The Monster of Invidia, by M L Hufkie

For my dear friend Lesley, who left this earth too soon.

“I’m very sorry sir. We did all we could.”

He didn’t hear much other than sorry and could. Two inescapable words that only ever sought to remind us of what cannot be undone and distant possibilities. He saw the doctor’s mouth move and felt nauseous at the smell of disinfectant emanating off him. Or maybe it wasn’t him. Maybe it was the walls, the floors, the air. Two words that have hovered and continue to hover over his family for the last six years. At least him and his wife.

“We will keep her for a day or two. She’s lost a lot of blood and we want to make sure she doesn’t haemorrhage. Again, I am terribly sorry. If…”

He got up and started walking away from the doctor, leaving those words to follow him down the empty hallway.

The hospital looked deserted, though he knew it wasn’t. It was just that floor. Silent, and dank, like a sepulchre. He had been seated on an uncomfortable metal chair outside the room that an hour ago his wife had been pushed into – a long, bitter hour that had a nocturnal stillness wrapped around it even though it was broad daylight. When he rushed through the doors with his wife sweaty, and panicking in his arms, there had been mayhem at the entrance. A bus accident on the N1 between Milnerton and Cape Town. Casualties yet unknown. Passengers, 59. Extent of injuries-anything from broken ribs, arms, a cracked skull, broken toes to an impaled body so badly damaged that the doctors and police were still trying to identify it. Blood everywhere. Screams and panic as doctors and nurses scurried around to comfort, inject, bandage-up, sooth, and alas push the more serious cases off down long corridors to invisible rooms from which they may never return.

He reached the exit downstairs and collided with a woman who appeared intoxicated. Covered in blood with one shoe missing and a torn dress she grabbed him by the chest, ripping a button off his shirt in the process, and mumbling incessantly about her son.

“Where is my boy? He is 7. Has anyone seen my boy? He was right next to me on the bus. Please…”

The anguish in the woman’s eyes brought tears to his own and he swallowed hard. Two orderlies in crumpled overalls appeared out of nowhere, one of them pushing a wheelchair.

“Sorry, sir. She came in with the bus people. They sedated her, but she must have wandered off.”

He nodded and walked to his car where he broke down slamming the roof, looking through tear-filled eyes at the grey façade of the hospital.

The fourth miscarriage. Eight years and four dead foetuses. After the third he had sat his wife down, talking to her earnestly. A very difficult conversation in which he felt like he was crushing her, taking her dream from her.

“My angel, perhaps we ought to stop for a while. Give your body time to fully regain its strength. We could-

“Could what!? I’m 35 years old. I am running out of time.”

This is not a fucking race! This is your life! This is my life!

He was relieved to find that he’d only thought the words biting his tongue as his wife broke down sobbing in his arms.

With each new pregnancy, it was as if they were being taunted. Each failed pregnancy lasting slightly longer than the previous one. Just enough for them to foolishly hope. The first was roughly a year and a half after their wedding. He couldn’t take his eyes off his wife, so radiant and beautiful he found her. It lasted seven weeks. Until she woke up one Saturday morning, blood oozing from between her legs, staining the summer nightdress she’d been wearing, calling his name. Preparing breakfast, he’d run from the kitchen and knew that the baby was gone before the doctor told them. The second, a few months later, lasted nine weeks before meeting the same fate as the first. The third lasted twelve weeks. He had made sure his wife was always comfortable, got domestic help to cook and clean so she could rest, and during those weeks the ghost of the previous two was slowly fading. In the evenings he would find her reading or watching TV, content and relaxed. The two of them discussing names, talking about what he or she might be like, his wife buying tiny pieces of clothing that made his chest hurt whenever she showed him a new item she had procured. And then one night, soaking in the bathtub while he was listening to music, a desperate, heart wrenching scream like that of a wounded animal. He would never forget the red of the water, the fear in her eyes, his own disbelief when he’d picked her from the tub, wrapped her in a blanket and driven her to the hospital.

And now here they were again. At a different hospital for the same thing. They had been taking an afternoon stroll by the Sea Point Promenade. The sun high, the breeze carrying that wonderful green, salty scent of Cape Town. The place was packed with runners, surfers, swimmers, and hand-holding couples. They had just sat down at a restaurant for an early dinner when her cramps started. Fierce and constant. The baby came out in pieces. In the hallway of yet another hospital he could hear his wife moan and cry, and when his own tears came, he didn’t try to stop them.

How long he sat in his car he couldn’t say, but he pulled out of the hospital car park when the noise of an approaching ambulance interrupted his thoughts. He somehow ended up on the Sea Point Promenade again, sitting on the bench they had sat on so many times before. By the time the sun set, painting the Cape Town sky a marvellous orange-yellow-purple, he had made his decision.

When he got back to the flat, the silence of it made him uncomfortable. It was cloaked in the type of quiet that spoke of the coldness of uninhabited rooms and echoed footsteps. For a wild moment he thought about driving to his parents but abandoned the idea almost immediately. Twice he picked up the phone in the kitchen, dialling their number only to replace it before anyone could answer. He showered and poured a whiskey. Sleep took hours to come, and when it did, he had nightmares about their nameless, half-formed offspring floating beneath the city; down in the sewer amongst plastic, shit, used condoms, discarded needles and other things that have lost their shape; choked by debris, their mere slits of mouths singing a disjointed chorus:

“Help us, Daddy. Daddy, please help us.”

A murderous headache roused him at the crack of dawn and after taking a shower he packed a bag for his wife and left for the hospital. It was too early, so he drove along Chapman’s Peak to Simons Town, forced himself to have breakfast at the first café he saw and then continued from there to Fish Hoek where he aimlessly browsed a few shops.

He didn’t want to try anymore. Didn’t want her to try anymore. He didn’t want to feel her desperation every time they made love. Didn’t want her clinging to him, her legs around his waist, gripping whispering “please, please my love -” tormented by the need for him to fertilize her. When he arrived at the hospital, he was taken to a hall where his sleeping wife was lying on one of ten beds. He kissed her softly on the forehead, sighing with relief. As long as her eyes were closed, he didn’t have to see the pain in them, if her mouth was quiet, he didn’t have to listen to the confusion, anger, and heartbreak. The doctor entered quietly, a white-clad spectre.

“We’ve given her a strong sleeping draught. She’ll be out for a few more hours and should be good to return home tomorrow.”

“Doctor, do you think-“

“Yes, I think so. But I also think it wise for your wife to stop trying for a little while. The medical sciences have advanced greatly in the last 50 years.”

The doctor walked away before he could contest his theory. Frankly, he was sick and tired of being told about the great advances of medical science. A science that manages to transplant organs but one that still failed to save cancer patients who died in their millions across the globe. He frowned irritably, kissed his wife again and left. He drove to the bench, staring at scavenging seagulls while playing with his wedding ring as the day bled out.

She didn’t talk much on the drive home the following day, and he knew that he would have to wait until she felt ready. And so, he waited. After that, his wife changed. Her inability to have her own child made her avoid others with children. She stopped talking to her friends, and if she did mention them, it was only to point out their shortcomings as parents.

“Did you see what she gave her child to eat? And that idiot husband of hers is going to turn his son into an emotionally stunted macho dimwit like himself.”

Her criticism reached extremes and though she never said as much to the people she was grilling, he hated having to listen to it. His wife had always been a woman with a clear sense of justice, something she’d inherited from her political activist parents, thus though he didn’t like her sharp criticism he could forgive her for it. What started bothering him was that after the last miscarriage she began retreating from everyone, including himself. One of the things that first drew him to her was her passion. Not just in bed, but her passion for life, her passion for social justice, the amount of passion she poured into everything she did. There was none of that after the loss of the fourth would-be child. She became morose and taciturn, would stiffen up when he attempted to touch her.

About three weeks after her return from the hospital he came home to find her on the floor in the nursery, cutting into tiny pieces all the clothes she’d collected for a child that never came. When she saw him, she looked at him dried-eyed, ignored him and continued her destruction. One night after they returned from a nearby restaurant after a strained dinner, he woke up in the small hours to find her sitting on the edge of the bed. At first, he thought he was dreaming but then he heard her speak.

“Anything. I would do anything. I…would…please-“

He switched on the bedside lamp, and she turned to him looking utterly dazed and entranced.

“Darling, who are you talking to? Are you alright?”

And then she started screaming, a deafening wail that reverberated off the walls in their bedroom. Their flat was located on a newly upgraded block with security and a concierge, and he knew that someone would have heard it. He took her in his arms, covering her mouth, her eyes bulging with tears streaming from them. And then, without warning she bit into his fingers hard, until he pulled his hand away cursing.

“Ouch Fuck! Darling, stop it! Don’t…

Before he could finish his sentence, she fell backwards onto the bed, her lips stained with his blood, into a deep sleep from which she arose the following afternoon. Having taken the day off work, he waited patiently for her to wake up so he could try to find out what the hell had happened the night before. But when he asked her about it, she had no memory of any of it. No matter how he approached the subject, showing her his bitten fingers, taking her back step by step, she shook her head in confusion and tearfully apologised.

He left angry and confused driving to his parents’ house in Tamboerskloof. When he got there, he found he could not talk about it and simply said that she was fine when his father politely asked about her. His wife was an orphan. Her anti-apartheid activist parents were both murdered in the early 80’s. Her mother gunned down in an alleyway after a protest rally in Johannesburg, and her father blown to pieces by letter bomb while exiled in Angola.

“Karl, are you listening son?”

Solo visits to his parents had to suffice as they had never forgiven him for marrying her and their ambivalence towards his wife always led to ferocious arguments. He didn’t stay long, getting agitated by his father’s nagging about his joining the family law firm and his mother’s subtle digs at his wife’s charity work with orphans.

On the drive home he thought he would suggest a holiday to his wife. Away from the city, familiarity, away from their losses. They had both always wanted to return to Greece where they’d spent their honeymoon and they had the money to do it. He stopped by the supermarket to pick up some wine and fresh meat from the butchers with the idea that he would cook and talk to her about it. When he got home, he could immediately tell he was alone. He could always tell; the stillness was different. What surprised him was that his wife hadn’t left the house alone in weeks, and he got an acute sense of foreboding as he entered the rooms. The fact that it was early evening and still light out didn’t quell his worries, and he called her phone a few times, only to be informed by a tin voice that she wasn’t available.

He turned on the 6 o’clock news and poured himself a whiskey. The news only darkened his mood further.

In Cape Town, reports of missing children; a desperate, abused wife lacing her husband’s favourite stew with rat poison; a prominent Cape Flats gang leader murdered by a vigilante group, who shot him, threw a petrol bomb at him, and filmed him burning alive. North of Johannesburg; the dismembered corpses of at least a dozen black men unearthed on an abandoned farm. The property belonged to a white supremacist on trial for murder. When asked about the bodies on his farm he’d apparently smiled and replied to the journalist, “Blacks aren’t people.” And then in an absurd attempt to perhaps lift the spirits of a depressed nation, news of a Sandton based plastic surgeon believed to have discovered the fountain of youth. An elixir guaranteed to turn back the clock for the rich and famous. A potion he was now looking to sell to the highest bidder- a Californian pharmaceutical giant.

An hour passed and he called again. Nothing. He muted the television and leaned back on the couch. On the screen a young pop star was on some talk show doing the xibelani, much to the delight of the audience. He fell asleep and woke up to find his wife standing at the kitchen counter chopping a cucumber while sipping red wine. The steak he bought was next to her on a plate seasoned and ready to be cooked. When she noticed him looking at her from the doorway, she smiled at him for the first time in weeks.

“Where have you been? I was worried.”

“I am sorry. I just realised my phone was dead, I was going to call you. I went to see Sanita. There was a problem at the orphanage.”

Sanita was her social worker partner who ran the orphanage with her. The two women had known each other since university and had worked together for 8 years. Tomatoes and lettuce were taken from the fridge, and she spoke as she washed them.

“One of the new, younger boys attacked one of the older ones and ended up with some serious bruises, so I took him to the hospital.” He was elated. For weeks he was worried that she would lose her interest in her work, the way she’d lost it in everything else.

“What happened? Is the boy, ok?”

She nodded reassuringly, her brown eyes sparkling.

“I think he will be. We will all be.”

He took her into his arms, holding her to his chest and his joy grew when she didn’t pull away from him. Instead, she kissed his mouth, his neck and leaned into him as his hands wandered down her back. But something bothered him. It was her smell. She didn’t have her usual, crisp, citrus, scent that he so enjoyed inhaling. She smelled of decay, rotten meat, mingled with a horrible chemical smoke.

“Darling, you smell like-“

“Yes, I know. I am sorry.”

She turned away from him to the stove and stirred chopped mushrooms that had started frying.

“I couldn’t find parking close to the hospital and I ended up passing by one of those abandoned factories on Protea Boulevard. The place used to be an abattoir and is now filled to the rafters with meth junkies.”

“The slaughter factory?! Sweetheart, please avoid that place. It gives me the creeps. After all this time it still reeks of blood and dead animals. Did they bother you?” Her back seemed to stiffen very slightly, but she kept stirring and washing his whiskey glass he helped himself to some wine instead.

“The junkies you mean. Well, a few of them approached us, but they were not doing any harm. They just wanted money, and after I gave them some, they left.”

He studied the label on the bottle. It was a delicious, full bodied Meerlust that they had bought in Stellenbosch the previous summer. Putting the holiday on the back burner he thought he might suggest to his wife they drive to Stellenbosch over the weekend. He was glad that she seemed happier and wouldn’t want to overwhelm her. Baby steps he reminded himself, cringing at the words. He’d gone to university in Stellenbosch and loved the region. It was also where he met her. She’d been one of the very few students of colour, and after seeing her at one of the bars reading in a corner one afternoon he’d fallen hopelessly in love. For months she’d given him the cold shoulder until reluctantly agreeing to a date when she found him waiting for her outside her dormitory. They had taken a walk and it was there he started learning about her life. The deaths of her parents, living with a grandmother on the Cape Flats, her love of children, her shyness, when he took her hand and held it as they walked, blissfully unaware at the looks of disapproval he got. When she turned from the stove the mushrooms now simmering in her white wine sauce her smile reminded him of why he could not stay away from her.

“Why don’t you set the table for us? I’ll go shower. I promise to smell much better afterwards.”

She giggled. Throughout the meal they talked, and when he suggested a drive to the wine region that weekend, she happily agreed. That night they made love tirelessly, only stopping when they were sweaty and exhausted. He fell asleep with his hand on the inside of her thigh and when he woke up the next morning, he found her out on the balcony, drinking a coffee and reading a book. They got ready and drove to Stellenbosch via Muizenberg, taking their time getting there.

There was still time to spare before their tasting. So, they decided to take a walk on campus, across the red square, passing the admin buildings, and then stopping to kiss outside the Ou Hoofgebou. The rest of the week his wife was insatiable, her desire for him even stronger than in their courtship days. They made love in the shower, on the kitchen floor, in their bedroom, in the car, on any available counter, panting and exuberant. It went on for days, their breathless love making reaching a crescendo the following Friday evening after a gala dinner for Cape Town lawyers. She was straddling him on the couch, riding him furiously, him taking turns to kiss her neck, her mouth, sucking on her nipples when he had looked at her and suddenly felt like he was looking at someone else. It was the unusual arch of her neck, the strange glow in her eyes, the flexing of muscles beneath her skin that for one crazy moment under his fingertips felt like something was moving inside her.

The first warning was the phone call. It came the Sunday after the gala. Sanita called her phone while she was in the shower and when he answered she was hysterical. The boy his wife had taken to the hospital had disappeared. The orphanage had been searched top to bottom. The police had searched the nearby factories, hospitals, and streets to no avail. When he told her about it, she called Sanita, trying to calm her down on the phone. All the while saying,

“I’m sure there is a good explanation for this Sanita. I will find him. We will find him.”

He held his wife in his arms until she fell asleep, and the next morning when he woke up, he found her staring at the ceiling, her eyes blank. Twice that day he called from work to check on her, see if she’d heard anything. Two evenings that week she came home later than usual explaining that some of the kids at the orphanage were uneasy about the disappearance and that she stayed to restore calm. A month passed and they had given up on finding the boy, the police had no leads and none of the junkies in the nearby abandoned factory seemed to know anything. His wife worked longer hours and one afternoon he decided to leave work early, pick her up from the orphanage and convince her to go out to dinner. He was driving up to the orphanage and passing the big park down the hill from it when caught sight of her under a tree, talking to a stranger. Slowing the car down, he pulled over to the side, his aim to get out. The first thing that struck him about the stranger was his outlandish height. Arms and legs thin and wiry attached to a body with skin so pale that from a distance he looked like a mime. And then there were his clothes. Eccentric to a point of being theatrical. Black suit, black hat, black shoes, reminiscent of a village undertaker. But that wasn’t all. Even from where he was standing, he could see his wife was upset, the tenseness in her body contrasted by the mocking smile of the stranger who looked at her through mirrored glasses concealing his eyes. He called out to her, but she didn’t seem to hear him, and walking back to his car he thought he would call her, knowing she always had her phone on her person. A car sped past him before he could cross the road and then he heard his name. Turning back, he saw his wife walking towards him. The stranger was gone.

“Who was that man?”

“Oh, he was looking for directions.”

“Directions? He seemed…

“Yes, he seems strange, I know. What brings you here?”

“I thought you could do with cheering up. How about dinner?”

When they arrived at the orphanage to collect her bag, they found Sanita talking to police officers in tears. The boy had been found. His body mangled and burnt in one of the abandoned factories on Protea Boulevard.

“They say it was a ritual, like he was some kind of offering. No arrests. All the people who lived in the factory have disappeared, and it’s hard to trace them. Oh God… oh my God… burned? An altar?”

His wife put an arm around Sanita and led her inside the building. The officers stalled and he thanked them, saw them off, and followed the women into the orphanage too shocked to entertain a coherent thought. The days dragged on; the story of the murdered orphan being swallowed up by other horrors.

He came home one evening to find his wife, made up and wearing a new dress, smiling as she cooked, humming to herself.

“You seem chirpy my darling. What’s happening?”

“I am pregnant! I found out this morning!” He froze for a moment, staring at her loosening his tie. She walked over.

“I know you are afraid. So am I. But this time, it’s going to be fine.”

“Yes, I am terrified. What if…I know I should stay positive, but can your mind and body take this again?”

She nodded reassuringly.

“It’s going to be fine. I promise.”

The first month passed. Then the second. He was so nervous and alert he started sleeping badly. Attuned to his wife’s every breath, move, tone in her voice. He started praying, something he had never done in his life. During lunch breaks he would walk into churches, speak to vicars and priests, sit down in pews, praying fervently. He would stand outside mosques, closing his eyes at the sound of the adhan. Silently hoping and praying. The third and fourth months passed, his stomach in constant knots, waiting for a scream, a phone call to tell him that this baby too was gone.

He didn’t start breathing easy until month six, when his wife’s blossoming pregnant health and beauty put him at ease.


I conjure up those days now with desperation and urgency, one of the only things that keeps me going. That, and hope.

Our daughter was born on a spring day, at 10 o’clock in the morning. We named her Adessa. Perfection from head to toe. The nurses handed her to us beaming, talking about her excellent health and great vitals. When we took her home, it felt like a grand circle had been completed and both my wife and I would spend hours staring at our baby in awe. My parents who very rarely came to see us, would now find any excuse to come by. Laden with gifts for mother and baby. Adessa took a particular liking to a bee stuffed rattle and as soon as her little hands were able, she would grasp and shake, our adoring eyes always on her. Some nights I would wake up to find my wife in the nursery watching Adessa in her cot or sitting with the sleeping baby in her arms, kissing her forehead.

On the day of Adessa’s six month “birthday” my parents called my office to ask us around for dinner. I immediately agreed and called my wife to let her know that I would pick her and the baby up after work. Not getting an answer I texted and continued working, telling myself to call again in an hour or so. Two hours later I still could not reach her and decided to call Sanita.

“Hello, Sanita. Yes, I am well, thank you. Have you seen-”

“No not today. I saw her yesterday. Well, not really, I mean she was in the park down the road.”

“The park?”

“Yes, she didn’t see me, but she was talking to a very strange man. He was very tall and odd looking. I thought he looked-“

Without knowing why, I felt petrified and abruptly ended the call. In all the years of driving I had never driven so fast and with such little regard for my safety or that of others. The flat was empty and when I asked the concierge if he had seen her, he said that she left with Adessa after I left for work early that morning. I called and called her phone, standing in the foyer, the concierge casting concerned looks in my direction. I called my parents to see if she had maybe taken a taxi to their house. No. I went back upstairs calling her phone every 10 minutes and waited.

By nightfall I had still heard nothing and called the police. The following morning, they came by to ask me a few questions, but I wasn’t of much help to them and got into my car driving the streets, ignoring calls from my parents, eyes peeled and heart pounding. I drove back only after dark, feeling utterly hopeless, dialling my wife’s number. Repeatedly, leaving desperate and furious voice messages. I went downstairs again, with an aim to get back into my car and comb the streets, perhaps drive to the police station. Passing the concierge, I greeted and noticed that he was drying up some water on the floor with old newspapers.

“Some idiots wet the floor and just left it. It’s dangerous,” he grumbled.

“Any news about your wife? Where could she have gone?”

I was about to answer when an article caught my attention. Bending down I pulled the newspaper sheet closer – it was the story about the boy from the orphanage on the day his body was found. A crowd amassed outside the factory, police and sniffer dogs shrouded in a halo of flashing cameras held by journalists eager to get the best angle on the tragedy. But none of those grabbed my attention. It was the man in the crowd. The pale, tall man with his mirrored glasses. Even with the grainy quality of the photo I could make out the faint smile on his face.

It has been two years. Two years of searches to no avail. I go to our bench often where I sit for hours. Waiting. Waiting for the tall man. Waiting for God. Waiting for the Devil. Waiting for whoever to bring them back to me.


Trappings, by Fiona McCulloch

Is it no terrible that wir auld neebour’s deed, an he wisna aw that auld tae?
Aye, terrible son. The pair sowel.
Aye, he hud stomach cancer. Must ha bin in agony, man.
So, I muttered.
You’re nuthin’ but a wee bastard twisted, man-hating dyke.

