Miniature Warrior – Christine Collinson

Resting atop my enormous belly, the healing-stone feels smooth and cool, but it does not lessen the waves of pain.

Beneath me, the rush mat is damp with sweat. My lady passes me a cup and I sip the mixture, breathing deeply of its vapours. It helped at first, although that seems long ago.

I’m not afraid of pain but I’m afraid for my child. In the early months I was out walking when a storm swept across Texcoco and lightning cleaved a tree near my path. It jolts me still; the split trunk severed like a broken bone, smoke from its fresh scar rising to meet the rain.

I told my husband my fears. “We must hold to our faith,” he said, wrapping me in his arms. “You cannot undo what you saw, Tayanna.”

All night I’ve lain here and now, through the small window, first light is showing. Market-sellers and farmers will soon be toiling as usual beneath the golden sun.

Of all my labours, it’s been the easiest; I’ve three children around my hearth already. I might relax, but the image of the stark white streak doesn’t fade; shock has blighted me and buried deep, perhaps to where my child is curled.

My next pains are the strongest yet and my lady comes close. I grasp her hand. “Nearly there, Tayanna,” she says, softly. Her serenity’s a balm more than I can say.

As the sun reaches its apex, my baby is born bellowing like a miniature warrior. He’s the loudest I’ve known and I’m engulfed by relief. My lady joins in, rhythmically chanting to praise his arrival.

My heart’s pounding a beat to the sounds around me. “Thank you, Xochiquetzal,” I whisper.

 

CHRISTINE COLLINSON writes historical short fiction. She’s been longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award and by Reflex Flash Fiction. Her work has also appeared in Ellipsis Zine and FlashBack Fiction, among others. Find her on Twitter @collinson26.

Image via Pixabay

North Lincoln Avenue – Michael Igoe

Those ancient piles of freight sit outside the window./I pour another beer from a bottle,/this glassful of jinxes;/it remakes the time it takes/to quash a roomful of victims,/this place they breed in./At last, free of disease,/a crimson flock plays for keeps./They’re made of brass, in stone relief./Animals grow accustomed to cages;/when they leave, they meddle in water./They brush past strangers at the Quick Lunch,/they feel odd about their god./Shades drawn on a sunlit afternoon,/I’m grateful for this source of flickers./I stretch my arms before me,/I telegraph my moves./I dwell with speckled birds /I can paint them./Once more I head downstairs/,I jam machines guarding cream pies./Dressed out of habit,/for the wars of the Sabbath/to enlist you in my feuds./Mannikins come alive by night/then linger in the distance,/vagabonds who wait to ring/the bells on brass nameplates.

 

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Invisible Souls – Stella Turner

She was trying to be her normal self, invisible. No one ever acknowledged her, spoke to her, looked at her in all her years living here. But today someone would see her. Someone would remember her and she’d be on tomorrow’s six o’clock news. It had to be today! She’d never have the courage again.

“What did you say your name is?”

The old man cupping a hand behind his ear.

She was sitting on a frayed, dirty old armchair sipping Guinness from a chipped mug. At the top of the second set of stairs an arm had shot out of an opened door and she’d been pulled inside. For an old man he was surprisingly strong. He told her about working on the building sites, out in all weathers and how you never saw a rusty man. This had made her smile, well a tiny smile moved across her pale face. The old man noticed.

He thought she was his home help, or the woman from the social, or an angel come to save him from what he’d planned next. He was invisible but today someone would see him. Someone would remember him and he’d be on tomorrow’s six o’clock news.

She felt the knife in her coat pocket. It would be so easy to spill blood here.

He looked at the knife on the kitchen table. It would be so easy to spill blood here.

They talked for hours, visible for once. She felt a bit heady from the Guinness, she told him her name was Collette, from Letterkenny in County Donegal. She wasn’t. He told her he was Joseph from South London. He wasn’t. They hid their secrets well. Future plans and past deeds forgotten. Her visit to flat 6 postponed for ever.

