The Long Weekend – Gareth Culshaw

Stew bubbled in the kitchen, father grabbed the pot
and filled it with boiling water.
Joe sat in his chair, with a barrel of homebrew
on the shelf.

The tap, a gateway to someplace else. His white
hair thinned by filtered pints.
Gran scuffed her way from room to room.
Me and mum took the settee while chatter

mixed with the television.
Everything was slowed down in here after the burst
of walk from the bus stop.
Now father sat on a creaky chair, and filled cups of tea.

While gran ladled bowls of stew.
Horse racing on the television sped things up again,
and their tongues jumped over each other’s words
like they had been heard but not listened to.

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

The Red Ball – Jacqueline Doyle

It was the second time we’d talked at the dog park and I wasn’t sure what he was suggesting. A play date for our dogs? An actual date, with our dogs? An actual date without our dogs? Some kind of get-together but not really a date? Fuck men, so annoying, handing out invitations like you’re supposed to know what they mean, and then you don’t know how to act, or dress, or what they really want. Could have been he just liked my dog: Renate is a real looker, big, playful, affectionate, a mixed-breed golden retriever and something else, maybe German shepherd. Everything you’d want in a companion. His basset hound, whose name turned out to be Fritz, was cute, but less appealing. One of those dogs that wiggles when it gets excited and slobbers on your knee. At least he didn’t go straight for my crotch like Herbert’s dog. Don’t get me started on Herbert, or his dog, or their manners. That turned out to be a dinner date from hell. Which is why I was thinking twice about this guy George. Was he going to slobber like his dog Fritz? So I just said, “Yeah, that would be nice. Let’s get together some time,” but I didn’t give him my number or anything. Turned out George wanted a date. Next time I saw him he invited me to a movie and you can’t take dogs to movies. But I thought, let’s put on the brakes this time, try coffee first, and let me tell you, that was the longest latte I’ve ever had. He’d actually memorized jokes, and kept laughing so hard he could barely get the punch lines out. I know I sound like a bitch but he was so goddamn eager. I just couldn’t handle it. That’s it, I told myself, no more meeting guys in dog parks. But wouldn’t you know, just a couple of weeks later, another guy walks up to me, flashing a smile to die for, and says, “Wanna ball?” And I think, what is this, sixties throwback day or something? Am I supposed to answer, “That would be groovy”? Or maybe sing, “Why don’t we do it in the road”? Instead I say, “You’re kidding, right?” And he laughs and says, “No, want a ball? I found this under that bench over there,” holding up this red rubber ball the size of a tennis ball, and Renate comes loping across the park, a gorgeous collie in tow, and she slides to a stop right in front of us, looking all expectant, ready for one of us to throw the ball, wagging her tail like an idiot.

 

Jacqueline Doyle lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her flash chapbook The Missing Girl was published by Black Lawrence Press last fall, and she has recent flash in Wigleaf, Hotel Amerika, New Flash Fiction Review, and Post Road. Find her online at http://www.jacquelinedoyle.com

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

Why My Parents Will Buy Me A Car When I’m Sixteen – Jayne Martin

“She’s a witch, Mom. I’m sure of it. Please don’t make me go over there,” I said.

“We don’t call people names, Wesley. Mrs. Lestat is just a lonely old woman. You kids have been horrid to her and you’re going to apologize.” Mom stood facing me square on with both hands on her hips and her I-mean-business expression. I was screwed.

It’s true we’d pelted her house with tomatoes. Tommy’s idea, but I didn’t want to seem like a wuss. And I guess we’d rung the doorbell a few times before running away, but she was always yelling at us for riding our skateboards past her place. One time she chased Roger with a broom. Who does that but a witch?

“How come I’m the only one who has to apologize?”

“How other parents raise their kids is their business. I am not raising a heathen. Now take this coffee cake and go.”

The biggest toad I’d ever seen sat on her porch and croaked loudly at my arrival. I’m pretty sure I peed myself a little when she opened the door before I could even ring the bell. She smiled when she saw me, her teeth as yellow as a school bus.

“Wesley! I’ve been expecting you.”

“You have?”