Hugmanay 1983 – ah’m sat oan the couch in the livin’ room. Telly’s oan an’ it’s jist me an’ ma muther an faither cos ma twa bruthers are oot wi’ their pals. Scotch an’ Wry afore some Hugmanay show comes oan efter. Ah’m hopin’ the 50p slot meter disnae run oot on oor rented TV but, then, things urnae sae uncertain noo ma muther’s workin’ night shifts as a carer at an auld folk’s hame and ma da’s goat a gairdenin’ joab at the same place. Ricky Fulton never fails tae make me greet laughin’ at his motorbike polis sketch, Last Call wi’ Rev. I.M. Jolly, Rev. Goodchild an’ aw the others. Ma favourite part o’ Hugmanay. Ma muther an’ faither ur laughin tae, an’ the cat’s curled up at the edge o’ the rug near the gas fire. She’s no’ oan the rug, mind, cos it’s new and ma muther’s warned her no’ tae lie oan it. She’s an awfy clever cat an’, efter first lyin’ oan it when it wis initially put doon, she noo kens it’s ma muther’s new pride an’ joy, so she’s tae keep tae the edge. Puir cat, she definitely didnae sit oan the mat. Still it wis a step up fae afore. She wis a stray livin’ in ma pal’s muther an’ faither’s porch cos they hud a cat o’ their ain and they didnae get alang so, when oor ither cat goat knocked doon, ah brought hame Smokey tae oor hoose. Ah wid meet her every day as ah wis gawin’ tae school an’ gie her a clap an’ a wee bit o’ fuss. She wis that guid natured and lovely – smokey grey wi’ a big white bib, belly an’ paws, a pink nose, green eyes, a splodge o’ white on her back, an’ striped racoon-like tail. Ah used tae hunch doon oan ma hunkers an’ she’d be purrin’ away an’ lovin’ the fuss. Wan day when ah crouched doon, she jumped oantie ma lap an’ that wis it, ah’d gained her trust an’ she won ma heart. Sad as it wis when oor cat went missin’ and wis found knocked doon oan the main road, ah couldnae help but be happy fur thinkin’ ah could gie Smokey a much-needed hame. But ah’d need tae bide ma time and allow a respectable amount o’ grieven.

Ma muther wis daft on oor cat. He’d wait on a car bonnet every mornin’ fur her getting aff the bus fae her nightshift in an auld folk’s hame. Then he’d run aw the way, followin’ her back hame and sleep at her feet. He wisnae that intae fuss fae the rest o’ us, though, as a swipe o’ his paw wud remind ye noo and again. Some weeks efter his demise, ma auntie and uncle wur visitin’ and ah sneaked away tae bring Smokey hame tae oor hoose. She wis delighted tae see me and aw roon’ aboot ma legs, purring away as ah clapped and clapped her. When a thoat ah’d goat her trust enough, ah lifted her intae ma erms and zipped up ma jaicket. Ah headed straight hame as she gied a mixture o’ purrs an’ low growls cos she wis feart an’ wisnae sure where ah wis takin’ her. But she decided tae trust me an’ hame we went. Ma muther wis momentarily confused wi’ the big white chest cos she thoat it wis her beloved cat alive an’ well, as though it wis his doppelganger that hud bin run ower. But then she realised it wis a different cat. ‘Where’d that come fae?’, she demanded but equally maintainin’ calm and politeness cos we still hud guests. ‘Her name’s Smokey an’ she’s a stray. Ma pal’s muther an’ faither are lettin’ her stay in their porch cos their cat disnae like her. But it’s freezin’ in the porch and she needs a hame’, ah reasoned. ‘Please can we keep her, please?’, ah pleaded. Ma muther tutted and then said, ‘Ah suppose’. ‘But she’s your cat mind, so you need tae de-flea and worm her, an’ look efter her’. ‘Ah wull, ah wull’, ah said delighted. ‘Go an’ see if there’s oani’ o’ that pate left in the fridge and gie her some’.

Smokey ate the pate gratefully and drank a wee bowl of milk – ah didnae ken back then that cats are lactose intolerant, but ah’m sure it still did her the world o’ good tae huv food, drink, shelter an’ love. She followed me aroon’ fur days and wid only go oot fur a quick toilet stoap. She wus feart she’d be flung oot oan the streets again, so ah’d keep the door open tae reassure her, and then she’d flee back in an’ up the stairs wi’ me. Safe an’ sound. We lived in a four-in-the-block upstairs coonsel flat. It hud a wee veranda at the livin’ room windae and every summer she’d lie oot there fur a bit as long as ah wis there in the livin room. Ah wid only let her if ah wis there anyway to make sure she stayed safe. When it wis agreed she could stay, ma faither helped tae groom her, getting’ rid o’ matted bits o’ fur wi’ a pair o’ scissors. Smokey took tae helpin’, pullin’ oot bits o’ matted fur hersel’ wi’ her teeth. She realised she hud a hame an’ wanted tae look her best. We took her to the vet for a general check ower, an’ she exclaimed, ‘What a beautiful cat! I’m sure she must be part Persian’. Ah beamed wi’ pride oan Smokey’s behalf. Abandoned tae the streets, wi’ a luvin hame her sheer beauty shone through. A clean bill of health, we took her hame. She slept oan ma pillow and we were inseparable, even when the ENT surgeon telt me ah should get rid o’ her. She wis ma responsibility an’ ah couldnae ever let her doon efter sich a hard life. Besides, ah loved her tae bits. She wis the first “person” ah came oot tae when ah wis a feart teenager, years afore ah actually found the nerve to tell any human ah wis a lesbian. Back in the day, they’d huv said she wis ma familiar and burnt us baith.

Haha, folk like tae impose weird rules an’ make ye conform, tae keep ye in their wee coops, tae clip yer wings and stoap ye fae hivin’ a better view as ye fly way up and beyond their shite. Tae clutch some book they’ve rote swallowed but never fuckin’ interpreted, tae trundle oot quotes they don’t understaun, withoot realisin’ concepts like fuckin’ metaphors or that language changes meanin’, dependin’ on time and place, or that things get edited, rewritten, skewed, appropriated fur dodgy patriarchal agendas. Cos, when ye get right doon tae it, folk are totally stunted an’ want tae be telt aff but, meantime, dae aw kinds o’ shit when they think naebody’s lookin’. They’re the worst o’ us. They hate nuthin’ mair than somebody who doesnae confine themselves, somebody who can see beyond their blinkered horizon and fuckin’ dare tae soar ower the rainbow. Aye, so ah confided in Smokey. Gimme a cat any day.


Efter Scotch and Wry finished, it wisnae faur oaf the bells. Every year ma muther laid oot Ne’er Day bun, shortbread an’ some Ritz crackers wi’ Primula soft cheese. Ah goat ginger wine. Ma faither wid buy the wee bottles o’ essence every year tae make the mix and strain it through net curtain for us weans. It wis a tradition cos ma parents wur brought up wi’ the same stuff. Magic. Ah loved how its fiery taste wis pure pleasure compared wi’ ma throat’s usual inflamed gowpin’. Efter Mons Meg booms, ma faither opens the windae tae let the aul year oot an’ the new yin in, as well as tae hear the boats’ hoarns and we wish each other Happy New Year, the door gets chapped.

First fits. Tall, dark an handsome’s antithesis, though aw that shite wis loast oan me oanyway as ma fascination wi’ Cagney and Lacey wid suggest tae the weel trained een. Oor first fits ur’ the neighbours. A man an’ wife, then later two o’ their sons join them. Ma da’s gettin’ steadily steamin’ an’ ma maw’s nursin’ a babycham. That’s aw’ she’ll huv as she’s no’ a drinker, but she huvs wan tae be polite cos it’s New Year. The man neighbour’s pourin’ straight whiskies intae ma faither’s tumbler wi’ total alacrity; his ain gless isnae refillin wi’ sich gay abandon. Hud onybody bin guagin’ the scene, it wud be apparent he has a plan worth stayin’ sober fur. His focus is elsewhere. Me. Terrifyin’ lewd comments spew intae the room, suckin oot whit little air there is wi’ aw’ the fag fumes. Talk ah’ve never heard afore. Stuck somewhere between bewildered and humiliated, ah’m no’ quite graspin’ the full meanin’ o’ whit he’s sayin’ or why naebody is throwin’ him oot oan his erse. An ineffable terror grips me as though the wurd ominous had assumed flesh an’ blood an’ crept stealthily into the livin’ room. Penetratin’ gluttonous eyes devour me like the fairy tale wolf. ‘Luck at that there. Wid ye no’ like tae rub yersel’ up an’ doon again that?’, he proffers tae wan o’ his sons, like ah wis up for auction an’ consent, let alone bein’ under age, an alien concept. The trappings o’ a family man, underneath lurked a menacin’ misogynistic sexual predator, an’ the lessons bein’ imparted to his sons paint a bleak vista for their future outlook. His son, embarrassed, utters sumthin’ aboot me bein’ too young; no’ long efter, he an’ his brothers go tae a hoose party, leavin’ their parents behind wi’ us. The wumman neighbour, apparently well acquainted wi’ her husband’s peculiar mannerisms, unfazed takes it all in her stride as though it’s aw perfectly normal friendly neighbourly chit-chat, aye nuthin’ tae see here, while steadily numbin’ herself wi’ cheap vodka.

Originatin’ fae some in-bred community in the sticks, he smacks his lips as though ready for a feast. Never comfortable in anyone’s gaze, this new kind of unsought male attention bores a hole through ma centre o’ gravity, unnervin’ whit little confidence ah huv. Bile furs ma tongue and cigarette smoke hings like graveyard smog coiled aroon’ ma tonsils, irritatin’ a ragin’ pus that anticipates an’ inevitable tonsillectomy by ma sixteenth year. By the time ah’m at university ah’ll huv an’ asthma diagnosis. Ma muther’s repression regardin’ anythin’ sexual renders her uncharacteristically mute. She probably senses too ma faither is in nae fit state tae back up oanie protest she might venture tae make. If he wis sober, she would huv let rip. An ex-amateur boxer, ma faither wis a force tae be reckoned wi’. But the night he couldnae box his ain shadow. Best tae keep things oan an’ even keel, don’t cause a scene in case it backfires. Eventually they’ll leave and we’ll aw’ forget it ever happened. Meantime ah can feel the path between his eyes an’ ma slender frame shrink as he casts glances increasingly in ma direction till the real flesh-n-blood person me disappears, replaced wi’ his sick imaginin’. Ah’m reduced tae an object he wants tae act upon, dae unspeakable things tae as ah lie immobilised wi’ terror, things ah cannae even name cos ma ain ignorance prevents me fae venturin’ intae the territory o’ his particular sicko realm o’ fantasy. A combination o’ stiflin’ stares an’ smoky staleness irritates an claws at ma larynx. Ah futilely endeavour to clear ma throat an’ discover an oppressive voicelessness.

Liftin’ Smokey an’ cuddlin her close tae me, ah head tae the shelter o’ ma room, utterin’ ma muffled goodnights and daen ma best tae evade his lecherous stare as ah navigate oot the livin’ room. Gulpin’ in the smokeless air in momentary relief, ah gently place ma cat oan the bed. She settles doon beside a Basil Brush cuddly toy ah’ve hud since ah wis three – sewn together so many times by ma muther, mustard yellow socks oan its feet serve as the last refuge tae containin’ burst stuffin’ – alongside a wee collection of teddies and other cuddly animals. Posters reassuringly look doon fae ma bedroom walls – Yazoo, Madonna, Eurythmics, Culture Club, Abba, tae name a few. Later, ah’ll add Texas, Deacon Blue, Fairground Attraction, T’Pau, Runrig, 10,000 Maniacs, and Love and Money tae ma playlist, slowly becomin’ mair conscious o’ Scottish bands. Much later still ah’ll develop an interest in Scottish Literature. But, for noo, pop music is ma poesy. Ah gulp in familiar surroundings an’ sit oan the bed, clappin’ the cat. She purrs in response. Safety only lasts a couple of minutes.

Ma room door swings open and he staggers in wi’ a sinister grin, affectation o’ an exaggerated inebriation. He carefully, quietly closes the door, a new sobriety belying his performance seconds before. Curlin’ lip reveals nicotine-yellow canines. His tongue pokes between them like he’s tastin’ the promise o’ his prey. Shiftin’ steadily towards me, ah instinctively back away and head roon’ the bed, wi’ him in close pursuit. He reeks o’ stale fags, a lingerin’ sweaty odour an’ halitosis that reaches into ma inflamed lungs an’ doon tae the depths o’ ma stomach, threatenin’ tae release ma Ne’er Day Bun an’ ginger wine fae earlier. Ah’m guessin’ he baths as often as he brushes, the mingin’ bastard. His menacin’ portentous presence has begrimed whit little fresh air the bedroom afforded, leavin’ me gaspin’ tae find oany crevice beyond his mephitic stench. He moves nearer, dangerously closin’ the gap. Instinct keeps me backin’ away since shock has lost communication with ma legs. A debilitatin’ oppressiveness bears doon oan me as ah struggle wi’ the concept o’ hope amidst the doomed endless blackness o’ this New Year’s Day’s first hours. Ma cat opens her eyes and sits up, lookin’ suspiciously at this unwanted intrusion an’ then blinkin’ at me, as though in agreement things ur faur fae okay. Hunted and trapped, ah couldnae see a way tae reach the bedroom door withoot bein’ grabbed and thrown oan tae the bed. Though sexually ignorant, ah intuitively know this lecherous specimen wants tae dae somethin’ forceful and painful against ma will. If ah falter, ma life’s axis will never realign, but remain forever oot o’ balance. Ah’m tryin no tae retch between fear, shock, an’ his distinct lack o’ hygiene. We continue daen’ this weird dance roon’ the bed as ah glimpse us baith in the mirror oan the waw opposite. It’s like watchin’ a Hammer Horror late at night wi’ some ogre, flailin’ erms stretched oot, desperately tryin’ tae grasp his pair victim. She’s trapped, trapped, trapped.

But it’s me bein’ chased by ma rapey neighbour, though the scene is too fuckin’ surreal fur me tae fully assimilate the facts o’ whits actually happenin’ here in ma bedroom in ma ain faimily hoose where ah’m meant tae be safe. Wi’ ma muther an’ faither in the fuckin’ livinroom. Oor reflection oscillates somewhere between farce and horror as we mimic some zany chase scene. Ah’m Penelope Pitstop tae his Hooded Claw. At the mirror’s coarner ah spy a bright full moon, radiatin’ a slither o’ hope an’ a promise o’ a wurld outside this stiflin’ chamber. Momentarily emboldened, ah ponder how he’d react if ah laugh pure oot loud intae his sleverin’ ugly evil fuckin’ mug. Wid it emasculate the dirty fucker so he shrivelled up in a coarner, the weight o’ his shameful actions punchin’ him full force between the eyes or, better still, the nuts? Wid it rile him and turn his lust mair violent? Wid he strangle me tae stoap me fae cryin’ oot fur help, while forcin’ his manky body ontae me tae carry oot his ill intent? Fear and absurdity have stilled ma tongue and coated it so much ah canny make a sound and ma brain is swimmin’ as ah take in the magnitude o’ eager anticipation in his determined starin’ eyes. They’re a peely-wally-bluey colour, like some washed-oot milky galaxy, his irises locked apertures weighin’ me doon, each a black hole threatenin’ tae crush me in the singularity o’ an event horizon from which ah could never return. Where naebody could ever hear ma screams fur help cos his big man haund wid be coverin’ ma wee mooth. Where ah’d be a a broken, empty shell, crushed intae masel’ in an endless abyss before ah could even enter the world. Wid he recognise himself if he stoaped fur a second tae consider whit the mirror sees? Or is this just another opportunity no’ tae miss for the dirty bastard?

Tap, tap, tap. More persistent rat-tat-tat oan the windae. Oot the coarner o’ my een a spy the Rowan tree’s branches swayin’ in oor gairden to the reckless rhythm of this increasingly blustery nicht. Is it sendin’ a message, some kinda morse code, but who’s gonna hear it apart fae me an’ the beast? Cloud seems to have concealed the moon and it momentarily stalls me. Not for long, though, as he closes the gap an’ ah speed up like a video on fast forward. He’s a fiery rogue planet whose newfound orbit circumnavigates a bright star, determined to hurl violently into its pathway, to swallow its light to stoke his own fire. The gravitational pull of his sordid desires spurs him nearer and nearer to a prized virginal destination he’s promised himself to claim. Suddenly ah feel hopelessly alone and a fragile totie wee wean, flung across space and time intae some crazy wonderland, muffled by the suffocatin’ hideous perversity of this grown man. The endless jig o’ him, lungin’ erms reachin’, nicotine-stained fingers and nails that never knew soap, an’ me backin’ away, the space between ever shrinkin’, replaced by a hideous shadow. Smokey looks increasingly agitated. She miaows then hisses at the intruder, jumps aff the bed, an’ even she’s tryin’ tae bail, scratchin’ her paw furiously at the room door. Ah can feel maself shakin’ but ah’m determined no tae greet.

Although this entire scene has only lasted a few minutes, time has stoapped an’ ah’m bein crushed, squeezed, caged in an airless vacuum. It widnae be oany weirder hivin’ stumbled doon some dense remote rabbit hole where no-one ever ventures and all logic evaporates. The tree keeps up its frenetic rhythm against the pane. Suddenly the room door pushes open an’ the cat darts oot like a bullet an’ ah feel the slightest draught fight its way into the stagnant space. Ma muther must huv realised he’d been away too long tae the toilet. Her knowledge of male predatory threats alert from his earlier coarse comments, she quickly enters the room efter side-steppin’ the cat. She’s in a controlled state of agitation, as she gusts in. Ah’d never been so relieved tae see her. It mibbe wid huv been best tae scream paedo fae the rooftops but, aware ma da wis currently in a paralytic other dimension, she humours the bastard lest his fragile ego become too damaged and he attack us baith. Ah can see her clockin’ the scene, disgust mingled with fear, an’ recognition o’ his intentions darken her brow. ‘C’moan H….., oot o’ here’, she politely but firmly ushers him oot the room afore his flustered sense of bein’ caught in the act wears aff. Only at this point do ah let maself greet as ah venture intae the hall, find Smokey and hug her close. Ah don’t remember the sequence of events efter ma muther goat the scumbag oot ma room, but she must huv managed to steer him an’ his wife doon the stairs and oot the hoose no’ long efter that. Back tae the façade o’ their faimily life, his knuckles draggin behin’ him like some descendent o’ Hyde. Daylight won’t beam benignly upon a refined Jekyll, but he’ll dae his best tae pass as decent n’ salt o’ the earth, sleekitly awaitin’ whitever opportunity comes knoackin’ fur him tae pounce oan some ither poor unsuspectin’ wee lassie. But ah’m fair warned; it’ll never be me. That Ne’er Day brought a different view fae ma usual glaikit wean look at thi world; as a lassie ah recognised somethin’ different about how the world saw me, how it measured me. It was a man’s world an’ whitever they grasped within their reach wis fur the takin’. A novel sense of no’ bein’ in charge o’ ma ain space, o’ ma ain destiny struck me; just as ah wis startin’ to look oot intae the world as a future wumman, it returned a violent admonishment that ah wid hiv restrictions and curfews and boxes, and that would make the world fur the likes o’ me less … jist less. Whit message does it send tae a fledglin’ wumman that the world disnae belang tae you, you’re jist a product? A body in service?

The next mornin’ ah’m awakened tae the sounds of eardrum-shatterin’ screechin’. She’s screamin’ at ma faither aboot it noo he’s sobered up and roarin’ aboot how he couldnae bite his ain’ finger nails he wis that pissed, so whit guid wis he tae women in danger in their ain’ fuckin’ hoose? Women? Ah’m just a wean. Later, when ah’m up an’ aboot, neither o’ them discuss it wi’ me or ask how ah’m daen, given the trauma ah suffered the night afore. Neither o’ them warn against any future hazards a teenage girl emergin’ into young womanhood might encounter. I’m twelve, nearly thirteen. Silence isnae always golden. Ignorance totally isnae fuckin’ bliss. Misplaced refinement, awkward embarrassment, parental immaturity, or fuck knows whit perpetuated a conspiracy o’ great British silence roon’ onythin’ tae dae wi’ addressin’ real human issues heid oan.

By the time ah’m aff tae uni in 1990, ah’ll feel a low life fur abandonin’ Smokey. But ma da becomes her favourite efter that, an’ he goes aboot carryin’ her like a baby when she’s in the gairden wi’ him. Ah’ll visit some weekends and holidays, but she’ll get aulder an’ die afore ah graduate and that loss will land a body blow as the last vestige of childhood security evaporates an’ a sense of hame fades.

The fuckin weirdo wid huv raped me, if muther hidnae stoaped him.
Aye, that’s true, ma muther nodded, clearly way out of her comfort zone. Repression punctuates nuclear families, like a stiflingly close humidity oblivious to thunder’s proximity.
Where wis I?, my other brother’s ego slighted, diminishing my experience in favour of his threatened machismo.

As yet unvisited skylines alter embarked paths for those who, having been scathed, teeter over life’s pitfalls and abysses, but step back stumblingly sure-footed from that void and triumphantly chart different trajectories.

Fiona McCulloch has poems in Northwords, Issue 3 and, after a 20-odd year or thereabouts hiatus, MIR Online, Lumpen: A Journal for poor and Working-Class Writers, Dreich, and Fragmented Voices. She also has a short story in Lumpen. An independent scholar, she also writes critical books and journal articles. Born and raised in Scotland, she currently lives in Manchester.
The image is Rowan (186467993).jpeg, posted to Wikimedia by Ivan under a Creative Commons Attribute licence.

The Roses and the Weeds, by Elinora Westfall


Ollie talks.

Not that Gillian listens. She’s too absorbed in the mundane task of fastening her bra, a simple action frustrated by a twinge of back pain, a lingering stiffness in her shoulder, and her own condemning thoughts: You’re getting too old to shag in a van.

Apparently, she’s not getting too old for Ollie, though, because he keeps coming back for more; she’s continually mystified, flattered, and unable to resist. He’s too beautiful. He is too close to physical perfection.

Despite this however her interactions with him frequently disappoint. Her sexual and aesthetic experience diminishes substantially with the inevitable occurrence of one very simple thing: he speaks.

