February 2016 Issue 4
A review of Novlr An interview with Cameron Grace Poetry and Prose: Reece Dinn, Richard Spalding, Elizabeth Gibson and Claire Sexton.
Note from the Editor Hey reader, A lot has happened in the past three months. I started as the photographer for this magazine, but I have risen to a challenge, and now I am Editor in Chief. I love working with this team and have met them all except the newbies. We have a tour planned this summer and are looking for performance poets to join us. If interested please email: email@example.com for more details. I really hope you enjoy this issue, it has been crazy in the office and I am thankful to everyone who has helped and makes this issue happen. Congratulations to our resident illustrator, Dave Crane. Also Gavin Jordan on his role as Poetry Editor. Glad to have you both on the team. Enjoy! Meg Editor in Chief Under The Fable.
graphic short On Fire Page 4-6
Dave Crane & Paul Want
Poetry Page 8 Page 9 Page 10 Page 11 Page 12 Page 13 Page 14 Page 16 Page 17 Page 18 Page 19 Page 20 Page 22 Page 23
Miriam Calleja Fred LaManna Claire Sexton Doc Wallace Joe Currie Elizabeth Gibson Catherine Hickford Ellen Davies Robert Reeves Miguel Pascual Barry Woods Hannah Chutzpah Gareth Davey Hugh Leroy
Map on her face The Goddess Dea Tacita The Sound of Winter The Spooky Town The Girl who saw everything I’m Skared The History of Dreams Clearance Drinking in the Day The Feast Life Campanion This is your Twenties People in Putney ‘Spoons Five April Days
The Industry Page 26 With Wood to Burn Review. Page 28 Cameron Grace Interview Page 30 Novlr review
Short Story Page 32 Page 35 Page 39 Page 44 Page 49 Page 56 Page 62 Page 64 Page 68 Page 72
To have and to hold. Popcorn Girl. Planting Seeds. One Among The Shoal The Powder-Puff’s Journey Messenger You’re Only as Young as the Men you feel A Kestrel in The Bed End of the Line Eyes Closed
Final Words Larry’s last words Page 79
Rab Ferguson Milos Jakovljevic John Warner Rich J Spalding Nick Gerrard Cameron Grace Jennie Byrne Reece Dinn Emma Charlton James Shaffer Larry the Cat
Dave Crane & Paul Want
Dave Crane & Paul Want
Dave Crane & Paul Want
GenZ™ is an innovative publisher for talented authors to have their work seen, recognized, and read by millions. Unlike most publishers who only publish established writers or those with a literary agent, we published based on the author’s talent and their book’s content. GenZ™ makes dreams come true. We are not a self-publisher or traditional publisher. We help our authors to shape their work while they retain creative control. When it is published, it will be available as print books and ebooks, perfect for sharing with readers and fans. It is an accomplishment to be forever proud of. How many new writers can actually say they were published and have the professional book to prove it? We provide talented writers with that chance and give them the exposure that they need to be successful at life and shape the future.
For more details and to learn more about Genz Publishing please visit: http://genzpublishing.org/ 7
Maps on her Face
Days soaking in yellow light, salt and stones beneath stories. Through doors of secrets, he whispered maps on her face, cigarette smoke shorts and red socks and freshly baked bread at midnight.
The Goddess Dea Tacita Motionless, we are saved by the haunting of the quiet, very loud proud sounds, they notice how much pertains to the climate, as it were failing to overthrow: The metropolitan is an area well unknown to the skinniest of limbs, they are kind, the trees, with a passion keeping to the mildest sources here; contrast rounds noting how she ails the frosty composure, it is limited to each failed hard blow reaching for a standard not accomplished it hardens the softer part of the mind.. Pouring elements of the cheeriest fountains, this has her dispelling the ample crosses are hereby noted to saintly morose frosty pale, ales are of a spicy kind, to gather the parts of each of the very tightest of those pants are a true victim. Must we behave with the career of a boasting harped on tall giggling satisfied sample? What happens to the most repelled feast as it fastens to the taunting lines binding across spatial marks? She can reach to bleed out the mounting enemyâ€™s spectrum.
The Sound of Winter
The sound of winter gunpowder and dark trees, rich bellows of wind and scattered grass. Dull thuds of explosive thunder, slammed doors in flats upstairs, quarrels overheating and muffled chesty coughs. Tissue packets rustling like old-fashioned sweets, the tramping of heavy boots on thinly-carpeted floors. Darkness raging outside and within, a hoard of small harpies singing with demented zeal.
Spooky Town Down in Spooky Town They all come to stay. The girls look for spooky boys So that they can play. And boys look for spooky girls so they can get some too. Then they all run around Wil’in on me and you! Bring out your ball bats Your spacers and your goners Show em who the bosses are Back em in the corners.
Soon they be ghostin’ Skatin’ off for reals Addin’ to the chill-bone That’s just how it feels. Back down in Spooky Town Ends another night Boys n girls be won’drin’ How it ends so Fright?!
The girl who saw everything in colour was only 13 when I first met her. Avocado eyes projected superhuman sight onto all passing by. I came to school like a dirty smudge. Broken sole, black sketchers, knee-torn black jeans, standard issue, uniform, black school jumper.
But in my name she saw so many blues it seemed my body had its own tide. In her mind the mundane exploded crimson and mauve. Colour conjured from the blank recessâ€™ of the everyday. A master craftswoman hurling splashes of paint created from single words. Colouring backs of her retina with a kaleidoscope palate. Some ashen faced teacher told us she had a problem. Synesthesia. Maybe she does. Though to me it seems a gift not to see everything saturated in so much suburban beige.
I’m Skared I’m skared of spiders, I’m skared of hiegts, I’m skared of the darc, espechilly at nite. I’m skared of worter, I’m skared of snaiks, I’m skared of eeting chokolate cake.
I’m skared of the rane and forling down a well but wat I’m skared of most is that I don’t no how too spel.
The History of Dreams
The wondrous dreams of a child. Adventures to be had under the golden sun of a summerâ€™s day with a purity of spirit kept just for climbing apple trees. Bedtime approaches and slumber calls, the gentle soul hungers for the next instalment to be found upon closing her lashes. Her expectant smile slips gradually from her face as her tale begins.. Dawn breaks and dusty eyes open, craving to remember, replaying the snippet still held in her tentative memory. But the subconscious mind entwines your dreams with hopes and fears through the bunkers of lifeâ€™s misfortune so that for some, dreams flee, abandoning the sleeper to a realm of unending terror.. The act is witnessed as though on a screen. Harsh hammer versus too soft skull. Then seen from every angle. Repeat. The act is witnessed as though she were there too but powerless to prevent it. Harsh hammer soft skull Repeat. The act is committed by her own hand. Over and over and over. Repeat repeat repeat. Awoken with a tear streaked face, she wishes with a ferocity even her child self could not emulate. She wishes please change the dream. Weeks follow days, and years follow months until release triggers her fateful wish to be granted.. The act is committed by her own hand. Hammer meets skull at every angle. Repeat. The act is committed by her own hand. Possessed, she reigns blow after blow upon her brother. Repeat The act is committed by her own hand. She reigns blow after blow upon her son - NO. Repeat repeat repeat. Searing screams wake her at last from torment. New wounds are etched as the shreds of her soul fall to a heap. Spluttering and sobbing whilst the realisation forms in her tortured mind. 14
Dreams that haunt for fifteen years will haunt for many more. So now, even when her bones weep with exhaustion, there is always the fear. The power that the eveningâ€™s final blink holds. What it may bring, and what it may
Against the back wall, hidden out of sight are the books that were never bought, their pages crowded with words, their spines stare out from shelves, unspoiled. Running my fingers over their faces I try to read, feel their rhythms through their illustrated covers. They speak, call to me to crack open their backs, to pour their distilled stories out.
Drinking in the Day When did we start drinking in the day? It just seemed to happen, like finding yourself in love for the first time, or with a knife in the toaster attempting to retrieve a relic of burnt crumpet. When did we start drinking in the day? It’s not as if we have an excuse, like, we’re poets, or middle class, or recovering from a traumatic Experience.
We drank at night to defend our fights, and imbibed libations to no one in particular. We searched obscure boroughs looking for Whitman or Dionysus but could only find the Nag’s Head. There was once a time when we would sit and stare at the stars, but I began to despise the names you gave to the constellations, and as the empty bottles filled our bed, I decided to sleep on the floor. Then, sitting in our second-least favourite café, we stared at each other with nothing to say, that’s when we started drinking in the day.
The Feast Fork and knife propped up, you carve into puffed flesh, lift out an eighth and throne it on a plate, the glistening centre still throbbing with heat as you smudge mash along the flanks, and pour peas from the saucepan, watching them tumble along the plate,
then stiffen. You excise the middle and grind it with a knife, crushing the moist meat, pink juices slinking and sliding forth. But a shipwreck tragedy awaits, of course: pink flakes will wedge between colliding teeth, peas and mash will be taken by the tide of the tongue, until the feast is nothing but a sunken legend, a dinner-time Atlantis.
Life Companion The digital soul is credit card thin. Charge it up to one hundred per cent and see how theyâ€™ve hacked our inner space, advertised online gambling through it. We are video captured, mapped as a species, and our dreamtime vibrates with email after email. Press, drag or swipe, feed your notifications, find a date or a pizza deal, satisfy your impulses now, right now.
This is your Twenties
This is your twenties: Thank God for Facebook, emails and mobile phones, because if we were landlines and filofaxes, everything would be scribbled out three times ‘Til we switched to pencil for everyone. Each page crumpling under the weight of its history: each erased address a ghost of a house share. Forwarding addresses and forgotten postcodes. This is your twenties: Postcodes make good additions to passwords. A techie taught you that seven jobs ago. This is your twenties: The impermanence isn’t painful per se: but it takes something from you; this lack of solid ground. This is your twenties: And you are one of the urban nomads; lives organised by smartphones and scuppered by batteries or broken screens. This is your twenties: And “Goodness, you’ve got a.. diverse CV can you talk it through with me?” Listen, hundredth recruiter, if it looks scrappy, it’s because there are just scraps of jobs going. This is your twenties: How did you lose so many nights? How did you gain so many biros? A detritus gathering that you need to get clean of - And you will Just as soon as you find the time. This is your twenties: You’re in the prime of your life, but you’ve now had more jobs than sexual partners, and you think you might be doing this wrong. This is your twenties: Music and memories are digitised or discarded because who has room for hard copies?
This is your twenties: And you’re sure that dead laptop had something important on it but it’s moving time again: So keep or throw? This is your twenties: Your years of experience are growing into something harder: Not quite armour, but people seem to think you’re equipped now.
This is your twenties: Every object aching with memories and each one a burden as you box and unbox moving from postcode to postcode picking where to plant your roots this season. This is your twenties: And every next step could be ‘The One’ where you find the job with the pension scheme you’ll actually use, or the person you’ll grow old with but each maybe is scattered across your CV: Each pension contribution cooking in pots too small to keep track of, each nearly-there relationship reminding you how close - and yet how far you are from ever finding home.
Dear Readers, For those of you that recognise this story from our last publication, this reprint is an apology to the author for a terrible mis-edit that we at Under The Fable wish to correct. Hope you enjoy the revisit, Larry x 21
This is your twenties: Crises typed for broadcast in the small hours, agonies answered with animal gifs, because our loved ones are always reachable but usually too far away to give us a hug.
People in Putney ‘Spoons
Gaz da guy with da gayside earing, fixed da boiler las’ week,. Old footballer wiv da mullet An’ click click crutches Dereck da bald bar bloke, ‘aving a fag out front. Da’ politician wiv da wig An’ ‘amster nostruls, bloke wiv saggy earlobes from da 24hr news dem kids da’ nicked me bike. Crowd of Fulham fans, dribblin’ Carlsberg down Daz-whi’ footie tops; An’ Sue. Ex girlfriend. Sick day mate.
Five April Days Day One Lying in tweed blazer on a futon, in a friend’s living room I sent the text, with the taste of stale beer in my mouth asking if you wanted to go to a café. And then, I fell asleep with my phone cradled in my arms like a child’s teddy. When I woke, you didn’t believe it was me; you thought someone else’s drunk fingers had crawled across the screen and someone else’s teeth scratched away at their lips, shredding skin as they dared for the first time show you a truth. Day Two
It was next to old lady on the bus, her cardigan brushing my arm and the edges of her mouth wrinkled, like the shirts on my bedroom floor, that the snapchat came through. A picture of your face, the colour of fine cocoa powder, with a grin hanging like a landscape, and two brown globes reflecting a sunset with an invite to the Lake attached as a caption. I couldn’t stop that bus quick enough, couldn’t hastily Google Map the lake, plan the quickest route and leap out of the folded doors. I couldn’t imagine the smell of the water the pollen reddening your eyes and see your heavy mane of hair hanging across a baggy jumper, before the second message came through. Gone home. A sigh, like a punctured tyre. Another time?
Day Three Another time. The Callipo melts into orange goo, slapping my lips as I wait for the bus to take me to the lake. And then, the fatal buzz, like a bee’s suicide, and you cancel again.
Half of the lolly thrown in a bin and I go to the library instead and write a poem. About you. Of course. But as the sun roasts me through the large window I see the ocean-coloured car, and know it’s you, coming to see me, and before I’m ready my palms are sweating and my heart bang-bangs in it’s cage ready to escape, ready to find you coming up the library stairs. Ready to feel the whip of your hair stroke against my arm, in the travel section of the library. For a while, we try and revise laughing at anatomy in biology text books you read the poem and I wonder if you know who she is. You suggest the lake and we go, beneath the blazing sun for a walk around a lake, our feet patting together across wooden panel bridges, like horse hooves clopping and our palms touch, our fingers wrapping. All I want is to feel your lips as you pout into the water and I’m so close to it when my phone rings. I wait. I can wait. And you drive me to football, park up the car beneath the shade of a tree and, as we hug goodbye I feel my lips pull towards yours, a bi-polar attraction and they’re together and I feel it, all of it, the ice lolly melting, the drunken fingers texting, the wrinkled lady and it all makes sense in that moment, 24
all feels worth it. The hair on my arms stands, an army, prepared, and then, itâ€™s done. Day Four I watch the red-sky set on my birthday, and send you an image, and all I want, as I sip my Budweiser. In the dark room, the air vibrating with strings, the sound like the bubbles in my veins and all I want is you. Day Five I sit by the lake we wandered, Sifting grass, Through the tips of my fingers, More like blades Than I had known before.
I read and re-read the words, Like staring at ants Building a fort, While mine crumbles to soil. And the words sting like nettles, Making my skin rise in bobbles, And all I want is to feel your cold fingers, Feel their prints on my prints, But the words stay on the phone, And scream in my mind And I know itâ€™s done.
WITH WOOD TO BURN: A REVIEW
A book review
With Wood to Burn is one of the best contemporary poetry collections available. Cameron Grace has carefully compiled some of his best work into one book and the result is mesmerising. The reader will find themselves rereading so many of the poems, it is definitely one to keep on the nightstand or near your morning coffee. Not far from the beginning, there is a patch of poems dedicated to fairy tales, each one taking you places you never would have thought fairy tales could go. Everyone loves their fairy tales and more often than not people have their favourites. When it comes to the fantastical fairy tale poems in With Wood to Burn it is surprisingly difficult to pick out a favourite, readers will go through each one thinking ‘okay it’s this one, no this one, I think this is it’ and then be back to the first and the cycle will continue. Cameron knows what he’s doing with his words. He uses them cunningly to evoke all kinds of things in his readers. When moving from one poem to the next, you will find your emotions wobbling, marching, ducking and soaring, sometimes all together! The anthology With Wood to Burn takes its name from one of the poems inside. The poem starts off with two lines from Lady Celia Congreve’s ‘The Firewood Poem’. The rest of the poem is divided into two parts and gives us vivid images of someone who has passed on; and when he did, a poem was found in his pocket (hence the two lines at the beginning). Without ruining the piece, it can easily be said that it is a beautifully written tribute to a departed soul and well, it will make readers wonder what will be in their pocket when their time comes (hopefully something awesome). Cameron Grace has a knack for creating images that will be burned into your brain. He writes fluidly with poetic grace (author joke ha!) and makes you fall in love with every syllable and every letter. In the anthology there is a poem for every emotion, situation and feeling ever felt, his words will trigger memories and thoughts that one may have forgotten were ever there.
In the collection no one poem is the same as another, Cameron plays with his writing style and gives us something fresh every time. With Wood to Burn gives us observations, situations, events, contemplations, ramblings, heartbreak and so much more; from poems like ‘The Book’ speaking of individuals and society, to poems such as ‘An Evening’s Pause’ coloured in dialect and thoughts. While some may not generally find poems drenched in specific vocals appealing, after reading them twice or more they may become something unexpected and readers will see that they are in fact quite ‘moving’, in a contemplative manner.
With all that said I do think that I would have loved it more if there was more to devour. I would highly recommend Cameron Grace’s With Wood to Burn; you really do need to read it to feel it. I’ll let you in on a secret as well.. Read them out aloud and you will get a whole different experience!
A book review
Having read the collection front to back myself numerous times I did find a poem that I connected to on a deeper level. While I could not pick a favourite from the fairy tale patch, I did manage to find myself an overall favourite. Cameron Grace is a brilliant poet and writer and an awesome human being/living thing; I doubt I could pinpoint a single piece of his writing that I have not liked and am probably not likely ever to see one either. The poem that clung to me is named ‘For Junior’, it is difficult to explain the feeling it creates, and the poem leaves you hanging and slightly hollow with thoughts moving sluggishly through your mind.
