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Underwhorl by Arise Eventide

 

 

 

 

The Last Repair-Man by Hannah McIntyre

 

“It just came through!” Charlie waved a pixelated sheet of HoloPaper above his head. It announced his redundancy - the end of his contract with the company that received repair jobs for the local AI and robots. Forty years. Forty years he had worked there, every day. Soldering or tightening screws or reattaching metallic arms, that’s what his whole life had been. And now? They didn’t want him. He’d been the last human on the staff for a while, but he hadn’t hated it, he had learned to love it, over time. 

     

     “Does it say how much severance pay you’ll get?” Kirsty asked. Finally, they could take the MarsAscension to the Pan Europa colony, or any colony, like the rest of the sane population. At last, she’d be free of this wasteland. It was lonely, here on Earth, and depressing. With nothing left but extreme weather and radiation storms, she was glad that after a decade of trying to convince her husband to leave, they could now live the new life she had dreamt of. 

     

     Charlie turned to kiss his expectant wife, a short brush that meant nothing, but felt like a lie nonetheless. This was it; he knew it was. Any moment now she’d pop the question about Mars. It was all she talked about, bloody Mars! Ever since her sister had left with Kirsty’s nieces and nephews - the incessant postcards were what had done it. But Charlie didn’t want to go, at least, not with his wife. She had changed when he put his foot down and refused to leave his job until he was forced out. From then on, Kirsty had only been interested in one topic. So, when Charlie wanted to talk about something else, he spoke to his closest colleague, his partner, InYara Gen3, or Yara for short. 

     

     Yara: a fully automated robotic replica of a human woman, perfect in every single way.

     

     Yara: who often knew what he was thinking without him having to say it.

     

     Yara: who never made him feel bad for being afraid to leave this planet and move onto the next. Who assured him that he was welcome on Earth amongst the machines who now inhabited it. 

     

     “Better be something good if they’re sacking me after all these years,” Charlie tried to hide the quiver in his voice. The truth was, he had been ready to leave Earth for years, just one thing had held him back. Charlie had kept his secret inside, like a weight in his gut. He didn’t want to share it and he never planned to. But it was there, and heavier than normal. He felt sick. The termination of his contract was effective immediately, the second he had read those words, he’d lost his job. He’d lost so much more than that though, he’d lost Yara.

 

 

 

 

Pandy by Ray Khon

[Sheffield, England]

 

Pandy was brought to the United Nations after a spacecraft dumped her on a beach. She brought ‘glad tidings’ - a promise that all ‘right thinking’ would be rewarded with knowledge. ‘Evil actions’ however, would be punished by a swarm of tiny flies that flew out of the box she was holding. A delegate caught one insect in his hands and as it buzzed, he opened his hands to show others what he had trapped. But there was nothing to be seen. Pandy shouted, ‘The I-flies are not visible until they die. That only happens if they bite you.’ The delegate panted; ‘Have I been bitten?’ Pandy answered. ‘You are still alive, and the I-fly has remained invisible: so clearly you have not been bitten.’

 

PANDY LAUNCHES WEAPON: was next day’s headline. But most saw I-flies as merely an annoying addition to the insect population.  Bickering delegates could never agree where Pandy might settle, so they accepted her uncontroversial choice of Crete. There she started providing volumes of technological information unknown to Earth scientists.

 

Weeks later, Pandy raised a storm of protest when explaining that a dead politician must have been the instigator of some ‘evil action’ or the I-fly would not have bitten him. In the following months, several hundred political leaders were found dead with tiny I-fly bodies lying beside them.

 

‘World leaders demand Pandy call off the I-flies’ was the message filling the world’s media outlets, as autocrats and democrats alike felt equally threatened. Pandy explained she had no power over I-flies. ‘They are the judges: it is they who arranged for me to visit Earth.’

 

‘Will the I-fly population die out or will they procreate?’ a Cretan news reporter asked.

 

‘I-flies grow in proportion to the volume of evil action undertaken.’

 

‘Pandy, many suspect you control I-flies. If you don’t stop them, then your life will be in danger.’

 

‘Millions of ignorant men and women find it comforting to believe that the evil that they do can be erased by scapegoating someone who is different to them. Murdering the messenger would just be another evil action for I-flies to avenge.’

 

‘We don’t understand how to judge what you call ‘evil actions’. Can you help us grasp what you mean by this term?’

 

‘We share a common belief what ‘evil actions’ are. Where our planets may differ is that telling untruths seems to be acceptable here whereas lying, as far as I-flies are concerned, is unforgiveable.’

 

‘But our leaders tell stories that try to show listeners the world as they see it. Do I-flies see these as lies?’

 

‘If the story doesn’t meet the facts or if the intention is merely to mislead, then they are falsehoods.’

 

Much animation took place amongst the delegates until the original Cretan news reporter piped up.

 

‘Pandy, do you know how we can stop the I-flies killing us?’

 

 ‘I do not know,’ she cried, was bitten, and died immediately.

 

 

 

 

 

Joined-Up Writing by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

 

I took Fran’s two little hands in mine.

     ‘Go with your Uncle, Fran. Mummy will join you soon.’

     ‘Do I have to?’

     ‘Mummy isn’t well. Your Uncle Joseph and his friend, Uncle Thomas live in the country. You will like it there.’

    ‘Are you coming to live in the country too?’

     ‘I’ll come as soon as I am well again.’

      ‘Don’t take it for granted that I will be here to rescue you when you fail, Iris.  I don’t want to be involved. I have my life to live’.

      ‘When have I failed, Joseph?’

      ‘You’re unmarried, and I can’t help expecting the worst.’

      ‘You always expect the worst.’

      ‘You, yourself, said there is not a lot of work for black actresses. It’s time you gave it up and led a normal life. It’s Fran who will suffer.’

      ‘It’s just while I’m in hospital,’ I pleaded.

      ’Who ever heard of two men taking care of a girl-child, anyway.’

      ‘I’m sure it will work out,’ said Thomas.

    

     Four months later, when I was out of hospital and had recovered sufficiently to cope, I moved down to Essex, where I found decent accommodation at a price I could afford. Affordable accommodation had been a big problem in London for me and Fran for some time.

     Although I had kept in touch by phone, I was still anxious to hear how my brother and Thomas coped looking after Fran. As my brother had been wary about the idea, I asked Thomas about it.

    ‘She settled in well. Both she and I enjoyed breakfast time when the top twenty countdown was on the radio. Fran hated to leave for school until the number one ‘Two Little Boys’ had played. ‘Come Fran, we mustn’t be late’ was Joseph’s daily mantra.

   ‘Joseph has always been a stickler with making the right impression. How did she do at school?’

   ‘She made friends easily. She was assigned to the ‘green table’ which was at the bottom of the class before she arrived, but in a short time she won so many stars, they were in second place behind the ‘yellow table’.

   ‘What did Joseph say to that?’

    ‘We were both so proud. All her ‘green table’ classmates were inspired to earn stars to vie for first place.’

    ‘That must have been a big relief to Joseph.’

     ‘It was. He went to the school to talk to her teacher Miss Turner and discovered she was a joy to have in the class, but it was a challenge to bridge the gap with the other pupils. One day while she was teaching them to write the alphabet, Fran was already ahead doing it in ‘joined-up writing’.

      Satisfied, I turned to leave, when Joseph came home.

     ‘If in the future you ever need someone to assist you in anyway with Fran, just let me know Iris, I’d consider it a pleasure. She’s no trouble at all.’

     ‘I’m glad you feel that way Joseph, I’ll remember to call on you.’

 

 

 

 

Dave by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

I like it around here.

But I feel I don’t belong.

 

I feel like I’m the odd one out.

You see, my name is Eric.

And that's the problem.

You see everyone I know is called ‘Dave’.

 

They’re all called Dave round here.

Even the women.

My wife is called Dave.

My eldest son is called Dave

Our two daughters are called Dave.

 

We got a dog. And we gave it a name. Quickly, it was decided the dog should be called ‘Dave’.

The neighbours are nice and quiet. They're called Dave too.

All my friends, they’re called Dave.

 

I work in a factory. The people on my line are all called Dave.

The supervisor, the office staff and the cleaners are all called Dave.

 

Everyone I meet is called Dave. The postie, the shopkeeper, the publican, the police.

They’re all called Dave.

 

I got excited when I heard a new neighbour was moving into number 22.

You can imagine how my heart leapt when she told me her name was Wendy,

but quickly sank when she added , ‘Only kidding , my name's Dave.’

 

At least it makes voting in the local elections easy.

When the female canvasser called ‘Dave’ asks me who I’m voting for,

I’ll just reply,

“That's easy Dave, I’m voting for Dave!’

 

 

 

 

Queen Orking: The Mystery Remains by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

It is nearly a year now since a group of climbers in the Highlands read the cryptic words on the wall of a mountain cave – ‘May your zeal absorb your essence, Queen orking’. It was thought the rudely chiselled message had been put there by drunks – the cave being a favourite haunt of bottling students – but on further excavation, experts identified it as part of a longer New Year inscription dedicated to a long-forgotten monarch of pre-Roman times. The investigation was led by Dr Reginald Bluntcandle, head of Archaeocryptology at Bandriff Polytechnic.

          “I don’t remember a queen called ‘Orking’,” he admitted at the time. “Perhaps she was of the royal lineage pertaining to the Isles of Orkidney. Or perhaps she was an ordinary queen who simply liked to ‘ork’.”

          While the nation held its breath, awaiting news of this addition to our dynastic heritage, Dr Bluntcandle buried himself in research. The nation has been waiting ever since. In the interests of public awareness – and with the anniversary of the discovery coming up – I contacted Dr Bluntcandle to see if any progress had been made. Reginald did not sound pleased.

          “Research? Oh, I did research, alright. At the mention of Queen Orking, the Grand Clan Master of Orkidney simply laughed in my face. As for the putative practice of ‘orking’, my enquiries took me into some very unsavoury places. I may even have transgressed legal boundaries. Yet all I received in reply were lewd sniggers and demands for money (sometimes with menaces).”

          ‘Shall we say, then, the jury’s still out?’

          “Don’t mention juries to me. My case has still to be heard.”

          One piece of information has come to light. Analysts from Bandriff’s rival Cryptoarchaeology department now believe the highland cave was a ritual initiation site for tribal chiefs of all degrees and qualities. ‘Queen orking’, indeed, may not even refer to a single person, but be a general indication of majesty.

          I asked Dr Bluntcandle, given the sparseness of the evidence, is it likely we shall ever know the real story of this enigmatic queen... or king, for that matter?

          “King Orking?” he replied. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

 

 

 

 

Triangle by Ray Kohn

[Sheffield, England]

 

I was asked to write about the notorious film maker, Thomas Frederickson. The editor’s invitation was a work of art in itself:

 

‘Dear Alison James,

The owner of the journal is totally against asking you to contribute to this month’s edition. He knows that your attacks on Frederickson and his political activities are, in themselves, the subject of legal action by his team. But the editor is prepared to risk his own career by inviting you to provide a critique of Frederickson’s latest film. Are you willing to accept this challenge?

J’

 

So, I sharpened my imaginary pen even before taking a seat in the theatre to watch the much-vaunted premier of his latest film. Even before it began, the film had been promoted as a kaleidoscopic portrayal of a group of artists whose fame was based less upon their productions and more upon their ways of life. The film techniques used came from the school of Leni Riefenstahl. I was not impressed by the mock hero worship heaped upon the leader of the group. Frederickson obviously identified himself with the man and the poses adopted by the actor portraying this ‘hero’ were from Sergei Eisenstein’s palette. I felt I had been tricked into watching this tedious throwback to early twentieth century totalitarian art.

 

The one truly interesting character played a comparatively minor role. She was the author, Cécile Bordeaux, who had been dismissed from the group as being too ‘bourgeois’. As a result of watching the film, which I think I tolerated until the end only because I was being paid to provide a critique, I decided to investigate Cécile Bordeaux in case she had produced anything worthwhile.

 

I discovered, to my eternal shame, that she was a celebrated biographer of whose work I was embarrassingly ignorant. The list of those whom she had encapsulated in the strange and difficult art of biography was impressive. We all live lives that are multi-dimensional, but with a book it is only possible to perceive through one dimension - the timeline of your reading page after page. Bordeaux seemed to transcend these constraints by careful attention to detail, cross-referenced to what had already appeared in earlier chapters.

 

I was brought up with a shock when I saw her latest biography, created without any contact with the subject, was entitled ‘Alison James: The Ultimate Critic.’ I began reading and was surprised by the details of my life that she described. Truth be told, I had forgotten some of them, so was intrigued to have them recalled in such excellent prose. The final chapter concluded with an astonishing critical analysis of the Frederickson article I had yet to compose.

 

 

 

 

Detritus by Samantha Ryan

[Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA]

           

The doll would never decay because it was made of layers and layers of plastic and synthetic materials. It would sit in the landfill for decades and decades until it was destroyed by some matter of force or fire. Day in and out it sat, head facing the gods above, eyes unblinking, painted pink smile wide.

         

     The rain would wash the dirt away momentarily, until the wind came and blew more on top, caking layers of debris and dust on her pretty little face. Her shiny blonde hair would dull over time, but never disintegrate, staying the same length for the rest of its time on earth.

         

     The clothes would fall apart slowly as the threads of altered cotton were somewhat organic and, as such, still appealing to the tiny microorganisms that cleaned up the discarded material left around the planet. The bright blue jumpsuit would eventually fall apart in tiny little pieces, leaving her exposed plastic skin to the derision of the elements.

         

     She would rest on this throne of detritus matter until the earth was no more, cast away by Molly McKay who caught her son playing with the doll and hoped that by throwing the little piece of plastic in the trash, he would forget about her all together and move on to his plastic cars and dinosaurs she had bought as masculine replacements.

 

 

 

 

 

Convict Colony by Ray Kohn

[Sheffield, England]

 

Criminology lectures tend to be boring. The module I was studying in my sociology degree required attendance at a lecture by the Professor of Crime Statistical Analysis – an early morning commitment to which I was not looking forward.

 

The Professor was an old man and spoke more to himself than to the disparate group of students who had wandered across the campus to claim their attendance points. No one was really listening to his words and the drone in his voice seemed to register how unimportant he knew his contribution was to our education.

 

I perked up slightly when he challenged us to say what form of punishment could be established in a society where resources were communal and shared but if there were no such thing as prison.

 

One bright spark responded that he thought that Australian aborigenes had the best idea: stabbing offenders in the leg with a spear. The more serious the offence, the more damaging the injury. The Professor smiled at this suggestion but pointed out that incarceration was still an option for aboriginal communities whereas the Jews who had fled Egypt under Moses were in the desert. Stabbing offenders in the leg there would probably render them unable to survive so would, in effect, be a death sentence.

 

Gloria, my black girlfriend, was sitting beside me and showed-off her knowledge of history when she suggested that an alternative had been tried in 18th and 19th century England where offenders were transported to Australia. The Professor looked sad as he described the likely experience of being incarcerated on a ship, then being dumped in an inhospitable land. “English convicts and African slaves at least had that in common,” Gloria commented.

 

The old man nodded and still speaking more to himself than to the class, went on: “The phrase ‘Hell on Earth’ must have come from those who sentenced me to a lifetime on this planet. At least where I come from, we don’t spend vast amounts of time systematically killing one another. Earth is our convict colony … I just wish I could go home before I die.”

 

 

 

 

 

Creatures On The Shelves by Dylan Sayers

[North-West England]


In the sleepy town of Hambledon, a charity shop holds demons of every shape and size. I believe it is a safe house for clinically insane objects! God forbid you pass through Hambledon and find yourself there. If you have the guts to open that flaky green door, it will feel painless and hollow, like a touch from death. Once inside, protect your eardrums from the blood-curdling screams. Five shelves of books cry in unison, and they sing about broken spines and torn pages. The terrible conductor of the book orchestra is an overcoat with giant, sagging arms that wave around like the limbs of Satan. I swear, I once saw someone go into the changing room with it, and when they zipped the thing up, I could hear each notch on the zipper click like the crunching of bones. The guy just disappeared, and the coat sat in a smug pile on the floor. 

 

But the worst of all, between the bric-a-brac a gang of psychotic toys without arms or legs laugh constantly about something horrendous they have seen. I have even heard the little terrors making plans with an antique pram, the one with a bum wheel and a mean slouch. I don’t know what they say, but I know I heard my child's name mentioned in their rotten whispers. It is a vile place, full of forgotten hallmarks that are angry and lost. The charity shop on Hambledon’s concrete boulevard is the final destination on my Sunday morning pilgrimage. I sift through the evil and mostly get nothing in return. But I think, one day, I’ll find my ticket out of hell tucked away in a forgotten corner. That, or a cute set of matching plates.

 

 

 

 

Maggie’s Daughter by William Kitcher

[Toronto, Canada]

 

“Excuse me,” I said to the server when she brought me my second drink. “Is your mother’s name Maggie?”

 

     “No,” she said. “Why? Do I look like someone you know?”

 

     “You sure do. A woman I went to university with. Haven’t seen her for ages, but you look a lot like her.”

 

     “I get that a lot,” she said. “I guess I have a generic face.”

 

     That encouraged me. What I’d said didn’t seem so weird now.

 

     “What was her ethnic background?” said Maggie’s not-daughter.

 

     “Polish,” I said. “Her family’s been here for a long time, on both sides, but definitely Polish.”

 

     “My family’s all Swedish and Norwegian, and a little Polish, I think. Lots of blonds. On both sides. I guess we all look alike.” She laughed.

 

      “What’s your name?”

 

     “Everlund,” she said.

 

      “No, your first name.”

 

      “Julie.”

 

     “Nice to meet you, Julie. Good talking to you.”

 

     I finished my drink, paid the bill, wandered down the street, and went into another bar. After my second drink, I said to the server, “Excuse me, but is your mother’s name Maggie?”

 

 

 

 

 

Jonesy's Bones by Samuel Smith

[Manchester, England]

You’re about to step out of the air lock one cold, brittle morning when you notice there’s a small bone on the doormat. You crouch down to get a better look. It resembles the leg bone of a small animal, but it’s been picked clean, exposing the translucent marrow at either end. You step out and punt it into the fake shrubberies that line your front drive.

A week later, you open it to see another bone, twice the size of the previous one. It looks like the ribcage of a bird, but with small hooks at the end of each rib. You once again kick it into the bushes and go about your day.

A week later, you open the door and gasp. Facing you with yawning eye sockets is a skull. This time, you pick it up, and the heft of the thing leaves you in no doubt that it’s real, not some reject from a high school science lab. The protuberances over the eyes and the twin sets of teeth make it hard to fit in an average shoebox, but you manage it after breaking off one of the jaws. Burying it in the back garden whilst your quickening breaths steam up your helmet, you pat it flat then try to forget about it.

 

Another week goes by, and you open your front door one grey and moody morning to find the entire skeleton of a mysterious, unidentifiable creature draped across the drive. Its skull is horribly distended, teeth the size of hunting knives erupting from both jaws. It has four arms, each ending in splayed claws. Its ribcage is the size of a wardrobe, and it has a great sweeping scythe of a tail that ends in huge barbs. It looks enormous next to your modest ship. Just as you’re wondering how you’re going to bury this monstrosity in the garden, you glimpse movement near the creature’s ribcage. You flinch as your cat leaps onto the thing’s elongated skull, and flicks its tail across the empty eye sockets.

 

“Good kitty,” you stutter, reaching forwards to tickle Jonesy behind the ears. “But can you please stop now?”

 

The cat purrs as if in agreement, but the steely look of determination in its eyes tells a different story. You make a mental note to ring the council and ask them to increase the anti-grav shields around the pet cemetery.

 

 

 

 

 

Angela by Ray Kohn

[Sheffield, England]

 

Angela is a well-educated scientist who sacrificed her career for her husband’s vocation. Brian knew Angela from the church: their families were regular attenders, so they were thrown together throughout their teens. When Angela finished her physics degree and returned to the town, Brian successfully wooed the only girl he had ever wanted. He became the local vicar with Angela as a devoted vicar’s wife.

 

Sometimes I think I can hear Brian’s evangelical voice when Angela speaks. I cannot quite understand how this highly qualified scientist accustomed to logical thinking can talk about Biblical miracles as ‘fact’. My puzzlement about virgin birth is answered by a strange peroration about parthenogenesis (Angela the scientist) or an assertion concerning how God can ‘break into’ our regular life as He is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and invisible. “Invisibility is useful in avoiding interrogation,” I counter, much to Brian’s annoyance.

 

I met Angela and Brian in the street in the afternoon. They asserted that they had experienced a miracle. “We had taken a walk through the woods and as we emerged, we saw a man approaching the woods from the adjoining field. We couldn’t see his face. But we watched him discarding his cloak and slowly floated to the ground as if completing a flight.”

 

“Yes,” Brian interjected. “He was gliding.”

 

“We know we were witnessing an angel!”

 

“How do you figure that?” I asked.

 

“Because the cloak was covering a wing!”

 

“How far away was this figure?”

 

They looked at one another and admitted that the next field was about a kilometer away. “But this was no vision. We could see him as clearly as we see you now.”

 

“You don’t think that what looked like a wing was the lining of his cloak. And as the sun was quite hot this afternoon, the air can shimmer over the field which could generate the appearance of floating.”

 

Brian was finding it hard to hide his frustration with me. “You are just an unbeliever who will always try to find an explanation that obscures the reality of divine intervention.”

 

“Science describes much,” Angela said. “But it fails to grasp how events are connected when there seems to be no rational explanation. I doubt if any miracle, however clear, would be accepted by you as anything other than a physical event whose cause was as yet uncertain.”

 

“On the other hand,” I countered, “you are only too quick to ascribe supernatural intervention as the cause of anything extraordinary that you might expect from the Biblical deity about whom you read every day in church.”

 

Angela and Brian walked off, shaking their heads at my skeptical response to what they had witnessed in the field. I waited until they had turned the corner before vowing to myself to be far more circumspect in future as I adjusted my wing.

 

 

 

The Debt by Sarah Fenwick

[residing in Germany]

https://sarahfenwickauthor.com/

 

At noon, Sorcha Campbell walked into the Trench Family Bank through polished mahogany doors. It was hushed in there, like a church congregation before Sunday service. Tellers bowed their heads as they piled money into bill counters. The mechanical leafing noise trailed after Sorcha on the way up a marble staircase.

     Paul Trench. Glasgow Branch Mortgage Director.

 

     The gold lettering on the office door snubbed her as she pushed it open. Photos of skiing trips regaled the walls. More gold lettering gloated at her from a plaque: Victor Omnia Lucrator. Winner Takes All.

 

     The man behind the sleek desk wore a tailored dark blue suit. He had slitted, hard eyes. ‘Who the hell are you?’

‘You’re foreclosing on my flat tomorrow.’ Sorcha brandished a court paper. ‘You have to give me more time. My husband died six months ago. My wean will be homeless!’

 

     ‘I’m sorry to hear that but your debt to the bank has to be paid,’ he said.

 

     She ripped the summons in half. ‘You can’t do this to me! Where’s your feelings?’

 

     A vulpine smile sneaked over his face and he ran the tip of his tongue over his bottom lip. ‘And where is your money?’

Sorcha threw the summons on the floor and left. On the underground, the cold grip of anxiety froze her bravado, and she shivered.

At home, Ian settled into her embrace with a gurgle, his powdery scent the only softness she’d experienced all day. Dan smiled at her from a photograph, and her throat tightened. The night before she’d lost him, he’d promised her a holiday in Spain because the mortgage was almost paid up. But Dan wasn't going on holiday to Spain or any other place; sudden heart failure had ended that dream.

 

     She called her childhood friend, Maureen.

 

     ‘The bank wants a huge amount of money, or I’ll lose my flat tomorrow at Sheriff County Court.’ Sorcha listened for a moment.

     

     ‘Okay. I’ll bring you the bank statements. It’s my only chance.’

 

     That night, she went to her window. Outside, the moonlight chased ripples in the river’s current. Were these the last moments of her old life? This time tomorrow, she could be on the street.

 

     At the hearing the next day, she stood a couple of feet away from Trench. Just as the judge began to speak, the courtroom door opened with a thud. It was Maureen, flanked by three officers and an elderly woman in shabby clothes.

 

     ‘I’m Inspector McCormack, Police Scotland. Trench is being charged with fraud,’ Maureen said, handing a warrant to the judge. ‘We have strong evidence of predatory interest rates.’

 

     The judge sniffed and pointed to the elderly woman. ‘Who are you?’ he said.

 

     ‘Paul Trench’s mother,’ the elderly woman replied. ‘I’m homeless. My son foreclosed on my house. He auctioned it to his crony and took a bribe for it. He’s sick.’

 

      As the officers hustled Trench out of the courtroom, his Italian shoes skidded on the carpet.

 

 

 

 

Cuckoo by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

It is now 2034.

 

The issue of plagiarism is rife within the writing community. But now most writing is copying what someone else has written. A sort of if you can’t beat them, join them mentality.

There is very little original writing.

 

I’m a writer who is one of the best plagiarists out there. You can tell that from the books I've written. Like ‘War and Peace’, ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and ‘Hard Times’. I’m proud of my paintings of ‘The Scream’ and ‘Sunflowers’.

 

It has come full circle from something once frowned upon. It's now the greatest skill a writer can show.

 

My fame has spread far and wide.

Who has not heard the name Alan White?

 

That’s why I’m sitting here at the big table surrounded by lots of writers.

They are all plagiarists like myself.

They’re here to recognise me as the best plagiarist at the writers ceremony.

I’ve toiled and earned my award, ‘The Cuckoo’.

I’m getting one for that book I plagiarised, ‘Tender is the night’.

 

I’m glad that my wife, Paula, is here to see me honoured.

Pride swells inside me.

I’m all dressed up. I want to be smart when they call my name out.

 

Here’s the moment I've been waiting for.

‘And The Cuckoo goes to Alan White!’

I slowly get up. This is my moment and I am going to milk it for all its worth.

 

I slowly stand up, but dozens of other writers are standing up.

I shout out, ‘I’m Alan White!’

Then come the replies that reverberated around the hall. ‘NO, I’m Alan White!’ ‘I’m the real Alan White!’

Some get mixed up and shout out ‘Alan Black’.

From the back someone roars, ‘And so is my wife!’

 

I shout out, ‘I’m the real Alan White’, as loads more writers get up to claim that they are Alan White; until nearly everyone is on their feet, claiming to be the real Alan White.

It is so infectious that even Paula has got to her feet and is screaming that she too is ‘Alan White’.

 

The judges are in a pickle. They have a decision to make. They give the Cuckoo to Alan White. They give it to someone else!

They are pleased with their ill-gotten award.

 

I shout it's the wrong person. ‘They aren’t the real Alan White. I am!’

The crowd start booing me, shouting abuse like ‘imposter!’  Someone on my table says, ‘Fancy claiming to be Alan White, it looks nothing like him!’

 

I slink away empty-handed. A poor plagiarist indeed hoisted by my own petard.

Next year I’m going back to the Cuckoos and I’m determined to be more convincing as Alan White.

 

I’m not down. I’m going home to write ‘Treasure Island’.

 

 

 

 

Making Deals, Changing Places by Andrew Wickham

[Cambridgeshire, England] 

 

Through slatted blinds like bars on an upstairs window, Paul Coleman watched grey clouds. Behind his temples, a steady throb thumped in time with thunderous drums blasting from a Bluetooth speaker.  

A piercing voice stuttered: Running up that… running up that… run… run… r… r… 

“Just play the song, please.” 

Frieda dropped the phone down beside her on the mattress and the song played on. Synth chords: Wab-wab-wab. And Kate: making deals, changing places.  

“I miss Mummy.” 

On the street below a teenage couple broke hands to allow a mother and pushchair through, then, as if pulled by magnetic force, re-connected and skipped out of sight.  

“I know. She’ll be home later.” 

“Missing Mummy.” 

“Yep. Mummy will be back soon.” 

Quiet. Just Kate making deals. If she only could. And those hammering drums.  

Eyes closed, arms folded, Paul entered a cocoon of no thought. 

“I miss Mummy.” 

“I know. She’ll be home soon.” 

The song finished with that held synth chord. A second’s silence; the pounding drums began again. 

Frieda let out a loud guttural groan. “Ughhh, missing Mummy all day.” 

Paul spoke sharply, pointing his finger: “I don’t want to hear about it anymore. You’ve said it lots of times. No more.” 

“Missing M –” 

“No. I have finished talking about Mummy.” 

“MISSING MUMMY!” 

“Don’t shout at me, please.” 

“NO ‘PLEASE’!” 

“You do not control what I say.” 

“MISSING MUMMY!” 

Paul Coleman became aware of the increase of his heartbeat and steadied himself on the windowsill.  

Drums of war marched on. Could Kate make a deal with God? Change places? 

“Getting angry about it.” 

Paul held up his hands: “Okay, Frieda, that’s enough now. You will not get angry.” 

“Angry. Angry. Missing MUMMY.” 

Frieda jumped up, shaking the floorboards. Instinctively Paul retreated into the wall. Frieda punched her head. Again. Again. 

“MUMMY! ANGRY! MUMMY!” 

Cushions and tears and chairs flew. Toiletries swept to the floor. Pictures knocked from their frames. The sheet of the bed was torn with teeth. Snot, spit, blood blowing like leaves in blustery winds. 

The synth held its final chord; the rolling drums started again. 

Powerless, Paul Coleman could only watch his daughter as she cycloned around the room, bracing himself for impact.  

But when it came, it caught him off guard.  

The phone which played the music came hurtling through the air and struck his forehead, just above the eyebrow. 

“Ouch,” he said stupidly and rubbed the spot. Dark red smeared on the tips of fingers and thumb. 

Frieda laughed. Flapped her arms. The storm had ceased, blown itself out quite suddenly. She approached to examine the damage. 

“Daddy’s bleeding.” 

“It doesn’t matter.” 

“Sorry, Daddy.” 

“Okay.” 

Kate still sang: changing places, making deals. 

Frieda was pointing at the wreckage upon the bed. “Daddy, sheet’s broken.” 

Paul dabbed at his forehead again: “Yes, I’m coming to sort it out.” 

…running up that hill… 

“Daddy! Sheet’s broken!” 

“I know. I just told you that I’ll change it.” 

“DADDY!” 

…with no problems… 

 

 

 

 

Matriculating AI? by Xiaochen Su

[USA]

 

All…all of these could be AI…I just can’t be sure…

 

James buried his head in his hands as he tossed aside his reading glasses. The glowing screen of his desktop reflected the large beads of sweat streaming down between his thinning white hair, despite whistling winds intruding into his home office on a chilly early February night.

 

He was done with reading through his daily quota of 50 applications, but he was nowhere ready to call it a night. Tasked with sorting the 50 into neat piles of ‘rejected,’ ‘approved for further review’ and deferred’, he didn’t even know where to start.

 

Not that he didn’t know how. A 35-year veteran admissions officer at New York University, he has decided the fate of countless aspirants. Amidst the regrets of admitting some ‘flops’ and rejecting too many that went on to great things elsewhere, he has developed his own rules, buttressed by gut feelings and intuition, to find ‘real’ talent among pretty words and prettier resumes.

 

But this year was just…too different. 

 

Essay after essay spoke in carefully crafted prose about tidbits of applicants’ life stories. Yet, without fail, each story intricately tied together specific details of what happened with how the applicant thought and felt. The depth of the narrative in channelling the vulnerabilities, the sorrow, and the humbling the applicant was simply not something that he has seen among 18-year-olds of past years.

 

Figuring out who actually was writing at a maturity level beyond their age group used to be easier. When the likes of ChatGPT came out in 2023, AI detection software quickly caught on. All James had to do is to run an applicant’s essay through the software, and the machine-generated was quickly filtered out from the rest. But even without the software, James knew those the ‘tapestry of life’ and other telltale signs of AI-originated vocabulary. 

 

In the years since, the coevolution of AI generators and detectors broke down. As large language models were fed with ever-more sophisticated material, the detection software could no longer keep up. As the software marked more and more AI-generated material as human, students once again became brazen enough to prompt the chatbots for putting their stories and thoughts into words.

 

Hence James’ dilemma. He, nor any of his coworkers, can now tell whether any of the applications he is reading is machine- or human-authentic. 

 

As James slowly wiped away his sweat on this cold February night, he slowly shook his head.

 

The undergraduate admissions system…it has collapsed…

 

 

 

 

The Hand-Spun Life by David Sheldon

[Santa Rosa, California]

 

We grew up courting in the out-of-bounds regions of love, kissed in the unlit margins of a summer baseball game, and discovered the astonishing depths of intimacy in the dimly lit rooms of a moveable party. Shifting over to the seat of a dark-eyed girl on a bus bound for Tucson, Arizona, I was fifteen years old, going to visit my brother in college, where sometime after midnight, I would be funneled into an empty Greek restaurant with instruments of antiquity loud in the background.

 

And as I watched my brother painting walls into vistas, I began to take it all in, the baklava he gave out freely as if he owned the place - its thick, honeyed taste still inside my mouth. And remembering now, without the added anxiety of his nearby turbulence, that green raw fusion of passion and body odor mixing in with the acrid blue smoke of a well-rolled spliff, he liked to call them. These distillations of memory, like a doorman's arm swinging, giving way, inviting us to come inside the velvet room, where I see the hand-spun life of the artist reach over and give it all away. We give freely, do we not?

 

 

 

 

'Pavlov’s Doris’ Grounds For Divorce by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

A wife suing for divorce claimed her estranged husband used Doris Day as a weapon to ‘intimidate her and break her will’. Giving evidence at the hearing, Pandy Schitbaxter, 34, attested that her spouse (Fandorf Schitbaxter, 36) ‘trained’ her to say, “That’s just typical. You have to bring Doris Day into everything,” whenever he said the singer’s name or something related. Asked to give details of this ‘training’, Mrs Schitbaxter said it was like Pavlov’s Dog. Her husband was ‘at it’ night and day.

          “Day goes without saying,” smirked the judge. “But how did he train you at night?”

          “He would constantly whisper Doris Day things in my ear when I was trying to sleep. It was a kind of brainwashing.”

          “One could argue it was only pillow talk.”

          “That’s a cheap gibe. If you were my husband, I’d have to say... you know... all that ‘just typical’ stuff.”

          “Be that as it may, I believe there was a degree of aggression on your side. Indeed, isn’t it true that at one point you put Mr Schitbaxter’s life in question?”

          Mrs Schitbaxter disclosed that she knew the marriage was over when she threatened to kill Mr S. and he said Doris Day would never do a thing like that, to which she found herself replying automatically, “That’s just typical. You have to bring Doris Day into everything.” Her husband then responded, “That’s great! You’re really getting the hang of it now.”

          As the husband did not contest this, a divorce was granted on terms favourable to Mrs Schitbaxter.

          “Que sera,” sighed Mr Schitbaxter.

          “That’s just typical. You have to bring Doris Day into everything,” riposted his ex-wife.

          The pair hastily left the court. Handing Mrs Schitbaxter into a taxi, an unknown male companion prompted, “Move over, darling.” Mrs Schitbaxter was heard to reply, “Not you, as well! Don’t expect me to say, ‘That’s just typical. You have to bring Doris Day into everything’!” As the cab drove off, the words “Oh, my God! I’ve said it!” wafted back through the open window.

          It is believed Mrs Schitbaxter is now undergoing aversion therapy.

 

 

 

 

Grapefruit Blossoms by David Sheldon

[Santa Rosa, California]

 

The boy had been stretched out on his father’s St. Augustine lawn, deciphering the muted sweetness of the soil from the mineral tang of the thick blades of grass when he felt his body expanding into the universe. He had been listening to a dove’s song and the pleasurable reply of its lover perched in another tree, which left the impression the lilting bird song had ushered in the twisting, bellowing force bringing his young unguarded life into an awareness of a monumental existence. He got up in a spasm of excitement and ran into the house. But when he told his parents what happened, the words got jumbled up, and his cheeks and the back of his neck became feverish, for to speak about belonging to something else felt like a betrayal.

 

The boy depended on his parents for everything. If two underground tunnels failed to meet, he would look up from his position in the sandbox and hear his father’s voice answering, ‘Burrow down, son, come at it from above. Use the bottle caps I left for you in the shed, find pieces of bark, and bring back feathers for the trees.’ Eventually, the voice would flicker out altogether because anything a five-year-old boy could dream up was a tenuous idea to begin with.

 

Then the child would be alone again, listening to the creek and sigh of the bewildered trees, the chaos of a fast-approaching desert storm raining down grapefruit blossoms around him. The wind conspired to dilute his half notions of fortressed castles, sending the plastic archers back to their frozen poses on a draw bridge made of mere wood kindling. The air compressed around the child; it rubbed against his skin and lifted his hair, the fierceness exciting his stomach before it flew off the top of his head, going higher into the bowing and leaping trees. The boy raised his arms to articulate the movement of the tree limbs. He could not even say what air was, but he wished to be lifted by it. There was no distinction between himself and the world around him. Everything existed for one purpose. The trees kept council over the child. Their tangled branches possessed a wintery wisdom, and the boy shivered in recognition of how glorious life was.

 

 

 

 

The No Sound Party by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

It was quiet. Too quiet.

That could only mean one thing.

 

The party had been surreptitiously gatecrashed by the quiet squad.

 

We’d all been raving away. The music is on full blast, giving it full Miami.

We were all shouting and yelling our heads off like nobody's business. We were all singing and making one almighty racket.

 

Some fool was dancing on the speakers.

Oh, that was me.

 

I was too busy totally enjoying myself to notice the quiet squad stealthy tip toeing in.

They surrounded and smothered the place.

 

They serenely entered and filled the room like a den of slithering, sneaky, sibilant snakes.

Then the leader whispered,

“Silence, nobody moves or makes a sound.”

 

The volume was turned right down.

The party goers were speechless.

I lost my voice. No sound would come out.

 

The quiet leader purred and murmured, “That's better…” The quiet squad silently filed out and left the party vaguely humming a lullaby.

All was placid and calm.

 

We carried on as best we could but the party had descended into a bad mime.

People were walking into imaginary walls, falling out of imaginary windows, tripping over imaginary bodies.

 

I was getting nowhere silently doing rubbish robot routines. So frustrated that I was using lots of inappropriate sign language. The sort of ones that Mr Mumble would use if he was on Channel four after 10 p.m.

 

Well one sign led to another and by the end of the evening we were all facing each other furiously shushing one another.

 

Finally, we all filed out silently to ‘The Sound Of Silence’ played silently.

 

 

 

 

 

A Spirited Boy by Emma Fielder

[Chesterfield, North Derbyshire, England]

 

The classroom door burst open, inhaling a great gasp of air from the corridor. Mrs Hutchins stood, poised in the doorway, all teeth and hair and unfaltering enthusiasm. She smelled like wisteria and vanilla sponge – surely implausible for someone who had just spent six hours in the company of thirty snot-munching, hygiene-denying, mud-worshipping seven-year-olds?

 

“Mrs O’Neill!” she chimed, flashing me a crimson smile and beckoning me into the room beyond. She couldn’t have been happy to see me. This was my fourth visit in the last three months.

 

I settled on an undersized chair like a labrador on a cat bed. More commonly used to accommodating small bottoms, it groaned under the strain of a somewhat larger derriere. I squatted uneasily, clasping my knees.

 

She perched daintily on the edge of her desk, slender ankles crossed, hands palmed together in front of her ample bosom as if about to commence a sermon. There was a pause as she considered the ceiling panels. Arranging her rosy-cheeked face into an attitude of concern and sincerity, she levelled an earnest gaze at me.

 

“We’ve been having a little problem with Owen.”

 

I took a deep breath, preparing the defensive. My words tumbled out in a frenzy.

 

“Mr Winter already told me about when he flooded the toilets but he assured me that was an accident...”

 

“No, it’s-“

 

“I always tell him that a couple of sheets will do but he ends up using half the roll...”

 

“I’m not talki-“

 

“The amount of times I’ve called the plumber this year alone is frankly embarrassing. He’s started giving me advice on fibre intake..”

 

Her eyebrows disappeared into her manicured fringe. Her mouth a tiny red ‘o’. Like a cat’s arsehole.

 

“No…no. It’s just…he’s been putting Sellotape into other children’s hair and ripping it out.”

 

I blinked. Well. That was a change from atomic wedgies.

 

“Ah.”

 

The silence diffused like a fart at church.

 

“Listen.” She leaned forward conspiratorially. There was a tiny fleck of green matter lodged in between her front teeth. I found this oddly comforting. “I know he’s a spirited boy.”

 

Spirited. Code for ‘a little bollocks’.

 

“And he has a lot of energy.”

 

No shit, Sherlock.

 

“But I feel that we need to channel that into something productive, rather than destructive.”

 

I swallowed hard, examining my feet in their cracked, knock-off trainers.

 

“What do you suggest?” I mumbled, cowed.

 

She leaned back, spreading her arms with a theatrical flair. The magician who had miraculously sawn the problem in half.

 

“We have a wonderful Taekwondo club!”

 

I raised an eyebrow.

 

Smile faltering a little, her pink tongue dabbed at her lips uncertainly.

 

“For the…discipline..”

 

Jesus. As if he wasn’t ‘spirited’ enough without learning how to punch people in the trachea.

 

 

 

 

 

Honestly by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

The Honesty group always meets up on a Tuesday night.

 

We meet in the local community centre.

It's run by a councillor called Mark.

We all sit round in a circle for an hour and tell Mark and the rest how long it's been since we last told a lie.

 

Honestly, it's all false. Everyone in the group is lying through their back teeth and that dope, Mark, just sits there nodding his head and saying how well we’re all doing.

 

As usual I got there just before seven. Time to meet the other members.

We all tell one another how great our lives are and how well we’re doing.

 

It's all lies!

 

We all say how pleased we are to be here. Another lie.

Then Mark rounds us up to sit in the ‘circle of honesty’.

He’s a wet lettuce.

 

He sits there, week in and week, out listening to all our tall tales and lies.

Mark just smiles and says, “Well done Sheila” or “You’re doing great Bob” and “Keep it up Sue”.

Sometimes he shouts out “Gold star!” Usually, he tells us all to take it “one day at a time.”

I’ve never known someone to be so naive and stupid. Mark tells us every week he’s too nice to be a councillor.

 

I have to listen to all these lies every week and listen to how no one has told any lies these past seven days. He’s lying, she’s lying, they’re all lying! Hell, I'm lying!

I bet you a pound to a penny that we’ve all been lying non-stop for the past week.

I know I have.

 

You see, to a good liar lying comes easy, as easy and natural as breathing.

And that dopey councillor just sits there,  nodding, lapping it all up and praising us for all our good work.

 

Five minutes to go. Soon it will be time to get my coat and get out of the circle of honesty.

 

Oh, the lights have gone out!

And there is now something around my arms and legs. I can’t move.

Suddenly Mark’s voice breaks the darkness.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen. This is your host speaking. I’ve had to listen to your pathetic lies every week for the past six months. I know you think I’ve fallen for your fallacies and tall tales. But no, I have not been deceived.

 

I’m disappointed. Disappointed and angry that you have desecrated the circle of honesty.

As you can now realise, you're all attached securely to your chairs.

