My mother’s kitchen wall was singed black, with strange clouded shapes gusting up from her microwave.
‘She put paper in it.’ The police officer scowled like it was my fault.
‘Why would she do that?’ He rolled his eyes, and clicked his tongue instead of answering. I hated him and his judgemental face, but the black wall was disturbing and there was nowhere else to look. Everything smelt like burnt dirt.
My mother’s voice floated from the bedroom.
‘I’ll stay with my daughter, she has a lovely place and I’ve never been there before.’
It was not lovely. It was a one-bedroom flat with leaky plumbing that cost my entire salary now that my boyfriend had dropped me. I’d been too embarrassed to call Mum. It had been months since we had had any contact. I presumed my brother was taking care of her, but there was something unused about the house. A fug in the air, too much dust.
Mum was sitting on her bed, speaking to a young officer. Female officers must always get the job of reminding distraught old ladies to pack extra underwear.
‘I don’t have much room in my place,’ I said, and realised too late that it was not a greeting. I should have said hello, and asked how she was. ‘There’s probably no room for Carl.’
Mum looked away, and it was the police officer who answered. ‘Your brother is in Thailand.’
‘Oh, of course, I forgot.’ The police woman didn’t believe me. They must be trained to spot liars. ‘He’s having a great time, apparently,’ I continued inanely as she stared at me, and Mum stared at her feet. ‘Well, we should probably take some groceries with us.’
‘We can go shopping tomorrow,’ Mum said. She should have told me about Carl leaving.
‘I have to work tomorrow.’ The police woman scowled, just like her judgemental colleague. ‘I can’t take more time off,’ I said. ‘It was hard enough getting here today.’
When the police officer had phoned the café, Tom had laughed, presuming I was in trouble. Yesterday, he had caught me sneaking leftover food into my bag. He didn’t care—he wasn’t the boss—but he thought it was foul. Even so, at lunchtime today he had let me sit the first-date straight couple in my section. First dates were the best. They ordered too much food—the women pretending to have a great appetite and the men pretending they could afford it all. It equalled leftovers galore for me.
There was half a sandwich in my bag right now. It had thick ham and drizzles of tomato chutney, with that strange spice I couldn’t place. I had been looking forward to eating it after my shift.
‘How long until she can come back?’ I asked. It was out of concern, it really was, but the police woman tsked like I was a child being rude.
‘The kitchen is unsafe. She shouldn’t stay somewhere without a kitchen.’
‘But it’s her house, she owns it, so if she wanted to come back before it was fully fixed—’ I stopped speaking. The woman was looking at me like I was a monster, and Mum seemed to be crying.
‘Don’t cry, Mum, you can stay with me, it’s fine. But you’ll have more space here, even without a kitchen.’ The police officer looked down at my mother, perched on the end of her bed, and it was that—looking down—that pulled my attention. My mother was tiny. She could have slept sideways on her bed and not reached the edges at all. Her bedsheets were grey and limp.
‘I’ll see what I can find to take with us,’ I said and left her sniffling while trying to squeeze a pair of soft slip-on shoes—the ones that are kind to bunions—into her overnight case. At least she was only bringing an overnight case.
The other police officer was on his phone in the kitchen. He was staring at the wall, but not like it was interesting. He hung up when he saw me. I shuffled past, wishing he would stop watching me, and opened a cupboard.
‘What are you doing?’
‘Taking some food with me.’
‘There’s nothing here.’ He said it like I was an idiot for thinking there would be food in my mother’s house, but I looked anyway. There was a packet of beef stock cubes, but the paper sachet inside had only a fine sprinkling of powder. The next cupboard had some greenish onion skin in it. Had my dolt of a brother cleaned the place out? I’d missed some calls from him a few weeks earlier. I’d been at work and hadn’t called him back. A bagpiper had set up residence in the building across from the café, and I had had a pounding headache all day. I sent him a text, but he never replied. I probably should have called my mother. I had thought about it, every time that bagpiper started playing. That wheezy brassy sound always reminded me of Mum. She used to play a Scottish Christmas album on repeat from Halloween onward. That was probably why I’d been out of sorts: listening to those bagpipes conjured feelings of Christmas, and it was only August.
The final cupboard had nothing in it, not even a crumb, like it had been swept clean. It still had that musty smell of old bread though, and my stomach pulled savagely. I’d only had tea all day. It was free at the café, and usually kept me full until I could eat my leftovers. Working with food while you have nothing to eat yourself is some kind of cruel punishment. I tried not to hate our customers, but still took some satisfaction in knowing I had tea breath all day. Maybe if it put them off their food, they would leave more on their plates for me to scrape into my bag.
‘So, can we go?’ I asked the man. He was looking at me with distaste, like I had fashioned the mouldy onion skin into a necklace.
‘Sure, just don’t let her cook,’ he said. I wasn’t sure what he meant, but it sounded like a joke so I laughed. He scowled. Maybe that was just his face. ‘No, seriously. I don’t want a call to come round your flat in an hour because she’s so hungry she put fucking newspaper in the microwave again.’
I stared at the microwave. It was crumpled and black, I couldn’t tell what had been in it.
‘I didn’t know it was newspaper. I thought you just meant wrapping, or something.’ He shook his head, slowly, delighting in my shock. ‘But—’ I stopped as Mum appeared in the doorway.
‘Are we going now?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, let’s go.’ I took the bag from the police woman. It was light, like it was full of air. Like Mum’s possession had no weight to them.
I showed Mum into my room, and put her bag on the chair. ‘I’ll change the sheets in a bit.’
She nodded. She was sucking her cheeks and looking around, her eyes dim. I didn’t know what she was expecting, but it wasn’t this. Holey carpet. A chipped wardrobe and sagging bed. Half the light bulbs in the flat weren’t working. Everything was dim. I hated it more now she was there.
‘Come on, I’ll make us a cup of tea.’
Emerging from the kitchen with our mugs five minutes later, and she was hunched on the couch. She smiled, as though pleased to see me, but her mouth wobbled, the corners behaving strangely. It had been a traumatic day. I wished I had a biscuit for her at least, instead of endless tea.
I passed her the mug. Her fingers had shrunk so that her knuckles bulged like strange growths on stalks too fragile to carry them. Her head was bent over so she could blow on the tea, and when I sat beside her, she barely reached my shoulder. Her skin looked different too: looser, greyer. Had all this happened in just the few months since I had seen her? Carl always complained about how much work it was to take care of her, but I thought he was exaggerating. He’d been asking me to help for a year, but twelve months ago Owen and I had moved into this place. I’d been distracted. Maybe I should have checked what he meant by ‘taking care’ of her.