An interview with a poet
Cameron Grace Cameron Grace is a newly published poet; his collection ‘Wood to Burn’ has hit the shelves. I had the benefit of interviewing him (let me tell you: he makes the best hot chocolate I have ever had). What is your main writing process? Three parts panic. Three parts guesswork. If I have an idea it’s like a nagging wife. It won’t leave me alone until I address it. Music starts it off; I discover a song and listen to it over and over again until it unlocks the idea. Then I sit down and write down these ideas in their most basic form. In a spider diagram, bulleted list or even a basic synopsis. After a day or so, I just write. My editor will agree that many lines of my first drafts often need burning. But the first draft is a splurge. Stylistic and form decisions are made after. A poem, for me, starts out three times longer than it would end up, and 25% of that first draft is toilet paper. In the first writing of an idea you don’t trust your reader so you end up including five million adverbs. When I have edited it as much as I can, I send it to a friend who often responds with 15% constructive criticism and 85% sarcasm. It is so important to have someone willing to read what you send them, someone who will be brutally honest with you. Why do you feel music contributes so much to your writing? When I’m writing a poem or story, I want to get a certain emotion across. So I listen to something that conveys that emotion. I create playlists on YouTube for my character’s top ten songs. It’s like method acting, becoming your character and knowing them. ‘Wood to Burn’ was helped by artists such as David Draiman, Amy Lee, Maria Brink, to name but a few. So yeah, I fill my ears with sound. I block out the cat on the curtains, the housemate in the kitchen, I block out the world until I only have the page and the sound. What were your main problems when writing this collection? The fact that it was poetry. I have an interesting relationship with poetry. Three years ago, when I started my degree at the University of Northampton, I had to write poetry. But I had preconceptions about what poetry was. Susan Sheridan was one of the main people responsible for getting me to write poetry. She took me into her office and gave me Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’ to read. Poetry was out of my comfort zone and that actually helped me. My aversion made me look at the world in a different way. I use established techniques but in new ways, my form is chaotic and my images mismatched. And ‘Wood to Burn’ had to reflect that. The main poets that inspired my work were Tony Harrison and Craig Raine.
Type my real name and author’ in any search engine or store; you get books written about soccer or training books by established authors who deserve their own space. I wanted my name to be easily found. Turns out I had already crafted my pseudonym; my children are called Cameron and Grace. Now, if you type in Cameron Grace, my work is at the top. In the end, it’s not my name that’s important, it’s the work. When did you become interested in writing? When I was about seven or eight I wrote a story called ‘Ian’. I can only remember it featured a kid who thought he was a secret agent, he crawled through school vents, made weapons out of paperclips, saving the world one assembly at a time. The story was probably rubbish but it relaxed me. I was ten when my first poem was published, I can recite the whole thing. It’s unprintable now but seeing it on the page made me hungry for more. Half of what I do is create something ridiculous. I can’t build a car or put up a shelf, I can’t even do the dishes without leaving smears, but I can write. ‘Wood to Burn’ was a bucket list moment for me. Someone believed in my work. Even if I sell five copies, doesn’t matter. I’m poet, I was born to starve. I can pick up my work, which was taken on by a publisher. How is it that you came to be published? It was the strangest way of getting published. Thought when I’d write my first book or collection, I’d be in a log cabin, with a pipe and monocle. Then I’d print it and send it to be published. But it started on Twitter. I got added to a writer’s list by GenZ Publishing. I thanked them for adding me and they replied, and I researched them. I decided that I had nothing to lose and a complete manuscript. When I first heard they’d accepted me, I emailed back something like: ‘I’m happy and dancing in my living room’. Then they sent me a proof, it had some issues and I thought they’d drop the book if I pointed them out. But they’ve been an absolute gem to work with. They weren’t who I expected when I imagined a publishing house. They’ve made a community of writers. I thought it was a writer’s job to be alone (1000 cats included) but authors at GenZ want us to be successful. There have been some really good writers that have been picked up by GenZ, K.W Peery (‘Tales of a Receding Hairline’) shot into league tables. Any advice for writers? Develop a thick skin. You’re not a writer until you’ve received three rejections. You’re not going to please everyone. I do quite a bit of editing work in my spare time, and I can think of one person who has been rejected by me every time but he perseveres. Do not be affected by the criticism of others. Your next idea might be the one that changes everything. Look at the little things. Two people arguing, a boot left behind, the stop and start of rain. How would you put it down? Buy pen and paper. You can’t be a writer without them.
An interview with a poet
Why did you choose Cameron Grace as a pseudonym?
Budding writers! We know what it’s like, you have a book idea and you have coffee stains on your notes. You’re drowning in paper and your word processer is not your best friend. We’ve been there. Novlr is a new site that thinks it has it all, and we decided to have a look. Novlr offers a platform for writing and allows you to access your material from anywhere. By simply logging on to the site you are plunged into the world of words, it immerses you within your own writing. Technology can be complicated and difficult to understand if it makes too many changes to the norm. But rest assured, it is incredibly user-friendly and doesn’t challenge conventions set by other word processing packages. The settings and menu bar fade into the background, helping you focus on the words. The interface is tidy and easy to navigate, with your chapters and novels all kept separate and labelled with your title choices. You can click from one chapter to the next without the fuss or alternate documents or extensive scrolling. You are also able to set your own preferences, which is fantastic. Don’t like indents in your first draft? Turn them off.
However, this is not the best thing about Novlr. The key features of this program are the statistics. They offer insight into your writing, analysing and focusing on your habits, the results build up over time and show when you prefer to write, your daily writing average and how today compares to yesterday. It allows you to form potential targets by showing you the amount of words you type, no matter if you delete them or keep them. Copying and pasting does not count in these statistics, it only counts the words you’ve worked on and typed in that writing session. The site is cost-effective in comparison to other word processing packages and even if you decide to stop paying you are able to access the content and download your chapters. The owners of Novlr are constantly on the lookout for improvement and ask for your suggestions as to what it is you would like to see on the site. An experienced reviewer told me I should try to find a drawback. This was extremely difficult, but the thing for me was the font and font size. You are unable to choose a font, and the font size is limited to a number between 16 and 24. But honestly this is just nit-picking. Still not convinced? Well how about this: the first two weeks are a free trial. And you get complete access. No hidden costs. No cheeky ‘it’s free…apart from that bit’. A simple ‘try it out and see’. 30
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To Have and to Hold
I fell in love with the moon. I’d sit on my bed, reaching my arm out of the window towards her. Of course, my arm was too short. I loved how she changed the shape of her hair each night, velvet black falling over pale skin. I liked it best when she wore it as a crescent on one side of her face, curling beneath her ear. I knew I wasn’t the only one. Her purpose was to be there and to be beautiful. To calm the seas inside us when they raged. To quiet our minds when they filled with bickering voices. To cool our hearts when they burned against the inside of our chests. There’d been many before me. They’d tried to win her: through poetry, through song, through art. Some even went out at night to dance with her but they were only really dancing with themselves. There were those who tried to take her through cruelty and subversion, through wicked words and empty threats. They could do nothing to her and she never lowered herself to them. None of them - the poets, the artists, the dancers or the cruel - understood her. She wasn’t someone you could win. She wasn’t someone you could have. She was part of nature, of the order of things. When man tries to claim nature, it doesn’t matter if he succeeds. Ownership destroys what was important. He kills what he loved, just so he can say the corpse is his. I used to tell all this to the moon, with the window open and the breeze coming in. I think that must have been why she came to me. That night, her place in the sky was empty. I didn’t hear the door open but I heard it shut. I turned on my bed and there she was, standing naked in my room. She was delicate, like a ray of her own light. Her black hair was a bob, a curve on either side of her face. There were dark places across her, beneath her breasts and between her legs, where she was lost to shadow. ‘Can I lie with you for a while?’ she asked. I moved across in the bed to make room for her and she climbed under my covers. I was still fully dressed. ‘Hold me,’ she said and I obeyed. Her body was shaking, a constant trembling under her cold skin. All that pressure of being beautiful for the world, each and every night. I ran my hands over her, exploring her craters and crevices. I searched for the centres of the tremors. When I found them I pressed my palm flat against them so they stilled, her body unknotting and uncurling. I suppose it sounds like I was trying to seduce her but I just wanted to give back a little of what she gave to the world. When my hands had walked across her, I lay back in the bed. She rested her head on my chest and I wrapped my arms around her. Her hair had a cool smell, like mint. It was only then the thought came to me. That maybe I could have the moon, if only for one night. After all, she was a woman, she was naked and she was in my bed. I couldn’t speak. It took effort to control my breathing, to balance the rise and fall of my chest beneath her head. I was terrified of bringing back her tremors, of undoing the one gift I’d been able to give to her. My heart was beating too loud and too fast. I knew it would betray me. I rose in the bed and she shifted her head onto the pillow. I leaned over her, and kissed her and she accepted it. Her lips moved with mine. My hand, by instinct, tracked down the white stone path of her stomach to the darkness between her legs. I was amazed to see her gasp and smile. I believed it then, that man could hold moonlight. I hooked one hand into my trousers, breaking the zip open, hard beneath and ready to seal us together for the night.
‘I can’t do this,’ she said. The night shattered, becoming a cracked and painful thing once more. ‘Could you,’ I struggled on my words above her. ‘Is there anyone?’ Her features, that told stories to lost souls in the night, expressed everything. There was love and there was pain, and there was the reflection of another’s face within hers. There was someone shining in her eyes, to whom she was dull. She turned her head from me. The darkness that lay between her legs and beneath her breasts, the shadow that was part of her, swept across her skin and she was gone. I was left hanging over where she’d been. I cursed blue skies and gentle days, the smell of cut grass and the taste of cider, and anyone who saw her without loving her.
Poetry Tour Currently confirmed for this years Poetry Tour.. . . 6th July 13th July
The Robin Hood Inn, Milton Keynes. The Pilgrim, Liverpool.
3rd August 10th August 18th August 23rd August
The Wellington, Birmingham The Sun Inn, Northampton The Castle Hotel, Manchester Beehive, Peterborough.
All events will run from 7pm until 10pm within the venues given above. Fancy performing? well here is your chance.. . just contact us at Underthefable@gmail.com More dates will follow, look for more in our next issue or on our website. We look forward to seeing you there!
Vancanies within Under The Fable
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She worked as an extra a couple of times in London’s Pinewood studios where they shot all of those Harry Potter and James Bond films. She was a student then and needed the extra cash, which Universal Extras had in abundance. The first time, she was a member of the jury at a trial in a flick she or any human for that matter, no longer remembered. The second time, she was one of the poor French women on the street in the popular movie of Les Miserables. Both times, she felt like a piece of furniture. A chair perhaps, or an old cuckoo clock whose only purpose in life was to sit in the background and be forgotten. She enjoyed films as much as anyone else, but most other things related to the seventh art disappointed her greatly. The appalling treatment of extras in the studio; the shallow world of celebrity gossip; the annoying minutes she had to wait for the Popcorn Time app to upload. And then there was the thing that went beyond disappointment - cinemas, they frightened her. In fact, one of her earliest childhood memories was getting lost in one, attempting to find her way back to mother by crawling underneath seats, crushing styrofoam cups and getting stuck in gum with her tiny 5 year old knees. The faces under the dark blue lights seemed so otherworldly serious and the sound so menacing that she held back tears for as long as she could. It took them half an hour to find her, only managing to do so once they lit up all the rooms and searched every row. Years later, she found out that the movie playing in the hiding room of her choice was a special 20th anniversary edition of The Exorcist. An experience like that is bound to mess a girl up. No wonder she felt queasy passing by the Odeon on the ever so crowded Leicester square. She was a certified “non-cinematic” person, yet there she was - Vue Cinema at Angel Central shopping centre. She had to go out of her way to get there too, having caught a Tube and two buses from Canada Water station. All because of Mr. Architectural Visualiser, a twenty five year old Italian who was already working on penthouses that were being sold to rich Arab sheiks for millions of pounds. She remembered his actual name all right, but it felt more natural in her mind to refer to him as Mr. Architectural Visualiser because 1. He was running late, which was always a good reason to scorn somebody, 2. He suggested they see Ant-Man, which sounded like a little boy’s movie to her, and 3. He proposed a cinema in the first place. However, as she had picked the venues for both of their previous dates, she felt she had no choice but to suck it up and say yes to Ant-Man. She also figured it was about time she dealt with her strange phobia, having turned 26 almost a month earlier. Did she have to deal with it today though? With a day as gorgeous and un-London like as this one, she could have been sailing at Surrey Docks with her sister Maggie, her brother in law Laurent and her goofy nephew Vince. Instead, she was stuck at a matinee with Shoreditch hipsters and toddlers who have come to see Ted 2, Minions, Pixels and possibly five other movies about marketable toy-like creatures. More importantly, she appeared to be in the midst of a hot flush already. First, she had an intense feeling her face and cheeks in particular were covered in flames. Then there was the perspiration, the drenching of the armpit area of her new vintage dress from Broadway Market, despite the air-conditioning. Finally, when she turned on the front camera of her iPhone checking for face fires, she realised she resembled the Anger character from Disney Pixar’s Inside Out. Worried, she went to the restroom, placed her popcorn box beside the sink and splashed some cold water on her face. ‘It’s just a cinema,’ she told herself. ‘Don’t be a baby.’ Then she heard water flush in on one of the stalls and left the room in haste without reapplying her make-up. She went back to Tickets & Refreshments and got a large bottle of Highland Spring sparkling water. Despite drinking half of it in one gulp, she still felt like Teflon somebody left on the stove for too long. ‘It’s probably the long commute in the sun,’ she assured herself before realizing it was 35
only 26°C on the weather app. She was vacationing in scorching Dubai for her birthday celebrations only weeks ago and managed to have an amazing carefree time, even on the pedalos. Maybe she should leave, she considered, before she blows up all the popcorn in the house just by standing there. However, Mr. Architectural Visualiser had politely texted to say he will be there in five minutes and she wasn’t one to ditch. Especially since he had the cutest boyish dimples she’d ever seen. Just like Tom Cruise who was looking at her from across the across the room on one of the posters for Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. This time, he was holding onto the underbelly of an air plane in full suit whilst the runway and the surrounding fields disappeared into the background. For a moment, she thought Cruise was winking at her despite his tense, action-man expression. She blinked a couple of times to get rid of the image, like she does when her eyes tire from looking at her Kindle on the Tube at night. But when she focused back on his face, there it was again - the wink, followed by the actor’s trademark smile and the relaxing of his facial muscles. Was it a standard trick on cinema-goers in 2015? She had no clue how photo shopped the whole thing was nowadays. A partial once-in-a-day special effect for the most bored of customers? She quickly turned around to establish whether anyone else might have seen it, but people were having their tickets ripped by the usherette now and disappearing into the black rooms. She considered following suit and letting the cool, dark space work its magic, but the tickets were on the little boy Visualiser’s name. Besides, she found the idea of sitting through the infamous twenty minutes of advertisements or running into somebody she knows, all by herself, equally worrying as standing there hallucinating with her large box of popcorn. She checked her phone for new messages again, but saw only her starry blue screen saver that needed changing. Luckily, the voice of Amy Winehouse came up from the speakers belting out a well-known tune she liked and she felt a breeze of comfort. “You’ll be fine,” she thought nervously stomping her foot. A cinema leaflet she picked up was going to bring the fever down eventually. Then the Italian was going to storm in, dimples prominent and apologising for being late in his funny accent. Now, if only she didn’t feel like ripping her clothes off, throwing them aside and standing there in nothing but her new Victoria’s Secret panties. ‘I’m sorry - could you step away from the stage now,’ asked a person on her left. It was a husky female voice with a strong north London accent that sounded instantly familiar to her. When she turned around to see who it was, she almost fainted. Amy Winehouse was standing in front of her, like a perfectly well-kept zombie, with her trademark tattoos, piercings and beehive hairdo. She wore a black sleeveless t-shirt and jeans, looking exactly like she does in the documentary poster next to the restroom door. She was holding a microphone, while her band members were tuning their guitars a few feet behind next to the refrigerator. Apparently, they were all mid-concert and waiting for this clumsy crab-like girl with an improvised fan to get off the stage. ‘I mean, like, sorry but otherwise I’ll have to call security,’ zombie Amy said. I’ve gone mental! She thought. She wanted to cry for help, but she was afraid of disturbing the children - a habit she picked up from occasionally babysitting Vince. As Amy was standing in her way, she quickly grabbed her bony forearm, pushed her aside and rushed away. She needed to get out and on the 43, even if it was on its way to crash into the Thames. The band members, a couple of Mexican looking hipsters and a chubby black girl with acid green hair observed as she was still unconsciously clutching the cardboard box, popcorn flying everywhere as she jogged. As soon as she got out of their sight, she sped up. Her shoes were making a funny click-click-clack noise like the time she and her ex ran out of a theatre bar drunk without paying. As she was about to enter the hallway, two, handsome black men with an Afro and undercut hairstyle whistled at her as she ran past them. ‘Yo, baby, come back here.’ She turned around just enough to show them her disapproving profile, then when turning 36
back round, bumped her head hard into somebody else’s. For a moment, everything was cloudy and dark orange until she saw a starved-looking au pair in a plaid shirt rubbing her temple. By the nanny’s side was a small towhead boy who instantly started to cry because of the commotion. ‘I’m so sorry!’ she blurted. ‘It’s OK, he’s just little scared’ said the mousy girl with an Eastern European accent. ‘Here, take this!’ She grabbed her purse and took out a bag of Skittles she had bought for her Italian no-show and herself. She placed the candy in the boy’s hand, smiled and said ‘There, there.’ But the boy’s tiny hand felt weird somehow and nothing like her nephew’s. She pulled it up and, to her terror, realised it was missing two fingers. The au pair was stroking the head of a yellow one-eyed creature in the shape of a Tic Tac. The Rachel Riley cord shirt and shorts were gone - the sausage-like body squeezed into a tiny blue uniform; it had little arms and legs; it wore goggles and black leather gloves. ‘It’s a fucking Minion!’ she finally let out. The creature started to talk gibberish, though it was obvious it was protesting, pointing what few fingers it had and wailing to be picked up. She stood there like an open-mouthed signpost as its voice began to multiply. In a blink of an eye, a dozen Minions were spread across the room, either laughing or complaining to their overlords. One of the creatures fell down with a THUMP narrowly missing her. The box in her hand finally went too, popcorn jumping out like miniscule white rabbits. RUN, you idiot! She thought, then grabbed the edge of the doorway and pushed herself out. But the hallway felt even more dangerous - the walls and the ground were shaking there as if in the middle of an earthquake. Large chunks of ceiling were coming down like aircrafts that were shot down on their way to the front door. ‘Are they still following us?’ said a dapper looking Henry Cavill in The Man from U.N.C.L.E. before attaching a silencer to his gun in full 007 manner. ‘Ugh!!!’ She slammed her palms into his chest, tearing down the cardboard. She continued walking as if nothing had happened, but she could hear the commotion in the other room and the usherette saying ‘What on Earth is she doing?’ The vibrations were rhythmical, she realised, as if a giant elephant was just coming down Islington High Street for a matinee. ‘Ignore the earthquake; ignore the cutouts,’ she repeated to herself. Yet, she still saw with her periphery vision the creeping figure of the Ant-man in full costume on her left. She wished she had a giant can of Raid. ‘Don’t you wanna see how big I get?’ he said in a generic superhero voice, then made a perverse sucking noise towards her with his large metallic mandibles. ‘This is all your fault!’ she squealed. ‘Just ignore him,’ said Cara Delevingne coldly from her Paper Towns cutout. ‘Watch out!’ said the actress’s romantic partner just when a large chunk of wall came tumbling down. She stood there for a moment coughing in a cloud of dust not being able to tell which way was forward. ‘Um, you need to move!’ said Delevingne. Just then, the usherette stormed into the hallway stepping onto cardboard Cavil. ‘Stop right there!’ yelled the small Indian girl waving her flashlight. But the walls started to cave in as if the Islington elephant had arrived and decided to sit on the rooftop of the Angel Central. ’I’m sorry!’ she yelled over her shoulder. ‘You’ll have to pay for that!’ said the usherette. ‘Please, go back inside!’ she said trying to open the door that appeared to be stuck. The Indian girl right before being pulled by someone or something into a vortex of crumbling concrete that ended up swallowing everything. ‘Come back. The audience.. is waiting,’ said a demon-like voice.
