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Scratch the cold surface

Dickens Field, London

Carlington Black, 2017


Clutching cellphone

to shaking young ear

Black hair, wrapped for Christmas

Fashionably morose

In Dickens Fields

Red nails, Black puffer, Dark brows.

Sobbing at digital fragments

Of spoken, news, transmitted.

Boyfriend gone, Mother found, Brother dead

We, We, undead

Impervious, Imperious, Lunching

In Lant Street

Where Dickens boarded

In shadow of the Shard

Daddy in Marshalsea

His mother cried

Up early for washing

Two centuries of shit

Circling, Coriolous, clockwise

A smartphone buzzes

In the middle of it all

She staggers to park bench

Winter wonderland

Fifty metre bitter halo

Solitude surrounded by

Revving courier van,

Wandering student, shiftworker, job hunter

No sobbing wanted heard

But really, our discomfort

Is cold comfort, can’t repress

the sobbing, a few words

Sobbing, Bare words, Sobbing,

What will she do when

she puts the phone down?

Jerusalem, Whanganui (2017)

It’s raining in Jerusalem

The sibilant storm welcomed

to this waiting place

silent, without judgement.

Invited to nestle among

tree clotted sheets

knotted at Mataimoana

Raindrops, countless


Soak shoes off path

haste to reach Saint Josephs.

Where the brass knob sticks


damp entry to

the storm’s clumsy pash.

A door finally gives in

to desiccated narthex,

Aubert’s consonant shrine.

East wall, the silent chancery

scowls away the ersatz


To wander the soaked lawn

where carved rills of khaki water

run toward a weed clumped paddock.

Where Mary stands in

pale shelter

blue linen gown

and thick leaved rhododendron

glade. No sky no horizon.

Fleshed bare

right foot.

Toes like writing fingers.

Nails flat and half mooned.

They never wrote a day in their life.

Washed clean again anyway.

Bishop Cullinane planted


In honour she never wanted

Now stunted. Out of place in these shadows.

Aubergine lichen licks the branches.

Mary stares,

steadfastly low.

Moisture springs

dribbles down

her inside ankle.

Nature’s kenosis.

This is


The Ghost Bus

(Written and read for LitCrawl, Wgtn 2016)

By Carlington Black

1086 words


Outside this theatre, just across the road, is the Courtenay Place bus stop. Stop number 5000.

If you are standing at that spot at 7:00pm on weekdays, keep an eye on the electronic bus timetable.

Watch closely. The sign will glitch, flicker and refresh: “Eastbourne 81 – due”.

This is strange because there is no 81 scheduled for 7pm. The last 81 bus leaves fifteen minutes earlier.

I have discovered there IS a 7.00pm 81 to Eastbourne.

It is a ghost bus.

The MetLink electronics sense its presence;

Its spectral signal trapped among the trolley wires,

among old copper telephone cables

trapped in tar and the macadam first laid when they built this damp city.

One night I unwittingly took that ghost bus to Eastbourne.

I was running late to get home after work.

At the bus stop I checked the electronic panel.

Right at the bottom glowed “Eastbourne 81”.

I knew that had to be wrong.

But the oddities of MetLink bus scheduling are legion.

So I waited.

I swiped through some phone stuff.

Soon the board insisted Eastbourne 81 was due.

But no 81 came.

I stepped onto the road, trying to make bus shapes in the distance out of the swelling gloom.

I was hit – buffeted – by a wave of bitter cold. Swayed with vertigo.

I pitched forward and went black.

A moment later I was lurching down the aisle of a bus.

“Steady there!” said a cheery voice.

One of the regular 81 bus drivers was at the wheel.

He said “Oh my, it’s you. Kowhai Street ain’t it?

“Yeah, that’s me.”

“You missed the last bus.”

“Oh sorry… what bus is this?”

“The 81”.

“That’s what I want.”

“This ain’t the 81 you want mate.”

In the gloom I could make out that about a third of the seats were full.

“Where’s everyone going then?”

“The bus depot,” he said.

There’s a 1930s bus depot at the end of the route, which is also the end of the road that side of the harbour.

“That’s not far from my house,” I answered.

“Look mate, I really don’t think you should be on this bus,” he said.

“I need to get home. I’m not getting off.”

“Suit yo’self, but watch your step.”

I picked my way down the pitching aisle.

My shoes skidded; something like blood was smeared across the floor.

I found an empty seat.

The spot in front was occupied by a rag-clothed individual. They smelt like rotting dog food.

The single dirty ceiling light dulled a moment, the bus skipped a gear, and the front door coruscated.

The bus hadn’t stopped, but someone had got on. They shambled their way down the aisle.

A limp leg skidded about behind them through the patch of blood.

Every few seconds they sniffed deep, heavy and wet.

I looked out the window and gave a commuter’s prayer that they wouldn’t sit next to me.

When the figure reached my seat, some ghastly puissance compelled me to sneak a look at them.

To find they, or it, looking straight at me.

The face looked like rain sodden roadkill. Bone and skin had been split open and flattened.

From the fleshy cavity issued a mournful, despairing whimper.

