We came downstairs to the hotel dining room. Our hair was wet. We smelled of shampoo and soap and we-got-out-of-bed-for-dinner. The waiter said the kitchen was closing.
‘It’s only eight thirty,’ you said.
The waiter said, ‘Closer to nine, sir.’
You gripped my hand and we left, you muttering, ‘I knew we should have stayed somewhere else.’ The carpet beneath us was swirled darkest pink and red, the colour of an open mouth.
We stepped out into the cold night and the orange lights along the beach glowed and flung light up into the navy sky. The sea was black ink. I thought of the creatures underneath the water, their fins, tentacles, teeth.
We found a cafe a few doors down that was still open. I ordered the quiche and you ordered the steak pie.
‘Christ,’ you said. ‘This isn’t the meal I’d planned.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said.
I bent towards you, across the table, took your hands and pushed my forehead against yours.
You closed your eyes. ‘It does matter,’ you said. ‘I want this to be good.’
I pulled back and sat hard in my chair. ‘Stop worrying,’ I said.
The food arrived – the quiche yellow-green, almost neon, and your pie with its top singed black. There was a bowl of iceberg lettuce too, large enough to feed a crowd.
You said, ‘Now I know what despair looks like.’
I didn’t tell you that it was beyond good – the meal, the weekend, us – it was beyond everything. At least it was to me. I wish now I had said it.
In bed, you pulled my hair around your face, my face, so that it fell around us. Your fingers were soft and hard, sometimes at the same time. Your tongue too.
In the crucial moments, my hands shake – using an eyelash curler, drinking a cup of tea, watching you shave in the bathroom mirror, pulling your jaw this way and that, the razor sweeping against your cheek, your throat.
In the morning, I woke alone, the sheets cloud-white and smelling of us. The note you left on your pillow – gone for a swim. I wanted these things – your endorphins to go through the roof, your wide smile, your laugh.
I went to the window and saw you swimming, your long body moving in a line out to sea, the swell of the water around you, pushing against you with its weight. You were silver, gleaming. From where I stood, you looked like a sword, cutting through the blue.
MELISSA GOODE’s work has recently appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, WhiskeyPaper, New World Writing, Split Lip Magazine, matchbook, Blue Fifth Review, (b)OINK, and Jellyfish Review, among others. One of her short stories has been made into a film by the production company, Jungle. Her novel manuscript “What we have become” was selected by Random House in 2016 for a fellowship with Varuna, the National Writers’ House in Australia. She lives in Australia. You can find her here: melissagoode.com and at twitter.com/melgoodewriter
The summer of 1959 was a memorable one. In Scotland, the sun shone every day from May until October. It was the last Tuesday of June and school was due to close for the holidays the following week. The brilliant weather and the prospect of long days unhindered by lessons filled eight year old John with happiness. As his class lined up for lunch there was a good deal of skylarking and a girl called Patricia Balfour, the daughter of the school’s deputy headmaster, accidentally knocked over a pile of books. The children froze. Sister Stanislaus, their teacher, looked up angrily from the class register, which she had been marking. ‘Who knocked those books over?’ she demanded.
There was silence. She slowly surveyed the room until her eyes alighted on John. ‘It was you, wasn’t it?’
‘You’ve a guilty look about you. Tell the truth.’
‘It wasn’t me, Sister, honest.’
‘I don’t believe you. Pick up the books!’
‘But I didn't knock them over, Sister.’
‘I think you did. Pick them up immediately!’
John could see that she was becoming irritated, but he couldn’t help himself. He opened his mouth to continue the exchange. Slap! She caught him with a hard smack on the side of the head. His left ear rang. He began, sullenly, to pick up the books. While he was doing this Sister Stanislaus recited a litany of his faults, ending with, ‘I can hardly believe that you’re a grandson of Mrs Brennan, who is a saint. When I see her at Mass on Sunday I’ll tell her all about your carry-on.’
John had never heard Grandma described as ‘a saint’ before and would have smiled if he had dared. She had many wonderful qualities; she was kind, affectionate and full of fun, but she did things he could never imagine a saint doing. She drank stout and whiskey, swore and made jokes about the parish priest and his housekeeper, which John didn’t understand but which sent his parents into fits of laughter. Grandma was a stickler for good behaviour though, and John feared the consequences of a complaint from Sister Stanislaus. His happiness fled.
For several days he was preoccupied with what Sunday would bring. By Friday he had decided to come clean and get the punishment over. When he got home from school he found Mum and Grandma, as usual, in the kitchen. Grandma, in wrap-around floral apron and tartan felt slippers, ironing, and Mum, rather more glamorously dressed, preparing fish for tea. He blurted out the whole story, expecting to get another smack around the head. Miraculously, Grandma took his side. ‘What a bloody cheek. If your father had been a teacher you wouldn’t have been treated like that.’
Mum was less certain, ‘I’m not so sure, you know what an aggravating little bugger he can be.’
Grandma stuck to her guns, ‘I've known that Stanislaus for years, she’s always sticking her shovel where there's no shite.’
John was astonished but didn’t get his hopes up. He knew that it was one thing to be disrespectful about a nun behind her back but quite another to openly challenge her. He had only ever seen nuns treated with deference.
On Sunday, as usual, the family walked the mile to church. Despite the heat, Grandma was dressed in her ‘going to church’ clothes: a dark blue hat with a feather covering her silver hair, a full length coat of the same colour, black leather shoes and gloves, a large black handbag and a dark varnished wood walking stick with a brass tipped handle. John was nervous. He didn’t run ahead as normal but walked demurely at Grandma’s side holding her hand.
As soon as Mass was over John reluctantly followed Grandma to the front of the church where the nuns were preparing to leave for their convent. His teacher looked hot and irritable in her heavy black habit.
‘Good morning, Sister Stanislaus!’ Grandma was at her most polite.
‘Why, hello Mrs Brennan,’ replied Sister Stanislaus, in her broad Irish accent. ‘I’d been hoping to see you.’
‘I hear my grandson’s been getting himself into your bad books, Sister.’
‘Yes, Mrs Brennan, I’m afraid he has. He’s an impertinent boy.’
‘He told me that you made him pick up books that someone else knocked over, why was that, Sister?’
The nun’s voice hardened. ‘I think he did knock the books over. Anyway, someone had to pick them up.’
Grandma, her voice also hardening, asked, ‘Did you see him do it?’
‘Er... no!’ stammered Sister Stanislaus.
‘Then perhaps you could have made more of an effort to find the culprit rather than taking the easy option of blaming my grandson.’
Sister Stanislaus was stunned. She was not accustomed to being taken to task and certainly not by the widow of a coal miner. Eventually, seething with indignation, she retorted, ‘But nobody owned up, Mrs Brennan. What could I do?’
Grandma patted Sister Stanislaus patronisingly on the arm. ‘You know, Sister, you’re not an old woman, it wouldn't have killed you to pick the books up yourself. Perhaps John spoke as he did because he felt he had been unfairly treated.’
