MIRLive : March 8th 2024

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its first live event of 2024 on Friday, March 8th (Keynes Library, Gordon Square 6pm). The event will include eight readings, including six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students and two guest speakers: Ben Pester (whose short story collection Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press in 2021) and Melody Razak, who was  selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ for her novel, Moth, in 2021.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mirlivesubmissions@gmail.com by 5pm, Friday 23rd February. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email. Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We will prioritise submissions from people who have not had a chance to read at one of our events this year. (Because we expect submissions to exceed available slots, it’s unlikely that everyone who submits will be able to read this time around.)

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team

Melody Razak is a British Iranian writer who lives in Brighton.

Melody has had short stories published in the Mechanics Institute Review, the Bath Short Story Anthology and the Brick Lane Short Story Prize. She has also written for the Observer Food Monthly and The Sunday Times.

In 2021 Melody was selected as one of the Observer’s ‘Ten Debut Novelists’ for her novel, Moth. Moth went on the be shortlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award, longlisted for the Desmond Elliot prize, and was selected as the readers jury for the Festival du Premier Roman.

Ben Pester’s debut short story collection Am I in the Right Place? was published by Boiler House Press, and was long listed for the 2022 Edge Hill Prize. His work has appeared in Granta, The London Magazine, Hotel, Five Dials and elsewhere. When not writing fiction, he is a technical writer. He lives with his family in North London.
https://www.benpester.co.uk


 

Cue Ball, by Tom Meadows

 

Most people don’t live in a building with a Wikipedia page, or in a flat that would bankrupt you to rent, a flat that needs three boilers to heat, a flat that should normally be owned only by overseas oil barons. It squats across the top three floors of an old Georgian building plastered with false colonnades and bulging windows. You can see it from Green Park station.

I pull into a side street and find the secret parking spot, the no-permit four-hour-stay one. I picture him shuffling around above me, going from room to room like a dormouse in a Greek labyrinth.

He opens the door and puts on a show, shouting out my name like he hasn’t seen me in decades, and I’m ushered inside quickly, as if I’ve been waiting for hours. Old portraits stare down at us from a musty gallery of high frames. He gives me a tight hug.

“Hairless everywhere?” I ask once we reach the kitchen.

“Everything,” he said. “And all at once. Overnight, basically.”

“Jesus,” I say, staring at the part of his face where his eyebrows should be. He’s eager to talk about it more.

“The thing is,” he says, running his hands over his scalp, “it’s already started coming back.”

“That’s great, right?”

“I mean yeah, but it’s coming back grey.”

He’s smiling, so I choose to laugh. “So, you’re going to be a–”

“A silver fox, or whatever, yes.” He offers me a drink, which I decline, so he has wine and I have tea.

“Eyelashes,” he continues. “Leg hair, nose hair, pubes, everything is gone.”

“Toe hair?” I ask.

“Let me check.” He pulls off a sock and squints at his toes.

“Nope, gone too.”

The kettle boils as we laugh and talk. It looks so out of place in the stately kitchen, like a forgotten prop on a film set. I tell him about my last shoot, the darkroom I built in my attic, my next job coming up in Paris, and his eyes take on a genuine shine.

His immune system is compromised from all the chemotherapy, so he can’t leave the flat safely – a cold could leave him bedridden for weeks. I’m his first visitor in seven months.

His parents have come back from New York a few times, and his sister too, from Scotland. But I’m the first part of the outside world he’s interacted with again, so he marvels at me like I’m hewn from precious stone. There are a thousand things to tell me, but he remembers to pause and ask me a thousand in turn.

At school, he effortlessly took up the central social role – pulling people into his orbit with nothing more than an educated charm and implacable confidence. He wore velvet jackets and leather boots so blithely that others started to wear them too. He was polite and impish in equal measure; so devoid of ego compared to the rest of us, as we tried so hard to imprint our own identities onto ourselves and others.

The kitchen in the flat is a mess. In the fridge, the food is expensive and mouldy. From the top of a cupboard, the old family cat watches us as we speak.

Drinks in hand, we walk down the hallway that connects most of the rooms. Colourful figures dance across a dozen tall canvases that lean against the wall.

“You drew these during chemo, right?” I ask, making an effort to lean in.

“These and plenty more. I’ve managed to sell two, the rest I’m going to paint over again.”

“What?” I say. “Why? They’re really good.” I mean it when I say it.

“I like them for a week or two, maybe three, but then the colours start to look wrong. This green here,” he points, “is too pale next to the red. It looks awful now. Like a fucked-up Christmas decoration.”

The abstract figure he points to, a dancing woman, stares out at us mid-pirouette. Her expression is pleading.

“I don’t think you should paint over them,” I say, quietly. “You have more canvas, right?”

He shakes his head. “That’s not the point.”

I gesture to my camera, and he waves his hand to signal go ahead. I take a picture of each painting and each time the shutter echoes down the hall.

“You haven’t signed any of them, either.” I say, straightening up.

“Why would I sign them if they’re not finished? I could wake up any day and realise that the colours are wrong, or the lines are shit, and it needs painting over. I only sign them if I sell them, because I can’t change anything after that.”

I’m not quite willing to concede the point, yet. “Surely if you look at these for long enough, you’ll see anything.”

He shrugged. “I see that they’re not right. Not yet.”

I look at the line of acrylic figures along the hallway, their colours already shifting. Each one seems to dance earnestly for the two of us, trying to steal attention and favour. I imagine them shifting from canvas to canvas, jostling for position and the best spot.

“Fuck!” he says suddenly. “I almost forgot!”

Outside, the streetlights from the main road don’t reach far into the private side-street, so he stands on the tarmac and waves at a motion-activated floodlight until it turns on. The air is dry and cold and quiet.

“I bought it when I thought I was going to die. All the research I read gave me a fatality rate of ninety percent, but apparently I was reading stuff published in the eighties.”

I’m briefly speechless. “What is it?” I ask, feeling like an idiot.

“She’s a 1961 Chrysler Newport. V8 engine, dual carburetor, matching numbers, steel bumpers, original Mojave Grey paint job on the nose. The roof even comes off.”

The tail-lights are shaped like rockets, and the rear end has fins to match. The headlights look like they’ve been sculpted out of the hood metal. It doesn’t have any wing mirrors. The tyres are white-walled, matching the roof. It looks both futuristic and classic. The car stretches out luxuriously across the tarmac, and the bullet-grey paint makes it look even more impressive than a childish red or blue finish. I feel like I’m standing next to the Venus De Milo.

I’ve been silent for a minute, and he’s waiting for me to talk.

“I feel like I’m standing next to the Venus De Milo,” I say, aloud.

“She’s beautiful, isn’t she.”

I can’t speak again. The car is incredible, it’s everything we had ever talked about. Since we were twelve, we’ve compared dream cars and fought over which classic car was the coolest, the fastest, the most powerful. When we were eighteen, we planned out a naïve cross-country road trip across the States, promising we’d save and buy a second-hand Mustang when we got there.

I take a picture with him sitting on the bonnet before we open the doors and clamber inside. The steering wheel is enormous, like the helm of a ship.

“You see the red arrows on the radio dial?” he asks, tapping the strange wooden dashboard. “They’re supposed to be the radio channels you could tune in to if you thought there had been a nuclear attack, back in the sixties. In the US, they were so sure that the Cold War was going to kick off that there were two radio frequencies giving twenty-four-seven updates on if the nukes had been launched.”

“Wow,” I say, impressed. Then, after a moment: “What’s the point of tuning to a radio station if there is a nuclear attack? What would you even do?”

“Don’t know,” he said. “Maybe if you wanted to go underground? I’ve been speaking to some guy on a forum about it.”

I nod, looking at the detailed leather. “What’s it like to drive?”

“The steering is all over the place.”

“Where have you taken it?”

“Just around, you know,” he says, gesturing.

I don’t ask how much it was; I figured he would tell me if he wanted to.

“Should we start her up?” I ask, with a grin.

“I left the headlights on last weekend, so the battery’s dead.”

“Oh.”

I think about what the sound of the engine is like, tearing through west London with the steering pulling to the left, like all old muscle cars.

“Will the cancer come back?” I ask.

He looks surprised. He wanted to keep talking about the car.

“I have one more treatment scheduled. The specialists say it has a forty percent chance of coming back after that.”

“Right.”

“The numbers start to lose meaning after a while.” He looks in the rear-view, then over his shoulder. “I can’t do anything to change them. I can’t make them go up or down.”

When we get back inside, he asks if I have any cigarettes, so I nip out to the car to grab the pack in my glovebox – the pack I haven’t touched in over a month.

I never seriously considered telling him it was a bad idea to smoke. He’d had a year of people telling him again and again all the things he couldn’t do, and it had hardened him. Maybe it was irresponsible, but it was his decision, and I wasn’t going to overrule him like he was a child. Besides, they were my cigarettes, so who was I to tell him not to smoke?

He starts up a keening record player in the lounge as we sit and smoke. Rugby trophies glimmer from dim corners. Chinese porcelain, decorated vases and dignified old paintings crowd the room, as if we were in the belly of a giant wood-and-stone beast.

He proffers a handful of antiques he has bought from online auctions. A silver clock from 1895, which has stopped. A Napoleonic naval telescope and an old Scottish coin, called a groat.

He takes particular care to hand me a small bell. The black metal is warped and dull with age, with large letters etched into the surface, and it bears a crest I don’t recognise. It feels almost perverse, to be touching something that looks like it belongs behind museum perspex.

“It’s a dead bell,” he says. “This one is from a town called Hawick. The church used to ring them when someone in town died. Three sets of ringing for a man, two sets for a woman. Oh, and it warded off demons and spirits from the souls of the dead.”

I turn it over in my hands and shake it slightly. It doesn’t ring.

I thought he would be too tired to see me for more than an hour or two, but he talks fast and loud and burns with a comfortably recognisable enthusiasm. Tall shadows from the corners of the room rise and fall across him like wet logs over a roaring fire.

He doesn’t tell me how hard it must have been, even though it must have been very hard. We talk constantly about his cancer, and not about him. I ask about the size of his tumour, and he says it was a tennis ball, then a golf ball. It’s the size of a marble now but will be gone when his treatment is finished. I ask what he’s going to do when he’s cured, and he demands that I come with him on a holiday to Sicily with friends.