Don’t bother moving. The doors are all locked.

Don’t bother calling out. We’re all alone.

 

You see, my name is not Mark.

And I’m not a councillor.

And I’m not a nice man.

As you will all soon find out…”

 

 

 

 

An Important Note To Our Guests by Katie McCall

[Greater Manchester, England]

 

Dear guests,

 

A warm welcome to our secluded holiday cottage! With no phone signal or any other buildings for miles around, you have this little hideaway all to yourself. We hope that you’ll find everything you need in the kitchen and cupboards for your well-deserved break. A hamper of tasty local treats awaits you in the fridge.

 

While you visit our rugged end of the country on your getaway, we implore you to be mindful of your safety. We encourage you to explore the beautiful countryside during daylight hours but please do not ignore the signage warning you of the dangers on the moorland after dark.

 

For guests staying in the rooms with a view of the fells, we ask that you please close the curtains that face out onto the moors before dusk. Illuminated windows tend to attract local wildlife and other unwanted entities. After dark, please refrain from allowing children or pets outside. If you do happen to glance beyond the closed curtains, any lights, or strange figures that appear must be ignored. Do not venture out to get a closer look; unfortunately, the local mountain rescue team is only available during daylight hours, due to the treacherous nature of our local landscape.

 

In your welcome hamper, you will find an ample supply of sage. We recommend burning this on the fire once the sun starts to set. In each room, you will find a copy of the bible on the shelf, to be displayed on all windowsills facing the heath. The windows are sealed shut for a reason. Please do not try to open them.

 

In the past, some guests have reported banging and scratching on the front door and the windows during the nighttime. If you follow our instructions re: sage burning and correct placement of the bibles, you reduce the chance of this from happening, but if it does occur, we advise against answering the door. The rowan branches decorating the entrance must not be moved under any circumstances.  

 

Thanks for your understanding.

 

Good luck and enjoy your stay!

 

 

 

 

Once We Were A Team by Jane Wood

[Devon, England]

Margot wears her favourite poppy red dress, with lipstick to match, to galvanise herself through the party. All she can think about is tomorrow. Steeling herself, she feels a pang as she walks past the photograph of her boys before slamming the door of their large London townhouse and rushing down the steps into her husband Tom’s sports car.

 

‘You’re late.’ Margot says, folding herself into the small seat.

 

‘Yeah, sorry I went to the pub after work.’

 

‘Have you been drinking?’

 

‘I only had one.’ The lie drips from his lips like the others before it.

 

Outside, Margot shivers as fiery leaves tumble down the dark street. Walking past the glossy black railings, she takes a deep breath and plasters on a smile. Lights spill out on to the steps. Aretha’s smoky singing invites her in at the same time as Celia, the hostess welcomes them at the door.

 

‘You look fabulous. Glass of Champagne?’

 

‘Thank you.’

 

She enters the long room, takes a glass of fizz and knocks it back before finding herself surrounded and whirled into dancing with two of her friends. Margot heads to the kitchen for some water. At the door, she sees Tom resting his arm on the small of Celia’s back. Laughing together they seem oblivious to anyone else.

 

Upstairs, the bathroom offers relief, a moment of peace away from the throng of the party. While the bass pounds in her ears Margot stares at her reflection in the mirror, tries to ignore the lines that congregate around her hazel eyes and thinks about Tom.

 

Why does he do this?

 

‘Tomorrow.’ she tells her reflection. The mirror seems to stare accusingly at her as memories flood her mind. She sees herself, long ago, as a young bride and Tom’s proud face when she gave birth to their sons. She sees them on holiday, with Tom holding her hand and looking into her eyes. Once we were a team...

 

She thinks of Italy. It beckons her back. The wonderful forget-me-not sky, sipping icy margaritas, swimming in the azure sea and Lucy’s soft skin.

 

Downstairs, sinking into a leather armchair, she enjoys its coolness on her hot skin. Music surrounds her; the scent of vanilla candles dotted around lace the air, giving the room a soft light. Leaning back, Margot closes her eyes and thinks about her hidden suitcase.

When she opens them, the flickering flames of the candles reflecting in the faces of the people dancing, make them look deformed, as if melting. Her stomach contracts. She staggers across the floor to the open front door and vomits over the steps and shoes of those outside smoking, including Tom and Celia, who glare at her.

 

‘For God’s sake.’ Tom moves towards her. Backing away from him, she trips, toppling down the cold steps, trying to grab at the railings to no avail.

 

‘Lucy,’ whispers Margot.

 

 

 

 

The Journey by Kim Storey

[Pickering, North Yorkshire, England]

I’ve never liked railway stations. That’s not exactly true. I like the idea of travelling from one place to another, watching the world flash by, its occupants and details unsuspecting. It's the people I don’t like. The crowds, their hustle, their bustle.

    

     No one talks to each other anymore. They prefer their heads bent over screens whilst the actual world passes by, unnoticed. It's a shame. They exist, oblivious to those around them, or perhaps they’ve evolved to become disconnected and blatantly bad mannered.

   

     Like that group further down the platform, laughing and jeering. They don’t have to be drunk, but they are. They’re catching my train. I hope they’re not in the same carriage.

 

     The Tannoy announcement is hard to hear. I have to look at the board to see ‘delayed’ pop up, to understand what’s happening. My journey will now take longer than planned; typical. Though where I’m going to, and why, is nobody’s business but mine. Maybe it’s a good job society has an addiction to social media. I haven’t a willingness to talk. I want to be alone with my ponderings.

   

     That inebriated group is getting rowdier. God knows how much they’ll have consumed by the time the train arrives. The platform is over filling, the few benches crammed with bodies. Most seats were taken away, supposedly to increase standing room. Whose stupid idea was that? It’s only made things worse. And there’s no bins anymore, although they were removed to stop terrorists planting bombs in them. At least that had a valid reason. Everything can’t be blamed on cuts, more cuts and austerity. Or perhaps it can? The attention to the wrong things has destroyed society’s focus on the people and things that should matter.

    

     That brutal breeze is making my feet colder by the minute. But then York Station is just like a wind tunnel with all these tracks. Overall, I suppose it’s a small price to pay for the ability to travel from top to bottom and side to side of Great Britain. My final destination is London; to the bridge where parliament overlooks that watery expanse called The Thames. To that iconic scene captured by so many films, postcards, and tourists. The place where someone falling into the river can, somehow, go unnoticed.

   

     I hate to think of her in that cold, dark, murky water. Her reaching out for help. Alone. Helpless. Drowning. Whilst above, a flood of people walked on, distracted by views of those historic buildings, or the London Eye, or worse still, their mobile phones. Too preoccupied to hear her cries.

   

     There are questions to answer; so many things I long to know, need to know. Will I ever know? What I understand is my need to be there. Where I can think of her. Let her know she is remembered. That I love her. Loved her. That I will hold that love close when I join her later today.

   

     Why is this train delayed?

 

 

 

 

The Tattoo Challenge by Ray Kohn

[Sheffield, England]

Planning the biggest tattoo convention since the Second World War was difficult. Leading American tattooists wanted it in New York, but we had strong representation from European artists who pressed for Paris, Berlin, or Amsterdam. London was the compromise.

Central to the convention was our wish to demonstrate the vast history of tattoo practice throughout the world to visitors who may have known nothing about the art. We were proud to have Samoan artists who used wide combs and an assortment of traditional tools made from animal bones. A popular entertainer was the tattooist from Ghana whose depiction of wild animals was greatly admired. The precision of the leading artists from the east coast of the USA and the imagination of the conceptual designs by Italian and French artists attracted the attention of leading art critics who would normally have been seen patrolling national art galleries.

 

The controversy caused by the challenge thrown down by the Americans was totally unforeseen. Viewing the complexity of the designs from Africa, the Pacific islands, and Europe, they questioned whether these artists could produce the volume required by a growing market. “Precision and simplicity should be our watchwords!” one declared.

 

We decided that, rather than avoid a dispute and any bad feeling, we should issue a challenge. We asked representatives of every tradition who could demonstrate the greatest number of public recipients of their work. We would award a $5000 prize to the winner.

 

The next day, an old man, Chaim, walked into the convention and pointed out that whilst tattoos were acceptable in many cultures as well as in the aristocracy and working classes of England where the convention happened to be located, there were some cultures where this was regarded as reprehensible. “If you are a practising Jew, you would know that tattoos are explicitly prohibited in Leviticus.”

 

This was all news to us, but we could not see what relevance this had to our challenge. It was then that Chaim declared that, despite the prohibition from his religion, he had decided that it was time for him to come forward and claim the prize. He addressed the slowly growing gathering who had come to see the competition that tattoos had been used in ancient China, Persia, Greece, and Rome to mark slaves, prisoners, and criminals. He said he believed that he had been an unwilling practitioner in this tradition.

 

The Boston artist who was convinced that his record of 6,000 clients could never be exceeded blanched when he realised Chaim’s identity.

 

“When the former tattooist died in 1940, I was only nineteen but took over his job and, with one other survivor, tattooed over 600,000 Auschwitz inmates.”

 

It felt morally wrong to hand over $5,000 to the man who had been part of the Nazi killing machine. But Chaim had also been a child prisoner so, maybe, he deserved recognition for his survival record.

 

 

 

 

Uneasy Lies The Crown by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

It's not easy being a king.

 

At least not in this pack.

 

No wonder my face looks tired and worn.

 

It's all the constant worrying and looking around for the problems and challenges that face me.

 

I am surrounded by threats and plots.

 

I know the other kings wish to take away my lands and followers. And maybe my queen.

 

And my queen? I am unsure of her loyalty. We were not married for love. There are rumours her heart belongs to another. And she puts the interests of her son, the prince, first.

 

And what of the dear, sweet young prince? He daily grows stronger and more impatient with following my orders. He would like to replace me on the throne and give the orders. He is impatient to change the way things are done. The younger ones look to him for the future.

 

There is the Ace. He thinks highly of himself. Sometimes I think he puts himself above the king. Maybe it is he whom the Queen secretly loves.

 

Maybe the Ace and Prince plot together to supplant me?

 

Then there are the lower numbers, the ranks. Who spend their time at the bottom of the pile.

 

I know they grumble, groan and moan with their lot. They dream of raising to a higher number.

 

Maybe their loyalty is suspect. Maybe they will join my rivals when the time comes.

 

Then there are the jokers, the jesters.

 

They are not attached to any royal house but come along and bring with them chaos and upheaval wherever they go. They bring instability and uncomfortable questions.

 

We laugh at their jokes and antics. But they can be cruel and too close to the truth.

What is really going on behind their false smiles of mirth?

 

Could they be hiding deeper and darker thoughts of treachery and anarchy against the old order?

 

No, it's not easy being a king in this pack.

 

But the worst of it is that any second now,

someone is going to yell,

 

“SNAP!”

 

 

 

 

Grandpa’s Blessings by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

 

Victoria and Jesus approached Grandpa Will who was sitting on his veranda polishing a bronze statuette.

 

     ‘Be prepared. He doesn’t approve of much about you. Your name he finds blasphemous, your politics he doesn’t support, and your lack of religion offends him.

 

     ‘We are meant to be.’

 

     ‘How is my favourite granddaughter?’ said Grandpa.

 

     ‘Couldn’t be better,’ said Victoria. ‘This is Jesus Hernandez.’

 

     ‘Glad to meet you, young man.’

 

     ‘Same here, sir.’

 

     ‘I hear you are from Cuba, studying English here in Jamaica, and you would like to marry my granddaughter?’

 

     'Yes Sir.’

 

     ‘What did she say?’

 

     ‘She said yes.’

 

     ‘From what she tells me, you are totally unsuited.’

 

     ‘Why is that sir?’

 

     ‘She’s not a revolutionary as far as I know, and neither am I.’

 

     ‘Sometimes revolution is necessary to bring about real change, Sir.’

 

    ‘I believe in the Rule of Law.’

 

     ‘I respect your beliefs Sir, but it’s better to start over on a clean slate. Victoria supports me in that.’

 

     ’A clean slate rarely means a fair trail for the outgoing regime.’

 

     ‘They will get a fair trial, Grandpa. Jesus and I have talked a lot about that.’

      ‘Another thing, to win, you’ve got to have God on your side, and your revolution does not believe in the Almighty.’

 

     ‘That’s not entirely true sir, we also believe God is on our side’.

 

     ‘I have my own issues with America. I resent the high-handed way it treats us, its smaller neighbours, and I am pleased to see someone take on the might of the United States.’

 

      ‘We’re going to win, Sir, and when we do, we will be sure to make America respect all its neighbours, large and small.’

 

     ‘Do you think a communist is going to stand up for me? I’m a capitalist and capitalism is the best guarantee of individual freedom.

     

      The last thing I want is some dictator telling me how to live my life.’

 

      ‘Grandma Freda came out onto the veranda with lemonade. She poured a glass for Jesus.

 

     ‘Has success changed you so much Will? You don’t remember that you too were more than unsuited once’.

 

     ‘I don’t need you to remind me, Freda.’

 

     ‘You were a poor boy sitting on the sea wall, in Porto Antonio, whittling wood and telling everyone that you were going to be famous.’

 

     ‘That doesn’t mean I shouldn’t put this young man through his paces.’

 

     ‘My father put me out of the house for believing in you.’

 

     ‘Don’t exaggerate.’

 

     ‘You had a dream, and you fulfilled that dream. Today, you’re a famous sculptor, everybody knows who you are.’

 

     Grandpa turned to Jesus. ‘Young man, Victoria is like her grandmother. Once her mind is made up, she will do whatever she wants, regardless of what I might say. Do you have another name besides Jesus?’

 

     ‘Enriques Sir.’

 

     ‘Well Enriques, I suppose I better welcome you to the family.’

 

 

 

 

 

Hide And Seek by Lisa Dearlove

[Chester, England]

‘I see you,’ a small voice sang as Charlie peeked behind the curtain I was hiding behind.  

 

     ‘Now it’s your turn to find me.’ Charlie ran out of the room, presumably to hide under his bed, in the exact same place he had hidden the last three rounds.  

 

     ‘One...two...’ I called out, making my way into the kitchen and popping the kettle on. I took an orange ceramic mug out of the cupboard and dropped in a PG Tips tea bag. I swirled in the hot water and milk before eagerly taking a drink. 

 

     ‘Ready or not, here I come,’ I shouted, so Charlie could hear me. I slowly stomped my way, one by one up the stairs, listening to the giggles escaping from Charlie's bedroom. I reached his door and opened it slowly with a small creek. ‘I wonder if he is in here?’ 

 

     An eruption of giggles sounded from beneath the bed, as I made my way around the room pretending to look in the drawers and having a good rummage through Charlies toybox. ‘Nope not in there. I guess there’s only one place he could be.’ 

 

     Charlie's giggles grew louder as I got on my hands and knees and crawled closer to his bed. I yanked the overhanging duvet up,

     

     ‘There you ar…’  

 

     I jumped back, confusion weighing over me like a thick blanket. He must have snuck past me somehow. 

 

     ‘Charlie, where are you?’ I called out only to be greeted with silence. ‘This isn’t funny, now come out.’ 

 

     Panic overwhelmed me as I looked under the bed hoping that I had just missed him. ‘Charlie, please come out baby boy. I promise Mummy isn’t mad.’ 

 

     A thudding sound thundered in my ears, as I came to the realisation that under the bed, Charlie’s old teddy bear which I had not seen since he was two, was hidden amongst a thick layer of untouched dust.  

 

 

 

 

 

Crystal Blue by James Staynings

[Chippenham, Wiltshire, England]

He had been staring at her for half an hour. He knew this because fluttering, cupid-like above her head, was a wall clock. The big hand could have been the needle on a pressure gage; his levels of cortisol in his brain shrinking. Depleting the sugar in his veins. The only sugar he could consume anyway was either produced by his body or the treats hidden at work where he had some solitary peace.

 

We’re doing this together so we can live a long and happy life together!  

 

He shoved that intrusion thought away with his eyelashes. Fixated, his glance focused on the subtle red tint of her lips. It wasn’t lipstick; it was natural rouge. Her upper lip a love bow; her bottom lip creaseless and plump. A perfect pedestal to rest your ear against.

 

She wore sunglasses despite the clouds outside; the big movie-star kind that covered other parts of her face. He could imagine the radiance of her eyebrows and cheekbones. They had not made eye contact so he imagined her eyes were crystal blue pools that he could dive into. If only he could joyfully drown in the retreat of her pupil! He knew he sink with a smile on his face.

 

The waitress interfered, blocked his view of Crystal Blue’s lips. Placed a sandwich of some kind in front of her and a glass of orange juice in a smudged tumbler. Queens, by right, deserved to drink out of a champagne flute, not a grubby common glass probably bought at Wilko.  

 

He sipped his tea, which when they had sat down had kept his hands warm and the sight of Crystal made the burning of his palms pleasant. Tepid Earl Grey jumpstarted his consciousness.

 

“Are you okay?”

 

“Huh?”

 

“You jumped.”

 

“Tea’s gone cold.” He went to wipe the dribble from his beard, but Selina got there first. Her fingertips, slathered in moisturiser, caused his retreat. 

 

Selina’s balloon-like head swooned, blocked Crystal Blue. Finally, her mouth was shut, but the beartrap was open, hidden undercover.

 

What had she asked? He blinked twice.

 

“Are you feeling okay, Boo?” That name daggered his eardrum.

 

He took control. Visualising, he took the unused knife and fork and popped her rubber skin. Deflating her quietly like a silent unscented fart, he could see Crystal Blue again.

 

“Yeah, fine.”

 

Leaning to see past her fat head, he found an empty table. Crystal Blue had gone. It was just them left in the cafe. The beartrap ground into his calf and shin bone with an unsettling familiarity. It didn’t hurt anymore. Yet mentally the image of the beartrap, Selina began to change.

 

“A June wedding it is!” She flared excitedly. Gusting out of her chair, she hugged him. Her multiple arms constricting.

 

Out of body, he saw Selina, the giant squid, contracting around him, a tiny bath-time boat in lost at sea.

 

 

 

 

 

Hidden Things by Eveline Pye

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

When everyone else is out she creeps up to the old airing cupboard, reaches behind the hot water tank to post something into the gap between the scalding-hot copper pipes. It is important she doesn’t see it again, doesn’t get jarred by the memory when she wants sheets for the spare bed.

 

But this time it doesn’t work. The pile has reached the top of the massive tank. She can still see it peeking out, a gift wrapped in scented paper, printed with pink roses, tied with a green satin bow. Why did she buy it in the first place?  She should have known it would end up here with all the rest.

 

The last thing she hid was a card. Mostly cards were OK, but she wrote a verse in this one. It seemed a good idea the night before the retirement party but somehow when the perfect moment arrived, she froze and didn’t take it out of her bag. There were too many people milling around. She only saw him once after that, in the queue at the bakery. He said she should have come to say goodbye.

 

What else was back there? A load of rubbish: left-handed scissors for her neighbour’s little boy, bootees she knitted for Anne’s new baby, navy-blue nail varnish for Marie, a second-hand book for Simon. It was out of print, and she’d visited a dozen bookshops before she found it. A complete waste of time.

 

And at the very bottom of the pile, a letter. She sent him all the angry ones. This was the one she would never send.

 

 

 

 

Yosef Levy’s Bar Mitzvah Luncheon – 1974 by Phyllis Rittner

[Watertown, MA, USA]

                                                                                                      

In the photo we’re posing at a table in a lavish seaside restaurant. Pink linen tablecloth, ginger ale in crystal goblets, bowls of real lobster bisque. A skyscraper peaks out from behind the velvet fringed curtains, an insurance company where ten years later I’ll work as a receptionist.

 

I wear a white lace dress with a blue satin sash. Mom finally agrees to buy the pattern at Woolworths instead of making me wear my brown paisley jumper. I wake that morning to the whir of her sewing machine, watch as she bites off the final thread. As I twirl in the kitchen, dad grins, pours vodka into his orange juice, a slight tremor in his hands.

 

Pink carnations are pinned to our dresses, garnished with red ribbon. The boys stand stiffly beside us in mismatched ties and red carnations tucked into their lapels. Yosef is beaming in relief having aced his Torah portion. The rabbi says that even though he’s only thirteen, he has now become a man, or at least is responsible for his own actions. David, Yosef’s little brother, is the opposite of Yosef. He smirks at his party favor, a cat figurine encased in a plastic dome. These are lame, he says aloud.

 

Joannie Goldblum sits in the center of the table like Queen Esther. In fifth grade Joannie taught me how to blow bubble gum. I can still remember flattening the gum against the roof of my mouth with my tongue, deftly pushing it through my open lips, blowing that slow stream of air to form the perfect pink globe. Now snap it apart with your teeth, she’d say. I loved to snap gum, especially when entering a tough girls’ bathroom.

 

Beneath my partial smile and over-exposed red eye, my mind is galaxies away. I’m dreading my upcoming bat mitzvah, which I will share with Stacey Katz, whose friends make fun of my pageboy haircut and flood pants. I’m terrified not just of singing the prayers but that I won’t have enough guests to fill my half of the synagogue. I’m also wondering why Molly Abrams, who rode bikes with me every Saturday for a year, won’t even glance my way. I thought maybe she heard my parents quarreling in the street or her mother thought our crappy lawn was lowering the property values. Months later I learn Molly’s older brother Billy got expelled for selling weed, OD’d on heroin, sent away to some secret rehab upstate.

 

But the luckiest part of the afternoon was when I accidentally banged my elbow on a chair and Yosef Levy, all chocolate eyes and black hair, asked me if I was okay. Yosef Levy, who twenty years later would become an orthopedic surgeon. I remember my spine tingling as he traced his fingers down my arm checking for the bruise. Here! he said, sticking my elbow in his goblet of ice-cold Coca Cola. All better!

 

 

 

 

The Misunderstanding by Sam Christie

[England]

 

Dear Miss Harris,

 

     I am, of course, writing to apologise for what can at best be described as an error of judgement, but at worst a catastrophic and shameful incident.

 

     You see, I am indeed a heating engineer and plumber, however, I am also the man that fixes the boiler. I lead a complex life negotiating euphemisms and nuanced turns of phrase that on occasion can rather tie me in knots. Largely I navigate this well, but on this occasion my compass was awry (which I suppose could equally be read euphemistically).

 

I beg you to give thought to my quandary and the reason this terrible event transpired. Your voice, you see, with its forty a day husk, coupled with that half-amused delivery, meant that I misunderstood the context behind your saying, “Make your way to the rear entrance and put some heat back into my life”. 

 

     You may be able to see that the way you put this instruction was somewhat unconventional and could hardly be considered particularly technical or even professional; so, as a result I became confused. What, I thought feverishly, is my purpose here?

 

     And I do understand how distressing it must have been to be confronted by a man in your kitchen wearing PVC overalls, especially given their see through design; but the trouble is that many of my customers like this outfit and have come to expect it.

 

     Anyway, now we have got the apology out of the way, I wondered if it would be at all possible to call round to pick up my tool bag that I dropped shortly before jumping out of the back window to avoid your rather excitable dog? I will be wearing standard plumbing attire this time around.

 

     Yours sincerely,

 

     John

 

 

 

 

Grandma's Old Biscuit Tin by Juliet Wilson

[Scotland]

 

Simon hated staying at Grandma's. It was always so boring.

 

Mum and Dad smiled as they left him. Dad ruffled Simon's hair.

 

"We'll see you tomorrow!" Mum said. "You be good now."

 

Simon watched them go to the car. They were off to some boring party, which was 'grown-ups' only. Grandma called him to the dining table. Dinner was always the same here; tinned ham with lettuce and tomato, then jelly and custard. The jelly never set properly and the custard was always lumpy. It was worse than school dinners, Simon thought.

 

After supper Grandma gave Simon a magazine. It was one he had never seen before. A magazine with photos of grinning grown-ups and headlines like, ‘I lost 8 stone in 2 weeks!’

 

"This is a stupid magazine!" Simon said.

 

"Nonsense!" Grandma said. "It's something to read, isn't it?"

 

Last time he had stayed at Grandma's, Simon had asked to put the TV on. But it had been some boring grown-up programme and he had fallen asleep. So, this time he didn't ask about the TV. Suddenly he noticed a big old biscuit tin on a shelf. His friend Andy's parents had a tin like that, full of Lego.

 

"Grandma!" he said. "What's in that tin?"

 

Grandma got up slowly. She walked over to the shelf and brought down the tin.

 

"Your cousin Vanessa likes playing with these," she said, handing the tin to Simon.

 

Vanessa was such a baby! Simon thought. He couldn't imagine her playing with Lego. He opened the tin slowly. It was full of buttons.

 

"What am I supposed to do with these?" Simon asked.

 

"Vanessa likes to thread them together to make jewellery!"

 

Vanessa would! Simon thought.

 

He pushed the buttons around in the box. The colours all mixed together and separated again. Some were pale, like faces; others were dark, like clothes. Simon started to arrange the buttons by colour. Then he threaded them to make puppets. He could make the puppets move by pulling the strings. Then he put the lid back on the tin and shook it. The rest of the buttons inside made a noise like maracas. His puppets would have music to dance to! He refused to go to bed until Grandma had agreed to shake the tin of buttons while he made the puppets dance.

 

After the button puppets had danced for a while, Grandma stood up and laughed.

 

"Time for bed, Simon!" she said, taking him up the stairs.

 

Simon cleaned his teeth and put on his winter pyjamas. He crept under the pile of blankets on the narrow bed in Grandma's freezing cold spare room. Grandma kissed him goodnight.

 

"I love you Grandma!" he said.

 

"I love you too, Simon!" 

 

Simon smiled into the darkness. He knew that tonight there would be no monsters hiding in the dusty shadows behind the wardrobe.

 

 

 

 

 

Pie-House Dweller Flees The Scene by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

Natives in the secluded village of Dreary Muttering, Hampshire, were amazed by the discovery of an elaborate two-storey dwelling made entirely from meat pies nestling in a stretch of dense local woodland. The pies were in an advanced state of decay, but were prevented from total disintegration by the transformation of the animal fat into a waxy substance known as adipocere, which resists deterioration. A sodden mat of fallen leaves, merging with the dissolving pie crusts, acted as a temporary sealant, with ivy growing over to create near-hermetic conditions.

         

     Housing officer Subdivision ‘Subdy’ Hampton takes up the tale. “It’s not just another country yarn, like the infamous Mini Decorator Invasion Scare, when miniature painters and decorators were said to hide out in gardens when folk went out at night, then brush past their legs in the dark when they came back in. Residents claimed that when they woke next day, their whole house had gone beige or pink or whatever. But that was just drink, I reckon, and the occasional cat.

         

     “No. This was real. My two sons Deeds and Full-Furnished were out in the woods the other day, chasing under-occupancy benefit shortfalls, when they came upon the... building, as it now turns out. They’d never have found it, but for the smell. The ‘odour of sanctity’, the villagers call it, but it’s just the proteins converting to sugar in the pies. When they looked inside, it was all done up in pastel colours (I don’t know how that happened) and furnished with old crates and tree stumps.”

         

     “’Twere them fairy decorators, Father.”

         

     “Shut it, Deeds!”

         

     Daughter Tenancy observes: “It’s a real shame. We think both the pies and the dweller were survivors of a big pie truck crash back in the noughties. The lorry turned up in a Gosport scrapyard, but neither the driver nor the load were seen again.”

         

     “I felt something brush past my legs as we went in,” puts in Subdy’s second son, Full-Furnished. “That might have been him running off, or it might have been...”

         

     “Them.”

         

     “I said shut it, Deeds!”

         

     As planning permission was never granted, the mysterious pie-house dweller is now being sought by the local council.

 

 

 

 

The Relief by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

Yesterday I drew the shortest straw of my life.

 

Now I’m in a truck bound for a bunker in zone F.

 

That's where the worst of the fighting is. We’ll be inside a defence structure called the ‘hedgehog’ for a month.

30 days to stay alive until we’re relieved.

 

There are six of us who yesterday all drew short straws.

There is just one question on all our minds.

 

Who's it going to be?

 

Statistics show that nearly always one gets killed.

Sometimes two. But certainly one.

My money is on the nervous kid opposite me. Or perhaps that old grizzled guy sitting next to him.

 

The truck driver is a cheery old soul. As you would be, if you knew you weren’t the one going into a hedgehog bunker for a month.

 

It doesn’t sound much but believe me it's the biggest and toughest gig in the war.

You see we’re fighting a hidden enemy. You catch glimpses. Wave after wave of these beings you can hardly see. They keep on coming.

 

The ‘hedgehog’ gets its name because it’s bristling with weapons. We just have to keep firing. And keep firing. Don’t go to sleep or doze off.

We’ve all had the shots to help keep us awake.

 

They say that if you make it that far, the final week is the worst. The anti-sleep shots start to wear off then and the effects aren’t pretty.

And then you're fighting two enemies: the unseen ones and your desire to sleep.

 

Tough. But if you survive it's worth it. They give you promotion, a medal, more pay, rations, three months leave to Pleasure City and a transfer to an elite unit that never goes near the front line.

 

All I have to do is stay alive for the next month.

 

As we get closer to the bunker we’re quieter. The kid has the shakes. Like the shakes he had when he was picking that straw. Yes he’s definitely my favourite to die  out there.

Even the truck driver has stopped whistling and singing.  He’s got his eyes peeled for any dangers ahead. They don’t normally get past the bunkers but sometimes the odd one does.

 

We make it to the bunker, the ‘hedgehog’. It’ll be our home for the next month. The old unit comes out. We count. There are five. One casualty. Their faces looked tired. As you would with no sleep for a month.

They drop into the truck.

 

We wave goodbye. Their faces relieved but unsmiling.

We watch as the truck pulls away.

 

“Lucky bleeders,” the kid says.

Then watch, as a missile from our own line strays off course and hits the truck, turning it into a fireball.

“No survivors,” the grizzled guy says.

For a moment or two I think of their weary faces.

Then a shout.

 

“Enemy massing, get to your positions!”

The Visit by Kayleigh Kitt

[West Midlands, England]

Melvin tried not to blink, unless, of course, she’d consider this as staring, and he wasn’t entirely sure if he was in a competition at this juncture. 

 

     He blinked. 

 

     One of her eyes had a defined twitch, to which he had an alarming front-row seat, the closer she honed in on his level. He noticed her lip involuntarily trembling, making the few wiry hairs sprouting from her chin pronounced. As she zoomed in, he could smell her cloying, rosy perfume, overpowered by her heavily laced minty breath and nicotine. 

 

     He licked his lips. She’d made noises since her early afternoon arrival, such as let me see the little one then, inferring he was already in heaps of trouble, especially if he didn’t make an appearance. 

 

     Aunt Agnes.

 

     She was his father’s aunt, Great Aunt, so that must make her his Great Great Great Great Aunty, or something like that. To save confusion, everyone in the household had been instructed to call her Aunt Agnes, the consensus being that even acronyms would be difficult to remember, for example, GGAA, GAA, although his preference had been AA. However, Aunt Agnes had initially growled at him when he suggested it, his voice so tiny, he had to repeat it, and the second time, after explaining it was also a popular vehicle breakdown service, he cheekily asked her if she’d seen the TV advertisements. She’d patted him playfully on the back, practically knocking him from the hallway, into the living room. He’d been pleased with that. People her age often talked about having seen adverts on the television and she looked more approachable when she laughed.

 

     Later he’d edged to the door, finally fleeing upstairs to his bedroom, although after a while the merriment downstairs seemed to become sombre. Part sentences floated upstairs, found someone else and decided to move on. And he was pretty sure there was crying. 

 

     He heard his father in the kitchen, so he crept to the top step, as placating words rippled from the living room from his mother. You just haven’t found the right one. He slithered down a couple more steps; surprised on reaching the bottom.

His father strolled past clutching several mugs of tea, his knuckles white in the hand bearing two cups. “Grab the biccie tin Mel,

     

     Aunt Agnes needs a pick me up.” 

 

     The wafting tea smelt more like his dad’s whisky.

 

     Mute, Melvin pulled a stool over to the counter, first going into a cupboard and then grabbing the barrel from the worktop.

 

     He trotted into the living room, pulling himself up on the sofa next to Aunt Agnes. The seal gave on the tin and to get her attention; he waved the lid in her direction. He pointed at one of his favourite chocolate bars he’d pushed into the top. “That’s for you.”

 

 

 

 

The Next Train by Ieuan D. Walker

[London, England]

‘The next train will arrive in…minutes. We apologise for any inconvenience to your journey.’

 

And with that, I take the stone in my hand, crouch towards the moon-soaked platform at my feet, and draw another notch which, unlike those before it, signifies the number 251,292: the amount of times the station's idle tannoy has repeated its feedback-infused mantra to an audience of solely myself.

 

Up-tilting my eyes to observe the incandescent pointlessness of the never-changing departure board once more, I then stand up. In the same breath, I look back down the platform onto the two hundred-thousandfold series of vandalizing notches that I have left in my stead. And as I do so, a thought occurs to me: I've been waiting here for a bloody long time.

 

‘The next train will arrive in…minutes. We apologise for any inconvenience to your journey.’

 

Another notch and the end of the platform draws nearer. The train will be arriving any moment now. It has to. Otherwise, I'll run out of space for future notches, and then what? Scribble over my existing tally? Start a new one along the walls? Or simply bask reluctantly in the barren embrace of the station's cold silence? I could just leave, of course. After all, there's nothing forcing me to stay. But then if I were to walk away now, then what was the point of the wait in the first place?

 

‘The next train will arrive in…’

 

Besides, my ticket's non-refundable.

 

 

 

Ring-a-Ding-Ding by Jon Groom

[Leicestershire, England]

 

George is better than me. He sits by the window and can see the tree with the squirrel. As he looks out the squirrel looks back or so he tells me, but I can’t see. He tells me about it. He tells me stories.  His eyes are large and dark. “What big brown eyes you have, Georgie-Boy,” the nurses say as they fuss on him. He talks to them like he already knew them and they talk right back.

 

     “Ring-a-ding-ding, nurse Lucy is on duty.” That’s what George says. “You can tell”, George says, “because Old Blue Eyes is singing”. I don’t know who Old Blue Eyes is, but I don’t want to tell him I don’t know. The same song plays on the little portable record player in the nurse’s station every time nurse Lucy comes on shift. 

 

     “Ring-a-ding-ding.” That’s what George says to nurse Lucy when she comes to fuss on him. She laughs every time. She has a husky voice, but when she laughs, she squeaks and laughs more, pretending she’s embarrassed. I don’t think she is; I think she likes laughing. I like nurse Lucy, but she makes me embarrassed.

 

     George is better than me. When nurse Lucy comes in, he talks to her like she’s other people. I don’t. I can’t. Her voice makes me embarrassed. Nurse Lucy is curves and smells warm and like flowers and like soap. She smiles at me but I look down because I’m embarrassed. George doesn’t get embarrassed. He says, “Talk to her like she’s other people”, but I can’t. It’s easy for George, cos George is easy on everybody.

 

     George is better than me; he doesn’t cry at night, and he doesn’t make fun of me for doing it. George says not to be scared, but I am. I am scared. I ask if he’s scared and he says ‘sure’ but I don’t think George is scared. I don’t think George ever gets scared.  George is older than me by three years. I wish I had a brother like George.

 

     George is better than me, and is eating like a horse the nurses say. Nurse Lucy brought the portable record player into the room and danced around the room to celebrate. She moves in curves and I haven’t ever seen anyone who could move that way, like smoke. She is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, and the smell of her filled the room. Her dark hair is pinned beneath her nurses hat, but I want to see it tumble down. She says it’s how everybody’s dancing, but I don’t think anybody else could dance like her.  

 

     George is better than me, but he looks bad. I ask him if he’s okay and he doesn’t seem to hear me. The nurses spend more time with the screen around him and the smell is bad. I’m scared for George. I ask him about the squirrel but he doesn’t seem to hear me. I want to ask him more things but the nurses tell me that he needs rest. George doesn’t need rest, George was eating like a horse, he’ll have energy for everyone, just you see. 

 

 

     “Ring-a-ding-ding, nurse Lucy is on duty”. I have to say it because George doesn’t. Nurse Lucy sits by his bedside and for the rest of the night there is no music. For the first time I meet her eyes and she looks down.

 

     I am better than George. I would give everything not to be.

 

 

 

 

Kiss Me by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

 

‘Why are you crying?’ Kay asked.

 

      ‘Because, Roy Levy kissed me.’

 

      ‘Was it on the lips?’

 

      ‘No. At the side. He missed.’

 

      ‘What did you say to him?’

 

      ‘He ran away.’

 

      ‘Stop bawling. It’s not the end of the world. If he does it again tell me.’

 

      Kay, was my teenage cousin. She could talk, she wasn’t the one who might end up pregnant.

 

      I was very bright at school. I had the highest IQ in the class and I talked funny. Everyone knew me. I was famous.

 

      Roy Levy, was new at Tichfield. Everyone talked about him. He was good at Maths and wore glasses. He was older than me. Almost ten. 

 

      Next day during recess, Roy Levy, handed me a letter. It was a love letter. It said: ‘I love you. I want to kiss you again.’ It was signed ‘guess who!’

     

      I showed the letter to Kay.

     

      ‘What can I do?’ I asked her. ‘I might have a baby if he kisses me.’ Tears sprang to my eyes.

 

      ‘Don’t be stupid,’ Kay said. ‘You’re too young to get pregnant. But don’t let him kiss you yet. Wait until he writes a letter asking you to marry him. Then you can use it as blackmail.’

 

      ‘What’s blackmail?’

 

      Kay, rolled her eyes at me. ‘Blackmail is a useful tool. Don’t look at me with your eyes full of tears. Just believe me.’ She stormed off. Then turned around:

 

      ‘Meet me under the Almond Tree after school. Roy Levy, won’t look for you there.’

 

      As I waited for Kay, under the Almond Tree, Roy Levy rushed up to me, his glasses slipped down his nose as he tried to kiss me. I hit him with my satchel and he fell over. He got back up, pushed his glasses back onto his forehead, and handed me a crumpled piece of paper. It said: ‘Let me kiss you and I will marry you!’

 

      I held out my cheek.

 

      ‘On your mouth,’ Roy Levy said.

 

      I closed my eyes and puckered my lips. Roy Levy, kissed me right on the mouth and ran away.

 

 

 

Audacious Hygiene by Adaora Ogunniyi

[Lagos, Nigeria]

Bubbly babbles are buoyed by the smell of fallen leaves trapped in wet soil. A classroom blocks-ringed playground; large enough to make me feel like a drop of water in a bucket, each time I stood on it. Of all my school days, this day - which I still see behind a frosty glass - is the only one. All the others have melted into nothingness. I was having a class. Integrated-science: science: health-science? I have no image of the teacher, only that she was female. Soon, ‘Personal Hygiene’ sprawled across the board. What is personal hygiene: How to promote personal hygiene: Opposite of personal hygiene; the blackboard bustled with chalk marks. 

An uneasiness snaked around me and, at first, I didn’t know why. Then I knew. The teacher had called my name. She had just hurled diseases associated with improper personal hygiene and wanted me to repeat three of them. I hadn’t been listening, so my mouth refused to move. I cannot remember all her rant, but ‘dull’, ‘silly’ and ‘look at me when I’m talking’ still reach from behind that frosty glass to jolt me.

‘Come out. Stand before the class.’ 

My heart took a freefall, snatching my stomach on its way to my feet. The air became thinner. Breathing was becoming a little harder. And the classroom had turned curiously darker. I am still baffled at how I reached the front of the class. I must have floated because my feet were steel-heavy. The teacher asked my classmates to say, ‘Shame’. She counted, ‘One, two, ready, go’ and ‘Shame!’ whispered across the classroom. As I felt her eyes scrape me from head to shoes, tears started to sting my eyes.

She pushed up my head. ‘Class, take a look,’ she said, tilting it to the left. She told my classmates that the skin discolouration, the slight skin discolouration, on my neck was an excellent example of diseases associated with improper hygiene. 

 Eczema. 

Only it wasn’t eczema. It was a birthmark, Mummy told me. The rest of the day lumbered along.

         I have good hygiene.

         I have good hygiene. 

         I have good hygiene. 

         At home, as I told Mummy, I cried hard enough for my heart to nearly burst out of my chest. Tears bathed my quivering lips, and the saltiness stole to my tongue in the soothing way familiar to children alone.

Mummy held me close. ‘I’ll deal with that teacher. Okay?’                                         Night came, and I slept with a smile, a knowing. My teacher will be sorry. Next day, Mummy drove to school, circled round the playground with her car.

Twice.

Parked in its middle, she palm-downed on the horn.

         Two full minutes.

The headmistress and six teachers approached her and within seconds, the erring teacher was dismissed.

But ‘Next day’ didn’t happen. At least not like that. 

It's the closure I craved. The tuning I gave this memory. For myself. For the score of ears ever to have heard it. Mummy. Sweet, soft-spoken Mummy. She hugged me, told me to never let people’s words define me.

‘It’s a birthmark. God’s special stamp on you. You have good hygiene. And even when you become a beautiful woman, your birthmark will remain,’ she had said.

My birthmark remains. And today, I carry it proudly, confidently, audaciously.   

 

 

 

The Snake by Tanya Shomova

[Svilengrad, Bulgaria]
 

‘The snake is one of the oldest and most widespread symbols. Its symbolism is both positive and negative. It is also used as a symbol of deception and as a symbol of healing. Snakes, because of their ability to shed their skins, are also associated with new beginnings and rebirth.’


I don't remember how long I've been traveling anymore. I was crawling on steep rocks so hot my skin was sizzling like a piece of bacon thrown into a pan of oil. 


I crawled through deserts whose sand scratched me and made me dream of the coolness of cold water.

 

I was crawling on ice so thin and slippery that even I, the Snake, was afraid.


I also crawled among beautiful places.


Meadows, as if from fairy tales. Forests full of birdsong and life. The sun's rays caressed me as I basked on smooth river stones.

 

In the evening, I have found infinitely comfortable and cozy holes from which I could look at the moon undisturbed. 


But there was always something in me that kept me going. I always felt the need to crawl. To keep crawling.


I have met all kinds of creatures.


Most of them were afraid of me.


Once, while I was hiding under a rock, I heard people talking about me. I heard that I am the reason they are on earth and not in heaven.


Really...of all the creatures I've met, humans are the strangest. Most cannot take responsibility even for their existence. They are always looking for something to blame outside of themselves; both for their happiness and their unhappiness.


The serpent cast them out of paradise... The serpent is to blame. They are afraid of the snake. And I'm afraid of them because I don't understand them.


Too much emotion, too little sense. As soon as they moved away, I continued on my way.


You know, whoever you are who reads the mind of a snake... I'm proud of myself! I am not like lions, tigers and foxes. I am not like wild animals. I'm not like people.


Thank God I'm not like people!


But there is something in me that no one else on this earth has.


My ability to reincarnate. Maybe only the phoenix would understand me. Maybe he's calling me and his voice keeps me crawling.


Through the difficult, through the scary, through the dark and the beautiful. Nothing can stop me. Nothing can hold me back for long.


Because I keep looking for my phoenix. Because I know it exists. Because anything less would be too little.


And you? Did you find the phoenix?


Have you changed your skin more times than you can count?


