Welcome to Issue 2 of The Nottingham Review. I wanted this issue to follow the theme of ‘winter’ without being too literal or restrictive in its scope, so there are stories that take place in the winter, stories that have a wintry theme, and stories that have nothing at all to do with winter. I hope you enjoy the nine stories that have been included here.
There are some exciting plans for 2016 as I think about the direction I want the magazine to go in. Future issues will include poetry, and I will be looking for an assistant editor to help with this. The website may feature original non-fiction and artwork. There will also be a one-off print project that I will announce the details of in the new year.
Thank you for reading,
Evan is nearly though the door when he tells Heather he won’t be home for the solar eclipse. He has been asked, last minute, to do a piece for one of his regular magazines. They want him in London, he says. With a photographer. There may not be time for a call.
All of this is, technically, true.
‘Let David know,’ he says. David, their son, born prematurely, so small Evan cupped him entirely in one hand. That David.
Heather waits until a sliver of doorway is left open, then says, ‘Leave it. Let the morning in.’
It’s an odd thing to say and Evan fears the vast darkness of discovery. He comes back in the house, ready for that fight, clenched, hot to deliver the killer line about how she’s thrown a beach towel over the moral high ground, even though it’s his right to spend some time warming in the sun.
But Heather’s face is just her face – older than he cares for, calm. He realises she just wants to let in the warm morning light and so pretends he’s leapt back for a kiss. Her lips taste comfortable, of jam and butter.
Later, he meets up with Brooke on Hampstead Heath, among a crowd gathering to watch the sky. There is anonymity here, safety in numbers. Brooke leans into him, breasts mashing against his chest. And he forgives her for being so very gee whiz American when she says, ‘Hell, this is the place to be!’
Brooke is one of those rich girls who lives in apartment buildings with obsequious, uniformed attendants to open the doors. She slicks these credentials with a wardrobe of faux vintage dresses, an ever-present camera, a reasonable following on Pinterest.
She has brought a wicker hamper stuffed with two bottles of red, various jars of pickles and an enormous pork pie. She thinks this is very English, and Evan knows not to disagree, pleasing himself with the thought that he can still seduce a woman with such even, white teeth.
He has told his therapist that Heather’s teeth have changed since they met. They show wear, a recession of gums. It makes him feel old, he confides. More than that, old and vulnerable, her teeth and her slow-burn smile. And then, of course, David, who shakes and drools and has what they called a reluctant brain. Evan has used the word ‘deserve’ in more than one session.
They work through one bottle, him mostly, then start on the other. The afternoon grows slow and fat as a bluebottle, there’s a dark pinkness to the light. Word goes round, the eclipse will come soon. There is a flex in the mood, an expectancy.
Brooke tells him a story. How she went to Cape Canaveral with her father to see a rocket launch: ‘But I was at that age, you know, and got way too excited. Began to think that it would be awful, that I wouldn’t be able to see, or it would be too bright or the ground shaking might scare me.
‘So when they started the countdown and the engines lit, I took off back to the car and hid behind it with my hands over my ears and my eyes closed. I still heard the roar, felt the ground shake. But I still didn’t look – I needed to pretend I hadn’t got it all wrong, after all.’
Evan listens, thinking he would give anything to take David, who loves spaceships and the moon and the luminescent stars Evan painted above his bed, to see a rocket launch. He would not worry about disappointment, not David. His wandering eyes would fix on the rocket fire, he would shriek with pleasure at the decadent, thunderous noise. David would watch, neck craning, until there was nothing left to see.
The moon begins its sidle across the sun. Light dips and the air grows cold. Among the crowd appear pinhole projects, eclipse glasses, even a welder’s mask or two. Everyone knows that looking straight at the sun destroys your eyes. It is only at this point that Evan remembers he has brought nothing with him to watch the spectacle. He has that familiar feeling of being alone, of somehow missing the point.
Instead he watches Brooke as the world darkens, thinking of the first time they had sex. He got her to sit on him, facing away. As she groaned and moaned, he saw a mole between the cleft of her buttocks, with a thick, black hair growing out. It had sickened him, that suddenness of imperfection, but he had closed his eyes and carried on anyway.
With Heather, all those years ago in that cold, damp-walled student house, they had lain awake afterwards, silent and amazed. He willed himself not to fall asleep that night, feeling her steady heartbeat ticking against the palm of his hand.
On Hampstead Heath the crowd hushes itself. At the very darkest point, Evan can’t resist the urge any longer and looks up to the moment of eclipse, squinting at the halo of sun-fire ringing a black moon. People begin to clap and he joins in, slowly, appreciating the sting it makes in his hands.
He wonders then if Heather has taken David outside and let him watch the event through the special glasses Evan ordered from the internet. Three pairs. He can almost feel the shiver of David’s body as the sun hides, then his cry when it appears again.
That evening, after he has left Brooke in bed (but still carrying the taste of her in his mouth) he writes in his magazine article that, from what he has observed, the world looks better in the shadows of an eclipse – even if it is in a sad, somehow sterile, way.
