‘The Body That Washed Ashore’ by Greg Forrester

Stealing precious moments together in the budding dawn, it was two young lovers who saw the body wash up on the sand. They thought little of it, believing it to be a log covered with seaweed, but as the morning arrived in full, a rumour that the lifeless body of a woman had been found on the beach had spread, and soon the entirety of the town had crowded along the promenade hoping to catch a glimpse of the woman from the sea. Access to the sand had been cordoned off by the authorities and all the gathered masses could see was a shape beneath a black sheet amongst the milling officers. Those on the sand were at a loss with what to do with the body. The town was small and the only doctor had drowned two years previously, so an open call was put out over the local radio stations and spread by word of mouth for anyone with sufficient anatomical knowledge of men or fish to make themselves known.

First to answer the call was a travelling medical student from Scandinavia who emptied his stomach upon seeing what lay beneath the sheet. Twice more eager strangers appeared in those early hours, and on each occasion they left ashamed, unsuccessful, and haunted by what they had seen. It was then that the authorities decided to move the body. They took it into the basement of the police station, to a forgotten room where an autopsy could be performed in private. Locking the door behind them as they returned to their investigations, they waited for a solution to appear.

Brooks arrived three days later. An amateur ichthyologist and professional con artist, he presented himself at the station in a freshly starched black suit and bowler hat while the day was still young.

‘I believe you’ve been waiting for me,’ he announced, proudly striding into the station. From his briefcase he produced papers asserting his medical qualifications, stealing them from sight before they crumbled under closer inspection. ‘Where is the body?’

A junior constable led him down to the basement. Unlocked the door. Paused. Then removed the sheet.

There it was, lying in front of him. The body that had washed ashore. Lifeless. Her eyes open. Her sclera full of the sea. A fish’s tail where her legs should be.

‘I see,’ Brooks muttered to himself. He then repeated himself for the benefit of the watching constable who had backed up against the wall. ‘You are very lucky that I have found my way here.’

Brooks began to scrutinise the body with the precision of an architect, his face so close to its sallow skin that his eyelashes ran across the dead flesh. A viscous, tear-like liquid coated the skin around its eyes, while the lips were still damp with seawater and the tongue was noticeably missing. A strange smell permeated from the skin, reminding Brooks of an Italian port. Tilting her head to rest as if sleeping against the stainless-steel table, he found small incisions along the neck and, recognising their structure, deduced that these were gills of some description. Using a pen produced from his jacket pocket he lifted a lamella.

‘Aren’t you going to…’ The constable’s voice stumbled, and instead, she pointed towards the lower half of the woman, to the fish tail. In truth, Brooks had been stealing glances at the tail since the sheet was lifted, but he was an expert in his profession, a professional with a role to play.

‘My dear. Clearly, there is something here with this poor soul that we would not expect. It does not take someone with my expertise to tell you that, you know this already. But first, we must ascertain if what at first view may appear normal – her face, her heart, and so on – we must know if these are as expected, or if…’ Brooks made a show of pausing, to think. ‘What if this piscine appendage is merely a misdirect, hiding an even bigger secret?’

It was close to midday, and the town had not forgotten about the mystery that had washed ashore three days previously. Curiosity had festered like a rotting infection, nursed by vivid dreams of a lady walking from the ocean, only to become a fish on land. Those who experienced these dreams woke unusually late the following day with the salty taste of the sea on their lips and found themselves unable to speak of anything other than the body which had been hidden away deep inside the station. So it was that crowds gathered and grew outside the station day by day, water-sellers, fire-breathers, card sharks, and fortune tellers plying their wares; pickpockets, silver-tongued politicians, young mothers, and aged beauties mingled with their prey. Amongst the crowd was a young troubadour whose eyes sought out the station door, watching anxiously for her lover.

Once his initial inspection was complete, Brooks excused himself from the station in search of ingredients for a tonic he told the officers would be needed to complete the autopsy, though first he procured enough coin to cover his supposed costs. He wasn’t long out the station before the crowds swarmed around him. What is it? Where did it come from? Should we be afraid? Can I count on your endorsement? Brooks shook these questions off with a reassuring smile, stopping long enough to bask in the heat of the fire-breathers as he moved among the bodies. Free of the crowd, he straightened his bowler hat and secluded himself inside a dark, windowless pub and found a drinking companion who would enable his vices in exchange for strange tales.

While waiting still for her lover to emerge from the station, the troubled troubadour heard a quiet song carried on the wind. It was a tune that belonged to no one, a whispering lament which forced her into action. It demanded to be discovered. Entranced, she abandoned her wait for her lover and began a pilgrimage in the direction of the song, towards the beach on which the body washed ashore.

Brooks returned to the station with ingredients squirreled away inside the pockets of his suit jacket: bellis perennis, to purge; peony and snapdragon, to relax; anise and garlic; spirits of salt. These he mixed together above a naked flame until they produced a viscous liquid coated with an amber-like membrane. In the borrowed beaker the tonic bubbled, like sea foam, like a rabid animal, a noxious scent rising above the glass. The scent of thirst and abandon, of being lost at sea, of washing ashore. But when he returned to the basement ready to administer the tonic, he found the room empty. There was no sign of the body which had laid there on the stainless-steel table, only the silhouette of a woman left behind in the dust, and a pathway of water leading out of the basement.

‘Where is the body?’ Brooks called into the mass of the station, but this too, he found empty. Finding a nearby flask, he emptied his tonic into the container, pocketed it, and then followed the trail of water out into the town. It was deserted. Where what felt like only moments prior, he had struggled through curious, self-serving bodies to get back to the station, but now all that remained were the legacies they would leave behind: propaganda pamphlets, scorched pavement, unwanted futures. Still he followed the water, through secluded streets and abandoned alleyways.