I wanted to ask about her money, she should have had more than enough to live on. But Carl was in charge of that, too. A sickness began to spread through my gut; I needed to consume something other than tea.
‘Are you hungry, Mum?’ I asked, and her eyes whipped up to my face, suddenly bright.
‘Oh, I wouldn’t mind a bit of something, if you have it.’
I mentally scanned the cupboards in the kitchen. Baked beans. I had some tinned soup, but it looked like that’s all she had been eating anyway, until today’s experiment with the newspaper. I wanted to give her something substantial, something with nutrients and fat to boost those tiny fingers and give her skin back some vibrancy.
‘I’ll find something,’ I said. I took my handbag to the kitchen and fished out the leftover sandwich. I wanted to eat it. All that tea was making me nauseous. I sniffed it, and pulled the bread apart. Real butter. A thick slice of fresh ham, a centimetre thick. It had that crisp, almost metallic, meat smell. The salad leaves were slightly crumpled, but the tomato chutney—with real chunks of tomato—made up for it. The colour was so vibrant it screamed health. My mouth started to water. She didn’t know I had it, I could find something else for her. I wrapped it tightly and opened the fridge, prepared to deposit it on one of the empty shelves. But then I stopped.
My mother had a fire in her flat. My mother had a fire in her flat, today. She could have been hurt, or killed. Her lungs might still be filled with smoke, did they even check that? Why hadn’t I asked? And why had Carl just left without telling me? I shut the fridge and put the wrapped sandwich back on the sticky counter. Since the cleaning spray had run out I’d been using hot water, but the juice from last night’s baked beans had solidified and the water had not been hot enough, or I had been careless.
I opened the paper wrapping again. The sandwich, which just seconds before had looked delicious, was suddenly pathetic. I wanted to feed her a roast dinner, with fat potatoes that burst with steam, carrots covered in honey, stuffing perfumed with herbs. I wanted to feed her until the flesh came back to her bones and her mind returned to its sharp self. She had put paper in the microwave. How hungry had she been? Why hadn’t she told me? I could have given her some of the money from the sale of my car. It hadn’t even occurred to me, she had never been short of cash before. But of course, she didn’t know I had sold the car. She didn’t know about Owen leaving me. I’d used the money to raise my rent out of arrears, but I could have moved in with her, and used it to feed us both instead.
I cut the sandwich in half, carefully, so as not to disturb the already-disturbed innards. I leaned one half against the other, like we did at work. I took a packet of corn chips from the cupboard and added a handful to the side of the sandwich. Then, I filled a glass with water and ice cubes. It looked delicious, but it wasn’t enough. She had tried to eat newspaper, and I was giving her half a used sandwich.
‘Jessie.’ Mum was at the door to the kitchen, her hands holding the door jamb as though her legs couldn’t support her weight. Her eyes flicked to the plate, and widened in delight. ‘Oh Jessie, is that for me? That looks wonderful!’ Her mouth was open, so eager was she to eat, and her fingers came away from the wall, as though begging for the plate.
‘I’ll carry it, Mum. You sit down.’ But she didn’t move, and her eyes stayed on the food, as though she couldn’t bare not to be in the same room as it. The cruel part of me imagined eating it myself, as she looked on. She was so small, there would be nothing she could do.
I took the plate in one hand, the glass in the other, and walked towards her. Finally she turned, and shuffled back to the couch, her head cocked like a badly-trained spy so she could watch the progress of the food.
When I gave it to her, her breath shook in her throat with excitement. She ran a finger along the exposed line of ham, and put the finger to her lips. Her eyes closed involuntarily, and she sighed. Then, with sudden ferocity, she grabbed one half of the sandwich and bit through it, grinning at me. Crumbs fell into her cupped hand, she wasn’t wasting a single scrap.
The sound of her chewing increased my nausea, and I snuck a corn chip from her plate. Her eyes flashed, momentarily, like an animal guarding a carcass, and I imagined feeding her, day after day. Like she had done for me. Carl hadn’t lasted twelve months, would I be any better? I snuck another corn chip and finished my tea.
ALISON THERESA GIBSON grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and now lives in Birmingham, UK. In 2018, she placed second in the Winchester Writer’s Festival short story competition. She has been published in Meanjin, Scrittura, Pif, and has work upcoming in Mechanics’ Institute Review and Riggwelter Press. She is writing her third-time-lucky novel while working at University College London. You can find her online @AlisonTheresa87 and alisontheresa.com
Dad and I drive to a state park in the mountains near Asheville to see the eclipse. They make a big deal about it, with food trucks and live music, bluegrass and an Allman Brothers tribute band. People set up shade tents and lawn chairs, cook hamburgers and hot dogs on charcoal grills. Little kids wait in line to get the eclipse’s progression painted across their foreheads.
‘Your mom would have loved this,’ Dad says.
She’d gone on the internet to get us ready. I remember her one morning at breakfast, pouring Dad’s coffee for him and telling us about how the moon’s shadow crossing the land is called the umbra, how this would be the first time in almost 40 years people like us could see the corona of the sun. ‘It’s going to be something we’ll remember forever,’ she said.
Dad gets the little cooler out of the car. He hands me a soda and gets a beer for himself. It’s before noon. I wonder how many more he’ll drink.
‘To your mom,’ he says, raising his beer in a toast.
I tap my bottle against his.
‘To Mom,’ I say.
A man and a woman come and spread a blanket across the grass on the ground near us. They sit side by side, the man’s arm around the woman’s waist, her head against his shoulder, and sway together to the music.
Dad finishes his beer and gets another.
‘Be sure to love her,’ he calls over to the man.
It’s August, getting hotter as the sun climbs the sky. Dad takes off his shirt.
‘Need another soda?’ he asks.
‘I’m OK,’ I say.
By the time the music ends Dad has drunk a six-pack. He goes to pee in one of the portajohns they’ve brought in to handle the crowd, weaving around families eating picnics and stopping every so often to lean against a pine tree to steady himself. A little girl points and laughs, like he’s a clown. When he gets back he lies down in the grass and goes to sleep. I ball up his shirt and slip it under his head.
The moon edges in front of the sun. I put on a pair of the special protective glasses Mom got us online. I start to wake Dad but as the darkness falls it’s like he’s supposed to be this way, and I let him sleep.
