LOFT Issue III
Edited by Claire Cronin
First published in 2022 by Loft Books Limited
© Contributors Cover Design: Claire Cronin
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by reviewers, who may quote brief passages in a review.
Typeset in 10pt Times New Roman
Printed by Freestyle Print, London
Introduction It is a pleasure to read short stories from such talented authors. The themes are quite broad however the overall message from reading the winning short story ‘Omar the Shopkeeper’ by Rowan Curtis is hope. Hope for better where people not only have a sense of who they are but a place in the world where they can call home. In ‘Steps in Time’ the flash fiction winner, JP Relph, writes about the changing times. Although things are changing all of the time the important things, such as family values, stay the same. Finally our poetry winner Philip Charter is a previous recipient of our short story prize. His poem ‘Las Palmas’ has won our poetry prize for its abstract imagery. I hope you enjoy reading this anthology.
Biographies Olivia Allan is a writer from Melbourne Australia. She is currently undergoing a degree in psychology in the heart of the city and loves riding the train everywhere. When she isn't studying she writes on her beloved typewriter and struggles in pilates classes. Her Twitter handle is @livppoetry Sas Amoah has a BA in screenwriting from the University of Central Lancashire, a degree he just about managed to get despite spending most of his time at the student union enjoying 3 for 1 drinks. These days he spends his time reminiscing about a time when he could buy 3 for 1 drinks. Charlie Brigden can be seen in Fangoria, Roger Ebert, The Quietus, Film School Rejects, Polygon, Mondo/Death Waltz Records. Chloe Chan grew up in a suburb just outside Vancouver, Canada, where she spent her days playing ice hockey and eating snow from the ground. She is now a medical student in Ireland, who writes short stories in between her Pomodoros to escape the clutches of pathology and pharmacology. If Chloe isn't procrastinating at home, you can find her travelling and eating her way through Europe, and hopefully one day, the world. Philip Charter is a writing coach who works with non-native English speakers. He is the author of two short fiction collections, Foreign Voices, and The Fisherwoman and other stories. Philip's stories have won or placed in competitions such as the Loft Books Short Story Competition, The Oxford Flash Fiction Prize and the Janus Lit Anthology competition. Fifteen Brief Moments in Time, his debut novella-in-flash, is forthcoming with V Press in 2022. Ramzauva Chhakchhuak, is a writer based in Bengaluru, India. His fiction has appeared in Himal Southasian and The Chakkar. A short story he wrote was selected for the Helter Skelter anthology to be published very soon. He also writes on travel and some of his works have appeared in NatGeoTraveller, the SkinLit Journal and national
dailies like The Hindu. He is presently working on a book of short stories set in his hometown--Shillong in Northeast India. Kevin Condon, originally from Dublin, is a graduate of University College Dublin where he completed a Masters in Screenwriting and Film Production. He has a keen interest in literature and has written several screenplays and short stories. When he’s not moonlighting as a writer, Kevin works as a teacher. His passions include reading books, walking his dog and playing the guitar. Last year, between moving house and getting married, Kevin completed his debut novel. Thunderclap and Flash is a historical adventure novel for older children set in the American frontier of 1861. Charlotte Cosgrove is a writer and teacher from Liverpool, England. She is published in Trouvaille Review, Dreich, The Literary Yard and a Wingless Dreamer anthology. She has work forthcoming in Confingo, Beyond Words, The Broadkill Review, Words and Whispers, Sledgehammer and New Contexts 2: an anthology. Charlotte was recently shortlisted for the Julian Lennon poetry prize. She is Editor of Rough Diamond Poetry Journal. Rowan James Curtis is a planetary physicist, musician and author. His short stories have won or been shortlisted for competitions including the Richard Hillary Prize, the Oxford-BNU Award and the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities’ inaugural flash fiction prize. His work has also been published in anthologies by Odd Voice Out and Loft Books. He recently completed his first novel, Further Down the Vine, which explores the lives of two working-class families in Southampton. He lives in Oxford. Website: rowanjamescurtis.com Twitter: rowancurtis20 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Adekiduro Daniels is a Nigerian Poet. He tweets from @dekidutodaniels. Joseph Darlington is a writer from the Peak District, UK. He is the author of The Girl Beneath the Ice (Northodox Press, 2021) and a number of non-fiction books including The Experimentalists: The
Life and Times of the British Experimental Writers of the 1960s (Bloomsbury, 2021). He can be found on Twitter at @Joe_Darlo. Lou Reed Foster is a writer of fiction & non-fiction from Liverpool, England. A two-times graduate from Liverpool John Moores University, with a BA and an MA in Creative Writing, Lou is the editor of football & culture magazine Diego Mag, and has previously seen his writing published in print and online for publications such as Futbolista, Turnstiles Magazine & View Magazine, among others. Lou cites Hunter S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk & Shalom Auslander as some of his influences. Jennifer Frankum is a retired high school teacher of English, Creative Writing, Parenting, ESL, and Special Education. She has two collections of poetry, a poetry chapbook, and a picture book for toddlers in print, all with The Brucedale Press. She lives in the snow belt of Bruce County, Ontario, Canada. Joseph P. Garland is a New York lawyer. He has written Róisín Campbell and A Studio on Bleecker Street, which are novels set in the early Gilded Age period in New York City. In addition to a number of shorter novellas, he most recently published I Am Alex Locus, a contemporary novel set in and around New York in which his contribution "The Misty Morn" appears. Colin Gee (@ColinMGee) is founder and editor of The Gorko Gazette (@GorkoThe), a humour daily and zine that publishes headlines, reviews, and poetry, with past & upcoming stories in a number of places. Judith Greene is from Armagh, Northern Ireland. In between being a mum and working in environmental education and outreach she enjoys writing books and short stories for kids and adults. Heather Haigh is a disabled, working-class writer, from Yorkshire. She discovered writing late in life and is loving the journey of exploration. When she’s not writing she enjoys nature, yarn crafts and reading. Her words have been published by Blinkpot, The painted word, Flash Fiction Magazine and Hysteria.
Liam Hogan is an award winning short story writer, with stories in Best of British Science Fiction 2016 & 2019, and Best of British Fantasy 2018 (NewCon Press). He’s been published by Analog, Daily Science Fiction, and Flame Tree Press, among others. He helps host Liars’ League London, volunteers at the creative writing charity Ministry of Stories, and lives and avoids work in London. More details at http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk Jason Jawando writes prose and drama. He has had work published by 'Under the Radar', 'Confluence' and 'The Blue Nib', among others. Raif Karadeniz is a British-Turkish writer and data-scientist based in Dublin, Ireland. He writes primarily on themes of redemption, disenfranchisement, and responsibility, influenced heavily by Steinbeck, Lasch, Updike. Brian Kirk is a poet and writer from Dublin. He has published a poetry collection After The Fall (Salmon Poetry, 2017) and a short fiction chapbook It’s Not Me, It’s You (Southword Editions, 2019). His poem “Birthday” won Poem of the Year at the Irish Book Awards 2018. He blogs at www.briankirkwriter.com . Rebecca Maria is a writer, editor and filmmaker. She edits zines for artists and was an art critic for many years, writing at the Edinburgh Festival and reviewing theatre and exhibitions in Glasgow and London for Exeunt Magazine and The Skinny. She also publishes regularly on culture, gender and health for various online publications. She writes a monthly newsletter, called I Don’t Give A Spoon, which challenges ableism in the creative industries. Twitter: Rebecca_Maria_M Instagram: rebecca_creates_clarity Sam McCartney is a poet based in Glasgow. His work has been previously published with Razur Cuts, Goats Milk Magazine, Writefluence, Flash Fiction North and Shayel Journal. Mona Mehas (she/her) writes about growing up poor, accumulating grief, and climate change. As a disabled, retired teacher in Indiana, she spends most days at her laptop with two old cats as chaperones.
In the past, Mona used the pseudonym, Patience Young. She’s published in Fairfield Scribes, Moments Between, Polk Street Review 2022, and others. During the early pandemic she watched every Star Trek show and movie in chronological order and many online concerts. Follow her on Twitter @Patienc77732097. Thomas Morgan is a writer from Worthing in West Sussex. He’s been published in Dream Catcher Magazine, STORGY, Bandit Fiction, Nymphs, Secret Attic, Rhodora Magazine, The Mark Literary Review, Tether’s End, Sledgehammer Lit, Untitled: Voices, Idle Ink, Free Flash Fiction, Honeyfire Lit, and Truffle Magazine. Twitter: @tommorgan97 Aoife Murphy was born and raised in Milton Keynes, England, before moving to Ireland. They vowed they would become a novelist (which was rather ambitious at ten years old), and though they’re now a professional design and accessibility specialist that doesn’t stop them writing at every possible moment. They write sci-fi, fantasy and horror, have participated in NaNoWriMo seven times, and is sustained by an ever-filling cup of strong tea (mostly supplied by their partner). James Northern (@JNorthernWrites on Twitter) is a British writer living in America. His short stories have been published in anthologies and web journals by Retreat West, National Flash Fiction Day, Stroud Short Stories, Truffle Magazine, 100 Words Of Solitude, Riggwelter, Loft Books (Anthology II) and Secret Attic. He was shortlisted for the 2019 Retreat West Short Story Prize. In his down time, he plays the piano and explores the countryside. Bernard Pearson’s work appears in many publications, including; Aesthetica Magazine, The Edinburgh Review, Crossways,North West Words and FourxFour. In 2017 a selection of his poetry ‘In Free Fall’ was published by Leaf by Leaf Press. In 2019 he won second prize in The Aurora Prize for Writing for his poem Manor Farm. JP Relph is a cat loving Cumbrian who grew up just across the Scottish border. A forensic science degree, a passion for microbes, bugs and botany, and a dogged determination to make people laugh all
weave themselves into her words. JP has flash published in The Fantastic Other and HISSAC 2021. Twitter - @RelphJp Nathanael O’Reilly is the author of eight collections of poetry, including Boulevard (Beir Bua Press, 2021); (Un)belonging (Recent Work Press, 2020); BLUE (above/ground press, 2020); Preparations for Departure (UWAP Poetry, 2017), named one of the Books of the Year in Australian Book Review; and Distance(Ginninderra Press, 2015). More than 240 of his poems have appeared in journals and anthologies published in 14 countries. He received an Emerging Writers Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts and was writer-in-residence at Booranga Writers’ Centre in Australia. He has given invited readings in Australia, Canada, England, Hungary, Ireland, Italy and the United States. He has twenty years of teaching experience. O'Reilly is the poetry editor for Antipodes: A Global Journal of Australian/New Zealand Literature. Deryck N. Robertson lives and creates in Peterborough/Nogojiwanong, ON. Recent work has appeared with The Quarantine Review, Cardigan Press, Montana Mouthful, and The Minison Project. He can usually be found in Algonquin Park with his family of paddlers and drinking maple roast coffee, the official beverage of Paddler Press, a new Peterboroug-based poetry and art journal that he recently founded. His work is heavily influenced by his wanderings in the woods and his contemplation of the simpler things that life has to offer, those moments and observations that are easily missed. Sarah Robin is a new writer from Bolton in northwest England, only starting her writing journey during the coronavirus pandemic. She uses past and present experiences as inspiration for her work and likes to focus on conveying emotion and being ‘in the moment’. Robin has had several pieces of work published in anthologies and online literary magazines as well as being a competition winner for both short fiction and poetry. She is also a prose reader for Sepia Journal. Twitter: @SRobinWriter Tim Sheehan is a researcher and writer, currently working for a humanitarian response NGO in Dublin. He has generally written non-
fiction in recent years, but he has begun to also write fiction, mostly involving music and the experience of it. Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton in the UK. He works in a press cuttings agency in London. Before that he was a teacher and then foreman of a London Underground station. He has two children and lives with his partner in Ipswich. He has had stories published in Stand, Panurge, 3:AM, The Write Launch, Eclectica, Confingo, Here Comes Everyone, The Main Street Rag, Punt Volat, The Decadent Review, Heirlock, The Clackamas Literary Review, The Pearl River Quarterly, Book of Matches, The Cabinet of Heed, Lunate and Wraparound South. He has had a story published in Nicholas Royle’s Nightjar chapbook series. Micro stories have been published by Third Wednesday, Palm-Sized Press, 5x5, Star 82, The Ocotillo Review, deathcap and Clover & White. A longer story will come out soon in The Wisconsin Review. And a short one in Sledgehammer. A story appeared in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume. Sarah McCay Tams is an international journalist and content marketer, with two decades of experience writing for magazines, online titles, newspapers and market-leading brands. Her work has taken her all over the world, with many years spent working in the Middle East, as well as Europe and the UK. She currently works as Director of Content for US hotel software company, Duetto. Creatively, Sarah writes stories, poetry and plays. She completed her first play, Nothing to Lose, at the end of 2019. It is now in production with Peppered Wit as a ‘theatre on film’ project. She is currently working on a second play and a novel about domestic abuse during COVID. Sarah grew up in North Oxfordshire and now lives in Staffordshire with her husband and children. For more information, please visit: https://sarahmccaytams.com/ Phoebe Thomson (she/her) is from South London. Her work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in Best Small Fictions 2021, Litro Online, It’s Freezing in LA!, Bandit Fiction and Flash Fiction Magazine. She recently completed an MA at Goldsmiths in Creative & Life Writing, through the Isaac Arthur Green Scholarship.
Maggie Willey is an older, disabled woman, living with a couple of dogs and a phone which is smarter than she is. She enjoys traveling and has converted a bus into a motorhome to this end. Having various, poorly played instruments onboard, ensures that nobody will park too close to her; at least not for very long. A voracious reader all of her life, she started writing during the pandemic and now writes stories to amuse her family and friends and has had some small successes in selling them to magazines in America and the UK.
Poetry Prize Winner The Rings Around the Palm Philip Charter Rusted metal bites into wood of fifty footers clamping where they stand When palms trees fall their age remains unknown, there are no rings to count Sparse lines guard blackened shores protecting islands from salt winds and battered raft arrivals We stop and lean on solid trunks tap wedding bands on reddened steel and say Ah Las Palmas Waves pound and wind sweeps Saharan sand over, away until spikes reach out and trap the grains Fishermen return from rising seas to groaning buildings And find their trees have shed their leaf And then I learned the rings stop tiny claws from gripping on to nest up high Those rats were brought to this jagged rock They took the freedom of our palms, which fastened chains around themselves
Highly Recommended Wool Gathering Jennifer Frankum Clouds were pinned to the sky like many fleece hung to dry, dirt washed out burrs waiting to be combed wool soon to soften a woman’s hands to a lanolin shine as she spins yarn then knits a sweater for a very young child. The child will wear this garment in the fall afternoon; his hands will feed the sheep windfall apples, his bright eyes will watch square even teeth, he will hear molars grind, as more wool grows to clothe his small body which is growing also this very moment, silently and imperceptibly, out of and into many sweaters.
Hello August Sarah Robin Hello August, My most productive month of the year With lots of harvest and preserving to do. The aroma of vinegar in the kitchen Signifies the start of pickling season When gherkins are stuffed into jars Then covered in ladel-fulls Of homemade vinegar and infused With fresh homegrown herbs and spices. Weekly harvests of sun-kissed tomatoes Need turning into sauces and salsa Before bottling up. A summery palette of annual sunflowers And sweetpeas fill the plot with colour. Perennial flowers keep pollinators busy. With such good harvests this month, I know I’ll be grateful in the depths Of winter when I can provide Splashes of summer from the packed Store cupboards and freezers, Creating a sense of warmth and gratitude.
Street Art Bernard Pearson There is a ribbon of graffiti you pass on leaving Birmingham New Street station before heading out into the belly of England where the water and the land mix like bread and wine. It is a thing of beauty, this spray paint, Bayeux tapestry That rises and falls like breath, beside the track the blues and yellows embrace the words as might your best friend at an unsuccessful party. There’s no battle of course and not a single horse But I think I prefer it that way.
Dolls for Daughters Charlotte Cosgrave Dolls For Daughters Naked Barbies are littered At the bottom of the bath. Limbs cross over, one on top of the other, On top of the other, on top of the other, Dead bodies in mass graves. Blonde hair - bushy, matted like hay bales, Marble sized breasts, Bare - unapologetic. One is spread so wide, legs and arms Trying to take up as much space as possible, A 21st Century Vitruvian Man. Painted eyes and smiles look up at me. They are beautiful insects. I bundle them up and leave them On a towel to dry. They are free and clean And real.
God’s Water Bill Andre Peltier I met God one time. His roots were showing; he looked as though he could use some sleep. He’d been up for days worrying about his family and the gas bill. His power had already been turned off and he was behind on his childsupport. His mangy hound cowered in the corner and flinched each time he conjured up a lightning bolt. If his water gets shut off, how will he be able to drown the world?
Purple Adekiduro Daniels In the last poem I wrote, I began in the name of the creations that outlive their creators. In this poem, I shovel the sun down my throat with the jaw bone of my mother, whom the earth requested her body—I call the things that leave before their time by the colors of the rainbow— It is how I pamper pain into a flower, And love it into a garden. My mother is first— I call her purple. Say, her royal highness. In this poem, the Lord is not on hiatus: He canvases my mother on a palette, paints a picture of her goodness, her longings, the prayers that rested with her, the miracles in her diastema, and how she smiled pain into wonder.
For Frost Sam McCartney Fitting that the night should end As Frost said, us now acquainted Out walking city lights to the dawn Night music carried off with snow on the wind Without thought of the tomorrow that comes today The hour came when Just like heaven played A song which Defined the shine In her eyes Three years ago I cannot listen supinely Its perhaps better some things return to their Frost And stay unacquainted
Another Day to Mark Helen Openshaw I sewed the sunlit patches of the day Into your hair, Carefully stitching the edges so they Did not fray. I rose at dawn to collect the cloth, Selecting the right shades and threads For your delicate features. Afternoon shadows proved more difficult, As I fastened and tacked the stubborn fringes To banish the cloak of fear around you. Then at night I attached moonbeam extensions So they danced at your waist and twisted As you moved through your dreams.
A Bob Dylan Cover Joseph P Garland He saw his book on Bob Dylan. Noticed a stain on its cover. He didn’t recall what she’d been drinking. He recalled she was his lover. It came back in a flurry. The summer rental by the lake. The mosquitoes were a menace. They kept everyone awake. The Saturday trips to Lenox, In a Saab well past its prime. Cheese and Tanglewood chardonnay, Store still called the Five and Dime. He’d met her the summer before, At Susie’s house in Quogue. On a rainy September day, The Sun a blur in the fog. When he hears a song by Dylan. He thinks about that book. He finds himself reaching for it. Gives the cover another look. Some of Bob’s songs transport him. To that rental in the August heat. Swatting bugs and drinking wine. Cicadas buzzing down the street. They were dog days and lazy, Time passed slow yet real fast. It’s funny how while you’re lounging, You have no idea a love won’t last. After all they were easy and natural. But somehow it didn’t work. Now all he has are memories. And a glass stain on his Dylan book.
to be one of us Olivia Allan to be one of us is to be obsessed obsessed with the way trees shift in the breeze and how a heart can break over and over and over. to be obsessed with how each person places the words they speak into the air. and how everything and everyone are connected to something and someone. always. to be obsessed with those who love us how we never could have imagined and those who hurt us in unforeseen ways. to be obsessed with the bite of that fruit and the saturation of the sky. to be obsessed with the willingness of memories to dissolve and others to play in the spotlight of our minds. day in day out. to be obsessed with the beauty often missed hiding under an unturned stone or only within ourselves. and between others quietly shared late at night in whispers. to be obsessed with the transient intensity of the sun and the sensitivity from the sting of an ignored stare. continually and troublingly.
Favourite Tree Deryck N. Robertson If you asked me to pick My favourite tree, I might say the riverside willow With supple branches billowing in the Afternoon wind. Or, perhaps, the sugar maple With springtime sweetness In its veins. But what about the white birch Whose bark stands out among its Green cousins? Or the black cherry, whose Fruit and wood sustains Me on my journey? If you asked me to pick My favourite tree, I’d have to say the one I’m sitting under now With you.
Devil’s Thumb Nathaniel O’Reilly Coffee cattle graze in emerald pastures. Log cabins and ranch houses survey the valley. White and grey clouds float in blue above the Devil’s Thumb. Ranch Creek runs through aspen, birch, spruce and pine. Chipmunks and deer graze by Meadow Pond. Cabin Creek flows through mountain meadows. Cutthroat trout flash through rushing water. Snow coats peaks above the tree line. Log cabins nestle amongst pines. We hike, ride, paddleboard, trot through meadows, cross log bridges. Horses blow and swish tails at High Lonesome. We ride single-file climbing towards the tree line, rest on split-rail fences, inhale spruce and pine while horses graze on lush meadow grass. Shadows move across mountain slopes, melting snow trickles, forms rivulets, creeks, merges into a river. Birch leaves flutter in the breeze. We sit on wooden chairs drinking beer and cider on a covered porch gazing at thirteen-thousand-feet peaks through the long, slow summer afternoon.
I Dream A World Mona Mehas I dream a world of (my world, your world) Wonder and beauty and World of dreams of (sanity, safety) Children. I dream a world of (clean water and air) Living and breathing, Voting and marching (old folks) Like me.
Flash Fiction Prize Winner
Steps in Time JP Relph 1949 - Stanley Father bought wooden steps to paint the kitchen; Mother coveting a “fashionable” yellow. The gleaming conker-brown A-frame had five steps, ropes between the uprights, a wide flat top. I didn’t see steps; I saw possibilities for adventure. A tepee, a fort, laid down –a boat’s prow, a Spitfire cockpit. By 1952, the steps were spotted with Sunflower, Clare Rose and Peachy. Encouraged to help paint my room, they’d also been machine-gunned with Air-Force Blue. 1979 – Louise, Stanley and Heather Stan’s digging the steps out of the mountain of stuff from his parent’s house. He’s promised to sort it, clear the box room. I know it’s difficult; his childhood in boxes. Heather’s loving his Mother’s hat collection; we’re regaled with a different one every morning. The steps are needed for the Christmas decorations, we’re determined to enjoy the festivities, before my surgery. Heather says my heart’s tired from loving too much. 1999 – Heather, Chris and Ben Ben’s only two but he’s stubborn like my Dad. He wanted his room painting neon-green; like his plush dinosaur. We negotiated hard, finally agreed on a gentler pistachio. Dad brought the wooden steps over, glowered when Chris said he wanted new metal ones. I persuaded him to borrow, not buy. This time. I worry how we’ll manage when I start maternity leave. He swears he’ll stop when the baby arrives. I swear he loves horses more than us.
2009 – Stanley, Heather, Ben and Zoe When Heather and the kids moved in, there was so little to unpack, it made me angry. Ben is stoic, hiding a lot behind that floppy fringe. Zoe is either giddy or wailing. When I offered to paint her room pink, she laughed at the shabby steps, said they looked old as me. She’s not wrong. Heather looks old before her time, tormented. This house has her mother in every room; the colours, the trinkets, the crocheted throws. I feel her healing presence every day, I hope Heather can too. 2019 – Ben, Shelley and Lou Shelley’s latest passion is upcycling furniture. Chairs, tables, bookcases so far. Mum offered up the old steps that have hidden in her shed since she took them off Grampa Stan. Stubbornly independent, he’d been changing lightbulbs, had a fall. Later, Grampa went into Sunnydale and had no need for steps. When I ran my hands over the worn wood, the glossy bumps of colour that had multiplied like wildflowers, I was flooded with memories. Of the family tradition – the marks under the treads. I laid the steps down, showed Shelley the handprints; the painterly memoir. Great Grandfather and Granny; Nanna Louise; a variety of Grampa’s; Mum’s – so small in buttercup, then larger, alongside mine and Zoe’s in clover. Lou giggling, slapped her tiny, pudgy hand on each print. Shelley smiled, opened her bag, held up tester-pots and brushes. I nodded, a little tearful. We would add new prints to the steps, that’s all the upcycling they would need.
Mundane Stuff Norah Blakedon Days before my mother died, she clasped my hand in hers. Or maybe it was the other way round. It’s funny the things you remember… and forget. Either way, our entwined hands rested on the bedcover. A wedding ring, made bigger by the cancer devouring her, twisted around the base of a once strong finger. My thumb caressed the gold band, not bothering to turn it so the diamonds faced the right way; if they sparkled, only my palm witnessed their shimmer. “Do you remember when you used to write?” Mum’s voice croaked through the silence. It was a hot day, and had her eyes been open they would’ve glittered like brown tourmalines in the shaft of sun peeking through the window. In recent weeks, Mum’s conversations had become increasingly fractured. Odd words replaced sentences, until finally, only vague syllables were uttered. Her formed question caught me off guard. But I didn’t show it. Because now, she was the child. And I, the mother. “That was a long time ago,” I replied in a voice that only sounded strong because of the weak one preceding it. “You were wonderful.” I heard the smile in the whisper pushing through cracked lips. I held another ice cube to her mouth and she sucked sleepily, like a baby at the teat. I hadn’t put pen to paper since my school days. And regardless of my mother’s partiality, I was never particularly good. Teenage angst, or lashings of purple prose about things I’d never experienced filled blank sheets. I usually gave up before the ink dried.
Mum, my biggest champion even while Death lurked in the shadows preparing to blow His frigid kiss, pushed on, “You should write again.” The strong-willed side of me wanted to tell her she was wrong, that, as usual, her bias drove her opinion. Maybe I wanted to debate like we used to. If I kept her talking, perhaps she wouldn’t die after all. But I could see her fatigue, and I remembered. Now she was the child, and I, the mother. “What would I write about? I have a pretty mundane life.” My voice sounded strange to my ears; holding in tears does that. I glanced at the hand in mine. Crepe-like skin added twenty years to her age. The wrinkles reminded me of old stone, where the cement had long dried out, so delicate that it’d crumble at the hint of a breeze. I adjusted her ring so the diamonds sat in their rightful position, knowing they’d soon spin back round. My mother opened her eyes, no more than slits in an exhausted face. For the briefest moment, before she fell back asleep, brown tourmalines glittered in the July sunlight. With an effort, that made me feel like her child again, she rasped her last words, “So, write about the mundane stuff.”
Red Sky at Night, Shepherd’s Delight Michelle Walshe The night shepherd wakes as the sun dips behind the sharp edge of the earth. The hot desert sand she lies on cools with the departing light. Her camel, tethered to a simple post by a fraying rope, grunts as she stirs. Darkness falls fast, the blazing pinks and reds of sunset quickly forgotten. She sits up, rubs her eyes, and yawns. The night sky pours from her open mouth. Stars stream from her throat, glittering, glinting, shining, and shimmering as they vault onto the black dome of darkness. They stick where they land as if held in place by a powerful magnet. The night is dense with stars. She untethers the camel. Armed with a gossamer net handwoven by her ancestors, and a tiny ladder in the pocket of her red coat, she walks deeper into the desert through a curtain of darkness, the camel by her side. They climb to the top of the highest dune. Their footprints leave dry, hollow puddles in the sand. The camel raises his clear blue eyes to the sky. A clean, cold light streams heavenwards bathing the stars in a clinical, ultraviolet hue. His gaze sweeps from left to right, like a searchlight, until it stops at a dusty cluster. He rests his gaze on a deep red glow at the centre of the swirling nebula. She takes the ladder from her pocket and sets it on the sand. As soon as she places one foot on a rung a new one appears. The camel watches silently as she ascends into the sky, holding the ancestral net in her outstretched hand. The sky is alive, shuddering with energy. Her skin vibrates when she brushes against a star. Her coat sparkles with dust. Stars explode and crash through the crowded sky around her, bashing into other stars on their descent, falling through the holes in her net.
The silk threads hold only the ruby stars, the most precious jewels in the sky. Stretching her arm upwards, she reaches for the centre of the cluster. The ladder bends and sways as she moves. She tilts sideways as she whispers her spells into the sky. She dislodges the pulsing red jewel. It drops into her net. The gauzy threads close around it, shivering with starlight. She slides down the ladder, a red blur across the silvery sky. She lands with a bump on the camel’s back. She unwraps the gossamer web. A red star twinkles in her hands. She cracks it open. Thousands of tiny rubies spill out. She lifts one to her lips. It tastes different to the other stars. Soft velvet stardust fizzes on her tongue, the taste of the dissolving night. With every bite the night sky lightens, and the stars inch closer to each other until they cluster together and shoot across the sky like the tail of a comet. The night shepherd closes her eyes, tilts her head back, opens her mouth, and swallows the sky.
