Original artwork by Caroline Grimshaw to accompany her story 'The Envelope' [below]
Dust by Anthony Ward
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
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
“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
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
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]
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.”
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
‘Trust me, we’re doing the right thing.’
‘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
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
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
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.”
“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?”
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
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
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
“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.
“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
‘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
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
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
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.
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
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.’
‘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 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
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.
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
‘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.'
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
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
"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:
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
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.
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
‘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.
‘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]
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.
But became in his little head, the next best thing.
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]
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
“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.”
“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
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
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?’
‘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
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
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
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
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!”
“Remember that little boy who fell off the monkey bars last year? He went too high!”
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!”
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
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.
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.
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.”
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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]
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.
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
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
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.
I was clever , confident, funny and I knew it.
I also had God’s gift.
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.
I fantasized that the Western Union woman helping me, who I did not know, and I know them all, would ask something they all never do, so I can reply with something funny enough that the girl next door will want to get know me.
And she goes from behind the window ”Got any questions?’’
I said yeah,” What is the meaning of life and how’s my hair.”
She laughed, the girl behind the other window laughed, the girl next door laughed too.
We started dating.
She was used to her whole life being beautifully looked at, now they were looking at us with that what the fuck look.
Oh, and she didn’t mind my cussing which she heard a fuck of a lot.
After three months it was time to meet mommy and daddy.
Hers. Not mine.
We won’t discuss mine in this story.
She came from a family with so much money and power that they paid a kings ransom each month to stay out of the papers.
Now that’s real power.
Her last name was not familiar, until I did some pre-meet research.
Her father probably had a say in the elections of half a dozen countries with no one saying or knowing his name.
You couldn’t even find a picture of him or her mother.
I was not surprised.
We took her car to Connecticut to where one of there many houses were housed.
On the way up I was wondering if her father did any research on me but figured he would be too busy making kings and Presidents.
Her mother was waiting at the end of a three-mile driveway outside their home.
She was waving us in for a landing as excited as a football team owner that just won the Superbowl.
Her mother looked better than a model. More like Snow White on a good day.
She walked us in.
Coming down the stairway, the one to his right, was daddy.
My jaw dropped.
He glided down the stairway ok, but his face boarded on disfigurement.
“What the fuck are you staring at, haven’t you seen anyone as ugly as me before?” says he.
Not since I fucking shaved this morning. Said me.
They all laughed.
I was home.
Who Is More To Blame For The Aborted Child? by Rathin Bhattacharjee
Ratan Babu wanted nothing more than a son. He had been a good son himself, he thought if he had one, his son would carry on his legacy and family name. Unfortunately, his first two offspring were both daughters.
His mother, an aged widow, in her mid-seventies, also wanted her youngest son to have a son. So, when Chhalona Devi, Ratan Babu's wife conceived for the third time, the happiness of Ratan Babu and his mother knew no bounds.
"Finally, God has listened to my prayers. I couldn't have died a peaceful death without you siring a son." She squeeled delightfully sitting on her bed.
At his in-laws' place, Chhalona's mom was devastated when Chhalona dropped in with the bomb. Her dubla (feeble) daughter had conceived again, despite her repeated warnings against the very idea!
"How could you be so stupid? Didn't the doc warn you against conceiving last time? Didn't I ask you to take all necessary precautions? How come you and your gunodhar (talented) husband have done it again then?" She was fuming.
"It's just an accident, Ma. We'd taken all necessary precautions!" Chhalona replied feebly dreading her mother's wrath like nothing else at that moment.
"Didn't I ask you to go for vasectomy last time? Besides, what are you going to feed your children, keeping in mind the contractual job your sex maniac hubby has?" She was beside herself at the unpardonable offence her daughter and son-in-law had committed again.
The long and short of the epic encounter between mother and daughter was, Chhalona was finally prevailed upon to abort her child. As Chhalona left her parents' home, there was a smile hovering around her mom's mouth.
"Ma, Chhalona doesn't want our child. She told me that her body can't go through the child-bearing trauma again. Besides, there's no guarantee that we'll be third time lucky! So, I've agreed with her plan of aborting the child." Ratan Babu informed his mother, a bit hesitantly.
The poor lady, looking frail and distraught god-fearing and ever so obliging, decided not to broach the subject to her son again.
A few months after the abortion in a private nursing home at Bagha Jatin, Ratan Babu joked with his wife, saying:
"When your final hour arrives, my dearest, long after I'm turned into dust and ashes, you'll, with your eyes closed, see your unborn child asking for an explanation. You'll find it extremely difficult to face him and answer his barrage of questions…"
You know the funny thing, dear reader? It was Ratan Babu, who was raising hell in the hospital ward some months later, when he had to be hospitalized due to a severe stomach pain.
All night long, he kept twisting and turning in bed, whining incoherently about the contemptuous face of an unborn child, in his delirium.
The Tomato by William Thornton-Brown
The rain clattered onto the roof of the greenhouse, out of rhythm. Tony waddled up to the tomato plant with a small pair of secateurs in his giant hands. Carefully, he sniped the stalk then held up the fruit to the light. His eyes darted around before he took off his hat, carefully wrapping the tomato up in it, then folded it safely under his jacket. At the door of the greenhouse he bolted, his huge feet sloshing across the wet grass, his curly hair flopping up and down like a dog ears. He reached his house and finally came to stop to catch his breath. He staggered over to the sink and washed the tomato, so gently, in the warm; brushing the water back like soap off a baby's head. He cupped the fruit with both of his hands and smiled, his dinner-plate-eyes alight.
Leviathan by Ian Carass
[Hornsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England]
The depth is deeper, the breadth is broader. Sea mirrors sky almost entirely. Land is now only found as a few sparse islets, lonely as marooned mariners. Land has become theoretical; it is lapsing into legend.
Far below, with the pace and magnitude of a planet, she makes her imperial progress. Shoals of fish dart around her and in her wake: a flotilla of bridesmaids, a brilliantly decorated entourage.
Is this destiny? The thought occurs to her suddenly and rudders rapidly to the surface. Patience was all it took and there is an ocean of that. Go forth and multiply.
Compulsory Stop by Ian Carass
[Hornsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England]
Every day except Sunday.
On those earlier, frosty mornings, and today, with the rising sun forming the tower block opposite into a silhouette, making the windows seem darker, more lonely, before there was light enough to discern the hand-drawn rainbows against the glass.
Every day the bus completed its circular route. Every day it made its compulsory stop outside her window, the engine idling, to waste time, to keep pace with the published timetable: something reliable for passengers.
But every day, no one got on and no one got off.
Jenny never saw a soul on that bus except the driver, framed by Perspex, impossible to conjure any expression behind that mask.
He could have been a getaway driver, loitering, waiting for the villains to burst out of some bank, encumbered by loot.
Sipping her brew, Jenny heard her children stirring in their beds. The driver was almost at eye-level, but perhaps he was too professional to make eye contact or too lost in his own thoughts, to notice her, observing him.
He had to stop here, had to wait for passengers to come.
But today, on this bus, no one got on and no one got off.
Roadworks by Ian Carass
[Hornsea, East Riding of Yorkshire, England]
How long had it been now? Was it minutes or hours? George half imagined it was days that he had sat here, staring at that red light, waiting for traffic to flow past him from the other direction (not a single car so far), fearing the light would never change. Where were the roadworks, anyway? There was no sign of excavated tarmac, no sound of diggers delving, no intimation of workers up ahead or nearby, chatting, smoking, leaning on shovels, hard-hatted, hard-hearted.
For George, time had begun to lose its familiar demarcations, its concrete boundaries and divisions. It had begun to feel like a medium for swimming in or drowning in not for travelling through, linear, orderly. That light had stalled at red so long that George had begun to forget the expected sequence of traffic lights. To bolster his recollection, George had resorted to re-saying the anticipated colours of the lights in his head.
But that red light. The more you gazed into its crimson heart, the more complex the shade became, as if the light contained all the colours, but was wilfully withholding some elements of the spectrum.
In his rear-view mirror George could see the row of cars behind him, stretching, it seemed, almost to infinity. It was hard to get an angle to view the full length. The car immediately behind George felt too close for comfort and the sun’s angle this morning meant that George could not see the driver’s face. This same effect of sunlight must be making all the other cars in the queue appear black in colour and uniform in style. There were only cars also, no lumbering tractors or looming lorries, just cars, black cars, neatly lined up, bumper to bumper, patient and quiet.
George suddenly felt the need for action. His frustration and pent rage had reached a tipping point. Doing something was better than doing nothing. George climbed out of his car and strolled casually up to the traffic light. Perhaps some mechanism had become stuck. A strategic kick might bring it back to life. Checking that he was not being closely observed (only by the hundred eyes of the queuing motorists), George tapped the toe of his shoe against the traffic light mechanism. Nothing happened. Nothing at first, but then the blasting horns of the queued cars, full-throated and desperate, sounded at him. George looked up. Headlights were flashing at him, hazard lights menacing him.
George raced back to his car. Out of the corner of his eye George caught the sight he had been waiting for. The traffic light had changed to the colour of green pastures. This was solace, this was hope. But just for a moment. Before George even managed to get his car door open, the traffic light fixed its red eye back on him.
It was too late. George stood in the road, lost and afraid, as a herd of cars thundered down the road towards him.
rom My Father: Be A Squeaky Wheel by Jude Potts
Adding To The Collection by Pam Plumb
[County Durham, England]
This evening there are twenty-three friend suggestions, friends of friends of friends. She chooses Sonje in Catalonia. The top post is a video of Sonje hula hooping on the beach, the light from a fire pit glancing off her brown skin, skimming into the shadows like kisses into a crowd, turning so fast. Off camera a man claps and whoops, perhaps her boyfriend, perhaps not, but it’s just those two and maybe someone else behind the camera. It’s only thirty seconds long but it’s set on a loop so hula hooping Sonje twirls and twirls and twirls for infinity. This is just the sort of friend she’s looking for: exciting and dynamic, Marilyn’s kind of person.
Marilyn collects friends like a philatelist, selecting only the most interesting specimens from as far afield as Reykjavik, Dar El Salam, Singapore. In 3rd grade she’d completed a project on time zones, at least the six her teacher had asked them to research. Now she skips between Mountain and Greenwich, shimmies under the lines of Capricorn or Cancer, splicing her time between all her friends. Much more exciting even than stepping out of Freedom into Idaho. It’s a full-time job to keep up, but she does and her Momma would be proud.
Marilyn licks salt from her fingers before clicking the confirm button and jumping up to place a red push pin right on the ‘e’ of Barcelona.
'Tombstoning' by Adam Kelly
We watched Felix climb and waited for him to reach the top. We’d started a few years before, just in the harbour, to impress the girls. I wasn’t trying to impress the girls; I was trying to impress Amelia. But she liked Felix.
The jumps had been fairly small then. When school started again, we never seemed to talk to the girls like we did in the summer. But eventually it would come round again. As the jumps got bigger most of us had gradually retired. Felix had continued to develop into a professional. He wore jelly shoes when he jumped. They looked stupid on everyone else but he pulled it off.
The only other one who’d attempted Southpoint, up on the cliff, was Chris. He liked it when he misjudged the rocks a little and came up with blood. Felix never came up with blood. There was no art to what he did but he made it look like there could be. In the last few weeks of school, he’d talked about taking up diving, as the more respectable side of jumping into water.
‘It’s not really the same thing,’ I said.
Felix had done the Southpoint jump twice before that day. We were all there as usual, Amelia included. As much as I wished he hadn’t, Felix liked Amelia too. Everyone knew they were on the cusp of something. It would probably take the summer to cement but they were close.
I climbed round a rock and stood next to Amelia.
‘Billy boy, what’s up?’ she asked.
‘Nothing really,’ I said.
‘You look glum.’
‘No, just tired.’
‘Me too. Haven’t recovered from school yet.’
Felix stood at the top of the cliff and faked a fall. Most of us grinned. Amelia sighed to herself. He took his usual run up and kicked his legs as he left the edge. He seemed to hover for a moment then dropped, arms strapped to his side. He plunged into the sea. We all clapped and waited for Felix to come up from under the waves.
‘Makes me worry every time,’ she said.
‘You’re cleverer than him, you don’t do it anymore.’
I blushed and scratched my cheeks. A little part of me hoped Amelia would disapprove enough that she’d decide she didn’t like Felix anymore. I knew that wouldn’t happen but I pretended it would.
‘I’m just scared.’
‘No, that’s called being clever,’ Amelia said.
‘I guess it got less fun after a while.’
‘I just liked it better when it was the harbour.’
‘D’you remember when we got told off by that guy?’ I asked.
Amelia giggled and snorted a little.
‘He was so red. I mean in his face,’ I said.
Amelia sighed and snorted once more.
‘Yeah,’ I mumbled to myself.
Amelia watched the water and bit her lip. We waited for Felix to come up.
