You wait until the sound of his footsteps fade from earshot and you slump into your chair, putting two fingers to your forehead. You pull the trigger.
You have ten minutes to decompress, get back to yourself, maybe put your inner child in a playful headlock, kick her in the shins, yank her pigtails.
And yet you still don’t know how to deal with your patient’s lingering impression. It’s like digesting a stale boiled egg. His cat litter funk still remains so you pull out an air freshener from your handbag – pomegranate and basil – and spray the room like you’re a shaman casting out voodoo spirits. You gag on the chemicals, blinking as the droplets of perfume settle on the bed and your trusted leather armchair (the things it’s seen.) You’d like to take a lie down, but sinking into the patient’s warm indentation fills you with dread.
You hear muttering out of the window on the patio several flights below and you lean out and catch a snippet of conversation – watching as a haze of smoke blooms from a couple of chain-smoking clinicians.
“The last one was really nuts,” says Mrs Chester, the psychiatrist from across the hall (you hate psychiatrists, as all good Freudians do). She’s talking to another therapist who you’ve seen around the building but don’t know much about, except he’s a Jungian with bulbous ear lobes (you have serious doubts about Jungians, too.)
“She could talk fluently about UFOs,” Mrs Chester says, “the anti-Christ, chemtrails, yogic breathing, flat earth theory, kinesiology, freemasons, angels in this world and the next, all without taking a breath. And then she wouldn’t stop crying. Saving Private Ryan was more serene. I said to her, ‘Quite honestly lady, you are mad and you need drugs.’
You lean on the windowsill, gather saliva in your mouth and gob it out. You hear a yelp from below and then you rush across the hall to Mrs Chester’s door. You pop an obscene amount of double mint gum into your mouth (relaxing, relaxing, chewing gum.)
You gently close the door behind you and sneak into the room – gum stuck in your hair and stretching out to the door handle. (Shit)
You ransack Mrs Chester’s desk and you find red and blue pills in a tangerine bottle. What are these beauties? Experimental tranquillisers only the elite have access to? The ticket to dreamland, that’s what they are. You know it goes against everything you stand for, but nobodies looking and it’s what you need (and gum isn’t enough.)
You shovel half a handful into your mouth and immediately a fuzz penetrates the periphery of your vision.
Tea. You need tea and biscuits.
Gum is left in tangled lines across the room like trip wires and you clamber through the assault course, trying not to get caught up in the sticky strands.
You’re in the communal area, sipping tea from a mug on the countertop without using your hands. The liquid is burning your lips and dripping down your chin onto the floor.
“Wu lava bum on ya wheeze.”
“Whut?” you say, turning to face the voice that is playing racket ball with your brain.
“You have gum on your knees,” says Mrs Chester, as the Jungian leers over her shoulder, surrounded by what you believe is a posse of analysts all in black, brandishing scythes.
Pointing with a cream bourbon, you say, “I don’t like you people and I’m going to tell you as for why.”
(Why do you hate them all so much?)
The analysts stare at you like you’re a rabbit in a hutch, and then you realise, in a moment of clarity, these doctors hold the expectations of so many people in their hands, and you figure, because you’ve done the training, read the literature and taken enough of Mrs Chester’s pills, no matter how well-meaning these professionals are, they’re all full of shit. Everything’s just theory, jumped up ideas and you’re not having it anymore.
You try to tell them this but you’re busy gargling scalding tea and anyway the reality is you’re a therapist yourself and your next patient arrives in one minute (what happened to your life, how did you get here, maybe you should enrol in that mime course you’ve always dreamed of and perform outside the Pompidou Centre in Paris?)
Back in your chair, in your room, you place your elbow on the armrest and your chin on two fingers, ready to interpret. Everything is at angles. Your head begins to slide as your patient knocks and enters. He lies down and starts to talk about his dog. He doesn’t notice you’re far gone, and neither do you.
Tim Frank’s short stories have been published in Bourbon Penn, Eunoia Review, Maudlin House and elsewhere. He is the associate fiction editor for Able Muse Literary Journal.
Humanity’s last ship, Our Finest Moment, began burning less than twenty minutes after leaving the port. We all knew we were dead meat when we boarded the ship, but we were expecting to at least get a little sea-sick before being massacred. The end began when the Captain announced that the island paradise he had been promising to take us to over the duration of the last six months, through the radio, and thousands of thirty second video clips on tiktok, and millions of one-sixty-character tweets, did not in reality exist. He added that he had done what he had done because he was a pessimist. He berated us for having taken him seriously. He shook his head as if disappointed with us and told us that only children would take him seriously.
We had walked the length of a continent to get on his ship.
“You are a pessimist?” someone shouted from the crowd.
“Yes, I am.”
“But you gave all of us optimism. How?” the man asked.
“My pessimism told me that you idiots would fall for the bullshit optimism.”