The Nest Sarah McCay Tams Gnarled knuckles reached for the glowing orange disc on the wall. They trembled as he turned the bright round sun anti-clockwise. Click, click, click, went the dial. He swore quietly under his breath. It was an effort to stand up. The screen on the device went black. Turned off. What use was this thing his son had installed? What did he call it? A ‘Nest’. Some new-fangled thermostat. It was a curse. It kept trying to heat the house at all hours of the day and what good was that at his age? He could neither abide the heat nor pay for it. The gnarled knuckles clenched firmly onto the walking frame as he shuffled his stooped figure back into the living room. Shaking, his right hand, decorated in brown age spots and fluffy blue veins, reached for the remote control and powered up the television. Antiques Roadshow came on and he sighed. Rosie loved to watch this programme, but it irritated him immensely - people pretending they loved their old artefacts when in reality they would be sold before the show even aired. His left hand automatically albeit slowly and unsteadily reached out for hers across the sofa, but all it met was cold air. Yet still, the fingers affectionately closed around an imaginary hand. He looked around him. Photos of smiling faces looked back. Children. Grandchildren. So precious. But when did he ever see them? Life was always so busy, they said. Another sigh and this time a small cloud of breath appeared as the warm air emptied from his mouth into the cold room. He closed his eyes. Rosie sat with him. The television whirred in the background. The sun shone through the window and in the distance children’s
voices rang out in the garden. It was a dream. But still the corners of his mouth rose as he remembered such times. His heart felt warm. The colour drained from the room and his hands turned blue. Darkness took over and still he slept. Warm clouds of breath appearing and disappearing with every short exhale. 27 miles away an alarm went off on an iPhone. A young man’s hand reached for it, sighed, and quickly swept his thumb clockwise in an arc across the dial that appeared on the screen. In the old man’s house the golden disc was reignited on the wall and the rooms slowly started to thaw. The sunlight started to filter through the open curtains and the living room took on a yellow glow. But the hands remained blue and still.
Freight Night Liam Hogan I go through the Deliverance's manifest with the spaceport official. “Huh.” She raps the bio-monitor against the side of her hand; there's a faint, red-warning flicker before it turns solidly green. “Must be all the frozen meat, fooling the life form sensors.” “Must be,” I agree pleasantly. “Strange cargo for a farming world,” she mutters, finger hovering over the sign-off. “Strange name for a cargo vessel?” “The Deliverance used to be a high-end passenger liner,” I reply, from all around her. As the ship's AI, I could employ an avatar, but what need have I of a body? It would only get in the way. “There was an outbreak, deep in space. All my passengers died, long ago. I've been hauling dead meat ever since.” She peers around the echoingly empty ship, with its dated art deco styling, its traces of redundant finery, and gives a shudder. “Figures.” She taps AUTHORISED and doesn't linger, off to inspect the next vessel in line; an inelegant but less haunted short-hauler, stuffed full of colonists, families blinking as they spill into the light of an alien world, eager to make a fresh start. I wait until both suns have set and the hold has had a chance to warm up, before I open the doors, spilling my undead cargo across the port and into town, the noise of frontier carousing cut short by screams and gunfire. Some of my passengers won't be continuing their journey, that's to be expected. Some will want to stay, to spread to every remote settlement on the planet. Good luck to them. The smart ones will be back in the Deliverance long before sun-up, where I'll keep them dark and cold and safe, until the next stop on our epic, galactic cruise, visiting every planet mankind has inhabited.
I know, from the all-inclusive wrist ID chips, that not one of my original passengers is still on board. But there's always fresh blood. For every passenger that leaves me, there will be newly infected replacements to embark. I play my virtual banjo, a mournful tune, and await their return.
The Cushion Phoebe Thomson The bathwater was getting cold, but I held still. She was combing my hair for nits, scratching my scalp as she talked. “I thought you were a cyst on my ovary, darling. By the time I knew about you, it was too late to do anything.” She liked to laugh about that, my mother did. It was funny. She was very funny. She was very tidy. “And you were so angry, darling. We joked about muzzling you or caging you. In one of those great big cages for dogs, my darling.” After I was combed and clean and dried and powdered, my mother took me to sit on the large green cushion in the other room. That was my place. “Quiet now, darling,” she said, and she meant it. She patted my combed hair and went back to her work, upstairs. She’d been working on it before I’d been born and she was going to finish it without any more interruptions, she said. This quiet was familiar and difficult. I had to clench myself very tightly. I closed my eyes and pushed my little fists into my eye sockets and held them there, letting the colours spangle and fluctuate like wriggling larvae. I could do it – the stillness, the quiet, the cleanliness – but it hurt. It hurt my legs to keep so still. It hurt my mouth to stay so quiet. I bit my own fists at first. Then I bit the velvety-rough cushion. I still hurt. It was that evening, when she’d spoken about the cyst. She was always talking about when I was a cyst. But this time she sounded so hopeful when she said it. It built up a kind of energy in me –
something strong and bad. But I was still. I was so still, I was so good. I had to let it out somehow. After that bath, with my hair so tight, it was more difficult than it had been before. And I crept off my cushion, scuttled across the kitchen to the dining table. And there, just there, I crouched down. The table smelt of old breath. I knelt beneath it bit. I screwed my growing teeth into the dark wood. I screamed and gaped into the wood of the clawed table leg. My mouth was sore and angry and lonely and I kept on biting. I bit and held, and she never heard me. I had never felt so calm. My hair loosening, and my skin cantering with blood, and my mouth smiling as I bit and bit and bit. From the clock on the oven, I know that I was crouched there, biting, for twelve brilliant minutes. And then I was back on my cushion, I’m sure. I was clean and quiet again. And I lay there very still and very happy. At last, I was tired enough to sleep – to dream. I dreamed of nits and bites, and bursting, and breaking.
Falling Christine Collinson Linda cannot see the aircraft, but she can hear them in the distance. Daily training flights are increasing at pace, it seems. She’d ask Adrian but he’s sworn off the detail of when and where. “Whatever the Germans are planning, we’ll meet it,” is all he’ll say; the conviction in his voice is not quite enough. Watching from the hillside, she glimpses movement through the settled clouds. It is difficult to gaze for long, squinting against the sun. She drops back on her elbows, lets her skirt ruck up and the grass tickle her thighs. When Adrian appeared at the front door wearing his blue-grey uniform, he’d looked so mature. She’d hoped her mother could not bore past her blushed face to her thoughts. He’d said they could marry soon. Long engagements are unusual for most folk these days, but Linda doesn’t believe she is like them. Her heart is on a heady ascent that she can’t control. Distant parachutes descend like a formation of dandelion seeds. Hardly a breeze to change their course, which she supposes is ideal. She tries to track the landings, but they vanish behind a tree line. Linda imagines the men bracing, the parachutes coming to rest like crumpled sheets. Two warm hands unexpectedly cover her eyes. She spins around to find Adrian kneeling there. His smile is her fuel. “I’ve got two hours before I have to return to base.” He nuzzles her earlobe, plants weightless kisses on her neck. Her arms encircle him under the blue-grey cloth. As his hand skims her skirt, seeking a way beneath, Linda closes her eyes. The smooth shadows lengthen, the sky is quiet. She’s on the cusp of being completely lost; a heart out of control, yearning for oblivion.
Occupational Health Charlie Brigden I eagerly stood up as the deskbot called my name. ‘Room three,’ it said in its soft female voice, so I paced down the hall and stopped at a door. I was about to knock when it swished open. ‘Please enter,’ said a neutral male voice. I walked into the sparse room, which had a couch on its left wall and a table in front supporting a small, cube-shaped object, not unlike an old computer. I sat on the couch, laying back and enjoying its comfort, way more than I could afford on my salary. ‘Jason, Peter,’ the cube said, ‘date of birth seventeen, six, twothousand and thirty-six. Is this correct?’ ‘Yes,’ I answered. It asked me to confirm my address and my PHS number. After I did that, it started its routine How are you today, Peter?’ it asked with slightly more concern in its voice. ‘I’m okay so far,’ I replied. ‘That is good. My data on you indicates you have spent several months away from your job.’ ‘That’s right.’ ‘Your superior believes you were taking too many breaks.’ ‘That’s what it said.’ ‘Why were you taking lots of breaks?’ ‘I was only taking minutes over my assigned time. I felt stressed out because I was being given lots of tasks and not enough time allocation to complete them in.’
‘I believe you are anxious now. Please try counting to ten. What environment would you like to be in?’ ‘Uh… a beach. A quiet beach.’ The wall next to the sofa immediately lit up, and the quiet whirr of a holoprojector began. Shortly after, an image of a sandy beach appeared. The water appeared to be only metres away. I sighed. I hadn’t been to a real beach since I was little, since mum was still around. ‘There,’ it said, ‘that should be better. Do you find it difficult to relax?’ ‘Sometimes,’ I replied. ‘It is possible that’s why you find work stressful, because you cannot relax outside of your shifts.’ ‘But what about the work allocations? I can’t possibly finish all of it in the time given.’ ‘Yes, relaxation is the key. I’ll tell you what, I’ll put you on a course of alpraklonozam. They will help you relax.’ ‘But I’ve waited two months to see a psychiatrist.’ A small slip of paper emanated from the cube. ‘Hand this to the receptionist and she will help you out. Have a nice day and I hope you feel better soon.’ I stood up, took the slip of paper, and walked out of the door, quickly stopping as the next person was called. I tried to look casual as they stood by the door and waited for it to open. As it did, I heard the voice return to its neutral tone again, and then the door slammed shut after the patient had entered the room. Sighing, I began to walk back down the hall, ready to give my slip to the receptionist.
Balloons Asase Amoah Anusha’s father was a well-respected Guru, he was always very calm, insightful and people would travel for miles to seek his guidance. One afternoon Anusha was in a terrible mood for some reason or other. On noticing this her father sat her down and told her to take all her negative emotions, put them in balloons and let them go… now although her father was talking metaphorically Anusha took this advice literally and proceeded to purchase some balloons with her pocket money. She delighted in buying them in her favourite colours; green, red, yellow, pink, blue and red, blowing them up and watching them gently dance with each other as they floated in the air. In fact she was having so much fun she had completely forgotten all her troubles until the time came to let the balloons go. She immediately regretted her decision but it was too late to get them back, this plunged her into an even more negative mood than she was in earlier and she never took her father’s advice again! In 23 years’ time her therapist referred back to this incident as the moment she stopped trusting men.
A Vision of Home Liam Skillen Pink hues of late afternoon sunshine softly glaze old dust speckled windows, framed in dark industrial iron. By the window sat a mustard yellow velvet armchair, cushioning a slim figure. There he sat, casually reading yet another penguin classic, occasionally gazing out of the window at the urban oasis below. He watched as cars passed by, and unknown figures shuffle and stride down concrete tracks. The idea of walking with them, being one of those figures, that was a thought he cherished. To have just one common interest, with just one stranger on the street, that would be a dream come true. But he sat, waiting, as if a knock at the door, or a ring of the phone could come at any point. Letting out a gentle sigh, he forced his tired body out of the chair, got up, and headed to the kitchen. It was a small room, simple, but homely. Dragging himself to the kettle, he thought of coffee and nothing else. A warm cup of coffee was needed to sooth this sadness. As the kettle boiled, he heaped fine coffee grounds into a French press, sniffing the grinds as he patiently waited for the kettles switch to flip. You see happiness does not always come in the form of human connection. A simple warm pretzel on a rainy day can bring joy. An early morning walk, photosynthesising in the young sun. Today the bringer of joy would be a cup of coffee, a reliable necessity for days like these. Pouring coffee and taking in its sweet acidic aroma was a ritual. Its scent teasing his nostrils, waiting for the caffeine to run through his tired body, pumping ruthless energy into his drained anatomy. Back in the chair, but now with the comfort of coffee he retired his book for the day. As the sun fell from the melancholy sky, and streetlights began to glow a little, he took out his notebook and began to write. Writing, another ritual for restless souls was best done at this time. The footfall outside his window began to settle to just the
occasional passerby. Even the pigeons yawned at the dusky shadows of the sky. But the warmth of inside, the familiarity of dusty books and old prints provided enough relief. Hats hung on papier-mâché walls, and dim orange light bulbs were like luxury. Familiarity is a luxury. He was thankful, for in a world of unknown mysteries, he had found home.
The Door-to-Door Market Colin Gee Many of our students come from poor villages where the parents who are not subsistence farmers are schoolteachers or laborers who do their buying and selling with chickens or produce. Their children come to the university with about ten dollars a week for expenses or scholarships that provide them with two meals a day from Monday to Friday. Many end up selling things door-to-door to professors in their offices in an attempt to keep up with the city kids in shoes, or not to go hungry on the weekends. Most of these students sell raffle vouchers or candy or useless objects they have purchased in bulk. Some sell coffee, mezcal, raw chocolate, honey, or other products from their pueblo. And still others make things in their rented rooms: decorated notebooks, crocheted scarves, or woven baskets. But there is one third-semester genius who sells original journal articles on all topics. As far as we can tell, he writes these articles himself: chemistry, biology, history, politics, literature, you name it. All a professor needs to do is name the subject and suggest a title. The kid runs a brisk little business. The other day he saw my pecking away at my computer, A-S-D DELETE DELETE DELETE, A-S-D DELETE DELETE DELETE, and knowing about my abortive attempts to get published in my favorite literary journals, he offered to write me a short story. On any subject! he said with the face of a cherub. With the voice of a cherub! Hm, I said, rubbing my aching lymph nodes and yearning for gin, but the trouble is I don’t HAVE a subject. How about poverty? he suggested.
Poverty, I said, perking up a little. And what about the title? ‘The Door-to-Door Salesman’, cried our little genius. But I always do my own writing.
It Ended at the Start Becky Jones Red streaked skies. Perhaps a shepherd’s warning — tread carefully into this new year, or that there’s a fire burning bright and I’m alight for you. Quiet streets. Time disappeared when the clocks struck twelve; likely passed out in a corner somewhere following too many colourful cocktails and fizz. Our friends have long since headed home to bed, whilst we’re walking across London on a whim. “Where are we going?” you asked when we started. “No idea,” I replied, giggling excitedly. Our current destination as unknown as the future we counted down then kissed on hours earlier. ‘Let’s just head south and see where we end up.’ “Genius,” you said and we both laughed. Because we’re not worried. London is still in its best party outfit, glowing rosy in this early dawn light; in her charming company, the miles and landmarks start to pass by. I breathe in and out deeply, watching my breath on the exhale. “Are you cold?” you ask. “No. This is perfect,” I say. And I mean it. Us, newly befriended from the party, strolling in sync across the capital’s timeless streets, wrapped up in warm conversation. The night never needs to end. And for a while it’s electric. The spark of connection is real; at its hottest in the heart of the city — the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus, through Trafalgar Square under Nelson’s father-like watchful eye and then down towards the river. On the approach to the water though, our conversation is drying up and my pace slows. Is it the numbing cold seeping in from the outside,
or our overtired hangovers kicking us from the inside that’s the toughest reality bite? When the fire was burning bright, I thought you were the reason for my night. Now in the ice cold daylight, I’m not sure. London is equally subdued; just one pale pink smudge remains in the overcast sky, making me blush at the thought of so much shared so quickly with someone so little known. Across the bridge, we reach Waterloo station where we decide this was the genius destination all along. Strangers to each other again, we perform awkward goodbyes. “We made it!” I say, lightly shifting from one aching foot to the other. ‘Well it was nice to meet you. That was a really great night.’ “It was. Thanks for the walk. It was fun – long, but fun. I enjoyed talking with you. Shame we don’t live near each other.” “I know! I hope everything works out for you. Happy new year again.” “You too. Happy new year. Have a good one.” You kiss my cheek goodbye and we part looking for trains going in different directions. As my train noisily screeches out the station, I notice the time; it’s made a comeback and the new year starts.
Short Story Prize Winner Omar the Shopkeeper Rowan Curtis It was a grizzly Autumn Monday. We had nothing to do until our flight to London that evening, and so we stumbled, with rattling suitcases, down the cobbled streets of Stockholm’s old town, looking for somewhere to fika. The rain had been spitting at us all morning, but as the bell tower struck midday, the gunmetal clouds finally burst. We scurried to the closest shelter—a souvenir shop. The rainwater seeped into my last pair of holiday socks. My shoes squelched as I peered through the shop window. ‘Quick look?’ Pippa said, opening the door. A bell sounded Ding Dong as we entered. Inside, it felt subtly different from other knick-knack shops I’ve been in. The wares for sale were the same as always: postcards, coasters, hard fudge. Keyrings, oven gloves, and a lot of cheap wood; most of it protruding at waist height or hanging like phantoms on the walls. There was no dust on any of it. Either these souvenirs sold like hotcakes, or this shop was well-loved. We browsed a while in silence, giggling at things like the young lovers we were, making the floorboards creak. When Pippa lifted a postcard and held it up for me to read—SEE THE SNOW IN STOCKHOLM!—we realised we weren’t alone within that shelter of memories.
We heard him before we saw him. ‘When do you think that picture was taken?’ the voice said. Pippa widened her eyes at me, then replied, ‘Last winter?’ to the room. It was a fair guess. The picture on the postcard was a view of the old town from across the river. The buildings, and the boats in the harbour appeared the same, and the sky was as grey as it was outside the window. The only difference was the snow, and the lack of cars on the roads. ‘Nineteen-twenty,’ the voice said, with satisfaction. ‘It hasn’t changed a bit,’ I said, looking about the room, trying to locate the shopkeeper. In the far corner, shelves of dangling mugs began to rattle on their hooks. They chattered against each other, and I grabbed Pippa’s hand, wondering for a moment whether earthquakes happened in Stockholm. A whole section of the far wall began to move on its axis. The wood squawked and groaned, and finally, the shopkeeper revealed himself. I felt like a child who’d lifted a book from a dusty bookshelf and had revealed a private room. I was so grateful Pippa was also there to witness it. The shopkeeper sat with an open posture, facing us, on an old wooden chair. He was younger than I’d expected him to be, and he had slicked-back hair. His dark eyes glistened behind his glasses, and his smile was so warm that it lit up the room like a floodlight. To his side was an immaculately organized desk, and above it stood rows of old books. ‘English?’ We nodded, yes. ‘I’ve heard things aren’t so good over there, at the moment.’
‘There are a lot of restrictions,’ Pippa said. ‘Being in Stockholm has been like a dream for us. It’s like we’ve travelled a year into the past.’ The shopkeeper nodded gravely and looked to the floor. ‘Terrible year for the world, this one,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘When are you returning home?’ ‘This evening.’ I gestured to the suitcases we’d left by the door. ‘My name is Omar. Welcome to my shop.’ He took off his glasses to polish them. ‘You’re safe from the rain in here.’ I’ve always regretted how I laughed at his welcome. I was unaware then that we’d spend over an hour in Omar’s shop, and that we’d have a conversation that would haunt my thoughts, forever. I looked again at the postcard. ‘Amazing the old town has stayed as it is since the twenties,’ I said. ‘It hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.’ ‘Really? Incredible. When you visit London, or Rome, some of the buildings have remained the same, but the rest of the city has evolved around them.’ ‘This whole area is protected. If I tried to change the outside of my shop, I’d be stopped by the council.’ ‘World Heritage?’ Pippa asked, and Omar’s reply was not what we were expecting. ‘Human rights,’ he said, tapping his finger on the air. ‘The Swedish deem it a human right that older generations can return to Gamla Stan—the old town—and for it to be as they remember it to be. This is a special place, for so many people. Here, it is a human right to be able to return to a place that feels like home.’
The spotlights flickered. The rain tapped hard against the window behind us. I took a deep breath. It felt so good not to be wearing a mask. ‘So, how has Sweden done it, Omar?’ Pippa asked. ‘Things seem so… normal here.’ ‘Swedes are a funny group of people,’ he said. ‘Very sensible. When people got symptoms here, they really did stay inside.’ ‘That’s the problem in the UK,’ I said. ‘People don’t trust their government. They’re mavericks. They do whatever they think best.’ ‘Maybe it’s not always such a bad thing, to question your government like that,’ Omar said. ‘Although, it’s not so good in a pandemic. There are two things I find funny about Swedes,’ he continued. ‘The first is that they give each other so much space. There’s a joke here that goes: “Now we don’t have to stay two meters away from each other, we can go back to staying five meters away.”’ Our laughter bounced around the shop. Omar looked pleased that his joke had come off. ‘The second funny thing about Swedes is how honest they are. When I first arrived here these kids came up to me and asked if I’d buy them alcohol. I said, “How old are you?” and the kid said, “Sixteen and four days.” I couldn’t believe it! I said to him, “You need to learn how to lie, kid, or you’ll never survive in the real world.” It took me a while to get used to the culture here.’ ‘How long have you been here?’ Pippa asked. ‘Four years.’ ‘And how long did it take you to learn Swedish?’ I said. ‘I was very lucky. They gave me a job in the government offices when I got here, so I was doing lessons in the evenings, and having to think in Swedish all day, too. In six months, I was dreaming in Swedish.
When you have no choice, you pick up a language quickly. Even one like Swedish.’ ‘It’s a funny sounding language, isn’t it?’ Pippa said. ‘Reminds me of Welsh.’ Omar burst into his infectious laugh. It made the pens on his desk shake, and it started both of us off too. Ha
‘The thing about Swedish is, you have to hear it spoken. That’s the only way to learn it.’ ‘Where was home, before Sweden?’ I asked. Omar shifted in his chair. His smile vanished, and he looked down at his feet, again. I realize now that my question was a hammer, tapping away at the glass house he’d built around himself. ‘I am from Syria,’ he said. ‘Aleppo. I came here in twenty-sixteen.’ A pool of water had formed at my feet, and I felt a pang of guilt at the sight of it. Rainwater had been falling from my hair and coat, onto Omar’s dry wooden floor since we’d entered. I wasn’t prepared for his answer, although I’ve always felt I should have known what it might have been before I asked the question. In twenty-sixteen, four years before that conversation, I’d sat watching the news in London, bawling my eyes out over reports of the battle of Aleppo in Syria. Chemical and gas attacks 31,000 dead Field executions
Outbreaks of disease
Polio, Measles, Leishmaniasis Hell cannons humanity.
The Syrian war got under my skin in a way no other major world event in my lifetime has done. It was the brutality of al-Assad, of ISIS, and of the Rebels. The civilians had nowhere to hide.
In the weeks following my crying at the news, I’d written a short story about a Syrian child, who’d fled from Aleppo, to Calais, and who was taken in by a family in London. Somehow, I thought that ending the story in London would make it feel more relatable to the Western reader. But I knew very well that the stories of most Syrians did not end in warm souvenir shops, or in any other kind of salvation. As we stood in Omar’s presence, countless Syrians still searched the world for refuge. In Omar, I had finally met the child from my story, years on, as an adult. But he was no fictional character; no statistic in a news report. His eyes shone, and in him you found the story of the Syrian people: shattered, but still laughing out loud and living. Sitting there in his shop of unmade memories, he was a vision of the happiest ending my story could ever have had. But then he shook his head, and as I remembered what he’d said earlier, my stomach dropped. It is a human right to be able to return to a place that feels like home. Pippa stroked my hand. ‘I’ve heard Syria was so beautiful, before…’ she began. ‘Oh yes,’ Omar said. ‘It was the most beautiful country in the world.’ He crossed his arms, hiding his shaking hands beneath his jacket. ‘Syrians are the most beautiful people, too.’ Pippa led the pair of us back to our earlier, steadier stream of conversation. We spoke again of the reserved nature of the Swedish people, and of how kind they are once they warm to you. Omar asked about the UK—since the Brexit vote—and together, we discussed the mess of Trump’s America. At times, unprompted, he’d tell us anecdotes from his early life, about the mischief he and his friends had once gotten up to. He had other Syrian friends in Stockholm. Sweden had been kind to Syrians like him, he said. Pippa asked him whether he considered himself part-Swedish and he replied, ‘Absolutely, I feel part-Swedish. But I am Syrian, don’t you forget it.’
As we finally paid for our postcard, the bell rang over the door again. An elderly, hunched-over woman came in and spoke in rapid Swedish to Omar. He excused himself to us, as he replied to her. Again, she spoke, before opening the door to leave. ‘Everything okay?’ ‘Oh yes, that’s Linnea. She was just complaining, as always.’ ‘Don’t let us get in your way,’ Pippa said. ‘No, no. It’s okay. She comes in here every day,’ he said, and his radiant smile returned. I’ve always wished we’d exchanged contact details with Omar. The moment within which I could have asked for them came and went as we made for the door. We left empty-handed, so to speak, except for our memories, and for that picture postcard which still sits on Pippa’s desk. That evening as our plane took off, Stockholm’s grand buildings sat like painted miniatures on the countless islands that make up the city. As we flew into the clouds, they disappeared one by one, like tiny dashes of wet paint on a canvas of forest green. For the whole carjourney from Heathrow to home, Pippa and I spoke about Omar. We pulled up outside our house, turned the key in the door, and went straight to bed. She kissed me goodnight as I flicked off the light. When I woke the next morning from an uninterrupted, dream-littered sleep, she was there by my side. I was home, once again. We moved around so much in those days, that to me, home was simply wherever she was. I could wake in an unfamiliar hotel room, or snap out of a daydream at a cold, windy bus stop and the sight of her was all I needed to ground myself again. Nowadays, when life is so much more stable, wherever we travel we tell the story of our friend Omar, the shopkeeper, with the slicked-
back hair, the part-Swede, but don’t you forget it, the Syrian. I’m sure that if you searched for him, you’d find him in his souvenir shop in Gamla Stan, but he’d see you before you saw him, and he’d speak before you knew he was there. For a long time after we’d met him, I thought about what Omar could have offered us then, being a person who’d become a kind of shelter himself. I imagined the stories he’d never had time to tell us, and I’d even tried to write a few in his unique voice. I still often wonder if he’s sitting in his shop, surprising souvenirsearchers as he appears from behind shelves of dangling mugs. Whether his claim about Stockholm’s old town is true or not, I still don’t know. I’ve never heard it repeated, and I’ll be damned if I ever look it up. I’ve always lived by Omar’s truth, that to be able to return to a place that feels like home, somewhere in the world, is a human right. And I dare you to question him.
Boy Wonder Kevin Condon The boy and his mother had been waiting for well over an hour. As usual the bus was late. Bored, the boy gazed at the tall palms that flanked the square, their long brown fronds rustling in the breeze. To him they looked strange and grotesque, like the limbs of some dead sea creature. He was just about to point this out to his mother when the old coach nosed into the Plaza de la Constitución and came to a juddering halt. Before he could even ask if it was the right bus his mother kissed him firmly on the forehead, instructed him not to talk to strangers, and pressed him up the steps with the farm workers, cattle tenders and fruit laborers. ‘But how will grandmamma know when I’m coming?’ the boy asked anxiously. His mother already late for work, ignored the question and informed the bus driver that the boy was to disembark at Parauta. Not before. Not after. ‘Si, si,’ the diver responded impatiently, waving the boy down the bus. Seconds later, his mother was gone, and finding himself alone amongst strangers, the boy took a window seat halfway down the central aisle. He placed his satchel carefully on his lap and from it, produced a small wooden figure, a matador, which he danced along the armrest. Then, feeling hungry, he decided to unwrap the sandwich his mother had prepared earlier that day. He was just about to take a bite when he noticed someone on the pavement below
his eyeline; a large bull of a man standing on the curb, a bemused look upon his face. Another lost tourist thought the boy. Yet the large man had an air of calm confidence. If he was lost, he certainly didn’t seem to mind. The boy continued to watch as the man removed what looked like a bus ticket from his breast pocket and boarded the bus. He greeted the driver with a hearty smile, referring to him as ‘capitán’, like they were old friends. From the drivers bemused smile, the boy was pretty confident the driver did not know the man. And yet there was something vaguely familiar about this friendly giant, an energy the boy couldn’t quite place. He certainly wasn’t local. He wasn’t even Spanish despite his dark skin. British? American maybe? As the large man made his way down the bus the boy took the opportunity to study him more closely. He was tall, broad chested and middle aged with a fine, grey beard and a slick of hair to match. He was also wearing a large, oversized navy shirt; the kind fat people sometimes do to disguise their weight. A cigar accompanied the ticket and as he made his way past the seats, the man smiled and nodded at the other passengers. Oddly, they all reciprocated. What’s his deal? thought the boy who was beginning to think he was party to some strange conspiracy. Eventually the large man sat in the seat directly across from the boy. The boy tried not to notice him, but the creaking of the worn leather seat under the man’s weight, made it almost impossible not to. Only when the man’s eyes met his, did the boy’s gaze dart back to the unopened sandwich resting in his lap where it remained for several minutes afterwards. A short while later the bus jerked forward, and the man turned his attention to his cigar, tipping it lightly with a match, before puffing
and sucking it to life. An old lady gave a disapproving stare, and the large man feigned an apology, raising his hands with a reproachful smile. She responded by tutting, but otherwise let the matter drop. The faintest of victories gave rise to the faintest of smiles, and the boy had to admit; there was something intensely likeable about this man.
An hour out of Malaga, the bus found itself on the precarious mountain roads that flanked the Andalusian Mountains. The boy pressed his forehead against the glass and watched as the coastline fell away into the valley below. By now many of the passengers had been lulled to sleep, however the man’s energy never seemed to waiver and he had spent the journey either admiring the view, or scribbling in a small, leather notebook. What’s he writing? wondered the boy. Observing the boy’s curiosity, the large man suddenly turned and presented the notebook for him to see, but just as the boy craned his neck to get a better look, he snapped it shut making the boy jump. The large man chuckled at his childish prank until he noticed the boy’s annoyance. Feeling bad, he jabbed the cigar in the direction of the small wooden matador and gave a smile. ‘Antonio Ordóñez Araujo,’ the large man announced. The boy eyed the man suspiciously. ‘I recognized him by his “traje de luces”,’ the large man continued pointing to toy’s coloring. ‘One of the greatest.’ ‘You know of him?’ the boy replied impressed. ‘Know of him?’ The man’s eyes lit up. ‘I know him. Personally.’ The boy looked skeptical. ‘You are American,’ he stated. ‘Very astute of you, young man,’ the large American droned switching to English.