John was aghast. He had never heard a nun spoken to like this before. Sister Stanislaus gave Grandma, more than forty years her senior, a stern look. ‘There’s no excuse for bad behaviour, Mrs Brennan.’
Grandma was not intimidated. ‘I agree, Sister. But remember, John’s a child and you’re an adult. You have a responsibility to set an example of good behaviour.’
Before Sister Stanislaus could respond Grandma turned and walked away. She had made her point. John trotted at her heels. After days of worry his happiness had been restored. How he loved the old lady. When they reached the street where his mother was waiting for them, Grandma commented smugly, ‘That’s put her gas at a peep.’
JOHN SCOTTIE COLLINS, who was born and brought up in Scotland, mainly writes short fiction and creative nonfiction. He is a retired social worker and now lives on the Wirral near Liverpool after travelling in Spain and Portugal for several years.
I know that they will appreciate seeing the hydrangeas in the window before they step through the door. I trim their stems over the kitchen sink, and fluff their leaves out of the top of the vase. Standing back, I admire my work, and then leave a note on their counter that says, ‘Thank you for letting me take care of your lovely house.’
They call me only a few hours after I left. She says that I'm on speaker, her voice bright and energetic. Tortola was absolutely amazing, she tells me. You wouldn't believe how different the water is there. So much less murky than Rhode Island, it makes you unafraid of everything.
‘That's great,’ I say. ‘Does the garden look okay out back?’
‘Oh, it looks amazing, thanks for taking care of it. And the hydrangeas! Thank you so much for those, they're beautiful,’ she says.
He is on the line now. ‘Yes, thank you,’ he says. ‘We got something for you too. You've got to come visit us this week to get it, though.’
She tells me more about the water, about how you can see down to your toes. She tells me about the frog that scared her on the front porch and the sound of coconuts falling on the roof in a rainstorm. She tells me about how they swam above a coral reef. She says she is starting to repair her relationship with the ocean.
In Ikea, a girl runs past us carrying a stuffed animal golden retriever. I look down at the book light I have picked up off the display desk and wish it were a stuffed animal golden retriever. He shows me a second book light and asks my opinion, as if I'm sharing the house with them too.
He runs marathons in secret, never posts about them on social media. I love him for it. At their Wednesday dinner party, I tell him that I used to run track in high school, a secret I have long kept because I no longer look the part. He smiles, a glass of neat Caribbean rum in his hand, and says he could help me get back into it if I wanted to. I start skipping church so that we can run together Sunday mornings, and something about it has the same rhythm as hymns.
She leaves me a longer note the next time that I housesit. This time, she tells me about the open white wine in the fridge and tells me I can sleep in their bed if I want to. I lay on it like I'm about to make a snow angel, but instead I roll over and inhale the scent of the linen.
While they're in Nashville, I run around the neighborhood without them, and a young woman with a terrier recognizes me. She asks if I've moved in recently.
‘No,’ I laugh. I explain the complex situation with labored runner's breath.
‘You all are so close,’ she says. ‘I love to see things like that. Sometimes I feel like I'm too old to make new friends.’
‘That's not true,’ I say. ‘The world just makes it harder on us. But yeah, they're great friends. I love them.’
The first time we have sex together, there is a dog barking outside. It's hard for me to concentrate on myself, let alone two other people. After a while, I stop and ask them if we can put some music on. They both scramble for their iPhones and laugh when they realize what the other is doing. I love how earnest they seem, about the iPhones and about the sex. I've never had two people try so hard to take care of me.
We go to the Rhode Island ocean, the one that she always says she has a difficult relationship with. The sky is monochrome and grey, the ocean a darker grey. The color is dismal, I can see why she hates it.
He and I urge her to go in the water, even if it's just her toes. Together we beg her, then he pulls on her forearm and I get her wrist. Soon we've left all our valuables next to three plastic chairs and she is in up to her knees.
‘I actually quit track in my senior year because I wanted to drink more,’ I said. He smirks a little and asks if he's tired me out. Then a realization comes over him, that I was only going on these Sunday jogs to spend more time with them, to be in their house afterwards drinking a glass of water, to buy them more hydrangeas.
She is cutting the stems off the daisies I brought today and says, ‘Why don't you drink with us tonight, then?’
GEORGE L. HICKMAN received his M.A. at Ball State University and currently lives in Columbia, Maryland. His work has recently appeared in SAND, The Copperfield Review, and The Louisville Review.
The taxi turns onto the embankment, and there is the sun rising up out of the river, glazing the water pink and silver. I lift my head, my hair against my bare shoulders enough to set my skin tingling again. I squeeze Paul’s arm, and he squeezes mine back. I’m not tired even though we’ve danced nearly non-stop, apart from the half hour he was wrapped around the French guy with the Elvis lips.
There gets to a point in nights like these where we don’t need words any more; we follow each other’s energy, up, down; taking a break to sit and drink a beer together, waiting for the right music to carry us back up. Our dancing forms our conversation as we orbit each other, pulling the crowd around us like gravity, and people stare and wonder if we’re a couple. We’re still up there now, feeling loved, lucky, invincible. We marvel in silence at the dawn as it creeps along the river, turning glass and steel and stone into gold.
The cab turns at the bridge and we head south through the sleeping city towards Paul’s flat. We’ll carry on dancing around his tiny living room, or wrap ourselves under a duvet on the sofa and smoke while we relive the night; the people we kissed and talked to and danced with, the music and the sound system, whether it was as good as last weekend.
Hey, why don’t we walk the rest of the way, I say, and Paul grins yes. I tell the driver to keep the change, even though I don’t get paid until next Friday. I don’t wait for a reply, running to catch up with Paul. You hungry, I shout? Nah, me neither.
We turn the corner of his street and he’s straight up onto the roof of a rusting yellow Volvo, hands in the air, swivelling his hips and dancing the same dance he’s danced all night; the one I want him to dance forever. I whoop up at him, mirroring his moves down on the pavement.
Parked in front of the Volvo is a motorbike, a big silver and black beast. Paul springs onto the seat and manages half a pirouette before it topples, and he jumps clear as it crashes to the ground. We freeze and clap our hands to our mouths, then try to heave it upright but it’s hopeless, it weighs a ton. I catch Paul’s eye and that’s it, we’re doubled up laughing.
Next along is a flashy black 4x4, but as soon as Paul’s foot’s on the bonnet the alarm goes off. He carries on over to a little silver hatchback so old it doesn’t have an alarm. He reaches down to help me up. You’re nuts, I say, I’m not getting up there!
He dismisses me with a swish of his hand and spins and struts to an imaginary crowd in the road, suntanned arms making his vest look even whiter. He wears a new one every time he goes out, wouldn’t be seen dead in the same one twice. Paul O’Malley, you’re bad for the planet, I yell, chasing him as he skips off the car and down the street. I’m the best fucking thing that ever happened to this planet, he shouts back over his shoulder.
