De Lenz Hull , East Yorkshire
Guadalcanal Missile Crisis
Of all the statues that came down or marked to be taken down, Donald Trump liked the one depicting Teddy Roosevelt flanked by an African American and a Native American the best. To him, it represented American, meaning western, meaning white, dominance over peoples in shit hole countries. He imagined himself in TR’s place with a black and a brown man on either side. For black representation, he wanted the honor to go to Kanye West, the most loyal of his black followers. For brown, he wanted India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has been the most obsequious of all world leaders towards Trump. On one of Modi’s visits to the White House, Trump had asked Stephen Miller to recite his favorite limerick about Indians:
The poor, benighted Hindoo
He tries the best he kin do
He sticks to his caste
from first to last
he makes his skin do
The only word Modi understood was “Hindu” and he mistook the limerick for something in praise of Hindus. He said “yes, yes, yes - Hindu! Great!” and tried to hug Trump who backed away from Modi’s bad breath.
Trump asked Miller to commission the statue and find a prominent location for it. Miller came back with the suggestion that the statue be installed in a foreign country since it won’t be safe in any location within the country. Besides, it will count as a significant foreign policy win for an administration lacking much accomplishment in that area. Trump liked the idea and the search began for a foreign locale. The national security council met and settled on Guadalcanal.
Miller listed the rationale in a memo: (1) the island is well known for World War II relics. It badly needs an update. What better way to modernize than to erect a statue for a modern-day global leader/warrior? (2) the government of Solomon Islands that governs Guadalcanal is weak and will bend to our will; (3) the bribe, the promise of a Trump hotel, will, in fact, end up benefitting the Trump family. Even if only ten percent of the president’s followers made the pilgrimage each year, the island will be awash in tourist dollars.
Trump, of course, wanted to know who was paying for construction of the hotel. Miller assured him that Bannon had agreed to redirect funds from border wall donations.
State Department got wind of the project and some deep state denizen protested that protocol demanded buy in from the British since the Queen was the figurative head of state. Buy-in was easier done than said. Miller talked to his British soulmate Boris who let Her Royal Highness know that the US wanted to be ruled by the Queen again. So, someday, it’s all going to be hers anyway.
The Islands’ Prime Minister was thrilled: a shiny, new hotel as garish as the one in the Old Post Office in DC. But he didn’t say yes immediately. He had to run it by his boss. As he was figuring out how best to package it, the boss called. The message was simple: Don’t do it. Increased US presence would interfere with the Belt and Road infrastructure projects. So the PM told Trump, Kushner, et.al, to take the project and shelve it.
From there, events happened in rapid succession: The U.S. Coast Guard increased its presence, U.S. and Australian war ships set sail, Chinese ships headed towards Papua New Guinea, China revealed secret missile sites on the islands, the U.S. ordered a naval blockade, anti-China rhetoric heated up, Trump’s approval shot through the roof.
Thus began the Guadalcanal missile crisis.
Buckeye, AZ, USA
Ramblings Of A Mad Lover
I do not want to cry, neither to say I'm sad, but I am. The pride in my masculinity prevents me from soaking my eyes in the pain that ravages my heart. I am going mad I think, but I cover it with a smile and nobody knows, I talk and walk, and nobody knows. How do I start to love again? Where and with whom do I begin with? Alas! I should have known, I should have known that it’d come to this very little thing that yet matters the most.
I used to write poems; scorning cupid for shooting its wanton arrow in drunkenness, for it misses aim and often hit men unfound. Aye! I'm mocked, for cupid repeals and scorn me in-turn. Love now nears me weep. Or am I being punished because I write so well about love but often allow my manliness deny I love.
I confess—I confess that I've loved only two women in my life, but poor me, I write this in the dismayed state of loneliness. I must be cursed of love or life wittingly treats me unfair.
The first one, I loved in secret—some part of me concluding we could never be—I was a fool. I should have told her, told her how her chocolate skin is the best, how her hip keeps glue my eyes, how her gesture and voice thrills me, how gracious and grandeur her personality is; and her beauty—too fine to replicate. Foolish me, I was young and naïve, and instead I told her about her smile, only, and sweet pictures and memories of her fills my head. Now I rejoice for her, happily married to a man who brings her joy, and I'm glad her smile hasn’t stopped. I don’t know why but I still love her, and wish her well in her marriage. I knew I could never give her what she deserves—a pure golden life, so I rejoice someone else gave her. Maybe in another life we shall be, I hope!!
The second… Oh! Where do I begin? I had given up on love when I met her, and deep in my heart, I knew she was the one. ‘The one’; such foolish a phrase. Poor me, I waited two years to win her love and I did win it—a sweet gentle lover I was—and I fought to keep it. Through the thorns our love grew, stick and stones our bones did not break, and as gold is tested by fire so was our love and we didn’t burn. I fell in love when I least expected it, and no—it wasn’t her beauty though she was fair. And though fair from fair do decline, hers grow. God himself made out time to create her beauty, for there’s something special about her. I must be a slave to the lips, for she too has a lovely smile—bright and widening it caresses the soul.
It doesn’t matter now, I lost them both. My first love I lost to my foolishness, but my second…Aye! I should blame it on nature. How can a little thing such as BLOOD, end a love so promising and fulfilling? That is wickedness I say, nature does envy us. After several failed attempt. Where do I begin? And with whom, I ask? After two failed attempt, I've given up on love, it has thus far done me no good. I've been my own fool. I now seek for love without a pressing commitment—I've lost it.
Officer!! Help!! I'm guilty, take me away before I cause more harm on me. Pin any crime on me, I'm guilty as charged. I've played by the rules and got fucked by life. Once is a mistake, but twice is no coincidence. Love has a plan—to strip me of true love and send me into the wild streets, the fucking Wild-Wild West where love no longer dwells. I'd rather be in your cells, a prisoner of war than a prisoner of love. “Help officer!!” I beg, “Take me away, or love breaks me for a third time.” I killed love, or love killed me, either ways, I'm guilty. Take me away.
Edo State, Nigeria
Albrin's debut novel is 'Naked Coin'
Peas In A Pod
Polystyrene cups litter the drab visitors’ lounge. A pungent cocktail of weak milky tea, body odour and disinfectant bring forth that familiar nausea. Is it the smell here I wonder for the hundredth time which makes me feel sea-sick, disorientated?
You’re sitting alone, a statue staring ahead, oblivious. My face, only worn, absent, doped.
A week ago, you were pacing our living room floor, eyes terrified, frantically pleading, ‘They’re coming, they’re coming to complete Level X. We have to go Jim, go now!’ Over and over like a mantra.
Now, I sit down at the Formica table and say quietly with a sigh, ‘Can’t keep away from this old joint.' No response at my attempt at conversation.
‘Fuck you,’ I think suddenly furious. ‘Straighten yourself out, you crazy prick!’ Angry selfish thoughts involuntary running through my head, like flowing blood.
‘Not his fault, not his fault,' but then not mine either.
My brother, born of the same womb. Two peas in a pod, always fighting for space.
Always stealing the glory, the spotlight, my brother. ‘Move over’, ‘It’s mine’, ‘I want’ , ‘I’m first’, 'I’m strongest’, his childhood chants.
‘You want to go out for a fag?’ I ask after a long silence. You nod.
The smoking space is crowded. Broken people, staring eyes making me want to retch.
Back inside, the TV starts up. A rerun of the Dukes of Hazard, the opening credits. What are the odds? - our old childhood show. Your face lightens as Luke does his familiar hood-slide.
‘You can go now,’ you say absently, eyes fixed on the screen.
‘I’ll stay awhile longer,’ I reply, settling down beside you, heart aching, resting my head against yours though you do not notice.
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Challenging Situations 
Think of an occasion when you personally had to deal with either a challenging situation, or a difficult person. What was the main concern, how did you tackle it, & what were the consequences?
Becoming conscious- that I was simply a landless, itinerant, fungible, expendable, within a suicidal society, feverishly cannibalising greed, fear, & malignant narcissism: one in which what passes as acceptable, is orchestrated on behalf of a ruling élite (for the sorry sake of fading, public-minded perceptions) by employing a stage-managed multimedia bias, of prejudiced, faux, fey egosyntonic sensitivities- was totally cuntish.
I knew I couldn’t survive alone.
So, pursuing a safety in numbers logic, I joined a mercenary gang. Randomly allying myself to one of a supernumerary group of abominable opinion formers, pretending to present pragmatic balanced solutions, to so many travails, faced by humdrum folk living ordinary lives (& issuing whiny rejections of a multi-polar communications landscape, on each occasion, dissenting voices speak out, against its fraudulent, policy institute purse-masters). It’s all smoke & mirrors, obvs.
I’ve lost all my honest, salt of the earth mates; but I’ve changed.
I no longer care. Sat safe & snug, aside condescending facsimiles- a bunch of po-faced, treacherous, humourless, hypocritical, holier than thou, self-serving hustlers. Collectively, we understand the technicalities of this world intimately (no one else has the beginnings of a clue). Without shame, we pretentiously enjoy explaining our expert, correctly authorised, view of what’s unfolding, on behalf of our powerful clients- acting as an integral part of their toolkit: successfully keeping Joe & Josephine Public under an organised influence.
History’s been knockabout up until now; sweet dreams are made of this!
resident in Britain
They claim a girl is buried there.
The kids in my school all say it. At the back of the field under the trees, in the midst of the nettle patch, whose leaves bite at your skin if you dare to touch them. There, behind the weeds and under the great slab of grey stone. That’s where she’s buried.
They say she was killed in that spot.
It’s not her tombstone, there’s no kind words from family or flowers left by friends. It’s just a flat rock buried amongst the weeds, about the size of a small child. They say she was killed and whoever did it buried her body there to mark the spot.
They don’t know who she was.
No one knows the girl’s name. They don’t know her age, or how long ago it happened. The passing of time is marked only by the grass growing over the edges, like the fingers of a little girl clawing her way out.
They claim nothing touches it.
Leaves never land there. The ground around it is constantly littered with fallen leaves and branches, but the rock is always clear. Squirrels avoid it, birds never go near. Rain darkens it’s surface like tears, but sunlight can’t reach.
They say bad things happen if you stand on it.
Everyone knows it’s bad luck to stand on a grave. But this is something else. It’s not just a grave, it’s the site of a murder. A boy fell on it once and they say no one ever saw him again.
They don’t know how she was killed.
The rock gives away none of those secrets. All we know is that there is a slab of grey rock amongst the nettles behind the trees on the far side of the field.
They claim a girl is buried there.
‘Let’s talk about the Ringlets, Simon. Tell me about the Ringlets.’
‘Well, Derek, I like to sit in the tall grasses on the riverbank and watch their beautiful, velvety wings bob up and down among the wildflowers. It’s like they’re dancing or something.’
‘And why are they called Ringlets?’
‘Jesus, Derek. I told you last time, it’s because they’ve little rings on their wings.’
‘Okay, okay, I apologize. My memory’s a bit tired today.’
‘Obviously. Try and stay awake, Rip Van Winkle, if you expect me to.’
‘Right, will do. Let’s move on, shall we? You say the Ringlets help to calm you. Is that right?’
‘Yeah. They sort of hypnotise me and then I feel better in my head. Really calm, like.’
‘A quiet euphoria.’
‘Don’t know what that means, Derek.’
‘Er, really calm, like you said.’
‘Yeah. Can you cut the fancy words, Derek? People who use them do my head in, big time.’
‘No problem, Simon. Can I ask you this though, and please don’t be perturbed, but do you ever find yourself hurting the Ringlets? For instance, have you ever stamped on them or pulled their wings off?’
‘Are you joking? I’d never hurt a Ringlet, I love ‘em - but ask that question again and you might find your wings pulled off. Get me?’
‘Okay, sorry. Maybe I went too far there. Let’s see, do you always find peace on the riverbank?
‘Can you explain?’
‘Well, take yesterday, for example. I was walking along the riverside when Tring! Tring! I nearly shot out of my skin. A bicycle bell, yeah? When I turned around there was one of them poser cyclists just staring straight at me, obviously wanting to pass. He was wearing goggles, Lycra gear and all that crap. Well, I waited for him to use some manners like, ‘May I pass, please?’ But he just went Tring! Tring! again.’
‘…Pushed him off his bike and threw it in the water. I screamed, ‘Take that, Bradley Wiggins! This isn’t the Tour de fuckin’ France, y’know! It’s England mate, use some manners!’ Then the rude scumbag started crying, ‘Boo-Hoo-Hoo!’
‘Did you hit him?’
‘Did you hit him? I mean, I’m sort of on your side, but did you hit him?’
‘Bollocks, course not. What do you think I am Derek, some sort of monster?’
‘No, I don’t think that at all, no, no, no. But did you have any feelings of wanting to perpetrate any violence towards his person?’
‘I mean, did you thump, kick or bite him?’
‘No. Like I said, there’s the Ringlets. I went straight to them and I calmed right down.’
‘Interesting. Just one last question then, to end this session. How do you think you’ll cope when the summer’s gone and the Ringlets aren’t around anymore?’
‘Aren’t around anymore? Are you screwin’ with me? Say you aren’t screwin’ with me, Derek!’
‘Okay, okay Simon. Please don’t shoot the messenger, but let me explain…’
Scarborough, North Yorkshire
“You’re a new-born old man”.
I tell him why he was right. Something about “starting afresh” or “new tricks for the old dog”.
Truth is, there are no new tricks. The only thing that changes is how they’re dressed. First it was straight from mouth to ear. Cautionary stories used to pour out the gobs of our elders like organised spew. Bits of food in the spew would arrange themselves on the side of my face like stars against the night’s sky – meaninglessly, randomly.
They could easily get mistaken for patterns, or pictures. Problem is that people will kill and die for patterns and pictures. Then it was piles of paper sent to your doorstep. That was meant to scare you off. Red and black ink had a way of making you do whatever was written in them. Whatever number they put on those papers, I paid-up.
And now it’s the screen. But I’ve got my head around that one. I might have fallen for the stories. I have might payed up all my life without question. But, now… now I can do this contraption.
“Don’t forget everything you’ve learnt today”.
I say “goodbye” in one of the many varied forms I have learnt to do so without forgetting. But yes, I have started forgetting things.
The way I see it, it is more an issue of retention. Minds are like mugs. You can only fill them up to a point. When you do, stuff starts spilling out. Some mugs are bigger than others. Some get the odd chip or crack. Sometimes they just smash. I think the size limit is about a hundred- and ten-year’s worth of growth. I guess if there was no limit we would run out of clay. But mine is not full up yet. “I will remember everything I have learnt today”.
I put the house phone in its holder. I put the gadget I can now use next to it. First, actually, I’ll set an alarm for the morning, like the man said. Might as well use my alarm clock one last time before I throw it out. Or maybe I’ll give it away.
That being said, who would want one? I can stop paying that chap as quick as I started, and now I can use this intelligent phone. Soon enough they’ll start cooking your food on these things. He was bloody good. I’ll only need him once. I’ll give him a tip. Suppose I was good as well. Still got it, still gold. Mind, sharp as a devil horn and hot as a devil’s prick. That’ll show ‘em.
Same Time/Next Night:
“You’re a new-born old man”.
I tell him why he was right. Something about “starting afresh” or “new tricks for the old dog”.
Truth is, there are no new tricks...
Still got it, still gold. Mind, sharp as a devil horn and hot as a devil’s prick. That’ll show ‘em.
Fifty Pounds/Every Night.
Halifax, West Yorkshire
The Dangerous Hospital
On-duty night hospital security GUARD enters A and E. UNKNOWN lying face-down across three empty chairs.
UNKNOWN appears human, gothic still. Cloak like blanket covers head.
GUARD approaches, requests her/him/it to move on.
GUARD touches UNKNOWN’s arm pulls away in terrific pain wincing.
UNKNOWN gets up shoots out through automatic doors, disappears into the night.
GUARD clutches wrist, gazes astonished at half-moon of pink indents to first digit.
Hand examined by STAFF NURSE. Skin unbroken no undue concern GUARD sent home.
WIFE asks why GUARD back so early *Game of Thrones* interrupted. GUARD explains.
STAFF NURSE had no right to discharge him! What if UNKNOWN contains life annihilating fluid at this very moment entering GUARD’s bloodstream?
GUARD says very tired how about we get some sleep.
WIFE on no account sleeping with GUARD! Diseased hand what is being transferred? GUARD will sleep downstairs! Does GUARD recognise threat to family health/disposition clearly GUARD does not!
Next day GUARD wakes early. WIFE asks what he is doing does he truly think he is going in to work?
Hand critical we must fight this!
GUARD tries to explain hand fine.
So you can’t do this one little thing for me?
GUARD takes time off to attend numerous private consultations as instigated and accompanied by WIFE. All those concerned confirm no realistic claim against hospital or UNKNOWN if ever located.
WIFE reads letter warning GUARD against taking further unsolicited sick leave. I’m not going to take this shit will contact LAWYER.
GUARD favours putting things on hold.
OK honey says sweetly smiling WIFE.
GUARD smiling back takes her in his arms.
WIFE snatches hand between teeth; Commences terrifying, flesh eviscerating head shake.
GUARD falls to knees screaming.
LAWYER coming round at two thirty says WIFE; and he’ll want to see that hand.
When I wrote to her, I didn’t write of my aspirations. I didn’t write of the hungry coil that lived inside of me—of the way I wanted. Not fame, not fortune, but… Greatness. A form of it, at least. I wanted people to read what I wrote, and see what I saw, and feel what I felt. I wanted them to know me, name and soul alike. But she was one of the few who actually did.
She told me of the girlfriends she fell recklessly in love with, and I told her of the boys and girls I admired for a time and then discarded. She wasn’t the kind of person you lusted over—crushed on. She was the kind of person you were always a little in love with, halfway awed by. She was lovely in the way Grecian statues were, somehow limned with power and serenity. A swath of stillness in this chaotic world. Somehow breathing otherness.
So when I wrote to her, I wrote of simplicity. Of the greatest gifts I could wish her—that the wind might whisper something lovely, that the rain might be warm and soothing, that she might have licorice scented black irises to smell and gently cloying rose petals to grace her bathwater. That she might have moments of sunshine and creekwater, unperturbed by all the mess of life.
I was little in love with her, or maybe not in love with her at all. Maybe, really, I was a little in love with the idea of us. With our letter writing and our poetry, the seashells and tea bags and oil paintings we traded like carved bits of sinew, a thousand ancient sacrifices to prove we cared. Maybe we were the epitome of romance, locked in the stagnant, unburning love of perfect friendship. Maybe I wanted our deep sea to twist, to turn, to roil. Maybe I wanted a little poison in the tea, a little flame to devour those carefully scripted letters. Maybe I was in love with her, and she was in love with me, and we were both in love with nothing at all. Maybe we were thunderstorms or eclipses, and maybe we were just people, headed for concrete and fluorescents and basketball goals and suburban purgatory. Maybe I thought of myself as a young god. Maybe I was as doomed as Icarus, and my whole great future would come tumbling down around me in sticky paraffin and the acrid tar of burned feathers. Maybe she saw me for what I was, a dreamer and a doubter, arrogant and insecure. Maybe she loved me for it. Or maybe she just didn’t care.