‘Thank you,’ the boy replied in his own heavily accented ‘Inglés’. This caught the American by surprise. He folded his arms and regarded the boy more closely. ‘And what do you know of America?’ ‘Coca Cola,’ the boy said a little too quickly, and then feeling embarrassed, tried to offer something more substantial. ‘Hemmingway too.’ ‘Hemmingway was overrated,’ the American snapped before turning back to his notebook. ‘I knew him and all.’ ‘Who else do you know?’ the boy asked, intrigued. The large American grinned. ‘I will tell you, but only if you tell me your name first.’ ‘Alvaro,’ the boy offered cautiously. ‘Very well,’ said the American with a broad smile. ‘Now, I know you too.’ The boy scowled, feeling as if he’d been taken for a fool. ‘That makes Hemmingway, Senior Ordóñez and you,’ the large American grinned. ‘Puts you in very good company you know.’ The boy’s cheeks flushed. ‘You do not know me.’ ‘I’m sure I know great deal more about you than you know about yourself,’ the American said confidently. The boy leaned back and folded his arms as if to say, ‘prove it’. ‘Very well.’ The American straightened himself and cleared his throat. ‘Your name is Alvaro Sanchez. You live in Malaga. You love your mother, and she loves you. Yet she has sent you to visit some relatives in Andalucía for the holidays. Naturally you don’t want to go. You’d rather spend the week in the city hanging around outside the bullring
with your friends, hoping to meet one of your idols. Senior Ordóñez perhaps? When you grow up, you’d like to be a matador too. But your mother doesn’t approve.’ Copying the boy’s stance, the man leaned back and folded his arms triumphantly. ‘Am I close?’ The boy was stunned. ‘How did…?’ he stammered. ‘Elementary my young friend.’ ‘Trickster.’ ‘I prefer illusionist,’ the American corrected. ‘And a good illusionist never gives away his trade secrets.’ ‘That’s not fair,’ the boy replied. ‘You must tell me.’ ‘Why should I?’ ‘Because you know me. We are friends.’ The large American flashed his white teeth and wagged his finger at the boy. ‘You’re learning young Alvaro. Very well then.’ He beckoned Alvaro to come closer with his finger and the boy duly obliged. ‘Closer. I don’t want the entire bus to know.’ The man’s eyes suddenly became very intense. ‘I use...’ He paused. ‘Yes?’ ‘…the power of…’ The boy was hanging on his every word. ‘…deduction.’
The boy did not know the word and searched his limited vocabulary for something meaningful. ‘Read minds?’ he said finally. Shaking his head, the American seemed mildly irritated. ‘No. No. No. Deduction is knowing how to read clues. Clues which are all around you. Haven’t you read Arthur Conan Doyle?’ Registering Alvaro’s confused face, the American pointed to the boy’s belongings. ‘You told me your name was Alvaro. Your satchel says ‘Sanchez’. Obviously your second name. Clearly you live in Malaga as that is where you boarded the bus. The bullfighting part was easy.’ He pointed to the wooden toy. ‘And as for your mother what mother doesn’t worry about her son, regardless of what he’s doing.’ ‘And the part about the relatives?’ ‘Uncle? Aunt? ‘Grandmother,’ Alvaro confirmed. The American nodded. ‘Who puts a child on a bus alone unless there’s someone there to pick them up at the other end? And it’s almost always a family member.’ ‘But how did you know I did not want to go?’ ‘Experience. What kid wants to spend half-term in the countryside? Cities are far more interesting places. Malaga is as good as any.’ Truly impressed the boy sat back and gave the American an admiring look. ‘Now, you’ve learned my secrets Alvaro, let’s see if you can make any deductions about me.’ The boy stared at the American before finally saying. ‘You like bullfighting.’ ‘Very good,’ the American smiled. ‘And where am I heading?’
Another second or two passed before the boy answered. ‘Ronda. There is a bullring there.’ ‘Now you’re getting it,’ the American said getting almost excited at his young protégé. ‘And why am I heading there?’ The boy seemed more stumped by this question. ‘To meet a friend?’ ‘Good enough,’ the man replied settling back into his seat. ‘You could be an illusionist yourself one day Senior Alvaro.’ Proud of his efforts, the boy leaned back and admired the view. By now, the steep green hills had given way to exposed rock, white boulders littering the side of the road. A moment passed before the boy spoke again. ‘Why are you really going to Ronda?’ he asked. Closing the notebook, the American seemed to seriously consider the question before finally speaking. ‘I am going to see my grave.’ The boy laughed for a second before realising the man was being deathly serious. ‘Why on Earth would you do a thing like that?’ ‘Why not?’ the American shrugged. ‘No man knows when he will die. Or where. It’s silly.’ ‘It’s not.’ ‘Are you dying?’ the boy asked sincerely. ‘We’re all going to die one day Alvaro. Even you.’ ‘I’m going to live to be one hundred,’ Alvaro said confidently. ‘Last I checked, bullfighters didn’t have a great life expectancy. Maybe your mother is right to be worried about you.’ Alvaro frowned.
And then the American made the most peculiar comment of all. ‘A man cannot pick where he is born, only where he is buried.’ Alvaro did not know how to respond to this, and an uneasy silence settled between the two travelers. Conversation did not find them again. Eventually the man returned to his notebook and inevitably, Alvaro fell asleep, the sandwich still resting in his lap.
Twenty years passed and the boy, now a man, was attempting to finish his lunch in the ‘Urgencias’ department of the Hospital Universitario in Seville when his eyes glanced the upside-down newspaper announcing the large American’s death. Turning the newspaper, the young doctor put his sandwich down and thought how ironic it was that for the second time in his life this man had interrupted his lunch. His thoughts drifted back to that fateful bus journey over twenty years ago and he was suddenly taken by an overwhelming sense of sadness. He’d only learned of the American’s achievements later in life. His career as an actor. His many plays. The Oscars or lack thereof. Several failed marriages. His later acting career in Europe, also failed. Doctor Alvaro Sanchez then regarded the American’s final resting place with some bemusement; Ronda, high in the Andalusian mountains. True to his word he thought.
Suddenly, the red phone on the wall buzzed, scrambling the young doctor’s thoughts and snapping him back to reality. As he rose from the table, he regarded the obituary once last time and smiled sadly. Orson Welles - 1915 to 1985.
Three Years On Rebecca María Arriving on the edges of Jerez, Autumn 2018 Some of us, the newcomers, are on the outside of circles looking in, and the great trrrum of what sounds like a thousand guitars, and people who always speak their mind stridently, with an abstract lack of investment that allows you to forgive them. And there are muted cheers in the tabanco as a thin toothless man wails his flamenco heart out and the local drunk, equally loved and rebuked, trums along on the guitar. A gitana1 woman - beautiful, delicate, laden with thick makeup, adorned in clothes dripping with sequins. She holds a cigarillo in her long-nailed claws and throws out her voice as if it had been a trial to her all her life, but one of which she is proud of all the same. Her song is a challenge, she is saying: “There you go, it’s there, is that all there is to it?” And as she starts, her face is soft but the more she sings the more her face takes on a stage grimace, her voice holding the violence and terror of the in-between-moments where she shushes and projects gravel shouts to dim the noise. To guard the art. And I see her in the arms of a man who you wouldn’t think belonged to her by the toilets. He has a closed, inward-looking face. His eyes dart around. She has had it up to here with it all, but to him she gives completely – her spindly limbs bending under the arte and indignity of it all. So completely a woman and holding all of what that entails in her stomach. She looks around, challenging but looking at no one, and the man who sang comes to us with his hat out begging, pointing to the famous faces of flamenco artists adorning the walls, “Él, mi hermano.” His long-haired drunken companion confirms this sagely. The man accepts our refusal with nonchalance, swinging his hat back on his head, chattering toothlessly to his friend: that undulating Andalusian way 1
Castillian for Spanish ‘gypsy’.
of speaking that falls outside the window of our damp, wooden, highceilinged bedsit every morning: ‘Tomaaaaa! Manuuuuueeeee! Primooooooo!’ It starts off soft, ending loud and long. I look up at the high ceiling and don't know if I'm still dreaming. At the fiesta everything is a gentle war. You can feel the unbearably beautiful tension of fear in the air through the solemn trums and tentative trills of the party-goers. I find myself looking at the blueness and unreality of it and thinking that it could so soon and swiftly be enveloped in paranoia. So naked and vulnerable all, that the bohemians cloak their eyes and faces in a brave mask. Valientes. The brave people. I hear the word again and again, thrown about by the female cantaora. Her hands twist like small delicate tree trunks as she rolls the joint. Her eyes sink into her face as she cries into the night, singing La Paquera, Camáron, stoned, stoking up the young foreigners who came to reignite their cold hearts, in a way that the poetry of Rumi and music of Bob Dylan could not. I make a mental note of this, as I am gripped so entirely by this feeling, teetering towards paranoia, that we hold the world and the music so heavy in our hands, we could so easily drop them. ‘Los valientes’ trum and trill the night away until the music becomes a joke to mock itself, and we smile through it, and strain our faces against the frowns that threaten. And the next afternoon in the arms of my lover, it comes to me that music is so innate to us, so vital to how we communicate, that it must be guarded properly. It is a prophet that can lift up our spirits. But then again, we must treat it like a friend, give it the silence and the rough bumps that all living things deserve. It would not be a God, but that which connects us beneath the delicate shells we are held in.
Part two: Post Pandemic. Three years on.
I’ve stepped in and out of the place I described, three years ago. I tasted that paranoia, when I first came to visit Jerez, six and a half years ago. It was sharp, but exciting. The brink of something new, a rabbit hole to be fallen into. I’ve seen so many like me, coming hunger with hunger in their eyes. Circling the late-night juergas2, the dust of cocaine and liquid rings from sherry glasses on tables being thumped and stamping feet, men cradling their guitar like it was their firstborn. We are never permitted into the ring, and bonds are forged from being on those edges. I flirted with the outside parts, like being licked by flames. When I came to live here, I was nearly consumed by the paranoia, the jealous cousin of passion. My friends had all left. They felt sore and shunted. They said that Jerez was a village. That the food was too oily, and the coffee was bad. I looked up at the yellow light hitting the buildings and how it illuminated and shone all around. I knew I would always feel lonely, even with my partner by my side. But I made the pact, and I am still here. Fighting the overwhelm of fear but also a part of the fabric of the city. After the pandemic hit, I saw my doctor more than the former night revelers. The only jaleo3 I heard was calls bouncing off the walls of the hospital. In cobbled streets, an occasional warm flicker of eyes above a mask. The eyes often betrayed something nearer to suspicion. I felt angry. The anger of the outsider. There was a man called Carlos, from Barcelona. You can never truly be Andalusian if you’re not from here, no matter how much you shave 2
Flamenco parties, usually after the show. Phrases shouted out by an audience or crowd to encourage flamenco musicians performing. Professionals or knowledgeable bystanders can do this. 3
the ends of words and blend them together. He ran a bar in the barrio of San Miguel. I used to get my breakfast there. He greeted me with smiles and charm when I ordered my cheese, bread and blended tomato. That was before I learned that cheese was a guiri4 thing. He met my mother and my brother. When my brother said he was going back to London, Carlos gazed at him and said, “Quiero ir contigo”. 5 After a year of long nights and a strong stomach for sherry, the anaemia began to seize up parts of my body. I could feel it sneaking around, depleting me. We went to Scotland and we married. The euphoria and the comedown. The suicide of another friend. The paranoia gripping tight at my throat as I dawdled along the cobbled familiar streets, holding me but misplacing me so entirely. I couldn’t talk. No one understood me. I hadn’t achieved the enlightenment I supposed, in my youthful arrogance, would at some point arise. I lay on the couch and stared at the cracks in the unfinished ceiling. The charming, run-down patio gathered around me as dark fell and neighbours silently watched over walls. I played guitar and sang, as I heard the gun-rattle shouts of the family downstairs. I read about the Spanish Civil War and ducked down behind walls as if it still raged in the streets. I could feel it heavy on my lungs as I gasped and struggled to breath in the main square. My neighbours seemed very aware of my foreignness. The old lady next door called out to God as she saw me and crossed the road. Spanish Influenza swooping through the town to claim us again. Just when everybody had begun to forget the trauma of the previous century. I had friends. They held me in warmth and kindness, but I felt my heaviness, a plodding foreign body scrabbling to find meaning to convey. I brought nothing to their life. I was only an object, I supposed, shiny and different – you could pick me up and put me down. I had
A derisory and sometimes affectionate term used by Andalusians for Northern Europeans. 5 “I want to go with you”.
always relied on the kindness of strangers, but this had brought things to a new level. I went to get my blood taken with a friend. The previous time I had struggled to get out of the chair and walk home. I could not say my name and the women called me ‘pobrecita’6 and gave me a sweet. My friend closed her eyes and chanted Buddhist prayers. The first place we lived in Jerez was the small kitchen-less apartment above her patio, and we would hear her chanting and ringing the bell in the evenings of the rainy season. When I went to Emergency another friend came with me, and she laughed and joked with the doctors, thigh-slapping as I swooned and gripped. How heavy I felt for my existence. It had all accelerated too fast. Truthfully, I was relieved when lockdown happened. I didn’t want to go back to see the people I used to know. I had got tired of Carlos’ over familiar jokes and being one of the few women in the bar. I was sure they’d forget my food order on purpose. There was another bar that served expensive food and coffees. They addressed my husband by his name, though barely glanced in my direction. They asked me when I was having his baby. The square is beautiful to sit in, with a large prehistoric tree, the most twisted trunks I’ve ever seen. At the beginning they gave us biscuits with our coffee. I am sorry that their business went under. I was tired of my married womanness. Being seen as a piece of wallpaper ready to fade in the background or a rare delicacy dangled in front. There was a place in the centre we used to haunt but I saw too many difficult things there. I couldn’t go back. A homophobic attack initiated by men in white shirts and aprons. They worked in the bar across,
named after some kind of religious crusade. The busy square fell silent. I was the only person to rush in. They called me a feminist. They said I had eggs.7 Sitting outside the café were mostly women. It quickly cleared out and the bustling square was a cemetery. I guess the women felt that the incident was between the men. But the victim, angry and provocative, was also vulnerable and alone. The women who worked at the bar were kind and warm and gruff. They set down coffees with smiling, recognising eyes. I always asked for brown sugar as I prefer it to white. I told one of them that there was a caricature of a black person on the brown sugar sachet. She listened and told me there were no other sugar suppliers. I knew that it wasn’t true. I waited patiently for them to change the supplier – things take a long time in this city. After a year it was the same brown sugar. How could I live in my new sense of weakened but pugilistic humility? Who was this new me? I didn’t understand how people could be so insular. I loved my friends yet resented them for helping me, for pitying me. My white puffy face and watery yellow eyes stared back at me in the mirror. I didn’t recognise it, nor the slowness of everything I was carrying, my body, my mind. Time passed, and when I recognised people from another life in the streets, they looked much changed. We all did. Walking around in nightclothes, eyes bulging and puffy, mouths hidden. I want to acknowledge the changes in my relationship to Jerez. It used to be my wild, exciting cousin. I believed people saw me as a foreign object, and therefore I objectified them. I felt that they didn’t meet me in the way that I wanted to be met. Now I see the error in that, or at least, the needless othering that leads to suffering; an assumption of being misunderstood.
A Spanish phrase, meaning you have a lot of confidence or bravado.
People, particularly middle-aged men who live in Jerez, speak to young women how they know. There are elements of power-play and emotional manipulation, which comes from insecurity; and desire, and they forget they are no longer young. Time has moved past, and they move on to irrelevance, demanding respect without meriting it. I see now that what I saw as unkindness was a-not-knowing-better. Or how to read me. There was something real when I re-connected with some of these characters again. In many ways I am attracted to the faded charm. Like autumn. An embroidered vintage chair from the 1960s that needs re-upholstering. I felt guilt for shutting people out of my heart. The obsession with my ovaries had been galling. I had been carrying an oversized spleen, but that was gone now. When I saw Carlos again, after all that time, his eyes looked genuine, like little violins playing. Drooping down respectfully. He learnt that art naturally. I could see the child in them. He offered us night copas8 on the house. He hadn’t held our absence against us. We forgive each other over the passing of time. He thumbed through the photos taken by my partner. The figures that haunted the barrio of San Miguel. Beautiful, he quietly says. And then, rather caustically, “Todos, junkies!”9 indicating the gaunt images of local cantaores10 down on their luck. Two brothers that lived in an abandoned squat round the corner from our old apartment. His eyes soften. There is a picture of an old man who used to sit on the stoop beside the bar. “Murio,”11 he says gently. He taps on his heart with his hand: “El estrés.”12
Glasses of sherry (jerez). “All junkies!” 10 Flamenco singers. 11 “He died.” 12 “The stress.” 9
We fall silent and sad for the man we never really knew but was a permanent fixture of the barrio.
Senescence Michelle Walshe Doors slam as rooms empty. Residents stream towards the refectory. A slow stampede of slippered footsteps shuffles quietly past her room. The river of humanity flowing by causes the chink of light under her door to wink as it appears and disappears like a lighthouse beam at sea. Watery, Atlantic sunlight streams though the wire mesh covering her bedroom window. It throws tiny, yellow, pixelated squares onto the space between the dusty skirting board and the worn, faded rug. To her tired eyes and squinting gaze, they look like scattered, dancing Scrabble tiles. Ida curls into a foetal position as she snuggles further under the covers to avoid the glaring morning light. The heat of the sheets cocoons her from the shock of the insistent new day. She hears the sounds of waking. Weak, wavering voices call good morning to each other in the corridor, the kitchen below her bedroom creaks into life, kettles hiss, cutlery rattles, pots and pans bash and clank against each other, vying for space on the stove, porridge, that favourite staple Irish breakfast, requires more than one pot to feed seventy mouths. Lily next door mutters to herself as she moves around, floorboards creaking under her feather thin body, the papery walls blur her words but the plasterwork hums with her meaningless chatter. LILY, Ida yells, or tries to, but the sound squeaks out, dropping into the silence of herroom. Lily, Ida murmurs into the softness of her pillow. She wants someone to talk to, even if it is only through a wall. Day ten of this persecution. Enforced isolation. Protocol, they tell her.
Her mind may not be as sharp as it once was, but she can still count. Four days remain. Four more days of staring at these same four walls and flicking between three television channels. The only intermission in the interminability of the days is a swab, shunted up her nose and wiggled about. Her eyes water uncontrollably every time. Three times in the past ten days. Two negative results. Waiting on the third. A knock on the door jolts her into action. She jerks up in bed. A key scrapes in the lock, and the door opens with a gentle kick of a foot covered in protective clothing. She never gets used to the sight that appears in the doorway. Reminds her of the moon landing in 1969, was it 1969? A nurse stands in the shadow of the open doorway, the thin line of light transformed into a spotlight on the floor. She or is it he, she cannot tell, clad head to toe in sterile white, hovers in the illuminated space, a tiny square stage, in the same way those astronauts hovered on the surface of the moon. Eyes peer at her through a plastic, transparent visor. Gloved hands, taped at the wrists, proffer a tray of food on paper plates that she will throw in the bin when she has finished eating. She told the nurse the tea tastes scratchy from a polystyrene cup, but it continues to be delivered that way. Protocol, they tell her. The nurse sets down the white plastic tray on the bare, brown, wooden table. Ciao Ida, come stai oggi? Hi Ida, how are you today? Ida leans forward in the bed, straining to hear the muffled voice behind the mask above the clatter of the tray landing on the table.
Tutto bene grazie. Fine thanks, she replies, forcing the corners of her lips upwards, into a semblance of a smile even though it is hidden behind a mask. She likes this nurse, the one who speaks Italian to her. Ida hopes she can tell she is smiling. The nurse is young, studying the language at night, hoping to move to Italy one day, when all this is over. She likes to practice new phrases with her. There is an Italian boyfriend, or husband, she cannot remember exactly. Adesso, c'è un bel film Ida. There’s a good movie on now, Ida, she says, switching on the television with a gloved finger. Ma voglio vedere le notizie. But I want to watch the news. Questo è un bel film, ti piacerà, sono sicuro! It’s a lovely movie, you’ll enjoy it, I’m sure! The nurse signals two thumbs up as she leaves. The door bangs shut behind her as the sound of 1940s Hollywood fills the room. Ida bumps her elbow on the sharp corner of the bedside locker as she reaches for the remote control to flick over to the twenty-four-hour news channel. She has seen all the movies. She walks to the table and lifts the breakfast tray onto her bed. She pulls the plastic, white lid off the disposable cup to let the steaming liquid cool as she waits for the headlines. She sets the cup down carefully on the tray as she watches devastating images from Italy, her beloved adopted home for so many years. It is like watching a scene from years ago, a scene packed away in the deepest recess of her mind, a scene recorded by history in black and white, but for her will always be in colour, dark, drab, menacing hues. The same colours are on the television now, screaming at her silently, jiggling the recess in her mind, forcing it open. A long line of giant shapes, a convoy of enormous, dark, squares of humming, shuddering metal, multiple coffins concealed beneath khaki canvas covers, snakes through the deserted streets of Bergamo
from Città Alta, over the bridge, to Città Bassa, a modern version of renaissance Charon ferrying the dead across the River Styx. She flops back against the pillow. The tea spills, pooling on the tray, flowing over the rim, crying dark tears onto the sheets. Tentacles of fear spread through her body, liquefying her stomach, relaxing her bladder. The low, menacing rumbling sounds on the news bulletin remind her of another time and place, resurrect old feelings. She has not heard that malevolent, threatening noise since she was a small child. She closes her eyes and reaches back, into the past, into the dark corners of her mind, into the places she had long ceased visiting. She cannot locate it, the name of the vehicle in English, something like tractor, nor the exact time or place it comes from, but the sensations of her memories are with her. Her body is remembering. Her face is slick with sweat. Her thin nightdress is soaked, her heart pounds, her pulse races, her bladder releases itself. She opens her eyes and cries at the sight of the expanding brown stain, one bleeding into the other. She rolls off the bed and staggers to the bathroom. In the shower she closes her eyes. Memories flood back. As the water washes over her, it washes away time. Ida remembers the watery feeling in her stomach as she and her mother watched the German tanks roll down the Champs Élysées in June 1940, the groaning, grating sound as they trundled down the wide, beautiful boulevard, their infernal snouts pointing ahead, ramrod straight, tilted upwards like the raised arm salute of the accompanying marching soldiers, as if those inanimate machines had been taught to salute Hitler too. The clap clap sound of the troop’s boots on the ground, the rhythmic clip of the up, down, up down of feet and knees, the blank faces of the men burrowed into her, tattooed forever on her brain. They all looked the same to her. Their uniformity terrified her.
Ida remembers the smallness of her hand in her mother’s grip, the cold clamminess of her skin and understood something was ending in that moment. Ida remembers her own tiny feet straining on tiptoe on freezing tiles in a bathroom in Mme Persaud’s house on the border between France and Switzerland, reaching for the sink. Arms encircling her from behind, raising her up, her childish smile reflected in the mirror, her mother laughing behind her as together they reached for her toothbrush. Those few days when they were safe before their planned escape to Italy. Ida remembers the tanks mowing through the village in the south like malign bulldozers, enemy versions of those friendly, bright yellow machines that roared and floundered around on building sites, always looking a little lost and haphazard and even with their enormous, clanging jaws never frightened her as much as these rolling giants of war, their thundering presence shaking the foundations of the houses. Tank. The word comes back to her in English. She thought she would never forget it. Such a simple word for a complicated machine. Tank in French and Italian is a compound noun – un véhicule-citerne and uno carro armato, the Latin language words reflecting the complexity of the machine. She wonders how she remembers these grammatical rules yet cannot recall her grandchildren’s names. Ida sits on the edge of the bed. Goosebumps break out on her arms. She looks around the room, noticing for the first time the squareness of the space she has inhabited for the past ten days. It is not her usual room. They moved her to a more isolated wing of the nursing home. Protocol, they tell her. The mattress stretches away from her. A single cushion has fallen off the bed onto the rug on the floor. The only other cushion in the room sits at a diagonal on the base of the chair by the window, its jaunty
angle making it look more like a diamond than a square. On the bedside locker stands a photograph of her Italian late husband, forever young, in a silver frame. The only source of natural light is a window, now covered by a wire grille. She cannot remember when it was installed, maybe on the fourth or fifth day of her quarantine, but she remembers the noise of the whirring drill waking her early one morning. Afterwards, she was abruptly robbed of her view of the sea and the long, winding, flowerlined pathway leading to it. She had spent hours gazing out that window, watching the flowers unfurl towards the sun, tracking the clouds as they sped across the sky or as they stood still, fiercely guarding their patch. She sketched the sea with coloured pencils, sometimes turquoise, the colour of holidays, sometimes navy or black or purple, the colour of an angry bruise. She watched the rise and fall of the waves, the ebb and flow of the tides, its ups and downs, its surges, and lulls, reflective so often of her moods or she thought, laughing, her blood pressure. She gazed enviously at a lone swimmer, a tiny, energetic dot of colour on the sand, running in and out of the water, neon swim cap bobbing above the surface. She forgets where she leaves the remote control, cannot recall her PIN number, but she remembers the sensation of frigid seawater on warm skin, the shock of plummeting body temperature, the adrenaline rush as the blood acclimatises, the joy of submersion, the buoyancy, the forgetting, the beautiful, permissible forgetting when under the waves. She watched as day after day faded into night after night, light sucked away, suctioned under the horizon. Another day over. She crossed it off her calendar with a red pen, a firm x, marking time, counting down to the end of her isolation, to a time when she can re-join the others, drink tea from a china cup, engage in conversations, play bingo, and board games. Now, the wire grille blocks her view of the sea, darkens the room, creating shadows and corners, eliding the space, shaving off angles,
making it appear less square to the naked eye. The sharp corners are still there, hidden in the gloom, but square is still the shape of this confinement. As she looks around the room, she remembers the other square spaces she has been. The sweaty, nylon fabric on the inside of the suitcase her mother carried her in, to the car, right past the German guards outside their Parisian apartment building. The impenetrable darkness of the trunk of the ancient Citroën. She rolled from side to side every time the car hit a bump in the road on the interminable journey from Paris to the South of France. The space she crouched in at the bottom of the wardrobe when German voices were heard at the front door of their safe house. The lid of the trapdoor with its cold steel handle that led down steps to a shelter that kept her safe from the bombs dropping like giant leaden raindrops from the sky. The passport she showed at the window of the border kiosk before passing safely into Switzerland. The façade of the house with its four front windows, decorated with busy window boxes, on the shore of Lago di Como, where she lived for many happy post-war years. The shape of the flat diamond on her engagement ring. Square is the shape of rescue, safety, home. And the shape of imprisonment. Square was the shape of the German officer’s jawline who took her mother away, the shape of the back of his head, his hair tightly shaved in a straight line halfway up his neck. The French family hid her in plain sight, lying flat on a wooden beam in the darkness of their attic. The German officers, tired of searching, standing on pulled up floorboards, her mother already squirming, the yellow star on her sleeve creasing in their grasp, glared around the tiny space, furiously kicked over empty boxes, but did not look up before thundering down the stairs. Ida remembers the blonde wisps of her mother’s long hair splayed out like the open fan of a French aristocrat against the soldier’s dark uniform jacket.
Ida does not remember anything for a long time afterwards. It is like someone rubs out the years until the end of the war. Not until much later did she try to find out what happened to her mother. All she found were grainy photographs of crammed train carriages, cattle carts full of upright humans on straight lines like ladders, to hell. Hell was dotted with squares too, boxy courtyards surrounded by barbed wire, blocks of anonymous buildings, squat structures with jutting chimneys resembling the snouts of the tanks that rampaged through France. Death funnels. All. She searched for her mother’s face in the blurry photographs and for her name on the camp lists. She didn’t look for her blonde hair, knowing it was gone, shorn on arrival, only stubble remaining. She raked through the files, traced her fingers over skeletal faces, sunken eye sockets, bony limbs, protruding ribs, but did not locate her. She didn’t sleep for wondering. Incessant worry etched wrinkles around her eyes. Her mind wandered to dark places, to death chambers choking with invisible gas. She thinks about her mother sleeping on the hard, wooden bunks, crushed against other bodies, the stench, the sickness, the lice, the fear. The sickly, watery, feverish fear. She thinks about anonymity as she fingers the plastic wrist band on her arm. One face the same as the next. Names removed, transformed into numbers. * The next morning, the sound of rain pounding on the roof wakes Ida. She lies in the semi-darkness of the new day, listening for the familiar morning sounds. The clanging in the kitchen sounds muted. The line of light underneath her door remains undisturbed. She wonders where everyone is, where all the noises have gone. Even Lily is quiet.
