Showing posts with label Booklet 13. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 13. Show all posts

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Those Who Live by the Word by Andrew Ball

   

        As I awoke on New Year’s Day 2020, I felt my dreams scurrying away like mice to hide behind the wainscoting of my mind. In a moment of unusual clarity, it occurred to me that my thoughts were doing that more often of late, even when I was wide awake. A word, a name, a train of thought, would suddenly evaporate, leaving me helpless and grasping. I knew they were in there somewhere, hiding, but could I find them? Of course I couldn’t. There was no escaping the fact that my mind was beginning to wobble as I stumbled towards the finish line in the egg-and-spoon race of life.

        The night before, I had gone to bed early, sober, and alone, but not without first filling my tea-kettle. This nightly routine had become a touchstone for me, a tiny act of faith that I would, in fact, survive the night and fancy a cup of tea in the morning. Over my breakfast bowl of Cornflakes, I pondered what was to be done. Single, superannuated, and skint, I found the future rather bleak. ‘I should marry a rich widow to keep me company in my old age,’ I thought. ‘Pity I don’t know any.’ The solution, when it came to me, seemed obvious: I’d write, and become rich and famous like J. K. Rowling. She must be worth a bob or two. After all, writing was just a matter of choosing the best words and putting them in the right order, wasn’t it? Piece of cake!

        Flushed with enthusiasm for my new career, I cleared off the table in the kitchen -- hereinafter to be known as my garret -- and opened my laptop. Ah, the allure of a blank screen begging to be filled with my honeyed prose. Three days later it was still blank and still begging. It dawned on me then that mere words would not be enough to bring me the fame and fortune I craved; I needed a genre. All the best writers had a genre, but which one paid the most, pounds-per-word-wise? I concluded it must be ransom notes, but even I could see the drawback of seeking literary fame through writing ransom notes, however lucrative they might be. Also, I wasn’t sure that ransom notes were a recognized genre, as such.

        The choice of genre wasn’t the only problem, either. I began to realize that in order to write, you actually needed to have an idea, something to write about, and I’ve never been that good with ideas -- my own, that is. Other people’s always seem better. Once again, the solution when it came to me was obvious: plagiarism. But that’s not as easy as it used to be. Back in the day (whenever that was), plagiarism could often pass undetected, but Google has changed all that. What I needed was a source of unpublished literary works to cannibalize.

        And that was when I had my inspiration: I’d run a writing contest! Every month I’d offer a huge prize (that I had no intention of ever paying), charge a carefully-calculated entry fee (large enough to cover my rent and groceries, but not too big to discourage anyone from entering my contest), offer critiques (for an additional fee), and then sit back and let the stories and the money roll in. I’d take the best stories and submit them under my own name to other contests. What could possibly go wrong?

        In no time at all, my money troubles were over. Every month, I posted the names of those talented writers who’d made the longlist, the shortlist, the runners-up and the grand prize-winner, names I picked at random from an old phone-book. The winning story titles I culled from the morning newspaper.

        The part I enjoyed most was writing the critiques. Let me give you an example, one of which I’m particularly proud:



Dear Aspiring Author,

Thank you again for submitting your short story to our Fabulous Fiction contest. Regrettably however, I must correct my previous email telling you that you had won, the result of my inadvertently hitting ‘Reply All’. The statement on our website that ‘Every entrant will be a winner!’ was meant as hyperbole, not to be taken literally. Had you not missed the deadline and gone way over the word limit, I feel sure your story ‘Dead on Arrival’ would not have been. You should take a measure of encouragement from this.

Despite being forced to disqualify your entry, I accidentally read it in a distracted moment, and by way of an apology for my email error I would like to offer the following critique. Who knows? Maybe it will help you develop a more complete skill-set as a writer.

Opening sentence: There is a fine line between homage and plagiarism, but I feel the opening of your story -- ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’ -- catchy though it is, falls on the wrong side of that line.



Style: Maybe you should strive to master a simpler narrative voice before tackling that of an Omniscient Narrator suffering from dementia.

Location: Victorian London! Well, there’s a novel idea for an exotic setting. /S

Characters: I feel the character of your protagonist ‘Tiny Tom,’ although developed in totally unexpected ways, is nonetheless somewhat derivative.

Plot: Convoluted plots are generally laudable, but yours was so twisted it left me feeling positively pretzelesque, or maybe even pretzellian. While the consequences of contracting COVID-19 (in Victorian times?) are varied in the extreme, the idea that the infection could enable Tiny Tom to win the Olympic decathlon gold medal is a trifle far-fetched, don’t you think? Surely recovering the use of his legs would have been sufficiently dramatic.

Proofreading: The importance of careful proofreading cannot be overstated. Did you really mean to write that after Tiny Tom’s success, his alcoholic parents turned their livers around.



Best wishes from all of us here in the editorial team at Fabulous Fiction, as we eagerly await your next submission.

 

        As 2020 wore on -- and what a wearing year it was -- my competition went from strength to strength. Every month, more people sent me their best efforts and paid real money to receive their inevitable disappointment. Who knew there were so many masochists in the world? Meanwhile, my own submissions were beginning to achieve the recognition I felt they so richly deserved, providing me with a second, albeit modest, income stream. Those other contests were not nearly as lucrative as mine, the cheapskates. As I sent each story out into cyberspace, I felt as I had as a young lad when I pushed my model sailing yacht out into the middle of a boating pond. I began to care deeply about the fate of my recycled stories.

        Then one day, the unimaginable happened (you can’t make this stuff up). Shortly before the deadline for the July contest, I received a submission that looked vaguely familiar. Sure enough, when I checked my records I found it was a story I’d sent to another contest just the month before, word for word, submitted back to me by an author I’d never heard of.  I was incensed and outraged; what a nerve! Was there no honesty in the world anymore? I blamed Donald Trump, but that’s another story.

        What should I do? Initially I tried to ignore it, but the injustice of having my work stolen -- well, you know what I mean -- was too much to bear; and it wasn’t even one of my best stories. I felt compelled to act. After several sleepless nights, I decided that for the next deadline of the scoundrel’s contest, I’d submit this story -- the one you’re reading right now -- unfinished though it was at the time. Subtle? I thought so.

        I waited anxiously for the response, but my August deadline came and went with no submission from the fraud. Had I scared him off, perhaps? Then one of the other entrants’ names caught my eye: ‘Rich Widow’ had submitted a heart-rending story of isolation and loneliness, and her search for a soulmate with whom to spend her declining years. She described how the nightly routine of filling her tea-kettle before going to bed had become a touchstone for her, a tiny act of faith that she would, in fact, survive the night and fancy a cup of tea in the morning.

 

        It’s cozy in our bubble. We work together in the garret, she at one end of the kitchen table, I at the other. Between us, we’ve already squeezed many of the other writing contests out of business. Our next target is Secret Attic, run by someone in the UK.

        They say that those who live by the word will die by the word. Maybe we will, but no longer alone. Happy days.

© Andrew Ball

The Somme by Jeff Jones

Jimmy Fuller curled himself into a tight ball and pressed his body into the side of the shell hole.  The noise from the artillery barrage was terrifying. Letting go of his rifle he covered his ears, but it did little to soften the roar of battle. 

        A shell exploded close by sending up a huge fountain of dirt and body parts, some of which peppered his helmet and tunic making him cry out.  That was how his friend Charlie had bought it at Ypres. One minute he’d been there the next a shell fired by some faceless enemy deep behind the lines, had completely eviscerated him.  There had been nothing left; nothing to bear witness to his friend’s existence. Nothing for his mates to bury.

        Jimmy shook his head to dissipate the memory and suddenly realised that the shelling had stopped. He tentatively moved his hands away from his ears, noting the tremor in his fingers as he reached for his rifle.  The brief eerie quiet that normally fell across no man’s land in the immediate aftermath of a barrage, was now punctuated with the pitiful cries of the dying as they called out for stretcher bearers or their mothers. 

        The sound of someone jumping and landing heavily in his crater, startled Jimmy and he whirled round, rifle at the ready.  The soldier’s arrival was greeted by a hail of machine gun bullets which peppered the ridge of the shell hole fractionally too late. 

        The newcomer lay back against the far side of the crater with his eyes closed, his lungs greedily drawing in much needed breath.  He was apparently oblivious to the man pointing a rifle at him from a few feet away.

        Jimmy remained silent.  It was hard to tell at first, as the man’s head was tilted down and covered in mud and dried blood, but he was sure he recognised him. 

        The man finally lifted his head and opened his eyes, eyes that suddenly widened considerably when he saw Jimmy sitting opposite him with a rifle at the ready.  He instantly tried to scramble back up the side of the shell hole, his eyes never leaving Jimmy.

        Jimmy smiled, glad to see that the newcomer was indeed who he thought it was and lowered his rifle.  “George, it’s me, Jimmy.”

        The words seemed to have no effect on his terrified friend, who instead of replying, continued to try and scramble out of the shell hole.  His efforts were in vain though, his boots failing to gain purchase in the rain drenched mud.

