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. or @polyscribe2

‘Lockdown, Mate’ by Harry Wilding


—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


“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.


‘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. 


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.

Like an Old Movie by Mircea Dan Duta

Translated by Natalie Nera

I’m sitting at Ginger Mary’s, a railway station pub in Ostrava. The place feels as industrial as the rest of this North Moravian city. A beer to say goodbye. An empty pint on my table. A pretty young blonde is sitting at the table in front of me. The femininity of her existence – her unreal blue eyes, her angelic face, her firm round breasts, her beautiful sexy legs, her narrow waist, her delicate knees, her thin ankles and elegant pumps, paired with the incomprehensible city of Ostrava… I am staring knowingly, urgently, and in vain. She doesn’t notice me at all. In fact, she doesn’t move at all, as if she were dead. Yes, I know she’s not dead, because that’s what I understand about Ostrava, that there are no dead blondes sitting around with a beer at Ginger Mary’s. But that doesn’t matter anymore, does it?

But what did I get from Ostrava this year?

A month (just a crescent) of authors’ readings, in which I was originally supposed to moderate thirty events, but in the end there were only fourteen of them.

A well-known poet promised to attend all of them, though he ended up attending only four.

I was invited to another illustrious reading, where, as the – would-be – main guest, I was supposed to read five poems, and in the end I barely read one.

A beautiful Slovak photography student, with whom I fell incurably in love, and vanished from the Ginger Mary’s together with two bright young classmates, without paying their bill.

The pissed-off publican who didn’t want to understand that I wasn’t really the father of those students, so I didn’t have to cover their bill.  The police officer finally solved everything by making me pay for his dinner in addition to their beers, liquor shots and plates of stew.

Futile dreams of promoting my poetry, if not in the Czech Republic, Moravia, Silesia or Ostrava, then at least at the Ginger Mary’s and at the Absinthe Club, and if not at the club, then at least at Les.

No beer at Dvanáctka, which is a theatre space.

A bottle of local liquor – Becherovka – gifted by the festival director, which doesn’t fit in my luggage, so I have to sip it in secret here at the Ginger Mary’s, or on the fourth platform at the Ostrava’s Central Station before my train leaves.

Two bus rides in full sobriety, to Brno to attend some conferences, followed by three drunken train rides back to Ostrava.

(I have never found the unshaven conductors on Czech Railways prettier and more seductive).

Seventy-two draught Ostravar beers, which I paid for out of my own pocket, and another thirty-six, which I would have been entitled to for free had I learned in time that as a festival participant I also enjoyed certain benefits, not just obligations.

The hands of the long-broken wall clock in my room, still showing three hours and twenty minutes of in all likelihood our era, as still as my empty pint here at the Ginger Mary’s and as still as the pretty young blonde at the table in front of me. I down the Director’s bottle of Becherovka. This year, like the years before, Ostrava didn’t show me any panties. My train’s on time. I won’t make it anyway. I don’t give a damn about them. Or him. And everything. I’m slowly falling asleep. Here in Ostrava at the Ginger Mary’s.

… to magically wake up at the Dragon bar in Brno.

A pretty, unapproachable blonde is at the table in front of me. She’s typing on her phone and smiling stupidly at the screen.

Next to me, a fat guy in a business suit. His cell phone keeps ringing, but he doesn’t answer.

The waitress is chatting with the bartender, they haven’t taken an order in half an hour.

There’s an empty pint glass on my table. Loneliness in Brno. In the old movie with the same title, they were just dealing with boredom.

I don’t know how they managed to bring me the first beer and cutlery. I’d like to cut my veins with the knife, which would solve everything, of course, but I don’t know how the fork would fit into the equation, let alone a spoon and tea spoon. And so, I hesitate over whether to stab myself in the wrist, throat or liver with the knife, and whether this would be better achieved with the fork, spoon or tea spoon, or just feebly with my own bare hands.

I look around once more. Certainly no one will teach me. The blonde is typing on her cell phone, the fat guy’s cell phone is ringing constantly and unnecessarily, the glass in front of me is still empty, the waitress is still chatting with the bartender – it’s getting unbearable. Just take the knife in your hand and then there will be a solution.