I pause for breath in front of one of the terraced houses, coughing from the pack of cigarettes we’ve smoked. The car alarm rises and falls; all it needs is a bassline beat and I could dance to it. Someone at the front window bangs on the glass and I wave and shrug. I’m searching my pockets for any cigarettes left when the front door opens. A woman in pyjamas, a grizzling baby on her hip. Ten years older than me perhaps, but they may as well be light years. She’s dancing her own peculiar dance, dipping and swaying to keep the baby in perpetual motion. Her eyes are wide and staring, but not like ours; something desperate in them, like a taunted animal’s.
Would you shut. The fuck. Up, she says, through clenched teeth. Please, she adds, jamming the baby onto the other hip, I only just him got him to sleep. It wails louder. Oh, sorry, we’re just… I want to explain that we’re on our way home, that our night hasn’t finished yet; that we’re feeling golden, like the morning.
The baby’s face is one big red rash, wet with snot. What’s the point of trying to explain? I’m about to turn and go but something in her expression holds me there by the lopsided front gate. We face each other across the short tiled path. I can see past her to a kitchen draped in laundry at the end of the narrow hall. I watch her scan me, my sequinned trainers and torn tights, the glitter and mascara that’s probably smudged in black rings underneath my eyes. Does she see I’m determined I’ll never be her? At first I think it’s envy in her face. But it’s scorn in the curl of her lip, tinged with something else I don’t try to name.
A small current of cold travels through me and sends a ripple through the fabric of the night, or the morning or whatever it is now. The car alarm is just a loud noise; warning, laughing, relentless. Whatever I was going to say is lost, and the woman shakes her head and closes the door.
Where is Paul? I want to mimic her demented dancing with that snot-covered baby, and hear him laugh and say that’ll never be you though Kat, imagine!
He’s at the end of the street, leaning against the shutter of the corner shop below his flat. I get the moves ready, but when I reach him he’s slid down onto his heels, a streak of grime on his vest. I turn and look back at the empty street. I can’t tell from here which is the house with the lopsided gate. The dawn sky has whitened into a pale layer of cloud. Come on, Paul, I say. Let’s get indoors, watch some trash TV.
ANTHEA MORRISON has an MA in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, and has had stories published online at The Londonist, Notes From The Underground, and Reflex Fiction. Her story ‘You Have What You Want’ appeared in the print anthology Words and Women: Two in 2015. She was the winner of the Margaret Hewson Memorial Prize in 2015, and winner of the Finchley Literary Festival and Greenacre Writers Short Story Competition in 2016. You can find her on Twitter at @antheamorrison
I blow out, watching my breath steam in the icy air of Stella’s office. We call it her office, but really it’s another stall, stabling her desk instead of a horse. Stella reads from a hand-written list to the queue of girls. I stand at the back, pleased with my dragon breaths, and straighten a postcard on the noticeboard.
‘Misty and Sparkle need to go out. Juno, Faber and Buddy must be in and tacked for the group at ten.’ Stella’s narrow eyes search me out. ‘Kerry’s still off with that bug. Pip, you’ll have to take her client this morning.’
I hang back to plead with Stella as the others file past me. I can list the names, age, hand height and feeding regime for every pony and horse in the riding school. I couldn’t tell you about the girls as they all look and sound the same. Stella decreed my yard name as ‘Pip’, possibly after hearing ‘pip-pip-Pippa’ trailing me like an old joke. Everyone knows Stella’s bite is worse than her bark, which is why I pick at my gloves and scuffle the concrete floor with the tip of my boot. The only heat comes from the kettle on the floor, constantly in use, boiling up a brew.
Her voice is like the rest of her: pointy and sharp. Stella tells me the client doesn’t need a lesson. He knows his way round a grooming kit, and is basically happy to spend quiet time with Tallulah. ‘He can talk but doesn’t like to, bit like…’ she stops and her sentence floats away as she begins to shuffle the papers on the desk.
I groan. Tallulah lives up to her sex and can be a right mare at times. She once stood on Kerry’s foot, shifted all her weight and wouldn’t budge. Kerry’s little toe turned blueberry black and dropped off – her nail that is, not the whole toe. You have to secure Tallulah’s head when tacking up. I got lax with my knots once and she nipped me on the bum as I tightened her girth. Didn’t break the skin, but the multi-coloured bruise ached for weeks.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ I ask Stella. She arches an eyebrow. This is a signal I can’t read. She’s unhappy or angry with me, but I don’t know which or why.
‘Not all our special clients have problems you can see,’ she answers, then adds with a softening sigh, ‘If you have to talk to him, Philippa, then try not to instruct or admonish.’ Seeing my face, Stella explains: ‘Don’t scold. Treat him like you would a pony. Be kind.’ She knows I’m nicer to the yard horses than the other girls.
Dad says I’ve a kind heart too and calls me a blessing. Mum says I was an accident and claims I only have two operating modes: overly intense or intensely disinterested. She calls Stella an angel in jodhpurs for what she gives back to the community. Dad reckons Stella’s worked a nifty fiddle with her special clients, which is when Mum flicks his ear and reminds him loudly how Stella ‘don’t charge those poor kids.’
Dad is a stockman, always has been. Mum works at The Red Lion, behind the bar and serving food. When I left school she got me a job in the kitchen; I’m too young to serve drinks and I prefer to be out of sight. The kitchen’s noisy and hot, but an island of calm compared to the restaurant where people expect you to understand their needs without saying. Stella took me on at the yard during the day. Horses don’t care how many GCSEs you’ve passed, or not. Horses don’t even need words, it’s the tone and volume of your voice that matters. The softness of your hands. The love in your heart.
In the yard the riding school ponies droop their heads, the older timers dozing, the newbies following the yard traffic of people, horses and terriers with dancing eyes and ears. The boy, Kerry’s client, is called Xavier. I have to get Stella to write it down for me, then repeat the name several times. I don’t want to try saying it. Why give such a complicated name to a kid with problems? Though I can’t work out his problem. Xavier walks normally, his feet don’t stick out and his head is straight not bobbing like the plastic bulldog on Mum’s dashboard. The boy’s pinprick eyes don’t quite meet mine, but that’s okay. In Tallulah’s box he gets straight to work on cleaning her feet with the hoof pick. His mum leaves him with me, then heads back to the warmth of her car.
Xavier makes a clicking sound with his tongue and Tallulah lifts up her left hind leg. Usually I have to try to knock her off balance to get a chance of lifting her hoof. He works methodically round all four feet, not talking, but singing a silly tune and calling her ‘Lulu’. I try to tell him that’s not her name: ‘She’s T-ta-lu-lah.’ But he doesn’t listen and she doesn’t seem to mind. He moves on to work through her tail and mane with the curry comb, pulling out tangles and letting the wiry brown hairs slip through his fingers. Tallulah blows out a sigh as her head bows lower, pale muzzle almost touching the straw bedding.
I watch from the corner of the stable as the boy packs away the brushes. He rests his head against the pony’s flank and begins to make swirly patterns in her coat with his finger. Tallulah’s eyelids can’t stay open, she can’t fight the urge to sleep. Xavier’s head rises and falls, matching each slow breath of the pony.
Moving to her other side, I mirror the boy’s stance, my cheek and mouth against Tallulah’s warmth. All three of us are quiet.