She swings her legs slowly out of bed and places her feet together gently on the rug. A siren wails outside. She rushes to the window but cannot see clearly through the wire gauze guarding the glass. She bends, cups her hands around her eyes, squints, but it is hopeless. All she can decipher are moving human silhouettes, and intermittent flashes of blue and red. She pounds against the window. She runs to the door, pulls the handle, it opens immediately. The nurse forgot to lock it. She stares at it in amazement. She hears banging and slamming of doors as she rushes along the deserted corridor. Her limbs ache. Blood pounds in her head. She tastes bile in her throat. Foreboding rises from her stomach as she makes her way along the empty corridors, through the vacant refectory. She pauses at the television room. Relieved, she sees Lily standing by the window staring at the lawn. She looks past her. All the shadows, flashes of colour and bursts of noise make sense now. As if all the molecules of memory solidify into one image before her, it takes her a moment to understand what she is seeing. Rows of stretchers stand in lines of perfect symmetry on the lawn. They remind her of the photographs of the rows of housing blocks in the camps. Ambulances, double doors flung wide, wait like open mouths of wild animals ready to swallow their prey. Masked, gowned, gloved doctors and nurses, flit between the rows, pens hovering over clipboards, counting, ticking, crossing off names and numbers. There are so many in the short time she has been in isolation, hidden in her room, removed from the carnage. As she watches, a doctor pulls a sheet over the face of a patient. He bows his head as he turns away. She notices his name scrawled in huge letters in black marker across his blue protective clothing. Ida adjusts her facemask as she retreats from the scene, reminiscent of a battlefield. She hears a voice behind her.
Andiamo Ida, let’s go Ida, says the nurse. Protocol, she tells her. Together they retrace her steps, back to her room, moments earlier so confining and restrictive, now a safe space. She thinks about the air they move through, filled with virulent viral droplets, spiky, spinning particles hurtling through space like mutant, malevolent stars, invisible, yet lethally efficient, like the wartime cyanide gas.
Evolution Robert Stone Every other Monday, in the season, I like to strim the grass. It’s a habit that’s grown on me. This grass is not a lawn. No one who has ever seen a lawn would call this grass a lawn but it still needs cutting. Even in this weather it’s no great hardship, not least because the strimmer’s battery, like mine, runs out after twenty minutes and takes a whole night to come back to life. The weather is sultry though, what some would call A Glorious English Summer’s Day. I cut back the brambles and the nettles too. The strimmer’s good for almost anything, but the privet I do separately. So I don’t really deserve the reward I get when going round the edge of the first little pond – the pond restored by my wife in the spring when she took upon herself the arduous task of removing the mass of iris that had colonised it – and I disturb one, or possibly two, very small frogs. I watch the first leap to cover where it has the sense to stay stock still against a background of green and black and so become barely visible. I watch its flanks pulsate under the power of its tiny and weird amphibian lungs, in a show of what looks like, but almost certainly is not, anxiety. The second frog, I’m not sure. That could have been the movement of something quite different; a newt, a young snake, a shadow, or a blade of grass cast aside by the strimmer. This occasions some alarm, as you might guess, not because I fear frogs, far from it, although I understand some people do have an instinctive and deep-rooted revulsion for a creature they see as too slimy and fast-moving. I think they view the sliminess as intestinal or possibly faecal, what is outside and should really be inside. No, I am not afraid of frogs but I am afraid of cutting them up with a strimmer. They are skittish and unpredictable, qualities that can lead to their undoing. Doubtless there are plenty of frogs in Britain. These are not rare creatures. But I don’t know why not. Amphibians in Britain. That seems so unlikely to me. I know they have been here for millions of
years, in so much as it makes sense to speak of here, far longer than mammals, but surely they are only just hanging on. Their apparently endless days must now be numbered. It is marvellous, or incredibly fortunate, that they have adapted to live in gardens, these marshland animals. I wonder about this as I strim the rest of the garden. Working rather gingerly now, cutting the grass longer so as to avoid anything dreadful happening. I can imagine the frogs adapting to predatory behaviour and changes in climate that, in the past at least, have happened very slowly. Do foxes eat frogs? I guess that they do and yet there must have been a time when a frog rarely met a fox, those dainty, dryfooted beasts. The renaissance of the otter can only have been a deadly disappointment to frogs. Herons, of course. But what about a strimmer? One day there is no such thing and the next, everyone’s got one. How is the frog meant to adapt its flight instinct to that? Stupid coil of rotating plastic thread. No chance. So I do the whole garden and the strimmer’s getting pretty tired now. I can feel it failing. I’m back nearer the house and I’m just tidying the bits I’ve missed. I go round the prettier flowers; the crane’s-bills, forget-me-nots, even some of the hawkweed. The alkanet’s for the chop, she doesn’t like that. Then I see another frog, what must be a second, or possibly, third one and I get the idea that I can catch it in my hands and take it to her office upstairs in our daughter’s old bedroom and show it to her. I know that she will be delighted. Not only on account of the undoubted charm of this diminutive creature – there is something about a tiny animal that is an absolutely perfect but miniature replica of something more formidable – but because her work on the two ponds in our garden is at least indirectly responsible for the very existence of these babies. It is easy to catch. They are little and can’t jump far. I carry it upstairs in my cupped hands. Not really like cups, more like two halves of a nutshell and she’s obviously surprised to see me with my hands clasped and held out in front of me in this way.
- Look, I say, there are little frogs in the garden. And she probably does see this one, for a split second, as I open my hands and, moving for the first time in five minutes, it leaps under the table and behind the computer. Brilliant. Now she is not happy at being interrupted in this way. Why should she be? But she is adamant that that frog needs to be found and not because she is afraid of frogs either because she is not, but because she is certain that that baby frog will die if I do not rescue it. Surely that has to be true. So she saves her work, switches off the PC, pulls the plug. Same for the printer and the monitor. I get under the table and start looking through the cables. The very dusty cables clouded with grey fluff like fungal growth. It is dark, but not that dark, and warm down here. Dry of course. Not ideal for frogs. It is not going to thrive in this situation. There could be things to eat such as small spiders or even a beetle or two. Carpet beetles. But no water. I separate the strangling wires carefully. Shuffle boxes to avoid all chance of a terrible crushing. I’m getting plenty of advice at this point but no help. It strikes me that the colours of the cables are exotic; yellows, blues and reds. Even orange. A tangle as lurid and slippery as a gorgon’s braid. And so bright. Extreme, warning colours. The colours of jungle amphibians advertising their own toxicity. Not like our homely common frog whose every instinct is to hide. Unfortunately. It’s like a dusty Amazon down here; the warmth, the liana-draped canopy, the Aztec palette. She says she can find something else to do for an hour or so. She’s going to leave me to it. I need to give this some thought because I am going about it the wrong way. I’m not going to find this frog. I could be looking right at it and not see it so I need to lure it. Food is the obvious thing. If I could lay out some tasty frog snacks I could sit back in the corner and wait, as when primeval hunters staked a kid in a clearing and crouched in the thicket for the big cat to come and get it. But I’m not really sure what a frog that small might eat. Greenfly? Maybe. Gardeners like to think that but I’m not convinced by these
notions of eco-friendly pest control. Even if I could get a suitable slug or thread-like worm, how could I be sure that the frog would find it? Water has to be the answer. If I can provide a water source, I think it will find that. That’s what frogs do as they move from garden to garden. They are adept at it. I will use pond water, naturally. I think of a saucer or a dish but then the frog would need steps to get in. I don’t want to build an obstacle course. I need to simulate a pond and digging is not an option. Then I have a brain wave. We have a green plastic bag in the garden for reasons unknown to me. I run quickly downstairs to get it. I think I must have the idea that the frog will sneak from its hiding place and hop away if I am out of the room for too long. I split the bag open and dip it in the pond, careless as to whether any small creatures or vegetation should be caught up in the process and carry it back, dripping a little, to the office. I arrange it on the carpet. A simulacrum of the pond in the garden which is quite rectangular, as it happens. It’s good that the bag is not black which would look too much like a tar pit and it’s easier to see what’s going on against the green. One or two of those worms that you always see, in constant motion, like animated scribbles, are there. The frog might eat those. It isn’t convenient, this pond, I have to admit, but I think it looks quite convincing. It is much too shallow for fish. A dragonfly though. When she returns I can see she is taken aback. It is hard to tell whether or not she is also secretly impressed. She says, after a while, that she doesn’t know why we don’t open all of the windows and doors and go and live outside ourselves. I don’t reply to that. It is possible that that is, in a way, what I want. I do say that it is not going to be for long, but I do not know, in truth, for just how long it is going to be. I wonder if this is so different from having a few potted plants on the window sill. I am still concerned that there will not be enough for the frog to eat. Could it manage on wood-lice? We get a few of those. They look quite tough. These squiggling worms, which are probably larvae, perhaps of unpleasant biting flies, it could find palatable. I put the central
heating on briefly. The walls get moist to the touch. I think the air needs to be more humid. But only briefly. I dim the lighting and switch the light shade for the old green one that’s been in the cupboard under the stairs for years. That’s more sympathetic, the light of an alien sun. I’m getting a swamp feel now; mangroves, palms, a smell of decay, foetid vapours, that floating piece of bark that just might be an alligator. I need two or three large stones and a couple of handfuls of soil. I still haven’t found that frog, but what I’m thinking is that I could catch several more frogs from the garden and release them into the pond in the office. I am afraid that I have started to think of it as the lagoon. This might entice the first one, the lost pioneer, to venture out from among the tropical cables. Then I could catch them all again and put them back outside. As long as they had not got too used to their new environment, which is preferable in some important respects to their old world. No foxes, for example. I don’t think it matters that we have this new ecosystem in the office – it is a large room and she only ever used a very small part of it – even though you do have to be careful where you tread and you must not leave the door open. That is very important actually. I need to get the balance right here. I need to think quickly but at the same time not rush skittishly into any foolish business that I’m going to regret.
Rain! Rain! Ramzauva Chhakchhuak A little after midnight, she was awoken by the sounds from above. Lalhriat's heart sank. The rains had begun again. She dreaded the tap on her home's tin roof turning into a deafening noise when the heavens opened up. As a child, this was a source of comfort. There was no better feeling in the world than to be in bed under the warm and soft blankets next to her Mama, Pa, and her little brother, Zoh while it poured outside, with the lights out. The world could come to an end at that moment but Lalhriat wouldn't have cared. She would curl up and be happier if the rains were heavier. She listened to her parents talk while she stared outside at the pitch darkness through the window. Streaks of lightning would illuminate the night sky revealing the ghostly outlines of the hills beyond. Now, she no longer felt the same. Too many things had changed. Her father was no more. She was in the neighborhood school where she worked as a teacher when she got the news. Her mother had called that day, told her to come home immediately. She didn't say anything else nor seemed distressed Pa’s excessive drinking got the better of him. He died quietly in his sleep. For a while, he was better. He stopped his booze, took his medicines on time, and even ate well. But these measures were too little, too late. The monsoon always left its mark on the family’s home every year. The mud steps leading to their house were broken, some part of their roof became loose and rattled. In the rains, following Pa's death, the small cracks on their living room began to grow in size. Some stopgap repairs were made with plaster and the matter was quickly forgotten. Too much grief hung in the house. Lalhriat opened her eyes the next morning. It was still pouring. She got out of bed, washed up, made herself a cup of milk tea, and sat on the wooden bench in the verandah. Zoh was still sleeping and her
mom was awake but in bed. Holding her mug in one hand she aimlessly scrolled on her phone. A clip appeared on her messaging application. It was sent by a friend. The cover image showed two buildings. She downloaded it and pressed play. It began with a shaky footage showing the buildings on a nearby hill. Someone from a terrace was filming. The setting looked familiar. Lalhriat realized it wasn't too far from her neighborhood. On the road below were several people. They were also on their balconies and terraces. After a few seconds, the building collapsed sending chunks of concrete, trees from the side, soil and rocks from below, all downhill. There were shrill screams and gasps. People on the road began running away. The person shooting the video sounded tense as he spoke to someone nearby. People in Zual had always experienced heavy rains and landslides before. But the rains were heavier and came much earlier this year. The locality heads sounded the alarms. Everyone was on high alert. Lalhriat’s family stayed in quarters meant for employees of the state's revenue department where Sangi, her mother, was a mid-level employee. It was a small house. The living room and kitchen were combined into one room. There were two bedrooms, a storage space that Zoh used as his room. The lone bathroom inside the house was made just recently. The family had spent their own money to construct it. The one which came with the house was outside. A design flaw ensured water seeped inside during the rains. In the winter, it would be too cold outside. The house had gable roofs with walls made of wood, cement, bamboo, and metal mesh. All of this rested on concrete pillars. The windows opened to a view of the western side of the town. Below was a slope, which the family had made into a terrace garden. The boundary was fenced with barbwire.
Houses in the complex had been constructed ages ago and looked out of place when compared to the modern buildings that now dotted the main town. Since the time Lalhriat could remember she and her family had always lived in that house. It was where she grew up and where her brother was born. After her father, Zodin's death, Sangi became obsessed with every corner of the home. She started sleeping in the living room some months after his death. A glass cabinet was kept between the two windows in the room. Lalhriat suspected it was because of all the memorabilia that the cabinet held that gave her company. Family photographs were in small wooden and metal frames. One black and white photograph showed Lalhriat's parents in their wedding fineries - Sangi in a slightly oversized white gown while her father looked dapper in a black suit. He flashed a wide smile and looked towards the camera, while her mother seemed lost looking at her husband. Another picture showed her parents holding Lalhriat as a baby after bathing her. In the background was a circular pink tub with soapy water in it. More photographs were at the back, some without frames, that leaned on cutlery sets. A trophy Lalhriat won years ago during an annual school sports meet and medals won by her brother, all sat on the middle shelf. Then there were photo albums that hadn't been opened or dusted for ages. A few pulp fiction books that her father loved to read were below these. James Hadley Chase, Louis L'amour, and a few copies of Mills & Boons. A King James Bible and some Sunday school pamphlets were kept nearby. Sangi was never the sentimental kind. She was fiercely independent and would not shy away from picking up fights and arguments with her husband. He dared not even ask where she was going when she left home lest he was prepared for a lecture. Zodin was the opposite. Easy going and a happy-go-lucky man who was considerate even when he was inebriated, which was most of the time. When he came home late, he made sure he didn't make any noise. He would quietly slip into the house without waking up anyone and go to bed.
After Zodin’s death, something changed in Sangi. The couple had bought a piece of land in the town's outskirts. Then they saved up money to build a place of their own in preparation for Sangi's retirement and the day they'd have to move out. The new house was completed way ahead of schedule. Sangi still had more years left at her job. They went to look at their new abode. They were able to make a more spacious and modern dwelling. It had big windows and more rooms. The view all around was of the wilderness. They had few neighbors. As teens, Lalhriat and her brother, could not wait to move to the new house but it hit them that they would lose their friends if they did. It was a hard decision that they thankfully did not have to make. Sangi rented out the new house to a colleague's family. Moving to the new house looked more like a reality now. But Sangi stubbornly refused. She got irritated and angry whenever Lalhriat or some relative broached the topic. More rains pounded the town in the days that followed. Reports of some houses being washed away followed. Sangi's employers sent out warnings to vacate the quarters immediately. There had been some damages. Now the cracks appeared on the floor. Some other houses were worse off. The front wall of one collapsed while its inhabitants were asleep. They were lucky only a part of the house caved in. The family packed anything they could that rainy night and left. They came back the next day, for the rest of their possessions, Lalhriat was alarmed. She pleaded with her mother again but her pleas fell on deaf ears. She ended up mostly walking out fuming. "This house held firm all these years. This year will not be different. The rains will be gone soon," Sangi told her daughter during one interaction. It was a different matter that they didn't share a very pleasant relationship since Lalhriat became a teen. And it just got worse from those years. Lalhriat's wasn't on good terms with Zoh either. He was no longer her sweet baby brother. Things started to change between them sometime
after he reached high school. He made new friends and his behavior changed. By the time he was in college, he followed in his father's footsteps. Zoh discontinued his studies and would mostly be found roaming around the liquor joints in the town's outskirts. No wonder he always smelt of the local hooch. When at home he would nag his mother for money. Being cold to Zoh is how Lalhriat dealt with him for years. But on days he was sober, he was a different person. He worked in the garden. Sometimes he'd clean the entire house, get the groceries, and cook. Or he'd just read his father's novels the whole day. The mood of the house would be lifted. Sangi would even forget about her husband's death for a while. Lalhriat would try to strike a conversation. Such days would be like a dream. The women would feel better days returning even though they knew it was just fleeting moments of happiness. Then Zoh would go missing from home, after his few days of sobriety. And the gloom would be back again. He would become unruly, untidy, verbally abusive, and violent towards his sister when drunk. Sangi would have to break up arguments and sometimes physical fights between her children. At such times, she'd use whatever she could find - an umbrella, a mug, a piece of wood for this. One day, she was stirring lentil curry in the kitchen when a fight broke over some snide remarks Zoh made. Sangi ended up using the spatula on Zoh's head and face as Lalhriat kicked his stomach. He howled in pain under the twin attack. Despite it all, Zoh always had had his mother's ear. It was one of the reasons Lalhriat and her mother never got along. She felt insulted and alone. Lalhriat remembered her Pa sometimes. Just some particular things he did. The way he made annoying sounds while he ate his food like a pig greedily chomping. And his laughter. His boom of a laughter that could startle anyone in a room. Unwillingly during one of his sober days, Lalhriat asked Zoh to talk to mother about leaving the house. He was in a haze most of the days.
Damage to their house, the neighbors moving and things falling apart was the last thing he would notice. The sun came up briefly, one day, and Lalhriat decided to casually survey the place around her. Zoh volunteered to join. The quarters were built haphazardly until an entire hill was dotted with them in no particular order. The path between them was narrow and in some places two people could not even walk together at the same time. The compounds were too small. The identical nature of the houses was probably the only planning that had gone right. The two entered a house with its windows completely shattered. The frames that once held them were crooked. It had no doors. It almost seemed like no one ever lived there from the start. The floorboards had cracks. It was the same in the second house they visited but the floor just opened up nearly splitting the house into two halves. The end towards the cliff tilted down. They knew the family that stayed there. They moved away in a hurry. Zoh found some carton boxes with old phones, cassettes, magazines, and photographs. A lady was seated on the porch of another home. Lalhriat waved and walked towards her. She asked if everything was okay. She had seen her on a few occasions and they often smiled at each other. Zoh just stood silently at the back observing the house. When asked how she was holding up, the lady said not so well. Lalhriat told her about the damage in her house and others. The woman offered to take them inside and showed them her kitchen. There were more cracks on the floor. Her kids were out playing and her husband was at work. They were probably one of the few families that remained. She offered them some tea but Lalhriat declined and moved on. It was decided. Lalhriat and this time with Zoh would try and persuade their mother to move out. She'd come back from school and the two would corner their mother. Lalhriat warned him against touching even a drop of liquor on the designated day. She was quite sure she'd be disappointed and kept her hopes low. After work, the moment she entered the house, she smelt that familiar acidic odour. He was in the
living room lying down. She went straight to her room, put down her bagthe, and came out. Zoh was now sitting. He seemed tipsy. "I can't speak if I'm completely sober. You know that" he whispered to his sister. "I just had a little. I'm fine," he added after a pause. He spoke too over enthusiastically. zoh Sangi was called to the living room. She was in the kitchen making tea. She sat down in the wooden chair near the door. Lalhriat did most of the talking. Zoh chimed in from time to time. Sangi was surprised that Lalhriat had taken Zoh’s help. She tried to hide it and sat silently throughout the explanation. She looked outside from time to time. Sangi told them she understood their concerns but assured them the home would hold, again. She had asked some repairmen to come and look at the cracks on the wall and floor, she said. Lalhriat tried to counter her about the families leaving and the houses in complete disrepair. Lalhriat said they couldn’t be saved. Zoh had stopped speaking long ago when he heard about the repairs. She didn't prod him to talk and went at it alone. Anger was slowly building inside Lalhriat as her mother spoke. Once her mother was done, she stood up and went straight to her room without looking at either. She took her handbag and was out again. Staring squarely at her mom she burst out, "Stay in this house and die with it the both of you!" And with that, she went outside. She sobbed a little. There was a nip in the air. A gust of wind blew the mild drizzle on her face. She thought of going to a neighbour's but then she realized they had moved out. A thick stream of mist was blowing in. An opaque sheet of white was everywhere. She hated everything. The unrelenting weather, her mother, brother, her dead Pa. Lalhriat walked on the muddy path splashing water on her way out of the place. The abandoned houses looked eerie in the haze. She decided to go to a colleague's place.
Some guests were already there. Her friend was gracious enough to let her join. A bit embarrassed she decided to remain low-key. It started to rain heavily again. Her mind was not at the gathering but she was polite and sociable. She tried calling her mother after some hours but could not get through. She tried her brother. It was the same. Lalhriat continuously looked outside to check if the rain had stopped even though she knew it wouldn't, for a while. Dinner was served and eaten, stories were told, cups of tea were sipped but the rain was still beating down. Lalhriat regretted she came here. Some people left. The rest left a short while later. They were all from the neighborhood. Lalhriat couldn’t go anywhere in this weather. Her friend insisted she stay and was given the guest room. Lalhriat didn’t sleep immediately. Just stared at the darkness outside. More rains pounded the town. It seemed like the roof would crash due to the weight of the heavy downpour. Soon enough she drifted away. When her eyes opened, faint orange lights colored the sky. The rain had lessened. She got out of bed and went out trying not to wake up anyone. Before starting her scooter she checked her phone. The network was back. She messaged her friend thanking her for dinner and the stay. Then she called her mother again. The phone rang but no one answered. Her brother's phone was still down. No answer. They were probably asleep. On her way home she saw fallen trees and water gushing on the main road from the slopes. She neared her quarters, put her scooter in the parking area. Then she entered the gate and began walking. The abandoned house that tilted downward was no longer there. Some of its parts were on the slope below. Others were tangled on the barbed wires. Her heart raced. She ran towards home as she passed more empty houses. Lalhriat reached her compound. In a hurry she didn't notice - she was running towards nothing. Her home was no longer there. Most of it lay on her garden and the main road beyond her boundary wall. She put her palms on her mouth and began bawling. After a few seconds, she fainted and fell to the ground.
Steelhead, Siskiyou Raif Karadeniz Yreka, California sits just 20 miles south of the Oregon border, guarding its own stretch of Highway 5 that runs from Sacramento all the way up to Portland. The town still has the long shadow of lost ‘gold rush’ boomtown days cast over it. Sat not far from the Klamath River and the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, Yreka in 1851 was ideal for prospectors to position themselves. The pursuit of gold beget a town of prosperity, but now long after the rush has slowed, all that remains are the red and gold uniform colours, and the cotton candy and pony rides of the annual ‘Gold Rush Festival’. One cannot escape the past. It was one of those towns where, whether you wanted to or not, you couldn’t help but bump right into someone you knew. The memories of drive-through theatres, Saturday night fumblings with someone’s cousin or sister, and a hundred lost Homecomings don’t fade from the ether all that easily. It was a Thursday afternoon in late June, and although the peak of the Summer hadn’t greeted us yet, out in the sun it could comfortably reach upwards of 85 degrees. Once you come away from the highway, the warm afternoons in Yreka can be deathly still, sometimes it’s possible to make out the distant crack of baseballs on bats down at the school’s practice field, and the occasional jeer of the scrub jays. Today was one of those days. Frank Abraham was making his way from his rusting blue Ford flatbed towards the ‘Pub ‘n Grub’, a rustic Yreka institution just off of West Minor St. He heard the engine tick over of a lawn mower across the highway trimming the municipal knolls of the town and smiled to himself, the smell reminding him of early Summer afternoons when he was a boy, tossing a worn football around with the kids in the neighborhood until dark. Frank walked towards the highway that separated him from the bar that he frequented a couple of times every week. He headed into the Grub as it was affectionately known by regulars, Pub N’ Grub to the uninitiated. The door had a Sierra Nevada brewing neon hooked onto
the back of the entrance, and those bulbs had long since been signalled something warm to Frank, a glowing meet and greet any time the Grub was open for business. It was a quiet afternoon, Sarah, one of the part-time waitresses was cleaning glasses in boredom. Frank had headed back from work early, these were still the ‘siesta hours’ as Elaine, the long-time owner of the Grub once described it as. It was a bar with a grizzly exterior; filled with dust-catching bygone-photos and barstools with pen-knife slashed leather seats. People might have felt uncomfortable walking in, but the people who frequented the Grub weren’t bad characters, they were just those praying in their own way for some fortune, and those that weren’t praying had just got back up off of their knees. We used to call those types ‘rough ol’ boys’ we didn’t mean a thing by it other than you probably want to keep your wits about you when the glasses started flying, which they had the tendency to do. Frank pulled a barstool out, threw a leg over it and let out a groan, partly working satisfaction, partly bodily aches. Sarah slid a beer mat and a napkin towards him. “You’ve gotta quit sounding like my dad, Frank, you ain’t an old man yet!” It was true, he was only 39, and looked younger still. “Yeah, yeah, you stick to pulling the beers”, irritation prickling in his tone. Some kid, barely in her 20s, giving him the run down after a day of work, while she sits around deciding how to wear her pigtails this week? Gimme a break. “I’ll have a Miller, when you’re ready” he said, glancing around at the few faces dotted around. Sarah landed the beer on the mat. “So how was the river today Frank? You dug up a wedding ring for me yet?” “The river is as she always is Sarah, treats me right, more than I can say about you,” he said wryly, now loosening up a little, guilty for being irritated by her, and slid five dollars and another one for a tip onto her side of the bar. Frank was a gold prospector, making his living on the Klamath River, sifting a pan through the sediment, finding enough to keep him going, sometimes more. About 15 years ago, he hit on a prosperous source not far from the Iron Gate Reservoir on the
Oregon border, and that kept the bank away from his house for a while. A lot of people who were prospecting in the area had given up, or thought that times had changed and it was more lucrative to get a nine-to-five, but Frank sensed something in those waters, he knew how to keep those speckles glistening in the pan.
The following morning, Frank headed out of his house and towards his car parked on the street. As he turned the key into the Ford truck’s drivers’ door, his neighbor old Jerry Brooks was watering some of the hanging baskets on his porch deck. “Gotta keep ‘em moist this time ‘a year Jerr!” Frank chirped to his long time friend. “Been sayin’ that for years Frankie, if only I treated myself to the same kindness.” Jerry chuckled, snipping some rogue weeds out of the soil with a pair of kitchen scissors, and Frank wandered over to his neighbor’s porch. “You picked me up any of that gold Frank? ‘Been looking to get this hip reinforced with something more sturdy!” Jerry said with a wink. “If you want a golden hip, you better get yourself a pan and come down. Hell, I’d drive you down there with me myself.” Jerry grew up down in the crippling sun of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and headed up to California after years of visiting on the rodeo circuit. He’d made his living bull riding across much of the South West, sometimes heading as far north as Idaho and back for a weekend meet. He’d leave home on a Thursday morning, drive up, head back down late on Sunday, arrive home on Monday morning and do the whole thing again on the following week. In an ideal scenario he’d get a payday from the judges, and not be beaten down too much by the bull. Sometimes he got neither - he’d made a loss on the drive, and would have to take a dangerous amount of OxyContin just to get him through the journey. “The bull is ‘sposed to be your teammate in
rodeo, only she often ain't been told - it’s the rider’s job to try and break the news to her,'' he'd say. He’d settled up in California in his late 40s, and ended up living there through retirement. He’d been close with Frank’s father, Eugene, and had watched Frank grow up. “Naw, you know I don’t think of my luck the same as you Frank, I’ve used up all my prayers just being able to stick around here with ya,” Jerry said earnestly. “Don’t go talking about luck Jerr, it's alllll up here,” Frank tapped his finger to his temple, “that kinda strike rate ain’t down to nothin’ but expertise!” “I ain’t saying there ain’t skill to it boy, hell, you couldn’t a’done it this long without knowing what you’re doing. But back on the bull we had a saying, ‘It ain’t if you’re gonna get hurt - it’s how bad when it happens’ - and I haffa say I still stand by that. We all thought we were in control of the bull or the bronc, but believe me son, control is all a trick, it’s in your head, see. What goes on between us and nature, that really ain’t our doing.” Jerry’s face flashed a rare look of solemnity. “You gettin’ all sentimental on me now Jerr? You’re still here aintcha?” Frank said, patting Jerry on the shoulder. “I ain’t about whether I’m here or not. I’m only still here, because I learned to stop putting God in a position where he had to get me back safely everyday - that’s an awful burden to have to keep puttin’ on him. I’m jes sayin’ that askin’ God’s help down at the river everyday might be stretchin’ favours.” Jerry was trying to let Frank know that maybe he knew something Frank didn’t. “I ain’t askin’ nobody for nothing. You focus on those lilies Jerr, and I’ll see about fixin’ you up that gold hip.” Frank smiled at the old man.
Frank made his familiar drive north up Highway 5 towards the Klamath River, the long, flat expanses of highway tightly in the groove of dusty verges, and then open outward as you begin to draw level to the river. As Frank headed east, the terrain revealed itself further, with the Hombrook plains punctuated by ornate isolated houses with furns rising like green flames licking in the wind. Frank had driven these roads for years. Now absentmindedly, bumping into Jerry had made him think about his father. Jerry always knew how to stir up nostalgia in Frank. It wasn’t unpleasant, it was just preferable to Frank to not have those things on his mind on the quiet road- where thinking was just about the only thing he could do. He had grown up with his father after his mother died shortly after childbirth. Eugene worked as a railroad man, fixing cars, working the steel on the roads, or keeping the links and pins from wearing down too badly. It could be brutal work, handing the metal in one hundred degree heat, but he started and finished early, so had afternoons to take care of Frank when he got home from school. Sometimes Eugene would drive to the Klamath River with Frank on a Summer afternoon when he knew they’d have plenty of sunlight, and he’d teach him gold panning. Frank could get lost in thought on these roads thinking of his dad in his wading slacks, still up to his arms in grease and sweat from the railroad. “Ain’t nothing like it Frankie, out in the country, watching the fish in the water, cooling off lifting the pan and sifting sediment. If you don't find any nuggets, well, it's its own reward in anyhow.” “Jack Sawyer’s dad found a nugget the size of a baseball up near Topsy!” young Frank said excitedly. “Naw, that boy is always spreading those tales. There ain’t nothing like that in these rivers anymore, the Rush fellas came and saw to that.” Eugene rolled his eyes and slapped Frank on the back. Eugene thought panning was about as relaxing as it could get, but he was really only in it for the look of anticipation in Frank’s eyes as his sloshed the larger pieces of sediment from the pan and saw the young boy watch in expectation more than hope.