Sitting between the nosy old biddy from flat 10 and the girl with the fabulous figure and the tumbling red hair from flat 6 she looked around the church, two old blokes from the bookies were the only other mourners. The Roman Catholic priest was talking about William Quinney but it was Joseph in the coffin. The solicitor had shown her the copy of the will. A picture of her at the bins with flat 4 scrawled on the back and the words this is the woman I leave my possessions to. Joseph had got the girl from flat 6 to take the photo and to witness the will. Collette was William’s only beneficiary. He’d told the will writer that she’d saved him from a lonely old age. Joseph was shrewd. He knew she wasn’t Collette.

The girl from flat 6 started to sing Ave Maria. Joseph’s final request. Strange choice for a funeral but the girl of course had the voice of an angel. Collette smiled, grateful she hadn’t yet appeared on the 6 o’clock news.

 

STELLA TURNER was sent to Coventry, England at birth. She loves the rich history of the city, its two cathedrals and its infamous ring road. She writes flash fiction and has been published in several Anthologies. Was joint winner of a competition held by the online literary magazine Deracine.

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It Wisnae Me – Leela Soma

Damien was kept behind in the class again.

― So, this was your review of the play you saw last week?

― Aye

― Damien, I’d rather you tell me the truth.

― What do you mean?

― Not your usual style is it?

― I like the play aw tha stuff about thievin’ an’ tha’.

― Well, I’m impressed that you liked the play but this’s not your work is it?

― Eh? I worked real hard an aw’.

― Not quite, Damien, how come it is word for word the same as Andrew Norton’s review?

― Wha? You need to ask him tha’.

―Come on now. Did you not copy his work?

― No way man. Nae chance. I don’t hang aboot with that swot!

― How come it is word to word the same then?

―Nae idea. Aw that in the play that wimmin Jam, saying Scotland stole aw that plantation stuff cotton and sugar an that really got me goin. Countries stole an aw, right?

― Are you saying that it is right to steal another pupil’s work?

―Naw just sayin that the play was good. That jakey sayin thay big building in Merchant City was paid by thay plantation owners. I liked tha’. An’ the poor in Glasgow jist stayed the same.

― Damien I’m glad you got the gist of the play.

―Wha?

―That you understood Glasgow’s history but coming back to the review …

―Naw miss, you’ve got tha totally wrang an aw. I’ve never touched Andy’s jotter.

―Then perhaps you could tell me the source of that quote that you’ve used in the review?

―Wha dae you mean?

―Where is that quote that you used in the third paragraph?

―Eh? From thay books you told us aboot.

―Which one, Damien? Who was the author?

―You’d know, miss, tha thick black book you showed us in class.

―Really? I showed you three books none of which had a black binding.

―Ah! I remember noo, ma pal Nash says to put that quote in. I go tha from him, right enough.

―Damien, I don’t have any more time to waste on this. Detention next Tuesday after school and you’ll do that review again at that time.

―Aw no miss, that’s my footie practice day. We’re playing Schools league next Saturday. You cannae keep me in.

―There is a simple solution to this Damien. Did you copy this from Andrew Norton? Yes or no?

The noise and commotion outside the room was sudden. Sounded like pupils fighting. Miss Cummings ran out the door.

Damien slipped out of the room quietly.

 

LEELA SOMA was born in Madras, India and now lives in Glasgow. Her poems and short stories have been published in a number of anthologies, publications. She has published two novels and two collections of poetry.  She has served on the Scottish Writer’s Centre Committee and is now in East Dunbartonshire Arts & Culture Committee. Some of her work reflects her dual heritage of India and Scotland.  Twitter: glasgowlee
website: leelasoma.wordpress.com