But still, her softness filled me as I carved out letters in pink ink, folded them with shaking hands. As I sealed them and sent them away, thinking of the way her fingers would curve around my pages.
Kacie Faith Kress
Shamshi Rahman didn’t have enough to eat. Because he had just lost his job. The only way left for him was to raise some funds through friends online. He sat looking through his Facebook page every day to find potential givers. Some of his friends were too young to afford to give anything. Others were older but they looked cashed up. His attention turned towards those older friends. Then he found one.
A woman who was older, but she looked young. He thought he would stalk her online. Shamshi began to send her little love notes first. He complimented on her looks, and then her curvy figure. It was all very mechanical, trying to grab her attention. How to make someone fall in love, kind of “How to” manual books, which he thought was useful, as they clearly stated instructions and procedures on general love and love making tips.
She was sixty. He was thirty-five. He told her that he loved her. She kept telling him that it wasn’t going to work because of age difference. He said, he didn’t care about age. Every time he saw her, he felt his loins stir. He couldn’t live without her. He couldn’t breathe without her. He desired to live within her.
She told him she was like a broken record on a decrepit player. She was like an age-old palace or a mossy old temple covered under the weight of some unknown thousand-year old tree. That she was Homer’s Red Wine Sea. She breathed old, stale air of the past and the present and perhaps into the future as well.
He told her he didn’t care how old she was. How white or grey her hair turned? She was within him, a part of him. He went into the shower and he invited her to join him there. He wanted to peel her clothes, layer after layer. He made love to her. He saw her nude. He saw her unclothing for him. He just saw her through and through. Flesh against flesh. He made love to her. He made love to her every single night.
She told him no physical relationship was possible. He told her it wasn’t physical. It was all spiritual. It was esoteric. She was an embodiment. His prism of love.
He was a little
shit. Agaman. It said on his van he'd been servicing Agas for twenty-five years. He went into the houses of dukes, doctors, he'd shared Christmas grog with politicians, farmers, landowners of note. But once a year he had to service our Aga, our inner-city Aga. Once a year he had to enter the world of dusty faces and police sirens, a world he thought he'd escaped many years before.
“I'm here for your Aga,” said a gruff voice on the phone. “I'm parked right outside.”
He dismounted from the van with his bag of tricks. Screws, pipes, lighters, Allen keys, the smell of leather, the grimy soot of his trade, the crinkled hands, the oil stained boiler suit.
“It's just through there, you probably remember from last year,” I said.
He went to the Aga, opened his leather bag, turned off the pilot light and probed within.
“Do you want a cup of tea?”
I said nothing further and watched him at work. About five foot five, a poacher’s friend, maybe ex-army, sanctimoniousness etched deep into his spiteful, ruddy face. He handed me a chit of paper.
“Can you sign this?”
“Keep it for your landlord,” he said.
He gave a curt last glance, went back to his van, tossed his bag into the passenger seat and started the ignition. No farewells, no nods, no thumbs up as his van pulled away for another year.
Yes, he was a little shit.
Read another recent story of Mick's - 'Play Your Cards Right -' at:
My good niece, genealogical chronicler of life’s bare facts, grants me access to her ancestry account where, alone now with plenty of time, which is what I search, a sleuth snooping spoors, I discover a cousin and uncle I never knew had lived, now long dead. Women die after giving birth too often, after singing lullabies to babies before burying them. Men kill themselves on the job, one from a matchbox factory explosion, another falling from a loaded hay cart to frozen ground. Deprivation’s echoes haul me by the scruff, shoving my nose into it through a rabbit hole of years, but I, who like quiet, perversely want to hear its clatter, remove its mask.
What this cyber-eavesdropper needs is a click-on category to long-lost light shining, sun triumphing over drizzle illuminating glistening cobbles. I would hear song, a child’s guffaw of un-selfconscious laughter, notice idiosyncrasies, see their time in the sun, or their breath in cold air, not this tunnel of silence, these shadows. Sure, medals were won, but I don’t care for that kind of heroism, don’t expect art, but crave joyful tipsy celebrations between and after Births and Marriages as well as at them. Humbug to Deaths, these wretched characters straight from Dickens’ poorhouse enduring wall-to-mildewed wall misery.
At the cheap supermarket I discover bargains, paying with hoarded change. Wind icy, I do up the buttons remaining on my jacket, switch my heavy bag from hand to hand walking home brooding over my other niece’s drug addiction, and the son who avoids me, also my mostly estranged first family from our needy young marriage, suppose all our tawdry secrets, our unseen tears, shall be exposed in time.
Ian C Smith
Sale, Victoria, Australia
Ian's seventh book is 'wonder sadness madness joy' - Ginninderra Press (Port Adelaide).
At their reception couples, kids like them, dance to pop music, its simple infectious beat fizzing their blood. He meets his bride’s friend for the first time, wonderful wide eyes, full lips, her beauty pageantry squeezed into a tight black dress. After dancing with his bride he dances with her, her sexiness spellbinding, and she seems to respond in kind. He wants to kiss her right there, an impossibility the sexy girl whispers, or something to that effect. Friends call out ribald remarks. His bride claims him for another dance but the girl’s eyes meet his again as she dances with somebody else, this craziness maddening him, his marriage only hours old.
Is love, that attention-grabbing many-splendoured thing, really just the desire to see the self reflected? If this boy bridegroom, not an habitual girl-chaser, had met the sexy girl just a month earlier, he doubted he would have gone ahead with vows promising fidelity to the teenage girl he made love to that night in a desultory manner, more depressed than aroused, beginning a shared marital disappointment, both regretting what they missed.
This marriage staggers on until collapsing under the strain of its miserable handicap, a bloom wilted by drought lurking within the mad swirl of life. Its children become adults with a muted attraction to excitement, also marrying young, partners decent, dull, comfortable, marriages with built-in robes, built-in yawns. Then, one after another, each of these partnerships falls into ruin.
He knew people, mostly women, successful in other areas of life, who followed sexual urges, believing in gods (or goddesses) of their destiny out there somewhere just needing that chance meeting to charge their lives with ecstasy, but no sooner did these romantics meet the equivalents of that sexy girl at his wedding than their passions on pedestals , the wild loves of their dreams, began teetering. Vanity, selfishness, fickle-hearted unreliability and other flaws, elbowed scorching lust aside, these people reported, convincing him. Now, those long-ago doubts quashed, heart-thudding moments recalled drained of youth’s impetuosity, the lighted windows of trains passing in the night, he wonders with a feeling akin to grief, about timing, unzipping a tight black dress.
Ian C Smith
Sale, Victoria, Australia
Travelling by night through a foreign landscape, mountainous terrain straddling states, traffic thin, occasional headlights crisscrossing like old wartime searchlights on my winding road, I park, walk towards a bridge to shift my mood. I shall chronicle this blur of absence, a silenced bell’s echo, memories of night music, betrayal, dreams of happiness. Calligraphic words wreaths on paper. A great distance separating me from home, thunder’s orchestration greets me as if cued.
Lightning like faulty neon illuminates oily water purling below, reflects on stonework, reminding me of Rodin’s looming rough studies. Then the appropriateness of rain. I smell decades in stone. My floating face, a drowned spectre, is obliterated by a fusillade of raindrops. What relics of hope, taste of grief, life’s detritus, lies behind that image? Everyone knows travel can be a form of running away.
I think of revealed bog bodies when a strange rasping wind as if out of the stilled past rushes in, a scuttling across Eliot’s floors of silent seas. Hunching away to a cold, emptied marketplace, my footfalls follow centuries of spoors faded forever. Those memorising bad news have crossed that bridge’s curve, endured, moved on with their dogs, walking the night, leaving no message, incantations now silenced.
Ian C. Smith
Sale, Victoria, Australia
No, he said.
It seemed to echo.
It echoed but somehow did not resonate.
It came from his head not from his heart.
No, he said again, and it came in a more solid form.
A bit more steely.
Though a moment later his heart melted.
He watched the moment going away from him, like the escalator in the underground, always descending, going away...
Thinking of it much later, it was as if he stood on the shore of a lake into which he had once thrown a stone. The splash was long gone. The stone was now buried deep in the mud below.
But still, and endlessly, the soft ripples of disturbance kept coming towards him.
You’re right Sem, Soli will be very pleased with the crania. I will carve her image upon it and place it in the temple at festival time. Praise be to Soli.
I found it only recent solas ago, west of the great drain. Sia and Sov were with me. It was a successful gather. We returned with many bones.
Soli walked with us and the great provider saw to all our needs. Trees were laden with fruit and great berry creepers were abundant. Many flyers nested in the ruined shelters. We ate well. Early one sola, we ambushed a pack of howlers. We speared the biggest and feasted highly.
We found some small vessels in the shelters. We prised them open and yes, Sem, some of them were edible, though most weren’t. Sia made herself sick on golden fruit which was coated in stickiness.
Mind-fungi were plentiful. We collected many for soup and Soli gave us a great vision of tribal unity. Truly, Sia and I shared Sov and then Sia and I shared each other.
We found the skeletons in the back of an end shelter. One was still in covering. When Sov took the covering, it sparked light against his skin. We awed. The power of Soli is in many things, Sem. Praise be to Soli.
On some solas, the heat was very great. We swam in a narrow drain to cool ourselves but were careful to keep near to the bank, fearful of the rippers. As you know, they come further up the drains with every new sola.
Mostly, we kept to the shade of the shelters and worked the bones. Sia’s tooth necklace became fuller and Sov, of course, made us each a calling-flute. I formed many spears and shaped the covering into a holder.
Nearing the end of our gathering, we found big smear vessels in the outer-shelters. We each chose our own colour and over-spread ourselves from head to toe. See, I am still with stain.
In celebration of Soli’s gift, we emptied the shelters of flame food and, at non-sola, began a great fire. Mind-fungi led us in dance and we call-fluted Soli. Rise again, Soli, we sang. Rise again.
Soli heard our song and rose again the next sola, but we had given ourselves away to the Fleshers. We woke to their famine. They had us surrounded. Our blood odour caused them to whine. They wore hunger-masks and their tongues flicked the air.
Fear ran hot in our veins but Soli teaches us not to despair, does she not? So, on a signal, we raced out together from the shelter and into her pure presence. Our colours were instantly coated in her divine light. Our new spears flashed lightning in the young sola.
Of course, this terrified the Fleshers. They instantly turned and fled, or tried to. We gave chase and speared three of them.
See Sem, how I wear their chief’s jawbone. My new charm. Praise be to Soli.
Our Island Home
Growing up, Mum used to dream of escaping the estate and all its troubles. In her little notepad, she’d draw a small, green island, surrounded on all sides by blue waves. The only people she drew were her family - the sole inhabitants. She imagined no one ever came to disturb their peace. In fact, no one knew where in the world the island was and so never came looking.
Then one day, when she met Dad and had us, they found this place and suddenly her dreams became true, sort of. It was just about the only affordable property to rent on their meagre wages, but it was far away from the estate and, for all we know, nobody has ever thought of coming here - why would they?
I often lie on the bed which I share with my two brothers, and listen to the constant sound of movement, encompassing us on all sides, even from above. Mum tells me she does the same. She says it gives her a great feeling of security. Rather than what it actually is, Mum imagines it to be the sea, rising to a tempest, keeping all danger well away. I also try to imagine the noise as water but it never calms me. I guess I hear everything louder than Mum because of the childhood damage done to her ear.
Not that she ever complains about her hearing, though. These days she concerns herself with the tightness in her chest and the weight loss. Her fingernails and lips have also turned a blueish-grey. Yes, blueish-grey. Dad told her, ‘Never mind the money Amy, go buy some lipstick and nail-paint to disguise it.’ So, reluctantly she did, and now looks pretty again, almost.
Often the air is so thickened you can taste it. The stench permeates everything – our skin, clothes, food, you name it. Dad has an incessant cough and will sometimes take a walk to the barriers for a good spit. My brothers and I are all armed with inhalers but we’re often left gasping, especially at weekends or during the holidays, when there’s no school. None of us like school much, but at least we get to taste clean air there. Dad says when he finally gets the raise he’s been promised we’ll be able to move on, but Mum’s in no rush. Imagine the fumes as fog, she’ll say. A protective sea-fret that keeps us undiscovered – safe from the eyes of those who would harm us.
Today’s as bad as it gets. A filthy sky. Pressure-cooker heat. A storm seems to be heading our way. Maybe there’s thunder in the distance but, because of the cacophony that always encloses us, it’s impossible to tell. For relief, we take a family stroll beneath the overpass, towards the east-west intersection. Endless, deafening traffic shakes the ground below our feet.
‘Like birds above the high cliffs!’ cries Mum.
I’m not so sure. Actually, her wide-eyed wonder simply leaves me breathless.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Revenge Is A Dish Best Served Bold
Urban renewal and gentrification, my ass! The local city leaders are just superstitious, ignorant morons who have been looking for a way to rid Somerville of my little magic shop for years.
When they failed in their attempts to rezone the commercial district and force Elixirs and Magical Mixtures out of business, they turned to that time-honored government standby, eminent domain.
The city seized the land on which my charming storefront stood, for "public works expansion." To add insult to injury, they paid me only a pittance for my property.
Just two weeks after the City Council approved the legal theft of my shop, they had bulldozers tearing away the façade of my beloved brownstone. I couldn't bear to watch.
Idiots. Never mess with an occult magic shop. When my last appeal from the eminent domain order was denied, I pulled all my grimoires, my wards and charms, and my summoning ingredients together.
I rented a huge public storage space for a six-month term. That should be more than enough time for me to put my campaign in motion, I thought.
Four months after the city dispossessed me of my land, still nothing stood on that vacant lot. Somerville's first attempts at grading and excavating were destroyed by unseasonable, record-breaking storms and flash floods.
The city's next efforts at simply compacting and paving the area were halted suddenly, when a previously undetected aquifer made subsidence and sinkholes too great a threat for the intended parking lot.
Somerville's final fiasco – a plan to replant and reclaim the land as an open-air park – was abruptly abandoned when toxic levels of lead were found in the soil.
The City Council blamed the unfortunate series of events on global warming, hydrogeologic anomalies, and downstream contamination by the adjacent city's paint manufacturing plant.
I repeat, idiots.
After a week of bitterly contested negotiations, I was finally able to buy back my land for a fraction of what Somerville had paid me to misappropriate it. The turning point in our bargaining was when an overgrowth of poison ivy and poison oak infested the vacant lot, seemingly overnight. It not only turned the land into an eyesore; it became a rallying point for parental outrage as they had to repeatedly douse their children in calamine lotion.
Of course, the toxicodendron genus of plants is not native to Somerville.
Construction begins tomorrow on my new store, which will be almost double the size of the former Elixirs and Magical Mixtures.
After much deliberation, I have finally chosen the right name for my new magic shop, which is going to be bigger and better than ever.
I'm going to call it Deus Hex Machina.
Irvine, California USA
It’s not easy to explain what it’s like out here. Indeed, it’s very difficult to know where to
begin, but I’ll try. It’s confusing really. There isn’t any clarity anymore. In fact, there isn’t really anything anymore. That probably sounds like I’m avoiding the issue.
‘A Void’, perhaps that’s it. Is it possible to avoid a void? That’s a nice play on words. But it doesn’t really help, doesn’t get us anywhere. Where is anywhere? Could it be nowhere? Ah, now that sounds more fruitful. That’s easier to relate to, I think! Can I think? I think not.
Seems like another blind alley. Now there’s a link-a logical link. Blind alleys lead to nowhere. But if you’re going down a blind alley, then that implies there’s time taken in travelling. But sadly, that doesn’t work, because time has no meaning; there isn’t any of it out here.
Sounds depressing. But again, that’s not relevant, because depression is about feelings, emotion and none of that exists here either. I could claim that it’s frustrating, but then we’d have the same sort of argument. But then there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to argue about here.
‘Nothing’, ‘Nowhere’, ‘A Void’. Is it starting to make sense? Any of it? Am I really getting across to you? Communicating to you? Whoever you are? Wherever you are, except out here? Questions. It’s all questions!
I’ve always loved language, but in the end, its let me down; it’s not enabling anymore; not crossing the divide.
Let me try one last time. It all started and ended in that single moment when my heart stood still!
Witney, Oxfordshire, England
He was dead before his head hit the ground, which wasn’t as remarkable as it sounds, as his assailant booted the severed skull to the other end of the warehouse. Not remarkable, but very effective all the same in the game of how to make someone dead. Not just dead, but 'not the slightest hope of ever recovering' type of dead. It was necessary, as his kind were somewhat stubborn when it came to staying dead, always desperate to show off their annoying near-immortality. It was downright wearisome, if he was being honest. Dave put in a lot of hard work and effort tracking down and then disposing of this ancient breed of leeches and he could do without them suddenly lurching back into life as soon as his back was turned, refusing to accept his discipline. Almost disrespectful, but what could he expect? Their moral compass only pointed hellwards and he had suffered hair pulling, ball twisting and even tweaked nipples in his battles, no form on ungentlemanly conduct off the table as far as they were concerned.
Dave understood that they were fighting for survival, but really, have some class about you, you’re hundreds of years old, for God’s sake.
With all that in mind and after some close calls during and after his probation period, Dave settled on a good, quick decapitation technique followed by burning the body in one location and then the head in another, many miles away. Of course, this had all been explained to him when he signed up, but you never really understand how to do a job until you start doing it. Like passing your theory driving test and then bunny-hopping down the road for ten minutes in your first driving lesson, all mouth and no trousers. They had even joked about it during the breaks, him and his now dead former classmates. Dave reckoned he must have adapted quicker than they had.
And the nights. Always working in the sodding dark, so that now his skin was almost as pale as the crazed blood suckers he sought out. Most people moaned about how they were getting their life-force sucked unwillingly from their veins by the murderous parasites, but not him. He genuinely got more aggrieved by the anti-social hours the animals worked to and their lack of common decency, even the ones from the North. Good manners cost nothing but the Nosferatu reckoned themselves so high and mighty, absent of any grace even when they had a stake in their heart or a sword at their neck. Even more remarkable to have these airs when they all lived in some downright foul places. If he never saw another damp cellar, disused warehouse or festering cave again, it would be too soon. He spent most of his free time at the bloody launderette or submitting expenses for purchases of new clothes.
Still, it was a job and paid the bills, at least until something more exciting came along.
Newcastle upon Tyne, England
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When the teeth stopped chattering, Joss wound them up again. He grinned, as they jounced across the table, in search of something to bite.
Gran entered the kitchen from the garden. ‘Still at that? You could better spend your time helping me with the weeds.’
They both stared at the teeth, going round in a circle, until they came to a sudden halt.
Gran said, ‘I wouldn’t mind a set like that. Better than these old things.’ And she smiled widely, to show Joss what was left of her teeth; a disfigured, stained set of stumps.
‘Where did the idea of wind-up teeth come from, Gran?’ Joss asked. ‘Do you know?’
