epilogue – Issue Five

And beyond
there is a space of darkened clouds
that lighten not with lightning strikes
where days are reconsidered
in such twisted ways
to appear so straightened there
and free
from destructive lie or taunt, beware.

Nestle close to The Cabinet, dear,
It and the space around
breathes clear and pure and true.
Embracing you.
A break from storms, that scream and whisper,
untwisting twisting voices of the mist misleading.
That is what It’s heeding.

 

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Parliamentary Statistics – John Holland

The number of frogs and toads (order Anura) elected as Members of Parliament in UK General Elections from the Reform Act of 1832 to 1900.

NB Estimated numbers only

29 January 1833 – 0

19 February 1835 – 0

15 November 1837 – 0

19 August 1841 – 0

9 August 1847 – 0

4 November 1852 – 1

30 April 1857 – 0

31 May 1859 – 0

11 July 1865 – 0

10 December 1885 – 0

5 August 1886 – 0

4 August 1892 – 1

12 August 1895 – 0

3 December 1900 – 0

 

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John Holland is a prize-winning author from Gloucestershire in the UK, and the organiser of the regular event Stroud Short Stories. Website – http://www.johnhollandwrites.com

 

Image: Henry Barraud [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How To Write Well. Or Not. – Mary Thompson

Take magnesium and munch cheese for lucid dreaming. Absorb ‘From Where you Dream’ by Robert Olen Butler. Enter dreamspace. Dreamstorm. Read inspiring material before bed – stuff like Amelia Gray’s freaky story about couple who lock girl in elevator and feed her through hatch, or watch thriller like Rosemary’s Baby – disturbing shit that fucks with your psyche, or see Dystopian Sci-fi like Black Mirror. At 10 switch off gogglebox and retreat to bedroom.

At 2 am wake up. See cat with looming eyes staring down from Rapunzel tree especially designed for indoor cats that you put on credit card last week as felt bad for not letting her outside. Hear loud, wailing miaow. Switch on light and watch as she paws wall. Why is she pawing wall? Can cats see spirits? Who can she see? Wonder who lived here back in the day. After Google Search discover was jugglers and clowns. Feel momentarily happy that flat housed artistic types. Hope creativity rubbed off on you.

Insomnia’s a symptom of periwhatsit. How the fuck are you that old? Want to write a line of story but cat is on you and trapping arm and has blissful look on face like she’s found nirvana. Feel jealous. Wish you could find nirvana. Can’t move her so will story to stay in head till morning. It is morning though. 4.30 am. Two and a quarter hours before need to get up and it’s light. Think it might be moon. It’s not moon. Wish hadn’t taken three sleeping pills as still can’t sleep. Heath Ledger died from too many sleeping pills. Have sudden pain in chest. Should cancel work but won’t get paid and still paying for Smeg-like fridge. How can anyone afford Smeg? If write best seller will buy Smeg. Bet Fifty Shades woman has Smeg, or two. Must have two as millionaire. How the fuck is she millionaire? Need to write. Left it too late.

Message on Facebook. Just check it then sleep. And advert. For medication. Perimenopause. HOW DO THEY KNOW? “Vagiprob.” Side effects – breast cancer 0.006 percent chance, ovarian cancer 0.0000025 percent chance. Hmm. If get that will be awful but will sleep and then dream and then write stories, good ones hopefully and if write good stories, won’t matter if die young as will be fulfilled. Like Amy Winehouse, Bob Marley, Michael Hutchance. Died young but fulfilled.

Need to hear someone with calm voice. David Attenborough. Yes, if watch a few Blue Planets will sleep. Did you know 75 percent of the world is water? All those fish, whales and things nonchalantly swimming along and eating. Did you know blue whales eat krill and have tails as big as dinosaurs? Don’t need purpose and are massive. Why do you even want to write? Can just take baths and eat like they do.

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Mary Thompson lives in London, where she works as a freelance teacher. Her short stories and flash fiction have been long-listed and shortlisted in publications and competitions including Flash 500, Fish Short Memoir Competition, Writing Magazine, Retreat West and Reflex Fiction, and are forthcoming at Ellipsis Zine. Follow her @MaryRuth69

 

Image: Batut15 via pixabay

 

Dilemma of Knowledge – John Walls

So I find myself sitting on a park bench. I am staring at my phone. And I cannot decide what to do. I have information. Where it came from doesn’t matter. What I do with it could seriously change things. For the better, for some. For the worse for others.

I have the knowledge I need to delve deep into his life. At least, I think I do. A whole notebook full of the keys to his electronic life. And a memory stick. Modernity! Where it has taken us all? There is a startling vulnerability built into how we keep our information now.

Time was, some things were recorded on paper, but a lot of important stuff stayed in memory. Inside your head. And things said… well, they were not matters of record so much as the source of debate. Who said what and when.

E-mail, messenger, texts, recorded phone conversations. Videos, cameras, surveillance, spyware, hacking. The modern age has given us all this. Power to check on one another. The one thing that rather tenuously protects us is a series of codes, behind which we can hide. But if something happens to allow a break-in to the vault of secrets we all carry, what then? It’s like opening a cellar door, or someone pulling back the curtains to expose you, naked before the world.

What am I to do with this? The bastard tore me apart. He took my life, and turned it inside out. And left me in a dark, dark place, teeming with tormenting spiders and their repulsive cobwebs. I was trapped. No confidantes, no freedom to expose myself to the glare of others’ sympathy. I hid it. I just lived in the trap. Stuck, and waiting for the bite that would numb me, like a fly in a web. But it never came. I was not to be consumed. I was a plaything. Fun to torture. No final blow of release for me. I was to be preserved for his entertainment. Only the power of close friends and the courage to expose my plight allowed me to be where I am today.

Alone; or single, anyway. I have good friends, and my children, all grown adults and we remain close. And I am happy. But now. Now. What will I do? Revenge is sweet, they say. A dish best served cold.

There may be nothing there. I might look, but find nothing. Who am I kidding? He was always a creature of habit. There will be a minefield of deadly weapons I will find, if I open all these doors. I have all the keys. Facebook. Instagram. E-mail accounts. A copy of his hard drive. Best of all, if you like… I could access his bank accounts. All four of his accounts.

He left me in penury. Why would I not hit back? I could send him lower than I ever was. Would I enjoy it? This is so tempting, I think I will burst. On the other hand, am I better in ignorance? Where ignorance is bliss, tis a folly to be wise! There may be stuff I’d rather not know.

And I stare at my phone. Smartphone. More power in this slender device than I have ever held in my hand before. I couldn’t do more damage with a Kalashnikov, or a box of hand-grenades.

And I stare at my phone. And I stare at the notebook. And I stare at the memory stick. And I stare at a squirrel, and the dog-walkers. And I stare at the autumn leaves strew all over the grass. And it starts to rain. And I stare at the phone.

And I stare, and I think; and I stare, and I stare….

 

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Image: Lubo Minar on Unsplash

Retrospective Downer – Dan Brotzel

Great sesh, me old mates.
Sweet-talk the fans.
Cool pad, Tom.
Speaking of Cougars, Julia
The old man with cancer
The fans and the curious (5% discount)

The old man with cancer was pretty cool.
Chuck it all in? We’re here for you. Darling
No need to worry about briefing the tradespeople! We do feel your pain, darling
We all do, darling (5% off) (cancer is cool)
Thinly disguised mature sex goddess
(not my words, darling)

Terrible pain, darling.
Collective shock, a feeling of inadequacy (pilates! the pool!)
An abyss of anxiety beneath your mask of self-control
(But let’s not beat ourselves up) (cheap cancer for the fans)

Just wanted to get that off my chest.
Your incredibly brave, flat-screen TV
Oak-effect laminate flooring transubstantiates pain into art
None of the trauma diminished, I’m sure (darling)

You are our friend (I am an actor)
Badger reset: liberal blinkers off please!

With our pilates and our real ale (and our erotic prints)
We will slay the demons that stain our memories.
Were you a bird then, mate? (I don’t want to pry) (I am an actor)
We all have issues, genderfluid

You seemed bored, and frankly so was I.
Eternal gnosis ffs! I was only looking for the loo.
We feel your pain. (Though I was a teensy bit peeved)
Cancer is 5% off.

Okay, gotta go.

Please note: to be the intended recipient of this message is prohibited.

 

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Dan’s short stories have been recognised in several competitions and anthologies. He was runner-up in the Flash500 short story competition 2017, and was also shortlisted for the Sunderland University/Waterstones Short Story Award 2016, the Wimbledon BookFest prize 2016, and the 2017 Fish short story and Retreat West flash competitions. He wrote sketches for Dead Ringers (BBC Radio 4), won Carillon Press’ Absurd Writing competition (2014), and has also made two appearances in Christopher Fielden’s To Hull and Back comic-writing anthology (2015, 2016).
A journalist and former slush-pile reader, he is also a book reviewer for the Press Association.

 

Image: Andrew Neel on Unsplash

The Slide – Michael Chin

I’ve never been the kind of person to eat fast food. Geri cooked real dinners and I brown bagged my lunches. Sure, we took the kids out for burgers now and then, but it was a treat, not a way of life.

There’s a kid running around at knee-level who looks a little bit like Jeff when he was a boy. Same bushy hair, albeit a shade lighter brown. He wears a red and yellow striped shirt, as if he were McDonald’s branded. His mother puts a hand on his shoulder and I think she’ll tell him to quit running because he’s going to knock into someone and send their food flying, but instead, she tells him not to play there, but to head to the play area. So, he runs away from his mother’s side, in line to order, and past the glass door that another grown up is conveniently holding open. The kid doesn’t even say thank you, and the next second he’s climbing the ladder up to the big twisty slide that feeds into the ball pit. Probably for the best. Out of my way, at least, so if someone spills his coffee it’ll be on that side of the restaurant where you ought to expect such things.

Still, I worry about the boy. When Jeff and Susy were little, you could afford to let kids run and play on their own, but nowadays it’s all over the news about missing children. Not just strangers scooping up kids, but teachers, or preachers, or soccer coaches. You can’t trust anyone, and this woman sends her boy off to play unattended.

I reach the counter ahead of her. Order my usual medium cup of coffee with two creamers, yogurt parfait and a copy of USA Today. Splurge a little and get a hash brown, too.

The kid who takes my order asks if I’d like two, because they’re two for a dollar, as if he’s never seen me, as if I’ve never been here at breakfast time before and don’t know the hash browns are two for a dollar. His forehead is greasy and littered with dots of pimples. I remember when Jeff wanted to work a fast food gig in high school and I wouldn’t let him, fully aware he’d end up just like this kid. Stand around it long enough and all that fry grease seeps in through your pores. And what do these kids eat on their lunch breaks? More McDonald’s, of course. More grease and salt and fat. “One’ll do.” I try to say it easy. I know the kid’s doing his job, but you’ve gotta be firm or they’ll give you the two hash browns and charge you the dollar and say that’s what they heard you say, and it’s an argument. If there’s one thing worse than being in a McDonald’s first thing in the morning, it’s lowering yourself into an argument with one of the employees.

I started coming after I moved to be closer to Jeff and he and Kate had their first born. It’s what Geri would have wanted—what she would have insisted we do. No sense in staying put and withering away alone when there was family to be around. Small town living was good. Quieter. I got to be buddies with my next door neighbor Louis and we watched football games together on Sundays, and he’s the one who got me going to McDonald’s for breakfast where all his friends hung out. An old crowd, but what was I if not old? After Louis had his stroke and it was clear Jeff and the family were too busy to see me more than once a week, I needed some sort of social outlet, didn’t I? So I kept coming.

“Look who finally showed up.” Big Carl always reeks of cigarettes and always gets a full breakfast. It’s a miracle he’s lived this long, well into his retirement. Today he eats hot cakes, slathered in butter and syrup, and two sausage patties, also in syrup, from a Styrofoam container. He’s got a large coffee, a large orange juice, and glass of water to take his pills. Most of them

have pills, and it’s a point of pride for me that I don’t. “We were starting to think maybe you’d croaked.”

Big Carl says this, regardless of the time, whenever someone’s the last to show up. You’d think that we had a job to do, a schedule to keep. As if it weren’t one of the few luxuries of getting older that we don’t have to go anywhere at any specific time, or go at all if we don’t want to. I check my watch and it’s 8:45. That’s a good time to show, after most of the folks rushing to get to work. I’m not in their way. They’re not in mine.

Lenny squints at my tray. He squints at everything, including his newspaper. I’ve seen him wear glasses a couple times, but for whatever reason, the skinny bastard doesn’t want to make a habit of it. He points a liver spotted finger. “You know those hash browns are two for a dollar.”

Big Carl—he calls himself that, it’s not just a descriptor—likes to think he holds court, talking over the rest of us and giving people a hard time as he sees fit, but the gravitational pull of our little group of eight or nine oldsters revolves around Lucinda, sitting next to him today. She’s the only woman in our group, and I think she likes the attention. She eats a Fruit and Yogurt Parfait and sips from a hot tea. She skips over the news section of the paper and goes straight for the crossword puzzle.

“You hear what Obama said today?” Lenny folds over his paper and holds it close to his face. “He says there are no Islamic terrorists. Give me a break.”

“That’s not what he said,” Carl corrects him. “Not exactly. Remember, he’s a Democrat. He’ll never say anything in absolutes.”

Dee Dee—one of the workers—goes into the play area. She’s good with kids. I’ve seen her carry out trays of Happy Meals to them. She’s the one on birthday party duty in that play

area. A nice girl. A pretty girl, too. In the old days, we would have called her double-Ds, even though that’s not empirically true, because it would be a convenient nickname for a pretty girl.

Dee Dee’s always nice to me. She always smiles, and she winked at me the other day when I got caught holding the door open for one kid and it turned into being a stream of four of them, followed by the mother pinning a cell phone between her shoulder and the side of her head, the handle of a car seat over her elbow, a fifth kiddo asleep in there. I was annoyed, but Dee Dee winked and it made it feel funny, like it was all some big joke and when you look at life that way, you can’t stay mad, even if a part of you thinks you ought to.

It bothers me sometimes that Dee Dee is so friendly with me, in a way I don’t think she’d be with a younger man. It signals that I’m old enough to be harmless, and it’s not good being that ancient. Old people and children—before you’re a teenage jerk, after you cross the threshold so the idea of dating you would have to be a joke. People see an innocence there and it isn’t right.