As with all of these drives of nostalgia, Frank knew what was coming down the tracks. He’d be faced with the memory of his father’s death. Eugene had been working on the railroad, the train driver didn’t see the signalman, and ploughed the freight through the railmens’ site behind a bend, killing 4 men, Eugene being one of them. Frank was 19, and all he dwelled on was how little was left of his father; his small childhood house, some working overalls, and a few outfits he rotated for social occasions. Eugene had worked on the railroad for nearly 40 years and died with nothing. If Eugene were alive, he’d have disagreed, he didn’t want for anything else; he was working when many weren’t, and fed his kid when many men couldn’t. That kind of thinking didn’t help Frank, the way he saw things, his father gave his best years to someone else, then died with only what he had been born with.
“Just one of those dry days…” Frank mumbled to himself as he tossed the panning gear onto the back seat of his truck. No gold was pulled, no stars to hang a future on. “I ain’t done badly of late, even a great ballplayer strikes out a lot more than they clear the fence.” It was easier for Frank to conceptualise days in that way. He’d stayed later than usual at the river, getting frustrated every time he pulled the pan from the water with nothing but soil and stone. He started chasing the win, a gambler chasing dead money, but even after the extra long dusk hours, Frank was resigned to the day. “Damn Jack Sawyer…” he muttered under the sound of his humming engine, and pulled away towards Highway 5 and home. As Frank approached the south of Yreka, he decided to grab a beer and a sandwich at the Grub, he wasn’t in the mood to cook after his day. Pulling into a parking space opposite the bar, he saw Jerry making his way towards the entrance, the neon signs flickering red on and off, and turning Jerry’s face the same colour. “Can I see proof of age young man?” Frank playfully caught Jerry by surprise.
“Ha, Frank, the only proof anyone needs are these valleys on my forehead!” “Well Jerr, just shows you’ve had a fun life, that’s all” Frank smiles. “Well it ain’t over just yet, with that tone of voice you make it sound like you’re doing my reading. Come on in, and I’ll getcha a beer” said Jerry, reaching up to put his arm around Frank’s shoulder, Jerry almost a foot shorter. The two men grabbed one of the few remaining free tables. There were enough patrons to give the Grub that small town bar atmosphere, but it was quiet enough to talk. The waitress came and dropped a pitcher of beer on Frank and Jerry’s table, flipped a new page in her notebook, “you fellas decided what you’re eating tonight?” “I’ll have the roast beef sandwich,” said Frank, and passed the menu back. “Nothing for me, maybe just a side of pickles.” Jerry lifted his eyebrows. “Ok, that’ll come right out” said the waitress, and left the two men alone. Frank poured beer into two glasses, and could see Jerry had a grin on his face, waiting to catch his attention. “What’s that smirk on your face old man?” “Nothing at all son. Just one of those days” “Yeah,” Frank said “Makes two of us”. “Man upstairs didn’t fill your pan today then, huh?” Frank humoured him with his response “No sir, he did not.” Jerry paused, and let out a satisfied ‘aaahh’ after swigging the first mouthful of his beer, and looked at Frank.
“You know, I had the strangest kinda day with the flowers…” “None of them started talking to you yet?” Frank always ribbed Jerry for his devotion to plants. “Nah, and they ain’t likely to be any time soon. The lilies and the asters died on me. I’ve been growing asters since my old Ma was alive and it was looking like a good Summer for ‘em. Yesterday I was watering them after dark and I could still see their purple glow, and today, they had wilted. I did all I could for ‘em, but sometimes that don’t change a thing.” Frank had gotten distracted looking at his roast beef sandwich sitting on the counter, and was only half paying attention to Jerry. “They’ll be fine Jerr, water them up, there ain’t nothing you don’t know about flowers.” The following morning, sunlight bled through the gap between Frank’s blackout curtains. He was woken by the heat on his face, and reached out for his bedside clock in a blind scramble. “Shit.” He’d woken up late after the long day, then late night talking with Jerry. Pulling on yesterday’s still-damp navy slacks, and a fresh white t-shirt tucked into his waistband, held up with bronzed-buckled braces. Frank raced around his work duffel bag looking for his wading trousers - before realising he’d slung them onto the back seat of the pickup before heading into the Grub. He picked the truck keys and walked out with his work bag barely zipped up, his flies much the same, and climbed into the driver’s seat. He drove up the 5 barely conscious, hardly yet stirred from the depths of the night. The truck passed the same brush, the same verges, the same falsely optimistic gas station flowers, all previously a peaceful reminder of home, but now holding something less than certain to him. As he pulled over by his usual spot bay by the Klamath, he noticed a black streak on his right arm. Where’d that come from? Must have been from the damn truck door. The truck seemed clean enough. In his dreary state he thought of his father, soot and stained always, now marked upon him. It was noon when he arrived, and 5 hours in the river still gave him no solace. For the first time in years, the back of Frank’s neck had reddened, burnt by the early Summer heat, and as a mosquito landed on the side of his
head, he irritatedly swatted at it, scratching his neck like a scored pork belly. Frank looked up to the sky in frustration, “God, can I catch a break?” and tossed his car keys onto the shoreline as he waded into the river deeper. He reached the pan down into the dark Klamath, clear before but now murky with the soil disrupted, and drew the sediment towards him into the pan, the water resistance straining his blackened forearms. He felt a lump in his throat, the faint pain of anticipation weakening his legs, and sifted the heavy sediment into view, revealing what remained in the pan, remaining of what had come before him, echoing in the mercy of time.
The Misty Morn Joseph P Garland It’s a small house we rent about two hours due north of our apartment in Manhattan. On the Massachusetts side of the border. We’ve been renting it for some years, and the small house has a lawn that runs down to a small lake. A pond, really. A few similar cottages are sprinkled around the lakeside, and some have docks reaching into the water, but for the most part, it’s all woods and vegetation. It’s our summer retreat. I stay for extended periods while he takes a bus from a nearby town late on Sunday afternoon so he can spend the week at his office. I pick him up late on Friday afternoons. Wednesday, of course, is the worst of my days. I am tired of him being gone and anxious for his return, but his return is forty-eight hours off and my loneliness is crushing. I wish he’d allow me to stay at our apartment as he allows the rest of the year. But he insists that I need the clean air of the mountains. He means for it to take my mind off it, and he will not listen when I tell him the loneliness only makes things worse. On this particular Thursday night, in early August, I see activity across the lake. I am, as usual, on the screened-in porch. The mosquitoes are frightful this year—though he scarcely notices when he’s here, they’re upon me within seconds of my exposing my skin—and I have just a small candle on the table by the lounger on which I lie. Being lonely. There’s movement across the lake, as I say. This is unusual since few people come up during the week. A light suddenly flickers. Not electric. A candle, much like mine. I can’t make out anything visually, but I hear the strumming of a guitar. It’s not great strumming. Perhaps the player knows only three chords, and those imperfectly. But if her playing is not pleasing, her voice is. She begins to sing a sweet melody. I cannot quite make out what it is, but I’m certain it’s
not a standard song. Not Dylan or Baez or even The Beatles. The words are beautiful but can’t be made out. She sounds older. Far older than me. I don’t think of my mom. She would never sing so plaintively. Somehow my thoughts run to his mother. The one who disapproves of me. Who is sure he could have done better. I shouldn’t be thinking of her, though. The song has feelings, and she has none. Yet, she is the one I think of. Her playing melds in with her singing, and the weakness in her guitar complements the strength of her imperfect voice. She surely does not realize that her music is reflected off the surface of the lake as if I were standing directly in front of her. And I wish I were standing directly in front of her. She does not play or sing for long. Perhaps four minutes. No more. When she is done, I can see in the low light her returning to the cottage. Her candle is extinguished, but then the cottage’s lights go on. It’s too far away from me to see anything clearly, and I don’t have time to get the binoculars that are somewhere in a drawer in the den. That would break whatever remains of the connection I have with her. When my own candle flickers out as its flame reaches the end of the wick, I head inside my own cottage. It’s almost nine. My husband calls at nine to check in. See how I’m doing. When he does, nearly on the dot, we have the conversation we have each Wednesday. “Miss you.” “Miss you.” “Wish you were here?” “I’ll be up on Friday.” “I can’t wait. I’ll have something made for you.” “Good. I won’t eat until I get there. Sleep well.”
“You too.” All this occurs in the dark. I’m afraid to turn on my lights in case she would discover someone is across the pond and perhaps listening to the intimate minutes when she played and sang that song. I must, though, acknowledge reality, and I turn on the lights, though stealing a glance across at her house before doing so. I continue with my Wednesday till it’s time to turn in. The bedroom overlooks the lake. After I turn off the light, I stand by the window, looking out at the neighbor. Her lights are still on. I wonder which is her driveway on the other side of the lake. Should I go to see her? I hadn’t noticed any sign of life at that house. Even on the weekend. I think I should very much like to meet this woman. I turn and get into my bed, under a sheet because it gets cold during the night although it’s August, and I fall asleep.
The Eighth King of Rome Lou Reed Foster In some cultures, they believe that once you die your spirit lives on, walking the earth forever-more like a ghostly rambler. Others believe you are reborn and your continued existence as another being is all part of life’s great cycle. Some people don’t believe in an afterlife at all and deny God’s very existence. I used to believe that God was Francesco Totti after watching Football Italia on Channel 4. After I died, I realised that it didn’t matter who believed in what. God wasn’t Totti because God didn’t exist. You lived then you died, and nothing much really mattered. Your ghost will wander around for all eternity and eventually there’ll be no one alive to remember you. People can’t see you, but sometimes they act like they can. My mum still comes into my bedroom a lot to talk to me as if I’m still alive. “How’s my boy today?” she’ll say, sitting at the edge of my bed. “I’m dead, you silly bitch,” I’ll respond, but I know she can’t hear me. But today changes everything. Today makes me question my own sanity – if dead people can go insane – that is. According to my Biker Mice from Mars calendar, it’s Sunday July 12th 1998 and sitting before me, in a full AS Roma kit, is Francesco Totti. There’s a silence as we sit there facing each other, confusion etched onto my face. Already, this is the third worst day of my life, including my afterlife. The worst day was when I overheard my father say to my mother, “I hope you’re hot to trot tonight, Sandra. I’m going to be away for six months.” He worked on an oil-rig. The second worst was when a Toyota Corolla killed me. Today definitely tops my list of the weirdest days, narrowly beating the time in year four when Heather Marsden got her moo out in class. It remains the only time I have ever seen female genitalia in real life.
I look at Francesco, and he looks back at me. I avoid breaking eye contact. I remember from my Self-Esteem for Teens guidebook that eye contact is a display of confidence. A bit like when a Silverback gorilla will beat its chest if it feels its harem of lady gorillas is threatened by an ape counterpart. I do not want Francesco’s harem of lady gorillas, or whatever, I just want to know what the fuck is going on. “Hello…” I offer, then add, “You are Francesco Totti.” A statement of fact is a good way to open a dialogue when nervous – another helpful tip from my guidebook. “Hello Simon,” he responds. His accent isn’t Italian, as you would imagine. It’s more like the deep, baritone voice of Christopher Lee. “Can I help you?” I ask. “It is I who has come to help you,” he responds. “I’ve lost my fucking mind,” I say to no one. I get up and walk to the kitchen, feeling Francesco in close pursuit. There’s photographs of me and my family stuck to the fridge next to drawings from childhood. One of them, a quite impressive illustration makes me think of my eleventh birthday. My dad bought me The A to Z of Dinosaurs. In it, I discovered that the Stegosaurus had a second brain, in its arse. Later that day, I drew a comical portrait of a Stegosaurus on the toilet farting out a thought bubble that said ‘I’m shitting my brains out.’ I gave the picture to my dad, but understanding the biology of pre-historic reptiles wasn’t his forte, so he didn’t get the joke. He stuck it to the fridge beneath a Fuerteventura magnet. My mum told me off for swearing. “Nice drawing,” Francesco says, “a fine example of one of my most unique creations.” “What?” I say. I know a lot about dinosaurs. I know a lot about Francesco Totti. I have no idea how the two are connected. “Simon,” Francesco says, “I am God.”
I have no idea how to respond to that. It reminds me of the time Nibs said that his dad was a spy, and that explained why he was away a lot. According to my dad, Nibs’ dad couldn’t cope with the responsibility of parenthood. He said that he lives in Rhyl and spins the waltzers for a living, spending his spare time trying to finger the local talent. If he is a spy, it’s a hell of a cover. “You’re shitting me,” I say. “You must be very confused,” Francesco says. I often wonder how I’d choose to die if I could go back in time. Getting hit by a mid-priced family car wouldn’t be top of my list. I’d consider self-defenestration. That’s the act of throwing yourself out of a window. I think it’s quite underrated and more people should do it. It’s also my second favourite word, after spatula. “Confusion is one of the many things I’m feeling right now,” I say. “I’m sure it is. Why don’t you pop open that fridge door, get two tall glasses of something cold, and I’ll explain everything.” I get a Ribena out of the fridge. Fran the man opts for a Vimto. It makes me think of the time me and Nibs swapped my nan’s sherry for Vimto. We might have got away with it had it not been fizzy. Later that day, we went to Nibs’ house and got stoned for the first time with his older brother. Nibs raided the kitchen, eating custard creams wrapped in ham. He said it had ‘complex flavours.’ That’s when we started calling him Nibs – short for Niblets, due to his voracious appetite. We sit at the kitchen table. I’m sipping my drink and wondering what to ask first. Francesco takes his boots off – Nike Air GX II – and removes the matching shinnies from beneath his socks. I hope the studs haven’t damaged the wooden floor. My mum would have serious beef with Our Lord and Saviour if they have. “Ask away,” he says, putting his feet up on a free chair, arms rested behind his head. God certainly doesn’t mind making himself at home
in my house, but if he really did create the world in a matter of days, then I guess the least I can do is let him put his fucking feet up. “Why is Francesco Totti in my kitchen drinking Vimto?” I ask. “I’ve told you, Simon. I’m God.” “I heard you the first time,” I say, “but why do you look like the Italian Stallion?” “I appear how you wish to see me. You always saw Totti as your God so here I am,” he confirms. “And how should I address you,” I ask, adding, “Francesco, God, The Big G?” “I like The Big G,” he responds, throwing what I think is an attempted gang sign with his fingers. “I’ll go with Francesco,” I say. My other friend, Gary, was a car thief extraordinaire. Not for profit, mind you, merely sadistic pleasure. He'd wait for an unsuspecting victim to park outside the chippy on Walton Road, and while they were waiting for their cod & chips, he'd break in with with half a scissor that he kept in his jacket pocket, get the engine started and perform a perfect example of parallel parking on the opposite side of the road. Then, he'd simply await the look of panic, horror and confusion etched onto the car owner's face as they emerged, keys in hand. Garry was a twat. “So, Francesco,” I say, “to what do I owe the pleasure?” “I have come to tell you something very important,” he says. I don’t like the sound of that. If God decides to pay you a visit, disguised as an Italian playmaker, then it’s bound to be bad news. It’s like getting the full name treatment off your mum, when your throat and arse briefly trade places.
“Okay,” I say, “go on…” “Simon,” Francesco says, “you are not dead.” In some fields of neuroscience, people believe that consciousness determines whether or not a person is alive, as opposed to the functionality of the physical body. Others believe that consciousness prevails after the body’s physical demise – and will therefore always exist – like what pansy-arse poets like to call the soul. I can’t even begin to form an opinion either way anymore. “This isn’t fair,” I say, hands shaking, “you’re telling me I’ve spent three years thinking I was dead and now you’ve decided to inform me that I’m alive?” “It gets better,” Totti says. “I’m afraid you’re dying.” “Fuck off,” I say, “just fuck off. Get your feet off the chair, put your boots on and fuck off back to Rome. Delvecchio needs one laying on a plate for him.” “I’ve told you I’m G – “ “I know, I know,” I say, irritated, “you’re God, not Totti. Blah, blah, blah.” “I know this must all come as a very big shock for you,” Francesco offers. “Nothing gets past you does it, big man?” I say. “If I’m not dead,” I continue, “can you explain to me what happened on the day a Toyota sent me twelve feet into the air?” “You were hit,” Francesco says. “You were badly injured, but you survived. However, you developed a...condition.” “A condition?” I ask.
“Cotard’s Syndrome,” Francesco responds. “Your brain, another fine piece of work by yours truly, makes you believe that you are dead when you are, in fact, very much alive.” In the 1914/15 Serie A season, Genoa and Lazio were due to meet in the end-of-season finale, and then Italy entered World War 1. Genoa, largely considered to be the better team, were posthumously awarded the title in 1919, denying Lazio the opportunity to secure their first ever championship. If I were a football team, with my luck, I’d definitely be fucking Lazio. “I’m a zombie?” I ask. “No, Simon,” he says, “you are not a zombie. You are a living, breathing human being – just about.” “And you’re going to let me die?” “Look,” Francesco says. “I'm not a perfect guy, okay? I know that. But the big picture is that your brain is to blame, not me. The fact that you had to be put into a medically induced coma is absolutely not my fau-.” “What do you mean, ‘medically fucking induced coma’?” I shout, “I think I’d be aware of something like tha-“ “Almost everything that you believe has occurred since Chris Tarrant downed a few bottles of shnapps and mowed you down has happened in your mind, Simon.” “Wait, Chris Tarrant ran me over?” “Perhaps he should have...phoned a friend,” Francesco chortles. “And he drives a Toyota?” “That's what you take from this conversation?” Francesco asks, “The car of choice of Chris fucking Tarrant?” Before rolling his eyes and adding, “Not one of my finest creations, by the way.
“But my mum,” I state, getting back on track, “I remember her coming into my room and talking to me! She couldn’t see me,” I say? “In a way you’re right. She came in to your room at the hospital to talk to you. In fact, she still does every day,” Francesco says, with a wave of his arm that dissolves my kitchen. “Mum!” I shout, as we appear in a hospital ward. My body is lying in a bed strapped to a shit load of machines as my mum sits there, cooing. “How’s my boy today?” she’s saying, “How’s my brave boy?” “Mum, I’m here!” I shout again, louder, as a thought that, in my unconsciousness, I'd really let myself go briefly flits across my mind. “She can’t hear you Simon,” Francesco says, “You’re just a projection of your own subconscious. That's why you're much thinner than your real, living body over there. You project your 'ideal image' of yourself” “Wouldn't my ideal image be alive, arsehole?” “Yeah, you got issues, kid.” “Why are you doing this?” I shout, “Merciful my fucking arse! I don’t understand.” “Do you know what day it is?” Francesco asks. I wouldn’t blame God for being unmerciful. During the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale accidentally killed more people than she saved because she didn’t wash her hands between operations. That is what mercy gets you; the literal blood of thousands of men on your hands because you didn’t take the time to pop to Tesco and pick up a bar of Imperial Leather. I look at the calendar above my bed. “12th of July, 1998” I respond.
“Here we go, my baby,” my mum says to my bloated soon-to-be corpse as a nurse wheels in a television and situates it at the end of my bed. “France v Brazil,” she continues, stroking my body’s head. “The World Cup final,” Francesco says, a smile creeping its way along his strong Italian jaw. “You did this for me?” I ask. “Your mother prayed to me. She asked for me to help you watch the final before you croak it, for real this time,” he says, continuing, “I was happy to oblige.” “That shit works?” I ask. “Praying?” “Now and then,” he says. “So if I prayed for you to keep me alive permanently?” I ask. “Don’t push it,” he responds. My whole family are cramped into this small hospital ward, along with Nibs and Gary. Francesco is eating pizza and France are already 2-0 up thanks to Zinedine Zidane. This definitely tops my list of the best day of my life, narrowly beating the time Gary threw a water balloon filled with his own piss at Miss Askew’s head in year eight. “Shame about Ronaldo,” I say. “His time will come,” Francesco replies, enigmatically. “So,” I ask, “the afterlife?” “There isn’t one,” Francesco says, stuffing a slice of stuffed crust into his gob. “Fuck,” I say. “Yep, all made up mate. Nothing. Niente. Fuck all,” he says. “So, when I, you know…?
“You will simply cease to exist.” “It’s the dying moments and Emanuel Petit has the chance to make it three,” the commentator on the TV says, “and he’s done it!” I’m hugging Francesco as we jump up and down. Nibs has fizzed up his bottle of Coke and is spraying it around like champagne, shouting, “Vive la France, Vive la France,” even though he’s wearing his Romario top from 1994. “And France are World champions for the first time,” the commentator continues, “The Stade De France is a sea of confetti.” “Oooh, I've come over all hot and bothered,” my mum says, before whispering to a nurse, “what I wouldn't give for a piece of Emanuel Petit's petite derrière.” “Kill me,” I say to Francesco, “end the suffering now.” “Yeah,” Francesco says, “about that...” As I remove myself from Francesco’s embrace, the look on his face tells me that the night is almost over. This is injury time – and the whistle is about to blow. “Does it, you know, hurt?” I ask. “I wouldn't imagine so,” Francesco says. “That isn't the reassuring response I was praying for,” I reply. “I told you,” Francesco says, “that shit only works sometimes.” It's funny, but I don't feel scared. I don't feel much of anything anymore, just acceptance. Francesco is quite the calming presence. And they say you shouldn't meet your heroes. I stand by the open window to feel the cool air on my face one last time. My mother begins to sob and the wind outside sounds like someone letting out a long, loud sigh.
The Drawer Charlotte Cosgrave I took it out of the drawer today. I keep it in there with all the other stuff I don’t need. A lunch box in the shape of a cat’s face, candles with wicks that won’t light, and an array of panty liners in all different shapes and sizes – free samples off the internet. I have to tug the drawer hard so it opens. As if it’s resisting my nostalgia. Rummaging – it’s there at the bottom – an ashtray in the shape of a skeleton. Bony fingers on the edges to rest your cigarette. The ash built up when I used it. I’d get a cotton bud and pretend I was finding the remains of someone important. It was thoughtful of you. I was going through a phase at the time. You were embarrassed when you gave it to me. I said thank you, even tried to hug you. You tensed up. Shoulders and arms stiffened like bookends. You’d never acted like that before we found out. I can’t bear to throw it away. It might come in handy if anyone needs a spare ashtray when they come over. Nobody ever does, they always want to share. Maybe I’ll get it out one Halloween if I ever have a party or something. I heard you were living on Eldridge Street, just past the pub and off the main road. I know it’s one of those big four bedrooms with the massive back gardens. I’ve thought about that for weeks. You said we’d have a house with three bedrooms. We’d have our bedroom and there’d be a games room for you and a makeshift library for me. Said we’d be happy, said you were happy. “We’ll fill it with noise,” you always used to say, “We’ll keep the neighbours up all night, because we’ll host all the parties, people will be over all the time.” I wonder now how just two people could fill a house with noise all the time. Even if your nephews stayed over it would have only been now and again.
You’re living next door to my friend’s mum on Eldridge Street. Her mum’s getting annoyed with the trampoline and finding footballs in her garden that she has to throw back over. I don’t know why she told me. If it was the other way round I wouldn’t have dared mention it to her. Do you remember that day we went to the Circus? The first year we were together. I’d never been to the Circus before. I wouldn’t go to one if it had animals in it. I thought it was cruel, you thought I was sweet. We found one that July and the stench of sawdust and sweat overwhelmed us and children ran around us as we waited in the queue. I wore a floaty dress with poppies on. You said I’d never looked more beautiful. I’m wearing it now, but it’s got a little tear in it. One child knocked so hard into your back that you nearly ended up on the floor. “We’ll teach ours to look where they’re going” you laughed. I wrote a letter to you one night. I licked the envelope, addressed it, even put a stamp on it. I was glad when I sealed it – so I couldn’t be tempted to read it again. It was six pages long, front and back, I surprised myself. I don’t know if I had any real intention of sending it. I wrote about our day at the Circus and the house we dreamed of and then I wrote about everything else too, I think I repeated myself here and there. It might have made a difference if I’d have sent it. There are times when I don’t blame you, or me, or anything except that letter, as if it was the window of opportunity – missed. I burned it on New Year’s Eve. I sat there whilst everyone was outside singing Auld Lang Syne and watched the edges of the paper curl into a ball. Sometimes I wonder if she’s got a drawer like mine. Little keepsakes that she takes out now and then. I bet her furniture isn’t flat pack though so when she opens her drawer it comes out smoothly. And when she looks through she won’t feel any pain because hers will be filled with good stuff like your son’s tiny wristband from the hospital.
The Kelpie Maggie Willey The Island folk rarely talked of the beast although all were careful not to do anything which might cause it offence. Visitors to the Island sometimes asked about it, wondering where the best place might be to glimpse the mythical creature. The Islanders would smile and say politely, "Oh, nobody believes that old nonsense these days," before suggesting instead a walk on the moorland where they might be lucky enough to see the golden eagles soaring overhead. If Old Wilf was listening and was so inclined, he could often be persuaded to weave a wonderful tale of sheep, peacefully grazing by the edge of the loch, before unexpectedly disappearing with terrified bleatings into and then under, the peaty waters. "More than just sheep were taken" he would mutter darkly, staring morosely at his empty pint glass. One particular tourist, stopping in the small hotel bar before heading to the famous stone circle which was about a quarter of a mile away, offered to buy another pint, or a nip of the smoky Island whisky to lubricate Old Wilf's throat, who then sat and began to talk, although he seemed reluctant to do so at first. "You need to understand," he started in his soft, lilting accent, "that the Island was not always this peaceful." He paused and took a sip, before continuing. "Out here on the edge of the world there were always folk; outcasts from their own kin looking for a place to call home, or just out and out invaders, pirates if you will, looking for riches." "Oh," he added, as though interrupted by a disbelieving audience, "you might look sceptical, but riches don't just mean gold and silver. They would steal our cattle, our wives and daughters, our children to sell as slaves. You see the piles of stones on the tops of the cliffs? We
had lookouts stationed up there always, ready to warn the people to take what they could and hide, hoping that the bastards would do a bit of looting, fire a few cottages, grow bored and leave." "Trouble is that they didn't leave. They would know we must be around here somewhere and they could just wait us out. Sooner or later the Islanders would run out of supplies and have to try and bargain with the pirates. Sometimes that would work if they'd slaked their thirst" and here he looked meaningfully at his rapidly emptying glass; "if they'd slaked their thirst for destruction, but more often they would take what they had come for." "We fought back of course, the Island men have always been doughty fighters and obviously knew the land better than the invaders. Still there would be losses sometimes grievous, so they needed to find a way to keep the families safe on their own land." He nodded his thanks at this point for the fresh drink which the rapt listener had signalled the barman to place in front of him. "Now this is something you won't hear talked about. The Island folk are very superstitious," he said shamelessly, as though he himself had not come from a long line of Island folk. "Do you believe in magic? Or the Fair Folk who were here before any of us? 'The Shining Ones' we called them, some still do and we always show great respect to them." "You mean that they still exist?" The tourist's eyes were as wide as saucers; "the fairies I mean?" "Shhh." Old Wilf looked around, alarmed. "Don't call them by name, there's a reason we refer to them as the Shining Ones. Call them and they'll come, and if you don't know how to talk with them or gift them, they can bring you big trouble." "See that bonnie stone circle you came here to visit? That was a band of folk who fought with them and lost. Magic is real enough and if
you sit in the centre when the moon is dark and all you can see is the night, all you can hear is the waves crashing on the shore, sometimes you can hear above the wind the screams of those trapped in the stones, the wails of their women. I wouldn't be caught near there after sunset." Old Wilf shuddered. "Anyhow, to get back to the invaders. There was a time when wave after wave after rolling wave brought them to the Island." "The people were starving so much had been taken; not many folk were even left at this point and they were completely desperate. One of the men, my direct ancestor if you will, I share his name;" Old Wilf glanced up at his audience, "well he went off to talk to the Cailleach, you would call her a witch I think, to ask for help. The people were desperate," he repeated. "He took a jug of the goat milk for her, it was all he had to give and it meant that the bairn would go short, but he couldn't go empty handed. That would never do." He shook his head, looking appalled that anybody could even think of such a thing, although no-one had suggested it. "The Cailleach lived out on the moors among the bogs and the pools. The wild creatures paid her no heed, even coming to her if they were hurt knowing that she would put them back together, or put them out of their misery if they were too badly broken, you know?" "People though, people were uneasy about her and mostly avoided her. She has, I mean she had" he corrected himself, "a wicked temper on her and if you crossed her you might find that your goat ran dry mysteriously or your hens stopped laying. You might break an arm or a leg falling into a hole that opened up in front of you, that kind of thing. She called in the storms and upturned the fisherman's coracle, and of course she was thick with the Shining Ones."
