Yon be Da Pickleman – Jim Meirose

Yon be da pickleman rocking her boat dry. Got out and told him.

Pickygrin?

Litbubby.

Prongies? May ketch the prongies?

Might?

Will. Have ketched the prongies.

Doc. Hey Doc. I need help done gone ketched da prongies.

Why? That’s why I’m here. Ask why I to you not backwards my way Doc. I think I need a new you.

What? Nut-cake. Here. Eat on my nutcake.

Why those?

Cause these.

Why these?

Cause them.

Why them?

Cause dose udder.

Why does udder?

Cause you da pickle-man. Pickle-man scritchie-scratchie his ones. What I told ya knackie. His ones. Those. So what you can’t see dem, dey’re dare. Yuppie noodles by gosh yuk, they dere.

Why? I should not know.

Why the sun, eh? Why the moon? Eh? Why? The stars eh? And so forth. And on. Downhill it all rolls. All quick and slick. This way and that.

She rocked her boat all up got out and told him. What she tell him? Pickygrin? She tell him dis. Litbubby. She told him dat. Prongies? She told him which way dat. Soul. Souls. No soul and no souls. Cause dose udder. My brain. What I told ya big knackie. Crown me. All quick and slick. Crown me right now. The stars eh? Not already crowned me, no. Pickygrin? Not later crown me promise me, no. Pickle-man scritchie-scratchie his onesies his twosies and—his threesies anon. Why them? You been told. Cause dose udder. And why dat so so? Ha. Cause you da pickle-man.

Pickle-man scritchie-scratchie his ones?

Ha.

Cause you da pickle-man.

 

www.jimmeirose.com

Contents Drawer Issue 13

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The Barfly – D S Maolalai

there was a spot
on the inside my wineglass
and the spot was yellow
and the spot
was a hornet. I fished her out
on the bent end of a spoon – no, not dead,
but drunk enough to be so –
and placed her on my table
with another glass sealing her in.

the legs were moving,
the body
looked large as a thumb,
the stinger glistening sharp
and deadly as cholera. her body
was segmented
and her wings
clung flat to her back.

I read my book a while,
drank some wine,
watching
as she came slowly back from sleep.
the head moved
briefly. then a
twitch. I’m used to flies
which die in my winebottles,
but a hornet
was a new
and interesting sight. I wondered
did she intend her drunkenness
or did she
fall into it
as many do,
trying to hurt me,
and now
could not get out.

eventually
she rolled over from her side,
bad as a sunday morning,
and began to shake,
buzzing angrily at the glass.
I picked it up
to give her some air
but she couldn’t get aloft,
just stumbled
drunk on the tabletop,
yellow stripes
livid on the wood.

I thought of winos on the roadways,
sitting outside
supermarkets, sipping cider
and eating cans of cold soup.
I thought of litterbins
busy with insects, and pity,
and all the other things. I thought of myself
shaking in the morning
and wondered idly
if insects can have hangovers.

then I brought the glass down again,
slowly
and bottom first
and felt the wetness of the crush
and the relief
that my own hangover
would go unwitnessed.

 

DS Maolalai recently returned to Ireland after four years away, now spending his days working maintenance dispatch for a bank and his nights looking out the window and wishing he had a view. His first collection, Love is Breaking Plates in the Garden, was published in 2016 by the Encircle Press. He has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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Uncle Sam, Bastard – M S Clements

My Uncle Sam is a bastard. An utter bastard. He turns up, unannounced, demands bed and supper while Nan flies around the house like a clichéd thing possessed. Nothing is too much bother when it comes to our Uncle Sammy.

Christmas is the worst. There we are, helping out as best as we can. Wrapping presents in last year’s paper. Cassie ironing out the creases and Jason getting Sellotape on every available surface. Some not so available. He won’t stick it to his head anymore. Of course, it isn’t real Sellotape, we just call it that. It’s the cheap stuff, the one where you can never find the end and, if by some miracle you do, then you get a one centimetre triangle. A patchwork quilt of the gift wrap variety. No doubt, somewhere in Shoreditch, a hipster nods his head, thinks it would be a great USP for the shop; patchwork wrapping, so responsible, so sustainable. Jason does it because there’s nothing else to do.

Nan lived alone until we arrived, dishevelled and lost. Mum says the court order means we won’t be disturbed. I never met Grandad. Grandad wanted to discover himself. He discovered himself at the bottom of a lake after the husband discovered him under the bed. Mum used to say of her father, ‘That man was so dim he’d use a chocolate teapot for the tea.’ All in all, not having that grandad is a blessing. One gift less to wrap. There’s a picture of him on the sideboard, a bit blurred and very dusty. It not in a frame, just propped up against one of Nan’s china cats. The one with the scary eyes and chipped ear. That wasn’t my fault, it just fell. Grandad is standing in a park with Sam, a bandstand behind them. They are grinning, and Sam has an ice-cream. ‘Lucky bastard.’ Mum says, moving the picture so she can wipe the dust off the cat. Mum doesn’t eat ice-cream now. It makes her sad.