        “It’s all right, George, you’re safe. It’s Jimmy. Don’t you recognise me?”

        The soldier stopped his futile scrabbling, but his petrified eyes never left Jimmy.  Nor did he attempt to speak.  Perplexed by his mate’s strange behaviour, Jimmy sat back and studied his friend. The poor bloke was terrified, that much was clear, but this was no ordinary terror, the kind every soldier endured when they were ordered over the top.  No, the horror in his eyes spoke of a different kind of terror and Jimmy wondered what nightmares his friend had witnessed. It was then that Jimmy noticed that George was covered in blood. “George, you’re hit, man.  Let me take a look.”  Jimmy made to crawl across to where his friend was cowering, but the other man frantically backed away.

        Jimmy stopped moving. He was no medic, but to his mind it was a miracle that his friend was still alive, let alone moving around, such was the level of blood loss he must have suffered judging by the stains on George’s tunic.  Then Jimmy remembered something.  When they’d been advancing towards the Germans, they’d managed to get about halfway across no man’s land when a shell had exploded very close to where he, George and Owen Williams had been running.  Jimmy had been knocked to the ground by the blast but had been uninjured.  When he had got up again, Owen’s torn body lay nearby, but George was nowhere to be seen and Jimmy had assumed he’d been vaporised.

        Jimmy’s blood suddenly ran cold, and now he found himself involuntarily backing away.  The tremor in his hands had turned into an almost uncontrollable shake and it was all he could do to hold onto his rifle. The pale and drawn look on his friend’s face, the terrified and lost expression; it suddenly all made sense to Jimmy.  He was looking at the ghost of George Marshall. The poor bloke had bought it but didn’t yet realise it.  Perhaps his mind was in denial and until he acknowledged what had happened, he couldn’t move on to whatever awaited in the afterlife.

        There’d been other tales of ghostly apparitions doing the rounds of the trenches, like the Angel of Mons, but Jimmy hadn’t believed them. Until now.

        Sporadic gunfire momentarily distracted him and the sound of a man running nearby made Jimmy shoulder his rifle in readiness, but no one appeared. 

        Does Fritz know that I’m here or did they too see George?

Jimmy wondered how many of his company were still about, cowering for their lives amid the stench of death and decay in rat-infested shell holes just like his. 

                That’s if there are any other survivors. 

        He was still contemplating that depressing thought, when George suddenly turned his back on Jimmy and with a determined effort, scrambled up the side of the shell hole the way he had come.  Then without a second glance, he turned and started running towards the German lines.

Jimmy watched him go and shook his head. 

                The poor bloke still thinks he’s in the fight. 

Jimmy prayed that the man’s soul would soon find rest.  When he was out of sight, Jimmy checked his rifle and prepared to make his own dash towards the German trenches.  He had no idea whether he was the only one left alive, but if he turned and made his way back to his own lines, he risked being court martialled for cowardice. On he would go.

**********

        George Marshall slid into another shell hole and prayed that it wasn’t occupied by Germans.  Two men immediately raised their rifles but lowered them when they recognised the newcomer.

        “You all right, George?” asked one of them, noting the blood on his friend’s tunic and the pale and drawn look on his face. 

        “What?”

        “The blood; are you hurt?”

        “No, no it’s not mine,” George replied almost distractedly.

        “What a mess this is again,” said the third soldier.  “We’ve lost a lot of good mates today.  Percy, Bill, Eric, Tommo; all gone. Saw it with my own eyes.  Machine gun scythed them down like corn in a field.  It’s as if they knew we were coming.”

        “They did, Stan.  The barrage; the whistle.  We might as well have sent Fritz a telegram,” replied his mate, instinctively ducking as a grenade exploded nearby.  “Have you seen Jimmy, Harry or Owen?” he asked, turning back to face George.

        George swallowed hard and momentarily closed his eyes.  “Harry’s got a Blighty one and was being taken back to the casualty clearing station the last time I saw him.  Owen’s gone, blown to bits by a shell.”

        “What about Jimmy?  Have you seen him?” asked Stan.

        George looked down at the blood that stained his tunic and winced. His friend’s blood.  “He’s gone too.  Same shell as Owen.”

        “Damn.  Still, at least it was quick for them, eh.”

        George met his friend’s hopeful gaze.  “For Owen, yes, but Jimmy took some shrapnel in the stomach.”  The other two soldiers winced knowing that meant a slow lingering death.  “I dragged him into a nearby shell hole and did my best to comfort him, but he knew his time was up.  He died in my arms.  Then some officer came along and screamed at me to keep moving.  I had to leave him there.”

        Stan reached out and grasped George by the shoulder, sharing his friend’s pain.  “You did what you could, mate, Jimmy would have known that.” 

        “I hope so,” said George as he slowly turned his head in the direction of the shell hole where he had encountered Jimmy’s ghost.  At first, he’d thought that in his distress he’d got turned around and had run back to the hole where he’d left Jimmy’s body, but that hadn’t been the case.  Seeing Jimmy up and moving about had scared George half to death.  When he’d then realised that Jimmy had no wounds and looked exactly as he did before the attack, he knew that somehow, he’d been looking at Jimmy’s ghost.  When his friend had opened his mouth and spoken, no words had come out, but it had shredded what little resolve George had and to his shame he had turned and run away from his friend. 

        “Well at least he’s at rest now,” said Stan, interrupting his friend’s train of thought.

        George turned his gaze towards where he’d last seen Jimmy.  “I hope so.”


© Jeff Jones

Thirteen Minutes by Scott Wilson

Thirteen minutes, that’s how long it took for the world to have a “mass cleansing”.

The “Event” had killed more people than the Black death, AIDS and World War II combined.

Jack had been in his back garden, hanging his washing out to dry upon his long clothesline that ran the length of his garden. It was a beautiful sunny day and he was glad that he had taken the day off work to enjoy it. After he had hung the sheets he planned to grab a beer and read a book, maybe even throw a steak on the barbeque.

He was reaching up to the line, clipping on a shirt when the sun moved in the sky. It seemed to Jack that it dropped like a ball to the floor. It didn’t go completely out of view, but it had certainly lowered itself. Still holding to the line Jack stared at the light in the sky, the sun had never been that lower before. Even when it set in the evening it would be in another part of the garden almost out of view.

Then something extraordinary happened… his feet lifted from the floor, slow at first then noticeably faster. He gripped the line tight wondering who the hell was in his garden lifting him up. He strained his head around to see that nobody was there, it was an invisible man. That was when he heard a scream and a cry, he looked ahead the see his neighbour Shelly and her young kid floating up in the air. The mother was screaming as she desperately tried to reach for the floating child and she made arm movements as if she were trying to swim through the air. It would have been comical if it had not been so terrifying. He watched as they both went up to the clouds, not with a gentle float like you see inside the space stations, this was more like a helium balloon that lifted faster the higher it went. Jack saw in the distance other people and small animals also raising up one or two thinking it’s was fun were as the others all hollowed in fear. 

He gripped the line tighter by putting his arms around it. He then felt a stronger pull as if the invisible man were on his back trying to yank him off and with this, larger and heavier items began to lift. His garden chair was the first to rise quickly followed by the table and then his barbeque. He began to let out short sharp yells of fear that sounded like a small yapping dog.

The air was filled with more screams and cry’s and he looked around to see cars with people and families floating up from the earth to the sky. He saw a flock of bird’s weave between two small cars.

Then the pull became stronger and his arms lost their grip. He snatched up the line with both hands and held tight, he could feel the nylon digging into his palms. Even larger things were now lifting to the sky. He saw a horse box that was still attached to its pickup bump into a long bus, but instead of the expected explosion they just seemed to knock each other away like two moving snooker balls.

Jack didn’t know what was happening and he gripped tighter as tiles from his roof began to lift and shoot to the heavens like bullets from a gun. Trees moaned and creaked as they took the strain of the pull, some of the smaller ones had already been lifted and had shot up.

Jack couldn’t see any people in the sky now, they had all gone up and out of view. It was now large rocks and masonry that lifted and in the distance he saw a mobile home spinning as it went up to the clouds like Dorothy on her way to Oz.

There was another strong pull and Jack was sure that he would lose his grip. The line was really hurting him now and his finger were feeling numb, then he was lifted, head down with his feet in the air. He was still holding tight and looked back to see that the fence that the rear of the clothesline had been attached to had been pulled free and was in the air like a kite. Now the line was flat against his body he was able to wrap his legs around it and get a better grip with his arms. There was a “Twang”

As the cord was pulled tight and Jack looked at the line in front of him that was fastened to the house. He begged and pleaded for it to hold as he was shaking from left to right like he was attached to a giant fishing line that a shark was yanking. He could feel himself start to slide down the line and it squeaked as his sweaty hands were pulled down the long cord.

The pulling seemed to ease, but it was too late. He was yanked free of the line.

