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Copyright ÂŠ 2013 retained by contributors All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without the written permission of the contributor. Published by the Bath Spa University Presses, Newton Park, Bath BA2 9BN, United Kingdom, in April 2013 All characters in this anthology, except where an entry has been expressly labelled as non-fiction, are fictitious and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Cover design by Andrew Ashwin Cover image by Emma Roch Project managed by Caroline Harris for Harris + Wilson Copyedited by Nicola Presley Typeset by Jennifer Moore Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe Ltd, Chippenham, Wiltshire Sponsored by the Bath Spa University Research Centre for Creative Writing
MA Creative Writing Anthology Bath Spa University
Edited by Lesley Gillilan and Catherine Busby Associate Editor / Will Watts
Contents INTRODUCTION The Title Page / Catherine Busby and Lesley Gillilan, Editors in Chief / 7 Introduction / Fay Weldon / 8 Foreword / Gerard Woodward / 10 PROSE Kristin Breckenridge / How to Cheat a Djinn Out of the Last Eggroll / 20 Catherine Busby / Keiko's Shadow / 34 PJ Butcher / Archie's Military Manoeuvres / 42 Christina Clover / Riding the Line / 48 Francis Comberti / Crestfalling / 54 Zosia Crosse / A Several World / 60 Bruno Davey / Nahnahland / 68 Lesley Gillilan / Dark Side of the Moon / 80 Tarn Gordon-Rogers / Ava Vulpes / 88 Benjamin Grose / The Reprobates / 94 Kate Henriques / The Fat Girl in the Kitchen / 108 Jude Higgins / A Month of Billie Holiday / 116 Val Jones / The Rabbit Trainer / 122 Linda Keech / Stealing the Sun / 128 Ruth Larrea / The Third Sister / 136 Adrian John Markle / Run-Off Season / 144 Susan Miller / The Quality of Stillness / 156 Magen Mintz / A Conditional Birth / 162 Emily Morris / Skraped / 170 Caroline New / China Dreams / 178 JW Nottage / The Art of Saving Piranhas / 186 4
Silja Paulus / Nipernaadi and Her / 194 Annie Robertson / Cartier and Cupcakes / 200 Joanne Sefton / Netted / 206 Soumitra Singh / The Child of Misfortune / 212 Catherine Slade / Nothing is Lost, Nothing is Broken / 220 Davina Smith / Tumbledown / 226 Abi Steady / Dreamscape / 232 Bogdan Tiganov / Pork / 240 Will Watts / Meat / 256 POETRY Graham Allison / Far From Grass / 14 Laura Burns / INUA / 26 Craig Dobson / The Art of Tipping / 74 Matt Haw / Saint-Paul-de-Mausole / 102 Simon McCormack / Something About Letting Go / 150 Natasha Underwood / Iolaire / 246 Ellie Walsh / Lick My Words / 250 William Wright / As If She Were Speaking Aloud / 264 Acknowledgements / 269
The Title Page Coming up with a title wasn’t easy. We drew up long lists. At meetings, over copies of Roget’s Thesaurus, we chucked words around a room like balls of screwed-up paper. We thought we might use a printing term, or something that suggested a collective; a flowering, perhaps. We went from spring and harvest to peacocks (a Corsham Court reference) to feathers and muster (the latter is a collection of peacocks). Kaleidoscope? Too long. Spine? Too anatomical. Voices? Not bad. Points of View? Don’t be silly. On it went. Not everyone liked ink & bone, but it made the shortlist and won the majority vote, and somehow it seemed to say something about the nature of writing: the ink is obvious and the bone is not only suitably visceral, but also redolent of hard work. Some of us had to ask: what does it mean? But that was part of the appeal. This curious title had to work for thirty-eight very different writers, for prose and poetry, for the past and the future, fantasy and memoir, humour and grief, communism and cup cakes. This was like naming a zoo. The one thing though, that marries every writer on these pages, is their utter dedication to producing the finest work. These are extracts – snatches of larger, more ambitious narratives – but every one of us has dug deep inside ourselves to bare a little of our souls. As editors, it has been a real privilege to compile this compendium of extraordinary writers. We hope that you enjoy the characters and the places they have created – as they drift in front of your eyes, putting flesh on bones. Lesley Gillilan and Catherine Busby, Editors in Chief
Introduction / Fay Weldon It’s possible to write in a garret, I dare say, but it’s a whole lot more sensible and comfortable to pursue your talents at Corsham Court. This is what the Creative Writing graduates of Bath Spa University’s Masters choose to do. And if studying in a Palladian mansion, strolling in grounds designed by Capability Brown and refined by Humphry Repton, eating your sandwiches down drives lined by ancient yew trees where peacocks and the odd sheep roam, does nothing for that budding writer’s creativity, I’ll eat my hat. My connection with Bath Spa University goes back to the Eighties when I lived in Somerset and was on the Board of Governors of what was then a mere College of Higher Education. ‘Mere’ I say, though it was never exactly ordinary. This is a place where aesthetics and history meet. The Court is on the site where once stood Queen Osburga of Wessex’s summer palace: move forward a mere fourteen centuries through generations of cultivated aristocracy and lo! mid-twentieth century the famous Art School emerges, to be housed for a decade or so within the Corsham Court we know, and serving as a hub for many of the most celebrated artists of its day – Peter Blake, David Inshaw, Jim Dine, Terry Frost, William Scott – the wild parties of that robustly creative decade go down in living history, certainly mine. So I am more than gratified to be back here as a professor of creative writing, a tutor rather than a governor (I see it as promotion to the realms of invention and the imagination rather than the practicalities) and with the history and romance of the place still with me. It feels as if I have come home. Today, its very twenty-first-century students walk easily amongst these ancient halls and gardens, and show proof of its influence – though they may well deny it has anything to do with it – in the quality of the work they do, which in its scope, originality and awareness of the outside world, even as Corsham students look inwards, is amongst the best in the country. And that, today, is really saying something. Read the result here in this book. It’s a real privilege to be 8
working here as a tutor, finding inspiration in these most remarkable surroundings, where the past and the present, the spirit of the old and the energies of the new, come so pleasingly together. Novelist, playwright and screenwriter, Fay Weldon, is the author of more than twenty novels including The Life and Loves of a She Devil and, her latest, Habits of the House. She was appointed Professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in 2012.
Foreword / Gerard Woodward There is something very special about being around at the beginning of things. As a creative writing tutor on Bath Spa’s MA for the last few years I have had the privilege of watching many new novels take shape, from their first faltering steps through to eventual completion and – more often than you might think – publication. ‘Watching’ is often what it feels like, because no matter how much advice and criticism is offered, the student remains solely responsible for what is put on the page, and the tutor and other workshop members often feel like spectators – watching. Often a student will come to us with little more than a character in mind that is nagging at them to be written about, or the vaguest of ideas for a story set in a certain place. The first piece of work presented at the workshop might be the very first attempt to put these ideas down on paper. It might be little more than a tentative character sketch, the trying out of a scene or narrative line. Then you watch as, over the weeks, characters are given colour and depth, scenes are filled out, a flat landscape becomes three-dimensional and a world begins to form. They are exciting times, these beginnings, full of potentialities and expectations. Then comes the more difficult phase, when these potentialities have to be dealt with, and the student is overwhelmed with the possibilities of plot and theme – characters pullulate, plotlines ramify and suddenly the task of making the whole thing work as a whole seems all but impossible. And so the doubts come, characters are ruthlessly assassinated, storylines scrapped. In the worst cases, novels begun with such hope in the autumn are abandoned by Christmas and the ‘back-up’ novel is started in February – or later. In this way the students’ progress through the MA mirrors almost perfectly the life of a writer in the outside world – though in a perhaps more accelerated form. An MA student, I sometimes feel, lives their writing life about three times faster than a ‘normal’ writer. In producing a near-tocompletion novel for the MA, they are compressing the work of three 10
years into one. Their joys and triumphs are also three times as intense – but then so are their crises and lows. The pieces collected in this anthology are beginnings. They are not necessarily the beginnings of novels (though some of them are), but they are the beginnings of voices. Voices that you will hear much more of as time goes by. And when, in the future, you hear these voices again, you will feel privileged that you heard them here, for the first time. That you were in at the beginning. Gerard Woodward is a Professor of Fiction at Bath Spa University and author of the Jones-family trilogy, August (shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread First Novel prize), I’ll Go to Bed at Noon (shortlisted for the 2004 Man Booker prize) and A Curious Earth, as well as stand-alone novel Nourishment, and collections of poetry (The Seacunny, 2012) and short stories.
Poetry & Prose
Graham Allison Graham Allison has a degree in English Literature and History from Aberystwyth University. He has worked as a barman, in a bookshop and on an archaeological dig. He was also employed for eight years by the Liberal Democrats in the National Assembly for Wales before resigning to travel round the world and give more time to his writing. His poems have appeared in a number of magazines including Poetry Review and The Interpreterâ€™s House. One of his poems featured as a Poem of the Day at the 2012 Bath Literature Festival. During the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa, Graham wrote a series of poems drawn from his travel experiences; these probed such issues as identity and belonging, social interaction and solitude, the interplay of the familiar and unfamiliar, and the effects of geography and the natural world on human consciousness. firstname.lastname@example.org
Far From Grass The Pacific shines turquoise and clear at Antofagasta – the city perches on a narrow plain between sea and mountains; on the periphery of the desert. I stumble across a rugby match – a Lion Classic, or so the red letters on a giant white inflatable can inform me – the pitch full-size but sand – laid out beside the glittering ocean.
Impressions Valparaiso of forty-five hills, rackety tram lifts, base of the Chilean Navy, rough working port. I dismount from the bus, a little old lady approaches, offers a room at a reasonable price. A miscellaneous collective of elderly people shuffling about in a large apartment house. They’re keen on payment in advance; next morning I’m ambushed in the shower by a ten-minute timer. The city seems edgy – on the street a drunk, rouged woman screeches – dubious bars unman me. In a restaurant I drink red wine served in long straight glasses; Pablo, the owners’ son, comes over and chats. He practises his English and my glass is refilled gratis; we are joined by several of his friends. Later, a cramped car ride to a fiesta in Quilpé; wine and cola hangover writes off the following day. Before I depart, I return to the restaurant; Pablo is not there; I leave with his mother British coins for his collection.
Stargazing Vicuňa nestles in the Elqui Valley – vines carpet the valley floor, white hills rear and glare on either side. At night the skies are so clear I see the Milky Way in greater definition than I have ever seen it before. Inlaid in the middle of the plaza in Vicuňa is a massive sculpted stone replica of the death mask of the poet Gabriella Mistral. There is not much to do in Vicuňa – except visit the museum dedicated to Gabriella Mistral – she served the town as a teacher – Dilapidated furniture, black and white photos, displays recounting a version of her life interweaved with typed poetic extracts. From Vicuňa I peregrinate to Montegrande where Gabriella Mistral was born and grew up – I tour another museum-shrine – the plaza and village dominated by her statue – She is not abandoned upon the plinth: there is a girl on one side, a boy on the other – they grasp her hands and clutch books.
Bus to Esquel The traveller in the seat next to me bites his nails, spits the bits out, gropes his crotch, keeps pulling up his T-shirt to show off his belly thick with black wiry hairs; he is all jutting elbows and knees and sprawls dozing against me â€“ I twitch my shoulder to shrug him off.
Kristin Breckenridge With a degree in English Literature fresh in her hand, Kristin Breckenridge decided to trade the dry, flat plains of West Texas for the wet hills of Bath, England. When not writing in tearooms, Kristin enjoys knitting and finding unsuspecting people to foist her knitted goods upon. How to Cheat a Djinn Out of the Last Eggroll is her first novel. Skylar is an American girl who goes to the British Museum. There she meets Sia, a person only she can see. She also discovers that she is the mortal guardian of the Rosetta Stone, a powerful magical object. The Rosetta Stone is threatened by the former Egyptian gods, who need the Stone to reclaim their divinity and control the entire human race. To save mankind from unending servitude, Skylar and her friends must battle these power-hungry ex-gods in a journey that takes them through the British Museum, City of London, and castles in the English countryside. email@example.com
How to Cheat a Djinn Out of the Last Eggroll Not one head turned in our direction. I was the only person in the British Museum who could see the guy in the Yankees cap. Maybe I was having a mental breakdown; that would explain a lot. I had created this guy from my imagination because I could no longer cope with everyday life. We were back in the Egyptian Sculpture gallery, on a bench next to a massive granite arm fragment that looked like it was waiting for a fist bump. My imaginary friend was going through my bag, looking at my things. I didn’t see the point in stopping him. As a figment of my imagination, he couldn’t steal from me. Sitting beside him, I watched him look through my wallet. He was fairly good-looking, although that wasn’t surprising. Who wanted an unattractive imaginary friend? With brown hair, hazel eyes and olive skin he looked like he could be from almost anywhere, from Italy to Mexico. He had a highclass British accent, but with a trace of something that made me think English wasn’t his first language. A bilingual imaginary friend. Cool. He finished rummaging through my bag and turned to face me on the bench. ‘Now Skylar. Your name is Skylar Owens, correct?’ ‘Yeah.’ Shouldn’t he know that already? ‘Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Sia and I am the—’ ‘I like Barnaby.’ Sia didn’t sound like a good name for an imaginary friend. I wanted something with character. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘I like the name Barnaby more than Sia.’ ‘Nevertheless, it is my name. Now, I am the immortal—’ ‘No really. I want to name you Barnaby. It’s much more interesting.’ ‘You cannot name me Barnaby. I already have a name.’ ‘But I don’t like your name. You’re my imaginary friend so I should get to pick a name I like.’ Barnaby looked taken aback. ‘Excuse me?’ ‘I’m the one who created you, I should be the one to name you.’ ‘Skylar, I am not your “imaginary friend”. I am quite real.’ 21
‘Then why can’t anyone else see you?’ Let him explain that. ‘Because I am a djinn. An immortal creature from Ancient Egypt. I have been tasked with the care of the object called the Rosetta Stone. It is my duty to protect the Stone from supernatural threats.’ ‘Uh-huh. Really Barnaby, it’s okay. You don’t have to make up a complicated backstory. I know that you’re a figment of my imagination.’ ‘I am not a figment of your imagination! I was appointed by Ra himself to guard the Stone, not to argue with silly young girls.’ He let out a breath and put a finger between his eyebrows, like he was getting a headache. ‘It would appear that I must prove my existence to you. Do you see that rather large statue of a man’s head and torso, just on the other side of the Stone?’ I looked across the crowded gallery. The statue was big, almost twenty feet high on its pedestal. It was a man, with the side of his head cut off by some long-ago accident. He also had a hole in his chest, like a body piercing gone wrong. ‘Yeah, I see it.’ ‘It is a likeness of Ramses the Second, one of the most famous pharaohs of Egypt. He ruled during the Nineteenth Dynasty.’ ‘What does that prove?’ ‘It is a demonstration of my substantial knowledge of Egyptian history. Actually, my knowledge is more exhaustive, considering I lived through most of it.’ I let out an understanding sigh. ‘Barnaby—’ ‘Sia!’ ‘All right, Sia, I’m afraid that doesn’t prove a lot. I could have read about Ramses a long time ago and buried that information deep in my brain.’ ‘The Second.’ ‘Huh?’ ‘It is Ramses the Second. Ramses the First is a completely different person. And here is something that rarely makes it into the annals of history – Ramses the Second was actually quite short. That is why he felt the need to build such a large monument to himself. And he had a lisp. Of course, instead of trying to overcome his impediment, he 22
simply changed the pronunciation of the Egyptian language. A whole culture spoke with a lisp for nearly three hundred years.’ ‘Sia, Sia—’ I shook my head. ‘That is very creative. But while my imagination must be working overtime, it doesn’t mean that you exist outside my brain. Ramses the Second may have been short and lisped, but there’s no real way to prove it. These little fun facts are simply my subconscious mind trying to convince my conscious mind that you’re real.’ ‘I am real.’ He looked over my shoulder. ‘Very well, you seem to require physical, objective proof that I am not a creation of your imagination.’ He paused. ‘A man has just walked into the gallery behind you. He is wearing a red shirt that advertises the Iowa Corn Festival of 2008.’ I turned around on the bench. There he was, big and red, Mr Corn Festival ’08. I whipped back around. I got a very bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. ‘How could I have seen him?’ ‘It is not possible.’ He was right. There was no way my conscious or subconscious mind could have seen that man enter the gallery. Oh boy. ‘This isn’t happening.’ ‘I’m afraid that it is.’ ‘But I don’t want it to happen.’ I looked up at my non-imaginary friend. He mumbled that I wasn’t the only one. ‘How can this be happening to me?’ ‘It is not happening to you alone, Skylar. It is happening to us. I am aware that you did not plan to have your life changed today, but then again, neither did I. And you are a change.’ He looked at me closely. ‘Are you sure you can see me?’ ‘Yes, I’m sure. Why would I make something like this up?’ ‘Some would find the power of the Rosetta Stone quite desirable.’ ‘Whatever. I want no part of it. So we can both go our separate ways and pretend we never met. I won’t tell a soul, except for my therapist, and you can go back to being the invisible man.’ ‘As I stated before, I am a djinn.’ ‘As in “and tonic”?’ 23
‘No, d-j-i-n-n. I am immortal, and the Rosetta Stone is in my care.’ ‘Djinn. Is that like being a genie?’ He thought it over. ‘Correlations have been made between the two. I suppose it could be said, yes, I do resemble the genie of popular culture.’ He didn’t look like any genie I had ever seen. ‘Shouldn’t you live in a lamp or something?’ ‘Djinns are similar to genies, but we are not identical.’ ‘But you can grant wishes, right?’ He raised an eyebrow. ‘I am responsible for the protection of the Rosetta Stone, not the desires of a mortal.’ ‘So that’s a no?’ I liked him better as an imaginary friend. He had his hands around the sides of his head, like he was trying to hold in his thoughts. ‘Skylar. We need to begin. Now first I will perform a spell on your eyes—’ ‘My eyes? You’re going to cast a spell on my eyes? Are you going to make me invisible too?’ ‘No, quite the opposite. It is a spell that will allow you to see what others cannot. It is a necessary part to expose you—’ ‘Expose me?’ ‘Skylar.’ Sia’s teeth were clenched. ‘I need to implement a spell on your eyes so that you may see the necessary aspects of your role.’ ‘You’re not going to poke anything in them are you?’ ‘I will not even need to touch them, only move my hands.’ ‘Well in that case, okay.’ I closed my eyes and waited for him to do his thing. ‘I need you to open your eyes.’ I blinked them open. He waved his hands in front of my face like a magician. My vision went dark. ‘You’ve blinded me! You son of a—. Whoa, what am I looking at?’ My eyes cleared and I saw that objects in the museum had light halos around them. ‘You’re looking at the power auras of various things. Every object contains a certain amount of power. This spell allows you to view that strength. More powerful objects will glow more brightly.’ 24
A statue of a hippopotamus had a soft reddish, almost pink glow surrounding it; a giant granite man had a more red-gold radiance around him. But the artifacts weren’t the only things giving off a light. ‘But what about the auras around people?’ ‘The same principle applies. A more self-confident person, such as that tour guide, will emit a more luminous aura.’ He pointed to a man leading a group of tourists and answering their questions. ‘Now observe the Rosetta Stone,’ Sia said. I turned around and was almost blinded. Even through the crowd, I could see that the Stone was burning rather than glowing. ‘Ahh! Why did you almost let me sear my corneas?’ It was like looking into the sun at noon. I turned my head away, but Sia put a hand on my shoulder. ‘Look.’ I watched as a thin lightning bolt shot out of the Stone, through its glass case, and hit a tourist on the back of the neck. He slapped at it like it was a bug bite. ‘As the most popular attraction in the museum, the Rosetta Stone has gained immense power. So much power that it does more than exhibit an aura, it is capable of releasing that energy. This is a mild occurrence. Some of the more severe events have involved heart attacks or blown lighting fixtures. In your role as guardian, you will be able to fix these actions and prevent them from happening in the first place. It is a responsibi—’ ‘Stop.’ ‘Excuse me?’ ‘Just stop talking and take this spell off me.’ The auras had been fun to see, but I didn’t want to do anything about them; he had the wrong person for the job. I was a tourist, an American, on an impromptu vacation because my great-aunt-once-removed had died. The only reason I was in London was to pack up her stuff and make the apartment ready for the real estate people. Not to get involved in mythological creatures who insisted that I was the chosen guardian of the most popular attraction in the British Museum. Sia had chosen the wrong girl.
Laura Burns Laura is a poet, performance storyteller and performance writer based in Bristol. She has had prose and poetry published in Tears in the Fence, Bath Literary Festival magazine 2012, and Despatches From The Invisible Revolution: New Public Thinking #1. Laura was appointed writer-in-residence for SPILL Festival of Performance, and writes regularly for culture magazine Exeunt. In this long poem, INUA, Laura seeks to question the relationship between our inner journeys and collective rituals, and the way these needs are reflected in our relationship with the living world. Driven by the power of myth and the performativity of language and story, Lauraâ€™s storytelling informs her spoken word and written poetry, and her poetry, in turn, feeds her oral tellings. She sees the two as springing from the same source. Similarly, her concern for a new language and philosophy that acknowledges the agency of the material world, rather than writing the histories of culture over nature, is pivotal to all her pursuits. Her writing for performance incorporates these approaches, blending critical discourse with creative responses. The dialogue between criticality and intuitive writing is key to her poetry and prose. She is influenced by Native American poets as well as an eco-literature movement closer to home, and poets such as Alice Oswald, John Burnside and Ted Hughes. firstname.lastname@example.org
INUA III One orange hangs like an oil lamp in the branches of the furthest tree. A piano melody lilts over the lawn on a breeze that shakes the grove, plucks the last fruit from its hold. It falls to the ground with a dull thud. It was forgotten when the gardener – stretching from the tip of the ladder to yank the orange free – traced a guttural smell hitched on the wind. She turned to follow the scent, missing the last fruit. Raven was watching: a black flag amongst the green, his racket made the thunder peal, spliced the silence open, distracted her: she loped back to the house. She will never know, that laid out under the trees in the humid afternoon is a white bear, black nostrils vibrating, its matted fur sour with sweat and excrement. The animal sleeps and sleeps, is jolted awake only when Inua decides to hook one toe to the wisteria creeping up her balcony. She shakily descends its wire-branches, disappears into the night …
The garden is trimmed and clipped to the bone; air thick with the stench of geranium and rose, a peach rotting on its own sweetness. Inua feels the moist pulp of fetid fruit underfoot. She clenches her toes. It was not her decision to spider through the thick night. She follows a tug at her stomach that yanks her deeper into the shadows. 27
She lends her longing to its pull. Her eyes reflect the moonlight, flash white for a second like the pure glow of a flame, a feverish dog-heat rising. She looks down rows of trees boxed in angles and lines, rooted with artificial gravel. A nightingaleâ€™s gurgle threatens the stillness. She sniffs him first on the air â€“ all gut and hair skewering the night. The smell is raw, of blood and grit and a thousand crows sullying the sky. There among the pomegranates and oranges she glimpses ivory fur, the four-legged majesty of a white bear. Eyes pebble-black as wells, velvet body pitted against the darkness. Sucking in her shock, she sees a part of herself flash among the trees. She is dancing with feathered neck and clawed hand, fangs dripping from her coral mouth and hooves stammering her ground. She can do nothing but follow him. He pads giant paw-feet through the gravel and soil, crushing the desperate order of this place. His hairs stand the plants on end. She follows without question, tearing fistfuls of flowers as she goes.
Rushing downhill from the house on cobbles that glint and slip underfoot, she runs low: a mother losing her child in the crowd. Her elbows propel her, he is in her sights still absorbing the moonâ€™s light in his fur and maybe it is the moon I am following, she thinks, weaving her way out of the village. His scent swathes her in animal musk, pricks her skin, she is hinging from her haunches, taking longer jaguar-strides into the night. 28
The shutters of house after house slash her in shadow as she lopes under light-pools spilling from closed windows. She only has sight and smell for the chase, her vision tunnelled to his ivory light. She steals along the metal fence of a junkyard, scraps of glass betraying her movements with a tinkle but at least she can run hard on this ground, let her feet fall flat – she is running now full pelt, panicked to lose him in the dark night away from town. She hasn’t moved like this before, bolting out with ankles kicking up behind her she is getting further and further into herself, more alone with every stride. Now she’s coursing on, steady and rhythmic as fields stretch open for her. His pinpoint of light starts to flicker and dart, erasing itself then returning as trees dot and loom, blocking his glow from her view. Some animal in her anticipates tree trunks, manages to glide in and out – branches gouge her face to stop her, but it’s the changing ground that will betray her soon, that will cast her to the blackened wood. Roots knot the ground like knuckles: she trips – finds herself on all fours, a catapult slammed against the earth, still reeling from flight. Robbed of her momentum she sinks her head to the prayer-mat of soil, fingers spreading to clutch at earth’s pattern, moisture seeking 29
the scratches on skin – her hands cracked like the desert’s split crust. Blood dilates her veins – with every pulse she swells into herself; each beat a wave to drum her ears, to echo the give of her body: she looks up, knows – she has lost him to the black night. Earth’s marl weeps down her face as needles fall flickering the light-shafts that settle on soil, while a fern recoils sensing new movement: a body torn and thrown to the elements, only her quick breath and thudding blood give her away to the darkening wood. Sticking out her tongue she drinks the liquid that runs down the spine of her nose, sacred as the forest it loops under her nostril, hovers on the lip’s bridge, she licks the spill pleading her thirst and hunger and exhaustion will block out the fear of what she’s begun; toes claw the peat soil, she clenches her jaw sucking air through bared teeth she starts to crawl, sniffing animal on the fungus-threaded floor. She stops at one place where the ground is stamped out black earth compact from a claw-footed print; this is where he has been, where he has run, she places her hand on this record of him but a hand is too small to fill the earth’s wound so she lowers herself, swift to the ground: mouth to the mud, belly touching the earth – pregnant, she fills the absence of them both; still as a serpent, spent from the relief of being so close to herself.
For weeks she will find his traces woven into the land she never tries to track him just hunkers her centre to his she wants to crawl into darkening air into owl sounds that claim the night its pockets and hollows she did not know her own separateness ground damp and shadow-shot her thirst for this umber-stenched land unfulfilled fathom deep in the skittish wind she cannot place the longing arising from her own forgotten body can only watch anotherâ€™s movements divulge sense from clamour or silence
scuttle the earth the way she cannot
and her only knowing is how words stick like grit in soil and dirt lose meaning 31â€ƒ
the fast day disintegrating â€“ she never sleeps in his footprints but after a while coils back up deliberate squinting her eyes to the sun or moon she forgets her hunger walks on
Catherine Busby Catherine Busby’s reward to herself, after home-educating her eldest daughter, was to do a BA in Creative Writing and Publishing at Bath Spa University. She achieved first-class honours, and went on to do the MA. She is a stage manager at Glastonbury Festival. She writes copy for the festival programme and has been published online by Ink, Sweat and Tears. Fascinated by people, she is a proud mother and an uncommonly young grandmother, who lives in Glastonbury – but hopes to move to a place with seagulls and strong winds. Keiko’s Shadow is her second novel. 1942. Keiko, a young Eurasian woman, is incarcerated in Changi prisoner-of-war camp, Malaysia. After giving birth to twins, it is obvious that she and her daughters, Juvita and Lily, cannot survive. She accepts the offer of Japanese guard, Makoto, who promises to take the sisters away and love them. Makoto is lying. He keeps Lily, but gives Juvita up for adoption. We follow the twins’ separate journeys across three generations and two continents. Unaware of her sister, Lily is brought up in a loving but dishonest home in Malaysia. Juvita has an oppressive upbringing in England, becomes pregnant and, against her parents’ wishes, keeps the child. Her son, Reuben, lives an unusual and solitary life, exploring ways to feel close to his English grandmother, who died when he was twelve. Meanwhile, Lily discovers that she has a twin; her world is shattered – but it is Reuben who makes the trip to Malaysia, where, in a shocking guise, he unwittingly brings Keiko back from the dead. email@example.com
Keiko’s Shadow ‘I am married,’ he’d told her, ‘to my wife, and to the church.’ The Changi Church was a shed, sparsely decorated, but much revered. Keiko had gone there, months back, to pray for her father when word of his third bout of malaria reached her. Keiko was alone. Reverend Hampton, a note on the door stated, was in hospital with beriberi. She sat on a hard bench and cried and cursed her mother, who’d fled to her family in Australia, taken cover in her white skin. The day Keiko had gone to the docks to follow her mother’s path was still fresh in her mind. Suitcase packed, passport and money in her bag, she took her place in line. The room was full of high-spirited nervous travellers, each jostling for their ticket to escape; the officials gave them out, it seemed, like sweets; but not to her. The queue of Europeans behind her grew angry and impatient. Keiko was holding up their freedom. ‘I am British,’ she’d said. He looked up. ‘You are Eurasian.’ ‘I have a British passport, please, look.’ She pushed it towards him. ‘My mother is British, she sailed from here eleven days ago.’ ‘Your father?’ He looked beyond her to the agitated crowd. ‘Malay.’ ‘Then you must produce your mother’s birth certificate to prove your nationality.’ ‘But she’s gone.’ He waved her aside. Crestfallen, Keiko went home. Nobody, it seemed, wanted her. Her father, a virtual stranger, whom she had known best as a sharp suit and briefcase, had left her in the small but caring hands of Ah-Pei, her Amah, while he attended to his business. The eleven-hour journey to the prison camp was the longest time Keiko had spent with him. She didn’t know what had happened to Ah-Pei.
Now, in the church, Keiko cried out in the darkness. ‘Why?’ ‘May I be of any help?’ Keiko reddened and covered her face with her hands. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she muttered. ‘I thought I was alone.’ She felt a gentle touch on her back. ‘Don’t be sorry.’ The hand stayed, a comfortable pressure in the stifling heat; Keiko willed him not to move it. She thought about the parting with her father at the prison gates; their brief and awkward embrace. ‘Please.’ He moved closer. ‘It’s quite all right. I’m Michael, I’m filling in for the Reverend.’ Keiko fanned her fingers open across her eyes and peeked up, scared to see the man who’d caught her. She saw a white face with a gentle smile. He peeled her hands from her face. He was here, he explained, to visit the camp until the Reverend regained his health. They talked until the bell for silence rang. He suggested they meet the following evening. ‘I am here for you,’ he promised, ‘to give you consolation and guidance.’ Keiko met Michael whenever she could. She felt resentment towards other internees who wanted to spend time with him. She hung about, sweeping already swept paths and digging dead, dry earth over and over. He told her, when she asked, that she was more special than the others. ‘But you understand that I must tend to them too?’ he asked. She bore the pain of sharing him, and continued their encounters. He gave her hope. ‘We are taking a risk, you know,’ he said as they hid in the shed after the bell had rung. ‘But I feel better when I see you,’ she said. He stared at her and she felt naked. Her breath caught and she reached out to touch his face. He stroked her thin arms. ‘I wish I could take you away from all of this.’ ‘You do.’ Keiko leaned into his arms, felt her soul shift and trusted him to hold it. His palms, on her back, felt bigger than before. With each slow breath she took, she allowed his touch to deepen. His touch, so gentle, was endless; he cradled her. 36
His lips whispered against her hair, then quieted. He bent his face to hers and she felt safe; ready. Their mouths touched, as gentle as the wind – they spoke silent words to each other. And then, no words but an exploration – the most intimate of kisses. Keiko had been opened. Their hands locked in each other’s hair, each pulled at the other, wanted, needed more, and yet, it was exquisitely tender; life-giving. They breathed through each other, shared heartbeats and skin. She never wanted to let him go. Keiko’s dress was gone before she realised and she felt his hands across her skin, inside her skin and she wanted him to hold her forever. She drank from his bare skin, lost herself and felt him probe in places she’d never been touched before. Despite the searing burn, she wanted him to dive further inside her, to be part of her. And then he was, and she pulled at his back, needed each pain, loved each pain that brought her closer, and closer still to him. She gave herself to him, and knew that they were one. Michael grasped her so tightly that it hurt. He muttered her name, and God’s. His body tensed and he threw his head back. Keiko reached for his face. He growled. Her throat tightened. ‘Michael?’ She wanted him back. And then he gathered her into her arms and she softened once more. ‘I love you.’ She murmured into his skin. He leant on his elbow and smiled. ‘That was delightful.’ He kissed her nose. She felt him pull away from her, out of her. ‘Don’t go.’ He laughed and tried to move away. ‘Silly, you,’ he said. ‘We can’t stay like this – they’ll find us.’ Keiko shut her eyes and willed herself back into that other world. Michael pulled his trousers up and threw her tattered dress at her. ‘Hurry up.’ She pulled it over her head and covered her naked body. She wanted to fold herself away. ‘Kiss me?’ she asked. Michael turned away as he buttoned his shirt. ‘Not now,’ he said. Keiko wept. She wasn’t ready to be closed, alone. ‘Don’t cry, darling,’ Michael said, and helped her up. ‘Of course 37
I want to kiss you.’ ‘Then do,’ she begged. ‘Come on.’ He wiped her face. ‘Don’t spoil this with tears.’ Keiko sat on a wooden chair; she didn’t know where her edges were, or what she had become. She looked at him as he stacked some Bibles and knew she never wanted to disappoint him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered. As she stood she felt something slide, deep within. She placed her hand between her legs and felt a slippery wetness; she pressed tightly. ‘I’ll get you something to clean up with.’ His face was deep red. ‘I don’t want to clean you away.’ ‘Well, you ought to.’ He rooted in a box of cloth. ‘And you need to clear that mess up.’ He gestured to where the broken part of her had seeped darkly into the wooden floor. Keiko stared at the blood. She didn’t trust herself to speak, but wanted to tell him that it shouldn’t be wiped away; it was a sign – a blood-given sign, borne from their love. She took the bit of sacking from his hand. ‘Good girl.’ He winked at her. Her heart leapt and she realised that even if she scrubbed the stain away – their secret was indelibly written in their hearts.
• ‘Keiko?’ Makoto opened the door. She rubbed tears from her face. ‘What do you want?’ ‘To help.’ He squatted beside her bed. ‘Let me?’ Keiko looked at the guard. Today she’d seen him with Michael. She wanted to rip Makoto’s gentle smile off and smear it on the wall. Didn’t he know Michael was the only person who could help? ‘I saw you talking to Michael,’ she said. Makoto stood up. ‘Michael?’ ‘The Missionary – he covered for Reverend Hampton, when he was ill. He left months ago. What were you saying?’ ‘Nothing of importance.’ Makoto pulled her up. ‘His wife spoke to the women here today.’ He didn’t let go of her weak body. ‘This is not important.’ 38
Keiko retched. The woman she’d left holding her babies earlier was Michael’s wife. ‘You are not good.’ She didn’t know if Makoto was questioning or making a statement, so she said nothing. She wanted to run – run and take her children back – snatch them away from Michael’s wife. They weren’t hers to touch … ‘Keiko? You are sick.’ She nodded. ‘Your babies are sick too.’ She stared blankly. ‘I will take them.’ ‘What?’ She retched again. ‘I will take them.’ ‘Where?’ Keiko swallowed. ‘The hospital?’ She felt numb. ‘No.’ Makoto held her hands; his touch was gentle. ‘Away. To a safe and good life.’ She dug her nails into his skin; her arms shook. ‘I’ll love them well,’ he said. ‘My wife will too.’ ‘I can’t …’ Keiko began. She shut her eyes, and saw that woman embracing her children. She opened them and saw the cell – filthy with bugs and foul smells – the yard outside where women were whipped and abused. ‘You will love them?’ Her voice cracked. ‘You say yes?’ Her knees gave way and he led her back to the bed. She turned away from him. ‘What will we tell the others? How will I explain?’ ‘I will take them when night comes,’ he said. ‘Then you will say that they go to a better place.’ He cast his eyes upwards. Keiko thought of the graveyard, each hole hand-dug by the prisoners; bamboo crosses, which marked each passing, bound with palm leaves. She couldn’t bear it. The Japs wouldn’t touch the dead, fearful of disease. They insisted that cholera sufferers dug the grave of a cholera death, ensuring a pitiless reminder of their own fate. Keiko couldn’t bear the thought of hollowing out the barren earth. ‘I will dig them both,’ Makoto said. ‘In time, you can make the crosses.’ That night, Keiko watched the women sleep; their bodies a jumble of pick-up sticks on the floor. They slept deeply – respite from 39
exhaustion and malnutrition. She was wide awake, her brain razor sharp. She thought back to her first night at Changi. She had sworn never to speak of it, had foolishly thought that the horror she’d witnessed in the darkness could never be surpassed … A thin scraping of moon lit the crowded room. The women slept in their dresses, tossed and moaned, desperate for rest. A sound clawed at Keiko’s ears. She buried her face in her arms, willed it to disappear. She hummed a song from her childhood, over and over again, but the sound persisted. She stepped across the bodies on the floor. The window was small. The scream was loud. She didn’t want to look, didn’t want to hear. The guard dragged a woman by her feet. She was belly down. Her dress had ridden up; her ragged underwear was on show. Keiko couldn’t see her features, only a desperate open mouth. He hauled her in circles, round and round a post in the yard. Keiko was transfixed. She should help, but she couldn’t. Her stomach twisted; the woman’s cries quieted. The guard stood on her back. Perfectly balanced, he bounced. Her agony pierced the night. He bounced harder. When she was silent, he pulled her up and pressed her against the post. She stood still, made no attempt to resist when he wrapped a rope around her. Keiko’s throat closed. The guard stood back. Keiko’s mouth dried. He pulled a sword from his belt. It glinted in the thin light. Time stopped. And then he swung his arms above his head and swiped through the air. Keiko’s stomach dropped as the woman’s head hit the ground. The guard walked away. Keiko stared at the woman’s body. A vile smell hit her nostrils. A warm sensation slid down the back of her legs. Keiko realised that, in a room of four other women, she had soiled herself.
PJ Butcher Phil Butcher grew up in Northamptonshire before going to university in Scotland. He spent his twenties in the army and his thirties in business, where a spell in PR and advertising was followed by time in the software industry. Most recently, he spent five years as chief executive of a medical charity, the Muscular Dystrophy Campaign. Phil lives near Chepstow and has two teenage daughters. Archie’s Military Manoeuvres is set in Britain and Germany during 1987. It is the end of the cold war and Archie Meadowcroft has joined the army by accident. Strange forces are at work and a gang of rightwing malcontents, set upon arresting Britain’s decline, plan to depose Margaret Thatcher and replace her with an ageing Nazi. Despite trying conditions, Archie saves the day, as well as finding time to fall in love – one-and-a-half times. Archie’s Military Manoeuvres provides a light look at how we’re imprisoned by our histories, not only our own but those of the places we’re from. Life in the army at the end of the cold war, life in Spandau Prison, and life in late-Eighties Britain are the narrative vehicles. In a militaristic age, when a small army has been fighting far-away wars for over a decade, we remember an earlier time when a big army did its best to avoid a nuclear one much closer to home. firstname.lastname@example.org
Archie’s Military Manoeuvres As the 1980s wore on, Jocelyn Trencher realised that Britain was changing and at a far from comfortable rate. Toyotas were replacing Triumphs, menus offered foreign food, and impertinent questions were being asked of the Great and the Good. Jocelyn didn’t approve of change and after some fretful years had reached a conclusion – something should be done. But what? At supper he was contemplating the state of Britain, busily ignoring his wife and putting paid to a couple of lamb chops, when the doorbell rang. He pushed some cauliflower cheese around his plate while she answered it. ‘It’s a letter,’ she said, ‘for you.’ She held out a smart hand-written envelope. Jocelyn frowned and tried to decide what to do. He hacked off a fatty piece of meat and stuck it in his mouth. The letter looked upmarket with scratchy handwriting in proper black ink, clearly from a decent pen. The envelope was good quality too, with ‘Major J.D. Trencher BY HAND’ written across the top. ‘Pudding, darling?’ his wife asked. He hadn’t received a letter in years. Perhaps it was important. Then Jocelyn felt something unexpected lance through the simple enjoyment of his supper. It was an emotion. By inclination and training he avoided feelings, keeping clear of them as he would dog mess in the street, yet there he was, sitting at the kitchen table on a perfectly normal Tuesday evening enjoying a mouthful of Sainsbury’s finest, when what should pull up a chair next to him but a tingle. It was the licking pilot light of expectation. Even so, whilst he couldn’t deny that his tingle felt quite nice, it wouldn’t have done to let it show. ‘Coffee, dear?’ Jocelyn stood up and looked about. Their flat was a titchy army quarters in which you’d have been ill-advised, and slightly cruel, to swing a cat. It had two bedrooms, a tiled galley kitchen and a sitting room, complete with sensormatic two-bar log-effect electric fire. The cramped bathroom had no window 43
or extractor fan and made a speciality of being damp, the better for growing mould. Next to it was the separate WC – ‘the throne room’ – which Jocelyn found a restful, contemplative little space, ideal for brooding. Its walls were heavy with framed army photographs which he liked to ponder whilst unburdening himself. He gripped the letter tightly. ‘Coffee? Oh, yes. I’ll take it in my study.’ Despite the flat’s lack of physical space, Jocelyn had been adamant that somebody of his standing needed a study, a place where a gentleman’s mind might roam. When he chose as his office their miniscule second bedroom with its partial view of the massive blue gasometer by the Oval, his wife swiftly approved, scarcely able to hide her excitement at having him out of the way. Jocelyn left her to tidy up and stepped into his cave. He loved his study. Other than the lavatory, it was where his political concerns were most carefully addressed. He spent hours at his desk staring into space, pondering the imponderable, nurturing his unformed opinions as they sunk roots deep into the midden heap of his oldest prejudices. It wasn’t all easy-going. Thinking was hard work. The tricky questions of late middle age offered few simple answers and when Britain’s contradictions got too much, Jocelyn would turn for reassurance to his library, reaching for one of his much-loved books of Empire. The Illustrated Record of the Third Reich and a hardback copy of Weapons of the Wehrmacht were favourites, their steely black and white photographs of precision ironmongery endlessly soothing. Jocelyn tapped his fingers as his wife set the coffee tray down, then clicked the door shut behind her. He took off his brogues, parked them neatly, and slid on a pair of embroidered evening slippers. He slowly turned the envelope over. Procrastination was an old friend and with nobody to tell him what to do, Jocelyn hesitated. Finally, he ripped it open in what he considered a manly and decisive fashion. This is what he read: Major Trencher, We are a select band of Patriots and concerned with the fall of Great 44
Britain and determined to do something about it. Never before has our Great country needed more of our help. And yours to! We need men of action, men who will stand fast, men like you are, to join us now immediately. If you are ready to step up, place a lighted candle in your window, so that we might see how brightly your ardor shines. Operation Candle is aflame! Soon you will be contacted by someone. (One of us obviously). Signed: The Group Jocelyn read and re-read the letter. It lacked the precision of an army memo but what could he expect? They were clearly civilians. He sprang up. The study was too small to pace around, so he flexed his knees and bobbed with delight. He’d been chosen to serve! It was obvious the Group knew their onions and, better yet, wanted a man of action. That was him all right. The only candle he could find was a scented one his wife kept in the bathroom for special occasions. He lit it and put it on the sittingroom windowsill, easily visible from outside. That night he lay awake, thrilled at the prospect of a call to arms. Fantastical visions of men shoulder-to-shoulder, prepared to stand up for their country’s future, rattled round his freckly bald head. Jocelyn hardly slept. By breakfast time, the whole flat smelt of ylang ylang, nutmeg and geranium. It was nearly midnight and the taxi slammed to a halt outside Cardiff station. Archie tumbled out, stuffing five-pound notes into the driver’s hand before breaking into a run towards the ticket office, his mac streaming. Not a natural sprinter, he pumped his arms and willed his chubby legs to carry him faster, black mourning tie fluttering over his shoulder as he careened across the empty concourse. He banged into the ticket office door and came to a halt. It was locked. They’d closed up for the night. He looked at his watch. Only two minutes to go. Archie ran past the unmanned barrier and through to the platforms, his footsteps noisy in the barren station. By now he was in a faint lather, his black hair sticking out at unlikely sweaty angles as he frantically searched for the right way to go. Then he saw a man 45
in uniform with a satchel over his shoulder. It was somebody from British Rail. ‘Which way for London?’ panted Archie. It was the last train and he had to be on it. If he wasn’t back at Sandhurst by first parade he’d be kippered. ‘Over there. Platform four,’ pointed the friendly railwayman, his blue hat resting easily on the back of his head. ‘There’s no rush, though. It won’t be leaving for a bit.’ Archie rechecked his watch. ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Yeah. I’m the driver and I’ve not had my tea yet.’ With that the man disappeared through a door and was gone. Archie found the train and made his way straight to the buffet. The catering was a tragic relic of the 1970s and he surveyed the shelves gloomily. Behind the counter a slitty-eyed jobsworth in an unloved blue tunic went to great lengths to ignore him. Then Archie spotted what he wanted. Tucked away in a far corner next to a shocking sandwich was a Party Seven of Watneys Red Barrel, surely the crowning genius of alcohol marketing: seven pints of beer in one huge tin that, once opened, had to be binged in a single sitting. It was just what he needed. The buffetperson pushed it across and snatched his money, not a word said. Archie grabbed a fistful of paper cups and fled. The night train wasn’t busy and Archie wandered down the corridor peering into the compartments, keen for a private corner where he wouldn’t be disturbed. He slid into a seat by the window and started stabbing at the top of the massive can with his penknife. Watneys Red Barrel was a hopeless beer, little better than rheumy dishwater that had been left out in the sun, but he was optimistic it would do the trick. He punctured a couple of holes in his mini-barrel and poured himself his first cupful. He planned to get plastered. They set off and the lights of Cardiff gave way to countryside as the train slipped out of the city and rattled east. Through the window Archie watched the sleeping capital retreat, the reflection of the compartment coming slowly into focus in the darkening glass. To his surprise, in the middle of the window was a little old lady staring back at him. He spun round. Folded neatly in the corner with some needlework on her lap sat a dapper old dowager, her dark 46
overcoat and feathery black bonnet blending into the upholstery as if she’d sprouted from the cushions themselves. This raised questions of Archie’s military prowess. He thought he was alone, but after six months’ army training he’d been ambushed by a random granny. ‘My,’ she said, ‘you’re going through that fast.’ Archie had got irritated with his paper cup and was drinking straight from the seven-pint can. She looked at him kindly. ‘It’s never as bad as you think. It could be worse. Somebody could have died.’ Archie wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. The beer had an annoying habit of making foamy brown bubbles as it came out. ‘Funnily enough,’ he said, ‘somebody did.’ The old lady didn’t miss a beat. ‘Well I never. I’m sorry to hear that.’ She put her tapestry to one side. Then Archie remembered his manners. ‘Would you like something to drink?’ he asked, holding out a cup. She shook her head, clearly more interested in funerals than watery beer. ‘Well, go on then. What happened?’ The train clattered on. There was something about the old girl that Archie found comforting, so he leant back, kicked off his shoes and explained.
