Deliver Me with Cornmeal by Ben Umayam

How much do Filipinos love beauty pageants?  As much as good fried garlic rice for breakfast.  That is saying a lot if you know anything about  Filipinos.  Seven thousand islands, so many people, and they are all glued to the television when The Miss Universe pageant is on.  There is a YouTube video from the 2010 contest that took place in Vegas.  Four Filipino kids, all guys, all gay.  They represent how enamored Filipinos are with these pageants.  The kids are of all shapes and sizes.  One kid is picking his nose, the others are counting down, some clap when their favorites are announced.  The clip is the announcement of the 15 semi-finalists.  Miss Ukraine, France, South Africa, these contestants get loud applause from their fans.  They are down to the last contestant, the 15th runner up.  The chubby one says it will be Miss USA.  Another folds his hands in deep prayer.  The other kid makes the sign of the cross and picks his nose. 

With a dramatic pause, the emcee announces contestant number 15, the last of the girls from many countries who will potentially be the next Miss Universe.  He hems, he haws, the kids sweat. Remember this announcement is for the 15 semi-finalists, not even the winner!    He announces loudly,  “And number 15…Miss Philippines!”  Bedlam, they go nuts.  They scream and jump for joy, they hold hands, scream some more, and thank the Lord, just like the whole country is doing at that same point in time.  That is how intense Filipinos are about Miss Universe.  Search on YouTube, “We love you Maria Venus Raj” and go to the 2:15  mark to see how insane this is.

I am retired, have not visited The Phillippines in 40 years.  I received a BA in  Journalism from The University of the Philippines under Martial Law.   Marcos and his Army ruled.  When the schools closed down to stop student activists, I got a job as a radio deejay, at The Rock of Manila.  I also started writing record reviews and music articles for a magazine called Jingle.  Their logo was an angel,  back turned, pissing.  They reprinted lyrics to songs with chords.  Copyright was not a big thing during Martial Law.  It was a very popular publication, ran no ads.  Singing along and playing guitar with friends was popular under the rule of a dictator.  

With Martial Law, the army took over most media.  Military tribunals ran radio stations.  They introduced payola.  Instead of playing what I wanted, I had to use a playlist of songs that record companies had paid the army tribunals to push to sell their records.  I quit and wrote about radio industry payola in Jingle magazine.

I was invited to an investigation, me in front of several generals holding my fate in their hands. I envisioned disappearing like Roland, an activist classmate who no longer existed on the face of the earth.  Nothing happened to me.  I was offered a job at The Manila Times. They would train me to be a financial reporter.   No thanks, I said.  If I can get invited to an Army tribunal for writing the truth about payola, in a magazine whose logo was an angel pee peeing, well I would pursue a future career elsewhere.

40 years later, I am visiting my father’s hometown in a northern province.  There is a new celeb in town.  She has just won Miss Photogenic in an international beauty pageant.  The twist, it is a transgender, transsexual beauty pageant.  As with all beauty pageants, this news is wreaking havoc.  Held yearly in Pattaya, Thailand,  a Filipina has won the title two times before.  This trans from my father’s hometown is almost guaranteed a  spot in the top 5, having won Miss Photogenic a few days before the actual competition.  An article about her,  I should be able to sell to some gay mag back in the US.  Did I say, another reason I left the Philippines,  I wanted to come out gay,  not a comfortable thing to do under Martial Law.

In the states, the gay revolution had come and gone, along with the AIDS crisis.  The US Supreme Court had made same-sex marriage legal.  Being gay is now LBGTQ whatever. There is a girl named Francis/Chiara who just won Miss Photogenic in an international annual Miss Transgender/Transexual beauty contest in Pattaya, Thailand. This was the 15th year.  It is called the Miss International Queen beauty contest, “because that is every girls’ dream, to be a Queen!” Queen Puhleeze!  In my retirement years, I was itching to use my Journalism degree.  I was going to interview and write about Miss Photogenic, who just might win the year’s trans-Miss International Queen!

______________________________________________________________________________

I ask Francis on the phone about her trans name, Chiara.

“Chiara is an Italian name.  You use the hard “Kuh” sound to pronounce it, like Christine.  That’s how Italians say it.    Still, others want to pronounce it like Charles.  And some like to pronounce it like a “sh” as in Shy.  That’s what makes my name great.  You can pronounce it three different ways, depending on your mood, Key-Yara,  Chih-Yara or even Shee-Yara.  Italian is my favorite. Do you know St. Clare?  She is a saint mentioned always in conjunction with St. Francis of Assisi.  Chiara is her Italian name.”

I ask about her christened name. 

 “I was christened Francis as in St. Francis.   My daddy says when I was born, birds would come by the windowsill in my room and to sing.   The butike, the geckos, they would come down from the ceiling to visit my crib.  Daddy chose Francis for my name after the patron saint of animals.  Daddy is so poetic.  I got those traits from him.  Sensitive, lyrical, a romantic,  that is how I was as a child named  Francis.  My parents doted on me, especially my dad.  I was daddy’s little boy.”

Chiara says she has a photoshoot and has to go soon.  “Only I always felt not like a boy, but like a girl.  In my dreams, I was always a girl!  I always preferred what the girls in the town did.  When I started school, I did not feel comfortable with the other boys.  I did not play with the guns, robots, trucks.  Nakakadiri! “ (Gross in Filipino.) I did not shoot hoops.”  (Basketball is huge in this nation of short people.)  “ With the girls, I always felt good.  The boys, I always felt they were always doing things contrary to my nature.  Looking for frogs, competing with each other in sports, being mischievous to no end.  Me, Francis, I held back.  I would rather play dolls,  I preferred to learn the crafts the mommies taught their daughters.”

Chiara’s mommy, Juris, and I talk at their home, a chicken farm, ten minutes away from my father’s old house.

Francis was religious for a little boy.  I was not surprised he was.  You know, how you say in English,  he was so fem?   (Bakling  in Filipino.)

 Do religious fervor and femininity go hand in hand in The Philippines, I ask.

Yes, of course.  But, you are so American!  You don’t know that?  Francis would go to church often.  He would pray to all the saints, Mother Mary and Baby Jesus.  But he also prayed to Tuglibon, the wife of Tuglay.   Do you know their story?

I do not.

You are more American than Filipino, hindi ba? ( That is “aren’t you” in Filipino.) They were the beings who created the world according to our ancestors from Mindanao.  They took cornmeal and created the first human beings.  The husband, Tuglay got it all wrong at first.  His humans were stiff and ugly. They walked in a herky-jerky manner, not graceful.  Tuglibon, his wife, complained his humans were faulty and they needed to be corrected.  He was insistent that there was no problem with them.  One day, she was fed up,  she threw cornmeal in Tuglay’s eyes.  While he struggled to rub the cornmeal out, his wife created male and female beings that were beautiful, who moved with much grace. When her husband could see, he agreed with Tuglibon, these humans were an improvement.  The graceful humans procreated and that’s how the Filipino race came into being.

Great story, I thought.

 Francis prayed hard to Tuglibon whenever he had a chance. He told me, he felt he was a girl trapped in the body of a boy.   I taught him this prayer.  Dear Mother Tuglibon, deliver me with cornmeal.  When I grow older, make me a woman for that is what I feel that I am in my heart.  Our Christian God and native father Tuglay got it wrong.  Fix me, please, I pray to you.  Francis would pray this at church, after his rosary and novenas and especially after the stations of the cross.

 I talk with the dad over San Miguel, the native beer, at the town beer garden.

He says he always understood Francis.  His mother has told me otherwise, that the dad preferred a more masculine child, who would marry, have children, and carry on the family name.

“Francis did not hang out playing male games, being more like other boys.  When he was eleven, they told me he was walking around the square swaying sexily like a girl.  I did not get mad.”

 Juris has told me stories of anger and fury.

“ I encouraged him to hang out with my cousin Jock who had changed his name to Jackie.  He was very binabae.

That is the word for gay in Filipino. It literally means to act like a girl.

“My wife believed  Francis, being binabae and so devout,  meant Francis would become a friar like his namesake.  The kids would make fun of him and called him St. Francis is a Sissy.  That was his whole life, kids making fun of him.  Me, I was always supportive.  You know why?”

“No, why?”

“Transgender, transsexual trans whatever.  It is a matter of acceptance.  I am the one who taught Francis about Tuglibon. “

I know that the wife, Juris, had done the teaching.

 “It never worried me that he acted like a she.  We are what we are.  You just have to accept it.   I  knew Francis needed a makeover. Francis would find a way with Tuglibon to fix the mix.” 

The dad’s name was Pinkerton, like the guy in Madame Butterfly.  He became somewhat of a Pinay Trans hero.  Pinay Trans is the Filipino phrase for Ladyboy.  Ladyboy is the Thai name for transgender/transexual.  Pinay Trans has a more non- demeaning connotation.   Chiara’s daddy’s nickname was Pinky.   With the new media attention, Pinky was becoming a hero in the Pinay Trans community, a father completely supportive of his trans offspring.  They were calling him Sir Pinky now.

It is Juris who tells me more about the instrumental uncle/auntie.

My husband’s cousin, Jock, during puberty he changed.  He used to be a Jock talaga ( that’s Filipino for really.) Then he became very binabae.  Used to be so sporty, he was a great swimmer, loved the water sports. Francis loved his Uncle Jock.  He followed him everywhere.  When Jock became binabae, he taught Francis all his tricks, how to walk like a girl.  How to soften your voice and use a feminine cadence so that when you talked on the phone people thought you were a girl.  When Jock moved to Manila, Francis was crushed.  I promised him, he could follow his Uncle Jock, now Jackie to the big city.  First, he had to finish high school.

______________________________________________________________________________

Chiara is still busy having won Miss Photogenic.  She makes some time for me.

“I go to Manila after high school.  I did not fall into the cracks. Most Pinay Trans, when they can’t get a job, they end up as prostitutes.  I had my Uncle Jock, well, Auntie Jackie to save me.”

I tell her I know about Jock/Jackie from her parents.

“He was not transsexual. He did not dress up in woman’s clothes.  He was very effeminate though. He looked like Ru Paul, dressed as a man.”

I get the picture.

Jackie takes Francis under his wings.  With his guidance, Francis, now Chiara joins a trans beauty pageant. She is beautiful as Chiara.  She is a finalist.  Jackie uses his connections and gets Chiara a job as a model, around the time when androgynous models were so big.  Within a few months, Chiara becomes THE transgender model in Manila.  She is young, gorgeous and has those pouty full lips everyone loves.  The magazines from Japan and Korea and Thailand, they all come knocking.  Chiara the model is hounded.  She is so successful, making so much money.  She is sending some home.  Sir Pinky and Juris have built a fish farm and are raising tilapia to supplement the chicken farm.  All the  success she says, she owes to Jackie and someone else.

 “I always went to the famous church near Jackie’s house, in Quiapo.  This church houses the famous Black Nazarene statue.  During Lent, thousands pour into the streets for the annual procession.  This Jesus is a more accurate depiction of a Jewish profit from the Middle East.  He is almost black.  All those preachings on the mountains and walking on the waters, you figure Jesus would be quite tanned.”

