epilogue – Issue Six

They came in the night with chains
And padlocks and rope,
Anything to bound the drawers
In the hope of keeping the words within.
A matter of protection,
They said,
The air is an aging thief –
Look what it does to wine!
Dusty bottles of envious vintage
Need to be emptied
Within a minute or two, alas.
Light is a sickly touch
Putrefies paper to a crispy scab.
Keep them closed
These drawers of Heed,
Safe
For future generations.

Last night the guard whose duty it was
Succumbed,
Changed as if
The identifying fragments of self
Teleported away.
Banished to a boat on a crimson sea
Retelling what he can remember
To the birds.

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Image: soorelis

The Verbal Apostate, Unrepentant – Tara Lynn Hawk

Words, words, words
Fill the void
I am the black sheep in my family
Put aside the comforts
The false rule of conformity
Shod your toes with pages
Step into the mud
Skate!

 

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Tara Lynn Hawk is the author of poetry chapbooks Rhetorical Wanderlust and The Dead. Her work has appeared in Occulum, Rasputin, Anti-Heroin Chic, Uut, The Cabinet of Heed, Spelk, Wanton Fuckery, Midnight Lane Gallery, Idle Ink, Spilling Cocoa, Poethead, Social Justice Poetry and more. “taralynnhawk.com

Polly, The Protector – David Cook

At the edge of the village, some distance apart from the houses and stores, is an old swing. A girl sits upon it, rocking gently back and forth, ankles intertwined, the wind whispering through her chestnut hair as she stares into nowhere. People in the village call her Polly, because they have to call her something and Polly is as good a name as any. Polly appears to be about nineteen years old, but then she always has. The villagers do not remember a time when she wasn’t there. No harm has ever befallen their homes, families and businesses, not fire, not plague, not famine, not drought, and they believe she protects them in some way. Birds watch from nearby trees as the man approaches her, bouquet in hand.

‘Hello,’ he says, but she pays him no mind. He is not put off by this. He has heard about the beautiful young woman on the swing who never talks, never ages and whose gaze seems to look into some faraway place that others cannot see. Witch, the villagers told him, but he does not care for the simple superstitions of country folk.

‘I brought you these,’ he tells her, gesturing to his lilies, but her stare does not shift.

‘I hope you like them.’

Still no response.

My name is Thomas,’ he says.

‘How are you?’ he says.

‘I am a sailor by trade. I’ve travelled a long way to meet you,’ he says.

She does not answer and, eventually, he is forced to admit defeat. He places his flowers on the ground before her and departs. He stops and tells her: ‘I will return from my next voyage in one year. I will bring you a wondrous gift from foreign lands, and I hope that will compel you to speak with me.’

The birds cackle, as if in laughter.

***

A year to the day later, Thomas returns. Polly is still on the swing, rocking gently back and forth as she always does. The birds chatter to themselves.

‘Hello,’ he says. ‘Remember me?’

She does not respond.

He glances at the ground, but the wind took the lilies a long time ago.

‘I brought you this.’ He produces a small, delicate bottle from his pocket. ‘This is the most expensive perfume in all of France.’ He waves it in front of her face, to no reaction. He hesitates, then takes her wrist and sprays some scent upon it. An angry noise comes from the trees, but Polly, again, says and does nothing.

‘It’s made with jasmine and peach blossom.’ He asks what she thinks, but she does not offer an opinion so he attempts other avenues of conversation.

‘Why do you always sit on that swing?’

‘Why do you never talk?’

‘Would you like to take a stroll with me?’

Nothing. He leaves, defeated once more. ‘I will try again one year hence,’ he says. The birds let out their familiar cackle. The smell of perfume is scattered on the breeze.

***

Another year later, and he is back. The birds cease their conversation as he approaches.

‘Hello again,’ he says. ‘It’s me, Thomas.’

He looks at Polly and wonders how she never ages and how she can survive without any apparent sustenance. The word witchcraft enters his mind unbidden, but he shakes his head to cast it away. He has spent too much time listening to idiotic rumour. Despite the evidence in front of him, he refuses to countenance such a notion.

‘I brought you this necklace. The greatest jeweller in Persia made it for me.’

The gemstones sparkles in the spring sunshine.

‘May I put it on you?’

No answer. He places the necklace carefully over Polly’s head, then moves behind her to fasten the clasp. Thomas does not notice the birds beginning to squawk. He steps back in front of her again.

‘Do you like it?’

She says nothing. Thomas frowns.

‘I think that you are very ungrateful. I bring you all these fineries and you cannot even give me a smile.’

Her stare begins to annoy him.

‘You should say thank you,’ he states, becoming louder, ‘and a kiss on the cheek would be polite.’

Her expression does not change and, in anger, he grabs her hand and squeezes hard, feeling bones crack beneath his grip. Even this does not bring a reaction, but the birds scream and this time he notices and is unnerved. He leaves, face wrought with fury. ‘Next year!’ he snaps. Polly’s hand has become swollen and red.

***

After twelve months Thomas returns, but this time under cover of darkness. Polly is still there, swinging almost imperceptibly, a slash of moonlight across her face. He approaches her from the shadows. He reaches for her hand and is unsure what to think when he notices it appears to be fully healed.

