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.  

Home by Rachel Grosvenor





It was not a feeling that she could describe with words. Rather, she just knew. That morning, when her mother called her from down the long corridor, she knew that there would be no moment of retreat. No retracing of her footsteps. Hermi lingered on threshold of her room, hanging onto the door frame with short, sharp, fingernails. She could hear her mother speaking to somebody else, the occasional sprinkling of her name in the conversation. She sounded ready for conflict.

            ‘HERMI!’ Came the call again, her mother’s voice battling with the wooden structure of the house, threatening to drag it to the ground.

            Hermi hovered still, awkward in the pale dress that had been laid out for her to wear today. She stared at the sickly little flowers that crawled up from the hem, the blue embroidery that danced with the yellow. This was not her usual clothing.

            ‘That child.’ Came her mother’s words, once more. ‘She is so –‘

            Hermi strained to hear the end of the sentence, desperate to know what she was, really. One socked foot crept into the corridor, and Hermi followed it with the other, displeasure crawling across her skin. She tiptoed gently over the uneven floorboards, carefully avoiding those that she knew creaked and groaned beneath human weight.

            ‘What are you doing child? What is taking you so long?’

            Hermi snapped her eyes from the floor to her mother, who now stood at the end of the corridor, with her hands on her hips. She was wearing, Hermi was surprised to see, a bright yellow sundress, which appeared to be around two sizes too small. The short capped sleeves cut into her skin, causing red rivets to form over her fleshy arms. She clicked her fingers, and turned swiftly, walking into the room at the far end. The conversation appeared to continue within.

            Hermi took a breath, and stepped forward again, paying particular attention this time to the patterns that covered the walls. Of course, she had seen them many times before, but it was only now that she realised that they were hand painted. Was all of the wallpaper hand painted in this house? She couldn’t think. There was a strange sound from within the room that held her mother, and Hermi reached deep inside herself for some semblance of courage. She continued forward, despite every part of her wanting to go back to yesterday, to earlier, to another time. Her fingers hovered over the wall as she moved, feeling the brushstrokes and paint beneath them.

            Suddenly, quite by accident, she had arrived. Hermi stepped inside the room, and saw her mother, nodding to her, beckoning her in further. There, sat on the bed, was a man. He was wearing a dark suit, though the jacket was folded beside him, a hat placed prudently on top. Hermi blinked at his colourful suspenders and white shirt, and then focused for a moment on his face. Ah yes, she thought. There he is.

About the Author:

Rachel Grosvenor is a British writer and tutor, with a PhD, MA and BA Hons in Creative Writing. She writes in various genres and forms, from travel writing to fantasy, and her work has been published in equally diverse places – from Cadaverine Magazine to the wall of the blue bedroom at the National Trust’s Baddesley Clinton. Rachel’s writing news can be followed on Instagram at @teachmecreativewriting, or on her website www.RachelGrosvenorAuthor.com.   

What We Mean by Christopher Moylan

What is it that we meant to say when we say nothing? That we stayed up all night, huddled in blankets, while the children we might have conceived watched us from beyond the breakers, eyes black with reproach. Words like ships passing: some rigged with ice and frost, others with spark and flame, waves seething and bucking on the pebble shore, beside themselves. Memories composting somewhere out back by rivers of stained glass where oblivion receives its baptism. Bundles of once in a lifetime opportunity tossed from the high windows like stacks of newsprint in old black and white movies. Birds peeling from trees like dates from calendars in the same black and white movies. Tidal waves rising over coastal villages, sudden mountains poised on the mirror glare of the full moon. All of this real, none of it true

…when we say nothing. We maintain a certain equilibrium among us like stone spheres floating in outer space, free falling all ways at once, so, in a sense, not falling, but remaining in place—where no place exists. In this we maintain the appearance of a life the way dust drifting from an explosion maintains the appearance of a shape, cohering as clouds, mushrooms, or flowers, all manner of things, except what it is: a cloud of shards, bits, dust. Disbursing, flying in all ways at once, when, as for us, all we want is to establish a position. Each one of us must have a position, a point of reference, even if that points is, in essence,

Nothing. The times rife with trigger words and code words, rumors and conspiracy theories of uncertain provenance. A constant supply, more all the time. Fact weaponized, truth driven underground. Dark energy manifest in ambient decay. Thoughts drifting apart, conversations trailing off, the point lost at the start, if there was one, if that even mattered. Logic is a carnival mirror. The obvious is too subtle, insult preferable. Occam’s razor become Occam’s head shot become Occam’s hand grenade clearing the way in social discourse for the consolations of intellectual paralysis. No response necessary if no response possible. Nothing to say. Nothing to save.

