Clowning Around – R C deWinter

loud and infuriating
full of yourself
so boastful
egocentric
so
so
so MALE
shedding testosterone like a leper shedding skin

you make me crazy
why should i love you
when it’s obvious you’ve found your true love
and it’s YOU

and then i stop
simmer down
cool off
blink my inner eyes
and take a good long look
inside your shadow self

and there i see what lies beneath the raging clownsuit
you wear for everyday
a thick molasses pool of doubt
small boyfeet firmly stuck in that gooey morass
feeling unworthy
feeling unloved

but wait
i blink again
i have this habit
kindness
always playing out that deceitful rope
projecting what i think
always flavored with compassion instead of truth

now i’m flummoxed
and don’t know what to do

should i trust my intuition
help that small boy
if he’s real
come unstuck
or should i shut this down

take you at face value
and kiss the loudmouth clown goodbye

 

RC deWinter’s poetry is anthologized, notably in Uno: A Poetry Anthology (Verian Thomas, 2002), New York City Haiku (NY Times, 2017), Cowboys & Cocktails (Brick Street Poetry, April 2019), Nature In The Now (Tiny Seed Press, August 2019), in print in 2River, Adelaide Magazine, borrowed solace, Genre Urban Arts, In Parentheses, Night Picnic Journal, Prairie Schooner, Reality Break Press, Southword among many others and appears in numerous online literary journals. Her art has been published too, and was licensed to ABC for use on the television show “Desperate Housewives.”

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Tunnel – Wendy Burke

I’m in trouble. Big trouble. There’s been an accident in the tunnel.

It’s dark. Can’t find way to the cool air. Panic. Blood bangs where? There, in my temples.

Confusion, noise and medics they trying help. Voices say, ‘keep moving, that’s it, that’s it.’ Are they know I, the voices? They- the memory dark. It… it’s colder getting. I not reach the out. Legs no work. Begin shut down. It’s I- okay, stay here deep dark. Stay now in longest night. I-

‘Come on son,’ someone he shout, far away, like through water. They not. Give up. Hands on my head, my shoulders. Pull, pull, the wrench-pain of a limp-limbed beginning.

Then comes bright light of outside. Someone screams. Or it’s a boom of beeps and talk.

Man, woman – oh. Oh! Are you Mum? D-dad?

I am safe.

I am born.

 

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Sun Squares – Dave Alcock

It was almost noon on a Wednesday morning in July, and the year’s final weekly meeting of the village toddler group had just taken place in the Parish Hall. John Litttlechild, and a handful of other parents from the group’s organising committee, had just finished packing away and tidying up. The toys and climbing frames had been stacked neatly in the shed, the plastic plates and cups washed up and stored. John had swept and wiped clean the floor and now, since the others had said their goodbyes and left, it was his job to lock up the doors.

With his youngest son Blake trailing along at his side, John double-checked the fire-escape, and unhooked the main swing doors, but as he stopped at the doorway and put his hand in his pocket for the key, he turned around and looked back into the hall.

During the summertime, in the morning, when the weather is good, the sun streams down on the Parish Hall’s east-facing wall, and through each of that wall’s three sash windows it throws a sloping column of light. On the dark wooden floorboards, it casts three slanting yellow rectangles. At first, they are long and reach out almost to the stage at the front of the hall, but as the sun rises and moves west, these bright squares of sunlight shorten and change direction, until they strain towards the swing doors at the back.

John stood still in the doorway. His eyes settled on the sun squares, and for a moment he considered their change of direction and shape. “How strange,” he thought. “For four years I’ve been coming here, and never before have I noticed them change.” Then he looked up at the windows, and remembered something he’d forgotten to do. “I must just close the curtains,” he said to Blake. “I’ll do this, then we’ll both go outside.”

He walked over to the east-facing wall, and pulled two sets of curtains shut. Two of the sun squares vanished, but, at the third window, John looked up and stopped. Through the glass, he saw the small grassed garden, into which the children often went to play. It was there that they splashed in paddling pools, or hurtled on ride-ons down the sloping concrete path. There that they chased and tumbled, or looked at insects that lived in the ivy on the fence.