“Come in. I’ve made us some lemonade.”

“UhnothankyouIjustbroughtyouthiscakeandI’msorryforallthebadstuffIdid,” I blurted.

The last thing I remember before the police found me in a cage in her basement was the tug of her bony hand on my arm, and the door closing firmly behind me.

The doctors told my parents that my newly-grown tail was unusual, but not unheard of and could be corrected with surgery.

 

 

Jayne Martin is a Pushcart, Best Small Fictions and Best Microfiction nominee, and the 2016 Vestal Review’s VERA award recipient. She lives in California where she drinks copious amounts of fine wine and rides horses, though not at the same time. Find her on Twitter @Jayne_Martin.

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

Pliny and Vesuvius: A Farewell to Arms – Andrew D Hwang

It was a fine Neapolitan morning in the Year of our Lord LXXVIII. Pliny the Younger strolled down the main boulevard, lost in thought. His pet volcano, Vesuvius, chuffed along at his feet.

Some fiend is stealing arms off statues. Why? There was a bounty for the ringleader. When Pliny wrapped up this case he’d be able to afford that mansion across the bay. The one Calpurnia had her eye on.

“Vexing, eh ‘Suv?” Pliny kicked an elbow-shaped chunk of stone into the gutter. “I bet they’re being smuggled out. We’ll go have a look-see down at the port. That’s gotta be where the action is. But first, a cuppa. I can’t think like this.”

A wisp of steam rose from Vesuvius.

“No. This time we’re going to Starbucks. Oh look, here we are.”

The earth jolted, the booming drum of a subterranean giant. A nearby statue teetered and fell with a crash.

Pliny sighed. “All right. After this we’ll swing by McDonald’s for yours.”

*      *      *

Pliny slurped his caramel latte. “Jove Almighty, that’s good stuff. Really turns the brain wheels.” He slapped his thigh and whooped. “Hey ‘Suv! It’s a gang of arms dealers. Get it?”

There was no sound, but the air grew tense, as before a thunderstorm.

They crossed the piazza near the First Bank of Naples. Two familiar faces approached. Pliny tipped his garland. “Good morning, Mrs. Proculus. Hello, Cally.”

His fianceé blushed. “Hello, Pliny. We’re just going to pick up the wedding toga.” She stooped low. “How are you, Vesuvius?”

The ground gave a happy rumble. Loose masonry clattered.

Mrs. Proculus beamed. “Mr. Proculus and I are so looking forward to meeting your esteemed uncle at the rehearsal dinner—”

Shouts from the bank cut her off. A gunshot, the sound of marble shattering.

Pliny pulled the women behind a fountain depicting Caesar’s micturition. “You’ll be safe here, Mrs. Proculus. Cally, fetch the legion!” He placed his latte in the statue’s outstretched hand for safe keeping.

Calpurnia clutched Pliny’s toga. “Don’t! It’s too dangerous.”

“No time to argue.” He extracted himself. “Cover the front, ‘Suv!”

The bank’s side door was unguarded. Pliny slipped in. Three men in togas and fake glasses were dividing up heavy bags. A fourth guarded the front.

That statue of Marcus Antonius could lend him its shield for a minute.

Pliny stepped forward, brandishing his automatic. “Freeze!” The robbers whirled. Pliny addressed the leader. “Hello, Junius. I should have guessed. Looks like you’ll be heading back to another five years’ exile on Elba.”

Junius feigned boredom. “Well, if it isn’t Pliny, private dick.”

A shot rang out to Pliny’s left. The bullet struck his shield and ricocheted, blasting off one of Marcus Antonius’ arms.

A large, dim-looking thug stepped out of hiding. “Drop it, Twinkle Toes, or youse’ll be eatin’ lead, not just drinkin’ from it.”

“Nice work, Eunuchius.” Junius gloated. “Sorry, Pliny, no heroics today.”

Pliny dropped his gun. “You’ll never get away with this, friends.”

“Shut your trap, Aqua Duck” bellowed Eunuchius. The robbers staggered backward toward the entrance, loaded with sacks of denarii.

Behind them, a diminutive cone steamed into position. Pliny edged after the robbers, holding their attention. “Don’t you boys know crime doesn’t pay?”