“I thought I would meet lots of people during chemo,” he admits. “It’s not like a movie. It’s not chill old guys all hanging out together for hours. I just spent weeks in a room.”

“That’s shit.”

He nods.

“Maybe because you went private?” I suggest. “It might be an NHS thing, the group rooms. I bet those old guys would have killed for their own room.”

“Maybe.” He toys with his cigarette butt, pulling it apart slowly. “I only spoke to the nurses. The doctors wanted to put me on a different treatment, which I refused. We’d just argue, so they would avoid me.”

“Yeah, that sounds awful.”

“I was always so tired too. I still am.”

I can’t pull any more words together.

“I just can’t wait to restart my life.”

Film photography is the process of exposing parts of silver halide-coated plastic to light, which burns a pattern, or image, into the plastic. After washing the plastic with chemicals, areas where the light was unable to reach are dark. These are what denote subjects and details, showing up as transparent – invisible – on the negative.

In the burned-bright areas of the photograph we talk, tracing a path through the light to navigate around invisible details.

He hugs me again at the door. “Thank you for coming, really. And for the card at the start, that helped, too.”

When he was first diagnosed, I sent a card around to all of our friends. He had just sent us a picture of him after shaving his head, so we covered the front of the card with pictures of Sinead O’Connor, Bruce Willis and Humpty Dumpty. Even a white cue ball.

Everyone wrote the same thing in it.

He keeps waving from the window as I get back into my car and pull out of the side street. On my way home, a stranger might swerve into me from the oncoming lane. Blow a tyre on the bridge. Close my eyes for a moment and drift off. The lift to my own flat breaks and falls four floors with me in it.

Streetlights illuminate the roads with blank white light. Huge shapes of buildings pass by unseen in the dark.

 

 

Tom Meadows was born in 1996 and is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Birkbeck University. He is interested in surrealism, word counts and paying rent.

The image is cuballnewpic.jpg, MIR Graphics


They Called Me Kyle, by Owen Bridge

They make us eat together. Altogether, so were never alone, sing it; – Never ever be alone –

– Don’t sing now Kyle, love –
That’s Mrs Turner, she’s old and from Yorkshire, she calls everyone ‘love’ even though Queen Bitch (I can’t say that word but I can think it) Abigail, big sour face, says it infantilises the service users. (That’s me and my friend Emma, and all the other people who live upstairs. They put bars on the windows so they don’t throw themselves out, not because this is a prison, bad people go to prison. I’m not bad, but I think some of the people here might be, like slack-jawed Billy Bloodworth. He can’t keep his mouth closed when he’s eating, and the other day he was throwing his mashed potatoes at everyone. They made a bloody awful mess, splat, all over the windows, and poor old Mrs Turner had to clean it up. But I made Billy stop with my mind.)

Nice Lady Shan is feeding Nathan, who lives across the hall from me. -You like your Thai green curry, don’t you Nathan -. He can’t really move much or say much, our Nathan, but he’s a good lad; if I see a sticker I think he’ll like then I save it for him, even if it’s shiny. They have a tiny crane they use to hoist Nathan in and out of his giant blue chair.

They can only see me if I let them, not like Emma, she doesn’t like to be seen. When I was little, before I moved here, I lived in a big house in the countryside. Something was living in the attic, you could hear it scratching about, but we just ignored it, till one day, my dad was eating bangers and mash, we could hear the thing start charging about, and a big chunk of plasterboard fell into his dinner and he banged his knife and fork down on the table.

– That’s it, I’m going to get that bloody thing, – he got a pillowcase and a cricket bat, – it’s him or me Kyle, – and he went up to the attic. He was banging around for ages; we could hear him. – Come on you little bastard, where are you? – That’s when he went through the ceiling, just his legs trying to walk on air. – My ———Kyle———are–

– Kyle? – someone shaking my shoulder, – Kyle are you alright, love? –

– Yes Mrs Turner. –

-Ok you went right wobbly then-, smiling, her hand still on my shoulder, -Don’t forget you’ve got an appointment with Dr Marshal. –

Yorkshire must be a wonderful place. Mrs Turner’s always saying the best people come from Yorkshire. I wish I came from Yorkshire, I bet life would be good then. I could have a flat with a lift up to it, so Nathan could come and stay, and I could put up whatever posters I want. The corridors here have funny paintings all along the walls, they’re not like pictures of people or anything good, they’re just like squiggly lines and blobs. If I was in art and just did a load of blobs and squiggles, I wouldn’t be able to keep a straight face.

After lunch, we all move back into the activities room. It’s where we go after breakfast, that’s pretty much our day: wake up, breakfast, activities room, then back to the dining hall, lunch, until eventually we go to bed. You feel lucky if you’ve got a hospital appointment, just to break it up a bit (once when I had a hospital appointment Shan took me to a McDonalds, but we can’t let Abigail know, even though I had carrot sticks instead of chips, and I got a turtle toy, but I have to hide it from Abigail, because she’ll know I went to McDonalds if she sees it). I can walk on my own but a lot of the people who live here need help, I’m not very big but when I grow up I could push Nathan. We only have lessons three days a week, the rest of the time Doris reads to us, or Shan does an activity with us, like one time she showed us how to draw a cube. It’s dead easy, even I can do it and I’m awful at drawing. Today we’re going to make masks out of paper plates. You can be a bird or a cat or elephant, I want to be a Pikachu, because when I was very young I wanted to be a Pokémon trainer, I know how silly that sounds, but Billy Bloodworth still thinks he’s going to play for Chelsea, and he’s almost as bad at football as me.

The activities room is big and oblong, the carpets mostly grey but there’s one bit that looks like a city from above, and you can play cars on it. Nathan can’t play cars, because he’s stuck in a chair. No one’s ever told me what’s actually the matter with Nathan, but I don’t think it’s catching. Billy Bloodworth used to make fun of me, saying I’d catch Nathan’s mong, but Shan heard him one day, and told him it didn’t work like that, and that mong was a horrible word, and he should be ashamed of himself for being so rude.

Wendy, who thinks she’s a ghost, is clicking the beads in Nice Lady Shan’s hair like a rosary. I don’t know why Wendy thinks she’s a ghost. The first time I met her she was biting Yannis the giant Greek on the arm. He was trying to pretend it didn’t hurt, but you could tell by the way his voice kept going up and down that it did. – I’m sorry, I’m sorry, little girl if you say you’re a ghost, then you are a ghost please, stop biting me ghost, ahhhh I’m sorry -, and she let go, I expected her to have blood all round her mouth, but she just looked dead pleased with herself.

– Thank you Yannis – she said, – that will be all today, – like she owned the place, which was absolutely hilarious.

Shan turns to face Wendy, – I’m going on my break now, Wendy. – Wendy nods. – I’ll be back soon. – Wendy nods again, just once in a sort of jerky motion.

-Hello Kyle, how are you today? – Abigail looms over me, her face right into mine. All the people who work here do this when they want to talk, but it’s awful when Abigail does it, it’s just awful. Mrs Turner is really funny, she says things like, – I’m too old for this, – or, – They’ll need six strong Irishmen and a winch to get me up from here. – She doesn’t loom over you grinning. That’s one thing I know, you don’t grin, it’s all I can do not to run and hide.

– Hello Mrs Abigail, I’m feeling very well. – That’s a lie, but I need to do good manners, – How are you today? –

– I’m very well thank you Kyle, – she looks like she’s trying to eat her own lip, but I know she’s just thinking what to say next – I see you have an appointment with Dr Marshal. It’s really important, – she puts her hand on my arm, – that you have a good chat and tell him all about Emma, and———Kyle did you get that, are you ok? –

– I think so. –

– Jolly good. Now go make your mask. – Abigail stands up and, as she’s leaving, she stops by Doris, who’s changing the batteries in the telly remote, and real sneaky-like, she starts talking about me.

– Doris, how do you think young Kyle seems? –

Mrs Turner is banging the remote hard against the flat of her hand. – He seems very well to me, have you asked him? Poor lad had one of his funny turns earlier. –

– He did? Why was I not informed? It’s important that all of our service users’ symptoms are documented, so the council gives us a good deal on funding. If he had an accident and could have fallen… – it all comes out fast, like a blur. – You didn’t have to fill an incident form? – Abigail’s face goes all contorted (I learnt that word from Houdini, he was a magician who could do anything, but one day someone punched him when he wasn’t expecting it and he died) and her nostrils go all wide, like she’s about to charge.

– Well no, he didn’t have an accident, he just went a bit wobbly. – Mrs Turner rubs the back of her neck.

– And then what? –

– He was alright, I think. –

– He could have fallen over though, is what you’re saying? –

– Maybe. I don’t –

– I might be able to wrangle more funding, so Kyle can have a one-to-one carer. An extra staff on the floor would make life easier. –

– Oh, he doesn’t need that. It seems dishonest, asking for something that he might not need. –

– You leave it to me. – Abigail turns on her heel, but then stops and turns, – By the way, where’s Shan? –

– Just having her tea break –

A- Oh, well make sure she only has fifteen minutes. –

Finally she leaves. Mrs Turner mutters something and gives the remote one last whack and the batteries come flying out and go skidding under the table. – Oh, marmalade! –

– I can get those for you, – I say.

– Good lad, if I went under there I wouldn’t be getting out in a hurry- she giggles but I can tell she’s thinking about how much she’d like to slap Abigail. The table next to the telly’s big, and going underneath it feels a bit like going to another world. It’s dark, I keep thinking of The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. I know I’m not going to Narnia but it’s fun to pretend.

– Have you found them Kyle? –

– Yes, Mrs Turner I’ve got them. – I shuffle backwards, out from under the table, clutching the dead batteries. Mrs Turner must have put the new batteries in, because the telly’s on and she’s flipping through the channels.