‘Hello, my beauty.’

The birds awaken from their slumber and start to shout, but this time Thomas does not care.

‘Still wearing my necklace, I see.’

He studies her face.

‘I didn’t bring you any gifts. This time, I will take what I am owed.’

He slips his hands beneath her arms to haul her from the swing and onto the ground. The birds go deathly silent for a moment and then there is an explosion from above and they swoop down upon him in their dozens, screeching, hollering, biting, clawing, pecking, jabbing, and though he tries to run there are too many and he is forced to the ground under the ferocity of their attack.

Soon it is over and the birds fall silent and return to the trees. In the morning, the villagers will find the torn, bloodied corpse of Thomas, take it away and bury it with the bodies of the other men who have tried to force themselves on Polly.

And Polly will continue to sit on the swing, rocking gently back and forth.

 

 

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David Cook’s stories have been published online and in print in a number of places, including the National Flash Fiction Anthology, Cabinet of Heed and Spelk. You can find more of his work at www.davewritesfiction.wordpress.com and say hello on Twitter @davidcook100. He lives in Bridgend, Wales, with his wife and daughter.

 

Image: Capri23auto via Pixabay

Haven – Sophie Reynolds

Cross legged I sit,
on mountains of wisdom;
a cushion of reality.

Truths bejeweled on tree tops,
like golden apples ripe as ripe can be,
a breeze away from falling.

The morning sky flushed a dusty pink,
with brushstrokes of a happy, happy yellow,
an alliance of colour.

The sun perches on the landscape,
ruling the lands in it’s midst,
a welcomed surrender.

Tall I stand with grounded roots,
all is well;
all is well.

 

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Image: cocoparisienne

All Along The Wonder Wires – Dorothy Rice

On the shores of the Isle of Portmanteau, with a clear view of both mainland Ether Balm and the flat slab of Blarney Bluff, Princess Esmé held four wound cords of wonder wire. One in each hand, one balanced atop each shoulder. The weight bit into her flesh and threatened to buckle her knees. But she could not, would not, succumb.

Minutes before, Darby, pompous squire of Blarney Bluff, had dared her to swim the distance back to the mainland, unfurling the cords, setting down a wonder wire link as only men had done before. Earlier still, as the sun set, ending the annual seven-day feast of Sultana, where he was to have taken her as his bride, he’d denounced Esmé in front of the gathered clans.

“No woman of brown braids and muscled arms will ever set by my side.”

“I’ll do you one better,” she’d boasted, lungs puffed with pricked pride, blood warmed with pineapple rum. “I’ll claim the conjoined kingdom in my own name.”

The foppish courtiers and their pale princesses had laughed at her expense.

Now, under gray skies, resolve like steel in her strong biceps and thighs, Esmé turned to the sea.

Darby snatched hold of one end of the wire. As he prepared to yank it from her grasp, his palm was seared by the wisdom in the wire. There was no denying the pulse of this woman’s power, the inevitable bend in the history of their peoples. He saw it too, as a moving scroll behind his eyes. Esmé and her descendents, an epoch of peace and plenty. Before the re-birthed sun slipped into the sea beyond Blarney Bluff, the new order would begin.

Darby let loose the wire. He sunk to his knees in the prickly sand grass.

“My Queen,” he said. “To peace between our people.”

“To peace,” she said, stepping into the marbled waters of Columbine Bay.

“Long live the Queen,” came the shout from the hundreds gathered on the shore.

And she did. For as many suns and moons as there are crabs wandering the ocean’s floor, following the wonder wires, a sinewy web that connects the disparate tribes of the Greater Outré Islands with the mainland, and one another.

So say the Books of Yore and Yon, written in squid ink and tucked away in the landlocked caves beneath Blarney Bluff.

And who are we to say it isn’t so.

 

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Dorothy Rice is the author of The Reluctant Artist, a memoir and art book about her father, Joe Rice (1918 – 2011), She has recent and upcoming work in Longridge Review, Proximity and Minerva Rising, among others. You can find her at www.dorothyriceauthor.com and on twitter at @dorothyrowena.

 

Image: Mystic Art Design

Homemade Lemon Shade – Anna Rymer

I have this system for getting exactly what I want out of people, and today I’m going to use it. I’m going to use it on a woman named Elizabeth, and she has no idea. I’m waiting now on the corner of her street. I can see her front door from here. It’s red and large, like the house it adorns. I have watched this door for days now. Watched her life, her husband, her children. But now it’s time.

Just as I will it, the door opens and out they run, bobble hats bobbing atop uniform clad figures. One boy, one girl. How lovely. She follows in a long black coat and bright red scarf.

I like red, I like its rich flow.

They pass right by me, in their large black car, a child’s face pressing against the rear window. I smile. I’m tempted to begin now, but then why hurry? We have all day.