I looked away in shock and embarrassment, and the figure tramped past.

I chastised myself – it was merely some pitiable wretch misfortuned by life.

But that was an intellectual pretence.

I have seen such things in my nightmares. I have seen them in The Walking Dead and Resident Evil.

Zombies – you might be thinking.

That would be too easy.

I became conscious that my ankles were bitterly chilled.

The floor at my feet bubbled with pustiluous creamy fluid running from rag-man in front.

Somewhere at the back of the bus a singularly distinctive cough cut the silence. It merged into a stuttering cack. Then into a weal, pealing awfully.

The dread alarm carried by synapse throughout my body transmitted the dark truth. This bus, these passengers, and me, belonged to Apollyon. The dark lord.

Nausea followed this realisation. But I resolved not to succumb. I pulled myself up, and walked to the driver.

“Okay, what is this bus?”

“It collects the lost souls of Wellington.

“You mean commuters?

“Yeh, commuters, groovers, movers, shakers…”

“There’s so many.

“That’s Wellington mate. Lots of good intentions paving the way to hell.

“Am I dead?

“I don’t think so. You haven’t got that mangled thing going.

“What happens at the end of the line?”

“I stop the bus and they leave. Vanish.

“What about you.”

“I just drive. It’s my community service. You know – give something back – pay it forward.

“What will happen to me?”

“God knows.”

We came around Lion Rock, one harbour bend away from the depot. That seemed to set the passengers off. The wailing grew melodious, lulling.

We pulled alongside the depot, and the driver opened the front doors.

The things rose from their seats.

A seething collection of seeping awfulness. Mawing at festering wounds.

I was overwhelmed by their oppressive smell, their desecrated breath.

They muttered unfathomable incantations to the evil denizens they expected to embrace.

I was numb. Trance-like.

An unknown ode formed on my own dry lips.

‘Tis with joy I cease. The goddesses of destiny are come to fetch me.

 The grotesque beings drew closer. I stood between them and the exit doors.

The driver grasped my shoulder and hauled me out of the aisle.

I was manhandled and wedged, stupefied, into the space behind his seat.

From there I watched the lost souls walk past, down the exit well, and out into the blackness. As each took the final step they flashed into nothingness.  A wail on the breeze.

After the last soul departed, the driver pulled me to the door step.

I held back.

He clutched my hand, I closed my eyes, and we stepped from the bus into the night.

Onto firm dewy bitumen.

I turned a slow circle. There was no bus.

Harbour water washed over the pebbled beach.

Bush rustled in the hills.

The driver let go my hand.

I said to him “I forgot my briefcase.”

He said “Sorry mate, there’s no lost property office in hell.”

Wellingtonians, I ask a favour, if good intentions leave you a lost soul on the 7pm ghost bus to Eastbourne, please look out for my briefcase.

Loathing in Parnell

The servant problem is the Archilles heel of the rich.It is just about impossible to hire a maid who is smart enough to make a bed but too dumb to wonder why it is full of naked people every morning.

Hunter S Thomspon, A dog took my place


Bronach mated with Pádraig quickly. The cold rough hurry of shame. Among the blocks at the back of the church. She astern the carved three faces of Lugus, urging him on. He leaning into the storm, desperately skinning his thin knees.

Later, Saint Bronach clutched at the grimy church bell rope. The flat clang echoed over Carlingford Lough. The fishermen, save one, Taranis, were already in port. Wives scolded them for ever going out. After the storm softened, Taranis and his coracle washed up, battered and broken.

When they visited the church for Mass, Bronach hung from the rope, cold as a sparse morning’s catch.


How’s Bronagh? Paul Henry asks John Key.

Did you know there was a Saint Bronagh? That’s my wife, a saint. Key beams, and swings his legs childlike on a Green Room chair that is comically too big.

John was chauffeured through the dark winter morning to the studio. A full moon shone cold on prickly flesh emerging from nightclubs. It shone cold on rag-stuffed downtown doorways.   John asked his press secretary; Why does anyone need to be up at this hour?

Paul Henry asks, what about NZ troops in Syria? Are we fighting ISIS or not?

Key is warming up. His snorts at Henry. Your purple jacket – this ain’t the Barney show.

Housing shortage and high prices brought about by rapid immigration? How can young people afford the New Zealand dream? What has happened to our nation?

I can’t give you financial advice.

You’re estimated to be worth fifty million. Surely you’ve got some advice?

Watch where you spend it.

Back at his mansion Bronagh perches astern the stone kitchen island, arse up and pyjama pants down. A cup of whiskey tea steams in front of her. The TV is on. Her husband, bright television blues and reds, sniggers cheerily as the rump points toward the kitchen window.

A security detachment wanders outside the kitchen. Three of them on duty. Taking turns at the window to make sure Bronagh is okay. These guys are well paid for the trouble. $75,000 salary. Plus their three commanding officers, logistics and supply. A psychologist to process their angst and anger issues. This Saint costs a million dollars a year. The taxes of seventeen small businesses just to watch her arse and stop her topping herself.