This is the only thing Shan and Mrs Turner argue about, because Mrs Turner likes to watch Jeremy Kyle, who I don’t mind so much because he has the same name as me, and I like to imagine what it would be like if I had my own telly program. Hello and welcome to the Kyle show, we’ve got a load of entertainment for you tonight, along with my co-host, Nathan, we’ll be bringing you hit music, and zany guests. Instead of interviewing famous people, I’d only interview normal people like Mrs Turner. You know the bit where they’re doing the whole, so Mr Z you’ve sold loads of records, how did you ever manage that? I’d say things like: Mrs Turner, you were out of bed at half past six this morning, so you could get to a job where you spend all day helping other people, and I’d put on the applause sign. I think it would be the best show on TV.

– Good lad Kyle, I’ll put them in the recycling. –

– It’s important to recycle! This is the only planet we’ve got. –

– That’s right –

– If we didn’t recycle then… –

– I know Kyle. Why don’t you get back to your cars? –

Recycling is one of my obsessions, I can’t help it, I just think about how it just makes sense and I get really cross, that some people don’t do it just because they can’t be bothered. Like my nan, she never recycled, I remember when I was small I went to live at her house for a little bit. She lived on the Burlington Estate somewhere in a place called South Staffordshire. The people sounded even stranger than Doris, I could hardly understand a word anyone said when I first got there, Yowalright, was a new word I learnt, it meant hello how are you? But it was all just one word, which I thought was really clever. If you say it to someone who’s never heard it before though, they give you a right funny look.

It was nice at my nan’s house though, there were a load of places to go, like the Sea Life Centre, that was dead interesting, they had fish there that all started off life as a girl, but they turn into boys if they want to. They had a big underwater tunnel, it was like something from the future, and the shark swam right over us. They have sea anemones too, that you can touch. I wanted to be a marine biologist for a while then but I can’t swim, I don’t think they’d let Nathan go out to sea, and I wouldn’t like to not see him for months on end.

I can’t remember why I went to live at my nans, it was just after dad had fallen through the ceiling. Maybe the thing in the attic got out, and he was worried it might bite me and I’d have to get a series of subcutaneous injections (I can’t remember where I learnt that word, but it’s a good one) or I might go septic like mo.

———slap———I———I’m on the floor, and someone is kicking me.

-You shouldn’t laugh at ghosts, – Wendy kicks me, and it really hurts, – I am a ghost – she screams, Nice Lady Shan scoops her up, but Wendy’s legs keep kicking at me. I roll away, my head all bloody. I lose track of where everybody is, and when I try to sit up I feel woozy and sick so I roll the other way onto my side, and I can see Shan telling Wendy off, but I can’t really hear, the only sound I can make out is a sort of whooshing sound, like when you put a shell up to your ear and you can hear the sea. It’s hard to concentrate, so I can’t get Wendy to calm down with my mind. The mask making things are all over the floor, I think I might have bled on some of them a bit.

Mrs Turner comes around the corner, she must have gone on break because she has her phone out and is smiling at whatever is on the screen (Mrs Abigail has a fit if anyone goes on their phone when there working, but she can’t stop them when there on break). She looks up, notices where I am, and her hand flies up to her mouth.

– Jesus, what happened here? –

I try to answer her, but my mouth’s all dry, and before I can, Shan interrupts.

– She just started knocking the shit out of him. –

– God, Kyle, are you ok? Shan go fetch the nurse. –

That’s one of the things that annoys me about this place. We have three floors filled with all different types of people, with different things wrong with them, but only one nurse. What if two people get hurt at the same time? No good, very bad indeed.

– Can you sit up Kyle, love? What happened? –

– I’m ok. I don’t know, really.

Wendy’s pacing the other side of the room, staring daggers at me, – HE DOES KNOW – she screams.

– CALM DOWN – Mrs Turner shouts, but only to Wendy’s back as she stomps her way down the corridor.

I try to stand up, but my legs and tummy don’t feel very good. I think that I might be sick, but nothing happens. They don’t tell you about this in films; you see a load of violence, people shooting and stabbing each other, and maybe they die or lose an arm or a leg, but you don’t see how it makes someone feel. The sick to your stomach, desperate for it to stop, taste the other person’s anger feeling. You might think you deserve it, but you just want it to stop. You see all these superheroes who can shoot lasers out their eyes, or have superhuman strength, but that’s nothing, they can’t really make the world a better place, they just make more fighting happen. That’s why my favourite superhero is Molecule Man, he has the power to alter anything he wants on a molecular level, so if someone wants to fight him he can just go, no, boom you’re a marshmallow. I’d trade in being able to make people stop with my mind, if I could have molecule man’s powers, because he can change anything, cure illness and stop world hunger. I’ll just turn sand molecules into tasty banana bread, that’s what I’d do.

Shan comes rushing in with Nurse Kath, she’s everyone’s favourite. She comes from somewhere called the Czech Republic, and her name isn’t really Kath, it’s something completely mad and unpronounceable.

– Good morning Mr Kyle, now don’t tell me you have been fighting? – The way she’s smiling I know it’s a joke. – Now let me take a look at this booboo. – I can feel her scrutinising my wound. – Kyle, – her voice goes serious, – I believe you will live, but you have taken a nasty blow to the head, you are going to need to stay awake, just to be on the safe side, you know to make sure you don’t have a concussion. –

I like the way Kath talks to me, like I’m actually there.

– You say he fell, did he? – Abigail stands over us now, with her hands on her hips, looking right happy with herself, like the cat that got the cream, as my nan always used to say. – That’s really good, now I can definitely get some more funding from the council. –

– Where’s Wendy gone? – Shan asks, and that’s when we hear the screams. Billy comes staggering in, all caked in something, I can’t figure out what, I can see something sticking out of his head, it’s all white. I think it might be his skull.

And then———


    When Emma met Dr Marshal.

    Good afternoon he says, spends forever in his notes.
    Scribble, scrabble, dibble, dabble, won’t you hurry up. Better things,
    to do with my time, no golf on the weekends for me. you can keep that,
    ratty Mrs of yours mind, that’s her photograph isn’t it,
    nothing to be proud of.

    If you want to know which one of us you’re talking to, just ask.
    Oh, no he didn’t deal with that very well, he blames himself, see.
    Thought he switched her off? It don’t make any sense.
    She was in pain, you Muppet.
    Who am I? That’s a bit bloody rude, I know who you are, you’re a bloody sphincter.

I tell him stories, once upon a time and all that, shall I tell you a story. Once upon a time, in the land of no place else, there lived a doctor, horrible ugly little man, terrible erectile dysfunction, awful, couldn’t satisfy his wife, and what’s more he had the worst dandruff. One day a boy arrives in his office, he’s all types of mental: no mom, his dad is entirely useless.  . The ugly little doctor tries his best, but it’s not good enough, day after day, despite his best efforts, the boy’s still a mental.

Does any of this sound familiar?

I’m his best friend you doughnut, apart from maybe that Nathan, maybe, I don’t know. Should have drowned him at birth.

That bloody ghost got an attitude an all.

Don’t you take that tone with me, do you even know who I am?

———and then my hands are hitting something. I don’t know where I am, but I’m hitting something. It catches me by the wrists, and I realise it’s Dr Marshal. – Hush now, you’re okay, – he says. The door opens, and in steps Kath’s son, Pavel.

– All ok? I heard the buzzer. –

-Yes, we’re fine Pav mate, Kyle just had a bit of an episode. Better safe than sorry. –

– No sweat. – He makes his voice go more upbeat like, – How is little Kyle feeling today, it is Kyle? – Dr Marshal nods. – You want to watch football tonight? Man-U are playing. – Pavel loves football, and because Manchester United are his team, and I’ve been to Manchester once, that makes us friends, I think that’s how it works. I like watching football, and trying to switch people off. It’s the only way to get through it really, it just goes on and on, and then there might be extra time.

– I think this is a good point to end this session, – says Dr Marshall.

– Is it nearly dinner time? – I ask.

– Yes Kyle, we will go straight to the dining room, – says Pavel, ushering me out.

– Goodbye Dr Marshal, – I shout back over my shoulder.

– Bye Kyle. –

Today’s been a really confusing day, I don’t quite know what to make of it all.

Billy Bloodworth’s not dead, which is a little bit disappointing. (That was nasty but I don’t mean it). I asked Shan what had happened. When we were having supper, I walked in and Billy was just there eating pasta.

– Oh that, no Billy wasn’t hurt, – giggling to herself, – Billy had got into the kitchen, someone left the door unlocked, and he stole a tub of ice cream. He must have bumped into Wendy after she stormed off, and the tub ended up on poor Billy’s head. –

So, Billy’s alive and well. Which isn’t really a bad thing, he and I don’t always get on but I think it’s good to have a rival. Where would Batman be without the Joker? He’d spend all day sat in the bat cave, more tea Alfred, it doesn’t look like they’ll be any good crime today, all glum and depressed. It’s funny though I could have sworn Billy had his head bashed in, absolutely sworn blind that’s what I’d seen. I suppose a lot of the time people just sort of trick themselves into seeing things.

Apparently, I went to see Dr Marshal, but I don’t remember that. The last thing I remember is seeing Billy. I get woozy when I see blood, even when it’s actually ice cream. I don’t know why, my Nan was the same, – If I want to see two idiots knock each other’s teeth out, I’d go stand outside the Dog and Duck on a Saturday, that’s what she used to say.

I can hear Nathan being put to bed, it takes two people to get Nathan in and out of bed, or if he wants to go to the lavatory. I don’t really need that kind of help (lavatory is a much better word than Bog). If I had loads of money, I’d leave here, just me and Nathan, we could buy a flat in Yorkshire, and I could get a job at the cricket ground, not for the money but just to stay busy. Me and Nathan could go out whenever we wanted to get a takeaway curry. But I’m stuck here. I can’t really complain, there are folks in worse places than this. Mrs Turner told me about a place she worked at years ago, where they electrocuted people’s brains. I don’t know what they expected it to do, except for making their hair stand up on end. This is the only time of day I get much of a chance to be lonely. Sometimes I get visitors, but not many recently. This is the only time of day I get much of a chance to be lonely, sometimes I get visitors, but not many recently.

This always happens right before I go to sleep, I start thinking about my life and get all maudlin (my nan’s favourite word). I can’t remember big chunks of things that have happened to me, and no one will explain it to me. Maybe they might have and I’ve just forgotten. I can keep hoping that maybe one day I’ll wake up and I’m not me anymore, that instead I’m someone who can do things and who isn’t laughed at when they say they want to be a marine biologist. Maybe I’ll wake up in Yorkshire, the best people come from Yorkshire.