The Doctor Is An Animal by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
A vet was Doctor Smith.
Practicing and perfecting in Beverly Hills, Thank you very much.
His kid killed himself once.
This was a quiet man.
A sign above the reception area read
You allowed in the exam room
With your precious for half a minute
You will tell Dr. Smith what you think is wrong
Then you go to the waiting room
If he didn’t know what he was doing spectacularly, miraculously, he would be out of business faster than a wag of a tail.
Or any any business.
Dr. Smith’s still waters ran very deep.
Also, Dr. Smith, was a degenerate gambler since elementary school.
There he would bet against The Otters. Against The Beavers.
He would bet on lions and tigers or what ever animal was stronger in the games.
He had his system and his system worked. Only three three people know about this system.
Him, Him, and Him.
One day a real Hollywood heavyweight wanted to know what would happen when he goes over his time limit in the exam room, because he will.
The reply from the back per Dr. Smith was, I feel fucking sorry for you pet already.
That was that that. The heavyweight was stunned, but well behaved, real quick. He only took 25 seconds.
As the good, bad Doctor would say, no matter how much money or time they got, ask, and receive not.
There was one customer I really liked.
This customer was an above the title action star.
Another gambler like him.
He always came with his pet although plenty of others of lower stature sent their assistants.
He always came and was cool.
At the morning paper was he when he saw a story of his action star client in trouble. Money trouble. He was too old for this part or too young for that one and running out of dough.
That would not be a problem.
Next time the action star without any currant action came in
Doctor Smith told him he needed a favor.
Sure, anything, said the star!
Doctor Smith told he need to bet on a game. A football game.
The Detroit Tigers were playing The Seattle Seahawks.
The Seahawks were favored 10 to one.
He said he had 200,000 in cash to bet but could not go his usual source for reasons that were his alone.
He gave the star the money and said he wanted him to bet on the Tigers.
He told the star if the Tigers win, he only wanted double the 200,000 back. The star could keep the rest.
If he loses, the star will not owe him a thing.
The star took the money and The Lions won.
The star asked him how he knew.
Doctor Smith said, it does not take a rocket scientist to know the weakest lion could always beat the shit out of the strongest Seahawk.
The Breakfast by Martin Andrew
[Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England]
The fridge, microwave and oven are no longer featured in our kitchen. Food is no longer available as a source to sustain life. I opened the door to the small cooling-hatch, the door had the same wooden finish as all the cupboards. Inside was clinical white, pristine and every alternate day, the cooling-hatch had to be cleaned. There was only enough space for the syringes that had to be transferred to sterile airtight bags while it was cleaned.
Greed corrupted the food producers who took extremes to fatten-up meat, to make vegetables look bigger, juicier and fuller than they ought to be. It had been an era of unnatural living; no organic food was available. People started dying as their bodies shut down due to a lack of nutrients. It was then governments declared that food was to be destroyed and it was forbidden for people to consume anything.
“Claire!” I shouted. “Are you nearly ready? It’s time to take your nutrient injection.”
“Coming, just combing my hair.”
The injections had to be taken at specific times to enable the nutrients to be circulated around the body. Any earlier or later and our bodies would encounter a nutrient imbalance.
“God, I miss food,” Claire stated, as she descended the stairs.
“Tell me about it, I try not to dwell. It only makes matters worse.”
Claire entered the kitchen. Her golden blonde hair, which had been cut to a bob, accentuated the profile of her face and her blue eyes radiated a fresh innocence that made you feel alive and uplifted.
“Have you had yours yet?”
“No, I was waiting for you.”
Taking two syringes from the cooling hatch, I passed one to Claire. We took them at the same time so one of us wouldn’t forget.
“One… two… three,” I counted. Simultaneously, we jabbed our syringes into our arms and pressed. The solution containing the nutrients entered our veins. A spike coursed through our bodies causing a momentary surge in energy. This lasted a few minutes, and then it subsided.
The only conciliation was the potency of the nutrients as we only had to inject ourselves twice a day, in the morning and in the evening.
Claire came closer and her lips touched me, locked in a kiss she embraced me. “I’m setting off for work, have a good day.”
I watched as she walked away with car keys in one hand and her bag in the other.
“Bye, you have a good day too.”
I placed both syringes in the bin and turned to watch the droplets of rain roll down the window. Two of them started at the same time, I stared and wondered which one would win the race. I was aware that I too would have to set off for work soon.
Predictions by Sharon Berg
Sitting at her writing desk, Elke heard the sparrows. They occupied a bush in front of the porch. Through the month of November, long into winter, she’s thought of them as embodiment of her creativity. They reminded her of a teaching she'd received from a First Nations Elder. She couldn't ignore the fact that each day began with the noise of their ceremony for sunrise and ended with a ritual for the departing sun.
She had company when she wrote, glancing out the window to notice them hopping between the naked branches. She thought of them as manifestations of the ideas she crafted into stories. Several would fly out while the majority remained, moments later a larger group returning. There was a constant interchange of places and ideas.
In March, a hawk landed on the porch railing, sending the minions into distress. Their alarm calls were loud as they hunkered down, deep among naked branches, but the hawk managed to grab one. It flew off, the tiny sparrow grasped in its talons. The next time it showed up, Elke opened the door slowly, the hawk still perched on the railing. It cocked its head to observe her.
“Even if you take one a day, that group will soon be gone. Please leave them alone,” she pleaded.
The hawk ignored her, returning every day. Several times that winter she saw evidence, the imprint of wing tips and drag marks in the snow across her yard. By springtime, the bush was deathly quiet, the birds no longer there. She struggled to write without the familiar cacophony in the branches of the lilac bush. She thought her prediction had come true as the bush developed its glorious green leaves.
Then winter returned, and the sparrows hopped among naked branches again. She wrote a haiku featuring their ceremonies and smiled. She predicted a winter with many ideas to be captured in print.
Life After Death by Balu Swami
[Buckeye, Phoenix, Arizona, USA]
I am Molecule Zwu. My origin dates back several billion years. Would you believe it, I was just a rocky grain when I was born? As if by magic, one day I turned into a living, breathing cell along with millions of my fellow rocky grains. From that day on, I set off on an incredible journey finding a host in all sorts of micro and macro-organisms: single cell amoeba, invertebrate, vertebrate, crustacean, amphibian, you name it. Been there, done that. I still remember the day my host transformed from homo erectus (HE) to homo sapien (HS). HE was walking through a forest, came to a dead stop under a tree and wondered, ‘Why did I come here?’ Prior to that day, HE would have walked and walked until he dropped dead. That day forward, HS became a totally different species altogether. The ‘why’ led to ‘what’ (‘What the fuck?’); ‘what” led to ‘where’ (‘Your place or mine?’); and ‘when’ (‘Is there ever a bad time?’). So, before you knew it, there were legions of HS spawns splintered into a million tribes, each vying for the vaunted ‘We’re No.1’ bragging rights.
These HS tribes vied with each other to build more and more roads and bridges, rockets and submarines, diet water and blowup dolls. They should have stopped when the going was good. Instead, they kept building and building stuff and more stuff that built up carbon in the atmosphere to a level where air became unbreathable and water undrinkable. Also, in a moment of genius, the best and the brightest amongst them invented atomic weapons. When breathable air and drinkable water became scarce, the tribes started invading each other’s space and, when that failed, unleashed mutual assured destruction (MAD).
When the third rock from the Sun was blown to smithereens, I was violently thrust into the deep void - far into a different galaxy. I went looking for another habitable planet. I had heard about a star system called 149. After light years of search, I entered the cold outer reaches of 149. The first three planets farthest from the star were frozen rocks. As I entered the orbit of the fourth, the atmospheric pressure felt different. The polar ice caps appeared wetter. Could this be my new home? As I got closer, my heart raced fast. What are those bulbous laminations? Could they be…? I didn’t have to wait too long to find out. They were STROMATOLITES! I knew I was going to be reborn. For another life lasting billions of years? Time will tell.
Flights by Iwona Luszowicz
The coach had left the town when Anna made the discovery. She always checked for her passport on the airport ride, ever since she started travelling solo, digging her fingers into its hiding place down the back of her rucksack.
She thumbed to the photo page, peered at it under the reading light.
It still came as a surprise, grown-up passports lasting a decade. When so much can change in that time. By twenty-eight her mother was living in a foreign country with a husband and baby, even if Anna’s life was quite similar to whenever this photo was -
Shit, the expiry date was three weeks ago.
The coach trundled on, the same journey as when they were kids.
If only she’d taken her German passport. It had to be valid for another five years at least.
She could call her sister, beg her to bring the other passport to the airport. Beg the airline for a later flight.
Her phone said the next plane landed at two.
They’d be half-way through coffee and cake when she arrived, she could see herself sidling into the room laid out for the wake, trying to explain to her aunt why she’d missed the service. Ich habe mein – or was it meinen? – Pass vergessen.
Opa Walther had really been her cousin’s grandpa. Anna feared him as a child. He wasn’t like her own Opa, who read them comics and only had one leg after the war. Opa Walther said very little and, despite having two legs, was always sitting at the dining table in his small flat, not joining in with their games.
Anna’s cousin had loved the old man, though. She thought her mother had liked him too.
Anna turned in her seat, pretended to fiddle with the headrest, checked the other passengers hadn’t noticed her discovery.
She turned back round, inspected the expiry date.
If it wasn’t for the plastic covering, that number one could become a seven. Draw a line through the middle, like the Germans do, and turn January into July. With a sharp enough object she could gouge a strip in the plastic. Pepper it with black ink.
Or maybe if she strode to the check-in and offered the passport like nothing was wrong, nobody would notice the expiry date. They’d see she was the girl in the photo and she’d arrive in time for a pew near her cousin, no explanations needed.
She looked at the photo.
The photo looked back.
It could be her, yesterday. Her face hadn’t altered like her sister’s over the past decade, growing narrower, more exact, even if it was Anna who people said most resembled their mother.
It was actually quite striking.
She’d hardly changed at all.
extract from the novel ‘Sisters At the Edge Of The World’ by Ailish Sinclair
The God stands before me. Me. Morragh, who never speaks.
And I speak.
Who would have thought that my silence would ever come to an end, let alone in such a glorious and loud way.
At first I sing. I sing to Him. It is so easy. It just flows out of me. The tales of my life become music. The wonderment of the world is song. The delight in the curve of a leaf and the swoop of a bird in flight make bright notes in my throat. I have sung here before of course. Within the sacred Circle. But it has never sounded like this. I have always been alone. Unheard. Tonight the song seems to dance round the space, to bounce in excitement, and then slow as if for a caress. Each tall stone, and the large recumbent, are topped with wee piles of snow and these reverberate with music. I see the snow shake. I feel the vibration of the stones too. They make the sound rich and sonorous, as if my voice were more than one.
It is my wonderment and delight in Him that is expressed. That is the cause of the change in sound, the real difference here. The God is not as depicted and described in the stories of my people. He is come as he has appeared to others from far away, so he looks like them. There is the scent of far-off places on him. Strange foods and oils and smoke. He is like a traveller. An adventurer.
The feet of a bear lie between Him and me. Two prints in the snow, huge and clawed, like their maker. I knew she had been here when I arrived earlier; I sensed her musk in the cold air. My great friend, my Mother Bear. She did not wait to meet me today as she sometimes does in the forest, though this meeting is no less portentous because we did not encounter one another face to face. At first I thought her presence here was what was different, what was to be special about this night.
It is this.
It is Him
Nightmare In The Jungle by Ben Brown
It was midnight.
A group of three dozen workers were standing outside a fortress-like animal enclosure.
The enclosure was in a jungle clearing lit by floodlights.
One of the workers wore white shorts, a white t-shirt and a white fedora.
The other workers were wearing overalls and torch-mounted helmets.
Most of them had tasers and shock prods.
A forklift vehicle was lowering a huge metal cage before the enclosure entrance.
When the cage was on the ground, the man dressed in white, took over.
At his command, six workers approached the cage, ready to wheel it towards the entrance.
Three of them went round to the other side of the cage.
Menacing growls and snarls sounded from within the box.
At one point, there came a thunderous, spine-chilling roar.
In fear, the six workers backed away from the box, which vibrated.
Unimpressed, the man in white ordered the six workers to repeat the process. He then commanded them to roll the cage towards the entrance, which they did.
The gatekeeper then came into action.
He climbed onto the cage and awaited orders.
At the man in white’s command, the gatekeeper began to raise the gate.
Then it happened.
There sounded a loud, blood-curdling roar.
A dark, shadow like form with a mouth full of ferocious teeth darted forwards.
The gate vibrated and the gatekeeper tumbled off the cage, which rolled back two metres.
When the cage halted, the workers expected whatever was inside it to escape.
The gatekeeper, who was in shock after the fall, tried to get up.
There sounded another hideous roar.
The animal grabbed him and yanked him screaming into the cage.