Image via Pixabay

Goya’s Dog – Dirk van Nouhuys

The dog is alone looking, seeing, finding no more than he presumed. Finding the past. Wanting the past to be the future, wanting not hope but satisfaction, the satisfaction of familiar smells, the satisfaction of familiar figures, the satisfaction of familiar selves, the selves around and above him now empty, now filled with sentiment but no faces. An eye, an eye for those above, those somehow himself and not himself more present in their absence than their presence. Is the future the past? – Oh such a poignant question! The poignancy is itself future! Is the future poignant absence of past love? Love of what is below the horizon line. The horizon line is bent uphill; surely that is hope? Hope does not stay. When will hope call him, offering him her red ball, the red bull of the sun setting. Let the sun not set until the future or the past has called him. Where are they? If they are lost, if they have run away or gone on to their other business, where can it be? Where is not the future or the past? Surely they love him there wherever it may be to the side of time. If he bent his head, could he sniff out where they are beside themselves to the right or left of themselves? But oh! If he lowered his nose to the ground, he could miss it if they saw him.

 

Image “The Dog” – Francisco Goya via Wikimedia Commons

Mindless – Timothy Tarkelly

Francine peels the color-printed foil off of her yogurt and digs in, careful to get a liberal amount of berries in her first bite. This is her favorite part of the day: breakfast. It is ten after eight o’clock, which is technically ten minutes after the work day begins, but no one really cares until around nine.

She is at her desk and Karen is in one of the plush, blue chairs against the wall (where clients sit), playing on her cell phone, occasionally making silly faces into the camera.

“Maybe,” Francine begins. “I am just having a bad reaction to adulthood. Like, more than ever I just want to go back to working at the movie theater. That was the best job ever.”

Karen doesn’t say anything, which begs the question, “Who is she texting, exchanging photos with at ten after eight in the morning?”

Francine keeps talking anyway. “Yes, my job is relatively important. I can afford things, that’s good, I guess, but really I just have bills. It doesn’t seem worth it. Do you know what I mean?”

Her audience doesn’t seem captivated and her yogurt is depleting. Is this a depressive episode, or does her job suck? “Do you ever just get sick of this?”

“Nah,” Karen finally says, barely.

Outside the office, footsteps are progressing through the hallway and both parties lock it up, hiding phones and yogurt containers, just in case the footsteps open the door and say something managerly: “What are you doing?” “When will you have the [mindless obligation that in no way reflects actual work] for me?”

They pass.

“How do you keep it from getting to you?” Francine asks as she scrapes the final film of yogurt from the edges of the cup.

“I just don’t think about it, really. I just show up and do my job. Let my boss suck. At five, I go and do whatever the hell I want. I do what I want at work most of the time, too.” She lets out an unnecessary laugh. Her laugh. It’s always unnecessary.

“At the movie theater, I just did my job and left. There was never work to follow me home, real or emotional.” As if the emotional drainage is better than the extra paperwork kind. “I just made popcorn and swept the floor. I got to see free movies, got free snacks. It was the best.”

“In high school?”

“No, the summer after college.”

Karen puts her phone in her pocket, which, as Francine has observed a number of times, countless times, means that she is bored and is about to get up and leave.

“Why did you quit?” she asks.

Francine ponders as hard as she can without showing it. It is a simple question, with a simple answer, but she is baffled (more like offended) that Karen would ask the question when she knows she is about to get up and leave and forget they ever even talked about it. Now, Francine feels only interesting enough to warrant four seconds of eye contact and it is used to ask a question that does not need to be answered, will not be remembered. Francine will leave and then the boss will come and there will be more eye contact, but it will be tired and frustrated without any known reason. It will make Francine feel that she is responsible. She will work as hard as she always does (but if she’s being honest, she won’t because she has also taken to kind of doing her own thing, using the internet to keep her mind focused on staying put and not quitting to go and apply at the movie theater), but no one will ever tell her that she is doing a good job. Instead, there will be (imaginary) tasks that didn’t get accomplished and no matter how excellently she performs at mundanity, or how effortlessly she wears mundanity on her furrowed and busy brow, someone will invariably come by to make a comment about how she could have gotten her [mindless obligation that in no way reflects actual work] a little closer to perfect.

“It didn’t pay enough,” she says.

Karen stands to leave, she laughs unnecessarily. Her laugh. It’s always unnecessary. “Yep. That’s life.”