‘It’s an old story,’ said Gran. ‘As old as I am.’
‘Will you tell it, Gran. Go on, please!’
‘Okay. But let me hold the teeth. They’ll help me remember the tale.’
She sat down and began.
‘Once there was a young woman who lived on one side of the valley and a young man who lived on the other. One day, as she was riding her mare and he was riding his stallion they met in the depths of the valley, near the weir, where the rocks were sharp enough to tear flesh to pieces. Their love was instant. They both dismounted their steeds, gripped hands and began a dance, among the crimson poppies. The dance incited such passion that they began biting each other’s face; ripping and tearing cheek, chin, neck and ear.
On returning home, their parents were aghast at the terrible wounds and after hearing of what had happened, forbade the young lovers to ever meet again. Indeed, they were both locked up in their rooms until their ardour cooled down.’
‘What’s ‘ardour’ mean, Gran?’
‘I’ll tell you later, let me continue. Somehow, they both managed to escape their imprisonment the very next evening. Mounting their horses, they rode to meet each other again by the weir. And near the raging torrents, they resumed their deathly dance. With their teeth shining like swords under the blood moon, they completely devoured each other in a mad frenzy.
The next morning, when all the valley-folk went searching, all that could be found were two sets of reddened teeth, circling each other on the riverbank; alive and still hungry for flesh!’
When Gran finished, she put the wind-up teeth back onto the table.
Joss was quiet for a moment and then asked, ‘Is that a true story, Gran? Is it?’
‘Well. Some think it is and some think it isn’t,’ said Gran.
Joss wasn’t satisfied with that. ‘Do you think it is, Gran? Do you?’
Gran just shrugged, her mouth opening to another big smile.
Joss looked at the remains of her ruined dentures.
‘What happened to your teeth, Gran?’ he asked.
But Gran didn’t answer. She just laughed, stood up and and walked back into the garden.
Joss wound the teeth back up and watched with renewed fascination at the frantic chomping, gnashing and biting.
Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire
“What are you thinking?” she would ask, in those quiet moments of the day when they were together, moments of such nearly complete happiness that she needed only the last tiny reassurance against her last tiny uncertainty.
Sometimes, he would reply gently, “I`m thinking of you –nothing else – just you,” and when he said it, she felt silly for having asked, though she was filled, too, with the desired richness of knowing that his love was as strong today as it was yesterday, as it would be tomorrow.
And if she asked tomorrow, and if he smiled indulgently and said how silly she was, she did not mind. She understood.
His mind was a mystic cavern which contained the secrets and mysteries of the universe, like the sky at night, with as many stars as there were grains of sand. Which was why she loved him. And so it was silly, as she knew, to pick this moment, or that moment, to ask him what he was thinking. Though because her own thoughts were so simple, so very simple that she was almost ashamed of them, she had to have one moment in the day, even if it was just one small moment when she was sure that his thoughts connected with hers.
Sometimes, he would appear restless and would sigh with covert weariness, as if her question touched some fine nerve of irritation, and then, though she would feel momentarily cast out into the chaos of exile, she would understand, as soon afterwards, that he was tired after work, or that he was feeling low, that he needed some time to himself, and that she had just made the mistake of picking the wrong moment.
But it was when he turned away quietly, seeming to be busy with something else, and when he said, casually, “Oh, nothing,” that she understood, as if an arrow had been shot through her heart, that he had immediate thoughts so private that he would not reveal them to her, and then, in her own privacy, she writhed with jealousy.
Though it did not last long, and in time she found other ways of being sure of what she wanted to be sure of.
And she began to understand, as she realised how infinitely complex the workings of the mind are, like a perplexity of atoms rushing in their own micro-patterns through the invisibility of space, how truly silly the question was, so that gradually, as if releasing herself from an addiction, she stopped asking it.
Sometime later, quite accidentally, she met someone who jolted her mind suddenly towards a quarter of the universe whose existence she had never previously suspected.
“What are you thinking?” he asked, one evening, a short time afterwards.
The question took her by surprise.
“Oh, nothing,” she replied casually, turning away and seeming to be busy with something else.
Huddersfield, West Yorkshire
The Cuban Missile Crisis lasted 13 days from October 15 to 28, 1962.
I am fifteen and a half. The half must be important. I am hollow-cheeked with running most days and will be soon watching the news which fills my dreams and every waking hour.
The picture: here I am, dark hair swept over my brow, reminding me now of the shape of a sculler boat for some reason. I wear black framed glasses from God- knows-where but some style consultant should buy themselves another pair of glasses when working on their next design. They do, however, allow me to see the number of a bus.
My track suit is black and the top has a big collar. My training shoes are heavy. It is a dark night in October, rain spittles on my glasses and has my world speckled which seems to appeal to me. We are on a six-mile run and are a strong pack. Running in unison: No-one has dug their elbows into my ribs. nobody has verbal diarrhoea. I am happy with the rhythmic slapping of our trainers and silence that cocoons me. We finish the run at the club’s HQ. The last mile or so the pace really quickens-up but we stay like a powerful adhesive together. Eventually we stand in a bedraggled circle for a few minutes and all forego the clubs trickling water shower and head home for a bath.
Dad is in his early forties, I now calculate. He is a labourer in a factory. Factory work does not suit him. He feels too confined; something he has never said but I smell his entrapment day-in and day-out. He nods as I head to the cold bath where my stay is brief, somebody had forgotten to put on the boiler. Probably me.
It is a Thursday night and dad has a ten-bob note in his pocket and could go for a pint or three but he is still in his work clothes: a torn and sweaty shirt, trousers streaked with what looks like oil. I don’t ask. The TV is on. My family must be there I can see the screen with images of JFK and Khrushchev.
I do not recall any specific statements just dad’s serious face. His eyes become pin points of anxiety and lips purse at each word. I examined him watching these two world leaders. He was angry and perplexed that this could happen again. Will there be a world war? After dad turned off the TV the picture disappeared like I imagined our world would go: Quickly. Lost forever.
Blaydon, Tyne & Wear
To my knowledge, Gasgoine and I are not related in any way; although, to people in the town, we might as well be twins. We’re almost exactly the same age, weight and height. We have the same skin and hair colour and, most importantly, the same facial features. Most people find it hard to tell us apart, especially the police, who used to treat us as one person only, much to my misfortune and resentment.
Gasgoine and I may appear identical but that’s where the similarities end. I’m an anonymous introvert and he’s a bullish extrovert, known to one and all for his riotous existence. He’s impulsive and fool-hardy, whereas I’m cautious and sly. Yes, very sly
You wouldn’t believe the time it took me to only half-convince someone I wasn’t, definitely wasn’t, Gasgoine. It almost became a running joke with the local constabulary. Something happened, my name got mentioned and they’d be in the house again. ‘We’ve got you on CCTV,’ they’d say. ‘No, you haven’t.’ I’d say. ‘Let me explain.’
I’d have tolerated Gasgoine if it wasn’t for all the bother he repeatedly landed me in. Time after time, I was accosted in the street, barred from premises, chased down alleyways and had people knocking on my door, wanting it out with me. The only time I didn’t look like Gasgoine was when I was given two black eyes and a thick lip by a motorcycle salesman called Sirrs, who was ‘owed what was due’ to him.
Unsurprisingly, Gasgoine is slippery; as hard to grab hold of than shit in a silk stocking. Nothing stuck to him. His police moniker was ‘Mr Teflon’. Ha, bloody, ha.
When we both happened to be attending the same funeral, he only belly-laughed when I mentioned all the trouble he’d caused me. ‘Tough,’ he scoffed. ‘Get your own personality and move on!’ This was the final straw; that, and being kept in the cells one evening on his account.
So, one Saturday night, I followed him home from the George and Dragon and spied on him through the front window. Once he’d collapsed on the sofa, I entered the unlocked house and took his clothes to dress myself in. Grabbing his car keys, I drove to Sirr’s showroom. Once there, I dosed the doors with petrol and started a fire. Close to the security cameras, I danced like a drunk; arms flailing like the rising flames. Then I drove back to Gasgoine’s and replaced his belongings.
Needless to say, Gasgoine isn’t much of a problem nowadays. He isn’t expected back in the town any time soon. In fact, a certain perturbed business man has let it be known that if Gasgoine puts one step, just one step, back in the town, it’ll be his very last.
People still see me as Gasgoine, though. Some stop me and say they thought I was in gaol. I just smile and say, ‘No, no. Parole, see. I was released a short time ago!’
The maids found his body at the top of the stairs. His brains on the other hand, they were scattered around. They trailed down the staircase, along with pieces of his head. An ear was located at the foot of the ornate steps, and a few chips of teeth were found in the hall directly below the bannister. Right on the brand-new welcome mat. In his right hand, a Sig Saur was clutched tight, like he really didn’t fancy letting go.
It was Maria, the newest maid and recently a personal friend of his, who called the others over. When she first started working for him, she’d found him to be rather pretentious. A little ungrateful, too. After all, how could a man with all that wealth ever feel so dejected? But after a few polite conversations, she decided he wasn’t so bad. He was a wealthy man, and when she’d told him of her struggles to give her son, Matias, a better life, he’d been quick to dip a hand into his pocket.
Staring at the ruins atop his neck, she felt ashamed for how she’d judged him. It hurt to think of the lunchbox and fully-equipped pencil case he’d paid for, telling her nothing more than, ‘De nada.’
It didn’t come across as gloating, or flaunting his wealth. Just a nice gesture from a nice man. And a man who was clearly hiding more than Maria would ever know. Perhaps she should have foreseen it. If the endless hours he’d spent in that office with his therapist weren’t enough, the bottles of pills he kept in each bathroom should have been a tell-tale sign. And his generosity now felt like blood money.
After summoning her colleagues, she ran through the bedroom behind her. The bathroom door almost came off its hinges when she burst through. She hurled into the sink. As if in an attempt to calm her down, an automatic air freshener let off a little puff of lilac. When she returned to the horror at the stairs, one of the maids held the other. Neither of them could control their shaking.
‘We have to call someone,’ she told them, her voice fragile as the little gobbet of bone that crunched beneath her shoe when she’d entered his house that morning. That came from the back of his skull, where the bullet had made its exit, obliterating his cranium as it did so.
One of the maids – the one who shook the most – let out a little wail in response. The one who was facing Maria gave her a look that she didn’t know how to interpret. Maria’s brain wasn’t capable of interpreting much that morning, and it wouldn’t be able to interpret much for the next couple of days. It took a few attempts just for her brain to interpret the dispatcher’s simple question: What’s the address?
Maria gave it, and waited for help to arrive. When it did, none of the maids had stopped shaking.
Jogging in Spring
Brie always starts her morning jog at the fence buried in Honeysuckle. She’s convinced its caramel scent is the magical energy boost that makes her run so hard. She’s off as fleet footed as Forrest Gump.
She breaks the speed of light. She’s at her first ‘marker.’ On either side of her are Myrtle trees so towering, she looks like an ant. The wind jostles its Chinese Good Luck red flowers. They look like flashing lights. There are countless white cockatoos. All squawking their cheer. Brie can’t help but get a second burst.
Grinning, she pretends she’s a rabbit that spots a carrot patch ahead. Turns out they’re piles of fluffy Button Grass. Who cares? Her pretending makes her sprint as fast as any rabbit.
The Finish is still three miles ahead; but she already hears it. It makes a roaring noise, like spectators cheering. That gives Brie a third burst.
She sees the Finish—the roaring river. She watches the six tall Race Officials--starched Poplar trees. They don’t even so much as twitch. No doubt nothing gets passed them. They’ll make their uncompromised decision—whether she has beat her time.
She ploughs into the shallow of the river! The crowds go wild! Kookaburras laughing! Cockatoos squawking! The river roaring. Brie beats her time!
Just to show those Officials she is a champion, she runs a few more minutes. She tells herself she will not stop until she no longer hears all that cheering.
She reaches a silent spot. Not even a slight breeze in the Birch trees. No boisterous birds. Just two parent ducks and their six ducklings, gliding on the smooth part of that river. Their long, drawn out quacks sound like, “Brie, you’ve won a race against yourself. Well done. Bet you do it again, tomorrow.”
Joanne E Galliher
How’s it going?
‘How’s it going?’
‘Yeah, really good. You?’
‘What have you been up to?’
‘Just doing so many fun things. You?’
‘Same, loads of fun things too. What fun things have you been doing?’
‘Going out loads and seeing different people. You?’
‘Same. Well, good to see you.’
‘You too. Have a great day.’
Article: A man survived at sea for many days.
It is quite impossible to attempt a promenade at sea without a ship, a vessel or a yacht. It is simply a suicidal mission. Jean-Jacques Savin, a 72 years old French citizen has set into adventure at sea in a barrel. Without an engine, he was propelled by the wind on very calm seas. It is a historical feat.
Hence, you might not have much to do with your life at seventy-five but 35 years old, Beninese from the south was rescued at sea in the Gulf of Guinea. Bienvenu Magloire Amoussou, father of three children has gone into the dreadful sea voyage from BENIN to Gabon in the quest of work and better life. He was not the only person who made a decision to take fatal risk by going away from their mother country, from the people they loved.
In 2010 in Benin, a high rate of unemployment reinforced by intensive and extreme poverty prompted many young men and women to travel away. Bienvenu Magloire Amoussou left the port of Cotonou in August with approximately 100 other passengers. They were all crunched in a rough motorized boat. The destination was Gabon not Europe if providence would have allowed them to arrive safely but Gabon would never welcome Bienvenu and his friends if it were not the help a patrol coast guard ship who saw a drifting drum on their radar.
Bienvenu had been found floating on the drum for three days and three nights. His boat had capsized seven days after they left the port of Benin. Most of the passengers drowned on the spot. Very few have tried to survive but after 24 hours, hunger, cold, tiredness, depression mixed with hopelessness got the best of them and forced them to abandon life. Bienvenu could not tell how he had managed to cling to an empty drum. He was in fact floating with some of his friends and after three days, he found himself alone. No more friends around him. Too tired and very week, he could not call for anybody or any help.
It is good for the French paratrooper Jean-Jacques Savin to be hailed today as he crossed the Atlantic sea in a barrel. He went on adventure on his own will. He was never either compelled by poverty or by any worse government policies. Our dear people have died in the Gulf of Guinea trying to free themselves from the oppression of the colons. They did not have any other choice other than death at sea. They were going to work in Gabon. They were not the Mediterranean migrants. Only that they have used a fatal means of transportation that caused their death. Bienvenu Magloire Ammoussou has changed his name. He is now commonly called “Apouke”, which means: Born from the sea.
What time is it Jonny Bing?
‘What time is it Jonny Bing? What time is it?’
'It’s three twenty three.’
‘No, I mean, what time is it in your life? What’s the time in your life?’
'It’s mid afternoon.’
'How so Jonny Bing?’
'Because I’m a forty-three-year-old gun who drinks himself off the bar stool every night. I’ve done all the powders too. It’s mid afternoon because I’m on course to die before they pay me not to work. I’ll never see the reward.’
'That’s sad Jonny Bing, you need to find it and make it through. What has your life been like?’
'It’s been a lazy morning, I got up late, shat a wet one into the bowl and didn’t flush, just let it hang there. I then went to the fridge, poured one out and sat in the garden, let the sun molest me a little. That’s got me to the mid afternoon.’
‘So what’s the evening gonna be like Jonny Bing, what’s the evening got for you?’
'A sleep into the sunset and then a good piece of steak, a woman, good quality, then a lively bar, somewhere foreign, some coastal place where they all like to talk. I’ll just take the woman there, drink with her until I’m ready to insult her and then I’ll send her on her way.’
‘So how does it end Jonny Bing? How do you end it?’
'Eyes closed, absorbing the people’s energy, listening to the noises they make when they’re convincing and lying.’
‘And you’ll let it go like that? It’ll finish there Jonny Bing?’
‘Yeah, I want to go out like that. Relaxed. Happy to let them all fade into the back, just watch them and hear them, no longer with them and joining in.’
‘Do you think you’ll make it?’
‘Yeah, I’m Jonny Bing.’
In a mall, pressing against those glass exteriors fronting numerous interchangeable shops; it could be an emporium dedicated to exclusive provençale face cream- whatever, I stare inside like a piqued Martian. Part of the reason I’m outside involves exogenous factors: born into a small family flat, rented by unhappy parents, battling, blaming, adventurously polygamous, accusatory, uneducated, inarticulate, unconfident yet enthusiastically domestically violent, unskilled migrants, without faith, property, land, gold reserves, fine art collectables, off-shore bank accounts, cash savings, family assistance, or career prospects- showing little love, or interest, in my siblings or myself; separating before I graduated from primary school. In the fullness of time, unprepared, socially disconnected, & without any access to material resources, I set out to survive, &, as much as possible, avoid repeating the miseries experienced whilst resident with my progenitors. Sounds like a plan, but this leads to the endogenous factors i.e. being an average person, minus star qualities, & incapable of earning much beyond what is required just to keep a roof over my head (which technically means I am inside, but you likely understand my drift). I’ll add mention of my dandruff issues, & man-boobs, & we’ve pretty much covered everything.
Resident in Britain
There was a squat man in shorts shouting at his wife
There was a squat man in shorts shouting at his wife. She was attempting to park their car but couldn’t get it in between the lines. The man was infuriated. His bald head was greased with sweat, mirroring the sunlight. He had one of those staircase veins on his temple which made you think an aneurism wasn’t far off. I was watching from the queue outside the shop, chuckling to myself. She was on his fourth go and missed again. This pushed him somewhere further than disbelief. He threw his arms on the fence railings and started to shake at the iron. From the back it looked like he was unhappy about a rape and from the front I can only guess that he looked like a caged thumb. From somewhere, he found the strength to insult his wife further.
‘YOU ARE THE MOST STUPIDIST FUCKING WOMAN!... YOU KNOW THAT?! YOU ARE MENTALLY ILL! YOU MUST BE! YOU MUST BE FUCKED IN THE HEAD!’
‘LOOK! I CAN DO IT MARCUS! JUST GET IN THE QUEUE! GET THE BAGS OUT OF THE BOOT AND FUCK OFF!’
‘RIGHT, OKAY, OKAY! I’LL GO AND WATCH YOU WASTE MORE PETROL FROM OVER THERE! OR! OR! I COULD PARK THE CAR!’
‘IIIIII’MMMM PARRRKIINGGG THE FUCKING CAR!’
God, life is good if you just watch it. He walked over to the queue, two spaces behind me. He folded his arms and repressed his anger, feeling the proximity of normal people. She swung it in for a fifth and missed by a wider margin than the fourth. Lovely, just lovely. Her car now perfectly straddled the white line. I let out an audible groan of joy. He noticed it but was too consumed with his beloved’s ineptitude. Marcus walked back over to her.
‘FUUUUUUUCKKKKKIIIIINNNN’ HELL! SANDRA! JUST GET OUT OF THE CAR AND LET ME PARK IT!’
‘WILL. YOU. JUST. FUCK. OFF!’
He went for the door and she reacted late. It was open and he began shouting.