She wishes that she had kept a written record of all the epic bloody nonsense that has come out of his mouth over the years because she could have gained some kind of minor social media fame and parleyed a book deal out of it to boot: Shit My Stupid Shag Buddy Says. It occurs to her that as far as sordid shag buddies go, she has run the gamut from an Oxford graduate to this: the man who thought that when his sister was pregnant with twins, she’d be pregnant for eighteen months rather than nine. It’s her typical anti-accomplishment: from the gutter to the stars and back again.

As Ollie blathers about football he leans over to tie his trainers and this singular movement initiates a glorious symphony of muscle and flesh in stirring, magnificent counterpoint with one another. She longs to trace the perfect trapezoid muscles within reach but doesn’t, knowing that he would interpret this as an overture for a second go-round, which she’s not really up for because of the pulled muscle in her lower back and various other reasons that she won’t let herself think about.

So, she lets him go on and on about Liverpool and the proliferation of their bloody stupid fans up North.

“They’re everywhere,” he says, “everywhere! I don’t get it. I mean, there must be a Brazilian of them here.”

Gillian successfully resists the urge to bang her head on the side of the van. “Don’t you think?” He gazes up at her.

Aw, bless, he’s trying to engage her in conversation; it would be touching if it weren’t so pathetic. “A Brazilian,” she says flatly. She rubs her aching shoulder and pulls on the hideous yellow work apron; she has to give the cafe credit for picking the one colour that makes all pasty white people look like utter shite.

“Yeah. You know. Like a lot. Like more than a million?” Ollie rolls his eyes. “Know maths is not your strong suit, Gillian, but Jesus, everyone knows that.”

“It’s billion.” Gillian enunciates with a certain sarcastic slowness that immediately reminds her of Vita, and that makes her want to slam her head against the van until she is unconscious. “You mean billion. Not Brazilian.”

He’s sceptical. “You sure?”

“A Brazilian is a person. From Brazil,” she forces out the point between clenched teeth, “the country.”

The light-bulb goes off over Ollie’s handsome head, offering only a bare minimal illumination of knowledge.

“Oh. Right, right.” He nods vigorously. “Okay. Yeah. That makes sense.” Slow, graceful, and lazy, he pulls on his shirt. “We doing this again next week, maybe?”

“Maybe,” she lies, and ties the apron at her back with stiff fingers, catching a hangnail on the waistline of her jeans; she wore jeans to work today and amazingly Claud didn’t call her out on it. Ollie said it was because she looked stunning in them. He rarely compliments her, so she figures it must be true. Again, she thinks of Vita, who once said – you should always wear jeans, it ought to be the law of the land – woozily stated after one nap, two orgasms, and three glasses of wine, so she was feeling uncharacteristically munificent that day. And again, she wishes she would stop thinking of Vita, at least immediately after shagging idiots.

Ollie laughs. “It’s weird. You’re really like a bloke sometimes.” He pulls a face. “Shit, that sounds really gay, doesn’t it?”

She stares at the abandoned used condom on the floor of the van — flaccid, sad, and inanimate as if it were the eviscerated hydro-skeleton of some strange jellyfish.

“Yeah. It does.” She grabs her jacket, pushes at the van’s heavy door with her good shoulder, and she’s free. For the moment, anyway.

At home, the windows are fogged up with steam from the beef stew she’s reheating on the Aga. She’s staring at her own reflection, sullied and blurry, hair all over the bloody place, curling about her jaw, slipping out from her poor excuse for a ponytail. An unremarkable colour at the best of times, but in this steam bleached reflection it is even more limp, even more of a non-colour – an insipid pale brown with a fleck of early grey. And her eyes, staring back at her like the eyes of a ghost, almost too pale to see, almost the same colour as the sky.

“What’s this?” Her dad pipes up. He’s fishing for something in the drawer of the kitchen dresser.

She turns around. “What’s what?”

He’s holding a champagne cork. “Taittinger’s? When were you drinking Taittinger’s?” He laughs, his eyes twinkle.

Oh, you — stupid slapper, stroppy trailer trash, foul-mouthed slattern. Who do you think you are? Someone worthy of fine champagne?

It’s not the kind voice of her father, but the voice of the past that fills her head so unexpectedly.

It’s been said that the past is another country; in Gillian’s case, it is more than that. It is an enemy combatant. Any object that could possibly function as a passport into this hostile territory runs the risk of emotional high treason and as such is mercilessly discarded. When she turned 30 (nine whole years ago…) she trashed or burned nearly everything sentimental. Including herself. But there were clothes, photos, keepsakes, a napkin with a heart drawn on it from a first official date, all consigned to the flames or the rubbish heap. The cork is an emissary from a different part of the past, however, and she should have got rid of it but couldn’t. Not yet anyway. The cork, the same one she absently touched to her lips that night as she stood in Room 503 of the Belgravia Hotel, fully clothed and ready to leave but unable to as she helplessly stared down at Vita, sprawled face down on the bed in a dead sleep.

Oh, you…

Gillian jams a wooden spoon into the dense, beefy glop of stew, which plops ominously like a volcano stirring from a dormancy of a thousand years.

“Don’t remember when.”

“Looks recent.” He turns the cork over in his hand.

“Bloody cork expert now, are you?” She throws him a sideways glance through the steam and he smiles at her, that sweet smile that always gets her right in the chest. You’d better not ever bloody die. She thinks. A thought so often passing through her head that it had now become a sort of mantra; something she had to think daily to save his life.

He gives a vague nod of his head, amusement behind his eyes as he places the cork carefully back into the drawer.

The front door opens, the hall floorboards creak, and for the briefest of moments she feels the gritty unevenness of those floorboards against her bloody cheek, and hears that voice in her head: God it was fun breaking you, Gillian.

“Granddad,” Ryan drops a school bag down by the leg of the dining table and claps a hand over his granddad’s shoulder.

“What’s for dinner?”

She feels his presence behind her. She wants to turn and hug him, draw him close and apologise for everything; for the stew, for the bad weather, for not knowing who his father was…for being such a disappointment.

“Thought you ate at school?” She says instead.

She hears him groan, can just about make out his reflection behind her in the window.

“Bloody salad.”

He wraps his arms around her waistline and she swats at his wrists with her free hand.


Her dad hums sympathetically from the corner of the room.

“What’s news?” She asks absently, glancing at him before turning to the washing up in the sink.

“The usual.” He shrugs. He’s wearing the hoody she bought him for Christmas.

“Sounds fascinating,” she says, mouth full affectionate sarcasm as she notices the holes in his cuffs.

“Actually, there is a bit of news, about our hermit next-door neighbour.”

She feels the skin just above the veins in her wrist begin to buzz and she plunges her hands into the too-hot water.

“Vita?” She doesn’t know why she’s asking; they only have one neighbour for miles around.

“So, what’s the news?” She prompts while Ryan nods through a gulp of coke from a bottle she hadn’t noticed he was holding.

“Looks like she’s got herself a girlfriend.”

Gillian is glad she’s facing the window. She waits for the sky and the land to do their usual trick of calming her, bringing her peace. She studies the thin band of clouds frosting the blue sky, the way the wind presses into the long, faded grass. She squeezes the steel wool pad in her hand. Watery brown gunk from the pot she’s been scrubbing surrenders to the drain, and she predicts by the end of the week she’ll have to take apart the pipes again to work out the clog. Didn’t expect her to remain on the market forever, did you? Despite the fact that she was a middle-aged woman…. a widow, a posh bitch, a recluse…

Put like that, Gillian asks herself, why are you so keen on her, you dozy cow?

She dries her hands with a towel and turns around. Keeping her hands busy always settles her nerves. She can tell by the way Ryan looks at her that he’s waiting for her to trot out some smart-arsed remark, some homophobic put-down.

“Good,” she says softly. She clears her throat and tries it again—this time firmer and louder, and almost convinces herself. “That’s good.”

“You met her?” Her dad asks from the dresser. He’s left the drawer open. She stares at it, unblinking, while Ryan answers.

“Briefly. She was leaving when we showed up. They were kind of giggly together. It was cute.”

Gillian twirls the limp, damp dish-towel into a sinewy rope and attempts fashioning a hangman’s noose out of it.

“She seems cool. Didn’t talk to her for long but she was funny, smart. Her name is Sacha. Works in finance or something. There was an article on her and her family in the Courier yesterday — Clarissa was telling me, God, I think even Clarissa likes her — anyway, the family’s really posh and they set up some new scholarship fund for, you know, ‘underprivileged students’.” Ryan employs the good old air quotes around the phrase — a Vita sarcasm speciality, and again Gillian suspects that he has a crush on Vita, even as she simultaneously acknowledges the fierce irrationality of her ridiculous jealousy. At this pathetic moment, she is even jealous of the Jeep Cherokee she sees parked in Vita’s drive every morning, jealous of it for its close proximity to its owner, not to mention the front seat.

Oh, Christ, you are bananas.

“Maybe you should apply,” her dad says.

“I’m not underprivileged. Right, Mum?”

Gillian hums absently.



Amused, Ryan smirks. “Why are you making a noose with the dish-towel?”

Her dad propels himself from the edge of the dresser. “My cue to leave, before she gets any ideas.”

Oh, that joke isn’t funny anymore.

“I’ll join you.” Ryan follows his granddad from the room. Gillian hears the creak of the sofa as they sit down in the sitting room, a pause, then the welcome murmur of the television.

She fishes for her phone in the pocket of her jeans, flicks the screen on and hits Google…

This is what she has become… someone who stalks a former shag buddy with whom you have the grave and stupid misfortune of being in love. It’s exhausting. She yawns. After a good ten minutes, she is finally online and hopping to the Courier’s website, where the fluff piece on Vita’s new woman is found easily enough.

In Gillian’s mind, there are two types of English woman: The Roses and the Weeds. Vita, of course, is a Rose: pale and elegant, seemingly perfect, secretly thorny, and bitchily unrepentant when blood is drawn. She herself is, of course, a sturdy English Weed: tough, available, and usually trampled upon by blokes in obsessive pursuit of the Roses. Ollie alone is proof of the paradox. When they weren’t shagging, they were drinking and talking about Vita; a shared loathing of the same woman bonded them more than sex ever did.

But Jennifer Elena Sacheverell Easley Parmenter — Jesus Christ, Gillian thinks, what kind of person needs five fucking names? — is a voluptuous variation on the Weed: A bit horsey-looking but well-groomed, well-dressed, and possessing abundant dark locks a la Nigella Lawson. Not to mention big tits. No, she is not a common English Weed, this lady’s not for trampling. She’s the weed that will wrap with luxurious abandon around everything in a garden till it’s hers, that will scale the stone walls of the mansion until her wild garlands smother everything in sight. In the photo, she’s smiling handsomely, about ready to burst out of her blouse, and sandwiched between two happy teenagers and a man, whom Gillian is pretty certain she might have shagged.

Gillian reads on. Jennifer is a CEO of a digital music company. Even though she and her fucking ex-husband, a fucking barrister, both went to fucking Cambridge. Her fucking father is a fucking marquis and — here Gillian dies a little — her fucking Italian mother is a fucking “member of the distinguished, aristocratic Milanese family” that includes the filmmaker Luchino Fucking Visconti.

Defeated, she leans back in the chair. Sure, great. That’s just great. She manages one final, rallying thought: can Jennifer single-handedly replace a toilet? Plumb in a washing machine or rewire a house? Bet not. Top that, bitch. “Fucking slag.”

Gillian does not realize she’s said this aloud until Ryan calls loudly from the couch: “Who’s a fucking slag?”

“The Queen,” she shouts back.

“Too right. Always thought she was a bit tarty with all those hats.”

She scowls, realizes her mother was right so many years ago when she still had possession of at least a few marbles: someday you’ll have one of your own, and they’ll be mouthing off to you the way you do to me, and you’ll be sorry then. She is very sorry indeed. About a lot of things, but not that.

Elinora Westfall is British/Australian actress, writer and filmmaker living in the UK.
The image is ‘L’étiquette d’une bouteille de champagne : une cuvée « Comtes de Champagne » de la maison Taittinger, millésime 1966’, posted to Wikimedia by Trace.
Rooster by Nikzad Noorpanah

Rooster, by Nikzad Nourpanah


Our office is busier than I’d like it to be. We had meeting after meeting. Ramin attended the first one as well and handled most of the talking. I slumped at the back of the conference room at such an angle as not to be noticed, fiddling with my phone. Tea. Biscuits. Followed by a small plate with cucumbers and apples. I ate two cucumbers; peeled both of them with one of the blunt knives, property of the company. The cucumbers had turned a bit soft and it was difficult to peel them neatly. The knives weren’t made for this task either; cucumber juice oozed and trickled on my wrist. I cleaned it with my sleeve, before it reached the leather strap of my watch. The only good thing about the day was that there was a saltshaker nearby. I cleared my chest, while slipping my hand beside engineer Davoodi to get the saltshaker. Both cucumbers were watery and slimy. By the end of the meeting, I had drunk two more cups of tea. Ebrahim was constantly serving tea.

After the meeting, I told Ramin, ‘You spoke well. You showed them who’s boss!’ ‘Why were you so quiet?’ he said, ‘you should’ve taught them a lesson, too!’ After this pointless exchange, we returned to our office.

I didn’t join the colleagues for lunch. I hadn’t even bothered to get lunch coupons for the whole month of October. All the food from the eateries around the office makes me sick. I believe our firm has handpicked the most disgusting options for us. I’ve brought two sandwiches from home. Willie cream cheese and scrambled eggs. I made these using Nastaran’s sandwich-maker – part of her dowry. It’d been collecting dust for four years until I started using it last month. Once, I advertised it on Deevar classified ads website, but nobody was interested. Someone offered to take it for free. She said she was working in charities, helping newlyweds to build a life. I told her, this sandwich maker belongs to my wife, and if I give it away for cheap, she’ll kill me. And it’s a great sandwich maker. It’s new. It’s German. Or at least that’s what’s written on the box. I was careful to keep the box. I don’t have the stamina to deal with Nastaran’s complaints if I throw away the box of her Braun sandwich maker. She’s looking for an excuse to have a go. She articulates the issue once, and then a bout of silence follows, and after a few days, as you start to believe she’s gotten over it, she resurrects the corpse of the problem. This is her method. She’s not impulsive, she has a gradual tactic that works through patience and perseverance, and finally ripens and explodes.

Ramin insisted I go out for lunch with him. I showed him my sandwiches. He swiftly picked one and finished it off with two bites. ‘This is an appetiser!’ Ramin said, ‘Come on! Today is Gheimeh Stew Day at Khatoon’s!’ When he finally realised I’m serious in my refusal, he said, ‘At least ask Nastaran to cook you a proper meal for god’s sake; she’s a good cook!’

‘She only cooks when her father is around, the beloved colonel!’ I laughed. ‘Otherwise, she has a diet milkshake.’

After lunch, Davoodi treated all four of us in our partition to ice cream. He had bought a new car: a cheap Iranian-manufactured Renault which the National Auto Industries sell at twice the price of the French original to us tame and law-abiding citizens. Davoodi’s treat was spot on, my snack was definitely not enough, and I could hear my stomach rumbling just an hour after my light lunch. The saffron ice cream sandwiched between two wafers helped. Afterwards, Ramin and I went out to have a cigarette, and Ebrahim brought us some tea. My teeth were hurting. Our poor teeth. Mine are a mess. I’ve been using Sensodyne toothpaste to alleviate the sensitivities; although it’s been getting more and more difficult to find the original one since the sanctions. I know it’s my own fault. The status quo is always our own fault. The product of our own stupidity. I clenched my jaw.


Yesterday, I went to see my therapist after work. It’s every two weeks now. Like the past few sessions, I bumped into Sarvenaz in the waiting room. Ramin’s wife. The first few times, it was awkward. A friendly greeting, and a few surprised glances, that was all. I haven’t told Nastaran I have started therapy again. There was no reason to. Dr Hakim Zadeh has also been helping me a lot with asserting my boundaries. He didn’t tell me not to tell my wife for good, but he said it should be my decision, and I should do it only when I feel comfortable to do so. There is no rush, and no rule either. ‘Respect yourself!’ he said. And when I said, ‘I get worried when I hide things from my wife,’ he associated it with my numerous fears. Fear of everything. Fear of my wife is only one of them. He mentioned other stuff as well, but I don’t know if it’s all correct. He’s even asking me to contemplate my relationship with Ramin. I have no idea why. Perhaps, because I’ve mentioned him a few times in our sessions. I told him he’s my colleague, but didn’t say that his wife is one of his patients as well. Has Sarvenaz told Ramin she comes to the shrink? The last time there was a soirée in their house, she and I exchanged a meaningful glance, but neither of us mentioned anything about the therapy sessions. One has to be tactful, this is the right way to behave amongst these judgmental people. But yesterday in the waiting room, I talked a bit more with Sarvenaz. She’d also come straight from work. I mentioned that Nastaran has started her English language classes again, then giggled. Thank god, Sarvenaz didn’t embarrass me and laughed, too. Then we ended up talking about immigration and the whole process. I said I’d have to start my English language classes, again. I need a score of 7 in IELTS, and our immigration lawyer says this one item cannot be messed with, it’s one of the most important criteria. I said Nastaran has threatened that she wouldn’t have children in this fucked up country, only in the holy soil of Australia. I felt close to Sarvenaz, albeit slightly nervous. I felt like talking more to her about having kids; and then stopped myself from telling Sarvenaz that I suspect that last year’s miscarriage was on purpose. It was on the tip of my tongue, but I bit it back. I didn’t want to spill out all my private life like some simpleton. You have to be tactful. I’ve come here, spending so much money to talk about all these things with a therapist. But once it was my session, I didn’t tell him anything either, like the previous sessions. Instead, I ranted about my childhood and the city I grew up in, Qom. About my father’s rice shop, its smell, the rows of fat hemp bags full of rice in the cellar, and how he used to mix cheap and premium in that dark cellar and feel smart. About my little brother. Hakim Zadeh wasn’t listening. He was staring at the framed print of Freud’s house, with its Bakhtiari carpet.

I wasn’t too busy at work. That’s how I like it. I counted my cigarettes. One at 10 am. One at 2 pm. One at 5, after work. I had an unlit cigarette hanging from my mouth as I was leaving the office. The guards gave me a nasty glance. To hell with them! Rabid dogs. I told them once that this is not a state-owned firm, so they have no right to take it out on us. One of them said, ‘Dear engineer, but it’s not a fully private firm either!’ and they barked with laughter. Guards of hell.

Ramin sorted out our tickets for next week. He went back and forth to the admin a few times, flirted with the secretary, then afterwards murmured joyously in my ears, ‘the office guesthouse is full, so I asked them to book us Hotel Homa instead!’ ‘Well done!’ I told him, and we fist bumped. Then he reiterated not to forget our Friday night plans. Of course I wouldn’t, how could I? What fun do I have other than these Friday night hangouts? Then putting on a sad face, he asked me not to bring my dog, ‘because Sarvenaz is allergic.’ It’s obvious he’s lying. He’s terrified of dogs. I don’t give a fuck. Pablo is my dog, and honestly I don’t care at all if others like him or not. Plus, when I was in the therapist’s waiting room, Sarvenaz asked me many questions about adopting a dog and the costs and everything. It was clear she was curious and thinking about bringing a pet herself.

I was relieved when Ramin told me the guesthouse was all full. Last year, we stayed there for two weeks. Upon my return back home to Tehran, Nastaran burst in tears, and told me about her miscarriage. My bag fell on the floor. I still remember the dull thud. She told her story, then calmed down, saying it didn’t hurt much. With all this rather unreliable history, I’m happy I won’t have to return to that horrid guesthouse again. Who knows, otherwise this time upon my return Nastaran might’ve handed me Pablo’s head on a silver plate.


After work I was dashing to get out and just then the guards harassed me again. They said my shirt is too tight, they said it’s ‘fashion’. I lost it. I held my belly with five fingers and nervously said, ‘how is this fashion? I’ve gotten fat, so the shirt sticks to my body, don’t you understand? And this is because you give us shit food here!’ One of the guards tried to calm me down. ‘We’re just doing our job, following the rules. The ladies have complained.’ And then he added jokingly, ‘dear engineer, you do know this place is not completely private, it’s ‘privastate’ as we call it…’ and then burst into laughter at their own stupid wordplay, spraying his saliva on my face. Last year, they also harassed me for wearing sandals with no socks.

On my way home, I went to Park Laleh, and did a few rounds at a fast pace, thinking it’d do as a workout. My armpits got drenched in sweat. The inferno guards were right; my shirt was really tight. Then I walked up Amir Abad. The main pavement was blocked due to construction works. I jumped into the street. A bus honked in my ears and passed me by in a hostile way. Perhaps, it wasn’t hostile, and it was my own fault. But either way, my Dorsa satchel and along with it my wrist got dragged a bit. I was so shocked I couldn’t even insult the bastard bus driver. Thank god nothing worse happened. Several passers-by came to check on me, but soon they realised it was nothing serious, and dispersed. How could they tell it was nothing ‘serious’? My heart was jumping out of my chest. In the convenience store, my wrist started to hurt. And also my darling satchel had a scratch; I rubbed it with saliva and the right cuff of my ‘fashion’ shirt, but the scratch didn’t disappear. I took a can of Rani with peach pulps and a pack of Camel Ultra Lights. But couldn’t remember the PIN for my bank card. I rummaged through both pockets for cash but didn’t find any. I was going to put the Rani back in the fridge, but the shop keeper said, ‘don’t bother, I’ll do it myself.’ What a rude asshole. I left the shop.