KM ELKES is an author and journalist from Bristol, UK. Since starting to write fiction seriously in 2011 he has won the 2013 Fish Publishing flash prize, been shortlisted twice for the Bridport Prize and won the Aesthetica Creative Writing Award 2014. He has also won the 2014 Prolitzer Prize and wrote a winning entry for the Labello Press International Prize 2015. His work has been published in various anthologies and won prizes at Words with JAM, Momaya Review, Lightship Publishing and Accenti in Canada. He is working on his first short fiction collection.
You can find him on Twitter @mysmalltales
This time, just this one time, I’d like to be the one who doesn’t have to wait. I’d like to be the one on the boat, steering, nosing into this Reykjavik jetty. The one with all the time. Not the nervous one on shore, trying to guess which of twenty daylight hours will mark Pabbi’s return.
He’s late again.
After Mamma died about ten years ago, he vowed to keep the boat running. In tribute he re-registered her as Margrethe and repainted the stern. My brother and I tried to talk him out of it, but Pabbi is a generous kind of stubborn. Your móðir wanted this, he said. She wouldn’t have wanted it to ruin you, we said. In the end the insurance paid out, so we don’t have to worry. About the money, anyhow. Now he lives on the water, solo, winters wherever the sun is kindest, summers at home.
But not at home, too. He stays on the boat, moored in the same marina where she drowned, the same berth, rather than stay with either Niels or myself. You kids have your own lives now, he likes to say. Lives we pause every summer at his request. Gives a date and a time, which is always wrong.I want the first faces I see to be family.
My mobile rings.
Nei, not yet, I tell Niels when he asks.
We should buy him a phone, he says. He could call when he gets close enough.
He’d just toss it overboard.
I wish he’d use the radio.
He’s too old for this, I say.
Well, he’s got the right gear--
The right gear didn’t save Mamma.
Já, he says, then falls silent.
He saw her first, eight feet down in perfectly clear five-degree water, still wearing her blaze-orange drysuit. Sometimes I forget that.
Sorry, I say.
He coughs, then asks me if I need anything.
Me? I’m fine.
Food? Blankets? Ice cream? Pickles?
Very funny. Is Karen still down sick?
She’s a little tiger.
Good genes, I say. Eighteen months old and never sick.
Healthy as hope, he says, the smile returning to his voice.
I tell him to go take care of his girls, that I’ll call when it’s time. As soon as Pabbi passes the breakwater, to signal his return he’ll wind up the antique car horn he lashed onto the mast, the one that sounds like a laryngitic seal. He’ll bring the boat in under power, the sails lashed tight, be tied up against the jetty in just under thirty minutes. Enough time for Niels to load the family in the car and drive down. Enough time to find a gentle way to explain the math. Two months ago, I shared with Neils and Karen that I was three months along. One month ago my partner left me. In another four months Pabbi might have a reason not to mourn his way across the Atlantic again, before winter arrives.
BRENT VAN STAALDUINEN lives and finds his voice in Hamilton, Canada. His debut novel Saints, Unexpected is forthcoming from Invisible Press in the spring of 2016. He is the winner of the Bristol Short Story Prize and the Short Works Prize. Other work is forthcoming in Prairie Fire Magazine and appears in The Prairie Journal, EVENT Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Dalhousie Review, The New Quarterly, The New Guard Literary Review, and Mash Stories. He is a graduate of the Humber School of Writers and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Colombia.
Christina carries the same duffle bag to every rehearsal: deep purple, monogrammed, a slight tear at the base of the strap. It hangs heavy on her legs. The canvas material grates against the protruding bones in her kneecaps as she sits on the subway, carefully counting the stops.
The bag and its contents are familiar: bobby pins and hairspray to correct rebellious strands that fall from her bun during the section of fouette turns in Act Two. Pink ribbon for her pointe shoes and a green lighter from CVS to burn the edges. A mini sewing kit, in case they fray anyway. Extra needles. A pack of Marlboro Menthols; six left. Vitamin water. Q-tips and cotton balls. Three king-size Snickers and a travel toothbrush. Mouth wash and make-up wipes. Leg warmers. Pepper spray. Red lipstick.
She balances the duffle on her lap as the subway sucks her through the city, from the Bronx up to Broadway, to the strip of big-name dance centers. She pictures those clear tubes from Willy Wonka that transport the silken chocolate and the greedy child, Augustus. His fat, hideous and bountiful, suctioned to the edges of the plastic tube. Christina rolls her shoulders back and forth, shakes the image from her mind.
Even on the subway, she carries her posture, her composure. She carries herself with grace. She lifts her chin, straightens her spine until she can’t feel the folds of her stomach. Until she is nothing but a flat plane.
She holds her breath until the next stop.
SAMANTHA BALDASSARI is currently pursuing a graduate degree in English at Penn State. Her work appears in Thought Catalog, MOGUL, and Literally Stories. She has work forthcoming in Eunoia Review.
She can be found on Twitter @sambaldassari
Nigel was skint because of the child support so he took a Christmas job with the Royal Mail. Working the weekend shift he started at eight on a Saturday and half-seven on a Sunday. Because he didn’t have a car and there was no public transport at that time of the morning he dug his bike out from the garage. On the first Saturday he headed off in the darkness along the black icy roads and halfway there it started to get light, and near Cheadle he looked around at the fields whitened by frost and white mist floating like smoke.