As John looked through the window, a look of sadness came slowly to his face. Blake was four. He’d go to the primary school in September. Their time at the toddler group had come to an end.

For a moment, John’s eyes closed, and he remembered all the things that had happened in the hall. He saw his children crawling in baby-grows, standing and staggering, then sitting upright on chairs. He remembered them climbing in his hands up ladders. He heard them giggling as they slipped down slides. He saw them baking things, and making things, and singing and laughing with their peers. He saw them changing their shape and direction. More clearly than ever, he saw his children growing up.

“Growing up?” John wondered incredulously. He went cold with a feeling of loss. “My children have ceased to be toddlers,” he thought. “The time of their infancy has come and gone.” He looked again through the glass at the garden. His throat tightened and his eyes cooled and blurred. And he hesitated, soft with nostalgia, wishing he could live through that special time again.

Then a voice groaned wearily from the doorway. “Come on, Dad! It’s time for us to go!”

John blinked and swallowed deeply. He took a breath and forced his feelings back down. “You’re right,” he said, and he drew the final set of curtains, and the last golden sun square disappeared from the floor. He turned around and went quickly through the darkness. And he said, “It’s about time we locked up the door.”

 

Dave Alcock lives in Devon, England, and writes about the ordinary people and places of the British provinces. His stories focus on psychological change and the seeing and acceptance of new things. His flashes have been published in print by Ad Hoc Fiction and can be found online at Every Day Fiction and STORGY Magazine.

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A Weighty Investigation – Duncan Hedges

Maxwell’s punctuality at mealtimes led Ann to suspect that his stomach was built in Switzerland, even if the rest of him was of pure Scottish stock. Therefore, his absence from the dining table one mild autumn evening came as something of a surprise. Not wishing to appear overly concerned, Ann took a walk into the farmyard, still wearing her carpet slippers, in search of her wayward husband. She started in the feed room but finding it deserted continued to the chicken shed, which was quite the opposite, though only occupied by avian residents. Finally, she headed for the milking parlour, but on entering, all she could see through the gloom was a large Friesian cow apparently in a state of levitation. The harmless beast looked at her solemnly, its big doleful eyes expressing no alarm. With a feeling of gentle resignation, Ann concluded that her husband must be up to his tricks again.

‘Maxwell?’ she called out in expectation.

‘My name’s Dolly,’ came the deadpan reply, in a gravelly Scottish accent.

It was the kind of humour Ann had suffered for the best part of 20 years. At least her suspicions had been confirmed. And when she finally remembered her husband’s latest harebrained idea, everything fell into place.

It had all started months before on the day of Dolly’s birth. She had been carried from the fields, Maxwell cradling her in a delicate grip that would impress the most learned of midwives. It was an action he had performed many times before but only with Dolly had he considered the long-term possibilities of such behaviour. It struck him that if he were to lift these same ungulate bones on a daily basis, then the incremental increase in weight would prove negligible meaning that one day, he would be able to lift a fully grown cow. Ann had received full briefing of the idea and had suggested that he trial it with a creature of more manageable size, such as a sheep or a pig at the very most. Not one to entertain half measures, Maxwell resolved to stick with the original plan and so Dolly became his subject for investigation.

As Ann stood looking on, it became apparent that Maxwell had no intention of returning the poor beast to the ground. Evidently, he had finished the milking for that evening, so Ann grabbed a couple of bottles and returned to the farmhouse, safe in the knowledge that her husband hadn’t suffered an inglorious farming accident. No, he just happened to be holding a cow aloft. Shortly afterwards, she was relieved to hear the sound of the front door, the power of his appetite having not been totally usurped by other activities. Her husband sat down and she bounced a large bowl of beef stew to him across the kitchen table. They were not the most talkative of couples at the best of times, often surviving on a series of grunts and purrs, but this evening Maxwell seemed unusually quiet and contemplative. Maybe he was reflecting on the irony of his unbelievable cow lifting strength being based upon a hearty consumption of beef. Or maybe there was something else on his mind now that his latest physical challenge had been successfully completed, as witnessed through the impartial eyes of his wife.