TRACY FELLS lives close to the South Downs in West Sussex. She has won awards for both fiction and drama. Her short stories have appeared in Firewords and Popshot magazines, online at Litro New York, Short Story Sunday and in anthologies such as Fugue, Rattle Tales and A Box of Stars Beneath the Bed (National Flash Fiction Day anthology). She was the 2017 Regional Winner (Canada and Europe) for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth, Fish, Bridport, Brighton and Willesden Herald Prizes. Tracy has an MA in Creative Writing from Chichester University and is currently seeking a publisher for her short story collection. She tweets as @theliterarypig
Isabella’s smile grew wider and wider as she released red balloons from her ninth-floor balcony. She felt lighter, freer as she watched them glide through the air and sail over the park. She wondered how far they’d go. Then she wondered how far she’d go. She knew Michael wouldn’t understand. Maybe later, in time.
He’d first presented balloons to her last year when he proposed. Placing a large refuse bag tied with a bow before her, he said, ‘Balloons expand and grow. Like our lives together will.’ They were picnicking in her family’s back garden. Puzzled, she pulled the bow and red balloons had emerged, gently floating out of the bag, their long tails of white ribbon trailing after them, gathered together at their ends and tied to a stone.
She’d been so enthralled by her bouquet of balloons, she’d almost missed the ring that was tied to the stone as well. She extracted the ring, but couldn’t take her eyes off the balloons, opening and closing her hand around the stone as it hovered just above her hand, sometimes nudging it through the air, watching how the balloons moved weightlessly, effortlessly, whispering of far off places and adventures. A balloon that wasn’t tied down could float off anywhere. That’s what she had said yes to. She hadn’t been listening to Michael’s words or looking at the ring. She’d been looking at and listening to the balloons.
Instead of floating away, however, she’d found herself carried along a current of expectation. There were decisions to make on venues and menus, gift and guest lists, invitations. The gravity of her yes dragged her down. In the fitting room, she burst into hysterics until they took the dress away.
‘Nerves,’ everyone said. ‘She’s always been so delicate.’
Then, at work, a six-month posting abroad became available. When she saw the location, a memory rose from childhood. She’d gone to the circus with her father. They’d watched the spectacle from the front row of the big top. Sitting on a hard bench, the sawdust made her sneeze. Then Isabella took in the din: the smells of popcorn and candy floss, the buzz of excitement from the crowd as they sat close together in the dimly lit tent. Then the lights blazed and voice bellowed from beyond the brightness making them start.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen. Boys and Girls. Prepare. To Be. Amazed...’
The ringmaster, with his top hat, crimson red coat and booming voice, captivated her. She was dazzled by the spotlights and the ornate costumes of the performers. There were other animal acts, but what she remembers is the bear – a huge beast. Under the command of the ringmaster, it reared up on its hind legs and advanced towards the crowd in a zombie-like stagger, claws out, growling through its muzzle. While the crowd gasped, oohed and aahed, she did not feel threatened or afraid, but intrigued.
‘East Siberian brown bear,’ her father said in her ear. ‘A fearsome animal, you wouldn’t want to tangle with one of those.’
She’d misheard the end of his sentence through the noise of the crowd and thought it would be wonderful to dance with a bear. She didn’t know how to tango, but she could waltz. Maybe they’d let her do that when she was bigger – join a circus and dance with a bear.
She applied for the post, telling Michael it was a good opportunity and that she’d always wanted to go abroad. They’d been together this long; a short time apart would make no difference. They could tie the knot once she got back. She’d be ready then.
‘You’re so flighty,’ Michael had said. ‘That’s why we’re good together. I keep you grounded – otherwise, who knows where you’d be.’
‘Yes,’ she’d responded, looking off beyond his shoulder.
‘Don’t worry,’ he added, directing her gaze back to him, ‘I’ll visit.’
‘It’s very far away,’ Isabella said. ‘And difficult there. You might not like it.’
‘Then why would you?’
The night before she departed for her placement, she dreamt of waltzing with a great brown bear in a grand ballroom. They danced in perfect step, her small hand in its large paw. She felt a completeness, a perfect harmony as they moved across the room. At some point, Isabella noticed her feet weren’t touching the floor. She wondered if Michael was there watching, but she couldn’t see him. The song finished, and the bear bent to kiss her hand. She stood on tip-toe and whispered in its ear. Without warning, Michael appeared at her side. Isabella woke with a start, wondering what she had said to the bear.
On arrival in the town, she busied herself with settling in. She noticed a strange sensation in her chest when she inhaled deeply, as if her lungs were being stretched. She wondered if she should see a doctor, but there were so many other things to do. It didn’t feel bad, this sensation of her lungs expanding. Just different. She made of point of spending a few minutes every morning breathing deeply. Thinking of it as taking in her new surroundings and putting out the old. She found the idea exhilarating. She’d never been on her own before. There was always her parents or Michael. Usually both. The son of an old family friend, she and Michael had grown up together. He was familiar, solid, suitable. When he proposed, she remembered it as a statement rather than a question; a fact, rather than a choice needing an answer. It hadn’t occurred to her to consider her answer. It might never have occurred to her if she hadn’t met a man in a bear costume holding balloons.
They’d gone to a fairground. She’d left Michael to find the loo. When she came out, a bear was standing in front of her, holding a large bunch of balloons in its paw. It spoke to her in a muffled voice.
‘Could you hold these please? Just for a minute.’
When Isabella simply stared, mouth agape, the bear thrust the knot of balloon strings into her hand, and removed its head. Now there was a human face in front of her. Of a tall, young man with light blue eyes and sharp cheekbones. His dirty blonde hair was damp and stuck to his head in odd angles. He smiled at her and she found herself smiling back.
‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Yes, of course. Sorry. I was just a bit...’
‘And maybe this too, please?’ he said, pointing to the bear head. ‘It gets a bit cramped in there otherwise. I try not to while I’m working, but it’s all that water I drank. It gets hot in the suit.
‘You work in the circus?’ Isabella inquired, not knowing what else to say, but not wanting the conversation to end.
‘For the fairgrounds,’ he said. ‘Selling tickets, working the crowds, passing out balloons. Creating atmosphere and fun. Encouraging people to enjoy themselves.’
Isabella looked up and saw the balloons carried the name of the fair and its logo. She closed her eyes to better remember the unusual name and wasn’t prepared when he thrust the bear head into her arms. She accidentally let go of the balloons. They rose quickly, untangling themselves from each other and sailing off like multi-coloured fireflies, zig-zagging in different directions over the crowd through the sky. They watched them float away high over the crowd, Isabella in dismay, the bear man with a bemused expression on his face.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Isabella cried. I didn’t mean to–’
‘Don’t worry,’ he said.
‘But the balloons are lost now. I’ll pay you.’
‘They’re free. I’m supposed to give them away.’
‘But won’t you get into trouble?’
‘Nah… This is perfect. Look!’
Isabella looked and saw the crowd was watching the balloons as well. Pointing and smiling and laughing.
