‘The Stone Men of Newcastle’ by Daniel Hinds

‘A certain faultless, matchless, deathless line,
Curving consummate.’ 

Arthur O’Shaughnessy, The Line of Beauty

I cast a stone into a pool;
These lines are the ripples that curve

The lines of beauty that draw the shape 
Of dead and lingering men.

The mundane and unmoving ghosts
Of a commuter’s careless glance.

Every man a new stone block
In our old castle, holding in his last death grip

His own exceptionalism.

Our daily walk’s bulwark to stem the slow
Erosion of the past’s last bastions.

Unruined Ozymandiases, buried in tides of flesh,
Not sand – the remorseful gods of a living city.

Stone blocks blocked from worship by buses
And bypassers and self-centred screenglow;

The rainstorm of crowds and modernity.
With every watery libation you grow less. 

Is this the afterlife you would have chosen?
Yourselves, your own Purgatorial mountains. 

You are the stone and unexploded shells
Of some vast dark ocean.

I see you. From your stone eyes see me,
And one day I too will wear the mask of clay.

Clay was our first flesh; let us return to it.

Meet the Poet

Daniel Hinds lives in Newcastle. He won the Poetry Society’s Timothy Corsellis Young Critics Prize. His poetry was commended in the National Centre for Writing’s UEA New Forms Award and has been published, or is forthcoming, in The London MagazineThe New EuropeanWild CourtStandSouthwordPoetry Salzburg ReviewBlackbox ManifoldThe Honest UlstermanPerverseFinished Creatures, and elsewhere. He was commissioned by New Creatives, a talent development scheme supported by Arts Council England and BBC Arts and delivered by Tyneside Cinema, to produce an audio piece based on his poetic sequence The Stone Men of Newcastle. Twitter: @DanielGHinds  

Mum (A Phenomenal Woman) by Nikola Veselá

I want to thank you for your brightest smile 
that showed me
how you sacrificed your dreams
so that I can pursue mine.
I want to apologize for calling you pretty
before calling you brave or smart
because your mind
is the most beautiful piece of art.

A Note from the Editor

I often use creative writing in my English Language classes to improve my students’ understanding and feel for the language. Needless to say, they always rise to the challenge, but every now and again, you encounter a rare talent that leaves you speechless. Nikola Veselá is such a talent. She wrote this poem last year when she was only 14.

We had planned to share this piece to wish women around the world Happy International Women’s Day and Happy Mother’s Day. Now, just a country away, Ukraine is being torn apart by war. Women and girls are being impacted. Teenagers the same age as Nikola. Women the same age as you, as your sister, mother, niece, daughter…

If you can, it would be wonderful if you could donate to the United Nations Population Fund, which is particularly focused on helping endangered women and girls in Ukraine. You can find out more (and donate!) here.

Meet the Poet

Nikola Veselá is a student at Pražské humanitní gymnázium in Prague. She is an avid reader, and her specialist subject is Jane Austen.

‘Passing’ by Nick Young

Marla folded the last of the towels and slipped them inside a large plastic shopping bag she kept for her trips to the laundromat.  She was happy to be leaving.  The building, squat, gray cinderblock, was poorly lit, with constant noise from the machines and the smell of accumulated lint and fabric softener.  Inside her car, Marla sat with her eyes closed for a moment, relishing the quiet.  She really did hate the place.  She looked up at the sign with half its neon winking on and off.  The Suds-a-teria.  What kind of stupid name was that, anyway?  

On her way home, Marla stopped at  the Dollar Bonanza for a couple of frozen beef pot pies and a two-liter bottle of cola.  She bought the store brand.  It was thirty cents cheaper than Coke or Pepsi.  And there was a deal on the pot pies — buy one, second one for half price.  

“And a pack of Tareytons,” Marla told the cashier. “Toss in a book of matches, too.”

“Don’t give them out anymore,” the bored teenager with pink hair and lime green nail polish replied.

“No more matches?”

“Management says it’s too expensive.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Marla said disgustedly,  gathering her change and groceries.  

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” mumbled the girl.

“It’s hard to believe they’re that damned cheap,” Marla fumed,  getting back into her car and switching on the radio.  As she pulled out of the parking lot onto North Auburn Avenue, a song by Blondie started playing, so she turned it up began to sing along:

“The tide is high but I’m holdin’ on.”

Yeah, by my fingernails.

At thirty-seven, Marla Sloan’s life had shrunk in on itself, curling and contracting until its lines demarcated very little beyond the city limits of Emmitsburg, Illinois, population 1,100.  Divorced for two years, she had an on again-off again boyfriend,  a job at a local plant stamping out parts for small engines, and she had her mother.  It wasn’t disappointment that she felt.  Her dreams had never really exceeded her grasp.  Rather, it was resignation, no different than many of her girlfriends.

In the driveway of the tiny two-bedroom frame house she shared with her mother, Marla took her groceries and bag of laundry, slid out of the car and nudged the door closed with her hip.  A light rain had just begun falling, so she hurried up the front porch steps and into the house.

“‘Bout time, where have ya been?” called a shrill voice from across the living room.

“And a very good evening to you, too, Lois.”

“You’re late.”  Lois Sloan, at the age of sixty-six, was the picture of a woman who had stopped caring years before and let herself go.  She was obese, her legs swollen and barely useful.  Her face was round and severe, framed by stringy yellowed-gray hair.  Her rheumy blue eyes, too small for her face, were puffy with fat.  She was reclining on the sofa, the TV blasting at top volume.  The coffee table next to the couch was cluttered with an array of prescription bottles, inhalers and a half-filled ashtray.