Eventually he arrived at the same beach on which the body had been discovered, three days prior.  on that morning, the entire town crowded along the promenade looking out towards the sea. Brooks slid through the masses like a hunter, emerging onto the sand to see three silhouettes there on the crest of the sea. One of these figures he recognised immediately as the subject of his improved autopsy, but on either side of the woman, supporting her, dragging her towards the water, were two figures he couldn’t make out. One of them appeared to have an instrument of some sort, a lute or small guitar, strapped to their back.

‘Stop,’ Brooks cried, doing his best to run through the rising tide and sinking sand in his freshly starched suit and bowler hat, but he knew it would be to no avail. Helpless, he could do nothing but watch as the waves enveloped the shapes. 

Three disappeared under the water, and two bodies washed ashore.

‘She just wanted to be free,’ said the troubadour, struggling for breath. The lute which had been strapped to her back was now missing, but she seemed not to notice. At her side, hand in hand, stood the junior constable who had been charged with guarding the body. Brooks stared hard at her, betrayed, but she refused to meet his eye. The flask containing the now-redundant tonic he had prepared for the autopsy hung limp in his hand.

Soon the crowds dispersed. Days went by without incident and any remnants of those salt-tasting dreams which had haunted the residents faded. Three days Brooks drowned his sorrows in the windowless pub, paying his bill with unbelievable stories – of a creature from the sea, part woman, part fish. Once the alcohol had thoroughly distilled his disappointment, Brooks placed this bowler hat proudly back atop his head and strode out of town, briefcase in hand.

On his way out of town he took the waterfront road, walking for the first time unimpeded along the promenade. It made him happy to see the beach deserted. Perhaps those young lovers would no longer need to hide their romance, he thought to himself, removing his shoes as he strode out onto the sand. In front of him was an endless world of blue. He walked into the rising suds of the tide, the water lapping at the bottom of his trousers. It was peaceful.

Brooks stayed there long enough to feel the tide rise and recede and watch the day fade away around him. It was then, in that greying façade, that he walked further towards the sea. Checking that the beach and the promenade behind her still deserted, he placed his briefcase down in the sinking, still-damp sand and clicked it open. There inside were his fraudulent medical papers, the flask containing the unused autopsy solution, and the bag of coins he had procured from the officers still full. He felt something wash ashore close by but didn’t look up. Instead, he ran his fingers along a glass jar hidden in his briefcase. There inside the jar was a human tongue, grey and decaying.

‘This makes six,’ Brooks said, directing his voice out into the ocean. Beside him rested the troubadour’s lute. ‘One more, and your payment is complete.’

Brooks shouldered the lute and turned his back on the water – and his accomplice, hidden beneath its surface – and made his way along the waterfront road to the next town.

About the Author

Greg Forrester (he/him) is an award-winning writer based in the North East of England. He is a current PhD candidate at the University of Sunderland, writing about magical realism and northern identity, and was Highly Commended for the Sid Chaplin Award in 2021. He is Managing Director of Bandit Fiction, a not-for-profit digital publishing company, and has been previously published by Fairlight Books and TL;DR Press. You can follow him at @GregForrester4 on Twitter, @forrester4 on Instagram, and find out more about him at his website, www.gregforrester.com

‘The Figure Skater’ by William Falo

The rubles felt heavy in my pocket, and I waved the lorry past the open gate until I saw the ice skates dangling out of a bag. I clenched my fists and ran after the truck with visions of the girl I loved doing triple axles on the ice skating rink in his head. “Stop,” I yelled. The truck screeched to a stop. The shrieks of the hidden stowaways came from under the blankets in the back of the truck. I grabbed the ice skates and pulled back the blanket. Three girls shivered in a corner; they all glared at me.

The driver stormed toward me, “We paid you.”

“Whose ice skates?”

“Mine,” a girl said.

“Not anymore,” I said.

“Take the skates.” The driver walked back toward the front of the truck. “But let us through.”

“No.” I signaled for them to turn around, and I walked back to the guard shack, carrying the skates. The truck turned around. 

The wind increased, and gray clouds drifted into Seversk. 

I often thought of leaving the city and all its pollution. The nuclear plant scared me after both my parents died from cancer in their fifties. They both worked at the plant when it exploded in 1993. I was lucky to get the security guard job, and one day I met a beautiful figure skater and helped her leave. 

The wind whistled through holes in the shack, and I pulled out the bottle of vodka from under the desk. The ice skates hit the floor with a thud, and the vodka warmed my insides.

I remembered the day that Ekaterina skated on the frozen pond despite a blizzard. She spun in circles with such speed that she became a blur. I told her that she was going to be a champion.

Later, she hired a coach who would meet her in Moscow. I gave her money and helped her escape, and I planned to meet her there in the future. But, after she won a few competitions, I never saw her again except on TV with her new husband, her coach. I thought I was over it until I saw the skates on the truck.

The empty vodka bottle shattered on the floor next to the skates. I picked the skates up and slung them over my shoulder, and left the shack. Andrei, the relief guard, shook his head. All the guards confiscated items to allow smugglers to get people out of the closed city, but ice skates had to be a first.

I lugged them into my apartment with plans to destroy them.

The morning sun shimmered off the ice when I watched children skating across a pond on the way to the guardhouse; I spotted one girl skating on a ragged-looking pair of ice skates. 

“Her feet must be killing her,” a man standing on the hill alongside me said. “She found those in the dump; imagine if she had good skates.”

It was Viktoria, the one I took the skates from at the guard post. She spun in circles that made her blur, then, with spread arms, glided across the ice with her hair dangling behind her. 

