Hope Grows – Rob McIvor
I swear all the men in this street are growing beards. Every one of them.
Not those fluffy two weeks away glamping with the family and I didn’t feel like shaving beards, but proper, six weeks away from work, just like a teacher in summer, and look what happened beards. Let’s all hole up at a pink house in upstate New York and make a great album beards. Garth Hudson beards. The real thing.
Even Frank, at number 34 is doing it. I saw him this morning, going out for his daily exercise with his little girl; the one that asked me if I was Santa Claus. What’s her name? Oh yes, Guinevere. Sorry, but if you’re going to saddle your child with a name like that you need to give her some decent genetic material. But Frank’s no Adonis and her mum’s no Helen of Troy. Poor kid.
Anyway, back to Frank’s face. I noticed it when he was on the way out and had a good look when he was on his way back, with his newspaper. He always holds it up to his chest, with his arm crooked, like a junior barrister carrying his briefs. I don’t know what he does for a job. Maybe he really is a junior barrister. There it was, a bit wispy in places, sort of ginger with blonde roots, but definitely an attempt at a beard. He’s going to need another month of this before he looks like anything other than an unkempt hamster.
I see them all coming and going. Phil from 43 (very dark, he’s already shaping it into a kind of biblical sage look); Louis and Michael from 28 (matching goatees, flanked by carefully cultivated stubble); the teenager from 39 (a bit scrappy but 8/10 for effort). It’s as though on the one hand they are all trying to pretend that they are going about their lives as normal, as if nothing was happening, while, subliminally, little squirts of testosterone are dribbling into their brains and telling them that this is their chance to let it go, show what they can do if left undisturbed for a month or two, to return, when it’s all over, with their faces a visible declaration that it’s all going to be different from now on.
I envy them their futile hope. I remember the last time it was all going to be different. And the time before that. Each new dawn breaking through, like tiny shoots from an overnight face. And that moment when we all thought: shall we let it grow a little, give it a chance, nurture it, before razoring it away in a submissive, supplicant return to normality.
I wonder which will last longer, this naïve sense that something has changed forever or the beards. All those beards, screaming out their vitality, their endurance, their presence. I watch them passing all day. And I look down and remember that the last time I shaved was May 2nd 1997.
Porthcothan Bay – Matt Fallaize
I, of course didn’t realise until years later what had actually happened, because it made so little difference at the time.
You don’t though, do you?
A was about to be my first proper girlfriend . There was a sort of tacit acknowledgement between us that we were about to be a thing, but we weren’t, in any binding sense, that yet. So it was plausible, legally-speaking, in Double Science when Cowan and Rawley told me that she’d had actual sex with a guy in a tent on Porthcothan Bay, just the weekend before; some kid from another school, I didn’t know him. It wouldn’t have been a crime, technically. We’d been edging around each other for a while, but it wasn’t like I had exclusive rights.
They said it with a note of concern, they wanted me to know what I was getting myself into. They were angry at her, her friend Nicola had told them. She’d been in the next tent along. Their words were rushed. They’d fallen over each other to tell me.
We were friends , of a sort, Cowan, Rawley and I. I’d been to their houses, they didn’t seem to actively dislike me, we had occasional conversations and compared homework from time to time. They were, I instinctively acknowledged, a couple of brackets up from me, popularity wise. They dressed with more confidence, surfer clothes, they had a certain relaxed charm. It didn’t bother me, it was just how it was.
The odd thing is that I remember not believing a word of it. Not in any angry, hot denial sort of a way. I just thought well that didn’t happen and thanked them for telling me and thought no more of it. I’ve always had something of a short fuse, and it was worse then. You’d have expected me to lose it. Confront A. Or, more likely, retreat into myself in silent misery and never speak to her again. But I didn’t. I just thought nah, and went about my day. We became an item shortly afterwards. She was, I knew, a bit too good for me. But it took me some years before I worked out that was how I felt, then.
And I’ve no idea what made me think about his, twenty five years later. My wife and I had just finished off dinner, we’d been having a rough time but things were getting better and we were in expansive, confiding mood, having one of those conversations where you maybe reveal a little more of yourself than you normally would, even to a loved one. When you talk about each other’s pasts. And I’ve no idea why I told her about this, as I hadn’t thought about it, right up until that moment, but when she said in a small, furious voice: fucking hell, they didn’t even want to let you have that one happiness, they wouldn’t even let you have that I thought Jesus yes that’s it.
Matt Fallaize is a writer (and chef) based in Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK, where he knocks out meals, stories and poems in wildly varying quantities… His work has appeared in various places and, you can find him, should you feel so inclined, in the usual places.
