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Pandora's Last Act

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What was Pandora's last gift to humanity, and how can it save men and women who have never met from a terrible fate? Paul Grey has just turned fifty, but that's okay. He can cope. He's just been divorced from his wife of twenty five years and moved into a new flat. His daughter is about to leave for University. That's okay, he can cope with those things too. He can even cope with staring a new relationship with a woman twenty years his junior. What he can't cope with is the apparition who keeps appearing in his room, a woman with a barely visible face, a woman who screams and screams, "You've got to stop him! You've got to stop him of it's ALL YOUR FAULT!" No, that's when Paul starts to fall apart and is led into a terrifying world of deceit, betrayal and tragic loss, with only Pandora's last gift to humanity to sustain him. "Pandora's Last Act" - why do men and women behave the way they do? And is anyone out there looking out for us?

Horror / Thriller
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

‘Jesus Christ almighty,’ said Bill, hunched on the floor, rummaging through the box of CDs, ’how many musicals do you own?’

‘That’s right dear,’ said Dawn as she struggled into the living room with a box marked KITCHEN, ‘you keep busy.’ Dawn was not yet thirty, trim, blonde and beautiful…but the sweat was clumping her hair and her face was turning red. Not entirely from exertion either.

Bill either didn’t hear her, or elected not to. To Paul, of course, this was very funny. Everything about Bill was funny to Paul, which is why they were friends. The essence of friendship, he’d long ago reasoned, was how easily you laugh in the other person’s company. But then again, Paul didn’t have to live with him and Dawn did, which made a world of difference. Living with someone was hard bloody work. Sometimes – most times – it rewarded you in all sorts of ways. Then again, it could also all have been for nothing.

No, not nothing – nothing was for nothing as his old Mum had often said. There was Sonia, after all. And she was worth everything.

‘You are so gay,’ said Bill, not looking up from the box. ’Oh good God, Evita! Evita, for Christ’s sake!’

Evita’s got lovely songs in it,’ said Sonia, emerging from the bathroom. She surveyed the scene – boxes, boxes everywhere and not a drop to drink – then headed back downstairs.

‘You got the vet in for her,’ muttered Bill. ‘You’re too gay to have impregnated a lady, you big, gay Gaylord.’

Paul caught the look Dawn gave to the back of Bill’s head and stepped forward. ‘I’ll take that,’ he said.

‘Nah, it’s fine,’ Dawn dumped the box on the kitchenette worktop. The kitchenette and the living room shared the same space. It was convenient in its way. ‘What next?’

There were twenty years between Paul and Dawn, enough for him to be her father, but had he reached out a hand to tuck that stray blonde hair behind her ear – the way he would have with Sonia – it would have been inappropriate somehow. He didn’t know why, it just would. ‘Now, nothing,’ he said. ‘Not for half an hour. I’m calling a tea break.’

‘There’s still a load of boxes in the van,’ Dawn protested.

‘I’ll get Sonia to lock it. Most of the stuff’s in here now. If someone wants to nick my towels, let them.’

‘OK then,’ said Dawn, and smiled. She had a hell of a smile. ‘Bill’s probably exhausted anyway.’

ELO,’ Bill screamed in anguish. ’ELO! Why do I even talk to you?’

Fifteen minutes later they were sitting with mugs in their hands, Sonia on the floor, Bill and Dawn on the sofa and Paul on his padded swivel chair which would very nicely face the TV when he unpacked the damn thing and connected it up.

‘Nice place this,’ said Dawn. ‘You did well.’

‘It’ll do,’ said Paul. And it would, he wasn’t lying. Yes, there was a combined kitchenette/living room, but there were two bedrooms and a bathroom with an actual by-God bath in it. A place to sit, a place to eat, a place to sleep, a place to wash and a place to crap. Wasn’t that what everyone needed? Just that and nothing more?

It wasn’t a new flat – the Victorian building which housed it had been converted back in the 1980s – but it was refurbished. New carpet, freshly plastered walls, uPVC double glazed windows, fresh bathroom suite. No, it wasn’t his and never would be…but the house hadn’t been his (sorry, theirs) either, had it? It belonged to the building society. They’d just been paying off the loan. And as soon as the house was sold and half of the money hit his back pocket, then who knew?

So Flat 4, 11 St Peter’s Square, Southport was where he was. For the time being, anyway. And where he was had always been good enough for Paul Grey. He didn’t ask for much. He was easily pleased, as Trish had put it, first with tolerance and love, then with exasperation, then finally with anger.

But he wouldn’t think of Trish now – at least not as she was at the end of it all, bitter with recriminations at his failed ambitions – he was in his new space, drinking coffee with his people and who wanted to spoil that?

‘It’ll be totty central here, mate,’ said Bill.

Uncle Bill,’ said Sonia, nearly spitting her tea.

‘It will be, sorry,’ said Bill – and give him this – after checking to see if Paul was smiling. ‘He’ll be knocking them off with a shi…with a stick.’

‘Dad, make him stop,’ said Sonia, turning those huge blue eyes on him. Nineteen, Paul thought. How many boyfriends? What are they doing to you? What are you doing to them? But again, that wasn’t a thought for a good day, so he stamped on it. Instead, he decided some daughter teasing was in order. There was little point having children unless you could tease them sometimes.

‘Bill’s got a point,’ said Paul, gazing off into the future with a daft smile on his face. ‘I mean, I’m old, I’m not dead.’

‘There’s life in the old dog yet,’ Bill joined in. Bill was thirty-eight, but when he got on a roll he looked like a naughty eight year old with crayons in his hand standing by some wallpaper with the word SNOT scrawled on it.