It was beautiful, and I fought back the comparison to Ekaterina. The shift at the gate proved to be excruciating due to my headache. A few truckers used obvious fake identification cards, but I let them pass when they paid me.

I checked every destination, and each one made me dream of other places. The names of distant cities echoed in my mind; St. Petersburg, Moscow, Vladivostok, and others filled my mind. I never saw any of them. I was born in this closed city and stayed here my whole life, even after my parents died. I planned to leave to be with Ekaterina to follow her on her skating adventures, but she left me behind. 

That night, I bought more vodka with the bribe money and walked the cold streets. A few people wandered alone like me, and I saw the figure skater.

I turned away, but she saw me. “Wait, I want to talk to you.”

I stopped.  “Can I have my ice skates back?”

Bruises covered her arms. 

“Are they from falls on the ice?” I pointed at the bruises.

“Some of them,” she said while covering her arms.

“What else happened?” 

She looked away.

“Oh,” I said and reached out to touch them but pulled my shaking hand back.

“Why are you trying to leave?”

“I don’t have to tell you,” she said and turned away.

“No, but I have your skates.”

“What’s your name?”

“Anton. I heard them call you Viktoria.”

She nodded. “I am trying to compete in figure skating, and there is a competition coming up in Moscow.”

I knew what the smugglers require if you don’t have enough money. 

A car stopped in front of them. “Viktoria, you still owe us money for messing up that smuggling attempt with those skates.”

She turned away and started walking down the street. “Wait,” I walked toward the car. “Leave her alone.”

“What are you going to do, security guard? Fight us, or report us. How about all the bribes you took?”

I stopped. They rolled up the window and drove away, leaving me standing there. The sound of sobbing came from the direction that the girl walked, but she was gone when I tried to find her.

I kept checking, but Viktoria never arrived at the pond the next day, and I couldn’t find her on the streets. When I returned to the guard shack, I searched the records for any trucks going west. A few could have left with girls in them. I had an idea. 

The car I owned sat under a covering of snow, and I cleared it off. The engine started, and I drove down the street. I stopped at a bus station. There was one bus going to Moscow to take residents to visit relatives in Moscow. It already had the permit. I signed it and changed the number of passengers to add one more. The skates felt heavy in my hands, and I put them on the last seat of the bus. 

“I don’t want anyone to touch them or sit next to them,” I  said, and I gave a handful of rubles to the driver.

Darkness spread over the city, and I walked through the streets looking for Viktoria. I found her near the pond.

“Viktoria,” I said. “I got a plan to get you out of here.” I held out a ticket for Moscow.

“What’s that for?”

“So, you can compete. I saw you. You can be great.” I paused when I realized that I remembered saying those exact words to Ekaterina.

“It’s too late now,” Viktoria said.

“No, it’s not; take this.” I handed her the tickets and an envelope filled with rubles. 

“They won’t let me leave.”

“I’ll stop them. Hurry, the bus leaves soon. It’s a few streets over. Go to the last seat.”

“Why are you helping me?” 

I hesitated. I couldn”t answer. I did it before for love, and it ended up hurting me. This time it was different. Maybe it was love, but real love. I knew I would probably never see her again, and yet I wanted to help her.

“You better go,” I said without answering her question.

“Will I see you again?” 

“You never know,” I said, but I didn’t believe it.

She started walking away, and a car followed her. She walked faster, and the vehicle began to speed up.

She tried to run, but the car closed in on her, and I ran out into the street. The sound of brakes screeched, but the car hit me. The pain seared through me. A man got out of the car and tried to drag me out of the way, but I fought him.

Sirens echoed through the city, and the flashing lights got brighter. The man dropped me, and I saw a light flicker inside the bus as it drove away. I glimpsed Viktoria holding the skates in the window – then the light went out, but I smiled, knowing that she would skate again. I pushed the man away and limped to my car. Without looking back, I drove toward the city gate. It was closed, but I smashed through it and headed east, leaving the city that became my prison behind without looking back at it. 

Before Viktoria skated in the Russia Federation Figure Skating Championship, she looked at the audience for any familiar faces, but there were none. She had no family anymore, and there wasn’t anybody to cheer for her. Her coach gave her last-minute encouragement. She skated a near-perfect routine ending in a spin that seemed to have her twirling forever. She ended up facing the crowd, and in the last row, she saw a familiar face clapping for her. Their eyes locked, and he smiled; she wanted to wave to him, but someone stood up in front of Anton, and her coach called her over as the crowd applauded.

After getting her scores that qualified her for the National Team, she looked for Anton in the audience, but the seat was empty. 

About the Author

William Falo lives in New Jersey with his family, including a papillon named Dax. His recent short stories can be found in Vamp Cat Magazine, Fragmented Voices, Dead Skunk Literary Magazine, the anthology of the year’s best dog stories, and other literary journals. He can be found on Twitter @williamfalo and Instagram @william.falo

‘The Compliment’ by Daniel Schulz

The whistle of his lips reverberated down the corridor, following her lonely steps toward the platform we were leaving.

“Hey, you know the subway is running late tonight, right?” I shouted back at her, trying to warn her about the twenty minute delay. No reaction. “Did you really have to do that?” I asked.

“Calm down. It’s a compliment,” Tom answered, deflecting my discontent. This was exactly the problem I always had with him. I took a deep breath and kept still. I didn’t want an argument. We had both had this conversation once before. This wasn’t the time to have it again.

It was ten o’clock that evening. We had just returned from work, when the subway home had announced a delay of about twenty minutes. That’s when we walked down the corridor, when we saw her walking up toward the platform, when we were on our way to the bus station out front, looking for an alternative way home. Looking at the schedule I realised it made no difference – that the subway was still my fastest ride home. Tom looked at me. He still was the man who appreciated women in every way but the one they wanted to be appreciated in.