***

Elizabeth is waiting by the lift. We’re in her office building now and I reach her just in time to step inside the closing doors. I move to the back where I can watch her unnoticed. I smell sweet perfume and wonder if its hers. Her blonde hair is pinned up perfectly, exposing the smooth skin of her neck. Her hand goes to it now, as if sensing my eyes caressing her there. She hurries out of the lift on the fifth floor. I stay on. I know where her office is, I don’t need to follow just yet. I go to the roof instead to replenish for a while. It’s cloudy, but still I manage to reach a few rays.

***

It’s approaching midday when Elizabeth steps out into the street. I can see her from up here, her red scarf in a sea of black and navy blue. Involuntarily, my left foot stamps and rubs the ground. I don’t know if I can wait much longer. I turn the rising feeling in my chest into a leap. I need to learn some self control.

I land two buildings down the street and keep the momentum going, sliding down the corner of the building to the street below. I step out just as she’s passing. She looks straight at me and I see her breath catch. Her brow furrows and she shakes her head, as I fade into the background once again. Not yet, I soothe my zeal. My colours fade.

***

I wait by the edge of the city park as the day comes to a close. I marvel for a moment at my patience, and then she rounds the corner taking her usual route to the car. I stand to follow her.

As I hoped, the sun just sits on the horizon as she takes her first step into the park. It begins to dip as she reaches the lake. The final rays glitter against the lapping water as the sky glows pink. Elizabeth stops, her eyes fixed on the scene. Here’s my chance.

I move in close, my hand at her back not quite making contact, and I whisper her name. The hairs on her neck stand and there it is: A smile. Followed by a deep sigh and, for a moment, she shares my colours. Together we glow. I know she will now feel a roll of pleasure right at her centre, and this is when I leave my gift. I never know what this is. It might be an idea, or its peace, or self love. Perhaps courage or certainty. Whatever it is, it’s the tool to realise a dream.

She stays a little longer looking out at the lake. Goosebumps grace her skin as I slip away, my system complete. I have what I wanted. Her smile. Just this one smile.

I place it to my breast and, as I do, a new hue glows amongst the others on my wings. Ah, Sherbet Lemon!

Well what was it you thought I wanted?

 

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Anna Rymer is an aspiring writer living on the Wirral in Merseyside. You can read more of her flash fiction on her blog The Write Time https://annarymer.co.uk/ or follow her on Twitter: @annarymerwriter. She is currently working on her debut novel, whilst also juggling the needs, desires and tantrums of her two preschool children.

 

Image: pxhere

Come See The Whale – David Hartley

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, androgenes and humanes … gather in, gather in … distinguished guests, presslords, Your Majesty. Welcome one and all to London, and to OceanWorld. It is my great honour to be standing before you all this evening for the grand launch of our latest exhibition. I cannot express to you how excited I … how excited we all are about this momentous occasion. Thank you, thank you.

“Tonight, behind this curtain, you will witness the astonishing accomplishment of a vast team of talented and dedicated individuals far too numerous to list by name… but we love each and every one of you, of course! They include the finest minds in the fields of marine science, oceanography, conservation, bioengineering, museum curation… Jane and Teisha down at the front there…, neurology, tank construction, metallurgy, animal welfare, cetology and, of course, curtain design… look at the size of that thing!

“But the real star of the show is not the people. It’s not the scientists and engineers…or your handsome presenter. It’s not the people who have worked around the clock to make this happen. The real star of this show is Moby. Not, of course, the bald light-listening musician, rest his soul. A different Moby. Someone altogether larger and very much still with us.

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. People of the glorious human race. It is my overwhelming honour to say these words. Step right up and… Come and See the Whale!

“No flash photography please, no flashes. Thank you. Feel free to tweet, our hashtag is #MobyWhale.

“Say hello to Moby. Moby is an adult male Physester macrocephalus. A sperm whale in the very prime of his life. We think he’s around 45 years old, born in the early 2000s. He is considerably larger than the average male sperm whale at 63ft but, as you can see, fits comfortably in our very special tank…more on the tank in a moment. I’ll let you take all this in first.

“Rest assured ladies and gentlemen, this is absolutely a real life whale. This is not an optical trick; this is not animatronics or CGI. This is a genuine, living, blubber-and-bone sperm whale caught in the Atlantic, about 800 miles due east from Nantucket. You can see there the flukes of the tail pushing through the waters, and at the other end; he’s opening his lower jaw… saying hello, look! We’re hoping that soon he will show signs of needing to surface and we might be lucky enough to see the blowhole in action. He’s real, my friends, he’s a real whale.

“And OK I can hear some murmurs at the back there, some questions. Yes, I’m sure you all have questions, but please allow me to explain. All is not quite what it seems.

“Moby is here with us now, suspended in the carefully-treated waters of our reinforced tank. The glass is a palladium-graphene compound latticed throughout with a filigree titanium mesh… too fine to see with the naked eye, but ultra-strong. We think perhaps it is the strongest glass ever produced; a nuclear warhead wouldn’t shatter it. And the water inside the tank is mineralised and heavy-laden to mimic the depths, pressure, temperature and temperament of the Atlantic Ocean. Moby is suspended within these waters, which are replenished daily and continually monitored, but he is very much held in place.