The man in white seized the gatekeeper, who was clinging onto cage’s entrance frame for his life.
At the same time, he ordered the other workers to take action.
The armed workers worked their weapons with full force.
But it was to no avail.
The animal yanked the gatekeeper from the man in white’s clutches.
Yard for Rent by Wayne Dean-Richards
[Sandwell, West Midlands, England]
My brother saw the sign in the first place because he was working at Select & Save on the Tipton Road. Told me the husband and wife who ran it had him unloading deliveries, stacking shelves, sweeping up.
“I’m a bloody dogsbody, but hey,” he said, and shrugged.
Was only two years older than me though it seemed more on account of how after the old man took off it was Dan who looked out for me.
Like the time in school when Hodgetts set against me. Hodgetts three years older and a head taller than me.
“What’s your name?” Hodgetts said.
It was lunchtime and we were at the back of the gym. Away from the main school building.
“Joe,” I told him.
Hodgetts gave that some serious thought.
“Your name’s alright, but I don’t like your face,” he said - and started beating me.
Mom had too much on her plate to notice the bruises, but Dan asked me who’d done it.
When I told him, said I was to wait by the school gate at the end of the day. Was to nod when Hodgetts walked past me.
Dan followed him and I went straight home so I don’t know what happened. All I know is I didn’t have any more trouble with Hodgetts.
My older brother was somebody who could sort things out.
But he could never hold onto a job for long and when – in The Two Brewers - I asked him why he frowned and sipped his Carling. Swallowed and said he didn’t know why, but maybe it was a thing of the past because working in Select & Save wasn’t the worst job he’d had by a long shot. If packets of biscuits had been damaged, they let him take them. And if - even at reduced prices - they couldn’t shift stuff that was past its sell by date he got to take it home for free.
“Ron and Jaspreet are okay,” he said.
Yet a week later he asked me to come and look at a yard for rent on the Tipton Road.
Macy didn’t say why she left me.
“Figure it out for yourself,” was as much as I ever got from her.
And having worked in the bakery for so long my mind was free, I tried to. Sometimes imagined she said what she said because she didn’t have a real reason. Other times told myself she left me because of something I’d done.
Though more likely it was something I hadn’t done.
“You don’t talk much, do you?” she said not long after we met.
At first, she liked that I was quiet, though later it bugged her.
With bloodshot eyes she once snapped, “What’re you hiding?”
I wasn’t hiding anything. Told her not saying much was how it’d always been with me.
“You talk to Dan,” Macy countered.
And since it sounded like an accusation, maybe I tried to explain why that was. Can’t say for sure because this was around the time the shit hit the fan at work.
I hadn’t seen redundancy coming. When the announcement was made stood in my whites with the rest. The post-announcement silence unbroken until - recently returned after a run in with cancer - Rakesh piped up.
“Mr Kendal? I don’t get it. We make great bread here.”
We waited while - not used to the bakery heat - Mr Kendall loosened his tie; his work suit way nicer than the one I was married in.
“It’s just the way it is,” all he finally managed.
When Dan pointed up at the sign, I took in that the yard was next to a tyre and exhaust place and recalled how the last time we were out drinking I’d told him about my redundancy.
“What do you think?” he said.
The Last Kiss by Rathin Bhattacharjee
He stopped now, sure of the searchers having lost them for the time being. But they would be on their track soon. For a brief second, Neil imagined the menacing look on her father's face. He had warned him (Neil) of dire consequences last time they were caught and brought home. No matter whether Tri was with him or not, his henchmen would tear the youth to pieces when the chase ended.
He turned his head backwards down the track, they would be on the love-lorns in a matter of minutes. Tri, looking as serene as ever, tried to re-energise herself holding on to his sides.
A few feet ahead of them lay what looked like a small plateau. Tri kept looking at him with those large, doe-like eyes of hers, seemingly wanting to know about their next step.
He had already made up his mind. Their buddies would call him a coward. He being the only child, his parents would be devastated. But Tri was the reason why Neil wanted to live. If they couldn't live together, let them stay united in death.
Slowly, he pulled her to him for one last time. He could smell that familiar perfume. Far from being scared, she looked him in the eye and kissed him on the lips. That's when he realised that she knew. She had known the end all along. They held tightly for one last time before SHE led him to the edge of the cliff.
Neil's heart skipped a beat as he looked down at the Trisha River flowing thousand meters below, zigzagging its way to some distant land of hope, dream and love.
"Where does this lead to?" She asked him as the clasp of their sweaty fingers, still intertwined, tightened.
"Somewhere good," she replied, with a Mona Lisa-like smile.
"Let's kiss for the final leap then..." His sentence remained unfinished as Tri pulled him down to immortality.
Fears of a Clown by Terry Lowell
[Barnsley, South Yorkshire, England]
The clown’s smile spread across half his face. It was blood red, and tapered to a point on each cheek. It was the biggest, brightest smile I’d ever seen. Bigger than Mum’s or Dad’s. Bigger even than Uncle Tommy’s, and he could put a snooker ball in his mouth.
It should’ve made me happy. People are meant to feel good when they see a smile, but the clown’s smile was different. It was painted on, a mask to disguise his (hers? Its?) true face. If I looked really closely, I could see Its (yes, definitely Its) red mouth, small, like a baby’s, and pursed in disapproval. But that was good. I didn’t want it to open Its mouth, because I knew that inside was a conveyor belt of razor-pointed teeth, which could rip and tear and shred.
‘Hello, little boy,’ the clown shape said. Its voice was high, like it had sucked on a helium balloon, but behind it was a low, animal growl.
‘Say hello,’ Mum said. Her hand gently pushed into the small of my back.
‘Hello,’ I mumbled.
'And what’s your name?’
I didn’t want to tell him. If It knew my name, it would know where I lived, and if It knew where I lived it would come. One night, when the lights were out, and everyone was asleep, it would slink from the closet and crawl to my bed. I’d hide beneath the covers, but a duvet is no protection against the horrors of the night. A cold hand would slip beneath the cover and grab my leg, and I would scream, but no one would come.
I burst into tears. The creature’s mouth twitched. It waggled Its head, and danced a couple of steps, Its red and white striped legs thin like a spider’s.
‘Sorry about this,’ Mum said. ‘He’s normally good with strangers.’
‘That’s OK, buddy.’ It crouched, bringing Its face close to mine. It’s breath was hot and smoky, like I was sitting too close to a camp fire. Its eyes were black as coal. ‘I’ll be sure to see you again. Maybe next time, we could be friends.’
It skipped away to another table, where children squealed with delight. They couldn’t see what I saw. They didn’t know what I knew.
I watched its every move, until finally our food was finished and we stood up to leave. As we reached the door, an army of ants crawled across my shoulders. I turned my head. The clown thing raised a white-gloved hand, and wriggled fingers.
‘See you later, Stevie,’ it said.
And I knew It would.
Eaten by Selene Grasby
[London, Ontario, Canada]
Crow was just a fledgling when he first met Sparrow. A timid Crow was pushed from the nest and cowered under the safety of thorny branches of a nearby shrub, where he discovered Sparrow, a small fledgling himself. As their wings grew, Crow revered Sparrow for his elegance and felt ashamed of his own large, awkward shape and harsh call. One day, Sparrow hopped up to the tallest branch of the shrub and took flight for several minutes before landing with a light thud. Crow hopped between branches and flopped down onto the grass before even opening his wings. Sparrow had a good chuckle until Sister Crow dove at him, forcing Sparrow to flee under cover.
“Please don’t hurt my friend,” Crow begged his sister.
“I will spare him little brother, but know this, birds like him always get eaten.”
Two weeks later both Crow and Sparrow were in the sky. They flew apart, but reconnected at the local farmhouse. The perches were small and Crow’s beak much too large for the feeder, forcing Crow to peck the leftover seed on the ground and eventually joining his brother who was poking through the trash. Sparrow cajoled the rest of the birds to join in on a chorus of insults and jokes at the dirty crows.
“Do not listen to his insults little brother,” said Brother Crow. “Birds like him always get eaten.”
A few months passed, Sparrow growing bolder and forming an alliance with the finches and cardinals against the Crow family. At one time, the Crows were revered for their assistance in mobbing the hawks and eagles, but it had been quite some time since the predator birds encircled the farmhouse. The songbirds turned on the Crows with guidance from Sparrow, diving at them and forcing them away from the nesting grounds.
Crow began avoiding the farm altogether, taking to the fields and nearby city. In Crow’s journeys, he became an adept flyer, crossing vast distances and encountering strong winds and heavy rains. He grew brave, forced to fly through hawk territory and battle for his life using his sharp claws and quick manoeuvres. He was weathered, he had been injured but he was a survivor. After a year of travels, battles and scavenging, Crow returned to his family’s roost. His parents and siblings cheered upon his return and shouted about a special feast, a feast to honor their beloved Crow. Crow explained in fact he was not yet hungry, as he had just stopped in at the farmhouse on his way to the roost.
“Did you see that pesky old friend of yours?” Sister Crow asked.
“Never mind Sparrow,” said Brother Crow. “Look at you now little brother, you are strong and wise and he is nothing but a menace.”
“Let us not waste another breath on Sparrow,” Crow said with a crimson stained beak. “I believe that you were right all along Brother and Sister, birds like him always get eaten.”
My Happy Clown by Eamon Carroll
It all started with two clowns. They came two days after the baby was born. They arrived in the morning, just after my husband had left. One of them, the nice one, would sit with me at the kitchen table. He would drink cups of tea and devour whatever cakes or treats I put out. The other one, the angry one, would stay outside. He would stand at the back window and just stare in at us. Sometimes, to get our attention, he would run a large kitchen knife along the pane of glass. The screeching sound made me cover my ears.
The nice one brought me balloons. He would pick out the pink ones and give them to me. I tied them to the buggy in the hall. I wanted balloons in the room after the birth, but people only gave us cards. I liked talking to the nice one. I would tell him about my favourite childhood memories. The ones I remembered anyway. He would get excited when I told him stories. His gummy toothless smile was infectious and always made me happy. He loved to hear stories about my time spent with my granddad, especially when I spoke about our trips to the circus. I always felt safe there. I never told him the other stories. The sad ones.
The angry one would pull at the door handle. I knew he would do bad things if I let him in. Sometimes I kept the curtains closed, just so I didn’t have to see him. But the nice one didn’t like the dark. He would bang pots and pans together. I would run over and pull the curtains open, terrified he would wake up the baby. Luckily, the baby’s door is always closed. The angry one would just snarl back at me and show me his sharp triangular teeth. Sometimes there was blood on them.
When the doorbell rang. I would spy through the little peep hole. I knew it was him, the angry one, trying to get in. The nice one said he could shapeshift, and he would try to trick me. I always locked the main bolt on the door, just in case. Sometimes when Michael came home, he would knock furiously on the door. I would look through the slit in the curtains, never sure if it was really him. I made a list of questions that I would ask him through the letterbox, if he answered correctly, I would reluctantly open the door. But I never fully trusted it was him. One day he came home wearing a suit. He never wore suits.
It’s been a week since the baby arrived. I wonder how mothers find this so hard. My baby just stays up in her room.
At night, I can hear circus music coming from the back garden. Michael says it’s just the television. But I am drawn to it. When I peek through the curtains. The angry eyes stare back at me.
Untouched by Lizzie Eldridge
Twitter: @lizzie eldridge
I preferred to use my fingers. The ones that dug into the dark earth. The ones that formed strange shapes out of clay. That sometimes held your hand.
My fingers leafed their way through a book that never breathed a word about rules. Etiquette sounded sharp, staccato, brittle, like the prongs of a fork pecking away at a plate in the hunt for leftover food.
Scavenging for me was covering my whole body up to the waist in every substance I could find. Immersing myself full and free and in the moment. Dirt is easy to wash off while godliness sounds as dull and drab as that rainy day you’ve been saving up for. And then you have to leave it in that cupboard in case it gets spoilt.
‘Don’t touch,’ the voices said. ‘It might break.’
I liked to unravel knots, pull at a ball of string until it wraps its way around a maze of mismatched cities with streets that weave any which way and houses crouching beside towers that lean over backwards and sway in the wind. Sometimes my ball of string uncoiled itself all the way into the sea.
My fingers reached out to poke and prod at the unknown. My fingers squeezed whatever they came across and weighed things in the balance. My fingernails scraped at the lid of every pot and tin until, when desperate, my teeth joined in. Occasionally, I nibbled the top of your left arm when I managed to open a particularly tricky jar designed to be sealed forever. I couldn’t contain my delight.
Mine were the fingers that fumbled their way through wardrobes in the hope of finding fauns. Mine were the fingers that felt their way into a velvet glove. Mine were the fingers that rippled across a piano keyboard in an ecstasy of dissonance.
I didn’t stand on ceremony. Nothing was designed to be handled with care.
