epilogue – Issue Four

So let them accuse It
of obstructing the view!
The Cabinet Of Heed has teleported Itself,
Or was Itself made manifest,
Before two sisters now
Who in high elevation pull out the drawers,
Ever selecting,
Perhaps reflecting, but
An afternoon is spent.

While the wind teases their hair
And rattles about the oak,
Profane sing-songs all about:
This is new!
It’s in the way
of we poor tourists in the clouds!
Something for the Louvre!
Call Security!
Get a selfie first!

Who placed It here?
What crane employed?
What devious hands are behind this installation?
The sisters have read and
Dare not defend, while all about
The mutters and shouts.
Security take aim
Should this be some gift from Troy.

Oscillation in the air
Tugs the sisters’ dancing hair,
Drumming on what remains of sacrificial trees.
Felled oaks breathe still
Whisper other words
Deep within:
The words two sisters read today.

Now, away, away, away…

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Arthritis – Ellie Rees

My hand and pen have fallen out.
The flow of thought from brain to paper
++no longer travels
with hand’s consent.

I’ve lost my grip:
something has nobbled my fingers

and the nib
now plays diminuendo
++++++++++++++++++feeling its way across the page.

How loose, how easy the keyboard:
a mere touch will elicit
surrender
and words come –
with promiscuous pleasure.

But there was something, surely romantic
in the kiss of a pencil on parchment,
the cushion of my palm caressing its face,
my pride in forming elegant letters;
such confident consonants, the swirl of my vowels.

The keyboard proffers
plastic wafers
like after-dinner mints,
a postprandial game of Scrabble
perhaps?

 

 

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ELLIE REES gained a Phd in Creative Writing from Swansea University this year. In an earlier incarnation she was a teacher of bright young things from all over the world. Now she is teaching herself to be a poet. One of four finalists in Cinnamon’s recent Debut Poetry Collection competition.

Image: moritz320
 

Wasps – Simeon Ralph

You see the light fitting is filled with wasps the moment you manage to lever apart the two hemispheres of the cover, but by then you are already falling. The ridge separating the two halves of the plastic casing had been caked in an adhesive strip of grime, and after removing the screws, you jabbed the tip of your screwdriver into this filth and began to prise. You had decided against fetching your stepladder from the store cupboard and had been, until recently, balanced on a child-sized chair you had dragged from the new English teacher’s classroom. One glimpse of the wasps was enough to spill you to the ground. The freed part of the light fitting clattered near you, then bounced away along the corridor. For a moment you lay still, your cheek pressed against the cool of the freshly-polished floor. Your nostrils stinging with the citrusy chemicals that coat the tiles.

Before long, you feel able to pull yourself into a sitting position. The fall was pitiful, really. Fortunately, none of the kids are still around or one of them would have captured it on their camera phone and uploaded it. The entire school would have been sniggering behind their hands for the rest of the year. You clench and unclench your fists, shake them a little to get the blood flowing, before scrambling to your feet and heading along the corridor to retrieve the light fitting.

You approach carefully. The casing has landed the right way up and, although it has shed some of its nightmare cargo as it skidded along the corridor, it is still stuffed with wasps. There are hundreds of tiny corpses in repulsive huddles crammed inside. Twisted commas of hate, their legs curled inwards and their stingers jabbing impotently in all directions. You nudge the fixture with the toe of your boot, satisfying yourself that there are no survivors, and then lean in for a closer look. A mass grave. You poke at the mounds of huddled hunchbacked insects with the tip of your screwdriver. Their abdomens are browned as if scorched. Wings shrivelled and misshapen. You wonder what impelled them to gather inside this plastic coffin if the heat of the bulb was enough to harm them. There are none of the tell-tale signs of nest-building, instead, they seem to have simply clustered inside and waited for death. Deciding to forget the whole thing, you fetch a dustpan and brush.

After sweeping the wasps into a black sack, you replace the bulb and then the casing. It is when you are returning the chair that you notice a single scorched wasp, curled like an arched eyebrow, lying just inside the classroom door. The door was closed when you were changing the bulb and this stray cannot have fallen from the light fitting. Could be there’s a dead nest secreted somewhere. Most likely, it’ll be up inside the ceiling tiles. You’ve dealt with nests before. In the summer, they could be a real problem, but this late in the year, only the new Queen would remain, hibernating inside a ball of pulp and spit. The old Queen, the drones, the workers, all long dead. The entirety of their short, angry lives, spent building a now dormant hive that would be abandoned the moment the new Queen emerged in the spring. No need to go hunting for the nest, it would be dust before long, but you can’t leave the remains of any leftover wasps just lying around. You are sure that their sacs pulse with venom long after death, and you can’t risk a child getting stung. These days, they all seem to harbour allergies.

You pinch the singed wingtip of the wasp between your fingertips and carry it to the bin at the front of the classroom. You have no idea why this one would also be scorched, as it was not crammed inside the light with the rest of them. Dropping the body into the bin, you see that the bottom is already carpeted with a thin layer of wasps. You lift the bin for a closer look and they rustle like paper. Each of the corpses is slightly charred.

Scanning the classroom, you see that the teacher’s desk is littered with yet more wasps. They are scattered across the surface like misplaced apostrophes. The bodies are discoloured, as if lightly toasted. The warped tips of melted wings poke from the gaps between the desk drawers and when you drag the top drawer open, wasps cascade over the lip and flow onto the floor in their thousands. You recoil, knocking the remote control for the interactive whiteboard over the edge of the desk. When you bend to retrieve it, you see that the battery compartment cover has come loose. Four wasps are packed inside. Their antenna withered. Their legs crisped.

You want no further part of this and head for the door, your skin itching with the false memory of a thousand bristly legs brushing against you. There is a divot in the wall, dug by the door handle. A succession of lumpen Year 9s have thrown open the door in their haste to escape the prison of English lessons. The loose plaster inside this dent is matted with twisted insect legs as if the very walls are constructed from wasps. A solitary insect falls from the keyhole and is washed up against the skirting board by the rush of air as you pull open the door.

In another version, you change the bulb without incident.

Another time still, you are outside the classroom, looking in. The glass panel in the door is smeared with handprints, but you can see the English teacher, Mr Shields, camped behind his desk, tapping at his laptop keyboard. It is lunchtime or after school, it doesn’t matter which. A solitary child sits in the middle of the second row of desks. He is staring in the direction of the clock above the whiteboard as its hands creep towards the end of detention. You rap your knuckles on the glass and Shields looks up, his face stained blue from the light of his laptop screen. He crosses the room and with some difficulty, pulls the door three-quarters of the way open and gestures for you to enter.

Are they yours? The wasps? you say. You squeeze through the gap and kick a path through the thick pile of insects that block the door. Following Shields, you ignore the crunch of abdomens beneath your feet. The soles of your boots are coated in mucous and blood and venom.

Shields offers you the vacant seat next to the vacant student. You are telling yourself that you would not react like this. That you would never take the offered seat, but you would. Everybody always does.

When you draw back the chair, a thousand wasps pour onto the floor. They merge with the dense, insect carpet. The student next to you is buried up to the calves but his expression does not change. You ask what is wrong with the boy.

By way of an answer, Shields reaches across the desk and takes the child’s hand. The boy gives no sign that he notices as Shields grips his index finger and snaps. The finger comes away easily. There is no blood. No jagged bone. He holds it up for you. You refuse the offered digit, and Shields tuts and turns the severed finger around so that you can see it is hollow. and as fragile as porcelain.

What is he?

Shields tips the finger and a dark powder, like iron filings, flows onto the desk. He traces his own finger idly through the dust, drawing patterns. He still holds the boy’s finger in his other hand and he gives it a couple of sharp shakes. A lone wasp tumbles out onto the desk. The hairs on its thorax are clogged with the dark powder. Barely alive, it crawls in a lazy circle, once, twice, before falling still. Its skin crisps. There is the faintest hint of burning hair.

Enough. You shove your chair back. Your intention is to head for the door, but the chair’s momentum is cushioned by the drift of wasps that have washed up behind you. You manage only to stumble to your feet, scraping your thighs on the underside of the desk. Your shoulders sag. The prospect of wading through the knee-deep lake of wasps is too much and you sink back into the chair. You are hollow. A string-cut puppet. You will rest your head, here on the desk, just for a few minutes. You are dimly aware of the bodies of the wasps that burst under you. Of the stingers that warp as they press against the skin of your cheek. Your arm is stretched out before you on the desk. It is too close to your face for your eyes to focus properly and your skin is a vague pale smear. Your forearm seems to taper to a thin point before it contracts and expands, then flows towards you like liquid. You can feel them in there. The wasps. They are packed too tightly to writhe, but they quiver and hum and soon they will burn out.

In another version, the classroom is already empty before you arrive.

Another time, there is no classroom at all. Only wasps.

 

 

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SIMEON RALPH is a writer, lecturer and musician with the noise-rock
band Fashoda Crisis. Currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing
at MMU his work has recently appeared in Bull & Cross, The Ekphrastic
Review and Riggwelter Press. Originally from Essex, he now lives in
Norwich.

 

Image: skeeze

 

 

Five O’Clock Shadow – C.R. Smith

The woman’s mouth was moving yet her words made no sense. It had been a long night. My eyes were still adjusting. It was always a shock to walk out into daylight after working underground. The square was deserted as usual; that peaceful time of day before rush hour kicks in. “Sorry, can you run that by me again?” I said. The woman was obviously distressed about something.

“Like I said, officer, he only stopped to redo his shoelaces. I told him to hurry — I thought we were going to miss our train — I was always telling him to double-knot ‘em. He— ”

If only she would get to the point. I rubbed my eyes. A full English breakfast had my name on it. “Yes, yes, madam, now, walk me through it again, step by step — slowly this time.”

“All he did was sit on the wall. The shadow came out of nowhere.”

“The shadow?” My eyes swept the area. There was nothing out of the ordinary.

“I couldn’t understand what he was shouting about at first. I thought he was mucking me about. Then I moved closer. It was eating him. There was nothing left. His feet were — gone.”

“What do you mean by gone!?” I leaned forward. No alcohol detected on her breath.

“You know — nothing — zilch. His feet were just— gone,” she said, waving her arms around. ”He couldn’t stand. His legs just ended. I tried to reach him but couldn’t get close enough. He begged me for help. I didn’t want to leave him, but there was no one around. I ran as far as the ticket hall before I found someone.”

She was becoming hysterical, her voice rising.

“Take your time,” I said, looking down at the brick wall. No obvious signs of blood.

“When we got back, he was screaming. I heard him before we turned the corner. The shadow was all over him, his legs were gone. The man with me ran over and tried to grab him. The shadow got him too — I think — it happened so quickly. We were all screaming.”

I nodded. Her screams had alerted me.

“The shadow ate both of ‘em,” she said, between sobs.

As far as I could tell there were no signs of a struggle, or any sign of the two men for that matter. Reminded by my rumbling stomach I was off duty, I decided to let someone else deal with the woman. “Give me a minute,” I said, rubbing my stubbled chin. “I’ll get someone to take your statement.”

The least I could do was pretend to believe her. I turned around to call it in. When I glanced back a shadow was eating the woman’s legs.