I agree.

“I went there and I prayed at the altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help.  She looks the least Western of all the depictions of Mother Mary. She looks like the women in the desert between Afghanistan and China, Eurasian, almost Asian. I envisioned her to be the closest to what Mother Tuglibon would look like.   Her crown and clothes are like the Igorot goddesses from the mountain province!  All my modeling successes are Tita Jackie’s successes.  But it is also because I prayed at that altar of Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon!”

Chiara’s gotta go and says we will talk again tomorrow.

Sir Pinky, he tells me the sad, untimely end of the Jackie story.  A year ago, Jackie and his boyfriend go on a scuba tour of Palawan, some of the best scuba diving in the Phillippines.  It is an island near the deepest part of the waters in the Philippines.  Jackie goes missing,  after two days of searching he is assumed dead.  A few days later,  they find his body, entangled with his boyfriend in an embrace both trying to share the valve of a tank gone empty.

In our interview the next day, Chiara says,  “The Miss International Queen beauty pageant, my Tita Jackie set it all up.  It was her dream that I do this.  So that is why I am here in Thailand, in Pattaya.  I may not win.  Already, two  Filipinas have won.  And this is the 15th year.  The fact that I won Miss Photogenic, that is big.  Tita Jackie, she set me up with my modeling career. I believe that success helped the judges decide I was most photogenic.”

Chiara almost whispers to me on the phone.  “Can I share with you?  Last night, I dreamt of Mother Tuglibon.  She was smiling.  I don’t know if that means I might win.  To me, it means I am a winner, even if I lose!  Oh, and when I woke up, there was a small puddle of water near the bed.  I tasted it.  It was very salty, like the sea!  Tita Jackie and Mother Tuglibon they have visited me.  I believe they will be happy with whatever will be the outcome!”

Spooky, I thought.

We hang up.  Chiara needs her rest.  The beauty pageant is tomorrow.

______________________________________________________________________________

I return to the Chiara house after the phone call.  Juris has invited me to merienda, which is at 4 o’clock.  You might call it teatime, but Filipinos don’t drink tea or eat biscuits.  They eat another meal called merienda!

Pinky, he told you about Jackie’s demise, so sad.  But Jackie had a plan, and it was all in motion before the accident.  Chiara was scheduled to participate in the beauty pageant.  Two years ago, Jackie started her on estrogen.  She would take the female birth control pills for the hormones.  It is the cheap way of Pinay Trans transition.  Her hips got rounder and breasts developed.

Me, I remember walking my dog, Murray at 6 AM one summer in The Village, and a drag queen taking birth control pills was cruising the last of the johns, wearing short shorts and shirtless, baring barely developed breasts.  Many cars with Jersey plates stopped to ask how much. In between she admired Murray, referring to him as she even though he had a he name. Murray was a rescue with a broken foot.  His two front legs were in a permanent ballet position, 4th or 5th except his knees weren’t crossed.    He had a doggie male organ but stood like a ballerina.

Juris says,  Jackie didn’t care if Chiara won or lost.  The idea was to get her to Thailand.  We are very Catholic here.  We do not tolerate Pinay Trans the way the Thais tolerate the Ladyboys.  The Thai people, they are 90% Buddhist.  And Buddha teaches acceptance. Big difference from the Catholics!

 They have many doctors in Thailand, Bangkok especially, those who perform sex reassignment surgery.  There is one who has done over 70 a year.  Jackie and Chiara set up an appointment with him, they had scheduled surgery after the pageant.  Mother Tuglibon’s work will be done by a Bangkok Doctor, aya, too many syllables, I cannot pronounce his name!   Chiara will return, Jackie would say, no longer a chick with a dick.  That Jackie, he could be so vulgar at times!

I laugh, Juris cries.  Jackie is gone.

I leave Juris, Chiara’s mother, full of the merienda, allowing her moments to shed some tears for Jackie the jock who drowned in the deepest of seas in his lover’s embrace.

_____________________________________________________________________________

On the day of the pageant, Chiara still has time for my phone call.

“I am most nervous about the swimsuit competition.  You know many of us still have the male organs we were born with.”

And how do you deal with that?

“We tape it up.  We shave down there, use packing tape so you do not see it when you wear a bikini.  It is like the women who do not want it to be known they have breasts.  They use packing tape to tape it all up”

Naku“, Chiara says. Naku, loosely translated means goodness gracious.  ” Some trans entrepreneurs should start a packing tape company for us.  We use it so much!  They can call it Trans Tape.  ‘For those packages, you want to hide!’  Let me put you on speaker while I finish taping.”  She speaks with an echo.  “I have a stampeta, a Holy Card, of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you know, my icon for Mother Tuglibon.  I am keeping the stampeta taped down there for safekeeping.  A few years back, Miss Brazil, she did not package correctly, and it popped out of her swimsuit.  Naku!”  In this case, Naku translates as Yikes!

“ Win or Lose, I have Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon with me!”

The Miss International Queen Beauty pageant has a viewership of a few million in Southeast Asia, mostly in Thailand.  In the Philippines, many have gathered around the television to cheer on the 2019 Miss Photogenic.  There is no jumping up and down or screaming with joy.  Chiara does not even make the top 5.  Her answer to the question, “Why should you become Miss International Queen?” is a rambling extolment of the merits of Mother Tuglibon and how she will deliver the trans community with cornmeal.  Miss Brazil wins, the first black person to win since the inception of the competition. Her response to the question is “My dream is every young girl’s dream,  in my case, to be a black queen!”

______________________________________________________________________________

Chiara is not upset with the outcome.  She is happy and jubilant.  She keeps her appointment in Bangkok with Doctor No Dick.  She returns home, victorious, Mother Tugliban’s work complete.  There are banners int the town square.  Balloons surround St. Augustin Church, a Unesco site, a Baroque church built in the 1700s with enormous buttresses on the side, a style you don’t see much, some call it earthquake rococo.

______________________________________________________________________________

I call, a year later.  I have not sold the piece about a transgender, transexual international beauty pageant in Southeast Asia.  I might turn into fiction and sell it that way.

I call just to see how they are all doing, Juris, Sir Pinky, Chiara.  I find out, Jackie had one last card up his sleeve.  Aside from having managed finances, Jackie had Francis deposit some semen in a sperm bank.  With the abundant modeling jobs Chiara has had since the pageant, she can afford an in vitro baby.  She has to leave the Catholic Philippines to have the baby and return after the baby is born.  But she can now afford all that.

Sir Pinky is happy, the family name will continue.  Juris and Chiara are happy with their faith in Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Mother Tuglibon.  And Jackie is smiling from heaven.

A Jesuit sociologist termed a phrase back in the ’70s for all this.  He called it Split Level Christianity.   I call it the brand of religion from my native 7000 islands, Catholicism with an undercurrent of primitivism. 

There is an altar at St. John The Baptist Church near Penn Station in New York City.  It houses the shrine of Padre Pio in NYC.  At the back of the church, is a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help.

 Of late, I go there and pray to Mother Tuglibon.  I ask her to help sell my story.  I also ask her to use her cornmeal on my peas and carrots.  At my age, 64, I could use the help, especially with the carrot.

Previously published in Anak Sastra, a Southeast Asian online journal for Asian authors who write in English

About the Author

Ben Umayam moved to NYC to write the Great American Filipino Gay Short Story. He worked for political consultants, became a chef at a fancy hotel, then worked privately as a chef for priests.  He is now retired and is working that short story again.  Recently he was published in the online publications Maudlin House, Digging Through The Fat, The South East Asia Drabble Anthology published by Insignia, 34th Parallel Magazine, and Anak Sastra.  He can be found on Twitter at Ben Umayam@UmayamBen, on Facebook at Ben Umayam, and on Instagram under benyum82.

Veni, Vidi Vicky by Stephen Albones

Black Box Gallery, Manchester, England, 7.34pm, Friday, 26 November 1999

I didn’t relish this assignment. The thought of another opening night at an arty event, surrounded by sophisticates, bobos and hipsters all trying to out-pseud each other, filled me with despair. And, sure enough, the usual crowd were in attendance with their Dahrlings and butterfly kissing, clinking their glasses and daintily nibbling hosomaki. The exhibition was called ascending | descending and was the work of one Johnny Rembrandt, a lesser-known member of the YBAs. Some of his earlier work had been brilliant, but of late he seemed determined only to épater les bourgeois; a noble aim in itself, but tiresome when the work was otherwise devoid of substance.

            I wondered where Rembrandt was; usually, he loved to be the centre of attention. The crowd entered the exhibition and were greeted by Rembrandt’s controversial self-portrait: a priapic version of the Vitruvian Man. I tried my best to keep a straight face, while the intelligentsia remarked on its form, its composition – everything except the picture’s most striking feature. I realised I was not alone. An attractive blonde of about 23 was looking at me and similarly trying to stifle laughter. She gave a conspiratory smile, and I thought it was worth a try.

            ‘Hi, do you come to a lot of these events?’ I said. Not particularly adventurous, I confess, but I thought it best to take the subtle approach.

            ‘No, it’s my first time,’ she said, in a manner that I can only describe as coquettish. ‘But I’d nothing else on tonight, so I thought, “Give it a try”. And you?’

            ‘I’m writing a piece for a magazine. These events can be…’

            ‘Pretentious?’

            ‘Yes. Very. Though sometimes they’re brilliant and—’

            ‘Well, look who it isn’t!’ said a familiar voice behind me. It was David fforbes, presenter on the TV arts programme Chiaroscuro; a former colleague, and one of the most repellent people you’re ever likely to meet.

            ‘Are you still working for that dubious publication?’

            ‘If you mean Maulstick, yes.’

            ‘That’s good. Only joking, of course, in fact we’re thinking of doing a feature on it sometime next year. Well, aren’t you going to introduce me to your lady friend?’

            ‘She isn’t my “lady friend”, as you so quaintly put it, we just happened to be discussing the exhibition together.’

            ‘Victoria,’ said the woman, holding out her hand, ‘but call me Vicky.’

            ‘David fforbes. It’s very nice to meet you Vicky. Do you like Mr Rembrandt’s oeuvre?’

            ‘I haven’t seen much of it yet. But your friend is going to show me round and explain all the subtle nuances and po-mo allusions to me.’

            He looked disappointed. ‘Well in that case, I’ll leave you in his capable hands. Enjoy the show’. He set off in the direction of a Japanese woman, who was seemingly on her own.

            ‘Has he come here from the nineteen-sixties?’ said Vicky.

            ‘I know what you mean; he is a bit of a relic from a former era. Were you trying to shake him off, or do you really want me to show you round?’

            ‘Both.’

            I introduced myself and told her about my reporting work at Maulstick as we carried on round the exhibition. The next room wasn’t particularly controversial, more downright bizarre. It was full of gigantic Liquorice Allsorts, scattered about as though dropped by some clumsy Brobdingnagian. The crowd greeted it with a series of Ahhhs and Goshs.