“But if you were intelligent enough to fool all the survivors of the planetary apocalypse,” the man paused socratically here before going on, “shouldn’t you be optimistic about your own intelligence?”
“Are you saying there is no food here for my kids?” one of the women screamed, interrupting the back and forth.
The Captain shook his head and went back to his intellectual enemy.
That’s how the killing began. It had simple origins, first hand-to-hand with a smear of stabbing. But then blunt instruments cracked open skulls. Someone threw a grenade, and that really got the party started. In a few hours, Our Finest Moment was almost sunk, with the Captain’s mouth just above the water.
“I am about to die. I knew all my life this moment was going to come and it has—”
The Captain began gurgling.
“Know what, you are right. This sucks. Pessimism is tight, the rest is shite,” the man said, jumping in and out of water like a playful fish, “But can’t you be optimistic about— ”
The man began gurgling too.
Ranju Mamachan got his Masters in Thermal Science from the prestigious National Institute of Technology, Calicut, India. He is an Assistant Professor in the Mechanical Department of Manipal Institute of Technology. He sometimes resurrects dead writers in his class to the amusement of his students.
Olive arrived at the bus stop encumbered with bags, feeling like a packhorse. The bench was full. She sank deeper into her shoes. The length of the queue suggested there would be no seats left by the time she got on.
At least most of them would get off a few stops before hers, so there was a chance she wouldn’t have to stand the entire journey. She might have a few precious minutes sitting down before she got home and had to start cooking.
Dropping the bags, she flexed her cramped and reddened hands, creased where the weight of the shopping had carved stripes into the folds of her fingers. One of the bags tipped over, spilling groceries onto the pavement. She scowled and kicked it. A soft crunch indicated she might have broken the eggs.
Staring across the road around the queuing traffic, she noticed the tree-lined drive of the yellow-bricked Victorian villa opposite. Blossom drifted across sunlit patterns on the ground behind its gates.
A memory surfaced, of bundling a red cardigan and lumpy canvas bag of books into her mother’s arms, to run home from school down a street like this one and across a field with buttercups and grasses as high as her head. She felt again the pull of grass caught in the buckles of her shoes, the tickle of seeds and petals in her socks. Her running self: a Stone Age warrior chief, a fleet-footed elf, a horse escaping from a cruel owner to reunite with the herd.
Once home, Olive would go straight out to the garden swing. She went so high, she almost took off over the trees. She spent hours on that swing. Standing: a bareback circus rider, a daredevil walking the wings of a bi-plane. Sitting: an aviatrix, a dragon-rider, an eagle. Landing, feet tumbling along the ground, she changed worlds, reluctant to go in for tea and account for the grass stains on her clothes, wash her grubby hands and sit up straight, recite what she’d learned at school today; pulled back to duty, chores and homework.
Her mind returned to the spilt packages around her, the weight of the bags jabbing her legs when she walked, the endless list of tasks in her head competing with a dull job that never paid quite enough.
She stamped her aching foot.
Sparks flew. She looked down. Instead of her shabby, down-at-heel shoes her long white legs ended in hooves. Looking behind her, she saw a glossy white back and a fine white tail.
Lowering her head, she nuzzled an apple from the shopping bag, soft lips enclosing and lifting it, rolling the cold smooth shape into her mouth. She crunched with strong teeth. It tasted vivid, vibrant and green.
Olive stretched out her arms. They felt longer, heavier, powerful. Whoosh! She looked. Her arms ended in…feathers? Wings! She moved them, creating a breeze that ruffled the clothing of the people in the queue but they didn’t seem to notice anything strange.
Whomp! Whoosh! Her hooves lifted off the ground. Still, no one noticed. She turned, kicking over the grocery bags and with a clatter, left the ground and swooped high over the street of Victorian villas and away towards green fields.
A new writer, Kate Leimer enjoys stories of all kinds. She has stories in ‘Hysteria 7 Anthology 2020’, ‘The Wondrous Real Magazine’, ‘Fudoki’, TL;DR Press ‘Hope’, Bluesdoodles and ‘Idle Ink’. She was shortlisted in the Cranked Anvil Flash Competition. When not writing, she works in a library. Twitter: @hollypook Pronoun: She/her
You laugh in your sleep. The bed quivers beneath me as your body shakes. You never remember in the morning. Smiling in puzzlement at my amusement.
It was your night time laughter that ensnared me long ago; I fell in love to the music of your dreams. As we sleep you pull me tight against you. Your body is a shield to protect me, to entrap me. I sleep in a fortress of your arms and eyes and lips.
Once you cooked for me, wooing me with creamy carbonara. We danced bare foot and you held my wine glass for me, admonishing me not to drink too fast. Too late, I was already intoxicated.
When you first threw a glass it was only a fine line in the carapace of our love. You kissed my temple in apology. Thin cracks are easily filled.