It was a data entry job. He sat at Pod 6, at desk 6c, in what looked like a call centre. The team leader was called Sham. Sham had a shiny ponytail and wore silk shirts and pinstripe trousers with wide flapping belts. Nigel could see that while other team leaders could be heard all around the room urging the staff on to greater processing speeds, Sham never made eye contact with anyone, keeping his head lowered and looking down in the direction of the shiny carpet. Sham's desk was close to Nigel, and Nigel couldn’t help noticing throughout the shift how Sham took deep breaths before shouting, or clapped his hands together before announcing a briefing, pumping himself up for the task of pumping up his team.
When Sham called out, ‘My team! Eye break. Ten minutes,’ the team took its turn to slope off to the canteen or the sports lounge or to the comfy leather chairs at the far end of the large, screen-filled room. For lunch they had thirty minutes and the mix of nationalities in the canteen each opened their Tupperware boxes and tucked into varying foods. There was a guy there called Gazhang and Nigel sat next to him on the only seat left, below the bright red digital numbers of the big clock on the wall.
‘How you finding it?’ Nigel said.
‘It’s good,’ Gazhang replied, smiling before picking up some more food in his right hand.
‘Best thing is not to look at the clock.’
‘Yeah, never look at the clock.’
‘We are in good seat then. But it is good job, this, you should smile!’
‘I work during week. Cleaner at university.’
‘Clean toilets in English department.’
‘That’s not bad though, working for the uni.’
‘In Ethiopia I was teacher. Science teacher. Biology my specialism.’
Nigel noticed that Gazhang kept his left hand out of view. Later he saw that it was half the size of the right one and the other digits were tucked behind the middle finger. ‘Can’t you get a teaching job here?’
‘I need PG, what is it?’
‘Yes, PGCE, teaching qualification.’
‘You can get funding for that. At Bolton. In further, higher and adult education.’
‘But PGCE for secondary school?’
‘You can do the one for secondary, or one for primary.’
‘I would maybe like college. Okay I look into it. I have little boy. That is why I am so tired. He is not sleeping.’
‘How old is he?’
‘Wow. Lots of crying then?’
‘Crying, yes,’ said Gazhang, with a tired yet beaming smile.
‘Is that Ethiopian?’ said Nigel, pointing to the food that Gazhang was eating.
‘Injera. Most popular food in Ethiopia. Like fish and chips.’
Later that afternoon one of the managers started playing a CD compilation of Christmas songs. During ‘Saviour’s Day’ by Cliff Richard, Nigel looked up to see two of the team leaders dancing in a warm embrace. He thought of labourers whistling in the rain.
Nigel looked for little things to make the time pass more quickly. Sometimes postcards came up on screen and he read them. But they were banal. Just people writing to friends and family about the weather in far off places. ‘Arrived safely in Jerusalem. Weather is sunny.’ He liked the occasional joke names, like ‘Smoothy Boothy, 92 Weston Lane, Buxworth, High Peak’, and the casual ones written by older people in rural places like, ‘Rod and Sue, opposite the pub, Belper’.
Welsh names were a nightmare if Nigel had to type them in, all those places with loads of Ls in them. He got irritated with the ones he couldn’t read. Then there was the place in Belfast with the postcode XM4, where people answered all the letters to Santa.
Nigel really struggled when they were taken off ‘live mail’ and put on ‘trials’. This usually happened on a Sunday, when less work was coming in and everyone’s screen read Please Wait. At this point, rather than have everyone working slowly, they were told to switch to ‘trials’. These were the addresses that had appeared on the test during the first weekend, and so they weren’t ‘live mail’, but the team leaders still monitored the processing speeds as the keyers worked hard at doing nothing. It was during these intervals that Nigel kept seeing the address, ‘Jolly Harbour, Antigua.’
After they’d all been back on ‘live mail’ for a while, one of the other team leaders came to talk to Sham. Nigel kept his headphones in but turned the music down. They talked about upping the processing speeds of each team. Someone told Sham that his team were bottom. They said to him that he knew what he had to do and so Sham began to piece a headband together out of card, using staples to make a paper crown and then with marker pen writing ‘Loser’ across the front of it. Nigel was intrigued and wondered what was going to happen at the next pep talk. Soon enough Sham clapped his hands together and shouted for everyone to log off and then gather round. Then he picked up a little wooden rattle and started shaking it to the sound of sheepish laughter.
‘Okay, my team,’ he said, pointing to the whiteboard, ‘my team, if we look at the figures from last weekend we can see that this team was bottom. We had the lowest processing speeds. I have looked at each one of your speeds. It has made interesting reading. Now, Gazhang? Gazhang Ghompa? Gazhang, come up here please.’
Gazhang stood up, smiling bashfully, and walked hesitantly towards the front. When he got there, Sham told everyone that Gazhang was the slowest and put the loser headband on to Gazhang’s head. Nigel watched this and listened. When the laughter subsided Sham made his point. ‘Okay! So, you might think it is funny, but whoever has the slowest processing speeds from now on will wear the crown of the loser.’