If you are not, then you are one of the people. And if you're human, your phoenix is ​​long gone.


And he had taken your soul with him.

 

 

 

‘Rumours’ by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

Are you going to “Rumours” tonight?

Surely you must give it a go.

The whole city is absolutely chattering with excitement about this place. It's the place to go and be seen.

But even more exciting are the tales that you will hear.

There’s plenty of music, but hardly anyone dances.

There are plenty of drinks sold but no one lets their lips get wet.

For no one wants to miss a second more of the juicy tit bits that are spread round this place. Salacious gossip, scandalous tales, rumours abound of the carryings on of the rich and famous. Intimate tales implied and insinuated. Nefarious and naughty stories that so and so heard from a good friend who shall remain nameless.

The whole place jangles with babble and blabber and plenty of chitty-chatter. There is much small talk around these tables.

Everyone's eyes wander upon new entrants wandering into this club. For there are many who come with a reputation and a past which quickly the tables will pass round. So by the time such a person has reached the bar their sordid secrets are known to all.

Whisperings in the secluded alcoves. Some true, some half true, some downright lies. People passing on what they’ve just heard. Beans are spilt all the time.

Careers Are made and broken here.  Under the tables spies pass round notes containing confidential information. Clandestine meetings take place. Arrangements to meet with a wink and a smile. People given jobs with a nod.

Information is bought and sold. Informers and informants circulate furtively.  Reporters hang on every word awaiting to catch the latest news. The walls really do have ears round here.

But no one who is anyone would think of avoiding coming here. They would be afraid that to not be present would excite even more gossip and rumours about themselves. And many would rather know what is being spoken of about them.

Besides, how else would they find out about the filthy, secret lives led by their friends, neighbours and family?

 

 

 

Old Ladies Prove Existence Vain, Claims Rev by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

The plight of an elderly lady was today blamed for a clergyman’s devastating loss of faith. The story was all-too commonplace to start with.

          “We’d heard it all before at the station,” said Desk Sergeant Lubcumpy of the city police. “Mrs Dorothea Uld, the old lady in question, was shopping in her local supermarket when she noticed her purse was missing. She grew somewhat flustered and couldn’t remember if she’d left it somewhere, or if a young man selling ‘street papers’ had picked her pocket while she reprimanded his allegedly foreign shoes. She knew she’d had the purse when she left home, and that was all.”

          “But Providence had already smiled on her.” The Reverend Helbert Ramtree takes up the tale. “By the time Mrs Uld reported it to the police, her purse, which she must have dropped, had been handed in by a good Samaritan. I was present at the station myself, ministering to a fallen woman, when she came. The joy on the old lady’s face was a wonder to behold.”

          But Providence giveth, and Providence taketh away, it would seem. Such was the joy of Mrs Dorothea Uld on leaving with her purse, that she failed to see an approaching taxi when she stepped out in the road, and was killed upon impact.

          “Old ladies are a danger to taxis,” claimed the driver. “I was on my way to pick up a fallen woman bailed out of custody by a vicar. Naturally, I had a lot on my mind. But that didn’t give the old baggage the right to fling herself at my vehicle.”

          “If you ask me,” Sergeant Lubcumpy opined, “the old lady was killed by kindness. The selfless act of a total stranger was more than her sense of self-preservation could bear.”

          “I was utterly devastated,” said Reverend Ramtree. “Providence seemed to be making it up as He went along. One minute I’m secure in a perfect universe with a perfect plan, the next it’s a D-I-Y construction that’s collapsed. What is the point of the Mrs Ulds of this world? It makes no sense to me. At the end of the day,” the Rev concluded sadly, “old ladies only exist to prove existence is futile.”

          It is believed the fallen woman absconded while the taxi was held up.

 

 

 

 

The Brothers Stupendos by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

At the world renowned Reneni circus there were many acts to amaze and delight the audiences. But most didn’t come for the trapeze artists or the clowns. They came to watch the talents of the Stupendos brothers.

 

They weren’t really brothers, but from a distance and under the glare of the lights you really couldn’t tell.

 

One was called Bingo and was a massive walrus who just wandered and waddled around, making honking noises and flapping his arms.

 

And then there was the other one. His name was Sammy and he was a flea.

Sammy the flea could jump very high, juggle, lift weight, do impressions, throw knives, ride a horse whilst doing somersaults, tumble, tell jokes, get fired out of a cannon, sing songs, play the guitar, dance the flamenco, tame lions , spin plates and do card tricks.

 

They each received 50-50.

 

But it bothered Bingo that Sammy was a big-headed flea who was always showing off and boasting to all how talented he was. Now Sammy was saying he should be paid more as he did the most entertaining and “getting fired out of a cannon every night is no fun. You just waddle round going honk-honk!”

 

Bingo had had enough of Sammy’s attitude and decided to do something about it. He waited until the big drum roll for Sammy Stupendos stupendous weight lifting. The weights were 100 times Sammy’s body weight.

 

The crowd all roared when Sammy lifted up the weight and locked his arms, his little flea legs shaking. Sammy looked over to Bingo and mouthed something like, “your useless as a third bicycle wheel,” over to him.

 

Then Bingo just waddled over to the flea, going “honk, honk” and then rolled over Sammy.

Three times just to be sure.

 

The flea was crushed on the spot and the partnership ended.

 

Afterwards Bingo was sad. He missed that big-headed and loud-mouthed flea greatly.

 

But not for long, for the ringmaster soon had Bingo fixed up with a slender long legged stick insect called Glenda.

 

Glenda the slender stick insect performed with Bingo on the same terms as before.

And she could do the same things as Sammy and a whole lot more.

 

 

 

 

The Day After by Itseme Akede

[London, United Kingdom]

 

I have never been in a situation like this and in all my years of reading, I have never come across a resource that adequately explained how to handle this. I was one prone to always planning to the T, not leaving anything to chance and always knowing what to do. Everyone who knew me knew that there was not a day that did not have a to-do list attached. It was why I’d been promoted twice in the span of 2 years. I had always prided myself in being able to predict things – in being able to plan and prepare for the worst. Sometimes we just needed to live, Salma would say. But life was unpredictable enough, and with the few parts we were able to control, it would be wise to take advantage of those, I’d reply. But there are certain things that one has no time, or even the bandwidth to prepare for. One of them was death. Salma had told me that there was no need to always want to be on top of things. If only she’s known.

 

One minute, we are going on a drive – one of our Sunday rituals (that I insisted upon) where we drove with no destination in mind, sunroof open - and the next  minute, we are in an accident that has her wrangled in the wreckage, and I am then being told that she is dead. Even as the doctor speaks, I am unable to comprehend what he is saying, as it was not in my plans, it was never an option.  In all the possibilities that my overthinking had conjured up, this was not one of them. I had planned that our love would be sweet and long-lived. We would spend our days living and loving and making memories, but life had other plans – its own superseding mine. I had not cried in years but in that moment where I watched her be wheeled away, it is all I could do. Her once smiling face now covered in cuts and bruises is the last thing I remember before I am consumed by a drug-induced sleep.

 

I wake the next day, and at first, it feels like any other day but shortly after, as I turn to face the other side of the bed, all at once the memories of the previous day come rushing in, and I am reminded that Salma is no longer here. It does not feel that way, because the room still has her essence – her robe is still hanging behind the door where she left it yesterday. Her scent still lingers – her dressing table still carries her perfume bottles and lotions. Her slippers still lay at the foot of the bed, and for a second, I think that if I stick my toes in, they might still be warm. For a split second, I wonder when all her things will be taken away, and then I am reminded that it is my duty to clear them up – to pack up every proof of her existence and box them, storing them away as though she was never here.

 

In this moment, I have no plan of action. I have no directive on where to even begin, whether from the closet where her clothes take up more than half the room, or the bookshelf where I only own a few notebooks hidden in between her plethora of novels. Would it be her office where her laptop is permanently on sleep mode and whose wallpaper serves as another reminder of what I’ve lost?  Or is it the living room where her pictures lay in frames of different shapes and sizes. Do I begin ripping them in half because she and I are both featured in them?

It is the day after, and I don’t know what to do.

 

 

 

 

Hell’s Full Up by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

It finally had to happen. It was just a matter of time.

 

Finally, the world was so messed up and badly behaved, breaking every rule, smashing every code. People were thoughtless and vain and so unkind to everyone else.

Everyone was out there committing sin upon sin and looking for ways to outdo one another in the wretchedness each was in.

 

Until one day the devil could take no more.

He couldn’t take any more sinning souls.

 

Hell was full up. Full to the brimstone.

He even nailed it to the gates.

“Hell’s full up - go elsewhere!”

 

But where?

Clearly not to heaven, they were too bad for such a sweet place. But there were lots of spaces in heaven as no one had been good enough since 1877.

They couldn’t go back to Earth. That would give the remaining humans a shock.

 

The devil petitioned God to build another Hell.

And call it unimaginatively ‘Hell 2’.

 

The devil wanted to call it ‘The Blazing Inferno Club” but God said, “No”, that would make it sound exciting and encourage people to sin.

So, Hell 2 it was.

 

It took a while to build it.

The planning board ummed and arred.

 

If you think the neighbours are kicking off over a new prison or reservoir just wait till this one drops through their door.

And predictably they were not very happy.

 

Everyone agreed a new hell overspill was needed.

Just not next to them.

 

Can’t you put them on a ship and have them moored out in a dock?

Oh no, you can’t do that. That would be too cruel. Even for hell.

The devil wouldn’t stoop as low as that.

 

So in the end, God , the Devil and the chief planning officer for the council put their heads together and decided to build a massive tower block and place it in a forsaken spot on Earth.

 

They kept the location secret. Nobody wanted to be known as the second home of Hell on Earth. Though many postulated on the possible location for such a place, there were many to choose from as it seems there are lots of forsaken wastelands in each country.

 

A price was agreed and paid in silver. Though they did change the name. Hell 2.0 was junked and replaced by ‘Hell on Earth’.

 

It was such a success that it was decided to build many more.

 

 

 

 

A Raven Settles On The Childhood House by Flo Fitzpatrick

[Pocklington, Yorkshire, England]

 

A dark obscurity shrouds the landing hallway; I am left to grope at the air. It is a precarious quest, indeed, but I press on with my cautious shuffle along the carpet. I think it is brown in the daytime. But such things get lost at night. I, for one, falling into my slumber however many hours ago, hoped not to find myself in this haze, feeling among the upstairs walls and furniture that are reduced to pixels dancing in a black ensemble —my body too does pulse, my heart still reeling from the fright. I hadn’t had a bad dream in a while, perhaps it was overdue.

 

I remember being trapped in an austere room, caged as though imprisoned. The walls were peeling, yet there was a thickness to them perhaps sourced from the claustrophobia-instilling low ceiling, one that seemed to lower still as I tried to withdraw into a corner, albeit a failed attempt. How contained spaces can be so endless… the mind is cruel when left to its own devices.

 

But mother is kind and knows how to comfort; a golden glimmer in an incomprehensible abyss. Many a time in my young years had she held my hand and pulled me out of the labyrinth of thoughts into which I am prone to wander when the night emerges. And as I now approach her bedroom, I am warmed by the thought of her smile and embrace: the confirmation that there is someone watching over me. I am protected.

 

My hands graze the wall I cannot see, yielding an unwelcome chill. But the fruits of every journey come at the end, and I am edging closer.

 

Under the door I see a stream of light. Is day finally breaking? Maybe I will catch a glimpse of mother’s alarm clock on her oak bedside table. Before all, I must prise open the door, exiting the world of twilight confusion.

 

The door is not heavy and brushes open, and with it whistles a soft sound akin to a gentle gale. I have taken this path before and know my route.

 

But carpets don’t crackle, do they? 

 

And yet my feet confirm the sensation; underfoot a flimsy mass tickles their soles, strokes alternating between a smooth plane and an assortment of jagged edges– and what of this dusty floor? Barren and yet laden. Laden with a sea of –yes, it felt like that– a sea of paper... and yet they mark the only decorations in this austere room.

 

An austere room with flaking walls, and windows barred. I want to shy away; I want to dissolve... I crouch down and glimpse the sheets that adorn the ground: bills, résumés... I faintly recognise my scrawl. The ordinary life I can’t disown.

 

An odd manifestation of good fortune... that my early years are still so vivid that I forget that they are passed.

 

 

 

 

Shooting At Ghosts by R. Spencer

[Derbyshire, England]

 

Grace flinched as the gunshot echoed through the air. It was not the first time, it wasn’t even the first time that evening, and she doubted it would be the last time on either score.

 

     ‘Is your fool of a father still shooting at those bloody ghosts of his?’ her mother asked, voice sharp and disapproving. Grace’s mother often disapproved of her father’s pastimes, particularly this most recent one.

 

     Grace nodded, trying to keep her focus on the lake and the way the light glinted across the water; she found it calming, particularly when her father had had a few drinks at the pub and decided to start shooting at nothing. Thankfully he was on the other side of the lake, and was a terrible shot; there was no chance of her catching a stray shot.

 

     She said absently, ‘He must have fired off half a dozen shots already. He’s only been home half an hour.’

 

     Her mother clucked her tongue. ‘Daft sod won’t be told that it’s just the lacewings flying low over the lake. He knows they nest out there this time of year; before the protection laws came in, he used to go and bust up their nests. He said they were picking at the crops. One of these days, though, he’s going to hit something, and it won’t be a bloody ghost!’

 

     Grace said nothing, though she agreed with almost every word out of her mother’s mouth. Dad was going to get in trouble, though she doubted he’d ever hit anything, not unless it was directly in front of him. Another shot shattered the still; the lacewings on the other side of the lake took off into the sky, white wings flapping rapidly as they panicked and tried to escape the drunken rifleman.

 

     Her mother roared, ‘Will you stop firing that flaming thing?’

 

     Grace’s father answered, voice slurring as it drifted through the night, ‘As soon as these bloody ghosts get off my land and stay off it.’

 

     Her mother shook her head. To Grace she said, ‘It’s days like this I find myself missing Trona; you start shooting at ghosts in the big city and they put you away in the nuthouse where you belong.’

 

     ‘Mum, you shouldn’t say things like that, especially not about Dad.’

 

     Her mother laughed. ‘As if I’d actually have him committed. He’s mad, your dad, but I love him. Don’t know what that says about me, but…’

 

     Grace just shook her head. Her father’s rifle barked again. The few lacewings that had dared to remain scattered into the night. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw one drop from the sky, its white plumage stained scarlet.

 

 

 

 

A Bridge Too Far by Glen Donaldson

[Brisbane, Australia]

 

Ken Starkweather liked to think he was honest with himself; it was everyone else he lied to. No one would disagree the Manhattan dentist with the front gold tooth and salesman’s smile was good at what he did. What nobody - almost nobody - knew was that his skillset included some quite clever accounting; what the old timers would have called ‘fiddling the books’.

 

For near on the last ten years his sleight of hand had been collecting funds through a corporate Medicare scheme by falsifying records and claims. The business side of things wasn’t something they’d taught in dentistry school back in his day. He’d needed to learn that himself. By now, a year short of his fiftieth birthday, he’d had to admit to himself he’d hitched his wagon to a morally bankrupt code of business ethics.

 

Unfortunately for him, his heart-shape-faced senior dental assistant, the notably named Carmen Miranda, had stumbled upon his deception and threatened to go to the Dental Ethics Council if he didn’t mend his ways. It was around this time he’d begun thinking of ways he might end her life. The dental chair in his main surgery, he’d decided, would be the only fitting stage for such a weighty event.

 

Starkweather had always offered his staff near-free dental work for a range of procedures. After convincing her that a cavity filled the previous year might need checking, the date was set. A resealable vial of the gum-numbing agent lidocaine would be mixed with a lethal dose of adrenaline and then injected into her gums. All that was left to do after that was to stand back and watch Miranda go limp with unfocussed eyes then start to experience convulsions, leading finally to a complete and fatal respiratory broncospasm. A relief dental nurse from the agency would shoulder the blame for the tragic mix-up.

 

With his trademark saguaro cactus angled menacingly out of a plastic pot on the window sill of the sterile operating room, on the fateful morning he beckoned Miranda to the chair. The warmth in his voice was quite an achievement, considering. It was all going according to plan – including the injection itself – up until Miranda, who by this time was supposed to be in the midst of heavy sedation - suddenly looked up at him from her reclined position in the chair and said,

 

“Not working, is it?

 

“What isn’t?” replied Ken casually.

 

“Your plan to kill me with an anaesthetic hot-shot.”

 

“I don’t know what you’re…”

 

The hired replacement dental hygienist spoke into a concealed lapel microphone and in the next moment two burly detectives

with guns drawn entered the room.

 

“Hands in the air, Doc!” commanded the first, while unfastening the handcuffs attached to his belt.  The detective fixed the disgraced dentist with a well-practised dead-pan look and observed, with more than a hint of irony, “You’ve been lying through your teeth for a long time Starkweather but now you’ve finally crossed a bridge too far.”

 

 

 

 

Gone Camping by Geoff Turner

[Bolton, Greater Manchester, England]  

 

A noise wakes me. Then again, it might just be my imagination; the remnant of a receding dream dissipating to nothing like breath on a frosty night. It’s cold now, certainly colder than before. I lie still in the darkness and listen as the murmuring wind disturbs leaves and branches nearby, before fading. The silence that follows is strange, almost unnatural. It envelops me, flat and unyielding. I feel cocooned but not completely protected.   

 

     I change position in the confines of the sleeping bag and hear it again. What is that? It seems oddly familiar. Hoofbeats, perhaps? The sound of a horse trotting closer? There were no horses nearby when I pitched the tent. There was nothing around other than an old oak tree. The spot seemed so perfect in the comfort of daylight.  

 

     The snuffle of flared nostrils is suddenly too close - right outside the zippered entrance. Calm down, it’s just a fox or some other nocturnal animal sniffing, investigating. Yet still I reach for the torch, palms sweating despite the drop in temperature – why is it so cold? I shuffle down deeper struggling to stab the on switch. Bright light illuminates my canvas surroundings briefly before flickering and dying.  

 

     The curse that leaves my lips trembles through the air, hooking the fear in my voice. There’s a soft whinny and the sound of hoofbeats outside once more and my mind is dragged to a story I heard as a child. A phantom. A headless horseman. Cursed to forever search these moors, driving those he finds to madness or death. But that’s just a tale told to children. I don’t believe in phantoms. I don’t believe in ghosts.  

 

     A sudden staccato of fat raindrops beats against the canvas, louder than it ought to be. Thunder follows. A throaty rumble that shakes the ground before a flashbulb of lightning captures a freezeframe against the white on the inside of the tent. In that moment I see it. I think I see it: the profile of a figure on horseback amongst the wizened branches of the oak. Stooped, twisted, headless.  

 

     Almost before the vision has chance to burn itself onto the lens of my eye, it’s gone. I wrestle with the zip on my sleeping bag. It sticks halfway and my legs become tangled. I squirm and struggle, wet breath escaping my nose and mouth. The rain grows heavier, hammering my fragile surroundings, as more thunder follows at a gallop.   

 

     Where’s the lightning?   

 

     This is my only thought, knowing that a moment of illumination is all I’ll need to free myself. More rain. More thunder. The squall storms around my mind, bleeding in from outside until...a whipcrack interrupts.  

 

     The lightning strikes and I smell burning.  

 

     Everything is white, frozen, bright as sunlight. Through the canvas I see a shadow outside looming closer. No, not looming, falling. A shadow collapsing towards me with a wooden splinter and the creak of old oak. 

 

 

 

 

War’s Nearly Over by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

The Committee has tasked me with checking out this desolate mudscape.

 

Must be careful exploring along this way. My eyes see a partial wooden sign with the word ‘Golgotha’ scrawled into it. I jump as in the distance a bomb goes off, a loud explosion of noise, dirt flying upwards. All around defensive positions blown to smithereens several times over.

 

I take a keen look. All the decomposing bodies lying around. There is no sign of human life.

 

Nothing lives here anymore, nothing human. A rat scurries over some soil. Another opportunistic scavenger.

 

I look around at the other trenches. It's the same land churned up. Dead bodies everywhere. The committee will be delighted.

 

Nothing human has breathed or screamed here for months. All their suits and masks lying in heaps of mud on the floor. Here and there tattered flags, faded like the slogans. This was an attack that neither side saw coming.

 

Next to the trench is a system of mangled and twisted barbed wire. Upon it quiver a pair of withered boots.

 

But still the shells rain down with monotonous thuddery. Someone in a dugout with half a face is holding a phone. A final order that will never be received.

 

If you looked beyond the trench you’d see a sea of churned up charnel mud with scrawny, spindly dark twigs sticking out of the soil. Nothing living has crossed in years. Beyond there is no sign of human life on the other side. They too are all dead slumped or lying down staring at grey puddles. The Committee will be pleased.

 

Both sides have miles and miles, row upon row of mighty artillery monoliths silent now. One mighty gun still fires out a shell every 10 minutes.

 

It's done this automatically these last few years. Pulverising the same area as it was programmed to do so.

 

This last piece of artillery has five shells left. Once it's run out the firing will cease and then the silence begins. That’s when we will make our move.

 

The committee will turn into a wake.

 

Not long to go now.

 

The war will be over in just under an hour.

 

The war is nearly over, but no one will be celebrating.

 

No one will be around to ask, “Who won?”

 

Still less ask, “Why did we come to this place to suffer and die?”

 

The leaders’ claim, that they had to go to war in case the other side went to war first, now rings hollow.

 

Maybe that which survived won. Then it’s the rats, cockroaches, black shelled beetles, flies and spiders crawling around the place they called ‘Golgotha’ that won. Underneath, worms teem and squirm. They are the victors too.

 

And us, the scavenging vultures, who feed off all the dead bodies. We did well out of this war.

 

Of humanity there is none.

 

 

 

 

Midwinter Blues by Kim J Cowie

[Milton Keyes, England]

 

Robert sidled past the door of a city centre pub, its windows lined with fake snow. Laughter, warmth and a smell of beer wafted from the open doorway, followed by the tinkle of a piano, very inexpertly played, little more than a fumbling on the keys.  Attracted by the sound, he entered.  The space was filled with tables and drinkers, with a bar at the back. An upright piano stood at one side of the bar. A white man stood by the instrument, poking at the keys. Robert touched him on the shoulder.  “May I?” he gestured to the instrument.

 

     “Sure.” The man stepped aside.

     Robert found the piano stool, sat down and tried the keys with a glissando. It was out of tune, but what would one expect with a pub piano? He had played piano in Jamaica, but not in England. His fingers remembered, and he tapped out a calypso tune. Behind him, he sensed the crowd starting to listen. He followed with a blues tune, then another. He’d always liked the blues.

     People clapped at the end of each piece.

     A man placed a full pint of beer on top of the piano. “Here you go, mate.”

     Robert thanked him and drank it thirstily. He had no money to buy his own drinks.  Two more pints appeared, and he drank them. He continued to play.

     Another pint arrived. “I’d like a sandwich,” he demurred.

     A sandwich was bought, and Robert stuffed it in his jacket pocket, so he could continue to play.

     His admirers engaged him in conversation, and Robert responded. Suddenly it was last orders, then closing time.

     Robert weaved away, realising in the cooler air that he was very drunk.  His tent was in an underpass nearby. He found the underpass after a short walk, but his tent was not there. Despair clawed at him. He tried another underpass, but his tent was not there either. No tents. He tried to think. Surely those graffiti--? Had the authorities cleared all the tents while he was in the pub?

 

     He lay down on a stone bench. His eyes closed as the underpass seemed to rotate around him. The slab was cold.  Half-formed thoughts swirled like dreams. Winter in another English town, with snow. The Jamaican bush in December. Trying to unzip a tent that would not open.

     A hand was shaking him. “Sir, are you all right?”

     He opened his eyes. It was a policeman in uniform, leaning over him.

     “I’m… drunk,” Robert admitted.

     “Can you get up? You can’t sleep here.”

     Groggily, Robert got to his feet.

     “There’s a taxi rank by the shopping centre,” the policeman said.

     Robert exited the underpass. There was a bus shelter nearby on the road, and he made his way to it.  He remembered the sandwich, and began to eat it. Sensing the policeman watching him, he pretended to study the timetables. His eyes would not focus.  What was this road called? Midwinter Boulevard?

 

 

 

 

Conspiracy Theory by Terry Lowell

 

‘I know for a fact the Australian Secret Service is monitoring my social media.’

 

     ‘Seriously?’

     ‘They don’t want the truth to come out. That it was all a con, so the government could take control of our lives and steal our freedoms.’

     ‘Quite an elaborate con given Covid affected the entire world.’

     ‘Ha! That’s just what the media wants you to think.’

     Ted takes a swig of beer and sits back in his chair, a look of smug satisfaction on his face as if he’s just argued Albert Einstein out of his Theory of Relativity.  Ted’s like that. There’s no conspiracy too crazy to be embraced and no facts too inconvenient to be ignored. According to Ted and his like-minded band of internet trolls, Covid was created by Bill Gates and spread via the 5G network, Uluru is a space-port built by ancient aliens, the moon landings were faked and Russian atheists are using satellites to release poisons into space to kill the Angels in Heaven.

     ‘So what’s your conspiracy theory to explain why the fish aren’t biting?’ I ask, casting my line again into the deeper waters of the lake.

      ‘They’re biting for me, mate,’ Ted says with a chuckle as his float is suddenly tugged under the surface and his line goes taut. 

     That’s Ted. Always the lucky one.

     I’ve known Ted since Melbourne Uni’ where we laughed and boozed and shagged our way through three years of studies until they gave us a couple of marketing degrees to get rid of us. I got a 2:1, Ted got a First, which he never lets me forget. We started at Sparken Retail on the same day. His good looks and ‘winning personality’ soon saw him promoted while I stayed in the comm’s team. I even introduced him to Jenny. We weren’t exactly an item, so I couldn’t object too much when they got together. 

     ‘It’s a big one,’ Ted shouts with a laugh as he wades into the lake. ‘Barramundi, I think.’

     Focussed on the fish, he doesn’t see the long shadow moving through the water to his right. He should know better. He knows how dangerous these waters can be, but that’s Ted. Always the arrogant one.

     He glances back, grinning. I could shout a warning, but I don’t.  It’s probably too late anyway. I settle back in my chair and watch the croc’ break the surface. A giant snout snaps around Ted’s thigh. The deep wound spurts red as the ancient animal twists and Ted falls backwards. The lake roars and bubbles and is still.

     Poor Jenny. She’ll be devastated, but time, as they say, is a great healer. And I’ll be there, just like I’ve always been.

     And poor Ted too, I suppose. He was so busy with his conspiracies he couldn’t see what was right under his nose. But that’s Ted.

     He was wrong about everything. Covid’s natural, Uluru’s not a space-port, and I was never his friend. 

And men did walk on the moon.

 

 

 

 

There Be Monsters by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

There might be monsters lurking in this old house.

Lately, confusion and disorder has crept into this creaking place.

Turning everything upside down and making the familiar seem foreign. It's like stumbling through an alien forest in fading light.

The willowy walls whisper wicked conspiracies.

Pipes hiss their petrifying prophecies.

The halls echo with strange sounds and eerie wailings.

Something not of this world walks these floors.

I can hear their ghostly movements late at night and see their wraith-like forms flit fleetingly around me. They flee and fade away.

They are always just out of reach.

By dawn’s early touch they have scattered and slithered away.

They must be vampires, for all life has been drained from me.

Clearly, I'm not the man I used to be. They grow stronger as I grow weaker.

The Sun has set upon the man leaving an empty shell.

The hero so soon becomes buffoon.

I feel a coldness and sadness that wasn’t there before.

There might be monsters hiding in this house.

I’ve heard it spoken in hushed tones by hidden voices.

Last night I shone a bright light upon these strange ones.

They flinched and backed away.

I saw a marvellous sight of people with beautiful complexions.

Then I caught sight of my visage in the mirror.

The shock was intense.

I had not seen my reflection in many years.

What a sight I saw!

What was this disgusting thing facing me?

I was aghast at this ghastly ugliness set before me.

I dared not recognise what was reflected.

A hideous sight leeringly looked back at me.

I stared incredulously upon a shrunken, stooped and twisted form.

The thing had a pallid complexion. It had a face criss-crossed by crevices, with red teeth and sunken yellowed eyes. The fiend had a hair of horns.

The stranger that faced me was a grotesque mockery of a man I used to know. More beast than man.

The sight was repellent to every sense.

Recognition reached out.

Then the shuddering shock as hellish reflection and self merged.

I was sent reeling.

What had I become?

There are monsters in this house.

I know it to be true.

For the thing that makes people afraid and flee, it’s me.

In this old house, I'm the monster!

 

 

 

 

Merry Mithras by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

Greetings at this time of year.

It’s Saturnalia!

That means plenty of feasting, fooling around, singing, lots of orgies, drinking, giving gifts.

It lasts a whole week. Takes a month to recover from the partying. You get the ones who say, ‘Saturnalia has lost its magic’; there are too many repeats of ‘Moriancabris et Sapiens’. But most of us think that all the above is just fine. I think the true message of Saturnalia gets lost when you're stuffing your face with rich food, drinking lots of wine and having lots of sex, but who cares. It does however leave one feeling tired and jaded when Janus comes along.

 

The only downside is having to travel to Doncaster to get tallied as the Romans have kept up the census. And my father was unfortunately born there. Mum never lets him forget she’s always saying, ‘To think I could have married a man from Colchester.’

 

At least all the roads are very good. No potholes either.

There is no crime. The wine and water are very good.

 

We tell one another scary stories of what it would be like without the empire and the world split into lots of nation states arguing and fighting over land and resources.

The soothsayers really go wild and go round predicting things like ‘driverless chariots and mini togas’.

 

We wonder what will be in the Emperor’s speech this year.

Hope it's better than last year's ‘fiscal responsibility , prudence with the salt tax’ he delivered.

 

There are the usual moans about the senate being a talking-shop.

And worries that one day the empire will decline and fall.

But you always get people talking the empire down.

 

As long as you're not a slave, a gladiator or a eunuch your life is fine.

 

Some say that Christianity will one day overtake Mithras as the main religion, but I don't think so. Who would give up all those blood curdling initiation ceremonies to test your toughness.

Mithras was very strong and fought mythical bulls.

All those who follow Mithras must also show their strength and toughness.

Why would people choose to follow a religion that says you should love your enemy and turn the other cheek? And apparently for them it's good to be meek. And they reckon everyone is equal, even the slaves! Sheer madness if you ask me.

It’ll never catch on.

 

 

 

Dust by Anthony Ward

[Durham, England]

 

Daniel dusted the shelves, picking up mementos that had accumulated over the years. Sighing at the endeavour, he wondered why he bothered to dust every Tuesday. It took him most of the day, as often when he was picking up the ornaments, he would become possessed by a memory. He picked up the wooden pinecone and was transported back to the holiday cabin at the forest edge. There are other things I should be doing instead of dusting. Let the dust settle, he contemplated, it doesn’t harm me. He sneezed at the disturbed dust whirling in front of him, the sun revealing the storm he’d brewed. He slid his finger down the spine of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.

 

He decided he would reread it and felt a little dismayed as he pulled out Swanns Way to find the corner of the cover had been bent. Although he romanticised the idea of borrowing dog-eared books from the library, he preferred them to be brand new, in pristine condition, as if the pages had been printed on fresh birch. He shrugged it off as he told himself that a novel shouldn’t be in pristine condition, it should looked lived in. The pages should be browned off, foxed, and marred with age. He scrutinised the back of his hands, thinking how they resembled scrunched up paper with liver spots that had grown like lichen upon his skin, as if he were a book that hadn’t been read in a long while. Life isn’t perfect, he went on to himself, you shouldn’t try to keep it pristine. Accept the imperfections as the detail of the story.

 

It had been over twenty years since he had last read the book. Before he was married, before his daughter was born. He wasn’t sure whether he was a different person in the same body, or the same person in a different body. Before he had even started to read, he put the book down and picked up a red bound photograph album that was lying on top of the books. He decided to have a look through as it had been years. As he tuned over the pages, he blew away the dust as he looked through the photographs which had become as faded as his memories. These days they would be preserved in pristine condition, stored on a digital portable memory, he pondered, as he watched the dust settle back onto the newly polished hearth.

 

 

 

 

Balancing Act by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

 

The postponement had reached an unlikely third day, although the belligerent clouds were showing signs of shedding their pall.  Puddles held the rippling images of damp buildings, rainwater eddying on eaves before tumbling downward.  Despite optimism that the inclemency was finally petering out, the ropes would need an additional day or two before properly being rid of moisture.  Not unaccustomed to discouragement, Berlin would need to muster patience before hosting its vaunted event.

         

     As boys, the twins displayed unusual dexterity.  Supple and wiry, they would affix ropes across their bedroom and perfect traversing them.  They created challenges; balancing on one leg, handstands, juggling while on the ropes.  At fourteen they were separated.  Lukas had gone on a late summer trip with their paternal grandparents to the Baltic Sea.  Upon their return the wall had partitioned the city, stranding Lukas in the east, while Dieter remained with their father in the west.

         

     Separated by a half mile, the young men faced each other, their homeland cleft by ideology.  Lukas atop the towering Brandenburg Gate, the taut heavy ropes stretching beyond the Wall and secured to the roof of a warehouse in the west, where Dieter stretched out his calves and scanned the rooftops for snipers.  Some eighty feet below, the expectant crowds placed wagers and gazed upward.

         

     The shrill of a whistle punctured the air, signaling the start of the unofficial race, each side hoping for the moral victory.  The brothers stepped out into their element, feet anchored, brain and muscle searching for equilibrium.  A mile away, concealed among West Berlin’s mid-rise residencies, a man waited on a rooftop, its flat concrete hosting dozens of wooden crates.

         

     Dieter arrived at the Brandenburg Gate a half dozen steps behind his brother’s progress, who’d already begun the return.  Dieter gathered himself and reached back out into the void.  The man on the rooftop received word and opened the crates in quick succession, an orchestra of claw and wing as scores of racing pigeons reveled in the release.

         

     For the first time the crowd’s attention was distracted as the birds arced above the city, an arrowhead of symmetry.  Midway during the return the brothers drew level.  Remaining stationary not an option, they continued to inch forward as the birds’ turns became tighter, closer.  The phalanx sliced through the sky briefly obscuring the brothers with each pass. A complicit glance as the racing birds came again, the hum of so many beating wings.  Acrobats now, the twins sprang from the ropes, locking arms.  Several shots rang out as they plummeted toward the ascending chaos.

 

 

 

 

Hide And Seek by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

A loud noise. It makes you jump a little.

“What was that?” you ask yourself.

Could it be that the threat draws near?

I bet every little squeak or crack sends shivers down your back.

I know what you're thinking.

‘The seekers are close by.’

Yes. They’re looking for you.

I can hear you checking all the doors and windows are shut tight. You check the curtains too. I know they’ve been drawn this past week. I’ve been watching your flat a lot.

Your stocks must be running low. A lot of your neighbours left the flat to get supplies.

But they didn’t come back.

Some neighbours opened their door when I came knocking.

How foolish.

They won’t be opening their doors anymore.

Your neighbours, the Robinsons, opened their doors. I left the music on. I hope that didn’t disturb you too much.

People hide. I seek.

Seeking hiders like you.

I blame it all on humanity’s desire to be part of a crowd, to be part of a group and follow the fads.

This month the fad is playing this game, ‘hide and seek’.

 I must say it's a better game than the last one.

In the past we had people doing the Rubik's cube or streaking.

But since the internet took hold and people became more bored, the crazes have become more extreme. And more violent.

So now it's ‘hide and seek’ and you are hiding in your flat.

I bet you're hoping to hold out until a new craze comes along.

Knock-knock-knock.

Not answering it, sensible. I wouldn’t either, if I was you.

Let’s see if I can try the handle, you never know.

You are keeping very quiet and still. But I think you're in there.

“Peter? It is Peter, isn’t it? Are you in there? Are you keeping well? Are you OK? I only want to be your friend.”

Knock-knock.

“You think this is all a trap, that I'm just pretending to be your friend, that I’m just waiting for the door to be opened to rush in and shoot you.”

Knock-knock-knock-knock.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are!”

“You're very quiet in there, dead quiet. I bet you're thinking I’m lying. And you’d be right.

Oh well Peter, I can see you're not in a helpful mood.

Hopefully you’ll be more cooperative tomorrow. Ta-ta for now, sleep tight, don’t let the bed bugs bite.”

The corridors are filled with the steps of a seeker walking towards the stairs. As he leaves, he whistles the tune to ‘Oranges and Lemons’.

 

 

 

World Traveler by K.G.Song

[Los Angeles, California, USA]

Wayne finished dolma and ordered coffee and gata, sweet bread. He checked his tablet carefully and recorded his dining experience at a mom-and-pop Armenia restaurant. The feelings of sadness and pride tumbled inside as he reviewed the list. The meal would end his quest to sample one hundred different ethnic dishes.

 

     Reading each entry of ethnic dishes - Korean, Finnish, Oaxacan, Nigerian - reminded him of the people he met along his long journey. Almost all of them were quite excited to tell Wayne about their dishes. Some even offered free dishes for Wayne to sample.

 

     Moreover, Wayne didn’t even have to leave the Los Angeles area to achieve his goal. Yet he felt as if he transversed the globe many times.

 

 

 

 

Northbound Train by David Patten

[Denver, Colorado, USA]

The two approaching men were the same ones Armando had encountered in Saltillo, as groups of migrants jockeyed for position along the tracks, the horn from the slow moving freight train rupturing the humid, dusk air.  They had demanded weed or tobacco, their accents marking them as Honduran, and became hostile when Armando shrugged and shook his head.  The arrival of the train dissolved the tension, everyone scrambling to gain some kind of purchase on the brooding hulks of steel and iron.

         

     Slowed, the train echoed through an abandoned industrial area, a ghost town of flat roofs and broken windows.  Feral and reckless, the young Hondurans strode across the cars toward Armando.  He saw a flash of something metallic as the first one lunged at him.  The wrench glanced the side of his head, the assailant’s momentum toppling him from the train, a limb snapping on impact.  The second man fell upon Armando, pores seeping days’ old sweat and cheap liquor.  They grappled as the train picked up speed into open country.  Armando raised a knee, reaching for the knife in his boot.  He plunged it through denim and into the man’s thigh.  A hard thud as brush and clay claimed another rider. 

         

     He’d heard the stories; they all had.  Riders on lawless freight trains running the length of the country to the U.S. entry points in California and Texas, taking their chances at the border.  With Venezuela imploding into chaos, Armando had trekked west through Central America to the tourist towns of Mexico’s Yucatan.

         

     Like most northern border towns, Piedras Negras retained a frontier energy; equal parts optimism and desperation, a place where people hustled and made deals, and where trust had to be earned.  It’d been a week since the train shunted into the freight yards on the edge of town, spilling weary migrants into the gossamer light of a new day.  Armando found a cheap bedroom for rent in a rundown barrio and started plotting his next move.

         

     He chose the river.  Steady rains across West Texas had risen the level and quickened the current of the Rio Grande.  Armando leaned against one of the giant, stone pillars of the international bridge trying to gauge the distance to the other side.

A hundred yards, maybe a bit more.  Hard to tell as sullen storm clouds owned the sky, making a hostage of the moon.  Downriver, voices from the darkness; hushed, urgent. Others coming from out on the river, cajoling, advising caution.

         

     Armando walked about a mile to be clear of other crossers before he entered the river.  A light rain had started to fall; a world of water.  In the middle the riverbed finally fell away and he began to swim, limbs battling against the current.  Quickly tiring, clothing heavy and dragging, he surrendered to its will and drifted.

         

     The branch was serrated in parts and tore up his palms, but he used it to haul himself up onto the bank, soggy with mud.  Exhausted, Armando slumped against the trunk, the patter of rain on Texas leaves.

 

 

 

 

Melded Crid Rate Over The Score by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

The seriousness of the current ‘melded crid’ build-up was literally brought to a head yesterday, when popular newsreader Myrmyda Threttispont was engulfed from above in a deluge of wet clay, stones and distressed topsoil while delivering a TV commentary on the very hazard she fell victim to. Apparently, her studio is located below street level. The pavement outside had been dug up for maintenance, leaving a build-up of common roadway rubble, known in the trade as ‘melded crid’, which slid through the window after a heavy-to-moderate rainfall.

          “It’s a question of aggregate,” said a labourer close to the scene. “I mean, ordinary mud is just mud. But melded crid is mud mixed with all sorts of hard, gritty substances. A degree of mineral aggregate can thicken the mix, but too much sharp gravel gathered in bunches can loosen it all up – and that’s when it’s liable to topple into basements and holes. Of course, if it falls on an ordinary workman digging a trench, nobody cares. But the minute it lands on some news-reading tart, everyone’s up in arms.”

          Already, a spate of emails and texts has come in, enquiring after Ms Threttispont’s wellbeing. (We are happy to say she is in good spirits, and her wardrobe is being refurbished.) TV garden makeover guru Terry Nupple, a close personal friend of Myrmyda’s, has gone on social media to “utterly deprecate and abhor the senseless disregard of public safety and visual decorum shown by the prevalence of melded crid.”

          We asked him if anything can be done by you, the public, to reduce the risk of further injury to much-loved media figures.

          “In a word, divots. Another sign of the current neglect of our roads and byways is the quantity of weeds left unchecked to clog the gutters. But clumps of grass, in particular, are easy to grab and pull up while walking past. Simply transplanting these sods onto the melded crid will bind the mounds together and prevent further disaster. Indeed, after a short while and sufficient rain, we can look forward to some pleasant grassy knolls where once unsightly crid dunes stood.”

          Our labourer was not impressed. “What about when I fill my holes back in? I don’t get paid extra for grassy knoll work.”

          “That’s the typical tunnel vision of today’s workforce,” says Nupple. “ ‘I’m all right, Jack, so melded crid to you.’ It’s time we took a stand.”

          The government is appealing for calm.

 

 

 

 

This Is Home by Amba-Aribisala Blessing

[UK]
 

We are stretched out on the back porch, Sal, and me. The air is chilly, but Sal still wears his shorts. Even though I am wrapped in a thick bathrobe, underneath I wear a pair of jean trousers, a woolly top, and a neck scarf. I can’t stand the weather. Many times, when I complain about all the things I don’t like about this place, Sal’s response often is, ‘It doesn’t matter, Betty. This is home.’

         

     Sal and I moved here three months ago. The unpleasant atmosphere back home was starting to affect our relationship. We’d been married three years with no kids, and our families wouldn’t let us be. The last straw was when Aunt Mariam suggested Sal take another wife. The following month we relocated.

                    

     Adjusting to the unfamiliar environment is a bit difficult for me, but not for Sal. He understands the language and isn’t experiencing as much culture shock as I am. My parents had moved too when I was a child. Their new home was the only home I knew. Mama said it was rough the first few years, but when Daddy came, it got better. I was glad Sal, and I came together.

     “I saw a cat in the library today, Sal. I forgot what his name was. A cat in the library’s got to be at the top of the list of weird things I have seen and experienced here.” Sal chortles then asks between mouthfuls,

     “Can it read?”