“Please madam yes, yes; let me explain. You see Moby is here, physically, with us in this tank, in this room, in OceanWorld, in London. But mentally, he is not here. Mentally, he is in his own home, 800 miles off the coast of Nantucket. Simeon, if you please.

“We will grant access to the walkways in due course but for now, ladies and gentlemen, please refer to the screens above your heads, or log in to the app on your tablets for the live feed. Here we go. So, this image shows Moby’s head from above through the open top of the tank. The great grey mass here is Moby; this circle here is his blowhole. But as you can see…if we zoom in a little…here we go. You can see here…and here…these lines that lead from his head and out of shot, out of the tank. Here we are; five of them…a sixth there.

“And if we lift up…thank you Simeon…and away from the tank, following the cables, up and up, what do we find on the end…? Our puppeteers! Give us a wave guys! Now, this here is the real genius of the operation. This is what allows us to take one of the largest creatures on Earth from the depths of his home and place him in a tank for your viewing pleasure. These fine specimens on the computers are our core team of VR developers and programmers. They have, through some sort of magical computer wizardry that I certainly don’t claim to understand, encoded a whole and very real world for Moby. These wires, grafted harmlessly into key sensory areas of his brain, feed Moby with his very own Atlantic Ocean.

“Simeon, please show us what Moby can see… there we are. Home. A vast, endless aquatic world, every bit as real to Moby as his life before he came here. To Moby there is no here, there is only there. Our developers have designed a world of such incredible detail that it is virtually indistinguishable from real life itself, especially for a whale who knows no different. Our core clusters of nodes are attached to various trigger points across the thalamus of Moby’s brain where they feed sensory data to the optic nerve, the olfactory system and the pyramidal tract. This enables us to process Moby’s version of reality to his eyes, his nasal passage, and his spinal cord and so on. To mimic the sperm whale’s particular talent for echolocation we’ve rigged a highly advanced sonar system into the eastern end of the tank in the direction Moby faces. This is SELIT, or the Spatial EchoLocate Interwave Terminus. Moby sends his calls to SELIT and SELIT sends the echo back, based on what is ahead of him in the virtual Atlantic. And, if that is another whale, well then SELIT sends a call right on back. We’ll do you a demonstration at the end of the tour and you’ll be able to hear…and feel…it for yourselves, all being well.

“To all intents and purposes Moby entirely believes he is swimming through the Atlantic Ocean. At regular intervals throughout the day Moby is ‘successful’ in hunting plankton from the seabed and we wash real plankton through our filters to keep him fed… and that is an awful lot of plankton, but we’ve got it under control. Of course, the sperm whale is the largest predator in the world so Moby can’t survive on plankton alone. We serve up regular dishes of squid and ray, but only when he’s been successful hunting them in his world. Again, we have a demonstration lined up later.

“It is our belief, and we hope you’ll share this, that Moby is actually better off here with us than he would be out in the wilds. Here there is never any danger of him being hunted by man for his bones or his oils. Nor will he feel the effects of a poisoned sea as we continue to choke our oceans with plastic waste and chemicals. And not only is this great for Moby, it’s an incredible opportunity for our scientists. Here at OceanWorld, with your kindly donations and sponsorships, the leading cetologists can get up close and personal with a sperm whale like never before. There are still so many mysteries surrounding the sperm whale and his brethren, simply because they are so damn hard to get close to for any length of time. Here with us; scientists, thinkers, artists… they have all the time in the world to be with Moby. As do you. Here at OceanWorld we are dedicated to our free entry… we only ask for donations and monthly direct debits if you can afford them. Anything you can spare will go directly to Moby; directly to this magnificent, world-leading and living exhibition of scientific research.

“And, we can say with the fullness of confidence that Moby, himself, is happy. Never before in the history of captivity could we ever truly say that the animal in the cage, or the tank, or the enclosure was completely happy. Not completely. Now we can say that. Moby has his life and we have Moby. This moment, my companions, could be one of the most significant advances in the history of animal welfare and animal science… in the history of science full stop.

“And!… well, I’m not supposed to tell you this but… ok, Jane is nodding. Moby is but the first. In our New York branch work has started already on a tank twice this size and our next prize is a fully-grown adult blue whale, the largest creature on Earth. We’ve already got a few candidates identified. And from there; who knows? A great white shark? A giant squid? The possibilities are endless. We have the technology but, more importantly, we have the passion. We have the vision.

“Moby swims into his future and leads us with him. No more is this magnificent beast enslaved to the whims and ways of we frivolous human beings. He is the essence of freedom, an emblem of a brighter tomorrow for both his kind, and mankind. The possibilities of this technology are endless. We see visions of great ocean mammals rescued from the brink of extinction. We see a worldwide revival of appreciation and respect for the beautiful creatures who share our planet. We see animals no longer in captivity but liberated into better worlds. We see a better world for all. And we hope you see it too. Ladies, gentlemen, thank-”

And then. There was a power cut.

 

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David Hartley writes strange stories about strange things for strange people. His work has appeared in Ambit, Black Static, Structo and The Shadow Booth, among many others. He tweets occasional odd thoughts at @DHartleyWriter and can be found loitering at davidhartleywriter.com.