Maxwell got up from the table, his body uncurling like a party blower as he stretched to his impressive full height. Taking a bottle of milk from the fridge, he poured himself a full pint, the glass fitting his hand like a half pint would for any person of average build. He opened his gullet and took a long steady swig, his contemplative gaze slowly subsiding to be replaced by an expression of mischief and mirth.

‘Ann,’ he said inquiringly, ‘do you think there’s a market for elephant milk?’

 

Duncan Hedges lives and works in Leeds, West Yorkshire. He writes short stories in his spare time. He has previously been published online at Ellipsis Zine, Spelk and Bending Genres. https://twitter.com/duncan_hedges

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Whale Fall – Lisa Creech Bledsoe

Baleen whales can live a hundred years—
a fact known from generations-old harpoons locked
in the flesh of harvested whales—artifacts:
antique bullets, unexploded mines from a war
about which someone’s grandparents still have nightmares.

What will be cut one day from your body
or mine, that might be considered museum quality—
and what generation’s stories will be sealed in
such a reliquary?

Having made immense improvements to the diving bell
in the late 1700s, Charles Spalding and his nephew
Ebenezer proposed to recover silver, lead, and other
cargo from a ship wrecked in the Irish Sea. Seated
together in the bell, they were guided down with weights
but died, it was thought, after toxic gasses
from rotting bodies pinned in the wreck bubbled up
into their muscular, resolute shell.

Something in me bends away without my understanding
from the exquisite peal of swan and owl, burrows down
to a dreadful — or perhaps magnificent—lightlessness.
Our bodies grow heavy as if guided down by weights, and will
one day be given, or taken by fluke, weapon or
waters slashed to white by sea winds—

then we will fall like the whale,
whose curving architecture, whose mineraled vaults
and sweeping courtyards are briefly thronged with votaries,
then embraced by the current, and more tranquil songs.

 

Watched by crows and friend to salamanders, Lisa Creech Bledsoe is a hiker, beekeeper, and writer living in the mountains of North Carolina. Her first book of poetry, Appalachian Ground, was published in 2019 and she has poems forthcoming in The Main Street Rag, Front Porch Review, and Jam & Sand.

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Softly, Softly – Paul Nevin

Simon Markham had been heating water in a saucepan, but now his kettle had arrived. His new neighbour Mrs Stephens had taken in his Amazon parcel, and when he called upstairs to collect it after work she moved past their nodding acquaintance and ushered him in for tea for the first time.

He waited in an armchair in her neat living room, watching her son, or more likely grandson, Nathan (Mrs Stephens was well into her fifties, the boy about ten), bash two toy cars together in one head-on collision after another. The boy was still dressed in his school uniform, and he sat on the rug in front of the electric fire, on despite the warmth of the spring day. He ignored Simon, and the only sound he made was the explosion that accompanied each car crash.

Mrs Stephens came in carrying a tea-set on a tray. She set it down on the coffee table beside Simon’s parcel, and sat on the sofa opposite him.

‘So, did you know the area before you moved in?’ she said.

Simon nodded. ‘I used to live in a house just the other side of town.’

She glanced at the wedding band on his finger as she poured the tea. ‘And will Mrs Markham be joining you?’

Simon thumbed the ring and thought of Ellie. He guessed that Mrs Stephens knew the answer to this question— there were few reasons you moved from a house to a basement flat in the same town, and she’d seen him coming and going on his own for the past fortnight.

‘No,’ he said. ‘We’re separated. That’s why I’ve moved.’

‘I see,’ Mrs Stephens said. She handed him a cup and saucer. ‘You’ll be looking for a new wife then?’

Simon let out a hoot of laughter, more in shock than amusement, but Mrs Stephens didn’t seem to realise that she’d said anything untoward. She stared at him over the rim of her cup as she sipped her tea, and he realised that she was waiting for an answer.

‘I might let the dust settle on this one first,’ he said.

‘Do you still love her?’ Mrs Stephens said.

He paused, assuming he’d misheard her, but then realised that she’d really been so direct. He felt a flash of anger, and then confusion as to how to react. A weak ‘It’s complicated,’ was all he managed. He gulped at his tea, although it was still too hot and the room too warm.

