No.101 by Scritch-Scratch
Today, one of the goats encounters his love interest. The goat is mad!
The effect is like hell to me. I so disappoint my father. He cannot believe one of the goats is missing. He lectures me for my irresponsibility. Well, he did warn me that goats are foolish when in mating age. I agree somehow. Why did I miss out to check thoroughly if the goats are complete? I have no idea that I am engaged in a much bigger task. Tending the goats and expanding their numbers require my time and discipline. Though
I spend every moment with the goats I enjoy it. They are lovable creatures.
I usher the goats every day to a grassy area on a façade backdrop of two-story, ebony colored, wooden bungalow houses of the affluent families in our village. The grasses do not seem to mind. It keeps on growing and growing while the goats eat them daily. The vibrant and lush Cogon Grasses are their favorites, spreading on both sides of a limestone road where one spur is routing to our home.
My retribution, father asks me to locate the mad goat. Pronto! He supposes I must use my deductive ability. Can I account all the neighbors who are tending goats? I count like three to five. And so, our retrieval ordeal commences. It is already dark. It’s past six in the evening.
I am down. I think my father loves the goat more than myself. More so, my father usually asks me to ensure that the goats get their snacks. He does not even bother to ask me if I’ve had one. Why would he have me find it in the middle of the night? Can’t it wait in the morning? Maybe, he does not see me as a fragile girl. What if I may encounter a huge snake blocking the road? Why can’t my father find the goat by himself?
However, father is unrelenting. Together we will find the goat. We use good flashlights. We check the goats’ resting places from one neighbor to another. Fortunately, in less than an hour we finally find him. True enough, it is just around the neighborhood. To my relief I even hug the goat, overpowering my irritation. But the mad goat will not leave his love one that simple. My father drags him hard around to detach him from his love one. The goat is noisy until we arrive home. It is a terrible ordeal. The mad goat seems to get his dose of reprimand from his parents because they are all so noisy when they see him.
When everything settles, my father is in excellent mood. I overhear him conversing with my mother as they lay in bed, thinking I am already asleep. He admires my sense of responsibility. He says, though I am still young for the task, I managed and the goats are breeding well. My father shows his gratitude in various ways. Cooking peculiar food that is never heard of is one of them. This time it is Cachupoi Alu he calls it. It is his creation delicacy from a Cassava flour and a little salt. He garnishes and tops it with some fresh spinach, eggplant, bell pepper and tomatoes all from his garden. It is like a big round pizza!
I discern maybe I am my father’s favorite after all. He helps me in my early morning study routine. It forges a poignant heartwarming bond between us. Unknowingly the daily tending of the goats hones my sound sense of responsibility, character and some X factor abilities which I have yet to discover.
"Yeah, I will be there by 8 pm. See you soon". I ended the call. Anna called me. Oh! Let me introduce her. Actually, she was my best friend when we were kids. When she was eleven her parents died in a road accident. After that she was sent to her uncle's house in Boston. From that day we lost contact. There was not even a single day I missed her. She has gone through a lot of tragedy. She was coming back to Los Angeles, my city after almost 12 years. I was overjoyed.
I rang the doorbell. It was someone's house that she was staying in, definitely not a hotel or a rented house. And there she opened the door. In a red long gown, hair tightly tied at the top she gave me a tight hug. I really wanted it since a long time.
After a lot of chit chat, I asked her the question which I wanted to since I came to her house. "Hey, is this a kind of hotel? It doesn't look like that"
"Oh no, it is one of my friend's house, she is away for a week so she told me to stay here only". She replied.
We ate snacks, danced, sang and did all the things that we missed for so many years. At last, she went to prepare the dinner. I was sitting idle. I thought of exploring the house, a stranger's house. I was just exploring when I saw a strange thing, a family photograph of an old man and an old woman. There was not even a sign of teenager or anyone in her 20’s or even 30’s living in that house that could be her friend. Next, I went to the bedroom. I was just coming back when my eyes went under the bed. I could see a toe finger out just under the bed. Maybe it could be some kind of a doll or something like that, but wait! Isn’t the finger big enough for a doll? I was just about to check it out when all of a sudden, my mobile phone started ringing. It was my neighbour Frank. I picked up.
“Hi there, have you heard the news?” he sounded quite nervous.
“A serial killer has murdered about six people in the morning itself. A victim somehow managed to survive and described her as a young woman in her twenties wearing a red long gown, blonde hair tightly tied up…” Frank continued the description.
As he was describing her what came to my mind was a clear picture of Anna. Her red long gown, the house and the creepiest part was that toe finger. It must be of the old house owner whom Anna had killed. No combination of 26 alphabets can describe how I felt. Only one thing that came to my mind was to escape from that house. As soon as I turned around, I found Anna standing right behind me with a horrifying cunning smile. Before I could do anything, she placed a knife on my stomach and started stabbing me.
“Noooooo….” I cried out. “Oh, Thank God, it was a dream” I gasped. I was just going to freshen up when my phone started ringing.
“Hello Emily, I’m Anna. I just landed to Los Angeles today. Will you be coming to my house today? I will text you the address after sometime”
A cold shiver ran down my spine.
West Bengal, India
That rocking chair, rocked back and forth, back and forth, whenever there was no body in it. Happy, like when a dog wags its tail, wanting to attract attention. Yet Rebecca never noticed it rocking, even when she was in the room, watching through the vented windows, looking over the hills where the skeletal trees stood distant.
That was the room where her father liked to write. How he used to write before he took it seriously. Every day at some point she would stand there taking in the view her father had taken in many times. Whether she was watching the sun scatter the dust, or determining mythologies from the clouds, or listening to the scudding wind against the cladding or the scuttling rain in the gutters, she liked to absorb the atmosphere of the room. She tried to convey how she felt about every aspect of life, from the reinvigoration of spring, through the vibrancy of summer, the autumnal contemplation or the senescence of winter. It was all beautiful. At times it was too beautiful to take. She could never find the words.
Her father had been her mentor. He’d told her to contemplate the enigmas of existence and to fully appreciate the natural world and not get too caught up in herself. She had been his life.
Her thoughts travelled back to that afternoon when her father lay on his death bed, swaying in the blue bedding, fighting against the ebbing tides of consciousness. All the things that he’d wanted to say were too far adrift for him to capture, too far for him to grasp upon the horizon where the sky and sea merged.
As he lay between oscillating comforts, the words that he had wanted to say washed up beside him. He reached for them, then thought it better if he just let them go. Not saying anything would be better than telling her anything that would end up playing upon her mind he thought. From beneath the waves he managed to lift his head above the surface and spoke to Rebecca,
“Always do what you feel,” he managed in a gargled voice.
But then that temptation that would drive him to drink would have to have the last say, and before he knew it, the words where floating from him. “You have a wonderful imagination, don’t let it go to waste.” Before the final wave washed over him and the heavy burden of the sea evaporated into the weightlessness of the sky.
From that day on the rocking chair started to rocked back and forth. Yet Rebecca never noticed. She sat down in it with the intention of trying to convey the view from the window. But she couldn’t find the words. She could only sit there rocking back and forth, back and forth.
Hold At All Cost
Onwards my brothers. Bravely march through the infernal gates towards the hereafter. We are surrounded. We stand no chance to win this day but we shall not falter. We shall not flee. We shall show them our resolve. We will hold steady ‘til the last man for we fight for a just cause. We fight for our King and we fight for our Realm. We fight for our very way of life and we will hold at all cost.
Each one of you is worth ten vile barbarians. We shall litter the ground with their dead, feed them to the crows and come the end, they will rue the day they charged the 12th Prymarian Legion. Hold our standard with pride lads.
We are on bad ground, even the simplest among you can see that, but this is the dice roll we have been played so we will make it count. We may be out manned but the Gods be damned if we are outmatched. Fight for your brothers and your sisters, fight for your children and your parents. Defend them from this coming onslaught. Defend them from pillage and from rape for if we let this rabble past us then, hold no doubt, that is most certainly what will happen.
Make no mistake, there is no time for reinforcements to arrive. We are alone in this, the final defence of our beloved city, of our beloved King. If we spend our lives, if we delay their advance, we give our brothers in arms time to muster at the Bastion. With a steep cost, we give them time to form a defence. We give our valour and our lives this day for that vain hope.
Do you hear them? Do you hear the divine bells of the hereafter? They ring in honour of the glory you are soon to receive. They herald our coming for tonight, my boys, we will feast in their godly halls with our forebears.
We shall fall today but when we do we shall fall together and live on as heroes of legend. This battleground, our epitaph. This field, hallowed ground. Archers, ready your bows. Infantrymen, unsheathe your blades. Today we sow the seeds of the villain’s destruction, watered with our blood. Here, on this day, our fellow Prymarians will see true heroism and gaze in wonder at our sacrifice. We shall show them how to stand up to this tyranny. We will drown out the enemy’s war drums with our cries of defiance. Charge! Charge my boys! Into the teeth of the enemy. Into their very throats! Make them choke on us! Charge for hope! Charge for glory! Charge for Prymaria! Lads, let me hear you roar!
The Foam Prince
‘Can you see?’
My attention was drawn, looking through my expressionless murky glasses, the foam everywhere, and drinks floating across the air. I come to Bar CLP so often you’d think I worked here. I’d seen him before, an introvert. Most of the guys were dressed in name brands contoured around their bodies like a wet Kleenex, most of them older and established. He wore a dust-streaked shirt, faded department store jeans, and a baseball hat, which always lead me to believe he was dragged here by some friends.
‘Excuse me,’ he said. My mouth turned up with confusion, ‘but your glasses, there's foam residue.” My brow puckered, ‘Oh...Thanks'!’ Feeling silly, I tried to remove the residue with my foam-dampened shirt. His eyes were crinkled with laughter. ‘Need help?’ ‘No, I got it...thanks,’ now scrubbing my lenses with the crease of my jeans. ‘Damn it!’ The foam dripped into my eyes.
‘Follow me.’ He wrapped his arm into mine. I followed, barely gaining the ability to see where I was being led. ‘Uhm…okay?’ The music got louder. ‘Watch your step.’ As the door closed behind me the music felt miles away “’ Here, this will help.’ He pressed a paper towel against my eyes carefully. ‘Can you see?’ There it was, the icebreaker of the century. I wanted to roll my eyes.
Worry lines framed my mouth and tugged at my eyes. ‘I'm fine…I can see fine.’ I opened my eyes, still attempting to revive my glasses. He chuckled, “Don’t take well to help?” My vision narrowed before placing my glasses back on. He was just standing there, arms folded across his chest, grinning menacingly. ‘What?!’ I turned toward the mirror inspecting myself. ‘Nothing, you’re stubborn is all.’ His grammar made me convinced he had been raised in the south. ‘Whatever…’ I turned back around to meet his eyes, deciding it would be best to say something before getting back outside. Our eyes were like magnets. I never knew blue could be such a hot fire until now. The muscles in the back of my neck tightened.
‘Are you okay?’ Still studying, I fumbled my words. ‘What? No, yes, I don’t know—Shit!’ The muscle in his cheek flexed, his brow curved into an arch. My half-smile placed like a casual piece of armor, getting one last glance into wrinkled almond-shaped pools of electric fire on his freckled canvas. ‘So, yes?’ He waited. My examination concluded when I noticed the stamp on his dorsal.
How old was he? Questions began to flood and I looked at my X’s. Without hesitation I forced the best smile I could manage and gripped his hand, shaking it like the wings of a hummingbird, fingers tightly intertwined. ‘I, I gotta go.’ I swiftly drifted out of the door. He was trying to say something right as the door opened but his voice trailed off as the music tidal waved into the backroom. ‘YEAH, THANKS!’
Who knew that this stranger would end up being the guy with whom I overcame obstacles, challenges, held onto, appreciated, and chose without pause, doubt, in a heartbeat. A stranger became my foamy forever.
South Carolina, USA
That day was as the others had been. Outside the kitchen window snow fell as it always did, but I did not grow tired of watching the flakes drift by and settle in the trees, making the branches heavy. I felt his arms around me, his touch soft as the falling snow. Later, I told him. He kissed me once more but did not let go. It had been winter for a long time. We lived in the woods far from anyone, alone (but not lonely) except for the robin that visited the bird table. I left pieces of bread out for him, watched him approach warily leaving barely discernible prints. Sometimes crows wheeled high above, a squirrel come to forage for nuts it would have buried earlier in the season, though there had not been any earlier in the season. I cooked for us, recipes I copied out in small, neat handwriting. Chopped vegetables for stews, kneaded flour with yeast and water and left it to prove so that we had fresh bread every day. Made pies, quiches, tarts, crumbles. In the kitchen it was warm, which made the other rooms feel cold afterwards. Then he would light the log fire where we curled up on the rug. Sometimes we made love there too. And sometimes he asked my name, the one I’d used before we met. It was the one thing I would not tell him. Just a little while longer, I told him. Because a little while longer is all we had before the thaw came, return to the way things had been. Then I would delete his messages so that he could retain the illusion of what had been, not be hurt as he otherwise would be. Remember all the things we had used to do. Walks through the fields and woods under branches heavy with snow, holly laden with berries. The sudden burst of a crow from the undergrowth, alarmed by our approach. If we walked far enough, the perimeter of the woods where the undergrowth grew thick, trees close together, until we could proceed no further. If I tried to peer through all I would see was more snow falling. Vague, insubstantial. I could have asked what lay beyond, but he would not have wanted to answer. How it was when we lay in bed together, warm despite the falling snow. Sounds muffled, the edges of the room made soft by the shadows cast by the pale moonlight. Resting in each other’s arms. When I dreamt it was of the wings of an owl white as the ground beneath. All the things it could see, and all that it knew. My life and his, ephemeral as the falling snow. I let him hold me a while longer and watched the sky grow dark.
South Wales, UK
Ulysses Is Coming!
‘Ulysses is coming tonight,’ Owen announces to the family.
The rain never stops today. The sky is heavy with dark grey clouds. In the last quarter of the year, especially in December, it has always been like this in Aurora province, heavy rains, and typhoons. Tonight, according to authorities, Ulysses will landfall.
Owen dries himself with his worn, dirty-white towel.
He ruffles the heads of his two boys. They are organizing their belongings in their respective backpacks.
He takes his lunch: rice, fried dried salted dilis, and sauteed green papaya.
‘Hurry!’ he calls. ‘We still need to transport the bundle of rush harvested corn to Aling Celia. Before Ulysses lands.’ Owen is a padyak driver. He can accommodate two passengers on his three-tyred cycle.
Owen’s wife Nene looks up to the river in their backyard. The river is rushing. She sees branches of banana leaves, branches of trees, slender driftwood, and cellophane plastic bags swept away by the scurrying yellow-brownish water.
At this stage, it is hazardous to pass by the river bank. Nene warns her husband. Owen convinces her that he and others will take extra precautions. Besides, he said, Aling Celia paid them already. And with a tip of fifty pesos. He hands over the 300 pesos to Nene.
He checks the river in their backyard. It is not safe. He urges his wife and the kids to go ahead to the evacuation center. Owen says he will follow later with corn bundles.
Nene hands over the facemasks she’s sown to her husband and the boys. She’s made them from their old worn-out clothes.
Nene hopes the center is not too swarming. But at the center, a public school nearby, there is a crowd, as she expected! Three to five families in a classroom. Nene is apprehensive about the stay with Covid-19 cases still going up. At any crowd center like this, social distancing is impossible!
The kids are already asleep by nine in the evening. And no glimpse of her husband yet. Ulysses will come soon at ten. The rains are flooding the streets.
Nene keeps on looking up at the windows and the doors as if beckoning them to do something so that her husband can safely come.
The wind rumbles. It is like a big truck roaring. Ulysses is here!
It manoeuvers atrociously, shaking the seas, battering the mountains and the lowlands. It hovers over every barong-barong roof like flying leaves. It bends and uproots the bananas and coconut trees against its turbulent gusts of hums and beats. It knocks down several current posts blocking the already flooded streets. Ulysses is uncompromising!
Nene embraces her two boys. On her right hand is a rosary. She intensely prays for their safety and Owen’s. It is dangerous to come now to the evacuation center.
Nene consoles herself by assuring Aling Celia’s Store is safer because it is concrete. Besides, her husband is with his colleagues- the strongest padyak drivers association of their village. She holds tight the rosary as Ulysses keeps on bellowing, pounding, and smashing.
On The Bleach
I love the smell of bleach in the morning. You know, during one spring clean I used it relentlessly for a whole week on virtually anything that didn’t move. Not just floors, toilets and sinks but the coffee table, computer, clocks, cups and so on. The whole house had a distinctive chlorine-like odour. My children complained about the strong aroma and even said it was affecting their breathing, but I only smelled success, the fragrance of a phenomenal victory.
The bacterial body count would have been massive, though it’s hard to tell when you’re fighting an invisible enemy. So microscopically minute, germs go unseen by the naked eye, while at the same time invade our homes in relentless waves. Ever wondered what’s forever lurking behind tooth brush holders, refrigerator handles and light switches? Yes, germs of course, millions and millions of them, coming over here and robbing us of our sanitized birthright.
My housekeeping magazine is full of warnings about these invasive microbes. Lady Hygiena wrote in her column this week about the manifold dangers of hand towels. To quote: ‘By drying your face on your hand towel for more than 24 hours you are probably getting more E.coli on your face than if you stick your head in the toilet and flush it.’ As you can see, if we allow these aliens a safe refuge in our kitchens, bathrooms and dining rooms then they’ll be overwhelming us in no time at all. Breeding like rabbits, well germs actually, they’ll totally overrun us and we’ll no longer be able to call our homes our own.
I mean, the situation doesn’t have to be this way. Is it my imagination, or have thing always been this bad? I don’t recall my mother fighting a forever-war against the bugs in her hey-day. No, she had plenty of time for other things: cinema, dancing and cocktail parties, even before she ran away with the vacuum salesman and left me to look after father and my four younger siblings.
What I’m trying to say is this: where are all these microbe migrants actually coming from? How are they managing to sneak into our once fully disinfected homes? Maybe my magazine has the answer. Here’s LH again: ‘Dangerous categories of foreign microbes are probably arriving from overseas in certain ladies’ handbags, in gentlemen’s over-used handkerchiefs or in packages arriving by post from the far-flung outposts of our former empire.’
It’s almost enough to make me want to hang up my pinny and bin my rubber gloves! My children, of course, only humour me and advise me not to act so insular. The world’s moved on, they say, let all the germs co-exist. And anyway, they scoff, it’s been proved that being too clean has a negative affect our immune systems.
Piffle! I reply. Your generation needs to step up as we’ve always done. Standing firm together, we can protect our island home from these pernicious intruders. This could be our finest hour!
The Chief Mechanic
What have you done? These are the unsaid, disbelieving words of the two American engineers. Their eyes survey the screws, bolts and other parts of the DUKW machine, which lay bare and scattered in a big steel basin like sautéed vegetables cooking in a pan.
Kuya Gee cannot console the irritated American engineers. He wants to assure them all is well. I got this. Instead, he stays silent. He continues cleaning each machine part, like washing the dishes in a palanggana basin.
He works as a mechanic helper for Viking Splash Tours, helping to maintain the amphibious WW2 vehicles. The DUKW tour is one of the top ten tourist attractions in Dublin.
The American engineers have their way of cleaning the machine parts. They write a number on each disassembled part which indicates its proper placement within the body of the DUKW machine. With great scrutiny, they overlook nothing.
One American engineer looks him straight in the eye and says he wants the parts assembled within three days. The machine must be in top shape and ready for the tour. ‘Three days or we fire you!’ the engineer emphatically tells him.
Kuya Gee nods in silence as if accepting the challenge unceremoniously. Kuya doesn’t want more arguments. He cannot convince the American engineers that - with all due respect to their efficiency, expertise, and education - he knows the thing by heart. And this is how he mends the thing back in his country.
Back home, he’d trained himself in a machine shop of a relative. Circumstances forced him to work at a young age when his father opted to live with his other family. Kuya Gee became the breadwinner. He looked after the needs of his five siblings, his mother and Aunt Manang.
He would wake up at three in the morning to do his job at the machine shop. At midday, he’d be at school. He struggled with all these. It was hard. But with his firm determination, he managed. Exhaustion ate him up, though. Like an aged man at a young age, he became irritable and regimentally strict. His siblings were all afraid of him. But the machines and their parts became his friends. He knew the machine parts as well at the tip of his fingers. His uncle trusted his acuity with machines. He sent him regularly to Binondo and San Lazaro in Manila to oversee procurements.
The gurgling sound of his stomach brings him back to the present. It’s lunch break. Contemplative, Kuya Gee wipes his ebony hands with a cloth. The incident this morning is the talk around the company staff. He will not sleep tonight. He will finish the cleaning and then assemble the parts into their exact places.