“I had to finish the clothes and stop at the store.”

“You bring me my cigarettes?”

“Yes, Lois.”

“And what about pot pies?”

“Yes, Lois,” her voice rising above the din.  “I got your pot pies.  If you’ll give me two seconds, I’ll put them in the oven.”

“Good, because I am star-ving,” Lois replied, taking the fresh pack of cigarettes from her daughter.  Marla eyed the blaring television with annoyance, picked up the remote and turned it down.

“Any reason you’ve got to have this up so loud half the county can hear it? Your hearing aids are on the table again.  Why aren’t they in your ears?”

“I don’t like them,” Lois said peevishly. “They feel like little bugs crawling around in there.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.”.

“Just take care of them pot pies.”  Marla rolled her eyes and walked away.

An hour later, she had her mother’s dinner ready, both of the pot pies and a large glass of cola on a wooden tray that she placed on her mother’s lap.  

“You forgot the Worcestershire sauce,” Lois complained, stubbing out a cigarette.

“Alright, sorry,” Marla said, restrieving a bottle from the refrigerator.  Dousing the pies was one of the peculiarities of her mother’s eating habits.  So after vigorously shaking out a puddle of the sauce, Lois took up her fork  and went to work.  She noticed that her daughter had changed into fresh clothes, let her hair down and added makeup.

“You ain’t having supper with me?” she asked between bites.

“Not tonight.  Jerry and I are going to grab a drink.”

“Thought you two were done.”  Marla sighed.

“No.  Just another lull in the action.”

“Well, I hope you won’t be late.  I may need help with an enema later.”

“I’ll be counting the minutes.”

Marla Sloan was an attractive woman.  The years had  not erased the best features of her angular face and smooth olive skin.  She prided herself on still being able to squeeze into size four jeans.  And her long chestnut hair had yet to show any grey.  Since the breakup of her marriage, she had dated sporadically, settling into what passed for a relationship with Jerry Dyer, who lived just outside Emmitsburg and delivered for FedEx.  He was forty, a good-looking man just beginning to sport the first signs of middle age.  The two had met on a blind date set up by one of Marla’s friends from the parts plant.  

They shared divorce in common, and for the most part they got along well.  They weren’t partiers,  preferring carry-out pizza and watching old movies to the bar scene.  The sex wasn’t always great, but it was good enough.  Jerry wanted a deeper commitment, but Marla wasn’t able to go there, and not because her heart wouldn’t let her.

“I can tell she was giving you a hard time again, wasn’t she?” he said as he and Marla nursed beers at Town’s Pub.

“No different today than any other, really, except I was tired.  A long week, you know?”

“Tell me about it.  Brownie was busting my chops over a couple of late deliveries.  Came pretty near to telling him to go fuck himself.”  They drank in silence for a long moment before Jerry began with some hesitancy.  “I’ve never asked, and you’ve never said how your mom ended like she has.”

“You mean being such a bitch?” Marla said with a smirk.  “Well, I guess it’s an old story, really.  She grew up here in Emmitsburg.  Not much to say about her early years  — she was an only child.  Decent parents, though I have no real memory of either one of them.  When she got a little older, in junior high I guess, she started singing in the chorus and that got her started dreaming.  Big dreams,  moving to Chicago and becoming a singer with a big band.  From what people who were around then say, she had real talent, a good voice and good looks to match.  But she never got the chance to leave .  When she was a senior, she started seeing this older guy, and no sooner had she graduated than she got pregnant with my brother.   So the big city and stardom went out the window.  She got a job in the old air compressor factory when it was here, and she settled with her husband.  Two years after John was born I came along.  A year  after that, the old man took off for parts unknown, and Lois was really stuck.  She had two raise two kids by herself — she never remarried — and life just ground her down.  A few years ago her health problems really started getting bad.  And so here we are.  A happy tale, isn’t it?”

“But why does she have to beat up on you?  I mean, you’re the one taking care of her.”

“Which means I’m the one who’s around.  Who else is she going to take it out on?”  

“What about your brother?”

“John?” Marla replied derisively. “He could care less.  Hasn’t spoken to her in years.  When she had her heart attack a year-and-a-half ago, I  called him.  He lives in Louisiana.  Works on an oil rig out in the Gulf.  Anyway, he asked why I was bothering him and told me he didn’t want to know any more about her.   Ever..

“Jesus, his own mother.”

“Well, yeah, his own mother, but she wasn’t much of one when he was a kid.  He was older.  He was the one she blamed for destroying her dreams, so he was in the bullseye, you know?”  Jerry reached across the table and took Marla’s hands in his, gently rubbing her knuckles.

“Look,” he said gently, “you could really use a break.  Why don’t we get something to eat and go back to my place, watch a movie?”  He winked at her. “Maybe you could stay late, and we could fool around.”  She smiled, but it quickly faded.

“I’d like to, Jerry, I really would, but I can’t tonight.”  She looked away for a moment.  “She may need my help later.  I don’t have to go into the gory details, but she’s got something going on with her digestive system.  ‘Nuff said.”  Now it was Jerry’s turn to seek out a deep corner of the bar with his eyes.  “I know it frustrates you,” Marla went on softly, squeezing his hands.  “I get that, but I’m all she’s got now.  I can’t turn my back no matter how much bitchiness she throws at me.  So let’s get some supper, and I’ll take a rain check on the rest.”