‘God put us on this earth for a purpose,’ the voices said, and I wanted to know exactly what this reason was.
In the bottom drawer, past the pencils and the corkscrew and the Christmas tree angel, was a pile of letters, still in their envelopes. My index finger winced as it caught a sharp edge. My fingertips flicked through the pile, getting a feel for the volume, then pulled the whole lot out and dumped everything down on the floor.
The same address was written in the same handwriting across each fluttering item. You lived there when we first met and the woman’s kisses came tumbling into our letter box. Her fingers folded each letter, neatly, perfectly precise, as smooth as her manicured hands.
Ghosts Come Out To Play by Ben Brown
One dimly lit night, a pair of twelve-year-old twins entered a cemetery. Their names were Jack and Jill Carpenter.
“I still don’t think we should have come here,” said Jack, who was holding a flash light.
“Why, are you afraid the dead will come out to play?”
“Of course not.”
“Stop moaning then. Enjoy the adventure.”
“Oh, very well.”
The twins went from grave to grave, examining the headstones.
“You see Jack, there’s nothing to fear.”
Jill had spoken too soon, for she and her brother came across two empty graves at the end of a row. The shocking thing was the fact that their own names were on the headstones.
“Hey I don’t get it,” Jack said.
“This has to be some kind of practical joke.”
“Well, if it is, then the joker has gone to a great length to scare us.”
Jill had a sudden thought.
“We may not be the only people around here called Jack and Jill Carpenter,” she said.
“In such a small town as this? I don’t think so.”
The flash light went out.
“Oh no,” said Jack.
“Now the ghosts will come out to play,” Jill said.
What came next, totally changed her attitude.
Ghosts of all ages rose up out of every grave in the cemetery. Hundreds of them there were, hundreds of silvery white ghosts.
“Let’s get out of here,” Jack said.
“You don’t have to tell me.”
Jack and Jill made a break for the cemetery entrance, but it was too late.
The ghosts swarmed around them and closed in for the kill. All at once, their eyes lit up bright red.
The truth dawned on Jack and Jill.
Those empty graves were for them.
The Appalling Fate of Henry Fluffstock by James Burt
[Hebden Bridge, England]
If you want to know what sort of person Melanie Grace actually was, well: she once cooked her boyfriend’s dog.
Paul spent a week or so walking around the town putting up posters. He paced through the parks with a lead and no dog, sometimes standing by the bushes and calling its name. “Henry? Henry Fluffstock?”
The other dog owners felt sorry for him but weren’t eager to talk too long in case his bad luck was catching. What Paul didn’t know was that Henry Fluffstock was already dead, and had been fed to Paul the night after going missing.
It was a rare treat for Melanie to cook. She was an excellent chef, but at home she preferred microwave dinners or takeaways. Paul would do most of the cooking even though she was better at it – legendary in some circles.
And I remember him telling me about the mutton curry she’d made after the dog went missing. Back then, I had no idea that Henry Fluffstock had anything to do with the curry, let alone being the main ingredient. Paul had enthused about the meat, how it seemed fragrant, and more tender than most mutton he’d had, the meat slipping off the bone. I know he asked Melanie a few times if she would cook it again.
Paul never threw out the lead, and it hung sadly from his coat-hooks. He didn’t get another dog, because he knew Melanie didn’t really like them. She’d never been the biggest fan of Henry Fluffstock, and that dog never took to Melanie, no matter how many treats she offered. It was so bad that he would jump off the sofa if she sat down beside him.
Paul and Melanie broke up a year or two later, but by then I was seeing less of them anyway. I’d known Paul through work and we’d moved on to different jobs. I heard a few rumours about Melanie and dismissed them - she didn’t seem the sort of person to be violent to her partner and besides she’d moved away.
I met Melanie only one more time, in a pub near the pier, and we were both drunk. I was pissed enough to say how sad I was that her and Paul had broken up, and she blurted it out: “I cooked Henry Fluffstock and fed him to Paul.”
She put her hand over her mouth, but too late to stop the words.
I was never going to tell Paul about Henry Fluffstock’s fate but, at that moment, I realised how much I must have missed about their relationship. The next day I considered telling the Internet what Melanie had done, but I had no real proof. I texted Paul, suggested we hang out, feeling like I owed him something, even if it wasn’t the truth.
Subject: Early Retirement Proposals by Ray Kohn
The Quiz by Ray Kohn
Wilson hated it when he was pushed into doing something he instinctively disliked. But his wife had become a keen quizzer, often in demand by others to join their team with all-round knowledge of things Wilson regarded as irrelevant.
The evening began. They sat awaiting the questions to which they had to give immediate verbal replies. The other teams did not seem to be doing very well so when it came to their turn, his wife was excited with the prospect of an easy win.
“Please complete the following saying.
“A bird in the hand is worth …”
Wilson answered instantly … “very little.”
His wife glared at him, but the invited audience clapped enthusiastically and laughed at Wilson’s joke.
The compere listened to instructions passed to him through his earpiece and, to the obvious annoyance of the other teams, announced: “That was not the reply I have written here: but it has been judged as better than the one we hold.
The other teams were provided with further easy questions until it came to Wilson’s turn again.
“Too many cooks spoil …”
Audience applause exasperated the competitive teams although some had begun to participate in Wilson’s quiet derision of the exercise.
His wife just sat back and said: “I think you had better answer all the quotations this evening.”
Some replies seemed to reflect Wilson’s background as a scientist which his wife suspected would not be appreciated by the audience. But as they were seated in a university lecture theatre, she was wrong because most of those watching them were undergraduates.
“A stitch in time …”
“.. is a superstring” brought the house down although neither his wife nor the compere understood the joke.
“Every cloud has a silver …
“…iodide lining for rainmaking” drew applause from the meteorologists.
“A rolling stone…”
“… accelerates downhill.”
The lights dimmed and the compere became very serious. “I am going to give you famous sayings to which you need to provide an explanation. Do you understand?” Wilson’s wife nodded although he was unsure what was meant to happen.
“OK. Here is your first one. Your days are numbered…”
“… but less so in February,” Wilson responded instantly.
“I’m afraid that that does not explain the saying,” the compere intoned. “I’ll throw it open to the other teams.” But much to the compere’s annoyance, the other teams said they liked Wilson’s take on the saying and thought it illustrated the meaning perfectly.
One of the other team captains shouted out to Wilson, “Curiosity killed the cat…”
Wilson called back: “I think the verdict is expected today!”
The audience were in fits and the compere was becoming irate at his inability to control proceedings.
“Cloak and dagger” one of the other team captains cried out.
“… to cut a rough buttonhole” Wilson shouted back.
“That’s enough!” the compere insisted. “Let’s get back to the game…”
to which Wilson replied, “I don’t think that is an appropriate saying for family entertainment.”
The audience was in stitches of laughter, and even his wife had tears running down her cheeks at her husband’s unexpected wit.
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a …”
“… car hire?”
“A man after my own heart …”
“… that’s my cardiac surgeon!”
The compere just gave up at this point and let the opposition captains set Wilson the questions.
“A picture is worth a thousand …”
“… dollars if it’s an original.”
“Absence makes the heart grow…
“Beauty is only skin…”
“Butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth…”
“..because he’d died yesterday.”
But Wilson was getting bored and clearly wanted to finish the evening. He looked to his wife for a lead, and she said:
“A fate worse than…”
“…a quiz night.”
And they all went home.
A Retirement Apartment by George Smith
Arthur was greeted by a moustachioed young man in a three piece suit.
‘I’m Rupert. A pleasure to show you around.’
‘Lead on, Macduff,’ said Arthur.
Rupert looked at his visitor’s baggy sweater and creased trousers and pressed his lips into a fine line. He beckoned Arthur to follow.
They walked through the hall, up the stairs and into an apartment.
‘The lounge, sir.’
To Arthur, it was an oblong box devoid of furniture, with colourless walls, and drowned in artificial lighting. There was none of the character or homeliness of his lounge. Must take this seriously. Better for my arthritis and bronchitis. So said Susie and John. Don’t want to nettle them.
‘The windows are too small to let in natural light.’
‘The window size reduces heat loss and will save you money, sir.’
‘I could make this room a place for painting.’
‘Painting, sir! The apartment’s newly decorated.’
Arthur smiled. ‘My big hobby’s art. Need natural light for that. This could be my studio.’
‘Your studio?’ said Rupert and his eyes bulged at the diminutive figure with straggling white hair and beard.
‘It will need a table, and space for storing all my art materials -canvasses and all that. Bigger windows would help. Could partition it off too.’
‘Leaseholders who propose significant changes require permission from the landlord,’ said Rupert rubbing an eyelid.
‘However, I think you’ll like the bedroom. This way.’
Arthur gasped. Eyeing up the room he guessed it would not take his king-size bed. Damn! He and Mary would have to re-arrange their occasional sleeping arrangements if he was to buy. He walked over to the window and stared out. ‘I see there’s a large car park but no greenery.’ He stamped the floor with his rolled up golfing umbrella.
‘There’s a stunning garden to your right,’ said Rupert, standing clear of the umbrella.
Arthur looked again. This view did not compare with the luxuriant view from his own bedroom. Admittedly, it was now hard for him to keep his rambling garden under control.
‘And now the en-suite.’ Rupert pushed the door open.
‘There’s no bath! How can you get a real clean in a shower?’
‘Most of our residents lack the agility to use baths. Showers reduce accidents, sir.’
‘Hmm,’ said Arthur, thinking of what the future might have in store. But he enjoyed a long soak so why should he have to give it up?
‘Finally, sir, the kitchen.’ Rupert stretched an arm out. ‘As you see, it’s fitted with all the essential white goods.’
Arthur rubbed his chin. ‘But where’s the washing machine. Or does everyone here go around a bit whiffy.’ He gave a roar of laughter.
‘No, sir.’ Rupert feigned a smile ‘We have a laundry service on site.’
Arthur’s eyes sparkled. ‘A live-in scrubber. I like it’. He elbowed Rupert in the ribs. ’I’m warming to this place. Can I see a two bedroom apartment now?’
Subject: Early Retirement Proposals by Ray Kohn
Notice To All Employees
As a result of the drop in company profits, we are forced to cut down on our number of personnel. Under this plan, older employees will be asked to take early retirement, thus permitting the retention of younger people who represent our future. Therefore, a programme to phase out older personnel by the end of the current year, via retirement, will be placed into effect immediately.
This programme will be known as SLAP (Sever Late-Aged Personnel). Employees who are SLAPPED will be given the opportunity to look for jobs outside the company. SLAPPED employees can request a review of their employment records before actual retirement takes place. This review phase is called SCREW (Survey of Capabilities of Retired Early Workers). All employees who have been SLAPPED and SCREWED may file an appeal with higher management.
This appeal is called SHAFT (Study by Higher Authority Following Termination). Under the terms of the new policy, an employee may be SLAPPED once, SCREWED twice, but may be SHAFTED as many times as the company deems appropriate. If an employee follows the above procedure, he/she will be entitled to get HERPES (Half Earnings for Retired Personnel's Early Severance) unless already in receipt of CLAP (Combined Lump-sum Assistance Payment).
As HERPES and CLAP are considered benefit plans, any employee who has received HERPES or CLAP will no longer be SLAPPED or SCREWED by the company.
Management wishes to assure the younger employees who remain will continue participation in our policy of training employees through our Special High Intensity Training (SHIT). We take pride in the amount of SHIT our employees receive. We have given our employees more SHIT than any company in Europe. If any employee feels they do not receive enough SHIT on the job, see your immediate line manager. All managers are specially trained to make sure you receive all the SHIT you can stand.
And, once again, thanks for all your years of service with us.
Climb Beyond The Limit by Ben Brown
That final stage of the climb was most daring and overwhelming.
After leaving the final camp, Hillary and Tenzing made for the South Summit of Everest.
When they reached the South Summit, they examined the final ridge leading to the main Summit. It was monstrous.
To the left, were the upper slopes of the South West face, which towered above the Western Cwm. To the right, were cornices overhanging the East Kangshung face. One step on a cornice, would send a climber plunging to the rising Kangshung glacier.
Some way along the ridge, there was a step, some forty feet high, right by a cornice.
There was only one thing for it.
Hillary and Tenzing had no choice, but to make their way up the ridge. It was the only route from the South Summit to the main Summit.
So, they began to make their way up the ridge, which turned out to be very challenging.
There came a point when the ridge was so narrow, that the climbers had to inch their way along at a snail’s pace.
Furthermore, they were roped together, so if one of them fell, the other would too.
They reached the step, which had a shaft leading up the middle. On one side of the shaft was the South West face and on the other, the cornice.
So, Hillary made his way up the shaft, hoping that the cornice wouldn’t fall away. He could sense the Kangshung glacier beneath his feet.
Both Hillary and Tenzing reached the top of the step.
From that point the ridge was less difficult and they reached the top of Everest.