‘They’re gifts, you see. For whoever finds them. They’ll make people happy. Bring them to the fairground. For more happiness.’ He scratched his head and grinned at her. ‘You’ve just given me a great new marketing strategy.’
Standing together, laughing, Isabella felt an odd sensation in her chest as she looked at this funny stranger. He looked about her age. But she thought of him as a boy. Maybe because he made her feel like a girl.
‘What makes you happy?’ he asked. The sudden question made her blink and brought her quickly out of her thoughts. As she looked over his shoulder, she saw Michael making his way towards them. Flustered, she left to meet him without saying goodbye. Later, when she was in bed, the boy’s question floated back to her. She didn’t know the answer. In fact, the question had never occurred to her.
Michael arrived for his visit. Like he said he would, because it showed they could be apart but together. But after six months on her own, Isabella wasn’t sure she wanted to be together. She knew he never dreamt she wouldn’t come back. Maybe that was the difference between them: Isabella dreamed.
She’d met him at the station and dutifully showed him the town’s points of interest. It didn’t take long. They had a meal and then walked along the river. Michael spent most of the walk talking loudly of events and people back home, unaware of people’s stares. She made the excuse of a necessary errand to run and gave him the keys to her flat. She came back to discover he’d filled the flat with balloons, throwing open the door when she arrived, shouting, ‘Here’s to our future!’
She blinked. Balloons covered nearly every surface. She’d be sealed inside one soon, with him, and a mortgage, and children, and pets. Far too many obligations to float. She watched as they rocked back and forth, shaking their heads in sadness. He looked at her, waiting. She put on her best smile, nearly looked him in the eye and kissed his cheek.
Isabella decided what the boy said about balloons wasn’t true. Balloons didn’t always make you happy. These got on her nerves. They jumped and bounced accusingly at her when she crossed the room or opened doors, hovering uncomfortably close. They didn’t want to be confined. Her flat was not large. With Michael there and now these balloons, it was too much. She needed some space.
When Michael went out for a newspaper, she went to the balcony. A balloon darted out. Without thinking, she squeezed it between her palms. Nothing happened. She squeezed again, wincing, waiting for the pop. Then she stopped and opened her hands. The balloon caught the breeze, lifted, then glided over the road, descending into the park. It touched the ground once, twice. A granny walking past snatched it in her long fingers and tucked it under her coat. Isabella smiled.
She corralled the balloons onto the balcony and let the second one go. It flew into the park, dropping near a mother and child. Isabella heard his shrieks of joy as he captured it. She nodded.
At first, she released the balloons one at a time, but soon began throwing them with abandon, no longer waiting to see what happened to each one. A trail of twenty, thirty, forty balloons danced through the air. People noticed, gathered and pointed. Some ran after the balloons, wanting their own. Michael could take solace in that. Then she spotted him in the crowd, looking up at her.
‘Sorry,’ she whispered, hurling the last balloon. ‘I’m just not ready to land.’
In the flat, Michael tried to talk to her, but his words no longer reached her. There was too much space. After a while, he gathered his things and left. She knew she wouldn’t see him again. She knew this should make her feel heavy and sad, but she felt lighter, as if filled with air. An oval of red in the corner caught her eye. A lone, unblown balloon lay forgotten on the floor. She smiled, picked it up and headed to the balcony.
Originally from America's heartland, Missouri, SHERRY MORRIS writes monologues, short stories and flash fiction which have won prizes, placed on shortlists and been performed in London and Scotland. After almost twenty years in London, she moved to a farm in the Scottish Highlands where she watches clouds, goes for long walks and writes. Her published work can be found on www.uksherka.com or follow her @Uksherka
‘What did you write on yours?’
‘Are we supposed to tell each other?’
‘It’s not like we were making a birthday wish and blowing out candles, Josh. What did you write?’ she asked again.
He looked up at the luminous orbs floating higher, getting smaller but still bright like too-close stars.
‘First you tell me what you wrote on yours,’ he replied.
She smiled and touched her abdomen. ‘I wrote “Making the world a better place for our children”.’
‘I thought we were supposed to write our greatest fear on it,’ he said.
‘Right, that’s what I did. You’re not afraid the world is falling apart and we’re leaving behind a mess for them?’ she asked.
‘Oh, I see. No, that makes sense. It’s a nice thought, Susan.’
An older woman tapped him on the shoulder and asked to borrow his Sharpie. She unfolded her Chinese lantern and wrote the words ‘North Korea’ on it. Josh helped her light the candle and she released it into the air, watching it slowly lift away.
‘I just hate that fat, little dictator threatening to kill us all. May he burn in Hell,’ said the older woman with a stern expression. Josh nodded and turned back to Susan, rolling his eyes and mouthing ‘wow’ through a grin.
The encounter made Josh think of his own mother and the time she’d taken him and his brother camping in the Upper Peninsula when they were kids. His mom still wanted to take the boys out to do ‘manly’ things despite her being a soft-spoken homebody and raising the two children on her own. She had watched a fishing show before that trip and learned how to cast a line just so that she could teach them something a father might. While she was attempting to bait the hook with a worm, she yelled out, ‘Aw, damn it to hell!’ Both boys giggled and looked at one another, then back to their mother who was laughing hysterically.
As the older woman now walked away, Susan took hold of his arm and hugged it, burying her face into his flannel shirt. ‘So, Josh, what did you write on yours?’
He stared straight ahead, still lost in the memory. ‘Josh.’
‘Oh,’ he said, nestling his nose into her hair. ‘That old lady jocked me. I wrote “North Korea” before her. Old lady knows what’s up.’ Then he snorted into her hair like a horse as she laughed and playfully swatted him away.
‘Okay, fine,’ she said with a smile. ‘Be mysterious, as always.’
He put one arm around her shoulder and the other on her stomach. He felt movement inside her and his grin faded.
‘One of ‘em is kicking,’ she said. She took out her phone to take a photo and he looked up at the night sky filled with bright lights, each growing smaller by the moment. Somewhere high up there among Chinese lanterns with things written on them like ‘Nuclear War’, ‘Spiders’, and ‘Public Speaking’ was one that read ‘Becoming Dad’.
MICHAEL A. FERRO's debut novel, TITLE 13, will be published by Harvard Square Editions in February 2018. He has received an Honorable Mention from Glimmer Train for their New Writers Award, won the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award for Fiction, and nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Michael’s writing has appeared in numerous journals in both print and online, including Crack the Spine, Amsterdam Quarterly, Yale University’s Perch Journal, Chicago Literati, Splitsider, Potluck Magazine, and elsewhere. Born and bred in Detroit, Michael has lived, worked, and written throughout the American Midwest. Additional information can be found at: www.michaelaferro.com and @MichaelFerro
Nanny’s hair smells of chip fat and Elnett hairspray. Papa doesn’t have any hair, but all of him smells of cigarette smoke and newspaper ink. Lying between them in bed, in the flat above the newsagents he runs and the café she runs, they’re talking about tomorrow. They think I’m sleeping. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t swear.