November is the month for fasting. Nan makes out it is some sort of religious obligation. A bit like Lent, except without the fish. A month of baked beans. Our house fumigated by the stench of five stomachs, each reacting badly to the sudden pulse rich diet. We pray fervently every night to be allowed to survive the night time gassing from our siblings, just so we can get to December and Operation Reduced Basket. Nan, being the senior member of the family gets the choicest of picks, Waitrose. Mum and I do Sainsbury’s, Cassie, Tesco and Jason gets Lidl. The attack always begins precisely one hour before closing. Not in Cassie’s case though. Tesco is a twenty-four hour store, so she does the nine at night slot. We stalk the staff who are armed with the reducing gun, hovering just close enough to pounce on the smoky bacon but not so close to be considered a nuisance. Cassie works her charms on the lad in the fish department. We do well there.

Nan’s old freezer, the one she liberated from the forgetful neighbour, is switched on, and cooking begins. All day, the oven has to earn it’s keep. No shelf left empty. Nan turns down the thermostat, ‘No point heating the house twice.’ We cram into the kitchen, fearing frostbite on the trips to the loo. The previous month’s malodour replaced with spices and the mouth-watering aroma of sheer pleasure. I can feel the calories piling on just taking in a deep breath. There will be enough to eat. And that’s the point, enough for two adults and three children to eat. It’s not like Nan wouldn’t ring and check if Uncle Sam intended to visit. She would, and he’d say ‘Nah, not this year, Mum. Got an invite to Dave’s. He’s got a party going at the villa. It will be fun. Maybe next year, I’ll let you know.’ He never does, the bastard. He just stands there in the doorway, grinning inanely. A silhouetted bulk blocking out the winter morning. In one hand is bag of washing, in the other a bottle of cheap whisky. Barrelling his way past, he hands the washing to Nan and the whisky to mum on his way to the sitting room, ‘Got you a present, Sis. Hey, Jason get some glasses, would you?’ Not sure he ever notices that Mum and Nan don’t drink.

He lies across the sofa and tell us about his trips. We sit on the itchy carpet, our legs entwined, trying to find meagre space for our ever growing limbs. Uncle Sam drives a coach for a tour company. Best job in the world, he says. Tells us we should travel, see the world, just like him. Go to all those European cities, Prague, Rome, Venice and Barcelona.

‘What was the Sagrada Familia like?’ asks Cassie, expecting a vicarious tour.

‘Nah, didn’t do it. They charge you to go in, it’s not even finished. Bloody cheek.’ He then told her about the girl on the beach that wanted to practise her English. The bars and restaurants she took him to and the nightclubs where they danced. He laughs, ‘There’s always an opportunity for a free meal and a bed for a handsome chap like me.’ I wonder if they need opticians in those foreign cities.

Upstairs, Mum moves a mattress into our room. Her own bedroom commandeered for the prodigal son. Cassie irons out the creases on the best bed linen, while Jason fetches another bowl of crisps.

We open our presents, carefully. That paper could stand another year. A book on art for Cassie, a model plane kit for Jason. I get a Spirograph. Mum spotted it in Oxfam back in the summer. I kiss her and pretend to be thrilled. We all get new underwear, the annual tradition. Nan apologises throughout the performance of gift opening, ‘Sorry, Son. I would have got you a present if I had known you were coming.’

She opens her purse and pulls out a little piece of paper. Her treasure, replaced each week. Blush pink and fingers crossed, a row of numbers that never changes, 17, Mum’s birthday, 25, 16, 08, Cassie, Jason and me, 28, Uncle Sam and 12, the day Grandad died. She hands it to Uncle Sam, ‘Here, take this, it might be lucky.’

‘No, Mum. The lottery is a tax on the poor and stupid. You keep it.’

She replaces it back into her empty purse, ‘One day.’ she said, ‘One day.’

We squeeze around the table, Uncle Sam’s plate barely big enough for the portions piled high. Nan gives us the side plates, it makes our portions look generous. We clear our plates and watch Uncle Sam as he boasts about his life, his mate Dave is going to give him a promotion. More money, more holidays, ‘There’s no such thing as luck, kids. Just right time, right place.’ Uncle Sam strikes me as someone who’d buy that chocolate teapot. His father’s son. His plate finally wiped clean, he drinks another glass of whisky and take out his smokes.

Two days of disruption, silence in the sitting room so he can watch his stale comedies in peace. Cassie shivers under a pile of blankets in the bedroom, admiring distant works of art. Jason reads the instructions for his model aeroplane. He won’t start it now, not while Uncle Sam is in the house, not after last time. I sit crossed legged and stare at him while he gobbles my chocolate raisins. Mrs Cordwell gave a bag to everyone in the class. Nan cooks and cleans. Mum cries. And then he’s gone. No more Uncle Sam. Peace and austerity reigning over our house once more.