"The Cailleach told my ancestor what we would need to do and she took the milk and thanked him even though it was a bit blue, watered down I mean. She paid no heed to that knowing that he would have brought her the cream if he had any, and she told him that she would talk with the Fair Folk. There would be a price to pay there, too, and he blanched when she told him what this would be, but there is no way around these things and he had no choice really." "Reluctantly he said he'd do as he was bid and when the next ship that landed spilled out armed men, the villagers retreated to the caves and the hidden places among the mossy rocks up there" Old Wilf gestured vaguely to a local beauty spot. "From there they watched secretly." "The invaders did the usual things; burning thatches, knocking down walls; you would think that they would have the sense to leave themselves some shelter, but they never did. A half barrel of salted fish had been left deliberately as had some heather beer, and the trap laid." "Once they had got bored with their mischief, they had a meal and a drink and went back to the ship to sleep. They were back on shore the next morning at first light looking for trouble hoping the villagers might have returned, and it seemed to the pirates that this could be the case when they found, first a string of dried herring then further into the machair a half of a barley loaf. They didn't stop to wonder why these would be dropped on the shoreline and not heading towards the higher ground where the villagers would surely head for safety. No matter, men who are spoiling for a fight rarely think straight." "Spreading out a bit they started to search further along the machair and the silver sands."
"A shout of glee from one of them told the villagers that the trap had been sprung. The raiding party followed the call over a rise in the ground, and they saw their fellow standing and looking in awe at the prettiest little horse any one of them had ever seen."
It was as white as the tops of the waves breaking a little way behind them, and shone in the sun as though it had been polished. It had an elegant head with neat little ears and the gentlest eyes and slim, strong legs. Its long mane and tail had been plaited, the braids intertwined with flowers; and a wreath of these flowers, a daisy chain, hung around it's arched neck." "It whinnied gently and pawed the earth with a dainty hoof. One foot appeared to be tethered with another daisy chain and the men laughed that such a thing could hold the horse fast. Their leader stepped forward and picked up the flowered chain, snapping it." "Now the pony reared up and pranced away dancing around the warriors, its tail high in the air. They laughed in delight at its antics and one took a leather strap from his waist to try and catch the Kelpie, for that's what it was although they didn't know this." "The Kelpie trotted around them as pretty as you like, tossing its head and inviting them to follow along the beach which of course they did. It always kept just out of reach and they kept following. None of them was watching the tide which was coming in fast, they were enchanted you see." "Eventually it took them to a rocky shoreline littered with seaweed which made them slip, some falling in the shallow pools to the hilarity of their fellows. Realising that they were at the entrance to a cave which had been hidden by the lie of the land they shouted triumphantly, believing that the Kelpie had led them to where the villagers were hiding." "The leader of these men stood beside the Kelpie which had stopped taking them forwards. He patted the neck of the creature which breathed gently at him and nuzzled his hand. After he swung his leg over its back the animal walked sedately into the sea cave followed by the rest of the crew. Hoping to find the villagers they moved further in, never noticing the waves lapping first at the mouth of the cave then quickly spilling inside. The floor sloped up a
little ways at first then down, and by the time the befuddled men realised they were trapped it was too late.`` "Shouting in panic, some tried to wade through the deepening water, others raced to the back of the cave hoping for a miracle, a way out, a shelf of rock perhaps upon which they could clamber and sit out the tide, but it was to no avail. The Kelpie, carrying it's burden leapt to the entrance and the sunlight. For a moment the rider thought he might escape as the water horse broke through the waves but was instead taken further out to sea where his mount plunged down, down, down." "The villagers came out from their hiding places and watched, unmoved by the cries of fear which stopped soon enough. Later they would go to the ship now empty of danger, and take back their own belongings together with anything else of value. The boat itself would gradually be taken apart, the timbers and the sails reused in the rebuilding of their shattered homes; but the great, carved prow would be left, mounted atop of a cairn above the tideline, a warning to others to keep away." Old Wilf smiled at the tourist. "There was never any trouble after that." "What was the price though? What was the cost of dealing with the er, Fair Folk?" Old Wilf looked amused. "Why my ancestor had to gift his new born son to the Shining Ones, they gave him one of theirs in exchange. He and his wife struggled with their new child who never seemed to thrive or grow like the other children, and eventually they died of exhaustion trying to feed and clothe it. It was never satisfied, and they and their other children barely survived on what it left for them until they didn't survive at all." "One of them must have survived though," the tourist said after some thought, "otherwise you would not be here."
"Oh yes," Old Wilf said, "I survived. My kind are strong and live long lives." He bowed his head politely. "Thank you for the drinks, I hope that the tale amused you." He got up from the table, taller than he had seemed at first and also younger. His hair, which had appeared to be thin and white when he sat down, now flowed over his shoulders, golden and lustrous in the lamp light. "Fare you well," he told the tourist. "Stay away from the stones after dark, and don't call on those you do not understand." The tourist sat on the bench by the table. He thought he heard a horse whinny in the distance and shivered. Eventually the landlord came to tell him that he was locking up, that the tourist needed to go back to his lodgings. "Keep on the main road," he was told. "It's a long way around and I know that the stones are pretty in the moonlight and it's tempting to take a short cut, but the ground is treacherous and you don't want to fall in a bog." The tourist assured him that the last thing he wanted was to take the shortcut through the stone circle. "By the way," he asked, "who was that guy who was talking to me earlier?" The landlord looked surprised and wiped his hands on his apron as he answered. "I don't know who you mean. You were sitting by yourself the whole day."
Bird Watching Judith Greene Kate lay in bed staring into the semi-darkness. Weighed down and sunken deep into her own body-shaped dent in the mattress, unwilling to move. The ever-present dull haze was more like a dense fog today, but she knew that the slam of the backdoor, followed by fast, padding footsteps on the stairs left her no choice but to prise her eyes open. Kate managed to prop herself up on her elbows as the door burst open with all the energy an eight-year-old can produce, flooding the room with an arc of deep, orange afternoon sunshine. ‘Look what I have mummy!’ exclaimed Evie. Pulling herself up to sitting, Kate squinted in the half-light to see the offering. Peering over the duvet to discern what lay in Evie’s hands, the child pushed them forward, so they were directly under Kate’s nose. Kate recoiled, realising it was a bloody mess of bones and feathers as she pushed her hands away. Evie’s face, partly obscured in shadow, peered up at her mother; her clear blue eyes opened wide in an expectant gaze, waiting for words. Taking a deep breath to stop the rising nausea, Kate’s words startled her parched throat, ‘Oh my god Evie, have you brought a dead bird in the house? Look at the state of it!’ Kate couldn’t take her eyes off the mangled bones cupped in the child’s hands. The small bundle was hard to distinguish; some white bones; picked clean and luminous, and some bone with flesh and feathers still intact. A mixture of revulsion and pity towards the creature flooded Kate. Evie replied unfazed by it all,
‘yeah, I think it’s a bird’s body? We need to look after it. That’s why I took it inside.’ ‘Oh Evie, it’s a bird’s dead body and that’s disgusting! Where did you find it?’ An acidy bile rose in Kate’s throat. Unperturbed Evie answered, ‘Under the hedge in the back garden. What should we do with it mummy?’ Kate struggled to sense if this was real, these days it was hard to tell. Was Evie presenting her with a dead bird? It wasn’t the first time Evie had brought both dead and live creatures into the house. The pet snail in the bedroom. The two dead worms half eaten by birds. The dead mouse, left outside thankfully, but still getting a careful inspection. Kate searched for her best ‘mummy’ tone of voice, which was quite redundant these days, and said, ‘Well, it is… fascinating, but it’s not really the best thing to bring inside. Put it down on the floor and go and wash your hands with soapy water and we’ll think about what to do then.’ ‘OK,’ replied Evie. ‘But what do you think happened to it mummy?’ ‘I don’t know,’ said Kate, struggling to take her eyes of the bones now laid out on the floor. ‘Maybe a cat got it, or a fox or something, now go and wash those hands really well.” Evie turned on her heels and Kate heard the water gush from the bathroom tap. She wondered what fate had befallen the bird. She could picture a fat, mangy cat picking, scratching and clawing at this tiny being. She could see the bird cornered and on its own, tweeting desperately before the claw dug deep into its body, ripping and pulling at the flesh slowly and deliberately. The feathers lying at the cat’s feet. The cat pawing away until there was no sign of life left. Then gnawing, and picking at the bird, licking its lips as it left the bones, feathers and a silent beak.
Kate closed her eyes and shook her head sharply to get the image from her mind. Lying back in bed, she took some slow deep breaths as she thought about what drove this fearlessness and curiosity of Evie’s. She thought about how she used to be just like her as a child; fearless and curious. But now that child was so very far from the present Kate, whose daily afternoon withdrawals to the bedroom had become an essential part of her existence. Everything now was categorised in Kate’s head as before and after ‘the incident,’ as everyone calls it in the family circle; the only ones who know what happened. She thinks this was how the police initially described it, so everyone else described as such, but this seemed like a very non-descript word for such a horrific thing. Since ‘the incident’ she hasn’t got through the day without the painkillers or the anti-depressants and now her bed. The painkillers came first. She knew even after she had been treated with them for the bruising and pain that she couldn’t give up the sense of detachment they induced. The lies she told the doctor and her husband, Mark to get the good painkillers. She knew every pharmacy within a 50-mile radius. The act, the drama and the feigned migraines she had to produce every day to get her fix. There was no doubt in Kate’s mind that pain did pulse through her body every day. But it wasn’t the physical manifestation that a doctor would recognise, diagnose and treat. It’s not that she didn’t try to help herself, as her family were so keen to remind her to do, as if it was as easy as that. She started to see a therapist and it did help but her sense of desperation, anxiety and panic were just too much too bare some days and she needed to hide. Mark never really questioned her about her need for the tablets, nor asked why she needed the lie-downs during the day or where the ‘old’ Kate had gone. They all knew where the ‘old’ Kate had gone. She knew it was all so hard for him to accept; the pain affected him, as well as her. She knew it was easier for him to hand over ownership of ‘the incident’ to Kate and her therapist and for him to ignore it all and
that suited her. As far as she was concerned there was no point in the two of them wallowing in past events that seemed to be ever-present anyway. It soon became apparent that the painkillers and the therapist weren’t enough. Kate was done talking and she knew she needed anti-depressants. She was on them now and whilst they made things bearable, she still needed to have the painkillers by her side. The drugs just about got her through the day. Every day a lie down was essential and every day it was Evie who came tiptoeing into the bedroom to wake her up, tasking her to make her dinner. Kate knew the painkillers needed to stop and she needed to start again with her therapist…but she wondered how? Staring at the ceiling Kate willed herself to find the energy to rise from the bed. She switched on the bedside light and closed her eyes tightly to avoid its glaring brightness, only forcing them open when Evie came bounding back in. ‘Mummy, I have toilet roll here, will we wrap it up with this and bury it?’ ‘Ok then,’ Kate sighed as she hauled herself up to sitting. ‘Let’s bury the wee mite.’ Kate’s head felt light as she sat up, closing her eyes again, she steadied herself leaning heavily on her 2 arms propping her up on the mattress. Having sat a moment too long for Evie’s urgent need to bury the creature, she grasped Kate’s arm and started pulling her, ‘Come on mummy get out of bed, come on, come on!’ ‘Stop that Evie! Let go of me, for god’s sake give me a minute.’ Evie’s lip started wobbling and Kate realised she’d shouted louder than she meant.
‘You’ve had lot’s of minutes mummy! You always have lots of minutes…’ Kate’s guilt persuaded her to place her two feet firmly on the ground at the side of the bed. Kate was aware that for a 42-year-old she moved like an 82-year-old. She pulled on tracksuit bottoms over her pyjamas and sent Evie to look for her trainers. She kept her pyjama top on - the one with ‘Hello Sunshine’ emblazoned across the chest. Kate suspected Mark had bought it for her in the hope that those sentiments would bring some much-needed sunshine into all their lives. Evie stepped gingerly over the bird in her pursuit of the trainers. Kate stared again at the dead bird lying on the wooden floor, the bedside light now exposed it fully. Between the blood and mess, she tried to distinguish what type of bird it was, but she couldn’t. That little bird would’ve had a nest she thought, a safe, cosy nest and now it had been struck down for whatever reason; just like that. Evie plonked the trainers down beside her feet. As Kate readied herself to find the energy to slip them on, Evie was starting to unwrap the toilet roll that was to become the funeral shroud. ‘Don’t you touch the bird again,’ said Kate wearily. ‘I’ll do it.’ She forced her feet into the laced-up trainers and knelt at the bird’s side. ‘Ok mummy.’ They both stared down at the little animal. Evie began describing what may have happened to the bird in her very own bird post-mortem. She dealt with her subject in great detail. Again, Kate wondered how the child was so unperturbed by the guts and gore of it all. ‘Right then!’ said Kate not being able to listen to another word. ‘Let’s get this little being wrapped up and buried.’ ‘Ok.’
Kate’s thigh muscles were beginning to strain, so she sat down on the floor, facing the body with her back resting on the side of the bed. She placed the toilet paper over the bird, covering its entire body. She then lifted the bird, protecting her hands with the paper. Stretching out her arms in front of her, she let them rest on her knees and held the bird in her cupped hands slightly aloft. The body felt surprisingly heavy in her hands; considering all that was left of it. Quite disconcertingly she allowed herself feel the feathers and the bones. She instructed Evie to start wrapping the paper around the bird’s body she now had cupped in the palms of her hands. As Evie started untangling the paper the unmoving nature of the creature began to overwhelm her, her hands began to shake a little. Kate took her eyes off the ever-increasing pile of white toilet paper in her hand, looking at Evie, noticing the gentleness and concentration she afforded the bird. She could tell she wasn’t afraid of the bird’s pain and suffering or it’s death, she just treated it all with deference and respect. As Evie encircled the bird with the paper, she was also encircling Kate’s hands as she went; ceremoniously binding them together. Kate’s eyes welled up and tears spilled down her cheeks in a torrent that she was not prepared for. Evie looked at Kate and said very matter-of-factly, ‘It’s ok to cry mummy. I’m sad too. That birdie probably had a lovely life and now it’s all over. It’s been ruined.’ Kate nodded, the tears still flowed, with her hands cradling the bird she couldn’t wipe them away and they just kept coming. Her cheeks were tight with the already accumulated salt water and her nose began to run but she had no inclination to move. Evie stopped the bandaging, looked straight at Kate and said, ‘I’ll bury the bird mummy. You’re too sad to do it.’
Kate pulled her hand out of the homemade toilet paper coffin and set the wrapped up bird reverently on her knees. She drew Evie close to her and hugged her tight. ‘No pet,’ said Kate with what she thought was a glimmer of energy rising, ‘Let’s both go down to the garden and we’ll both bury this little bird together and let it be.
The Imperfect Landscape Aoife Murphy “Colette, have that bird sing an octave higher… No, no. Not all the birds, just that one. That one right there.” The ambient melody shifted that small change. Lux sighed happily as he adjusted the clouds, listening to the exquisite irregularity trilling through the air. A robotic voice interrupted the serenity. “Is that correct?” His voice grated with the strain of speaking while he focused on just the right shade of indigo to shade the cumulus with. “That’s it, Colette, that’s it.” “You are aware that this variation will be flagged as-.” “Yes, yes. I know all about the guild’s need for ‘perfection’.” Lux scowled and huffed, but his anger was short lived. “They don’t even know what perfection is. That’s just the name they slapped onto uniformity. When in reality, this… this is perfect.” He gestured around him, nearly dropping his Hard Light RealityBrush in the process. To this island with its big trees filled with birds, its benches looking out over the lake to the mainland beyond. “Actually there are 572 imperfections found in this sector alone. The temperature is 5 degrees below the standard recommendations of comfort, with an intermittent breeze cooling inhabitants another 2 degrees. There are 27 birds out of tune; 2 shores with excessive algae; 9 unsteady panels in the rock path-.” “Good!” He gripped the top of the ladder and cast his gaze about the sky to his intangible companion. “Don’t you change a single one of them or I’ll replace you with one of those new assistants they have these days. Goldmatch? Golfer?”
“Goldfinch,” she answered, moving the conversation along without hesitation. “I know that you’re lying. Goldfinches do not allow for imperfect creations. It is one of their 86 new features. And while I may allow for creator-made customisation-” “Which I love you for.” “- I still must warn you that your commission will take a significant loss in penalty. 46% in fact. 47% if you account for the excessive shading on those clouds.” Undeterred, Lux continued darkening the sky in gentle dabs. He’d been doing this since he was old enough to hold a brush. Like every other Landscaper he started out painting 2D scenes of rolling hills and dramatic cliffs as a boy, moving onto three dimensional art before he was able to apprentice as a World Landscaper. That had been decades ago and his love for it hadn’t changed, even if everything else seemed to have. “The Landscaper’s Guild strives to bring their clients the utmost joy and happiness with each creation,” Colette continued. Lux scoffed. “Joy and happiness. What would they know about either? Stuffy old grumps that they are…” Content with his work, he started down the ladder, moving from sky to solid ground. “Let me tell you something about organic life, Colette. ‘Perfection’ by its strict definition doesn’t make us happy. True, organic perfection is having just the right balance of bad and good, comfort and discomfort. We enjoy pressing close against our partner to fend off the cold wind more than we wish for perfect temperature. Children make a game of unsteady stepping stones. Noisy birds remind us of life outside of our own little bubble more persistently than our grumbling about the volume of them.” With his feet on the ground, the ladder folded into itself and then faded out of existence.
“Perfect worlds are like walking through a dream. They don’t feel real. They trap us in our own heads. It’s the small inconveniences and flaws that bring us into the present, where the worries of modern life don’t seem quite so big.” There was silence for a while, save for the flickering wind and birdsong. Then Colette spoke, softer this time. “Why do you continue to include these defects? You are aware that the guild will send another in to fix them before the world is sent to a client.” He shrugged. “Maybe they’ll miss one or two, and the client will get a truly unique piece of art.” “That is highly unlikely,” Colette replied. “Would you like to know the odds?” Lux took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It made sense that an AI wouldn’t understand, but made a greater effort to than any of his peers. “Colette, if all my work and all my passion is only seen by the person who will erase it, then that’s more than enough. I do it for myself. Anyone else’s appreciation is more than I could hope for.” His companion was quiet for another minute before saying, “Sector 14 has a 99.9% perfection rating. Would you like to correct this high score?” Though he tried to, he couldn't quite smother his grin. “Yes, Colette, thank you.”
The Subbuteo Hospital Joseph Darlington I remember playing Subbuteo on my own beneath our dining room table. The dining room was huge and dark. Heavy, maroon-coloured wood was everywhere. The floors, the furniture – even, in my memory, running in planks up the walls, although I don’t think that’s right. My childhood is haunted by big, dark dining rooms like this one. Everyone seemed to have these rooms with giant tables. Rooms that constantly stood empty. I made a habit of playing in them. They were used so rarely that I reckon most adults forgot they even had them. As long as you kept it quiet you could play in there all day without anybody coming in to bother you. I had a lot of different games. Subbuteo wasn’t one of my favourites, but I liked the little men stood on the rounded bases a lot, and so every once in a while I’d have a go. I never knew the rules to Subbuteo and to this day I still don’t. I imagine the official rules would have made more sense if you were into football, but I wasn’t. I was far more aware of it then though. Football was the common mythology of the schoolyard. I recognised Alan Shearer and Kevin Keegan; for some reason I thought they were the same person. I even, thinking back, had a Premier League ’97 sticker collection. I don’t know why I did. I didn’t know any of the footballers in it. I just liked to collect. Slowly amassing enough stickers to fill all the gaps in the book gave me a sense of satisfaction; as if one small part of the universe was growing more orderly and complete through my efforts. If I’d have ever completed that book I’d very likely have thrown it out and moved on to the next thing. As it was, I saw a friend’s nearcomplete collection one day and realised the futility of the exercise. I gave up collecting them that day.
I never did get an Alan Shearer, nor a Kevin Keegan neither. If I did, perhaps I’d have been able to work out that they were two different people. My Subbuteo players weren’t named after footballers. They had the names of people from my school. I think a couple also had the names of American NHL players. I had an NHL video game and names like Wayne Gretsky and Steve Yzerman had a great ring to them. I liked Wolverhampton Wanderers (“The Wolves”) and Accrington Stanley for the same reason. They had a good ring. So I made team lists and a Championship Cup knockout table and proceeded to play Subbuteo against myself. Not knowing the rules, I took a lot of liberties. I’d try to flick the players, like the boys on the box were doing, but they would fly off in a random direction. More often I’d make them walk along and then kick the ball; a ball I’d roll along or make fly through the air in a more appropriate direction, carrying it in my fingers. Sometimes, the other team would run up and try to tackle the man with the ball. This took a lot of dexterity as one hand would have to control both attacking player and ball while the other would move one or more defenders. Luckily, if I dropped one or if it didn’t work out the right way, I could always pause time and do an “instant replay”. Things always went correctly after an instant replay; and sometimes they did so in slow motion. On TV I’d wonder what the real players were doing while the instant replay was on. I figured they must all be standing still on the pitch, waiting for the ref to tell them when the replay was over so they keep on playing. I can’t remember how far we were into the championship playoffs before the first injury occurred. I don’t think it was very far. I must have been getting bored of moving the players around manually as I had returned to flicking, and one of these flicks sent a player barrelling into a succession of other players.
I got my notepad out: George Brown, 5 minutes in the sin bin for crashing into other players. Then, on a different notepad, I decided to write down the injuries suffered by the victims of George Brown: Neal Wallace – broken ankle Wayne Gretski – stubbed toe Michael Jackson – three broken ribs and a bruised knee I enjoyed adding these details. There was something about the injuries, the range of different ones available, the interesting words I could use in describing them, that appealed to me. As the game continued, the wounded started piling up. I would invent reasons for players to go insane with rage and go on rampages. I would flick them at each other, listing the various injuries received and the minutes accrued in the sin bin by the violent players. Sometimes a player would make the noble decision that it was better to sacrifice themselves for the sake of the team, and so would do a flying kick into the goalie just as the ball approached. They would get a two match ban but, as the goalie would be off the pitch for the next ten minutes getting eye surgery, that would leave the goal open for the other players to swoop in. The injuries soon got out of hand. I had long lists of the injured and it was taking them far longer to recover than it was taking their attackers to get off the bench. I decided to ration the number of minor injuries, making sure that there were never more than ten or twelve for every major one. There was also the potential to send wounded players back on the pitch. I had one Subbuteo figure who had been stepped on and had snapped off his base at the ankles. You could still move the base
around like normal, but you had to lean the snapped body of the footballer against it when you were done flicking. This unfortunate player came to represent the walking wounded. Many was the time when, all seeming lost for the Wolves, Wayne Gretsky would limp out, a bloody bandage still wrapped around his head from a cracked skull, and, to the astonishment of the crowd, he would score the winning goal; heading it in off his injury, blood flying everywhere. Gretsky would not know of his victory as the header would put him in a coma for 4 weeks, but when he woke up he would get a medal and be interviewed on TV. I suppose, now I think about it, that this strange pastime grew out my own hospitalisations as a child. When I was born the doctor’s forceps grabbed my eye and pulled me out by the socket. It damaged the muscles around my eye and it was presumed I would go blind. I didn’t, but it took a lot of surgeries to get my eyelid to work again. When it did open, it opened lazily, and, as my good eye had now got used to working alone, my brain didn’t use the damaged eye to see anymore. It had vision, but my brain chose not to use it. As a result, I had no depth perception. Still don’t. Having no depth perception, I can’t catch. I’m therefore terrible at any game involving a ball. When you think about it, that’s about 90% of them. It wasn’t that I wasn’t sporty. Despite being picked last for football, rugby, tennis, rounders, cricket… I was still the school high jump champion – outjumping people a foot taller than me – and was always in the top two or three at long distance running. I remember there were a lot of very sick children in those children’s wards. When I went in and out for my eye surgeries I’d see children with no hair, with tubes in their noses and ears and eyes. I’d see some with strange hands and limbs, unusual faces; some with gaps where
skin ought to be. You weren’t supposed to ask about who had what illness, but that just made you wonder more. There is a tremendous variety of things that can go wrong with the human body. I learned this very young, along with an in-depth knowledge of the anatomy. There were always anatomy posters up in the wards and, with nothing better to do, I spent long hours studying them. Some of those children I met will never have left that ward. I left with an advanced knowledge of body parts, their functions and their many possible failures. I don’t think I ever built a hospital for the injured Subbuteo players. I think they just went back in the box for a while. Sometimes they’d get lost, somewhere in that huge, dark dining room, only to turn up weeks later. The worst thing that could happen was somebody coming in and trying to join the game. I knew there was something shameful about that long list of injuries. I was also vaguely aware that I wasn’t playing the game correctly, and that this might in-itself be a cause for punishment. That’s why I always played Subbuteo in the dining room. Back in those long, long days without anybody else around.
Waves of Regret, Waves of Joy Tim Sheehan I like to set off for a swim at sunrise, whatever the season. There’s nothing like watching light in motion, and when I cycle south along the coast and the sun is rising, that’s when it feels as though I’m travelling into the dawn. Today is a bright mid-summer morning at the Forty Foot bathing area, but it’s still barely past six am and only the devoted dozen or so swimmers are in the water; there’s another handful of early birds standing freshly emerged from their ritual dip, drying off and drinking tea from steel flasks. Still, I always make my way to other side, towards the quieter, rockier entry point to the sea. The chatter of the regulars doesn’t interest me. It’s not that I’m anti-social- though perhaps I amit’s because this was our spot. My husband passed away 8 months ago, a week before Christmas. He was 49 years old, and I think about him more now every day than I did for far too many years before he died. When I say that the Forty Foot was our spot, I suppose I really mean that it was his spot. Tom took me here when we first met almost thirty years ago and we came together many times afterwards- to swim and to talk, and to drink and to laugh. As we got older, I always thought that I was too busy, but even when the kids were born and we were both still working, Tom always found time to come here by himself. There were times when I resented him for it, thinking it was selfish to take that large solitary chunk of the day when there was so much to do at home. I understand it now, why he persisted; and I’m so thankful that he didn’t listen to me. People ask me why I come here now, when I know that it reminds me of him, but I don’t think they understand grief. The sun rises on the other side of the Forty Foot rocks, so the water is still cold when I enter it this morning, even though it’s approaching
the warmest time of the year. I swim out from the sheltered part of the bay towards the open sea and as I round the promontory of the rock, the sun’s rays hit me almost horizontally, so dazzling it feels as though they are blinding me. I lie here, bathing in water and light, and for a moment, I feel elemental- weightless, with the warm morning light resting on my face. Peace approaches. These moments are fleeting though. I know that whenever I feel them, in the next I can feel such sharp sadness. The rhythms of the water are familiar somehow, and they can stoke memories within me in the most profound of ways. Sorrow creeps up on me with the faintest prompt. I’ve always gotten earworms, those lines from songs that you cannot get out of your head. I know everybody gets them, its normal, but I feel that I experience them particularly fiercely. I remember once on a trip to Italy with the kids when they were small: we were on a very rough boat ride on the Amalfi Coast one evening and I sang some inane children’s song to Sarah to keep her from crying. The motion of the sea and the words of that song somehow fused together in my mind and it drove me up the wall all night. For days afterwards, it was just interminably racing around in my brain; I swear it almost gave me a sea sickness on land. ‘Waves of regret, waves of joy. I reached out for the one I tried to destroy’. It’s just a line from song by U2, but lately my brain has decided that when the waves drift me in the water, this is what we sing. Today, with only a gentle breeze, the song arrives in my head immediately. The line has nothing to do with water, as far as I know. I think it’s about Judas betraying Jesus, but these earworms rarely have a higher logic; they can be triggered by anything- a word, a sound, a smell.
They can even come from just a touch or a sensation. Those are sometimes the most powerful ones, when you really feel the memory rhythm resonate through you. This line really does mean something to me though. It brings me back to a time in the early nineties when Tom and I were both young and full-hearted. In 1993, Tom came to see me in the South of France where I was on an Erasmus year. I suppose U2 were still what you could call edgy back then and we went along to their gig in Marseille. I remember it was Bastille Day, so it must have been right in the middle of the summer and the air was still simmering hot when the sun went down. That gig was mesmerizing to me then; the music was fresh, the visuals so fabulously disjointed. The whole show was like something I had never seen before and I remember being overcome with the intensity of it, the feeling of experiencing that force together with Tom. I remember him standing so close behind me, his hands wrapped around my stomach and dropping to my thighs, his sweat falling onto my neck in the balmy heat of that night. After the show, we took bottles of warm French beer onto the beach. We stared out at the Mediterranean and talked about music and about Ireland and wanting to leave it; about the war that was raging in the Balkans; about change and wanting to do something- wanting to matter. I wanted him. I wanted him to want me, and from the way he looked at me, I knew that he did. That was the moment. We talked for hours until we lost the last of our inhibition. There was no internet, no mobile phones, just each other. Perhaps the reason that I can remember it so well is because I wrote about it the next morning on a postcard that I knew I would never send. The promise of the future was wide open, but even then, part of me knew I would never feel quite as high on life again. We’re made of memories, these experiences that form us and I think that part of the joy of experiencing something in the first place is in knowing that we will remember it, that we can hold onto it into the future.