She takes a huge breath. He’s told her to do this because she’s getting herself up to high doh about the marchers tomorrow. I can’t take big breaths here. If I do I taste the smoke, a thick fog that hangs like cloud hammocks when the sun comes through the windows in the morning.
‘Isa, just ignore them. Don’t do it again. Think about the wean.’
She doesn’t answer for a while and I think she’s fallen asleep. It’s never quiet in The Gorbals, but you get used to the trucks and sirens and drunken singing and rain beating its tattoo on the high windows of the tenements. After a while, the Glasgow lullaby eases you to sleep.
But she’s not sleeping. ‘The bastards, P (she never calls him Pat, just ‘P’). Why do they have to come down this street, so close to the chapel?’
I hear Papa scratch the stubble on his chin and I try not to giggle as I remember him giving me a jaggy beardy tickle on the belly after my bath earlier.
He reaches across me and takes her hand. ‘I know they’re bastards, but dragging the jukebox into the street and blasting Elvis to drown out their flutes and drums isn’t a good idea.’
The bed shakes and I realise Nanny’s laughing. Then Papa’s laughing too.
‘Oh, but their faces last year,’ she says.
I can let them know I’m awake now. Pretend their laughter woke me.
Nanny pulls me closer, the static from the bri-nylon sheets making my nightie hug hers as we crackle towards each other. ‘Sorry, hen. We didn’t mean to disturb you.’
Even in the dark, I know Papa’s smiling. He says I’m funny when I tell him I can hear his smiles. ‘Back to sleep, lassie,’ he says.
I don’t want to. I want to hear them talk and swear and laugh about the Orangemen, but it’s so hot pressed in to Nanny and now I’m rubbing Papa’s bald head, making slow circles with my hand.
‘Isa, she’s doing it again,’ he says.
‘I know, but it sends her over and it’s not doing you any harm.’
‘Not doing me any harm? I had a full head of hair before this wee one was born.’
And they’re laughing again but I can’t stay awake ‘cause my eyes are as heavy as the treacle me and Nanny’ll use to make the scones tomorrow.
KAREN JONES is from Glasgow. Her stories have appeared in numerous magazines and e-zines and have been included in print anthologies including Discovering a Comet and more micro fiction, The Wonderful World of Worders, An Earthless Melting Pot, 10 Red, HISSAC 10th Anniversary, Bath Short Story Anthology, Ellipses: One, Bath Flash Fiction Volume Two and Flash Fiction Festival One. She’s been successful in short story and flash competitions including Mslexia, Flash 500, Writers Bureau, The New Writer, HISSAC and Words with Jam. Her story collection, The Upside-Down Jesus and other stories, is available from Amazon.
Every Friday Mrs Pinto receives six fifty-pound notes folded inside a cream envelope with an embossed print of a golden hawk at the top right hand corner. Her employer, Mrs Ibrahim, locks the pantry door at night and counts the number of eggs in the fridge, but there are certain courtesies she insists on observing. She gives the envelope with a slight bow and inclination of the head.
‘For you, Mary… Mrs Pinto,’ she corrects herself. It is well known in the household that Mrs Pinto does not care to be addressed by her first name.
‘Thank you, Madam,’ Mrs Pinto replies, her right hand pressed to her chest, to show her employer just how much she appreciates the money.
A wave of the hand dismisses her as Mrs Ibrahim turns to her mobile phone ready to plot luncheon and shopping excursions with her friends for the coming weekend.
‘Mrs Pinto, before you go, make sure to mop the bathroom floor. My husband... he dropped something.’ Her voice is distracted.
‘Yes, Madam,’ Mrs Pinto says. They both know that she has cleaned the entire house from attic to cellar just that very morning.
The master en suite is bigger than her two-bedroomed house in Colombo. She could eat hoppers off the floor if she wanted, but she still kneels down, her fingers running like a searchlight on the marble tiles. Not a speck of dirt. Mrs Pinto straightens herself and pauses in front of the mirror that covers an entire wall. There she stands, all six foot of her. Gangly like a coconut tree. Which boy is going to marry you? her mother had wailed when she continued to grow well past her eighteenth birthday.
Mrs Pinto unties her white apron and quietly runs a hand over her waist – still svelte despite the years of scrubbing, polishing and peeling. There is life in her yet, she thinks, as she walks to the shelf where the perfume bottles, shampoos, and lotions stand rigid and alert like soldiers in a firing squad. She shifts one bottle closer to the next, twists open a lid and sniffs the perfume before putting it back. This is not her world. Mrs Pinto accepts that. Little does it matter that she, a graduate in public administration, is at the age of forty taking orders from a chit of a girl with big bouncy hips and hair who hasn’t done a day’s work in her life. The reality is that her week’s salary here is worth a month’s back home. She must never forget that.
In her attic room, Mrs Pinto, eyes narrowed, carefully counts the notes before placing them inside the blue steel box that she stores under her bed. The box will stay there until Tuesday afternoon, when Mrs Pinto catches the 230 bus to Edgeware road.
‘Why don’t I drop you, habibi?’ Ali the driver says. He is outside the house, flicking a yellow dust cloth over the bonnet of the blue Mercedes that shines like a newly-minted coin. She shakes her head and smiles. It is not the first time he has called her beloved.
‘Thank you, but I prefer to take the bus.’ She likes to climb up to the top and find a seat near the front, the sprawl of the city spreading beneath her, her box nestled between her thighs, her head giddy, seeing the neon signs and the billboards speed past.
He shrugs. ‘Okay, I walk you to the bus stop.’ They walk in silence with Ali whistling. She recognises the tune. It is from a popular Bollywood film.
‘How come you know this song?’ she asks. Ali is Egyptian. He has close-cropped curly hair and a husky voice. At night when she has trouble sleeping, she squeezes her eyes shut and imagines him riding camels across unending sand dunes, his white robes like a splash of milk amid the golden barrenness. He laughs. ‘I only sing when I see you and your swaying hips, habibi. You are my film heroine.’
Mrs Pinto’s mouth trembles into a smile, but she wags a finger like a teacher. ‘I am only a housekeeper. A married housekeeper, so don’t you be trying any hanky-panky with me. Is that understood?’
‘A joke, habibi. You know I’m a gentleman.’ He winks.
The mobile in Ali’s pocket vibrates. ‘Ach... Madam want me.’ He slaps the side of his head in mock despair and imitates her high-pitched voice. ‘Ali, take me to the hairdresser. Ali, take me to Harrods. Drop me here and drop me there. Doesn’t that lazy woman know Allah gave her two good legs? She needs to use them, not save them for a rainy day.’
Mrs Pinto purses her lips and pretends to look severe. ‘She pays our salary, Ali. Don’t make her angry. You go along now. I’m almost there.’
‘One day, I will take you to see the bright lights of Blackpool. We will drive there in the Mercedes. Go on all the rides.’ His eyes shine as he turns to her. ‘Promise me you will come, habibi?’