Advice From My Father: Be A Squeaky Wheel by Jude Potts
My father taught me that if you want to disappear without a trace after pulling a con on some unsuspecting schmuck you don’t dress in beige, don’t offer up an oatmeal personality, don’t try and fade into the wallpaper. Be a squeaky wheel, be memorable, be flamboyant and fabulous.
My father taught me to wear a bright purple hat that clashes with your lime green suit, wear a patch over one eye, have a stutter, a lisp, an accent that is ‘foreign’ but strangely difficult to place - was it Dutch? Could have been Belgian, or German? Maybe South African? Have a limp or use a stick.
My father taught me that if people remember something, better they give a detailed description of your wig, your fake limp, your enormous, gaudy broach shaped like a parrot and your pretend stammer. They’ll ignore anything of any use in tracing you in the future, like your height, eye colour, your age.
My father taught me the ‘watermelon drop’, the ‘pig in a poke’ and ‘Three Card Monte’. I don’t know how much is nature, what’s nurture, but I know we both cheat at cards, even Patience. I would no more play with a straight deck than I would get a real job.
My father taught me it’s an addiction, it's in the blood. A visceral thing. A tingle in your top lip when you sense the approach of a perfect Mark, a pounding of your heart in the build-up, the ecstasy as you push, push, push until you find the sweet spot, the convincer that finally wins them over so perfectly you know they are hooked and you play your hurrah, the crisis, the moment of now or never. You win or you lose. I’m good, so I mostly win.
And then you’re gone, with their wad in your back pocket. Slip out the back door, whistling and throwing your hat and your wig in the bin as you leave. That’s what my father taught me.
It was what his father taught him and his grandfather before that. And it was all there in the book. Old, tatty leather, dog-eared pages, bruised spine, water marks and paperclips. Every grift, every swindle that any sucker, any stooge ever fell for. A multi-generational diary of scams, a hucksters’ how-to of hustling gulls and rubes.
It was my father’s prize possession. It had been his father’s before that until Dad had played a distraction game on him and slipped out with it in his battered old case one thunder-hot day. Grandpa won it from his father in a hand of poker where father and son were both cheating, but son cheated better.
My father must have been so proud the day I lifted it from his room, shimmied down a drain pipe and disappeared into the offing to earn my fortune running pigeon drops and rainmaking, nostrils full of the sweet smell of gasoline and lighter fluid from the bridges I burnt, whistling as I went.
Palimpsest by Steve Hartley
Tom checks his watch. Time’s up. She didn’t come. The message he left couldn’t have been clearer.
He climbs up and sits on the railing at the end of the pier. The weight of the backpack, full of rocks, seems to pull him back, but he resists and leans into the void. When they were happy, they used to stand here, stare at the horizon and talk of the future; now he stares into the night, and sees nothing. The lonely, despairing cry of a herring gull fills his head. The lamp above throws a spotlight on this, his final scene. He pauses, settles, listens to the growl and slap of the sea far below, then closes his eyes and inhales a last lungful of salt air.
A hand grips his; another seizes his shoulder. The scent of French cigarettes wraps around his face, as the voice he had lost and almost forgotten cries in his ear, ‘Tom, stop!’
‘You came back.’
‘You won’t let me go.’
‘Where’ve you been?’
‘Remembering how to be happy. Tom, get down. Please.’
He climbs back onto the pier and turns to her. Olivia cries out. ‘Jesus, what have you done to your face?’
Tom smiles. ‘Not just my face.’ He heaves the rucksack from his back and takes off his tee-shirt and jeans. He turns to show her the indelible, needle-sharp words tattooed across the contours of his body, overwritten so much they have turned his skin blue. ‘I wrote you on my body.’ He raises his arms, offering himself as a benediction. ‘Every inch of me is you. It always was.’
Olivia stares, speechless.
‘After you left, I started to forget things. It was like losing you all over again. So I turned myself into this: a palimpsest of memories.’ He grins. ‘Palimpsest: one of your favourite words.’ He points to his stomach. ‘There it is, along with plump, pusillanimous, and nincompoop.’
The spell is cast. Tom’s finger becomes a wand, guiding Olivia’s mesmerised gaze over his body. He points out stories that tell of her love of thunderstorms, crazy golf, French cigarettes and Radiohead; her fear of spiders and mistrust of cats. These are woven and intertwined with cherished moments of their life together. He touches a cross on his cheek. ‘Here’s your first kiss. X marks the spot.’ He draws her eyes to his heart. ‘And here’s your parting shot: “I’m drowning. I need air.” A tad melodramatic, but it’s so you. Look, I even got the guy to copy your handwriting.’
Olivia is crying. She traces the sentences with her fingertips, reading them like Braille. As her fingers brush his skin, Tom gasps. His need for her jolts his body. ‘I can’t live without you.’
‘Tom, I can’t live with you.’
‘This isn’t a game.’
‘No. It’s not. It’s life or death.’
The night closes in. The wind baits its breath. The sea waits.
All About George by Jane Mooney
[West Yorkshire, England]
I don’t want to worry George, I know he’s got a lot on his plate at the moment, but I’m feeling really scared. The doc says I need more tests…they’re worried about this cough I’ve got which won’t go away. They’re not saying it but I know they think it’s the Big C.
George and Sally invited me round for supper this evening, but I didn’t really feel up to going after a day at the hospital. Is it bad that I felt relieved when George texted me to cancel? Apparently, they’ve had some sort of plumbing disaster and the kitchen’s flooded.
3 weeks we’ve been without a working shower! 3 weeks! And what’s he doing about it? Sod all as far as I can see. Well, if it means I have to go to the gym every night just to get a shower, so be it. At least I’m keeping fit.
I keep bumping into Mick at the gym. Haven’t seen him for ages, not since he and Trish split up. I’d forgotten what good fun he is. We were leaving at the same time last night and he offered to buy me a drink. Well, there was nothing to rush home for. I knew George was working late (again!) so why not! Haven’t laughed so much in ages.
A Hospice Nurse
We’ve got an old boy just admitted with terminal lung cancer. He’s scared. They often are when they first arrive. I’m doing everything I can to make it easier for him. Fortunately, he’s got a supportive son, George I think his name is. He’s here every day. Not sure what he does for a living that means he has so much free time. Maybe he doesn’t work. Anyway – it makes it easier for the old boy having his son so close.
Got sat next to a guy called George at the wedding. Clearly, we had been put together because we're both newly single. Nice guy but rather sad. He's lost his wife, his job and his dad all in the space of a year. We talked, and we danced. He took my number but I don’t think he’ll get in touch.
I’ve just got a new phone. New job, new phone, new start. But for some reason I felt I had to put Dad’s number into it. Why is that? He’s been dead two years.
Death Of A Pikeman, 1645 by Steve Hartley
Death came with the rout. An English blade stopped his loyal English heart. It wasn’t clean, but it was quick.
As he bled into the earth, he heard the laughter of his children, and felt his wife’s last kiss. He drew a final faltering breath, then sank into silence and soft shadows, and felt nothing.
A Roundhead took his boots. A scavenger took his keep-safe charm. Crows took his eyes and worms took his flesh. He passed into memory. Time took everything.
Del Briggs’ Midlife Crisis by William Kitcher
[Toronto, Ontario, Canada]
Del Briggs loved his wife, respected her, admired her for her intelligence and common sense, and thought she was still the funniest person he had ever known.
But they hadn’t had sex for fifteen years. The inactivity had begun when their daughters were in their teens and they didn’t want to make noise that would alarm the children, but the daughters had left home many years ago, and Briggs and his wife had never resumed a regular routine. From once or twice a year, it had dwindled to nothing and, as they careened through middle age, had never come back.
Part of it, Briggs was sure, was that they weren’t attracted to each other anymore. They’d seen each other age, and go to flab and wrinkles and hair emerging from the most unlikely body parts. And, after all, how many people in their fifties were still attractive? Sure, there was Diane Lane and there was Julie in Accounting, but that was about it.
At least, that’s what Briggs thought, and he was fairly certain his wife felt the same way, as she had never broached the subject or his body.
It had never bothered Briggs very much as he was a fairly low-sexual person but it was a constant thought, and he began to become concerned that perhaps he was no longer even capable.
One night after work, he went to the bar that the Sales team regularly commandeered, and took aside Teddy Wall, a young sales whiz who was known to indulge in sex of the paid variety.
“Yeah, I think I can help you out,” said Wall, looking at the contact list on his phone. “OK, this is what you’re looking for. Two twenty-one-year-old sisters, Inga and Ilsa, exchange students who...”
“No,” interrupted Briggs. “Young women would just make me feel... uh... sordid. Do you have anyone a little older?”
“I know exactly who you need. Madam La Rosa is the one. She lives just around the corner from here. Daytime is best for her.”
Briggs took the information and thought about it for a few days. He wondered if he could go through with it. Would this cause him anguish? Would he feel guilty? What the hell, he thought.
The following Thursday, he decided he could. He left work early, and went to the address. He climbed three flights of stairs, found the right apartment, and knocked on the door. The door opened and he looked into the face of his wife.
A Sleepless Night by Anna-Roisin Ullman-Smith
From the deep dark depths of a dreamless sleep, she was suddenly yanked back into the gloom of her bedroom, her mind still clinging onto the sweetness of oblivion even as her eyes opened and settled upon the scrunched up, screaming face of her child.
Perfectly at eye level to her pillow’s mounted head, the small monsters’ cries shook the empty mindless space of her brain in painful throbs. Her body took over, emitting cooing sounds of comfort as her arms untangled from the duvet and reached across the minimal space separating them, to lift and drag the small, angry creature she loved into the warm embrace of the parental bed.
Hair frizzed by sleep and face sticky with snot and tears, the small human immediately hushed on contact with its mothers warmth and burrowed into her chest, thumb popping into mouth and hand clenching around a stray lock of her hair.
Small sticky load acquired, she turns gently onto her back, looping the already drifting toddler’s legs over her arm and placing a hand firmly and comfortingly against its back. A sharp look through the dark to her right confirms her husband’s unbroken slumber. Rage momentarily ignites and then is quenched by the soft sleepy moan of her tiny load. She turns her eyes back down onto her sleeping monster, now turned cherub in resting, watching the soft rise and fall of its tiny chest and the rhythmic clench and unclench of its cherry pink lips around its miniscule thumb.
Eyes turning up to the ceiling she reaches out for the depthless sleep she was torn from. She closes her eyes, settles her breathing, attempts to stop the cogs which have woken and begun to turn in her mind.
It is, of course, at this exact moment that her husband begins to snore. Loud, bed- shaking snores which echo through her. Her eyes snap open, the cogs in her mind released to run into overdrive as the long list of chores that await her with morning light begin to flood her consciousness.
Stuck, unable to move should she wake the beast now settled against her chest, she stares into the darkness, tracing the lines of the ceiling tiles, both content and furious all at once.
To Accept The Challenge, You Must Pay The Fare by Kayleigh Kitt
[South Shropshire, England]
It is a Tuesday afternoon and Pete’s life is about to change.
He’s only agreed to go on the trip to Boraston Hall because Angela is going but , dismally when he arrives, she’s already cried off. So grumpily resigned to the back of the group visiting the stately home, he becomes his worst fear - a straggler.
Slowly going through the rooms, he further detaches himself from the rest of the party, mostly to avoid the scrutinising questions from Deidre. You know Deidre? Of course you do, loud, pushy with an insatiable appetite for gossip. We’ve all met Deidre.
So Pete, now forlorn and melancholy stumbles in a corridor of our historic house, and as his forearm connects with a wooden panel to steady himself, there’s a very soft click, followed by a hiss and an animatronic voice that softly announces,
Main power has been restored.
Our wilting hero thinks he’s hearing things, but as he straightens up, doors begin to gracefully glide shut. Tapestries on the wall recede into ceilings, panels rotate revealing a selection of brass chargers, spears and swords.
Carpets and rugs roll up, as if they are on hidden pulleys, disappearing into letter box slots in the floor, snapping shut, while bases of spears held by flanking suits of armour ring out on the stone floors, as their mufflers are dislodged.
A black walnut sideboard shivers, swallowing half a dozen goblets, although it’s not quite as successful, with the dish of apples, one landing and skimming across the tiles, hitting Pete’s boot. He hitches his rucksack, nervously pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose.
But then…. the helmet of the nearest mirrored suit of armour begins to grate in his direction. Pete licks his lips, taking several alarmed steps backwards, nudging a table and dislodging a pewter vase, which crashes loudly to the floor, with hollow, echoing chimes.
The visor on the helmet begins to open, synchronised with a rising gauntlet.
Pete stands gawping, now frozen in fear.
A tatty, brown edged piece of card, ejects from the visor, landing in the upturned polished hand, followed by a shiny golden sovereign.
Nothing stirs, no traces of human voices, nor animal, well living at least, because the glassy eyes of the stuffed heads seem to be focused intently on any minutiae movement.