     “I doubt. They say it often takes a stroll through the library. You know that can never happen back home.”

     Sal sips his tea. Back home is sometimes a touchy subject for him. 

     “You know Sal, I wasn’t expecting this place to be like home, but I didn’t expect it to be so different. I mean, some things are downright weird.”

     He eats his biscuit.

     “For example, there’s a vent in every room. That way, you smell what’s cooking. When someone speaks, you can hear it through the floorboards. I mean, the house booms with voices, and virtually every tap runs in both hot and cold water. It’s all really weird. We don’t have these back home, but neither do we have Daim chocolate and blueberry muffins. And I love those.”

     Sal goes to the kitchen for a refill. I call after him.

 
 

     “Oh, I remember now, Sal. The cat’s name’s Larry.”

 

 

 

 

The Last Spark by Kat Gal

[Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA]

katgalwriter.com

 

You were sitting there on the couch. 

 

Your blond hair looked like a haystack. You didn’t brush it after you woke up. You didn’t shave either. You decided to grow out a beard and didn’t care that I would swallow your facial hair every time you kissed me.

 

You were wearing your favorite blue shirt. You had it since seventh grade. It was ripped and worn out. But you didn’t care. You loved that shirt so much. It matched your light blue eyes. For some reason, I found that kind of sexy.

 

With a gracious movement, you put down the lighter on the table next to the candles that we were burning the night before. You glazed at me with loving eyes and handed me the joint. You didn’t smoke much anymore - just occasionally, maybe once a week. You took the last hit and looked at me. I felt loved.

 

You went to the kitchen to clean the ashtray. You did the dishes too - I heard the sound of the water.

 

When you came back, you laid down next to me and held me in your arms for a while. We were lying there, cuddling for hours, quietly. Then you - without saying a word - stood up, put on your shoes and your sweater. You kissed me softly. I remembered the day when you first kissed me - you were so scared that your lips were shaking. You caressed my cheek and said: “Shut the door when you leave and don’t let out the cat.” You kissed me again - on my forehead that time.

 

You had to go to work. I heard the door shut. I’d already missed you.

 

You never promised me anything. You never told me that it was forever. You never told me that we were for real. You never told me about your dreams or if I was a part of them. Maybe I never was. Maybe those dreams just changed quickly. 

 

We never talked about ‘us’. I felt that it was in the air and there was no need to say it. I want to believe that you felt the same way - for a while. But you probably didn’t say it because you never meant it or believed it.

 

One day you were suddenly there in my life, making everything look like spring. You were there and made me believe that life could be good.

 

Then one day, you were suddenly not there. You were distant and didn’t look at me the same loving way as you did before. I knew it was over.

 

There was no explanation for why you were with me and then why you disappeared all of a sudden. It took you a minute to fall for me and a second to fall out. It took me a while to trust you but a long time to get over you.

 

And even though I don’t love you anymore, I will never forget that morning as you were sitting on the couch…

 

 

 

 

Slow Dance by K.G.Song

[Los Angeles, USA]

A beautiful night. Perfect for dance. The strings of lights illumined the backyard quietly under the blanket of countless stars above. The ground exuded its warmth from desert sandy soil after a scorching afternoon. A small portable speaker threw just enough sounds to gently rise above the cacophony of desert wind and night animals – hunting, fleeing, hiding, and fighting.

 

Sam drew Maria close to his chest as they danced slowly on the baked desert ground, kicking up small puffs of dust with each step. Their eyes locked as they listened to the pounding of their hearts, ignoring the slow dance music that sought their attention with little success.

 

When the song was over, they danced to the desert night noises for a while, reluctant to part.

 

Maria whispered into Sam’s ears, her breath hot and sticky.

 

“You are the only person who stepped on my toes more than ten times in a slow dance.” She left and pinched him on the cheek before giving him a small peck on his lips with a knowing wink.

 

Sam bowed slowly and reached out for another dance from Maria with a beguiling smile. “I will carry you home if your feet hurt too much after the dance party.”

 

Maria shook her head, pointing her chin to her father who stood in the shadow of the house, with his hand tucked in the gun belt.

 

A sudden chill seized Sam, making him stumble and step on Maria’s dainty shoes once again. He danced faster as if he couldn’t wait for the song to end.

 

 

 

 

Mr Gatsby’s Suicide by Andrew Gooch

[Hull, East Yorkshire, England]

 

‘Why do you have to always treat me like I’m the Great Gatsby?’ I said, as I drove her home one evening.  ‘What would you do if I took a leaf out of that book? Eh? Just went home and ended it all?’

‘Don’t joke about things like that, Rik, it’s not impressing anyone,’ She tutted. ‘Anyway, Gatsby doesn’t kill himself, he gets murdered.’

‘Does he? That can’t be right. He’s in love with the girl, she rejects him, he realises that he’ll never have her then he commits suicide in the swimming pool.’

‘He gets shot in the swimming pool.’

‘I think you’re mixing it up with a different novel. I did English literature at college, alright, I’m an authority on these things.’

‘You could have studied under Noel Coward himself; it doesn’t change the fact Gatsby was murdered.’

‘Murdered himself more like!’ It was only at this point that I realised that I was shouting. ‘All because he was unhappy and unfulfilled.’

A severe voice suddenly spoke up in the back seat, ‘The lady’s right. He gets shot. By the jealous husband if I remember correctly.’

‘Well, I only read it the once.’ We drove on for another mile before I smirked and added, ‘There’s a car crash in it too if I recall.’

 

 

 

 

Two Stories by Cheryl Snell

[Maryland, USA]

 

Net

 

His wife has run out of butterflies. They are nowhere to be found, not in her stomach, or her glass case, not in her kisses. Not even the ones reserved for his eyelids.  Since his stroke, it’s harder for the man to jitter the handle-strap of his butterfly net onto his good wrist and steer his shadow through a field of bright wildflowers, but he does it for her. As a lure, he rubs the butterflies’ favorite leaf onto fingers that can still pinch a wing, and some butterflies fall for it. They come close, but lift away again before he can scoop them up. What will his wife do without her butterflies? Her spreading board and insect pins bare and wasted. Butterflies have always been her most reliable source of torment, much like the angels. He realizes he cannot contain either. One moment, petals trembling with wings accompany a bass-line of bees; the next, overridden by a ringing in the ears he would ordinarily recognize as a symptom, he simply crumples, his body folding like laundry onto the soft dirt floor.

 

 

 

Keys

I open the door for him, but he’s gone off with other guests. Calling for him to come back, I think I should whistle the way people do for their children or their dogs. I look around the room with the tablecloths all askew, breathe in the odor of dying flowers. The reason I misplace my man so often must be around here somewhere, but not necessarily in this hall embalmed in gold, shimmering with light that will whiten in a minute. Where are the keys? He has taken them with him. I slide down a wall to stare out the window where I witnessed the moon riding to the high point in tonight’s sky. Its fall earthward on a path of extinguished stars is as much a metaphor as the ruins of this room bathed in a weeping of sapphire light. Someday I won’t care where he is or what he’s doing. There is always some emergency but I will never be it. The echoes of the day wrap around me ─ I’d never have heard the metallic jangle if I wasn’t already locked away.

 

 

 

The Fishing Variation by Thomas M. McDade

[Fredericksburg, VA, USA]

 

“Do what, Son?” says Mark, placing a Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue face down on the side table.

 “Greg, get off the bed,” orders Elaine. “Go to your room and get out of those dirty clothes, shower too.” He springs to the floor.

 “What do I have to do?” asks Mark reaching for the lighter and Camels under the magazine. He blows a billow of smoke.

“When’s my A/C going to be fixed?” Greg asks.

“Repair guys are busy with this God-awful heat,” answers Mark.

 “I’m plop my sleeping bag right here,” vows Greg.

 “Great,” says Elaine, happy to have him sleeping in their room.

“Greg, that thing I have to do?”

“You’ve got to take me and Davy fishing.”

 “I can’t guarantee it.”

“Yeah, yeah, Mr. Cox took us five times!”

“Get moving” says Elaine.

 

 “I wish you’d set up a firm date to take them fishing. Davy must have dropped a hint. I think Greg’s embarrassed.”

 “I will. Better if he’d stuck with baseball.”

“What does it matter, fishing or baseball, as long as it’s quality time together?”

“Ease up Elaine. When he’s older, I’ll take him out to Montauk, charter a boat.”

 “Maybe I’ll take him fishing,” says Elaine.

 “That’s rich. I’d love to see worm a hook. Maybe you can ‘tackle’ the dead light over the stairs and paint the walls white.”

“How about buying a new house?”

“Next Year, I swear.”

 

The following day after Greg cuts the grass; he runs upstairs and rests on his father’s side of the bed sneaking a peek at the Sports Illustrated. After Elaine finishes dusting, she suggests they pull a gag on Mark. She reaches high into the closet, gets down a hollowed copy of Gone with the Wind. She gives Greg eighty dollars. “Go to Gorman’s Tropical Shop; buy a five-gallon tank and whatever goes with it. Pick out colorful fish. We’ll tell dad you went fishing alone and that will be true! Ha!” Greg fans out the four twenties! “Great . . . holy crap – do they deliver?”

 “Take a taxi, stick your bike in the trunk, tip the driver like the rock star you are. The change is yours, sport. Hush, hush! Mother and son do high fives. She’ll gift Greg with an A/C fix too. She rings up Cool-All Associates; requests Ted who’s surfed at Laguna Beach. They’d done serious flirting at Gold’s Gym. “Have him come right upstairs.”

 

She pulls open a drawer of the dresser to take out a bikini she slowly puts on and models before the mirror. She switches on the radio, chooses an oldies station. She hopes for The Doors, “Touch Me.” She stands tall, one foot over the other, arms in the air and tosses her head back. She paces until she hears she hears the heavy footsteps on the stairs then a couple of thuds courtesy of the Sports Illustrated that fell from under Greg’s shirt when lost in the adrenalin rush of the fishing trip.

 

 

 

 

Scafell Pike by Sam Szanto

[Durham, England]

Website: samszanto.com


As the sun tinted the clouds school-bus yellow, I scrambled up to reach the summit. Although Scafell Pike is one of the most heavily trod paths of its kind, on that February day, snow dusting the ground, there was no one else in sight.


Except, I realised, for a man in a grey woolly hat staring down the mountain. I said hello; he nodded without looking up.


Panting slightly, my boyfriend was beside me. ‘You could have waited,’ he grumbled.


And you could have walked faster.


I passed him the bag of fizzy sweets and we sucked them in silence, gazing at the view as the wind whipped our skin. I wanted to quote Wordsworth, but could only remember the one about the daffodils.


When the sweets were finished, I saw the man had gone.


‘Let’s go back,’ my boyfriend said, tightening his rucksack straps. ‘Don’t want to be walking in the dark.’


Slipping over the loose brown stones, we descended. Rain came down like pins, and the cold made my hands hurt so much I cried out. My boyfriend put my fingers in his mouth and blew on them. I remember these small acts, fifteen years after he left me.
 

                                                                                             *

 

On the drive back to London, we sat in a silence the colour of stone. There was a news story on the radio about a man dying on Scafell Pike the day before. I wondered if that was the man I’d said hello to at the summit. My boyfriend didn’t remember seeing anyone.


I tried to describe the man, but he was indistinct as a dimming star in the night sky. I changed the radio station.

 

 

 

 

The Fighter by William Kitcher

[Toronto, Canada]

 

Crazy world. I was standing outside a bar having a smoke and some wasted street kid took a swing at me. Seems like that’s happening more and more these days. Good thing he didn’t have a knife or a gun. I was sober enough to still have normal reactions and I avoided the punch.

     

     I’ve never been a fighter – my last fight was Grade 5 – but I understand something about the concept.

Buddy had staggered forward when he missed me, and I moved my smoke to my left hand, then hit Buddy with an uppercut with my right, and it luckily hit him in the head as he passed by me.

 

     He hit the ground and rolled onto his back. I remembered a movie, and stood over him. “What are you gonna do now, punk?”

 

     He looked up at me with glassy eyes.

 

      I had a smile on my face, and I could tell he had no idea what my smile meant. I thought it meant this was a really weird situation.

 

     He got to his knees. I punched him again. I don’t know why I did that. It was probably because I’d never done that since I was a kid, and I had the opportunity. I felt a tingle on my back.

 

      Someone said to me, “What are you doing?”

 

     “Protecting myself. The guy attacked me.”

 

     “Sounds right,” the passerby said. He’d probably understood that I’m an old guy and the guy on the ground was young, so chances were I was telling the truth.

 

     People dispersed. The idiot got to his feet and wandered away.

 

     My face was warm. I followed him up the street. He turned a corner, and so did I. When he was past the first building on the street, I got closer to him, then punched him in the back of the head.

 

     Cheap shot, I know. I don’t care. It felt good.

 

     He hit the ground.

 

     Someone said, “Stop hitting that guy.”

 

     “He started it,” I said.

 

      “I don’t believe you,” he said.

 

     I turned to the guy. He was about my age and my size. I kicked him in the stones. That’s one of the places you hit people when you feel threatened. Eyes. Nose. Throat. But especially in the groin.

 

     An adrenaline rush washed over me and I itched. I went back to the bar, had two more beers and a shot, and told the bigmouths at the bar what I thought of them. Someone took a swing at me and I reacted more quickly than I thought I would.

 

     I think I have a new hobby.

 

 

 

 

In The Dark by Anthony Ward

[Durham, England]

 

He could feel his heart beat as he sat in the movie theatre watching the horror unfold on the screen. He had remained indifferent to many horror films but this one made him feel as if he were in actually in it. He hunched forward in his seat as he watched the hooded killer enter the foyer of a cinema that looked just like the one he was in. He felt the blood rush from his head as he watched the killer coldly slit the ticket collectors throat, overcome with nausea, not at the sight of the gushing blood, but at the fact that the victim looked like the same man who had torn his ticket when he came in. The hooded figure was now making his way through the lobby and was entering screen 6. The camera panned down to reveal the title of the movie to be the same as the one that he was watching. He tried to remember what screen he was in.  He searched anxiously for his ticket in his coat pocket and pulled it out. He turned it towards the screen, but it was dark, then the screen lit up with a flash and he read Seat 15, Row B, Screen 6. He looked back up to the screen and watched the killer walking down towards the front of the theatre where he was seated. He felt as if the killer was coming for him and pulled the hood of his coat over his head and stared anxiously towards the screen. He could feel the killer as if he were behind him. He wanted to turn around, but he couldn’t, and remained transfixed as he watched the killer raise the knife above his head. Then he shrieked out in terror at the thought that he was about to be stabbed and scrunched his eyes in anticipation just as another flash on the screen highlighted the killers face. His eyes opened wide as he gasped, exasperated. It was his own face. He was the killer. He stood up feeling a warm rush seethe through his body. He swung his head around but there was nobody behind him except a crowd of silhouetted heads looking straight ahead. He turned back to the screen to see who was sitting in front of him, but his face was not shown. ‘Who is it?’ he screamed at the screen. ‘Who is it?’ he screamed again. Then he grabbed the person in front of him who spun around and looked up at him in horror.

 

 

 

 

Top Deck Blues by Mike Taylor

[Plymouth, England]

 

The man three rows in front of me is swearing again. He’s quiet but insistent. I don’t think the woman sitting next to him is comfortable. Not at all. She’s got the window seat, probably got on first, and almost certainly feels stuck with him, as we all sit on the top deck of this bus going into town.

 

Although early evening, it’s still light outside. Of course, there are street lamps, anyway; but the road we’re on has a few trees and it’s actually quite a pretty part of the journey. But I can’t help feeling badly for the woman up ahead. I’m only guessing that she’s unhappy there but the couple sitting on the other side of the aisle have moved back to my row. It’s obvious that they didn’t want to stay next to the man who’s grumbling away.

 

Personally, I’m straining to hear him. I thought I caught him mentioning the government and wondered what he would be saying about it. Maybe some wild conspiracy theory. Or, these days, maybe that wouldn’t be wild. But now he’s talking about football. Something about the players; and then he clearly says ‘off-side’ but I can’t hear anything else.

 

As he said it, though, he physically jerked in his seat. That was too much for the woman. She stands up, looking worried and trying to avoid his gaze as she shuffles past him and down the stairs whilst the bus is still moving. I wonder if she will get off at the next stop or just hide at the back on the lower floor. I’ve seen that happen more than once.

 

Because I know this man. Well, he’s familiar. We’ve often been on the same bus and I know he’s no trouble. That’s why I’m moving forwards, standing beside him, waiting for him to shuffle over to be by the window. 

 

Now I’m sitting next to him. I’m fine with it, used to his narration as we travel, him quietly airing his thoughts and worries as we head towards the centre. I quite like his rhythm, the way he mumbles. I wouldn’t say it’s musical but it’s got something about it. And I don’t mind the odd expletive. It shows he cares, even if I’ve no idea what about.

 

I used to think that maybe he was the elder brother of someone I used to go to school with. That may well be wrong, though, and doesn’t really matter. Now he’s just my sometime bus companion, someone I feel a strange kinship with, even as everyone else moves away from him and now both of us.

 

But we’re all right together. It saves other people sitting here and maybe it suits me, too. In some strange way, we’re comfortable with each other. I’m sure of that. And that’s not something you get with everyone.

 

 

 

 

The Persephone Plan by Simon Collinson

[England]

 

Are you an A or a B?

That is the most important question.

At birth I was given the names I am known by and then given the letter B.

This letter follows you to your grave.

It dictates the life you lead, more precisely where you live and where you die.

I know that the world has become vastly overpopulated.

There wasn’t enough land to build flats to accommodate all.

It was decided that half the population would have to live and work underground.

Naturally, living in such a dark and hellish place was not a prospect anybody relished.

So, it was thought the fairest and most bearable solution was to have one group live above ground for a year and then swap and live underground for a year.

So, all the “A’s” would have their time in the daylight and then they would go into the dark underworld and the “B’s” would have their year in the daylight.

And so it would continue. They called it “the Persephone plan”.

I am thinking of this while I await in a crowd of lines all at one end of the stadium. Me and all the other local B’s.

Not that I’ll be getting many chances to watch any sport over the next 12 months.

Or watching anything at all.

Really trying to see things is a waste of time where we are going.

But it will be worth it to catch sight of the fair Rosalind.

We met at this exact point in this stadium last year.

You just know when you catch someone's eyes and you both connect. Like electricity.

It's like telepathy. Two minds with the same thought. Two sets of hands touching through the holes in the wire.

We whispered our names to one another.

She was amused that mine was Gaius Octavius Ceasarion.

We were Separated by an 8 foot green wire fence. For she is an A as are all the other people on her side of the wire.

My heart leaps as I catch sight of Rosalind. I wave giddy like a silly schoolboy. Her smile beams back and she waves excitedly. I blew her a kiss. She returns two from the other side of the wire.

We both jostle our way so we can face one another by the wire. Fingertips touching.

Not much is said. Some thoughts are best  left unsaid.

I know where Rosalind has come from.

And she knows where I’ll be going.

But such meetings were fleeting and the whistle of the security staff soon had us moving. Rosaland with the rest of the A’s to the gates that led out of the stadium and daylight, I and the other B’s down the seemingly never ending steps into the ground where the darkness devours the light.

The stars must be laughing at the fates dealt to the likes of me. A B who has fallen in love with an A.

But I am consoled by the thought that I’ll see Rosalind again this time , at this spot next year. Even if it's only for a few minutes.

I know this cannot be love in reality, for she is an A and I’m a B.

 

 

 

 

Two Stories by Mehreen Ahmed

[Australia]

 

Waves

 

It was a darkly day. The rain hadn’t fallen any darker in the armpit of the country—densely beautiful. The inhabitants were few but many. They had not become walled out. They had become white-washed as they stood in solidarity like a wall. They feared the land could be highjacked. They feared a culture could be lost, its language, even the country, the new-migrants had arrived. Their worst fears, even more, to come was the economic onslaught, their lives at risk. The newcomers came in waves. They were unstoppable. They had been doing so since inception. Those who were the town’s stronghold today arrived in high tide once—waves once. But they had moved away like waves too, apathetic, distanced just like the cold wall, they now represent. History was repeating and forgetting in its cycle of wheels—over and over. The past was just as unchangeable as the waves were. Still, the human wall stood stalwart stopping history on its axis, unbeknownst history would find a way around to enter—this was always a new wave of time.

 

 

 

Moonless On Moon

 

A poet heard a drone over her head which buzzed her a wake-up call, that it had been around, as the drone floated unsteadily on the bowl of the blue and humming its tune, departing readily, informing that it had been there, on the dark side of the moon, and had seen the unseen—an oxymoron, but a little truth hid in this cosmic paradox in the dark porous rocks, a priceless gem was locked—life’s building blocks of light oxygen n’ all that the earth, overtime had become tight with life, a place quite trite, rightly so, her imagination flew high, she thought, let’s rock up to the moon because it filled her up with hope and delight, if perchance, the light side of the moon was habitable, it would be a moment of bittersweet emotion crammed between the dark side of the moon, a force to reckon with and the light side, still, the poet tried to sight a moon from the surface of the moon itself, no lacquered moon on the light side to be sighted—perhaps, a black moon on the dark side, then? The poet pried in vain on earth to witness and shed light through a blue moon to jeer a grin - the dark side of the moon followed the light side like a shadow of a foot, sadly, though, no moon could ever be viewed on either of its sides, the lyrics, she wrote as she sang a moon song on the blue earth and thought the romance rang truer here rather than there.

 

 

 

 

The Missing Prime Minister by Jo Bodsworth

[Leicestershire, England]

 

 The Private Secretary was hovering at the top of the stairs. “Good morning. Would you like a drink?”

 

     “Please, coffee,” I nodded as I opened the door to the PM’s office.

 

 

     He was sitting in the armchair near the fireplace. Instead of his usual suit, a chunky-knit cardigan was pulled round him, over an open-necked shirt. He motioned for me to sit. His hair was slicked down with sweat, beads glistened on his forehead. His pale skin took on a greyish tinge with several warty lesions around his throat.

 

      “What’s going on, John?”

 

     “Are they sorting you a drink?... I’ve asked for tea,” he commented. His words came with heavy effort, his chest rattling with every breath. I nodded in response to his question but said nothing.

 

     He wheezed as he drew breath to speak and started coughing. His left hand, clutching a large white hanky, quickly covered his mouth. His right hand held me at bay, not that I was moving. The coughing subsided, splatterings of red on the cloth. He hastily folded it in on itself and dabbed his forehead.

 

     “Sorry,” he said, “I…I’m a bit of a mess.”

 

      An aide entered with the drinks.

 

      “Ah, that’s better,” he said, sipping his tea, “I have this constant taste… of copper.”

 

     “Have you seen a doctor?” I took a sip of coffee and waited for an answer.

 

     “I can’t just go off sick… at the slightest little thing… But I would like you to stand in for me… at PMQ’s… I have the questions… and answers on my desk.” He waved a hand in the general direction of the desk, as I got the documents. The top page bore a few very fine red dots. “You’ll have to hold your cool … with the third question… don’t let them rattle you… Peter’s let them know it won’t be me… he may know who… they’re going to put up… against you… I have some documents to look through… I will do those… then rest… rest and time… that’s all I need… rest and time.”

 

     “Is there anything else I can do for you?”

 

     He shook his head, the action starting him coughing again. He waved for me to go and, as I stood to leave, I could see his handkerchief was redder.

 

     Outside the door, Peter was waiting. He held out a piece of paper with the name of the opposition member I would face in a few hours.

 

     “Thank you, Peter. Get him a doctor, will you?” I moved towards the stairs.

 

     “He saw one earlier.”

 

     “What did they say? He should be in hospital. He’s coughing up blood.”

 

     “I know. Doc said all that to him, but he refused. Nothing they can do, anyway, apparently.” Peter’s eyes were moist.

 

     “Is it…?”

 

     He nodded.

 

     “How long?”

 

     “Didn’t say. Should I tell anyone?”

 

     I shook my head, “He wouldn’t even tell me.”

 

      The walk out of Downing Street felt altogether more sombre than my walk in.

 

 

 

 

Spooky Season Flash Fiction: 2 pieces by Liberty Reeves

[Bournemouth, England]

 

 

The Car Crash

 

December belongs to ravens. Poe decided it and no one has disagreed since. They perch on lamp posts as easily as pine trees. Adaptable creatures. Distracting creatures. Omens of death. As I step into the hectic road, I think: how could something so beautiful predict something so deadly?

 

 

The Uni Room

 

I've locked myself in the room with the rat. Pestforce said it's a baby, and that I should have no mercy. It's had no mercy on me. Seven days of constant scratching, of scampering over my stained rugs and tangling itself in charger cables. God forbid it chews them. Scratch, scratch. Scratch, scratch. I lean over the side of my bed. Mercy, he's right. It is a baby, and it’s caught in the trap. I sink under my duvet, head under the covers. Problems aren't there if you don't look down.

 

 

 

 

One Of The Few by Kate Holmes

[Driffield, Yorkshire, England]

You joined me on my first train journey from London to Leeds sporting your pale pink dress with white spots. Pristine white shoes and ankle socks. I was grateful you stuck around, especially when she left. You weren't particularly talkative but nor was I. 

They made a huge fuss of you when we arrived making it clear you were special and different to the others. If I got rough with you, you would disappear for a while. I knew you were still around and would show up again soon. 

We got scruffier in our teenage years. I needed glasses and you developed this odd wink. Two outsiders who stuck together and shared secrets.

 

Our separation half a century after our first meeting was not planned and was cruel. He knew how much you meant to me but would not let me see you following the split. You are made of harder stuff than me and was fine. I have learned to be. I never knew your name and the irony is that you are one of the few who knows mine. 

 

 

 

 

Night Sweat by David McVey

[Milton of Campsie, Scotland]

 

I wake up sweating. I hold my hands in front of me and feel them tingling. I’m haunted by a dream, a horrible dream. Or perhaps it’s a memory.

 

I’ve wanted to get back at him for so long. Jake, my neighbour. Not for being evil or dangerous, but for being annoying, noisy, insensitive, cocky. For playing loud music at 2am, for jet-washing his driveway at 7am, for bawling into his mobile every minute of every day. And for being a Celtic supporter. I hate the Old Firm.

 

He was always boundlessly self-confident for all that he was small and cross-eyed. He seemed to strut everywhere, as if beating his chest as he went. Whenever I saw him, I imagined creeping up behind him and smashing his skull with one swift strike of a poker; or pitching him into the back of a bin lorry as it clawed the rubbish; or shoving him into the path of a speeding 4x4.

 

And now I gasp and sweat and wonder - did I dream that I had crept into his garden before midnight as he played loud music? Had I dreamt of choking the life out of him as if he were a scrawny chicken? Or are these actual memories, memories of things I’ve really done but the details of which are hazy with sleep and guilt and dread?

 

Supposing I sleep again; supposing I wake up next morning and switch on the radio and the main story on Good Morning Scotland is the discovery of Jake’s body and, as I open my eyes fully, I see flashing blue lights making kaleidoscope patterns on the curtains?

 

Right now, however, it’s quiet; perfectly so, apart from odd gasps of distant traffic and a mild puff of a night wind against the window pane that shifts the curtain slightly. And then from next door there comes a demonic scrabbling and a demented yapping fit to wake the dead, if there are any.

 

If I have killed him, I think, I wish I’d killed his stupid dog as well.

 

 

 

 

Nonsense by Luwan Wang

[London, England]

 

It’s quiet and dark. I can still feel the white light going through the black cloth that covers my eyes and shines on my eyelids. I can smell the disinfectant. Is this what death feels like? No, death should be nothingness, but I’m still thinking.

 

     What’s the point of death - what should that day be when it comes? If I smiled and crossed my hands on my chest, I would be a person who has many lovely children and has experienced a happy life. If I drooped the corners of my mouth, made a serious expression, and put my hands to the sides of my body, I would be a rich person who forgot to make a will, and my children would hurt each other fighting over my property. Crazy thoughts. If I wrote them down, would that be stream-of-consciousness fiction? Or would it just be nonsense? I’ve read a stream-of-consciousness fiction before. The story was called The Mark on the Wall. It’s a boring but brilliant story. The boring is like, when I went to the bar with my friends, they ordered cokes. They wanted to be healthier and reduce their alcohol intake. Brilliant but boring. What did they say? ‘Don’t worry about us. Just order whatever you want!’ I looked like a weirdo with my Cuba Libre. I didn’t like The Mark on the Wall,  but it was on the compulsory reading list in middle school. Sometimes, I don’t want to do something if people force me. Like, when I think my room is messy and needs to be cleaned, and then my mom comes in and says: ‘You should clean your room!’ I don’t want to do it anymore. But I still read The Mark on the Wall. The grade was more important. Exams were torturous. How to remember all the knowledge in my textbooks? Some points, especially, are difficult to understand. I wish someone would invent edible books. Then, as long as I make sure to eat them, I would be able to remember and understand them. They would have different flavours. Harry Potter would be a chocolate flavour, and The Mark on the Wall would be a carrot flavour. But what if the calories of the chocolate-flavour books were equal to chocolate’s calories? The teachers would tell the students: ‘Eat two to three pages of your textbooks every day. Don’t eat all of them on the day before the exam, otherwise, you’ll have indigestion.’ If I was too lazy to eat books until the day before the exam, then I would gain 10kg after having 100 pages within a day. I’d have to go to the bookstore after the exam and ask the staff if they could recommend some salad-flavour books to me. If I manage to publish my diary, which is strawberry cake-flavoured, I would tell my readers: ‘Thanks for listening to my nonsense, and I hope you enjoy it.’

 

     The sound of shoes scraping on the ground in the corridor. I am not alone. But what if it’s a serial killer? If he takes my heart or my other organs? Which organ is the least valuable? I don’t know the market.

 

     ‘Are you ready? We’ll start soon.’ I recognise his voice. It’s my doctor, not a serial killer.

 

 

 

 

Independence by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

After three-hundred years of falsehood, oppression, misunderstanding, mistrust – the British Parliamentary System, the English Language, Advances in Life Skills, Beliefs; British Colonial Rule in Jamaica, was coming to a close.

 

Some elements of past life would continue, but a new era for Jamaica was in sight – Self-Rule.

 

Hurbert Williams, felt this, as he gazed at the fireworks, listened to the talk of freedom, heard the sound system pound in his ears. He watched the Union flag being lowered. The Jamaican flag take its place.

 

He had experienced twenty-three years of life in England. The war. The RAF. English girls. He was tempted to marry one. Penny, a nice middle-class girl from Wimbledon. Parental pressure from both sides, often bitter, sometimes vindictive, soured their romance and they called it off.

 

Marriage to his Jamaican wife, Bibs, of twenty- two years, proved stable and strong. She was a nurse and had become his help mate and friend. Unusual, at the time, she also became friends with Penny, and this helped to smooth the situation a great deal.

 

Cynthia, his daughter. Schooled in England. A dream come true. Shock, when she became in his eyes, a revolutionary as a result.

 

Pride. His younger son, George, being born in England, achieved the seemingly unachievable – an English man.  

 

Unrealistically high expectations of Independence. Many Jamaicans including Hubert Williams and his family returned to life in Jamaica. Hopes. Dreams. Ambitions to be fulfilled. Fears. Disappointments. Regrets.

 

Rastafari. Music. Cricket. Athletics. Everything had a new meaning. Migration. Tourism – A movement of people. Exchange of ideas. Breaking down of barriers.

 

Sugar. Rum. Bananas. Citrus. Bauxite. Few resources to build the country on.

 

The future – A simple phrase – at once glorious and filled with hope, yet so terrifying.

 

August 6th 1962, a Defining Date in Jamaican history.

 

Twilight, an In-Between Time. As the sun set, Hubert Williams pondered on what the future had in store for him, his family, and his country, on this auspicious Day of Independence.  

 

 

 

 

The Past Is Another Country by Ali Rowland

[Northumberland, England]

I was a doctor, now I gut fish.

 

The fish comes in a cold truck on a Wednesday. The man who drives the truck showed me a picture of the boat the fish come off.

It’s a big one, very sturdy, not like the dingy we came on. I see families playing on those inflatables at the beach, having fun. 

 

The weekends are busy, so I prepare extra. There are so many cuts on my fingers. The fish is so cold the knife slips. 

 

My husband fries the chips. He was an engineer. If the fryers break down, he fixes them. 

 

We had lots of friends. We ran a charity for homeless people in our spare time. Now we give the chips left over at the end of the night to those who live on the street. 

 

They come for the money on Mondays. Our rent comes out of that. They give us just enough for food. They have our passports. We live in the room upstairs which smells of frying. 

 

The shop is bright just like an operating theatre. It’s hot in the summer. One day a man falls on the shiny floor while waiting for his food. He’s having a heart attack. I do compressions before the ambulance comes. We hold our breaths but thankfully, the police don’t come. The paramedics say I did so well I could train to do their job.

 

Back home if you save a life, the person comes back to shake your hand and thank you. I am wondering if the customer will do this. That would make me smile.

 

 

 

Every Time We Fall by Caroline Grimshaw

[Islington, London, England]

 

Every word, ever spoken was now stored in a database so gigantic that it filled what used to be the iced-coated surface of Antarctica. Here, the once immeasurable ice sheet had finally melted, setting the scene for today’s Tundra, with its shrubs, sedges and lichens. The deep darkness of winter and temperatures that plunged below zero for 10 months of every year was found to be the perfect location for ‘Discourse Data Home – DDH’.

 

     Human beings no longer felt the desire for dialogue. The last word uttered was decades ago. All conversations and interactions are now performed through ‘ThoughtwaveTM’.

 

     Agatha stationary, her soul in silence. Surrounded by screens of stimulating scenarios – tantalising images of groups gathered, giggling, chattering voraciously. Words tumbling from their tongues. Hands held. Skin crushed under the weight of passion.

 

     Agatha’s eyelids gently close, blocking out all visionary and auditory stimuli. Then, her sensuous hands levitate, willowy fingers coding dialogue that is neither heard, nor seen. This conversation transmuted into digital streams which can be experienced far away, on the other side of the dead planet. Agatha is a master of the download: borrowing the best conversations from DDH and repurposing them for her own ends.

 

     Me, Agatha, TW045067: Programming commencement. Activate. Engage.

 

     Language flows from her with the same force as the gushing water cascading across the Niagara Gorge. Now, of course, all water has evaporated from the earth’s surface.

 

     Me, Agatha: I feel my falling today but know this: the greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.

 

     thought reply is instantaneous.

 

     Me, Otis, TW 076085: Welcome. Know this: it is the courage to continue that counts.

 

     Me, Agatha: I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.

 

     Me, Otis: Fear of what?

 

     The thought waves cease. First a friction and a discrete buzz. Then an escalation, turning into a cacophony of white noise. For Otis, TW 076085, communication has ceased forever. He has broken protocol. Communication may be eloquent and poetic – it must never be personal. Otis, TW 076085: seated alone. Thoughts bombard the outer layer of his brain. The cerebral cortex fires sensations of thinking and a desperate desire to share.

 

     Otis, TW 076085: forever alone.

 

 

 

 

What Happened To Dermot? by Eileen Dunne

[Ireland]

This is not a story about pigeon lung and what doctors classify as bilateral glass dust opacities and expansive honeycombing of the lungs. Dermot attributes his debilitating breathlessness to dear Deborah and her smoking, his wife of thirty years.  

Our father distilled Dermot’s peculiar character to his early association with the older men at the pigeon club. He was ten years old when he made his first pigeon loft; a Bewley’s tea chest, mounted on top of dad’s workshop at the end of the garden.  It was more of a yard than a garden and an unfitting retro to a once glamorous Georgian house. Dermot had made a runway with two wide planks, stretching from the yard up to the loft. Sputnik, the family dog, would race up the gangway and mangle unfortunate cats who ventured near the loft. It was a no-go area, known to us as the Falls Road. The limp bodies of cats were placed in a sack, weighted by bricks, and flung into the mouth of the Liffey. 

 

Through the years Mam would lament, “Where did I go wrong?” And a nine-year-old Dermot peers from a cheap plastic frame, hanging between the kitchen window and the scullery door; a cherub sporting a blue shirt with matching tie, the pale paisley design matching the peeling wallpaper on that side of the kitchen.  

 

We sisters are certain there was notable change in Dermot’s personality after that Sunday, the Sunday he was left behind in Glendalough. Mam dreaded Dad’s declarations of a family drive to the Dublin mountains. As soon as we left the city, he fragmented the trip by stopping off at every pub on the route, while Mam self-comforted in the passenger seat with snapped squares of Fry’s Chocolate Cream. Around 6pm on that Sunday, journeying home along the Grand Canal, someone shouted from the back of the car, “Mr. Dunne, where’s Dermot?” There were ten of us packed like mackerel along the rear seat and boot. The garda told Mam to take the kids home. His voice was soft. 

 

Dermot is dark like Mam with sallow skin and raisin yellow eyes. We found him sitting by the fire drinking a mug of tea.  “I met a couple from the flats, they brought me home and said, “What kind of parents have you?”  

 

I have often reconstructed that story and it seems improbable that he met a couple from the flats with a car.  Back then we knew the owners of the few cars in the area.  Pat Meagher’s peppermint green Ford Anglia and Tom O’Brien’s polished blue Vauxhall Viva, the neighbours we called on for hospital runs.  I have no recollection of Dad mentioning the incident again. The time we left Dermot in Glendalough never formed part of his pub repertoire. Nobody has ever asked Dermot what happened that day, reluctant to unsettle the settled.  

FALL_CGrimshaw_artwork (2).jpg

Original artwork by Caroline Grimshaw to accompany her story 'Every Time We Fall' [above]

The Snake by Yanwu Yuan 

[from China, living in Berlin]

I walk downstairs. In the living room, the light is on and the fan is turning in a regular rhythm. The TV is off, meaning father is in bed, joining mother in their room next to the living room, with the door ajar as always. Leftovers from dinner are carelessly scattered on the squared, red wooden dining table. A cigarette in hand, I push the worn wooden entrance door, then the ajar door screen. I sit at the narrow, long wooden bench where I smoked with my brother and father the other night; where my father usually smokes every five minutes during the long evenings when we are not around, with mother lying on her bed most of the time.

 

I'm not scared. Then, I found the switch on the outside wall and flicked it on. I won't be scared if I see it again. That obscure, lithe, nearly modellable figure had slipped out from beneath the terrace tiles where I made my smoking break last night. I first saw its shadowy, triangular head, followed by the rest of its body unfurling from the darkness, until I was aware of its full length – not particularly impressive, but ample enough to make me hold my breath. I didn't scream but stood up immediately after this unexpected encounter. It moved slowly across the concrete surface of the garden to the unilluminated patch where vegetables were blossoming. I fiddled in the living room, shut the door, and heard father humming. He can wake up at any tiny noise.

 

"A snake, I saw a snake," I controlled my voice not to wake up the rest of the family.

 

"Oh, oh." Father tried to open his sleepy eyes to figure out what I was talking about.

 

"A Snake! In the garden, close to the door!"

 

"Oh. Nothing, it's nothing," he repeated.

 

"I didn't know there were snakes in your garden." I’m just a guest here; how could I have known? My last visit was five years ago.

 

"It's not a problem. It won't harm anyone."

 

"I don't like this." I recalled my childhood in the village nearby. People used to talk about the snakes they found and how they killed one in my grandparents' garden. It felt like yesterday. The villagers had killed the snake and made it a meal. Back then, nothing surprised me. But now, it shocked me and it terrified me. Who wants to meet snakes while enjoying a peaceful summer night? Even though it was just a single snake.

 

"It can't move on to the slippery tiles. I killed one a while ago," father mumbled, dozing off.

 

I went upstairs. My husband and son were profoundly asleep. I settled into my brother's room, which he had vacated after the brief stay with us. I smoked in his room, hoping the odour would disappear before his next visit.

 

But tonight, knowing the snake's existence, I sit alone on the bench while everyone else slumbers. Yet, it doesn't show up. Instead, I see its friends, toads. A few of them camouflage in the dull, charcoal-coloured earth.

 

Don't worry. I will come back tomorrow night. Be on time to meet me again.

 

 

 

 

Epiphany by Kenny Campbell

[Coleraine, Northern Ireland]

 

Sarah awoke in blind panic. It was pitch dark. Completely silent. Her eyes and ears were overwhelmed all the same. She couldn’t move, even though she grasped for anything concrete, something certain.

 

     She had vague memories of driving home from doing some November Christmas shopping across town. Then blank.  But all that seemed distant now, alien to her. All she knew now was that something terrible had happened, and it was probably her own fault.

                                                                    *

 

Daisy Henderson, Sarah’s HR manager, looked concerned as they sat either side of the desk in the company’s main office.

‘Sarah,’ she began carefully, ‘it’s been eighteen months now. There comes a point when we all need to move on. We all carry scars but we need to keep moving forward.’

 

     Sarah’s head remained lowered, her eyes a pool of long suppressed emotion. She fought off another flashback, but not before she was transported back to    

Cold,         

     Black       

Nightmare.   

     Twisted metal,   

Broken glass.

 

     Sarah forced herself back to the present moment.

 

     ‘I need... this job... Daisy,’ she replied with a crackly voice that seemed strangely detached from her somehow.

The room seemed smaller than it used to, and the walls were distinctly closer than a few minutes ago.

 

     Tears glistened in her eyes now, her heart breaking a little more with each painful moment.                                              

 

     ‘We have made every reasonable adjustment we can Sarah. Maybe it’s just not going to work out.’

 

     Sarah hurried out of Daisy’s office, the room still shrinking behind her, as the tears came fully for the first time since the accident.

 

     ‘This isn’t fair!  I didn’t do anything wrong!’ she thought, her mind reeling. She felt physically sick, the last few minutes seemed to have lasted a lot longer. ‘Why don’t they care what I’m going through?’

 

     She ran to the toilet, closed the door and wept until the tears ran dry. As the feeling gradually passed she tried to recompose herself in front of the bathroom mirror. She thought she looked terrible, even after washing her face, taking some moments. But she could now face walking the short distance back to her own office.

 

     Sarah grabbed her coat, picked up her handbag. She thought resigning would give her a better chance of securing employment elsewhere. Perhaps that was what Daisy was pushing her towards anyway. She would email Daisy her resignation in the morning. 

 

                                                                                          *

 

Outside, the late spring rain was falling heavily. Sarah pulled her coat over her head and shoulders. Not that it would really make any difference in this weather. She felt the rain washing over her, like healing water flowing over her body and mind. A small smile, reluctantly grew on her tear stained face. She would take some time to gather her broken pieces, but a glimmer of hope was stirring in her heart.

 

     ‘Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end.’ Sarah remembered reading that somewhere, couldn’t place it, but that’s what she had read.

 

 

 

 

The Envelope by Caroline Grimshaw

[Islington, London, England]

It must have been crisp, unblemished, almost luxurious once. Now it seems violated: the carefully inscribed calligraphic text fractured by his aggression. The stamp is intact; the profile of the oblivious Queen untouched, unless you consider the postmark a disfigurement.

 

     That postcode. The clue to the sender of the letter.

 

     That name – her name – made unreadable when he grabs and rips the envelope, is the match that lights the flame of his fury.

 

     Liar, he screams.

