I already had the appetite when my body rose in the oven unleavened breasts garnering a level of attention I hadn’t had before.
It seemed I could suddenly give rise to anyone I possessed in a glance but avoided the mirror.
Nothing could have prepared me for the onslaught of attention a sixteen year old gets when she arrives into school from summer doubled in height, halved in weight and holding the temporary golden ticket of ‘the right kind’ of body.
Boys that would’ve viewed my previous self as an unusable lunchtime football fell over each other in asking my number and claimed to have fingered me before we’d ever met.
Sexual confidence – I don’t know how I had it Sometimes I wonder was it being the child that ate all the chocolate
Being acceptable enough to fuck was all the satisfaction I needed for a very long time.
I am bearing witness to how little it had to do with me how temporary how far down the wrong rabbit hole you can go when motivated by not being ‘the wrong kind’
of body, of person.
beam is a 26 year old woman from Ireland, a new poet and a recent MA graduate in Vocal Performance. At the moment beam is working on her first collection after being published on Spilling Hot Cocoa Over Martin Amis. Recent work includes surviving the pandemic and several disappointing sourdough loaves. You can find more of her poetry @personalbeam on instagram.
Annie plants a seed. She stoops over the wooden planter and tenderly places the promise of a carrot into the crumbling black earth.
She’s been out in the yard since dawn, turning the soil and tying up bean poles. The small, stone-flagged rectangle is shared by all the families in the narrow cottages on either side, as is the lean-to shed housing their privy in the corner.
While she tends to her tiny Eden, Annie can taste the salt in the air and hear the distant rumble and slap of the waves jostling the boats in the harbour below. Her husband Donald is a fisherman like her father, and she’s lived in these slanting cliff terraces all her life. She never had a garden, though she always wanted one.
That’s why her grandson Stan thought of her when the slack-sailed ship listed silently into the harbour. Nothing in the hold but crates of dirt, and no one aboard except a skinny black dog which took off at the first opportunity. Amid all the chatter and fuss Stan figured one box of earth wouldn’t be missed – likely just ballast anyway – so he carried it all the way up to his Nanna’s yard in the stormy August heat.
Donald broke up the crate to make the planter and they filled it with the soil from the mysterious ship. She presses her fingertips into the cool, dark earth and wonders what distant lands it has travelled from, only to wind up in Whitby to nourish her vegetables. Will she be able to taste the places it knows?
Her thoughts are interrupted by their neighbour Mrs Wilson’s elderly terrier Buster, who trots over to inspect the new garden. She scratches him behind the ears for a while, but then her back starts complaining. Straightening slowly, she sees Donald stooping through their low doorway, carrying a cup of strong tea in each of his rough brown hands.
Later that night Annie wakes from a dream of runner beans. Her head is too full to get back to sleep, thinking of all the food she will grow and the jars of pickles she will give. Donald is snoring softly next to her, and the air is heavy and still. Then she hears something. A sort of unsteady clicking and scratching. It’s with them in the room, but it’s not the scuffling mice that she’s used to. A rat?
She sits up, and at the foot of the bed sees a huge black dog, yellow eyes blazing like embers. She tries to call out, to reach for her husband, but she can’t move. Annie watches in silent horror as the hound convulses, its broad back rippling. Slowly, it transforms into a man. Dressed all in black, he is deathly pale with the same flaming eyes and lurid red lips. He opens his mouth, keeps opening it, until his jaws unhinge like a snake and she sees long, glistening fangs slide from his raw scarlet gums.
She wakes from the nightmare with a start. Donald is sitting up in bed beside her. “Do you hear that?” he whispers. She listens, while her heart pounds.
It’s the same uneven scrabbling sound, but now it’s coming from the yard. Sliding out of bed, Donald tiptoes to the window, gently pulls back a corner of the curtain and looks out. After a moment he says “Wait here.” He pulls on his boots and slips out of the door.
Annie waits. Dread rests on her throat like a hand. She gets out of bed, creeping to the window as quietly as her trembling legs will allow, and peers outside. In the summer moonlight the yard is a deep blue. And it’s empty; Donald is gone. Fear clutches her. She runs to the door and flings it open, stepping on to the cool stone flags in her bare feet. “Donald!” she cries, her voice cracking.
Donald emerges hastily from the privy, and she gasps with relief. He throws his arms around her and she presses her face into his warm nightshirt.
“Sorry lass, I didn’t mean to scare you! Did you think Buster had got me?”
“He’s been at your vegetables I’m afraid, and made a right mess. It’s all right, we’ll sort it all out in the morning.”
Her husband drops off to sleep again quickly but Annie really can’t rest now. As soon as the sun rises she slips out to survey the damage. The soil has been churned up and thrown all around the planter, and her carefully tied bean poles have been toppled. With a sigh, she picks up the shovel and starts scooping the disturbed soil back into the planter.
That’s when she spots something round and pale emerging from the black earth like a mushroom. Leaning down for a closer look she brushes away some of the dirt, revealing the face of the pale man from her nightmare, buried in her vegetable patch.
His yellow eyes snap open, and his face splits into a hideous blood red grin. Without thinking Annie cries “Oooh no thank you!” and brings the shovel down hard, slicing his head clean off.
For a moment a look of surprise replaces the leering grin on the vampire’s newly detached head, before it crumbles into dust along with his body. Annie stands there, still holding the shovel.
“Did he do much damage?” Donald says suddenly from the doorway, making her jump.
She opens her mouth, but no words come out.
“I can have a word with Mrs Wilson if you like. He ought to be kept inside at night.”
Annie smiles. “Ta love. No harm done. I don’t think he’ll be back.”
Sarah Jackson writes gently unsettling stories. Her flash fiction has previously been published by Ghost Orchid Press. Her non-fiction writing has been published by the History Press, the British Library, and the Guardian. She lives in east London UK and has a green tricycle called Ivy. Her website is sarahijackson.com/writing
The feverish sun has blanched the colour out of the crowd queuing for the outlet sale. Sepia street musicians entertain with Swanee River, the banjo strumming away dully in C major while the alto sax swells the eee of Swanee. Among the mass lingers a man of restricted growth, whose wide-brimmed hat gains him six inches. He, and his sandwich board, advertising ninety-eight cent workplace trousers, should be way along Fourteenth Street, but there’s a snatch of shade here among the bodies.
