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ÉCLAT FICTION


ÉCLAT FICTION

AN ONLINE FICTION ANTHOLOGY

EDITOR: Matthew Morgan - matthew@eclatfiction.com

www.eclatfiction.com | contact@eclatfiction.com

Copyright © Éclat Fiction 2012


CONTENTS Knees (first place prize winner)

7

Evidence of Joy (second place prize winner)

16

Jason Jackson

James Withey

Persephone (third place prize winner)

23

Clare Fielder

Leftovers

29

Alun Evans

Afternoon James O’Neill

36


Ivy

40

Sal Page

Where’s Margaret?

45

Elaine Taylor

This is Oxford Road

53

Chris Smith

Jonas is a Good Boy

60

Stephanie Lam

Sparkling Fires in the Darkness

68

Helen Ladderbird

Psammophile Postcards Daniel Carpenter

73


Prior Possession

76

Sarah Evans

The House of the Dead

86

Michael Marett-Crosby

The Jeweller’s Assistant Katie Anderson

95


Jason Jackson

K

atie’s dancing in a shaft of sunlight. The living room’s hot, because San shut the window, and Katie’s bare-legged and barefoot.

She’s spinning, grinning, the music nowhere else but inside her head. I smile, but San doesn’t even look. Not at Katie, not at me. It’s been three days. I get up, reach for Katie’s hands. ‘Here,’ I say. ‘Let me dance with you.’ And as we start to spin, we’re both laughing. The sun is shining. It’s June. Everything should be beautiful. Suddenly, Katie stops. Lets go of my hands. There’s that look, as if the world has a secret. ‘Daddy?’ she says. ‘What’s knees for?’ ‘Knees?’ I say. ‘What they for?’ She’s tapping them. Both hands. I look over at San. I want to share this. Like always. She stands up, walks out. She doesn’t even look at us. Katie looks at the open door, then at me. ‘What’s wrong with Mummy?’ ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘She’s always sad.’ ‘I know.’ She looks up at me. The incredible blue of her eyes. ‘Is she sad with me?’ And I reach out for her, hug her. For me. Not for her. * San’s on the bed, lying on her back. She’s closed the window, drawn the curtains. Her old summer dress, faded yellow, makes a tent over her drawn-up knees. Her eyes are closed. I sit down next to her. ‘Knees are for making tents out of dresses,’ I say. I don’t touch her, although I’ve never wanted to more. She turns onto her side, her back to me, and pulls her knees up as close to her chin as they’ll go. Her hands are together, pushing the thin material between her thighs. ‘Katie says you’re sad. She thinks she’s done something wrong.’ The room is dead still. No sound. I can see the sun through the thin curtains, a small, white circle. ‘San,’ I say. But there’s nothing. * ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


The park is full of children, parents, dogs. Summer. Chris passes me a cigarette. ‘You still given up?’ ‘Yeah,’ I say, as he lights it for me. We watch Katie and Chloe on the swings. They’re screeching with life. I say, ‘It’s worse, this time.’ ‘You always say that.’ ‘Three days,’ I say. ‘Three fucking days.’ ‘What about Katie?’ ‘San ignores her.’ ‘Not right,’ he says. ‘Shouldn’t hurt the kid like that.’ ‘Today’s the first time Kate’s said anything about it.’ I drop the cigarette, disgusted with it already. ‘It’s almost as if, when San stops talking, she just realises, like - Mummy’s not really here again - and she just gets on with it.’ ‘What happened today?’ ‘She asked what was wrong. Asked if it was her fault.’ ‘Listen,’ he says, turning to me. ‘If it’s affecting the kid, you got to do something.’ ‘Like what?’ I say. ‘What do you want me to do?’ ‘Doctors.’ ‘She won’t do it. Doesn’t trust them.’ ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


He turns away. We watch the girls. Swinging. Laughing. After a while I say, ‘Could I have another cigarette, please?’ and he laughs. * As soon as I pull into the drive, I know. The windows are open. All of them. The curtains too. I turn off the engine, and I can hear the radio up loud, chart music. Katie is down the path and into the house before I’m even out of the car. They’re both in the kitchen. A smell of garlic. Coriander. Tomatoes. The heat is a solid thing. Katie’s laughing. ‘Look! It doesn’t hurt now, but it did! Daddy kissed it, and he made me get back on the climbing thing again so I wouldn’t be scared, and I wasn’t!’ She’s pointing at her knee, and San’s crouching down, holding Katie’s leg. She’s smiling right into her daughter’s eyes, as blue as her own. ‘Good girl,’ she’s saying. ‘My good, brave girl.’ I stand in the doorway. It’s so hot it’s hard to breathe. San looks at me. ‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘I’m better now.’ And she is. * I’m kissing Katie, tucking her in, then I’m running down the stairs, grabbing my wallet. I smile at the babysitter – her first time, seems lovely, she’ll be fine – and I’m into the cab where San has been waiting, and I ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


tell the driver the city centre, Leo’s, and he starts talking football, and we’re five minutes away before I realise. ‘San,’ I say. Nothing. ‘San, please. Not tonight.’ She’s looking away from me, out of the window. We’re already there. She gets out while I pay, and she’s up the front steps and inside with me still behind. Chris and Helen are at the table, and she walks over to them, and I’m following, thinking, maybe she’s ok. Maybe it was just the cab. She kisses them both. Hugs them. Sits. I’m watching her as I kiss Helen, shake Chris’ hand. She’s a hundred miles away. They notice straight away. ‘San,’ says Helen. ‘You ok?’ ‘She’s not feeling too great,’ I say, and I give them the look. And then it’s as if she’s just not there. The three of us talk. We even laugh. San drinks a little water. When the waitress comes, I order for her, and no one says a word about it. It’s easier when the food comes, at least for a few minutes. We can eat, not talk, and it feels almost normal. San eats a few mouthfuls, then ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


puts her knife and fork down. She just sits, staring at the plate. Chris wants to know where we’re going on holiday. Helen thinks my shirt is one I used to wear years ago, before the wedding, even, and I laugh. We’re trying, amongst ourselves. San stands up. Brushes down her dress. Walks away from the table. Helen goes to stand too, but I reach across, touch her hand. ‘Leave her,’ I say. I take a long drink of wine. ‘I mean, what’s the point?’ ‘It’s getting worse, isn’t it?’ says Helen. ‘She’s been fine for weeks,’ I say. ‘Well, at least a week.’ ‘Christ, she’s my best friend and I can’t do a thing about it.’ ‘How do you think I fucking feel?’ I say, then straight away, ‘Sorry. ‘ Helen nods, looks away, and I drain my wine glass. When I put it down I see that there’s only a fork on San’s plate. Her knife has gone. I look around, and just as I do there’s a scream from the toilets. A waitress heading back to the kitchen breaks into a run, pushes open the toilet door, and I’m already on my feet, shouting. A woman, still screaming, stumbles out of the toilets, looks about her, and I push past her, yelling ‘San!’ * I’ve drawn the curtains around the bed. She’s asleep. It’s quiet in the ward, most of the other beds are empty, or the patients are in the dayroom or somewhere. San is lying on top of the covers because of ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


the heat. I forgot her nightie, and the hospital gown is too short. The bruises beneath her knees, from where she fell in the cubicle, are deep blue, black. Her wrists are still bandaged. She’s sleeping. She’s slept for pretty much the whole two days. Sedated. Nothing too strong, but enough. The doctors said the first thing she needed to do was rest. Sleep. Then we’ll take it from there. I cried when I told them about it. I cried. Not because I was embarrassed, or worried, or sad. I cried with relief. Because now it can start. Whatever it is. It can start now. She coughs a little, turns over towards me. Her eyes open. I smile. ‘Hi,’ I say. She blinks, doesn’t smile. ‘You ok?’ I say. ‘No,’ she says. ‘I hurt.’ ‘Yeah,’ I say. ‘You had an accident.’ ‘No I didn’t,’ she says. ‘I know what I did.’ I just look at her, those eyes. Incredible blue. ‘I’m sorry,’ she says, and I shake my head, but she says ‘No. I am.’ ‘I don’t know what to do,’ I say. ‘Tell me what to do.’ ‘It’s not you,’ she says. ‘I don’t know what it is.’ ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


‘Hey,’ I say. ‘No need to explain.’ ‘It’s just, everything.’ She coughs, and I hand her a glass of water. She has to sit up to drink it, and I see how weak she is. ‘You don’t need to talk now,’ I say. ‘You need rest.’ ‘I need to tell you. It’s stupid, but I need to.’ I nod. ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I really don’t. But sometimes it feels like I’m not really there. When I’m with you, or Katie, or wherever. It feels like I’m watching myself, doing whatever I’m doing, whoever I’m doing it with. I feel like it’s on television, or something.’ I smile, or try to. ‘Look...’ I say. ‘You know how I really feel, though? I feel like I want to turn it off. The stuff I’m watching. It just bores me. Annoys me, even. And I want to switch it off.’ ‘San,’ I say. ‘Sleep.’ I touch her knee, stand up, lean over, kiss her cheek. ‘Just sleep.’ And she does. * Katie’s dancing in a shaft of sunlight. There’s a cooling breeze coming through the open window, and Katie’s bare-legged and barefoot. There’s still a small circle of pink on her knee from where she fell in the park, and while she’s spinning, grinning, the music nowhere else but inside ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


her head, I’m crying, a little. She stops. ‘Daddy?’ she says. ‘I wipe my eyes. ‘Yes, darling?’ ‘Is Mummy still sad?’ ‘A little bit.’ ‘Is she coming home today?’ ‘Not today, darling,’ I say ‘Not today.’ And I reach out for her, hug her. For me, and for her.

ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


James Withey

T

here is a moment after the film has finished when you see beauty all around you. People are lit from the side, their imperfections

become characteristics, they are the film. Snatches of conversations become the beginning or end of a scene, little smiles, the pain behind her eyes, luring you in for their close up, you haven’t left yet. Slowly, hopefully very slowly as sometimes you can extend the magic, it seems like everything will be OK, money worries, tricky relationships, what to have for tea, all seem manageable and easy. It’s like spring with its heralding of optimism. This isn’t a story of woe. It’s about trying to find pleasure again, seeing, or I think it should be ‘seizing’ actually, seizing what you can. Capturing that cinema magic in a small box, one that fits in your pocket and taking it out when you need to. Not a box for a ring, not one that sticks out and feels awkward as you sweat at the front of the church but one that contours to your leg, that feels as if it has always been there. ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


Now I see. I’m collecting evidence of joy like Mary Anning on the beach. I shall guide you through. ‘Through’, anything better than ‘through’? Cant think. I shall guide you through the day, my day, my moments of pleasure. That’s Kate Bush I am sure. Can I use that? I want to use that. I do want to use it. Come. Out of the cinema under the tunnel smelling of salt and pee, onto the beach. A young woman talks in Spanish on her phone, is she shouting? She neither looks cross nor happy just loud. Not a care for the noise she is making, speaking in another language in a foreign country gives you confidence, you can pretend that no one understands you even if they do, she can shout at her lover, her teacher, her mother and not be disturbed; no looks of disapproval no tuts of annoyance from the crowd. She is small and dark and perfect for that part, she strides along the esplanade and the sea doesn’t care. She is only here for this moment and then she is drowned out by a tannoy shrieking the order number from the takeaway kiosk. 133. A puppy strolls gamely looking for its next fix, you will do and he sniffs the woman’s ankles who giggles and strokes his head, a small red scarf wrapped around his neck at an angle that can only be described as jaunty. If dogs can be jaunty or angles on dogs can be jaunty. Joggers approach, two men, one panting like, no wait, it can’t be ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