Christina Clover Christina Clover is an author and journalist who has written for local newspapers and international organisations. She has also worked in the script department of the BBC’s Holby City. After receiving a BA Honours in Creative Writing, Christina completed a Masters at Bath Spa University. She lives in Bath with her young daughter. Riding the Line, a book for young adults, is Christina’s first novel. Set in the south-west of England, Riding the Line is an LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender) coming-of-age story about the trials associated with being a lesbian teen. The narrative, which takes place over one summer, follows fourteen-year-old Selena, a talented young horse-rider who develops an all-consuming crush on twenty-oneyear-old Lucy. Selena faces a dilemma: should she keep her feelings a secret from everyone and never find out whether her love for Lucy is reciprocated, or tell the truth and risk losing everything: her friends, her family, her life as she knows it? To make matters worse, Selena’s depressed mother is threatening to sell Meeda, Selena’s beloved horse, and the one element of stability in her life. In addition to this, her father is caught up with his new family, and her elder sister – whom her mother seems to prefer – has left home to live with an older man. As her mother’s illness becomes more acute, Selena is forced to take responsibility for her younger brother, while also dealing with an overwhelming variety of new feelings in her mind and body. email@example.com
Riding the Line As the bus engine started and we continued our journey, I sat up in my seat and looked down the aisle. Carly nudged me. ‘Look at the state of that,’ she said, nodding towards the front of the bus. ‘Just when you think she can’t get any uglier, she does.’ Sarah Edwards had just got on and was walking towards us, glancing around for a seat. It was true. Today she was even scruffier than usual. She looked as if she had recently got out of bed and pulled on yesterday’s clothes. Her coffee-coloured hair hung tangled around her shoulders and her school polo shirt was creased and dirty. From our position a few seats from the back, we had a good view of almost everyone. The girl sitting in front of us picked up her bag from the floor and put it on the seat next to her. Several other people did the same. Eventually, Sarah stopped next to Derek Laker who was equally unpopular. Even from this far behind, I could tell it was Derek. His jet-black hair, intermingled with his trademark white flakes, gave him away. I felt sorry for the shunned kids, but I couldn’t understand why he didn’t sort out his dandruff. It would give people one less thing to have a go at him for. Sarah reached up to put her bag in the overhead shelf. As she did so her shirt rode up, revealing the top of her trousers, and the waistband of what appeared to be a pair of boxer shorts. Oh God, Sarah, just sit down, I wished silently. But it was too late. Carly half stood up, leaning on the headrest in front of her. ‘You’re wearing boys’ pants, you freak,’ she yelled, pointing. ‘Did anyone else see that?’ By then everyone on the bus had heard her and stood up to look. Sarah shoved her bag to the back of the shelf, sat down and slumped into her seat. ‘Hey, Sarah,’ Carly called out. ‘Are you hiding a cock in there, too?’ The bus roared with laughter. Sarah didn’t even turn around. From where I was sitting, I could just see the top of her tilted head, staring at her lap. Carly plonked back down and faced me, still grinning. 49
‘Did you see that? Those were blatantly boxers,’ she repeated. ‘Were they? I didn’t see.’ ‘She’s such a dyke.’ I didn’t reply. ‘Her mum’s a dyke too,’ Carly continued. ‘Holly’s brother reckons he saw her touching up some woman in the pub last week. I think old dykes are even worse, don’t you?’ ‘I suppose,’ I said. ‘Are you going to the camp meeting tonight?’ ‘Yeah, I’m going over to the stables straight after school. Thought I’d help Lucy with the kids’ lesson before the meeting. Shall we walk over together?’ A sudden ache appeared in my chest. Carly was spending the afternoon with Lucy. ‘I can’t,’ I muttered. ‘I have to pick up Isaac from the after-school club and take him home. I’ll be at the meeting later though.’ ‘You could always bring him with you. He might be less of a pain in the arse if you get him mucking out some stables.’ ‘Yeah, maybe. I’ll see what mood he’s in.’ Carly chatted away about a new boy, Richard, the latest on her list. She fancied him like crazy, or at least she claimed to. Personally, I thought that she probably just wanted to pull him before any other girls did. I wasn’t that interested in hearing about him for the hundredth time, so I rested my head against the window and stared out at the moving countryside. I tried to listen but my mind kept straying back to Lucy. I thought about the other day when I’d first met her, in the tack room, and then how she’d appeared at my side after I fell off Meeda, rubbing my back, helping me to breathe again. My stomach folded in on itself. It was almost painful, like being nervous. ‘Sel, are you even listening?’ ‘Huh?’ Carly was staring at me. ‘Where were you? I asked you a question.’ ‘Sorry.’ I didn’t know what else to say. Carly sighed and gathered up her black hair, holding it behind her head. ‘Do you think I should wear it like this?’ Then she released it so it fell down neatly around her face. ‘Or is it better down?’ 50
It looked gorgeous both ways. My dirty blonde hair would never look like that, whatever I did with it. It was always thick and slightly fluffy. I was one of the unusual people whose appearance was better when I wore a riding hat. ‘Why does it matter?’ Carly rolled her eyes. ‘I told you. Because Richard’s been put in my biology class, and I have that first thing.’ She chuckled. ‘You really were in your own world weren’t you?’ ‘Sorry,’ I said again. ‘Leave it down, I reckon.’ ‘That’s what I thought, too.’ She leaned down to rummage through her bag. She fished out a hairbrush and started preening her hair. ‘It’s sexier down, isn’t it?’ I paused for a moment to think about it. ‘Well, don’t you agree?’ Carly looked at me. ‘I think all girls look better with their hair down. Girls with short hair aren’t as sexy.’ I thought of Lucy with her lopsided hair. ‘I think short hair can be really sexy,’ I blurted out. Carly stopped brushing for a second and stared at me. I blushed, and started picking at some loose thread on the headrest in front of me. Carly laughed. ‘I only said it isn’t as sexy. Of course it can still be sexy. Come to think of it, Lucy’s got short hair, but she’s still really sexy, isn’t she?’ I could feel my face reddening again. Was Carly reading my mind? What else could she see in there? ‘I don’t really know,’ I mumbled. Carly didn’t seem to notice my embarrassment. ‘Well, not that I find her sexy. That would be weird.’ She laughed again. ‘But I think she’s attractive. I think men would find her sexy. We should ask one of the boys at the stables what they think. Hugh, maybe. He’s had loads of girls.’ The bus turned into the school and stopped by the pavement. Everyone stood up and retrieved bags from the overhead shelves. Carly and I filed out of our seat and walked down towards the bus door. We passed Sarah who had remained seated, despite Derek’s obvious desire to get off the bus with everyone else. He was half standing, not quite having the courage to ask her to move. There was 51
a hierarchy, after all, even among the unpopular people. I was relieved that Sarah had decided to stay seated, rather than risking the boxer shorts fiasco again. As we got to the front of the bus, Carly turned her head to look at me over her shoulder. ‘That girl,’ she said, gesturing towards Sarah, ‘could never be sexy. Even if she had the hair of a mermaid, she’d still look like a tramp.’ I glanced back at Sarah. She looked sad. That’s the only way I could describe it. She looked as if she would never be happy again. I swallowed and turned away quickly, as if her unhappiness wouldn’t exist if I didn’t see it. Carly and I stepped down off the bus. ‘See you at break then, yeah?’ she said. ‘Outside the science block?’ ‘Yep, see you then.’ She turned and sauntered off in the direction of her form room. I was about to make my way towards mine when I caught sight of Sarah walking past me. We both glanced at each other at the same time. I expected her to snatch her gaze away, like she usually did whenever anyone made eye contact with her. Instead, she pushed her tangles away from her face and changed direction, towards me. I did a quick assessment of who was around. If Carly saw me talking to Sarah, I’d never hear the end of it. Luckily, most people had cleared off to their form rooms and the playground was pretty much empty. Sarah stood in front of me. Despite her messiness, there was something appealing about her face. Her skin was clear and tanned, and she had blue eyes that shone out from the bronze. I’d never noticed her eyes before. She was about the same height as me, maybe an inch or so shorter, but she seemed taller. ‘Why does Carly hate me so much?’ she asked, suddenly. I didn’t know how to answer that. Carly did tease her, it was true, but then she was an easy target. ‘I don’t think she hates you. She’s just having a laugh. She does it to everyone.’ ‘She makes my life hell, Selena.’ Her sad face returned. ‘You must have noticed how she has a go at me.’ I scuffed my shoes on the ground, kicking away a stone. 52
‘I’m talking to you because I know you’re not like her,’ she continued. ‘You’re friendlier than her.’ I looked up at her. ‘Carly’s okay,’ I said. ‘She’s my best friend.’ ‘Yeah.’ Sarah was still staring at me. ‘Okay. Maybe Carly does single you out sometimes, but you don’t help yourself.’ Sarah tilted her head to one side. ‘What do you mean?’ I sighed again. This wasn’t easy. ‘Well, like today. Wearing boys’ underwear to school is bound to attract attention.’ Sarah looked across the playground, to somewhere in the distance. ‘I should be able to wear what I like.’ ‘I know.’ ‘I’m just sick of not being able to be myself.’ She met my gaze again. ‘Do you understand that?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do.’ There was a short silence and then she said, ‘Would you like to meet up, sometime, and do something together?’ ‘Oh, I don’t know, Sarah,’ I stammered. ‘I have to look after my brother a lot, and also there’s my horse.’ ‘I have some horses on my dad’s farm. We could take them out and ride them in the fields, if you like?’ I bit my lip. ‘Go on,’ she continued. ‘We don’t have to tell anyone else, if that’s the problem. We can meet up secretly.’ I wished she’d stop asking. ‘I really don’t think I can.’ ‘Please.’ ‘Okay, maybe.’ ‘Great!’ she said. Then she smiled. One of her front teeth crossed over the other, just a little. ‘I’d better get to form,’ I said. ‘Me too,’ she replied, but carried on smiling at me. We stood there for a moment. Eventually, I was the one to turn away. I kept my eyes down and hurried off.
Francis Comberti In 2008, Francis spent six weeks alone in Japan, inspired by its sensibilities and writing as he travelled. Subsequently, he came to Bath from London for his undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and fell in love with the city. He is fascinated by people and places, nature and childhood, relationships and â€Ś football. Crestfalling is his first novel. Crestfalling is about eleven-year-old Alfy Holtzmann and his struggle to reconcile his German roots with his looming English adolescence. When Alfyâ€™s mother withdraws herself from the world in a whirlwind of depression and his father recklessly tries to rescue her, Alfy turns to nature, the birds in his garden, and memories of his younger years in Weiss. He realises that the birds are as changeable and fragile as his family, and that he is more capable than his parents of keeping them all together. In Chapter Nineteen, after a horrible week at school and at home, Alfy retreats to his garden, surrounding himself in the hope and promise of things growing and living. firstname.lastname@example.org
Crestfalling Alfy had been watching a wasp for the last few minutes, daydreaming and letting it list along uninterrupted. It made a gentle gnawing buzz like a miniature car engine as it floated from plant to plant. He stooped to pick up a plastic bag that had rolled to freedom and got caught near the rose bush. He was perfectly content to watch the garden move with the day. Something wonderful was happening. He’d felt it since seeing Mia in Kew Gardens. A slight humming around the ears. He sat on the garden bench and shuffled his feet over one of the rickety slabs of the patio that had come loose a while ago. Alfy bent down and put it back where it fitted, although the grasses around it were now white and dying. Moving it had revealed glistening trails on the spots of earth. Snails had been there. He spotted a wasp on the floor near one of the bench legs. Perhaps the one he’d been watching. It was virtually still, wings straight but quivering, its small torso beating like a nervous heart. Alfy nudged it with his foot to see if it would fly, but it didn’t so he let it be. He wondered whether it would be cruel to kill it if it was in pain. It seemed fairer to him as he looked up at the sky. When the birds got here, Alfy would be happy. He’d almost forgotten that word in amongst everything that had happened. But if the sparrows and blackbirds and blue tits and wrens and whatever else hadn’t given up hope yet then he wouldn’t let himself, not for a second. Soon enough, a small robin popped on to one of the cedar branches and just sat there, like him, watching the day pass. He wondered if it could spot its reflection in the window or even if it could see into their home. It left its perch and flew to the neighbouring garden. Alfy could still see it floating around. He loved how it blended in with the tree. There were always birds that looked like leaves, leaves that looked like birds. One of the small trees was lilting in the breeze. Alfy got up from the bench, stroked the sides of it to let it know he was there, felt its wrinkled, crooked bark like fossils of waves under his fingers. He was glad it wasn’t raining, but he remembered watching and 55
loving the pond surface ripple when it did, as though little diamonds were dropping on it, making bubbles, no part untouched by the rain. He wanted to go to the park and see ducks and moorhens, bigger birds preparing for the coming spring, watch them find leaves for nests. And he wanted to hear the movements in the trees above him, feel like the world was full of large gardens that he could dip in and out of. He wandered back to the bench, drawn to memories of the nature reserve in Weiss and everything he loved there. Maybe it would always stay that way. He’d seen a swooping buzzard there when it was wet one summer’s day, relishing the rain that came down in sparkles, twitching water from its brow, tickling the canopies in search of a meal. He’d definitely seen it catch something, maybe a smaller bird, and fly away. It had been so patient, waiting for food to rise up like wood in water. And the flowers. There were white heads of daisies whispering together as it rained, patches of green grass, brown grass too. Alfy shook his legs on the bench, could feel pins and needles setting in, numbness in his bum letting him know how long he’d sat there. He imagined losing all the feeling in his legs, imagined them sinking into the patio and becoming roots so that he could stay here. But the pins and needles went and his feet felt like nettles, the sensation of blood moving again like there were sparks inside them. He got up then, stretched his legs and went over to the pond, sat and pulled his shoes and socks off. Then he hovered his feet over the surface, holding them up with muscles he didn’t know he had. He dipped in the big dipper, the large toe on his right foot, and played bait for imaginary fish. His toe sunk like a full barrel, sending ripples to the edges. Something touched the end of it and he lurched in his excitement, up and out of the water. But when he looked back, there was nothing. Just the uneven bed of slick stones. He wiped the soles of his feet on the grass, and clumsily wriggled into his socks and shoes again. He spotted a clump of leaves he hadn’t seen before, round and brown. But then he remembered that it was spring and the brown leaves had gone. He walked towards it, saw that there was fuzz all over it. 56
It was a sparrow, fallen and still, gone from its home up in the tree. Alfy staggered backwards. He was facing death, winded by the sight of it. He wanted to call out, get his dad to come and help. But then he remembered. From nowhere, another memory leapt out at him from Weiss, a place where birds had come and gone continuously, almost as though they were one and the same, day by day, summer by summer. It had been on their most recent visit. He’d sat on a bench near the entrance of the friedhof waiting for Opa to finish watering the flowers that grew above his uncle’s grave. In amongst a small patch of clover around his feet, Alfy had spotted a four-leafed one. He’d rushed home, eager and triumphant to show off his rare prize. But his dad was in a bad mood and dismissed it, called it a mutation. He hadn’t seen how happy it had made Alfy to find something of his own, something of importance. How incredible and sad now that this little sparrow, that seemed to stand for all sparrows that flitted and dove around him in Germany, lay here in his garden. And no one was here to react or deem it important. Maybe he didn’t want anyone to. Alfy looked closer at it, thought he’d seen a movement. And then he did, the soft flickering feathers and chest of something not quite gone, clinging on. It was alive. And Alfy’s heart burst like a firework, colourful sparks in his eyes and trembling legs. His blood was pumping faster. He had to save the sparrow. Find a way to let it live, teach it to breathe easily, stand straight, fly again. Without a second thought, Alfy scooped the little bird in his hands and got up. He needed to find something for it to rest on, stand on, sing on, that was higher, brighter, closer to the sun. His feet were almost tripping over themselves but he held on to the bird tightly. Everything was moving in a spiral of possibilities. The shed, the trees, the pond, the flowerbeds, the house. Even things he couldn’t see but knew were there: the Kew Gardens wall, school, the nature reserve in Weiss, the sparrow’s home. Possibilities for doing the right thing, starting with the sparrow. Alfy searched the garden frantically. It was treasure given to him, this bird, a responsibility like the ones his dad always spoke about. 57
He kept searching, whispering to his sparrow, telling him everything would be okay, that the world would have him back, accept him for who he was. He felt the pulse of the fallen bird in tandem with his. And then, in his elation, he spotted his dad, partly hidden by the reflection of the trees and clouds in the kitchen window, standing upright and taller than he’d ever been, moving towards the back garden door and opening it in one smooth silent movement. ‘Alfy?’ He froze. ‘Alfy, what are you doing?’ He couldn’t move but the feeling in his legs hadn’t gone, still felt on the verge of flying. His dad walked towards him, looking a bit like his mum, utterly exhausted. ‘Why are you out here?’ ‘Just playing.’ He was hesitant despite everything he’d been feeling. It wasn’t time yet. He hadn’t set the sparrow free. ‘Why haven’t you got a coat on? It’s freezing.’ Jakob shivered and fixed his eyes on Alfy’s hands, clamped together in front of him. ‘What have you got there?’ he demanded. ‘Nothing.’ He didn’t want to share the sparrow, not a single feather of it. ‘Let me see.’ ‘No!’ Alfy could feel his lips quivering. He wished his dad would understand. He wished he could plant his feet, know they were safe there. ‘Alfy, who do you think you’re talking to? Give it to me!’ ‘No!’ And then his dad’s hands were gripping and scraping at his, all from impatience again. Alfy gave all his fight, tried to squirm and dive away, but it wasn’t enough. His hands were prised open. Jakob made a strangled sound. ‘What are you doing?’ he repeated, picking it up by the wing. ‘Why are you playing with a dead bird?’ ‘It’s not dead, Papa. It’s just hurt. It’s—’ He wanted to say, 58
‘not going to give up.’ ‘Alfy, it’s dead. Go and wash your hands and find something else to play with.’ His heart was falling to clumps inside him. He had to get his dad to understand. He had to make him see what this meant. ‘Papa, no, it’s okay. It just needs a home, a place to be. It’ll fly again. Just let it go.’ ‘I don’t know why you’re talking like this, Alfy, but it’s worrying me. This is not a toy. It’s a dead bird.’ ‘It’s not!’ ‘Alfy, stop it! You and your mother are wearing me out. Go inside and do as you’re fucking told.’ It shocked them both, a single word severing something invisible and letting the greyness swamp over them. Alfy watched his dad walk away with the bird, not knowing if it was alive, completely broken. He hadn’t seen it. He couldn’t believe it was really dead. There was no way it had given up in his hands. That greyness was so full that Alfy felt himself getting drenched without the rain. He just stood there, the last glimmer taken from him, his body tingling in disbelief. His family were on their own. They would stay in this house forever, drowning, disconnected, never moving in the same direction.
Zosia Crosse Zosia worked in a café in the small town she grew up in during her university years. The people and experiences lasted with her throughout her PGCE and three years of teaching, until snatching precious moments to write about them at weekends and half-terms was not enough. When the characters and the café could no longer be pushed aside, she left teaching and applied for the MA at Bath Spa. She likes writing about big things, small things, and food. A Several World is about small objects, their significance, the giving and receiving of them, the losing and finding of them. It is set in a café owned by Therese. Ana is a new waitress, led by chance to Therese and the world of the café. She longs to be part of it and to get to know the people that inhabit it, people who will help her come to terms with love and loss. One of the regular customers is Marie. This section is from Marie’s story, a trip to the Isle of Mull that she made thirty-five years ago, with her family friend Peter and her young lover Sol. After an argument with Peter about his feelings for her, Marie and Sol swim in the sea in the darkness. When Sol carelessly abandons her and she nearly drowns, Marie returns to their hut to find Sol with Peter, drinking whisky by the fire. email@example.com
A Several World Wrapped in towels and a dressing gown and holding a hot mug of tea, Marie glared at Sol as they sat in front of the fire. If they were alone, she would just tell him he was a selfish bastard and sleep in a separate room, but they weren’t. Peter hovered, topping up her tea, checking she was warming up. He went into his room. Sol finished his scotch, got up to refill his glass. ‘Why did you leave me?’ She sounded more self-pitying than angry, which annoyed her. ‘I thought you got out, went for a walk. You said you wanted to.’ He hadn’t really looked at her yet. ‘Sol?’ She regretted saying his name as he looked at her then, with dull eyes, tired or drunk. Or worse, bored. He looked so young and stupid, holding his hands up slightly, as if to say, ‘what have I done?’ ‘It was really fucking irresponsible of you to leave me, even if you thought I’d walked off.’ ‘What? You chose to come in with me, how is that my responsibility?’ Marie scoffed, made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a gasp. But it occurred to her that he might be right. She felt sick. Maybe it was the sweet tea. ‘I could’ve drowned.’ She sounded ridiculous now. Not because it wasn’t true – she knew she could have drowned – but because she was trying to convince him of the seriousness of it. His eyes narrowed. ‘That’s a bit over the top.’ Peter returned with a bundle of clean clothes. ‘Get changed into these, Marie. Dry your hair a bit more, too.’ He fussed around her, put her wet clothes in a washing-up bowl with fresh water. He gestured for her to go and change but she brushed him away, still glaring at Sol, wondering why he was being so cruel. Peter touched her hand. ‘Drink that tea and I’ll get you some more.’ ‘I don’t want any more fucking tea! Sorry. I’m feeling really hot, actually, and quite sick.’ She stood up, took the clothes from Peter without looking at him and went into the bedroom. 61
She closed the door and let the towels and robe drop to the floor, waiting a few moments to see if Sol followed her. He didnâ€™t. As she felt around for matches on the bedside table, her fingers brushed something, and she heard it drop to the wooden floor. She struck a match and as it hissed into life she could see it was the little leopardspeckled shell. Sol must have brought it in, she thought, not wanting her to lose it. Her body looked orange and blotchy in the light of the candle, as though her skin were thawing. Nausea rose up in her, forced her to sit on the bed. She held her tummy to try and comfort herself. Her skin felt like dough, sticky and cold, and her feet were still coated in sand. She cried then, thinking that she might have brought this moment on herself. She had agreed to come here with Peter, thought she was making some sort of point by bringing Sol. Had that been fair on him? Had she used Sol, in some way, perhaps to prove to herself that she could do what she wanted? Her pangs of guilt were obliterated by shooting bolts of pain through her stomach. She writhed forward, her face damp with sweat and her hair clinging to her. She put on the clothes that Peter had fetched her. There were dull murmurs coming from the kitchen, both men speaking quietly, perhaps not wanting to wake her, perhaps not wanting her to hear what they said. She was exhausted; her limbs were heavy and her throat was still raw with shouting and the salt water. So she crawled into the bed, relieved to feel the cold sheets on her hands and face. The pain woke her. It swirled around her stomach, it bubbled and contracted, made her think of oil in water. Sol had not come to bed and she heard the rain. She heard it tapping on a bucket. She pulled her clothes off in a shivering frenzy, breathing heavily, but lost all energy before she could push the long johns from around her ankles. The rain on the bucket sent her to sleep. When she next awoke, facing the wall, she felt Sol against her back, naked, his hands running down her thighs. She put her hands to her head, felt the sweat, felt her cold wet hair. Sol sat up and took the long johns from around her ankles, eased her legs apart. The rain was heavy and loud as Sol kissed her body. She saw swimming black 62
and yellow dots when she closed her eyes. Her arms flailed, found his head between her legs and gripped his hair as the bed seemed to sway under them. Sol hooked his arms underneath her but she pushed out with her legs and vomited on the floor. She got off the bed and continued to vomit, reaching backwards for the sheet to cover herself. Sol stripped it from the bed and scooped it around her. ‘I’ll get you a bowl.’ He sounded shocked and a little afraid, as though he’d made it happen. Peter was at the door within moments. She couldn’t speak but allowed herself a little weakness, reached out for him. ‘You’re burning up,’ he said as he lifted her. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get this cleaned up.’ He carried her to his room, covering her when the sheet slipped a little. He must have seen she hadn’t even the energy to do that. Peter laid her on his bed. Sol came in with a bowl, looking at him for what to do next. ‘Thank you,’ Marie said, her teeth like tin as they chattered together. Sol looked helpless by the door. She closed her eyes, felt a cold compress on her forehead and fell to sleep. The rain had cleared when she woke up. Sunlight came into Peter’s room through a gap in the curtain, illuminating all the dust. She could hear someone chopping wood outside. Her eyes ached with the light, and her stomach felt as though it was being squeezed from the inside. She couldn’t even consider getting up, the heaviness of her limbs and aching joints magnetised her to the bed. There was a strange chill inside her. She waited, eyes closed, until someone came into the room. ‘Peter.’ ‘Hello, lovely. How are you feeling?’ He sat on the bed and smiled, softer than she’d seen before. ‘Weak. What time is it?’ ‘Midday. I’d like you to try sipping a bit of water, can you do that?’ ‘What’s the matter with me?’ She started to cry. He rubbed her arm and her skin prickled. ‘I think it’s from swallowing all that seawater.’ 63
‘Where’s Sol?’ ‘I told him to put all that energy to good use and chop some wood. He was moping.’ It was lovely of Peter, really, to speak about him in a familiar way, a way that showed he was paying attention. And he was saying it to make her feel better. But she thought of Sol last night. He hadn’t cared about her. She wanted to see him, look at him and try to work it out. ‘I’ll get you some water.’ Peter left the room in quick shuffles. His mannerisms were all smaller and softer than usual, as if to allow for Marie’s fragility. He’d be a good father, she thought, it’s a shame he hasn’t had children. How awful that she thought of him in that way, as having missed his chance. He was only forty-four. He reappeared with a glass and put another pillow behind her head so that she could sip. She watched his mouth mimic hers as she pursed her lips to drink. She smiled. ‘You’re a good nurse, Peter.’ ‘Just call me Florence.’ He said it with an extra deep voice, then laughed. His eyes creased at the edges. Marie saw him thawing, perhaps shedding some of that bitterness that had become as comfortable as skin. ‘You usually like a bath when you’re poorly, don’t you? I’m afraid there’s not much chance of that here.’ ‘I’d love a bath. It’s so cold.’ ‘Right. We need to take your temperature. It’s not cold, Marie.’ He felt her forehead. ‘You’re far too hot.’ Peter left the room and rushed back with a thermometer. ‘And what was it that your mother used to give you when you were poorly? She gave it to me once.’ ‘Egg-in-a-cup.’ ‘That’s it!’ He took her temperature. ‘Well, if you keep this water down, I’ll make you a runny boiled egg-in-a-cup.’ She thought she might vomit at the mention of it. ‘You’ve definitely got a fever.’ ‘My joints are aching. Even my skin hurts.’ ‘You’re not to move. I’ll bring the radio in. Sleep as much as you can.’ ‘Can you tell Sol I’m awake?’ 64
Peter stopped by the door. ‘He knows.’ Marie lay still. Her mouth tasted sour and dry. She clenched her teeth, and fell asleep waiting for Sol to come to her. Sol was sitting on the bed when she opened her eyes. The light in the room had changed. ‘What’s the time?’ she asked sternly, wanting to know how long she’d waited for him. ‘About five. How are you feeling?’ ‘Like shit.’ ‘I’m sorry. If I made you ill.’ A gush of warmth ran through her. ‘You didn’t make me vomit, if that’s what you mean. But thanks for apologising.’ His face lightened with relief. ‘I’m going for a run. I’ll come and see you later.’ He kissed her cheek, with tight lips. A bit like you’d kiss your grandma, Marie thought. She slept, sweating and shivering, her dreams spliced with memories. Her father, stern and shouting, then her crying in the dark garden of her parents’ house, a storm lantern bobbing towards her, Peter with two tumblers of brandy, moths, everywhere, with leopardspeckled wings. Sol making love to her against a wooden fence, holding her, sucking a splinter from her finger, a clear silver ring of light around a full moon. She was sick again. It was dark outside and Peter had been sitting with a book and a candle. He came and held back her hair. Her body convulsed; there was nothing left inside her. Her next dream was vivid, as though she were looking at the ceiling. A light bulb swinging from a wire in the centre, hundreds of moths and butterflies, wings apart then together, a ceiling full of blinking eyes. They all opened their wings and formed a mural of pale yellows and oranges with brown leopard spots. ‘Marie?’ She opened her eyes. Peter knelt by the bed, his brow furrowed and mouth open. ‘You were mumbling.’ ‘What was I saying?’ She heard herself slur. He smiled, warmly. ‘Nothing that made sense. I’ll fetch the doctor in the morning.’ 65
She propped her head up slightly. ‘Peter. Do you remember, my father and I argued about Morocco? I wanted to go … but … ’ ‘Of course. He said you couldn’t go alone.’ ‘In the garden … you said you’d come.’ Her eyes were closed again but she heard his breathing quicken. ‘Yes.’ ‘I wish we’d gone together. I never told you. Do you remember the moths, Peter?’ ‘What moths?’ ‘When you brought the brandy, there were moths … around the lantern.’ He came to the bed, sat at her side. ‘Darling, I think you’re delirious.’ He got up; she didn’t see his face. ‘Peter. Can you get something … in my room, there are some earrings … and a shell.’ He left the room and she sank to sleep. She opened her eyes in the moonlit room. Peter was sleeping in his chair in the corner. On a chair next to the bed were the earrings and Sol’s shell.
Bruno Davey Bruno Davey studied English at King’s College London and has lived in Hackney since the late 1990s. Nahnahland is his first novel and is based on his experiences of the riots that engulfed London in August 2011. Nahnahland focuses on three loosely connected characters from very different parts of Hackney. First, there’s Nat, a twentysomething hipster who works at a youth marketing agency. Next is Toni, a bar manager in her early forties. Last there’s Zeek, a teenager living on one of the area’s toughest council estates. Nat has been mentoring Zeek through a scheme run by the consultancy where he works, and he ends up getting the teenager an interview for the job of glass collector at the Sir Christopher Wren, the bar run by Toni where Nat occasionally DJs. The novel tells the story of how Nat, Toni and Zeek’s backgrounds, personal lives and interconnection affects their behaviour during the riots, and how they are changed, not only in themselves, but also in their relationships with one another.
Nahnahland Toni is woken by her alarm and lumbers across the bed to hit snooze. She snuggles back, trying to give herself a few more blank and drowsy minutes. But blurred images from last night form: her and Marc stalking Jeff between the night buses on Mare Street. Then number 12’s hall at two in the morning. Tired. Karen pouring glasses of wine in the kitchen, Marc wanting to confront Jeff and Heather right then and there. Toni agreeing with Karen that they should all sleep on it. Leave it a few days. Talk about it again. Then decide. Marc’s voice: ‘But we might not have a few days.’ He’d made them agree to work out a plan over lunch. The alarm beeps again and Toni opens her eyes to fuzzy red numbers that say 07:05AM. She makes the noises stop and after sitting up, reaches over to the wicker chair to grab her dressing gown and wrap it round her shoulders. She rubs her face hard with both hands. Maybe that second glass of rioja Karen offered her wasn’t such a good idea. In the shower, Toni lathers gel over her body and thinks about Jeff and Heather, Marc and Karen, her and Patrick, and how they all used to be such good friends. She distracts herself by worrying about the cellulite on her thighs as she washes off the shower gel. Looking down at her nipples, she notices their uneven, notched edges and droopy tips. Like the mini-fried egg sweets her and Marc used to get in the 10p mixes from the corner shop near their parents’ house. Wrapped in towels at the bathroom mirror Toni looks herself in the eyes. She tells herself that she’s still got it. Back in her bedroom, Toni puts on a new frayed, knee-length denim skirt and an I ❤ Hackney T-shirt. She rolls the sleeves up to the shoulders like the hipster girls who come in the pub do. In the mirror on the inside of the wardrobe door her legs appear fine, but looking down on them, her thighs seem massive. She has to tell herself that it’s just perspective. She stares at a few forgotten clothes hangers, tangled and 69
motionless on what used to be Patrick’s side of the wardrobe and for a moment she feels alone, a pea rattling around in the terraced house they shared before he left her for a younger woman. She yanks the hangers off the rail and dumps them in the bin next to her bed. Downstairs, Toni sits at the table in the back kitchen, forty-one years old and ready for another day as the bar manager of the Sir Christopher Wren. She eats a bowl of Special K Red Berries while Manic Monday by The Bangles plays from a portable radio on top of the fridge. She sings along with the fading ‘ooh-woh-oohs’ until a serious jingle says it’s time for the news. The top story is the weekend’s disturbances. A newsreader outlines the main points. Toni half listens, picking out what seem like the most important words as she thinks about her day ahead. Alleged drug dealer Mark Duggan. She’ll get Jethro to do the cleaning while she does a once-over of the books and gets the weekend takings ready for Securicor. After that she’ll stock-take the snacks, eat some scampi lemon fries, then there’s the drinks delivery. Burnt-out police cars on Tottenham High Road. She’ll enjoy watching Jethro unload that, him getting hot and sweaty in his skinny jeans. She licks her forefinger and runs it across her plate, picking up crumbs and tiny drops of buttery marmalade. Sucking on it, she wonders how many drinks it would take to get Jethro naked and imagines him without one of those low-cut, V-neck T-shirts he wears. JD Sports and Phones4U, looted. Then there’s the empties collection. Toni leaves her mug and plate in the sink and rolls a cigarette. A reporter explains that JD Sports was also burnt down. Through the back door window, Toni looks out at the communal garden her house at 14 Lightfoot Street shares with numbers 12 and 10. There’s a carefully maintained lawn, a well-trimmed ash tree, small, bright flowerbeds and a bit of patio. Toni freezes, her fingers on the door handle. She goes over to the fridge and moves the radio off a pile of bills, letters and takeaway menus. From the top of this pile, Toni picks up an Excel spreadsheet titled ‘Garden Rota’. It looks like a school timetable, the days split 70
into periods with names and numbers written in large, bold italics. Each box has a blue 14 Toni/Patrick, a red 12 Marc/Karen/Hengest, or a green 10 Jeff/Heather/Iris/Alfie. A blue 14 says it’s Toni’s turn in the garden on Monday mornings. She’s about to put the rota back when she notices an A5 card lying on the pile of papers. It has the words ‘affordable luxury flats for professional families’ written down one edge and carries the logos of Stadium Development and Hackney Council. It’s an invitation to a meeting that evening about a developer’s plans for the old scrap yard next door. Maybe Marc’s right. Maybe they don’t have a few days. On the radio, an eyewitness describes people jumping out of the flats above JD Sports, how one man broke a leg. ‘Christ,’ Toni mutters and hides the card in the stack of letters and menus. She puts the rota on top of the pile and the radio goes back on top of that. The studio presenter interrupts to say that JD Sports has actually been the most looted shop in the disturbances so far and that they have the CEO on the line. ‘Well, what can I say?’ He chuckles, then sounds serious. ‘For these looters we obviously have an extremely attractive retail offering.’ Toni lights her rollie and stands in the middle of the lawn, her back to the kitchens of 10, 12 and 14. She smokes and watches a squirrel twitch around the lower branches of the ash tree. ‘Been at the charlie, have we?’ she asks. Behind her, a door opens and squealing erupts. Feet scurry across paving slabs. She turns to see Iris and Alfie at the edge of the patio, Iris holding a toy watering can and Alfie rooting around in his nose. Both have the bright blonde hair she’s seen on Jeff in old family photos. They stare up at her, reminding her of the white-haired German children that do squat thrusts and star jumps in school textbooks. ‘Hello,’ she says. Beyond the children, in the shaded rectangle of number 10’s back door, stands Heather, arms folded, her long, greying hair flowing over a fluffy dressing gown. Oh here she comes, thinks Toni, as if looking this thin and fresh and young was the easiest thing in the world after 71
you’d had kids. The two women say morning to each other. Toni hides her rollie. ‘What’s that you’re playing with?’ Iris asks. ‘I’m not, umm, playing.’ Iris takes her brother’s hand out of his nose and holds it. The toy watering can dribbles. ‘Me and Alfie want to water the flowers,’ says Iris. ‘Yef!’ shouts Alfie. ‘Fowers!’ ‘Well, don’t mind me,’ says Toni. She waves an open palm across the lawn, feeling smug about her generosity. It’s her turn in the garden but she’s big enough to let others use it as well. Iris turns to look at Heather. ‘It’s fine, hun,’ says Heather. ‘Go on.’ Iris drags Alfie and the toy watering can across the grass and past Toni, who puffs on her rollie when the children’s backs are turned. She notices Heather watching and acts up, taking one long, last pull of smoke before sitting down on a rickety garden chair next to her back door and stubbing the rollie out in a chipped mug full of fag ends. Heather comes to the middle of the patio and stands by the picnic bench, her arms still folded. They talk. It’s going to be another muggy day. Neither of them can believe the riots and the looting. Heather asks if that’s a new skirt and says she wishes she had the confidence to dress as young as Toni. The children squawk. ‘Listen,’ Heather says finally, ‘I don’t want to go all mumsy on you, but we did agree you wouldn’t be out here when it’s the children’s turn in the garden. And you’re meant to take that mug in when you’re finished.’ Toni remembers her and Heather years ago, how they’d loved to dance with each other on top of the speaker stacks at squat parties. Now, Heather just seemed to go out of her way to make Toni feel like some lonely old spinster who needed to be bossed around. She wonders if Heather’s always been like this, but she’s just never noticed. Or is it since Iris and Alfie were born and this whole thing with the garden blew up? Or since Patrick left? ‘But it’s my turn in the garden,’ Toni says. ‘It says so on your rota.’ It feels good to be getting one over on Heather. And Jeff. And the rota they drew up. 72
‘Are you sure you’re looking at the right rota?’ asks Heather, not skipping a beat. Then she calls out, ‘Iris!’ Alfie is kneeling down, pulling at the plants. Iris stands over him, the spout of her toy watering can hovering near his head. She frowns, as if trying to work out how serious her mother is. Eventually, she puts the watering can down and tries to stop Alfie’s destruction of the flowers. ‘The right rota?’ Toni asks. ‘The one for the school holidays,’ says Heather and pulls a piece of paper from a dressing gown pocket. She carefully unfolds it and hands it over, confronting Toni with a weekly timetable like the one on top of her fridge. Except this is titled ‘Garden Rota – School Holidays’ and has a Monday morning filled with a green 10 Jeff/Heather/Iris/Alfie. Toni turns the piece of paper round in her hands like it’s an IOU she can’t remember signing. On the back is a copy of the timetable she looked at earlier. For the first time she notices the letters PTO in the bottom right hand corner and suddenly she’s like a sputtering hot tap, maddened not only by her neighbour’s youthful looks and perfect middle-aged life, but also at the shameless cheek with which Heather is pushing the rota. Especially when last night, Toni saw Jeff having a cosy little chat with Percy Liddle from Stadium Development. Toni screws up the rota and, making sure not to pick up the mug of fag ends, storms inside to find Lovely Day playing from the radio. She grips the edge of the kitchen table and tries to focus on Bill Withers' ‘da-duh-dees’ instead of the prospect of Jeff and Heather and Iris and Alfie and her and Marc and Karen and Hengest all trying to have lunch out on the patio. The Patrick situation, the feud over the garden, the way the Sir Christopher Wren has become a hipster pub – it all makes her feel like she doesn’t belong here any more. Lovely Day fades out and the serious-sounding jingle says it’s time for more news. The presenter runs through a list of areas rumoured to be targets for disturbances later that day. His steel-bristled voice says: ‘Brixton, Catford, Croydon, Hackney …’
Craig Dobson After university, Craig spent twenty years teaching English alongside running a retail business, before finally committing more seriously to writing poetry. Aware that he was two decades out of touch, he decided that the MA Creative Writing course at Bath Spa would be the best way to develop his writing and re-engage with the contemporary poetry scene. He has had work published in the Bath Literature Festival’s Poem of the Day, and in The Interpreter’s House magazine. The theme Craig chose for his MA manuscript collection was male middle age, which he felt offered opportunities to explore and reflect on issues such as loss, doubt, regret and relationships. He approached the theme from several different angles, ranging from humorous to angry, and from realistic to more obviously fictitious. He also experimented with a variety of poetic forms he hadn’t used before, such as sonnets, ballads and villanelles, in order to adapt them to his rendering of a male mid-life crisis. To broaden the imaginative approach further, he incorporated figures from both history and myth as studies for examination of how middle age has, or might conceivably have been dealt with by such characters. Those poems not directly linked to middle age explored themes such as the natural world, domestic life, and the changing quality of light and shadow. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Art of Tipping The Eastern European concierge looks up, not quite hiding his disappointment that the hotel’s entrance (his slot machine), hasn’t delivered him a Russian billionaire, but me, small change at the ready should my Debenhams wheeled luggage receive his ceremonial subservience that I try, in vain, to show I don’t want. Instead, we squeeze into the lift – him eager to be back at his gated chance; me uncomfortable at what I know is coming. We hurry along the featureless corridors of lower floors, far beneath the suites. ‘Sir, this your room, please.’ He wheels my case in, turns on a light. ‘Yes, thank you, yes,’ I reply, barely taking in the insipid room, my hand extended far too soon – something more than insubstantial about its clammy, proffered pound.