 

 

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C.R. SMITH is a Fine Art Student whose work has been published in such places as 101 Words, Twisted Sister Lit Mag, Train Flash Fiction, Ellipsis Zine, Spelk Fiction, The Horror Tree, Glove Lit Zine and Ad Hoc Fiction. http://www.crsmith2016.wordpress.com
Twitter @carolrosalind

 

Image: Kaylah Otto on Unsplash

Pea Soup Year – Christine Collinson

The night the storm blew in, I was already as low as can be. Hunger gnawed at me like a rat on a bone. Pitiful harvests had left us bereft; me, Danny, and the girls. Just like everyone else in the whole damned town.

We ate a simple meal of cockles, but it wasn’t enough. Danny and I barely slept as the wind wailed around us, sleety rain battering against the shutters. Through tired eyes, I watched him get up again and again to stoke the guttering fire.

At dawn our neighbour appeared, suddenly, at our door. Rubbing his hands against the cold, he breathlessly told of a ship wrecked in the night. A great cargo vessel, tipped on to the shore.

The passing of the storm had left us with an unsettling calm. Danny went out to join the rescuers, wrapped up against the cold. I sat beside the fire and pictured the ship lying askew, its once majestic sails in tatters. I prayed there were survivors. As I huddled the girls to me, we sang softly together.

Hours passed before Danny returned. As I opened the door, full of questions, I stopped to watch him rolling a small barrel up the path; a sight I’d never seen.

He rolled it inside, then upended it. The barrel rested before us, unadorned. I looked at Danny, but he merely raised an eyebrow. When he prised it open and stood, beaming, I could only stare at dozens of the greenest pea pods I’d ever set eyes upon.

For a long moment, I didn’t speak. “We’ll be eating pea soup for weeks!”

“Nah, Gwen, love; we’ll be eating it well in to next year.”

“If somebody had told me that peas would be our salvation, I’d never ‘ave believed ‘em.” I picked up a pod and squeezed it between my fingers. Then, from somewhere deep down, the laughter began.

 

 

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CHRISTINE COLLINSON writes (mainly historical) short fiction. Her work has appeared in Firefly, Prima and Writers’ Forum magazines, in Ad Hoc Fiction’s eBook and on Paragraph Planet. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.

 

Image: John Thomas Serres [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Residential Care – Clare Read

Tony sat in his pod. He was warm and snug, listening to the horse racing. He had no idea if it was live, or even if it took place in the real world anymore, but the sound of the horse’s hooves thundering down the furlong was reassuring.

He shifted in his chair; it rippled beneath him, altering its pressure every few minutes. A mug of sweet tea appeared from a dispenser close to his right hand, accompanied by a digestive biscuit. In his little capsule all of Tony’s needs were taken care of. He hadn’t seen another living soul for years. That was despite Tony knowing he was surrounded by at least fifty other ageing men, meandering towards death in NewWay Care Facility.

A screen on Tony’s left hand side started to beep frantically. He ignored it. He played this game with the machine every day; exerting a little bit of curmudgeonly independence. It used to madden Jennifer, his late wife, this cunning ability to ignore her calls and continue with whatever he was doing. It became one of their jokes. Ignoring this incessant computer carer, if only for a few minutes, made him feel like she was there nagging him again. He’d give anything for that.

After a few minutes Tony finally gave in and placed his arm in the cuff. Blood pressure, heart rate and oxygenation stats appeared on the screen, accompanied by a smiley face. Then his pills were dispensed. The machine waited eagerly for him to take them and swallow them, before clicking on to standby once again.

When Tony had first seen the pods he’d been amazed by their ingenuity. Gone were concerns about overcrowded residential homes, and a shortage of carers. Instead, these one man spaceships were able to cater for his every need. Food and medication, carefully prepared to avoid allergens and meet nutritional needs, was conveyor belted into the site and delivered to each pod. Exercise was carried out through mini electric shocks to his muscles, ensuring he remained toned and fit, probably more so than when he came here. A touch screen computer gave him access to Ebooks, TV, music, the internet and social networking sites. Temperature regulation did away with the need for clothes and bedding, medication meant his hair and nails no longer grew, and twice daily he was sprayed with disinfectant to keep him clean. A button on his chair opened a hole, into which he could excrete; the waste carried away to a processing site. Even medical emergencies could be responded to electronically. Defibrillators were fitted as standard to every pod.

Yes, there were times when Tony was lonely. He missed the sound of another human voice; especially Jennifer’s. But he’d been just as lonely in his flat. The only care he’d received there was 15 minute domiciliary visits morning and evening; the ever changing carers man-handling him in and out of bed, then setting him up in front of the TV. One time they’d forgotten to come and he’d laid there stranded having morbid thoughts involving Mr Tibbles, his moth eaten cat, finding an alternative food source.

It was when Mr Tibbles shuffled off this mortal coil that Tony decided he couldn’t stand it anymore. The benefits of having his own space and independence were quickly starting to weigh much less in the balance than having all of his needs met. So he’d sold all his possessions, now useless, and cashed in everything to move into his little pod, nicknamed sputnik in his head.

When the horse racing finished, the lights dimmed for his afternoon nap. The chair reclined backwards and the pod gently rocked as if trying to get a baby to sleep. Initially this had made him feel sea sick. He’d flipped urgently through the electronic pages of the manual in a bid to turn it off. However after several attempts at pressing buttons and issuing voice commands, he’d achieved nothing. Eventually he gave up. Over time he had become used to it, and now, lying there, it didn’t take him long to nod off. He no longer had worries bombarding his sleep or a busy brain from a hectic day. Instead, he lay in his darkened shell dreaming of his previous life.

When Tony woke up his pod was still dark. He felt disorientated. Generally, he woke up when the lights came on and his chair returned to a seated position, like in an aeroplane. But here he was still lying down, eyes blinking in the bottom of the capsule. He wondered if it was still nap time and lay there hopefully, but slowly it dawned on him that something was wrong. For one thing the pod wasn’t rocking and he was getting colder and colder.

He started pressing buttons, then jabbing them more frantically. The pod remained stubbornly unresponsive. He was getting close to kicking the thing when eventually the computer lit up. It started whirring as if rebooting. He relaxed and began contemplating what he was going to watch next, a quiz show that was bound to have him yelling at the TV, or a crime drama.

His relief was short lived. The whirring was soon replaced by a message on the screen:

Insufficient funds – payment required immediately.

Tony stared at the flashing words. Money was a distant memory. He had never been a rich man, but he’d thought his savings would see him out. Clearly his calculations were wrong. Lying on the still and flaccid chair he tried not to panic but he was already gasping for breath and he desperately needed to pee. He had spent years in this pod, yet he had no idea how to contact anyone if he needed them, or even how to get out of it.

Hoping there’d be an emergency button like they used to have in lifts, he looked all around him. He longed for a friendly human voice to give him reassurance and tell him they’d “get him out of there in a jiffy”, but there was nothing and tapping the screen just made the message flash faster. Giving up on dignity he started to shout and bang on the pod. He waited, but there was no response. He tried again and was met with silence . His heart pounded. When the time came he’d signed up to a nice morphine fuelled death, not one from lack of food and oxygen, or one that involved him lying in his own faeces. He kicked the computer screen. Apart from hurting his bunion nothing happened.

Just as he was about to give up, Tony noticed a little button next to the door hatch. In the gloom of the pod he’d missed it. He almost giggled at its absurdity. He leant over and pressed it. Slowly the door slid open.

Tony climbed unsteadily up on to his hands and knees and peered out of the hatch. When he’d moved into the pod, everything had looked shiny and new. The place had smelled fresh and airy. Now it looked like an abandoned warehouse. Rust covered the conveyor belts leading to each capsule. The pods themselves were covered with grime and dust. The whole place smelt foul.

At 87, Tony was no longer a nimble man and despite increased muscle tone due to the ministrations of the electro-exerciser, it took him some time to haul himself out. Suddenly he was very aware of his nakedness. He inched passed the pods. There were no signs of life, despite the grinding of the conveyor belts surrounding him. Yet, he was sure that in each capsule there was another man, with money still left, enjoying reruns of the Chase or Midsummer Murder just as he had planned.

Tony focussed on his immediate needs. The first was to have a pee. One of the joys of the pods was that he hadn’t had to hobble to the bathroom every time his shrunken bladder decided it was time. That single press of a button had been a joy. He walked unsteadily, passing row upon row of capsules, until he reached the door, cautiously opened it and looked out. He was met by a long empty corridor, a buzzing florescent light flashing incessantly, and no sign of a toilet.

Close to wetting himself, Tony considered peeing against the wall, but the idea of his ammonia stink adding to the musty smell of the room felt wrong and disrespectful to the other men dozing in front of their televisions. He shuffled further out into the corridor in the hopes of seeing something useful, but there was nothing, not even a pot to piss in. The only thing he could think to do was to ask one of his roommates if he could use their waste disposal system – just for a second.

He retraced his steps and stumbled back into the vast room. He couldn’t get over how deserted it looked. When he’d been lying in his pod he’d pictured a small army of service bots maintaining everything, overseen by a team of doctors and nurses. Maybe everything was done remotely now?

Tony staggered over to the first pod. Things were getting desperate. His bladder felt like it was about to explode. Feeling faintly ridiculous, he knocked on the hatch; quietly at first and then more vigorously. He was met by stony silence. He wondered if the person inside could hear him, or whether like him they had no idea how to open the capsule. After counting to 30 in his head, he tried again, but there was still nothing.

The last thing he wanted to do was barge in on another old guy. It might give him a heart attack. However, he could see no other option. Being found wandering around naked was one thing. Doing it with urine trickling down his leg was quite another. Tony pressed the hatch open button.

With a grinding sound, the door slowly opened on its rusty hydraulics. Before he could look inside, the stench hit him; the sweet smell of rot and decay. He stumbled backwards and began to gag violently. As he reeled, he nearly tripped over the next pod in line. He didn’t have to look to know what was inside the capsule.

Filled with fear, Tony lurched between pods.

With the same grinding sound, the hatches slowly opened.

The smell filled the room.

He was completely alone.

 

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CLARE READ is reasonably new to writing. Two years ago she joined Marvellous Writers, a community writing group, and hasn’t looked back. She particularly enjoys writing about people that others might consider as underdogs and really likes to explore the internal world of her characters. In the non fictional world, Clare works in the NHS with people with a Learning Disability.

 

Image: J Clear at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aftermath – M. Stone

our goodbyes
spent shotgun shells

no bared teeth or raised hackles
not even a whiff of threat

he returns to his wife
and I slink into an unshared bed

holding fast to things unsaid
sewing needles clasped between my lips

when I finally confess him
to a friend over sweet tea

her face forms a cold front
her unasked question chills the air

well what did you expect?

 

 

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M. STONE is a bookworm, birdwatcher, and stargazer who writes poetry and fiction while living in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her poems have appeared in San Pedro River Review, SOFTBLOW, Calamus Journal, and numerous other print and online journals. She can be reached at writermstone.wordpress.com.

 

Image: Wild0ne via Pixabay

This Place Is A Zoo – Zoë Ranson

This is a city of night. After dark, it trembles with life.

I work nights, at a gas station beside the Autobahn. Like traffic, life passes me by. From my perch behind Perspex, I glimpse moments of it, wobbling images, no bigger than postage stamps. Funny what you get used to.

I ended up behind glass. An ambition fulfilled in some ways. A sliding partition punched with holes seals me off from people who seem distant, only inches away. As they drift through to their next episode, I am barely a supporting character. A mime.

After weeks on nights, days of the week seem unimportant. I know it’s Thursday when the Club Kids traipse across the tracks, jittery and wild-eyed, and knock on the glass to order candy and cigarettes. Look away patiently, as they scrabble with coins, identifying them by touch, when their eyes play tricks. Then they are gone for another week, sashaying into the blackness. Fortune, not skill, keeps them out of the road. They are so young, they can’t see any danger.