Time flies like the knife thrower’s daggers. The outline emerges with sharpened edges.  The life we failed to embrace gone with the ghost of transgressions we failed to commit. Words withdrawn like hands cupped around a flickering match. Some warmth persists, some light. What is it you were going to say? Nothing. What were you going to say? Wallpaper peeled away, plaster and slats gone. Curtains fluttering in windows that no longer exist.

Sadness. Regret. The louche menace of a forest cave wet with dream. Are we under an illusion. Or are we under arrest? What is it we mean to say when we say nothing? Sweetness and warmth. Unstated understanding in companionable silence like a plate passed down a table. Simple things. Strange things. Every blessing is a revolution. If it’s real. What is it we meant to say? Come into the water. It’s warm. It’s nothing. Come in.

About the Author:

Chris Moylan is an Associate Professor of English at NYIT where he publishes poetry and literary criticism as well as short prose. His prose poems and flash fiction have recently appeared in Flea of the Dog, Parhelion and Strata magazines. 

Inhabiting the Present by Mike Fox


Our garden, which was not wide or extensive, could be reached via either of two doors at the rear of my parents’ house. It is only now, thinking back, that it occurs to me the garden was several feet lower than the house itself. I realise this because in remembering it I visualise the succession of broad, fraying concrete steps that separated the garden from the house. These steps were set on either side of a brick protrusion that might once have been a scullery or kitchenette, although as far as I can recall it never achieved any obvious purpose. Tacked onto this were the remnants of a shed-like object, which I believe had originally been built to store coal. The actual garden, when you reached it, consisted of an uneven and weed-ridden lawn, with what might in other circumstances have been flower beds on either side, and a concrete path to the left beyond which, and margined by a high, plain fence, lay a small, muddy wilderness whereon my father might once have attempted to build a rockery.
Throughout the eighteen years I lived in my parents’ home none of this changed – somehow it would have been unthinkable to change it. Things were as they were, immune to aesthetic uplift or any other form of improvement. I have only to close my eyes to see everything I have described clearly.
The result of this, I realise, is a tendency to leave things as they are, benign inertia that leads me to accept my physical environment, with all its attendant factors, as they first manifest.
So it follows that the house in which I now live, low-roofed, single storey, just back from a plain beach looking out at the north sea, is much as I found it when I moved in, still subject to the various neglects of the previous owner, almost a remnant of someone else’s life.
My only neighbour is Annie. She lives two-hundred metres up the steep climb that leads to a small, unamiable village, from which neither of us have managed to gain acceptance. She knocked on my door shortly after I’d moved in to explain that she’d been in the habit of foraging the herbs that grew wild in my garden. She was holding some well-used pruning shears and a bucket.
‘Take whatever you want,’ I said. ‘I’ve just made a pot of tea if you fancy some.’
We sat in my small living room, with its rotting sash window and view down to the sea. Annie cast a severe glance along the row of paintings I’d just unpacked and which I’d leant against one of the unevenly plastered walls.
‘Did you do these?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Over time.’
‘Why so many self-portraits?’
‘Because they remind me who I am when I’m in danger of forgetting.’ It was something I’d said before – a joke with a certain amount of truth in it. Annie continued to frown at them then turned her scrutiny to me.
‘It’s so introspective. Wouldn’t it be more freeing to look beyond yourself?’
‘I paint other things too.’ I pointed to a stack of cardboard boxes. ‘I just haven’t got them out yet.’
She nodded in a way that suggested she was willing to suspend judgement.
‘I’m an artist too. Come up and have a look once you’ve sorted yourself out.’
Thus things began.
If I visit Annie in the morning I will find her in her shed, which is a miracle of tidiness and functionality. Inside it, she fashions organically shaped mirrors decorated with pieces of recycled glass, carves slender figurines from planks of driftwood, and writes the odd poem inspired by the seascape. She advertises her mirrors and carvings online and people buy them. Her poems get published in small, tastefully crafted journals.
