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

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