He screamed and yelled as he rose six foot and then eight, his ears popped like he was taking off in a jumbo jet, then the next thing he knew he was falling to the ground, fast. He landed on the grass with a thud and a snap that was later to be identified as a broken wrist. The fence panel landed only a few feet from him and it stuck in the ground at an angle like a fallen gravestone. Jack rolled on his back and looked to the sky above.

“everything that goes up must come down” his science teacher had once said and he remembered those words as he saw trucks, cars, trees and people fall from the sky. The noises were horrifying. It reminded Jack of large hailstones hitting his cars roof. There were crashes and bashes and distant explosions as everything that had lifted fell to earth. Jack got to his feet and ran in to his house barely escaping the barrage of falling rocks and roof tiles.

Everything from solar flares, frapping gases, and tectonic plates to the act of god were blamed for the disaster. A satellite in space had recoded the imagine of the earth shifting from its axis before slowly correcting itself.

20-25 million had died from the Black death with AIDS causing 22 million and World war II 16 million.

Nearly 2 billion had died from the “Thirteen-minute Event”.

World leaders joined forces to try and improve the health of the planet for those thirteen minutes where gravity was taken away were simply a show to what could be if we allow it to die. It reminded us who was in charge.

As for Jack, he never got his barbequed steak, but he did help to invent magnetic shoes that would glide along the soon to be installed metal paths and roads.    

© Scott Wilson

Persona non grata by Yvonne Clarke

She listens to the tinny drip, drip of the cold water as it hits the stainless steel sink. How long has the tap been like this – three, four years, more? The domestic brand marks of family life – faulty taps, scuffs on the skirting boards and drooping door handles – are to be expected, but they have to be addressed at some point. Jen marches theatrically into the shed and retrieves a set of spanners.  

‘That’s not women’s work, get him to do it,’ her mother quips. There is a fixed role for everyone in her mother’s world. She can’t help it; her Mum is of a different generation, a generation where women ‘kept house’ and had dinner on the table when their menfolk came home from work. 

When men were men, bringing home the dosh and demonstrating their superiority by undertaking all the domestic repairs.

‘You’re obsessed with house maintenance,’ sneers Ray. ‘Why can’t you relax?’ What Jen regarded as Ray’s endearingly laid back attitude when they first met turned out to be consummate laziness once the novelty of being a newlywed wore off.

‘No one’ll notice anyway,’ says Ellie, wearing her usual pout and Poco Rabanne perfume. Where did their delightful, happy daughter go? The challenges of teenage life have stolen her charms and thrown them into a witch’s cauldron of angst and anger. 

Gran, always the dove of peace, pipes up. ‘Don’t wear yourself out, pet,’ she says, addressing Jen. Magnanimous in her old age, she is oblivious to the vagaries of dysfunctional family life. 

Thanks for the advice, Gran, but what are my options?

Ray continues to slouch on the sofa with the dog as Jen struggles to fix the leaky tap. The walls are closing in on her like a crusher in a scrapyard. She needs to get away.

Stomping out of the room, she grabs the car key from the hall and slams the front door shut behind her. She needs some space. And a G and T. The bottle of Bombay Sapphire disappeared with Ellie when she went on her latest sleepover, but there are some ready-mixed cans in the car. A poor substitute, but better than nothing.  

She accelerates rather too aggressively out of the drive. How did she find herself in this situation at only 36 years old? Middle age is approaching. She needs to do something about her life, and fast. She’s tired of her passive partner, her morose teenage daughter, her domineering mother, even her dear, dementing grandmother. Time to take stock. Damn, it tastes good, she thinks, necking another can of G and T.

She hears, rather than sees, her impact with the van, which jettisons her backwards against the seat as the airbag activates. Then a man’s face appears at the window. 

‘You idiot! Didn’t you see me?’ 

‘I’m so sorry! It’s my fault entirely.’ 

She knows not to admit liability, but honesty is second nature to her. She feels guilty, like a child caught licking the icing off a birthday cake. Wriggling free from the car, her legs give way, like a wooden marionette without its puppeteer. Her shoes are scuffed, she notices. And the car radio is still blaring away. Queen. She likes Queen.

The other driver helps her as she hobbles to the roadside. He’s calmer now, and she detects a gentle Irish lilt to his voice. Thirty-something, attractively louche in manner, casually dressed – white linen shirt and well-fitting jeans, shoulder-length mid-brown hair flopping over his forehead, nicely manicured hands. Despite herself, a warm glow emanates from somewhere deep inside. 

Has he detected the alcohol on her breath? Will he call the police? 

Leaking oil, with its distinctive smell of cats’ piss, oozes in copious rivulets along the road, mixing with shattered chips of windscreen and unidentifiable car parts. The van had come off worse in the collision. 

As they wait for the recovery services, Jen starts shaking involuntarily as delayed shock sets in.  The other driver grabs his jacket from the van and capes it around her shoulders. ‘Tell us about yourself,’ he says, with a lopsided smile.

What to say? For a nanosecond, Jen is tempted to spice up the truth, afraid that by voicing the banality of her life it would cement the fact, like indelible ink, onto her. Instead, she gives him a brief and vaguely truthful précis, then asks him, Patrick, the same thing.

‘Ah, I’m a bit of a jack of all trades, me. I can turn my hand to anything – there’s always someone needing a bloke like me.’

A light goes on in Jen’s brain. 

‘I don’t suppose you’ll do a spot of house maintenance for the woman who smashed into your car?’ she says in a light-hearted tone, trying not to sound too coy.

‘Sure I will, just as soon as I’m mobile again.’

Bingo! Almost worth the crash, Jen thinks. 

***

Mum and Gran are delighted with Patrick; Ray, less so. In the way that a man sees another man demonstrating his competence, the threat to Ray’s manhood is tangible.  Jen observes this in the set of his jaw; hears it in the thinly-veiled contempt of his voice. 

‘He’s still not finished that bit - are you sure he knows what he’s doing?’ 

‘If you don’t like the way he’s working, Ray, you do it,’ Jen retorts with an exaggerated roll of her eyes. 

He shuts up.

Patrick soon comes to be regarded as an extension of the family. His Irish charm and sense of humour are infectious, and family tensions dissipate. He endears himself to Gran, flirts outrageously with Jen’s mum, and becomes the confidante that Ray has never been for Ellie. 

He’s the ultimate mood booster, and Jen’s all-too-frequent G and T’s become a thing of the past.  She has no qualms about finding yet more jobs around the house for Patrick to turn his hand to; sometimes he even accepts supper in lieu of payment. At these times Ray sits, scowling, opposite him, punctuating the air with his silence.

Then one day, Patrick fails to appear. He doesn’t answer his phone or text messages. A week passes before he turns up unannounced on the doorstep.

‘You OK, Patrick?’ Jen can’t keep the concern out of her voice.

‘I’m sorry, Jen, I have to move on.’

‘What do you mean, move on?’

‘I didn’t want to let you all down, to be sure, but it’s the Irish wanderlust in me. I never stay in the same place for too long. It’s time for me to go. It’s been a treat getting to know you and your family, but I’ve come to say goodbye.’ He bows his head in a gesture of apology and regret.

The shock and hurt in Jen’s face are obvious. She throws her arms around him, feeling his warm, taut body as it sends shivers down her spine and a hint of what could have been. How different her life could have been if Patrick had come into her life sooner.  But now it’s too late to think about that. As he walks away, she promises to give his goodbyes to the rest of the family and feels a sharp stab of tears come into her eyes.

‘Good riddance!’ announces Ray, while the rest of the family mourn their latest and lost friend. They hadn’t even a photo to remember him by.

But the next morning they have their photo. 

A mugshot of a far less cheery Patrick stares back at them from the front pages of the national newspaper. 

Missing Suspect Sought by Police

A middle-aged man with a distinct Irish accent is wanted by police in connection with a series of savage knife attacks on women in the North West..

© Yvonne Clarke

Julius and Earl by Gilles Talarek

It was a race against time. He had to finish knitting Julius’s coat before the snowstorm. As soon as Earl had heard the four o’clock news, he’d rushed to his yarn trunk. Propping the lid open, he rummaged in there until he found the right shade of green. Green suited Julius’s cataracts-clouded eyes. The wool should be soft; Julius was a fussy dog. Earl got so enthralled in this treasure trove of a trunk, where dozens of yarns were tangled up with old patterns and half-knitted pieces, that he nearly forgot about his pupil.

   ‘You about done in there Sam?’

   ‘Nah.’

   Teenagers were so monosyllabic these days that tutoring them seemed like a waste of time. Still, it helped their parents out and…well…he had time. Plenty of time, now that he was retired and his wife was gone. Not that it was a bad thing. Irene leaving him for a wine merchant had been an absolute blessing. Sure, there’d been a gnarly few days when he and Julius had to find their footing. But once they had, boy was their life quieter. He had never realised how invasive the shrill music of Irene’s constant nagging had been. Julius had. He hadn’t barked since; no longer needed to. Julius was a clever dog. He was able to ignore Irene, even when she was having one of her rants. And that was a talent.