Gazhang walked back to his pod and continued working with the loser headband on. People from the other teams looked over and pointed and smiled and laughed. Nigel wondered why Gazhang kept smiling and didn’t take the headband off. After an hour or so, and after a ten minute eye break during which Gazhang wore the loser headband while eating from his Tupperware box in the canteen, Sham eventually walked over and told him that he could take it off. Gazhang did so but Nigel saw the seriousness in his face as he tried to up his speeds. The left hand remained under the desk while the right hand prodded at the keys.
During the first weekend, after the tests, Nigel remembered that Sham had read out a list of names before asking those people to come to the front. There were about a dozen of them, and they were led away, Gazhang among them. Nigel didn’t see any of the others the following weekend, except Gazhang, who was sitting at pod 5. At various times different team leaders went over and talked to him. At one point it looked like quite a heated argument was going on, and it seemed to Nigel that Gazhang was refusing to leave.
The following weekend a series of incentives were put forward in terms of sweets, and at the end of the Sunday shift Sham announced the award for the most improved processing speeds. A great cheer went up when he shouted Gazhang’s name and passed him a packet of chocolate digestives.
Sunday shift over, Nigel took his time unlocking his bike. It was always best to wait until all the cars rushed out first. It was also raining hard and he waited a while for it to ease. Then he cycled out into the rain. There were massive puddles in the gutters. Nigel hadn’t noticed the rain because he sat with his back to the blind-covered windows. He passed Gazhang on the main road and they raised their hands to each other. As Nigel waited at the traffic lights near Go Outdoors the rain came down harder. When the light turned to green he put the bike in a low gear and picked up speed. It was dangerous to keep swerving around the puddles and into the line of oncoming traffic and so soon he just started to wade through them, splashing through the black pools in the glow of orange streetlights, soaking himself as he went along. But the speed kept him warm and on the road out of Cheadle, crossing above the motorway and passing between the farmland, he was flying through the puddles and the spray, racing the cars, and by the time he got home he was saturated. He sang ‘Fairytale of New York’ in the shower.
Later he watched on the news an item about thirteen Slovak immigrants found working in a picture frame factory in Rochdale. They were paid £125 for an 80 hour week, and then had to pay back £100 for rent and travel expenses. They lived four to a room in tiny flats with bare floors and no heating, with washing lines hung across the living rooms. They were fulfilling multi-million pound contracts and producing products for high street stores and yet were also forced to buy picture frames.
Nigel thought about Gazhang and the way he had dealt with the loser headband situation. He wondered why he hadn’t punched Sham in the face. Then he remembered how Gazhang told him about walking two hours from Hulme every morning and the baby boy he and his wife had just had. Gazhang smiled warmly, referring to his son as ‘our little Mancunian’.
Keyers could sit wherever they wanted on the third floor of the building at Park Square, but people usually sat at the same pods and after a few weekends Nigel got to know more of his colleagues. He was often yawning and stretching throughout the shift and a girl two computers away began smiling. He smiled back and then began sitting next to her on the couch during the eye breaks, their thighs touching and neither inching away. She was called Soni. She wore tight jeans and tight white tops. A long red cardigan usually covered up this tightness but sometimes she let it fall open.
On the last shift of their zero hours contracts, on Christmas Eve, there was a quiz for the keyers based on geography. Then there was bingo. Played while everyone was still working, the bingo involved raising your arm and shouting if the place name on your screen matched what was called out. Sham lost control when people started to get bored and began calling out names he hadn’t.
Finally there was the Christmas sweater competition. Gazhang had one, a blue jumper with a white reindeer on the front that he had been wearing for the previous two weekends. Nigel watched as all the keyers with Christmas jumpers were asked to stand in line at the front. When each one stepped forward the rest of the keyers cheered, the loudest cheer proclaiming the winner. Nigel cheered hard for Gazhang and it seemed unfair that Gazhang didn’t make the top three. When the top three lined up the biggest roar went up for a young lad from Cameroon. People rushed forward to take photos with their phones, and the manager, the woman in charge of all the team leaders like Sham, looked so happy that Nigel thought she was going to cry. The end of term feeling continued throughout the final shift and at one point a couple of lads played football, chipping the ball to each other over the phalanx of blank screens.
Nigel had looked a long time at Soni. At the end of the last shift they had mentioned Facebook and he also gave her his phone number. Soni was much younger but he couldn’t keep the red cardigan out of his mind. When he saw her Facebook page none of it was in English and it was filled with pictures of her in different saris. In other pictures she cradled a baby. There were also videos of her friends’ weddings.
Though he wasn’t sure about it they met for coffee in Stockport and she told him all about herself. She had been badly let down by a man she was engaged to. It had been an arranged marriage but he broke it off. She said that men were all after one thing whereas women looked for lots of things from men. She talked about the recent bombing of a school in Peshawar by the Pakistan Taliban, where hundreds of people had been killed, most of them children. He told her of his own failed marriage. And then they talked about Imran Khan, and how she would vote for him, and in the end they talked about cricket.
She was sweet and shy and still hurt. But he envisaged having to explain the situation to everyone he met, including his ageing parents. And she didn’t drink. Then there was the fasting and Eid and all that. He also vaguely remembered a story about a woman in Cheadle being murdered in an honour killing. And though he couldn’t really remember exactly what an honour killing was it made him uneasy. He unfriended Soni and guessed he might see her the following Christmas.
