Showing posts with label Booklet 5. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Booklet 5. Show all posts

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Blossom Time by James Ellson

Someone, or something, was stealing Jopson’s apple-blossom.Three small apple trees in pots stood on his front path. A supermarket bargain. It was their first year for blossom and every bud, as it burst into colour, was carefully counted. Four for Lady Sudeley, three for New Beth’s Pool and two for Pitmaston Pineapple. He’d fallen for the names. But each night, for three consecutive nights, a blossom had disappeared from Lady S.

Enough was enough.

So Jopson went to the library and took out a book on fruit trees.

Chapter 7: Diseases & Pests. But it wasn’t canker, or scab or mildew. So, a thief. And what a list of scoundrels: badgers, foxes, rats, mice, squirrels and deer. Imagine: a deer in Dullage!

There was nothing for it – he’d have to stay up and keep watch. Like Morse. Just thinking about it made Jopson’s heart beat faster. He prepared sandwiches and a flask of coffee. Watched the clock.
Night fell.

Jopson stared out through a crack in the bedroom curtains. ‘Ow,’ he whispered after pinching his cheek. Staying awake was harder than he’d thought.

At half past midnight, his gate clicked open.

He couldn’t believe it. Not his neighbour Dr Fitch who never left out any bird food, and lit a smoky bonfire whenever Old Mrs Rodway hung out her washing. Jopson had half-suspected Fitch. But it wasn’t Fitch, it was Old Rodway – Dragon Breath, wearing her dressing-gown and slippers. She plucked the remaining flowers from Lady Sudeley, put them in a paper bag and shuffled off. Jopson went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. Stared at the ceiling, wondering what to do.

In the morning, Jopson knocked on Old Rodway’s door. Stood back when she opened it. She still wore her dressing-gown.

‘Come in.’

He followed her into the lounge. Ornaments and trinkets stood on every surface. He sat on the edge of the sofa and Dragon Breath slumped into the armchair. From her pocket she produced the blossom.

 ‘You might want to loosen your tie.’ She divided the flowers into two and handed half to Jopson.
 ‘Close your eyes and chew slowly.’

Jopson sat back and did as he was told.

He found himself staring at the cuckoo clock on the mantelpiece. A car-boot knick-knack, the sort of thing he might buy. It was in the style of a Swiss chalet with the clock above a thermometer and the weather pendulum at the bottom. On the right stood a man in a top hat holding an umbrella, and on the left a woman in a summer blouse.

A white blouse with bright red daisies. Her pleated skirt was a golden yellow and shimmered, like a field of wheat. The daisies on the blouse became cherries. Jopson could taste them. One of the cherries had eyes and a mouth. ‘He’s eating us,’ said the cherry. One by one the cherries began to disappear.

Jopson glanced at the weatherman in his top hat and tails, and white leggings. He tucked his shirt in and doffed his hat at the woman in the blouse. ‘Afternoon, Lady Sudeley.’ The umbrella became a cigar, a big fat blue cigar. Jopson had never smoked a cigar, never smoked anything, except Fitch’s bonfire. It felt fantastic. He stopped smoking, bit off the end and ate it. He’d seen it done in films. Tasted like fig rolls but without the rolls.

The hands on the cuckoo clock showed eleven hours had passed. Jopson was starving.

In the kitchen, Old Rodway fried up. Two eggs each. Jopson never ate two eggs, even on his birthday.
‘How did you know about apple-blossom?’

‘I read it on the world wide web. Meant to help my–’ She pointed at her mouth. ‘The blossom has to be picked at night.’

The next night they met up and picked blossom from New Beth’s Pool.

Jopson sat on Rodway’s sofa. He’d taken off his tie.

Nothing happened for a while, and he glanced across at her. Her eyes were closed, and soon he followed suit.

Jopson climbed down from the cuckoo clock and waited for Rodway. In his tails, he felt like a tiny James Bond. He was only six inches tall. Wearing a cherry blouse, six-inch Rodway whispered their mission.

Next-door, they clambered through Fitch’s cat-flap. Jopson climbed the cupboards and urinated in the kettle. But just as they were getting started, Rodway heard a noise. She jammed a paper-clip in a socket, and they scurried away, giggling like teenagers.

A shaft of sunlight woke him. In the armchair Rodway was snoring.

The third night they tried blossom from Pitmaston Pineapple.

Again, Jopson found himself staring at the cuckoo clock. His old friends with the blouse of cherries and the figgy cigar. He waited, but he couldn’t taste cherries or figs. Umbrella man stripped off his tails and stood in his underwear. Cherry blouse took off her cherry blouse to reveal a lacy white bra. Jopson didn’t know where to look.

The weather people stepped down from the pendulum onto the mantelpiece. They held hands. They counted down from five and Jopson found himself counting with them.

‘3 – 2 – 1.’

The two of them jumped off the mantelpiece, cherry blouse’s skirt billowing up like the Baroness in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

They landed on the rug in front of the fireplace and continued to undress. Jopson covered his eyes with his hand. Then let the fingers splay apart.

Watched them couple like dogs.

The cuckoo clock showed three hours had passed. Old Rodway was sitting next to him on the sofa. They were holding hands. He disentangled his fingers and frowned. She smelt delicious. Intoxicating.

Like . . . The Spicy Girls. He looked down at his lap. Trousers poking up.

‘The blossom of this tree is different.’

‘You can say that again,’ said his neighbour.

Jopson wondered about her first name. ‘The blossom of this tree is different.’ He leant over and kissed her.

© James Ellson

A Merry Encounter by Donna Hughes

Leaning my bike against an old wooden seat, I removed my helmet and gauntlets and stared up at the inn sign.

The Rest Awhile

I would, but not for long. The tank was almost empty, and I still had ten miles to go. I must not be late. My attendance was essential. I had been trying for months to find a replacement and this day was to be my last chance.

Tucking my helmet under my arm I pushed against the ancient door. It groaned but reluctantly gave way. I bent my head and entered.

“Hello,” I called to the gloomy bar.

The barmaid glanced up.

“Hello,” she said, then tossing back her hair returned to her reading.

Not a very promising start I thought but needs must. I strode across the worn carpet towards her.

“Is there fuel to be obtained here?”

She lifted her head and raised her eyebrows.

“Not here, sir. This is an inn.” She grinned and pointed towards the beer pumps.

“Well I’ll have a half of that then perhaps you can direct me to where I may find fuel for my steed.” I gave my helmet a quick tap.

As my eyes adjusted to the dim interior, her alluring presence seemed out of place. She smiled in a most disconcerting way. I found myself quite inexplicably discomforted.

Her full red lips parted to display the tip of a pink tongue that slipped along her even white teeth. Pulling at the beer pump she bent her head to watch the creamy foam frothing into the glass. She stole a quick look up through long dark lashes and my breathing took a break. Placing the overflowing glass onto the bar she withdrew her hand from the cold vessel leaving a film of mist on her fingers. Licking them dry she met my eyes with a sultry look.

I took a quick glance at her reading material.

The Taming of The Shrew. A play script and not just any script!

I took a welcome draught of the cool beer.

“Is there a garage in this village, preferably one that sells petrol?”

“Oh yes, sir,” she said, pursing her full lips in an exaggerated pout. “And it does sell petrol. Sometimes.”

“Sometimes? Well, can you direct me to this garage where I may purchase some petrol?”

“Indeed I can, sir.” She inclined her head. A dark twirling curl threatened to escape from the comb holding the unruly mass at her crown.

“Good,” I said, draining my glass. “Direct me then, dear lady.”

“Around the corner, sir,” she said. “Not a hundred yards.” Her laughter now was barely contained.

I nodded my thanks and prepared to leave. My leathers creaked in furious reluctance.

“But it’s closed,” she murmured.

I turned back slowly. The leathers seemed pleased.

“When will it be open?”

Wearing an infuriating playful smile, she leaned an elbow on the bar and tucked a hand under her chin.

“Depends,” she gurgled.

“On what, may I ask?”

Despite my hurry, I was truly beginning to enjoy this.

“On my Dad.”

I took a deep breath. Calm yourself I advised my lurching heart. This girl is toying with you. She is captivating, clever, and oh so confident. I was thrilled to think that I may at last have discovered the one!

“I’m tired, hungry and I need to be somewhere else, apart from this enchanting place, very soon. Much as I am enjoying your company, I fear I must postpone this little game, madam.”
“Dad’s gone to get a spare part for a car he’s repairing. No-one else to man the pumps I’m afraid. He’ll be back soon. Won’t you have something to eat while you wait?”


She pointed to the menu beside her.

I sighed. Placing my helmet on the bar I threw up my hands. “Ok, I suppose you’re the chef as well?”

“Course not. That’s my mum.” She chuckled and pointed to the Ploughman’s Lunch on the menu. I nodded. She drew a deep breath, turned her head and gave a piercing shout.