I do like that Dee Dee’s in the PlayPlace with the little boy who looks like Jeff, though, because it’ll mean that someone’s looking out for him. From where I’m sitting, I can see the top of the slide and I haven’t seen him climb back up there, which has me worried he’s gone missing. Maybe his mother came in with the food already and made him sit down. Or maybe he’s still tuckered out in the early morning, I guess.

“There’s going to be a fish fry at the Lion’s Club Friday.” When Gary pauses, he curls his tongue out over his upper lip. He’s not as big as big Carl, but he’s plump. The kind of man who’s spent a lifetime eating McDonald’s cheeseburgers. He always finds something about food in the paper. If it’s not a fish fry, it’s a church bake sale, or a new restaurant opening, or a comment about a grocery store ad. Always hungry, always looking ahead to his next meal, even

when he’s got a jiggly fried egg patty on an English muffin right in front of him. “Twelve dollars, all you can eat. Not bad.”

Lucinda puts a hand on his arm and moves it away like she’s swatting him in slow motion. He looks at her. Hopeful. He’s got the spot of honor on the other side of her today and it’s probably the first touch he’s had from a woman in years. He never talks about a wife—current, ex, or deceased.

“Didn’t the doctor tell you to watch your cholesterol?” she says.

“Doctors say a lot of things.” He tears at the newspaper. Doesn’t even crease it first to get a straight edge, just tears at it all ragged. “What’s the point of being old if you can’t indulge yourself?” He stuffs the scrap in his pocket for later.

“I remember going to the senior prom at the Lion’s Club,” Big Carl says. “They’ve still got that same crystal chandelier, but it doesn’t shine the way it used to. I remember the way it looked that night. 1952. It sparkled. Valerie—the girl I took—she said it looked like we were dancing under the stars.” He eats a big bite of a hot cake that didn’t cut all the way so the piece adjacent to it hangs loose from his fork, then his lips before he sucks it in.. “I remember she smelled like roses.”

Here in McDonald’s, everything smells of eggs and butter. The coffee’s burnt. All of these oldsters have a history with all of the local haunts—I bet every one of them has a Lion’s Club story like that, and I always feel like a jerk nodding along without anything to contribute, like I’m behind because I haven’t lived in this Podunk town my whole life. Try talking to them about a restaurant in Boston or Chicago, they look at you like you’re from Mars.

Jeff shouldn’t have moved here. This is a place for old-timers and people who think small. Young people—smart, vibrant young people ought to live in big cities, especially at this

age. That’s the mistake I made, too young, and that’s why he got brought up in a town like this. Shouldn’t one generation learn from the mistakes of the one before it? Want more? Live better?

The running boy’s mother wanders unsteadily back toward PlayPlace, balancing a tray. So she wasn’t there before, and she didn’t get the boy who looks like Jeff away from the slide. So where is he?

“I heard the liberals are going to try to take all of our guns away. Don’t they get it?” Lenny said. “Take the guns out of our hands and the only people who’ve got them are the terrorists. They think it’s bad what happened in Orlando. What if the Muslims knew no one had guns anywhere?”

It’s the same small town conservative talk I heard when I was a younger man, and I don’t know if it’s more or less frustrating for the familiarity, for the fact that all of them probably grew up hearing it until they repeated it.

Oscar joins us. He’s a wiry old man with big tufts of white hair that he doesn’t comb or maybe there’s only so much a comb can do against hair like that. He sets his whole tray on the garbage can like he does everyday, leans over, and pours some of his coffee down into the trash. Often as not, he gets some of it on himself. He says it’s because they always give too much and Big Carl’s told him he should just ask them not to fill it up all the way, but he never does and inevitably, toward the end of our morning routine, one of the workers retrieves the bag and has to be extra careful because the bottom’s filled with coffee. Sometimes the bag breaks, so the coffee and whatever other garbage juices it mixes up with leak little drops across the floor.

“Gun control’s not the same as taking away guns, Lenny,” Big Carl blows on his coffee. He drinks it with the lid off so it isn’t so hot so long, but I always eye it, sure he’s going to spill it all over the place. “Call me a moderate on this one. I think some control is OK. But I do also

think there’s a problem when people who don’t understand the fundamentals of how a gun operates are the ones calling the shots. I heard a man on the news the other day, talking about how the size of the clips was one of the issues, because why would anyone need a clip with so many bullets. I sincerely don’t think this man knew the difference between a clip and a magazine.”

The mother in PlayPlace is looking all around. She doesn’t see the boy. She talks to Dee Dee for a moment. Dee Dee smiles at her, too, and I think for a second maybe that speaks better of her perception of me—that I’m not so much harmless as just any customer, and she smiles at customers. But that’s not right either, because this is a middle-aged woman. A mother. And Dee Dee puts us in the same category. Mother and grandpa, the both of us not to be concerned about.

But the mother looks concerned. She realizes her mistake, surely, in sending the boy off on his own and now he could be anywhere. I imagine a stubbly-faced man in a black ski cap waiting at the bottom of the slide with his arms open wide to greet whatever child might come to him.

“You need screening to get a gun. There ought to be screening for making gun laws, too. A written test, at least,” Big Carl says.

I take a bite of my hash brown to keep from talking because I don’t feel like engaging today, and half expect Big Carl is trying to engage me. If people like him paid attention to what was happening under their noses half as much as they concerned themselves with their obtuse takes on world affairs, maybe they’d contribute something to society. I promise myself, right then and there, that as soon as Jeff’s kid graduates high school, I’m out this Podunk town. No sense sticking around after that, at least if I’m in decent health. Maybe I’ll be one of those old-timers who drives around in an RV. I always thought it was silly and I’ve never driven anything

like that—never anything bigger than a twelve-foot moving truck—but how bad could it be? Maybe I could finish off my bucket list—finally get around to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon like I always thought I would.

“There’s not that much screening necessary to get a gun,” Lucinda says. “And I don’t see what knowing how a gun works has to do with that part.”

“Ha!” I can’t help myself from barking out a laugh. Lucinda usually doesn’t weigh in on political discussion. The only time I remember her pointing out something from the newspaper was a cute strip from the funny pages about explaining death to kids. I thought it was really sad and kind of beautiful, and a hint that Lucinda had more going on upstairs than most of us to appreciate a thing like that. All Big Carl could say in response was, geez that’s depressing, Lu and I think half of it was just to get a rise out of her because she doesn’t like being called Lu and she’s told us that dozens of times. He flirts like a grade schooler, and you’d think he’d have some more dignity than that.

But today, when Lucinda brings up the obvious flaw in these Republican geezers’ chatter, she’s the one beyond reproach. Big Carl will give her a hard time but he’ll never engage her in a real argument where she tries to pick apart what she says, and now, though the lot of them might descend on me in her place, I’m also under Lucinda’s protection because anything they say about me as a goddamn liberal would apply to her, too, and maybe they wouldn’t care if I got up and left, but they’d be damned fools to let the only lady in their crew slip away.

But I laugh in the same instant that Oscar shows up and he jumps and the lid’s still loose on his coffee and there’s still enough in there for it to spill over the brim onto his hand and onto his sleeve and he screams like he’s been electrocuted. He almost loses his balance—he really might’ve if Gary didn’t get a hand on his back first.

Oscar’s looking all around himself, really in a state and Lenny takes what’s left of the coffee cup from him to set it down and helps guide him toward his seat, before he rouses. “I gotta get more coffee.”

“I’ll get it Oscar,” I say. “It’s my fault for startling you. This cup’s on me.”

“You’ve got to pour out a little.” He talks like he’s straining—his voice is always soft and tired like that. Like he already spoke his allotment of words for his life and he’s running on fumes. “Not a lot. Just a few sips so it’s not sloshing.”

I’ve sat next to Oscar enough times to know how much coffee he wants—about three-quarters of a cup—so I tell him I’ve got it and walk around him, feeling nimble. Decrepitude is a relative thing and maybe I’m still relatively spry, relatively far from death.

“Get the poor guy napkins, too,” Big Carl hollers.

On my way to the counter, when I’m about to get in line, I look over at PlayPlace again and there’s no sign of the mother. Things have gone from bad to worse. She must not have spotted little Jeff and gone on some sort of frenzied search. And just then I see a darker spot in the slide. A round, tucked up shadow where the slide turns from a red to a yellow segment around a bend.

The boy’s stuck. I look for help but there’s a long line. Long enough that Dee Dee is back behind the counter, not in PlayPlace, bagging and bringing food to drive thru, or putting it on trays at the counter—how does she keep track of what goes where? She’s too busy to be bothered, and the rest of the workers won’t take the time to listen to me. Not if I’m doing anything besides placing an order.

So, it’s up to me.

I walk into PlayPlace. Pause as two kids run by, fortunately not to the slide, just running to run. What’s with all of these kids? Is it some sort of holiday? I make my way to the exit of the ball pit and crouch down. I haven’t been on all fours in a long time, but I’m feeling strong. Like today, I can rescue little Jeff and deliver him to his mother. Get back to our table and the guys will all want to pat me on my back. Maybe Lucinda will want to kiss me on my cheek, and I’ll take it, if just for the status symbol among the rest of the oldsters. Even Big Carl will have to admit that what I did was pretty great. Maybe Dee Dee will look at me and see the younger man I once was. Think I’m dashing. Ask me to tell her stories from when I was her age, besides saying I’ve got free coffee for life.

I peer up into the slide. I can’t see past the curve, and don’t know why I thought I would be able to. The slide smells the same as the trays after they’ve just wiped them down with their cleaner—when some of the workers slap the liner down too soon and start reusing them right away because it’s busy, and the cleaning fluid seeps right through. They’re not patient enough. No one is these days.

“Jeff?” I call up to him. No answer. This is scarier. Maybe he’s not only stuck, but hurt. Maybe he tried to stand up in the slide and hit his head and knocked himself out. I ease my shoulders in. It’s a tight fit. Tighter than I thought. They must make these slides smaller than they used. I begin my slow crawl up. No need to rush. Just have to get up to see if the boy’s all right. I see myself tugging gently on his leg to get him loose if he needs it, then the two of us can slide back down, easy-peasy.

But the climb is hard. Harder than I could have imagined, the space too tight, the angle too steep. I slide back, involuntarily, but only a little. Only a little until I’m wedged in tight. I can’t crawl forward, can’t crawl back. I might be stuck here forever.

But it’s warm here. There are worse places to be stuck. And someone will come along sooner or later. People must have seen me go in, right? They must have thought I was crazy. They’ll come help me. And then someone better equipped—someone younger and slimmer—can take my place and reach Jeff and deliver him, too. Let them be the heroes. Young people need that sort of thing more, anyway.

My eyes are heavy. I didn’t get to drink much of my coffee and I’m paying for it now.

Help will come soon.

So in the meantime, I breathe in and breathe out. I rest my eyes.

 

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Michael Chin was born and raised in Utica, New York and his hybrid chapbook, The Leo Burke Finish, is available now from Gimmick Press. He has previously published with journals including The Normal School and Hobart. Find him online at miketchin.com and follow him on Twitter @miketchin.

 

Image: vonpics

Burnt Umber – Amanda Saint

I smear fake tan from top to toe after I’m finished with my home spa experience, which was nothing like the real thing. The cream is a lurid salmon shade as I squeeze it from the tube into my gloved hand. I hope it doesn’t look like that on my skin. Tonight I need to look amazing. It smells of burnt biscuits, transporting me straight back to Nanna’s kitchen. She always burned everything then blamed me.

Even when that boy at school set my hair on fire in physics class, she said, ‘I bet it was your fault. You said the wrong thing as usual.’

I can still hear that blue flame roaring in my ears. Smell my hair scorching.

Once the tan cream has dried I sit at my dressing table taking tiny sips of neat peach liqueur. Thick, oily, only vaguely reminiscent of the real thing, it coats my tongue and teeth. I smile at myself in the mirror. Nobody to tell me I’m doing anything wrong now Nanna has gone. I don’t miss her.

When I am perfectly made up, so that not a single freckle can be seen, I start on my marmalade hair. It’s been seven years since it burned and it’s finally back to the length it was before it happened. Another sign. I curl it and pin it so just a few ringlets frame my face.

Finally, I step into my dress. Burnt umber satin, skimming over my barely there curves.

This will be the place. I know it. Tonight is the opening night and I can feel it. This is where I’ll find him. All those other places weren’t right for me. But the name, it’s a sign. The sun is setting as the cab approaches the club. There’s a queue outside. A whole line filled with potential flame-haired partners. This is our place. The neon light over the door flashes “Tangerine” in red, then orange, then red again, telling the world that we are welcome here.

As I walk to the VIP entrance a man near the front of the queue catches my eye. He stares as I sashay past and just before the door closes behind me, I glance back. Give the barest hint of a smile.

Much later, he finds me on the dancefloor, presses past me then sways a few paces away, never breaking eye contact. He moves closer, grabs my hand. We dance for just a few moments before he pulls me towards the stairs.

He slams the loo door behind us, pushing me up against the sink, sliding my dress up my thighs. Breath is all I can hear as I reach for his flies. He’s not wearing underwear so I see straight away. My dreams shatter once again. He’s not really one of us.

As the cab pulls away, blue light washes over the inside of the car and the blare of the fire engine’s sirens throbs in my ears.

 

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Bio: Amanda Saint is a novelist and short story writer. Her stories have been long and shortlisted for, and won, various prizes and been published in anthologies and literary journals. She runs Retreat West, which provides creative writing retreats, courses and competitions, and has just launched Retreat West Books indie press.

 

Image: Steve Allison on Unsplash

Conveyance – Sheila Scott

So, let’s walk through what happens next. The first thing to remember…

Are you just going to sit there stifling giggles? May I remind you that time is of the essence here. Take a look in the mirror. Your host is on the brink and trust me, you do not want to be left hanging. And the time will come when you’ll be helping your own progeny through, so you might want to listen up instead of pratting about.

Thank you.

Oh for Christ sake, show some control. I look like this because I’ve borrowed Great Aunt Marjory. Marjory. Had a real soft spot for your host back in the day, expired ages back…and there we go, yes: the one with the fluff-covered caramels. So get over it and listen up because this is Lesson One.