Trying to get her foot unstuck from under the debris, she hoped the voice belonged to either Cruise or Cavil and not the Ant-Man or one of the monsters from Sinister 2. When she finally caught her breath, she was sitting on the shopping centre floor being observed by two teenager girls with matching vegetable smoothies from Itsu. Around them, everyone was going about their usual consumer business carrying bags from Argos and French Connection or lunching at Ed’s Easy Diner. ‘Gees, are you okay?’ said Itsu 1. ‘Like, what happened?’ said Itsu 2. She looked at them from below, mouth open wide and not really knowing anything - was it all a dream; a toxic hallucination; an elaborate hoax sponsored by a bored Sheik in between penthouse purchases? She stood up, straightened up her dress and thanked the two kind American girls. Then she speed-dialed Maggie hoping she had let her nephew steer the jib of the sailboat just then and will have her hands free to take the call. But instead of a ringing tone, came a warm gust of wind against her shoulders and her entire upper back. Followed by another one. Then another. She slowly turned around and faced two beady yellow eyes the size of large lemons, hovering just above her forehead. Beneath them, were the two long rows of large closely packed ancient looking teeth with pieces of meat between them. Its breathing sounded like an army of enraged horses exhaling in unison, ready to pounce. It smelt like a group of animal carcasses left uneaten in the Middle-eastern sun. It was Jurassic World’s Tyrannosaurus Rex; standing tall in the middle of central piazza; one foot over the crushed metal sculpture of an angel; looking over the first floor; reflecting in her wide blue eyes. It was larger and darker than the animatronic version that once made Vince cry at the Natural History Museum. And infinitely more menacing. Diabolical. Grinning. About to chew at her like a small-sized box of sweet caramel popcorn.
A bramble snagged his forearm. He pulled back, dragging the thorns along his skin, small beads of blood rising to the surface. He hissed and pressed his lips to the abrasion. He began sucking at it, tasting the coppery tang. Then, with some satisfaction, he snipped at the bramble’s base with the pruning shears. ‘You okay, James?’ Sophie was stood at the door, long hair whipped up by the wind. She had to pull it from her mouth to tuck it back behind her ears. ‘Nothing a rugged outdoorsman such as myself can’t handle,’ James replied, holding out his soil-caked hands as if in proof of this. The smell of wet earth filled his nostrils. Sophie held her hand to her forehead with her knuckles pressed lightly against it and feigned a swoon. ‘Oh, my gracious me,’ she said, he winced at her bad southern belle accent. ‘Mummy? Why are you talking funny?’ asked Charlie who had, until moments before, been watering his shoes and the hems of his trousers at the other end of the garden, near some potted gardenia. They looked at each other and laughed. ‘I think your mummy might have loosened a screw with all the decorating she’s been doing, or the paint fumes have gotten to her,’ James said, grinning at his son. ‘You can’t say that. What if he goes in to nursery and starts telling his teacher his mummy’s gone funny from sniffing paint?’ ‘Well, you’ve just increased the odds of that.. ’ he trailed off, but mouthed the word knobhead at her, causing a wet tea-towel to hurtle at his head. Charlie regarded them both for a moment in silence, turning his impassive gaze upon his mother, then his father. ‘I found this,’ he said, his face brightening suddenly, his hand held out, palm up. ‘What is it, little man?’ James asked. ‘Watch.’ A small brown object fell through his fingers and into the grass. Sophie ruffled Charlie’s dark hair. ‘It’s very nice, sweetheart.’ ‘What is it, daddy?’ ‘We used to call them helicopter seeds.. ’ ‘Is that where helicopters come from?’ ‘No,’ he replied with a grin. ‘We just called them that because of the way they spin when they fall. They’re from a tree - a sycamore, I think. Probably that one,’ he said and pointed to a large tree in the garden next door. ‘Can we plant it?’ ‘Ask your mum,’ he said, hiding behind his hands as Sophie narrowed her eyes at him. ‘Can we, mummy?’ ‘It might not grow, sweetheart.’ ‘Of course it’ll grow, mummy. It’s a seed. That’s what seeds do.’ ‘You can’t argue with logic like that,’ James agreed. ### His lungs burned. Every few strides he had to spit up thick mucus. The tide was rising and with it would come the crabs that had grown large on the flesh of the drowned - three foot across the shell and with a claw that could tear chunks of flesh from their prey. They came in waves, rolling on to the land like a second sea; hundreds, maybe thousands, no longer content to wait for their meals to come to them, snapping as they scuttled to strip the shore of living things while the tide was high. He could hear the clitter-clatter of their legs, like long skeletal fingers, tapping out their impatience on one another’s backs.
The shadows lengthened and night cast a blanket of stars over the land. There were warnings in the chitinous clicking of the night insects and in the twittering of nocturnal birds. Hearing the groaning and grinding of stones ahead as the wash of the encroaching sea vent its fury on the paved shore, he veered into the forest that grew through and around the ragged ruins of buildings. He stumbled, almost smashing his head against the thick trunk of a tree - throwing himself to one side at the last moment. Bark scraped the skin off his upper arm and he landed face first in the mulch of a hundred thousand dead leaves. He spluttered and staggered to his feet, his legs and arms once more pistoning, his eyes downcast, watching for roots that might trip him. He leapt over a series of jagged brick walls which were festooned with brambles heavy with berries, then skidded to a stop. The sound of the crabs was growing louder. ### No matter how well James attempted to maintain the sullen flower beds, how often he weeded, fertilized and turned the soil, no matter what variety of flower he planted, within a fortnight the weeds would return with a vengeance - twice as spiked, twice as verdant and rooted twice as deep. Anything that lasted beyond those two weeks would be devoured by slugs he could never locate, and which he never had the heart to poison. All, that is, except what was planted by his son (green-fingered little Charlie). It would flourish amidst the bramble and the dandelions and shake their heads in solemn warning whenever James dared approach them with a trowel. I’ll just be back, they’d say in turn, each in imaginary Austrian accents. ‘Daddy! Daddy!’ a delighted trill rapidly approached the kitchen door. Sophie trailed in his wake, almost doubled over. ‘You okay?’ James asked her, before looking down at Charlie, who was tugging furiously at his trouser leg. Sophie coughed, straightening up. ‘Fine, this little terror has had me all over the garden. I think it needs weeding again.’ He was about to reply when the tugging at his trousers threatened to dislodge them. ‘What’s the matter, little man?’ ‘Come see! Come see!’ ‘I’m just putting your tea in the oven.. ’ ‘No! Now - you’ve got to come see!’ He looked up at Sophie quizzically and she laughed, coughing again as she tucked her hair back behind her ears. She shrugged and, with a sigh, he put down the oven dish, allowing himself to be taken by the hand and dragged in to the garden. ‘Look! See! Can you see?’ ‘See what, little man?’ Charlie sighed. ‘There! Look,’ he said, pointing in to the midst of the weeds to something clearly of vital importance. A worm, he thought, or a caterpillar or maybe one of the unseen ninja slugs had finally been discovered. He kneeled as he tried to spot what it was that was being frantically gesticulated at. There, nestled in the brambles and weeds, was a small shoot with a single, reddish leaf. ### Unsure what else he could do he continued in the direction he had been heading. Still the clattering grew in volume until he heard the ominous whisper of the sea. Again he jagged left, his every muscle cramping, hurdling ruined walls, avoiding the clutches of grasping roots until again the tapping sound diminished. Then grew louder. He should not have crossed the mud flats. Should have listened to the warnings, but pride and youth had gotten the better of him. He was, the realisation grew, on an island - and it was not a big one. 40
A rustle from behind him. He spun on his heels. The crab was, like the hundreds of others that were winding their way toward him, the pale, blue-tinged white of the drowned. The creature’s eyestalks found him as he stood, rooted as any of the forest around him. Its large claw snapped a few hesitant, foreboding clacks and it began its ludicrous, sidewise shuffle toward him. In any other creature, at any other time, the motion would have been humorous, but the slow clap of the giant claw brought him out in a cold sweat. The taste of earth in his mouth was causing his stomach to turn somersaults. He scanned the floor for something to throw - a brick, stone, even a stick, but there was nothing but leaf mulch. Soft, dead matter all around. He wondered how long it would take for him to become a part of it. He picked up two large handfuls of the stuff, flinging them. The crab retracted its eyestalks and he ran past, praying for the tide to turn quickly. All around him the clitter-clatter of giant claws grew deafening. His run had begun to spiral around the island. Soon he would have nowhere to go. ### James paced, angrier by the moment, gripping the phone until he could hear its plastic carapace creaking. ‘I don’t care. I want to know why it isn’t available here. I’ve read about it online. It’s available down south.. ’ he sighed, listening for a moment. ‘Cost? I don’t give a fuck about the cost. Look, if you were in the same position, would you?’ another pause. ‘I couldn’t give the tiniest, little, rat fuck about cost-analyses, this is the.. what do you mean calm down? I won’t fucking calm down.. you’ll do what? Do you have any fucking idea.. hello? Hello?’ he flung the phone hard at the cushions on the couch and slumped after it. ‘Didn’t go well?’ Sophie asked, smiling, rubbing gingerly at the re-growth of stubble that covered her head. ‘No,’ he said and bowed his head. ‘We just have to keep going, okay?’ she whispered, pulling him toward her. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, and nestled into her. ‘You shouldn’t have to do this. I’m such a fucking dick.’ ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘But I knew that when I married you.’ ‘Mummy! Daddy! My tree has grown again. It’s got, it’s got - loads of branches, now!’ ‘That’s nice, little man. Why don’t you go and count them? I’ll come and mark how big it is in a minute.’ ‘Okay!’ ‘What am I going to do if - you know. What am I going to say?’ ‘He already knows I’m ill, it’s just a case of explaining that I might not get better, but we’ll talk to him before then. If the worst happens,’ Sophie said, squeezing him with her stick-thin arms. He nodded, brushing the corners of his eyes with the backs of his hands. She squeezed him again. ‘You have a tree to measure, I believe.’ The garden had grown wild at the borders in the last twelve months, with two exceptions - the lawn, and a corner of one flower bed - where the tree grew. The fence panel behind it bore the scars of weekly measuring. It had not grown much in the past week, but James exaggerated its growth slightly with his mark, knowing it would please his miniature botanist. ‘Do you think it could grow all the way up to the sky, Daddy? Like Jack’s beanstalk?’ ‘Maybe,’ he said, resting a hand on Charlie’s shoulder. ### Pale shapes stood out in the starlight, pincers raised and clacking as they closed in, craws writhing in anticipation. There was not much of him, but what there was would make a
good meal for those dominant enough to earn a place at the feast. He backed away, feeling rough bark at his back. He could see the infighting beginning already, the largest amongst them snapping savagely at those near them, jostling for position. He was unsure if he had the strength, but turned and sought out a foothold in the tree, scrabbling at the bark, the skin on his feet quickly splintered and bloody. With his back turned, the creatures began to move more rapidly, the tapping of a thousand or more legs hastening. ### He sighed. ‘Okay.. yes. If you could send the paperwork, thank you.. not as sorry as I am,’ he said and ended the call. ‘Daddy!’ An excited shout from the kitchen dragged him out of his daze. Charlie jumped up and down, trying to see the clear glass bottle that was balanced end up on the windowsill. ‘Is it dry yet, daddy?’ he asked. ‘You know,’ James said, ‘you still haven’t told me what it’s for?’ ‘I’m going to send a message in a bottle,’ replied Charlie, smiling. ‘Are you going to throw it in the water?’ ‘No, daddy,’ the boy wore a look of exasperated pity that belied his age. ‘Don’t messages in bottles normally get thrown in to the sea?’ he asked. ‘Yes, but I want this one to go up to the sky.’ He shook his head, puffing out his cheeks in confusion. ‘How are you going to do that?’ ‘I’m going to tie it to the tree!’ ‘You know, it might take a very long time to grow so high.’ ‘Not as long as it would take the sea, daddy,’ Charlie replied, his expression one of pure seriousness. He laughed despite himself. ‘You’re quite right.’ ‘So, is it dry?’ He checked the bottle and nodded with mock solemnity. ‘Thank you! I’ll go get my pencil case and some paper.’ ### His feet sent jolts of pain through him as he tried time and again to find purchase on the rough bark of the tree. He had tried not to look around, but did so to see them stood all around, regarding him with black, alien eyes, as though awaiting some order to attack. A shiver passed through him. He felt tears prick the corners of his eyes. He took two steps back and propelled himself at the trunk, managing to spring off it to grab at a branch. It held. The crabs seemed to realise that their meal was about to escape, and moved forward as one. He had hoped that he would be safe off the ground, but the crabs scuttled, on the backs of others, until one was able to snap its claw closed and sever two of the toes on his left foot. He howled, using the pain to propel him up on to the branch. It creaked alarmingly. He climbed. Higher. Higher. Higher. All the while, whispering a prayer, trying not to look down in to the mumbling claws of the waiting crabs, trying not to see the bleeding stumps of his two missing toes. Up and up he went, up in to the sky. ### 42
I love you, always. And he knew that the gods had spoken to him.
With his tongue protruding from the left side of his mouth, Charlie slowly wrote out his message, carefully forming the letters with an intense concentration, asking occasionally for a correct spelling. ‘There! Now you write something.’ ‘I-I wouldn’t know what to write, little man.’ ‘You’ll think of something,’ the little boy smiled and pushed pencil and paper to his father. He began to write. ‘All done,’ he said a short time later. ‘Put it in the bottle!’ ### He was resting when a noise caught his attention. He looked up and something caught his eye. He climbed higher, until he could reach it, then untied the knot that held the bottle there and unscrewed the lid. He read: One day in a long time when you get this mesige messad letter I want you to no that we love you lots and lots and lots and lots we miss you I hope you are okay and having fun in the sky. Then, below, in another hand: What does he plant, who plants a tree? He plants cool shade, and tender rain, And seed and bud of days to be, And years that fade and flush again; He plants the glory of the plain; He plants the forest’s heritage; The harvest of a coming age; The joy that unborn eyes will see These things he plants who plants a tree.
