‘A Lot on One Plate’ by Moira Garland

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your nan has always been dainty, Ryan.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meet the Author

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

‘A Primer for the Women who Might Date My Ex-boyfriend’ by Megha Nayar

 What he says:

What he means:

I love that you have a spine.

You’re super sexy when you take others head-on. Others.

Why should you be ashamed of your past? 

My own shenanigans were far racier, so yours are forgiven. 

Until I met you, I had no hope of finding love again.

Six women had already dumped my sorry ass. Who’d be optimistic?

My parents are nasty ol’ buggers for refusing to give me more money. 

My parents know all about my train-wrecking ways. They’ve wised up. 

My siblings are pampered asshats who’ve profited at my expense. 

My siblings, just like my friends, have stopped indulging my nonsense. 

My friends are entitled asshats who’ve profited at my expense. 

My friends, just like my siblings, have stopped indulging my nonsense. 

How I use the money you gave me is none of your business.

I smoked it away. Send me some ASAP. Don’t ask me why. 

I won’t grovel for money. I hate grovelling.

How dare you ask me to account for how I used up your money? 

I should never have taken your money. 

You lent me money only so you could manipulate me.

We’ll rent a place and move in together.

I can’t wait to have sex with you.

Wear a crop top when we meet next time.

I can’t wait to have sex with you.

I miss you so badly.

I can’t wait to have sex with you.

I don’t drink on weekdays. 

My vices have standards.

I have never blanked out from drinking. 

My vices have standards.

I have never hit anybody in a drunken state. 

My vices have standards.

If it’s gonna make me mad, don’t say it.

I’m not a fan of the truth.

Why must you always make me mad?

I’m not a fan of the truth.

See how mad you made me!

I’m not a fan of the truth.

I’m not in this for the angst.

Stop pointing out my flaws.

Accept me as I am, else I can’t.

Stop pointing out my flaws.

You’re breaking me all over again.

Stop pointing out my flaws.

I’m smarter than your ex-boyfriends.

You’re a slut.

You need to raise your standards. 

You’re a slut.

Go back to that bloody dating app.

You’re a slut.

You will never find another like me.

(No comments)

***

He is right about that last one, though.

About the Author

Megha Nayar was longlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize 2020 and the New Asian Writing Short Story Prize 2020. More recently, one of her stories was showcased at India’s prestigious Kala Ghoda Arts Festival 2021. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Trampset, Variety Pack, Versification, Out of Print, Rejection Letters, Coven Editions, Burnt Breakfast, Brown Sugar, Marias at Sampaguitas, Cauldron Anthology, Harpy Hybrid Review, Potato Soup Journal, Postscript Mag, Ayaskala Mag and The Daily Drunk Mag, among others. She tweets at @meghasnatter.

‘The Broken Place’ by Mary Ann McGuigan

This story previously appeared in The Cortland Review in November 2015.

A black pick-up was parked haphazardly across three spaces in the store’s parking lot, the motor idling. The driver lingered at the wheel, very still, as if trying to gather himself. Dearnon, who’d been watching since the truck pulled in, put his newspaper down. The morning was cloudless, crisp, the kind of April day that can force a man to look up, to wonder about chances. He hadn’t had a customer all day, and he wished this one would either come in or leave already. The driver cut the engine but rested his arms across the top of the steering wheel, still not ready to get out. In the bed of the truck sat what appeared to be a huge telescope. Dearnon had never seen anything like it before. 

The driver’s door opened and the man stepped down. He was big, unsteady on his feet. He took small, heavy steps toward the entrance, as if uncertain whether the pavement would hold him. He wore a black shirt, black jeans, boots worn down from wandering. Thinning, strawberry blond hair was tied back in a ponytail. He opened the door of the shop without noticing Dearnon and looked toward the counter. Dearnon winced secretly at the paltry offerings: some stray beef jerkies in a display box, misshapen and gray; an empty rack meant for gum. The man’s shirt was darkened with sweat, even on this mild day. He made it to the counter, leaned his weight against it. Something was wrong.