When the police arrive, we hide at the top of the stairs. We wait, the door to the sitting room shut. Jason lays on the floor, his ear to an upturned glass. ‘It’s Uncle Sam. He’s dead. A coach rolled backwards and squished him flat.’ I don’t think that’s the policeman’s words, but that’s what happened all the same.

Uncle Sam is front page news. He’d have been so chuffed. Dave’s to blame, apparently. Skimped on maintenance to pay for his villa in Spain. Forgot about the European Arrest Warrant too.

A quiet man from the tour company visits. He sits in the sitting room and drinks tea. Nan offers him cake and listens to the prepared speech of condolence. They do not want a fight in court, compensation is available. Dave’s case is still pending.

The lawyer explains about the life insurance and the compensation scheme. Nan continues to tap his hand and offers him another slice of cherry cake. Reduced to 29 pence, the night before. Waitrose no less.

‘He died doing what he loved. Just wrong time, wrong place.’ she said, before biting into her generous portion of cake.

November will be fast free this year, and our letters to Santa will not be burnt and forgotten. I will eat chocolate raisins until my tummy hurts and remember that lucky bastard, Sam.

 

M S Clements is a former Spanish teacher of Anglo-Spanish heritage. She is in the process of completing her first novel, The Third Magpie. A dystopian love story set against a backdrop of xenophobia and misogyny. She lives on a building site with her family and assorted builders in rural Buckinghamshire.

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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Golden Prospects – Sarah Tinsley

The snip tap of the scissors played around his head. Too much off the top. Kayley wouldn’t let him lean into her hand when she touched his hair. Jab didn’t say anything. Just hunkered down under the flap plastic gown in the hope he’d be a smaller target for the blades. No time for small talk.

It was busy. Rows of them, sat like they’re at a show they’ve paid for but don’t want to watch. That careful look, when you stare at yourself, only just above one eye, so you don’t look self-indulgent. On his left was a right one, voice so low it’s coming out of his shoes, a careful crease down the arms of his shirt. Corduroy trousers. That sort.

No time to sit and chat, it’s the cut that’s got to do the job, send him on his way. Just keep looking at that spot above the left eyebrow, circle scar from chicken pox where he scratched his face even though Mum slapped his hands away and dabbed pink powder lotion on.

Mr. Corduroy was crowing, ever so pleased with the snip cut on his head. Jab was already up, out of the chair, shoulders in coat before he finished handing over the wrinkled fiver with a nod. The man at the desk, he tipped his head back, looked down at Jab like he knew, could see the thing that’s waiting there for him, lined up like the tip of a domino. A perfect tap in the right place and he’ll be set, pick up a House Special on his way home, set himself down on the floor in front of the sofa so she can settle her hand in his new haircut.

He let the gusts of people take him down the road. Coming out in little bursts, rushing out of Poundland like they’d get found out, clutching the shivering plastic bags to their sides, all full of Tunnock’s caramel wafers and some tat the kids might like, keep them away from the Xbox for another five minutes.

Jab had a higher purpose. There above the offy, Carl was waiting. In his hands were mounds of grey-green papery slips, squash them together and you’ve got no rent worries for the next six months. There for the taking. Practically his already. He tucked hands in pockets, felt something slippy, soft, like the money was already there.

Around the corner, he stopped. Pulled it out. Just a few steps away from the blue door his future lay behind. It was a yellow tie. The colour ached his eyes, something green in it, a slice of gold that had gone rotten. All shiny, like a snakeskin. It fell onto the floor, coiled up, a bright splatter on the pavement.

Mr. Corduroy. Jab could see him, rummaging in his pockets, all bent out of shape about his lost tie, maybe one that Mrs. Corduroy got him last birthday, in one of them presentation boxes, ready wrapped and smart as anything.

Jab looked back up the street. Busier now, suited types filling up the spaces in between the mummy shoppers, heading home from work, or going to the All Bar One to sink a few before facing the gauntlet of dinner at home.

If he went back now, tried to give it back, he’d be late. Plus, there was no telling whether Mr. Corduroy would still be there. He’d probably taken his uncreased sleeves home, no doubt there was a pile of fancy things like this he could hang around his neck. He wouldn’t miss this one.

Jab leaned down, picked it back up. A little dark spot down one end, that wouldn’t notice. He flopped it round his neck, let the material rub over the rough bit, when you get little hairs back there and it itches like buggery.

This could give him an edge. Carl would be impressed, the lengths he’d gone to, to look the part. He slip-tied the knot – they had a blue one with red stripes on at school – flopped down the soft collar of his polo shirt. A dark shadow of himself in the blackened windows of the old newsagent’s. Reliable, his reflection said. Boasted of how he could carry things off without a hitch.

He made his entrance, didn’t even bother to knock.

‘Here, Jabber thinks he’s an estate agent.’ That little one in the corner, ratty face and fingers. Not the entrance Jab was hoping for.

‘Nothing wrong with making an effort, you want to show a bit more respect, like, not turning any heads in your dowdy rags there, are you?’ The words tumbled out, like they always did. Rat Face was always with Carl, it wasn’t good to criticise.