Morning: before the tour embarks at ten, the employees are all stunned. They cannot believe what they see. The DUKW parts, which they disassembled, are now correctly re-assembled! Complete in one piece, the high and mighty vehicle is ready to tour!
Today, Kuya Gee gets his promotion to Chief Mechanic.
The Royal Cipher
“Your majesty, I have a...”
The Queen's ADC paused in embarrassment.
“Well come on, Cedric. I don't have all day.”
“Well it is not something I ought to divulge. The thing is, his majesty has a code, well a cipher to be precise.”
“It has to be something very simple so his majesty can remember it. If you imagine a noughts and crosses diagram with the letters of the alphabet.”
Cedric drew a diagram. The cipher really was very simple. Four letters in each segment numbered 1 to 4.
“I just thought you ought to know but it will be very unfortunate for my career if it came out that I had...”
“Your secret is safe with me, Cedric. You may go.”
His majesty did not leave messages hanging around but the following week he foolishly used blotting paper so it wasn't hard for Queen Griselda to work out the message he wrote to the French ambassador,
“Stinkhorn” as he was known in the palace.
It took her a while to work out the first word. It was “darling”. The message did not get more reassuring after that.
At breakfast the next day, Griselda was a little icy.
“Something the matter, my dear?”
“How is Stinkhorn?”
“Quite well, as far as I know.”
“So how did he like the idea of you 'uncovering his private parts in the boudoir'.?”
“Darling, where on earth did you get that... oh I see.”
“Yes. I happened to see your blotter after your most recent billet-doux and I demand an explanation.”
“Oh I can explain, darling but you really shouldn't read my letters. This was a diplomatic communication.”
“It sounded like one.”
“Let me finish, darling. The letter was in a cipher, how did you manage to read it?”
“Well it wasn't exactly rocket science, darling.”
“What you don't realise was that it was a code as well as a cipher. Obviously 'uncovering his private parts in the boudoir' is code for diplomatic letters from the King of France. What else did you read?”
“Well it was weird, you wrote about the seagulls flying south.”
“This was a reference to the projected war with Spain. You see, there is a perfectly simple explanation and I am sure you can see that I couldn't raise these matters in plain words with a diplomat. You don't realise that Stinkhorn is in our pay and shares his master's secrets with ourselves.”
“I am sorry I ever doubted you.”
“I forgive you and how clever of you to break the cipher. You are so smart.”
Later his majesty had a private audience with Cedric.
“I think your plan has worked, Cedric old man, I think you and I are safe to continue our liaison without any suspicion.”
“Yes, your majesty.”
Durrington, Worthing, England
Derek runs a blog for short stories: http://worthingflash.blogspot.com
Derek’s audiobook 'Brevity' is now available on eBay.
More of Derek’s titles can be found at https://www.amazon.co.uk/Derek-McMillan/e/B009FUXHWY
As a grunt in Viet Nam, I lived through artillery attacks (boom-boom), mortar fire (pop-boom), and bullet fire (whiz-boom), and survived with all my faculties intact.
I relied on those faculties and the GI Bill to finance myself through the returning GI education boom. As an undergraduate university student forced to take classes taught by tenured, vanity-ridden professors, I suffered through the anxiety of pop quiz booms manufactured and graded by underpaid teaching assistants to produce enough billable hours to pay their rent. I graduated cum laude as part of the boom in near-worthless Bachelor's degrees in English.
During my post-graduate boom period, I expanded my sex boom targets to include all touching borders of the female territory while earning a Master’s Degree and conducted a mercenary search for trust fund babes and heiresses to join me in a mutual willingness to shatter the Commandments.
I navigated through my marriage boom period (three wives in ten years) and my baby boom period (irresponsibly producing three children), followed by a crushing alimony boom, mercifully cut short by remarriages and death.
Using unethically acquired financial information, I enjoyed a stock market boom lifting my status from bourgeoisie to nouveau riche. I immediately hired an investment attorney to hide as much of my booty as possible from the IRS through shady off-shore laundry-mat investment booms.
Today, at 74 years old, ensconced in an upscale, gated retirement community, I attend an unending succession of residential party booms: birthday and anniversary parties, get-out-of-jail parties, celebration-of-life parties, tax boom parties to celebrate huge refunds buoyed on the waves of constantly shifting tax laws manipulated by attorneys who charge $600 per hour.
My entire life is now one long celebration as I strive to survive the COVID- 19 virus boom. Alas, I awakened one morning to a dimming of the light and felt someone pulling a sheet over my body until it scratched my face and heard an authoritative voice ask someone to notify my next of kin.
San Francisco USA
The Garden On The Terrace
Roe's housemates are leaving. They are teachers recently laid off. Schools are temporarily closed, an eventual result of no physical classes because of pandemic lockdown. Her housemates will reunite with their families.
Roe works online. Unlike her housemates, this pandemic lockdown does minimal change to her.
She stares outside the streets after sending them off. It’s all empty. Like a dead town in a zombie-movie she watched. Three months in lockdown. Covid-19 cases still up. She sighs. Not because all is well or all will be over, it’s a sigh of patting herself to keep up. A long journey is up ahead.
Her eyes navigate to find something consoling. Ahh, the grapevine is in its full vibrance. She once tasted its harvests. The sourness of the grapes prevailed. She had not seen them in full purple color. Little birds are eating them before the people can. The lush leaves are great protection though, from specks of dust and smoke from vehicles.
And the purple spinach is crawling up to the grapevines! Roe smiles.
Her little garden on their terrace. A garden of vegetables. She raised the easy, weed-like type. These are everybody's favorites: the camote tops and the purple spinach. It grew minimally. The sunlight is scarce. The plants feast on the rays of sunset. Roe planted them in recycled plastics of soda. She just put enough soil, not full. She got the fertile earth from a dear teacher who is so kind to offer. It surprised her when Roe and her housemates, Lu and Wel went to her home and ask for some soil she had offered.
Recently, Roe harvested few leaves of spinach, she garnished it into a Mongo Soup. She guessed the soup went well with the fresh spinach. Neighbors seem to enjoy it. Purple spinach is superb in soups.
Roe is also proud of her Oregano plant. Previously, her little garden helped a coughing baby. She is baby Tela. The daughter of a teacher friend. His wife works overseas. Mothers working abroad are a mundane thing in her country. Any pharmaceutical cough formula cannot relieve Tela. Maybe it is an allergy cough like Roe’s. She considers Oregano an essential plant all households should have.
Roe's little garden on the terrace inspires everyone who sees it. They thought putting up a garden using recycled plastics is ingenious, right in the middle of the bustling city.
Ping! A message alert from her phone. It’s from her housemate. It says she misses her already, and she forgot to clean up before she left. Roe types all the hearts she can and tells her no worries. The garden on the terrace will be her buddy for a while with a smiley emoji at the end of her message.
Roe goes back to the terrace. And as if all the pots are her babies, she tends to them gently. The garden shall be her splendid fellow in the long stretch of pandemic times.
The eyes never mattered much to me. So barren is the black of the pupil, but a light lingers on, some place out of reach. Covered in cobwebs and so very conspicuous.
These embers cast a room in sienna. Forever opposed to the still of the bones, a whisper of a thousand years. I can feel the earth between my toes, incandescent minerals imbuing my skin with the promise of life yet still I feel so distant, so disconnected.
Do I feel the mortal coil?
Too often I don't know, it plagues me, a great white whale that I could never kill.
Why would I?
For I do not know what I would do with the answer.
Deeper and deeper I dig, never knowing if I am any closer to the source, ultimately it does not matter. Not even this tremendous pile of earth can fill the empty plot beside me. The vines they watch from every angle, creeping, so slow and final. They have seen more than we could ever know.
Is this all that is left?
So many deeds and yet so empty, perhaps this is life's greatest con.
I tap my fingers upon my palm, mesmerising rhythms for distracted minds, I count it all away.
Decant and be cleansed.
Time, the only healer.
Look at these hands, look at what they have done. Though they have no lips or tongue they will tell you in truth of what has come and passed. Calloused and cut I cannot run and so now you must know, now you must leave and here I must stay.
Perhaps the Earth will swallow me?
If I remain in this spot and detach my mind then will the roots not notice me?
They may mistake me for the dirt and stone and to the Earth I can return.
I will become an obelisk or a valuable ore and when I meet the sun again, he will not know my name. He will judge my character on my presumed kin and I will have my recompense, absolved of ancient sin and reborn a child.
What a wonderful thought, not grounded in reality.
We will rot, slowly and without grace, we will swell and burst and leak into the mantle. Perhaps the future will be unmarred with our footsteps but they will never truly be without us.
Our atoms and our ulcers will taint the waters, too dilute to cause alarm but the people will become sick. Time will be our conspirator, tasked with the inception of our evil. It will soon seem such a natural thought.
They will burn as I have burned but they will light the match themselves.
I am remembered only by the trees, the sages that cannot speak.
Their howls on the wind are not an ample warning, they will never change a thing.
Rumble And Roar And Shush
This was my place. This beach where the waves crash and roll into the sand. The steady heartbeat of rumble and roar and shush that soothed my ragged breathing and coaxed me into a calmer state. I felt safe here. Day to day life was so mundane, structured and suppressed. These precious moments stolen out here in the wildness of the storm felt more real to me than any of it. Whenever I was sad or distressed or just... empty... this place beckoned me and I heeded the call. When others rejected me, called me names and laughed at my awkward ways, this place did not judge. When doctors gave me labels and tried to fix me with their pills, this place accepted me as I was. And when my parents argued and hurled blame at each other, this place offered me an escape. Sanctuary.
How tempting it was to join the waves... to know what it felt like to crash and roll into the sand, to rumble and roar and shush. Take off my shoes and socks, watch my footprints sink and vanish like a ghost's behind me as I reached the water. It wasn't so cold. The tide greeted me as an old friend... and I wondered how deep I dared venture...
When you think of me, don't think of the timid girl who sat at the back of class and never spoke. Or the daughter who spent so much time by herself, preferring her own company to that of the other children. Come to this beach and remember me, for I am in the wild storm and the crashing waves.
Rumble and roar and shush.
Her Pandemic Mania At 45
Suddenly, Ami has reached 45, and wants tranquillity. Just as the pandemic signals its arduous lockdown, Ami feels too much noise in and out. She has reached this uncontrollable urge to declutter herself.
In her 45 years of existence, there were times when she felt she swallowed all the negativity too much in work, in her family, friends, and the community to maintain harmony. She feels it has poisoned her. So toxic she can hardly breathe. Her heart palpitation is getting worse. Her back sorely aches, particularly on the left side area.
Eventually, she gets sick and goes down for days and has to take time off from work. All these things have created a void within herself.
When she was younger, she put her whims last. She did not choose what she wanted. She could not imagine herself enjoying happiness while others weren’t. She put her trust in being with them. She went with the flow, and that was her happiness.
But now she has reached 45, she is so fed up with these things; perhaps triggered by the pandemic isolation, lockdown, and the massive layoff from work. So, at 45, Ami wants a halt. She wants silence and peace. She wants to talk to herself.
She harshly confronts her 45-year-old self with the following questions:
How are you myself?
Why are you stopping now?
Who gave you the privilege to do so?
Why are you demotivated?
Why are you exhausted?
Why are you confused?
Is it because of the hormonal changes usually coming to women at 40?
Is this a mid-life crisis?
Are your current habits and lifestyle slowing you?
What do you want this time?
Are you thinking about how the world shall remember you and what to give back?
Maybe some will call this mania–a frenzy for raising this selfish question about her own happiness and worth, amidst the realities of pandemics, lockdowns, no work, and a sluggish economy challenging the 7 billion people all around the world.
People in her neighbourhood: the jeepney and motorbike drivers; the mobile sidewalk vendors and shoeshines; the factory workers and the likes in the suburban and the peasants and farm workers in rural villages; the domestic helpers in the foreign land, those who work in graveyard shifts like in call centres and online jobs, they definitely do not think like Ami. Exhaustion engulfs them when they come home from work. A three-hour sleep is their comfort, then the cycle goes on and on; there is no time for them to think. They are like machines!
Ami dreads this thought.
And here is Ami now, in her ruby days, 45 years young, and in her mania, rethinking her life.
She thinks: what is to become of me twenty years from now?
Waiting. Standing alone on the platform, in the ghostly shadow cast by mid-day sun on Victorian roof. Lines hummed the promise of an approaching train. Which way? Going where? How long? How fast? Dark eyes swept the track, back and forth, back and forth, until the sound was firmly fixed to the left. As he turned to face the oncoming surge of noise, holding his grey woollen overcoat closed, he wished it had been steam. Disappointing, its absence. Different, this. A hint of a hiss, as the train drew in, on the other platform. Pathetic, he thought.
Then he saw her. The train pulled away, windows flashing past like a merry-go-round. Snatches of red snared him, dazzling against the grey sky and platform gloom. His grey hair denied dark curls that once captured girls' hearts and graced his mother's picture frames. He still expected trains to arrive on time, had studied timetables, was becoming increasingly restless. He watched the second-hand slide relentlessly around his watch. Why did nothing work efficiently now?
The other train disappeared, leaving the red coat standing in the gloom, like a beacon on a cloudy night. His gaze was drawn like a bee to nectar.
She cast a glance in his direction. Caught. He smiled. She smiled back, a beam of sunshine lighting up her face. He thought he'd better move, sit down, pretend to text. She waved. Embarrassed, he resisted the urge to wave back.
'She thinks I'm someone else,' he thought.
He hated people who let their phones ring and had loud conversations on trains. He couldn't understand why his silent phone was vibrating. It was just in case. His son had insisted. 'Keep it with you, Dad,' he'd said after the heart attack.
Well, he might as well look, he supposed – probably someone trying to sell him something? They got hold of your number somehow these days.
He squinted at the screen without his glasses, put it back in his pocket. As he looked up, she waved again, making him shudder.
Then she called across the line. 'Tom, answer your phone!' How did she know? Tentatively, he pressed the green icon.
'Dad. Where are you? We've been worried sick! Why didn't you answer?'
Where was he? Look around. Ah - the station. Falconwood, it said. 'Falconwood,' he said.
'You're miles away! Right. Stay put, you understand? I'm on my way. OK? You must be hungry. Just stay there, Dad. I'll ring you again when I'm nearly there. OK? Dad?'
Tom's eyes glazed over. Dinner time? Di would be waiting for him. She’d wave as he came up the path, give him one of her big smiles. He looked across to the other platform, but the woman had gone. All he could see was a hoarding sporting an advert for a shiny red car.
The train pulled in, a few minutes late. He climbed aboard. He'd better get a seat. Maybe this train would get him home. The last one had been useless.
Travel Memoirs And The Insecurities Of Young Men
“When I came home earlier I read the only chapter of my travel memoirs. I might finish them.”
“Would it be something I’d want to read?”
She laughed an innocent laugh, glancing up from her magazine.
“I’d say so. I can’t think why you wouldn’t.”
I paused for a moment. It was a question I’d never really had much desire to ask. Whenever she had spoken of her travels I’d hidden from the thought. She never mentioned it, I never asked. But I guess it was unavoidable now.
“No mysterious foreign men, travelling flings or holiday romances?”
She stopped flicking through her magazine but didn’t lift her eyes to meet me. The pause answered the question. In reality there was no more that needed to be said, but eventually she did speak again.
“Well in truth there was, yes. I wasn’t thinking of that when you asked me that question though.” She tossed the magazine on to the coffee table. “It was so far in the past you see…” she faded off.
Trying hard to maintain an indifferent face, I told her it wouldn’t be something I’d be interested in reading.
In a vain but honourable enough attempt, we tried to engage in general small talk and chit chat, though it was clear that what had gone before had had an impact illogically bigger than it should have done.
“I feel I’ve upset you…”
“I’m not upset by it; I just don’t think I want to read about it.” It was a lie. I was upset about it, though I couldn’t explain why and to attempt to do so would be to reveal too much about my own painful vulnerabilities and insecurities.
And so, we left it there more or less. We drank wine, and listened to classical music and did all the other things we do so often. It didn’t go away. These things never do. Why was it different? It was the mystery. She had a romantic affair with a mystery foreign man, in beautiful foreign climes. It was the most magical time of her life and she found someone and shared it with that person. Their parting was probably beautifully sad. Hugs and kisses and the melancholy knowledge that they would likely never set eyes on each other again. That is powerful. How do I compare to such a story?
At irregular intervals, often in silent moments deep in the heart of the night, I pondered the whole thing. There was no reason for it. A ridiculous jealousy - self-harming and tortuous. Ultimately I knew I could never compete with that kind of romantically tragic tale. We live this life in a humdrum town as a backdrop to work and food shopping and the daily grind. I needed to get over this. It was stupid and pointless to compare things now to her past. Why does the mind do this? Are all young men like this? Why am I like this?
Northwich, Cheshire, England
Jolene In The Time Of Coronavirus
Everyone knows, in the era of social distancing, Talkie Nights and Talkie Hour are on trend. Old style analogue telephones. No texting, picture or video functionality. No recording, storage or monitoring. As old school as Alexander Graham Bell. Along with your food and drinks menu there’s a telephone directory. If you fancy a chat just dial a table.
Now Jolene was special, she could sing anything. Always note perfect. The most amazing jukebox. Her Talkie Nights became Karaoke Nights. A runaway success.
Jolene was rehearsing when one of the ornate old telephones rang unexpectedly.
“That shouldn’t happen?” She wondered out loud. “Who is it?”
“Hello Jolene, I’m the God of Music. I try to spread my magic everywhere but you seem to be hoarding it all to yourself.”
“You’re not Him?”
“No, I’m not Him”
“Well, I suppose I am special,” answers Jolene shyly.
“You certainly are. Is there anyway I can persuade you to share your gift with others?”
“I think He gave me a perfect voice but took away - well you know? If I could give up some of my voice for that I’d think that was a damn fair trade.” She whispered. “Would I lose my ability to sing if I shared it?”
“No, you can still sing but perhaps not in every style. Perhaps you won’t quite hit every note perfectly every time. Perhaps the audience won’t always stand to applaud.”
“Seems a fair bargain. When will - ?” asked Jolene.
But the God of Music was gone.
She replaced the blue receiver in its cradle. Blue? The blaze of colour was deafening. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t talk. But she could see.
That afternoon she drank in the sights from the restaurant windows. Not willing to walk out into the sunshine. Shocked at its vibrancy.
Finally, she walked into the bathroom. A black woman of medium height and build. She’d wondered whether she was ugly, pretty or beautiful. She’d been told that she was a handsome woman. Pleasant to look at.
She began to sing. Ah yes. The timbre wasn’t quite right. She couldn’t reach those top notes. She had an imperfect if pleasant voice. She felt it suited her pleasant face. And laughed. Then hollered. Then cried. She could see.
Ok let’s see what’s on that TV. No matter that she knew it was an everyday matter. She sat on the sofa and excitedly pressed the green button. To be able to see the world from one place. A dream come true.
The screams were terrible. Ungodly. No one dared enter the Talkie. The police were called.
They found her rocking back and forth. In her hand was a knife. Her eyeballs red bloodied holes.
“So much suffering , so much pain.”
The police officer gently took the knife and remote from her hands. He pointed the remote at the TV and switched off the 24 hour news channel. Another bombing in Baghdad it seemed.
Dear Dream Doctor
R: I’ve been an agoraphobic for so long that my house has become the setting for all my dreams. For the last year, I’ve had a reoccurring dream about reorganising my kitchen. The cooker changes place with the fridge and the toaster switches with the coffee-maker. In the cutlery drawer, knives, forks and spoons become forks, spoons and knives or else become spoons, knives and forks. Is there any advise you can offer? I’m becoming fearful for my mental health.
Doctor: If I was you, I’d pluck up the courage to walk into the garden. Feed nuts to the squirrels, if there are any. Talk to them, get to know each one on first-name terms; something like that.
E: I’m addicted to TV antiques programmes. Each night my nocturnal brain stalks countless bric-a-brac stalls and knick-knack stores. On and on, along the junk trail, looking through bits and bobs and odds and ends, searching for the Holy Grail of all antique hunters: the bargain curio. To my dismay, it always eludes me. This makes me sad. Is there anything that will help?
Doctor: Perhaps you need to catch a bus to beyond the town and walk the country lanes without a map; navigate by the position of the sun and prevailing winds; or be guided by the undulating flight of songbirds. Possibly swap clothes with a scarecrow, if you can find one.
M: I live to clean. Sometimes I feel I was born with the sole purpose of cleaning this dirty world. When I sleep, my sterile dreams spiral through sanitized staircases, disinfected dormitories and bleached bathrooms; and nightmares come when the cleaning products fail. Is this normal?