 

TIMOTHY TARKELLY’s work has been featured by Cauldron Anthology, GNU, Peculiars Magazine, Work to a Calm, and others. His book, Gently in Manner, Strongly in Deed: Poems on Eisenhower was published by Spartan Press in 2019. When he’s not writing, he teaches in Southeast Kansas.

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And No Bird Sang – Richard Hillesley

When morning came it was snowing and I lay on a mattress on the bare floor, shivering as the light crackled across the window panes, fingers of wind nipping the buds, numbed by the cold and unable to move, chilled to the bone and dying for a pee, and a woman on the radio was talking to a man who had walked to the North Pole in winter.

– It must have been cold,
she said.

– Colder than charity,
he said, and a shiver went down my spine.

– When I boiled a kettle for a cup of tea the water froze before it reached the cup,
he said.

The light seeped in between the curtains. The wind rattled the window, and I lay beneath the sheets, immobile and stiff, dying for a pee, and tried to picture the ice between his kettle and his cup. I wanted to get up and dress myself but my clothes were strung across a chair on the other side of the room. I wanted to wash my face and make a cup of tea. I wanted to catch the bus and get to work on time, but my arms and my legs were stiff with cold, and I was dying for a pee. I dreamt of the ice and snow beyond the window and sank beneath the sheets. Someone moved across the room above and I heard the bathroom door open and shut and the mysterious anguish of the pish in the bowl and the release of the flush of the chain, and still I couldn’t move.

– How did you wash yourself?
asked the woman on the radio, and I didn’t hear the answer.

What happened when he went for a pee? I wanted to know. Did a dagger of ice shoot from his crotch to the ground and impale him in the snow? I wanted to know, but she didn’t ask the question and I never heard the answer I wanted to hear, and rolled across the mattress in agonies of procrastination and indecision, torn between lying in bed and the ice-cold walk to the loo.

Time went by and the voices on the radio turned to other stories and faded into the ether. My alarm went off and I went for a pee, my hand on my crotch as I went, and I ran down the stairs and made a cup of tea and walked to the bus stop through the ice and snow. I was late for work again.

A day or two later I was on a bus into the city and an old man sat on the seat next to me, talking to himself. This happened to me all the time, and I didn’t usually notice, preferring to watch the world go by and listen to my own thoughts, but he had a story to tell, and no-one else was listening.

– Johnny was lonely,
he said to himself, looking out the window at the road below,
– and they sent him to the North Pole.

I drew a face in the condensation on the window and stared at my reflection in the glass.

– It was cold up there,
he said,
– and there was nobody there but Johnny.

He had a scarf about his face and mittens on his hands. The snow was still on the ground.

– They sent him to the North Pole,
he said.
– and that was why he talked to himself.

I knew he was talking about himself. He sighed and said,

– That was why he talked to himself.

The bus jerked to a stop and I got up. I tried to catch his eye, but he didn’t see me, and the other passengers didn’t care to see him. The cold and dark had wrapped themselves around his soul.

– It was colder than charity,
he said, and stared into the void.

– And no bird sang.

– That was why he talked to himself,
he said, and I pulled my coat up round my collar, jumped off the bus, and went into the city, dodging clumps of snow and listening for birds.

 

Image via Pixabay

Passage – December Lace

It’s a lonely walk through the dark tunnel
All light extinguished
There’s no guarantee
He’ll be waiting for me
At the other end
I’ve left the cold, but it crept in
Keeps trying to attach itself to
The cloth I wear, snags in my hair
Wind picks up and enters the walls
No matter how far I’ve come
It follows me
Like an earlier sin
My velvet boots make echoes in
The hollow darkness
Rats scurry round my ankles
Away from my destination as
More wind slaps my face
My punishment for braving the night alone
I am unsure if there are
Any demons poking about at this hour
Dressed in rags or suits
Then my hearing fails
And it’s darkest at the end
One lone street light is on
The man with the dim coat
Isn’t where he said he’d be
He’s at the opposite entrance
Waiting for me across the street
But he is
There

 

DECEMBER LACE (@TheMissDecember) is a former professional wrestler and pinup model from Chicago. She has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, The Molotov Cocktail, Pussy Magic Lit, The Cabinet of Heed, Awkward Mermaid, Vamp Cat, and Rhythm & Bones YANYR Anthology, among others. She loves Batman, burlesque, cats, and horror movies.