She gestured at his cup hand with hers. ‘It’s just the ring,’ she said. ‘You’re still wearing it.’

‘Oh, that,’ he said. He meant to add something bland and innocuous, perhaps that it was just force of habit to keep it on, but he found himself telling the truth: ‘I’m just not ready to take it off.’

‘Hers was off right away though, I imagine,’ she said.

He thought back to the day he’d moved out, to sofa-surf with friends until he found the flat downstairs. That was two months ago. Ellie’s wedding ring was off her finger by that point, yes, but it had been absent for months already.

Simon offered Mrs Stephens a thin smile. He didn’t even know her first name; he wasn’t about to discuss his marriage with her.

Mrs Stephens set her cup on its saucer. He braced for another invasive question, but she turned her attention to the boy.

‘Did you meet Nathan?’ she said.

‘I did,’ Simon said, but the boy hadn’t even looked up from his cars.

She beckoned the child to them.

Nathan put his cars down and wandered over, staring at Simon. He stood beside Mr Stephens, leaning on the arm of the sofa and twisting in place on one foot.

Simon leaned forward to put his cup on the table, and a thought popped into his mind – fully formed and with an urge to be acted upon – that he has been an awful husband, that he had made a terrible mistake, and that life without Ellie wasn’t worth living.

The boy was still staring, but now he was smiling. The thought grew stronger, setting down roots, not just intrusive but compulsive, and as bleak and hopeless as depression. There was a hot water pipe running across the top of the bathroom wall in the flat downstairs, and he wondered if it might hold his weight.

Simon could feel a ring of sweat forming around his collar. He leaned back in the armchair, and the idea evaporated at once, a dark cloud that had blotted out the sun, but which had now passed by.

‘You’re doing it the wrong way,’ Mrs Stephens said.

Simon shook his head, not understanding, but she was talking to the boy. Nathan stepped forward, lingering between sofa and armchair.

Simon thought of Ellie, and how quickly their marriage had come tumbling down. They’d planted green beans together in the spring, but she would be harvesting them alone. Maybe he could call and offer to help? Maybe she would say yes. He jumped from one scenario to another, and in all of them he saw a way back to happily married life. And why not? He hadn’t been an awful husband and they hadn’t had a terrible marriage. They’d drifted apart – that was all – and that was a situation that offered hope.

‘I should get going,’ Simon said. He stood up. He would call Ellie as soon as he got back downstairs. Or maybe he would just turn up at his old house, and surprise her.

‘You’ve gone too far the other way,’ Mrs Stephens said to the boy. ‘Softly softly Nathan—she’s supposed to come here, not him go there.’

Simon had made it to the living room door. He realised that the idea of turning up at his old house – Ellie’s house now – was ridiculous. They hadn’t ‘drifted apart’ – they’d grown bored of each other – and that had festered into resentment. But earlier in the year he’d tried and failed to have an affair. Ellie had found out. That’s when she pulled the plug, before the resentment could boil over into hate. It was a wonder that she was still speaking to him.

He turned back to Mrs Stephens. ‘What did you say?’ he said.

‘Oh, it’s just a game we play.’

‘Is it?’ he said. He stepped towards her and Nathan, and felt a rush of excitement at the thought of Ellie, and an urge to run to her, to go now and never come back here. He stepped back, sensing that he was somehow stepping out of range of the boy and whatever it was that he was able to do, and back to his real feeling about his wife and their marriage: disappointment.

Mrs Stephens frowned. ‘I told you not to be a kid—I told you you’d forget how to do this properly,’ but Nathan wasn’t listening. He wandered back to the rug and picked up his toy cars.

Mrs Stephens pushed herself up and off of the sofa. ‘I’ll do it myself,’ she said.

‘What’s going on?’ Simon said. ‘You’ll do what yourself?’

‘We’d like to meet your ex-wife,’ she said. ‘It would be helpful if she could visit you. Then you could introduce us.’