As I was walking home, I massaged my wrist and my still thumping heart. Nastaran wasn’t going to be home until later. I had a nap and then at dusk took Pablo to the tiny triangular park around the corner. Poor boy was so happy! I feel so guilty about keeping this poor creature in this claustrophobic flat, in this hideous city. I told him, wait until you see the huge parks of Sydney. Spacious. Hundred-year-old trees. With kangaroos and squirrels jumping around. Although I haven’t actually seen the parks myself, and honestly, I’m not dying to see them either. Qom, Tehran, Sydney. If it was up to me, I would flush all the three down the toilet. Except that I think I’d be able to buy original Sensodyne in Sydney. Other than that, the empty corners of Park Laleh are enough for me. With Pablo… No leash… At night-time, suitably stoned, when it’s quiet and there aren’t many people around. The truth is, I haven’t even digested my move from Qom to Tehran. All these years have passed since the first year of uni, and still Tehran seems alien to me. How would I be able to deal with another move then? To Sydney…

Sometimes, I think I need to talk to Hakim Zadeh about my recent interest in weed. And the fact that I haven’t told Nastaran about it. She must’ve noticed though. My red eyes? But this one has an easy excuse. Tehran’s pollution. My short attention span? My mutilated sentences? But this has always been a chronic trait of mine. Also, I don’t think she would care that much. In turn, I don’t bother with all her fashionista and influencer hype on Instagram. But then Hakim Zadeh might relate all this to my surreptitious tendency of keeping secrets. A person who has a secret wants to hide something; wears a mask. Eventually he’ll relate it to Freud or Lacan and spit out a quote. Jacques Lacan; with an emphasis on the soft French ‘J’ as if they’d been old mates. Recently, I have started to read Irwin Yalom. I want to learn to argue with Hakim Zadeh. I hate the fact that he’s the Wise Man, sitting up there, analysing me, seeing through me. And as to that, giving often cheesy analyses and insights really. He bores me. With that closed collar of his. This time, after our fifth or sixth session, I wanted to quit, but the thing is Sarvenaz is still going, so, maybe his sessions do actually help after all? On Tuesday, I waited for Sarvenaz, and we went to Café Koocheh in Yousef Abad. Close to both of us, to Amir Abad, and to Golha Square. At first, I kept my head down, I didn’t know why I was there. Sarvenaz stretched her legs, and I noticed her plump white Nike trainers. I wish Nastaran would wear a pair like these instead of those old-fashioned high heels. And she thinks she’s good at fashion. With her silly Instagram clothes shop, or ‘boutique’ as she calls it. I told all this to Hakim Zadeh. He suggested couple therapy. I didn’t respond.

Friday (weekend)

I woke up at 6 in the morning. I couldn’t believe it. Even on workdays, I sleep more than this. I got out of bed and gave Pablo his food, which he wolfed down in a second, and then licked the bowl clean with his wide pink tongue. My head heavy due to last night’s silly soirée. After a certain point, I stopped losing count of how many drinks I downed. I could only hear Ramin’s roars of laughter. The women were behaving, though. As always. Nastaran is looking after her skin. She doesn’t do anything extreme. Sarvenaz says alcohol doesn’t agree with her. What about weed? Perhaps, next time, after seeing our therapist, I’ll ask her in the café, and maybe even share a spliff on our way back home.

After dinner Nastaran and Sarvnaz went to the kitchen to do the dishes. Ramin prodded his arm against the counter, telling funny anecdotes about the office. Hotel Homa was also mentioned. I shouted from the living room, ‘Well done, Ramin! You did amazing, that fucking guesthouse makes me sick.’ Then I got up and joined him. I took a photo of the two women as they were washing the dishes, their backs to us. Ramin was staring at Nastaran’s back as he was fiddling with his glass. Perhaps at his wife’s back? But logically, it would’ve been Nastaran’s back. No matter how sculpted, he had seen his wife’s back all these years. Other than this, last night was pointless.

Nasataran’s parents came to ours for lunch. Before their arrival, I rushed to move my car to the street, so there would be space for colonel’s Toyota Corolla in the garage. Yesterday, I purchased a family pack of chicken thighs from Shahrvand supermarket. Nastaran was going to cook Zereshk Polo, because dear colonel loves Zereshk Polo. I love it, too. But it was almost noon time and we hadn’t done anything yet. The plan changed. We decided to order kebab from the local eatery, Sabalan, but make the rice and salad at home. I put the pack of chicken in the freezer immediately. I knew from the moment I purchased that chicken that Nastaran wouldn’t be cooking it. I started with Salad Shirazi, and Nastaran kept complaining that the cucumbers were too big, and ‘dad’ wouldn’t like it. I wanted to say I don’t give a fuck. Instead, I slid the knife on the counter top and told her ‘Please, you do it then.’ Of course, she didn’t do it. I have no idea how to describe these small frictions to Hakim Zadeh. I don’t know how to articulate that they are ruining me. I worry he’d say, so what? This is life. This is what marriage is like. I think I hate Hakim Zadeh.

The colonel didn’t eat even a single piece of the lamb tenderloins, even though we insisted a lot. He said he can’t because of his gout. Nastaran’s mother also complained about the traffic from their posh neighbourhood in north Tehran on the way to ours. I said there’s hardly any traffic on Friday at noon. The oldie is going deaf I think. She just continued the same old complaints. Why don’t you move near us? The air is fresher, the people are better, and so on and so forth. I explained that Amir Abad is near my work. I explained that I’m an office boy, an engineer. Told her about the rituals of taking Pablo to Park Laleh. And then I jokingly added, if it’s about distance, we would have to move to Qom, near my parents. Nastaran, don’t you agree? Perhaps, we should move to Qom? I teasingly poked her with my finger. It was like poking a stone. Nastaran didn’t even blink. Pablo was sniffing colonel’s socks, and colonel was batting him away, as he was describing the magnificent trained Dobermann’s of the Shah’s royal army. Finally, I shouted, ‘Pablo, stop it! You motherfucker!’ Nastaran hissed and turned pale. Sudden silence. Soon after they said goodbye and left.

In the evening, Nastaran shouted at me, ‘I’ve told you a thousand times to be polite in front of my parents. Haven’t I?’ She was right. And then she continued, ‘What’s all this nonsense about Qom? Firstly, we’re going to Australia, secondly, your precious mother never ever recognised me as family, perhaps, because I’m three years older than their prince charming!’ She was right. I explained that my parents are just old-fashioned people, but there’s nothing in their heart. ‘There is nothing in their brains either,’ Nastaran said, ‘apart from spider webs and a bit of tradition.’ ‘Please don’t disrespect my parents,’ I muttered. I didn’t say I’ve just realised after four years, that our marriage was a mistake. I haven’t even told Hakim Zadeh. In fact, I don’t even know what I talk about in his office. I’d promised myself to tell the truth during my therapy sessions. But the truth just doesn’t come out.


All morning until the afternoon, I listened to Rolling Stones at work. I listened to ‘Little Red Rooster’ on repeat. I was almost dancing while at my desk. A few times, I sang along, I’m the little red rooster… Davoodi asked a few times, ‘What’s up with you? You seem very happy! Strange, you’re always so gloomy on the first day of the week!’ After lunch, he took off his shoes as usual and massaged his left foot with the ball of his right foot. My workload was light. As for Monday, Ramin had arranged everything. I just clicked on Hotel Homa’s website and looked at its photos. I wished it were hot, and I could go to the pool. I wasn’t happy. In fact, I was anxious. I don’t know why. Ramin had convinced the firm to book us with Iran Air. The safe ‘western’ fleet of Iran Air, not the budget airlines with their dodgy ex-Soviet aircraft. Our trip was only two days. I wished I could take Pablo with us, and then it could last for two weeks… Two months… The longer the better. I’d throw his tennis ball into the water, and he’d jump into that beautiful azure of the Hotel Homa pool. Then he’d shake himself, and when he would return the ball dripping with saliva, it would have been as if he was giving me the whole kingdom of the world.

How did it come to this? I don’t remember when I started waning. Perhaps, after the miscarriage of Fariborz. I was an idiot to give a name and gender to a one-month-old blood clot. Hakim Zadeh says I’m a pessimist. He says even my mourning for a blood clot was not authentic, was distorted. ‘You were mourning something else.’ But what? I don’t know. I just know I loathe my current life.

The sun disappeared early. I was still in our offices, but outside the sky was grey. I glanced at Ramin, he was minding his own business. I took my phone, and looked at the photographs from the soirée again. I paused at the picture of the two women. I zoomed in on their buttocks. I coughed and played Little Red Rooster again:

Dogs begin to bark and hounds begin to howl
Watch out strange cat people
Little red rooster is on the prowl

Davoodi said, ‘Sorry, but could you please turn it down? We can hear it, too, you know?’ I stopped the music, then sent a cute dog video to Sarvenaz on Instagram. The night before, we didn’t have dinner. I’ve been doing all the cooking. I took out a few chicken nuggets from the fridge. By the time we’d returned from the triangular park, they’d defrosted. Amir’s nuggets are amazing. I have no idea how he makes the batter, but I can tell he uses a lot of garlic powder. I made salad. Chunky bits of lettuce, thick crescents of red onion, incidentally, from Qom which has the best onions, and generous splashes of olive oil. Nastaran didn’t eat the onions, she noted she had an ‘important’ meeting tomorrow and could not risk bad breath. She only had two nuggets, and even that after scrubbing away the delicious golden batter. After dinner, her plate looked horrid, like the remains of a war crime. I wish she hadn’t eaten the two nuggets at all, so I could wrap them in some Taftoon bread with lettuce and take to work for tomorrow’s lunch. After all these years, I still haven’t understood her food habits.

At night, I felt a sore throat developing. Before bed, I took Amoxicillin antibiotics to nip the flu in the bud. Monday was going to be the day of my work trip with Ramin, and I couldn’t travel sick. Before bed, as Nastaran was rubbing her face cream in circles, she said, ‘In Australia, you can’t just take antibiotics without a prescription. It’s forbidden.’ ‘Good night,’ I said, then took Yalom’s book from the bedside, ‘I’ll sleep later.’ I went to the living room and lay on the couch. Pablo sprawled by my feet. I could hear Nastaran stuffing a rolled towel under the bedroom door. Good for her. She quit smoking during the first year of our marriage.


My voice was gone this morning. I still went to work. I didn’t tell anyone I was feeling unwell and shook hands with them all. I croaked at Ebrahim to pour honey and lime in my tea if he had any, and bring me a cup every hour. ‘Are you ill?’ He asked. ‘No.’ What a nosey guy. My dad called me around midday, asking for money. Told me stuff about someone threatening to take action on one of his cheques. I said I don’t have any money. And I really didn’t. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have given it to him. Why should I help out this randy old rooster? I was set to leave high school when my youngest brother was born; we’re an army! Most of us in Qom. I told my dad to give my love to my mother, and quickly said goodbye, on the pretext of rushing to a meeting.

I really did have a meeting. I was counting on Ramin. He’s great at these meetings with the clients. He knows the ins and outs of our job. He’s sharper than me. Healthier than me. Always making the right decision. One such decision being Sarvenaz. Ramin looks like a gorilla, I have no idea how he ever chatted up Sarvenaz. Sarvenaz told me they also have immigration plans. I didn’t ask the details. I’m like this. If someone tells me something I listen empathically, otherwise, I don’t pry. Especially if that someone is Sarvenaz. Although I’m a bit surprised about Ramin not telling me anything about their immigration plans. I will talk about this to Hakim Zadeh next week. Perhaps, one has to be secretive like Ramin? These are the unwritten rules of this society: a bit of secrecy doesn’t hurt. If someone follows these simple rules, they wouldn’t be in need of Hakim Zadeh and the likes of him. In my opinion, nobody really needs Hakim Zadeh. With all his framed certificates on the wall. Psychoanalysis workshops in Bulgaria. Three-day workshops in Baku. And so on. A wall of awards. But Sarvenaz is happy with him. But then, Sarvenaz is generally happy. Anyone who’s with her would be happy too. I don’t know. This might be her exterior. Like her white trainers. Or her ‘gel’ green nail varnish. Like her loose white manteau, which was floating like a flag of hope in the breezy alley of the café.

Ebrahim brought my fourth cup of tea in the afternoon. I didn’t smoke because of my sore throat. It worked. I wanted to treat myself on the way back home. I was careful not to get run over by the buses again. I even gave nasty glances to a few drivers, but I don’t think they noticed. On my way out, Ramin reminded me not to be late. I wanted to meet him at Mehr Abad airport. But he insisted he come and pick me up, so we could go together. I accepted. As soon as I got home, I brought out my suitcase. Nastaran’s sandwich-maker’s cardboard box was stacked on top of it. I threw it back into the closet, but it tumbled back and landed at my feet. I stamped on it a few times without really knowing why. When the box was good and destroyed at last, I got tearful. Pablo picked up the smashed cardboard box and ran to the living room, thinking it was a new game we were playing.


Ramin arrived on time. He was at ours at 5 in the morning. It was still dark. The streets were empty, and the trees naked. There was a pleasant heat in his car. When I saw Azadi square, I got tearful again. I didn’t want to leave Tehran. I wanted to smoke, but didn’t want to stink up Ramin’s car. And there wasn’t a long way left to the airport. The empty departure halls. The guard at the entrance put his arms up to my crotch. It tickled. I laughed. He gave me a nasty look, but let me in nonetheless. Ramin suggested going to the cafeteria as usual. Without asking me, he ordered sausage and egg, tea and orange juice for both of us. Then saved the receipt to get the reimbursement from the company. I put two full spoons of sugar in my tea, more than usual. Ramin and I ate everything. We were both hungry. Then Ramin said, let’s leave before it gets late. I swallowed my pill with my orange juice. I said, ‘I need to go out to smoke.’ He said, ‘didn’t you see it’s getting crowded and they are frisking everyone madly?’ He was right. I took my suitcase and we both joined the queue. I could feel the sausages swirling in my stomach. A few soundless burps escaped me, but it was no use. I checked our boarding pass. Iran Air. Tehran to Bandar Abbas. Safe. The queue was moving slowly. I told Ramin, ‘please hold on to my suitcase, I’m nipping to the loo.’ ‘It might get late,’ he said, ‘wait until we get to the other side of the gates, the bathrooms are also cleaner.’ I shook my legs restlessly, ‘I can’t hold it any longer, you go, and I’ll join you very soon.’ Then I gently pushed him in the queue, and went towards the bathroom. When I was done, I peeked at the queue from afar, Ramin was showing his boarding pass. He turned his head. I hid behind a thick pillar. When I was sure he’d passed, I left the airport. I was cold. My coat was only enough for Bandar Abbas weather. Good for sitting by Hotel Homa’s pool. But I was defenceless against Tehran’s cold. Defenceless. When I got in a cab, I murmured to myself a few times, ‘defenceless’. Defenceless against what? Ramin texted me ‘WHERE ARE YOU??????!!!!!!!!!’ with this many exclamation and question marks. I didn’t open his message. I removed the sim card from my mobile. I asked the driver to drive towards Golha Square. Then I consoled myself by putting in my earphones and singing along:

If you see my little red rooster
Please drive him home

When we passed Azadi Square again, I wound down my window. I was hesitant about asking the driver to change his direction and take the highway to Qom. The air smelt like bus fumes. I wound up the window, and asked myself, ‘What is there in Qom? Are you mad?!’ I recalled my Sensodyne toothpaste was in the suitcase I had left with Ramin, and then thought that chalk paste was probably fake anyway. When we reached Ramin’s street, I asked the driver to stop. I thanked and paid him and got out of the car. My heart was bouncing out of my chest. I have no idea why I took off my shoes and threw them in the bin. My feet felt cold on the asphalt. Then I walked to No. 13. I took a few deep breaths. A pebble stuck to my sock. I rubbed my foot against the calf of my other foot to clean it. Simply, I was free. I pressed the bell with such compelling determination that I knew I’d never known it in my life before.

Nikzad writes literary fiction and nonfiction. His debut novel, ‘Disappearance’ was published by Rowzaneh (@rowzanehnashr) in Iran, and his most recent translations include The ‘Last Wolf’ by László Krasznahorkai and ‘Repetition’ by Peter Handke. He is working on his second novel, to be published in 2023 by Saless (@salesspublication).

His blog—running for almost 20 years now—gained a dedicated readership in the Iranian blogosphere of the late 2000s.

The short story Rooster was selected and won an award in the Tehran Short Story Competition, 2020.

This is Nikzad’s Twitter account—although it’s mostly in Persian:

Woollen socks (NZ issue 1970) - Sergeant - RNZAMC - ANZUK Singapore Forces - 1971-1974 Belonged to Sgt. Colin Whyte, Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, 1959-1971

Bobby, by Alison Theresa Gibson

Do you remember the day we met? You were driving a truck with CWA imprinted on the side. Country Women’s Association. Those do-gooding women doing good by sending a twenty-year-old girl through the long roads of northern New South Wales alone, in the name of supporting the troops. The fact that Sydney had just been bombed made them more determined to be visible, rather than more cautious with you and your life. The troops needed their muesli bars and their socks, and you had a driver’s license. If it were any other woman in that situation I would have said of course, get on with it. But you, with those pale hands clenching the steering wheel, peering down the dark highway while the ghostly bush pressed in on you, straining to sing your favourite songs over the engine just to keep yourself company – you shouldn’t have been there.

Of course, I was familiar with how oppressive the bush is for a woman alone at night. I had been driving for almost three hours myself, in that rusted up deathtrap I’d ‘borrowed’ from the red-faced farmer. I had thought I could make it to the coast before dark but the jangling of the engine turned into an ominous rattle and I had to pull over. It was fine, of course, I’ve slept in plenty of backseats, but it wouldn’t be my first choice.

I heard your truck approaching long before you would have seen me. I kept my head down, presuming whatever country lad was driving would think my car was abandoned and continue past. When your engine stopped I admit I panicked slightly. The silence was absolute once the engine ticked off and I had no idea who was behind the wheel. I kept my head down and listened. You opened the truck door. Cautiously, but softly too. Gently. Like a woman. You probably thought I was reckless, throwing myself out of a broken-down car in the middle of nowhere without knowing who was waiting for me. You had left the headlights on and they blinded me. You were behind the open driver’s door, sheltering in case I was a monster, but something about me kept you standing there. I’m not sure what it was: my dirty white cocktail dress, my bare feet, or maybe just a sense of loyalty to another woman out there alone. Whatever it was, I still remember your voice when you called to me from the darkness.

‘What’s happened to your car?’

You were nothing but a silhouette behind the headlights, but your voice was sweet, concerned, and something else. I had the distinct impression that you would try to fix the car and send me on my way. Already – after only five words – I knew I didn’t want that to happen.

‘I don’t know,’ I said, hopping forward, the tarmac rough on my bare feet. I went straight to the passenger door. The glow of the headlights cast your face into strange shadows, but your features were delicate and your hair was fine gold wisps. ‘Where are you heading?’

‘I’m staying in Byron Bay tonight – ’ you said.

‘Perfect.’ I opened the passenger door. I could see your trained politeness fighting your instinct, or perhaps CWA policy, not to let a stranger inside your vehicle.

‘What about your car?’

‘It’s not mine, darling.’ The affectionate word made you think I was glamorous, the dirtiness of my white cocktail dress an aberration in what must normally be a dazzling life.

I arranged a shawl around my shoulders as I settled into the passenger seat. The cabin smelled musty, but with a sweetness from your perfume. You pulled the door shut behind you, still with that gentleness as though you had to be careful not to hurt the giant metal truck. ‘I’m Bobby,’ I said, and held out my hand.

‘Silvie.’ It was like shaking hands with a child whose bones and muscles have yet to strengthen beneath their skin.

The truck roared as we took off along the highway.

‘Why are you going to Byron?’ you asked. I thought about lying, did you know that? I thought about making myself sound smaller, more stable, a person who would fit in the same world as those fragile hands gripping the steering wheel. But that’s never been my style.

‘My husband lives there.’

You tried to look at me from the corner of your eye and I knew what you were going to ask. I loved that I knew you so well, already.

‘Don’t you live there too, then?’

‘I don’t live anywhere, darling.’

You took a cigarette from a silver case that was propped beside the gearstick. You offered me one and I took it, even though they were too heavy for me. They’re the ones you can get with rations but I have ways of procuring lighter ones. Pre-war cigarettes make life feel normal again.

‘Are you married?’ I asked, when we had both wound down our windows and the truck was full of gushing air.


‘Why not?’

You picked at something in your front teeth, a scrap of tobacco perhaps.

‘All the men are at war,’ you said. Your hands shifted on the steering wheel and the engine whined as your foot grew heavier on the accelerator.

‘And so you work for the CWA,’ I said. It sounded judgemental, although I swear I didn’t mean it to. Perhaps I had just spent too much time alone.

‘I do. There are socks and muesli bars in the back and the troops need them.’

‘Hand-knitted socks?’

You nodded. I had guessed there were muesli bars because of the greaseproof paper you had left under the seat, but the socks were news to me. I scrabbled around in the dark behind our seats. I found a pair of long grey socks and pulled them onto my bare feet. They were knitted for a man and the rounded heel stuck out from my ankle like a growth but they were warm.

‘You can’t take those,’ you said.

‘My feet are cold.’

‘But it’s not like the muesli bars, they only get one pair each.’ One of your hands floated off the wheel like you wanted to pull the socks off me.

‘I’ll learn to knit when we get to Byron and I’ll make them fifty more pairs, how about that?’ I stuck my feet up on the dashboard. The wool was scratchy but soft and I knew they looked ridiculous with my dress but I didn’t care. You smiled.

‘The troops are in Sydney, not Byron,’ you said.

‘You’re driving all the way to Sydney?’

‘Yep.’ You straightened your shoulders a little, and I loved how proud of yourself you were.

‘Now that sounds exciting. I’d love a trip to Sydney, even if it is a bloody warzone right now.’ My feet were wiggling on the dashboard but you weren’t paying them any attention.

‘I wanted to join the Red Cross but they wouldn’t let me. I had TB a few years ago. If they had I would have been in Sydney this whole time.’

‘But then you wouldn’t have been available to drive the socks around!’ I lifted my feet to emphasise their vital role in the war effort.

‘It’s an important job, you know.’ You frowned at me and I was sorry for my teasing. ‘Someone has to do it.’

‘I’m sure someone does.’

As the silence stretched between us, I did what I always do: I started singing. You joined in, quietly, but you grew stronger and stronger until your voice carried over the engine. At Last. We sang together and I knew by the waver in your voice that singing on the open road was the most liberated you had ever felt.

The engine was whining louder again as you slowed down and turned off the highway. The headlights picked up a sign that said Welcome to Byron Bay. We meandered through small, dark streets. The nocturnal birds were loud, even over the truck. I wondered what had happened to the birds in Sydney, and if there were any watching over the burning harbour.

‘Where should I leave you?’ you said, and I wanted to say nowhere, let’s keep driving, but instead I said,

‘Oh, anywhere is fine.’

‘But where is your husband? Where are you staying?’ You were heading towards the beach. I didn’t know if you realised that the darkness ahead of us was the Pacific Ocean stretching to the horizon.