Image via Pixabay

Timidity – Dan Brotzel

When Tony Bell retired at 57, he told his wife Simone that at last he’d be able to focus on the things he really cared about. She thought this meant Sudoku, county cricket, trad jazz, Radio 4 and the Battle for the Atlantic. She had no idea that he meant writing fiction.

Tony had a well-paid job as the Business Development Manager for a company that provided disposable self-testing drug kits to governments, prisons and sporting bodies. But it was a long time since he’d had any enthusiasm for what he did, and for several years now his working life had been a tedious round of calls to make and meetings to be seen at. Tucked in his little office on the sixth floor, Tony had spent much of his time discreetly plotting his exit.

He was good with money, good with figures. Early in his career, Tony had been in at the start of a PR agency that specialised in controversial clients, back in the brief window of time when being in PR was vaguely sexy and new.

The agency had quickly grown because of its willingness to take on high-paying if ethically dubious corporations (and even countries, in one case). An international media network had bought it out, and Tony had been a semi-willing casualty of the transition. The sale of his shares had given him some money to play with, and ever since, his canny investment portfolio had shown steady and gratifying growth.

His wife Simone had begun by admiring Tony’s way with money. Like him she was a careful, even frugal spender; both of them made sandwiches every day for work and always looked for voucher codes before they bought anything online. But over time, she became increasingly frustrated by Tony’s reluctance to do anything with their burgeoning nest egg. He baulked at holidays that went beyond Europe, preferred to fix up the rooms they had rather than extend or remodel, and insisted that owning two cars – despite the obvious conveniences to them both – was not fair to the planet.

What then was the money for? Though he had not realised it consciously, Tony saw now that he had been saving up to buy his way out of work. Early retirement – a dream he could now make real.

*      *      *

In the weeks and months before he left work, Tony talked to several friends and acquaintances about the transition from working life to retirement.

He heard tales of men who went off the rails, driving their wives crazy by hanging round the house under their feet all day, messing up their well-established domestic systems and routines. He heard of men who’d taken the plunge early without realising they couldn’t really afford to, and now spent their time reading the papers in the library and cadging the free-coffee stickers from better-off customers in MacDonald’s.

Then there were the smug ones, the ones who said they things like I’m busier than ever! and I don’t know how I ever made time for work! These ones painted, they ran reading groups, they campaigned to save hospitals, they raved about the University of the Third Age. I only wish I’d done it years ago! they invariably said.

Then there were the lonely ones, the ones who had enough income but had lost their partner or had little family around them. They told him to get Sky Sports.

Tony took from all this the idea that retirement didn’t really change you so much as show you who you’d really been all along. If you were a busy, social, life-loving sort of person, you’d have that kind of retirement. If you’d been on the run from your own life for years, retirement wold find you out. The thought alarmed him.

*      *      *

‘Time is our element – it’s the very air we breathe – but how often do we feel we are actually in time?’ intoned the contract Christian on Thought for the Day (the one thing on Radio 4 Tony used to hate but which he now listened to religiously.)

‘We talk of making time, killing time, losing time, saving time. But these are all reflections about time made from the outside. Lord, just for today, help me to relish and revere the sacrament of the present moment. Help me to live in your time. Just now. Just for Today.’

‘And this is indeeeed Today you’re listening to right now,’ said John Humphrys with a twinkle. ‘It’s very nearly a quarter past eight.’

And so to writing. Tony had always wanted to write, he just hadn’t thought about it for years. He had spent his working life saving up money to buy time. But without any idea of what to fill that time with, the exercise was futile.