In the back row, well out of the sun’s illumination, the Devil dressed in a black cassock and dog collar stands next to two nuns. He remains unnoticed by those around him, except for a little girl who glances up momentarily and notes something before returning to watch her mother help her little brother pee.
“Oh my,” a fair woman leans towards the Devil, the book she has been reading to pass her time in the queue open on the page where two lovers meet to drink cooling lemonade and declare their lust for each other.
The Devil isn’t sure whether her remark is in response to the book, or the crowd, or the heat. He considers her pale neck and the unadorned third finger on her left hand. He will keep his eye on her, along with the ugly-as-sin sandwich board man, and the legless beggar, who kneels in the gutter on a wheel board, gaping upwards, his face basking in God’s own sunlight. The bible on his lap has arrived too late for him; this hunchbacked cripple has already been named as the Devil’s own.
Hidden in the crowd, a pickpocket works his way through trouser pockets, shopping bags, billfolds. The Devil’s attention alights only briefly on him. The Devil isn’t here to judge, he leaves that to mankind. They’re hellish good at judgement. No, he’s here, like those around him, to see what he can get his hands on today.
A woman dashes past in the street, her purse held out in front of her, her hair blown backwards by the speed with which she is moving. Perhaps she has seen the looks in the eyes of those in the queue that say only they themselves are indispensable, that in a city where mothers go hungry for their children, the clothed and well-fed choose to gather in a stinking mass, queuing in hell’s heat for a bargain.
Except for the young girl, who having initially seen only a priest ranked by nuns returns her stare to the obvious horns that first alerted her to something different about this man. And then she smiles at him, laughs at the absurdity of his horns, the ridiculousness of the nuns he needs to protect him from these folk. Except those aren’t her reasons. She is smiling because it is summer and she is here with her mother and brother. She is smiling because life is good. And because the Devil knows that this is simply a moment in time, that she too will become just like the rest of them, he smiles back.
Ruth Brandt’s short stories and flash fiction have been widely published, including in Cabinet of Heed. Her prize-winning short story collection No One has any Intention of Building a Wall will be published by Fly on the Wall Press in November 2021. She lives in Surrey and Tweets @RuthABrandt.
Melissa and Dan were one of those couples who insisted they were happy.
Sometimes Mel would show me her Instagram feed, and it would be nothing but beaming couple-photos punctuated by brunches, as though that proved anything.
Dan would say things like, ‘Yeah it’s actually pretty great’ and ‘I’ve never been happier, actually.’
I haven’t told him that I think ‘actually’ is his tell, the chip in his windshield. I have the impression that, if I got him tipsy enough, the chip would burst into a web of cracks and the whole thing would explode out of him, the whole gut-wrenching truth of it.
The closest I got to honesty from Mel was at the messy end of a wedding party, when she slurred, ‘Well, no relationship is perfect, is it?’
They like to say it was a fairy-tale romance. We all know they met on Tinder. And this was six years ago, when Tinder was a grubby free-for-all. But, however they met, I have to admit that it’s worked well enough since. Six years. Not married yet, though.
‘You should get into it,’ Dan told me recently, with a wink. ‘Someone might finally straighten you out.’
‘Already tried online dating. Hated it. No thank you.’
‘You’re too old for clubs, mate,’ he pointed out needlessly. ‘Time to try something new.’
I knew Dan through Mel, and we soon became fast friends through our mutual love of American short stories. He was charming and friendly. It was Dan who eventually convinced me to move on and try again.
I suppose the apps were fine. I was put off by how superficial and flippant it all seemed. But in two days I remembered how brutal it could be.
Mel wasn’t very happy with me. I could tell by how she baked. Mel had two ways of coping with life. The first was self-medication, and the second was a constant schedule of activity. She’d told us we were making jam that weekend, and she stirred the hot mixture around the pan with the energy of a cement mixer. ‘We’ve been friends for how long and you didn’t ask for my advice on this?’ she said.
‘I’m doing all right, thank you very much,’ I said proudly. ‘Look – six matches in a week. This one even replied.’
‘Only six? We live in Manchester, not Guernsey. Let me see.’
Mel wiped her hands and took my phone. By the time the jam had cooled she’d summarised my wordy profile into three short sentences, then added that I was a geochemist.
‘That can’t make a difference?’ I said.
‘It’s not about the money. It’s about showing you aren’t a useless layabout who she’ll have to cook and iron for.’
‘Don’t be too choosy when you’re swiping,’ Dan instructed one Sunday, as we scoured Waterstones to find gifts for Mel’s birthday. ‘You’re dating, it’s a chance to see if there’s something out there you didn’t realise you were looking for. You don’t want to get stuck with the wrong person too soon.’
It was difficult to strike up a conversation with some of the people I matched with. The expectation seemed to be that I should be entertaining from the very first message, somehow witty and humble without coming across like a boring nerd or, worse, a dickhead. A simple ‘hi’ never got me anywhere, but an inoffensive quip about one of her photos usually got a response. There might be a formula for this, I thought out loud. There should be websites dedicated to tricking women into thinking you were dateable.
‘There already are,’ Dan laughed.
‘Oh. Should I take a look?’
‘Absolutely not,’ said Mel.
Once the ice was broken, I could be myself. If things didn’t go anywhere after that, it just wasn’t a good fit.
I went on a lot of first dates. Four out of five people were clearly just out of serious relationships. Their frailties showed through their expressions, like light through a split lampshade. The few people I was drawn to were distant, disinterested. One woman, a corporate lawyer, replied intermittently and unenthusiastically, late in the evening when I sensed she was bored. I won’t pretend it didn’t bruise my ego.
It was also plain that there were simply too few people out there who I might come to like, and who might, mind-bogglingly, like me back. The abundance provided by the apps highlighted the astronomical unlikelihood of my ever meeting someone who wasn’t broken, weird, attached or my polar opposite. I’d have settled for a few shared interests, but it was hard to even get a conversation flowing. Still, I found I was quite pragmatic about the chilly realities of online dating in your early thirties.
‘There’s something about hitting thirty-six that seems to send some people a little crazy,’ joked Emma, a copy-writing Literature grad originally from Leamington Spa, who I matched with Tuesday morning. ‘I plan to kill myself at thirty-five.’
We were on our first date that Thursday evening.