   The way he would just look up at Earl as she scolded him for chewing furniture, pissing on her rhododendrons, or even shedding too much hair –as if he could control that - was a true sign of complicity.

   Earl sat back down next to his pupil and peaked over his shoulder.

   ‘Well, only 32 states so far and two of them are wrong, so it looks like we’ll be here for a while longer.’

   Sam was a sweet kid, but he was no genius. No amount of tutoring was going to change that, but it was worth a try. The new teacher just drove back home after school every evening whereas Earl knew every kid in town. They were family.

   ‘You knitting a nice tea-cosy for the winter?’ Sam smirked.

   ‘Watch the lip Sam. When you know enough about the country you live in, you’ll be allowed to jibe and jest.’ Earl paused. ‘And it’s a coat, I’ll have you know, for Julius.’

   ‘For that little mut?’ Sam laughed.

   ‘Respect the dog Samuel. Julius is a fine specimen of a dog; a pure breed Wirehaired Dachshund, if you must know. And he nearly caught his death last February.’

   That had been such a fright; almost losing him to pneumonia. He’d grown so used to Julius and his little ways. He was a wheezy affair of a dog, and smelly too; a heady blend of damp cloth and corn dogs. But charismatic. The grey hair, the bushy eyebrows, the unkempt beard, the irritable temper; it was ‘like seeing double’, Irene would say on her prickly days. But he enjoyed the resemblance. They were family.

   ‘Well, I do apologize professah.’

   The little smirk and the Southern Belle accent kids affected whenever Earl reprimanded them, irked him.

   He knew what people thought; that he was a homosexual, because knitting is gay and books are gay…and enunciating is gay. But Earl knew better than to try to dissipate people’s assumptions: these Colorado folks would never see past his southern drawl, genteel manners and dexterity at handling a reverse stockinette stitch. And that was okay. Frustrating, but okay. He was a respected pillar of their little community, despite their erroneous conclusions. Him and Julius. Even under Irene’s reign, it was always Earl and his dog.

 

   ‘You should be heading home Sam, lest you get caught in that storm.’

   A thick white blanket had already coated his balcony. Against the dark grey sky, coin-sized snowflakes changed angle with each gust of wind.

   Earl accompanied his pupil to the end of the drive and picked up some wood on his way back in. A fire would lure Julius to the living-room, while he finished knitting his coat.

 

  The jingle of the eight o’clock news woke him up. Sometimes knitting soothed him straight to sleep. The fire was out. The room cold. No Julius. The little slacker must have settled in bed for the night. He called him a few times, then went to the bedroom to tuck him in and turn on his night-light. His eyesight and spatial awareness were a little tentative at best.

  ‘Julius? Buddy?’ He wandered from room to room, checking Julius’s favourite spots, but he was nowhere to be seen.

   He stifled a pang of panic. Julius was fine; he must have just slipped out when he gathered the wood, but he never wandered far.

   On his front porch, clutching Julius’s half-knitted coat, Earl screamed his dog’s name and studied the knee-high snow, checking it for a bump, a little Dachshund-sized bump on the white canvas, or a movement in the snow.

   He rushed back in and called the Vitners for help. They were bigoted old fools, but they commanded enough respect in this town to alert a search party. If they’d done it last year when the Whitmans’ brat of a son went missing, they would do it for Julius. Everybody liked Julius.

   Half an hour later, 22 neighbours peppered Earl’s garden, all awaiting his instructions. Earl summoned the swelling anxiety away from his belly and channelled it through his voice. An imposing voice for once, even he noticed it.

   ‘Call “Juliuuuus”, and listen out for a muffled growl, or a whimper, Julius cannot bark. Do not dig, or kick; you could hurt him. Peeing could help…melts the snow. Do not use sharp objects, but follow my lead.’

   So, they did.

   About an hour in, Earl had to take a break. He inhaled the cold February air and watched the choreographed dance of the search party. It was quite moving really, but he was starting to feel that it was too late. He was trying hard not to panic, but something inside him was breaking off, like an iceberg tearing away from the floe. By midnight, every inch of snow in Earl’s garden had been ploughed or peed on, but still no Julius.

  The villagers left one by one, leaving only the Vitners behind. They made Earl a cup of tea and told him to hang in there.

   ‘Try to get some sleep.’

   But he knew he wouldn’t sleep now. He couldn’t abandon Julius. So, he searched some more. After all, whose voice was he more likely to respond to than Earl’s? By dawn, soaked and paralysed by the cold, he made his way home. Julius was dead. He could feel it.

  He poured the tea down the sink. He hated sugar in hot drinks. Always had. And yet sugar always found its way in his tea. He never drank it.

  People didn’t see him. Julius did. Already, he could feel the boulder of solitude tighten up around his ankles. He’d survived the slow death of his career, of his marriage, of his hopes for the sound of children to fill the house…and through it all, Julius had been there. Unwavering and panting.

  Earl washed his mug. He wanted the house to be spotless.

  He turned the shower tap on. Hot only; it would heat up the bathroom while he fished out his Sunday suit. He hadn’t worn it in a long time.

  He undressed in the steam of his bathroom, pulled the shower curtain open, but walked back to the front door instead, and left it ajar.

  He made his shower last as long as the hot water tank would allow it, then shaved close and, clean as a whistle, towelled himself dry and got dressed. The suit still fit. Earl’s weight had never fluctuated, not since college.

   He called one last ‘Julius’, his voice more intimate than he intended it to, then closed the front door. He fumbled for his fishing rope, cut about three metres off, tied it in a hangman’s noose and walked back to his bedroom, checking all the rooms on his way.

   He stepped on his yarn trunk to unhook the macramé pot-holder with its dangling ivy, watered it -a little pang of life running through his veins as he noticed a new shoot- then tried to slide the rope though the hook. Stretching his arm, he just about managed. He extended his leg out, ballerina-like, and leaned his foot against the wooden knob of his chest of drawers. In the mirror, he could only see the ivy and part of his left arm.

  Before he could feel ready, the knob broke and he lost balance. He went down with a crack: the sound of his neck, judging from the sharp pain he felt. As he lost consciousness, he saw the lid of the trunk move once, then twice, in tentative little jolts.

  The end of Julius’s nose poked out.

© Gilles Talarek

Handyman by Gary Egan

A couple of youngsters are at the top of the wheelchair ramp outside the green door 

belonging to the Samaritans. Far from being distressed, the lads are enjoying themselves by taking it in turns to whizz down the slope on their skateboards. For once the government can’t be accused of skating around the issue. The legislation to ensure disabled access to public buildings has long since been passed and this building has complied with it. Sadly the schoolboys haven’t read the memo expounding the cultural diversity ethos behind the legislation. They don’t see a ramp for wheelchair-users, they see a skateboard-friendly incline; a stage to display their athletic prowess. Neither of them is visually impaired in any way but the physical infirmity that prompted the construction of the ramp is invisible to 

them. Had it been pointed out to them they might have argued that the ramp should be a dual-purpose facility so that it benefitted disabled and able-bodied alike. After all, didn’t skateboarders have rights too? It wasn’t just the disabled who were victims of prejudice. When the local council upgraded the park they discriminated against skaters by failing to provide any facilities for them. 

     The skateboarders don’t see the man in the wheelchair watching them from across the road, though he’s been there for some time. Every so often they exclaim in a language he can’t understand:

     “Gnarly!”

     “Gnarlacious!”

     “Gnarladocious!”

     A passer-by wearing horn-rimmed glasses and ear-muffs glances at the skaters but doesn’t break his stride. He doesn’t notice the man in the wheelchair either. When a Samaritan who’s just finished his duty comes out he orders the lads to move along. It isn’t the first time they’d been told. They move along with the minimum of backchat but they’ll be back.


Next evening the skateboarders arrive to find the man in the wheelchair waiting. He’s planted himself in the middle of the ramp to stop them skating past. Tonight the youngsters see him. Exchanging glances, they sidle over and look down on him. The taller of the pair starts to say something but the man lunges forward, grabs the skateboard from under the boy’s arm and flings it behind his back. It hits the pavement but lands on its wheels and rolls into the gutter.

     “Hey! Leave my deck alone! You have no right –”

     “My legs might be well fucked but there’s nowt the matter with my hands. I can still do anything with my hands.” He raises his thumb and points it backwards in the direction of the discarded skateboard. “Now hoppit.”

     The youngsters hoppit. As he walks away the taller one puts his thumb and index-finger together to form an oval and points it at his head in a screwing motion. The man in the wheelchair knows they’ll be back. He releases the brake and continues up to the top of the ramp. It’s a stretch but he manages to ring the doorbell. When the door opens a Samaritan looks down on him.

     “Can I help you?”

     “I’m Jack. I’m here to do the wiring.”

Jack does all the odd jobs he’s asked and quite a few unasked. When the able-bodied are still asleep in their beds he’ll often go for a spin, armed with the tools of his trade and ready to fix whatever needed fixing. He never puts himself forward for the residents’ committee but many’s the time he’s sorted the wonky gate leading to the riverside path after the local juvies vandalized it. Like the skateboarders, they always came back. Jack tried to be discreet but the cops caught him only recently and he had his work cut out explaining the drill and the portable battery-pack in the middle of the night.

