THE HIKE

a-mountain-hike

‘Oh, lone is the path that turns its head, that coils the slopes, and reaches unseen peaks.’

A ramble no more amongst congested city parks, devils careering on wheelie boards, arses slung from low-hung jeans, bins stocked full with detritus: used pampers, split micro-brewery plastic tankards and tomato splattered pizza cartons.

Out into the big sky and mountainous ranges, the air rare and tight, the urban hiker takes his beard for a wild unanswered whistle and a solitary testing climb. No mobile reception, no wifi, just him and his lightly groomed, much-coveted facial hair.

‘Beard, I like it. I like it very much,’ he says.

The beard tenses, its follicles frosting with the cold, tightening its grasp on the skin around his master’s mouth to produce a satisfying satisfied grin.

‘I want to shout “I’m smiling because I’m happy!”’

The beard has other ideas and tightens its hold further so the hiker can speak no more. He is forced to sit down with his beard at the mountain’s peak and listen and watch, the cold mist rising from the valley to join his own exhaled plumes of breath, his heart slowing to a single beat, everything laid out before him.

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AN UNHOLY GRAIL

 

an-unholy-grail

Quiet now. The night is Devil black.

Sleep now. The Knight waits for attack.

They mass behind. They storm and plunder –

The giant evil birds, the filthy scalded cats,

The tombstone tenants, faces racked by thunder.

Hope shines out from the door in a negative of night,

The moon above is full and on the other side of dawn

The cheats and murderous burst out of the earth,

The horned devil finds a good place from which to strike,

All light gone and night undone, the Knight waits.

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MONSTERS WITHIN

monsters-within

Mister Tindall runs the sweet shop. Mister Tindall lives alone. Mister Tindall has no friends. Mister Tindall is a monster.

Me and my brother call him names: yellow fangs, pus breather, custard eyes and banana ears; these are our yellow names for him.

He is the ugliest man in the street. He is the ugliest man in the town. He is the ugliest man in the world. He isn’t even a man.

Once he was wearing sandals and I saw claws where there should have been toes. He has a hairy back that’s way too hairy even for a very hairy man. He has spikes where they have no right to be. He owns a tail.

Dad says he’s the sort who would sit behind a screen in a darkened room and target bombs onto innocent streets and faraway playgrounds. Mum says Dad is being ridiculous but asks us each day if we’ve actually seen his tail. She has a strange worried look when she asks this. Like she’s remembering a nightmare and isn’t sure if she’s our Mum anymore.

That’s the effect Mister Tindall has. He upsets everyone and everything. That’s why we don’t go into his sweet shop, except when he’s not there. There are pink gums, red gobstoppers, small stacks of Dracula milk teeth, and jars with body chunks floating in formaldehyde.

A new rumour has started going around town. It says Mister Tindall is fearful of his own reflection, and is as scared of us as we are of him. He’s a coward and can be got at! Last week Dad rounded up a posse and they took flaming torches and stood outside his shop for hours not saying a word.

We still hurry when we pass the shop on the way to school. In class we all daydream about him. On the way home we write graffiti on his walls, like ‘leave our town’ and ‘you’re not welcome’. At night we hear him rubbing away the words, and once we heard him cry.

 

 

Picture by Jonny Voss

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WATCHING THE DETECTIVES

KOJAK

Hello, Detective, where are you going?

Call me Theo

Theo, that’s a nice name

Yes it is

Is that your lollypop?

Yes it is

It looks sweet

Yes it is

I want you

Yes you do

I love you

Yes you do

You’re so direct

Yes I am

Tell me something to break my heart

Who loves ya, baby?

Ohhhhhh, Theo!

When a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?

You really do it to me

Yes I do

You’re the main man

Yes I am

Ohhhhhh, Kojak, you’ve done me again!

Yes I have

13 Kojak

 

QUINCY

QUINCY

‘I swear I saw it, I did, I did,’ says the lippy horseman pointing back towards the island.

‘You saw what, may I ask?’ asks the armless one.

‘Fungus Face, Mister Mask the Fungus Face! He made some bad ju ju down there.’

‘Do do?’

‘Ju Ju! He do an autopsy or something on someone or something, I don’t know what. Couldn’t make it out.’