“I never could stomach your playground sanctimony.” Junius gave a dismissive wave. “Let him have it.”

Pliny dove. Eunuchius’ gunshot took the statue’s other arm. The robbers lumbered out the door. With a cry of surprise, Junius stumbled over Vesuvius and sprawled flat. The others fell over him in a heap. A flood of Denarii tinkled down the bank’s front steps.

“Get off me, you idiots,” came Junius’ muffled voice. “My sole is on fire!”

“Hotfoot!” brayed Eunuchius. He hip-hopped his way to the fountain, sandals trailing parabolas of smoke.

Mrs. Proculus stepped out. “Maybe this will show you the error of your ways, young man.” She downed him with her handbag.

Pliny stood, brushed himself off. “Shame about Marcus Antonius.” He hung the shield on the statue’s obliging member.

A legion stormed up. “Lucius Junius Brutus,” crowed the centurion, “I arrest you in the name of the Law.”

One of the soldiers stifled a guffaw. “Lucius Ridiculous!” Another whispered, “That’s nuthin’. Last week we nabbed Maximus Pendulus Crapulus Jr.”

Calpurnia flung herself into Pliny’s arms. “Thank Juno you’re safe!”

“I should think Vesta would be more appropriate.” Pliny turned to Junius. “Lucky for you Vesuvius isn’t angry.”

Junius glared. The centurion led him away.

Mrs. Proculus slipped a stray denarius into her bag. “Naples owes you a debt of gratitude, Pliny.” She winked. “My husband may be able to arrange something. We shall see you at the rehearsal. Come along, Calpurnia.” The women departed.

“Geez, ‘Suv!” Pliny prodded Vesuvius with his toe, immediately regretted it. “What took you so long?”

Soundless, Vesuvius turned and oozed down the wheelchair ramp.

“Suffering satyrs, why can’t you use the stairs like everyone else?”

With a sharp report, Vesuvius spat a thick cloud of ash, almost as high as Pliny. Sounds of brittle statuary came from several directions.

Pliny retrieved his latte and waited at the bottom of the ramp, absently adjusting his garland as Vesuvius dawdled down. He took a sip. “Ugh, it’s cold.” Congealed strings of caramel hung from his beard. “Venti! What kind of sadist sells a coffee that large?”

Vesuvius let out a steamy sigh. A pall dimmed the sun.

“Look, ‘Suv, I’m sorry I was cross. It’s the morning blahs. You’ll feel better when we pour some scalding coffee in you.”

The sky brightened.

They’d mosey down to the port, suss out the leader of this gang of reprobates, blow the whole racket wide open. The bounty was practically his.

Cally would be thrilled.

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

Retire Mint – Bella Ellwood-Clayton

Your Gastown
boutiques and Fentanyl
8 a.m. cappuccinos with the art dealers
the other chosen familyless.

Your apartment
near the steam clock
smoking pot, because you’re retired now
each day, free
after single motherhood, cancer, failed businesses (3?)

Entrepreneur/pioneer/workaholic
Now that you’ve finally stopped breathing
Work
My home is a day ahead.

I sleep when you wake
We cook in FaceTime
– your dinner, my breakfast –
but we never eat together.

What if you get sick again, Momma?
What if something happens and I’m not there?
Your wrist’s sore from playing guitar
I would kiss it with ice
make a sling with my umbilical chord.

 

Bella Ellwood-Clayton is an award-winning author and internationally acclaimed sexual anthropologist. She studied in Montreal, Canada, and completed a PhD on women’s sexuality at the University Melbourne, Australia. In 2012, her nonfiction book, Sex Drive: in Pursuit of Female Desire, was published with Allen & Unwin. She appears regularly on television and radio and give talks about love and relationships, including a TEDx talk. She will host The Science of Sex Drive on The Love Destination (global video-on-demand network partnering with Samsung for everything love, dating, and relationships, launching on 8 million devices in the US in early 2019). She has published short stories, poetry, and writes for publications such as Huffington Post and Daily Life.

