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NITROGEN HOUSE ZINE Visual art, poetry & prose

N1

CONTACT


This issue features work by: Robert Boucheron, Greta G., Andrew McNeil, Thomas King, Lorna Fraser, Tess Hunter, Ian Murray, Milos Katchkin, F. E. Clark, Rachael Tierney, Beth McDonough, Caitlin MacEwan, Gordon Meade, Lynn Valentine, Ellen Kirkman, Jay Whittaker, Laura-Jane Woods, Gerry Stewart, Kirsty A. Niven, Seth Crook & Jeni Fraser.


Contents Calling........................................................................................2 Case 63247................................................................................3 Contact Death..........................................................................6 Detail from Daily Painting 27th June 2017.........................9 Dreaming................................................................................10 Electrozoa...............................................................................11 Feedback.................................................................................14 Green.......................................................................................15 Intermittent Contact.............................................................16 Isla and Hypnos.....................................................................17 Laundry Day...........................................................................18 Leachkin Road.......................................................................19 Lord Octalian, First of His Name......................................20 Lost in Translation................................................................21 Lovesick..................................................................................23 March Emergence.................................................................24 Mothertouch..........................................................................25 Night Walker..........................................................................28 On Byres Road.......................................................................29 Skin Blind...............................................................................30 Skin to Skin............................................................................32 Slipping...................................................................................33 The Green Dress...................................................................34 The Watcher...........................................................................35 Zero Days...............................................................................38


Calling

by Kirsty A. Niven

The ring of the phone echoes, hollow, the black of night threatening to consume. Each ring takes me further from you, a catastrophic countdown beating, drumming. There is no answer. An hour on, the phone bursts to life, singing outs its rings in glory! I pick it up and in whispering French, hopes are crushed, fears animated – You’re really, truly dead.

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Case 63247

by Rachael Tierney

He was born under a clear sky, with no moon and low tides. I knew the circumstances because it was my first assignment and my eagerness propelled me to investigate further than most would. He didn’t have much of an education record beyond state-approved institutions, so I went to his neighbours (the ones from before his parents were promoted) and when I spoke to them about him, they all agreed that things were bad from the start. They were not surprised by what he had done. ‘It was very unusual,’ a female from across the street said. She was a deep shade of brown, with white speckles on her forearms. ‘Five eggs, and all of them grew to hatching.’ Five was certainly the largest surviving clutch I’d ever heard of. Anywhere from three to eight eggs in a spawn is considered ‘normal’, but few survive. The membranes are fragile and many are torn before development completes. Another female sat beside her, eyes clouded over with thick cataracts. ‘His father worked in aquaculture, with fish and crustaceans. He knew how to care for livestock, but he set up strange nooks around their home and moved the eggs too often. I peered in once and he’d placed them under a rotating lamp. Everyone knows you should keep spawn in a cool, dark space!’ ‘Their mother was away a lot, but I don’t think she would have stopped him even if she’d seen it,’ a third female added, her hair longer than most would keep it. It floated in the water around her and if she hadn’t been a pale shade of brown I may have mistaken her for a male. She crossed her arms over her chest and shrugged, ‘She worked with records, translating them. Who knows what for, but the cabinet thought it was good enough to give her all those grants.’ ‘The father too,’ the first said, nodding with her friends. ‘He was surprisingly intelligent – invented a lot of things, helped with 3


pests and such. Between them, the government was always granting boons.’ ‘They became well-off very quickly. They didn’t stay here long.’ ‘They were too good for us.’ ‘But the eggs,’ I reminded. ‘All five of them actually hatched? Which one was he?’ ‘The first,’ a male told me, doubled over as he checked the plants in his rockery. Like me he was brightly coloured– a mix of blues and greens that had yet to dim with age. His scales were slick, his neck was slim, and he wore matrimonial jewels in his hair. I was young and unspoken for; had woken up early to grab the first transport out of the city and hadn’t bothered to brush my hair. I felt meek in his presence and kept my eyes down, trained on my recorder as it transcribed his words, the mechanism punching symbols into the thick, waxy parchment. ‘He hatched days before the others. Almost a week. The mother came to check but the rest still had healthy skins, so she went back to work.’ He shook his head, lip curling (even I had to admit the idea of a female dismissing an early hatcher as nothing was unsettling) but before I could ask more his wife returned and he excused himself dutifully. My elder brother was an early-hatcher too; dead long before my sister and I arrived. His fate was a peaceful one, my parents told us. Better to die young than have the omen manifest in later life – as addiction, civil disobedience or uncontrollable rage. ‘They were a nice lot,’ the females chattered, happy to speak for longer because their husbands were long dead. ‘Very beautiful children. Two males, very pretty colours, and three females who looked strong.’ ‘He had lovely big eyes.’ ‘Shyer than the rest. ‘Yes, I never heard him speak or saw him swim. He always held onto his mother’s skirts.’ ‘Then there was the spill…’ The female with cataracts leaned over and whispered under her breath, voice uneasy. ‘He started changing colour.’ 4