I can use Marjory because each of our host bodies are surrounded by the imprints of ‘loved ones’ that have gone before. Yes, it is a nauseating expression. Anyway, these memory traces provide a breach making it easier for us to communicate. And they carry an energy residue too, which is always useful.

Mind you, this connection can, at times, permeate the consciousness of the host and create a visual impression. No matter how faint, you can guarantee they’ll get over-excited about ‘seeing’ ex-Uncle so-and-so or a dearly departed spouse. Occasionally, it’s just some random trace linked to location rather than family; cue even more confusion when your host starts babbling on about the old woman at the bedside or the young soldier in the doorway.

Mostly though, there’s no visible projection. If you’re feeling bored, you can have a bit of fun using the trace self to move shit around. Just screw with them a bit.

But it’s best not to waste too much energy.

You’ve got good mileage out of this one. I know we weigh just a handful of grams but, Lesson Two, our time in residence always destroys them. You’ll find some tolerate us longer than others, so point of failure can be really unpredictable. If you get a particularly susceptible one, it’s an early bath. Hmm? It’s a football reference. Yeah, I forgot your host was a science nerd.

Anyway, in contrast, some seem infinitely capable of housing us whatever they do. You know the medical saying “some mend because of treatment, some regardless of treatment and some despite”? Well, I’ve had the odd one that did everything they could to destroy the vehicle and it just got stronger. Go figure.

Watch though; they can wear down by stealth too. This current lot have a real penchant for creating diseases, or enduring habits such as drugs, smoking or alcohol. Yeah, you’d think, but it’s not as fun as it sounds. In fact, it can be a total pisser, especially if you’re getting really comfortable. We put so much into substitution it’s maddening if they then go and move the goalposts. Huh? Yeah, football again.

Still, you wouldn’t believe the changes I’ve seen. Today’s models last so much longer with all the new medications, surgeries, even transplants to combat the inevitable decline. Yeah transplants can be awkward. An extended lease is helpful and small parts like a pancreas or a cornea don’t generally cause any issues, but hearts are a completely different matter. With them there’s always the risk of importing a remnant of the previous occupant and no-one wants a turf war.

Soooo, Lesson Three. Geography of…

Would you leave that drip stand alone and pay attention.

Thank you, Now, where was I? Oh yeah, geography of re-entry is important. No not that way. Where is your mind at? Actual geography, countries and the like. You won the lottery this time with a first station in what they call the ‘developed’ world. Yes, that one is genuinely funny. Being located here means you’ve benefited from all the wealth this half cheerfully misappropriate from the other ‘developing’ cohort. Exactly how they get away with it is something we would embrace, if it wasn’t all falling apart so spectacularly. Point is, things might not be so cushty next time.

Talking of their divisive ways, wars can be tricky. Cue Lesson Four. When this lot go barking and start running at each other with weapons it creates a flitting clusterfuck. Floods the market with millions of us simultaneously scouting for new homes. We’ve had some real corkers: trench warfare in the First World War; challenging times to find a new host.

Science alert. Ha, now you’re listening. Apparently these conflagrations could actually be our fault. Recent research suggests that as we’ve devoured their husks, fragments of our DNA have leached into their fibre and the more they absorb us, the less human they become.

Thought you’d like that.

Similarly, we can develop a temporary affinity for our vehicles but that’s just sentimental hooey, a kind of meta-version of the way hosts develop attachments. Throughout my cycles, I’ve been at countless thank you parties for the corpses of others. Fashions change, as do regional customs, with all sorts of chants and rituals, but it always comes down to the same thing: bury or burn.

That said, I have seen some outliers: one got sent off on an ice flow, whilst another was burned, crushed then tossed in the river. And there was one group with a particular penchant for pointy brick edifices…

But I digress. Ergo, Lesson Five, if you get a say, burning offers the quickest escape. Burying isn’t that much slower but you have to get out before one of their embalmers pickles the exit routes.

Regardless, transition will take a lot of effort. So here’s the trick. Just before the carapace goes down, withdraw all your energy from the extremities and concentrate yourself into the core. Pull yourself together as the humans say.

Don’t science nerds do funny?

Yes, time is pressing. At last, you’re catching on. Okay, Lesson Six. If you remember nothing else, remember this. It’s easier if you behave like an imploding star. Push all your energy out with a concerted heave and the rebound will make the final contracture so much easier. Ironically, this surge fleetingly revitalises the host so they appear to rally just before snuffing it. This often gives a bit of false hope to their nearest and dearest but so what? It’s a mother of a process and we live in a throwaway society.

But then you’re out and, Lesson Seven, it’s time to start shopping around. Admittedly selection can be hard when all you have to go on is a ball of cells. That’s why some of us wait till they’re a bit more formed. Then at the very least you know whether it’s male or female. Gender can make a world of difference in what you have to put up with, believe me.

And be careful. Host development is a complex process and the massive rush of energy as we take up residence can send things awry. I’ve melted a few genes

across the ages, I can tell you. Too much enthusiasm and you’ll be looking for a new home before you’ve even got started.

But when all goes to plan and you’ve relocated, you can just sit back and enjoy it. The early days are my favourite, everything is so fresh and full and giving.

You might not remember it yet, but re-entry is a blast.

 

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Sheila Scott is part writer / part scientist, but most enjoys turning idle thoughts into narratives and illustrative doodles. Based in Glasgow and an MLitt graduate, she’s had work published in Causeway and Qmunicate, has an intermittently hyperactive Twitter account (@MAHenry20), and is currently working on a short story collection.

 

Image: Free-Photos via Pixabay

Kidnapped! – Anurag Bakhshi

I woke up to find that I could not see a thing.

No, I had not been blinded, not as yet anyways, but it was pitch dark, with just a tiny beam of light coming through a hole on the roof of the small box in which I was imprisoned.

I checked my hands and feet, thankfully, they were still free, but as for the rest of me, while I could move around, there wasn’t any place I could go to beyond the four walls of my claustrophobic prison.

Clearly, unequivocally, irrevocably, I was doomed!

And to think that just this morning, I had been fighting with my mother on what to have for breakfast, and beating up my brother for ratting on me. The latter is what had led to me ending up in this dark hole, come to think of it.

Our father had caught me hitting my idiot of a younger brother, and had grounded me on what seemed to be a brilliantly sunny Sunday. I grumbled, muttered, and protested vociferously, but he just refused to listen to my side of the story. I grudgingly went to my room and stood facing the wall, cursing the inequitable nature of this world, and of family dynamics!

But not for long.

I heard my father go out to get weekly provisions, and a neighbour come in to chit-chat with Mom, and I knew that this was my golden opportunity. I crawled slowly towards the main entrance, taking each step with utmost care so as to avoid making any sound whatsoever. Getting caught trying to escape punishment would only result in a harsher punishment, something which I was not too keen to experience.

After what seemed to be an eternity, I reached the main entrance of our house, and then…I was off, running as fast as my legs would carry me. And it was while running at that breakneck speed that I had bumped into him, the kidnapper. He saw me, and his eyes widened with excitement. He was much bigger than I am, and so, I could do nothing at all when he picked me up and dropped me in this prison, sliding the door shut as I slowly lost consciousness.

But now I had regained my senses, and knew that I was doomed, clearly, unequivocally, irrevocably.

But then, I thought of my poor mother wondering where I had disappeared, searching desperately for me, all the time blaming my father for having been the cause of this tragedy. And then I thought of my father, whose guilt would keep gnawing at him from inside till he became a shell of his former self. And then, finally, I thought of my younger brother, gloating on becoming the sole heir to the family fortune.

And this shifted something deep inside me. I was no longer reconciled to my fate, I would stand, and I would take it head-on!

I first tentatively checked the walls of my prison for any weak points, but there were none.

I did not get disheartened. I tried running and hitting the walls with the full force of my body, and it was then that I realized that the prison was not as solid as I had initially thought it to be. The ground, as well as the walls, had moved slightly when I hit the wall.

My chest swelled with hope then, for I knew what I had to do. I targeted the wall hitting which was leading to the most displacement, and started running and banging into it…again…and again…and again….till finally….the entire prison, just toppled over what seemed to be very high cliff.

I was scared out of my wits as I fell along with the prison, but the fear was combined with exhilaration, for even if I died in the process, I had succeeded in doing something to fight my captor and foil his plans.

The prison hit the ground with such great impact that the door slid open. I could see light now, after God knows how long. I jumped out of the prison, and ran with full strength towards my home. Strangely enough, the entrance to my home was not as far as I had thought it to be. Bit I did not spend too much time over it, and just slid in at great speed, panting heavily.

The first person I saw on reaching home was my brother, and for the first time in my life, I was so happy on seeing him that I hugged him. My parents looked at each other like I had finally gone completely crazy, but I didn’t care, I had just narrowly escaped death, or worse. I was home now, and I was never going to leave.

And in his room, 5-year old Sunny started bawling. His parents rushed in to see what had happened. His eyes full of tears, Sunny told them, “I had put a small cockroach in this matchbox to take him for our Summer Camp Show and Tell tomorrow. I had kept the matchbox on the table, but I just came back from the bathroom and saw that the matchbox was lying open on the floor, and the cockroach ran and went into that small hole in the wall. What am I going to tell Miss D’Souza?”

His mother looked at his father, and said, “How many times do I have to tell you to call someone and get that hole repaired? It seems as if an entire family of cockroaches lives down there!”

 

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Image: Steve Buissinne

 

Adagietto for String Section & Solo Harp – Steven John

Our limbs are numb with bed heat
rippled from storm-wrecked sheets
with the scent of animal, rut stained
wisps of matted hair, raked skin

We’re sex-shocked, faces hollow
coal-eyed, swallowed
and sweated, ferrets
slithering from the bloody burrow

Shattered plates on the carpet
collateral damage from the tango
that swept table space for body parts
which we ate like cannibals

Naked, febrile after the kill and kill
squeezing teabags on the sides of mugs
we infuse the moment
in short, hushed sentences

Under steaming water we swim
our hands in each other
then dress and grieve the covering
of addictive fruit.

We sit, your head in my lap
I scoop your tears in the crook of my finger
and drink them. You say you’re not crying
We listen to Mahler

and hear the darkness of passing cars.
Lights descend from the purple sky
we drive to the airport to watch planes
and whisper names of countries.

 

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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 including Riggwelter Press, Reflex Fiction and Fictive Dream. In December 2017 Steven won the inaugural Farnham Short Story Competition and has won Bath Ad Hoc fiction four times. 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: LunarSeaArt via Pixabay

Past Performance – Ian Critchley

Dennis promised he would come and see me. He just has to put the motorbike in for a service at the garage down the road, he said, and he’ll be right round. It’s what they call a while-you-wait service, and I told him he might as well wait here. I like to think this flat is just a bit more comfortable than the garage’s waiting area, or that café over the road that sells the burnt bangers and soggy mash. And I’d also like to think that I offer slightly better company than the greasy mechanics or that young woman at the café who never smiles.

I’ll put the kettle on when he gets here. I’d kill for a cup of tea right now, but these days it goes straight through me, so I’m trying to cut back. I should have got something special in for lunch, but I just have not had time to get to the supermarket and I don’t want to go now in case Dennis turns up and finds me not in.

Comestibles. That was the word I was trying to think of just now. It reminds me of that dreadful play I was in all those years ago when I only had one line and it was about going to buy some comestibles for supper. I told the director it sounded like nothing a human would ever say. It let down the whole script – to be honest, all the other lines did too, but I wasn’t responsible for those. And he said, ‘Look, dear, we’re only here for a week. Could we try and get through it with the minimum of fuss?’ Well, I was certainly not dear to him, nor him to me, and I decided right there and then that I would have to take the responsibility on my own shoulders. So I changed the line, just went ahead and did it during the next performance. Of course, the other actors took it in their stride, but the director! Goodness me, the blue language coming out of the red face!

*

Time for my exercises. It took a while, when I was younger, to get over the embarrassment of talking to myself in the mirror, but now I think nothing of it. Limber up the lips, inhale, exhale, enunciate the words. How now brown cow. How … now … brown … cow … Then move on to something more complicated. I like to soliloquise. You can’t let a day go by, you can’t let it slip, because the mouth is a muscle that needs to be kept in shape, and you never know when you are going to need it. It’s been a while since that audition for Gertrude, but you take rejection on the chin and move on. You never know when the next role is going to come. It could be today, it could be next week. But nobody could say that I’m not ready for it.

People still recognise me in the street. People are always coming up to me and saying, ‘Aren’t you Jessica Barnes?’ And they’re right, in a sense. I smile and tell them they’re thinking of my character from Carsley Avenue, and that my real name is Janice Stevens. I always make time to talk to them, sign an autograph, if that’s what they want. It’s understandable, of course, that they get confused. After all, I was on the television in their living rooms every weekday evening, seven-thirty till eight, for over ten years. I was part of their lives.

Dennis won’t call if he’s late. He hates using the phone. He’ll ring if it’s an emergency, I’m sure. Of course, if he’s at death’s door I couldn’t expect him to pick up the phone, could I. But I’m running away with myself. Nothing’s happened to him, he’s just got held up at the garage, probably, talking to the mechanics, sharing a joke, chewing the cud in the way men do when they’re discussing the things men discuss. I could ring him, of course, find out what he’s up to. But I won’t do that. I’ve never been the one to do the chasing and I’m not going to start now.

*

Carsley Avenue. I was the queen of that street for a decade. I packed more into that character in that time than most do in an entire life: I was married, had two children and three affairs, got divorced, married again, killed that husband (accidentally), lost one of the children in a car crash, was struck down with cancer and then recovered, nearly died trying to save a neighbour from drowning, went into business running a dress shop with a man who turned out to be a criminal and who stole all the takings, leaving me on my uppers and forcing me into the arms of the local heartthrob, Andy Stevenson, who used and abused me, beating me more than once to within an inch of my life, until I killed him (deliberately) and had to go through a traumatic court case before being acquitted, and they kept me going, how could they not when I was drawing in the audiences, they could not afford to write me out, people were thrilled and disgusted by me all at the same time, the men wanted me and the women wanted to be me, and then I got married again to a man who promised to help me put the past behind me, until he ran off with another woman and I said good riddance, it’s time for me to stand on my own two feet and come through all these tribulations smiling and ready to face the future, be a role model for women everywhere, women of a certain age (so they said), and they had this new idea for me, I was no longer to be at the mercy of all the men in the Avenue, I would take a vow of chastity, and this was their big idea to shake things up, although I thought it wouldn’t really work, and said so, but they wouldn’t listen, would they, these people just carry on regardless, and lo and behold men no longer wanted me and women no longer wanted to be me, it’s sex that sells, I said, as things got a little heated behind the scenes, nobody wants an ice queen, and they said they would think about it, and they did, and that was when they decided my time was up.