Prometheus, Aged Forty-Three after Ted Hughes Pinned to a vantage point from which he can see all his mistakes rotting in the past, Prometheus screws shut his eagle eyes against all that heâ€™s done. He concentrates, instead, on the mess of blood and shit on his legs drying to a sense of the inescapable present, the haunted waiting of now. And when that, too, becomes unbearable, then he hurls his sight upwards to a heaven of unshackled things, to an endless arc from whose pitiless blue infinity of choice he sees only a pair of dark wings, circling closer in the neutral air.
Service of Remembrance Lost in unanswerables, my thoughts drift, during the priest’s bit, to food, then sex – my unsettling dream of the early hours, half lust, half anxiety – then to jobs that need doing around the house, emails I’ve got to send to colleagues and friends, the unusual pattern on the blouse of the woman in front. Some stab of relevance skews me back to the meaning of this place, this act – its attempt to render less stark the spreadsheet facts of our lives. But, muddled, ineffectual, I drift among finalities, and fail to sense the proffered consequence. Instead, I’m left, at last prayers and the filing out from pews, with a vague unease at how, for each departing mourner, some fateful variation of this waits. But outside, among the yews, these thoughts dissolve in smiles and shaking hands, in small talk settling its half-hush, like a fine dust, on the hallowed afternoon.
On Salisbury Plain We drive westwards at evening; the low sun sinks us in late summer light – the car’s interior, our faces, our flooded eyes’ sudden gilt. Ahead, the molten sea’s broken only by the silhouettes of trees ribboned along high ground to the horizon. On the verge, wind surges through the dry grass which flattens as if the light itself had weight; its yellow currents fold the high stalks down as we drive by, drawn on into gold.
Lesley Gillilan After job-hopping through most of her twenties – from supermarket check-out and night-club bar to television-factory assembly line – Lesley Gillilan wandered into a career in journalism. She has since been a regular contributor to The Guardian, The Independent, Daily Telegraph and Financial Times. She has published two non-fiction books: Kitsch Deluxe – a hymn to the trash aesthetic (Mitchell Beazley, 2003) – and a travel guide to her native Cornwall (Crimson, 2011). Dark Side of the Moon is her first novel. Over Rum Babas and frothy coffee, teenage art student, Linda Pink, begins an infatuation with the charismatic Leo Connor: a gay psychiatric nurse with a bent for self-destruction. Together, they drop out to join a crowd of misfits – dreamers, dope-heads, drug dealers – on a merry dance through the early 1970s; a blast of glam rock and patchouli oil, crushed-velvet loon pants, nut roasts and one-night stands. At home, above her parents’ small-town antique shop, Linda’s mother Dorothy – struggling to cope with the onset of menopause, impending recession, her feckless daughter – relives memories of her own spent youth. At Linda’s age, she was in uniform, on a bleak Yorkshire airfield, driving a troop truck for Bomber Command. In a narrative which travels back and forth between Linda’s 1970s and Dorothy’s 1940s, both women embark on painful, lifechanging journeys. For Linda, acid trips and sordid sex, a violent boyfriend with a dodgy side-parting and a prison tattoo and, finally, Leo’s savage murder. For Dorothy, the heartache of a doomed RAF love affair, lost friends, the terrible cost of war. email@example.com
Dark Side of the Moon Christmas morning. Linda woke up to church bells and a Dubonnet hangover. She looked at her bedside clock. A Mickey Mouse clock that Mum and Dad had given her for Christmas when she was nine. Mickey’s gloved hands pointed at the numbers. Ten to ten. Cowboy time. Or so her father always said. Ten to ten to ten to ten to ten. She dragged herself out of bed and yanked back the curtains. Feeble sunlight. Drifts of listless cloud. When she turned away from the window, she saw something dangling from the door handle. A lumpy stocking; one of her mother’s old nylons – American Tan – stuffed with baby oranges, toffees, chocolate money, sugar mice with little cotton tails. Linda slipped back into bed, pulled the covers over her bent knees and nibbled at a sugar mouse. There was something about the stocking that made her feel faintly aggrieved. It was a nice thought, she knew that, but it was a thought that belonged to the past. She didn’t want her parents to treat her like a child. And how dare they come into her room when she was asleep. She heard footsteps on the stairs. Dorothy. ‘Linda, are you awake? I’m making coffee.’ It was one of Mum’s latest fads. Filter coffee. The real thing. ‘Are you coming down?’ There was a short silence, which Linda didn’t bother to fill. ‘Do you want to see what Father Christmas has brought you?’ ‘I’m nineteen.’ Linda mumbled into the air, at the gnawed mouse. ‘I don’t believe in fucking Father Christmas. Why would I?’ There were occasional exceptions – Linda’s Mickey Mouse alarm clock was an outstanding example – but the Pink family were not good at presents. For Linda, one of the most painful parts of Christmas was sitting around the tree, ripping cheap wrapping paper from a series of unwanted gifts: a box-set of embroidered handkerchiefs, a bottle of Yardley Sea Jade, limp hand-knits, a bobble hat. And, as she faced the ordeal for the nineteenth time, she had to admit that her own efforts at giving were just as pathetic. For Grandma, Linda had bought bath cubes. Lily of the Valley. She watched the old lady’s speckled hands tremble over the parcel’s Sellotaped corners; press the creases out of the used paper. 81
For Dad, she bought a mug, printed with the words ‘I’m the Boss’. ‘I’m glad somebody recognises my authority,’ he said. ‘Shall we have another cup of coffee?’ For Dorothy, talcum powder. Morny’s French Fern. ‘Thank you, dear. Smells lovely.’ Grandma gave Linda two wooden coat hangers, each handstitched into a padded sleeve of mauve satin; a little bag of lavender tied around the neck of each hook. Dorothy gave Grandma a nightdress. Brushed Bri-Nylon. Medium to large. Buttoned up to the neck. Linda got sketch pads and a box of Caran d’Ache coloured pencils. ‘I wanted to get you something useful,’ her mother said. ‘But these are rather special. Swiss.’ Dorothy’s expression wavered between eagerness and desperation. ‘Like those chocolates you like.’ Linda unwrapped the largest of the gifts. It was definitely fabric; clothing perhaps. She tore at the paper. ‘Oh,’ she said. Her mother had given her towels. In three different sizes. An orangey shade of pink; the colour of tinned salmon. Linda looked at them forlornly. They were folded into squares and smelt the way things do when they are new like they’d been sprayed with some sort of preservative. ‘I thought they’d be handy for when you go off to college next year.’ With the benefit of hindsight, Linda would come to realise that the gift was symbolic of her mother’s willingness to release her, to set her free. In Dorothy’s world, it meant something to have your own towels, your own linen. But all Linda could think of, as she stared at the salmon-pink towelling, was her mother’s failure to meet her true desires; not just now, but all her life. Other girls got bikes and gold bracelets and fancy shoes. Linda got geometry sets and jigsaw puzzles. She had a vague sense that it had something to do with her parents being slightly older than most. They belonged to the rationbook generation. Frugal budgeting was as dear to them as morality, as if spending money on frivolous luxuries wasn’t quite decent. ‘What have you got there?’ Grandma peered at the towels through her thick-rimmed spectacles. ‘What a nasty colour,’ she said. Frank stood up. ‘I’ve got a present for Linda.’ He left the room, 82
looking deliberately mysterious like an actor in a hammy movie. Even Dorothy looked surprised. Dad didn’t really do presents. Antique jewellery, maybe, a bit of porcelain; things that he’d picked up in the saleroom. But he didn’t shop. ‘Sorry it’s not wrapped,’ he said. He presented Linda with a plain cardboard box. There was something bulky inside, covered in yellowing newspaper. Linda put the box on the floor – it was heavy. She pulled the paper away. ‘It’s Art Deco,’ Frank said. ‘Original. I think it came out of the Odeon – before they turned it into a ruddy bingo hall.’ Linda held it in both hands. A wall lamp, from the Plymouth cinema they used to go to when she was a child; a scallop of pink frosted glass, like swags of fabric, in a bracket of shiny chrome. ‘Didn’t we see Born Free at the Odeon?’ Linda played with the length of old electric flex that hung from the lamp like the tail on a sugar mouse. ‘And Lawrence of Arabia,’ said Frank. They were films they had seen together. Father and daughter outings. They both cried in the sad bits. He would hand her his hanky; let his own tears dry on his face. He always bought popcorn and choc ices. To hell with the expense. ‘Thanks, Dad. I love it.’ She kissed him on the cheek. ‘We’ll wire it up in your room, if you like.’ Dorothy looked at the floor, at a fallen Twiglet hiding in the dust by the leg of her chair. The Art Deco lamp may well find a home in Linda’s room, but she couldn’t help thinking that it wouldn’t be the room upstairs. Dear, kind Frank. Linda would break her father’s heart. It was just a question of when. Frank had bought Dorothy a present, too. He’d given it to her on Christmas Eve, just before they went to bed. She was sitting at her dressing table wiping her face with cotton wool dipped in Pond’s Cold Cream. In the mirror, she saw the bedroom door open. Frank. Smiling. He put his hands on the shoulders of her green dress and massaged her back. ‘I’ve got something for you,’ he said. He sat on the edge of the 83
bed and dug a hand in his trouser pocket. He handed it to her. A tiny leathery box. Inside, a ring; a band of silver; in the centre, two tiny silver hands clasped together. Dorothy was speechless. ‘Look.’ Frank took it out of her hand. Carefully, he showed her that it was made of three smaller rings. When you pulled the two hands apart, they fanned out on a miniature hinge to expose two little silver hearts. ‘Frank, that is so beautiful.’ The ring looked ridiculously small in his big, rough hands. When he stroked her body, she could feel the hard work in those hands. When she touched him – on his back, or his stomach, his thighs, those parts of him that never saw the sun – his skin felt like silk. He was full of contradictions. Frank pulled her over to him, sat her on the bed. ‘Do you know, it’s twenty-five years since we met.’ He slipped the gift onto the ring finger of Dorothy’s right hand. ‘Is it really?’ She looked into her husband’s shining eyes. ‘Darling, it feels like a lifetime ago.’ ‘It feels like yesterday, to me,’ he said. Dorothy Clegg met Francis Pink in December 1948. She’d just arrived at Sloane Street tube station and had climbed the steps onto the street. As she pulled on her gloves, she’d dropped a ticket on the pavement. Frank saw her, saw the ticket, watched her walk briskly away, melt into the dirty haze of a thickening evening smog. ‘Excuse me, miss. Excuse me …’ She turned around to face him. His skin looked yellow under the street lamp, but he smiled at her. Good-humoured. Intelligent. A wave of dark hair receded slightly from a broad forehead. Dorothy hardly saw the crowd that surged around him. ‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘You’re a gentleman.’ She remembered exactly what she wore, what he would have seen as he looked her up and down: a young woman in a dark green wool coat, buttoned to the collar. Slim legs. Black suede shoes with a slight heel. No hat. Later, when she checked herself in the mirror in the Royal Court Theatre’s powder room, she saw a trace of vermillion lipstick on her chipped front tooth. 84
Out on the square, he still held her ticket. He turned it over. ‘Well, there’s a coincidence,’ he said. ‘I’ve got a ticket for the same play.’ She wasn’t sure she believed him. ‘Are you going alone?’ he asked. ‘Not any more.’ They sat together, left together, spent an hour warming up on whisky and sodas at the smoky underground bar on Sloane Square station’s platform one. He lived south of the river, he told her. An engineer. ‘Would have stayed an engineer, on civvy street, but I was called up in ’43. Joined the RAF.’ A train whooshed into the station. They watched the crowds pour in and out of the carriages; the train roar away and disappear underground. Dorothy caught a shard of memory: the thunder of a Halifax bomber swallowed by the night. ‘Another coincidence,’ Dorothy said. ‘I was with the WAAF. At Leconfield in Yorkshire.’ ‘Davidstow Moor,’ he said. ‘Coastal Command station – in the wilds of Cornwall.’ ‘Did you fly?’ ‘No, I didn’t.’ He hesitated, thinking perhaps that she might be disappointed. ‘Ground crew. I did go up once or twice, but the nearest I got to the pilot’s seat was sitting in the cockpit checking dials.’ ‘Best way,’ said Dorothy. In the dim light of the station bar, she’d just noticed that Francis Pink (call me Frank, everyone else does) had the bluest of blue eyes. ‘Can I have your address?’ he asked her. ‘Or your telephone number?’ Dorothy wrote her parents’ number on the back of her used theatre ticket. Frank tucked it into his wallet before running to catch the last train home. ‘I’ll ring you,’ he said. She looked again at his eyes. The colour of cornflowers. He phoned the next day. Frank wasn’t the sort for bended knees or candlelit dinners. When he proposed they were walking arm-in-arm across a mile of Sussex shingle. They wore warm coats and lace-up shoes. They talked about Shakespeare and Gabriele Rossetti, the world they’d like to see. The beach was littered with tank traps and rusting coils of barbed 85
wire; still ready for battle. Through gaps in the clouds, shafts of light cast pools of silver on the surface of a gunmetal sea. ‘How do you like the name Pink?’ Frank asked her. ‘Not the best name in the world, but will it do?’ ‘It goes quite well with Dorothy.’ She laughed, happy. ‘Gives me a bit of colour.’ Then she turned to face him, her back to the sea. She had to be straight with him, she’d already decided. ‘I’m not a virgin, Frank.’ ‘Neither am I.’ He bent to pick up a stone and, with a flick of the wrist, sent it skimming across the surface of the water. ‘We’ve survived a war, Dorothy. What sane person is going to save themselves for a future that might never happen?’
Tarn Gordon-Rogers Tarn Gordon-Rogers in brief: childhood dream of writing, history degree, (photocopying) internships at major publishers, career as (occasionally award-winning) advertising copywriter and creative, evening classes in creative writing at LSJ and City University, MA at Bath Spa. Worryingly content to be re-living with her mum in Edinburgh while she freelances and completes her novel. When nine-year-old Avaâ€™s mother leaves her family for another man, Ava, her father and her brother struggle to adapt to their altered home life. Avaâ€™s emotionally vulnerable state attracts the attention of a girl at school who torments Ava and tempts her best friend into betrayal. Desperately seeking comfort and control, Ava develops an obsessive relationship with a family of urban foxes. As her parents argue over custody, she sinks ever closer to mental breakdown. Suffering hallucinations, hearing voices and longing to be accepted as an equal into her surrogate family of foxes, her animalistic behaviours threaten to overwhelm her life. Set in Edinburgh and told in close third person, Ava Vulpes presents the world as Ava sees it, in all its imaginative, heartbreaking darkness: the emotional power of the story is carried in moments of collision between Avaâ€™s naivety and her painful reality. It is a literary novel about the responsibilities and failings of parenthood, and the everyday pains and humiliations that adults and children inflict on one another. It is about instincts, loyalty and home. It is an urban fairy tale with a very real heart. firstname.lastname@example.org
Ava Vulpes Ava didn’t wait for the weekends to go outside any more. When night-time came she was alert, as if her senses opened up with the darkening of the sky. Even if she drifted off in bed, her ears were trained to waken the rest of her when Dad creaked across the floor above her head. Tonight the cubs were in the clearing, running in a circle, performing a ritual – a dance to summon small rodents to the den. Or a girl perhaps. The skies were clear and moonlight hung in silver streams from the upturned basket of branches over their heads. She watched them for a minute, their tails stiff and thin, not fat like the brush of their mother. Their coats were slowly brightening from brown, embers relighting in a breeze, and one day soon they would catch fire, burn adult orange. Ava got onto her hands and knees, not watching where she put them or caring about the dirt. She crawled across the ground, her hands buckling into rubbish, prickled by roots. The cubs lifted their heads and ran to her, led by their noses to the cocktail sausages she had stolen from the fridge and stuffed in her pockets. She yapped to them, an ip ip ip that quickened and climbed until she nearly shouted. She lay down, emptied her pockets and arranged the sausages on her belly. The cubs pounced on her, pushed at her crevices, licked for their food, jumped away again. As she rocked her head from side to side moonlight needled in and out of her eyes. We see you, said the trees. We smell you, said the cubs. ‘It’s my birthday soon,’ said Ava. The cub with the white mark sniffed her face. Its breath was stale, as she imagined the inside of a well might smell, or an emptied tin of pet food left to pool rain. ‘Come to my party, won’t you, Beowulf?’ Forceful paws lifted from Ava’s body as the cubs scattered. She sat up and looked behind her. There was the vixen, a dead bird obscuring the lower half of her mouth. It was a pigeon, concrete grey, its wing feathers spread as if attempting flight. The cubs licked their mother’s face as she walked on, sniffing the ground, bird in mouth. She opened 89
her jaws and the bird fell. None of them touched it. Resting on the ground it looked asleep. There wasn’t a single drop of blood, but the neck was turned too far, caught in a twist. The vixen dug a small hole with her front paws and the pigeon slumped in. She began to cover the body, nosing the earth back on top, her head weaving quickly from left to right and up and down. Ava went to assist with her hands, but the vixen snapped her head up. In the darkness Ava caught the cold shadowed white of teeth. She knelt down, hands clasped, and listened to her heart in her ears. The vixen squatted to leave her scent on the store and Ava remembered her book: Foxes often cache their prey and return to eat it later. The pigeon was in the earth now, like a sandwich in a fridge. She let herself out of the park gate and lifted the hood of her jacket. The terraced New Town streets were quiet at night. People were in bed: Mal, Dad, Mum. Dad slept alone in the bed he had shared with Mum. And Mum shared her new bed with Keith. She thought of the picture of herself and Mal on the bedside table, turned out towards the room, facing the spot where He would lie. She squeezed her lip between her teeth, closed the gate and ran across the road. Instead of turning back to the house she ran on, reversing the route they had marched yesterday. Around the corner she crossed the lamplit crescent, to the forested garden that sheltered the street from the main road beyond. She could close her eyes and feel the way, run it with her ears and nose; tree groans layered over traffic, wet earth resigned to fumes. But her wide eyes traced still cars and glossy doors, the approaching road at the end of the street, its occasional red and white streams. Ava felt unease creep up behind her and she slowed. A growl scraped in the back of her throat: ready. She turned and for an instant she saw nothing. The vixen waited at her feet, her eyes lifted to Ava. Don’t stop. She wanted to bring her face to the vixen’s, rasp thanks with her tongue. She smiled and the two of them moved on and over the road. The windows of the house were dark. Sniffing the unfamiliar air, the vixen stole into the safety of the shadows. Ava made out the fingers of honeysuckle flowers that climbed the face of the house 90
and skimmed Mum’s bedroom window. He was up there too, His sorcerous breath escaping, lifting the hairs next to Mum’s face. I’m so glad everything’s worked out for your mum now, said Mrs Carrington. ‘He’s wicked,’ whispered Ava. ‘Like the worst kind of witch.’ The vixen went into the bushes and Ava listened out for her, keeping the fox’s rustling and her own breathing in her ears as the two constant sounds she would fright without. She tiptoed past Mum’s car and His, to the doorstep. She put her eye up to the door’s peephole but all she saw was a twisted darkness. Pulling away, she looked down at her feet on the brown brush doormat: Welcome. Ava pulled down her leggings and crouched. She peed on the doormat, the liquid spilling off the step and onto the path below, dark streams of it finding their way to the grass at the edge of the path. She saw a wisp of steam rise as if a part of her soul had slipped out to greet her. The vixen ran over from the ragged front lawn, her black nose drawn to Ava’s wet trickle. She pattered back a few steps and pointed her elegant face towards home. Ava thought of Mum upstairs with her vulpine face, her honeyed eyes. Mum who belonged to her and Mal, not Him. She snapped her leggings up around her waist and followed the vixen out on to the street. She was tired now, too tired to make her way back to the house alone, so she returned to the park with the vixen. Her fingers explored the fox’s fur, along her neck and between her ears: sumptuous, warm. The vixen twitched and flinched as if shaking the day from each hair, loosening the collected smells and information that had stuck to her, so she might start afresh in a few hours. Ava stretched her fingers to touch again, to ensure the fox hadn’t shaken her free. She stopped her hand before it reached the fur, felt the sweat between her fingers. The vixen glanced at Ava and entered the den. Right then in the night she felt scared. Not of the night itself; the orchestra of minuscule sounds that played around her said she was surrounded, safe. She was scared of her bed, of her home that wasn’t home, of waking her dad or Mal. She lay down on the ground, the potent smell of fox pressing onto her like a blanket. She pulled a weed out of the ground and smoothed a large leaf with her thumb 91
until she burst its cells, felt its juices on her skin and held them in her nose. She closed her eyes. A car door slammed and Ava’s eyes jumped open. In her line of vision was the ground, a leaf in focus and giant, a whole coarse brown landscape stretching on as far as she could see. She lifted her eyes to the left, towards the matted treetops and the lightening sky behind them. ‘Oh no.’ She sat up quickly and heard a startled bark. The warm back of her neck cooled and she realised a cub had been sleeping against her. Its face had been in her hair, its nose touching her neck. Beowulf padded back and watched her stand. ‘Got to go,’ she said. She bent towards the cub. It licked her hand and watched her with sleepy, blazing eyes. Run rabbit, run rabbit! said the rabbit’s foot. Ava left the clearing and ran towards home. The street was empty and the sky still filmed with night. Birds chattered and dived, shivering the trees, a seagull cried out from its post on a rooftop. Though she was sure it was too early for Dad to be up, people would soon stir behind the street’s deep sandstone walls. In bed her heart pounded so fiercely that her sheets pulsed against her skin. A band of green-filtered sunlight crawled along her chest of drawers, and eventually her heart slowed. Mal looked at her over the Fruit ’n’ Fibre box and wrinkled his nose. ‘Ava, you actually do smell today. When was the last time you had a bath?’ She shrugged her shoulders and patted her spoon in a pond of cereal milk. Tiny droplets flew onto the table like spittle and she pictured the old man at the allotment. ‘Seriously, you should wash more.’ ‘Just because you wash yourself every ten minutes in case a girl at school touches you,’ she said. Dad laughed from by the washing machine. ‘Shut up,’ said Mal. ‘Ava, don’t tease your brother. Malcolm …’ 92
‘Don’t tell your sister to shut up, I know. I’m going to school. And luckily for me, I smell amazing, so girls will be touching me all, day, long.’ ‘Gross,’ said Ava. ‘Good luck with that,’ said Dad. ‘See you tonight.’ ‘Smell you later,’ said Mal. He bent and sniffed her head and drew back quickly. He really smelt something. With a thrill she curled her toes around the rung of her chair. Mal squeezed her shoulder and left. ‘Sounds like it’s a bath night then,’ said Dad. ‘Another thing I’m no good at keeping up with.’ ‘You are good. Don’t worry.’ She could smell herself and it made her stomach tingle. She had washed her face – to which a smidgen of black had fixed itself – and cleaned her hands of park dirt. But she knew that elsewhere there were things she had not washed off: the breath of the cub mingled in her hair, tied to it like ribbons. ‘I won’t worry,’ said Dad. ‘And don’t you worry, you know, about me. I can look after myself. Just.’ He pretended to pour his tea on his head and feed his toast up his nose. Ava smiled. ‘I’ll make Him go away,’ she said. ‘Hmm?’ said Dad. ‘Him? Who him?’ ‘Doesn’t matter.’ If Mal were here his eyes would thunder. They’d made a pact not to mention Him in front of Dad. Ava wondered if her scent on Mum’s doorstep would reach up and warm her that morning, like the first electric fuzz of skin on skin, reminding her who she belonged to. Dad looked at his watch and went to pour his tea in the sink. ‘Come on,’ he said. ‘Brush your teeth. Can’t be late again.’
Benjamin Grose Benjamin Grose is a 1980s' child (although only just). In 2007 he won the South Devon Waterstone’s Short Story Award for Young Writers. He has worked as a dishwasher, waiter, bartender, labourer, bookseller, inventory clerk and nightclub manager. The Reprobates is his sixth novel. He divides his time between London and New York, the two settings for the next one. The Reprobates can be found in a grimy nightclub called Munks. It is a place where many big bands play before they get famous – but now it’s in a period of decline, with new owners who have an unrealistic vision of changing the venue’s reputation. A reputation of weekend excess, packed club nights, cheap booze and moral decadence. Narrated by the hard-edged, enigmatic bar manager who is never named, The Reprobates is a study of the drunks, the regulars, the clientele, a generation lost to Facebook, dubstep and Jägerbombs, an exploitative chronicle of a life behind the bar, of the people in the business of getting other people drunk, those who make the drunks dance, and those who throw the drunks out. The only sanctuary for the staff is the pub next door, where they spend their days off, socialising with the same people from last night wearing their day faces. It is a drink-fuelled, nocturnal, counterfeit existence, and one that is slowly killing the narrator. The question is, which will die first – the new regime or the manager who has been doing this job for far too long? email@example.com
The Reprobates I work in a nightclub where the only people more reprehensible than the customers are the people serving the drinks. People come here because we’re still open when everywhere else shuts, and the drink is cheap because they know someone behind the bar – and even if you don’t, you soon will. Welcome to Munks. The ceiling is sweating. The lights are coming on. The dance floor is illuminated. The bouncers are shouting for everyone to go home. The staff are collecting plastic cups in big green recyclable bags. The customers are no longer customers – they’re the unwanted, the wasted, the faceless. Some are collapsed on the old red leather sofas. Some are hunched over the round tables, asleep. Some are still dancing, even though the music has stopped. Some want more, they always do – but the big boards are up on the bars, and the only way out of the dungeon is up the stairs and into the night. I’m the manager, and I’m responsible for them all.
• Cashing up – staring into a screen of numbers, trying to make everything fit and restore some balance to a place of moral bankruptcy. A thousand pounds here – a thousand pounds there. I’m ten pounds down on the upstairs bar till but find it in the door till, use a pound from my pot on the desk to fill a gap, discover we’re twenty quid down on downstairs till #2 but find it hiding in the change drawer, then print out the cash sheet on the dodgy printer, put it all in a bag and into the safe below that only the new owners have a key to. I’ve put hundreds of thousands of pounds in there. Never to be seen again. There’s a knock on my office door. Meet Mike, the head bouncer. He comes in with the doormen’s radios to put them on charge for the night, and a couple of vodka and cokes that, knowing him, will only have a dribble of coke in them – it has that muddy water colour with a few bubbles in the bottom and every sip makes my vision spotted. He rubs my back – ‘Don’t worry, sweetness, that’s another Saturday night all over.’ 95
He’s a fifteen-stone skinhead who used to own a gym, and has a newborn daughter with his Eastern European wife who used to do the door till. We’re a very close bunch here, and the night shifts turn us into strange creatures.
• There are names and dates on the wall of the upstairs bar. The Smiths 83, Oasis 94, Klaxons 06, Blur 90, The Cure 83, The Killers 04, Radiohead 92. Bands play here before they get famous. That’s the foundation of Munks’ reputation. The other reputation is one the new owners are trying to wipe out – the one where the customers drink until they collapse in their own vomit and are laughed at by the staff, who are almost as inebriated. The new owners have started the cleansing of this place by changing the upstairs bar into a Music Café and making a new daytime entrance. If the rumours are true and they are as mad as they seem, soon they’ll be serving food. In a nightclub? you might ask. But no. Officially, this is no longer a nightclub. It is a Live Music Venue that does club nights. Is it fuck.
• Meet the people who are in the business of getting people drunk. There’s Harrison, the closest I have to a best friend – Jackson, the thespian extraordinaire – Jeremy, our resident homosexual – Cub, who lives with Jeremy and is studying for her second Master’s – Bran, who looks like Sideshow Bob, has worked here ten years and at twentyseven still lives with his mum – Freddy Nelson – Freddy Nelson’s girlfriend Leah, who got Freddy his job (everyone here has got at least one person a job) – the dreadlocked Freddy Maytal – Tattoo Paul – Shelly – Laura the Essex girl, who is in love with Harrison – and Inez, the Spanish expatriate who has been in this city longer than anyone. They’re an eclectic bunch. At least to begin with they are. Then, a week into the job, the drink, the drunks and the twilight hours take over. Their new shoes fall apart from the sticky floors and the 96
grime – scuffed, puked on, full of holes after a few nights of dealing with the juice mob. They have all been moulded by this place into a rag-tag bunch of students and ex-students stuck in the same city, band members with a dream of the big time, once-upon-a-time teenagers now in their mid-twenties always about to get a real job. Going nowhere but to the pub next door on their night off. I’m as bad as any of them. I’ve been here for eight years, manager for two-and-a-half of those, and I can’t remember the last time I left this city.
• There is no shame in this place. When people walk through those doors, pay their money and receive their stamps, all inhibitions, all concerns, all sense is stripped away. It leaves people like this guy, who is urinating in the corner of the dance floor, smoking a cigarette. People start to notice, and they stand back, some laughing, some speechless, as the doormen push their way through to him, just as he’s doing a final shake. He puts his cigarette out in his puddle of piss and turns around, a satisfied expression on his face, as if he’s just decided to go to the bar for another drink. He starts walking towards it before the bouncers steer him through the fire exit and shut the door behind him.
• Meet the people who are in the business of throwing the drunks out. Mike, the head bouncer – Stacie, the hairdresser bodybuilder – Sam, who has an IQ of eleven or maybe twelve and hands out humbugs to fat girls – Pete Bone, the meanest, most ignorant bastard you will ever meet – Judo Phil – Pete 2, the electrician – Bill, the social recluse and suspected virgin – Slicer, who is only five feet tall but grew up fighting his way through his many cousins in a bare knuckle boxing ring – and Abasi, the biggest, hardest son of a bitch in the city.
In this place I’ve watched some of the best bands I’ve ever seen in my life. I’ve also seen some of the worst. Take tonight for example. I’m sitting on the door till, there are four people who have paid six pounds each to see a band called Upside Down Clinic – a fat woman in a pink dress banging a snare drum and warbling in a language nobody recognises, and a skinny man on a keyboard wearing trousers several sizes too big for him. It is quite possibly the worst thing I’ve ever heard. I’m preparing myself to go downstairs and find corpses. Not the sound man though. Jeff has seen worse – he’s been here for twenty years and will probably be here another twenty. When it finally ends, and the four customers come back up the stairs to leave, I turn my gaze to the floor, not wanting to make eye contact in case one of them asks for their money back. They have a right to. I blame the new promoter.
• Meet the guy passed out in the left-hand cubicle of the Gents toilets. Mike, Sam and I have just found him, collapsed, sitting with his back to the door, what we can see of his jeans wrapped around his ankles, pants down, belt loose, naked arse-cheeks on the grimy floor, his boxer shorts so stained and wet it is difficult to tell their original colour. Sam tries to open the door but the guy’s jammed between the toilet and the door and the gap isn’t wide enough to get in. ‘Mate! Wake up!’ Sam and Mike try everything – knocking, knocking louder, throwing water over the top of the door, everything, until finally he mumbles and starts fumbling for something and his belt buckle jangles and scrapes along the tiled floor and he moves a bit and Sam can see all of the way in. He whistles, and says, ‘He’s fucking shit himself, the dirty bastard.’ He hasn’t just shit himself, he’s pissed and puked on himself too, which we find out when we finally get him to stand up, and he walks out, a dead stare on his face, caked in crap and dirt, a great big globule 98
of toilet roll stuck to his neck. He stands at the sink in front of the mirror, says nothing, runs the water. Mike sniggers – ‘I think he’s got more pressing problems than dirty hands.’ The guy goes without a fuss, but a few hours later, when I’m leaving after locking up, I walk past him again, collapsed on the steps of a house on the next street. His head is in a polystyrene box of halfeaten chips and there is ketchup and mayonnaise in his hair. I stand there for a while, walk on a few yards. Stop. Sigh. Go back, sit down next to him on the steps, pull out a cigarette, light it and look at him again. Then I find my phone and ring a taxi, hoping he’ll wake up and give me an address.
• I don’t know whether it’s just a coincidence or that the guy who put it there is a pervert, but the cloakroom is opposite the girls’ toilets. The cloakroom – discounting the manager’s office – is perhaps the strangest place in this godforsaken club. Philosophy litters the walls – DRUGS SEX & TEA – HOMOPHOBICS ARE GAY – COATS ARE FOR TWATS – DON’T EAT CHILDREN. It is a money-making scheme, a shopper’s delight, a place of solitude, desperation and ill-health. Mould is climbing the walls and polluting our lungs. It epitomises this club and there are ghosts here. I sit in the old leather chair by the ticket dispenser, covering for Tattoo Paul whilst he goes for a fag or three. He has clipped out a line from a food and drink magazine, scribbled out the TAIL, drawn an upwards arrow and stuck it to the shelf below the counter so it reads COCK OF THE MONTH. It is currently pointing to a very well-dressed, well-spoken chap holding a memory stick. ‘What?’ I ask him. ‘My parents used to come here,’ he says. ‘Great.’ ‘Can I DJ?’ ‘Sorry?’ ‘This DJ is frankly absolute shit. I will double the numbers 99
through the door. I guarantee it.’ And he thrusts out a hand to shake. ‘I won’t even ask for a fee.’ I agree with him about the DJ – it is drum and bass night – but I’m shaking my head. ‘What are you going to use?’ ‘This!’ We both look at the memory stick. ‘Mate, think about it. I’m not letting you DJ.’ He stands back – suddenly aloof, shaking his head, aghast. ‘My parents used to come here.’ He storms off with his memory stick and his music morals, and I sit back and look down at the words written across the shelf below the counter. WHY DID I TAKE THIS JOB? And then below that – BECAUSE YOU FANCY MIKE!
• Tuesday night is Cheese Night. Students come from all over the city in stupid clothes to drink cheap doubles and get greased up on the sticky dance floor to S Club 7, Total Eclipse of the Heart and the Grease Medley. It is fifty deep at the bar and you can’t move. I hide in my office until I feel guilty and go out and give them a hand behind the bar. The tide always breaks at 1:30 when the great exodus starts and they all beg for water and find somebody, anybody, to sleep with. A ginger kid wanders through the crowds, no shirt on – the words MY PARENTS ARE COMING TOMORROW written in pink pen on his stomach.
Matt Haw In 2011, Matt Haw was awarded a grant by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to study on Bath Spa University’s MA Creative Writing programme. His extended sequential poem, Saint-Paul-deMausole, the culmination of his year’s work, is an innovative and irreverent take on the sonnet cycle. His work has been published as part of the Bath Literature Festival and will be appearing in the spring 2013 issue of Poetry Salzburg Review. He lives in Bath. Saint-Paul-de-Mausole speaks to us in the voice of Alain Gillo, a young man who, in his late twenties, suffered a profound disturbance of the psyche. In the words of his psychiatrist Dr Zarahbi, Mr Gillo’s particular neurosis manifested itself as, ‘an intensely obsessive, psychotic relationship with the artist Vincent van Gogh’. Taking as its title the asylum where the Dutch artist was resident, the poem attempts to evoke a sense of claustrophobic despair. It is an uncomfortable but strangely haunting sequence which explores the nuances of the disturbed mind, the spiritual connection that its narrator perceived between himself and van Gogh and the psychogeographic influence that such places and people can exert on us. firstname.lastname@example.org
Sometimes moods of indescribable anguish, sometimes moments when the veil of time and fatality of circumstances seemed to be torn apart for an instant. Vincent van Gogh from Letter to Theo van Gogh, 22.05.1889
Above the asylum the sky is a slick of spilt milk, of broken-glass stars. Across the chimney stacks of Saint-Rémy, the wind moves in laboured breaths. Tonight, that same wind squalls round this little suburban garden, lifting the gate in the alley from its latch, the umber leaves in savage arabesques. It comes alive where it finds the spaces between clothing and skin, it comes alive in the hairs on the nape of my neck; it’s as if you leant one cheek against the still wet canvas of the world and sighed – and sighed – and sighed.
Hôtel-Dieu-Saint-Esprit You remembered nothing of the attack, nothing of the ruck of Gendarme who braced against your punches and scissorkicks, against the hooked fish of your body. Who unhanded you to the isolation cell where, at last, you were Torquato Tasso, just as Delacroix thought of him: a heap of skin and straitjacket 103
left to subdue your own torso. Alone with the swung drum of your heart, did you amuse yourself with the eyes of the peepshow actors who, every so often, broke character to stare back through the Judas hole into the eyes of the man who observed them.
The Statement The fist, caught on my chin, ploughs a furrow in the loam of my face, sends me palming the asphalt, spitting a mouthful of broken teeth. Nickel-tang on the tongue, lick of blood on the cheek; my fingers and crushed fingernails hug my knees like things long-lost as the Nike-clad heels hammer down, hammer down and hammer down. Down here, where the world turns to leaf mould and dog shit, I turn to road kill, a heap of dead fox, in a jaggy pelt – one size too small for its bones.
• What sort of weight does a balled hand contain? It’s not measured in kilos or tons but still I might weigh the whole world by the poundage of flesh bought down fast against my brow, again and again – a sovereign to break my skin and seal the pact of harm. Now think of a crush of men, the way a dozen of them can be fused by violence, and the ferocity 104
of twenty-four feet, of twenty-four fists. Prostrate at the drain cover where glass puddled and sparked – why blood-bubbled at my lips but would not commit itself to the word.
The Asylum Here there are some patients very seriously ill and you continually hear terrible cries and howls like beasts in a menagerie … There is someone here who has been shouting and talking like me all the time … Vincent van Gogh and, when calmed, this drunkship of exiles played at Dostoyevsky or held conversations with half-heard echoes. In the asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, that house of the dead, the doctors prescribed, to the men of the menagerie, draughts and boules and lethargy. Confined to your room, I gather you spent time getting used to your changed reflection – and calmed yourself with an infinitude of small things: a kept cicada shell, an ear of corn, a pine cone, with the view from your window of cypresses and fields – with the touch of brush to canvas.
• There were bowls of chick peas and haricot beans gone musty with roach infestation but you’d lost what hunger you had to a belly full of soil and turpentine. 105
In your room your work gorged, swallowing canvas and paint to balance your lack of appetite. In this place there are those who howl and those who must endure the howling, the mistral, the clatter of rain on glass. You steeled your self with alcohol, with nicotine, with caffeine and a crush of camphor under the pillow; the charms against this cold place.
Midnight in A&E I breathe disinfectant, formaldehyde and bleed, into gauze, an impressionistâ€™s bouquet of all the red flowers I know. There are others with me, concussives and paralytics, each of us consumed in self-pity, each of us snow-blind by the white-on-white, the strip-lighting, waiting our turn to be led to the ward and sutured by a nurse with seen-it-before eyes. Was I the only one to notice you, tacked to the wall, to notice the skinny lipped half-smirk of Self-Portrait, September 1889? You poster boy for chronic depression â€“ patron saint of hospital corridors.
Potassium Bromide Sedative, anticonvulsant, the name conjures images of corked phials, each with its kept chemical snow, ranked and labelled in a mahogany box. 106
And yes, it was as barbarous as it sounds, the same compound used in photographic developer and better suited, Iâ€™m told, as a curative for beasts. Nonetheless the doctors, in white coats and pince-nez, sugared your water with the stuff, and left you with the pharmaceutical salts dissolving across your tongue â€“ and the sound of the men who passed their barks, as one voice, through the halls of the asylum.