‘You can’t live here and be passive,’ she explained, early on.
It would be clear to anyone that Annie is a creative person, orderly in her habits, and pro-active rather than passive. If I visit her in the afternoon I will find her in her strictly regulated garden, which somehow manages to both blend in and stand out from the coarse, encroaching vegetation that grows on the hill around her cottage.
‘People in big cities drift along – there’s no way that will work here,’ she felt the need to point out when I’d failed to complete my unpacking, perhaps six weeks after I’d moved in.
In fact, I have rarely lived in a big city. And the default habit of accepting any new circumstance in which I find myself has made me, in my opinion, a good adapter. Annie, I soon understood, is inclined to view this as a moral failing.
‘I worked in San Francisco for five years. I practised as a canine psychological interventionist. That was how I managed to buy this place outright.’ Annie says this matter-of-factly, although her fingers dance as she indicates the singular, bijou home she has conjured around her. ‘I specialised in anger management for terriers. There was quite a market at the time.’
‘Christ, Annie,’ I’m aware of the admiration in my voice. ‘However, do you go about doing something like that?’ To set oneself up as a Californian dog guru must require a staggering degree of personal organisation, I think.
‘Everywhere you go has a niche, you just have to work out what it is.’ Annie explains this kindly as if she has realised that even the most commonly accepted truism has somehow eluded me.
Our conversation makes me think, and when I go home I start a self-portrait. The version of me that begins to appear is my thirty-year-old self, a heavily-Fairisled warden in a llama sanctuary, holed up, not unhappily, in a croft on the far north coast of Scotland. I am bearded and my eyes seem wider apart than usual, either from exposure to the hypnotic gaze of the creatures I care for, or from hours spent mesmerised by the vastness of the North Atlantic.
‘You’re like a piece of human litmus.’
It’s a few days later and Annie is looking at the painting from behind my shoulder.
‘You’re someone who becomes your surroundings.’
Before Annie applied herself to the canine psyche she worked as a therapist with humans. She still seems keen to share her insights. I’m beginning to realise this is also her way of building friendship.
‘I could paint you,’ I suggest.
The following week Annie sits before me. I ask her to focus on the ukulele that hangs on the wall behind and above me. I look at her intently. She has pulled her tapering auburn pigtail forward across her left shoulder. There’s something about its thickness and rope-like quality that in itself speaks of vitality. It doesn’t surprise me that we can only work in fifteen-minute episodes because that’s as long as she can remain still.
‘It must be strange having had just the one childhood home.’ she says, maintaining her pose but lifting her eyebrows.
‘Not really.’ There’s a quality of zeal I’m trying to capture in her eyes. ‘Back then and round our way it was normal.’
She purses her lips and nods to the ukulele.
‘My mum and dad were always shunting us about. I’d been to five different schools by the time I was sixteen.’
It’s my turn to nod.
‘Lots of change,’ I say. ‘What about now?’
‘I went out looking for things when I was younger, but these days I prefer to be in one place. I’m settled here for the duration.’
‘For the rest of your life?’ Annie is one of those people who could be any age within a twenty-year span, but from the things she’s told me I guess she’s about forty, in which case, as I wasn’t thinking of going anywhere either, it looks like we’ll be around each other for a significant chunk of time.
‘Show me somewhere better,’ she says. ‘Can we stop for a cup of tea?’
I make tea but still observe her. Once I’ve started a portrait my subject continues to occupy my mind until it’s completed. This also goes for self-portraits.
Annie’s appearance, I think, is self-descriptive. Her sweater is evidently hand-knitted, her espadrilles home-made. Her physique is slender, and for a practical person, her hands are surprisingly delicate. But even in repose, she radiates energy and a conviction which seems to imply that, with the right effort, the immediate world can always be put in order.
‘How long have you been single?’ she asks. The question doesn’t surprise me: curiosity is an inevitable by-product of portrait painting.