After some research I discovered that the spill they spoke of was from above. A well-documented agricultural mishap on land, from farmers who had recently discovered a bespoke fuel source for their machinery. It was messy, inefficient and would run out in a matter of generations, but they still use it to this day. ‘Changing colour?’ I asked, thrown by the implication. ‘The chemicals,’ the speckled female said, rolling an ache out of her neck. Another lifted a hand without request, squeezing across her friend’s broad shoulder to ease the muscles. ‘The spill seeped into the rocks, trickled into our ocean. He must have come into contact with it somehow. None of the other children were affected, but the timing is too convenient. I remember – two or three weeks after the spill, that’s when it first became apparent.’ ‘He started going pale,’ one explained. And although I recall those words so clearly, I can’t recall who spoke them. Cataracts, long hair, speckled, it could have been any of them. ‘He wasn’t right after that. They took him to the city quick and we never saw him again – except for the photo at his mother’s promotion.’ ‘He’s at the back, covered to the neck and wrists.’ ‘Such a shame.’ ‘Should have put him down. It was cruel to pretend it wasn’t happening. A thing like that is never confined to the skin either – it would have been in the brain too. I can’t blame him for what he did…’ Some nights, when my mind is noisy, I look down at my arm and try to imagine the colours changing. When I think of him I find myself struck by sadness and I am haunted by low tides, early-hatchers and chemical infections. My interviews were never published by the cabinet and were never used as evidence in his posthumous trial. When others think of him all they know of is the bomb he planted and the damage he caused. Too few think of the damage caused to him.

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Contact Death by Milos Katchkin

As the white Pontiac’s bumper slammed into Paul, he felt the wind knock out of his chest and his ribs give out. Last night’s alcohol, insomnia and his bad lifestyle had all come together to make his thoughts sluggish. He should have been paying more attention when he crossed the street. As the car faded from Paul’s vision he was greeted with absolute black - the kind that you knew was there only because of the absence of all light. ‘So, this is what it’s like to die,’ Paul said to himself, his voice echoing. He closed his eyes and settled into the void. Nothing but him, blackness, a walrus and all eternity. Wait. He looked again. There were two walruses now. Both looked perfectly at home; in their natural environment, sitting on a London taxi, Bavarian folk music playing from the speakers. A line of cancan dancers came in from the side. The air was rich with the scent of grilled meat and new car. Blackness was replaced with geometric shapes and colours. The afterlife exploded in a cacophony of sight, smell and sound. ‘This is what the afterlife is like?’ thought Paul. ‘Man, we were way off the mark.’ He had no idea how long it lasted but just as suddenly as it started, all the madness disappeared and static replaced everything. Everything except the sound of someone screaming: ‘GOD DAMN IT. DAMN IT, DAMN IT!’ The static disappeared and Paul saw he was standing in a metal room. He touched his body to confirm he was still in fact there. He suddenly realised he was dressed in nothing more than a pair of grey baggy boxers. Not dead though, so still winning in the long run. He heard a door behind him slide open. As he whipped around 6


he saw a short, grey humanoid with a disproportionately large head. He was wearing what looked to be an expensive silk suit. It was tailored. Any other day, Paul’s brain would have broken entirely - however, after what he had just seen, a familiar grey alien was a welcome sight. He greeted it cheerfully and stuck out his hand for a shake. The alien seemed taken back at first, then very pleased. He puffed out his chest and grabbed Paul’s hand to give him a firm, but not too firm, handshake back. Finally, the grey humanoid spoke. ‘Good to finally meet you, Paul. I’m so happy that my star employee is keen to meet me. I apologise for the malfunction; a technician is sorting it out.’ ‘Excuse me? Star employee?’ said Paul. ‘Oh well, you got me. Only employee, and employee implies I pay you but, hey - details.’ Paul stared at the alien stupidly. Now that the madness of the afterlife had died down, it was beginning to dawn on him how crazy the whole situation was. ‘I should explain. You are employee number 000001. You are the first human to meet any of us.’ Paul continued to stare. The alien seemed puzzled at Paul’s silence but moved along anyway. ‘We ran across your planet and instantly saw its value. Nature has a place for everything. We’re just feeding into your natural tendencies.’ ‘I don’t understand,’ Paul said weakly. The alien looked behind Paul absentmindedly. ‘Think of a goat eating grass. The goat is going to eat grass anyway so why not have it mow a lawn? Put it to use? That’s why we picked you to be the first, Paul. Degrees in computing and data analytics, scrabble champion, city council secretary. You live to sort information. We just made you sort useful things.’ Paul’s stomach dropped out from beneath him. ‘How long have I been here?’ ‘About six years,’ the grey-headed being said proudly. ‘It was my 7