‘like a dog’. He pants and wheezes but jogs on, the other man slightly behind breathing easily and unconcerned by his asthmatic lover. The one behind has ‘Dancing is Life’ on his T shirt and he doesn’t look like a dancer, no toned thighs, no nubile muscled body, a slight paunch and a full head of red hair. I imagine him swaying in his flat on Sunday evening trying to push Monday morning back like King Canute, he sways and dances, perhaps his hand on his stomach and the other in the air, small steps he dances with a glass of single malt in a suitably heavy glass and his suit hanging on the wardrobe door, already pressed. I pass the beach huts. A couple open the padlocked door, take out their white plastic chairs sit and sigh as if Mustique has suddenly descended. Some cake is taken out of a metal tin which is also wrapped in cling film and I smell coffee. I want them to have a red flask but it’s silver and new and one that I associate with serious camping. He smiles and I feel like I have invaded their world, I look away embarrassed, suddenly sorry for seeing their comfort. They may as well be naked and embracing. I envy their harmony and their cake; I want some of both but it’s rude to ask. I think I am OK. I hear and then see the back of a man playing guitar on the beach, lost. This is too perfect I think, no one actually plays guitar on the beach, but he is here and he does. I hate him a little. I can hear the strings but don’t know if he is singing, maybe he has forgotten the words, maybe ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


he never knew them. Why is he not at work I wonder. A woman in a grey two piece suit with matching hair skips lightly from the grass to the esplanade, her top serious and made of good wool but the skirt with pleats that swing like Doris Day. Her ID badge is fixed to the lapel and annoys, it spoils this picture, it’s the bungee that will pull her back to her desk. I want her too fling the badge into the sea and let her run and jump on the pebbles as she slowly descends the stone escalator slopes. But the freedom of the sun and the sea are enough for her, she likes her job, she can marry the e-mails with the salty air, it doesn’t jar for her. Skateboarders, four of them. I assume they are all together but as they gently move their balletic feet to turn and jump with small precision, they do not see each other. One can move the board 360 degrees and land like a dragonfly on a lily pad, the other tries but falls and by disguising his mistake convinces me that he meant to do this all along. I like him more, he is middle aged and too old for this board but his quiet enthusiasm pleases. I see two more now, on the bench preparing, like Olympic ice dancers, limbering up. A young man puts on black knee pads with care and his friend laughs. A mother and her son enter, the enthusiasm from the boy on the scooter infectious, he turns checking his mum is still behind and bellows for her to hurry up. She smiles. I want to go to, to have the small sandwiches ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


in the raffia bag hanging limply from the push chair, to smile and see if I can have an ice cream about three o’clock, to go home to an hour of TV and then a bath. I do see them. I can see them. They are there, not in my head, not part of this pain. The darkness is abated for now. It’s a bit like a gift this, I can write, it’s all just coming. Does anyone believe this? Back. A man looks and catches my eye. Is he? I don’t know; I look away to the sea to show I don’t care, he smiles reticently and moves along the conveyor belt. He is blond and his hair recedes beautifully, damn it, it recedes like the waves. Damn it. My shoes start squeaking and I sit again. An older couple walk closely together but don’t touch, they have practised this for years. His stomach comes first and seconds later his glasses. I can’t see her properly but I know she loves him. She puts up with his home made beer and longing for Bridget Bardot, she knows he is unbearable until the second cup of tea and perhaps an egg. She knows he won’t be around for ever, this she knows. They are like layers of leaves this couple. I wonder if it’s a second marriage for them both, first husband died of cancer, he left his wife; son lives in Suffolk but comes and stays every September. They met I think in a library, please let it be a library, crime fiction, large print. I’ll take two, in case it can’t get on with the first. He adjusts his glasses and ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


talks. They don’t see me. Is this enough. I am wondering. I walk now, the endless mile. Two people on bikes, they’re not allowed to be on their bikes here, there are signs. They ignore them or don’t care. Give me a prescription, even a small one of this ennui, this breaking of the rules. I shall take it every day, I won’t miss a dose taken as prescribed, I promise. I shall take it until I can cycle and leave it behind, pedalling and pedalling breaking local by-laws with glee. Perhaps this lobotomy of care is what I need, a purging of empathy, no longer shall I give a toss. She shouts to him and they both swerve nearly missing a couple who smile, enjoying the game and it’s OK. Can I swap places with any of them please. That was a polite please. Near the end now. A man passes and smells familiar of mothballs and old wooden wardrobes in the spare room. A 1950’s smell that I’m not old enough to remember, but I do and I think it must be a relative, one from childhood whom you visit never quite being sure about who they are and how they are related to you; in any case it doesn’t matter as someone is coming round with biscuits. He looks pre-occupied and were he not striding along he would be lost, if he keeps walking he can get through, just keep walking. He is wearing a T-shirt this sunny day which is too small for him but the only thing not needing a wash, I won’t see her anyway. ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


Who is left. Just two more. The woman sitting in her chair, a directors chair boasting in racing green and cream, the back rest waiting for its role as she bends forward to tie her shoe lace, her pumps, her white pumps. As she rises she spies a spot of mud and rubs it briskly with her handkerchief violently awoken after sleeping up her sleeve. She frowns and I want to approach her and let her see the sun, the sea, look. You’re one to talk aren’t you? When did you last see the sun? Then she stretches her legs and rests them on the black rail that protects the beach from its people. I glimpse her legs, grafted snakes skin. One more. He sits and I watch him. Bent in prayer, silently pleading. Let the pain go, let it be OK, let the hurt dissipate, let it dissolve into the water and slide away. The channel of water is blocked by small children making damns without consequences; sophistication and wide eyed carelessness. He waits and looks up checking to see if something has changed, a sign from the water, a pebble that appeals, a glance from a stranger who knows the future. But nothing. I go to greet him. All my trials Lord, soon be over.

ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


Clare Fielder

T

oday you put on your dark jeans that cling to your figure and are stiff from the wash. Several minutes pass before you can really

bend your knees. Then you choose your long, light blue shirt that makes you look skinny because of the way it settles in the hollow spaces behind your collarbones, then skims your body and buttons up tight at the wrists. You smooth your hair over your forehead with the palms of your hands, like you are stroking a cat. You drink strong coffee and check your appearance only once in the hallway mirror before leaving the house. When you walk along the streets near where you live you say in your head, Be normal be normal be normal, but that doesn’t stop you counting the bricks in the walls. Counting. Your days are spent in the shadows of numbers and a desperation not to see things as coming in threes. On Tuesdays you go to see your therapist. This one’s not too bad because she doesn’t smile down at you like some of them do – the ones who insist on the power of positive thinking and affirmations. The last one told you to find God. She may or may not have had genuine qualifications. ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


The surgery is an imposing concrete building caught between a building site and the old dockworkers cottages. It looks like a lumbering giant, tired and out of proportion in a city where it is unwelcome and ridiculed. The receptionist knows your face by now and nods to you as you enter and go straight through to the waiting room. It is the waiting room, more than anything, that makes you feel like a sick person. You sit on the edge of a chair, trying not to touch anything with your bare skin. The only other people there are old – they wear cardigans and hats even though it is nearly summer – or have children slumped against them. Everyone is trying not to look at everyone else. You cough pathetically. You wish you hadn’t dressed so carefully. You are certain that you stand out. You are too clean. They will all know, then, that your problems are more internal than theirs. You feel guilty. Your mouth fills with the taste of pomegranates and you think you might choke as they call your name and say that they are ready for you now. You enter the brightly lit room, decorated with posters of famous paintings. They are faded from the sunlight and look like ghosts, barely remembered images of a vase of flowers, a girl, a window that someone saw once a long time ago. You wish someone would change them – you are tired of half-colours. They ask, How have you been this week? You say that you are fine, as always. You would be more inclined to ÉCLAT FICTION

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talk if the room looked out on something other than tower blocks. You miss the countryside, but your mother insisted on moving away. She thought that it would be too hard to walk past the same places, to smell the same flowers on the rain. She couldn’t bear the thought of it. For her the crops, the trees and the soil were all the colour of tragedy. You understand, of course. When He dragged you under He tore the seams of the fields apart. Have you been sleeping? You understand, but you cannot help missing the place where you grew up. It is even more a part of you now – you have seen it from the other side – and every day you ache to be away from it. You spent so many days in the dark and now you are confined to a city where even the light is bleak. It is just another kind of prison. Have you been eating? You pick at your nails. This is the real reason why you are here. Your moment of weakness. I eat fine, you say, even though you know that they don’t believe you. But, in a way, it’s true. Putting hand to mouth was never the problem; it is restraint you’ve struggled with. You’re learning, though. You’ve learnt to almost like the feeling of emptiness you have in the mornings, the sensation of your bones slowly revealing themselves. Solidity, substance only reminds you of Him.

ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


They ask, Do you feel restless? No. Do you feel lethargic? No. Do you feel anything? Your mother had known Him once, a long time ago. That was when He was kinder, gentler and less ruined. Before He had seen so much, she says. You know that she blames herself for what happened to you. You hear her at night, whispering in the dark and asking the shadows for forgiveness. You want to take her hand and tell her that you’re sorry, that you wish you had been able to wait a few more days. But you can’t tell her and you can’t go back so you breathe slowly and you count and you skip meals. Before that day you had known so much less. You had not understood how something could seem like salvation but leave you feeling so weak. Discovery is a painful process. You tasted the fruit and now there is no Paradise left for anyone. Your therapist gives you worksheets with boxes to fill in. You mark your mood on a scale and count the hours of sleep you’ve had this week and she makes a graph of your anxiety levels. They have not got higher or lower and you don’t know what this means but you don’t ask either. You feel like you are watching someone else and judging their ability to ÉCLAT FICTION

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live. You realise that you are not doing well. You think of the anxious look your mother gives you whenever you come home and you remember, dimly, a time when you didn’t know that look. You realise that you should be trying harder. You’ve just been doing what they tell you and waiting for something to happen, because something always happens if you give it time. Eventually you decide it is time to talk. You say that whenever you are on your own you end up thinking the same way. You say you think about seeds and then you think about circles. A plant sprouts, then grows, its seeds are scattered and copies of it are made. It lasts. You think that you are growing now, but a time will come when you give part of yourself away and something new will take root. You will teach it what you know, but you have known fear and weakness and loss, and you do not want to share these things with something that has the hope of innocence. So you try to find new patterns. You count and you try to break the cycle by withdrawing. You think this will make you stronger. When you leave the surgery the clouds have started to gather, but the air is still and quiet. The city is muffled and a siren in the distance sounds like it comes from somewhere deep, like it is only half-real. You walk towards the high street and you don’t see anyone else, even though you are looking frequently to the left and right. Then you walk past the new flats and when you look back you see a face. Your heart tightens, ÉCLAT FICTION

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like an elastic band stretched and about to snap. There is a child, a boy, looking out of a window on the ground floor and as you watch he places a palm on the glass, small and very white. You relax slightly and raise a hand in response. Then the boy looks over his shoulder into the room beyond them and you turn and walk away. When the storm breaks the first thing you feel is relief, even though the rain makes your jeans heavy and you’ll hate peeling them off when you get home and the cold will have made your thighs red and sore. Your shirt sticks to you and water runs into your eyes and mouth, but still it is like the darkness in your chest is being washed away. You understand that things are hard now – for you, for your mother and for Him. But later you will be warm. You will go home and you will eat because that will make your mother smile. And one day she will not whisper at night and you will be able to feel fear without thinking of pomegranates. You will not have to protect yourself from numbers. Tonight, when the rain has stopped, you will get out of bed, open the window and breathe. You will think that the city is gentler and, for a day or less, it will smell like the countryside and you will be able to call it home.