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

The Exemplar – Nick Norton 

Inevitable change! Evolution? Are not these the topics of youth? they scoff.

The council gathers. Its members harangue one another. Voices rise, fingers wag, and small amounts of granular accident tumble over shoulders. This powder accumulation hits the tiled floor and becomes a noticeable drift: dust and dandruff, cobwebs, the emptied shells of woodlice. It is said that this personal detritus is why the chamber is tiled in such an elegant fashion.

The council gathers but rarely, and when gathered it is inevitable that disagreements ensue. The council members do not take great pleasure in being winkled out of their chambers. One may suppose that the tiled floor of the chamber is an ancestral memory of discomfort. They are pushed toward one another with visible disdain smeared about their faces.

These are the topics of youth. An interminable change, it is a bodily thing. The brain itself may want the upmost stability and yet sweat and… Fluids, let us say that.

Fluids? Must we say that?

It has been recorded. It has been duly noted. Fluids are now in the record.

A body dominated by fluids.

Oh! You go too far!

Such a body cannot wait upon the thought of stasis, despite the gratifications of staying; such a body will be in a state of continual swimming.

And that is exactly the point. Evolution is mutation, mutation is fluid; therefore the body swims. Youth is mutation. Mutating; this is the topic of youth. A childishness in culture which is coming back as a popular product. This is the underlying stupidity which makes all products popular.

You are against swimming?

Most surely.

Hmm, then we may be in accord.

We are both wizened and desiccated accretions of dry fibre. Therefore, we are stable. Therefore, there shall be no swimming for, naturally, we float atop of the surface.

Bravo!

The council pauses for a round of righteous coughing and this dissolves into an extended moment of unconditional spluttering. The dreck of personal hygiene is shook down. A storm is generated by this collected quivering, such a storm that piles of sand-like substance covers their feet. Fleshy dust is creeping up toward shin height. Still the council rally around. They gather into their musty odour, and still they persist in speaking.

Stress begets change yet the stressed system believes only in no change.

Inevitable change, and that this change is inevitable; we must acknowledge how difficult such a moment is. A moment of difficultly beyond comprehension.

Com-pre–hensile? What?

The man spoken to is spitting. Another old chap is crying. A servant of the chamber has appeared, and she is beginning to sweep up.

By and by, one laughed, it appears a fluid still stirs within me!

There is a rustling of movement akin to a rodent scuttling through autumnal undergrowth. The servant spots the danger sign and discretely escapes. The coughing and spitting continues so that the muck remnants on the floor begin to resemble porridge. Next; their smoking pipes are called for. Different lackeys, different uniform. The pipe smoking is accounted a thing of ritual. The smoking heralds a conclusion, end of business. There is always a sense of gratification and even a mustering of comradely feeling. Obviously every last one of these council members delight in the prospect of retiring to their chambers. The stunk pot is wheeled out. The stunk pot is a finely crafted example of the old way. It has big red plastic boots which skirt over its wheels. From either side extend two hands; one hand is said to represent friendship and largesse; the other hand indicates just judgement and thus points toward exile. The mask hung on the front of this stunk pot is a complex glyph of humanity; the smile is a sigil of hope, the eyes are portals into all seeing, beyond seeing, and the nose is a seal of right judgement, the tool of a connoisseur, and hence it is justifiably bulbous.

One by one the servants of the people approach this ancient receptacle and, lifting the lid, they fill their pipes. This weed is said to have many beneficial properties. No one has noticed any one member of the council dying for many a year. Decade after decade they persist, their discussions are recorded, their good sense is transferred into the law of the land. And now, as tradition demands, they will smoke together before retiring to the hermetic tasks of their privacy. A match is ignited, a tallow is lit, and the flame is passed between them. Sparks from the puffing and wallowing, from the sucking and sighing; sparks rise into the chambers and then drift down onto the emulsified mush of shed skin, hair, snot, sperm and spit. In amongst the mellowing of the council, a new sound is heard. It is a secondary burp, swallowing itself in a tiny rush of bubbles. From the muck of the tiled floor, and no one notices this, a homunculus rues its existence. This tiny figure shakes itself free, not quite able to comprehend the enormity of its tiny existence. And yet, it realises, the sudden terror of life is nonetheless good. It makes a break for the chamber’s doors as they open: Light is pouring into the smoky brew, a vertical shaft of brilliance. The council’s old men are staggering onto uncertain feet, demanding assistance from the footmen. A singular new life dodges in between legs. The cleaner alone sees the creature, and as it struggles through the offensive mounds of filth, she offers it refuge in her dustpan.