“Are you going back to the platform?”, he asked. Of course I was. And deep inside I hoped I wouldn’t see her again, avoid an awkward situation. “See you, tomorrow,” Tom said, leaving for the bus. And while I watched him get in the bus that was just driving up, I secretly hoped she wouldn’t remember who I was, if I saw her at the platform that is. But, of course, I wasn’t quite as lucky as that.

There was a nervous kind of silence. An uneasy ignorance of my presence, displayed with purpose. As if to hope that nothing bad would happen if she just ignored me. It was the kind of body language I recognised from myself when I used my body to speak – the kind of language I employed when I was out partying on the weekends, trying to avoid the anger of drunk men and strangers passing by. Trying to avoid the violence that some people’s stares or comments toward me promised.

Like a stranger whistling behind me, telling me I have a great ass.

I proceeded to the other end of the platform, putting as much distance between us as possible, trying to be thoughtful of her, when, looking back, I caught her staring at me in angst, a glance of recognition. She remembered who I was. She remembered the sound of someone whistling after her. Or maybe it was the way I was clothed: I was wearing black pants and a leather jacket on my body, and black smears on my face from work, unwashed traces from the factory. Standing there underneath the neon light, I must have seemed like a shadow casting itself toward her, leering at her from underneath the abyss that was my face. Seeing her fear, it seemed impossible to disarm it, as it was me that was her angst.

The thought of apologising to her crossed my mind. But even speaking to her would perhaps make her flinch, even if I apologised for his behavior. Maybe even apologising to her would make her feel uncomfortable, giving the impression I wanted something from her. Better not do anything. Better leave her alone. There was no way to untie the knot in her stomach.

Twenty minutes is a long time to wait.

Staring out into the night and onto the platform across from us, I let my thoughts wander away, hoping somehow that it would put her at ease that the shadow standing here, underneath these lights, displayed no interest in her. This is what Tom never understood about what he was doing, the unease that it caused for others. Glancing back for a second, I saw a man in uniform approach the woman he had disturbed. Her face expressed a sigh of relief, as the subway slowly rolled in. Twenty minutes is a long time to wait. Lucky enough, the cars we entered were separate.

While the landscape outside slowly increased speed, my thoughts remained still in reminiscence of the fear that had shown on her face. Twenty minutes is a long time to be afraid, out there in the dark. I could feel the unease on her face spread throughout my body. There was a desire to break away from the world that surrounded me, an urgent need to separate myself from the passengers sitting all around me – an urgent need to isolate myself in panic, realising that the expression of her fear reflected who I was.

About the Author

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

‘Counterpoints’ by Anita Goveas

Jayanti burrows into the lavender-scented pillows on the carved walnut bed, surrounded by an orchestra. The mice scrabble in the red-tiled roof again, the percussion. A rhythmical chorus of April raindrops dribble down, plucked like a swaggering violin. Her stomach gurgles, an oboe. She should eat, but there’s no need yet, and no-one would notice if she doesn’t.  She should get up to finish her unpacking, but she’s safe here. Nested. 

The door rattles, claves or a hand-drum. There’s enough percussion, so she ignores it. If it’s the whistling postman with another letter from the lawyers, it can wait. The cymbal chime of the letterbox flapping, a fluting voice says ‘I’ll just leave this vinegar cake on your porch, dear.” Not a good start with the neighbours, but Jayanti is waiting for the crescendo, the sign to begin the day. That’s been harder to pinpoint lately.

The fluting doesn’t stop, transforms into a background pipe of choop, choop, choop. The eaves outside her window flutter, the barest suggestion of frantic wings. She rolls across the plump mattress, peers down from the latticed window. The piping is in the middle of a lavender bush, a jarring note. She glances into the guttering of her aunt’s cottage, it doesn’t feel like her cottage yet, spots a clump of apparent pebbles pale against the silvery, damp-streaked slate walls and a glimpse of beak.

Rain runs down her neck, a drop travelling to her armpit, as she edges outside. The chooping becomes a chord, several notes at once. Jayanti runs back inside, emerges ripping the tag off a checkered tea towel. Reaching into the lavender, drenching her wrists with scent that lingers for days, she cradles a bedraggled baby swallow. Inches into the kitchen, finds the box that contained the kettle, layers it with more cloths. Makes a cup of tea and munches soggy, fluffy, fruity cake while she works out what to do with this unexpected guest. No-one has needed her, not for a while.

#

Outside May’s door, small children march to school, tramp, tramp, tramp. She marks the splash of discovered puddles, the airy giggles, the squeal of drenched ankles. She knows every sound of her snug kitchen, in the enforced silence.  Conversation can be found, in the slowness of the post-office or the bustle of the fish-mongers. No-one’s crossed her threshold though, not for a while.

The wide pale oak table squeaks as she scrubs it, stacking up the splattered utensils from making a cake for her new neighbour. On your birthday you should bake a cake, May always has done before, when there were people to gorge themselves. She returns the apple cider vinegar, the currants, the caster sugar to their places, slowly closing the whining cupboard. The ancient Aga grumbles as it settles down from working unexpectedly. She often eats her meals straight from the tin now.

The loudest noise is the silence of the black plastic telephone, layering over the familiar ones.  Her stomach gurgles, she should eat, but no-one would notice if she didn’t.  The hum of the kettle echoes. The flutter of the cuckoo clock chimes in, an artificial chord to cross off another hour. It almost drowns out the whistle of the postman, his fluting “Morning, May”, the slap of paper on her rubber doormat. 