Kate Henriques Kate Henriques studied Sanskrit and Religion at Edinburgh University before training as an opera singer. For twenty years she has been singing, teaching, and running music and drama programmes for children of varying needs. Working with children has had a strong influence on her writing, a key theme of which is how important it is for children to be seen and heard, and the lifelong consequences if they are not. The Fat Girl in the Kitchen is about the cycle of parenting: it is a family script told, in four parts, through the life of the central character, Sybil Bragg. Each part captures a period in Sybil’s life, from 1928 to the present day. The novel is set in Australia. Sybil is a woman of extremes: an outstanding swimmer who lives in the desert; a loving wife but a terrible mother; funny but cruel. Being taught to swim by Tarzan, rescuing a boy from his murdered mother’s arms, abandoning her baby on a train: things happen in Sybil’s life, but it is only when her oldest daughter dies aged fifty that she realises she has missed the point of motherhood and this leads to a slow and painful breakdown. The Fat Girl in the Kitchen explores how a parent can blight a child’s life, but also how the mix of characters within a marriage can save children from a negative cycle, and enable them to have happy family lives of their own. This excerpt is from Part One: It is 1930, Sybil’s twelfth birthday. Her mother is trying to explain to Sybil that she must go away to seek treatment for her depression. email@example.com
The Fat Girl in the Kitchen There was a knock at the door. Sybil slipped the diary under the bedclothes and put the pen in her drawer. She picked up the brooch and held it in front of her. ‘Mummy?’ she said, and the door opened. ‘May I come in?’ Mother stepped into the room, quietly pressing the door shut behind her. ‘I am still admiring my brooch. It is quite the most beautiful thing I have ever owned in my entire life.’ Mother laughed. ‘Well that’s something then, dear,’ she said and she came over and sat on the edge of the bed. Sybil saw then that Mother had been crying. Her eyes were shot through with red and still watery, and her make-up had been upset. She did not want Mother in here crying. It was still her birthday. She decided to ignore the situation. She fixed a smile of awe and wonder on her face and continued to turn the brooch around in her fingers. Mother sat for a while in silence looking down at her own hands, smoothing the surface of her thumbnail with the pad of her forefinger. ‘Sybil, did you hear Daddy and I talking last night?’ ‘Mother, this is still my birthday.’ Mother sighed. ‘Did you hear us?’ ‘How could I not? You were raising your voices. The whole world heard you.’ Mother sat there, very still. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ Sybil said. ‘I won’t, not tonight.’ She flung herself down into the bed and pulled the covers over her head. ‘Sybil, there is something I must tell you, so please, behave yourself. Sit up and listen to me.’ Her voice was sharp now. Sybil pulled herself up. She leaned back into her pillows, took a drag of an imaginary cigar and wiggled her eyebrows like Groucho Marx. ‘Okay, kiddo,’ she said, ‘waddya got for me?’ Mother slapped her hand down and glared at her. ‘This is not a joke. You silly girl; you silly, silly girl. Do you think everything is about you? Do you think you are the centre of your silly little universe? Now 109
be quiet and listen. I have to say something to you and you have to sit there and listen, quietly. Do you understand me?’ Sybil nodded, silent and furious. Inside her head she shouted, I hate you, you hateful woman. This is MY birthday. But she held her tongue and pressed back into her pillows, away from her mother’s angry, unhappy face. ‘Sybil, do you know how old I am? Mmm? I am fifty-three years old, nearly fifty-four. Much older than Marjorie’s mother. Much older than the mothers of all your friends. You must have noticed that?’ Sybil nodded. ‘And Daddy, he is even older isn’t he? He is fifty-nine, about to be sixty years old; a fact he does not welcome.’ Mother stopped talking for a moment and took a series of shaky breaths. She smoothed down the silk skirt of her dress and then reached across and did something she seldom did. She took Sybil’s hand and dragged it back across to rest in hers, on her lap. ‘Yes, we are old parents for a girl of your age, and I was an old mother when you were born. I was forty-one, which is old for a woman to have her first baby. It wasn’t all plain sailing. It was very,’ her voice wobbled, ‘it was very difficult.’ Sybil leant forward and said in a whisper, ‘I know, Mother, you don’t have to tell me about it. I know.’ Mother looked up at her. ‘What do you mean? What do you know?’ ‘Nin told me.’ ‘Nin told you what?’ ‘About the twin.’ ‘The twin?’ ‘My twin, the one that died.’ Mother looked horrified. ‘Nin told you that?’ Sybil nodded. ‘When?’ ‘A long time ago. Before the trip. When you and Father were in New Zealand. She was angry with me because I would not eat my supper. She said that I was horribly spoilt. She said it was a disaster that I was an only child and that I was destined to be fussy and demanding and what an utter tragedy it was that the other little baby had died.’ Mother held her hand to her mouth. Her face creased and tears watered up her eyes. 110
‘Nin said that I was a twin and that the other baby had died on the day we were born. She said it was a shame: the other baby was a little boy and what father wouldn’t prefer a little boy to a nasty spoilt little girl like me? And she said that it was a secret and I was never to talk to you or to Daddy about it because it would make you too sad and you would probably not want to see me again. She said I would remind you of how sad you were, losing your little baby boy, and you might have to send me away. She said that is why Daddy travels abroad so often. He goes to get away from me because of that little dead baby. I make him think of that little dead baby boy that he loved.’ ‘Sybil, my dear, no.’ Mother clutched at Sybil’s hands and arms, then took her face in her hands. Sybil was crying now, but she could not stop herself. The words poured out of her like a burst main. ‘Nin said that when two babies share one womb there sometimes isn’t enough food to share, so one baby takes all the goodness and leaves the other with nothing, and that is why my brother died when he was born, because I took it all, the goodness. I took all the goodness and I killed him. That’s what Nin said. I hate her, I hate Nin and she hates me.’ Mother held Sybil tight and pulled her in to her chest. Sybil’s body was heaving now and she opened her eyes against the soft wool of her mother’s housecoat and blinked into the close cross-hatching of the fabric. Mother gave off a smell: a gentle mix of rosewater and clean skin and Sybil thought that it was a long time since she had been close in to Mother like this. It felt good to be crying and she listened to herself and tried to picture what they looked like, there on the bed, to someone coming into the room: her father or Nin. She sat up. Mother looked at her with an anxious face. ‘Sybil, Nin should never have spoken to you about this.’ ‘I know. I told her that.’ ‘She should never have said those things because they are not true. Not … correct. There was another baby; and yes, it was a little boy and he died on the day he was born; the day you were born. And your Father and I were both very sad, very sad indeed. But we were happy too, to have a beautiful baby daughter, at our age. So happy. 111
We tried for a very long time to have our own baby. We thought that we never would and that is why your sister Rae came to live with us. Aunt Nell was not well after Rae was born and so Uncle Bill asked us if we would look after her and so we did. She was a jolly good girl and we adored her, but she was never really ours. When I found out that I was expecting my own child it was unimaginable, simply a dream after all the years of hoping. And then it was twins. Twins. Imagine. Imagine after all that time waiting for one child you find that two are on their way.’ She looked exhausted. ‘What was he called?’ ‘What?’ ‘The twin, my twin, what did you call him?’ ‘Daddy didn’t want to name him. He would not. But I named him Henry, after my father. I wanted a name for his death certificate. I could not have him down as “Baby deceased”. Henry James Bragg.’ ‘My brother.’ ‘Yes, I suppose so.’ ‘Yes, Mother, of course he is.’ Mother closed her eyes and then sighed again. ‘I’m tired, Sybil. I’m sorry, too. Sorry about this. Sorry that I spoiled your birthday.’ ‘You didn’t. You didn’t spoil it. I’m glad you told me about Henry. I’m glad I have a name for him now.’ Mother stood up to leave the room, but she was still holding onto Sybil’s hand. ‘Mother, why did you come to talk to me tonight?’ ‘I’m tired, darling. We’ll talk about it in the morning.’ ‘But why were you and Daddy arguing? Why did you ask me if I heard you? What were you going to tell me? Please. You have to tell me now or I won’t be able to sleep.’ Mother hesitated and turned away from Sybil. She spoke to the back of the bedroom door. ‘Since Henry died I haven’t been able to stop being sad. Daddy’s sick of it. He hates to be home because I am so sad, so he finds ways to stay away.’ Sybil watched Mother’s back and waited for her to go on. 112
‘Daddy wants me to go to a clinic. He wants me to go away for a spell until I am better. I don’t want to, but I must.’ ‘I’m not staying with Nin,’ Sybil cried. ‘No. Not Nin. You are going to live with the Hardcastles, just for a while. It will be fun, I think, and Mrs Hardcastle is pleased to be having you; a friend for Marj.’ ‘But what if I don’t want to?’ she asked. Mother sighed and stood looking down at the rug. ‘How long will you be away?’ ‘I don’t know.’ ‘A week? A month?’ ‘A little more, I am given to understand.’ ‘Do you love Daddy?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Does he love you too?’ ‘Yes, Sybil, he does.’ ‘Why do you argue so often, then? Is it this, the sadness?’ ‘Yes, I think so.’ ‘Is that why he gets drunk?’ ‘Sybil.’ ‘But is it?’ ‘Yes, I think it must be.’ ‘Well perhaps it is Daddy who should be going away. I don’t want you to go. I don’t want to stay with the Hardcastles. I want to stay with you. Say no. Say no to Daddy. He’s not the boss of you.’ Mother walked to the door and stepped half out of the room. Her shadow stayed in Sybil’s bedroom. It lay across the rug, shivering a little as she hovered in the doorway. ‘Goodnight, little one. Let’s go to sleep now, shall we?’ Sybil watched the door close and heard Mother’s muffled voice say, ‘Turn out your light, dear.’ She picked up her water glass. She was about to hurl it at the door. She looked at the light reflecting off the angles of the cut glass and it distracted her. Instead of throwing the glass she took a sip of water and put it back on to her bedside table. She felt under her bedclothes and fished out her diary. She opened it and wrote: I had a brother. He was called Henry James Bragg. He died on the day he was born. Mother is going away. She is sick 113
with sadness. I am going to stay with the Hardcastles until she is better. It isn’t me that Daddy is angry with. It’s Mother. She’s too sad. I hope they can fix it. Happy Birthday to me.
Jude Higgins Jude Higgins has a Diploma in Creative Writing with distinction from Bristol University. Her short stories have won prizes and been published in an anthology With Islands in Mind (Earlyworks Press, 2007). A recent story, The Fish Pedicure – reluctant customer, disastrous consequences – was broadcast on local radio. Formerly a psychotherapist, she now co-runs Writing Events Bath, which offers workshops with visiting authors, publishers and agents. She teaches courses in therapeutic writing and fiction for beginners. A Month of Billie Holiday A story of jealousy, betrayal and loss, A Month of Billie Holiday explores the devastating consequences of 1970s' sexual liberation on Sadie Shepherd and her daughter Brill, twenty years later. The novel switches between time frames and the points of view of both women. It begins six months after Sadie’s death in 1991. On a break from her job as a waitress at a seaside jazz café, Brill ‘sees’ her dead mother on the promenade. This compels her to search out secrets from the past. A family friend, Nancy, ninety-one, might have answers but is fast losing her memory. Brill’s estranged father, Jake, has disappeared on retreat in India. With the help of her new lover, Leon, Brill vows to find Jake and lay the past to rest. Brill’s journey of discovery is interwoven with Sadie’s story, as she swings between established values and the new sexual norms of the early 1970s. In the background, Billie Holiday’s songs of love and loss are a reminder of the struggles all women face in their search for identity and freedom. firstname.lastname@example.org
A Month of Billie Holiday It rained steadily as Sadie drove through the Wye valley. The windscreen wipers could hardly keep up with the deluge and it was difficult to see ahead. Every time she thought about leaving Jake, she cried. Past Monmouth, it grew darker. Thunder rumbled and lightning ripped through the sky. Rain battered the canvas roof of the 2CV; water dripped through the seals and puddled the back seat. She stopped in a lay-by, buttoned herself into her grandmother’s old cardigan and curled her hands inside the cuffs. ‘Am I really doing the right thing?’ she said aloud. If only her grandmother were still alive and sitting beside her to reply. When she turned on the radio for company, the hiss of static suggested the wavering chords of an old voice. It sounded eerie, as if her grandmother was trying to get through but couldn’t make herself heard. Don’t do anything rash. You can apply to Oxford next year. Was that what she was trying to say? The crackling increased. Sadie switched off the radio and shut her eyes. The tinny car shuddered in the wind as if it could topple any second. She gripped the steering wheel, hoping the worst of the storm would soon be over. At this rate, it would be late evening before she reached the cottage. There would be no time to talk properly to Jake. Tomorrow would be better. Of course it would. Rain sheeted down for the rest of the journey. In many places floodwater spread across the road, came through the rust hole underneath the car and wet her feet. It was like driving through a Turner painting, where seascape and sky merged. By the time she reached Yatton, her back ached and her eyes were dry and sore. The lane that led to the track ran with water like a stream, so she parked on the verge and decided to walk. Once before in a spate of heavy rain, the car had stuck in the mud and a local farmer had to tow it out with his tractor. At least she had a torch, wellingtons and a raincoat in the boot. Beyond the farm gate the track was slippery with thick red mud. Water pooled in the hollows, poured off the hillside and swirled around her boots. On the edge of the common, bracken grew dense 117
and tall; its coarse fronds swayed towards her in the wind and whipped her face. She grasped her hood tightly round her neck with one hand, her fingers numb. It could be November instead of early September. A group of stags grunted their harsh rutting call in the woods as if they were desperate to mate, but the weather had spoiled their chances. The track wound round the hill like a horseshoe. Jake’s cottage sat in the turn, while Esther and Robbie’s rented house was a few hundred yards further up. From here, their home stood in darkness. However, lights glowed at the windows of Jake’s cottage and smoke furled from the chimney. They were probably all there getting stoned. Jake had kept his word and not phoned her from the village, so he would still think she was in Clevedon. It was rare for her to turn up without letting him know. Outside the cottage, Esther’s motorbike was propped against the gate. Normally, if it were raining, she and Robbie would drive down from their cottage in the van. Had he taken off to visit his parents and left them both alone together? Inside, John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra were playing The Inner Mounting Flame, one of Esther’s favourite albums. While Sadie hesitated by the door, the music stopped abruptly and the stylus screeched across the vinyl. ‘Careful.’ Jake sounded irritated, like he did with her when she scratched any of his records. One of the back windows was slightly open, so she crept onto the veranda and peeped through, expecting to see Esther and hear what they were saying. But it was Robbie who stood by the record player holding the disc in his hand. Jake sat crossed-legged on the hearth rug, rolling up. Business as usual. She was about to return to the front door and go in when Robbie put down the stylus arm too heavily on another record. He was staring at Jake, a half-smile on his face. His eyes glittered like they had when he’d looked at her that day in the garden. ‘Fuck it, man,’ Jake said. ‘There’s no need for that.’ He coughed as if he’d inhaled too much smoke. They’d built a big fire and the light from the flames made his blonde hair gleam. His skin looked flushed, his shirt was off and his back glistened with sweat. The Sunshine of Your Love by Cream began at maximum volume. Robbie played an air guitar to mimic Eric Clapton. Standing with his 118
legs wide apart, he jutted his chin and shook his head backwards and forwards in time to the heavy pulse of the music. Then he gyrated lower as the chords moved down the octave in that raw, raunchy beat. He looked so sexy with his long hair swinging across his back and his narrow hips swivelling in his tight Levis. At the end of the track, he sat down heavily on the rug and put his hand high up on Jake’s thigh. Sadie gasped. ‘Jakey.’ Robbie’s voice was thick with desire. Jake lifted Robbie’s hand away without looking at him. He licked the gummed edge of a Rizla, stuck it down and twisted the end of the spliff. ‘I’ve told you I’m not interested.’ Robbie leaned over and kissed him roughly on the lips. Jake pushed him off and stood up. ‘Leave it out, will you?’ He came over and opened the window wider. Smoke drifted out. Sadie stood only about a foot away and could hear him breathing in, like he couldn’t get enough air. She shrank back and bumped into an old scythe propped in the corner. When she reached out to stop it falling, the tip of the blade pierced right through the arm of her jacket. It was hard not to cry out. Her whole body wanted to scream. Her mind was a welter of confusion. She’d suspected Jake and Esther were sleeping together, not Jake and Robbie. A chair skidded off the veranda in the wind and clattered on top of the barbecue bricks. Jake leaned out further to look. Panic raced in her blood. She retreated into the shadows and tried not to move. If he saw her here now, what would she do? If only she could disappear altogether, forget what she’d seen. Forget about everything. Jake and Robbie? It was unbelievable. Robbie must have been playing games with her that day in the garden. And Jake – what was he up to? ‘I thought it was Esther coming back. But it was the wind,’ he said, turning away. ‘She won’t be back in this. She’ll have stayed in Birmingham with her friend, Di. We’re okay.’ Sadie shivered, her hands were blue with cold; rain drove against her body and plastered wet hair across her mouth and cheeks. Her arm throbbed. Blood seeped through the fabric of her jacket and she 119
pressed her hand over the wound to staunch it. She longed for the warmth of the fire, but how could she go in? They could have been lovers for months – all the time he’d been with her and before. She crept to the window again. Robbie had taken off his shirt. ‘Come on, man,’ he pleaded. His face was pale, his gaze intense. Jake sat down on the chair furthest from him. ‘I don’t want it anymore.’ He sounded strained. ‘It was an experiment and it’s over.’ Robbie lit the joint. ‘That’s a joke. I came up here because of you. You didn’t stop me.’ ‘Wrong choice. I should have told you to stay in Bristol. I thought you were having a scene with Ed.’ ‘Ed’s nothing to me. And you should stop playing around with Sadie when you don’t love her. If her grandmother hadn’t died, you’d have split long ago.’ Sadie felt so dizzy, she had to grasp the windowsill. Splinters from the soft, rotting wood dug into the quick of her nails, but she gripped harder. If she let go, her legs might buckle. She waited for Jake to say it wasn’t true. Of course he loved her. But there was a long silence. He took the joint from Robbie. ‘Why do you shag Esther if you’re into men?’ ‘I’m leaving her. I’m going to London. That’s where it’s at.’ The nausea Sadie had been feeling all day hit her in waves. She stumbled off the veranda away from the cottage and vomited into a clump of flowers, pushing her face far down in between the blooms so the men wouldn’t hear her retching. Their voices rumbled on, then she thought she heard Jake shouting, but the wind blew so hard she couldn’t be sure. Soaked through, she wiped her mouth with her wet sleeve and staggered back to look through the window. Jake was standing facing Robbie, his fists clenched. ‘What did you say? She wouldn’t do that.’ Sadie shuddered. Had Robbie told Jake about them making love? She felt sicker still at the thought that he knew. A sharp pain wrenched her guts and she bent double. When she stood up, Robbie had put on his shirt and jacket and was standing next to the door, his face dark, his eyes narrowed. 120
‘I thought you were into experimenting.’ Jake lunged towards him and pinned him against the wall. ‘Bastard.’ Robbie threw him off and tugged the door open. A sheaf of photographs blew off the table; one caught in a gust and spiralled outside. ‘You’ll regret it. I know you will.’ His voice broke. ‘Get the fuck out.’ Jake slammed the door after him. Sadie pressed her back to the wall of the veranda and inched along to the end. Her side of the house was in darkness, but the porch light was on at the front. When she risked a quick look, Robbie was staring at the front door, his hands stiff by his side as if he couldn’t believe it was shut. His expression was one of pure misery. He hit his head with a fist, then turned away, climbed on the motorbike, and revved the engine. Exhaust fumes spluttered into the rain. ‘Fuck you, Jake,’ he shouted and roared off. Water splashed up around him as he weaved around the ruts at high speed. In the porch light, Sadie saw the sodden photograph lodged in the garden gate. It was a portrait of her and Robbie that Jake had taken the day of the party. Robbie was laughing, as if nothing was wrong. She pushed it in her pocket and ran down the track after him.
Val Jones Val Jones always intended to spend her retirement writing and is delighted to say that she is now addicted to writing flash fiction and to working on her second novel. Writing has not become her next job, but her next life. Before embarking on the MA at Bath Spa, she completed a Diploma in Creative Writing at Bristol University. One of the short stories she wrote on the course inspired her to write her present novel, The Rabbit Trainer. Caroline earns the title, the Rabbit Trainer, when, at the age of sixteen, she leaves her difficult home life and moves into a rambling house in Victoria Square which is converted into the School for Magicians. She is employed there, initially on a part-time basis, and breeds rabbits and doves, preparing them for use in illusions. With a new life and a new identity, Caroline grows. However, after falling in love with Julian, her employersâ€™ son, she has to leave. Julianâ€™s parents refuse to see her as anything other than an employee. Her life is further disrupted when her half-sister, Sarah, goes missing. The ensuing search means Caroline is reunited with the family she left behind. She is reconciled with her mother and discovers the reason her stepfather is hostile towards her. Julian joins them in the search. The story is told in limited third person from Carolineâ€™s point of view. Set against the backdrop of the delusional world of magic, The Rabbit Trainer explores deception and the potential for misunderstanding in human relationships. email@example.com
The Rabbit Trainer Leaving Victoria Square should have been an amazing and earthshattering event for both of them. But it wasn’t. It just sort of happened and there they were, in a place that was unfriendly somehow. Every crumb that strayed onto the worktop and every pair of dirty socks on the bedroom floor screamed to be dealt with immediately. They found themselves in a crazy perpetual motion of tidying and cleaning, as if they were afraid to offend each other with their clutter. Caroline made endless hot drinks. Their mantra became: would you like a coffee? or is it time for tea? She handed Julian his third coffee of the morning in a dark blue mug with a stylish swirling pattern in mauve and white around the rim. His hand was inches from hers, his mouth smiling up at her. She felt shy, not a feeling she was at all accustomed to. But it seemed harder to reach out and touch him now, amidst the new furniture and the sweet smell of freesias set on the table. ‘We’re like actors without a script,’ she said, wincing at the cliché. ‘We’re just, well, adjusting,’ he said. He sipped his coffee and went over to the window where he’d set up his computer. For the rest of the morning she saw his silhouette against the grey sky, the waving branches of a pine tree and the screen of his laptop. Perhaps he was writing their script. She sat on the cream leather sofa, put her feet on a matching foot stool and wondered if he would write them into a fairy-tale or the Gothic storyline that they would be more accustomed to. Caroline enters stage right – carrying a blue mug embossed with an intricate pattern. She hands it to Julian who is sitting on an ergonomic, high-backed, adjustable, executive chair typing something on his laptop. ‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘It’s no problem,’ she says. Caroline checks the elegant vintage mantle clock with roman numerals and calculates that she will need to boil the kettle again in precisely fiftyseven minutes. During the move from Victoria Square, because it was hasty and difficult, they left a great deal of stuff behind. Instead of working quickly and ignoring his mother’s cutting remarks, Julian got infuriated. He 123
left boxes of books and CDs on the landing and clothes and shoes in the wardrobe. In their strange, clinical surroundings, Caroline missed her things and worried about the rabbits. She slipped on her coat and walked the short distance to Victoria Square, not really intending to do anything more than pass by. But when she arrived, she found it easier than she’d expected to walk through the front gate and knock on the door. Inside a dog started barking. Caroline lifted the letterbox and listened, not quite believing her ears. Julian’s mother, May, opened the front door. She didn’t speak but she stood back and allowed Caroline to enter. There was something different about her. She’d changed in just a few weeks. It was difficult to define. It was as though she’d become hazy. Her hair needed washing and her skirt was creased. But the change had more to do with her face, which lacked the detachment and the foxy smile she often wore that made her seem like a worthy, confident opponent. ‘I need to fetch some of my things,’ Caroline said. ‘Feel free,’ May said. So, Caroline took her at her word. She found the keys to May’s van and started to load things inside. She had no idea she had so many clothes and she made a point of fetching some of Julian’s things too. Each time she walked past the sitting room a dog barked its concern. When she went into the garden, she was shocked at the state of the rabbit hutches. She quickly scooped out sodden bedding from each one and replaced it with dry, sweet-smelling hay. Then she filled food bowls and water bottles. Before she left, she knocked on the living room door and waited. The only reply was frenzied barking. She turned the handle and opened the door. A puppy sat on the Afghan rug looking at her. His fur was the colour of the caramel fudge she’d eaten in vast quantities during her summer at the seaside. His tail, a spindly excuse, wagged languidly. When she crossed the room to let him sniff her hand, he peed on the rug. ‘Silly boy,’ she said and she picked him up and looked at his ID tag. ‘Murphy, what a great name. Hello Murphy.’ When May came into the room, Caroline still had the puppy in her 124
arms. The wet patch had soaked deep into the complex asymmetrical pattern of the rug. ‘John bought him for me. He said he’d be good company, but he’s a bloody nuisance,’ May said. ‘He’s just a baby.’ ‘He’s noisy, incontinent and stupid.’ ‘He just needs time and attention.’ There was a bad moment or two, in which it seemed that May might stare at her forever. She stood in the doorway, one hand still on the handle, eyes expressionless. Her legs emerging from her skirt were as thin as toothpicks, and her leather shoes looked very large and heavy. When Caroline returned to the flat and parked on the hard standing at the side of the house, she revved the engine of the old van in triumph. She left Murphy in his basket on the passenger seat and proceeded to unload the things from the back. She dumped Julian’s coat onto one of the dining room chairs and placed his favourite navy yachting shoes on the floor. She covered the table with sundry items, including her old paperback novel, and precisely thirty-eight minutes later than she’d planned, she put the kettle on for their next cup of something hot. Julian was lost in cyberspace so she placed his mug onto the desk, carefully centring it on a coaster, to save him the bother of moving it again. She could hear Murphy barking, so went down to fetch him. ‘Your mother sent a present,’ she said. Julian was looking at a website that explained how to do close-up magic. ‘Even I haven’t heard of some of these tricks,’ he said. Murphy barked again and Julian spun around on his pale leather chair. ‘Christ, who are you?’ he said. Caroline put Murphy on the floor and he wobbled like a toddler as he cautiously walked towards Julian. Now that the flat was cluttered with clothes, Julian’s books and magazines, boxes of insignificant stuff and a demanding puppy, it took on some vestiges of homeliness. Julian sat for the next hour or so 125
playing with Murphy and occasionally fretting about the information available on the net. Even complex illusions were explained, and Julian claimed that this made any plans for more Saturday schools or residential courses pointless. Caroline didn’t agree. She felt there would always be a place for a school or training centre, where people could practise and work with professionals. But she didn’t say so. Instead she drove back to Victoria Square to return the van and harboured a vague hope that she would be invited in again. Perhaps, even now, May might have a change of heart. The van keys could have been posted through the letterbox, or even left in the ignition, because no one would steal such a wreck. But instead, Caroline knocked on the door. May appeared at the window and after a struggle with the catch managed to get it open. ‘Here are the keys,’ Caroline said. ‘You can keep the van. We won’t have any use for it now.’ May’s light blue eyes were watery and she bit her lower lip, as if she was trying to stop herself from saying anything more. ‘Thanks,’ Caroline said ‘and if it’s okay, I’ll come back later for the rabbits and pop in from time to time to pick up our post.’ May waved her hand and didn’t attempt to speak again. Back at the flat, Caroline fetched her laptop. She checked her emails and Facebook, and looked at Sarah’s profile for the umpteenth time. Sarah Ann Bailey, born Bristol 1984, attended Ashton School. In her profile picture she wore a purple top and looked slimmer than Caroline remembered. It was one of those makeover photos, where they get you all dolled up and the finished thing is like looking through gauze, with everything softened. Clear skin, dewy makeup, hair dyed, conditioned and straightened, was this how Sarah wanted the world to see her? Had Caroline been surrounded by insecure people and not realised? Had she been too wrapped up in her own insecurities to notice? She pulled the laptop towards her, lifted it and kissed the part of the screen where Sarah’s face looked out at her. ‘Where the hell are you?’ she said. She looked at Sarah’s online friends. There were an awful lot. It was typical of Sarah. She found it easy to socialise in the virtual world. 126
Finally, she went to the website she had set up for The School for Magicians. It was informative, but dull. It needed colour and photographs. She should pepper the website with pictures of the rabbits; Cotton peering over the brim of a top hat, and Jessica Rabbit appearing from a mirror box. Then change the address so they could run the school from the flat. They may not get so many students now due to the recession, but that was fine because they didn’t have the room anyway. All of this occurred to her in a flash, as if now she knew she wouldn’t be going back to Victoria Square, she was able to think about going forward. But before she did anything else, she knew she had to rescue the rabbits. So she coaxed Julian away from his comfortable chair and they spent the rest of the day moving hutches from Victoria Square into their own small garden.
Linda Keech Linda Keech is a midwife, living and working in north Lincolnshire. She has a BA in English Literature and in 2011 was short-listed for the Posara Prize for a travel writing piece entitled The Procession. She has had a lifelong fascination with the local steelworks and a deep affection for the surrounding countryside, both of which feature strongly in her novel Stealing the Sun. Linda also writes a blog at 500random.blogspot.com. When Louise starts to feel odd sensations in her hands and feet she puts it down to cycling hard in time trials. But the numbness she feels heralds something much worse and her life begins to change in ways that she refuses to come to terms with. Her boyfriend Paul supports Louise as best he can, but he feels helpless as her symptoms worsen. Paul works at the steelworks, where threatened cutbacks put the menâ€™s lives at risk and eventually lead to a major accident. Theo, a charismatic Greek surgeon, joins Louiseâ€™s cycling club and she struggles with her growing attraction towards him. Their relationship deepens and when Louise is finally diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, she abandons her moral values and embarks upon a disastrous affair which has far-reaching consequences. Stealing the Sun explores perceptions about identity, values and mortality and how those perceptions can be redefined by profound physiological change. firstname.lastname@example.org
Stealing the Sun The rain has stopped, at least for now. Grey curtains that shut away the sky for most of the day begin to drift apart, revealing a narrow gap of blue. Louise yawns. Her body still aches from cleaning the greenhouse windows at work, at rubbing away cobwebs and the sticky smears from honey-dewed aphids that have been sneaking their fat bellies over the grapevines this summer. Instinctively her fingers brush against the phone in her pocket, as they have done all day, alert to the vibration that might have toppled her, had Theo texted while she was working. Now, in the early evening light, she considers the slug damage in her garden as she walks down the path next to the flower border and on towards the little fruit and vegetable plot at the far end. She stops. ‘Oh my poor Nicotiana, look at you.’ Louise bends to stroke the broad soft leaves of the tobacco plant. Rain-soaked and dejected, its lower leaves have been redesigned into jigsaw shapes by the mouths of insatiable gastropods. ‘Don’t you worry,’ she whispers. She raises her fingers up to touch the slender white flowers that hang, like tiny waxen ear trumpets, from the green stems. ‘I’ll get them.’ Louise scowls down at the ground, as if a slug might be parading there in full view, unaware of her wrath. She will make her search tonight, under cover of darkness, seeking them out, torch in hand, as they begin their nocturnal advance. There are weeds too in her garden, pushing up through the moist ground, battling with her flowers, overtaking the neat borders. She has been too tired lately to take care of these things. Perhaps it is all the cycling with Theo as well as with the club. A buzz from her phone disturbs her and her heart thumps against her chest with the knowing of who it might be. Her thoughts are torn apart now whenever Theo texts. These texts that are no longer just about cycling but have become a steady insistent presence, as if he is checking that she is still there. She reads the message. Hi how are u :) She wants to answer, wants to smile her hello through the words 129
she will type into her phone, but the garden also needs her attention. A flutter of anxiety lands on her brow, then flies away again. Hello. Gardening Her fingers flicker over the phone’s keypad. She pauses, then quickly types: How are u? x She wavers over the inclusion of the small ‘x’. Then presses send, immediately wishing she hadn’t. Is the kiss too much? But it’s normal, surely? That’s what friends do. One kiss means nothing. A vibration. She cannot resist and looks at the next text. At work. Quiet this evening. Wish I was cycling with u Louise stares at the message. She cradles the phone in her hand, then holds it against her stomach. Her breathing quickens. She cannot think of the weeds in her garden now, has forgotten even, what she is doing here. There is a crunch on the gravel path. Louise startles, turns quickly. ‘Oh!’ She smiles. ‘Hello Mum.’ Mrs Miller looks at her daughter, her eyes full of knowing. ‘You forgot I was coming, didn’t you?’ she says. ‘Oh Mum, sorry.’ Louise stutters out the words, her hand in her pocket now, clasping the phone. ‘I’ve just been so busy.’ She watches as her mum assesses the garden, guessing that she will have already seen the thistles that have marched over the soil, bullying their spiny leaves between the lupins and the lavender. ‘Louise, this garden’s looking a bit of a mess. It’s not like you.’ ‘I know.’ Louise looks up at the departing clouds. ‘It’s all this bad weather,’ she says. ‘I’ve not had a chance.’ ‘You’ve still been out cycling, though.’ Her mum raises an eyebrow. ‘I can cycle in the rain you know.’ She feels her mother’s eyes boring into hers like death watch beetles. ‘Paul was round the other day,’ her mum says, pulling her cardigan tight around her shoulders. ‘He brought me some lovely Danish pastries. He said he’d made some for you a few weeks ago. They were very nice, Louise. He’s a very clever man.’ Louise winces. Paul’s closeness to her mother sometimes surprises 130
her, but then his own mother never pays him much attention, always preferring his younger brother, Adrian. Still, he could have told her. ‘He never said.’ ‘You were out on your bike, Lou.’ Both women are silent. A mushroomy smell of wet soil hangs in the air. A leaf unfolds, breaks free from the foliage around it with a small snap. Louise’s mouth feels dry. ‘I could do with a cup of tea. Want one?’ she says. ‘That’s a good idea,’ Mrs Miller says. ‘Then afterwards we can come back outside and do some weeding together.’ She smiles at Louise then stretches her arms out. Louise falls into her mother’s hug and buries her face into her shoulder. She feels like a little girl again, wants to tell her everything. But what, exactly? That she is cycling with a man from the club? That they text each other every day? That’s all it is. Louise makes herself believe this, and the effort of it makes her tremble. ‘Lou-Lou, what’s wrong, love?’ ‘Nothing, Mum.’ Louise gathers up her lost energy as best as she can. ‘I’m just tired, that’s all.’ Mrs Miller looks at her daughter. ‘You are looking a bit peaky.’ She strokes Louise’s hair. ‘Is your eye all right now?’ ‘Yeah, that went ages ago.’ Mrs Miller releases her daughter from her hug and they start to walk back to the house. ‘Did they say what caused it?’ ‘Oh!’ A thought taps against her head. ‘I was supposed to go back to see the doctor. I forgot.’ ‘Well, if it’s all right now …’ her mother says. She places a hand on Louise’s arm. ‘Still. It might be a good idea to see him, don’t you think?’ ‘Yes, I will.’ She doesn’t want to think about this anymore. ‘Anyway, tell me about Dad. Didn’t you say he’s started doing a family tree or something?’ Her mum laughs. ‘Oh yes,’ she says. ‘Let’s get the kettle on and I’ll tell you. Honestly, Lou, your dad’s becoming obsessed.’ Louise picks up a few weeds from the gravel. They form a punctuated trail where they have spilled from the overstuffed carrier bags her mother took to the wheelie bin as she left. She smiles at the thought 131
of Dad finding a long-forgotten great uncle stationed in India in the days of the Raj. He’ll be showing off to his workmates now. It is another hour before Paul is home. She could do more weeding but a deep exhaustion floods her body. She drops the weeds into the bin and goes inside the house, into the living room and turns the television on. A programme about the British coastline is just beginning. Louise falls onto the sofa, and watches as images of a lighthouse, then a busy fishing port, sail across the screen. Her body feels weighed down and her eyelids feel as if they are being pressed upon by invisible fingers. Why am I so tired? There is a strange sensation over her scalp, as if she is wearing a cycling helmet that is pulled too far forward and is pressing down into her brow. Absently she raises a hand, pats at her head, feeling only soft hair. She thinks about the text Theo sent her earlier. It’s nothing, she tells herself. He just means he would rather be cycling than be at work. Happy with her explanation, she shuffles into the sofa, feels soft cushions against her back and shoulders and lets her thoughts drift. A screech of laughter rings harsh inside Louise’s head. She startles, snaps her head forward, feels her tongue catch as she takes a quick breath in. Eyes wide, she stares in front of her, not sure where she is. A thin thread of dribble has escaped from the side of her mouth and trickles onto her chin. The television screen is flashing out images of dark trees, jungle, hooting monkeys. What time is it? She reaches for the remote control and notices her hand is tingling. It feels big and clammy. The tingling spreads up into her arm, her shoulder. She moves her hand, shakes it, wriggles her fingers but her whole arm seems to be buzzing, the same way that it does when she uses the electric hedge trimmers. I must have been asleep. Must have leant funny on it. She moves her other hand up to her face to wipe away the drool and notices that her lip is tingling, that her tongue is fat and fuzzy. She pushes her tongue around her mouth. It moves like normal. She touches her lip with it. Fuzzy. Her head is foggy as she struggles to wake herself out of this dream. The television flashes and shouts. The 132
room crowds at her, pushing into her mind in a series of disconnected images. Her hand is whirring and buzzing into numbness now and she tries to pick up her phone, but her fingers feel like they belong to a giant’s hand, clumsy and inaccurate. Her mind begins to empty and Louise can hear the buzzing inside her head becoming louder and louder. Her chest tightens. Breathe, Louise, breathe. Louise takes a deep breath in, feels it racing down her throat into her lungs. She feels her chest pushing out. She sits completely still, counts a breath in, counts a breath out. She focuses only on this, hoping that it will stop the blackness threatening to swamp her brain. The slow in and out of her breathing calms her, lets words crawl into her head again. What is happening to me? There is a noise in the hall, the front door catching on the mat. Louise feels her breath quivering now, feels her lip start to tremble. She tries hard to stop a swell of tears from brimming onto her cheeks. ‘I’m home!’ Paul’s voice sings from the hallway. Louise hears the words, turns her head and stares, unblinking, as he walks into the living room. ‘Bloody hell, Louise.’ Paul stops for a moment in the doorway, as if he is playing a game of statues, then he rushes into the room, kneels on the floor in front of her and clasps both of her hands in his. ‘What’s happened?’ he says. ‘Lou, what is it? You look terrible.’ Louise daren’t speak, scared that her words will stumble from her mouth, falling over her thick clumsy tongue in a mess of slurring saliva. Paul squeezes her hands. ‘Lou, for fuck’s sake. Talk to me.’ Louise sees the fear creeping into his eyes, knows she has to say something. She unwinds her good hand from his grasp and puts it up to her face. ‘I can’t feel it, Paul,’ she says. ‘It’s gone funny.’ She is scared to say ‘numb’. Yet she has been able to speak the words normally. She touches her dead hand. It feels like it’s not a part of her. She looks at Paul then at her hand again. ‘It’s all fuzzy,’ is all she can say. ‘Right, Lou, that’s it. I’m taking you to the hospital.’ 133
‘No!’ Louise says. Right now this could still be a dream, she could blink and it will go away, and it will be just as if she has fallen asleep and deadened her arm, and they will laugh and cuddle and Paul will ruffle her hair and kiss her nose and she will blush at her silliness. ‘I’m scared.’ Paul leans towards her, folds his arms around her body and rocks her gently. ‘You’ll be all right, Lou,’ he says. ‘I promise.’