With a thumb and forefinger, Pete carefully extracts the card from the palm of armour.
It reads, “To accept the challenge, you must pay the fare.”
He measures the weighty coin in his upturned hand, a bead of sweat forming on his forehead.
Peering to inspect the glinting intricate pattern on the breastplate of the metal skin, he posts the coin into a slot in the chest.
Like A Million Butterflies by John Brantingham
[Jamestown, NY, USA]
Travis jumps off the school bus to find what looks like a million butterflies in his mother’s milkweed bush out in front of his house, but he’s quick to sneer at it because that’s what you do when you see butterflies and a busload of kids are watching you, even if your back is to them and they can’t see your face.
Still, his grandmother told him about the way magic wands come from milkweed bushes covered with butterflies, so he waits until the bus moves on and then makes his face as neutral as he can make it. When it feels right, he steps up to the bush and snaps off a branch as naturally as he can, as though this is not special, but just what someone does in the course of the day.
He’s too old to believe in magic wands, he thinks as he stuffs the branch in his pocket.
Upstairs in his bedroom, he can think about what he might want the wand to do. He supposes that the only thing he really wants is to be able to play with butterflies without anyone laughing at him, so he takes the wand and closes his eyes and circles it around his forehead.
Next week, when he sees some more butterflies out of the baseball diamond, he’s too smart to go chasing after them. The wand, he knows, has no power. The other kids would laugh and talk about him for a month. He knows that when the monarch comes close to him, actually lands on his mitt, and when the ball is hit to left field while he is right so he doesn’t have to disturb the little creature, that it has nothing to do with the magic his grandmother gave him. He’s too old and too smart to believe any of that.
Three Stories by John Sheirer
[Northampton, Massachusetts, USA]
Julia had heard stories about her grandfather. He had been something of an athlete long ago. Nothing professional, but people noticed. Now eighty, he still got around well, took long walks at his senior complex, maybe with a limp on rainy days.
So, she was surprised when she visited and saw him in a wheelchair.
“What happened, Gramps?” Julia asked.
“Nothing yet,” he replied.
“So, what’s with…” Julia said, nodding in the general direction of the wheelchair.
“You know, gotta plan,” Gramps said, gripping the chair’s arms and shaking them with his still-strong hands, rattling the frame. “The inevitable.”
The homeowner woke early each weekday to dress well and tap computer keys in exchange for money. On weekends, he wore sloppy clothes and traded large portions of that money for supplies that he hauled from a big-box hardware store to his home. He sweated and swore and transformed those supplies into new porch steps and repaired deck boards and rescreened screen doors and layers of paint atop fading surfaces of his house. The homeowner could have exchanged his money for other people to come to his home and do this work for him, but what fun would that be?
Revenge Of The Lawn Service
Henderson Landscaping’s workers lifted sweat-lidded eyes from their tasks at 84 Maple Street to witness a Doobie’s Mow and Blow truck rumble to a stop at 97 Maple. Last month, Doobie’s site supervisor, slathered in a film of sunscreen and disguised by opaque mosquito netting, crept in at lunch break to shove a potato deep inside the tailpipe of Henderson’s best tractor, disabling it for an important job. Since then, Buddy Henderson, youngest son of the company founder, had anticipated today’s arrival. He distributed buckets of fist-sized throwing rocks to all seven employees present. They each knew what honor demanded.
The High And Mighty by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
I was wondering why there were so many cars double and triple parked in my driveway when I
My neighbor Richard was smoking a Marlboro by the side of my house, and when he saw me pull
up he came towards me as I got out of the car.
He pulled me by the cuff as he watched the windows while he led me to the side, so, “We wouldn’t be
“Got any coke”? He requested.
I gave him some.
“I’m here for your intervention”
“My what”? I asked.
“Yeah, don’t tell on me. I don’t want one.”
I started to walk to the front of my home.
“Hey fuckhead, you coming in”? I inquired.
“Yeah, you go in first. Got any weed”? He didn’t wonder.
I gave him some.
I met my wife, one early rainy morning waiting for the doors to open at an A.A. meeting.
It was my first time, and I guess it showed.
It was her millionth time, and I guess it showed.
After the A.A. meeting I kissed my future sponsor wife on the neck in the parking lot and she
looked, and felt, like she was tingling all over, and then I started tingling all over too.
I thought at best we would be just a fleeting fantasy in an after A.A. meeting parking lot.
It happens every day, and night, however, this one stuck to the ribs.
It was love at first blurry vision.
Now, my significant whatever, is now a reformer.
A couple of her friends’ husbands were there too.
I saw them earlier in the week.
We all went in on an ounce of blow with a side of some ecstasy. They probably wanted to re-up and figured they might as well stay for the show.
I noticed one of the attendee neighbors coming out of my bathroom and making a mental
note to myself to check and see how many pills of mine they stole.
I looked over the audience and thought to myself that half were drunk, half were pilled, half were
coked, and half, were all the above and below.
I know that doesn’t add up correctly, but what does?
I also knew I wasn’t as whacked out as most of them but what can you do?
I don’t want to be known as an intervention party pooper.
I simply said, “Let’s not say what goes without saying."
Until I said,
“Why don’t we all empty our pockets and purses and we’ll see what we can see and what is what”?
So here we are, and nobody has made the slightest motion to empty their pockets and purses.
They must have thought I was kidding.
I was not kidding.
The haul was enormous, and I suggested we sell it all and donate it to charity.
I was voted down, so I said, “Why not live and let live?"
That bill was voted and passed.
Tinnitus by Alisha J Prince
[Wandsworth, London, England]
Raymond cut pieces of moss using nail scissors and fitted them into an ice-cream box. A pond was the small round mirror his wife had prised from a compact, it smelled of stale, perfumed powder.
Twigs and lollipop sticks formed the first fence. They have to be the right kinds of twigs; too supple and you have willowy vines, too frail and they risk snapping.
The next bit was controversial - cat litter for a path. Some say this is cheating because a path should be made from stones, painstakingly picked for their uniformity. But the litter was already in the cupboard under the sink. He was utilising his resources, anyway, it was redundant since the cat died. His wife had always bought fine grain which made an elegant esplanade.
Boxwood, lamb’s ear and false cypress were favourites and his signature piece was a washing line. Swings could over-egg the pudding. Not that he wasn’t experimental. He’d once made a miniature garden within a miniature garden deliberately breaking one of the four reproduction antique ceramic tile walls. He suspected foul play when only awarded third place but avenged himself the following year with a reconstruction of The Potters Field - Judas Tree and noose included. Perhaps they’re just not ready for Penjing veritas in New Malden? His wife had suggested.
He hummed and tapped his skull, a trick an ENT specialist taught him. His wife had said he was lucky; most people don’t know what they’re distracting themselves from.
Later, standing on a motorway bridge, traffic competed with the dreadful echo of inner-ear interference, he wondered: if he was distracting himself from tinnitus, what was the tinnitus distracting him from?
It was still rush hour. His head was still louder than the cars. Stale perfumed powder still lined his nostrils.
Mongolian Sunflowers by Karen Arnold
Giant Mongolian sunflower seeds. Ten for five pounds.
Do they have sunflowers in Mongolia? Surely, it’s too cold she thought.
She shrugged, scrolled to another page. Scrolled back again and stared at the image. The enormous flowers were mesmerising, big as dustbin lids, radiating hot golden petals. She looked out at the grey sky and leaned back into the faded green velour sofa. Becalmed in a sea of other tenant’s threadbare furniture, she laced her cold fingers over the soft round of her stomach for a moment, then clicked “buy now”.
She planted them in a motley assortment of rescued yoghurt pots and margarine tubs, in soil grubbed up from the side of the road and carried home in a bag for life. Watched as if bewitched when tiny tendrils started to unfurl. They grew so fast. She would sit at the scuffed Formica kitchen table and feel she could hear them growing, a creaking, eager noise that cut through the dull roar of traffic.
One evening they were too big for the pots. Roots and shoots reached out into the air, desperate for more space. She crept down the fire escape, cleared away broken glass and cigarette butts and planted them in the patch of earth by the light of a curious full moon. They carried on growing, stems as thick as her finger, then as thick as her forearm. She watered them every day of that long desperate summer, cried like a toddler when the strongest of them was kicked over by a careless bin man.
The next three grew sickly and jaundiced. They withered, and died, poisoned by cat piss. After that she spent hours at the window ready to defend them with bowls of water and creative expletives. Two of them reached the height of the first landing before being used as goal posts by bored teenagers and reduced to tattered stumps. The dead eyed boys ignored her pleas to just fuck off. They threw the empty beer can that had been the football at her windows, and she did not shout again. They prowled away into the dusk as the sun set.
The sunflowers grew. She worked out how to measure them from her window as she grew larger, too tired to climb down. She lowered down a knotted piece of string, a rental Rapunzel. She counted the climbing numbers. Seven months. Eight months. Nine months
The buds had reached the kitchen window when the pains started. They opened slowly along with her. The midwives commented on them as they entered the flat, and then there was no more time to talk, no time to get to the hospital.
They put the baby into her arms at the end of that long hot day, and both of them turned towards the window, where the giant Mongolian sunflowers, big as dustbin lids, nodded in approval.
Life’s Dreams by Mark Anthony
“You gonna eat that?” Mary asked her sister. Sue-Ellen shook her head. “No, I’m done.”
Mary stabbed the piece of pancake with her fork and folded it into her mouth having wiped all traces of maple syrup from the plate. Their mother Connie wore the well- worn mask of normality while a knot of worries tumbled in her head, careful words of advice for their first day at a new high school were delivered.
“Now girls, you are growing up now and some folk, especially those boys, will be paying you mighty close attention, so just you act normal, you know like always. Be polite even if they’re being mean.”
“We will Mom,” they said in unison.
Mary and Sue-Ellen sat in the back of the car, lime trees marched by as they cruised along the Maryland suburbs, Connie hummed a country and western classic, her nerves added extra vibrato to her tones. Of course, had Hank stuck around it would have a damn sight easier, but he soon pushed through the back door fly screen once he’d realised. A glance in the rear-view mirror, two faces stealing glimpses of people like birds pecking seeds from the ground, before sinking back into soft leather. At the lights near the school, Connie drew a deep breath, pulled down the sun visor mirror, a face much older that it should, but she would fight on, for her and her girls.
She figured that Maryland high school was large enough for the girls to fit in, yes it would be daunting but if they were to succeed in life, they need to face crowds and attention. No longer could they hide in small town life.
The main car park resembled a disturbed ants’ nest, encumbered masses emerging from boxes and corners marched towards a frenzied bottle neck. Mary and Sue-Ellen tentatively alighted from the car, their mother held the door and took them in her arms and whispered encouraging words before she ushered them forward.
“I.. I’m not sure I can do this,” Sue- Ellen said to her twin.
“Just focus on those dreams we have Sue-Ellen. You have yours and I have mine, we just have work together to achieve them, that’s all.”
“You’re right Mary. We can do this.”
Determined not flee the scene, Connie watched as the girls took deliberate co-ordinated strides to the knot of bodies at the entrance. An electric buzz connected all the heads except those of Mary and Sue-Ellen, it was if they were the reverse polarity, repelling them from the crowd's magnet. The girls’ awareness of the stir at first quickened their pace until forced to stop at a thronged pocket, hundreds of eyes on stalks, wide and examining, the two fair faces that shared a single body.
The Inside Cover by Laura Stamps
There it is. In my post office box. The current issue. One of the dog magazines I subscribe to. Just seeing it makes me happy. So enjoyable. This. This addiction to dog magazines. Mine. I open it to the inside cover. The first ad. Love the ads! Have I mentioned that before? It’s true. Love them. They’re as entertaining as the articles. Really. They are. And informative. Always. The ads. All of them. Really. Like this one. The ad in this issue. On the inside cover. Usually, it’s for pet insurance. But not this time. Now it’s anxiety meds. For dogs. What? What? Dogs have anxiety? How fascinating! I wonder, wonder. Could these work for humans too? These dog meds. I wonder. If they could. If that’s possible. Then I know who needs them. Him. My ex. That ex-husband of mine. Mad all the time. Him. Mad at the world. At people. At strangers. At drivers. At life. At everyone. And everything. Is it any surprise he has a heart condition? Too much anger. Too much stress. For him. For me. Is it any surprise what happened to me? That day. When I’d had enough. When I was tired. So tired. Me. Tired of his temper tantrums. His anger. The tantrums that put him in the hospital. Again, and again, and again. Tired. Me. Of going to the hospital to pick him up. Again, and again, and again. Tired of his refusal to take an anger management class. To learn coping skills. To learn. Just. Tired. On that day. Like any day. Me. Driving home from work. Like I always did. Every day. After work. But then, but then. That day. I didn’t get off at my exit. Couldn’t. Couldn’t go home. To him. Couldn’t make myself. Just. Couldn’t. Do it. Kept driving. Driving, driving, driving. Across one state. And then another. And then another. Driving. To be free. From husband-stress. From anger. Free. To build a new life. Here. In this city. Far away. Me. Free. Finally. Best ten years of my life. And counting.