She bends to retrieve it, an ivory envelope covered in daisies, and the swallows in her neighbours’ eaves cheep as if to announce it. It’s wedged between the mat and the skirting-board, she opens the door to rescue it. The new girl is driving off in a tiny car, May waves on an impulse, unsure she’ll be seen. The girl smiles, waves back forcefully. May props the half-flattened, half-streaked birthday card from her daughter on the cluttered pine dresser, pops some granary bread in the toaster, rattles all the jars as she looks for the good marmalade.  

#

The whistle of the kettle startles Craig today, although it’s part of his routine. Coffee at 9.15am, one thickly buttered crumpet, take the round pill. Something isn’t right, he’s missed the footsteps of the postman walking past his door. He takes low, slow breaths, hands pressed under his diaphragm, centring himself in time to the rattle of the fridge, hmmm, hmmm, hmmm. Nothing can hurt him here, he’s safe. 

He should eat, his stomach gurgles in agreement, but there’s no need just yet.  Sometimes it’s good to test his limits. He’ll wash up as he goes, an old way of pleasing people although he knows he doesn’t have to do that now. 9.20am, he could take the butter out of the fridge anyway. He stares out of the rain-streaked window at the carefully pruned, butter-coloured Noisette roses instead. 

Something flutters at his front door, there’s a shadow blocking the left-side of the window. Craig knows it’s the postman, but he opens the door a sliver, to be sure. A pony-tailed woman shivers on his door, holding up a box full of tea-towels. She mumbles something, squeaking like a flute, Jayantinewneighbour, help me please? She stumbles over the threshold, 9.21 am, the box chirps at him. He leads the way to the kitchen. The kettle will need boiling again.

She drinks his syrupy coffee, he talks about nestlings and fledglings, and how the mother will come back. The fledgling swallow pipes in, now and again, a note of enthusiasm in the quiet room. 9.38am, Craig carries a ladder over to her cottage, holds it while Jayanti edges the box into a beech tree next to where the swallows have retuned again to nest. She thanks him brightly, offers to make the coffee next time, says she has to buy some more cups and a new tea-towel. He looks at the cottage across the road as he walks back, where his best friend from school’s mother lives. He could go and say hello, 9.45am, check if she needs anything. It’s been a while.

About the Author

Anita Goveas is British-Asian, London-based, and fueled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in Little Fiction and Gone Lawn. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer Her debut flash collection, ‘Families and other natural disasters’, is available from Reflex Press, and links to her stories are at https://coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com 

Last Dance by Elodie Barnes

If he were to paint this story, he’d use the room as a frame: sturdy whitewashed wood, like driftwood, washed up by the tide and bleached by the wind, grooves and grains carrying a million years of salt and water. His canvas would be the light, shining burnt umber in the late afternoon. The window and the view beyond – blue skies, scrubby cliffs, the dancing yellow of the mimosa trees – would not be visible. He still believes that some things are best left to the imagination. 

If he were to paint this story, he would project the outline of a man and an easel onto the light, and gradually fill them in until they became dull and opaque against the shimmering background. The man would wear a paint-splashed shirt, an apron, a beret, the full cliché. In his hand would be a palette of muted colours, colours like the landscape on a cloudy day. The easel in front of him would hold a canvas, and on the canvas the shape of a woman would be recognisable but not yet formed. A half-being, caught forever at the moment of becoming. Terracotta and ochre would colour her dress in a swirl of silk and laughter as she dances, alone, in a driftwood room against burnished light. 

If he were to paint this story, he would add a stack of paintings into the scene: on the floor, propped up against the wall. If the viewer could look through them – carefully, one by one, so as not to upset the stack – they would find them all the same. A woman, alone, dancing in a driftwood room in burnished light, her terracotta dress flaring in the sunshine. 

But he won’t paint this story, not again. He’s found that there are some things that colour and shape and brush technique can’t capture. The sound of the laughter that he refuses to forget. The music that only she could hear, and the distant waves and gull cries that accompanied it. The sweet scent of the mimosa and the sickly fragrance of morphine; it was supposed to be odourless but he could smell it, tangy and pervasive. The soft beat of her heels on the floor. After all, she’d said, what else is there to do before dying other than dance? Dance with me. 

On the wall, both in this driftwood room and in the painting – for there is no difference between them – a clock ticks, time trapped behind the glass face, waiting to be set free. 

About the Author

Elodie Barnes is a writer and editor. Her work has been recently published / is forthcoming in Gone Lawn, Wild Roof Journal, and Past Ten, and she is Books & Creative Writing Editor at Lucy Writers Platform. When not travelling, she lives on the edge of a wood in northern England and complains incessantly about the weather. 

‘The Accident’ by Janet Olearski

RAJIV: I thought I’d start this off with something along the lines of “Falling barrel kills workman.” Then, I’ll write something like, “Police are investigating the tragic death of an Indian labourer at a building site in Khalifa City.” I thought the barrel thing was quite interesting. I mean it’s not every day a barrel falls on your head. No, I’m not being funny. Well, I suppose I am. I could perhaps try to write it more sympathetically. In this job you have to bear in mind that people will read what you say about their relatives, so you have to get the story across without overdoing the morbid details. But that’s what makes my job intriguing … finding out the morbid details.

FOREMAN: (Translation) His name was Sunni. He’s been part of this crew for six months now. To tell you the truth I could never find him when I needed him. I couldn’t find him that day either. Until I found the missing barrel. One minute the barrel was on the edge of the roof. Next minute it was on the ground and Sunni was underneath it. I don’t know how the barrel got there. I don’t know why the barrel was on the edge of the roof. I’m only the foreman. It’s nothing to do with me. Maybe first you speak to the owner.