And thus it is recorded. This is the first and last time an exemplar of new life came forth from the council. What was small, as we now know, grows. The growing continues, and it said that council members have all sealed themselves inside their chambers with wax, vowing never again to touch the tiled flooring of the chamber.

 

Nick Norton’s prose can be found in Bird’s Thumb, Zeno Press, The Fiction Pool, Storgy, The Happy Hypocrite, The Cabinet of Heed, Shooter, Epoque Press, Idle Ink, Adjacent Pineapple, Fictive Dream, The Honest Ulsterman, and elsewhere.
His book “AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle” is described by Patrick Keiller: A joy to read…brings a headlong, associative sensibility to the literature of landscape. https://www.bookworks.org.uk/node/1894  http://nicknorton.org.uk   @NMNorton2

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

Playing The Game – Clare O’Brien

The party was in full swing. Friends, colleagues, drinking, laughing, dancing. There must have been at least thirty, packed tight into my little living room. The music filled in the gaps in the chatter to avert any danger of silence. Silence breeds thoughts, and we didn’t want any of that. I didn’t really like any of these people; I’d put up with them for Helen’s sake. I loved Helen. We’d met at work, and they were mostly her friends and relatives, to be honest. But apparently it was my birthday, and it was made clear to me that I ought to enjoy it.

Suddenly the conversational hubbub abated, and someone turned down the music to a faint electric hum. Helen was next to me, holding a large box, all glittery ribbon and shiny red giftwrap. Everyone was watching. “Happy Birthday!” they said. “Open it!”

I gave the box a little shake and a faint rattle came from inside. “Stop messing around and open it!” someone shouted from the back of the room. Helen was smiling, so I did what they said. I untied the ribbon, ripped off the paper, and opened the plain white box.

Inside was what seemed to be a board game. There was a board, folded into four, that opened out to show a complex printed playing surface. It was a bit like the Snakes and Ladders I’d played as a child, but the creatures painted on the board, the hazards along the way, were wilder and stranger than that. The little silver pieces looked a bit like the ones you get in Monopoly, tiny figures of men and animals, objects and symbols. I looked in the box for instructions, but there was nothing else.

“Where are the rules?” I said.

“There are no rules,” they said. It was a man who spoke, someone I vaguely remembered seeing on the third floor at work when our washrooms were out of order. Why was he here? I looked at Helen, but her face wore a tidy, even smile. “You make them up as you go along,” she added. “Use your imagination.”

“But what’s the object of the game?” I asked, puzzled.

This time it was a woman who spoke. I didn’t recognise her. “Get through the maze without losing any of your people,” she said. “Fight off enemies. Avoid hazards. It’s simple enough.”

“Who are my people?” I asked, confused. I looked around my house at the guests I hadn’t invited.

“We are your people,” they said in chorus. “There’s a piece for every one of us. We protect you. We employ you. We give you the means to live. Destroy anything that threatens us.”

I played the game. I did what they told me. I protected the little silver tokens, and along the way I killed or neutralised anything that looked like a threat. I started with critics and trolls and went on to spies and whistleblowers. I silenced their voices and I cut out their tongues. I locked them in prisons and I threw away the keys. I burned their homes and villages. I took away their children. I cast them into outer darkness, and I watched their lifeblood run red.

It took a long time to win the game. Along the way I sometimes forgot what I was fighting for. It was better not to think, really, not to look too closely at things like whys and wherefores. I was a loyal footsoldier. I protected my own, and I came out of the maze with all my people, save one.

When I got to the end, they smiled and said “well done” and commended my loyalty. “You’ve given years of good service,” they said. “It’s time for a reward. You made life so much easier for us. We couldn’t have done it without you.”