 

Image: Pete Johnson via Pexels

Food For Thought For A Funeral – Jamie Graham

The stragglers walk past the last
of the sandwiches.
Why do so many egg?
My dad bloody hated the things.
His opinion counts for nothing now,
not even at his own wake.

A disheveled sausage roll
lies on a silver platter
all on its own.
Did it fall on the floor?
59 eaten and one discarded,
red-carded for some reason.

And it’s open season
for old folk to talk pish.
Oh, I mean reminisce.
Stories that change
each time they’re told.
The quiche looks withered and cold.

Three quarters wonder if they’ll be next,
one too many after paying respects.
Old bastards he hated
and a woman he dated,
conspicuous like
the stray peanut somehow in with the crisps.

Hollow words from the service ring in my ears,
he worked at this firm for 30 odd years.
The minister had no fucking clue who he was,
that one time he cried,
his tasteless stir-fries.
Half-eaten pork pie, a feast for a fly.

One hour in,
attention diverted.
Laughter echoes around the room,
betraying the hole in my heart.
He’s already forgotten it seems,
talk turning to bagels with too much cream cheese.

 

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JAMIE GRAHAM is a Scottish writer and Seinfeld addict on the wrong side of 40. He’s recently featured in Pop to magazine, 101 words and (b)OINK zine. Find him on Twitter @jgrahamwriter

 

Image: MJ Breiva via Pexels

Just Like You And Me – Jacqueline Grima

Geoff was sitting at the kitchen table when the old man walked in. He put down his toast. ‘You okay?’ Geoff asked.

The man looked at him, nodded, his hair a halo of grey around his head. Slowly, he pulled out a chair and sat down, lifting one knee and linking his hands around it. On his feet, he wore slippers. Brown mules with a faint check, much like the ones Geoff had received from Richard the Christmas before. ‘I’m okay,’ he said.

Geoff chewed, swallowed. ‘No,’ he said. He shook his head. ‘I mean, can I help you? I mean, this is my house. You have the wrong house, I think.’ He glanced at the back door that he had opened to let in the morning air.

The old man looked around. He looked at the clock that sat high on the kitchen wall. He looked at the stove. At the sink. At the slate-grey tiles that covered the floor. ‘Are you sure?’ In the middle of his forehead, thick, grey brows knitted together.

Geoff pushed his plate away. Adjusting his position, he looked around the room, much like the old man had done. Just to be on the safe side. He nodded.

The old man hung his head low.

‘Where do you live?’ Geoff asked.

Putting a thin finger to his chin, the old man seemed to think. ‘Well, you know, I’m not so sure,’ he said. ‘Somewhere, I guess…’

Geoff fished a crumb of toast from between his teeth. He sighed. He’d had a feeling. This morning, when he woke up. Nance had been standing at the dresser, pulling on her underwear and tights and he had watched her for a few seconds, his eyes groggy with sleep.

He’d had a feeling it was going to be one of those days. He stood up. ‘I’ll call someone,’ he said to the old man. ‘Do you want me to call someone?’

The old man looked at Geoff for a moment. Then, pursing his bottom lip, he held out a hand, palm up, as if to say ‘Be my guest’. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘You can call someone.’

Geoff thought. Walking into the hall, he found the Yellow Pages and flicked through it. He picked up the phone, looking at himself in the mirror that hung above the tall telephone table. He straightened his moustache, noticing a slight dent in the skin above his left eye. He wasn’t sure it had been there the day before. He keyed in the number.

‘Green Tree Nursing Home, Karen speaking. How can I help?’ The woman’s voice was cheerful, upbeat. Geoff thought about Nance, at the pharmacy all day, talking to customers. Talking about their boils and their blood sugars. Talking about their haemorrhoids.

‘I have a man,’ he said. ‘In my kitchen. I think he might be one of yours.’

The woman on the other end of the line was silent for a moment. Then she sighed. ‘They do that,’ she said. ‘They do that a lot. Wander.’

Geoff nodded at the mirror, saying nothing.

‘Do you have a name?’ the woman asked.

My name?’ asked Geoff.

‘His name.’

Geoff could hear the clack of computer keys in the background. He put a hand over the mouthpiece, feeling the warmth of his own breath on his skin as he spoke. ‘Sir?’ he called into the kitchen. ‘Do you have a name? She wants a name.’

Slowly, the old man stood and walked to the doorway between the kitchen and the hall, his arms dangling by his sides like heavy pendulums. To Geoff, everything the old man did seemed to take a very long time. ‘Sure,’ the old man said. ‘Sure, I have a name.’

‘What’s your name?’ Geoff asked.

The man chewed his bottom lip. ‘Frank,’ he said eventually. ‘My name’s Frank.’ Turning, he shuffled back towards the table, the soles of his slippers slapping against his heels.

Geoff turned back to the phone. ‘Frank,’ he said. ‘He says his name is Frank.’

The woman repeated the name slowly, as if she were writing it down or typing it into a computer. Then she said, ‘I’ll send someone. Someone will be there shortly.’

