My keys were cold between my fingers. No matter how I tried to control my breathing, it still puffed out in rapid clouds. Goosebumps were starting to form along the back of my neck. I couldn’t tell if they were from the chill or from the feeling of being watched.
Lyle was going to be so pissed when he realized I had gone out without him. I loved him, I really did. But sometimes I needed time to myself. I liked dancing alone. Moving to the music and weaving myself away from all those grasping hands. There was a certain art to it. It was always different when he was there.
The music was far behind me now. All the buses were done running too. Here I was, alone in my heels. I clutched my dead phone in one hand and brandished my keys in the other.
I had first noticed the footsteps behind me a block back. It was easy to ignore other people in the city itself. There was enough movement, enough life, that I could safely blend in and dismiss the weight of a gaze. Now I was into the suburbs it was getting harder and harder to ignore the steady footfalls behind me.
The full moon shone down on me. I wrapped my arms tighter around myself as a car jostled down the street. When the headlights seared my eyes a series of images came rushing, unbidden into my mind. I imagined a face slowly splitting in two. A jaw unhinging. The sound meat makes as it tears away from bone.
I gave my head a solid shake to clear it. I just needed to relax. Maybe the footsteps would turn away. Maybe it was just someone else on their way home. Maybe they would leave me alone. Maybe.
The footsteps definitely seemed to be getting closer now. I refused to look back. To risk hinting at an invitation. If I didn’t look back, didn’t acknowledge the thing behind me, then I could just keep walking. All I had to do was mind my own business and keep walking. My feet started moving a little bit faster. The footsteps behind me did the same.
Then the whistling started. I’m sure it was meant to be an idle sort of tune. Something relaxed. It made my jaw clench and my stomach do flips. It was definitely getting louder, closer.
I could see an alley up ahead. It gaped like a hungry maw. I imagined getting dragged down into the belly of that beast. I walked just a little bit faster.
“Oh, where are you going in such a hurry?” the thing behind me finally spoke. It had a nice voice. It had jogged to catch up and was now beside me. I still wasn’t past the alley.
“No need to walk so fast. I’m not going to hurt you. My name is John. What’s yours?” I kept walking, pressing my lips together. There were no cars on the road.
“Hey, I asked what your name was. Its rude to ignore people.” John’s shoulder was brushing mine now and I could smell the liquor on his breath.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a bitch before?” I finally looked at him. There was an ugly sneer painted onto a surprisingly pretty face.
“Leave me alone” I replied.
“You know, you’re dressed like a whore and you aren’t even polite enough to talk to me. What, you think you’re too good for me or something? Hey, I’m talking to you! Answer me!” As he spoke, we came up alongside the edge of the alley.
It happened fast. John grabbed me by my hair and pulled me backwards between the buildings. I stumbled in my heels and my legs gave out. I managed one quick scream before his hand clamped down over my mouth.
“Listen, I’ve got a knife and if you want to make this hard I’ll use it. You just behave and everything will be fine. Alright?” I nodded against his hand.
That settled it. I had done everything right. I had minded my own business, told him to leave me alone. Now he was threatening me with a knife.
I wished he hadn’t told me his name. I hated knowing their names.
John took his hand away from my mouth and shoved me hard against the wall. I could smell piss. He was too busy fumbling with his belt to notice the sounds of my joints cracking and popping. I felt my jaw click loose. My gums ached as they pulled back from my incisors. I dropped my keys as the sharp, ragged edges of bones pushed out from under my nailbeds. He looked up as they clattered to the ground, but by then I was almost unrecognizable.
“What.. what the hell is wrong with your face?” It was dark in the alley, too dark for him to appreciate my ever growing smile.
The moon chose that moment to peak out from behind her clouds and he finally got a look at me. I loved it when their eyes went all wide like that. I swear that moment of sheer terror and adrenaline gave so much flavouring to the meal. Especially the kidneys.
Whoever lived in that neighbourhood ignored his few screams as easily as they had ignored mine. They ignored the ripping and the slurping. If someone had heard anything, they would have assumed it was a dog crunching on bones. Sucking at them to get out the marrow.
Before I left the alley, I made sure to pack up a to-go bag for Lyle. He would be less mad that I had gone out without him if I brought back some to share. I checked my reflection in a window and was glad to see my black dress didn’t show any stains, though I was noticeably bloated. That gave me a reason to hit the gym tomorrow. I quickly examined my smile to make sure I had nothing in my teeth. Deciding that I looked presentable I strolled back onto the street, whistling an idle sort of tune as I went.
(c) Savanna Naylor
Sitting in the dark, Johnny Dippostini wore his SpongeBob pajamas and his father’s green fishing boots. Rufus, his elderly Chocolate Lab, sniffed at the boots catching the whiff of grunion from some long ago venture to the seaside. The fact that Johnny was holding a wooden paddle and wore an orange life vest didn’t seem odd to Rufus who wagged his tail and climbed slowly, thanks to his hip arthritis, up onto the Johnny’s bed and into the rubber raft where he plumped himself with a humpf!. “Labs are good swimmers,” said Johnny patting the dog’s head. “So don’t worry.”
Johnny’s little sister Anne-Marie appeared in the bedroom doorway and flicked on the light. She took one look then called, “Mom, Johnny’s doing it again!” She stayed in the doorway shaking her head. “It’s not going to happen. Just because you had that silly dream again.”
Johnny looked at her without saying a word. He held up the paddle.
“No, I will not get on the bed and paddle to Patagonia with you!” grumped his sister, her blond braids flipping back and forth as she shook her head in indignation. Just then the nine-year old’s mother Mrs. Sandra Dippostini appeared beside her daughter. She had matching braids, except they were a bit gray around the edges. She took one look at her son and began shaking her head in much the same way as did her daughter. Johnny watched the two sets of braids whipping back and forth and smiled. Rufus watched them, each eye following a different set of braids until he whined and covered his eyes with his paws.
“Young man, please remove that raft from your bed and put it back in the garage along with the paddle before you father gets home. He doesn’t like you digging into his fishing gear. Remember when he stepped on all those hooks you had dropped on the garage floor. That wasn’t a pretty picture, now was it? So put it all away…this very minute.”