‘You should go back and make it out,’ says the armless one.

‘Come on! Who do you think I am, Poirot or Quincy?’ asks the horseman

‘Quincy.’

‘And who do you think he is?’

‘Quincy.’

‘Well, I’m not going back, not for you, not for no one, not even for Quincy.’

 

POLICE! CAMERA! ACTION!

creep

 

Police! Camera! Action!

Another disaster programme done and dusted, and the TV anchor-man made from slime and Milk Tray slips away to the park. Clothes off, neck hair swept back, his metamorphosis into a creeping creeper creep happens within his own moving fog of smug. His form glides as much as it hunches and when he arrives in the park he sets about worrying the deer by whispering crime statistics and the phrase ‘buckled Austin Princess’ into their hot felt like ears. ‘Bastards’ is a word he savours for unsettling the stags, their bony coat stands tensing as if they might rut and cut at any moment. But as quick as he was there, he’s gone again. Back to the studios and into his early evening television suit, a Chaplin dung stain mopped off his top lip by his adoring assistant, his tiny hooves clasping the calf insoles of his smart heeled shoes.

Smile! Smarm! Action!

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THE PARTY

 

21 THE PARTY

It really was a miserable party, it really was.

Young Hilary Stoppard and his pretentious young set contemplated the splenetic corners of art’s responsibilities within a splintered decaying cosmos.

Under an ageing Soviet philosopher’s smoke exhalation they gathered in an umbilical circle to soak in each of his puritanical philosophisings:

‘Believe in the rhythmic order of your heartbeat and trust no creation younger than your least favourite aunt or neighbourhood spinster.’

Hilary’s girlfriend, Bunti, corrected her spine with a long natural breath and a complex re-interpretation of Alexander technique. Sigmund, who suffers from total-allergy syndrome, adjusted the valve feeding oxygen into his astronaut suit and wondered if air was in itself a poison more potent than Velcro.

The deflated clown behind the punishing philosopher wore a look of utter defeat, his soul carrying the angst of the world in its tiny blue sac.

Hilary Stoppard looked out into the everywhere and imagined himself more than himself but less than an atom.

It really was a miserable party, it really was.

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GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY

GO WILD IN THE COUNTRY

As Nadine walks slowly towards the entrance to the Villa, she ties her dressing gown tight around her waist and slides the palms of her hands down from her thighs as if she’s rubbing away something. Renzo sits casually on the brow of the hill smoking a cigarette, not caring if anyone sees him, the sleeves of his grey porter’s jacket rolled up his arms, the collar up around his neck as if he’s an extra in Grease. When he exhales it looks like he’s whistling. As Nadine comes up the entrance stairs she sees me and gives me the finger.

Since qualifying, I’ve been running writing sessions for the Villa’s younger patients. Nadine is a disruptive influence when she bothers to turn up, her snaking moods, sometimes enchanting, but more often sullen, brooding something within. Today she’s the first to arrive, and, after shedding her anger outside the nurses’ office – what are you fucking looking at? I can talk to the porters if I want to, and I can fuck them if I want to! – she seems different, the hormonal blush of anger on her neck already fading into blotchy pink and white, calmer, ready to be open . . . opened.

‘I saw you looking, Tom.’

‘Renzo is not a good guy.’

Nadine pretends to be surprised and then stares at me, holding her gaze a little too long, then suddenly laughs.

‘I like his cock, Tom, I don’t like him.’

‘Okay, Nadine, I get it.’

She mimics what I say with a heavy, breathy accent: ‘Okay, Nadine, I get it’. ‘Do you get it, Tom?’ she adds lightly in her own voice.

‘You could express your thoughts on the page.’

She stifles a laugh and tries the same trick, mimicking what I say, but her eyes soften a little when repeating the phrase ‘thoughts on the page’ as if it were suggesting something quaint, safe to dive into.

‘I still have the poem you wrote when you came the first time.’

‘Poor you.’

‘It was honest.’

‘It was bollocks.’

‘You said the marks on your wrists were the “blade’s curse”, your “flesh tattoos”, I remember those phrases.’

‘Poetry bollocks, Tom, I said it so you’d like me.’

‘I like the words, Nadine.’

‘Not me? Or these?’