“ONE PLOUGHMANS PLEASE MUM.” The glasses above the bar trembled.

A cheery face appeared around the kitchen door.

“You annoying our customers again Kate?”

“Kate?” I mimed; eyebrows raised. She inclined her head.

“What do you do when you’re not annoying customers, Kate?” I asked.

“I’m an actor. Learning my lines for an audition this afternoon,” she raised the play scrip and waved it at me. I almost choked.

“At The Grand Theatre, four o’ clock?” I roared.

“Aye, sir.” Her dark smouldering eyes narrowed. She glared at me now, hands on hips and tossed her head. “How…”

Gathering up my helmet I drew it back in a flourish, not quite as elegant as a plumed hat but it would have to do. I gave a deep bow, quite difficult in riding leathers, but I think I accomplished a suitably elegant pose.

“Director and Petrucio at your service madam.”

She turned a deep shade of pink and gasped.

“Worry not, dear Kate, attend the audition.” I cried.” I cannot wait to see your performance. It is sure to be quite, quite scorching!”

Her ringing, sizzling laughter had me gasping for breath.

Following lunch, I was directed to the garage. We parted having arranged to meet at the theatre for a read through of The Taming of The Shrew. I was relishing working with this electrifying lady.

We had only four weeks of rehearsals before we began our tour of Italy.

Could she do it? Of course she could; with my able assistance.

I admit I was rather looking forward to telling my present leading lady, my wretched, dreary wife, that I had at last found a permanent replacement for her.

Jubilant, replenished and refuelled I continued on my merry way.

© Donna Hughes

Waiting by Jeff Jones

It was on one of my post lock-down walks that I first met Reg. It was a lovely day and I fancied a quiet sit down but the only seat available was on a bench next to an old man. It was awkward at first, two strangers seeking solitude but obliged to engage out of politeness. I didn’t stay long but enjoyed our chat. I’ve been back every day since, and Reg is always sitting there in the same spot. Now we’re like old friends and chat for ages.
Reg is old school, ‘of a certain generation’ as my old man would have said. The ‘politically correct’ police would have a field day with him. But whilst some of the things he says make me cringe, he also makes me laugh and I haven’t done a lot of that lately. Nobody has.

I’m later to the park today, not that it matters – I’m pretty sure Reg spends most of his day sat there. He just says he’s waiting though he never says what for.

To my surprise, however, today he’s not there, somebody else is. I glance around but there’s no sign of him. I amble towards the bench – our bench – and see an old lady sat in his spot. She turns at the sound of my approach and smiles.

“Good afternoon.”

“Hi,” I reply. I’ve stopped and am inexplicably staring at her. It’s starting to get awkward. I hope she hasn’t got one of those personal alarms or she’s likely to use it.

“Would you like to sit down?”

“Thank you.”

“Out enjoying the sun?”

“Yes. And waiting.” That vague response works for Reg, so perhaps it will work for me and she’ll leave it at that.

“For your wife?” she asks glancing around.

Nope, didn’t work. Further explanation is required. I try to calculate how rude it would be for me to get up and walk away.

“I’ll have a long wait if I am – she ran off with my best friend. She even took the dog.”

Bet she wishes she never asked now.

“I’m sorry to hear that.” Her smile is warm and genuine, and I instantly regret my abrasive tone.

“It’s alright, I’m getting over it. I miss my dog though.”

“Sounds like you’re better off without her. Your wife, not your dog.”

“Maybe. What about you, I haven’t seen you here before – leastways not in the two weeks I’ve been coming?”

“Oh, I used to come here all the time with my husband. I’ve been poorly these last couple of weeks, so haven’t been out.”

“Oh dear, that’s not good,” I reply, hoping she doesn’t notice me surreptitiously inching away from her. I don’t do illness, especially not after the virus.

“Don’t worry, dear, I’m over it now and it was nothing contagious.”

She noticed. “Sorry! Old habits.”

She smiles, probably out of pity.

“It’s so peaceful here, I thought I’d come and talk to my Reggie. That’s my husband – he passed away three weeks ago. We came here every day. This was our bench. Being somewhere he loved brings me comfort.”

My head is spinning. Reggie? Surely, she can’t mean Reg? He looked pretty alive to me. “I’m sorry for your loss.” My words sound hollow.

“Thank you.”

Surely this is just a coincidence – but where is Reg?

She suddenly gets to her feet and smiles at a family walking down the path towards us. Probably her relatives. I turn to ask her, but she’s vanished. Literally. How is that possible for a lady aged somewhere north of eighty?

I glance at the bench and notice a shiny, brass plaque screwed into the backrest. I have never seen it before as Reg always sat there blocking it. Before I can read it, I realise that the family are standing next to me. The middle-aged couple feign smiles as the two teenaged children stare sullen faced in my direction.

In an afternoon of awkwardness, this reigns supreme. I notice the woman is clutching a bunch of lilies and surmise the plaque is in remembrance of somebody they loved, and they’ve come to lay the flowers.

“Oh, I’m sorry, I’m intruding. I’ll go,” I say, hoping to beat a hasty retreat.
“No, please stay, you’re not intruding at all. They’d be pleased something they cherished was getting used,” says the woman laying the flowers beneath the plaque.


“My parents. They loved it here. This was their bench.” She nods her head towards the plaque inviting me to read it. Trying to ignore what Stacy gets up to after school, according to the graffiti to the right of the plaque, I read:
‘In loving memory of my husband Reginald “Reggie” Palmer. Until we’re together again’.

“We had that plaque added after my father died a few weeks ago. Now we’re have to have one made for Mum.”

“Both your parents have passed away within a few weeks of each other?” I ask incredulously.

“Yes. My father died three weeks ago, and my mother was taken ill about a week after that. She passed away yesterday. We wanted to come somewhere today where we knew they’d been happy together. The doctors aren’t sure what she died of yet, but I am – it was a broken heart, pure and simple. At least now they’re together again.”

“I don’t suppose you have a photograph of them, do you?”

If it is an inappropriate request, they don’t seem offended. The woman fumbles around in her handbag before pulling out a much-cherished photograph and handing it to me.

My breath catches in my throat as I study the image. It is probably a few years old but there is no mistaking the couple smiling back at me – it is Reg and the old lady.

Fighting down the lump in my throat I hand the photo back and once again offer my sympathies. Then, without saying another word, I turn and head for home.

I guess Reg’s wait is over.

© Jeff Jones

The Ritual by Vaibhav Sharma

Every few minutes he would adjust his ill-fitted suit, a stretch of the sleeve, tug on the trousers. It almost didn’t seem worth killing that man over. He always knew he was meant to do God’s work. It wasn’t his destiny to be kept under lock and key in the ‘loony house’. If he wasn’t willing to get his hands a little dirty in God’s work, how would he get accepted? So he did what he had to do - broke out of that crazy place where they kept feeding him those pills and started looking for the Devil.
Then he spotted her. She was a redhead, with her blasphemous skirt that was almost threads and a loose shirt that openly mocked Revelation 17:5. He would start with her.

As she crossed the lawn, he could see a party in progress. It was as if God was sitting at his shoulder, pointing him in the right direction. She had led him to the lair crawling with the sinners. Behind every flash of skin and each drag of their funny cigarettes, he could see the face of the Devil. They had tried to ‘fix’ him up at the centre, but they didn’t realise it was not he who was broken. It was the world that needed fixing.

He entered the house, passing through the throng of people. Each touch sent a thousand snakes crawling over his skin. The air was thick with their collective stench, but it only made him more resolute. He could just keep her in sight amongst the constantly bobbing shoulders and heads. Her voice crackled in Devil’s symphony as she freely embraced the bodies in her way. They were so consumed by their debauchery that they paid absolutely no attention to the middle-aged man in the ill-fitted suit. They will soon enough, he knew. But first, he needed to find the redhead in this crowd. As he clawed his way, his eyes fell on a carving knife in the table. It was as if this place wanted blood spilt. He slid the knife under his jacket and set in pursuit of the redhead.

“Hey! Can someone grab another case from the basement?” Someone shouted.

“A case of beer coming right up!” Replied the redhead. That voice would never stop haunting him.

He spotted the door to the basement on his right and snuck towards it. A flight of stairs led into the basement. He descended and crouched underneath the stairs, where he would wait for the unsuspecting redhead.

This was as good a vantage point as any for what he had in mind. About a minute later, he heard footsteps at the top of the stairs. The sound descended down the stairs with the accompanying body. He heard a button being pressed and a patch of light appeared next to the foot of the stairs. This was his redemption, his final payment.

He could almost smell her revolting perfume now. As he gripped the knife for the final lunge, another voice called out from the top of the stairs.