By the time Marla returned home it was a little after nine and the light rain had moved on.  As she reached the door, her annoyance returned immediately at the sound of the television going full blast.

“What did I say about the TV, Lois?” Marla shouted as she stepped inside.  Her mother, sitting in the same spot as when she left, said nothing, did not move.  Marla sensed something wasn’t right and quickly crossed to the sofa.  She seized the remote and shut the TV off.  “Lois?  Are you okay?”  But Marla knew her mother was in  trouble. She wasn’t moving, her eyes were glassy and the right side of her face drooped.   Marla called  9-1-1.

The EMT”s confirmed her suspicion:  Lois had had a stroke.  At the town’s hospital, the emergency room doctor ran a battery of tests then ordered a special medical helicopter flight to the nearest trauma center in Springfield.  It was an hour’s drive, so as soon as the chopper left, so did Marla.  By the time she arrived,  the ER team had evaluated Lois and moved her into the intensive care unit.  The news was not good.

“Your mother has had a massive stroke,” the examining neurologist told Marla.  “The next few hours are critical.  By morning, we should have a clearer picture of where this is going.”  

There was nothing to do but wait, so Marla  took the most comfortable chair she could find in the visitor’s lounge, curled up and dozed through the long night.

In the morning, nothing had changed.  The doctor treating Lois wasn’t due for another hour, enough time for Marla to get caffeine from the hospital cafeteria and try to clear her head.  She returned to the ICU lounge, sat and sipped her coffee.

This is it.  She is going to die.  She’s not coming out of this.  How am I supposed to feel?  Overwhelmed with grief?  Regret?  Guilt?

She did not have to struggle with the answers; they were clear, and she felt no shame.  

When the neurologist arrived, his evaluation was what Marla had been expecting:  there was no brainwave activity, no hope for recovery.  There was only one thing left to do.  Marla had power of attorney, so she instructed that her mother be removed from life support, and within an hour it was over.

Lois’ body was transported back to Emmitsburg, and Marla made the arrangements at Wannamaker’s Funeral Home.   Her mother would be cremated on Tuesday, with a brief service at the funeral home on Wednesday.

Marla went back to work at the start of the week.  She didn’t tell any of her co-workers Lois had died.  She asked her boss for Wednesday off and rquested that he keep the reason to himself.    Jerry was very sympathetic and did his best to be supportive.  He told Marla he would take the day of the funeral off.  She told him it wasn’t necessary.  She didn’t bother to call her brother.

Wednesday morning was bright and cloudless, pleasantly warm for early May.  Marla was at Wannamaker’s promptly at ten o’clock.  She was the only one who came.  There was no minister; neither Lois nor Marla had any religious inclinations.  So, with Lois’ ashes in a plain cedar box with a single lily in a cut-glass vase on a table by his side, Fred Wannamaker read a few words from a three-by-five csrd designed to soothe those who grieved, had there been any in the room. 

Within a few minutes it was done.  Marla thanked Fred, who seemed abashed by the bland pieties he had uttered.  He smiled wanly as he handed the urn to Marla and told her how much he appreciated being entrusted with the care of her mother’s remains..  She knew he was just trying to be nice so she refrained from reminding him that because his was the only funeral home in town, there was nowhere else to go.

So that was that.  Lois had been given a proper sendoff,  such as it was.  She had made no provision for her death — no cemetery plot, no headstone.  It wasn’t a subject she would even discuss, though Marla had tried a time of two..

Back home, Marla carried the urn  inside the house.  She glanced around, noting how quiet it was in the absence of the blaring television and how the smell of stale cigarettes and the sickly sweet-sour odor of her ailing, overweight mother had begun to dissipate.   She drew a deep breath, walked down the hallway to what had been  Lois’ bedroom.  There was a small closet.  She opened it, lifted the urn onto an overhead shelf, shut the door and walked out.

Meet the Author

Nick Young is a retired award-winning CBS News Correspondent.  His writing has appeared in the San Antonio Review, Samjoko Magazine, Short Story Town, Danse Macabre Magazine, Pigeon Review, CafeLit Magazine, the Green Silk Journal, Typeslash Review, The Potato Soup Journal, 50-Word Stories, Sein und Werden, Of Rust and Glass, Little Death Lit, Flyover Magazine,, Sandpiper, Fiery Scribe Review, The Chamber  Magazine and Vols. I and II of the Writer Shed Stories anthologies.

‘Living Ink’ by Sarah James

I come round from my faint less than half-way
through the moment being marked into my skin.
The tattooist yawns and passes me a glass of water;
my younger sister squeezes my hand and steadies me
with her calmness, as she did during my long labour.

Bicycle falls scar my knees but that c-section
was my first scalpel and stitching. My sister’s braced
me through the worst cuts, even a forked lifeline
on my palm from a red wine bottle that smashed
on Gran’s stone floor when I was still a toddler.

Although I’m older, she’s lived far more than me,
is armed with a small collection of inked charms.
The tattooist revs up his machine again, scrapes pain into
(and out of?) my left shoulder bared to the sharp
100-watt light and hot room, tightening around us.

I’ve asked for a tawny owl on a moonlit branch
fleshed with green leaves – wisdom, flight and hope
that hasn’t rotted or broken away from the tree.
Wings that haven’t lost their wide span
or feathered grace, but can, in a single heartbeat,

reach across the ocean now between us.

Meet the Poet

Sarah James is a prize-winning poet, fiction writer, journalist and photographer. Winner of the Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine 2020 and CP Aware Award Prize for Poetry 2021, her collection Blood Sugar, Sex, Magic is forthcoming in 2022. Website: http://www.sarah-james.co.uk. She also runs V. Press, publishing poetry and flash fiction.