ÉCLAT FICTION

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MAY 2012


Alun Evans

T

hey had emptied all their belongings into the middle of the floor and were sat back down on the room’s only couch, staring

at them. The mound had reached the ceiling and looked like it could collapse at any moment. David knew this was the end. He looked at Sarah, over at the other end of the couch, and could see her lips moving. She was making some kind of inventory and he stayed quiet, not wanting to disturb her. In the silence he scratched at his Adam’s apple, feeling the rough stubble’s gradual transition into downy fur as his hand moved further down his throat. When her lips had stopped moving, Sarah turned to him and smiled. “Thirty-three,” she said. David shook his head, meaning he didn’t know what the number meant, what his wife had decided to talk about in these final moments. “Odd socks,” she said. “I count thirty-three of them. And that’s just ÉCLAT FICTION

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the ones I can see from here, without digging.” David looked down at his bare feet. Black, curling hairs wrapped around the tops of his toes. Both him and Sarah were naked. His wife looked the better for it. He was all beer curves, and bruises, scratches and bites from the other woman. The “other woman”, what a sad and soiled term. He moved his eyes away from his own body and looked at Sarah. She had been going to the gym for the past two years. Recently she had upped her game and it had become four nights a week. She said she liked sweating with strangers. She had told him it was a strange and delicate type of intimacy. He had nodded, and then indicated that she might think to seek professional help on that matter. That was when they still laughed about things. David was going to try and negotiate with nostalgia, but gave up almost immediately, simply because he couldn’t remember any of the good times. For him, it was all swamped up with jealousy and bitterness, and he was pretty sure it was the same for Sarah. The nearest he could get was a time when Sarah had told him he wasn’t man enough, and to prove her wrong he had thrown a bottle of beer through the television screen. The bottle was half-full and had stayed lodged into the television, upright, not spilling a drop. They had been watching a nature programme about Polar Bears and their mating ÉCLAT FICTION

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habits. The screen went blank, the room quiet. What are we going to do now, arsehole? Sarah had asked him. She had looked so mock-stern that he’d burst into laughter, half-drunk and manic. Sarah had started laughing too. What was a television, when they had that little bit of laughter filling the room? Sarah could remember other times when they had laughed together. Though when she thought about it in any detail, it always seemed like they had been laughing at someone: Jayne McCraig tripping in her ridiculous heels at her mother’s third wedding; Martin Shaw crashing his luxury Mercedes through his own garage door; Nigel, her father’s friend, who had pissed himself at the old man’s funeral. These were the times that remained lucid. All the other laughter, directed not at other’s misfortunes but at happiness and good times, had simply decided to go and hide, locked up nice and tight somewhere in her overspilling cranium. And it was overspilling, and when she looked at the mess they had made in the middle of the floor, that is what she thought of: her own battered and wasted brain. The admission had been almost simultaneous. David fell through the door drunk, guilt and bawling and telling everything about Josephine, the other woman; Sarah nodding and relieved, talking about how it was strangers that made her feel anything any more, how the anonymity of it seemed to be the only thing that made any sense. ÉCLAT FICTION

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All this didn’t explain why they had shed their clothes, or why they had decided to put all their belongings into the middle of the floor, mixing in his and hers, letting it all become one grand hybrid mess of two gradually diverging lives. It had made both of them feel better when they’d decided to do it. Of course they were drunk, who wouldn’t be? To face up to a reality as depressing as having spent five years of life as wasteage, you had to get shit-faced, there was no way around it. And so, finding the bottle of Jamesons that had been given to David for not only completing but doubling his monthly sales output, Sarah had poured them each a half-pint, no mixers, and they had got to work gutting the drawers and cabinets and cubby holes and magazine racks and shelves of the house. Everything that gave the house “character”, that had made them feel as though they lived somewhere just like other couples did, and that they were content to do just that. It had been David’s idea to strip. It was right after they’d finished taking everything they could find into the living-room. It seemed like the mountainous heap was missing the clothes they were wearing, David had observed. It was stupid to be wearing clothes when the rest of the house was ransacked and hollow. There was nothing sexual about it, he said. And after all, they’d seen each other naked many times before; it wasn’t like it was virgin territory, so to speak. Sarah argued at first, ÉCLAT FICTION

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briefly, but relented as soon as David’s shoes were flung high up onto their masterpiece. It looked like fun. Neither of them felt lonely. Sarah topped up their drinks from the remaining whiskey. They had wedged the bottle in at the base of the heap, within easy reach. David drank the golden liquid slowly now. His head had begun to move of its own accord, and he was finding it hard distinguishing the walls from the ceiling. He focused on Sarah. “Are you moving about?” Sarah looked down at her pale, freckled body and let out a mild burp. “I don’t think so.” She squinted at David, leaning forward, her small white breasts almost touching her knees. “But you are.” David nodded, confirming her observation. He felt the bile rise swiftly and didn’t try to stop the vomit when it reached his mouth. He aimed at the heap and it came out in ridiculous, hyper-real arcs. It was a lurid pink and as soon as Sarah saw it, her stomach contracted and she felt the watery pre-taste in her own mouth. She got up and ran into the kitchen. She made it to the sink and the same obscene shade of pink emptied itself full-force against the plughole. She ran the taps slowly, watching the colour drain back to the dull, metallic grey of the sink. Tiny, cube-shaped leftovers of a vegetarian lasagne David had ÉCLAT FICTION

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cooked the night before. They stuck in the drain and didn’t want to go anywhere. Sarah prodded a cube and felt the spongy suck on her fingertips. When she took her finger away the cube popped back into its original state. She remembered a documentary about a UFO that had crashed in New Mexico. She thought about how they’d said the ship had been built of a material that rebuilt itself. A bit like if you ripped up tin foil, but in reverse. It renewed its original shape without help, reviving itself easily and without effort. When she re-entered the room, David had finished and was stood looking down at the vomit. Curiously, none had touched the floor, the trajectory had shot every bit of the liquid over the thin carpet, straight into the bottom of the heap. David tried to look embarrassed, but failed. Instead, he appeared vaguely triumphant. “What now?” he asked. Sarah looked at her husband, naked and swaying beside the heap. She moved her eyes through the wreckage of clothes, of photographs with familiar and anonymous faces, and old negatives without detail, of magazines and endlessly bookmarked books and torn-out pages, of soiled and clean underwear – bras, boxer shorts, thongs, bikinis, of paperwork and pens and sketches of things which no longer mattered, of unlabelled videos and DVDs with foreign language blurbs, of furniture set as a framework for the whole surreal monstrosity, of cutlery and toilet ÉCLAT FICTION

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roll and toothbrushes and numerous gadgets of all shapes and sizes and brands that made up a successful home. The vomit seemed to colour the whole thing with splashes of pressure, as if something might burst. Replicas of paintings they had admired together rolled in on themselves and became pieces of it. David kept his eyes fixed on her and she looked again and saw important documents that you could tell were important because they said IMPORTANT on them in fat red letters. Debts and money ended in the same way as toys kept in storage for their friend’s children. Life laughed out from the mess and thoughts of avalanches taking people effortlessly from sun-bright mountaintops slid across as the morning light began to reach in through the bare windows. Sarah looked at all this and felt perfectly sane and happy, her stomach clear and hollow again, the watery nausea gone down the sink. “How about a fire?” she said, pouring out the last of the whiskey into her glass.

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James O’Neill

S

ix months before she died – it must have been just before she was diagnosed with the cancer – I saw her, but she didn’t see

me. I was in our living room. It was two or three in the afternoon. My girlfriend was working away at the time so it was just me in the flat. Rambling around as I always did when I was on my own. I do most of my day’s work in the morning. I work from home, copywriting. I usually have a burst of energy in the morning and get started at eight or halfpast and I go straight up to lunch. Then comes the afternoon and I don’t do anything much: half-hearted reading, maybe turn some music on, go to bed – ramble around, in other words. If my girlfriend’s not working away then we sometimes go out in the afternoon – just for a drink or something – before I get my second burst of energy in the evening. But that afternoon my girlfriend was working away. I was home alone. Her name was Hannah. She was literally a friend of a friend. About thirty-seven I thought when I first met her, but forty-two as I now ÉCLAT FICTION

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know. My girlfriend and I met her when we went to dinner once at my girlfriend’s best friend’s. My girlfriend’s best friend always invites a couple of other people along whenever we go to his for dinner. I used to be a bit slighted by this but over time I came not to mind, almost to enjoy it. If nothing else it meant that myself, my girlfriend and her best friend didn’t dwell on our favourite subject: how our professional success was not commensurate with our abundant talents. The people my girlfriend’s best friend invites over are always either Brazilian, or Italian, or Israeli, or German – as was the case with Hannah. I don’t think he ever invited someone English along. Which is fine by me. I’m not English, neither’s my girlfriend, neither’s my girlfriend’s best friend for that matter. Whenever we’re at his place for dinner it feels like a bunch of exiles together in a foreign land – although of course it’s nothing of the sort. We’d be exiles anywhere. When we first met Hannah I think we probably thought ‘uh-oh’. The women who are invited to these dinners are usually all the same: stern, prickly types who look as if they’re in transit from one argument to another. Hannah certainly seemed to fit the bill at first, but as the evening progressed my opinion of her changed a little.

“Hannah’s not too bad”, said my girlfriend in the taxi on the

way home.

“No”, I said, “She’s not”.

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We’d found out that she just lived around the corner from us. That created a bond, I suppose. Hannah became ‘the woman who lived around the corner from us’. We met her a couple more times, once at someone’s party I think. My girlfriend’s best friend would always mention how Hannah was doing whenever we’d met up with him. I suppose he mentioned to her how we were doing when he met up with her too. We never visited her. We never decided not to visit her – in fact we often said to my girlfriend’s best friend, then later on to ourselves, “We must go round and see Hannah”. But we never did. We never will now, of course. Anyhow, six months before she died – it may even have been the week she was diagnosed with cancer – I saw her standing underneath the tree on the pavement outside our flat waiting for the rain to stop. Who knows, maybe it was the very day she was diagnosed. Maybe she was on her way to the hospital when I saw her. Maybe she had just got the phone-call to say could she come in immediately; the phone-call that could only mean one thing. Whatever the exact chronology one thing is for certain: it was definitely before my girlfriend’s best friend called to say Hannah’d got cancer. Definitely before. I was rambling about the house, as I said. Maybe I had some music on, I can’t remember. I could hear that it had started to rain – one of those squalls that just come out of nowhere. I went over to the window to look. To see the rain bouncing off the car bonnets below, to see a stone-dry ÉCLAT FICTION

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world drenched beyond reason. But when I looked out onto our quiet street, there she was. Standing underneath the tree on the pavement outside our flat. Rain was, I expect, bouncing off the car bonnets but I didn’t bother to look. Here was Hannah taking refuge in a dry white circle underneath the dripping tree, while around her the ground grew dark and glistening. She didn’t see me. She had her back to me and was wearing a jacket with no hat or umbrella or anything. She kept looking to her left, back the way she’d come; poking her head out into the rain to get a clearer sight of something back there. What didn’t make sense to me was that she didn’t look to her right where the tube was only a minute’s dash away. That’s where I’d be looking, I thought. No, she kept looking left, kept looking back. I couldn’t make sense of it and very soon the rain wasn’t interesting me much anymore. I turned on the TV, turned it off again, ambled over to the bookshelf. After a while I realised the rain had stopped. Then I remembered Hannah and so I went to the window but she was gone. In the dry white circle of pavement where she’d stood, a solitary wet footprint – hers, I presume – exited right. A scant chorus of birds celebrated the end of the downpour. The clock in the square, late as usual, struck the half-hour.

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Sal Page

S

he’d seemed indestructible. Done boiled eggs for tea and gone to bed early. Never woke up. Someone said it was better than

months in hospital. It’d only been three years but the house had lost its fresh smell. Crumbs stuck to Johnny’s feet when he walked barefoot. He hadn’t realised all the things Nan had done till she was no longer doing them. And then there was the ivy. It was up to the top storey. Polished leaves waved through his window. When Johnny came here it only grew round the door. He could see now he’d been spoilt. All he’d had to do in the last few years was organise paying the bills. Online since he’d got his computer. He was good with numbers. Nan went up the high street every day. Butchers. Grocers. Greengrocers. She’d cook the same meals each week. Fish on Friday. Roast Beef on Sunday. Johnny was no good at things like that. ÉCLAT FICTION

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Now he ordered his food online too. Bronco burgers were his favourite. He bought a bumper pack and had a couple every evening. They were delicious hot from the microwave, each nestled in its own ketchup-filled bun, a layer of salty bacon and cheese built into the middle. Nan always made Shepherd’s Pie on Monday. Leftovers from the roast. He decided to get a recipe, order ingredients and actually make one. He remembered watching Nan putting potato on top. ‘Can I have a go?’ ‘I like to do things my way.’ ‘I could do it.’ ‘I’ve done it now. Maybe next time.’ * He was sure he could do that forked-up potato. It couldn’t be that difficult. Meat. Gravy. Potatoes. He fell asleep, imagining his first ever Shepherd’s Pie. It would even outdo his Nan’s. Next morning he was late. Standing in the kitchen, he gulped down a Bronco Burger. First time he’d had one for breakfast. He pictured Nan with the Bransticks box and a bottle of semi-skimmed. Finishing the last bite, he stepped out of the door and tripped on a strand of ivy creeping across the step. A rushed day at work in the office cleared the culinary plans from Johnny’s head. He blasted a pair of burgers and filled a pint pot with pop, ÉCLAT FICTION

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which slopped out on the way upstairs. On the landing, he noticed some ivy had grown inside. He pushed it out, slamming the window shut. Johnny mainly lived in his bedroom now. It was easier. Bed. Computer. Bathroom next door. He ate at his desk. Nan had laid the table with a white cloth, bamboo mats and cutlery you could see your face in. He tried to do it once but got the knives and forks mixed up. Nan put it right and told him to read his maths book while she served the Liver and Bacon. She’d also put a jug of water on the table. After nearly three years of his favourite pop, Johnny found water pale and flat. Cherry Sparkle was day-glow pink and fiercely fizzy. He couldn’t get it down fast enough despite it foaming up in his mouth and searing his throat. Each morning, he pulled ivy away and threw it onto the floor. He wasn’t sure what to do about it. He still hadn’t cooked one of his Nan’s meals. The meal he missed most was her special omelettes. He had ‘a two-egger with everything’, each Thursday. He’d watched his Nan making them. It looked easy. By the time Johnny had hacked a couple of holes to get at the computer his plans seemed ridiculous. Nan always said omelettes were tricky. He noticed some of the ivy leaves had a pinkish tinge around the edges. At twilight, it gave off a pleasant smoky smell. Soon it was growing in the bathroom and out of the taps, filling the bath with pink shoots and glossy leaves and clogging up the toilet. ÉCLAT FICTION