Ruth Larrea Ruth Larrea studied English at Newcastle University before teaching briefly in an inner-city comprehensive. She escaped to do an MA, travelled and explored alternative lifestyles, including an attempt at self-sufficiency with pigs, goats and fields of crops. During this time she wrote and illustrated leaflets for the National Trust and other conservation organisations. After a short stint as a library assistant she taught ESOL to fascinating people from all over the world, before leaving to concentrate on writing her novel, The Third Sister. She is interested in other cultures and languages and has recently moved to Spain, where she blogs about adapting to life abroad: ruthlarrea. wordpress.com. In her native Australia, Ellie is shocked to learn of her father’s death. She realises how little she knows about him or his past and decides to visit his family in England to find out more. Before leaving she meets the enigmatic Josh. Still fragile from the break-up of a previous relationship, Ellie is challenged by his beliefs and in denial about her feelings for him. Once in England Ellie uncovers a dark secret from her father’s childhood which takes her on a quest for the truth spanning two continents and three generations. It forces her to confront the choices in her own life, and come to terms with her fractured identity. Ellie’s journey alternates with the story of her grandparents’ turbulent married life, highlighting themes of human frailty and the impact of the past on the present. email@example.com
The Third Sister New South Wales, 2006 From the distance comes a rumble of thunder. The sky is white with cloud. The wind has dropped, the lagoon is silver, trembling. The cicadas have fallen silent. I stand in the boat, my grip tight around the fishing rod, and look west. The feathery trees stir gently. They fringe the shore of the lagoon, their roots in the shallow sandy banks. ‘Better get back,’ I say and reel in the line. Nicole looks up from her mobile. ‘Need some help?’ We pull in the anchor and I rip the cord on the outboard motor. ‘So we’ll go in June,’ I say above the noise of the engine. ‘Right on. Once my conference is over we’ll hit Europe. You’ll love it, Ellie.’ ‘A couple of days with my aunts first, so I can find out about Dad and all that, if it’s okay with you.’ Nicole shrugs and flips her mobile shut. ‘Sounds cool. I’ve been to London a million times. Where do they live?’ ‘One’s in Somerset, wherever that is. And I’d like to see some of the places where he grew up. Canterbury, especially.’ ‘Is that near London?’ I laugh. ‘Everything’s near London. As Dad used to say, it’s a small country.’ We reach the shore and pull the dinghy up the gently shelving silt. Spots of rain start to fall; fat drops that disappear as soon as they hit the path. ‘Let’s get inside.’ I head along the bank and up towards the picket fence that marks the boundary of home. It’s strange coming back here to live after years of independence, rooming with girlfriends, shacking up with Greg. Now that I’ve handed in my notice at the museum it makes sense financially, but both my mother and I know it’s really for her, to keep her company now she’s alone. The storm has broken around us: crackles of electricity, huge crashes of thunder and a torrential downpour. It’s early afternoon but the sky is so dark that my mother’s switched on the lights. She looks up from her book. ‘I’m glad to see you two. I was 137
getting anxious.’ ‘We’re heading over to Manly.’ I hesitate. ‘You want to come?’ ‘I said I’d go to Karen’s and baby-sit while they go to the mall.’ ‘Sure? You could bring him, too.’ She shakes her head. ‘You know how your sister is about routines.’ When I get home from Manly the clouds have rolled away to the west and the air has cleared. Nicole’s gone off with some bloke she chatted up on the wharf and the rest of the gang have stayed on to get tanked. I think of the guys hanging around with hunger in their eyes as they look for a spark that might ignite. That’s not what I want. Right now or never, I’m not sure which. The house is empty and its silence settles around me. Nothing much has changed since my childhood. The screen door to the veranda squeaks as it always did. The walls painted pale green, the patchwork cushions, the picture of the farm where my mother was raised. At least they’ve replaced the lino and put a glass shower door where there used to be a plastic curtain. When I was a kid the rain bounced off the tin roof and we had to leave buckets to collect the drips, until they could afford to tile it. On the sideboard is my new biometric British passport, maroon with the gold crest, still strangely unreal as if I’m faking my identity. I flick through the pages with their delicate renderings of birds in muted blues, mauves and turquoise. Inside are my name, date and place of birth, and a colour photo. The grey eyes staring full on at the camera give me a startled look; the face is sunburnt and the dark hair, still tangled from the beach, as wild as a gypsy’s. ‘Think the Poms will let you in?’ Butch joked when he saw it. Dual nationality. What a strange concept. Like turning over a coin and realising the other side is different. South London, 1935 Jack was so absorbed in writing his sermon that the noise didn’t register at first. The sins of the fathers will be visited on their children was a beastly text to have to preach from and he was pretty sure that was why old Denham had passed it his way. He struck his pen through the words he had written and ground his teeth in frustration. How 138
to put across the message that our actions have consequences and at the same time reassure his congregation that we can trust in a loving and forgiving God? If he overemphasised the fearful implications of sin he risked frightening the vulnerable, but if he made redemption sound too easily achievable, certain rascals who thought an occasional appearance on a Sunday was a good insurance policy would go away with their consciences unruffled. The window of his study was open to let in the fresh spring air and a wailing sound reached him on the breeze. He was accustomed to hearing the occasional squeals of animals from the abattoir. But slaughtering took place on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and sermonwriting day was Saturday. As he glanced at the calendar on his desk, a shriek of blood-curdling proportions came from the room above his head. He leapt up, his senses alert. Silence. The breeze lifted the curtain, swelling and sucking it flat. From beyond the window came the hoot of a train followed by a rhythmic rattling as it passed through the valley. He realised he was still clutching his pen and his fingers were stained with ink. Upstairs the floorboards creaked and he could hear voices. A low moan; Lillian’s shrieking; renewed wailing. He tossed the pen onto his desk; he would have to see her even if Mother-in-law Cullen and the midwife had forbidden him. How could they expect him to keep away while his wife was crying with pain? For heaven’s sake, women died in childbirth, didn’t they? He ran his fingers across his forehead, wiped them on his sleeve and paced back and forth across the room. ‘You’ve done your bit. This is women’s work,’ the midwife had told him. ‘If we need more water or towels we’ll let you know. Otherwise please keep out of our way.’ It had been bad enough to endure the months of pregnancy, to see his adorable wife wracked with nausea and swollen with hypertension, without being banished from her presence. As her belly grew so his pleasures had dwindled. Gone were the nights of passion, the tender caresses of early morning. When Mrs Cullen arrived, his domestic bliss was upturned in an earthquake of activity. She banished Jack to the guest room, installed herself on a camp bed next 139
to Lillian and took over the running of the house. Meals were served promptly and eaten in silence. Last night he was allowed to take a bowl of thin gruel to where Lillian lay in bed reading and resting until the labour pains began. He gave her a kiss and breathed in the warm, citrusy smell of her skin. ‘Not long now,’ she smiled at him. Pregnancy had made her face more beautiful than ever, filled out her cheeks and given them a rosy bloom. ‘Thank goodness.’ He slipped his hand under the sheet and rested it on her belly. Between them they had produced a new life, at once wonderful and terrifying. Mrs Cullen appeared, brandishing a thermometer. He withdrew his hand, kissed Lillian and took her empty bowl. That night he slept surprisingly well and woke to the sound of women’s voices. Business-like. Efficient. Enough to send a man packing. As he went downstairs in the morning, his mother-in-law appeared on the landing, the sleeves of her blouse folded up to the elbow. ‘Her waters broke during the night. We thought it best not to disturb you. The midwife is with her.’ That was hours ago. At least, it seemed like hours. Labouring over what to preach was almost worse than the labour that was going on overhead. No, that was an ignoble thought. There could be no comparison. A shriek from above shrilled through him. He ran to the hall and bounded up the stairs. The bedroom door was ajar and he could see Mrs Cullen’s back and the midwife thrusting apart Lillian’s thighs. The sheet was red with blood. Dear Lord, let it not be true. She was bleeding to death. He drew nearer and saw Lillian’s face white and shiny with perspiration, her hands gripping the bars of the bedstead, her face contorted with pain. ‘Push,’ the midwife said. ‘I’m pushing! I’m bloody pushing!’ The sound of a blasphemy on his wife’s lips arrested him, whether with shock or admiration he was not sure. 140
Mrs Cullen turned and waved one hand imperiously. ‘Out!’ Blood covered the midwife’s forearms. Between her hands was something dark and slimy. ‘Get some more hot water,’ she told him. ‘Quick.’ He sped down to the kitchen, convinced that he would never see his wife alive again. God was punishing him for his past sins. A trickle of self-pity made him stop: he had repented and mended his ways but if someone had to die it should be him, not Lillian. The thought that he would sacrifice his very life for her gave him new courage. The kettle took an age to heat. He lit a cigarette and paced around the kitchen, trying to make sense of the sounds that reached him from upstairs. More cries from Lillian. The midwife barking commands. ‘Chin to chest and push!’ ‘Bite on this!’ Mrs Cullen’s voice, soft but severe. Silence. An awful silence that lasted an eternity. He could bear it no longer. The water was only beginning to sing but he seized the kettle and ran upstairs. As he reached the landing, he heard a yelp from the bedroom. It sounded like a fox cub, or a puppy when you accidentally trod on its foot. He threw open the door, expecting to see Lillian breathing her last gasps. ‘Hello,’ she said with a smile. It was a weak smile and her hair was damp and tangled, but she sat propped up on the pillows and in her arms was a bundle, a white bundle with a small brown head. ‘You have a daughter,’ the midwife said. ‘Congratulations. A fine little girl, seven pounds two ounces.’ Mrs Cullen raised her eyebrows as if to say, ‘a fat lot a man has done that deserves congratulation’. But her chest was puffed with pride. He drew up the chair and sat beside Lillian. ‘Are you all right? I was terribly worried.’ ‘Here.’ She held out the bundle. ‘Hold her. Go on.’ She laughed at his awkwardness but a spasm of pain passed over her face and she clutched her stomach. ‘What’s wrong?’ If this tiny creature had hurt her then he would happily crush it. 141
‘It’s nothing. Go on, take her. She’s yours – ours – our first. Isn’t she gorgeous?’ Our first? Was she mad? Could she bear even to think of putting him through this again? He stared at the tiny face. It looked for all the world like a plum that had fallen from the tree and been left to shrivel. Tufts of damp hair sprouted from its head. Its eyes were a milky blue, and its little mouth opened in a circle. The fingers of its hands were as slender as skinned shrimps and the nails as tiny as the petals that fall from the hawthorn blossom. He reached out his thumb and the fingers curled around it. She was warm. She was soft. She was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Adrian John Markle Adrian Markle was born and raised in Canada where he did his undergraduate degree in Creative Writing and English at the University of Victoria. The following year, he moved to the UK for the Bath Spa University MA in Creative Writing. He has worked as a freelance arts reviewer and a professional card player. Run-Off Season is his first novel. Introverted eighteen-year-old Cam Adler travels twelve hundred miles to take part in an esoteric burial for his estranged father. The questions he returns with threaten his fragile family dynamic and send him searching for an understanding of the type of man his father was and what that means for the type of man he himself will become. Set in Vancouver and various North American west coast locations, Run-Off Season is a personal, yet darkly absurd story that explores crises of identity and legacy and searches for a deeper understanding of the relationship between the things that we build and the things that build us. The extract comes from the opening of the novel, where Cam struggles with his own emotional state during the first of many instances in which the bizarre world shows its complete indifference to his desires and expectations. firstname.lastname@example.org
Run-Off Season A kid leaned against the red brick wall near the open back door of Lamplight Cleaners. He was a year or two younger than Cam, sixteen or seventeen. Cam might have had six inches on him, but the kid certainly had more weight. He had shoulder-length blond dreadlocks that fell over his broad shoulders, a nose and chin that looked like they struggled to meet, and clothes that were too big and too old for him. The kid appraised him as he pulled a long drag from the crooked joint he pinched between his fingers. He extended it, but Cam shook his head. ‘No thanks. Can’t.’ He was angry that this is what had kept him waiting, but still regretted having to decline. He’d have loved to be able to relax, to be more comfortable in the conversations he knew were coming, but he couldn’t risk anyone smelling it. He didn’t exactly have time to stand around, either. The kid nodded, butted out against the wall of the shop, and dropped the remains in the pocket of his baggy Cowichan sweater. ‘Well, okay then.’ He exhaled as he spoke and the words mixed with the smoke and spun in the space between them. He stepped in through the door and looked back to where Cam stood statue-still with eyes red and breath hot. ‘You need something, man?’ the kid asked. ‘Yes. I need something. That’s why I’m here, at a damn dry cleaner’s twenty minutes after it was supposed to have opened. I need to pick up a suit.’ He struggled to keep an even tone despite feeling his chest fill with a comforting righteousness. ‘It’s important.’ ‘For sure. All of our customers are important. Come on in and we’ll get you all sorted out.’ Cam stepped forward, but the kid blocked him with his outstretched hand. ‘Whoa. Can’t come in this way. Wouldn’t be professional. You’ve got to come in through the front.’ He jerked his thumb toward the front of the store then shut the door in Cam’s face. He didn’t usually swear. Kris did enough of that for the both of them. But when he reached the front door and yanked with all the morning’s frustration and his wrist flared sharp when the door stayed stuck, he swore, and he swore loudly. 145
Adrian John Markle
‘Good morning and welcome to Lamplight Cleaners,’ the kid said, when he finally let him in. ‘What can I help you with?’ ‘I’m here to pick up a suit,’ Cam said, pushing past him. ‘It’s for Adler.’ ‘Sure. For sure, man. Just slide me that ticket and I’ll get you all taken care of.’ Cam tensed. ‘I don’t actually have a ticket. I wasn’t given one. I wasn’t charged. The woman that works here, the older one with the curly hair …’ ‘Maria.’ ‘Yeah, Maria. She told me no charge. She said to just come and get it,’ he said. The kid wrinkled his blond brow and snorted and Cam searched for some way to prove his story. He pulled out his driving licence and placed it on the counter. Cameron Adler, eighteen. Brown eyes. Brown hair, which he’d tried to grow to look more like Bob Dylan’s. It didn’t reflect the ten centimetres he’d grown in the last year, but he doubted the kid would notice. ‘See, that’s me.’ It wasn’t exactly proof, but if he were some kind of criminal he wouldn’t be going around and showing everyone his driving licence. The kid beat his fingers on the countertop, one two three four, one two three four, and appraised the licence. ‘I’m sorry man; I really can’t give you anything without a ticket. You’ll have to talk to Maria.’ ‘I did talk to Maria.’ He understood it was weird, him coming in for an old suit with no ticket. Even he’d been surprised when she’d told him there would be no charge. She and Paul had apparently had some kind of an arrangement. He didn’t know that Paul had ever come in here, but it made sense. It was close to home. He didn’t even know why he’d told her why he needed it; he’d just blurted it out and she’d smiled a sad smile. ‘I did talk to Maria,’ he repeated, ‘and she told me I didn’t need a ticket. She told me to just come in and ask for it.’ He placed his hands flat on the counter and leaned forward. ‘So here I am. I’ve come in. And I’m asking for it.’ The kid sucked his teeth and swayed his head from side to side. Cam clenched his jaw at the kid’s lack of urgency and the lingering skunk smell of the weed from which he had to abstain. ‘Sorry man,’ the kid said. ‘I can’t give anything away without a 146
ticket. You’ll have to wait for Maria to come in. Usually around noon.’ ‘I don’t have until noon,’ Cam yelled. ‘I need it now,’ he said, calmer. ‘Call her.’ The kid, who seemed unfazed by the volume, shook his head. ‘I can’t. She’ll be asleep another few hours and I don’t wake her up unless something’s on fire.’ ‘How do you know she’s not awake? She could be. It’s a nice day,’ Cam said. He waved his hand toward the window as evidence, though they both knew it was still miserably cold for late spring, despite the bright morning sun. ‘She’s not. She works nights. Cleaning.’ ‘Listen.’ Cam closed his eyes and breathed through his nose. ‘This is important. My dad died in a car crash last week in California. It’s his memorial this morning. I don’t have time to wait for Maria. That suit is the only thing I got ready. It’s his. I found it and it fits me now.’ He hated having to use it as an excuse. He didn’t know exactly what he thought about Paul’s death. He didn’t actually know what he thought of the man at all. And he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with those feelings when he understood them, but he doubted it was to use them as leverage. He felt the slow sinking in his chest he normally felt when he lied, and it felt worse because it was the truth. As they stood in the silence that followed his plea, Cam looked over the rows of plastic wrapped suits. Right at the front, separated by a few inches from everything else on the rack: the dark pinstripe, pressed and ready. Maria might have forgotten to mention it, but she hadn’t forgotten to clean it. There was hope. ‘That’s it right there.’ Cam pointed. ‘I understand that you’ve got a job to do and I’d normally never ask, but you have to understand these are special circumstances.’ The kid looked back and forth between the pinstripes and Cam, his face softening. It could still all work out. The kid was on the edge now; Cam just had to give him a push. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. How would you feel if it was your dad?’ The kid’s face hardened instantly. Cam knew he’d said something wrong before he even got his reply. ‘No,’ the kid said, his voice like stone. ‘Sorry. No. Nothing I can do. You’ll have to come back later. This is honest money and I’m not 147
Adrian John Markle
going to mess that up by giving away clothes without tickets. Not for nothing.’ Cam didn’t know what had changed, but he knew he wouldn’t get any further. The kid looked down at a pile of loose papers on the counter by the register, shuffled them around, sucked his teeth, and pretended Cam wasn’t there. The suit hung only a few feet away, but it may as well have been miles. ‘Just call her,’ he said, but the kid didn’t acknowledge him. Cam stepped back from the counter and dropped on to one of the blue plastic chairs lined up against the wall. He’d been so close, he could tell, but he’d done something. He’d ruined it. He’d never been very good at talking in general, let alone talking people into things. It always worked in movies, the hard sell, but never when he tried it. He’d watched Glengarry Glen Ross for the first time when he was seven. His mom had been in the workshop with an overdue project. He thought he’d help provide motivation. He’d walked into the workshop and poured her tea into a pile of sawdust and said, ‘Coffee is for closers’. She’d grounded him and made a new cup of tea. The suit … he, personally, didn’t care what he wore. He didn’t even care if he went. But his mom, somehow she still cared, and that’s what funerals were about, after all: other people. The family organizes the event for the friends, the friends come to support the family. They expect things of one another. The dead don’t care. He thought of a room of half-strangers staring when he arrived in jeans and felt panic settling in, the familiar cold pressure at the top of his lungs. He put his hand on his chest, placing pressure like he’d been taught to do with bad cuts. He looked back at the kid who still pointedly shuffled papers. He might not be able to get what he came for, but he’d get something. ‘Hey,’ he started, weak-voiced. ‘No,’ the kid said. ‘Any more of that weed? I’ve got money.’ He shoved his hand into his pocket and came out with a few wrinkled twenties. He couldn’t stop himself from making a mess of the morning, but he could stop himself from caring. 148
The kid nodded, slowly. Cam got up and walked towards the counter, but was met again by the outstretched hand and a lazy jerk of the thumb. ‘Out back,’ the kid said. ‘Can’t do it here. That’s unprofessional.’ Cam was waiting at the back of the shop when the door swung wide and the kid stepped out. He already had the old butt in his mouth and he lit it the second his foot crossed the threshold. He inhaled and passed it over to Cam, who took a drag and tried not to cough. The kid pulled a sandwich bag of joints from his sweater pocket. ‘Five each.’ Cam bought two and slipped them in his jeans, and he and the kid passed the old joint back and forth in silence in the cold morning wind that blew in off the Salish Sea. Everyone else said Georgia Strait, but he liked the way Salish Sea made the world sound bigger. He looked across English Bay to where the snow cap still clung to the top of Cypress Mountain, and shivered. He looked at the kid whose jeans were rolled up three to four times at the cuff but still dragged across the ground, and he looked in through the open back door of the cleaner’s where the plastic that wrapped the suits flapped and fluttered in the breeze. He inhaled slowly and had a thought, one that any other day he would have dismissed, but between his desperate tension and new calm felt perfect for the moment. He held out the joint, but just before their fingers touched he let go and watched it tumble down to the concrete. The kid regarded him with an expression that surprised him in its familiarity, one that said I’m just disappointed, one that he had seen plenty of times but certainly hadn’t expected then. The kid bent down to pick up the still-smouldering smoke. His dreads swung low and swayed shadows across the stone that made Cam think of wind chimes. Cam placed a hand on the kid’s shoulder, and braced his feet against the coarse earth, and shoved.
Simon McCormack Simon was featured as Showcase poet in Magma Poetry 54, and has work appearing in Poetry Review. Other credits include the Independent Bath Literature Festival 2012 and Cyprus Well Writer Bites. Simon works as a part-time lecturer at Bath Spa University and runs creative-writing workshops with a number of organisations. He lives in Bournemouth. The poems here are taken from his first collection, A Vanishing Point, which centres on mental-health problems and addiction within the family. email@example.com
Something About Letting Go I’m shouting for you, Dad, from the top of the stairs. I’ve never called you before. I’m Not Tired! You let me fall asleep & later, gather me up, put me to bed where I dream of cliff fishing in Donegal – legs dangling over a black drop, and only Ryan gets a bite: a crab. It slips the hook, spins into the swell of a ball game where we practise control. You are showing me the importance of using both feet. We dance; left, right, open-the-gate, one-touch, against the wall that leads us to the Giant’s Causeway, and later, the arcades. I keep sneaking off to spend 10p's on What the Butler Saw and can’t believe my luck, but I believe my eyes, stuck like gum on the pavement that slips under the ribbon-thin wheel of my racer. I am finding my balance – at some point you let go of the saddle.
Go Tell It to the Birds ‘When you say paranoid – what do you mean? Exactly?’ He picks up a biro to make notes. Tell him. Tell about night-time marches into the concrete. Tell about the weeping woman on the train and her reflection in the big, rectangle windows. Tell about covering mirrors in net curtain. Tell about obsessions with numbers. Tell about the music. Tell about the numbers and music. Tell. Tell him you will shine such a light. Tell him about the palimpsest star: the movie; the mini-series; the soap opera; the adverts. Tell about the spotlight, the snare, the trip, splash, trip, splash, trip, splash. Tell him. Tell about insight, loss of outline, blackout. Tell him this is not you. Tell about the foot going down wrong, the walking, tell about the walking and the foot going down wrong. Getting stared at in the street. ‘What I mean,’ he says, ‘is if you see a red ball rolling towards you, down the street say, do you think it’s meant for you?’
The Bird Lady I see the open door. She didn’t close it in her fluttering to hide. I pick up an envelope and walk in, flapping it at arm’s length: a white flag to a skinny old bird, a big-mouth handbag in her lap. A yellow-paper-bird; parchment old; opened and folded so often that habit erodes the message, leaves floral print on wasted tits, a caved-in chin that hinges loose to show a hole with headstone tooth, ‘I’ve been waiting on you,’ she says. From her gullet the idiot tongue flaps, foetal and blind. It dabs and dots about the stone, featherless, keening for the return of loved ones. I empty her purse on the floor. – Shut up. Shut your mouth. Stop crying right now –
A Vanishing Point The butter, left on the side, melted last night reconstituting as salt, fat and impurities separated in a silver butter-dish. I need to talk to a doctor; your sponsor; your mum; a medium who’ll contact your spirit. Kettle steam huffs at the window-pane. The coffee is past its date – an inch of sediment, it won’t be dug out of the jar. You walk in, skeletal. Sleep well? I ask, staring out at the brick wall that faces us: if I crane my neck there is a gap of sky between that wall and this. You lie and utterly cannot help yourself. I make do with sideways words, seal up yesterday’s bin bag and step outside, telling the clouds, I can’t see a patch of blue.
Susan Miller Susan Miller is a published author who has written articles on social policy, feminism and crime, and co-written a book on policing the 1984 miners’ strike. She was shortlisted for the 2011 Mslexia Short Story competition and placed second in another. She has studied creative writing at the Arvon Foundation and with Michèle Roberts at the City Lit Institute. An accomplished public speaker, Susan is a human resources consultant who runs her own business. She recently moved to the south west having lived in London for many years. The Quality of Stillness is her first novel. Through the inter-weaving of two storylines, the novel tells the tale of Ruth, a QC specialising in employment law and her client, Annette Bridlington, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The failure of Ruth’s long-term love affair with another barrister, Mark, parallels the progress of Annette’s high-profile case against the London police authority, MOPAC. Confident, clever and passionate, both women have to confront the difficult impact of unforeseen events as their lives unravel and dreams crumble. The Quality of Stillness is a novel about love and passion, disappointment and regret. It explores the way in which desires and decisions shape our future and how much control we have over the paths we take in life. Contemporary London is a strong presence in the novel, shifting between a place known and understood, a source of comfort and pleasure, to somewhere more dangerous, crammed with uncomfortable memories and difficult encounters. firstname.lastname@example.org
The Quality of Stillness It’s Sunday afternoon and, still in my dressing gown, I watch an old Bette Davis film, Now Voyager, a film about love lost and won, about being content with second best and how to live with disappointment. Outside, it has just stopped raining and by the time the film finishes, darkness leaches into the room. The thinnest of yellow lights pales through the window, jaundicing the white wicker chair and cream walls with a lacklustre veneer. It is depressing to find myself alone, not yet dressed, in a darkened room in the middle of a winter afternoon. Watching the film credits trickle to the end, I find it difficult not to recall all those slow afternoons Mark and I had in this room together. Living with disappointment and not regret is a trick I haven’t yet mastered, perhaps because I have never been consumed by either before. When Mark and I split up, a friend told me that regret was a wasted emotion: I shouldn’t have any truck with it or it would destroy me. It would be good to have that sort of mechanical approach to emotions, switching them on and off at will. I hesitate. I can let myself wallow or get up, force myself into some clothes, cook dinner, listen to some Mozart and try to pull myself out of it. I suppose many people experience a depth of feeling that obliterates all else at some point in their lives. Love and grief come to mind. But, sitting here on a dull weekend in October, not knowing what I’ve done with the day so far and not thinking about what I’ll do with the rest of it, I experience a purity of feeling of a different kind. It arrives with great force. It’s a terrible desire for the past to return and with it, an immense anger that it can’t. I want to turn back time, watch the film of our relationship rewind and allow us to step back into that picture. Into the Blue Legume café in Stoke Newington Church Street, with Mark, on a cool autumn day when we stopped in after a walk to Highbury Fields, then on up to Clissold Park. We walked arm-in-arm, Mark in his brown leather jacket and knotted purple wool scarf; me with my blue check coat, lace-up leather boots and a blue cord hat. I wore the scarf he’d given me for my birthday: cashmere, a blue and brown paisley 157
pattern. I get it now from the hall cupboard and lift it to my nose, trying to catch the faintest smell of him hidden deep in the fibres. As I sit on the sofa, my head feels as though it has received a great stinging slap. I should have moved as soon as the film finished, tried to throw it off, because now it’s got me. A hundred thoughts shoot through my head. Thoughts about Mark, about how I lost him. Regret, that sour taste at the back of my throat, that sick anxious gnawing at the core of my stomach, comes from nowhere and won’t let go. It’s a constant reminder of my failure. It’s the feeling that I am in the wrong place, in the wrong life. In my case, it drains my will to do anything. Regret is the sort of feeling that you want to get rid of forever, but instead it snatches you up, throws you around the room from wall to wall and dumps you in a corner, defeated. Then it comes back the next day and does it again. I sit pinned to my seat waiting for it to pass. Eventually the feelings subside sufficiently for me to drag myself up, put on some old clothes and go for a walk. I wander around the late afternoon streets, snaking my way through to Upper Street, past the smart Georgian terraces to the squat, low-rise council estate tucked in behind the now locked town hall. Being so close to the City, it’s a long time since Upper Street was any sort of backwater, but even in the time I’ve lived here it has shifted in a slow, piecemeal way, each small modification budging it a step further towards what it is now: a highly fashionable place to be. This was where Tony Blair made his pact with Gordon Brown in a restaurant already succeeded by another. The last remaining cheap cafés and rough pubs have been replaced by a regular turnover of smart restaurants and expensive clothes shops, stretching out between the over-priced antiques market at one end and Highbury Fields at the other. Mark and I bore witness to the closure of what we saw as the last vestige of the old world: a tiny, orange-glossed shop opposite the town hall selling nylon aprons and long-johns, hair-nets and utilitarian bras. The evening, last winter, when we noticed the empty window and read the handwritten note on the door, we raised a glass over dinner to salute the end of an era. Now, I find myself staring aimlessly into the window of the computer shop which has replaced 158
it, before ambling on down the road. I reach Ottolenghi’s Restaurant and can’t help but feel lifted by the beautiful arrangement in the front window: a large silver platter of crusty pale meringues, tiny Bakewell tarts, long thin slivers of lemon cake with white lemon icing. Mark’s unfathomable dislike of restaurants with the slightest tinge of fame attached means I’ve rarely eaten here. Why not have dinner? I don’t feel dressed for it, exactly, but a quiet table for an early evening meal would suit me well. I walk in, my rubber-soled shoes making no sound on the polished wooden floor, and look for a possible table, when I hear a voice. ‘Ruth. How lovely to see you.’ It’s James, my Head of Chambers. Damn, damn, damn. He struggles out of his moulded orange plastic chair and comes over. Under my black Jaeger coat, I am wearing an old pair of thick brown trousers, a baggy beige polo-neck and my boring suede flats, with no make-up. I am already plotting my escape as James walks towards me. He gives me an insufficiently hidden head-to-toe once-over and kisses me on both cheeks. ‘Are you meeting someone?’ His voice trails off, as we both know that, of course, I am not meeting anyone. ‘No, just checking the place out for a birthday treat for a friend next weekend,’ I say. ‘We’re here for my daughter, Clare’s, birthday.’ He peers at me. His thick brown hair is untidily long, a gesture on his part to a youth that left him some years ago. It no longer suits a face which, once sculpted and delicate, has become heavier with age. Over his shoulder I can see his picture-book family watching us: a thin, blonde wife with pink lipstick and a battery of gold bangles, an equally slender daughter with red corkscrew curls and a much younger boy staring at the menu. I try to smile. ‘How are you, Ruth?’ His hand grazes my arm, his voice full of mock concern. ‘We don’t seem to bump into each other much lately.’ ‘Great, thanks.’ I am aiming for upbeat and energetic, but feel more out of place by the second. I even find myself blushing. He leans in, his head angled towards my shoulder. I smell the sourness of too much red wine on his breath. ‘I hear the Bridlington case has hit a bit of a brick wall,’ he whispers. 159
A phrase Mark over-used when he was in the thick of a case jumps into my head: just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get me. I know James well enough to see that he smells blood and thinks I am on the back-foot: in Chambers, in my private life and here, alone on a Sunday evening in this Islington restaurant, with his textbook family forming too keen a comparison. I manage to squeeze my face into a look of disbelief, narrowing my eyes and frowning. I pull my head away from his and look him straight in the eye. ‘Really? I’m not sure how you’ve got that impression.’ I smile briefly. ‘It’s right on track, listed for December and the majority of the prep is done.’ ‘Ah. I’d heard Annette was getting a bit flaky about the whole thing.’ He’s holding his ground, still toying with me. ‘Pulling the odd sicky, so I understand.’ Annette’s late miscarriage a couple of weeks ago has not been announced anywhere, even at the Met, where other excuses for her absence have been made. I feel a surge of anger as I listen to James, probing and pushing, trying to find fault with the case. With me. I want to defend her and challenge him. I know that if tell him, he’ll back off immediately and I’ll win this round. Just as I open my mouth to speak, something stops me. What the hell am I thinking? I can’t tell James or anyone else about the miscarriage: it would be a massive breach of confidence. I’m shaken that I was so near to telling him. My hesitation has played into his hands. James stands, still too close, eyes expectant, the shadow of a grin forming at the sides of his mouth. ‘She’s perfectly well,’ I snap, then slow down. ‘Even the best of us gets ill occasionally.’ He’s not letting up. His eyes skim the restaurant and I glance over again at his wife, trying to draw his attention away. ‘The thing is, can she cut it? If she’s weakening already, how is she going to stand up to all the shit they’re going to throw at her in court?’ She’s got more balls than you, I want to say. I need to end this conversation. ‘She’s the toughest woman I know. And one of the cleverest. She wouldn’t have even contemplated this otherwise.’ ‘But are we going to win, Ruth?’ His voice oozes reason. 160
I look him straight in the eye and take my time responding so I can bring the right level of firmness to my voice, a tone, which brooks no further argument. ‘Of course we are.’ It’s a stupid thing to say, as we both know there are no guarantees in this type of case, but it brings us to a cul-de-sac in our conversation. We stare at each other and it’s him, in the end, who cracks. He steps backwards and glances across to his table where his wife is now looking impatiently at her watch. I seize my chance. ‘Well, I can see you’re busy, James, so I’ll leave you to it. Nice to see you.’ ‘Yes. Bye then.’ The pinched expression reveals his disappointment at not being able to wring more humiliation out of the situation. I turn and leave, abandoning any idea of eating there and feeling angry that I have let him see me as weak and vulnerable. Back on the street, there are too many people, all with a purpose. I make my way back home, knowing that I am going nowhere.
Magen Mintz Magen Mintz is an American by birth. Before migrating to England for the MA at Bath Spa University, he earned a BA in English with a minor in Creative Writing from Dickinson College in 2010. A Conditional Birth is Magenâ€™s first novel. A Conditional Birth is a metafictional tale about the failed and non-existent relationship between a father and son. Richard, a high school English teacher, abandoned his burgeoning family when his son, Beckett, was still a child. After the death of his mother, a twenty-year-old Beckett is left in Richardâ€™s custody, forcing them to spend a summer together before Beckett embarks on a year abroad in England, where he plans to write a novel. Richard is given a second chance to banish his previous fear of commitment and responsibility, and to rectify his years of absence. Beckett, on the other hand, is not so keen to shed his bitterness. As he absorbs his new environment, at home and abroad, his writing absorbs him, until the lines separating fiction and reality slowly blur. At the core is Beckettâ€™s memory of his mother, existential doubt, and a desperation for clarity. Also, a scheming pooka, a mysteriously prescient lodger named Murray, and Gary Neville. email@example.com
A Conditional Birth Richard held his son in his palms and marveled at the sight: his hair was already so dark and thick, and his eyes remarkably blue, as clear and iridescent as Caribbean waters. They stared back at him, and the two sets of eyes matched each other’s wonder. Janet, half-conscious and propped up by a wall of pillows, lay in a state of euphoric exhaustion on the hospital bed. ‘Beckett,’ Richard murmured achingly. He suddenly realized that he had never in his life had physical contact with a human infant. Not once before. He had no siblings, no close relatives, no close friends; no colleague had ever offered their newborn for him to hold. His arms were frozen, he was frozen—in shock, in confusion, in the recognition of a permanent shift in his life, his reality. Every molecule of his being focused on absorbing this thing in his hands, this brand new part of him. They stared and stared at each other. The tiny face was round and puffy, the eyelids still swollen, the hands like curious feelers constantly grabbing, testing strengths and textures. The tiny feet lashed in all directions, unhelpful. The raw skin was delicate, flushed and dry. Did anything hinder on this first impression? Did everything? Was this tiny being already looking up to him for recognition? Could there be an expectation so early in their relationship? This infant, his child, Beckett, was utterly calm and quiet. He hadn’t made a sound in the hours since his birth, apart from the initial shock and everything entailed in bringing a new person into this world. He hadn’t slept, either. He had simply observed: his mother, his father, his surroundings. It was as if he was prepared for his arrival, ready to enter the world and take down notes of everything he saw. This added to Richard’s awe. Richard wanted to be ready. He tried to be ready.
• Richard tried to process what he’d just heard. He kept his face stone 163
—he didn’t want to react before he knew what his reaction should be. ‘Are you absolutely sure?’ Janet’s eyes were hard and true. Her ponytail pulled on her scalp. She wore his old tennis state finals T-shirt, worn and gray, which hung on her like a muumuu. She stood in the doorway of the bathroom with the stick in her hand. She nodded. A spectrum of thought and emotion erupted from his brainstem and pooled in his gut. Physically, he felt nauseous. He tried not to let it show on his face—though he couldn’t feel his face, so he didn’t know what it showed. He suddenly felt his feet sweat against the cold hardwood floor. He dropped to the bed. Emotionally, he was confused. At a primal level, he was happy, pleased to know that he was capable of propagation, excited at the prospect of creating a newer version of himself. But this optimistic response clashed with an intense fear: of the unknown, of the endless possibilities for things to go wrong; of responsibility, of the irrevocable impact this would have on his life; of failure, of his almost certain inadequacy for parenthood, of the likelihood of hurting more than helping. Then he realized that all the time this was running through his head she was watching him, analyzing his reaction with her hard eyes. He did his best to ignore the fear and latch onto the joy. He ran his hand through his hair and kept it there. ‘This … ’ He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. ‘This is wonderful.’ He reached out his other arm and beckoned her over to the bed. She sat next to him and he put his arm around her. ‘You really think so?’ she asked. Closer up, there was a softness in her hard eyes. Closer up, her stern brow quivered with insecurity. It took immense will power to hide the overwhelming anxiety coursing through him. He tried to look reassuring. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘This is great news.’ He could see relief wash over her face, softening her features. ‘I’m so glad to hear you say that. I was afraid you’d react badly.’ She rested her face between his collarbone and his neck and started crying. He lifted his chin up on top of her head. He wrapped one hand around her hip and rubbed the other up and down her shoulder blade. 164
Above her head, his eyes were distant and afraid. He hoped that she didn’t notice his heart racing. The soft cotton of the old T-shirt was comforting to touch. He kept rubbing her back, for both of their benefit. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, of course not. This is a good thing.’ His voice was as steady and reassuring as he could make it. He repeated, ‘This is a good thing.’ He grabbed her shoulders and stared into her wet, soft eyes. ‘We’re having a child.’ He shook her softly and said it louder, smiling. ‘We’re gonna have a baby!’ They broke into laughter. She wiped her tears as she laughed. They embraced, repeating the sentence behind each other’s backs until it sounded normal. For a moment, he forgot the fear. For a moment, his eyes welled up. But only for a moment. She kissed him and they kissed deeply for a while. Richard focused on making the kiss seem meaningful. Then they sat still, leaning on each other’s foreheads, smiling. Her expression was one of pure relief, joy and satisfaction all at once. He thought to wipe the tear trails from her cheeks. She got up and returned to the bathroom. He heard the shower go. She left the stick on the bed. He examined it. A tiny blue smiley face stared up at him. He shook the stick wildly, but the face didn’t change. He thought it might be taunting him. He felt like throwing it across the room. But instead, he sat there. He ran his fingers through his hair and he sat there, breathing. Then he stood up and walked to her vanity mirror. He leaned on his palms and looked at himself. He searched for answers in his eyes.
• The tile floor was slick. Richard pushed the wheelchair at a slow and steady pace. The doctor finally gave them the okay to return home, but Janet was still weak from exhaustion—her eyelids hung low, and her head was everywhere but firmly upright. Her skin was pallid. At first he thought it might be the resonance of post-labor euphoria, but her lack of recovery made him think she would stay this way. He worried about her holding the baby, so he’d brought the carrier in 165
to hold him on her lap. She wore sweatpants and his old tennis state finals T-shirt, which she insisted on changing back into. Any hope he had of reclaiming ownership of that shirt was now crushed. There’s nothing like childbirth to permanently taint an article of clothing. Beckett slept in the carrier, quiet and calm. He was wrapped in a blanket, and nascent wisps of hair snuck out of the hospital-issued sky blue cap scrunched on his head. He still hadn’t cried once since the delivery. The doctor said it was nothing to worry about at this stage, as long as he was alert and moving. There’d be plenty of crying in their future. Richard maneuvered them down the ramp outside the entrance and left them at the curb while he fetched the jeep. The night air was warm and light. He dumped the duffel bag full of diapers and other necessities on the floor in the back. After pulling up to the curb, he got out and strapped the carrier to the back seat. He helped his wife into the passenger seat. ‘You should’ve took my car,’ she said. She spoke in subdued tones, eyes closed and almost slurring her words, like she was communicating to a spirit from beyond. ‘Your car’s no good for the baby. It shakes too much.’ ‘Don’t worry. I’ll drive slow.’ ‘Let me hold him.’ ‘Leave him in the seat. He’s safer there. We’ll be home soon.’ She sighed and fell asleep. He started the jeep and worried about the shaking. On the way home, he was alert to every bump, crack and pothole in the roads. His knuckles were stretched white over the steering wheel. He broke delicately and early at every red light and stop sign, careful not to disturb his slumbering passengers. His worry wasn’t truly about the baby’s safety, though. No, it was something much worse than that. It was something deep inside him, all-consuming, a fear-driven biological construct that made his skin crawl. It was a core instinct that alerted his body to a looming danger. It told him this situation was dangerous. Streetlights flashed the car at intervals like miniature lighthouses. Richard’s eyes were dark and distant. He wondered how long he could ignore the instinct. 166
He pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine and headlights. He slid down in his seat. His arms went limp in his lap. He stared at a streak of moonlight on the garage door. He listened to his child’s soft and unpracticed breath. Janet stirred awake. She rubbed her face. ‘Are we home?’ Richard sat upright. ‘Yes, we’re home.’ He got out of the car. He grabbed the bag from the back and slung it over his shoulder. He walked around to the other side and unstrapped the carrier. He helped Janet down from her seat. She held on to his arm. Slowly, he walked to the door, Beckett in one hand and Janet on his arm. Once inside, he said, ‘I’ll take care of the baby. You go rest.’ Janet nodded with her eyelids and ghosted her way to the bedroom, running her fingertips along the walls for support. Richard went to the living room, dropped the bag to the floor and put the carrier down by the couch. He sat on the couch and rested his head back. He covered his face with his hands and kept them there awhile, breathing into his palms. Then he sat up and turned on the reading lamp. He hunched over and watched Beckett sleeping in the carrier. He studied his face, thought about how it would change, what parts of it would grow bigger than others, if it would grow long or grow wide. The hair would be dark and thick, that much was clear. Janet gave him that, and the blue eyes. He wondered what he had given his son, what kind of genetic burden he had bestowed. Physically, he had nothing much to offer. Mentally and emotionally, he had only darkness. He hoped his son wouldn’t inherit his darkness, the instincts that told him this life was to be feared. He wondered if he’d be to blame for Beckett’s future emotional struggles. He bent down and gently scooped him out of the carrier. He held him at his chest with one hand under his back and the other under his head. Beckett’s tiny eyebrows twitched, and his eyes moved fast under his puffy lids. Could he be dreaming already? Richard suddenly grasped the implications of his son’s development: every passing minute brought Beckett closer to sentience, to full awareness. He feared the prospect of his son’s awareness. Richard carried the baby to their bedroom and eased the door open. The crib was faintly visible in the overflow of the hallway light. 167
He tiptoed over, avoiding the creaky planks in the floor. Quietly, he laid Beckett in the crib, loosening the blanket wrapped around him and laying another one on top. He crept back to the door and eased it closed behind him. He went to the kitchen and grabbed a beer from the fridge. He brought it to the couch. He turned off the reading lamp. He drank his beer and stared at the moonlit clouds drifting by the window.