‘Stella’ by Daniel Schulz

I don’t like being served. Had you asked me that evening, if I wanted a cup of tea, I would have shuddered. Yet, here I was, paying up front for service. Coming toward me, she pulled my shorts down and put them on the chair. Usually, women like her don’t do anything like this. Usually, they wait for you to get undressed and ask you what you would like to do. But she… she touched me with a tenderness that I seldom felt before and kissed my shoulders, exactly where it hurt. I closed my eyes as if inhabiting a dream, as I couldn’t bear the reality: she was kind to me. I didn’t ask her to be that. Nonetheless she just was… Of course, you’re going to say something else afterwards, when you meet your friends. That you fucked her hard for one long round. That, after all, is what is expected of you. But I am not at all interested in fulfilling expectations. That has never been my thing. When women look me in the eye they become afraid, because they can see the loneliness inside of me. She sees its, too. That’s how she earns her money.

She was from the Shengen Area, she told me later in the hour, from Romania to be exact, but had lived in Albania before she came to Germany. – “Men treat women differently there,” she explained, “They beat them wholeheartedly. I once lived next to a man who killed his wife with a kitchen knife. Believe me, if I had stayed there, I would have gone crazy. I was afraid for my life. I mean, you don’t want to know what I read in the papers today.”

In her former resident country, as it turns out, a mad man wanted to blow himself up in a train station because his wife had left him. He wanted to hurt as many people as possible, especially women. The paper was the equivalent to the Daily Sun or Der Express. She, obviously, was glad to live in Germany. My eyes wandered up to her beautiful lashes. Something was hurting deep inside. I believe it was my heart, if, indeed, a heart feels like that. A heart beats, right? Like a fist, right? Something inside me was breaking. One of my hands was clenching the sheets, while the other slowly stroked the handsome unshaved fuzz of her thighs, while she smoked. Emotions were surfacing. But I remained still, as if I wasn’t feeling anything. If I remained still my feelings would perhaps ignore me.

– “How do you manage working here?” I asked.

Stella shrugged, “I don’t know. I don’t think about it. I just switch off. If I thought about what I’m doing here,” she confessed, “I’d just as likely go crazy. But I’m not going to stay here forever. In four years or so, I’m out.” – Stella, it seems, was determined to make her fortune here, in Germany. She wouldn’t be working in this locale forever. As soon as she had enough money, she was going to start her own business. – “I’ve got a great idea and the brains to make it work,” she smiled. I could feel my lips stretch, feel myself smiling back to her. Deep inside my heart, I knew that I wished her all the best.

Outside the night had become cold and lonely. I could see my own breath in front of me like a path that I would eventually have to follow. You think you know yourself? You don’t. Looking out into the darkness, I could feel something else catching up to me. I could hear my heart beating in my chest like a fist. Somewhere in the back of my head my mother was screaming. Somewhere in the back of my head my father was beating the shit out of her. Hands clenched. BREATHE. Such is the matter of memories… Maybe Stella was right. Women are treated better in this country… Hear the sirens howling in the background: An Audi at the crossing in front of me is honking at the car in front of – him? An ambulance is rushing past. Asking his friend, a man standing at the traffic light says: “What is up with that guy? Is he stupid? Why is he honking? Can’t he see an ambulance is passing?” – “No, look,” the other guy answers, “It’s a woman.’”–

While the sirens passed, I thought about the irony that in 2019 it is still a crime equivalent to manslaughter for a driver to pass by a car accident and ignore it, while it had been made law for ship captains in the Mediterranean not to save refugees drowning in the ocean. They weren’t supposed to get through the Schengen Area, after all. 

Only recently, a friend had called out against mere deportation of immigrants. She was talking about Freiburg, where a group of men, mostly immigrants but also some Germans, had raped a woman. She commented that deporting the rapists, as some people demanded should be done, would not make them vanish from the earth. Deportation wasn’t the answer she said. What about the girls and women in those other countries? And where was the justice in sending these criminals away instead of prison? – I looked through the shit storm she was confronted with, the many rape threats sent to her Twitter account precisely because she was concerned with actual justice. – “You’re right,” one of the agitators wrote, before he got censored “We should assimilate rapists and serial killers from other countries into our own. We, at least, could help them resocialize… we could train them in our brothels, let them rape all the Bulgarian and Romanian girls there, train them to loose their inhibitions. You could even offer yourself up to them, do your country a service.” – No one was thinking about the fact that they might be talking to someone who had once been raped. No one cared about who they were hurting or how they were hurting her. And if they did, it was all the more gruesome.

I tried to close my eyes that night, but that didn’t work. Every time I closed them shut, images surfaced, as if unlocked from within the depth of the dark surrounding me. And I could hear my heart beating from the bottom of that very depth. I could hear it beating. Him beating her. My mother screaming. He was kicking her stomach, when she was down on the floor. I thought of my friend, about how I held her in my arms, after she told me she had been raped. And I thought about Stella, brilliant, genius Stella… It wasn’t until my fist hit the wall that I realized it wasn’t just my heart beating. It wasn’t until my fist hit the wall that I realized that it wasn’t my mother screaming from the depth of her heart but me from the depth of an abyss within me. Something was breaking out. I could hear my neighbors pounding against the walls, asking me to be quiet, asking me to go back to sleep, asking me to see reason. But the more my demons howled at me, the harder my fists clenched themselves tight. Maybe women in this country are treated better. But maybe, just maybe better isn’t good enough. Sanity, after all, is nothing but a status quo.