* * *
Lately, when I’m almost asleep, my brain flickers through everything that happened with Emma in weird phantasmagorical detail, a flicker-book in the neon colours of a wet Tokyo street.
For the first date, I chose a respectable bar with warm, low lighting. It served tapas and snacks, in case we got hungry; on Thursdays they held a salsa class, the energy of which I hoped would make up for my nervous quietude. But she had a quality that drew me out of myself, got us talking.
Thankfully, she didn’t ask me to dance. She liked to, but she also did many of her favourite things lying down. ‘Reading. Watching TV. I like to plan my next trip on my phone in bed. It helps me get to sleep,’ she said.
A tasteless joke came to mind. In a breezy silence that I filled with a sip of Shiraz, her eyes twinkled at me in gratitude for my grown-up restraint. By the time I set my glass back down, we were smiling at one another.
* * *
‘It went pretty well,’ I told Mel later. Emma was not only as attractive as her photos suggested, she was lively, with a sparky sense of humour. We’d joked about the brusque entitlement that seemed peculiar to online dating – ‘Have you been “hey strangered” yet?’ Emma asked me, using her little finger to stroke a strand of hair away from her mouth. ‘Nothing like being ignored after the third date and then expected to pick up where you left off two months later.’
Between us we’d been stood up, ghosted, blocked, breadcrumbed, kept in orbit and catfished. Emma had been actively dating since the start of the summer – almost eight months – but had mostly been disappointed.
‘I don’t often bother with a second date unless I really get a good vibe,’ she told me.
‘What did you say to that?’ Mel asked me, leaping off the armchair onto my back like a child. We fell onto the sofa and I extricated myself from my friend’s demanding grasp, grinning.
‘I’m seeing her again Saturday.’
‘I suppose it’s amazing…,’ I said.
‘Isn’t it? What exactly are you looking for?’ she asked, disengaging to take two beers out of the fridge. I thought she was about to offer me one, but she was pouring them down the sink. Mel was having one of her booze clear-outs to help her with her latest sobriety effort.
‘Any red flags?’ she asked, rinsing out the empty bottles.
‘She’s three years younger than me,’ I said. ‘Does that make her a different generation? Will she be all into Instagram and ironically stupid stuff?’
‘Three years is nothing, you gargantuan bore. Even Dan and I … Well, anyway. Did you say she had a Cath Kidston coat? You should take her some of our delicious strawberry jam. It’ll be quirky, she’ll love it. Trust me.’
* * *
On Saturday, I met Emma at Alessandro’s in the Northern Quarter, an Italian place Emma had suggested. Once we’d given the waiter our orders, Emma said, ‘So, I told a friend of mine about you.’
‘Oh?’ I said. ‘Is that a good sign?’
‘He asks about every date. He’s a massive gossip. He likes to spread it around our book club, which is annoying because one of the women there is obsessed with me.’
‘You’re not interested?’ I asked.
‘Her favourite novel is Fifty Shades Freed.’
Over our starters, we filled each other in on the boring stuff we hadn’t wanted to bog down the first date with: number of siblings and the details of our jobs.
The conversation turned to tentative probing for warning signs in our romantic histories. When she told me about her strained relationship with her mother, who had died after five years of Alzheimer’s in a home that Emma hadn’t once visited, I repaid her openness with the story of my once-fiancé, six years prior, who had fallen pregnant with another man’s baby.
‘Oof, that can’t have been fun,’ she said.
‘I should have been tougher, kicked her right out. She’d moved in with me about a year earlier. I was paying all the rent. I let her stay for another two months while her boyfriend decorated a room in his flat for the baby.’
How embarrassing, to reveal my pathetic weakness so soon in the relationship, and to a woman who exhibited nothing but confidence.
‘Never mind,’ she said. ‘It took me three months to muster the courage to break up with my last partner. No great loss. He thought Raymond Carver was a TV chef.’
Yep, she liked American short stories, too. It’s amazing what promising little signs you cling to after dating so many oddballs. Here was someone I could talk to, without expectations or judgements, who didn’t mind my average looks or aversion to social media. It was a relief to know that I could relax and be myself, and I sensed the same in her, too. A lowering of her shoulders, a smile that came easily to her wide, bright face.
‘Got any weird interests?’ she drawled, narrowing her eyes and raising one eyebrow in mock suspicion.
‘You brought it up, you’d better go first.’
‘Yeesh. I don’t know. I used to own two chameleons? Not anymore, they only live about three years. Now you. Quid pro quo, pal.’
‘One of my things is letting my friend Mel choose our weekend activities. She likes to wind me up by making me do stuff she knows I’d never try otherwise. This week we made jam. Um, this might be weird, but I brought you some.’
I took out the heavy jar and placed it on the table next to the unlit candle. It was exactly as the waiter came with our main courses. Emma and I looked at the jam in courteous silence as the plates of food were placed between us and the waiter asked if we wanted anything else. We said no thank-you. After he left, we burst into relieved laughter.
‘Thanks!’ she said at last. ‘I can’t turn down a good fruit conserve.’
I’d ordered chicken cacciatore, because it reminded me of a sunny afternoon I had in Rome once, on a peaceful vacation after my engagement fell through. She shared her mushroom linguine, but wouldn’t hand me the fork. She held the fork herself, forcing me to eat it off the tines, one loop after another. ‘Come on, suck it! Suck it!’ she ordered, laughing, and I got cream sauce on my face and sweater but refused to bite down on the pasta and end my torment, refused to let her win the game. Once the pasta was finally gone from her fork she put it in her mouth and said around it, like a cigar, ‘You did good, kid, real good. Now wipe yourself off.’
I attacked my stained top with a napkin, warm in my cheeks. ‘I need a shower.’
Emma shrugged. ‘I have a shower at my place.’
Full of a new confidence I hadn’t felt in a long time, I quipped, ‘No dessert first?’
‘I don’t think I could still respect you if I watch you eat another thing. We should make a move now, before it’s too late. Besides, if we get peckish, we have the jam.’
* * *
We took a taxi to her apartment in a high-rise on the edge of the city centre. We were both too shy to try anything in the back seat. Heat radiated between our palms when we held hands, faintly embarrassed by the childish intimacy. She murmured that it was unexpected to meet someone she could be herself around. Perhaps nervous, she looked out the car window. I took a deep breath and kissed her neck. She leaned into it, and when I pulled back she was smiling.