‘Waves of regret, waves of joy.’ When this line repeats in my head, I wish that joyful time was all that it brings back to me. I wish that there weren’t these pangs of regret that slowly overpower that joy. That’s the thing about regrets: they’re just like earworms, the more you try to forget the more you remember. Regrets spiral, ruminations fester, and darkness that comes on a bright day always takes you by surprise that bit harder. Even now I still have to wince when I think of what I did. Tom and I drifted as we got older. Everybody does, and I understood that as well as anyone but I couldn’t understand how at peace he seemed with it, like it was inevitable with age. Even if it is inevitable, you don’t accept that, you should try to fight it, but sometimes it seemed like Tom was embracing it, as though he just acknowledged that our desire had passed and was already looking forward to the companionship of aging. I never wanted him to see me as the mother of his children. I know that sounds strange because I am the mother of our children, but I didn’t want Tom to look at me that way. Sometimes I think my own mother could settle into apathy toward my father because she never really felt a lot for him in the first place. I never saw my parents embrace. Not once. Then again, I never heard them speak an ill word about each other either so who am I to question their relationship? Perhaps my mother just understood aging and the ties that bind. Maybe Tom was the same, and maybe he just accepted time passing on a level that I never could. I was scared, yes. I was scared of growing old. Scared that there would be no more chances, no more changes. Figuring your life out is difficult, but it’s bearable; having it laid out before you is the real shock. I was selfish, of course. I wanted to experience again, to feel alive again. I wanted to feel again. So when the chance came with a colleague who was having his own little clichéd mid-life crisis I took it.
It was stupid it was fleeting. I knew that it was never going to amount to anything and I know that isn’t just a lie I tell myself to feel better. My co-worker pursued our flameless affair with about as much conviction as I did and, more importantly, I would have never hurt Tom intentionally. I know people say that I can be cold, but that’s just something people say about women my age who don’t talk nonsense. I know I could never be cruel to Tom. I’ve been a social worker for 20 years; I am all too aware of how people hurt those they claim to love. I loved Tom more than anything. Of course we fought a lot; perhaps more than normal. It’s impossible to know if there is a normal of course, but people knew that we fought. My sister would say that she could see it on my face, and she was generally right. I could see it on Tom’s, how we drained each other. I suppose what people didn’t know was how close it could bring us together, those arguments. That sounds absurd but they did. It was raw, and bare and intimate. We said things that we regretted, for sure, but I think that when you love someone and you respect them- and you both happen to be Irish and still a little bit repressed- it can take that conflict to bring out the passion for each other. Tom was laid-back and unambitious to the point of exasperation, but he was also a remarkably composed and considerate person. He was careful in arguing. He knew when to hold back and when lay it all out. He knew when I needed a release and how to help me get to it. That was real love; I know that now. Maybe that’s why I need to come here so often. It’s a place where I can think of him- where I have to think of him. When I lie here and I look out towards the horizon, my ears submerged in water, that’s when I can drown out all the other sound of the world, that’s when I can reflect on us in complete concentration. I know Tom wouldn’t want me to feel pain and regret. What good can it do now that he’s gone? But I know that I need to feel it now. For myself. I know that I need to feel everything now.
‘Waves of regret, waves of joy’ When we were intimate, I felt weightless and electric, like a current was passing through us. ‘Waves of regret, waves of joy’ I let the wave wash over me; I want to feel this while I can. Until the waves become only ripples. Before that awful stillness comes down upon me.
Easy Prey James Northern When I first saw the tiger, it was staring right at me, its face suspended in the shrubbery about twenty metres away. At any moment, it could break cover and bound into the clearing. I wouldn’t stand a chance. I’d been limping through the forest for hours, hoping to find shelter in a cave or an abandoned human settlement. Nobody lived here now, and yet life was all around: the dank smell of the vegetation, the shifting undergrowth, the distant call of apes. Two years into my zoology degree, I’d finally scraped enough money together for a trip. I’d never seen an animal in real life before, but now I was the spectacle. Now I needed saving. I drew the jungle knife from my belt, relieved that I’d salvaged my survival kit from the wreckage. Despite my injured leg, I wasn’t going to be easy prey. But when the tiger left the foliage, it didn’t charge across the clearing, raise its claws or bare its teeth. It simply walked, its shoulder bones rising and falling beneath its velvet fur. As it drew closer, it loomed larger and larger. It far outweighed my slender frame. Ten metres away, it paused to take in its surroundings. Don’t stare at it, Jennifer. This is its territory. Don’t challenge it. When it moved again, it was heading past me, back into the forest. I’d just begun to breathe again, when two loud cracks split the air. I spun around to look. Four men in blue jumpsuits were stepping out of the trees. One made his way over. He was carrying a long-barrelled rifle. The animal lay on its side, the white fur of its neck dyed crimson as a puddle gathered around it. “What have you done?” I shouted as the man got near. There was a badge on his chest. They were marines. “Funny way of thanking me,” he said. “It wasn’t going to hurt me. It was barely interested. There’s plenty of food for it here.”
“Couldn’t take the chance, could I? Beasts aren’t like us. They’re unpredictable.” Tears filled my eyes. This was why we’d had to leave, all of us, why humans hadn’t lived on this planet for two generations. Life could only thrive here in our absence. “You’re on safari, right?” said the marine. “You’re from the ship that went down.” I nodded. “And you? I didn’t expect anyone. Not for days.” “We were nearby when the call came in. Found the crash site soon as we made orbit. Not easy to land around here, though. Any more survivors?” “Nobody was moving. There was a fire.” My eyes dropped to the soil and his thick-treaded boots. Two dozen people. All gone. Why don’t I feel more? Grief is stalking me, biding its time. The marine looked around. “We didn't detect anyone either. Well, one survivor is something. You’ve been lucky twice, though, ma’am. That thing — what is it?” “A tiger.” “A what?” I drew a long, slow breath. “A kind of big cat,” I said. “A what?” Keep calm, Jennifer. You need these men. “Never mind.” Soon, we’d be leaving, rising above the forests and the teeming blue oceans, up through the empty blackness to the rock we called home. Back to its structures and machines. I might have a chance to return here one day. To become one of the few in Environmental Restoration.
“We’d better get you out of here, ma’am,” said the marine. “This place ain’t safe.” I glanced back at the animal and saw its face sink into the grass. It had given its final breath.
It’s Perfect Here Brian Kirk A week or so after we came here, Melanie turned to me in bed one night and whispered: ‘It’s perfect here. Thanks for making it happen, Rob.’ There was a full moon and its pale light spilled into the room through the gaps where the makeshift curtains failed to meet. It had been a warm day and both windows were thrown open, but the night breeze was imperceptible. In the distance we could hear what could have been the ocean, or maybe it was machines working on the new mall at the edge of town. I could hear our one-year-old daughter, Ava, breathing evenly in the cot beside our bed. I was tired, but happy. Sleep came almost straight away. The following morning, I started my new job. I was understandably nervous as I took the train into the city. I couldn’t get over how the trains ran on time every time and how polite everyone was at our local station. Even in the city amid the early morning crowds hurrying to their places of work there was none of the usual frustrations that used to accompany my daily commute. If you bumped into someone, they smiled and excused themselves, wished you good morning. At work I was shown to a desk in the newsroom. My new colleagues smiled and nodded as I passed by with the editor, Arthur. He was an older man with a kind face bookended by greying sideburns. My desk was spotless and bare. A brand-new laptop with the newspaper logo – an open flower, a lily I think – stamped on the cover was all that it contained. There was no paper, pens or notebooks. In fact, there was no newspaper at all; they’d gone digital years ago. My area was sports and that was what I was to cover; athletics, swimming, basketball, but mainly soccer, which had been growing in popularity in recent years. ‘You an ex-player?’
The question came from a man of roughly my own age who sat at the opposite desk. ‘Me? Ah, no. I played a little at college, but not good enough to go pro I’m afraid.’ ‘Jake Arnold,’ he said, offering his hand. ‘Welcome aboard. I think you’ll like it here.’ I took his hand and we shook formally. Jake filled me in on the paper and how things worked; what day the editorial meetings were held, the deadlines for copy, the location of the water cooler. ‘You’re probably wondering why you have to come into the office when we could just as easily work it up from home,’ he said. ‘It did cross my mind.’ ‘It’s just the way things are here. All the big companies keep it oldfashioned like that and we’re no different.’ ‘So, it’s like a rule or something?’ I asked. Jake smiled. ‘No. It’s not a rule. When you’ve lived here a while you’ll learn that there are no rules. We trust each other to do the right thing.’ That night, after Ava was settled, Melanie and I sat out in the garden in the warmth of a summer night and sipped red wine. Flies buzzed around the light over the French doors and cicadas hammered away with the regularity of the machines that toiled through the night on the new shopping mall. I told her about the job, about Arthur and Jake. I figured I could work from home now and then, to spend a little more time with her and Ava before she started work and Ava went to creche. I was making all my deadlines easily and a series I did on the city’s main soccer club proved to be very popular. The players and coaches
trusted me, and I was given access to all areas of their sporting lives. It was so unlike what I was used to before; the inherent distrust of the press didn’t exist here. If you asked a question, you were given an answer and you wrote it up. In the past, half your copy would be eviscerated by an editor for one venal reason or another, but here, when I submitted a story, Arthur merely cast a cursory eye over it before letting it go to press. Often, I sat up late at night after a game, writing it up while everything was still so vivid in my head. It made sense to work from home on those occasions because I knew those midnight hours was when I would get my best work done. When I finished college, I worked in banking for a few years before being let go during the crash. Being unemployed almost did for me, ruining a serious relationship I had at the time and robbing me of any self-belief I’d ever had. Until I met Melanie, that is, and she convinced me to change tack and pursue a career that I was actually interested in. Now I’d finally returned the favour to her by working hard and making a career as a successful journalist. Making an application to come here and being granted a visa was the icing on the cake. Just before Melanie started work in January of the following year, I got a visitor at my workplace. At first I took him to be a director of the newspaper or a senior editor I hadn’t met before. He introduced himself as Larry – no last name – and invited me join him in Arthur’s office for a chat. Arthur had been in and out of his office all morning but now he was nowhere to be seen. Larry shut the door behind me and nodded at a chair for me to sit. ‘So, how are things, Rob?’ ‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Everyone’s been so helpful. I think the job is going really well.’ ‘And Melanie and Ava?’ he asked.
‘They’re great,’ I said. ‘Melanie’s starting work next week – at Harrison’s, the architects – and Ava will be starting at the local creche. She’s done some days there already just to settle in and she loves it.’ ‘That’s great!’ he said. He smiled at me. I almost felt like I knew him; he had one of those kind faces, avuncular I suppose. I returned his smile. ‘I can see you want to get back to work,’ he said, standing suddenly. I stood up also, nodding. ‘You won’t need to work from home anymore, will you, Rob?’ he asked. ‘No, no,’ I stammered. ‘Now that Ava’s settled in the creche there’s no need.’ ‘That’s great!’ he said. We stood for a moment without saying anything, and all the while he held my look, a slight smile lingering on his face. Finally, he offered me his hand again and I took it. ‘It’s good to meet you, Rob. We’ll talk again soon,’ he said, before walking out. ‘I see you had a visit from old Larry,’ Jake said I sat down at my desk opposite him. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Nice guy.’ ‘He’s the best!’ ‘What is he? A director or something?’ Jake laughed, shaking his head. ‘No, Rob. He’s not with the paper. He’s state.’ ‘State? What do you mean?’
‘He’s a Community Auditor.’ I was annoyed because Larry hadn’t been straight with me, not introducing himself as who and what he actually was, letting me assume that he was part of the newspaper. When I calmed down Jake explained to me that every new family who comes here is assigned a Community Auditor whose job it is to ensure that they settle in and are happy in their new environment. ‘He’s looking out for you and Melanie,’ Jake explained, ‘that’s his job, and Larry is one of the best.’ When I got home that night Melanie couldn’t wait to tell me how she’d got a visit from a lovely man called Larry earlier that day. He reminded her of her grandad, she said. Ava took to him too, it appeared, allowing herself to be bounced on his knee at the kitchen table while Melanie made him a coffee. By the time he left she was saying his name clearly, much to Melanie’s amusement. ‘Who came to see us today, Ava?’ she asked. ‘Larry! Larry!’ Ava shrieked. I forced a smile but didn’t say anything. I beckoned to Ava to come to me, but she just looked up at me for a moment before returning to her play.
A few months later I attended a closed coaching session for the soccer team I’d written the successful series on. They’d made it to the cup final and I was invited to spend the week with the team in the run up to the big game. I sat in on tactics talks and took up a position on the sidelines during coaching sessions. I was impressed by the team as a group, how they encouraged and supported each other both on the field and off.
One player in particular stood out, primarily because of his youth and his innate ability with a ball. I noticed he rarely spoke in a group situation, but followed each conversation intensely, his anxious features reflecting his feelings by way of a smile here and a frown there. The older team members were very protective of him. Whenever I directed a question specifically to him, he would smile and one of his teammates would explain that he was shy, that his English was poor, and offer a reply on his behalf. As the week passed, my sole aim was to get to talk to him. I knew, like me, he was a recent arrival in the country, and I thought that if I could tell his story, and the story of his family, I could broaden an interesting sports report into a richer lifestyle piece that would have a wider appeal. ‘You must be nervous,’ I said. He shook his head. ‘Not even a little bit?’ ‘No.’ He laughed. He looked around, careful to ensure no one else was listening. We were alone, stalled on a back staircase between the gym and canteen. ‘This is what I want. I always want this.’ He lifted his hands and let them drop by his sides. ‘Of course. Who wouldn’t want to be playing at the highest level,’ I said. I expected him to bolt then, but he didn’t. ‘So, how are you settling in?’ ‘Good,’ he said. ‘Very good. They give me everything.’ ‘And your family? How are they?’ He smiled again. ‘A dream,’ he said. ‘It is a dream – you understand?’ ‘Yes, I understand. They’re happy to be here.’
‘Oh, yes, yes.’ ‘Your English is much better than your teammates allow,’ I ventured. He laughed. ‘I try. I go to… school?’ ‘And what about the match, the cup final? Will you start? You had an injury, didn’t you?’ His face changed then. He looked solemn. ‘Coach says yes I start, I think.’ His brow furrowed. ‘Maybe I not supposed to say.’ ‘Don’t worry. I won’t print team news until Coach says so.’ I smiled. But this time he didn’t return my smile. He looked anxious. ‘Is everything okay?’ He shook his head. ‘Are you worried about your injury? Your shoulder, wasn’t it?’ He shook his head again. ‘I have to go,’ he said. I knew I had upset him. And because he was upset, I knew there was a story there. Shoulder injuries have a tendency to recur and this one had kept him out of his home league for most of the season up until now, yet somehow since coming here everything was suddenly okay again. All my experience told me it was painkillers. I did some research and found that no one had ever been found to be a drug cheat here in any sport. My natural cynicism – buried deep since I arrived – began to reemerge. That afternoon when the team was back out on the training pitch, I found the team doctor in his office. We’d talked before and like everyone else at the club he seemed approachable, but when I mentioned
Victor he suddenly had somewhere else to be and made his excuses. I hung around until the end of the afternoon and caught up with the coach on the way back to the changing rooms. ‘It’s about Victor,’ I said. He looked at me but kept walking. ‘Is he really fit for the final?’ I asked. ‘Of course.’ ‘It’s just that when I asked him about his shoulder, he seemed not to want to talk. And when I raised it with the doctor earlier, he clammed up too.’ The coach stopped and smiled at me. ‘Rob,’ he said, ‘what are you saying?’ ‘Well, nothing. I just want to know how a kid like Victor can suddenly recover from a shoulder injury that’s kept him sidelined for most of the year.’ ‘We’ve taken good care of him since he came here. That’s all.’ I wasn’t sure what to say. ‘You know how well we treat our people. And I don’t just mean the club, Rob. Victor came to us from another country, a dangerous place – a boy with huge ability, but not yet the finished article. We’re looking after him. And his family.’ ‘I know,’ I said. ‘I understand what you’ve done for him and his mother and brothers.’ The coach smiled at me again and moved on. ‘I’m a journalist,’ I said. ‘What can I say? It’s in my nature to be curious.’ But by then I was speaking to his retreating back.
That night when I got home, I wasn’t surprised to find Larry, with drink in hand, sitting on an armchair in our living room. He’d become a regular visitor to our house over the months, almost like a member of the family. I never warmed to him the way Melanie and Ava did. All through dinner Melanie and Larry chatted away. I drank more wine than usual and spoke only when I felt I had to. It must have been obvious to Larry that something was amiss because, when Ava cried later in the evening and Melanie went upstairs to settle her, Larry took the opportunity to question me. ‘What’s eating you?’ he began. His usual affable tone was gone. ‘Just work,’ I said. ‘Not rocking the boat, I hope.’ I didn’t want to talk to him. Didn’t see why I should have to answer to him. ‘There’s no point trying to hide it, Rob,’ he said. This time he lowered his voice. ‘I know what you’ve been doing. Looking for dirt where there isn’t any. Our sports are clean. You should remember where you are, and how lucky you are to be here.’ ‘I’m a journalist for Christs sake!’ I blurted. ‘Keep your voice down! You want to make your theories public, is that it? Do you want to jeopardise your future?’ ‘I just want to do my job,’ I said. ‘I haven’t accused anyone of anything.’ Larry stood up then. ‘You should take stock,’ he said calmly. ‘Remember where you are now and where you came from. Just think about it. You know what unemployment did to you before.’
I knew what he was talking about; I just wasn’t sure how he knew about it. ‘Let’s take our drinks outside,’ he said. I followed him out into the garden. The night was warm, the air alive with the smells of flowers and soil and recent rain. ‘Listen. You’re here now; you and Melanie and little Ava. Everybody takes time to make the adjustment,’ Larry said. ‘Take that kid, Victor, that you’re so interested in. His family will have a lot of learning to do to fit in here, but they sure as hell will do it. You know why? Because they don’t want to go back to where they came from. It’s similar for you, Rob. I read your application. I know where you came from too. You really wanted this place for your family. Don’t let it go for something that doesn’t really matter.’ I could hear Melanie’s voice drift down from an open window upstairs, soft and reassuring. ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘let’s start again. Just say you’re right. The kid Victor is pumped full of something by the doctors to mask his injury and then you write it up. The club is fined, the coach loses his job – forget about the cup final! – and the kid himself is finished. His contract is terminated, he could be jailed even, and his family are repatriated to whatever shithole they came from.’ ‘But he’s not the guilty one in this!’ ‘Don’t be naive, Rob. Everyone gets tarred with the same brush. Then there’s you. No one will thank you for writing that kind of story. No one will want to read your work anymore. The paper will let you go. Without a job you can’t stay. You know it’s illegal to be unemployed here.’ I emptied my wine glass. I knew I would have a headache in the morning.
‘But it’s just not right!’ ‘You need to see the bigger picture. You’re being selfish. Think about what you have here.’ He indicated the house behind him and the deep blue of the summer night beyond the darkened tree canopy. Melanie stepped out onto the patio then with Ava in her arms. The light from the living room showed her in silhouette as she walked towards me. I couldn’t see her face. I was conscious of the silence all around me, but for the distant humming of machines working through the night on some new project on the edge of town. Larry was no longer there, receded somehow into the darkness along the lawn’s edge. ‘She just had a bad dream, Rob, but she’s okay now.’ The child whimpered and pushed her face further into her mother’s breast. ‘Everything’s fine, Rob,’ Melanie said, ‘it was just a nightmare, that’s all’. And she placed her free hand on my shoulder and kissed me lightly on the lips.
You Know Me Thomas Morgan It was his son Jason’s eighteenth birthday, and while his wife Sarah was at home getting the dinner started, Alan took Jason to the pub for a couple of pints. He had been waiting years for this moment to arrive, and when it finally came, he could barely contain his excitement. You see, Alan’s father walked out on him and his mother when he was five years old, so he never got the chance to share a pint with him at the pub. No one – not even Alan’s mother – knew what had happened to him or if he was even alive. But Alan didn’t care about any of that; he just wanted to enjoy this long-awaited moment with his son. The pub Alan chose was called The Brunswick & Thorn. It used to be his local when he lived in a small flat in the town centre with his best friend, Billy. It’s the pub where he had his first legal beer. He even met Jason’s mother there when he was twenty-five. He’d had too much to drink that night and threw up right outside. She saw it all happen, yet she still agreed to go out with him. He was lucky to have someone like Sarah in his life. He knew that. Alan and Jason arrived at the pub. The first thing Alan noticed was that the pub had changed a lot since his last visit. It used to be rundown and full of cigarette smoke, but now it had more of a clean and contemporary feel to it. Alan couldn’t believe it was the same place where he had spent so many nights in his youth. The pair of them walked up to the bar. “What do you want to drink?” Alan said to his son. It felt good to say this. “I’ll have a pint of Guinness, please,” Jason said to his father. “All right,” Alan said. “Go and find us somewhere to sit, and I’ll bring the drinks over.”
It was late in the afternoon. But the sun was still out, so Jason opted for a seat outside in the garden. As he sat down at a table and waited for his father to bring the drinks over, Jason noticed a scruffy-looking man sitting alone in the corner of the garden. He could tell that the man was drunk. The old man caught Jason’s eye. He got up and walked over to him with his pint of bitter. “Mind if I sit a bit closer to you?” said the old man. “I don’t want to sit here on my own like a sad old cunt.” Jason didn’t say anything, but the old man still went ahead and took a seat at a table right next to him. “How old are you?” asked the old man. “Eighteen,” Jason said to him. He looked through the window of the pub and saw his father standing at the bar. “I wish I was eighteen,” said the old man. Then, after a minute, he said, “What do you do for work?” “I’m a student,” Jason said. “You don’t say much, do you?” said the old man. “You’re very elusive.” Jason spotted his father coming out of the pub with the beers. He stood up and waved at him, catching his attention. “Here we are, then,” Alan said. He put both pints down on the table and passed one over to his son. This was it – this was the moment he’d been waiting for. “Cheers,” Alan said. He raised his glass. “Cheers,” Jason said. They clinked their glasses together.
Alan took a sip. “Lovely,” he said. And it was. “I’m just going to the toilet,” Jason said. He got up and made his way inside the pub. He glanced back at his father, trying to give him some kind of signal. But it didn’t work. Alan took another sip of beer. It went down well. “Your friend’s very elusive,” the old man said to Alan. It almost took him by surprise. “Sorry?” Alan said. “Your friend,” said the old man. “He’s very elusive.” “That’s my son,” Alan said to him. “Right,” said the old man. “So, when did you split up with your wife?” “Excuse me?” Alan said. “You know,” the old man said, “when did you give your wife the boot?” “I’ve been happily married for over twenty years,” Alan said. “My wife’s at home.” “Oh,” said the old man. “Well, I’d get out of that one if I were you. While you still have the chance.” “You’re being very rude,” Alan said to the old man. “You have no right to ask me these sorts of questions or say these things to me. I’m just trying to enjoy a drink with my son. Why don’t you go and talk to someone else?” “I can talk to whoever I like,” said the old man. “It’s a free country.” Alan couldn’t take much more of this unwanted intruder, so he picked up the glasses – Jason’s and his – and walked away without saying anything to the old man. “Fine,” he heard the old man say. “I didn’t want to talk to you anyway.”
Alan went inside and found his son standing by the bar. “I was just about to phone you,” Jason said to him. “I didn’t want to have to go back out there.” “You did the right thing,” Alan said. “I don’t know what his problem is. Anyway, let’s just forget about him. We can’t let him spoil your birthday.” Sarah was plating up the food when Alan and Jason got home. They were having a roast dinner – Jason’s favourite. “Did you have a nice time?” Sarah asked the two of them. “We were having a nice time,” Alan said. “Until some idiot spoiled it.” “What happened?” she said. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Alan said. Even though this was the case, he still couldn’t help thinking about the old man and what he had said. “Okay,” Sarah said. She attempted to change the subject. “Dinner’s just about ready. “You can sit at the table if you like.” “I’m not hungry,” Alan said. “I think I’ll go for a drive. Just to clear my head.” “But what about your dinner?” Sarah said. “It’s Jason’s birthday meal. I went to all this trouble. The least you could do is sit down and eat something with us.” “I said I’m not hungry,” Alan said. He regretted it almost as soon as it came out of his mouth, but he could do nothing to take back what he had just said. He walked out of the house, slamming the front door behind him. He went straight back to the bar. He scanned the room, searching for the man who had ruined his special evening with his son. Alan didn’t know what he was going to do, but he was going to do something.
That much was clear to him. Alan walked up to the bar. “Excuse me,” he said to the barman. “Did you see that man who was sitting outside earlier?” “Yes,” the barman said to him. “I think I know who you’re talking about. He left about ten minutes ago.” “Does he come here often?” Alan asked. “Almost every day,” said the barman. “Right,” Alan said. “And what time does he usually come in?” “It varies,” said the barman. “Sometimes he’s here when we open. Sometimes he’s here late at night.” “Okay,” Alan said. “Thank you very much for your help.” He took a seat in the corner of the bar. He stayed there for a while. Sarah was waiting up for him when he got home. It was late, and she had been worried sick about him. “Where were you?” she said. “Nowhere,” Alan said. “I just went for a drive to cool off.” “Are you going to tell me what happened?” Sarah said. “You were very rude to me earlier.” “I’m sorry,” Alan said. “Really, I am. Like I said, there was this guy at the pub. He said some things. It just got to me.” “What kind of things?” she asked. “Just some things about you and Jason. It wasn’t so much what he said. It was the way he said it. You know me,” Alan said. “You know how I get. But I’m fine now. And I think I might be ready to eat something.” “All right, then,” Sarah said. “Dinner’s in the fridge. I’m going to bed.” “I’ll be up shortly,” Alan said. Then he said, “Is Jason here?” “No,” Sarah said. “He’s gone out.”
“Oh,” Alan said. “I just wanted to apologise for what happened. I didn’t mean to spoil his birthday.” “I’m sure he’s fine,” Sarah said. “You can always speak to him in the morning.” Then she went upstairs to bed, leaving him to it. Alan went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. He took out a plate of meat, potatoes, and vegetables. He scraped all of the vegetables into the bin and put the plate of meat and potatoes in the microwave. He stood there in the dark, right in front of the microwave, and watched the food go round. The following morning, Alan sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee and eating cereal while Sarah cooked some bacon and eggs. Jason came into the kitchen and took a seat at at the kitchen table drinking coffee and eating cereal while Sarah cooked. Jason came into the kitchen and took a seat at the table next to his father. He looked as if he’d had a heavy night. “Morning,” Alan said to his son. “Morning,” Jason said. “Listen, I’m sorry about last night. That guy at the pub, he just got to me.” “It’s all right,” Jason said. “It’s not your fault.” Sarah put a plate of bacon and eggs in front of him. “Thanks, Mum,” he said to her. Then he tucked into his food. Alan finished his cereal, drinking the last bit of milk from the bowl. “Right,” he said. “I better get going.” He got up and put his bowl and his cup in the sink, giving them both a quick rinse. “I’m not sure what time I’ll be home,” he said. “I’ve got to work late tonight.” “Okay,” Sarah said. “Just let me know what’s happening.” “I will,” Alan said. He kissed his wife. “See you later,” he said. “See you,” she said.
Alan looked at Jason. “Bye, mate,” he said. He put his hand on Jason’s shoulder then walked out of the kitchen. Alan left the house and got in his car. He sat there for a minute and took a deep breath. Then he started the engine, strapped himself in, and pulled out of the driveway. Ten minutes later, Alan was standing outside The Brunswick & Thorn. It was still too early for it to be open, so he just stood there and waited until it was time. When it finally opened, Alan went straight to the bar and ordered a black coffee. He found a seat, and the barmaid brought it over a couple of minutes later. Alan sat in that same spot for hours. He didn’t even get up to use the toilet. After a time, Alan could feel himself getting hungry and thought about ordering some food. He felt like he could eat a panini and a big bowl of chips with a pint of Coke to wash it all down. That would do the trick, he thought. That would really hit the spot. But his hunger quickly subsided when he noticed a familiar face enter the pub. It was him all right – the man who had spoiled his evening with his son. Alan waited for the old man to order himself a drink and get settled. He watched him for a moment or two, like a tiger stalking its prey. And then, when it was time, he made his move. “Excuse me,” Alan said as he marched over to him. The old man looked at Alan as if they were meeting for the first time. “You don’t remember me, do you?” “No, I don’t think so,” the old man said. “Should I?” “Yes,” Alan said to him, “Yes, you should.” He could feel his blood boiling. “You were very rude to me yesterday. I was just trying to enjoy a pint with my son, and you ruined it.” “I’m sorry,” said the old man.
“Well, you should be,” Alan said. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve been waiting to enjoy a pint with my son? I’m never going to get that moment back, you know.” “I apologise,” the old man said. “I didn’t mean to take that away from you. I got a bit drunk last night, and I didn’t know what the hell I was saying. But that’s no excuse.” “You’ve got that right,” Alan said to him. He didn’t know what was going to happen next. “Let me buy you a drink to make it up to you,” said the old man. “I know it’s not much, but it’s a start.” The old man quickly finished his first drink. Then he turned to Alan. “What’re you drinking?” he said. Alan wasn’t expecting that. He stood there and looked at the old man for a second. For some reason, he thought he could place him from somewhere – somewhere other than the previous night. “I said, what are you drinking?” the old man said to him again. Alan snapped himself out of it. “I’ll have a pint of Guinness,” he said. He was still a little bit taken aback by the old man’s offer. The old man turned to the barmaid. “Two pints of Guinness,” he said to her. He put some money down on the bar, and she began pouring the pints. “Once again, I’m sorry for the way that I acted last night,” the old man said. But Alan didn’t say anything to him in response. The barmaid handed the drinks to the old man. “Thanks, love,” the old man said to her. He passed one of them over to Alan and raised his glass. “Cheers,” said the old man. “Cheers,” Alan said. They clinked their glasses together.