Next door are the Jamiesons. Alan and Sophia. A Greco-roman tabernacle built on the cost of leaking middle class houses. Indirectly you understand. Nothing so dirty as handing over money. Derivatives and forward contracts on prime mortgages that John Key cannot allow to fail.

A threesome of gardeners wanders the lawn, preparing the greenery for the weekend party.  They pick at weeds and flatten worm casts.

There’s parties most weekends. Clothing is optional. Cocaine isn’t. The hookers arrive at the front door in ubers. The rough trade parks down the road and enters via the garage.

The rich apply the droped sandwich rule at sex parties, rutting frequently, but quickly.

Alan’s eyes were bright blue, burning like an acetylene gas welder, when he met me at the garage door at one of the parties. He showed me the Masserati and the BMW. He showed me the kitchen, stuffed with chicken and frightened servants. He showed me the lounge with coke on the Mangiarotti occasional tables, and drunk TV stars spread over Massaud sofas. I pointed out the Angus and the Fomison on the walls. He looked at me askew and took me to a bedroom sliding with skinny naked hookers.

I asked for the bathroom. He showed me the guest toilets.  There was white vomit in one corner. The other corner held up a naked young woman. She was shouting things incoherent. Shit trickled down the back of her thighs.  She was dabbing at herself with uncreased pages of The Luminaries.  She held out wet fingers for a hand-up. I lifted her by clammy armpits, helped her flop into the shower, and turned it on hard and hot.

The promising surfer Jordan Young had been at a Jamieson party. A three day search ended when he was found in a tidal pool, drowned, near Muriwai. The famous pathologist Lucan Parkay said his system was jacked with crack. His naked body had no detectable sexual fluids or signs of violence.

I found Lucan in the Jamieson’s den. His pants flapping, misbuttoned and unbuckled.  A naked brown woman was passed out on the carpet. Her thin sinewy flanks breathed shallow.

Lucan is an ex-King’s College boy. I handed him a Laphroaig and we clinked glasses. I hate Laphroaig. I dropped out of Dinsdale High. No one came looking for where I washed up, in a puddly mall gutter. Lucan was loose. He confided that it was hard to be confident about Jordan’s condition. Salt cleanses, and rocks tear more terribly than fingernails.

He began a wet chuckle, whiskey spittle at the corner of his mouth, and tears in his eyes. You know, he said, Jordan’s mother came to the inquest. She kept sobbing about a mouse. I figured she was on citalopram or something. Pitied her husband. That stuff fucks your sex drive. I found out later ‘mouse’ was the nickname she’d given her youngest boy.

Parnell’s ambivalence is naked. Its people run and ruin the lives of others at a distance. If they come close, at weekends, they use protection: gloves and condoms. Parnell hates the people it fucks. Despoliation is quick and forgotten in the miasma of alcohol and cocaine.

Bronach. In Celtic, it means “sorrow”.

I travel

Alone for a moment with the horizontal harbour. A vertical train, small wheeling me up the hill. A visit. Sun high. A glancing blow. My eyes. Mesmerised.

The golden city that side. Mystical. Pours from the hills, spills down the valleys, fills across the fore. Shore soft routed roman ogee.

Keruru crash. Wing flacking hard, horizontal past me.

Pare back my eyes. This side, crackling dry bush frames the golden city. This side, the funicular rundles the rails, lifting me to the house where the bush closes in.

I’m not alone now. She lies with me, half across my trousered lap.

Her face bathed in sun and the golden city.

Her head side, nestled into the small of my elbow.

She’s warm. She’s heavy. She’s breathing deeply. I don’t know her.

An eighties cut, clipped hard on the up side. Clipped soft on the sleeping side. A vigorous fringe. It shines. Tussled but holding shape over her curling ears.

An upturned nose, worn high. Aloofness, an allure. The even-toned golden cheek I can see, short-nicked at the smile line, is not so sure.

Makeup applied only to her pouting lips, assertive, almost brown. They glisten.

She drools, wetting my shirt sleeve.

And the funicular lifts us higher.

Her right hand lies on my knee. Fingers thick and strong. Hangnail forefinger. Indian ink rings on the tips. A scar drying across the knuckles.  Feeding from a singular long vein. A muscle pulses in the lee of her wrist; there is no refuge. She struggles and lifts it momentarily, drops and snuggles deeper.

And the funicular lifts us higher.

She’s dressed to travel. Coated in a scuffed black jacket. Wrapped in dark trousers. Tiny grey buttons march thin down outside the seam. Her ankle boots are purple. The leather is new but the toe tips are scuffed.

And the funicular lifts us higher.

That side, the golden city glowers. Nothing keeps to its place. Everything crosses over. Sun-heated neutrinos travel. Warm organic aerosol arrives. Transition to caress my eyelids. They are brushed shut.

The funicular jolts and stops.

The electric motor spins down. Friction-heated metal cools and creaks.

I stand, alone, shaky like a rustled sheep.

Fingers feel braille-like for the latch on the exit gate.

Robyn answers her door, opening it carefully before me. Crossing the first threshold, I wander in.

I stand, arrived, in the middle of the lounge.

Robyn says “Is it raining?”

and brushes at the damp patch on my shirt sleeve.