‘Easy now.’ Carl was sat at the dining table, flap-up baseball cap tipped just to the side. Jab had tried to wear his like that, preened and flicked in the mirror until Kayley snatched it off his head, told him to go downstairs, the baby was napping.

‘I’m here.’ Jab stepped forward. Silence ticked out. It was better to say less, but the words bubbled out. ‘I’m here ‘cos of what you said was going down, and how you needed someone reliable, and I turned up to the Saturday job I had every week even when I got tanked the night before, and when we did our drama project I was always first to rehearsals.’

‘Easy.’ Carl put a hand up. ‘No need to explain.’ He turned, rummaged in a rucksack on the floor. ‘Here we are.’ In one hand, a thick envelope. In the other, a small brown package, about the size of a large special fried rice.

‘No problem.’ A delivery. Jab took both, no hand fumbling, envelope in the pocket and parcel swinging from one hand.

‘Address.’ Little slip of paper, jagged at the top where it’s pulled off the pad like Mum’s shopping lists.

‘Safe.’ Jab swiped the words with his eyes, his route growing out in lines over the roads – walk to station, get tube, bus, short walk. He could be home by eight.

He strutted out past the ratty one, that slippery slither down his front a marker of success. No questions asked.

Jab entered the crush going into the station – commuter crowd scrabbling and paper flick reading, that smell of print that you couldn’t get off your fingers. He took one off the pile, another mask for his mission. Beep tap on the reader, seamless, sliding through the crowds.

A follower. Hood up, face with shadows drawn on, looked like the ratty man. Scampering through the barriers over there, looking away as if Jab wouldn’t notice. Do the double, on the train then back off. This guy with the pointed nose would be on his way, snuffling through the window while Jab went back out, got the 259 from outside.

On the platform, crowds were lining up, clustered round the sweet spot where the train comes in and whoosh, doors open like they’ve been expecting you. Jab kept walking, up to the end, like he wanted that rattling bit where he could get a seat. Sniffling behind came rat face. Got to time it just right.

Dirt scent breeze from the coming train, eyeglare of headlights coming out through the tunnel. Rattle and click, thump and the train was there, squealing as it stopped. Jab waited, let the leavers get off.

He stepped in, kept to the line between in and out, quick check to see the back of ratty man further down, leaning on the pole next to a straight suit woman. Robot voice telling them what to do, everyone stood there like sheep. Not him, he was different.

There it was. The beep. Right at the end of it he snicked off, just before the gulp of the closing door. Perfect. Now he could carry on, get his work done.

Something wrong. He stepped away but his body didn’t move, something anchoring it back to the train. He pulled again, jerking free, only this time it hurt. A sharp pain round his neck. The tie. The bloody motherfucking tie had caught in the doors and there he was, suspended from it, parcel still swinging from one hand and that knot. Too tight, tied too well. He pulled, again, the doors were about to open and ratty man would find him.

It locked round his throat. Squeezing. He tugged too hard. Scrambling for breath, red panic heat rising up his neck, itch at the back from the little hairs and thank you Mr. Corduroy for your gift. He was going to get something for Mini Jab, a tiny cap to wear like his dad but now he’d strangle himself on a slip custard tie.

The doors burst open. Jab slumped down, air like water pouring into his lungs and he grabbed at the knot, peanut small, jerking it open to free his neck. A hand on his arm, scrabbling down and pulling the parcel out of his hand.

‘You should stick to selling houses.’ The rat’s claws were in his pocket, slipping the money out, off through a brick-round tunnel and Jab was alone.

‘Stand clear of the doors.’

He found the bench and sat, unwrapping the tie knot and staring down at his hands, all covered with a stink of failure.

 

Sarah Tinsley is a writer, teacher, runner and drummer who lives in London. Prone to musing over gender issues and eating cheese, she has an MA in Creative Writing from City University and won the International Segora Short Story prize in 2016. Her short fiction, reviews and blogs have been published on a variety of platforms and you can find her on Twitter @sarahertinsley and find her blog at http://sarahtinsley.com

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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Things My Mother Left Me With – Rebecca Field

A fear of cotton-wool. I don’t know where she got it from, but she passed it on to me at the age of six. I brought home a Christmas decoration I had made in school – a paper cone made into a Santa Claus figure, with a hand-drawn face, googly eyes and a cotton-wool beard stuck down with PVA glue. She started to hyperventilate when she saw it and carried it to the dustbin at arm’s length. I remember crying and her telling me it wasn’t my fault, though I didn’t believe her. She helped me to make another with a beard made from scrunched up pieces of tissue paper, but it wasn’t the same. I still can’t look at the stuff without wanting to cry.

A love of proper green pesto, freshly made and bashed up together in the pestle and mortar. She wouldn’t entertain the shop-bought stuff, said it tasted fake. We grew the basil from seed in plastic pots on the kitchen window sill. She showed me how to pick the young leaves from the top so more would grow. We ate it with pasta, on pizza, in sandwiches. Now I grow the herbs by myself, but Dad won’t eat the pesto anymore.