MOHAMMED AL QABAISI: Yes, I own the land, but it is not my fault. You need to know anything, you ask Mr Mahmood the Engineer.

MAHMOOD: Mahmood with you. Yes, I heard about the accident. It wasn’t my fault. I’m only the engineer. I was in my car driving back from Dubai when the accident happened. If you don’t believe me, then you can check the speed cameras. Ask the men on the site, not me.

RAVI: Sorry. Not speak English.

BODU: I have a doubt how barrel was on end of roof like that. I working on other roof, not that roof. Ravi working on that roof, I think. No, I did not see him. I’m just thinking he is on other roof because he not on my roof.

HABEEB: Sunni? What I think of Sunni? I’m thinking he owed me 525 dirhams.

RAVI: Sorry. Not speak English.

KAMIL: I didn’t see nothing. I working put seal on roof. No problem with barrel. Ravi taking care of barrel. Ask him. Barrel was good. What I am think of Sunni? Nothing. Always talking on phone. Not pay attention to nothing. 

MARISOL: I call Sunni maybe twenty times, but he never answer. I got his baby. What I do now?

CHANDAN: (translation of phone interview) I miss my dad. I want him to come home.

BRIGADIER HAMAD: We have arrested the man responsible. Ravi his name. Sorry for him. He gonna pay lotta money for Sunni family, and he get deported. Or, maybe get death sentence.

RAVI: Sorry. Not speak English.

About the Author:

Janet Olearski is originally from London. Her poetry and short fiction have appeared in Wasafiri, Constellate, Far Off Places, Litro, Bare Fiction, and elsewhere. Her work also includes the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, a novel A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa and, as editor and contributor, The Write Stuff anthology. 

‘Three Women Blues/Lay Lady Lay’ by Parrish

hey, 

it was a crazy long drive to that endless night in seattle, from redding to eugene you were sleeping in my lap, dreaming of jack that night at wamu, me stroking your hair and playing these dreams of you, somehow we made neptune before the show, i found blind willie mctell on brooklyn avenue, he’s playing now where i lie alone but for rose thorns cutting my lips, you said you knew him and mentioned white jack’s tribute called three women blues, smiling at me like creation was a game show and you were its host, you touched the jacket and the music started like your finger was a stylus, i’m overcome by that deathless georgia voice humming words i’ll never understand, slaves in chains revolting against their masters rose up before me, i was seeing myself in your eyes, baby, they were putting heads on pikes like it never happened in this country of george floyd choking under some dumb cop’s knee but happened every time you came to me on your knees wherever we happened to be, you were so wild and fun and full of bile that when i bit into you i had to swallow the throw-up in my mouth just to kiss you again, sometimes i didn’t since you told me you liked your taste on your tongue, i was the one crawling in that seattle record store, your head nowhere near my pike since you had swallowed it on the road, i’m dying for lack of your breath, waiting for you to return it to me, this coveted record in my hands as you coo, that’s me, babe, i’m all three women doncha know, moving your two hands’ three fingers from your cheek to your thrapple, as if you were finger painting yourself, tracing now the flawless curves of your breasts where my head almost never rested, your fingers coming together at your tits’ points, a quick violent twist sketched in your nipples like they had they just suddenly bloomed, and then your magic fingers pushed outward as if you had just plucked them for me, rose petals you carelessly tossed at my eyes, they found my mouth instead, i craved your flowers’ taste, there’s no word in this language for the shade of your skin, it’s more of a sound, a gurgling throat drowning when it’s thirsty, you make it on me wherever you capture me at my desk, on park benches, in the driver’s seat helpless in the slow moving portland traffic and i’m stroking your neck like its beautiful color will permeate my hands and make every object i touch a marvel of the universe, next to us i hear a truck’s lonesome whistle blow, its driver had timed his long air-horn squeal with the sound of my release, you said you were three women always looking for a pair, like you’re the holy trinity in a single mouth i enter three times a day to receive g-d’s blessing, i’m the yellow, you sang, and i’m the brown too, as for the third color, you said it was the black of your neil young shirt, you’d wear it after the show, in our lay lady lay bed, showing me again the colors of your mind that was just my desire unhinged, only i was the lady you were laying, my pike was forever yours, i couldn’t take it back if i wanted to, i didn’t even try that afternoon on brooklyn avenue where neptune still stands despite the plague reaching out to touch what you had drawn on the canvas of skin, your petals grinding my teeth, forget these boring record stores, you said, let’s follow jack, he’s in portland tomorrow, that’s when I noticed him on the wall, supervising the store from that slightly ripped poster and singing about the colors your hair happened to wear that week, red-blonde-brunette, a different one each day, i preferred your natural black but i didn’t care as long as it was mine to chew and i was chewing then, on my knees feeding on you feeding on me, your head again lending me my pike, i wasn’t revolting in this place more public than keller fountain park had been, your fresh nipples keeping my hands steady, the taste of flowers famishes me, the clerk started to holler for the cops through the window, somehow they were never far when you were near, but jack’s voice stifled his scream, not mine, from the wall he put your pink phone in the clerk’s hand, it’s camera eye had been activated by your rectum always winking in the open air, your panties your knee pads, you sure know how to pack for a trip, and it’s jack’s three women coming through the store’s exceptional speakers, you had it put it on when you touched blind willie, the soundtrack for the movie the clerk was filming with your phone, he looks like jack too, sitting on the counter so calm above his california gal going down on me slow, taking us in through your nether eye, and you’re talking out of the side of her mouth, saying we’ll do this again in portland, babe, then reno, all the way to nashville, let’s make ernest tubb’s record store, it’s the best, jack says, you’re coming baby, like it or not, jack screams from the wall, and you pant the same words in my ears, jack and you in stereo, i’m always coming between you two, it’s ok, you’re voice never sounded sweeter singing i’m like three women in one, ask jack, i don’t have to, i’m watching you now, you put your movie on my phone, it’s like you have three mouths, how come jack always gets two for my one, there’s no off switch for these dreams of you, variegated colors of your lay, lady, lay mind in our lay, lady, bed, blues like chains wrapped around my head.  