This wasn’t funny, and Simon didn’t laugh this time. ‘We’re still married,’ he said, but he wished he’d told Mrs Stephens to shut up. He turned on his heels and left the flat.

He walked down the steps to the basement flat, cool air drying the sweat patches on his cheeks. Wait until Ellie heard about these weirdos, he thought, but she wouldn’t hear about this at all. Their split had been amicable enough, but they weren’t at the point where he’d be telling her anecdotes about moving out. And these two weren’t weird; they were just different. Mrs Stephens clearly lacked social skills, but she had invited him in for tea, and it didn’t feel fair to mock them, even to himself. A guilty gloom descended, and with it the vague feeling that this wasn’t the first time he’d felt down recently.

He got as far as the door to his flat before he remembered the kettle. He paused, keys in hand. ‘Tomorrow,’ he said aloud. ‘I’ll call in tomorrow after work.’

*      *      *

‘It didn’t work, did it?’ Nathan said. ‘Is the man coming back?’

‘No, it didn’t, and yes he is,’ Mrs Stephens said. She patted the parcel on the table. ‘He’ll be back again tomorrow to try to collect this.’

‘And will we try again too?’ Nathan said. He was still holding one of his toy cars, although there was no longer any need to pretend to be a little boy.

She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said. ‘Tomorrow I’ll try on my own.’

‘And will we be together then, like him and his wife?’

Mrs Stephens nodded. ‘Yes, just like them, Nathan. Just the very same.’

 

Paul Nevin is a London-born and based author of short dark fiction. His work has appeared in Fictive Dream, Idle Ink, Vamp Cat Magazine and XRAY literary magazine. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @paulnevin.

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Rooted – Davena O’Neill

Nana planted an acorn on her wedding day. You grew to be my best friend.

As a baby, I was protected by your thick green foliage, lying on a blanket, wondering at my fingers and toes. As a small child I rocked on the tyre swing Dad had made, safe on your strong limb, holding me as securely as Dad held Momma when they danced.

Golden summer days, picnics and barbeques, skipping through rainbows made from sprinklers, you stood smiling, squirrels racing among your branches. I hugged your rough skin and learned to climb to your crown, queen of all I surveyed; sitting there I could see for miles. I hid in you whenever I didn’t get my own way, until Momma would coax me down with sweet words or the promise of cinnamon milk.

“Good night” I’d whisper, and kiss your bark, your reply a sigh as I ran to the house.

I learned to count with your acorns, learned my colours in your autumn glory. Made leaf mountains, then dived into them, swooping gold and brown and orange into the sky. Raked them all up, to do it again and again and again. I swear you laughed with me, shaking your canopy in the wind to give me more to play with.

Dad teased me when I worried for you when the snow came.

“You want to put your scarf on it?” he asked. I said that was a good idea, and Nana helped me knit one long enough to fit around you. Dad just shook his head when I proudly tied it and gave you a kiss, then made snow angels to celebrate.

“Sometimes I wonder about you”, he said, then he and Momma joined in. The shapes of us stayed, side by side before you, until the thaw.

Before the next summer I woke one night to commotion, anxious voices in the hall, Dad carrying Momma to the car, her saying over and over “It’s too soon, it’s too soon”. Nana tried to hush me to bed, but not before I saw the blood covered sheets. I ran to you and watched our car till the red tail-lights blinked out of sight. I wanted to stay up there all night, but Nana said I’d only be causing Momma more worry and she needed me to be good.

I wasn’t good enough, Momma never came home. We buried her on a grey wet day, like she had taken all of the colours with her. You stood bowed as I hugged you; branches dipped low to shield me as much as you could. Dad drank and cursed, walked away when I tried to hold his hand, shut himself in their room. Nana said to give him time.

I found him hanging from you a few days later. Granddad took a chainsaw to your branch, angry as if you were to blame. Nana held me back as I screamed, but I never forgave him, any of them. Still, I suppose it was right we were both scarred from their leaving. We buried him with Momma. Granddad too, not long after.

In time Nana and I got into our own rhythm. She kissed me off to school, had supper ready for my homecoming. We sat outside every evening, in all weather, she on the porch knitting, I on a blanket leaning against your trunk, counting the stars.