A photographic memory for numbers. Phone numbers, car registration plates, passport numbers – she knew them all. I thought this was normal so I learned them too. I memorised the value of pi to fifty decimal places with some spare time in my maths exam, knowing she would have been proud of me. I run through the numbers in my head when I’m trying to sleep.

The emerald earrings Dad gave her for their tenth wedding anniversary. She said they suited me better than her. I keep them in their box, buried at the back of my underwear drawer where he won’t look. I do all the washing now. I hold them up to my ears in the mirror and imagine I am a married woman going out to dinner, like they used to do.

A box of handbags and shoes she said I could grow into. Clutch bags with elaborate clasps and embroidery, in shades of peacock green and scarlet, leather shoes so narrow and delicate, my feet are already growing too large for them. There are imprints of her toes inside some of them. I wonder if she realised I would never be able to wear them, that I had inherited Dad’s feet and not hers.

Her scent on the winter coat at the back of the hallway cupboard. There is barely a trace of it left now, so I take it out only when I need it most. I hold it in my arms like a sleeping child, breathing deeply into its lining. Dad doesn’t know we still have it. He threw out the rest of her clothes when it became clear she was never coming back.

A father who looks a bit like mine used to.

A deep shame whenever anyone asks me how I lost my mother.

A guilt that grows each day, that I should have seen it coming and stopped her somehow.

Hope that maybe one day, Dad will believe me when I tell him I won’t leave him too, and let me look for her.

Rebecca Field lives in Derbyshire and works in healthcare. She has been published online at Literally Stories, 101 Words, Flash Fiction Magazine, Spelk and The Cabinet of Heed. She has a highly commended microfiction in the 2018 National Flash Fiction anthology, and can be found on Twitter at @RebeccaFwrites

Contents Drawer Issue 13

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The Landlord – Tabitha Burns

A thin brown envelope means one of two things: you’ve lucked out or your luck’s out. No guesses as to which kind this is, so close to payday. Over two hundred quid I owe them. Oh look, they’ve ‘automatically readjusted future payments’ — how bleeding benevolent of them.

My stomach drops at the date. New payments start today, which means my money is not going to add up: bank balance minus council tax does not equal rent. Grab your coat Carol, you’re pulling a fast one. If I hurry, maybe I can spirit my money away, out of the digital dimension and into my purse, consequences be damned.

Good God, this stairwell is as hot as hell. It needs flushing with fresh air, but the windows are jammed shut as per. I asked the landlord once, ‘How come they’re all stuck then? Should we be worried?’

He shrugged and gave me his deflective stock answer, ‘What do you want me to say?’

I used to wonder why nobody answered him. Then he said it to me. Somehow it knocks all the words out of you, except the few he wants.

Out on the street it’s as cold as old bones. I jog around the corner to see a long line coiling away from the cash machine and I join the back of the queue. It will be fine, they probably haven’t taken the payment yet. Even if they have, it’s only twenty quid — there has to be someone who can spot me. Maybe Penny, although she might resent it, given that the choice I’m trying to outrun is the one she signed up for.

She seemed nervous, showing me round her new place. I admired the floor-to-ceiling windows framing the slow, skeletal cranes and the crying gulls across the wharf. I ran my hand over the sleek white worktops and turned the shining taps on and off. And then, surprising us both, I asked, ‘Was it worth it?’

Look lively, Carol! I’m at the front of the queue, hoorah. Ah, they have taken it. How proactive of them. How splendidly dynamic. Pity they weren’t this organised when they were calculating my tax in the first place. Right. I think it’s time to pay the landlord a little visit.

I stand outside the building for a few moments, enjoying the brisk wind against my skin, and then I slip inside. There is no reason for it to be so stuffy in here. But then I suppose there’s no reason for the unholy stink under my sink either, or the maggots in the meter box, or the scrape of wings in the walls at night.

Still, this isn’t the worst place I’ve ever lived. Must be why I don’t mind him as much as the neighbours. ‘He’s the devil,’ they hissed, when they saw me dragging boxes through the front door. By then it was too late, I’d already given him the deposit. Apparently he gives deposits back, which is more than most landlords will do for you, but only after ten days, as is the legal requirement. Your new place will need the deposit when you move in, so what are you going to do, save up? In this city? You’re the snake choking on its own tail.

My thighs are aching by the time I reach his door. He would have to live on the top floor, wouldn’t he? King of the damned castle. The gnarled bronze handle feels like a clawed hand in mine. I give it a stiff knock and the door opens swiftly, white light cutting a slice out of the shadows at my feet. And there he is, filling the doorframe in his light blue shirt and dark jeans, looking just like the ordinary bloke he isn’t.

I start talking before he can get inside my head. I tell him my bank is being a nightmare, I’ll need to pay my rent tomorrow instead. He just stares. I stare back. His mouth slides into a smile and I know what’s coming before he speaks the words.