Vicky sat on a pink-black-yellow-black-orange striped oblong and crossed her legs.

            ‘What do you like about art?’

            I wasn’t expecting this. ‘It’s difficult to explain without sounding…’

            ‘Like I said, pretentious?’

            ‘Yes. There is a lot of pretentiousness when some people talk about art, but it’s greater than that. I think it’s all about us, Homo sapiens, how we communicate with each other about life, death, love, hate, etc. And how we try to create order in a chaotic world.’

            ‘So, what great truths is this communicating? How is this bringing order to a disordered world?’

            ‘Well, sometimes it’s just about fun, I suppose. There’s nothing wrong with that. Art should be able to laugh at itself, shouldn’t it?’

            Vicky smiled sweetly. I’d passed the test.

            David fforbes was still with the Japanese woman. He spoke in A LOUD VOICE, so everybody would know how clever he was.

            ‘Of course, the Stuckists know more about what they don’t like than what they do.’

            Vicky linked arms with me. We walked into the next room and were confronted with a giant egg. The ovum was three metres high on its side, and had four cracks running part way round and all meeting at a small hole. I found it strangely unsettling.

            ‘What d’you think’s going to hatch out of that?’ said Vicky.

            I laughed. I felt like I had known Vicky for months, not just an hour. She was intelligent, funny and very easy to get on with. I really liked her company. The rest of the crowd wandered in, and milled about the egg – yet more Ahhhs and Goshs. David fforbes looked at the egg and made a jokey reference to Ai No Corrida to the Japanese woman (who obviously wished she could be somewhere else).

            After some time, one of the attendants led us into another room. We all sat on hard chairs. There was a television and video recorder at the front. The TV was switched on, but the screen was just snow and white noise. We waited. Then Johnny Rembrandt appeared. He was smoking a cigarette and carrying a brown paper bag. The crowd clapped, but he didn’t respond. With a practised insouciance, he stubbed out the cigarette and pulled a video cassette from the bag. He inserted the tape in the slot, and invisible hands took it and dragged it into the bowels of the machine. Cogs whirred, and an image appeared on the screen.

The 90-minute presentation consisted of Johnny Rembrandt, dancing to Aqua’s Barbie Girl, wearing only an ‘I ♥ Tracey’ T-shirt.

            After about five minutes, Vicky leaned over to me and whispered.

            ‘C’mon, let’s get out of here.’

So we stepped out into the wintery night, and thus began our fiery affair. Vicky and I spent the next few weeks eating out, visiting the cinema and the theatre, discussing art and life, and making love until the early hours. I thought it would last forever but it ended as quickly as it had begun. She simply stopped replying when I phoned her. When I went to her flat, I found it was empty. Nobody knew where she was. She had disappeared completely. I saw in the new millennium alone, with a bottle of Pinot Noir on the hills above Manchester.

Catbrain Hill, South Gloucestershire, England, 8.31pm, Sunday, 28 July 2058

It is a warm summer evening. I am sitting alone, looking down at the village. The orange disc of the sun is just about to touch the horizon, like God and Adam’s fingertips. There’s a ghostly half-moon. Tiny flies spin wildly. I hear my two granddaughters; they are running towards me. One of them has her hands cupped together around something.

            ‘Grandad! Grandad! We’ve caught a fairy.’

            I fumble for my glasses.

            ‘It’s beautiful,’ she says. She opens her hands, just enough for me to see. I see the iridescent wings, and I recognise Vicky’s face.

            ‘Can we keep it, Grandad? Can we? Can we?’

            I look again. The wings are already losing their glow and starting to fray. That face seems paler.

            ‘No. That would be cruel. Give it its freedom.’

            ‘Ahhhh. Pleeeaaase.’

            ‘Set it free.’ I say, kindly but firmly.

            She steps back, opens her hands, and it is released. It soars upwards, higher and higher, until it is lost in the blue. I smile sadly.

            I shiver at a cold wind. My granddaughters are running away. I call after them, but they don’t hear. There’s nobody else around. I want someone to take me home. It’s starting to get dark now. The only warmth I feel comes from the urine flowing down my leg.

About the Author

Stephen Albones a northern writer based in Burnley. He writes mostly short prose and poetry, and I have had pieces published in Pennine Ink magazine. However, he has plans for a novel, and he is currently working on a radio play.

A Metropolitan Avenue-Bound Love Affair by Alex Antiuk

The old, rickety door creaked open. To my dismay, Boo-Boo ran towards me. Boo-Boo had the teeth of an old Englishman. They were gnarled and broken, and the bottom layer stuck out with a sharpness. I always wondered what would happen if Boo-Boo came for my ankles, but I was fortunate that he was as aloof as his owner.

            The apartment had a peculiar smell. It reeked of a heavily salted, pungent scent, that landed harshly in my nostrils.

            Closing the door behind me, I quietly began to creep towards the kitchen. Vicky was nowhere in sight, so I made a break for it.

            The bathroom was a small, decrepit room directly beside the kitchen. It had chipped ancient blue paint and always stunk of urine. It also always contained a mountain of empty toilet paper rolls beside the toilet, that neither Vicky nor I ever bothered to throw in the trash.

            Once inside, I locked the door. But when I flicked the light switch, a large frown formed on my face. Vicky had informed me the day I moved in that the light switch, “has a mind of its own.” I didn’t particularly understand what she meant at first, but after only a week of living here, I’d finished two showers in complete darkness and found myself one night urinating on the wall – the light had gone out mid-stream.

            Now the light didn’t bother to turn on at all, but I had no intention of trying to fix it. I could see the slightest orange hue dripping in through the small, fogged window – enough to reach the sink. I was planning on heading to bed soon. I brushed my teeth quickly and shifted towards the toilet, when I heard a loud and heavy slamming of the door.

            Vicky had returned. I immediately felt my nerves blossom. I had desperately wanted to go to sleep without having to interact with her, but I was too late.

            I flushed the toilet and began to prepare for how I’d escape our inevitable conversation. But in the almost total darkness I wasn’t keen on staying too long. Once after I’d exited the shower, I felt something crawl onto my foot. It forced me into a distressed dance that ended with me banging my knee against the mold-infested, claw-foot tub and letting out a squeal that echoed off the bathroom tiles and only exacerbated the pain.

            Slowing opening the door, the light of the kitchen overtook my eyes. Vicky had turned on the fluorescent, over-head bulb, which created a blinding glow. I was able to make out her figure but the light had formed black spots in my eyes so I couldn’t see the details of her frame. All I could see was that Vicky was wearing her usual nighttime attire – an unwashed, skimpy pair of children’s pajamas that didn’t fit her peculiarly shaped figure.

            Vicky turned towards me the moment I shut the bathroom door. Her voice held its usual, hoarse tone when she asked, “Do you have a sec’?”

            “Yep…” I replied hesitantly.

I headed towards the small side table we ate on. Vicky had never bothered to purchase a dining-room table. All our meals were taken on this side-table, whose neon-green paint was completely chipped. Beside it, Vicky had two mis-matched chairs – I always sat in the beat-up plastic one. The other was a large lounger that was covered in dog-hair and had become Boo-Boo’s bathroom over the years.

            After taking a seat, my eyes finally began to heal. The blinding spots were fading and I could finally see Vicky clearly. Her back was towards me, but I began to notice something off-putting on her bare legs – a series of red, swollen bumps. They were ripened and bright, and consumed almost every visible inch of flesh on her backside. The bumps didn’t overtake one another. Instead, they created a consistent, evenly distributed layer. Each leg was completely covered and I could no longer see the natural paleness of her leg.

            Vicky turned and her portrait engulfed my periphery. She caught my awe-struck eyes.

            “It’s-Nothing!” Vicky exclaimed. She spoke in an unusually hysteric tone. Vicky looked like she had chickenpox, but if they had swollen and were coated in a thin layer of crust. I held back my tongue and remained silent as I continued my covert examination.

            The percolating silence led Vicky to hastily turn towards the stove, before taking a long, frustrated breath and exhaling, “It’s-NOT-a-Big-Deal!” Vicky then scrambled through the cabinets and took out an old wooden spoon. She began to stir the large, steaming pot.

            “The cure is bone broth. Plain and simple.” Vicky’s confident voice explained. I watched her hands drift towards the cabinet, and I noticed inside were a half-dozen identical cartons of the broth. Vicky pulled another down, ripped open the top and poured the entire thing into her soup. She then gave it a quick stir before taking a seat beside me in Boo-Boo’s chair.

            “Anyway, did I tell you who’s coming over tonight?” Vicky began. Her voice was jubilant and energetic, a stark contrast to my continuous yawns and wavering eyes. I shook my head.

            “He’s not one of my regulars.” I remained uninterested in Vicky’s plans, but I couldn’t turn my eyes away from her. Each time I felt my tired eyes droop to the floor they’d notice another pulsating, oozing bump and return towards her. Vicky added, “He’s a Real Man.”

            Vicky had a simple and effective way of acquiring companionship, although I’d learned it was not a way to locate love. Through the thin wall that separated our room I’d gotten to know many of Vicky’s suitors, and Vicky herself. I’d hear their brief conversations, beginning with Vicky’s off-putting, boisterous laugh and ending with her overly dramatic moans. These were followed by silence, before I would hear the door shut and footsteps head down the stairs.

            I had yet to encounter Vicky in love, but when I asked where she met tonight’s visitor I was stuck by the smile that radiated off her blushed face, which in conjunction with the bumps had turned it completely red.

            “After work I was waiting for the train, and of course, the M never came. Boo-Boo needed a walk, so I was like, ‘Screw it! I’m gonna take a cab’ but then I accidentally rammed into this hunk.” Vicky took a brief pause, as if she was attempting to control herself from jumping out of Boo-Boo’s lounger in excitement.

            “His name’s Jan – He caught me with these… Hands!” Vicky’s voice jumped in excitement. “They were so rough and scratchy, and when I looked up and saw he had a cute little bald spot too, I knew I couldn’t let him go.”

Vicky had become completely giddy. Her voice kept rising in pitch and velocity and I wondered if she’d slow down her speech or allow it to completely overtake her.

“And then he spoke. You wouldn’t believe how thick his accent is. I couldn’t understand a thing, but every word was just so yummy…” Vicky finally took another breath. Before launching back into her retelling in an unusual, poorly-mimicked accent. 

            “‘Where you’ live?’ Turn’s out, we’re neighbors! We hopped into a cab, and he even opened the door for me.” Vicky paused to breathe, but only for a moment. “But when I gave him a little, thank-you-pat, I didn’t expect his arms to be so hairy and greasy.” Vicky’s smile exploded.

            Vicky’s grin became glued onto her face. She was barely able to sit still, but so engulfed she didn’t bother to get up and deal with the overflowing pot on the stove. She held a radiating glow and I could sense even just retelling this story made her heart flutter. But then Vicky caught my eyes.