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* Wednesday. Johnny logged onto the supermarket website. Sausage and Mash. Simple. Sausages spitting and whistling under the grill. Pan of potatoes on the hob. A message appeared on the screen. This week’s bargains. Cherry Sparkle was first. Fifty percent extra free. A picture of a larger-than-life-and-twice-as-bright Bronco Burger. Beautiful. A red flash with the words ‘New Improved Recipe’. Was that possible? When he turned twelve, Nan cooked homemade burgers for his birthday. It was a Saturday. Should have been Macaroni Cheese. ‘What are you doing? Don’t turn them yet.’ Johnny had relinquished the tongs. ‘Don’t want you burning yourself. Get up to the table, Johnny.’ * Four in the morning. Between sleeping and waking, Johnny clung to his dream, trying to continue it. Interpret. Make connections. Solve the riddle. He knew his Nan had been in there somewhere. He reached out, snapping a few creepers that had grown over his bed during the night. He took a swig of Cherry Sparkle. Something from his dream slipped into his consciousness. In a flash he recalled that before Nan became his Nan, and his Dad’s Mum, she was called Ivy. Funny. How had he forgotten? Johnny sat up, creepers ripping. He picked some clothes off the ÉCLAT FICTION

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floor and dressed. As he stumbled down the stairs he felt something grabbing at him. He got out into the street. He hadn’t run in years. It felt great. He stopped at a café and ordered egg on toast. He ate slowly, watching the people. Then he walked back home and spent the rest of the day pulling every scrap of ivy from the house, both inside and out. He dragged it all into the back garden and piled it up. Flames curled upwards, giving off a cherry-bacon aroma. Johnny went back inside and carried out the last of the Bronco Burgers. He threw them onto the fire. Two bottles of Cherry Sparkle were poured into one of the flowerbeds. He dug the neon-pink froth into the soil with a stick then stood watching the fire. The burgers sizzled and exploded. Sparks burst into the sky.

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Elaine Taylor

I

t’s always there, that sense of something missing. Ever since the day I came home and found them all sitting at the dinner table

without her. The lights were dim and yellow; Tom and Jane’s shadowed faces chewed unconvincingly at pieces of cold lamb chop. “Where’s Margaret?” I asked. Tom took a sip of water and started talking about the fall in share prices. He always talked about his investments, but this time he wasn’t there in what he said. Jane told me bossily, “Eat your dinner.” I was the youngest. “But where’s Margaret?” I asked again, trying to swallow a mouthful of dry potato. “The garden is such a mess,” Mother said. “The leaves seem to have fallen all at once this year.” She rushed out of the room and slammed the door, something I had never known her do. I took another mouthful of potato and felt it cling to my gums. I put down my knife and fork; everyone else had stopped pretending with ÉCLAT FICTION

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theirs. Father took me into his study. He seemed angry, but he rested a shaking hand on my shoulder. His face, pink and smooth as always, with a faint blue shadow, had collapsed round the deep lines on either side of his mouth. I had always liked the study with its dusty old-book smell, the naval prints on the wall, the piles of books and papers always about to topple off the desk. Now it looked desolate under the green-shaded lamp. “Your sister was sleepwalking,” he said. “And she – ah – fell out of the window.” It sounded horribly comic. I twisted my mouth to stop the laugh escaping. “But how?” “She was sleepwalking…” He could see I didn’t believe him. He sighed. “I’m afraid Margaret always was rather moody.” “Yes.” The rest of us had never been moody, perhaps never dared to be. I had known her so well; everything she did was a marker pointing the way for me. She had become a nurse, I was now at medical school. I had done better than she had; without her I would never have found who I was. She was my other self, who ran ahead of me and turned back to call me after her. People always said how alike we were. “… and may have broken her back,” my father was saying. “They’ve ÉCLAT FICTION

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taken her to hospital but they say it’s better not to visit yet.” My heart felt suspended then gave a violent jerk, shocking me back into my body. She was not dead, but as my father spoke my dream hung before me so powerfully that I thought he could see it too. Margaret had died and was calling to us all from the other place. A veil of grey mist separated her from us; it was hard for her to reach through it. We were queuing to see her one by one and were talking and laughing together as usual, only she could no longer share our jokes. When it came to my turn my hand kept groping through the mist to find hers, but somehow we never touched. If she had anything to say to me, it remained with her. I glanced at my father, feeling Margaret already gone beyond my reach. He looked tired and harassed, as though he wished I would go away. I did, saying nothing about the dream. * Slowly, surprisingly, Margaret recovered. I went back to medical school and longed to show her my success. I held back, for fear of making her feel bad. Her sleepwalking was never mentioned but from time there were other accidents, as my father called them. Once she took too many aspirins; another time she cut her wrists with a scalpel in the nurses’ home. After that she had to leave nursing. She drifted from job to job, suffering from what the doctors called depression. I saw her less ÉCLAT FICTION

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but heard from Tom that she was going to some kind of group therapy; he thought it was helping her. When Margaret and I met it was as if the grey veil already hung between us. We would sit in a Lyons teashop with our tea and buns in front of us, talking about art and the weather. I never asked her how she felt but sometimes, just as we were leaving, she would say, “There’s no bloody point, you know. There’s no point in any of it.” I didn’t understand. We had always been such a happy family, all except Margaret; we had no words to talk about our pain. * Medical school kept me so busy that I hardly thought of her. When traces of the dream appeared I reasoned them away: I had started to find out about psychology. I grew used to the sight of death and stopped associating it with anyone I knew. After a while it became easy to regard the ‘stiffs’ we dissected as little more than three-dimensional diagrams. If I stopped to think of their humanity, the image of Margaret’s bleeding wrists did not allow me to violate the person they had once been. With the relentless work, and in the intervals the parties where we let loose all our spare emotion, I hardly ever saw the papers. It was only by chance, if anything ever is by chance, that Felicity Walsh popped out one evening to buy a Standard. I think she wanted to find out what films were on. I can’t remember what date it was; people are supposed ÉCLAT FICTION

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to remember that above all else and I’ve always felt guilty that I don’t, as if it showed I didn’t care enough. But the horror of that evening was like a bomb dropped through the calendar. It would have been 1958. I know it was late summer, hot and airless, and evening was beginning to fade into its long nostalgic glow. I was just about to settle down with a cup of tea and a textbook when Felicity said casually, showing me the front page of the paper, “Any relation of yours, this? Looks like the same name.” I took the paper and stared at it, reading the headline letter by letter so that it made no sense. Even the surname looked unfamiliar when I saw it; I couldn’t connect it with myself. There was a picture too, one of those blurred black-and-white photographs that could be anybody. I felt too sick to say anything. Finally I had realised that they were talking about Margaret. Felicity looked at me; from my lack of reaction she must have thought it had little to do with me. “Well, really,” she said. “Having one’s name splashed all over the front page.” She walked away as if she was glad to be done with it. Slowly I took in the details of the story. Margaret Ellis-Campbell, age 28, had been found on a railway line between Plymouth and Exeter, having suffered multiple injuries. My heart practically jumped out of my body. So she was not dead; perhaps my dream, which had come to ÉCLAT FICTION

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haunt me again, only meant that we were estranged from her in this life. I knew I was trying to comfort myself, but it helped me pack my things and rush for the night train. This time we went straight to the hospital. They would only let us in to see her one at a time; we had to wait in a queue outside the ward. We sat in a long row in the corridor, silent on our narrow bentwood chairs, leaning against the oppressive green gloss walls. The familiar hospital smell of disinfectant, bedpans and stale dinner, the usual rattle of trolleys, were a comfort to me. When it was my turn to go in, I thought, This is not Margaret. All I could see was the white bedcover, lifted into strange shapes by the cradles supporting it, and somewhere beyond that, high on a pile of clean pillows, the tiny bruised face of an unconscious patient. A conscientious medical student, I noted the height and rate of the drip and guessed at the sites of the fractures. The yellowish-white face looked peaceful, remote, but the eyes were puffy and had slate-coloured dents under them, the lips were dry and flaked. She breathed heavily, without the control that there is even in sleep. I came away knowing she would die, but this was not what I told myself or anyone else. Mother was too distraught to speak at all; Father refused to sit down and drink the tea that the nurses brought. Later, when Mother died, the hospital offered us cup after cup of useless tea ÉCLAT FICTION

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as the only tangible comfort. We left Father there and trooped home to sit in the gloomy dining room. This time no-one asked where Margaret was. She died the next day, still unconscious. I can’t remember what day of the week it was. Nor can I remember the funeral, except that there were lots of mauve flowers, a colour both Margaret and I hated. Mother cried in front of us all for the only time in our lives. Before the funeral there had had to be an inquest so that the broken body could be charged with the crime of its own destruction: the crime of being too unhappy to go on living. * For months afterwards I felt lost, as though a part of my soul had gone. Margaret had been my inspiration, the part of me that had heard the birds sing and had run wild through the bluebells. One day on top of Box Hill we had laughed together for sheer joy in all this: the countryside, the family – yes, the family too – the freedom of air and space. But she was moody; the joy never lasted long. Left without her, I didn’t know how to feel what we could not share. Every morning I cried as I woke up and remembered afresh that she was gone. Then, when I realised grief had become a habit, I slowly put it aside and took up life again. I still loved being a doctor, and wished Margaret could have seen me. I found friends who were like her, knowing ÉCLAT FICTION

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I could never find her. * Mother died, then Father not long after. They waited their turn and were not sorry when it came. Margaret’s death had already prepared me for theirs. In Father’s papers I found a newspaper cutting taken from Margaret’s handbag, which had been returned to us after the inquest. The cutting described how a sailor had first taken an overdose and then thrown himself on a railway line. If only we had seen it, we might have been able to save her. Or would we merely have prolonged her suffering, determined as she was to end it? The question will always be with me, the answer the perpetual emptiness of what has not been. Her image has come and gone from my dreams, falling back into the mist as other memories supersede it. All that remains now is the small half-conscious voice that still asks, “Where’s Margaret?”

This is based on a true story that was told to me some years ago.

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Chris Smith

I

see her tapping her foot and nodding her head out of time to the music, and I know that I love her. I look at Wolf and then back at the

woman. I see Julie. I hide behind a mulled wine promotion and watch her pack cream cheese, bagels, and a bottle of red wine into a pink cloth bag. In the glaring lights of Sainsburys she is an angel. She pays and leaves through the automatic doors. I stare as they slide shut, unable to move. My arms are full of cans: tuna fish, beans, spaghetti bolognaise, Irish stew. I drop them and run. A can of rice pudding spins into a pile of baskets. Then I’m in the street. It’s mid-winter and dark by five. Opposite the Cornerhouse Cinema I see her pink bag escape onto a bus. The bus pulls away and disappears down the street. I chase it, as does Wolf. My shadow pulses between the roadside lights. It is cold and raining; my breath forms clouds as quickly as my face shatters through them. I’ve snapped a match and placed it on the wooden floor of my living room, one for every day since Julie left. Three hundred and sixteen broken ÉCLAT FICTION

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matches. I eat cold canned food, sleep on the floor, and deliver leaflets to the deprived areas of Manchester for a penny per post. My house is dirty and unfurnished; I have no possessions. I speak only to Wolf. We run under the stone railway bridge and cross the polluted trickle of the River Medlock. We tear across streets without looking and vault the metal railings; we zigzag between post boxes, lampposts, and bollards. Wolf’s large padded paws slam the pavement; dense shoulders throw Wolf forward. Grey ears lay flat and back against Wolf’s head. He howls. This is Oxford Road. It is a bad road and it is a good road. I hate this road. The first night I met Julie we kissed and I shared her bed, and that was all. I laid flat against the wall, watching her sleep, falling in love with her as I tried to guess what she dreamt from the flicker of her eyelids. The next day she told me that we shouldn’t be together. She told me in the shadows at the edge of Whitworth Park so that I couldn’t see her face. She’d taken it all away without knowing what she had given. But later, for a time, before the bus, she gave it back. My stride is long, my breath steady; this is the way Wolf has taught me. A thin brick wall marks the front of a terrace row, I pound onto it with hands and feet and speed along its edge. The chase has consumed me; I think I can taste her. I became Julie’s shadow. I was there when she ate bacon sandwiches ÉCLAT FICTION