Rich J Spalding
One Among The Shoal Ironically, Timothy Cheeter was something of a celebrity in our town. It was the summer they stopped us from playing in the lake, a dry, scorching summer that tea-stained the lawns and where the heat buzzed overhead like damaged power lines. The tarmac bleached in places, scarring maps onto our driveways, or on the long stretch that led up to the school gate. In a town like ours, everyone knew everyone, but everyone especially knew Timothy Cheeter. No one really understood how he came to be the way he was - the adults never talked about him, and so it was left up to us to develop our own theories. One story said he’d been left as a baby in a bush, like Moses in a wicker basket. Another story posited that he’d been lost during a game of hide and seek - unfound for so long that everyone just stopped looking, including him. Other stories involved a car accident, a head injury, an alcoholic mother and a complicated birth. Whichever story we were telling that summer, what mattered was that at some point Timothy Cheeter had come to believe he was invisible. Ours was a small town, a long way inland, about as far from the coast as you could be. On each side a long road unfurled, straight, empty and out into the dust of the horizon, where it thinned to a point and then nothing. The lake sat in the centre, a mystery from which our town grew like moss, thick and dense around its shores. The lake never dried in the summer, when the bugs and the birds came to flit across the surface. We’d paddle just off shore, skim stones, dunk our heads to cool down. There were rumours that the older kids used to go down there at night to skinny-dip and drink. In summer our feet were rarely dry. As long as any of us remembered, we’d seen Timothy Cheeter. For most of the year he was naked, with just a hide of thick tanned skin that seemed to cling too tight in places and hang loose in others, folding over his hips. In winter, he’d wear a battered old duffel coat, unbuttoned but with the togs tied around the neck, so that it billowed out behind him like a makeshift cape. We called him the Visible Man. We’d see him hanging by his knees from the old wooden fence that ran like stitches around the lake. He’d flash through the supermarket on weekends as we were pushed around in trolleys, snatching packets of crisps and ice-lollies before bursting from the front doors, the registers beeping idly as a town full of people stared straight ahead. We’d see him sleeping, spread-eagled on driveways, curled up on the bleachers by the swimming pool, flat on his back in the shade of the old school house. We’d see him dancing on the shore at sunset, trying handstands and cartwheels and waving to the sun as it winked away into darkness. The adults never talked about Timothy. If we asked questions, we were shushed, or patted. We were never to speak to him, never to look at him, never to acknowledge him. In a town like ours it was simple enough to make such a pact, and by the time we were old enough to question it, we were smart enough not to. Soon it was second nature, and each of us had perfected the thousand yard stare we’d adopt as Timothy darted past us on the walk to school, his thatch of burnt white hair a shock of lightning that left fault lines, still visible against your eyelids once they closed. We’d talk about him in school though. We learned to point with our eyes, and when the teachers’ heads were buried in books, their backs turned to scratch on chalkboards, their perms weaved together in playground conversation; we’d hide our mouths with our hands and mutter about the mound of skin and bone just outside the chain-link fence. We’d snigger at the dark rash of pubic hair that grew across the bottom of his belly, or the wrinkled scrotum that hung below it. We’d dare each other to approach him, and Clay Telli once did, pretending to trip over his legs while chasing a ball in the park. He’d looked round, rubbing his eyes in pantomime disbelief, but Timothy just lay there, completely still, until Clay stood again, brushed the grass stains from his school trousers and walked back to the place where we’d all stopped laughing. Ordinarily, however, no one went near Timothy before that summer. 44
Rich J Spalding
It could’ve been the heat that changed things. The records were broken on a daily basis, mercury bubbling at the top of thermometers. The supermarket sold out of ice, the electrical store sold out of fans; the curtains were closed across town all day and the windows left open all night. In the evenings, the lake would always darken early. As the sun burnt on, the water seemed to absorb the light, drowning it, so that by 7, though the day was still light, the lake was a vast, bottomless hole in the centre of town where the shore fell away into nothing. All evenings were spent there that summer, the whole town piling deckchairs, towels and beach umbrellas on the shore, like revolutionaries building their makeshift defences in the street. While the adults sat and drank beer, or listened to the radio, toes splayed in the dust, we’d play in the water, fearless of the dark. Our bodies would disappear completely beneath the surface, so that those who swam out far enough were nothing but heads, bobbing like fishing floats on the inky surface. That summer, the last summer we played in the lake, was the first summer that we saw Timothy Cheeter swim. It couldn’t have been the first summer that he swam, we decided later, but it was the first summer we saw him. His head started to appear amongst the others, a spark of burning magnesium fizzing across the surface, darting in and out and under, reappearing moments later thirty feet away. The water scarcely parted as he sliced through, the surface barely troubled by a ripple; the way a man would swim if he needed not to be seen. The first night was strange. It took a while before anyone noticed that he was among us. For a while he was just another floating head, one amongst the shoal, as we treaded water in groups. The realisation unravelled in stages, as the silent signals were passed from group to group. The patter of conversation stilled and we remained in our groups, watching from the corners of our eyes, floating nuclei between which a tiny electron pinged. No one spoke, but Timothy didn’t seem to notice as he flowed between us. He looked much more comfortable in water. The nudity that set him apart on land was concealed and he moved with a grace far removed from his awkward, lopsided presence when standing. His hard bones and thick, weathered skin softened, and he shimmered, a little more than a glow beneath the surface, invisible if he dove deep enough. He was at home, a seal in the water. A seal, from the start, never a shark. We’ve spoken since about that first night, and the thing that stood out, within each of us, was the lack of fear. He moved like prey, fleeing rather than chasing, and though we were surprised by his sudden presence, not one of us was scared by this agile, foreign creature that swum beneath our feet, or slid around our backs. In turns we checked back to the shore, but none of the adults seemed to have noticed Timothy, or if they had, they couldn’t react. And so we relaxed, that first evening, before we were called in and wrapped in towels, with Timothy Cheeter flying around us in the endless night sky of our nameless lake. In the weeks that followed, Timothy became a regular feature of our evenings. While our parents sat on the shore, we’d swim out across the top of the hole, suspended above nothing, and play in the water while Timothy darted between us. When we could, we enjoyed watching him, the ease with which he moved, the way he became fluid, a part of the lake. Each evening we’d organise races, from tree to tree along the bank. Five or six of us would bob in formation, while the others perched on rocks or clambered into branches for a better viewpoint from which to judge. Timothy won every time. He’d start on the far side, usually twenty feet or so away from the nearest competitor, paddling in tiny circles, level with the starting tree, until the cry went up. Then, as the course dissolved into a boiling white cauldron of frantic arms and threshing legs, Timothy would disappear. The screaming and hollering of encouragement continued, the pretence held in place by our innate lust for competition, but our eyes would trail the length of the course,
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adjust their focus to the finishing line just in time to see a white spark burst silently back into life from the depths. The applause at the end, the whooping and hollering that echoed like small grey fireworks along the banks of the lake, were always for Timothy, for the man who thought no-one could see him as he smiled, open-mouthed, and raised his fists into the air. The summer beat its way onwards, scarring the pavements and drying the leaves till they fell like autumn two months early. Three boys from the neighbourhood ended up in hospital with severe heat stroke, after they’d ditched class to skip stones. In the remaining weeks before school ended, we had to keep our feet moving on the playground during break times, save our soles melting into the tarmac. Timothy begun to appear in the playground soon after he’d begun to join us in the lake. At first, as he’d always done, he’d stay back behind the fence, running laps, waving his hands in the air, or threading his fingers silently through the chain-link fence. I don’t know if we led him on, if, subconsciously, we let our guards down, but one day he darted through, mouth wide open with joy, and ran between us. As we soaked our hair with thin, pre-pubescent sweat, Timothy Cheeter ran naked amongst us, his body steaming in the heat. He’d circle us during games; dodge in and out of us as we lined up at the end of break. He’d queue with us for food at lunch and before long he was slipping into lessons behind us. He’d sit on the floor at the back of the classroom, his knees tucked up to his chest, and he’d focus, as we pretended to, on the front of the room. He’d sit mesmerised, staring at the whiteboard, as if the pointer in the teacher’s hand were tapping out Morse code. Some of the kids at the back of the classroom swear they saw his lips moving, shaping around words they couldn’t say. The adults ignored him still. In the playground or in the classroom, or darting through the lake at night, his presence was never acknowledged, was never mentioned. Gradually, Timothy became a greater and greater presence in our lives, and gradually, we began to believe too, that maybe, to them at least, he was invisible. We were comfortable around Timothy by the time the school holidays started, but it was still a surprise the first time he appeared in someone’s bedroom. Lily Edelwhite was the first person to see him when she woke in the night, needing the toilet. She said, at first, she took him for a shadow, some trick of the evening projected onto the wall by a crumpled curtain or crooked tree branch. She told us the next day that his eyes were open, that he wasn’t sleeping, that he was just sitting and watching. Ours was the kind of town where no one locks their doors, or where summer forces the windows to gape like sleeping mouths in the night. Timothy had crawled in, as spiders do during autumn, looking for shelter, for comfort, or for company. Lily maintains that, that first night, as we’d learned to many years before, she had looked away when she recognised that it was Timothy. She claims she’d let her eyes drift, slowly, back to the bedroom door, before stretching and getting up to use the toilet. Then, she says, she returned to bed, checking in the corner of her vision that Timothy was still there. Then she went back to sleep. We were told later, by a different source, that she’d been too scared to get up, had just lain completely still, and spent the night in a slowly cooling puddle of her own urine, eyes wide till dawn. There were non-believers amongst us when Lily told her story, but the following night Pat Fogharty found Timothy at the foot of his bed, knees pulled up to his chest, back leant against the cold white metal of the radiator. Never the same room two nights in a row, but from then on Timothy was discovered in bedrooms across town, his sun-battered body tucked into corners, or curled up at the feet of wardrobes. Some of us chose to close our windows, to cook slowly in our own sweat rather than share a room with Timothy. Others saw it as a badge of honour. They’d been chosen; they had survived a night with the Visible Man. As the holidays wore on, Timothy started to join us in the park during daytime. Mark Crawford swore that, during one game of stick-in-the-mud, Timothy scrabbled between his 46
open legs. He’d run alongside us as far as he could while we rode our bikes, pumping our legs to put distance between ourselves and the new friend we hadn’t asked for. He was still joining us at the lake every evening. He swam closer than ever before. We turned our backs, or huddled in close groups, and sometimes he’d drift away. But never far. He was always in the corner of our vision. He never followed us home from the lake, but he’d leave early, some nights, slipping away from the crush and into the trees as we pretended not to notice. Those nights he’d be waiting in whichever room he’d chosen, hunched over on the carpet, or straddling the bean bag, or simply standing beside the window and gathering the breeze, like a man trying to wash in rain. It was Carla that told her parents, the last night that we swam in the lake. Until that point, everybody else had played by the rules, our lips sealed tight beneath the covers. But when Carla turned over in the night and set eyes on Timothy’s outline, clothed in blue shadow, crouching beneath her work desk, she called out and the summer came to a close.
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The next day, there was a meeting in the school hall. Carla’s parents had kept calm; they’d ignored the broke-backed shadow in their daughter’s room, and had taken her through to sleep with them. And the next day they’d told the town. We were each questioned by our parents. Asked, for the first time, about Timothy Cheeter, about how he swam with us in the lake, about how he shared our rooms at night, about how, over the last few months, he had become one of us. It was strange to hear his name said by adult voices. It sounded silly, and we found it hard to take them seriously as in tense, terse voices, our parents reminded us whom Timothy was. Timothy was not a well man. Timothy was not a friend. Timothy was a stranger; he was strange. He was not one of us. We were mistaken. We were not to trust him, and we should have told them sooner. We were left behind in the evening, cared for by older children, by great uncles and cousins, while our parents whispered in the school hall. Lily’s brother claimed the teachers were all getting fired because they hadn’t stopped him coming into lessons. He claimed the school would’ve closed anyway, if it weren’t the summer holidays. That night, we were each woken by the unfamiliar sound of keys turning in locks and rusty bolts sliding across doors. Our parents came and closed all our windows, as the temperatures in our homes rose to levels that made sleep impossible. None of us were sleeping anyway. Across the town, in rooms fuzzy with heat, we were waiting for Timothy. In the end, it was Mary White’s window that he tried first. She heard the frame creaking as he pulled, gently with his fingers tips, at the top edge. Then again, harder. Mary’s parents were in her room by this point, their arms wrapped around her, and it was her brother who heard the door handle being tested. He described it afterwards as ghostly, the way it moved so slowly, so carefully, downwards, like the head of a dying daffodil. Then Timothy let it slip back into position. He tried the Potters next door, then the Berglunds, next the Lamberts, each time a family waiting inside, parents shielding their young children behind the bars of their legs, as Timothy’s testing of each handle became more robust, more aggressive, until he was hurtling from door to door, yanking at each one before scattering across open lawns to the next and trying again. He fell on the Pargins’ drive, tripping over his tiring legs, and finally he stopped. And that’s when Timothy Cheeter looked up. Lit from the inside, glowing like oven doorways, he saw us, gathered as families in each window, slowly cooking inside as we looked out at him. We tugged at our parents’ legs, at the hems of their shirts, trying to get them to look away, but they stood, resolute, and stared at Timothy Cheeter, the invisible boy, as he lay panting and trembling on the warm tarmac. We’d never heard Timothy make a noise before that summer evening. He moved in silence, muted, as if always underwater. It started as a creak, a scratching mewl from the back of the throat, morphing into a blunt, open-mouthed yawn of fear and sorrow. His mouth moved uncertainly, lips quivering, jaws clenched, then gaping apart, unsure of how to control
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the sound, a deaf man trying to talk. It scared him, we could tell, and the noise fed back on itself in an endless loop, heightening and distorting the worse it became. And still our parents looked out, watched, as Timothy crumpled lower and lower, trying to bury himself. We were sent to bed soon after, and none of us heard the sound stop. The next morning, Timothy Cheeter was invisible. We looked for him, down by the swimming pool, in the park, by the old schoolhouse. We rode our bikes across town, until we were sweating and panting and broke. We gathered in the park, in the shade of the Ash trees, and made our conclusions. Timothy Cheeter, the bundle of bones and straw, the lopsided man with the open mouth and the scarred hands. The Visible Man, who swam like a seal and ran like a child, who danced on the shore and waved goodbye to the sun. Timothy Cheeter had finally become invisible. We smiled through the heat, training our eyes for some sign we were sure we’d never see. And whenever the heat rose in summer, or we slept at each other’s houses, we’d talk about Timothy Cheeter, and wonder whether he was with us. In a town like ours, seasons, summers in particular, take on mutual labels, remembered by events, making them sound like scraps of ancient folklore. There was the summer the power went out, the summer the Hawks almost made the play-offs, the summer they built the bridge. When our parents remember that summer, they talk about the weather, the summer of the heat wave, the summer it didn’t rain. But to us, that summer will always be the summer that Timothy Cheeter finally became invisible. And the summer they stopped us from playing in the lake.
The powder-puff’s Journey -I can’t stand English tea! Because when the Nazis left we had nothing to eat or drink for two weeks or so. When the English arrived the first thing they gave us was tea, and we were all sick and since this time I cannot drink tea. I raised my eyebrows and grinned at her. In my mind I pictured the Brits, faced with the horror, running round panicking. -Shit, what the hell should we do? -I don’t know mate, put the kettle on, and then we’ll sort it all out. I shrugged, -well, erm.. I giggled a little. -Coffee then?
When I had first visited her at her artist husband’s flat we had partaken of coffee in the drawing room surrounded by the art. Served cakes were on blue patterned china, I grabbed at a coconut flecked jam sponge. The conversation stopped and all eyes turned. I stopped and held the cake at my gaping gob. My eyes moved left and right. -What, what? -We do have cake forks you know! -Of course she did. So, anyway it had taken me ages to convince her that our little hideaway was of the highest standard, and it was. Antique and rustic furniture mingled with communist relics and First Republic gadgets. We picked her up from the train station, and drove slowly through the blinding snow storm. The smell and glow of oak welcomed her in. She handed over two small packages. Two decorated paper bags. Inside two treasures unwrapped. -If you don’t like them you can sell them. -No no, we love them, thank you. When we looked inside I had a silver cigarette case, her husband’s. My wife had a powder-puff case, silver. Ruth’s husband’s art was all over our place, this made her happy, and she looked at the picture of the farmhouse in Crete where they had managed to get to one year, and smiled a little. He had given some of it to us for a wedding present, this was when he was alive, well 49
What Aunty Ruth was talking about was being in the Camps. She is a Jew, liberated by the British, who forty odd years later finds herself being breakfasted by another Brit, in an old Sudeten-Deutsche Lodge in the mountains on the border of Poland and Czech. It had taken me a while to persuade Aunty Ruth to come visit us. She was never one to rough it. Ruth wanted the finer things in life, a little luxury, and who could blame her?
barely as he was quite ill and used a bag and a cane, as they had operated on the wrong leg. I had admired the man and his art, so was very happy to receive the case. Unfortunate then that I had switched to electronic ones six months before, but still it looked nice on the bookcase. The powder-puff case was another story.