Before I took this job, I was a student of marine biology. But everything was different then. Ruby was still here.

I suppose it is like being in a cage. I hadn’t thought of it that way until Saturday, when a cackling man pressed his lips up against the pane and capered like a monkey until another, broader, man tapped fiercely on his shoulder and ushered him on.

Like any retail job, there are regulars, so habitual you can grab their Cheetos, their gum, their Pueblo in advance. We need only our eyes, a slight gesture; no words. My favourite is a woman I call Sierra. She comes every night for a pack of American Spirit on the way home from the casino where she works as a croupier. Her nails are always immaculate. Looking down at my own ragged cuticles, I am ashamed of their gnawed flesh, the flaked paint.

I could combine my talents, I suppose. Medical experiments. I’ve thought about it. They could pay me to sleep behind glass. Hook me up to a monitor, while they observe, sensor pads on my fingers measuring every twitch, every surge.

For now though, I am here.

Now there is no more Ruby, time is split into work and not work. A loveless blended wallpaper of sleeping and waking. Every night at 2 a.m. I take my break, while Heinrik, the supervisor, belligerently covers the register. I climb the stairs to the bridge high over the Autobahn and cross to the middle. Melding lights below me, I send plumes of smoke up towards the stars.

That night I looked down and saw her, a mystery woman sat on the bench beside the phone kiosk. That’s why she stood out, I suppose. A break from the old routine. I mean, she stood out anyway – tall, graceful, enormous hands. There was a holdall at her feet, one of those huge kitbags. In this city, you see them all the time. Slight, threadbare teenagers, like some wannabe Cheryl Strayed, legs buckling as they’re tipped forward beneath the hulk of them.

I am clockwork. Three nights, the same thing – the green bag at her feet, scrolling through something on a ritzy phone. If I were to cry out to her, my words would drown in the language of the road; whooshing tires, the symphony of horns warning against impulse.

When I was a scientist, a professor of mine gave a word of warning: I shouldn’t mind the cruelty of nature. That the aim. Is always. To try and not be cruel yourself. But I was. This same professor told me I was ‘dangerously ambitious’; as though applying that to my own life like a band aid could prevent me from doing any further harm.

When I was a scientist… A past version of myself. I am one now, still, only lapsed. Like a person who mislays their religion, because it seems at odds with their lifestyle. I’ve mislaid my ambition.

Once my studies were completed, I was cut adrift from my subjects. To remind myself who I am, I go to the reptile house three afternoons a week. Out in the raw plane of the zoological gardens, it’s the most brutal kind of cold. The reptile house is always warm.

++

I sleep Saturday away. When I wake, I struggle to get it together. My one night off: I have to go out, to the Lido, for the band I used to like with the fractious singer, the one with the flamingo pink hair.

The show is over when I arrive. On stage: another band who I do not care for. The crowd is ecstatic, shrieking someone else’s words as though they are their own. Sweat crawls down the walls. My skin feels see-through, fluorescent under the lights. I’m too hot, but know the cold outside is gruelling, so I push my way through to the back of the room. And her. She is taller than I remembered, the flat of one foot pressed into the wall. There is graffiti behind her: Punk Rock is Nicht Tot. The old symbol of Anarchy.

First circuit: I don’t even look.

Circuit two takes in the whole room – plus the bathroom, briefly, to check my teeth, tussle with my hair.

Third one: I go in.

I open my mouth and I can’t remember how to talk exactly. Beautiful people make me nervous.

Waiting for someone?
Not really. I just came to see the band.
I’m good at waiting. Not tables. No, I’d say helpless at tables. But other things.
And I am. Good at waiting. But, she doesn’t ask, doesn’t speak again, only smiles.
I smile back, but there’s a bite. I hate being pitied more than any brush off.
A lull, then:
You have a heavy bag.
She looks up at that.
Big enough, she joked, to carry a body. Ruby’s would’ve slipped in there with room to spare. Pieces of the girl so small and unafraid.

She moves off through the crowd like liquid. Shimmering inside like a Club Kids gel bracelet. Then the lights go out and the crowd’s cries switch from euphoric to chilling. A power cut. The city, so alive at night, is famed for them, striking without warning.

++

A week later she appears in gloaming. She slinks up to the window the bag knocking round her shins. In dimness of the garage forecourt, fingers splayed, she looks at me as though startled that I could exist in real life, as I am often startled myself at the sight of my own reflection.

Her voice is robotic and so low, I almost don’t understand. What she is asking for, in her slow strange way, are those gummy sweets that are sets of teeth – three packets of pink candy, inset with tiny white squares. She tips me five Euro for service I didn’t provide and sails away.

I lost Ruby at night. I was at my perch, playing solitaire with loose Smarties when the road took her. Sailed out into the blackness, as the juggernauts thundered on.

Too much mephedrone, they said. Distorted how things were. The din of the road, pulsing and rhythmic, inviting her out to dance. She thought she had wings. She expected to fly up, over the speeding metal boxes, to catch the underside of the bridge and dangle there, powerful and carefree, her legs swinging. A superhero, a comic book Catwoman. Instead she became a pile of broken bones, a beatless heart at their centre.

There’s a certain number of times the human body can stand a shock. If I scrunch my eyes closed, there’s an outline. I’m not sure if it’s hers. Heinrik is the only one who knows me. He knew me with her and sees that without her, I’m nothing.

In a second, I see my future beside the road. I yell for Heinrik, I need to go on break early, it’s an emergency. Spring up the steps to the top of the bridge and scan the darkness below. Wait. A spill of sweet teeth on the steps to the bridge like a fairground breadcrumb trail to lead me home.

Slick of wet road, lights scampering across. She shivers in the moonlight. My own teeth are chattering, I forgot the trapper coat I wear, still on the peg.

I stagger down the other side, stumbling over the last few steps. She’s bending over. A shooting pain shatters through my leg as I struggle towards her. Wait Please. I run now, thoughts spilling out.

I have so much to tell her. How I am cooped up at night, sleeping the day away. How there’s a fashion in the pizzeria here for dropping rocket on top of everything.

I tell it to the stars, because she is gone and I am powerless and sorry about it. I liked being in control of someone else. I’m not especially proud of that.

 

 

 

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ZOË RANSON is a fiction writer from Hackney via Walton-on-the-Naze. She writes stories from the very short to the epically long and, sometimes, for the stage.
Twitter: @zooeyr

 

Image: StockSnap via Pixabay

 

No Word of the Cat – Karen Jones

She’s sitting with her back to him, reading the newspaper – his paper – pretending he’s not there. He hates when she does that, but he’s not allowed to whine. That was one of the counsellor’s rules.

He takes a deep breath. “Nice out?”

She shrugs.

She’s been out, hung out the washing, knows whether it’s nice or not.

“Looks nice,” he says, voice steady.

She sighs. “It’s hot when the sun’s there, cool when it’s not – that kind of day.”

He wants to punch her in the face. He wants to yell, “Well thank you, fucking Einstein! I am aware that it is hot when there is sun and cool when there is no sun!” but punching people is not allowed any more. The counsellor was very clear about that. He closes his eyes and counts to ten, clenching and unclenching his fists to release the tension.

“Still no word of the cat? No one responded to the posters?”

Her shoulders droop and she coughs away a sob then shakes her head.

He wants to laugh and shout, “Stupid fucking cat. Good riddance to the scrounging little bastard!” but he’s not allowed to shout and definitely no swearing.

Bloody counsellor and her, “The packed bag that sits by the door will be your reminder. She will be ready to leave at any moment. The future is in your hands.”

“Fucking cow,” he thinks. But his wife has spun around and she’s staring at him. Christ – did he say that out loud?

A smirk and her head cocks to the side. Then she gives an I-told-you-you-couldn’t-do-it nod of her head.

“No. I didn’t… I wasn’t talking about… I was thinking about…” But she’s up, chair scraping along the tiles (he tries not to wince), leaving the scent of her coconut shampoo in her wake as her heels further assault the tiles.

He runs into the hall. Too late. The door slams, the bag’s gone, the cat flap rattles. A brown mouse runs in and scrabbles across his bare feet. It’s not afraid of him. A tear drips off his nose and lands on his big toe. Crying? He doesn’t do crying.

He stares at the mouse and the truth hits him: He really misses that damn cat.

 

 

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KAREN JONES is from Glasgow. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and e-zines and have been included in print anthologies such as Discovering a Comet and more micro fiction, The Wonderful World of Worders, An Earthless Melting Pot, City Smells, 10 Red, HISSAC 10th Anniversary, Bath Short Story Anthology, Ellipses: One, Bath Flash Fiction Volume Two and Flash Fiction Festival One. She’s been successful in short story and flash competitions including Mslexia, Flash 500, Writers Bureau, The New Writer, HISSAC and Words with Jam. Her story collection, The Upside-Down Jesus and other stories, is available from Amazon.

 

Image: Alexas_Fotos

Alien Abdoption – Neil Clark

My name is Dylan and I am 5 and today The Alien picked me up from school.

It’s always normally mum or my dad who pick me up. But this morning when mum was putting my packed lunch into my backpack, she said –

“Mummy and Daddy both have to work late, so The Alien is going to pick you up from school today. Is that OK?”

I didn’t know if it was OK or not OK that an alien was picking me up from school.

I met The Alien before, lots of times. He doesn’t look a lot like an alien. He looks a little bit like an alien, but a little bit like a man too. Except he’s got different shaped eyes than a man.

It must be a not very well made man costume he wears. He must wear it so people don’t think he is an alien and he looks enough like a man to go into shops and buy things and stuff.

If I worked in a shop, I wouldn’t fall for it though. He needs to get a better costume that makes his eyes a better shape. The colour of the costume is not quite right as well.

“Dylan?” said mum. “Is that OK? For The Alien to pick you up from school?”

One time my big cousin Blake told me about this thing called Alien Abdoption. It’s when aliens come into little boys’ bedrooms at night and abdopt them and take them to their space ships and put things up their bums. The story made me cry and Blake got smacks for it. That was before I started going to school. Now I’m going to school and I’m more grown up and haven’t cried for more than three days now.

“A little bit OK,” I said to mum. I felt like a big boy that I’d said ‘A little bit OK’ instead of how I really felt. Really, I felt scared about an alien abdoption happening to me.

One time mum told me that a girl in my class, Alex, got abdopted when she was two, which is why her skin is the colour of chocolate even though her mum and dad’s skin is normal coloured. One day at school, I will ask Alex what alien abdoption is like, and what it is they put up your bum to make your skin turn brown.

Today at school we got taught about magic “E”. You put it on the end of a word and it changes how it sounds. Plan turns into Plane. Cut turns into Cute.

Then at break-time, Sebastian from my class did a wee wee in his pants and everyone ran away from him when they saw the dark patch getting bigger and bigger on his trousers. He was just standing there crying and we were all round him in a big circle, laughing.

After break, we got a special lesson about how it is not nice to point at people and laugh at them, and instead we should co-exist peacefully. Sebastian got given new trousers out of the drawer where they keep spare clothes for people who wee wee themselves, and the rest of us made pictures of boats using hard pasta. I put a bit of macaroni up my nose and everyone laughed until someone told on us and I got a little bit of a row.

It was a fun day. I forgot that I was going to be picked up by The Alien and maybe abdopted and turned brown forever.

After school finished, The Alien was waiting for me in the playground. When I saw him I remembered how I know he’s an alien.