I asked where Helen was, but they said she’d had to go, and I didn’t need to worry about her any more. I protested as they pinned a medal on my chest. I began to ask questions but they were already laughing, and their cackle rose to a crescendo as I tried to read what the medal said, upside-down. One by one, they were getting up to go. My little house was emptying as their mocking laughter echoed.

Suddenly I wondered why I’d ever thought they were my friends. I upset the board and its thirty – no, twenty-nine – silver pieces. I ripped off the medal. And as I stood alone in the ruins of the party I’d hosted for them, remembering the kind of game I’d played, I read the two words ornately engraved into its surface: Devil’s Advocate.

 

Clare O’Brien lives in a crofting township on the north-west coast of Scotland where she helps run the family business while working on her first novel. Her poems and stories have appeared in Mslexia, Hedgehog Poetry Press, The Cabinet of Heed, Riggwelter, Fearless Femme, and many more.

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

Time After Time – Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal

There are people with six eyes.
They can save energy
and look toward the future.
They have that extra fire.
They have an on and off switch.
They never look back.

They take a deep breath time
after time and forge ahead.
They won’t cry you a river.
They are fierce and persistent.
Some people can take a blow
and hit you back twice as hard.

Some people have three hearts.
They are voracious and vigilant
from daylight to dawn. They
cannot be stopped. Time after
time they demonstrate how
powerful their hearts could be.

 

 

Luis Cuauhtémoc Berriozábal, born in Mexico, lives in California and works in the mental health field in Los Angeles. His first book of poems, Raw Materials, was published by Pygmy Forest Press. His poetry has been published by Alternating Current Press, Deadbeat Press, New Polish Beat, Poet’s Democracy, and Ten Pages Press. His latest chapbook, Make the Light Mine, was published by Kendra Steiner Editions.

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

The Hero – John Holland

Since I started growing my hair, the neighbours – the men – have stopped speaking to me. Although their wives still do.

“Your hair’s growing, John.”

“Can’t stop it, Mrs Wilkinson.”

It’s tea time. I’m striding home from school, past the rows of semis in the next street to mine, when I see Mr Wilkinson, in his frameless spectacles, walking towards me. It’s too late to cross the road. I know he won’t speak. And I won’t either. But as he approaches he lets out a broad smile, and says, “Your dad did well, didn’t he?”

“Yeah,” I say. And then we have passed.

I have no idea what he means.

By the time I push open the backdoor of our semi, painted a tawdry yellow, it has left my mind.

“What would you like for tea?” It’s my mum. Dad doesn’t get home for ages so we eat without him.

“Steak and kidney pie, chips and peas,” I say.

“Hard luck,” she says.

It’s not just the luck that’s hard. The crusts on these luncheon meat and salad cream sandwiches taste like they have been rusting away behind the shed with the rest of Dad’s collection of ‘useful’ metal parts.

“Chef quit?” I ask, joking.

“Sacked,” she says.

There are three places set at the dining table. I sit at one end where I can swivel to watch teatime TV. Opposite me is my dad’s place, awaiting his arrival in an hour or two. Mum sits between us. Symbolically probably. With her back to the TV. Opposite her is the hatch to the kitchen that my dad made for the passing of plates of food. Plates of food so hot that they melt the skin on your fingers.

“Why don’t you sit in dad’s place, so you can watch Zoo Time, Mum?”

“Zoo Time, Schmoo Time,” she says, pretending to be Jewish.

Desmond Morris, with a comb-over that risks him being flagellated to death on a windy day, is cuddling a jaguar cub.

“Lovely,” says Mum without turning. “Although many people confuse jaguars with leopards. The jaguar is a South American mammal, the leopard is African. They don’t really have spots. More sort of circular rosettes. Jaguars tend to have larger rosettes with spots in the middle; the leopard has plain rosettes with no central spot.”

It’s impressive. Within seconds, Desmond says the same thing about jaguars and leopards.

“You the script writer?” I ask

“Your hair’s getting long,” she says.

“You will tell me when it actually is long, won’t you?” I say, tossing my head so that my hair flies from one side and meets me on the other.

“Probably not,” she replies. “You’d never hear me through all that hair.”