     “My legs are well fucked but there’s nowt the matter with my hands. I can still do anything with my hands.”

     Puzzled initially and perhaps a tad disappointed not to have apprehended a driller-killer, the young cop had warmed to the point where he found work for him as a metalwork tutor on a Youth Diversion scheme.

     “At least it’ll keep you off the streets.”

     The lads weren’t interested, though, and while Jack could fix most things he couldn’t fix that. By the time he was their age he’d already served two years of an apprenticeship. Their attitude was as incomprehensible to him as the skateboarders’ lingo. He packed the job in after just a week. He was a handyman, not a teacher. He had the skills but he didn’t have the language. In any case, he preferred working alone. 

     Jack was back on the streets.

He watches the ramp from across the road. It’s just the taller one tonight and all the better for Jack. He’s ready to take the law into his own hands. He wheels himself over the road. 

Pausing near the foot of the ramp, he turns his wheelchair round and bends forward. From where the skateboarder at the top of the rank is standing, he seems to be searching for something he’s dropped – first one side, then the other. A minute later Jack turns his chair and resumes his ascent at a leisurely pace. Instead of stopping half-way, this time he joins the youngster at the top. 

     “Go on then, I dare you.”

     Jack moves aside and the red-jacketed skateboarder hurtles away.

     Near the foot of the ramp, at the point of maximum speed, skater and board part company.

The skater is thrown into the air and his deck completes the run without him. Without waiting for the boy to land, Jack descends the slope at pace. Braking at the bottom, he removes the tripwire he’d attached minutes earlier to the hooks he’d inserted earlier that morning, well before the first shift. Then he unscrews the hooks too. Once these are safely concealed in his overalls pocket Jack makes his way over to where the skater has fallen. He looks down on him. The boy isn’t moving. There’s blood coming from his nose and his right leg is splayed on the pavement at an odd angle. 

     The passer-by with the horn-rimmed glasses and ear-muffs Jack recognizes from the other day stops to join them. He looks concerned.

     “What happened?”

     Jack explains, leaving out the bit about the tripwire and attributing the accident to a sharp stone.

     "Did you call an ambulance yet?”

    Jack shakes his head and the man flips open his smartphone. While he’s calling, a Samaritan on his way to a duty comes up to them. Jack repeats the story he told the passer-by. 

Suddenly the boy comes to. He tries to speak but the words are barely audible and no more comprehensible to Jack than the words he used when he was skateboarding. Then he raises his hand and points accusingly at him. Jack looks at the passer-by and shrugs.

     “Maybe the lad wants his skateboard. I’ll fetch it for him.”

     Jack turns and points his wheelchair at the lamp-post where the skateboard has come to rest upside-down. Its wheels have stopped spinning but they’re still warm. The right way up the skateboard’s design resembles a vanilla lollipop with a generous scoop of raspberry sauce poured on top but just now it looks as if the sauce has sunk to the bottom. Jack reaches down and picks it up. He examines the workmanship. He’s impressed, in spite of himself.

     Each of the polyurethane wheels is mounted on its axle by means of a couple of ballbearings and secured to the skateboard by a metal base plate. The lower part of the plate comprises a hanger through which the axle runs. The space between the top and bottom parts of the baseplate is occupied by grommets, cushioning the plate when the skateboard turns. 

Nestled inside the grommets, a kingpin bolt holds the whole caboodle together. There’s also a rod slotting into the hanger to stop it rotating around the kingpin. The space between this rod and its niche on the baseplate contains a plastic cup, which should have been filled with oil. 

Jack isn’t surprised to find the cup empty. A bad workman blames his tools but only after he’s failed to take care of them.

     He returns to where the skateboarder lies and places the board on the pavement beside him.

     “Here you are, son. Needs oiling but no damage done.”

     The boy has passed out again but the passer-by is getting restless.

     “I called the ambulance,” he says. “They should be here any minute. Would it be OK if I head on?”

     “No problem.”

     The Samaritan glances at his watch. He’s running late as well.

     “I’d better be off too. Will you stay with him till the ambulance gets here and tell them what happened?”

     Jack nods. When both men have gone he leans his face into the ex-skateboarder and grabs the lapels of his jacket.

     “My legs might be well fucked but there’s nowt the matter with my hands. I can still do anything with my hands.”

© Gary Egan

The White Arrows by Graham Crisp

“Have you seen those over there? They weren’t there yesterday, were they?” Melanie was bending down tying up the laces on her white training shoes in preparation for her Sunday morning run in the company of her long-time boyfriend, Rory.

“What weren’t?” asked Rory, as he exhaled loudly whilst simultaneously stretching his arms out wide.

“White arrows,” replied Melanie, “Over there, fixed to that wall, they seem to be pointing to something.” Rory looked up and straightened his white T-shirt. “Are there orienteers or some other weirdos around here, ‘cos that looks like one of their markers?

Melanie shook her head. “Dunno,” she replied.

“Anyway,” continued Rory, “I’ve got an idea, let’s follow them, it’ll make a change from our usual route, what do you reckon? You never know they might guide us to some hidden treasure or a haul of buried cash.” Rory was grinning widely.

Melanie raised her eyes upwards and stamped her feet onto the ground saying, “Hmm, you and your fantasies; come on boy, let’s go. I’ll race you.”

The two set off running silently, side by side, crunching their way down the gravel path that ran alongside the Church of the All Saints, four athletic legs stepping briskly down towards the lane that snaked its way out of the village. The sun was poking through the white wispy clouds, breathing a cool heat down onto the undulating hills.  Head down, Rory flicked his right thumb in the direction of another of the mysterious white arrows signalling the pair to turn right into the direction of the wooden copse.

They dutifully turned and followed its message. Their hips brushed together, their matching lycra leggings sparked natural electricity. As always, an air of unvoiced competitiveness encircled their twice weekly run.

As the path narrowed, Rory slipped in behind Melanie. “Look there’s another one over there,” he panted.   Rory gently dug his index finger into the small of the back of his girlfriend, noting that a damp patch of sweat was forming on the cloth of her yellow running vest.

They carried purposefully on, with Melanie taking the lead. Another arrow was pinned to a broken stile and pointed them deeper into the wood. Sharp bracken, angry nettles and common ragwort hung over the chosen track, snapping viciously at their bare legs. Undaunted, they shifted sideways and lightly sprang up and over these natural obstacles. The pair quietly enjoyed the luscious green scenery as the morning sun twinkled its brightness through the flickering leaves.

Concentrating hard on her running, it was a few moments before Melanie realised she could no longer hear the rhythmic heavy breathing of her running partner. Slowing slightly, she quickly looked over her shoulder expecting to find a red faced puffing Rory close behind her. But as she lowered her pace, all she could see behind her was an empty trodden path leading backwards out of the thicket.

Melanie came to an abrupt halt. There was no sign of him.

“Rory? RORY? ……. RORY?”

Melanie’s voice was unnaturally high pitched. She stopped, bent forward and inhaled loudly. “OK joke over, where are you?” Only the lonely call of a wood pigeon answered her question. Coo cooing its reply.  The quiet stillness of the summer echoed loudly into her ears.

Melanie straightened up and leaned against the trunk of an oak tree. She looked around earnestly trying to seek out the comforting figure of her boyfriend. Instinctively looking up, she noticed another of the white arrows pinned to the truck of her tree. However, this time it was aiming down directly in the direction of where she stood, right over her head. She shuddered slightly and brushed a bead of sweaty hair from her forehead.

“Look stop messing about, this isn’t funny, please come out, I’m getting scared.” Melanie was now shouting as she stepped away from the tree, her eyes flicking quickly from side to side. She noticed that her voice was now starting to croak. Sweat dripped from underneath her arms. An unnatural tension started to grip at her insides.

She was just about to retrace her steps back to where Rory had disappeared, when a volley of noise erupted behind her as she felt two arms grabbing her waist, flinging her to the ground. Melanie responded by letting out a piercing scream that rattled around the tree tops as she wriggled and squirmed in an attempt to free herself. With one mighty effort she managed to turn herself over to face upwards. As she looked up at her assailant, she felt the grip on her waist slacken.

“Did I make you jump?” A smiling crimson faced Rory was gazing down at Melanie’s ashen countenance, his nose about five inches from hers. Steadying herself, she was just about to let loose a string of obscenities at the beaming Rory, when he suddenly dipped his left hand into his leggings pocket and pushed a small square black box into her hands.

“Open it,” he commanded.

Melanie pushed Rory away and raised herself gingerly up into a sitting position, brushing down some dried leaves from her vest and leggings. “Look I don’t know what you’re playing at, Rory, but you are seriously starting to hack me off ……. And what’s in this box?” She frowned as she flipped the box over in her hands.