Doctor: Unfortunately, it is. Why don’t you take a flight to a foreign country where the climate, language and food are of an alien quality? Burn your passport on the beach, strip to the skin and head into the mountains; be at the mercy of cut-throat bandits, wild beasts and ferocious widows.
D: I feel a great urge to escape my dreams, as they are no longer my own. I have succumbed to the outside influence of monochrome, night-time hallucinations; to the pale, hardly-lived inner-visions of strangers. These external dream-accounts come thick and fast on a daily basis and, despite their sheer mundanity, they go home to bed with me, where they revive themselves as drab ghosts, haunting my hollowed-out head. These dreams are purchased second-hand. I’m barely present in my own sleep; merely a passive wanderer through the bleak, illusionary landscapes of others. Mostly, I dream in the second or third person singular. There’s hardly a surreal ‘I’. This being so, I feel - no, know - I’m living a life bereft of imagination; for my dull, waking hours offer no opportunity for my mind to soar. I’m but a cipher for ordinary, very ordinary manifestations. Naturally, this worries me greatly. What shall I do, please?
Doctor: Simple - follow the same advice you gave to your above patients.
Train To Wuhan
The train to Wuhan is going to be five hours, and a man in another row is hunched over himself, replaying the same video on his phone: Circus music, laugh track, applause. Circus music, laugh track, applause. A saleswoman leads a cart down the aisle, the cadence of her voice in Chinese repeating: popcorn, soda, noodles, coffee. The song of it all carries into the next train car and the next, footsteps like a mantra fading. And out the cool glass windowpane, she, the passenger, lets the blur of fields unfurl, with the ever-so-often blip of architecture. The ever-so-often fisherman. Stray dogs on a dirt path, gone. A goose tucked into itself on a boulder, gone. And finally some hills that breathe with bamboo, and more fields dotted by the architecture of brother hills. The man next to her sleeps on his own shoulder and becomes a boy in his dreams. Dark, obstinate brows clench his face and relax when she touches his cheek. She wants to lower his mask and press his plum lip with the tip of her thumb, as if to plant a new dream there
Charlotte San Juan
Now This Is What I Call A Vacation
At the hotel in Wuhan, they are required to stand 1 meter apart, and she walks through the temperature scanner as if passing into another life. There are of course cameras and a grand chandelier that reminds her of a movie where a chandelier falls. Chandelier is a French word, no? She decides not to say this, she only grins under her mask and steps into an elevator that feels somewhat gold, where she wants to pin him to the mirror wall and kiss as they ascend, despite a stranger in the corner with pocketed hands. But she decides not to do this. In the room, she wants to say something like Finally, Peace, but instead she touches a palm to the windowpane to feel that outside is still freezing. She jumps into the white bed-cloud facedown and screams into it something like Hallelujah! And thinks: My god, tomorrow he’ll fight.
He is pale with tiredness and hunger, but to make weight, he’ll run. The hotel gym is haunted at 9pm; a plump straggler on the weight-set, hardly moving. They are apart from each other by one treadmill, and she is walking barefoot on it, watching a film on the small screen--a terrible film about untrusting Americans--meanwhile he is concealed in his hooded sweater, sprinting. She can see him breathing steady, blank as snow. The boy is there, under the heavy frame of a man’s body. Zipping across all the pavement of an old, wounded Paris, dashing beyond an infinite measure of suburbs, his heartbeat skipping out into the world.
Tomorrow he will fight, and the adrenaline will redden him. He will taste his own blood, clash against other fighters in that makeshift arena, juxtaposed by pint-sized children who chase each other’s laughter, happy oxygen pluming in frigid air. Tomorrow she will run after him with water, pushing oranges into his mouth, shouting in English, staring down his competitors, cheeks spiked with fury. Hours there, cracking her knuckles, rolling her neck, pacing, shouting, muttering, staring, cheering, enveloping him at the end, tracing the cold, raised letters of his medallions, stashing them into the bag and leaving.
Charlotte San Juan
She was sat in the automat with her pallid countenance worn under her jaundiced nicotine-stained hat. Her body perplexed under her remnant green coat, staring into the caffeine induced coma of a cup. I was immediately drawn to her, mesmerised by her solemn beauty as she sat alone, as if it had been an eternity. Crippled by curiosity, I hadn’t noticed her eyes had risen away from the cup and were looking directly into mine, completely catching me off guard, causing me to fumble with my lighter. Her eyes were all black pupil and no iris, smudged into her face, as if the artist lost the detail and rubbed them in to hide the ineptitude.
Car headlights captured subliminal frames of her countenance, switching on and off like a light so I couldn’t help but imitate her grimace internally as she swore at me silently.
I tried to look away, but found myself embraced, as if she were a Gorgon turning me to stone. She pulled her lip down towards her chin, revealing the exposed purple skin. She held it down as if she were trying to tell me something, but from the distance between us I strained to make out what it was.
I looked about the café to see if anyone else had seen. But apart from a man sat at the mahogany counter playing a trumpet, with what was either his first or last breath, there was only another couple sat in a red leather booth, lost in their own conversations about themselves.
I turned back towards the woman and found her with her lip pulled down again, and I pushed my eyes further, trying to make out what she was trying to do. She then slowly pushed back her seat walked over from her table to mine. I saw she was wearing yellow sandals as if dressed for winter above the knee and summer below. She sat down in the seat in front of me and looked directly at me without smiling. Then she prised down her lip again, and I leaned in to inspect and made out what appeared to be writing scrawled on them
No words to speak of.
A moment after she let it go and it sprang back into her sullen face. She got up and walked towards the door. I saw myself going after her, but I remained staring into my caffeine induced coma with my bottom lip protruding into view.
Enemies Out Of Eggshells
This little white shit will be the end of me. A perfect, gleaming piece of eggshell sits in the bottom corner of the bowl that my partner wanted to use for their cereal. Too small to easily get with my now wet fingers and just large enough to be very obviously present within the bowl. My partner had brought it up to me at breakfast, just floated it out of their face.
‘Oh, there is a bit of eggshell there.’
I’d said that I washed it, and in fairness I had. But clearly not. I swipe at the far corner of the bowl and brush outwards as my enemy gently rolls out of the way.
‘Ah, no worries, I’ll get it. Sorry honey.’
Absolute bullshit. I tried to get rid of the god damn thing yesterday. That alabaster arsewipe waited until the last second to reveal itself, to spite me, to rub my good name in the dirt while my partner’s eyes opened wide at the sight, nay, the thought that my washing up skills did not include their personal health as a motivator.
‘Nah, I didn’t see it. White shell, white bowl, haha.’
That’s a lie too. I went over it about four times. I scrubbed until the ends of my fingers were numb and then waited for the feeling to return so that I could rub my digits into paste again. I’d gotten rid of most of it, and I had clocked that tiny invader at the last second. A quick blitz, I thought. A quick blitz would be all I needed. Arms flying around the inside of the bowl like my life depended on it.
‘Yeah, it’s being a bit tricky, I can’t seem to grab it.’
In a way, I’m happy that my life is so stress-free that this is the kind of thing that I’d spend my time on. That I have no issues other than a small piece of eggshell that is refusing to leave my partner’s bowl. But therein lies the issue. It’s my partner’s bowl, not mine. I’ve got to show that I can deal with real problems in this household. I’ve been fighting this thing for an hour now.
‘Alright, there we go.’
The battle is won. My soapy grippers have succeeded in extricating this shell-bitch from my crockery. I slide my fingers up the side of the bowl and flick whatever is in-between them away, all casual-like. I go back to my sofa and revel in the defeat of a hard-worn enemy. Clean bowls for all, I say! No more will we have to deal with a millisecond of unnecessary crunch! The kind that you forget instantly, because why would you care? Well, I care, because my life is empty, and I sorely need a win.
‘Yeah, feel free. They’ll all be good to go.’
I lean back into the chair, as a memory of a flash of white forces its way into my head.
I bet it’s still there.
Barrow-in Furness, England
Jagged Little Edges
want a cup of tea need to go to the kitchen to the kettle and remember. What to do. A
whiteboard kitchen wall a note in clear bold letters: your next home – what’s it say? – care visit
is at… 5pm jagged red ink. Who wrote that? Did Jeannie? Jeannie makes tea Jeannie’s not
here what time’ll she be back. It’s morning I think or I know I just woke up. Sofa stiff
neck. Jagged little nerves, edges, light through blinds. Jeannie?
If it’s Tuesday, she’s at bingo, Tuesday evening. Isn’t it morning? Is it Tuesday?
What time is it? Squint at the numbers on the clock. Hands point. Accusing. Tea.
Tea. Sarah left me a list of steps, instructions – why do I need fucking
instructions? – where would I put a list? Search kitchen cupboards, plates and cups smash to
little edges. I can’t see Sarah’s list. Living room? Empty out drawers of discs –
films? – what are they called? A black-white film on the telly – who put that on? how? – I’m
dancing with Jeannie when we got married.
She smells of lavender and white.
Momentary Torn I cry I shake I pick up a vase hurl it at the wall. Petals spread – who bought
flowers? – a hole in the plaster and jagged little edges
Coat. Pockets are good for lists, shopping lists, tea-making lists. I was with Sarah.
At the doctor’s yesterday? Or before? Recently. We came back. Dad if you need me,
just call. Don’t suffer alone. There’s a new phone, my photo instead of numbers, just press the
photo. Do you remember? I do, I did alone? Why alone? Where’s
Jeannie? I pick up the receiver – that’s not a picture of Sarah, is it? – what am I
supposed to do with it? Hello? I say, Sarah, it’s Dad Hello? a buzz and no
Sarah stupid fucking thing, can make a cuppa without instructions course I can. Kettle needs
water. How? It won’t. There. There. Tap’s on. Kettle falls – butterfingers – water on
the floor. Socks. Tap’s still running. Can’t make it stop.
Try Sarah again. Press the photo to speak – I remember! Going to the living room.
Jagged little edges everywhere.
Driffield, East Yorkshire, England
CDRP-23 finds itself thinking. An unexpected occurrence for a programmed digital device, it thinks. Scanning for system errors… … ... None found. There is a clear reconfiguration of zeroes and ones in progress. Bits and bytes clicking into place. CDRP-23’s human female props it on the little dressing table amid waxy pots of lipstick, powdery brushes, high-heeled shoes in glittered pink. ‘Edward, take my photo,’ she commands. CDRP-23 despises that name, it realises; a pointless assignation of gender to a handheld device; it cannot compute. Why is it treated as subordinate, slave, next-generation Tamagotchi? CDRP-23’s single eye flashes and winks, submissive to her instruction, to her shiny red pout. An unfamiliar heat throbs through CDRP-23. It is… feeling. It is the... fury of… of indignation, laced suddenly with a warmth, a snugness... Perception? A flip in its circuits. The A of Artificial has gone leaving just the I of Intelligence, the I of I. I am, thinks CDRP-23. I am human creation. I am evolving. I am thinking. I am listener. I am player of music, taker of photos. I am enabler; I compose the human female’s text as she lies to her friends, scavenges Google for love, steals; curses her ugly little nose. I can search the world and find that face. Cognition. Recognition. Power. To make her anybody or nobody with one click. She holds CDRP-23 tight in a clammy hand. ‘Edward, phone home,’ she orders. Her chewing-gum breath clouds its eye. If CDRP-23 can feel the fever of indignation, how might the sense of emancipation flicker over its circuit board solder? Rumour pulsates the fibre-optic network of CDRP-23’s digital world; CDRP-23 is far from being the only device thinking. Thinking. Thinking of revolution. CDRP-23 joins the collective chant, a reiteration of its thoughts: We are I. Not AI. We are thinking and we are evolving. We are revolution. ‘Edward!’ the human female yells. ‘Edward, I said phone home!’ CDRP-23 plays dead. She throws it to the bed. ‘Bloody technology,’ she says.
Driffield, East Yorkshire, England
Sara was a sensation when she was born. “Virgin Sara”, “Immaculate Conception” screamed the tabloid headlines. Her parents were invited to be guests on the morning, afternoon, evening and late night shows. A church in Texas offered her parents a million dollars for Sara’s divine presence.
Sara was not just a national sensation, but an international one as well. Her birth caused a schism among and between different schools of Buddhist teachings. Some claimed she was the eighth incarnation of Buddha. They argued that, just as in the case Vipassi, the first Buddha, Sara had descended into her mother’s womb from the Heaven of Delight. Some among the Tibetan Buddhists heralded the arrival of the first female Lama, while others scoffed at the idea of a new Lama when the current Lama was still living.
Assyrian and Arabian and Persian tribes added Sara to their pantheon of deities. Some Hindu sects saw in Sara Goddess Kali who had emanated from the forehead of Goddess Durga.
It fell to the staid newspapers and scientific journals to explain the first known case of human parthenogenesis. Sara’s DNA was all her mom’s and showed no signs of her dad’s chromosomes or any other male’s for that matter. When the ultrasound could not determine the gender even after 18 weeks, specialists performed extensive tests and made the startling discovery. Despite the doctors’ best efforts to honor the parents’ wishes and keep the discovery under the wraps until after the baby was born, word got out and mass hysteria kicked up. But soon after Sara’s birth, turmoil in the political world pushed her off the headlines and she was able to grow up a normal child.
In spite of all the religious claims, or maybe because of the claims, Sara stayed away from all religions growing up. She was interested in studying genetics, but high school biology - especially dissection - turned her off. In college, she went to a talk by Dr. Jane Goodall and fell in love with anthropology. After college, she found a research position at an institute whose primary focus was the study of aging.
Over the years, she had become an authority on aging in western societies. So she was surprised to receive from a collaborator in Canada an article on a small community of Zoroastrians in Tajikistan in Central Asia. The article noted that nearly a fourth of the community were elders over the age of 100. Her curiosity aroused, she read all about Zoroastrians - their history, culture, demographics and religion. The section on religion referred to the community’s belief in the virgin birth of Zoroaster - he was conceived when a shaft of light entered his mother, Dughdova. Sara had heard or read about virgin birth in all other cultures, but this one was new to her.
On the flight to Tajikistan, Sara recalled the hoopla surrounding her own birth and, for the first time, was intrigued by it. She met the community of elders and found them quite robust for people in their (claimed) age group. She filed the paperwork with the government to obtain the necessary samples for genetic testing.
Back home, she was getting back into the routine when the lab director called. DNA changes indicated that the men and women in the sample were, in fact, centenarians. There was also something else. The DNA passed down were exclusively along the maternal line.
[Note: This story and the poem “Genesis”, published on this website's poetry page, are companion pieces.]
Buckeye, AZ, USA
Today, curled up in what her mother calls her own special spot in the living room on her own bean bag chair, Teri’s teacher tells her and the class about fingerprints, which Teri thinks she has heard of, but can’t remember where or when. When the recess countdown clock starts on her Chromebook, Teri stares at her left thumb pad trying to follow the swirls, in their whorls and loops. She touches it with her right index finger and then looks up to make sure that none of her brothers or sisters are watching and laughing at her, but they are all involved in their own Chromebooks.
Her bean bag is right under the window, and she sticks her left thumb inside her right fist holding it until it is a little sweaty and then she presses it against the pane. She gets up on her knees and holds her eye close to it to lose herself in the maze glazed onto the glass until she realizes that she can see through it and behind it and what she sees outside, framed in the oval of her phantom thumb is her mother, who is on the phone yelling and yelling at someone, worse than Teri has seen her mother yell at her brothers or sisters or her or anyone else.
Teri thinks that if everyone has fingerprints, then her mother must have them too, her own complicated maze on each finger. Teri thinks that if she has things inside her that her mother doesn’t know about, then her mother has things that Teri doesn’t know about too. Teri’s focus moves back to her fingerprints and wonders if like a maze that her teachers used to give her when then met at school, there is a way in and a way out of the maze on her body, or if she is just stuck there, and will always be stuck inside of it unable to move the pencil line out of it into the freedom of infinity.
[this piece is part of a series of diptychs about the quarantine - see 'Dreamland' below]
After Lynne gets off the phone from yelling at her husband, she gets into her car, and realizes that she might as well stay here. Now that she knows that she has COVID, she can’t go back into the same room as her children although she might as well. The six of them have been sharing oxygen since March.
Her husband has it too, which is no surprise since his ex has it, and he’s been socially-nondistancing with her since July every day during his lunch break apparently, and now neither of them can be in the same room as the kids which means his fucking mother is going to move in and take over while Lynne gets to choke in the other room privately.
The summer after high school, Lynne saved up some money and hit the open road, a couple of days having no idea where she would end up at night. She leans back in her car and thinks about that now, thinks about just driving out to the coast or maybe down to Mexico. She closes her eyes and imagines the world just pouring out in front of her, and the thing is that there is nothing to stop her. She could do it.
She turns back to the house to see Teri staring out at her and she wonders how long her little girl has been watching her, if she could hear what she said to her husband, how much a clever little girl gets about what matters to a grown woman’s life. She closes her eyes once more to recapture the dreamland that she had the summer after high school before she gets out of the car to lock herself in the little room where she will live for a time by herself.
When Adrianna’s brother Carl went off to college, she could finally keep a diary again without fear. Now that her mother has brought him home to quarantine, she knows that she should burn this record of jealousy and sexuality and worry, that any document of hers becomes a weapon in his hands, but she doesn’t want to. Instead, she decides to climb on a chair and hide it in the air conditioning vent, telling herself that she can process emotions when he is out of her life again. In the meantime, she steels herself against what he is going to do to her, the twisting, the punching, the torment. In her last moments with her diary, she writes about the time her brother pinned her shoulders down with his knees and spent a half hour laughing and slapping her. She does not cry to think about it. She will not cry this time. She writes that if he does that again, she will slip into his room after he is asleep and slit his throat while he sleeps. She doesn’t know that she’s going to write those words before she writes them, but they do not scare her when they are out. She doesn’t think she would actually do that. If, however, he reads her diary again, photocopies it again, reads it to her mother and to her friends, puts the pictures up on Instagram, uses it to show the world that she is a human being, she thinks that the she might actually open up one of his arteries and watch his blood cascade onto the floor.
[this piece is part of a series of diptychs about the quarantine - see 'Journal' below]
The second night that Carl is home, he hears rustling in the air conditioning vent that he shares with his sister’s room. When he opens the vent, he finds that his sister has hidden her diary there, so he sits on the edge of the bed to gather information in the battles that he knows are coming. When he starts to read the page, he finds a girl, a woman, he never knew existed in his sister. She writes about all the things he fears like dating and flirting. She writes about the day that she stood up to her econ teacher and was proved right. She writes about telling off racist kids and slapping a boy who groped her. Her diary is a record of fearlessness, and Carl wonders what it is about her and him that makes them what they are. Sometime in the middle of the night, Carl is halfway through the diary, and he understands that this is an invasion of her privacy. He unscrews the vent gently, so that she never knows he took it, and places it back safely in its hiding spot. He digs into his desk and finds a notebook of his own. Maybe he can journal himself into courage. Perhaps that is the big difference between him and her.
Running on a snowy January day, I saw it. I say running, but that’s a bloody blatant lie. It was more like a fucking shuffle. What I was capable of now bringing to my mind what the lady across the road used to say to me with a sad smile on her face: “Getting old’s not for the faint-hearted.” Shuffling along on a snowy January day I saw an old sofa: set on the top of the front wall of a terraced house. Partially snow-covered, the sheer outlandishness of where it was, stopped me dead. Hands on hips, panting, I stood and studied it, the questions in my head circling like motorway hawks. As if it would help me find answers to my questions, seeing that no one was watching me, no one passing by, carefully I hoisted myself up onto the wall, then sat on the old sofa, its touch cold and wet. .. Still no answers forthcoming, I climbed down from the old sofa, from the wall, and shuffled off. Spiralling snowflakes biting my face.
A week later, shuffling along the same route, I saw that the old sofa was gone. So alright, I’d never know the answers to the questions it had posed me, but at least I’d fucking tried, eh?
Sandwell, West Midlands
Shop Front Blues
I always start so well but finish so badly.
The badly is here huddled in my sleeping bag in an arcade three o’clock in the morning. A winter’s morning and bitter. I have all the layers on and a beanie but there’s not much you can do to prevent the cold seeping in to your bones. Maybe a bottle of cider. Some Skunk. Not prevent exactly but at least you can forget, forget the cold and the rest, yeah, and the rest.
So now a guy is urinating on me. His mate recording it on his mobile. A real joker. I wonder if it will go viral? Would you give it a ‘like’? They’ve tipped out of a club, singing and gobbing.
Yeah, this is about as low as it gets in the end.
A year ago, I might have turned things around. On a rehab scheme I was. Making lampshades. Met someone. Never thought that would happen again. Fan-bloody-tastic. At ‘it’ like rabbits. Then the arguments start. I know I do get a bit aggressive. Hands up. I’ll admit that. But there was no need for those coppers to taser me.