‘Technically never.’ For some reason, at this moment, it occurs to me that Annie might be teasable. ‘I’ve always been several people in a single body.’
‘Very clever. When did you last have a partner then?’
‘Pretty much until I came here. We were together for nearly ten years.’
Annie considers this.
‘I would have thought you’d be someone to settle down for life.’
‘Part of me would have liked to.’
To my surprise, she ceases to probe. Instead, she puts down her mug and stretches.
‘I’m ready to start again.’
Annie resumes her seat. I peer and dab. I become increasingly aware of the candour that inhabits her features. With Annie, what you see is what you get, though there’s a lot to see and hence a lot to get.
‘You won’t need to sit any more after this,’ I tell her at the end of the session. ‘I’ll do some bits of finishing during the week and then it’s yours.’
‘What will I owe you?’ Her expression suggests she’s ready to haggle.
‘Nothing,’ I say. ‘I offered to do it.’
Annie stands, grips my shoulders and presses a kiss on my cheek. She looks at me, very intently.
‘I’m going to become your agent,’ she says.
Each morning Annie bathes in the sea. She continues to do this even when October mists lie thick across the shoreline. At a certain point, I start looking out for her return and begin a ritual of taking her a hot drink which I hold for her to sip as she towels herself. As I watch her I sometimes imagine a future in which things happen just as they do now.
‘You’ll notice the difference straight away.’
A still morning and Annie has come with a singing bowl and a cluster of sage. As she warned me, she is going to clear the energy in my house. She lights the sage with a match and sets it down on the stone hearth, then forms three fingers of her left hand into a tripod on which she balances the bowl. Next, she moves purposefully round each room striking the bowl with a turned hardwood mallet. She continues to do this for several minutes then opens the front and rear doors and all the windows. At this point, I feel as if something is flying out through the top of my head. Annie looks at me knowingly.
‘This is your house now,’ she explains. ‘You’ll find it shapes itself around you and you can begin to let things go.’
For the next several weeks I feel a disconcerting sense of absence in the simple domestic space I was beginning to call home.
Autumn shortens the days. One afternoon, when the sea is quiet and the weather overcast, something moves me to paint the garden of my childhood. It seems strange that I’ve never done this before. As I visualise it, it is as large as it would be to a ten-year-old, and still full of casual neglect. My parents’ dachshund runs down the path as if he is still alive. I am sitting on one of the broken steps trying to read a book I’m too young for. I look up from its pages and notice that to my right, against the fence and halfway down the lawn is a lilac tree, in full blossom. It sways in the light breeze. I clench my brow and scrutinise my memory. I could swear I have never seen a lilac tree there before.
I explain this to Annie.
‘It’s because you’re creative,’ she says. ‘Creative people are less likely to see what’s actually in front of them. Creativity is like a lens that distorts things.’
‘Perhaps I just took the tree for granted,’ I suggest, ‘like I never really registered that the garden was lower than the house, even when it was completely obvious.’
‘Memory can add things as well as take them away.’ Annie says this gently, and for a moment her face is transformed by kindness.
One moonless evening as I sit reading I notice an amber light flickering somewhere beyond the window of my living room. I get up and, looking down to the beach, see what might be a small pyre floating out on the tide. I go to my front door, open it, and stand just outside, silently. As my eyes grow accustomed to the mix of glare and darkness I realise the object is a figure, perhaps an effigy, ablaze upon a raft of branches. Then, in the nimbus of light it casts, I pick out Annie, standing upright and trancelike as it washes slowly away from the shore. For a moment I wonder if the figure has been formed from the reeds I have seen drying in her shed, then that thought melts as both figure and raft merge into a single conflagration, smouldering, hissing and crackling as it gradually dissolves into the sea. When eventually the last flames die, the night reverts to blackness, with the ebb and flow of the tide the only sound, and I tiptoe back indoors, leaving Annie to the cooling air, and whatever private moments she has chosen to set adrift, then extinguish.