“Momma, come sit on the raft. Anne-Marie, you, too. There’s room for everyone,” said Johnny, scooching over to the front of the raft. Rufus scooched, too. “See, plenty of room.”
Now both his mother and sister had their hands on their hips. “It’s about that silly dream, isn’t it?” said his Mom.
“Not silly,” said Johnny. “Noah said tonight’s the night. He also said taking Rufus was a good idea since Labradors are swimming dogs.”
“Rufus was in the dream?” said his mother. “Rufus wasn’t in the last dream.”
“Noah mentioned him this time,” said Johnny. Just then a gust of wind blew open the window, the drapes swirling around. “Not much time, now,” said Johnny.
His mother went to the window to close it when suddenly the sky flashed with lightning and a great crash of thunder rattled the window pane. Anne-Marie squealed in fright and jumped into the boat. Her mother looked out the open window, squinting up against the night sky.
“Better get in the raft, Mom. It’s coming real soon.”
“Like I said before… the Moon-soon.” said Johnny.
“Do you mean the monsoon, the rains?” said his Mom turning away from the window and tsk-tsked, saying, “We don’t have monsoons in Southern California. We hardly have any rain at all. We’re lucky to get…”
“No, I mean Moon-soon,” said Johnny. “It’s a gravity thing. A big surge.”
“Big sure of what…?” Her words were drowned out by the wave of water that splashed through the window soaking her from head to foot. She gasped and sputtered in amazement. Outside the winds began to howl.
Johnny held up a paddle. “Noah said head for Patagonia. Which way is that?”
Mrs. Sandra Dippostini grabbed the paddle, scrambled onto the bed and into the raft. She was sitting there when Mr. Dippostini walked into the bedroom carrying his umbrella and briefcase. He just stood there with his mouth open. Rufus wagged his very wet tail.
(c) Paul Garson
It is a beautiful morning. The sun is shining, birds are bursting their lungs and everything in the garden is growing like mad. It is a day for activity, exploration, and aesthetic pleasure from the landscape. In short, it is a day for doing something. Bartlett drives the car containing his little black spaniel down to his favourite spot by the sea, some twenty miles from his modest terraced house. He’s been there before. It is a tiny hamlet perched high on clifftops, looking out over the vast expanse of the German Ocean. It feels like any day now the houses will simply slide down the cliffs a hundred feet into the sea.
There’s a car park for a dozen cars and a vertiginous path leading to the bay. This is reached by way of an uneven and pitch-dark tunnel hewn through the cliffs. To a claustrophobic like Bartlett, walking through it is an unnerving experience, although there is the comfort of a pin-prick of light at the far end. In such places he tends to recall the time he was stuck in a lift on a red-hot summer’s day, with twenty other people who thought they were about to meet their maker until Bartlett prised open the lift doors by sheer brute force and the crowd fell out into the foyer.
Bartlett and the dog pass through the tunnel into the sunlight and find themselves in an exquisite little bay, bounded by ancient rocks. A man once told him the rocks are four hundred million years old, from what he calls the Silurian period, but Bartlett is sceptical. How can anyone know?
On one side of the bay, there is a man-made harbour of stone and at it an old sailor is busily engaged in doing something to his boat. Apart from him, and a woman lounging in the garden of one of two houses nestling snugly against the cliffs, there is no-one else around.
The old man’s hair is snow-white under his jaunty sailor’s cap. He looks like Captain Birdseye. He is bending low in the fo’c’sle of his boat. He holds a screwdriver and a spanner in one hand and a hammer in the other. By the state of his craft, it appears that these are the only tools he is likely to need, for it looks as if it might be powered by a Morris Cowley engine, circa 1926, and everyone knows how basic these engines are and how simple they are to work on.
Beyond the harbour wall, there is not a single craft on the vast expanse of ocean, which, as far as the eye can see, is dead calm. The sun shines on the shimmering water, refracting the light into a million pixels of colour. Bartlett and the dog climb the dozen or so steps cut into the harbour wall and walk past a score of lobster-pots piled high on the rudimentary pathway, which is narrow. There is a drop of fifteen feet to the water. Suddenly, breaking the silence, the old sailor hails him.
‘Can you do me a favour?’
‘If I can.’
‘Are my keys in the van?’
An ancient pick-up truck stands at the foot of the road leading back to the hamlet. It has once been black, but is now mainly rust-coloured. The keys are in the door.
‘The keys are in the door,’ says Bartlett.
‘Can you throw them down, please?’ asks the old sailor.
Bartlett looks at the distance between the old sailor and him, and remembers that he could never hit a set of cricket stumps from a distance any of greater than three feet, let alone drop keys into the prow of a boat fifteen feet below with a lot of deep sea around it. The old sailor doesn’t look as though he owns a spare set.
‘I think not,’ says Bartlett.
‘What’s to be done, then?’ asks the old sailor.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll hide them under the driver’s seat of the pick-up. They can stay there until you’re ready to come back up. No-one will find them there.’
Bartlett cannot imagine for one second anyone wanting to steal that old rust-bucket, but he opens the door of the pick-up, moves aside three empty tins of Tam O'Shanter pipe tobacco and an old fish-and-chip wrapper, and duly hides the keys.
‘That’s it done.’
‘Fine. Thank you. Saves me coming up just yet.’
‘You a fisherman?’ asks Bartlett, without curiosity. The dog sits obediently by his side, displaying only a few signs of boredom. Overhead a few Arctic Terns screech messages to each other before plummeting into the sea like tiny black and white skyrockets returning to earth.
‘Used to be. Retired now,’ says the old sailor.
‘You used to fish round here?’
‘Out there.’ The old sailor gestures vaguely in the direction of the sea.
‘A hard life,’ reflects Bartlett.
‘Yep. Worse in winter. Fine, on days like this. Still, the seas were teeming with fish in them days. Not so now.’
‘Spaniards. Hoovered up the fish in their huge factory ships until there was hardly any left. They were tough times, they were. Pleased I’m finished with that game.’