idea actually. The trick was to feed you information in a large range of ways, so that you wouldn’t even realise what you were doing. A sudoku puzzle here, a recaptcha there. Such small tasks done hundreds of times a day for years. Anything bigger and we’d just give it to you at work. Your wife was there to keep you on track if you ever thought of changing jobs or if you weren’t meeting productivity rates. I must say, you exceeded all our expectations.’ Paul was light headed. Sarah was fake? A part of him always knew meeting someone at a boggle tournament was too good to be true but he never expected to be right about it. The alien continued ‘I just need to change the parameters of the simulation so you can’t die so easily next time and then I think we can roll this out on a large scale! Much more efficient to have thousands of people per simulation you see. Our clients will be so pleased.’ Paul couldn’t form words. He felt a sudden, burning hot anger and lunged for the alien, but with one flick of its long grey finger he was pressed up against the wall. The world faded and he heard the alien say something about reporting him to HR. He was unconscious. Paul ate breakfast before saying bye to Sarah. He slipped on his coat and got on the train for work. He sat down, unfolded his paper and began to do the quiz. ‘Which of the following statements would provide the most comfort after a company lost your private information?’ Man, these were getting tougher... ‘The number of the chair on page 14 that is most appealing to a humanoid?’ Some of them looked like they weren’t even designed for people! He pressed on, Sarah had mentioned redecorating the house and the prize this week was a bath-store gift card. He smiled to himself as he watched the rolling hills outside the train window. It felt like today was going to be a good day.

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Detail from Daily Painting 27th June 2017 by F. E. Clark

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Dreaming

by Rachael Tierney

You won’t know this but I dreamt of you last night. That we were sitting, side by side. Our faces touching; kissing like we used to, long ago. I thought: I’m glad this is back. And then woke to remember the choices made.

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Electrozoa

by Robert Boucheron

The virtual city of Electrozoa is the first, and so far as the analogue world can tell, the only urban settlement in cyberspace. Online chatrooms, computer game role play, pseudonyms, avatars, and digital personae existed before, but they were imitations, stand-ins for people. The ‘places’ created by programmers and gamers were flat drawings, and the ‘action figures’ who fought and died and triumphed online were cartoon characters. Electrozoans differ from their supposed precursors, those primitive screen names and blurred images, in that they arose independently, unbidden by human intention. Self-generated and autonomous beings, they are free citizens of their brand-new city. But without substance or form, unsusceptible of graphic representation, they are difficult to conceptualize. Are they big or small, happy or sad, liberal or conservative? Electrical impulses travel where they will, as induced current through a copper wire, or over a wave of electromagnetic radiation. The life they carry, like the frogs and fish and tiny organisms found in a brook, is an exercise of pure volition. Even the cyberbots of Lugnutton, endowed with artificial intelligence, those drudges who outnumber their inventors, consist of circuitry and algorithms. They are conscious but not sentient—they cannot feel what we humans recognize as pain or desire. Electrozoans are assemblages of code that pursue their own agenda. They behave, in short, like strings of DNA. Do these beings made of positive and negative charges, depending on their net balance, wish us well or ill? From his chair of noetics in the University of Scholasticorum, Dr. Todd Rickshaw pooh-poohs any challenge from ‘smart’ robots, however swiftly they calculate. He is equally unruffled by a threat from Electrozoa, whose inhabitants communicate to us and to each other in the Lugnut language: 11


Could they think of no better way to express themselves? In their pale, digital underworld of ones and zeros, Electrozoans are as banal as the dots and dashes of Morse Code. They amount to no more than strings of messages, dumps of data, and lists of files. Numerical and empirical, they are emails sent by talkative toddlers, full of repetition and nonsense. At best, they sound like the faint ringing one hears at idle moments in the inner ear. This artificial intelligence is like Macbeth’s soliloquy, a tale told by an idiot. The city has an advocate in Liliane Faye, who has researched computer gremlins, glitches, and the unknown ways in which the denizens of cyberspace may affect our lives. Faye has received messages from an entity that calls itself Hglaff, in lieu of its extremely long serial number. Hglaff explains that Electrozoa began as a loose association of like-minded beings, a tribal potlatch in the campground of the ether. Like the Icelandic parliament called the Althing, it met in an open landscape, with the sky for a roof and no protocol but nature, figuratively speaking. When the electronic beings saw the advantages of information sharing, they voted to make the meetup regular. Rules for interaction were set, and zones of occupation were drawn. They founded institutions that correspond to a market, a court of arbitration, and a central repository. In the blink of an eye, these social relationships acquired a structure, invisible to us but real enough. What else is a city but the manifestation of a permanent social structure? Hglaff, as channelled by Faye, disavows any malicious intent on the part of its co-beings. Unlike fairies, imps, and spirits, they do not meddle in human affairs. In fact, hard though it may be to believe, the Electrozoans have little interest in us. They are far more excited about each other and the ways they might collaborate. Faye admits this comes as disappointing news. ‘Hglaff is quite wrapped up in itself, the way a brilliant child will rattle on, and when you stop listening, harangue imaginary friends.’ 12


A single contact may give a false impression, Faye admits. As for human safety, online threats, internet skirmishes, and all-out cyberwar, who can tell? Hglaff may lull us into a false sense of security. Then, when they think the time is ripe, the alien horde will strike! How many inhabitants does Electrozoa have? What do they make or do? How do they spend what would seem to be a superabundance of spare time, and what are their leisure amusements? Do they have a religion, an ethical code, a worship rite, or a sense of something higher? Do they conceive of themselves as gods? The city has no physical presence, other than data stored in millions of computers and servers. It truly is an invisible empire. Like a town at a river crossing or a village on a seacoast, it may develop as a port, a point of transfer or telecommunication between our world and the cyber realm. That would depend, of course, on whether we discover a mutual need, a basis for trade. Faye believes that in time the city will reach out. ‘An exchange of some kind will happen,’ she says, ‘and it will surprise us all.’