The Blind Leading The Dog by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
The last thing Amber remembered was a beam of light speeding towards her face.
A stubborn light.
Now another one.
This time it was a flashlight lighting up her face.
She felt the warmth but couldn’t see a fucking thing.
Blinder than a bat.
She already had a dog that did not know he would have to be retooled which is better than being fired.
He already could not find his own leash, bless his heart.
She sure was pretty, but what blind person isn’t?
It was not his fault that his wife upset him so that he could not see her, and out of hurt and anger, after being left alone for
another, he attacked the night with his Harley machine until his blind rage blinded her.
She wore a football helmet she got from her before blind boyfriend, to wear around the house, so she wouldn’t hurt her head any further on all those big bumpy things surrounding her new life.
She got a call to see if she wanted a seeing-eye dog but she said she already had a dog that could see fine, and his name is Bo, then she hung up.
Her before blind boyfriend looked after Bo at his place while she was in the hospital.
Her boyfriend had women come over that he pretended to like them, until he threw them out.
After she got back home, he brought Bo over and she was more excited to be with Bo then with her future ex-boyfriend, whom she told it would not be fair to him to have a life with her, with her being this way. “Don’t you agree?” she frozenly asked.
Of course, she did not want him to agree, she just wanted to give him an out.
But agree he did.
She might have never known what she wanted out of life, but sure knew when she was not wanted.
She laughed when she told Bo that she had a feeling her job as an air-traffic controller career was in jeopardy, and even Bo thought it was funny.
If she could just stumble upon a man was like her Bo, her world of darkness would be brighter.
One day she got yet another call from that organization about training Bo asking how she was doing adjusting and how was this, and how was that, and just before she was going to adjust the phone to go silent, the person on the other end said they were born blind and how lucky she was to have had sight for a while at least.
They talked for hours, and when it was time to hang up, the born blind person said, “Bye bye, see you with my third eye.”
Then Amber lied down with her arms around Bo and cried a bit and was happy that her eyes could still produce tears that Bo would lick away.
To Greet or Not to Meet? By Naga Vydyanathan
Raju donned his Covid protection gear, the supposedly omnipotent N95 mask, as he prepared to step out for his morning walk. The current times necessitated one to fortify the body and mind before venturing out of one’s haven! Armed with a tiny bottle of sanitizer, he stood outside his door, wondering whether to take the elevator or the stairs, finally opting for the latter – at least Covid urged the weak-hearted to exercise their hearts! The air outside was cool and fresh. Raju took long, deep breaths, trying to somehow suck in the air through the numerous layers of his mask. He diligently wore only masks with five or more layers – wasn’t more the safer? Walking briskly, he noticed that most of his fellow walkers had theirs precariously hanging from their ears, safely protecting their chins. “Covid has definitely retired, not from existence, but from people’s minds!” thought Raju disapprovingly, as he turned around the corner.
Raju had his eyes intensely focussed on the ground before him, for two reasons. One – he did not want to accidently step on one of the many snakes that had started venturing out bravely, boldened by the lack of human intrusion over the last few months. Two – he was scared of meeting eyes with someone he knew. Meeting eyes was OK, but meeting without a mask? “Raju bhai! Arrey Raju Bhai!” boomed a persistent voice from behind. Raju froze in his tracks – he hadn’t anticipated being recognized from the back – an impressive feat by whoever it was, considering the jagged locks of hair he sported, thanks to the Covid-confine! Turning around, he peered at the waving figure, the neurons in his brain frantically trying to find a match for the blurry masked face with images from the past. Raju took some steps towards the still-waving figure, hoping that the increased clarity would eventually lead to a hit! With the relief of sighting a masked face coursing through his veins, he actually looked forward to physically meeting someone after all these months. Masked meetups, that too, outdoors, should be safe, no?
“Aaah! Alok da! How are you doing?”, greeted Raju, giving himself a silent pat for the just-in-time identification. “Raju Bhai! So nice to see you after ages! Kya haal chaal hai?” Once the Covid-induced-ice had been broken, there was no stopping Raju. Alok da and Raju walked together, catching up on lost times. A few others joined them along the way, some meeting Raju’s stringent masking standards, some not. But these deficiencies were not strong enough to interrupt the momentum of socializing, once the initial inertia was broken.
Raju hummed a cheery tune as he stepped back into his haven, elated by his mini social excursion. As he removed his mask, a tiny tickle made his nose twitch, slowly crawling its way up to a crescendo, an explosion of air pushing his lips open.
ATTTTCCHHHOOOOO! A pair of fearful eyes looked at the mirror. OMG, what have I done?
The Dive by Karen Tobias-Green
Kitty pulls her costume down at the legs. She hates that involuntary ride-up, like an unscheduled curtain raiser. She shuffles her tanned toes into line with the edge of the board. There’s a thrilling ripple in her legs that travels up her spine. She shivers slightly, wets her lips, blinks slowly and breathes in. Below the bodies splash and stutter on the water. The swimmers are roped off from the divers but she can see them, sense them, hear them in tinny echoing bursts. A bunch of boys flounder and flap about in the middle of a swimming lane, tugging at each other’s limbs ever more wildly. A scream cuts through the chaos.
Levi swallows so much water he feels he will drown from the inside. He goes under then pops up again and this time he lets go a second scream which is gurglier than the first, full of bubbles and comes pouring out of his nose and his eyes.
‘Levi what the fuck!’ Eddie is laughing at him. He has him in his sights, his eyes red from the chlorine.
‘Levi is drowning, Levi is going down!’ Eddie is yelling at the top of his voice and all eyes are on Levi now. ‘Levi’s just out the shallow and he’s drowning.’
Eddie leans all his weight on Levi’s shoulders and sends him under one more time. Levi fights to locate the bottom of the pool with his toes but he can’t. He’s not far out of his depth but far enough. The water churns around him, the air in his lungs is wet, his vision is blurred. If Eddie does that to him one more time he will die. From suffocation, or shame, or both.
Kitty wriggles her toes again. She breathes out and then slowly raises her arms high.
Flying through the air is a gift as much as a talent. Kitty has never struggled to fly; it’s the landings that have caught her out. Not today though. Out the corner of her eye there is a flurry. A scattering. One of the lifeguards has dived in and is slowly, calmly bringing a panicking boy to the edge of the pool. He is visibly shaking. His friends hang back in the water, alarmed, quietened.
Levi watches Eddie being lifted onto the pool side. He feels the strength return to his arms. He feels the bottom of the pool with his toes.
A Simple House Call by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
“Did you see that kid throw”?
If Packer heard that once, he heard it a million times. One hundred bucks, times a million, he thought in
his financial research wheelhouse first rate mind.
With that kind of money, he could cure cancer.
But Packer was not wanted to cure cancer, Packer was only wanted on the football field, and not in lab class. That would be a distraction from, “Keeping his eye on the ball”.
During his last football game for his school, Packers arm put the team so far ahead that he asked to be taking out of the game. He said his arm hurt but it was really was because he wanted to add some things he thought of
during the game that he wanted to add to his science paper homework assignment instead of playing more, “Stupid ass football”.
While he was on the bench, working on his papers with his helmet off and way off to the side,
coach, as usual charged over and grabbed his papers, ripped them up and threw Packer and his
helmet back on the field.
“Tell your teachers coach ate your homework”, was the play the fuckhead coach put on Packer’s playing field.
Packer got on the field.
He would remember what was ripped from him.
He would lie in bed, and think about why we can’t we cure this, or replace that but, “Don’t worry
world of disease, I’m coming”.
He would begin the next morning like all the other mornings during stupid ass High School football
practice by heading into the science lab class first.
This was the first class of the day. He would go to the teacher and tell him of his latest ideas.
The teacher thought it should be the other way around. Packer should be the teacher and he the
He would be a student that Packer might not even give a B to.
One day after school, a recruiter was waiting for him in the living room with his
That did it.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree but this one rolled light years away.
His father introduced the diabetic looking recruiter to Packer by pointing out to his son how many players got to the N.F.L. thru this guy.
Packer’s father would punctuate his every point with the football he always carried around like the
fucking Holy Grail.
After the recruiter completed his pitch, Packer told his father and the recruiter he was not going
to play football at his college or any college unless Harvard Medical has one.
The recruiter shook his head and got up left without a word.
Packer’s father hit the roof, the basement, the walls, all the time not letting go of his precious
The football he threw good but not good enough to have his own fucking football career.
He yelled and shouted so loud that he started to choke and choke bad. He even dropped his
He wound up on his back, flopping like a fish on a pier. Packer started CPR, but his father kept
choking and was turning blue from the red his face was a minute ago.
Packer took out his silver surfer pen and performed a beautiful tracheotomy on his father’s
The doctors congratulated Packer as his father looked on from the wheelchair he was in as they
rolled him towards the exit of the emergency room.
One or two doctors wanted to mentor Packer.
They did not speak all the way home but when they got there and walked in the living room. Dad
saw his football and picked it up and threw it in the gas burning fireplace and turned it on.
He looked at his puzzled kid and said, “What’s up Doc”?
Teeth With Rotten Skin by Lauren Carter
When I was young, I only had one friend and she was imaginary.
I knew it even then that she wasn’t real but, when I lost my parents, she’s all I had. I named her Ecca, and she called me sister.
So, imagine my surprise when I received a call from her.
I turn up to the cafe and there she is, the exact same after all these years, not a wrinkle on her. I almost leave but curiosity takes over.
‘Hello sister,’ she says when I take the opposite seat. The waiter comes over before I reply and only addresses me when taking the order. Doesn’t ask Ecca what she wants. ‘It’s been a while, you’ve grown up.’ Her voice is lower and not as cheerful as it once was.
I stumble for the words, the questions I want to ask her. I haven’t thought of her in so long, how could I have imagined her here?
‘I wanted to reach out sooner, but I’ve been busy.’ She smiles at me. The waiter brings my drink over and Ecca snatches it before I get a chance and downs it.
She never used to be able to hold things.
‘Things have changed,’ she says, wiping her mouth. ‘But we’re still sisters, right?’ Her tone is different now, more serious. I nod as I don’t know what else to do. Every single piece of my body is telling me to leave. ‘Good.’
My food arrives but I don’t bother to reach for it. Ecca wolfs it down and, as she’s distracted, I look around at the quiet café. No one is paying attention to us though, I’m on my own. ‘It’s so nice to taste food again.’
I look back at her, not only is the food gone but the plate and cutlery are no longer there. I look up to see she has cut the side of her mouth so far; it’s ripped into her cheek. Her teeth at the front are normal but the back ones get sharper the deeper you look into her mouth.
The waiter comes back over to clean the table and looks at me confused. ‘Honey, where’s your plate?’
I don’t get a chance to explain as Ecca jumps out of her seat and attacks the waiter, biting into his neck. The rest of the café finally pays attention to us as I hear screams and scuffles from behind me, the bell on the door constantly ringing.
Ecca finally releases the waiter, and he drops with a loud thud, his throat slashed apart so much I can see his spine.
‘He was delicious,’ Ecca says, cleaning her mouth and sitting back down. ‘Not as tasty as your parents though.’
No words come out, but I feel my hands shake.
She notices. ‘What?’ She smirks. ‘Don’t you want us to be together?’
I let out a choke and grasp my mouth.
‘I’m close to a hundred souls. Then we can really be sisters,’ Ecca says, smiling.
On The Beach by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
“I’m going to kill myself.” Roby stood by the railroad tracks, waiting for the next train to send him to paradise, or Hell, or wherever you go when you kill yourself. Maybe a reward for getting thru all these years on earth, he wished. He heard one coming down the mountain. He closed his eyes, got ready, and waited for the nerve. He jumped eyes closed over the rails. But the train had passed. Like all the boats he missed, he missed his train too. “I’m going to kill myself” He said, as he dusted himself off. This time it was the kind of saying we all say when the best laid plans, come out, the worst laid plans. Oh well. There is always tomorrow.
Maybe it was just his paranoia. He thought about the drama he brought to their marriage, Like, The F.B.I. for one. Think that hurt the marriage?
He rode the subway and this time, instead of jumping in front of a train, he sat in one and started popping pills as he became one with the vibe of the clicks and clacks, of the tracks. He figured to get off at the last stop and hit the beached so pilled up that the beach would forever hit back
It was late, but a woman sat at the other end. It was two empty people in one empty subway car with one last stop.’’ Coney Island”.
He said when they got to the end of the line, and the train stopped, and the doors opened, him and the woman, sat still.
Roby said, all of a sudden, the pills asked the woman “So, what are we dinking”?