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at the campus greasy spoon. She drank her coffee bitter and black. I watched her buy purple underwear and a matching bra from H&M. I followed her when she stumbled home, alone and drunk, along Oxford Road. I saw the man who meant her harm and watched as Wolf killed him. Then I went to her. Rain soaked her hair, tears soaked her face, and she kissed me. I can still taste that kiss: cigarettes and whiskey. This is Oxford Road. I stop and sit on the wet pavement. I am opposite Brunswick Street, beside the tanned red bricks of The Manchester Museum. The weathered buildings of the University are like ticks; they are insatiable, they drain me. Wolf stops and skulks back. He licks my face; sits and stares at me. I can see the red lights of the Palace Hotel and the white face of its tower clock reflected in Wolf’s eyes. I am slumped, I have given up, thinking the hunt is over, but Wolf is ready. After Julie kissed me we ran along Oxford Road, through the glass doors of the Palace Hotel. We ran up five flights of stairs. We stopped and looked out over the rooftops of Manchester, back along the length of Oxford Road. There was the railway bridge, the Manchunian Way, the darkness where Wolf guarded the bad man’s body. ‘Higher,’ she said, and dragged me on. We climbed to the tallest room. Ignoring the sign that said no access, we stood behind the white face of the tower clock. She grabbed me and ÉCLAT FICTION

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tore at my clothes as I tore at hers. We howled and rolled on the floor, clashed teeth, and clawed skin. We tasted each other, and then we slept, curled up and naked like pups. I stand, knowing Wolf’s contempt for my weakness, but I can’t see the bus. Wolf is already running; I follow. A red light. An old man forgets his pass and digs slowly for the pennies hidden in his pockets, counting out his change with shaking fingers. The driver waits for drunken students to be seated. He drives on. This is Oxford Road; I love and hate this road. I run. I run along the smooth green bicycle-path and overtake a cyclist. He swerves and swears at me, but I don’t stop. I keep going. Wolf Keeps going. I run past Whitworth Park and into the cheap neon lights of Rusholme and the Curry-Mile. I’m close. I can smell her through the malodorous mix of cheap spices, drunk students, and rotten meat. Through the steamed window of a double-decker bus: her pink bag. I reach Platt Lane and Wolf dives into the Park. It was on this corner by the gated public toilets that Julie hoped along the stone bollards and said, ‘If I die tomorrow remember that I love you’. I don’t think she knew what was going to happen. She was drunk on gin and tonics. We’d spent the day in Platt Park; I remember being shocked by so many shades of green. I walked with her while Wolf strolled behind: slow, content, half-asleep. I remember the fat geese on the lake. ÉCLAT FICTION

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I remember the smoldering sun. ‘Gorgeous,’ she said. I smiled and she liked my smile. We climbed a tree. We lazed in the branches, panted with the heat, kissed and licked. Maybe we both knew. This is Oxford Road. The rain is heavy and the city lights smear like kaleidoscopes, but still we run. It was the hottest day of the year; Julie’s dress was a thin strip of cloth wrapped around her body. The beauty of it made my teeth ache. I stared from across Oxford Road, where Wilbraham Road turns into Mosley Street and students get drunk and play table tennis in the Queen of Tarts. She wore her hair in a tight ponytail and carried a light pink cloth bag. When she spotted me she waved, turned away, and floated into the road. A glaring sun was dropping in the west. She floated. Through the large glass windscreen I saw the driver’s tired eyes, distracted by the low cut tops and hiked up skirts of the Mancunian girls, but not concentrating on the most beautiful one of them all. Bad timing. A wolf howled. This is Oxford Road. I run alongside the head-high wall of Platt Park as the bus accelerates towards Fallowfield. This is a quiet section; all the activity stays in the Curry-Mile, or starts again in Fallowfield. The traffic lights fall green and the bus speeds on. Wolf runs ahead and I am forced to catch up. The indicator flickers and I know that it is her. The bus stops, pauses, and ÉCLAT FICTION

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pulls away. She crosses the road and walks beside the same brick wall as me, sheltering from the rain. I catch her. “Julie?” It is the first time in almost a year that I have spoken to anyone but Wolf. My voice sounds broken. She turns, glances at me, but carries on walking. I dart forward and grab her arm, maybe a little too hard. “Julie?” She shakes her head, tries to move away, but I hold my grip. Wolf circles us; I can hear his panting. “I don’t know who you are.” She tries to move away again, starts to shake her arm in my grip. She glances around but the street is empty. “No.” I shout it. She starts to scream so I stop her. I don’t mean to stop her so much, but she falls to the ground. I climb over the wall and drag her into Platt Park. It is dark. I lay her on the ground and look at her. I just want to look. Wolf licks her face and neck. He moves down her body and licks her chest and breasts. He licks her stomach, his long tongue moving down, following the crease made by her thigh and abdomen. The moonlight glints off Wolf’s curved front teeth. It has stopped raining. Wolf becomes frantic, hungry. I can hear his heart. Then there is blood. Wolf begins to howl. ÉCLAT FICTION

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I sit with my back against a tree. Her pink bag is torn and her shopping is scattered like litter. I drag her onto my lap. She is limp and damp, and Wolf is gone.

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Stephanie Lam

V

iolet arrived first. Andy decided to travel with the movers, high in the cab, and so she’d driven up the motorway alone, speeding

past them on the M1, fluttering a hand as she pumped all her old nineties music from the wobbly car stereo. The estate agent was waiting outside with the keys and, just for a second, as she turned into the Close and saw him leaning on the front garden wall in the unseasonal heat, legs astride, hands in pockets, she thought she’d made a terrible mistake. So intimate here, after all, with the houses glassily eyeing each other around the green. A banjo road, that’s what they used to call them, but there’d be no banjos round here. She took the keys and watched the agent drive off in his branded car. The house was curtained and closed, and smelled musty. She walked from room to room, flinging open the windows, and only when the house was coursing with fresh air did she make a tour of the garden, planning out vegetable plots, a replacement rotary drier for the one that hung ÉCLAT FICTION

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at a rusty angle. She remembered there was a shed at the back, with a dirt-smeared window, and she climbed the steps to it now, angled her palms against the glass and peered in. The sellers had left it full of junk; a once-orange lawnmower, a workbench jammed full of old pots. She and Andy, they’d wanted all this, when they’d done the viewing. Mid thirties; it was the age to be tired of the urban grind, the right time to tuck oneself away, to retreat from the noise and the aggro, the drunks outside their flat at night, the sirens, the constant stream of people past their door. The shed, with its old pitched roof and weathered boards seemed to symbolise an escape from all that, a refuge from the reeling city. She heard a squawk. Shit, she thought, a bloody bird’s got trapped in there. She pressed her ear to the door. It wasn’t a squawk; it was more of a mewl. Maybe a cat. Perhaps they’d left it behind; it wouldn’t be unheard of, in the chaos of packing and moving. She fiddled with the shed door, assuming it locked, and when it swung open she stood there for a moment, as the interior arranged itself into lozenges of shade and sunlight. On the earth-strewn planked floor was an old-fashioned sort of carrycot, the kind that used to fit onto wheels to make a pram, like the one her mother had wheeled them all about in, once upon a time. Violet rocked the soles of her feet over the raised wooden bar of the shed’s ÉCLAT FICTION

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doorway, saw a yellow blanket and then, beyond, the feathery-haired tip of a baby’s head. A lorry rumbled along the main road. She thought it was them arriving and she paused, holding onto the frame, but it continued past the end of the street and faded into the sound of chaffinches twittering from the trees that clustered at the end of the garden. Violet entered the shed cautiously and knelt over the carrycot, peering in. The baby was awake; its pupils blackened, attempting to focus. She held out a hand and a tiny fist clamped round her forefinger. ‘Hello,’ she said, her voice sticky from the journey and the dust in the shed. ‘I’m Violet. Who’re you?’ The workbench had a lower shelf, and on that were heaped plastic bags. Spilling out of them were baby clothes, tins of formula milk, and the odd chewed toy. Stacked against them were nappies encased in bright purple wrappers, a gummy tot on the front. She lifted the baby up against her; it seemed the natural thing to do. Where he’d lain, on the mattress pad, was a folded piece of paper. She opened it with her free hand. Jonas is a good boy. ‘Jonas,’ she murmured into his ear. He gurgled and clung to her. Years ago, fingers entwined with Andy’s, lying on their balcony in the February sunlight, she’d decided on Jonas for a boy, or Grace for a girl. ÉCLAT FICTION

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She’d never told Andy that; he’d have run a mile. They arrived half an hour later. She listened to the collision of men’s voices, the tramp of feet, the bang of cargo thumping on floors. When she heard her name being called she placed Jonas in his carrycot and backed out of the shed, dusting herself down. Andy’s head and shoulders emerged from the upstairs bedroom window. ‘Hey!’ He waved down at her. ‘I was wondering where you’d got to. Thought you’d gone to check the locality.’ She walked towards the house, hands in pockets, halfway to shrugging. ‘Just having a look round the garden.’ He leaned on the sill and craned his neck. She didn’t turn with him; she was sure the shed’s innards were invisible from up there. ‘Can’t wait to get outside,’ he said. ‘Better give these guys a hand first, eh?’ He disappeared. Violet went back into the kitchen – it was spotless, not a hint of grease anywhere – and found a bucket of cleaning things under the sink. As Andy and the movers thudded in and out of the house with cardboard boxes labelled Front bedroom and Andy’s office, she stored Jonas behind the shed, in a cool patch of grey thrown by the overhanging pear tree, and scrubbed out the planking, using water from the outside tap attached to the kitchen wall. She was nearly done when a woman with hair tucked under a scarf and suntanned arms leaned on the fence and said, ‘Yoo-hoo!’ ÉCLAT FICTION

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Violet had the bucket in her hand. She glanced at the carrycot, hidden beyond the rosemary bush, and approached the fence, smiling, wiping her palm on her jeans. ‘Hiya.’ They shook hands. The woman smelled of upturned earth . ‘I’m Lyra. Saw your husband moving all the stuff in.’ ‘He’s not my husband,’ she said automatically, and then, ‘But I mean, yeah. Anyway. I’m Violet.’ ‘Right. Did you get our welcome present?’ She nodded at the shed. Violet whipped her head round, mouth agape. ‘That was you?’ Lyra beamed. ‘Everyone needs a nasturtium when they move in to a new place, don’t you think?’ ‘Oh.’ She re-tracked. ‘OK. Thank you. It’s lovely.’ ‘Nice to have half-decent neighbours for a change.’ Lyra rested her chin on her brown arms. ‘Not that I want to gossip or anything, but I’m glad the ones before you’ve gone.’ ‘Oh yeah?’ Violet leaned on the fence. She was aware of Jonas behind her. His nappy probably wanted changing. ‘Why’s that?’ Lyra shrugged. ‘Just...No. Don’t mind me.’ She giggled suddenly. ‘Pop round any time, won’t you?’ ‘Course. But – what about the ones before us?’ Lyra was already turning away from the fence. ‘For God’s sake!’ she called into the house. ‘I’m bloody coming, all right?’ ÉCLAT FICTION

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Violet watched her go. From the slice of kitchen door visible from here she could see a blur of teenage boy in a red t-shirt kicking the top step. Lyra herded him inside and banged the door shut after her. Through the thin frosted glass Violet heard a back-and-forth, snappy argument. Distantly, a front door slammed. Violet smiled to herself and returned to Jonas. ‘Hello little man.’ She rested on her heels and waved her fingers in front of his eyes. He gurgled a smile and reached for her hand through leaf-shaped shadows. She felt his nappy but it was as light as air. She guessed she ought to feed him at some point. She tried to remember what the parenting magazines said. She should dig them out before Andy found them; she’d hidden them in with her old art stuff, but that was no guarantee. ‘Funny about that nasturtium,’ she said to Jonas. ‘Maybe somebody moved it. What d’you think eh? Eh? Eh?’ She tickled him under his ribs. He twisted and chuckled. She wondered if she could persuade Andy into giving up his office. The shed wouldn’t do forever. He was a growing lad, after all. Andy didn’t come into the garden until the sun was dipping behind the soft reaches of the western hills. Those hills had drawn them to this part of town, the idea that you could jog from the back garden up to the top and be home again within the hour. Fresh air. They’d considered ÉCLAT FICTION