“… and also prep the basement for the ritual. I guess we’ll have to make do with that suit guy today!”

© Vaibhav Sharma

Little Miss Perfect by Dorothy Snelson

 I didn’t tell a lie but I didn’t tell the truth either. I just didn’t tell.

I was four years old. I’m seventy-four now but I can recall every detail of that day. I have an excellent memory which seems to be a blessing these days. Years ago it would have been just that your granny had gone a bit loopy. Now there’s a whole industry of memory tests, scans, and medication. Spare me!
The few photos I have of my childhood show a cute and angelic looking child. Here I’m sitting on a swing, all curly blond hair and winning smile, a veritable Shirley Temple. I was doted on by my parents until, that is, she came along. Then everything changed. People would stop mother in the street, bend over the pram and coo at her. They would turn to me and say
‘Can I take your baby sister?’
‘Yes’ I would reply without a moment’s hesitation.
‘She doesn’t mean that’ mother would say apologetically. ‘You love her, don’t you Ruth?’
Cue for me to hang my head and stay silent.
The day that ‘it’ happened she would have been only a few months old. Mother had called to see an elderly couple to whom we were vaguely related. I’d spent an uncomfortable hour, sitting on a scratchy horsehair sofa that had made the backs of my legs red and itchy. Trousers had yet to become an accepted form of dress for girls. My mother had chatted on and on, and I was hungry. At last we set off for home, but then she decided to call at the corner shop. I wanted to go into the shop. I might get some sweets, a stick of liquorice, or a chocolate mouse. Failing that, as the shop was filled with factory workers from the local mill getting food for their lunch break, I might get patted on the head, or chucked under the chin, and my mother told what a pretty child I was. One in the eye for that ‘pudding in the pram’ out there.
Fate decreed otherwise though. The pudding started to cry and my mother insisted I stand outside.
‘Just keep jiggling the pram handle and hopefully she’ll go off to sleep.’
I was mortified. She’d won again, the pudding. I stood jiggling as mother watched from inside the shop and nodded encouragingly. The more I jiggled the more furious I got. I started to kick out at the pram wheel. Mother could only see the top half of me, so I kept on smiling and kicking, until I swapped from the wheel to the brake. I knew full well what would happen, but I was full of devilment. Sure enough, after several hefty kicks of the brake, the pram took flight. It started to roll along the pavement, and as the road was on a slight incline it gathered speed, ran off the curb, veered into the road, and hit the tram lines, tipping over onto its side. I must have run after it, for the next minute mother and several workmen charged out of the shop, and into the road to retrieve the pram and child. The pram was a wartime Utility pram and built like a Sherman tank.  In those days there was little traffic, except for the trams, delivery vans and horse drawn milk floats. My sister, tucked snugly inside the pram, was therefore, none the worse for wear.
Mother, however, was distraught. We were escorted back to the shop where mother was seated and given a strong, sweet, cup of tea.
‘I couldn’t have put the brake on properly’ she kept saying, over and over.
‘It’s all my fault. She could have been killed and it would have been my fault.’
Standing at the side of her chair, looking down on the now sleeping baby on her knee and then at my tearful mother, I said not a word. Nobody asked me what had happened, so I never told a lie. They came to the conclusion that if the brake had been applied lightly, the jiggling of the pram handle would probably have been enough to cause it to give. The matter was laid to rest, along with the truth.
That incident taught me a useful lesson in life, however. From then on I found that a sweet, angelic face can be a great advantage.. People always believe the best of you. It saw me through many close calls. I never needed to tell a lie, nor did I need to tell the truth. I just didn’t tell. You could literally get away with murder, and I should know, because eventually I did.

© Dorothy Snelson

Something Comes to Live in Vincent Van Gogh's House by Sobia Ali

Vincent van Gogh had been out walking his imaginary dog. He found it helpful to have imaginary pets. And it was the dog too who first sniffed the thing. It stopped mid-step at the gate and gave a loud yelp. Van Gogh found the dog’s behaviour quite baffling. This had been an obedient dog, unlike other imaginary stuff. When he tried to induce it inside, it resisted.
Something was really off. He opened the gate and passed. Behind, the dog whined, its yelps a premonition. He stood thinking, dreading. Then went up to meet the thing in the atelier.

The light had faded out the window a while back. The lamps were not lit yet. He rested on the door-step, adjusting his eyes to the dimness of the workshop. All around the room canvases of half-finished paintings, colours, brushes, palette knives, were scattered on the floor and on the chairs. He peered into the dusk of the room, his eyes blind after having been outside in the colours and light. He searched the window seats, the folds of the curtains; crouched down to look under the chairs and tables. The thing was directly in front of him, crouching, just off the threshold. He was disquieted for a moment when he saw it. He was expecting something that lurked.

The thing was a thick mound teeming with a swarm of eyes, bulging, crowded one over the other and staring at him hostilely. The eyes blinked constantly; first closing slowly, then all opening one by one in a pattern.

The whole movement was like a shimmering of the beehive. Hairy spiders crawled up Van Gogh’s spine. First instinct was to run for the door, which he resisted. Even face to face with the abhorrent thing, he accepted that the flight was impossible, now, after having seen it. Its visual imprints would be caged in his memory, forever.

He mulled over if he should call neighbours and friends to help him get rid of it, but decided against it. Can things like these be shown outside? He thought of his critics. No, let it not be seen by anyone, he came to the conclusion after thinking it over. He knew what was required of him, his own responsibility. He needed to throw it out of the house. But he was loath to go near it, and touch. It could not be swept off, nor raked out, and while shovelling it; might slip and slide onto his feet. The last image made him break out into cold sweats. He fetched a blanket from the bedroom and flung it across the thing. Then skipping into the room he started stacking
furniture and paintings on the loose ends of the quilt. The thing lay roofed in, impassive and unmoved.
The next morning, he was roused up by a steady, low scraping noise. In an instant, he was out of the bed and on the stairs to the workshop. The bundle of eyes, for that is what he called it now, had wriggled out from under the blanket. He stood with the doorknob in his hand, listening to it move inside. He did not want to look at it in the daylight, desiring his conscience to be deceived; to let it remain an illusion of nights. All the same, it was there, squirming against his labour of love - his masterpieces.

He came outside, rather breathless. The sun was up and the air was luminous with the smells and colours of the morning. The bright greenery of the foliage glowed in the gentle light. The scent of the fresh barley hit him and his nostrils flared up keenly. He breathed deep into his lungs, his cells lapping up the oxygen, hungrily. All his being shivered in response to the stirrings of life.

All this beauty was like a pain — a delicious anguish, that quickened his steps, filled his heart with dreams. His soul was awash with rapture which would metamorphose into the longing to create. A single eagle, its wings chipped by age and weather, swooped down out of sight. He walked on.

Then it rose, triumphant, a field mouse clutched in its talons. His heart contracted. He had never had any stomach for the cruel necessities of nature. But it was in his make-up. It made him what he was.

Then he stopped. Along the road, a bank of purple flowers with big yellow hearts nodded their heads in the light wind, proud and aloof, and yet strangely fleshy and miserly of life. A reluctance, like a sudden coldness, came over him. He thought of the bundle of eyes writhing through his things, its loose, puckered skin folding over the eyes in slow sickening waves. He realized abruptly what a multitude the thing was.

Peasants trooped to the fields. It was going to be a windy day, one in which breeze sprang up in the tops of the trees and one felt heady with all the motions. He liked days like this. Liked to be blown about with the elements. But still the thing walked over his canvases, like on a grave. He felt inadequate and inept to the existence. Quite overwhelmed; his dampened spirit refused to rise again.

He turned homewards, rueful of the day. He knew what was to be done.

© Sobia Ali

I Lost My Wife Down the Back of the Sofa by Brian G Ross

I asked Angela if there was anything else on the TV besides her damn soaps. She threw me the control, instead of putting her reply into words, because after twenty years of marriage it seemed that we only spoke to each other when it was absolutely necessary. She left the room for the toilet or the kitchen: I don’t think she said.

I fumbled the remote and it fell between the cushions of the sofa. I slid my hand down the side of the material and brought it back out, along with twelve pence in change and a takeaway menu from a Chinese that had been shut down by the environmental health authorities last year. I went back in for further investigation and my fingers touched upon something else. When I pulled my hand back out I saw it was a condom wrapper.

Caitlin, our fourteen-year-old daughter, had been seeing a boy named Joshua for a few months, and it was no secret to either of them or my wife, that I was against the relationship. If you could even call it a relationship. Angela was a little more liberal towards the whole thing. Joshua had been around a few times to study, but we never let Caitlin close her bedroom door when he was. As far as I knew – as far as she had told us – they had only kissed once with their tongues (which she didn’t enjoy), so surely she couldn’t have –

But I didn’t want to think about that.

