”

Ninety days later, in an empty room which had once been the laboratory of Professor Elizabeth Daley, a small sample of powdered chemicals appeared, as if from nowhere. More items followed, all quickly whisked away for analysis by waiting scientists. Among the items were a cheese sandwich and a green apple, both still perfectly fresh. Most curious of all, though, was a badge, a plastic imitation police badge, upon which were written the words ‘Captain Obvious’.