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chickens, but only idly, as a sort of daydream. The hills were enough to be going on with. ‘Thanks for all your help,’ he said, wrestling with a deckchair he’d found leaning against the garage wall. He dumped a bottle of cider into the unmown grass. There was a tiny square of sun left on the lawn, and he manoeuvred the chair into it. ‘I’ve been busy,’ she said. ‘Got a surprise for you.’ He looked at her, one hand on the semi-erected deckchair. ‘Oh yeah?’ She indicated the shed and beckoned him towards it. ‘A sort of welcome present.’ He sighed, and glanced at the gently warming bottle. ‘All right.’ She waited in the doorway, holding out her hand for him to take. He didn’t notice it. He was sweaty with all the exertion, and he pulled at his T-shirt by the neck, like the tennis players at Wimbledon. ‘Is that what you’ve been doing all day? Cleaning this?’ She nodded at the interior. ‘Look.’ He squinted, and angled his hand over his forehead just as she’d done earlier. He grunted. ‘What, the nasturtium?’ Violet looked at Jonas sleeping, head turned to one side, one fist against his mouth, the other over the blanket. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I thought it could go in your office.’ ‘I’m not having a bloody nasturtium in my office.’ He turned. She ÉCLAT FICTION

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watched him walk back down the concrete steps, adjust the deckchair again so it faced the escaping sun, and reach for his cider, hissing it open. She went back into the shed and knelt over the carrycot. She brushed her lips against Jonas’s powdery forehead and thought of popping in to see Lyra tomorrow. She wanted to find out what exactly she’d meant about the people who’d lived here before. ‘Shall I get fish and chips?’ she called, her fingers clinging on to the frame of the shed. Andy had his eyes closed, arms and legs splayed like a starfish. ‘Mm. Good idea.’ He didn’t open his eyes. She waved goodbye to Jonas as she closed the shed door. She tiptoed down the steps. As she passed Andy he murmured something. She looked down sharply, but he seemed not to have noticed her at all. Jonas is a good boy. She could have sworn he’d said it. But she must have been mistaken. She walked rapidly across the lawn, fingers already feeling for her car keys, leaving the last oblong of dying sun and shivering suddenly in the gloom of the early evening chill.

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Helen Ladderbird

W

e had been building a boat. It was summer, with its sprawling sunlong days, so by the time twilight crawled up on us that

evening, we had given up working to sit on the cooled concrete floor. The daylight was beginning to disappear but I could still just about make out Alec’s and Tom’s faces from several feet away. There was a tiny glimmering bulb in the corner of the half-open shed we were using as our workshop. The shed was attached to the back door of Carl’s pub, and had the appearance of a stable – two walls and a roof of blackened wood. It sheltered us from what sparse elements there were, and just about packed in the four of us and the several sections which would soon form our structure. Carl came back downstairs, as he’d been doing all evening in between serving pints. “I’m calling it a night, guys. And girl,” he added, as he always did. I said nothing, as I always did, although it annoyed me. I needed to get over my apprehension about speaking to adults. I had turned fifteen and these old men expected me to be normal, as opposed to the ÉCLAT FICTION

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hideously shy child I felt like, and Carl wouldn’t have taken offence at all if I’d bashed him about the ear for singling me out. Next time, maybe. I had never been any good at being off-the-cuff. “I’ll meet you all again on Wednesday, 6 o’clock,” he said, and vanished into the main building. Alec took his cue from Carl and lifted himself up from the cradling comfort of the boat’s bow, which he’d been painting blue. We had decided blue was our team colour. Alec stomped the mud off his “workboots” (we were very much pretending to be hardened labourers in our workshop, to feel more experienced and officious) and headed back inside, upstairs, probably to have a pint or two before walking the few hundred yards home. Tom and I were left sitting in the approaching darkness. I was kneeling on the floor beside a piece of boat, painting our team name on the side. Tom was on a wooden chair with a hammer in his hand, although I’d no idea what he had been doing. I asked him if he had anything left to do tonight, and he shook his head slowly, as if he’d no idea what it was he had been up to either. He stood up and stretched. “I suppose I’d better get going too. I’m not working tomorrow but I’m knackered! Let’s go, I’d feel guilty if I left you here working hard on your own. We can get the rest sorted on Wednesday, there’s not much left to do now.” I got up and stood next to him as we surveyed what we’d done. It was a small thing, cobbling together an amateurish wooden boat, but ÉCLAT FICTION

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it made me feel immensely proud to do a quarter of it. I sighed. Tom looked at me and asked if I was OK. I’m fine, just tired, all this work makes me happy. No, I haven’t finished my tea yet. Yes, let’s go and sit on the swings. Weren’t you going to go home? I’d like the company if you aren’t too tired. He walked ahead into the pub garden and sat on the third swing, the one furthest from the car park. I was a few steps behind him. I wondered where to place myself. I was no good at trivial conversation and suddenly felt incredibly shy, my heart beating a little more urgently than normal. I sat two swings away and he talked for a while, rambled, about this and that. His job was a dangerous one and he told me about some close calls. One of the men in his company had almost lost a hand. I laughed and exclaimed and murmured when necessary. I leaned my head back to see the sky, now blackened. Stars were spreading themselves delicately across my line of vision, appearing when I looked for them. “What are you looking at?” Tom asked suddenly, and I realised that I hadn’t been listening to him. I wanted to apologise but as I lowered my face again to look at his, he seemed more curious than offended. I pointed, my fingers fluttering in patterns. The Big Dipper. The Plough. Part of Ursa Major, the great bear. If you look...there...it’s shaped like a saucepan. The two on the end there, they point towards the North Star. I twisted around in my swing. And that, there, that’s Orion’s Belt. The one ÉCLAT FICTION

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everyone knows. And his arms, his legs. His sword, there, the three going down from the belt – the middle one isn’t a star, it’s a nebula. One of his dogs, the Dog Star, Sirius. He nodded. “I think we were told this stuff at school. I don’t remember any of it. Do you know a lot?” I showed him all the star sign constellations. They’re just above the horizon, in every direction, they surround us. Zodiac comes from a Greek word that means circle of animals. I don’t believe in all that horoscope stuff but I think it’s a nice idea that they’re looking after us, holding the earth together. What star sign are you? Sagittarius? It’s over there. Half archer, half horse. Hard to make out, though. Scorpio is next to it, the scorpion, the arrow from Sagittarius points to the centre of him. I looked away from the stars for a second. Tom had moved to the middle swing and was leaning in to me, so he could see the stars as I was pointing them out. I was shocked by his nearness and swung away. He was smiling slightly. There was quiet. The pub was emptying out - that is, Alec was leaving, waving as he ambled away in the other direction. I needed every opportunity to distract myself from Tom’s eyes and shouted out goodnight to Alec. I looked at my lap, my hair falling into my face. “You like stars, then,” he said in a low voice. I nodded. I think they’re amazing. Not that they have any consciousness or anything, but... they’re very reassuring. They’re these big sparkling fires in the darkness. It’s ÉCLAT FICTION

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never completely black because they’re always there, even if you can’t make them out straight away. He smiled again, then looked a bit sad. “I think I need to go home. It’s eleven o’clock,” he said, looking at his watch, and he stood up. Me too. I picked up my empty tea cup from the dirt below the swings. We were standing there looking at each other. I blinked. Goodnight. He walked away, into the muddy light of the road. When he turned the corner I sat back down and started swinging hard, higher and higher, until I had tired myself out enough to go home.

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Daniel Carpenter

A

s we approach the outskirts of the city and the plane begins to land, I look out over the desert behind me and concern myself

with the final words from The Men from E.V.E.R.Y.W.H.E.R.E. “She’ll be late.” Printed on a postcard and slapped into my letterbox in the dead of night on a happy hour Wednesday two weeks ago. On the front, a Wish You Were Here holiday couple, trekking through the Sahara. The woman in the couple is clearly her, and even though the whole thing has been faked, I’m more than a little flattered that someone has gone so far out of their way to get me here. Maybe, if I was being honest with myself, I was already looking for a reason to leave the country. Too many questions. When I land I notice the differences immediately. Since the sandstorm took control, even streets outside the airport have been left desolate. ÉCLAT FICTION

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Buildings, made from the compacted sandstone are indistinguishable from the air and only the distant rumble of traffic resounds across the roads. A man stands defiant in front of a rusted taxi. He has my name printed in calligraphied Arabic handwriting on a whiteboard. “That’s me,” I tell him. He’s wearing an old rubber gas mask, which covers his face and nods back towards the taxi, mumbling something. I climb in. He doesn’t have any identification on the dashboard, nor is there a meter counting out miles and costs. He doesn’t remove his gasmask, and instinctively I bring a scarf from my bag and put it up against my mouth. Brief glimpses of the outside world come in the form of windscreen wiped views. “Did they send you?” I ask. He doesn’t respond. I sit in the middle of the backseat and lean forwards, trying to make the most of my minute insights into the city as we pass through. There is nothing to see here. Sometimes I grab an image, a family in a house, a woman bathing her son. A group of men playing cards, drinking, smoking. A woman, smiling. These images come at me when I shut my eyes and wipe the sand away. They are not the images of this city. They are of home. They are of me. Of her. “Did the men from E.V.E.R.Y.W.H.E.R.E send you?” I lean forwards this time, address it to his gasmask. ÉCLAT FICTION

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He doesn’t respond. I try the opposite tactic. “I heard you were building an army,” I smirk, “Some kind of takeover of this whole place,” no answer, “Doesn’t look like much, not from where I’m sat anyway. You seem a bit thin on the ground, soldier-wise, I mean, I don’t see much of anything, ‘cept for you. You looking to take on the world on your lonesome?” He brakes. Sudden. I lurch forward and get thrown back into the seat. He turns to me. Gasmask. Even through that I can see him smiling. He mumbles, a breathy distorted mumble. “What? You finally learning to speak?” He lifts the mask a fraction, so I can see his stubbly lips, “Sand.” He reaches into his pocket and hands me a postcard, I take it from him and have a look at it. It’s the same Wish you were here couple, hiking up the dunes. My face is plastered on to the guy, her face on the woman. I flip it over. Nothing on the back. “She’ll be late,” he says, and pulls the gasmask down. I look out of the passenger window. All I can see is sand.

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Sarah Evans

A

licia Baptiste. The name leapt out at Helen from the poster of coming events, like in one of those 3D films.

She glanced up at Peter, her mouth half open with the half intention

of mentioning it. His eyes narrowed in question. But then it was their turn to step forward to buy tickets for the film. In the dark, she took his hand to feel its warmth and reassurance. She watched his profile in the shifting light from the screen, the definite brow and strong jaw. He felt remote, looked at in the way a stranger might. His hand squeezed hers before withdrawing. They strolled along the backroads afterwards, breath frosting in the winter air. ‘Insightful,’ he said. ‘Pretentious,’ she countered. Her half intention remained unspoken. Too late now. In bed, Peter’s lips pressed lightly against hers. ‘Goodnight,’ he said. ÉCLAT FICTION

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She wanted to reach out and touch him, but a sudden shyness stopped her. Perhaps not shyness. Perhaps more the sense that if he turned her down – and, after all, it was late, and they had made love just the night before – she would feel it as rejection. The name Alicia Baptiste lay in the space between them. * Helen had met Peter a year ago, at a party thrown by the publishing house she worked for. Her conversation with an aspiring scriptwriter had just ended abruptly as he spotted a better networking opportunity. Hooded eyes snagged on hers across the shoulder-barging, laughter-buzzing room. She smiled, as if at a friend, before realising that she only recognised the face from tabloid photos. Those photos of him with Alicia. She started jostling her way through the crowd towards the Ladies. Somebody’s arm rose in demonstration, catching her hand so white wine flew in a glinting arc. Those eyes met hers again. ‘Can I get you another drink?’ Peter’s smile was warm as he stepped towards her. ‘No. No, I’m fine.’ She sipped her empty glass. ‘Peter,’ he introduced himself. ‘New arts correspondent with The Times.’ Yes, I know, she nearly blurted. He must hate that. People recognising ÉCLAT FICTION