I shouldn’t have been surprised though: sex didn’t have anything to do with love anymore. Kids these days didn’t respect the act, or fear it the way my generation did. They treated virginity like a poison that had to excise from their bodies. But Caitlin was different. We had brought her up well. She came with us to church every Sunday, prayed by her bedside every night, and she never cursed or took the Lord’s name in vain.

But perhaps I was being naive.

I put the condom wrapper on the coffee table and stared at it. It looked like it had been ripped open roughly. I winced. I wondered if she had put it on for him.

I shook my head and the image evaporated.

At least she was being safe. She knew about the risk of disease, and perhaps the greater risk of pregnancy. So in one respect, my unfortunate discovery proved she wasn’t being completely irresponsible. But on our sofa? I shifted uncomfortably. I didn’t know when she would have had that opportunity: as far as I knew, they had never been together in the house alone.

Angela returned from wherever she had been and handed me a cup of coffee. I thanked her and she squeezed in beside me on the sofa. I slurped the frothy heat from the coffee and waited for her to notice the evidence on the table.

“Where’d you find that?” she asked, almost immediately.

And there it was.

It was, of course, a valid question. But there was something in that moment immediately before she asked; something in the way she caught her breath as she sat down next to me, and seemed to be afraid to let it go; something about how she almost spilled the coffee as she set it down on the table, and how she couldn’t stop her hands from shaking after she had; something in the blush that descended upon her face, and the way her gaze darted this way and that; something about the way the question fell from her mouth seemingly against her will.

There was something in that moment that told me she already knew the answer.

© Brian G Ross

Letting Go by Kate MacWhannell

“Are you okay?” Martha asked while she fiddled with the corner of the plastic menu. Instead of answering Willem pushed back from the table. He walked over to the counter to order a portion of fried chicken. She had hoped for a meal at one of the many Lebanese cafes they’d passed on the way from his one-bedroom flat but he’d said he didn’t want to be out long, he wanted something quick and easy.
“What’s wrong?” she asked when he returned.

He didn’t reply. Instead he sat staring out the window, his blue eyes scanning the street. Not knowing what else to say she bent her head and noticed the corner of the menu had split. She picked at the sides so they separated even more and hoped for him to tell her he’d missed her, to tell her he couldn’t let her go just as he had during their nights together in Dubai. His intense kisses back then had touched a deep, empty spot inside her being. When they’d parted she’d pretended it was okay but her body had ached for weeks afterwards in London like it was going through a withdrawal process. Perhaps that’s how her father had felt when he’d tried to give up his addiction.

“I’m sorry,” Willem suddenly said.

She looked up, disorientated for a moment and wondered what she was doing here in Sydney with a man she hardly knew.

“I’m not myself at the moment,” he said.

She nodded. She’d told him in Dubai about her difficult relationship with her father, how bad it had been when he was drinking. How it had pulled her out of shape but now things were better. She was better. He’d listened quietly but she was sure she’d seen pain bound up behind his eyes.

“I’m in a bit of trouble,” he said.

She stared at the creases around his eyes and felt his leg twitch under the table. What did he want her to say? She was thankful that the waitress interrupted by dropping a box of chicken onto their table. Willem picked up a drumstick and started pulling the meat and gristle from a bone. I need you. The words he’d emailed weeks after they’d parted ran through her head. Wasn’t that why she’d booked an Emirates flight and travelled for 26-hours to be here? This wasn’t just a holiday fling. He needed her. Wasn’t it enough that she was here?

“Did you hear me?” he said touching her on the wrist. “I’ve got this debt that needs repaying but I’ve got nothing left.”

“Right,” she said. Her stomach groaned with hunger but she pushed the greasy chicken box away. She had money but he probably knew that. How else could she afford to travel, to constantly be jumping on and off planes? The constant movement soothed her anxiety, brought some relief from that gnawing sense of fracture within. When they’d first met, Willem had said she was lucky to have such freedom. She’d liked him saying that but it wasn’t really freedom. The truth was if she stayed in one place too long she was afraid the cracks might start to appear and then she would begin to break into too many pieces. There’d be no way back from that.

The cash till beeped and jolted her out of her thoughts. She glanced about and saw the restaurant was now empty of lunchtime diners, the tables cleared, the strip lighting flickering overhead. She turned back to face Willem.

“I don’t know what will happen to me if I don’t repay it.” His mess of dark hair fell over his eyes so she couldn’t read the expression on his face.

“Well, how much do you owe?” Her voice sounded brisk, business-like.


“I see.”

He smiled. “You know I love you.”

She clenched her teeth. There had been too many men over the years, too many casual romances. She knew she’d been fickle, played with men’s affections but she’d never really wanted love. Well, that would require staying in one place wouldn’t it? It would mean putting down roots, intimacy. She shuddered. The air conditioning whirred through the filters. She’d seen what love could do. It had crippled her mother and broken her soul.

A bus rattled past outside. Martha pulled her bag off the floor and took out her purse. She couldn’t love this man she’d flown across the world to see again. Didn’t want to. Kindness was all she had to offer. She might lose her money, lose her faith but to lose her heart, then she’d be in real trouble. The only way to be free again would be to move on, let him go.

“Come on,” she said. “There’s a bank across the road.”

He raked his hand through his hair. His blue eyes stared at her intently.

“You’ll help me?” She heard a note of disbelief in his voice.
She nodded silently.

The creases round his eyes softened, “Once I pay off this debt we could go travelling together, get away just the two of us,” he said. She saw his gratitude etched deeply across his face.

“I don’t think travelling is the answer,” she said standing up. She didn’t tell him that staying in Sydney with him wasn’t the answer either.

She crossed towards the open door but stopped as a child raced past outside. For a second she watched the child in her purple sunhat chasing the pigeons off the pavement and remembered herself at that age laughing freely at everything and nothing. How happy she’d been! In that moment she saw the truth of her present situation. All the travel and holiday romances meant nothing. She was lost not living. She was simply avoiding herself and needed to change. Now as she stepped out into the full glare of sunshine she hoped to fall in love, not with this man she hardly knew, but with life again.

© Kate MacWhannell

Alpha to Zulu: Alphabet Phonetic Frolics by Jolie Marchant

Prohibition has not been imposed in Quebec; consequently ‘bootlegging’ is non-existent. This makes Papa Charlie happy. He owns the only hotel in town, a good lucrative business which keeps him rewarded in profits and luxuries he can afford. The shining Alfa Romeo parked in the sun is his pride and joy.

In his earlier life, Papa Charlie had been a co-pilot for Air India and enjoyed the travelling and good salary. Eventually he gracefully made his final landing on terra firma.

Today is 11 November, Remembrance Day and Papa Charlie is been busy lubricating his customers. ‘Bravo’ he cries, as he throws another empty whisky bottle into the recycling bin. The echo of glass hitting glass reverberates around the saloon.

Papa Charlie, is a fit man, reaching over six feet tall. He claims his health and vigour is complimented by regularly playing golf and consuming an average of one kilo of lima beans per month.

He flexes his muscles and looks across the smoke hazed room. A grin adorns his face as he observes ‘yankee’ Mike and Juliet practicing their tango. Although they are both out of step, they elegantly trip over each other’s feet unaware of the presence of Oscar, the bar ‘romeo’, a typical ‘alpha male’ who is nearby, sexually gyrating his hips into slow foxtrot frolics.

Past the twirling and rotating bodies, Papa Charlie surveys his collection of ageing and tarnished posters hanging on the opposite wall. His favourite, ‘Zulu’ portrays the backs of the red coated British soldiers pointing their guns towards the warriors. The second poster has a more temperate flavour, depicting the foothills and rise to the glorious Sierra Nevada, the high mountain range of the Iberian Peninsula.

Suddenly the door swings open and a man appears, wearing a Delta Force uniform.

“You’re late Victor,” scolds Papa Charlie.

“I had to go to the dentist”, replies Victor in a muffled voice, “My mouth tastes awful.”

Papa Charlie scans Victor’s face and observes the swollen cheek. He notices something is different.

“I haven’t seen you wear those before,” he says pointing to a large pair of plastic spectacles Victor has balanced on his nose.

“What?” Says Victor.

He looks puzzled. He slowly lifts his hand up to his face and nose. “Oh blast,” he shouts, “X-ray goggles. Well bugger me, I never noticed I still had them on.”

Papa Charlie reaches for a bottle and two glasses.

“Come on Victor, you look as if you need a drink, I’ve got a good whisky just for you.”

“What’s that one then?” asks Victor.

‘Stag’s Breath.” came the reply.