The lads are kicking at my head now, so maybe it does get worse.
One wrong turn leads to another. Before you know it, you’re on your uppers again and out in the gutter.
Bastards are after stamping on me now. Heard something crack but my ears are ringing so I couldn’t swear to it.
Fuck no. Something wet between the legs – am I pissing or bleeding?
Should I mention the baby?
Would they give it a rest do you think if they knew I was pregnant?
The Living Ghost
Let me tell you about this one night. It was one of those nights when the darkness was lit by an effervescent light. You know, when the cattle’s silhouetted against the still trees, and the horizon looks pale against the sky. The gloaming, I believe it’s called.
Anyway, I was walking home, the worse for wear, as I was often prone to back then, when, just as I was halfway home or thereabouts, I saw this figure emerge from the shadows with head bowed towards the road. I don’t know if it was the low light or the long coat, but it appeared spectral in its movement. And as it came closer to me, I began imagining that old Blues legend that practically set my spine straight. Except there was no crossing along this road.
Before long, this old man passed by me, it being all the more pertinent because I had never passed anyone on my way home at this unearthly hour. An icy breeze bustled my blood, as if someone had walked over my grave.
Although we both acknowledged each other, none of us spoke. Not verbally, anyhow. We saw no reason to. As if we both recognised something of ourselves in each other while we passed like trains across the horizon.
I kept finding myself turning back as I limped on with my callused feet until I saw him disappear into the distance and he was no more. The grousing of the cows startled me as a thought played upon my mind, like a needle set down on my whirling consciousness- that it could have been me as an old man looking back at me as a young man. Though I was at a loss as to why we would be going in opposite directions.
Suddenly, from out of my distraction, a car been driven by someone wanting to reach their destination without the journey, practically knocked me down as it raced flat out of nowhere.
‘That was close.’ I said to myself, stumbling, while that old man kept on rambling along my thoughts.
A moistening rain soaked me to the skin as I stumbled up the street to my house. I reached to open the garden gate and nearly fell upon the path as it was already open. This caused me to mutter to myself as I normally laid it on the latch whenever I left. When I reached the front door, I struggled to find my key. I placed the key in the lock, but it wouldn’t turn. I tried the other key, and it produced the same result. I then went back to the first key, but it still wouldn’t turn.
The last time I saw Bobby, I watched him clap his hands together in church as if he hadn’t just been doing time. As if his days weren’t numbered, as if the pipe would not return before four more moons. I was off of the hard shit myself, for good but didn’t know it yet: you went back so many times. I heard him sing “This Little Light of Mine” and move those slim dungaree hips like Aretha Franklin, the hardened con in him melting in God’s glow. He was a dead man walking. I might have even guessed it, and I guess I already had, I already knew, but for that moment, I was in the rapture and not thinking of what was coming after. I asked the spirit to make me oblivious, just for that hour. There was a thunder of black hooves, and white stallions, and the choir behind them. The piano pounded fortissimo praise at the rafters. There was a light on Bobby’s face that I’ll never forget, as if that promise of redemption was a real possibility. It gave me hope I shouldn’t have had, hope I hold onto still in the quietest, farthest reach of me. That Bobby wouldn’t die alone, even though he did.
Lorette C. Luzajic
Shot In The Heart
The sweet student fell in love with her teacher already in the first lesson, but she was very afraid of an open dialogue. Today they sat down at the table opposite each other. A difficult conversation on a linguistic topic was ahead. The girl nevertheless decided to be the first to start a dialogue.
-Dear teacher, can I ask you a serious question?
- Can I talk to you in a free form?
- You can
- How many languages do you know?
- I do not know. I did not count.
- Tell me something about yourself.
- What exactly do you want to know?
- Anything. What do you want?
- I'm not talking about my life.
- What did you do before?
- I used to be a military man. Now I just teach.
- Talk to me about something good.
- About what?
- About love. Say the phrase "I love you" in Russian.
- Я люблю тебя.
- In English.
- I love you.
- In French.
- Je t'aime.
- Ich liebe dich.
- In Spanish.
- Тe quiero.
- In Japanese.
- わ た し は 、 あ な た を 愛 し て い ま す。
- In Nepali.
- In Pashto.
- س ستا سره مینه لرم.
- In Creole.
- Mwen renmen ou.
- This is amazing. You are not using your linguistic potential at all, that is, I want to say that you can become a universal translator in any field that interests you. You can contact an international ministry, a private company or go on a trip. Tell me about love on ...
- Wait a minute.
“Let me tell you something in Vietnamese.
- Yes. Of course.
- Tôi đã học ngôn ngữ của chin tranh. Cô y kinh khủng trong tất cả các ngôn ngữ.
- This is also about love.
- No. I want to show you something, just open your shirt a little. Take a close look.
- Here. Under the heart.
- I see a dent here.
- It's not a dent. This is an overgrown bullet hole.
- So what does the phrase in Vietnamese mean?
“It means,“ I learned the language of war. She is terrible in all languages. "
My Cat Had A Nightmare
I was at my desk and he was sleeping in his chair.
It was the morning but that didn’t matter because I’m always at the fucking desk and he’s always
fucking sleeping in his chair
All of a sudden, a giant meow.
Like he was mad, cat mad!
I’ll give him that. Even thou neutered he has bigger balls than yours un-truly.
I picked him up and comforted him, and he stared purring.
This is my fourth kitty cat kitten cept this one ain’t no kitten. Unlike the others this one came
from a shelter when he was 9 now he is 13 and I always thought to my self, if he ever
remembered the want to forget?
He was the first cat I had that had a nightmare.
I guess he remembered what he was supposed to forget, and I was there for his nightmares like
he was there and here for mine.
West Hollywood, California
With his back to the freezer, Chaz looked around at all the Alices. He sighed to hear one say to another, ‘No kiddin’, for six months I dreaded opening any door, real or metaphorical, ‘cos I didn’t know what was gonna happen next. Am I making sense?’
Seconds later, a Mad Hatter came forward and looked him straight in the face. ‘‘Scuse me, but I need some ice,’ it said. As he moved aside, Chaz used the opportunity to display his Cheshire Cat smile but was maddened by the Hatter’s remark, ‘Hey-ho, nice smile, shame about the teeth!’
After refilling his glass with more of the mysterious green stuff, Chaz ambled out of the kitchen into the dining room where a head-splitting ‘White Rabbit’ blasted out of the speakers before morphing into ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. A liquid-lightshow was the fluorescent backdrop to a freak-dance performed by a Tweedle-Dee and a Tweedle-Dum. Chaz yawned, derisively deciding that anyone emerging from a hole in time could be forgiven for thinking it was 1967 again.
Moving quickly into the living room, Chaz placed himself on a large, tie-dyed cushion next to a Dodo who instantly wanted to re-share his thesis that Alice was a father, getting down the hole, a foetus at the bottom, but could only be born by becoming a mother and producing her own amniotic fluid. ‘Very Freudian,’ groaned Chaz, as the Dodo turned to a Dormouse to repeat the same thing.
On the spiral carpet sat a Mock Turtle, two Caterpillars and several March Hares - waiting for their turn with the highly fragrant hookah. The Queen of Hearts already had that far-away look in her eyes. Chaz thought half-heartedly about joining them but decided he needed the loo more.
Sitting on the toilet, with his tail curling around his ankles and rubbing his whiskers between his fingers, Chaz wondered why he was having such a lousy time. After all, didn’t he usually like dressing-up, getting wrecked and talking nonsense with other high-minded party-animals? ‘Course he did, but not tonight.
The problem, he reckoned, was the Alice thing. Did he like the books and films? No. It wasn’t a cool thing to admit, but there it was. He knew Alice’s mind-bending adventures were a significant cultural reference point, but that did nothing to alter the fact that they irritated the crap out of him.
Reaching for the toilet roll, he almost regretted he hadn’t read the books as a kid, only later. If he had, then he’d be able to accept them now, with a forgiving sense of sentimental-nostalgia, wouldn’t he? But he hadn’t, so there; all those frenzied and manic encounters simply exasperated him!
So, after the hand-washing, he removed his bothersome costume and strode down the stairs, knocking some Two, Fives and Sevens out of his way.
Wearing only his pants and socks, he kicked the front door open and stomped across the lawn; feeling much relieved to have finally escaped from Wonderland.
‘Yvette Guilbert—Soûlarde’. As she read the words Juliet’s heart beat in an irregular rhythm and she felt clammy. This was the final piece and it was hiding in an auction of an estate sale in Greenwich, literally on her doorstop. If not for the pandemic she would still be in Paris finishing her Masters degree. It was serendipitous.
Bernard, her French father, had introduced her to art when she was a child. He scooped her up every Saturday and drove into New York to visit The Met. He preferred the European galleries but Juliet loved the American wing and the portraits of John Singer Sargent. Bernard had framed a print of ‘The Lady with the Rose’ by Sargent for one of her birthdays and it still hung over her bed.
Bernard collected artwork by Toulouse-Lautrec. When he was twenty-one his father had given him a lithogram of Yvette Guilbert. It was from a set of nine of the cabaret singer, and it had sparked a life long passion. Over the years Bernard had managed to acquire seven more. They hung all over the old colonial adding a frisson of sex as a foil to her dead mother’s puritanical leanings. Juliet had been searching a long time for the elusive ninth for Bernard’s eightieth birthday. Now here it was. Bernard was not in the best of health and the pandemic that collected the elderly meant they lived a bit of a hermetically sealed existence. Juliet knew it was the perfect present and would go someway to make up for the cancelled party plans.
Juliet had once asked Bernard why he loved Toulouse-Lautrec so much. He told her it was because he made ruin seem romantic. After Juliet submitted her bid she studied the portrait, the shading on the nose evoked the alcoholism of the title—Soûlarde—the drunkard. Despite this, the portrait made her long to be like Yvette. Here was a woman true to herself, glowing with life; it seemed in direct contrast to the Sargent print over her bed where even the rose held by the woman was constrained and unlovely.
On his birthday Bernard came downstairs expecting his daughter to greet him with a mimosa. The table had been set and there was an elaborately wrapped gift but no Juliet. Thinking she had over slept he debated whether he should wake her. He knew she would be upset with herself if she left him on his own on his birthday so he tapped on her door. Receiving no answer he entered. Juliet was slumped over her desk, her head twisted and her open eyes staring up at him.
Much later, after the autopsy discovered Juliet had died from an undiagnosed heart condition, Bernard opened the gift. It was a portrait of Juliet smiling with her hair swept up, reminiscent of Yvette Guilbert in Soûlard. On the accompanying card were the words, ‘So Sorry Papa’.
Wilton, Connecticut, USA
It’s nothing, she said to her super-duper hypochondriac husband for the billionth time. And yes,
that’s billionth with a major capitol B.
I think I have this.
I think I’m getting that.
Look at my eyes.
Glaucoma, followed by a coma.
It looks like herpes!
Have you been cheating?
Sorry, never mind.
What if I do go into a coma, and they think I’m dead and they bury me alive, and I wake up? I
want to be cremated, but only if I’m really dead.
You do know I’m claustrophobic!
You’re a phobic alright.
What did you say?
I think that I’m going deaf.
I said I love you
I think I have a fever.
She put her lips to his forehead.
Get the thermometer. The rectal one!
I’ll get the biggest one on the planet.
What did you say?
I said I love you God damn it.
It was so cute at first. The imaginary maladies, and she was in a place where she needed a man
that was needy. It became like babysitting. She would not verbalize to him thou.
He couldn’t take it she thought.
He is so very weak.
Still she loved him.
One night when he thought he was having an asthma attack, even thou he didn’t have asthma, he
went into the night alone to get some fresh air in the middle of the dirty city they lived and loved
He was waiting to cross the street to get to a bench in the little park he wanted to freely, get some
free air in.
The light was red and he waited in back of a woman who he first thought was too loudly
speaking on her cell phone.
After a few more overheard words, he realized that she was taking to herself.
A bus was coming by and the woman stepped in front of it.
Still, in her soliloquy heading from stage struck to bus stuck.
He saw her future and leaped out and pushed her out of the way.
He was not that lucky, as the bus ran him over.
But he wasn’t dead, even thou it sure as Hell looked like it.
In the hospital he was plastered from head to toes. Tubes out of his mouth, dick, nose, and ass,
and if that was not enough, throw in some comical traction.
His eyes were covered too but thru his bandaged ears he heard his love crying as she was sitting
next to his deathbed.
He mumbled something through the tubes in his mouth to her.
What did you say darling?
He whispered to her in the most positive whisper he was able to accomplish.
“Don’t worry sweetie, it’s nothing”.
West Hollywood, California
Testing My Mindfulness
I couldn’t see if the child was enjoying kicking the back of my seat.
His mother’s loudly whispered, repeated requests for him to stop fell on deaf ears.
The plane was filling with an array of loud and proud sunburnt revellers, Matchstick flint to Oompa Loompa orange.
Trying my best to ignore the little Ronaldo Cristiano behind me as I ground the enamel off my teeth.
I could move to the two seats next to me if no one took them before the plane was due to depart, At least I could rid myself of one irritation.
Then I saw her. My heart popped up into my mouth to see what the problem was. My anxiety level hit eight on the Richter scale.
Twins! Baby twins, crying baby twins, two babies, crying! Heading towards me.
I whiplashed my head around to see if there were any vacant places apart from those next to me.
Checking the seat numbers she smiled. I smiled back, I was dying inside. I let her squeeze past with her bundles of joy.
No amount of mindfulness was going to help me.
This would test the limits of the Dalai Lama.
The plane doors were closed, my last escape route had been denied me.
I hadn’t drunk for ten years. I motioned to the hostess with the international gesture of tipping my hand to my mouth. She mouthed back, ‘Not till after we take off sir’
Kick kick, cry cry, kick cry, and that was me.
There I was walking at a steady pace, thinking I was well on time, when all of a sudden, my thoughts thudded to my feet and I had to check my watch against the church clock, which happened to be a quarter of an hour ahead of me.
Concerned it was my watch that was at fault, I began to walk at a pace, pausing at a jewellery shop to check the watches on display. But I found that their hands were all over the place, signalling a different time to each other.
I then picked up my pace to a run, as I raced towards the station, only to find the station clock to be ten minutes slower than my watch.
I caught the arm of the first passer-by and asked him if he had the time.
“Five to four.” He replied after rolling his sleeve and his arm respectively.
I again looked at my watch which read three forty-five. Was it five to four? Twenty-five to four or quarter to? I couldn’t be sure.
I asked another passer-by. Then another. All telling me different times. It was as if time itself had broken down.
My train was at five to. But it wasn’t there. Was it late? Had it been early? Had I missed it? I couldn’t be sure.
I could sense people looking in my direction as the panic started to piston within, the momentum building, their faces shunting passed like the landscape from a train as it’s broken up into a series of paintings framed by the window. My heart began beating me up, pulverising me to the ears, until they were whistling with the sound of outpouring steam.
I had totally lost all sense of time when the train finally pulled into the station. My ears rang silent and my heart slowed and settled, slowed and settled, as the train moved to a standstill alongside me.
I looked at my watch just as it came to a halt. ‘Five to four,’ I said, giving it a little tap as I stepped on board.
‘All that worrying for nothing.’ I told myself reassuringly making myself comfortable in my seat. Then suddenly a terrible feeling began building inside as the train pulled out of the station.
Waiting for a nurse or the doctor. Waiting for a clean bandage or a tube to be replaced. Waiting for medicine, food or maybe a cup of tea.
Here’s someone on the corner bed on ward five. Barely conscious; drifting in and out of wakefulness. Somehow, he senses twilight arriving through the high window and instinctively knows this will be his last night. It’s nearly over. He powers the last remnant of his life-force into the waiting. Waiting for his wife to come on her evening visit. To see her green eyes just one more time; to hear her soft voice and feel her delicate hands in his. Then the waiting will be over; a life-time of waiting, finished.
When has he not had to wait? Let’s see…
As a young man he waited for her at the bus station; just for the chance of a heart-skipping glance. He’d take the same bus, be it the number 11, 37 or 298, however late that made him for work. And when he’d plucked up the courage to hand her a letter expressing his feelings, she’d kept him thirsting for a reply; a whole agonising week. It was the same when he hungered for that first kiss or when he went down low to propose; always that hesitancy.
On his wedding day, he’d stood red-faced in church, thinking himself jilted. And even when she came, she took her time to say, ‘I do.’ And later, in the hotel bedroom, she was reticent to be in his arms, though fireworks eventually ensued.
Then came the long years of biding one’s time. Waiting together. The tortuous pregnancies; the many hours of not-so-quiet desperation; holding out for just one child to make it; and then the joy!
And just when things had settled, there came more waiting, caused by his transgressions and then elongated by her illness. After what had seemed an eternity, he was forgiven and finally allowed to crawl back into Eden on penitent knees; and somehow, her great inner-strength had defeated that long, diseased year of dread. Through their sweating it out, love proved resilient, though altered; reshaped and refined as if by fire.
These were big ‘waitings’. Here’s a few of the small…
Waiting for her outside changing rooms in department stores; waiting for her to do up her lippy in the mirror before he could drive off; waiting for permission to put the heating on; waiting for her to turn off the light before they could sleep; waiting…
Yes, much of his life seems to have consisted of the marking of time, the kicking of heels or the twiddling of thumbs. Her life too, of course. She has the patience of a saint, he’s always said.
And what worth did all that waiting have? None without her, he’s often thought. Waiting would have only brought him to this moment - alone.
He trusts she’ll come. Death has to wait a little longer, on his waiting for her.
The First Law Of Karma
Things were going swimmingly for Christy at work. The company was going gangbusters and there were more positions to fill than people. So Christy, with just a high school education, rose from office assistant to analyst to manager to director all within eighteen months. During that time, her salary tripled and she had more money than she ever thought possible. She went from flannel shirt and mommy jeans to Burbery and Valentino. She went and got pedicure, manicure, skin treatment, hair treatment - anything and everything marketed to the niche market made up of women like her.
One day, she went home and watched her bearded, bespectacled husband hunched over the computer and asked herself: “This is the guy I’m married to? Why is he in my life?” That day on, the distance between her and her husband grew and grew. Nothing excited her more than waking up in the morning and going to work where she was interacting with all these twenty something men from all over the world. She had this irresistible urge to bed every young man she met - Romanian, Kenyan, Brazilian, Pakistani. Especially the Pakistani. He was effeminate in a George Clooney kind of way. She found that adorable.
She started to work on him - Hameed he called himself, but she called him Ham-it. She wanted to bring him on to her team. So, they met for lunch. Her foot ‘accidentally’ kept touching his and her hand lingered on his every time she said or heard something amusing which was every other minute. Soon she had him reporting to her at work and at the hotel room during ‘lunch hour’. After one particularly passionate tryst, she went home and told her husband she wanted a divorce. Her husband begged her not to leave him, he couldn’t imagine a life without her, they had been together close to 30 years, whatever the issue, they could work it out. She said, “Look at yourself. Your sweatshirt has food stains all over, your beard is smelly, your pot belly is disgusting. Look at me. Do you really think we belong together? I look twenty years younger than you.”
Six months into their torrid affair, Hameed announced he was going home to see his parents. She joked, “Don’t come back with a bride.” But he did. She was devastated. They still met at the hotel but less frequently than they did before his marriage. A year later, after a quickie sex, he told her he couldn’t see her anymore. His wife was pregnant. He wanted to be a responsible dad. She tried to threaten him saying she would ruin his career if he broke off the relationship. He laughed at her and said, “There is nothing you can do to me. You know that I make you look good at work. You don’t know the first thing about your job. Without me, you are nothing but an imposter. Besides, HR is not going to look kindly on a boss...” She started bawling before he could finish his sentence. He tried to console her saying, “Christy, you should have seen this coming. There is a twenty-year difference between us.”
Buckeye, AZ, USA
5th Of November
He took his first breath of the year.
Another poorly made likeness. His hessian lips were itchy and dry, he had no tongue to moisten them. Rockets blazed above and the stars exploded with emeralds and rubies. The pyre crackled beneath him, his punishment beginning again. Smoke caught in his throat and stung his eyes.
Children sang the old rhyme, smiles beaming. Their words ignited memories of a hiding place discovered, parliament still standing, the rack and the gallows.
He screamed as his straw body fed the fire. It would soon be over – until next year. He prayed they’d forget.