There was a time you traced the back of my knees with your tongue and rained kisses upon the small of my back. You still rain upon me but the kisses are long gone.
You were an Adonis to my Aphrodite. Now your muscle is overlaid with beer. My cooking is to blame, I wear fear like a mantle.
Our home reeks with the stench of your anger. Testosterone and sweat and fury. Surely once you smelt of baby shampoo and sunshine? Was your childhood stolen as your rage steals the voices of our children?
Your break my jaw. When I scream your name it falls into the wasted shell of our marriage.
Red and blue light flickers upon the house; a desert poisoned by blood and snot and tears. You glare at me as they handcuff you. The demand for my silence bows my head. I almost succumb, my throat scarred with swallowing my shame.
You have twenty-four hours to vacate the premises. The Sale of the Property located at 502 North Wendon Street will be held between the hours of 9:00 AM and 11:00 AM, June the 6th, 2009.
She had discarded the other papers; notice after notice had arrived, taped to the door, their block letters screaming at her while she fumbled for her key. She had ripped them, torn them, scrunched them and had finally shoved them deep into the trashcan, so the juices from the rotten meats and orange peels would soak and destroy them.
But she leaves this notice on the door so her husband will see it.
After, her husband begins shoving things in trash bags: pots, pans, stacks of unpaid bills, magazines, mystery novels, hand-sewn scrapbooks, souvenirs, letters, the kids’ old toys, Christmas ornaments, Halloween decorations, cookie cutters. He tosses the mountain of bags to the curb.
He fills his car with furniture and power tools and the television and his Playboy magazines. He drives to a friend’s house, dumps the stuff in the garage, and then comes back for more. There are so many trips back and forth that she loses count. She tries to pack the china and crystal, but her hands shake so badly that she drops them, and they form a layer of ice at her feet.
Later, her husband screams at her to Get up! Move! and he slaps her face and says You bitch.
But she had known they had no money. She would look for money by sliding her hands under couch cushions, picking up change from parking lots and swiping coins from wishing wells. The empty refrigerator would mock her. So she would slip cheese sticks and protein bars into her pockets at the supermarket. Once, she had walked out with an entire bag of groceries without paying. When there was no money left, she had thrown away the bills and they had come and taken away the garbage cans, the snow blower and her car. They had cut off the phone and the Internet and the cable. The worry would gnaw at her, but she had told no one. And no one had noticed. The kids had grown up and moved away, and her husband spent his evenings at the bar and then would come home and drill her like a dentist does to a rotten tooth.
Now, he drags her by her hair out the front door and onto the porch. He leaves her, like an abandoned rag doll. He takes the lawn mower and the rakes and the hedge clippers and drives away. The neighbors are picking through their trash and standing on the lawn, gawking.
She lays there on the porch, like a decimated scarecrow. She guards the house, though the Foreclosure Notice is above her head, a giant invitation for looters. At midnight, an old lady drags the rest of the trash bags away. At 2:00 AM, the neighbor with the spare key goes in the back door and roots through her lingerie. At 4:00 AM, a group of thugs come by and smash all the windows and graffiti obscene words on the white siding. They uproot her begonias and slice the heads off the peonies and steal the fertilizer to build bombs.
When the house and yard are stripped bare, everyone leaves, and she lays there, waiting for morning.
Sarah Daly is an American writer with work in the The Round and Litbreak Magazine.
I worked there for thirty years, I enjoyed my job, I had the responsibility of being a liaison for public events, and since we had been colonialized, we partook in demonstrations as a display of our ability to thrive and think for ourselves. Although we had been colonialized for more than sixty-nine years when I first took the job, I was also born there so knew no other life.
Part of my job was to be the middleman between law enforcement and demonstrators, and sometimes we had very thought-provoking conversations about understanding each other’s sentiments: the demonstrators and their understanding what our duties entailed, and vice versa. Activists applied for the right to hold a demonstration, there seemed to be no need to say we couldn’t, that was our job after all. Sometimes I noticed that the activists requesting permission were very worried we would deny them, and I would reassure them we would work something out, since we were all citizens of the city and we all love our city. Often at the end of the demonstration we would shake hands and say, see you next year. Then things totally changed, the main government decided that we were incapable of making these decisions for ourselves because they knew better. They sent their own representatives who had never lived in the city before to implement the changes. Suddenly the police had shields against the crowds, they didn’t speak, they put their middle fingers up at the protestors, and suddenly all the trust we built up together was destroyed with the first water cannon, the first push that landed a student on his back, the first gunshot. It’s not how I would have done this, but I was released from my duties as too soft, perhaps subversive since they believed the hardline was necessary. That same day I saw my son, eating noodles at the snack shop arrested and dragged off down the escalator for being a student in the vicinity of the protest.