‘Oh,’ she blurted ten minutes later, with the key in the lock of her apartment on the seventh floor. ‘Um, don’t be nervous about the axe on my wall. It’s just a replica from this show I used to watch with my Dad when I was little. When he died he left it to me as a joke. Last laugh’s mine, though, ‘cause I’m not remotely embarrassed.’
We passed through the threshold into an open plan kitchen-lounge. It was a big place. There was, indeed, a twin-bladed axe mounted on the wall opposite the door, above a row of low bookcases. An L-shaped sofa reached around two sides of a whitewashed wooden coffee table. There were plants, photos and exotic ornaments on various surfaces. On a second table beside the kitchen counter was a large glass vivarium. Inside, I could see a branch and some sprays of plastic greenery. The once lamp-lit home of the deceased chameleons.
I was still looking at it, feeling a change in the atmosphere of the room – probably the moving air caused by our entry into the apartment – when Emma dropped her keys on the coffee table and whirled around to kiss me. We took our time.
With her arms still around my neck, she said, ‘Drink?’
We kissed again, separated; I uncorked a Malbec whilst she drew some clinking glasses from a cupboard. From either side of the kitchen counter, she in the kitchen and me in the lounge, we filled our glasses. We moved to the sofa and made flirtatious chatter for a while.
After I excused myself to go to the bathroom, I peered at my reflection as I washed my hands. I was taken aback by the brightness of my eyes. I looked five years younger than I had the week before. Returning to the lounge, I felt weightless and loose.
‘I’m in the bedroom,’ Emma called from behind a closed door. ‘Just give me a sec, I’ll be right out.’
I sat on the sofa and tried not to look at the axe on the wall. The wine was good. It had gone a little to my head – my third glass of the evening. Emma’s glass, resting on a bamboo coaster on the table, was already drained.
She called again from the bedroom. ‘Are you going to be good, now?’
‘Of course!’ I replied.
The bedroom door opened. She stepped onto the carpet of the lounge with bare feet. For a few seconds, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. It was so unexpected that it didn’t seem to imprint upon my brain. The shapes were familiar but it was like my operating system had frozen.
When I finally understood what my eyes were seeing, I realised that I was experiencing more of the sense of humour that made Emma so attractive. I laughed at the joke, but I could see in her eyes that my slightly nervous chuckle hadn’t connected with her ears. Her expression remained unchanged; she just moved her shoulders and arms languidly, looking up at the ceiling. She wasn’t trying to be funny. It wasn’t a joke.
She was dressed in a lizard costume. It had been made for adults, but was childishly cartoonish, made of luminous green Lycra except for a sequinned yellow circle over the stomach and vividly pink spines running down her head and back. Only her face was visible; the stretchy hood of the outfit circled her eyes and mouth, covering her ears. She wore a pair of green monster-claw gloves, vastly outsized. Her feet were bare and white.
‘I’m a lizard,’ she said, stroking her toes over the thick rug. She turned around and showed me her long tail, then rotated on one foot like a ballerina to face me again. The outfit was probably meant to be a non-specific dinosaur of some kind.
I stretched my lips into a neutral smile. ‘Yes you are.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Suddenly she was beside me. Almost imperceptibly quickly, she had darted across the room in a low, hunched position, moving sinuously and with total dedication to the role. She looked willowy in the clinging bodysuit, like a shaved-headed child or a crash test dummy. One giant fluffy monster claw rested on my sternum. She smelled of talc and ever so slightly of bruschetta.
Looking intensely at me with her tunnel-like brown eyes, she licked her lips in a flash and then pushed me back a step. I felt the couch behind me and sat down hard. A stiff rustle told me that I was sitting on an open magazine. I couldn’t take my eyes of Emma, who was now backing away from me. She spun around and placed both her hands on the wall at about head height and looked over her shoulder at me, waggling her stiff foam tail.
‘I’m a lizard. If you pull off my tail then it’ll just grow back. I look slimy but I’m not. I’m not slimy at all.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘Pull it!’ she snapped, scrunching her eyes closed. ‘Pull off my tail! Pull it off!’
I swallowed something the size of a golf ball and remembered Emma telling me to suck down her linguine. I didn’t want to think about it. Or, maybe I just didn’t want to be rising from the sofa and walking gingerly across the room to take a spongy green lizard’s tail in my hands and tugging.
‘Pull it off! No predator can hold me! I want you to pull my tail off. I’m not going to beg!’
I pulled on the tail. There was a scrunchy sound. Emma, her hands still against the wall, head lowered to her chest now, thrust her backside toward me. I got a better grip on the tail and yanked. The Velcro fasteners ripped apart and Emma sighed in satisfaction.
‘I can feel my cells dividing,’ she said, writhing. ‘My cold body is regenerating.’
Despite myself, I felt a twitch of arousal at her tone of voice. We stood an inch apart, me still clutching the disengaged tail, Emma turning to look up at me. She planted both monster claws on either side of my face. The cotton mitts had no traction on my face but, heaven help me, I lowered my lips to hers and we kissed deeply. Even as the heat of her mouth and a heart-fluttering adrenaline rush hit me, I wondered if I were taking advantage of a mentally ill person. Her tongue tasted of onion and olive oil.
When I pulled away, she pressed her lips together and took a deep breath.
‘I want something sweet,’ she said.
‘The jam! Get it.’
Emma had put the jar into her handbag. Now she watched me respectfully dip my hand inside for the jar and then remove it, closing the bag afterwards.
‘Take the lid off.’
I unsealed the jar with a loud pop. She grunted at the sound and skittered towards me. With a single swift outward jerk of her arms, she divested herself of the monster claws, revealing pale human paws. Into the jar of jam she thrust her long fingers. She swiped strawberry preserve in a thick, gelatinous arc across her forehead. Then two more along the lines of her cheekbones. I looked at the smears of lumpy red jam and wondered if I’d somehow triggered this.
‘Be a wasp!’ she demanded. She clenched her eyes shut again and staggered backwards towards the sofa, dragging me by my sauce-stained top. I almost fell on top of her with my full weight before I could pull free. ‘Be a wasp, you’re a big nasty wasp!’ she screeched.
‘Um, buzz,’ I said. She was scrabbling at the hem of my sweater. I held my body aloft with one hand, gripped her ribcage with the other. I had no hands free for acting. Go with it! I heard Dan say in my head. Enjoy yourself, mate!