‘You know, the thing they don’t tell you when you get married is that you don’t actually have to live with your husband.’

‘But don’t you love him?’ There was something about how you said the word, love, that made me realise you had never felt it. It held only the sentiment of novels, a dash of Gone with the Wind, nights spent dreaming alone.

‘I love lots of people, darling.’ I reached over and you let me squeeze your hand where it lay relaxed on the gearstick. You were more comfortable here, in the small streets of a small town, than on the open highway.

‘I’m staying at the CWA hall, it should be down here.’ You peered through the windscreen.

I saw the hall a moment before you did. It was dark. No one had waited up for you, or even left a dimmed lamp on.

You turned off the engine and in the sudden silence you said, ‘I’m leaving early in the morning, but will you bring a pair of socks first thing to replace those ones?’

There was a shout and you jumped as a few figures hurried past on the darkened street. It was a shout of fun though, of mirth not danger.

‘Sure, darling, whatever you’d like.’ Perhaps you believed me, but I suspect not. You surely had me figured out at that point. I’m an open book, unlike you with your pale hands and monstrous truck.

We pulled ourselves from the truck and in the tangy, salty wind I held out my hand.

‘Thanks for the ride, darling.’

‘You could stay here, if you like,’ you said. You kept a grip on my fingers. Your mouth was a black blur in the pale moon of your face. ‘If you’re not staying with your husband, I mean. We could – talk – some more.’

‘Talking isn’t quite what I had in mind for tonight.’ You tried to pull your fingers away as a red flush crept into your cheeks but I held on. ‘You could come with me, if you’re not ready to go to sleep yet.’

Music and voices were drifting over to us from the street where the figures had wandered down. I knew the way. I knew what was waiting for us down there, but you didn’t. You glanced into the darkness, your fingers had turned limp in mine.

‘It’ll be fun,’ I said, keeping my voice soft so as not to startle you.

‘I didn’t know people still had fun.’

My heart broke a little for you then. So young, your adolescence spent in wartime, a country held by fear, driving highways you had no business navigating alone.

‘Oh darling, now you have to come with me! I can’t let you drive into a warzone without a night of wonder.’ I pulled you along and you came willingly. We linked arms and you let us walk slowly as I negotiated the road in my feet, clad only in hand-knitted wool.

The music and voices grew louder. Most of the houses on that street had open doors and windows and there were people, more people than I’m sure you had ever seen at eleven o’clock at night. Women and men in loose clothing with cigarettes dangling from their lips. A familiar voice called to me from a balcony and I called back but didn’t stop. The open doorway beckoned. I knew you would feel better once we were enclosed somewhere safe.

The Blues Shack was the first bar I ever went to, and I wanted to show it to you. I wanted you to experience it the way that I had, as somewhere exciting, oozing joy, and a safe place to experiment with who you might want to be.

The single room was packed with people and the three balconies were open to the night air. The sound of the ocean was a constant thrumming under the crowd. Hands clasped at me as I pulled you through the room, and I smiled and greeted and smiled again but I never let go of your hand, do you remember that? I kept you close to me. The air pressed in on us, thick with musty body odour and sweet alcohol. Jeremiah was thumping hard on the piano, his fingers making the noise of six hands instead of two. He caught my eye and winked. You started coughing from the cigarette smoke hanging over our heads and I wanted to blow it away from you, to let you breathe easier.

‘Will you have a drink?’ I asked, my mouth close to your ear so you could hear me.

‘Sure.’ I couldn’t hear you but I saw your lips make the shape of the word. One of your hands crept up to cover the CWA logo on your chest.

‘What will you drink, darling?’ I asked, tugging at your hand so the world could see the logo.

‘Oh,’ you looked panicked. ‘I don’t know!’ Some people would have faked nonchalance but not you.

A young man was nearby, facing us, and he caught my eye. He was closer to your age than mine, and had red hair. I lay a few fingers on his forearm and drew him closer.

‘Two sidecars, darling. If you wouldn’t mind.’

He watched my teeth as I smiled and then he turned to push his way towards the bar. A man appeared in the parting crowd and winked at me. I felt you looking at him, intrigued, but you became flustered when he winked at you. Your hands flew to your hair as though the wisps needed fixing.

‘Relax,’ I said, taking one of your hands in mine. Jeremiah had started a new song and I clicked along, knowing he had chosen it for me.

‘How do you know so many people if you don’t live here?’ you asked.

‘I visit a lot.’

‘Because of your husband?’

‘Because I like it here.’ I hummed along, hoping you would stop talking.

‘Doesn’t your husband mind you knowing all these other men?’

‘Too many questions, Silvie, just relax.’ It came out harsher than I intended, and I knew using your name instead of darling was an obvious rebuff. I felt guilty and kissed the back of your hand, but that made you look even more uncomfortable, and you pulled away.

‘Here you are!’ The young, red-haired man was at our side with our drinks.

‘You’re an absolute treasure,’ I said.

We cradled our drinks and surveyed the crowd. I saw a white shirt and green bowtie through the mass of bodies and was relieved to be distracted from your discomfort. ‘Gerald!’

There is something about Gerald’s height that means he always makes a good first impression, and that night was no different.

‘Bobby,’ he said, kissing my cheek. ‘You look delightful as always.’ He looked me up and down. ‘I particularly like the socks. And who’s this?’

‘Silvie is my newest friend.’ I took your hand again. ‘She’s driving to Sydney tomorrow and needed a final wild night before heading into battle.’

‘A final wild night?’ Gerald raised his eyebrows, his eyes travelling over your CWA uniform. ‘Or, maybe a first wild night?’

You blushed and stammered something we couldn’t hear, but Gerald laughed anyway.

‘Gerald is my husband,’ I said.

‘It sounds so serious when you say it like that!’ he said.

‘It is serious, darling, haven’t you heard?’

He extricated your hand from mine and held it close to his chest.

‘Ignore her, she takes nothing seriously!’

‘That’s not true at all! Don’t listen to him, Silvie, I take having fun very seriously.’ Gerald and I roared with laughter but you didn’t seem to get the joke. You sipped your drink and looked away.

‘She’s precious,’ Gerald whispered in my ear so that you couldn’t hear him. ‘Don’t ruin her.’

‘As if I would,’ I said, grateful for the heaving noise blanketing our voices. My glass was empty and I tapped at yours to prompt you to finish it. You did, like the good girl I knew you were. Your eyes were on Jeremiah at the piano, who was playing faster, more brash, than ever. A woman slinked onto the stage and whispered in his ear, and in only a moment he had switched to The Way You Look Tonight. Your mouth opened in surprise, in delight.

‘So, what would make Silvie’s night more memorable?’ Gerald asked, dropping an arm around each of us.

‘Let’s see,’ I said. ‘She’s driving alone, for days on end, to deliver hand-knitted socks to troops in Sydney. Those troops will carry those socks to Singapore, or Papua New Guinea, where it will be too hot to wear such carefully crafted wool. What could possibly make her feel better about a situation like that?’ I laughed.

‘That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard!’ Gerald exclaimed. I thought you would be hurt by our words, thought I would need to comfort you, but you grew taller, squared your shoulders as though ready to fight me and I knew your pride was getting in the way of understanding what we were trying to do. I slipped my hand into yours.

‘Imagine Sydney is bombed again while you’re there. What will you wish you’d done?’ I knew even as I said the words that you wouldn’t answer me, but your eyes darted to the stage where that unknown woman was singing. Your eyes gave you away. A loud man stinking of whiskey fell against us but I pulled you away from him. ‘Come with me.’

I led you onto the stage as the song ended and the woman slipped away. You clutched your empty glass like you could hide your nerves behind it.

‘Ladies and gentlemen!’ I called over the crowd, but it only increased the general roaring. ‘My apologies for being out of town but I was scouting the east coast for the most talented singer I could find. And look…I found her!’ I held your hand above your head so everyone could see you. They cheered. ‘She might be disguised as a CWA volunteer, but tonight, for one night only, she’s going to sing for us!’ Your face was frozen. I pulled you around to face me. ‘Tell me you don’t want to and we’ll leave the stage right now,’ I said in your ear. You looked at me so intensely with those pale eyes glinting in the darkness.

‘I’ll do it,’ you said, leaning forward so your cheek almost pressed against mine. ‘But only if you sing with me.’

I hadn’t realised how much I had hoped you would say that. I turned to Jeremiah and whispered the song title to him. He launched straight into it and we were off. At last. Your voice was higher than mine, and sweet, but we melded together. Our voices flew stronger and the crowd became quieter, listening to us. We stood together, my arm around your waist, and we swayed to the music. At the end of each line, the crowd cheered. Most of them had separated into couples, holding onto each other, moving to the music. It was a room of love, or lust. When the song ended you fell into my arms. There was sweat across your forehead, damp wisps of hair stuck to your skin.

Gerald was calling us down from the stage, handing us drinks, pulling us into the crowd where we were cheered and jostled and hugged by warm smiling bodies. Your face shone and your hands held me close to you.

‘Thank you!’ Your breath was hot on my cheek.

‘This doesn’t have to be the end, you know,’ I said.

‘The end of what?’

‘Happiness.’ I didn’t know if you knew what I meant and before I could be sure, Gerald threw his arms around us and we were all dancing. Jeremiah thumped out tune after tune and we sang until our voices grew raspy.

When we left the bar there was a hint of orange over the horizon. We stumbled down to the beach with Gerald, singing in barely-there croaks, your hands warm around my waist. The air was impossibly fresh after the crowded bar. The sand was soft under our feet and we stopped in unison. The easternmost point of Australia, staring into the endless Pacific Ocean, with just a glint of morning sun. You looked like you had never seen anything so perfect.

We walked with our feet in the water, cold from the lingering night, and talked about everything and anything. The lighthouse sent its beam over us in steady beats. I held your hand with my right, Gerald’s with my left. I had walked that sand with Gerald so many times but it felt different with you. Like I could see each grain as it washed over our feet. Like I could feel each particle of salt air that I breathed in.

‘It doesn’t feel like there’s a war on,’ you said.

Gerald stopped, raised his hands to the sky, and yelled, ‘Come and get us!’

You giggled and pulled his hands down. We walked on and he dropped back, splashing in the waves, picking at shells. I looped your arm tightly through mine.

‘It is like another world here, don’t you think?’ you said, so only I could hear.

‘Stick with me, darling, and it’ll be your world forever. No more driving for hours with nothing but socks for company!’ You laughed but I saw a flash of hurt in your eyes so I added, ‘But of course, someone’s got to do it.’ And you squeezed my arm in gratitude.

A scuffling noise came from behind us and Gerald was there, squeezing between us, his arms around our shoulders. ‘South of the border!’ he bellowed. I wished he would go away. ‘Down Sydney way!’ You joined in so I did too. You knew all the words and we danced as we sang and splashed through the incoming tide.

We lay in the sand, curled against Gerald’s side as the sun rose higher. He was snoring lightly and we were growing sleepy but I didn’t want to let go of the night yet.

‘I mean it, you know,’ I said. ‘You should stay. Your talent is wasted with the CWA.’ I took your hand and kissed your cold fingers. Grains of sand stuck to my lips. ‘This could be your life.’

‘Singing in Byron?’

‘Singing everywhere! We could go anywhere. People would love us.’

‘I’ll come back,’ you said it like you really believed it. ‘After taking the truck to Sydney, I’ll come back and we could – ’

I let your hand drop into the sand.

‘I won’t be here anymore, darling. But, do what you think you have to do.’

There were tears in your eyes and I didn’t know what else to say, so I kissed you until you stopped crying.

Pauline told me that you had come by earlier. Pauline, with her terrible CWA haircut and pink lipstick on her teeth, told me that ‘the lovely young lady’ who was supposed to drive the truck to Sydney had come by that morning ‘and she just up and quit!’ Pauline couldn’t believe it. She said you had sat there while she gave you tea and bread with jam, and you’d eaten it all as though you hadn’t eaten in days. When you were finished you stood up, with a glazed look on your face, and said she would have to find someone else to drive ‘those bloody socks’ to Sydney.

Your tantrum was my lifeboat, although you didn’t know it then.

I can guess where you went when you stormed out of the CWA, leaving behind the truck full of responsibilities and the long lonely drive to Sydney. You would have gone back to the beach to see if you could find me. Our slightly tearful farewell would have been playing in your mind, and you would have hurried along the sand looking for the shape of me among the growing throng of morning walkers. But I wasn’t there. How long did you search for me? Did you grow desperate with the need to see me and tell me what you’d done? Were you bursting with pride that you had done something reckless and impulsive, just like I would have done?

Gerald told me that when he saw you, you had a burning light in your eyes. Almost feverish, he said. You were feverish with the need to see me and hold me again.

‘Poor Silvie,’ he said to me. ‘You really did a number on her.’

‘Are you sure?’ Pauline asked. She didn’t trust me, you see, not after you, a much nicer young lady, had already done a runner. Luckily for me, she didn’t have much choice.

‘Absolutely,’ I said. ‘I haven’t been doing my part for the war effort, this is the least I can do.’

‘And you know how to drive a vehicle of this size?’

‘My father’s farm had much larger vehicles and I was driving those when I was thirteen. I’ll be fine.’

‘Okay then,’ she said. She looked relieved as she handed over the keys, and finally rubbed that pink lipstick off her teeth. ‘If you’re sure. Drive safely, but get there as soon as you can. The truck was supposed to be on the road an hour ago.’

‘I won’t let you down,’ I said, as I took the keys. Not like that other young lady, I could have said, but I didn’t. As I climbed into the driver’s seat, her eyes hovered over the now raggedy socks on my feet. A questioning look flickered across her face, but I slammed the door shut before she could ask. The cabin still smelled like your perfume.

I manoeuvred the truck onto the road and pointed it in the direction of Sydney. I wondered if you could see me. I wondered if you were, at that moment, watching me sitting in the driver’s seat. If you knew what was going on or if you were waving at me, running after me, trying to frantically to get my attention. To tell me that you were staying, so we could stay together.

It was a nice thought, of course, us being together in Byron, travelling the east coast, but it would never have lasted. You would have been in tears and clinging to me long before the next bomb hit, and we would have been stuck together. Life and death situations do that, you see, they make people cling to whoever is closest, and not just for a night. Luckily for me, I had known from the way you clasped my hands as we said goodbye, and in the set of your shoulders as you walked away from me, that you weren’t going to drive to Sydney. You would try, because you were a good girl. You’d go to the CWA hall and try to make yourself get in that truck, but I knew you wouldn’t be able to leave me. All I had to do was wait.

I’ve always wanted to go to Sydney, and I knew way back when we were on that highway, driving together through the dark bush, that that was my adventure to live, not yours. My hands gripped the steering wheel and my voice carried easily over the roar of the truck as I drove away.

Alison Theresa Gibson grew up in Canberra, the illusive capital of Australia, and currently lives in Birmingham, UK. She has words in a number of publications, including Spelk, Litro, Crack the Spine, Meanjin, Sunlight Press, and Every Day Fiction. She was nominated for Best Small Fictions in 2020 and Best of the Net in 2019. She recently completed her MA in Creative Writing at University of Birmingham.

Image: Wikimedia – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

Woollen socks (NZ issue 1970) – Sergeant – RNZAMC – ANZUK Singapore Forces – 1971-1974 Belonged to Sgt. Colin Whyte, Royal New Zealand Army Medical Corps, 1959-1971

Sneakers_CARIUMA - Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0

The Rhythm, by Anu Pohani

It’s English class. You sit behind me. I start the note. Something simple. Not witty, how about – ‘good weekend?’

Your precise handwriting comes back, ‘pretty good. Soccer game.’

‘You win?’ I write back. Each time her back is turned we pass the paper. I wish I could write something cleverer, with innuendo.

‘Nope. 0-1. You didn’t want to come see us get our asses kicked?’

‘Rehearsals,’ I write back. I could have run over after rehearsals, but I can’t bare that face. The face that sees me, waves, and forgets. I want a different face so badly; I’d rather see no face at all.

Can I please be that Girl for you? The one who might wear your varsity jacket someday? And then everything will be ok.

‘Come next time. Might help us win.’

Our fingers touch as the note goes back and forth. ‘Shakespeare is annoying,’ you write.

‘Shakespeare has his moments, but in Mrs __ hands, shoot me now.’

‘If I shot you now, who would make the class go by?’ There it is. Does anyone else see it? I think I see something. Did I put it there, or please oh please tell me you put it there? Don’t tell me it’s in my imagination.

‘OK fine, I’ll live. Only if you walk me to math after class,’ I write. It’s bold. But I must know. I want to pull you out of hiding.

‘I’m going in the other direction. Why can’t you be in my science class instead?’ Of course, it’s not the yes, I want. But please tell me someone, you see, it’s there, right?

‘I think she is on to us. Good thing that there are only innocent, nice things in here.’ I write, hand it back to you.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

For the remainder of third period, there is no small tap or scratch on my back. I think that you think, she is on to us. I think that you think you shouldn’t write back. I am heartbroken. I hope for more. I know I am imagining your breath on my back.

I can see your foot, your scuffed cool-kid sneakers, laces undone, next to my seat. You are sitting low in the chair behind me; I can picture you slouching without turning around. The warmth of your arm radiates against my back. Ostensibly it acts as a shield so no one can see you writing, but the feel of it across my shoulder blades makes me warm between my legs.

I love the way you smell. Sometimes I go to the supermarket with my mom and smell all the different fabric softeners, one by one, to see which one your mom uses so I can make mine use it, too. Then I can smell you all the time.

My book bag is between the chair leg and your leg. There is an outside zipper pocket. I can hear it slowly being pulled open; I can see your hand putting something in there. We start with an ordinary sheet of paper, torn from my notebook. You fold it with precision, sharp corners. Origami. You lean forwards when class ends, before I can turn around.

‘Open it when you get home,’ you say.

Your averted eyes at lunch tell me something else. Your arms around other girls. You took your lunch outside to the courtyard. You are sitting with Ari, Melissa, and Nicole.

I am a simple being, an ugly being. Nose too sharp, and everything brown, way too brown against your pinkness. I’ll eat inside with the Theatre Kids, where I belong. We don’t like the sun; we prefer to be pale, Goth. No amount of shade is going to make me pale.

Faux Theatre Kid, then.

I take a seat with a view out the double doors directly at you. Soccer boys, and pretty girls. What would I do there?

You must feel me staring. Finally, I look away because I have hurt myself enough watching you keep some other girl warm in the way-too-late autumn. I don’t understand. It is freezing cold, and this girl is still in shorts. What if no one cared to keep her warm? I bet that is what would happen to me. It’s fine, I’ll see you at sixth period.

You could have picked the end with the big drums, where all the boys went, but you came to the middle and so did I. It’s here too, isn’t it? We sit and our knees touch. When we stand, sometimes, I lean into you. Sometimes, you lean back, tilt slightly towards me. I think your body is saying, ‘I like it when you are close.’ I’ll hang on to that because when the clock strikes 2:54, you are going to race off with Ari to soccer practice, where you belong.

Today, I can’t bear to feel your heat. I still hurt from lunch, but I smile at you anyway, in a hopefully nonchalant way. You pat the zipper pocket of my backpack, reminding me there is something in there for me, for later. For when I am alone. A corner of my mind wants to set it alight without reading it. I tell it to shut up.

At home, it’s busy. I have chores. Mom sometimes opens my bag and helps to put things away. So, I move the note from my zipper pocket into my jeans pocket. The front one where a sharp corner can dig into my thigh and remind me that the something that might or might not be there is sitting against my skin. Eventually, I hide in the bathroom and open the note.

It’s a doodle of your dog. I think it’s a St. Bernard from all the fur and shading. Underneath it, you write, ‘Can you study with me for History? Come over Wednesday after school? Call me XXX-XXX-XXXX.’ There it is. Your phone number, but you aren’t asking me out.

In the time Mom drives from my house to yours, I sweat through my t-shirt. Mom comes in with me to talk to your Mom. I hear them laughing in the kitchen while you and I play with Alfie in the living room. Mom leaves without saying goodbye. Your mom comes into the living room when mine is gone.

‘So, where were you planning to set up?’ she says. I can feel the blood rise to my cheeks. Good thing for brown skin. Hopefully neither one of you can see me blush.

You shrug and say something non-committal. ‘Why don’t you set up in the kitchen? I’ll watch TV in here.’ The way your mom says it, I know. My mother has mentioned she prefers me not to be in your bedroom with you unsupervised. She sees something: studying as code word for something else. My heart beats faster.

In your kitchen, at your dining table, we sit at a right angle, heads bent over my notes. I hope I don’t smell bad. My palms are wet.

I come over often enough. Mom doesn’t escort me in anymore. It’s a good thing too, because sometimes, your mom is out so we study in your bedroom. A tiny attic room where the only place for two people to be is on your bed. Sometimes our stockinged feet touch.

I’ve never kissed anyone. I don’t want you to be my first. I need to practice on someone inconsequential. Options slim on the ground, I keep my lips a safe distance from yours.

You come to see me in the play. I decide to help the Coach record statistics at your soccer games on Saturdays – goals, assists, penalties, throw-ins.

I have seven neatly folded notes in my sock drawer, in a pair of striped socks that I never wear, buried under the rest of them. I keep my feelings there, too. The notes are sweet. I feel feverish thinking about them there in the darkness. I can’t bear to read them again but, in my memory, they’re a bit flirtatious.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

We move on to Macbeth. Our socks touch, and now our fleece-covered elbows. Finals are coming up. I start to wear cherry flavoured lip balm. Your mom lets us race up to your bedroom after school. My mom honks outside when it’s time for me to go.

At the weekend, you see the new Marvel online with Nicole’s friend. At your house. On your bed. Your mom makes Bagel Bites. I know because it’s in your neat response when I write, ‘How was your weekend?’

I want to watch a movie with you in your bed. I don’t ask if you kissed her. Your lips look different.

Christmas break. Nothing to study for, no school, no reason to talk to you at all. I could call and wish you a Merry Christmas. I have your phone number memorised.

Now, we have English together and also Math. You did so well on the final, they pushed you up to my set. The first day back, I start a note to you. ‘Good Christmas?’

‘Mom got me tickets to Tame Impala.’

‘That is awesome! When is it?’ I want you to ask me to go with you.