 

     Let me explain, she pleads.

 

     Hell, no. Liar. Liar. Liar…

 

     Stop, she cuts him off.

 

    Over you said, over. I bloody believed you, he sobs.

 

     Face contorted, blood bursting to escape the widening vessels, he lunges at her, spittle spraying her face. The smell of dead onions and last night’s red meat suffocates her senses.

 

     Her hand, as quick as a viper’s tongue, flicks forwards, snatching the distressed envelope. She jerks backwards, avoiding the swing of his fleshy paw, claws sharpened to maim, to scar.

 

     That cocksure writing… So bloody clever, he whines.

 

     His mind oscillates between bitterness and self-pity.

 

     She relaxes a little. Mistake. A porcelain vase – a gift from the letter writer – spins through the air, coming to rest on her skull. The 14th century Chinese dragon pierces her skin with its fiery breath.

 

     She sinks, ashen. Her blood is deciding whether to stop circulating.

 

     I’m glad, he thinks.

 

     A minute passes.

 

     Call someone. Do something, he thinks some more.

 

     I’ll open the envelope, he mutters, as he reaches for the envelope now decorated with his wife’s blood. His still livid fingers withdraw a simple card, with a message of invitation.

 

     He reads: Two people (him and her) invited to the funeral of –

 

     He gasps. His rival is dead. Being a smart-ass, he wrote the invitation and envelope himself.

 

     He’s dead. Is she dead? He shudders.

     Five seconds pass.

 

     Will they be united in death? His heart pounds, he feels nauseous.

 

 

 

 

The Baboo by Alex Bennett

[Liverpool, England]

When they pulled on the rope the ship groaned. The men wheezed, shouted, spat back, determined to right a wrong that had never occurred before, and would not happen again. Jim stood on the steps of the Custom House, watching the violence with intent; in all his years he had never seen such a sight. He took out his pipe and a pinch of tobacco and began to light the bowl.

“You know what this is, don’t you?” Father Graham said gravely at his side, hands clasped behind his back.

“And what’s that?” said Jim, puffing out a cloud between them.

“Why it’s capsized. The Baboo.”

“You’ve a story father, tell it.”

“That ship has made so many journeys ferrying those poor souls in from down below – those men of far-flung provenance fed nothing but gruel and lies – taken them away from home, to here, to destitution and hatred, and it’s turned itself away in shame.”

“Is that your reading, is it?”

“I speak on what I see. It’s rolled itself away from us, back towards the southern hemisphere, asking for forgiveness.”

Jim sniffed and chewed on this for a moment.

“You know they christened it the Acorn?” he said after a beat. “What a name for such a thing.” He gestured with his pipe to the hulking mass of iron filling the graving dock. There was a soft light escaping through the clouds this biting February morning, and the hull cast an angled shadow over the men on its portside heaving thick ropes between their forearms.

“From the littlest acorns,” Father Graham said.

Jim laughed dismissively, though something in him stirred. His stomach grew uneasy at the sight.

“You look disturbed, son,” said Father Graham.

“I’ve just been getting to wonder,” said Jim, “about the nature of progress.”

“How so?”

 “Here we are, staring into the mouth of industrial ingenuity, standing on these steps built with mathematical precision – yet men still make mistakes.”

Jim thought of the world to come, how much bigger these endeavours would be, in the name of progress – how much more shameful the errors would be to men like him, the men down in the graving dock, sweating, palms bleeding, to get that ship upright, lest it become a reminder. The two men stood in silence, observing, until dusk rolled in. They nodded goodnight to each other and walked in opposite directions of the wreck.

Jim sat at his table the following morning, candle waning against the early dark, reading the Mercantile Gazette. It would be nine years before he would read that the Baboo had been acquired by the Navy for military exploits – rechristened HMS Assistance. It would be another four before he was reading how it had been abandoned in arctic ice, cut from the world, left to float into no man’s land, out of sight. He closed the paper and stood to leave.

 

Pandy by Ray Kohn

[Sheffield, England]

 

Pandy was brought to the United Nations after a spacecraft dumped her on a beach. She brought ‘glad tidings’ - a promise that all ‘right thinking’ would be rewarded with knowledge. However, ‘Evil actions’ would be punished by a swarm of tiny flies that flew out of the box she was holding. A delegate caught one insect in his hands and as it buzzed, he opened his hands to show others what he had trapped. But there was nothing to be seen. Pandy shouted, ’The I-flies are not visible until they die. That only happens if they bite you.’ The delegate panted, ‘Have I been bitten?’ Pandy answered, ‘You are still alive, and the I-fly has remained invisible: so clearly you have not been bitten.’

 

‘PANDY LAUNCHES WEAPON’ was next day’s headline. But most saw I-flies as merely an annoying addition to the insect population.  Bickering delegates could never agree where Pandy might settle, so they accepted her uncontroversial choice of Crete. There she started providing volumes of technological information unknown to Earth scientists.

 

Weeks later, Pandy raised a storm of protest when explaining that a dead politician must have been the instigator of some ‘evil action” or the I-fly would not have bitten him. In the following months, several hundred political leaders were found dead with tiny I-fly bodies lying beside them.

 

‘World leaders demand Pandy call off the I-flies’ was the message filling the world’s media outlets as autocrats and democrats alike felt equally threatened. Pandy explained she had no power over I-flies. ‘They are the judges: it is they who arranged for me to visit Earth.’

 

‘Will the I-fly population die out or will they procreate?’ a Cretan news reporter asked.

 

‘I-flies grow in proportion to the volume of evil action undertaken.’

 

“Pandy, many suspect you control I-flies. If you don’t stop them, then your life will be in danger.”

 

‘Millions of ignorant men and women find it comforting to believe that the evil that they do can be erased by scapegoating someone who is different to them. Murdering the messenger would just be another evil action for I-flies to avenge.’

 

‘We don’t understand how to judge what you call ‘evil actions’. Can you help us grasp what you mean by this term?’

 

‘We share a common belief in what ‘evil actions’ are. Where our planets may differ is that telling untruths seems to be acceptable here whereas lying, as far as I-flies are concerned, is unforgiveable.’

 

‘But our leaders tell stories that try to show listeners the world as they see it. Do I-flies see these as lies?’

 

‘If the story doesn’t meet the facts or if the intention is merely to mislead, then they are falsehoods.’

 

Much animation took place amongst the delegates until the original Cretan news reporter piped up. ‘Pandy, do you know how we can stop the I-flies killing us?’

 

‘I’m ordered to say ‘I do not know,’’ she cried, was bitten, and died immediately.

Shotgun Kisses by Donna Costello

Shotgun Kisses by Donna Costello

[UK]

He waits for you in bed, a joint hanging between his lips. The sweet scent of Purple Kush swirls into the air and he watches the smoke curl from the end of the blunt. He prefers something a little less floral, something with a bit more spice, but this is your preferred brand of weed and tonight he wants to make this all about you.

 

You straddle his waist and lean in close, your nose trailing over his until your lips are barely apart. He exhales, blowing the fragrant smoke into your mouth before as he kisses you. The taste of candied berries plays across your tongue, and you drink it down, tumbling backwards into his sheets.

 

He makes love to you under an indigo haze. His calloused fingertips trailing over your skin as if he’s reading music, strumming the notes from your body until they collide into a symphony that only he gets to hear. When you fall, he falls with you, plunging through violet clouds with the taste of heaven on his lips.

 

 

 

The Wrestler by Ian Harris

[Wimborne Minster, Dorset]

From the street, the Liverpool Stadium looks more industrial unit than a sports venue. A poster by the front doors declares: ‘For one night only, the World of Wrestling presents Big Joe Mahler vs. Eddy ‘the Demon’ McDermott. Brought to you by world-class promoter Bert McCrae and sponsored by Crosswells Carpets.’ Within, the smell is potent: stale alcohol and the bitter note of Old Virginia. The pent-up hum of an abattoir.

 

     In the smaller changing room, next to the boilers, Eddy pauses by the sink. Forty fights, forty defeats. Ten of those to Big Joe, ten years and five stone his senior. Flicking a towel over his tense shoulders he puts his face on for the last time. Hair tied up; he deftly applies white foundation and streaks of eyeliner. Thick as a bingo marker, gracefully curving over his eyes and along the bridge of his nose. Some lipstick, artful enough to give his mouth a ragged red sneer. Scooping out a handful of Vaseline, he smears it over his hair until it is slick and flat against his skull. A strand curls unhelpfully above his left ear but he ignores it. He daubs mascara through his beard, twisting the hairs to a crooked point. He frowns into the mirror on the wall. A painted wrinkled devil winks, grinning in anticipation.

 

     A roar goes up around the ring. The double doors opposite us close behind a tall figure in a nylon cloak of faded gold. Big Joe surveys the crowd, nodding his bald, wrinkled head. His stage name rings out, the echoes joining the noise of stamping feet. He parades past the spectators to the ring. Gripping the ropes with both hands, heavy legs navigate their way onto the canvas. Here he is, the returning champion. 

 

     Eddy ‘The Demon’ McDermott is already half-way to the ring. He lumbers past the rows of spectators in a red and black costume that no longer fits. The crowd look away from Big Joe and notices this unwelcome opponent. Insults and jeers spit out. Playing to the gallery Eddy ascends the steps, beating his chest and roaring his contempt. He finally clambers into the ring.

 

     The bell goes and the two men collide. An elbow in the face, a stamp on the toes and Big Joe gasps in pain. Eddy continues down this grim path with a kick to the knee and a butt of his forehead into Joe’s nose. This gleeful tormentor turns to the hostile crowd to demand praise. The crowds are on their feet. We crane our necks; Big Joe looks hurt. His bewildered expression is cause for alarm. Eddy’s swinging right arm connects with Joe’s face. He keels over. Some spectators turn away, sickened. A heavy black boot swings up and round, making contact with Joe’s ribs; once, twice, a third time. The crowd are silenced, appalled. Men swarm in from all sides of the ring, a bell clangs, the demon is dragged away, smiling at his work.

 

 

 

A Home From Home by Mike Taylor

[Plymouth, England]

 

Martin wasn’t sure where his sister had gone. It was typical of Carole to have disappeared. She was always chatting to people, leaving him waiting on his own. So, he walked back down the corridor he had already been up and down at least a couple of times, stopping at the end to look out of the window into the little garden beyond.

 

He wanted to get away from the shouting and swearing. That was uncomfortable, hearing a man using those words so loudly. Martin turned just as the door to that room opened and a tall young man in an overall emerged, holding a pile of clothes. Backing against the window at the other end of the hall, Martin watched as an elderly man then appeared in pyjamas, one arm shaking as he muttered and walked off towards some open double doors.

 

It must be horrible to be so old and confused. Had the carer been rough with him? Or was the old man just impossible to get undressed? It left Jerry feeling sad and somewhat unnerved. This would be a good time for Carole to pop up. He knew he couldn’t leave on his own, as she had driven them there. Besides, he didn’t know the way out.

 

Starting walking back, he noticed a door, set back from the wall, with stairs beyond. This looked promising but there was a panel beside it. He’d need a code to open it, he realised. Stepping back, he half saw someone through the windowpane. It was a man, very old but familiar.

 

He jumped when he heard the woman’s voice behind him: “Looking at your reflection again, Martin. You like that, don't you. Come on, let's get you back to your room. It’s almost time for bed.”

 

 

 

 

After Me by Shiza Khan

[Mumbai, India]

I wait for you at breakfast, watching the slant ray of sun illuminate the broken tiles. Dust motes swirl above, refusing to settle on the debris. Your plate has two perfect eggs on a slice of toast. Mine has fruit. You walk in as I blow steam off my hot lemon water. You smile without meeting my eye, pushing my bangs aside to kiss me on the patch of unbruised and unswollen forehead.

     “I am kind,” your eyes say.

 

     You begin eating, while reading the paper. I watch as a headline in big ugly letters morphs into existence on the front page. WIFE FOUND DEAD: HUSBAND HELD SUSPECT.

 

       My fingers curl around the mug, its heat abating the shivers that have begun.

 

      “I’ll be home by five,” you say, shoveling the last of the egg. “Don’t cook dinner. We’ll go to that fancy restaurant you told me about.” You squeeze my hand. In assurance. Or warning.

 

      It is the same each time. Dinner that leads to yellow daffodils and a single night of love. A softness that expires with the daffodils. Then the pushing begins, and the screaming.

 

     I smile between sips of water. A split in the lip cracks, releasing a pearl of fresh blood. Its scent wafts to me, clearing my head. It clears more when the door clicks shut and gravel crunches in the driveway. Last night floods my memory; playing like a movie.

 

      My feet jerk under the table as muscles throb violently. The feeling snaps a cord in my brain and I stand, dizziness overtaking my senses. I leave the dishes, and the now lukewarm lemon water. I pull open drawers, looking for the knife I had stowed away. I find it in the drawer full of negative pregnancy tests. The silver gleam of the blade beckons.

 

      I press it against the green vein of my forearm. The cold bites the skin as it resists and turns white. Then the sun shifts, hitting me in the eye. The knife clatters against the ugly pink tile. I don’t pick it up. Instead, I push it with my toe, the missing toenail in full view. I look to where the tiles had broken and spot the familiar red nail paint.

 

      The wall above it is decorated with pictures: a warm tinted wedding photo, me showing my solitaire at the beach; us skydiving, you holding a black and white sonogram of our baby. I pull that down first. Remove it from its golden frame and tear it into bits. The others follow. I move from room to room, throwing and tearing; erasing every bit of me.

 

      In the bedroom, I gather my clothes – only the ones I bought myself. I pack the pair of red baby booties we bought after our first ultrasound. When you were still someone I recognized.

 

      After me, the motes do their well-synchronised dance and stand suspended as the setting sun illuminates the empty house, once again refusing to settle.

 

 

 

 

Antelope Knees Ground Down For Cream by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

Concerns were raised for some of the world’s most vulnerable creatures, when it was revealed that antelope knee poaching has reached an all-time high. It has long been known in cosmetics fields that ground-down antelope knees are a basic ingredient of the roughcast foundation makeup used by women ‘of a certain age’ to fill the potholes, cracks and crevices caused by time. The pulverised bone and cartilage impart the natural elasticity of active antelopes into the aging skin of the cream’s consumers.

          Until recently, the harvesting of knees was restricted to one knee per antelope, but large-scale poaching is now taking place. Traditional knobbly knee contests – the standard test for old-fashioned ‘ball-and-socket’ replacement joints – have been rendered obsolete by advances in technique. New ‘keyhole surgery’, whereby a poached knee is replaced with a keyhole, can only be detected using infra-red scanners. When the IR light is shone on a ‘keyhole’ knee, the beam goes right through and unlocks the door of the inspector’s jeep.

          Helicopters have now been brought into play to pinpoint Mobile Antelope Surgical Knee Harvesting (M*A*S*K*H) units, usually disguised with netting to avoid detection from the air. Tell-tale gaps in air density can be picked up by keyhole-seeking lasers, but the cost is often prohibitive. In addition, this only works where the climate produces a definite measurable heat haze, such as the African plains. In UK safari parks, the method is useless.

          The British black market in banned antelope-knee foundation cream has grown to such proportions that knees are even being shipped back to Africa to replace those confiscated after successful keyhole detection. In return, African antelopes are smuggled into the UK for ‘treatment’ in the – often literally – underground M*A*S*K*H units here.

          This is the vicious circle, ladies, you are smearing nightly on your faces when you purchase ‘knock-off knee’ foundation cream. Think of the plight of the knee-denuded antelopes, often left unable to play hopscotch due to unevenly balanced joints. Think of the cost to conservation agencies in infra-red jeep locks and laser-equipped helicopters. Think of all those knee surgeons who could be doing facelifts instead. The choice is yours.

 

 

 

 

The Wait For The End by Sreelekha Chatterjee

[New Delhi, India]

When you have more than enough time, you lose track of it, and when you don’t have it in abundance, you seldom understand its worth. I have been sitting in an examination hall for a very long time where the invigilator has asked to “stop writing,” but my answer paper is not being accepted.

 

      My existence on this Earth has been for almost a decade more than my birth centenary. Many insisted that my name should appear in the Guinness Book of World Records for my prolonged appearance, but I asked them not to, as I’ve done nothing worthwhile apart from living forever.

 

      I have seen two pandemics - one being the Spanish flu which occurred almost a century ago when I was little and hardly remember anything clearly, and then the recent Covid-1 which I don’t intend to remember.

 

     I don’t see my two sons and my daughter anymore, perhaps lost in time. My fifty-year-old granddaughter Lily, the only one of my grandchildren who visits me often, has organised a special prayer ceremony this morning to expedite the process of my death. No, it isn’t euthanasia, though it would have served the purpose, but inviting death to happen naturally, so that I may be admitted into the assembly of my forefathers.  

 

     As a victim of arthritis, I can’t sit cross-legged on the floor. I settle on a chair in silent mortification, resembling an ugly crane - a thin wrinkled frame with grey hair, missing teeth, hunchbacked - before the sacred fire in the temple premises, little away from the deities, where funerary rites are being carried out.

 

     The priest offers fire oblations with a sacrificial ladle full of clarified butter and fried grains, while chanting mantras, intermittently checking his watch. Unconnected with time, I stare at the blazing fire, spreading showers of golden sparks, as if it’s my funeral pyre, feeling nauseated by its smoke and the odour of incense sticks.

 

     “Grandma, concentrate!” He says, giving a wavering smile on observing me squirm restlessly in my seat.

 

      Averting my eyes from him, I look around. Lily is sitting under a tree at a distance, busy texting someone on her phone. A lonely crow moves near us, enticed by the food - rice, cow’s milk, sugar, honey - that has been arranged near the fire, as an offering to the ancestors, so that they bless me. Nobody else is over there. Perhaps it’s an indication that my actual funeral won’t be attended by anybody. People of my age group have left the Earth long ago. I am the only one here on an endless pause, stuck in a wait list of the train that takes spirits to the other side.

 

      The fire becomes extinguished. I feel sleepy, my limbs gradually become numb and fatigue overpowers me. Is death drawing near or am I losing consciousness as it happens sometimes? I drag myself mentally with the last bit of my strength, before indulging in homeless wandering, wishing that nobody sees me anymore.

 

 

 

 

Trans by Ray Kohn

[Sheffield, England]

It all started with that damned National Quiz Competition. The fact that one team consisted of old men and the other was all male undergraduates made it look like a battle between generations. But this only became an issue when the final, deciding question was read out.

 

‘What connects Perry Mason with Ironsides?’ was met with puzzled looks amongst the undergraduates. All four pensioners had watched the two tv series when younger and remembered that Raymond Burr was the actor who had played both parts.

 

 ‘UNFAIR’ headlined one national newspaper the following day. And soon, supporters of the defeated team began campaigning for pensioners to be banned if the questions were going to refer to what they regarded as obscure, ancient history.

‘Why should old fogeys with plenty of money in their pensions be allowed to compete when youngsters are struggling to make ends meet?’

 

‘Why should we regard these fogeys as ‘men’ at all? Perhaps they were men at birth but their biology has changed irrevocably. Fogeys are a totally different class of competitor.’

 

A campaign group was formed whom a journalist, initially with a clear touch of irony, called ‘trans-exclusionary radical males’. His article stated that trans-exclusionary radical males (or TERMS) rejected the rights of fogeys to compete in Quiz Competitions because ‘they are not really men as they have ‘transed’ into fogey with all the advantages of age and knowledge. This is very unfair to young men who cannot compete with this type of biological advantage.’

 

The furore that ensued as those who had been caught up in the dispute over people who had transitioned from one gender to another became muted when the ‘terms’ pointed out that whilst two hundred thousand people may or may not be affected by this earlier dispute (about 0.5% of the UK population), Eleven million (18%) are over 65.

 

‘Young people not only have our hopes and dreams crushed when competing for money, we find ourselves paying out billions on fogeys. £124 billion on State pensions and about half of the £176 billion we spend on health services! Not satisfied with that, they have to snatch away the national quiz competition prize. It’s not fair!’

 

In parliament, the rights of young men became a party-political issue as so-called ‘TERMS’ wanted to define men to exclude those ‘who had been born male but, once over 65, clearly could no longer be defined as the same.’ We all know how this entire dispute impacted upon the parallel debate concerning the right to euthanasia. Led by what had become a new movement (‘TERMS’ and their followers that included millions of women hoping to rid themselves of the burdens of supporting old men), their landslide victory at the polls gave the new administration all the legitimacy they needed to build the gleaming new euthanasia centres.

 

I can only apologise and wish that I had never dreamt up the questions to be asked at the quiz competition.

 

 

 

 

The Boy And His Teapot by Victor Cabinta
[Guam, USA]

The God of Tea said that our sole purpose as teapots is to heal our owner and whomever they share us with. When a teapot is made, we will be tugged from the Haven. I waited a long time. It was worth it. I was pulled. As I descended to my body, I sensed that my creator poured all the love they had into molding me. I am a marbled jade teapot. 

 

     That same day, I met my owner. His face pouted as he pulled me out of the box, not something a ten-year-old was expecting as a gift. As he held me up, I sensed his heart was mighty. He was not pleased with me, but I was determined to brew the mightiest of teas for him.

 

     For five months I would not be used, but that didn’t matter.  My time would come. And so, it did. He came home from school, soaked from the rain, and within hours, was hacking up a storm. My little boy needed me, but I knew my plea could not be heard. Luckily, his Mum was there and filled me up with brimming Jade tea. I did what I knew best and brewed all the herbs together and mixed them with my love. Just one sip was all he needed, and his heart would become mighty again.

 

     From that moment after, my little boy made it a habit to brew Jade tea every morning before he left for school. And every tea I made was boiled so delicately, he would never be sick again. I made sure of it. Several weeks passed, then months, and years. My little boy wasn’t so little anymore. He brought a young lady home, for whom his mighty heart pounded so loudly. She had kind eyes, and her laugh brightened his face. That was the day I no longer brewed just for him.

 

     He poured for her his favorite tea that I have made a hundred times. I was nervous she would not like my tea but as she sipped, her cheeks lifted, and then she gulped it down. I was relieved. That day, I was almost out of tea, but I felt full. His eighteenth birthday was the day he took it a step further and decided to share me with his family and friends. If I had a heart, it would have roared.

 

     As he poured, his finger slipped and touched my heated bottom. I feel wind inside me. I had only ever felt it once before I was made into a teapot, waiting up in the clouds to be pulled down to my body. As my tea laid on the floor, and pieces of me scattered around, I saw my little boy looking at me for the first time. He hovered over me, water poured from his eyes. I didn’t want to go... I wanted to stay...  oh, my boy... I wished I could have healed you for a very long time. 

 

 

 

Bird Day by John Kucera

[Tempe, Arizona, USA]

 

The Agway special was ten free chickens per kid, offer good while supplies last, so Gram was always one of the first through the doors, all us kids in tow. My brother, me, any cousin and a friend or two or seven if she could manage. We piled into her minivan, legs pretzeled together, seat belts shared or not worn at all as Gram flew over bumps and winter-worsened potholes that would never be filled.

     On the way back we held printer-paper boxes of baby birds and our voices grew loud and excited until Gram would turn, car scraper in hand, threatening to smack if we didn’t just shut up. But her scolding couldn’t dampen our excitement on Bird Day. Once at Gram’s house, we’d watch the chicks for hours, reaching in to cup their cotton-candy bodies whenever Gram wasn’t looking. Sometimes, they died. Gram said it’s okay, you can always count on loss.

     Then.

     The first time the weather turned Gram told us stay away, but we didn’t listen, drawn to her house by the lure of now-grown chicks, by the possibility of catching their speedy, feathered selves and hugging them or putting them on the trampoline, to see if they would bounce-or-fly. Cruelty was lost on us.

     You’ll watch then, said Gram, angry enough to show us what we didn’t know, what we were too young to understand as we huddled under her huge pine tree. Bird by bird, out to the red-stained stump. After, they ran, headless, stumbling and bumbling and not falling over, even though we willed for the end. We saw the bodies that were dead-but-alive, moving-not-breathing, and wondered: would that be Gram, someday? Us, too? We thought of what the future would bring as we plucked bird-bodies bald.

     In the end: thirty-seven chickens in two trash bags.

     When my father came, he saw our faces, saw the red that was everywhere and carted us away, his yelling at Gram muffled by the closed car door. Uncountable feathers tornadoed in the wind, dusting the yard like early snow as we pressed, pig-nosed, against the glass. One downy feather stuck in Gram’s hair and she wiped at it, smearing blood on her forehead, dampening a curl. We held our fogging breaths and heard her say with finality, that’s what death is. And we knew.

 

 

 

 

The Promise by Simon Dickerson

[Llanelli, South Wales]

 

Stood in front of the bedroom mirror, Tom Shaw checked his appearance. He’d settled on a dark blue suit – nothing too sombre – and a white shirt open at the neck. There was no dress code for an appointment like this. He opened a drawer in the dresser and reached for his watch. As he did, his fingers brushed something solid tucked beneath a handkerchief.  

 

     Shaw glanced towards the door. Victoria was still in the bathroom. The tiny velvet box seemed impossibly heavy. Inside, on a delicate white cushion, two gold bands, one nestled inside the other. 

 

      He carefully laid the rings together on his palm. Clenched his fist. 

 

      A bright day in July. Light clouds drifting across the sun. The smile that shone from Louise like summer itself. Blonde hair tumbling around the shoulders of her white dress.  

 

     He opened his eyes.  

 

     The dead of winter. Snow piled against parked cars. The patrol car outside the house. A cup of tea gone cold in his trembling hand.  

 

     Shaw pushed the memories away before they could take hold. He replaced the rings and returned the box to its hiding place. He turned to the door.  

 

     Victoria stepped into the room. She was wearing jeans and a sweater, wedge sandals, dark hair pulled up off her neck. She looked incredible.  

 

     Clasping the watch around his wrist, he moved towards her. ‘Are you all right, love?’   

 

     Concern flickered behind her eyes. She didn't say anything. 

 

      He drew her close. Breathed in her perfume and the scent of her hair, her body pressed tight, the slight swell of her belly curved against him.  

 

*** 

 

The University Hospital of Wales ran along the southern edge of Heath Park. After two circuits of the multi-storey, Shaw found a parking space on the lower level. He rounded the car to help Victoria from the passenger seat.  

     ‘I’m not disabled,’ she reminded him, taking his hand.   

 

     A late spring breeze drifted through the car park, warm with the promise of summer. They walked towards the main entrance.  

 

     A red line on the vinyl floor led them through the hospital to a sparse waiting area where a sour-faced receptionist instructed them to take a seat.  

 

      Unyielding plastic chairs, bolted to the floor. Shaw took Victoria’s hand in his. 

 

     She squeezed his fingers. ‘We’re not making a mistake, are we?’  

 

     Everything is going to be fine.’  

 

     She looked away, then back. ‘I saw you earlier, with the rings.’ 

 

     Shaw closed his eyes. ‘I’m sorry. It didn’t mean anything –’  

 

     ‘Louise was your wife. It means something.’  

 

     He didn’t respond. 

 

     ‘Tom?’ 

 

     ‘Trust me, we’re doing the right thing.’ 

 

     ‘Promise?’ 

 

     ‘Cross my heart.’ 

 

     The door to the consulting room opened and a woman peered out. She wore green scrubs, grey hair dragged up in a messy bun. A surgical mask hung from one ear.  

 

     

     ‘Victoria Masterson?’ she said.  

 

      Shaw and Victoria stood. Victoria released Shaw’s grip and laid a protective hand on her stomach. 

 

      The woman smiled easily. ‘Please come in.’ 

 

 

 

Bogbine by Justine Sweeney

[Belfast, Northern Ireland]

 

‘Too pale,’ my old aunt says, her hand cupped on my chin, as she swipes my face back and forth, inspecting. ‘Only one thing will cure you, let’s get to the bog field.’

     She knocks back the last dregs of her tea, swings a long trench coat over her pinny, and pulls on a pair of well-worn wellies. 

     ‘Déan deifir,’ she calls back, whipping out through her cottage door and up the lane.

Damson wildflower and tall grasses line the road, breaking into gorse as we near the bog. ‘That city will ruin you. That’s what I told your mother long ago, but would she listen? No! Went running toward the flashing lights and empty promises.’

     Stirring from their cosy nests in the undergrowth, hedgehogs rub sleep from their eyes. The beginnings of green shoots bud from dry bramble which separates the field from the road. Crossing the mossy carpet, my face is cooled by crisp air filled with a woody hint of heather.  I am a stranger here, visiting only once a year since I was a child. The ground toys with me, letting me press in for a moment before springing me forward, its elasticity reminding me that though the surface seems solid, I walk on ninety percent water in this sacred space.  

     Sundew sprawls across the heath, red-yellow stems reaching upward and outward.  Soon, these stalks will wave white petals and spill sweet scent into the path of passing insects.  Flies will be fooled, caught in spikey hair, ingested.

     ‘Here it is!’ She calls from the distance and I make my way towards her.  ‘At the edge of a swamp pond, in the middle of a bog – here it’ll always be.’

     Bending low, one welly-foot below water in the marsh, she pulls at sharp stick branches laden with bright oval leaves.  As the two wrestle, I am unsure who will win. Roots are deep in this place. Like the locals who have cut turf here for a thousand years, this plant will not part easily from the land.

     It is said that once Bogbine is scrubbed and rubbed and ground and stewed, drinking the resultant elixir can pull back a person who already has a foot inside death’s door.  I have been told, though, that no-one can drink an egg-cup-full, without leaping a foot into the air and letting out a scream that could only have been formed in hell itself.  

 

 

 

 

A Storm In Sandusky by J D Clapp

[San Diego, California]

 

Lake Erie, 1977

     ‘Little’ Pauly Marino yanked the Caddy’s steering wheel hard to the left to pass the slow farm truck on Route 2.

     “Easy!” said Tommy Romano, “There’s no freakin’ hurry.”

     “I want to get this shit done and do some walleye fishing. You up for that after we make the rounds?” Marino asked.

     “Always. We don’t get to use that boat of yours enough,” Tommy Romano replied.

     After they visited the local booky and numbers runner to collect the July take, they picked up beer and sandwiches, and headed for the marina.

     Martino started his boat, while Romano loaded their gear. Martino eased the 30’ cabin cruiser from their boathouse and headed for the Canadian line.

     After a forty-minute run, they began fishing.

     Romano tied on nightcrawler-tipped Erie Dearie and bounced it across the bottom.

     Martino munched a torpedo.

     “Did you ever suspect Big Al?” Martino asked.

     Romano winced. He had hoped this topic would remain unspoken.

     “No. I Didn’t suspect anything. Goddamn Al.”

     Martino nodded and said, “Yeah Goddamn Al. Son of bitch is probably staring up at us right now.”

     The bosses’ instructions were clear; everyone needed to know what happened to rats.

      Martino threw the butt of his torpedo into the drink, unzipped his jeans, and pissed over the side.

     “I’ve always wanted to piss on someone’s grave.”

     Big Al talking to the feds hurt Martino more than anyone else in the crew—they were cousins but more like brothers. Romano stood silent. He knew the boss wanted to make sure they all understood what happens to rats. He wondered about Al’s wife and kids.

      “What about Carolina? Is she gone too?”

     “She’ll tell everyone he ran off with his le mantenuta. I showed her what happens to rats…” 

     Martino handed a photo of a bloody and chain-trussed Big Al to Romano. Romano spit over the side.

     Martino threw the photo overboard. Then he pulled a revolver from his belt and tossed that over.

     Romano remained silent, glad the message had been delivered and he could focus on fishing. But, he couldn’t helping thinking about Martino. He had known him for years. He used to be kind. Over the years Martino morphed into a psychopath. Romano wondered, is this what our thing does to everybody?

     The fishing got red-hot and quickly put their limits on ice, which meant nothing to them. The walleye were the biggest fish they had caught in several seasons. They kept fishing, tossing fish after fish in the near full cooler, discussing the fish fry they would have the next day at the social club. They barely noticed the thunderheads building, and the sky slowly going blood orange.

     “Let’s head in before the weather. We got enough to feed all those fat fucks,” Romano said, noticing the worsening conditions.

     “Are you fucking kidding? This is a once in every ten-year bite!” Martino said.

     The kept fishing. Around 7:00 p.m. static filled the air, their hair began to stand on end, and Romano noticed he was getting little shocks when he touched anything metal. Then he saw St. Elmo’s fire dancing on the rails.

     Just as he was thinking, oh shit, lighting struck, followed by an instant, deafening thunderclap.

     “Shit! You okay?” Martino asked.

     “Yeah. Did it hit us?”

     “No fucking clue, but we need to get the hell out of here. Go start the boat.”

     As Romano raced to start the boat, Martino poured a sip of beer over the side then made the sign of the cross.

     “Goodbye Big Al. I’ll take care of Carolina and your kids. I’ll miss your fat ass…you fucking rat.”

     Romano put the boat in gear and headed towards Cedar Point.

 

 

 

Nipple Masking Mind Bot Jolt by Neil K. Henderson

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

When Erica Sneavel covered her husband’s nipples with masking tape one night, she didn’t know what she’d started. “The day before, Piffen filled his jacket and trouser pockets with nuts, as well as his trouser turn-ups – even shoving nuts up his sleeves. Then he went to the woods and stood there with his arms out like a scarecrow, waiting for squirrels to come down and rifle his clothing. I thought, ‘It’s the marshmallows down the underpants again, and the trip to the monkey house at the zoo.’ At least this time I could protect his nipples from squirrel bites.”

          Piffen Sneavel is a particularly heavy sleeper, so he didn’t notice the flesh-toned cosmetic tape until he went to take a shower. Then something happened in his mind.

          “At first, he just looked stunned. He muttered something about his nipples dropping off. I thought he was joking, so I simply went along with it. Then he became withdrawn and started prodding about his wrists and forearms.”

          “He was looking for a battery storage cavity,” hypnotherapist Irving Trepannic explained. “The initial shock of finding his nipples disappeared had set up a series of ‘mind jolts’. First – bam! – he thought they’d just dropped off, then – boom! – it seemed more likely that he’d never had nipples at all, then – crash! – he wondered if it was ‘natural’ not to notice something like that for so long. Suddenly – kazowie! – he decided he couldn’t be human, and must be some kind of android. At this point his mind snapped completely and he became identified with a toy robot he’d once owned as a child. Hence the battery search. He was wondering why the light-up ray gun on his arm didn’t work.”

          It was only when Piffen ran amok in a high street toy store, threatening staff with his forearm and demanding new batteries, that he had to be restrained. “The squirrel jumping out of his sleeve didn’t help,” Dr Trepannic admitted. Piffen is expected to be hospitalised until fully deprogrammed... that is, rehabilitated.

          “It’s a real shame about his roboticism,” said zoo keeper Thrusty Foretangle. “We really miss him in the monkey house. But I hope he gets those batteries soon. I bet he’d have a great time at raves.”

Commuting by Adam Wilson

[Reading, England]

 

Another end of month Friday and targets to meet. The scared sweat stink of the ‘not-quite-getting-it' and ‘not-on-target-again' minions is acrid and cloying and annoying all at once. It's an hour till time to leave and it’s time to push the numbers, if only to quieten the big boss’s bollocking. Electric-quick calculations here, a smidgen of sleight of hand there. A dollop of chutzpa, very judiciously mixed with a dash of je-ne-sais-don’t-ask. All stirred in a big bowl of knowing his job and then served, still steaming, with a healthy side of panache. The magicked numbers bail out the team, yet again, and they breathe again, and his experience and confidence means he’s out the door like a longdog, before management asks all the whys and the hows that can wait till Monday morning, next month.

 

A brisk march to the tube; nicotine, adrenaline and caffeine raddled, two smokes on a one-smoke walk on a June evening that begs to be strolled through. Horrid, foot-and-pit-stinky Underground to Paddington, staring at himself in the viewless windows, rehearsing his evening greeting and his Monday morning meeting.  A London-legged weave and shimmy to the right platform and right carriage, past pedestrian prats who can’t seem to get themselves out of his way. To a seat where he wants to be seated. 

 

First-Class quiet and air-conned with a big G&T and a book about Romans. There are the occasional glances to the always there, and perfectly besuited, blonde who always looks back with not quite a ‘no-cigar’ smirk. The train passes suburbia. 

 

A long hour later there’s a point just past Newbury that blows him away every time. It’s the moment he’s back. The carbon gives way to country. Too-hot pavement and ozone and humanity slide seamlessly to just-warmed earth and trees and grass. It’s the scent of boyhood and bicycles and best friends. Back when there were enough friends to be ranked, and bicycles were aspirational, and boyhood lasted forever.  

 

The tie goes, his smile grows, and his jacket is looped on the next seat. Top button unbuttoned and shirttails untucked. His cufflinks go into his briefcase, and he rolls his sleeves to where his country-boy tan-line used to be. His station, his stop, after memory-slowed minutes; at the station by the canal. He strolls, as slow as can be, overtaken by the last of the passengers over the bridge as he stops to just lean and look, for a bit of a bite of a minute or three. He’ll sit on the bench in a shade of a while, for a long, long while, legs stretched, ankles crossed and arms wide. Smoke rings sent into the summer sky. His face to the evening sun. Waiting for the lift he’s too early for. Unhurried, just chilled. For a change. 

 

 

 

 

Senses by Mehreen Ahmed

[Australia]

It wasn’t a dream. I knew that. I woke up at dawn when the pale light was just touching the sky. My mother stood at the foot of my bed looking at me. There she was, standing there, looking at my face. I had showered the night before and my hair was still damp. I was thinking about it when I saw her standing, looking at me without an expression. We were miles apart in physical distance. I lived in one country, she in another. How was she even here? Then I felt her hand ruffling through my hair. It was not my imagination. It was a strong ruffle. Why? She was outside her body now, wasn’t she? Then the phone rang. I knew It wasn’t glad tidings. My mother was here to bid me goodbye before she became an element. The tide had come and tide had gone. Life inside her vessel was now gone.

 

 

 

Christina and Ronnie by Cedric Wentworth

[San Francisco, USA]

Maddie sat in an oversized La-Z-Boy chair. She watched television. On the television screen a rogue chemistry teacher turned drug manufacturer was engaged in conversation with the principal of his high school. They huddled in her office. She was a very attractive woman, with long black hair and dark creamy skin and sensuous lips, and she was threatening to fire him. He unexpectedly leaned in, tried to kiss her. Maddie pointed at the TV.

 

     “I bet she reminds you of Christina.”

     “What?”

 

     “Doesn’t that actress remind you of Christina?”

 

     “Not at all.”

 

     “Oh Ronnie, I think she does.”

 

      “Wrong race. Christina’s black. She’s Spanish.”

 

     “You know what I mean.”

 

     “Bullshit.” Ronnie sprung off the sofa and walked out.

 

     Maddie heard the crack of an ice tray. She kept watching her favorite show, her feet propped up on the footrest, one flip-flop hooked to her toes, the other flip-flop on the carpet. The scene changed. It didn’t matter; she was thinking about Christina and Ronnie. Ronnie reappeared holding a glass filled with ice and rum. He sipped his drink and breathed in hard, sucking alcohol off his beard. She said: “Doesn’t she remind you of Christina?”

 

     “No. She doesn’t.” Ronnie sat down. “Why are you mentioning people we haven’t seen in five years?”

 

     “Has it been five years since you were inside her?”

 

     “Shut up.”

 

     “Simple question.”

 

      “Shut up.”

 

     “Good-for-nothing drunk.”

 

     Ronnie set his glass on an end table. His sunburned arms made Maddie laugh. “He-he!” she chuckled, her eyes returning to the television.

 

     “I ought to slap you one,” said Ronnie.

 

     “What did you say?”

 

     “Want one across the cheek?”

 

     Maddie paused the TV. She gripped a lever, lowering the footrest, and sat up. “You don’t have a right to say that sort of thing.”

 

     “I’ll say it again if you provoke me.”

 

     “Has it been five years since you were in her?”

 

     “Want one?” Ronnie took another hit of rum. He lifted his palm off his thigh and waved it slowly at Madeleine.

 

      “Are you waving hello?”

 

     “Want it across the face?”

 

     Maddie went to a dresser near the window, opened the door, fumbled amongst some folded towels. “What are you looking for?” asked Ronnie.

 

     She reached toward the back and found a snub-nose .22. “This.”

 

     Ronnie arched an eyebrow.

 

     Madeleine turned and aimed the gun and shot him twice. The drink fell from his hand to his lap. He touched his chest. The tip of his finger pushed through his shirt and picked at one of his wounds - the one closer to his belly, as if he were trying to pluck a foxtail off his skin. He could have said something but he said nothing. The gun landed on the carpet. He didn’t topple left or right, instead sagging straight back against the couch cushion. His eyes drifted away from her face toward the ceiling. The spilled drink in his lap made him look like he had wet his shorts.

 

 

 

 

The Long Grass by Kate Rigby

[Totnes, South Devon, England]

 

They’ve just kicked it into the long grass, the politician says on TV. I tune out from the others sitting around at Tree Tops. I feel it now, that long grass, cool and welcome, at the far reaches of the playing fields where I’m supposed to be fielding with Jennifer. The newest girl. We're nearer to the neighbouring houses than the game of rounders. This was where the real conversations took place. Hate those divvies, my fielding ally would say, flicking a hostile thumb yonder. I thought she would be popular. She was inoffensively pleasing in a way that wouldn’t foster jealousy. But I’d not yet learned about nuances. She’d relay some of the comments aimed at her: Missed a period again, Jennifer? (Giggles). Put on a bit of weight? In our private bubble she lifted her Aertex shirt a fraction and looked anxiously at her tummy, wondering if her gym skirt was perhaps tighter.

 

     Occasionally someone would loom from the mists to tell us the score or usually shouting at us to get the ball quick, snapping at us in mad gesticulation at a thicket. One of us would scrabble around in the longer grass and fling it back before resuming our collusive chats. Lying on our bellies, pulling up clumps of grass on the very outskirts. Trading dreams of how to escape. If only we could stay here forever, where the distant squeals and whoops from the game were remote. Nothing to do with our world here. The only thing in focus was the oak tree and the lazy dappled light. This was our island, blurring out the rest.

 

     One day, a wild ball flew high above us, before bouncing down the bank into beyond. It was Jennifer who crossed the boundary. I saw her hunting the ball under parked cars. She retrieved it, holding her trophy aloft. They can whistle for it, she laughed. She beckoned me furiously. Daring me to join her, eyes imploring me. I hesitated too long. She shrugged and flounced off with the ball, breaking heroically from our world forever. Leaving me to fend off the stinging balls alone.

 

     In the adjacent chair, Bea isn’t engaged with the politicians on TV or the other residents playing Fish. We call these our uneasy chairs. Bea lifts my spirits but lately she’s seemed restless. The other day she said, I don’t much like it here. It's suffocating. She thinks the staff don’t like her because she doesn’t play silly patronising games. She’s looking wistfully to the gardens, dreaming of the wild woods with the birds and water on the far side of our manicured lawns where the long grass grows. It’s sunny out there, she says. What’s to stop us? She’s going to leave, I know it, as she slips on her hush puppies beneath her Indian skirt, takes her tapestry bag decisively and passes through the French window. I watch her intently, willing her to turn back and beckon me.