‘Actually…,’ I said.
‘Yes! No! Keep away from me, with your ugly face and nasty stinger!’
I can’t say I made mental note of the mad script that we were ad-libbing together. All I know is that I felt as stupid as a grown adult can possibly feel, whilst also being painfully aroused in a way that I’m not proud of. Half-leaning, half-standing over the couch, I was unsupported and unbalanced.
Meanwhile, Emma swatted at me, thrashing her head left and right, knocking cushions off the couch. She raked my bare stomach with her fingernails, which were red and sticky with the jam. Syrupy sweetness filled the air.
‘No! No!’ she barked. ‘Leave my sugar alone!’
‘I think … Actually….’
I grabbed her wrists and used the leverage to push against her and stand upright. I took two steps back and probably held up my hands, like someone about to be mugged. My sweater fell back down, sticking to the jam on my stomach.
‘Sorry, but I think I’d better go,’ I said, trying not to think about the axe on the wall.
She sat up on the sofa and looked baldly at me. In a tone of voice now nostalgically normal, she said, ‘Are you serious?’
‘Yeah, this isn’t really … Sorry.’
An expression of contempt filled the circular green boundary of her hood. ‘What? Jesus, this is nothing. So I have a thing, what’s wrong with you?’
I mumbled some excuses and retrieved my coat from the arm of the sofa. There was red jam on the back of my hand. The seeds of doubt quivered inside the gelatinous blob of my anxiety. Then I steeled myself and took off.
* * *
In the taxi, I told Mel and Dan by text to prepare themselves for a full report. ‘Come over,’ Mel replied. Dan began typing something, but changed his mind. I went to their flat in New Islington rather than going home to stew in my own disappointment.
When I got there I found Mel alone, wallowing on the couch with several empty bottles in a neat triangle on the coffee table. ‘Dan just left me,’ she announced loudly.
Was I surprised? I’d always thought of their relationship as like a battered old book. The glue binding had mostly turned to dust and it would need only one good shake to scatter the pages across the room. As soon as one of them got the flu, or was depressed, or when they were rained in on holiday, the loose leaves would start slipping out.
‘It’s because I tried to stop,’ she said, indicating the beer bottles. ‘It turns me into a bitch. But how am I supposed to tolerate him otherwise?’
We’d had this conversation many times. I would ask her why she was in the relationship in the first place, and she would say, ‘What should I do, start dating again? I mean, this is why we go through all of that, isn’t it? To get to this.’
Whatever variation of that reply she gave, I would usually wait her out in silence.
David Brookes is a writer currently living in the UK, from where he runs his editing firm The STP Literary Service. He has stories published in many magazines including Scrittura, Every Day Fiction, Electric Spec, Pantechnicon, Bewildering Stories, Whispering Spirits, Morpheus Tales, The Cynic and Aphelion.
She let me know early on I was not like the other kids.
As a five-year-old, Snowball the class budgie comes home to every house but mine. I’m not allowed to perform in the skit at the end-of-year concert. We are just getting started.
As a 10-year-old, I attend other kids’ birthday parties, but mine are spent at home, alone with her. I beg to have one, just once. It needn’t be fancy or take a heap of effort, I argue. She keeps saying we can’t afford squat, and I say it can be fairy bread and sausage rolls and a picnic blanket at the park. Maybe pass-the-parcel, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, and a three-legged race. Homemade and happy. I promise an ice cream cake at Pizza Hut or a party in the decommissioned airplane out the front of shopping mall McDonald’s isn’t necessary. I cry, I plead. She squints her eyes and says no. Those things are for others. I plan to hold my own celebration in a spare room at school, send cheerful invites, then overwhelm myself with the technicalities to the point of panic attacks. My friends’ mothers sense my agitation and cater it. She harumphs at home.
As a 12-year-old, I’m forbidden from swimming classes and slip-and-slides and excursions to the city. Teachers skate close to suspecting something, but she claims poverty and they nod understanding, not knowing of the thousands of dollars in the bank. In desperation, I beg to go on the class trip to the museum, assuring her it’ll be educational without a drop of fun. She relents as a reward for knowing my place. Also, perhaps, sensing they are almost onto her. Time to provide the exception that hides the rule.
As a fifteen-year-old, she refuses to replace any electrical goods that go bung in our house because she has ‘bad luck with appliances’, one of the many self-pitying refrains she has on speed dial. Using my $6.50-per-hour Macca’s wage, I buy us a tiny fridge, a TV and a VCR, desperate for a few essentials and sick of being teased by my classmates about our analogue existence. She complains about what I pick, saying she can’t sleep from buzzing I can’t hear. I come to comprehend how nothing will ever be enough.
As a seventeen-year-old, I ring up the government phoneline to register my university course preferences. She, still with tens of thousands of dollars squirreled away for a rainy day, huffs and puffs that she can’t afford a premium phone call. I calmly explain it’s an investment in my future and offer to pay it myself. She screams in my face that I should hang up immediately because it’s a waste of money. I learn to bide my time.
In my twenties, why do I not visit?
In my thirties, why do I plan my wedding alone?
In my forties, she is dead, and I can finally start living.
Rebecca Douglas is an Australian writer whose work has been published by Overland, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Guardian, Kill Your Darlings, Visible Ink, Verandah Journal, The Big Issue, ABC The Drum, and various other lovely places.
I couldn’t help myself, the threads stitched themselves. Automatic needlework. Needles work to seal your features on my lap and spools of green threads conjoined to form envious eyes that judge even in lifelessness. Less life passes in your face each day as the needles rise and fall of their own accord. The emerald cords skipping fabric instead into flesh lacking protection that felt the sharp incision of metal through skin and bone with surgical precision. A collision of strands travelling on re canals filling with grievous knots that thwart tenderness. Under the skin on my wrist aligned with my own blue ribbons, they stream together. Together in these symbiotic stitches we share our mutual afflictions.
Indigo was sitting at the bus stop scrolling through social media. She didn’t see the other three people waiting with her. Indigo’s spirit guide was only trying to get her to see one of them, the man to her left who was playing a video game on his phone.
Indigo’s guide was tickling her ribs. Indigo wasn’t very psychic so she really didn’t sense the spirit’s touch much. However, after several minutes of it, Indigo’s guide did manage to make Indigo sneeze.