Owen Bridge is a Welsh/English writer living in the wilds of west Wales. Previously published in NAT1 LLC and Brain Mill Press. Currently in the process of completing a PhD at Swansea university having achieved an MA in creative writing at university Trinity Saint David’s Lampeter campus.

Animal Husbandry, by SJ Ryan

 

“Little old ladies…they should be taken out and shot.” Flecks of saliva spat from his mouth as he banged down the discoloured telephone. “They get,” he said, testing the tip of his tongue against the gap between his lower front teeth, “technical problems.”

“So this is a man’s shop.” She stood in front of the counter, the only woman amongst the Saturday morning trade of farmers and handymen. Her right hand held the strap of her over-the-shoulder bag for support.

He lowered his head and flicked his tawny eyes at her above his trifocals, lowering his chin as he made his way down her body. He smiled briefly with one side of his mouth. “Of course it’s a man’s shop.” He leaned his weight against the counter on one elbow and placed the hand of his other arm on his hip, his belly jutting out in front of it.
 

An assistant stood up from packing shelves that lined the wall behind the counter, scratched a sandy-coloured sideburn. “You won’t be saying that when your wife gets here.”

The shopkeeper rolled his eyes and brought them to rest on her. “Well,” he growled.

“I’m looking for hooks to use in a kitchen. Something that looks old. It’s for a cottage.”

“Something that looks old.” He turned his head to one side to repeat the words for the benefit of his audience, which had gathered slightly closer. He looked up at the crudely plastered ceiling where a few rusted metal hooks, splashed with emulsion, protruded irregularly. “I’ll give you those for a hundred and twenty euro each.”

“If you take those out, the roof might cave in”, the assistant chirped from beneath his ginger moustache, looking at her.

She looked back, her face expressionless. “A hundred and twenty euros,” she mouthed, bending her neck back to gaze at the hooks. She slowly brought her head down to meet the shopkeeper’s leer. “I’ve just remembered what it was I came in for today.”

She strode the length of the counter and turned left into an alcove that led to a warehouse. She knew the walk and lie of the place. “Awwrrrgh, you’re my type”, an unshaven heckler threw to the crowd. A few crude laughs erupted. Reaching up with one hand, she stood on tiptoe in her muddy wellington boots and unhooked a calendar off the wall. Walking back to the till she held it up to one side, her arm stretched above her head. “How much for this?”

Miss May bent over a polished car bonnet, on the glossy top page, black PVC hotpants stretched across her taut buttocks. Sunlight caught the blond hair on her upper thighs. The shopkeeper inhaled slowly, his nostrils wide. “And what would you want that for?” There was a slight tremor in his jaw.

Several of the men pushed their hands deep into their trouser pockets, while craning their necks. The air in the shop became close. The shopkeeper glanced around quickly. He looked back at the calendar, screwed up his eyes and opened them slowly. He took off his trifocals, attached to a chord around his neck, and let them rest on the upper curve of his belly. He had never noticed that the picture was a hologram, its image twisting and flickering as she laid it down on the counter.

Miss May’s taut buttocks had transformed into the hindquarters of a large pink sow, light glistening off the stiff blond bristles on its back. Its hind legs balanced in stiletto sandals, scarlet ribbons wound tightly around its ankles, each tied in a neat bow. Its tail curved above the balloon-knot of its anus, below which the swollen lips of its sex organs pouted. The shopkeeper’s mouth went slack.

He turned the page to the acrobatic twins who shared the title of Miss June. They had become two Hereford cows in a lush green field, one mounting the other, its full pink udders outlined against a red vintage Zetor tractor.

Whiskers began sprouting from the shopkeeper’s cheeks. As he leaned over the counter, she noticed the outline of a tail bulge against the worn and shiny seat of his polyester trousers.

He lifted the dog-eared pages to Miss September. The nail-varnished toes of her feet gripped the base of a red satin sheet. Her wrists were tied to the head railings of a bed with a black scarf. He felt a wave of vertigo. The picture blurred momentarily before coming back into focus. An Alsatian bitch now lay on its back on the wrinkled sheet, its hind legs hanging apart. Its front paws were secured to the head railings of the bed with a black scarf. Head thrown back on a pillow covered in red satin, its eyes were closed, its large pink tongue lolling to one side of its parted jaws.

She glanced behind her. Two of the men were bending over, noses buried in each other’s buttocks. Another had his head thrown back, mouth parted to reveal the large square teeth of an ass, long hairy ears quivering and erect.

Hand shaking, the shopkeeper pawed at the pages until he reached Miss October, whose naked pelvis was framed by a pair of light blue suspenders. Her legs, in stockings of the same light blue, were hooked around velvet-covered chains supporting the silver bar of a trapeze as she hung upside down, cupping her breasts in her palms. He swallowed as she was transformed into a skinned and disembowelled carcass of lamb, suspended from a meat hook by a hindleg tendon, the unsevered fluffy white head accentuated by a distended blue tongue. The men salivated collectively. Three had grown horns and pawed the shop floor, while two clawed at each other with sharp yellow talons, their bright red combs and wattles wobbling and swaying with each swoop and hop.

Miss November was kneeling naked in a cream stetson, her body divided into sections by a thick black marker, each bearing the name of a cut of meat. She, too, became a raw carcass, the black marker clearly defining rump, hindquarter and neck, ready for the butcher’s blade.

Several of the customers jumped up against the shop counter, wagging their tails and whining, the lines of dirt under their fingernails now hidden beneath gnarled claws.

A final page was raised. Miss December, leaning against the tiled wall of a shower cubicle, aimed a jet of water from a hand-held nozzle between her parted thighs. The picture misted over and cleared to reveal a man wearing a long rubber glove, his left arm inserted past the elbow into the anus of a Fresian heifer, a long thin plastic tube in his right.

She caught a flash of reddish-brown as a bushy tail darted out through the doorway. The shopkeeper raised his leg against a lower shelf and urinated before flopping onto the floor on one hip, pointing a hindleg towards the ceiling and slobbering into his matted crotch.

The shop was raucous with the sounds of barking, braying, bellowing and crowing. She picked her way past piles of dung, curled turds and pools of urine to reach the entrance. Slipping outside into the crisp morning with its fine mist of rain she grasped the handle on the front of the shop door and pulled it firmly shut, clicking the yale lock into place.

“Soft day, Mrs Crowe.” She smiled at the postmistress passing on the opposite side of the narrow road.

“Please God.” The postmistress nodded once in her direction then sniffed. “Fierce slurry on the breeze, though.”

“The wind must have changed direction,” she said, and walked with firm and determined steps up the road that led out of the town.

 

 

SJ Ryan’s writing has been published in The Stony Thursday Book and Stinging Fly. She has written a work of historical fiction as a requirement towards a PhD in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University in Wales. She has lived in South Africa, Greece, Spain, Ireland, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Canada. She works as a lawyer in London, England.

The image is ahusbandry.jpg by Tim Bradford.

Drim, by Nick Norton

Inside the villa they are taking no note of lines. Not of lines shall they be ruled, so it was said. Dr Ignatz is saying this.

‘For a day or so,’ (they whisper).

‘Soon enough,’ (they whisper), ‘best bet. They will be putting lines back in pronto.’

The villa was a house on the outskirts of a hospital, green expanse and trees surrounding. Dr Ignatz set the scene and it was she who said no more lines. From then on big V capital letter was quickly heard and so they now lived in The Villa, no longer patients but guests. Ruled and rulers sat down together. Rulers said the ruled could be rude or whatever: their show.

Journo Jim was knocking on the door.

Dr Ignatz wafted lyric-like, said she had wonder-drim and vision pictures. Ruled look to one another with arched eyebrow and mutter.

‘Ain’t that what got us in here in first place?’

‘I have a picture of progress,’ she says, ‘of how we are lifted when our hooks intermingle.’

‘Like Velcro?’ checks Geraldine Gee.

Geraldine is now in the parlance noted as guest but still she flinches at the sound of her own voice, expecting a battering. Expected battering does not come today.

‘Yes,’ smiles Doc. ‘Like Velcro, we lift the material together when our hooks intermingle.’

Journo Jim is knocking on the door.

Villa Velcro is scribbled on a scrap of torn wallpaper and passed out through the letterbox.

‘What does this mean?’ asks Jim.

‘Spacesuits,’ is the urgent reply. ‘We must wear spacesuits.’

‘What?’

‘Gotta go.’

Following on after this phrase, with forensic fanfare and trumpet blare, Journo Jim is back at the office. He is a regular one-person band, a veritable orchestra, a strident jangle of story to be told; he sets forth the alarms and gets them running up and down all over his editor’s desk. Space suits he insists, but Harriet runs a finger down the guest list and says: GG.

‘Wha?’

‘Gotta go was a code. All the inmates are variations of GG.’

Calmer now, Journo Jim turned the paperwork around to see:

Garry Gold

Geraldine Gee

Gorgeous Govind

Genie Genitrix

‘This must. be made up,’ he hissed through teeth and whistled and scratched his head and took up his coffee cup and swilled it around.

‘Surely that’s your job,’ laughed the editor.

Harriet blacked in and buttressed all her staff output. She only drank water during office hours. And the drinking was out of a glass, always.

‘Day or two, not weeks,’ she concluded. ‘Something substantial, please.’ She is shooing her employee out of sight.

In The Villa they now wore grey jumpsuits, Velcro fastening, staff and guest alike wore the same. Ignatz alone wore a white jumpsuit. Everyone looked similar, although Garry Gold smelt very different. Garry Gold smelt as if he had filled his pants. Which indeed he had, several times over. And now it was his pleasure to walk along the building’s north corridor, up and down, shaking out a shitty trail. Gorgeous Govind was very upset about this. He lived next door and the neighbourly stench was creeping into his room, staining every part of his material existence. He washed down his mirror, polished his door handle, pushed cushions along the gap between grey carpet and blue-grey door. He returned to his mirror and practiced his tragic look before running down to the communal area and declaiming woe and begging for the convening of the council.

New thing this, the council. Gorgeous was the first to dare to convoke. It worked. Ignatz appeared as if pulled from a hat.