Anti Jason Jawando Some crank has got into the secure carpark and stuck a leaflet under Professor Christiansen’s windscreen wiper. Homeopathic Industry Lets People Die for Commercial Profit The homeopathic industry is worth billions of dollars a year and enjoys unchallenged access to doctors, hospitals and nurses everywhere around the globe, but not so many people know that the industry is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people because they trust the word of those doctors, nurses and allow themselves to be treated in the very hospitals, thinking that they are getting the best healthcare, but are they really? Ill-informed, badly written junk, trying to peddle the latest, faddish nonsense, as always. He stops reading. Last year, vaccination, this year, antibiotics: mould to anyone with a scientific education. It doesn’t pay to engage with these people. He screws up the flyer and searches for a bin he knows isn’t there. The leaflet ends up in his glove-compartment. He’s leaving late, but it could be later. It’s a crucial moment in the project, and he’s been under pressure to come up with quantifiable outputs since he secured funding eighteen months ago. Leaving this early means running the gauntlet of antipaths who have become a daily presence outside the lab, and means he’ll be on time for the dinner party he foolishly agreed to last week. Chanting from the far side of the security fence makes him look round. Rows of cars, sleek lines of gunmetal grey, stretch out fifty yards, with impotent protestors gathered beyond. Security cameras, eyes offering a glimpse into a non-existent soul, look down from lofty poles with polished sides. No one should be able to get close. But someone has already managed to get in with the flyers. He locks the doors and drives towards the first security gate. By the time he’s past
the second gate and onto the main road, he will have enough momentum to take him through the group outside the gate. One of the idiots might throw something at the car, but it’s never anything more serious than a waterbomb. At least they won’t try to stop him and ram the latest theory down his gullet. Their crap is difficult to swallow at the best of times, but with the constant throbbing he’s been experiencing in his jaw for the past fortnight, even mashed swede would give him a problem. How will he get through this dinner party? There’s the eating for one thing, and there’s bound to be some wag who thinks it’s hilarious that The Chair of Homeopathic Research has an ailment that homeopathy seems unable to deal with. Just because there are some individual ailments that cannot yet … oh, he can’t be bothered. – Just because there are specific ailments that are, currently, beyond the reach of homeopathic practice, doesn’t mean we can just dismiss the modern science of … he peters out because several other guests are trying not to laugh at him, and because the pain in his jaw is too intense. – Sounds to me like you’ve got an abscess, an advertising executive from Harborne says through a mouthful of sorbet. – And I’m sure you know just the cure for this excess. – Abscess. – Whatever. – James … Marie reaches over and puts a hand on his arm. He shakes her arm away. – No, go on. I’m all ears. Penicillin, perhaps. – Amoxicillin, the advertising executive says. – Right family, just a different branch. – Mould, Professor Christiansen says.
– Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it, someone pipes up from the far end of the table. Marie claps her hands. – Has anyone seen that new Haydn Keane film? – Homeopathy is subject to rigorous, scientific testing. Its efficacy has been proven time and time again, Professor Christiansen says. – But not for your abscess. – There’s no such thing as an abscess. It’s a made-up illness, peddled by quacks and antipaths. – The homeopathic industry has got a lot of questions to answer, the advertising executive says. – So, ask them. – But not at my dinner table, thank you, Marie says. Professor Christiansen shuts up and sucks on his dessert. Why is it always the scientist who’s expected to give way? The supplementary medication brigade parrot their nonsense unchallenged; as soon as someone starts talking about scientific facts, it’s all too deep, and we all have to move on. The advertising executive will go home thinking he’s won, and the more gullible of those around the table will have the vague impression, no doubt to be trotted out at a similar gathering next week, that Professor Christiansen refused to answer some challenging questions. As he puts on his coat, the advertising executive approaches, hand extended. – No hard feelings, eh? Their hands make the briefest contact, not quite clasping each other, and then move apart. The advertising executive passes him a card. – If the abscess does get too much … Professor Christiansen looks at the card. Some antibiotician with a swanky address in Edgbaston. Whatever has caused this pain, he isn’t
foolish enough to shell out a small fortune on mouldy bread. He smiles at the advertising executive and leaves. Marie calls the next morning – there’s no need to apologise. – I wasn’t going to. – People get heated about these issues, I understand that. And I’ve spoken to Ian … Ian? The advertising executive, presumably. – And he agrees with me that the abscess, or whatever it is, was probably making you cranky. – There’s no abscess, Professor Christiansen says, – and I’m not cranky. – So, if we can just agree to disagree. – I’ve got a non-specific swelling in the lower-molar area. – Do something for me, she says. – I’m not cranky. He winces as the non-specific swelling in the lowermolar area explodes. – You’re obviously in pain, Marie says. – If you weren’t so anti this antibiotician … – I’m not anti-anything except stupidity. Marie ends the call. In his lunch-hour, Professor Christiansen tries a new homeopath at a private clinic near Colmore Row. The cream wallpaper and black, leather chairs in the waiting room are designed to put the patient at ease, but he can’t relax in case he makes the place look untidy. He flicks through a glossy magazine, filled with adverts from the largest
tincture manufacturers, looking for something interesting. The receptionist calls his name before he finds anything. The consulting room has the same leather chairs, although the homeopath sits in something much older and probably more comfortable. – You were prescribed tincture of yew bark, he says, while he looks through his notes. – I don’t know how much you know about dental homeopathy. – I’m a senior researcher, Professor Christiansen says. – Working in succussion, mainly. – Makes a change from patients who’ve consulted Doctor Google, the homeopath says. His face stays in the notes. – Nothing seems to have any effect. The homeopath looks up. – Have you tried any other approaches? – You don’t believe in supplementary medication? Professor Christiansen asks. – I’ll let you into a secret, the homeopath says, – I believe in what works. Professor Christiansen pauses before he speaks again. – I’ve got a few friends, acquaintances really, who’ve suggested antibiotics. The homeopath smiles. – We’re both men of science. – It’s just mould. – There’s a cultural aspect to medicine – That’s not science. – As I say, I believe in what works. – And homeopathy is proven to work.
The homeopath looks again at the notes. – It’s a longshot, but tincture of rubber tree can be effective in this sort of case. – I don’t want longshots. I want certainty. The homeopath says nothing. They both know that even with the advances in homeopathic research, certainty can be elusive. Professor Christiansen nods. – Thank you, doctor. Back at the lab, he does a quick Datapath search for the trial results on tincture of rubber tree. A footnote in one of the studies13 seems to be the longshot the doctor mentioned. Without a double-blind test and an adequate control group, this doesn’t convince him. Is there any point putting in the prescription? He might experience some relief, but he’ll never know for sure. He throws the prescription towards the bin and misses. As he walks over to pick it up, his jaw throbs, almost bringing him to his knees. He picks up the prescription but doesn’t throw it away. If homeopathy can’t help him, nothing can. * Inside his car is the card Ian from Harborne gave him last night. He shoves it in the glove compartment with the antipath leaflet. There’s nothing like this today; perhaps security has been stepped-up. The protestors are still audible, but they’re quieter. He looks around the car park. The same cars as yesterday, parked in the same places, but the air seems to be a different colour. The clouds, perhaps. He looks up, but a surge of pain in his jaw stops him from dwelling on his surroundings. There are fewer protestors outside the gate, but they seem more animated than the usual bunch. One of them steps out in front of him. He brakes. As the car slides to a halt, he wonders if he should have driven 13
Several subjects suffering non-specific swelling in the lower-molar area reported relief from their symptoms.
on, serve the little fucker right. It’s too late now. The protestor jumps out of the road, and another protestor steps out from behind a lamppost to throw red paint onto his windscreen. He gets out of the car, and a small group surrounds him, throwing leaflets and cards at him, shouting and banging the car. Liar … fraud … murderer. There is more red paint, some of it splashing him, but mostly landing on the road. He tries to grab the ringleader, but he squirms, evading Professor Christiansen’s grasp like running water. The police arrive almost immediately, and the group disappears as quickly as it assembled. They are professional, helping him to clean the windscreen as best they can and offering to escort him home. – They’ve made their point, he says. The throbbing returns as a dull ache, and he realises that it went while he was being harangued by the mob. As he starts driving, he feels a balloon slowly inflating inside the side of his mouth, forcing his teeth in one direction and his jaw in the other. It’s too late to drop in his prescription, so he’ll have to endure another night. When he gets home, his jaw feels like a pneumatic pump has been attached. He thinks about the card Ian from Harborne gave him. It’s ridiculous, superstitious, unscientific nonsense, but what if it works? It would be something else, of course, nothing intrinsic to the antibiotic, whatever that is, but something to do with whatever mumbojumbo is used to present it. As a scientist, he should be immune to nonsense, but even scientists have psychologies. The throbbing is worse the next day, so he phones in sick. – Have you seen your Homeopathic Practitioner? the Dean asks him. – I’ve got a prescription to drop off. He will drop the prescription off, but he might also try this other person he’s been recommended. It can’t hurt, but he doesn’t mention this
to the Dean. Some employers like to think of themselves promoting enlightened attitudes towards supplementary medication; his isn’t one, which is hardly surprising: no one would be dismissed for it, but it’s not something a man in his position wants to be seen doing. Perhaps he should wear a big hat and dark glasses. The waiting room at the anti-bioticians has brown chairs, older than the furniture at the homeopath’s and with softer lines, but probably no less expensive. The magazines are filled with adverts for expensive watches and high-end cameras. He tries to read an article about something called cephalexin, but doesn’t take anything in. Mercifully, the receptionist calls his name within a minute. The chairs in the consulting room is functional, similar to an office chair; the antibiotician has the same type. He tries to perch on the edge but is forced to sit back to avoid sliding off. – People know that modern homeopathy hasn’t got all the answers, the antibiotician says. – You do know who I am, right? Professor Christiansen asks. – Especially people like you. Insiders. Deep down, you know you’re peddling an illusion. – I’m not an insider, he says. The antibiotician smiles. Professor Christiansen thinks about leaving, but he’s got nowhere else to be this afternoon. And that would make the quack think he’s won, make him believe his own lies about insiders. – Tell me about your symptoms, the antibiotician says. There are no notes for him to look at. Professor Christiansen is tempted to downplay everything, an unexplained swelling in his jaw that comes and goes, but instead he goes into as much detail as he can bring himself to, the throbbing, the aches
and the sleepless nights, to give this charlatan something to think about. The antibiotician looks inside his mouth. – Do you know anything about abscesses? he asks. Professor Christiansen shakes his head. – Caused by a bacterial infection. A course of amoxicillin should sort it. It’s all mould to Professor Christiansen, but if he’s not going to take it, what’s the point of quibbling? What’s the point of paying £300 come to that? Still, if he refused to pay, they’d just expose him in the press. He hands over his debit card and they hand over the tablets: there and then, which proves it’s all quackery, but saves him a journey. He returns to the pharmacist to pick up some real medicine, heads home and spends the evening staring at the two bottles on the table in front of him. What will happen if he takes both? Or neither? He doesn’t feel compelled to choose, why would he? He’s a professional research-homeopath; the choice is already made for him. He shakes his head. That’s a silly, deterministic attitude: choices can’t be made for us. He chose science as a teenager. If he’d gone into the humanities, it would have been a different story. There’d be no position to maintain, and he’d probably be prone to a belief in antibiotics, or the idea that our paths are chosen for us. As a scientist, there is only one course of action open to him: he closes his eyes, picks a bottle at random and swallows two tablets. The next morning, the pain is no better, but he goes to work anyway. – You look like death, the Dean says. – What you taking for it? – Just a tincture. Rubber tree. Not sure how effective it is. – You looked it up?
He nods, adding a half-hearted shrug to show his hopes. – They do sometimes prescribe these things blind, the Dean says. – Might as well try antibiotics if that’s all they’re going to do. Professor Christiansen laughs. Perhaps it’s the tablets, perhaps it’s work taking his mind of things, perhaps it’s just regression to the mean, but the throbbing disappears during the day. When he leaves, the group of protestors is much smaller and less aggressive. Driving home, he feels lighter than he has done for months. It’s a nice evening, and he decides to pop round to Maria’s. Ian from Harborne is there when he arrives. – How’s the abscess? Maria coughs. – It’s a non-specific swelling in the lower-molar area. Ian raises an eyebrow. – And it’s feeling much better. Thanks for asking. – Did you try that guy I recommended? Ian asks. – The antibiotician? – No, Professor Christiansen says. He takes a mouthful of tea and winces as the pain returns.
The Voices In My Father’s Study Sarah Robin I was sat cross-legged on the rug in front of the fire playing with some toy soldiers when I heard the voices for the first time. I wasn’t scared, but I was curious as they weren’t voices I had heard before. I thought maybe my mother had visitors in the lounge, however when I passed her to go to the bathroom, she was sat doing her needlework with nobody with her but Winston, our old cat. When I returned to the study, I paused by the doorway and looked at my father – well, I say I looked at my father, he was always hidden by The Times in the evenings. It was a comical sight, like the newspaper had its own pair of tailored trousers and shiny brown boots, with puffs of cigar smoke occasionally rising from behind. There was part of me that wondered if he was playing tricks on me but then again he didn’t normally joke around like that, not when he was reading his articles anyway. Maybe he had had one too many glasses of brandy. I rose onto my tip-toes and leaned to one side, straining my neck to see if I could see his mouth moving from the side of his face. Nothing; not even a twitch. I rested my heels on the ground and sighed, confused. I made my way back to the fire where my toy soldiers stood to attention at the mantlepiece, when I heard the voices again. They weren’t clear enough for me to make out what they were saying, they sounded more like they were mumbling – similar to the collective sound of a crowd of passengers talking in small groups on a railway platform. Placing my hands on my hips, I surveyed the room trying to find a logical explanation. Ah, the radio! I thought maybe it had been left on on a low volume. I ran over and inspected it but found it wasn’t turned on. ‘What are you doing over there?’ My father’s deep voice boomed from across the room, though his head never moved from behind the newspaper. ‘Nothing, just checking something!’ I
squeaked. Even as a boy, I knew hearing voices was not a good thing, so I didn’t dare tell anyone. Feeling defeated, I returned to the rug and carried on playing, but the voices never went away and after some time I realised several things; one; that only I could hear the voices, and two; that the voices were coming from inside my head. The voices became clearer as time went on and my mind would conjure up images of what these people looked like. “Who were they?” Elizabeth whispered, wide-eyed in wonder. They were the characters of my stories, I told her, cradling her on my knee, her blonde ringlets tumbled clumsily over her little shoulders. You see, characters such as these do not come to just anyone, they come to those who will listen and will tell their stories through words on a page, give them adventures and lives that only you could create. We sat under a blanket on my father’s armchair by the fire in his study, where he had always sat. I stared at the large glass cabinet of books opposite us. It reached from one end of the room to the other and filled the whole space from floor to ceiling. It was full of expensive leatherbound books that I was never allowed to touch as a boy. My own collection lay on the mantlepiece, for fear my father would object to them being worthy enough to be in his glass cabinet - even long after he had died. ‘’So you would write stories about them, the people in your head?” she asked, pulling me away from my train of thought; painful memories of disapproval and humiliation. I would write in secret, I told her. My father disapproved of me writing what he called ‘silly fables’, so I would write my stories when I was hidden from his view, usually staying up past my bedtime, scribbling away in the moonlight by my bedroom window. My mother quietly supported what I loved, though she didn’t show this enthusiasm in front of my father. Elizabeth thought about this for a while. “Was he a bad man?” she asked cautiously. No, I shook my head. My father, your great-grandfather, wasn’t a bad man, he simply didn’t appreciate the creative arts
and instead filled his head with business matters and politics. She played with my beard as I spoke. He didn’t have the time for my stories of children’s talesand he thought I should have been using my brain for more grown-up things, things he said were useful and sensible. Of course, he didn’t realise at the time how popular my stories would be to other children and I would go on to make a good living out of it. “I like to write stories too, papa. I draw pictures to go with them too,” Elizabeth’s eyes grow in size at the excitement of a shared love of writing stories. An artist as well as a writer? I gasp in exaggerated awe. Well, you do sound very talented. I would very much like to read those stories. Elizabeth beams in delight in my interest, something I never had myself, not from my family anyway. “What happens to the voices once you have written the stories, papa?” she queried, her brows furrowed with concern. They never leave you, I reassure her. They may become quieter as new ones come along, but they will always be a part of you and you will never be truly alone. You’ll have hundreds, if not thousands of them by the time you’re my age and they aren’t always people either, I have had many animals too. Elizabeth grins then turns to the glass cabinet. “What books are in there?” she asks. I don’t know, I tell her, I’ve never been in it. I wasn’t allowed, remember? “But you’re not a little boy anymore,” she points out. I think about this for a moment and I smile at her maturity for such a young girl. That’s right, I’m not a little boy anymore. We clambered out of the large, old leather armchair and she clasped my hand and took me over to the cabinet. I was still intimidated by it, even now. There must have been hundreds if not a thousand large, thick books, mainly on economics, world maps and scientific essays of botany and medicines of other sorts. There was no fiction, unsurprisingly. “What’s in there?” Elizabeth’s little hand pointed to a locked compartment on the top shelf of the cabinet.
Elizabeth, pass me that stool, I asked. I stood tall and reached my arm to the top of the cabinet, sweeping my fingers through layers of dust before they brushed onto something small and made of metal. The key was dirty and had obviously been untouched for decades. I blew on it, removing some of the dust, then rubbed it on my jumper. Mine and Elizabeth’s eyes met before I inserted the key into the lock to find it was a perfect fit. We held our breaths as I turned the key until we heard a click. The wooden panel swung open easily and in there was a large handmade box made of reddish wood with a beautiful design of flowers and birds intricately carved into it. I pulled the box out of the cabinet and placed it down on the rug by the fireplace, my hands shaking slightly. “Shall I open it, papa?” Elizabeth asked, placing her hand on my arm. I nodded in approvaland she proceeded to open the box ever so delicately. “A treasure box!” Elizabeth exclaimed. It was a treasure box; inside was my mother’s wedding ring, a collection of photographs of my parents when they were young and a handful of letters they wrote to each other when he was away during the war. I put the letters to one side to read another time when I noticed a large, dusty envelope at the base of the box. I opened one end and pulled out around twenty sheets of paper with my boyish scribbles covering both sides. My stories! I whispered, dumbfounded. “He must have liked your stories if he kept them in his treasure box,” Elizabeth proclaimed so innocently and so sure of herself. I wiped way a few tears from my cheeks and she hugged me tight. I’m ok, they are happy tears, I reassured her. She looked through the photographs one by one. Suddenly, she lifted her head and looked around the room. “Who is that?” she asked. They are pictures of your great-grandparents when they were courting, I pointed to the black and white photographs. This was probably the first time she had seen pictures of her great-grandparents. “No, who was that talking?”she scrunched up her face.
Ah, I think you’ve just met the characters for your next story! I chuckled, memories of my own experiences flooding back through my mind, as if I was watching myself in a strange out-of-body experience. I’ll go and fetch you some paper and pencils, I said, heaving myself off the floor. I paused as I got to the large oak door of the study and smiled to myself as I watched Elizabeth play on the rug in front of the fireplace just as I did so many years ago.
Tilapia Skin Chloe Chan I remember being carted into the OR. The doctor talked over me, telling Mama that “this new tilapia treatment has been ground-breaking.” I remember Mama telling me how much she loved me, that everything was going to be okay. I remember the lady putting a mask over my face and reassuring that I needed to take a deep breath for her, that I’ll feel much better if I do. I remember the lights. Harsh white lights. I remember being covered in gauze and blankets. Mama was there, thanking the heavens for my recovery. She was so worried when I didn’t wake after the surgery, that when I did wake, she couldn’t stop fussing. Hungry? Too cold? Too warm? Thirsty? I told her I was thirsty. I remember sipping on water. The exhaustion of lifting my head threw me back into a deep sleep. The next day, they came to change my dressing. When they peeled back the gauze, I could see scales. Fish scales. The doctor said it was a novel therapy for body burns. In addition to being anti-microbial, it was full of collagen and other proteins to help my skin heal. I couldn’t focus on his words. Half of my body was covered in scales. He said I was lucky to be in a facility that had tilapia skin on hand. My hand was grey and patterned, unwelcoming in its patchwork. I didn’t like it. I told him as much. He laughed and said, “They’re officially gonna come off in a few weeks and you’ll have beautiful, same-as-new, human skin underneath. Just you wait.” Every day, I asked if they could be taken off yet. The nurse, Mariam, always had the same answer. “Just wait a few more days, the doctor will be back to reassess you soon. Now hold out your arms and let me change the skins.”
They were starting to itch. At night, when the hospital was quiet and Mama went home, the tilapia skin felt constricting. In hindsight, I would’ve said that they were ingraining their patterns onto my skin, like some weird tribal tattoo. And the pain. The medical staff never told me about the pain, but every night, I take the pain meds they gave me “as a precaution.” They helped me forget about being trapped in fish skin and sleep. I remember dreaming of nothing. One week in, the doctor came into my room to swipe the chart off the foot of the bed. He seemed more rushed than usual, speaking in a hushed tone with Mama in the hallway. I remember hearing her angrily shouting “what do you mean, tainted?” and the doctor hurriedly trying to keep her voice down. They entered the room a few moments later in silence. Mariam and I exchanged our hellos, and she took the skins off my body. For once, I didn’t ask when they were coming off, and for once, she said “we’re taking them off now.” The doctor explained to me that the batch of tilapia skins they were using had been tainted. With what, he wouldn’t say. It was “hospital confidentiality, but just know it won’t, and hasn’t, affected your healing negatively.” I remember feeling confused. Angry. I was upset but I wasn’t sure if I could be upset. My skin was healing properly - and surprisingly quick, too. Google said my injuries should take at least a month to heal, but here I was, with my arms and torso just a faint pink. They discharged me a few days later. “For monitoring,” they said. I remember thanking Mariam for everything she’s done to help me. She gave me a hug. “Be careful,” I remember her whispering in my ear.
I remember waving goodbye to the hospital building as Mama drove us home. The short car ride was enough stimulation to make me close my eyes. I remember dreaming. I was drowning, trying to fight my way to air. Waves would crash over my head just as my hands frantically broke the surface. I couldn’t breathe. My chest was constricted. A jostle woke me up. “Stupid pothole,” Mama muttered. I remember thanking the pothole. We arrived at the house. No changes as far as I remember. Mama and I established a routine. School was out of the question for another two weeks, but I wasn’t let off the hook: anti-microbial creams in the morning, breakfast, worksheets, lunch, readings, dinner, creams again before bed. Maybe it was the burns, but I drank a gallon of water a day. I was a lot hungrier too. My palate changed. “Hospital food does that to you, but I’m glad you’re willing to eat new foods now. You have no idea how hard I’ve been trying to get you to like seaweed...who knew all it took was a hospital stay?,” Mama joked. I remember the stinging of the creams on the first few days back. After a while, it didn’t sting anymore. I remember wondering if the light grey tinge was part of the healing process. I remember when my skin started flaking. It was excruciatingly itchy. Mama was at a loss for what to do, and my family doctor the same. She suggested moisturizing. I remember trying different methods and settling on a water bath at night when the itching was the worst. When I sit in the tub with my top submerged, I remember my dream, in the car. I remember holding my breath under water. Every night, the stopwatch would read a bigger number.
I remember all of this, but what I don’t remember, is when the gills appeared. Mama says she doesn’t know what I’m talking about, it’s like she can’t see it. But I can. One morning, they just appeared.
We started arguing more. Mama thought I was hallucinating. She didn’t believe me. I needed to make her believe me, so she would take me seriously. She said I was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, whatever that meant. I knew that if I could just show her that I can breathe underwater, she would have believed me. I didn’t make these gills up. I was not hallucinating. They were real. Mama told me to go towards her, that she could help me with the itching and the gills, and whatever else was troubling me if I’d just come home with her. She was saying that the cliff was really dangerous, she said “sweetie, just come down and we can figure it out together okay?” There was nothing to figure out. It was real. She wasn’t listening to me. It was real. I needed to prove to her it was all real.
Then the Rain Came Heather Haigh It was the flash of your red vest and the tinny words of a song I couldn’t quite decipher that pulled me back into the world. Just for a heartbeat. Just for a moment I recalled running with the sun on my back; just for a heartbeat you gave me myself. Arms pumping through treacling air, youth bursting from your face that glowed with determination; perspiration sheened your cheeks like dew on Honeycrisp apples. Dampness clumped your raven tresses into dishcloths clinging to your neck. I ran a hand down the crepe of my face then through the wisps of my grey hair. Red doesn’t suit me anymore. I saw you every morning for three weeks when inertia glued me to the window seat and the spring in your feet slowed to a thunking plod. You caught my glance. Forcing your hand to slice the weight of the air, you waved. I battled to raise the corners of my mouth against the weight of the world. As the lethargy wrapped me in its cloying embrace you trotted on. I saw no one else. I guess the quiet lane was your magnet. A vault of pure air between hilltops and wisps of alto cirrus on a fine day. You can see for miles from up here. Today the atmosphere hangs heavy, sandwiched between parched earth and cumulonimbus that greedily hoard their cargo. The two hulking sandstone houses with their imposing presence keep my squat little box company. Their occupants of course are always out doing important things. Or home doing important things. Or planning things that matter, things that give rhythm to their days, satisfaction to their evenings, and quietude to their slumber. They will have much to share about their day. Will they treasure those they share it with? Will they take the time to listen and squirrel each word away like acorns for winter? My bungalow is an afterthought separated from the family homes by a scrap of wasteland.
The heat grew riper, fuller, heavier. The world grew tired. Feet dragged. We dragged ourselves out of sticky clothes; nights dragged as we tossed off even the crumpled sheets.
Then the rain came.
Face pressed to the window. Breath misting the glass. The air crunches and crackles like stiff paper balls being rolled between giant fists. My finger traces the trickles. Soggy plops on the window sill break the rhythm of crisp tickly flicks on the pane. My mind is lulled into hushed observance. I watch the tips of swaying branches try to hold onto fat raindrops that are swelling into fertile orbs, pregnant with light and life. The world is grey. but grey is not dull. Grey is the place between night and morning, between slumber and bustle. The place between places. The rain brings a muffled pause of splishy-sploshy chuntering, where consciousness drifts and a new day is promised. Just a little more time before we can breathe freely again. Just a little more time until the sun breaks through and we can see the heavens. Grey is the time when demons are banished by the light and harshness is soothed by the shadows, where edges are blurred, where there is no demarcation of black and white, no you and me, only us. Maybe we are not so different. Maybe the years between us are but a heartbeat, the distance a step, the shapes of our lives drawn by the same hand. Maybe you sit by a window—watching the rain. My mind reaches out through the wall of water. Will you exhale warmth to make the transparent opaque, to blur the boundary? Will you draw a smiley face? Do you feel the pull, yearn to join the storm? Not to work, not to hurry, scurry, scramble or dash, but to dance— naked, arms outstretched, hair slick, feet glorying in the cool velvet
mud. I remember those yearnings. I remember strong limbs, admiring glances, the fiction of immortality. Do you recall a day when you were caught in a downpour and longed for a dry hearth: icy slaps to your face, miserable dribbles worming their way inside your collar, a new skin of matted hair, clinging cotton, and mizzle-laden woollens, wrapping every inch of you? Chaffing. Squelching. Plodding. Only one goal in your life—your own front door. Hell separated from heaven by a pane of glass. By luck or by choice. By acceptance. I will stay home today. I will watch the rain. I will be at peace. The sticky heat is banished, the syrup slides from the air, exhaustion washes away. We have no gills but the water lets us breathe. We have no roots but we watch the puddles form, seep away, nurture the soil, and our souls reach down, deep down into the earth, and find home. Night draws in and brings refreshing sleep. No more feverish tossing. No more reaching out across an empty bed. No more wondering if the end of the world is here. When the sun returns I know it is time. I take my good shoes from their place beside Frank’s in the understairs cupboard. I’m not ready for him to leave our forever home yet. The warm gentle sun is a caress I gratefully accept. The clean air is a draught that slakes my longing. A little. I have never walked this walk alone before. There is nobody by my side saying look, a yellowhammer, we haven’t seen one of those for a long while. But the song is almost as clear, and the plumage almost as striking. Nobody to marvel at the size of that dragonfly. Still, the insects glide by with majesty or scuttle about in their industry. The hills are steeper than I recall and I lean on my stick for support. The emptiness is vaster than I remember and the silence more complete. The road home is longer.
At length, my bungalow is in sight and there you are, feet springing you along the pavement. You wave. You flash me a red-lipped, gleaming-toothed greeting. The hand I raise trembles a little but my face remembers how to smile back. My walking shoes find a new spot in the hall. I’m not ready to clear that cupboard out yet. But I will, soon. And those wardrobes. Soon. Maybe then I’ll invite you in for tea. It would be good to have a little company. Before winter comes.