I still exist, of course, in that otherworld of departed characters – those that aren’t killed off, that is. They spared me. They didn’t run me over, or shoot me, or strangle me, or make me fall off a cliff. No, they did the next best thing: packed me off to Scotland, where all the characters they don’t manage to murder seem to end up. I mentioned to my agent a while back that they should do a spin-off set in the Highlands, seeing as so many of the characters are supposed to be living there. He said he’d take it up with the producers, but I should have known. I should have learnt by now that they don’t like innovation.

I’m mentioned now and then, on the programme. I have a daughter, Sam, who is still on the show, and of course from time to time she mentions me. She refers to me as ‘Mum’, and when she does that, a little shiver goes down my spine and I can’t help smiling.

A couple of weeks ago it got really exciting. Sam’s boyfriend proposed to her, and she said yes! Naturally I was thrilled. She rang to tell me the news, although of course it wasn’t really me on the other end of the line, she was just talking into the ether (a difficult piece of acting, but she pulled it off wonderfully). She expressed the hope that I would be able to come down for the wedding. Well of course I would! I could be there like a shot! You know what mothers are like with weddings.

So of course I was straight on the phone to my agent. I thought it best for us to contact the producers rather than wait for them to get in touch with us. We could negotiate a special deal, I told him. I’m not asking for much. I’m not looking to come back full time, although if they did offer that, I’d consider it, of course. No, all I’m asking for is a couple of episodes, just to cover the wedding, just to keep the show a bit more realistic. Wouldn’t it look silly if the bride’s mother didn’t attend the wedding?

*

I’ll make tea anyway. I’ll have mine now. One cup won’t kill me. I can always make a fresh pot when Dennis arrives, and I don’t have to drink any of that. I’ll grab something to eat now too, just a little snack. I’ll have to make do with what I’ve got: there’s some cheese and bread, and those little tomatoes. When Dennis comes maybe we can even go out.

The bank statement sits on the kitchen table and I try not to look at it. I’m not a rich woman. People think I am because they have this vision of television stars, but really they’d only have to come and look at this place to know the reality of it. How can I ask Dennis to move in here when there’s barely enough room for me? I did expect more from Carsley Avenue, I must admit, and I did say to my agent many times that we should renegotiate the contract. But he was always reluctant, saying it did not do to antagonise the bosses. Nobody’s bigger than the show, he said. Not even me.

And it didn’t help, of course, that what little money I did manage to save got swallowed up by the stock market crash. Stick with it, the advisor said. Things can only get better. It can’t go much lower – it’ll plateau and rise back up. The losses are fictional, he said. They exist only on paper until you cash everything in. But the losses seemed pretty real to me, and I said to him, how could this happen? You were all for me investing my hard-earned cash, telling me that it would grow by ten per cent and keep on growing, that the stock market was on an eternal upward swing. And he just said, read the small print. You should always read the small print: Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

*

Certain times of the day hold what I call a special resonance. I used to laugh at my mother because her day was so regimented – breakfast at eight, lunch at one, dinner at six – and how upset she was if those times could not be met. But I can see now, all these years later, the value of knowing where you are in the day, of honouring the daily rituals. Sometimes it seems as if they are the only fixed points, the only way to stop life slipping through your hands.

So, the time for tea has passed. The day is getting on, and I can allow myself the first sip. It’s been hard, all this hanging about. A G&T to begin with, I think – the old Sin and Chronic. I’ll let that bottle of wine breathe too. We all need to breathe, after all. When it comes to evening time we all need to undo a few buttons and relax.

Almost seven-thirty, almost time for Carsley Avenue. If Dennis comes now, we can watch it together. It’s always good to have company when it’s on.

*

That trip we took to Stonehenge, Dennis and I, weaving out of London on his motorbike, me gripping on to him, afraid that if I let go I would fall. But how exhilarating it felt!

In those days there were no barriers, no restrictions. You could go right up to the stones and touch them. I had been reading Tess, and wanted to recreate the scene from the end of the book where she lies down on an altar stone. I told Dennis he could be my Angel Clare. He gave me that pursed-lips look he always did when he had no idea what I was talking about.

Afterwards, at the pub, we sat at one of the outside tables and I tried not to make a big fuss about the wasps that seemed to want to get into my ears. And we talked about our plans – how we would set up our own troupe and tour the world. We’d be the Romeo and Juliet for our generation. We’d be known as the glamour couple, he said: bigger than Burton and Taylor, better than Bogart and Bacall. We’d play to packed houses and the applause would be deafening. He raised his pint to my glass and said, To us! To success!

The ringing sound makes me jump. For a moment, I think it’s the phone, but it’s not – it’s the alarm on the clock. Seven-thirty.

*

I felt a pain just then, in the ribs, right under my heart. A touch of indigestion, probably. I’ll take a couple of those pills that always seem to do some good.

There’s no doubt that what’s happened to Sam is a worry. To fall out with your fiancé like that is really a cause for concern. But it was a silly argument, over nothing really, and I’m sure it will all blow over, given time. Everybody loves this kind of twist. They want people to go through hell before emerging the other side. It’s what’s called catharsis. You learn so much about yourself. They’ll kiss and make up. It’s nothing to worry about. After all, everybody loves a wedding. It’s a ratings winner.

I’ll sit for a moment, get my breath. Then I’ll run a bath. I’ll scour off all this make-up, start the wind-down. I’ve still got those oils Dennis gave me for my birthday. He told me I should pamper myself more often, perhaps because he knows he’s not around all that much to pamper me himself.

I can bring my phone in here, the wine too, put them on the side there.

Oh, but I felt for Sam, I really did. All those tears. It’s times like these she needs her mother most.

*

I like my baths to be hot. I’ve always been one for the heat – holidays in Morocco and Egypt and Mexico, the hotter the better. It’s never warm enough in the flat, not since I had to turn the thermostat down, and a nice hot bath helps to keep the cold away at night.

My body is not what it was, of course. I can see that. It’s looser, saggier. The wrinkles are multiplying, and not only because of the bath. Soon I’ll be nothing but wrinkles. A big, jumbly, creased old bag. Once upon a time I auditioned for Ophelia. Now I audition for Gertrude. That’s just the way it is. I will embrace old age, though. I will embrace it. It will not defeat me.

After the bath, wrapped up in my dressing gown, I wander back into the living room and look at the framed photos on the sideboard. There’s Dennis, pride of place in the middle. It’s my favourite one of him. He looks so young in it, his hair down to his collar, which was very much the fashion in those days.

I pick it up and as I do so the frame comes apart and out slips a piece of folded newspaper.

I hear a clattering and see that the photo and the frame are on the floor. I’m holding the piece of newspaper. I stare at it. It’s fragile: yellowed and torn slightly along the sharp folds.

I do not know if I have seen it before.

I do not want to open it, but know that I must.

I smooth out the creases and force myself to read, and as I do so my eyes start to blur. I wipe the tears away and try to carry on. The article outlines his roles, his successes – the prime of him. They always seek to whitewash things. It’s rare that they would speak ill of anyone in such a piece. But I know there was so much more to him, so much more to tell. For one thing, it does not mention me, the times we shared. Only I know those things now.

I refold the newspaper and put it back where I found it, hidden away behind the photograph.

He promised he would come and see me. He was on his way to see me when it happened. He will always be on his way to see me.

*

It’s not yet nine o’clock, but I might as well turn in. I’ve never been a deep sleeper. The slightest noise wakes me, the merest chink of light through the curtains or under the door leaves me wide-eyed. And that’s when all the thoughts crowd in.

I’ll set my alarm for early. Plenty to do tomorrow. It would be a crime to laze around in bed. I am not slothful. I will not grow fat and lazy. Tomorrow I will practise my soliloquies. I will not drink. Tomorrow I will look after myself, just in case.

I’ll switch off now.

Goodnight, Janice.

Goodnight, Jessica.

Goodnight, sweet ladies.

Goodnight. Goodnight.

 

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Ian Critchley is a freelance editor and journalist. His fiction has been published in several journals and anthologies, including Staple and Neonlit: The Time Out Book of New Writing, Volume 2, and his journalism has appeared in the Sunday Times, Times Literary Supplement, Literary Review and Daily Telegraph.
Twitter: @iancritchley4
Website: iancritchley.wordpress.com

 

Image: Ron Porter

 

 

Let me know when you get to the twist – Eilise Norris

She lied once to the police; added a crucial two years. The twist is it was unrelated to what came next. The twist is age is about perception, except when it comes to voting or drinking or driving or sex. The twist is he had been perceiving her for more than eleven months.

The twist is her lie permeated each later statement, became a pattern the way one short skirt becomes a uniform, stank like a dead mouse under the floorboards. And she had learned how it felt to be compressed, hands to wrists, love climbing all over her. The twist is police came to his house for some other purpose and it damned her.

The twist is he was her escape from a house where the walls squared her shoulders and she grew listless, cankered; where the windows exploded around her. She told you his name but never how they met. The twist is adolescence begged her, shook her, desperate not to go backwards, and so she fought for the sinkhole in which she stood.

The twist is, afterwards, they made her his protector: the doubt in her shrouding him, and her words no longer her words. The twist is he is still the reason for locked doors.

The grass under the car does not grow back, but she does. She turns golden through that Indian summer, after so many weeks inside. You ask how she is sleeping and she says, fine. The final twist is not an ending; it is the appointment she makes without you knowing. And as you both walk over the late autumn mulch, your talking soft and everyday, she tells you about the chlamydia kind of carelessly. Her laugh afterwards is twisted.

 

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Eilise Norris writes short stories, flash fiction and poetry, but normally not all at once. She lives in Oxfordshire and tweets from @eilisecnorris.

 

Image via pxhere

Coyote – Ron. Lavalette

Coyote only comes to town once or maybe twice during the tundra months, dragging his game leg and leaving an odd print in the deep snow down by the place where the gray silent river turns toward the north. He’s tired of the hard-won slim pickings starvation diet he scratches out from under the hard-packed snow cover. He’s fed up with putting out a full day’s labor for a three-minute reward.

This time when Coyote comes to town he’s looking for a little something extra; something a cold and half-starved beast can take his time sinking his teeth into. He’ll be out there, relaxed and happy, well-dressed, late at night, smiling and coaxing some sweet piece of easy prey into his waiting snare. Few can resist him or, once he turns on the charm, even want to.

Back in the forest, Coyote always had to take whatever he needed by force. There was neither time nor need for either stealth or finesse. Survival suffered no flourish, no filigree. But here, under the protective eaves of balsam and hemlock, inside the sheltering windbreak of the common town, Coyote could afford the luxury of laying-in-wait, the methodical stalk before the inevitable pounce.

It was weeks before the corpses began to accumulate; weeks before his grisly handiwork became apparent; before the bloodstained snowdrifts, driven by wind, gave up their horrible secrets.

There was massive carnage before anyone even knew that Coyote had come to town.

 

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Ron. Lavalette lives in Vermont. His work has appeared extensively in journals, reviews, and anthologies ranging alphabetically from Able Muse and the Anthology of New England Poets through the World Haiku Review and Your One Phone Call. A reasonable sample of his published work can be viewed at EGGS OVER TOKYO: eggsovertokyo.blogspot.ie

 

Image: Ray Hennessy on Unsplash

I’m A Dyslexic Alchemist – Bridgett Kendall

Dizzy fingers. Key locking horns with keyhole. I’m buzzing. I’m bungling. The door swings open and there stands Josh.

‘Hey man.’ My first cock-a-doodle-doo.

‘I smashed it.’

‘No shit.’ High five. He was impressed. I could see.

‘No shit’. He grins and passes.

The dazzle from the bare bulb lighting the hallway made my eyes fizzle. A snapshot of a face like unearthly white porcelain flashed on the white wall. My euphoria was sucked out like gurgling the last few delicious chocolate milkshake drops with a straw. No more milkshake. That man with that face had seriously fucked me up. Dashed my hopes of becoming a medic. Such ages ago that I’d buried him deep. Deep man. And today that same bumbaclut had been next to me right through the recording. Man. Freaking shit.

I was frozen in the hallway. A storyboard of his actions played out frame by frame. His cooking station paraphernalia was pistachio green. Marzipan. Served in a dark chocolate coating it’s the best. So inappropriate for a jerk. Utensils placed parallel. Weird dish things with tiny concave centres for the food. Measly portions. Perfectly executed curlicues. Straight lines and silence. Smoothness and symmetry. We’d bumped at the spice shelves. I blustered, ‘Sorry.’ Not a blip from him. That was all. I shoved him away from my thoughts. Kicked him under the prep bench. My own cooking filled my heart, my head, my hands, my eyes, my nose. That’s what had to be.

I slammed my fist on the first door on the left. Mrs P.’s place. She was my side-kick: taster, critic, adviser. When she appeared, she frowned.

‘I’m not deaf. Didn’t you get through?’ She grabbed my arm and pulled me in. She is five foot, old and skinny. I am six foot, young and, right then, jelly. I babbled. She said, ‘I didn’t quite catch that dear. I’ll make a cup of tea. Never mind. We – you – got to the semis didn’t we?’ I sat down in one of the stiff armchairs which were packed with straw stuff which scratched and poked and bit. On the telly a paused and muted Rick Stein was monumental on a harbour holding up a fish. I won! The fish lost. That’ll be Gozzer dangling me after the finals, a rancid smirk cracking the porcelain.

The no-frills flats were built for single people. Mine remains sparse, except for the kitchen. Mrs P.’s living-room was over-crowded and could always make me feel as warm as precious memories. I breathed in the fustiness like it was a premier cru.

The furniture, bulky and sombre, deserves high ceilings and cornices, but this token room is impotent to oust the hidden stories which are curled up inside. There are framed family portraits all over, and knick-knacks and momentos cover the surfaces empty of photos. Mrs P. has no living family. We see each other a lot. Mostly we talk cooking.

She came back.

‘The judges must need their heads seeing to.’

‘No, I got through to the finals. But so did Eric.’