The man to Indigo’s left was named Ivan. His spirit guide had been trying to make Ivan notice Indigo the whole time her guide had been trying to make Indigo sneeze. Ivan’s guide had tried to short out Ivan’s earphones. He had sent a shiver up Ivan’s spine. He punched Ivan square on the jaw in his growing frustration. Ivan was a bit more psychic than most so he did take notice of all the poking and prodding by his guide. He had looked up from his phone right as Indigo sneezed.
Alas, for the soulmates’ guides Ivan looked at the man sitting on the other side of him, not at Indigo on his right side.
The man to Indigo’s right was the one who muttered; ‘Bless you,’
The soulmates didn’t meet. The Bus came and they got on one after the other but sat separately. They exited the bus separately without ever even making eye contact.
Ivan’s guide looked back as Indigo’s guide as Ivan and he got off. Indio’s guide shrugged. The guides waved goodbye to each other longingly as the bus took off from Ivan’s stop. Indigo’s guide smacked her upside the head. Indigo sneezed again.
A little old lady sitting behind Indigo said “Gesundheit.”
It was thirteen years, four months, and eighteen days later before the guides got the chance to try, try again. It was in the grocery store right by Ivan’s apartment. Both guides’ eyes lit up as Ivan rounded the corner of aisle three to walk right past Indigo. The spirit guides jumped to embrace each other. Ivan and Indigo were busy ignoring each other but to be fair they were ignoring everyone else too. Indigo was comparing the nutritional chart on two different boxes of diet breakfast bars. Ivan was on his phone again. He was talking to his mother, asking her to list off the items he needed to buy to make lasagna.
The guides were about to miss their second chance as they were so consumed in hugging. Ivan had pushed his buggy almost totally past Indigo’s. Ivan’s guide grabbed Ivan’s hands and shoved with all his energy. Ivan’s hands slipped and his buggy lurched into Indigo’s.
“Sorry.” Ivan said absently then went back to talking to his mother. “What kinds of cheeses? Do I find those in the freezer?”
Indigo didn’t even answer his single word with a single word of her own. She just nodded and kept analysing fat content and calories listed on the boxes in each hand. Again they never even made eye contact. Indigo finally tossed one box into her buggy and headed in the other direction. Both guides teared up as they waved goodbye this time.
It was fifty years, eight months, and one day before they saw each other again. The guides that is because Ivan and Indigo had yet to see each other. Ironically, they had only exchanged one word; sorry. Ivan was sitting in his wheelchair at his nursing home’s front door. He was reading sports scores on a tablet in a very large font. Still he was straining to read the print.
Indigo was being helped out of a cab. She was arguing loudly with the taxi driver and a social worker who were trying to help her walk into the nursing home. She was screaming that she didn’t want to move to the nursing home. The social worker was politely explaining that she had no family to take her in and she could no longer live alone. The taxi driver had bolted without a word after the social worker slipped him a fifty.
Indigo slapped away the social worker’s steadying hand. She stumbled right into Ivan’s wheelchair. He reached to grab her by the elbow to keep her from falling.
“Sorry.” She said the same single word that he’d said to her so many years before.
Alas, they still hadn’t seen each other. Ivan’s eyesight wouldn’t let him see anything more than ten inches from his face. Indigo’s vision was clouded with tears and she was begrudgingly going on into the nursing home.
Indigo’s guide grabbed Ivan’s guide’s arm. “We have to do something.”
“It is just too late.”
“No, they will be living in the same home now. It’s never too late! They are old. They have missed sixty years that they were supposed to be married. They didn’t have the kids or grandkids but they can still be together finally now, briefly.” Indigo’s guide was holding the nursing home door shut so the social worker couldn’t get it open for Indigo.
“Very briefly.” Ivan’s guide said glancing up at the sun. “In about three minutes, Ivan will die.”
“What?” Indigo’s guide screeched still fighting the social worker for the door’s control.
Ivan’s guide had been off on his estimate. Ivan instantly fell out of his wheelchair to the ground, clutching his heart. Indigo shook off the social worker’s hold and fell down beside the stranger on the ground.
She reached for his hand. The guide was holding his hand already but let go as Indigo took it. Ivan looked up. She was ten inches away from his face. He could see her. Ivan looked into Indigo’s eyes finally. He started to say that she was beautiful but drew his last breath as she was starting to tell him that he couldn’t give up.
You’re probably unfolding this page and thinking, Gosh, what a terrible human being Cate became since then, and by that you’ll mean ever since you pushed the door open with a big box propped against your chest, put it on the kitchen counter, yanked a sheet off it like a street magician, and pointed to a gerbil that stared at us and squeaked. “This will help us,” you said. “Looking after him will help us.” You stroked my sweaty hair and I rolled my eyes. When I came back from the shower, you were feeding pellets to the gerbil and asking him who’s a good boy, lots of nodding, lots of smiling. I went out to buy something I didn’t need, like more eggs, I was always after more eggs back then.
Two days later, I can hardly put my yoga mat down and you lead me to the kitchen counter, where you’ve set plates on opposite ends, with microwaved rice and beans piled on them. You light a candle close enough to the gerbil that it stretches its paws trying to bring the orange glow into its cage. “Caring for Little Julian is good for us,” you say. “He is us, in a way, Julian and Cate. See?” What I see is that the gerbil keeps thrusting his paw at the candle and I wonder if his whole fur will catch on fire or just his paw.
A week later, I come back from my therapist and there are two heads bobbing at the gerbil, yours and Margaret’s. I see her chalked hair, fluffed up into a lair of some sort, a floral blouse with ruffle puff sleeves, and forearm tattoos whose writing has faded into scribbles. At night, while you’re meming on your phone and I’m trying to make sense of the tsunami-shaped damp patch on the ceiling, I ask who granny is and you roll away from me in bed and turn off your lamp. Mine’s still on, so I can see your back hair through the moth holes in your college shirt.
Fast forward a month and I come home from jogging and find you standing behind Margaret, against the wall, clothes still on but rolled down around the pelvis. As I look at your butt, forward, back, forward, back, I frown and think, “Wait, isn’t this the position he said was too busy for his taste?” And, “Wait, isn’t she the age my mother-in-law would’ve been today?”
I knew, right, then, that it was unfair of me to focus on her age because men have relationships with women who are generations younger than them and people wink at them, not frown.