Emily Morris Emily Morris was made in Taiwan, from American, military stock. Emily grew up inside the Washington, DC, Beltway and has lived all over the Continental United States. Her mother, Vivian, instilled in Emily (and her four siblings) a sense of curiosity and adventure. In 2011, Emily loaded her belongings into a storage unit in Florida and moved to Corsham, England, so she could attend Bath Spa University’s MA in Creative Writing programme. Her combined interests in English and Cultural Anthropology led to Emily’s fascination with the subculture of the internet and she spent several years immersed in the complex world of cyber friendships, relationships and masquerades; this fascination compelled her to write her novel. Emily is the mother of Greg and Jackie. Skraped is a novel that observes Abigail Carson, a middle-aged, recently widowed American, get sucked into the black hole of the internet where she becomes loved, lost, lonely and abused. Abigail has to fight, literally and figuratively, back to reality. Skraped means Skype raped, but a scrape is also an abrasion—affect and effect. firstname.lastname@example.org
Skraped ‘I think I’m going to bed soon.’ Malcolm wasn’t really paying attention. He’d muted me from his side because of the volume level of my television; I didn’t even know what program was on, it was just there for some company. It bothered me when he played poker without me. We could be sitting in the same room but unless I was in the same virtual poker room, he didn’t tend to notice me. When he sat at the poker tables, the only people he saw were the ones on the table and on chat. I wondered if it was possible to be jealous of a virtual game? Apparently it was. I stood up and walked into the kitchen to get a bottle of wine from the ‘cellar’. The cellar consisted of a cabinet above my stove, the only one of adequate height to store an upright bottle of wine. Merlot, cabernet, zinfandel … hmmmm. I decided on the merlot simply because it was the largest bottle in the cabinet. I opened the drawer under the microwave, pulled out the corkscrew, crossed to the sink and peeled the burgundy-colored foil from around the top of the bottle. It was a twist-top. I turned, tossed the corkscrew back into the open drawer, and grabbed a coffee mug out of the cabinet next to the sink above the coffee maker. I uncapped the wine and filled the mug. Because Malcolm wasn’t much of a drinker, I disguised my drink as a cuppa. That’s what they called tea over there—a cuppa. I headed back to the living room with my mug o’wine in one hand and the wine bottle in the other and took some large gulps along the way. Before I sat back down on my sofa in front of the camera, I topped up my mug and took another swig, then carefully placed the bottle on the floor next to the coffee table out of range of the ‘eye’ on my laptop. I looked at my image on the screen and checked out the view. Hair was good, no shine on my face, good side facing the camera and camera in a position to hide my slight stomach pooch. My image was visible from the chest up. I looked over to the larger view of Malcolm. Grrrrr. He had become so engrossed in his game play that he had shifted position on his chair and the view was of the room’s overhead 171
light, his forehead, eyes and nose. He hadn’t even noticed my absence. I took another drink and cleared my throat. ‘I said, I think I’m going to bed soon.’ Nothing. I decided to have a conversation with Malcolm even if he didn’t participate. I lowered my voice an octave or two and did my best English accent. ‘Oh really, Ab’gail? Woy is ’at?’ He didn’t even notice my imitation of him. So I continued: ‘Well, I’m getting kind of tired and I can’t think of anything better to do.’ Still nothing. I took another swig. Man! The wine was actually pretty good. ‘I can fink of sommit for you to do.’ ‘Nah, I don’t feel like playing poker anymore tonight.’ ‘’at’s not what I ’ad in mynd.’ ‘Oh? What did you have in mind?’ ‘Like you show me yo’wers and all show you maane.’ My English accent had somehow morphed into a US Southern accent. ‘Oh, okay, that sounds like fun.’ ‘Y’all go first.’ ‘No you go first.’ ‘No, it was mah ideah.’ ‘So?’ ‘Mah game, mah rules.’ ‘Oh, okay.’ I put my wine down and quickly lifted my T-shirt up to my chin and back down again. A glance at the screen showed Malcolm staring at me, his eyes squinting. Since only his forehead, eyes and nose were visible, I assumed the squint represented a grin. I slapped my hand over my mouth and gasped, then lowered it, sat up straight and tried to look dignified. ‘What?’ I said. Malcolm’s forehead came a tad closer to the screen as he leaned toward his laptop. He was probably un-muting me from his side. He leaned back. ‘Do it again.’ 172
‘Do what again?’ Embarrassed, I bent down and sneaked another swig of liquid courage. ‘You know what.’ ‘Huh? I have no idea what you’re talking about. And fix your camera.’ Malcolm shifted his eyes so that he could see the tiny window on his screen that showed my view of him. ‘Oh fuck’s sake.’ Malcolm reached up and gave me momentary vertigo as he adjusted his camera and centered it back on his gorgeous face and broad shoulders. I leaned back onto my lush sofa and put my feet up on the coffee table, nearly knocking over my cuppa vino. I leaned forward and grabbed it with one hand and my laptop with the other, then relaxed into the cushions and put my computer on my thighs and took another gulp. ‘What is that you’re drinking?’ Malcolm asked. ‘Oh. I decided to have a glass of wine,’ I replied. ‘Wine? Are you alone?’ ‘Of course I am; look around.’ I pivoted my laptop on my legs so that Malcolm could get a quick view of the room, sneaked another bit of wine and nestled the mug between my thighs. I grabbed the bottle and filled it, careful not to spill anything and coughed to hide the sound of the liquid glugging into my cup. Some splashed onto my jeans when it got towards the rim, so I let go of the laptop and steadied the mug while I returned the bottle to the floor. I pivoted the computer back so that it was facing me. Malcolm was gone. I leaned closer to the screen and started looking around his room. It was dark. The top of the table in front of his laptop was visible only because of the light from his monitor. The clock on my screen read 10:00 PM. Let me see, thirty days has September, April, June … oops! I mean, if it’s ten o’clock here and it’s five hours earlier there—no. Five hours earlier here. So ten plus five are fifteen. Fifteen hundred is 3pm. That can’t be right. Ten, eleven, twelve, one, two, three. Huh? Oh! Three ay em. I took another drink, nearly draining the mug during Malcolm’s absence. 173
‘Malcolm,’ I said, looking at the black room. ‘Malcolm!’ I said a tad louder. Hmmmm. ‘Oi!’ I shouted. I slid the laptop onto the cushion next to me, placed my mug on the floor and stood up. I stretched myself by arching my back and holding my arms in the air, then bent my arms at the elbows and used my hand to massage the back of my neck with my fingertips. I groaned as the muscles lengthened and stretched. ‘What’s that?’ I heard Malcolm’s voice. ‘What’s what?’ I answered. ‘What’s all that moaning? Where are you? What am I looking at?’ ‘I’ll be right back,’ I said. ‘Uh huh,’ I heard in response. I carried the wine and the mug back to the kitchen and stubbed my left baby toe on a dining room chair on the way. ‘Fuckfuckfuck!’ ‘What’s going on? Oi! What happened?’ ‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘Stubbed my fucking toe.’ I put the bottle on the counter and heard a hollow thud. I held the bottle back up and looked at it. Damn. Had I had that much to drink? Wow. Oh what the hell. I poured the last of the wine into my mug and placed the bottle into the trash, took a deep breath and drank the last of the mug in one go. ‘Blech!’ I liked wine, but not like that. I placed my mug in the sink and walked back to my couch where Malcolm was waiting and picked him—I mean my computer—back up. I returned my feet to the table in front of me and set the laptop back onto my thighs. The base of the machine was hot and I took one of the red and green plaid pillows from the corner of the sofa and used it as a computer stand on my lap. Much better. I checked the screen and there he was. Malcolm. Apparently he’d gone back to the poker tables; I could hear the game play. The synthesized patter that indicated the shuffle of the cards, the ffffft sound, seven times, that indicated the deal and the ding that meant someone had placed a bet. He was looking at the 174
screen on his computer, his green eyes watching each move with intensity, as if any of them were playing with real money. I put my head back on the sofa cushion behind me and closed my eyes. I took a deep breath and let it out. My head was spinning, but I was more tired than anything. I opened my eyes and looked down towards the computer screen. Malcolm was looking at me and he had a smile on his face. My stomach flipped a bit and I smiled back. ‘What are you looking at?’ I said. ‘I love watching you sleep.’ ‘I wasn’t sleeping.’ ‘Doesn’t matter, I love watching you anyway,’ he replied. ‘You’re sweet.’ ‘No I’m not. I’m horrible.’ ‘Don’t talk about my Malcolm like that,’ I argued. Malcolm laughed. ‘Why don’t you go to bed, baby?’ ‘Actually, I need to. Hey. Where did you go earlier?’ I remembered. Malcolm held up a white teacup, not his usual one. ‘What is that you’re drinking?’ I asked. ‘Malibu,’ he replied with a grin. ‘Great, I’m going to go to bed and you’ll be on the tables flirting and chatting up all the girls.’ ‘Don’t be silly.’ I stood up and unplugged the laptop at the wall. I picked up Malcolm and carried him around the corner to the left, past the bathroom and into my bedroom where I placed him lovingly on the antique bed. I then turned, walked back out the door to the living room, turned off the lights, walked into the bathroom and washed my face, brushed my teeth and peed. A lot. I headed back to my room and my bed. The light on the lamppost next door gave off just enough illumination to keep me from stubbing another toe (although I’d done that with the lights on earlier). I walked into my bedroom, shut the door and locked the handle. ‘You going to sleep?’ a voice asked. ‘Yep.’ 175
‘You lock the doors? All of them?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘Good. Where are you?’ ‘I’m right here. I’m changing clothes.’ I answered. I had just removed my ILNY T-shirt and was sniffing the armpits to see if it needed cleaning or if it could last another day. I pitched the shirt on the floor at the base of the bedroom door so that I would remember to do a wash in the morning when I tripped over it. ‘Let me see,’ I heard. ‘See what?’ ‘See you. Turn the camera and let me see you.’ I had my jeans around my ankles and stepped out of them and towards the bed. I kicked the wine-stained jeans so that they landed on top of my discarded T-shirt and turned the laptop so that it was facing me and not the carved headboard. I tilted the screen so that Malcolm could see my shoulders and face, but nothing else (unless you counted my ceiling fan, but I don’t think he did). ‘What are you wearing?’ Malcolm asked. He was smiling, but his eyes had taken on a serious look, an intense look. ‘None of your business,’ I teased. I reached back and unhooked my bra with a snap of the thumb and forefinger of my right hand. It was black. Not lacy or frilly or fancy, just black. But when I held it up to the camera to show Malcolm, it looked downright sinful.
Caroline New Caroline New used to teach sociology at Bath Spa University where she recently became a student. As an academic she published articles and books on gender, feminism and philosophical realism. China Dreams is her first venture into fiction. China Dreams is set in a small Maoist group in the 1970s. Its protagonist, Sophie, was adopted in Hong Kong and brought up in Bridgwater, Somerset. Sophie believes both her birth parents are Chinese; in fact her English adoptive father is also her biological father. Bullied at school, Sophie yearns to be an ordinary child in China. As a teenager she joins the Communist Workers of Britain (CWB) in her home town, and transfers to its East London branch when she goes to university to study Chinese. She meets Hu, an Indonesian Chinese refugee who becomes a candidate member of the CWB despite his many reservations. Sineád, a comrade from Derry, becomes Sophie’s best friend and is also close to Hu. The extract is set in the Unity Congress, when the Communist Workers of Britain and the Revolutionary Workers’ Front are about to merge. In later chapters of China Dreams Sophie has a psychotic breakdown when she finds out the truth about her origins. She gradually recovers once her adoptive mother brings her birth mother to her and they begin to build a relationship. As Sophie and her Chinese mother get closer, the internal conflict in Sophie’s organisation increases and it gradually falls apart. email@example.com
China Dreams The hall had filled up for the big speech by the time Sophie was released from her shift in the crèche. She couldn’t see Hu or Sineád, but she found a seat at the back next to a male comrade from the RWF. There was only time to exchange smiles and names before the call for hush. ‘Comrades!’ Brian was on the platform, flanked by the leading members of the two organisations. ‘Welcome to the plenary session of our Unity Congress.’ Sophie clapped enthusiastically, along with everyone else. ‘Comrades, this is a historic moment.’ What a big voice came out of that small man. He couldn’t be more than five foot six, a slight figure in his light jacket, blue cotton shirt and denim jeans. His red tie swung as he gesticulated. ‘People living in this country a hundred years from now will look back with awe on this patient, principled process of uniting the Marxist Leninist groups in order to build the Party.’ Brian sounded as confident as if he were in personal contact with these future people. ‘They will study it, comrades, as we study similar processes in Russia from the early years of the century. They will admire us and be grateful to us, as we are grateful to the veterans of the Chinese Revolution.’ Everyone looked round to note who else was there at this historic moment, and now Sophie spotted Sineád a few rows ahead, and Hu near the front, next to Hardeep. ‘On this special day,’ Brian boomed, ‘we should be both modest and proud. We are small and as yet of trivial political significance. But we are building strong foundations for the future party of the working class, and the significance of that cannot be exaggerated.’ He raised his arms to acknowledge the applause and shouts of ‘hear, hear!’ The five men and one woman behind him on the platform looked seriously out at the audience and, from their sepia portraits, brought over from Red Dawn Books, Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao gazed serenely down on them all. Brian spoke of the Manifesto they had struggled over and around which they were now uniting. He congratulated all comrades of the Communist Workers of Britain and the Revolutionary Workers Front 179
on their exemplary behaviour. What a striking contrast with the scurrilous refusal to engage of the Birchite clique. Sophie knew of Reg Birch as the leader of another small Maoist group, the Communist Party of Britain Marxist Leninist, and listened intently as Brian deplored this so-called Party’s opportunist attacks on the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China. Now he came to the edge of the platform and looked around like a diver surveying the pool. He lowered his voice. ‘What should the CPBML have done, comrades? They should have done what our two organisations did. We got on with the central task of building the revolutionary Communist Party in Britain. As regards the world situation, we modestly followed the lead of the Chinese Communist Party. We recognised our limitations, comrades. But what did the Birchite clique do?’ Brian’s voice sank almost to a whisper. ‘I’ll tell you what.’ There was complete silence in the hall. Brian shouted: ‘They arrogantly decided for themselves what principles should govern the foreign policy of the People’s Republic of China.’ Hu didn’t agree with some aspects of Chinese foreign policy, and sometimes Sophie had been swayed by what he said. But now she thought Brian must be right. How could a tiny organisation have the cheek to pit itself against a party of millions? ‘You will recognise the roots of this bourgeois thinking, comrades – intellectualism.’ He punched the air with his right hand as he named the error. ‘Intellectuals believe they are “the supreme power of the world order”, in the words of comrade Enver Hoxha.’ Brian’s whole demeanour expressed disgust with the intellectuals and their crazy over-estimation of their importance. ‘All thinking,’ he went on, ‘is stamped with the brand of a class. Don’t ever forget that, comrades. It’s not always easy to tell which class. If you hear the word “interesting” you can be pretty sure an intellectual is trying to pull the wool over your eyes, but not all bourgeois thinkers are as easy to spot as your intellectual.’ He looked earnestly around the hall, as if scanning it for intellectuals. Hu is certainly an intellectual, Sophie thought. She 180
hoped he and Brian would keep well apart till Hu was safely in the new League. ‘The Gang of Four managed to fool a lot of people, including us.’ Brian raised his voice as if to reach the august fathers of socialism above. ‘But in the end, their class stand became clear. Behind that left appearance, they were secret capitalist roaders trying to become a centre of power in a new capitalist China. The Chinese people sniffed them out. We too must become experts at sniffing out bourgeois ideology, even in our own thoughts, and be ever willing to listen carefully to criticism. Why? Not to be better people, comrades. That’s not the aim. Our personal characteristics are only important to the extent that we use them in the interests of the working class.’ Brian embarked on a tour of the Manifesto, and Sophie drifted off. Since she had stencilled and duplicated the papers, she knew every word. When she came back to her surroundings, Brian was taking them on a trip around the world, which seemed to be hovering over the heads of his audience. His gaze swept over the United States, the older superpower, economically strong, but politically weakened by losing the Vietnam War and by the worldwide tides of resistance. Then he sped east, to the rapacious Soviet Union, the new and more dangerous superpower, a cunning wolf in sheep’s clothing. He detoured back to Europe, where Communists should support the Common Market. A bloc of second-rate imperialists could slow down the twin superpowers fighting over the spoils of the world like hyenas over carrion. The hyenas would never have it their own way, never. Always, everywhere, oppression meets resistance. Sophie had never been fond of Brian, but she was inspired by his speech. His listeners were sitting up straighter, eyes shining. The comrade next to her, tossing back his abundant wavy hair, laughed happily as he clapped. But Brian hadn’t finished. It was time to pay tribute to the courageous groups of resisters who fought, were defeated and rose to fight again. He mentioned struggles in Britain, in Zimbabwe and Angola, and in the Soviet Union itself. His eyes slowly traversed the hall as if surveying those brave fighters, and Sophie imagined she could see them too: groups of men and a few women and boys, leaning 181
on their rifles and machine guns or on crude sticks carved to look like guns, dirty and in ragged camouflage uniforms, carrying the scars of battle on their bodies, bone weary but never giving up, raising their clenched fists in a gesture of comradeship and defiance. But schooled by Hu and Sineád, she uneasily sensed the reproachful presence of other brave and ragged groups, now punished by silence: the liberation groups of South America, the Vietnamese who had moved closer to the Soviet Union since liberation, Frelimo in Mozambique, and the Provisional IRA, all too impure for the saintly League. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and Mao calmly looked on, above it all. ‘Comrades, revolutions have setbacks, but the trend is towards an inspiring new era. In People’s Kampuchea, comrades, the MarxistLeninist line has triumphed. Led by wise comrade Pol Pot, the Communist Party is energetically leading the masses to build a new society. They are resisting border incursions from the revisionists temporarily in control of Vietnam. Thousands of young volunteers are moving to the countryside to support the labours of the revolutionary peasants. Inspired by China, a Cultural Revolution is in full swing to undo the reactionary hierarchies justified by Buddhist monks. All over Kampuchea, rice fields are being expanded, irrigation ditches are being dug, and jungle reclaimed. Victory to the glorious Kampuchean revolution!’ There was a disturbance ahead, a scraping and shuffling, as Hu pushed aside the tightly packed chairs and rose to his feet, waving a piece of blue paper. Oh no, Sophie thought, don’t do it. She saw Hardeep trying to get him to sit down. ‘Comrade Brian, comrades.’ Hu said. ‘I must—’ Sophie called to him. ‘Hu! Sit down.’ But he couldn’t hear. ‘Not now, comrade.’ Brian sounded irritated. ‘There will be time for questions at the end of my speech.’ It was too late. Hu was spewing stupid words, making a fool of himself in front of everyone Sophie respected. His voice was louder and deeper than she had ever heard it. ‘This is a letter from a friend of mine in Vietnam, who like me escaped the massacre of the PKI in Indonesia.’ Even through her anguish Sophie knew this was a good thing to say. Like throwing a bone to a hostile dog. 182
‘He details Khmer Rouge aggression and killings in Vietnamese villages.’ Hu waved his tiny blue flag. All eyes were on him. ‘They are burning houses and killing civilians, comrades. Ethnic Khmers as well, he says, not only Vietnamese.’ The comrades on the platform were on their feet, and the hall was murmuring. Sophie dug her nails into her clenched palms and bit her lip. Hu raised his voice even further. ‘That’s not the worst of it. Pol Pot’s group has executed all the opposition leaders in the Party and is massacring its opponents. It is forcibly sending people to the countryside and treating them as slave labour. The Kampuchean revolution is killing its own children.’ He was shouting now, as Alan and Rob, grim-faced, reached his row of seats and started to move people out of the way so they could get to him. ‘The new League should not support Pol Pot! He’s like Suharto. He makes our friend up there …’ he gestured wildly, ‘… look like an amateur.’ Who was ‘our friend up there’? Bewildered, Sophie looked at the platform to see if Hu was warning against some secretly murderous member of the Executive. Then she realised he was indicating the portrait of Stalin, who complacently displayed his magnificent moustache. Hu continued shouting ‘Pol Pot is a fascist – don’t support him’ while Alan and Rob pulled him roughly out and frog-marched him to the exit beside the platform like two policemen arresting a troublemaker. Sophie could only see Hu’s back, his tufty hair that she could still feel between her fingers, the ridges of his ears, the white shirt they’d selected that morning in honour of the Congress riding up his waving arm. These loved parts of him were his, not hers, and he was set to destroy her life. Tears rolled down Sophie’s cheeks as Hu was forcibly escorted to the door. Sineád got up and followed. But Hu was Sophie’s boyfriend, not Sineád’s. She should be with him. She ordered her legs to get up, but they would not move. Fuck Cambodia, fuck Vietnam. Whatever was happening there, Sophie would not leave her comrades. She would be part of the new League, 183
part of international Communism, whatever its mistakes and crimes. This was the meaning of her life. Brian finished his address. The RWF leader made a short speech in reply, praising the CWB. Alan spoke about unity and party building, praising the RWF. Sophie reached for the posture and facial expression of an eager listener, but her whole being was a single wound that winced at each rhetorical flourish and throbbed with the applause. Her own hands clapping made the most painful sound, however gently she brought them together. At last everyone got up and started piling up the chairs. It was quarter past one, and time for lunch. But how was she to live through this day, and the days to come?
JW Nottage JW Nottage has spent nearly twenty years working in Formula One motor racing. She was The Sunday Times F1 correspondent for three years, features editor for F1 Magazine for two years, contributor to numerous national and international lifestyle publications, and has written several non-fiction books on F1, including the best-selling Eddie Irvine: Life in the Fast Lane. She has her own website janenottage. com, and is building a good reputation as an after-dinner speaker with the theme of ‘a woman in a man’s world’. Before F1, J W worked in international football. She was the Italian football correspondent for World Soccer and also International media manager at Italia ’90, the World Cup Organising Committee, working for Luca di Montezemolo, who is now chairman of Ferrari. ‘What cha saying boy, you think I’m playing boy, watch ya mouth girl, it’s a man’s world.’ 50 Cent Caroline Brentwood is the surprise choice as Team Boss of Brentwood Motors when her father, Tommy, suddenly dies. She has been around the sport most of her life but nothing prepares her for the battle of taking on the men at their own game, and beating them. The Art of Surviving Piranhas is Caroline’s story, told in the first person, of her fight to win the World Championship in nigh-on impossible conditions – a brilliant but wild and undisciplined driver, betrayal within her own team, and from those closest to her. Will she win? Will she lose her sanity in the process? firstname.lastname@example.org
The Art of Surviving Piranhas 27th January, Oxford I am sitting with my father. He is dying. The tough, sixty-three-year-old workaholic has been transformed into a frail, old man. I gently place my warm hand on his ashen face, which is almost indistinguishable from the starched, white sheets. I have placed the headphones of my iPod on his ears in the faint hope that music – his passion – can bring him back to life. Mahler Symphony No. 2. Conductor Leonard Bernstein. One of his favourites. We are in a side ward in the Cardiothoracic Critical Care Unit at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. I am exhausted, light-headed, disconnected from reality; my body but someone else’s mind is in this room. Images chase through my brain – the all-night dash from Wales where I was doing an off-road driving course, the highways wet from the driving rain, the wind bitterly cold. Weather miserable, like me. I look at Dad and notice, for the first time, a scar, thin and about an inch long, on the top of his head. It is deep, and a dark, dull red like congealed blood. I wonder what mishap it represents. I thought I knew everything about him. Me and Dad. Our thoughts and spirits flowing freely between us like some invisible force. Us two. A tight unit. My mother and brother, flown from our lives a long time ago. Wires and tubes connect Dad’s body to machines, and a screen like the telemetry screens in a Formula One garage gives constant information about his internal organs. I can smell that peculiar chemical cocktail that is unique to hospitals. It pervades the room, along with the scent of decay, of 187
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various bodily functions beginning to slow and stop, moving from life towards death. A man, young but not too young, of medium height, dark brown hair swept back from a high brow, wearing a white coat and a worried expression, enters the room, draws up a chair and sits next to me. ‘I’m sorry. There’s nothing more we can do,’ the doctor says. ‘Any chance of recovery?’ I ask. He looks away before meeting my gaze. ‘There is considerable damage to the heart which has also caused brain damage. Did your father have any wishes concerning organ donation?’ The words businesslike, but the eyes compassionate. ‘I don’t know,’ I stutter, fighting back the tears. How many other things don’t I know about my father? ‘Would you consider it? It could save lives.’ His voice is gentle now, persuasive, understanding. ‘Yes, but not his eyes.’ I pause. ‘If heaven really does exist I want him to see its beauty. Oh, that must sound stupid,’ I add quickly. ‘Not at all, belief in whatever form it arrives is a blessing. Mrs Hargreaves, our organ co-ordinator, will come soon with some forms for you to sign.’ He hesitates. ‘Thank you very much,’ he adds, before standing up, patting me on the shoulder and leaving. I look at Dad again. I’m not ready to say goodbye. I’ve just lived through a year without him. A year wasted through stupid pride, an argument – he wouldn’t listen to me, wouldn’t trust my judgment. I’ve missed him so much. I am bereft. But I am here alone, through choice. My fiancé, Simon, is coming later. I stare at Dad’s chest, willing his damaged, dying heart to find the strength to start beating on its own. I want him to open his eyes and say, ‘What the hell is going on? Come on love, let’s go, there’s work to do. Can’t rest until we win a World Championship or two or three, can we?’ Welcome to the world of Formula One motor racing, where you spend your life chasing the World Championship, and if it comes, you chase the next, and the next, and the next, and so on. It’s the crack 188
cocaine of sport. A legal way of chasing a high and not getting arrested – well, not unless you break the rules, and as someone once said, ‘there are no rules in Formula One, just be careful you don’t break them’. ‘You’re a fighter Dad, come on, you can’t leave me. I’m not ready.’ I’m holding his hand, talking and talking, about everything and nothing. ‘I got ten questions right on University Challenge last week, including one about the Krebs Cycle, and you always accused me of not paying attention in my chemistry lessons!’ They say that hearing is the last sense to go. His grip is still strong. There must be hope, however slim. I stand up and adjust the headphones of the iPod, and pause before selecting the next track. How to choose the right music to die to? In the end it has to be La Bohème, his favourite opera, he’d taken me to a performance at The Royal Opera House. Instant love – the music, the glamour; the entire glorious colourful production. I bow my head, rest it on the bed, take my father’s hand and place it on top of my scalp. I feel his hand tentatively and gently stroke my hair just as he used to do when trying to comfort me as a child. ‘I’m so sorry.’ Such a light whisper I wonder if I am imagining his voice. My head jerks up and I move to the top of the bed and place my hands on his forehead, which is cool and slightly damp to the touch. ‘Dad, Dad. I’ll call the doctor.’ I lean over to press the call button but Dad shakes his head. ‘Too late. I’m sorry … be careful.’ Dad fights for breath, his words so faint I have to lean over him to catch them. ‘You must get rid of—’ Alarms start to sound and red lights blink on the machines. Dad’s head rolls back on the pillow, one of the earpieces falls out and Mimi’s most beautiful aria Si, mi chiamano Mimi, fills the room, its resonance strangely strangulated by the effect of the earpieces. The nurses come running. I scream. They push me out of the way. The resuscitation unit arrives. They are well practiced. They attach the electrodes. ‘Stand back.’ Once, twice, three times. No reaction. ‘Stop it, stop it, don’t cause him more pain,’ I shout. Finally, they turn to me. Their faces tell me all I need to know. My father is dead. 189
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February, The Albion Hotel, Geneva A few seconds pass then a short, stocky man with unruly black hair and very dark eyes stands before me. Steve Bellini. Twenty-five years old, of Brazilian-American parentage, but an American national, and a racing driver since he stepped into go-karts at the age of five. It is on his shoulders that I have placed my hopes for the World Championship. ‘Hiya, how’ya doing?’ he says leaving the door open and walking back into the room. I follow him. The sitting room area looks like a giant toddler has had a massive tantrum. A computer, half out of bubble wrap, sits upside-down on the glass table. Opposite it another machine, an Xbox by the look of it, lies exposing its innards like a wounded soldier. A couple of iPods, still in their packaging, are at right angles to each other on the floor. Over by the television is an iPhone attached to its charger and smeared with what appears to be jam. Clothes are scattered all over the place. Cans of beer are lying on the table and a huge bucket of some disgusting looking greasy fried food is emitting a pungent smell. ‘Housekeeping. Missing in action,’ Bellini says, waving his hand dismissively. The curtains have only been partly drawn back and his eyes glisten in the half-light. He looks like a malevolent hobbit and I wonder, as I gaze round this hovel of a room, if Dad was right and I was wrong. World Champions are not just made up of talent; they need to possess dedication, commitment and focus. I raise my eyebrows but refrain from adverse comment. Suddenly an image forms. A silver Formula One racing car, rear end sliding wide, the driver using the car’s aerodynamics to tame the slide before standing on the throttle and overtaking a green racing car, right at the point of the track where overtaking was deemed impossible. A move so audacious and brilliant that teams in every garage along the pit lane break into spontaneous applause – Steve Bellini. An enigma. ‘You wanna beer or something?’ Bellini flops onto the sofa and 190
starts surfing the internet on the TV. Christ, it’s not even midday. ‘No thanks. Let’s get down to business,’ I say, walking over to the chair furthest away and sitting down. ‘Right lady, just to set things in context, my lawyer is due to rock up any minute then that’s me back to NASCAR.’ ‘Cut the lady bit, you can call me Caroline. When you join Brentwood Motors, I’m Boss.’ ‘Okay, Caroline, but what’s this bullshit about when I join your team? Why in hell would I want to stay in F1 when I’ve just spent four goddamn fucking awful years in the sport? Jeez, self-opinionated jerks or what? It’s like everyone’s playing a game on some cheap reality show.’ ‘Right, here’s the thing. You can say yes or no. If you say no, I might be in the mire for a while but I’ll pull myself out of it. I always do.’ Bellini sits up a little straighter. He is now looking at me not the screen. ‘First, let me give you the reason I’m here. My dad died a couple of weeks ago. He and I had a big falling out a little over a year ago. We fell out over you.’ ‘Over me? I never drove for you or even knocked one of your drivers off the track.’ Bellini is twisting his phone in his hands. ‘We argued because I wanted to hire you a year ago when you left SATEL. Your rare talent could gift you the Championship, if you let it. Dad wouldn’t listen to me. You went to VW Motorworks. A disaster.’ I’m playing for time, gauging his reaction, trying to read him. ‘Look, I ain’t gonna drive for you just because you need to ease your feelings of guilt over your dad. I’m outta Formula One.’ ‘So why did you agree to see me today?’ Bellini frowns and rubs his head distractedly. I can sense the grey matter ticking over, thinking, considering, maybe returning to those flashes of glory. ‘It’s nothing to do with guilt,’ I continue, ‘it’s to do with your passion to be an F1 World Champion. I believe in you, I always have, even when you screwed up big-time.’ I get up and pace around the room, automatically picking up some of the scattered clothes and 191
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putting them on a chair. Then I lift the bucket of food from the table, walk to the door, open it and place it on the floor in the corridor. Bellini looks at me, raises his eyebrows and finds his voice again. ‘I’ve been a world champion already in NASCAR. Anyway, I don’t see how you think you’re suddenly gonna win a World Championship, seeing as Brentwood ain’t won one so far.’ ‘You know perfectly well, Steve, that the fortunes of Formula One teams ebb and flow, they go in mini cycles like an economic boom and bust. Look at Brawn GP. They went from Honda pulling out and the team nearly going down the tubes one year, to winning the World Championship the next.’ ‘Mario Rossi …’ Bellini says, a smile on his face. ‘A genius, you could see it at the test, balance, speed, downforce. What a car to—’ He stops. ‘Race.’ I finish the sentence for him. ‘You’ve not entirely lost interest then?’
Silja Paulus Silja Paulus comes from a small, mysterious country called Estonia. She graduated with a BA in English Language and Culture at Tallinn University. She works for eBay and Ask.com as a freelance copywriter and has never met her employers. In the meantime, she tries to juggle a life between rescuing cats, running, cooking, writing, and photography. Her novel title Nipernaadi and Her refers to a famous Estonian novel, Toomas Nipernaadi, in which the male protagonist, a seducer, is not a typical Casanova who just uses women, but tries to ‘wake them up’. He never clings to them and gives them false hopes, but the women tend to hold on to him. The modern Nipernaadi is Kristofer, who is in a relationship with Stella. They are a couple in their twenties, trying to experiment with the concept of an open relationship. Confronted with distrust and secrets, they fail and try again in order to keep their love alive. The story is told from Stella’s point of view and sometimes from Kristofer’s. While their story is the main focus, there are also plenty of other stories that track the lives of the women Kristofer has affairs with, helping to explain their motives and backgrounds. The action takes place mostly in Estonia and therefore occasional references to black bread and saunas are a must. email@example.com
Nipernaadi and Her At 9pm, Kristofer was outside. He lit a cherry tobacco cigarette. He wasn’t going to go against Stella in a half-hearted manner. It was time to be a man who decided his own habits. What right did Stella have to control him, inhibit him from smoking? If she was giving orders, then she should be ready to take some. She wasn’t. Hanging about at home in her sweatshirts or other comfy clothes that hid her curves and removed any sex appeal, meant she was thinking of only herself. Why should he bother? 9.04pm. No sign of Natalia. Kristofer couldn’t decide whether she was being fashionably late or playing a game. He breathed in the last whiff of his cigarette and threw it on the ground. A vision of Stella stroking Miu in their bed, sick and miserable, danced past his eyes. She was okay alone, he thought. She’d be just fine. She didn’t have to know. Although she always insisted that she needed to be aware, Kristofer realised that truth was hurtful and better kept under wraps. 9.08pm. No Natalia. Kristofer thought about earlier. A stranger’s hand on his body. Someone, not Stella. So far, she had been the only one. At least in bed. Was he taking the huge leap towards woman number two? Natalia was his first kiss. Number one then, not two. One, two, one, two, which to choose? The rhyme stuck in his head. He rolled another cigarette. This time, with shaky hands. 9.14pm. Stella was always punctual, sometimes early. She could make herself gorgeous in only ten minutes. Presumably, Natalia needed more time. Stella made him pancakes or hamburgers when he was ill. What would Natalia give him? A cup of Lifeboost? Stella fed him with powders too. Chocolate protein. But this didn’t happen more than three times a week, after she’d dragged him to the gym sessions. Natalia would pump him full of vegetarian shit. Hamburgers with soya. Stella knew how to cook. Did Natalia? 9.18pm. Natalia, Stella, kiss, sex, more sex, kiss, hot tub, adventure. What the hell? Stella through thick and thin. She had forgiven him for Lelle. But would she for Natalia? Kristofer wondered if Natalia would be so tolerant if they were a couple. She was cheating on Dima, so she could be flexible and go with the open relationship 195
concept. Natalia was passionate, but had a temper. If he stopped being her property, she’d definitely throw the heaviest, most expensive Egyptian vase at him. But maybe there wouldn’t be the need to look for others if they had a steamy relationship. Maybe. 9.22pm. Kristofer could swear his feet had worn away the pavement that he’d been pacing up and down so long. Stella and stability. Someone to grow old with. Smart, witty, healthy, ambitious, pushing him to the limits. He was in search for motivation when it was there all the time, materialised in her. Stella must be lonely with Miu. His girls needed him at home. Kristofer hurried to his room, grabbed his things. Outside, he woke the Mustang. Even if nothing was finished in Rakvere, he had to go. He’d skip all the Sunday’s conference summaries and opt out of Natalia’s game. It was midnight when the lights of Kristofer’s hometown greeted him. The apartment was pitch black. Only Miu’s yellow eyes glowed in the dark. ‘Hi, I’m back,’ he whispered and lifted the cat inside. He took off his shoes, arranging them neatly, the way Stella preferred. The bedroom wasn’t stuffy anymore, but there was a faint lemony smell. Coldrex, he recognised, the medicine that always knocked Stella out. He climbed in next to her candescent body. She didn’t move. Usually Kristofer was jealous that she could sleep through everything peacefully, whereas he stared at the ceiling for hours before dozing. This time his eyelids drooped. Perhaps he was coming down with something himself. Natalia checked herself once again in the mirror of the hotel room. She was already five minutes late for her meeting, but couldn’t care less. Kristofer could wait for a while. She had waited years to get her hands on him again. The cute science geek was harder to catch than she had ever anticipated. If she could have had it her way, they would have met more often, regularly. Each year, about two weeks before his birthday, Natalia started bombing Kristofer with friendly messages asking about his life, but he never invited her to the party. Did that girlfriend of his ban every woman he’d ever known? She was alone as some coincidence had arranged that her 196
roommate with the most unattractive name – Anu – had not turned up at the conference. Natalia was grateful; she didn’t need such an acquaintance. It would have been horrible to see that name popping up on her Facebook page or emails, even if Anu was a great person. She didn’t even care about losing a potential Lifeboost customer. The whole big room for herself and soon for Kristofer too; this mattered. The timing was just perfect. Thank you Anu, for not coming. She had pushed the two beds together. They were cluttered with clothes, mostly dresses, and cosmetics bags – separate ones for her body moisturiser collection, hair-washing stuff from all-natural shampoo to a golden bottle of conditioner from a hair salon, nail polishes, and the most important weapons in her arsenal – the make-up. However, the luscious lipsticks, lip-gloss tubes, eyeliners, glittery eye shadows, mascaras, and rouges weren’t lined up as soldiers would be in the army. She decided it was a mess she couldn’t ignore. They’d need the bed later, as long as he wasn’t more into stand-up sex or rolling about on the carpet. No. She knew that she was the bed type. At least when she was away from the comfort of her home, where she could lay a soft sheepskin on the wooden floorboards. Once she had finished arranging her things, she was already twenty minutes late. Natalia smiled at her reflection in the oval bathroom mirror and fluttered her long eyelashes. Being fashionably late had never been so easy. She reckoned she looked sexy in her blue satin mini-dress. Her beaming face could even outshine the glittery diamonds that ran across the strapless neck-line. She shuddered for a moment, remembering that October nights were chilly. But then he’d have more reasons to try to warm her. He was a nice guy; of course he’d offer his jacket or his embrace. They weren’t going to stay out for long. Get him to a bar, be alluring, make him drink enough to remove his Estonian modesty, flirt, order him to her room, and force him to obey – that was the plan. Pulling Kristofer to pieces and putting him back together according to her own liking – this was in store for the more distant future. Natalia took her Gucci purse and headed out, but the door hadn’t even clicked shut when she rushed back. These heels weren’t quite right. Although she liked the silver spikes, the black stilettos 197
were much better. Black always worked as a seduction tactic. She gave herself another critical look. The push-up bra was doing its job. The dress highlighted her slim figure as well as her long legs. The make-up was perfect. But. Always the irritable but. She took a brush and spent another two minutes on her hair. There was something wrong. Finally she changed the place of the hair parting and decided that a hundred and ten per cent beauty had been achieved. She was more than half an hour late. But Kristofer would be there. Who could say no to her? Natalia shivered. 9.38pm and no one to offer her his coat. He’d dared to stand her up. What a coward. She click-clacked into the parking lot. Kristofer had a distinctive car, a blue Mustang. She’d recognise this. Maybe he was playing a game too and waiting for her in his vehicle. A drive at night, maybe even to the seaside. The cliffs weren’t that far. Sex in the car. Why not? Let him believe that intimacy was his idea. Perfect. But there was no Mustang. Not in front of Aqua Spa, not beside it. Only rows of Audis and Volvos – businessmen’s favourites – and her own red Mercedes Benz. Natalia got out her iPhone but reconsidered and shoved the phone back into her purse, almost dropping it. She wasn’t going to chase him. Being pathetic was not her way. Flirty and irresistible was more her style. But he was making the wrong response. Damn that man. As she was already out, she decided to visit a nearby pub called Carla, next to a shopping centre where locals gathered. She was just going to drop by and show the local women how classy people dressed. The red brick building with a sign written in huge green letters wasn’t like any of Tallinn’s nightclubs, but she was too cold to hate it. Although she was accustomed to walking in the chilly weather, as she rarely took a coat with her when she visited nightclubs, it was still a relief to enter the crowded pub and feel how the hairs on her arms gradually resumed their normal position. After some tiresome queuing, she managed to get a glass of vodka with orange juice, an old classic from her teenage years. Unfortunately, Cosmopolitans hadn’t reached Rakvere. She could feel male eyes lingering on her body but this time she wasn’t flattered. All the elegant businessmen who took part in the training obviously 198
had a secret pub just for themselves. Somewhere else. She nudged her way to the back room hoping to find someone who wore a suit. No luck. A big TV screen on the wall. Noisy cheering men in blueblack-white striped shirts, waving flags in the same colours. Estonia versus whatever team that they were going to lose to. Dima liked football, Natalia hated it. Pointless. Estonia scored a goal, or at least the deafening screams from the men’s throats announced this. More fans squeezed into the room, pushing her into the corner. Maybe football was better than sex like the famous song said. For some men definitely. She suddenly felt invisible. The ceiling was the last straw. Green, and marked with white lines resembling a field. A nightmare of interior design. And the disco ball that looked like a football? She wanted out. Now. ‘Take this Northern Ireland! Andorra is not the only team we beat!’ a cheer echoed. Time for drastic measures. Natalia eyed the exit, calculating how many steps and purple toes it would take to get there. Then she put on her drunken face. ‘Sorry, excuse me, oops,’ she said while stumbling and swaying towards the door, stepping ruthlessly on feet mostly hidden in sneakers and other soft shoes. Next time wear suits and proper hard leather shoes, you pathetic brats. Dress like men. A few cries of pain warned as-yet-unharmed fans and created a passage through the crowd and Natalia was soon out. She left her empty glass on the counter and stepped into the night air. The grocery store next to the pub was still open until 11pm, which meant another fifteen minutes. ‘You’re going to pay for this. You’ll be crawling back to me,’ she hissed to herself. She disappeared into the shop, heading for the chocolate and biscuits counter, a section she had avoided for the past two months. She knew very well that Lifeboost powders alone couldn’t soothe her anger. A velvety dark Kalev bar with raspberry filling was what she needed. That and something from the mini bar in her room.
Annie Robertson Annie trained as a classical musician and went on to work as an assistant for an Oscar winner, an acclaimed artist and a Beatle. After several years of running errands for the rich and famous she decided to concentrate on writing. She has since completed two works of commercial women’s fiction and has several similar projects in the pipeline. Grace Patterson is a Celebrity Assistant. With her thirtieth birthday looming she dreams of escaping her career and becoming an illustrator. One thing stands in her way. Money. Well, twenty thousand pounds to be precise. In an attempt to fund her dream, Grace takes a job working for Keith and Victoria Matlock – Britain’s favourite rock-star and his notoriously difficult, Cartier-loving wife. It’s a job Grace can do standing on her head, or so she thinks … Enter Victoria with her 24/7 demands and Keith with his philandering ways. Grace is about to discover their marriage is on the rocks and the world they inhabit is one of infidelity, threats, secrets and lies. And to make matters worse, their problems keep encroaching on Grace’s private life. There’s her poker-playing Great Aunt Clara, cupcake-making best-friend Margo, and new crush Dexter Fairbanks, who is about to turn everything upside-down. Affairs, pregnancy, tabloid scandal, tantrums, one near-tragedy and way too many cupcakes later … life, as Grace knows it, is about to change forever! firstname.lastname@example.org
Cartier and Cupcakes Assistant required for celebrity couple. Sense of humour imperative. Salary 50K Email CV to: email@example.com I circle the ad, draft a generic email, attach my CV and hit ‘send’. An hour later my mobile rings. ‘Withheld number’ flashes on the screen; I answer. ‘Grace Patterson?’ ‘Yes.’ I throw some cupcake into my mouth and doodle in my notepad. ‘Henrietta, Sarah Fitzgibbon Recruitment, responding to your email.’ Henrietta is assertive, bordering on aggressive and more than a little intimidating – a typical recruitment consultant. ‘Oh hi,’ I splutter, pushing cake, like a hamster, into the deepest recesses of my cheeks. ‘You received my CV?’ ‘Indeed. Your background is perfect for this role. How many years’ experience do you have?’ ‘Seven.’ ‘And four positions in total?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, we should meet to discuss things further. When is convenient – tomorrow?’ ‘Ah, let me see.’ I try to create the impression of being desperately busy. Truth is if she gave me ten minutes to brush my teeth and put on a bra I could see her anytime between now and Christmas. Such is the current chasm of my day-to-day existence. ‘Yes, tomorrow is fine. Shall we say 11am?’ ‘Tomorrow at eleven,’ she confirms and hangs up. So there it is, hoop number one – The Agency Interview. It is during this ordeal that I will be given the once-over: fat, ugly or unconventional just wouldn’t fit the bill for her celebrity couple. Henrietta must ensure that I meet the correct level of presentation. All of which means tomorrow I will put on my heels and finest 201
suit – size ten, black, Giorgio Armani – which even I can’t wear badly. I’ll then bundle up my strawberry blonde hair and totter around central London trying to locate Sarah Fitzgibbon Recruitment. Like most agencies, it will be hidden down some archaic, unmapped sidealley and housed in a building that openly invites tramps to urinate in its doorway. When I do arrive, at last, I’ll have blistered feet, be sweating profusely and gasping for breath because recruitment agencies always have their premises on the fifth floor and the lift never works. A cloned, teenage Sloane will greet me at reception. She’ll be dressed in skinny jeans and frantically trying to juggle, well, nothing very much. I will never be surprised at the decor. The Sloane will be sitting behind a glass desk and the prospective candidates on an L-shaped sofa. A coffee table will boast magazines such as Tatler and Harpers, and bedraggled-looking flowers will dare to be wilting in a vase. The consultants will be tucked away behind glass walls, making coffee and filing their nails. The Sloane will take great pleasure in making me fill out endless forms, which will include: Personal Information, Education, Previous Positions Held, Reasons for Leaving, Type of Work Sought, Salary Required and IT Skills. Then there will be the spelling and grammar test and finally, hated universally by every assistant in the land, the typing test. Whilst it would be thoroughly tempting to change my degree from a 2.1 to a 1st and my Bs at A-Level to As instead, I will fill in every aspect of my life verbatim. I’ll avoid writing, ‘I accidentally fed rat poison to the cat and then slept with their teenage son’ in the Reasons for Leaving form because that would be childish – wouldn’t it? Nauseatingly, I’ll tell them that the position is more important than the salary … though six figures would be nice. After half an hour of sitting in the arid-dry reception, Henrietta will appear. She’ll be dressed in a black Caroline Charles suit, Ralph Lauren shirt and bunion inducing, shit-kicking, LK Bennett heels. Her hand and arm will be outreached before even mentioning my name. The handshake will be alarmingly firm and held far too long; she will look me hard in the eyes and flash a well-rehearsed smile. 202
I will be led to an airless interrogation room and grilled about every aspect of my life. It is in this room that I’ll avoid telling Henrietta three things: 1. I never had any intention of having a ‘proper’ job, just something that would clear the bills each month, pay off my student debt and allow me to pursue my ambition of becoming an illustrator. 2. With my thirtieth birthday only ten months away my desire to be an illustrator is greater than ever. 3. I don’t care what the job is so long as it pays enough to let me save £20,000, which will make it possible to take two years off to concentrate on drawing. And I definitely won’t be telling her that if I don’t quit being a celebrity assistant soon, I fear it will suck out my soul like a giant vacuum and before I know it, I’ll be forty with the prospect of a career in illustrating firmly behind me. After I’ve avoided telling Henrietta all of this, she will do one of two things. If she doesn’t like me, she’ll tell me that the position has already been filled, that she has nothing else suitable on her books but that she’ll keep my CV on file should something suitable come up. If she likes me, or more to the point, if the names on my CV carry sufficient clout, she’ll disappear off to the room where all the coffee and nail filing takes place and return with a file on her client. Henrietta, and it’s important not to forget this, is essentially a salesperson. She works on commission and when dealing with this sort of salary, the commission is particularly good. I’ll have to take everything she says with a pinch of salt. She and I both know the celebrity couple is offering a substantial salary because they are a ten on the scale of wanton abuse, but these words will never actually be spoken. Instead she’ll skirt around ‘delightful’ but ‘tricky’, ‘fun’ but ‘exacting’. She’ll tell me that it’s a lovely household, the kids are off at Eton or some equally archaic, over-priced institution and the dog is, ‘adorable’. And I am no better. I’ve worked this scene long enough to know that anyone who feels the need to have a celebrity assistant is going to be a nightmare. But you play the game. I’ll tell her I’m unflappable, that I’m extremely flexible and that no detail is too small. And in some strange fashion 203
I’ll believe it, because the thrill of the chase always leads me to forget just how demeaning this work can be.