Ruth’s great Uncle Oldrich had been in the Great War, reluctantly fighting for the Empire, against the British. He was captured by the British and sent to a camp in Scotland. The prisoners were treated well, they never tried to escape, why would they? However, the weather did not agree with a lot of the middle-Europeans, and Ruth’s Great Uncle became very ill, with pneumonia. -He was cared for very well, he said. The doctors were very kind. He had a fondness for your British tea too, which is funny. The uncle returned to Moravia where he spent months and months in a special Spa. He bathed in and drank smelly cloudy sulpher waters to help. Ruth visited as often as she could, she sang songs and read books to him, for comfort. Now, during all this time he had done the lottery. Every week without fail he would place a little money on his lucky numbers, he never said what they were. Even when he was away his wife had firm instructions to place money on the numbers. Eventually his illness worsened and they amputated his legs. The following week, he won the lottery. He won! He won a motorbike. When he was well enough he was told this by his wife, he laughed. He laughed for such a long time he brought on a coughing fit and was very ill again for a few days after. Eventually he got better and instructed his wife to sell the damn motorbike. When well enough to return home, his wife pushed his wheelchair around the plush department store in Brno as he picked out little presents for the people he loved. One of those presents was for his favourite little niece and for her he picked a powder puff case. We were separated at school. Suddenly the teachers got nasty. Urging the other kids, our friends, to mock us. Why? I didn’t understand it. ‘Why Mama? What did we do wrong?’ There were few answers. Some people came to our house. They seemed like Police, but new Police. They took away my things. And all the bright things in the house. Anything pretty. I hid the little powder-puff case in my special hiding place. Uncle Oldrich had told me to take special care of it. The nastiness and stupid things continued. I couldn’t understand it. No-body seemed to understand it. We were made to sew the Star of David on our clothes. Our neighbour’s shops were burnt or left windowless after a night of rain and a morning of sun that left the streets sparkling and smoking. An old lady spat in my father’s face as he held my hand on the way home from school for the last time. I held his hand so tight. If I held his hand I thought everything would be alright. 50
‘Why can’t I go to school Dada?’ “Don’t worry Ruth, one day you will go back.’ ‘But Dada, I am a good student, why can’t I go to school, I don’t understand?’ ‘Some people don’t want us there Ruth, bad people.. but they won’t always be there. We have seen this before. Things will go back to normal, you will see.’ ‘Do you promise?’ ‘I promise.’ I could see in his eyes that he hadn’t really promised. Not like when he promised to take me to the boating lake, or to buy me the flowery dress in Mr Benes’s window. It wasn’t a promise like the one when he told me about the huge slices of cake and ice cream he would buy me for my birthday in the Tivoli Kavana. Now, his eyes showed fear and I knew he couldn’t keep his promise. There could be no cake.
The street shook from heavy trucks. I looked out of the window. They were all over the square. Orders were being shouted out in a nasty sounding German. Red checked, men in helmets clattered out of the trucks, busy as ants. They all looked very disorganised, until they were ordered to halt. And then like mechanical Soldiers they were all in order. The ants entered all the buildings, shouting and shouting, pushing and pushing, making people leave their apartments. Doors were booted in. Office workers were hurried into the street. People grabbed coats and boots. Hurriedly they tried to dress. We went down quickly, we didn’t want the ants to come inside our home. We were pushed by guns under the Baroque arches of the square. Those of us who had coats and the shirtless office workers. The mayor of the town Mr Sheller, was busy, his red face was redder than usual, and his usual lovingly greased moustache was a bit shabby! He hurried and complained about being pushed. And he straightened his top hat and pushed his bursting waistcoat out. And wanted to know what the meaning of this was. I remember these words. 51
Mr Polosky’s shop was all burned out, and I didn’t know where he had gone. Many people, our neighbours, had just gone. One minute they were there, then they disappeared. My best friend, Eva was gone, she didn’t even say goodbye. No one would say where people had gone. My Mother came home and sat at the table. She burst into tears, her head in her hands. My Father stood over her, stroking her long black hair. She had been sent home from the hospital, where she helped the new babies. Others in our street and around were sent home. People stopped working. We had to queue for food, awful food. My Father was still able to help his patients. But was given no medicine to help them. He pleaded at the community centre to the more important men in our community. They did nothing to help him. The queues got longer. The new uniformed people started to order us around, not just the new Police force, but people who had been our friends, our neighbours. They began to shout at us. Some came and argued with my father in the street, by the lines of people waiting to see him. They pushed people away, and sometimes hit them. And screamed in their faces. I wanted it all to end. At night I closed my eyes and tried to wish it all away. It felt like when I had a bad dream and I couldn’t reach something or couldn’t run fast enough, and tried to wake myself up, because I knew I was dreaming, but couldn’t wake up. It felt like this.
‘What is the meaning of this, I am no Jew, why are we being pushed around?’ The other office workers mumbled complaints also, mainly to the new police, as the ant Soldiers stood a little way off, not talking, or moving, just watching. The police ordered silence. We were separated; girls with mothers, I cried as they dragged, shoved and beat men with boys onto waiting Lorries. People screamed, people begged, people pleaded. I held out my arms desperately, trying to reach someone. I ran after the trucks as they left. That was the last time I saw my Dada and my brothers. I knew we were going to be taken away, so I managed to run into our flat and take the powder-puff case from under the floor boards. I hid it in my knickers thinking that no-one would look there. ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------So what happened? -Well, my mother and I were taken by train to Terrazin camp, you know of this yes? -Sure. -The Journey was terrible. One bucket for toilet and one of a foul smelling water. We slept all bodies entwined, out of necessity and for the need of warmth. Things were not so bad there, I mean not so bad as what I experienced later. We were over-crowded, but there was some food and some normal life. I even went to school, not a normal school, just some classes given by teachers. But many people died. I was afraid and cried all the time, my mother covered my eyes, but couldn’t stop me seeing. I became a woman. My childhood taken from me. There were tradesmen, there carpenters and toolmakers, cobblers and tailors. My mother found a cobbler who put a special heel on my boot, somewhere I could hide the case. In the dormitories we slept two, three to a bunk with one sheet. After some weeks we were put onto train trucks again. We travelled for weeks. When we arrived at the station on our final stop, we were told that this was an educational labour camp. Some thousand or so people were separated and as we stood shivering we heard volley after volley of shots in the distance. We were a few hundred left now, all women. Other women were marched to other such camps. Our huts were basic, with a stove. We had little fuel but we scrapped enough together to have some heat. We were allowed to mingle freely in the parade ground. We listened to stories and rumours of all sorts; hope, no hope, savagery, kindness, slaughter, rehabilitation. Rescue. We were made to work in the forests and the quarry. The work was exhausting. We were given soup and black bread. Our guards were Estonians or Russians. Some were kind some not. Some gave us extra food and smiles. My mother was taken ill with typhoid as were many, they were not cared for but taken away, I don’t know where. One guard was taken by my friend Tasha who had comforted me after my mother left. We huggled in my bunk and tried to give some of the love back that had been taken, we slept embraced holding a comfort. This guard Otto smiled at first, tipped his hat, then talked more and more to Tasha when he could, and gave her chocolate. Chocolate! It was as if a fairy Prince has given her a palace of gold.. we shared the chocolate! .at night with all we could, under blankets. Otto and Tasha took great risks in trying to meet and just talk. 52
One day Otto gave Tasha a small red lip-stick.. There were no mirrors in the camp. What does someone need with a lip-stick in hell? None of us had even looked at ourselves for a long time, only in the reflection of water.. At night I unlocked my shoe hiding place and gave her the Powder-puff case. She cried when she looked at her self. Blotched face, matted hair, scratches, scars.. and oldness. We the girls scrubbed her face, and body and with much pain tried to un-matt her hair. The day was a holiday for the guards, and a day of rest for us. The atmosphere was relaxed. She applied the red lipstick, checking that she resembled a woman in the case and walked to the fence, to Otto. He looked at her for a short time.. we were huddled together watching from a short distance. He looked at her and tears rolled down his checks. He didn’t speak, he took off his hat and with a sweep of his hand before him he bowed. Towards a woman.
They had been on the run for many months, but could not make it across the borders, they decided to return here, to hide out. They were caught and were marched back into the camp as we all watched from behind the wires. They untied their hands and made them stand straight in front of a firing squad against a fence with the expanse of the wilderness behind them. As they tried to reach for each other’s hands a volley of shots ripped into their bodies. As the echoes faded the brownness of their bodies let out a glow of steam as the red stained the white of the snow and seeped into the mud, their fingers were touching. -And your mother? -I never knew what happened to her at the time. We were moved on very quickly, into wagons again, there were no sick or old this time. We travelled for days, to the final camps. -Oh my god, so sorry. -Don’t be sorry, it was not your fault.. -Yes but.. -There is nothing one can say of these things.. I cried for sure, but I had to live.. to live for us both. But one thing I must tell you about the powder-puff. Before we left another friendly guard called Libor warned us not to take anything we had hidden, these camps would be in Germany and Poland and much worse. I sat all night thinking if to trust this man. I did. . I gave him my Powder puff case and he promised to hide it for me, and maybe one day if I could make it back here he would return it to me. -And you went back? -You are a very impatient man.. We were taken to the extermination camps. And I was one 53
-Jesus, what a story! -And what happened? -Otto and Sophie planned an escape.. under cover of darkness. We all collected food and clothes as best as we could manage. She left dressed as an Estonian day worker. And we heard nothing for days. Then we heard rumours; they had escaped to Scandinavia, they had been shot. We all clung to the story of our Romeo and Juliet. That was our hope, our fantasies under the rough blankets at night.
of the few who survived. I was lucky. You have read all about these camps I take it, so I won’t bore you with the details. -Bore me.. . After the liberation, after months of being logged, made well, documented, pushed here, taken there, injected here.. I eventually made it back to Brno. I was placed in a care home, who cared for me with love. -And that’s the story then, but wait a minute what about the case? -There’s another chapter to come, let’s have more coffee and I’ll tell it.
In the 1960’s I applied to visit Estonia to visit the camp where my mother died. The red tape was terrible, the authorities didn’t want the past racked up, so made it terribly difficult for me to get a travel permit. I wrote to a professor of art in Estonia who knew of my husband and who had fought against the Nazis. We corresponded and he pulled strings, wrote letters, called in favours; did everything he could to get me a travel pass. When it arrived, or I should say they as there were mountains of documents, I cried. The Journey was long, I took it alone and at every official juncture my journey was hindered. I passed through scenery I seemed to remember, this time in a fairly comfortable little carriage. The people were very polite to me except the border guards and at every frontier I was taken in for questioning and to have all my papers checked over and over again. I eventually made it to Tallinn and met the professor, who gave me shelter in his apartment and made me most welcome. We journeyed to the place where the camp used to be. This was the saddest part for me, the most vivid memories came back into my mind. We visited the village close by, we were met by the Mayor a courteous man, but again I was questioned by local party members and had papers checked and checked. We were taken to a small graveyard near to the outside of the old camp that was now a pig farm. There was a little graveyard, with flowers, and little wooden crosses.. there was a plaque commemorating the women who had died there, and there was my mother’s name. I knew she must have died but one always lives with a faint hope if one has not been told the full truth. This was my mother’s resting place. I thanked them all. They were happy to receive a relative of one of the people from the camps, happy to know that I, a survivor survived, and was here to visit. They were happy for someone to see that they cared, that they remembered. As I was left alone looking at the commemoration Plaque a youngish woman approached me. She told me her father had been at the camp and that he had promised to keep something for one of the girls. She felt I should have it. She unwrapped a red lace hanker-chief an inside was the powder-puff case. -No way! Sounds too unbelievable to be true! And you bought it all the way back here.. wow. -These little stories are not so unbelievable, not compared to the unbelievable things that went on. These thing, these little stories, coincidences’, these little fates are our hope, our reality, our faith if you wish. -It was by no means easy. I had to hide it in my knickers again. The communist authorities were always suspicious of anything connected with the war and often stole things or hid things away, but what half-drunk half-witted jobs-worth would search the knickers of an old woman like me? She giggled. - So, I took many train Journeys once again with the Case hidden. But this time the Journey was home. 54
-But you must understand that at that time people were reluctant to speak, about the war, the past. -After the Revolution in Czeckoslavkia my husband who was a great traveller went back with me to visit my motherâ€™s resting place and we put a small plaque with her name on it. Quite a few villages came and stood with hats in their hands and I stood with them with the powder-puff glanced in my hand.
Messenger Scarlet is pressing the phone to her ear. Her mother called, a worried hen - I will be fine I’m safe now - I will be home soon - I love you Mum. I am lingering in the doorway, neither in the kitchen or the living room. Just waiting for the kettle to click. At least when it does, I will have some semblance of purpose, because right now, the living room is too close while she is upset, and the kitchen is too far away to offer comfort. Scarlet arrived two hours ago: puffy eyes, smudged with mascara. Hair wired in different directions, some strands faint in apathy, others frozen in rigor mortis. When she stepped from the train, her mouth stretched into a watery smile - I have finally left him. I took her small bag from her shoulders and guided her through the empty hallway. She said nothing, only her shoes shrieked against the polished floor. I felt like Orpheus, wanting to look back and make sure she was still there, but too afraid. I don’t know why. Maybe, like Eurydice, she wouldn’t be there anymore. What if, through her tears, she realised this was a mistake? And turned around, travelling north back to Hades, clicking through the turnstiles and gone? So I listened to her shoes. The kettle finally snaps. Scarlet once told me a good cup of tea solves everything. My awkward hovering being one of these problems I suppose. I drown her conversation out with the cadence of falling water. I think about tomorrow. When she wakes up, I can take breakfast to the spare room and leave the tray on the bedside table. She can come downstairs whenever she wants, and we can talk like we have been doing on Facebook for months now. We will enjoy a return to meaningless conversation; spend the day sharing a blanket in front of DVD’s, popcorn and cherry coke. And we can talk. Just talk. She starts to put the phone down - I love you Mum - don’t worry - I will speak to you soon. I hover in the doorway, the ceramic mug burning my fingers. Scarlet slips her face into her hands then. Her hair curls down her wrists. I have always preferred her hair straight, but she has had a long day, so I will say nothing. I just place the tea in front of her, and sit on the other sofa, pointing my body towards her. Scarlet looks at me and extends her hand. Our palms connect, our fingers move together and then settle. And still we say nothing. ***** And I no longer hear the words. Just the voice. The crackling, the grating, the screeching. You are white noise. Your face is maroon and purple, looking ready to explode, like flesh in the throes of a heart attack. I want that. To see you collapse, clutch your chest, gasp for elusive oxygen and then lay still. I wonder if you would thrash like a landed fish, hit the ground with the force of a pneumatic drill, or slip down the wall as though your back is greased. Then your noise would stop, and I could breathe. ***** I crawled into his bed last night. When I woke up, the last fragments of a dream fading, I noticed small things. Little differences. The blacker shade of the night, the smell of an unfamiliar room, how the mattress doesn’t dip around my shoulder blades, the smell of a strange fabric softener on the pillow slip, and how I couldn’t hear cars. It took me a few minutes to realise that I was no longer in Bradford, no longer at home. I have finally left him. I closed my eyes again, but as sleep prodded and probed, my mind resisted. So I crawled into his bed. I didn’t want sex or anything. And he didn’t try to. He just let me slip my head 56
***** A split lip, a black eye. You are holding your face, and yes the message has finally begun to sink in. Did I hear the word “sorry” laced in the squealing pitch of your whine? Why are you on your knees? Get the fuck back up. I wonder whether it is harder for you to stand and face me, than to stop yourself bawling like a smacked child. ***** She has been here a week now. Scarlet shuffles on the sofa, her petit legs swung underneath her, watching some colourful television show with people wailing karaoke songs. I watch some of it over her shoulder, moved by the story of the boy who wants to make his dead mother proud of him. Listening to him sing I think that he should find some other way of achieving his mother’s eternal love. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so judgmental. Scarlet seems happy though, so I say nothing, and keep my unschooled opinion to myself. But this show annoys me, there are never any decent songs. It is all the pub favourites, whinged in a fictional key. But like I said, Scarlet seems happy. We are sharing a sizzling silence at the moment. A “nothing really” triviality caused 57
onto his chest, and put his arm around me. Mmhm, he said to nothing, and nothing answered as I settled my head. He kissed my forehead and then drifted back into a soft snore. But after a few minutes I started to notice the differences again. Gareth used to breathe sharply in his sleep, sometimes he would say something unintelligible - Washing machines have no guilt - I found your pencil in the dishwasher - I would fuck you so hard Jenny. There is none of that with Steven. He swells and deflates in steady rhythm, grunts occasionally, smacks his lips and his thumb strokes my back. I have wanted this for so long. Whilst Gareth was drinking and working, I was on Facebook with Steven. He always knew what to say, sharing songs he thought I would like, and telling me things that Gareth should have - I love your smile - Good morning beautiful How are you princess? - I wish I could give you a cuddle. But Gareth would come home, sit on his Xbox, or drag his laptop out. He would eat my dinners, drink my coffees, return my kisses. But then he would go to bed. Sometimes he wanted sex, and I performed as I should. Slipping and sliding around on our satin sheets, making the right noises. I assume the correct position in the post coital snuggle, and then when he drifted off, I would go back to awaiting a message from Steven. I drifted off eventually, rocked asleep by the ebb and flow of Steven’s breathing. I dreamt of Gareth I think. I remember him being there, and I know I had an orgasm in my sleep. We were in my old room, my Facebook messenger bonging from my laptop. I woke up to the sun streaming a cold light into Steven’s vanilla room. He wasn’t in the bed, and I could hear the shower. There was this weird pang of guilt tumbling in my stomach. As if my subconscious had cheated on him. I should be grateful. I am grateful. The shower beating against the bath sounded like torrential rain. My legs swung from the bed. Gratitude didn’t require me to wear clothes, so I stripped and padded to the bathroom. Steven’s eyes widened as I stepped under the shower with him. I pressed my lips to his, putting my arm around his neck. When I felt him go hard against me, I stepped back to have a look. He wasn’t as big as Gareth, and his pubic hair was wilder, less pruned. Gareth was slimmer, more muscular than Steven whose hands were running over a small paunch. But Steven was obviously excited, and I wanted to say thank you. I slipped to my knees.