I know it was unfair of me to yell at you that with her you were going to save hundreds of bucks on condoms.
It was unfair to broom you out of the apartment while both of you had your clothes rolled down, especially when Mr. McShae was out in the hall and we all know he stares, and unfair to keep the door locked while you thumped on it, asking for me to “release Little Julian into your custody.”
It was unfair to line the gerbil’s cage with your dress shirts before boxing your clothes and sending them to her apartment, where you moved in, right below mine.
It was unfair to send you ransom notes for Tiny Julian’s freedom, written with letters cut out from large-print Reader’sDigest magazines.
What was most unfair was the banging you heard above you a couple of hours ago. It started off as a cracking sort of noise, from my hammer pounding against the tiled floor, something that just happened because it was Friday and there was wine in the house. Then I took out Tiny Julian from his cage, for just a second, and he wasn’t swayed by my “Come back here,” meant to sound like you, and, what do you know, he slipped into the new cracks in the tiles. The schoolteacher from next door stopped by when she heard someone cursing at the pipes. I told her the drain was clogged up, because what else would I say, we had some wine, and after a while she went to her apartment and back she came, flopping around a plumber’s snake, goggled, like some sort of villain from the 1950s. She poked and thrusted into the pipes. The snake reached in as far as it could, so we shook it around for a while, then tested the drain and everything came out nicely, a smooth flow that showed that anything that had been dumped in there at some point and may have clogged up the system was gone. She rolled back her snake in silence as we stared at opposite walls, spent, and I wondered why I had never known how handy this schoolteacher could be. We heard squeaking from the cracks in the floor, and she said “Fucking mice,” and I said “Fucking mice” back. We threw tools into the cracks and one thing led to another and the banging started again, metal on metal. I’m sure you two will bob your heads up now, staring at the water damage on Margaret’s ceiling, and wonder how to get Tiny Julian back safe to where it belongs. Maybe Tiny Julian will crawl through some rusty hole in the wall and leak out of the building before you find him.
This is all unfair of me, I know, especially if Margaret has lived here a long time and I’m ruining her ceiling. I swear I can’t remember how long she’s been here—was she in our lives when Tiny Julian arrived and she seemed too unlikely for me to notice her, like the fake geraniums by the mailboxes? I’m not sure anymore, and I really don’t care. This note is just a heads up. Tiny Julian is on the loose and I won’t make an effort to catch him. Oh, and I can’t promise the pipes will behave as they used to.
Federico Escobar grew up in Cali, Colombia, and after living in New Orleans, Jerusalem, and Oxford, spent most of the past decade in Puerto Rico—Hurricane María included. His literary work has been published or is forthcoming in The Phare, Bending Genres, Passengers Journal, and Typishly. He works in education.
‘Just one more chance, pleeeeease,’ I stretched the last word out as far as it would go, but Mother’s back was turned, and my bag stood in the hallway with my good winter coat and red wellingtons.
‘I’ve ‘phoned the Bad Girls’ Home. They’re coming for you in an hour.’ She was showing no mercy to the tomatoes as she sliced them with her sharpest knife. Her tongue clicked the roof of her mouth as they spilled their seeds over the kitchen counter. It was, I suspected, similar messiness that had led to my own fall from grace.
‘You can have your tea before you go,’ she said. I hated sandwiches, and Mother knew it. She had a machine for cutting bread, a bit like a guillotine. I flinched when she operated the blade. Taking the butter from the fridge, she waved the packet at me.
‘There’ll be none of this where you’re going. It’ll be water and dry bread before bedtime if you’re lucky.’ She tipped her head to one side to show she was thinking.
‘Or maybe a bit of gruel,’ she added.
‘Like Oliver Twist,’ I said.
‘Don’t get smart with me Madam.’ Mother gave me one of her looks. I was not taking this seriously enough.
Mother had taken me to see The Bad Girls’ Home last time I had let myself down. We had taken the bus miles out of town, then Mother, glancing around to check no-one was watching, had wrenched open some rusty gates and led me up a path overgrown with weeds and brambles. The building she had showed me was unlit and unloved.
‘Let this be a warning to you,’ she had said, placing her hands under my armpits and lifting me off my feet, so that my chin was level with a rotted wooden windowsill. I had peered into a deserted classroom; a few wooden desks and chairs, a chalkboard with some long-forgotten lessons written in an elegant cursive script. A box containing a hockey stick topped with a pair of bottle green knickers stood in the corner.
‘There’s nobody here,’ I had protested, sure I had caught Mother out in a falsehood.
‘The Bad Girls are out at work at this time. You won’t have much time for all your books and nonsense if I have to send you here.’ Her tone had made me silent. She had gazed at me for a long time before deciding I was sufficiently contrite. We had returned home, and she had made my favourite soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers.
Now, though, there seemed to be no chance of a last-minute reprieve. Mother set down a plate of cheese and tomato sandwiches. I stared at them, swallowing hard, unable to even take a first bite. A tear slithered down my cheek.
‘I’m sorry that it’s come to this,’ said Mother. She took a cotton handkerchief embroidered with her initial from the sleeve of her cardigan and blew her nose hard.
‘As a matter of fact, Mummy has had a little weep herself, this afternoon.’ I looked up as she sniffed and dabbed her eyes.
‘I blame myself. I must have been a very bad mother, to make you behave this way.’
This was my cue. Sliding down from my chair I scurried round to where she sat and flung my arms around her shoulders. I sobbed into her neck.
‘You’re the best Mummy in the world,’ I whispered into her ear. Mother did nothing for a long time. Then, stiffly, she began to pat my back.
‘There, there. Don’t upset yourself.’ Her words held no emotion, as though she was reading them from a prompt card. She extricated herself from my clutches and went out into the hall, where the telephone stood on its glass and wrought iron table. I heard her lift the receiver and dial a number.
‘I think I should give her one more chance. Perhaps she has learned her lesson this time. Sorry to have troubled you.’ I buried my head in my arms on the table and sobbed again, this time with relief. Mother came back into the room. She removed the unwanted sandwiches from the table I heard her tip them into the kitchen pedal bin, making no reference, as she usually did, to starving children in Africa. She took something from the fridge and gently placed it in front of me. The smell of chocolate made my nostrils twitch. I sat up, scrubbing at my face with clenched fists.