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him; recognising his humiliation. He started chatting about a recent art-house film he’d seen, which turned out to be the same one she had. ‘All beautiful photography and no substance.’ She said it more definitely than she meant to. He laughed pleasantly and disagreed. ‘I ought to go,’ she said. ‘Let me see you home?’ ‘Oh. OK.’ Except she didn’t usually do that. The cab braked at lights alongside a lifesized poster in which Alicia advertised her latest album, some sort of best-of rehash of earlier hits. A shoulder slipping dress revealed a blush of carmine lace. Her hair was lustrous against gypsy skin. She cradled her violin, as if it were a lover. Peter’s eyes caught Helen’s as they flicked away too quickly. She felt her cheeks colouring red. The cab drew up outside her building. ‘Did you want to come up?’ she said. Usually she would not invite a man she hardly knew up to her flat. Usually she would not allow him, so soon, to first kiss and then undress her and take her to bed. Perhaps she felt a little sorry for him. Perhaps it was the rub off celebrity sheen from Alicia that made her curious. ÉCLAT FICTION

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Perhaps she was simply drawn to the intensity of his gaze, and the way he seemed to decide so easily that he liked her. One night led to others, and, in the after-sex contentment, the intimacy of touch extended into that of talk. She told him about her previous lover, the fire-flare of intensity, which had pitched into feverish despair. Recounting her own stupid blindness, the story struck her as banal. Was it only the distancing of time that rendered it so pallid? Peter was open to her curiosity about Alicia, setting out the facts with no apparent guile. ‘She was very young when we met,’ Peter said, his eyes closed, his hair black against the ivory pillowcase. Alicia might appear assured but there was a frailty to her. ‘I guess she needed someone solid she could depend on.’ He frowned at his own self-portrait. He’d supported her through her early career. Not just financially. Artistic confidence is fragile. In early days of audition rejections and poor reviews, he soothed her through moments of abandoned hope. She’d dreamt of making it as a serious solo artist, he said. But then… ‘Then?’ Helen encouraged him, and he shifted up onto one elbow, his eyes staring down at the floral duvet. ‘She was flattered,’ he said. Being courted by a record company. It seemed to offer easy money. Fame. Shrewd business men had seen the ÉCLAT FICTION

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potential in her lithe form and ebony hair, selling sex to an audience who would not distinguish good playing from greatness. ‘I guess that was the start. Of the rift.’ And, like a rip in silk, once started the rift grew. He no longer knew the woman who pouted glossy lips from CD covers. ‘Perhaps I never had… It was over anyway. Our marriage. Before the affair.’ Conducted so publicly, with so famous a conductor. ‘There it is,’ he said. ‘My sad story.’ He opened out his hands, as if he was opening himself out for her. She asked him further questions. He had been ready with his responses. It was hard for her to identify what exactly felt incomplete. * The evening after the film, they were dining with colleagues of his. ‘You don’t mind do you? Bit of a bore,’ he’d said. As they waited in the porch, she caught her distorted image in the glass panel. Her features were country-girl pleasant; her figure trim enough. Far from stunning. She had always been realistic about that. Her image fractured as the door swished open. ‘Heleyna,’ the hostess greeted her, as if Helen was too plain to remember. Helen found herself swept up in a rush of silks and scented air kissing. ÉCLAT FICTION

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Over dinner, Peter’s banter provoked easy laughter. Her own contributions were listened to politely, but she could not avoid the question in people’s eyes. Peter had traded down. It was what she always thought with Peter’s friends. Or was she just imagining it? ‘A comeback tour I hear.’ Helen’s ears distilled the words out of the hubbub of chat at the far end. Of course the hostess could have been talking about anyone. Peter delivered the punch line of his anecdote as his eyes flicked towards the end of the table. * ‘They must think me very dull,’ she said afterwards, immediately regretting the plea for reassurance. ‘Don’t be silly,’ he said. ‘Besides, it’s what I think that counts.’ Then his hand sought hers, and beneath a lamppost he pulled her into a kiss. * Simple curiosity led her to a Google search over sandwiches that shed crumbs and cress over her keyboard at work. Those tabloid images resurfaced. Alicia, head thrown back with laughter, beside her conductor. Her cheated-on husband – Peter – with his finger-raked hair and hooded eyes. There was newer news. ÉCLAT FICTION

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Comeback tour. Alicia had re-emerged from the alcohol depths she had drowned in after her conductor had returned, contrite, to his wife. Her circuit of suburban venues included the local theatre that Helen and Peter frequented, usually more for the films than live events. She was playing on Tuesday in a fortnight’s time. * That evening, Helen found her feet straying from her straight stationto-home route. She emerged from the box-office with a single ticket. Stupid! If she wanted to hear the concert, she should mention it to Peter. They would go together. She could not expect him to understand her desire to watch and listen to the woman he had been married to – had made love to – for all those years. * For two weeks the ticket irritated her, like a gnat bite. It was zipped into a side pocket that she rarely used, but she felt its itchy presence every time she opened her bag. She planned the ways in which she could go. An evening out with colleagues, she could say. She pictured colliding with Peter on the train home. More than anything, it would be the discovery of lying that would be difficult to explain. Her cheeks flamed at the thought. Lunchtime Googling revealed further details. Peter had never ÉCLAT FICTION

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mentioned that Alicia had been recovering from a suicide attempt when he met her. She discovered an old photo of Peter looking youthful, standing at Alicia’s side, his eyes fixed on her and proud. * The day arrived. Her work-PC hesitated then obeyed her instruction to shut down. Her arms were reaching into her jacket when her phone rang. Peter! ‘Helen, I’m so sorry. Something’s come up. I need to do a last minute review. It’s going to be a long evening.’ ‘How long?’ ‘I’m not sure. Could be very long. Don’t wait dinner for me.’ * As she forked up microwave pasta that lacked both taste and texture, her heart performed shenanigans. Nothing to stop her. Except Peter could be back any minute. Except he couldn’t expect she would just sit around and wait. Except she would have to have some story for where she’d been. The concert was due to start in fifteen minutes. The theatre was a brisk ten minutes walk away. No reason not to ring Peter on his mobile and ask: ‘How’s it going?’ ‘Fine. A lot to do still. Don’t stay up.’ ÉCLAT FICTION

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Her arrival coincided with the final admonishment for people to please take their seats. As she clambered over the side-twisted legs to her place, she was breathing hard. Her armpits sweated. Her face burned. The first piece was a Bach quartet that had played on a calm inducing CD, which a previous lover had bought her years ago. It wasn’t until the third piece that her heart had slowed and Alicia walked on stage. Her dark hair shimmied in the light. Her black dress slipped a little off one shoulder. She walked with grace and ease, but perhaps Helen detected fragility in the clipped movement of her head. The piece was a violin concerto. Not Elgar’s. Helen watched the spotlight reflecting off the polished wood of the violin, and off the olive hue of flawless skin; the fingers busy with the chords; the swooping arcs of the bow. She watched the face focussed inwards. She seemed to feel the music as much as hear it, feeling the vibrations, absorbing the emotions. The piece was rising from its sorrowful depths to its climax. Helen’s eyes were trained onto the stage. Alicia’s eyes lifted to gaze somewhere into the middle of the hall, and Helen’s gaze followed. Peter’s profile leapt out at her from the centre of the row. Her heart thudded painfully. She looked down at her interlocking fingers then back up. It was dark. She couldn’t see properly. Could she really know that it was Peter? ÉCLAT FICTION

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The music ended with a triumphant flourish of that bow, drawing out wild applause from the audience. Helen stood quickly as the lights undimmed, her eyes casting round. But she could not see Peter amidst the mass. She stumbled over legs, heading for the exit before the crowd. Under the awning she hesitated. Rain was slanting down in sheets. In her rush to get here, she hadn’t brought raingear. A figure, dressed darkly, huddled under a large umbrella beneath the tree opposite. Her heart thudded again. She had to stop imagining seeing Peter everywhere. As she stepped out into the rain, the figure shifted. Peter’s face resolved out of the shadow. ‘Thought I’d walk you home,’ he said. ‘Save you getting wet.’ He held the umbrella over both of them, then reached his free hand across to take hold awkwardly of hers. They walked quietly. Her feet churned though the sludge of fallen, sodden leaves and she breathed in the damp air. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘It’s difficult. But I like that you’re different. Please give me time.’

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Michael Marett-Crosby

I

found him and he was younger than he ever should have been, but yet I knew him and I said, ‘Let me walk with you,’ which was an

echo of the words around him, ‘Walk,’‘Walk, boy,’‘Walk,’ the voices of the men encircling him, and they were so relieved it was not them, to which I answered, ‘Soon,’ it was not prophecy, I only had to look, except my duty rested with the boy, the lonely boy, so that I bore the way that the men laughed and I fell into step with him and he put out a small hand and I took but then released it for the skin was unfamiliar, too taut across the bones, which meant that I could count all the caresses it had known and the amount came to zero so that I had to speak again, although I am a silent man by nature, said, ‘I’m glad to be with you’ and the boy did not ask, ‘Why never before?’ but just accepted or perhaps he hardly knew that I was there because the task upon him now was to leave his cell, a space that he had made ÉCLAT FICTION

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into a home with SpongeBob Squarepants stickers and the parting was so hard for he had been happy here, tending the concrete walls, laying on the windowsill his treasures, coloured stones, a cat’s incisor, and the boy had left my side and returned to them, his memories of three years here under the care of the Immaculada Corazon of Mary, so it had been called when they brought him to this place and he had prayed to her often, although it had since been rebranded the Centre for the Enforcement of Consequences of Crime, someone was standing for election and sign-painting was cheap, so the Madre de Dios had never heard his prayers, and now the voices, ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk,’ were covering the tired footfalls of two officers and as they fought through the crowd the boy remembered me and asked, ‘Will you stay with me?’ at which I smiled, a kind of resurrection, and I said, ‘I will, I will,’ wondering how I knew this child, who during the bereavement for his cell had touched his pillow’s face where rested still the dent of sleep where he had found peace, not now, the clamour and the officers with timetables to keep and the men who screamed their ‘Walk,’ they’d all been paid except for those who hadn’t yet but longed to be and they were loudest, trying to be noticed, ‘Tienes que ser hombrecito,’ You have to be a little man, ÉCLAT FICTION

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which I spoke to his tears but against the evidence because why should any boy want to be like the men around him, his tears in that dry land like miracles, and had there been a poet here he would have gathered and then kept them, magic, except this was prison, Mexico, a boy, who in a single gesture threw back his shoulders and then he staunched his weeping, a gift given by the cold stored in the metal door, the door that had for so long acted as his friend but now betrayed him, an officer held it too open so that all the boy could do was brush it with his fingers, an act of gratitude, grazing the officer as well and he recoiled and then he shouted, neither of which I liked, and I said so, ‘I will remember what you did, it is written and what I have written stays that way,’ there was a narrow path, a mesh of ‘Walk, boy,’ ‘Walk,’ and men who jostled, needing to be seen when there was no cause for concern, they were seen and by me and I do not forget a face which made the boy a puzzle, for I should have recalled him and bravely he walked that corridor of laughter, two officers ahead and ÉCLAT FICTION

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I behind, the tier a metal web for storing poisoned men like so many trussed flies with blood sucked from them, men who yearned to matter but they were famished and so sad that perhaps I was prepared to forgive them their few minutes, mocking someone less than they were, the number of such people was small against the press of men, the boy was clear-eyed, he was pure, in contrast to the faces of the men, they were all for sale, only one person was buying and ‘Shift,’ the officer at the front said, he had got it wrong because the man who blocked his way was different, wider, comfortable, he ignored the officer and spoke just to the boy, ‘You understand what you have done,’ he said and I have met many judges and this one’s power was great, every prison is a monarchy, ‘I do,’ the boy said, as if it was a wedding vow, ‘I do but you are wrong and when I am in heaven...’, a holy aspiration and an affront to this place and to the prison king as well, who for a moment was abysmally divided from who he was meant to be, yes, he felt pity for this boy, so brave, who’d spoken back to him for, after all, the boy had no friends and no heirs and even now his little lucre wrested from the world was being stripped, I heard the fights over his pillow and his bed, so that, to cover up the sound, I said, ‘Do not look back,’ whereupon, seeing the mayhem, the prison king recovered ÉCLAT FICTION

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and he was able to ask the boy, ‘Do you know your sentence?’ and the boy did know, would not rebel, the power of men was everything, prison had taught him that at least, and while the officers were holding open the tier door, the voices calling ‘Walk, boy, ’ ‘Walk,’ were kinder than the dark silence ahead and wait, dark silence was where I’d met this boy before, and that was something to make sense of while the judge held the stage and with a gesture calmed his audience so as to deliver his speech, propaganda and recruitment and excuses all at once and I did not want to hear it so I rattled a sound that only I could make, the noise of bones-to-be, and the prison king had a bad heart in every way and when I rattled, that heart let go its burden, the judge clutching at himself and this day would see a new coronation and the boy entered the corridor now from the tiers to the gate, a space with hopes painted along its ochre walls, garish dreams, invisible, for every man hoped in release, the promise that one day the door would close behind him, save the boy, he had no such ambition, wanted to return, it was the saddest thing that I had seen in a long life of many griefs, instead he fell into fantasies and they were leaking out of ÉCLAT FICTION