About the Author:

Parrish is a Pushcart Prize nominated writer and critic living somewhere in California and teaching most usually at UC Davis. Parrish’s recent short fiction has appeared in Raritan, Ploughshares, Equinox, Vestal Review, Sonic Boom, and Blood and Bourbon.

Commitmint by Karen Henderson

Margot realised that Cheryl had left her sunglasses behind. The pair of gaudy Ray Bans, tortoise-shell rimmed and bug-eyed, lay on the cheap lipstick-coloured vinyl table top of the diner booth, twinkling like forbidden gems.

She sucked her mint chocolate chip milkshake through a straw, the condensation from the striped cup cold on her hand, and then considered what she’d do next. By now her old schoolmate would have reached her SUV, two squalling brats in tow. The sky was cloudy now. She wouldn’t remember the glasses.

Margot looked at the convex mirror reflecting the diner’s entrance, meant to save the cashier from the bored violence of small town hoodlums and the shoplifting attempts of knock-kneed school kids in need of chocolate and recognition. Her fish-eyed reflection gawped back at her, showing greying red hair the colour of the vinyl booth, and an expressionless freckled face.

Margot remembered how her insides had tightened when Cheryl had spotted her and slid into the booth next to her. ‘What are you doing back in town, Margot? It’s been so long. How have you been?’ she’d squealed.

Cheryl had then had the nerve to ask, voice bright, her long painted nails grasping a grimy toddler covered in ice cream, if Margot had “found her man yet”. That blond princess: always perky, bleached and waxed, she’d had the perfect ass in high school.

When Margot said that teaching her literature class at the local community college took up all of her valuable mating time, Cheryl had breathed out, “Our Margot, so INTELLECTUAL,” and patted her hand like someone consoling a grieving widow. Bitch. 

Cheryl had then launched into a long monologue about her job at the salon, her two baby ‘angels’, her husband Jeremy who worked in some oil field up north; Margot had zoned out about halfway through, only to be brought back to the conversation when one of the ‘angels’ had thrown the remnants of his cone at Margot, narrowly missing her head.

Not running into washed-out high school peers was one of the many perks of the city, Margot thought. She wasn’t sure why she’d packed up and moved back home to her hometown, except for the fact that when you feel small anywhere, you were nearly non-existent in a big city like New York. 

Margot breathed in deeply, her fingers tightening around the milkshake cup. She didn’t need to steal Cheryl’s glasses; what did she even mean to her now, anyway? So Cheryl had been popular; Cheryl had been beautiful; Cheryl had been loved. Surely Margot, a woman of 33 with two degrees, was above petty thievery in an attempt to ‘stick it’ to the graduating class’s golden girl of 2004.

She closed her eyes. She could still remember that day, sobbing in the bathroom sinks, as a younger, nonchalantly cruel Cheryl laughed at her cheap clothes, boyish hair and virgin status. She’d stayed in that bathroom for nearly an hour after, afraid that Cheryl might come back.

Margot opened her eyes. She took a final suck of the milkshake, and made a decision. Taking one last look at the cashier, who was absorbed by her phone, Margot’s right hand beetled out, grabbed the arm of the forgotten glasses, and slowly pushed them into her purse.

They fit in neatly beside the purloined key chain; stolen lipstick holder; an illegally acquired mug, lip prints still on the glass; and her prize item: a slim silver cigarette holder. She trembled, and let out a long breath. Her fingers relaxed around the cup, leaving crumpled grooves. There. She felt better; she felt grounded; she felt safe.

A horn honked outside. Cheryl, in her candy-pink Land Rover, was waving enthusiastically at Margot. She waved back with her right hand, while her left hand tightened into a fist. Standing up, she grabbed her bag of treasures, and left the diner. She’d be there again next Thursday, when mint-chocolate milkshakes were on special again.

About the Author

Born in Canada, Karen Henderson now lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. She is passionate about writing in many genres but has a special love for slice-of-life, sci-fi and spooks, as well as poetry. She contributes regularly to the Irish zine This is Not Where I Belong and has worked in journalism, publishing and documentary.

‘The Noah of the Marshes’ by Mike Fox

On that first night, exhausted and with no other sound to distract, he would fall asleep to the wash of the sea lapping at the fens to the east. His beard had already started to grow, and he would never feel the need to shave, or even trim it, again. Neither would any piece of land exert a claim on him. He had built the place he could now call home from the flat shell of a lighter: it would always float, even in the shallows. From this day on, his tasks would arrive with the seasons. He would wish to possess no portion of the earth: the water itself would be his freehold.

He would absorb a new self from his surroundings, he would interpret the world accordingly. In times when the marshland flooded and the subdivided meadows brimmed into each other, he would feel the ghost of the sea in the saline currents beneath him. He would glimpse the shadows of hags and witches, floating disdainfully through the morning mists. He would sense the wraiths of fowlers, trudging forever knee-deep on what was once dry land. He would feel at one with them, share the spirit of this place, let his pulse be an echo of the tides.

When the rivers were low he would glimpse the weft of an eel trap, left to rot amongst the reeds, and understand that the present is but a child of the past. On silent evenings he would gaze for hours at pickleweed, spiny rush, saltgrass, tule and scirpus, while the colours of the sky spread out across the still waters on which they rested. 