Geoff told her the address and hung up the phone. Looking at it for a moment, he wondered if he should call Nance. If he should tell Nancy there was a man in the house. He wondered what she would say. If she would tell him what to do, how best to handle the situation. He should have closed the door, Nance would have said before anything else. Geoff walked back to the kitchen.

The old man looked at him, his grey eyes wide and watery.

‘They’re coming,’ Geoff said. ‘Someone’s coming for you.’

The man nodded. ‘They do that,’ he said. ‘Usually’

Half an hour later, there was a knock at the door. When Geoff opened it, a short, balding man wearing a navy-blue polo shirt stepped into the hall, his hand lifted in a half-wave. Behind him, in front of the house, a minibus of sorts blocked the view of the street.

‘Frank?’ the man asked.

Geoff shook his head. ‘Frank’s in the kitchen,’ he said. ‘I made him coffee.’

The short, balding man lifted his chin. ‘Coffee,’ he said. ‘He’ll love that.’ He walked through to the kitchen, the pitch of his voice making Geoff wince. ‘Time to go, Frank.’

Standing in the doorway, Geoff watched as Frank slowly pushed himself up from the table, the old man’s breathing laboured as if he were carrying a heavy load. He moved aside to let the two men pass.

Frank looked at Geoff. ‘Thanks for the coffee,’ he said.

Geoff nodded. He stood at the open front door and watched as the two men walked the length of the driveway, the balding man’s hand cupping Frank’s elbow. Closing the door, he walked back into the kitchen.

***

After dinner, Geoff told Nance about the old man.

‘In the house?’ Nance asked. Nance looked tired. Dark smudges circled her eyes and, leaning slightly to one side, she held a hand to her hip.

Geoff nodded. He indicated the back door. ‘Just walked in,’ he said. ‘Just like you and me. Cool as a cucumber.’

‘A cucumber?’

Geoff nodded.

‘And they picked him up?’ Nance’s brow creased.

‘Just as if he were a parcel,’ Geoff said. Sitting at the kitchen table, one leg crossed over the other, he watched his wife as she moved around the room, noting how, every few minutes, her lips peeled back against her teeth. Then she would close her eyes. Just for a second. Watching her, Geoff remembered what she had been like when she was young. She had been thinner then. Always talking about how she would like a fuller figure. A fuller chest and hips. Straighter hair. She had had a little dog that she had carried with her everywhere. Like an accessory. Like a handbag or something.

Nance wiped a teatowel across the plates before putting them away. Clutching cutlery in one hand, she wiped the knives, forks and spoons then dropped them into the drawer where they landed with a clank. This was their routine. Every night since Geoff had retired. Geoff would cook, Nance tidy up.

Geoff lit a cigarette, pulling the ashtray across the table towards him. The ashtray was white, with a picture of the Eiffel Tower inside. It had been a present from their son Richard, who had gone to Paris on the Eurostar with his girlfriend Claire. Claire had liked the Eurostar. She had told Geoff that coming out at the end of the tunnel was like waking up from a dream. Geoff looked at the ashtray for a minute. Then he said, ‘Do you fancy a drink?’ Looking past Nance, he stared at the cupboard where they kept the Christmas whisky. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had a drink.

Nance shook her head. ‘No, I don’t fancy a drink. Do you fancy a drink?’

Geoff nodded, then shook his head. ‘Never mind,’ he said. He pulled slowly on his cigarette.

Nance was wiping around the sink with a sponge. ‘Have you seen my ring?’ she asked.

Geoff raised an eyebrow. ‘Your ring?’

‘Yeah. My ring. My wedding ring. I left it here by the sink last night. After dinner. I forgot to put it back on.’

Geoff frowned. He wondered how Nance could have forgotten. ‘No, I haven’t seen it,’ he said. ‘Where did you leave it?’

‘I told you, right here.’ Nance pointed at the sink, her shoulders stooped. ‘I swear, I left it right here. Now it’s gone.’

Geoff stubbed out his cigarette. Stubbed it right into the tip of the Eiffel Tower. Standing, he walked over to the sink. ‘Are you sure you didn’t knock it down?’ he asked, peering into the drain. ‘When you were washing the dishes?’

Nance scoffed. ‘Well, no, I’m not sure. Not a hundred percent.’ She put both of her hands on her hips, making a triangle with each arm. On her left hand, Geoff could see a white band circling the third finger where her ring should have been. ‘I’ll tell you what I am sure of though.’

‘What?’ Geoff asked. ‘What are you sure of?’ He wondered what it was his wife could be so sure of when he himself didn’t feel sure of anything. Waking up every morning, he couldn’t even be sure what day it was.

‘I’m sure,’ Nance said, ‘that there’s more of a chance your old man took it than of me knocking it down the sink.’

Geoff’s mouth fell open. Moving back to the table, he fell heavily into a chair. He took another cigarette from the packet and put it in his mouth. Then he took it out again and held it between his fingers. Whilst Nance and he had been talking about the ring, he had completely forgotten about the old man.

‘The old man,’ he said.

‘Yeah, sure. The old man,’ Nance agreed. She lifted one shoulder. ‘Who else?’