“Just open it and you will see,” Rory was now sitting cross legged his hands flat down on the path. Melanie looked accusingly at him, with narrowing eyes. She flipped open the lid of the black box and peered inside.

The diamond ring was set on a bed of beige silk cloth. The sunlight caught the angle of the gem stone and it sparkled invitingly into Melanie’s face. “What’s this?” She looked down at the ring and then across to Rory who was nervously rubbing his hands together. He replied quietly, “What’s it look like, Mel. It’s an engagement ring.” His voice was now nearly down to a whisper.

“Will you marry me?”

Melanie gathered in her thoughts. She kept looking from the ring, which was now being held between her finger and thumb, and back to Rory, trying to make sense of everything.

“Was it you who put those arrows up then?” She asked. Rory silently nodded. “I wondered where you disappeared to last night,” she added, rubbing her chin. Rory jumped up and said cheerily, “I thought it would be nice, you know, romantic even, some mysterious arrows guiding you down to the very spot where your life will change forever.” Rory looked sheepish; the expression on Melanie’s face was telling him that this probably hadn’t been such a great idea after all.

“You can be a right idiot at times, Rory, but Christ this must be your finest hour,” Melanie raised herself and faced the crestfallen Rory. “You drag me all the way down here, disappear and then leap out at me like a bloody raving madman and you expect me to be grateful? Romantic? Do me a favour, pal, I was flippin’ terrified.”

Melanie hesitated for a second. Speaking softly, she replied, “Anyway the answer is yes. ……… But pull another stunt like this and I’ll tear your arms off.” Melanie was trying hard to be angry, but losing the battle. She smiled. Rory heaved a huge sigh of relief and gently punched the air.

Rory bounded towards her and threw his arms around the now relaxed Melanie. He kissed her hard on the forehead.  She tasted salty. “Thanks Mel, I’m sorry I just thought that ……..” Melanie’s grimace stopped him in mid-sentence. She held out her third finger invitingly and Rory slipped the ring over her joint. It fitted perfectly.

In silence, they began to jog their way back out of the wood hand in hand; an unseen warm bond had enveloped them.

“So when do we start planning the wedding, then eh? “ Rory glanced across at Melanie, “I was thinking, I could use those little white arrows to guide our guests to the venue, it would be sort of profound don’t you think so?”

Melanie stopped in her tracks pulling her hand away from Rory’s. Her face told him everything he needed to know.

There was a moments silence between them as they carried on.

Rory looked directly at her, “You did say yes, didn’t you? I mean about marrying me, not the arrow bit.”

© Graham Crisp

Always Closer Than You Think by Jo Winwood

Cora skipped through the crunchy autumn leaves tossing her auburn hair across her shoulders. The sweet soft rain dampened her cheeks and her heart felt full. She pulled her rust coloured wool coat tightly around her to keep out the first of the autumn’s chills.  A light breeze stirred the leaves as she strolled through the park in the distance she heard the sweet song of a robin ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora cursed as she peeled the plastic carrier bag from around her old boots, wishing that she had bought a new pair as she felt the cold rain seep through the broken stitching. She also wished she’d remembered to pick up her umbrella when she left the house as the rain was trickling down her back and making her even more cold and miserable. Her hair clung to her face as the rain stung her cheeks and the wind ripped her coat open to soak her jumper once again. She muttered several words she’d never use in front of her mother and sprinted for the refreshment van parked between the swings and the toilet block.  

As she drew closer she noticed a man standing at the counter chatting to the vendor. He was tall, dark hair curling at his collar and he was wearing sensible shoes and a warm camel coloured coat. She slowed down to catch her breath before she arrived and strolled casually under the awning. Carefully avoiding eye contact she ordered a mug of tea and tossed her Titian locks from her shoulders before turning towards him and unleashing her most dazzling smile. He gazed at her, keeping eye contact for a second too long, causing Cora to flush gently. He leaned in and pushed a wayward tendril of hair behind her ear. His warm hand caressed her cheek and he whispered in her ear ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora sneezed violently, sending a shower across the counter. Her hair flopped fully across her face and she peered out to see the disgust on the vendor’s face.

‘Sorry, run out of tissues, terrible cold, lousy weather.’ she mumbled.

The two men exchanged a look she was only too familiar with. She’d been getting those looks from men since she was about six years old. Her mother called them the ‘poor Cora’ looks and she knew if she lived to be ninety she’d still be getting them from the men she encountered.

Cora wrapped her fingers round the mug of tea and blew on it for a long time. She peeped through her fringe at the man standing at the other end of the counter. He was not the tall handsome stranger she had taken him for but he was rather pleasant looking. If only she was more like her sister then she would dazzle him with her smile and engage him in witty conversation before arranging a date later in the week. But Cora wasn’t like her sister so she sipped her still too hot tea and tried not to cough or sneeze again.

She became aware of someone standing close to her and, turning her head slightly saw that the stranger had moved closer. Cora gulped and stood very still. He coughed politely and she turned to face him.

‘I’m sorry, I don’t usually do this but you seem rather sad and lonely. My name’s Francois and I am a visitor to your wonderful city. Could I impose upon you to be my tour guide this afternoon?’

Cora blinked hard and her mouth fell open, showing her perfect pearly teeth. She smiled shyly and brushed a wisp of hair from her face. Blushing, she nodded and lowered her eyes before raising them and staring fiercely into his icy blue ones ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora smelled the aroma of wet dog as the man shuffled up to stand next to her. His cheap wool coat was dripping and creating a puddle to match the one underneath where she was standing. As he spoke she smelled peppermint masking his most recent cigarette. She heard the rustling of paper as he struggled to unfold a map of the city.

‘Excuse me love, I’m a stranger round here and I wondered if you could...’

Cora jumped as he spoke and knocked her tea over. She squealed, leapt back and turned away from the man. The hot brown liquid poured over the counter and mixed with the muddy rainwater as she splashed away from the refreshment van. The cold water squelched out of her boots as she ran out of the park and jumped on the first bus that she saw. Panting, she flung herself into a vacant seat and rummaged through her bag for some change to pay the fare.

‘Allow me, miss.’ A deep throaty voice from the seat behind and a large hand appeared thrusting a £5 note at her.

‘Oh no, I couldn’t, really...’ she stammered, swivelling in the seat to get a look at her knight in shining armour. Dark chocolatey eyes stared into hers and without thinking she grasped the money and mumbled her thanks. After paying her fare she felt the heat of another’s eyes on her neck, her hair, everywhere. Cora stole a glance in the window reflection just in time to see him rise from his seat to leave. As he passed her he slipped a piece of paper into her hand, smiled and melted her heart as he jumped athletically from the still moving bus ...

No, no, no. That’s not how it was at all.

Cora turned to face the man who had offered to pay her fare and was surprised to see Brian from the office. He’d started a few weeks ago and was painfully shy. All the girls in the typing pool loved teasing him and getting him to blush or stammer or, best of all, drop the files he was delivering. She felt sorry for him and tried not to join in. Cora knew what it was like to be new and clumsy, to be teased and ribbed, to cry in the toilet during breaks. When she had started at the firm she’d been the butt of the cool girls’ jokes, just as she had been at school. She smiled at Brian when he dropped files off at her desk, asked how he was settling in, offered him a mint from her tin.

Cora smiled at Brian and saw the beginning of redness creeping over his collar. He looked down and she noticed that his hair had a wave to it, that there were coppery highlights glinting in the light, that he was wringing his hands in a familiar gesture. She stood up, swung round the pole of the bus and plopped down on the seat next to him. He peeped at her and a slight smile played briefly across his lips. Cora smiled back, patted his hand briefly, and whispered her thanks.

The rain swept down the windows of the bus and the condensation ran down the inside. Neither of them noticed when they missed their stops, neither of them noticed when the lights came on across town, neither of them cared when they had to pay extra fare to go round again. They chatted like old friends, any embarrassment evaporating along with the rain on their clothes. When the bus returned to the city centre they got off and began to walk, hand in hand, through the soaking streets as the rain seeped into their clothes and dripped off their hair.

 And that’s just how it was.

© Jo Winwood

The Mirror of Youth by Rachel Smith

 Their sumptuous lounge overflowed with gifts, nestled beneath the sleek art-deco pictures and richly coloured tapestries which adorned the walls.

Julia sipped a chilled glass of Napa Valley chardonnay and opened another present. His and her embroidered towels and bathrobes. She sighed. How offensively mundane

Mike, to her eternal annoyance, expressed genuine delight at everything he opened regardless of whether they were crystal champagne flutes or a novelty corkscrew.

Forcing her expectations lower, Julia picked at the edge of another glittered box and gently pried it open. Layer upon layer of brown paper, bubble wrap and finally, shimmering crimson silk were peeled back to reveal a flawless oval vanity mirror. Julia nodded approval at the ornate frame, a golden weave pattern inlaid with twinkling jewels and strands of silver.

“That one’s for you,” Mike said.

He ripped apart his own anniversary gift with unreserved enthusiasm.

“Ah!”

