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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-seven HUG ZERO



anna's on the sofa, flicks on TV, hugs Harry. Harry dribbles drool. She dabs it away. They share a sigh. TV show next is about them. It will be anticlimactic. In half an hour they will be in bed.

TV - The Bottom Line Live is on after the news headlines. Brittle newswoman announces suspected cannibalism in care homes, a lottery roll-over of six billion.

Hanna muted TV. News agitates Harry. They couldn’t be sitting closer together. You couldn't slide in a playing card. 'We're roots on rock, hunny,’ she says, unmutes TV.

TV announces The Bottom Line Live. Reflections in the glass font - death row, missiles, catwalks, famine bellies, poppy fields, spinning tabloids. Drums pound. A man in a silver suit marches down studio stairs, face the colour of tangerine. He says, 'Tonight on The Bottom Line Live a story of injury and death; self-harm gone mad! In America, they call it the Jesus Squeeze, in Brazil the Virgin Touch, but it all started here in the UK as Extreme Hugging. Is social media to blame? Probably. Family values turned 21st century rotten by lazy Generation Text? Or another way for love to turn to death?'

Hanna's irritated. This might be too much for Harry.

TV – 'Tonight we have victims and experts - Live from around the globe. My name is Benjamin Rhonda. This is The Bottom Line Live!' Studio lights dip. His silhouette storms to a desk next to a sofa. Drums pound. Applause, cheers. Behind the desk, a screen shows family snapshots, laminated headstones, teenagers, smartphones. Lights up. A man on the sofa now, suit the colour of a dirty river. Thick glasses shine in studio glare. Benjamin Rhonda looks deep into a prop laptop.

Hanna leans in. Harry leans forward too. You couldn't put a cigarette paper between them.

Benjamin Rhonda's cold smile of even white teeth says, 'Mark Barbara, everyone! Author of Dead Sex, here with a new book. Mark Barbara, hello.'

'Ben.' Shifts his glasses.

'Your new book, Beauties Torn Flesh, has a chapter about this Extreme Hugging. What’s your take Mark?'

Hanna - 'A whole chapter!' She slides a straw in a Sprite, bends it to Harry's lips.

Mark Barbara - 'Ben, my book is an examination of physical mutilation or augmentation for sexual attraction, or to signify membership of a subculture. Neck rings of the Padung of the Kayan people and the South Ndebeles in Africa signify status and wealth, for example. However, Extreme Hugging has its roots purely in the pleasure of holding someone; existential confirmation. A hug. Very different from the cry of help of self-harm. This is an important distinction. This is not for status. There is something noble and pure here, even evolutionary...'

Hanna - 'Damn right! Someone got it Harry.'

TV - Benjamin Rhonda interrupts Mark Barbara. Teeth shine like moonlight. 'A Bottom Line regular and Christian Humanist Emery Lizbeth...' Mark shift his glasses. On the screen, where the montage was, sits a sun-burnt man. Shirt with epaulettes. Shorts the colour of sand. He is in the shade somewhere sunny, tumbler of ice and amber. 'Hello Emery, welcome to The Bottom Line Live. Thank you for joining us. So, tell us your thoughts on this'

'Well, Barbara’s book glorifies the clear health dangers of the intra-dermal hug and wallows in supposed new youth culture. I doubt if there anything pure about this at all.' Mark Barbara shifts his glasses, 'As an anthropologist, I believe a clear distinction should be made here...'

Benjamin Rhonda holds a finger up, like to an interrupting child. 'We should discount his views then, Emery?' Eyes shining like glass.

'Not completely. I enjoyed the romanticism of the chapter in question. As a humanist, I find it of some import. However - of course, this is not evolution but a by-product of a world blind to human need. Japanese herbivores, for example. I am interested in this original couple, classic innocence? Maybe. Idiots? Sweet idiots? Surely. Their idea is clearly corrupted in conception. A symptom of a deeper illness, of marginalisation in consumer capitalism, of a lack of involvement in their destinies. Inevitably it's all some dull cliché. They on the show Ben?' He sips amber.

'Attempts to contact them failed, Emery.' Benjamin turns to a zooming camera. 'After the break, what exactly is Extreme Hugging? Don’t go nowhere fast, people!' Mark Barbara shifts his glasses in silhouette.