Geoff looked at the back door. He thought about the old man, wandering in. He thought about him shuffling between the table and the doorway in his slippers whilst Geoff was on the phone. Shuffling back again. He thought about the short, balding guy who had come to pick up Frank, walking the old man down the driveway, guiding him by the elbow. He shrugged. ‘Hell, I don’t know,’ he said.

Nance’s face was turning red. She stood at the sink, one hand resting against the counter, the other pointing a forefinger at Geoff. ‘Well, I sure know,’ Nance said. ‘I know that, tomorrow, you’ll have to go and see this…this…’ she spread her hands, ‘this whatshisname…’

‘Frank’ Geoff said.

‘This Frank,’ Nance said. ‘Go see this Frank and ask him where the hell my ring is.’

Geoff looked at Nance. He looked at the threads of grey that ran through her hair. He looked at the spidery veins that travelled her cheeks. He nodded. ‘Okay,’ he said.

***

The next day, Geoff looked in the Yellow Pages for the nursing home’s address. Finding his car keys, he took off his slippers and put on his shoes, tying the laces into small, neat knots. He went out of the door and, climbing into the car, backed it out of the drive. He drove to the end of the road before turning right, then left, then right again. The nursing home was only ten minutes away, Geoff having passed it many times on his way home from work. After parking and climbing out, Geoff looked up. The day’s weather was grey and drizzly, the sky a blanket of cloud that stretched from one horizon to the other. He walked towards the home, the gravel crunching beneath his feet, rows of dim windows staring at him.

Geoff pressed the entrance buzzer, announced himself. The door slid open. Behind the reception desk, a tall woman smiled, a shock of curly red hair piled up high on her large head. One of her front teeth crossed over the other. Geoff wondered if it was the same girl he had spoken to on the phone the day before. He smiled back. ‘Frank,’ he said. ‘I’m here to see Frank.’ He thought about Nance and how he had gone to visit her when she had had her hip done, taking magazines for her to read. A book. A clean nightdress. Underwear. Perhaps he should have called ahead. Perhaps the nursing home had set visiting times.

The woman nodded, pointing to an open notebook that lay on the desk in front of her. ‘Sign in here, please.’

Geoff signed and the woman gave him a lanyard to wear around his neck, the sharp-cornered, plastic pendant bearing the word ‘Visitor’ in large, black letters.

The woman pointed along the corridor. ‘Frank’s in the day room.’

The day room was decorated in tones of beige and brown, an array of various-sized, leatherette chairs sitting in circles around wooden tables. Walking in, Geoff looked around. A dozen or so elderly men and women were scattered around the room, most of them sitting at the tables, some of them leaning forward, chatting to each other animatedly. Some, gathered around a tea trolley, poked their gnarled fingers into a variety box of biscuits before taking cups of tea poured for them by a careworker in a blue and white striped tabard. To Geoff, it seemed that all of them moved very slowly, almost in slow motion, as if anything sudden might cause them to have an aneurism. An aneurism or, maybe, a fall. One or the other. One or two of them sat slumped in the most comfortable-looking of the chairs, their mouths hanging open as they dozed. Geoff wondered how long they had been there. Imagined a cleaner giving them a once over with a yellow duster before the place shut down for the evening. He looked at a woman in a chair near to the door, her chin shining with a trail of saliva. Geoff heard a soft snore coming from her mouth.

Moving further into the room, he spotted Frank, sitting at a table by himself. In front of him, a chessboard lay open, the pieces having been moved to various positions around the board. Geoff walked over, lifting his hand in a half-wave.

‘Hey, Frank.’ Pulling out a chair, he sat opposite the old man.

Frank frowned. Lifting his head, he looked at Geoff then looked back down at the chessboard.

Geoff leaned forward. To get Frank’s attention, he touched the old man’s hand, the skin dry and leathery. ‘Hey, Frank’ he said. ‘It’s me, Geoff. Remember? You came to my house yesterday. Remember?’

Frank nodded slowly. He didn’t look at Geoff. ‘Yeah, I remember.’ He pointed a finger at the chessboard. ‘You play?’

Geoff shook his head. ‘Nah, I never learned.’ He remembered how Nance had tried to teach him once. Nance was good at chess. She had taught Richard to play when he was just eight or so. Eight or something like that. ‘My wife,’ he said. ‘She plays.’ He wondered how long Frank’s game had been going. Imagined the old man taking an age to make a move. Like, a decade or something. Some other poor soul wandering along to counteract it. Another age.

Frank nodded. He put a finger to his lips, then pointed it at Geoff. ‘I used to live in that house,’ he said.

Geoff blinked. He held a hand to his chest. ‘My house?’ He pictured Frank at the kitchen table in his slippers. Frank at the kitchen table whilst Nance moved around him, tidying away the dishes.

Frank nodded. ‘Yeah. Yeah, your house.’