To Slow Down – C J Dotson
A couple of months ago I began to suspect that I might have ADHD. Inattentive type. I talked it over with a few friends who’ve known me for a very long time and with my husband and eventually I called the psychiatrist’s office that my husband goes to and asked to set up an appointment. I didn’t have a referral or anything and there was a little bit of surprise or hesitance on the other end about it, but I had a first appointment a couple of weeks ago. About a week after that I had a follow up to do a series of true/false questions, over 500 of them, on a computer. In that time I have been doing a lot of research on my own and I came to the conclusion that something that might really help me would be to create a schedule. A detailed schedule of every activity throughout my day, one for each day of the week. I started it, and it seemed like it was really helping me. A few days after that, the governor of Ohio (where I live) canceled all school for three weeks. He said three weeks. I and my husband both figured pretty immediately that that was actually it for this school year. There goes my stepson’s last year of middle school and my son’s first year of preschool. And there goes that carefully crafted schedule. It had to be reworked and it doesn’t always work because my son is home all the time now and you have to be a lot more flexible with kids. I’ve missed parts of the schedule almost every day but I’m still trying. More, something strange started happening to my perception of time, right away. Everything in my personal life kind of came to a stop. We’re not leaving the house. I’m not planning my son’s fifth birthday party. I don’t take him to school or pick him up, I don’t check my schedule at work, I don’t look up events at the library, I don’t make plans with my mom. Everything in the world outside started moving so fast. Governor DeWine started shutting things down left and right, and in my opinion good for him. Stores ran out of a lot of things (insert toilet paper joke here). There’s more bad news from around the world every day. Time at once seemed to slow down to almost nothing and to speed up incredibly, depending on where I’m looking. It’s disconcerting. And my god is it distracting. I know I’m not alone in this. I know that right now almost everyone in the world, except for people in denial perhaps, are feeling this too. I know that. But it just doesn’t seem fair that I was finally, at age 33, figuring out some big fundamental part of who I am and learning how to work around it and then (allow me to be a little hyperbolic for a moment) and then an apocalypse started.
CJ Dotson has been reading sci fi, fantasy, and horror for as long as she can remember, and writing for almost that long. She works in a bookstore, co-hosts a SFF book club, and is a wife, mother, and stepmom. In her spare time she paints and bakes. Visit cjdotsonauthor.squarespace.com
Not today – B F Jones
I woke up to smell of tress and bananas and oxygen, to a sing song, from little birds. To the patter of hungry toddlers, demanding bread and honey, to the soft purring of a congested husband, demanding my body pressed against his. One of the cats paws my chest and it hurts to be alive some days. There’s a pool out there full of water and lilies. I float on one of them, my body spongy like a star fish, my mind gone to the good place. The nebulous place of stars and clouds, foamy with delight, dewy with love and the warm embrace of dear ones, muscles and tendons and flesh. Hot breath garlicky and sweet. Red wine running through our veins as we hold hands tight, squishing our pulse, making sure that it is here. Yes it is here.
I woke up to the song of neighbours, guitars and banjos and flutes, their hope rising through the air, their feuds, suddenly forgotten. Not today, revenge, not today.
I hold a small bird in my hand, its tiny body nested against my palm. The cat brought it in, proud, but I said no, not quite, give it back. Not today.
I lay awake at night with the weight of my dreams, suffocating me. The water lilies have come for me and they cover my hairy body. I have become an animal and I am chasing my dreams, my aunty Virginia had warned me about the furry family legend. You can’t escape it she’d say, wagging her strappy tail. We’re better off this way, she said, dislodging a small bone from between her teeth, curling up on a pile of skeletons and purring with the satisfaction of the mighty. I know best my dear one, yes I know best. We can try and try and try but only this way we can succeed. Come and join the tribe my dear one. There are small ones to eat and medium ones to fry and big ones to fight. Don’t run away my darling I know best. But I run away. Traps everywhere, traps traps traps. Sweet old ladies turned devil. I run on that springboard and jump from high. There must be a way out from this pool that I swim over, my body a hovercraft of hope, not weighing anything anymore; I have turned into one of those little brids from the tree that I see from my window when I wake and say not today, not today. I bake some bread with misfortune and expired yeast, it rises and burst, giggling as it splatters my kitchen walls. I mop it with the last of my hope, I polish the wall with fierceness and anger and undying love while I scream and shout not today, not today. I wake up with a small bird on my chest, it’s eaten the cat and vomits a soft cloth of comfort, I wrap myself in it and I go back to sleep. Small birds sing song as I doze, not today, not today.