‘This is a drim,’ she delights, though only Ignatz herself appears comfortable in it. Others are coughing and shuffling, their eyes watering. This physical unease might be a consequence of Gold’s pervasive scent.

‘Now,’ Ignatz continued, ‘I have been busy with my Scribblings and Figurings. You remember how I shared this technique? Has anyone followed up on the Scribbling and Figuring rota? Remember, how we open to well-lit understanding and set to replay, looking in wonder at all that passes? Then, you recall, we turn up the illumination just a little, and look again at what feelings went into the review. After this we concentrate on just a little segment, a single feeling, and this forms the basis of our day’s Scribblings and Figurings.’

‘But I convoked a council, miss. This ain’t to do with any of that.’

‘All can come into the review, most surely.’

‘Then I might scratch about it tomorrow. What about today?’

‘What about today?

‘He stinks of crap. He spreads muck all up and down the north corridor. Why can’t I move to the south corridor?’

‘Can we talk to that my friends?’

‘South corridor is female only,’ points out Geraldine Gee. ‘North corridor is for all the others. Why doesn’t Garry just have a shower?’

‘Garry?’

 

‘Gold,’ he smiled. For a moment this seemed to be all the answer and the only answer he considered to be applicable. Yet he continued. ‘Gold by name, gold by nature. That is… That is to say, inner nature is gold. I just need. I need to get it out. I am waiting on true riches. Yes, waiting.’

‘Golden Goose,’ smiled Genie Genitrix,

‘All very well,’ pouted Govind, ‘only while he attempts to pass out some golden nugget, I am going to pass out from suffocation.’

He paused. He crossed his legs and arched his eyebrow, thumb lifted to touch chin, arousing the sense of canny ploy.

‘What is the line between south and north?’

‘A line between?’ Genie sensed the play.

‘Or is it a line along?’

‘The Villa has always,” repeated Geraldine, ‘always, always kept the south corridor for female residents and the north corridor for all the others.’

Govind crossed his legs in the opposite direction and lent forward, touching side of face with finger and blinking. He was trying to flutter his eyelashes, although he really had none to flutter.

Ignatz unhooked her keys and went to a door to the east of the common room. She pointed out that there are other directions apart from north and south.

‘Up and down, for instance,’ she unlocked the door and shouted upwards: ‘KARIN COULD YOU COME DOWN PLEASE!’ she shifted over to the west of the room and unlocked a second door: ‘KARL COULD YOU COME UP PLEASE!’

The council is as if cudgelled into silence, made dumb by this occurrence. What was coming to be? Footsteps, banging, shuffling – some indecision – then more footsteps. How was it that suddenly The Villa was so crowded?

Karl appeared first. His jumpsuit was grey, like theirs, but filthy; dirt rubbed smooth so as to be a graphite mirror. The room and its occupants moved as if a mirage over the rolling volumes of his legs and belly and sleeves. His hair was unkempt dreck drapery. He lifted previously chewed fingernails to his mouth and continued to masticate, a big grin creeping around the nomnomnom motion of his mouth.

‘Hello Karl,’ smiled Ignatz, ‘come and join us.’

Garry thoughtfully pulled up an extra chair.

Karin wore a white jumpsuit that had greyed with age and perpetual wear. Her hands and face were clean. Her curls were reined in by numerous clips. She walked carefully, and on surveying the meeting she stepped down the last few stairs rapidly and pulled herself a chair toward the circle. She laughed. Ignatz said it was good to hear her laugh and asked what it was that made her so happy.

‘We have not celebrated a rendezvous of this magnitude for many a moon.’

‘Many a moon,’ whispered Geraldine.

‘Ah!’ gasped Ignatz. ‘A celebration, yes!’ she clapped in a manner not to be ignored. ‘Hot chocolate please!’ And quick as you please the person who served in the kitchen hatch appeared with a trolley and on the trolley a jug of frothy hot chocolate and a wildly mismatched collection of mugs. Another cudgel blow: the occupants quietly sipped hot chocolate, and by this sugar and warmth more force fell; the shape of their world beaten and reformed beneath sweet, delicious jolts. Geraldine managed to shift around the seating to be alongside Karin. She gently allowed her knee to touch the new person’s knee. Yes, she was real.

Journo Jim was knocking.

Karl heard the thuds and, slopping chocolate on the carpet, got up and moved out the room as if to answer it. But he does not have a key Genie pointed out. And Ignatz replied that the door was not locked. This was too much for Govind. The mug he clutched, of Santa and reindeer in Bermuda shorts, sunbathing beneath the legend: Have a break. He dropped the mug. It did not break. Remnants of brown liquid spiralled out over the grey nylon expanse. Gorgeous Govind rocked back in chair, scowling. He pulled his legs up, foetal position, arms hugging his lower limbs. Ignatz took in the growing number of stains on the carpet and carefully replaced her cup back on the trolley.

‘What might it be, Govind?’

‘Doors.’

Karl came back thereabouts, large brown paper bag in his hand, stains oozing around the bottom of the bag. He dropped it on the trolley and announced he had Cut off the bastard’s head. Then he began laughing.

‘Why would you do that, Karl?’ Ignatz checked.

‘Journo, asking questions,’ spluttered Karl, immensely amused. ‘Nosey. Knew it was your birthday Doc.’

‘Did he? How lovely!’

‘And you chopped his head, for knowing that?’ checked Genie, shuffling closer to the bag but trying to keep away at the same time.

‘Yeh, yeh… Fruity fellow. Smooth white head… I did not count how many candles.’

‘That might be impolite,’ suggested Ignatz.

‘Would all the candles fit?’

‘Now you are being impolite, Karl.’ Ignatz began giggling. ‘Well, let’s share it out.’

‘Slice each,’ nodded Karin. ‘Although has anyone got a knife?’

‘YOU SEE!’ screeched Govind. ‘Doors! All evil happens at doors.

‘It looks delicious,’ Genie admitted, having overcome her dread and stood and closely looked at the contents of the bag.

Ignatz went to the kitchen hatch and returned with a bread knife and some plates. She ripped the brown paper bag apart and there was an open cardboard cakebox splodged with jam and chocolate, and in the box a cake. The white icing bore in red the word Congratulations and seven candles.

‘Four and three,’ said Geraldine.

‘Oooh,’ Karin clasped Geraldine’s hand, ‘we could not possibly presume,’ Karin’s gesture making a joke, but her fingers twisting around Geraldine’s.

‘I am not saying,’ smiled the clinician, ‘but who wants a slice?’

Jim and Ignatz looked at each other across the table. Ignatz wearing a drab institutional tunic, mark of incarceration.

‘That moment should have been our happy ending. Maybe you and I should not be speaking…’

‘Harriet would not allow anything prejudicial out into the wild, I assure you, she is ferocious.’

‘You know; I am fairly sure our paths have crossed. In my university days I attended Happenings. Body painting and bubbles, inflatables and manifestoes, that sort of thing. Harriet was there. She was pretty much instrumental in this scene.’

‘I’m speechless.’

‘Well, speechless is good.’

‘Do I speak too much?’

‘Perhaps I do. You are obviously good at research. The cake was an excellent approach. Yes, so I am sure Harriet’s history in the Happenings is not hidden. You may not have thought to look, of course.’

‘Only, we are talking about The Villa.’

‘Yes…’

‘And that day.’

‘That filthy day…yes.’

‘I met Karl.’

‘They are saying I unleashed monsters, are they not? This is outrageous. The regime had these poor creatures bolted down, terrible. Truly terrible We were not set up to either enslave or imprison.’’

‘He has chopped off heads,’ Jim checked his notes. ‘Seven.’

‘But he did not chop off your head,’ Ignatz pointed out.

‘Ah, true; only according to these timings you had not yet introduced the knife into the room.’

‘All of which is beside the point. Karl is innocent in this. It was Govind who gutted Garry.’

‘Karl escaped that day.’

‘He went for a walk.’

‘And Karin?’

‘It was love at first sight, Geraldine and Karin.’

‘Was Geraldine aware of the, um, history.’

‘They held hands. They ate cake. It was cute.’

‘Cute.’

‘Oh…well, maybe I am getting sentimental in my old age.’

‘If Govind had been allowed to move away from Garry?’

‘It was voted down in favour of Garry taking a bath.’

‘But that night he was caught straining, mm, passing out, how shall we say? Waste matter in the corridor.’

‘And Gorgeous had borrowed the knife.’

‘He is insisting that the golden egg is his now.’

‘Yes, he does so like things. Look, I know it is all a bit of a mess. My Scribbling and Figurings keep coming around to this.’

‘Coming around…to?’

‘Mess! It was, well, how shall I put it? Harriet would have approved of my little anti-hierarchical experiment, once upon a time.’

‘Who was the experiment for?’

‘That is the question, is it not? I would ask that question, very good.’

‘Who was the experiment for?’

‘This had little to do with my poor cohort. Dear sweet things, they were doing fine. Karl, he of course has a permanent chemical imbalance. Everyone else was set to resolve and move on. Karin’s hunger had abated. But the mess on the carpets? Chocolate stains, and… Honestly, it was a challenge to allow that. One does get challenged by the smallest of details, and on such occasion, one must spend a good deal of time Figuring. Drinking chocolate on the carpet and normally, of course, one does not just forget about a knife. One might suggest that aged forty three I set out to deliberately undermine myself. But let me tell you about Harriet now.’

‘I’m not sure we have time.’

‘Only, I am remembering how the cake was brought in. You collaborated with Karl on that, did you not?’

‘Collaboration is hardly the term I would use.’

‘Knowing that a cake needs a knife to cut it.’

‘Well now. If it comes to this, I must say, I was presenting the cake to you.’

‘With Karl’s help.’

‘It was not for sharing.’

‘A cake that big! Was I to eat it all by myself? Surely, one shares a cake that big.’

‘Which must perforce be cut by a knife. Anyhow…’ Jim scratched his chin, scrubbed the hair behind his ear, made a quick calculation on how calculating his interviewee may or may not be. ‘Let me just rewind the tape,’ he said. ‘I think we might start a way back here.’

‘James you are a drim, a drim and a sweetheart. Such a diligent, clean-cut young man.’