SCOTT RAGLAND has an MFA in Creative Writing (fiction) from UNC-Greensboro in the U.S. Before taking a writing hiatus, he had several stories published, most notably in Writers' Forum, Beloit Fiction Journal, and The Quarterly. More recently, his work has appeared in apt, The Conium Review, NANO Fiction, Newfound Journal, Ambit, and The Common (online), among others. He also has a flash forthcoming in Fiction International. He lives in Carrboro, N.C. (U.S.A.), with his wife, two dogs, and a cat. His three kids have left the nest.
A word accompanied you that day. Or perhaps it was a wish.
Did you hear me?
Did you see us? Three figures standing on the quayside, tight-lipped, stony-gazed, and emptied. Each of us thinking: ‘So, there he goes.’ None of us quite believing it. The distance was still the most improbable thing at that moment. Thousands of miles, a different hemisphere.
‘What is that again, a hemisphere?’ Father asked.
‘The other side of the world,’ Mother replied.
I stood there in silence, because I knew even then, that a journey can be measured in more than miles. Time falls away with an unstoppable dedication, oblivious to concepts such as north or south. A year, two, twenty, every moment in between. Poof! All gone. A whole lifetime. Yours, ours. This was the distance we all travelled in the end.
But back to that word, that wish. I whispered it, as I stood there on the quayside, straining to catch sight of you. I looked up, scanned portholes, decks and guardrails, trying to find you. Desperate. I looked up, the way I did when I was just a child, when I saw you for who you were, but loved you just the same. Brother. Friend. Adventurer. I looked up and whispered, and felt each syllable disappear amid the throng of the crowd, dissipating like the fumes from the funnel, drowned out by a bellow of horns and final farewells, lost amid the chaos and bustle of it all.
The same word I uttered all those years ago when you asked me, ‘What’s your favourite word?’ and without hesitation I replied, ‘Souvenir’. You had smiled, ‘So precocious,’ and wondered where I could have learned such a thing. Not here, in these gritty back yards you were running from. Not here, in this place, where opportunity always seemed to exist elsewhere. Not here, under these grey skies, in this city of rain and black soot coated tenements. This place you were so desperate to forget. Surely, not here?
Perhaps, if you had understood the possibilities that word contained, you would have stayed. That was what I was trying to explain to you, you just didn’t hear me. You never understood, there were things which glistened under those grey skies, if you cared to look for them.
But, on the quayside, I tried to one last time to explain it. Did you hear me?
‘Souvenir.’ The word, the wish. I let it fly and watched as it took to the air, saw it mount the guardrail, clamber on deck, and hang over heads and hats and waving hands. It hovered, looking for you in the crowd. Then, finding you, descended, and slipped inside. And I smiled when I saw your hand reaching for your ear, as you tried to scratch it away.
Souvenir. Remember us. Remember us. Yes, you heard me.
And it lingered, didn’t it? Despite your scratching. Souvenir. Souvenir. An echo with no response. Because you still walked away.
The three figures on the quayside, straining to catch sight of you. One final glimpse. But you knew already, didn’t you? As you turned your back on us, you knew there would be no remembering, no returning. The sound of our last ‘goodbyes’, lost in the din. The terrible weight of that wish only something we would come to understand in your absence, as we journeyed through the years without you.
JENNIFER HARVEY is a Scottish writer now based in Amsterdam. Her writing has appeared in various publications in the US and the UK, including: Carve, Folio, Bare Fiction, and The Lonely Crowd. She has been shortlisted for the Bristol Prize (2017), the Bridport Prize (2017, 2015, 2014) and placed 3rd in the University of Sunderland Short Story Award (2018), and her novels have been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award (2016, 2017). Her radio dramas have also won prizes and commendations from the BBC World Service (2016, 2009 and 2001). She is a Resident Reader for Carve Magazine and a member of the Editorial Board for Ellipsis Magazine. When not writing, she can be found sauntering along the Amsterdam canals, dreaming up new stories. You can find her online over at jenharvey.net
Death was not all bad. Not if you liked the business side, as Nuala did. Everyone had complimented her on the Mass. A good Mass doesn’t come together by itself and it was gratifying that people appreciated that. The hotel was a good choice too, a lovely function room all to themselves with acres of carpet, and the bathroom fittings done in gold like something from a palace. No one could say she hadn’t done Auntie Nim proud.
A week later, everything had returned to its proper order, minus the Tuesday visit to Auntie Nim in St. Catherine’s, and Nuala was ready to deal with Marty. She arranged the kitchen table in such a way that her brother would have to take her seriously. The laptop was open and beside it laid a spiral notebook and a single pen. A small stack of photo albums with frayed cardboard covers was placed to her right, out of his reach.
At the sound of wheels crunching gravel, Nuala clicked on the kettle and went into the hall to check her hair. ‘A woman’s hair is her glory,’ Auntie Nim used to say, clearly implying that her own hair was in some way remarkable. Too many compliments as a young woman no doubt. Not that Auntie Nim wasn’t generous in doling out the praise herself, especially to Nuala when she was growing up. Any excuse to look for a hug.
Marty’s bulky shape blocked the light from coming through the glass panels of the door. Why did he have to stand so close? She had a porch for goodness sake. Nuala let him in and accepted a duty kiss on the cheek. Not that awful tweed jacket again. The disheveled look went with the job in the university, apparently.
Nuala took care of serving the tea quickly, the secret being pre-boiling the kettle, and within minutes they were ready to get to work.
‘Let’s start with the dates,’ Nuala began, ‘and you correct me if I’m wrong. Born 1919, father a merchant sailor, mother just a mother I suppose.’
‘Ah,’ Marty said, leaning back in his chair, ‘she always spoke fondly of her mother. From Cavan originally, you know, she ran a shop out of the house in Carlingford, a small affair in the front room. Nim and the girls helped out. She used to tell us about the weighing scales and the paper bags for the flour and the sugar, remember? There were barrels lined up against the wall, people always dropping in for a chat.’
‘We can leave out the mother. She died young, didn’t she?’
Marty nodded. ‘When Nim was eleven. She stepped into her mother’s shoes. I think we should mention that.’
Nuala paused and wrote ‘1930: mother’s shoes’.
‘Then she got the scholarship for secondary school. Put that down.’ Marty pointed to the page, but Nuala held the pen steady.
‘But she didn’t go.’
‘She wasn’t free to go, but she got distinction in the exam. Go on, scholarship, write it down.’
Nuala patted the back of her hair. ‘This is going to get very boring if we include all the paths not taken. Did you ever read an obituary that mentioned things people didn’t do in their lives?’