“Can I help you, buddy?”

“Hope so.” He had a broad, friendly face, good looking. He placed his hands, palms down, on the counter. “In a bit of a fix.” He leaned forward heavily. Freckles mottled the white skin on the backs of his hands and his face was sickly pale. Dearnon worried he might be about to topple. The man tried to speak again but had trouble forming the words.  

“What’s up?” said Dearnon.

“Sweet.”

“What’s that?”

“Sweet. OJ?”

“Comin’ right up.”

Dearnon retreated to the back of the store, where he kept the drinks refrigerated. There was plenty of beer but only two bottles of orange juice left. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d placed a juice order. He took both bottles and headed back toward the counter, but there was no sign of the customer. He had a bad feeling about it, because he hadn’t heard the door so he was sure he hadn’t left. Hurrying to the front, he felt slightly out of breath. He was gaining weight. 

The big man had slid to the floor, sat leaning against the counter, knees up, head in his hands. 

“You okay, fella?” 

The man was barely able to raise his head. Dearnon opened the bottle of orange juice and leaned over him to offer it, but the man was too weak to hold the bottle so the storekeeper went down to the floor, braced the back of the man’s head in his hand and put the bottle to his lips. He took some in, although most of it dribbled onto his shirt. Dearnon pulled out a shirttail to wipe the man’s chin.

“Maybe I better call Dr. Randall. He’s not far from here.”

The man shook his head. 

“Want to come take a seat in the back?” Dearnon slept most nights there these days, not bothering to go home. The dog was gone now too.

“In a minute,” the man said. He closed his eyes and let himself relax into Dearnon’s arms. This caught him off guard, and he didn’t like it. Thoughts of the baby forced their way in, that raw vulnerability of the desperately ill. He shut his eyes to escape them, tried to focus on whether he’d placed the beer order, what he was going to tell the bank about the overdue payments, anything that would shut out the pink blankets and the crystal blue eyes. He’d never wanted the baby, made that plain right away. He and Irene were good together, fun. And they were barely twenty-five. He didn’t want to have a child before he had a life. The store needed his attention full time if he was going to make it work. When Irene went ahead and had it anyway, he didn’t complain, but he didn’t understand, and he didn’t talk much anymore. Their life became a different place, and he didn’t know the language. All that mattered was the regimen of feeding and caring, except he didn’t care, not the way he was supposed to, not until she was almost two, when she got sick. 

He looked down at his customer’s face, but felt wrong about witnessing a thing like this, when a man’s body betrays him. He settled himself down with him against the counter, tried to relax, but he was getting worried, wondered if he should get up and call a doctor. Then the big man stirred, raised his head, able to sip more of the juice as Dearnon held it for him. “I took some insulin. It’ll kick in.”

“Diabetes?” Dearnon said.

The man nodded and they sat quiet for a few minutes. 

“You give all your customers this kind of service?”

“Not a problem.” Dearnon saw they were about the same age, the sad side of thirty. 

“Is there anyone I can call for you?”

“Not a soul.” Dearnon thought he heard the customer chuckle.

They listened to the trucks on the road that fenced the strip mall, relentless, making their way south. Dearnon couldn’t remember the last time he’d just sat with someone, not without some expectation involved, some unspoken obligation.

 “I’m Ed. Ed O’Brien,” said the customer, offering his hand.

“Marty Dearnon.” He shook his hand. The man wore no wedding ring, and Dearnon wondered if he too was on his own. 

“Is that a telescope in the truck?” 

“Yup. That’s Girlfriend.” He took the bottle from Dearnon’s hand, put it to his lips.

“You an astronomer or something?”

“Eclipse chaser. I was up in Montana. It was a beaut.”

“You seen a lot of em?”

“My share.”