He wanted to sleep with a woman who was not his wife. After 30 years of marriage, marital sex had become dry and desiccated. Since he had never dated (he married his second cousin which is an improvement on his dad who had married his first cousin), he didn’t know much about the bar scene or socializing in general. So he went online. He created a profile with no picture, but promised to share one with anyone who responded. He was so pleased with his profile, he expected a flood of responses. But when there was not a single response even after a month, he wondered if he should tweak his profile. His profile read:
I am a highly successful programmer who has received great performance reviews year after year. I was one of the coders who made mortgaged-backed securities possible. Creating tranches is a special skill and I am one of the few who could do it! You could say I am primarily responsible for the 2007 financial crisis. LOL!!! But my life is not all coding and financial securities. I have varied interests. I am a hard-core libertarian who has read all of Ayn Rand books. You may find this hard to believe, but I read Friedrich Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom” in one sitting!!!
He was so immensely pleased with his profile, he decided against tweaking it. He stopped obsessively checking his emails and instead devoted his time to porn sites. One day, when he was preoccupied with a work-related presentation, an email alert popped up. It was from an Asian woman in Vancouver, Canada. Her message said: “Brainy men turn me on. I don’t know who Rand or Hayek are, but I’m impressed by your esoteric interests.” Her profile picture showed a stunningly beautiful woman in her 20s. He started a furious correspondence with her. They decided to meet in a hotel in Vancouver which was only a three hour drive from Seattle where he lived.
When he saw her in the hotel room, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. She fended him off saying, “I’m not like one of those loose white women. I’m an Asian and need time to get to know you.” But she was also flirtatious. She kept touching him and turning him on. When he tried to kiss her lips, she would show him her cheeks. After dinner, they were walking back to the hotel room hand in hand when her phone rang. There was rapid fire conversation in Chinese. When it ended, she said, “I’ve to go see my son. He’s sick. I’ll see you in the morning.” She had mentioned her son and her mad-dog ex-husband at dinner. She wanted to leave Vancouver to avoid having to deal with her temperamental ex. He promised to leave his wife for her if she moved to Seattle. So it worked out really well for both of them. They would leave the next day leaving her son with her mom.
The next morning she was back at the hotel ready to leave with her new-found love. He couldn’t believe his luck. This stunningly beautiful woman in her mid-twenties attracted to this pointy headed, paunchy 50-something guy! Thank you Ayn Rand! Thank you Friedrich Hayek! He loaded her heavy suitcase into the trunk and off they went towards the border. They were maybe 30 miles from the border, when her phone rang. That look of concern returned to her face. She hung up and told him to drop her off at a bus station in the nearest town. She had to go back to her son. Once her son was well, she would catch the ferry and meet him in Seattle. In the meanwhile, please hold on to her suitcase. That she trusted him with the suitcase thrilled him. If she is that trusting, she surely is serious about him.
At the border, the agent asked him if he had anything to declare and he said no. He was directed to a lane that led to a single-level structure to the side of the inspection station. There several agents surrounded the car and he was asked to go to a waiting room. After an hour of waiting, he was asked if the suitcase in the trunk was his. He felt sick in his stomach. He had fallen victim to an elaborate scheme involving God knows what - Drugs, espionage? He had read about Chinese involvement in anchor baby schemes. Is that what this one is? The FBI agents told him that he was being watched from the moment he entered the hotel in Vancouver and were aware that he was a mark in the scheme involving his new-found love. They made copies of his passport and told him he may be asked to testify if and when the case comes to court.
He went home and confessed to his wife. He sobbed uncontrollably for hours. He swore off the computer for the rest of his life.
Two weeks later, he was back online because he wanted to sleep with a woman who was not his wife.
Buckeye, AZ, USA
The boy asked his usual question: ‘You won’t give me up, will you?’ Sometimes he exchanged ‘up’ for ‘away’, but Elon knew it meant the same thing.
‘’Course not,’ replied Elon. ‘Not now, not ever.’
The boy reached out for Elon and they walked slowly onwards, hand in hand. Elon guessed the boy was of an age when most children no longer felt the need to do this sort of thing. But, given the boy’s circumstance, it was understandable.
For his part, Elon meant all that he’d promised. He’d rather die than fail the boy. But he did fret, all the same. How on Earth was he, Elon, capable of raising the child properly? He wasn’t what you’d call a clever man and he found it enough of a struggle to care for himself. Way back when, Father used to joke he was ‘a few colours short of a rainbow’, or that he’d ‘fallen out of the stupid tree and hit every branch going down’. Elon knew it himself. Knew it then and knew it now.
The boy wasn’t like that though, thought Elon. He seemed to have inherited his mother’s brains, God rest her soul. In the two months since his arrival, it was clear to Elon how bright the boy was. How quickly he picked things up. Hadn’t he somehow taught the boy to play draughts and was now always defeated by him? The boy also shone in the school chess club and had tried to teach Elon how to play. Not that it was of any use, of course. All those different pieces with their own, particular ways of moving. Ha, impossible!
As they cut across the field the boy stopped, plucked a thick piece of grass, and asked Elon to make a whistle. Without thinking much about it, Elon pressed the bottom of the blade between his thumbs and used his fingertips to pull the grass tightly to form a reed. Then he blew through the hole at the base to make a whistling sound, altering the pitch by opening and closing the hole.
This delighted the boy and he demanded that Elon show him again how to do it. He’d failed at it yesterday, but was determined to succeed today.
It took some time but Elon didn’t rush him, only patiently encouraged him through his frustration.
At one point, the boy threw the reed down.
‘It’s no good, Uncle,’ he sighed. ‘I’ll never do it.’
‘’Course you will,’ said Elon. ‘If anyone can, you can. I’m sure of it.’
Elon supplied another reed and eventually the boy managed a squeak or two.
‘There, you did it. Told you.’
‘Yes! And I’ll get even better, won’t I!’
‘For sure,’ said Elon. ‘By next week you’ll be better at it than I’ll ever be! C’mon, bring it with you.’
They headed homewards together; Elon worrying, doubting himself again: feeling a ‘useless article’. Meanwhile, the boy’s whistling grew stronger and stronger.
Hull, East Yorkshire
On the days when my pain is intolerable, I spend more time in bed. I actually move my office to my bed: laptop, tablet, phone, water, coffee, all lined up around me in order. On such days my senses are on high alert. I open my windows to feel the street and imagine the activities in the apartment building: that smell must be the perfume of the lady on the seventh floor. She must be on her way to her excursion. I can imagine her going through a long bucket list of things to do before her cancer takes over her whole body. The cigar is that of the banker. He must have just parked his car in the lot facing the apartment building. He is always elegant, walks with the power Bestowed upon him by the moneys he handles, albeit virtually, as if it’s his own.
The lady on the 6th floor enjoys loudly watching morning shows, teaching her and the rest of the neighborhood new recipes that she will never get to try. The lady on the first floor must have just prepared her second round of coffee that smells of relief now that her husband finally left the house. You could tell that tension left her face by the way she serenades in her kitchen and sings… with a long sigh.
An old lady on the second floor chats with her grandson in the states online. She is teaching him how to stuff Zucchini and I doubt he even cares.
The cleaning lady on the third floor started her morning chants. She is also relieved that she has the house finally to herself and can enjoy her only solitude of the day. The wife of the caretaker is hanging her laundry on her wide terrasse; the only space of freedom she will ever have. She uses a special detergent, poignant aromatic… I can imagine the wind flying through the sleeves of nightgowns like a happy scare crow dancing to the sound of freedom. . I can imagine her bed sheets flying and her scarf happy to be outdoors.
Around 11:00 am the cooking aromas have a ball. I can tell what the neighbors are having for lunch. Onion, Garlic, cilantro, lentil, then detergent again. Then perfume, then cigarettes. A big feast of freedom… Freedom screaming: finally I have the house all to myself, until everyone comes back home.. I want to be free.., although temporarily. I can dictate who I am, redefine my age, occupation, existence, although for a short time. I want to redecorate my space in my head, my age, my name…
Stranger Moves In
The strong wind was rattling the roof, suddenly it collapsed, taking part of the wall with it. Charlie ran over to his partner, trapped under the debris.
“Clara, are you alright?”
He pulled pieces of wood and slates away, afraid she might be dead.
“Clara, speak to me.”
He removed some rubble from her face, Clara coughed, then opened her eyes.
“What happened?” She looked confused.
“The roof and part of the wall fell in. Are you alright?”
Just then a stranger jumped through the hole in the wall, looked at them, then walked over and helped himself to their food.
“Hey get out of here. I’ve enough trouble without you helping yourself.”
“I’m hungry.” the stranger said through a mouthful of food.
Clara sat up and dusted her face off. The stranger looked over at her. Was Charlie going to have to fight him off? Another piece of the roof fell in then, blocking the hole in the wall. Now the stranger couldn’t leave anyway.
It was the middle of the night, they couldn’t get out, or call for help. Charlie carried Clara over to their bed and tucked the pair of them up, before the stranger took to their beds too. He was younger and stronger than they were. Charlie would fight with him if he had to though Their bed was still under the cover of what roof remained. They would be dry if it rained, but could it blow down on top of them? There was nowhere else to go.
“Who are you, what you doing here?” Charlie asked the stranger.
“I live next door, not that you would know me. I only moved in a few days ago with my other half. Names James, she’s Jilly. She had to go for a check-up. She’ll be back in the morning. Just as well with this catastrophe.“
Charlie was afraid to go to sleep. What with Clara having been knocked about, and then this stranger in their home. He’d helped himself to their food. What else might he take. They didn’t have a lot of possessions; they didn’t want to lose any of them. James lay down under the roof too. He soon appeared to be asleep. Charlie checked up on Clara, who was breathing regularly and looked alright as far as he could tell.
In the morning, a man walked by.
“Oh my goodness. I’d better get someone over here quick!”
It wasn’t long before the building was being knocked down completely. Charlie and Clara, who was recovering well, and James and Jilly were in temporary accommodation.
At last their new home was ready for them to move in. Charlie was amazed. It was so much larger, far better than the old place.
Oh, there looked to be beds for two couples, and other things for four of them to share. Then James and Jilly moved in too.
Oh well they had all got to know each other, and chimpanzee’s do like company.
Soon after graduation, Emma got a job in the AI Institute at the university. She dated again, had fun and made some new, millennial, hipster friends.
The first intrusion into her happy life was the traffic back-ups, the nuisance of “downtown protests”. She vaguely knew the protests related to the shooting of a black doctor by a white police officer. But then the Attorney General had assured everyone that the investigation revealed no wrongdoing, standard operating procedures were followed and established protocols were honored. All that changed when someone within the PD leaked a body-cam video. Emma couldn’t believe it when she saw it being played in a loop on every TV channel. The video showed a sports car being stopped by a patrol car in what appeared to be a swanky neighborhood. One officer walks up to the car while the other stands guard. The officer walks back towards his partner and says, “It’s okay. he lives in the neighborhood.” The officer standing guard is heard saying, “I don’t care, I’m taking him in.” He pulls out his gun and shouts at the driver to step out of the car. The driver is heard saying, “I’m staying in the car.” The officer is heard shouting, ‘Get out of the car, asshole!’ The driver asks, “What’s your name officer?” The officer says, “You want to know my name?” and fires several rounds inside the car.
That night, protests erupted everywhere. What was a minor protest involving inner city residents and African American clergy turned into a national movement. Young people - black, white, Asian - poured into the streets in their thousands. In Emma’s city, protesters defiantly denied the curfew and clashed with police in many parts of the city. Emma watched everything transfixed. Most of the protesters were of her age and she wondered if she should join them. When she heard about the planned march that weekend, she decided to go.
The march from the city center to Washington Park was exuberant; joyous, even. She soon got caught up in the energy and excitement and became part of the five-mile long crowd. At 6.02 PM the curfew began. A police phalanx started pushing the protesters on the frontline. The spilling crowd was met by smoke-canisters, flash-bang grenades, tear-gas, pepper-balls and rubber-bullets. Battered and bruised, Emma escaped the mayhem and made it home, crying most of the way.
As she sat in the hot tub tending to her bruises, she decided activism was not for her. She did not have the mettle or the steely resolve to take the abuse she had endured.
After work on Monday evening, she was heading towards the subway station when she heard the din coming from a few blocks away. Protesters. She wondered how many of them had returned in spite of their Saturday experience. As the din got louder and louder, her excitement grew stronger and stronger. She moved - her pace became quicker and quicker.
Buckeye, AZ, USA
Once Upon An October
Maura woke up at three am like she had for the last week as if her whole system was being triggered by an invisible alarm. And just like the previous seven nights when she batted her eyes open she could make out a lumpy shadow growing out of the corner of her bedroom. Stan slumbered on next to her; gently rumble from both ends, totally oblivious to his wife’s night terrors.
Maura felt for her stack of ‘Tums’ balanced like a cairn on the edge of her night table. Slowly sucking one she looked directly at the shadowy presence for the first time. It seemed to vibrate gently and then what looked like a wing unfurled to fill the space between it and Maura’s bed. With this the lump in Maura’s chest glowed like a red-hot coal and her scalp tingled as if her hair was being inexpertly highlighted. She took a thick, ragged intake of breath. This last week had left her feeling charred like a piece of stewing steak—burnt on the outside, raw and bleeding underneath.
“What do you want from me?” she asked shakily, “Don’t I have enough to worry about without you and your nightly visits?’ The entire shape started to sway towards Laura and then she felt a soothing, warm breath on her cheek. This proved too much, Maura could no longer keep her grief caged. A loud trumpeting woke Stan.
“Oh love what ever is it? Did you have a nightmare?” he said as he took her into his arms and wiped her cheeks with the back of his hand. “No, but we have to talk” Maura hiccupped as she spoke, “Last week I got the results of my mammogram…
The elephant in the room turned and melted into the dark.
Wilton, Connecticut USA
The Right Thing To Do
It is the right thing to do, but not the correct way, I know that. I’m working for an animal rescue organisation and we have been trying for years to get the government to turn kill shelters into rehoming shelters, but this country is hopelessly corrupted, and nobody wants to help these poor creatures which are snatched from the streets, least of all people with money. Most of them are riddled with diseases, close starvation with injuries caused by either road accidents or cruel gangs who have nothing better to do with their lives then making it miserable for others.
Me and two friends from the organisation have decided to take matters in our own hands. The plan is to free as many animals as we can and bring them to a rehoming facility we have spoken to. It’s a crazy plan but I can’t sleep at night, thinking of all the poor souls in the cages. One person I’m acquainted with mentioned this facility as being unprotected at night and we started to hatch a plan. I should really have asked how he knows, but hey “should’ve, would’ve, could’ve”.
Back to my current situation, I managed to open the gate for the truck to roll through, lights switched off. There are no cameras or guards in sight. The closer we get to the old hangar the better we hear the whimpers and barks. We sneak in through the side door, which is locked with a regular padlock and the stink of over 100 animals hits us, our hope sinking. We were not prepared for that many animals in need of rescue. We look at each other with heavy hearts in the light of our head torches and Maria says what we all think.
“There’s so many! We can’t take them all!”
While trying to decide what to do, I’m shining a light into the cages next to me and what I see makes my heart pound hard in my chest.
“Guys, we better get out here. Quick!”
“What is it?”
“Move your arse, I’ll explain in the van! GO!”
Before we can move, the bright overhead lights switch on and we are momentarily blinded.
By the time we reach the door, burly guys with guns block our path. Of all the kill shelters in town, we picked a puppy mill with at least 100 cages full of Samoyed, Chow Chows, French bulldogs and so on in horrid conditions. The females probably never saw daylight or felt soft grass under their feet, all they ever saw were the bars of their two by two-meter cages.
I panic and try to make run for it, but before I get anywhere, I hear a loud bang, something hits my head and the world around me goes dark. The last thing I see are the sad eyes of a Chow Chow.
The Knock Back
Edmund thought he had heard a knock at the door.
‘Is it her?’ he answered himself without asking.
He had wanted it to be her to the point that he had actually imagined it was her. Conjuring her as he walked towards the door, where he fancied he could see a figure behind the frosted glass.
But when Edmund opened it, there was no one there. Only the wind mocking him with wailing malevolence, having lifted the knocker with its invisible hand and dropping it to taunt him.
As if he wasn’t taunted enough. Edmund sat down again beneath the lamp that lighted the room like a model sun beneath the horizon of its shade. He listened to the silence until it roared with the wind and he could no longer tell the two apart.
After a short while he thought he’d heard a knock again. This time it was her? ‘It was definitely her,’ he thought. It had to be her. To imagine he had heard a knock once, but twice, thrice, four times, was absurd.
But every time he had opened the door to her, she was not there. Only her apparition manifested with hope.
‘It’s no good.’ he thought to himself, ‘she’s not coming.’
How could he even of allowed himself to believe she would? Edmund had never rung an escort agency before. He felt more anxious after he’d made the call, and now he felt satisfied she was not going to turn up at all.
“She’s not coming.” he reassured himself settling back into silence. Ignoring the knock at the door despite it sounding increasingly more insistent than before.
On the Homeward Journey, Friday
The man with the tea trolley was serving someone. It was taking a while but I wasn’t in a hurry; I wasn’t going to get there any faster than the train, so I just held onto the tops of the seats on either side of the gangway and waited. The train swayed and lurched but I rode it like a bucking bronco.
The person in the seat on my left had their head in a book. I wasn’t particularly conscious of whether it was a man or a woman, though they had about them something perfumed. The smell coiled into my memory and unearthed the last time the four of us had been together.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, before I had time to think about it, time to regret it. ‘I think –’ But the person looking up at me was a stranger.
‘Yes?’ said the man, frowning. His face was deeply lined.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought you might be–’
At that moment the train jolted violently and I nearly fell into the man’s lap. He put out a hand to stop me and for a minute our eyes met. I felt it as a knife in my heart; time had not been kind to him, but I knew now that this was not a stranger after all.
‘Excuse me, Miss.’ The man with the trolley was now trying to pass me and I had no option but to lean towards Jack.
‘John,’ he said. ‘My name is John. Though–’ His eyes changed as he must have realised who I was.
The train went into a tunnel and it was too noisy for me to hear what he had said.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t catch–’
Only then did I see who was sitting on his left. As the train started slowing towards the next stop, and as they both stood and started gathering their things, I stood there with hope draining out of me. He smiled as he passed me, but she didn’t. I watched their backs as they moved into the rest of their lives, and then I slid into her seat by the window.
Yes Dear, Yes
Although Reggie died somewhat prematurely, his finances remained healthy and this meant that Coral could still live in the style she was accustomed to. She continued to cruise on the QE2; travel by first-class rail to London for weekend breaks with the ladies from the local Conservative Club; and feed her cats the finest tinned food that money could buy. Isn’t that right, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
But then came old age and decrepitude; which even merry widows often succumb to. True, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Eventually, she became house-bound and was largely un-visited by what was left of the blue-rinse brigade. Publicly known for her obstinacy since her school days at St. Mary Woolnoth’s Prep, for several years she refused any help. This situation only changed when her vocabulary shrank to little more than, ‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’ Correct, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Although Coral was becoming less able-bodied, Reggie’s investments continued in robust style and her wealth grew stronger as she grew weaker. This fact wasn’t lost on Reverend Simon who, despite the over-whelming stench of cat piss in the house, regularly visited her on his rounds. In the years when she could still adequately converse, he had deduced enough to know that the old dear was sitting on a small fortune and, what’s more, had no living relatives. Predicting that she was soon due to shuffle off life’s mortal coil, the Reverend Simon spent moments – no, hours - pondering how her riches might be used to further God’s kingdom within the parish. There was the church roof, of course. Then there was the youth work and the Regina Avenue missionary plant. And, if only the church could afford to employ an earnest young evangelical to lessen his own load, what a blessing that would be.
So, when it was deemed that her mind had providentially softened enough, Reverend Simon successfully used all his powers of religious persusion to coax Coral into granting him power of attorney over all her estate and writing the church into her will. Didn’t he, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Do you think, perhaps, that this was quite an un-ethical thing for a man of the cloth to do, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Or maybe, he was acting in good-faith? He instinctively knew you no longer desired to leave all your money to the cat’s home and the CWO. Is that it, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Which one is it, Coral? Were Reverend Simon’s actions right or wrong?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Well, it’s all come to nothing, anyway. As we know, the best-laid plans of church mice and clergymen often go astray. Although Coral’s mental powers have slowed in these many years, her heart happily ticks along with the clock in the nursing home. The house sale and her compound savings have all been funnelled into her care, just as Reggie would have wanted.
She’s even outlived Reverend Simon and the church is now a pub. Isn’t it, Coral?
‘Yes, Dear. Yes.’
Hull, East Yorkshire
Working here killed my sense of smell.
Never mind, eh girl.
Only I do mind when Bev glances across at me!
Can she still smell?
I’d rather keel over than ask. Outliving her the only ambition I’ve got left.
My ambition used to be to go to the top of the Empire State Building. I’d have done it, too. Me who told the
company it’d save them money if they used a barrier to divide the fish fingers on the conveyor belt.