All I can say is that I have a clear conscience. I never killed anyone. I never needed to, I would give my uniform to the protestors to protect them. Before the police and civil service helped and respected each other. Now the authorities regard anyone with a question or a statement that is not wearing their facial expression as probable suspects of arrests. Once upon a time, demonstrations like ours was what made us distinct from the rest of the country surrounding us, we had enjoyed the ability to express ourselves.
Will I leave? I have lived here all my life. There are still pockets of quiet places where you can imagine it to have the equality to breathe without someone on the verge of reporting you. My wife has left with our daughter and my grandchildren. She arrived in what she thought was a free country for a fresh start and went to the community center to introduce herself to those who spoke the same dialect as us, she smiled at the people inside who looked like us, and they shouted at her. They said she was the cause of all their comforts being at risk of being taken away. She was the cause of how there are anti-human hate crimes because she was closer to where the lab leaked the virus and she probably went to protests and vigils, and our city has betrayed the country—what country I wanted to ask, the one you don’t live in any longer or the one you live in?—they walked so close you could smell the pork buns on their breath, they told us we should get real and wise up. The Middle Kingdom owned the world now, and our city was but a turd to be crushed or washed off with a hose and they swore at her. She’s been afraid to go outside since. My daughter and husband thank goodness have medical research jobs so they have work, but she said if it weren’t that she had intermarried, she would have more trouble. She is trying to persuade my wife to go outside with her and her husband and their two kids. I am still here because of my mother, she doesn’t want to leave, she is 106 years old, and I think she deserves to say where she wants to live for her final years.
I don’t know, I don’t play mahjong, and I like to watch science fiction movies, so hopefully that will help me last this phase in our lives. I always thought things would have got easier when you got older because you had grown more savvy about how to live, but it seems just as uncertain as when we were young, except our bones, tendons, and muscles don’t bend so well, and our hearts and lungs don’t pump so well, and for some of us our brains still ruminate, rolling around unnecessary concerns turned into agitated thoughts.
I hope that my mother will have a good peaceful end. She is a bit muddled now, sometimes she’s not sure what’s going on, which is good, because she brought us out from the Mainland and we traveled by boat here, she was fearless, and she knew martial arts and protected us. I told my mother I would never leave her. I know things will change again, just as they always do, time will turn something good into something we can’t bear, and then that will end and something new will turn up that will seem good and turn unbearable. I hope that when I die it is during a good turn and not a bad one.
Annie Bien has written two poetry collections and published flash fiction in print and online. She is a flash fiction winner and finalist of the London Independent Story Prize, 2020, and a Pushcart Nominee. She is an English translator of Tibetan Buddhist Sūtras for 84000.
because they were not brushed with hope, not stroked by love.
What reason did they have to live?
But because they hadn’t heard how hopeless it was,
Each new tuft pushed up into life and died.
Published by The Emma Press, Sable Books, Medusa’s Laugh Press, Dream Catcher, Live Canon, Smith/Doorstop, Dempsey and Windle, The Frogmore Papers. From the Bottom of the Wishing Well won second prize in Paper Swans Press Pamphlet Prize and will be published shortly. Her full collection Amber was shortlisted by Hedgehog Press.
On orange days hell is hammocked in the plastic net satsumas come in. You always cut your fingers on it because the scissors are never near enough, and the pulling kind of helps. You do not actually eat one; they are probably tangerines, and you don’t like pips.
On lilac days hell is a small pink rabbit in a lace-trimmed dress who calls you “Madame” and tries to swirl a napkin on your lap. The rabbit smells of pastel-coloured candy letters that your grandma used to give you. You didn’t like them then and you know that you won’t now.
On deep blue days there is no hell because the sky is just so pure that you don’t have a glass good enough to pour it into. The taste of deep blue morning is the smell of fresh smoked salmon on a beach picnic. The deep blue day’s picnic blanket is babydownskinsoft because that’s what you choose to remember. The deep blue days are best but don’t come often.
Marie Little lives near fields with her husband, three sons and a very silly cat. She writes poetry and short fiction in the shed; one day she might finish her children’s novel. She has a Creative Writing MA from Northumbria University and a love of unnecessary stationery. She/Her. Twitter @jamsaucer
The night before he was killed by an electric eel, Pedro had hung multicoloured lanterns outside his hut, perched as it was in stilts on the muddy banks of the great river. Perhaps he knew what awaited him. His fellow villagers had often boasted of prescient daydreams, eerie manifestations of future events reaching back, tickling the present moment. There was nothing remarkable about Pedro except for his moustache, and a fine moustache it was, too. He was a fisherman who lived alone.