“I guess you travel all over the place?” 

“Yeah, you have to get on the road. I got hooked back in 1990. That summer was the first one I paid any real attention to, but I didn’t see the total, wasn’t in the right place. So I started to make it my business to get to whatever place had the best view.” 

Dearnon chuckled. “I knew a guy once who visited every major league baseball field in the country.”

“I’ve got some unbelievable pictures. Saw one in Siberia, one in Bucharest. That was the best one.”

“Why? Clear shot?”

“That, yeah. And I got to watch it with a woman I cared about.” O’Brien lifted the bottle and Dearnon watched the rest of the liquid empty out. 

“Feelin’ better?”

O’Brien nodded. “I ought to be used to these spells by now.”

“Maybe the docs need to adjust your meds.” Dearnon’s uncle had been diabetic, and he had asked him once if he could watch the injection. “Next time,” he said. But the man was dead by then. 

“Let’s just say I don’t always stick with the program.”

Dearnon heard the rebellion in O’Brien’s voice, the unwillingness to play by the rules. It was a dangerous way to go, but he couldn’t fault him for it.

“Every time things go haywire, I wonder if it’s curtains,” said O’Brien. “But things always settle down.”  

“Where you headed now? Home?”

“Not yet.” He put the bottle down.

“Where is home anyway?”

“Good question,” said O’Brien, with a bit of a laugh. “New Jersey, not far from Princeton.”

“I been on that turnpike. After the army.”

“Well, don’t let that fool you. New Jersey’s a pretty place really.”

“Oh, I didn’t mean—”

“It’s okay. You own this place?” O’Brien looked at the shelves, and Dearnon wished he had a way to explain why they were mostly bare.

“The bank owns it really.”

“Still, it’s yours to run. That’s something.” His glance took the place in again. The lower shelves near where they sat held only a few boxes of Cheerios, one tipped on its side, and odd jars of relish and cans of peas. “Just open up?”

Dearnon grinned then, letting it in, the time that had passed already. “Eight years.” He looked around the store, wondering again if he should have bought those shelves at that auction when he had the chance. He had an urge to defend himself somehow, make it clear that things could have been different. Business had been good in the beginning. But a business like this takes time, energy. You have to want it. Before long all they wanted was a doctor who could tell them what was wrong. Dearnon said nothing, and O’Brien stopped the questions, as if he understood there would be no neat explanation for the state of things here, that the reasons were still too raw. 

“So where’s the next eclipse?”

“Japan.” 

“Is that woman going to watch it with you?’ O’Brien’s face changed, and Dearnon wished he could take back the question.  

“She’s not interested.” O’Brien took a deep breath, trying to sit up straighter, but it was a struggle. He looked out into the parking lot, as if frustrated, eager to move on. “Seems like things get pretty quiet here.”

“Business comes in spurts, I guess.” But it didn’t. It hardly came at all anymore. Some days he didn’t bother opening up. He had to sell the place, but he couldn’t seem to part with it. It had become his hideout. Customers were an intrusion. A year ago, he’d dismantled the bell that announced an entry.

O’Brien didn’t challenge him. 

“I’m thinking about selling.”

“Yeah, maybe a new location,” said O’Brien. “One of those little college towns, where you can get some run-off business.”

From where they were sitting, Dearnon could see the dust that had balled up under the lowest shelves, and he felt oddly embarrassed, as if it could still matter. When he first opened the place, he’d polished the wood floors on his knees. He was fanatical about offering special cheeses, breads you couldn’t find that easily. 

O’Brien gazed at the bottle in his hand, almost as if he expected to find some kind of answer in it. “It didn’t have to be this way,” he said, and for a crazy moment Dearnon wondered if the man was reading his mind.