He came to the big Tesco with me and mum one time, and I was fighting him with the toy light sabers from the toy aisle. Then mum gave us a row and said we should put them back before we break them and cause the man from the shop to get very angry.

Then he told me. He kneeled down and told me he’s actually from a galaxy far far away and he has The Force. I didn’t believe him at first, but he even proved it by stopping just before the supermarket doors and opening them himself without even touching them. He just moved his hand and the doors opened. It was so cool.

When The Alien picked me up today, we walked for a little bit until we were away from the school. The roads got busy and the cars were whizzing past really fast. I know not to go on roads without holding hands with a grown up. But The Alien was very scared about me running ahead of him even though I was on the pavement, always saying – “Careful! The road!”

Then he picked me up and held me high up above his head and did the Star Wars song and ran very fast down the pavement. I was flying like the Millennium Falcon. It was very very cool.

After that, the abdoption began.

We were in a strange place where you had to go downstairs as soon as you go in the door. Then it smelt funny and had weird music on. There was a big fish tank with very funny fish in it. The fish were very orange and had lots of alien flaps, like Nemo if Nemo was from the alien world.

It was a big room with lots of tables, and all of them had other aliens on them. They were in badly made human costumes, same as The Alien, and they were all speaking Alien. We get taught about other languages, but this wasn’t any of them. It sounded like they were singing to each other. They ate different too, with sticks, holding two sticks in one hand like magic and putting the food in their mouths with them, very fast.

The Alien told me to sit at one of the tables. He let me play Candy Crush on his phone. Mum or dad never let me do that.

The Alien has a mum, same as humans do. She brought him a bowl of what looked a little bit like soup and a little bit like grey water with small alien parcels floating in them. The Alien started eating the parcels with his alien sticks. Tunwuns or something, they were called.

I told The Alien about Magic E, and he laughed and said he likes Magic E too, specially on a Saturday night, and then laughed some more.

Then the Alien Mum brought me chips and Coke. Mum or dad never let me have Coke after school. And the alien chips were way better than human chips.

The Alien asked me what Coke was if you took the Magic E off.

“Cok,” I said. It made him laugh a lot, so I kept covering the Magic E on the can with my fingers and saying it.

“You’re one funny little geezer,” he said.

Then mum came. She called The Alien ‘Techno Tommy’, and kept thanking The Alien for doing what he did. Mum and The Alien held hands like what we do with people in school when we line up in the playground.

I think aliens are very cool. I think humans and aliens can co-exist peacefully.

And the alien abdoption was OK, and if they put anything up my bum I didn’t even feel it.

So far, I have not even turned brown.

 

 

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NEIL CLARK works and lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He has writing in Riggwelter Press (forthcoming issue 8) and was recently showcased alongside other Scottish writers as part of Book Week Scotland. He posts very short stories in Tweet form from @NeilRClark

Image: Pawel86 via Pixabay

Short Hot Days – Michael Grant Smith

Darren Goodwater, an underemployed actor who specialized in re-enactment TV programs, never slept much at all and even less after he began to doubt night had an ending. In despair, he threw away his clocks.

“Time management,” was how Darren described the choice he’d made.

No one wanted to talk about the apparent bloat of the sun, or how it set a few minutes earlier each day, or how dawn was delayed until the afternoon. Our new solar reality meant sunrise heralded lunch, not breakfast. We could be forgiven for not noticing at first; the change had happened so slowly — a minute hand on one of Darren’s discarded clocks, or flowers ripening into nuts, or dinosaur carcasses mortifying into coal. Never forget that kidney stones grow in darkness.

Despite the swelling ball of hell above our heads, pundits blamed hotter weather on the global warming everyone had blathered about for years. Dissension percolated while the sun doubled in diameter each week. Record high temperatures boosted social interaction at least:

“Hot enough for you?”

“Why, yes, I expect it is.”

Evenings were longer now. A person couldn’t ease into slumber without wondering if there was enough traction to climb out the other side. What if you got stuck, couldn’t find the momentum, the ramp that launched you back up to a nice shower and talk shows and double espressos? The extended sleep cycle left ample opportunity for two, three, as many as seven dreams in one go. Pure seduction. For many of us, a week’s worth of false things we’d probably never see or do.

“No way I’m falling for that,” Darren Goodwater said in a background noise kind of voice. “I mean, if I don’t wake up, and someone gains an advantage from it…”

A scant four hours of light pressed down on us daily. Instead of sheltering from the routine broil, we staggered from Point A to Point B and took care of day-business while we could. Darren, on his way to the bodega for sundries, finally decided to, well, declare. His internal organs felt especially tingly just then.

He scrambled atop a black & white police car in front of the precinct headquarters. Wilted cops lounging outside on the steps glared at Darren but made no move to stop him. They mopped their brows and waited for better crimes. Due to present circumstances it was preferable to allow citizens to let off a little steam, within reason.

“I’ve devoted my life to the pursuit of art,” Darren told scattered passersby, whose numbers and expectations multiplied as he spoke. “Even if you don’t watch cable TV crime shows, or historical dramas, or local commercials, I was there for you. Or maybe it was for me. All I know for certain is that I was there.”

Wobbly with heatstroke, fatigue, and passion, Darren gleamed atop the car. Too much exposed, sweaty skin; hair and beard curls tight as trampoline springs; bare feet like suction cups. Darren’s muscle spasms animated his tattoos. Stripped down to almost nothing, all of us. Modesty was one of the first casualties when afternoon temperatures started averaging one hundred twenty degrees Fahrenheit.

“We mustn’t allow the day’s heat to drive us into night’s cold headlock!” Darren said. His voice increased in volume and pitch, not that it helped. “What good is our world, our own humble lives, this multi-part episode if you will, if we sleep through the post-climax resolution that explains everything?”

An older gentleman fainted. Speeches and thermal extremes are tough on elders, make no mistake. The crowd that encircled Darren’s police car reflowed itself around the collapsed oldster.

“He’s trying to speak!” someone cried. “Give him room!” shouted another.

Darren jumped down onto the melty asphalt and squirmed through the mob. He bent to the victim, whose mouth opened and closed silently as if in prayer.

“What is it, old fellow?” asked Darren. “Rest easy, you’re with friends.”

A woman took off her wide-brimmed hat and fanned sweltering air toward the victim.

“So damned hot all the time,” gasped the man. “Are we moving closer to the sun, or is it just getting bigger?”

“Why can’t it be both?” said Darren. He was a Civil War soldier waiting stoically for the signal to charge; the murder suspect’s friend and neighbor, ignorant of the accused’s bad intentions.

“Oh, goddamn you,” the man said. His eyes closed and he appeared what is called beatific: all peaceful and dead-like. Then he began to snore.

Darren looked up at the sky; he had read somewhere that dumb beasts rarely did so, only humans. The rising red sun’s ever-expanding perimeter would have matched a rainbow’s arc, except fire filled the curve’s belly. Darren sniffed seared atmosphere and caught the scent of radiation and brimstone. To smell a star — now, that was the stuff of overabundant dreams.

 

 

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MICHAEL GRANT SMITH wears sleeveless T-shirts, weather permitting. His writing has appeared in elimae, Ghost Parachute, Longshot Island, The Airgonaut, formercactus, Riggwelter, and others. Michael resides in Ohio. He has traveled to Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Cincinnati. To learn too much about Michael, please visit http://www.michaelgrantsmith.com and @MGSatMGScom.

 

Image: Remo Puls via Pixabay 

The Ducking Stool – Nick Black

Knowing that the plunge
Will come, the certainty of it
Plucks me bare
Aloft, still wet here in December air.
Each wind-soughed stir
Of this wooden frame
Creaks that the waters will have me again
Only a question now of when
And for how long they’ll keep me under.

 

 

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NICK BLACK’s writing has been published in literary magazines including Train Lit Mag, Entropy, Jellyfish Review, Anti-Heroin Chic, (b)OINK zine, the Lonely Crowd, Spelk Fiction, Open Pen and Funhouse.

Image: Tobias Dahlberg via Pixabay

 

The House of Pink – Shannon Savvas

Maria the baker’s wife watched Petros’ Scania truck wheeze to a stop outside Pandora’s bakery. When he jumped from the cab, leaving the engine on a low rumble, she scooted over to the till, shooing Antigone, her ever-so-simple niece, away.

‘Go put the fresh bread on the shelf. I’ll take care of this.’ The morning’s intelligence rattled her teeth with eagerness to spill like a box of dominos on a wooden table.

Petros, called kali mera and headed for the chiller cabinet. He stoically ignored the sugar-laden pastries, piled on the bakery counter, assaulting his nose – his Mirabelle would be hurt if he bought one. He grabbed the bottle of redtop milk she’d asked him to pick up took it to Maria, waiting, waiting at the till.

‘One Euro-fifty, please Petro mou.’ Maria put the bottle of milk in a green plastic bag. ‘You know, ever since high school, I’ve admired the way you thumb your nose at what others might say.’

Petros handed over two Euros. ‘What are you talking about?’ Shit, he shouldn’t have said anything. Whatever it was he didn’t know, he also knew his not knowing would fuel her tongue further.

‘Mirabelle’s new butterflies.’ Maria’s tongue snaked across her lips. ‘They’ll look lovely against the pink, Petros.’

‘Maria, for the love of God, stop talking in riddles. Against what pink?’

‘The new house. I hear she’s chosen an interesting shade of pink for it.’

‘Pink?’ He’d just left the building site. Lenin hadn’t mentioned it.

‘More heavy on the cochineal coconut-ice pink than a delicate shell, if I understand correctly.’

‘What the hell is coch…coconut-ice and what has it to do with the colour of the house?’

‘It’s the shade. Of pink. Dark pink. You mix carmine dye from the cochineal insect –’ Petros stared, open-mouthed. Had she gone mad? ‘– to condensed milk and coconut, with some icing sugar and vanilla and you get a lovely dark pink mix.’

‘Maria, forget the cooking lesson, just tell me what you’ve heard.’

‘Antigone! Get back to here,’ Maria shouted.

As Maria walked him to his truck, Petros stooped to catch the barrage of her whispered exclusive.

Grim-faced, he gunned the engine and drove off, showering Maria and her smile with gravel.

Ten minutes later, his brakes hissed to a shuddering stop outside the crumbling mud-and-wattle house he and Mirabelle had endured for thirty years.

‘Pink?’ he said barging into the kitchen.

‘Petro mou,’ Mirabelle dusted her floury hands on her apron. ‘What is it?’ her fingers fluttered to his cheek, leaving flecks of dough impaled by his stubble. ‘What is it my darling?’ She prised the plastic bag from his clenched hand and put the milk in the old fridge behind the backdoor. Mirabelle finished patting the dough on the wooden table, slid it into a white enamel bowl and covered it with a butterfly-print tea towel. After placing the bowl next to the hot oven to prove, she smiled at her husband, a man as malleable as bread dough in her hands and said, ‘Sit, my love and tell me what’s bothering you.’

‘Pink. They say you want to paint the house pink.’

‘Who says, my darling?’

‘Maria. She says –’

‘Maria? The Village Gossip?’

‘Yes. She says that Antigone –’

Antigone? The Village Idiot?’

‘Well, yes. Antigone says that Stella –’

‘Stella? The Village Tart?’

‘Stella told Antigone,’ Petros said, ‘that you’ve ordered pink paint for the house. Dark pink.’

‘Does she? Interesting.’

‘What’s interesting?’