‘I’m still upright and sniffing the air,’ said Paul.

‘You’d be quite a catch to the right sort,’ said Bill.

‘The ones with the guide dogs,’ said Paul.

‘Or the ones in the mobility scooters,’ said Bill.

‘Nah,’ said Paul, ‘they’re out of my league. I know my place.’

‘Oh, get an Alzheimer’s one,’ said Bill. ‘You could keep taking her to the same place, she’d never know.’

‘If I got a blind one,’ said Paul, ‘I could just drive her round the block, bring her in here and tell her it’s the Savoy Grill.’

‘Even if you got a blind one,’ said Bill, ‘she’d just run a hand across your face and run screaming.’

That was that, Paul and Bill lost it, giggling uncontrollably like the two kids at the back of the class that Teacher kept separating but somehow kept getting back together. Bill, through his tears of mirth, kept miming a woman feeling Paul’s face then recoiling in horror, and every time Paul thought he was regaining control, he lost it. Through it all, Dawn and Sonia looked at the men, perplexed, then at each other, perplexed, then drank their drinks.

It’s OK, Paul thought. It’s all OK.

But he had no PREMONITION.


‘You going to be all right?’ asked Dawn some hours later, when the pizza had been eaten and the small amount of wine drunk. They were standing at the door, Bill already having made his way down the stairs. Bill didn’t do goodbyes.

‘I’m going to be fine,’ Paul smiled back. He was tired, but only physically. That kind of tiredness he was used to these days. Fifty had a way of creeping up on you, but once it was settled, it stayed.

‘You sure?’ Dawn persisted, and in that moment above all, he could see why Bill loved her as much as he did. She was the compassion he couldn’t bring himself to express. And in return, he was the naughty kid she could never let out. They were a good team, and he loved them both. ‘You’ve been through a lot.’

Yes, he had. Divorce, moving from a three bedroomed detached house to a flat that didn’t even boast a separate kitchen, separation from the woman he’d thought he’d share the end of his days with, separation (mostly) from his child…but people around this world dealt with far worse. In Gaza, there were air strikes leaving dozens dead at a time. In Africa, people starved. In the hospital up the road, people were crying as monitors went flat on their relatives. What was his suffering – if suffering it was – compared to theirs? It was just life. These things happened. It was a waste of energy to rage against it.

‘It’s a new start, that’s all,’ he said, and meant it. ‘It’ll take a bit of adjusting, but so what? I got you, I got Bill – God help me – and I got Sonia. This’ll all do me.’

‘And when she goes to Uni…’ Dawn said, then stopped, realising that she was turning into a misery, realising she would bring Paul crashing down if she kept going.

‘Still married or not, Sonia would be going to Uni next month. Things change all the time. Can’t halt it, may as well go with it.’

‘You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,’ Dawn said, smiling. He’s a lucky bastard, is Bill Paul thought and, to his credit, it was something he’d told Bill more than once. To Bill’s credit, he’d agreed. She hugged him, the way you’d hug an uncle. ‘Take care, Paul.’

‘And you, love.’

Then she was gone, down the stairs, and there was just Paul and his daughter. Except there was nothing just about that. He walked into the living room and Sonia watched him hook up the TV, and sometimes they talked about nothing of consequence, and sometimes they didn’t talk at all. At midnight, Sonia announced she was tired and made her way to the spare bedroom, the guest bedroom, the one she’d sleep in when she stayed over.

Paul, tired himself, went to his own new bed a little later. There were still boxes to unpack, and there would be for many days in his future, but that was OK.

He slept well, deep and dreamless, and nothing disturbed him.

It had been a long time since Paul had lived in a communal building with a communal front door and a communal letterbox – twenty-five years in fact – and some things did catch him out over those first couple of weeks.

It was strange, for instance, to let yourself into your building and find yourself facing a stranger emerging from his front door and attempting to leave your building. But like everything else, Paul adapted. He got use to muttering a faint ‘All right’ at the Asian couple in Flat 1 or the young brunette woman in Flat 3. There were five flats over the three stories – two on the ground, two on the first, and a single, smaller (probably) flat on the top. Fewer flats than a lot of these conversions, but what the landlord lost in volume (rent-wise) he made up in amount. Flats this size weren’t cheap. Not in central Southport. ‘Still,’ the landlord had said cheerfully enough as Paul signed the contract, ‘keeps the scum away.’

It was strange, too, to moderate the volume levels of his music or TV. His hearing was starting to fail (and his eyesight too, he’d found himself holding his books at arm’s length to see the print) and one of the joys of his old detached house was he could crank things to eleven and there was nobody to protest. Well, nobody outside anyway.

But here – no, there were others to consider. So the music (if played after 9PM) was on headphones, and sometimes the TV had the subtitles on. It was OK. As long as he remembered not to sing along with Mr Blue Sky, things would be fine.

The biggest adjustment was to the fact that even though he was alone in the flat (mostly, Sonia came round every when she could, trying to keep balance time between her parents), he was, of course, never alone in the building. Even though he was on the first floor, he could still hear the front door open and close (unless, of course, he was nodding along to Memory.) He heard the footsteps on the stairs. He heard the people in the flat above as they moved across their floor, as they watched their own TV, as they lived their lives. Life, it seemed, was buzzing all around him.

But once all these adjustments were made, Paul found them soothing. Flat living was impermanent, transient, short term leases, people came and went, constant change. It was like a sea, or a hive, or something else that moved and rippled a lot. It was good. It was fine.

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