© Jolie Marchant

The Suitcase by Maddy Allen

He watched her rolling and folding, placing each item into the deep suitcase. She had never let him pack when they were going away. She said he wasted too much space and she prided herself on getting everything into one case, no matter how long the holiday. Every Summer, he’d just wanted a case of his own that he could throw his things into at the end of the trip and pour out onto the bedroom floor once home, unleashing the smells of the Mediterranean into their cramped, Holloway flat. But she would just shoo him away and slot everything in, like a jigsaw made up of bras, toilet bags and shirts.
Now, however, she was packing just for one and it was not linens and bikinis for some short getaway, but clothes for her new life with a man she’d met online, whilst he had been working every hour God sent to pay for the mortgage, the kids’ school and university costs…. the holidays.

Watching her was like watching his mother making her famous Sunday trifle, thirty years earlier: A base layer of larger clothing – jumpers, jackets and formal dresses – were laid down first, then the T-shirts and trousers, balled up so they wouldn’t crease, and finally the underwear and socks, filling the gaps like thick cream oozing into any gaps between the fruit and sponge. But thinking of his mother brought no comfort as he struggled to accept his wife’s betrayal. As she rolled another T-shirt, squeezing the life out of it, searching for an air pocket in which to stuff it, his anger boiled up inside him, unleashed, never again to be packed tidily away.

And as his hands closed around her throat, squeezing the life out of it, the T-shirt fell to the floor.

As he looked into the suitcase, trying to fit everything in as neatly as she would have done, he realised that it was harder than it had ever looked and a fleeting, grudging admiration for her skill scuttled through his mind. But then this was always going to be harder than a few skirts and pants. Indeed, he was quite pleased with this first attempt. He’d put the heavy things in first, as he’d observed over all those years, making a base layer with the torso and the head, and if he could just loop this leg round a little more to line the edge of the case, he could probably get the zip done up.

© Maddy Allen

​A Charmed Life by Patsy Collins

I barely looked at the mug, but that was enough to send it falling out the cupboard on to my kitchen floor. I'm not usually clumsy but sometimes, when I'm upset, accidents happen."It didn't smash!" Vicki 's shocked reaction suggested that was further reason for her to be angry with me.

Usually I'd have joked about how lucky I was, but she was in no mood to hear about my good fortune. "Of course it didn't, I've got cushioned flooring," I said.

"No you haven't!" She reached down, "Oh! I could have sworn they were real tiles."

"Perhaps that's not the only thing you've been mistaken about?" I asked.

"It isn't," she snapped. "I thought we were friends."

"We are," I said, hoping it was still true.

"Then why charm yourself into the job I wanted?"

"You wanted the promotion?" I probably sounded as surprised as Vicki had about the mug. I knew a few others had applied for the job, but thought the main reason they'd done that was to prevent it going to someone from outside. That's caused problems in the past.

"Why wouldn't I?" Vicki demanded.

Because she wanted to have babies and be a stay at home mum. She hadn't actually said that, but I'd been so sure it was what she really wanted... Oh dear, what had I done?

Everyone else had congratulated me on the promotion, saying I'd be perfect for the role, but not Vicki. Her look had said she'd like to burn me at the stake. Later she'd barged past me hissing, "I'm on to you."

The words had made me shiver. Although she couldn't know for sure, it was possible she'd guessed the truth. Because of that, and because I didn't want her to stay angry with me, I'd used my persuasive powers to get her to come to my place after work and talk about it.

She'd followed me home, accepted my offer of tea and sat on one of my kitchen chairs, just as she'd done many times before. Everything was going fine until I dropped the mug and broke the spell.

"You lead a charmed life, Tina."

She's said things like that before and I've managed to laugh it off. Not this time.

"You always have all the luck," Vicki continued. "And if it doesn't come naturally you fix things so you get what you want. I know what tricks you played to get promoted."

"Tricks?" That's not the word I'd have used.

"It's pretty obvious how you got round Mr Roberts. He's always looking down our tops."

She thought I'd slept my way to promotion? Thinking it might be better if she believed that, I just shrugged.

"Maybe you got away with it this time, but you better watch out – what goes around comes around."

She was right about that. I could have pointed out that insulting the person who was just about to become her new line manager wasn't a good idea, but I didn't. There's no way I'd use my power to hurt her, I'd much rather patch up our friendship.

"I'm sorry you're upset over this," I said, "I honestly didn't think you were bothered about the promotion."

Vicki looked into my eyes for a moment, "If you say so." She didn't sound totally convinced, but I felt she wanted to believe me.

Conjuring up positive vibes, I made her tea in the mug I'd dropped.

"Perhaps it's the mug which is lucky, not me?" I jokingly suggested.

"Could be." She gave a brief smile, "Having to get jiggy with lecher Roberts isn't exactly lucky."

"No." I shuddered. That man was going to be my immediate supervisor and he was truly awful, but I really couldn't do to him what he deserved.

Vicki's face wobbled and I hoped she was going to laugh over the idea of me seducing the horrid Mr Roberts, but instead she started crying.

"Come on, tell me what's up. It's not about the job, is it?" I coaxed.

Between sobs, she told me I was right about her not wanting promotion; and why.

"All I want is a baby."

I learned her doctor had said, although it wasn't entirely impossible, the odds were against her.

"I did apply for the job, but only because I thought having a career might somehow make not having a family less painful. It wouldn't have helped and you'll make a much better manager than me."

Incredibly relieved that what I'd done hadn't been an awful mistake, I hugged her tight.

She hugged me back, "Sorry, Tina. Of course you wouldn't have done what I said... with Mr Roberts. I don't know what came over me."

I did. "Hormones?" I suggested, "Some women do get emotional at, you know, that time of month."

She stared at me, "But it isn't ... well, it is, but I'm not ... Oh my god! Do you think ...?"

Vicki rushed off to get a pregnancy test, leaving me very, very relieved. And absolutely determined never ever to interfere in anyone's life ever again.

As soon as she'd gone I reversed the spell on my kitchen tiles. I never did like that cushioned stuff, but at the time it was all I could think of to explain about the mug. Some people say tiles are cold but that doesn't worry me.

The myth about witches' feet not touching the floor is true. So is the one about all our deeds coming back to us threefold.

© Patsy Collins

Nifty-Fifty Winning Stories

Dead In Bed by Andrew Ball

"So, what did you do?"
"What could I do? I told her I'd just remembered another appointment."
"And the time was...?"
"Three a.m."
"Oh boy. How'd she take it?"
"Not well."
"First date?"
"No, but first... you know. So, what do you think?"
"Honestly? I don't think she's the one."

Ghost by Andrew Ball

Unlike my mother, I don’t believe in ghosts. I used to mock her about it.
“Are you going to come back and haunt me, then?” I’d jeer.
“I’ll have better things to do than squander any more time on you, you no-good wastrel!” she’d reply.
I can hear her now.

Malice Aforethought by Andrew Ball

Look at her: sitting there at His feet, simpering. Makes you sick. I can't think what she sees in Him, the little hussy. And as for Laz, he were better off dead. So, who's going to peel all these potatoes to feed Him and His twelve hungry groupies? Muggins Martha!

The Wrong Guy by Andrew Ball

“The charge before the court is that on or about the 5th of November 1605, you conspired with others to destroy the House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster, in an attempt to overthrow the monarchy. How do you plead?”
“Not guilty, your honor. You’ve got the wrong Guy!”

Ghost by Ivan Skilling

Every year, Mum returns as a white butterfly during the Hungry Ghost Festival. Her wings beat a whispered greeting when she flutters around my ears. I always say the same words to her.
I'm sorry, Mum. I should have called. Money, I can earn back. But you, I can't.

No Longer Mine by Nicole Wilson

It pinched painfully as I twisted the ring past my knuckle. When it was finally off, it left behind an angry reddish, purple hue. The band clanked on the counter; a plea for me to change my mind but when the pawnbroker asked if I was sure, I nodded yes.

Malice, Aforethought by Nicole Wilson

I thanked the waitress, stirred in another pack of sugar. Johnny was gagged, tied, and blindfolded in a warehouse. I still loved him. Maybe the scare was enough; our love, still salvageable. I turned on the burner, called off the hit, and ordered pie a la mode with another coffee.

Ghost by Kate MacWhannell

He stares at the clock. By maintaining a routine he is convinced he can control his life and shut out the ghostly voice that taunts him. “You don’t deserve happiness,” it whispers as he waits for the minutes to turn. “She discovered that you are bad, that’s why she left.”

No Longer Mine by Amy B. Moreno

I stalked the garden; skinny ribs hunting afternoon black birds, without a warning bell.
I pushed myself up against the patio doors, pink nose flaring with questions – ‘Who lives here now?’
My tail twitched, I watched, waited for a chance.
I slipped inside, looking for home, but they had gone.

Ghost by Amy B. Moreno

She braked then let go. The bike coughed a satisfying thud on the grass, back wheel spinning.
Soles pressed against earth, toes spread - no hushed carpets; no sterilised door handles; no news reports.
The breeze whispered a dare to her dry, cracked, hands.
She felt the ghost of normality.