‘OUT! OUT! OUT!’
She reached for the inside handle. Missed. Shen then put her right foot out onto the tarmac and found the handle, pulling with all of her body and the rage. An insane tug of war then ensued. He had the outside handle and the door frame; she had the inside handle in both hands.
‘JUST FUCKING LET ME PARK MY CAR!’
‘HOW MANY TIMES DO YOU NEED?!’
He released the door without warning. She pulled it into her shin and screamed. The pain was too much. She limped out of the sacred seat and staggered a few paces, blowing into the sky. Blood came and tributaries formed from the dinted shin. He got in the car, parked it and got out to see how she was. I stopped laughing and others in the queue now looked concerned. The couple came over and an uneasy silence ensued. I got over it after a minute of contemplation. He probably beat her was the only conclusion that could be drawn. God, imagine. Love is venom if you let it go stale.
Ignoring the buzzing in his pocket, Glenn slid his eyes around the shabby felted table, fingered his chips and tossed in the ante. His watch said 4 o’clock in the morning and it showed on the faces of his opponents, the grim hangers-on in this - the Cincinnati regional poker tournament. A cocktail waitress heaved herself onto a barstool and allowed her head to lean heavy on her hand, no longer feigning interest or even offering to refresh anyone’s drinks. Only Glenn felt alive. It was all coming together! This was his night- at last! And didn’t he deserve it? This year of all years, didn’t he deserve to win? Ten years he’d been playing and watched the glory and the trophy go to others. But this year was different. Last year’s champion- the one to beat- had crashed out of the tournament at 2AM. Suddenly, winning was a real possibility and Glenn was sure that divine intervention was at stake. His luck had been so bad this year. Life had seemed so hopeless. It wasn’t just about the prize money. Now was his chance to get his name carved onto the brass champion’s plaque. He’d be immortal, then. And that’s gotta count for something, right?
Four thirty, another hand won, another player knocked out of the game. The dealer called for a comfort break and Glenn slipped out onto the balcony and checked his phone. Twenty-six messages - all the same. “CALL HOME!”
“Where the hell are you?”
“You know where I am.”
“You are unbelievable, you know that? UNBELIEVABLE! I told you yesterday morning, that the hospital has a match. They are flying it in now! You’ve got to be on the 6:40 plane back here so you can get prepped! The heart is only viable for 24 hours. You won’t get another chance.”
“Karen, I don’t expect you to understand how important this game is to me. I’m so close to winning, I can taste it. Please, try to see my point of view.”
“Glenn, you don’t seem to understand. You ARE a winner. Some poor unfortunate kid with a beautiful, working heart, got into a car accident and now you’ve won the jackpot. Get your ass back here and collect. I’ll be waiting at the airport. DON’T RUIN THIS!”
Feeling a tap on his shoulder, the cocktail waitress smiled and invited him back to the table. “We recommence in 2 minutes, gentleman.”
Glenn inhaled, deeply filling his lungs with fresh morning air. In that moment, dawn leapt onto the Cincinnati skyline, dazzling him with pure, golden shards of light. His feeble heart swelled with emotion and, for an instant, Glenn felt invincible. Life was so beautiful! So overwhelmingly beautiful and fleeting and fragile and precious! But wasn’t it the knife edge between living and dying, winning and losing that made it all worth it? This moment, of all moments, belonged to him.
Glenn switched his phone off and re-joined the game.
Chester, Cheshire UK
The city bus is due. It comes once a day and is never later than 9:10. It’s now 9:05. Through the window I can see Clara waiting at the street corner. It’s very hot and she’s wearing her new dress, hat and shades. Beside her is her case and mine. She’s stood with her hands on her hips, not looking down the main road, but back at the house. I’m no mind reader, but I can guess what’s she’s thinking right now – ‘C’mon Babe, stop wavering! Get your dumb ass out of that shithole before it’s too damn late!’
But Mom is looking at me from the wall. Her anguished face is pleading with me, ‘Don’t go, Babe. Before I went to be with the Lord you promised you’d help care for Pop and the boy!’ ‘Yes Mom,’ I say, ‘I don’t need no reminding.’
I’d mentioned my promise to Clara, only yesterday evening, in between listening to her escape plan. Clara told me I’d had no choice: ‘Who denies a dying mother her last wish, eh? Anyway, one of the promises she had me swear on was to take good care of you and that’s just what I’m doing, Babe. That’s why we’re catching the city bus tomorrow morning. Pop, Bruce, this house, damn them to hell!’
It’s now 9:07 and Clara’s still looking this way. Even from here I can see the outline of her stern face. She wore that face last night as she stuffed our belongings into the cases.
Yesterday had been one of those days. Pop and Bruce had started drinking about mid-day and we’re still at it by sun-down. Then they got to fighting each other before calling me and Clara everything from a pig to a sow. When we cooked up some food they christened it crap and junked it.
Sometime later, when Pop passed out, Bruce wouldn’t leave us be. Clara and I locked ourselves in our room and he banged on the door like it was going out of style. He was pleading, ‘I only want to do my usual thing, that’s all. Remember the promises you made to Mom. You swore on the Bible!’ Repeatedly, until he went to his room and passed out too.
Clara’s plan is to hit the city, catch another bus to somewhere else and then keep moving after that. ‘This is a big country, Babe,’ she told me. ‘They’ll never find us, even if they can be bothered to get off their fat butts and come looking, which I very much doubt! We can wait on tables or something. Rent an apartment. Make a fresh start. Have a life of our own, God help us!’
Well, Pop and Bruce haven’t risen yet and the door’s wide open. There’s no one to stop me walking out this minute - except for Mom, the crucifix around her neck, imploring me from the beside the clock, which is just about at 9:10.
‘Stay Babe, stay!’
When I make the bed, I always fold his pyjamas neatly and put them under his pillow. Likewise, I place his slippers next to the front door, so that he can step right into them when he arrives home. At tea time, I even grind the salt and pepper onto his food. I do many things like this for Michael. The devil’s in the details, as they say.
All this might make me seem like some docile, subservient housewife - a nineteen-fifties throwback, as it were. Well, maybe it does but it’s not because Michael demands it from me. No, in fact he often gets a little flummoxed by the way I mollycoddle him and says he can as easily do things for himself. ‘Just let it be’, he often chides.
But I can’t just let it be! You see, if Michael is ever going to feel truly wanted and cherished, as a husband should, I need to spread the love as thick as I do his butter. In many ways, I’m trying to provide all the care he had previously been denied. What the emotional welfare of my poor orphan boy demands, more than anything else, is my vigilant attention to his every need.
I must admit though, I sometimes wonder why I bother. I just don’t seem able to do right for doing wrong, as my mother would say. Let’s take the mug, for example.
Michael keeps his dad’s old enamel mug by his bedside. It’s been with him through all the children’s homes, fostering and the failed adoption. It’s very scratched, cracked and dented – quite ugly, to be honest. That’s why I went out and bought some proper paints to decorate it with. I made it look especially pretty, with flowers, birds and other nice things.
But, after going to so much bother, what do you think he did? Well, for a start, he didn’t crack as much as a smile, although his mouth fell open a bit. He just sat there, his face flushing, glaring at the mug. I said, ‘Have you noticed the butterflies? I hope you like them. They were the trickiest to paint.’ Yet all he could do was look from the mug to me and back again. I’ve never seen him cry, but I could see his eyes beginning to fill with tears. At first, I took this as a sign that he was happy and grateful for my efforts but that wasn’t it, at all. Suddenly, he stood up and firmly told me that I should have, yes, you’ve guessed, just let it be. Then he stormed out of the room and that was the last I saw of him on that day.
So, there you are. I try my best because he deserves and needs it, although sometimes he just throws it back in my face. I suppose it’s his upbringing - he doesn’t know any better, not yet, anyway. But I’ll see him right, just you see.
Sutton in Ashfield, Nottinghamshire
All was quiet in the western front where a raging war had been waging for over fifteen years. Today, there was a lull. No bullets were shot from any guns, and no bodies were zipped up in body bags. This war torn region hadn’t had a break like this in many years. The inhabitants of this place let out a sigh of relief. The war cries had stopped finally in a rare moment of munificence.
However, other kinds of activities were noted. These occurred internally within the human bodies. Vapid groans could be heard, but not from gunshots; sounds of morbid short breaths. They were unbeatable, foghorns sounding off tidings of grave unease. These could be termed as war also. In the throes of a different sort, where elements were engaged in a battle with an enemy within, they fought a fierce fight with the invisibles.
A war which could not be mapped out geographically, but defined only in scans and x-rays. The enemy here, chose to reside in throats and in the lungs, but mostly in the lungs. This was its post, where it lunged out an unscrupulous war. It choked its victims without a compunction, until they became incapacitated and breathless. Fortuitously some lived, but many died. Those who died, they perished in multitudes, like gathered flies of pestilence; this sinister battle, could not be pinned on any one nation or place, but littered through the globe. It didn’t discriminate between kings, princes, paupers, heathens or believers; it swept them all into the one crowded compartment of a boat, namely Elysium.
The crew of the Elysium knew the underworld well. The boat was anchored in an offing, as the war continued to scale up. It cleansed the world and this cleansing did not finish anytime soon. Fearful of the new enemy, people hid away wherever they could. They stayed indoors and did not see the light of day. For days on end, for weeks and for months, they feared this elusive enemy could drop in on their doorstep and get inside. People hoarded what they could. Shops were scarce of food, toilet papers and antiseptic wipes. Religious leaders sermoned to empty halls of churches and mosques. Gregorian Chants, sung in isolation reached a zenith; an empty space, tuned up with high notes of heavenly soprano. The forlorn street lamps lit up a ghost town, occupied only by bats and vultures. Now a mere shadow, billions of years of evolution seemed to have backtracked to singularity of primordial darkness.
The enemy reigned supreme. By far, this was the most enigmatic enemy which had far surpassed any mighty princes; this battle brought the human race to its knees, and broken its hubris, this passing phase of a fragile ephemera. A task, which no other could accomplish with this level of dexterity. And they marched full on. This black swan soldiered ruthlessly until the wake of a new dawn. A sun’s reflection ponded on the waves to issue a misty, crisp beginning. Swans and geese flapped their wings and were risen in the ray’s infancy. They didn’t get wiped out, neither did the bats, whose final flings ended this drama, a short while back.
Think of an occasion when you personally had to deal with either a challenging situation or a difficult person. What was the main concern, how did you tackle it and what were the consequences?
“I was supervising my twin albino Badgers whilst at play outside our cosy suburban home whereupon I noticed a silly argument boiling over between nine or ten adolescent lads nearby. Two pretty boys, well known to us, were apparently being bullied. My initial concern was that an unruly fight might endanger my babies. We prayed for a peaceful resolution, but a sudden escalation in aggression resulted in a nasty free for all. I gamely intervened in an effort to assist the nicer tykes- shouting aloud that they were our friends and that this violence did no one any credit. A craft blade was produced- stabbed into my thyroid- I lost consciousness. It transpired that the big ugly chaps had then carried me shoulder high at a canter before gleefully throwing me through my own kitchen window. Consequently, I underwent five full emergency blood transfusions in order to live with disabilities for the next three years, in therapy, relearning to think- move- speak- or even toilet unassisted."
Evan Hay exists in Britain and over the years he’s intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various thoughts, feelings & ideas as short stories to be examined, considered and interpreted by clinical practitioners who may be able to offer him professional psychological assistance.
She We Us I
She is we and us are I and…
She dances around us. Her frayg says come quickly. We immediately follow her along the two-lane frayg trail. We get to where it’s all kicking off. Some sister-smalls have a lifter by its legs. It’s trying to be up but they want it down. The lifter is strong and begins to climb even as more sister-smalls join in. They frayg all pile on, all pile on! Now, despite its struggling, it’s deeply under and cannot move. They stretch its body taut but don’t have the means to finish it off. That’s where we come in, the sister-bigs. Grasping, biting, tearing and ripping the lifter. There go the wings, now the legs and let’s have the head off too, that’s it! Take it away, sisters. Now what’s next?
We are I and us is she and…
Frayg, frayg, follow the frayg. Further up the frayg trail is a flying-stinger. Black stripped, a real monster. Several sister-smalls fall from its back as it lifts towards the light-bright. But some hang on as it rises. Struggling to gain height it crashes from thing-high to thing-low. Collision to collision, then falls smack-bang into the trail. All pile on, all pile on! Swarming, grasping, biting, tearing and ripping - the usual. Cart it off, girls. Bigs, let’s go!
Us is I and she are we and…
Aha! A fat, juicy crawler fallen from a thing-high-light-bright-catcher. Plump pickings. Watch out for the spikers! Flipping from side to side, as if that’ll do any good. Swarming, grasping, biting, tearing and ripping. Ugh, its rear end has exploded! Sister-smalls drowning in the sticky jelly. Just another danger of the job. Good way to go, if you ask me. Forget ‘em, they knew what they’re signed up for. Sisters, lift what you can of that crawler and shift it. Onwards, forever onwards!
I are she and us is we and…
Oh, crap! This isn’t no ordinary nest. This belongs to them bigger-sister-smalls and bigger-sister-bigs. We’re trapped and here they come. Weapons at the ready and no falling back, sisters. Fight until the last girl standing – to the death!
Swarming, grasping, biting, tearing, ripping, tearing, biting, grasping, swarming.
I am under and she is top, then I am top and she is under.
Us are top and we are under, then us are under and we are top.
Ripping, tearing, biting, grasping, swarming, grasping, biting, tearing, ripping.
The queen’s knees, look at the snappers on this one! One of their biggest, snapping our sisters in half as easily as through air-take. All pile on, all pile on! That’s it, get between the soft bits behind the head. Take that and that and that…
Oh, again-crap. It’s got my back-end and is throwing me around in the air-take. Flipped onto my back, now it’s got my head firmly grasped between those great snappers. Aah, the pressure! Oh, the pressure! Argh!
And we is us and she is I and…
Cold. That’s all I felt.
Cold. Dark. Silent.
Ties around my wrist held me to a bed – not my bed. All I wanted to do was scream, but it was as someone had stolen my voice. I wrestled with the restraints cutting into my wrists. I passed out. Again.
Warm. Light. Birds singing.
Ties still around my wrist, still stuck to an unfamiliar bed. Footsteps. I slowed my breathing and pretended to be unconscious, when I heard the door creak open. Heavy footsteps, most likely male, approached me. “You’re so beautiful when you sleep”. I recognised this voice – my date two nights ago…
How long had I been out?
I felt this feeling building up in my chest, I knew what was coming; I tried to hold it in as long as I could, but I just couldn’t. I coughed. “Good afternoon beautiful,”
“Where am I?”
Funny word that.
“Please let me go, I don’t know you, and I wouldn’t tell anyone, I’ll just say I went away for a family emergency or something, no one will know,”
“Funny that” he laughed “I remember how you said your best friend was like a sister, she’d know.” I knew from this point that arguing was no good, I knew my only chance was to escape. He came and sat next to me on the bed and I winced, full of fear as to what he’d do next; part of me knew what to expect next, part of me didn’t accept it, but to my surprise, he simply stroked my hair and ran his hand down my face. “If you behave, I can untie you, but only if you promise to behave, and then we can finish our date.” I nodded, as again, my words, my voice failed me. I wanted this to be over and I didn’t care how anymore as I knew he wouldn’t want to let me go.
I sat at the table, looking down at the dish he made, knowing how little effort he put into this and I wanted to scoff, but I held back; how could he put such little effort into a meal he went to such lengths for? I started to eat, my eyes darting between the dish and him. “How’s the food sweetheart?”
“Good,” I choked.
He was smart enough to not give me a knife or even a fork, just a spoon, but he had a knife, and that’s what I needed, somehow. So I knocked over my water, apologising profusely, trying to bide my time. He took his knife with him but left his fork for me to grab. As he sat down to finish his meal, he noticed his fork was gone and as he went to grab me, I slammed the fork down, through his hand onto the table.
I kept running and running, I was free.
But then I stopped, and that’s when I heard food steps behind me.
The leader of our summer gang was Jonson, no doubt about it. He had great ideas for pranks and adventures; like building a polystyrene raft which, on its maiden voyage, met much the same fate as the Titanic. Jonson was a year below us at school and at least an inch shorter, but we looked up to him, so to speak, because of his innate ability to take us places beyond our own lesser imaginings.
Occasionally, Jonson wasn’t at home when we called, and after failing to find him in the usual places – the den, the school roof or his chair in the library – we were left to spend mundane afternoons as a threesome. When we questioned him about his absences, he often said he’d been with someone called Crow Boy. Jonson described, what seemed to be, a mythical child, who walked with a crow on his shoulder and could name every living thing that came into his sight – flowers, insects, birds and trees. Though fascinated, we didn’t really believe him, but daren’t say so to his face. We thought Crow Boy was probably another of Jonson’s imaginary friends.
Then one afternoon, we were up in the trees behind the colliery, attempting to cross the wood without falling to the ground. Atop what he called a ‘you tree’, Jonson pointed out Crow Boy’s cottage beyond the fields. He caught our silent smirks and immediately had us clamber down the tree and marched us through the briars and brambles. Sure enough, when we came to the cottage, there was Crow Boy, sitting on the doorstep with the said crow perched upon a shoulder.
Crow boy had gentle eyes and a constant half-smile, but the bird looked fierce. However, Jonson encouraged us to approach it carefully and feed it fish food, its favourite treat, from the palms of our hands.
Later, after quenching our thirst with some home-made lemonade, we returned to the woods, with the crow either balanced on Crow Boy’s shoulder or flying just above Jonson, cawing loudly. Though seemingly intimidated by our constant questions, Crow Boy named everything we pointed at, whether it be Shepherd’s Purse, Bird Cherry or a Grizzled Skipper. When probed about his knowledge he simply said, ‘Learnt it, in the Dad-days.’ Instinctively, we knew Crow Boy was bully-fodder, but the gang deferred to him, following Jonson’s example.
In the weeks that followed, Jonson’s own woodland mastery seemed to grow to Crow Boy proportions and so we nicknamed him ‘Doc’, as in ‘Dock Leaf’.
The gang called on Crow Boy several times, but on our last visit to the cottage, much to our dismay, it was empty. Crow Boy and his mother had mysteriously vanished. Finding the back door open, we searched the rooms and all we brought out was a jar, full of dark feathers.
Jonson was speechless, but his grimace turned to a broad smile when a friend of his swooped out of the trees and quietly settled itself upon his shoulder.
Wakefield, West Yorkshire
Following your death, I came back, alone to the high moor. And not too near the wreck of the farm house, I fixed a small zinc plate, as high as I could manage, onto a solitary, bent-backed tree. A private monument. Embossed upon it were the six letters of your name and the five letters of hers.
Earlier, we had come together as newly-weds. We walked the hills from my mother’s house. The day was deceptively clear and warm; the moor in heather-soft disguise. Excited, you sat cross-legged and drew the famous ruins in your confident, thin line. Intense concentration: you brought the same precision to the image as you did to the written word. You sketched the empty window frames, the toppled walls and the slumped roof; and was delighted by all that moor-time dilapidation. Half-joking, you suggested we should buy and restore the house; you were so at home on that spot.