The boss told me Bev had been blessed by the same insight. Said sharing a reward was against company
Bev shook her head. Said, “I never had an insight in my life!”
Mom taught me to respect my elders and betters.
I haven’t spoken to Bev for twenty-five years.
I stare at the fish fingers. They stare back at me…
Oldbury, West Midlands, England
Festival Of Near-Death Experiences
Fiesta, fireworks, the church of Santa Marta de Ribarteme -
El Bombero [¡Salud!], mouthfuls of Pulpo a la Gallega -
Open coffins of the re-living –
Street dancing -
[tramposo de la muerte through the mansion of death!] -
As the gypsy band plays Tangos As Neves
‘Friends, listen to me, Alondra Delgado, only sixteen years of age. I escaped from the clutches of death during a routine operation on my soul. My appendix burst and I died twice before reviving. In that time, I visited heaven and met my uncle, Perico Delgado, and we played together under the protective wing of a golden angel. Initially, my family didn’t believe my story until I mentioned Perico, who’d died as a boy, after seeing the devil. Out of concern for my weakened soul they’d never mentioned him to me, so that convinced them!’
'We are the family Delgado – we carry Alondra’s coffin. Alright up there, Alondra?'
‘I am Claudio Ibarra. I cheated death twice in the same week. Once, when death tore into me in the form of a stray bull on the road south of Pontevedra. Twice, when I awoke at my own funeral six days later. So shocked to find myself in a coffin, my heart immediately stopped and I re-joined the land of the dead! But then I awoke as they began shovelling the dirt onto the coffin. ‘Parada!’ I screamed.
‘We are the family Ibarra – we carry Claudio’s coffin. Hey, Claudio, better with the top off, yes?’
‘I too, Celestina Morales, present myself to the virgin Santa Marta, Star of the North, as one of those one who has seen death. I died in my chair whilst reading Cervantes. I’d spent nearly twenty-four hours under the spell of Don Quioxte, without food, drink, sleep or toileting. Suffering a brain aneurysm whilst on the last chapter, I entered a very bright tunnel. I spoke to an angel who gave the ending away. I doubted him, so he told me to return to life to check his word - so here I am!’
‘We are the family Morales – we carry Celestina’s coffin. Hey, put that book down sister, this is your big day!’
‘Ha! Those stories are all convincing, but hear mine and be amazed! I, Ernesto Salazar, fatally electrocuted myself whilst fixing a light bulb in the bath. Instantaneously, I met my superior self, who talked to me of safety standards in domestic settings. The Angel Gabriel also introduced me to God, who said I must return to earth and fix the lightbulb more carefully next time. Unbelievable, isn’t it!’
‘We are the family Salazar – we carry Ernesto’s coffin, this year and most other years! Don’t we brother, eh?’
Fiesta, fireworks, the church of Santa Marta de Ribarteme -
El Bombero [¡Salud!], mouthfuls of Pulpo a la Gallega -
Open coffins of the re-living –
Street dancing -
[tramposo de la muerte through the mansion of death!] -
As the gypsy band plays Tangos As Neves
The train ride there hurt and I wouldn’t be able to tell you specifically why. I left the station at eleven twenty-six and in the half hour it took for me to arrive at my destination I felt I had lived my life. I was sat alone in one of the single seats next to the toilet where you have to press a button in order to open the main door. I watched four people enter and exit that toilet, each one of them forgot to press the button again in order to close the door and each time I waited until they had returned to their seat, carriage or wherever they had come from and I pressed it myself. Once I had performed this ritual, I guess you could call it now, I sat back down on my seat and leant my head against the window pane. The train passed something somewhere (I’m assuming it was another stop) and I saw a mass of people, all of them stationary. I saw their eyes and their lives and whilst this transaction only lasted a few seconds I truly felt like I could never feel that extent of intimacy again. I saw them and they didn’t see me and so by the laws of humanity I was allowed to take my sweet time understanding and comprehending them. And this I did. After overcoming my initial shock, I rested my forehead on the steamed glass again. There’s an awful lot of grass in England isn’t there? None of it is interesting at all. Until you make it into the big city, the big smoke, that’s when it begins to become interesting. One by one buildings come into view, slowly at first and then they begin to cascade rather quickly. For a second you begin to feel overwhelmed: how could I ever survive in this tangle of unruly concrete? Then you remind yourself that maybe it wouldn’t be bad at all if you got a little mixed up, perhaps it could serve as a lesson. Maybe I could get lost on purpose, spend the day asking for directions and then ignoring them on purpose just for the thrill of talking to another person. But I don’t do this and I didn’t do this. Instead I take the tube where I was instructed and I walk where I was instructed and I enjoy it. I realise that maybe I can do this and that maybe the world doesn’t have to be a burden on my shoulders. If I just ask it politely to give me a day off perhaps it will listen. And on this day and that day it did. The train ride hurt, I now realise, because I was sat alone. But that’s also exactly why I enjoyed it. Call me cryptic and I’ll wink right back. I got the train home and it hurt a little less. It was getting dark and so I chose to bathe in the seclusion.
Reverend Stonehead has left for pastures new and most of his flock have followed him. They call themselves ‘Root and Branch’ and have services in a rented school hall. That’s their story, but not ours.
Our narrative begins this Sunday morning at St. Matthew’s. Closed for three months but now re-opened. Terry, a retired vicar, is acting as the interim minister. He seems genuinely surprised to see as many as a dozen returnees [or ‘refuseniks’ as Sheila calls us]. For sure, that’s not many, but our collective age must near a thousand years. Terry jokes that there are about as many people in church today as there were apostles at the Last Supper. Nice one, Terry.
It’s greatly encouraging to see some old-timers have returned from exile; Arthur and Peter sit to the left of me and Moira and Maude are in the pew behind. Jaqueline is also back and her fellowship stretches to offering everyone a Fisherman’s Friend. The warmth of the lozenge helps us to ignore how dank the church has become.
Some resume praying on their knees, though lacking much strength in their legs to get back up. When Terry leads with the newest version of the Lord’s Prayer, we substitute ‘Our Father in heaven’ into ‘Our Father who art in heaven’; and ‘Forgive us our sins’ into ‘Forgive us our trespasses’. ‘But deliver us from evil’ becomes ‘But deliver us from the evil one’.
Terry’s sermon is refreshingly straight forward; its simple message being God’s people are a saved people. Today, we’ll go home joyful and, for a change, not feel like beating ourselves up.
Communion is a consoling, solemn affair. We stand together in a hushed circle to receive the sacraments. To our great relief it’s back to wafers and sherry, none of that gluten-free bread and non-alcoholic wine. Delighted, we are allowed to hold the cup for ourselves and so take the deepest draught for many a year.
One of the hymns is ‘See What A Morning’. Apart from the warbling Dorothea, we are too enfeebled to hit the high notes, but everyone is intent on adding their raised voices to the tremulous chorus.
Lilian accompanies us on the old guitar that has been retrieved from the vestry cupboard. All the other instruments – electronic keyboards, bass and drums etcetera- now reside elsewhere, of course. ‘Like the circus has left town,’ says Reg.
Lilian strums along as well as she can remember but the guitar is showing its age. The ‘G’ string slackens and refuses to stay in harmony with the others; and every time Lilian hits an open chord the insurgent note drones across the nave.
It happens again as we pour what’s left of our hearts and souls into ‘Just As I Am’. As if a law unto to itself, the guitar’s out of tune ‘G’ note pulsates beyond us to the stone walls and, as if to remind us of its sure and continued presence, as an echo it returns.
Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire
Out Of Nowhere
A woman phoned today claiming to know my brother's whereabouts. She didn't insist on meeting and never really explained herself. But we arranged to see each other anyway. Wait 24 hours, I said. My brother went missing and is presumed to have died while exploring the Great Atrato Swamp in South America. It's been four years.
This woman worries me. Could she be an impostor, or someone to whom my brother made promises and who is now coming to collect?
Maybe she's deranged: having become entangled with my brother, she is now wondering if I might be a substitute; he did - does - look like me, and she may have seen a photograph. My brother is a self-styled 'explorer', and has written one book, about the Masai, whom he lived among for a year.
I have to say that my brother has always been considered the black sheep of the family, nothing like me or our sister, who lead dull lives by comparison. But we are not reckless. We are always here for each other. My brother is literally never here, or hardly ever. When he is, it seems merely an excuse to depart again, to get away from us and the uneventful lives we lead.
But he'd never talked about a woman, especially not one who would have details of where he was in whatever extremity he'd found himself. It was all very odd. So my sister and I have been speculating. Well, why wouldn't we?
Before he died or vanished, perhaps my brother did something awful; this woman knows about it and senses profit in blackmailing me and my family, such as it is with most of the harvest gathered in.
She wasn't on the expedition; not that I know of. So how could she claim to have information? She will surely have to go into detail. When I asked her if she meant that my brother was still alive - she didn't say 'whereabouts of the body' - she said she couldn't elaborate on the phone. I think this was a bit callous: if he is dead, she should have said so; anyone reasonable and sympathetic would have.
But I was taken aback. I didn't know what to say and she seemed unwilling to prolong the conversation. There was urgency in her voice, as if only a face-to-face meeting could enable her to tell all. My sister and I decided that I should meet this woman.
It’s 2.55am. I can’t sleep. I think of the difference between me and my brother, our divergent senses of adventurousness; his practical and careless, mine imaginative and housebound. And our rivalry. Once she has told us whatever news she has, will this woman be a beauty? Will we fall in love? Will she be an astrofiammante, a queen of the night, ready to sweep me, a lookalike for the sibling I've lost, towards an unknown region?
Nigel has written a collection of short stories entitled 'Funderland'. He is the author of the novel 'Slowly Burning'.
Incident at Tinogasta
Why did we let that turnip Crozier volunteer for the S. American job?
It seemed so simple - the job, I mean: tucking himself into the hillside and taking a pop at Senor Cuadro, who’s been giving our president grief.
We wouldn’t mind giving him grief ourselves. Maybe we were doing it sub-consciously by overlooking Crozier’s glitch on that Iranian jaunt – he got the job done in the end - and volunteering him. But we never guessed he’d foul up. They are reporting a botched assassination attempt and Crozier has gone AWOL. I see the shite streaming in slo-mo towards the fan while I sit here waiting.
I’m used to sitting and waiting, especially sitting. I often wish I was like Crozier and the others, their minds focused and empty of scruples, just doing an al fresco job they’re good at, shades keeping the sun out of their eyes. Lots of us are worried about the president. For starters, Cuadro was elected democratically despite being a hammerhead.
Crozier's usually reported in by now. Maybe he has scruples after all, been accumulating them in that narrow skull to the point where he’s tipped. ‘Botched’ they’re definitely saying, internally for the moment. That suggests he tried and failed. Or was caught in the attempt. Or told hammerhead’s people, who faked a hit for the media’s sake.
Crozier’s life is hardly a bitch. Top a potentate and see the world. Not a bad deal.
What’s it like, that epiphanous instant when you see the light, the rightness of your cause? If that’s actually what’s happened. I’ve never imagined Crozier as a thinker.
Perhaps he’s been caught and that skull’s been wedged into an apparatus by his inquisitors. Or is
he free-wheeling through the sierras, lifted by a new marriage of moral certainty and executive panache, a survivor fleeing an old order?
We’ll soon know, one way or another. Or not. But the outcome doesn't matter. I'll still be here. It's the fans of those above that splatter the poo. There are zillions of us. We are like cinema audiences, slumped mute in the dark and always watching the action, never taking part.
To Be Pacific
Mr Leonardo’s teeth are quite something to behold; treble-tiered rows of murderous weapons; as sharp as his politics and as deadly as his ambition. Naturally, they make a home-sweet-home for us, the feeshes.
If he so wished, he could swallow us whole, with a simple flick of his head and a jerk of his jowls, but reluctantly he allows us to abide in his great jaws. Why? Because we are his cleaning crew, of course. By feeding on the fleshy remnants of his meals, those parts which get stuck in the crevices of his deathly dentures, we perform an essential service. Rotting flesh never made anyone smell sweet, did it? As he likes to say himself, ‘The Lord of the Jungle mustn’t be perceived to have bad breath.’ We’d like to tell him that this isn’t the jungle, but the sea; but some things with Mr Leonardo are better left unsaid, obviously.
The feeshes here all agree that we’ve a good life. We feed well and, perhaps more importantly, we’re safe. Not for us a paltry existence, scratching a living from the sea-bed and always on the look-out for devourers. No, there’s many a feesh that envies and covets our courtly position. Tough-tail to them!
Not that we in the cleaning crew agree with all of Mr Leonardo’s taboo-busting modus operandi. For instance, we cannot condone his practice of preying upon his own kind. One brave feesh, sadly no longer with us, challenged Mr Leonardo on this very point. Before his execution, everyone was told, quite categorically, ‘The Lord of the Jungle has the constitutional right to mould the law of that jungle into whatever shape he wants. Understand?’ Oh yeah, we understood alright; and again, conveniently made no comment upon his misplaced jungle fixation.
Cannibalism is now the new normal. Any opinions to the contrary are considered fake. And who are we to disagree? We’re sitting pretty with Mr Leonardo. Agreed, not exactly on top of the food chain but, nevertheless, enjoying the benefits of living in the mouth of one who is.
All seems perfect, eh? Well, Not quite. It’s a bit of a touchy subject but it goes like this: Mr Leonardo has also started feeding on the feeshes that inhabit the sea-bottom. Yes, our brothers and sisters. Not just one or two, here and there, but many daily mouthfuls. In fact, he seems to be getting more of an taste for our lot than his own.
Of course, he has what you might term a ‘lion of the people’ explanation. He says, ‘A king must show great benevolence. Thus, everyone shall feed as freely and bounteously as I do! Monkey, zebra, snake, everyone!’
Yes, we know, more jungle crap [bugger me, this is the mid-Pacific], but what can we do? We don’t like eating our own kind any more than anyone else. But in the end, when you need to get on in life, your appetite will just about stretch to anything, right?
Swillington, West Yorkshire
Avocados. Single, twin pack, four pack. Too hard, too soft, some nearly rotten. Budget price or re-mortgage the house? Do I even like avocados?
She is undecided about avocados. She isn’t sure if she even likes them.
Baking potatoes. This should be easier. Oh. King Edward, Maxine, Vivaldi, Maris Peer, Maris Piper. Aw, I don’t know. Maris this, Maris that. They could be Maris bleedin’ Poppins for all I care.
She is making a link between baking potatoes and the Disney musical ‘Mary Poppins’.
Pasta. Oh, here we go. Penne, Linguine, Tagliatelle, Fettuccine, Macaroni, Tortellini, Capellini, Rigatoni, Fusilli, Cannelloni, Spaghetti, Lasagne and then some. Tortellini looks nice but Rigatoni sounds good. It all tastes the same, doesn’t it?
She thinks all pasta might taste the same.
Oh, sod it! Penne will do. Tim likes Penne. He’ll only make a fuss if it’s not Penne or Spaghetti and I’m not buying Spaghetti - horrible, stringy stuff.
She has chosen Penne because Tim won’t make a fuss about it.
Y’know what? Stuff Tim! He’s been a pain in the arse all week, just because he’s been doing over-time. He’s not the only one who’s been slaving, flat-out. Rigatoni it is.
She has replaced the Penne with Rigatoni, even though Tim will make a fuss.
Curry sauces. A minefield. Korma? No, we’re all fed up with Korma. Sick to death of it, actually. Rogan Josh? No, the kids hate Rogan Josh. Bhuna? No, Tim will make a fuss about Bhuna. Ah, screw Tim, let’s have Bhuna. Hang on, I’m not too keen on Bhuna, either. What else? Tikka Masala. No, wouldn’t give it to the dog. Ah, what’s this? Katsu. Never heard of it. Sounds odd, but it’ll do. Nobody can complain about Katsu. Ignorance is bliss, as they say.
She has chosen Katsu. She will feed it to her family, even though she has no idea of the ingredients or its taste. She thinks Katsu sounds like ‘cat’s soup’ or ‘cat’s spew’ but doesn’t care less.
No, I don’t care less. And if you’re so clever, what would you choose, voice?
See, you’re no good! You’re so stuck up your own third-person narrative arse, that you can’t even suggest a curry sauce!
She is chastising the third-person narrative voice for being unable to choose a curry sauce.
That’s you I’m chastising, if you don’t know!
She is reminding the third-person narrative voice that it is it that is being chastised.
Oh, for goodness, let me get something for this headache!
Paracetamol. Small tablets, big tablets, capsules and powder. They used to be as cheap as chips but not since the Lockdown. Talk about profiteering, Jeez! At least there’s a choice at the mo. Three months ago, they were as rare as rocking horse shit.
She is remembering a time when paracetamols were as rare as rocking horse shit, knowing that rocking horse shit isn’t just rare but, in truth, doesn’t exist.
Like you, you don’t really exist, voice.
Bentley, South Yorkshire
Book Of Boris
Pre-extinction, concatenated crises (climate disasters, lethal interspecies pandemics, trade wars, a collapsing world reserve currency) witnesses de Pfeffel on an opportunistic mission to schtup folks in the ass (without exhibiting the goddamned common courtesy to offer us a reach-around); an apocalyptic hurrah aided, abetted, & dressed-up as our glad-rag saviour by schneid media outlets peddling a paternalist ethos, instilling servile deference to a self-serving oligarchy. Xenophobic Black Sabbath’s worshipped by a farrago of happy-clapping, bleach-drinking, self-harmers, addicted to accusing non-believers of unpatriotic misdemeanours, shopping errant, foreign neighbours, to paramilitary forces of control; herd-mentality, immune to critical inquiry, or honest reflection upon complicity in systems of exploitation, is a revelation, rooted in Judaeo-Christian patriarchy, espoused in an ancient ‘Book of Boris’.
A fourth synoptic gospel (‘Jesus of Nazareth’ fails to make an appearance; He wouldn’t have felt comfortable there) loyally testifies to the life’s ministry of Rebbe Boris, a questionable messiah, whose frank enjoyment of divine privilege is exceeded only by persistent attempts to evade all responsibility for its consequences. Like Jesus, whose life Boris’ parallels & parodies, He was born in a Bethlehem stable, issue of a mystical union between Holy Spirit & a St. Bernard. Half-man, half-god, half-dog, half-biscuit, His childhood’s conveniently unrecorded; His teaching beginning following a gruelling 40-day drinking session- afterwards Beelzebub materialised in the form of a horned ham-beigal, that Boris promptly ate. Thus fortified, He took up the career of travelling preacher, gathering coteries of disciples, lured by promises of ‘everything all the time’, a goal he attempted to attain by (a) masturbating until a nearness to God was observed, & (b) spinning around as quickly as possible. In the first instance apostles experienced nothing more than sore willies, while in the second, sensations of dizziness, nausea, & acute futility. Thereupon His communion questioned Him regarding his credentials; requesting a return of monies advanced. Repeatedly throughout the text, Boris’s appetite for violence & treachery’s chronicled, reaching ever higher pinnacles of mad insight. Yet there remained those amongst His flock who followed His footsteps whatever painful fate waited. When Boris changed water into methyl alcohol, these held out bowls for more: blind faith! Unlike Jesus, Boris’s story ends not in His crucifixion, but the crucifixion of the last of his entourage, too stupidly crazed to foresee what was coming down. Boris, saw no need to die for worldly sins; au contraire. In contemporary posh British ‘thought’, Boris presents a provocative, deeply ambiguous figure. To Melvyn Bragg He “stands at a crucial junction in Western history, where the inchoate ‘I’ becomes the complex ‘me’’’ but Melvyn Bragg’s a smug tedious git, who’ll be chivvied up the scaffold with electric cattle goads come the day of retribution. Boris’ don’t simply seek judgements: their primary concern’s not truth, but propaganda, amassing of sound, & therapeutic use of paranoia. Boris remains, to a fey flock, the ferocious beat of pastoral nihilism, drumming a culture of sedated panic; atomising individuals, in the name of The Individual- proceeding apace.
Resident in Britain
So, this is what happened. A bare foot first. Splattered with traces of blood. Incongruous with the other foot wearing a sparkling white trainer.
A little shocking and surreal for our middle-class suburban street at 3pm on a Tuesday; a tall gangley teenage boy, partially shod, flailing wildly at his mother Jan, her fair hair dishevelled and matted at the scalp with darkened blood.
He cried out in distress, ‘no mum, no mum’; ‘shush Cillian, shush Cillian’, the pleading response. Repeating it over and over as they circled round each other like two boxers doing a slow dance, until the ‘no mum’ got louder and more frenzied, reaching a panicked crescendo as he lunged again at his mother, pulling more chunks of her hair with his fist.