She remembers. “Isn’t it great about Dad?”

But I’m heading for the front room and my homework.

The front room is the better, less-used room – grey sofa, two grey arm chairs, my dad’s tropical aquarium, the Dansette record player on the floor and the golden plastic hostess trolley, which is thought to be posher than the wooden one in the dining room. But no TV or table. I use the seat of an armchair to kneel and write. The front room is also where I entertain my girlfriend, Janet. She is due at 7.30. A switchboard operator at the Gas Board, she is unencumbered by homework. I have about an hour and a half for A level geography.

The fishing industry in the Adriatic Sea makes me wish I’d taken history. But I enjoy the names of the principally caught species – common dentex, red scorpion fish, monkfish, John Dory, spiny dogfish, Norway lobster (surely a long way from home), mullet and red mullet. I wonder what colour the mullet are that are not red. And whether the two species clash, at least aesthetically. Mum would know.

I’m entering Trieste as I hear dad arrive home and go straight to the dining room for his tea.

I finish the homework without feeling the need to get the definitive word on the colour of the non-red mullet. And gratify myself with the double LP ‘Bitches Brew’ by Miles Davis that I’d bought in town on Saturday. I hold it by its pristine edges. Slide one of the black discs, with its orange labelled centre, from its white inner sleeve and place it on the Dansette, dropping the stylus arm carefully onto the spinning vinyl. The music crackles into life. I gaze at the distorted yellow orange figures on the album cover while extraordinary sounds fill the room.

I am in a voodoo opium den in Harlem.

I see the handle of the door turn. I imagine a Chinese dealer with a coloured silk hat and a braided ponytail. Mum’s head appears. It listens for a split second.

“Is that Herbie Hancock on an electric piano – something of a departure for him, isn’t it?” she asks.

I check the sleeve. And nod in resignation.

“You’ve been looking at the cover, haven’t you?” I say.

She shrugs the one shoulder I can see in the half-opened doorway and recites from memory the band’s entire fourteen-strong line up from Bennie Maupin on bass clarinet to Jack DeJohnette on drums – right channel, and Lenny White, drums – left channel. Although with only one speaker channel on the tinny Dansette that’s academic.

“You’re not normal,” I tell her.

“Your dad’s here, you know, if you want to ask him.” She says and disappears.

But, as I stand I hear the door bell.

Janet, in all her darkness, has arrived. I look at my watch.

“Just four and a half minutes late,” I tell her.

If a face can shrug hers does. I get a lukewarm half-kiss. She doesn’t have her dog – a boxer – with her. I’m relieved. It salivates when we are at our loving. Glutinous strings hanging from its mouth to its chest and even the floor. And that sad face it pulls.

The upside to the dog is that I can blame him when Mum complains about suspicious wet marks on the carpet or rug.

Janet and I have been going out for nearly two years, and have a routine. She comes round to mine three times a week and I go round to hers less often – because it’s not so convenient for me. Saturday we go to the pub, or the pictures, or a party.

I help her off with her sheepskin coat, and open the door to the front room, from which emerges the sound of Miles and those fourteen named individuals blazing a riotous storm.

“What the bloody hell’s this?” she says.

I tell her. She says nothing. As usual I sit in the grey arm chair next to the fish tank. She sits on my knee. We kiss properly, and I announce that tonight I will be removing her bra single-handed.

“Not getting one of your mates to help?” she says, throwing back her black hair.

“No, I mean I won’t use two hands. You know, I’ll be smooth and a bit sharp like James Bond or someone.” I hold my face at an angle I think is smooth and a bit sharp.

“We’ll see,” she says. “You know your hair’s getting really long.”

“I had no idea,” I say, pulling up the back of her red woollen jumper and weighing up the opposition. It’s an old adversary – the white bra with lace between the cup and the straps. It has three pairs of hooks.

“My mate Geoff says Diane has one that unloads at the front,” I tell her.

“Like one of those new washing machines,” she says. “I bet he doesn’t play her shit music like this.”