Hanna covers Harry's eyes, ads can disturb him. She goes to Facebook on her phone. 30 unread messages. From the show, police, social services, invigilators. Comments maxed-out. Their page is titled 'Extreme Hugging; New Joy.' There's photos of incisions, of surgical blades. Hanna's hand inside Harry's skin, in his shoulder, the small of his back. Hanna's buttocks have incisions like jeans pockets. Harry's hand outlined clearly inside. Below info on keeping wounds clean, Hanna has written, 'I just want to touch him so much. A hug is not enough. Love makes me want more.' Their last post, three months ago, Harry had written, 'Today Hanna will hug my brain and tomorrow I will kiss Hanna's heart.' Only one of these things happened. The page has reached its friend limit.

TVs finished ads. Benjamin Rhonda's eyes are neon blue. He welcomes us back then TV cuts to - South American teenager, t-shirt pixelated. Benjamin Rhonda - 'Raul Maria, dead! His lover, a man, attempted to hug his heart. Using pliers! Raul's lover was sentenced to life for premeditated murder. The PCC blocked our interview attempts.' Benjamin Rhonda looks deep into the camera, 'Here is South American youth squad officer Moucho Belinda...'

Moucho is bulky and bald. Dressed like a golfer, matches the pastel guest sofa. Benjamin Rhonda - 'Moucho. Is this love simply gone awry? Or a deeper sickness, a reckless disregard for life?'

'Ben, love is family right? Doing right by your wife and your children, right? I found Raul pumped full of coagulants. Dying right? And with this guy forearm deep in his chest! That's not love, Ben. No it isn't.'

Benjamin Rhonda turns his tangerine face to Mark Barbara and says, 'Mark Barbara?'

'Where this started, I'll call it Hug Zero, it was careful, an antidote to depression, an ultimate respectful expression...' He shifts his glasses.

Moucho - 'That ain't love man!'

Benjamin Rhonda - 'Moucho, how did you get to the scene so quickly?'

'We were alerted by tweets.'

'Exactly! Social media. Again the evidence against it is piling up...' Benjamin Rhonda sounds triumphant.

Mark Barbara - 'Really? The same old scapegoats? Surely Twitter helped you to get there?' He shifts his glasses.

Moucho - 'Twitter ain't love, man.'

Emery Lizbeth has taken his empty glass off-screen.

Hanna saddened. Her sigh and Harry's noisy breath become one. They are that close. Really only their clothes delineate them.

Benjamin - talks over his guests, their mics off. ‘After the break Algernon Dieter. Don't go nowhere fast people.’

Hanna mutes TV, puts a cigarette to Harry's lips. Unlit it still calms him. 'Roots on rock, that's us.' She puts her hands inside Harry's shirt, on scars.

TV - trail for another Bottom Line - Benjamin Rhonda's tangerine face - ‘Panda’s. Should they be sterilised..?’ Hanna flicks channels, flicks back, unmutes TV.

Algernon Dieter on the big back screen, face Botox tight, suit the colour of money. Talking from Beverly Hills. 'The Skin Pocket, trade-marked, is a safe surgical procedure that enables ones partner to insert a hand at will inside the flesh of the other with a small skin graft for lining, a short course of antibiotics is all that's needed...movie stars, pop singers, all expressed interest...my offices are busy making bookings...'

Hanna - 'Maybe we should have gone on. How depressing is this?' Harry sucks empty Sprite.

Benjamin Rhonda - pressing Dieter for names, put-out at having someone more orange than him on his show. Someone plays with the contrast on the back screen, Algernon turns yellow, matches Moucho's outfit.

Hanna's had enough. They didn't expect this. They posted on Facebook out of altruism, love, and pride. Hanna regrets it. Clicks TV off. 'They sold our love. I'm sorry.' She helps Harry to the bathroom, wipes away drool, bins the sodden cigarette, pulls down Harry's trousers, sits him on the toilet, brushes her teeth, then his. Harry's head has a very deep scar, collects fluff. Hanna tenderly tweezers fluff out. In the bedroom, Hanna undresses them both, lays as close to Harry as she can, as much of her skin touching his as she can. Coverage. She puts his hands on her scars and hers on his. You couldn't fit anything between them. ‘G’night, Sweet Idiot.’ She says. Harry gurgles, dull eyes fixed ahead, exterminated, unknowing. One day soon the police will come, for now, they sleep, close together. You couldn't get gold leaf in there.




Ford Dagenham has poetry published by Tangerine Press and Blackheath Books and contributes to litzines Paper & Ink and PUSH. Ford was a winner in a short story competition run by Blackstaff Press. He posts daily in his poem and photoblog - hatchbacks on fire

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