All of a sudden, the blonde giggles charmingly – you know, I’ve never heard such a charming and seductive laugh before; she spreads her beautiful legs like wings – spontaneously, unexpectedly, abundantly and willingly, oh man, as I enjoy the sight of her modern, transparent and immaculate white miniature panties, the fat man at the next table finally takes the last of these urgent calls, oh man, what a pleasant and willing corporatist voice, the waitress and bartender appear at my table, what would you like, sir, oh, man, how nice and helpful they are, oh well, I know what to do, life is worth living, the void around me can be filled after all, so I’m ordering another beer.

About the Author

Mircea Dan Duta (b. 27 May 1967, Bucharest) is a poet, a film historian, critic,  researcher and academic (he holds a PhD in the subject), translator (Czech, Slovak, Polish, Romanian, French and English), and writer who has chosen to express himself in another language – Czech. He has also produced and organised many literary events in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Romania. As editor, he works for Levure Littéraire (France, USA, Germany), A Too Powerful World (Serbia), Alephi (India) and Quest (Montenegro).

His poetry collections include: Landscapes, Flights and Dictations, Tin quotes, inferiority complexes and human rights (2014/2015, Petr Štengl Editions, Prague), Plíz sujčov jor mobajl foun senťu / Pliiz suiciof ior mobail faun senchiu (Next Page Editions, Bucharest, 2020, bilingual Czech-Romanian anthology). Examples of his academic work are: Narrator, Author & God (Charles University Press, Prague, 2009), The Holocaust in Czech, Slovak and Polish Literature & Cinema (ibid., 2007), The Czech & Slovak Film New Wave in the Social, Political and Cultural Context of the 60s of the 20th Century (Jozef Škvorecký Literary Academy Press, Prague, 2008) – last two titles are collective works.

His literary works have been translated into many languages and published in many countries: Britain, France, the USA, Serbia, Poland, Spain, India, Montenegro, Albania, Egypt, Syria, Korea and Kosovo. His poems have appeared in numerous international anthologies of contemporary literature – in the USA, UK, Mongolia, Spain, Czech Republic, South-Africa, India, Indonesia, Romania, Moldova.

Deliver Me with Cornmeal by Ben Umayam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

I ask about her christened name. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do not.

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

Great story, I thought.

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

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

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

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

 Juris has told me stories of anger and fury.

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

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

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

“No, why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

I get the picture.

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

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

I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

Spooky, I thought.

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


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

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

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

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

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

I laugh, Juris cries.  Jackie is gone.

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


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

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

And how do you deal with that?

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

Veni, Vidi Vicky by Stephen Albones

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

            ‘Are you still working for that dubious publication?’

            ‘If you mean Maulstick, yes.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

            ‘What do you like about art?’

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

            ‘Like I said, pretentious?’

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

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

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

            Vicky smiled sweetly. I’d passed the test.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            I fumble for my glasses.

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

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

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

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

            ‘Ahhhh. Pleeeaaase.’

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

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

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

About the Author

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

A Metropolitan Avenue-Bound Love Affair by Alex Antiuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            “Yep…” I replied hesitantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author   

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

Bullet by Lina Carr

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

‘It’s today’ she said.

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

 ‘Don’t, no more.’

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


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


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


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

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

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

You half-open your mouth, pant. 

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

About the Author

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

Room 6? by Christine Fowler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ‘You’re sure?’ he croaked.

            ‘Get on with it.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ‘Nor gin I warrant’ Death wryly observed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            ‘Therapy.  You mean occupational therapy.’

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

            She waved the gin bottle again, ‘More?’

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

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

            ‘Where does what go?’

            She waved her glass, ‘This.’

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

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


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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

Ink by Ross Turner


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

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

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

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

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


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

‘It’s open, Jennifer.’

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

‘Grandpa,’ she said quietly, glancing around.


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

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

Jennifer looked down.

‘Can I take you today, Grandpa?’

‘I don’t want to go.’

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

‘They don’t know me.’

‘You won’t give them a chance.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

He wondered how he looked. Worse, no doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He fell.

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

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

‘Dad,’ the face said.

He glared at the ceiling.

‘Dad! Fucks sake!’

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


‘Surprised you recognise me.’

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

Angry. Eyes like knives.

‘Alice, I–’

She held up her hand. ‘Not interested.’


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


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


‘Your fucking war stories.’

‘Alice, I–’

‘Fuck you.’

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

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

About the Author

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