‘It was for New Years Eve. SO F*CKING AMAZING!’ You write the last bit in enormous lettering. It takes up the middle of the page entirely. I wonder if it is so I can’t write back. We only use one side of paper normally. I put a smiley face at the end of the ! mark, use one of the dots for an eye.

You keep the note this time. I wait for you at the end of class to walk to Math together. You walk out with Ari. Loud and masculine, you brush past me.

It’s my birthday. Maybe you don’t know or maybe you’ve forgotten. Gabe from lighting brings me a cupcake and the Theatre Kids sing Happy Birthday, in their usual way, making the entire lunchroom turn around. From my chair, behind the cupcake and the candle, I stare at you; silently ask you for a gift.

Acknowledge that I mean something to you and you to me, out loud and in public.

Your face is stoic and when the last note dies out, you continue your conversation. You haven’t asked me to come over to study yet this semester. I know your mom uses Bounce dryer sheets. I buy some.

I can’t give up. Today is lacy and sweet. Today is flowery, sugar-coated, heart-bedecked. Pink and red for lovers. So, I’m wearing red. You will notice me. I will hold your hand. I will give you a red envelope with candy hearts sealed inside. I went through the whole bag to pick the right ones. ‘Be mine.’ ‘Call me.’ ‘Kiss.’

Pick me instead, please. I will be your Movie Girl and your Study Girl all in one.

Today, I won’t see you until Drumming Circle, but it is the perfect opportunity. Still, we are in the middle. Still, you and me, next to each other. It will be the closest our knees have been to one another all week. The closest our bodies have been all week. Then, just when everyone is setting up; people won’t notice me hand you the Valentine, but you won’t be able to ignore it.

The drum master clears her throat as she comes in, calls us to order. Your spot next to me is empty. My heart sinks. You must have a cold.

I leave the envelope in my bag for the next day, when even though I will be in my normal uniform, black on black, I can find another opportunity.

You are not in English. You are not in Math. I think the candy hearts must now be crushed. It’s Friday, drumming again.

‘Hey, anyone know where Darren is?’ someone asks. A weight is lifted off my shoulders.

‘Didn’t you hear about the accident?’ Another weight, heavier, settles in its place.

Hour by hour, the news drips in. ‘They found his bike like fifty metres away.’

‘I heard he went over the handlebars.’

‘Might need brain surgery.’

‘Might need a metal plate in his head.’

‘Might need a metal screw in his leg.’

Even if I call, you can’t answer. Your friends are sad, console each other, hug each other. I stand to the side and force my tears to the bottom of my stomach. Every time the door squeaks open in the middle of a class, I think you are going to walk through it.

‘He has a gash from the middle of his forehead, straight down the side of his nose. It cuts through his lips, down to his neck.’

‘He needed 500 stitches.’

‘He’s going to be on crutches for the rest of the year.’

‘If he makes it out of the wheelchair.’

Please make it out of your wheelchair. I want to come see you. I want to kiss each of the stitches. I want to fix it.

‘I saw him over the weekend. It looks like it nearly took out his eye.’

‘He says the doctor said he flew into the tree. The one by the Science Block, but he can’t remember. Can you believe that?’

‘I signed his cast. It goes all the way from his toes to his crotch.’

That morning, our English teacher finds me by my locker. I am to report to the Office. Her face is sad. Her body is heavy. I have disappointed her somehow, I think.

When I get to the office, your mom is there with the Headmaster, and I start to cry. Silent, guilty, cowardly tears. For hiding where I think I am supposed to hide. For not coming to see you, for not acknowledging how much you mean to me, out loud and in public.

I am not brave.

I am told, you are strong enough to start making up some work. They explain, you can’t come to school, but I can come to you and bring you your work. Your mom thought of me because of all the time we spent studying last semester.

Apparently, when Nicole’s friend came over to study, you were caught doing other things, your mom says with a sideways smile to the Headmaster.

I am the safer and definitely smarter option, the Headmaster says. I can use the photocopier in the Office, so you have all my notes from every class, he adds.

Kissing is for pink people. Work is for brown people. It says so in the name INDUS (as in the river) + TRY (as in harder).

I say, yes. It means I’ll be close to you, again.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Your mom picks me up after school; my mom picks me up from yours. Each time she tsks and shakes her head. She is so afraid for you. She prays to Lord Ganesha for your speedy recovery.

Three afternoons a week. And Saturdays after rehearsals. No one knows about it because no one asks.

We set up in the living room. Because you can’t climb stairs, this is now your bedroom. You say your brain isn’t there like it was before. You are arranged with blankets over your wheelchair. The leg with the cast is stuck out at a right angle. You look at me like you are trying to concentrate, but my words are lagging like there is a weak Wi-Fi connection.

When you get tired, we stop.

You close your eyes. My heart cracks from how much I want to stroke your hair, and kiss the red, dried blood colour scar just on the left of your widow’s peak. You show me the stitches under where your hair grows back. We are so close; I can smell the iodine you dab on the stitches.

It would be wrong of me to take advantage of you when your brain isn’t there like before. I still haven’t practiced by kissing someone inconsequential. I step back to an arms’ length away. I take your completed assignments into school to be graded. I bring them back with notes from the teachers.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Your mom is visibly excited when she picks me up outside the Theatre. She shows me up to your room, where you are at your desk. She just moved you back in. The wheelchair is gone. You are on crutches: a big milestone. It means you are healing well. The cast comes off in a couple of weeks and you can start physical therapy.

The scar that cuts your lips in a jagged half is fading. You’ll be back in September. You’ll play again next season, you hope. You aren’t sure about the schoolwork though. Your laugh is high-pitched, nervous. I remind you that you no longer fall asleep halfway through. That you are getting better grades than you did before, sometimes.

It’s the last weekend before finals; we are done for the day. I am secretly happy Mom is late. I am laying across your bed. Your room is also my room, I spend so much time in here. Time that I wish we spend with me running my fingers across your naked torso. When I have those thoughts, I am angry with myself.

Being with you for so many hours is a gift. Given what happened, just having you alive is a gift.

Your door opens. It’s your mom, and she has brought you a surprise. A blond head peaks around the corner and I scramble upright as soon as I see it.

The blond head is surprised to see me. She wants to know what I am doing there.

‘She has been helping me keep up this semester so that when I come back in the fall, I don’t have to repeat a year,’ you say. Your smile is enormous.

I had no idea that you might have had to repeat a year. I had no idea that I had a purpose. I was in my cocoon, pleased to have your smell to myself, to have your warmth to myself, to be able to study your face without having to worry who could see my expression. It would be too obvious.

‘I could have done that,’ she says, crossing the small room to where you are sitting.

She kisses you, and I watch her do it. She strokes your hair and it’s like someone is scratching open my skin. I can’t bear to look away. When she finally pulls back, I see your face. You look at her the way I must look at you. There is so much longing, but it is different from mine. Your expression knows you will soon be satisfied, whereas mine knows I will never be.

Blissfully, a car horn sounds in the drive. I wish you both a good weekend and tell her I’ll see her at school on Monday. She smiles at me. How you look at her and how you look at me is not lost on her. She has nothing to worry about. Never did.

At home, I take a Bounce dryer sheet out of the box. I lock my room door, and rummage for the stripy socks in the drawer. I shake each note out and watch them fall onto my bed. I inhale deeply and I read our notes slowly one by one, in order. There was something there once, but I was too weak to dig it out, claim it for my own.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

In September, you are spry on crutches. Everyone is so happy to see you. I can’t help but be a little proud of myself, knowing that I helped to make you smile so big. Knowing that all those afternoons meant something. Yes, I hope you see the past tense there. It’s been a long summer, and I have no false illusions.

At lunch, I see you put your arm around Nisha. It is not my brownness after all. It is just me. Too timid, too insecure, too inexperienced.

In English, I take my normal seat and you take yours. I don’t start a note to you. After class, you wait for me. We walk to Math. We talk about how much time you have spare without soccer. Physical therapy is good, but it could be another six months before you run again.

After school, you call me. We talk on the phone, and I find my courage to ask what happened to the blond.

‘We broke up at the end of summer,’ you say.

My breath has new life, ‘Why?’ I ask.

‘She’s moving away,’ you respond. You sound upset, but now the walk from class, the phone call make sense. We talk every night on the phone. We walk to class every day. Melissa asks if we are dating.

‘Melissa asked me if we are together,’ I say one night. It’s bold again, but I have to know. Surely, this time, it is there.

You laugh, and my balloon deflates. ‘So, what did you say to her?’ you say.

‘I said we were just friends, of course,’ I say. It comes out too quickly.

‘Uh huh,’ you say.

‘So, who do you have your eye on next?’ I ask. Please say me. Please. It’s been four months since I have seen the inside of your house, since I discovered that the dryer sheets alone are no substitute. They don’t have that sweet, slightly salty musk that belongs solely to you.

‘I’m not sure,’ you say, ‘Who do you think I should ask out?’

I should say me, but we are dancing again, aren’t we? Neither one of us can come out and say it. ‘Nisha is pretty cute,’ I say finally before I tune out.

I don’t want to hear what you think of her, and the words I want to hear aren’t coming.

On our next call, you talk about Squid Game. I think it is too horrible. You mention about the Scream sequel. You say you can’t believe I haven’t seen it yet. ‘What are you doing on Friday?’ you ask.

‘Nothing,’ I respond.

‘Do you wanna come over? We can watch it?’ you ask.

‘And your mom will make Bagel Bites?’ I ask and laugh.

‘My mom is going out on a date,’ you say.

The world is quiet. My ears hear everything through aspic, like being underwater. My blood pounds in my ears. What are you saying? Are you saying that if I say yes, I get to be Movie Girl?

I say yes.

In the car to your house, my mom asks half-heartedly if your mom is home, I say I think so. She says it’s weird you want to study on a Friday night. I shrug, hope it is the end of the questions. You open the door and wave at her. In the house, it is quiet.

You ask if you should order a pizza. I manage to say I’m not hungry.

When we go up to your room, it is full of the smell of you. Your cast is in the corner, cut in half, a memory of what has been. You put the pillows against the wall, so your twin bed looks like a couch. I take the side by the wall; you take the side by the door. We face the small laptop screen, set up on a bookshelf opposite the bed. You turn off the lights and press play.

I shiver, though the sweat under my arms is threatening to drip down my sides.

You ask if I am cold. I nod. We stand up, and you pull the blanket back. We get underneath and this time we are sitting as close as we do in Drumming Circle.

When the man in the mask appears, I flinch, bury my head into your chest. I can’t watch. It’s supposed to be comedic horror, but I can’t find the funniness. Your arm is around me. Your breath ripples my hair.

‘If it is too scary, I can turn it off,’ you whisper onto the top of my head.

Your voice is thick with something else. Your arm loosens around my shoulder, as you make to lean forward to shut the laptop. A small tilt of the head, a tiny one is all it will take.

I close my eyes as I move my mouth to where it can’t be ignored. As you stretch, you kiss me, and I kiss you. You gather me under you so we lay as we kiss. My lips can’t feel the scar I know is there.

You taste of Big Red chewing gum. I do, too. I must remember that the cinnamon is a key component of your signature perfume. I don’t know what time it is, nor how much time we have left until a mother shows up, yours or mine. I reach my tongue a little into your mouth, I put my hand under your shirt.

Am I doing it right? Am I kissing you in a way that will make you look at me like you looked at her?

I want you to press against me. I want the hand on my back to unhook my bra. I feel a never-felt-before wetness pooling in my underwear.

After Scream comes Kujo, after Kujo comes Silence of the Lambs, after Silence of the Lambs we stop pretending to watch movies. You unbutton my shirt. I pull your t-shirt over your head. The feel of your chest against mine, skin to skin. My nipples harden and so do yours.

We ignore each other in the hallways. You move to the back of English class, next to Ari.

We stop pretending to study. Your hand finds its way into my jeans. Mine finds its way into yours. You put your hand over mine and show me how you like it. I am too afraid, but with your hand over mine, we overcome.

Our cadence is disorienting.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

I learn to drive, unhinging us from our mothers.

In your bed, we push against the edge, find a new limit, and rest there for a while. In the middle of the afternoon, on this sticky summer’s day, there is only one place to go.

I am not ready because there are questions I need you to answer.

Why can’t you look at me in the hallways? Why did you move to the back of English class? Why don’t we ever sit together at lunch? Why don’t we ever talk about this on the phone?

Why, when we leave the confines of this room do we pretend we don’t carry one another in our hearts?

I am sitting astride you. I trace the scar from your forehead to your lips. It makes you more handsome. Most of it has faded to nothing, but just at your chin, there is a small dent. You kiss my fingers. I shake my head, and you nod yours. I can’t bear to look down the lengths of our naked bodies where I hover above you. We are inches away from the next edge. I swallow and lay my head on your chest. Your heartbeat is slowing.

Your strength is coming back. I feel it when you flip me on to my back and look down at me. Your pupils are so dilated, I can’t see the green anymore. Your pectoral muscles and arms are stronger than ever from the crutches, and now that you are walking without the cane, your legs are strong too. You kiss my neck; you kiss my clavicle. You move your hand to the drawer above my head. In your returning hand is a condom.

I shake my head, ‘No.’ Whatever would happen next would be too vast for me to hide. But of course, I am still dancing, aren’t I? Despite the outward appearance of it all, you and I know I’ll say yes only a few moments later. So, we make a new motif. Still, our sequence as everyone watches remains the same.

We dance this way for so long that for me, love doesn’t feel real unless it’s hidden.

Anu writes: “My essays and short stories appear in Ruby Lit, Caustic Frolic, The Hellebore, Honey Lit, and Entropy, among others. I can be found walking my unruly, shaggy terrier on the Common or on Twitter @AnuPohani.”
Image: Sneakers by Cariuma – Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0
Astroturf, Zute8, Wikimedia

Grass, by Emma Purshouse

What ya doin? I says to the chap who is kneeling in the Sunday evening side street outside the gate to my back yard. I stand up a bit taller, fold my arms, attempt to fill up the gap between the posts with my presence, make it known that I’m not going to take any shit.

To be fair, it’s a fucking stupid question on my part, because I can see quite well what he’s doing. He’s rolling up a ten foot length of astro turf into what looks like a giant sized spliff of fake grass. That said, it doesn’t stop me asking again.

Oi, mate. I asked ya what ya doin?

He’s trying to blank me, but when it becomes clear I’m not going anywhere, he answers, easing his hood up to cover his brass neck and baseball cap as he does so.

Fount it. Nobody day wan it.

He’s broken into a sweat. I can see beads of moisture on his top lip. It’s a warm evening, and his turf isn’t rolling up to his satisfaction. He rolls it back out to flat and begins to remake it, tighter this time. It’s then I notice a square cut away mid turf. I feel like I’ve seen this astro turf before, but can’t quite pin it down.

Wot ya gunna do wiv it eny road?

He gives a shrug of bone-bagged shoulders, and a wrinkle of his nose.

Sell it on, mebee. To a greengrocer… funeral place… or summat.

I let it slide, don’t mention the hole.

Un how ya gunna gerrit away?

He carries on his re-rolling, flicks a glance towards a pushbike leaning lazy and looking the other way under a daub-dribble of white paint that’s run down from the sign above. DO NOT PARK KEEP CLEAR.

I look from astro turf over to the knacker of a bike, and back to the chap again. I laugh, shake my head, go back in. Lock the gate behind me.

The next morning I’m off on my daily walk when I pass the community centre. The woman off reception is standing in front of the automatic doors, vaping and surveying a square manhole cover sitting smack bang in the middle of a bald concrete patch.

Oh. I say. Now it meks sense. She arches her eyebrows.

By way of conversation, I say what I saw. A sharing, if you will, describing to her the novelty value of last night’s scene.

I’m laughing. She’s not.

And then she goes all Columbo on it.


I’m cornered. Green…plasticy.

I mean him uz took it.

Oh… ya know… skinny… tall.

She moves her non-vaping hand up and down in a sliding scale to verify.

Errr… Taller… not that tall. Hood, black trackies, bike. Car remember. A face……a face ya see around. Dark hair. Mebee.

I give up, go on the defensive, mutter something about me not being a grass, and him doing the community a service anyway because astro turf is shit. I tell her Worrabout the bees… pollinators and that, suggest replacement wildflower planting that nobody can nick, before I go skulking off in search of the real stuff. The stuff that’s filled with Meadow Cranesbill, and butterflies. The stuff corralled behind the pressings factory in the little bit of scrubland that they’ve not yet built upon.

Emma Purshouse is a writer and performance poet from the English Black Country. She performs her work at festivals and spoken word nights across the UK. In 2022 she won 3rd place in the National Poetry Prize. Her first novel ‘Dogged’ was published by Ignite Books in 2021.
Image: Zute8, Wikimedia
Westerton Station, taken by Daniel from Glasgow

Anatomy of a short struggle, or, An eventful journey by train, by Mark Haw

‘Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.’

T.S. Eliot, Burnt Norton

i. The still point neat Westerton

They had inserted a still point just before Westerton, north-west suburb of Glasgow: under the hill, beside the housing estate. Our train came to a halt there.

Behind and ahead of us the world was still turning, the east and west revolving about an axis that speared through the globe from cold north to warm south—But here, a still point.

The train ticked calmly. Nothing remarkable was happening. Was it? It seemed fantastically unlikely to me, suddenly, that here, just before Westerton, under the hill beside the housing estate, there would be a ‘still point of the turning world’. And then, before I really knew what I was doing, seized by a feeling that everyone needed to know, I stood up and announced loudly, down the carriage: “This is a still point of the turning world!”

Part of me, observing from the side, was wondering what on earth I thought I was doing. But the constraints that normally stop you doing this kind of thing? Just for a moment they weren’t there.

One or two people glanced up. To be honest most people didn’t even notice. Most of them had earphones or headphones on, listening to this or that on their devices, staring at their scrolling screens, and they probably didn’t even know something was happening. A woman glanced blankly at me, her consciousness clearly somewhere else; a middle-aged man (I recognised him, a fellow commuter, one of the suited men who work at the Glasgow City Council headquarters on George Square) just slightly shook his head, half an inch either way, without looking up. Probably thought I was one of those crackpots or drunks.

I sat down. The feeling that had gripped me, the requirement that everyone know what was happening, had gone. I half expected Scotrail to apologise. They apologise for everything else. And then the still point moved on somewhere else, and our train moved on, and the world moved on. We reached Westerton, people got off, people got on, the usual comings and goings. Into motion again.

As we passed the canal I saw a fox, curled in the undergrowth. It glanced up at me, narrow snout following the slow train, with me a shape in the window, but I shook my head.

ii. Commuters in the snow

By the time we reached Bearsden the commuters were crowding into the gaps. My set of seats was now full. (None of these people had been on the train before Westerton, they did not know I was the type of crackpot who would stand up and announce things, otherwise they probably would’ve avoided sitting near me!)

For some reason, even now I remember each one of them from that particular journey: I mean, how unlikely, given the number of times I have travelled that route, surrounded by how many other commuters. But here they were: Another middle-aged man, grey hair, a lapel-badge shaped like a little stick-man with arms and legs akimbo. As you would wear a rainbow badge to show your support for LGBTQ+, or a guitar-shaped badge to show your interest in music: he had a person-shaped badge, as if he were the Person Man, specialising in People.

And a younger woman, obviously en route to somewhere more interesting, with a wide-brimmed hat in her hand and an enormous wheeled red suitcase that kept threatening to roll out of control with the inertia of the stop-start: she expends huge effort to keep it still, while also keeping hold of the hat (it is not the weather to put it on her head).

And a young executive, gangly and red-haired, who I couldn’t help calling Ginger with a terrible lack of originality, Ginger with an iPad and generally very well equipped, a takeaway coffee in one hand, someone on the phone in his other hand talking about a lost document, lost in the Cloud, and him multitasking on the iPad on his knees to boot—Busy busy busy.

And then, getting on and slumping down to replace Person Man, who had departed, the Two Ladies of Partick, immediately spilling out stories in front of each other (and the rest of us) like overstuffed luggage spilling across the carriage, deep into narratives before we’ve even passed the expressway.

And inexplicably then, suddenly, I had an image of the whole city covered in snow, deep in snow, on our right the expressway and the river and over the river the BBC and the Science Centre and all Govan lost deep in snow; and to our left Finnieston and up the hill to the University, all lost deep, too. Commuters in the snow, I thought: or rather, and this will sound like it only confirms me as that crackpot, but I didn’t think it, I heard it: “Commuters in the snow—

Of course, that painting by Breughel.

But also that very old poem and the image that always recurs to me: Beowulf, and the great hall, the firelight, the sparrows flitting into one gable window, at one end, through and out again through the window at the other end. Just a brief moment of light between two infinite darknesses. Person-Man, Red-Suitcase, Ginger and the Two Ladies: station to station, then gone.

We went into the tunnel, reached Charing Cross, and I alighted.

iii. The afternoon of the elephant-headed God

Now this was not quite that exact same journey so when I say above, ‘an eventful journey’, I am stretching things a bit, but it was the same day: just the return. It was mid-afternoon. I had left the office early, having found myself mysteriously unable to concentrate on anything—twice in one meeting, I’d had to quickly cover my tracks when someone had asked something and I’d not been listening. I was glad to be going home.

We came out of the tunnel heading toward Partick, river now on the left, Finnieston on the right, with the new student accommodation rentals clustered around the place where the Kelvin heads down to the Clyde. Opposite me a young mother with an infant, a little girl perhaps two or three, wearing flowery Wellingtons and staring around with great fascination. Everything that was happening was worth commenting on, pointing at. And it suddenly occurred to me: the little girl was right.

Everything was worth noticing, because this afternoon would not come again. This afternoon: look up at it, at the shelves of cloud in the August sky, the ruffled water in the Clyde, the traffic queue under Partick bridge. And closer, the ragbag of commuters, heading to ragbag homes, all books, phones and tired eyes—this afternoon will not come again!

I wanted to explain — more to myself to be honest, because I could see that the little girl already understood: we are in this billiard game, see, you and mother, and the ticket collector, and me and the bricks, buildings, iron rails, the foxes and the deer that stray sometimes along the tracks—the atoms, molecules, all the light rays—a billiard game of collisions and configurations, all statistics, all luck, all random games with entropy’s hand… And an image filled my mind: something behind the cobra’s wrist; and white noise, white noise filled my ears, and colours filled my eyes.