Soil and pathway, when the need came to return to it, would feel hard and unyielding, with no forgiveness or promise of change. He would spend no more time there than circumstance required.

As the days stretched and shortened he would learn to read the seasons, to rejoice when the leaves were back on the willows, to relinquish when they fell again. 

In June he would see the terns arrive in such numbers as to form a curtain across the sun. He would learn to whistle in the plovers, so beguilingly they would settle without fear by his feet. Ducks, geese, gulls and even herons would follow and learn to take food from his hand, the shy gaining courage from the bold. He would earn his nickname from the mockery of onlookers, and care little.

He would come to trust in portents and visions, take his place in the quiet flow of time. He would make no demand of the future. Solitude would teach him that stillness is a form of prayer, and that nothing is truly separate from anything else. He would think sometimes of his former life, and practise the art of forgetfulness. 

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. www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2

‘Lockdown, Mate’ by Harry Wilding

I.

—ckfuckfuckfuckfuck Jeremy enters Victoria shopping centre with a bladder primed to burst trying his best to walk normally even though he knows he looks like one of those racewalkers not quite running not quite walking with those strangely snake-like hips fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck he should have just gone at his mum’s but what if he’d made her ill? she’s in a high risk group so he’d had to stay outside   why is that old couple looking at him over their flowery masks fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck mask! he starts to root around in his back pocket for his own mask as the toilets come into view but two women clad in high-vis vests and plastic visors stand like Queen’s Guards at the entrance to the CLOSED facilities   he starts to put on his stripy mask and pathetically pleads ‘why?’ only to be answered emotionlessly by the smaller blonde woman with ‘lockdown, mate’ fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck  ‘ridiculous’ he mutters as he walks off ‘Greggs is open though! hooray for capitalism! you can buy a sausage roll while you piss your pants!’ he stumbles onto the escalator on his way to the next closest public toilets five minutes away but what if they’re also shut? fuckfuckfuckfuckpiss

II.

“Lockdown, mate,” Karen told him. What else? Idiot.

The man turned around and walked off. Karen cocked her head to the side, watching his bendy hips. He was mumbling to himself. Something about a Greg and capitalism and sausage pants? 

“He had anti-masker vibes,” Debbie told her. “See how begrudgingly he put one on?”

“Can’t believe people still don’t get it,” she said.

“People are selfish,” Debbie said.

“If management think public toilets are an infection risk then we should do what they say,” Karen said. 

Debbie nodded. 

They noticed a woman jogging towards them. She had a small child in her arms. She slowed slightly as she passed them. Lockdown, mate.

“Can you be a big boy and hold it for another few minutes?” she was saying to the child. They headed for the escalator. 

“They should have just gone before they came out, for crying out loud,” Karen said, shaking her head.

III.

‘Hey, we’re nearly there, honey, we’re nearly there.’

It’d been a testing morning. Dylan’s nanny had woken up ill, hopefully with just a cold (wait, will they need to shield just in case? What is the procedure now?) so Michelle had been all the way across town to grab Dylan from his father who had a busy day of Zoom meetings (that he ‘just can’t get out of’ and were ‘more urgent than her work things’).  

Oh god, no. They aren’t closed, are they? (They are!) The place which is regularly cleaned and where everyone washes their hands is closed. Christ. 

The two shopping centre staff watch as she approaches. She briefly considers rushing past them (like a rugby player going for a try) but hurries to the escalator instead. They’ll have to find an alley or something.

‘It’s okay, honey. Just another few minutes, can you be a big boy and hold it for another few minutes?’

Dylan lets out a moan that she presumes means ‘no, mother, I fucking cannot.’

Michelle quickens her pace as she steps off the escalator. Her torso, though, begins to feel warm. Warm and moist. She slows to a stop and closes her eyes, keeping Dylan close as she feels his urine seep into her top. The gentle sound of it pitter-pattering on the hard floor at her feet is strangely meditative, helping her to remain motionless like some kind of impromptu water feature. 

‘You feel better, honey?’ The flow has finally stopped.

He nods, burying his face further into her shoulder.

‘Good. Home time, yeah?’

She opens her eyes, sensing people peering at her over their masks. She starts towards the bus stop, giving less of a damn than she thought she would. 

IV.

dev and becki are live streaming from a bench

– if you’re just tuning in, yeah, there’s an actual puddle of piss, but people keep, like, only just avoiding it

– we should’ve taken live bets, innit. becki looks over at the escalator. we might of got another contender, yo

a vicky centre worker is coming down, blonde and serious in her high-vis vest. stepping off the escalator, she turns towards the puddle. her eyes are laser-focussed on the greggs

dev and becki both sit forward, holding their breath. dev quickly double-checks he’s recording, making sure he’s got the best framing. she is getting close, walking fast 

– she must really want a sausage roll, innit 

and the woman stands in the puddle, bang on 

– oh shiiiiit!

both her legs fly up in front of her, her whole body almost horizontal in the air for a moment, before she comes crashing back down with a small moist thud. she almost immediately sits up, stunned, a patch of wet darkening the vicky centre logo on her high-vis 

– holy shit, that was epic! 

– i didn’t think people actually fell like that except in cartoons, innit!

they’re both almost choking on their laughter, tears streaming 

– you laughing at that idiot who just slipped? a guy in a stripy mask stands by them, looking over at the woman as she slowly gets to her feet   

they nod, bent forwards, heads in arms

the guy nods back, straight-faced

– yeah, it was fucking funny, to be honest 

About the Author

Harry Wilding may or may not have an MA in Creative Writing, as his dissertation result is currently pending. His short fiction has been published by the likes of Popshot, Flash Magazine and Ink, Sweat & Tears.