About the Author:

Mike Fox’s stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath (Fictive Dream), and Blurred Edges (Lunate Fiction), gained Pushcart Prize nomination. His story The Homing Instinct (Confingo), was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story The Fun Police (Fictive Dream) was listed in Best British and Irish Flash Fiction (BIFFY50) 2019-2020. His story, The Violet Eye, was published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook. http://www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2








Blindness by Daniel Schulz

Love. That singular point in the universe that is you, all alone in the world, surrounded by people passing by, your life in the figures of others. I remember these figures passing me by, the people in school, the people on the street, the constant loneliness at home with my family, and that I had nowhere else to go, but into my heart and my mind. This was the room I locked myself into. Love was enchantment from that singular point of view. Love was that January, I delivered a letter of love so to speak, a love letter. She had told me that she lived “down there”, pointing at the corner of the street. That January I almost broke my neck slipping on the steps, Saturday at four o’clock in the morning. The things we do for love. – She never gave me an answer to that letter, though, because she did not live in that house. By “down there”, I eventually found out, she meant around the corner, at the literal end of that street, not the house at which I had delivered the letter, strange as that may sound. I sighed, but did not say anything, when I found out. I was in love with her for no reason.

I was in love with her for no reason, because, in my view, there was no reason for anything in the first place. Love simply was the material from which movies were made, images of speechless intimacy, which, cut into sequence by an editor, simply occurred, spontaneously. In a world where there was no reason for anything really that spark lit me up and let my heart beat faster. It made me feel alive again in a world in which I had survived my own abortion. And since I had survived my own abortion, my mother only thought it proper that I do my choirs. She never really loved me anyway, but was in denial of it, because, as a mother, it was her duty to love me, a social obligation, a household choir. I wanted to get away from all that. I wanted to get far away from her, but when I opened the door and went outside the world hit me like a brick wall of singular rejection, because I did not fit in. There is no reason for any of it really. But when I saw Sara, I thought that, perhaps, I had finally found someone out there like me.

Singularly sarcastic, dressed in black with a studded collar around her neck, Sara had no high expectations of the future. The management sucked. There was too much control in society. There was too little communication. We never spoke on the school yard, only when we sat next to each other in class. She once passed a note to me in history: “I have ‘dirty’ written on my thong. Smells like a teen spirit?” The teacher caught me laughing. But I never knew, if Sara really liked me, because the only time we ever talked was in the afternoon on the way back home or on evenings at the local pub, where all of us aged and under-aged goth and punk teens in this town hung out, forsaken by our parents and the world for seeing how forsaken they were.

The only time we ever talked was when she was not hanging out with her clique on the school yard or when I joined her band of friends at the pub. Was this a form of rejection or was there a possibility of being caught up in a conversation with her? One evening, Lina, a loose friend of mine, contacted me, saying it was urgent, that she had run into trouble with a guy she had broken up with and needed protection. Getting up from my chair and heading out, it took some time for Sara to realize that I was trying to say goodbye. She was focused on another conversation.

He had threatened her, she told me. He had poked a dog’s eye out with a stick. She did not want to be alone anymore. She did not want to go back home. She did not feel safe in her apartment. She only felt safe with us. I stood there, while Kurt went into the shop. Lina was shaken and sick of what had occurred, of this guy that had started stalking her. Kurt came out with three beers, one for each, as we sat there on the street and stared out into the night. Who does such a thing to someone he supposedly loves? Who physically threatens a person, who says she does not want to see him anymore? What kind of a person does not understand that ‘No’ means ‘No’?  – “I’m through with that fucking psychopath.”, she said, finding some resolution in her words, thoughts turned into speech turned into action. – “Do you know where he lives?”, Kurt asked and outlined a plan, involving another friend of his, someone who could help him help her. I stared out into the empty street, feeling alone in all this, realizing that no one else but us was here. Did Sara even care about me?

She ignored me at school. She ignored me in class. It was the same as always, the same routine as the past five months since January, as I realized that night with Lina. And so I finally decided to write Sara another letter. Maybe I was projecting my love onto her like a screen. Maybe I was peddling a dream, riding by her place every day on my bike. Every movement that I made sparked up the dynamo of love, my yearning. But my crush on her was crushing me. I needed to know, if there was a chance… I remember the day I visited her house, when without an explanation she told me that she had already been taken, when she had told me that he was the hunter and she was the hunted and he had finally taken her as his prey. I remember that day, because I did not know what that meant, to be someone else’s prey. – “Now he has me.”, she said, wrapping her arms around her legs. But what did that mean? She had asked me, if I could wait outside for a moment, when she opened the door. She did not want me in her house.