He brandished a cookery book entitled “Everyone Loves Cake!” and started thumbing through the bright pages, ignoring the other presents scattered around him.

Julia pursed her lips. As far as she was concerned, the last thing he needed was encouragement to eat more cake. That paunch hadn’t been there a year ago and she’d be damned if she was going to become that gorgeous woman on the arm of some gelatinous man who used to be handsome.

“I’m going to put this in the bedroom,” she said, smoothing her skirt over her still slender hips. Mike didn’t look up.

“OK,” he said, absorbed in the description of chocolate orange cake by the looks of the glossy picture. A book? Someone from his side of the family, of course, but who? She made a mental note to find out and ensure that person’s next birthday or Christmas gift was equally cheap.

 

Perched on the cushioned stool at her dressing table, Julia pushed the old mirror aside. She carefully placed the splendid new mirror in its place and sighed deeply. It was pure perfection.

The mirrored glass must have been of a uniquely superior quality, for it highlighted her smooth features and delicate cheekbones with wondrous precision. The cruel hints of the aging process which she had noticed in recent years were suddenly invisible. The furrowed lines around her eyes and mouth were gone, her thinning lips plump once more and her creamy skin was as flawless as the mirror itself.

Sunlight shifted across her features as the hours ticked by but Julia didn’t notice.

She shone with a radiance she hadn’t felt since her teenage years when she had first nabbed Mike Wellington from the clutches of his then-girlfriend, Clare. Julia had expected the little freak to exact revenge in some way, being the type to brew a love potion or nail your cat to the doorframe, but no such deed had transpired. Not in twenty-years. The woman had known when to accept defeat. And honestly, when faced with Julia Evergreen as a love rival, who wouldn’t?

“Are you coming back?” Mike’s voice seemed far away, nestled amongst the rustlings of crepe paper.

“Just a minute,” she called, tilting her chin to admire the swanlike grace of her unblemished neck. Her eyes looked brighter too, she thought, leaning forwards. Her green eyes – which had taken on a dull hue these days - sparkled like emeralds framed with long, voluptuous lashes.

Irritated by the abrupt dimness of the room, Julia flicked on the lampshade.

She brought her hand up to touch her cheek and froze. The hands that she loathed for betraying her years were those of a twenty-year old model. A singular, crystal tear shimmered and dropped onto her cheek.

“Julia?” Mike’s voice was closer, perhaps in the doorway and edged with concern.

“Yes?” she managed to say, though it was but a whisper.

“Have you been here the whole time? It’s been so long I thought you might have gone out.”

Puzzled, Julia turned to face Mark. His expression flickered from concern to shock and then horror.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“Uh, are you feeling alright?” he said, staring at a point just behind her. He’s avoiding looking at me… but, why?

“Mike,” she said, reaching out to him. He took a step backwards. She gasped at the wrinkled, elderly hand in front of her, painfully fragile in the waning daylight.

“Wha-,” Julia stared at the hand, horrified as the fingers moved to her will.

She stood up, wincing at the shooting pain in her bones, down her arms, up her legs. Her head throbbed. Mike stepped backwards until his back met the wall, giving way as Julia hobbled past. The walls swam as she struggled downstairs. It was as if she waded through tar. She felt so weak! 

With her heart pounding painfully in her chest, Julia picked up the stack of notecards which had accompanied the gifts and turned them over one by one. Mike followed her downstairs in a daze and hid in the corner of the room, wide-eyed and drained of colour. She quickly found the card she sought, spat out a curse and shambled upstairs as fast as her treacherous body would allow.

The beautiful mirror was still there, gleaming invitingly. She grabbed it with both hands and flung it on the bed. Bending down, she returned her old mirror to its place and closed her eyes.

She didn’t want to look. If her withered hands and creaking body were anything to go by… she steeled herself, took a deep breath and opened her eyes.

 

***

 

Mike stiffened at the sudden, blood-curdling howl that echoed through the lounge. Confused and numb, he bent to pick up the notecard which had fallen from Julia’s fingers.

“Happy Anniversary, Mr. and Mrs. Wellington. I hope you grow old together, Love Clarity.”

“Clarity…” the name tugged at something in his memory. An old memory tucked away in the shadowed depths of his mind.

A memory of a girl named Clare surfaced, whom he’d dated until Julia swanned into view. He remembered Clare talking about baby names a few weeks before he’d dumped her. If she ever had a girl, she wanted to call her Clarity.

Fear slithered over him as he remounted the stairs. A young woman from the party last night flickered in his mind. She had looked like Clare. Same watery-blue eyes, same pixie nose… and his red hair. No, he told himself. She would have told me if she had been pregnant. Wouldn’t she?

He halted in the bedroom doorway. The black satin dress was the only recognisable thing about Julia. In her place was the corpse of a truly ancient-looking woman collapsed backwards – knees hunkered up in a sitting position - on their plush cream carpet. Skull covered with a wafer-thin layer of cracked skin and the jaw strained open in perpetual terror.

Mike glanced sidelong at the mirror and shuddered. “I hope you grow old together,” he said, his voice hoarse as he took another look at his wife’s decomposed body, “Jesus Christ, she didn’t deserve that.”

He edged towards the mirror as if approaching a sleeping tiger. I’ll smash it. Maybe that will reverse things? He doubted it but it was worth a try.

Mike launched himself forwards, gripping the mirror with both hands and lifted it up. Seconds before he brought it crashing down, his own reflection caught his eye and he hesitated.

Such strong features, the shock of red hair adding an unusual, almost exotic thrill. Oh, how he had made the girls swoon… he remembered well. He shifted his weight, bringing the mirror down to get a better look. He was thinner, the slight chubbiness he attributed to middle-age was gone and the chiselled panes of his youth were back. He grinned. What a dazzling smile he had without the eye crinkles or the tufts of grey hair. People said he was distinguished but he knew what that really meant. Old.

I must destroy it.

His fingers flexed around the glittering frame. His dashing youthfulness gazing back at him.

Maybe just a little longer.

© Rachel Smith

The Accident by Mike Rymarz

It wasn’t one of the worst accidents, but it had the biggest impact on my life. I wasn’t sure we’d ever recover, but we did. We always do.

I can’t even remember how the accident happened. Carelessness? Stupidity? A moment of weakness? All I know is that drink was involved. I don’t really blame her because I was just as guilty, but at times there is a little regret.

The repercussions were huge. Life-changing. My previous plans needed to be altered. Modified to suit my new way of living.

She wasn’t planned, but I love my daughter – and always will.

© Mike Rymarz






Up Here by Graham Crisp

Oh, hi, you’re new up here aren’t you?

Look, before I give you the full guided tour, there are a few things you should know.

As bizarre as it might sound, there are two groups that actually enjoy being up here.

Firstly, there’s the ‘Cides. This bunch can be a bit moody at times, but they are generally content with their lot. They sort of made it their mission to end up here.

Then there’s the ‘Mentias. These guys were, how can I put this, a bit doolally down there. Up here they are totally compos mentis. But a word of warning, if you get too close, they’ll start showing you pictures of their grandkids and talking about the war!

Now there are a few up here that are less happy. Firstly, there’s the ‘Holies. These folk spend their time wandering around searching for a God or Prophet. I’ve told them to forget it. I’ve never seen a bloke in a white gown or a fella in a turban. But they won’t listen. They just say that they are on an ‘assignment.’

Them lot, over there, are best avoided. Those are the ‘Feminista – a collection of extremely angry women, or should I say womxn, who have all been dispatched up here courtesy of a violent man. They are very hostile towards our gender, so best you stay well away.

Me? Well I copped it on the operating table. I was having some routine surgery done when the anaesthetist cocked up and I ended up having a cardiac arrest. Funnily enough I bumped into him last week.

He looked me up and down and said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

I nodded and smiled, I mean it’s live and let live up here!

Anyway, let’s get you started; got anyone you’d like to meet first?

© Graham Crisp


Virtue by Mike Barnes

“Do we start now? It’s already five past?”

“No let’s give it a moment, shall we. He’s key to all this, isn't he?”

“I suppose so, but really, we’ve all got other things to do.”

“I know, I know. Just be patient.”

“Patience is a virtue, isn't it? I forget.”

“It was Cato. Who said patience is a virtue.”

“The Chinese bloke?”

“What?”

“The Chinese guy in the Pink Panther films? He attacked Clouseau at every opportunity.”

“No. Cato, a Roman. A senator.”

“Why did they name a Chinese manservant after a Roman Senator?”

“No idea? Anyway, we need to be patient. If we are to get all sorted we need to have him here and make sure he agrees.”

“And if he doesn’t? What then. We’ll have to go upstairs and tell them. Today. It will have to be today.”

“Yes, it will. But he will agree. It is in his interests to agree. He said as much yesterday.”

“Yesterday? What did he say yesterday? That he would agree?”

“Not in so many words”

“How many words?”

“What?”

“How many words did he use to say that he agreed?”

“ He didn't say he agreed.”

“So what did he say? Exactly.”

“He said that he would find it hard to disagree...if it came to it.”