The multicoloured lanterns had reflected on the river surface from his front porch, and villagers had nodded wisely on seeing them. ‘Pedro has had a premonition’, they said. For it was completely out of character for him to show any sign of festivity. He had earned a reputation as being a sullen and uncommunicative man, no nonsense and hard to get along with. He would be seen most days, mending his nets, looking after his equipment, or selling his fish in the local market. But he wouldn’t say much. He never said much.
He was found the next morning in the brown waters of the river, face down. They hooked him ashore and the local doctor came down from the village to examine him. With a grand gesture and a flourish of penmanship, he signed the death certificate, then went to the local bat and raised a toast to Pedro. That night the lanterns on his front porch came on once more, and a crowd gathered. Poor Pedro. The river had claimed another victim. As mosquitoes and moths buzzed around the multicoloured lanterns, the mourning became a celebration and people danced and sung and someone nearby began setting off fireworks, and within three days, maybe four, most people had forgotten entirely that he had ever existed.
The local hotel was a spartan affair, hidden at the end of an alleyway of ugly concrete buildings with flaking paint and a criss-cross of electrical wires. She arrived on the twice-weekly bus, clambered up on the roof of the old vehicle herself and got her case down before the driver even had a chance. He leaned on the rear bumper and lit a cigarette, then watched as she pulled her case away from him, down the alleyway through a group of children playing football She booked into her room just as the sun started to set and a thin sliver of a moon took to the sky. The room had a tiled floor and a bed which seemed abnormally high off the ground. The plain white walls had the faint trace of a tide mark around them, three feet off the ground, and she wondered if this was why the bed was so high from the floor. She unpacked and then went straight to the local bar.
It was a ramshackle place of open sides and a corrugated tin roof. She ordered a red wine and sat at one of the wooden benches near the road. Alfonso sidled up close to her. ‘What’s a pretty girl like you doing . . .’. ‘Now just look here, buster, I’ve eaten men bigger than you for breakfast, and if you don’t want my fist in your gob, then I suggest you give it a rest.’
The barman wore a vest. Typical Alfonso, he thought. The whole episode amused him. ‘I was only going to offer you a drink’, Alfonso said. A ruddy man with a potbelly and a thick white moustache which only served to accentuate his complexion.
‘I know what you’re after’. ‘Bravo!’, the barman called.
Everyone was now looking at her. ‘Now that I’ve got your attention, what can anyone tell me about Pedro?’
‘Pedro?’ ‘Electric eel Pedro’, she added. ‘He had a premonition’, Juan said. Juan was the youngest one there. Red sports vest and Adidas tracksuit trousers. ‘That’s why he lit the miltitoloured lanterns. Tomorrow, I will take you to his house on my motorbike’. ‘How far is it?
‘It is maybe a third of a mile’. ‘I can walk thank you very much’.
‘He was a fisherman’, said Alfonso, ‘We are all fishermen. The river brings, and the river takes’. ‘He had a boat ‘, Juan said. ‘He would bring his fish to the market’. ‘OK, OK, you lot. You’re not giving me much. Listen, I’ll be in town for a short while. If anybody remembers anything about Pedro, then let me know’. ‘And we can find you? In the hotel? In your room?’ Alfonso asked. ‘Jeez, you really are a bit of a pervert, aren’t you? I’m thinking you don’t get to see much action, am I right?’ Everyone laughed except for Afonso. The red wine made her tired. She walked the short distance down the alleyway to the hotel. At the entrance she noticed that the electric lines on the wooden pole feeding the building were buzzing. ‘That’s going to keep me awake tonight’, she shouted through the open door at the old man sat slumped on the reception desk. ‘Lady, it’s been like that for years. What can you do, eh?’
She gave the wooden pole a hefty whack with her handbag and the buzzing stopped. ‘Simple’, she said. Slowly, the old man reached behind to the key rack, where the room keys were kept, both of them, took hers off the wall and passed it to her. ‘What time will breakfast be? He laughed. His shoulders convulsed. He didn’t say anything. He leaned against the reception counter and looked out the door.
The next morning was very hot. She spent the first half hour looking out the window of her hotel room. She was on the ground floor and she had a very good view of three or four wooden huts around a muddy courtyard. People lived in the huts. She could see them at the windows. There was washing hanging on a line, and a skinny, long-limbed dog tied to a pole in the courtyard. She locked her door and handed the key to the old man on reception. ‘Is everything alright with your room?’ he asked.
‘There’s a dog tied to a pole in the courtyard’, she said, ‘I don’t think this is right’. ‘It’s not our dog. It belongs to a neighbour’. ‘Does she have to be tied up like that?’ ‘I will have a word’, he said, ‘with the concierge’. ‘You haven’t got a concierge, have you? ‘No’, he said. The fish market was a large space covered with a flat corrugated tin roof. It was slightly cooler, although incredibly busy, with fish laid out on tables or in plastic tubs on the floor. People were haggling. Some of them stopped as she walked through and watched her progress. They nudged their neighbours and pointed. In the corner of the fish market was a small café, where she found the village doctor sipping coffee sat at a small round table. ‘What can you tell me about Pedro?’