‘You live round here?’
The old sailor pointed at the clifftop. Up there. Seaview Cottage. You’ll see it on your way back up. Can’t miss it. Couple of ribs off of a whale at the front gate.’
‘A whale?’ Bartlett’s tone of voice demonstrates his surprise.
‘Washed up. Twenty years ago. A Minke. Got lost. Ended up in shallow water in the harbour. Compass all wrong. Folk came from miles around to see it. They’d never seen one before. Not a massive creature, not like them humpbacks. Lovely, they is. Delicate, really. More like a shark than a whale. Cigar-shaped. Leap like dolphins, clean out of the water. Sad to see it lying on its side, tiny sightless eye staring up at me. Clever creatures, whales. Talk to each other. Often wondered how they grew so huge living on tiny plankton.’
‘Something in their metabolism, no doubt,’ says Bartlett, who knows nothing about the metabolism of whales. You don’t get the chance to see many whales when you’re working in an office.
The old sailor shrugs his shoulders.
‘How long have you had her?’ asks Bartlett.
‘Well, let me see now. Callaghan was prime minister. It was the Winter of Discontent. I was discontented then, I can tell you. No fish, you see. Ted Ford went bankrupt. I got the boat for a song. She’s an old girl.’
‘Ancient,’ says Bartlett. ‘What’s she called?’
‘Mary-Anne, after the wife. That’s her name, see.’
There is something poignant in the way the old sailor says this. Bartlett notices. He wonders if the wife is ill, or worse.
The dog tugs at his trouser-cuffs. She is becoming restless, and hungry.
‘Nice to talk to you,’ says Bartlett. ‘Must go now. Dog’s fretting.’
The old sailor waves his spanner in lieu of a verbal response.
Bartlett and the dog climb the steep path to the hamlet. Whatever the old sailor does with his hammer, screwdriver and spanner must work, for ten minutes later, as the pair finally reach the hamlet, Bartlett sees the old sailor’s boat chugging out of the harbour and into the wide blue ocean. It looks like a fly in a swimming-pool.
‘Sooner him than me,’ Bartlett says to the dog. He wonders what might become of the old sailor if his ancient engine stops wheezing and he is cast adrift, becalmed, left to the mercy of unpredictable tides.
Bartlett sees that the old sailor has the same thoughts himself, for the latter promptly turns the boat round and heads back to the safety of the harbour. He has sailed a matter of three hundred yards. Bartlett laughs.
Bartlett has scarcely seen any views so remarkable. He observes Seaview Cottage with its whalebones at the gate. There is beetroot maturing in the front garden. The windows need a lick of paint. The old sailor’s wife is hanging out washing. Her aged skin is cracked as dried seaweed. She doesn’t look ill, or worse, just old.
Bartlett learns from a plaque at the end of the single street that the hamlet was once a tidy little herring port. The sheltered harbour must have been a magnet for smugglers. At its peak, the place housed over fifty people; not all of them were smugglers. He also discovers that eleven fishermen died on the night of the great storm of 1889. They all met their end in full view of their families standing watching from the shore.
Bartlett drives home past the bloodied remains of a red deer that an inconsiderate lorry has slaughtered in the early hours of the morning. A motorway sign reads ‘High risk of deer on the road.’ Bartlett guesses the lorry-driver hasn’t read it.
(c) Ronald Hardwick
“Well, now that lockdown is nearly over, we can finally sort out our holiday.”
“Yes, but where can we go?”
“The world is our oyster, we can go anywhere we like.”
“Well, how about Greece?”
“No, that would be a tragedy or should that be travesty, besides I don’t like John Travolta.”
“What about gay Paris?”
“To be franc, he seems like a nice boy, but I can’t see myself making the long journey through the tunnel in one go.”
“What about the borderlands between Germany and Poland then?”
“No, that would be even Oder and, besides, the Germans have already marked my card.”
“I wouldn’t go there to save my bacon.”
“What about Spain.”
“Bullocks - that’s a red flag. It’s a load of bullocks and bullfighting.”
“Have you thought about Italy?”
“What have the Romans ever done for us?”
“They don’t have anything decent to eat there, everybody leaves the table – well, starving. If I had my way, the whole lot of them would be hung.”
“Not when they foisted that ghastly Mateus Rose wine off on us in the sixties and seventies and everyone turned the empty bottles into ghastly, electric table lamps?”
“Now, that is a real teaser.”
“Why don’t we go to Estonia?”
“That’d be Tallin.”
“How about Latvia?”
“Oh, it’s so boring there, everybody seems to be suffering from riga mortis.”
“I thought that the Germans had sunk it.”
“What about Luxembourg?”
“Bourger the Luxembourgers.”
“And bulgar the Bulgarians too.”
“Well how about Romania? We could go to Transylvania.”
“Bloody hell! That place would give anyone a pain in the neck.”
“Well, what do you think about Czechia?”
“I don’t think anything about it at all. Heck, in fact I can’t even spell it.”
“Lubyanka! I’m not staying there! The hospitality’s not great and they treat everyone like criminals.”
“What about Croatia?”
“It really makes me want to split.”
“How about Holland?”
“Oh, that would fall flat, besides tulips are definitely not my favourite flower and, anyway, I don’t like Mary Poppins’ Dick Van Dyke.”
“Belgium? That’s a bit low, I’m persona non grata in Brussels and, besides, most of them are a right set of Wallonians.”
“What do you think about Cyprus?”
“I’m a bit half-hearted about it, as some scantily clad, young woman keeps jumping out of a clam shell, by Zeus.”
“Sweden? Den of iniquity more like, what with mixed saunas and birch twigs and things like that. Believe me, those birch twigs can be really painful in the right hands.”
“What about Finland then?”
“Definitely not! It’s so far north it’s even colder than Ursula von der Leyen’s heart, if she has one that is.”
“Ireland? What about Ireland? I fancy Ireland. Why don’t we go to Ireland?”
“Cork it and don’t keep harping on about it, besides I can’t stand Harp lager, or Guinness either, for that matter.”