‘Maybe,’ she says. She knows that Ali’s English life started in Blackpool. It was where he got his residency papers while working at the back of a fish and chip shop, gutting the fish and throwing their silver thin bones to the cats in the alley. Blackpool for him is the most beautiful city in the world. ‘The lights at night, like a necklace of diamonds, and the cold air blowing in from the sea. So good for your soul.’ Ali always closed his eyes when he said this and she saw him, swaddled in sweaters walking up and down the beach, a snarl of pink seagulls circling his head, the waves biting his feet. She had even googled Blackpool once and been shocked to see pictures of boarded up shops and sea the colour of dishwater. The amusement park looked tacky, like an abandoned film set from a Bollywood film.
Still, she humours him, ‘Yes, yes. We will go to Blackpool one day.’
The bus drops Mrs Pinto in front of Nizam’s fresh juice parlour. She crosses the road to reach the newsagent who also doubles up as a Western Union agent. She feels important as she signs her name and counts the money twice before nudging it through the hole in the glass partition.
The bushy-browed old man leers at her across the counter. ‘Money for boyfriend. For toy boy, no? Your lover Omar Sharif?’ His voice is thick and slurred after a recent stroke.
‘For my family,’ she says with a scowl.
Mrs Pinto likes her excursion to Edgware Road. The summer sky above her is pallid yellow, like spilled dal. Her coat, one of Mrs Ibrahim’s hand-me-downs, feels snug and warm around her broad shoulders. She wanders among the shops that are so different to the hushed ones her employer visits where men with unfriendly faces and white-gloved hands stand guard at the door. She prefers the gutter glitter of these shops, their fabrics, scents and spices spilling onto the pavements. It reminds her of Colombo and her son and husband weaving their way across such a street, elbowing their way through the crowds to reach her.
‘When are you coming home, Ma?’ her son asks her in their weekly Skype conversations. He throws the question at her like a cricket ball, then runs outside to find his friends in the playground. He is happy even if he misses her. Matthew, her husband, is her real worry. Where was that strapping, smiling man with the handlebar moustache who had taken her on his bike to eat garlic crabs under the shade of the banyan tree? The man who stood mumbling across the screen had changed, with sunken cheeks and hooded eyes that hid secrets.
He talks of money, always money, not of how she passes her days five thousand miles away from him.
‘We need money. More money, Mary. Do what you have to do.’ His face dissolves for an instant into the blue mercury buzz of the laptop screen before swimming back in focus. The words fade and his eyes do a dance, one moment he is staring at the floor, the next looking at something behind her shoulder. Rarely do his eyes return to her waiting face.
‘The roof is leaking and Raju needs a new school uniform. I have to buy new painkillers. They will be coming from Dubai.’ His life is one long shopping list and it is her job to tick off each item. She listens patiently. Poor Matthew, what can he do? An accident in the garment factory where he worked had turned his left arm into mince. He was now only good for grumbling and gambling.
Mrs Pinto’s steps falter as she thinks of her husband. There is a heaviness in her chest and a dryness in her throat. She must try to be a good wife and earn more. The crowds drift past her, laughter spilling from their faces. Seeing them lulls her heart. She makes the sign of a cross and whispers Amen. All will be well. She still has sturdy limbs that work and a head that will not lose its cool. She is proud to be the breadwinner, working twelve hours a day so her family has air-conditioning in the summer and new clothes to wear to Mass. She can hold her head high. As for more money. She will ask Mrs Ibrahim for a loan.
Waiting for the bus to take her back, Mrs Pinto allows herself one luxury. A tall glass of mango milkshake and two pieces of baklava that she packs in her bag, one eye alert for the red double decker bus lurching towards her through the traffic.
‘All good, my friend?’ It is Ali, sitting on the front step, playing with the car keys, chucking them from one hand to the other. He runs forward to take her shopping bag, ‘Ya Allah, it’s heavy, what do you have in there? An elephant?’ He screws up his face.
‘Why are you still here?’ Mrs Pinto asks. ‘Are you not taking Madam shopping?’
Ali presses his hand on his forehead, sighing as he wrings out imaginary drops of sweat. ‘Madam has a headache.’
‘I brought you some baklava,’ Mrs Pinto says, shyly, holding out the pistachio-crusted pastry wrapped in a Kleenex.’
‘It is to repair the roof,’ she says.
‘What roof are you talking about? Our house is good.’
Their eyes meet in the mirror. Mrs Pinto sighs. She needs to simplify and elaborate her request to the woman who sits hunched in front of the dressing table painting her eyebrows with a crayon. She clears her throat and begins again.
‘I need extra money to repair the roof of my house in Colombo. The monsoons are coming and it is urgent. My son also needs a new school uniform.’ She pauses to check the effect of these words, but Mrs Ibrahim’s hands have wandered to her mouth, which she is painting grape red.
‘School uniforms are expensive in Colombo.’ Mrs Pinto finishes.
The hand holding the lipstick wavers as Mrs Ibrahim swivels around on her fur-lined chair. Her bottom lip sticks out and she scratches her chin.
‘I didn’t know you had a son.’
Mrs Pinto draws herself to her full height. ‘He is fourteen. I left him when he was ten, and my husband is...’ She searches for the right word. Mutilated, incapacitated, handicapped, failure, drunkard, womaniser. ‘He is disabled because of an accident at work. He has lost an arm. That is why I came to England to work. I left my son behind.’
She remembers the day. It was raining and her flight was early. She had left the boy fast asleep, the bedsheet tangled around his little legs, his mouth open in a half-smile.
‘Okay I will ask my husband. You go now. Go, go...’
That night Mrs Pinto sits on her bedroom floor, the empty blue metal box open next to her. She turns on the laptop and her husband’s face floats into view. There is an ugly twist to his mouth and his words rush out. ‘Bitch. Whore. Send me more money. I know you are keeping it all for yourself.’
She is in the kitchen dicing the lamb into little cubes. Chopped onions sit in a pile on the chopping board. They are the reason for her red-rimmed eyes.
She swings around. Mr Ibrahim stands at the door. He is wearing his favourite black t-shirt and loose jogging bottoms with gold entwined Cs splashed all over them.
‘Good afternoon, Sir.’ She bows her head and waits for his order. Maybe he is after a snack.
‘I hear you want a raise,’ he says, hands stuffed in his pocket, one foot swinging as he leans against the doorframe.
‘I want a loan. The roof at home needs repairing. I will pay it back,’ Mrs Pinto replies. Her eyes itch and she rubs at it with the hem of her sleeve.
He comes closer. She can smell the tobacco on his breath.
A hand shoots out of his pocket and cups her breast. ‘How are you going to pay me back?’ he asks as he kneads her breast.
She pushes him away and runs to her room.
Mr Ibrahim is normally a shadow. A benign shadow that occupies the house and leaves behind traces of his existence but is never actually there.
‘He spends a lot of time in the Gulf,’ Mrs Ibrahim had confided in her at the start of her employment. ‘Important business. Many factories.’
And Mrs Pinto had nodded, humbled at the chance of working in such an illustrious man’s house.