She pulls up the sleeves on her dressing gown and stretches out her arms, palms up to the ceiling. The cuts look surprisingly deep and purpling, and a few are fresh, red and angry, jagged at the edges like wild bite marks.

She steps closer. ‘You can touch them if you want.’

‘Do the nurses know?’

‘Tom, it’s okay.’

The surfaces of the old cuts feel hard and knobbly like reptile skin but the new cuts are too real.

‘You know they can get infected?’

‘So?’

‘Well, you’d get sick.’

‘Duh, Tom! I’m already sick.’ She smiles. ‘You can press harder, you won’t hurt me, nothing really hurts me.’

Nadine would never show the nurses her cuts, and I would never tell them. Elaine, their leader, likes to sit on the table in the staffroom and address the other nurses as if she were giving a sermon. In their tank tops, cheesecloth shirts and pale blue jeans, they look like the Manson family, a joke I would share if everyone weren’t part of the cult.

I first talked to Elaine at the social club at the end of my first week at work. She came up to me as I chose a song on the jukebox: Bow Wow Wow’s ‘Go Wild in the Country’.

‘It’s Tom, isn’t it? I love the singer, so cute. What’s her name?’

‘Annabella.’

‘I’ve been observing you at work so I thought you’d know her name. She’s really pretty, don’t you think?’

‘She’s got a great voice.’

‘Good tits too though, eh, Tom? But she’s only fourteen. Makes me feel a little uneasy, that Manet painting on the cover of the single with her in the nude, it’s not right, is it?’

‘No, I suppose it isn’t.’

‘I’m joking, Tom, she’s beautiful. Why shouldn’t she be naked?’

She watches me closely, waiting for a response.

‘But if I weren’t joking, I’d be saying she shouldn’t be naked on the cover of a single that sad little men are going to take into their bedrooms to fondle and drool over. But am I joking or not joking?’

‘I don’t know.’

One of the gang called Steve came over: ‘Are you playing with the mind of our new member of staff, Lane?’

‘I’m not playing with your mind am I, Tom? I’m too old to be playing with Tom’s mind. I think he’d prefer younger girls to play with . . . his mind. Wouldn’t you, Tom?’

‘Come on, Lane, that’s enough.’ And then Steve looked at me with a sympathetic smile. ‘Sorry, old chap, Lane makes her mind up pretty quickly about people. If I was you I’d lie low.’

I started to walk away.

‘Heh, Largactyl boy, keep moving because I’ve got you in my sights,’ Elaine said and shaped her hand like a pistol, one eye cocked like Travis Bickle, and pretended to shoot.

When I started at the Villa, Nadine was thick with a boy called Gavin. During workshops I’d often find myself looking out into the grounds. One afternoon I saw them walking hand in hand towards the sheep fields on the asylum farm. One of the patients said they were going to pick magic mushrooms.

When they came back later they were laughing like coyotes, running up and down the paths in purposeful patterns as if creating a topographic maze together, one only seen by them or by an imaginary bird hovering overhead.

A nurse ambled out and talked to them, shared a toke on a cigarette and brought them inside.

One night Gavin walked out of the Villa without telling anyone. He went home to see his mother who hadn’t been answering his letters. His mother was a paranoid schizophrenic and didn’t let him in the house because she was scared what he might do. Gavin smashed the lounge window and then hung himself from the rope swing under the tree at the bottom of their garden.

When Nadine was told, she said nothing for weeks. She was taken to the main hospital for special treatment. Six ECT sessions were prescribed and when she returned, she’d chopped her hair, smudged raven’s lipstick on her lips like a charred clown and talked slowly and deeply as if she were underwater. She came silently into a writing session and wrote on the wall:

The angel boy that flew down to peck out my eyes made me see.

I dream of him still and he touches me, holds me,

Smiles as he tightens his grip on my heart, carries it into the sky, and then lets go.’

 

Lola, my girlfriend, likes to call Nadine ‘Crazy Cat’.

Funny that, because cats have taken over the intimacy of our relationship: bromide in our tea. We stare at the television in dead-eyed awe, empty mugs collecting in front of us on the table; Roger, the tabby on my lap, Tabatha, the mottled sphinx, purring into Lola’s thigh. The cats speak for us or rather we speak through them. My voice is a bass growl for Roger: ‘Daddy would like to watch The Professionals now.’