Malice Aforethought by David Walton

Malice Aforethought sprinted onto the stage, a blur of leather and skin…and fresh goat’s blood.
Down in the mosh pit, it was Callum and Colin’s first time. Engineering undergraduates, they’d both fashioned Mohican wigs, from steel.
“PUNKS PERFORATED IN STAGE DIVE MADNESS” was easily the most popular headline.
Don’t laugh.

Ghost by Hope Nguyen

They called me a ghost, not just because no one knew who I was, but also I moved like one.
Killing people meant nothing to me. It was a profession, a job with the benefit of hindsight.
At the end of the day, I'm just a man with no name.

Stolen Warmth by JY Saville

"But everyone else will have it the day it comes out."
Leanne stopped short of stamping her foot, but she wanted that New Kids On The Block album next month and she wanted her mum to know it.
"I said, we'll see. Now go wash your hands and sit down."
They ate in silence. Leanne pointedly pulled her cardigan sleeves over her hands and hugged herself as she waited for pudding.
"If you'd eaten your stew while it was hot instead of pushing it round the plate for ten minutes, you wouldn't be so cold," her dad said.
He pretended not to notice Leanne stick her tongue out at him. He was impervious to pleas, threats, insults or ridicule in the annual battle for when to turn the heating on. It was switched on only when he deemed it proper and whatever the weather, that never happened between April and September.
"Everyone at school's got central heating."
"So have we," said her dad.
"What's the point if it's never on?"
"Shall I fetch you another jumper, love?"
"She can fetch her own, Maureen. If she'd any sense she'd have left her school jumper on."
Leanne's school jumper was screwed up on her bedroom floor, stinking of sweat and waiting for the weekend wash. Cold yesterday morning, she'd worn a T-shirt under her uniform shirt and been told off by a teacher when she'd taken her jumper off in the afternoon. Wear a vest if you're cold, he'd said in front of the whole class. We can't have Garfield on show. Leanne didn't own a vest and wouldn't wear it under her semi-transparent school shirt if she did, so today she'd simply kept her jumper on to mask the T-shirt. She'd spent the afternoon in the full sun from the art room window and now her jumper would be unwearable for the rest of the week.
"The first of October's an arbitrary deadline," she said. "It's cold now."
Her dad put his spoon down and turned to face her.
"Do you know how much it costs to run the heating for half an hour?"
"She doesn't need to," her mum said. "At her age."
"If she's old enough to use words like arbitrary," said Leanne's dad, "she's old enough to know about household budgets."
He droned on long enough to let his sponge pudding go cold, Leanne could see the custard congealed round the edges.
On Saturday while her parents were out, Leanne studied the control panel for the boiler and realised there was no great trick to it, she could flood the house with warmth by pressing a single green button. Her finger hovered over it, then jerked before she'd made up her mind. There was a loud clanking followed by a whoosh and some distant gurgling. She had to sit on the kitchen floor with her head between her knees till she was sure the house wasn't going to blow up or be deluged with water from a broken radiator. She took to switching the heating on whenever she was alone in the house, opening the windows and wafting the warm air out before her parents got home, the way her older friends vented illicit cigarette smoke.
"I can't understand it," her mum said for the umpteenth time, looking at the bill on the kitchen table. "We must have a leak."
"Talk sense, Maureen. You'd smell a gas leak."
"Well, I can't understand it."
Leanne nibbled her cardigan cuff and tried to become invisible. The album she'd been so looking forward to had been released the day before, and her mum had been about to give her the money to buy it when Leanne's dad brought the post in. The deal was, Leanne didn't get regular pocket money like most of her friends, but she could make a case for treats now and then, and in practice they were rarely refused.
Her dad picked the bill up again as though it might show a different amount this time, and ran his fingers through his hair.
"Oh, Leanne." Her mum looked like she'd just remembered Leanne was in the room. She pulled a fiver from her purse. "There you go, love."
Leanne reached out to take it, then rested her hand on the chair back instead.
"Karen said I could tape hers," she said, hoping Karen would say that once she asked. "Got any blanks?"

© JY Saville

Telepathic Drugless Therapy by Eva Bell

The Nobel Covid-19 pandemic was not likely to abate in the near future. Rob began to wonder how he could make both ends meet. He had a wife and a young son to support, and his savings had reached rock bottom. The company he worked for had not paid him for four months, in spite of announcing a cut of 10% in salary each month. Now there was the likelihood of his services being dispensed with altogether. Rob was desperate. He had to think of alternate means of sustenance. He explored the Internet continuously for job opportunities where his digital skills could be utilized. But no company was hiring staff. A long time ago, Rob had read an article of a man in Malaysia who practised telepathic medicine and minted a lot of money. Perhaps he could do the same and bring in some money to tide over his crisis. People were wary of going to doctors or to hospitals for fear of contracting the virus. But locked down in their homes, many complained of depression. Suicidal rates had spiked, marital conflict and domestic violence had increased, and fear was spreading. Doctors with little knowledge of this new virus that had infected humanity were recommending all kinds of medication. Quacks all over the country prescribed their own concoctions of ginger, garlic, basil leaves, curcumin and all kinds of herbs.
Rob decided that he could advertise his more sophisticated “drugless therapy.” He would claim to cure people with psychological, mental and even some physical disorders. It would be at affordable rates. He made a study of telepathy, the ability to communicate thoughts and ideas from one person to another without any physical interaction. Of course he knew this was a pseudoscience. But he intended to use it to his advantage.
Rob advertised on the Internet about his drugless therapy for all kinds of maladies. He was soon inundated with queries. He scrutinized each letter carefully. He picked out ten who he thought were the gullible types. They were mostly middle-aged women. To each of them he sent out a friendly e-mail asking them to send him a list of their complaints together with a photograph. Most of these women complained of loneliness, depression or marital discord due to being cooped up at home for months. They missed their social activities with friends and their trips into town.
Rob gave each of them appointments on different nights as he could only deal with one at a time. He chose midnight he told them, because this was the time everything was quiet and he could concentrate on his meditation. They were to come online on Zoom. He warned them that there would be no oral communication as he was under deep meditation. They had to focus on his eyes for twenty minutes, so that brain to brain communication could take place. He would send out to them telepathic rays which had mysterious powers that could cure them of their ailments. He called these powers ‘psych rays.’ After that, he would give out mental suggestions on how to overcome their problems.
Rob chose midnight because his wife and son would be fast asleep by then. He did not want them to know what he was up to. He took care to lock the door of the room where he was working. Rob was pleasantly surprised at the results.
“How easily people can be fooled,” he thought. “No wonder crooks can make money by duping people. Cyber-crimes have been escalating during this lockdown.”
Of the ten people he was treating, some said they were completely cured of all symptoms within two sittings. Others asked for a third session. Only one replied that she was not able to focus on his eyes for twenty minutes as she had dozed off in between. So telemedicine had not worked on her.
Rob charged each of them an exorbitant fee. When the money had all come into his bank account, he decided to stop this knavery before he was caught. He was afraid that his patients would spread the word and he would be inundated with requests for treatment. There was the danger of someone exposing him as a fraud. So he deleted his e-mail ID and registered under a new name. He was satisfied that the money he had earned, would tide him over the next few months.

© Eva Bell

Dead Fast by Stephen Foster-Pilkington

My first lesson was to remember to put the address in the sat nav every time. They went so fast - too fast. The service didn't overrun. There was still time to get to the cemetery. I reflected on the idea that heaven can wait. If my memory serves me right, the vicar mentioned something about eternity, didn't he?
The journey was hardly part of a dignified send off. I’d never seen a hearse go at such a speed. What on earth was going on? Perhaps the funeral directors were in a hurry and had more corpses, sorry - clients, than usual. I guessed they’d have been reluctant to introduce a scheme such as die share. I certainly couldn’t imagine the Grim Reaper flogging his own unique brand of timeshare.
I was relieved to see the traffic lights change. This gave members of the party behind me a chance to catch up. Then I recall a boy racer or was it girl racer? No, it was definitely a boy.
As the lights turned green, needless to say the speedster was first off the mark. The two lanes then converged into one. I couldn’t believe it. Wow! The hearse was absolutely not having the boy racer cutting them up.
The dual carriageway prompted a race between the hearse and the hooligan driver. I was so shocked to see the hearse taking up this challenge. It became more farce than funeral. Yes, they were flashed. So who’s going to pay the fine I remember thinking. Surely not the mourners?
Next I recollect seeing a blue light approaching from behind. The police. This will be a first I thought. A layby lay ahead. Both vehicles were directed by the highway patrol to pull over. I felt I ought to as well – being determined to give whoever was behind the wheel of the hearse a piece of my mind. It was terrible. Zero respect. The deceased, for all the years I knew him never had a brush with the law. They breathalysed the hearse driver – definitely another first. Then one of the undertakers lit a cigarette. I wanted to remind him, the wake's usually after the burial.
“Hello, are you with this party sir?” said an officer.
“Yes, I'm a friend and fellow mourner. What on earth's going on?” I said.
“The person driving the hearse wants you to know something. Apparently she's the deceased’s daughter.”
“Hello, you must be Karen the daughter of the …..Whoops!” Just caught it. There you are. Too windy for ill-fitting top hats.”
“Thanks. Yes, I'm Karen,” she said.
“So why such speed? It's a bit tastel-”
“It's exactly how he wanted it.”
“What do you mean, it's exactly how he wanted it? Are you being funny?”
“Actually everything is perfect now. It was my father's last request, for the hearse to get done for speeding.”