her to get a little mad with me. I knocked her favourite mug from the worktop, a clinical white one, with “World’s greatest lover” emblazoned in black, and a chipped red heart at its centre. She told me someone bought that for her, one of the few gifts she had left. The tea inside was spreading over my tiled floor, and I couldn’t mop it up until she had finished her lecture. - It isn’t about how much it costs - You should watch what you are doing - You had better get it cleaned up. Since then she hasn’t spoken a word, and is drawing a tea stained sock underneath her. Again I find myself hovering, between the two sofas. Normally I would sink into the seat next to her; she would put her feet on my lap. I would give her a foot rub, or hold her hand. But she is curled up like a frightened hedgehog, her mouth tight as if trying to stifle a yawn. I hand her a cup of tea, in her second favourite mug. One of mine. She can have it. She takes it without a sound, her eyes never leaving the television screen. So I sit on the other sofa. *****
I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you, here take this cloth. Hold it to your lip, if you press it hard the blood should stop. I just get angry sometimes. I will make it up to you I promise. ***** ‘What do you actually do all day?’ ‘I haven’t been feeling well. Don’t have a fucking go at me.’ ‘Are you kidding me, I have been at work all day. This place is a state.’ ‘What and because you work all day, I have to be your fucking maid?’ ‘Yeah that is exactly what I said. Don’t be a moron.’ ‘Sorry, maybe you should get me a little apron, and a chain to couple me to the sink.’ ‘Have you even looked for a job?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘What really? Where did you go?’ ‘Online.’ ‘Find anything?’ ‘Nothing out there.’ ‘There are jobs going at my place.’ ‘Yeah because I want to clean a fucking factory all day.’ ‘True, you can’t even clear up after yourself.’ ‘What?’ ‘Well look, hula hoop packets, empty coke bottle. I come home to a recycling plant.’ ‘You are such an arsehole.’ ‘You have to be kidding me. I am pulling twelve hour shifts.’ ‘And what? Twelve hour shifts and you think I should spend the day cleaning your house, cooking your meals, making your tea? Get real, what do you think this is, the 1950’s?’ ‘So what? It is acceptable to sit there doing jack shit all day?’ ‘Get off my fucking case Gareth.’ ‘Gareth?’ ‘Shit. Steven.’ ‘Whatever.’ ‘Oh go and have a big sulk then.’ ‘Are you kidding me? I mean are you actually bloody serious?’ ‘Well if you want to be a baby. So your house is a bit untidy, there are dishes next to the sink. Think I created all this mess? No you just want someone to run around after you, someone to iron your fucking underpants and knit you a sweater and bake you a pie. Well fuck you if you think I am going to be your slave. What are you flinching for? Don’t be a pussy all your life. Do you want a cup of coffee your royal highness?’ 58
***** I know you didn’t mean to hurt me. The bleeding will stop soon, I know you were a little angry, and I probably deserved it. It’s just the heat of situation I know you didn’t want to hurt me. I will be more careful, it’s only a nick. I know you would never use the knife; it was spur of the moment I get it. Don’t worry I get it. We are fine, just a little bruised is all. ***** Gareth messaged yesterday again, it was nice to hear from him. Steven had gone to bed early, after a long day working. I pulled out the laptop and told him that I was looking for a job. He gave me a kiss on the forehead and traipsed upstairs heavily. I turned it on and saw Gareth’s message - You will never guess who I ran in to today - Yeah that guy sounds like a complete nob dollop - Do you wanna webcam? It wasn’t long before we were skyping, and my underwear was strewn around the living room. Just messaging and talking, I couldn’t help it, I came at least twice. Gareth was just like he used to be when we first met. Sarcastic, kinky, risqué. A proper man. I missed a proper man. Steven and I fucked the night before. And by fucking I mean he climbed on me, vibrated a bit, blew his load then rolled over. I barely had time to grunt, let alone moan. Gareth, at least, used to make sure that I had one orgasm. Steven’s pencil dick barely touches the sides. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but when Steven used to talk to me through Facebook, he was charming and he promised so many things he just can’t live up to. A good hard fuck being one of them. All talk. . No game. I should feel guilty about it I know. Steven has been so kind, but the rot is already setting in. Just yesterday some Jehovah’s witnesses came to the door, and he stood listening to them for ten minutes before I intervened and told them to fuck off. I was late for a hair appointment. I have been straightening my hair so much recently that I am burning the shit out of my split ends. I am going back to having my waves. Gareth always told me he loved my waves. Made me more effeminate, more like a woman. I loved being treated like a woman. Not a lady. That is part of the problem. Steven puts me on this fucking pedestal, as if I am some sort of princess, he only once ever raised his voice to me. Made me so hot I just wanted to rip his clothes off there and then. Didn’t last long, next I knew he was almost on his knees groveling like a starving dog. Then his eyes began to water. Gareth had 59
‘No it’s fine I’m sorry.’ ‘Stop flinching I won’t hit you.’ ‘Then sit down. Chill out.’ ‘Chill out? You walk in here acting all fucking high and mighty and telling me I should be hoovering and dusting after your lazy arse, and using the excuse that you go out to work as an excuse? Why can’t you tidy up? Why is it so fucking difficult for you to do something in this house for once? Stop fucking flinching, you are acting like a big fucking baby.’ ‘Scarlet-’ ‘Is that what you are? A big baby who needs a mummy to run around after him. Stop flinching, you are making me so angry. You and your high and mighty attitude. You make me cringe sometimes do you know that? It’s like living with an overgrown and needy kitten, Jesus. Flinch one more time and I will give you a reason to flinch. I am not feeling well, and you come home to make me angry. Look at you. For fucks sake.’ ‘Seriously calm down.’ ‘Calm down? I am perfectly calm, it is you treating me like a slave making me angry.’ ‘I don’t mean to.. ’ ‘Same old thing. I am sorry, I didn’t mean to make you angry. Have you no fucking spine? You are like a slug you are, slithering around without a spine. Is that what you are? A fucking slug? Stop fucking flinching now.’
started messaging me again that night, no apology or anything, just - Hey babe you missing me yet? I knew how his expression would have been, how his smile stretched across his face. His tongue probably between his teeth. I messaged back. Steven was in the kitchen sulking, applying ice to his bruised chin. He had stopped apologising about an hour before Gareth started messaging. I knew I had to say sorry, I knew that I had to make it up to Steven. But I didn’t know how. I didn’t mean to hit Steven, it just happened. I couldn’t take much more of the high pitched keening he was making. It was a like a balloon expelling a long slow lungful of air. I just needed it to stop. Gareth was soon sending me pictures of his dick, and I remembered how big it was, I remember how it felt, how far it reached. Before long I was so horny that I apologized to Steven, and I let him fuck me. Everything was OK for a day or so after that, Steven left me alone to do what I had to do, and I could talk to Gareth without being bothered.
***** The neighbours called? Sorry officer I don’t know what you are talking about? I fell down the stairs is all; I was just in pain, that’s probably the shouting they heard. No there is nothing going wrong here. Honestly, I am just really clumsy, I tripped from the top step. I know there is a lot of blood, it is OK. I will go hospital if it doesn’t stop soon. Don’t worry it was just a trip. Thank you for your concern. ***** They make a cute couple don’t they? Uh? Who? Oh Steven and Scarlet? Yes Steven and Scarlet. Yeah I suppose. He really makes the effort with her. You see when he dropped that croissant on the carpet, he just couldn’t stop saying sorry. It is sweet really. Dropping a croissant? That is sweet? No, how apologetic he was. He obviously worries about how he acts in front of her. Yeah I suppose. And he just couldn’t stop looking at her. He really cares about her you know. Yeah I suppose. Oh for God sake, he is your friend, you should be happy for him. I am happy for him. I just.. never mind. No go on. Well, where do you think he really broke his cheekbone? He walked into a door frame. They told you that. Some door frame. His face was a swollen mess. Well accidents happen. Yeah I suppose. Just seems he’s having a lot of accidents recently. You always said he was clumsy. Not this bad. Comes to work looking like he lost a fight with Chuck Norris most weeks. Oh, meant to say, got the new ‘Expendables’ on DVD. You seen it yet? No not yet. We’ll have to invite them over for another night. They are so cute together. Yeah I suppose. ***** I said I was sorry. Let go of me. I promised I would never hurt you again, let me go. You’re 60
hurting me. Stop it stop it, - what have you done - I’m bleeding - what have you - oh God oh God oh God oh God - no stop it please - please stop it - please - I am going woozy - all this blood - all this - stop - please - please - Ste - I’m sorrrrrr.. ***** (From the Evening Telegraph) . .the woman known as Scarlet Bourne was pronounced dead on the scene. Steven Elliot was arrested and is being held in for questioning.. (From the Chronicle and Echo) . .In a statement released yesterday by the Northamptonshire constabulary Mr. Elliot was described as “a cold character without remorse for his actions”..
****** You wouldn’t think it. He stabbed her repeatedly. I never imagined him to be capable of that. Yeah I suppose. She must have put up a fight though, you seen the state of his face. Yeah. What? Nothing. Only that, his face has been like that regularly for months now. She must have been a feisty one then. But she never had any marks, not until she was killed. Oh my God. You sound like you are almost suggesting that Scarlet, the five-foot cocktail stick was beating Steven up. Not possible no? Come on. He’s almost twice her size. Would you let that little girl beat you up? Yeah I suppose. What sort of man would let that happen? Yeah I suppose.
(Radio interview with Gareth Kirk) “Steven convinced her to leave our home, and kept her prisoner for months. God only knows what abuse she suffered at his hands. Nobody knew what a monster he was, nobody. I could forgive him for winning her from me, but even after she left me, I could never forgive him for taking her life. A cruel, cruel monster.”
You’re Only as Young as the Men You Feel Milton thrust into Kyle time and time again, each thrust more demanding than the last. But this time it felt different and Kyle knew it. It was more urgent, like time was pressing and he wanted to get it over and done with. Kyle wanted to reach round to grab his hips, to slow his harsh movements so Milton could enjoy the sensation more. But he knew that’d be a mistake. Kyle’s job was to lie there while Milton did his business. It’d been that way for as long as Kyle could remember. All he knew was Milton. Milton’s long, thick cock inside him, stretching him to the limit. Without it? He couldn’t even comprehend that. It’d been something that was on his mind a lot recently, what would happen if suddenly one day Milton disappeared for good? He knew, somewhere deep in the back of his mind this would eventually have to stop. Milton wanted to keep their affair a secret. Kyle just didn’t know why. He wasn’t sure how he’d feel if it stopped. He’d become so used to it that he knew without it he’d feel empty. Milton groaned above him, but it wasn’t his usual groans of pleasure. It was more frustrated. Is he going off me? He thought. He’d spent so long trying to be good for Milton, trying everything he could to please; but every once in a while it was like he wasn’t even there. Like he was invisible. On more than one occasion he’d considered the possibility Milton was like this with other people too. Kyle heard the distant sound of his brother’s laughter. The little red tractor Kyle and his brothers always fought over was staring him in the face from a few yards away. He used to love that tractor. Now forever tainted. Kyle snapped out of his thoughts when Milton pulled out. He turned over, so his back was now pressed against the floor and stared up into Milton’s piercing blue eyes. But he hadn’t even finished. That was what worried Kyle. Milton loved to finish. The thought that he wasn’t good enough anymore and Milton would walk out the door and never return. Kyle wanted to speak so badly. But he couldn’t form the words. He wasn’t sure he should, in fear of Milton’s reaction. But it was Milton who broke the tension. “You’re not as tight anymore,” was all he said, in such a dejected tone of voice. Kyle’s heart began racing. He didn’t exactly understand what Milton meant but he knew that to him it wasn’t a good thing. It was a very, very bad thing. “I’m sorry,” Kyle whispered. “I’ll try to be tight again. I promise.” Milton stared at him for a moment, taking in the rising and falling of his bare chest, his wide, fearful eyes telling him he was afraid of what was going to happen next. Milton stood up pulling his boxers and trousers up as he went, fastening the buckle to his belt quickly. Kyle scrambled to his feet, not caring he was naked, his clothes still strewn all over the room. He grabbed Milton by the leg and held on for dear life. Tears sprung to his eyes, falling down his cheeks as sobs overcame him. He tried to beg, but he couldn’t even form a coherent sentence. Everything he’d done, everything he’d worked so hard at to make Milton happy was crumbling and he felt powerless to stop it. Milton angrily grabbed Kyle’s hand, his larger hand crushing Kyle’s smaller one in a firm, vice-like grip. Kyle winced, but knowing from personal experience not to show his emotions, his pain. But Milton saw it and just like that blind panic rose in Kyle as he saw the anger bubbling up before he felt a sharp sting across his cheek from the hand that had just connected with it. Kyle fell to the floor, skidding backwards a little.
Without another word Milton walked out of the room, no doubt to try and calm himself down before he flipped out and killed him. Kyle curled up into a ball on the floor, the tears and sobs consuming him. Kyle was used to this kind of outburst by now, but he was scared what it meant when Milton didn’t ‘cum’ earlier. He couldn’t think of any other way to please him and by now he’d tried everything. There was only so much he could do to please Milton. After all, he was only eight years old.
A Kestrel in the Bed A kestrel lay in the bed. Kevin cried out and leapt from the bed, his bare flesh pale in the morning light. The kestrel didn’t move, lying rigid on its back. When he got over the shock, he crept closer to inspect the bird. He reluctantly poked it. The kestrel didn’t move. Laughing, he grabbed the bird, threw on his dressing gown, and clambered downstairs. Eva lay on the brown leather couch, her dressing gown wrapped loosely around her slender frame. She sipped coffee from a simple mug with the phrase, ‘Morning Bitch!’ written on the side. She was watching Cartoon Network, a morning ritual she’d had since she was a kid. She glanced up at Kevin and laughed when she saw the bird in his hand. ‘Good morning, sweetie.’ She smiled, putting her cup on the glass coffee table. Kevin tossed the bird at her. She threw up her arms and shrieked as the bird bounced off her. ‘Funny joke,’ he said. She picked the bird up off the carpet. ‘Now we’re even.’ ‘Where did you get the bird from?’ asked Kevin, budging her feet out of the way to sit on the couch. ‘Same place you got the mole.’
***** Kevin had passed Byron’s Taxidermy Workshop one morning when he’d decided to jog to work using a different route. A change of scenery he’d thought. The bell on the door rang as he’d entered. The front of the shop was decorated with a multitude of stuffed animals, from squirrels and rabbits, to dogs and cats, badgers, moles, hedgehogs, blackbirds, pigeons and even budgies. Each was set in a different pose, arranged as if they were a 3D snapshot of a wild animal. The old man poked his head out from behind the door at the back of the shop. ‘Hello there.’ ‘These are amazing,’ said Kevin, picking up a squirrel. ‘Thank you.’ The old man had worn blue overalls that were covered in paints of differing colour. A huge smile spreading across his wrinkled face. ‘How long have you been doing this?’ Kevin asked, closely inspecting the squirrel in his hands. ‘About twenty years. Don’t make much money from it though. Enough to get by. Was a hobby. Retired with a nice amount of money. Decided to open this place and share my work.’ ‘How much are they?’ ‘Depends on what you want.’ The old taxidermist bent down and picked up a stuffed jack russell. ‘Depends on the animal, whether it’s the customers pet, or a subject I’ve purchased myself, or one that I’ve found. Depends on how quickly the order is needed for. Something like this,’ he held out the jack russell to Kevin, ‘would be about three hundred pound.’ ‘That’s quite a lot.’ ‘Takes a lot of work and skill, my friend.’ ‘How much would that mole cost?’ The mole’s paws were placed over its eyes as if it were shading them from the sun. ‘Bout one fifty.’ ‘Would you do it for a hundred?’ The old taxidermist had stroked his beard for a moment. ‘Sure, why not?’ 64
‘Fantastic. My girlfriend will love this.’
***** Kevin had left the mole in the washing machine for Eva to find when she’d next done the washing. She’d shrieked so loud the couple next door had come around to see if everything had been okay later that day. By the time Kevin had come down the stairs, his XBOX Live headset around his neck, Eva was sat on the floor laughing. ‘You bastard,’ she’d said, ‘I’m gonna get you for this.’ *****
***** Kevin sat at the top of the stairs and watched as Eva nearly tripped up on her shoes, spilling a little bit of cold coffee on her skirt as she rushed, late for work. She grabbed her keys and bag then hurried out the front door, forgetting to close it behind her. Kevin followed her out, waiting by the front door, doing his best not to smile. Opening the driver side door of her little red Vauxhall Corsa, she threw her bag in and ducked into the car. She placed her coffee in the holder than adjusted the rear view mirror. A large, brown bull’s head glared back at her through the mirror. She screamed so loud that the dogs in the neighbourhood barked, She booted open the driver side door and scrambled out of the car and ran back to the house. Kevin stood in the middle of the doorway, doing his best not to laugh. ‘Everything okay, sweetheart?’ ‘Fucking bastard,’ cried Eva and slapped him hard across the face. ‘Oh, come on. Lighten up,’ he scoffed, rubbing his struck cheek, chuckling. ‘I got you good.’ ‘I’m late enough as it is.’ Kevin walked over to her, arms spread out, offering her a hug. ‘Fuck off. Get that out of my car now. How much did that even cost you?’ 65
The old taxidermist poked his head through the rear door as the bell rang on Kevin’s entry. ‘Back again?’ The old taxidermist smiled his broad smile. ‘Your girlfriend bought something the other day. Pay back she said.’ ‘Yeah. Now I need something better.’ Kevin glanced around the shop, examining all the small, stuffed animals. ‘That kestrel was hard to get. Did it scare you?’ ‘Nearly shit myself.’ The old taxidermist chuckled. Kevin examined every animal in the shop fully in silence before he next spoke again. ‘No, none of these will do. I need something bigger.’ ‘Bigger? What do you have in mind?’ Kevin thought for a moment. ‘I don’t know exactly.’ ‘Hmmm.’ The old taxidermist stroked his beard again. ‘I have an idea. Think you’ll like it. Would cost about four hundred. Might take me a little time to acquire it though.’ ‘Time’s not an issue.’ ‘You really do have too much money.’ ‘No. I’m just willing to pay big for a laugh.’