That is how it ended that day. She would not clarify anything else, so when I arrived back home, I stared at the wall of my room, which answered me with as much silence as Sara had answered my letter. She had said her piece and yet said nothing at all with her words. Who in this world, after all, would let someone else treat them like cattle? It did not add up. So I continued staring at the wall, as if it were able to reciprocate my feelings, but the tapestry remained blank. There was nothing else to do. Lina was still staying with Kurt, still waiting for his friend to come back from Berlin next week, a big and muscular man, a boxer. He had a simple plan to solve her problem. He wanted to intimidate Lina’s stalker. It made me wonder, how she was doing, until I finally realized that Sara would probably never return my feelings.

It was my mind that comprehended it, but my heart that was slow to understand, so I crafted a letter one third and final time, romantic and thankful for everything she given me (nothing), a goodbye letter so to speak, giving emphasis on what she meant to me (everything). Love, for me, was no stock exchange. It was a gift to receive and give. Nothing you could ask for in return. As impossible as it might be for a person like me to be loved, it is not impossible for me to love. At least that was what I felt that day. It was a Saturday in July, when I dropped that last letter at her doorstep, four O’clock in the morning. I wanted to leave some kind gesture, an appreciation of the beautiful person that she was, the beautiful person I sketched pictures of in class, when I thought she was not looking. And so I put a rose next to the envelope that I had left for her. This was my farewell.

Kurt told me that they were going to kick down his door. They were on their way now. The door rang. I opened. There was a woman in front of me with two large men behind her and the scent of roses surrounding her, Sara. She told me that her boyfriend had gotten jealous, because of the letter that I had left and that it had to stop, unless… she looked to her left side then to her right side, citing two muscular arguments standing behind her. She smelled of roses. She smelled as if she had plucked the flower that I had left her, squeezed and crushed its petals, and distilled perfume from it to wear on this specific day. – “It was a farewell letter.” I explained, just when she was about to speak. There was an expression of surprise upon her face, but also an expression of deep and calm relief. She nodded and, without a word, turned around, her two best friends following on her heels. Watching her leave, I could not help but wonder, what effect the visit Kurt was paying Lina’s ex would have on her situation.

Why Sara never told me in plain and simple words that she had no interest in me, remains an enigma. ‘No’ after all means ‘No.’ All that I know is that we graduated from this incident and went out our separate ways.

Two years later, a former schoolmate informed me that Kurt, who had helped Lina get rid of her ex-boyfriend, was stalking his girlfriend now. He was unable to bear that she had left him and could not accept that she had been very clear and blunt about the fact that she did not want to see him anymore. He wrote her an infinite number of letters, called her over and over again, tried to contact her at every turn, and frequently rang both at her door and the door of her boyfriend, who told me all of this. He entered the house, when the door opened, without asking. Instead of asking, he simply barged into the house not only with his physical body, but with all the pains and sorrows he carried inside his heart, as if he was the center of the world and all the world revolved around him, because he, of all people, had been forsaken. It almost was, as if he needed someone else to love him, in order for him to love himself. Pitiful. Ugly. Haunting. Who was this man he was telling me about? I did not recognize him. Funny, how, looking out the window, I, for one moment, caught a reflection of myself.

About the Author:

Daniel Schulz is a German-American writer and blue collar worker. 2015 he directed his play Humanity Incorporated for the 100° Festival at the Hebbel am Ufer in Berlin. 2016 he published a short story collection titled Schrei. In 2017, he undertook the inventory of the Kathy Acker Reading Room, i.e. the personal library of Kathy Acker at the University of Cologne, which he has curated since. In 2019 he co-organized the Kathy Acker in Seattle Symposium for the Goethe Institute and co-edited Gender Forum’s special edition “Kathy Acker: Portrait of an Eye/I”. His works have been published in Der Federkiel, Luftruinen, Die Novelle, The Transnational, Mirage #5, and the German anthology Tin Soldier. Forthcoming: Kathy Acker in Seattle.

And During the Evening, Some Things of No Little Significance Became Apparent by Jason Jackson

I’m upstairs in Ben’s room counting the old plastic stars stuck to the ceiling when the phone rings. It’s past midnight, but not as late as it could’ve been, and when Ben speaks he doesn’t sound too drunk.

            ‘Hey, Dad. You’re still awake?’

            ‘Watching TV.’

            ‘Any chance of a lift?’

            ‘Just tell me where you are.’ This is a dad-shaped hole, and I slot into it, no square-pegging.