‘Oh well done dear. I knew you would. Who’s Eric?’

‘Gozzer. My old chemistry teacher. I just realised. In the hall.’

‘He’s in the hall? How nice!’

‘No, not here and not nice.’

‘What a funny name, Gozzer.’

‘Mr Goss. He spat. He hated me. I hate him.’ Mrs P’s features contracted into a frown.

‘He spat at you?’

‘No, not today. In the classroom.’

‘Good.’ She didn’t pause for breath. ‘Did Raymond Lenoir speak to you?’

‘He’d not heard of cho-cho.’ Mrs P. smiled.

‘Fancy that. What did they say to you after?’

‘Maria Fornaro said my West Indian veggie meal was inspired. Only that the orange nudged the cinnamon a bit in the baby cucumber dish. Overall, distinctive tastes, exciting textures.’

‘Did everything go as planned?’

‘No mistakes, no crises. A crackerjack of a mango cake. So now, bring on the final.’ I gave Mrs P. a wallop of a kiss. She laughed.

‘I’m so pleased dear. We need cake.’

I was on my own. I craned my neck at a photo on the side table. Must be a hundred years ago. Stiff-under-the-chin collar and goatee beard. Got it! A goatee beard! Gozzer’s new veneer. Sharp as a chef knife. Hair like a tailored oil-slick and iron grey. Pointed nose and bleached blue indifferent eyes: same as ever. My goose pimples were like those I experienced on a daily basis over ten years ago.

The gravitational force of his never to be forgotten delivery was inescapable. Soft voice, slow delivery, flat, dreadful.

‘When any reptile in this room infringes a rule, he or she will pay for it. Dearly. Note: I say “when”, not “if”.’ The sound was bleak like the stillness of the iced over arctic sea. The only movement came from his lips. When he spoke they quite naturally curled into a gift of a snarl. No kidding. The eyes, motionless, looked at nothing. Nothing slunk away.

First homework: ‘1. Memorise my rules.’ (Notable for their idiosyncrasy: HB pencils; diagrams with parallel and vertically aligned labels, lower-case letters, printed; ironed lab coats.) ‘2. THE PERIODIC TABLE.’ (Number one reference and complete intimacy thereof.) From tomorrow.

Tomorrow I, Ambrose, mutated into number one victim.

Dyslexia to Gozzer was posh for useless. Grasp of ideas and virtuoso lab skills worth zero. Ergo – a jack-knifed medical career.

‘Ambrose, you have the brain of a slug.’

‘Ambrose, a stick insect writes better than you.’ Animal metaphors a speciality.
You bet I believed I was a woodlouse. My parents’ verdict: ‘People like us don’t go to university.’

When Mrs P. brought in the cake, molten rock was bubbling red-hot in my stomach. I’d had dreams. Gozzer’s acid had digested them. My new dream, Dishes From Your Heart – I had touched it, grasped it, almost hugged it. Now he’s dumped on me again. I saw my new dream drifting away, trapped in a bubble, too hot to touch.

I watched Mrs P. rise with the lightness of airy dough, and haul it back in.

‘My dear Wynton Ambrose, get your own back.’ My laugh was as brittle as tumbleweed.

‘You’ve got the opportunity. Use it. Put plaster dust in his flour, salt crystals in the sugar. I remember a time way back when everybody was petrified to eat oranges because it was on the news that some were injected with mercury. Deliberately.’

‘Mrs P!’

‘Blunt his knives. Do something.’

‘People, cameras – all over. Impossible.’

‘Beat him. Go. Prepare.’ She opened her door. I didn’t get up. Her threatening cloudy eyes forced her forehead wrinkles up into her hairline.

‘Okay, okay. I’m going.’

Up in my flat I fell on my bed. I woke next day in time to get to work. Supermarket manager. Quite an achievement for a student with straight A’s. Not. More than enough to have studied medicine. But Gozzer had minced my dreams and spat them onto the floor.
It’s a dreary supermarket in a dreary London suburb. My parents are proud. They boast to anyone who’ll listen.

I sneaked past Mrs P.’s door on the way back from work. She’d quiz me. She scared me. What had I planned? Could she help? Upstairs, I read the Dishes From Your Heart final spec. ‘Celebration Dinner for a Golden Wedding Couple. Cook for two. You will serve your themed menu to a couple who are commemorating fifty years together.’ I had no ideas. I was a woodlouse with no ambition, a slug with no trail. I was a reptile who snapped his teeth shut, always missing his prey.

‘Mrs P.’ She waved a notebook and a flask of black tea. Taste buds stirred. My starter motor coughed.

‘Gold, yellow.’ Flashes of squash and apricots. ‘Not too adventurous, not too spicy, light.’ Sure thing. Mrs P. joined in.

‘Special, different.’ Goes without saying. ‘Jaded taste buds, digestion, teeth.’

‘Eh?’

‘They’ll be my age, thereabouts.’ She rattled her teeth. Got you.

‘Now a time-table.’ Mrs P. had a unique gift. With her sane briskness she motivated this wrung-out woodlouse to plan its winning meal.

‘There’s six days.’

I couldn’t let my friend down. Mr and Mrs P. just missed out on their golden wedding. I knew that already. This would be for them. The competition faded. I’d make the full menu on Friday night, and we’d celebrate together. Mrs P. was golden. I’d treat her; do all the planning, develop the dishes, test, taste, tweak. Just me. If the meal got past Mrs P. unscathed, then I’d bust a groove.

I think: not enough time. I think more: man, get on with it. I buy, I fiddle, I cook, I fail, I spit. What’s Gozzer doing? Forget him. Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter. I practise and go to work. I don’t sleep. Gozzer doesn’t need sleep I’m sure. I forget to order stock, I forget an area meeting, I get caught by speed cameras. The menu’s coming together. I look in the mirror. When did I last shave? Gozzer and the mirror must be married to each other. I invent. I stick post-it notes everywhere. I make up mnemonics, I write ‘stuff it!’ and scribble ingredient names with coloured felt tips. I can memorise. Gozzer, I can memorise! Periodic table – zero bother. A pushover.

What if I could give Mrs P. the best meal ever, win the competition, and stuff Gozzer up? A complete meltdown was the best I could hope for. A long shot though. Too much and I’ll be thrown out. I’ll be happy to rattle him. I’m zinging and wired to go.

Friday night and Mrs P. joins me. She’s dressed up and brings me flowers. I give her a golden rose. I serve, we eat and chat. We drink champagne. We talk about Mr P. As we sip saffron tea to ease our digestion, she says,

‘Nice one Wynton. You’ve really smashed it. I believe that’s how you’d put it.’ Mrs P. knew how to make me smile. ‘Now, you’re not going to let Gozzer whatever-his-name-is spoil it, are you?’

‘Not at all Mrs. P. You bet I won’t.’ Before I went to bed in the small hours I gathered up all the post-it notes and stowed them in a small box. I took the box with me in the taxi next morning. While I was driven through the London suburbs to the studio, I went through all my memos, muttering, repeating, swearing under my breath.

At the studios my body felt like a Formula One car before a race. A team of experts co-ordinated their allotted jobs at top speed until I was powdered, fine-tuned and revving. This was my time and I was going to grab it. Please let Gozzer be put next to me. I deserve that much luck, don’t I?

And he was, and we were off. First, get the lemon and mint sorbet into the freezer, and let fortune burst forth. We met at the spices and herbs. I pictured a post-it note on my toilet cistern. My voice was the clearest whisper ever.

‘Dysprosium, Holmium, Erbium; 113, 114, 115; Damn You, Horrible Eric.’ He didn’t speak, but I heard a sort of strangled gasp. We carried on our prep. Was he concentrating, or – or – what? I sneaked a peek. Make the flatbread dough and don’t lose your nerve Wynton. At the warming drawer he joined me. I didn’t want him to think he’d imagined it.

‘Iron, Cobalt, Nickel; 26, 27, 28; Feel Confident Ninny?’

‘Stop….it.’ No more than a hiss. I’d turned back to my station. I’d give it a rest for a while, let him think that was it. I spotted him separating egg whites from the yolks, and mixing them all up. He chucked the whole lot away. I did a secret fist bump with myself.
Next. What next? Don’t let him get to you. A minor victory, that’s all. You’ll get behind schedule, so gather up the ingredients for the orange almond syrup cake, the golden crown for your anniversary couple. They must glow in the jewels of Morocco.

I pictured crystals of sugar raining down on eggs and yellow butter. Selenium 34 Semolina; Aluminium 13 Almonds; Francium 87 Flour. It was working!

Several times more I was able to unsettle him. I heard some china shatter. I saw him wipe his forehead. What if he called someone over? That was my dread, and it was likely. Who wouldn’t complain that someone was trying to unnerve them? I was prepared for this and would take away my failure with a large helping of triumph. I could laugh right in his face. But he’d never admit weakness. Of course!

He was turning into a bull terrier. Growling and holding tight. There was one more opportunity. I loved this one.

‘Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen, Fluorine; 6, 7, 8, 9; Crazy – Noxious – Old – Fart.’ If only I’d had post-it notes back then.

My couple were lovely and appreciative.

‘So full of colour.’ The judges seemed impressed.

‘Subtle spices, fruity, and excellent balance.’ The other couples were celebrating in separate spaces, and I’d no idea what was going on there.

Gozzer and I went back to our cooking stations to clear up. Surely he’d say something now. I was wary and skirted well round him. We were called together and I stood at one end of the line of the four of us finalists. He was at the other end. The two contestants in the middle chatted away. The longer the wait the more I wanted to get home. I realised my head hadn’t seen this far.

The judges came in looking fresh and knowing. They talked to each of us, starting with me. Several times they stopped, for technical reasons or a need to huddle together for a council of war, or so it seemed.

Then, we were all winners apparently. Did it matter who was the Heart Of Our Kitchen? Not to me, not anymore. For the record, it was Deirdre. Look out for her. She may earn a Michelin Star in a few years.

On our way out Gozzer and I found ourselves together in the revolving doors.

‘Ambrose.’ He paused to look me up and down. ‘I once told you you had the brain of a slug. I was right.’ With the sole of his shoe he screwed me into the ground. I withstood him. I didn’t ooze over the floor like he wanted.
‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘You’ve given me enjoyment and hope.’I walked into the street, tried to look simultaneously triumphant and casual, rounded a corner and skipped.
I met Josh coming out of our building as I was going in.

‘Well?’ he asked.

‘I’m a winner,’ and I felt the stupidest grin grab hold of my face.

‘Respect,’ he said.

I slammed my fist on the first door on the left. Mrs P, I still need you. We must chew over what I should do next. With cake of course.

I swung her tiny figure into my arms and spun her round the room, singing my new song,

‘I’m a Dyslexic Alchemist.
I stir and beat and mix.
I cannot spell zirconium
but I’m a wizard with my tricks.’ I was careful not to knock over her memories.

 

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Bio: Having retired from music teaching Bridgett Kendall came to writing late. Successes: shortlisted in the Fish Short Story contest 2015, the Fish Short Memoir contest 2015, the Doolin Short Story Contest 2016, and the Writers’s Forum contest 2017. She lives in Burgundy where distractions are often limited to cows.

 

Image: IvanPais via Pixabay

Water Rooms – Christina Murphy

Bright water rooms
of sleepy encounters
as ballads hidden in grasses
wonder and wait

Moving water as shadows
in love with morning light;
so far away, so close to perfection
within the celestial masterpiece

Voices speak with certainty
in the gardens where sunlight
is the wafer and the grail and
peace floats like a mist above the trees

As the wind dies down and all is still,
the river and the moon learn to pray
in mountains bright enough to hide the sun
in the timeless core of the visible world

 

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Christina Murphy’s poems appear in a range of journals and anthologies, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net Anthology.

 

Image: Johannes Plenio

Krasner – Alan Swyer

Looking back, Krasner blamed the husband. Being stuck next to Goldsmith as one of a group of four men invited to a Saturday Dodger game meant three hours of hearing him pontificate about baseball, politics, books, and restaurants, then rant about traffic, kids, and most of all what he called his pain-in-the-ass wife.

Worse, each time Krasner voiced even the slightest disagreement, Goldsmith bristled. Initially the older man’s responses were simply patronizing, as when Krasner was told, “You’re young. You’ll learn,” or, “I, too, was once naive.” By the fifth inning, due to an excess of sun and beer, Goldsmith’s condescension had morphed into belligerence. “You don’t know shit!” he exclaimed when Krasner countered that Ray Charles was far more important than Neil Young, and that the late Bobby “Blue” Bland, even with laryngitis, would have out-sung Michael McDonald, David Bowie, or Harry Connick Jr.

Krasner knew full well that he could have, and perhaps should have, lightened up rather than goading a guy with a desperate need to be the ultimate authority. But due to an aversion to the loudmouths, taking the high road was not an option.

When, during the bottom of the sixth inning, the bombastic one dismissed millennials as know-nothings too goddamn lazy to think and Too self-absorbed to care about anything but their own dicks, Krasner shook his head. “What the fuck does that mean?” Goldsmith promptly demanded.

“You calling ’em self-absorbed is funny,” Krasner responded.

“Why’s that?”

“Because all you talk about is you, you, you.”

Goldsmith glared, then began to pout, granting Krasner much appreciated time to focus on the ballgame.

The respite, however, came to an abrupt halt at the top of the eighth inning when Goldsmith leaned Krasner’s way. “You probably like French films,” he snarled.

“Love ’em.”

“That figures.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“A guy who’s nothing but a school teacher.”

“What’s that say about your wife, who also happens to teach?”

“Another fucking know-it-all!”

 

All too aware that the private high school where he taught was Gossip Central, Krasner had, with the exception of one frenzied hook-up with an art teacher after her birthday party, avoided entanglements with faculty, staff, parents, and students. Therefore, he was far from happy when Steffi Goldsmith approached him while he was munching a burrito outdoors at lunchtime the following Monday.

“I owe you an apology,” she said.

“For?”

“My overbearing and far too full-of-himself husband. Was it excruciating?”

“My root canal was worse.”

“Not that it’s likely any interest to you, but now you know what I live with.” When Krasner failed to respond, Steffi seemed perplexed. “No comment?” Seeing Krasner shrug, she pushed further. “What’s that mean?”

“You chose him.”