• ‘Twenty-nine years old.’ Henrietta clicks her pen on and off three times as we sit in said small airless room where she is scrutinising my CV. ‘Studied at the Royal College of Art, four PA jobs, two celebrities, clean driving licence, no dependents. Good.’ She fingers the cuff of her Ralph Lauren shirt. ‘Your first job was for a gallery in Mayfair.’ ‘Yes,’ I say brightly, desperately racking my brain to think of something positive to say about the experience. ‘It was an excellent first job. Character building.’ She misses my sarcasm. ‘And you were there for—?’ ‘Two years.’ I confirm. Two years too many, I might add, but don’t. ‘Tell me about that role.’ ‘Well …’ I feed her all the crap she wants to hear: high-net-worth clients, London art scene, ‘dynamic’ working environment. What I neglect to tell her is that I worked for a pompous, arrogant bore, who puffed incessantly on fat cigars, the stench of which was absorbed into every pore of the fabric I wore. ‘And it was through this job,’ I finish mechanically, ‘that I met Sir Roseby.’ ‘Ah yes,’ she says, almost salivating over one of Hollywood’s royalty. ‘Sir Roseby. How was that?’ ‘It was a step up the career ladder,’ I tell her blandly, refusing to tantalise her with any salacious details. ‘He was—’ I choose my adjective carefully, ‘particular.’ By which I mean bloody awful and super high-maintenance. It was one demand after another, after another, after another. After only a month my social life had died, as had any hope of finding time to work as an illustrator. ‘But you only stayed with him for a year.’ I can almost see the alarm bells clanging against Henrietta’s head. How will she explain this to her clients? They won’t want a flitter. They’ll want someone with staying power. Someone more stable. Time to tell a slight porky … ‘Sir Roseby was down-sizing his London office.’ I fib and she buys 204
it. ‘He no longer felt the need for an assistant in the UK.’ Translation: I was spent; I couldn’t take another minute of his petty demands. ‘And then?’ And then I had lots of offers: a reclusive billionaire who paid half the salary everyone else was offering; the boss of a highprofile football club; a supermodel – a notorious super-bitch; and a music legend, all of whom reeked of tantrums and tiaras. ‘Lord and Lady Clitherford,’ I say fondly. ‘I’m not familiar with, uh,’ she glances back at my CV but fails to find their names as she drools over what’s coming next. ‘He was a celebrated writer and she a portrait artist,’ I explain but I can tell she’s already moved on to my next, more ‘high-profile’ role. ‘They were sweet and eccentric and I liked them very much.’ I’d love to tell her that their house smelt of wet dog and talcum powder, that their daily routine consisted of reading newspapers, napping, and eating sardines on charcoaled toast, but she wouldn’t be interested. Why would she be when no one under the age of eighty has heard of them? ‘And why did you leave?’ ‘They died.’ ‘Both of them?’ she asks dispassionately. ‘Yes.’ ‘Hmm. I see.’ I wonder if she does, such is her blatant excitement. ‘Princess Charlotte.’ She releases an affectionate sigh. ‘Tell me about that.’ ‘Mmm,’ I mumble, never certain what to say at this point, but knowing full well that Henrietta wants to know everything. This is the job that makes me desirable. This is what makes me marketable. This is why I’m here. She looks at me expectantly. I tell her what she wants to know.
Joanne Sefton Aged nine, Joanne found herself cruelly uprooted from Lothian to Lancashire and pouring her soul into poetry. Though sadly lost to posterity, her masterpiece, Hoppy the Homesick Rabbit, earned her a Blue Peter badge and an addiction to writing. With an eye to solvency and a predilection for horsehair wigs, she commenced a career as a barrister. However, within a few years she realised that even getting paid to argue was much less fun than reading, writing and evangelising about great books. She took short courses with Arvon and City University then plucked up the confidence to ‘come out’ as a writer and enrol on the MA. The result is Netted – her first fullyrealised adult novel. Netted is a modern literary comedy which plays with genre, voice and expectations. It opens with the arrival of celebrity heiress, Peony-Bella de Zanté, in the isolated Highland fishing village of Treef. She catches the attention of hapless local fisherman, Pete Haddie, and their romantic entanglement plays out over the course of the book. But it’s not just love at stake here; Peony-Bella’s presence threatens the seclusion of this forgotten place and the villagers find their sanctuary invaded by outsiders, including profiteering businessmen, a depressed rock star and a gaggle of paparazzi. The social satire is lent depth by a historical mystery involving occult rituals and a clandestine affair. But how do these secrets lead back to Peony-Bella, and to the malevolent Siren who still lurks amongst the rocks offshore? This extract comes close to the end of the book when Peony-Bella has won her man but lost her fortune. firstname.lastname@example.org
Netted ‘Will you marry me?’ Silence. Except for the jostle of the water on the wood. And then the caw of a lone gull overhead. It was wet in the bottom of the dinghy. Pete felt his left calf muscle flicker and begin to cramp. Peebs still had her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were even wider. He was less convinced than before that this signified happiness. He was going to have to pull himself up. It wasn’t very gallant, but if his leg cramped fully he wouldn’t be able to move quickly enough to start the engine when they got close to the rocks. They spoke at the same time. ‘You don’t have to decide now if—’ ‘Yes—’ They both broke off, but then Peebs continued. ‘I was saying "yes". I’d love to. It’s … it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.’ She flung her arms around his neck. It took herculean effort to stifle his yowl of pain and keep hold of the ring. Almost immediately, she let go and sat back. She was looking, somewhat hungrily, at the box in his hand. There was no shame, he thought, in returning to his bench at this point. He creaked upright with a smothered ‘ow’ and a rueful glance at the sludgy green tidemark on his shorts, before carefully easing the ring from the box’s velvet grasp and gesturing for her left hand. ‘I hope you like it. It’s like three rings in one, so you can wear it a bit differently each time. And it’s unique. I got Hector to make it. But if you don’t like it then maybe—’ ‘I love it!’ The ring was on her finger now and she held it up to flash around in the sunlight. The gems and polished silver sparkled gloriously. ‘It’s totally freakin’ fabulous.’ She was still looking up at her hand, grinning like a kid at Christmas. It was every bit as good as he had hoped it would be. ‘I love you.’ He said it quietly, but it was still enough to bring her attention back from the ring to him. She dropped her left hand into her lap, and raised her glass. 207
‘And I love you, Pete Haddie.’ They couldn’t toast, the glasses were empty and he’d wedged the bottle against his bench when he got down on his knees. He would fill them in a moment, but first he wanted to kiss her. He closed his eyes and leant towards her, waiting for her lips; smoke-soft, tinder-dry, scorching with incendiary promise. ‘What’s that, over there?’ said Peebs. Pete found himself obliged to retreat, unkissed and feeling foolish. He opened his eyes. She was pointing over the port side of the dinghy, towards the Sentinels. ‘It keeps on disappearing behind the rocks.’ He squinted, frowning, then he saw a dark shape whipping up spray as it bounced over the surface. ‘It’s a RIB. Might be the coastguard. Christ, they’ve got some speed up.’ ‘A rib?’ ‘Rigid inflatable – a lightweight powerboat. It’s very dark, though. Doesn’t look like the right colours for the coastguard. Or the lifeboat.’ Over just a few seconds the blob resolved into a distinct boatshape, continually shifting in and out of their sight-line through the jagged needles of rock that sat between them. Each time they saw the boat, flashes of light flared like semaphore signals, low-cut rays of the evening sun deflected to bounce across the water and catch at their eyes. Suddenly, Pete realised what he was seeing. Lenses. ‘They’re photographers, Peebs. They must have brought the boat up on a trailer and launched her further down the coast.’ ‘Bastards! Just when everything was perfect. Are they trying to get close to the village? Or do you think they’ve seen us?’ ‘They have now.’ The boat had veered to the right to avoid the Sentinels, meaning that they now had a clear view of it. It was bearing down fast. It seemed that no sooner could they make out the individual figures than they could start to see them pointing and gesturing, and then the first, indecipherable, shouts began to carry across the water to them. Even 208
without the words the sound was unmistakably one of excitement and of triumph – the whoops of hunters sighting their prey. ‘Start the engine, Pete! Hurry up.’ He was already there, turning to fumble with the motor and succeeding only in crushing one of the champagne glasses against an oar. Fuck. The engine jumped to life, its decorous thrum already sounding weedy against the thundering of the RIB and the crash of its hull against the waves. ‘We can’t out-run them,’ he said, raising his voice. ‘You’ve told Danny, you’ve given back the money. There’s nothing to keep secret any more.’ Her face was wet from spray and tears, her skin pale, but blotched with red. ‘But it wasn’t meant to be like this. You made it perfect …’ she was shouting and still he had to strain to hear her. ‘… it was meant to be perfect.’ The RIB was about thirty feet away, turned slightly side-on as though to cut them off at the prow. In a moment, Pete took in the clamour of photographers, eight or nine of them, hung with cameras and equipment so they merged into a cats-cradle of straps and webbing. You could see the flashes now and hear them calling Peebs’ name, imploring and insulting, anything to get her to look at them. There was another voice too, shouting and frantic, although ‘sit down’ was all Pete could make out. The voice led him to the pilot – better word than ‘sailor’ for a boat like this and a man like that – rat-faced, young and panicked. A cold dread swept through Pete as the RIB scythed round and he caught the horrified eyes of a man barely clinging to the reins of his eight-hundred runaway-horse-powered beast. Facing the cameras, she might have been okay. But Peebs’ head was turned resolutely away from them, her arms held up to shield the side of her face. Her left hand, with its glittering ring, was deliberately buried in her dark hair. She was determined not to give them the shot they wanted. She missed the flailing turn of the RIB as it tried to whisk round in front of the dinghy but cut too fine. She missed the horror in the eyes of its young pilot as the wheel whirled uselessly out of his grasp. She missed the chance to brace herself for the impact when 209
Pete did. Even the mercenary, unbalanced platoon belatedly managed that; clutching at each other and at the equipment, huddling and falling and pulling one another down into the bottom of the RIB like a collapsing troupe of acrobats. The boats barely kissed. The waters, churned up and erratic from the misspent power of the RIB, brought them together in a side-long glance of wood and rubber before immediately surging up to push them apart again. The tiny dinghy tipped sideways and Pete watched as the remains of the rose garland, the champagne, the fleece, the ring box, the glasses – one broken, one whole – were tossed over the starboard side and into the clamouring waves. Peebs, leaning over that side already, head forward, hands aloft, was toppled out like a leaf from a paper sailboat. His fist closed round thin air. His scream died in his throat. And then he dived. Cold. So cold. Icy, paralysing, solid-stone-steel cold. It grips her ribs and forces open her throat. It wrenches her mouth wide in a cry for help, a last-gasp chance to snatch some air. But – treacherous ocean – she is already under. The cold water bursts into her mouth and surges through her nose. Her lungs seize with the need to expel it and she kicks for the light. A flash of hope. She can see it, she can’t be far under, she can live. Kick. Pull. Fight. But the light moves. It shifts and splinters and multiplies and she’s kicking still but it shouldn’t take this long. Hot. The muscles in her legs are burning, screaming. The fire catches. It spreads to her lungs, to her brain, it’s blinding her. Too much light. Too much hot. She knows she must keep fighting. Burn. Heavy. Dark. But she can’t. Pete lost count of the number of dives he made. In and up. In and up. Clinging to the dinghy or the RIB for a few seconds, then using the sides of the boats as kick-boards to go deeper. The second time, he thought he saw a flash of white skin, but when he moved in that direction, nothing. You shouldn’t be able to lose someone, not on a calm night, not when you saw them go in. But he knew, even as he tried to reassure himself, that it was nonsense. Down again. They were sitting over fifty foot of currents, with no fixed point of reference. The 210
boats themselves would have drifted since she fell, but how far? And which way? Down again. Why the hell had he not made her wear a life jacket? Down again. The youngster in charge of the RIB was ashen-faced and shaking. But he told Pete he’d radioed the coastguard and he was scanning the water with binoculars. At least he wasn’t going to do a runner. ‘We’ll pull you in, you’re too cold!’ he called, when Pete surfaced for the umpteenth time and hung onto a side-rope of the RIB for a moment longer than before. ‘N-no.’ His chattering teeth wouldn’t let him say any more. So he just shook his head. Two entwined and battered roses floated past his chest. Down again. Only when he saw the lights of the lifeboat did he realise that it was already dusk. It was from Ferriston, and the men on board knew him but they didn’t waste time asking questions. The skip ordered him out of the water, the RIB would take him into port, he would need to see a doctor. They would carry on searching. They would find her. Pete shook his head again. It would be too dark to see anything soon. But he didn’t have the strength to protest. He submitted to the posse of willing but awkward hands that reached out to haul him over the side of the RIB. The dinghy was already lashed off the back, hung from an improvised towing apparatus made out of straps and branded by Nikon and Canon. The pilot cautiously restarted the motors at half-power and they moved off. The photographers, human at close range, stripped Pete of the last few wet rags that the ocean hadn’t taken, rubbed some warmth back into his skin, and cocooned him in donated high-spec gear. A flask of coffee was produced and the warm, bitter trickle in his throat did more than anything to restore him to the land of the living. He felt every fibre of his body respond with eager rejoicing, and he despised himself. The forethought of the pap who owned the flask had secured him prime position, nestled beside Pete in the narrow, sheltered prow. Mother-hen-like, the photographer tucked up his charge and refilled the mug before speaking. ‘So,’ he said, lowering his voice conspiratorially. ‘Were you shagging her?’ 211
Soumitra Singh Soumitra Singh has a Bachelorâ€™s in Electronics Engineering and a Masterâ€™s in Business Administration. He worked in asset management at the Bank of New York Mellon, New York, before pursuit of his third degree and his real passion: Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Having finished his degree, he started working in the field of counterterrorism at a German think-tank for German homeland security. Soumitra grew up in India, but has lived in the UK, US, Italy and Germany. Amar and Jonah used to play chess in high school, before a series of events ripped their friendship apart. And now, seven years later, Amar finds himself embroiled in a strategy war against Jonah. This time, the game involves armies, economies, societies, corporations and some very dangerous people in the valley of Kashmir, in the Tibetan Mountains of Ladakh, in the streets of Seoul and Mumbai, and in the corporate houses of London and New York. Will Amar be able to unravel Jonahâ€™s plan and defeat him? The Child of Misfortune combines Eastern mysticism and Western sensibilities in a thriller that entertains as much as it explores contemporary world issues. The story explores the classic clash between idealism and realism. Do the ends really justify the means? What happens when things no longer exist in black and white, but only in shades of grey? Are Amar and Jonah really on opposite sides of the chessboard? email@example.com
The Child of Misfortune The Last Shangri-La The evening sun inched towards the Himalayan peaks, causing the barren mountain terrain to change from the yellows that had been baking in the afternoon heat, to crystalline pinks and greys resembling a moonlike landscape. Nested in an isolated corner against the Zanskar range, the monastic township of Hemis lay in stark contrast to the desert plateau of Ladakh. Lush green farms surrounded the self-sufficient monastery – which had its own schools, hospitals and farms of wheat and barley. At the base of the monastery, where a fence of white rods wedged into the ground marked the end of the farms and the beginning of the township, a twelve-foot-tall mani-chos-’khor creaked as it rotated. Resembling a vertical wind turbine, the colorful prayer wheel was a vessel of good karma and vibrations. It spun with massive momentum as prayer symbols written in the old Tibetan tongue (embossed in gold lettering across the wheel’s perimeter) rolled across. A lone, tall figure read the mantras off the wheel as he walked tirelessly up the large steps that led to the township and towards Hemis. ‘No visitor. No visitor,’ a young guard in a maroon chuba shouted in English. He stood at the entrance to the temple monastery courtyard, leaning against a wooden stick as tall as he. His skin was sunburnt a dark red, and matched the chuba he wore. ‘Come tomorrow for shrine. Only courtyard open now.’ ‘Julay. I’m here to speak to the yellow monk.’ The visitor spoke in Kashmiri. The young guard’s mouth fell open, partly at the pale foreigner’s fluency in the local dialect, but mostly at the request. ‘But the yellow-haired, giant monk does not speak to anyone,’ the guard replied, switching to Kashmiri immediately. ‘He has been on a fast of silence for over fifteen years.’ ‘May I be granted an audience?’ The visitor bowed his head slightly, in the humility of a request. The young guard eyed the long rectangular cases that the visitor 213
had by his side, unaware that the swords in the casings were responsible for the assassination in the city of Leh. His eyes moved back to the tall man’s face, and to the scar across his right eye. ‘Certainly. The yellowhaired, giant monk never refuses an audience. Follow me.’ He led the distinctive visitor across the monastery courtyard, through a series of extremely narrow and high stone steps teeming with maroon-robed children that stopped to smile and wave, and through a maze of cement archways and twisting gulleys painted in white. As they climbed higher up the stone paths of Hemis, the recitation of mantras, that could be heard as a buzz below, grew louder till the air itself seemed to be resonate with the incantations of hundreds of baritone voices. They finally arrived at a small, white cuboidal house with a maroon door. The guard knocked with the metal kundi before pushing the wooden door and stepping in. His companion waited outside. ‘He’ll see you now,’ the young guard said, emerging from the faintly lit interior a few moments later. ‘But please keep in mind that he does not speak.’ ‘I have a request for you as well,’ the visitor declared to the young host before stepping in. ‘Can you bring a certain man to this same place when he comes by later? I’ll get back to you after the monk has spoken.’ The guard had his doubts, and was unsure of whether he should ask this stern visitor for a tip, but decided to let him past for the moment. The tall man stepped forwards and stooped to squeeze through the door. As his vision adjusted to the dark, he made out the form of the monk, sitting ramrod on a meditation mat on the floor. In his right hand, the monk grasped the wooden handle of a mani wheel, a miniature version of the giant prayer wheel outside. He spun it with a gentle flicking of his wrist, its heavy cord spinning circles around the inscribed mantras. With the other hand, he counted beads on a rosary. The two were in perfect tandem. The monk was wrapped in maize-coloured cloth, only his blue eyes were open to the exterior world. Those eyes glanced momentarily 214
at the visitor and then settled on a spot directly ahead. The visitor stepped two feet away from him and knelt on one leg reverently, bowing his head and placing his possessions deftly on the floor. ‘Reverent Lama,’ he began in Kashmiri. ‘I know it has been many years since Unit 22’s remaining factions dispersed, and that you want nothing to do with any form of violence … ’ The visitor paused and looked up at thick blonde eyebrows that were now raised and at eyes that looked intently at him. The mani wheel had stopped spinning, and the rosary was not being counted anymore. ‘But I must request you break your fast and go against your adopted dharma once again.’ The room remained eerily quiet, now devoid of the grating sound of the prayer wheel. ‘But in order for you to understand the severity of the situation and for me to make my request,’ the bowing visitor continued, ‘I must first converse with you.’ The visitor placed the long object on his knee and tugged at one end, slowly withdrawing a Shaolin broadsword, nine steel rings on its reverse blade and a red cloth attached to its hilt. The monk’s eyes grew wide. ‘This once belonged to you,’ the visitor said offering the sword on both palms, lowering his head even further, his eyes on the ground. A pair of hands in amber gloves approached the blade, hesitantly. A minute later, the sword was lifted from the hands of the genuflecting man. As soon as the weight was raised off his hands, the visitor stood up, snatched the second black case – a double scabbard – and drew out a pair of identical longswords. He held the two new blades, one in each hand, identical in every dimension except that one had a reverse blade meant to be handled by the opposite hand as the other. ‘And since we must talk,’ the visitor said as he slowly rose from the floor, ‘there would be no way better way to do so than through a swordfight.’ The mute monk’s blue eyes stared intently at the visitor’s face for the longest time. ‘You must promise me though, reverent Lama, that if I am to win 215
this argument, you will break your fast and hear what I have come to ask of you.’ The monk finally unwrapped his legs and stood up, towering over the visitor – much to the latter’s surprise. He pointed to the empty, cemented courtyard behind the shelter. ‘Připraveni?’ the visitor questioned. The monk’s eyes narrowed at the words, but he followed the visitor. The two walked outside – to the courtyard that the sun setting in the Zanskar Mountains had bathed pink. He could not just abandon Maansi. And after coming so far north, he could not just head back to Mumbai – nothing awaited him there anyway. Hemis had been the perfect compromise; at the foot of the Zanskar Himalayas and on the way to and from Pangong Tso. Maansi would certainly visit it on the way back from the lake. Amar did remember her having mentioned the monastic township. But having spent the night at Hemis, and most of the morning perched at the entrance to the township chomping on chocolate bars, he wasn’t sure anymore. Bored out of his mind, he stood up, cracked his back and walked towards the monastery. There were few people there, mostly tourists arguing over why they could not be let into the shrine. They were being told that the monastery would remain closed due to unrest in the city of Leh. ‘No shrine, no visitor,’ said a young sentry waving a long stick as he approached the top of the steps. ‘Unless you meeting yellowhaired, giant monk,’ he added quickly in broken English. ‘Why would I want to meet whomever that is?’ Amar spoke in Hindi, and immediately the guard shifted language. ‘Sometimes people come to meet him,’ he began in earnest as he wiped his mouth with his maroon sleeves. ‘The yellow-haired, giant monk has been on a fast of silence for more than fifteen years. But yesterday a white-haired foreigner with this frightening facial scar came to visit him. He said that the yellow-haired, giant monk would talk to him.’ Amar’s eyes grew wide. ‘What? Who came yesterday?’ ‘Tall, white-haired, white man,’ the guard repeated, ‘with a scar 216
across his right eye.’ Amar’s mouth fell open. ‘Who did he come to meet?’ ‘He came to meet the yellow-haired—’ ‘Take me to him! To this giant monk,’ Amar shouted grabbing the guard’s chuba collar with both hands. Minutes later, Amar found himself in a small room, in the presence of a quiet shape sitting perfectly still, arms folded into yellow robes. ‘Did Jonah come to meet you yesterday?’ he asked the monk, his voice cracking with desperation. There was no reply. ‘He has white hair, though he’s very young,’ Amar added by way of explanation. ‘Did he come to meet you? What did he want from you?’ Silence met his questions. ‘The yellow-haired, giant monk does not talk,’ the young guard’s voice floated in from outside. Amar joined his hands and prostrated before the monk, touching the monk’s clothed feet with the tips of his fingers. ‘Please. It is important for me to know. I have come a long way. Where is Jonah? What is he up to? Can you please indicate by nodding or using signs?’ The monk’s blue eyes stared at him, unblinking. Suddenly, the monk began to move. He took off his amber gloves with a rustling sound, and with his bare right hand pointed at Amar’s forehead. Amar watched, as the monk’s outstretched index finger came closer to his eyes, until finally it touched the spot between his eyebrows. A second later, the finger retreated as the monk pulled his hands back into the folds of his robe. Amar waited, willing something more to happen, but the monk reassumed his former stoic stance. ‘Please. I need to know.’ Two minutes later, Amar exited the tent, his face downcast. ‘I told you,’ the young guard said. ‘He does not speak.’ Amar shook his head and looked up. ‘Do you know where he went? The white-haired foreigner?’ ‘No,’ the guard replied and extended his hand forward and put 217
on the broadest smile, but before the guard could ask for a fee for his services, Amar froze. ‘What happened?’ he heard the guard ask, but his mind whirred and his legs nearly gave away as it all came to Amar in a deluge of understanding. Jonah! Jonah had directed him here and had orchestrated the entire scenario. Jonah was involved in Jigme Samphel’s assassination. Jonah had thought four, no, five moves ahead. A checkered past with black and white squares. The game had begun. Jonah had made his opening moves and put forth his challenge. He had displayed his opening battle array. The Buddhists. The terrorists. The monks. The political parties. Maansi. They were all pieces on the board. And what about him? Was Jonah considering him an opponent, or was he just one of the pieces? Which piece was Jonah using him as? ‘Sirjee’ Amar’s thoughts were interrupted as the young guard thrust out his hand in front of him. He looked up to find the guard smiling widely, all his front teeth on display. ‘A tip for this poor monk, please.’
Catherine Slade Catherine Slade is a model maker and sculptor living and working in Bristol. Since graduating from Bath Spa University with a BA (Hons) in Illustration, she has primarily been employed by Aardman Animations. After completing a Diploma in Creative Writing at Bristol University, she progressed to the MA at Bath Spa, where she has been working on her first novel: Nothing is Lost, Nothing is Broken. Although everything was bitten away with the fear of doing, or saying, or being the wrong thing, it could all come to nothing, so the time spent fretting was pointless. And I worried about that too. Zoe Baker is fourteen and at a Christian holiday camp with her family when she starts to really question what she had always thought she believed. Alienated at school for being ‘religious’, she now finds herself thrown into a confusing mix of teenagers with purity rings, condoms, or both. While grappling with issues of God, self, and wearing the wrong T-shirt, her grandad falls ill. Suddenly, faraway concepts of death and an afterlife are brought acutely into focus. Spanning eighteen years, Nothing is Lost, Nothing is Broken explores four pivotal moments in which circumstances force Zoe to look more closely at how faith, family, love and identity fit into her life. Pushed to crisis point each time, she is compelled to pick a side; by choosing one, she risks losing another. At the heart of the novel – and the decisions Zoe has to make – are fear and loss. firstname.lastname@example.org
Nothing is Lost, Nothing is Broken Yes, Grandad was definitely seriously ill, and they did expect him to die, but no one was sure exactly when. That was the thing about death, it announced it was coming your way then let you sweat it out. This meant that all of us, but especially Dad, were living on tenterhooks for who knew how long and the state of limbo in the house became something we had to live with. Just as we had to get used to the sight of Dad with two-day stubble and restless eyes that darted around, landing on nothing. I walked past him to get the milk. ‘What are you doing, Dad?’ I asked the inside of the fridge. I was curious to see what had made him snap out of his dream-like state. ‘What?’ I said, when I heard a noise that could have been his answer or could have been the fridge-hum. I closed the door and turned to face him, but he looked away. This was what I’d wanted to avoid. If a fridge doesn’t answer you, it’s okay, but if your dad doesn’t it’s harder to take. ‘He’s going through a difficult time.’ Mum had said. ‘Try not to take it personally.’ ‘What are you doing Dad?’ I asked again. He mumbled something and kept his back to me. I didn’t ask a third time. Instead, I poured milk on my cereal and ate it slowly at the kitchen table. One hand spooned in cornflakes, the other supported my head. I was tired; I hadn’t slept properly the last few nights. I kept having nightmares and then when I woke up, I was finding it harder to get back to sleep. The night before had been the worst. I hadn’t been able to drop off, so I’d gone downstairs to get something to drink. I stopped on the stairs when I heard Mum’s voice coming from the kitchen. After a moment’s hesitation, I sat down to listen. She was talking on the phone. I heard her say that she didn’t think it would be much longer, that he was barely hanging on and it was awful to see him. There was a pause when the person at the other end must have said something. ‘No, we won’t let them see him now,’ she said, ‘it would be too upsetting.’ There was another, longer pause, and I turned to look through the half-opened door of the lounge. I 221
could see the back of Dad’s head. He was sitting in front of the telly, his fingers tapping a fast and steady rhythm on the armrest. Mum still hadn’t said anything and I wondered whether she had hung up, but I hadn’t heard her say goodbye. ‘Yes, that’s right,’ she said and then: ‘He’s got tubes everywhere; he’s more or less in a coma. And today, he was dribbling brown liquid.’ I didn’t want to hear anymore. I quickly went back to my room, got into bed and tried to let myself be pulled into a blank space, empty of thought. I woke with a gasp and found myself sitting bolt upright. I’d dreamt I was in my school hall at night, in the middle of a cross-legged line. It was just like normal, except my family were there as well, and everyone had tubes stuck in their necks. When assembly was over the rows started to file out, but nobody got very far, as the other end of the tubes were attached to the wall. The Head was annoyed that no one was leaving but when she opened her mouth to say so, no words came out, only brown liquid. Another teacher tried to speak and the same thing happened. Soon, the entire hall was crying and trying to shout for help, but every time someone opened their mouth, brown liquid dribbled out of it. I pushed soggy cornflakes around the bowl with my spoon, and wondered if Grandad could still hear. I hoped that he could, so he wouldn’t be lonely, and I said a prayer in my head that I wanted to believe. I put my bowl on the counter top. Dad had moved from the spot that was blocking me, and I could see one of Grandad’s china horses. It lived on the sideboard next to their TV and, when Countdown stopped being interesting, I’d look at the horses instead. It was a smooth solid thing, complete with blinkers and a cart that was attached to its body with reins. The thing I liked the most was the cart’s wheels that actually turned when you moved it. I wasn’t supposed to touch it, but whenever I got the chance, I did. When Dad left the house, I went back to the kitchen and had a closer look. The horse was standing on three legs, the other lay in pieces beside it. I picked up a part of the broken leg and ran my fingers over 222
it; the glassy mound of the horse’s knee, the rough edge that held my finger, the thin, sharp porcelain that almost pierced my skin. There was a tube of Superglue lying on a piece of tissue beside the shards of china. It was half-used-up, and it made me sad that, even though it looked impossible, Dad hadn’t given up. I wondered if I should try to fix it. I would have loved him to have come back and seen his father’s horse magically restored, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do it. And even if I could, maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe Dad needed to mend it himself. Later, I went to get a drink. Rebekah was standing at the draining board and my eyes widened when I saw she had tried to fix the horse. Her tongue was sticking out as she concentrated on gluing the final piece in place. She jumped when she saw me. But then she smiled. ‘What do you think?’ My heart pounded when I saw what she had done. There were bubbles of hardened glue between the pieces that were not lined up properly. But the worst part was that one of the bits of leg was now the wrong way round and there was no disguising that. I looked at her. ‘What is it?’ she asked. ‘Nothing,’ I said, and wondered if we could take it apart again. I thought about dropping it on the floor, but then the whole thing might break. I didn’t know what would be the best thing to do, but Dad couldn’t see it like this. ‘Don’t you think he’ll be pleased?’ she asked. I didn’t have chance to answer, as I heard the sound of feet being wiped on the doormat and knew it was Dad back from the shops. I stood rigid. The front door unlocked; it was too late to do anything. I put the horse back on the draining board, stood away from it and faced the hall. Through the glass panels of the kitchen door his wobbly image grew. He nudged the door open and placed the bags he was carrying on the table. His movements were slow, as if he were wading through water. Maybe he won’t notice, I thought. If we could get him out of the kitchen, we could show it to Mum and she’d know what to do. 223
‘Look Dad,’ said Rebekah. I looked at her, at Dad, and finally at the horse. It wasn’t any better than the last time I’d seen it. ‘What have you done?’ he asked quietly. If he’d said it louder, I might not have been so worried. If he’d shouted it, Mum would have heard from upstairs and come down. But he said it quietly, so we were on our own. He went over to it, picked it up, and turned it over in his hands. I wondered if he hoped that there would be an angle where it looked better. But there wasn’t. If anything the more you looked at it, the worse it got. Rebekah turned to me; she looked anxious. ‘What have you done?’ he asked again. ‘It’s ruined.’ ‘But it’s mended,’ she said, confused. ‘I mended it.’ ‘Does it look fixed to you?’ he asked, as he held it in the air. Then he said to himself: ‘She’s ruined it. I would have made it as good as new. I wanted it to be perfect.’ ‘I tried my best,’ she said. ‘You should have left it alone,’ he barked at her. ‘Why d’you go touching it anyway? It’d be better off smashed.’ ‘Well, smash it then,’ she said. He looked at her for a second, still holding the horse. Then he put it down carefully, walked back to the shopping and started unpacking the food. I went over to help. ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering with it anyway,’ she said. I froze, holding a jar of Marmite. ‘What?’ asked Dad. I quickly shook my head at Rebekah. She looked nervous but, with her chin raised slightly, kept talking. ‘Well, I mean, you never wanted to go and visit them. And when Mum dragged you there you always fell asleep.’ In the heartbeat of silence I thought he was going to hit her. Instead, he picked up a French stick, the nearest thing to hand, lifted it high, and brought it down on the table. He did the same again, and again. And again. Bits of bread flew in slow motion, the 224
stick itself started to crumble. I couldn’t believe what was happening, I’d never seen Dad be violent. Rebekah looked shocked, and at one point, almost amused. She glanced over to me, and I saw her face in an instant move on to pain and sadness. Surely we should do something, but what? Mum flung the door of the kitchen open just as the bread splintered into small parts and fell from his grip. He looked down at his open hands and the mess on the table and seemed surprised at what he had done. He looked up at Mum, who hugged him close. The worst thing was – what she said was true. She shouldn’t have said it, she knew that, and she cried about it for days. But it was true, and that was what upset him. As soon as Mum and Dad walked in through the door, I knew. I didn’t want to look at them, because then they couldn’t tell me, and then it wouldn’t have happened. Mum put the kettle on and gathered us in the lounge. I sat down on a beanbag and waited for my world to change. Mum didn’t say anything. ‘Is Grandad better?’ Rebekah asked. ‘No,’ she said. Dad started to cry. ‘Grandad’s died,’ she said. ‘I’m so sorry.’ The world still felt the same, but I knew it wouldn’t stay that way. ‘He was very peaceful when he went.’ I doubted that was true. And anyway, ‘went’ where? Where had Grandad gone? It was mad that someone could be lifted out of our lives and just disappear. Though they didn’t – disappear, I mean – not if you believed in Heaven. But would it be enough for Grandad to get there if we believed in it, or would he have to believe in it himself? Mum said he couldn’t talk, so even if he did, how could he tell anyone? I closed my eyes, and imagined how it would feel to know that you’d never be able to open them again, to be trapped inside a body that was slowly shutting down. And I wondered if it had hurt, when he died. 225
Davina Smith Davina Smith, a former project manager, is a sculptor, painter and graduate of Oxford University’s Diploma in Creative Writing. She has three stories published in freehandWORDS, an online anthology. Tumbledown is her second novel. On a cold November night in 1975, ten-year-old Grace hears a song that foretells her future, if only she could remember the words. The next day, Grace’s parents die in a bizarre accident. She is forced to move to the fictional northern town of Tumbledown to live with Nana and Randolph, a very wise dog. Tumbledown is a quirky, downat-heel backwater with its own narrator; it’s also a place where odd things happen. Grace is a ‘freak’. She has inherited abilities that her forebears were persecuted for. Struggling with loneliness, she’s befriended by Mr Bragg, a local shopkeeper, with his own journey of enlightenment to make. Then there’s Jericho, a powerful but vulnerable seventeenyear-old teetering on the edge of evil. Unbeknown to Grace and Jericho, they are half-siblings, born of the same mother. When Nana tries to sever their intense friendship the ramifications are disastrous – for her, Grace, Mr Bragg and ultimately, Jericho. This is a story of awful inevitability, of Jericho’s painful history re-enacting itself and of Grace’s desperate fight to survive. Although Tumbledown is anchored in the realities of northern life in the 1970s the book’s dark tale taps a rich vein of fantasy. It has the other-worldly feel of Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, echoes of Angela Carter’s The Magic Toyshop, and a sprinkling of Alan Bennett’s wry humour. email@example.com
Tumbledown ‘You’re on the cusp.’ Grace leaned forward, the better to hear, and took Nana’s slack, cold-bone fingers in hers. ‘Say again,’ she urged. Nana’s focus flickered like a newly-lit candle and then came to rest on her face. ‘… on the cusp,’ she repeated. Her hand squeezed Grace’s ineffectually. A flutter of flesh against flesh. ‘What do you mean?’ Grace could see Nana fighting for the words – tendons pulling and a slow, dry swallow. Parting her lips and un-sticking her tongue, Nana said, ‘You’re getting older. Things’ll soon be different.’ Grace wanted to ask what cusp meant and how things would be different but Nana’s eyes glazed over as her vision turned inwards. She’d gone again. Her bottom jaw slackened and a precious bubble of saliva formed at the corner of her mouth. Drying out like an autumn leaf, parched and skeletal, disintegrating along the vein-lines. That was Nana. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes, shrivelling up and blowing away. Grace searched her vacant face looking for a clue. Nana’s skin had changed so much. What had recently been smooth and plump was now paper-thin, peppered with a myriad of tiny lines. Her eyes, suspended deep within the darkened sockets, had faded to a watery blue. Only her nose remained as Grace remembered. Hooked and angular. ‘I could do damage with this,’ Nana used to say. ‘See that tree, the one with the upturned cones, I’d give a woodpecker a run for his money.’ And she’d laugh at herself before anyone else could. Now it loomed so large over her shrunken face that it cast an imposing shadow in the late afternoon sun. Grace touched it with her finger coming to rest at its rubbery, cartilage peak. Nurse Watkins watched from the periphery of her vision. Humming tunelessly, she busied herself with routine. ‘Where does she go?’ Grace asked. Nurse Watkins flicked the drip-line. She rustled as she moved, the starched uniform pulling taut across her bosom. She didn’t answer 227
at first. Locating a point on Nana’s wrist, somewhere between bone and tendon, she mouthed numbers and then shook her head a little. ‘Soon be over,’ she said softly. Then she turned to Grace. ‘She’s dying, lovey. When she disappears like that, she’s off testing the waters in the next world. And when she’s ready, she’ll stay and not come back.’ Grace’s eyes widened. ‘Dying? But she can’t be.’ ‘Of course, lovey.’ ‘No! She can’t be.’ Grace sprang to her feet. ‘You told me she was getting better, all her vitals were improving, you said.’ ‘I know I did. But that was a few days ago. Since then she’s taken a turn for the worse. You must’ve noticed. Whatever’s the matter with her ain’t letting go.’ ‘But only a week ago … a week … she was well. We were baking apple pie and jam tarts and—’ Grace stopped. Was this what the prophecy had really meant? Coldness flooded her body, she started to shake. ‘It’s too soon, don’t you see? Nana can’t die. Not yet.’ Nurse Watkins stepped round the bed and wrapped her arm around Grace’s shoulders. ‘It’s always too soon for those that love and are left behind. I know it’s been sudden, sometimes it happens like that. But this is her time, lovey. Her time. And you need to prepare yourself.’ Grace’s stricken face looked up. ‘How?’ ‘Say whatever you need to before it’s too late. She’ll hear well enough.’ ‘What’ll happen?’ Grace whispered. ‘When she dies?’ She nodded. ‘Just like now, how you see her now. The only difference being is her breathing’ll stop and she won’t come back no more.’ ‘That’s it?’ ‘Make sure you say goodbye, lovey. Not long now.’ She glanced around the room, her eyes momentarily landing on the vase of bloodred dahlias by Nana’s bedside. She frowned, as though something about them made her feel uncomfortable. ‘No one ever comes but you. What about the rest of the family? Will they be here soon?’ 228
Randolph stirred beneath the bed. He lifted his head to watch Grace’s face. Grace dropped her eyes. ‘I suppose.’ Nurse Watkins was wrong. It was nothing like she’d said. When the time came the panting butterfly breaths abruptly gave way to silence. Silence. Followed by a rasping, clutching of last air. Half a minute later another one caught Grace by surprise. Stiff with waiting, she readied herself for the next. And when it came, like the sound of steam forcing from a train’s brakes, the air escaped and the thin cave of Nana’s chest fell in. Behind her staring eyes the light had gone out. In that final rush, life itself had been expelled. The sunlight, split into horizontal stripes by the blind, highlighted a haze of colours – blue, green and purple – that slowly rose and hovered above Nana’s vacant body. At first Grace thought it was some trick of the daylight and turned to stare accusingly at the window. But closing the blind made no difference. The cloud deepened in intensity, the gaseous colours moving without mixing. She watched till it faded, till her eyes ached from staring. Randolph pushed his body up close until their heats mingled. ‘Bye, Nana,’ she said at last, to the now empty room. Later, when it was nearly dark and Grace was but an outline by Nana’s bedside, there was a flurry of activity in the corridor. Nurse Watkins entered the room first. She tutted softly and switched the bedside lamp on. ‘Your auntie’s here, lovey.’ Aunt Karla strode in, a confection of gold jewellery and bronzed skin. Dressed in flared white trousers and matching halter-neck top, she looked like she’d just come from the beach. Wafting the nurse to one side, she leant forward over Nana. ‘When did it happen?’ The nurse glanced at Grace before answering, ‘3.30. I’ve been trying to get hold of you. The child’s been by herself all this time.’ Frowning, Aunt Karla straightened her back. Reluctantly, her 229
eyes flicked towards Grace. ‘You’ll have to come back with me until we decide what to do.’ ‘She’s been here every day, haven’t you, lovey? Not an ounce of trouble. All on her own, poor sausage.’ But Aunt Karla had stopped listening. ‘What on earth!’ She pointed under the bed. Randolph’s tail thumped apologetically. The nurse bent down a little to peer. ‘What a good dog he is. Quiet as a mouse. Never met the like.’ Aunt Karla’s face was reddening rapidly. ‘What about the hygiene?’ ‘Dirt didn’t kill your Mammy. Him and the child kept her going. At least they cared enough to be here.’ The nurse clamped her lips together, turned and left the room before Aunt Karla could respond. The doctors couldn’t explain what had killed Nana. The pneumonia obviously, but what had caused that? A fit and healthy woman, even for sixty-three. A limp yes, but when one leg’s a little shorter, what can be expected? And no record of respiratory disease. In fact hardly any medical records at all. Even her children were home births – as easy as shelling peas Nana had said at the time. The post-mortem report was inconclusive – respiratory failure following a secondary pulmonary infection. An answer, not a reason.