“No, it’s full of Brats and we need to support the Brits. Well, the English anyway. Covid 19 is still about and we must stay in England! We’ll go to Barnard Castle.”
“Well, now that we’re here, it does seem rather nice. It’s rather weird, though, as I think I’ve just had a case of déjà vu or have we been here before? If we have, I can’t remember seeing any of these sights,” said Dominic Cummings to his wife.
“I think,” replied Dominic’s wife, “we should have gone to Specsavers - or perhaps Outer Mongolia; after all they don’t have an extradition treaty with the U. K.”
(c) David A Jones
I was the best. Not ‘one of the best’. The. Best. The Best Jest. What am I saying? Was. Am. I am The Best Jest. It says so on the curtains. The curtains I’m currently hidden behind. The huge red velvet drapes conceal me from my audience. The tension is starting to bubble. I can almost taste it. Like candyfloss. There for a moment on your tongue then gone. The sweetness. I need more of it. So, I put on shows every night. And then when I retire to my quarters I go to sleep with the echo of applause ringing in my ears. I live for this.
My life is making people laugh.
We are not ‘fools’. We are entertainers. We act silly to make you feel smart. But I’m not simple. I have a brain. There’s a difference between laughing with me and at me. The laughter I receive from my performances fills my heart like warm, steaming broth. I don’t like the way people laugh at me on the streets. It makes my palms sweat and my throat go dry. And when that sickly laughter came from the sharp tongue of my beloved, I saw red. Then it happened again that day Mr. Burgess laughed at me when I asked for a pay rise. I make jokes. I am not a joke, Mr. Burgess. I am the Best Jest. I always will be.
I look to the clock on the wall. Almost time. I run to my mirror to check my motley. Mine is red and black, but my collar, cuffs and gloves are white. I test my bells by shaking my head and I smile at the tinkling noise that reminds me of Christmas, when it used to be a jolly time.
My act is different every week. I like to keep things fresh for my loyal audience.
I press the button so my audio playback fills the auditorium.
“Ladies and Gentleman! It’s showtime!”
The crowd roars.
It’s my voice over the loud speaker but I dropped an octave so it sounds like someone else.
“Please put your hands together for… the Best Jest of all the West!”
I pull the rope and the curtains swoosh open.
The crowd goes wild for me and I wave silently as I step into the spotlight. The sequence this week is all mime so I don’t say a word for an hour. But even with my lack of jokes, the crowd loves me as I pretend to be trapped in a box. My audio plays above me every so often, narrating the scenarios I find myself stuck in and asking the audience for suggestions. I do some sleight of hand card tricks and completely amaze a woman in the front row when I change the back of her two of hearts from red to black.
Then I make a crown out of balloons and place it delicately on the head of the smiling young girl before me. Her eyes are pale and glassy, and I silently force down the lump in my throat at all the memories that flood my mind, threatening to send me spiralling.
I need to focus. Focus on my act.
Swatting away the flies that keep bothering me, I turn to open my chest of goodies. But then I’m jolted when the double doors at the back of the auditorium fly open and I am rudely interrupted by a swarm of police. They have the gall to leap onto my stage and manhandle me. I stay in character as I am handcuffed, acting like this is all part of the plan. I shrug, bashful, as I am being escorted off the premises. The policeman shoving me towards the doors is spitting dreadful things in my ear, talking down to me as if I am scum. But I am not scum. I am the Best Jest. He just doesn’t appreciate my art, like Karen. Karen… who turned our little Libby against me.
I am unceremoniously thrown into the back of the police car. Clearly these people are unaware of my celebrity status. Then I’m ignored as officers go into the building. They all come out with gurneys. One after another, after another. My audience. My loyal audience. They’re taking them away. Everything I have. They’re taking them away!
On one of the gurneys, the black bag is open and a pale arm drops out. I recognise the charm bracelet hanging off the delicate wrist and I close my eyes.
They didn’t understand me. She was going to take her away. But I know what I am. The Best Jest. If they had just watched me perform, they’d have understood. That’s all I wanted. That’s all I was trying to do. But now it’s all ruined and I’m stuck back here and they’re taking them away!
I smash my head against the caging before me and bite back a scream.
I am the Best Jest of all the West. I am the Best Jest of all the West. I am…
…I am sorry, Libby.
(c) Shelley Crowley
On the escalator, I recite my mantra: No big deal, just another date. My third online meet-up. The other two were easy chats in cosy pubs, quick kisses, the men nice and forgettable. My mum says I’m too picky.
This morning, I’m meeting Phil. We both want children, we both love literature. His linguistic flair attracted me, the ninety-seven words of his profile leaving me longing for more. In his messages, Phil transformed everyday anecdotes into a carnival of words. We clicked ‘Yes’ a month ago and have written every day since. The caution about meeting was mostly on his side. He didn’t want to waste time: he was looking for true love. I want what my mum and dad have: each other forever and the type of house a child would draw.
I push out of the tube station. Phil suggested meeting at the British Museum; the past is another of his passions.
I’m early, but he is there, dwarfed by the columns. No big deal, just another date.
It’s not easy to talk in a Central London museum. Conversational attempts are shattered by the need to move away from exhibits.
As we plod around, I am smiling so hard my cheeks hurt. My insides are hollow, however. The mantra means nothing: it feels like a big deal that Phil in real life doesn’t attract me. Not physically; it’s not that he looks entirely different from his profile picture, but he’s on the small side of ‘five foot nine’, and his face is so pale it’s as though he’s being erased. Most crushingly, his spoken words have none of the sparkle of his written ones. Despite the weight of the disappointment I am lugging around like a rock of raw diamond that can’t be turned into a ring, I am too polite to leave. Perhaps Phil is just nervous; we can be friends.
‘I’d love to see the Troy exhibition, Tamsin,’ Phil says. ‘I’ve always wanted to see the “Judgement of Paris”, haven’t you?’
I have not, but what the hell.