‘A bit.’ Eva shook her head. ‘Prick.’ Kevin stepped out the door. ‘No. I don’t have time,’ said Eva, pushing him back into the house, nearly knocking him over. ‘I’m just going to have to go to work with a fucking bull’s head on the back seat of my car. Prick.’ She stormed over to her car, slammed the door and drove away. ***** Eva barely spoke to Kevin for a week after that. She made him sleep on the sofa. Whenever he tried to talk to her she turned her back on him and stormed into another room, always slamming the door behind her. Kevin tried everything he could think of to get her to forgive him. He sent flowers to her work, bought her as many varieties of bath bombs from Lush as he could, left Cadbury’s Miniature Heroes on the bed, her favourite. One night he cooked her a romantic meal, Beef Stroganoff and a Strawberry Cheesecake for dessert. She didn’t eat it. By the end of the week Kevin was at his wits end.
***** He woke up in the middle of the night on the couch again. His throat was dry but his bladder was ready to burst. He fumbled around for his slippers, stumbled up the stairs to the bathroom as quietly as he could, pushed open the creaking door, and flipped on the light switch. A bear roared and dove on him. Kevin screamed, crashing down on his back, the bear’s weight squeezing his bladder empty, quickly drenching his boxers. The bear flailed on top of him, its teeth engulfing his vision. Its claws scratched his skin, but to his surprise they didn’t cut him. He fought back, desperately trying to get the animal off of him, screaming in a blind panic. With one big shove he managed to get the bear off of him and scrambled to his feet, without thinking and ran for the stairs. Hysterical laughter caused him to twist back around mid run. Eva lay on the floor in a bear costume, crying with laughter, the costume’s head on the floor beside her. ‘You crazy bitch. I shit. .’ Before he could finish his sentence his foot went over the edge of the stairs, missing the step. ‘KEVIN,’ screamed Eva. Kevin flailed his arms to try and grab hold of something, but everything he touched his hands slipped off. He tumbled down the stairs, pain exploding in his left leg when he landed at the bottom. ‘I’m so, so sorry,’ said Eva, tears streaming down her face as she clutched his arm as he lay in the hospital bed. ‘It’s just a fractured leg. It’ll heal. Calm down,’ said Kevin, trying to hide his anger and humiliation. He’d still smelt of urine by the time they’d reached the hospital, Eva driving him there, speeding past several traffic cameras, Kevin shouting at her to slow down. They’d had to wait in A & E for an hour, him smelling of urine, despite Eva dousing him in a whole can of deodorant. ‘I just wanted to scare you. To get you back,’ sobbed Eva. ‘I said it’s okay.’ ‘I’ll make it up to you, I promise.’ ‘It’s okay.’ 66
Kevin’s mobile suddenly rang, the Call of Duty soundtrack blaring loudly from the speakers. It was his mother. ‘Hello, Mum?’ ‘Kevin?’ His mother was sniffling on the other end of the phone. ‘Mum? What’s wrong?’ ‘It’s your grandfather.’ *****
His grandfather’s funeral was held a few days later at the old church near his grandfather’s house, in North Wales. The ceremony was small, only close family and his grandfather’s few remaining friends were invited. His grandfather had requested an open casket. He’d said he’d wanted to exit the world with sun shining on his face. Kevin and Eva waited in line to view the body, Kevin on crutches, cast on his fractured leg, dressed in a funeral suit but only wearing a shoe on his good leg. Eva stood by his side in a long, black dress, holding on to his arm. They waited behind an old couple talking about how they were surprised he’d died before they had. The couple lingered over the body, but eventually they moved on. Kevin and Eva stepped forward. His grandfather had been dressed in a tuxedo with a black bow tie and a white handkerchief in the jacket pocket. The two of them stared at the body for a moment then slowly looked up into each other’s eyes. Eva snorted and her mouth began to quiver, as if she were resisting the urge to grin.
Kevin’s eyes widened, ‘don’t even think about it’.
End of the Line There was a squealing sound as the driver slammed on his breaks bringing the bus to a halt. Thomas jolted forward before he even had time to open his eyes. He looked around trying to get his bearings; he didn’t usually make a habit of falling asleep on public transport it had left him feeling dazed and confused. He had finished football practice and it must have worn him out, or perhaps the hum of the engine and the heat had lulled him into a cosy sleep. He got to his feet and made his way down the bus; noticing on his way that there were no other passengers and that it was now dark outside. “Why have we stopped? Is there a problem with the engine?” Thomas asked the bus driver. “No. End of the line kid.” Thomas noticed how grubby and unkempt the driver looked. The few teeth that were left in his mouth looked rotten and he had thick, deep wrinkles that looked like battle scars. “End of the line? What do you mean?” Thomas was starting to shake his sleepy stupor and was becoming irritated, he had plans with Erica and she would be pissed if he was late. She was always pissed at him lately and he didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. He couldn’t help but feel it would only take one more mistake to completely end things between them. “Means this is as far as we go, now you gotta get off and I gotta get the old gal back to the depot.” The driver caressed the steering wheel with his nicotine stained fingers and smiled creepily. “You can’t just kick me off. I have no idea where we are!” Thomas exclaimed. “Eccleston.” The smile dissolved from the drivers lips, his voice was raspy and Thomas could smell stale smoke on his breath. “Eccleston? Are you fucking kidding me? That’s miles away from where I need to be.” “Its miles away from anywhere kid.” The creepy smile began to reappear. “We’re in the middle of nowhere. Can’t you take me back to the depot with you? I can call someone to come pick me up from there.” “Sorry, no can do kid, against the rules.” With that the driver opened the doors, the cold night air poured through and assaulted Thomas who shuddered. The driver gestured towards the door with a long skeletal finger. Thomas grabbed his bag and hopped off the bus, he turned to plead his case one last time but before he could speak the doors slammed shut and the driver sped off. He realised he had no clue what time it was. He pulled out his phone and discovered it was nine thirty. How was that possible? He had finished football practice at seven and was on the bus home by eight. Had he really been asleep on the bus for over an hour? He made his way towards the derelict; stone shelter that he could only assume was supposed to be a bus stop. “Great, no timetable,” Thomas muttered under his breath. Since he had no clue when to expect another bus he decided to huddle inside the shelter as it was an uncharacteristically cold evening. The cold air was biting at his nose and fingers as he began to dial his phone, he had to call Erica. He pictured her angrily ringing the buzzer of his apartment. She would be furious and there would be profanities spewed when she realised he wasn’t home. She would assume he had gone out drinking with the guys from the team, she would never believe that he had fallen asleep on the bus. No signal. Isn’t that just typical? Thomas mused to himself; he couldn’t be too surprised he was in Eccleston after all. There was nothing in Eccleston. The place was a shit hole. There was nothing to see but fields, and if you drove its winding country lanes during the summer months the smell of cowpat was so strong it would cling to your clothing for hours. There was a small village located somewhere amongst the fields, it was described as being quaint but there 68
was nothing quaint about it. The village was full of hicks; inbreds and social outcasts. Nobody ever came to Eccleston. Not out of choice anyway. Thomas drank in his surroundings; he needed to find his footing and figure out a way home. He looked up and down the stretch of road he was stranded on. There was nothing to see for miles. Streetlights were dotted along the road but it was still unusually dark. As the wind began to pick up it carried with it a sense of unease. It howled and whistled angrily whipping at Thomas’ body causing him to shiver. Then he heard it, what sounded like a distant whisper calling his name. He froze. “Thomas.. ” “Come on Thomas, pull yourself together. It’s just the wind.” “Thomas.. ” There it was again. This time he couldn’t deny it, someone was calling his name. “Thomas.. ” For the third time he heard his name drift through the night air. He plucked up the courage and poked his head out of the shelter. “Ben? Is that you?!” Thomas assumed one of his teammates had followed him and was horsing around, heck maybe even the bus driver was messing with him. Then he wondered if maybe it was one of the hicks from the village and that was enough to make his stomach flip. He didn’t want any trouble. But how would they know his name? His mind was racing and he had no choice but to face facts that he was shaken up. He allowed a sense of dread to wash over him but only for a moment before replacing it with a sense of cocky self confidence. He could handle himself in a fight if it was someone looking for trouble; he had been in many fights before. Fighting kind of came with the territory of being a small town football star. He had spent many a weekend brawling in bars with some guy who was pissed that he’d scored a winning goal against their team. Heck he often had to punch out guys who were just straight up jealous of him. Being a football player, girls flocked to him like nobody’s business and it was inevitable that some of those girls had boyfriends. Erica didn’t realise how lucky she was to have such a young, strappingly handsome boyfriend. “Thomas.” There it was again, that voice. It was almost ethereal and seemed to have no distinguishable gender. He squinted through the darkness trying to find the person behind the voice but to no avail. “Don’t step out of the light.” This time the voice sounded as though it came from right behind him, goose bumps began to crawl up his spine and down his arms. The voice hadn’t sounded too threatening before but now the tone was changing, it sounded almost mocking. At that moment the sound of glass shattering exploded into the air as the streetlight above him went out. There was silence for a moment. Thomas’ heart was beating through his chest. What did that voice mean by don’t step out of the light? Then he heard it, a deep low growl. It sounded like whatever was making the sound were mere inches away from him. He took off running towards the next streetlight. There was something comforting in its warm glow. “He’s right there Thomas.” The mysterious voice floated through the night once again, whoever was behind it was definitely mocking him now. “Who the fuck is that? I swear I will kick your ass. Stop fucking around.” Thomas couldn’t hide the fear in his voice. “He’s out there, waiting.” Smash. The streetlight above him shattered just like the one before it and he once again was plummeted into darkness. The faint sound of footsteps moved through the darkness
towards him. “Who’s waiting?” Thomas’ confidence was waning fast and his natural reaction was to pick up running; he flew through the night to the next streetlight. He didn’t much care that he looked like a Nancy boy he had been told not to step out of the light and he didn’t plan on hanging around in the dark. The streetlight was just outside an opening to the woods. This made Thomas even more uneasy. He felt exposed, like someone could grab him from behind and take him by surprise. Despite this he couldn’t bring himself to look back into the shadowy woods. The wind was howling through the leaves and the trees were shaking as if anticipating bad things to come. “You can’t escape the darkness Thomas.” He looked up and down the road and felt a sense of panic, there were only two more streetlights ahead of him then everything else went dark. He cursed the country folk and couldn’t understand for the life of him why they didn’t just have streetlights on every road like the rest of the damn city. His heart was pounding in his ears and his chest was heaving as his lungs felt like they were being squeezed from the inside. It was a similar feeling to the one he got when he had to step up and take a penalty. Smash. The bulb shattered like the others before it. The footsteps began again, sounding heavier and slower than last time but much closer. Thomas squinted into the night trying his hardest to see who or what was approaching him, but he was out of luck. “He’s coming.” The voice still sounded as though it was coming from right behind him. He ran as fast as his legs would carry him to the next streetlight. Crash. As soon as he reached it the bulb blew. “FUCK!” Thomas yelled breathlessly. “He’s lurking in the darkness. He’s close now.” The voice sounded as though it was taking great pleasure in watching him squirm. He continued running but now he really was gripped by terror, his legs were like lead and it took every bit of effort he had to not fall down on the pavement. He didn’t know what was chasing him and he didn’t know where the nearest town was, all he knew was that somehow he was safe in the light. If he got to the next streetlight maybe he could find a weapon. Maybe he had something in his bag he could use to protect himself. He had to move and think quickly because the little voice in the back of his head was telling him he was almost out of time. He reached the final visible streetlight and stopped for a moment; clinging to the lamppost he fought to steady his breathing. All of a sudden his phone began to ring in his pocket, the sound jolted him but he was relieved to have signal. It was Erica. Good old Erica. “Hello? Erica, thank god!” “Thomas where are you?” She yelled down the phone. “I can’t explain. Erica you have to listen to me, I’m in danger!” “Danger? Where are you?” Her anger dissipated and was replaced with concern. “Eccleston. You have to come get me.” “What are you doing in Eccleston?” Suddenly the deafening sound of static blasted through the phone, the sound pierced his eardrums and caused him to wince in pain. The line was dead. Thomas, unable to accept this, began screaming Erica’s name in the hopes that she could hear him. “He’s here!” The voice called out. The phone was volleyed out of his hand by an invisible force and he watched helplessly as it skidded away from him into the night. “Please don’t hurt me.” Thomas knew in that moment he sounded pathetic and weak but he really was terrified, he had nowhere left to run and the dark seriously impeded his sight. He knew it was coming, he knew that soon the lights would go out and he would be helpless. He had to stall. He just had to. 70
The wind stopped suddenly but the newfound silence felt uncomfortable. Thomas strained himself trying to hear anything but the night was eerily still now. For a moment he dared to let a slither of hope enter his mind. Maybe this had all been one elaborate, practical joke. Maybe he was on one of those stupid channel 4 shows. He looked around, his breathing steady now, half expecting to see Derren Brown jump out of the bushes. No such luck with an earth-shattering smash the final streetlight’s bulb exploded plunging him into complete darkness. “End of the line kid.” A demonic voice growled. Thomas yelled cutting through the silence and deep in the heart of the little village of Eccleston, the people pretended not to hear his strangled screams.
Eyes Closed It was a grey, damp morning near the middle of summer. The rain had stopped just before dawn, leaving the grass prickled with dewdrops. Hiram was fifteen years old then. Maybe it was a Saturday. Looking back on it, Hiram couldn’t remember all the details, but some he just couldn’t forget, like the frantic pounding that morning on the front door. He jerked awake and sat up in bed. The pounding was like an alarm. Slamming his feet on the cold floor, he stood, grabbed his jeans from a pile on the chair next to his nightstand and danced in place, wriggling his feet through the stiff legs until they gave way. While he pulled the jeans up over his hips and did the top button, he cocked his head and listened to the muffled voices coming from below. His mama had answered the door. He snatched a shirt from the chair and threw it over his shoulders, working his arms through the sleeves as he hurried through his bedroom door. Like a small sail, the shirttail billowed behind him and snagged on the doorknob. Turning to free his shirt, he jerked the door closed over his bare toes. The bottom edge of the door ripped the big toe nail on his left foot half off. He swore and jumped around on one foot, holding the injured one in both hands, pinching the nail back into place. Blood oozed around its edges. Hitting the door with the flat of his hand, in pain and angry, he hobbled back into his room, sat on the edge of the bed and gingerly pulled a sock over his injured foot. When he pressed down on the injured toe again, blood stained the fabric. Grabbing a mismatched sock from off the floor, he put it on the other foot then eased both feet into his work boots and laced them up. ‘Hiram! You alright up there?’ His mother, Bertha, called up to him. ‘Come on down. Alice is here. She needs you.’ ‘I’m comin’!’ Still feeling the anger, he yelled back, but immediately felt sorry. He hadn’t meant to yell at his mama. The injured toe wasn’t her fault. He hopped down the stairs on his good foot, pretending to walk normally when he hit the bottom step. Pretending was a major part of living when you were fifteen. He saw they were seated on the sofa in the living room. His mother had her arm around Alice, holding her close. She looked up at him when he entered. ‘Alice ain’t feelin’ too good. Zach’s been at it again.’ Hiram walked around the coffee table and sat down next to Alice. Her left eye was almost swollen shut and soon would be, and her lip below the eye was split and bleeding, revealing the latest handiwork of her drunken father, Zach Biddle. Hiram reached over and took her hand and squeezed it gently. She squeezed back. Her head lay on his mother’s shoulder, and her good eye stared off across the room at nothing. It was as still and empty as a glass marble. Hiram and Alice were next-door neighbours and best friends. They rode the bus to school together, played in the woods behind his property and swam in the Juniata River after the summer rains filled its deeper pools. They were inseparable and bore the brunt of teasing from the other kids when they held hands on the bus or when Hiram carried her books home from school. They acted oblivious to the taunts, not caring what others said or thought. ‘They’re just jealous, Hiram. Hell, I don’t care. Do you?’ ‘Hell no. Just wish they’d find somethin’ else to do.’ He kicked at a pebble in the path that skittered away into the long grass at its edge. ‘You know, we’re like two big sunflowers in your mama’s garden, Hiram, always turning to catch the light.’ Holding her face skyward, she turned in a complete circle. ‘The rest are just pansies, wishin’ they were like us.’ Alice loved flowers. Hiram looked down at her. She was always talking like that, in big 72
pictures he could understand. He was convinced that one day he’d marry Alice. He’d told her so, but she wasn’t so certain.