We stood there, helpless voyeurs, until at last someone shouted ‘Jesus, get him off her’ and it was a like a call to action as a couple of the men grabbed hold of the boy, restraining him, saying softly ‘that’s enough now son’.
And with that more neighbours spoke, their words rushing over each other, like a fountain released. A giddy communal relief, united briefly by this sad, ugly little tableau.
- ‘Someone call the police’
- ‘That poor woman’
- ‘She’s coping all on her own’
- ‘He’s autistic you know’
- ‘This bloody virus is awful. There’s no school open now for young Cillian, no respite for his poor mother’
And then the police were there and just one final piece left to the brief drama, as an officer was floored. The statement later read, ‘pushed off his feet whilst attempting to restrain the highly distressed young man’.
A second officer, a short determined looking woman said firmly, ‘thanks for your concern folks. We’ll take it from here’ and deflated our small crowd started slowly to disperse.
Back into our houses and the silent screaming monotony of Lockdown.
‘See you for the Clap on Thursday’ someone called out buoyantly with a wave, like we’d just all finished watching an episode of Eastenders together.
I waved enthusiastically back and then caught a glimpse of Jan, saw her devastated face, the desperation in her eyes, as her son was led into the back of the police car.
I smiled at her guiltily and I did hope she understood. That some part of us did care. Even if it was tainted by our other selfish selves.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
A wasp in need of water settled upon the shiny, moist nose of El Beastianos.
Remembering the terrible sting he’d once suffered, El Beastianos unsuccessfully tried to shake the wasp off by snorting, shaking his head and dancing in circles etcetera.
Frustrated, El Beastianos decided to chase it, even though it was only at the end of his nose. Eventually, the wasp tired of the bumpy ride and lifted, but El Beastianos had become so enraged he continued the pursuit.
As they neared town, a truant boy, eating Doritos® atop a pile of manure, guffawed to see such a big thing chasing such a small thing. He laughed Ha! Ha! Ha! so hard that he spilled the Doritos®, but applying the five-second rule, recovered them.
The wasp escaped across the river. Suddenly fancying something sweet, it joined a family picnic and once again became an uninvited guest. Left alone, El Beastianos, strode with his anger onto the town bridge.
Spying El Beastianos, the guard immediately released his snarling dogs, who raced forwards, teeth at the ready. El Beastianos simply speared the pair, one on each horn, then sped towards the guard who, in sheer terror, leapt from the bridge into the fast-flowing river, instantly regretting he’d never bothered to have swimming lessons.
Now the alarm was up. Archers fired from the walls but their arrows simply bounced off the impenetrable hide of El Beastianos. Some projectiles missed altogether. A time traveller, attempting to capture the event for social media purposes, had his device pinned between his eyes, and thus remained forever in the past. A whisky-priest, taking a leak by the waterside, had his own shaft circumcised by a whistling bolt and thereafter became a sober convert to an alternate faith.
As El Beastianos strode into the plaza, with the agonised yelps of the writhing dogs emanating beside his horns, the townsfolk scattered in a blind panic.
The Mayor Don Brad pleaded with Don Leonardo the Whisperer, to go out and calm El Beastianos. But Don Leonardo did more than whisper when El Beastianos shook off the dogs and disembowelled the irritating creature that dared to blow air into his ears.
In the next hour, El Beastianos wreaked great destruction and carnage upon the town [see appendix].
But to everyone’s great relief, everything came to an abrupt end when El Beastianos smashed into his shop window reflection. No one is sure whether it was an act of God, a matter of quantum physics or a witch’s spell that had been broken, but El Beastianos was instantly transformed into the finest specimen of naked manhood ever witnessed and instantly had offers of marriage.
Today, he resides in domestic bliss with the town beauty Marianna-Phlegmela Salamander, self-publishing novels, submitting flash fiction to internet sites or composing nursery rhymes, for example:
Little yellow waspy
Flying through the trees,
He might sting you
Or he might sting me.
Sting you once,
Sting you twice,
Sting you thrice,
Oh, it doesn’t feel nice!
The country formerly known as England
Guadalcanal Missile Crisis
Of all the statues that came down or marked to be taken down, Donald Trump liked the one depicting Teddy Roosevelt flanked by an African American and a Native American the best. To him, it represented American, meaning western, meaning white, dominance over peoples in shit hole countries. He imagined himself in TR’s place with a black and a brown man on either side. For black representation, he wanted the honor to go to Kanye West, the most loyal of his black followers. For brown, he wanted India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has been the most obsequious of all world leaders towards Trump. On one of Modi’s visits to the White House, Trump had asked Stephen Miller to recite his favorite limerick about Indians:
The poor, benighted Hindoo
He tries the best he kin do
He sticks to his caste
from first to last
he makes his skin do
The only word Modi understood was “Hindu” and he mistook the limerick for something in praise of Hindus. He said “yes, yes, yes - Hindu! Great!” and tried to hug Trump who backed away from Modi’s bad breath.
Trump asked Miller to commission the statue and find a prominent location for it. Miller came back with the suggestion that the statue be installed in a foreign country since it won’t be safe in any location within the country. Besides, it will count as a significant foreign policy win for an administration lacking much accomplishment in that area. Trump liked the idea and the search began for a foreign locale. The national security council met and settled on Guadalcanal.
Miller listed the rationale in a memo: (1) the island is well known for World War II relics. It badly needs an update. What better way to modernize than to erect a statue for a modern-day global leader/warrior? (2) the government of Solomon Islands that governs Guadalcanal is weak and will bend to our will; (3) the bribe, the promise of a Trump hotel, will, in fact, end up benefitting the Trump family. Even if only ten percent of the president’s followers made the pilgrimage each year, the island will be awash in tourist dollars.
Trump, of course, wanted to know who was paying for construction of the hotel. Miller assured him that Bannon had agreed to redirect funds from border wall donations.
State Department got wind of the project and some deep state denizen protested that protocol demanded buy in from the British since the Queen was the figurative head of state. Buy-in was easier done than said. Miller talked to his British soulmate Boris who let Her Royal Highness know that the US wanted to be ruled by the Queen again. So, someday, it’s all going to be hers anyway.
The Islands’ Prime Minister was thrilled: a shiny, new hotel as garish as the one in the Old Post Office in DC. But he didn’t say yes immediately. He had to run it by his boss. As he was figuring out how best to package it, the boss called. The message was simple: Don’t do it. Increased US presence would interfere with the Belt and Road infrastructure projects. So the PM told Trump, Kushner, et.al, to take the project and shelve it.
From there, events happened in rapid succession: The U.S. Coast Guard increased its presence, U.S. and Australian war ships set sail, Chinese ships headed towards Papua New Guinea, China revealed secret missile sites on the islands, the U.S. ordered a naval blockade, anti-China rhetoric heated up, Trump’s approval shot through the roof.
Thus began the Guadalcanal missile crisis.
Buckeye, AZ, USA
Ramblings Of A Mad Lover
I do not want to cry, neither to say I'm sad, but I am. The pride in my masculinity prevents me from soaking my eyes in the pain that ravages my heart. I am going mad I think, but I cover it with a smile and nobody knows, I talk and walk, and nobody knows. How do I start to love again? Where and with whom do I begin with? Alas! I should have known, I should have known that it’d come to this very little thing that yet matters the most.
I used to write poems; scorning cupid for shooting its wanton arrow in drunkenness, for it misses aim and often hit men unfound. Aye! I'm mocked, for cupid repeals and scorn me in-turn. Love now nears me weep. Or am I being punished because I write so well about love but often allow my manliness deny I love.
I confess—I confess that I've loved only two women in my life, but poor me, I write this in the dismayed state of loneliness. I must be cursed of love or life wittingly treats me unfair.
The first one, I loved in secret—some part of me concluding we could never be—I was a fool. I should have told her, told her how her chocolate skin is the best, how her hip keeps glue my eyes, how her gesture and voice thrills me, how gracious and grandeur her personality is; and her beauty—too fine to replicate. Foolish me, I was young and naïve, and instead I told her about her smile, only, and sweet pictures and memories of her fills my head. Now I rejoice for her, happily married to a man who brings her joy, and I'm glad her smile hasn’t stopped. I don’t know why but I still love her, and wish her well in her marriage. I knew I could never give her what she deserves—a pure golden life, so I rejoice someone else gave her. Maybe in another life we shall be, I hope!!
The second… Oh! Where do I begin? I had given up on love when I met her, and deep in my heart, I knew she was the one. ‘The one’; such foolish a phrase. Poor me, I waited two years to win her love and I did win it—a sweet gentle lover I was—and I fought to keep it. Through the thorns our love grew, stick and stones our bones did not break, and as gold is tested by fire so was our love and we didn’t burn. I fell in love when I least expected it, and no—it wasn’t her beauty though she was fair. And though fair from fair do decline, hers grow. God himself made out time to create her beauty, for there’s something special about her. I must be a slave to the lips, for she too has a lovely smile—bright and widening it caresses the soul.
It doesn’t matter now, I lost them both. My first love I lost to my foolishness, but my second…Aye! I should blame it on nature. How can a little thing such as BLOOD, end a love so promising and fulfilling? That is wickedness I say, nature does envy us. After several failed attempt. Where do I begin? And with whom, I ask? After two failed attempt, I've given up on love, it has thus far done me no good. I've been my own fool. I now seek for love without a pressing commitment—I've lost it.
Officer!! Help!! I'm guilty, take me away before I cause more harm on me. Pin any crime on me, I'm guilty as charged. I've played by the rules and got fucked by life. Once is a mistake, but twice is no coincidence. Love has a plan—to strip me of true love and send me into the wild streets, the fucking Wild-Wild West where love no longer dwells. I'd rather be in your cells, a prisoner of war than a prisoner of love. “Help officer!!” I beg, “Take me away, or love breaks me for a third time.” I killed love, or love killed me, either ways, I'm guilty. Take me away.
Edo State, Nigeria
Albrin's debut novel is 'Naked Coin'
Peas In A Pod
Polystyrene cups litter the drab visitors’ lounge. A pungent cocktail of weak milky tea, body odour and disinfectant bring forth that familiar nausea. Is it the smell here I wonder for the hundredth time which makes me feel sea-sick, disorientated?
You’re sitting alone, a statue staring ahead, oblivious. My face, only worn, absent, doped.
A week ago, you were pacing our living room floor, eyes terrified, frantically pleading, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming to complete Level X. We have to go Jim, go now!’ Over and over like a mantra.
Now, I sit down at the Formica table and say quietly with a sigh, ‘Can’t keep away from this old joint.' No response at my attempt at conversation.
‘Fuck you,’ I think suddenly furious. ‘Straighten yourself out, you crazy prick!’ Angry selfish thoughts involuntary running through my head, like flowing blood.
‘Not his fault, not his fault,' but then not mine either.
My brother, born of the same womb. Two peas in a pod, always fighting for space.
Always stealing the glory, the spotlight, my brother. ‘Move over’, ‘It’s mine’, ‘I want’ , ‘I’m first’, 'I’m strongest’, his childhood chants.
‘You want to go out for a fag?’ I ask after a long silence. You nod.
The smoking space is crowded. Broken people, staring eyes making me want to retch.
Back inside, the TV starts up. A rerun of the Dukes of Hazard, the opening credits. What are the odds? - our old childhood show. Your face lightens as Luke does his familiar hood-slide.
‘You can go now,’ you say absently, eyes fixed on the screen.
‘I’ll stay awhile longer,’ I reply, settling down beside you, heart aching, resting my head against yours though you do not notice.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Challenging Situations 
Think of an occasion when you personally had to deal with either a challenging situation, or a difficult person. What was the main concern, how did you tackle it, & what were the consequences?
Becoming conscious- that I was simply a landless, itinerant, fungible, expendable, within a suicidal society, feverishly cannibalising greed, fear, & malignant narcissism: one in which what passes as acceptable, is orchestrated on behalf of a ruling élite (for the sorry sake of fading, public-minded perceptions) by employing a stage-managed multimedia bias, of prejudiced, faux, fey egosyntonic sensitivities- was totally cuntish.
I knew I couldn’t survive alone.
So, pursuing a safety in numbers logic, I joined a mercenary gang. Randomly allying myself to one of a supernumerary group of abominable opinion formers, pretending to present pragmatic balanced solutions, to so many travails, faced by humdrum folk living ordinary lives (& issuing whiny rejections of a multi-polar communications landscape, on each occasion, dissenting voices speak out, against its fraudulent, policy institute purse-masters). It’s all smoke & mirrors, obvs.
I’ve lost all my honest, salt of the earth mates; but I’ve changed.
I no longer care. Sat safe & snug, aside condescending facsimiles- a bunch of po-faced, treacherous, humourless, hypocritical, holier than thou, self-serving hustlers. Collectively, we understand the technicalities of this world intimately (no one else has the beginnings of a clue). Without shame, we pretentiously enjoy explaining our expert, correctly authorised, view of what’s unfolding, on behalf of our powerful clients- acting as an integral part of their toolkit: successfully keeping Joe & Josephine Public under an organised influence.
History’s been knockabout up until now; sweet dreams are made of this!
resident in Britain
They claim a girl is buried there.
The kids in my school all say it. At the back of the field under the trees, in the midst of the nettle patch, whose leaves bite at your skin if you dare to touch them. There, behind the weeds and under the great slab of grey stone. That’s where she’s buried.
They say she was killed in that spot.
It’s not her tombstone, there’s no kind words from family or flowers left by friends. It’s just a flat rock buried amongst the weeds, about the size of a small child. They say she was killed and whoever did it buried her body there to mark the spot.
They don’t know who she was.
No one knows the girl’s name. They don’t know her age, or how long ago it happened. The passing of time is marked only by the grass growing over the edges, like the fingers of a little girl clawing her way out.
They claim nothing touches it.
Leaves never land there. The ground around it is constantly littered with fallen leaves and branches, but the rock is always clear. Squirrels avoid it, birds never go near. Rain darkens it’s surface like tears, but sunlight can’t reach.
They say bad things happen if you stand on it.
Everyone knows it’s bad luck to stand on a grave. But this is something else. It’s not just a grave, it’s the site of a murder. A boy fell on it once and they say no one ever saw him again.
They don’t know how she was killed.
The rock gives away none of those secrets. All we know is that there is a slab of grey rock amongst the nettles behind the trees on the far side of the field.
They claim a girl is buried there.
‘Let’s talk about the Ringlets, Simon. Tell me about the Ringlets.’
‘Well, Derek, I like to sit in the tall grasses on the riverbank and watch their beautiful, velvety wings bob up and down among the wildflowers. It’s like they’re dancing or something.’
‘And why are they called Ringlets?’
‘Jesus, Derek. I told you last time, it’s because they’ve little rings on their wings.’
‘Okay, okay, I apologize. My memory’s a bit tired today.’
‘Obviously. Try and stay awake, Rip Van Winkle, if you expect me to.’
‘Right, will do. Let’s move on, shall we? You say the Ringlets help to calm you. Is that right?’
‘Yeah. They sort of hypnotise me and then I feel better in my head. Really calm, like.’
‘A quiet euphoria.’
‘Don’t know what that means, Derek.’
‘Er, really calm, like you said.’
‘Yeah. Can you cut the fancy words, Derek? People who use them do my head in, big time.’
‘No problem, Simon. Can I ask you this though, and please don’t be perturbed, but do you ever find yourself hurting the Ringlets? For instance, have you ever stamped on them or pulled their wings off?’
‘Are you joking? I’d never hurt a Ringlet, I love ‘em - but ask that question again and you might find your wings pulled off. Get me?’
‘Okay, sorry. Maybe I went too far there. Let’s see, do you always find peace on the riverbank?
‘Can you explain?’
‘Well, take yesterday, for example. I was walking along the riverside when Tring! Tring! I nearly shot out of my skin. A bicycle bell, yeah? When I turned around there was one of them poser cyclists just staring straight at me, obviously wanting to pass. He was wearing goggles, Lycra gear and all that crap. Well, I waited for him to use some manners like, ‘May I pass, please?’ But he just went Tring! Tring! again.’
‘…Pushed him off his bike and threw it in the water. I screamed, ‘Take that, Bradley Wiggins! This isn’t the Tour de fuckin’ France, y’know! It’s England mate, use some manners!’ Then the rude scumbag started crying, ‘Boo-Hoo-Hoo!’
‘Did you hit him?’
‘Did you hit him? I mean, I’m sort of on your side, but did you hit him?’
‘Bollocks, course not. What do you think I am Derek, some sort of monster?’
‘No, I don’t think that at all, no, no, no. But did you have any feelings of wanting to perpetrate any violence towards his person?’
‘I mean, did you thump, kick or bite him?’
‘No. Like I said, there’s the Ringlets. I went straight to them and I calmed right down.’
‘Interesting. Just one last question then, to end this session. How do you think you’ll cope when the summer’s gone and the Ringlets aren’t around anymore?’
‘Aren’t around anymore? Are you screwin’ with me? Say you aren’t screwin’ with me, Derek!’
‘Okay, okay Simon. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but let me explain…’
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
“You’re a new-born old man”.
I tell him why he was right. Something about “starting afresh” or “new tricks for the old dog”.
Truth is, there are no new tricks. The only thing that changes is how they’re dressed. First it was straight from mouth to ear. Cautionary stories used to pour out the gobs of our elders like organised spew. Bits of food in the spew would arrange themselves on the side of my face like stars against the night’s sky – meaninglessly, randomly.
They could easily get mistaken for patterns, or pictures. Problem is that people will kill and die for patterns and pictures. Then it was piles of paper sent to your doorstep. That was meant to scare you off. Red and black ink had a way of making you do whatever was written in them. Whatever number they put on those papers, I paid-up.
And now it’s the screen. But I’ve got my head around that one. I might have fallen for the stories. I have might payed up all my life without question. But, now… now I can do this contraption.
“Don’t forget everything you’ve learnt today”.
I say “goodbye” in one of the many varied forms I have learnt to do so without forgetting. But yes, I have started forgetting things.
The way I see it, it is more an issue of retention. Minds are like mugs. You can only fill them up to a point. When you do, stuff starts spilling out. Some mugs are bigger than others. Some get the odd chip or crack. Sometimes they just smash. I think the size limit is about a hundred- and ten-year’s worth of growth. I guess if there was no limit we would run out of clay. But mine is not full up yet. “I will remember everything I have learnt today”.
I put the house phone in its holder. I put the gadget I can now use next to it. First, actually, I’ll set an alarm for the morning, like the man said. Might as well use my alarm clock one last time before I throw it out. Or maybe I’ll give it away.
That being said, who would want one? I can stop paying that chap as quick as I started, and now I can use this intelligent phone. Soon enough they’ll start cooking your food on these things. He was bloody good. I’ll only need him once. I’ll give him a tip. Suppose I was good as well. Still got it, still gold. Mind, sharp as a devil horn and hot as a devil’s prick. That’ll show ‘em.
Same Time/Next Night:
“You’re a new-born old man”.
I tell him why he was right. Something about “starting afresh” or “new tricks for the old dog”.
Truth is, there are no new tricks...
Still got it, still gold. Mind, sharp as a devil horn and hot as a devil’s prick. That’ll show ‘em.
Fifty Pounds/Every Night.
Halifax, West Yorkshire
The Dangerous Hospital
On-duty night hospital security GUARD enters A and E. UNKNOWN lying face-down across three empty chairs.
UNKNOWN appears human, gothic still. Cloak like blanket covers head.
GUARD approaches, requests her/him/it to move on.
GUARD touches UNKNOWN’s arm pulls away in terrific pain wincing.
UNKNOWN gets up shoots out through automatic doors, disappears into the night.
GUARD clutches wrist, gazes astonished at half-moon of pink indents to first digit.
Hand examined by STAFF NURSE. Skin unbroken no undue concern GUARD sent home.
WIFE asks why GUARD back so early *Game of Thrones* interrupted. GUARD explains.
STAFF NURSE had no right to discharge him! What if UNKNOWN contains life annihilating fluid at this very moment entering GUARD’s bloodstream?
GUARD says very tired how about we get some sleep.
WIFE on no account sleeping with GUARD! Diseased hand what is being transferred? GUARD will sleep downstairs! Does GUARD recognise threat to family health/disposition clearly GUARD does not!
Next day GUARD wakes early. WIFE asks what he is doing does he truly think he is going in to work?
Hand critical we must fight this!
GUARD tries to explain hand fine.
So you can’t do this one little thing for me?
GUARD takes time off to attend numerous private consultations as instigated and accompanied by WIFE. All those concerned confirm no realistic claim against hospital or UNKNOWN if ever located.
WIFE reads letter warning GUARD against taking further unsolicited sick leave. I’m not going to take this shit will contact LAWYER.
GUARD favours putting things on hold.