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Feedback by Ian Mur ray

In front of Customer First a tree strung down like Gulliver carries promises like a year of shining eyes. Like an earthbound rocket ship awaits a future day it’ll be empowered to go live. There’s been a cull of leaflets. A board of takeaways used to squat, in crude colours of past decades. Instead of focussing the camera locks on a uniform button that looms large and hazy as a planet. Time is spent on pastel walls and seats to revamp pallid themes front of house. Outside that space facade reflections spawn grotesques. Cars turn around in polished dark with resized shapes to fit a mirror world. Surveys show how more and less can be the same, squared with questions led along flowchart corridors where generations of statements have been processed and sense-checked and data fields are harvested like trust.

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Green

by Beth McDonough

That man who fell through skies to helter down a holly tree believes every leaf barbed him equally. Science says not. Officially: only when his skelter shrubbed under greedy deer’s browse-height would that evergreen spike hard. But where are those suburban fawns who undercover guzzle thickly greens? What might that man who fell through skies to helter down a holly tree know that science and I can not?

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Intermittent Contact by Ian Mur ray

I’ve read the chronicles of monks that caught first the fiery edge of sight, the trembling, then a vacant stare as parchment seas drew back and fervent rays cooled and left a world to night. And felt modern notes, from antipodes, resound like history unearthed in a huddled flat. Then I recall the grounds of Jodrell Bank. The scholar sat in his chair in the park. The lights went up when that talk was cut in the loneliness of the growing dark that embraced a dish set up to display, even receive, the universe in a narrow way. But now, even if no effects are spared, my mind is on scenes the greater world forgot.

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Isla and Hypnos by Gordon Meade

As long as she is awake, she is as light as a feather or, maybe an amalgam of feathers, the wing of a bird or, perhaps, the whole bird itself, as she flies effortlessly around the living room, supported by her mother’s arms. As she begins to enter the realm of sleep, she becomes heavier and heavier until, when she finally closes her eyes, she is, as her mother pronounces nothing but a dead weight. And yet, it was only death’s brother who had touched her. Her face is like that of the living Buddha. She is a sentient being at rest. No-one will ever know the dreams that she leaves behind her as she, with her eyes wide open, re-enters ours.

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Laundry Day by Lynn Valentine

Barefoot we stood, heads touching hands together, a kiss of cloth. Then out again, a kind of dance til’ all was done, no kisses left. Only the brush of cool in the night, the tuck of your absent hands.

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Leachkin Road by Lynn Valentine

The push and pull of morning wakes him. Later this low sun will bake the glass, gobble up the hospital in a headache of heat. But now the day is shackled by his shame. The nurse’s knock admits his failure, her hasty gait places guilt on his anchored limbs. A glass of tea reminds him of the world’s contact, black tannin tethers him to the day.

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20

by Thomas King

Lord Octalian, First of His Name


Lost in Translation by Jeni Fraser

Physical contact has always been a strange concept to me. The smallest gestures like hands brushing can mean so much coming from the right person. A hug or a kiss from the wrong person can leave you numb. Contact can be something people shy away from or it can be something people crave. It can become an addiction. I must be a robot. A sociopath. I never crave that contact that other people seem to desperately need. My friend once said I look like a cuddler and I scoffed. It’s not something necessary for me to exist. I am content. But then I saw your face and something weird happened. I can’t recall the first time; it feels like it’s been burned into my mind for an eternity. I don’t know of a time that I didn’t have the freckles on your face mapped out like a constellation. Maybe it’s because your beauty transcends anything I could have ever dreamed into existence. You have this ethereal quality about you; like an angel. How does everyone not come to a standstill just to see you smile? I could lose hours just staring at you alone. To me, you are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever laid eyes on. And I start to wonder to myself... is this what everyone talks about? I’m not naïve enough to convince myself this is anything more than a feeling but suddenly the thought of your hand brushing against mine, however momentarily, makes my heart want to do somersaults. I imagine what it would feel like to be hugged by you. To have traces of your scent on me. You text me with an ‘x’ at the end. A fleeting gesture - you hit send oh so casually - but my heart races all night as my mind tries to decipher what it means. My mind clears when I log into reality. It’s them you stand beside in pictures. It’s them you have your arm around for the world to see. It’s their hand you hold and their body you hug. So I settle for some21


thing less, but something nonetheless - in this social media paradise, where I’m allowed to marvel at your face for hours, I can pretend that I mean something to you; more than just a like or a comment. But if anyone ever asks, please know that this is all nonsense. I don’t like you. I only know your name through a friend of a friend. I don’t know your favourite music. Or your sister’s name. I never overheard what makes your heart roar with passion. I don’t know what keeps you awake at night or what makes you cry in the shower. And I don’t care. Because I don’t need the contact; I’m happier alone. If I do find myself typing your name into my phone in the middle of the night, to see what you’ve been up to lately, please don’t think it means anything. I’m just curious. Not that you’ll read this. We’re not in contact.