He was sitting at home when his mobile rang. He picked it up but the number was withheld so he didn’t answer. The bike was still in the garage where he’d left it after the end of the last shift. He went into the garage and wheeled the bike out into the front garden before going back inside and filling a bowl with hot water and a drop of washing up liquid. He came back out with the bowl and the rag and began washing all the mud off the underside of the bike. As he did so he wondered about the call. After pouring the muddy water down the drain he picked up the red can of lubricant spray and an oil rag. With the bike resting against the wall he ran the cloth down the length of the clogged chain before spraying it. Then he lifted up the back of the bike and whirled the back wheel.
His hands were filled with oil and he struggled to get it off using the washing up liquid and water. When he heard the mobile vibrating his hands were still covered by greasy bubbles.
NEIL CAMPBELL is from Manchester, England. He has twice been included in Best British Short Stories (2012 & 2015). He has three collections of short fiction: Broken Doll, Pictures from Hopper and Ekphrasis. His first novel Sky Hooks is out next year.
You can find him on Twitter @neilcambers
From time to time I turn the ignition on so the car can warm up again. I look out at the shop window: crystals, homeopathic remedies, Become a Reiki master in six easy lessons. She’s been in there for over an hour. I glance upwards: a single window, two floors up, is illuminated. The empty streets glisten with February rain.
Ten minutes later the light goes out and shortly after that the shop door opens and she’s let out by a guy with a grey ponytail.
‘Well?’ I say as she gets in the car. She smells of sandalwood.
‘Well what?’ She pauses. ‘I’m tired.’
But she’s smiling. She hasn’t smiled like that for a long time.
‘Don’t you feel it?’ she said.
‘That chill inside. The emptiness.’
I flinched. ‘This isn’t about kids again, is it?’
She shook her head. ‘No. It’s . . . I don’t know where this is going. Any of it.’
I looked at her. She was exhausted. I knew she hadn’t been sleeping well, but I hadn’t the first idea why and she’d rebuffed every attempt to find out.
‘What’s so wrong with emptiness anyway?’ I said. ‘You can do stuff with emptiness. You can fill it with things.’
‘That’s not what I meant.’
‘This isn’t some kind of religious thing, is it?’ I said. She’d mentioned that she’d wondered about exploring her spiritual roots, whatever that meant. The whole idea of it scared the shit out of me.
‘No, no. Don’t worry, I’m not about to force that on you again.’ She sounded more worn out than ever.
On the table there was a catalogue from the local new age centre. God knows how we’d got on their mailing list, but it had always been a source of amusement to us. We used to speculate on what colour each other’s aura might be. She reckoned mine was probably beige.
That was before she stopped making jokes.
She began to flip through the catalogue as if she was reading it for the first time ever.
She says nothing more on the way home, but as soon as we walk in the door she says she’s ready for bed. I raise an eyebrow, but she simply smiles, kisses me lightly on the lips and shakes her head. Then she goes upstairs.
An hour or so later, I join her. She’s already flat out, and she carries on sleeping right through the night. I know this because I hardly sleep a wink. All the problems in the world are taking turns to flit around in my brain, and the fact that she’s comatose next to me makes it worse.
The next day she gets up early. When I stagger downstairs I’m late for work and in a panic. She’s already gone. She hasn’t been to work for months. But for the whole of the rest of the week she gets up, goes in and comes back on time like clockwork.
I’m getting more and more irritable with each passing day.
When Monday evening comes round again I offer to drive her to the centre.
‘No it’s OK,’ she says. ‘I can drive myself.’
‘But you haven’t driven since last– ’
‘I haven’t forgotten how– ’
‘That wasn’t what I– ’
‘I’m fine. Don’t worry.’
I look at her.
‘What do they do in there?’
She shakes her head. ‘I’m going to be late,’ she says.
When she comes back, the same sandalwood smell follows her in. This time, she’s positively glowing. Her skin is almost phosphorescent.
‘Are you all right?’ I say.
She stretches. ‘Never felt better.’
But she still won’t tell me what happens there and it’s even more difficult to sleep when her body is lighting up the whole room.
Three weeks on, I’m at the end of my tether. When she comes home from the centre, we have a blazing row. Or rather, it’s blazing on my end of things but oddly calm and rational on hers.
‘You’ve changed,’ I say, ‘and I don’t like it.’
‘You’d rather I wasn’t happy?’
‘You’re not happy. You’re just . . . weird.’
She tilts her head on one side and smiles. ‘Maybe you need to go there yourself for a few sessions.’
This is calculated to wind me up. ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ I say. ‘There’s no way you’ll ever get me in that place.’
She shrugs. Then she goes off to bed. She’s still sleeping for nine, maybe ten hours a night. I manage three or four if I’m lucky.
Lying next to her, I stare at the glowing curve of her back. I place my hand on her shoulder and immediately I feel calmer. I begin to slowly stroke her. She gives out a tiny moan but she doesn’t wake up. The churning, acid tension within me starts to subside. Then in the middle of her back I find something.