Nana cheered with me when I budded, wept with me when I bloomed, shared my secrets, hopes and dreams. She became parent and sibling to me; weathered the storm of my adolescence with a quiet grace I hoped to inherit. I sometimes watched her from my bedroom window place her hand on the stump of your severed limb, counting out the rings of life her son would not reach. Nana was the only one who could understand how much I loved you.

My first kiss happened beneath your boughs. I pressed my palms into your bark as he pressed against me. Our romance blossomed underneath your shade, it was only right you should stand for me at my wedding. We dressed you with fairy lights and danced in your glow, paper lanterns on wooden tables, a stereo playing our favourite songs. I waltzed with Nana, her head against my chest.

“I’m so happy for you girl”, she said to my heart.

“Thank you Nana”, I whispered into her hair, “for everything”. But I meant especially for you. She left me soon after and we wept together, your leaves falling as freely as my tears.

Joe never really understood how I was with you. He tolerated it, for a time. But each month that I leaned my tear-stained face against you he pulled further away. I hadn’t meant to shut him out, I just knew no other way. Your children have spread far and wide, grown and multiplied. Joe and I hadn’t roots strong enough to hold our seedless love together. Once again you took the poison of my grief and breathed into me the strength to go on.

So many seasons have passed, with you as my constant, but I am growing bitter like the taste of your fruit. Grey hairs frame my wrinkled face; my limbs resemble your fallen twigs, dry and shrivelled. You are so much stronger than me, aging gracefully, still in your prime, I cannot last.

The knife feels heavy as I stand before you. I push away thoughts of your shock as I carve into your bark, exposing the smooth white wood beneath. I am doing this for you, to leave you something of me. I slice my flesh, press my palm against you, blood mixing with sap.

The wind rustles through your leaves and I feel a rumble beneath my feet. You open up the heart of you, as I step closer, spiralling as we are entwined. I should have known, dear friend, you would not let me depart this world alone.

 

Davena O’ Neill writes about moments, the small everyday events that shape us. She is a published writer of poetry, flash fiction, and short stories, and lives in Kerry, Ireland.

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Walls – Carl “Papa” Palmer

have ears
listen
pay attention
available
don’t talk back
or offer opinion
never interrupt
let you have your say

being the wall
should be mandatory
taught in school
at home
on TV
a college class
before marriage
prerequisite for politicians
and not just in America

 

Carl “Papa” Palmer of Old Mill Road in Ridgeway, Virginia, lives in University Place, Washington. He is retired from the military and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) enjoying life as “Papa” to his grand descendants and being a Franciscan Hospice volunteer. Carl is a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net and Micro Award nominee. MOTTO: Long Weekends Forever!

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Mealtimes with Milly – Leonie Rowland

‘Hello, and welcome back to Mealtimes With Milly. I make new videos every day, so you’ll never need to eat alone.’

I have been living, sleeping and eating alone for six months. There is nothing old about this city, and yet here I am, afraid of ghosts. I found Milly after eight lonely weeks, or one hundred and sixty-eight solitary mealtimes, in a quiet moment of serendipity, or perhaps divine intervention, that meant nothing at the time and now means everything.

‘I hope you’ve had a scrumptious day. Tonight, I’m eating cheese ramen from my favourite restaurant.’ Milly has a lot of favourite restaurants, but I phone this one all the same. My order follows hers exactly: one large bowl of cheese ramen with a soft-boiled egg and a side of beef rice. I have been a vegetarian all my life, but Milly wouldn’t like that.

‘Mmm, it smells good.’ She is wearing a yellow bow today, presumably to compliment the cheese. This tells me that she has planned her dinner with some foresight, which, besides her company, is more than I can say for myself. But my niggling sense of inadequacy is eased away by her first mouthfuls, the steaming soup, the moans she makes when it passes her lips. ‘Whoops,’ she says, laughing as a noodle trails against her chin like a slug. My mouth waters in anticipation.

Like everything that changes you, Milly made caves of my assumptions and called for re-evaluation. If someone else had been in my position when she pulled me from the pit, I might have laughed, or made a face like Milly did when she ate a plate full of lemons.