            I had attempted to keep them on her lips and eyes during her monologue, but I noticed that her excitement had forced one of the bumps on her forehead to begin to leak a small, steady stream of pus. It was a white, lightly foamed substance.

            Vicky placed her hand on her forehead and wiped off the goo. Her smile disappeared and I watched her lift herself up and head back towards the stove.

            “When’s he coming over?” I asked.

            “Jan’s working a late shift. He said midnight. You should’ve heard how happy he was when I invited him over. He even mumbled a few words in Polish, but I didn’t care I couldn’t understand them… He’s such a sweetie.”

            My eyes fell onto the large clock above the stove and I noticed it was already past my bedtime. I let out a yawn. Despite Vicky keeping me up, I was grateful to learn I’d be long asleep by the time Jan arrived – Vicky had a knack for inviting lovers over unannounced, forcing awkward, lumbered introductions each time I went to use the bathroom before bed.

            Pulling out a bowl, I watched Vicky pour a heaping portion of soup. She then slowly headed towards the salt and pepper shakers in the corner of the kitchen – I realized this was my only chance to escape. Once Vicky took a seat I’d be roped into further conversation that I knew I’d regret when I’d arrive to work with dark, swollen bags under my eyes, both of them likely crusted shut.

            I stood, and when Vicky turned back towards the table I left her with a light, good-hearted, “He sounds like the one.”

            Vicky took a sip of her broth. After a moment she said, in an unexpectedly genuine tone, “I have that same funny feeling.” A large smile formed between her swollen cheeks, before she added, “Good-Nighty! Also, I promise I’ll keep it down tonight.” Vicky then blew the steam off her soup and slurped another sip in glee.

            I headed back through the living-room, past the slumbering Boo-Boo and into my room. It was down the hall in our old, rail-road apartment. I locked the large dead-bolt and hit the lights. I pulled the covers over my exhausted frame and prepared to sleep, when I felt a sudden, unexpected joy.

            This was the first time in almost a year of living with Vicky that not only did Vicky say goodnight, but she promised to be quiet. Vicky had often had suitors over till the morning light shined into my window, and many times I’d been forced to stay up with them.

            I began to wonder, if this was who Vicky became on the outskirts of love, who would I awaken to the following morning? I closed my eyes, and allowed Vicky’s smile to pleasantly drift through my thoughts. It was warm and welcomed and I’d completely forgotten about the bumps that overtook her frame. But then it all disappeared in an instant.

            “Boo-Boo! That’s not your Wee-Wee Pad!” Vicky’s hoarse voice reverberated through the thin walls and into my ears. It began to echo throughout my room and even when I placed my pillow over my head, my ears remained alert. There was a brief pause, but it was broken only a moment later.

            “Boo-Boo! How dare you! You know Mommy has a guest coming over!”     

About the Author   


Alex Antiuk is a writer and former vitamin salesman from New York. He was also a winner in author Simon Van Booy’s Short Story Competition in 2018.

Bullet by Lina Carr

When the police call, you know it failed. You were the one to call, the one to cry, to scream, beg them to come. You’ve rehearsed the shock in the tone of your voice, exercised face muscles to sculpt a perfect panic expression. She told you the words you should use, what not to say; she told you what the police would be asking about. Instead, the detective tells you to rush. 

Fingers curled around the steering wheel tremble when you navigate through the evening streets of New York. You should be rushing but you drive slow. Tonight you’re grateful for jammed intersections, streets packed with pedestrians, red traffic lights. They impose on you the time you need to think and you’ll use them as an excuse that it took you so long. Tonight, they work in your favour. 

With every mile, the closer you are, drops of sweat multiply on your temples, chest, staining your shirt; your throat dries although you don’t speak. You try to breathe slowly to lower your pounding pulse but the air chokes you as you imagine possible scenarios. You don’t know what to think, except that somebody must have noticed, or heard him. The last inch of his shadow, the echo of the gunshot.

As you approach your neighbourhood, you see your lawn sealed with tape; red flashes hit the evening from the top of the police cars. There are people standing on the road in flipflops and nightwear. They hug each other and point at the broken windows. Your next door neighbour shakes in front of the policeman taking notes, and as you pass, you hear people whispering to one other.

I heard shrieks… I thought it was a fox or dogs fighting…  She thought it was somebody screaming but then she heard sirens… They stand on their tiptoes peeping at the glass shattered in the driveway.  It’s a quiet neighbourhood, people will be terrified from now on. They won’t let their children play ball after dark, they will close their windows at night, buy guard dogs, move out. You feel responsible. 

*

Earlier in the morning, you got everything ready, and as she stressed to you, made sure everything looked ordinary. You packed your briefcase for work, ironed your shirt, made sure the windows were closed, and the back door was locked. Waiting for the water to boil, you looked at the awards hung on the walls of living room from her time in the force. The medals, certificates of her achievements, special recognitions. And then at the photographs from your holidays in Italy, the hiking trips, marathons, mountain climbing, and the last one you took of her, holding a gold badge on her promotion ceremony, two weeks before the accident.

You then brewed black coffee and made her hot porridge and sat on the edge of her bed helping her swallow, wiping smeared oats from the corner of her lips.

‘It’s today’ she said.

You wanted to tell her about the new nerve cell regeneration programme and the renowned neurosurgeon in Germany, but she interrupted you.

 ‘Don’t, no more.’

So instead, you stroked her forehead, cheeks, moved your fingers back and forth across her lips, the parts that could still feel, and looked at her immobile limbs, her fingertips that couldn’t touch your skin, her muscles that haven’t voluntarily contracted for the last seven years, and watched how, across her face, sun beams glimmered, brushing her skin with warm yellows and violets. 

*

Before you drove off to work, you sat in the car staring at the key ring, a souvenir from your honeymoon in Sicily, and recalled far back, when you had first seen her muscular hands, dark-flamed long hair, slim waistline in tight leather trousers, and how she had pulled you towards her to kiss, later telling you that everyone in the task force called her ‘bullet’. You remember how later that night, with the tip of your finger, you copied her tattoo, a black inked handgun, from her shoulder blade to her chest, breast and thighs. Then a memory crept upon you, that is always unwelcome, the night she was shot, her spinal cord broken. To shut it out, you started the engine. 

*

At work, you did your best to act normal, you spoke with the clients, asked for your coffee, but forcing the routine only escalates the speed of the dreaded thoughts grinding your head. They sneaked through like slithering cobras, between sips, biscuits bites, reciprocated smiles. While in the meeting with the CEO’s, as you discussed and passed new company laws, you stared at your watch, watched the seconds pass, the thin hand that moved from point to point, precisely and quick, like a gunshot. You imagine the blood spatter, shattered bones, her debris, and try to convince yourself to believe in her words: that it is salvation. You recalled the day when you had finally agreed; the day she had chocked on her food and couldn’t breath. That evening she asked again, and you said yes. But it wouldn’t be you—you just couldn’t, didn’t know how. 

*

There are policemen standing on the lawn, guarding the front door to your house. They lift the tape above your head when they hear you are the husband, the detective guides you through the driveway. The shattered glass crunches under your feet as you walk up the staircase. Inside, people covered in white plastic suits bend over carpet and hide what you can’t see in plastic bags.

You look to the end of the hallway, at the half-opened bedroom door, and see the wall above the bed spattered with blood, and crimson drag marks swivelling along the floor. You gasp, stop for a second, but there is a sudden pressure on your left shoulder, the detective pushes you forward inside the living room and points at the sofa. 

‘We received a phone call from one of your neighbours who noticed an intruder sneaking into the house,’ he says.  ‘I’m very sorry but your wife was injured.’ 

You half-open your mouth, pant. 

‘We can’t say yet what happened here, the team is sweeping the house. It might have been a burglary, but nothing seems to be taken.’ He points at the TV screen and the laptop.

‘Do you know anybody who would want to hurt your wife?’

Your heart races, heat spreads through your cheeks, reddens your face. You grab your hair, stare in his eyes.

‘I can’t think of anyone, everything was locked before I left for work, made sure she was safe.’ You swallow to get your shaking voice under control, block physiological signs of nerves. ‘What happened to her?’

‘An ambulance took her to the hospital with gunshot wounds just before you arrived,’ he sighs. ‘I’m truly sorry. I knew your wife from before, when she was a DI. Before her accident, she was the best shooter in the force.’ He squeezes your shoulder.  ‘My colleague can drive you.’

*

In the waiting room, you sit for hours, moving from one chair to another, staring at white walls, smelling bleach-cleaned corridors. Overhead lamps blind your eyes with neon. You follow the hands of the clock fixed on the opposite wall, watch the seconds pass, the arrows move, somehow slowly, and jump up for any sight of a person coming out the operating theatre. For a moment, you wish you had faith, belief in God, and wonder where the chapel is, the golden altar in front of which you could kneel and clear yourself of all the sins. Hope the strength of your prayer would influence the precision of the surgeon’s blade, so she could be saved. 

You picture yourself crouching in front of the figure, his hands stretched to the ceiling and dripping blood painted on his chest, to beg for his forgiveness for your recent actions and words. The intricate plan, the phone call, the burner phone you’ve smashed and drowned in the murky Bronx river, the words you’d never thought you’d pronounce. ‘One bullet, in the head.’

Door rumbles snap you out of your thoughts as a figure in a green scrubs walks towards you, his face is pale and motionless, a death mask.

‘I’m really sorry. The damage was extensive, shreds of the bullet stayed in her brain. She’s in a coma,’ he says as he squeezes your shoulder. ‘But lucky to be alive.’

*

The recovery suite has cool green walls and an eerie glow, monitors beep with precise persistence. You walk towards the bed, sit on the edge and lift her palm, warm, unaware, and picture yourself moisturising her skin with her favourite tea tree lotion, like after that first surgery, when she still had hope, strength for more. 

You recall different hospital beds after many operations, with each new hope that the nerves would heal, muscle mass stop retracting, telling her miracles happen, and she will do again what she does best: run, chase, shoot. 

Moving your fingers across her forehead, you look at her sealed lips, closed eyelids, frozen body, and how dozens of outside lights reflect on the wall above her head, twinkling with life. The city pounds. People travel back home, to their mothers, fathers, lovers, to hold their warmth, see them smile, dance; hear them laugh. And you think of the stars that blink above you both, the earth that makes another turn around the sun; the motion of life. 

About the Author

Lina A. Carr is a writer with a particular interest in short fiction. Her stories have been published in Idle Ink, Clover & White Literary Magazine and Bandit Fiction. She lives in London. You can find out more about her at www.linacarrwriter.com or follow her on Twitter @LinaCarr_Writer.

Room 6? by Christine Fowler

            Death had a headache.  He normally only picked one out of a hundred thousand people, to actually see as a representative of all the other ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety-nine he collected simultaneously.  But even that one person was becoming blurred.  When you harvest souls, day in and day out for all eternity, things, people did become, well ‘samey’ he thought.

            His ruminations were interrupted by the noise of someone snoring, loudly.  He stopped as he bumped into a side table.  A bedside light sprang on and a woman’s voice said, ‘Who’s there?’