There is a twenty pound admission fee to get into ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’. Phil steers me towards a painting of a gingery, doughy-faced man kneeling before three naked women. Not very Me Too. Phil tells me how Paris had to choose which of the goddesses was the most beautiful; the winner, Aphrodite, gifted him the world’s most beautiful woman; Helen’s abduction from her husband started the Trojan War.
‘Very dramatic,’ I say, to fill the ensuing silence. Is Phil expecting applause? An A-star grade? ‘No man’s fought over me, let alone started a war.’
‘I’d fight over you,’ Phil says. ‘I’d start a war.’
I laugh: he doesn’t. When I look at his unlit face, he is staring at me like a painter trying to capture an essence. I don’t fill silences after that. Phil comments on what we see as we trudge from ancient sculpture to vase painting to silver vessel, from myth to history to truth.
‘Let’s find a picnic spot,’ Phil says, as if we are in the Lake District. ‘Hope you’re hungry!’
He has brought our lunch, for which I have high hopes. Some booze to add a layer of fuzz to the proceedings would be a good start, baguettes and posh crisps too. If he’s willing to spend twenty pounds at a free museum then surely he’s splashed out on this. But who can tell. Phil is an outline of the person I thought I knew. All those words, squatting inside our screens and phones: what was the point?
The weather has got worse since we were inside the museum, the faded-grey sky thick with clouds. A pathetic fallacy. I suggest going to a café.
‘But I’ve bought food, Tamsin.’
Why am I not brave enough to walk away, now it’s clear we’re never going to see each other again? I envisage my studio flat like a pair of outstretched arms.
Phil and I wander the chilly streets, rain mizzling onto us. At least it doesn’t matter if my hair frizzes. Finally, we see an uninhabited green enclave. One of London’s small secrets. The single bench is damp, so I sit on my coat. Phil produces packets of food from his rucksack: cold croissants and cold sausage rolls. Diet Cokes.
This could be a funny anecdote, I think.
When I have had a croissant and a sausage roll, I brush crumbs off my best jeans and say: ‘I’d better be off, Phil, thanks so much—’
‘Shall we go out tonight, Tamsin? You’ve mentioned that pub near you: the Rose and Crown. It gets good reviews on Trip Adviser.’
I stare at the concrete; it is pigeon-coloured and splattered with avian emissions. In my head, Mum murmurs: ‘Give him another chance, Tam. You can’t afford to be picky at nearly thirty. Your dad and I were married at twenty-three.’ Shush, Mum.
‘Sorry, I’ve got a friend coming over tonight,’ I lie. ‘Gary. We were at university together.’
‘Can I see you tomorrow, then? This has been a great date. You’re just what I expected, and that’s not always the case, is it?’
‘I need to go. Thanks for today.’
That evening, my phone doesn’t stop. Phil sends texts, voicemails and emails. I craft one message saying it was lovely to meet him, but I don’t think we connected, sorry. My phone rings: I don’t answer. He keeps on… ringing… texting… emailing. I delete the messages without reading them: block his number and email. Although he doesn’t know my address, I double-lock the door.
That night, sleep takes a long time to come. A sound jerks me awake: someone’s knocking at the window. I spring up, open the curtains. Branches are raging against the darkened pane. I’ll ask the landlord to trim the tree.
Next morning, I am tagged in a Facebook post visible to all. Brilliant date with Tamsin: beautiful as Helen and sexy as Aphrodite. The next will be even more special. Such hackneyed words; did someone else write his other messages? The fleshy-pink enthused delusion makes me feel sick. Twenty of my friends, two of Phil’s, ‘like’ the post. My best friend Jenna texts to say Went well then x
Delete delete: Phil is blocked from my social media accounts. Now he has no way of getting to me.
The next Saturday is my thirtieth birthday party. An area has been reserved in The Rose and Crown, and I’ve paid for enough Prosecco and food for a small army.
Drink and conversation flow, music is turned up. At ten o’clock, I am squashed on a sofa with Jenna’s new housemate Dara. In his lilting Irish accent, he tells me about the park runs he does. Then suggests we go jogging together one weekend. I say I’ll meet him for a pint when he’s finished running. He laughs, says that sounds good.
As Dara and I are moving closer together, I become aware of someone standing above me.
‘Tamsin, at last! I’ve been here every night this week, hoping to bump into you. Have you lost your phone?’
I can’t speak.
‘Who’s this?’ Phil points at Dara. ‘Are you Gary?’
(c) Sam Szanto
The tree had been caged in mesh at the garden centre, a small woman with a bright smile telling Louise she must water it and keep it away from radiators. Louise had looked at the way the tree, its branches free only seconds before, was constricted and held, and she felt a wave of guilt rush through her body. She could water it, of course, but keep it away from a radiator? Impossible in her flat.
It was an extravagance, buying a real tree. She’d never done it before, and this year of all years…yes, yes, she knew, Ivars had told her enough times, it wasn’t like they could afford to splash out forty quid on a fir tree, and in their little flat, what was she thinking? She was thinking about hope, she told him. She was thinking about the deep green spindle pine needles, the scent of the forest, the evergreen a reminder of the spring to come. She was thinking about the beauty of a living tree and how some things were constant, while others could, and would, change.
They freed the tree together in their flat. Ivars said it might make the air better. He was worried about the flourish of mould blooming around the bedroom window and the way water dripped inside from the glass pane and the sills. He said a tree was a sign of life. In the old country they boasted the first ever Christmas tree, he said, though it wasn’t called Christmas then, and they danced around it and set it on fire. Louise grinned and said any sign of any fires near this one and she’d be withdrawing all signs of life in the bedroom.
He put his arms around her then, standing behind her, both of them gazing at the bushy, fat tree. It made the dingy flat feel brighter already. Wait till they had lights on it and tinsel and a few shiny red baubles, made from glass as delicate as ice. Wait till there was a star on top, she said, or an angel. She asked him how they would decorate a tree when he was a boy and he told her about the legend of the Christmas Spider, the helpful little creature that would decorate with webs when there was no money for anything else. Louise said that was fortunate for them, she found plenty of spiders running the walls and corners in this flat.