“Came to what? I don't find this encouraging at all. How can you be so sure? So calm.”

“Patience. It’ll be fine. He’s just cautious. You know what he’s like.”

“He has to agree. I don't want to go upstairs. Not today. Not to explain to them why we can’t go ahead.”

“Have you ever been upstairs? It’s fine.”

“You have? You’ve been to see them before? “

“Oh yes. A few times.”

“Hang on, he’s here.”

“Well it’s about time!”

© Mike Barnes

Fingers Crossed by Mike Rymarz

Jim shivered as he walked through the door, the fear of this visit coursing through his veins. He would still keep coming though, no matter how much he didn’t want to. He had a duty.

“Hey dad, how are you today?” As bubbly and lively as he could be, possibly trying to convince himself.

He was hoping for one of the mundane comments. “I’ve been down to the library today,” his dad would often reply, or “steak for dinner tonight.”

Jim didn’t mind those comments. Boring, yes. But truthful as well, that was the main thing. He couldn’t stand the lies, or rather fabrications. He needed to know there was some semblance of reality in what was going on.

“What are the kids up to?” That would be ideal. He always felt there was still some hope left for them and every time he heard it he would give his dad a detailed response about his boys’ schoolwork, or music lessons, rambling on at length until he could see him finally getting tired.

“How are you, Jim lad?” was his absolute favourite question. It took him back to life as a child, coming in from school and his dad putting everything down to spend time with him. It was a question he heard only too infrequently these days but one he longed for.

He knew it was a lottery every time he asked his dad how he was. He mentally crossed his fingers for one of the boring comments, or better still a question about him or his family. Still smiling, his heart sank though as he heard the words that were all too familiar to him these days.

“Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

© Mike Rymarz

Jed's Place by Felicity Edwards

The old farmhouse had stood empty since old Ben died, a good ten years ago. The land around quietly slipping back into an untamed jungle. The auctioneer took one look and wondered how it would sell. That was the solicitor’s problem. They wanted to be rid of it. 

It sold. Unsurprisingly for a few hundred pounds.

Jed was thrilled. He owned a farm and a house!

Every weekend he was out there busy bringing it back to life. He thought it best to start with the land and then attack the house. The tractor was the first thing to be coaxed into life. The skeleton was there, but some essential parts had rusted. Fortunately, they were not too expensive to replace. Soon it was chugging away, a bit rusty looking but capable of working. 

The fields and paddocks slowly came back to life. He ploughed beds and planted an array of vegetables. There was no doubt this was organic. He couldn’t afford any fancy additives. 

Before he started work, he invited his brother to share the project’s labour and rewards but heard nothing from him. They were both men of few words, and they hadn’t seen each other for a couple of years, not since their mother had died. 

Late one evening, a rackety old truck bumped into the yard. A tall skinny man wearing tatty jeans emerged from the cab. He looked around and yelled, “You here, Jed?”

Jed strode over from the workshop. “Well it’s about time!”

Jethro smiled. “You expect me to run when you call? What you got here?”

“A farm and a house both for a couple of hundred quid. You want a share?”

His twin grinned. “You bet I do. What do we do now?”


© Felicity Edwards

The Gift by Mike Rymarz

“Hi mum,” he shouted, putting his school blazer on the coat hook in the toilet. “Mum?” He was never sure if she was going to be there or not, or whether she would even be in the right state of sobriety to answer him.

Nothing. Another afternoon when he was looking after himself. Another evening when he was making his own dinner. Another night he was putting himself to bed.

He emptied his school bag, putting his work in pride of place on the worktop. His little gift for her, his way of helping out a little. Despite the loneliness, he went to sleep with a smile on his face.

#

He smelled her before he saw her, slumped over the kitchen table, an overturned bottle of gin lying next to her head. He stroked her hair and gave her a kiss on the forehead, hoping she’d get the help she so desperately needed. 

            “Jack,” she mumbled, “you going to get some tea?”

            “It’s morning, mum, I’m getting breakfast. Do you want anything?”

            She stirred and looked up at him, her eyes narrowing as she attempted to focus on her surroundings. “Just don’t make a noise. Get yourself off to bed soon. Oh, and stop leaving your crap lying around.” She closed her eyes again, the alcohol taking its toll once more.

            Jack looked towards the empty worktop, his shoulders sagging as he realised it had happened again. He headed straight for the bin, opening it to see the gift he’d left lying at the top.

            He fought back the tears as he grabbed his bag, turning to face the kitchen and looking at his prostrate mother.

            “But I did it for you!” his frustrated whisper, wondering what else he could do to help her.

© Mike Rymarz

Old Soldiers Just Fade Away by Paul Garson

“Come here often?”

Farkus Membrane waited patiently for an answer, twirling the ends of his red mustache with his well-worn trigger finger. His other hand rested on his right knee under the table and just above his boot. 

He wasn’t taking any chances. This wasn’t his first rodeo.

He glanced over at the open door to the cabin, the trail of slime glistening in the moonlight.

It snaked across the floor and over to the chair facing him, the chair now occupied by the stranger. A bit of an understatement, he told me himself and almost smiled. It didn’t get any stranger.

He could smell the pine sap bleeding from the pine wood he had hammered over the doors and windows. It hadn’t done any good. He could also smell the stranger. A hint of sickly sweet almonds at first sniff. Then more like nitro sweating off an old stick of dynamite, like the one stuck in his boot, the fuse at the ready. Slowly he pulled the cigarette from behind his ear and took the wooden matchstick from between his teeth. One swipe across his beard stubble would do the job.

“Mind if I smoke… you? he said.

Taking the stranger’s silence for a no, he flicked the match across his cheek. It flared into flame

and he held it rock steady. He didn’t light the cigarette, a blend of Turkish hemp and Somali Khat. It did the trick to stay awake. Not that he slept. Not since they first landed down by the marsh.

Now there was only one left. And he just sat there, not saying a damn thing. Not that he could. Not without a mouth. But he got his answer when the tentacle flicked out. He ducked low to his boot and lit the fuse.  

© Paul Garson


The Opening Gambit by Steve Goodlad

They say that first impressions count, that within the first seven seconds of meeting, two people can decide if they like one another or not. The opening line works like repulsion or attraction.

I wanted to say something noble and precise, something magnanimous, charming and memorable. An opening shot bursting with clear headed decisiveness, a line she would record in her diary on a page all its own, then days later tear out and burn, but never be able to forget. It had to be original, with wit, intelligence and endearment. It would render her speechless, no one would ever have been so kind, so giving or sincere. Everyone else in the pub would pale into insignificance because no one had ever spoken to her like that before. She would surrender to the intrigue, be desperate to learn more. Of course, she would accept a drink, of course she would like to sit and talk. Later she would dance and I would whisper into her ear and she would laugh like it was the best joke ever. 

We would talk until closing time and she would wonder until the last minute if I was going to ask to see her again? Would I ask for her phone number? Would we embrace? Kiss? God, I’d be so sophisticated, what with my taste in wine, my choice of fine dining establishments that I’d tantalise her with for future dates.

In years to come, after years of marriage, she’d tell her proud Grandchildren all about our romance, that opening line and how it swept her off her feet. How she knew when she looked into my eyes and I spoke, that we’d be together forever.

She was beautiful, this had to work. I stepped into her space. “Come here often?” I asked.

© Steve Goodlad


The Anniversary Present by Graham Crisp

“Here you go Freddie”

Freddie’s eyes lit up, as a glass of beer that glistened invitingly in the sunlight, lands in front of him.

“Cheers Pete, just what I need. I suppose you’ve heard that I’ve had a run in with the missus over our anniversary.”

Pete sat down opposite Freddie, and sipped from his glass. He nodded. “Yep, I heard from Ange this morning. Did you forget?”

Freddie shook his head. “Nah, mate, I did it proper, you know, a card, flowers, wine and a box of them chocolates that she digs into when she’s watching soaps ‘n stuff.”

Pete grimaced. “So, what’s her beef then?”

Freddie swallowed half of his beer and wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. Pete raised his eyebrows. “Blimey, it must be serious. Go easy, pal.”

Freddie indicated for Pete to lean forward. “Its OK mate, I’m just a bit thirsty. Now listen to this.”

Pete bent forward. Freddie spoke in a low whisper. “Right, Karen gets in yesterday. She says she’s been shopping, but she’s acting all mysterious like. Anyway, I leaps up, gives her a hug, and steers her in the direction of the lounge where her anniversary goodies are all laid out.”

Pete takes another sip. “So far so good then, eh mate?”

“Well, you’d think so. But then she turns around and rolls up her sleeve.”

Pete frowned.

“She’s only got herself a bloody tattoo. A flippin’ great purple heart, with some naked kid firing a poxy bow and arrow, and the date of our wedding written underneath this monstrosity. She says, what do I think of it? So, I say it’s ‘kin hideous. What on earth possessed you to do that?”

“And do you know what her reply was?”

Pete shook his head.

“But I did it for you!”

© Graham Crisp