© Stephen Foster-Pilkington

Blackberry and Apple by Andrew Ball

There is some disagreement among the three of us over exactly where it happened -- which kitchen it was that needed redecorating afterwards -- but the event itself is beyond dispute, despite the seventy-some years that seem to have intervened. The plan was to surprise our parents, and in that we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. It was summertime, August probably, and we were alone in the house; but which house? Was it the gatehouse to the mansion where some remote and forbidding old woman lived in solitary splendor -- my first cousin twice removed, so tells me, making us much closer in cyberspace than we ever were in reality -- or upstairs in my grandparents’ house, where I did the rest of my growing up? Whichever it was, one thing is certain: our parents made terrible choices about where to raise their three children.
I know it was summer because we’d been picking blackberries. This was England in the late 1940s, and the remnants of wartime rationing were still in effect. Candy rationing was the last to go; the last that a four-year-old boy cared about, anyway. I have long suspected that this was a deliberate government policy, designed to drag out the privations of that awful war to teach the new generation just how grueling life could be. And it worked: for seventy years, I have fought the lure of asceticism.
But summertime brought blackberries -- in a good year, anyway -- and every country road was lined with hedgerows bursting with bushes. This was before the hedgerows were sacrificed on the altar of capitalism, along with free blackberries, many song birds, and part of the soul of the English countryside. My brother, sister and I must have braved the brambles, the hidden roadside ditches and the stinging nettles -- Britain’s answer to poison ivy -- to collect our treasure trove. I imagine us picking into baskets, since the ubiquitous and indestructible plastic bag lay in the future. How quaint!
We would have carried our bounty back to one or other house, our mouths purple with blackberry juice. How easy it is to create memories! And once there... what?
“We’ll cook them! Let’s have blackberries and ice cream.”
“We don’t have any ice cream.”
Of course not; we didn’t even have a fridge, let alone a freezer.
“How ‘bout blackberry and apple?”
“Do we have any apples?”
Of course we did. One of the mysteries of my youth is where -- and why -- each year, my father found a bushel or more of Cox’s Orange Pippins. (Doubtless God could have created a better apple, but doubtless He never did.) Each apple was wrapped in tissue paper and reverently laid to rest in what we called -- inaccurately, I now discover -- the Wickeltisch. (Maybe winning the war gave us the right to subvert their language?) From its place of storage in the cold-water tank cupboard, the misnamed Wickeltisch nourished us with fresh apples throughout the winter, helping our daily spoonful of National Health Service orange juice keep the dreaded scurvy at bay. We limeys may have crooked teeth, but at least they don’t fall out.
In those long-ago days, before globalization of the food chain, fresh fruit was seasonal, so maybe we raided the remnants of this precious store if the new crop of apples hadn’t yet arrived. In case there’s anyone on the planet who doesn’t already know this, blackberries and apples were made for each other. It’s the most convincing argument for the existence of God that I know of. Sex comes a close second, but that’s another story. They must be cooked together, of course, and in the right proportions. We knew this, my siblings and I, and moreover we had at our disposal the very latest culinary marvel: a pressure-cooker! A spin-off from the war -- the Department of Bomb Development, I suspect -- the pressure-cooker had taken the kitchens of Britain by storm. Before microwaves, before food-processors, before bread machines, there was the pressure-cooker. No late-1940s kitchen was complete without one.
‘Husbands, do you want the little woman to be the only one on your street without a pressure-cooker?’ Of course not!
It seemed easy enough: you just filled the saucepan to the very top with sliced apples and our precious blackberries, clamped down the air-tight lid with its innocent-looking little valve, and put it on the stove to heat. But ah, the impatience of youth!
“Did you put any water in?” my ten-year-old sister might have asked.
“I think so,” my brother, her senior by three years, would have replied.
“Well, is it boiling yet?
“How should I know?”
“Maybe it’ll change its tune, like a kettle.”
“I don’t think it’s working.”
None of us will admit to suggesting that we should check for progress by opening the pressure valve, but it must have seemed like a good idea at the time.
The purple fountain was magnificent. I can see it to this day: a blinding eruption that seemed to fill the kitchen, instantly painting the walls and ceiling a fetching and indelible shade of purple. Wikipedia lists over twenty shades of the color, but none of them come close to the blackberry-and-apple of my youth.
I would like to remember that we danced around the spouting geyser like Macbeth’s three witches, chanting:
Double, double, toil and trouble;
Walls and ceiling shall be purple!
But I suspect the reality is we were so horrified by what we had done that running away from home seemed like the only option. We didn’t, of course.

© Andrew Ball

Falling Light by Debbie Robson

It was a spring day that I first remember seeing those paper-thin aircraft more bicycle with wings and struts, than a plane. I could hear the birds in the trees on the road leading to the battle and then the buzzing of the flying machines as they fluttered overhead. I had been assigned to collect those who fell in the trenches or who lay sprawled out, a tangled mess, in the wasteland. I was not assigned to the sky although I longed to be - to fly up closer to all that was familiar; to guide from a spinning wreck the soul in my charge, was a longing that I couldn’t explain.
Perhaps because it was quieter up there. The planes sometimes fired at each other but mostly they mapped the terrain below. I heard a soldier say one morning. “The Saints are on reconnaissance again.” The Saints. I wondered who they were that particular day when the guns had stilled and all those who cried out were not yet ready for my services.
One of my confreres told me it was difficult to reach a man’s soul in a tangled wreck. I didn’t understand why, but he explained it was because of the meeting of two elements - earth and sky. Easier to lead a soul from one or the other. Even from a burning plane gyrating in the clouds. But I was grounded with dying soldiers. Germans, British and Australians I am guessing now. In those days I didn’t know the difference.
Thirty-one years later and almost as long in exile, I yearn to be in the sky again. Just one soul to be saved is all that I want. Otherwise why am I here driving a cab around in Sydney? It is a question I ask constantly. And then it happens just before sunset on a glorious spring day. I am driving towards Ultimo when I notice the sky is filled with smoke the length of a whole city block.
I manage to park my cab nearby, grab a blanket from the back seat and run to the source of the smoke. And there they are. Five women trapped on the third and fourth floors of a distinctive brick building on Broadway. Two are huddled near the top of the fire brigade’s ladder and will be rescued soon. Somehow they have managed to climb out of the window and are sitting on a small parapet, leaning against each other. I scan the rest of the building. There are two other women nearby. One still behind glass looking out, obviously not ready to clamber through the window. The other woman has managed to open hers and is leaning towards the firemen.
But it is the fifth woman I am worried about. She is on the floor above and on the opposite side of the building to where the ladder has been placed. I watch the fireman reach the two women closest to the ladder. They are helped down by several other firefighters. In minutes the other two will be rescued. Crowds push against me as we all stand together, looking up. I move away from them to stand directly below the woman on her own.
From this distance I can’t see the fear on her face but I know she is alarmed. The smoke is getting worse and with something heavy she smashes the window into empty space. As she climbs out onto the ledge I catch a glimpse of orange.
It is the sun catching the windows of the building I think and move a few steps closer. I glance at the firefighters but they are still leading the last of the four women down the ladder. And then I feel the knowledge flood me. She is not going to wait. As she jumps she is falling light. I’m sure that for a moment my feet did leave the ground as my body flew up to meet hers, throwing the blanket around her to break her fall.
A fireman rushes over and then, as I slowly unwrap the blanket, I notice that her white dress has been burnt and she is half cinders and the rest bleeding skin. An ambulance officer crouches by her side and checks her pulse.
“She’s still alive,” he yells and another man brings a stretcher. “We’ll take her to St Vincent’s.”
I stand up and know immediately that an angel is by my side.
There is a terrible pause.
“Why did you interfere? I came to guide her.” he says.
“I wanted to help.”
“You have saved her body but not her soul.”
“You have simply delayed the inevitable and caused more suffering.”
I am appalled. “I didn’t know that the fire had reached her. Only that she was going to jump.”
“And now she won’t have the heart to live.”
And neither did I for months afterwards.