Standing near the house were two trees. I gave you a leg up into a crook and took one of your happiest looking photos. In your drawing, the trees look more like people than sycamores; a pair of deformed sisters, shaped by the same force that had gnarled and flattened the high heath. And if you were one sister then, surely, she was the other. Her spirit-presence, our reason for being there. Her mesmeric book had shaped us both, but with you it had, I later realised, sculptured the very sinews of your disposition.
The moors didn’t merely feed her terrible imagination, but were an extension of it, as if she herself had dreamed up that desolate, horror-locale. Removed from it for any amount of time, her phantom limbs would ache for bog, cotton grass and the rising wail of the curlew.
Only a bleak obsession with unchained, retributive and doomed love held any true beauty for her. What she saw through the windows of this world held no interest for her untamed eyes.
Likewise, you quested for the unattainable; something beyond mortal reach. If life was a promise, it could never deliver. And like her, you were defeated. Your testimony and hers, regarding the supreme power of love, was reduced to the same conclusion: death. Betrayal, violence, vengeance, death. It all boiled down to that, in the end. Your end and hers.
Now here I am again, many years later. The weather is altogether different to when you and I came on our pilgrimage. Today, the falling sky is hawk-winged and the wind stone-cries across the loosened moor. But the two twisted sycamores still stand together and here is the lone tree and the plate, though the bark has grown all around, reducing it to a thumb-sized disk. Only the ‘I’ is visible, a letter both your names shared.
‘I’ indeed; the ghost ‘eye’ of the tree or even the moor; admiring this waste, the Eden of your dark imaginings. Your eye and hers; joined, compounded; fix-focused on your story land come real.
Polly On The Shore
Oh, it’s a wild un tonight, mi puss-puss. You’ll ave your work cut out catchin them ratties down in the old, I bet. Just listen to that wind, straight from the north it is. N us with a great, big ole in the stern. That’s it, puss-puss, settle down on mi lappy. Now, where’s mi squeezebox? Ah, ere it is. N what shall I sing for yer, eh? Polly On The Shore yer say, then Polly it shall be!
‘Come all you wild young men and a warning take by me
Never lead your single life astray or into bad company…
By gads, these timbers are takin a-batterin! Creakin n groanin like a sailor’s arthritic leg. N worser still, the porthole’s all smashed to smithereens by the broadside wi suffered this afternoon. Ere, puss-puss, take cover from the rain inside mi coaty.
That’s it, purr away puss-puss. I’ll be joinin yer soon, I ope. We’ll need a good night’s kip if we’re to face the foe agin with any vigour. Oh, for sweet dreams of sendin that Ken straight darn to where e belongs. Where’s that, yer ask? Davy Jones’ Locker, that’s where, puss-puss. Evry Jackie Tar as is day and we’ll ave ars in the morrow!
…And our decks they were sputtered with blood and the cannons did loudly roar
And broadside and broadside a long time we lay till we could fight no more…
Now, Ken might be thinkin e’s got the upper and. Well, let im! Over-confidence can often be a worser enemy than the foe upon the tide. What e’s forgettin is that we’ve seized the missiles e sent forth today: the bricks, the ammer, the shovel n the paint pots. What do yer say about that, puss-puss? Come sun-up they’ll be eadin right back from whence they came!
…And a thousand times I wished myself alone, all alone with my Polly on the shore
She's a tall and a slender girl with a dark and a-rolling eye…
Now, some might say, why be off fightin Ken, whosa once counted as a dear friend and ally? Well, puss-puss, they don’t know the depth of is depravity, do they! Is dark and corrupted soul. Everyone knows that spit a land at the end of the gardens belongs to me. I claimed it first n e’s no right to go puttin a fence around it. No, the dirty blackheart, he!
…And here am I, a-bleeding on the deck and for a sweet saint must lie
Farewell, my family and my friends, likewise my barley too…
Ey, o, ere we go! This must be the missus on the mobile. Scuse me puss-puss. Hello love, yes, I’m just finishing in the shed. Yes, I know it’s half-ten. Five minutes and I’ll be in the house.
…I'd never have crossed the salt sea wide if I'd have been ruled by you
And a thousand times I saw myself again, all alone with my Polly on the shore.
Image supplied by Chanice Gardner-Middleton
After Hearing Bernie Krause
Schubert, Bach, Beethoven, Mozart
Woodwind, brass, strings, percussion
Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum
Bio-acoustician – from his note book.
Portable recording system. The first microphone at 200 feet from the forest’s edge, the second 100 feet closer, the third in the canopy. Hitting the record button. Birds flying through the headphones, left to right, through the stereo space. The slow cadenced edge-tones of their undulating wings. Raising the monitor levels. Hearing a foot adjusting on a branch, the opening of a beak, a heartbeat.
Bach, Beethoven, Mozart
Brass, strings, percussion
Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum
Bio-acoustics – from the handbook.
Basic sources of sound:
1. Giophony – The sound of natural forces: wind in the trees, water in a stream, waves on the ocean shore.
2.Biophany - All sounds generated by organisms in a given habitat.
3. Anthropophony – Human sounds. Sometimes coherent but often chaotic, incoherent noise: revved cars, jet fighters low in the sky, chainsaws ripping into trees.
Every living creature has its own signature. They have established their individual niche, their own acoustic territory. First in the frequency spectrum came the insects. Secondly, the reptiles and then the amphibians. Next it was the birds and finally the mammals.
Note: If one of these elements is missing, it changes the whole structure of that niche. Fragility. Any of these sounds can easily be disrupted by anything: the presence of a predator, rain, human footsteps.
Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum, Tum-Ti-Tum
The hearing – the evidence.
The company promised us selected logging would have no environmental impact. A tree taken here and a tree taken there would do no harm, they said. Well, this gentleman has clearly proved our suspicions correct. In the decade in which he has been doing his field recordings, no less than 80% of the birds have disappeared from the meadow’s soundscape. And this is just the birds! Where, I ask, are all the other critters that once belonged here?
The findings – summary.
Even after the logging ended the birds and other animals didn’t return in their former numbers. What does this tell us? What lessons need to be taught? What do we need to learn, do?
Unlike light, sound cannot be seen. Sound is hard to describe beyond its physical properties: frequency, amplitude, timbre and duration. Sound exists in an ethereal, amorphous realm. But it’s real, very real. And sound is talking to us. Indeed, it seems to be the case that every creature on this planet is trying to tell us something. Something simple but profound.
They are saying, ‘Be quieter, humans! Be humble. This planet needs to be shared. Preserve the spaces where we too can thrive!’
Also, think of this. Imagine deleting from the human repertoire all the works of the great composers. Envisage no Schubert, Bach, Beethoven or Mozart. Make that thought a mirror to the world’s disappearing soundscape.
Silence is descending upon our world.
So, act now. The clock’s ticking. The drum is beating!
Skowhegan, Maine USA
As Ruth processed item after item through the scanner at Tesco’s, she tried to pinpoint the cause of her self-pity, there were so many reasons it seemed. Her thoughts flicked between apples, soap, full-fat milk; to yet another period, to Steve’s temper since his release from prison, to the mounting debt they didn’t talk about. Sirloin steak, frozen peas, Nutella. As soon as she processed one item, another one came. In her current state of mind, each item was a problem, one after the other. They were queuing to put problems on her mind. They came so quickly she didn’t see the next one coming. Look at the queue she thought, queuing one behind the other with their trolleys as if they were revving their fucking car.
Miss Smith touches her neck expecting her glands to be crowbarred hinges. Then she checks her glasses are on, convinced she has misread the time again.
Surrounded by the flurry of caged flight, the classroom window might shatter. The door, reinforced with steel, flinches with each kick Becky blows.
‘Cunt. Open the fucking door.’
Once a foetus, Becky is now a grenade.
Miss stands on a patch of blue carpet where the graffiti of confinement is written in paper aeroplanes and broken pens. Her mind combs the walls for inspiration, it scales each one in turn, but she sees nothing in her search except walls.
Louise's debut novel, 'Distorted Days' is out now, published by Lulu Publishing.
Images supplied by Louise Worthington
The Hunger Artist
Anne stands in front of the floor length mirror in her bedroom and stares at her naked body, her face twisted with disgust.
Her room’s painfully neat and tidy; the furniture’s sparse, she only has a bed, a single wardrobe and a small chest of drawers beside the bed. The bed is hospital neat and doesn’t even have a crease in the covers. A few books sit on the chest of drawers in a neat pile. The objects in the room are arranged with precision. There isn’t a book or item of clothing out of place and there are no wrinkles or creases anywhere.
She’s tall and painfully thin; her ribs are clearly visible on both sides, her skin’s sallow and unhealthy, there are fine tufts of downy on the inside of both thighs and bone ridges stick out of both shoulders. She’s so thin she’s almost skeletal.
Her hair’s almost down to her waist. A lifetime ago, before food became the centre of her world it was a beautiful shade of blonde, a bright and vibrant yellow. Years of carefully, deliberately starving herself have left it a faded pale yellow. Her hair hangs about her thin face with no shape or form. Since she got really sick her hair’s started to fall out in clumps and there are bald patches all over the back of her head. She had a bath when she first woke up and the water was filled with limp hair follicles.
Her legs are thin little sticks that aren’t strong enough to keep her upright anymore and the dizzy spells have started to become more frequent. Her arms are thin, frail twigs. Her hands are as thin and small as a child’s. Her skin’s unhealthily transparent. Her lips are pale and cracked.
She feels enormous compared to the last time she weighed herself. She pulls her weight book and a measuring tape out from under her mattress. She measures the circumference of her waist with the measuring tape and consults the book. She measures the circumference of her thighs, upper arms, and shoulders. She’s horrified to discover she’s 3mm wider all over. Blinded by tears she records her new measurements in the books and stuffs it back under her mattress with the measuring tape.
She carefully makes her way to the bathroom at the end of the hall. She takes a bad dizzy turn on the way and need to lean against the wall for several minutes and take in deep breaths until her heart stops racing. When she finally stumbles through the bathroom door she steps onto the scales. She takes a deep breath and looks down at them. The needle stops halfway between 4 and 5 stones.
She steps off the scales and angrily shoves them away with her foot. She’s so weak the effort leaves her red-faced and breathless. She’s three pounds heavier than she was last week. She’ll need to eat smaller portions or she’ll get fat again. She cannot let the fat girl she used to be take control of her life again. She cannot let her win again.
She wraps a dressing gown around her body, steps into a pair of slippers and does downstairs, wheezing with the effort of moving her frail body. The pile of letters behind the front door’s becoming quite large. When she’s lost some weight she’ll look at them. If the letters contain bad news she’ll want to stuff her face and she can’t allow it to happen. She’s worked so hard to be thin and perfect.
She goes into the kitchen without putting any lights on because the brightness hurts her eyes. She prepares breakfast. She takes a bowl out of one of the cupboard’s and fills it with one and a half spoonfuls of cereal and a teaspoon of milk. She pours a few drops of fresh orange juice into a glass and takes a grape out of the bunch in the fridge. She crushes the cornflakes with her spoon until they’re soggy and slices the grape into tiny fragments.
Rainbowfloss and Earshort
Dad was working on his laptop in the kitchen. Mum and Tom were in the living room. She was on Facebook and he was on level four of Animal Crossing. The twins left them to it and headed outside.
Ignoring the ‘Keep Out’ sign, Jane and Peter crawled through the Scratting Hole beneath the wire fence and into their green world. Bordered on three sides by the chemical plant, the sewerage works and the river, they had named this land Keepindom.
With their arms held high, so as not to get attacked by the Skin Stingers, they carefully began their journey towards their den.
Through Open Thorn they entered the trees. Once inside, they stopped to listen to the birds singing and smiled to hear the Spotted Belly Watcher. They had so named the bird because it had brown tummy spots and its song sounded like, ‘I’m watching you two, I am!’
In the middle of the trees it became marshy and so they carefully made their way around the Suck-You-In-Pool. They never went too close to the Suck-You-In-Pool because it was the entrance to an underground sea, where the worst sort of monsters lived. It was an unspoken agreement between them that not all portals were safe.
To their delight, they found an old, gnarled branch on the floor. It was taller than they were and covered in all sorts of Rainbowfloss. The branch was light to carry and, because of its magical powers, they took it with them.
Near their den was the Spiny-Twig Tree. From it grew small apples which looked scrummy but tasty nasty. And just behind the tree was a bush on which, in Autumn, hung dark Vinegar-Spit Berries. They looked juicy enough, but the twins had also found these inedible. Within seconds, the berries dried up all the wetness in their mouths, causing them to spit, as though taking medicine.
Inside the den’s tunnel, they were amazed to discover a perfect but lifeless animal. It was even tinier than a mouse and looked like it was just sleeping, not dead. They decided that the furry creature must be an Earshort.
Leaving the den for the riverbank, they wove rushes together for a small raft and then carefully let it go upon the water. They waved as the Earshort made its way down the oily river to the Land of Deathforever.
With riverbank mud they smeared several Earshorts onto their arms and using the magic branch they transformed themselves into the same animal. Moving as low as their bodies would allow, they nimbly made their way back to the Scratting Hole; sniffing, scratching and squeaking, but alert to any predator.
When Jane and Peter arrived home everyone was in the same positions and still on their devices. On seeing his younger siblings, Tom became excited. ‘Come and look,’ he shouted. ’I’m now onto level five!’ But the twins just shrugged at each other and, for the first time that afternoon, were speechless.
Hull, East Yorkshire
The last thing mother said was, ‘And make sure this house looks the same when I get back. Don’t forget to feed the dog and water my flowers! If you don’t, there’ll be hell to pay, understand?’ Of course we understood, the last time she’d spent a week at grandma’s we fully screwed up and we really did pay hell on her return.
For four days a steady peace reigned. Neither Alex nor I did anything too bad. Okay, the kitchen was beginning to look a mess, there was Xbox stuff littered everywhere and the dog was miserable because he hadn’t been exercised, we’d just kicked him out into the garden. Alex and I had the odd wrestle, but that was normal.
Then on day five things turned nasty. We started arguing about what telly programme to watch. Alex said he should choose because he was a year older than me. I couldn’t think of a good reason why I couldn’t get to choose, but it made me really mad, it was so unfair. The argument went on for ages and then we started proper wrestling with punches and kicks. Then, just like that, he pulled out his wanger and started pissing against the telly. I screamed, ‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?’ He shouted, ‘I’m marking out my territory. This telly’s mine now, so keep off!’ I wasn’t standing for that, so I also pulled out my wanger and pissed on the Xbox.
And so it began. Next he pissed on the comfy armchair. So, when the dog popped into the room to see what all the fuss was about, I pissed on it. The dog pulled a sad, confused face, sniffed himself and went straight back into the garden.
We kept this going until we were empty of piss. Then we refilled our bladders with Dr Pepper and Pepsi Max and resumed the pissing, marking our territory and belongings.
This pattern of behaviour continued into day six. By supper time there was barely any furniture or household items left unmarked by our piss. We even competed for dominance on certain things. For example, Alex could piss higher than me so, when it came to the doors and wardrobes, I stood on a stool and did my thing.
On the telly, I’d once seen a panda stand upside down so its piss would spray at a greater height. I tried this on a kitchen unit but fell over and pissed myself in the process. This made Alex laugh really loudly, which really pissed me off.
Of course, by day seven, mother was due back home. So, Alex and I went around the house with bleachy water, trying to rid it of our stink. Whilst we scrubbed, we heard the garden gate swing open. Through the landing window we saw her bend down to greet the dog and sniff it. Glaring around at all her wilted flowers, she then turned her wild eyes towards the house.
The Baron Aargh!
Moment In Time
Captain Smothers, the military guard, marched with M-16 in hand, along the narrow, dirt road to Mammoth Air Station. Captain Smothers briefly stopped to observe the wood line on the other side of the path.
"Help me!” a faint male voice echoed.
Trained in sound localization, Captain Smothers calculated the direction of the voice. Through the wood line as he suspected.
He found an elderly man with leathery skin and a swollen ankle on the forest floor. The man’s musky scent almost made Captain Smothers vomit.
“Now, what is this about?” he asked.
The man attempted to stand, but the swollen ankle proved too much to bear.
Loss of patience provoked Captain Smothers to press the barrel against the man’s temple. “Don’t make me repeat it.”
The man looked him in the eye. “Your world is in danger. Just set the weapon down. I’m no threat to you.”
Captain Smothers acquiesced. He held the weapon so that the barrel pointed downward.
The man said, “I’m a time travelling planetologist from your far future. In fact, my people live within this solar system. This planet is attached to a moon that made a noticeable change in its axis over a period of eons.
“The problem, my people noticed, is that we couldn’t find this planet anywhere. When I investigated its moon - your people call it a “golden orb” - I only found a hollow shell. Only remnants of gold and silver. I suspected that’s what was drilled.
“With no planet in the way, it affected the axis of your moon. I only suspect this was to stop the moon’s ice age and make it more sustainable for drilling. But it’s only speculation.”
Smothers heard voices a short distance away.
“No time left,” the man said. “You need to blow up the drill in the glossy, black suitcase. The drill drives down to the planet’s core and blows it up from the inside.”
“How do you know?” Smothers asked.
“One of my great or great-great-grandfathers blew up this planet. His last name is ‘Beano,’ ‘Bongo’ or ‘Bravo’.” The man held his ankle. “I can’t remember.”
Three men appeared in camouflage. One carried the suitcase.
“Who’s there?” He pointed his weapon at the men.
“It’s Scientist Ben Bravo, sir.,” the man with the suitcase said. “I have a special mission to perform from General Ajax.”
Captain Smothers searched his mind for answers. Bravo. BRAVO. That’s right. I had a meeting with him and Ajax about drilling to this planet’s core. I need to stop him. Now.
Smothers shot the suitcase. A light consumed the entire forest.
Then… nothing. The forest seemed as empty as the many nights he walked the perimeter here.
Captain Smothers looked around. He felt the severe throbbing of a migraine headache. There’d been a light, hadn’t there? And he’s seen three men, hadn’t he? And a man injured?
The migraine made it almost impossible to piece together his memory. Maybe it was in his imagination.
Stevie, My Stevie
Well, this is nice. A birthday lunch with my children, all adults now, of course. Seated by the window on the round table, we’ve a lovely view of the river and the wispy clouds high in the sky. We’re a little bit squashed but, as usual, I feel the table should have been set for one more. I always do. Not for Stan, my dead husband, no, but for the child I never had.
Call me selfish, I understand. Two beautiful daughters and a handsome son - who could ask for more? But I just can’t help it, this ache, this hunger. Constantly, I yearn for the presence of a child who isn’t.
golden at dusk,
I call my child Stevie because I can’t decide on its sex. Sometimes, I imagine Stevie coming towards me with his strong eyes and thick shoulders. Other times, I envisage Stevie by my side, her odour rising and filling up my senses. Often, when I’m out in town, I’ll look at the back of many a young adult and think, ‘Oh, that must be Stevie.’