“Thanks for reminding me. Got time one of these days for an off-campus lunch? Or better yet, a glass of wine after school?”

“To do what?”

“If I had the guts I’d say to run away to Paris, but actually for help. I’m finally finishing my Master’s at UCLA, and I’d love to pick your brain about the French New Wave.”

Krasner nodded, then was about to dive back into his burrito when Steffi wandered off with a smile. But another interruption came in the form of the school’s basketball coach. “Careful,” Jamal Stokely said as he neared.

“Of?”

“What’s the easiest way to sleep with a married woman?”

“I give up.”

“Listen to her, ’cause ten-to-one the husband doesn’t. Lend an ear, show some sympathy, and suddenly you’re the nicest, most sensitive guy in the world. Then they can’t wait to say thanks.”

 

At a wine bar after school the next day, with a bottle of Rose de Provence in front of them, Steffi Goldsmith faced Krasner. “For my thesis,” she said, “I’m trying to show that after World War II, youth-inspired cultural revolutions sprung up across the globe. The Beats in this country. The Angry Young Men in British theater. Am I right in assuming that La Nouvelle Vague constitutes yet another?”

“They were certainly young and outsiders. Godard was Swiss, Truffaut had a troubled childhood, Agnes Varda a woman when directors were almost exclusively male. Chabrol, Demy, Resnais, and Rohmer, thanks to Les Cahiers du Cinema, were fledgling critics. They were rebelling not just against the reigning culture, but even more against the proper and pretentious films produced in France at the time.”

While explaining how their quest to make a different kind of film was facilitated by new, lighter, and cheaper cameras, plus cinematographers like Raul Coutard who came from newsreels and could shoot hand-held with available light, Krasner found his wine glass being refilled, then topped off again.

As the two of them finished the bottle, Steffi smiled. “That was really helpful,” she said. “Okay if I ask a personal question?”

“Sure.”

“Were you worried the older woman might proposition you?”

“C’mon –”

“An awkward attempt at seduction never crossed your mind?”

“Well –”

Steffi reached over and took Krasner’s hand. “I have a little office that’s very cozy.”

 

Once, twice, three times Krasner nearly bolted as his dented Volvo followed Steffi’s Range Rover through Santa Monica into Pacific Palisades, where they parked on a street north of Sunset.

Getting out of his car, Krasner again came close to fleeing, then yielded when Steffi took his hand. Moments later, in her office above a dress shop and a French cafe, she was unbuttoning his shirt.

“First a ground rule,” said Steffi as she unbuckled his belt. “I’ve got too much equity for this to be anything more than sex. Clear?”

Krasner nodded as she unzipped his fly. But while removing his boxers, Steffi started to giggle.

“What?” asked Krasner, immediately self-conscious.

“A terrible joke. Ready?” Krasner nodded. “Why,” asked Steffi, “is a blow job like Eggs Benedict?”

“I give up.”

“They’re two things no Jewish guy ever gets at home.” Steffi laughed, as did Krasner, then she feigned seriousness. “Fortunately for you,” she stated melodramatically, “we’re not at home.”

 

While spooning on the sofa twenty minutes afterward, Steffi broke the silence with a question. “Weird for you to be lying here with someone old enough to be your mother?”

“C’mon –”

“How old are you?”

“Almost twenty-five. You?”

“Almost forty.”

“Which means too young to be my mother.”

“Unless I was precocious.”

“And a child bride.”

“So tell me the truth,” said Steffi. “Was this payback?”

“For?”

“My husband for being a dick.”

“No.”

“But it was a factor, right?”

“Let’s not go there.”

“Thank you for ducking. But now that you’ve gotten back at him, what are the chances of seeing you again?”

“Excellent.”

“When?”

“You tell me.”

“Tomorrow.”

 

The next afternoon, cuddling on her office sofa after another torrid bout, Steffi eyed Krasner. “So why are you teaching?”

“Because I’m too tall to be a jockey and too short to play in the NBA.”

“Seriously. Is it what you set out to do?”

“I’m trying to write scripts.”

“And here I am, stealing your free time. Do you like it? Teaching, I mean.”

“I like teaching and writing. How about you? Since it sounds like your husband does well, how come you’re teaching?”

“First, my husband doesn’t do well – he does exceedingly well. But as to why I teach, it’s something I started doing when he was in law school and we needed the bucks. More importantly, it gives me an identity of my own. But so that you know, I, too, do some writing.”

“Screenplays?”

“Short stories mainly. And a novel for which I’ve got to find a publisher. Plus a play I’ve been fiddling with for far too long. But know what’s the fringe benefit?”

“Tell me.”

“This place, which now serves another purpose besides writing.”

 

Because in most of his previous relationships Krasner was constantly, and often relentlessly, the one who suggested, urged, begged, and pleaded for what one girlfriend termed hanky-panky, and another called mischief, he found it surprising, not to mention pleasing, to have Steffi take the initiative.

And take it she did, day after day until Krasner found himself with almost no free time, especially when she began texting him for additional get-togethers on Saturdays, plus quickies on Sunday afternoons.

Even more embarrassing were the presents she started bringing. First was a watch, which he never felt comfortable wearing. Then a cashmere sweater, which he promptly said was too much. Next a Ray Charles box set, then a signed photo of Mose Allison.

When Krasner began to beg off occasionally, then asked for a brief hiatus, not because of diminished interest or an absence of ardor, but simply to have time to shoot hoops, ride his bike, and maybe even figure out what would be his next screenplay, the number of calls and texts from Steffi doubled, then tripled, as did the frequency with which she popped by his classroom to say hello during school hours.

“Am I getting too needy?” Steffi asked one Tuesday while the two of them were lying naked on her office sofa.

“Which one of us talked about having too much equity?”

“That was before we… umm… started. And besides –”

“Yeah?”

“I thought you’d be flattered.”

“I am.”

“But?”

“Occasionally I need some breathing room.”

Steffi darkened. “You’re seeing someone.”

“Not really.”

“Not really? Or no?”

“No.”

“Honest?”

“Honest.”

“Not that you wouldn’t be entitled –”

“But?”

“I’m being silly, aren’t I?” asked Steffi. “I go home every evening to my husband, yet I’m expecting you to be monogamous. Forgive me?”

“Sure.”

Pleased, Steffi kissed him.

 

A month after getting a script to an agent through a guy he knew from a Saturday morning basketball game, Krasner was surprised by a request for a meeting. Girding himself for disappointment, he drove to the agent’s office at the designated time. Then, after waiting impatiently for what felt like three weeks but was in truth thirty-five minutes, he was granted an audience that was over and done with in record time.

Trying everything imaginable to keep from screaming, Krasner strode toward the exit, only to be intercepted by the agent’s assistant. “Unsatisfying?” she whispered.

“Unconscionable, unacceptable, and downright shitty!”

“Wait for me out front in five minutes.”

Three minutes later, Krasner was joined on the street. “What exactly did numb nuts say?” the assistant asked.

“Numb nuts?”

“Prefer His Royal Majesty?”

“He said the writing was wonderful, but the subject matter not commercial.”

“Which means he’d rather have writing that sucks as long as there’s a High Concept? Know what’s rich?”

“Tell me.”

“I read it, not him. I’m Ginnie by the way.”

“Ted.”

“Just like on the script. So what else did the birdbrain say?”

“To call if I come up with something saleable.”

“What if I tell you the script’s terrific?”

“Not in the eyes of agents.”

“Want to bet?”

“You heard what he said.”

“Look, I’ve got a friend who works for a woman I think would get – and really go for – your script. Can I send it?”

“Only if you like Chinese, Thai, or Ethiopian food.”

“Why?”

“Because at risk of getting rejected a second time this afternoon, I’d like to buy you dinner.”

 

Aside from having what Krasner playfully deemed to be impeccable taste in screenplays, plus being bubbly and blessed with freckles that he found adorable, Ginnie proved to be a perfect dinner companion thanks to her affection for many things Krasner adored. What started with a meal in Thai Town led to evenings in Middle Eastern, Chinese, and Ethiopian joints.

Table talk ranged far and wide, revealing shared fondness for films by Claude Sautet and Savage Steve Holland, books such as Pynchon’s “The Crying Of Lot 49” and Chad Harbach’s “The Art Of Fielding,” songs by Slim Harpo and Amy Winehouse, plus a taste for vintage Stan Freberg commercials and silly “Baywatch” reruns.

During their very first meal together, Ginnie brought up business only once by asking a pointed question as they finished their main course. “Got something else in the works?” she asked. “Something dickhead might call commercial?”

“Guess I don’t have the imagination to come up with a girls- or boys-raunchy-night-out, a post-apocalyptic, or a super-hero movie. Seems I can only deal with stuff that in some way or other happened to me.”

“Which is why I liked your script about growing up white in a black neighborhood. It’s the first one I’ve read in ages that seemed derived from life rather than from other movies.”

“Thanks.”

“So what’s your next one about?”

“Once I know, I’ll tell you.”

“Stuck?”

“More like distracted.”

 

Whereas with Steffi everything revolved around bouncing on each other’s bones, with Ginnie, in contrast, Krasner was so chaste that one evening, while wolfing a Hanoi fish dish called Cha Ca, she asked if he was in another relationship. When he said no, which he considered to be not entirely untrue in light of Steffi’s demand that their kinship be only about sex, Ginnie pondered for a moment. “Can I ask another question?”

“Absolutely.”

“Are you gay?”

“No.”

“It’s okay if you are. Even, I guess, if you’re just seeing me in the hope of –”

Krasner took Ginnie’s hand. “Even if that agent winds up hating my script, I’ll still be crazy about you. But so that you know, I’ve just been trying to be respectful. Okay?”

“On one condition. Ready?”

“Sure.”

“You come home with me tonight.”

“Before dessert, or after?”

“Dessert can wait.”

 

Two days later, while lying beside Steffi on her office sofa, Krasner waited for what seemed like an appropriate moment, then spoke. “I think we should cool it for a while.”

“You’re tired of me.”

“Not at all.”

“Then what’s the problem?”

“Know how you were wondering if I was seeing someone?”

“What about it?”

“Now I am.”

Steffi went silent, closing her eyes for several moments, then sat up. “So what’s wrong with an embarrassment of riches?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“I get afternoons, she gets evenings and weekends. For you, isn’t that the best of both worlds?”

 

Instead of breaking things off with Steffi, Krasner hedged, getting together with her every so often instead of nearly every day. Sensing she was losing him, Steffi spoke up one Wednesday while undressing him. “Charlie knows a ton of people,” she said. “How about I get him to reach out to agents on your behalf?”

“I just signed with one.”

“Without telling me?”

“Who’s the one who said this is only about sex?”

“You really know how to hurt a guy,” Steffi said. “Besides, that was then, this is now. And if I’d known about the good news, we could have celebrated.”

Krasner studied her for a moment, then began hesitantly. “Maybe –”

“Maybe what?”

“We ought to cool this for a while.”

“Why make a decision in haste?”

“This is not in haste,” Krasner said, reaching for his shirt.

 

Two evenings later, while leaving an Indian restaurant, Ginnie elbowed Krasner, then gestured toward a white Range Rover parked across the street. “Is that woman staring at us?” she whispered.

“I-I don’t know,” he lied, leading Ginnie toward his car as quickly as possible.

 

That night, lying beside Ginnie in her Echo Park apartment, Krasner found himself hoping that Steffi’s appearance near Urban Masala had been an aberration owing to a moment of insecurity or pique.

But when he spotted her car in Koreatown the next evening, then caught a glimpse of her cruising past the Mongolian place where he and Ginnie dined two nights later, he knew the time had come to speak up.

 

During lunch at school, Krasner approached Steffi in a hallway. “It’s got to stop,” he stated.

“What?”

“This monitoring, or spying, or whatever you want to call it.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“It’s called stalking.”

“Is that an accusation?” Steffi asked, displaying a haughtiness Krasner had not experienced before.

“Let’s call it a request,” he said.

 

Krasner’s hope that his conversation with Steffi would help was shattered by an unexpected call from her husband. “Your overtures,” announced Charlie Goldsmith, “have been totally out of line.”

“What overtures?”

“Of a suggestive nature toward my wife.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.”

“Do I strike you as someone who kids? In addition to the Cease & Desist letter which you will receive, I reserve the right to take all appropriate legal and punitive measures. We clear?”

“You’re out of your fucking mind!”

 

The next day proved the surprises were far from over. Upon arriving at school, Krasner was immediately summoned to the Assistant Dean’s office.

“You’re aware of a statement you signed promising no sexual advances or harassment?” asked Tom Cavanaugh menacingly.

“What of it?”

“A complaint has come in.”

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

“Okay, are you going to tell me more? Or is this simply an accusation?”

“I believe I’m entitled to an explanation.”

“Without stating what I’m accused of? Or to whom? Tell you what. How about starting by telling me who made the complaint?”

“It’s not appropriate for me to say.”

“Then know what that makes this?”

“Tell me.”

“A kangaroo court.”

“I resent that,” said Cavanaugh dismissively.

“But you haven’t said it’s not true.”

 

After pounding his fist against a hallway wall several times, Krasner was stewing by his car when Steffi Goldsmith approached. “I’m really sorry this has escalated,” she said.

“That’s rich.”

“But there’s an easy way to calm things down.”

“Oh yeah?”

“By simply going back to the way things were.”

“Whoa! Your husband threatens legal action, the school is talking about firing me, and you want to turn back the clock?”

“You know who they’ll believe if it’s your word versus mine.”

“Is that the game you’re willing to play?”

“If necessary.”

“Then maybe you’re forgetting something.”

“Am I?”

“Something called evidence.”

“Such as?”

“A zillion text messages? A ton of presents?”

“You’d do that to my reputation?”

“Wait a goddamn second. I could wind up out on the street, and you’re worried about your reputation?”

 

Check your messages read three texts from Ginnie, and Call your agent said two others that Krasner found when he drove to Venice and sat down on the beach. Gathering himself as best he could, he called Laurie Frankfater.

“Want good news or bad?” Krasner’s newly acquired agent asked.

“Let’s start with bad since it’ll fit in with my day.”

“Four dimwits and one stupid jackass have passed on your script.”

“Know a bridge I can jump from?”

“But –”

“Yeah?”

“A guy who produced a couple of interesting indie films has made an offer.”

“Please tell me you’re not kidding.”