‘Tell Daddy to earn some more money and buy a video recorder. Otherwise he’ll have to wait for All Creatures Great and Small to finish.’ I have grown to hate Lola’s soft velvet kitten tone for Tabatha: rejection with a cartoon Aristocats girly voice when the voice, like its message, should be spiky and cold.

When I slide my hand across the sofa I have to go under Tabatha’s purring belly to reach Lola’s skirt. As I attempt a lift I feel a claw and hear Lola’s Tabatha voice: ‘When Daddy stops behaving like The Son Of Sam he may have a kiss. Until then he can relieve himself in the bathroom.’

When I stand up, Roger rolls casually onto the floor and lies on his back waiting for his tummy to be stroked. I fall on him as if enacting the rug scene in Sons and Lovers; Roger is Oliver Reed.

 

After I finish the workshop I find Renzo and Nadine sitting on the steps by the Villa entrance. She has a huge red love bite on her neck, and Renzo gives me a wink.

‘Did you just wink at me, Renzo?’

‘Yeah, and I can give you a kiss too if you want.’ He squeezes his lips grotesquely together for an imaginary snog and Nadine laughs.

‘You’re an animal!’

He growls and Nadine tilts her head back and howls.

‘And you’re a pussy boy’

‘Why don’t you leave her alone?’

‘So you can have your taste, pussy boy?’

Nadine laughs at this.

‘Fuck off, Renzo!’

‘Pussy words! I fuck, you fuck off!’

Elaine throws open the entrance door. ‘No, you can both fuck off. Nadine, leave your little fan club and get inside, now!’

I’m left with Renzo at the top of the steps. He squeezes out two cigarettes from the top pocket of his porter’s jacket, lights both, and then offers me one.

‘Women are cunts,’ he says and spits his gum over my shoulder.

In Taxi Driver, Robert De Niro shoots the pimp, Harvey Keitel, in the belly. I take his cigarette, inhale, and block him out and fantasize about how I can save her and save myself.

I find a bench at the back of the Villa. It’s mid October and the grass has been full of damp and dew for weeks but there hasn’t been a frost yet. A mist hangs over the sheep fields at the edge of the asylum grounds. I was told earlier by Jonny, one of the porters who looks a little too much like Jim Davidson, that today is perfect for picking mushrooms. He told me to what to look for: a small white pointed dome with a kink half way down a tall spindly stalk. He told how to dry and prepare them and warned me not to eat too many the first time.

Nadine appears from around the building and joins me ‘You were right about the wop,’ she says. ‘He’s fucking another nutcase now.’

‘He’ll get his comeuppance.’

‘I doubt it, Tom. That sort get to rule the world, don’t they? But you’re not like that, are you?’

‘Not normally.’

‘Fancy a stroll?’ she says.

We walk out towards the sheep fields. When we get there we find that the sheep have been moved from the farthest field.

‘Perfect!’ she says. ‘I’m going to get out of it. Will you keep watch?’

‘I’m not one of the patients, Nadine.’

‘Are you sure about that, Tom?’

‘Anyway, I’m partial to a magic mushroom now and then.’

‘Fuck off, you’re way too straight.’

‘It’s the silent ones you should look out for, Nadine.’

‘If you say so. Here, be useful for once and take my hand.’

I help her over the stile into the empty field, and we start picking.

‘You need to wipe them clean to get off any sheep shit. Then eat a few at a time,’ she says.

I have maybe forty in my hand and eat them in front of her.

‘You stupid bastard, that’s way too many in one go.’

I eat another handful − they taste rank, putrid − and then sit on the grass and watch her get her measure. She is careful, artful, bent over so she can examine them as she picks, rejecting some and discarding them back onto the ground, keeping the good ones and dropping them onto the curled hem of her skirt. She wipes away the dirt and eats a few at a time, sipping from a bottle of water between each mouthful. As I watch her my nausea starts, takes me in a tidal wash so that I suddenly tip forward, my gut twisting, falling hard and wrenching tufts of grass out from the earth with my hands and my teeth. I lie there for what seems like ages and fight to let the poison out.