‘She got the scholarship.’ Marty set his cup down a little too roughly on the saucer, splashing tea. Pressing her lips into a disapproving line, Nuala wrote ‘scholarship’.
‘Then what?’ Nuala asked, keeping her voice even.
‘She looked after her sisters, kept house.’
‘I’m looking for milestones.’ A swirling pattern of interlocking rectangles appeared on the laptop screen, and Nuala tapped the space bar to stop the movement.
Marty was squinting, and it didn’t suit him. ‘Right, let me see. They would have moved to Dublin in the mid-thirties, and then she got the job doing the wages at the docks.’
‘I’m surprised they employed a girl without a proper education.’
Marty straightened in his chair. ‘She was bright. Started filling the pay packets, soon enough she was calculating from the time sheets. They called her Miss Murtagh.’
‘She must have got a lot of unwelcome attention handing out the envelopes to all those men. I’m surprised her father…’
‘Her father was half a world away on some ship most of the time. Nim was very independent, and capable.’
That aggressive tone again.
‘Nuala, everything you’ve done. It’s wonderful. People appreciate it. I appreciate it. But this obituary, I mean, I’m the writer in the family. Wouldn’t it be best…’
Nuala straightened her long back. ‘No, no, Marty. I was the one they approached at the afters, remember? I have the woman’s phone number and the email address. You don’t even live in the parish and you’ve never read a newsletter in your life. I know what to write.’ She sat back, hands clasped on the table, the pen still lodged in her fingers.
Marty crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on the lamp hanging above the table. He stayed like that while Nuala got up and put a hot drop in the teapot.
‘Where were we?’ Nuala asked after refilling the cups. ‘Oh yes. The job in the shipping office, the house in East Wall. The younger sisters grew up, the father died, and then she came to us.’
‘When she was thirty-five.’
‘Nice for her to move to a better area.’
‘Can you pass me one of those albums?’ Marty asked, cutting her off. While Marty leafed through the pages, Nuala started to type the first few lines of the obituary. She had just three hundred words, and she had to mention Nim’s duties in the church, and all the trouble after the stroke. Marty really had no idea. Nuala could see the black pages of the photo album turning out of the corner of her eye. There were glimpses of picnic scenes, beaches, people standing in front of castles. As if life were one long Sunday jaunt.
The day Nim came to live with them the house was in a terrible mess. Their mother had been gone for almost a week, and their father, who had started coming home later and later, had taken to spending the evenings in his chair staring at the wall, too furious to speak. Nuala had taken the five shillings her mother had left on the table and was using it to buy bread and cheese for sandwiches. The big pot of beef stew had run out.
Every day that week when she arrived home from school, she hoped Mammy had changed her mind and come back. She would keep her eyes almost closed when she came in the back door, praying that the house had returned to its neat and ordered state. But through her fluttering eyelashes, she saw the breakfast things still sitting by the sink exactly as she had left them, and she had to send more uncried tears down into the centre of herself. The kitchen was cold and gloomy from a day without activity. Marty would push past her and check all the rooms before returning to sit at the table, waiting for her to take charge. On the sixth day, there was no money left and no telling when their father would be home. Nuala crouched down to light the gas fire, and the doorbell rang just as she clicked the pilot light, making her jump. It was Auntie Nim.
That was the end of the struggle to keep them both fed and washed and dressed. But it was also the end of the hope that it had all been a horrible mistake, and the real beginning of their new life without Mammy.
‘Nim’s fiancé.’ Marty was holding up the album, pointing to a studio photograph of a young man with pale eyes who was smiling tightly, as if to cover bad teeth.
‘Well, yes. Another path not taken.’ Nuala knew the image well from her regular searches of Auntie Nim’s bedside table in their old house. It was natural for a child to be curious. The photograph was never on display but there it was face-up in the drawer whenever Nuala checked. She hadn’t seen the portrait for years until it turned up in the small box of personal possessions handed over by the nursing home.
‘She used to take us to the memorial service for the lost seamen, don’t you remember? That church down on the quays. We should mention him.’ Marty’s eyes shone.
Nuala stopped typing and rubbed her temples. ‘Whatever makes you think we should drag up ancient history? We don’t know anything about that person. So she did a line with a sailor once upon a time. That was long forgotten.’
Nuala liked to see Marty unsure, his mouth hanging open and eyes blinking. It reminded her of the time when she knew better than him, about everything. When he was small he accepted her word without question. She told him Mammy would not like him sitting on Auntie Nim’s lap so he stopped accepting hugs and kisses from her. Auntie Nim was too jolly for them, that was the problem. She even made their father laugh. She made him do more than that. Nuala was a child, but she was not blind. The two of them waiting for her to go to bed so they could have the front room to themselves. That atmosphere.
Marty closed the album and brought his hands together as if in prayer. ‘There’s something you should know about Nim, Nuala. Not for the obituary but for yourself.’
Nuala sat back and crossed her arms.
‘I know about her and Daddy.’
‘That’s not what I’m talking about, though why it still bothers you that they were close is a mystery to me.’
‘Close,’ Nuala snorted. ‘That’s a good one.’
‘As I said, that’s not what this is about. After Dad died, Nim and I spent a lot of time together. I’d come home late from my restaurant jobs and she used to wait up for me. You were in London.’
‘Nuala, listen please. We talked about you a lot, and the past, all the people who were gone. She made me promise not to tell.’
Nuala did not show Marty out. She sat in the kitchen without raising her eyes from his treacherous teacup until the last of the evening light stole out of the room. By concentrating on that small thing, she was able to find the invisible way back to the kitchen of her childhood, and begin her search. Once again, she roamed the house from room to room, and found it empty. Once again, she did not cry.
Later, when everything was back in its place, Nuala went upstairs with the box from the nursing home. She sat down heavily on her bed and took a hard look at Auntie Nim’s last few possessions. The photograph slipped free and she placed it on her lap. She moved the other objects around—the rosary beads, brooches, a compact mirror—until she found what she was looking for.
It was a Russian lacquer box, familiar to Nuala from her childhood home. On the lid was a hand-painted image of two swans flying high above a village where tiny figures and houses could be made out below. Anywhere Auntie Nim had ever lived, this black box had been on her bedside table. It was a present from the famous fiancé, Michael; Nuala remembered her saying he bought it in Archangelsk many years ago. Nuala had even made up some adventure stories about him when she was small, impressed by Auntie Nim’s tales of high seas and strange ports in the north. She peered closely at the photograph. His eyes were so pale. They must have been the lightest blue. Gently, she set the picture aside.