So this afternoon, this fantastically, impossibly unlikely configuration, will not come again. You’re only two or three, you’re so young you don’t even need to worry about where you’re going, where you have to get off, where to change trains—all the paraphernaliac mechanics of this clockwork life—your mother will do all that, with her tired, distracted look, yet total attention on you—you’re barely three but I see you understand.

And I see also who you are. As on the speeding train you flick a laughing look toward your mother

Laughing, that pointing finger


You are the elephant-headed God. I hear you whisper, giggling: “I place obstacles, and I remove them—and I laugh! Because you are all caught in the dance, and I am not caught in the dance!”

You and your mother alight at Anniesland. I continue on home. After a good dinner, I get a good night’s sleep, and the next morning, I am feeling much better, and I am absolutely on the ball, you might say dancing, through all my meetings.

Mark Haw is a university lecturer based near Glasgow. He lives in a nondescript bungalow in a nondescript suburb and enjoys observing the nondescript lives of the local population including himself. He has written about science, about ‘the occult’, and about some other things in-between. He set up a science outreach group which has engaged with some 30000 children over the past 5 years, and at the peak of his fame he appeared in a 30-second segment of Channel 4’s ‘flagship consumer programme’ Supershoppers, discussing the science of spreadable cheese. Latest in his string of unpublished novels is a story about artificial lifeforms, AI, and vampires.
Rope from wikimedia

Davy Jones by Kapu Lewis

Woman found drowned on pavement,
Thirty miles from sea.
There was salt water in her lungs,
She smelled of lemon suns, basil.
The crust of Tube dirt was under her nails, with the bark of the Angelica Tree.

What if I had read that before I walked down Shaftesbury Avenue that night, swinging with buttery white wine, big toes aching from prettily-narrow shoes? The clean-shaven boy bumping against my cut-price coat.

What if I’d never entered that marooned corner of the city, where High Holborn dies and Covent Garden isn’t quite yet born? But most of all, what if I’d never got my feet wet? What if I’d never got my feet wet?

Neon puddle flashes, splashes cold across my feet. That grubby muck water, the tears of the city they call it, slakes my skin, seeps through the scarlet shoes. Damn. Stained. Cursing, I stumble.

He pulls me up by my elbow. But not before I see them. Ropes: coils, splices, knots. Everything needed to bind and tie. I stand. Straighten. The shop window is lit with apricot, vignetted as the rest of its clutter recedes into the night. Ensigns, semaphore, brass shackles. Wooden blocks, sou’westers, socks. Oiled wool.

Old fascination floods me, starting from my wet feet.

A memory. Me, as a child, grease-and-salt-stuffed air. The verdant slime of the sea-weeded shore. Splash, slap, knock. A flap of sailboat oars cutting and mainsail rising. The name comes to me now, dredged from the mud of memory. “This is a chandlery,” I breathe.

“A what?” he says, fussing with the dirt on his tailored coat. So rich the wool lies flat and smooth.

“A chandlery,” I say. What a magical word it was then. A shop of wonders for sailors and boaters, but a stone’s throw from a briny shore. And yet here it is, dropped into a city of fake and fashion and futile dates. The metal and shine of the buildings sit disappointingly against the little wooden shop of dreams and bitter storms.

Davy Jones
Mariners’ Shop
Established 400 Years

“Let’s go, uh… What’s your name again?” He hiccups, impatience seeping into his voice, sensuality dissipating. “It’s freezing.”

I don’t answer. His casual tone diminishes me. His groomed masculinity irritates me.

My wet feet have a mind of their own. They walk me over to the shop window. A desire seeps up my cheaply-stockinged legs and limp skirt, clinging like cellophane, through my empty stomach and up to my throat. Thirst.

“I’ve got champagne at my place,” his voice tugs.

“Fuck champagne,” I say, uncouth and repelling.

I’ve lost interest in him and his elegance and a warm night in an expensive flat. My thirst is for something different now. Something… Something remembered. When I dreamed; when I was free.

“Hey.” He slinks his fingers inside my coat and across my skin. His touch full of fleshy promise.

I press my face against the frigid, unforgiving glass of the shop window. I turn my cheek so my ear presses into the transparent smoothness. And hears a sound centuries’ old. The splash of cramped water, reed-bound and clotted with wooden craft, coracles, skiffs.

It tells of a boat that docked here long ago. When Shaftesbury was still a river. Now hidden under tar and brick, stranded as the city grew around it. Penned-in, trussed up.

The man exhales. “Crazy bitch.” And hesitates just a second, because I’m not un-pretty. Then he withdraws his petulant hand, and turns. The scrape of his leather-soled shoes recedes down the street, dancing to the sound of oars scraping in rowlocks. I feel peace and a little fear, now that I am forsaken.

I teeter to the shop door on my absurd, tall heels and grab at the handle. It’s past midnight, but, in that moment of wine-soaked silliness, I have no doubt the shop will open for me. I close my eyes tight, turn the handle, push and enter.

The shop door clangs shut behind me. Click. Lock.


The first thing that hits me is the smell. How different it is. Outside, on the pavement, my nose was encrusted with urban urgency: Chinese takeaway, cheap beer, his aftershave, exhaust.

In here, oh! This is a magical smell. Salt, sail wax and seaweed. The holy trinity laced with salted beef, steer, and the eggy stench of bilge water. It doesn’t smell like a shop at all. It is the scent of my childhood. The scent of something gone.

There is this moment here. It won’t ever happen again. It’s the point at which I’m presented with a possibility filled with hope. I don’t know everything yet. The full truth, or banality, hasn’t been discovered. Everything can be as perfect as I desire. So, I keep my eyes shut, and I step forward.

Creak, loud. But there – a faint clink. I step again, slower. Creak, louder. Faint clink. And a foaming, watery, lapping sound.

Fear erodes me, cracks the deliciousness. “Who’s there?” I ask, timid.

Lapping, louder. Clink again.

My eyes spring open, splayed, alert. Darkness!

The floor tips.


I lurch, overbalance, arms flail, I throw myself backwards, trip over a ridge and topple with a thump onto the unforgiving wood. A shot of pain like cheap tequila fires across my skull. Everything holds still. Like a rubber-band held taught.

Light blooms, spreads, printing-paper bright. I see hawser rope, knotted wood. Thickened varnish kisses my cheek.

My body, still glued to the floor, sways. Concussion? Not the first time. Boats as a child were dangerous places. A tear loosens from the corner of my eye. “Blasted. Silly. Stupid!” I’ve probably set off one of those silent alarms. The police’ll be here before I’ve crawled, half-conscious to my knees.

I reach my arm up past my head to feel the door. But the door. Where’s the door?

Perhaps the boy’s not long gone, weaving down the street, full of drowsy-making drinks. Perhaps he’ll hear me call or –

Clink, louder now. Clink, clink, clink. A saline breeze threads its fingers into my hair. I know that clink. Clink, clink, clink: the metal stays against a boat’s mast in a soft onshore breeze.

I know this rocking.

I know this varnish.

I know this light.

Sailing light, boat at sea, wooden decking. My heaven and hell mixed together.

I scramble to my feet, knock my head on the ship’s wheel. It spins, I dodge out of the way and almost fall back over the transom and into the water. Shock forces vomit from my mouth. I scramble back from the edge of the boat, knock my knee. Bruised, I slump down into the rough seat of the cockpit, scratched through years of frantic use.

Only now am I brave enough to look.

The shop is gone, replaced by a grey rippling sea, dotted by islets of marram grass and rocky gneiss, lidded by a cold blue sky.

“Please don’t bring me back here,” I whisper.

I was born on a boat. I learned to sail before I could walk. I learned to read the wind and nudge the boat with sails trimmed to perfection to find its finest speed. I learned to love the art, and fear it. Only fools do not fear the sea.

We travelled through fog, mist, sun, rain, the terror of no visibility, the bullying of over-bulging sails. The vicious storm kings that tipped us on our side so that we could look into the sickening, boiling ocean and dream that we were not about to die.

But we dreamed; we were free.

Then he was gone, and I was alone.

And people, as strange to me as fishes are to land, took me away and bound me with rigid things like rules and shoes. And then they stuffed my dreams into the pigswill bin of their stark, saltless home for severed children.

I hate being asked about my beginning.

“Take me back to the city,” I say to no one.

“Not yet,” a bodiless voice answers.

A hysterical titter escapes my mouth and I tuck nails into fists. My chest, my throat stiffen. It’s him, I think, and an irrational fear floods me. I’m not unconscious or dreaming. I’ve died, and he’s come to ferry me across the water to the land of the dead.

“Daddy?” My voice quivers.

But this tone is too playful, too young and old at the same time. And too handsome? I change my mind. “Go away,” I rasp.

“Not until your feet are dry.” He laughs. “Now sail!” he commands, hunger dripping from the words.

I don’t like to be commanded. Especially by a dream, or a ghost or a head injury.

But the wind is rising, kicking up its pitch, flapping the unset sails; the wheel swings to the right. Foam splashes over the leeward side, and we tip. I have no choice. Sail, or be thrown to the fishes.

I grab smooth wheel, rough rope, heave and try to redirect the vessel. The wind fights me; the boat jostles me. But memory’s a funny thing. Something imprinted by fear or urgency has an eternal freshness to it. The voice may command me, but I can command the boat. After all these years, all these forevers, I haven’t lost the art.

In minutes I’m exalting, standing straight, chin up. I have the boat gushing through the water at the speed I’ve chosen, skimming the edge of a shingle beach. Herring gulls swoop, their haughty cry punching my eardrums. Confident now, I ease my body to the lee. I reach over, very stretched, so my armpit rubs against the gunwale, and drench my fingers in the lucid water. I have not touched salted water since I was a child. Nor river water. When I cross the bridges of London, I close my eyes tight shut.

Because water is remembering.

But this water is to my skin like fresh air to my lungs. I see a name painted in Easter blue on the patched wood hull of the boat.


A memory, half caught, slips away, grates with such strangeness.

Ships are rarely male.

I sail until my cheeks are salty chapped, until the wind dies and the light turns muted. I know this is ending. Whatever it is. A dream. A hallucination? A gift from some threadbare sea god looking for a friend? Even so, a chink of cheer, fresh-faced and hopeful, flushes in my chest.

“Thank you,” the bodiless voice says, almost reverent. The first time he’s spoken since he commanded me.

“‘About time,” I say. “I thought you’d died of boredom.”

“Not died. Living,” he says, a hint of wonder in his voice, someone starved now sated.

Like me. For the first time in eternity. “Who are you?” I ask. But he doesn’t answer. There’s a rhythmic sigh in the air, like someone sleeping. It doesn’t matter. I think I know. Davy the Shop, Davy the Boat. It’s all Davy. “Why am I here?” I ask. But he doesn’t awaken to answer that either. Maybe he doesn’t even know.

The promise of night freshens the twilight air, flinging down brown angular shadows across sea and land. Like a weathered hand throwing mahogany dice with twenty sides of fate. I shiver. Once, twice. A star-strung, onyx sky descends, coating us in black paint. Everything is pitch. I close my eyes with abyssal exhaustion.


A motorbike buzz-growls.

A rubbish truck hisses and clanks, its dustmen calling to each other like kittiwakes.

A grey glow pushes through my eyelids. They open to reveal a higgledy-piggledy shop, dust-coated with neglect. Forlorn wooden counter, tin boxes, charts. Ledgers, chinagraph pencils.

Chilly morning light reaches through the glass shop door. Shaftesbury Avenue stirs, sluggish on the other side of its distorted panes.

I’m cold. I’m alone.

Yet, as the sky brightens to dishcloth white, I feel a small newness. Like one of those rich ladies might, after she’s had her face scrubbed and acid washed.

As I leave, the doorbell tinkles like a shared secret behind me. A Closed sign flaps against the glass. Faded, dogeared parchment. Shop Assistant Wanted, written below in careful cursive hand.

I take the Tube home. Bare wet footed, through stares of pity and disgust. I’m a dirty, bruised, briny smelling girl. I do not care. Davy consumes my thoughts: the ache in my shoulders, my arms, and the blue vein that pulses at the base of my wrist.

Davy coats me with curiosity, fear, desire.

Night returns in an eye blink, the day a frittered dream. Davy beckons me, and my wet feet. Back, to the shop, the boat, the sea.

I enter his musty house. My head, this time, is clear. How lonely and abandoned this place feels. A ship’s locker locked, forgotten. But I’m too full of heady expectation to dwell.

I close my eyes, ready. I can almost smell the ship’s rough resin, I can almost hear his unexpected voice, almost feel a foreign weather.

Ah… here it is. I sway to a northern breeze choked with thyme and chania. Poppies, anemones—

“Do you like it?” he asks. A quiet question. Like a shy suitor offering me gifts.

I know I will. Before I even look.

Barren and arid a hillside soaks with buxom colour of ephemeral flowers. Broken temple colour of cream, and sand, sand, everywhere. Light ochre streaked with ruddy iron. Davy’s hull glides across the limpid sea that licks the parched land.

“Beautiful,” I breathe.

I seize the ropes, and he seizes the shoreline. We slice through the water on his knife-edge keel. It is like walking with an old friend. We forge a path side by side, words and actions known but unsaid. The wind is antique, hot and dusted, and it slips under our tutelage.

The furnace of the day rises, then softens. My body is warm as amber honey. My languid fingers drift across the varnished wheel. And snag. Something alien touches my skin. I pull and tug, a bird with a worm. And look.

“Will we sail together again?” he asks.

But my mind is filled with a different question. My thumb draws like a curious kiss down the ripped silk ribbon. Trapped between the seams of rigid teak, worn smudge brown and feather-frayed. Only a slot of colour remains, where the fabric has crumpled in on itself. In that indelible fold, no thicker than a human nail, is a sliver of laurel green, shining and glossy as the day it was made.

A girl’s ribbon; a girl who liked green. A redhead, perhaps? They run well with green. But where is she now? A memory flashes, curiosity tinted with unease. The sign hanging on the shop door. Shop Assistant Wanted. “Who sailed you last?” I ask.

The boat stutters as if the water has grabbed it. Sails shake; boom clicks.

Now I have the tang of something unpleasantly true, a metal bit between my teeth to chew. I hate the taste of it. “Was she pretty, like me? Did she like it too?”

The mainsail sags, spilling wind. Anger? Sorrow?

“She abandoned me, like all the others,” he says.

The boat slows, my body stills. Late afternoon chills my cheeks and nose. “Why?” I ask. Tell me they weren’t interesting. Tell me they didn’t understand the sea. Tell me some comforting thing!

“She wanted freedom,” he says, his words bitter as mallow. “But doesn’t freedom always have a price?”

I press the ribbon’s grain hard into my finger pad. “What did you do?” I murmur, the words fearing to leave my mouth.

“Me?” The topsail flaps to his rough laugh and his words tumble as angry waves. “My crime was committed far longer ago than that. I abandoned my captain. Who cursed me to infinite solitude, so that I could not die. Men bound me and built on me. And here I stay until I call my captain back. A captain who will stay with me forever.”

“But we’re sailing, each night,” I say.

“Only for as long as you stay with me,” he whispers. “You do want to stay with me, don’t you?”

I do. I must. But, “What happened to the girl?”

“It wasn’t me. It was the curse!” he cries.

The sail flaps, poorly set. I tease the mainsheet out and in, shift the boat a fraction. I try again, and again, but I can no longer find that perfect point where the breeze bulges the luff.

My face stiffens. As my father’s used to, when time and tide were against us. When we knew the boat was no longer our friend. A raucous gust slaps the boat and barges past my face. Another pushes sails to swelling strain, and Davy heaves onto his side in yawning disregard. I fall, battered, knocked against the seaward edge, the horrid ocean but a breath away. I release the sails, spilling the wind and slamming us back flat. Crack, whip, slash, the ropes bite and spit. I snatch them back and haul them in. I will not lose our course! I will not be defied!

My chest thumps and clenches, my palms burn rough and red. Fighting the wind. Fighting him. Contemptuous nature, the most dangerous kind. And still he does not yield.

My fury blisters like a spider bite. “What happened to the girl?” I shout to clanging shackles, snapping sail, whipping ropes and the creaking wheel. “Tell me!” I say.

He rises on his edge once more. A perfect symmetry of death. At any moment, we will flip like a helpless insect, and I will plunge and die.

Rope runner jams. No release! Lockspike! I slip the old knife from my pocket, sharpened for urban nights, and raise it to hack the mainsail rope. Just one sever; a circumcision of power.

“No!” he cries.

“Tell me the truth!” I say.

We hold there. Murder in each others’ hands, moments of nothing and emptiness on our desperate precipice.

“She stayed three days,” he says. “Three days is enough. Only death can part us then.” His voice weakens to a whisper. Dying wind. “But the world of pretty things pulled, the world of warm and dry. Her heart broke. She fled one night. And now I have nothing to remember her by.”

Disgust like weevil biscuit clags my mouth and mind. “You had no self-control. You invited her to her death.”

“I begged her!”

“You let her stay too long. Knowing the truth of it.”

He weeps. And the sky turns the colour of bruised peach and mould-dusted orange. The day ends.

I open my eyes and stumble to the door. The pathetic, comforting, weak morning light. Groggy and coffee-less, I stare at my palms. Cracked and seeping from hauling rope and sheet. Davy has peeled off that urban veneer I painted on year after year. Decade after decade. Varnish of the soul.

He has undressed me. He has made me remember what it was like in the beginning. A loss so expansive it is an ocean trench. Crushing, dark, asphyxiating.

Oh, paint that varnish back on! Before it’s too late! Paint it thick with antifouling boat coat. The type the barnacles refuse to stick to; the type that sticks to your skin like skin.

I hate Davy in this moment.

My injuries belittle me, mock me. Abuse me, degrade me. And in this moment, I am sure he knows it. The sense of violation grows. In the form of rope and vicious breeze, he has taken a knife to my hands and heart and peeled the flesh himself.

Yet I can not stop thinking about Davy. The feel of him under me, the wind above me.

This brutal voyage! It is a more graphic act than any human has done to me in this city. A curse for Davy is on my lips. I sob instead, run, leave. Memories are grotesque things.

The doorbell tinkles with disdain behind me. The Closed sign flaps against the glass, the parchment rotten, acid, yellowed. Shop Assistant Needed!, scrawled below in a desperate, afflictive hand.

I trudge up the stairs. Step. Step. Twenty-eight floors. Grey choking stairwell, top floor, lift never works. The squalor seeps under the doors.

Now home, I sit.

Silver mirror, speckled with age.

I sit and look at myself, thinking of a story I once heard. A boat with a spirit that needed to be spurned.

My idea grows like a gusty ripple wind. I cackle, coarse and heady as an overripe ale.

My toes curl, un-dryable. Their sour moisture seeps into the bottle brown rug. My hands begin to crust.

I choose to wear red, red like Madder Lake, the colour of ferment and female command. I choose old shoes that grip and stride. I grasp a greasy eye stick, utter-blue, and draw wild markings round my eye. Like Tethys, bloody goddess of the deep, I will take that ship. I will make it mine. I will sail it forever and never die!

I gobble my sandwich. Dry sliced bread pushing wet in throat. Just enough for a night at sea.

Tick, tock, night turns. Tick-tock, time to go.

“What’s that blue mark on your arm?” the shopgirl asks.

“It’s a vein,” I say.

“It’s not a vein,” she says.

I don’t even look. I’m a pale girl. Blue veins. What’s there to say? She needs glasses.

“You been using?” she says. Her eyes turn matte; she lifts her body away from the plastic counter set between us.

The subconscious reflex wipes clean the air between smiley seller and unclean buyer. Our microscopic friendship, fabricated from the please and thank yous of a hundred, hundred purchases of end-of-day fruit and wilting veg, has ended. I lean back, too. Accepting the change. The little hurt.

She passes me the matches without touching my fingers.

I pocket them. “It’s a vein,” I say. But the very utmost corner of my eye tells me this is not true. Tattoo blue, the vein at my wrist is now yanked straight, pointing north up my arm from that place that’s pale as emmer flour. Like an anchor, missing its root.

I pull my shirtsleeve down, so the mark’s oddness is removed from our sight.

It’s only when I am too far away that I realise I’ve left my pitiful bag of food behind. I will not go back.

I approach from the south. The city’s tall and full and fleshy. Blaring orange; traffic light bright. Davy Jones looks ill and under-painted. Yet he beckons like a worn leather chair, like the smell of the bed you know. My feet obey, now forever clammy, sticky salty wet.

There is something I greatly hope for here. But hope is a terrible thing. Once you want something, you are a victim of fate: who will grant your wish or not? There is no alternative niceness once want has got in. Will he let me in? Will he let me sail one last time?

The door opens, I step inside. Sluggish silence, night-shop sleep.

I am not innocent. I am not the last girl he lured in here. I was born with splinters that gouged my feet, storms that ripped my cheeks like thorns, hunger in my empty belly like a sucked egg. Devoid. I am more burnished than she could ever be.

I light the brittle-tipped match, set flame to wick. The storm lamp twists in the oncoming rain. One stride, two, three, I’m at its heart. I throw open the door of the hold. The light casts, like bright cannon shot across his hidden flesh.

Charts, maps, the dust of time stood still.

Dry as tinder.

The logbook. His name, this vessel, must be scrawled in there still.

Dry as tinder.

“I thought you wouldn’t come back,” he says. A pause in the wind.

I raise a second match, spark on wick.

“What are you doing?” His voice wavers.

And touch the eager flame to the book’s cover. It guzzles the parched linen and board, reaches the powdering pages underneath—

Davy screams. Scorched agony! The boat yaws, portholes shatter. The flames scuttle, racing to finish their meal. If they burn his name, I am free.

“Thirst! Water! Let me drink!” Salted waves plunge through cracks, windows, door, overcome the ship.

I fall, head cracked on the floor. Match out, lamp out, gurgling water gluts my lungs. I roll over, push to standing. Cough, soaked, shivering. The flames are gone. The matches lost. “Let me be free!” I shout. “Let me be free…” I whisper, and cover my face with my shaking hands. “Please…”


Silence, like an ocean dead.

“Why?” he asks, voice cracked with pain and smoke.

“I want to go back, back to how it was!” I cry. “When it was just him and me and the boat. When I was loved and free.”

“I will love you,” he says.