Running down her spine there’s a kind of seam. It’s so fine you wouldn’t notice it unless you looked really close but now I’ve found it I can’t resist folding it over. Then, starting at the base of her neck, I unzip her. When I pull the two sides apart, I find that there’s nothing but empty space inside. I pull her apart even further so I can squeeze myself in.
And finally, curled up inside her, I feel the most perfect joy – and within seconds, I fall into the deepest, calmest sleep of my life.
JONATHAN PINNOCK is the author of the novel Mrs Darcy Versus the Aliens (Proxima, 2011), the Scott Prize-winning short story collection Dot Dash (Salt, 2012) and the bio-historico-musicological-memoir thing Take It Cool (Two Ravens Press, 2014). He also writes poetry from time to time. He blogs at www.jonathanpinnock.com and tweets @jonpinnock
Reaching up, I grab her hand and follow her indoors between the assorted mix of people, walking, wheeling chairs and lying flat on slow moving beds. These people aren’t like us. She says it’s because they’re special.
I think they’re secret superheroes and begin to wish myself like one of them as she pulls me along the corridor for our visit in the special room, the one with the long name I can’t read but looks like ‘Giraffe’.
Opening the hinged door, the giraffes go into hiding behind the chairs of the special granny people and knowing I can’t go off and hunt, I sit beside my mother and the man she always speaks to during our visit. As I begin to tell him about my new tree house, two women approach me, calling me by different names, arguing over whose child I am and then a man rushes over, telling the women I’m his John’s.
I laugh at them, knowing it’s all a game. I don’t have a father. My father’s invisible.
When the funny adults leave, they begin looking behind chairs and under pillows and I want to join them, knowing they’re on the hunt for the giraffes. Instead, I go on telling the man beside me about my plans for my treehouse but he interrupts, asking when grandma will visit, saying no one visits him and he’s all alone.
It’s bad to lie and I tell him so, pointing out both me and mother visit all the time.
Interjecting, mother explains his memory is bad but I know better, he’s one of them and talking code.
Sitting silently, I study him and realise he’s younger than the rest of the adults in the room, more like mother than grandmother. Watching him, his head and eyes scan the room. I look too. No giraffes.
Saying goodbye, I wish the man good luck on his quest and as we leave the room, mother asks why. I tell her, ‘It’s a secret’.
MARIE HANNA CURRAN resides in Galway, Ireland. Her first poetry collection Observant Observings was published in 2014. Her work also features in publications in Ireland, the US and India and her column 'Musings from her Couch' can be read in the magazine Athenry News and Views. To see more, visit her blog at currankentucky.wordpress.com and websitewww.mariehcurran.com
We stooped to follow the boy as he walked under the rhododendron bordering the creek. After climbing away from the water up the hill to avoid mosquitoes we found the deer carcass being consumed by what looked like potato bugs, but these were larger and faster, some of them coming towards our sandals across the dead deer’s large bed of moss and pine needles.
The boy asked several times after we lifted him quickly away from that cloud-white skull, glaring eye socket and thick bared teeth, the flaky gray ribs moving and changing shape as the insects ate, its folded leg bones in saggy socks of white and brown fur, how did the deer die, Mama, how did it die, Da-da, and we looked at each other, nodding to agree it was okay to tell him, and gave a few reasons. Illness, a predator, old age. He listened from his perch on my shoulders as we went back toward our tent, crossing the playground area bright white with sunshine. He didn’t seem too bothered.
What you said the night after we found the deer stayed with me, besides the memory of those carrion beetles that seemed a bit alien, and my worry about our son being bothered by it, as the stars came out to sit in the treetops, your words joined them and glowed with a warm light, how you said that you felt like we were intruding when we stood over the deer, like we were interrupting something private.
We hiked more that weekend across streams and rocks and saw the bullfrog tadpoles as big as small fish resting on the mossy concrete walls of the reservoir. It didn’t rain that night or the next. Almost all of the food we brought survived the cooler and tasted good. Traffic back to Philly was fine. The trip had gone so well. In my mind it goes well each time I think about it. Your voice is what I remember most. To have heard you say those words opened up such a comforting place.
MATTHEW JAKUBOWSKI is a writer, editor, and literary critic based in West Philadelphia. His fiction has appeared widely, in venues such as Berfrois, Minor Literature[s], gorse, 3:AM Magazine, Black Sun Lit, Numero Cinq, and The Bohemyth. He has work forthcoming from The Kenyon Review Online and Electric Literature, and he blogs about books and criticism at truce (matthewjakubowski.wordpress.com).
For a moment I think he’s died and fallen on the floor, but no; he’s on his knees – head and chest on the sideboard. ‘What are you doing?’ I straighten the antimacassar and punch his cushion back into shape. Pick his teacup up off the floor. The clock chimes the hour with a ting. With a sigh I fetch a cloth from the kitchen.
I press the cloth hard on the carpet, watching it soak up the tea.
‘When’s Lily coming? She should have been here by now.’
I look round. He’s still on his knees. ‘Get up, Richard.’
‘She said she was coming.’ He heaves himself up, gripping the edge of the sideboard. ‘Are you sure she’s not coming?’ His sweater is sprinkled with crumbs. There’s a wet patch on his trousers where he’s spilled the tea.