            Crap he thought, she shouldn’t have heard that.  He decided to ignore the voice.  But there it was again, ‘Who’s there I said?’

            Then he heard the click as the main light went on.  Feeling slightly exposed, a new feeling he was surprised to note, he turned towards the voice.  He saw an old woman, no surprise there, he was after all in a Care Home, to gather Rose Black. 

            The woman was pushing a pair of false teeth in which she had taken from a slightly grubby glass on her bedside table, and was squinting short sightedly at him.  ‘I said whose there?  And what are you doing in those ridiculous clothes?  It’s not Halloween.  Come here where I can see you properly.’

            Death truth to tell felt a bit overwhelmed by the diatribe, which looked set to continue.  On the very rare occasions in the past when people had seen him, they screamed and fell over dead.  But this was new.  Perhaps when he was nearer and she saw him properly, things would go back to normal and she would keel over.

            He stepped forward and she grabbed his arm.  ‘Pull down that ridiculous hood so I can see your face’ she ordered.

            ‘You’re sure?’ he croaked.

            ‘Get on with it.’

            He complied and revealed his bony skull, complete with staring dark empty orbs. 

            ‘Hmm’ she grunted.  ‘Death I suppose.  I see you haven’t had one of these new-fangled makeover thingies.’

            He felt slightly affronted by this remark and to be fair also rather bemused.  Who was this woman?  Why was she responding like this?  Had he lost his touch?

            ‘What’s the matter?  Cat got your tongue?’ then she cackled, ‘I suppose, skulls don’t have tongues?’  Then she cackled again in amusement.

            This was just too much.  He pulled himself up straight, jerked his arm from her grasp and scowling snapped, ‘Show some respect Madam.  Who do you think you are, anyway?’

            ‘Elsie, Elsie Rowbottom and proud of it! ‘ She added with emphasis.

            He spluttered, ‘Elsie, Elsie Rowbottom indeed.  Who is she when she is at home?  I came here for Rose, not an Elsie, Rose Black.’

            ‘Well that’s not my fault is it?  If, you can’t read door numbers.  I’m number nine and she is number six.’

            He turned abruptly, stalked to the door and looked pointedly at the brass number, clearly a six.’

            She laughed, ‘That handyman was supposed to fix that ages ago.  See’ she said, as she made her way slowly across the room with the help of a rather unusually carved walking stick.  She prodded the stick at the number on the door and spun it round.   ‘A nine, it just looked like a six because the top screw is missing.’

            ‘Ah’ said Death, ‘I should have spotted that.’

            ‘Now I’m awake come in and have a tipple of gin with me.  There’s not much choice of company here, they’re nearly all doolally.  I could do with a good old gossip.’

            ‘But are you not worried about’ and he indicated his face this, me, Death?’

            She chortled, ‘I am living with death all around me in this place.  They might as well all have popped their clogs.  After all, they sound like zombies or look like corpses or as good as anyway.’

            He looked at her properly.  He could see what she had been and what she might have been and indeed what she had become.  Yes, she was worth a stop and he sat down on the lone armchair by the window.

            ‘Take the best seat, why don’t you!’

            He got up and this time he took her elbow and led her over to the chair.  He then perched on the end of her bed.  ‘Better?’

            ‘Yes, I see you can be a gentleman when prompted,’ as she poured two generous measures of gin.  ‘No ice.  This place doesn’t run to that.’

            ‘Nor gin I warrant’ Death wryly observed.

            ‘You’ve got that right, mister, ‘ she replied as she clinked glasses and settled back more comfortably in her chair.  ‘Now what can you tell me about where I’m going.  I’ve always wanted to know.’

            ‘Sorry that’s a trade secret.  Why don’t you tell me about yourself?’

            ‘Me, no.  Nothing special about me.  What you see you get.  I’d rather talk about you, after all it’s not every day a girl gets a visit from Death and lives to tell the tale.  I will live to tell the tale?’  She remarked as an after-thought.

            ‘Seems like it you’re not on my list for today.’

            ‘That’s good,’ she said visibly relaxing.  ‘Now you were saying about your job… a bit frustrating eh?  Can’t find Rose what’s its name?  I’ll take you there myself when we finish the gin, she’s a right pain in the proverbial, if you know what I mean,’ and sniggered.

            Taking a large gulp of the good stuff, she continued.  ‘You know I never thought I’d end up in here.  I swore I’d never end up in a place like this.  The scrapheap.  Once you’re in there’s no getting out you know.  That’s right there’s no escape, unless you call losing your mind, escape.  Mind there’s a lot of them opt for that.  Sniffing she took another large mouthful, absentmindedly topped up her glass to the brim, and waved it at Death in invitation.

            ‘No, thanks I’m OK at the moment’ he said waving his hand in negation.

            ‘Thought about it myself, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it.  It’s my curiosity you know.  I always want to know what’s going on.  Take the matron, being looking smug for weeks now.  I couldn’t quite fathom it, until I found her phone on her desk.  I had a gander didn’t I.  Read her texts.  And wouldn’t you credit it I found some saucy texts to one of the board members.  I send a copy to my phone never know when it might come in handy that sort of information.’  She paused for breath.

            Death by this point was in quiet admiration of Elsie’s grip on life, and for that matter apparent grasp of new technology.  ‘I’m impressed.  How did you know how to do that?’

            ‘Easy peasy one of the carers snuck her kid in when the school had one of those occasional day things.  Never did that in my day.  We got our hands slapped with a ruler if we weren’t working and messing about.  Come to think of it, we didn’t have to be messing about we just have to have caught the teachers’ eye.’

            Death coughed ‘You were saying about how you knew to send a copy…’

            ‘Oh, the phone, yes well.  Any way I found the kid bored out of his skull messing about in the laundry room.  So, I just gave him some occupational what’s it’

            ‘Therapy.  You mean occupational therapy.’

            ‘Yes, that’s it.  Occupational therapy, so I got him to show me a thing or two then let him download some game thingies and play on it.’

            She waved the gin bottle again, ‘More?’

            Death looked at his glass, what the Hell he thought.  ‘Hit me,’ he said.

            There was a satisfactory glugging sound as she poured another stiff gin for both of them, then she sank back into her armchair once again.  ‘Where was I?’ she said as she stared at him for inspiration, then fascination.  ‘Where does it go?’

            ‘Where does what go?’

            She waved her glass, ‘This.’

            ‘Same place as yours, to my head of course!’

            She laughed, ‘Ain’t that the truth.’  Silence fell.  Her eyelids drooped, then she startled, ‘Jerry’ she exclaimed.

            ‘What?’

            ‘You remind me of Jerry.  My Jerry.  My lovely Jerry’ she mumbled, as she seemed to drift off to sleep.  Death tiptoed out of the room.

            Elsie woke up with a start.  What a strange dream, she thought, as she cast her eyes towards the sun burst clock on the wall.  5.30 am, worth getting out of her armchair and getting into bed.  The lazy care workers wouldn’t be in until at least 9.00 am to see if she was up for what passed for breakfast here.

            ‘Oh, my aching bones’ she grunted as she attempted to lever herself out of the armchair.  Her arms trembled with the effort and she collapsed back in frustration.  ‘Bugger, Bugger, Bugger.  I’m not going to be stuck here again, am I?’ she muttered, ‘The indignity.’  Gritting her teeth and with one almighty effort she managed to rise.  First clutching the window sill to steady herself, she tottered over to her bed and flopped down heavily onto the easy wash and dry nylon cover.

            Gathering her breath before the final effort of getting in to it, her eyes caught sight of the glasses on the table.  Two glasses.  Two glasses.  She chewed her lip ruminating and realised that she had her teeth in.  ‘Well bugger me’ she blurted, ‘it was real.’

About the Author

Christine began writing fiction in 2018 both short stories and a novel featuring an alternative reality.  In addition, she set herself the challenge to write a Crime Story, this is part way through at the moment.  At the same time, she attended some adult education writing courses to discover the tools, shortcuts etc that writers use.  During this she became more interested in writing and performing poetry and since 2019 it has been her primary focus.  However, she really likes the character in this short story and will write more about her in the future.

Ink by Ross Turner

Ink

Herman’s fountain pen scored black trenches across coarse, grey paper. Thick ink trailed in slow lines to form letters, which joined into lingering words; he had been assured those words would take shape, become his memoirs, but, so far, they just looked like roads and paths. The page was another map – more unknown territory.

Halting, Herman crushed his palms into his eyes, blotting out his study: sodden dirt carpeted the uneven floor; mounded dust camouflaged regimented bookshelves; and picture-frame-debris littered the no-man’s-land that accounted for most of the room. To his left, sheaves of paper lined with roadways marked the years of old ground he had covered. When the lantern to his right sputtered and died, darkness overwhelmed the study.

He groaned, heaved himself up, limped into the living room, crunching glass underfoot and staggering over discarded tins. Apart from there being a settee instead of a desk, the rooms were identical. Lice-ridden bedsheets lay crumpled on soiled cushions, and Herman dove for the covers, oily hair obscuring his eyes as he sprawled down. He quaffed from an open bottle on the floor, emptying it before coming up for air, and embraced the stupor that seized him.

Smoke hangs low like fog. CO’s mouth churns. Shrilling too loud. He’s just a kid. Face pockmarked more than the ground. Hero complex too. He’ll be dead inside a week. Any second now. They’ll start shelling again. That’s how they do it. Lull you into a false sense of security. You poke your head up, they blow it off. They’re dependable like that. Hunker down. Comfortable sludge. Subtle shift – weight off gangrenous foot. Head against the mud wall. Eyes closed. Whistling fades. Begin to hear voices again. The Officer moves on. Men cram together. ‘Sherman!’ George’s voice. ‘Sherman! You alright?’ Eyes open. Bombing resumes.

The changing sound awoke Herman, as explosions became knocking. He flashed, snapped upright on the settee, drew a vicious breath.

‘Grandpa?’

He let the air whistle out between his teeth. The ache in his foot helped confine his anger, while the stabbing behind his eyes told him night had come and gone.

‘It’s open, Jennifer.’

She opened the front door and crept inside, inched the three paces through to the living room, cradling Tupperware tubs filled with spaghetti Bolognese and packs of chocolate digestives balanced on top.

‘Grandpa,’ she said quietly, glancing around.

‘Jennifer.’

She held her arms out, trembling. ‘I brought you these.’

Herman took them, felt suddenly exposed, knowing he would not eat them. ‘You’re such a good girl. Your mother would be proud.’

Jennifer looked down.

‘Can I take you today, Grandpa?’

‘I don’t want to go.’

‘Please?’ Her shaking intensified. ‘I need to go.’

‘They don’t know me.’

‘You won’t give them a chance.’

Later, back in his study, Herman’s pen hovered, clenched in his fist, ready to strafe the blank page. Globs of ink bubbled downwards, advancing on the pen’s tip. They gathered in a black pendant drop, threatened to bomb the two-dimensional, monochrome landscape. Finally – BOMBS AWAY! – it blitzed the paper.