‘How would Stella know that? Don’t you think that’s interesting, my love?’

Petros looked at his darling Mirabelle. Thirty years and still he hadn’t figured her, or any woman, out. But he had learnt it wasn’t worth the effort to try. They never made sense.

Mirabelle, washing her floury hands, was still his raven-haired Aphrodite, even at fifty. He knew the men in the village envied him. Mirabelle never nagged, never scratched his tired mind in their feathered bed for snippets of gossip and never complained when he went hunting or fishing. He watched her lovingly rinse tomatoes and cucumbers in the running water. She was as soft and sweet as candyfloss. She never flirted, never ever gave him a moment’s trouble. He smelt the walnut cake working its magic in the oven and eyed the pyramid of freshly fried keftedes flecked with parsley on the kitchen table. God he loved those little meatballs. Her cooking was truly a gift from the gods.

‘Is it true?’ He was sitting perilously close to the meatballs.

‘Is what true?’

‘That you want to paint the house pink.’ Saliva dripped like a waterfall in his mouth. He swallowed. ‘Bright pink.’

Mirabelle walked over to him, her plump moist hand reached out, plucking a keftede from the top of the pile. She popped it in his mouth. ‘Let me get you a beer, my darling, you look worn out.’

Petros closed his eyes and chewed slowly, savouring the shards of flavour detonating in his mouth. The cap from the Keo hissed. He opened his eyes as Mirabelle poured the liquid gold into the chilled glass she kept in the fridge.

‘Drink that Petro mou, I’ll make a salad and then we can eat.’

‘But Mirabelle, everyone calls it “The Palace.” When the village hears you want it pink…’ Already he was imagining the smirks and sniggers in the village coffee shop. Tension returned, knotting his shoulders.

‘I don’t understand you, Petro.’ She turned away from him and began chopping a fat red tomato. ‘You come charging in here like a bull because of something a whore told an idiot who told a gossip. Village prattle never bothered you before.’

‘But a “Pink Palace?”’

Petros eyed the delicious pulsation of the dimple nestled in her pudgy elbow.

Maria’s rhythmic chopping action speeded up. ‘If any of them had won as much as you on the lottery, do you think they would even stay here? In the village.’ The dimple became furious. ‘Oh no. They’d be off to the bright lights of Nicosia or Limassol, moving into an apartment in one of the new towers by the sea so they could say they’re neighbours of Elton John and his fancy man.’ Mirabelle turned aiming a glossy cucumber at him. ‘And they’d be driving there in their fancy new German cars, wearing fancy Gucksi sunglasses and carrying fancy Louis Button handbags.’

‘Calm down, my sweet.’ Petros’ fingers edged towards the meatballs. Before he could snare one, Mirabelle stood over him, planting her hands, one still clutching the cucumber, either side of the dish.

‘Haven’t I been a good wife? Mother? I’ve never asked you for anything. I’ve given you three fine sons. And Christina.’ Petros looked up abandoning the meatball, his eyes transfixed by the brilliant butterfly clip in her hair; a plastic corpse pinned against the enhanced black sheen of Mirabelle’s hair. ‘I go to church on Sundays; slave day in and day out to keep this crumbling house clean and to put good food on your table in this miserable kitchen.’

Petros looked around at the peeling cream plaster, the chipped enamel sink and winced when, as if on cue, their twenty-five-year-old Frigidaire compressor cranked to bronchitic life. She had a point.

Mirabelle went back to the sink and sniffed loudly. She fumbled with her butterfly-print apron and dabbed her eyes.

‘Mirabelle, agapi mou, my love, I didn’t mean –’ Petros rose and folded her in his arms, carefully moving the knife away.

‘All I’m asking is a nice new house, Petraki mou, with room for the children, and God willing, grandchildren to live.’ Her voice dropped with a soft hiccough and her eyes filled with tears. ‘After all you’re getting the new trucks. So, I want it pink. My darling Petey-poo, is that too much?’

‘Of course it’s not too much, my angel.’ Thirty years and she still made his heart crumple.
‘And Lenin told me you said I can’t have the columns.’

‘Don’t you think six columns are a bit much, Mirabelle mou?’

‘But I’ve dreamt of living in a house with columns since I was ten.’ She gasped loudly, fighting back the tears. ‘Like in Dallas.’

‘I know.’ Shame filled his heart. She was right. She never asked for much, not really. ‘Perhaps we could have two small ones, in the front porch, eh?’

‘Can we?’ Mirabelle trembled and sniffed loudly into his chest.

‘I’ll call Lenin in the morning and tell him.’

‘You’re such a good man. Finish your beer, the pourgouri is almost ready. I’ll finish the salad, then we can eat.’

‘I’ll tell him to cancel the paint order as well.’ Petros sneaked another meatball into his mouth.

‘Whatever you think best, Petro mou.’ Mirabelle spooned the bulgur pilaf into a Pyrex dish and laid a terracotta pot of sheep’s yoghurt next to it. She slid the glistening salad, speckled with rigani and coated with thick green oil pressed from their own olives next to the pilaf and meatballs.

‘Where are the kids?’ he asked.

‘They’ll be in later. Let’s eat now and then we can watch the news and Greek Idol.’

The long-awaited rain arrived in the night. The next morning, Petros left to pick up a container from Limassol. Mirabelle watched him stop to pick up Yiayia Katarina. The wizened old crone flagged him down with her knuckled oak stick every Friday to hitch a ride to see her grandchildren in the next village. No one, not even Grandmother Katarina Hajicostas herself with her nut-brown face, ravined by wrinkles and the tufts of cotton-wool hair slipping from her black headscarf, knew how old she was. For forty years, she had worn widow’s black, head to toe since her husband went down with his ship in the South China Seas. Petros jumped down to help Katarina into his cab, his great hands cushioning her scrawny bottom until she got a toehold. The truck drove towards the old Limassol Road, but Mirabelle was watching another widow. Every morning, for the past six months since her husband died, Aglaia Papasavva made her pilgrimage to the church. And every morning she looked that bit thinner, her widow’s dress billowing a bit more and her black stockings sagging deeper around her ankles.

Dear God, Mirabelle thought, Aglaia must be the first and only sixty-two-year-old anorexic in the world. Mirabelle turned her gaze to the far side of the field where their new house was rising like Aphrodite from the seas.

An hour later, when a flatbed truck pulled up outside the yellow container reincarnated as an on-site office, she pulled on her mushrooming boots and waded across the field of dewy mustard flowers and butter-yellow Lazarus daisies to have a word with Lenin Blackeye, owner of Lenin Mavromatis, Construction Inc.

Lenin sat at a metal desk, shuffling blueprints, in a haze of pungent Gitanes smoke.

‘Kali mera, Kyria Mirabelle.’

‘Good morning to you, Kyrie Lenin.’ She swatted the smoky air. ‘Put that vile thing out. Did Petros call you this morning?’

‘He did. Two small columns, in the porch.’ Lenin sipped his muddy coffee. ‘I’m just amending the blueprints.’

‘Six columns.’

‘But your husband said –’

‘Mr Lenin, something strange happened yesterday.’

‘Look Mrs Mirabelle I can’t put six columns on the house. What will Petros say?’

Nothing. He and Lambros are leaving for Sweden tomorrow to pick up the new trucks. He’ll be gone for two weeks.’

“I don’t feel right about this. We hunt and fish together. We’re mates. I can’t go behind his back.’ Lenin’s hairy hand scrabbled like a tarantula across the blueprints. ‘Where in God’s name is my mobile? I’m going to call him.’

‘I really don’t think that’s a good idea Mr Lenin.’ Mirabelle’s hand nailed his hand, stilling it. Lenin looked at her. A logjam of worry furrowed between his eyebrows and his eyelids dropped like slats. ‘Not unless you want me to tell your dear wife Margarita, my best friend, about you and Stella.’

Lenin ossified in his chair.

They stared at each other. Neither blinked.

Three deep breaths, two uncomfortable swallows later, Lenin said, ‘I don’t know what you mean.’

‘I think you do.’ Mirabelle lifted her hand and wiped it on her skirt. Lenin had started to sweat. It really was quite unpleasant. ‘I hate to think what it would do to her – and to you. After all, your mayoral campaign would go the way of a lamb at Easter if you were to lose Margarita’s financial and social support.’ Lenin eased another cigarette from the blue pack, even though one still burnt in the ashtray, and lit it. ‘Not to mention your reputation.’

His other hand, reaching for the coffee cup in a show of insouciance, sent a wave of sediment over the plans when Ajmal, a Pakistani labourer, clattered through the door.

‘Hey boss, cement truck’s here. We start pouring?’

‘Mrs Mirabelle, I need to go –’

‘No, you don’t.’ Mirabelle turned to the labourer. ‘He’ll be out in a minute.

Ajmal backed out. Female obstinacy smelt the same in any language.

‘Mrs Mirabelle, be reasonable. Six columns? It’s too late.’ He looked up from the ruined plans. ‘And Petros will kill me.’

‘Pity, Mr Lenin. I hear the DISY people don’t like candidates with any aroma of sleaze. Not to mention illegal labour. You know what hypocrites Conservatives are; they’re almost as bad as the Church. And Father George’s support is always crucial.’

‘You have no basis for such accusations.’

‘Really? You and I discussed the colour of the house on Wednesday afternoon.’ Mirabelle waited. ‘Correct me if I’m wrong.’ Lenin said nothing. ‘Thursday morning Stella tells Antigone who tells Maria, our very own BBC World Service, that I want the house painted pink. Now who, I wonder, told Stella?’

‘It could have been anybody –’

‘But I told you I wanted to tell Petros myself.’ Maria said.

‘Well, I don’t –’

‘And isn’t it Wednesday nights Margarita always stays with her old mother in Larnaca?’

‘You are putting me in a very difficult position, Mrs Mirabelle.’

‘I think you’ve put yourself in a very difficult position, Mr Lenin.’

‘I need to think about this. I really think we should discuss this with Pet –’

‘By all means. Do whatever you wish. Good luck with the campaign, Mr Lenin. Oh, tell Margarita I’m making her favourite for our pilotta session tonight. Loukoumades. She and Maria say my sugar dumplings are the best. Of course, Theodora is more restrained as is fitting for a priest’s wife, unless there’s gossip on the table. Then she eats everything.’ Mirabelle stood and opened the door.

‘Wait, my dear Mirabelle.’ Lenin rose from his chair, head shaking, tongue tutting. ‘Perhaps you’re right. After all a house is a woman’s domain. Six columns it will be.’

‘Thank you, Lenin.’ Mirabelle walked over to him and kissed one cheek then the other. ‘I knew you would understand.’

‘Nothing. Nothing.’

‘I must go. I promised Petros rabbit stew tonight.’ At the door, Mirabelle stopped. ‘And Lenin?’

‘Yes.’ His smile, which had dropped like a tart’s knickers, did a rapid rewind.

‘Don’t cancel the pink paint order.’

‘No, Mirabelle.’

Mirabelle stepped down from the container and walked to where the men waited for Lenin. She looked at the embryonic house. She didn’t see grey concrete, pipes and wires; she saw a pink Dallas mansion alive with a wonderful profusion of the painted metal butterflies handcrafted and painted by Haitians, which she had ordered from Constantina’s gift emporium.

 

 

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Image: StockSnap

 

Final Arrangements – Amy Slack

All things considered she prefers the dead. Decapitated, chilled, left on her back doorstep in boxes for her to do with as she pleases. She does not work well with the living.