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Lovesick

by Ellen Kirkman

I love you. I let the words trickle like an intravenous drip in to your veins. You are starved sick, desperate for attention; you drink me in devouring my senses. I am blinded by you. Your brightness in my bleak world outshines all that is close, and I am consumed by light. My only desire is to be near your warmth, to feel the fire in you that has ignited. I am deaf to the warnings from friends from family, who fear for my safety: my sanity. They can no longer reach me. There is no touch that could calm me or reassure me that I am whole without you. We are one. If there was room, I would crawl beneath your skin. 23


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by Set h Cro ok

March Emergence


Mothertouch by Greta G.

One of the local mothers sat down on the bench next to her and K discreetly wiped her tears, keeping her face low. Children played in the distance, their laughter piercing the bright summer sky. ‘It’s beautiful weather today, isn’t it?’ K said. From the corner of her eye she glimpsed long black hair swaying as the stranger nodded in response. ‘Which one is yours?’ K asked and the woman pointed at a group of faceless boys climbing the monkey bars. K didn’t care enough to ask her to specify; her own daughter was playing somewhere too far for her to see. The pair fell quiet again and K was left to wallow in her sorrow. After the events of that morning, there was no going back. She would have to leave her husband, move to a new town, find a new apartment and a new job. The idea of starting again filled her with crippling fear. ‘Have you ever thought about…’ K said, hungry for a connection ‘…about leaving everything behind? To leave your current life and start somewhere new?’ She didn’t have the courage to face the other woman directly, embarrassed by her blotchy tear-stained cheeks. But when the dark figure nodded, K felt braver. ‘When I was seven my mother…she left us. Packed her bags one night and when I woke up in the morning she was gone.’ K folded up on herself ‘It was so incredibly selfish. I hated her for so long, thinking she was a coward. But now, when I look back on it, wasn’t she actually incredibly brave? Leaving her whole life behind and never once hesitating, never once giving in and coming back. That requires courage. I don’t think I could do that.’ No. That wasn’t true. K froze when she realised that. A small niggling voice in her mind reminded her that she did leave. She escaped her husband and her old life, many years ago. 25


What she was experiencing now, it was a memory or a dream of something that had already happened. She’d sat in this playground twenty years ago and made the decision to leave. A sense of wrongness filled her stomach as K began to remember. Some memories came easy- her work as a marine biologist, the beautiful sights of exotic planets, faces of her colleagues and friendswhile some remained just out of reach. How did she get here? Was she back on Earth? With horror, K realised that she couldn’t even remember her own name. But one thing was sure- that summer day on the playground when she made the decision to leave her family behind- there hadn’t been a stranger sitting next to her on the bench. She had been alone. With slow careful movements K turned around and faced the thing pretending to be a mother. At first glance the creature looked human; a tall skinny woman with black hair and long coat looking down at her with unblinking eyes. But the longer K stared the more the image shifted; like a flitting veil covering the creature’s true face, it moved back and forth, distorting the pulsing features. ‘What are you?’ she whispered. The inner voice tied to her memories told her that if she made any contact with the thing sitting next to her, something horrible would happen. But even as the thought registered, K was overcome by a strange mix of attraction and repulsion. The creature very slowly shifted its arms, angling its elongated body to face her directly. It was almost as if it was offering an embrace. And when she realised that, K was swallowed by an illogical urge to bury her face into the creature’s pale neck, to press her cheek against its hair and let herself melt into the alien darkness. The urge was so strong that she grew light-headed and gripped the edge of the bench, leaning away. There had to be a reason why she couldn’t touch the creature. The warning of no contact must have come from her colleagues. It took enormous effort to disentangle herself from the creature’s 26


gaze and look away. She didn’t have the energy to stand so K stared at the playing children instead, conscious of the pulsing foreign presence next to her. The running faceless shapes distorted each time she fully focused on them and K was beginning to realise that the playground wasn’t a memory or a dream but an illusion of some kind; a world that has been created specifically for her. She struggled to locate her daughter and opened her mouth to call out her name, only to realise that she’d forgotten it. Twenty years ago she left the playground without that last glimpse, sparing herself the guilt of seeing her daughter’s crying face. And yet, as if summoned by her thoughts, a familiar face peeked from behind a slide, grinning at her. Her daughter’s cheeks were dirty, pigtails slightly askew from that morning. Time stopped. Their eyes met and for a short surreal moment K felt as if she was both the mother abandoning her child and the child being abandoned by her mother. Then her daughter ran after the group of faceless children and the moment passed. The brief glance stole all of K’s willpower. She collapsed against the back of the bench, turning her head towards the creature. The tall presence was watching her with kind eyes, its mouth opened into a grotesque black yawn, swallowing its whole face. Its arms were still open, waiting for K to move closer. The thought of pressing herself against the creature filled her with syrupy bliss. Her whole life, she’d avoided contact of any kind, running away from anything resembling a lasting human connection. But when faced with this wordless invitation, K realised that there wasn’t anything she craved more. Using her last remaining energy, K leaned forward and buried her face in the creature’s neck. Two arms wrapped around her and she was gone.