He said that she had a laugh that made him laugh too.
When I asked him what happened after that, he said he didn’t kill himself, and she didn’t either.
Then, he showed me the ring he was going to give her. It was in the paper prescription bag he was holding so dearly.
We parted, and he said over his shoulder, “Remember, my son, no man, is a Coney Island”. I have not forgotten.
Missing Person by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
"Hey, look who’s here”? The cop at the front desk said to the other cop at the front desk.
“Let’s let Irene take his statement”
They called on the inter-com for Officer Sanchez to come to the front desk, and when she got there, they explained that they were helping homicide, and even thou this was her first week here, and still getting her panties wet, would she mind taking a statement?
She was pretty and from a military family. She was the first one who left the service to become a cop. All the rest stayed in forever and then some. They laughed when they saw out of shape cops. Donut dopes they called them.
Army girl Sanchez was just as pretty as cop Sanchez, and she was nice.
The guy she was going to marry who was with her and met her in the Army died in a mid-east engagement and was never found.
This was going to her first statement solo experience even thou being watched, and taped, and listened to, especially by those two at the front desk, it was exciting, and she was excited.
Their coffee tasted a lot better and their donuts sweeter, watching Officer Sanchez play policeman.
Officer Irene Sanchez found that there was something touching about her subject but, she wasn’t sure she wanted to touch him, or him touch her, but oh of course she did. It has been a long season without any rain, Irene was thinking.
The subject told his side of his story.
That’s where the word history comes from you know?
“I’m a vet. I don’t get around much and a while ago I met a girl on the inter-net. It was like we knew each other all our lives and we talked and talked for days and days and nights and nights and we met and had coffee and she was as wonderful there as she was in my ear all those times on the phone and we made plans to see each other again and she never showed up and her phone sounds funny and she isn’t returning my calls or my E mails or anything and things just went too good to turn out this bad. I want to file a missing person report. She must be in danger”!
Officer Sanchez heard the boys laughing thru the door.
Is this your first missing person report? She asked.
No, it isn’t, unfortunately. He reported back.
I see said Irene.
Would you like to go for coffee some time? she said to him.
Are you going to show up? He asked.
We can go right now. She said.
Can we take your police car and put on the siren? He asked.
Officer Sanchez laughed.
He said, I’m glad you’re laughing because I was kidding. I may be nuts but I’m not crazy.
I know you’re not, she said to him as they walked out of the station after crossing the front desk.
Banking by Alan Berger
[West Hollywood, California]
Earl and Ray walked, no, strolled, into their first bank together in 1967 and a half and acted like
they owned the joint, and they did. They robbed it with the piped in music playing “I want to
Hold Your Hand”, a wonderful version by the Ray Conniff Singers.
It was so exciting that they took their sweet time getting to the empty running getaway car. A
stolen 65, and a half, red as Hell Mustang, with the top down. Ray wanted to keep the car and
not ditch it for another as planned.
But Earl, it feels like it was made for me. Well, it is a lucky car said Earl. They kept it while
inventing a new breed. Stupid hipster bank robbers who in those days just had to stroll in, stroll
out, and hit the highway. On the highway Earl and Ray sang their own song and it was called
“We Wanna Hold Up Your Bank”.
Was it a day that changed their lives forever? No, it wasn’t. They were always up to something
and good for nothing. But, they sure both had charm by the buckets full.
And that’s the rub and that’s the hook boys. It feels like it was made for you, but, alas, it wasn’t.
Before they spoke to each other, they did their first job together. They both really met on the
same night they broke into the school’s cafeteria from different windows, at the same time, going
after the same thing. Entitlement. In this materialistic form, it was the cafeteria’s candy and
doughnuts. They weren’t interested in the fruit. A coincidence and a career in crime, was put in
place that night. They with the goods went to the railroad tracks and feasted, and introduced
themselves to each other. They burned the wrappers of the candy so they wouldn’t leave
fingerprints, like on T.V.
This was in elementary school, very elementary. Every day after that, there was something
missing from school, other than the kids that were cutting class.
Earl and Ray went to school every day. The more time they spent in school, the more they could
steal, and then pawn. At the pawn place was a guy who knew Ray’s father before he disappeared
for who knows what reason other than he just did ” Happens all the time” was what Ray heard
about it, all the time. Ray did look back, which was not his style, he would say his father left a
good story to tell girls that wanted to mother, and father him, and a wonderful excuse, for being
such a wonderful excuse for not being a solid citizen, a square. He would hear his father say back,
“You're welcome boy”.
A.J. Delecta by Raymond Abbott
[Louisville, Kentucky, USA]
I have been a social worker most of my adult life. One of my first supervisors was A.J. Delecta, in the welfare office serving the South End of Boston. A.J. was easy to work for, and as pleasant a man as anyone you could wish to know. I believe he was Polish by ancestry. He was short, stout, with lots of dark hair he kept clipped close to his scalp, with hardly any gray in evidence. He was too heavy for his frame, but he carried his weight well. He usually dressed in a dark-colored suit with a bright, colorful tie. He must have been close to sixty years of age when we met.
We all were employed in the old civil service system of Massachusetts, and A.J.'s advice to new employees, myself included, was to take every test offered by the civil service system.
"You could never tell what will come of it," he said often. Of course, he was a practitioner of his own advice.
With A.J. there was only one rule I remember, and while he was not heavy-handed in enforcing it, he did get his way. The rule was this: You must NEVER ever put his name in a write up. He didn't care what you had to say. You could quote at length from the Bible, if that were your purpose, or from Alice in Wonderland, if that floated your boat, and he would dutifully read all you had to say, usually without comment, so long as you did not insert his name any place. If you did, he would find his white-out and remove any and all evidence that he existed whatsoever and was thereby involved even remotely with what was being recorded. Even his signature was difficult to read (or even find).
If, for example, you said in your write up that your social work plan for a particular client was discussed and agreed to by AJ Delecta, his name was immediately removed. Or if you wrote, totally innocently again, that you and Mr. Delecta discussed a particular subject and agreed as to how we needed to proceed thereafter, bingo! Out came his name and the sentence connected to it. So you learned quickly how to do your case recordings, histories, and at the same time get along well with AJ. You were made to understand that each and every word would be read and scrutinized by A.J., sure enough, but only in search for the mention of his name. Nothing more!
I never had a discussion with A.J. as to why he did this. It was to avoid any and all responsibility, for good or for bad, is my guess. If he wasn’t named in the write-up he could not creditably be held responsible for what followed, what was written. Pretty simple rule. Not that I am an advocate of such practices. Quite imaginative, too, when you think about it. And surely original.
Art Gallery by David Patten
[Denver, Colorado, USA]
Amaya can’t suppress a wry smile. An item of gossip has reached her. It seems there are those intent on labelling her a witch. Such an archaic term, unused for centuries, its connotation pejorative. Amaya ponders that maybe it’s because she’s an outlier. During that unenlightened age, it was a convenient term for nonconformist women, especially those who, like Amaya, preferred to live alone.
She’s a curator; a purveyor of aesthetics. Her specialty is The Renaissance. For a modest fee patrons can roam her gallery of Caravaggios, da Vincis, and Raphaels. Bold work from over a millennium ago, the world still searching for an identity. Crossing Amaya’s palm with an elusive gold coin, however, will favor you with an altogether more unique experience in her gallery.
A gentle knock at the after-hours door in the rear. Amaya opens it partway, the orb in her palm chasing away the shadow from her cat’s eyes and long, greying hair. Cassian steps inside. The darkness is heavy, the air cool. Raising the orb, Amaya sees a man younger than her usual patrons, hair and eyes raven, brooding. There is an audacity about him as he presses the gold coin into her hand.
They stand before Cassian’s chosen piece: Botticelli’s iconic Birth of Venus. Amaya places a hand on its center and it expands to fill the whole wall. She regards Cassian expectantly. Previously bold, there’s a hesitation. He appears about to turn away, but then takes three confident steps and leaps into the painting.
Venus is before him, an alabaster statue, hair to the waist. Zephyrus, clutching his nymph, propels her ashore, the ocean rising with his breath. On the sand the guardian Pomona waits, mantle ready to clothe the goddess. Materials in hand, Cassian sits and begins to sketch.
Sheer Drop by David Patten
[Denver, Colorado, USA]
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. Unassisted, 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. She hears them first. 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.
Sing A New Song by Fiona M Campbell
Charisma radiated from Maria Luciano, as she gave an astonishing virtuoso performance. Her passion for the music was evident.
Maria let her pastel pink fingernails dance over the piano keys, allowing the music to flow in a rainbow of sound. Her delicate fingers caressed the ebony and ivory, giving life to Chopin and Rachmaninov. Joyous applause echoed around her, as she took a bow. The sea of people was cloudy; the lights dazzling. A tingling sensation flowed through her, followed by a gasp from the audience and darkness.
The smell of disinfectant roused her. A lady in blue placed a beeping thermometer in her ear and an inflating cuff around her arm. The man in the white coat shuffled papers and shone a bright light in her eyes.
‘You have Optic Neuritis, Mrs Luciano. There’s no treatment, but if you rest, your sight should return in four to six weeks.’
Impossible! Her first European tour playing Greig’s piano concerto in A began the following week.
‘There will be other tours,’ Nico said, kissing her hand. She was blessed to have him as her rock. Her constant in her changing world.
Maria lay on her purple chaise longue. Bach fugues and Scarlatti sonatas played in her head. Her fingers itched to play. Using the wall as her guide, she tentatively made her way towards her piano. Taking a deep breath, she stroked the keys and performed the elaborate melodies as if nothing had changed.
Three weeks passed; her vision cleared little by little, but her fingers tingled. Pins and needles. Then they were numb, refusing to co-operate. Who could play Mozart without trills and acciaccaturas? Maria sank to her knees and sobbed inconsolably. Music was her world. Without it, she was nothing.
With headphones over her ears, she lay completely still, gripping the panic button tightly, as she entered the MRI tunnel. So loud! A cacophony of industrial noise. Trapped, she wonders if they have found something sinister. Was this the end of her journey?
Sixteen days of wondering. Her legs had joined her arms; no longer following her directions. Nico wheeled her into the neurologist’s office. With a picture of Maria’s brain illuminated on the screen, the doctor pointed to the scattered white lesions.
‘You have multiple sclerosis, Maria.’
Tears trickled down her cheeks. Relief that she was not dying from a tumour, regret for things she had not done, and recognition that her life was changing.
Infusions of magic medicine offered hope for the future. There was no cure. DMD’s they called them- disease modifying drugs. Maria’s sight returned. Her wheelchair resided in the attic, replaced by a pretty, purple cane. Her fingers no longer had the dexterity for the piano, but she found her voice. In stunning evening gowns, she performed passionate soprano arias.
Life had changed.
Maria rested her head on Nico’s lap, as he ran his fingers through her curls. She stroked her swollen belly. Tiny feet dancing inside her. Perhaps her new life was only just beginning.
For Sale by Louise Johnson
I barely recognised it.
Our frothy pink cherry trees were no longer there and father’s squirrel nest was now a living room, with white leather sofas and a supersized TV. Walls were demolished; a conservatory built. Cool greys and taupe replaced a livid turquoise and avocado palette.
I clicked on another photo, eager to discover what had become of the old-style kitchen, where mother stashed gin bottles behind packets of butterscotch Angel Delight. Here, she swayed, while singing tunelessly to herself. Potatoes burnt. Broccoli turned limp. In contrast, granite worktops and stainless-steel units looked rock-solid.
The house was reborn. It could breathe again.
Jennifer Rose by Sandra Hurtes
[New York City, USA]
We sit in the waiting room of a doctor’s office
and pray for a baby.
Maybe you’ve been here.
Three years and five months of laboratory sex,
injections, invitro, blasts to your fallopian tubes.
The doctor’s cold speculum no longer makes you flinch.
You’re married to the love of your life
but you can’t make a baby.
And then, one glorious day your doctor smiles and says,
“Yes, you’re pregnant.”
You’re giddy; you and your husband go straight to Buy Buy Baby
where he falls for the stuffed giraffes
and yellow onesies.
You go to dinner at a fancy restaurant
and smugly decline wine.
And then, not long after, you have a miscarriage—make that four.
Just like that.
You can’t go through this again, but your husband wants a baby.
He bought the yellow onesies, the stuffed giraffe,
and he wants a girl to name after his sister, Jennifer Rose.
He agrees to the gender-neutral gray wallpaper.
You have one last embryo.
You’ll do anything for your husband.
You’ve loved him since the first grade
when he gave you a peppermint heart for Valentine’s Day.
You didn’t know he’d given one to every girl in the class
until your best friend Susie told you at your wedding.
Funny. Susie looks like the petite brunette across the room.
The way she twirls her hair around her finger
Crosses and uncrosses her ankles under her seat.
But it can’t be Susie.
She moved to Paris or Milan or some city you p