Meet the Author

Daniel Schulz is a U.S.-German author based in Cologne. He is best known for his short story collection Schrei (Formidabel 2016) and his work as curator of the Kathy Acker Reading Room at the University of Cologne. In 2019 he co-organized and curated an exhibition for the Goethe Institute in Seattle for which he edited the book Kathy Acker in Seattle (Misfit Lit 2020). He also worked as co-editor of Gender Forum‘s special edition Kathy Acker: Portrait of an Eye/I (2019). His works have appeared in the journals Der Federkiel, Luftruinen, Die Novelle, The Transnational, Electronic Book Review, Mirage #5, Gender Forum, Fragmented Voices, Divanova, Kunst-Kultur-Literatur Magazin, Versification, Salut L‘absurde, Café Irreal and Cacti Fur as well as the anthologies Tin Soldier (Sarturia 2020), Corona -Schnee (Salon29 2021), Jahrbuch der Poesie 2021 (AG Literatur 2021) and Home (Fragmented Voices 2021).  Instagram: @danielschulzpoet

‘New flat’ by Matt Nicholson

Unpack the colours, sounds, and sheets that make a home. 

Start with red, closest to fury. Let fingers swim in the blood that’s here, memories of every man, box-camera pics of skinned knees and body-ease. Lipsticks, clumped, made from the same powdered beetles that roam vacant minds, unused for months – more trouble than they’re worth. 

Blue is spilling from somewhere – there one minute, not there before – from bruises and poor circulation, from Granny’s calf and mascara – more trouble than they’re worth. 

Yellows are tickets on the sky, promising bargains, old men who can’t leave the Thunderbird alone in the mornings, who stumble into pews in sunlight through cold clouds of ammonia and old glass. 

Only one sound to find a place for, sob mixed with sigh. Wrap it in the best bedlinen, tie the sheets in knots.

Meet the Poet

Matt Nicholson is a poet and performer from Yorkshire’s East Riding, in the cultural glare from the City of Hull. He is widely published and commissioned, most recently By The Humber Mouth Festival, and has performed all over the UK. He writes poems that are sometimes dark and sinister, sometimes tender and moving, but always very honest.

‘A Lot on One Plate’ by Moira Garland

This afternoon the golden retriever lies on its side, all four legs jutting out from the sagging settee so that Bridget cannot sit down. She stands at her kitchen window, next to the three-day old pile of dirty plates, cups, pans, knives forks. The plate on the top of the stack on the drainer has what she calls deep-blue-swirly patterns on a creamy background, dotted with a few small patches of dried soil, and what might be the remains of a slater.

She looks out at the handkerchief-sized garden fronting her ground floor flat. Through her grey net curtain she peers at local children in small groups passing near her window laughing, shouting, or running. Years ago she’d see the milkman coming for his money on a Tuesday. Yesterday, like so many days, two PCSOs strolled along their heads turning this way and that, their yellow chests like pumped up balloons.

Who would throw away a perfectly good plate and hide it at the base of her privet hedge? And why?

Ryan’s dad is a chef. Well, he was a chef thinks Ryan, but he still likes to practise. 

“I was actually a pâtissier.” Ryan’s dad says, more often than Ryan would like even though Ryan doesn’t live with him. He lives with his mum about half an hour away on the bus. Ryan’s nan lives near her son, Ryan’s dad, and keeps an eye on both of them from her third floor flat which she doesn’t often leave on account of her bad hip. She has 1348 Friends on Facebook.

On this cold Saturday morning Ryan is visiting his dad. His dad is galvanised, showing Ryan how he makes chocolate eclairs. It is nearly dinnertime by the time they are made and ready for Ryan to take to his nan. They are her favourite cakes, keep her healthy. 

“Your nan has always been dainty, Ryan.” 

His dad says this every time Ryan visits. Fourteen year old Ryan now believes that ‘dainty’ meana a woman who fills her recliner and has legs like elephant trunks. This morning ‘dainty’ heralds Ryan’s dad piling chocolate eclairs on a blue and cream plate, wrapped in foil to go to his nan’s. Ryan is hungry so on the way he sits on a backless bench by the playground and eats three of the eclairs. Ryan feels a right prat carefully holding the plate and eclairs. As he passes one of the flats he ditches the plate, stuffs it down between the hedge and the disintegrating fence. A splinter lodges in his middle finger, which is uncomfortable. He easily holds the foil-wrapped package in one hand. Anyone who sees him might think it is drugs. He meets no one. He smells burgers cooking through an open window.

Homes under the Hammer has finished when there’s a knock, knock, knock on the opaque glass of Pauline’s door. Ryan’s on his way with eclairs explained the text so she heaves her weight up with the metal stick the hospital gave her last year while she waits for the operation. Tap, thump, thump to unlock the door. You have to be careful these days who you open the door to says the email from the bobbies. There’s enough light coming through to show the familiar shape of Ryan.

“Don’t take your jacket off, get down the chippy. My usual and whatever you want. She hands over her card. Thirty from the machine, love. And bring me the change.”

Ryan must have slipped out when Pauline dozed off. They’d polished off the fish, chips, peas and butties. With cream oozing out of the squashed eclairs Pauline thought Chris should have wrapped them more carefully, him being a chef and all. Still they tasted good. 