Mother Love – Anne Hamilton
If she’s filled that bloody commode again, I’ll swing for her…Deep breath, deep breath. Onetwothreefourfivesixseveneightnineten. Knock. Do it. Ugh: overnight breath and lavender water, and what have I said about the electric heater? Look at the old witch, perched there like a Buddha in a hairnet and curlers, tasselled bedspread up to her neck. Ask how she is, Mags, go on, see which laugh we get this morning: brittle, hollow, tinny, tinkling, woe-is-me. Depends whether she’s showcasing her indigestion or her constipation. Or her ‘little bit’ of diabetes. For God’s Sake. None of them’ll stop her guzzling tea and toast – once we’ve got through the rigmarole of me offering and her refusing. Give the old girl her due, she times her hesitation to a tee: well, if you’ve already gone to the trouble…I’ll try a little…Oh! Fuck’s sake. She always notices I can’t be arsed to iron her napkins, one of the six white linen squares, plus silver ring, my dear mother brings when she visits. My paper ‘serviettes’ are ‘common’. Being a perfectionist is such a curse, Margaret, such a blessing you don’t suffer. Ya-di-ya-di-ya. I get through these fourteen day ‘holidays’ pretending to be a below-stairs extra in Downton Abbey. Brown toast is wrong. White toast is wrong. Sodding Michelin-approved truffle-dusted artisan focaccia is wrong. But she’ll suffer it: tsk, tsk – you flighty young folk (mother, dearest, I’m forty-six) are too ready to waste things… She lived through the war, don’t you know, all gravy-browning legs, dried-egg canapes, and people today not knowing what war is. Yeah, right, Ma, all those thousands of whinging Syrians should Keep Calm and Go Home, shouldn’t they? I try smiling, honest I do, but she shrinks away as if I’m baring my teeth, all the better to eat her with. Breakfast takes longer than a medieval orgy, and I’m up and down the stairs like an Olympian. I lose all kinds of pounds when she’s here, running around pretending I’ve a book balanced on my head, lowering my shoulders and straightening my back, just as the eighty quid a session osteopath recommends. Now she’s off on one about my new-fangled dishwasher scratching her manky old crockery (yep, she brings her own Royal Albert china along with the napkins). Is it a hair (my slovenliness) or a crack (my cack-handedness)? Whatever. There’re always spares in the special antique shop, aka The Salvation Army, down town. It’d break my caring mother’s heart, you see, if she didn’t have a full dinner service to leave my can’t-do-any-wrong doctor brother when she carks it. Oh, no blame on him, he’s one of the best, my little bro. Patient. Kind. Cheery. I’m the mardy one. S’pose I’m not really blaming Her Highness, here, either…well, alright, I am, but what can you do, eh? We get on fine as long as there’s a respectable social distance – 300 miles usually – between us. And like I tell myself, for better or worse she is my mum.
White Out – Mark Anthony Smith
In these times of a Virus other things spread like germs too. I couldn’t even get some milk today. I can substitute peanut butter or jam for butter. I can go without marmite and tinned mushrooms because I don’t like them. But black tea makes me angry with its sharp taste. I drink tea sans milk and forget about biscuits. This panic buying tests my patience.
I sit cooped up. I do that anyway since half of my neck has been removed. On Social media, there are young people being arrested in The Costas. They’ve only just become legal to drink and no threat of illness will change that. The Spanish Police are not in a British holiday spirit though. The beaches and bars are on strictest lockdowns. The teenagers learn the hard way to a thunderous applause from other tourists from their balconies.
In the papers, schools are headlining to be closed indefinitely. Home schooling will test some parents and kids if the PlayStation doesn’t substitute the clammer of maths and arguments. It is novel, being at home, but for how long now the cinemas have closed? People are worrying about the lack of pay too.
There are increased Road traffic accidents as people worry about whether they’re symptomatic or worrying too much – or not enough. We have seen regular outbreaks of violence. A lady fights on the path because her Ford has been pranged and she doesn’t have her usual patience with other things going on. A man fights openly, in a Supermarket, for the last toilet rolls. He is apprehended. But not before he bombs those that arrest him with boxes of man-sized tissues. People are not thinking straight.
The streets are deathly quiet. I can hear my teabag plop. The shops are either closed or an open free for all. It’s soon gutted. I am gutted. I sip. The tea is bearable as I watch another Apocalyptic film and forget. What do they say about real life and fiction? I chuckle. I try to forgive the behaviours of those who panic buy like vultures picking off carrion on The Serengeti. The credits roll. This is how I escape.
Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. This is his second furnishing in The Cabinet of Heed. His Horrors appear in Anthologies from Eerie River, Red Cape Publishing and Nocturnal Sirens. ‘Hearts of the matter’, a book of poetry, is available on Amazon. Facebook: Mark Anthony Smith – Author; Twitter: MarkAnthonySm16
I See Your Looks – Shannon Savvas
I see your looks. I hear your whispers. I don’t bloody miss a single raised eyebrow or purse of lips. Why the hell she has to be so slow. She knows I’m in a hurry, I rang and told her I’d pick her up at ten. Hell, I left it in big letters on the whiteboard in her kitchen. I arrive and she’s not dressed, or has forgotten where her handbag is (like she’ll even need the screwed up, used tissues and Elizabeth Arden lipstick she’s been using for the past ten years), or goddam it she needs the toilet because she took a laxative this morning. Yes, yes, I’ve caught the bloody hell head shakes, the exchange of tongues in cheeks between you and your brother. She’s getting old, clumsy, slow, whiney, bad-tempered, unstable, a hoarder, forgetful, bloody awkward, stubborn just to piss us off. Fill in any other blanks you want. And yes, I am getting old and no, trust me none of the above is deliberate. But some are downright wilful – oh and do you know why I’ve turned into a hoarder? I’ve turned into a hoarder because I’ve lived long enough to know that the minute you find something you like, it disappears – off the shelves, end of range suddenly or company gone bust. That’s why I stock those 3-ply linen-like napkins, the jars of peanut butter which are the only decent ones in the shops, the shampoo to strengthen and thicken your hair because another great boon of age is thinning hair. No one is going to catch me out. Not you, not your brother and for sure not this pandemic – who the hell knew? Trump didn’t (hah!) so why would anyone else, but you see, I am prepared. Who’s laughing now, suckers? Whatever’s left over at the end, you can bloody burn it or bury it with me (because who cares what you choose, I will be dead and won’t know – just make sure there are no priests because that I will know). And what about her friends? Where have they gone? Where? They’ve bloody died. Or I’ve shed them like old skins one by one until there is no one. I got tired of the effort. Simple. The return was no longer worth it. Years of seeing and listening and accommodating before I realised the was no reciprocity. A reciprocity failure of a lifetime. Some days, I just want to be left in peace, be allowed to fade gently, to die in my own time and way. Other days, the days after your visits, I want to live long enough to see you fail incomprehensibly at the mercy of your children, to watch as it dawns on you that I was right, about it all, and that none of this was willing or purposeful or wanted. I want to see you betrayed by family and body as I have been. Yes, I do want to see that. No, I don’t.
The Cry of the Damned – K D Field
We’ve been talking about this here in El Compartimento over the course of this Spanish lock down. Have we been such bad stewards of all the abundance we’ve been given that this virus a big shot across the bow? There are indication that it might not be far from the mark.
In China, during the height of the pandemic there, they had to shutter factories and chemical plants. And suddenly, many cities in China had their first sunny days in years. But it will not last. And Venice – without all those pesky tourists, has shown photos of their canals running clear.
We are the pandemic that has been relentlessly attacking the planet for more than a century. – since the dawn of the industrial revolution. We are the virus that she and all her inhabitants have suffered and died from as we marched forward with unabated greed.
People quote the bible to justify their actions. Genesis 1:26 “And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth.” But if we are made in God’s image – or the deity of your choice – we aren’t very god-like. Dominion over things makes you responsible for them. But we have cared only for ourselves; never looking at the long term and never asking ‘Why’
On Twitter they ask ‘How could this happen?’ And I think ‘How could this not?’ I’m not a religious person but the bible doesn’t just give us dominion over all things on earth, it also says ‘As you sow, so shall you reap.’ We are reaping the seeds we have sown. Not in the way a televangelist will tell us, or that abomination FOX News, but in our inability to see where it would all lead.
Governments are putting together bailout packages. $$$. And billionaires are the monkeys running the circus. Sound and fury and short-term thinking. The world has fundamentally changed overnight. We can’t buy bribe Mother Nature, who has more integrity in a drop of the tears she’s been shedding for us, than all the dirty politicians combined. And she will win. She always plays the long game. We’ve been screwing with nature for too long and its tired of us. What better way to get rid of what’s killing you than to find something that will kill it? As humans, we should understand that – we live in a state of war.
The utter incompetence in dealing with this crisis comes from those we’ve elected to lead us through it. We must ask ‘Are they the fools are or are we?’ Because we’ve put our livelihoods, our very survival in the hands of the unqualified, the celebrated, the cults of personality; instead of those with decades of study and expertise. Listen to the politicians on tv these days. War talk, for sure, and I get it at this point. But maybe what we need to do is declare a truce with our planet and start treating it like it matters. Maybe we should do that and pray it’s not too late.