‘It’s so good to see you again. How’s your day been?’

There is a pause, in which I answer: ‘It’s been okay. I mean—it’s better now.’

‘Thank you so much for stopping by.’

‘You know I always do. How’s your day been, Milly?’

‘Let’s eat ramen!’ There’s always a slight disconnect in our conversations, but I have grown used to it and find that similar disconnects exist in my daily life. Since Milly, I have learnt to appreciate these gaps as profound moments of intimacy, the space where minds can meet, and I would venture my relationships have improved as a result.

It could be the excitement, or perhaps the knowledge that soon my body will be full, but I need the bathroom. Milly freezes with a spoon hovering seductively over parted lips, her little pink tongue just visible. I try not to go to the bathroom too many times because it spoils the flow of our conversation. Milly doesn’t like spoiled things. Once, she made a bowl of cereal, and the milk came out in large, quivering clumps. Milly screwed up her face, but she still looked perfect like that, like a little wincing doll. ‘It’s disgusting,’ she said—but looking back, if you mute the sound, void the expulsion, the words still look pretty falling from her lips.

When I lock the bathroom door, I often think of my mother. Sometimes I lock it quietly, so the metal barely makes a sound, and I can pretend it isn’t happening. Sometimes I lock it loud, with a flick of the wrist, quickly and with purpose. The door, I know, needs to be locked today, and I accept it. Sometimes I do it without thinking, and these times are the worst. A numb realisation washes over me and my clean hands when I try the handle and realise what I have done.

I don’t think she noticed me locking the door before I moved away. Or if she did, she thought nothing of it. I think that’s part of the problem. It put distance between us that she could not breach without breaking it down, and I am not sure which of us that isolated. The door was frosted glass, so I knew I could get out if it came to that, but I hoped it wouldn’t. There would have been nothing left to break.

When I was at university, a friend of mine liked playing the ‘imagine if’ game.

‘Imagine if your mother drove over and took you out for lunch,’ she would say.

‘Yes,’ I would reply. ‘Imagine that’.

Imagine if you came home for dinner one night, and there was nothing to eat but soap. Imagine that!

Imagine if all the toothbrushes came to life and became very malicious and started swearing. Would people still put them in their mouths? Imagine that!

Imagine if you locked the bathroom door and stayed inside for two whole days until your mother called the police. Imagine that!

My friend says I don’t understand the game very well.

When mother did come to visit, she banged hard on the bathroom door. If I think about it now, I can see the shape of her body in the glass. But she is already a spectre, here from another time, travelled all this way to haunt me.

Perhaps she did notice me locking the door, after all.

My doorbell rings, and I spring into action. The elevator pings seven times, counting the floors, and even though it is a logical impossibility, I hope it will be Milly waiting for me when the doors open. I have tried to smile like she does a few times, and I practice now in the mirror; but my face has none of her warmth, and I am suddenly aware of my skeleton. The delivery man is loitering outside, checking his watch, and I apologise as he hands me the bag.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ he says.

‘I hope you weren’t waiting for long. I’m having dinner with a friend, you see.’

‘The restaurant sends its compliments.’

‘It’s a pretty night, don’t you think?’ You can almost see the stars over the city’s spectral haze. I notice the moon is shaded yellow, so I add, as Milly might: ‘The moon looks like a giant bowl of ramen!’ The man looks at me suspiciously and, thanking me again, returns to his bike. I return to the lift and let the scent fill it up like steam in a sauna.

I had similar conversational success during a phone call that happened with my mother last Tuesday.

‘Hello, mother,’ I said to the air. Her voice arrived back, and I thought about how far we can reach without actually touching. She said: ‘Hello? Hello, darling,’ and then she asked how I am. Luckily, I was prepared. I have practiced my answer with a giant smile every night for two months. I know it is good because I’ve seen its reflection. ‘I’m very well, thank you. How are you?’ Milly always cares when she asks how I am, so I would never disappoint her with the truth.