Nick Norton’s Building an Aesopic Body, a scrutiny of tale-telling, is due in February 2024 from Short Pieces That Move! Some examples of his stories can be found on-line: 3:AM, Selkie, Fatal Flaw, Fictive Dream, Punt Volat, Idle Ink. Others can be located physically in: The Happy Hypocrite -Tolstoyevsky, Shooter, Mikrokosmos & AKA: A Genealogy of the Saddle, published via Book Works. He has just completed writing a novel: Laughter at the Edge of Tears.

Not The End Of The World, by Annabel Banks

Their fight will begin after dinner, once the plates are in the dishwasher, the surfaces wiped. This is unavoidable. Desperate to stall—her heating works, his flatmates don’t—he potters about in her kitchen, musing aloud on his cooking technique, the need for sugar and salt, and is just remarking upon how burnt onions leave their taste in the air—if a taste can be in the air—when it lands on the roof with a wall-shaking thwop.

He stops, looks up to the corner. A new crack has appeared on the paintwork, thin as a pencilled line. The things seem to be coming more often now, despite the official figures, and her flat is on the top floor—but a crack in the plaster doesn’t mean the bricks are failing. ‘These blocks are made to last, you know.’ A pan scraped, his teacup rinsed. ‘Much better than the flimsy new-builds.’

She comes in behind him, dumps their plates. Says nothing.

‘I was thinking of buying myself, once this is all over.’

Another rumble across the roof, prompting a shiver from the wall, but no response from her.

‘Perhaps by the canal.’ Spoon, forks, knives away, their arrangement backwards to his drawer at home. ‘Vijay says if it’s proved they’re attracted to water, all his clients will leave. I could end up with a penthouse.’ He smiles, inviting her into this obvious fantasy. She knows about his credit cards, the consolidation loan.  

‘You told me that already.’

‘Oh. Sorry.’

The seconds stretch out, and he realises that she doesn’t intend to speak again—not unprompted, anyway—and searches his mind for a new topic, one that will lead them away from this conversational quagmire, but draws a blank.

‘Would you like a hot chocolate?’

She makes a face. ‘God, no. I’m fine with the wine.’

‘Okay.’ He reaches for the kettle anyway, because she’s bound to change her mind if she sees him making one.

‘Actually, there’s not much milk left now. I’ll need it in the morning.’ She crouches, head hidden in one of the cupboards as she matches plastic boxes to their lids, so he can afford to send a scowl her way, double-affronted by the suggestion that he’d wasted her supplies by helping himself to two teas while she showered, plus the implication that she solely deserves whatever is left, leaving him no option but to have black coffee before work, which she knows gives him the shits. 

He drops his hand, frowns again at her back. The walls shake once more, misting the air between them with plaster dust, and it occurs to him that this sort of conflict might work as foreplay for some couples, but that doesn’t work for him: he’s never been attracted to the kind of woman who relished misery, preferring a sense of emotional alignment—in bed and out—and had honestly thought that she was the same. And yet earlier, when he’d talked about wanting to strangle his landlord, whose coughing bike had woken him again at six, her reply had been a murmured, ‘but then you’d go to prison’, and he’d felt flattened by this, suspecting that, by deliberately failing to recognise a joke, she was making a statement along the lines of I misunderstood you because you are too tiresome to pay proper attention to, but you are also foolish, so I must point out the obvious flaws in your thinking.

He frowns over the sink, rinsing away the bubbles. She slams the cupboard door. Through the window he sees the darkening sky, those thick purple clouds from the east come to push the sunset away. He draws the black-out blinds, then the curtains, and—once firm in the knowledge that no slice of light can escape—touches the base of the lamp.

‘Did you check the curtains?’ Even as she speaks, she’s examining his handiwork. Once, just once, he’d left a gap, and this is the result. He chooses not to reply, but the voice inside his head is strident: everyone makes mistakes, even you, darling and then his stomach squeezes—oh no—because he has said the words out loud. Not only that, but they’d emerged in that half-vocalised mutter that obliges the listener to choose between offering no response, a position of silence that either stems from absolute power—I magnanimously disregardor total defeat—I must not engage for my own safetyor, if the type to challenge, will trigger a sharp what? or the so-much-worse I’m sorry?, which every schoolchild knows is not an apology, oh no, but an order to stop, think, rephrase or back down, because shit’s about to get real.

So now he’s caught, waiting for her challenge, the demand to repeat what he thought was important enough to say, but not important enough to say properly, maybe feigning interest in his thought process as she asks him to unpack the psychic balancing act between what is worth saying aloud and what he wants to be heard. She will put her head to one side like a curious bird, an affectation of interest which is actually a sign of imminent predation, for hasn’t he just proved himself a scuttling bug, to be skewered on the beak of her correctly clear communication?

‘What was that?’

‘Nothing,’ he says brightly. ‘Just chatting to myself.’

‘Hmm.’ The tone of this hmm is suspicious yet weary. He keeps his head down, helping her adjust the curtain’s folds, reseal the velcro, and for a moment it is quiet between them, and he thinks that maybe they can start the evening again with a friendliness that might lead to the reset buttons of orgasm and sleep,  when she says, ‘Did you make any noise on your way here?’

Make any noise? She is being ridiculous, and so he tries to illustrate this. ‘Like what, exactly? Letting off fireworks? Banging a pot with a spoon?’

‘Don’t be dense.’

‘So, tell me what you mean.’

‘I mean that you don’t seem to be taking this seriously.’

‘How?’

‘By not doing what you are supposed to do. The curtain…’

That fucking curtain. Was she ever going to let it go?  ‘I said I was sorry.’

‘But it’s not only that. You don’t listen.’

‘I do.’ He stares at her, to prove that he is doing just that, right now.

‘No, you don’t. And I think you deliberately refuse to listen to me or anyone else, because’ —and here she takes a breath, as if deciding whether she wants to actually say the words in her head— ‘you’re a selfish prick who does whatever he wants.’

She’s never called him a prick before, and he feels the word trying to pierce his sense of himself, forcing him to view their conversation from an external viewpoint. Whose side would an observer take, if someone were peeking through the ceiling cracks? His, surely. He hadn’t sworn at her.

‘That’s unfair.’

‘Is it?’ Using her wrist, she pushes back the strands of hair that have fallen into her eyes. ‘You don’t think you’re doing stuff to attract them? Playing music?’ Her eyes narrow. ‘Singing?’

Oh shit. ‘There is no evidence that—’

‘Yes, there is.’ Face purpling, she hisses her words. ‘The party on that balcony. That man with the phone.’

‘That’s not evidence.’ He turns to busy himself with the table, brushing loose grains of salt into the carpet. ‘Look, I get you’re upset, but I don’t feel like it’s my fault you swallow every crazy theory out there.’

She pauses, processing this, and he can tell the exact moment she allows herself to tip over into anger, because she gets so very still everywhere except her eyes, which, oddly enough, call to mind the crackle of burning twigs.

‘So, just to be clear,’ she says, ‘my complaints, my concerns, all the stuff we’ve been talking about these last three weeks, are down to a failure in my critical faculties?’

Oh shit, he thinks again. Out loud: ‘I never said that.’

She touches the tabletop, touches her glass, and when she speaks it’s with the air and intonation of someone offering him a coffee. ‘You think I’m stupid?’

‘I certainly never said that.’

They glare at each other, and for a second he feels them teetering on the edge of a different kind of fightone that would break open this argument’s chrysalis to have it emerge new, unrecognisablewhen another of the things lands on the building with a great thud and starts rolling around on the roof.

It must be a big one, and yet the clatter of tiles shifting under its rubbery skin is not the worst sound he can hear, oh no, for that is the flobble or blobble it makes as it moves, a glooping sound that brings to mind the water balloons of his childhood, only deeper, like they were filled not with water from the tap, but with paint or unrefined oil, and not like that anyway, but quite different, and yet this is the only way he can make sense of what he is hearing. He hears other sounds too, as they roll—an excited guinea-pig’s whoops and chuckles, a washing machine with an unbalanced load, rocking and banging as it spins.

They both stare up at the ceiling.

‘Will it hold?’ she says.

‘Of course,’ he replies. ‘Vijay told me that these post-war builds were made with proper materials. Not like Bristol.’

She closes her eyes, and he regrets bringing up those images.

Another thud. More rolling, bubbling sounds, louder now. It must be overhead, squidging itself as it moves around, the part of it that touches the slate slightly flattened, as though it has a slow puncture.

The roof seems to be taking the weight. ‘Soon be gone,’ he murmurs.

‘You don’t know that.’

‘There’s no reason for it to hang around. Someone will drive past soon, and it will bounce off after the headlights.’

She throws him a look of disgust. ‘And what about the people in the car?’

He could reply that these imaginary citizens would be fine as soon as they hit ten miles an hour, but she knows that, so instead he takes her hand, the fingers cold and stiff, and kneads and warms them with his own until she draws away.

‘Just go,’ she whispers. He’s not sure if she is addressing him or the grey intruder on the roof. ‘I can’t take any more.’

He opens his mouth to rebut this, then pauses. How would he be able to tell whether she was telling the truth, or merely being theatrical? Maybe she

could

take more, but he doesn’t want to be the one to test the weight of her emotional ceiling. Deciding that she needs a moment, he picks up their wine glasses and uses his elbow to switch on the kitchen light, planning a splash more for each, and is just deciding if maybe, as he hands her the glass, he should touch the top of her head in a tender cease-fire, when the window behind him explodes inwards, showering the floor with jagged shards of glass.

They both leap, her forwards, him back, and so come to rest side-by-side, as the thing bulbs its way inside the room. ‘Get the fuck out,’ she screams, catching up the scissors that hang from a magnetic hook on the fridge to poke at the grey, stretched-silk skin. ‘Get away from here!’ And as he moves behind her in an unseen gesture of support, the smell hits him, that hot-fat smell which always reminds him of the beer garden where they went on their second date, that had looked perfect in the pictures but—disaster—had been built next to the kitchen vents, and thus reeked of thrice-fried chips and oil-dunked bean burgers, and where they had both soldiered on, neither wanting to appear an unattractive fusspot, tiresome in demands for olfactory purity wherever they dine, until an older American couple on the table next to them had exited, loudly expressing their revulsion, and he’d met her gaze with amused agreement before following them out.