© Debbie Robson

Ballroom Dancer by Felicity Edwards

Ok, so I’m only a minor celebrity in the TV world, but when the call came from my agent asking if I would like to go on Strictly Come Dancing, without thinking, I said yes. I had never danced in my life. I was sure that standing waving my hands and bobbing up and down while music blared did not count as dance in the proper sense of the word. Our first day of rehearsals dawned, I arrived early in my usual state of anxiety. Thinking. “What have I done? Here I am sitting in the rehearsal room, it is huge with mirrors all around and it is freezing and I am shivering. Is it cold? Or fear? Or both?”
My professional dance partner/trainer opened the door with a smile. To me, it looked more like a wolfish grin. He entered and walked towards me with the grace of a panther. I watched, mesmerised as he came towards me, feeling rather like a rabbit in the headlights. I knew I should have said no months ago when Libby, my agent, phoned, but I had this vision of me dancing in a long, floaty, glittering outfit, wearing those impossibly high heels in the arms of a dark, handsome man spinning me around the ballroom floor.
Well, I had the dark, handsome man right there, but whether I’d be spinning was anyone's business.
This is what happened.
His hand was outstretched. “Hi Belinda, so pleased to meet you. I’m Christoforos, but please call me Chris, it’s easier not such a mouthful.”
I beamed at him, thinking, ‘Great, I’m going to have this Greek god teach me how to move my two left feet in a dance!’
He rubbed his hands together. “We better get going. It’s so cold in here and the only way we will warm up is to dance.”
I nodded my head, yes to anything, to be here is an experience in itself.
He continued. “This week, we’re doing the Jive. It’s fast, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll find it quite easy.”
I looked at him dubiously. I wanted to please this dancing god who had deigned to leave Mount Olympus and stoop low enough to teach me. So all I did was meekly nod my head. “You’re in for a tough time. I’m useless at dancing.”
Those white teeth flashed, not in a growl but a beatific smile. “Nonsense, everyone who comes on the show has a non-dance background, you will find your dance feet quickly, I promise you.”
Soon we were jumping up and down and yes, he twirled me around. I was happy about the lack of heating in the room since it took no time before I was pouring sweat. We rehearsed for hours. I thought my body would object to this hectic work, but suddenly I found my second wind.
Chris smiled. “Yes, that’s better. You’re getting the feeling for the movement. Tomorrow we’ll concentrate on the technique.”
The week went on with long hours of practice interspersed with trips to the dressmakers’ rooms in the basement. That was like visiting Aladdin’s Cave. There were garments in all stages of construction, some so close to finishing I could fill in the missing bits and get the idea, but some just looked like strangely shaped bits of cloth.
On Friday, we went along to the main stage to have a run-through of our dance in the space we would compete in the next day.
I could not believe it, but my Greek god had choreographed a routine, taught me, left-footed me, to dance. The costumes fitted perfectly. We stood on the floor, ready to perform. The blood was pounding in my ears, then I realised it was our music, my body took over and we DANCED!
Afterward, the judges talked to us. Then we went upstairs. I was in a dream state, as all the others greeted us. Soon after, the scores were in. Then I knew I’d learn how bad I was. But no, there was cheering. We had scored a healthy 33!
My first dance proved I was wrong. I could dance. Now I wanted to stay in the competition as long as possible, provided Chris could perform his magic. Yes, I got to do an American Smooth with a lovely floaty dress in hold with my personal Greek god and I loved it.
We only reached the semi-finals, but I can ballroom dance. That is something I thought would never happen. Now all I have to do is adjust to ordinary guys, not a Greek god dancing with me. Whatever happens from now on, I know I am a reasonably good dancer. I proved it to myself. So much for all those fears at the start of this journey. They were all unfounded.

© Felicity Edwards

After the Last Guest Left by Barbara Zapson

Susan was very curious about the romantic relationships of some of her friends. After all, they couldn’t all be perfect! So, she decided to have a “hen party” and invite five of her closest friends, all of whom were in such relationships.
There was Jane, very proudly married to a cardiologist, who spent many hours in the evening out of their home, reading EKG’s; Mary, whose partner, Theresa, traveled for business; Linda, with four small children, always too exhausted to even spend an evening on the town with her husband, or have sex; Peggy, all aglow in her third marriage; and Liz, about to be wed after a six year engagement.
The only thing these women had in common (other than having perfect relationships with perfect partners) was that they were all in their late 50’s and every one of them gloriously happy in the connection they had with their significant others.
The women all knew each other, but were not “friends”, per se. The one common denominator was Susan, who was a good friend to each of them individually, but none would be termed an intimate, “best” friend, who revealed to her their innermost secrets. Thus, Susan was really curious about what made their relationships tick, as she couldn’t seem to make even one work!
After a few glasses of wine, the women appeared to relax and pair off with one another, settling down on the very comfortable chairs and couch, speaking low, often laughing and, after a while, one or two seemingly on the verge of tears. Susan served coffee and tea (decaf, of course) and delicious cake at about midnight.
After many goodbyes (some with a little uneasiness about seeing each other again and others actually spawning new friendships), Susan’s guests left. She cleaned up the dishes, put away the coffee, cake and tea and vacuumed the living-room. Then, with a glass of wine in hand, soft music playing, Susan settled down on the very comfortable couch to listen to the tapes unwittingly made by her friends, on recorders, which had been placed under each plush pillow.

© Barbara Zapson

Beta Testing by Stephen Hosking

Thank you for choosing the Human Condition™. At BioCloud Industries we understand you have a wide range of potential entertainment systems available to you and we appreciate your custom.
You have selected ‘beginner.’ Is this correct?
A wise choice if this is your first time experimenting. Please note gameplay is adaptive, meaning difficulty will increase the more proficient you become.
Let me give you a moment to orientate yourself. Enjoy your physical form, especially your legs and your teeth. You’ll understand later. I should also warn you the experience is utterly immersive: as time passes memories of your current life will fade leaving only a nagging sense of some indefinable creative power. Your fellow gamers call this religion. Or spiritualism. Or sometimes just “being really baked.”
Yes, those are your genitals. No, you won’t go blind. You’ll enjoy them later, everyone else seems to, one of the big hits amongst seasoned veterans. Someone got promoted for that before they realised users became consumed with insecurity rather than just enjoying them. Not big enough. Not sufficiently aesthetically pleasing. The wrong shape. Too late once you’re up the ladder sipping that corporate champagne. Someone else can take the fall for implementation failures.
Can you leave those alone and pay attention to me? One hint: our leader board is filled with people who choose their own criteria for victory rather than someone else’s. If winning’s important to you.
So, the middle of the tutorial. Childhood is the first stage, which is mostly fun. There’ll be plenty of crying, and other fluids too, but the scars shouldn’t run deep unless you’re very unfortunate. There’re a number of bugs we’re looking to fix. But you know that. You replied to the ad.
Then comes adolescence. Still got those genitals? Good. More insecurity, more fluids. First heartbreak is pretty rough, more crying I’m afraid, but lots of fun stuff to go with it. And the energy. You won’t realise it at the time but feeling energetic, healthy and excited by things is about as good as it gets later and that’s the default setting for 16-30. It’s great knowing with absolute certainty that you’re right about everything too. Some people manage to hold on to that one to the very end of the game.
Anyway, next you grow up and it’s all about choice. Choose a career, relationship, or none, or multiples of each (careful) and get into the rhythm of the thing. Choose to get fitter or fatter, smarter or stupider, happier or more lachrymose. There are big choices and little ones, and all the while you lose energy, but you mind about things a lot less, which is a relief in itself. Most of the time you’re sort of numb and on autopilot. It’s weirdly pleasant.
What do you mean, ‘is this a popular game?’ I’m going to ignore that. The best is yet to come, anyway. Old age is the last level. When you get there, you’re allowed to be rude to everyone. That’s right. Everyone. And people treat you with respect whether you deserve it or not, and you’re allowed to stay in your dressing gown all day and drink gin. I designed that bit. I’m not one to brag, but given corporate’s bloody restrictions I worked miracles.
There are loads of bugs, obviously. We’ve tried our best to patch them; universal healthcare, technology to predict natural disasters, warmer temperatures, but they’re not taking in many places. Besides, most of the bugs seem to be caused by other gamers rather than the mainframe. Just write down anything you have feedback on.
I’ll leave you to figure out the rest of the controls. Try to have fun without hurting anyone else otherwise the marshals will remove you. Hm? Oh, it’s not pleasant, put it that way. Remember, behind each avatar is a living being.
Any questions? What would I do? Try to win the very first round – sort of a fastest finger first deal – that’s coming next. If you don’t it’ll be a short game and you have to go through the tutorial all over again.
Good luck!

© Stephen Hosking