Certainly, Stevie shows both male and female family traits. She has her sisters’ dark stare and he has his brother’s big laugh. And when I look at old photos of Stan, I see Stevie’s posture too, feet at ninety degrees and the head ever so slightly leaning to one side.
passing the watchful shore,
Is it some kind of mania I am suffering? Maybe. Its’ encouraged me to do many strange things.
For instance, I’ve secretly kept for Stevie a memory box in the loft, just like I have for the other three. There you’ll find many things including Stevie’s baby shoes, first toothbrush and Terri the teddy.
I once bought Stevie school uniforms, one for a boy and one for a girl. I ironed them and neatly placed them into a bottom drawer. Unfortunately, Stan came across them and I had to concoct some ridiculous story about keeping them for the children next door.
You may find this incredible, but I even opened Stevie a savings account. I deposit just five pounds a year. Only a token, but it’s there nonetheless, gathering interest.
unresponsive to all cries, sails
Mostly though, I just ache. My own mother used to say she knew when it was going to rain because she could feel it in her bones. I’d disbelieve her, even though she was mostly right. This is how I feel now except, unlike the rain, Stevie never arrives and my bones continue to throb.
Now, as we sit waiting, we stare at the river, empty but for some flotsam. But here comes the waiter with the tea and the tiered stand with all the fancy what nots. We all tuck in. When no one’s looking, I sneak a bun into my handbag– just for Stevie.
‘Happy Birthday to you,’ they all sing.
‘And happy birthday to you, Stevie,’ I whisper. ‘My lovely child.’
The After World
Her fingers trailed across the cold, sleek, broken metal of the fence. Dismembered bodies sprinkled across the lonely, deserted ground like confetti. Faces torn apart by their own families. A grey, shadowy sky cast over the surface of the Earth; the apocalypse ruined the Earth as everyone knew it. All that was left was grieving, cold-blooded killers. Items of loved-one’s clothing desperately keeping the memory of them alive. Remains of buildings scattered throughout the broken town leaving tales of the old town in its wake. The crunching of her fatigued feet was the only noise to be heard for miles, but her mind still echoed the screams. Terror that sat on innocent people’s faces remained burned into her brain as the memories replayed like a broken record. Shattered screams. Panic-stricken parents and children. Blood-curdling bodies laying lifeless. Sucking in polluted air, she closed her bloodshot eyes. Fading into a state of unconsciousness, she saw him.
Verdant, substantial gardens rested underneath their relaxed bodies. She laid peacefully next to him; she felt content. Lengthy brunette hair sprawled across the grass framing her tanned face. Afternoon sun kissed her skin gently as she fluttered her feline eyes closed. His deep, sparkling eyes watched her in awe. Turning, she faced him. She raised her groomed eyebrows as she read his expression. His plump, curved lips sat comfortably in a soft smile. Smiling, she sat up and reached over sipping on her pineapple flavoured cocktail. Her doe eyes stared admiringly at the Northern Italian landscape. Peach trees were scattered around the garden accompanied by rose bushes. Mountains were on display in the distance and a lake was sat not far from them. Tearing her eyes away she focused on the soft, slovenly curls that were messily sat on his forehead. His loose button- up shirt hung on his muscular, toned body.
“You know this isn’t real right?” He asked quietly, scared to break the tranquil atmosphere.
“You’re the only getting me through this okay?”
She didn’t know how it was possible. How was she able to close her eyes and see a guy she had never met? How was she able to live a fantasy in her head that felt so palpable when the real world was falling apart at her fingertips? She let it happen though. She allowed herself to fall into this non-existent world for a moment away from the terror and pain of concrete truth.
Her worn-out eyes reluctantly peeled open. The severed town came back into view. Trudging tiredly, she cautiously stepped over the road of mangled inert bodies. The bleak streets were barely recognisable as she picked up a fragment of severed glass. She spun the sharp object around her grimy fingers. A severed sign caught her attention. A pub. She entered the abandoned building. Perpetual rows of alcohol that miraculously survived the attack stood out to her. Shifting uncomfortably in the leather bar stool, she drowned her sorrow in her third glass of rum.
“Oh, sorry I didn’t expect to see anyone,” A deep voice chimed from behind her. She slowly swirled around, locking eyes with deep, sparkling orbs.
The breaths caught in each of their throats.
The guy from her fantasies.
The girl from his fantasies.
They were real.
I remember the summer you turned up at our youth club and asked where I got the tiny tattoo on my fleshy ankle then showed me yours; a sleek blue dolphin riding the crest of your achingly sharp hip.
You shocked the Jesus Army youth workers who were hardened only to our petty swearing, smoking and pissing about. You asked them, if God was so great, why were we stuck in this shitty housing estate with three generations unemployed and no hope.
Oh Jamie! I wanted just half of your guts.
On the camping trip you made them organise, we sat by the campfire long after everyone else.
“I moved away from a small town like yours” you said, “it’s amazing, the world out there, even for girls like us”.
The flames burnished your eyes and I saw more clearly too. So good having a true friend to walk with, taller and stronger. To walk away from the sensible haircut, beige jumper brigade and away from the shallow, crowd-following losers I called my friends.
One later cool blue evening, the youth club manager emerged from her toughened-glass office to give me the letter.
The look on her face, I thought you’d died.
You weren’t coming back. We were just a summer job. You were at the university. The sociology department. Now you were writing up the results of your participant observation research. You couldn’t tell me because that would have affected the findings.
You were sorry. I wasn’t.
Because you were right. The world is amazing, even for girls like us. Now I’m back in this small town. I’m working at the youth club. With purple hair. A new girl.
Christchurch, New Zealand
The Red Sweater
I wait for the protests which never come. Fifteen miles today; maybe twenty tomorrow. ‘We’ll be there before sunset,’ I lie. Lies have become easy for me these days; they help me muster the will to keep going. Sometimes I even believe myself – a pseudo-schizophrenic born out of necessity.
Twilight. Cold tendrils curl around my body, gripping like a vice as I lay my red sweater over the children, trying to maintain a semblance of normality – whatever that is. But the vicious cold prevents sleep; our breaths freeze on every exhalation, fingers of frost claw their way over us, razor-sharp nails dig deep into our very bones.
‘Only one more day,’ I whisper wordlessly into their dreams, like an angel’s promise.
The morning sun heats our blood into action; we are reptiles ready for the day. Hunkering down we demolish the dwindling supply of stale cornbread and slurp the water which has condensed in our bottles overnight. Progress is slower today as the track challenges our feet with a gritty slick of stones and rocks. Maria’s outgrown shoes are making her limp like a wounded dog. Marco has no shoes at all. Am I being selfish, imposing on them all the fears and hopes of a destitute, ambitious father? I repeat my mantra, willing myself to believe: ‘Nearly there.’ We stumble slowly, sorely northwards, on a tidal wave of sorrow. ‘My feet hurt, Papa,’ whimpers Maria, while Marco simply sucks harder on his soother, too tired to enunciate his – as yet – limited vocabulary. He was falling behind again; I scoop him up with one arm. ‘Why won’t you carry ME, Papa, it’s not fair,’ Maria moans, dragging her feet along the track, scuffing the toes of her shoes for dramatic effect. ‘Oh, but you, you are so much stronger,’ I say. That should work for a while, though my heart hurts like an open wound as the words tumble out.
We travel throughout the night this time, despite the chill – there is less chance of being seen this way, especially here. ’Nearly there.’ I hear the words detach from me and float away on a silent trajectory towards the Colorado River. I inhale deeply, 1-2-3-4. It smells, all at once, of the prospect of freedom and a future.
The hardest part was yet to come.
Chichester, West Sussex
The customer asks, ‘May I have my steak between rare and medium rare, slightly towards the medium rare side?’ Dom looks a little bemused. He knows what the cook will say, but writes down the order anyway. Back in the kitchen the cook looks at the order and is equally bemused. ‘Is this for real?’ he asks Dom. ‘I’m a cook, not a fuckin’ scientist!’ Dom just shrugs and heads back into the restaurant.
As he goes from table to table, Dom notices that the silent couple by the window are watching his every move. When he asks if he can offer any further assistance they tell him they are fine, thank you.
One customer tries to catch his attention by clicking his fingers. Dom walks over to the table and the customer asks, ‘Have you any ketchup?’ Dom nods and goes to fetch some. When he returns the customer asks, ‘Is it Heinz? I only eat Heinz.’ Dom tells the customer he will check. He walks through one door and straight back out of the other. ‘Yes, the manager says it’s Heinz.’ ‘Happy to hear it, lad,’ says the customer. Dom watches as he scoops up a mouthful of grilled steak with red-wine Bordelaise sauce, dipped in ketchup.
After rearranging some tables for a group of people who only pre-booked for four but came as six, Dom is accosted by a customer who has finished his meal. ‘Was everything to your liking?’ Dom asks. Without any embarrassment, the customer informs Dom he will be writing about his dining experience on Trip Advisor and would the restaurant be willing to waver the wine bill for a positive review? Dom says he will asks the manager. He goes into the back, takes a piss and returns to say, ‘Sorry sir, but the house policy is not to engage with any such offers.’ The customer asks to see the manager. Dom nods, returns into the kitchen, throws a carrot at the back of his mate’s head, who’s scrubbing the dishes. Going back into the front of house, he tells the Trip Advisor customer that unfortunately the manager has had to go home, trouble with his gout again.
All of this time, the couple by the window continue to watch Dom’s evening.
Between turning people away who could have been seated at tables left empty by people who have not shown, Dom deals with a concerned family tucking into their starters. The mother asks, ‘Do these crackers have any traces of nuts in them? Nigel is allergic to nuts.’ Dom looks at the son and his half-devoured crackers. Back in the kitchen, the cook’s response is predictable. ‘Are you fuckin’ kiddin’ me? Those stupid fuckers! No, thank God, they don’t have nuts in them! Jesus!’
On his way back to reassure the family, Dom passes the staring couple. He smiles back at their stony faces and calmly resists the urge to scream, ‘Just who the fuckin’ hell are you staring at?’
Hull, East Yorkshire
Running in the nude, a state in which innocence is indistinguishable from existence, the children roam the halls of the desecrated palace. Eteocles finds a camera in his father’s study. He tempts the other three to join him in the throne room for a naked shot. But what if the queen should wake and see them? She has taken to her bed and is not to be disturbed.
Holding the pocket instamatic high, Eteocles fingers the nipple. The flash blows a pocking pop he remembers from summer, when his parents were young.
Returning his father’s camera, Eteocles sees in the open bureau drawer a novel, Kinflicks. The woman on the jacket, back arched, front like the cockpits of a soft, twin-hulled bomber, points with her body at a sweet beside the book. Eteocles stuffs it in his mouth. It tastes like salty rubber goo. He coughs it out and leaves the room.
The print does not come back from the apothecary. Missing in the Kodak wallet, intercepted by the valet, or its development arrested. No one mentions it again.
When the king eventually returns from visiting the oracle he’s blind. Could Pythia have shown him the photograph?
2020 without question an annus horribilis for great British games shows; we’ve whispered tearful adieus to so many tragically departed troupers, the like of whom we’ll never see again. Impossible to replace, rough diamonds of music hall variety pedigree- now starring in that feted summertime seaside special in the heavens; there’ll be fresh faced pretenders, young talent queuing up to replenish supply lines of mirthful catchphrases laden with saucy double-entendres, but one fears an era’s shifted to a mournful resting place where spectacular eras end. Of gravest loss was everyone’s favoured underdog Russell Howard who histrionically passed onto that massive sealed tomb for completely talentless wankers in the sky when, according to eye-witness reports from the official ‘’we fucking hate Russell Howard’’ mob, he exuberantly stuffed a live rattle-snake up his own arse before quickly ramming two sticks of burning dynamite down his throat. Enthralled observers were united in maintaining that this final impression of Howard’s, of a man about to explode with a deadly reptile hanging-out behind his strides, was his best- most memorable, universally acclaimed- & indeed his life’s work only convincing performance & indubitably its grandest entertainment. Russell’s unoriginal career as an impressionist commenced focussing entirely on inventively copying selected thoughts & reactions attributable to ordinary folk one might meet in the street when he was still only a mere ADHD upstart from the provinces. Born last century to a family of no obvious abilities or community spirit it was all too predictable early doors that Russell would follow in his families mundane footsteps. Hyperactive, unlikeable, & untrustworthy, he sought attention through his gift. As every budding professional dissimulator does, Russell started by delivering exaggerated physical & oral copies of siblings, progressing steadily onto bearing absolutely no resemblance whatsoever re-enactments of school teachers in the evening. Throughout his career nothing-nor-no-one was safe from Howard’s satirical claws. He’ll be recalled by show biz pals for not a long time to come; by some as a comic, by few as an LP, by others as a cautionary novel by Franz Kafka. But outside the institution where he spent his final years he’ll be remembered as an utter toerag.
resident in Britain
Electroman is forever here to save our universe from unrelenting obliteration.
He’s travelled through valleys of death, survived chasms of fire, & scaled snowy mountains. Marked sigils engraved across his chest pay tribute to derring-do, unparalleled bravery, showing no concern for his personal safety. Only the majesty of Electroman can avert the inevitable. Flashing through skies, Electroman seeks evil & harbingers of calamity: creatures that must be nipped in the bud, lest they spread, spewing anarchy over countless innocent societal victims.
One such diabolical locust, Bernie Sanderson, a crooked pharmacy proprietor groomed confidence amongst local minors, & poisoning their susceptible brains with propaganda & mind altering narcotics. Sanderson, a known socialist, particularly distasteful, with an egg stained shirt collar & rampant facial acne; he appeared determined to undermine a healthy bulldog mentality dutifully bred into our happy native children.
Tin-tack & LSD were liberally force fed during drug orgies carried out in the bedroom of his grubby ground floor Hackney maisonette. Poor unfortunates bound with wire were usually submitted to bestial rape & associated sexual degradation after being induced with vicious intoxicants of all descriptions.
Bernie Sanderson’s web of terror was so strongly persuasive that none whom he reached alerted appropriate authorities of the obscenities taking place. But no amount of terror could place a shadow over Electroman’s kaleidoscopic micro-sensors: highly sensitive radar scanning devices picked one such debauched session & relayed its implications to a control panel implanted in the palm of Electorman’s left hand.
Searing down from on high, Electroman smashed through the roof, loft, & upstairs maisonette, startling millions of illegal immigrants who squatted there, & straight though Sanderson’s vulgar artexed ceiling. Electorman’s powerful fists righteously struck Sanderson on his crooked nose & rat-like physiognomy; unleashing a barrage of blows which snapped Sanderson’s spinal cord. Unfinished, Electroman’s angry wrath provoked, as Sandserson lay grounded, helpless, paralysed, Electronman knelt upon his puny body to continue punching Sanderson’s face until it was an unrecognisable quagmire of raw bleeding flesh.
Sanderson, by now dead, had paid the ultimate terrible price. Let this be known, a lesson to any who should push their luck, & double-dare Electroman’s unfathomable fortitude & aggression.
resident in Britain
I should have washed my hair; it feels horrible. My handbag drags sulkily on my shoulder. My feet plod along the overgrown path, not giving a shit how late I am.
A man strides towards me in torn tracksuit bottoms, toes angled outwards in well-worn construction boots. I keep my gaze down until he passes.
The cemetery gates come into view, crusty and bubbling from decades of paint jobs. I hear the hum of traffic from the main road – apparently one of the most polluted spots in London.
Then I hear the music.
I can’t name the song, but it’s a classic soul track from the seventies – a dancy one. A summery one. Right on cue, the sun comes out.
I realise someone is singing along. Whoever it is has a decent voice. And she’s going for it. Belting it out. No fucks given that it’s 8.58am and we’re in a residential area, surrounded by the dead.
She comes cycling into the left of my vision – along the pavement that runs outside the gates. She’s wearing vintage denim dungaree shorts, red Doc Marten boots and a bright, stripy crop-top. Her hair is wild. Her skin shines. She smiles as she sings, her head tossed back, as close to dancing as anyone can be on a bike.
I’m smiling with her. My chest has lifted and my hips want to shake. It’s funny how someone can just yank you out of it, without even trying. Even a total stranger.
On the front of her bike is a basket, which I quickly realise cradles the cutest little terrier, who I swear wants to dance too. My delight multiplies.
Beats and bass still going, the pair sail eastwards, towards the new tower blocks.
I exit the cemetery, tiptoeing round the almost permanent patch of mud under the gates. Then I hear a metallic din and a loud, high-pitched yelp. My head snatches to the right.
The bike is on its side, wheels spinning. The dog is a foot or so away, pacing and whimpering. On the ground, by the basket, is a blue plastic bag. Bottles of beer roll out – at least two of them now smashed. Murky, orange fizz swirls among the paving stones. It’s a cheap, strong brand – the type my dad used to buy.
The woman is on her hands and knees, head bowed, muttering something husky and incoherent. There’s dirt in her hair.
It’s 9AM. The music has stopped.
Friday night and the bus driver had that end-of-a-crap-day look.
'Evening girls,' he said. Margie smirked at him. He must have been at least thirty.
We flashed our passes and went upstairs as usual. Off we motored down Victoria
Road. We were in the front seat, hanging onto the rail and whooping as if we were
still at the fair. The streetlights came on. A tree branch scraped along the top of the
bus and we squealed.
A load of people got off at the first stop on the estate. A right jumble they were
on the pavement, all sorting out their buggies and shoving the squawking kids into
them. Me and Margie swore we'd never have boring lives with kids.
On into the estate proper and the bus emptied. Margie dared me to shout down
the stairs for some music and I did. He shouted back, 'Like the fun of the fair, do you?'
'Yeah,' we screamed.
No music, but the bus picked up speed. Margie tightened the band on her
ponytail - it was a nervous thing with her. The bus lurched and I ended up in Margie’s
lap and laughed 'til I almost wet myself. We braced for the next swing into Beech
Road and I rang the bell for our stop, but he carried straight on and headed out of
town. Margie said that we should shout kidnap out of one of the little slidey windows.
Why would anyone have taken notice? We often shouted daft stuff from the bus.
I staggered halfway down the stairs. 'Hey, where are we going?'
He laughed. 'Go back upstairs and hang on tight.'
And he did slow down a bit until I got back up.
Then, we swung right off the road and we recognised where we were: the old
airfield. We went careering round and round, the seats rattling fit to break loose.
Random things rushed out of the dark when the headlights lit on them, like a wrecked
shed or a scrap of wonky fence. The front rail was slick with our sweaty hands
grabbing onto it. I could smell toffee apple and cider on Margie’s breath we were
rammed so close together. All that empty bus behind us vibrated as if the glass might
crash out of the windows. We screamed and screamed.
The back end went into a skid. Our arms were out straight in front of us just like
on the roller coaster. He braked to a squealing stop and we ended up in a heap on the
floor. Silence from down below. We crept down the stairs. He was staring out into the
dark and then he let out a great sob.
'What's wrong?' I said.
'This bloody boring life!'
He wiped his eyes and gestured that we should go and sit down. 'We're heading
And so we were, back into town.