But the time to write was now. It was, ahem, write now. It had always been now. While he was working, he should have been getting up early to scribble stories like Mary Wesley and Fay Weldon had done, jotting down dialogue in between ironing shirts like JG Ballard, or sneaking down lines of verse in his corner office, like that mad American poet they’d mentioned on Poetry Please the other night. Instead of checking his portfolio and plotting his escape, he could have been plotting his novel.

But perhaps some of the other clichés about time could still save him.

Better later than never. All’s well that ends well.

No time like the present.

*      *      *

Into the planning of his retirement – or what he liked to call his rewrite-ment – Tony threw all the very considerable strategic and time management skills at his disposal. He drew up a fiction-writing calendar populated with realistic milestones and solid deliverables. He factored in time for planning and structure, background inspiration, note-taking and drafting. And he stuck it to all, he delivered. He wrote like a man whose very life depended on it.

He even gave up The Archers.

Tony had always wanted to write a novel, but his idea was to build up to that daunting challenge by spending a year writing short stories. To give him extra impetus, he chose a short story competition to write for every month. His task was to hit the competition deadline every time, and by the end of the year he’d have a bank of a good dozen stories – any one of which might prove to be the kernel of something more substantial.

Stories began to fly from Tony’s PC. There were thinly disguised tales of men who didn’t know what to do with their retirement, scathingly satirical parodies of office life (often set in a vaguely pharmaceutical sort of workplace), and a historically scrupulous account of a submarine attack on a convoy of merchant navy ships. There was even a whimsical story about a man who became so obsessed with Japanese puzzles that he…

Actually Tony had to stop there, because he really couldn’t think how to end that plot summary, let alone write it up.

After a few months, Tony took stock. His stories had received no feedback, positive or negative, from any of the competitions he entered, except for one tick-box assessment (free with the entry fee) which had given him 4/5 for punctuation and grammar.

The stories were, he knew, bland. They were formulaic, they were feeble projections of his own interests, they did not sing. They lacked balls, grit, edge, risk.

The punctuation, however, was solid.

And so he began again.

*      *      *

Tony started to write about what he really felt, about the things he wished he’d done, and the things that usually go unsaid. He wrote a story about a man he called ‘Tommy’ who had always wanted to fuck a colleague in Marketing, whom he named ‘Jan’. There had been a moment once at a drinks do when something seemed to stir between them, but both had stepped back from the edge.

Now, for this story, Tony wrote for the first time about something that hadn’t happened to him: he pushed the couple right over the edge and into a passionate affair. He imagined them wangling business trips to visit key suppliers in Amsterdam and Stuttgart and Malmo – all just so they make delirious love together in random hotel rooms.

He wrote about the sex he’d never had. The inside-outsideness of our sex, he raved. Me-in-you and you-in-me, my mouth chasing your vulva across a hectare of pure white bed.

He stopped shaving. He began to drink as he wrote – Dubonnet mostly, it was the only thing he could find in the house. (They weren’t big drinkers.) He felt stirred, raunchy, sort of juicy. He couldn’t imagine this on Book at Bedtime.

Where would this story take him? Tony wanted Tommy and Jan to win. He did not want to see them get their comeuppance in some bourgeois dénouement of reprisal and recrimination. And so in the final scene, he has Brian the boss ask to see the illicit couple. They fear the worst. But in order to keep up their business trips abroad, it turns out the pair have both been performing exceptionally, securing new contracts and smashing sales targets. The final line went to the boss:

‘Keep up the good work,’ twinkled Brian. ‘Tommy, I need you to keep it up.’

‘Fair game,’ became Tony’s mantra. Everything to the serious writer was fair game. In the heart of every true artist, there sat a sliver of ice. Tony began to write stuff down as it happened. He wrote up his fantasies of violence and revenge, he lacerated friends and neighbours with frank portrayals of their foibles and their faults, he sent up the sexual conservatism of his own marriage. He was mercilessly satirical about the aggressive parking practices of his neighbours at number 32, and the casual racism of his other neighbours at number 36.