He remembered the casseroles Irene left him in the fridge, how much that had angered him, as if feeding him made her any less gone. He left them out for the dog. “Yeah,” he told O’Brien. “I know what you mean,” but Dearnon never did figure out what he could have done differently, what would have been good enough, or even why he didn’t at least try to talk to her. He looked out through the glass of the front door into the parking lot. He could see the telescope in the truck, the huge metallic blue barrel reflecting the sunlight. He wondered what it would be like to be able to cart around the thing you needed most in the world. 

“So you gonna be there?” Dearnon said.

“Where? Japan?”

“Yeah.”

“Got nowhere else to be.”

“How long since you seen her?” Later, Dearnon wondered why he didn’t stop there, at a point where he would have understood nothing more about this man. Or about himself. 

“Two years,” said O’Brien.

Hardly enough time to forget what she smelled like. Dearnon didn’t need to know any more than that, because all endings were made of the same stuff. A silence too long. A bed too big. “Ever try to reach her?”

O’Brien looked at his watch. “Twenty minutes ago.”

“And?”

“She says it won’t work, not now.” Dearnon wondered if it was about his illness, but he waited for more, realizing he wanted a different answer, a different ending. A car pulled up outside, but then moved on, as if the driver saw she had arrived at the wrong place. Good, Dearnon thought. He didn’t want to get up.

“She had this odd thing she did.” Dearnon listened, not surprised that the things the man would remember would be the things he couldn’t make sense of. “After we had a fight, she’d call me to see if I got home okay. Every time. I completely forgot about that, till just recently.” Dearnon knew that letting shit like that back in wasn’t good. “I wasted all that time.” He understood then that O’Brien was probably very ill, and that he knew it. 

He opened the other bottle of juice, took a slug and passed it to O’Brien, who downed the rest and sat up straighter. “What do I owe you for these?”

Dearnon laughed. “On the house.” He sat up, but reluctantly. He didn’t want the man to leave. The last time he’d exchanged this many words with anyone he was explaining himself to a nurse from intensive care who wanted to see ID before she’d let him near his daughter. The child crying out for him made no difference to her. 

O’Brien got to his feet, still unsteady but better than before. He gathered his things and Dearnon was struck by how purposeful he seemed, checking his watch, asking how much time it was likely to take to get to Laramie. 

“Three hours, easy. You sure you don’t want to rest up, eat something?” But Dearnon could see the man was gone already, his mind on the road. 

O’Brien thanked him, said he’d be fine. He adjusted the straps of his heavy backpack, extended his hand. Dearnon shook it. There was no more to say. He watched him go out the door. A few steps before he reached the truck, he hesitated, and Dearnon thought he was going to turn around. But he kept going, opened the tailgate, searched for something. 

He wanted to call to him, but he stopped himself. He looked down at where they’d been sitting, let his thoughts go where they shouldn’t. He fought them off, concentrated instead on the stranger’s truck backing up, turning smoothly to protect its cargo, then moving with only the barest hesitation back onto the road. 

When there was no more to see, Dearnon locked the door, so he wouldn’t be disturbed. He walked to the back, moved the newspapers off his bunk and sat down, picked up the phone. The number came to him with no effort at all. The rings were insistent, shrill. He wished he could stifle the sounds, keep them from making so much out of this. The hello was small, tentative, as if she’d recognized the number. He didn’t speak, and she hung up.

He said the number aloud, as if testing it, and this time the sequence began playing tricks on him. Maybe that wasn’t the number. Maybe that wasn’t her.   

About the Author

Mary Ann McGuigan is a freelance editor, based in the USA. Her short stories—nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Sundress Publications’ Best of the Net—have appeared in The Sun, Image, North American Review, Prime Number, and other literary journals. PIECES,  her collection of short stories, was published in 2017. WHERE YOU BELONG, one of her YA novels, was a finalist for the National Book Award, and  she has served on the panel of judges for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. The New York Public Library, the Junior Library Guild, and the Paterson Prize rank her YA novels among the best books for teens. More at http://www.maryannmcguigan.com

‘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.