Her client returned last night to demand yet another change. Peonies, this time. Never mind that the hyacinths and tulips had already been delivered, that she had already spent hours working up the centrepieces as she had been instructed. Never mind that there simply wasn’t time to ship more flowers from the warehouse, let alone design new arrangements before the big day. Peonies. Otherwise, the florist wouldn’t be getting paid.

She selects another bloom, twirling it between her gloved fingers before trimming and slitting the stem with a few deft snips of her freshly cleaned scissors. A decade’s worth of weddings, birthdays, adulterous apologies, all scrubbed from its blades. Her breath mists a little in the chilled air of the workroom. She has acclimatised to the cold over the years; all the better to preserve the cut stems, keep everything as fresh as possible.

Something is off. She turns to her client, holds up the centrepiece for inspection. “What do you think?”

The bride, for once, offers no opinion.

Lopsided. That’s it. Taking care not to disturb the overall arrangement, the florist slots another tulip into place.

Time to get a move on, pack everything up into the van before the morning grows too warm. Her client can be dropped off somewhere en route to the hotel. It really is a stunning choice for a wedding reception. Picturesque, secluded. No-one will notice the florist’s van parked up by the side of that old country road.

Weddings never pay as well as people assume. Not as well as funerals, at any rate. Still, the florist takes whatever work she can get, makes the best of things. She must remember to leave her card behind this time, after she finishes decorating the venue. No doubt they’ll be needing her services again soon.

 

 

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AMY SLACK is a non-fiction editor and aspiring short story writer from the North-East of England, currently based in London. Her work has been published online by Visual Verse and Palm-Sized Press. You can find her on Twitter @amyizzylou, or follow her blog, Amy’s Ever-Growing Bookshelf, at amyizzylou.wordpress.com.

 

Image: Jazmin Quaynor on Unsplash

Ticker – Philip Berry

I reach over for the wine bottle and catch him looking. He’s seen the cluster of scars on my neck, three marks the size a pencil with a soft tip might make.

Some ask, some don’t. But he is thinking. He knows exactly what they are. Clever man.

They are tell-tale signs of having been in intensive care. The marks show where thin plastic tubes entered the jugular veins, so that drugs could be delivered straight into my circulation. If he looks hard, he will see the spray of smaller marks below, where silk stitches were placed to stop the tubes slipping out when I rolled my head or jerked in fear.

After the meal he tracks me across the room. I put two thick-heeled glasses and a bottle of whiskey on the table in front of the couch. A column of bangles slides along my wrist, revealing a short ladder of white lines; different scars.

The cogs in his brain engage and rotate. He is trying to recreate my story. Sitting back, he casts a wider net. He looks around the room, takes in the details. Yes… it all makes sense now. Troubled, short of money, isolated in crappy accommodation… a suicide attempt, hospital, intensive care. Easy narrative.

I sit next to him on the couch at an angle, so I can see his face clearly in the amber glow of the streetlamp that hums all night a few feet from my window. He looks up to the ceiling – considering, prevaricating.

I am ready, actually. I know him. He is a decent man. My body language is relaxed. My (very good) shoulders are on display. He can’t help his gaze ranging across the smooth, unblemished skin above my breasts.

I enjoy the touch of his hand floating along my clavicle and down my arm, while our lips meet. Then he freezes. The sensitive pads of his fingers have detected the knots. Fibrous strands of damaged skin and blocked vein that sit in the crooks of both elbows, the legacy of desperate, amateurish, blind attempts to gain access to the bloodstream, to deliver the hit.
He pulls away.

“What’s that ticking?” he asks. The knots didn’t bother him. Only the sound.

“Oh, an old watch in the drawer. My Dad’s.”

He smiles faintly.

I allow him to unbutton me. He takes in the pale flesh of my lower stomach, the way the band of my knickers bridges the concavity formed by my sharp hips, so thin have I become. We shuffle my jeans off together, then he lays me down and kisses my thighs.

But he can go no further. He has seen the craters scattered across the top part of my legs, like the wounds a sawn-off shot gun aimed wildly at my waist might make. His breathing, which has quickened with passion, now slows.

“What?” I ask.
“Nothing.”
“No, what is it? My scars?”
“What happened to you?”

I tell him. The addiction, the ruined veins, the skin-popping. Then the infection – bacteria that entered my bloodstream through a dirty needle and settled into a colony on a heart valve. There the germs multiplied and grew into what the doctors called a vegetation. Looking like a little cauliflower, its stalk burrowed into the succulent tissue beneath until the valve flailed uselessly in the current of hot blood. I collapsed with foam at my lips, water rising from my lungs. When they put a stethoscope to my chest they heard whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, the sound of blood running backwards.

“How did you survive?”
“They opened my heart. Look.”

I sit back, unbutton my shirt and kneel on the floor in front of him, holding the cotton edges apart to reveal the unsmooth portion of my chest between the shallow beginnings of my meagre breasts. The scar healed poorly.

His head is still close to my chest. A quick frown flutters across his brow,

“That ticking, it’s really loud here.”
“Oh… that’s the new valve they gave me. It’s metal. It clicks with every heartbeat. It’s not a watch. Sorry.”

He sits back now. The flush has faded, the excitement gone. I make it easy for him.

“Coffee?”
“No, thanks, I err…”
“Yes, of course.”

We chat.
It’s nice.
Then he leaves.

In the golden hum of the streetlamp, looking out onto the empty street, I focus on the tick-tick of my heart.

There is no true silence any more.

 

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PHILIP BERRY’s fiction and poetry have appeared in Headstuff, Metaphorosis, Liars’ League, Ellipsiszine, Hypnopomp, Spelk, Former Cactus, Easy Street and Bunbury Magazine. His work can be explored at http://www.philberrycreative.wordpress.com, or via Twitter @philaberry

 

Image: Rachael Crowe on Unsplash

Pool Party – Paul Thompson

She reaches the house at dusk, unfashionably late for the party.

The venue is illuminated and noisy. As she approaches the front door a cocktail glass is thrown from above, shattering on the driveway behind her. Laughter comes from the rooftop terrace, followed by further objects that all miss her as she walks.

On the front porch she waits without knocking. A member of staff invites her inside without question. He is handsome, with pale features not unlike her own. When he offers to take her coat she refuses, etiquette nor temperature able to change her mind.

*

The entrance hall is long and uninviting. Portraits cover every wall – photographs of family and founding members, all glaring down at her intrusion. As she follows the doorman she touches every photo with her index finger, hushing the dusty smiles of those who watch.

*

In the ballroom she is presented to the hosts, who are unable to hide their surprise at her arrival. The open invite was not intended for her, an assumption hidden between the lines.

She is not invited to their party. Not invited because they, and the rest of the guests, believe her to be a witch.

They greet her with a mumble and some discomfort. Her response is to produce a gift from her coat, handing it over at arm’s length. The package is soft and wrapped in brown linen, prompting a reluctant thank-you from the hosts.

A member of staff takes the gift away, the hosts giving the witch one final glare before moving on to the real guests waiting behind her.

*

A waiter offers her a drink, oblivious to her stigma. The air is sticky with the scent of cocktails and wicker. A ceiling fan rotates overhead, covered in fairy lights that drift like the heavens. She moves through the room ignored, her black dress repelling the beige suits and pale frocks in her path.

Every time she hears the word witch, it is spoken behind her back, a wake of glares behind her.

*

Outside on the terrace the air is stale.

Many of the guests sit by an empty swimming pool, watching a group of children who play in the deep end, chasing an object kicked across the tiles. She recognises many of the children – the ones from school who would call her boy a witch, the ones from town who would lock her boy up, protecting themselves from his craft.

She takes a seat by the pool and dangles her legs into the invisible waters. From here the entire plantation is visible, stretching into the valley. Once again she attempts to attract the attention of others. Many of the children fail to recognise her. The adults hide behind shades and feigned conversation, unable to recognise their chance of redemption.

*

Thirty minutes later she decides to leave.

Walking back to the house she recognises the object being played with in the pool. It is the gift she brought to the house, now being used as a plaything. It slowly unwraps with every kick of the game, one of the children occasionally stamping on it for the amusement of others.

*

Back in the entrance hall she takes off her coat and hands it to the doorman as a souvenir of her visit. He stands with it in his arms, unsure of the process working in reverse. She takes a final look at the portraits on the walls. The lights of the party flicker across their faces, revealing her fingerprint on every pane of glass.

The many faces glare down at her, the many people who will now all be dead.

Buoyed by this thought she steps outside, still able to hear children playing in the pool, delighted to hear them playing nicely with her boy at last.

 

 

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PAUL THOMPSON lives and works in Sheffield. His stories have appeared in Literally Stories, The Drabble and Ellipsis Zine. You can find more at http://www.hombrehompson.com

 

Image: Matthieu Comoy on Unsplash

Suzanne – Hannah Persaud

My name is Suzanne and I live alone. You know this. Lou Reed was singing ‘Perfect Day’ on the radio when I woke up this morning. Today is the anniversary of your proposal. I spin the memory in my hands.

The day you proposed I awoke on the edge of morning to a curtain of silence creeping in from the lake. The cabin creaked as it adjusted, our fire of the night before still hanging in the air. Sliding one leg out from under the woollen blankets that warmed me the rough floor met my skin. My feet led me to the door that opened onto the sunrise. You had gone to get breakfast and left a note on the step pinned down with a stone that we’d brought from the shore –Marry me. So every day rises with hope.

I feel vain when I tell you that my appearance upsets me, but I was quite beautiful before the TFM (Truck Flattened Me) day (not quite, very, you insist, still are). I got rid of my mirrors. Now people see only one thing.

So here I am on our special day, shuffling from bed to where my chariot (stair lift) awaits. It was carrying shipping containers, the truck. We were on the M20, coming back home from a cycling expedition. You know this too of course. Your hand on my knee, driving. I fed you coffee and gossip. The bikes were in the boot. We should have bought a roof rack.

I scan the photographs as I go down. Every stair a different view: laughing me, salted sun streaked hair on my surf board; jubilant me, astride our road bikes on our first sportif. I look for a glimmer of recognition of what was to come but our faces are wide open. It took us five hours to choose the bike that you wanted for me, complete with Shimano brakes and made entirely of carbon. I could lift it with one finger. It entered your back and punctured your chest at seventy miles an hour with the weight of the truck behind it. The lightness meant nothing, after all.

‘Are you excited?’ you’d asked as you paid for it, your enthusiasm eclipsing mine.
‘Of course’ I’d replied, ‘I can’t wait’.
‘Finally we can do those trips we’ve always wanted,’ you said – smiling, looking beyond me to the maps and plans that lay ahead.

They sawed my bike from your body to get you out. Cut the handle bar from your chest. My Shimano brake was lodged behind your thoracic vertebrae.

The chariot is slow, chug chugging downwards on its steel tracks. They don’t make these for people who are in a hurry, with places to go. My wheelchair at the bottom greets me. It has forced me to be grateful.

Outside the kitchen I hear music. I dare to dream. The strain of an orchestra, a jazz guitar. We loved our music, you and I. Summertime would wash us up on a beer-strewn beach, deck chairs and umbrellas carving people into an array of bodily parts; a partially buried foot, a naked thigh, blonde hairs trapping specks of sand. The sea mingling with guitar chords. We’d wiggle our toes in the salty sea, the cold shocking us into sobriety. I imagined fish festivals below (always dreaming, always one foot here and one foot there, you said, laughing).