I wonder if he’s scalded himself again. ‘Look at the state of you.’
He starts on a doddery walk towards me, but I don’t reach out to steady him.
‘What time is it?’ His words tumble out in a low mumble.
I don’t need to look at the clock. It’s only just nine. Before he falls, I take his hand. ‘Let’s get you changed.’
‘What are you doing?’ says Richard.
‘Nothing. I’m just dusting.’
I look at the carriage clock in my hand. A ruby anniversary present from Lily. Richard loves it. ‘Do you want another cup of tea?’ I put the clock back on the mantelpiece.
‘Aye, love.’ Richard rests back in the chair and closes his eyes. For a minute I watch the slow, endless rise and fall of his chest. Counterpoint to the quick tick of the clock.
Over the noise of the kettle I hear him shuffling down the hall. Listen to him trying the door handle. The noise of the rattling chain is swallowed by the growl of the kettle. I wait till the water boils.
‘Open up. I’m going to be late for work.’ His voice is rough, like the old days.
I fill the teapot before I go to him. It’s cold in the hallway and for a second I think he’s opened the door, but the lock has held.‘Come and get your tea, Richard.’
He turns and looks at me and I know what he’s going to say.
‘Come on.’ I grab his arm.
‘Someone’s locked the door, Lil.’
‘Pick your feet up, Richard.’ I steer him by the elbow back to the lounge. I think it must be the fourth time this morning.
‘Here’s your chair.’ On automatic pilot, I straighten the cushion. ‘Sit down and be quiet for five minutes.’
The teacup chinks on the table. There’s dribble on his chin that I scrape away with a tissue. ‘Now drink your tea.’
The carriage clock chimes. Ten o’clock. Shopping. I watch him for a moment, sipping his tea. Tiny, baby sips. It won’t take long.
‘Will cheese and pickle do, Richard?’
I glance round, checking he’s still sitting at the table. He’s twisting the edge of the tablecloth.
I slice off the crusts and cut the sandwich into four small squares.
‘There you are.’
He begins to pluck at his napkin, finding a loose thread before I have to take it off him. Then his hands flit about, skimming the table until he comes across the plate and picks up a sandwich.
I focus on the tablecloth, counting the roses that repeat themselves over and over, trying not to hear the chunks of pickle fall onto his plate or the clicking of his jaw or his loud and raspy breath. The sugar-sweet chime of that damned carriage clock carries through from the lounge. He coughs and sprays me with crumbs.
‘For god’s sake, Richard.’
He looks up and his face is slack, empty. A slime of pickle sits on his chin, trapped in the cut from when I shaved him this morning. His jaw works like a gormless puppet, but he says nothing.
I feel a bit sick and push my plate away. ‘Just eat your lunch, Richard.’
He's been asleep for almost an hour. I’ll make a start on the tea, put the chops in the oven. Peel some spuds. It’s nearly dark.
I have to dig out an eye. Deep and almost black.
‘Lil?’ He shuffles through the kitchen door, looks around the room. ‘Where’s Lil?’
I slice the potatoes into chunks. The knife lands hard on the chopping board, sending judders up my arm.
He takes a step towards me. ‘Joan?’
My name sounds strange coming out of his mouth. Stale. Sour. He doesn’t form the word properly. I start on the carrots.
‘Joan?’ He stands close and I can smell him. Toothpaste and talc. I turn my head away. The water’s boiling. I drop the potatoes into the pan.
I focus on chopping and slicing. My muscles quiver with the effort.
He grabs my free arm.
I can see his warped reflection in the blade of the knife. ‘What is it?’
I look at him. His eyes are wet. His lips move silently as he tries to speak. Saliva pools in the pouch of his bottom lip.
‘For god’s sake, Richard, I’m busy.’
He leans closer, tightening his grip, and looks right into my face. He sucks in his spittle and swallows.
I try to pull away. The stupid carriage clock pings.
‘I...’ He swallows again and turns his head. ‘I can’t remember.’
It’s still dark. A few seconds pass before I realise what’s wrong: Richard is up. I lay still and listen to him banging around downstairs. I know I’ll have to get up, but it’s cold and I stay a bit longer.
As usual, he’s put on all the lights. I follow his path and switch them all off again. I know he’ll be in the lounge. As usual, he’s on all fours, emptying the sideboard. Photo albums and the telephone directory are laid on top of my best placemats. A box of chocolates I’ve been saving is crumpled under his knees.
‘Richard. It’s four in the morning.’
He continues to search, pulling out old knitting magazines that I never look at anymore.
He must be cold. He’s forgotten to put on his dressing gown. I never know if he’s sleepwalking or if he’s really awake.
I reach down and shake him. ‘Richard.’
‘Where is it? I can’t find it.’
‘Richard, you need to come back to bed.’
He sits up and looks round. He’s forgotten his glasses too; I can see he’s struggling to focus on me. He looks at the sideboard, then back at me. ‘Where’s Lil?’
‘She’s dead, Richard.’ I’m cold too and want to get back to sleep. I grip his elbow and yank him to his feet.