Nuala lifted the lid of the lacquer box she had last opened with the hands of a child. Inside, something she hadn’t seen in more than fifty years. She had taken it for Michael’s hair then, a thought that had vaguely disgusted her. Willing her hands not to tremble, Nuala took the lock of fine blonde hair tied with a faded ribbon and held it closer to the light. A baby curl for sure, her own.
CLARE O’DEA is originally from Dublin, but has lived in Switzerland since 2003. Author of the non-fiction book The Naked Swiss: A Nation Behind 10 Myths (Bergli Books), Clare’s journalism career spans two decades and three countries. Clare’s first published short story, ‘The Favour’, was nominated for the 2017 Hennessy New Irish Writing Awards. She is a regular contributor of essays to Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio One. Her website is clareodea.com
She’d dismantled all the photographs in her room. Her eyesight was still good enough to bend metal tags, remove wooden backings. She’d lined up the photographs, edges curling and tattered with spilt tea, along the lip of her over-bed tray. The one of her husband, my dad, rested against a tub of yellow moisturiser; the one with her best friend against a half full glass of orange squash; the one of me against her jar with an artificial peony secured in fake water. I sat down opposite her. She smiled, picked up the photograph of me, the one where we have our arms around each other, on the day she revelled in her bouquet of white lilies, told me they were beautiful, told me that she was proud of me. Her fingers clicked the back of the photograph as she held it to my face, said: ‘Look, it’s my daughter!’
JEANETTE SHEPPARD’s flash fiction has been published in Ellipsis, Reflex Fiction, Bare Fiction, Litro Magazine, The Lonely Crowd, two Bath Flash Fiction Festival and National Flash Fiction Day anthologies. Her work has also been shortlisted and longlisted in various competitions, most recently she was shortlisted for TSS Publishing. She can be found on Twitter @InkLinked
The delivery truck was the only vehicle to pull into the roadhouse that day. Erin stood with the sun hard on her back, and watched the light splintering on the truck’s red paintwork as it made the turn. The driver stumped over to the roadhouse in orange shorts and a singlet, his crane legs pale and hairless. He hefted the boxes of frozen meat, vegetables, bread and cans onto the counter and tore off the yellow chitty for her to keep. After wolfing down an all-day breakfast and three Cokes, he climbed back into the truck and pulled out onto the highway, heading for Adelaide. He took the two Swedish backpackers with him—they’d worked hard for Erin the past few months but were dazed by the quiet and distant horizon—and left behind a carton that she’d been dreaming of for weeks.
She had a routine to eke out the pleasure of the monthly cartons. She made a fresh pot of coffee—ground not instant—and it was only when the plunger was plunged and the coffee poured, sugared and creamed that she cut the tape binding the parcel and lifted out the contents one by one. Word searches, puzzle books, story magazines, women’s weeklies, travel magazines. She guzzled them all. Each of them had competitions: for exercise bikes and beauty treatments, for electric woks and dog biscuits, but most of all for holidays. Holidays to Bali and the Gold Coast; Tasmania and Bangkok; and most excitingly of all, to Europe. Erin had quizzed the Swedish backpackers about Europe, demanding details of where they were from, where they’d been, and what she should be sure to see if she ever made it there. She scribbled all the details in a notebook she hid in her pants drawer.
‘Next summer,’ she murmured to herself, her fingertips stroking the glossy pictures of Italian lakes, Spanish festivals and Scottish mountains.
Next summer she was fifty. Fifty, and never been out of Australia. She dreamed of a year travelling round Europe, seeing all the places in the magazines. Her and Norm climbing the Eiffel Tower; holding hands in a Venice gondola; clumping around in wooden clogs. After twelve years working in the roadhouse, she reckoned they’d earned it.
The last parcel was from the catalogue. A pack of sleeveless t-shirts for her: one peach, one white; socks for Norm, and a new set of hair clippers. The old ones had conked out two months ago and Norm was starting to look like a sheep, even though she’d hacked at his hair as best she could with the bacon scissors.
A plume of dust bowling along the highway brought her to her feet, clattering through the plastic strips in the doorway and out into the sharp sunlight. A car. A blue four-wheel drive, the first customer for days. Her hopes brightened as it careered closer, then dimmed as it shot past the turning and kept going.
Erin watched the dust cloud dissolve. Solitude bore down on her. It wasn’t the silence. The bush wasn’t silent: there were the ticking petrol pumps, the groan of the windmill, the budgerigars squabbling in their cage near the picnic tables, and the buzz of the TV in Norm’s kiosk. Twelve years they’d lived here. The empty days crowded behind her; she daren’t face the days to come.
‘I’ll clip Norm’s hair, that’ll make them come, soon as I start that,’ she said, rousing herself, and went to fetch him from the kiosk by the petrol pumps.
Norm sat in the kitchen with a towel round his shoulders and paper spread beneath the chair while she sheared his hair to stubble.
‘You know, they cut me hair when I was inside,’ Norm said. When she didn’t reply, he continued, ‘They sliced through it like a combine harvester. All the hair was mixed together on the floor—mine and the other blokes’ who went in the same time as me. They’d been in before. Answered back to the screws, asked for hairspray and a perm.’ He touched her wrist. ‘You’re much gentler than that screw was.’
‘I should think so,’ she said, kissing the tender spot on his crown.
‘Screw didn’t do that, neither,’ he added, and she laughed.
‘Roly brought my magazines,’ Erin said.
‘Keep you quiet for a bit.’
‘Some good competitions this month.’
‘Ten days in Paris. What d’you think about that, Norm?’
He chuckled. ‘You’ll never win. They’re a fix, these competitions.’
‘I won that wet suit.’
‘Five years ago. And how often have you used it?’
Erin held his head steady as she clipped round his ears. ‘Don’t get a chance out here. But maybe in the future.’
‘We don’t have to live here.’
Norm swivelled round to face her. ‘Not live here?’
Erin switched off the clippers. The quiet was sudden and a pulse throbbed in her throat as she said, ‘It’s been long enough.’
Unspoken words crackled between them. It’s long enough since you came out of prison for people to have forgotten now.
Norm rubbed the towel over his head. Flakes of dust-coloured hair floated to the floor.
‘We could have a gap year,’ Erin said, folding the towel briskly. ‘Go to Europe, see all the sights. Just you and me.’
‘What about this place?’