It will get better, he told her. With the new year there was hope, there was always hope, and things would get better. There’d be work and there’d be somewhere else for them to live, somewhere with space and clean walls and windows.
Louise stepped forward and touched the smooth needles of the tree. She would water it every day. And when the season was over and the new year rang through, and the tree couldn’t hold on any longer, she would send it on its way. And just as the fir tree had promised, spring would come.
(c) Samantha Priestley
Steve Hale, a forty-year-old billionaire, lay on a couch in the office of Dr. Mark Carr, a psychiatrist. “So, Mr. Hale, what brings you here?”
“Worry. Anxiety. Fear.”
“What do you worry about?”
“My fortune. I’m afraid I’m going to grow old and die and have to leave my estates and my yacht and everything I’ve worked for behind. What I have belongs to me and I don’t want old age and death to take what’s mine away from me.
“Mr. Hale, I understand why you feel the way you do, but everybody grows old and dies. It’s inevitable. Can’t you just enjoy what you have while you’re young?”
“I do enjoy what I have, but my fear of growing old and dying is always on my mind. My worry keeps me awake at night. I don’t know what to do?”
“I could prescribe anti-anxiety drugs that might help.”
“No! No drugs.”
“Maybe another session would help. Talking is good medicine.”
“Okay. I’ll think about it. Thank you,” he said, and left. When he got home, he went to his spacious living room, sat on a recliner, and closed his eyes. "I'll lose everything I worked just because I have to grow old and die. It's not fair." After ten minutes of complaining, he fell asleep.
Twenty minutes later, his secretary and confidant, William, rushed into the living room. "Steve, Steve, wake up," he urged and turned on the television.
"What? What's happening?"
William tuned to channel four. "Steve, an anthropologist, Dr. Ellis Wills, is presenting a lecture at his university about his expedition in the Amazon."
"The objective of the expedition was to find a tribe in the Amazon that anthropologists had been trying to find for years. Four graduate students and I flew to Cusco in Peru , hired a guide who interpreted for us, bearers, bought supplies and headed out. After ten days, we stopped. Our guide said we had to leave the boat and walk. After trudging for days through the jungle, we arrived at a village. We were greeted by friendly natives, were fed and given a place to sleep for the night. In the morning, we looked around and noticed that there were no old people in tribe. We told our interpreter to ask the chief how it was possible that no one in his tribe grows old. He wouldn't tell us, so, disappointed, we returned home."
"William, we have to talk to Dr . Wills. Try to find him and ask him to meet with me."
"I'm on it," William said and left.
"Could it be that my solution is In the Amazon? Could it be that I will be able to cheat death? Maybe I won't grow old and 'll be able to keep my fortune after all."
A week later, Hale met with Dr. Wills. "I saw your interview on television about your trip to the Amazon, and I was especially interested in the part where you said there were no old people in the village, but the chief wouldn't tell you the antiaging secret."
"Dr. Wills, could you find the village again?"
"I believe so."
"If you will take me there, I will finance an expedition and write you a check that will keep you in business for a long time." Hale and Dr. Wills made plans, and set out for Cusco in Peru, where they hired a guide who could interpret, bought supplies and gifts for the tribe, bearers to carry supplies and set out to find the village. After walking for days, they arrived at the village. After being greeted, Hale and the bearers laid out pots, pans, a variety of tools, and machetes on the ground. The exuberant natives quickly scooped up many of the gifts and hurried off with them to their huts. Hale looked anxiously around. "I don't see any old people. Could it be true?" he wondered. Among the greeters was the tribe's leader. "I have to learn their secret," he told the interpreter, so the interpreter spoke to the leader. The leader looked at the remaining gifts and looked back at Hale. Then, he told the interpreter to follow him, so Hale, the interpreter, and Dr. Wills followed the tribe's leader into the forest. After walking fifty or so yards, the leader climbed a tree, picked three fruits, climbed down, and gave one pear-shaped fruit to Hale, one to his interpreter and one to Dr. Wills. He told the interpreter that they should eat the whole fruit and, in time, there would be results. Hale and the interpreter quickly ate the fruit.
"I don't want this," Dr. Wills said and handed it back to the tribe's leader.
That night, after everyone went to sleep, Hale went to the tree, climbed it, and ate two fruits."
The next morning, everything was packed up, and they went home. When he got home, his butler unpacked, and he paced around his living room. "I’m never going to grow old,” he said excitedly over and over.
A year later, his accountant went to his house for a meeting. The accountant began to lay out some spreadsheets on a table but stopped and looked at Hale. “Steve, have you been working out, eating health food, or what?”
“I use my home gym as I always have and my diet hasn’t changed. Why do you ask?”
“You look great. You look younger. You must be doing something right.”
After the accountant left, Hale ran up to his bedroom to look at himself in his full-length mirror. “Wow. He’s right. I look younger. It's the fruit. I'm not aging. My dream come true. I'll never grow old. I'll be able to enjoy my wealth forever.“
Two days later, Hale switched on his intercom. "Mark?"
"Yes sir," Mark his chef, answered
"Mark, I've decided to work from my bedroom for a few days. I think I have the flu. Leave a tray at my door."
For the next few days, Hale ate his meals in his room. One day a week later, the butler took dinner to Hale and left the tray. The next morning, the butler took breakfast to Hale's room. "Hmm. He didn't eat last night's dinner. I guess he wasn't hungry," he said and took the dinner tray back to the kitchen.
"I wonder why Mr. Hale didn't eat his dinner," the cook said. "He must be very sick. He should probably call his doctor."
At noon, the butler took lunch to Hale's room. "His breakfast is untouched. Another wasted meal," he said and took the untouched food to the kitchen. "He's still not eating. Maybe you should check on him," the cook suggested.
The butler went to Hale's room and knocked on the door. "Mr. Hale, are you okay?" the butler called and knocked on the door several times. "Mr. Hale I'm coming in," the butler said out loud and he forced the door open and entered the room. “Oh, my God,” he gasped as he looked at a naked toddler standing in front of him. The toddler, with tears flowing down his cheeks, looked up at him, and the butler stared in disbelief as the toddler began to shrink and continued to shrink until he disappeared.