Geoff thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘Boy,’ he said. ‘That must’ve been some years ago.’ Looking at the ceiling, the long, harsh strip lights causing his eyes to crinkle, he tried to work out how long he and Nance had lived in the house. It must have been some three decades, he thought. More. Since just before Richard was born. They had moved in when Richard was a baby, Geoff clearly remembering the day his son had started to walk, pulling himself up by a table in the hall of the house at only ten or eleven months old like some kind of mountaineer. That’s what he had looked like. Something like that. Nance had taken a photograph. Geoff looked across the table at Frank, seeing the old man’s hand, hovering above the head of a bishop, quivering slightly. He wondered if the entire board was in danger of crashing to the floor.

Frank nodded. ‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘You’re right. A long time.’

Geoff looked up as the tea trolley approached, one wheel rattling loudly as the woman in the blue and white tabard pushed it towards them. Her hair, bunched together in a net beneath a square blue cap, brought to Geoff’s mind an air hostess he remembered from the holiday he and Nance had taken in Turkey three or four years before. Geoff had still been working then. He had been glad of the time off.

‘Tea, Frank?’ The woman’s voice was deep, almost like a man’s. A thin wisp of steam rose from the pot in front of her.

Frank shrugged. He didn’t look up.

The woman poured the tea. She added milk and, putting a biscuit on the saucer, placed the cup in front of Frank, perching it on the edge of the table beside the chessboard. She turned to Geoff. ‘Tea?’

Geoff smiled. Taking a cup and saucer from the woman, he steadied it to stop it rattling. Insipid brown liquid sloshed over the side, creating a dark patch on the plain digestive beneath. Resting it against the edge of the table, he watched the woman move away. He looked at Frank. ‘My wife,’ he said, ‘she lost a ring.’

Frank looked up. ‘A ring?’

Geoff hesitated. He nodded. ‘Her wedding ring. She lost it. Yesterday.’

Frank blinked. ‘Yesterday?’

Geoff thought for a moment. Then he shook his head. ‘Never mind,’ he said. He took a sip of his tea, expecting it to burn his lip. Instead, it was lukewarm and bitter. The biscuit on the saucer looked soggy, as if it would break into a million pieces if he attempted to pick it up. He looked around the room. He looked back at Frank. ‘You lived here long?’ he asked.

Frank shrugged. He pursed his lips. ‘A while,’ he said. ‘A while, I guess.’

Geoff nodded. In the far corner of the room, past Frank’s shoulder, he could see an elderly lady being led away by a nurse, a dark stain filling the chair she had left behind. Geoff looked down at the table. He pushed his cup and saucer away. Patting the top pocket of his jacket, he felt for his cigarettes. As he looked up, he saw Frank pointing to a sign on the wall.

‘No smoking,’ Frank said.

Geoff sighed. Of course, no smoking. Clearing his throat, he half-stood and hitched up the leg of his trousers. He sat down again, wondering what Nance was doing. Right at that moment. What she was doing. From somewhere further down the room the smell of boiled cabbage was beginning to fill the air. Geoff pointed a thumb at the door. ‘I’ll be off then.’

The old man looked at him for a long moment, his nose seeming to twitch like that of a small dog. Grey hairs, sprouting from his nostrils, moved as if of their own accord. Frank blinked. Then he pointed at the chessboard. ‘You play?’ he asked.

Geoff rubbed a hand across his chin. He swallowed and sat back. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘I never learned.’

***

When Geoff got home, Nance’s car was in the drive. He walked inside, headed for the kitchen. Nance was standing at the sink, scooping painkillers into her mouth and swallowing them with water.

‘Hey,’ Geoff said. He took off his jacket, hung it on the back of a chair, tiny rainspots darkening the shoulders. Taking the pack of cigarettes from the pocket, he threw them onto the table where they collided with the ashtray. He slipped off his shoes, collected his slippers from the hall and put them on.

Nance swilled out her glass and stood it on the drainer upside down. Turning, she held her hand in the air as if she were about to start counting on her fingers, like a child might. ‘Found my ring,’ she said.

Geoff looked at her. Sure enough, on the third finger of his wife’s left hand was Nance’s wedding ring. A chunky, gold band that he had bought for her on their twentieth-fifth wedding anniversary, replacing the original that had become too small. Geoff still remembered that first ring. Still remembered how much it had cost. ‘Great,’ he said. ‘Great. Where’d you find it?’

Nance let out a short laugh. ‘It was in my bag all along,’ she said. She filled the kettle, switched it on. ‘All this time, there it was at the bottom of my bag. I must have forgotten putting it in there.’

Geoff pulled out a chair and sat. Taking a cigarette from the pack, he lit it, pulling the ashtray towards him. Looking down at the Eiffel Tower, he thought about Frank. About Frank playing chess in the nursing home. About Frank’s slippers and how they slapped against his heels. Blowing smoke through his nose, he wondered if Frank was a smoker. Geoff had been smoking for a long time. Since before Richard was born. Since before Nance.

He looked at his wife. ‘I’m glad,’ he said. ‘I’m glad you found it.’

The smoke rose in front of him, blurring Nancy’s face.

 

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Jacqueline Grima has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her debut novel will be released in spring 2018 by Manatee Books. Follow her on Twitter @GrimaJgrima

 

Image: Max Pixel

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