Lodged back in her chair Pauline remembers when she was fourteen already living in this same flat with her mam, her dad long gone. Her mam was dead pleased to get on this new estate, out of the old back-to-backs they’d pulled down. Pauline was looking forward to leaving school the next year. She’d get a job in the cosmetics factory where her mum worked. Pauline wasn’t sure she liked that they called it Soapy Joes, but you could get discounts on things like shampoo if you worked there. Pauline’s best friend Irene started there with her. ‘Course Irene went downhill fast last year. She misses her. She misses laughing at Mrs Brown’s Boys with her, misses holding on to Irene’s arm when they walked to the bus stop and had a cup of tea in the caff near the bus station.

Next to the railway station in the city centre stands the Royal Hotel. The website reads: 

This magnificent Art Deco hotel, built in 1932 and was inspired by the glamour and elegance of high society, rising from the ‘29 crash. It boasted  all en-suite rooms, and a magnificent ballroom where guests could dance the night away to the sound of live jazz bands. 

Its distinctive building is now also fabled for a cuisine catering for a diversity of tastes, open to both guests and visitors alike. 

Pascal believed that a new chef should shake things up a bit. The salamanders were looking decidedly shabby, the sinks were gathering gunge around the plugholes. And he informed the maitre d’ that the crockery and cutlery must have been around when the original hotel was built in the 1800s. They looked at the catalogues together Pascal insisting that ‘modern is what our customers expect for what they pay’. The maitre d’s neatly cut black, short back and sides nodded in agreement. He was a lot less experienced than Pascal.

It wasn’t Chris’s job to pack away all the old crockery but like the rest of the staff he took the opportunity on his short break to dive into the basement where the kitchen boy was sorting and packing and allowing them to take away a portion of the lovely blue and cream plates, bowls, cups and saucers of various sizes. They were mostly in perfect condition. Paperwork was altered. The auctioneers wouldn’t know the difference. 

That was a while before Chris started with his hands shaking. He had known chefs who shouted and cursed of course. But Pascal would put his face right next to yours, and he expected everything to be done ‘yesterday’. “The management’s bottom line,” said Pascal, “is profit. Why else would they be running a hotel?” The day the Black Forest gateau was returned by several irate diners – regulars, insurance company directors – was the last straw. 

On the odd occasion Chris tells his mum or his son a joke he calls it the last cherry

Chris calls his mate Leroy ‘a godsend’ from his working life. Leroy is now the boss at the Caribbean café nearer town. It’s because of Leroy that Chris has the money to bake a few times a month. 

“I’ll come to you every other Saturday,” says Leroy. 

They sit down at the glass-topped coffee table while Chris shows Leroy his accounts – his budget pencilled in on graph paper that Leroy buys him. After a beer or two they go off to the bookies. Leroy makes sure Chris doesn’t go beyond the one pound stake. Today Chris has won £27 odd which goes into the bottom draw of the wardrobe in his bedroom so that he won’t be tempted to splash out all at once.

It’s flippin’ freezing the following Friday. His trainers will have to do. He’s off to the specialist shop in town to buy fondant icing and pastry cream. You can’t get that at the one-stop. By the time he gets home late afternoon his feet are sopping wet and cold. He reckons he can put the electric fire on for half an hour, and stuffs his trainers with unwanted leaflets.

This Saturday’s schedule is for Ryan to come and Chris thinks Ryan might be a pâtissier one day. Then there’s Chris’s mum. He tries to look after her, thinks she’d appreciate a nice plate as well as the éclairs. He’ll get the plate back when he gets over to see her, next week. It depresses him to see her too often, with her hip.

Bridget has given up wondering why there’s a plate in her garden. She’d only gone to put the bin out. The grass was pale and flattened which is how she saw it there, hiding like some sort of criminal. She’d checked, there was no suspicious package full of drugs or cash hidden behind it.

The washing up waits while she turns on the telly and gives the dog a shove so that her own skinny frame can sit right up next to it. 

“Go on,” she urges, “you soft lump, you Molly-coddled.” Bridget has this habit of adding to names, not shortening them. The dog is named after her mum, god rest her soul. 

Too much gore on one film, too many gunfights on the other channel. She turns it off with the remote. There’s notifications on her mobile. She swipes up the lost cat ones, the adverts for support stockings. On Marketplace she scrolls through all the freebies but she has no use for baby clothes. Her friend Louise has lived in Australia for nine years. Louise has posted a picture of her new grandchild who’s speaking to her from the UK on Skype. Behind her is an orange vase.

Molly raises her head when Bridget gets up again, then goes back to sleep. Bridget heads for the kitchen, runs the plate under the tap, gives it a wipe with the sponge, polishes it dry with the tea towel. She lays the plate on a chair. It makes a pleasing backdrop of black leather. “Yes!” she says. Molly opens one eye but she knows the phone does not signal dog biscuits. The image taken by the camera phone, altered with the app, is well worth putting on Facebook. Public setting. My fabulous new plate. Smiley face

Meet the Author

Moira Garland is a prize-winning prose writer and poet whose fiction has been appearing online and in print since 2004 including Strix, Tyto Alba (Comma Press), The Forgotten and the Fantastical #3 (Mothers Milk Press), Cake magazine (Lancaster University), Electrifying Women, TSS, Stories for Homes, Paragraph Planet, and www.commuterlit.com . She took 2nd prize in the 2021 Weaver Words/Frodsham Literature Festival flash fiction competition, and was also a runner-up. Radio Leeds has also broadcast her stories. Her poetry appears in many anthologies and in The North journal. She lives in West Yorkshire. Twitter/Instagram: @moiragauthor 

‘Changes’ by Peggy Hammond

breezes stir. maple seeds,
miniature helicopters,
spin. oak catkins
twirl. spring
shakes itself,
brushes winter
off its shoulders.
voices and children’s
laughter float as sangria
sparkles in our glasses.
conversation quiets,
our minds still
linger months past,
when wishes were
fulfilled, when
ashes and prayers
mingled with snow
on a silent mountain.
when absence
took its place beside us.