It’s not the best moment for romance. But there follows a lengthy period, with her jumper pulled up, in which my right hand pinches and squeezes the back of the bra with a combination of finger-numbing tension and bloody-minded determination, for which even Wayne Shorter’s exquisite tenor sax solo is not an appropriate soundtrack. Finally, I admit defeat.

“I’ll get you a mannequin for your birthday. You can practice in the comfort of your own room,” she tells me.

“And a supply of bras,” I add.

My dad never enters the front room when we are there, but mum normally comes in about 10.00, always turning the door handle artificially slowly whilst rattling it, so it makes as much noise as possible.

She did catch us on one occasion, but told us not to worry because she was young once. We doubted that.

10.30 is the time I walk Janet home.

And at exactly 10.30 I shout to my parents, “See you later,” before closing the back door and walking Janet almost silently in the chilly darkness through our estate, along the main road – until the sickly odour of the Lanolin factory is obliterated by the salt and vinegar smell of Pauline’s Fish Bar. Then between the high rise flats to her parents’ terraced house. In the lamp-lit alleyway I kiss her goodnight. Watch her walk up the stone steps to her parents’ back door. As she turns to call her final goodnight, she shouts out, “Great about your dad.” Then closes the door before I can ask her. She knows about Dad. Perhaps the whole town does.

When I arrive home my parents are in bed.

As usual, Dad leaves early for work the next morning, so I don’t see him, but the first thing I do when I get up is to ask Mum what he did.

“You mean you don’t know,” she shouts, laughing.

“No, I do not!” I say.

“W-e-l-l,” she says, rolling her tongue around her mouth to mark the fact a story is to follow. “Yesterday lunch time, when you were at school, Dad was walking home from work when there, in the avenue, was this huge bull. I think it was a Holstein Fresian. They’re sort of black red in colour with white patches, and originate from cattle bred on the island of Batavia between the Rhine, the Maas and the Waal.”

“Yes, yes, yes. What happened?”

“It was in a truck bound for the abattoir,” she says. “But escaped. Your dad grabbed it by the nose ring, and calmly walked it back to the truck.”

“What?” I yell. “Surely that’s not true. How did it get out of the wagon? Why was a wagon, carrying a bull bound for slaughter, driving through the estate? Why didn’t it gore Dad, or run away from him? How did they get it back in the vehicle? I have these and other questions,” I say.

“Your dad used to work in an abattoir before the war, you know. Bulls are a speciality of his.”

“That’s a sentence I never thought I’d hear.”

“That’s your dad, isn’t it?” says Mum.

The phone rings. Unusual for 8 am. It’s Janet.

“Hello, my love. This isn’t in today’s programme,” I say.

“Look,” she says, “I’m dumping you.”

“Why beat about the bush?” I say.

“I want to go out with other boys. With men,” she says pointedly.

“Are you saying that I’m not manly enough?”

“I would never say that, but yes, you’re not manly enough. You’d never tame a wild bull like your dad did, would you? Not with that hair.”

“I might.”

“You’re an idiot,” she says.

“You used to think I was funny,” I say.

The phone goes dead.

My mind is fireworks. I wonder what Miles Davis would have done. His father was a dentist and never went near animals. Maybe if I’d been born black this would never have happened. Or played the trumpet. Or owned one I couldn’t play. Kept it on top of the bookcase.

I go into the kitchen to tell Mum. With black biro and pad of paper, she’s noting down all the players from Yorkshire football clubs who played international football for the home nations. It’s quite a short list.

“Did Denis Law play for Scotland as a teenager with Huddersfield Town?” she asks.

“Can’t help you, Mum,” I say, and break the news about Janet. She winds her arms around me, folds me in her Luncheon Meat, Leopard Spots, Lenny White Drumming, Denis Law love. And, as she holds me, she has to blow my hair away from her mouth.

“Do you think you might get it cut now?” she asks.

“Probably,” I say.

 

Winner in 2018 of both the Dorset Fiction Award and the To Hull And Back Short Story Competition, John Holland’s short fiction is published online and in magazines and anthologies. He is the organiser of the twice-yearly event Stroud Short Stories. John’s website is http://www.johnhollandwrites.com

 

Image via Pixabay

 

cabinet of heed contents issue 16

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