Still no one had commented on his stories. But – to cite another of his own mantras – ‘the great must wait’. When you’re doing something new and brave, it takes a while for your audience to catch up. The silence of the criterati was surely but confirmation of the rightness of his path.

*      *      *

Tony liked to rise about 6am and get down to an early stint of typing. To avoid the infamous tyranny of the blank page – something he’d never actually experienced himself, oddly – he always left off in the middle of a para at the end of a session. Simone needed more sleep than him, and if it wasn’t one of her working days (she did shifts at the hospital) she would usually join him for half a grapefruit and a bowl of porridge around nine, by which time Tony would have the smug feeling of a couple of hundred words already tucked under his belt.

But this morning, she was already downstairs, sitting at the computer. His computer. Looking at his files. A frown monopolised her facial features, and an arm of her reading glasses dangled pointedly from the edge of her mouth.

When she saw him, she began stabbing at the screen with it. ‘This bit here – it’s Andrea, isn’t it? The woman who knocks on the door of her new neighbour with a welcome present and says, “Thank God you’re not Somalian!”’

‘Well, yes. No. It’s fiction.’

‘And this bit here, about the man who gets a bang on the head and doesn’t realise he’s become sexually inappropriate with everyone… it’s Ned, isn’t it? Jodie’s brother-in-law?’

‘Well. It’s all about extracting the underlying universal truth from the particularities of the everyday…’

‘Jodie’s my best friend! And you’ve been going to The Oval with Ned for nearly 30 years! Did you think changing the area of the cortex would cover your tracks? How could you?’

‘…’

‘And this one. This filth about a vulva in a duvet or something. This is obviously about that Janine girl at your work you were always going on about. You told me there was nothing in it.’

‘There wasn’t! I mean, there isn’t! Her name was Jane. This is a story.’

‘Oh come on! Jane, Jan, Janine, whatever. It’s obvious! Everything else is just verbatim from real life! You’ve taken all the bad or sad stuff from everyone we know, changed a few names, and you want to pass it off as art or whatever…’

‘Well, John Updike said…’

‘UpFuck John fucking Updike! John Updike did not have a sister like Naomi. When she sees you’ve painted her as a narcissistic monster who’d rather attend a client piss-up than go and see her own children when they’re ill…’

‘Well you yourself have said many times that she’s…’

‘I might have said it to you. But I haven’t typed it up for all the world to see! Do I have to watch everything I say now in case you turn it into a story for Radio 4?’

‘Actually they’ve rejected everything I’ve sent them so far.’

‘You mean you’ve sent this stuff out? People have looked at it?’

‘…’

‘Please don’t tell me you’ve sent this Middleground one.’

‘…’

He had. The Middleground was his favourite story, the one where he felt he’d come closest to saying something true and real. It was the story of a middle-aged couple who, though they had enjoyed an agreeable and prosperous companionship for years, had never quite managed to connect sexually. Neither had had the courage to really discuss the issue, and over time their couplings had become ever more stilted and infrequent, and the awkwardness had started to permeate the rest of their relationship.

‘I cannot believe you are parading our sex life to the whole fucking world.’

‘I’m a creative writer!’

‘You’re a muppet and a shit.’

*      *      *

Alternative ending 1: Tony sighed and shut down his PC. Though he had what he thought was a much better ending for The Middleground now, he would not be resending the story to the BBC or anyone else. There would be no new stories from his keyboard of dreams.

Contrary to his brief hope, his argument with Simone about his stories had not ended in erotic ecstasy but in bitter recrimination and corrosive silence. Now he had a new project for his retirement – the salvaging of his 32-year-old marriage. A work of non-fiction.

Alternative ending 2: That night, Tony added a final section to his short story, The Middleground. It described a toxic, years-in-the-making row between his middle-aged couple, which ended with up with them getting shit-faced on Tio Pepe and fucking right there on the sofa with more urgent vigour and rough experimental tenderness than they had known for years, if ever perhaps.

He couldn’t have written it better himself.

 

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