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him, bright green valleys he’d never visited and houses, painted houses, wait, I had seen that one before and there was time in that long corridor to probe his memories, the officers had slowed, they had been paid for compliance which did not mean they had to hurry, quite the contrary, they were important for this time and when else could they say that of their lives thus far, and so the boy recalled a time when he had trespassed, lost, alone, and it had crossed his mind to think that he deserved a roof more than a dead woman who lay in a painted house, rich, oh she was rich, the boy could tell that by the saints gathered around her, that amount of prayer cost money and a bishop, paid by the hour, I remembered now the funeral, for he had conducted the obsequies without embarrassment, which I had thought an achievement and I asked him afterwards, ‘How did you dare commend her to your holy ones when you knew?’ though not about the boy, the boy who cut the fence because the rich dead got protection, this is Mexico, and then he forced the door, not the one we had come through and not the one lying ahead, which we were approaching, so that ‘Stay close to me,’ I touched him and ÉCLAT FICTION

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‘Thank you,’ he whispered, there were not many who said that, and there was a new sound now, of clacking keys, people at computers, they writing the press statement, regret at an incident that would be thoroughly investigated by a federal team but we will not apologise because that might require compensation and what is this boy worth, well, less than a dead woman, she lay on the slab, a Guadalupe virgin begging, mother for mother, both of them had sons and it was the sons who had paid for their mother to be dead here though when I say paid, I am not sure that is the word because only threats changed hands, they loved their mother, and there was room for the boy to curl up in a corner of that house of the rich dead, I did enjoy a stroll there in the evenings, yes, I recalled now perfectly the boy who made a home in the house of the rich dead and I was glad for him but here, emerging from the sanctuary of typing, is a man who had once wanted to be good, the obstacles were many, and he was wearing a badge, ‘Director,’ he had no connection with the officers, their uniform he knew but not their names and not their income, they had been paid in another currency today while he, albeit he was trying to be good, there were no words to say, well, he could hardly wish the boy Buena suerte, Good luck, it would ÉCLAT FICTION

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have been a curse upon him and he knew that I was there and so he was not only good but also wise, because he did not unlock the door ahead, that would have been complicity, and like all good people, he wanted to sleep comfortably, much as the boy did in that house of the rich dead, the dead mother and the saints became a family, he looked after their home, making no mess and I remember how I saw him as I wandered in the cool and I am not sure but I rather think we smiled at one another and that, like thanks, is rare in my profession, the door opened, protesting, as if it knew, the outer guards for certain did, their guns and body armour make-up, or did the boy say that to me, ‘Make up a future for me,’ because he knew how much he was to lose, the weapons of the troops silent with respect, it was opposite of disrespect, the two sons came to their mother’s grave and found the boy, why hold a country on the rack when this scamp can disturb querida Mamá, kill him now, no, the law was on their side, they had bought it long ago, and it was understood that there would be two sentences, consecutive, and they should not have been making the boy sign for his possessions, for firstly there were none and ÉCLAT FICTION

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secondly he would never open the plastic bag, this was only for forms’ sake, the pieces of paper, and for form’s sake too, so that an enquiry could name robbery as cause and I was with him now and taking him into my arms, which the men with guns could see but they were used to me, I was their business manager, La Santa Muerte, Death, so when the hired guards turned back and shot the boy for sleeping in a drug lord mother’s tomb I was holding him so that he had nowhere further to fall.

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MAY 2012


Katie Anderson

W

ednesday afternoon was usually a quiet time in Parker’s

Jewellers. That particular Wednesday afternoon was no

exception. Heather, jeweller’s assistant, was alone on the shop floor. Mr Parker had gone upstairs for a late lunch. Behind the counter, Heather stepped out of her low heels and reached down to massage the arches of her feet. Three hours to go until closing time. She closed her eyes and pictured her neat front door, her frozen dinner, Coronation Street on the telly. The bell on the door jangled and a couple walked in. Heather straightened up and stepped reluctantly back into her shoes. Looking at the couple, she made her usual judgements. They were fairly young, but not young enough to be after cheap tat. They were together, but not together enough to be after something really pricey. Heather had been working at Parker’s Jewellers for eight years. In that time she had learnt an awful lot about relationships. ÉCLAT FICTION

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Every weekday, nine till five thirty, Heather feigned interest in her customers and the loved ones they bought for. Over time, she had come to understand the subtext in their gifts. Brash and on sale; I’m not sure if this is long term. Dainty and sophisticated; I didn’t choose this myself. Overpriced and elaborate; I’ve met someone else. The youngish couple, who were together but not too together, approached the counter. They didn’t stop on the way to look at any of Mr Parker’s carefully placed displays. The man was wearing a short black coat and a t-shirt with a slogan Heather couldn’t read.The woman had dark blonde hair that was darker at the roots. Heather reminded herself to smile. “Good afternoon,” she said, “can I help you?” The man spoke without looking at his partner, “we’re here for an engagement ring.” Beside him, the young woman looked at the carpet. “How nice,” Heather said. In truth, she disliked engagement shoppers the most of all. They always needed congratulating, reassuring. Heather much preferred the less pressured purchases. Mothers were her favourite. Point them in the direction of the charm bracelets or the little pearl earrings and they did the rest themselves. They never needed her advice or opinions. They never got over excited. They never wanted to tell her about their stupid ÉCLAT FICTION

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wedding plans. “Did you have a particular style in mind?” Heather asked lightly. The woman’s eyes didn’t rise from the carpet. The man placed a hand on the glass counter and leant forward, “something at the five hundred pound mark.” This wasn’t exactly what Heather had meant, but she appreciated the approach. If nothing else, it saved her having to skirt around the question later on. “We have a number of options in that price band. Did you want to go for a diamond?” The young woman shifted her weight and put a hand on the man’s elbow, “I’ve always liked rubies.” Overheard the floorboards creaked, suggesting Mr Parker had finished his lunch. Heather hoped he would hurry down and take over. He knew how she felt about the betrothed. She pointed at a tray of ruby infused engagement rings in the counter, “how about something like this?” The woman leant froward to look and the man stepped back. He didn’t look like someone anxious to be married, but Heather didn’t blame him. She’d tried matrimony once herself and had found it not to her liking. “That one,” the woman said, “in the middle.” ÉCLAT FICTION

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She’d moved her face so close to the counter that her breath was misting the glass. Heather suppressed a sigh. Mr Parker would expect her to polish that later. Dutifully, she unlocked the cabinet with a key from her belt and reached in. She pointed to a ring, but the woman shook her head. “No, the next one over.” Heather brought the right ring out and placed it on a velvet tray they kept for that purpose. She pushed it across the counter. The ruby was brash against the woman’s pale skin, but Heather made a point of never commenting on such things. Instead, she adopted an encouraging expression while the women held her hand out in front of her. “Oh,” the woman said, “it’s just lovely.” At this, the man turned his attention back to the transaction. He stepped closer and glanced at the ring, “how much is it?” Heather reached for the woman’s hand and turned it over. On the back of the ring there was a small tag with a figure on it. “This one is £420.” The man gave a small shake of his head and the woman took off the ring and placed it back onto the velvet tray. She held the base of the finger where it had been. “How about that one?” The man asked, pointing to a diamond. ÉCLAT FICTION

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It was a different style to the ruby ring. It was a less traditional cut and in platinum, not in gold. Heather looked to the woman but couldn’t catch her eye. She reached for the ring and placed it on the velvet tray. “No, no,” the man said, “I want to know how much it is.” Heather picked up the platinum band and turned it. “£540.” “That’s no good,” the woman said, almost in a whisper. Heather tapped her fingernails on the counter. “You don’t like the diamond? There are more ruby rings you could try.” She pulled the whole ruby tray out and let it drop half an inch onto the counter. At times in the past, Heather’s disdain for the customers had come to be an issue for Mr Parker. But even he had had to concede that her time-keeping and neatness were not qualities easily replaced. As long as Heather smiled and wasn’t directly rude to the customers, he had decided she could stay. Before the woman could look at the rings, the man stepped in between her and the tray and picked one out. It looked as if he had done so at random. He turned the ring over, just as Heather had done, to reveal the tag on the back. He shook his head, put it back, then picked another. “This one,” he said, obviously satisfied with what he had seen, “try this one.” ÉCLAT FICTION

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The woman took the ring and slid it onto her second finger. It was too big and the ruby fell round to her palm. “That’s the one,” the man said. Slowly, the woman lifted the ruby back round to the front of her hand and spread her fingers out on the glass counter. Her expression was dull. “That one,” the man said again, “we’ll take that one.” Just like with the jewellery, Heather made a point of never offering advice on relationships. Looking at the too-big ring on the woman’s toosmall hand, Heather reminded herself of the advice she had received before her own wedding. Had any of it been encouraging? No. Had she listened to any of it? No. Whatever she said to the young woman in the shop today, it wouldn’t be listened to. It would only be remembered with a twist of regret when everything had gone wrong. “Right,” Heather said, “okay. Re-sizing is free in the first instance, but it’ll take a couple of days. I’ll need to measure your ring size.” The man didn’t seem to blink. “There’s no need. It fits perfectly.” The ring was still on the woman’s hand. She’d pressed her palm onto the glass so that the ring stood up half a centimetre above her finger. When Heather looked at it with a certain pointedness, the woman balled her hand up into a fist. The ruby slipped and pinged against the glass. “But...” Heather reached for the sizing rings. ÉCLAT FICTION

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“No,” the man was firmer this time, “we want it the way it is.” There was no point in arguing, Heather knew that. After all, what did it matter to her whether the ring fitted or not? If it slipped from the woman’s finger and was lost, perhaps she’d take it as a sign not to marry after all. This thought cheered Heather. After checking the tag on the ring, (£500, code D) Heather turned to the shelves behind her. She found an appropriate box, removed the tag, and placed the ring inside. When she snapped the lid shut on the ruby, she felt braver. “How would you like to pay?” She asked the man with a false cheeriness. The man reached into his back pocket and pulled out a wallet. It was black, cracked, and not made from real leather. “Credit card,” he said, handing over the plastic. Habit bound, Heather checked the credit limit. It was £500. When she looked up she saw that the couple were looking anywhere but at her. The woman’s face was flushed and the man had placed his hands in his pockets. Heather looked again at the credit card. There, embossed in silver, was the name Mr Bernard Girault. The couple she had been dealing with did not look, or sound, even the slightest bit French. She turned the card over in her hand. The too-big ring. The unnatural coupling. The obsession ÉCLAT FICTION

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with price. Where was Mr Parker? “Thank you Mr Girault,” she said, rolling the ‘r’ like she had once been taught, “is that how it’s pronounced? Girrrault?” The man’s face was emotionless for a fraction too long. “Yes, just like that.” The card was definitely not his. In addition to being an expert in customers and relationships, Heather was extremely knowledgable about matters of payment. She looked sideways at the staff door. It didn’t open, and Heather had no reason to believe it would any time soon. On more than one occasion Mr Parker had been known to sit down after his lunch and close his eyes. He would emerge hours later, bleary and apologetic. Heather moved down the counter to fetch the card machine from next to the till. She typed in the number and put in the card. It started to process. If Mr Parker couldn’t be bothered to stay awake to supervise his own shop, why should she bother to be vigilant against fraud? It wasn’t her who would lose out because of it. The machine was ready to accept a pin number. She moved back up to the couple and handed it over. “Your pin, sir.” She said. When he passed back the machine, the pin had been accepted. Heather knew there were still a few seconds in which she could stop the transaction. Say she was sorry but the card had been declined. All she ÉCLAT FICTION

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needed to do was press the cancel button. She didn’t. The screen of the machine announced it had been successful. It printed off the receipt, which she handed over in a carrier bag with the ring. The couple left without saying goodbye. Heather waited until they had disappeared down the street before she rang the transaction through the till. It would take a week, maybe less, but the payment would bounce. When Mr Parker complained, she’d remember to look surprised.

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Éclat Fiction - Issue 3  
Éclat Fiction - Issue 3  

The third issue of Éclat Fiction (an online short story anthology). www.eclatfiction.com

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