“Not a chance in hell. Put your thinking cap on, or hit the internet.”

“To?”

“Pick a place where you, Ginnie, and I can celebrate tonight!”

 

“Happy now?” Tom Cavanaugh asked after informing Krasner the next morning that the complaint had been withdrawn.

“Do I look like Mahatma Gandhi?” Krasner responded.

“I’m not sure I understand the allusion.”

“I’m not someone who turns the other cheek.”

“Which means?”

“I expect you to make amends.”

“By?”

“Giving me tenure.”

“We don’t do that until someone teaches here for five years.”

“Show me where it’s written.”

“It’s more a convention.”

“For which an exception is about to be made.”

“And why’s that?”

“What if I say my girlfriend’s father, who considers this discrimination because of age and gender, is a litigator?”

“How do I know that’s true?”

“Maybe it’s not, and I’m bluffing. But is it worth the gamble? You win, everything’s peachy. You lose, there are damages plus publicity galore for you, the school, and the wonderful person who complained.”

“I-I’ll have to talk to the Board.”

“You’ve got until the end of classes today.”

“That’s not fair.”

“You want to talk about fair? I also expect a written apology.”

 

That evening, after they ordered bademjan, fesenjan, and a soup called ash joe at a Persian restaurant near Westwood, Ginnie studied Krasner. “After all that’s happened,” she began, “you okay?”

“What’s crazy is I’m fine.”

“Because?”

“For openers, I’ve got you.”

“And?”

“Thanks to you, I’ve got Laurie.”

“Much of that owes to the script you wrote. But go on.”

“Remember how I told you I’d be no good at girls- or boys-raunchy-night-out or post-apocalyptic or super-hero stuff?”

“Because you can only write about what you’ve experienced?”

“Exactly. And remember how I was searching for something to write about?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, guess who now has a whole new story.”

Ginnie smiled. “Tonight,” she stated happily, “you and I are having dessert.”

 

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Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.

 

Image: Varun Kulkarni

Magpies in Winter – Jason Jackson

They came, at first, to be fed, and Marek was glad of the company. To be home all day with the baby – as he had been for months now – was more difficult than he’d ever imagined, so on the morning he looked out to see these five beautiful birds, all with their heads cocked, all staring up at him from the yard with their glassy black eyes, he welcomed both the novelty and the attention.

He opened the window and threw them the remains of his breakfast – some crusts, an apple core, a small sliver of ham – and they jostled and pulled at each other to get the best of what he’d given. Everyone knows, of course, that magpies can make the most awful sounds of any bird, but all that was to be heard that morning was the skitter and scratch of their claws on the frosted yard. Once the food had gone they took to the air, disappearing into the grey of the January sky as quickly as they’d arrived.

Marek, left alone with the baby once again, sensed the emptiness of the shack, the absence at the heart of his day. Everything was the baby, and the baby was everything.

It was the way things had to be.

Marek slept badly that night as usual. Each time he managed to close his eyes, the baby began to gurgle and giggle, and these sounds soon turned to shrieks and wails if Marek failed to show his face over the rail of the crib.

But as the new day’s sun sketched its light-lines onto thehard floor of the shack, Marek was thinking only of the magpies. The previous morning had been such a welcome change to his routine! Those birds had taken over his thoughts.

He stood from the bed and looked out over the frosted yard.

All five were back again.

This time, though, the birds did not seem as desperate. They stood in a line, heads cocked, eyes black, and Marek heard in his head a chorus of beautiful female voices, entirely in time with one another.

“Let us in,” the voices said, “where it’s warm and we can be with you.”

In a daze, Marek lifted the latch, and the magpies leapt onto the sill as one. He pulled the window towards him, and all five birds flew into room, brushing past Marek, their wings soft against his cheek.

The baby was lying in its blanket in the crib, but the birds ignored it, hopping instead onto the table, where they pecked and poked at some old tin cutlery, and onto the shelves, where they stuck their beaks into the box where Marek kept his dead wife’s necklaces and rings.

They were the only things of any worth that Marek had left.

The voices in his head spoke again, and this time they carried a little more force.

“Marek, we love nothing more than things which glisten, things which shine. Let us take them. Let us keep them. You are lonely, Marek, but we will be your friends.”

Marek had become so used to only hearing the baby’s cries that the words of the magpies were full of wonder and grace. He smiled and nodded at the birds. What use did he have for polished tin? And what was jewellery without a wife to wear it? Better by far to have friends with feathers! Better by far to never be lonely again!

And it were as if the birds had heard his thoughts, for immediately two of them took the rings and the necklaces in their beaks, and the other three a knife, a fork and a spoon. They were up and out through the open window before Marek realised what exactly they’d done, and it was only once they’d disappeared into the grey sky that he noticed the baby, still wrapped its blanket in the crib, crying hard.

That day was the worst which Marek could remember since his wife’s death, because the child could not seem to stop its tears. All the usual tricks which Marek had learnt had no effect, and it was only when the baby tired itself out with its frustrations and fell asleep that Marek was able to get some rest himself.

His dreams, when they came, were fitful and full of feathers.

The next morning brought the birds with it, and this time, they were sitting on the sill. Marek pulled up the latch, and they pushed against the glass, almost toppling him over in their rush to be inside. They found their perches on the table and the shelves, but there was nothing left to take.

The baby had been sleeping in its blanket in the crib, but now it began to cry. With a sigh, Marek went to pick it up, but one of the birds – the biggest – flew up quickly from its spot on the table and Marek was forced backwards into the chair. He could hear only one voice now, softer this time, seductive, full of honey, full of flame. “I know how tired you are, Marek. I know how lonely. Let me help.”

The bird was standing on Marek’s thighs, looking up at him, its beak so close to his face that he could see the shine of its porcelain surface. The bird lifted its wings, and the feathers stroked Marek’s cheeks, reached higher, smoothed his hair. The voice said, “Marek, let us relieve you of your burden, just for today. We live in the forest, but the baby will be safe with us. Our nests are in the highest trees where no harm can reach.”

The touch of the feathers was like the whispered breath of a woman, and Marek felt his eyes closing. He thought he heard the baby’s cries, but they sounded far away. The magpies could take the baby. One day was no time at all. Sleep would come. Peace, at last. And tomorrow, the birds would be back, and the forest air would have done the baby some good. It would be a brighter, happier little thing, and surely less full of tears.

The last thing Marek felt as he drifted into sleep was the loosening grip of the magpie’s claws on his thighs.

He was awoken by the cold. The window was wide, and darkness had fallen. There was no candle in the room, and it took him a moment to come fully to his senses.

When he did, what he noticed was the silence.

He jumped out of the chair. The magpies! How could he have let them take the baby? What had he been thinking? It had been those terrible voices in his head!

But there! The dark shape of the baby was lying still in its crib, and when Marek leaned in to pick it up, he saw that the magpies had been lying after all.

Because magpies don’t take babies; they only take their eyes.

 

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Jason Jackson writes short fiction and poetry. He also takes photographs. In a busy life he hopes to get better at all three. Jason tweets @jj_fiction

 

Image: Steven Shi

Revelation – Kate Whitehead

Alice emerges from a tangled subterranean dream, opens her eyes and read the communiques from distant friends reaching into their words for a sense of a person but nothing comes through the rushed missives today. Sliding from personal to political she clicks on the link that says breaking news and instantly curses her own gullibility. Of course there isn’t a revelation at all just the same skewed political mess.

Stranded by circumstance in her isolated rural home Alice is anchored to the Wider World by the gadgets that flash, beep enquire and inform twenty four hours a day. Sometimes she feels overwhelmed by the insubstantial electronic present. Marooned in her people less world she imagines the screeching seagulls outside her windows aren’t living creatures but digital images manipulated with invisible strings. She places her mobile phone on top of her pillow and prepares for her incommunicado trip.

The instant she steps into the blustery lane she feels lighter, knows the present is behind her locked up in her country home. Old men linger by the village noticeboard chatting and there is a poster wrapped round the telegraph pole advertising the film about fishing in former times.

Slightly shaky, and unmoored Alice strides towards the empty clifftop propelled forward by the gusts of south westerly wind. From her cliff edge vantage point Alice notices the fresh avalanche of rock-fall blocking access to the beach of her childhood, another physically inaccessible memory.

Alice usually comes to the next village to visit her childhood home – a huge granite television free, wireless free cavern proudly immune to recent technological developments – but she isn’t going there today it’s just a stop off on her nostalgic expedition.

There is a nativity scene in the churchyard. A live woman’s head appears among the cloaked figures and she smiles at Alice sitting forlornly on the bench. Alice shuts her eyes and awaits the sharp tug of the past, hopes that her teenage companions will appear in the deserted churchyard and the steel grey sky will turn into 1970’s heatwave blue. Nothing happens in the silver grey darkness in her head; the hectic youthful memories remain buried somewhere impenetrable way beyond her grasp. When she opens her eyes it’s raining and the figures in the nativity scene are swaying in the wind.

Just outside the dank bus shelter Alice waits for the delayed jalopy to the most Southerly Point. As the bus jerks erratically along the twisting country lanes Alice shivers with a mixture of fear and anticipation. Whenever she laments at the geographical isolation of her own village she is reminded that that there is somewhere even more remote perched above the churning Atlantic. She would prefer to be on her way back to the inner city. The next best thing is the opposite direction.

The Most Southerly Point isn’t just a vacant expanse of grass and rocks sitting under a huge expanse of sky, it’s the squat Black Wireless Hut as pulsatingly alive in Alice’s mind as the vibrant heart of the metropolis with its miles and miles of radio transmission connections and signals coming in and going out.

Alice runs up the desolate headland, stands at the top, tastes the salt laden air and sends her own desperate personal message across the ocean. She screams SOS into the sky and the threads of her worlds mingle with the plaintive shrieks of drifting seagulls.

A little early for her appointment she runs her hand along the rough black timber of the huts outer walls.

No one responds to her three loud knocks on the door of the hut. Through the illuminated square of window she sees the headphones, tangled wires, clocks with gold hands, black buttoned gadgets and scraps of paper laid in an orderly row across the brown teak table.

A blind of winter blackness falls while Alice lingers outside the hut wondering why there is a light on and the man called Tom isn’t there for their appointment.

Tentatively Alice creeps back down the steep grassy bank relieved to finally feel solid ground beneath her feet. She gropes her way along the flinty path. A dazzling moon appears briefly illuminating her way before disappearing behind the racing clouds.

She doesn’t see the granite obstacle blocking her way, walks heavily into, then trips sideways over the gravel banging her head hard on a rock. Blood trickles down her right cheek as she lies on her back immobilised by the crashing pain in her head.

A lolloping Labrador discovers Alice lying there. She is roused from semi consciousness by its tongue on her cheek.

Alice sits up in her hospital bed and strokes her bandaged head suspended in a pleasant narcotic fog. On her way out she thinks she should make some phone calls but decides to keep her adventure to herself now she is liberated from the push pull telecommunications drag and back in her own existence.

Instead she buys the local newspaper from the shop by the exit and walks to the front of the taxi rank.

Alice unlocks the door of her country home switches on the lights and goes into the kitchen without a glance at the gadgets lying in wait to reclaim her attention.

Nursing her strong black coffee she flicks through the newspaper her eyes slightly blurry from the head injury. Alice gasps in shock at the sombre coincidence. She’s come across the obituary for the man called Tom, her appointment in the hut. She knows its him even before she reads about his passion for radio.

It’s summer now, the aqua streaked sea is completely calm, the green grass scorched brown by the suns burning rays. Adventurous tourists traipse the cliff edge clutching walking sticks and ice creams. Alice sits on a circular stool in the cool darkness and awaits their arrival at the hut as they seek refuge from the midday heat. She scribbles notes on the scraps of paper the beginnings of her informative guide and scours the hut for traces of the man called Tom but there is no evidence of his twenty year sojourn.

 

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Kate Whitehead has been writing Short Fiction for many years often inspired by place and the absurdities of contemporary life. Her work has been published in fanzines and more recently online literary journals.

Image: Leandro Bezerra de Andrade via Pixabay

Exorcisms – Jan Kaneen

The demon shifts. It’s getting closer with every chew of cornflakes. Helen watches it out of the corner of her eye as she unstacks the dish washer.

When it erupts, it’s full of something worse than the usual outrage, a mashed-up passion of spite and fury, spitting words into her face like they taste disgusting. It hates her, hates this house, hates this sad little village; hates how there’s never anything to do and all the sad little people that waste their lives doing sad little things.

But most of all, it hates Helen.

She watches the powdery spittle spraying from its mouth, made visible by a lost ray of sunshine, and remembers: the waffle-blanket bundle in the crook of her left arm; the rainbow trike squeaking its way through the park on rainy Tuesdays; those fairy-tale eyes that had loved her to the moon and back.

When the front door slams, Helen clears away the bowl and mug, the one that say keep calm and carry on, takes a damp cloth and wipes the hatred off all the hard surfaces where it’s left a greasy, deep-fat film. When she’s finished, she washes her hands, to get the taint of it off her skin, pumping out the violet-scented soap that Rosie chose in Waitrose on Wednesday because it reminded her of Parma violets and being little again. A pearlescent teardrop falls into the cup of her palm. Helen has demons of her own. She’s held them inside for donkey’s years now, so she really believes in letting everything out, but it’s not that easy – hatred spoils everything it touches, and resentment is dangerously contagious. She scrubs her exposed forearms and between the v’s of her fingers, wringing fists in the velvet bubbles, scratching at the surface, again, and again.

 

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Jan Kaneen lives in the middle of nowhere in the Cambridgeshire fens. She’s in the second year of an MA in Creative Writing at the Open University and has been short and long-listed for several writing competitions including: The Fish Prize, The Chester Prize for Literature, and Bath Flash Fiction. She’s won competitions at Molotov Cocktail, Ad Hoc Fiction, Retreat West, Zero Flash and Horror Scribes, and was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart and Best on the Net. She’s been published most recently in fab places like Ellipsis ‘One,’ Salome and Flash Festival Anthology. She blogs at https://jankaneen.com/ and tweets as @Jankaneen1

 

Image: Jacqueline Macou

In Extremis – James Woolf

Keenly anticipating the indulgences ahead, not least the Squash and Spinach Rotolo, Woodrow turns into Meredith’s street. He imagines stooping to kiss her, her face flushing as she asks how his day has been.