My mother was well. She had decided to open a little shop in the village. That’s nice, I said. I think there’s something very sad about her hypothetically small shop, but I didn’t tell her that. The shop is pretty in my head, the kind of place I would like to go myself, but she looks wrong dressed in black among the pastel pinks and blues. I wonder what she’ll sell. I wonder if she’ll still buy me birthday presents or if she’ll just pluck one off the shelf. I wonder if I’ll like it anyway.

‘Maybe Milly and I will visit when it opens,’ I said, but I know that’s ridiculous. I have no plans to go home.

My mother said that would be nice, but I don’t really know Milly. It upsets me when she says this, because although four months isn’t long, I feel like I know her quite well.

‘Do you love her?’ she said.

‘She’s my best friend.’

‘Do you love me?’

‘You’re my mother.’

Imagine if I forgot to lock the door, and she tried the handle. Imagine that!

Imagine if she moved too fast and slipped on soap and hit her head. Imagine that!

Imagine if the insistent water forced her throat and found her lungs. Imagine that! Imagine that!

‘Maybe you could sell soap in the shop,’ I said. It’s a coincidence, really, because that night Milly told me she was opening a shop too.

‘It’s online, so you can visit it wherever you are.’ She has always been so thoughtful. I don’t think her shop will be anything like my mother’s. If it sells soap, maybe it will smell of her. I don’t think that’s out of the question. Mother said she was going to visit soon, so it would be nice to have a few Milly bars on hand.

When I return to my flat, ramen in hand, I am comforted by the glow from my laptop, which is gathering quietly in the darkness. The walk from the front door to the light switch, however short, always fills me with dread.

‘You’re home from a long day at work,’ says a familiar voice.

‘Hi Milly,’ I say, placing the hot plastic bags onto the table. Her voice is sweet, and I feel it stirring my cells. ‘It has been a long day.’

‘You are very special. Well done.’ I am suddenly filled with a deep uncertainty. I look closely at my laptop on the table.

‘You’re here,’ I say.

‘It’s so nice of you to drop by and see me.’

‘It’s my home. I have to drop by.’

‘Grab your food and get comfy.’

‘I’ll get you a bowl too,’ I say. But she is already eating. I walk to the kitchen, leaving her behind me. In my mind, I search for her shadow. ‘Would you like a drink?’

‘I love soup,’ she says. I empty a tin of tomato soup into a mug and place it in the microwave. I realise too late that it is decorated with her face. It turns smiling pirouettes in the blistering heat, and I am reminded of the day I moved away, when it was hot and disorientating, and I had no one. It was unclear whether she wanted the soup in place of a drink. I hope that by placing it in the mug she has the best of both worlds. I adapt quickly, you see.

I return and place the soup in front of her. She is paler than I remember, like her skin is made of porcelain. She has two red bows in her hair, and as she crouches over her dinner she looks feline, predatory almost. All she needs are whiskers, and she could be a beckoning cat.

She looks at me then. I feel it pierce my heart. She has always been so familiar. ‘Won’t you come home?’ she says. ‘Won’t you, please?’

‘I am home.’ I can smell something strong, like eggs, but I can’t see what she’s eating.

‘Please visit my shop.’

‘I will.’ I unwrap my food and break apart the wooden chopsticks. I can use them as weapons if it comes to that, I think. With hot mouths that taste the same, she is so close that we are almost touching.

When it is done, I place the containers back in the bag. It is like they were never there, and the thought of them arriving so recently and then being disposed of makes me want to cry. ‘I want to cry,’ I say.

‘I don’t like that,’ she replies.

I stand up and walk to the bathroom. Her face screws up as she watches me go, like it is full of lemons. I close the door, flick the lock. Only then do I realise my mouth is swollen with soup. I spit it into the sink, but it has burned through my cheeks, and they are red.

‘What are you doing?’ comes a voice from outside. I turn to the door just in time to see a silhouette advancing towards the frosted glass.

 

Leonie Rowland has just completed an MA in Gothic Literature at Manchester Metropolitan University. She was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award in October 2019 and the Reflex Fiction Spring Award in March 2020. Her academic writing has recently been published in the Dark Arts Journal.

The Cabinet Of Heed Issue 32 Contents Link

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