 

 

 

Ash And Rowan by Janet Armstrong

[Campbeltown, Argyll, Scotland]

 

A bitter east wind held Rowan's fingers in an icy grip.

 

     "My hands are freezing off," he howled. "Winter's coming early this year."

 

     Another cold blast of Siberian air buffeted the trees, causing them to sway uncomfortably. Ash turned in Rowan’s direction, steadying himself with visible difficulty. "Mince. When you get to my age, you're just glad you survived another year. What’s wrong with you young ‘uns these days?”

 

     “Look at my berries,” cried Rowan, dismayed. “They’re dropping off like lice from an orphan’s comb. A few weeks ago I was the envy of the forest – juicy fruit dotted all over me. Now look – all skin and bone.”

 

     “Just be grateful you can still bear fruit,” said Ash, shivering. “I’ve had my three score years and ten. I’m living on borrowed time. In a year or two, you’ll have a new neighbour - one of those pushy young saplings with fancy silver branches. You won’t even remember me. You’ll be too busy with your new friends, showing off your glossy fruit and shiny leaves.”

 

     “What do you mean, a new neighbour? You’ve been here forever. You know every tree, every gorse bush and every fusty old mushroom in the forest. Everyone knows you, Ash.” But Rowan knew it was true. Ash was dying. Once, the pride of the forest, he was a shadow of his former self. His leaves, all crumpled and brown like stale tobacco, were thinning at the top; his once muscular limbs were reduced to tangled twigs; and he was invaded every year by parasitic lichens, extending their clutch over every inch of his once proud body.

 

      “Rowan, man up! You’ll see one winter after another on this mountain. I’ll see one more at the most. You’ll see boys turn into men and girls into women. You’ll see monarch after monarch and every full moon for the next hundred years.”

 

     “Ash…please don’t. I’m sorry…I shouldn’t have.”

 

     “Don’t be. I’m the last of a long line…time to return to the earth.” As he spoke, Ash’s battered leaves were flicked to the floor by another icy gust. His torso rasped and rattled with every breath. “See…what I take, I give back…food for the ants.” The gale bowed his creaky branches further, giving him the profile of an old man, worn by the toil of battling every day, just for another taste of mountain air.

 

     Icy teardrops dripped from Rowan’s smooth boughs as he gave Ash a baleful glance. Handfuls of plump berries fell onto the forest bed below him. “Ash… ”

 

     His words were interrupted.

 

     A green pick-up crept around the bend in the track behind them. The tyres ground to a halt, spattering chunks of gravel over Rowan’s branches. A ruddy-faced fellow leaned out of the driver’s window. His partner gazed out at Ash and Rowan. “That’s the one,” he said. He swung his stocky legs out of the cab to spray a red cross on Ash’s trunk and then jumped back in. “I’ll bring the chainsaw next time.”

 

 

 

Durham In An Afternoon by Mark Barlex

[South London, England]

 

If Durham was a city, Alan said, then he was heavyweight champion of the world. The place was tiny. He scorned its dainty university. Newcastle was the real world, he insisted: our dirty, post-industrial sulk twelve minutes up the mainline.

 

     Travelling down, we pictured the cultured girls; philosophers and goth medievalists, bored with rowers, intrigued by Geography tearaways from the red-brick up the track. Sassy lads like us, who’d escaped Chesham and Lytham St. Annes through guts and intensive home tutoring. It was 1986. England’s World Cup chances were more than decent. We could handle our ale, we thought, but were raucous before we got off the train.

 

     Jumped on the ring road by tough lads in a Granada, we roamed the streets on the hunt for revenge, hoping not to find it. The ease with which they’d pushed Alan down the embankment and left me dazed on the pavement told me there was more where that came from.

 

     In a pub by the river, a scuffle engulfed me. Sitting on the floor again, I questioned why the off-duty CID now wrestling us into the street were not out chasing burglars, speculated on what Alan had said to annoy them.

Large men, used to confrontation. When we’d stopped resisting, the biggest lead us in silence to the railway station and back onto a train. As it pulled away, I imagined him trudging back to the snug, where his beer would be flat and his newspaper missing.

 

     On Quayside that evening, we burnished our story, and I thought of him again; at home, eating his dinner, reading a different paper at the table.

 

     How was his day, his wife would ask? Had he met any interesting people?

 

     “No,” he would have said, without looking up.

 

 

 

South Liverpool by Alex Bennett

[Liverpool, England]

I saw a ghost today, staring out of my old bedroom. I found myself in South Liverpool for the first time in years, having just finished up a job interview with a local estate agent – admin position, no experience necessary. I exited the offices and felt the golden warmth of the five-thirty sun in June, which made it an easy decision to walk through Sefton Park, as soon as I remembered where I was.

 

     The kidney-shaped park is lined with buildings that work like time machines – houses raised with the industriousness of the Victorian era, weathered by the Edwardian, crumbled by the present. I can see both the second city of the Empire and the HMO playground to come. These were the homes of diplomats, politicians and policemen, now chopped up into the transient quarters of four to six strangers who could never hope to stay long enough to leave a cup ring on a coffee table.

 

     The night came in a comforting indigo blue as I reached the other side of the park. Brightly lit yellow squares popped infrequently between the jutting silhouettes of branches, windows that aired out the laughter of students and television sets. Most of these buildings held life in them still, but my old place had been too set in its roots to adapt. There were families and development groups over the years that had tried to make a new home of it, but the old world always took it back.

 

      The ghost watched me walking up the drive between the two stone pillars that once held an iron gate, reaching the steps of the front door. The red paint I remembered had faded to brown between the chips and graffiti, and some kind of chicken wire covered the bay windows. I had sat on these steps many evenings with my younger sister as we watched strangers come and go. In the winter we would wait for cars to roll away from the drive and then race between the faint imprints their tracks had left in the frost.

 

     I cased either side of the street for movement and then began slowly peeling the chicken wire away. Once the opening was large enough, I took a loose brick and tossed it underhand. The single-glazing fell through without any sign of resistance.

 

     Back in the old living room, I took stock of the entrances for the kitchen, the hall, and the dining room beyond that. The absence of doors framed each derelict room neatly, cutting snapshots of a former sense of order lost to disrepair. Only the outside world looking in sat inside a serrated casing from the cracked opening in the window. I walked into the dining room and thought about what my mother once told me. How when a person suffers an amputation they can experience a phantom limb, having lived with their appendage for so long and having now been cut from it. I wondered the same about the inanimate as I surveyed the room – the presence of the table, a plate in front of me, sitting on a chair too high for my feet to touch the ground. Although the furnishings belonged to previous residents, my mother made good use of them, repurposing other people’s sensibilities and dressing them with her own. Other squatters would come and go frequently, making use of what furniture was available – things would often break, or go missing, but my mother never faltered in her ability to build a sense of permanence for us within a world of temporary assets.

 

      A thudding began from upstairs – a shifting of weight – and I followed, footsteps echoing on the bare wood. Through a missing panel in my bedroom door I saw the figure standing rigid, facing out of the bay window onto the street. He looked over his shoulder as I entered and offered a soft nod, then turned back to face the tower-blocked horizon. There was a crack in the middle pane large enough for the wind to whistle between, and as I stepped closer it grew into a howl. The stranger and I stood shoulder to shoulder, looking at the world outside. The wind was a gale now, and the flimsy glass looked just about to shatter. We put our arms around each other and braced for it to come in.

.

 

 

Swimming by Leanne Simmons

[Berkshire, England]

 

It was one of those hot days you remember; clammy skin and breathless air. We smoothed our way down the narrow road to the sea, windows open, you in the back on your little booster, legs dangling. Above us, branches of trees on either side made a leafy tunnel. Their shadows quivered on the ground as flashes of sudden light blinked through gaps in the hedgerow. Lime-coloured. Golden.

 

     We parked at the base of a broad oak, your hand splayed on the bark as you wound around it, negotiating the roots delicately while we dragged stuff from the boot – picnic bag, folding chairs – the soft smell of the sea in our throats and eyes. I insisted on the sun tent we bought on your first holiday. Said I could manage, as I swung it over my shoulder, already laden and struggling to keep my balance. I knew you were too old for a nap.

     You squealed at the wide, deep blue, kicked up sand as you sprinted to a spot by the dunes. Heeled off your jelly shoes, your toes sinking in the grains as you twisted yourself free of clothes, right down to the shark-patterned trunks you’d packed, determined.

 

     I thought there might be fear at the water’s edge, when you came face-to-face with the bare-faced swell of it; but you threw yourself in whole that day, and started swimming. Your sheer delight, your salty splashes, and me, in up to my knees, catching sparks of light crackling on the electric blue surface of the water, like tiny fireworks. Up and down the shallow, you swam until I scooped you up, shrieking, and held you close to me, wanting the world to hold you as I did. Always.

 

     A world away from me now, I still remember the perfect weight of you, dripping seawater onto the hot sand as I lugged you back up the beach. I hope you are swimming safely somewhere, as that first fearless dip echoes across the shore. And I am held. 

 

 

 

Catherine’s Body by Peter McAllister

[Cornwall, England]

“Well, that was the strangest bit, he looked perfect; like he was just unconscious.” Catherine flicks the corner of her blonde bob away from her mouth with a jerk of the head. “They said later he’d been out at sea for four days!”

 

     “Three days,” John corrects as a few ‘oohs’ die down. He wipes condensation from his pint and smooths it down his stained trousers, looking anywhere but directly at anyone.

 

     “Yes, well, however long it was.” Catherine flaps an arthritic hand at her husband and sips her wine. “We pulled him onto the beach by his arms. Tina was going wild, barking and running around, getting us all caught up in her lead. It was awful. Awful! Then she appears.”

 

      “Wendy?” asks one of the newbies by the bar; his tall, wooden stool creaks as he sits up.

 

     “Yes, Wendy.” Catherine’s sigh morphs into a groan. “Honestly, she was screaming at us. Getting everyone all worked up. Saying we shouldn’t be touching the body.”

 

     “Really?” Tall Frank’s questioning gaze flicks between the three of us who were there that day.

 

     “Really,” Catherine nods hard, her blue eyes wide.

 

     John doesn’t look up; instead he picks at the dark, wooden edge of the table with his ragged fingernails. I raise my eyebrows ambiguously at Tall Frank over my glass. This is his first time hearing the story. He’ll hear versions of it many more times over the years and will come to realise, like most of us, that it’s best to just let Catherine talk. Whole evenings can be lost to it otherwise.

 

      “He started degrading so quickly. His skin went grey and wrinkled and the smell that was coming off him!”

 

      Richard the Painter pauses mid-crunch on a handful of salt and vinegar before continuing, reluctantly. A few others put their drinks down.

 

     “So Wendy is telling John that he needs to give mouth to mouth. Isn’t that right?” Catherine elbows John.

 

      “Yep.”

 

      “And I’m saying to her, ‘He’s dead, Wendy!’ She wasn’t having it though.”

 

     Listeners share looks as if questioning whether together, they could stop this. Tall Frank is enraptured though.

 

      “So, what happened?” he asks.

 

     “Well, she just kept whipping up passers-by. Trying to get them to agree with her. Saying we were interfering with evidence.”

 

     Catherine puts air quotes around Wendy’s words. “Anyway, when the ambulance gets there, they say he’s been dead for days. I didn’t see her apologising then. She still hasn’t, four years on!”

 

      “Jeez,” Frank says.

 

     “No,” Catherine lifts a crooked finger: her nail painted bright red. She sips her wine again before saying solemnly, “Jesus wasn’t there that day, Frank. John and I were. Russell too.” She jabs a thumb in my direction.

 

      I give another eyebrow raise, which has the desired effect. Someone brings up the county fair at the end of the month and, as James the Barman surreptitiously ups the music, we all slip back to chatting and drinking again.

 

 

 

God And Me by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

‘Are you coming to church?’, my mother asked. Her voice was as sharp as a Butcher’s knife.

           ‘No,’ I replied.

           ‘You are ten years old, you do as you are told.’   

           ‘I’m not going to church with you.’       

           Kay, my cousin laughed at this exchanged as we sat under the Jew plum tree shelling peas.

‘Mama Mae is not making much progress getting you to go to St. Matthews, with her, is she? You would think she would give up. ‘

          ‘Not her. She wants to outdo Grandma Nesbitt in her relationship with God and me.’

           Granma Nesbitt was all the things my mother aspired to be – Wealthy, white, middle class, and hands on in making me a child of God.

          She had undergone a series of religious conversions, which ignored the established churches, and included The Salvation Army, The Baptists and The Jehovah’s Witness. Despite my reluctance, she made Kay take me to meetings at all these denominations.

           ‘Mama Mae is as religious as Gran, only she is more snobbish about it,’ Kay observed.’

           ‘Can you see my mother shaking a tambourine by the side of the road,’ I said.

           ‘Or being baptised, wearing a white dress, clinging to her body,’ said Kay.

           Religion did not appeal to me, however hard I tried to think of God the way Granma Nesbitt did.

           She liked to quote The First Letter of JOHN. ‘This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you that God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all.’

           There was darkness in me. I disliked my mother.

           She wasn’t going to get me to church, if she lay down the law, the way she did. And on top of that, she always said that Custos Henry Hall was interested in her. If she had not made a mistake and had me, she could have made the most successful marriage in the parish with him.

            Did my mother have the right to blame me for her mistakes?

           I wanted to discuss these matters with God.

Maybe God had no time for me in His busy day. Maybe He was just tired after a long day’s work, to look into my case. Maybe God was a woman. She might see my relationship with my mother from my point of view. Maybe I should be more sympathetic about God. Maybe…

           ‘Why do you dislike going to church so much?’ Kay asked.

           ‘God has no time for me.’

          ‘If you take that attitude, you will not go to heaven when you die.’

           ‘It doesn’t matter.’

           Kay put down her bowl of peas.

            ‘Why are you crying?’

            ‘I’m not crying.’

            ‘You can’t fool me. I can see the tears.’

            ‘No, you cannot.’

            Maybe if I went to church and praised God, I’d get the chance to ask Him questions on the Day of Judgement. It was certainly worth trying. He had a lot to answer for.

 

 

 

Hanging Out At The Pub by David Silver

[Manchester, England]


It was the worst of times the other day. For we pub punters lost one of our long-standing members. I say long-standing, but Ol' Red Eyes was more likely to be found long-sitting on his bar stool or long-lying on the floor.

 

Anyway, last Monday we lost him. Ol' Red Eyes was the founder of our tavern group and although he grew more silent in his later years he was still as much a fixture of our hostelry as the watered-down beer.

 

The pub was in shocked silence as the news sank in that Ol' Red Eyes had gone.

 

Even Fag Ash Trevor who, because of the smoking ban inside United Kingdom hostelries, was usually to be found sitting on the pavement outside drawing heavily on his plentiful supply of cigarettes, had entered the inn and was standing stunned with the rest of us, the silence broken only by the sound of his occasional rasping cough.

 

Then Eric the barman spoke. 'What am I to do about Ol' Red Eyes' drinks tab? I think you should have a whip-round to pay off his account.'

 

'Never mind Ol' Red Eyes' bar bill!' I snapped at Eric. 'I think you'd do better closing your pub for an hour as a sign of respect. You are the greediest, most unfeeling barman I have ever met.'

 

'Sorry,' apologised Eric. 'Let me make amends by offering you a free drink.'

 

'Thanks, Eric,' I said, licking my lips. 'You're a very nice man.'

 

It went quiet again as we regulars remembered the man we had looked up to - or more latterly down on when he fell asleep on the floor.

 

I sighed nostalgically. 'Even now I can hear Ol' Red Eyes reminding us that he used to be a respected member of the Temperance Union until he fell in with the likes of us.'

 

'Yes,' Eric concurred. 'He was constantly saying that.'

 

'But hang on a minute!' I cried. 'I can actually hear him saying it NOW. I believe Ol' Red Eyes is still in the room!'

 

We listened to the disembodied voice floating croakily across the pub.

 

Tracking the sound, we found Ol' Red Eyes, clad in his old mac, dangling from a coat hook in the corner.

 

'How can this have happened?' Eric the barman demanded. 'Which idiot would hang up a coat with the wearer still inside it?'

 

Daft Barry tried to hide his face. 'Yes, it was me. But I thought that it was just the coat on the floor and I didn't want anyone tripping over it. I must admit though that the garment felt a bit heavy.'

 

We took Ol' Red Eyes down from the peg and with a huge sense of relief broke into a joyous singalong.

 

So, the worst of times had turned into the best of times. Even Fag Ash Trevor stayed indoors to celebrate with us until he collapsed gasping and had to be carried outside for a cigarette.

 

 

 

The Mist by Adaora Ogunniyi

[Lagos, Nigeria]

 

Nothing prepares you for Okummuo. Not the articles or accounts you have devoured. Not the grit you have secured through your life's passage. Nothing. The moment you lean into the heavy mist that exudes the smell of freesia and saffron, and you answer the call of the gentle-flowing waters from within it, you start to kick and claw at the terror that beckons. Wind. Rain. Quiet. In quick succession and riding on waves of white-hot heat, one melds into the other. For a moment, you expect your flesh to scorch and separate from your bones. It does not. You tilt your head for the rain to bathe your mouth, but hear sizzling, and your lips pull themselves shut. Pain lances through your legs, like rusted nails pricking an open sore, and you look down to find no ground. Only jellyfish. Millions of them, their translucent bodies flashing a molten red at intervals, enough for you to see them move under your feet. Other than that, there is invasive darkness. The kind you see when intense lights blind your vision, only this time, the blinding is anything but fleeting.      

 

A loud continuous sound of anguish awakens and begins to bubble in your belly. Snaking its way out, it fills your lungs, pierces into the darkness, almost startling the despondence now winding its arms around you. Soon, your cries fade into rasping sounds, then you hear the grunts; now muffled, now deafening. Indeed, there are many like you who, surrendering to the allure of this unknown place, do nothing but wait, hoping a day will, by some stroke of providence, fall through the mist to redeem them from the nemesis of their choices. But while they wait, while you all wait, you will boil in despair. Alone. For in Okummuo, your only true companions are you and every choice you made. Every choice right before the mist.      

 

 

 

The Lonely Fruit by Kit Shaw

[London, England]

 

Just an ordinary tree.

That’s what the little fruit thought of its mother. A regular fruit factory, in an orchard full of dozens like it. Not quite like them though. They all stood close enough to share each other’s shade. And seeds.

This one stood alone.

The fruit rued its ancestors. They hadn’t lent it the most favourable reputation. Expelled Adam and Eve, kicked-off the Trojan War. Even condemned sweet old Snow White. If only it could be any other fruit!

It didn’t know it was destined for greatness.

The fruit snuggled in the summer sun’s caress. A butterfly patted the sweet air with shimmering wings, settling softer than a falling petal onto the glossy red skin. All around, its younger brethren, the caterpillars, revelled in every ripened fruit and basted joyously in the tangy juice. Just one apple remained intact.

This one.

The day will come. All fruits know it. One day, they will swell to the size they’re destined, outgrowing the slender stalk binding them to their mother. If not caught by alien hands and removed from the orchard they will sink into the tree’s base and yield their bodies for future generations.

The breeze picked up, teasing the stalk’s tender bond with the branch, breaking it fibre by fibre. It wouldn’t hold much longer. The apple sighed. One fleeting moment remained before it would succumb to the beckoning wind, one last chance to wish farewell to Mother Tree.

It didn’t notice the man trudging towards the tree.

The whole trunk shuddered as the man slumped against it. That nudge was all the fragile stalk needed. The apple broke away and fell, almost bursting with exhilaration as it plummeted, straight onto the man’s head.

“Ouch!” yelped Isaac Newton.

 

 

 

The Girl On The Beach by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

His father’s post war assignment to Jamaica, meant James spent his formative years in a middle-class neighbourhood of professional blacks. A few whites. Some Indians. Chinese, and Portuguese Jews.

 

     Jasmine, the youngest of three girls - long, black, silken pigtails, two dimples and eyes that rivalled the stars. He wanted to marry her, but moved to England and public school at twelve.

 

     Now, at twenty-three, his Regiment stationed in Kingston, he thought of her often. Wondered if he would see her again.

 

     His regular watering hole was uptown. This was out of town, ska music, grilled fish on the beach. He was seated on a stool at the makeshift bar nursing a rum punch.

 

     All eyes including his were on her as she danced barefoot in the sand. Tight emerald green satin skirt, golden earrings that caught the moonlight. His face flushed as she swayed towards him. She sat next to him. He offered to buy her a drink. She smiled.

 

      ‘I’m Captain James Bailey of the Royal Hampshire Regiment.’

 

     ‘So?’

 

     ‘You remind me of someone.’

Her casual gaze showed a spark of interest.

 

      ‘Who was she?’

 

     He pulled a faded photograph from his breast pocket, him aged 12, next to a girl with long black pigtails, the same two unmistakable dimples and eyes that rivalled the stars. She leaned in close to look.

 

     ‘I remember that day, I must have been 10. I got a present for the best science project.’

 

     ‘I kept this. I wanted to marry you.’

 

     She threw back her head and laughed.

 

     ‘You must be the son of that English army officer. You lived in the big house on the corner, the one with the mango tree.’

 

     ‘Yes. I used to hang around my front gate just to see you pass by.’

 

     ‘But you never spoke to me.’

 

     ‘I didn’t dare. I heard your father was strict and he had your future planned. Marriage to a respectable boy from the Indian community.’

 

     He had hoped for another smile, instead her eyes clouded over.

 

     ‘What happened?’

 

     ‘What do you mean?’

 

     ‘You seem upset.’

 

     ‘My father lost his business, His reputation. Our whole family was destroyed.’

 

     She flicked her hair and looked at him over her shoulder.

 

     He took out a cigarette.

 

     ‘Did you come here to find me?’

 

     ‘Oh…no, I didn’t expect to find you in this type of place.’

 

     She drained her drink and stood up.

 

     ‘In that case, time is money.’

 

     He pulled on his cigarette as she walked away. Exhaled. And just like his childhood dreams. Watched the smoke evaporate into the night.

 

 

 

 

The Promise by Kit Shaw

[London, England]

 

Their lives flickered like strobes as they raced through the clouds.

Falling thirty thousand feet. One moment, empty stares at the scrolling inertness through the plane’s window, the next thrust into a six-hundred mile-an-hour frigid blast.

He’d been enjoying the film, too. Not many in-flight movies appealed to him, certainly not the ones budget airlines seemed to buy from charity shops to inflict on their captives. This one was only six months old, with actors he actually knew. His wife had watched shrill American sitcoms for three hours before falling asleep. The remnants of their meal, a pallid pilaf that tasted only of sultanas, still lingered in his mouth.

It was her idea.

‘Three years and it’s still not safe after Covid?’ she railed. ‘Three anniversaries you’ve slunk out of. Not this year. I don't care how many masks you have to put on, how many vaccinations we’re soaked in, we’re going.’

That all seemed someone else’s lifetime now.

Falling from six miles up, without a parachute.

They hadn’t noticed the explosion. Couldn’t miss the flash, so brilliant it washed the colours off everything around them. A fraction of a second later the walls of the plane five rows ahead disintegrated, ejecting shrapnel past them and sucking the air from their lungs. Whole rows of seats slid into the growling hurricane like rainwater off a balcony.

Their row was next.

Her face was the calmest he had ever seen. Sure, the slipstream had stretched her skin as if an over-exuberant surgeon had tried to take her back to her teens. But it was the serenity in her normally darting eyes, a forlorn resignation, that grieved him. She never gave up and insisted he didn’t either. Yet here she was motionless, as if drowned already. He wanted to cry, weep at the timidity that had overtaken his once ebullient wife.

His thoughts flicked to the sofa. Snuggled together, iPad on her lap, debating candidates worthy of four anniversaries in one go. Her giggling excitement thumbing through the Maldives, Hawaii, villa on The Palm, even a Northern Lights cruise. An enthralled smile so captivating he cast aside thoughts of budget.

“Your pick.”

Eeny meeny had chosen Polynesian islands. “Better go before they sink into the ocean,” she reasoned. “Sunsets there are to die for.”

Seat fragments and mangled metal sped past them towards the ground, now palpably nearing. Curiously, they saw none of the other passengers. Then, something big in the corner of his eye. He turned his head slightly and just caught the nose section of the plane arcing downwards several hundred metres away.

It wasn’t their war. News reports a week later would confirm the plane had been hit by a surface to air missile. Several weeks of “why” theories would follow. None of that would matter to him.

He had promised her he would never leave her side.

He reached across the upward gale and clasped her hand tight.

 

 

 

 

The Betrayer by Carolyn Matthews

[Cheadle, Manchester, England]

I realised too late.

 

     Red-backed shrikes circled fields outside the city wall. Eerily quiet, save the crunch of sandal on red clay soil. I climbed to the crown of a multi-trunked tree, where weeping, pendulous branches brushed the floor. Day yet to fully break, the sun’s hidden fury choked the air with dust. Tortured by thirst, my head hovered one painful stride behind a gaping, looped hole.

 

     The shoreline of a low-lying lake; I greet friends with an air kiss. Galilee’s water is a glinting blue jewel. Its depths line with basalt black rocks. We row until limbs ache. Further out, the sea burbles, gently lapping the side of the boat. You sleep. Laying oars aside, I uncoil my long body, catching flakes of melting manna on the tongue. In trance, I too drift away. The sea suddenly stirs. Waves whip up and batter the boat, where below the surface rocks appear and submerge like decaying teeth. Stilled with your raised hand, the beryl sea is shot through with lemon coloured light.

 

     Thoughts nudge me from the still waters to a sunken garden, where flora and fauna cast no shadow. Gethsemane. Blooms with serrated edge cascade like white waterfalls. Olive trees with lance-shaped leaves release subtle scents of balm and spice. I find you standing amidst gnarled roots, wiping sweat from a bloodied forehead. Your loud wails pierce the heavens. Father, if it be your will, take this cup from me. Slithering against the wall, a hidden viper raising a head. A noxious nod, which leads them to you. Another kiss, pregnant with aftershock. They take you from the garden; I turn away. The grove crumples, shrinks, breaks up into flaky fragments. Buds and leaves tinge brown with split stems threadlike, too brittle to touch. Too late, I realise.

 

     Day struggled to break. I plummeted in a final flailing fall, where teeth within jaw rattled around like dice. Dropped from my shaking hands, thirty coins chinked and clinked to the floor until the field shimmered silver. My noose became the earth’s first snake. Eden’s fraudster, constricting, squeezing out last gasps. With one septic bite she broke, blistered and blackened the skin. Her coils garrotted the heart, slowing it to a stop. A sudden jerk. Everywhere a disorientating black. In my fading eyeline, my master; clinging on, drenching me with tears, I always loved you. Not your hand that let go.

 

     A furious, blazing sun rose to blot the edges of the field, watching red clay soils flood with gore. With a harsh ack, birds broke the silence and swept down to bathe. A voice, swollen in love, echoing, fading, disappearing in the hollows of the chamber.

 

     Oh Judas, Judas. It was never too late.

 

 

 

A Whiff Of Scandal by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

   

‘A story with photographs for Norma and me.’

    'Don't push me too far Boysie.'

    'It's that, or a juicy scandal in the 'Star'. You know what a rag the 'Star' is.'

     'I can't think what I once saw in you.'

     'Life is tough Ada. If you'd walked to school barefooted like me, you'd know that. Norma does. She brought up her two younger brothers on $5 dollars a week. We’re peas in a pod.’

     'I want both the photographs and the negatives you are holding.'

     As I drove to meet with my Aunt Bernice for lunch, my armpits prickled, and my palms were wet on the steering wheel.

     Aunt Bernice was the star of the family. She married a penniless Italian Count while she was studying art in Italy and came back home to Jamaica with him and a title. He died early.

     She then married a rich local Englishman nearly twice her age. From him she inherited a fortune in sugar. He also died.

     Her present American husband was black, suave, and much younger than her. She was a target for gossip, but she thrived on it.

    'When are you getting married?' she asked as I sat down.

    'I have a career and cricket.'

    'Cricket is a man's game, Ada. Sometimes I wonder about you. I really do.'

     I cut her off, and pulled my chair closer to hers.

    'I want to ask a favour of you Aunt Bernice. There's a photographer and his wife, Boysie and Norma Dodd, friends of mine, who are just breaking into journalism. I'd like you to invite them to one of your parties, and give them an interview after you have met them.'

    'No interviews Ada. That's how I maintain my mystique.'

    'I can't persuade you?‘

    ‘No can do.’

    ‘It's in a good cause.'

    'No one is going to persuade me, Ada. Not even you.’

    'Thanks for lunch Aunt Bernice. I've got to go.'

    'Don't stay away so long next time.'

    I came straight to the point when Boysie arrived at my apartment that evening.

    'The deal is off.'

    'I'm not a man to joke with Ada.'

    'She won't do it. Try her husband.'

    'He hasn't got two cents to rub together. It's the old bag I'm after. The pillar of society. The social snub, oozing respectability.'

    It’s him or nothing.

     He grabbed my throat.

    'She won't be so high and mighty when the whole island knows she's sharing her cocky toy boy husband with a young male lover, and I’ve got the photographs to prove it.'

    He squeezed.

    I kneed him in the groin. His grasp loosened. But he grabbed my waist, and as I stumbled, I felt the smooth surface of my cricket bat leaning against the wall.

    By the time the police arrived, I knew he was dead. He hadn't moved since I hit him. And when I felt for a pulse, there was none.

 

 

 

 

Around Midnight by Carolyn Matthews

[Cheadle, Manchester, England]

 

The sky was the colour of bone. Snow clouds rolled in with menace, folding layer on layer into the falling darkness. She had found a resting place under the viaduct and squatted there against a wall alive with damp. The water iced the nape of her neck; her face burnt red with cold, awash with angry acne. Pulling up the hood of her sweatshirt, she nursed her hands in the misshapen sleeves.

 

     Overhead the boom of the trains, regular now as midnight approached. Her eyes fell on two elderly revellers as they stepped in to take shelter, the woman shaking off water from the fiberglass ribs of the umbrella.

 

     The girl flinched, clutching her knees. Don’t come any closer! A quivering cigarette butt wedged in her mouth muffled her words.

     “Got a light?”

 

     The old woman patted the girl’s exposed knees with a padded leather glove. “Does running away ever solve anything?”

 

 

      Her eyes flashed. Cash, mobile, coat, all pilfered weeks ago by the hands of the equally needy. Returning home was a nonstarter. She recalled her stepfather rubbing cold hands together on her mum’s bingo nights. Angled, twisting, rooting; him enjoying a winning streak more than her mother ever did. Outside the arch, the post-Christmas lights hung dishevelled under the weight of freshly fallen, virgin snow, which leaked and dripped slowly from the overhead wires.  

 

     “In my day we got by earning an honest wage.” The man’s voice was deep; she sensed his eye twitch as if trying to wink. “Up at five in all weathers we were.” She flinched as he fingered the tight knot in his tie. She watched him raise his trilby, turning up the collar of his overcoat before discreetly dropping a silver lighter into her lap.

 

     With a click of her thumb, the flicker revealed a diminishing couple linking arms, barely upright, an umbrella snatched by the icy wind. She thumbed it again. Now a taxi travelling too quickly, the same couple stepping back just in time before hailing it.

 

     Almost midnight. The lighter kissed her chapped lips, before a final flick in her flailing hand. Through open countryside, with shoes discarded, she begins to run, the tickly grass massaging the soles of her aching feet. In the sulphur-amber glow, a face takes shape. Her mother’s voice is like cream, hushed and calm, her eyes a soft blue. She folds her frost-bitten fingers into kind, cupped hands. Mum, I’m home.

 

     Pigeons pecked at cigarette ends before flapping wildly into the arched viaduct caskets. Their quarrel became subsumed in the twelve strikes of the clock and the deathly rattle of the overhead train. She was bolt upright, blue-white, the lighter glinting in her drooping hand. The whoosh of a zip on her black body bag and she was carried out into the biting night air to distant and muted cheers and laughter. The uniform grey of the post-midnight sky alive with the lifting charge of fireworks, igniting, exploding, splintering, falling in flakes of ash.

 

 

 

The Chain Broke by Jane Mooney

[Yorkshire, England]

 

I choose sugar paper, felt tips and yellow cotton wool from the craft table. Who knew you could get yellow cotton wool?  Nuns must have a special, secret source of art materials.  I love craft afternoons because we don’t have to do sums and reading and writing and the classroom smells of PVA glue and poster paint.  I’m making an Easter card. A fluffy yellow chick bursting out of an egg.  Mummy and Daddy will love it.   

          I jiggle in my seat.

          ‘Do you need to be excused?’ asks Sister Christopher. 

          I don’t want to wet my knickers.  If you do they give you spare ones from the office but they’re big and baggy and smell of rubber.

          I make my way downstairs to the cloakroom, running my hand along the cool, dark wood of the banister. The sun shining through the stained-glass window above the staircase makes pretty patterns on the floor.

          The cloakroom is cold.  It smells of carbolic soap and disinfectant.  As usual I chose the cubicle at the right-hand end.  Sitting on the tiny loo, I imagine Sister Christopher trying to fit her huge bottom on to one of these toilets.  I decide that nuns must have bigger loos. 

          The loo is hard to flush so I wrap the chain around my hand and give it a big tug. It breaks. 

          I stare at the broken chain in my hand feeling my eyes going puffy.  I don’t want to go and tell Sister Christopher that I’ve broken the loo.  She’ll shout at me and I don’t like it when people shout at me.

          I want to go home.  Mummy will be at home playing with my little brother.  Mummy won’t shout at me; she’ll give me a cuddle and say it'll be alright.  Maybe there’s magic which can pick me up and transport me home.

          I sit for ages on the bench underneath the coats, sniffing and wiping my eyes with my sleeve.  Why hasn’t Sister Christopher come to find me?  Maybe she hasn’t even noticed I’m missing.  Well, I’m not going back.

          It must be nearly home time by now.  I could put my outdoor shoes on and walk home by myself, but I would have to cross the by-pass and that would be scary.

          ‘What are you doing in here all on your own?’ It’s the school secretary.  I like her.  She has a jar of striped sweets on her desk and, if you’re feeling poorly, she lets you have one.

          I hold up the broken chain.

          ‘Oh they’re always breaking’ she says, ‘We’ll get Mr Willoughby to sort that out.’

          She takes me by the hand and leads me back to the classroom.

          Everyone else has finished their cards.  There are fluffy lambs and yellow daffodils, but all I have to show for my afternoon is a sugar-paper cut-out of an egg, a pile of yellow cotton wool and a broken chain.

 

 

 

Parting Gift  by Rathin Bhattacharjee 

[Kolkata, India]

 

"Shabnam," the middle-aged lady with the golden-glow on her face from the last rays of the fast dipping sun, whimpered to someone. "Look, who's here."

"Hi, Neil. Nice to see you," the stunning looker, who came to the door, exclaimed animatedly. 

I stood transfixed at the door. The fragrance from the delicate perfume she wore was making me dizzy. Two years junior to all of my twenty-eight years, in a sari that matched her translucent skin, with curly hair and large, dark eyes on a heart-shaped face; Shabnam was - how do you describe her - soft and doughy? Know what I mean? She was someone you could mould to be your life partner, man. 

"Are you going to keep him waiting at the door, or calling him in?" The elder lady asked from inside.

"Oh, sorry. Please come in," the younger chimed as I followed her inside. 

Something inside my head was telling me to relax as I had reached my destination. 

 

#


In a hurry, I nearly skidded on the eggshell white corridor on the first floor of St. Joseph's Hospital. There was not a soul to be seen. Everything was silent and still as I noticed the ICU at the turning. 


Even on a cold day, I could sense the beads of sweat breaking out on my forehead. I rushed to the door, surprisingly kept ajar. I slid myself in through the gap and noticed mom lying in the bed on the right. 

Why was no one there attending her? Why was the white cloth pulled up to cover her face? An inexpressible fear gripped me instantly as I pulled the white sheet down. 

Only then did I notice the small, rounded cotton buds in her nostrils. 


#


"You're late," the Nurse said in a voice thick as honey. "She slipped away peacefully. Just the day before, she came out of the coma and was shifted down to the General Ward, just for a few hours though." 

"Did she leave anything for me?" I found myself asking her once I had recovered from the storm razing inside. 

"Oh, yes. She dictated to a Junior Nurse to write down a few lines for you. Here it is," she crackled, taking a folded paper out of her front pocket. 

I asked her to excuse me, and having cast a quick look in the direction of the bed, came out of the room. 

I found a quiet corner, got there in no time to read mom's last letter: 


Dear Neil, 

By the time you reach here, I will be gone. I've always admired my razor-sharp hero.

I know how you still feel about your childhood friend, Shabnam. My last order is for you to go to India and meet her before getting back to NSW.  I won't be here to interfere in whatever you do afterwards. Love you, Son. 


#


Cremation over, I called an agent to book my ticket to Mumbai. 

If you believe in parting gifts, Shabnam was one from my late mom. 

 

 

 

 

From The Depths by Calvin Watts

[Hull, England]

 

Dear Sarah, 

      I should explain myself. 

     My previous owner sat me on his office table, and typed into eBay: ‘Genuine Mulberry Little Softie. Black pillow effect. Filled with thick, feathery down. Reinflates when pressed. Buy now for £120.’ 

     

     His phone pinged and I was stuffed into a grey, plastic mailing bag. With my handles wrapped around my body, and often upside down, I spent the next four days in the dark.  

     

     Do you remember our first night together, in your bedroom? You slid me into your armpit, admired yourself in the stand-up mirror, tried on four dresses, put on lipstick, asked your reflection if it wanted a drink. And after you’d poured yourself half a pint of white wine, we sat in bed watching Erin Brockovich. 

     

     The following morning, your sisters visited. You poured cups of instant coffee and they took turns holding me. The short one — Ellen? — ran the pads of her fingers over my back and said I was soft like butter. You said that I was all you ever wanted, your own Mulberry bag. And by the time your sisters handed me back to you, I realised you were being honest: you had no idea that I was a knock off. 

     

     What could I do? If you found out, I’d be for the landfill. So, I let you carry on. I was designed to deceive. And you were happy. You smiled more, spoke to strangers, flirted with men. You took me to a job interview, and you got the job. You, Sarah, with me on your lap. Together, we both began to feel authentic. 

     

     Things changed, last summer, the day we rode the train to London. You were a bit off with me that morning. Nothing major, just a little distant, I felt. But I think taking me in Harrods and looking at other bags was actively cruel of you. You sniffed one of them, a real Mulberry bag, but didn’t buy it. And afterwards we sat on a bench, in Hyde Park, a metre apart, like strangers. 

     

     When we returned home you took a lighter from the messy drawer and burnt away my frayed stitching. You carried me to your laptop, and I watched you type: ‘How to tell fake Mulberry bag’. Tears trickled down your cheeks as you inspected me. And then you threw me, in here, at the back of the cupboard under the stairs. I landed on some badminton racquets and the vacuum cleaner nozzles you never use. 

     

      Because you might not reply to this letter, Sarah, I’ll end by telling you a few things that you should know. First, you have mice. That scratching in the walls we both heard? That’s them. Second, there is half a packet of soft mints in my inner pocket, still in date, zipped safely away from the mice. And third, as I lay here alone, I’m certain that in our separate darknesses, we still hold on to one another. 

 

     Always, 

 

     Your Bag

Food For Thought by Mike Paterson-Jones

[Abbots Langley, England]

 

Ma and Pa Gleeson lived on twenty acres just outside the town of Dalton, West Virginia.  Pa Gleeson worked at the Dalton Lumber Mill and Ma Gleeson kept house. She cleaned and cooked and grew a few vegetables. She made her husband a wild meat pie every Friday in which she put what her husband had hunted the previous weekend or fresh road kill from the interstate that ran next to the farm. Most often there were possums or squirrels from the hunting Pa Gleeson did with his buddy Paddy Murphy every weekend. The Gleesons only had one child, a grown son, who they only saw occasionally when he was between incarcerations in one of the county jails.

    

     One Saturday while Pa Gleeson was away hunting, Ma Gleeson had a sudden desire to have a hamburger and fries. She got in the old Ford truck and rode to town. She parked outside the diner and was about to get out of the truck when she looked across the sidewalk and into the nearest diner window. She saw her husband sitting opposite a blonde woman some years younger than him. Ma Gleeson forgot about the hamburger and drove home. She said nothing to her husband. She continued to give him his wild meat pie every Friday but now she made a separate one for herself. His pie she spiced up a bit with an ingredient from the tin on the top shelf in the barn.

 

     Pa Gleeson’s health started to decline, but Doc. Carver could find not find out what was wrong with him. Pa Gleeson died in the early fall. Ma Gleeson spared no expense on his funeral. He had a fine casket and Ma Gleeson dressed herself in fine new clothes and a fancy hat. After the funeral there was an Irish style wake hosted by Paddy Murphy. At the wake Ma Gleeson received the heartfelt condolences of most of the town’s people including the mayor and the sheriff. She got a shock when approaching her was the blonde woman from the diner. The woman walked right up to her and said, “I am so sorry to hear about your husband. He was a good man. He helped my brother on many weekends fixing the old house I bought when I came back to Dalton last year.”

 

     Ma Gleeson said nothing. She just nodded her head and smiled sickly.

 

 

 

A New Beginning by Veronica Robinson

[London, England]

 

‘Don’t show me up Dorothy.’

 

     ‘That was not my intention.’

 

     ‘You stroke my cock when I can’t get it up, and you want me to believe you’re not making fun of me.’

 

     ‘It was a moment of tenderness. I wanted to help.’

 

     ‘I don’t see it that way. I’m thirty, for God’s sake.’

 

     ‘Thirty isn’t the end of the world.’

 

     ‘How many thirty-year-old men do you know who can’t get it up?’

 

     ‘Drink your bush tea. A lot of men swear by Mother Henny’s bush tea. Says it helps them with their sexual problems.’

 

     ‘It fills me up with wind. Every time I come, I fart like a cowboy.’

 

     ‘So, there are some side effects.’

 

     ‘I can’t see, or feel, any difference.’

 

     ‘I have something to tell you.’

 

     ‘Not now Dorothy.’

 

     Dorothy stumbles into the bathroom, and vomits into the toilet. She returns to the bedroom, and lays staring at the celling. ‘Many Rivers To Cross’ is playing softly on the bedside radio.

 

     Martin sits with his head in his hands. When he feels Dorothy lay on the bed. He looks up.

 

     ‘You okay?’

 

     ‘What do you care?’

 

     ‘I am such a fucking failure.’

 

     ‘There is no way I can talk to you.’

 

     ‘I’ll see a shrink. Happy wit dat? If that doesn’t work, feel free to leave.’

 

     ‘I thought of doing just that.’

 

     ‘What stopped you?’

 

     She guides his hands to the bottom of her belly. Martin stares at her a long time.

 

     He takes her hand.

 

 

 

The Good Old Days by Mike Paterson-Jones

[Abbots Langley, England]

 

It was a post-apocalyptic scene. There were hundreds of rusty iron poles standing in rows along curved tarred banks. The tar was crazed and in the cracks grew grass and weeds, even trees struggling to exist. The projection room and adjoining café was a pile of rubble. Across the entrance was an old chain and a padlock long since seized solid. I stepped across the chain and walked amongst the weeds and let my mind wander back in time.