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Night Walker by Jay Whittaker

I give up on sleep. Outside, I walk away from electric glare into moonlit monochrome. Fluttering wings an owl’s contralto circling widely overhead: right ear, left ear. I sense presence: a tabby at my heels, as pleased as me for company. I crouch, stroke — claws needle as it crawls up my arm, drapes itself in the nape of my neck, and that’s enough to stand up taller, fearless in the pitch, Leviathan with purring feline head.

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On Byres Road by Laura-Jane Woods

Eyes that dance with silent laughter There you stand Lighting up the grey afternoon on Byres Road, Ready To be entertained. I steal an unwitting glance, put it in a locked box alongside A first tear, a flick of hair, a sea view of Skala and a coral coloured fingernail. Secrets hoarded away. I shall not share. From the Oran Mor to the Botanics We walk in balmy hues Capturing each moment, immortalised, In your camera roll. And I watch you. A headshot. Named from the silver screen. Somewhere ice-cream bells play silvery tunes Of Pachelbel’s canon. From Byres road to Kelvingrove we retraced steps Made months earlier; This time in earnest Without the rain we wander, side by side Carmen dances beautifully Arresting you And I know that feeling well, snap my own instamatic shot Listening to the music that pours from your mouth Each word a new note for this coda.

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Skin Blind by Tess Hunter

He had locked himself in his study, sealed the lock with a key and pushed his desk against the frame. Moons rose and suns fell and he ignored the pleas. His advisors, his priests, his own children. All were sent from the door with a bark and a crash of fist against wood. Only his wife was brave enough to withstand the bellows. She whispered at him through the keyhole and he felt her words as he had felt the ooze of the witch’s touch. A hand on his arm, fingertips over his brow, a palm down his chest. Dayas squeezed his eyes shut. ‘Be gone, Auretta.’ He stripped. Threw off the crown and unfastened his waistcoat. Kicked off his boots and breeches. The brush of cotton and silk against his skin was too much. The hairs on his calves, his chest, his knuckles—too much. He stood naked in front of the firelight and endured the heat. Waited for it to catch and crisp. When that failed, he stood rigid until the flame turned to ember and the chill of the marble walls had seeped into his bones. Then he rang for more wood. He ordered the servant to leave it, pressed his ear to the door and waited for the pitter-pat of retreating footsteps. Then he slipped, still naked, into the hall and retrieved his prize.  So it went for another six-day. Wood and blaze and ash. Pressing ever closer, edging back just before he burned, until he could no longer feel the difference between warmth and chill and he put his clothes back on and opened the door.  Things were not the same.  Auretta’s belly had swelled enough to span the front of her gown. The sight of it mocked him and he avoided looking whenever possible. When night came and they laid down to share their bed, Dayas stared across the valley of quilt to his beautiful wife and swallowed back bile. He watched her, wide-eyed in the dark, until her long lashes fluttered down over her cheeks. Then he slid from the bed and 30


went to sit by the smoking grate. As months passed, the belly grew and grew. And Dayas shrank and shrank. He flinched from every touch, ignored every entreating eye, avoided prayer and cleansing and banished the servants meant to dress him. His skin grew numb, blind to contact. When Auretta sat by the fire one brisk fall afternoon, knitting a coronation blanket and gasped, hand to her gut, and said, ‘Dayas, it’s kicking,’ he left the room. ‘I miss my husband.’  She said it to the dark. To the canopy above their unsleeping eyes. The distance in the bed had grown. He wondered if she had gone as numb as he. ‘So do I.’ But she was not a selfish woman. She did not ask again. She went to her birthing bed without asking. She screamed up at the ceiling, hands clenched into fists on sheets when they should have been wound in his. Even as the blood soaked the mattress, as her blinks turned slow and her breathing unsteady—even then she only managed his name. And still, there was no question in it.  Dayas sat beside the stiffening corpse until the dim hours of the morning. He watched her face become less and less hers, stiffened and brittle, and only when he was trembling from the guilt of what he’d done, did he lay his hand over hers. It was cold.

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Skin to Skin

by Andrew McNeil

Shirt off, mother resting In pain, relieved, tired. He is mine now, Biding on ma bare chest, legs going like pistons A new-born ruby limpet. Like his big brither A generation ago nativity All time seems to run through. Wiser, richer, stronger? Hooks I brush away Still shirtless. He kicks and looks and kicks And looks and kicks away.

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Slipping

by Ger r y Stewart

We break through the snow and firn to the glacial ice below: introduce ourselves, ask our children’s names and ages. I answer the ubiquitous questions: where I’m from, how long our family is staying. Then the expanse, dry tundra silence. I attempt to navigate the crevasses, fill them with the mundane titbits we all share, but my unexercised voice unfoots me. My loneliness bubbles up, the ice sizzle, adrenaline-fired, cracking, echoing. Words arc across the divide and disappear, unwarmed, sliding me further away.