            ‘I’ve got someone with me,’ says Ben. ‘A girl.’

            I stop on the stairs, thinking of when Ben was born, how I worried his chin was too small, that he had no eyebrows. I think of standing in the hospital carpark, chaining menthol cigarettes, exhaling smoky paranoia.

‘No problem,’ I say. ‘We’ll give her a lift home too.’

#

It’s been raining — the roads slippery and beautiful like wet skin — and I’m driving over the bridge, thinking about the man who jumped last week. His photograph was in the paper: a thin face, eyes like a startled horse. He was, he said, happy to have a future, that he was a different man entirely to the one who jumped, that he was sorry.

            There’s a song on the radio about the end of the world, and I’m tapping the steering-wheel, singing along. The Saturday-night-Sunday-morning streets are full of people, couples joined together like paper dolls, bullish men in t-shirts with tattooed necks. I try to remember being seventeen, but it’s like I’ve been forty-three my whole life, a permanent state of exhaustion, uncertainty and the need to buy multipacks of coat-hangers from supermarkets.

            I turn into Dean Street, and there’s Ben, leaning against the wall of the club, hands in his pockets, a girl standing next to him holding a pair of red shoes, one in each hand. She’s in black jeans, a yellow t-shirt; Ben’s in a suit like he’s mourning a distant relative, like he’s serious about a whole lot of things.

            Ben holds up a hand. The girl smiles, points at the car, and I see that although she’s drunk, she’s almost certainly not drunk enough for me to have to carry her up to her parents’ front door wearing a sad and sorry expression. I finally understand that there is a benevolent God who loves me, and I pull into the curb.

#

‘So,’ I say into the rear-view mirror. ‘You don’t like taxis, Caitlin?’ The car smells of wine and cigarettes. Caitlin’s resting her head on Ben’s shoulder, his hand is on her thigh, and I’m thinking: This is my son, who is able now, somehow, to place his hand nonchalantly on the denimed leg of a beautiful girl.

            ‘Taxi drivers drive too fast,’ she says. ‘You know how in video games, when a fatal crash is an inconvenience at best?’ Her voice is high and a little desperate, like a red balloon drifting up into a blue sky.

            ‘Tell him about the star-sign thing,’ says Ben. ‘The serial killers.’

            She sits up straight, says, ‘Oh, everyone knows about that already.’

I see that the words on her T-shirt say ‘Heroes not heroin,’ and that it’s too big for her, like it’s her dad’s. ‘I don’t know a thing about serial killers,’ I say. ‘Or star-signs.’

            ‘This is totally true, right, Dad?’ says Ben. ‘But you won’t believe it. I know you won’t.’

‘Try me,’ I say, and I smile into the mirror like a chat-show host, like a fat uncle at a wedding.

‘Okay,’ says Caitlin. ‘What would you say if I told you the top twenty-five serial killers of all time had the same four star-signs?’ She cocks her head like a curious ostrich. ‘What on earth would you say to that?’

I laugh at her mock-gravitas, this girl in a yellow T-shirt with my son’s hand on her thigh; I laugh at the strangeness of living, of star signs, of violent death and coincidence.

In the back seat, Caitlin is counting on her fingers one-by-one: ‘Sagittarius. Virgo. Gemini. Pisces,’ she says. ‘There’s no arguing with the facts.’ She leans her head back onto Ben’s shoulder, and he smiles down at her, lifts his hand from her thigh, smooths her hair out of her face. Her eyes are closed tight, like a mole’s. Like a child, pretending.

‘Isn’t that ridiculous?’ says Ben.

‘Ridiculous,’ I say, smiling, because it really is.

We’re driving over the bridge. I want to turn to them, tell them there’s nothing other than dumb luck in this world that can save any of us, but I don’t say anything, I just drive, wondering how it’s possible that the stars on a kid’s bedroom ceiling can be even more beautiful than the real thing.

About the Author:

Jason Jackson’s prize-winning fiction appears regularly in print and online, most recently at Fractured Lit, Craft Literary and the charity anthology You Are Not Alone. Jason’s story Mess of Love was placed 3rd in the 2020 Retreat West Short Story Competition and his flash In my dream I see my son features in Best Microfictions 2020. His prose/photography piece The Unit is published by A3 Press. Follow Jason on Twitter @jj_fiction