 

     It used to be one of the best places to go to enjoy oneself. I can remember, way back, going there in Dad’s Rover, us three kids in the back, Mom in the front next to Dad with a picnic basket on her lap. If the film was good, then life was perfect, well almost as long as you didn’t have the seat in the middle. The sound was not good. I guess the speakers had to be cheap since a fair number must have been driven off with. If it rained then it was hard to hear the soundtrack as the raindrops drummed on the car roof. It was also a mission to get to the café if it rained. It was still always a treat. Dad was an expert in placing the Chevy just near enough to the speaker post for the speaker to reach but far enough away so he could open his car door.

 

     As a teenager the drive-in was even more of a treat. It offered amazing opportunity in the courting process. If a girl agreed to go with you on her own it was a signal that an attempt at a kiss would probably succeed. If she agreed and didn’t ask what the film was, then the kiss was guaranteed. A perfect evening would start with a clear sky to allow a visit to the café for a burger, but would progress to rain which had the advantage of forcing you to close all windows, which in turn steamed up the windows to create perfect privacy. I once saw and admired one Romeo who took his girlfriend to the drive-in in a pickup. He parked in the last row and reversed up and half over the ramp. In the back of the pickup was a mattress and cushions. Romeo and his girlfriend lay comfortably in the back, probably not watching the film!

 

     I once met a couple whose first child they had called Drive-in. I wondered whether his other children had names like Motel, Bedroom or even Cancun?

 

      I only had one bad experience at the drive-in, and that was the night we went in the girlfriend’s car. I dutifully went to the café for burgers and while I was there the heavens opened. I discovered how hard it was to find a car in the rain not knowing either the registration number of the car or even its make! To make matters worse she dumped me!

 

     I come back to the present and wonder whether TVs and computers and video games were really better than the drive-in. I think the jury is out on this one!

 

 

 

Things Aren’t Always As They Seem by Vicki Evers

[Corsham, Wiltshire, England]

 

As she fell, her whole life flashed before her eyes. Her ivory dress, like a ship’s sail, buffeted for a while, then became umbrella like as it trapped the air beneath it. Her shoes, long gone, had been the first to leave her as she motioned towards the city below. Beautiful shoes, her favourites, bought on a spending spree in ‘Kinks’ when Derek had dumped her. Kinks, established in 1960, where only the wealthy entered and left with multiple bags; crisp white paper ones with a ‘K’ discretely set in the bottom right-hand corner. That day she bought those longed for leopard print, kitten heeled shoes; the ones that were by now probably dug into the roof of someone's car below. What a waste.  

     

     Descending swiftly through a grey cloud hoping to experience the fluff and softness of its being, she was disappointed. Mr Robarts her science teacher was right. “There’s none of that, just atmosphere.” 

 

     She wondered if her curls were still in place or if they had dropped through the motion. All that time spent taking each section of hair and painstakingly winding it around the tongs and waiting for the heat to set it.  Fussing which was totally pointless now, although the silver lining was that she might look more stylish if she ended up in someone’s roof garden.  

 

     The rooftops became more focused the nearer she was drawing towards them and as the sun went down, she watched as lights were being switched on in offices, flats, and houses; an array of flashing lights, across the bridge, along the pavements, on the yacht's moored in unsteady rows. Her old stomping ground.  

 

     Derek’s view was different. His world was made of moments, of reality, of experiences.  

 

     “Get outside in the summer rain,” he used to say to her, “feel each drop on your skin, mud between your toes, drenched hair.”

 

     She had hesitated, and that was it. The final straw he said. His front door open, she walked out. They agreed to take a break.    

 

     “It’s good to get out of your comfort zone.” he called after her. “Here take this.” He handed her an envelope. She opened it.   

 

     “A paragliding experience? You know I don’t like heights.”  

 

     He shrugged his shoulders and closed the door softly behind her.  

 

     So here she was now, bare footed, pulling the strings left, right, ever closer to ‘X’ marks the spot. She just wished she’d worn trainers.

 

 

 

 

Take Me Out To The Ball Game by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

At 12

Tony’s first and last year in little league was brutal.

Not one hit.

At the end of the season his failure was legendary.

During the end of the last game, the opposite teams coach felt so sorry for Tony that he instructed his young pitcher to purposely walk Tony so at least he would know how it felt to step on a base.

 

He never played again.

Not in little league.

Not anywhere.

But became in his little head, the next best thing.

A fan.

A super fan.

 

By the time he was married with a kid on the way, he became obsessed with the career of one big baseball hitter known as “The Crack”, because of the sound his bat would make during his counted, but countless home runs.

 

“Crack” was a hero and Tony was the hero worshipper.

 

Whenever the hero switched teams for more money Tony would pack up the family and move to the city his hero was playing for.

After moving the family four times, a sports reporter heard about it and wrote a piece proclaiming Tony’s loyalty.

Tony was delighted with the story and thought of himself as “The Cracks” fellow teammate.

 

One day while being interviewed on ESPN, “The Crack” was told about this situation.

His response was, “What a nutjob”.

 

This was seen by Tony as he watched the interview wearing “The Cracks” mail order jersey with “The Cracks name and number on it.

 

Tony was, to say the least of the least, destroyed.

 

Later that night, after he replaced his 'The Crack' jersey with one of his wife’s pajama tops, he killed himself.

 

During another ESPN interview when the “The Crack” heard about this situation, his only response was.

 

“Well, what did I tell you”?

 

 The sportswriter, and who knows, perhaps some of the crew, thought for maybe for just a tick, that every clock on the wall of ESPN Sports Central had held their place.

 

That night he threw away his special autographed, 'The Crack' jersey.

 

He thought, wouldn’t it be nice, if everyone was their own hero.

 

 

 

 

Beneath The Clock by Vicki Evers

[Corsham, Wiltshire, England]

 

Peggy walked into the wide entrance of Paddington train station. Above her the Victorian glass roof was opaque and covered in pigeon droppings. Orange computer-generated numbers and letters moved around on boards, hung from the industrial ceiling. Commuters stood huddled, looking up for departures, and visitors roamed the concourse, changing direction sporadically. The muffling sounds of their words broken by the tannoy announcement.

 

     Bristol. 17:32. Delayed. Expected 18:09. She picked up her bag and headed across the concrete tiles to the waiting room. No one was waiting. Sitting on a cold metal seat she rummaged in her bag and pulled out a second hand, or third or fourth hand, book. A poetry anthology that smelled of stale tobacco; the corners bent over in odd places, with a child’s drawing of a cat on the inside cover. An antique clock hung on the stone wall opposite and the intricate ironwork that framed it was shaped with twisted branches wrapped in ivy.

 

     A weekend home with dad was a treat. When it was time to go back to London, he cried. Nothing dramatic. Silent tears. Standing upright on the platform, he would reach into his pocket and discreetly pull out a clean white handkerchief, then squash it into the palm of his hand.

 

     Last time she was home she remembered him saying.

 

     “Old tears. I get old tears waving you off, under that clock.”

 

     Sitting at the kitchen table, a stained teapot dividing them she replied.  

 

     “Old tears for the clock?”    

 

     “That clock. It’s been there ever since I can remember, and that’s a while!” he’d chuckled. “Never seen anyone repairing it. Those big old hands. Ancient.”

 

     She had listened, the tone of his words calming her.

 

     “They made things properly in those days. Everything lasted. Must’ve taken about ten men to heave that up onto the ceiling.”

 

      “It’s looks delicate,” she’d said.

 

     “Trustworthy. That’s what it is. Steady Eddie!” he’d chuckled again.

 

     Sitting back on the metal kitchen chairs Peggy had noticed the seat pads, faded and threadbare. He would never replace them. It would mean erasing a part of her. She had patiently hand sewn each cushion and when the light was getting dim, she would gently call him and ask for the magnifying glass.

 

     “Waved her off to the land army, under that clock,” he’d said. “Be there for another hundred years or more, I expect.”

 

     “The train now arriving at Platform 1 is the 18:09 to Bristol Temple Meads.” The words of the Tanoy interrupted Peggy’s memories and brought her back to the cold seat and the draught from the open door.   

 

     

     It was 18:05. She walked out of the waiting room towards her carriage and then into her reserved seat. It would be a few days before she would leave Bristol again to come back to London. He’ll drive me back to the station, she thought. I’ll climb onto the train. I’ll wave from the window and above the rumbling of the engine, shout, “Bye Dad, see you at Easter!” She smiled as her mind captured the moment. He would be standing upright, underneath the clock. His hair combed; his trousers pressed, his hand reaching into his pocket.  

 

 

 

 

The Leopard by Mike Paterson-Jones

[Abbots Langley, England]

https://www.mikepatersonjones.com/

 

William Sampson lived on his own on a farm in the Rift Valley in Kenya. One day while out riding he came across a dead female leopard, probably killed by lions or hyenas. As he rode on, he heard a crying sound and found a very young leopard cub. It was obvious that its mother was the dead leopard. Bill took the cub home and fed it on milk with an eye dropper. The cub not only survived but thrived and soon graduated onto a doll’s baby bottle. The leopard slept on his bed every night. As it got older it, being a nocturnal animal, felt the need to explore and hunt at night, so it used to jump out of the bedroom window, onto the veranda, and from there disappear into the night. It would return in the early hours and jump back through the bedroom window. As it approached adulthood its jumps back through the window became longer until it was landing on his bed. Bill got tired of being woken up in the early hours every night but didn’t want to close the bedroom window as the nights were hot and any breeze coming through the window was welcome.

 

     Eventually, Bill had had enough. So, one day he put a collar on his leopard and that night attached a chain to the collar and the other end of the chain to a pillar on the veranda. He was fast asleep when, early in the morning he was awoken by something landing on his bed. In the moonlight he could make out the shape of a leopard. He lost his temper, jumped out of bed and grabbed a rhino hide whip from the corner of his room. He beat the leopard which had turned on him, growling and snarling. Bill drove the leopard back with his whip and eventually the leopard jumped out of the bedroom window. Bill went back to sleep. In the morning he went out on to the veranda to find his leopard still chained to the pillar!     

 

 

 

 

Decisions by Vicki Evers

[Corsham, Wiltshire, England]

 

Clara stood in the cold. It was 6.30am and the train would shortly be arriving. She pulled her collar up and held it tight to stop the frosty air catching her neck. Today she would be meeting an editor at the London Book Fair. She had been a visitor to the arena for over three years, and each time she arrived in the vast building, she fantasized about becoming a published author. It was all delusion of course, escapism, hope. But the smell of books, the hedonistic atmosphere, and the hint of a dream, pulled her to its open doors once again.  

 

     The tannoy overhead startled her, the echolalia words interrupting her thoughts.  

 

     ‘We are sorry to announce that the train due to arrive on platform one, the 06:45 to London Paddington will be delayed by forty minutes. We will keep you updated if there are any further delays.’ 

 

     Clara looked across at the display board. The train would now leave at 7.20am, her arrival would be 8.50am. She had twenty-five minutes to reach those ornate glass doors, the entrance to a glint of hope in her writing career.

 

     She felt warmth rise in her body, her cheeks flushed, and she opened her collar to catch the biting air. Twenty-five minutes was just enough time, if she ran. If she dodged through the crowds, ran towards the oncoming traffic, weaved her way around bollards and bins and chained up bicycles. That’s it. She could borrow someone’s bike? She would need a helmet too. But who? Who could lend her a bike at this short notice? She could walk. She would be late, but at least she would arrive perfectly coiffed. But what was the use of missing her slot just to be poised and still smelling of this morning’s perfume. Running. It was the only way.  

 

 

 

At The Back Door by Leanne Simmons

[Berkshire, England]

 

She draws water from the tap, listens for the murmurs as heat rises. Two eggs chortle in the water, little clacks as they jostle to the boil. Outside, the ghostly flap of sheets sway on the line. She is needed. No longer for picnics, paddling, or rolling down grassy banks. These days, she can get up close to summer and listen to the sky sounds. The hum around the hibiscus. She can feel the sparks of grass between her toes as summer falls like a feather, to land as quietly as age does. As slowly. As imperceptibly. She pops the toaster. Tops the eggs. Arranges the tray and creaks it up the stairs.      

 

The rusty prop dents the lawn. At the back door now, sipping coffee, she remembers tiny vests, milk-white, like first teeth, strung the length of the garden on a line. They disappeared into the glimmer of the sun. Her palms spread on the rise of her belly while her toddlers sifted sand in a frog-shaped pit; their chubby little fingers pressed it into moulds to make starfish and seahorses. When she crouched to play, they marvelled at her swollen feet, then squealed, when their grandad, who came to cut the lawn, brought them angel cake. When he was strong enough, well enough, to scoop his grandsons up in one, his blue eyes sparkled like the tide. Upstairs, she peeks into the sleepy room. His afternoon cup of tea stone cold.

 

Red kites whistle and swirl in the early evening haze. She scrapes what he couldn’t manage into the bin, rinses the little plate and sets it to drain. Playful shrieks of children drift in through the back door, with the rhythmic thunk of a ball kicked against a wall. She remembers denim dungarees, pigtail plaits and grubby hand-tooled sandals that started out white. She’d pick at the leather crumbling at the buckle, fly out of the back door, come to land on her knees, next to her mother reaching into the warm dirt to sieve out the weeds. Her mother’s hands; the sad, dirty marks they left when she wiped them on her jeans. Rosy wallflowers gleaming with scent climbed bright against the brickwork where he’d stand, home, calling from the back door, when there were so many summers to come. 

 

 

 

Something in the Library by Callum Heitler

[Fife, Scotland]

 

There was something moving in the library. She could hear it, the creaking of floorboards and the shifting of books, the groan of old doors. Switching on her bedside light, Mary swung out of bed and, slipping on her favourite pink slippers, padded across the cold floor of her bedroom and headed down the stairs. 

 

     There were many rooms in the library, many side halls and alcoves and out-of-the-way passages, each choked full of dusty books and scrolls. Her family had boasted the largest collection on the entire island - and such a collection required constant maintenance. 

As she hurried down the rows of bookshelves, Mary silently berated herself. She knew she should have checked the new batch of books coming in - her assistant, gods bless him, was still finding his feet, and Mary suspected he needed an atlas for such a tricky navigation.

She should have been there, but there had been the restoration to look over on aisle C, and so ...

 

     With her little light in one hand, Mary emerged into a sub-hall in the west wing. There was a shifting of something large in the shadows. Raising her little light above her head, Mary saw the dragon uncurl and look down at her with eyes of flame and smoke. 

 

     Damn, she thought silently. Another batch with plot-holes.

 

 

 

An Editor’s Occupational Hazard by C. J. Anderson-Wu 吳介禎

[Taiwan]

Reading and writing intensively, an editor is prone to exhaustion, vision impairment, or back pain.

 

Open the window, please, let in some fresh air, he said.

 

An editor is also at risk of being detained, incarcerated, or forced to confess attempting to overthrow the regime.

 

Let in some fresh air, please he said again from his desk, and realized that he was by himself, in a solitary confinement cell. Having published many books banned by the dictatorial government, he was arrested during his trip home. Now he is faced with involuntary public repentance, trials without due process, and draconian punishment.

 

Unable to contact his family until he writes down his confession, he worries that they must be in great anxiety. Will they try to negotiate for his freedom in private, or will they openly demand his release? He is aware that secret negotiations not only would silence all dissident opinions, but also make all writers and editors potential victims of the relentless ruler. On the other hand, openly campaigning for his rights might further enrage the power and prolong his confinement. 

 

Unlock the window, please he murmurs in his dream.  

 

The papers and pen given to him still lay on the desk. Even if he writes down his regret of his offense, the world would understand. Among the tens of thousands of thought criminals all over the world, he is just another case.

 

An editor’s occupational hazard is unmitigable, so long as the world keeps reading. If he were completely erased by the regime, what about him would be remembered? Did he make his readers more resistant or more compliant? 

 

Open the window, please, let in some fresh air. In darkness, he is surprised by his own voice.

 

An editor’s occupational hazard is unmitigable, so long as he is still breathing.

 

Author’s Note:

In March 2023, the Editor-in-Chief of Gusa Publishing House from Taiwan, Fucha was arrested in China on his trip to visit relatives. Gusa has published many books in Taiwan that are banned in China. There are still many writers, publishers, and bookstore owners imprisoned in China. At the time this story is being written, Fucha’s whereabouts are still unknown.

 

 

 

Harry Cuts The Apron Strings by Helen Binks

[Pocklington, East Yorkshire, England]

 

Harry used his knife for the second time that morning when he neatly decapitated a rose for his buttonhole. Leaving the stem in the vase, he shouted goodbye to his mother and pulled the door behind him for what he knew would be the last time.

    

     The marketplace was already seething. Trams shuddered along Percy Street, jostling for space to offload raucous passengers, their usual stop in front of the White Swan occupied by two trestle-tables hastily carried out of the hotel and now being covered by a faded Union Jack last seen at the coronation. It flapped playfully in the wind, evading capture and raising ironic cheers in the crowd, until it was at last weighted down with a rifle, the bayonet flashing in the sun. For a moment, silence fell. People looked around nervously, as if embarrassed to be having so much fun, but then a child laughed and the spell was broken.

    

     Harry side-stepped into the butcher’s doorway to wait; his timing would have to be perfect and from here, he could either step forward and join the queue that was already forming sloppily in front of the tables, or he could turn and run. He checked his pocket-watch; say an hour to sign up and he could be on the afternoon train out of Alnwick and on the parade ground in Bisley this evening, all present and correct.

 

     “Taking the King’s shilling, lad?” The butcher stood at Harry’s shoulder, wiping his hands on a rag.

    

     “Yes, sir!” Harry grinned, jumped to mock attention and saluted smartly. “I’m just waiting for them to start.”

    

     “Your mam’ll be proud.” The butcher reached back to his counter and handed Harry a small pie, still warm, sticky with glaze. “Give her that to make up for you going.” Harry laughed, saluted again and marched smartly back into the crowd. Somewhere ahead, a bugle called and orders were barked; recruiting had begun and Harry pushed closer to the noise. He had to be in the first wave if he was to get away today.

    

     Nearly at the tables now. Clouds unrolled like fresh bandages above the castle. Harry fought the urge to look back, to shake off the feeling that someone had followed him, but he knew that even the quickest glance would bring shouts of greeting from half a dozen or more friends. Safer by far to keep eyes front until his name was on that paper. His turn next. Harry dropped the pie on the cobbles, wiped his palm on his thigh and stepped forward.

 

     “Yes, Sir! Eighteen last January. No, Sir! I’m fit as a fiddle. I’m ready to go today.”  Harry took the pen and bent at last to sign. He wondered if anyone had found Mother yet.

 

 

 

Uni by Susannah Ronn

[Essex, England]

 

Shopping, lunches, ticking off lists. It’s been lovely together, just her and me. Debating the merits of a colander over a sieve, whether a bamboo steamer is absolutely essential for student life and wondering if a toaster is provided. I’ve been bracing myself, but now the day has arrived, I feel helpless.

 

     The IKEA hoard, squirreled away in the spare room for the past two weeks, is crammed into the boot and piled onto the back seat. Single sheets, towels, cutlery, saucepans, a frying pan, plus bowls, plates, and mugs (two of each) and a holdall bulging with clothes. A cache of rice, pasta, cornflakes and eggs is secreted in the footwell.

 

     In the hall, Alice buries her face into the dog’s neck then walks out to the car, squeezing into the back. Plugged in to her phone, her thumbs dance over the screen. She is already moving on from us, shedding her baby feathers.

On the long drive north, the murmuring radio erupts into snatches of muffled laughter. I sneak a look at my husband, focused on the road ahead and wonder if, like me, he is being slowly swallowed by sadness with each grey mile. My throat aches. He squeezes my hand and I manage a watery smile.

 

     “Look at the trees, they’re magnificent,” he says.

 

     But the scarlet maples, russet birches and golden oaks slip past on the motorway in a fiery blur. Flocks of gulls rise and fall over a stretch of stubble vanishing under the plough. The road cuts like a scar through a brown landscape where summer is a fading memory.

Her room is tiny. We edge round each other, piling everything onto the bed. I offer to help unpack but she shoos us away, back past the communal kitchen loud with voices and a throbbing beat. Outside, huge oaks slough off dead leaves which gather in drifts. I hug Alice tight until she pulls away.

 

     “See you at Christmas,” she says, over her shoulder.

 

     “Text me!” I say, but my voice cracks and I don’t think she’s heard.

 

     My husband circles my waist with his arm. “Cheer up,” he says. “The dog will be pleased to see us.”

My eyes prickle.

 

     “How about we get a takeaway tonight? What do you think?” he says. “We’ll snuggle on the sofa, light the fire. Peace at last!”

 

     I give a shaky sigh. “That sounds lovely,” I say. I know he is trying his best. But I dread stepping into our silent hallway. I wonder if the house will feel as big to him as it will to me.

 

     The wind is raw on my face as we trudge back to the car over grass crackling with acorns. Some have nestled on the base of the windscreen, too. While my husband pats his coat for the keys, I pick one off, caress its plump, glossy shell and cradle it in my palm. Then

     I tuck it in my pocket.

 

     “I’ll drive us home,” I say.

 

 

 

A Passion by Ian Andrew

[Australia]

 

It got out of hand. Now, with blood seeping into my eyes and my mother’s suppressed sobs filling my ears, I think it was all my fault.

 

     I could have stayed home. Worked with my father. There’s no shame in being a carpenter. But I had to do what I thought was right. I had to protest. Our people were downtrodden and oppressed. Invaded and occupied. Our land taken; our rights denied. The world ignorant to our plight. I couldn’t stand by and let others protest for me. I couldn’t watch my friends go, while I cowered in my workshop. I couldn’t.

 

     It was our time. We were young, fit, strong and if not us, then who? The old men were too feeble, the children too young. It had to be us.

 

     I knew my voice was strong. I knew I had a way with words. I was happy to talk at the meetings, but I did not see it coming; cannot pinpoint the moment when I went from speaking to leading. It just happened. People sought me out, asked my opinion, more and more. Listened to me, believed in me, my message, my call to action. However, I can see, with sad hindsight, times when I could have turned back. Could have turned everyone back, but the momentum was undeniable. Like great conversations when bedtime is long past, yet no one wants to break the spell. The smiles and laughter, camaraderie and emotion binding all together into a new dawn. That was our journey but multiplied in intensity a thousand-fold. I really believed we would change things. Not by overthrowing the Government, it was madness to think like that, faced with an army such as they had. No, our way had to be subtle. Peaceful. The mass of the people, moving in unison. Undeniable.

 

     And then my mistake. The whole thing torn asunder by my temper. I had seen starvation throughout the countryside. Dire need that could have been assuaged by those in power with a single stroke of their pens, yet they did nothing. I thought perhaps they didn’t realise the severity of our need, but I was wrong. They understood and they dismissed me with disdain. The traders, the money changers, the tax collectors. In that holy place. Paying to Caesar his due. Paying us nothing. I could stand it no longer. That one day’s worth of taxes could have fed whole villages, yet we received not so much as a cursory glance. So, I struck out and finally my voice was heard. Heard as a trumpet blast against their economic status quo and they decided, enough was enough.

 

     It took days, not weeks. Their speed was frightening to behold. Friends scattered, all pursued. I was arrested, tried, condemned. Now, as I die, the movement will die with me. There is no reprieve, no kindness. Even their water, offered to my parched lips, is vinegar. To mock my thirst and my naivety. It is finished.

 

 

 

Honeysuckle Promises by Liz Friston

                                                                                                                                                              

"I really think you’ll like it here, Mum,” Dana says, without looking at me.

 

     “Hmm.”

 

     “The garden looks … cheerful.”

 

      “It looks like they based their landscaping on a Kandinsky painting.”

 

      “Lovely, isn’t it. But I didn’t think you liked Kandinsky. Oh. I see.” Her knuckles whiten on the steering wheel. “Can’t you at least try to give it a chance?”

 

     Dana parks up before a large brick building. A faded sign announces Beeches Care Home. Dana turns to look at me. “Look, Mum, this really is for the best. I’ll come visit soon.” Even as she says it, her eyes dart away.

 

      At what point did I go from being a friend and confidant to becoming a burden? I nursed her through every cold, listened to her rant about all her breakups, stroked her hair when she cried. And now, when I need her, she foists me off.

 

     I listen to the indistinct voices of Dana and a nurse as they fuss around getting the wheelchair out of the car. When they open my door, they are silent.

 

     Good morning, Mrs. Ellison.” The nurse’s Barbie-smile is fixed by habit, her eyes as hollow as any doll’s. “I’m Bernadette and I’ll be your nurse.”

 

      The wheels of my chair whirr on the shiny, laminated floors. As Bernadette pushes me along sterile corridors, their cream walls occasionally populated by student art, she intones all the banal activities they have on offer: cards on Tuesday, Scrabble on Wednesday...

Suicide watch by Friday.

 

     After the institutionalised corridors, my room comes as a pleasant surprise: creams and pastel pinks, a comfortable single bed. A wall-length window floods the room with light and leads to a paved area. Bernadette pushes the chair out onto the paved area and retreats.

 

      Sweet-smelling honeysuckle wafts gently on the warm breeze, the small white flowers rising like stars on the trellis beside the window.

 

     “Remember when you were little? We spent ages chasing butterflies and cloud-watching in the garden. We had honeysuckle there, too.” A tear creeps down my cheek.

 

       Dana crouches in front of me, places her hands over mine. “Oh, Mum. I can’t care for you and Martin and Lisa. I just can’t. I don’t want this either, but I don’t know what else to do.”

 

      My heart’s being pummelled by a juggernaut. “I’m sorry Dana. I’m being selfish.”

 

      “No. Yes.”

 

      “I just don’t want to be forgotten. Be the lonely old woman no one ever visits.”

 

      “No chance! Okay, maybe I possibly lied about coming to see you soon – you know how it is with Martin’s A&E visits and hospital appointments – but I will come.”

 

     She sits on my dead legs to hug me better, wraps her arms around me. We sit in silence until the shadows lengthen.

 

      “I have to go. Lisa needs picked up from after school club. I’ll see you soon. Promise.”

 

      I sit there, even as the cold snaps at me, and watch Dana’s car pass out of sight.

 

 

 

 

Realism Of The Highest Order by Adam Wilson

[Motherwell, Scotland]

 

See him waiting in the shelter of a building, his back to the shop window. The ground is frosty and he transfers his weight from foot to foot, crunching slightly. One hand is stuffed into a jacket pocket, the other clings to a string, which, eyes following heavenwards, keeps within reach a glistening red, love-heart shaped balloon.

 

I find that I cannot sleep immediately after extinguishing the light. I check my phone. This takes two hours. I put it down when the water begins to collect in the corner of my eye. It takes another twenty or so minutes to drift off.

 

I look at the glossy page of the recipe book and back to my plate.

 

The flowers seem to wilt under the sickly, foil lighting. I try to visualise them being picked. It is easier to imagine that they have been designed on some sort of supercomputer. I decide not to buy any.

 

I have already cracked an old lady over the head with my rucksack as the bus shunted me towards the doors, which are now opening with a robotic exhale and a nod from the driver. The man in front of me says, ‘Thanks driver’. He is an older man. Cords and a shirt. One of those small backpacks that sling over a single shoulder. I just say, ‘Thanks’.

 

The skin on the tips of my fingers has violently blistered. I have the ability to control the speed of the particles which make up my body, apparently producing flames from nothing. I wince as I remind myself to do this only when necessary.

 

There is an older couple walking on the pavement in front of me. I stop and pretend to look at my phone so as to allow their lead to increase.

 

I give a man a ten-pound note. He is lying on the street and scrunched in a sleeping bag at the bottom of a cold, concrete wall. He tells me to ‘Have a good day’.  I don’t say anything in reply.

 

On the inside of my foot, just below the ankle, there is a glistening, red-purple blush of hardened skin. It looks like a misshapen love heart. I am having trouble deciding whether it is a bruise or another fungal infection.

 

 

 

Clay County Contaminants by Ian Andrew

[Australia]

 

Shirlene holstered the gas pump nozzle, took the offered dollars and threw a half-hearted salute at the driver. Despite a lack of traffic, the car hesitated slightly before turning south.

 

     She walked back to the shop, illuminated by the rhythmic blink, blink, buzz of a neon light. Its shattered plastic cover had seen better days. Like the rest of East Kentucky. Pushing the metal door open, she entered a stifling heat. Frank liked the heater up full.

 

      ‘You couldn’t convince them to buy nothing?’ He called from the back office.

 

      ‘No. I couldn’t.’ And it’s anything, you ignorant piece of … ‘Lady just wanted to be on her way.’

 

     ‘Typical. Where’s she heading?’

 

     ‘Didn’t say.’

 

      ‘She’s no lady out at this time of night. Yankee plates too, you seen that?’

 

     ‘Yeah, I saw.’ She knew Frank had watched her on the CCTV that monitored the pumps. In case of drive-offs.

 

     ‘Long ways from home. What she doin’ down here?’

 

     Shirlene opened the cash register and carefully placed the dollars into the tray. ‘She didn’t say, Frank.’

 

     ‘Now y’all come back in here again.’

 

     Closing the register, she went into the back office.

 

     Frank hadn’t moved from his position on the couch. His left hand cradled a head of thinning, grey hair. Tight eyes watched her from above a bulbous, red-veined nose and sagging jowls. A thick neck flattened into a barrel chest perched on a beer-gut belly, which in turn hung over open jeans. His right hand held his flaccid penis. In the half-light, it looked like its owner; old and wrinkled. Between his feet, the threadbare cushion’s thin padding hardly showed the two dents that Shirlene’s knees had made.

 

     She and Frank had worked the nightshift for two years. He’d taken her by force the second week. She’d been fifteen and a fast learner.

     

      Less bruises if she didn’t fight. Less violation if she gave him a blow job the way he liked it.

 

     He finished and she, as ever, made them both a cup of coffee. Him to wash down a smoke, her to wash away the taste. She poured the hot brown liquid into two cups while Frank zipped himself up.

 

     Two years. Then that week when Frank had been sick, the lady from Boston had stopped to get gas. She was visiting the old coal mine. A tourism initiative that needed her advice on cleaning chemical contaminants. Arsenic specifically. They’d talked for half an hour before she’d invited Shirlene for dinner. What a week. Shirlene smiled at the memory and slipped the small Ziploc bag from her pocket.

 

     She’d expected it to be white, but Sandy had said that the grey metal powder was more toxic and crucially, less detectable.

 

      She waited for him to sit before handing him his coffee.

       

     Ten minutes later the Yankee-plated car pulled back into the pumps.

 

      Shirlene walked to the open passenger door and climbed in.

 

     ‘We good, Shirlene?’

 

      ‘We’re good, Sandy.’

 

 

 

 

Who Dares Wins by Kit Shaw

[London, England]

 

The mouse crept back to the top.

 

His paws held the right piece tight to his chest. One scrape of fur, one errant squeak would mean a quick death. 

A tug on the wire above to check. It was still taught. He held his breath, and once more, tried for the left piece. Out went his arm. A flick past the loose end. Close. Try again. Sway on the wire, build up speed, reach out, grab. Missed. He clambered back to the wire and thought hard. He could not fail. It would be much worse for everyone if he did. He snarled and went again. Holding firm on the wire by his tail, hands out, full stretch, lunging for that piece now. This time, luck was on his side. By the tip of his claw, made it.

 

He finally held both loose pieces.

 

He kept his little body straight, feet and tail wrapped around the wire, arms holding out the left and right pieces. He brought the left under the right, a quick loop under, feed through the hole, and there, a knot. His body started to tremble. Tiny muscles strained under unfamiliar gymnastics. He felt his legs loosening their grip. He forced his claws to grip harder one last time, and with a nearly perceptible grunt pulled the knot tight.

 

It was done.

 

He heaved his body to the wire and as soon as he could, launched himself upwards faster than any scurry in his life. He allowed himself one look below as he drew up the wire. He grinned. He had succeeded where the rats hadn’t dared to try.

 

The cat let out a burbling, contented, snore.

 

It hadn’t noticed the bell around its neck.

 

 

 

 

She Left The House Full Of Fruit by David Shipley

[England]

 

She left the house full of fruit. She loved to buy fruit. Loved how it looked. Didn’t eat much of it and so each week I’d buy bowls full of fruit and toss last week’s rotted mush into the compost bin. Still, she loved the idea of a house full of fruit, and I loved her, so I kept buying the fruit.

 

The day she left the fruit bowl was full. Mangos, plums, grapes, oranges and bananas. I learned long ago that bananas left in a bowl will soon rot and take the rest of the fruit with them. But she liked how they looked and I loved her.

 

I’d hammered hooks into the beam that bisected the kitchen’s ceiling. I’d hang a bunch of bananas on one. The fingers hung heavy, splayed, like the ruined hand of some aged heavyweight boxer. I liked how they looked.

 

She’d move them back to the bowl. I smiled and didn’t really mind. She liked how they looked, and I loved her.

 

That day she left, did it seem different? No. I brought us coffee in bed, and the bagel with marmite. She’d never craved Marmite before, but now, fifteen weeks gone, she devoured it. We talked about our days, things to get for the baby, now swooping and twisting inside her, and we made plans for the weekend.

 

It didn’t seem different. We kissed goodbye, she drove off. She never came home. The call, the visitors, the funeral, the weeks that passed I can’t remember. Now the bananas she left have rotted in the bowl, turning the rest of the fruit to rum-stink and blackened decay. I should throw them away but she liked how they look and I love her.

 

 

 

 

Life On The Edge by Rosie Bamford

[Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire]

 

Chattering, always the chattering. Nothing but incessant taunts that become ever noisier and more twisted. They wind through my mind like a snake charmed from its basket, viewing the world with narrowed eyes. What do you want with me? Rational thought is allowed no entry, but I still perceive, through a veil, that it exists. I have planned this and set my alarm, but there was no need, I did not sleep. It is a clear and frosty night in the dog-end of the year. I am ready yet not ready to do this. I inhabit a dense fog, pierced by a single headlight. I hold no identity; I am only one throwaway person.

 

I climb with an agility borne of desperation onto the sloped roof, where I sit on the apex rimed with frost. I just need to let go. That is all. End. I feel a weary acceptance, I have shut out the cold, all is numb. Does it matter if I live or die? The stars above are bright shiny, but too late to offer any salvation, they instead fade into darkness. The chattering resumes, what do you want with me? The impatience of my anguish both fuels and scares me.

 

A hesitation. Is the end really going to be better than this rapid torture of my mind? Which way will the dice fall? I drag my hand repeatedly across the rough edge of the roof, the physical pain grounds me. I feel calmer as pain that is riddled within manifests itself for real. I feel nothing, but watch, fascinated, as my blood drops redly. It is but a commonplace weapon that shreds the flesh and leaves the spirit untouched.

 

You call out to me. A steely jolt of shock. I am a contradiction, relieved yet defiant. Look at me, see my pain. But, no, don’t. Please go away. I hear the clean sounding snap of reality. The spell has broken. I climb down slowly and carefully, as if I were precious. You help me with gentle hands. The possibility of some other future edges nearer as I reach the ground. I find myself cold and shiver, accepting the undeserved blanket around my shoulders.

 

Now I am wondering if I can be saved, breathing in the deprivation of my freedom to act otherwise. I did not want to return home but find myself here and in chains. The brutal cold edge of my existence lets itself in, chasing my dreams of escape around the bend and away out of reach.

 

You promised peace of mind, but all I get is weary acceptance, limping from one minute to the next. The business of being alive is so wearing. The treacherous beating of my heart. The afflicted beauty of my words is the only lasting testimony to my hopelessness. All else is out of sight except the ugly scars bearing witness to that night.  There is something enticing about that roof and it glitters in my memory even now.

 

 

 

Sweet Victory by Glen Donaldson

[Brisbane, Australia]

                                                             

Backed into a cramped and dark corner, Prince Citrus was left with no choice but to fight. This foretold dance of destruction would pit him finally against his most hated enemy - the wild, dagger-toothed beast known as Paw Paw. Ferocious and bloody, only one of them would be left standing at the end.

 

the pacing predator did not know however, was that the deadly weapon the crowned Prince would use to bring death this very day, lay on the kitchen benchtop in plain sight of both of them. The ordinary looking fruit bowl filled with a freshly-picked selection of the best nature could offer cleverly disguised an array of deadly hidden weapons.

 

Using nothing but the focussed power of his mind, young Prince Citrus commanded a banana to first slowly levitate from the bowl, then magically peel itself on three sides mid-air. Paw Paw, building menace and hatred with every panting breath, stared transfixed as the yellow fruit then hurled itself at lightning speed across the room and directly into its unblinking eyes.

Splat! Blinded by sticky, gooey banana, the quick-thinking Prince then struck his next blow. This time it was the razor-sharp spine leaves of the pineapple that found their target, embedded at his command into the body of the blinded, yelping beast, piercing its fur-covered skin like a hundred tiny knives.

 

Writhing in pain, Paw Paw fell to one knee, blood trickling from dozens of gaping puncture holes, eventually collapsing breathless and defeated on the floor.  

 

To finish him off, Prince Citrus, head titled back and walking with wide steps, approached the granite benchtop one final time. A huge watermelon lay next to the now half-emptied fruit bowl. He clutched it with both muscular hands, approaching the almost lifeless body of the once mighty and feared four-legged Paw Paw.

 

Raising the basketball-sized mega-fruit above his head and then pausing for a moment to take in what was about to happen, with all his princely strength he brought it calamitously crashing down on the skull of the defeated beast.

 

The fight was over. Conquest had come swiftly, more swiftly than he might have imagined. The now almost empty fruit bowl would need restocking to be sure, but that was a job awaiting one of the Prince’s loyal servants on their next visit to the markets.

 

 

 

 

Going by Jack Roe

[Hull, East Yorkshire, England]

 

Rose spent days trudging around her two-up two-down house, cramming stuff into tattered cases. The bump did not help. She struggled to bend down and had to waddle across the stone yard every ten minutes to wee. She cleaned the house too. Top to bottom. If a bomb hit it, those rifling through the rubble would know she was not a tramp.

     The next morning, Rose got up early. It was still dark and cold drifted through the window. Frank was in bed, snoring like a bulldog. Carefully, she curled her hair and did her makeup by the dim lamplight. Eye shadow, mascara, lipstick. She wanted to look like the star of a Hollywood film.

 

     At daybreak, the sun hid behind glum clouds. Mist swept across the terrace and hovered above the cobbles. Rose slipped into a floral dress and watched Frank wake up, slick back his hair and put on his new uniform. Khaki suited him. She went and kissed his clean-shaven face. The smell of Brylcreem lingered as he held her.

     After breakfast, Anne stepped outside and felt the morning’s nip. Frank locked up and grabbed her case. They set off, dodging flapping washing that was strung across their street like bunting. When they turned into Albion Street, a line of packed buses whizzed passed them. Rose clutched Frank’s free hand; she would not let go until she had to. In town, hordes of boys and girls, wearing their Sunday best, walked in front of them next to women who pushed large prams. Everyone headed the same way. 

 

     Paragon station was frenetic. It sounded like a rugby match. A full house at The Boulevard for derby day. Kids, mams, dads, nurses, teachers, and soldiers were everywhere. Rose and Frank shuffled around hundreds of women in headscarves saying goodbye to their bairns. Some kids cried. Some bounced around. Some followed adults like ducklings.

     Smoke billowed from the train as it pulled in. The ground shook. 

     “Write as soon as you get there,” Frank said.

     “I will. Write straight back. I need to know you’re safe,” Rose replied.

     “I’ll be fine. I won’t be the one shovelling pig shit.”

     She laughed and kissed him. He tasted sweet. He rested his hand on her bump. His fingers curled around it. Rose looked up at him.

     “I wish you could be there when the baby comes.”

     “It’ll all be over soon. Promise.”

     The yell of a whistle ripped them apart. Frank handed her the case.

     Rose nestled herself in the corner of a carriage, already filled with rowdy kids. The smell of penny sweets sickened her.

 

     As the train pulled away, young ones stuck their heads out of windows. They cheered and waved like they were going on holiday. Rose sat and cradled her bump; she watched a sea of waving hands try to drown her husband. As the train picked up speed and started chugging away, he got smaller and smaller. Then, he vanished from sight.

 

 

 

 

Mishu And Me by J D Clapp

[San Diego, California]

 

Mishu and I hurl stones at the dead seagull churning atop confused little waves. The sky pulsates blood orange. Rain drops dance on the surface among the ghosts of dead fish. Mishu wears green rubber boots and yellow rain slicker.

 

     “You need boots and coat, or you’ll catch cold,” she tells me.

 

     Even with the dead bird just bobbing we can’t hit it.

     

     Mishu doesn’t see the black fish swimming below the dead gull.

 

     We race to Mishu’s father’s boat way down the dock. Mishu says she won after I was already there.

 

     Mishu’s dad fishes when the seas are calm, and the sun is warm. I want to fish like him when I grow up, but he doesn’t talk to me.

 

     Her father smokes a cigarette. Mishu pretends to smoke; her breath makes a cloud in the cold air.

 

     Mishu says, “I need pieces of rope for my school art project.”

 

     Mishu picks up one more piece of rope from the deck of the boat. She kicks the coiled dock line and then stands on a folded black net to see if she can see the dead bird. Mishu shrugs.

 

     She ignores me.

 

     “That’s enough rope for me.”

 

     She needs to go home to do homework. She asks if I have homework. I shake my head, no.

 

     “You never have homework,” she says. 

 

     She seems mad.

 

     “What do you want to do tomorrow?" I ask.

 

     Mishu is silent and looks down. 

 

     Finally, she says, “I can’t come tomorrow. My mom is having a new baby.”

 

     “Ok. Can you come the next day?” I ask.

 

     “My mom says I can’t play with you anymore, so you can rest.”

 

     I don’t know what Mishu means.

 

     She turns and leaves me on the dock. She doesn’t wave or say goodbye.

 

     I call for her, but she ignores me. I am very sad. 

 

                                                                                                           ###

 

We met in a park. Mishu was with her mommy who was sad about Mishu’s brother. Mishu was sad too, but mostly because her mommy was sad.

 

     Birds were screaming when I met Mishu. The sky flashed red and blue. It got dark when Mishu went home. But I don’t remember nights.

                                                                                                           ###

 

I am back at the park where I first met Mishu. She is not here now. A different little girl is swinging on the swing set. She is swinging high and the chains rattle and make a little jump when her feet reach for the clouds. The clouds are sunny clouds, puffy, white, dancing. 

 

     The girl’s mommy is angry.

 

     “Can I swing too?”

 

     They ignore me.

 

     “Be Careful Emily! Not so high. You’ll fall and break your neck!”

 

     Emily laughed. 

 

     “Remember that little boy who fell off the monkey bars last year? He went too high!”

 

     “Sorry Mommy.”

 

     Emily slowed down.

 

     I felt bad for the little boy who died. It is getting dark.

 

     I hope I see Mishu soon.

Go Blow by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

He would have said how the fuck could they make a trumpet out of plastic and have come forth out of it with such beautiful sounds. Sounds like he heard his father play on his brass trumpet. But Gabriel was only four years of age when he got it and didn’t know yet what plastic was.