If one fruit is good, three must be better, he believed, but he was wrong.
(c) Saul Greenblatt
Rose Street is the quietest road in the country. I’d been lucky to afford my tiny terraced home and given the “mature residential setting” I suspected I was the youngest occupant. A week later a timid knock sounded on my newly-glossed front door and I found a pair of white-haired ladies on my doorstep.
“Oh,” said one, cowering behind the other from my scary five-foot frame and baggy jumpsuit.
“Hello, I’m Enid. This is my sister, Olive. We live next door,” announced the other, taller sister.
“How nice of you to call. Would you like a cup of tea? I’m a bit all over the place, but I’ve found the kettle and Mum bought me a teapot and mugs as a housewarming gift. Come in.”
I fought the urge to be rude and close the door. My latest attempt at erecting a curtain pole had failed before their knock and Enid’s rather pointy nose had twisted into a sneer at my mention of mugs. Clearly only china tea-cups would do for my uninvited guests.
Enid stalked past me. “Down here, is it?”
Olive scurried after her.
I brewed my millionth pot of tea. Half the country had visited me in the last week, including second cousins. Everyone wanted a peek behind the silent windows of Rose Street. Both sisters peered at my scattered belonging as I hunted for biscuits. Olive tried to conceal her curiosity but her eyes returned to my work repeatedly.
“Do you like them?
“What?” she jumped, “Eh, yes. That one is fantastic.” She pointed.
“It’s a spice stall in the Grand Bazaar. Amazing place. I’ve sold it a few times to food magazines. I’m framing it for the kitchen.”
“You’re a snapper, eh?” interrupted Enid.
“Yes. I’m a professional photographer.”
“Do you hide in bushes and catch the stars on their holidays?” she enquired, casually including me with the paps and ensuring my undying dislike.
“No. Landscapes and still life mostly.”
We struggled through the visit with dry small talk. Enid monologued for five minutes about the youth of today and their terrible grammar. Olive, however, sipped her tea like a dormouse while drinking in my photographs with greedy eyes.
“Are you interested in photography, Olive?” I tried to stop Enid’s rant.
She looked down at my kitchen table and mumbled, “I like to paint.”
“Oh yes, our Olive likes to daub a bit.”
“That’s an amazing talent to have,” I enthused just to irritate Enid. “I did some in college, but photography is my thing.”
We ran out of things to say shortly afterwards and the sisters excused themselves, their curiosity satisfied, and I returned to my curtain pole.
I waved at the sisters from my car whenever I saw them. I was busy working on a cook-book layout in the city and we didn’t speak again until the spring. The sunshine tempted me to unearth my bike and cycle to the park.
I braked to a stop at the end of Rose Street. The old dears were lugging shopping back home. “Hi, how are you two? I haven’t since you in ages. Would you like a hand with those?”
Enid prickled. “No, we’re well able to fend for ourselves. Aren’t we Olive?”
“Yes,” she mumbled but looked ready to collapse under the weight. Enid’s bags looked lighter.
“We were wondering actually,” Enid paused.
“Will the hammering go on for much longer?”
What hammering? I’d put up the curtain rails ages ago. I had assembled some flat-pack furniture the weekend before, but it only took an hour.
“I have the house mostly sorted now. But I always try to avoid DIY late at night.”
“It was 8p.m. last Sunday, dear. I couldn’t hear the television.”
I must have been bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood. Next thing you knew they’d have the residents’ association on my case or the noise pollution police dragging me off in chains to a dungeon.
“Right. I’ll bear that in mind.” I managed a tight smile.
“I should hope so. Come along, Olive.”
Olive shot me a quick sympathetic glance and dragged her bags towards their house. I pitied the poor woman having to live with that grumpy old cow. I cycled around the block again until my blood pressure simmered down and I could talk myself out of an irrational urge to take up drumming.
When I spotted the leaflet in the local library I couldn’t resist stirring up Enid. The local secondary school was hosting an exhibition in aid of renovating their gym-hall and they were seeking local artists to display or sell their work on the night. I stuck it in an envelope addressed to Olive and snuck it into next-door’s shiny brass letterbox after seeing Enid depart for her bridge class.
I gave the school two of my prints to sell on the night as an excuse to attend and see Olive’s paintings. Sure enough her white bobbed hair drew my eye as soon as I entered. She appeared to be surrounded by several of the parents and the vice-principal who’d organised the night. No sign of Enid.
I strolled around, amazed as always by the amateur talent on display. Two of my favourites, wild splashy watercolours of harbour scenes, already sported the red sticker dots which indicted they’d been sold, but one by the same artist, whose signature I couldn’t decipher, remained for sale and I hadn’t gathered enough art for my new house yet, so I headed straight to the cash desk.
“I’d like number 107 please. Who is the artist? I couldn’t read the name.”
“Olive Ratcliffe. She’s over there.” The woman gestured towards my neighbour. I’d expected her paintings to be twee cottage scenes and perhaps a flower still-life, not impassioned sketches of storms and struggling fishermen. I gave my credit card details, checked on my own prints and their reassuring red-dot status, and headed home without disturbing Olive. She caught my eye as I passed the group en route to the exit and I think she winked. She gave me a thumbs up anyhow. She must have worked out who had dropped in the anonymous flyer about the exhibition.
Later I was brewing a cup of hot chocolate during a TV ad-break when I noticed the shouting. I popped my head back into the sitting room to adjust the volume control but the ad was for a new car, complete with quiet classical music. I went back into the kitchen and could hear the voices again. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was fierce, venomous even. I switched off my milk on the hob and walked into the hall. There each word spoken resounded into my home. My hallway shared a wall with the sister’s hallway and they must have been standing just inside their neat front door.
“I was worried sick about you!” yelled Enid.
“I left a note,” retorted Olive.
They were having a blazing row and I could hear the entire thing. Should I listen? I didn’t think Enid would hit Olive, but at the same time she had a nasty way with her and Olive looked cowed every time I met them. I sat on the bottom step of my stairs, glued to their argument.