A slice of the kind of chocolate cake in which we only indulged on Very Special Occasions sat before me. Mother kissed the top of my head.
‘I will wipe your slate clean.’ It was an old promise, but one which had never before been accompanied by cake.
Relief had made me hungry. I devoured the whole slice, picking up crumbs on a dampened finger. Mother winced only slightly as she watched me. Afterwards we sat on the sofa, my head resting on her shoulder as we watched my favourite quiz show. Several times I answered a question when the contestant failed. Mother smiled proudly.
‘I love to spend time with my clever girl,’ she said. I began to relax in the glow of her approval. I remembered the chocolate cake, bought and sliced and waiting in the fridge for my redemption, even before my crime had been committed. I yawned, stretched, and went out into the hallway, leaving the door open wide enough for Mother to see what I was about to do next.
‘I’ll take this back upstairs,’ I said, grabbing the handles of the empty bag she had ‘packed’ for my departure. I slung it easily over my shoulder, ensuring that she knew I had no expectation of it containing any weight at all. I smiled my most angelic smile as I mounted the stairs.
‘Love you, Mummy,’ I said. I was tired of this game and would not be playing it again.
Alison Wassell is a short story and flash fiction writer published by Retreat West, Reflex Fiction, Firewords, Bath Flash Fiction, NFFD, FlashFlood Journal and The People’s Friend. She has been longlisted, shortlisted and placed in various competitions.
The mountain air is clean, smelling like greenery and last night’s rain. It’s still warm from today, the first day of summer, but already cooling as the sun sets.
I fasten the helmet strap beneath my chin, put on my thick gloves that are padded with a plastic puck in the palm, and check my longboard again.
The asphalt road waits before me, finally clear after the long winter and spring. Black grey, surrounded by wildflowers, trees on one side, the deep, green valley on the other. I’ve ridden this road so many times I can see its course in my mind, flowing down the mountainside like a river.
I put my right foot on the board, and push off hard with my left. Another couple of pushes, then gravity does the rest. I lean left or right to move with the road, almost effortlessly after all these years of practice. Soon, I’m going fast. Faster than a wooden plank and four polyurethane wheels have any right to go. It almost feels like flying.
This late in the evening, I have the road to myself. Just me and the wind rushing in my ears. I put my hands behind my back and lean forward, bending my knees to keep my balance. Soon, there’s the first sharp curve. I crouch and lean into it, grazing the padded gloves over the ground to brake and steer myself in the right direction.
Once I’m past the curve, I get upright again, taking in the bright blue sky, the setting sun. Take a moment to revel in the thrill of going this fast.
Above me, swifts tumble and soar, catching insects, playing bird games. Going faster than you’d think a bundle of feathers would ever be able to. Like me, they return here in summer after the long winter keeps them away.
One flies low, its black wings glinting in the sun, tumbling through the air, in complete and utter freedom. I once read that swifts can stay aloft for months at a time, sleeping in the air, nesting up high, rarely ever touching ground.
If only I had wings like that.
Another curve in the road, and then, immediately, there’s a tunnel. I move with the curve and enter the darkness, keeping my eyes on the light ahead, watching for car headlights that could surprise me in this narrow space.
In here, cool nothingness surrounds me. Only the wind rushing in my ears, the beating of my heart. I could be floating in a sea, or flying in a dark sky, if not for my feet stuck to the board, my final connection to the ground.
The bright light at the end gets bigger. The sounds come back with the warmth of summer. I ride out of the tunnel and am engulfed in light.
The setting sun is before me, shining through a dip in the mountains, showering everything in yellow, orange, red.
It surrounds me, blinds me, pierces through my eyelids and deep into my skin. Gives me warmth, strength.
It builds me wings.
I can feel it.
I throw off my gloves with clumsy fingers, then take off my helmet. I need to feel the wind in my hair, the sun on my skin. I need to feel all of it.
I spread my golden wings.
My legs move the board right and left, following the road from memory. I speed down, barely feeling my feet touch the board, so fast, so free. I laugh in the warm light.
I’m almost soaring like the swifts in the endless blue, towards the setting sun.
The sound of a car engine.
I barely keep my balance. The sun blinds me, golden spots floating before my eyes. My legs don’t know what to do. They move left, then right, wobble on the board.
The car honks, tires screech.
My wings melt.
I steer away from the noise, but I’m going too fast. I can’t stop, I can’t see where I’m going. I lose control of the board, feel it roll off the road and get stuck in the grass while my body keeps moving.
I am free.
My body is airborne, the road behind me, the valley below. The setting sun ahead. There’s nothing but air surrounding me, nothing but the blue sky, nothing but the swifts calling out and swooping all around me. Nothing to keep me on the ground. I am flying on my own now, absolutely, utterly free.
They’ll call it a tragic accident. Carelessness. Hubris.
But, for now, I spread my wings.
Lotte van der Krol is a multi-genre writer from the Netherlands. She likes to walk in the woods, following the strange sounds that are almost like music but not quite. Her work has appeared in Popshot Quarterly, Capsule Stories, Weird Christmas, and others. She’s on twitter @lottevdkrol and on lottevanderkrol.wordpress.com
My ally gone. The day before my tenth birthday. Now I am with the dark suits and dresses, Amongst the orchestra of sobs, coughs, and creaking pews.
Great-aunts I’d only seen as words in mum’s tired address-book, Their raining eyes turn to downpour As The Lord is my Shepherd is sung or bawled. Rainstorms on legs. Some sang with belief, others grief.
As his frame slides out towards flames, the heartbroken, Some seeing a reflection of their own frailty, Some still pouring into hankies converged on Mersea Island where we were comforted by Shepherd’s pie
Served by aprons on stilts. All in Arthur’s memory, his thanks for our compassion. Remembered amongst Royal Copenhagen blue-white Tableware, Shy behind a bespoke glass shield. And burning silver-cutlery.
Nothing was as old as the ancient chest Which survived Nazis and was liberated from A Danish castle, even older than the great-aunts.
Paul Attwell lives in Richmond with his partner Alis, and Pudsey the cat. Paul’s experiences of depression and ADHD shape his work. Blade is available from WrongRoosterPublishing at https://www.wrongroosterpublishing.com/ Early Doors will be available mid-May. Paul’s poems have been on IS&Tears, Runcible Spoon, One Hand Clapping and Amethyst.