KD Field is an American writer of fiction, narrative short story, and nonsense. Originally from Seattle, she currently resides in Valencia Spain. You can check out her blog: at vivaespanamovingtospain.com
Stupor – Ryle Lagonsin
ALL I EVER DO THESE DAYS IS SLEEP
i dreamt a news reporter tells me that a parasite on the ground looks for me for it needs to find something or it can find something from the atmosphere to supply it with what it needs. i dreamt three times at the same time i went to sleep. i had been listening to raymond carver a few hours before i dreamt i am listening to a podcast of his where he talks about life in general but more specifically life without anyone to pray to. in the same dream i saw a huddle of people and a little girl dressed in black behind the others raised her hand and said i don’t believe in god and the others gasped and they looked and the child’s mother said no child of mine can ever say there is no god. and then i dreamt of the same little girl dressed in black but we are not in a garden anymore. we are in an airport and a naked man is seated on a flimsy chair in the middle of a soulless lobby and he says to the girl: child come here come near me and the little girl walks closer. he says: child do you believe you have a heart? and the girl nods and he says: that right there is proof that there is GOD. he says: that there is air to fill your lungs that your heart continues to pump and that all the cycles go on repeating inside you prove that there is GOD. i turn my face to look behind me for one second for a reason i cannot remember now and when i turn back again the little girl is gone but in her place are two huddles of people separated by a few feet from one another. one group with more people than the other. i could have counted them but i would not know regardless how many people were in either group they are separated by colour. and a few feet away from both of them the same man is speaking still but he is standing now a microphone in front of him. he is dressed now jeans and a light blue button-down he is saying: child learn to pray ‘cause when they come after you the only thing you’d be able to run to is one name. it would do you right to drop to your knees and learn how to pray he said. one person from the group whose colour is the man’s same colour came closer. the man said: once i ran to my teacher frightened but she said hug that man child not me not my colour she said. you cannot hug me was what she said he said. and then i stirred awake and i was in the dark again and in the dark i wondered where my phone was since something told me when you wake this will all make sense. but then i find that carver is still playing in the podcast i wasn’t hearing and i was still inside my head.
Porcupines – Sara Magdy Amin
I had read it somewhere – in some nature magazine, was it? Ah, maybe I had heard it on the radio some time ago last week when Peter was fiddling about with arbitrary things around the house; a futile exercise of boredom that absolutely makes me squirm, but all the while, I still choose to ignore – that porcupines struggle to keep each other warm in times of winter.
I look to my right at Peter and Noah in their state of slumber. A fascinating view of chests rising and falling in such synchrony, inhale, exhale; wisps of existence cutting through the silence of the air in cyclical waves. Such peacefulness, I think, such delight it is, when a father and son share warmth and proximity.
But what was it about porcupines and winter?
Ah, yes. The spikes.
Peter, for as long as I can remember, had always wanted to have children. I recall the day we found out we were expecting (such jubilance flew out of him he almost knocked me over – I had inaudibly shed a few tears in the bathroom beforehand – and came out to join his frenzy), he was, to say the least, tremendously ecstatic.
Porcupines. Three in a row. Our spikes maiming each other, slashing each other across our warm bodies, drawing blood and mixing it in a joyful union. We have not yet learnt to keep safe distances. Since news of the outbreak was announced we have been ever so scarred. Noah (I can picture him laughing now) recently developed such thirst for human contact. In our seclusion, a party of three was formed. Our roles, as parents, cultivated in this arrangement, and he, in his tiny world, was thus able to practice such charm upon us. The mother, myself, the father, Peter, and little Noah, delicate little Noah, were together. Here, now, celebrating immediacy in our former detachments.
I had often times found it hard to play that role – the mother that is – thinking back to the first few months where I was often times drenched in perpetual anger, my womb aching, bosom sore, in a state of fury at my anatomy, constantly reprimanding Peter for simply existing as a man, (unaccompanied, singular, free, human). I found it hard to be that abundant giver and provide godly offerings in god-like ways.
I shift to lie on my side. Dawn is almost cracking through, her bright threads imposing through the darkness, resting over our limp forms, birds chirping nonchalantly in recognition of something above our worldly perceptions. Do they know the world is unfolding? Have they comprehended how to live only temporarily and chant their way through it all? The newspaper yesterday said that death toll rose to a thousand and thirty-five people. Those poor birds, that darned influenza, snipping away already temporary lives, making away with their chants.
Noah’s eyes open. He yawns and draws in near, running his jagged barbs into my skin. I nourish him back to sleep and kiss his tiny little forehead.