‘Pedro?’ ‘Electric eel Pedro’. ‘Ah, I had forgotten all about him’. ‘How did he die?’
‘’His heart stopped beating and he stopped breathing’. The doctor laughed and sipped his espresso. ‘You examined him?’ ‘Yes. And I filled in the death certificate. I have, as it has often been remarked, beautiful penmanship. Maybe in a former life, I was a monk’. ‘How did he die?’ ‘Lady, such matters are not for . . .’. ‘Yes? Were you about to say, women?’ ‘Electrocution followed by drowning.’
‘And did you notice anything unusual about his body?’
‘It is not usual for someone to be electrocuted, lady. He had a very fine and bushy moustache. In all other respects, he was completely untouched’. ‘And you conducted a proper examination? Right here, in the morgue?’
‘Dead centre of town’, he said. ‘The morgue is there’. He pointed to a building in the corner of the covered fish market. ‘It is also the fish store. You know, nobody came to the funeral because he had no family, and people had forgotten all about him.
That’s what happens in this town. People can see the future, but they forget the past. We must have done a deal with the devil at some point.’. ‘The river brings, and the river takes away’, she whispered. ‘Sorry?’ ‘Nothing. Listen, what can you tell me about him? Anything at all.’ ‘He was a fisherman. He had a boat. The night before he died, he hung multicoloured lanterns outside his house.’ ‘I’m getting nowhere’, she sighed. ‘Pedro is gone’, the doctor said, ‘And he is already forgotten. If you stay here long enough, then you will be forgotten, too. That’s the curse.’ He smiled, and drained the last of his espresso. ‘That’s the curse of this place ‘And the death certificate?
‘Great’, he said, ‘Penmanship. ‘ Juan’s upper lip was perspiring in the heat. It was one of the few upper lips that didn’t have a moustache covering it. He saw her as she came out of the fish market.
‘I will take you down to his house’, he said. ‘You don’t give up, do you?’ ‘Neither do you’. She smiled. The heat was intense as they walked, and the road from the main village to the river bank passed through areas of marshland that had subsequently dried. Flood plains, she told herself. Havens of insects and creatures. Downhill they continued to the river, which was swelled by the first rains of the season a few days previously.
‘They have more places to go when the river gets wider’, Juan was explaining. ‘Electric eels. They hide, possibly. I don’t know. Mysterious creatures. But in the summer months you are more likely to come across them. Or unlucky.. It was unfortunate”. ‘Yes, very’. She guessed his age to be late teenage, perhaps twenty one at the most. ‘Are you a fisherman, too?’ ‘We’re all fishermen’. ‘Please be careful, when you’re fishing. It isn’t very safe”. ‘Generations of my family have made their living this way. It’s all they’ve ever wanted to do’. ‘And you?’ ‘Unless I go to the city ‘Is that likely?’ She walked in the shade of a tree where it was cooler. The road was dusty and rutted, the ruts having dried into ridges which could easily trip. ‘Maybe’. They came down to a wooden jetty, and then walked along the riverbank to a row of houses, little more than wooden shacks, elevated above the river on stilts. The second one along had been Pedro’s.
‘Someone has taken the mullicoloured lanterns’, Juan pointed out. ‘I already noticed.’ The shaded area underneath the house looked tempting but she knew that there might be spiders, or snakes.
‘People have taken his boat, his nets. They weren’t his’, Juan continued. ‘They’re in use already. We are not superstitious.’ She climbed the ladder and stood on Pedro’s front porch. She looked in through the screen window. ‘He led a veny sparse existence’, she said.
She then turned and leaned on the railings, looking.
‘Have you ever had a premonition?’, she asked. ‘No’, he said. ‘And you say that you villagers are not superstitious, yet you all believe in premonitions?.’ ‘Yes’. ‘Might it be possible that he just put up the multicoloured lanterns because he wanted to see and enjoy some multicoloured lanterns?’ ‘He foresaw his death.’ ‘If I had foreseen my death, I’d do everything I could not to actually die. I wouldn’t waste my time by going out and buying some multicoloured lanterns.’
‘They were pretty…’ She clambered down the ladder and stood with Juan at the water’s edge. She looked over at the opposite bank, thick jungle vegetation teeming with birdcall and the hoot of errant monkeys . The river looked angry, swirling with unseen currents in its depth, the water itself the colour, she thought, of hot chocolate. She was sweating. It reminded her how they had a long walk ahead of them uphill back to the village in the midday heat. ‘We should have used your motorbike’, she said.