No screaming came across the sky, as the liquid shell plummeted and exploded silently – sound and splash absorbed into the wreckage, veining out through coarse fibres, spreading like thick black flames. Herman watched the ink claw across the page, flicked his wrist to lay down more fire, spattering his arc.

The desk was grooved, as if it were gristly, wrinkled skin. Splattered ink wormed into those hollows, seeped deep into flesh. Herman had dug at the grooves with his blackened fingernails, excavating them over time, so that the desk – the useable portion of it, at least – was a third its original size. Sitting there, in the filthy study of his tiny council house, he had burrowed through muscle and tendon, exposed the nerves beneath.

He thrust the tip of his pen into the paper, wrought its tines askew as he stabbed the desk’s wooden skeleton; ink gushed from the pen’s slit, drenching the page. He swore in German as he tried to stem the flow, laughed at the absurdity, and swore instead in English.

Once the situation was under control, he issued a fresh sheet of paper, commissioned his reserve fountain pen, and began to write without abandon:

Some lads faked their details for another shot at the medical. Especially if they hadn’t got in because of something like asthma. They were young and desperate to go. I wasn’t any different. But when I got there and gave my name, they weren’t interested in anything else. Not my address or family history or NI number. Bypassed my medical. Before I knew it I was approved. A week later I was in basic training. Six weeks later they told me I was a soldier. Then they told me I was a translator. Said my name in a harsh accent. I didn’t speak a lick of German. 0600 they had me in my 2’s in front of the OC. He’d fought in the 1st and had the silver to show for it. He wasn’t happy. He repeated my name lots of times and asked me why I’d requested to be a translator. I told him I hadn’t. I didn’t know anything about it. He told me I had three days to learn German. Managed to scrounge a German dictionary. We shipped out the next day.

M4 Sherman Tanks were cheap to produce, small and light enough for shipping and to utilise existing bridging equipment, and generally reliable – by military standards. Herman had been nicknamed Sherman for much the same reasons: he had joined minus the cost of a medical; was underweight; and was such a reliable translator he spoke almost no German.

His Officer resented him, knowing the company had landed a dud: an inept translator and, at best, an average soldier. Herman’s only redeeming quality – which his hierarchy begrudgingly recognised – was his relentless determination; consequently, though it was never really an option, he did not desert, and, through reading his dictionary and practicing on prisoners of war, could speak halting German inside of three months.

Memories bombarded him, assaulting Herman with vague mud- and blood-stained faces. German soldiers, barely men, he wrote. Weary. Wounded. Woeful. Too poetic – he did not hold with that nonsense. Just the facts. He stopped introducing himself: it raised too many questions he could not understand, let alone answer. He stumbled through interrogations with his Officer looming over his shoulder.

Once, he remembered, after a particularly fierce barrage, the POW’s were miserable; so was he, but he was not allowed to wear it so openly. With an ever-strengthening grasp of the language, he began his interrogation. It went well: he asked three questions without any mistakes, but the fourth was more complex. His Officer wanted to know the placement of German positions, what artillery they had, what armour. Herman tripped over some words, forgot others, replaced them with the wrong ones. The men’s filthy faces cracked, showed brilliant teeth. Herman’s Officer shot them, obliterated their smiles. Because he had asked for the wrong directions.

Hit the beach. Cold. Piss wet through. George had been trying to keep our spirits up. Always does. He’s a joker. But braver than the rest of us put together. Never scared. Never once thinks about jacking it in. Boats land, or beach. Whatever boats do. George leads the charge. FIX BAYONETS! Into sand and bombs and music and gunfire and bars and barricades and hammocks and wreckage and hula girls. Most of the guys vanish to play pool and chat up locals. I stick with George. Wingman him as he gets friendly with a blonde bombshell. Sand flying everywhere. They finish. She still can’t understand him. I only catch a few words. So we crawl to the next sand bar. Barmaid has drinks ready for us. Thatchers for me. Bloody Mary for George. We both understand her. She’s friendly too. But in a more practical way. George talks about giving up, going home. Gets animated. Screams about it. Spills his drink. Red and sticky all over his front. Barmaid throws him a strip of cloth. ‘Cheers!’ Face pale. Hands shaking. DAB DAB. He needs another. I put a quick second round down.

When Herman awoke, his duvet smelled of fresh lavender and was tucked up to his neck. Between the settee and the door, a three-foot ocean of bare, roiling linoleum poised in ambush. Beside him, his stores of bottle-ammunition were depleted.

‘Grandpa.’

‘Jennifer.’

She paced around the settee into view. ‘We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.’

Herman looked at his granddaughter, inspected her, for the first time in years. Her inky hair was thin, threaded with grey. The lines on her face were unnatural dugouts. How old was she even? Surely not that old? He could not remember. And she had camp bones: clavicles compressing her chest; hips squeezing her stomach; arms thickest at the wrist. Had she been plump when she was little, or was he imagining that? She had used to grin when she saw him.

He wondered how he looked. Worse, no doubt.

‘Fourteen minutes,’ she said, voice tired, like her mother’s had become.

Went to the vets meet this week. Jennifer made me. It was at that community centre again. Where they have all the AA and junkie and depressed meetings. She disappears for the hour, into one of the other rooms. I know she won’t go without me. And I know she needs it. I just can’t stand it. I say my name. That’s about it. The lad who runs it thinks we’re all heroes. That the less we say the worse the things we’ve done. Or probably the better he thinks. Maybe I should say more next time. Tell him a story. About George. About how he spilled that Mary. How I got the second round in but all the hula girls in the world couldn’t cheer him up. About how he’d always be the one that got there first. How he never thought about going home until the job was done. How I had to take his mind off the spilled drink. Ordered another round for a toast. Then I’d tell another story. About how drinking takes me back, but eventually takes me away. About shouting at Alice in German she didn’t understand. She didn’t need to. I’d burned my dictionary, but I made her understand just fine.

Smoke and ash spun through the air. Herman limped through from the desk to the settee, lighting sheaves of coarse, grey paper and firing them in mortar volleys. Instead of detonating, they made the air thick and hot, until Herman heaved and hacked.

But he had been almost wholly consumed by fire several times, in the wake of raining explosions. This was nothing in comparison. He knew he had time. He had written about it, like the trauma counsellor told him to, along with everything else. Now his words were fire and smoke; ashen paper fluttered down around him, and he swallowed each piece, consuming hot snatches of memory.

Then a dozen flashes of orange dashed away from him, flared in the doorway, swirled back up against gravity. They drew together into a burning face, lips moving, but the shrilling was still too loud.

Once again, the remembered sound became knocking, but Herman had barricaded the door. He heard his granddaughter’s voice, calling him from outside. She did not sound tired now. She sounded desperate – like her mother had sounded when she was a girl, when he had finished a bottle and was making her understand.

Herman closed his eyes and leant back. But the wall of mud was not there.

He fell.

When he opened his eyes, flickers of orange still danced, bright against the dull, off-white ceiling. The pain in his back and head anchored him to the floor, and he relaxed into their crushing hold.

Then the burning face again. No longer in the doorway, but hovering over him. His heart and stomach thrashed against his ribs, unable to flee. If he could have let them go, he would.

‘Dad,’ the face said.

He glared at the ceiling.

‘Dad! Fucks sake!’

He blinked. The burning faded, and the face became an older version of Jennifer.

‘Alice?’

‘Surprised you recognise me.’

He remembered her tired voice – a battlefield of pity, sadness, and disappointment – the way Jennifer’s had sounded; it was different now.

Angry. Eyes like knives.

‘Alice, I–’

She held up her hand. ‘Not interested.’

‘Where’s–’

‘Jenny? Your granddaughter?’ She grimaced, eyes stabbing him. ‘Dead, Dad. She killed herself.’

‘Wha–’

‘I found her in the bathroom. Like one of your war stories.’

‘Alice…’

‘Your fucking war stories.’

‘Alice, I–’

‘Fuck you.’

She stepped over Herman, traced into the kitchen. Drawer, RATTLE, SLAM. Retraced, laid something about the size and weight of a pen on his chest. The knife felt cold, even through his shirt. He kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling, so he did not have to watch his daughter leave.

I’m a new man. Reformed. My daughter loves me. Visits me every week. Jennifer’s fine, of course. Alice was just trying to scare me into action. One of those interventions. Jennifer still brings over spaghetti and biscuits. Always trying to fatten me up. And I eat the lot. I help at the vets meet now too. Try to get more to come. I’m like a walking advertisement. Tell them all about George. They come along and we all laugh and they get better as well. Finished my memoirs too. Got myself a publisher. Tells me I’m one determined son of a bitch. Soon people will be able to read all about my life. Like a map into my memories. See what things were really like. I can give all the royalties to Jennifer. She’ll probably say no. She’ll say they’re mine. I earned them. I deserve them. She’ll want me to get what I deserve. She’s such a good girl. Her mother would be proud. Maybe I’ll keep writing. Keep drawing more maps. Keep blotting the pages with words like roads and paths. Ink is thicker than everything.

About the Author

Ross Turner was born in 1992, in the West Midlands, and studies Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Gloucestershire. He writes short fiction, works privately as a tutor, writer and editor, has been in the Royal Air Force Reserves since 2014, and has been published in a number of print and online journals.

What We See by Sarah Leavesley

We see everything, and nothing, at least, nothing we’ve not seen before. Drunken antics are what we’ve traded over the fifteen years during and since college. This time is no different, until we look back later and hindsight creates the signs.

It’s 1am and Harry has a saw in his hands, hacking at his toilet door. Trapped inside, Tom is jangling the handle. Outside, we’re laughing, a red-wine-stroke-pale-lager-flavoured laughter that sometimes catches on our teeth as the saw catches on wood when Harry slides it down the frame, ‘like a credit card’, until it catches on the lock, which still won’t open.

‘Hurry up, won’t you!’ Tom’s voice has risen in pitch.

‘Ok, ok,’ Harry mutters, turning to us with a look of mimed exasperation. We chuckle louder.

Now Harry’s wife, Sofia, and Tom’s partner, Caro, crowd into the hall with the others to see what’s going on, why Harry’s got a saw, and what’s with all the laughter, the lock-jangling and the closed door. Someone tries the handle again, and brute-forces it open.

Tom emerges, red-faced and sheepish. Of course, it’s Sofia that places a hand on his shoulder, then eases him gently towards another drink to help smooth panic’s jagged edge.

We get through the rest of the evening with crossed legs and toilet humour.

In the morning, we’ve all got sore heads, but smile when we remember Tom’s wooden face appearing from behind the wooden door. He claims that, no, he was laughing or grinning, while Caro says shocked. We tease him about the fifteen minutes trapped inside, jangling. No one pays attention then to the expression on Harry’s face. Or notices Sofia’s hand under the table, stroking Tom’s thigh.