'He might stop at the chippy for us,' I said and pressed the bell.
It’s A Dog’s Life
When the rumour about Fat Bazza’s death reached the street, people were naturally sympathetic, if not altogether surprised.
They said things like,
‘Poor old Fat Bazza!’
‘Oh no, not Fat Bazza!’
‘What, Fat Bazza’s gone?’
Or things like,
‘Well, he was built for a heart attack, wasn’t he!’
‘What did he expect, a gut like that?’
‘Poor sod, but that’s what you get for being such a lard arse!’
People said lots of things when they heard about Fat Bazza’s death but, generally speaking, they were sad to hear of his demise. They began to miss him too, more than ever before. In fact, they’d hardly missed him at all, up to that point, but now they did.
However, it didn’t take long for Fat Bazza to fade in the collective memory. With the loss of Slow Eddie at number thirteen and Her Majesty Maureen at the corner house, Fat Bazza was relegated in their hearts and minds. But all that changed when Young Terry Junior, who’d moved into Bazza’s old house, began to turn over the soil in the back garden, after he’d watched a telly programme one Sunday about growing beetroot.
That’s when all the dogs were discovered. Big dogs and little dogs, but mostly dogs that didn’t look much like dogs anymore. Young Terry Junior spent a full afternoon digging up a load of semi-decomposed dogs and then laid their remains in a neat line by the back window. Then he told some of the neighbours all about it. Before long, there was a steady stream of people from all along the street coming to have look.
They said things like,
‘That’s Trixie. She used to pee up my gate every morning.’
‘Crapper, it must be Crapper!’
‘Oh, that’s Brian. Bless!’
They looked at the terrible head wounds and wondered whether the dogs had been killed with a hammer, spade or pitchfork. Mostly though, they thought about the monster Fat Bazza, and how had they missed this massacre? They said some terrible things then about Fat Bazza, not remembering how they’d once mourned and missed him.
A while later and Fat Bazza arrived back on the street. Someone on his new street had told him that everyone on his old street thought he was dead, so he thought he’d pay them a surprise visit. Just for a laugh!
But nobody laughed, especially Fat Bazza.
As he walked from one end of the street to the other, people turned their backs on him, pulled faces or even spat at his feet.
They said things like,
‘Scumbag, dog killer!’
‘Drop dead, Fat Bazza!’
When Fat Bazza found that no one was happy to seem him alive and not dead his heart began to race. By the time he’d reached the end of the street he was sweating heavily and had to reach for his mouth spray.
He said things like,
‘My dogs, anyway!’
‘Bazza is livin’! Screw you!’
Things like that.
Swillington, West Yorkshire
First You See Him . . .
My mother wasn't always merely my mother. Back in the day, she would tell us stories of her adventures as an unattached young northern lass.
By 'us' I mean me, the constantly fidgeting boy David, and the family's pet dog Brian who, unlike me, would sit stock still, ears pricked in anticipatory pleasure as his mistress started to speak.
One yarn concerned the chap who teenager Sally (my mum) spotted across the floor of a Manchester dance hall one autumn evening in the 1930s.
The slowly-revolving mirror ball suspended from the ballroom ceiling sent arrows of reflected light bouncing off the bloke's brilliantined bonce as he approached her.
Three foxtrots, two quicksteps and a last waltz later, the bloke said to Sally: 'May I escort you to your tram stop?'
Sally said: 'First, tell me about yourself.'
'I'm a science teacher.'
'Well, that sounds respectable enough but I must advise you that I'm a virtuous lady, so there'll be no experimental procedures, science-wise or otherwise, concerning canoodling.'
She explained: 'I am saving my first kiss for the man I go on to marry. He and I shall live happily ever after with a succession of cute dogs.'
'Do you not want children?' asked the science teacher.
'Eventually perhaps,' said Sally. 'But I do believe that pets are more attentive than human offspring.'
As they made their way along the darkly-lit streets towards the tram stop, Sally asked: 'Do you glide over to the palais often?'
But the science teacher gave no reaction. Sally shot her companion a sideways glance but the man had simply vanished.
'And I never saw him again,' my mother told her audience of two some 20 years later.
Fascinated by Mother's story, soon after I left school and entered journalism I searched the cuttings library of my local newspaper and found a yellowing article bearing the headline: SCIENCE MAN TAKES A POWDER.
The mystery of young Sally's disappearing 'beau' was explained in the story beneath.
Mother's dance partner had stepped out all right -- onto a manhole cover that was no longer in place.
He had plunged, heavy brown brogues first, through the opening in the pavement and into the coal cellar of a house.
The wretched man lay atop a pile of nutty slack until his faint cries for help were eventually heard. Apart from some bruises and a fine coating of coal dust on his pomaded hair, he was unhurt.
I dashed home and told Mother the news I had unearthed.
'Oh, him,' she said, waving a hand dismissively. 'Yeah, I read about it the day after it happened.'
'So why didn't you bother to reveal to me and our dog the end of the tale?' I asked.
'What?' said Mother. 'And rob the story of its romance?'
'Romance!' I gasped. 'The poor bloke plunged down a coal hole! He could have broken his neck!'
'I know that,' sighed Mother. 'But he was the first man ever to fall for me.'
Whitefield, Greater Manchester, England
Footsteps In The Sand
I remember one summer when I was small, my father made the unusually impulsive decision that we should all go to the beach. It was a particularly hot day so needless to say it was very busy. From one side to the other the yellow sands were made almost invisible by a blanket of people.
The day was in full swing and everyone was blissfully enjoying the seaside fun when suddenly without warning an array of clouds appeared and enveloped the sun creating a dark and grey dullness. Then the rain came, not heavy but enough to make the many beach dwellers run for cover mostly under large red and yellow striped umbrellas which had until recently been used for shade from the sun.
Only one person remained without cover, seemingly oblivious to the goings on around her. The girl, slim with blond hair that ran down to her hips, was at least fifteen but no older than twenty-three. She stood by the coast just staring out into the ocean.
I don’t remember who saw her first, it seemed to me that we all noticed her together, a host of people watching this single intriguing figure. She was short, no more than 4ft, wearing a pale cream T-shirt and shorts, the only other colour was in the light blue collar of her shirt.
She watched the ocean in silence for about a minute. Then she removed her pale chestnut coloured sandals. The sea water began to roll over her feet. Next, she removed both her T-shirt and shorts, she just tossed them aside like they were nothing. Then, off came her bra and underwear. She now stood naked before the sea, her skin a pale white colour. She seemed unaffected by the continuing rain and the audience she had behind her, all still fixed on the girl before them.
Slowly she began to head into the water and soon her lower part was completely submerged. She broke into a swim and continued out until all that could be seen was her head bobbing up and down with each passing wave. Then, just moments later she was gone.
No one reacted, not at first, then came the gasps as the girl did not return. Five minutes, ten minutes and still nothing. A number of life guards and civilians both, began to swim out to find her. Then the coast guards and police, but still there was no sign of her, she was completely gone.
Many people have surmised what happened to her. Some even deny she ever existed, there was after all no records of her anywhere, no proof of identity, no missing person’s report, nothing save for one thing, the strangest part of the story. I remember them to this day, the tiny footprints in the sand.
Neil K Spencer
currently residing in Macau, China
Run, Steve, run! Death is at the door! But Steve stayed put. He couldn’t move. Too frightened.
The science laboratory door creaked open and in sidled a pasty-faced individual with plastered-down hair and a hunched-over gait.
The strange individual was the school’s general office factotum. His name was Reg but to the teachers he was Igor and to the kids he was known as Death Warmed Up -- or just Death for short.
Death approached the chemistry teacher and handed him a folded piece of paper. He lisped a ‘Thank you, Master’ and retreated backwards, bowing twice, before the lab door squeaked shut behind him.
That day in 1962, when Death cast his shadow over Form 5W, was about to get worse, as one anxious pupil, Steve Machin, well suspected.
The schoolkids paused over their test tubes and Bunsen burners as the chemistry teacher unfolded the proffered piece of paper and barked: ‘Machin! Headmaster’s study! Now!’
Ashen-faced, Steve turned to his best pal Eric and furtively handed him the roll of one-penny pieces he had hidden in his shirt sleeve.
In Steve’s absence it would be Eric’s mission to surreptitiously dunk the coins into the bottle of sodium zincate solution which Steve had earlier sneaked off the laboratory shelf.
The ensuing chemical action would transform bronze into silver and the kids could pass off the pennies as pre-decimalisation half-crowns (equivalent to 12.5p nowadays) when they visited the tuck shop during morning break.
Later, after counting up their fraudulently-acquired change, the pupils would reflect on how chemistry was perhaps the most rewarding of all school subjects.
But back to the awful business at hand. Why had the headmaster summoned Steve to his lair? What had Steve done? It had to be about the coins fraud.
‘Ah, Machin,’ the headmaster said as Steve hesitantly entered the study. ‘I have here your mid-term report and it makes for dismal reading.’
Steve sighed in instant relief. It wasn't about the coins racket. He hadn’t had to do a runner after all.
The headmaster intoned: ‘Maths -- bottom of the class. Biology -- bottom. Physics -- bottom.’
Steve considered what a brainteaser that would be in the annual school quiz. QUESTION: 'What has three bottoms and not a leg to stand on?' ANSWER: 'Me, mate.'
‘Right, Machin!’ said the head. ‘If I see no immediate improvement in your schoolwork I shall be forced to suspend you.’ (With or without a knotted rope? Steve wondered.)
‘So how was school today, our Steve?’ his mother called from the kitchen when he arrived home.
‘Er . . . the headmaster has singled me out for special treatment, Mam.’
‘That's wonderful,’ cooed Steve's mother, continuing to stir the pan of rhubarb on the stove but now with extra exuberance at the thought of her son's rare school accomplishment.
And then Steve did run off -- to play street soccer with his neighbourhood pals and maybe later treat them all at the sweet shop with a freshly-minted coin.
Whitefield, Greater Manchester, England
From the fourth floor Father sees all the way down the road to the end. He’s oblivious that the recent winds have cleared away the litter and the old leaves. The gardeners have a bonfire burning in the park and the smoke is lifting through the oaks. A small figure, wearing a white raincoat, hat and shoes, comes slowly peddling a bicycle towards the flats; straight up the clean path. Father doesn’t take the time to think whether it’s a man or a woman.
Closing the window, he looks into the dressing-table mirror. His complexion isn’t so pallid now and his eyes have regained some of their shine. Today, his hair appears more silver than grey. None of this perplexes him. He simply accepts it and opens the door to the corridor.
No one hears him as he steps lightly between each room. Though bare-footed, he has no sensation of the cool floor beneath him.
Through the open living-room door he sees the twins, huddled together on the sofa, watching TV. They are completely absorbed in a hospital drama. A woman is crying beside a bed while a nurse attempts to console her.
Next, he peers into the kitchen. His wife and daughters are sat around the table in a circle of joined hands, talking in low, tender tones. He has no idea why they are being so secretive and has no intention of asking them.
The front door-bell chimes but he doesn’t notice that everyone, apart from himself, is unaware of it.
Making his way towards the front door he passes his eldest son lying on the dining-room floor, smoking a cigarette. He has his eyes fixed on the ceiling and is blowing rings up into the air, one after another. The rings start small, become bigger and then dissipate, losing all form.
Beside the main door sits Grandfather, about to finish a jigsaw puzzle. Grandfather has the last piece in his hand but pauses as Father approaches. Grandfather watches as Father presses the button on the intercom and invites a visitor to come upstairs. Grandfather is baffled: what visitor?
Father takes himself out onto the landing and hears the soft, regular beat of unhurried footsteps coming ever closer. He leans over the bannister, sees the top of a white hat and then a not overly-serious face looking up towards him. He still doesn’t feel the need to work out the individual’s gender.
Suddenly, air begins to blow around his feet, ascend his body and ruffle his hair. He has no inclination, nor time, to contemplate whether it’s warm, cold or something in-between.
Sometime later, there is a commotion in the flat. Father has gone missing from his bedroom and can’t be found. Eventually, Grandfather looks up from his finished puzzle and tells the family that Father went out, yes out, to talk to a friend, or something. Don’t worry yourself, he says to them, he can’t have strayed far, he didn’t have anything on his feet.
Farewell, Winter Fair
We have just about walked out of town when the people-carrier pulls up beside us. It’s our ex-neighbours, Ryan and Kayleigh, and they have the twins and the girl in the rear.
Obviously, they want to know why we’re heading in the opposite direction to just about everyone else. They’re more than a little astonished to find that we’re giving the fair a miss this time and have decided on a walk instead. Why? Who would do such a thing? And at this time of year and isn’t it nearly dark already?
Ryan and Kayleigh entreat us to give up our foolish plan and squeeze into the back seats. We could all go to the fair together. Wouldn’t that be just the greatest fun?
Somehow, we politely manage to persuade them, with our awkward excuses, to let us be and they say okay, have it your way. But remember, Kayleigh says, the fair won’t be back round again until January next year, if ever. Remember that, you pair of fruitcakes.
When they drive away the children stare at us through the back window. The twins cast us confused looks and are whispering to each other. Presumably something to do with our apparent madness. However, the little girl just nods knowingly, as the carrier leaves us behind.
Sometime later we reach the top of Faxendale Heights. It has become much darker and from where we’ve rested we can see the fair in the distance, lit up like a small cluster of twinkling stars. Even from here we can hear the noise of the rides. Faster and louder every year, I say. Yes, Sarah says.
From the centre of the fair a great pair of rotating strobe lights reach high for the sky and then beam across the surrounding hills, illuminating trees, sheep, stone walls and then us. I think we’ve been spotted, Sarah says, and I smile.
But by the time we’ve made our long way down into the wold everything has become silent and stilled. Thoughts of Ryan, Kayleigh and the fair are already beginning to freeze in the icy vale. By now we need the torch to help guide us, and all of our concentration is on making it safely to the churchyard.
We spend time reading the gravestones. Some of the people are over two centuries dead. Eugenie Cooke born 1704, died 1798. A long life, I say, without a roller coaster. Or candy floss, Sarah says.
The monolith behind the church is still there, of course, and has been since the Late Neolithic. Almost one metre thick and nine metres high. Its lead-capped top points forever skyward. Following its example, our eyes also lift upwards. The cloudless sky is now without light pollution and the stars are displayed above us with pure clarity.
There’s Ursa Minor, I say. And there’s Ursa Major, says Sarah. And then we both point together, at the same time, at Polaris, the northern star. Bright, fixed and constant.
He fits the last of the fire alarms with a new battery and climbs down the step ladder. Deciding to make himself a cup of tea, the landlord walks along the corridor towards the kitchen and through the fire door. As it opens he hears it again: the sound of women moaning, singing even. As it closes he hears the same thing.
Curiosity gets the better of him. He holds the door by the handle and repeatedly swings it to and fro. Unmistakable in his ears is the faint but distinct melody of female voices, rising and falling. He presses his head closer so that his left ear touches the door and he listens again to the strange, drifting harmony emanating from within.
Mesmerized by its effect, he goes to his tool box to get the screwdriver. He returns and begins to prize open the thin, flat board that has been tacked on sometime in the past. Once removed, he is astonished to find a finely carved panel. The centre piece is of a man tied to the mast of a ship. The man has his eyes wide open. The men rowing the boat have something plugged in their ears. The landlord doesn’t know why but supposes it’s probably a biblical scene.
When he removes the opposite board he finds another ornately, chiselled scene. On this side is a group of open-mouthed, semi-naked women, swimming around a ship. It's probably the same ship as the one on the other panel, he thinks. But he can’t place the women either in the story of Noah and the flood or Jonah and the whale.
At first glance, each woman has an attractive appearance but on closer examination they are all deformed in some way. This one has a single, misshapen eye. This one has three legs instead of two. And this one has no arms at all but seems to be part fish, part human. As he glances from one to the other he realises that none of them are what they at first seemed to appear.
Though he’s no longer moving the door the music persists by itself. The veneer of melody begins to quickly dissipate, the music no longer having any semblance of tunefulness, but is increasingly rising to a shrill, discordant pitch. However, the landlord is now fully hypnotized by its cacophonous lure and his eyes are transfixed on the faces calling him into the water. Spindly, bony hands suddenly reach out for his.
In the instant it takes for the door to slam shut of its own accord, the landlord passes from the corridor into darkness and the permanent density of the oak panels.
New students move into their attic rooms a day later. One’s adamant that she hears the mournful voice of a man coming from the door in the corridor each time it moves. Another laughs and says it must be the hinges, rusty or something. She advises her flatmate to email the landlord.
Hull, East Yorkshire
She skulks underneath the bridge as the water drips down.
This isn’t the first time she’s escaped but this is the furthest she’s ever gotten.
After he captured her the first time she grew a wondrous tail with a pearly tip. It took a while to master tucking its bushiness between her legs, out of sight. Each night after he left she unfurled it and warmed herself in its fuzzy embrace. She never wondered why he didn’t comment on her new appendage. She knows he only sees what he wants to see.
The second time she got as far as the woods. The brambles scratched her and the blackberry juice made it look like her legs were leaking indigo blood. When he dragged her back and threw her down the basement stairs her ears slid to the top of her head. She found she could move them and hear him bimbling about above her, living his ordinary day life. To hide her new appearance she arranged some of her red hair in two buns.
"Why’d yer do that? It looks like two giant boils on yer ‘ead”, he’d said but he never touched them so that was good. She asked him to get her books about foxes from the library.
“Wot do yer want with all that? I’ll get yer that new ‘arry Potter book”. But she shook her head so he got her some nature books. They didn’t have a lot about foxes but she did learn they chose cunning over brute strength, which sounded perfect.
Now she was miles away. A sudden sound alerts her, her nose twitches and she can smell his scent: stale beer and salami. On pale paws she streaks across the ash grey field, her white underbelly flashing in the watery moonlight.
Wilton, Connecticut USA
The tiny room at the end of the corridor is hardly a room at all, more of an upgraded cupboard. The plaster on the walls has faded from white to yellow and it has no window. A small table sits in the middle with a plastic chair on either side. The ceiling is low and from it a lightbulb hangs on a black, twisted flex. It can be very intimidating for any employee unfortunate enough to be interviewed in here and that’s just how Human Resource likes it.
Here’s one now, summoned from the shop floor. Human Resource is shining a light on the employee’s lack of productivity and shoddy workmanship. Furthermore, his line manager has reported a failure in his punctuality.
Human Resource pauses to give the employee the chance to think and respond to these substantiated charges and when he has done so he will receive and inevitably sign the official reprimand. The employee will be left in no doubt that he needs to quickly pull his socks up, or else.
But the employee doesn’t say anything but sits silently, glowering with clear, unblinking eyes at Human Resource. His face has significantly reddened and his fists, which he has placed about twelve inches apart on the table, are clenched. And for the first time during the interview, Human Resource is aware that the lightbulb, hanging just above his own head, is not just illuminating the room, but giving off a significant amount of heat.