‘We’ll get someone in to run it till we come back.’ If we ever come back.
Norm snorted. ‘Who’d want to live here for a year?’
‘We live here.’
‘That’s different,’ he said, not meeting her eye.
Erin slotted the clippers away in the box and swept up Norm’s hair. Biting back furious tears, she grabbed a plastic sack and pair of tongs and stomped round the picnic area scavenging up every wad of chewing gum, chocolate wrapper and Coffee Chill carton. Back inside, she scrubbed down the kitchen until her fingers stung.
Norm didn’t walk over for lunch. He buried himself in the kiosk, staring at local TV, hypnotised by old sitcoms and adverts for sheep dip, gawping at the news as though it was from a planet he’d never visited.
Erin took two slices from the top of a frozen loaf and popped them, still rigid, into the toaster, tipping it up first to check there wasn’t another frazzled mouse in the crumb tray. She carried the toast and a mug of coffee out to a picnic table and stared at the budgerigars in the cage Norm had built there.
When she was eleven, Erin had gone on a school trip to Ayers Rock. Many of the kids charged up to the top, but she walked round it, exploring caves layered with ochre paintings and waterholes rowdy with wild budgerigars. There were hundreds in a flock; so many the branches of the gum trees were hazy with emerald feathers. Now she hated seeing the dozen birds in the cage by the picnic tables, a single bare branch for them to perch on, and fretted that some instinct thrummed in them of open skies and waterholes teeming with green wings.
She slung the toast crust into the cage, then went in the house to complete the competition for the Paris holiday, writing her name and address on the coupon in a clear, round hand and slotting it into a white envelope which she addressed and fastened with tape. At the junction of the roadhouse track and the highway, an old fridge served as a mailbox. Erin trudged down to it, slapped the envelope inside and slammed the fridge door shut. The mail truck should be through to collect it in the next few days, enough time to make the competition deadline. It was something to cling to.
Erin sectioned her life into two distinct phases: before the roadhouse, and after. Before, they lived in an up and coming Perth suburb, a newly minted couple determined to meet the mortgage payments every month, working hard and excited about their future. A visit from the police ended all that. Norm pleaded guilty to causing death by drink driving and was sent to prison. By the time he came out, they’d lost their chance to have children. Early menopause, the doctors said. She and Norm never talked about it.
Norm was stronger when he came out of prison. He’d spent the years working out and keeping fit, but he was smaller. His shoulders rounded with humiliation and he couldn’t meet anyone’s eye. When they saw the lease on the roadhouse up for sale, they sold their house in Perth and washed up here. Erin never imagined their new start would also be the ending. Now she frowned at her reflection, at the pale creases fanning her brown skin and the pause button etched between her eyes. In Perth, she had her hair done every week. Here, she grew it long and sawed four inches off the end of her plait when it started to annoy her.
‘When I win that competition, I’m going to have my hair done,’ she vowed to herself. ‘Get it cut and highlighted and blow-dried.’
She thought of her new hair, glossy and bouncing against her jaw as she and Norm explored Paris together, holding hands and laughing. Starting again. Again.
For a few weeks, the roadhouse bustled with tourists and retired couples in campervans, and even a coach load of Japanese who spent the time taking photos of each other in the car park. Erin had forgotten the competition until she saw the envelope lurking in the roadside fridge. She tore it open with her thumb, scanned the letter, and squealed.
‘Norm! Look at this.’ She hurtled into the petrol kiosk. The TV chuntered away in the background. She thrust the letter at him, gabbling. ‘We could stay on, go to Italy and Spain, maybe Norway, see the fjords…’
‘With what? You need money for these trips,’ Norm said.
‘So? What have we had to spend our money on all this time?’
‘Your catalogues for a start.’
Erin tweaked the neck of her t-shirt. ‘Ten dollars for two. Sneakers—seven bucks a pair. Pants—twenty-five bucks.’
Norm hunched like a beetle about to be squashed underfoot. The look on his face was the same one he wore when the judge sentenced him; the same cowed, frightened look as the day he stepped out of the prison gate.
‘I’m fifty next summer, Norm,’ Erin said. ‘I’d like to see Europe. It’d be fun to go away together, just you and me. Start something new.’
Norm turned away.
‘Don’t you want to come?’ When he didn’t answer, Erin shouted, ‘Fine! You stay here. I’ll go on my own.’
She stumped outside and fossicked out the litter that was wedged into the frame of the picnic tables. Some prawn had rammed a can in there. The cat’s pee tang of acacia blossom cut the air. Skunk, that’s what the Americans always said. I can smell skunk. Nearby, the budgerigars squeaked in their cage. One was dead in the sawdust on the bottom. Erin opened the door and picked up the crumpled feathers. The other birds eyed her.
‘Come on! Door’s open! Take your chance!’ she cried, flapping her hands at them, mustering them towards the open door. They swerved away and huddled in the far corner. Erin chased them round for a few moments, then fastened the door on them, leaning against the cage as a sob welled in her throat. A snatch of TV jingle wafted across the forecourt. She imagined Norm in there, his eyes never leaving the screen.
She glanced back in the cage. The budgies were pecking at the seed on the bottom, chirruping at each other. One was jabbing at the wire mesh with his beak.
‘You had your chance,’ she said, then went inside, took out the letter saying she’d won the holiday to Paris, and ripped it to shreds.
The shadows were long purple bruises across the scrub by the time Norm left his kiosk. Erin sat at the picnic table, a cup of cold coffee clamped in her hands, staring at the evening star on the horizon.
‘Busy day, huh?’ Norm said.
‘Yep. Good takings, though,’ Erin answered.
A long silence swelled between them. Eventually Norm said, ‘About your trip. Maybe one day, eh?’
‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Some day.’
‘Get you another coffee, darl?’
She clambered up from the table, went to the bedroom and took down the box with the clippers in. She plugged them in and held the blades to her temples, feeling the buzz shimmy through her skull as the long strands fell in dusty puddles at her feet. It was time for a change.
KIM FLEET is the author of four novels: Sacred Site, Featherfoot, Paternoster and Holy Blood. Her website is kimfleet.com
The canal tapered away from us, dappled with light in the hazy afternoon sun, relentlessly straight and level. I’d developed the habit of gazing at it, hoping the sense of distance it created could take my mind somewhere else.
‘We should see a bridge soon, then another mile and we can eat.’ Owen glanced up from the phone on his upturned palm. His satnav app was beginning to irritate me. It killed the prospect of surprise stone dead. Not that you could really hope to discover anything unexpected from such an undeviating stretch of water. He smiled at me, and I could see he thought he was being encouraging. I’d struggled with other people’s kindness quite a lot recently.