When we sober up, finally, Tom trips on the blade still lying on the floor. Tired-eyed but sparking, Sofia joshes: ‘You’d have to have sawn it to believe it…’ Glancing at each other, Caro and Harry don’t laugh.

We remember this months later when news of Harry and Sofia’s divorce filters through and Cara and Tom split up. Sofia and Tom decline their invitations to the next reunion, while Harry tells us he’s picking up Caro on his way.
            Though fairly sure it’s safe, we double check the toilet locks for sabotage, then spend the evening quietly watching each other, extra sharp to every gaze and gesture. Most of the wine stays unopened. Bottles of Bud Light remain still chilling in the fridge, a sheen of slippery ice forming across the surface. We clutch our partners’ hands tighter. This reunion will be our last.

About the Author

Sarah Leavesley is a fiction writer, poet, journalist and photographer, with flash published by journals including Jellyfish Review, Litro, Spelk, Ellipsis, Fictive Dream and Bending Genres.

The Death Zone by William Falo

                                   

I climbed through the death zone of Mount Everest and noticed the frozen bodies in the summit’s shadow. I passed them on the way up but focused on the summit I didn’t look at them. I was the slowest climber, the last to leave the summit. I stayed there for a long time waiting for a ghost from my past to appear. It never materialized. The haunting presence of the dead caught my eye on the descent, I glanced at one body and it appeared to move. “That had to be the wind or I’m suffering from mountain sickness,” I said aloud. I walked closer. The woman’s skin appeared smooth and milky white. She resembled a porcelain doll.
           

I touched her face and she flinched. I fell backward. “My God, she’s still alive.” The woman blinked and whispered in a foreign language.
            “I don’t understand. Can you speak English?
            “Don’t leave me,” she said.
            “I won’t,” I looked up at the summit. It looked farther away every minute I lingered here.
           I used my radio. “Alex, there’s a woman here who’s alive, but in bad shape.”
           The radio crackled. “Can she walk?”
            “No.”
            “What country is she from?”
            “Does that matter?” I fumbled with the radio. My hand started going numb since I took my glove off.

Alex didn’t answer, but after a few minutes, the radio clicked on.  “Your teammates are already at the camp. They are not in good enough shape to go back up the mountain.

I shouldn’t have lingered at the summit, but after my brother died, I quit college and stayed at home until I saw a show about Everest. He was a mountain climber and he dreamed of reaching the summit of Everest. He planned everything then COVID struck and the mountain was closed for climbers. It crushed him. He drank a lot and stayed out late at night walking around the town then a drunk driver hit him. It was a hit and run. He died alone in the street. I climbed Everest in his place. I could complete his dream and find peace. People said I wouldn’t find him there, that he was gone forever, but I needed to find some way to feel closer to him. After months of training, I made it to the summit. I didn’t find him there.
            “Can anyone come up and help me get her down?”
           “I’m checking if anyone has the strength left to do it. You’re the last climber coming down.”

The fallen climber moaned.

“What’s your name?”

 “Jelena.”

“I’m Chloe.”

She tried to sit up, but she was too weak.

“Where are your teammates?” I asked.

 “They had summit fever. They were so happy at reaching the summit they forgot about me when I fell behind.” A tear formed in Jelena’s eye as she said, “I climbed the six highest mountains in six different continents; this was the last one for all seven.” She struggled to show me a crumpled picture of her on Mount Kilimanjaro. “I would have been a hero in my village in Serbia.”
           I put my hand on hers.
            “I didn’t think anyone would ever stop.” She looked at me. “But you did.”

Guilt washed over me as the thought of leaving kept coming to me. I looked at the dead bodies scattered around us then saw that Jelena’s eyes closed, I feared she joined them. I wanted to keep her talking, so I asked, “Do you have any family?”
             “I have a son.” She blinked back tears. “I should have stayed home with him.”
            “I’ll make sure you get back to him.” The camp got farther away. “We survived COVID, we can get through this.”
            It didn’t help.

“I should have stayed home,” Jelena said. “I wish I could go back in time; I would stay with my son.”

My radio crackled. “Chloe, this is Alex. The Sherpas are helping climbers down to the lower camps. You’re the last person coming down. It will take a long time to reach you.”
            Jelena coughed so hard I saw blood on her mask. I noticed that her oxygen bottle was almost empty.
           Snow flurries floated down as ominous-looking storm clouds formed nearby. My head throbbed so I turned up my oxygen. Then the camp called.
            “Chloe, there’s a storm coming, you must leave now. It looks terrible.”
            “She’s still alive,” I yelled.
             “You can’t save her.”
           I clicked the radio off and put my glove on, I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore. The snow intensified as I huddled next to Jelena.
            The radio crackled with warnings about the approaching storm.
            “Please go,” Jelena said. I didn’t want to tell her it was already too late. I would encounter the storm on the way down. It was impossible to make it through a storm.

She tried to reach out to me, but she gasped for air.

I noticed her oxygen bottle was empty. I put my mask on her.

The radio crackled. “Chloe. You must leave now.”  The snow blew sideways. My hand was too cold to work on the radio, so I didn’t bother to answer.
            “Please take your oxygen back.” Jelena tried to remove the mask.

“No,” I pushed her hand away.

 She blinked back tears. “Chloe, please save yourself.”
            “I have to stay. My brother was killed by a drunk driver. He died alone on a desolate road.” I wiped my eyes. “I can’t leave you.”
             “I’m sorry,” Jelena said. Snow accumulated around us. I realized we were alone now. Jelena’s eyes were closed as I huddled next to her.
             “I think I’m in heaven because I see an angel,” she said.
            “No, it’s only me.” I moved closer to her. “If I die, leave my body here. I feel closer to my brother here and closer to heaven itself.”
            Jelena tried to grasp my hand. “If I die, dream a little dream of me. Picture me with my son, not like this.” I thought she was crying, but frost covered the mask.

 “I won’t let you die,” I said, but my heart broke in pieces. I closed my eyes as my hand went numb. Darkness spread across the mountain bringing deadly temperatures. I angled my body to block the snow from covering her. The snow buried me and I knew that if I fell asleep, I might never wake up again. Before long, my eyes closed until my frostbitten hand tingled, and warmth spread through my body. I looked up and my brother smiled at me, and held my hand. I then saw a bright light and I never felt more alive.

                                                            ###

But I wasn’t alive. I floated above my dead body; as peace overcame me. It was like all the worries in my life dissipated at the same time. My brother was by my side.  

I saw the Sherpas place Jelena on a stretcher. One of her eyelids fluttered. She was alive in the Death Zone. The snow let up and streams of the morning sun streaked through the nearby cloud-covered mountains meaning we stayed on the mountain all night. It was a miracle she survived the night.

 “Chloe?” Jelena mumbled. A Sherpa I recognized from the base camp shook his head.

 “She saved my life.” Jelena sobbed as they carried her down the mountain. My body was left in the Death Zone, but I was no longer there. I looked around and saw amazing views that I never noticed on the way up. I looked at the peak of Everest, then I looked down at Jelena and into her opened green eyes, and realized she would be with her son again. Relief washed over me as I saw my brother waiting for me and I reached heights higher than the summit of Everest.

About the Author

William Falo studied Environmental Science at Stockton University. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The UK journal Superlative, The Raconteur Review, Train River’s first fiction anthology, and other literary journals.

Chaos Theory by Tim Love

He kept dreaming that he took a wrong turning onto an empty motorway, and was sucked forward by the emptiness, faster and faster, a danger to no-one because no-one was there. The dreams stopped when Jackie appeared. She wasn’t jaywalking in his dream. Actually he’d been drinking alone in a bar again, not bothering to pace himself, no thought for the future. “Is it free?” she said, nodding towards the stool. He looked up at her – he’d seen her around the campus – then down into his pint, so she sat down anyway. “I’ve seen you here before. Wanna buy me a drink? Anything will do. Tell you what, I’ll share your next Guinness. Just ask for a straw. I’m Jackie by the way.” She held out her hand. When he didn’t shake it, she slipped it down his trousers.

They started hanging around together. He couldn’t really work her out. She knew so many people, yet she’d chosen to go around with him. Did she feel sorry for him, sex just an act of kindness? She said she was doing a multidisciplinary degree, which sounded more exciting than his geography. Did opposites really attract? She was full of enthusiasms and surprises. One night she said that her favourite Irish author was speaking in Nice. She’d never heard him talk about his works in French, she simply had to go. She asked him if he’d hitch-hike over with her. “Aren’t there cheap flights from Bristol?” he asked. “It’s not to save money, silly,” she said, “there’s the environment to consider.”

They got there after 6 rides, she chatting to drivers in French and German while he stared out the window. He was relieved when they booked into a hotel – he feared they’d end up on someone’s floor, or behind a hedge. The famous author spoke to a hall of about 20 through an interpreter, mostly about the IRA. After, walking through dark streets she picked up a traffic cone, held it to her mouth like a megaphone and spun round singing “All you need is Love.” She bought a pizza but wouldn’t let him eat it – she wanted it cold the next morning – they’d not paid for a breakfast. Cosy in bed that night he plucked up the courage to say that he wanted to learn more about her.

“So what do you want to know?” she said, rolling a cigarette with papers and tobacco she’d just bought. He’d never seen her smoke.

“What you’ve done with your life.”

“Oh, life model, blood donor – I’ve got special blood you know, – water diviner.”

“Why that?”

“I only tried it to see if I was any cop. You never know until you try. If you can’t be beautiful at least be different.”

“But you are beautiful.”

“Tits like fried eggs. When I got fed up with pimply art students asking me out I worked in an Old People’s Home on Saturdays. Oh what fun we had. Snakes and Ladders, me rolling the dice for them and moving the pieces. And we played Hungry Hippos. We put 4 of them in wheelchairs head-to-head in a cross shape, gave them each a broom, and they had to drag little multi-pack cereal boxes from the middle. We were doing the pushing and pulling of course. The most exciting thing they’d done for yonks. Oh, I’ve done bucket-loads of things. The past – you can drag it along like a snail carrying its shell. I prefer to frisbee it away.” She picked her pillow up to show him what she meant, hurling it against the door.

“What do you want to be?” he asked. “Heard of Chaos Theory? They do it in maths. Small causes, big effects. Butterfly and hurricane.” She flapped her arms, blew in his face. “I go where the wind takes me.”

But he already knew that was a lie. He knew she was always heading for the borders, the grey zones, not to challenge simple rules (not speed limits – she couldn’t drive anyway) but the unwritten ones.

“Now I should ask you the same questions,” she said, “because that’s why people ask questions, isn’t it? But I won’t give you the satisfaction.”

After returning to Uni in one piece they didn’t see each other for a few days. He felt he’d come off a motorway and everything was in slow motion. He felt he’d gone from loner to socialite without the slog of finding friends. She’d introduced him to so many people – only a few words, but that was the hard bit. He could build on that. He nodded to people he recognized as they passed.

He had a cousin, Sue, at the same university. They met once a term to keep their families happy. They found an empty table in the Mandela coffee bar, she talking about her boyfriend John, he about his latest essay. Jackie suddenly appeared, sat on his lap, “Glad you got coffee,” she said to both of them, “Tea is for mugs.” She lap-danced, kissed him and walked out.

