I had a few shots the previous night, so when Landita Mitrova joked that she had only two more PowerPoint presentations to show us, I could have happily jeopardised my pension and thrown coffee at her. Carolyn knew me well and grabbed the cup before I could embarrass myself once again. Even so, I was cross. "You can't make decisions for me. You're not God, you know", I said. "But what if I was?" she said. "What?" "What if I was God? How do you know I'm not God?" My headache was returning. "You don't float about", I said. "But I do many mysterious things, don't I?" She had me there. Carolyn once started running in a speed-walking race for which she was the clear favourite, the winning of which would have guaranteed her a place in the Welsh Commonwealth Games squad. Nobody knew why she did it, and she never explained herself. "What if I was God?" I said. "That's ludicrous", she said. "What kind of god doesn't believe in himself?" Carolyn was triumphantly correct, but went on, just to rub it in. "You'd have to love everything. Maurice in Accounts. Aston Villa. Landy's PowerPoints. You would have to sit patiently while she went through tens of thousands of slides. You'd have to love them all." I searched my pockets for paracetamol. "Surely I'd be allowed a day off?" Carolyn blew on my coffee and took a sip. "You're not remotely qualified to be God", she said.
Ross began to wear fancy dress on our Friday nights at the pub. Most of us were amused and barely mentioned it, but Tam was getting increasingly agitated. "You need to relax, Tam", Aaron said. Tam opened some peanuts. "He's taking the piss", he said. To make matters worse, Tam went teetotal after the employment tribunal and now drank nothing but Irn Bru. Sean and Jonboy arrived at 7.30 and we began to discuss the game we were travelling to the next day. At 8.15, Ross came through from the public bar with Stanislau and Macca, who carried trays of shots. We gave a loud cheer, and some applause rose from another part of the bar. Ross gave everybody a twirl and we fired into the drink. It went on like this for a couple of hours until I noticed Tam holding a half pint of lager and breathing heavily. He looked into the distance at nothing. I put my hand on his forearm. "Tam? You OK?" I said. He muttered something which I didn't catch. "What did you say, Tam?" He leaned toward me. "Catwoman", he whispered. "What about her?" I said. He waved his free hand weakly toward Ross. It was like his oesophagus was closing "It's skin-tight." Ross's new costume was certainly supportive. Tam drank the lager in one, and some dribbled down his chin from his open mouth. He was sweating heavily. "Another?" I said. "Oh God, yes", he said.
In the Copse
When the monks and soldiers were at the city walls, we packed our bags, rolled up Grandpa, and crept away during the night. Curfew is a curious phenomenon. They want you to fear going out after dark, but it's probably the safest time to travel. The infantrymen are malnourished, largely untrained, and their rifles have no bullets. They're more scared than you are. Up at the castle, the generals drink and the priests whore away your taxes. Nobody was interested in our quiet exeunt. After a couple of hours, we were deep in the forest. It seemed the best place to lay Grandpa to rest. He wouldn't have wanted to leave his homeland, despite everything. So we dug a shallow grave, dropped him in and mumbled some unrehearsed words as we covered him with earth. Then we pushed on. When the night sky gave way to the grey-blue dawn, we were skirting along beside the open road to the border. We kept to the long grain below the road's surface for cover. There were still a hundred or more miles to go, so we found a copse in which to rest. "We'll see out the day's sun and set out at dusk", I said. Sleeping during the day is difficult enough. We weren't helped by the nagging thought that perhaps we should have first checked whether Grandpa was completely dead before we buried him.
Mark Russell has published two full collections and five pamphlets, the latest being o (the book of gatherings) with Red Ceilings. He won the 2020 Magma Poetry Judge’s Prize, and his poems have appeared in Stand, Shearsman, The Manchester Review, Tears in the Fence, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, Blackbox Manifold, and elsewhere.