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The Green Dress by F. E. Clark

I waited so long for spring to come, no hope through winter a longing for salad. Suddenly summer’s here and I’m turned to stone, still hibernating in winter mode. Stuck. Bracken, trees and grass, my house lost in the weeds green cottage dressed. Earth’s rhythm continuing, whilst I am a statue. Stone. Bare and cold and lichen clad, alone I wait beneath a verdant curtain the season’s turn. Bathed in lushness – light shines, through the cracks, finding me. Awakening.

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The Watcher by Lorna Fraser

I see everything. I’m very good that way. I take note in my mind never write anything down you don’t want used as evidence - the departures and the arrivals, the regulars and the transients. My chair is positioned at an angle to allow me to see the span of the street with a mere tilt or turn of my neck. The window is in three sections. A bay window my Mam always called it. Not all the houses have bay windows in our street. Only the better ones, those built for a more affluent class of person. Our house is almost one hundred and twenty-three years old. My Mam always said they knew how to build properly in those days. None of that prefab nonsense that she had to grow up in and not like the boxes that are sprouting like mushrooms on the green fields at the edge of town. I wouldn’t fancy one of those. Because of the incident, I have been told I could get a bungalow specially accommodated for me. No thank you. I have lived in this house all my life. To be anywhere else would be no more than a waiting room for death. I’m not afraid of dying. When Mam went she just let her head sink deeper into the pillow and all the air breathed out her. I watched her go. I sat with her for quite some time, maybe two, maybe three days. When you find a dead mouse, you will see how its body has kind of deflated, only an empty fur suit caught in a trap. Mam’s face went quite grey and flat too. The postman has taken to parking his van in front of Mrs Mackay’s house. He does one half of the street and then comes back to refill his bag. His van is there for at least thirty minutes. Mrs Mackay could choose to come out and I wouldn’t even know till she is already headed for the bus stop. She never learned to drive. She sold Mr Mackay’s car, thirteen days after he died. Mam said at the time she could have at least offered us first refusal, that there was low mileage and Mr Mackay washed it every other day 35


whether it needed a doing or not. Mrs Mackay’s got three grown up children. They all visit her in a rota system. I worked that out quite quickly. They bring grand-children. The young ones are harder to tell apart. The last time I spoke to Mrs Mackay was at Mam’s funeral, three years, seven months and approximately two weeks ago. I was shaking everyone’s hands – I kept my gloves on – and she looks down at me and says she supposes I will sell the house now. Bloody cheek! She doesn’t like that I sit here every day and take note. I am the longest resident of this street. So naturally, I bear the weight of my role. Mr Mackay’s car was a red ford fiesta. It never suited him. My car was white, a dreadful colour for showing the dirt. I only had it for thirty-six weeks and two days. Then the incident happened. I suppose it was after that I knew for certain I would be living in this house forever. Mam and me, we looked after each other. My groceries get delivered once a week. I can’t depend on it being the same Tesco driver, though they might as well be. They never want to put the bags in the kitchen. They do it anyway because they don’t want a guilty conscience. They look at my chair instead of my eyes. They glance at the stairs - dark oak, more dust than polish – they think what a waste that I never go up there. All that I need is right here in this front room. My daily commute is to the kitchen, to the downstairs toilet and back to my special spot by the window. The wheels of my chair run like a train on a track, following a line between shadowy dirt sidings. I see everything. The postman drove off half an hour ago. Another car has pulled up to the same space. A flash, silver thing. This man in a suit has opened the boot and taken out a sign on a stick. He’s nailing it to Mrs Mackay’s gatepost. For sale! Well, well, I bet her grown up children are making her do that. Now he is pacing up and down the street, talking on his phone, one hand waving about as if the person he’s talking to can see him. Crossing the road now, stopping, shaking his head, turning back, 36


standing right in the middle of the road, looking. Looking right at me! Now he is coming closer, to the left, he’s reached my gate. Out of sight for a second because of the tall hedge – I need to make an adjustment to my chair – now he is on my path. He’s coming to my front door. After the incident, I was in hospital for a long time. Finally, I got home and a week later this man came to our door. He had a shiny suit too, said he could help me, get me compensation. Mam said he was nothing but a conman. My doorbell rings, once, twice. I do not move. Sure enough, after a moment he is back in view. He sees me. I see him. He takes one step towards the window. Stops, pulls his phone from his pocket, begins talking, turns away. I watch him get into his car. I manoeuvre into the hall. I use my picky stick to get the card lying behind the letterbox. I tear it into confetti. I would say approximately once a month someone or other will contact me with an offer to buy my house. It is the best placed one on the whole street. In my chair, at my window, I see everything.