It is only at night when the moon is high in the sky and the roar of traffic dimmed to a purr that she allows the trembling in her bones to ease. She takes off her clothes and peers at herself in the small round mirror that hangs above the sink. Being tall, she has to contort and manoeuvre her body, bending down to see as the mirror slowly offers up small pieces of herself to observe. There lies the crook of her arm, dry, scabbed. Her belly button floats up next, sunken with a stray grey hair peeping through. She plucks it and sighs, turning away only to return. She must see her face. What was it that Ali had told her? The face is the gatekeeper to the soul. There it is – her mouth with its downward droop, and her eyes wide and slanting up at the corners, the colour of brown toast. She brings her hand up and strokes her cheek and then her belly, feather-like touches that sooth her and make her forget.
The shrill squeak of her mobile phone under her pillow wakes her. It is 3am but lunchtime in Colombo. It is her son. His tearful voice tells her that the father has gone missing. ‘He came back late and shouted, made some rice, burnt it and then went out again, holding a bottle of whiskey in his good hand,’ the boy whimpers.
She comforts him and tells him to pack his things and go to his grandmother’s house. She is tired of holding up her world.
She wakes up the next morning, her limbs still heavy with sleep.
‘You are very late.’ Mrs Ibrahim taps her gold watch. ‘I had to give breakfast to my children all on my own, and look, the kitchen is a mess and I’m late for my hairdresser.’ She flings up her hands in exasperation and stamps her foot. The cereal packet has fallen, the cornflakes dribble on to the floor. Piles of dirty plates fill the sink and the empty frying pan hisses on the hob.
There is a peculiar fire burning in Mrs Pinto’s eyes as she stares at her employer. She nods but does not apologise, and says she will start cleaning the bedrooms first. Methodically, concentrating hard, she whips off the bedsheets from the beds and throws them on the floor. She goes into the bathroom and gathers the lotions and toothpastes, unscrewing their tops and emptying the contents into the toilet that she does not bother flushing. In the lounge, she empties the vases of their flowers and leaves them strewn on the carpet along with the cushions. She finds Mr Ibrahim’s tracksuit bottoms and carefully scissors through them until they are like shredded confetti. In one hour, she has gone through the house leaving behind a trail of destruction. Except the children’s room, she cannot bring herself to upset them.
Shutting the front door softly behind her, she goes out. A pink balloon set free from a child’s hand floats above the cream stucco roofs of the houses. The cherry trees shiver with flower and Ali is outside, whistling under his teeth as he polishes the hubcaps of the car. He straightens up when he sees her and raises his eyebrows.
‘Someone is in a good mood.’
Mrs Pinto smiles. ‘Where’s Madam?’
‘Still at the hairdressers. I have to pick her up in an hour. She is not happy with you today. Says you’re lazy.’ He shakes his head. ‘I tell her she is lucky to have you.’
Mrs Pinto considers this as she stands on the step, her face raised to the sky to catch the sun’s warmth. She stretches out her hands and examines her palms. There runs her lifeline, long and strong. She will not let anyone halt its flow.
Opening the car door, she slips into the passenger seat and pats the empty driver’s seat beside her. ‘Come on, Ali. What are we waiting for? It is a wonderful day. Let’s drive to Blackpool.’
RESHMA RUIA is a writer based in Cheshire. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Manchester and is the author of Something Black in the Lentil Soup. Her second novel, A Mouthful of Silence, was shortlisted for the 2014 SI Leeds literary prize. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in various international journals and anthologies and also commissioned for Radio 4. She is the co-founder of a writers collective of British writers of South Asian origin, The Whole Kahani. Her narrative portrays the inherent tensions and preoccupations of those who possess multiple senses of belonging.
You lean back on the sofa, take a bite of a brownie, and place it back onto the plate alongside a dozen other half-eaten baked goods. The plate is covered by remnants of brownies, cupcakes, and other dessert items with different colored frosting. Your six-year-old son Trevor decided just that morning that Santa must be tired of going from house to house and eating the same cookies over and over again. It would be up to the two of you, he declared, to provide some variety to Santa’s diet. Luckily for you, the local bakery was open until noon today, before everyone headed home to celebrate the holiday. Also luckily for you, the bakery had not been cleaned out by all of the people smart enough to reserve their cakes and desserts ahead of time or all of the people smart enough not to get to the bakery 15 minutes before it closed.
You pick up a glass of room temperature milk and drink half of it in a single gulp. Last year, your husband Michael made the mistake of drinking all of the milk, and the two of you had to listen to your son worry about whether too many bathroom breaks would prevent Santa from delivering all of his presents in time. Trevor’s letter to Santa this year, which is currently sitting in your office, asked Santa if he had a bathroom on his sleigh. Santa’s response, written on a small index card that you left beside the plate of half-eaten baked goods, said Trevor had nothing to worry about: ‘I only drink a small sip from each household.’ The note also thanked Trevor for being so thoughtful with the desserts, but also let him know that Oreos were his favorite. This way, next year, all you would have to do is buy Oreos.
Happy with this year’s crime scene, you pick up a second glass. This one is filled with Baileys and vodka. You turn on the television and are greeted by Sean T telling you that if you did Insanity for 60 days, the things that would happen to your body would be ‘insane’. If Michael were still around, he would have picked up his shirt and showed you his belly. He would have asked if you still thought he was sexy. (You loved him for many things, but his ‘sexiness’ had never been one of them.)
You have never been a heavy drinker, so the alcohol hits you quickly. Ever since Michael died, you have found yourself drinking more, but not so much that you would consider yourself an alcoholic. You close your eyes and enjoy the throbbing sensation as someone shares how Insanity helped her lose 35 pounds.
‘Try Insanity now, risk free for 30 days. If you’re not satisfied, send it back for a full refund.’
You bolt awake, wondering how long you have been out. The clock says 4:46am. You would have to get to bed soon if you wanted to be able to get up when Trevor inevitably barged into your bedroom, eager to open his presents. You turn off the television. ‘No matter what I do, I’ll never look like that,’ you say.
You spin around, almost knocking the glass of Baileys from the coffee table. ‘Hey there, what are you doing awake?’
Trevor jumps onto the couch. ‘Who were you talking to?’ His eyes settle on the plate of half-eaten desserts. ‘Santa? Santa?’ He jumps off of the couch and looks at the boxes of presents under the tree. He then runs to the window and looks up into the sky. ‘I can’t believe you never told me you knew him.’
You look at your son and then back at the Christmas tree and smile. ‘Sometimes I can’t believe it myself, kiddo. Come on,’ you say, grabbing his arm and guiding him back to his bedroom. ‘I’ll tell you all about it in the morning when we open up your presents.’
CEDRICK MENDOZA-TOLENTINO was a 2014 Emerging Writer's Fellow at the Center for Fiction in New York City. He graduated with honors in the Undergraduate Creative Writing Program at Columbia University. He has had work published in Liars' League New York, Akashic - Mondays are Murder, Gargoyle Magazine, Joyland, Slow Trains and Plain Spoke. His chapbook Alphabetica: The Other Side of Love was published by Corgi Snorkel Press. He is currently working on a novel and a short story collection.