I push through the past and open the door to find my kitchen transformed into a jazz bar. The kitchen sink is a cocktail counter, the table a stage with an orchestra playing upon it. The French doors now lead to a cobbled street bathed in decidedly un-British sunlight. Smoke floats hazily in front of the cupboards and the slate tiled floor is smooth and shiny. It must feel cold against warm feet.

Some people would have been shocked by the discovery that their kitchen had become a jazz bar, but I take it all in my stride (no pun intended). After a TFM day nothing surprises you. Just as I compose my ‘this happens to me all the time’ face I notice Leonard Cohen, standing in the corner. We resolutely disagreed on Leonard, you and I. You thought him bleak and full of sorrow. I thought him full of hope. Ironic that you left and he stayed behind.

I accept his outstretched hand and he sweeps me onto the dance floor that used to be my hearth, holding me close as we sway to the music and talk of tea from China and the sailors on the water. I breathe in the husk of him, pressed against my jutting ribs. I feel his hand against my back that broke.

All too soon the smoke is thinning and the music fading. Leonard’s sweet lips are upon mine but briefly and returning me to my chair he whispers, ‘I’m your man.’ It feels cruel in the circumstances. In the smoky dimming room he loses outline. He wanes and then is gone. You did not fade, you just blew out.

I wheel myself back to the bottom of the stairs and start the ascent. Beyond this wall is the garden we never grew, barren and dry beneath its walls. Rake and shovel leaning where I left them. Hiding places unfound. The air is still with the dances we will never dance and silent with the songs we will never sing. The barbecue waits. You had been going to clean it for a long time.

The scent of Leonard lingers, lemongrass and oranges. I had forgotten what dancing feels like. Your absence keens and I am again broken.

I swing my patchwork body onto my bed and my torso tilts into the mattress under the weight of you beside me. I wrap my absent legs around your invisible body. You forgive me for Leonard, ‘we only live once after all’ you say.

We laugh at our private joke.

 

 

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HANNAH PERSAUD is represented by Laura Macdougall of United Agents. Winner Fresher Prize 2017. Runner Up InkTears 2016/2017. Published in numerous places.

 

Image: Gemma Evans on Unsplash 

Chromatic Fragrance – Richard King Perkins II

Like a used book in the library free bin,
you’ve become an overlooked thing
that no one wants to check out anymore.

But I’m one of the few people left
who can read you differently;

remember the minor scandals caused
when you walked past the snack stand
at Washington Park

in a wet t-shirt pressed
over a light-blue bikini.

Your mania gave birth to a body
which spoke with warped energy
and chromatic fragrance

in a voice misunderstood
by all but my most ancient self.

Yet still, your touch thuds with the essence
of unrealized destiny,

a technique taking us to
the place where undertakers
choose to congregate
in a muddy huddle

deciding whether what remains of us
needs to be frozen or embalmed.

Neither of us ever thought
we’d see the death of print
or the desirability in each other;

couldn’t have imagined
that the sun would stop slavering
so soon.

 

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RICHARD KING PERKINS II is a state-sponsored advocate for residents in long-term care facilities. He lives in Crystal Lake, IL, USA with his wife, Vickie and daughter, Sage. He is a three-time Pushcart, Best of the Net and Best of the Web nominee whose work has appeared in more than a thousand publications.

 

Image: Myriams-Fotos

Gig Economy – Liz Jones

My name is Juliet, and I work from home. I am a cog in a machine, and as long as the machine functions, I require no maintenance.

Every day, or sometimes every other day, I am sent a batch of ergs. It is my job to turn the ergs into phlebs, and once this is done I send them back for checking, or sometimes I send them directly on down the chain. Occasionally, whole weeks go by when I am not sent any ergs, then they all come at once, on Friday evening, a muted firework display of flashes in the corner of my screen. Party time.

The ergs come to me from various sources, different email addresses, only some of which are linked to faces. They usually lack any kind of fanfare, and are accompanied by limited metadata. A one-line brief is metadata. A cheery sign-off, of the kind people once used when they wrote letters, is metadata. These days, most of the sources have dispensed with the metadata, because they know that I know what I am doing.

This knowledge is the only power I have, and it helps that my work is obscure. The weakness in my set-up lies in the fact that because the work is obscure, not everyone is convinced that it takes any skill, or indeed that it is necessary. Changing an erg into a phleb is not difficult, but it can require ingenuity. Perhaps the erg is not quite an erg at all, and so it is virtually impossible to convert into a convincing phleb, but still I must attempt it. Usually I can get away with making the defective erg the closest possible approximation of a phleb, even if it might not hold up to scrutiny. My sense of what will just pass muster is finely honed; I have dealt with a great many substandard ergs over the years. Anyway, most of the phlebs will be consumed rapidly and thoughtlessly. Some will never see the light of day at all.

It can happen that not enough time is allowed for the process of transformation. I have tricks to make it more efficient, but it takes as long as it takes, and I have to eat and sleep and work on other ergs. And yes, there are the ergs that are just not very good to start with. Ergs that have been dashed off, created by non-specialists, copied from other ergs. I’m allowed in theory to send ergs back, but in practice I rarely do. It’s usually so much less trouble just to give them a bit of extra manipulation and get on with the next. One of the reasons I am sent so many ergs is that I process them without any fuss.

I work alone, but I am not alone. There are armies of us, working away in our rooms, changing ergs to phlebs 24/7 and scratching out a living. As a veteran operative I make a reasonable income, but finding the time and the mental discipline to enjoy what I earn is a challenge. It can seem that the line of least resistance is simply to return to the screen after a break and process a few more. It’s been years since I left the apartment complex. My work doesn’t require it, and everything can be delivered, even if the drivers complain about the nineteenth-floor address. I have a treadmill in the spare room, though it’s gathering dust and I am slowly expanding to fill every corner of my chair.

Usually, I get no feedback on my work. Rarely, I will receive a phleb back again for a second look. This used to upset me, no matter how politely phrased the metadata, but as the years have gone by I’ve consoled myself with the fact that it’s only a tiny percentage of my phlebs that don’t hit the mark – and after all, I am still human. I think they would like to pretend that we aren’t, but there’s not yet any getting away from that awkward fact.

It’s true that as lone operatives we’re vulnerable. The ergs are not big enough on their own to require more than one of us to work on them; they are carefully portioned to be just right to occupy a few hours or at most a couple of days of one person’s time, so we never work together. I suspect that many of the phlebs we produce are destined to become pieces of a much larger whole, but I will never see the completed article. I wouldn’t know where to start looking for it. And if I did find it, I mightn’t have the capacity to understand it, having dealt exclusively in fragments for so long.

I’ve been turning ergs into phlebs for nearly twenty years now, and the expectation is that I could do it for at least another twenty. I’ve made most of the improvements in my technique that I ever will, although there’s always room for more. None of us will ever attain perfection, though we can die trying.

*

While I wouldn’t say I was happy exactly, this state of affairs was stable, and I fully expected it to continue for the foreseeable future. I didn’t want to rock the boat; falling out could have been so much worse, so much less controllable. But then something happened that I hadn’t ever allowed myself to imagine. One day, the ergs stopped coming.

It wasn’t common, but there had been times when I’d gone more than a week without ergs, and then usually there was a flood of them – but this time, it had been ten days, and then a fortnight, with none at all. The screen seemed to echo with the lack. For hours each day I would sit there, waiting. Trying to find other things to think about. Fiddling with my split ends, picking my nose, worrying at the frayed edge of the seat cover on my chair. I played games with myself, daring the ergs to come when I wasn’t looking. But still they didn’t arrive. The sun rose behind the blinds each morning, and then set again until the room dissolved around the point of the blinking cursor, and eventually I would go to bed, ergless still, and adrift. I had no one to turn to.

In the early days, I used to chat with other operatives online, but gradually the talk faded as we all figured out what we were doing, and realised that the time spent interacting was time spent not processing, and it wasn’t rewarded. I don’t know. Perhaps the newer operatives still interact. Perhaps my contemporaries never stopped. But then I didn’t know where to get in touch with them, any more.

After a month of tumbleweed – no ergs at all – my confidence had plummeted to its lowest level and I felt barely human, more like a dust ball in the corner of a room, or a smear of dirt on the floor. I hadn’t exactly led a life replete with meaning before the erg-drought, but now there was literally zilch. I was a pulsating nub of nothing, encased in a fat human shell. There were tracts of untracked time that I can’t now account for, like waking nightmares, when I know I was absent but I couldn’t tell you what I was doing. Without the regular drip of work, my life was shapeless, treacherous, a marsh in thick fog riddled with traps.

It was out of this utterly wretched state, somewhere between periods of fitful, useless sleep, that I gathered my senses and finally decided to do something I had never done. I hadn’t done it because I hadn’t ever needed to. Oh, I knew about it from those early days of gossiping and comparing, but none of my closest online buddies had done it either, and we all smugly looked down on those who did: those who went soliciting.

It is easy enough to find a way in. Though it’s not formally sanctioned they want you to be able to solicit if you need to. Otherwise, the whole thing could so easily break down. Those gleaming formal procedures depend on an underlying dark web propping them up, keeping things going. So a few clicks and taps, and I was in already, and putting myself out there. Asking for it. If I closed my eyes I saw flashes inside the lids of a past life in which I walked, but now it wasn’t beside a babbling brook or across rolling parkland, faithful dog at my side and the sun in my hair. No, I was stalking a dark, narrow, rain-streaked pavement, wind whipping my bare legs, on unfamiliar heels, trying not to wrench an ankle. Waiting for the scrunch of tyres on tarmac beside me, the throb of the engine restrained, the window wound down. The voice asking: ‘How much, love?’

I ignored the first two that came by, but then I realised that was stupid; there was no point my being there with that attitude. So when the third one slowed beside me, and the tinted glass zipped down, and the question was asked, I called back my price.
He looked me up and down, long yellowed teeth like those of a giant rodent glinting in the sodium glow from the other side of the car. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said, laughing, but not unkind. ‘I’ll give you half that.’

‘Three-quarters,’ I said, forcing a smile, hoping there was no lipstick on my teeth. ‘I’m very experienced.’

He laughed again, as if he enjoyed the game, and told me to get in, re-zipping the window and popping the door open with a smooth click. Inside the vehicle was warm, smelling of synthetic lily of the valley and fag ash. It was good to be out of the rain and off the street. He put a gloved hand on the white of my thigh, frozen like cheap chicken and painful to the touch.

‘How many?’ he asked.

‘As many as you can give me,’ I said. He held all the power and we both knew it, but I tried to pump my voice up with assertiveness, like an expensively poisoned face.

‘Let’s try five, see how we get on,’ he decided. ‘And for that figure, let’s just say I’ll be expecting something special.’ But he didn’t give me them right away, though by then I’d had enough of the comfortable car and was already desperate to be back out there, submersed in the black evening, fumbling towards anonymous safety. He reached for the glove compartment and drew out a packet of cigarettes and a lighter, lit two and puffed out the smoke, passing me one of them through the choking cloud.

‘But I don’t—’ I started, and he chuckled and said, ‘Oh, but clearly you do.’

He watched as I smoked the whole thing down to the filter, gulping in scented blue air and then spluttering it out, spit flecking the dashboard. His hand was back on my thigh, just resting there the whole time. Then when I had stubbed the thing out he flipped the door open again, and ejected me on to the pavement with a smile flickering around the edges of those lips, between patches of bristle where he’d shaved carelessly. Flash of those curved, wicked teeth in a half-smile as he waited for me to get down on the rough ground, sharp stones puncturing the skin of my knees. ‘Payment on receipt,’ he said, cold now. Only then, when he’d seen me beg, would he give me the five ergs.