‘What do you want me to say?’

He’s taunting me, coaxing out the answer he is sure I am ready to give. I clamp my hand to my mouth and shake my head. I take the stairs two at a time, followed by the sound of hooves until I spin round to see that the stairwell is empty and still, save for a cloud of condensation blooming across the small window.

Back in my flat, I catch my breath. I need to think on my feet, keep my head above water — easier said than done in this city.

I call Penny, who else? She’s happy to hear from me, says nobody visits her since she signed for the flat, says even the cat hisses at her. I tell her she’s being paranoid and promise to visit soon. Then I close my eyes and ask her for the money.

‘Just until I get paid,’ I promise, but she doesn’t need convincing. I hear her starting up her laptop and tip-tapping it across to me. She’s an angel. Surely that will save her, when it comes to it.

I force myself back up the stairs. He is waiting in front of his open door. I tell him it’s all sorted, the money should be landing in his account right about now. I apologise for the mix-up. He shrugs, as if my rent is the least important thing in the world.

As I’m walking away, I hear his footsteps following mine and I realise he still expects me to say it; he thinks my soul is as good as his. But I’m already down the stairs, wincing at the sound of hooves I know aren’t really there. I dart inside my flat and slam the door behind me — home at last. Despite everything I do feel safe in here, once the front door is locked. Like I said, I’ve lived in worse places.

 

 

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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Another One Bites the Dust – Frank McHugh

Nothing fills the space between them

So now he comes face to face with her,
no longer dead and an expectant look
in her pale pale eyes.

Through slanting sun shafts the dust fairies
grow in number and size
until the stairwell fills with moths

which cluster to shape
the words on his breath and
more appear as he opens his mouth.

He knows they must come
but that does nothing to temper
the dry delicate horror of it.

Moth words fill the space between them

Gently palpating each letter as the outpouring slows,
spitting out the last moth stuck to his withering lips,
he reads the hovering words,

‘Do not confront me with my failures,
I have not forgotten them.’

Not even his own. Borrowed, old, moth-eaten
cloth words smelling gently of burnt hair
Waving a weak hand through them

the words disperse, the beloved also fades,
the motes rearrange themselves,
drift through the sunslats
then appear to disappear.

 

Frank McHugh is from the west coast of Scotland. He teaches and writes poetry in both Scots and English, as well as songs, short fiction and plays. His poetry has been published in Acumen Poetry, New Writing Scotland, The Glasgow Review of Books, SurVision, Bonnie’s Crew and The Runt. One of his poems was named as highly commended at the Imprint Writing awards 2016.

 

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The Use In Words – David Hayward

I’ve lost count of the winters I have seen, more than fifty, less than seventy, always longer than the summers, which seem to pass so quick as hardly to count. But, whatever the count, my fingers ache in the morning and my hips crack when I kneel. Sometimes my vision is blurred and other times I see bright lights were there should be none. More often than not, at the end of the long day’s toil, I cough and there is blood in my spit.

I can hardly remember what I ate for breakfast but my memory of my youth is as sharp as a knife. I was cursed to be the third son, a blessing to my mother, a burden to my father with his two older boys to feed and divide his land between. One winter morning, with the promise of snow in the air, my father said, “Amos, come with me in the wagon,” and bade me say farewell to my mother. At the time, I did not wonder why she wept.

For two days we traveled through the barley fields and down the stone road that runs straight as an arrow from north to south. All that time, my father barely said a word. But still I did not worry though I remembered my mother’s tears. On the third day, we climbed a path up a steep hill, past jagged rocks and thorn bushes, and through the Abbey’s iron gates.

Three monks in black tunics perched on a bench under a birch tree. My father, still silent, unloaded from the wagon ten sacks of flour and a vat of honey. The monks opened one of the sacks, sifted through the flour, and then tasted the honey. They nodded their agreement.

“Amos,” my father said, “you’re to stay here. But I will be back for you, never fear.”

Little did I know that my life had been measured in flour and honey. The monks shaved my head, gave me a novice’s tunic and taught me to pray. Days passed to weeks and then to months. Still my father did not return. Soon my sorrow turned to rage. Blackened eyes and cracked skulls were how I measured my value. I kicked and punched my way through each day until the other novices shied away from me as they would from a biting dog.

One evening, some of the other boys stole a bottle of ale. Chattering like sparrows, they drank their fill but like the fools they were they did not hide the evidence of their crime. When the Novice Master found the empty bottle, he came to each of us and demanded we tell him the truth. I did not care for my fellows but I would not betray them. I stayed silent and received a blow from the Brother’s fist as reward for my misplaced loyalty.

The Novice Master went to the next boy, Dondas, a red-haired Mercian, and asked him who had stolen the ale. The boy pointed a treacherous finger at me. “Amos, the wild one, he is the thief.”