‘Bit boring along here isn’t it?’ He shifted the weight of his rucksack and looked around restlessly. Within a day and a half I’d worked out that most of the time he just threw out thoughts as if he was glad to be rid of them, not really expecting an answer. It seemed we would both like to escape the present moment, but for different reasons.
Now he stuffed his phone into the back pocket of his jeans and stooped to collect some flat pebbles from the towpath. He paused for a couple of seconds, suddenly focussed, then flicked them one-by-one with a fluid movement of his forearm and wrist, so that they skimmed lightly across the surface of the canal before dropping silently, leaving a momentary depression in the water. I noticed how quickly it grew placid again. Also that, even though twenty years had passed since we were teenagers together, there was still something of the athlete about him. When the last stone had vanished, he returned his gaze to the path and then scanned the fields on either side of the canal, but there was nothing left to take his attention except me.
‘Strange you never had children. I’d have thought you were the type.’ It hadn’t taken long for the contrast in our natures to re-emerge. Or for Owen to bring it to my attention. His mind still seemed to work like that.
‘We kept putting it off until the chance wasn’t there anymore.’ I tried not to make this sound like an accusation—there was only one person I would have been accusing. ‘You make the best decisions you can at the time.’
He nodded, frowning. ‘True enough,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow’s just guesswork. You can never really tell what’s coming your way.’ He pulled his phone out again and stared at it as if it might help.
We were only recently back in touch, and it was easy to see what hadn’t changed in him—the energy that scattered his attention, the friendliness that never quite became attunement. It was less easy to see anything new. At that moment he just seemed an older version of an old friend, with whom I should have got on, but never quite did.
Although perhaps he wasn’t as hopeful as he used to be. Afghanistan, Sarajevo, the Falls Road: any one of those would be reason enough for that. Also reason to hold onto whatever hope you could, or at least try to conceal that the whole idea of hope was leaking away through the punctures in your belief system. Now, it was as if I’d somehow become his comrade, if not in arms, at least in this aimless misguided endeavour, and he was concerning himself with my morale.
His message had come in through Facebook. ‘Is that Bambo? Can you get in touch?’
No-one had called me Bambo for years. He had driven down from St Albans so that we could spend an evening in my local, reminiscing. Straight away he’d begun to ask questions and tell me about himself, in the way old friends who’ve become distant can assume intimacy that no longer exists.
‘At the time my CO called me a prat. Said I could have blown the lot of us up. But afterwards he put me forward and I got this.’ He pulled a medal out of his pocket. The ribbon it attached to was sewn into the waistband of his jeans.
Owen was explaining that he’d crawled out onto a patch of ground that was thought to be mined, in possible range of snipers, to rescue an injured medic. That he’d just done it and not thought about it. He told me this with a mixture of pride, surprise and apology that brought back some of the scrapes we got in together as kids.
‘Why did you leave the army?’ I asked.
He looked above my head, then at my forehead, and finally met my eyes. ‘I had a bit of trouble concentrating after that. Strange, because I felt alright at the time. And I couldn’t sleep.’
I remembered that concentration had never been Owen’s strong point, so he must have been pretty bad.
‘My CO sent me to occ health, and they put me on decompression, but I was worse not having anything to do, so in the end I got discharged. I was on benefits for a couple of months while I went to a rehab centre, and then I got a job in security. What about you – married with kids?’
That’s when I told him my wife had died in January, six months ago.
‘Christ,’ he said. ‘What happened?’
I could have taken offence, but in fact his directness was refreshing. In the months after the funeral I’d learned not to mention Susan to friends and even family. They either changed the subject or looked at me in a way I preferred not to be looked at.
‘There was a lump in her breast,’ I said. ‘We both noticed it. The GP sent her straight in for tests but it had gone to secondaries. It was all over within three months.’
Owen blew out his cheeks then released the air slowly. Something in the way he did this made it plain he knew a lot about death himself.
‘Sorry mate,’ he said. ‘Seems we’ve both been up against it. Why don’t we do something together?’
So less than a month later we were walking the length of the Grand Union Canal.
‘Fresh air and movement – it’s the best thing,’ Owen had assured me.
Now I glanced sideways at him. Shaven-headed and very lean, he was the sort of guy who’d probably still be wiry and strong well into his seventies. He had the gait of someone who could always be distracted by his environment – his right foot flicked out with each step, as if at any moment it could take him off somewhere.
‘You see some incredible things. Equatorial snow – how could you imagine that? We had all the wrong gear.’
His mind flicked about too, throwing out impressions, things from our childhood, snapshots of army experience, leaving me to turn them into some sort of gestalt. For a few moments his face would be taken up with each memory, as though he could see it in front of him. For some reason this brought back how well he could draw at school, crafting tiny, exquisite cartoons in the margins while the class went on without him.
‘Do you ever miss the army?’ I asked.
‘Not really. Not now anyway. They try to make you feel like you’re part of something – your squad, your unit, your regiment. But in the end everyone’s on their own, everyone’s separate.’ He tapped his chest with his fist. ‘This is where you end and the rest of the world starts. That’s what it taught me.’
‘Not a great lesson to come away with,’ I said.
‘That’s just how it is. Once you realise that you don’t expect too much and you don’t get disappointed.’
I glanced at him again. There was no bitterness in his expression. Perhaps he was just telling me that his time in the military had lent him perspective – he’d survived it after all. Or maybe that after a few stints in a war zone one civilian experience seems not too unlike another.
The bridge he’d predicted came into view. Owen immediately looked cheerful. Once we reached it, I could see that the canal curved right and rose in a steep series of locks. The canal water, trickling through gaps where the gates met, was no longer silent, which somehow was a relief.
‘We need to cross to the other bank,’ he said. ‘We carry on past these locks then the pub will be up a little lane where the Brent forks into the canal.’
He reset his rucksack and stepped onto the gate of the first lock, not bothering to use the handrail, despite the ten foot drop into what was probably shallow water on his right. I followed him more carefully. By the time we reached the end of the gradient I was sweating and breathing heavily. Owen hadn’t seemed to notice it.
‘It should be just round here,’ he said. He turned off the towpath, and we crossed a much smaller bridge with decorative brickwork that spanned where the dregs of the river Brent became canal water. As he’d predicted, the pub stood on a corner twenty yards away. Owen inclined his head as if to acknowledge this small triumph. I was surer than ever that he thought he was taking care of me.