“That was a joke,” he said, when Sue said nothing, “Tea comes in mugs.”

“She’s on my course,” said Sue, “Sort of, anyway. She’s not allowed into lectures or seminars, she has to do everything by email.”

“Why?”

“She tries to sleep with lecturers. With anyone really. Are you two just friends?”

“We go out together sometimes.”

“Mum thinks you’re gay. Are you?”

He couldn’t sleep that night. Why him? he wondered again. To remind her that there’s always someone worse off? Just as he thought he’d understood her, she changed. She wore her life like a model the latest outlandish fashion, a different one each day. Holes where no holes should be. She was on the spectrum then slid off it. Everything – the motorways, the holes, the frisbees – were metaphors then real, his then hers. “It’s like a Mobius Band,” she’d told him once, “If you follow the surface you’ll end up in the other side. There’s nothing behind, nothing deep, nothing hidden. They do it in maths.” Could he spend his life with her? It would be like a game of draughts at first, her white pieces on white squares and his black ones on black. They could work things out eventually. Couples do. His parents would hate her though. And would Sue manage to keep quiet? No.

He and Jackie planned to meet on Friday in the campus plaza. He got there early, sat in his usual place under the clock. He watched her as she approached from afar. When she touched people’s shoulders they looked up, then away. When she greeted people, mostly they ignored her – even the boys. She reminded him of a beggar working through a carriage on the tube.

She sat beside him. She nudged him with her hip. “You don’t talk much do you? What’s up?” she asked.

“Got some bad results. If I don’t get the grades I need for the PhD I don’t know what I’ll do.”

“You’ll be ok,” she said, kissing him. “Don’t you ever worry about your work?” he said, “You never mention it.”

This was his plan. Either she came clean, or he’d end the relationship then and there. Even with his limited experience he knew that it wasn’t good for one person to be in complete control. Was it so wrong to want to know more about her? Didn’t he have rights? Could he cope with being alone again, just as he’d sorted his life out?

“Hey look, if it’s about that girl, don’t worry,” she said, “I’m not the jealous type. I’ll warn you though she’s going out with John the pile-driver.”

“Pile-driver?” “If you slept with him you’d understand.”

He’d expected her to do that – change the subject. She was going through a bad phase. He should be helping her, not thinking of dumping her before he became the laughing stock of the campus. “So what shall we do?” he said. “Tonight.”

A tedious Greek masterpiece put on by the Film Soc that night ended their affair. He couldn’t believe it had lasted only a term. For the rest of his life he remembered to talk more. He remembered to ask people the questions he wanted them to ask him. And holding his dying wife’s hand he remembered that there was always hope, that being alone was nothing to fear.

About the Author

Tim Love’s publications are a poetry pamphlet Moving Parts
(HappenStance) and a story collection By all means (Nine Arches Press).
He lives in Cambridge, UK. His poetry and prose have appeared in Stand,
Rialto, Magma, Unthology, etc. He blogs at http://litrefs.blogspot.com/

Twitter: @TimLoveWriter
Facebook: www.facebook.com/tim.love.31

The Lift Home by Barbara Robinson

I walk to work every day now. I notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving: birdsong; cream, pink, and peach blossoms on the trees and the ground; and once, a parade of quad bikes bringing up the rear of a funeral cortege. It’s the seventh week of lockdown, and with fewer cars on the road, the air is sweet and clean.

My new job is hectically busy because of COVID-19, and it’s a temporary one, so I’m anxious to prove myself. The day passes quickly, and I’m looking forward to walking home. This morning, it was warm and balmy but for a crisp chill that raised the hairs on my arms as I walked along shaded sections of pavement, but the morning’s blue sky has turned gunmetal; a chill breeze comes through the open windows, with spittles of rain on the glass.

‘Off home?’ Nichola fingers the silver charm on her necklace.

‘Yeah.’ I look up briefly before returning to my screen.

We met yesterday, sitting at adjacent tables in the staff kitchen. I ate chicken pasta salad; she ate tuna sandwiches cut into triangles. We stayed two metres apart observing the social distancing rules. Everyone does, but Nichola is particularly careful.

‘Do you like cats, Michael?’

‘Er, no. No, I don’t.’

Her green eyes narrowed and seemed to dissect me, as though expecting something better. I sighed inwardly, annoyed at having to explain myself. 

‘What I mean is, I’m not an animal lover. But I don’t hate them.’

Nichola yawned, showing small, sharp teeth. She licked a fleck of tuna from the corner of her lips. ‘Maybe you haven’t met the right cat,’ she said.

‘Maybe I don’t fucking want to.’ I didn’t say this. I just shrugged.

‘You can’t get coronavirus from cats,’ she said.

I didn’t reply. I decided to swerve Nichola from then on.

Now her eyes are on me as I stand and pull on my jacket. Her silver chain tinkles faintly as she runs it across her lower lip.

‘Do you want a lift? It’s going to rain.’

I’m about to refuse when the room darkens, and long wet splats begin to hit the windows with increasing speed. ‘OK,’ I say, knowing that I sound resigned rather than grateful.

We meet in reception, as arranged, and Nichola goes ahead of me down the stairs. From behind, I see that her lockdown roots are showing, and the sight of her pale orange hair with thin white stripes emerging from the crown is unsettling. I’m about to say that I’ve changed my mind, that I’ll walk home in the rain, when she turns around. ‘

Michael, could we stop at mine first? I’ve got some cat litter that I need a hand with. Bad back, you see.’

‘OK,’ I say. ‘

Great!’ She jumps the last few stairs, landing silently.

The rain has eased and the sky has brightened by the time we reach her old Volvo estate. I hover by the passenger’s door.

‘Ooh, would you mind sitting in the back?’ she says, her face screwed into exaggerated apology. ‘Social distancing.’

At first, I’m annoyed at being relegated to the back of the car, but after a few minutes, I feel relieved. Nichola is one of those confident drivers who has no right to be: tailgating; switching lanes without indicating; looking away from the road to fumble with the stereo. She suddenly brakes and pulls over at a bus stop, causing a lorry to swerve and blast its horn. She turns around to face me and light catches the pale hairs on her cheek and upper lip. The exaggerated apology face makes another appearance.

‘Michael, would you mind getting in the back? It’s just… well, we’re not quite two metres apart.’

‘The back?’ I say genuinely baffled. I was in the back. She gestures with her head to the space behind me.

I get out of the car and back in through the door of the large open boot. I avoid eye contact with the people at the bus stop in their blue and white face masks, although I want nothing more than to join them. As Nichola drives away without indicating, I watch them enviously through the rear window. They’re free while I’m sitting next to a thirty-litre sack of cat litter in the car boot of a mad woman.           

The volume of sound increases abruptly through the car’s speakers, amplifying Jenny Murray’s voice mid-sentence: ‘–woman and her cat. Why does it make her a crazy cat lady when a man with a cat is just a man with a cat?’ I close my eyes, wishing I could close my ears. I try deep breathing but the smell woody of cat litter, overlaid by something meatier and denser, prevents me. My eyes are stinging, my belly roiling. My mouth fills with saliva and I think I’m going to vomit, just as the car slows and stops. I open my eyes to see a cul-de-sac of shabby semi-detached council houses. I’m aware of Nichola’s torso through the rear windscreen as she opens the boot.

‘I just need to run in and use the loo,’ she says.

‘Great,’ I say to the empty cul-de-sac. I get out of the boot and stretch my cramped legs. Wanting the job done, I lift the sack of cat litter and carry it towards the house, almost tripping over a large tabby cat that slaloms slowly between my legs. Another – white with black and tan splotches – sits in the downstairs front window, its tail flicking slowly up and down.

The front door is ajar and the keys still in the lock. I push it with my shoulder, dropping the sack of litter onto the hallway floor. Then it hits me: the eye-watering aroma of piss and the meaty smell of cat food that’s but one digestive step away from being cat shit. I hold my breath and return to the doorway, inhaling deeply and trying not to puke.

I take out my phone, open Google Maps and enter my post code. I’m five miles from home. Fuck it, I’ll walk. I feel a burst of energy and wild happiness. Keeping as close to the front door as possible, I turn in the direction of the staircase. I hear nothing: no running water or flushing.

 ‘Nichola?’ I step back into the hallway. The door to the left of me is closed. Could she be in there? ‘Nichola, I’m going. I’ll walk the rest of the way.’

Wishing I had a face mask, I cover my mouth and nose with my hand, and move slowly towards the closed door. The white, black and tan cat from the window is sitting there, watching me, flicking its tail. ‘Fuck off,’ I mouth silently. I grip the handle and slowly open the door. Another cat is visible inside the room, black with white paws, crouching low, its tail moving laterally across the carpet, ready to pounce. Jesus, how many cats does she have?

‘Nichola?’ I enter the room, opening the door fully with my elbow. There’s no furniture, apart from scratching posts and climbing frames with levers and fluffy balls. A large, enclosed litter tray flanked by two smaller ones sits below the windowsill, and in the middle of the room, a white and green mechanism that appears to dispense cat treats is next to a water fountain. Eight or nine cats of varying sizes and colours occupy the room. There’s no sign of Nichola. I’m about to leave when I hear an arrhythmic scrabbling sound from the enclosed litter tray, accompanied by the sudden smell of fresh cat shit.

‘Fuck me! Jesus!’ I gag, pressing both hands over my nose and mouth. The flap of the litter tray opens outwards and a fox-sized cat emerges, pale orange with white stripes. I watch in fascinated revulsion as it stalks towards me, green eyes fixed on mine. It purrs loudly and begins to rub itself against my calves as though it knows me, then jumps upwards playfully. I yell in pain as sharp claws pierced my thighs through my jeans. The cat retreats and licks its paws, looking bored.

I retreat to the hallway – grateful for a sudden gust of air that comes through the open front door – and go arse over tit onto the sack of cat litter. When I right myself, the large, ginger cat is sitting by the open front door, looking out at the path. I keep my eyes on it as I call out again to Nichola that I’m leaving. Again, no reply.

The cat blinks and yawns, showing small, sharp teeth. It licks the corners of its mouth then jumps up, pressing its paws against the open door, slamming it shut. The hallway is dark now. The cat is barely visible, apart from the white markings on its head and neck and a small silver charm on a chain around its neck that tinkles faintly.

About the Author

Barbara Robinson is a Manchester-based writer with an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Writing School, MMU. Her novel thesis, Elbow Street, was shortlisted for 2018 Northern Writers’ Awards (Andrea Badenoch category) and longlisted for the Grindstone Literary Prize 2018.  In 2016, her story Supersum was short-listed for the Willesden Herald Short Story Prize and published in Willesden Herald: New Short Stories 9. She has had short stories published by Confingo, Ellipsis Zine, Fictive Dream, Cicerone Journal and has been listed on the TSS Best British and Irish Flash Fiction list for the past two years.