“You and your silly dabblings,” sneered Enid.
Olive’s voice dropped but her determination carried it through the wall to my ears nonetheless.
“My dabblings raised 800 quid tonight for the school.”
“They sold? That rubbish? Some people have no taste.”
Steps ran upstairs and a door slammed. There would be no emergency calls tonight.
I turned back to the kitchen and then jumped when Olive’s voice screamed again. She was yelling to her sister in triumphant tones. “…and the gallery on the high street wants to stock more of them!”
I punched the air and went back to my telly. Good for you Olive.
Ten minutes later the sibling screaming restarted. Something about Enid being a saint to put up with her younger sister and then retaliation from Olive about Enid never letting her speak for herself. They probably hadn’t had a good row in decades in that silent house with its lace curtains and sparkling brass letterbox.
I didn’t want to listen anymore, and it was after 8p.m., shocking.
I turned up the volume on the television, pulled my toolbox out, and started hanging some photographs, with the biggest hammer I could find.
(c) Grace Tierney
Emily trudged up her driveway, dragging her tired baby brother Max with one arm, the other straining to pull a (hopefully dead) monster behind them in a little red wagon. Its broken body, now a mess of limbs and oozing parts, lay under a medley of straw and Halloween decorations, hastily thrown together to hide the gore from Max’s eyes.
“We’re going on a hayride. A haunted hayride,” Emily had said, and he believed her. She was pretty sure.
Her breath came out hard in visible puffs: the driveway was on a steep incline to the street and it was a chilly November night. She’d given Max her gloves, which were comically large on his little toddler arms. Her cold hands were bare, slippery with a greenish muck that she assumed was Nanny’s blood. Emily had never killed anything larger than a wolf spider before, but she felt oddly calm.
It wasn’t the first dead body she’d seen. Her mother’s funeral had been open casket. At the wake, women fussed over Emily while munching on cream cheese and jelly finger sandwiches, crumbs falling on Mom’s good rug.
“Imagine, eleven years old! Girls without mothers lose their softness,” the Pastor’s wife said, top lip tucked against her teeth, “Though of course, your mother always was a hard woman.”
They were now halfway up the driveway, and Emily paused to rub her hands together for warmth. Max yawned.
“Haunted Hayrides always happen in the dead of night, because it’s scarier,” Emily told him. Max didn’t respond. After Mom died, he stopped talking entirely, the house now eerily quiet without his endless babble: Mama, Dada, Emmy, Bird, No…
Nanny appeared at their door a few weeks after the funeral. Dainty, blonde and smelling of rose water: a photo negative of Emily’s mother, from whom Emily got her height and broad build. Nanny’s details were vague: she was from the church, volunteering to help grieving children.
“It’s my calling.” She explained, smiling, a spittle of drool escaping onto her blouse. She winked at Emily. “You know, like from God.”
Dad let her stay, or didn’t stop her - really, he barely seemed to register she was there at all; so busy in the backyard shed most of the time, working to fill the recycling bin with whiskey bottles. Nanny set herself up in Mom’s old sewing room, a pink suitcase on the bed and a small trinket dish on the dresser in which she placed two old coins.
“Don’t ever touch those, girl,” Nanny threatened.
I don’t want your dirty pennies, Emily thought, incredibly curious.
In the days to follow, it became clear Nanny wasn’t much help: always dodging diaper duty, a horrible cook. Not surprising since she didn’t seem to eat.
Today Emily caught her staring out of the kitchen window at Dad’s empty shed. He had just left for an overnight work trip.
“What are you doing?” She asked Nanny.
Nanny’s pupils were pinpoints. “I’m hungry,” she murmured.
“Then maybe you should eat,” Emily rolled her eyes.
Nanny’s neck twitched. “I think I will.”
That night, Emily woke up to a noise. It wasn’t the wind, or a creaky door, or an old radiator. It tittered and scratched. It was not a human noise. And it was coming from Max’s room.
Grabbing the softball bat from her closet, she tiptoed into the hall, which was now pitch black. She could feel breath on her skin, the air itself inhaling her, and she paused, light-headed and scared. Then Max screamed, his poor shrill baby cry, and Emily forgot caution, rushing into the nursery.
Spider was the word Emily’s brain produced to make sense of what she saw wrapped around Max’s crib, but she knew it was Nanny. A black hole of teeth for a face, eight jagged insect arms with claws wrapped around the bars, bits of blonde hair sprouting on top of the bulbous body. Two coins for eyes, which were now looking at her.
A leg snapped out and grabbed Emily by the waist, swinging her up to the ceiling. Emily screamed, her metal bat slipping out of her arms and landing on Nanny’s body below. Nanny screeched, dropping her to the floor. Emily hit the ground, and with a burst of panicked energy, picked up the bat and cracked it as hard as she could against Nanny’s body. There was a lot of screaming. The crunching noises were horribly loud. She brought the bat down again, again, again. She hit the legs, the body, that hungry mouth.
When Nanny was finally still, a mess of crumpled limbs, deflated, Emily went to Max, who was whimpering. She held him close to her chest.
“This is just a Halloween game, okay?” He said nothing, like always. She thought of her red wagon. “Let’s go on a hayride. A haunted hayride.”
Emily was almost to the top of the driveway now. A hiss sounded from the mess of limbs in her wagon, emanating from a tuft of blonde hair.
“Take a coin, girl.”
She heard the voice in her head. It sounded desperate.
“Take a coin, and I’ll eat your grief and leave you light and soft, like the other girls. Ribbons and roses and lipstick.”
Emily paused at the top, catching her breath. “No thanks,” she said, pulling out a box of matches. “I take after my mother.” She struck one and dropped it in the dry hay, as titters and pops erupted from the wagon.
She lifted Max into her arms. “The best hayrides have bonfires.” They stayed there a long time, until the last flames burned out, and all that remained were two old coins. Emily turned back to the house. “I’ll carry you home.”
She thought he was asleep, but she heard a quiet murmur in reply, “Mama. Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama, Mama.”
(c) Christina MacKinnon