And Juan smiled, excited by the idea. ‘I haven’t got one’, he said, looking down at the ground. I just wanted to impress you’. The whole village shut down for an afternoon siesta. She walked the empty streets, trying as much as she could to keep in the shade. The church was as devoid of decoration as everything else that she had seen, whitewashed and plain with a bronze cross on the altar, and it was at least slightly cooler in there. The roof was corrugated tin. She had never seen so much corrugated tin. She figured that it got nid of water quickly, once the wet season started. She wondered why Pedro couldn’t have died at a cooler time of the year. By late afternoon people were out once more. Alfonso was at the small bar near her hotel, as was the hotel manager and the doctor. She sat at the same wooden bench that she had used the night before, and sipped cola from a glass which sweated, feeling the coolness of the moisture on her fingers. ‘This won’t do’, she told herself. She stood up and advanced on the customers. The bar manager stopped what he was doing and he leaned on the counter because he could sense that something interesting was about to happen. ‘OK’, she said. ‘What is it that everyone is hiding from me?’ They looked up. She could see a row of moustaches. Astonished moustaches. ‘The lady’, Alfonso said, ‘Is playing hard-to-get’.
‘And that’s the only thing round here that is hard, isn’t it?’ she replied. There was a ripple of laughter. ‘Everyone’s being very coy. Very evasive. Lots of talk of premonitions, and of forgetting There’s no real sense here, is there? No real sense of loss, or of shock.
One of you has died, and yet really, nothing has changed’. ‘Does it have to?’, the doctor asked. ‘It doesn’t have to, Doctor Penmanship, but it does. It’s a certain fact of life. Now what can anyone tell me about Pedro?’ ‘Moustache ‘. ‘Fisherman’.
‘This all very infuriating’.
‘The river . . ‘, Alfonso started saying. ‘If you’re about to say that the river brings and the river takes away, then I’m going to knee you in the groin’. There was much laughter. ‘Hey!’, the barman said.
Everyone stopped talking and looked at him. His moustache had never seemed more earnest . ‘A man has died. We keep forgetting that. And it’s something in our history. We keep on forgetting and people keep on dying. Sometimes people die in the most tragic of circumstances, they leave behind widows and children, and the village is in shock. And sometimes people die and there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about them. And life goes on as normal. Pedro was such a man, it is true. He lived alone and we hardly knew him when he was alive. The fact that he is now dead, and that he died in such a way, means that we know more about him now than we ever did, We know his ending. Not everyone has that privilege.’
The bar was silent for a while. ‘Good words ‘, she said.
The barman nodded ‘But let me ask you this. Where did you get these new multicoloured lanterns from?’
She gestured above to where the new lanterns were strung just below the corrugated tin roof of the bar. They hadn’t been there the night. before. All eyes swung back to the barman. ‘I thought they would. . . . Spruce up the place’. ‘It’s a premonition!’ Alfonso yelled.
‘Death is in our midst!’, the doctor confirmed. ‘Bloody hell’, the hotel manager whispered. He drained the last of his beer and then got up and departed, hastily. ‘Everyone, calm down’, she yelled. ‘I see what’s happening here. And I’m sorry, I truly am. You want to forget but I’m not making it easy. And I think I know what it is. The river floods, every year, doesn’t it? The waters come up the hill and they stop. It’s an annual routine, it’s why the houses on the river bank are on stilts. But lately, something else has been happening, hasn’t it? The water is coming in to the village. I’ve seen the tide marks on various walls. The hotel room has a line about three feet off the ground. The village floods. And you know that it’s going to happen again. The river is changing, it’s a living entity, and it washes everything away. That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it? The bad news, the pain, the suffering, and memories, each year they will be washed away so that you can all start anew.. That’s what’s happening here. It’s not a premonition at all. It’s forecasting. It’s the seasons. The whole village will eventually have to move and you’re just letting everything nun its course.’ Everyone was silent for a while. ‘And the forgetting’, she whispered, ‘helps’.
She turned and walked away from the bar, and went back to her hotel room. It had been a long day. She borrowed a small fan from the hotel manager. It was obvious that he didn’t want to move from his desk. As ever he was sitting leaning at the counter, looking out through the open doorway at the alleyway and the gathering darkness and the moths. She noticed that the other room key was still hanging behind him, unused. The manager went to a cupboard and brought up this old thing with a wire covering over the blades that was so sloppily put together that you could easily put your fingers through and get them chopped off. And once she had it plugged in and stood it on top of the chest of drawers, all it seemed to do was recirculate the warm air.
Before bed, she fashioned the mosquito nets, but then she couldn’t sleep not only on account of the heat, or of the lone mosquito she could hear somewhere in her room, but also because she could hear the chains of the dog tied up outside her window, moving throughout the night.