*

I worked through the first four as if in a trance. It had been so long since I’d processed anything I was slow at first, and I had to keep going back to check that I’d done things right. Mostly I had, and I made only small, non-essential adjustments and tweaks on the second pass. My confidence seeped back. These would tide me over, I thought, until the machine cranked into life again, as surely it would. It always had.

Despite their irregular provenance, those first four ergs were unremarkable in terms of quality. They were much like all the others I had ever worked on. Tangible yet weightless, they didn’t linger in the mind. As I finished each one I sent it back as requested, and after a short interval, I received payment as promised.

The fifth erg was different, so I saved it for last. For a start, it was much bigger. As I said, most take only an hour or two to process, sometimes a couple of days. I can usually tell before I inspect them, simply by noting the size of the attachment. The first four had all been roughly equal in size in terms of memory, and they had each taken the time I would have expected them to, and no more. They seemed to have come from similar sources, perhaps even the same source, though they were, as ever, not closely related. They hadn’t been problematic in any way; in fact they had turned out quite lucrative, and for a while I wondered if I had after all been too quick to dismiss a viable income stream. My knees had healed and were it not for the haunting scent of lily of the valley still clinging to my hair like mist, I might have forgotten the ordeal of procuring the things. It had been a business transaction, I told myself. Nothing more.

However this last erg, I estimated, based on its size alone, would take me a fortnight to process: quite a different beast from my regular fare. I had three weeks remaining before it was due, so after sending off the fourth erg I decided to go to bed early and start afresh in the morning.

From the moment my eyes flicked open, I knew the day would bring something unexpected. I had a peculiar lightness inside as I made coffee, and wondered if I was falling ill. I still hadn’t taken any regular deliveries of ergs, but there was time, and I think I was dizzy with the anticipation of working on something potentially quite interesting. Catch of the day! Like a tuna, valuable and glistening, barely breathing, in my inbox. Perhaps it was something important; it seemed like a mark of trust. The closest thing I could imagine to a compliment, it had come to me for a reason. My cheeks flared in the dawn’s half-light, as I carried the mug to my desk.

As soon as I had the erg there in front of me, I knew it was unprecedented. It’s hard to find the words to describe its terrifying beauty; it was beyond that. When I first laid it out for a look at its entirety, my stomach turned over and I felt as if I was falling, and like I might vomit; the bitterness of bile at the back of my tongue. Behind my ribs my heart was out of control, and I took a moment to slow things down, swallowing, taking deep breaths. I closed my eyes and pushed my chair back on its squeaky wheels, physically removing myself from proximity to the erg.

When I was calmer I regarded the erg again. This time the response was different. There was no longer the shock of the completely unfamiliar, and I could begin to appreciate the erg’s particular qualities as I examined it from all angles, letting it flow over me and around me like water, unfolding over time. It wasn’t static, it was changing, as it revealed itself to me: never resting, not still for long enough for me to begin to get comfortable or to understand it. Although I no longer felt sick, it made me dizzy to be near its precipitous edges. After a few moments of exposure, again I pushed back my chair and stood up, then went to the kitchen for a glass of water. I filled the glass right to the top and held it against my temples, then drank it all down and went back to the computer for more.

Now when I returned to the erg it was like an old friend. But no, that’s not quite right, not as human as a friend. Geometric and alien yet strangely familiar, like a virus or a radio wave. The touch of a human hand was somehow all over it, but it was tuning in to a frequency at the heart of things, picking up signals from beyond anywhere I’d ever been, with no beginning and no end. If there was a truth, this was telling it.

Usually I measured my working hours, but I’d forgotten to set the timer going. I only know roughly how long I was with the erg, experiencing it, because the next time I moved my chair back to stand up, back aching and bladder screaming, everything had gone dark again around me. I had wasted an entire day unable to act, existing purely to behold the erg, and I was exhausted. Still, I told myself I had plenty of time, not to worry, and I crawled off to bed, spent.

The next day, I woke late. My sleep had been troubled, and the sun was already high in the sky and streaming in through the blinds when I peeled myself off the bed, sticky and musty with sweat. Eyes closed, I felt my way to the shower and steamed under the water, trying to make sense of the thoughts that had hammered at the door to my dreams all night long. Everything pointed to one simple fact. There was nothing I could do with the erg. It needed no work; it was already there. It had always been already there. Any change I could make would be superfluous and would weaken it, perhaps fatally. It would be dishonest.

My conviction was strong as I let the scalding water wash over me for the longest time. It remained as I soaped myself all over, then lathered my hair twice and watched all the bubbles spiral their way to oblivion. It was unwavering as I stepped out into the fug of the bathroom, wiping away the condensation on the mirror and seeing my own disbelief confronting me through bloodshot eyes. But I knew there was simply nothing I could do. I was right. I would send the erg back untouched.

*

Of course, Rat-man wasn’t satisfied, and he insisted on a meeting. ‘I can’t accept this,’ he spat, bald as that. ‘You’ve done nothing.’

‘I told you,’ I said, impersonating bravery, ‘I’m experienced. Sometimes it’s as much about what we don’t do. Restraint can be the hardest lesson.’

‘It’s not good enough,’ he hissed, drawing on his cigarette, that left hand there on my thigh once more, skin shrinking slightly away from it. ‘I can’t let you get away with that. That’s not work, it’s not worth anything.’

‘But I can’t make it better,’ I said. ‘It’d be a lie. I won’t do it.’

‘If you think I’m paying for this, you can forget it,’ he said. ‘And don’t think you’ll be getting anything else from me, either. Probation’s over, darling, and you’re not up to scratch. I’d wish you luck for the future, if I thought you’d have one. Get out.’ The door popped and the glove was on my back, and then I was lying on the pavement, inhaling his exhaust, cheekbone grinding into the dust.

*

I’d never tried to find the originator of an erg before, though the information is there, buried in the metadata, if we care to look. On this erg, I found a series of tiny numbers, like a bar code, in plain sight, and when I ran a search on the code there was an address associated with it.

Preparing to leave the apartment was a trial. All my walking shoes were petrified with disuse, pinching as I pressed my swollen feet inside them. I picked up my keys and slipped the third finger of my left hand into a ring I hadn’t worn in months, always loose but now fitting perfectly, with its carnelian eye. In the hall mirror I saw a small, round brown sparrow of a woman blinking back. So insignificant that at least no one would wonder where I was going. The frigid blast that hit me when I exited the lift shaft on the ground floor sent me scurrying back up to the flat for more layers, but in the end I was out, moving along grey, block-lined streets, the paper with the address in my pocket, worn smooth by nervous fingers. Grains of sleet worked their way between collar and skin, and my toes were numb, but I kept going.

The creeping numbness was a distraction from the crumbling of my world. I sensed that my existence as I knew it had ended, without my really understanding why. Had I been a good worker? Had I done everything expected of me? Had I performed as well as I could? I knew the answer to these questions was yes – but still, it wasn’t enough. It would never be enough.

The blocks grew sporadic and then died out, around the same time as the sleet. I undid the top button of my threadbare coat and descended into a steep-sided, fragrant combe, wooded with tall trees whose highest branches were brushed with gold. A blue butterfly led the way along a narrow footpath scored through the thick ground cover. The slopes were obscured by a green sea of broad, curving leaves, dotted here and there with white flowers like sleigh bells. And that teasing scent on the breeze.

At the bottom of the combe I skipped over a river, light on my feet now despite the shoes. Jumping over the crystal waters I felt something flip: a lurch in my stomach and a subtle realignment of the world. But I shook the feeling off and started to climb up the other side of the valley.

As I ascended the steep slope, I was thinking of the originator. Did he know what he’d created? Did he understand its power? I couldn’t decide if he was old or young; the erg suggested either or neither – it could have been born of bitter experience or the naivety of hope. I imagined that he lived in a very grand house, not an apartment, and perhaps he had a family. I hoped he would be home alone when I knocked, though. I should have felt anxious about turning up unannounced, but I was hoping instinct would carry me through. I had to tell him what it meant to me, tell him how it moved me. Tell him that it had changed my life forever. For the first time in decades, I was following a feeling.

At the top of the slope, the trees thinned out, I left the valley’s microclimate behind, and the sleet set in once more. I shrugged deeper into my coat and checked the address; I was still heading in the right direction. Apartment blocks closed in around me; a neighbourhood like my own. The blocks grew denser until I was in the thick of the grey once more, standing at the bottom of a block. This was it. Into the lift, up nineteen floors, and I was level with where I started. Strange! When I reached out to press the doorbell, the ring winked at me, red like a warming ember on my right hand.

I waited for the originator to open the door, blowing on my fingers and stamping my feet. It opened just a crack at first, and then wider, and I caught my breath. There was the originator of the wondrous erg: a small, round brown sparrow of a woman, blinking into the hallway in confusion.

 

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LIZ JONES writes novels and short stories, and is currently studying part-time for an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She also works as a freelance editor of non-fiction. She lives in Somerset with her family. Find her on Twitter: @ljedit

 

Image:Digital Buggu from Pexels  

Two Fish and One Chips – Steven John

When she wakes her breath has frozen hard on a flap of duvet. She pulled on a jumper, woolly tights and socks in the night, then later wrapped up in her towelling dressing-gown and had still been cold. Now she can see her breath condensing over her barely warm pillow and hear a bath running in the shared bathroom. Her flatmate catches an early train and never leaves enough hot water in the tank. Her flatmate’s boyfriend will still be asleep in her single bed. He works in the fish and chip shop on the ground floor and doesn’t need to be up till later, to peel potatoes in the machine out the back. They’ve nicknamed him ‘Vinegar’ because neither of them like it. She could hear them in the night; her flatmate’s screeches and mewling, the bed battering against the thin wall. They wouldn’t have felt the cold like she had. She hears her flatmate leave the bathroom and walk down the landing to her room. In thirty minutes she’ll be out the door.

She gets out of bed and goes to the window. A corner of the pane has a piece of brown cardboard taped over a hole. The inside of the window is frozen up, rippled with ice. She lifts off a straw icicle and sucks it, as she had done as a kid, willing the snow to fall for a day off school. Then she could look out over her father’s prim lawns and pruned roses. Hear her mother laying the table for Sunday breakfast. Now all she could see were rows of back to back terraces lining up the valley to the old slag-heaps, and raddled parents pulling on morning fags in backyards. She hasn’t heard from her mother and father in over a year.

She has a choice. She could wash her hair in the remaining basin-full of hot water and catch the bus to work, grab a sausage roll and a coffee on the way, or she could call in sick. There’s a knock on the door. Her flatmate pokes in her head.

“I bet you can’t wait to be back on nights. I’m off.”

She waits till she hears the front door close on the latch. She walks down the landing to her flatmate’s room and pushes open the unlocked door. Vinegar is buried, a long lump under the duvet. Probably, when she’s back on nights with him the weather will have changed, and she’ll resent him sleeping over in her single bed. But for now she’s on days and she gets in, slotting her cold knees into the back of his, like little white plastic forks and spoons.

 

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STEVEN JOHN lives in The Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, UK and writes flash fiction, short stories and poetry. He has had work published in writing group pamphlets and on short fiction and poetry websites. In December 2017 Steven won the inaugural Farnham Short Story Competition. Steven has read from his work at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival, Stroud Short Stories, The Bard of Hawkwood and The Flasher’s Club.                        Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite

 

Image: Cynthia Bertelsen

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