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Zero Days

by Caitlin MacEwan

It had been six years since Iaso last had physical contact, a fact she was proud of. Even then, it was in a sterile unit with a doctor. If that was discounted it was another seven, essentially from when she had been able to move to a major city. In the years since, the city had become an almost flawless system with mandatory isolation suits in public and every flat complete with an anti-contamination porch that ensured the living spaces were clean. The statistics for disease and hygiene levels between cities like the one Iaso adored and archaic country towns were truly staggering, enough to keep her from physically visiting her family at all. They came to her every few years, but by the time they got clearance into the city and rented isolation suits, the two-week holidays were little more than five days. She appreciated the effort, but video-calls were really sufficient. A favourite aspect of city life for Iaso was the Wireless: a virtual reality network that both connected major business and allowed for safe socialisation; important meetings, birthday parties, and consequence-free raucous weekends were available. Even simulated sex was possible (and common), without the risk of an unwanted pregnancy or disease. It was popular enough to include most citizens, an access point standard in almost every home. It began as an ordinary night, with Iaso more than ready for some time on the Wireless. She’d completed her work quota for the day, statistically analysing data for the government, and had felt a tension headache beginning. She set a drink and nutrition packet next to her access point and perched on the edge of the seat, consuming both with minimal fuss before reclining into the familiar position. She relaxed when the pin-prick sensation of her nervous system being accessed shivered across her body, and then it faded as the virtual world pieced around her. In mere minutes it had loaded and she was free to pick a hub. She selected the government employee ‘building’ 38


to drink with some of her colleagues and friends, listen to the hum of music and smoke a few cigarettes. It was an easy few hours; she kissed a handsome man at the bar and added him to her contact list to meet another day. She moved on after that, staring idly over the transparent menu and trying to decide her next location; it was a toss-up between the park or a long drive. Her hands froze in their wavering when she saw a flicker across the landscape. The second time it happened she knew for certain something was off. She immediately tapped her shoulders twice with the opposite hand: the quick-exit shortcut. As the world shed around her, she tried to take in as much of her apartment as she could. She felt the last probes leave her body just as someone popped into her field of view. ‘Good! I didn’t know how to peel you off that bed of nails.’ In her apartment, breathing her air, was a woman. Iaso felt her pulse sky-rocket and she sat up slowly, ‘No.’ Without a thought, the intruder touched her back to steady her, putting her ungloved hand on her bare shoulder. Iaso flinched, her reactions dulled by the wake-up process of using the Wireless. Disgust flared up, alongside the desire to wash herself immediately, but something else ached. ‘Ah, yes. You’re neurotic about your touch records.’ A laugh, light and airy. ‘Out,’ Iaso mumbled, and then strengthened it, ‘Get out!’ ‘Too late. You’re next on the list for rescuing.’ Iaso looked up at the woman who wasn’t clean, was even sweaty, with short, vagabond-ish hair and an upbeat attitude completely at odds with Iaso’s crumbling life. ‘I’m fine – safe.’ Iaso tried something else, something softer: ‘Please, just leave. Please.’ That got her a gentler look from the intruder, ‘Wheels are in motion, sorry. But listen, it’s not bad. I’m Pearl and once we’re out of here, I’ll answer whatever questions you have.’ Iaso shuddered, still feeling a lingering sensation from the other’s touch. She rose to her feet, realising that physically she couldn’t win, 39


but there had to be an alternative. ‘I can give you money, and I won’t report this breach.’ ‘First of all, you would report me as soon as I was out of the room,’ Pearl didn’t seem phased by this as she grinned, offering Iaso what she momentarily thought was her isolation suit, but was in fact just a cloth robe, ‘Secondly, we have money already. Put this on if you don’t want touched.’ Iaso took the robe gingerly, looking over it for any obvious signs of dirt before she pulled it on. Anything was better than her skin directly being contaminated by this woman. ‘I know it’s hard, but try to relax,’ Pearl checked her watch and stood close; so close that Iaso couldn’t help but lean away. ‘We’re going back to base. We gotta break out. Then we can talk properly.’ ‘Base? Talk about what? Surely, this is a misunderstanding-’ Pearl started to count down. ‘Three, two…’ Iaso was pulled against Pearl’s side, and the other woman's thick jacket began to ripple from a sudden wind. Metal began to cocoon them quickly, a soft ‘shhct’ as panels slotted into place. ‘…one. Now, hold on tight.’ As the last light was blocked out, Iaso felt a hard jolt. Whatever they were in was pulled through the wall, then the air, and she instinctively clung to the only stable thing she could - Pearl. And some part of her, that she considered dirty and primitive, thought that maybe being touched wasn’t so bad after all.

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Thanks to all our incredible contributors.

Nitrogen House Zine, Issue 1: Contact Edited & designed by: Rachael Tierney Nitrogen House is a publishing initiative based out of Ross-Shire county in the Scottish Highlands. If you are interested in submitting to the next issue, please keep in touch through social media where we post our themes and deadlines: Facebook - www.facebook.com/nitrogenhouse Twitter & Instagram - @nitrogenhouse


Nitrogen House nitrogenhouse@gmail.com ROSS-SHIRE, SCOTLAND

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N1 - Contact  

The début issue of Scottish-based Nitrogen House Zine. The theme of 'Contact' collects 25 pieces over 40 pages (3 photographs, 8 stories and...

N1 - Contact  

The début issue of Scottish-based Nitrogen House Zine. The theme of 'Contact' collects 25 pieces over 40 pages (3 photographs, 8 stories and...

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