“Well,” he’ll say, “picture me at 6.30 am in a rain-sodden gutter, cradling a lifeless body, thinking – as disasters go, this one is at least manageable.”

Then he’ll tell her how his phone spent its last night on earth in an icy puddle outside a restaurant. And how, briefly, it appeared to be returning to life.

“But of course the colours started bleeding, like a sponge caressing the drizzles of a nouvelle cuisine dish.”

Woodrow closes the car door with some satisfaction, commending himself on that image. That will impress Meredith! He’s decided that this freezing February night will be forever significant as he’s moving their relationship to the next level.

And he’s leaving nothing to chance.

That’s why he stopped by The Rocket Plant last night. Booking the corner table by the window was easy. His directions for background music, Chopin or Satie, were more contentious. But the manager understood when he explained that he’d be sharing the evening with someone special.

“Ah…. if music be the food of love –”

“Rave on!” Woodrow interjected.

The manager was pricklier on the subject of specials, but Woodrow stuck to his guns knowing he held two trump cards: his indisputable knowledge of cuisine and his value as a high-spending customer.

“Firstly, I can’t stand salmon,” he said. “I wouldn’t even want her ordering that! And secondly, you can’t only offer two fish specials! You’ll have pescatarians picketing outside!”

“Vegetarians!” the Maitre D’ snorted.

Woodrow requested the Rotolo, which on a previous visit had been a revelation. “That night, guys, you taught me the genius of salty feta riffing off butternut squash!”

Yes, it was just as well he’d visited the restaurant, even if he had managed to drop his phone outside.

Woodrow approaches a Victorian property converted into flats. He scans the names alongside the buzzers. Meredith! Just seeing it in her handwriting produces internal flutters and a soaring of his spirits. He has never dated anyone quite like Meredith, anyone so confident; so eloquent on so many topics. Robespierre, the sixties, the feeding habits of sloths – what can’t this girl hold forth on at the age of 28?

Pressing the button produces a satisfying purr. He wonders if she’ll be wearing those jeans again; so tight-fitting, she might have just been skinny-dipping in a sea of ink. He takes two slow breaths to steady himself. Last week they’d seen Mamma Mia. Keen to establish his cultural credentials, the musical was his suggestion. The evening had been entirely platonic, but her ready agreement to meet again was enough to fuel a few spicy fantasies.

“About time!” Meredith’s voice snaps from a small speaker.

“I’m actually one minute early!”

Woodrow waits to be buzzed in. Instead the door opens and Meredith’s eyes flash at him accusingly.

“What’s going on?” – her breath is steaming as she speaks. “We’re now ridiculously late!”

“Hold on…” he begins. She’s decked out in something that looks like it was last worn by Emmeline Pankhurst. “I could ask you the same –”

“Where’s your car?” she interrupts.

Woodrow is astounded. The restaurant isn’t booked for an hour. They even have time for an aperitif. He unlocks his BMW.

“And why have you been ignoring me all day?”

Realisation dawns. “My phone died last night. I had back-to-back meetings from 7.30am.”

“For frick’s sake,” Meredith says, climbing into the passenger seat. “There’s a change of plan. We’re going to the Lea Valley.”

A mad dash to East London follows. Meredith explains that she’d forgotten her best friend Grant’s thirtieth. She’s been leaving messages all day saying he must arrive earlier.

“Cancel the restaurant then – here’s their card.”

Yes, Penny’s gone to enormous trouble, she says, dialing – and, no worries, her friends are all gorgeously friendly.

“Who’s Penny?” Woodrow scowls at a Give Way sign.

“Grant’s partner!” – spoken as if to an idiot. “She said to bring you along.”

With instructions to abandon the Sat Nav’s route reverberating round the car, Woodrow is concerned by developments. He thinks back to an argument earlier on with a CEO regarding a damaging story that was breaking. He normally relished such spats – surfing the swell of adrenaline and stress. Today he was distracted by thoughts of the evening ahead: the luscious food, the growing rapport, the flirtatious touching…

“Park the bloody car, anywhere you can.”

They get out and Meredith is marching ahead, constrained only by her matronly skirt. Then she stops, turns, pulls his head down and kisses him almost aggressively on the lips.

“Thanks for being so understanding! Good things come to those who wait…”

She leads him down to the canal, all the while speaking on her phone.

“Yes, a bridge, trees – and a bloody great gasworks!”

Receiving further instructions, she scurries along the tow-path followed by Woodrow who calls, “Where are we heading?” She doesn’t respond. When a man in an Edwardian suit waves flamboyantly from the deck of a canal boat, it’s clear that the situation is complex.

“Is this a fancy dress party?” he ventures, as the boat manoeuvres towards the bank.

“It’s themed – you’d know had you picked up my messages.”

Woodrow mumbles an Anglo-Saxon expletive. The Edwardian gentleman narrows his eyes as he regards Woodrow’s burnt-orange Ted Baker fleece.

“I see you’ve adopted a fairly wide interpretation of Titanic fashion,” he says, dryly.

Woodrow elongates his lips into something resembling a smile.

“Meet Grant!” Meredith says.

“Welcome aboard the unsinkable liner!” He’s pulling them both firmly – the boat rocks as Woodrow plants his foot on deck. “Although, you may not actually fit inside. How tall are you?”

“Six foot eight,” Woodrow says as he scrapes the top of his head on a door frame. Wincing, he descends into a tiny room. Three faces look up expectantly from a table laid lavishly for dinner. What a nightmare. Woodrow tenderly touches his head. Behind the table is an unlikely smorgasbord of images: passengers boarding the fated ship, Kate Winslet – arms joyously outstretched, stiff family groupings, the ruined hulk on the sea-bed. Piano music tinkles from an unmanned keyboard, as if the pianist has abandoned her post, leaving only a spirit behind.

“I’m Woodrow,” Woodrow says, shaking the hand of a sea admiral.

“Yuk!” – the man springs up. “You’ve put blood on me! – you’d better not have AIDS.”

Woodrow is passed kitchen towel while Grant explains the set-up.

“So, we’re all people from the Titanic – actual people. That’s Captain Smith in the toilet, washing your blood away. Who did you go for, Merry?”

Merry!

“Annie Clemmer-Funk at your service. I’m besotted by that name!”

“I just discovered the theme so I don’t have a character,” Woodrow says.

“You can be my husband’s personal valet,” a commanding lady says.

“That’s Penny,” Meredith whispers.

“Time-travelling valet,” the Captain scoffs, sitting back down.

Woodrow doesn’t wish to be anyone’s valet, least of all Grant’s. But to dissent would be inadvisable. He must keep in mind his aim of emerging unscathed from this hideous event. And then his prize awaits – Meredith, and a night of passion.

“What do you do, when you’re not boarding luxury liners?” a lady with a Marcel hair wave asks.

“I’m in PR – disaster management effectively,” Woodrow says, touching his head and discovering more spots of blood.

“Perfect,” says Penny. “Anyway, you’re our servant today. You’re allowed to sit down by the way.”

“Keep topping up my wine and don’t jabber,” Grant adds.

Fortunately for Woodrow, he’s wearing a white shirt under his fleece, so, from the waist upwards, he looks the part. Even better news is that the conversation has moved away from his clothes and his bleeding head.

The first class menu had ten courses that calamitous night, Penny explains. Obviously she couldn’t replicate everything.

“However,” holding aloft a tureen, “I’ve selected the highlights. Consommé Olga!”

“Mmmm – that clarity, that depth of colour!” Woodrow says, sniffing the broth. “Did you use beef or veal stock?”

“Impressive!” Grant says, and Meredith pinches his arm approvingly.

The soup is surprisingly delicate – a promising start. And the white wine is crisp and delivers a decent bouquet.

“A slight hitch,” the captain announces. “Not all our passengers have first class tickets. So, technically –”

“Fessing up!” the Marcel lady says. “Rhoda was in third. But she lost both sons so perhaps you’ll allow her? They jumped into the water together.”

“You know,” Penny says, “it’s fascinating what people did when they were really up against it. In Extremis. Colonel Astor here helped me to a lifeboat then gently asked if he might join me, saying, ‘My wife’s in a delicate condition.’ He was told, ‘Women and children only!’ So he stepped away and calmly met his death.”

“Annie was about to enter a lifeboat,” Meredith says, “but was pushed aside by a woman calling ‘my children, my children.’ She took the last place and Annie perished.”

“Your head’s still bleeding,” the Captain says to Woodrow. “Someone pass him another towel.”

Woodrow sips his soup while dabbing at his head. He is beginning to feel woozy, something not helped by drinking only wine and the constant talk of death.

“What do you do, Penny?” he asks.

“Lawyer – matrimonial,” she says flatly.

“Matrimonial, that’s… to do with… mothers, isn’t it?”

Laughter erupts around him.

“Classic!” Grant screams. The Captain can barely breathe for hooting.

“It’s divorce, cretin!” Meredith whispers into Woodrow’s ear. Mortified, she excuses herself.

“I worry about Merry,” Grant says. “I wonder if she’ll ever recover.”

Feeling increasingly reckless, Woodrow asks what the hell he’s talking about. Meredith has nothing wrong with her!

“You don’t know about Adam and the skiing accident?”

“Her fiancée? Less than a year ago?”

“Amazing guy!”

“And Meredith’s only true love.”

“She’s struggling to cope with that tragedy.”

“And ends up taking all sorts of risks with people like you…” Grant’s sentence tapers as Meredith returns.

“We’ve got a few minutes,” Penny announces. “Let the dancing commence!”

“It just gets better,” Woodrow mutters as the three couples rise. Penny touches the keyboard and Ragtime music issues forth.

“There was, of course, no formal dancing in first class,” Grant points out.

“Titanorak of the night!” the Captain shrieks.

“The Castle Walk,” Penny calls. “Weight on the toes – one – two – three – four – five – six – seven – eight, and….”

Meredith attempts to lead Woodrow around the cramped floor. “It’s basically walking!” she hisses.

Grant peers at Woodrow as he passes. “Oh look! – a daddy-long-legs playing basketball.”

“That’s fine,” Grant says, pulling away from Meredith. “I’ll sit this one out.”

“Don’t be like that,” Rhoda says.

“In any case,” Penny adds, “our main course is ready.”

“I can’t wait,” Grant says. “Best thirtieth ever!”

Penny and Rhoda carry in two serving platters.

“Right, potatoes. And Poached Salmon with Mousseline Sauce.”

“Salmon?” Woodrow says. “Is there a choice?”

“ It’s not à la carte!” Meredith says.

Woodrow, with his lifelong aversion to salmon, is now surrounded by five people eating salmon, the aroma of salmon, a conversation about salmon, and his own plateful of salmon. He attempts to down a few mouthfuls, glugging wine with each, thinking he might then last out the rest of the course eating potatoes. But waves of nausea are engulfing him and the boat feels like a see-saw.

“You never even bothered doing proper introductions!” Woodrow complains. “Not that you’d care but I don’t even know –”

Suddenly, his sickness crescendos and he dashes outside onto the deck.

When Grant catches him up a minute later, Woodrow is on his knees, vomiting copiously into the river.

“Good thinking – let the salmon be returned to its natural habitat,” Grant says, lighting a cigar.

Woodrow groans and emits a further stream of putrid liquid.

“The next course is Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly by the way. “It has a consistency exactly like –”

The sound of Woodrow heaving echoes off the far side of the bank.

“If you’re up for it, that is,” Grant continues.

“Sod off, Grant” – Woodrow manages and slowly stands.

“Listen Woody,” Grant’s arm wraps around him, “we all met at Durham and we’re like a family. And families, you’re either inside them or you’re not. Anyone who dates Merry, is effectively dating us lot too.”

“Cut the crap, Grant. What’s your point?”

“You’re wrong for Merry. And for us. Personally, I’d rather bunk up with Jimmy Savile.”

Woodrow looks down at the smug face puffing its cigar and, without properly weighing up the options, launches a massive punch in its direction. Grant dodges the blow and Woodrow, connecting only with the evening breeze, wobbles and teeters. Glancing over his shoulder he sees Grant, smiling, as he assists Woodrow over the edge.

And towards the water.

Freezing! Drowning! Swallowing lungfuls – bubbles of death rising. Body assault – a heart attack, yes, Woodrow succumbs – surely dead now – arse bouncing on the silty bed – so how did he feel that? –rising now, arms pumping, hands grasping – then, piercing the surface, Woodrow breathes.

And splutters.

And hears whooping.

Floundering on the water, he looks up. They’re all on deck.

“Nice one, Woody!”

“No one could accuse old Wooders of not taking the role-playing seriously.”

Woodrow swims, hauls himself on to the bank, rolls uselessly on the grass, then rises to his sopping feet. “You’re all a bunch of shits!” he shouts.

The passengers continue baying from the boat.

“You haven’t finished your salmon,” the Captain points out.

“Don’t bother calling,” Meredith concludes.

Covered in silt and slime, Woodrow can feel his jeans encasing his testicles, transforming them into two frozen peas. He continues his retreat, slinking along the tow-path as the howls of derision finally fade.

Okay. If he were his own client, what would the advice be now? Things didn’t go perfectly… There might be reputational damage. But resist the call to act immediately. No need to Tweet or change Instagram bio. A period of reflection and wound licking is in order.

He stands like a frozen kipper outside his car. Amazingly, the remote actually opens the door.

And there, lying on the passenger seat, is a burgundy purse. Meredith’s purse. Perfect. He’ll head straight back to the canal and give the bloody thing a watery grave.

No, do the honourable thing. Contact Meredith, tell her he’s found it. And she’ll have to meet him one more time. And then, who knows…?

No way!

The bitch can make an appointment to collect it from his PA.

Woodrow collapses heavily into the leather seat. He swills some water and spits it out the window. No longer nauseous, he removes a dark chocolate and sea-salt bar from the glove compartment, kept there for dire emergencies. Unwrapping it slowly, he surrenders to the silkiness of the cocoa and the sharpness of the crystals. Sighing, he starts the engine. Chocolate has rarely tasted this bitter and never this good.

 

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James Woolf writes prose scripts and adverts. He has been published twice in Ambit magazine, both in 2017, and shortlisted for the Bridport short story prize, the Exeter short story prize and highly commended in the London short story prize. Various other stories have been published or short listed. Website: woolf.biz

 

Image: Bruno Glätsch

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