‘No more nonsense now.’ I look at the mess he’s made. It’ll have to wait till morning. I shiver.
‘Get a move on, Richard.’
I push him on to the first step. My wrists crack as I shove against his back. He’s heavy. Too much for me.
It takes me ages to get him to sit him down on his bed. ‘Get your legs in. You'll catch your death.’ I have to press him back into his pillow. ‘Go to sleep.’
He gropes my hand. ‘Joan?’
In the half-light I see tears run down his face. It’s his medication does that.
‘What is it?’
His grip tightens and my wedding ring presses hard against my finger. I hear his knuckles grinding. ‘Please...’ He sobs and it makes me think of Lily as a child, her heart broken over a lost toy.
I purse my lips for a moment. Then I’m all right. ‘Go to sleep, Richard.’
I release his grip and put out the light.
When I saw him again he was looking at cereal bars. Seventeen years since the last time, and I knew this because that was the New Year of 1997. I didn’t talk to him till four in the morning because I’d spent most of the night in Sophie’s kitchen pouring glasses of wine for other people. I was in some of the photographs on the wall, chubby and childhooded. A good conversation starter.
‘How long have you two known each other?’
‘Oh, forever. Y’know,’ I laughed, ‘my day one girl, Soph is.’
‘You must have a lot of stories.’
I did, though I couldn’t remember any. People smiled and asked about other things: How was Christmas? Any resolutions? No, no one is, are they?
At four I went into the garden to get some fresh air, and there was a hand on my shoulder.
It had been three years at Cambridge for him, Oxford for me, plus another spent sunburning around Southeast Asia, and yet – it still felt like it used to.
‘God. Didn’t expect to see you here.’
‘Really?’ He sat down and I did the same. ‘I knew you’d be here, actually. Out of everyone.’
Somewhere inside the house something smashed. There was an eruption of laughter.
‘How are you?’
‘Good.’ He laughed again and glanced at his lap.
It was very cold and I sunk further into my coat. Looking at him made me remember not only the scrunched smiles and the jokes and the talking into the night, but also the heavy-tongued nervousness. He put a salty feeling in my heart for two years and that’s not something that slips away easily.
‘Jesus, Audrey.’ He stopped smiling. ‘It’s been so fucking long, I don’t even know. What have you been up to? How was Oxford?’
‘How was Cambridge? A first? Where have you been?’
‘How are the others?’
‘Have you seen any of them?’
‘Only Soph. Dave, here and there.’
‘Max is in New York.’
There was a pause.
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t even hug you,’ I said, getting up, and he met me halfway. There was a time when I recognised all of his jumpers, but this one was new. My head was still just up to his chest. I could feel the pressure of his arms and I wondered why we only ever touched like this when drunk. We’d spent years sitting next to each other on trains, but it was only in the midst of a night-time crowd that we leant, with alcohol on our breath. Doesn’t mean anything. Never meant anything, I know.
He went to move away but I held on and I could smell his soap.
‘It’s okay, I’m not in love with you anymore,’ I said. I knew he smiled at that, though I couldn’t see because he was holding me so close that the particles of his jumper stuck to my lips.
‘I know,’ he said, chuckling.
‘It’s just the past, that’s all. I’m just in love with the past and all that. Do you remember all that?’
‘Of course I remember all that.’
I heard people stumbling out into the garden, a conversation pulled from the warmth into the chill. Stretched.
‘What are you going to do now?’
‘I don’t know. I’m sleeping here, so–’
‘I meant in life, actually.’ I poked him and felt kind of young again. It didn’t matter that we were too busy giggling to think about the future. I realised afterwards that he never answered, and so standing in Sainsbury’s seventeen years later, I didn’t really know him at all. His shirt was pale blue, untucked, and he was holding a Nature Valley box. I counted the moments, knowing that the longer the words congealed in my mouth, the more I wouldn’t be able to say them. Hey. What the hell have you been up to? It’s been a while.
I was sixteen when we locked eyes on a good friend’s balcony. I used to think the eye contact was telling – of what? We’re all guilty of assuming other people to be simpler than ourselves. Sometimes I thought it was clear that he felt it back, but other times perhaps I was just hopeful and swelling too much at the seams of my heart. That’s a clichéd way of putting it, I know, but it fits the bill. I was drowning, inside out. It doesn’t matter now, because it’s been twenty-three years. Time has a way of sorting stuff out.
He slotted the box back onto the shelf. I wanted to touch his shoulder and be wrapped up in a frantic embrace and ask about his thoughts and clutch at the threads of his life that had slipped out from between my fingers over the years, but it occurred to me then that it wasn’t the same him. It wasn’t the same, but then again, it kind of was – and the nape of his neck looked as it always did.
Seventeen years since we’d last said goodbye, brushing against each other – hands, shoulders, lips – as the sun pushed its way up that New Year’s morning. Mum used to say, ‘You don’t always get everything in life.’ I thought: here is everything. Here is everything that I didn’t get.
FLO WARD is a writer from London. She is also the founding editor of Inky Magazine, aimed at young writers. She was a Wicked Young Writers Award finalist in 2014, and has had her short fiction featured in a variety of international online and print publications.
She can be found on Twitter @florencemolly97