I have fought, and I have lied but I have never been a thief. I threw myself at Dondas and punched him until his nose was smashed flat. Uncaring of his shrieks and the cudgel blows raining down on my back, I bent his arm until it snapped like a rotten stick. It took five of them to pull me off him. His arm was almost broke in two. I’m not proud of it now but then I was filled with such savage joy that I howled like a wolf.

The monks chained me up and dragged me to the punishment block. They whipped me until the wood ran wet with my blood and strips of flesh hung from my back. Sometimes now in my sleep I hear a distant screaming and when I wake I wonder if it was me or Dondas.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious but when my I opened my eyes I was lying on the stone floor of a cell with a thousand bees stinging at my back. Each morning for the first few weeks of my imprisonment, a monk shouted from the other side of the locked door, “Do you repent?” I did not answer. Growing tired of my stubbornness, they left me alone. Perhaps they thought the quiet would drive me mad. But it did not. Silence became my comfort.

Months passed before I saw or heard anyone. Then the door to my cell opened and two monks entered. One was short and fat, the other tall and thin, as if the first had been stretched on a rack. “Do you repent?” the tall one said. My choice was either to say, yes, and make of myself a liar like my father or Dondas, or say, no, and be left to moulder in my cell. So better not to speak at all. What’s the use in words if all they do is lie and cheat.

Confounded by my mute response, the monks huddled in conclave while I slumped against the wall, my legs barely strong enough to hold up my skin and bones. Perhaps they wearied of my torture or more likely they could ill-afford to feed a mouth that did not earn its keep, because they led me from the cell to the monastery garden.

Jeremiah was waiting for us at the gate. He seemed old even then with his lined face and white beard. But despite his age, he was as broad-shouldered as an ox and with his rake in one hand and scythe in the other he looked to me like some ancient spirit.

The monks explained that I was to be his responsibility and he could do with me as he wished. Jeremiah ignored them. He never had time for fools. “Will you work hard?” he said. I did not answer. “Good,” he said and that was that.

The old man started me on the simplest tasks, repairing the garden walls with the flat stones from the river and making trellises for the summer vines. He never cared that I didn’t speak as long as I could make my signs and draw with a stick in the soil. After I had proved myself, he gave me my own patch. First thing I ever had for my own.

Not a day goes by when I don’t hear Old Jeremiah’s voice in the gate’s rusty grate or a spade’s thud in the soil and think of him watching over us from his place beneath the verge. I still wonder what he saw in me. I like to think that he looked beneath my anger and saw the boy beneath who deserved so much better.

And so I became a planter of seeds, a grower of vegetables, a tiller of the soil. The years passed and the anger that had been my blood’s vigour faded until all that remained was the certainty of the seasons’ path, one to next, and the honest journey from the sowing to the scythe’s sharp reap and in the end the fire’s cold ashes.

Now when I catch sight of my reflection in a pail of water, I do not see the angry boy I was but Old Amos with his grey beard and wrinkled face, a garden monk who wants no more than to be buried with his seeds in a bed of soil.

The boy and I first met on a cold day in early March. When I saw him, standing just inside the garden walls, icy shivers ran through my body. It was as if my past had returned but turned the other way round so I was Jeremiah, even though he was long dead, and the boy was me, though we looked nothing alike. Where I had been barrel chested with a man’s growth of beard, he was smooth skinned and skinny as a reed.

“Who’s the youngster?” Brother Bartholomew said as he raked the soil.

“He’s one of the novices,” James replied. “An orphan. Can’t read or write so they’ve sent him to us. Give him pots to mend and wood to cut.”

With my fingers, I said no. Even then I could tell the boy was special. As I walked over to him, it was his eyes that caught me first. Two empty holes you could fall into and never find their end. When the boy spoke, his voice was so quiet I could barely hear him.

I gave him my own trowel and a bag of mustard seeds. Off he went, simple as that, and got on with it. He kept going past sunset, on his hands and knees, sowing all those tiny seeds. He wouldn’t have stopped if I hadn’t taken the bag from him and told him to go get his dinner. The next day he was in the garden earlier than any of us, planting those mustard seeds like there was nothing more important in the world, and maybe he was right about that.

The boy had a knack for the garden. None of us needed to tell him what do do. He knew what distance apart the seeds should go; how deep to bury them; how much to water them. It was plain to see that someone had taught him. But he never talked about his past and what had happened to make his eyes so empty.

It wasn’t just that he knew what to do. Everything he did turned out right. His mustard seeds grew into flowers with perfect golden petals. He knew vegetables better than me, and I’d been growing them for more than twice his life. It all came so easy to him. There was neither mildew nor canker on his plantings and where he dug his trowel there were no stones. Even the grass softened for his feet so you’d hardly know he’d walked upon it.

And the garden paid the boy back for all his work. The sun turned his face a rich dark brown. He was never going to be the biggest but his shoulders filled out so at least it looked like he wore his tunic rather than it wore him. Once or twice, when his plants first bloomed or as he watched the sun set over the garden wall, I’d see a smile ghost past his lips. It made me happy to see the boy do well. I was proud of him. That’s what it was.