Abi Steady Before studying the Masters in Creative Writing, Abi Steady obtained a BSc in Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter. In her novel, Dreamscape, she draws on both these disciplines to create a futuristic world where humans have lost the ability to dream and are reliant on an Engineered Dream Eco Network (Eden). ‘I haven’t dreamt in over five days. Most people are dead after three.’ Two hundred years ago, a social media experiment went horribly wrong. Rather than allowing participants to share their dreams, Eden took over, leaving the volunteers trapped in an addictive system that cut them off from the outside world. Ada is the Head Guardian of the Ialu, or dreamfields, tasked with keeping the population of Eden alive. She controls the dreaming of others but has a secret of her own, an extended dream tolerance that, when discovered, puts her in jeopardy from the ruling Council. Assisted by Remi, a Guardian who offers friendship but has secrets of his own, Ada begins a journey to find out what truly happens in Eden. She unveils layers of society she doesn’t know exists, uncovers the truth about the mother she thought died seventeen years earlier, and realises what happens to those whose visible imperfections exclude them from Eden. Dreamscape is a science fiction novel – told in first person – which explores how human relationships are affected by losing touch with the natural environment. firstname.lastname@example.org
Dreamscape ‘Guardian Ada?’ A hand on my shoulder rocks me gently, then more insistently. ‘Ada? Wake up, you shouldn’t be here.’ Remi has found me. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask, in dread. ‘Nothing, I left the Ialu before you.’ He is not in his uniform, only the standard-issue, grey jumpsuit, tight across his shoulders. It washes out his face. He would look different wearing colour. The crate he chooses to sit on is tinted blue, the wood underneath showing through. My arms are numb and I relish the sparks of feeling when I flex them and the blood rushes back. ‘How did you find me?’ ‘I wasn’t looking. My parents’ residence is around the corner.’ He gestures back along the corridor. ‘What do they do?’ I ask. ‘Dad’s in Storage and Mum’s a canteen worker.’ There is no embarrassment at their positions in his voice, but he stands and readjusts his seat, pushing it further along the wall. I jump, the crate creaking and shifting under me. Low down on the wall is a small white carving, similar to the larger ones in the Infirmary and Niva’s white room. The composition gives me the same shivery feeling, which starts with a tingle across my fingertips, which are aching to test the smoothness of the image. ‘What’s that?’ I ask. Remi glances at the carving, then shrugs. ‘I don’t know, it’s always been here, and it’s the only one I’ve ever seen.’ He looks away, up to the lights on his left. ‘Perhaps someone got bored.’ Like the others, the image is perfectly defined, yet beyond my comprehension. Its perfection is fear-inducing. No, not fear. Awe? Wonder? My heart is pounding, my cheeks hot then cold. The unnamed emotions will not settle. Standing, I walk across to it, to graze my fingers along the edges. There are differences to the other pictures I have seen: there are no people in this one. ‘Move up,’ I say, shunting Remi’s crate to reveal the rest of the image. 233
The picture is small, but the scale is huge. The top half is filled by a roof, which up close is not smooth, but pockmarked by tiny indentations. There is a path below, but it doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. ‘Why does it bend around so much?’ I murmur, tracing the route with my finger down to the base of the frame. ‘It’s so inefficient.’ Two eyes stare out. It is not a face. It is misshapen, hideous, with a long pointed nose, so prominent that the eyes would sink behind if they were not so intent. Hair covers it all, and on the top of its head two large protrusions stick up. A shiver runs up my spine. I crouch to stare into the eyes. They are not alive, with no sparkle or glimmer, but still their gaze is purposeful, hiding a secret. Being in its sightline, I think, would turn me to stone. Remi moves behind me; the rasp of the bench on the floor is too loud. I imagined this place full of noise, but it feels oddly desolate now. ‘It’s called Wolf,’ he says, reaching over my shoulder to touch the carved nose. ‘What is Wolf?’ Remi remains silent and twisting round I find him peering towards the corridor. His left hand tugs at his bottom lip. ‘What’s Wolf, Remi?’ I repeat. His eyes meet mine and I wish they hadn’t. I have enough troubles of my own without trying to answer the thousand questions I find there. Questions of trust and loyalty. We are suspended in the tableau for an eternity. ‘Come with me.’ He offers his hand. I use the wall to haul myself up. His steps are certain, unhurried, taking a familiar path. Leaving the courtyard, Remi ignores the first five or six branching corridors, then takes one to the right. We are nearer the Atrium now, the light bright and white. Remi stops and swipes at the identpad of a residence. We are at his quarters. Sweat breaks out on my palms. The Council would prefer to have their say in partnerings, especially for me. The room is a mirror of my own, containing only a bed, wardrobe and a single shelf for personal items; it contains only a small, dark 234
blue box, the velvet fabric, two-toned under the light. The door to the bathroom is closed. The click of the door shutting makes me turn. The whole wall is covered in an odd mosaic of pictures. I have never seen so much paper in one place; the pieces fluttering in the air currents from the ventilation shaft that opens above. It is a collection of strange-looking things, some vaguely human, others more alien. Every colour and pattern conceivable is on display. Like a child, I can’t stop myself reaching out and touching the images, feeling the worn paper beneath my fingers. It is more precious than the contents of the room. ‘There’s Wolf.’ Remi says, showing me the carving I have just seen in monochrome, now depicted in colour. The eyes are more piercing and the hair is brown, but whiter around the nose. The tip is the black behind closed eyelids. Near the centre is a large page with orange, black and white stripes in an angry face. The long limbs reach out and there is a sensuous beauty in their captured movement. Up and right, matching colours are displayed, three white bands, edged in black on orange. ‘Are they related?’ I point to them in turn, thinking of the hair colouring that passes through families. Remi laughs. ‘No. That’s Tiger. That’s Clownfish.’ The words are unfamiliar, and I roll them around my mouth, attempting to connect their feel to the images. There are so many bright colours, patterned in stripes and spots. Some of the pictures are smaller than my thumb but others are larger than my chest. ‘How did they get onto the paper?’ I ask. ‘They’re not handdrawn.’ ‘I’ve wondered that too,’ Remi says, resting his hand on my left shoulder. A blush of happiness curls inside me, spreading like warmth between my shoulder blades. ‘Where did you get them?’ I ask, incredulous. ‘Salvaged. Some I found, others were given to me. The first one was already here when I moved in.’ He points to a strange red and black creature with six legs and no eyes. There is something comical about its appearance, although I wonder if it’s right to think so. 235
‘Why are you showing me? Why now?’ Remi’s hand drops from my shoulder. ‘Some things are made to be shared.’ ‘Does the Council know?’ Remi cannot hide his disgust, ‘Of course not. Do you think it would be here if they did?’ ‘But how?’ I swallow and rephrase my question, ‘How did you find them?’ Remi flushes. ‘After the first, I wondered if there were more. Like a treasure hunt, I just had to look in the right places. That one was on a broken wrapper in the canteen.’ He points to a tiny picture, yellow and brown on the shiny paper of a packet. It is ripped, a jagged line cutting across the long neck. ‘But what are they?’ ‘Animals,’ Remi says, and I mouth it, soundlessly. ‘They’re so strange,’ I murmur. ‘They’re beautiful.’ Remi’s voice is reverent. They are intriguing and mysterious, but not beautiful. There must be more information somewhere, answers to the puzzle of what they are. ‘Who could have imagined them?’ I ask. ‘They’re not imagined. They’re real,’ Remi say. ‘I think they’re outside. Or were outside – they used to live there.’ ‘And now?’ ‘Dead I guess.’ Remi almost shrugs, but cares too much to finish the motion. ‘Unless they could survive.’ I snort at the optimism of life in a barren place. ‘You can’t believe that.’ ‘Maybe I do,’ he says. ‘That’s not what the stats show.’ ‘Have you ever spoken to one of the scientists working on our return to the outside?’ ‘No.’ ‘Of course you haven’t. High-and-mighty Ada never speaks to anyone if she can help it. Well I’ve looked for them, and they can’t be found. They don’t exist.’ 236
‘That’s ridiculous. You’ve seen the update screen in the Atrium. The Council is always trying to make us conserve more, to make us last longer, why would they do that if we don’t need to? The outside is uninhabitable and has been for over two centuries. Maybe the toxic levels have decreased, but it won’t be enough in our lifetime, or our children’s.’ The mention of children causes my mouth to dry out. ‘You are so naive.’ He paces. ‘It’s about control. If we can’t leave then they have power over us.’ ‘We can’t leave anyway. What about the dreaming?’ Remi stops in his tracks. ‘But imagine. If dreaming wasn’t involved.’ ‘It is though.’ ‘Just try, Ada.’ His voice is steel. There are so many pictures. Some are bizarre, all legs and toes and eyes, slimy-looking, as though they’ve just fallen into a vat of jelly and climbed back out. Their unnerving gaze and misshapen limbs are discomforting. Others look soft and rounded, bundled up in layers of fat and muscle that must connect in strange places to create such forms. There is one that captures my eye, its arms outstretched with skin or tissue stretched between like the thinnest fabric. It would be possible to see light through if it wasn’t set against a black background. Its face is scrunched up, a squat nose with two black eyes. At the top of its head sit two flaps of skin, ribbed and ridged, covered with tiny perpendicular hairs. The ventilation clunks to a halt, and the papers settle back against the wall. ‘But if it is viable, if we have a choice, why are we still here? This has to be a last resort.’ ‘Fear. The outside is unknown. Most people have forgotten about these.’ Remi jabs a finger at the pictures. ‘Trying to mobilise the entire population to adapt would be chaos. It would require so much forward planning that it’s just easier not to.’ ‘So we’re hiding under the covers when really there’s nothing to be afraid of? I can’t believe that. This must be it.’ ‘You’re as blind as the Council,’ Remi says. 237
‘And you’re living in the past. It doesn’t exist anymore. This is just escapism. We live and die doing what we are supposed to. We can never return to then or there, so why watch it? Better to forget it and live for now.’ ‘For what?’ Remi responds. ‘What purpose?’ He is right. My world has no purpose. We are born, an unaskedfor gift, unwanted perhaps, unjustified certainly. We grow, almost unconsciously, incapable of directing our height, width, beauty, intellect. We work at the will of another human, and live for the benefit of others. Yet there is no conclusion. I expect to die here, not having discovered the solution to our problem. Our release is not inevitable. Perhaps the Council knows more and is directing each small step towards the goal; if that is true I should have gone along with its wishes. The thought of doing so in that white room turns my stomach. I cannot see why. You do not trust the Council. The revelation whispers blasphemously between us; thought yet unspoken. ‘I’ve got to go,’ Remi says, struggling to fasten his collar across the tight fit of his Adam’s apple. ‘Let me.’ His hands drop to his sides and I replace them, pulling the fabric gently closed, to cover his collarbone and the pale white skin of his neck. I am surprised at the heat of his skin against my cool fingers, brushing his chin. ‘Thanks,’ he says and I step away. We stand there, silent and awkward. Remi runs a hand through his hair and follows me out, pulling the door closed. ‘Get some rest, Ada. I’ll see you later.’ He strides away, not looking back.
Bogdan Tiganov After spending the first nine years of his life in totalitarian Romania, Bogdan Tiganov spent eleven years as a refugee. In 2004, he graduated from Kingston University with a degree in English Literature. He’s had poems, short stories and articles published in international magazines such as Orbis, Planet and Aesthetica. Bogdan’s short story collection, The Wooden Tongue Speaks, had good reviews from Helena Drysdale – bestselling author of Looking for George – as well as Exiled Writers Ink. When he’s not writing he’s running Honest Publishing, editing, copywriting or attempting to pay the bills. Pork is his first full novel. Pork is set in Romania in the 1980s. It revolves around Nicu, a sevenyear-old boy who suffers with severe migraines. The novel is written mainly in first person, from Nicu’s point of view; his parents, Remus and Maria Georgescu – Mama and Tata – provide elements of adult narration to give the novel a strong structure. While Remus and Maria battle to escape the system, Nicu just wants to fit in, do well at school and not let his migraines get in the way. Pork is about the importance of family and humanity in a system which tried to destroy both. The extract is from Nicu’s first Christmas with his parents after their return from working abroad in Libya. email@example.com
Pork It’s warm. The windows have steamed up. Tata has the heat on at maximum. Mama would get angry if I got a cold. We sit with our coats on in the car, waiting for Mama. Tata sighs loudly and steps out to brush snow and ice off the windshield. I shiver at the touch of the breeze that has snuck in through the gap in the car door. I want to go out and play with the snow, throw snow against the wall, throw snow against the car, but I can’t force the door open. Tata crouches down and in, sighing loudly. Waiting is a waste of play time. We look through the windows, slowly getting covered in snow like a spider-web, waiting for a white coat to appear at the gates, the white coat to stand out from the black of the night. Sometimes Mama wears a white hat as well. Sometimes Mama’s friends, her colleagues, come out with her. Tata tries the radio. It’s broken. He knows it’s broken and yet he waves his hands around in annoyance. The white coat! And Mama’s silhouette rapidly approaching. ‘Let’s go,’ says Mama. She gives me a big kiss. I smell the hospital in her hair. Tata turns the key. Nothing happens. ‘Oh no,’ says Mama. ‘Not this again.’ ‘Relax, it’s fine.’ This won’t work. The car’s broken, like the radio. When Tata twists the key it feels like he’s scratching the engine. And my stomach. Poor engine. It’s tired and cold like everything else. ‘Useless,’ says Mama. ‘It’s fucking useless.’ Tata stares at her. ‘Get out and start pushing.’ Mama pushes the door open. I hear her feet crunching in the snow. Tata scratches the engine, my stomach, both. The car’s stuck. ‘Go and help your mother! What are you waiting for?’ I step out into the cold, see Mama, her back bent, arms straight. ‘Where are your gloves?’ she asks. ‘Home. I forgot them,’ I say. She doesn’t clip me round the ear. Our feet dig into the snow and mud beneath. We’re not going anywhere, my hands against the metal, my body against the metal; snowflakes fall on my cheeks, on my eyes, 241
on my eyelashes, between them – I stick my tongue out and lick one. Cold and clean. I grab the bottom of my itchy hat and pull it down so that it covers my eyes. Tata scratches the engine. People walk past. From the hospital. Or somewhere else. ‘Let me help,’ says a big fat man. I move over as the big fat man pushes with all his big fat weight. The car jumps, tyres flicking dirty mud on the snow. ‘Here, I’ll try,’ says another man. He’s wearing an army uniform. Mama stands next to me, her arm round me, and we watch the men. Everything is silent except the scratching of the engine, the shuffling of feet against the ground, the grunts of men pushing and Tata silently muttering ‘Shit!’ in front. When the engine starts up I am halfway through making the perfect snowman. The most beautiful car in Brăila moves! Mama starts to say something. ‘Get in and shut up,’ says Tata. We’re going to my uncle’s village. Uncle David. I don’t know him. I don’t know his village. It’s too early. It’s night. I didn’t sleep much. Don’t talk to me. I am going to be a champion and show the goats who is brighter and stronger. The two goats are eating from a big pot. One of the goats is smaller and shy. The other is old and mean. He’s probably the older brother. They are about to charge at me at full speed and kill me. There is no sun in the sky as the sky is hibernating for the winter with the brown bears in the mountains in Sinaia where I went when I was four. Night is in the air. I’m half-asleep and the goats keep me awake. ‘They’re friendly,’ I say out loud, repeating the words that a hairy man said when we arrived. Uncle David, I think, or my uncle’s brother, I don’t know, they look and sound the same. The goats are friendly but they don’t look friendly. They look like the Devil. Their horns will stab me in the stomach and what will Uncle or Uncle’s brother say then? Every time I get close they back off, their feet kicking the dirt and snow beneath them, ready to charge, their eyes seeing me as a 242
weak human; a small and useless thing I am to them. They don’t like meat but maybe they’ll like the meat off my bones. They won’t do a thing to me, will they? If they do they’re in trouble. I make a move, get close enough to touch one of their backs. The smaller one slips under my arms. It stinks! Their hair feels funny. It doesn’t feel like hair. In the half-light, Tata and the other men drag a pig to the front of the house. The goats back off. I beat my hands against my sides to keep warm. One of the men, maybe Uncle David, has a rope on his back. The pig struggles on the ground. His legs are blocked and the fattest of the men sits on his back. With a big smile, Uncle approaches the pig. I turn away to look at the goats. The goats are animals. They are always scared. Silence. Blood runs onto the pavement. Auntie comes out with a bucket to collect the blood. Nobody looks at me, takes any notice of me or the goats. The goats back off, near the fence. They don’t want to be cut and eaten. They want to live through Christmas but I don’t know if they will. Will they? The pig is dead, but his legs twitch. His legs still twitch as the men and Tata cover him with straw until I can no longer see whether his legs twitch or not. Everything has life, everything has feeling, says Bunicu in my head. Now the pig is fully covered by straw. One of the men lights a match which goes out, the cold vicious wind blowing across. The flames are beautiful and bright. Little black flakes float in the air. ‘Here, give me that,’ says Tata. He grabs the match and turns away from the wind. Tata bends down with the match between his fingers and touches the straw with it. The fire spreads quickly and the flames grow bigger but soon they shrink and disappear. My uncle covers the pig with straw again and this time the fire burns stronger. The cosy smell of straw is weak compared to the horrible stink of burnt pig hair. One of the men fans the flames with his arm. This must help. Men are brave. The ashes are cleaned off and the goats remain silent – the flames scared them, they no longer want to charge, stab me in the stomach and kill me. One of the men cleans the pig, goes around its stomach and bum and legs and head, with the biggest knife I’ve ever seen, and brushes off the ash. 243
Mama and Auntie appear from the yard with two buckets of water and shout, ‘Get away from there! Water’s boiling hot!’ Mama takes a strong brush and gives the pig a good scratch. Auntie pours on the boiling water. The pig is helpless, steamy and yellow without hair. Mama feels the skin. One of Uncle’s neighbours, covered in thick clothes, with a scarf hiding half his face, takes a knife and slices off the tip of the pig’s ear. ‘For the best listener in the house. Here, boy,’ says the man. I take the ear, floppy between my fingers, and stick it in my mouth. I chew it slowly in case it’s still alive and wants to move. I crunch down and swallow. Wow – it’s the yummiest thing in the world. Crunchy soft bone. The best. Better than bacon. Better than hot steaming chicken. ‘Can I have some more?’ ‘No, we’re using it for răcitură,’ says Tata. ‘You can have some tail. Do you want some tail?’ I stare at it. The pig wiggled his tail when he was happy. In fear. In cold. In the rain. The pig wiggled it when the sun came out or when the sun went down. Tata looks angry. ‘Do you want it or not?’ ‘Don’t scare the boy, Remus,’ says one of the other men. ‘He doesn’t know what’s good,’ says Tata, munching on the pig’s tail. Uncle strokes his beard. ‘It’s time to chop him up.’ Dark here. The light bulbs are dim. The lights are always set to minimum, said Bunicu, at home. Village folk know how to save up, said Bunica. Village folk know how to live, said Bunica. I sit at the kitchen table with Mama and Auntie, staring into grey or brown pig guts. The guts have been cleaned by Auntie and the other women and now the guts are in a big pot near the kitchen table. ‘Boy, take a bit,’ says one of the women, ‘like this,’ and she pulls the gut, spreading it on the table. Mama smiles. ‘Have a good look at it, Nicu. Make sure there are no holes. We don’t want even the tiniest of holes. To check it, use this small pipe.’ She hands me a tiny pipe. ‘Insert it in the gut and blow on it.’ 244
I’m sure if I missed a hole one of the old ladies would tell me to pay attention. I blow on the pipe nice and hard. It’s very dark in here as the light bulbs flicker. Two men appear with half of the pig skin and spread it on the table. Tata walks behind them, carrying the ribs and Uncle has a big bucket of liver in his arms. There is nothing outside where the pig once was. Even the snow is gone. Just a splash of mud forming a muddy outline. Auntie starts squeezing the meat through the big mincer. She has to finish tonight as tomorrow someone else from the village has their turn. Bunica fries the belly fat to make crackling and Mama prepares tomorrow’s lunch, a mixed grill with garlic sauce and polenta. ‘What are you all doing?’ asks Uncle. He has a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He offers Tata a cigarette. Adults use cigarettes when they’re tired, when they want to stop working and smile. I stare at the pig’s gut. He sure had a lot of gut in him. That’s why pigs are so fat. If only he knew what was happening to him. Auntie stands and collects the gut when we’re done. ‘We won’t waste this,’ she says, pointing to the gut with holes in it. I wish there was more gut to look through. I like finding small holes. How did the holes get there? Do pigs fart? I see the moon through the kitchen window. No crickets out there. Christmas, still a month away. Everyone rushes to the pot. To the kitchen. To take in another glass of wine or bread or salami. ‘Press the meat into the gut, boy,’ says someone. A bowl of meat is passed my way. The pig is now a mashed-up pig. I press it in, the feel of cold mashed-up bits of pork in my hand. Press it in. Auntie takes the gut, twists and cuts it along. I press some more. She cuts it and passes it to another woman. I hear the sound of frying and press some more. Tata says, ‘I’m hungry. Are those fucking sausages done yet?’ This will take a while. Tata had better be patient.
Natasha Underwood Natasha Underwood is a poet and writing tutor living and working in Bath. Her poetry has featured in the Bath Literary Festival 2012 and she has given a number of readings in the South West, most recently for the event 100 Thousand Poets for Change held for a number of charitable causes across the globe. She gained her BA Hons in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University before developing her writing further on the Master's. The narrative poem Iolaire is her latest writing project. Through her love of the British coastline she discovered the true story of the wreck of the HMY Iolaire off the coast of the Hebridean island of Lewis. The vessel was carrying World War Two servicemen, after Armistice, to their island home for Hogmanay. The Iolaire ran aground on treacherous rocks, the â€˜Beasts of Holmâ€™, in the early hours of the new year, claiming the lives of hundreds of men and forever altering the isolated community. firstname.lastname@example.org
Iolaire (extract) She sits him at the peat fire rolls his trouser legs and bathes his feet, palming the ragged soles dry in clean cotton. The women of the croft, light sleepers woken by this man’s return, come to the door. They crowd in to the long room, stand expectant, leaning on each other at the fireside. The heat of the fire tugs the ocean from Mal’s clothes, coiling like incense. A young woman, Marie McCannon, stands in the corner her hair pinned for curls. Due to marry her Norm at noon, with the luck of the new year. Gently rocking, she pulls her coat about her and listens to the older women. They bend low, faces grazed with tears. They ask of sons, husbands, brothers … Did MacIver reach shore? Did John Murray, did Evander …? They clutch his face, and with those names and their touch like the groping wreck-tide he sees—
John, in the deep water, caught fire. MacIver, fall from the bowing deck his head striking rock. Evander, slip exhausted from MacLeod’s line … He answers with tears that roll to his lap over his clenched fists. His mother smoothes the tablecloth at the untouched New Year spread of salted meat and coarse cake. She turns away from their grief, wringing her hands, thanking God.
• By the first light of the year, on the gravel of Goat Island, Sandwick, and the Sward of Holm the hands of the dead clutch grit. Their legs follow the lift and drop, lift and drop of the shallows. Men roll in the wash, distended. Shirts bloated with trapped air that their gasping mouths could not reach. Further out, they ride the cresting waves, felled warriors on their still-charging mounts. 248
The fisherwomen cry: A Dhia. God of mercy, what is this? clawing their paled faces as they survey the piling wreck through the gaps in their fingers. The man closest to their edging feet lays shell-ear to the beach as if listening to the island, his chapped lips parted above a film of blood. A toy boat bobs in full sail on the shallow of the sheltered harbour formed by the crook of his arm. A gift for an Aran boy, too young to recall his fatherâ€™s face.
Ellie Walsh Writer and activist, Ellie Walsh, was born in Cornwall. When she was seven, her teacher told her that she had â€˜a warped and rambling imaginationâ€™, so she ran with that for about ten years until deciding to study Creative Writing at university in British Columbia. The poems in her collection, Lick My Words, are unlinked and, hopefully, self-explanatory. She began the MA at Bath Spa intending to write about politics, and discovered the hard way that politics is neither truthful nor beautiful, and therefore very hard to express in good poetry. Instead she has settled on mortal subjects. Ellie now works in a secondary school in Cornwall where she is attempting to mould a class of thirteen-year-olds into a new generation of political activists. email@example.com
Lick My Words Baby Dragon And yet I almost didn’t see her, sticky-red and flop-bellied in the middle of the road. I wrapped her in my school jumper, a liquid-boned slither, took her home and emptied her into the kitchen sink. She danced a little, blunt-gulp and rubbery hopelessness on the stainless steel bottom. I had to pick the bits of jersey-fluff from her back. I tried to make her a tank by patching up the holes in the paddling pool but the tape didn’t hold. She clicked the dull machines of her eyeballs at me and I tried to ignore the concept of freedom. Following advice from a book on mythological creatures I fed her a spoonful of mustard. She shuddered her head in a storm-cloud smart and her throat was burnt to a soup, but on the second spoon of course, she was only half as stung. Within days, her mood grew terrible. She lay still and semi-submerged in the sink, fixed my yellow wallpaper with a glower, occasionally climbed the taps and considered breathing fire. I felt she was a misunderstanding 251
I had to parcel up and cradle in order to make logic out of her. She left me with the sense of aching for a better word, as if something was unexplained, missing, an angry mustard-sick creature un-growing and breath extinguished, a red-spotted salamander made beast with my love.
Discourse On Boxing Day a single snowflake my face and I threw my hands gave up all hopes of poetry
licked my fringe against up in the air
it is not often that we rifle through language and find the words to talk about real things it is not often we feel the cold it occurs to me that we never ask why ambition rounds up free people and herds them under strobe-lit-ceilings and behind desks today I fix wait venture
like a dancer who knows how to spin my eyes on a point in the distance wait for the snow again that it waits for me
again there is the silence yes!
on Boxing Day
here it comes
Words, Wide Night I saw Duffy. She was at the market, smoke-rain hanging in her chimney-sweep hair, bagging an onion. I considered slapping the thing from her hands. To the dream-logic jigsaw of an onion, the mouth is an afterthought. Its unflowering bulk is an ugly excuse, without metaphor. Love should not make your vision wobble, it should not cling to your knife. That onion is a fetid shuttle for your honesty, but a kissogram is a skulled membrane, sent through the streets, paid for in cash and delivered before nightfall. A kissogram leaves no taste. Nobody wants an onion for a Valentine; there is no greater mistake Carol than truthfulness in love.
Ariel Critics were in at least two minds about you, but I never doubted you were man. At Victoria Palace they gave you a Pegasus-mohawk, feathered eyelashes, made you a fantastic dancer. Shaftesbury Avenue; they cast you woman and I left, disgusted, in the intermission. Young Vic; your gunmetal wingspan pulsated the stage and I was almost convinced. Like Santa Claus, I watched you hoaxed in theatres by costumed men and women, while you rebuked children in a thundercloud, played match-maker a little, thrived, unusually, in captivity. Imprison me – is that too much to ask? Naples isn’t far from England. We could sleep in the cliffs and catch fish from the clouds. Everything I want is a mortal cliché. Turn the rocks and flame the shore, clap your wings upon the sand, prose-speak is boring; let’s talk soul-secrets and Sycorax.
Will Watts Will Watts was born in London. He studied English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, and worked in the music industry before moving into advertising as a copywriter and production manager. His writing draws on a fascination with the hidden mechanics of the city and the influence of work on identity. Meat is his first novel. I think we should do it. I think we should take the money. Meat is a love story and psychological thriller about the legacies of childhood and the impact of guilt. It opens with the botched robbery of Langley’s – a turkey factory in west London – then traces the impetus behind the robbery and its devastating aftermath. Twenty-four-year-old Alex has worked at Langley’s since he was seventeen. Lonely, distant from the other workers, and bullied by the factory foreman Griff, Alex strikes up a rapport with Danny, the new delivery driver. As an uneasy relationship develops between them, Alex discovers that Griff is using the factory to run an illegal business. Memories and unsettling dreams begin to seep into Alex’s daily life; as the relationship intensifies, he becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of stealing from Griff and fleeing London with Danny. In this extract, Alex returns to work after a weekend in Bristol. Griff has fired Danny, making Alex feel even more isolated, until an opportunity arises for him to escape from the factory forever. firstname.lastname@example.org / Twitter: @qwillandink
Meat A red door with a circular handle. No letterbox or number. He twists the handle and walks through. The passageway is cool, the sky swirls in grey ribbons. Distant waves suck and crash against rocks. He moves towards another door, a sequence of doors, identically red and anonymous. One glides open. Inside is a stretch of mountains, their sharp peaks softened by snow. At the base of the slopes, pockets of slant-roofed houses lie snug in a green valley. Birds skim past. The air is crisp, sweet with the fragrance of pine leaves. He pushes the door wider. Cleaners in yellow overalls streamed across the tarmac from the minibuses parked in the factory driveway, loaded with coiled hoses and plastic drums of detergent. Alex wondered if the brine tank had broken again but there was no smell of rot. His feet felt heavy; it was an effort to raise them off the ground. He closed his eyes for a moment and tried to conjure the contentment he’d felt on the bridge in Bristol, the freshness of the wind over his face. Someone knocked into him. His eyes snapped open. Griff stood inside the entrance, directing people across the factory. The bruise on his nose had faded to a yolky brown. Behind him, cleaners sprayed the floor and scoured the sinks. A rising mist of water gleamed in the sunlight pouring through the high windows. Turkeys thudded from the hanging conveyor onto the transport belt, where waiting hands gutted, weighed and wrapped them. ‘You’re late.’ ‘Delays on the tube.’ ‘Not interested.’ Griff grabbed a set of overalls from the container at his feet and shoved them against Alex’s chest. ‘Get changed. You’re with Matt in the Process Room.’ The damp spots had been wiped off the locker room walls and the cracked floor tiles replaced. A cleaner was scrubbing green rust off the copper pipes. Alex changed and joined Matt. The delivery van had pulled up to the open Process Room shutters, and Matt and the driver were stacking crates against the wall. It jarred seeing someone other than Danny drive the van. Alex helped finish the unloading. 257
Matt signed the delivery sheet and the van descended down the drive. ‘What’s with the factory makeover?’ asked Alex. ‘Apparently we’re getting a visit from Mr Langley in a couple of days. Griff’s having a meltdown about making everything perfect.’ Alex had glimpsed Mr Langley, the factory owner, a couple of times, a lean, groomed man in his fifties, white hair cut short around his narrow face. Both times he wore a suit and a long fitted coat, and trod carefully around the puddles on the factory floor. The doors swung open and Griff scanned the room. ‘Have you seen Paul? I sent him to get some boxes of giblets about twenty minutes ago and he’s still not come back. Fucking useless.’ He jabbed his clipboard at the hanging conveyor. ‘Why aren’t you loading the turkeys up?’ ‘The driver’s only just left,’ Matt said. ‘There’s no time for messing around today.’ Griff’s eyes darted to Alex’s then he banged out of the room. Alex folded out the stepladder and stood it under the start of the hanging conveyor while Matt opened a crate of turkeys. Alex climbed onto the ladder and Matt passed him turkeys to load, one bird per prong. The conveyor began to move, carrying the meat out into the factory. They’d left the shutters open and the cool room grew warmer as sunlight spilled in. Alex’s arms ached from stretching up and hooking on the heavy turkeys. A protruding wing snagged on his hygiene gloves and tore the thin plastic. Cold briny water dribbled down his arms. He climbed off the ladder. ‘I need a fresh pair. Back in five.’ The locker room was empty. Alex changed gloves and headed back to the Process Room. The weighing and wrapping teams had gone on their break; the transport belt kept revolving past the unmanned stations. Griff sat in his office talking on the phone, his voice muted behind thick glass partitions. They were usually concealed by blinds but today they’d been left uncovered so that he could oversee the factory clean-up. He was closing the bottom drawer of his desk as Alex passed. Alex glimpsed rows of neatly stacked banknotes before the drawer rolled shut. Matt stepped onto the ladder and Alex passed him the turkeys. 258
Matt chattered about his daughter’s swimming lessons, his upcoming holiday, but the words faded into a background hum. Griff’s desk drawer, lined with notes. There was a thump from the factory floor and the conveyor stopped. Griff came into the room. ‘How can you fuck up something so simple?’ Griff stood underneath the ladder and glared up at Matt. ‘You’re not loading the conveyor properly. Three turkeys have fallen off in the last five minutes. At this rate I may as well do it myself.’ He pointed at the boxes on the floor. ‘Is that what’s left?’ He whacked his clipboard against his thigh. ‘Fuck it. I will do it myself. Get out of the way.’ Matt stepped down and rolled his eyes at Alex. Griff climbed the ladder and began ramming the turkeys onto the prongs. Paul pushed through the plastic doors, his arms stacked with boxes up to his chin. He shuffled forwards, tapping the floor with the toe of his boot before each step, like a blind person feeling their way. ‘I needed those boxes a fucking hour ago,’ Griff shouted, and as Paul turned to look at him the top box slid from the pile and slapped onto the floor, bounced, caught a leg of the step ladder, tipping it forwards. Griff swayed, yelped, grabbed at the hanging conveyor, the empty prongs a swinging flash of silver as he overbalanced, gashing his arm against one, sending a fine spray of blood over Paul. The empty prongs clanged loose and Griff slammed down onto the damp concrete. Someone on the factory floor was whistling. The sharp, unfamiliar notes wavered in the sudden silence. Griff lay on his front, right foot curled at an abrupt angle, blood pooling under his arm. Alex knelt down and removed the ladder and fallen prongs, turned Griff’s head to the side. His eyes were shut. The Health and Safety poster on the wall listed CPR instructions. Alex didn’t know if he could bring himself to put his mouth over Griff’s. ‘Help me, will you?’ he asked Matt. Matt crouched down and felt Griff’s wrist. ‘I can’t feel a pulse.’ ‘Nothing?’ ‘No.’ He checked again. ‘Maybe something. I don’t know if I’m doing it right.’ 259
‘Either you feel a pulse or you don’t.’ Matt chewed his lip. ‘Oh fuck,’ said Paul. The other boxes slipped out of his hands and packs of giblets fanned around his feet. His overalls were striped with Griff’s blood, as though it was him who’d been hurt. ‘Fuck fuck fuck.’ ‘Cut it out,’ said Alex. He put his finger against the soft, greasy skin of Griff’s neck. The pulse felt strong and steady. He held a hand up to Griff’s mouth and felt breath blowing onto his palm. ‘He’s fine, just knocked out.’ He told Paul to call for an ambulance. When Paul had left the room, Alex lifted Griff’s arm, holding it between finger and thumb so he touched as little of Griff’s skin as possible. The prong had sliced along the forearm. The cut was still bleeding and Alex’s gloved hand slipped on the slick skin. He realised that Matt had looked away. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘I don’t like blood.’ ‘You work in a meat factory.’ ‘That’s different.’ Matt stood up and walked over to the shutters. ‘I mean human blood.’ The whistling on the factory floor had stopped. Alex watched Griff. The blood, the awkward pose, meant this could never be mistaken for sleeping, but Griff’s helplessness made him almost peaceful. All the anger had gone out of him. The contents of his pockets had spilled out when he fell – cigarettes, a tissue, the stub of a pencil, a lighter, a set of keys attached to a wooden car-shaped keyring. Matt still had his back to Alex, staring out over the car park through the open shutters. Alex scooped the keys up and slid them into the pocket of his overalls. His hand did the thinking for him, the movement too swift for him to censor. Outside the sound of sirens grew louder. Griff stirred, groaning. He twitched his foot and winced, started to turn himself over. ‘Try not to move,’ Alex told him. Griff’s eyes flickered open. ‘What the fuck would you know?’ he mumbled. Two paramedics came into the room, a man and a woman, both around thirty. They set down a stretcher and a bag of medical 260
equipment and checked Griff’s spine, pulse and breathing, then bandaged his arm. Paul watched from the doorway. ‘Your colleague explained what happened,’ the female paramedic said to Griff. ‘He was worried he’d killed you.’ ‘Still very much alive,’ Griff muttered. He gasped as she prodded his twisted ankle. ‘How long ’til I get fixed up? I have an important meeting in a couple of days.’ ‘You’ll have to reschedule. You’ve got a probable broken ankle and your arm needs at least twenty stitches. You won’t be doing anything for the next few days.’ She looked up at Alex. ‘We can handle this now.’ Work had stopped in the factory and people stared at Alex as he walked past. He glanced down. His overalls were stained with Griff’s blood, red splotches already rusting at the edges. He kept walking until he reached the end of the driveway then sat on the low outside wall. He reached into his overalls for his cigarettes and his fingers scraped the set of keys. He lit up and smoked it down to the filter. Intense day, he texted Danny. Intense how? Danny replied. Alex explained about the accident. Come to mine later? I’ll be there around 10. As Alex stood up to go back inside the ambulance emerged from the driveway. The female paramedic lifted her hand off the steering wheel in a brief wave. The mess on the Process Room floor had already been cleaned away. Matt filled a shallow tub with water and bleach and dropped the loose prongs in to soak. His overalls were speckled with blood. ‘We should change,’ Matt said. They undressed in the locker room in silence. Alex emptied his pockets and squeezed the set of keys, their edges cold and sharp against his skin. He pictured Griff’s desk drawer, lined with notes, and felt a fizzing sensation in the pit of his stomach, a kind of hunger. He tucked the keys into his bag. Danny stirred soy sauce into the wok. Smells of ginger and coconut filled the kitchen. ‘That’ll teach the old bastard not to bully people. 261
He’ll be off work for a while, then?’ ‘It looked more serious than it actually was, but the paramedics said he needs to take at least a couple of days off.’ Alex’s finger skimmed across the keys in his pocket. Adrenaline travelled from the finger up through his hand and arm, across his body. He picked up a piece of broccoli from the vegetables on the cutting-board and crunched into it. ‘I was right about the money. Griff keeps it in his desk.’ The vegetables hissed as Danny scraped them into the wok. ‘How do you know?’ ‘The factory owner’s visiting in a couple of days and Griff was panicking. He must have been flustered – he forgot he’d left his office blinds open.’ ‘You saw the money?’ ‘It’s in a desk drawer.’ Alex took the keys out and set them on the countertop. Danny stared at them. ‘They’re Griff’s,’ said Alex. ‘I think we should do it. I think we should take the money.’
William Wright William Wright is a poet living and working in Bath. One of his poems, ‘Mosquito’, has been featured in the December 2012 issue of The London Magazine, and he has been featured in the Bath Literary Festival’s Poet of the Day. He has also read at the event 100 Thousand Poets for Change. ‘As If She Were Speaking Aloud’ is from his collection Frankie’s Ground, an exploration of William’s childhood in Hong Kong and the loss of his mother and younger brother to cancer. You sit across from me, and sketch the future in bic-width lines on the back of a crumpled napkin. William lost his mother to breast cancer when he was five years old. At the time of her death, his brother Frankie had just been diagnosed with leukaemia. William’s father, an architect, responded to this by diving into his work, and leaving the care of his children in the hands of their Filipino nannies. William grew up immersed in these clashing cultures, and could only watch as his brother sickened and eventually died, aged only eight. Frankie’s Ground is an exploration of these events, and of those leading up to the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. The collection also explores the recent discovery of a cache of letters sent by William’s mother to her parents, which span the last ten years of her life. email@example.com
As If She Were Speaking Aloud Stained crate of mail, stacked letters held together with parched elastic. This box missing for thirty years, since Eugene, Oregon, since the RV Grampa Gib drove up and down the Interstate by memory, his vision almost gone. Since his death and the house in Phoenix, Arizona, where Gramma Flo built a reliquary around his ashes, her memories thin, sun-dried. His remains are missing now, and in his place is this, the voice of their dead daughter.
• Who is John Dean? And why is he still repeating the same old patterns? Reading his name, I can picture him as the ‘Rebel Without a Cause’, slouched against a black Ford Mercury. Is he her ex-husband? An old friend, or lover? There is that shade of love-lost bitterness, of I don’t know why he even bothered. The grim satisfaction in moving on, while he remains slouched and insouciant – unaware.
Thank you for the loan, I’m sorry for the extra worry. Stupid bloody bank – The words of my mother, and a strange feeling of déjà-vu, reminder that our problems are not unique, merely variations on a riff as old as Chase Manhattan.
• Anger at the package left out on the doorstep by the f*!?ing postman, a charming self-censor over the theft of her Mira-9 Hair Conditioner. She finds it hard to shop for anything Chinese don’t buy, like nylon stockings the little buggers. And all this with my dad so excited at the thought of a garter belt! I’d blush, but I’ve read worse.
• I am sure the lack of training showed Yes there is a pattern forming here I cannot find the proper punctuation Never mind we’ll just ride it through and cheer hysterically
My only recollection of her is near the end. I jump up on her bed, and get nothing. The blank glance of a stranger confronted with someone else’s child. Mirror to the confusion on my toddler face.
• Chinese New Year, ’eighty-three. I learn that my mother loved bowling. She gets stiffed at the ticket line, forced to wait while the little nits had lower numbers set aside for friends. Corruption in the bowling alley, my dad incoherent he was so angry. I see him clearly, blood-flushed to the level of his salt-and-pepper hair.
• Cancer swept through her like candlelight through an oil-soaked rag, left her less than a lock of hair; less than a pinch of ash. I have found her here, in blue ink. She is sitting in some other room, writing to me.
Acknowledgements The production of this anthology, like its predecessors, has been driven by a team of volunteer students – or graduate writers as we soon became – pooling our resources and giving our time. But it began with the contributing poets and authors, so our first thanks is to the writers for the wide-ranging and often illuminating content which has made ink & bone such a pleasure to work on. With respect to the team, a round of applause for poetry editors, Graham Allison and Natasha Underwood, as well as our copychasers and sub-editors, Kate Henriques, Jude Higgins, Sue Miller, Emily Morris and Abi Steady. Our thanks to Kristin Breckenridge, Jane Nottage and Zosia Crosse for giving their time to meetings and sharing ideas. And a standing ovation for our associate editor, Will Watts (who fired the engines of the book launch). We are also very pleased to have enlisted authors, Fay Weldon and Gerard Woodward, who took the time to make graceful and erudite introductions to our collected works. The graphics for ink & bone was by the Bath Spa BA Design team, led by Matthew Robertson. Thanks to Andrew Ashwin for coming up with the winning cover design. And finally, to publisher Caroline Harris for managing the project. A lot of sweat and even tears has gone into this production. We hope it’s all been worthwhile.
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