‘Two gentlemen of the road. What can I get you?’
The barmaid smiled at us and her eyes lingered for a moment on Owen. He’d said nothing about his love life, and it hadn’t occurred to me that he might be attractive to women. I couldn’t remember his younger self having much luck with girls. We ordered pints of shandy and a round of mixed sandwiches, then seated ourselves on a bench of dark, scuffed oak that ran the length of the wall opposite the main door. The bar was almost empty, with nineteen-eighties decor and the ghost of cigarette smoke in the carpet. Owen looked round him and released the grip he’d kept on the strap of his rucksack. He breathed out and let his shoulders drop.
‘This is what you miss,’ he said.
I could see what he meant. Our surroundings conformed pretty much exactly to the stereotype of an English pub.
‘It’s things like this you think about when you’re away. Then when you come back you see them as if they’re new. At least, you notice them instead of taking them for granted.’
‘It’s the same for me in a way,’ I said.
Owen looked at me and nodded. ‘You could say we’ve both been somewhere else, mate.’ He patted my thigh with the flat of his hand.
The sandwiches arrived along with a large Airedale terrier.
‘She wants to be your friend,’ the barmaid said. ‘I can take her behind the bar if you’d prefer.’
‘No, she’s alright.’ Owen scratched the dog behind its ears and it craned its neck and looked at him adoringly. He broke off bits of sandwich and fed it while we ate. It was a quiet, normal moment on a summer’s afternoon, and I began to feel glad that I’d agree to do this.
Then, as that thought hung almost sleepily in my mind, the door swung open and three youths entered. The atmosphere changed immediately. They said nothing, instead just looking round, making sure that we, and an elderly couple near the far window, took full notice of them. They strolled over to the bar, deliberately taking their time. Before serving them the barmaid came to our table and took the dog by the collar. She looked at us meaningfully, the lead it away through a door to our immediate left.
Just as she re-entered, one of the youths leaned over the bar and pulled some beer from a pump into his cupped palm before splashing it into his mouth. A residue ran down the front of his t-shirt.
‘Don’t do that, please,’ the barmaid said.
‘You weren’t here to serve us,’ the youth said. He had wide-set eyes and a scar on his forehead. He was raw-boned and his t-shirt hung shapelessly from his shoulders.
‘Well I am now,’ the barmaid said.
‘It’s rude to keep your customers waiting,’ the youth said. He leaned across the bar, poured more beer into his hand, and splashed it into his mouth again.
Owen stood up. I stood too, but he made a backward gesture with his palms, telling me to keep away. He went over and stood a few feet from the youth.
‘People in here drink out of glasses, friend.’ His voice was very level, if anything more quiet than usual, and there was a stillness about him I hadn’t seen before.
For a few moments the whole bar was silent. I could see the youth calculating. The other two watched him. I guessed that what he did, they would follow.
‘So do I if I get the chance.’ The youth tilted his chin towards the barmaid. ‘That silly cow put the dog before us.’
Owen took a step forward. ‘This would be a good time to go, pal,’ he said. ‘That’s not a nice way to speak.’
Owen had his back to me, so I could only see the youth’s face, but several long seconds passed while they seemed to be staring each other out. His companions stayed where they were, their eyes on the youth.
‘Fuck you,’ he said eventually. ‘Who wants to drink in this shit hole, anyway.’ He turned and made for the door, kicking over a stool as he passed it. The others slunk out after him.
Owen walked over and righted the stool.
‘Sorry about that,’ he said to the barmaid.
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m glad you were here – thanks. We don’t get many like them, thank god,’
‘Good thing,’ Owen said.
He smiled, and in that moment I could see that whatever else the army had done it hadn’t ruined him. He came over and sat down again.
‘You alright, mate?’ he said.
‘No problem, Owen,’ I said. ‘You handled that well.’ But I was aware of an unexpected sensation inside. At some point in those few electric moments fear had replaced deadness, and I realised I preferred it.
We finished our sandwiches, and when we stood to leave the barmaid brought us over some packets of crisps and a couple of bottles of juice.
‘Take these with you,’ she said. She touched Owen lightly on the shoulder, and he made a small movement of his head, not quite a bow.
‘Thanks,’ we both said.
Outside, the sunlight slanted down across the row of houses that led away from the canal, and the air was very still.
‘Six more miles and that’ll be it,’ Owen said. He was carrying our tent, and had earmarked a field where we could heat up some food and spend the night. We walked back onto the towpath, and there waiting were the three youths. The one that Owen had confronted had a knife in his hand. He held it loosely by his side, his fingers twisting the handle. He stepped forward.
‘Come on, cunt, let’s see what you’ve got,’ he said to Owen.
As in the pub, the others stayed where they were. But now I could see both were trembling. I had no idea what would be the best thing for me to do.
Owen slipped his rucksack from his shoulders and let it fall to the ground. All the default eagerness had gone from his face. Suddenly he looked profoundly tired.
For a few moments they stared at each other, and then, almost when it seemed he might not, the youth lunged at him. It was clumsy gesture in which you could see fear, like a fencing movement but without the poise or skill. Owen caught the wrist that held the knife, inverted it and with his other hand brought the youth’s arm down sharply onto his raised knee. There were two almost simultaneous cracking sounds and the knife dropped onto the grass. Owen picked it up and threw it into the canal.
‘Fuck you,’ the youth said, but he couldn’t stop tears forming. He sunk to his knees, his forearm dangling uselessly.
Owen looked at the other two, who were both visibly shaking.
‘Take him to A&E,’ he said. ‘He’ll need to get that set. Come on Bambo.’
He pulled on his rucksack and we moved past the youths towards the next lock, crossing back to the other side, where the canal flattened out again.
We walked together saying nothing for a while. I could hear disturbance in Owen’s breathing, and I realised he was avoiding catching my eye. I remembered then that at school he was always the one who broke up fights, the appeaser, the person who somehow ended up bearing the distress of others. I reached out clumsily and put my arm around his shoulders, and immediately felt his arm find its way above my rucksack to mirror the gesture. We walked for a while like that, stooping slightly, looking ahead, as the sun gradually lowered toward the calm water of the canal.
MIKE FOX’s stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter, Communion, Pixel Heart, Cabinet of Heed, Hypnopomp and Footnote. His story ‘The Homing Instinct’, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, ‘The Violet Eye’, has recently been published by Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Contact Mike at www.polyscribe.co.uk