Meet the Poet

Peggy Hammond’s poetry appears or is forthcoming in Two Thirds NorthCordellaSkylight 47Peeking CatThe Comstock ReviewRiver City PoetryAdelaide Literary MagazineCrosswinds Poetry JournalScissortail QuarterlyEunoia ReviewPangyrus Literary MagazineThe Sandy River Review, and elsewhere. Her chapbook The Fifth House Tilts is forthcoming in fall 2022 (Kelsay Books). She lives in the mountains of North Carolina, USA.

Slovakian Spring

with Raspberries on Her Fingers

by Miroslav Dávid

i think everybody would want her
and preferably if she were only theirs
nailed upside down
bleeding raspberries on the Marian cross 
from steel reinforcement

with raspberries on her fingers 
she won’t hurt anybody

 they’re from her garden 

that is like a poem 
and from all the healing herbs of true love and shots of rum

 so don’t you interfere, devil 
even if she’s bare to her soul
she’s going to be mine. 

Miroslav Dávid writing as Moddivari and River Salome: “with Raspberries on Fingers” (Elist Publishing, 2018)

Ripe

by Danica Hrnčiarová Šišláková

burlesque tones of silly wishes
reverberated in the trumpets of Jericho
forgiven is the one 
who wounded
the beast inside me that doesn’t grow

the battle is over
only silence now 
I peer into the poetry window
I’ve (hopefully) won the duel with pride
the other results – one all

The Ballad of the Pearl (to All Petrarcas)

by Vladimír Skalský

Like a scalpel stuck in the chest
a grain of sand hurts so much
it penetrated the oyster’s armour
only because 
In the moment of weakness
It was let close to the heart

There is nothing left
but to wrap the pain in beauty
to dull the pain with words
and, with the cut-up heart,
toll furiously
all the bells
of the lonely bedroom

I Stopped You

by Vladimír Skalský

I stopped you in the street
Maybe you would have been run over by a car
Maybe you would have met a great love
And your son might have destroyed the world
Or solved the nuclear waste problem
I held you up for three minutes
Surely another sperm would make it
Marilyn Monroe would have crooked legs
Kennedy’s assassin wouldn’t be born at all
Ten years from now, we’d land on Mars

I stopped you in the street
And that is how I changed the world

Meet the Poets

Miroslav Dávid is a Slovak poet, an award-winning lyricist who celebrated massive success with hits for Slovak rock and pop acts in the 80s. He is also a music manager and producer. So far, he has four poetry collections published: Rogalo, veľryba a Kristus Pán (2017: Trio Publishing, Bratislava), Detox (2017: Silvia Hodálová – VIUSS, Bratislava), s Malinami nastoknutými na Prstoch (2018: Vydavateľstvo Elist), Domino (2019: Vydavateľstvo Elist). He has also been awarded prestigious literary prices such Mobel Prize 2018, 2019 and 2020 respectively or Pars Poetry 2018. He has three children and two grandchildren. He is divorced.

Danica Hrnčiarová Šišláková, an award-winning poet and a software analyst, comes from Banská Bystrica (Slovakia) but is currently living in the Czech Republic. She started writing first poems when she  was about 8 years old. At the age of 13, she became a published poet: she published in the literary supplement of the magazine Nové slovo, with then the editor-in-chief Vojtech Mihálik and in the anthology Právo na píseň. After starting a family, she took a long hiatus from writing. After 2015, she returned to poetry again and ventured to read it publicly. Her poems appeared in many anthologies in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, as well as publication in the online magazine of the Association of World Writers (AWW). 

Vladimír Skalský was born on April 26, 1972 in Prešov, Slovakia, where he graduated from grammar school. Later, he earned a master’s degree in theoretical physics at the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics of Charles University in Prague. As well as running his own business, since 1992 he has held a number of public office positions and management positions in various media corporations. Since 1996, he has been the vice-chairman of the Slovak-Czech Club and deputy editor-in-chief of the magazine Slovenské dotyky (Slovak Touches), and from 2004 to 2013 he was the editor of the literary quarterly, the Czech-Slovak journal Zrkadlenie/Zrcadlení (Mirror/Zrcadlení). Since 2006 he has been the President of the World Association of Slovaks Abroad, and since 2009 he has been the Vice President of the Europeans in the World, based in Brussels. Since 2014 he has been the director of the Slovak House in Prague. He is a member (2004 – 2010 and from 2019 until now) and Vice-Chairman (2005 – 2008) of the Government Council for National Minorities of the Czech Republic. He has authored many books: the collections of poems To Silence (2000) and From Two Shores (2017) and the collection of essays Keywords: Prague, Slovakia, literature (2004). All in all, he appears as either an author, co-author or editor of about thirty books. He was co-editor of the three-volume anthology of Slovak literature abroad Between Two Houses (2008-2010) and co-editor of Čítanka moderní slov. literature for secondary schools (2003). His poems and essays have been translated into English, French, Czech, Chinese, Hungarian, Russian and Serbian.

All translations by Natalie Nera.