Gabe’s mother and father were always fighting. With her doing most of the fighting and him doing most of the ignoring. She was jealous of his trumpet, which he played all the time.

Gabe would listen to his father play in the next room and play along with him from his room.

That duo would harmonize until mom started hitting dad and if Gabe was still playing after a few smacks at dad, she would go into his room and smack on him.

By that time dad would start playing his horn again and she would leave Gabe and go back to dad and start in again on him where she left off.

Gabe kept playing too.

His horn sounds banished the bad ones.

 

Gabe’s dad died when Gabe was thirteen.

Gabe figured he died because he wanted to.

Death couldn’t be worse than living with ma and dad’s horn could no longer quiet the bad sounds like Gabe’s was still doing.

After the funeral Gabe took his fathers horn and then took a powder.

Gabe and his horn ran away together.

 

Gabe found work at a golf course as a caddy.

He always had his eye on the ball and now he was finding them.

 

He wrote his first piece around those times waiting to be called to carry golf bags in the caddy shack where he could just hold his forever horn in his lap and not play it.

Just think it.

He called it, ‘Please Accept My Love’.

It was a beautiful begging haunting yet friendly piece.

When he played it was as if he was born with a horn that would forever work and rest in his chest.

Mouthpiece pointing up to lip with the horn pointing down to his heart.

When he played, what was listened to, would stick to the ribs, and then some.

 

At days end he would pretend to be on his way to his, “Home”, that he would describe to others as a nice big house surrounded by big trees that he shared with his, “Brothers and sisters”, and it had a nice front and backyard that was as green as the golf course fairways he would carry and compose on.

He would leave a window unlocked in the caddy shack and hide in the woods until everyone left and thru the window he would go to his, ‘Home’, and sleep, eat, wash and stay there until early morn where he would slip back out the window and  into the woods and wait until they opened and go back pretending he was just was showing up at work.

A lot of his wardrobe comprised of shirts and sweaters that were left forgotten on the fairways and such and end up in the caddy shacks lost and found department.

Never found pants, but blue jeans are forever.

He knew he was lost and hoped one day to be found.

When asked why he wasn’t in school, he said he was, ‘Home’ schooled.

Well ain’t that the truth. He played his song, “Please Accept My Love”, to one of the members of the club that noticed his forever with him horn and when the music ended the club owner asked what it was called and who wrote it.

When he heard the title and the name of the author, he teared up and threw down a twenty to Gabe.

Then he asked Gabe a lot of questions.

It did not take him long to unfold the folded-up truths regarding this young man’s circumstances.

He said, “You three are coming home with me tonight.”

When Gabe asked who the other two were he was told, “Your horn and my sweater.”

 

 

The Chair by James Strother

[St Albans, England]

 

I’ll be gone soon. Not long now. Unwanted, flotsam or jetsam, though I think that’s a seafaring analogy, not really one for the parish hall. What have I done with my life? Been sat upon, I suppose, that seems to sum it up. Always playing a supporting part, drab and functional, never standing out. Just being there, performing my useful, essential even, but near as dammit invisible role.

 

Still it’s been a varied half century in its way. Monthly meetings every one of those years. In the office behind the big desk mostly, phone ringing, papers shuffling, Josie dropping in from the kitchen alternate Fridays with tea and cake when the Mothers’ Union was still a thing. Special occasions were all right, pushed up to the front row next to the seat for some local dignitary or other. The pantomime was the best one, all them excited kids, some of the parents even more so, yelling, applauding, egging on the baddies. I’ve been a bit wobbly these last few years so they moved me to the side, said they didn’t want a broken leg to sort out. Fair enough really.

 

I can feel it coming now. Legs, back, everything creaking, disintegrating inside, I shouldn’t wonder. I heard Jo Patterson just the other day, must have forgotten I was there, or like them all she assumes I can’t hear. ‘Needs replacing’, she said, ‘nowt lasts forever’. Doubt she knows the truth or she’d have been more careful with her words. She’s right though, not hard to find another one of me, and no one’ll think about me five minutes after I’ve been sent to the knacker’s yard. Plenty more identikit workhorses where I come from.

 

First Saturday in April, start of the youngsters’ football season. More excitement in one day than in all my time. A kid brought his ball inside where he had no right to be, kicked it across the hall to where the admin desk was for the first match against Greater Marston. Over I went, crash, felt something cracked, I heard it too. Everyone rushed round and for once, just for a moment, I was right at the centre of what was going on. Then they cleared the room and there was just me and Bob the caretaker, me lying on the floor waiting to be cleared away like so much rubbish.

 

The ambulance comes quickly, I suppose they told them I’m frail and in my eighties. As we leave, I see Bob from the corner of my eye, lifting up my old chair, that faithful friend since the old Queen’s coronation. One leg’s bent into an impossible position, just like mine. Funny it doesn’t really hurt, maybe the shock or something. Ah well, there’s some sort of…synchronicity here, is that the word? I won’t be back, this is it for me, for my chair as well I guess. I hope they miss us but I bet they don’t.

 

 

 

 

Crazy Driver by JD Clapp

[San Diego, California]

 

Bing bang, wang tang, tutti fruity, kiss my booty. Caught in no man’s land, the light turned yellow. Walter had only gotten to tutti fruity.

 

      The rules were clear; he could only stop once he completed the rhyme. Knuckles white, beads of perspiration on face, his blue oxford shirt rumpled, stained with the remnants of a Big Mac and pitted, Walter floored his 2009 Prius.

 

     The light went red when Walter was a few feet from the crosswalk entering the intersection. College Avenue was busy that afternoon. As the little humanoid figure on the walk signal flashed white, five college students stepped off the curb, ten eyes glued to tiny phone screens. Walter missed them by a foot as he flew through the intersection. The kid zooming on the one-wheel in the crosswalk on the backside of the intersection was not so lucky.

 

     Walter was doing about 45 mph. The impact of the collision sent the kid hurling over the Prius before landing and bouncing a few times, limbs flying in unnatural directions. Walter kept driving.

 

     Bing bang, wang tang, tutti fruity, kiss my booty. Walter timed the rhyme perfectly and stopped at the next red light.

 

     “Sorry about that. I think that kid will be fine,” Walter said.

 

     The corpse of the elderly woman in the backseat did not answer. Her sick cat, however, howled in disbelief from its carrier.

 

     The light turned green. Walter speed up to 27 miles per hour, the sweet spot. Bing bang, wang tang, tutti fruity, kiss my booty. The light went yellow. Rules were rules.

 

      The old woman in the wheelchair was hidden behind a US mailbox. It wouldn’t have mattered. Bing bang, wang tang, tutti fruity, kiss my…BAM!!

      

     “Rules are rules,” Walter said as he drove on.

           

     When Walter finally turned right on College Avenue, red and blue flashers lit the street. Several police cruisers and an ambulance blocked all but one lane. Walter took no notice. Bing bang, wang tang, tutti fruity, kiss my booty. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Traffic was dead stopped.

   

     “Say it with me Scruffy!”

 

      The cat did not reply.

           

     Eventually the police directed cars through five at a time, alternating directions of traffic.

Walter eventually got to the accident.

           

      “It’s the car!”

           

     “That’s him!”

 

     The officer, hearing the cries, and noticing blood on the hood, stepped in front of Walter’s car. Other officers approached.

           

     “Turn off the engine and place both hands out your driver’s side window!”

 

     Walter ignored the command. When he got to booty, he floored it. Rules were rules.

           

     The police officer tumbled over the Primus hood and landed hard. Ahead another police cruiser backed across the lane. Walter slammed into it, then the motor cut out.

           

      Walter laid on the ground in cuffs. He politely answered questions.

           

     Eventually, the officers helped Walter to his feet and lead him toward a waiting police van. Walking again Walter began his chant.

 

     Bing bang, wang tang, tutti fruity, kiss my booty.

 

     Rules were rules after all.

 

 

 

 

Things In Pairs by Pete Prokesch

[Watertown, Massachusetts, USA]

 

After I pushed Mom in the kitchen she slipped on the slick mopped floor and hit her head on the corner of the counter and lay still and I thought it would be a good time to climb the tree out back because it was autumn and the pears were ripe and the squirrels never scattered when I was up there and never looked at me like they knew what I was thinking because squirrels know what to do when a squirrel dies and they don’t make a big deal about it and call their dad at work who said to only call him in case of emergencies and surely this was one but what if it wasn’t and you were overreacting like the time a ripe pear fell on the dog shit under the tree and you called him and he yelled but surely this was different but how different was it so I climbed the tree and didn’t come down until the lights from the siren stopped filtering through the leaves and the sun set and it was pleasant and cool so I went inside and I like things in pairs so I grabbed the knife from the counter next to the sink and snuck into the bedroom and killed Dad too.

 

 

 

 

Chengu by Balu Swami

[Buckeye, Phoenix AZ, USA]

 

I was 22 when I published my first novel. I’ve published seventeen more since – one every two years. Whenever I was asked about my “prolific” output, I gave them my usual spiel about discipline, dedication, persistence and perseverance. I would tell them about the restless hours of night-time creativity, the daily regimen I followed, and my devotion to the task of creating good literature.

All that is a fucking lie. Ideas and even words came to me in my dreams. I used the app “Greyish” to record my dreams. I also woke up at odd hours at night and dictated a story based on whatever dream I saw. In the morning, I would print the dictated story which would turn out to be a jumble of words that made no sense. I would then watch the recorded dream. After watching the images, the jumble of words would start to make some sort of sense. Then I would start to write but would have no control over how the story took shape or what words poured out of the keyboard.  A voice in my head would dictate and I would transcribe. By the end of the morning, I would have 20 pages of ‘literary stuff’.  Other writers may claim to work like a man possessed. I am possessed; therefore, I write.

Here's how my product evolved from last night’s dream.  First, the dictated story:

“Hated boy. xxx constant stench of urine xxx. An animal walking on water xxx. singing in a loud voice xxx. Offerings and tributes xxx.”

 

Here is the final product:

 

'Chengu was a hated boy. Orphaned at a young age, he lived on the periphery of the village subsisting on whatever food the priest left for him outside the temple walls. Most people tried to avoid any contact with him. Kids his age ostracized him. He had a constant stench of urine about him. There was a swarm of flies wherever he went. He had gooey eyes and runny nose. The tuft of hair on his head was matted. Nobody had heard him say a word. It was assumed he was deaf and dumb. Thus, did he live the first twelve years of his life.

 

All that changed one early morning. Chengu was sitting on the banks of the river waiting for the sun to come up. Just as the sky was turning translucent, he saw an image rise from the water. He rubbed his eyes and peered. An animal seemed to be walking on the surface of the water carrying a majestic being on his back. The animal and the being started heading towards him. Frightened, he started to get up and run. But his legs would not move. He felt like he was no longer in control of his body. As his vision became clearer, he could see that the animal was a tiger, and the rider was the multi-armed goddess whose image he had seen carved on the temple walls. The goddess dismounted the tiger and extended one of her arms that held a trident. Chengu involuntarily opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue. The goddess scratched the tongue with the trident. A shudder went through Chengu’s body, and he felt transformed into a different being. As he was becoming conscious of what was happening to him, the image of the goddess and the tiger slowly melted into the morning mist.

 

Chengu took a dip in the river. As the sun rose, he could see his image in the water: The matted hair had turned smooth and silky, the stench about him was gone, his visage was that of a learned young man, not the village dolt. He walked towards the trees that marked the shoreline. He sat under a large oak, and it was at that moment that words came to him. He started singing in a loud voice reciting stories about kings and queens, gods and goddesses, scholars and scoundrels.

 

Villagers heard his voice and came to him. They realized that the despised Chengu had become the blessed one and they honored him with gifts, offerings and tributes. They made a platform in the temple courtyard from where he regaled the old and young every evening with stories and songs from the ancient past.'

 

You may want to know how I fashion a cogent novel from disparate and disjointed dreams. That is where the magic of magical realism comes in. I am not going to give too much of my craft away. You are going to have to read my next novel to see where last night’s dream story fits in.

 

 

 

 

Four Stories by David Patten

[Denver, USA]

 

 

Golan Heights

It takes a moment for the brain to properly process that it’s hearing gunfire.  But the repeated sharp cracks and urgent shouts in Hebrew confirmed there was a situation.  Connor and Craig were waiting by the main entrance for a ride to the local store.  An Israeli, middle-aged with greying hair ran into view.  He knelt and fired off his Uzi in the direction he’d come.  The settlement came alive with the sounds of combat, Israelis responding to unseen assailants.  Craig took off running through the main gate.  Momentarily rooted, Connor followed.

         

     Some fifty yards up ahead Craig hurdled a low fence topped with barbed wire.  No time for prudence.  Connor followed suit, the wire slashing at his ankles.  The gunfire behind them was intensifying.  Then an angry flash and a loud, abrupt explosion.  Clumps of earth falling around Connor.  Craig’s heaped body, unmoving.  A landmine.  A voice.  Connor turned toward it.  The Israeli with the grey hair was standing the other side of the fence, weapon held across his body.  Come back, he said, but slow.  Go slow.  Shaking, Connor locked him with his eyes and took the first step.

 

 

 

Serengeti

The darkness was profound, impenetrable.  The disabled van cast adrift, interior lights on, headlamps launching long arrows into the engulfing night.  Chitundu was bent over the engine, wrench in hand, Matt next to him holding aloft a flashlight.

         

     The van had turned off the main road onto a bumpy dirt path that would eventually lead to the isolated lodge.  About an hour in with the dusk fast ebbing away the van slowed, stuttered, and then quit.  Almost immediately, the mood in the vehicle fell into an uneasy vigilance.

         

     Katie swiped open her phone.  No service.  She turned toward the handful of seniors in the back.  They looked distracted, worried, eyes scanning the edges of where the van’s light bled into the blackness.  One of the women caught Katie’s eye, managing a weak smile. 

         

     Shortly after the engine had died, Chitundu’s radio followed suit in a blaze of static.  Now he was getting the distress flare primed.  “Be careful,” cautioned Matt, “don’t go too far from the van.”  They all gathered at the windshield and watched as Chitundu steadied himself and tugged the cord downward, sending the flare rocketing into the night.  Its slow descent revealed what had remained unspoken: they were being stalked.

 

 

 

The Kiss

Vienna is in bloom.  Like most European cities, the Austrian capital shakes off winter in a riot of color and fragrance.  Heavy clothing discarded, people stroll the wide streets in contentment.  Sidewalk cafes bustle.  Boys, fingers blackened by newsprint, call out, caps pushed back and shirtsleeves rolled high.  A gentle breeze stirs, its breath full of warmth and optimism.

         

     A fashion designer, senses always tuned to aesthetics, Emilie stoops to admire daffodils circling the base of a young tree.  Spring is her favorite season.  She carefully plucks one of the flowers and sets it in her dark, bushy hair.  Gustav will appreciate it, she thinks. 

         

     Emilie knows she has sometimes been labeled as Klimt’s muse.  Perhaps that was once true.  But the word belongs to something more fleeting; now the two are established companions, even occasional lovers, their kinship forged in creations of beauty and sensuality.  She turns onto Josefstadte, the imposing red maple a sentinel in front of Gustav’s home.  Approaching the arched, wrought iron gate Emilie adjusts the daffodil in her hair, expectant.

         

     Klimt is standing on the garden path in back of the house facing the cottage that is his studio, windows large and clear for the light.  The garden has a canopy of tall trees, the path bordered by ferns and shrubs.  He is wearing the teal smock that he paints in.  Mid-forties now, a decade Emilie’s senior, he has a full beard, the untamed hair on his head in premature retreat.  He embraces Emilie, kissing both cheeks, touches the daffodil in her hair.  She takes his hands in hers.  “I can’t wait to see your work.” 

         

     Afternoon light bathes the studio.  Palettes, brushes, tubes of pigment, and canvasses occupy the space in no particular order.  An artist’s clutter.  In one corner an easel, a large sheet concealing the finished work.  Emilie looks at Gustav for confirmation.  He nods, gesturing for her to approach it.

         

     Revealed, Emilie steps back, a small gasp escaping her lips.  She regards the painting in silence, eyes consuming all of it.  She glances at Gustav, a look of wonder, and steps closer to the easel.  Radiant in floral golds, purples, reds, greens, a couple caught in an embrace, both loving and sensual; the man cradling her face, kissing a cheek, the woman enraptured.  Beneath their feet a meadow in a mosaic of spring hues.  Klimt stands behind Emilie, hands on her shoulders.  “Is she Athena to her Apollo?”  He smiles at her interpretation.  “No, it’s you Emilie.”  His fingers find her hair.  “It’s us.”

 

 

 

Sheer Drop

Daybreak, water the color of slate.  A lone figure stands in contemplation, close enough to the river that its current splashes over her boots.  This stretch of the Niagara resides in the commonplace, revealing nothing of the chaos up ahead.  Annie steps back up onto the grass, the October dew staining the hem of her dress and petticoats.  She adjusts her matching bonnet which, like her dress, was once the tone of ripe plums, the garments now faded and frayed.  

         

     Farther down river the water quickens, a menace in its energy.  Annie observes it coursing over rocks, dragging reluctant branches.  Then rapids, the river shapeshifting, relentless.  The air resounds, vibrates.  Ahead, the torrent launches itself into the void.  Annie is still, awed by the force of nature, her clothes absorbing the clouds of spray thrown high by the Horseshoe Falls.  Tomorrow, her birthday, she will plunge over the brink in a barrel.

         

     A small crowd has gathered at the launch point, the interest mostly morbid, as few expect Annie to survive.  But this stoic woman in her sixties, widowed since the Civil War, remains confident that prosperity will follow.  She engages with a reporter, offers a brief smile to the photographer.  The large, oak barrel has been lined with thick blankets. Annie climbs through the opening and settles, cushioned.  Resigned to being accomplices to such imprudence, two men in buttoned vests and rolled shirtsleeves toss their cigarettes to the ground and step into a rowboat. 

         

     Untethered, the barrel rolls in the calm stretch of the river.  It appears inert, laden, until the current imposes its will.  Annie’s breaths are shallow, fast, as she braces for the rapids.   They receive her with disdain, muscles of water pounding the sodden oak.  A thunder fills the barrel, invincible.  The energy fractures.  Freefall.  Annie is relaxed, expectant.

 

 

 

The Dressing Gown’s Girlfriend by Lily Annis

[Winchester, England]

 

If I prop myself up in bed, I can see the grass in our garden is painted with frost. I wrap around my girlfriend’s body to conserve heat. During the winter months, I’m more participatory in our relationship. She shivers in the cold morning air, her icy hands clutching at me. We cuddle for a bit, soft material intertwining with hard limbs, and she indulges in this until she has drained my heat. Satisfied, she moves from the bed, numb feet landing on the thin greying carpet. She slips those feet into fluffy slippers and pads out of the room. I stare at the ceiling listlessly. When she returns, she cradles me in her arms; her most precious possession. This is how I know she’s getting worse, although her awareness is clouded with denial. 

 

She paces back and forth in front of the radiator. Her chest wheezes in protest and I wonder if she can hear too. Back and forth. Her heartbeat is as slow as ever, exhausted by existing. Back and forth, back -

 

The Fall. Weakened by strenuous exercise and starvation, her legs buckle and she cannot catch herself. Her chin smacks against the radiator, shattering her front tooth and dislocating her jaw. Her left eye blackens. I fall with her, cascading around her body like blood. She’s unconscious. We lie together, sprawled on the floor, a mess of red and fabric. Please send for help. There is nothing I can do – I’m just a dressing gown.

 

 

 

 

Milk First by Petra Baillie

[West Scotland]

 

“Margaret, what are you doing that for?" asked Johnny, irritated, as he sat in his worn-out armchair with the TV blaring in the background. "Silly old woman," he muttered under his breath.

 

“Well Johnny, I thought that’s how you were meant to do it,” Margaret said back.  “You thought you were meant to put the milk in first, and then the tea? How long have you been making my tea? Fifty years? And you thought the correct way of making it was milk first? Dear, oh dear…”  
 

“Well I didn’t remember now, did I? It hardly matters, I think.” Margaret began a soft giggle. Johnny was not as amused.  
 

“Oh well, we can only do with what the good Lord has given us.” Margaret sighed, drinking her tea, milk first.  
 

“The good Lord has nothing to do with this!” Johnny didn’t lift his gaze from the TV. “Well, actually, maybe He does. What do you think God, surely even You know it’s blasphemy to put the milk in first don’t You?” 
 

“Now now, Johnny.” Margaret raised an eyebrow. 
 

“Oh, sorry. What’s that I hear?” Johnny held his hand to his ear as though to hear the faint whisperings of the good Lord himself.  “Oh, Margaret. You’re never going believe what He just told me! Putting the milk in first is in fact a cardinal sin and there’s a great chance you’re going to hell for it. Oh dear, oh dear…” Johnny sniggered a little before settling his hand back to the TV remote.  


“Hell or sin is nothing to joke about, Johnny.” Margaret was stern. Johnny was headed for hell anyway since he was never a believer the whole time Margaret had known him. “Besides, I think there are much greater things to worry about in the world. Children not even having one meal a day, people in this country being trafficked, terrorism, for God’s sake!” 
 

“Oh. Was that the Lord’s name in vain? That’s one ticket to hell.” Johnny pretended to check a piece of paper floating in the air.  
 

“Ugh, I hardly think He would be bothered by that…”  
 

“Oh, now now Margaret. You can’t pick and choose from the Bible.” Johnny changed the channel to the news.  
 

Breaking news: “It has now been declared by Pope Constantine the Second that putting the milk in tea first is in fact a sin. This will change the way we all have elevensies. Back to you in the studio.” 
 

Johnny smirked and Margaret poured out the tea, reached for her rosary beads and started reciting Hail Marys.   
 

“Silly old woman.” Johnny sipped his sinful tea.  

 

 

 

 

Whoops! by Jill Swale

[Winnersh, Berkshire, England]

 

It was probably worrying about her daughter that led to the first mistake. It was bad enough contemplating the dangers two eighteen year old girls might encounter on their round the world jaunt. It was even worse to read the email saying that Becky’s travelling companion had decided to rescue bears in Romania instead, leaving her alone in China. Then silence for ten days.

 

That was probably why Clare so readily gave her bank card details in response to the email saying she owed an extra £3 before her package could be delivered. It took half the morning cancelling the card and reporting the scam.

 

No longer able to do the planned big shop, instead she sorted out her winter clothes, one bag of best ones to store in the loft now the weather was improving, another bag of tattier garments for charity.

 

Turning her car after making the donation, she had to sound her horn as a vehicle started backing into her. It kept on coming so instinctively she reversed too.

 

Crash! For a moment Clare couldn’t work out why all she could see out of her rear window was a wall of white, then she realised she had backed into a parked Iceland van. After supplying her insurance details, she had to leave her own car at the local garage; its boot was too badly damaged to open.

 

Walking the rest of the way home, still feeling wobbly, she wondered if things could get any worse. But where was her door key? It was in a bag in the scrunched up car boot.

 

She was pleased she had hidden a spare key in a jam jar under a garden bush years ago, but found the lid had rusted on. Only by throwing it at the wall was she able to eventually break the glass. Then the key was too rusty to turn.

 

In one respect her absent mindedness paid off. Her neighbour fetched a stepladder and his skinny son was able to climb in through the kitchen window she had failed to close and let her in the front door. It was a shame that he had kicked her favourite teapot off the draining board in the process, because she needed a cup of tea after all this.

 

Stress was making her feel chilly so she went to retrieve one of the cosy winter jumpers about to be stored in the loft. I must have missed this one intended for charity, she thought, and this one. Only when she had upturned the bag on the floor did she realise her mistake. The charity shop had received all her best clothes, leaving her with the moth-eaten ones.

 

After that the cat was sick and she burned the dinner. Then the doorbell rang.

 

‘What now?’ she shouted in exasperation.

 

On the doorstep stood her daughter, Becky, with an enormous backpack.

 

‘Surprise!’ she grinned.

 

‘This is the best day of my life!’ replied Clare.

 

 

 

 

Imposter by Anna-Roisin Ullman-Smith

[Glasgow, Scotland]

 

It may be one of the most well-known syndromes of the current age, ‘impostor syndrome’; all these successful people out there saying, “Oh I suffer from major impostor syndrome. I mean who can actually believe it. Little old me being this famous!”

Meanwhile no one talks about people like me. Suffering debilitating insomnia and a constant thrum of impostor syndrome. Unlike the successful impostors of the world, no one knows of my suffering. Unlike them, I am not an impostor of greatness, but one of flat, abject failure.

 

The woe of being a golden child. Friends, family, teachers, tutors, myself, all full-heartedly believing that by the age of 25 I’d be doing something great. Something world-changing. Something of worth.

 

Now, too close to 30 for comfort, I feel like I am impersonating the life of a school dropout. I’m caught in a web of disbelief. This cannot, surely, be the life of the promising young Elliot. As a teenager I knew, deep in my bones I knew, that I would be successful. What happened to those goals? To that ambition?

 

What awful fate struck the young Elliot to get me here? Wasting away, barely leaving the house, driven to panic by the thought of a mere phone call.

 

Of course, I know what befell that young Elliot because I lived it. The crippling reality of stepping out of a top academic record and into a world which didn’t care. A world where my peers who had spent their time working after school instead of studying, as I did, were seen as qualified for real jobs, whilst I was an academic, useless to the real-world stage. Any position my many qualifications could get me still required the horror of an unpaid internship to be carved into my C.V. in black ink. The fact that working full-time without pay is impossible for all of us not privileged enough to come from money was of no consideration to the big-wigs, who stood empowered to make or break my life.

 

A few bad, low end, poorly paid jobs later and the young Elliot was no longer young. No longer blazingly confident. No longer passionate. Thus began the syndrome. Creeping in through the cracks of my life. My idea of who I am put steadfast against the reality of my current position in the world.

 

In my mind I am talented, bursting with qualifications and academic experience hard won through years of painstaking work, set into the world to do something great. In the cold, grey, embrace of reality I am twice fired, unemployed, living of the dregs of social welfare funding with absolutely no opportunities and no experienced skillset. An impostor of my own making. Unseen and unheard because I am not what I always thought I was meant to be.

 

In this reality, the closest I have gotten to the success I thought I would have, is to feel as much of an impostor as the rich and famous.

 

 

 

 

Ophelia by Winifred Powell

 

She brushed past me in that narrow space at the back of the stage, heading towards the wings and her final entrance. I clenched my fists; I was Ophelia, I should have been lying in that punt, dying for love of the best lead we’d had in years. I stood there busy with my thoughts as Will’s tragedy played out in front of the usual audience of schools “doing” the play for their summer exams, and retirees having a matinee before catching the train back out of town.

 

I had a sudden thought and without stopping to consider, ran round and quietly lifted the bottom edge of the backdrop. I reached into the punt and slid the bolt. Ophelia was taking an unconscionable time to die but the moment came when she gracefully reclined, mad and passionate, but finally dead. Only she didn’t go quietly. Amongst a crack and a splintering of wood, the punt gave up the attempt to defy gravity and Ophelia disappeared in a welter of limbs and chip-board down the trap-door. The audience woke from its lunch-induced coma with a gasp, giggles and hesitant applause. This faded to a deafening silence as our leading man strode centre-stage. What cue was he going to use now?

 

 

 

 

The Machines by Stephen Page

[from Detroit USA, now splitting his time between Buenos Aires and Mandonado, Uruguay]

 

I wake up, prepare coffee, and carry a cup to my home office. I try to start working. Nothing. I open the curtains on the window. Cloudy. I turn on the computer to check the weather. Cool, but not cold. 

            

     Today my weight-resistant machine and my stationary bike should arrive. They should fill the void my black leather nap/reading couch once occupied. A Sager once came to our home and said something bad happened on that couch. I looked at the floor when she said that.

           

     I will miss my couch, but my office now feels clean of bad energy. 

 

     I listen to the birds singing outside my office.

 

 

 

 

Shelf by Muhammed Bin Ashraf

[Kerala, India]

 

Once upon a time there was a little shelf named Sally. Sally lived in a cosy room in a pretty little house. It was built of solid wood and had three floors, each slightly smaller than the one below. Sally was proud of her simple, but sturdy design and she was very proud of the items she displayed on her shelves.

Sally kept a collection of trinkets and treasures collected by the family who lived in the house. There were picture frames with family photos, a vase of fresh flowers and a collection of books. Each item had a special meaning and helped tell the story of the family that lived there.

One day a new family moved into the house. They were very busy, always in a hurry and didn't pay much attention to Sally at first. But as they settled into their new home, they began to appreciate the charm and character Sally brought to the space.

The new family added their own items to Sally's shelves. They put up a clock that chimed on the hour, a colourful lamp that gave warm light in the evening, and a collection of crystals that sparkled in the sun. Sally was thrilled to have new friends and happy to be part of their lives.

The years passed and the family grew and changed. Children were born and they added their toys and games to Sally's shelves. As the years went by, Sally's shelves became more and more crowded and she felt a little overwhelmed. But she didn't mind, because she was still the heart of the house and the family loved her just the way she was.

And so Sally remained a constant presence in the family's lives, always there to preserve their treasures and remind them of the memories they had made. She was more than a simple shelf; she was part of the family history and the family would always cherish her.

 

 

 

 

The Gardener’s Sweet Tooth by George Smith

[Worcestershire, England]

 

He has quite a record of achievement. I’m talking about Raymond, our gardener. He was in the news for a while but that all came to an abrupt end. Let me tell you about it.

It was Tessa who started it. She keeps her garden immaculately. Complained about our weeds killing her flowers and our branches pummelling her fence. Sylvia and I knew we had let things go a bit because of our new hobby, hill walking. So to keep her sweet we put the word out for a gardener.    

When he first appeared he was riding a bicycle that pulled a trailer with long garden tools poking out. It was a strange sight. Raymond was tall, stick-thin, hollow-cheeked, pallid and thirtyish. He did not look as if he had enough stamina to dig up a daisy.

Sylvia got him started on weeding and pruning. He worked steadily and we saw good results from his efforts so we asked him to come weekly on Thursdays. The garden is so large there is plenty to do and we were pleased to shed a time-consuming chore. Tessa said she was delighted as well.

It took time to get to know him for he said little about himself or anything else. Quietly spoken and polite, he wore army fatigues, a bobble hat and old army boots. But he  never smiled.

Sylvia’s offered him tea and biscuits at eleven o’clock. He drank the tea but left the digestive biscuits. The following week she offered him tea biscuits. They were ignored too. She felt he was malnourished so next offered him all butter shortbread. He scoffed the lot and it loosened his tongue.

He was orphaned as child, put in a children’s home then joined the army but soon left because of the spit and polish. He had worked in a variety of manual jobs before he settled for gardening because he enjoyed working outdoors. He was single, lived in a bed sitting room and cooked with a microwave oven. He said he struggled to live on his earnings.

Sylvia loves baking and out of concern for Raymond’s well-being she made pastries for him. He was happy to gobble them up although shortbread remained his favourite. Indeed, he learned of a shortbread eating contest in Aviemore and entered. The contestant who ate the most shortbread in three minutes was the winner. It was Raymond and he scooped several thousand pounds in prize money.    

Flushed by his success, Raymond learned about other sweetmeat eating contests. He entered competitions for marshmallows, fudge and chocolate truffles. Some were abroad, such as Portuguese custard tarts in Lisbon and apple strudel in Vienna. He won enough prize money to give up gardening. Got himself a long-term girl-friend at one contest. But before long he entered a peanut brittle eating contest in New Orleans. Four teeth were broken off and he lost the contest. Hence, he gave up competing and became our gardener again. He smiles now.         

 

 

 

 

Twelve (Surely?) by Dil Sher

[Birmingham, England]

 

Linoleum tiles. Linoleum tiles. Linoleum. Linoleum means lino. Lino. Rubber on the floor. Red lino with wood panels underneath. Lino now but tiles back then. Tiles or linoleum. Ceramic tiles. Ceramic tiles back then. Yeah, faded yellow tiles with black grout.

 

The glass fell from the counter. It just fell. It fell because it might have been me. It might have been my elbow as I turned around. It was my elbow as I turned around and stood up. I’d knocked it and it fell to the floor. It hit the tiles. Of course, it hit the tiles.

 

It fell to the floor and shattered. I’d struck the final blow. She screamed. She was hysterical. Said I’d done it on purpose. Asked what was wrong with me and if I was stupid. Called me an idiot. Idiot was what she called me. Other names apart from idiot. What were the other names apart from idiot? I don’t remember. I don’t. I was arrogant and selfish. Selfish and arrogant. This is what I always do. This is how I’d turn out and how I’d remain.

 

It was an accident. It wasn’t my fault and it had just happened. I was sorry. She shouted more. It hurt my heart when she shouted. She shouted more and said that I never accept blame. Said it wasn’t in me to accept blame.

 

I’m being punished for accidental damage. I thought I wouldn’t give her an explanation. Don’t do that. Never justify. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong, man. Don’t do that. Not with her, you don’t do that with her. Shatter. The glass will always shatter at that speed and from that height. Surely?

 

No use in justification. Not here. Not ever. Retreat. My only move was retreat. Her eyes ablaze. The demon unleashed. A frightening creature. Was I frightened? Probably. Most probably. I took solace in my room. I didn’t cry. There was no need to cry. I walked towards the window and stared at the street below. What was the use in crying? The sky was crying for me. Huh? The sky was crying. Sky was upset. Always upset where we lived. Always seemed to be upset. Don’t know why but sky was always crying.

 

Droplets on glass obscured my view of the pedestrians walking to and fro. I began to count the droplets. Maybe if I counted the droplets, I’d get an answer. The total number of droplets would give me a sign of what to do. Droplets always replaced by new ones. Fresh ones. So I had to keep starting over. Over and over. Annoying. Turned into a game for me. One of those games. I couldn’t stop counting.

 

The most I got to was twelve.

 

 

 

3 Stories by Mary Anne Mc Enery

[The Hague, The Netherlands]

 

Blood Moon

 

I am an abandoned house at the edge of the forest.

 

I was restored as the youth community centre. There was a welcome blaze from the fire where we toasted marshmallows and roasted potatoes in wedges on long two-pronged forks. There were singsongs and clapping, belly dancing, and laughing. A buttercup yellow reading room, where we drank a cup or two of poetry with each new season, and a fine snooker table, felt green with hardwood edging. The kitchen smelt of fruit scones and sparkled with rosy freckled cheeks. I watched my darlings steal kisses in shady corners. They giggled and separated when I rattled a door-nob. Promising voices filled my rooms, and echoed in the dusky glades where they played late under lush summer branches lit by fireflies and harvest moons. Those were carefree yearning years.

A policeman visited and informed us about vagrants who camped in the woods. He advised the young people to cycle home in groups. “Stay together, and be vigilant. Look out for one another” he said. But the young are invincible and took risks.

My lean coltish Naomi, on the cusp of womanhood, loved to write poetry and read it aloud, seated at my hearth. Her words were melodic and flowing, and the timbre of her voice caressed me like a lover. She dozed by my fireside and when she woke her companions had left. My walls shouted;

“Go, go safely, my love.”

The trees - like me - watched and screamed in the wind, but kept silent. Her soul ruptured from her body on that terrible night.

The youth abandoned me. My doors and windows locked out life. Brambles and bushes hid me. Opportune jackdaws nested in my chimneys. Passers-by whispered;

“Sweet child. Sweet Naomi.”

Her ghost, a skittish fawn, leaped over every blood moon.

 

 

Dying Love

 

The man Melissa met in the hospital before Christmas was in love with her.

 

His name was Vincent. When she studied him, she noticed a swarth of freckles across the bridge of his nose; the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled.  He popped his head around her private room door and asked after her; asked with a twinkle in his eye if she had made her mind up yet, when he came to visit his uncle in the long-stay ward. His eyes were kind when she explained about her sickness symptoms and the nausea from the morphine pump. Her accent, a soft version of a Southern Irish brogue that sometimes slipped into her speech, sounded charming to him.

 

On a January day, as he was about to leave, he wondered aloud whether she would be interested in going to dinner on Valentine’s night.? He took her hand in both of his for a moment before letting go. She felt the most beautiful woman in the world. She imagined if you scanned her hand, you would see no blood, only streams of joy running through her veins.

She remembered her sixteenth birthday, nine years ago. Mark gave her a ribband bouquet of wildflowers and was the first man who entered her world and left with her heart, but with each encounter with Vincent, she felt a spark that could not be extinguished. The wonder of love chased itself in circles in her mind like fireflies on a summer night.

                                                                                                            *

Vincent loitered outside the restaurant and sniffed the single red rose. It’s petals glimmering in the pale moonlight. The bud was softly open, its perfume winged on the Spring air. Tonight, the heavens were ablaze. Melissa’s love, and wonderment returned to him, like a boomerang bouncing off the Milky Way.

 

 

Dead Dolphin Summer

The cottage we’d rented for the summer had a view of the ocean from the front porch. “I can’t be done with female troubles,” Father hissed at me before returning to his car magazine and drooled over the bikini-clad girl draped across the bonnet on the cover.

I was eleven that summer; and I had no sister to talk to about woman’s stuff, only a six-and-a-half-year-old brother whom I had the tiresome job of minding. Mother was still in bed. She’d been crying a lot lately. She sipped vodka from an unlabelled bottle she kept hidden under the mattress. When we’d first arrived, she’d said the pattern on the yellow-brown wallpaper in the living room resembled some terrible disease.

 

One day, we found a dead dolphin washed up on the beach. The rotting carcass, bloated with sea water and gas, lay at the edge of the waves. Its belly had burst open, revealing a haemorrhage of red and pink bloody masses that spewed onto the sands. Mother turned away, squeezed her eyes shut, and threw up where she stood. Father wrapped his arms around her waist and whispered, “Hush, hush, darling, this is part of life.” My brother clung to my mother's legs and wailed as she stumbled home.

 

Father made supper every evening and would coax Mother to take her pills. He tried to care for us, but the slightest thing would make him angry.

 

Mother often had a bruise on her face. Father said she was always walking into doors. But I knew he knew I knew. Father said Mother needed to get strong and back to her old self again. But I pretended to enjoy listening to his frayed fairy tales - if only for my little brother’s sake - his voice as dead as the dolphin on the summer sands.

 

 

 

A Malady by Mehreen Ahmed

[Australia]

 

The English roses were in full bloom. The waxing moon poured a love spell into the virgin queen. Her heart tight with pure romance, as she waited within the palace walls of the rose garden at the Hampton Court. After a few moments of delightful rumination, she saw him mounting on a white charger. The anxious queen was poised; she steadied herself for the man she had appointed the master of horses. 

 

Over the palace walls, the setting sun rouged the sky with a motley of unidentified hues—magic streaks of mixed pink, orange, and red on a canvas of blue. Who knew? Bright they surely looked. She cared less for the pecking order, he was her romance, for whom she was prepared to lead a virgin life.

 

Was this a malady in the queen’s head? Her ministers pondered. And was this just as incurable as the malady in the breast of her lover Dudley’s wife? The powerful queen fought formidable foes but she was weak when it came to consummate this relationship with whom she could have had a lifetime of pleasure beyond any measure in matters of the heart, where politics or common wisdom stooped. Her heart throbbed with mounting love aches.

 

On this date Dudley thought, he brought her majesty glad tidings that both were waiting for. The impediment had been removed. He told the queen of the sudden death of his wife. An occasion to rejoice, sadly, brought her no joy. He told her that the death was not on account of the malady of the breast but from a fall. It was an accident…an accident, but who would believe it? The queen’s clandestine affair was rumoured throughout England that Dudley was mad to be her consort. This madness of love was acceptable in poetry only. An opportunity had opened up, the time had arrived to ask the queen’s hand in marriage, Dudley thought.

 

No marriage could take place over this bloody death. The queen knew best. If they could not be made in heaven, then let there be no marriage at all. Because it would be tainted. This crime was not some kind of game that could be cast away. Dudley’s wife had a fatal fall; the queen was already a suspect. In the state’s interest, she stifled her romance instead and distanced herself from him at once. The queen’s heavy heart had not lightened up since; no offspring to tether connection to the Dudley genome. There was only one other way to stop this leaching in her heart. That she must metamorphasize - a crying werewolf to the waxing moon in the forest on the edge of a blue lagoon. For the state itself she wore a white pacifist’s mask. The world must never see her stiff scars. The mask betrayed no emotions, happy or sad. She declared, “I am England.”

 

 

 

Just A Dream by Stacey George

[North Shields, near Tynemouth, England] 

 

There were too many people on the bus for Clare's liking and everybody seemed to be chatting in loud voices which was not a good start to the afternoon for Maggie and Clare. They had both been looking forward for weeks now to their shopping trip to buy some new clothes for a holiday which they were planning to take.

 

        Clare had loved Newcastle since she was a little girl and used to gaze into the office windows along Jesmond Road and watch the girls typing away. Her mother had been a typist before her marriage and Clare knew she wanted to follow in her mother's footsteps.

 

          Maggie and Clare lived for each other. It would have been impossible to find another mother and daughter who were more devoted to each other if you had tried. All the sales were now ending and the new spring and summer clothes were now displayed on models in all the shop windows.

 

         "Now remember Clare just to buy sensible things which can be worn when we get back home," said Maggie. Her daughter had an awful habit of buying silly things and they ended up just hanging in the wardrobe for years and then eventually being put into Charity Bags.

 

          Maggie and Clare both had several garments and were en route to the fitting rooms when the loud banging of the bin could be heard. Clare was still half asleep but when she awoke she realised that it had all been a dream.

 

         Maggie had died almost 12 years ago and they would never again go shopping or walk along the sea front like they used to do. Clare went back to sleep again and hoped that she would once again see her mother's face even if only in dreams.

 

 

 

 

Magic Dirt by Glen Donaldson

[Brisbane, Australia]

Beatrice Bushworthy was a gardener of erratic brilliance. To the neighbourhood children she may have been just an old fossil but the great grandmother, who reliably collected and stored dirt under her fingernails with pride, knew how to grow perfect roses better than anyone else around.

 

     That summer she planted two dozen polyantha rose bushes, eighteen of which sprouted into exquisite blooms. What she jokingly called her ‘dinosaur droppings’ - superphosphate bone meal fertilizer – were her secret success formula. Or so she thought.

 

     When her geologist son had the soil in her garden tested and it came back as dating to the Jurassic Period, she had to revise what she told people was the reason for her green thumbs. The ‘old fossil’ moniker turned out to be closer to the bone than folk knew.

 

 

 

 

The Way To The Heart by Alan Berger

[West Hollywood, California]

 

I’m an ugly young man.

If there is such a thing.

I’m ugly on the outside.

Inside I’m nice and cool.

Not interesting ugly either.

In elementary school playing at friends’ houses, I was told to stay away from the windows.

Girls would not come by.

Didn’t bother me.

 

However

 

I was clever , confident, funny and I knew it.

I also had God’s gift.

Good hair.

 

We met in Hollywood at a  place I go to cash checks.

She was at the Western Union window to my right sending  money.

She was the most beautiful anything I ever saw.

 

She was not only out of my league, but out of my species as well.