‘Get back,’ he shouts, trying to take the scissors from her. Spinning, she shifts her grip and attacks the thing over-armed with a frenzied stabbing that has no effect at all, a toothpick to a tyre, until eventually it withdraws from the window and rolls completely off the corner of the block, the both of them so still as they listen to the second of silence, the gravelly crunch, and the sound of it wobbling around the corner in the direction of the main road.

‘It’s gone,’ he says, and turns in time to witness the rolling of her eyes.

‘But why did it come in the first place? The window was blacked out.’

‘It wasn’t trying to hurt us, I think. Just passing over. The glass couldn’t take the weight.’

‘Well, aren’t I lucky.’ She waves the scissors towards the mess on the floor. ‘So now there’s this. On top of all this shit, I have to find the money for a new window.’

‘Don’t worry,’ he says. After a moment’s hesitation, he steps forward to take her by the shoulders, with a pause just before his hands come to rest, waiting for that shake of her head. ‘I can pay half.’

But she neither rejects him, nor softens under his touch. Instead, she stands there, teeth working her bottom lip, eyes on his. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ she murmurs, and he knows the it’s my flat, my private home, you are here on sufferance, and what money have you got anyway might be unspoken, but that doesn’t stop it being real, and anyway, he abruptly realises, the broken window might only be the start of the evening’s events—he’s seen the pictures from Glasgow, the flattened school in Milan—so volunteering to pay towards the cost of any damages before he knew their true extent would be unwise. There’s nothing to do but nod, drop his hands, and move back in an almost ceremonial fashion, like the measured step of a graduate or newly arisen knight. ‘We can talk about it later.’

She shrugs.

‘Do you have anything to cover the window?’

‘Nothing dark enough.’ Another shrug. ‘A blanket, I suppose.’

‘Great. I’ll hang it over the hole and we can wedge a pillow against the bottom of the door to make sure.’

She fetches the blanket—more a quilt, it turns out: steel-grey, slippery, difficult to wrangle—and helps him loop it over the curtain rail, securing the fold with wooden pegs from under the sink. They work in darkness, her face near his armpit, her breasts at his back, and the result is clumsy but serviceable. When they have retreated into the living room, he feels safe enough to bring the conversation back to better things, and is searching his mind for a topic when she speaks.

‘Do you think it will be back?’

‘Probably not.’ She’s upset, of course. The window. The smell. ‘It’s off the building now.’

‘Okay.’ Stooping, she adjusts the pillow by the closed kitchen door. ‘As long as you’ll be safe.’

‘Safe?’ he says, before he can stop himself.

‘On your way home.’ She stands and, without looking, puts a toe over a shard of window glass, shifts her weight and crunches it underfoot, and he knows that she means it, because otherwise she would have wanted to fight for longer, raise their voices and wring the misery from each other like water from a dishcloth, more, and again, until the cloth is dry, the palms of their hands sore, and then even more still, until there was nothing left but to collapse into each other and whisper words like sorry, forgive, try.

There was none of this now, and—as surely as the thing outside would be back—he knew they were done. The realisation made his stomach lurch, but at least it was a familiar sickness, one that he knows will end. Best to start the process right away. He’ll gather the few items left here over the last months, kiss her a firm goodbye and ramble back to his grubby room, singing songs from bands he’d liked when he was still at school.

Annabel Banks’s collection, Exercises in Control, is available from Influx Press.

MIRLive : Dec 8th 2023

MIR (The Mechanics Institute Review) will be holding its first live event of the academic year on Friday, December 8th (Keynes Library, Gordon Square 6pm). The event will include eight readings, including one from Wes Brown (Programme Director of the MA in Creative Writing and the author of Breaking Kayfabe) and six from current Birkbeck BA and MA creative writing students.

If you’re a current student interested in reading at the event, please send a piece of prose (up to 1,500 words) or two poems to mironlineeditor@gmail.com. Submissions should have ‘MIR Live Submission’ as the subject line of the email. Please include your name, the title(s) of your piece(s), and a contact email address at the top of the first page.

We look forward to reading your work!

The MIR Live team


Featured Speakers

Wes Brown

Wes Brown

Wes Brown is the author of Breaking Kayfabe, an autofictional account of his time as a champion pro wrestler. He was awarded a CHASE Scholarship to research Narrative Non-Fiction at the University of Kent, founded the publishing press Dead Ink Books and his stories, reviews and essays have appeared in publications including New Humanist, The Critic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Real Story, Literary Review, Litro, the Mechanic’s Institute Review and 3:AM Magazine. He is the Programme Director of the MAs in Creative Writing and Creative Writing & Contemporary Studies at Birkbeck.

Elsa Court

Elsa Court is a writer and translator based in London. Her short stories have appeared in American Short Fiction, The Brixton Review of Books, The London Magazine, The Tangerine, and Worms, and she is the recipient of a 2023 International Literary Seminars + Fence Reader’s Choice Award in the short fiction category. Her essays on contemporary literature have featured in Granta, The White Review, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. She is an Associate Lecturer in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, and a Lecturer in French at the University of Oxford.

Dead Mouse, by Charlotte Turnbull

When we finally found it in the corner of the downstairs loo – the dead mouse – the children covered their noses with their sleeves and refused to eat breakfast in the kitchen because of an alleged lingering smell. They leaned into the drama. What child doesn’t relish revulsion and swoon? They defined themselves against something – it, or us – and found a purpose, a unity, that morning.

There are maggots, my husband said, taking rubber gloves from below the sink: he was ready to get dirty, but not too dirty. How long has there been a smell? 

A few months, maybe longer, I said, confident and complicit in our marital myth that my larger nose led to engorged nasal cavities, ergo a heightened olfactory sensitivity, along with all my other heightened sensitivities: lively digestion, easy fatigue, wet flushes.

A few months, maybe longer, he repeated, staring at my belly. 

In the kitchen, the children began to mutter – that kind of bored mutter that builds to skirmish, then civil unrest – so I led them, their plates of toast stacked up one arm, into the living room, to the TV, and closed the door on it. The smell. 

*

The children ate their breakfast but refused to leave the living room until I opened the window so they could climb straight into the garden. 

The eldest went first, then climbed back into the house seeing my husband upend a plastic bag into the rhododendrons. Retreat, she shouted. The little one backed away, accommodating and grateful not to be in charge.

We are trapped, the eldest shouted from the window at her father, our home is a mortuary. 

I was impressed with the eldest’s vocabulary, wondering if I had not spoken to her properly for a while, when the little one began to cry from a deeper sense than the rest of us about what was at stake. 

On the lawn, my husband stuck his arms out and lurched about like a zombie, delivering the wrong punchline to the right joke, and I considered whether another coffee would kick me through the rest of the day into the familiar sleepless night.

I took the little one onto my lap and kissed her forehead, but she pulled away and fell to her knees, officiating the marriage of two Sylvanian animals in one smooth, quick movement instead of putting her arms around me: instead of pulling my t-shirt to palpitate my breast.

*

If we had pretended – if my husband and I had frowned at each other, turned the corners of our mouths down, looking from side-to-side, avoiding the hard truth of the eye, the grey frame of our faces – could we not have just left it? Could we not have ignored the smell? 

I didn’t tell the children that a rotting mouse smells exactly like an old, used tampon. I didn’t want an old, used tampon to be their first experience of death.  

 

 

Charlotte’s fiction made the Galley Beggars Story Prize long-list 2023 and the Caledonia Prize long-list 2022. She is also published in Litro, The McNeese Review, New England Review, Denver Quarterly and as a chapbook with Nightjar Press..

.

Sudanese Football

The Dead Good Footballer, by Tarina Marsac

The Dead Good Footballer: Audio

CAST:
Jack — Sacha Marsac
Claire, Jack’s Mum — Grace Robson
Sam, Jack’s Dad — Julian Jones
Tom, Jack’s Brother — Max Marsac
Lizzie, Jack’s Sister — Florence Marsac
Daphne Beauchamp — Alicia Marsac
Recorded by Christian Marsac at The Safe Room

Jack

30 October 2018

I love playing football. In a different life, I would have been a professional football player. In that life, I would have been good enough to be a professional football player. I would have played for Arsenal and England. However, football is not how I earn my living. I’m a delivery driver with Hermes—and let me tell you—I get a lot of abuse in my job. Customers get annoyed because they’ve waited in for hours. Don’t get me wrong; I get where they’re coming from, so I always give them a smile and a hello. But they can be bloody rude back. Still, none of that matters much because every weekend and one night a week, I get to play football. Mum and Dad are coming to watch tonight’s match. I’m going to tell them I’m getting back with Daphne Beauchamp.

I’m on fire tonight. I’ve scored two goals, one of which I’m incredibly proud of—even if I say so myself.

God, I feel a bit odd. My chest is running out of breath—which is not like me at all. I’m super fit. I eat well. I don’t over-indulge in alcohol and never do drugs. To tell the truth, I’m a bit of a body-temple kind of man. And I’ve watched some of my friends—Mark Wainwright and Robbie Higgleston in particular—their lives ruined with the stuff they’re smoking and snorting.

I carry on running. My breath will catch up with me. I just need to focus. The ball is heading my way. I run to intercept—the world has turned blurry. Everything is in slow motion.

I feel odd.

Weird.
Oddly weird.
Weirdly good.
I want to kick my leg high, and my right foot wants to point, to flick the ball toward Geoff Berkey on the left side. But I’m falling backwards. The ball passes over me. My ears are whooshing. My heart is banging in my chest.

Why am I on the ground?

I’m trying to stand up, but the weight on my belly won’t let me. I can’t open my eyes to see who is sitting on me—stopping me from playing. I wonder if it’s Brian Williamson, that six-foot-two-inch wing-back on the other team. He’s always had a beef with me.

Why can’t I open my eyes?

Something is pulling me up. I can feel breath on my face, hands on my body, pumping, and rhythmic pressure on my chest.

I feel light.
Other-worldly.
I don’t understand what’s happening.
I am not afraid.
I look down at the football pitch. People are crowding around me. I’m lying on the ground, yet I can see myself from up here. I’m shouting, but no one is listening. They can’t hear me.