The electric fan was noisy, too. It didn’t hum, like some that she had used. This one rumbled and spluttered and ticked and she was worried that it would catch fire, because it’s cheap plastic casing got ever so hot. She would get out of bed and turn it off, then she would get hot again and she would tum it back on again. The room and the bedding smelled constantly of damp. She reasoned that nothing could possibly catch fire in such a damp atmosphere. Just after two in the morning she heard a moped in the village street. It was the first motorised vehicle she had heard since the bus had left. She listened as the moped pulled into the alleyway beside the hotel and stopped. This ought to be interesting, she thought. Soon afterwards she heard a soft knock. ‘Juan . .’.
‘I have a motorbike’. ‘Sounds more like a moped.’
He was wearing football shorts and a yellow tee shirt with flip-flops. ‘Don’t you have a helmet?’
‘If I was stupid enough to fall off, then my brain has proven itself unworthy of protection’, he replied. ‘Good shout’. ‘Come with me’. It was a dark and quiet night. The sky was filled with stars. There was enough room on the back of his moped for her too, and she clung on, arms wrapped around his sweaty, thin waist. He took her down to the river. The sliver of a moon hung low as he shone the headlight of his moped on to the wooden jetty and the surface of the river. ‘The bar has multicoloured lanterns’, she said, as he turned off the engine. ‘That’s a shame. I’ll miss him’.
‘It doesn’t mean anything’.
‘But still. Premonition in retrospect . . ‘. The night river looked black and silent, a void. She thought about all of the creatures that it had in it. Juan stood on the wooden jetty. He kicked off his flip-flops and then removed his tee shirt. ‘Don’t’, she said. ‘It’s safe’, he replied. ‘Stop that this instant’.
He sat on the jetty, his feet dangling in the water. The light from his moped threw a long shadow version of himself which stretched away from them.
And then he made a sudden forward movement, into the water, straight under with barely a splash, and he was gone for quite a long time. She stood on the bank of the river and watched intently, the water seemed so fast-flowing. Why would anyone do such a thing? Suddenly his head broke the surface a short distance away and he was laughing, playful his voice echoing all around them.
‘It’s fine’’, he shouted, ‘It’s absolutely fine! I needed this! It’s completely fine!’ ‘Get out this instant’.
‘There’s nothing to worry about!’
He swam, and lay on his back, and swam some more, and ducked under a few times, and every time he came to the surface he was grinning, and she understood that he was still a kid. They were all children. The only difference was the size of their respective moustaches. ‘Get out now, you ve had quite enough fun!’
He climbed up on the muddy bank, laughing, running his hand through his wet hair. ‘Nothing bad happened’, he said. ‘Nothing bad. And now we can all get along and live again.’
‘Juan . . .’.
‘Nothing bad happened. Life can return to normal. Properly. .Normal life!’ He picked up his tee shirt and dried himself with it, and then he picked up his flip-flops.
She was up early the next morning. A glorious sun poked in through the window of her room, through the moth-eaten curtains She packed her suitcase and then ran her finger along the tide-mark around the walls of the room. It’s funny, she thought, how little mysteries always seem to sort themselves out. She went to the reception desk. The manager wasn’t there and the desk didn’t have a bell to ring. Fine, she thought, suit yourself.
It was good to be moving before the heat of the day started again. She wondered how long ago it was that this village had been a jungle. And how quickly it would take for the jungle to retum. She walked out of the hotel and paused for a short while, She put down her suitcase in the alleyway, then wálked left, to the courtyard out the back. She had to open a gate but she knew that the gate led to the courtyard, because she had seen it enough tunes from her window. There was nobody around in any of the wooden shacks.
The dog growled at her. She bent down and she untied its collar from the chain which was attached to the wooden pole. The dog growled at her as she did this.
‘Just hold on a moment, will you?’, she said, as it struggled.
The moment that the dog was freed from the pole, it ran away from her, out of the gate, up the alleyway, and then into the village.
‘Well isn’t that the most ungrateful thing?’, she said, to nobody in particular. She closed the gate, picked up her suitcase and walked to the main road, just as the bus arrived. It stopped outside the bar and the driver got out to help her with the case, but she clambered up onto the roof and wedged it securely where it couldn’t fall off. The driver lit a cigarette and watched her. He nodded as she climbed on the bus. He had a moustache.
The driver got back into his seat and started up the bus. They moved forward, taking the road down to the river where the bus would then tum left and head off into the jungle. She looked out of the window to her right just in time to see two or three men, fishermen pulling the barman’s body out of the water.
‘Well’, she said. And then the bus turned left and off it went.
Robert Garnham has been performing comedy poetry around the UK for ten years at various fringes and festivals, and has had two collections published by Burning Eye. He has made a few short TV adverts for a certain bank, and a joke from one of his shows was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently an answer on the TV quiz show Pointless. Lately he has been writing short stories for magazines and a humorous column in the Herald Express newspaper. In 2021 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and shortlisted as Spoken Word Artist of the Year by the Saboteur Awards.