I once knew a monk called Esau though his birth name was Aesir. With his blond hair and sharp features, he looked different from the rest of us though he hardly spoke about his home. One day I asked him where he was from and he told me he had been born in a far away land of ice and snow. When he was a boy, he had taken his father’s boat to fish for herring. A storm came and blew him so far out to sea that he could not find his way back. Weeks later, he landed on a foam swept beach and found that he had been blown across the grey sea.

I’ve never met anyone who talked as much as Aesir. And he was always contrarily minded. You might say to him, “Aesir, have you ever seen such a beautiful sunrise?” And he would reply, “The sun does not rise, it falls from the bottom of the earth.” And then he would argue that rise was fall and fall was rise until I scarcely knew anymore what the world was about. He’s dead now like all the friends I ever had.

Perhaps it was Aesir who sent the storm that summer’s afternoon. It came so quick we had no time to prepare. Day turned to night as tall clouds like warring giants so dark as to be near enough black covered the sun with their sack-cloth. Torrents of rain lashed our backs and thunder claps battered our ears. We dashed through the garden, slipping and sliding as we tied down the saplings and wrapped burlap around the vines.

In a flash of light, I saw the boy a few paces away from me. He was looking up at the storm. I could have sworn he saw something up there because he nodded as if greeting a friend. A fork of lightning crashed down. A giant hand picked me up and flung me back down. The world turned black. Deaf and blind as a worm, I crawled in the mud.

When the glare passed from my eyes, I saw the boy lying unmoving, his tunic singed, the rain pelting on his back. I ran to him and turned his head so he wouldn’t drown. He didn’t move. My heart stopped. I put my cheek to his mouth. There was no breath. I took his wrist. He had no pulse. I buried my face in the crook of his neck. The boy was gone.

For the first time in many years, words ripped from my throat. “Why did you take him?” I shouted at the sky. “The boy was nothing but good. Why?” I railed at the clouds. Why?” I cried at the thunder. “Why?” My whisper lost in the wind. Tears soaked the rain from my beard. The boy I wished I’d been. The son I wished I’d had. Gone. I understood then that everyone has a son but I had found mine too late. Now there was nothing left for me but old memories and dead friends.

I felt a warm glow on the back of my neck. A bright light spilled from the sky. I held the boy’s head and breathed my old life into him. An animal howled, angry and mournful, a wolf, its leg bitten through by a rusty trap, its cub wandering lost in the forest. A howl so loud it ate the dying storm and rippled through the earth, coursed up my legs and into my chest, through my lungs, and poured out of me and into him. The boy’s eyes opened, blue as the sky, filled with a deep and ancient knowing.

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

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The Origins of Floodtown Museum – Ray Ball

At the beginning of March, the children splashed to school. They wore galoshes and raincoats. The parents of younger children walked them to bus stops under big umbrellas that brightened the gray sky with patches of blue and yellow and pink flamingos.

It rained without pause all month. The city government held an emergency election, and a special bond and new tax passed by a wide margin. Consultants and contractors came in and advised. Construction teams racked up the overtime hours building new adjustable height bridges, boats of a variety of sizes and capacities, and an ark-like structure to house the new consolidated school for kindergarteners to high school seniors. Nautical knots became part of the required curriculum.

May brought no flowers, just more rain. Every so often it dwindled to a drizzle or petered out entirely. Occasionally, the sun poked through for a few dazzling minutes before the deluge began again.

Over the summer most of the kids swam and swam. They rowed some boats. They pedaled others. A few steered their way to friend’s houses. By September most had powerful shoulders, strong legs, deep lung capacities. Elisa got a new contraption that could turn the wheels of her wheelchair into water skis of sorts and back.

Eventually, all this felt pretty normal – although sometimes the good citizens of the town complained about how their skin felt perpetually pruned. Kids sometimes whined about having to eat fish or algae salad for dinner again. Some less-well-endowed guys liked to gun their boat engines for the thrill of it as they navigated through town. Pet owners took their dogs to a little raised island of earth. Engineers had designed it to lift an inch or so each day. The dogs ran around the soggy fake turf and did their business. The poor puppers who hated water cringed and whimpered until they got home.

When the new school year started, to some extent the kids did pair off. Taylor with Jayden. Camilla with John. Andy with María. Mike with Tom. Elisa with Sean. At recess, the younger kids swam or practiced rowing. The high schoolers planned an under-the-sea homecoming dance. The seniors and a few juniors who were in the know did it ironically, of course. The football team had disbanded, but the swim teams were crushing it.

All was well.

One day, merpeople would visit the local history museum. They would see the artifacts – the photos, the memes, the pants from back when their ancestors had legs.

 

Ray Ball, PhD, is the author of two history books, and her creative work has recently appeared in Cirque, L’Éphémère Review, and Okay Donkey. You can find her in the classroom, the archives, or on Twitter @ProfessorBall

Contents Drawer Issue 13

 

Image via Pixabay

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