OK honey says sweetly smiling WIFE.
GUARD smiling back takes her in his arms.
WIFE snatches hand between teeth; Commences terrifying, flesh eviscerating head shake.
GUARD falls to knees screaming.
LAWYER coming round at two thirty says WIFE; and he’ll want to see that hand.
When I wrote to her, I didn’t write of my aspirations. I didn’t write of the hungry coil that lived inside of me—of the way I wanted. Not fame, not fortune, but… Greatness. A form of it, at least. I wanted people to read what I wrote, and see what I saw, and feel what I felt. I wanted them to know me, name and soul alike. But she was one of the few who actually did.
She told me of the girlfriends she fell recklessly in love with, and I told her of the boys and girls I admired for a time and then discarded. She wasn’t the kind of person you lusted over—crushed on. She was the kind of person you were always a little in love with, halfway awed by. She was lovely in the way Grecian statues were, somehow limned with power and serenity. A swath of stillness in this chaotic world. Somehow breathing otherness.
So when I wrote to her, I wrote of simplicity. Of the greatest gifts I could wish her—that the wind might whisper something lovely, that the rain might be warm and soothing, that she might have licorice scented black irises to smell and gently cloying rose petals to grace her bathwater. That she might have moments of sunshine and creekwater, unperturbed by all the mess of life.
I was little in love with her, or maybe not in love with her at all. Maybe, really, I was a little in love with the idea of us. With our letter writing and our poetry, the seashells and tea bags and oil paintings we traded like carved bits of sinew, a thousand ancient sacrifices to prove we cared. Maybe we were the epitome of romance, locked in the stagnant, unburning love of perfect friendship. Maybe I wanted our deep sea to twist, to turn, to roil. Maybe I wanted a little poison in the tea, a little flame to devour those carefully scripted letters. Maybe I was in love with her, and she was in love with me, and we were both in love with nothing at all. Maybe we were thunderstorms or eclipses, and maybe we were just people, headed for concrete and fluorescents and basketball goals and suburban purgatory. Maybe I thought of myself as a young god. Maybe I was as doomed as Icarus, and my whole great future would come tumbling down around me in sticky paraffin and the acrid tar of burned feathers. Maybe she saw me for what I was, a dreamer and a doubter, arrogant and insecure. Maybe she loved me for it. Or maybe she just didn’t care.
But still, her softness filled me as I carved out letters in pink ink, folded them with shaking hands. As I sealed them and sent them away, thinking of the way her fingers would curve around my pages.
Kacie Faith Kress
Shamshi Rahman didn’t have enough to eat. Because he had just lost his job. The only way left for him was to raise some funds through friends online. He sat looking through his Facebook page every day to find potential givers. Some of his friends were too young to afford to give anything. Others were older but they looked cashed up. His attention turned towards those older friends. Then he found one.
A woman who was older, but she looked young. He thought he would stalk her online. Shamshi began to send her little love notes first. He complimented on her looks, and then her curvy figure. It was all very mechanical, trying to grab her attention. How to make someone fall in love, kind of “How to” manual books, which he thought was useful, as they clearly stated instructions and procedures on general love and love making tips.
She was sixty. He was thirty-five. He told her that he loved her. She kept telling him that it wasn’t going to work because of age difference. He said, he didn’t care about age. Every time he saw her, he felt his loins stir. He couldn’t live without her. He couldn’t breathe without her. He desired to live within her.
She told him she was like a broken record on a decrepit player. She was like an age-old palace or a mossy old temple covered under the weight of some unknown thousand-year old tree. That she was Homer’s Red Wine Sea. She breathed old, stale air of the past and the present and perhaps into the future as well.
He told her he didn’t care how old she was. How white or grey her hair turned? She was within him, a part of him. He went into the shower and he invited her to join him there. He wanted to peel her clothes, layer after layer. He made love to her. He saw her nude. He saw her unclothing for him. He just saw her through and through. Flesh against flesh. He made love to her. He made love to her every single night.
She told him no physical relationship was possible. He told her it wasn’t physical. It was all spiritual. It was esoteric. She was an embodiment. His prism of love.
He was a little
shit. Agaman. It said on his van he'd been servicing Agas for twenty-five years. He went into the houses of dukes, doctors, he'd shared Christmas grog with politicians, farmers, landowners of note. But once a year he had to service our Aga, our inner-city Aga. Once a year he had to enter the world of dusty faces and police sirens, a world he thought he'd escaped many years before.
“I'm here for your Aga,” said a gruff voice on the phone. “I'm parked right outside.”
He dismounted from the van with his bag of tricks. Screws, pipes, lighters, Allen keys, the smell of leather, the grimy soot of his trade, the crinkled hands, the oil stained boiler suit.
“It's just through there, you probably remember from last year,” I said.
He went to the Aga, opened his leather bag, turned off the pilot light and probed within.
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
I said nothing further and watched him at work. About five foot five, a poacher’s friend, maybe ex-army, sanctimoniousness etched deep into his spiteful, ruddy face. He handed me a chit of paper.
“Can you sign this?”
“Keep it for your landlord,” he said.
He gave a curt last glance, went back to his van, tossed his bag into the passenger seat and started the ignition. No farewells, no nods, no thumbs up as his van pulled away for another year.
Yes, he was a little shit.
Read another recent story of Mick's - 'Play Your Cards Right -' at:
My good niece, genealogical chronicler of life’s bare facts, grants me access to her ancestry account where, alone now with plenty of time, which is what I search, a sleuth snooping spoors, I discover a cousin and uncle I never knew had lived, now long dead. Women die after giving birth too often, after singing lullabies to babies before burying them. Men kill themselves on the job, one from a matchbox factory explosion, another falling from a loaded hay cart to frozen ground. Deprivation’s echoes haul me by the scruff, shoving my nose into it through a rabbit hole of years, but I, who like quiet, perversely want to hear its clatter, remove its mask.
What this cyber-eavesdropper needs is a click-on category to long-lost light shining, sun triumphing over drizzle illuminating glistening cobbles. I would hear song, a child’s guffaw of un-selfconscious laughter, notice idiosyncrasies, see their time in the sun, or their breath in cold air, not this tunnel of silence, these shadows. Sure, medals were won, but I don’t care for that kind of heroism, don’t expect art, but crave joyful tipsy celebrations between and after Births and Marriages as well as at them. Humbug to Deaths, these wretched characters straight from Dickens’ poorhouse enduring wall-to-mildewed wall misery.
At the cheap supermarket I discover bargains, paying with hoarded change. Wind icy, I do up the buttons remaining on my jacket, switch my heavy bag from hand to hand walking home brooding over my other niece’s drug addiction, and the son who avoids me, also my mostly estranged first family from our needy young marriage, suppose all our tawdry secrets, our unseen tears, shall be exposed in time.
Ian C Smith
Sale, Victoria, Australia
Ian's seventh book is 'wonder sadness madness joy' - Ginninderra Press (Port Adelaide).
At their reception couples, kids like them, dance to pop music, its simple infectious beat fizzing their blood. He meets his bride’s friend for the first time, wonderful wide eyes, full lips, her beauty pageantry squeezed into a tight black dress. After dancing with his bride he dances with her, her sexiness spellbinding, and she seems to respond in kind. He wants to kiss her right there, an impossibility the sexy girl whispers, or something to that effect. Friends call out ribald remarks. His bride claims him for another dance but the girl’s eyes meet his again as she dances with somebody else, this craziness maddening him, his marriage only hours old.
Is love, that attention-grabbing many-splendoured thing, really just the desire to see the self reflected? If this boy bridegroom, not an habitual girl-chaser, had met the sexy girl just a month earlier, he doubted he would have gone ahead with vows promising fidelity to the teenage girl he made love to that night in a desultory manner, more depressed than aroused, beginning a shared marital disappointment, both regretting what they missed.
This marriage staggers on until collapsing under the strain of its miserable handicap, a bloom wilted by drought lurking within the mad swirl of life. Its children become adults with a muted attraction to excitement, also marrying young, partners decent, dull, comfortable, marriages with built-in robes, built-in yawns. Then, one after another, each of these partnerships falls into ruin.
He knew people, mostly women, successful in other areas of life, who followed sexual urges, believing in gods (or goddesses) of their destiny out there somewhere just needing that chance meeting to charge their lives with ecstasy, but no sooner did these romantics meet the equivalents of that sexy girl at his wedding than their passions on pedestals , the wild loves of their dreams, began teetering. Vanity, selfishness, fickle-hearted unreliability and other flaws, elbowed scorching lust aside, these people reported, convincing him. Now, those long-ago doubts quashed, heart-thudding moments recalled drained of youth’s impetuosity, the lighted windows of trains passing in the night, he wonders with a feeling akin to grief, about timing, unzipping a tight black dress.
Ian C Smith
Sale, Victoria, Australia
Travelling by night through a foreign landscape, mountainous terrain straddling states, traffic thin, occasional headlights crisscrossing like old wartime searchlights on my winding road, I park, walk towards a bridge to shift my mood. I shall chronicle this blur of absence, a silenced bell’s echo, memories of night music, betrayal, dreams of happiness. Calligraphic words wreaths on paper. A great distance separating me from home, thunder’s orchestration greets me as if cued.
Lightning like faulty neon illuminates oily water purling below, reflects on stonework, reminding me of Rodin’s looming rough studies. Then the appropriateness of rain. I smell decades in stone. My floating face, a drowned spectre, is obliterated by a fusillade of raindrops. What relics of hope, taste of grief, life’s detritus, lies behind that image? Everyone knows travel can be a form of running away.
I think of revealed bog bodies when a strange rasping wind as if out of the stilled past rushes in, a scuttling across Eliot’s floors of silent seas. Hunching away to a cold, emptied marketplace, my footfalls follow centuries of spoors faded forever. Those memorising bad news have crossed that bridge’s curve, endured, moved on with their dogs, walking the night, leaving no message, incantations now silenced.
Ian C. Smith
Sale, Victoria, Australia
No, he said.
It seemed to echo.
It echoed but somehow did not resonate.
It came from his head not from his heart.
No, he said again, and it came in a more solid form.
A bit more steely.
Though a moment later his heart melted.
He watched the moment going away from him, like the escalator in the underground, always descending, going away...
Thinking of it much later, it was as if he stood on the shore of a lake into which he had once thrown a stone. The splash was long gone. The stone was now buried deep in the mud below.
But still, and endlessly, the soft ripples of disturbance kept coming towards him.
You’re right Sem, Soli will be very pleased with the crania. I will carve her image upon it and place it in the temple at festival time. Praise be to Soli.
I found it only recent solas ago, west of the great drain. Sia and Sov were with me. It was a successful gather. We returned with many bones.
Soli walked with us and the great provider saw to all our needs. Trees were laden with fruit and great berry creepers were abundant. Many flyers nested in the ruined shelters. We ate well. Early one sola, we ambushed a pack of howlers. We speared the biggest and feasted highly.
We found some small vessels in the shelters. We prised them open and yes, Sem, some of them were edible, though most weren’t. Sia made herself sick on golden fruit which was coated in stickiness.
Mind-fungi were plentiful. We collected many for soup and Soli gave us a great vision of tribal unity. Truly, Sia and I shared Sov and then Sia and I shared each other.
We found the skeletons in the back of an end shelter. One was still in covering. When Sov took the covering, it sparked light against his skin. We awed. The power of Soli is in many things, Sem. Praise be to Soli.
On some solas, the heat was very great. We swam in a narrow drain to cool ourselves but were careful to keep near to the bank, fearful of the rippers. As you know, they come further up the drains with every new sola.
Mostly, we kept to the shade of the shelters and worked the bones. Sia’s tooth necklace became fuller and Sov, of course, made us each a calling-flute. I formed many spears and shaped the covering into a holder.
Nearing the end of our gathering, we found big smear vessels in the outer-shelters. We each chose our own colour and over-spread ourselves from head to toe. See, I am still with stain.
In celebration of Soli’s gift, we emptied the shelters of flame food and, at non-sola, began a great fire. Mind-fungi led us in dance and we call-fluted Soli. Rise again, Soli, we sang. Rise again.
Soli heard our song and rose again the next sola, but we had given ourselves away to the Fleshers. We woke to their famine. They had us surrounded. Our blood odour caused them to whine. They wore hunger-masks and their tongues flicked the air.
Fear ran hot in our veins but Soli teaches us not to despair, does she not? So, on a signal, we raced out together from the shelter and into her pure presence. Our colours were instantly coated in her divine light. Our new spears flashed lightning in the young sola.
Of course, this terrified the Fleshers. They instantly turned and fled, or tried to. We gave chase and speared three of them.
See Sem, how I wear their chief’s jawbone. My new charm. Praise be to Soli.
Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Bold
Urban renewal and gentrification, my ass! The local city leaders are just superstitious, ignorant morons who have been looking for a way to rid Somerville of my little magic shop for years.
When they failed in their attempts to rezone the commercial district and force Elixirs and Magical Mixtures out of business, they turned to that time-honored government standby, eminent domain.
The city seized the land on which my charming storefront stood, for "public works expansion." To add insult to injury, they paid me only a pittance for my property.
Just two weeks after the City Council approved the legal theft of my shop, they had bulldozers tearing away the façade of my beloved brownstone. I couldn't bear to watch.
Idiots. Never mess with an occult magic shop. When my last appeal from the eminent domain order was denied, I pulled all my grimoires, my wards and charms, and my summoning ingredients together.
I rented a huge public storage space for a six-month term. That should be more than enough time for me to put my campaign in motion, I thought.
Four months after the city dispossessed me of my land, still nothing stood on that vacant lot. Somerville's first attempts at grading and excavating were destroyed by unseasonable, record-breaking storms and flash floods.
The city's next efforts at simply compacting and paving the area were halted suddenly, when a previously undetected aquifer made subsidence and sinkholes too great a threat for the intended parking lot.
Somerville's final fiasco – a plan to replant and reclaim the land as an open-air park – was abruptly abandoned when toxic levels of lead were found in the soil.
The City Council blamed the unfortunate series of events on global warming, hydrogeologic anomalies, and downstream contamination by the adjacent city's paint manufacturing plant.
I repeat, idiots.
After a week of bitterly contested negotiations, I was finally able to buy back my land for a fraction of what Somerville had paid me to misappropriate it. The turning point in our bargaining was when an overgrowth of poison ivy and poison oak infested the vacant lot, seemingly overnight. It not only turned the land into an eyesore; it became a rallying point for parental outrage as they had to repeatedly douse their children in calamine lotion.
Of course, the toxicodendron genus of plants is not native to Somerville.
Construction begins tomorrow on my new store, which will be almost double the size of the former Elixirs and Magical Mixtures.
After much deliberation, I have finally chosen the right name for my new magic shop, which is going to be bigger and better than ever.
I'm going to call it Deus Hex Machina.
Irvine, California USA
It’s not easy to explain what it’s like out here. Indeed, it’s very difficult to know where to
begin, but I’ll try. It’s confusing really. There isn’t any clarity anymore. In fact, there isn’t really anything anymore. That probably sounds like I’m avoiding the issue.
‘A Void’, perhaps that’s it. Is it possible to avoid a void? That’s a nice play on words. But it doesn’t really help, doesn’t get us anywhere. Where is anywhere? Could it be nowhere? Ah, now that sounds more fruitful. That’s easier to relate to, I think! Can I think? I think not.
Seems like another blind alley. Now there’s a link-a logical link. Blind alleys lead to nowhere. But if you’re going down a blind alley, then that implies there’s time taken in travelling. But sadly, that doesn’t work, because time has no meaning; there isn’t any of it out here.
Sounds depressing. But again, that’s not relevant, because depression is about feelings, emotion and none of that exists here either. I could claim that it’s frustrating, but then we’d have the same sort of argument. But then there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to argue about here.
‘Nothing’, ‘Nowhere’, ‘A Void’. Is it starting to make sense? Any of it? Am I really getting across to you? Communicating to you? Whoever you are? Wherever you are, except out here? Questions. It’s all questions!
I’ve always loved language, but in the end, its let me down; it’s not enabling anymore; not crossing the divide.
Let me try one last time. It all started and ended in that single moment when my heart stood still!
Witney, Oxfordshire, England
He was dead before his head hit the ground, which wasn’t as remarkable as it sounds, as his assailant booted the severed skull to the other end of the warehouse. Not remarkable, but very effective all the same in the game of how to make someone dead. Not just dead, but 'not the slightest hope of ever recovering' type of dead. It was necessary, as his kind were somewhat stubborn when it came to staying dead, always desperate to show off their annoying near-immortality. It was downright wearisome, if he was being honest. Dave put in a lot of hard work and effort tracking down and then disposing of this ancient breed of leeches and he could do without them suddenly lurching back into life as soon as his back was turned, refusing to accept his discipline. Almost disrespectful, but what could he expect? Their moral compass only pointed hellwards and he had suffered hair pulling, ball twisting and even tweaked nipples in his battles, no form on ungentlemanly conduct off the table as far as they were concerned.
Dave understood that they were fighting for survival, but really, have some class about you, you’re hundreds of years old, for God’s sake.
With all that in mind and after some close calls during and after his probation period, Dave settled on a good, quick decapitation technique followed by burning the body in one location and then the head in another, many miles away. Of course, this had all been explained to him when he signed up, but you never really understand how to do a job until you start doing it. Like passing your theory driving test and then bunny-hopping down the road for ten minutes in your first driving lesson, all mouth and no trousers. They had even joked about it during the breaks, him and his now dead former classmates. Dave reckoned he must have adapted quicker than they had.
And the nights. Always working in the sodding dark, so that now his skin was almost as pale as the crazed blood suckers he sought out. Most people moaned about how they were getting their life-force sucked unwillingly from their veins by the murderous parasites, but not him. He genuinely got more aggrieved by the anti-social hours the animals worked to and their lack of common decency, even the ones from the North. Good manners cost nothing but the Nosferatu reckoned themselves so high and mighty, absent of any grace even when they had a stake in their heart or a sword at their neck. Even more remarkable to have these airs when they all lived in some downright foul places. If he never saw another damp cellar, disused warehouse or festering cave again, it would be too soon. He spent most of his free time at the bloody launderette or submitting expenses for purchases of new clothes.
Still, it was a job and paid the bills, at least until something more exciting came along.
Newcastle upon Tyne, England
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When the teeth stopped chattering, Joss wound them up again. He grinned, as they jounced across the table, in search of something to bite.
Gran entered the kitchen from the garden. ‘Still at that? You could better spend your time helping me with the weeds.’
They both stared at the teeth, going round in a circle, until they came to a sudden halt.
Gran said, ‘I wouldn’t mind a set like that. Better than these old things.’ And she smiled widely, to show Joss what was left of her teeth; a disfigured, stained set of stumps.
‘Where did the idea of wind-up teeth come from, Gran?’ Joss asked. ‘Do you know?’
‘It’s an old story,’ said Gran. ‘As old as I am.’
‘Will you tell it, Gran. Go on, please!’
‘Okay. But let me hold the teeth. They’ll help me remember the tale.’
She sat down and began.
‘Once there was a young woman who lived on one side of the valley and a young man who lived on the other. One day, as she was riding her mare and he was riding his stallion they met in the depths of the valley, near the weir, where the rocks were sharp enough to tear flesh to pieces. Their love was instant. They both dismounted their steeds, gripped hands and began a dance, among the crimson poppies. The dance incited such passion that they began biting each other’s face; ripping and tearing cheek, chin, neck and ear.
On returning home, their parents were aghast at the terrible wounds and after hearing of what had happened, forbade the young lovers to ever meet again. Indeed, they were both locked up in their rooms until their ardour cooled down.’
‘What’s ‘ardour’ mean, Gran?’
‘I’ll tell you later, let me continue. Somehow, they both managed to escape their imprisonment the very next evening. Mounting their horses, they rode to meet each other again by the weir. And near the raging torrents, they resumed their deathly dance. With their teeth shining like swords under the blood moon, they completely devoured each other in a mad frenzy.
The next morning, when all the valley-folk went searching, all that could be found were two sets of reddened teeth, circling each other on the riverbank; alive and still hungry for flesh!’
When Gran finished, she put the wind-up teeth back onto the table.
Joss was quiet for a moment and then asked, ‘Is that a true story, Gran? Is it?’
‘Well. Some think it is and some think it isn’t,’ said Gran.
Joss wasn’t satisfied with that. ‘Do you think it is, Gran? Do you?’
Gran just shrugged, her mouth opening to another big smile.
Joss looked at the remains of her ruined dentures.
‘What happened to your teeth, Gran?’ he asked.
But Gran didn’t answer. She just laughed, stood up and and walked back into the garden.
Joss wound the teeth back up and watched with renewed fascination at the frantic chomping, gnashing and biting.