My stomach quietens for a moment. Looking up, it is as if the earth is lying on its side, the asylum tipped up like a drowning Titanic, the clouds disappearing into the earth. Nadine looks at me from an angle and smiles and it’s the smile of the ancients in the here and now, at once wizened and wise but also pixotic and mischievous. I am crying and when I rub my eyes, dirty salty rainwater spits up and dribbles into my mouth. The nausea is overwhelming again and I want to be sick but can’t. I want Mum. Nadine is by my hot head, a curious monkey girl flicking ticks from my hair and rubbing my head. But her hand is cool porcelain; a shop dummy girl in a Victorian dress shop and I start laughing, the Victorian asylum, her Victorian doll like face, a Victorian clockwork monkey beating a drum, Keith Moon gurning on snare, the pale moon a cymbal, the ley lines that travel beneath me and through the grounds and out onto the Downs, a secret swirling snake . . . wild, go wild in the country . . .

‘Where snakes in the grass are free?’ Nadine asks.

Her face changes, cheekbones heightening and sharpening, and she’s Annabella, her voice like the cooling breeze tingling my skin. I want to shit and it makes sense to do it here on the earth, shit to shit, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, my brain hot wiring connections as a greater awareness keeps promising to emerge. I try to take my trousers off but my fingers are weak and I can’t unclasp the belt. And then I feel her arms around me like warm insulating wings. I want her to hold me like this forever but things never stay still for a single moment.

‘Tom, don’t do that. Just relax and let it happen but promise you’ll keep your clothes on.’

She drops a handful of mushrooms and I swear I can see them pop like golden sherbet in her mouth.

‘You look like you need company,’ she says.

That sounds exciting but somehow worrying too. I feel an overwhelming panic taking me over and I want to shit again. I go inside, burrowing. I see Lola and our cats mouthing along to an advert on the television, Cats would buy Whiskas, and I feel a blanket, my jacket over my head. It’s the saddest feeling I’ve ever had and I start crying again. It seems like I’m crying for ages. When I take the jacket off my head it’s raining and Nadine is dancing like a maniac at the top of a slope.

‘Stop moaning about your girlfriend and your cats, just leave them!’ she shouts.

I didn’t know I’d been talking.

‘We don’t make love anymore,’ I say.

‘Well, you shouldn’t be fucking your cats anyway, it’s illegal!’

‘Lola isn’t a cat!’

And suddenly we’re both laughing. Nadine stands tall on a burial mound braying like a donkey, her huge toothy mouth turned up to the sky. I’m chattering and guffawing like monkeys and I can’t stop.

Nadine runs over, still laughing I think, and taps me with a knuckle on my forehead.

‘You’re making my brain hurt, Tom, stop talking about her.’

‘Do you miss Gavin?’ I ask and I see her face change, a landslide after an earthquake so all the features melt and drop, her mouth softening and caving in, water running down her cheeks and across her lips.

‘You fucking bastard, Tom! You’re trying to do my head in.’

I try and grab her but touch her breasts by mistake.

She screams in my face and pulls off her top and throws her bra onto the ground.

‘Just like all the other fuckers, Tom! Come on, cop a feel, that’s what you want, isn’t it?’

She pulls my hands towards her breasts and I struggle to stop them touching. They’re scarred red, small slash marks, yellow burns across the breasts and over her nipples.

‘Come on!’ she screams.

‘Nadine, stop, please.’

I am trying to climb out, sober up . . . rescue.

I grab her in a bear hug and start making reassuring animal noises, it’s what comes naturally,‘grrr grr’ slowly becoming ‘there there’. After a while she stops struggling, stops crying. I repeat the ‘there there’ mantra, squeezing tighter and tighter until she jabs me in the ribs.

‘For fuck’s sake, Tom, I’d rather you touch my tits than suffocate me.’

I let go and she puts her top back on.

‘Come on then,’ she says taking my hand, ‘I’m soaking and it’s not working here. Let’s go back and find somewhere dry to sit and ride it out.’

‘Not inside, I like it out here,’ I say. ‘There’s something about being outside, the earth.’

‘Oh, I can tell you like the earth, you kept trying to cultivate it with your shit.’

‘I didn’t, did I?’

‘You did so.’ And she points to a crap, shaped like a giant mushroom dome, a few feet away.