‘The Perfect Shade of Crimson’ by Frances Mulholland

“I think we can do a little better than that, can’t we, Mrs Hope?”

Stella’s knees crumbled underneath her and she clung to the railings so she wouldn’t fall. She wouldn’t let her physiotherapist see her fail, not again. 

“Have you been doing your exercises at home?”

“Yes,” panted Stella. “It’s hard to remember sometimes -“

“You can’t make excuses, you know.”

“Well maybe if I hadn’t just spent three months in a coma, I wouldn’t have so much trouble remembering!”

The physiotherapist averted her eyes, and Stella wondered when these people began to lose their sense of humanity. It had been the same when her father was dying of cancer. He’d lost his appetite, and Stella and her brother had been shocked to discover it was because the cancer was filling his insides, spreading like the roots of some cursed tree inside his torso. The doctor who’d rolled his eyes at their innocence and ignorance had forgotten that ordinary people didn’t know these things. 

Stella thought of her father’s legs, once so strong, withered and shrivelled. She pulled herself up, picked up her bag, and stormed out with all the dignity she could summon. 

The walk to the car park was excruciating. When the car had slammed into her six months ago, Stella had been thrown into the air and, upon landing, had fractured her skull, all the bones on the left side of her body, and punctured her left lung. 

She couldn’t even remember why she’d stepped out like that. She was usually so careful. 

Pulling out her car keys, she noticed a shabby-looking basket at the entrance to the car park, overflowing with the remnants of summer flowers. She didn’t know what kind they were, but she stopped to admire their fading red vibrancy. 

Stella took her phone out to snap a picture and saw she had a message from her husband. A jolt of revulsion rocked her stomach and she ignored it. Another thing she didn’t understand since the accident. 

Back in the warmth of her car, she saved the photograph of the flowers to an album entitled ‘Crimson’. Ever since she’d come out of the coma, she’d found herself obsessed with the colour. She knew she was looking for a particular shade – bright red, blue undertones, a hint of pink in there – but she didn’t know why. 

Stella and Mark hadn’t been planning to decorate, so it couldn’t be that. She’d already bought her clothes for their holiday in Tuscany, nobody’s birthday was coming up…

Stella swiped idly through the album of flowers, scarves, paintings she’d seen. On the radio, The Kills were playing. ‘The Search for Cherry Red.’ No, it wasn’t cherry red she wanted, either. She turned it off in irritation. 

Mark wasn’t sure that Stella should be going out so soon, but in five years, she’d never missed his firm’s Christmas party, and she didn’t intend to start now. As she dressed for the evening – a long, black, one-shouldered gown that cleverly concealed the worst of her injuries, she thought feverishly of all the different shades of red she would encounter that night. From Tony the MD’s terrible Santa suit to Rachel’s traditional outlandish Christmas manicure, she would be able to take her pick. She’d synced her phone to free up storage. Mark had smiled at how excited she was. Stella wondered how he’d react if he knew the real reason. 

It was the first time she’d seen any of Mark’s colleagues since the accident. Gavin and Manjeet jokingly wrapped some silver tinsel around her crutch, and Julie made a terrible fuss of her, ensuring she had plenty to drink. 

“Go easy, love,” Mark frowned. “Think of all those pain meds!”

“It’s my first night out in months, I can have a couple of drinks!” Stella replied. 

This was nice. This was normal. If Lynsey the hypochondriac was to be believed, Stella wasn’t even the worst off at that party. 

After almost half an hour of listening to the woman chunter on about her irritable bowel and her migraines and her recurrent tonsillitis and her piles and her ingrown toenails, Stella realised that Mark was no longer by her side. She strained to look for him, and managed to slip away when Lynsey latched onto a newcomer. 

This was familiar. This was unpleasant. Stella felt the revulsion she’d felt at seeing her husband or his name the last three months churning in her belly as she walked, and she knew that she’d walked exactly this way six months earlier, for the exact same purpose, only with no crutch to keep her steady.

Mark was half-hidden behind a pillar at the far end of the corridor. A woman was with him – tall, blonde, her hair flowing over her shoulders like the cheap champagne they were serving back in the party. Stella couldn’t move. She wanted to see it all, but then the woman saw her, and she and Stella’s husband broke apart. 

Stella fled. She had only been in the ladies’ toilets a few moments when the woman caught up with her. 

“Stella, it’s not what you think…”

She proceeded to rime off the rest of the cliches while Stella gripped the white enamel basin. She tried to focus on the expensive hand wash in the heavy, white, porcelain dispenser, the identical hand cream, the fabric of the footstool in the mirror behind her…

And then she noticed the woman’s lipstick. Bright red, with blue undertones, just a hint of pink. 

“…we didn’t mean for you to find out, and then when you caught us back at the summer party  – we both felt so bad, we felt like it was our fault you’d run out into the road like–”

The woman never managed to finish her sentence. Stella smashed the hand wash dispenser into the side of her head. Stella had a brain injury, she’d been plied with alcohol all night which had probably affected her medication, and her husband was cheating on her with the office tart. Hell, their affair had nearly killed her. No jury would possibly convict her. 

As her rival fell to the floor, Stella admired the flow of blood onto the pristine white tiles. The contrast settled the churning in Stella’s stomach as she settled into the feeling of a task completed. The woman’s blood was a deeper shade of crimson than the woman’s lipstick, but pleasing, nonetheless.  

Meet the Author

Frances Mulholland’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Salzburg Review, Brave Voices, Mslexia, and others. She lives in Northumberland.