Human Resource loosens his tie and unbuttons the top of his shirt. He feels a bead of sweat run from behind his ear and down his neck. He urgently feels the need to diffuse the tense situation and again invites the employee to speak up for himself.
Instead, the employee stands up and his scowl steadily becomes more of a smile. His fists begin to open and close, open and close. Human Resource notices that the employee is a big man, very big. His large, orange overalls become the room’s dominant colour, making it feel even hotter.
The shadow of the employee, cast upon the wall by the lightbulb, takes a sinister form in Human Resource’s mind. He too feels the urge to stand up, but when he does the employee’s long, thick arm reaches above his head to push the lightbulb, so that it sways to and fro on the flex. This causes both their shadows to merge in a kind of macabre, flickering foxtrot.
The now laughing employee repeatedly pushes the lightbulb. The walls begin to spin faster. The lightbulb goes higher and higher and pings each time it touches the ceiling. But it doesn’t smash, only causes the room to spiral out of Human Resource’s control. He feels the lightbulb’s thermal force each time it passes overhead.
Human Resource steps towards the door but the employee’s large, dark frame blocks his path and the swinging lightbulb continues to burn the air with a fiery intensity.
The last sign at the junction warned her not to go any further. But she didn’t pay heed. She was here now, in the lashing wind and rain, at the heart of a storm raging outside the car. She placed her hands on the steering wheel, biting her lip so firmly she could feel her teeth start to draw blood, feel the metallic taste as it trickled out. The rain continued to pelt against the windscreen, obscuring her view again the second the wipers cleared it, so that it almost seemed like there were shadows and shapes moving outside the glass, unsettling figures beckoning and tormenting, calling her to join them in their oblivion. Miserable wraiths seeking company.
But, no. She blinked her eyes clear, shook her head adamantly, determined she would not give in to this night, to this storm, to these imagined shapes outside that her consciousness was dreaming up. What was done was done, and childish guilt or fear about some divine retribution wasn’t going to help now. She had to compose herself, pull herself together, ignore the screaming of the wind and the lashing of the rain. Take control, make things…not right, perhaps, but at least limit the damage as much as she could, before more lives and hopes were destroyed, before a ripple effect took hold, before a chain reaction went off at the centre of her world. This was all down to her, and since she had started it, she had to finish it- she couldn’t fall to pieces with so much still needing to be done.
She stared at the sign outside again as the wipers cleared her view for a single second over and over. Stared at its simplicity, its nondescript design, sitting there by the road at this junction here in the middle of nowhere. She blinked. What foolish instinct had made her believe it was ‘warning’ her not to go further? How could an inanimate road sign give warning? It was ludicrous. Sheer reversion to the superstitious mindset of a child, just because she had crossed a line that that child would have found unthinkable. She had to get a grip. She had to grow up.
At least she still had the choice.
Ballymena , Northern Ireland
Christopher’s Twitter is @Moore_27Chris
Christopher has had a number of plays performed around the UK and Ireland, including London ('The Other Side', for Off The Cliff theatre's 'Metamorphoses' festival), Newcastle (‘Banter’, for Coracle theatre company’s ‘Suffragette’ event), York ('An Hour From The End', for Off The Rock Productions' 'The End of the World' event), and Edinburgh (‘Hotel Eirene’, for Shift’s ‘The Pride Plays’ festival), and was longlisted for the 2019 Bruntwood Prize. In short fiction, he has had work published by Pendora, Nightingale & Sparrow, The Mark Literary Review, A New Ulster, and Clover & White.
I tried to lock the two security doors. But I couldn’t. I walked back and sat down on a sofa in the well-lit living-room. Just when I saw them, they stood outside the two doors. A coal tar of dark night, splattered across the space. The two men were standing here. At the entrance of one door was my father. He stood with his two suitcases. He smiled and waited for my invitation to enter. He put his two suitcases down by his side on the ground. Too excited to see him, I smiled back. I rose from the sofa, to greet him. Just when I saw the other. This one was a stranger. Perhaps my father’s companion, he also stood with his two suitcases at the door. His smiles were not as cordial as my father’s. They were playful and tentative, hovered on his lips. My father looked stalky and slender in his white long shirt and white trousers. His companion, short and chubby. He wore an off white shirt and long pants. My father looked full-blooded, tight and fit, a young man; the stranger, also in his youth. Had they come over to visit to me? Perhaps, he and his companions, were passing through; they dropped by. They wanted to come in. But I didn’t invite them in. I stood resolutely rooted to the ground in the middle of the bright room, waiting to see what happened next. They waited, out in the dark, if I offered them food and drink. They must have been knackered with exhaustion. They needed a rest. But I didn’t move from where I stood. Neither did they. They kept smiling and looking at me; their two suitcases by the side. Were they time travelling? Why? My father was a citizen of a parallel universe. He had to be. Same with the companion; they may have accidentally fallen through a netted time rip. I felt ashamed of my behaviour that I didn’t invite them. They teetered on the brink of a seamless space of fantasy and reality. Yes, my father was in my space. He looked exactly the same age as me. The doors were open, but they didn’t come. They couldn’t, because they had become outsiders.
Depression held me in its brawny grip. Dizzy spells and nausea, pinned me to bed like dried butterfly on collector’s board. Passing in and out of reverie, each time I found myself in a waking sleep. Not sure how much of it was dream and how much a reality.
Tommy stopped to look at himself in a shop window. It might be a discount suit, he thought, but it fitted him well, it really did. The suit also seemed to give new life to his old shoes. Yes, he had given them a good polish that morning, but the suit matched the shoes perfectly and enabled them to shine as new. He turned to the side, proudly examined the cut and then walked on down the street, more than a little satisfied.
Truth be told, the suit had gotten him through the interview, only thirty minutes previous. Had he not been wearing the suit, he might have lost all confidence and nervously mumbled his way through the questions, as he usually did. But no, the suit seemed to stiffen his resolve and he had spoken calmly, clearly and to his own astonishment, intelligently. He now recalled how he had used some big words and in the correct context. The manager who’d interviewed him had worn a smart blue suit with an immaculate shirt and tie. If he was given the job, Tommy promised himself, he would buy at least two new suits with immaculate shirts and ties with his first salary. Definitely.
He was nearing the pub now and was really in need of a drink. He knew his mates would be in there, probably onto their third by this time. But instead of going in he kept on walking. He couldn’t take his suit in there, could he? No, it deserved better. Much better. It was the same at the bookies. He had a tip for the 2.30 at Doncaster – Town Tramp - but he passed by. It was no place for a suit such as his. No.
Instead, he took himself to the book shop café, Mother’s favourite haunt. He felt happy to help a pensioner called Irene take her heavy tray to her table. He introduced himself as Thomas and they sat together. She remarked how nice it was to see such a handsome young man wearing a suit. Her husband had always worn a Sunday suit, she said. He became a politer person then, more civilized somehow. Stopped spitting and swearing, that sort of thing. Tommy gave an understanding nod.
Before leaving he scanned some of the shelves and spotted a biography of Churchill sporting an impressive chalked stripped suit on the cover. Cool, thought Tommy, very cool. He was thinking of buying it when his phone rang. It was the manager telling him he’d got the job.
Tommy decided to go tell Mother. After all, she was the one who’d lent him the cash for the suit. Once there he walked straight into the house and gave her the good news. Oh Thomas, she said, I knew you’d get it. No wonder in that suit. You look like a new man, you really do! He smiled and caught his reflection in the hall mirror. Yes, I do, he said. I really do!
Bentley, South Yorkshire
I always come to the market on Friday’s. I love the colours, the flowers, the fruit and the hawkers when they shout: ‘Two for a pound!’
Robert runs the fruit and veg stall. He smiles and then turns away. I used to do my weekly shop with Robert. Not anymore, well ,not for the last six months anyway: that’s when the factory closed, six months ago. They said it was restructuring the business: whatever that means.
I went to two interviews last week. They smiled a lot and told me to take my time when trying to answer the questions. They would get back to me they said
.I blow into my woollen gloves . My glasses steam up.
I’ve got my shopping trolley and walk down Foregate street. St Mungo’s is at the end of the street...it’s not far from the market. I get to St. Mungo’s and go in. Doreen is there. I smile at Doreen and she smiles back. Doreen runs the food bank. You don’t mess with Doreen. I’m fourth in the queue. I rummage in my anorak for my shopping list. I pass the list to Doreen.
‘What’s this Rita?’
‘Cereal.’ My writing’s a bit spidery.
I’ve got another interview next week and the Social say my money should be coming through soon. I walk back up Foregate street and see Robert again. I wave to Robert. I don’t think he saw me.
My Nan said, ‘Hope springs eternal.’
I hope Nan’s right.
I miss my Nan.
Scrubbing, dusting, wiping floors, removing spider webs from the ceiling, removing spiders from my hair, cleaning built-in closets. Just scanning the whole house makes me want to live here again. All those memories. It’s so much harder to say good bye to it all.
Friday, June 28, 2019, the house is sold. Everything’s moved. Furniture gone. Hardly anything left behind. So empty. Cleaning it all. From the attic to the basement. Passing by that corner where my dad used to sit, next to the biggest window of the house. What a view: the garden, cows in the meadow, cornfields, the road and as far as one can see, the mill of Tielt on the highest hill in the area, called ‘De Poelberg’. My dad, in his comfy seat, always on the phone, calling his colleagues, his friends and family all the time. That was a big part of his social life, his life...
Hot today. Summer. I am taking a break, writing in my notebook, sitting in the grass, ants crawling all over me. Life-in-farmland, flies everywhere. My mother, somewhere, smoking a cigarette and feeling pleased, because she found some of her old canvases back of the attic, in the dust. One has a painting with me on it. Sculpting gear was found as well. Nice for me! spending some time in the grass reminds me of parties going on here. Very hippie spontaneous garden parties. Friends, also from my mom’s art school and family coming over on a sunny Sunday: BBQ lit. Sunbathing in the garden, naked. For us, kids, it was a natural thing to be part of that, except for the naked sunbathing.
Later today, we will put our initials on the beam. This house, that used to be my home for over 50 years. Back to cleaning now. Vacuuming the two old bedrooms, one small and the other even smaller. Sharing those with my two brothers.
17h10 Yeah! Done cleaning and it is very hot now. The breeze is gone. Having a small Jupiler in the garden and I am alone. My mother left. Rik dropped by to pick up all what’s left for the container park. Haven’t seen Kris yet. He still has to tag on the beam, in the attic. Quite nice actually. Who gave me that idea :) It says: 1968-2019 Tavernier Eva, Rik and Kris , something like that.
17h31. Still here and daydreaming, so quiet. Only birds and thoughts. Nice thoughts, nice feelings, my youth. I guess I am the only one of our family who has a hard time leaving this place behind. I am also the only one- except for my mom, but that’s another story - that left West-Vlaanderen to live in Mechelen. My visits here were always coming home. Spending time here with the kids.
Home was home, safe place, philosophizing with my dad for hours, drinking Mateus Rosé. Lots of bottles have passed over the years. I wonder if it still exists?
17.50 pm. Bye bye...leaving - but never forgotten.
Difficult To Talk
A locked door. Heavy and cold.
That’s how it feels. I can’t break through it and I can’t find the key.
Sitting alone in semi darkness, I can’t find the words, so instead I stare. Burdened by colourful images of joy and laughter which permeate my own black and grey. I’m restless with self-doubt; sat in silence, shoulders slumped with the pictures bouncing off my despair.
My phone beeps beside me, so I glance down.
‘You okay hun?’
Okay? I’m good, fine, just getting by, hanging on by a thread, struggling, desperate, desolate.
‘I’m okay… you?’ My fingers type with ease.
Restlessly, I close the laptop and swing my feet to the floor. I should probably eat. My skin has been showing the extent of my skeletal form for some time now. Pallid and tired. I’m not fit for ‘Insta’ sharing. Who would want to ‘like’ this? I don’t even like it.
I drag myself to the kitchen and steady my breathing, as I fumble to open the biscuits. The scars on my arm are itching. I pull the sleeve down to cover them. Who am I hiding them from? There’s no-one here? There’s never been anyone here.
My friends invited me out, thinking it would help, but I was in a room full of people, feeling the loneliest I’ve ever felt. So I shut myself away, becoming alone as well as lonely.
My phone buzzed.
‘I’m coming over. No arguments.’
No! I’m not ready. I’m not worthy. I can’t do this. Not now. Not ever.
My hands tremble as I rummage in the cupboard. Small, white labelled cylinders stacked neatly, like soldiers, waiting to be brought into battle. Waiting for the order to attack, ready to charge. Each one a silent assassin.
I ready myself for battle, taking a look around at the emptiness, embracing the final moments of calm. I take a deep breath and give the order to ‘charge’.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Keep repeating the same thing again and again and expect a different outcome. Something like that: madness or stupidity? Something like that. Not sure who said it. Why not tell people straight if what they are doing- or proposing- is downright dick stupid? You say nothing they keep doing the same dumb thing. How many items of clothing do you really need? New fashion!-jeez , must buy. Then the old ones sit on the shelf for the next three years doing jack.
Maybe it’s a collective mania? Trouble overseas?... let’s go help those guys...then the liberatorcum-helper becomes the occupier and the colonial or imperial she devil. We keep doing it. We need to civilise them, get ‘em to think western, wear suits and have a democracy-cum-tribal war- you gotta be tribal... that’s civilised democracy... western tribal beats your ‘tribal tribal.’ You get a whole new democratic tribal skill set: half-truths, lies, talk shit, ignore the obscenities your equivalent tribes in their countries are up to and hit the others hard. That’s civilisation man. You gotta buy in-don’t be a dumb ass.
They say I should eat less meat as this contributes to global warming. Does me not eating a pork chop keep the temperature rise below 1,5C? Politicians tell us to eat less meat then they go to The Mayor’s Banquet and feast on foie gras and steak before jumping into the limo and flying back to wherever they came from.
Three years ago, nearly four years ago, you thought this was a good idea and now you know a shed load more about what will happen that you knew nothing about when we first talked bout it. All those experts telling you things will get worse and all those politicians telling you there’s a brave new world out there-no details, no specifics but it-whatever it might be-will be gloriousso come on! Let’s march towards the new Jerusalem: it’s not built yet-Jerusalem- but the builder that we’ve never met said it will be no problem and glorious. Millions loved the idea. Millions thought the idea crazy. But the first millions were more millions than the Doom Sayers so the not Doom Sayers won and the other millions lost. It’s a win lose game. Is that a zerosum game? Or does everyone lose?... just some lose more than others. Some you win some you lose ain’t that the truth. As long as I’m ok who cares about anyone else. Not my fault. Someone else’s fault.
East Coast West Coast
I’m sorry so many of the photos are terrible. Did you know that every time you alter a JPEG, it corrupts slightly? It’s a lossy format. It degrades over time, with no recovery.
This is the sandy beach I lived near as a baby. Right on the Tay. The bobble hat tells you it was freezing that day. Mum and Dad took me there to walk because sand is a cushion when you land. It’s also wet and cold. Getting it out from under your fingernails is a little bit like torture when you’re that age.
Look how strong I thought I was at five. Half naked on the West coast of Scotland and flexing my biceps. The sandcastle in the background built by my Dad but I took the credit.
Now I’m eight. Christmas, but Dad is absent. A bracing morning walk. It’s boring, I think I said, we’re here all the time. I told Mum I wanted to go to the West coast, like we did once before. I thought about Dad and castles and started to cry. Mum said it would be okay.
Fast forward one year to Syke. Mum drove all the way, just for me. On the left is the best Harry Potter book. On the right is my Gameboy. Coke or an Irn Bru in every café. Traybakes.
That blur in the bottom-left corner is my puppy. Soaking wet. Was this the day he first tried to swim? I don’t remember…I don’t know why I’m mentioning that.
Chin stubble. Sweat. The puppy is a dog now. Almost every day we went to the stony beach. Threw rocks. I kept thinking about girls at school and I went a little mad. I remembered a girl I’d met on Skye. She’d be fourteen now too. Was she also going mad?
When I took this, I wanted to die. Re-establishing contact with my Dad had led to a falling out. I remember walking the estuary at night. Alone.
A picture with a girl by the river. Her name was Mandy. I never told Mandy she reminded me of that little girl I met on Skye: the degrading ghost I still carry in my head.
A close up of a raindrop. Mum decided to take us back to Skye. We visited all the old places. Half the time it was pure nostalgia. The other half it rained and I felt hollow.
The wayward traveller returns. I’m twenty four in this photo, feeling ancient, standing there on the doorstep with a shaky smile. Asking myself what I live for. Scattered memories edited in my favour? No. I’d like to claim the changing sky, plains lit from afar, the rolling of the river from the estuary’s mouth to Loch Tay, but in that picture I’m cold and wet and alone on the beach, and it’s a little bit like torture.
Not So Sweet Shop
Although Jude has come into the shop with no notion of stealing anything, the situation suddenly seems to demand that he does.
Mr Scotter isn’t behind the counter as usual, but in the rear caring for his wife who, according to Jude’s mother, has recently had something called a stroke. Jude can hear her moaning softly. It sounds like Mr Scotter is trying to alter her position.
Jude instinctively feels that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity and all thoughts of right or wrong barely cross his excited mind. He quickly races behind the counter, past the tobacco and onto the sweets, reaching for the nearly full jar of chocolate raisins; not the cherry lips, sherbet lemons or rainbow mixture, but chocolate raisins.
The choice is a no-brainer. As far as Jude is concerned, chocolate raisins are the taste of paradise on Earth. He can ill afford them with his Saturday shilling, but his mother will occasionally offer him a small handful of her own. The delicious, creamy outside mixed with the juicy pleasure of the inside always feels perfect on his tongue. The bliss of a mouthful is the closest he has yet come to any sort of over-indulgence. Also, they are a safer option, unlike some of the boiled sweets that mostly makes up his sugary diet. Like sour apples for instance, just a couple of which can tear open the roof of your mouth.
Quickly filling the two main pockets of his parker, Jude places the half-filled jar carefully back on the shelf and, making sure he is in the all-clear, quietly tip-toes out of the shop and, as casually as he can, steps out onto the street.
Within a minute or so, he is sitting on the wall behind the Methodist chapel, his usual sweet spot. Undisturbed, he quickly begins to devour his hoard. One or two at a time at first but then mouthful after mouthful. Initially, Jude is lost in some sort of reverie, a kind of confectionery-induced ecstasy, and it isn’t until he has finished the first pocketful that he begins to think about the implications of his actions.
Slowly, he begins to feel remorse for the theft. What bad has Mr Scotter ever done to him? Come to think of it, he is the most generous of all the shopkeepers in the village. When reading the scales, he always gives you some extra which takes the needle over the two ounces. By the time Jude has eaten the last raisin all his joy has gone. How would he ever be able to innocently enter the shop again? His mother had once said Mr Scotter had made a lot of money by helping to ruin people’s lungs and teeth, but what use were those words to him now? Poor Mr Scotter with his ill wife.
Even a go on the park swings can’t alleviate his guilt and nearing home he pukes up his swag into a gutter.
Hull, East Yorkshire
Falstaff 37, England