‘Clever, that one,’ she says and we start laughing again, and we keep on laughing until we find a bench under a large oak tree in a quiet part of the hospital grounds to shelter from the rain. There we sit together barely speaking, my brain slowing, settling, but still flickering connections, wondering if hers are making the same ones but somehow knowing she wants to have her thoughts to herself and not hear mine, watching the leaves dance and spin before settling on the grass, the giant October sun dropping below the hills, the sky grey and blackening, the stars, the stars . . . and when I wake up Nadine is gone.

**********

Go Wild in the Country originally appeared on 3:AM and is in  Best British Short Stories 2015 published by Salt

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CREAM CRACKERS

CREAM CRACKERS

Mum always said I was simple but vain: a lethal cocktail in her book. Granddad said I was ‘as smug us a bug in a rug’; whatever that meant. But I’ve always had this notion that I could be a hero, something, someone to look up to, a pinnacle –‘

‘An icon, lad,’ Mum said. ‘They call this an icon.’

‘Not on a plinth to stare up at, but a fully fledged blood and guts hero.’

‘An icon!’

‘So how do I do it?’

‘Do it?’ Mum said. ‘You’re crackers, lad. Just stop with all the dirty talk, your brain is made up of crumbs: crackers plain and simple, that’s what you are.’

Jacob’s Cream my brother used to call me. Only he meant it in a sly, saucy Old Testament way.

‘You’ll end up with a permanent spot on Looney Tunes like your brother if you don’t shut down the hero talk!’ Mum warned.

My bother had shut it down. He’d followed the words of an angry bishop who said radical Muslims were damaging status quo. Devoted to Saint Francis (Rossi,) my brother tried to crucify our neighbour, Mister Khan’s cat. Cat would have none of it and backed him up in an alleyway and clawed at his face.

I visited him by his new bed in his new room. ‘Cover my foot in coal dust and hand me a bandana,’ Granddad used to say to us when we were small. We had no idea what he meant but it always made us laugh. I tried the line again but my brother didn’t even smile. ‘Still spitting crumbs, Jacob?’ he asked, rubbing the scratches on his cheeks.

When it was clear he wasn’t returning, I tried to shut down the hero impulses for good but the hero words just kept coming.

Many years later, Mrs Vance, who lived next door, got her self in a spot of bother.

‘I’ve got myself in a spot of bother, Thomas (“that’s my name. Please, remember it!”).’

Sidney Groat was a moneylender, old school. Kneecap Sid some called him: one tap on each knee with a hammer for each day you were late with a payment. Mrs Vance was four days late, plastic hips, plastic kneecaps and all. ‘Call me the bionic woman,’ she used to say whilst pulling out her dentures, and then holding them above her head to make chopping shapes in the clouds.

‘Could you help an old woman in distress, Thomas?’ she asked.

‘I’ll sort it, whatever it is!’ I said.

I lay in wait for his next visit. Tap he went on Mrs Vance’s door, which I was sure she felt as a threat deep in her (knee) bones.

I burst out of a bush with my nephew’s Spiderman mask on. ‘Step back, Mister Groat or you’ll be spinning in my web and eating worms for dinner,’ (another of Granddad’s phrases).

‘Who, the fuck are you?’

‘Jacob Cream,’ I said.

He laughed, and this gave me my chance.

I took out my carrier bag (‘5p, daylight bloody robbery!’ Mum would have said if she were still alive), and pulled it over his head and tied. His arms waved; his face made moving shadows inside the bag, an angry wide mouth. He fell onto his knees after a while.

Mrs Vance stepped out. ‘ What have you gone and done? I only meant you to warn him off!’

Hard this hero stuff, hard to know where to draw the line. I didn’t fancy ending up sitting on a hospital bench next to my brother making hedgehogs from pinecones so I ran.

Mrs Vance helped Mister Groat up and they looked down the street to see if they could spot me. Mrs Vance should have got out her dentures: I was high up in the trees beside the clouds.

**********

I’m up here now. If you look carefully you can see fine crumbs falling from the sky when I speak. And if you’re in trouble, I’ll stop talking and come down and help you. Like most heroes I’m a better listener than talker anyway, ‘a transistor radio with knobs on but no batteries left inside’ as Granddad used to say.

Cream Crackers for Gorse .

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