It was a warm summer day after a swim in the river when they stretched out on their towels, drying off in the sun, that Hiram noticed Alice had breasts. She lay on her back. Goose bumps puckered her arms, and her taut nipples pressed hard against the thin fabric of her swimsuit. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed them before. Holding her hand or carrying her books was as far as he’d got in his head. He hadn’t considered the rest. Alice turned her head toward him. “What you starin’ at, Hiram?” ‘Nothin’.’ After being caught staring at her breasts, he turned and lay face down to hide his unexpected reaction to what he’d seen and closed his eyes. ‘Bull. You’re lookin’ at me different.’ He turned his head round to face her. Her blue eyes met his. She was more goddamned beautiful now than he’d ever thought possible before. He couldn’t lie. He could never lie. ‘Alice, we been friends since we been little. We’re not little anymore. I love you. When it’s right, I want you to marry me.’ There, he’d finally said it. She turned her face away from him and gazed up through the canopy of leaves to a patch of pale, blue sky. A tear dropped from the corner of her eye, slipped down the side of her face and disappeared into a lock of hair covering her ear. She turned back to Hiram. ‘You can’t marry me. Hiram. As much as I love you, as much as you love me, I’m not for you.’ With that she turned away and stared at nothing, not even the sky. Hiram was hurt. Looking for some comfort, he slid his hand over next to hers and felt her warm slender fingers slip between his. They held tight to one another for awhile until she lifted his hand and placed it on the soft mound between her legs. The fabric of the swimsuit was warm and wet. Hiram thought it was from the swim they’d had. Opening her legs slightly, she pressed one of Hiram’s fingers into the softness. Her breathing changed. ‘You feel that, Hiram?’ His throat was dry from breathing through his mouth. ‘It’s soft,’ he answered, ‘and hard at the same time.’ Alice kept her eyes open. She wanted to close them, but bad things always happened in the dark. ‘That’s the bud.’ She pressed harder as she spoke. ‘I’m afraid that’s as much and as far as you’re gonna get, Hiram.’ After a moment, she pulled his hand away and sat up. He pushed up on his elbow wanting to say something, but the right words wouldn’t come. Instead he followed her gaze to the river. They both watched the current ripple and sparkle in the sunlight as it flowed around a dead tree trunk that had fallen into the river, its roots still clinging to the pebbled shoreline. Water gurgled and foamed as it disappeared around the end of the log. Sheltered from the eternal flow of the river, a tangle of small branches and dead leaves scattered along the windward side of the log. A light breeze from up river rattled the leaves overhead, clattering them like rain on a hard, flat road, sprinkling more leaves at the edge of the water. The air smelled of honeysuckle, and Hiram, searching for the source, spied a vine clinging to the tree that partially shaded them. He stood, traipsed over to the vine and picked some of the succulent blossoms; then he walked back to join Alice and crouched in front of her. Pinching the small, green calyx at the base of the flower, he pulled the style down through the neck of the blossom. At the tip of the style was a bud and suspended from the bud was a glistening drop of honey-flavoured nectar. Hiram lifted the bud to Alice’s lips. Opening her mouth, she took the drop on her tongue. He did the same with the second flower and savoured the sweetness for himself. He stared at the blossoms in his hand and smiled at the
simple, sweet, hidden mystery. Alice reached over and picked up one of the blossoms. Holding it up to the light, she twirled the pale yellow flower between her thumb and finger. ‘You see that, Hiram? That’s me.’ She gazed a moment at the spinning blossom in the bright sunlight; then she brought it to her nose and breathed in its sweet aroma. ‘Looks good, smells good. But the sweetness is gone.’ ‘I’ll get you another one. Hold on.’ Hiram moved to get up, to go fetch another flower, but Alice grabbed his arm. ‘Sometimes you’re a dumb ass, Hiram. You don’t listen!’ Hiram settled and listened, but he didn’t want to. Something told him he didn’t want to listen or hear or care. He loved Alice, plain and simple. She held the honeysuckle blossom up in front of his face. Her eyes glistened, filled with the truth of something Hiram didn’t recognize or maybe didn’t even want to know. ‘The sweetness is gone, Hiram.’ She shook the blossom in his face. ‘You understand? Taken from me. I’m a broken flower. I love you, but you’ll never marry me. I can’t let you.’ She raised up on her knees, leaning in close to Hiram. She almost whispered it. ‘My daddy took it.’ Her eyes were wide and wild. He held her gaze. It was the truth he hadn’t recognized. With that said, she sat back on the blanket, throwing the honeysuckle blossom up in the air till the breeze caught it. Landing in the water at river’s edge, it washed up against the dead log. For her, it was settled, but not for Hiram. For Hiram, it would never be settled. You get to know people from their habits, the way they move their hands when they talk or scratch the same spot on their face like a nervous tic or when they spit on the ground after making a point. Since the day Alice told him about the flower down by the river, Hiram had been observing the habits of Zach Biddle. For Hiram, this latest blackened eye and cut lip was just one more thing, one more reason. He expected no less from the likes of Zach Biddle. In Hiram’s estimation, a man like him didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Alice or even the rest of the world, for that matter. While watching and learning Zach’s habits, Hiram’s plan slowly took shape. Some weeknights, but mostly Friday nights, Zach came home drunk. He’d barely ease the car in the driveway before he blacked out. Occasionally, he’d make it all the way into the garage and sleep it off, leaving the engine idling and the garage door open. Hiram’s plan counted on Zach making it all the way into the garage, so he waited. Patience was an integral part of his plan. It had to be. Killing a man and not getting caught, couldn’t be rushed. That night, he watched from his bedroom window like he had many a night. He counted the hours until he saw Zach’s car approaching. The car jerked forward then stopped and stalled some fifty feet short of the driveway. Hiram started to doubt; then it started up again and shot forward hitting the curb at the edge of the drive before it straightened. Another spurt of gas carried it all the way into the garage. Brake lights illuminated the driveway. Hiram judged Zach was definitely drunk. From his astute observations, it wasn’t a difficult judgment to make. He tiptoed down to the first floor and slipped out the back door. Standing on the back porch stoop, he listened, hearing the thrum of the car’s engine and the low, steady rumble from its exhaust. A canopy of stars blanketed the sky, but there was no moon and no shadow as he crept along the garage wall. Reaching the end, he peered into the garage. The car’s headlights lit the debris scattered against the back wall and backlit Zach’s dark outline inside the car. Hiram could see his head was tilted back over the top of the seat, his mouth gaping open. He crouched beside the car, scooted up along the passenger side and raised himself enough to get a good look at Zach and the dashboard lights. He feared the car might run out of gas before the job was done. The window was down, and he could see the gas gauge needle hovered at the half-full mark. Zach’s snore caught then continued. He was out cold. Crouching, he shuffled around the back of the car coming up on the driver’s side. That’s when he saw her. 74
They mounted the steps together, and Hiram held open the screen door for her. ‘Evening you two.’ The voice startled them. Hiram’s father, Henry, sat alone in the darkness on a wicker chair next to their front door. He lit a match that brightened the porch’s interior for an instant until he put it to the top of his pipe bowl and sucked the flame through the aromatic tobacco, filling the porch with the scent of apples and burnt sugar, a smell that always soothed Hiram. ‘What you two been up to?’ In the momentary flash of the match flame, Hiram had seen the baseball bat lying across his father’s knees. His father’s sense of justice wasn’t too far off from his own. The apple never falls far from the tree, his daddy often said. Had things gone wrong, Hiram was confident that his father would have stepped in and meted out his own brand of final judgment on Zach Biddle. ‘Just went for a stroll,’ Hiram answered. ‘You ok, Alice? Bertha told me you had some trouble.’ ‘I’m fine, Mr. Beffer. I think my troubles are behind me now.’ ‘Let’s hope so. It’s a good place for ‘em.’ Hiram heard the hollow sound of the wooden bat as his father leaned it against the wall 75
Alice sat in the shadows just out of the headlight’s halo on the back wall, on the one step that led through the door behind her into the house. She had her arms wrapped around her knees, holding them tightly to her chest, rocking and humming along with the sound of the engine. Her humming sounded like bees in a swarm. He crouched down beside the car and whispered as loudly as he dared. ‘Alice! Alice! It’s me, Hiram.’ At the sound of her name, she turned her head toward him. ‘Alice! Come on!’ She released her knees, unfolded her body and stood. Moving toward him, she walked like in a trance, putting one foot carefully in front of the other. He could still hear her humming. Just as Hiram stood and moved to help her, she glanced at her daddy sleeping in the car. At that moment, his head lulled to one side and faced them. Drool ran in a stream from the corner of his mouth. They both saw it at once and jumped back. Hiram heard Alice suck in a breath, preparing a scream, and he gently clamped his hand over her mouth, leading her out of the garage to the top of the drive. He had his arm over her shoulders and held her close. They stood that way for a while lit only by the reflection of the car’s headlights off the garage’s back wall. ‘Why were you making that humming sound, Alice?’ She looked up at him. ‘It’s the sound my daddy makes in my ear in the dark.’ As she stared at the dark, shiny car and the darker hulk that slept behind the wheel, she started humming again. Hiram dropped his arm off her shoulders and took her hand. He wasn’t sure what was right; he just felt it. ‘I want you to help me with something.” He led her back to the garage but didn’t enter. Instead, he reached up for the garage door handle. The door was the kind that pivoted on a track and folded downward. It would close quietly, he knew. On another day, in preparation for this one, he’d oiled all the hinges and riveted joints. When he’d pulled the door partway down so she could reach it, he took Alice’s hand and placed it on the handle with his. ‘I love you, Alice. I won’t let anyone hurt you again. But you’ve got to help.’ With that, they pulled the garage door down together until it quietly latched. He removed a rag from his back pocket and wiped the door handle clean. The darkness enveloped them, wrapping them in a soft silence. Alice had stopped humming. Briefly considering the possibilities, he concluded in his own mind that God would have to do the judging. He stepped back and took her hand, leading her across the grass to his front porch.
behind his chair. ‘Let’s go inside. I think Bertha’s got something cookin’ in the kitchen.’ The three of them went through the door, Alice first, followed by Hiram then Henry. As they stepped through the door, Henry placed a hand on Hiram’s shoulder and squeezed. Hiram understood. They hadn’t fallen off the high wire that night. His father didn’t have to say a word. After a hot chocolate and a biscuit, hot from the oven, it was time to retire for the night. Alice chose the sofa. Bertha made it up for her with a sheet, a heavy blanket and a pillow and said good night. ‘You sure you’re gonna be ok?’ Hiram asked. She looked up at him. “I’ll be fine, Hiram, when the sun comes up. ‘Won’t be too long now.’ He kissed her on the forehead. ‘Night, Alice.’ Hiram wasn’t sure if he’d dreamed it or if Alice really did come to his bed during the night. It could have been wishful thinking, he thought, as his sleepy head mulled it over. The night had been filled enough with dreams and awakenings and heavy slumber in between. He rubbed the sand from his eyes, pulled on his jeans and tiptoed down the steps, not wanting to wake Alice. But the sofa was empty. He stared at the folded sheet and blanket resting on top of the pillow along with a note. He sat down on the sofa, pulled his feet up off the cold floor and read it: Thank you, Hiram. You’re a good man. I’m free now. You saw to that. But I got to go. I got to go, Hiram. I got to go. Love Alice He folded the note and pushed it in his jean’s pocket. Lifting the blanket and sheet off the pillow, he stretched out on the sofa and buried his face in her pillow, trying to remember everything, the blue sky, a light breeze and the scent of honeysuckle in full bloom. Later that morning, Hiram sat on the porch with his daddy snapping green beans when a police cruiser pulled into the Biddle’s driveway. The officers got out of the car and put on their hats. One walked to the door and knocked while the other inspected the garage door. The officer at the front door disappeared inside the house when the door opened. The officer outside looked around a bit, walked down the side of the garage and back again. He gave up his investigation of the exterior and entered the house through the front door that had been left open. Hiram and Henry had filled one pan with the snapped beans and started on another when the Biddle’s garage door opened. Both officers along with Alma Biddle, Alice’s mother, hurried out of the garage. They stood around letting the fumes clear out. They talked together a while, then Alma pointed toward the Beffer place. Hiram saw her point. ‘Here they come, daddy.’ An officer strolled across the grass toward their house. He mounted the steps to the porch and knocked on the screen door, peering through the screen at Hiram and Henry as he did. ‘Mind if I come in?’ ‘Not at all if you don’t mind us snapping some beans,’ Henry said, ‘What’s the problem?’ The officer, his nametag said Phil Parish, stepped through the open screen door. ‘Seems Mr. Biddle had a terrible accident. Left his car running in a closed garage. Apparently he’d been drinkin’, according to his wife, and well sir, he blacked out and didn’t wake up.’ ‘He’s dead?’ Henry asked. ‘Seems so. A body don’t last long without oxygen.’ ‘I heard that somewhere.’ ‘Seems Mrs. Biddle’s daughter, Alice, is missing.’ ‘Well Alice was here with us last night. She and my son, Hiram, here are a little sweet on one another, if you know what I mean.’ ‘What time was this?’ The officer pulled out a pad to make notes. ‘Hiram, when did you and Alice go out?’ ‘It was just after sundown. It was still bright. We went through the woods and walked along 76
Later in the morning the coroner’s hearse arrived and backed up to the garage. The attendants wheeled out Zach’s corpse in a body bag, loaded it into the back of the hearse and drove away without fanfare like they were a simple grocery delivery van. Next, a tow truck arrived and pulled Zach’s car from the garage. Apparently Alma had no more need for it or couldn’t stand the idea that it was where Zach had taken his final, drunken breath. The driver hopped from the cab of the truck and closed the garage door. The well-oiled door clicked in place without a sound. Hiram hadn’t heard from Alice for two days now. He wasn’t worried yet, but it was working on his mind, and if he thought about it, he could get worried. Trying not to think about it, he weeded the garden for his mama and split some logs for the stove, keeping himself busy. He was just driving the wedge through a stubborn log when he saw Alma Biddle hurrying across the grass toward him. She stopped in front of him and waited till he put down the sledgehammer. Bertha had been standing at the kitchen window watching Hiram split the logs. When she saw Alma, she called out. ‘Henry, come quick!’ She stepped out on the back porch stoop and a few seconds later, Henry joined her. ‘I’ll have you know, Hiram Beffer, that I just got a call from the po-lice. They found Alice’s body in the Juniata River, all crushed and broken like. What do you have to say to that?’ ‘I’m sorry.’ Hiram was truly sorry. ‘Sorry? That all you got to say!’ Henry stepped down off the porch. ‘Alma, leave the boy alone. He had nothin’ to do with it. He loved that girl.’ Hiram stood in silent shock at the news. ‘So you say, Henry Beffer. She was his girl, warn’t she? You’d think he’d take care o’ her. Po-lice say the way they found her, the place they found her, she jumped off the route 220 bridge. You don’t do that for love, Henry.’ Hiram looked up at Mrs. Biddle. ‘I did love her, Mrs. Biddle.’ It was all he could say. 77
the river, talkin’, skippin’ stones, then circled back through town and came back home.’ ‘Anyone see you? You stop off anywhere?’ ‘Not that I can remember. Neither of us had any money. We just walked and talked like we always do. We’re good company for one another.’ ‘My wife, Bertha made them hot chocolate and some of her homemade biscuits when they got back. ‘What time was that?’ Hiram answered. ‘Bout nine or ten. Not real sure. Don’t have a watch.’ ‘My wife, Bertha, offered for Alice to stay the night if she wanted to and made up the sofa for her. Alice has stayed with us before.’ ‘What about this morning?’ ‘She was gone when I got up. It was early,’ Hiram answered. ‘I figured she’d gone into town. Has a mind of her own sometimes and just takes off. She’ll show up. She’ll be broken up about her daddy, though,’ Hiram added almost as an afterthought. Phil folded up his notebook. ‘Ok. If you hear anything from Alice, let us know. We’d appreciate it.’ ‘We’ll be sure to do that, officer. Give our condolences to Alma,’ Henry answered. With a wave, the officer was gone. When he’d crossed the property line, Henry spoke. ‘Where is Alice, Hiram?’ ‘I don’t know, daddy.’ He pulled the crumpled note from his pocket. ‘She left me this.’ Henry read the note then got up and went into the house. After a few minutes, he returned empty-handed. ‘Where’s the note?’ ‘I burned it,’ Henry answered.
She turned to Hiram. ‘Yeah. But not enough.’ She turned to Henry and Bertha. ‘I gotta lose a husband and a daughter in one week!’ She raised her hands to the top of her head, acting lost and crazed, pulling at tufts of her thinning hair. ‘Oh God, what did I do?’ Bertha came down of the porch and marched over to Alma. Standing in front of her, she waited until Alma’s eyes met hers. Bertha stared at her like she was a curious specimen in a glass case, tilting her head to one side, speaking like you would to a child. ‘You know what you did, Alma? Do you really know? You know what killed your daughter?’ Alma backed away from the questions. Closing in, Bertha took a step forward. ‘You closed your eyes.’
Larryâ€™s last words: I lick your nose & nuzzle my body into your neck I brush my fur against your ticklish feet playfully biting your hand I sit on your chest & feel the soft beating of your heart I run laps around your room my nails scraping across your hardwood floor I paw at the covers letting the bitter morning seep through the edges Oh good, youâ€™re awake Feed me.
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February 2016 Issue. Stories and poems from a variety of different writers.