“You hardly know me,” I say. A harsh laugh, guilt at my murderous actions scratching my throat.

“I’ve known you since you were a child,” he says. “I was there when your flat little feet first stepped into the bottom of a leaky boat damp on salty-varnished creaking wood. I was there when you pulled the oars too hard and close and bashed yourself in the stomach. I was there when you capsized the little dinghy with the single tan sail and the centreboard stuck with barnacles and weed. I held your hand as you sank to the bottom of the muddy saline murk, sinking your blue-cold toes into the stodgy silt. I was there when he dived in, pushed you up, released you, and then drew his last breath. And pulled the blood of the river into his ageing lungs like so much fresh air. I was there when you lost him. I was there when love died.”

An ugly chill fills my heart. The boat did not sail for me that day. It was mute.

“Do you not remember?” he asks. “I was there when they took you away. I was there when you cursed me for not letting you stay.”

Now my adult hand remembers how the heavy sails failed to rise for my tiny fists, how the rudder failed to turn for my skinny arms. How my boat abandoned me all those years and forever ago.

I peel open the logbook, soggy half-drunken pages. Oh, terrible truth!

First, his name, our ship, embossed in flaking gold. Then my father’s. Then mine.

“Why did you leave me?” I ask.

“Because I feared I would fail you,” he says. “You were a child. I was a ship.”

“And now?”

“If you burn me, you burn us both. We are bound.”

I place my arm on the countertop and examine the blue, taut vein. It peeks through my skin, like tracing paper over ink, the shape now set. An anchor. I am anchored to Davy; I am the skipper of his wooden body. I am free to roam the seas. And I will sail him every night until…

There is a coin in my pocket. And there is the scent of chips that filters through the door. Just chips for just a coin. I liked those things once. An ache. A desire to leave the shop, for a bellyful of human things.

Oh, what would have happened if I’d never got my feet wet?

A former journalist, Katharine is a now a TV consultant and writer for young people. Particular interests include youth rights and mental health. She grew up in West Wales and is fascinated by its folklore and tales of the sea. Influences include Frances Hardinge, Roddy Doyle and Sarah Crossan.
Brian Prechtel, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I Don’t Eat My Friends by Jude Whiley Morton

The world is not a factory and animals are not products for our use.
– Arthur Schopenhauer


13th May 20–

Went in for our meat license today. Never been so excited. Two years since I last ate meat and I still hate the substitutes.

People say they can’t taste the difference, but I’m a gourmand. My palate’s hypersensitive. Once, I could taste a leaf of sage in a drum of oxtail soup. Now everything’s bean. Bean, bean, bean.

Last time I ate meat was pre-pandemic, before the culls. I could tell you everything about it. Veal angelica, it was called: these veal medallions stuffed with asparagus and provolone cheese. Delicious.

Di says I think in food. Says I remember our wedding not cause of the dancing or the booze or the pigeons and rice, but cause we ate pork goulash with herb dumplings.

She’s wrong. I remember our wedding cause we ate a duck, apricot, and pine nut pastilla. There was pork, we had a whole hog roast for the guests at the service. But I only ate the crackling. After, I cut off the ears and fed them to our Golden Retriever, Bella.

If I think in food, then Di thinks in arguments. She remembers our wedding day because of the row we had with her mother. Di’s Mum is a vegan and was astounded we’d not given any option but the duck or the hog. She boycotted the dinner and still Di blames me, but I have no regrets. I wasn’t going to cater for a radical minority.

Anyway, the meat license. I booked our test a couple weeks ago, before the M.L.A was swamped. We were the first applicants in the county cause our tenant, Marsha, tipped us off. She was part of a government pilot scheme for the license. Of course, I wasn’t supposed to know this. The first trials of the license were controversial, and the participants signed N.D.A’s and whatever. But I caught her red-handed.

Marsha rents the top floor of our townhouse in Marrow. The house sits off the high-street, near the old butchers. It’s a mid-century, gothic conversion with an emblem of the masons embedded in sandstone above the front door. Di, Flora, and I live on the bottom two floors. Often, Marsha’s letters get lost in the family’s post, so I must ascend the stairs to Marsha’s flat and deliver it personally. That day, I was delivering a summons when I noticed this overwhelming pong of iron flowing down the staircase. It was impossible to disguise: the smell of meat, something freshly butchered. On top of that were the first notes of fried garlic. Jesus, I thought, my tenant’s a criminal! She’s buying off the black market.

I sprinted up the staircase with Marsha’s letter then drummed on the door.

‘Marsha.’ I said. ‘We need to talk.’

Behind the door, which was covered by a fresh coat of glossy red paint, I heard this clattering of metal pans and the hurried slamming of drawers.

‘Marsha.’ I said. ‘I’m like a wolf.’

For too long the noise continued; I added to it with my punching the wood. I called her name again. Eventually the door opened.

Marsha is a student of sports science with a knot of thick, gingerish hair she arranges over her head like a fox-pelt turban. Her features are pale, her chin like the bulb of a spring onion which sits beneath these lips like two deshelled langoustines. That day she wore a black cardigan over a white crop-top, and jeans, which were spattered with blood.

I made no fuss about it. Simply I said.

‘That’s something I’ve not smelled in a while. Pork?’

Marsha’s feet were bare. She scratched the Achilles heel of her right foot with the mauve-painted toenail of her left before replying.


She avoided my eyes.

‘Don’t lie to me.’ I said. ‘It says in the tenancy agreement, criminal offences are grounds for eviction.’

‘I’m not a criminal.’ She protested. ‘I’m sorry, but I can’t explain.’

Edging my boot over the copper base of the doorframe, I said. ‘Marsha. You are covered in blood. If I convince myself that you are not cooking contraband, then I might believe you are cooking a person. So, what is it? Are you a cannibal now?’

My foot inched forward. Marsha leant on the door frame, apparently considering closing it. Then she fell back.

‘Ugh, Mr Hamm.’ She said. ‘I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. I just didn’t know if I could make the rent—and I had to supplement my loan somehow.’

‘Supplement? What are you selling?’

Marsha’s gaze curled round my flank cautiously.

‘Can Flora hear me?’ She asked.

Flora is my daughter. Marsha nannies her. Flora looks much like her mother, with almost opaque blonde hair she wears in pigtails, and blue-pale skin.

‘Would it be better if I came in?’ I asked.

Marsha stepped aside. I entered the joint kitchen and living room. A frying pan lay on the hob covered by a towel. The walls were wet with grease and the ventilator above the hob was making a low roar. Marsha trotted past me to a window. She opened it. Then she made us tea. The letter in my hand was now creased and unreadable.

As she delivered my tea, Marsha began. ‘I reckon I should be honest. But you can’t tell a soul.’

She paused, inhaled, then confessed.

‘The government are planning to lift the meat ban.’

My heart shot into my throat. I stumbled to a parched leather settee organised before a glass coffee table in the centre of the room. Marsha sat on the kitchen counter. She continued.

‘Within a year, we will be able to eat meat again. But there’s a caveat. Since animal exploitation caused the pandemic, the government will not permit a return to factory farming. They’ve realised veganism is an overwhelming societal good. I mean, there’s less carbon in the air now, you can drink from the rivers, all the land freed for housing—’

I took a sip of my tea. She’d added oat milk.

‘But,’ Marsha continued. ‘The government acknowledge that a total ban on meat consumption limits our individual freedoms. Therefore, meat is going to return as a luxury good. You will have to own a license to buy it. Licenses will be one to a household. Once the test is passed, you will be permitted two packages of meat a month. That’s how I got this…’

Marsha hopped down from the counter and paced back to the frying pan. The tea-towel laid over the pan was decorated with illustrations of farmyard animals. Marsha flicked away the towel, revealing a cutlet of red meat laid flat in a pool of oil. A light dusting of salt covered it and ovals of garlic were stuffed in incisions along the slab.

Slowly, Marsha moved toward me with the pan. By then, I had come down from the sofa, fallen to my knees, and was edging over the carpet, sweating. Lowering my nose to the approaching pan, I inhaled.

How could I describe the smell? I swear, almost arousing, like Di’s perfume… something I’d miss if it ever vanished.

Gradually, I noticed the sheen, the gnarled edge of the cut and the islands of blood in oily lakes. I reached out a finger to touch it, then Marsha swung the pan away.

‘You can’t taste it. I’m involved in all sorts of blood tests to see whether it affects me, whether it’s good to eat. If you tried some and got ill, the trial might collapse altogether.’

I cupped my hands, begging.

‘A bite?’

‘Not possible.’ She replied, proudly. ‘You’ll have to wait til the test is approved.’

Marsha fished some cutlery from a drawer beside the oven. As I crouched on the floor, my knee knocked the table, spilling my tea over the glass. Marsha then cut herself a cube of meat, impaled it on the fork, and observed it in the sunlight falling in through the window.

‘And what is the test?’ I asked.

‘That, again.’ She began. ‘Is classified. You’ll hear rumours, but not from me. All you need to know is, everybody in the house must pass. Even Flora.’

Marsha plucked the meat from the fork with her lips. She swallowed.

As I considered the prospect of a return to normality, Marsha noticed an itching at the door. It was Bella. Striding through the flat, leaving the cut of meat unattended, there was a small scratch of locks sounding before a ratatata of toenails on the wooden floor. Bella, her coat shedding visibly in the sunlight, trotted in and began eagerly sniffing the kitchen. Her black nose pressed to the floor, she traced a smell she found overwhelmingly tempting, then, when she had discovered it, sat at Marsha’s feet. Marsha wielded the pan still, and ate the meat blue.

‘Down.’ She said to the dog.

Bella obeyed.


She barrelled on the floor.

‘Good girl.’ Marsha said. She offered some meat.

‘But you said—’ I cried.

Marsha stamped her foot. ‘Seriously, Mr Hamm. Would you betray those eyes?’ Bella then edged her nose to the meat and sniffed in three loud bursts. Marsha pushed the meat toward her before the dog turned her head sharply, tucked her tail under her belly, and hurried to me. She whined, pressing her head to my chest. Marsha giggled.

‘See! We’ve all adapted to veganism. It isn’t so bad. Even the dogs prefer it.’

I cradled Bella’s jowls in my hand. Her eyes turned up to me. Various muscles in the eyebrows twitched, as if trying to communicate a concern. Then, her worries forgotten, she edged her muzzle into my fist and lapped at my palm.


So, we booked our test. They were being run from the old shopping malls in the city. In the morning, Di, Flora, and I got in the car. Flora waved from the backseats at Bella, who barked from the window as our car disappeared up the road.

When we were on the motorway, Diana said. ‘You know, must we all do it? Flora too?’

Flora held her iPad on her knees and flicked at the screen with her thumb.

‘Of course.’ I said honestly. ‘That’s the nature of the test.’

‘But,’ Di’s fingers shivered in her lap. ‘What if it’s too much? She’s five.’

‘They wouldn’t make it too intense for a five-year-old, Di. I’m sure it’s a couple of questions to check we’re responsible consumers. Forget it.’

Di paused, then muttered. ‘I’ve heard rumours.’

‘You mean conspiracies?’ I corrected her.

We merged with an exit. When I glanced at Di, she was flicking through her phone.

‘I wish you’d stay off Facebook.’ I said. ‘Seriously. The algorithm feeds you nonsense. Just relax. By the end of the day, we’ll be tucking into our first roast in yonks.’

We arrived at the shopping centre a little after nine. The shopping centre is a glass cuboid running four kilometres through the city-centre. Nowadays, the buildings are occupied by government offices. As we walked down the paved alleys to the centre’s west wing, we held hands tight. Around us, old abattoir workers and butchers collected their furlough. Depressed and bitter, they enforced an unnatural silence on the hall, a silence only broken by the odd pigeon clapping its wings across the marble concourse. They built their nests in the nooks between steel girders.

After a period of walking, the silence was disrupted by protesters.

News reports had tipped people taking the test that some opposition was likely. These reports generally said that vegans, wishing to maintain the status quo, would oppose the reintroduction of meat vocally. At the entrance to the department of the M.L.A, a line of hairy men in birdwatching gear and Aztec ponchos hurled slogans at us:

Meat is murder. Eat Beans, Not Beings. I Don’t Eat My Friends.

They were held back by a police cordon and private hire security.

The interior of the M.L.A was drab. A white desk at the end of a short, wide room, was orbited by a set of itchy, fabric covered chairs. A young couple sat waiting awkwardly. On the television above the desk, government adverts promoting the thousand-year fish ban played repeatedly.

At the desk I filled out our family’s details whilst eyed by a wolfish M.L.A employee. His hair was bright red and slicked back by grease. On his finger was a thick blood blister looking like a ring. Introducing himself as Ronald, he explained he would be our examiner. He asked us to follow him through a thin dark corridor to an airconditioned room. It was empty but for a grey industrial carpet. We waited with Ronald beside us til three youngish people in yellow aprons – two women, one man – entered.

‘These are your guides.’ Ronald said.

One of the women, a thin, blonde girl with a brown clipboard and zebra-pattern scrunchy in her hair, then stepped forward.

‘Mr and Mrs Hamm. I would like to ask your consent to take Flora for her test.’

She bowed to Flora and smiled. Flora stepped forward gingerly.

‘Do you consent?’ The woman repeated.

I noticed Di shaking. Gripping Flora’s hand, she jerked her backward.

‘Does she have to do it alone?’ Di pleaded.

The three aproned kids looked toward Ronald, who surveyed Flora slow before answering. ‘Since her size likely forbids her from carrying out the demands of the test… no. But she must watch.’

Di turned to me. Flora, looking bored at the floor, then mussed her fringe.

‘You want to take her?’ I said.

Ronald repeated to the girl with the zebra scrunchie.

‘The little girl must watch.’

Then he pointed at a boy whose head was partially shaved. Jabbing a finger my way, he said. ‘Take him through. The girls can follow.’

I followed the boy with the shaved head through another corridor. The walls of the corridor were covered in a slip-shod soundproofing fabric. Soon we emerged into another sterile room where iPads on podiums stood in columns. The boy directed me to one of the screens, then pressed an arrow indicating play.

A video began. Against a backdrop of crudely drawn animals, an animated man with eyes which blinked too slow recited a monologue. It went:

‘Welcome to the Meat Licensing Association. Today’s test will return you your freedom to consume meat. We know you’re hungry to take the test, so we’ll try make it quick.’

The animation smiled. He had CGI canines.

‘Have you ever heard of Roger Fisher?’ He asked.

A small pause followed in which the animated man, whom I now noticed wore a butcher’s cap, allowed for my answer. I mouthed, no.

Good. Then you’ll know Roger Fisher, in the 1981 ‘Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’, proposed what has been described as the most effective nuclear deterrent imagined. Fisher proposed that the U.S President, before she was allowed to launch a nuclear warhead, should first be presented with a butcher knife. This butcher knife would then be used to kill a volunteer who, at their behest, had the launch codes implanted beside their heart. If the president carried out the act, it would prove they understood the consequences of their actions. It forces us to ask the question: once someone is faced with the prospect of killing, can they follow through? Could they follow through a million times over?

Pre-pandemic, many of us were alienated from the consequences of the food we consumed. We did not understand, for example, that seventy-five per cent of epidemic events were linked to animal exploitation. We did not understand that, due to poor farming practice, eighty-six per cent of Britain’s rivers were dangerously polluted. We did not understand that animal farming produced a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions. That’s as much as every vehicle on Earth.

Perhaps most heinously, we did not understand the pain involved in meat consumption. With every slice of bacon you ever ate, a pig had to die, and a person had to kill it. Did you know, due to the traumatic nature of their work, there was a high prevalence of depression amongst slaughterhouse workers?’

Again a pause elapsed. Now I turned my head over my shoulder, to the boy who had led me here. He was doodling on his clipboard with a biro, his tongue stuck out a corner of his mouth. Then the animation interrupted.

‘Of course you did. As high as fifty per cent! That’s why, here at the Meat Licensing Association, we’re addressing the balance. The test today is inspired by Roger Fisher’s deterrent and aims to reconnect you with the processes that once delivered you your favourite foods. Using an animal of relative intelligence, The Test will reconnect you to the consequences of your consumption. Sound good?’

The animated man’s forearm performed a thumbs-up gesture. I looked back to the boy. Then the animation said,

‘Great. Please notify your guide. They will take you to the next stage.’

Before my attention was quite finished with the animation, my guide placed his hand on my shoulder and said. ‘Any questions?’

‘Uh,’ I began. ‘I’m not quite sure I understand—’

‘It’s self-evident,’ he said. ‘Follow me.’

Together we passed into a large blue-grey room with walls as high as an aircraft hangar. Someway ahead, in the centre of the room, was a sheet of white tarpaulin. Stood erect in the middle of the tarpaulin was a metal pole with a small steel loop at the top. Through the loop was fed a chain, which lead to a collar. The collar was attached to a Golden Retriever, an optimistic looking thing with a deep white coat turned slightly blonde along the spine. Her tail made a faint hushing against the plastic laid out under her, which accelerated upon her seeing myself and the boy. For a moment she sat politely, awaiting our approach. Then she barked pleasantly twice. Soon her bum had risen and she was pattering over the tarp toward us. The chain yanked at her neck and she sat down again.

When I turned to face the boy, he had produced a long, curved, cimeter knife. It’s handle was a deep red and made of textured plastic. He held it at his side as nonchalantly as his clipboard.

‘Did you bring a change of clothes?’ he asked.

‘I – uh. No. I didn’t think –’

‘I can fetch you an apron.’ He said, matter-of-factly.

Walking to a corner of the room. The boy knelt at a wooden trunk. In the trunk was a long white overcoat. Leaving the knife on the trunk, he returned to me with the overcoat open. Feeding my arms through the coat, he offered the instructions precisely.

‘We don’t care how you kill it, but we recommend cutting the throat.’

I fingered the buttons of the coat thoughtlessly.

‘Uh.’ I began. ‘The, um. The video said that a, uh, animal of relative intelligence—’

‘Oh, yes.’ The boy smiled. ‘Slightly stupider, actually. Than pigs, at least. But a happy medium between the pigs and cows you’ll enjoy.’

‘And I just?’

‘Slit it’s throat. I’ll be watching.’

Again the boy returned to the trunk, where he took the knife in his fist. Returning to me, he offered it with an outstretched arm, the blade facing down. After, he pressed his forehead in a nodding motion toward the dog, who lay there belly-up, whining slightly. Automatically, I began edging toward the plastic. As I approached, the dog’s ears twitched. She sat up straight, her tail wagging hard, her gums smiling.

I kept the blade held at the small of my back whilst approaching. With my free hand, I beckoned the dog closer. I tried imagining all the food I’d once loved: sausages, lasagne, prosciutto, pork medallions. The dog now shuffled forward, the chain chiming. Her eyebrows ticked whilst she read my face. Then her nose jumped sideways and her snout tilted up; her mouth closed and she gulped. Think she smelt the metal of the blade.

Grabbing her by the collar, I tried turning the body over, but the back legs kicked furiously. First she barked and whined, then she howled as my weight crushed, first, her legs, then her ribs. I flipped her. Swinging the blade out, I made a brief attempt to point the spike at the trachea before forcing my weight on the handle. A yip sounded as the blade slipped in, but her crying didn’t stop for a minute. Eventually she was silenced by the blood that choked her. Her brown eye looked around frantically as I held her head in the expanding puddle of blood. She was searching to understand the betrayal. Then she died.

I dropped the knife on the tarpaulin, then turned to the boy. He indicated a bucket in which I could wash my hands, then asked me to remove the coat and lay it over the trunk. After, I followed him through a series of corridors which lead back to the waiting room.


I sat alone in the room for thirty minutes. During that time, the couple we had shared the room with earlier also returned. They clasped each other tight, the male partner rubbing his girlfriend’s back tenderly, repeating. ‘You did so well, so, so well.’

At the desk they collected their first package, what looked like the rib of a cow, vacuum-sealed. When their guide pushed the package onto the counter, the girlfriend wept intensely. It was then I noticed a clump of bloody poodle fur hanging from her hair. An invigilator soon arrived and signed their license.

‘Pin it on the fridge.’ He smiled.

Di and Flora then returned. By then, having worried so long, I knew the outcome. No way would Di have carried it out. She never cared for food, like me.

When they entered the room, Di’s face was decorated in a pattern like cowhide. They were mascara streaks smudged in patches from below her eyes to the tip of her chin. Flora looked anxious, though not due to any reason she understood. All Flora had seen was a dog on a leash and Mummy crying horribly. Thank God.

Di approached me, spat on her fingers, and rubbed my cheeks.

‘Christ,’ she said. ‘You did it. You actually did it.’

Flora looked up at me, puzzled.

‘You stink of iron.’ She continued. ‘Your cheeks, your hair.’

I reached my fingers to my head. They came away bloody.

Soon Ronald stepped out from behind Di and Flora, consulting his clipboard. He spoke frankly.

‘I’m sorry to inform you, your application has been denied. Mr Hamm, your performance has been noted and can be cited if your place of residence changes. Mrs Hamm, you are welcome back at any time to re-take the examination.’

Flora gestured for Di to pick her up. Di stooped and obliged. Ronald hesitated before continuing.

‘However, Mr Hamm. Since you took the trouble today, we won’t let you go home empty handed.’

My eyebrows jerked with surprise. Di turned to me, then clenched her lips tight. Flora lay over her shoulder, exhausted. A reward, just for trying? I’d never been so thrilled in all my life! All I wanted was a taste of the foods I once loved, and Christ, I’d earned it, whatever it was.

Ronald placed his clipboard on the front desk, then moved to an adjoining room. Returning, he held a package of deep red meat in a clear plastic wrap. Handing it to me, I took into my arms like a newborn. Hugged it. Then I peered down into the packaging, questioning the cut. A whole lamb shoulder, or maybe pork belly… I smiled gratefully, then thanked the examiner.

His chin dipping, Ronald began to smile. Running a flat hand through his stuck-back hair, he chuckled and spoke.

‘You didn’t think we’d let her go to waste, did you?’

Jude Whiley is a writer from London, United Kingdom. Previously, he has studied with Faber and Faber on their exclusive ‘Writing a Novel’ course. Currently he works as a freelance writer, working as features editor for Yuck Magazine whilst writing non-fiction for various publications. His fiction has previously been published in the Spring 2022 Issue of The Moth Magazine.