I’m going up.

I can still see myself lying there. Several people are there, and someone has a defibrillator. I had training for that—along with a couple of team members—on what to do, how to use it, and when to use it—I never had to, thank goodness.

I can see it’s too late for me. Looking down there, I know I’m not going back. I can see Mum and Dad screaming. I call them to let them know I’m okay. They can’t hear me.
I can’t help them.

They’re on their own now.
I’m getting lighter.
I’m a marionette, and my puppet master is pulling my strings. Mum and Dad are disappearing, my teammates, the crowd—they are all going. I’m drifting but at speed—upwards, and everything feels good. I no longer mind that Daphne Beauchamp slept with Daniel Frost. I no longer care that Tom steals my football boots, thinking if he wears them, he’ll be as good a footballer as me. And my tooth that’s been giving me gyp for what seems like forever has stopped hurting.

I’m lighter.
I’m soaring upwards like the freest of birds.
This is amazing
I want to tell the world how amazing this feels—except I don’t care. I’m just enjoying the ride.
I am not afraid—not even a bit.

*

Claire, Jack’s Mum

30 October 2018

It’s freezing outside, and I want to stay home, change into my pyjamas, wrap up with a fleecy blanket and watch the final of the Bake-Off. But I promised Jack that his Dad and I would watch him play football tonight. After all those years of sitting on the sidelines every weekend winter morning, I feel I’ve done my bit. Still, I suppose it’s not that often he asks anything of us now. He’s almost thirty, left home a few years back, and is independent. I miss being part of his daily life.

I’m wearing layers of merino wool and cashmere blend. I’m glad I’ve still got Sally Markham’s Canada Goose coat—I must give that back to her soon. Sam is not as wrapped up as me. Why doesn’t he feel the cold?

Jack is playing his favourite position. He is good. I had forgotten just how good. Shame he didn’t make the grade as a professional. He tried so hard, trained so hard, and worked so hard. Still, at least he gets to play every week. It gives him a break from his day job—people can be rude to delivery drivers.

He scores. It’s a great goal. Even I can see that. The team gather around him, hugging him, cheering him. He looks taller. The game starts again, and he’s off like a rocket. No one can catch him, touch him. WOW! He’s only gone and scored again. I am so glad I didn’t bail out. My nose is icy and running, but I don’t care. This is so exciting. Everyone is watching Jack, including the other team. That big bugger, whats-his-name, Brian something-or-other? He’s very close to Jack—too close. The ball is flying through the air, and I can see Jack and Brian going for it.

What happened? Jack’s fallen.

I don’t think that Brian bloke pushed him, but maybe he did. The ball is still in play, but Jack is on the ground.

Why isn’t he getting up?
My heart is pounding.
Something is wrong.
I feel very hot in my layers. I undo the zip on my big coat. I throw my gloves off. My insides are shaking, not from the cold but something else, much scarier. I don’t know what it is.

Jack is still on the ground, and Coach is near him. People are pounding on Jack’s chest. I’m running. I need to get to my boy. Sam is running a few steps ahead of me, and I feel cross that he’ll get there before me. Somebody has brought a defibrillator.

Why?

There is not a sound except the roar in my ears. Only it isn’t in my ears. It’s coming from me—from deep inside me. I scream, and I scream. My knees are weak, and they stop supporting my weight. I fall next to my big, nearly thirty-year-old baby. Sam is next to me.

I’m trying to pick you up, Jack. You’re too heavy. Your Dad helps me. And we rock you, just like we did when you were a little boy and scared of the monsters hiding under your bed.

I remember pushing you out of my body Jack. Those hours of labour, how much it hurt. And the last push when you fell out of me and into the safe arms of the midwife.

I remember her placing you on my saggy belly, and you opened your eyes, looked at me, and everything in the world melted away except us. I remember your Dad crying. He was so pleased to have a son.

I remember knowing how perfect feels.
You’ve gone, Jack.
I can feel it.
I want to look up to see where you are, but I’m afraid in case I don’t see you. In case I do.

I am so afraid.

*

Sam, Jack’s Dad

30 October 2018

Jack is playing footy tonight, and the missus and I are going to watch him. It’s been a while since he wanted us on the sidelines. When I think of all the weekends we spent in the cold, it’s hard to believe where that time has gone. He’ll be 30 soon. I need to warm the car up for Claire. I’ve had a bit of trouble with the starter motor recently. It’s bloody cold tonight. I’m hoping we don’t break down. I can imagine what Claire would say, and she’s not that happy about going out tonight. The bloody Bake-Off final is on, and she’s been rooting for that Rahul bloke all along. Personally, I find him a bit sappy.

The car is running, warm enough for Claire. I wish she’d hurry up. I don’t want to be late. There is a real bite to the air tonight. I wonder if I should have worn a thicker jumper.

Oh my God! Claire looks like she’s going on an arctic expedition. Where on earth did she get that coat? Still, at least she’ll not complain about being cold!

I’m excited about tonight’s match. Jack has always been a good footballer. When he was a lad, he wanted to be a professional. He was nutty about Arsenal and England–of course. He was good too. A couple of scouts sniffed around. He trialled for various youth clubs and ended up at Crystal Palace, but he didn’t make the final cut. I’m pleased he hasn’t given up, though. It keeps him fit. And that day job of his must drive him mad, the traffic in London is awful, and some people can be very rude to Hermes drivers. What is that about? He does his job well; they get their parcels—’ get over yerselves.’

The match is going well. Jack scores the first goal. It’s a cracker of a goal, too. His teammates are proper all over him. There he goes again, flying down that field— he’s only gone and scored again! I reckon he’ll get ‘Man of the Match’.

Some of the players on the other side are big buggers, but they’re not playing too dirty. I’m glad about that. Bloody hell, the ball is flying through the air. Jack is going for it along with that 6’2 monster Brian whatever his name is. I hope he doesn’t knock ‘im down. Jack would feel that good and proper.

The ball is still in play, but Jack is on the ground.
What’s going on?
He wasn’t pushed—I’m sure of it.
Something feels off. I’m looking at Claire. Her face is off too. What is going on?

There’s a commotion all around Jack. Claire and I are running toward him. I need to get there first.

I need to protect him.
I need to protect Claire—I have to make this better.
Claire’s taken her coat off and gloves, running like the wind, but I get here first. There are loads of people here, and the Coach and someone are putting paddles on his chest. They’ve ripped his shirt. He is going to get so fucking cold.

What is the fucking matter with everyone?

Claire’s trying to pick him up, but he’s too heavy. I help her, and we hold him in our arms and rock him.

Claire is screaming, except it’s not a scream, more of a roar, like a wounded animal.

We’re here now, Jack. You’re safe now, Jack.

I remember your very first football match, Jack. Your eyes were worried when you looked at me, then you jutted out your chin, threw your shoulders back and gave me the thumbs up, and you ran toward Coach Brian. You were brave, Jack. I was so bloody proud of you, Jack.

I am so afraid.
People are pounding on your chest. I want them to stop. I know you’ve gone.
I know you’re not coming back.
I can feel you.
I close my eyes, and I see you.
I don’t want to open them. I don’t want you to go, Jack.
I am so afraid of you going.

*

Tom, Jack’s Brother

30 October 2018

Jack came around yesterday and asked if I would come to his match. I’m glad I can’t. When I watch him play, my whole insides get hot and wobbly. Don’t get me wrong; I love him and all that—I just hate knowing I’ll never be as good as him. I’d often nick his football boots when he still lived at home. I swear I played better when I wore them. He moved out quite a while ago, so I can’t ‘borrow’ them anymore.

Jack told me he’s going to ask Daphne Beauchamp out again after the match— even though she’s been shagging that Daniel Frost. I told him he was barking mad. Why would he want to go there again, especially after Daniel had? He clipped me around the ear—that hurt—and told me I didn’t know what I was talking about—Jack’s nearly 30. I am seventeen and a half. So what if he knows more than me? I still wouldn’t go there, and I’ve heard things about that Daniel Frost, not good things—if you know what I mean.

Anyway, forget Daphne, tonight I’m going to the school disco, and Sarah Freeman will be there. I’ve got to dance with her. She’s the fittest girl in Sixth Form and clever too. She wants to go to Oxford to study Astrophysics. I’m not sure I’m smart enough to get into Oxford, but I want to, especially if Sarah Freeman goes there.

Jack’s clever enough, but it was all about football for him. He worked hard when he was a kid and trained all the time. Mum and Dad took him to footy matches every weekend. Sometimes Mum would get so cold her nose would still be dripping two hours later—a bit gross. He got scouted for a youth team. But he didn’t make it to the professional club; by then, it was a bit late to worry about schoolwork. He did say that he might go to college to get his ‘A’ levels one day. He thinks his job is a bit shitty— he’s a delivery driver for Hermes. I’m not going to end up doing a job like that. But Jack plays football every week, and, what with that and thinking about Daphne Beauchamp. He’s okay.

I’m at the dance, and I feel a bit self-conscious, Jack says these jeans are a sure thing for pulling girls, but I don’t know. The music’s okay. Shame there are so many teachers here. I’m inching a bit closer to Sarah. She’s dancing with her friends, Cathy Stellar and Maisie Markham—we call her Measley Markham ‘cos she’s small and a little bit nothing. Sarah just looked at me, and I’ve gone all hot. I fiddle with my hair, trying to look casual, but I know my face has gone red. The music is getting louder.

The beat’s buzzing its way through everyone’s bodies. Sarah’s next to me now. Her eyes are closed as she is drinking the music. I fancy her so much it hurts.

My pocket is buzzing.
I ignore it.
My body feels alive, electric. Being close to Sarah Freeman has given me a semi, and I am very grateful my trousers are not so tight, and the room is dark enough that no one can see.

My damn phone again.
It’s Dad. What’s he doing phoning me? The game’s not finished yet.
My heart is pounding, and Dad’s crying. Something wrong with Jack. I can hear Mum moaning in the background. I can’t hear what Dad’s saying. I walk out of the disco hall into the bloody freezing outside—I wish I’d stopped to get my jacket.

The world is quiet except for the rushing blood in my ears and my throbbing chest. My knees buckle. The school railings stop me from falling. I’m sorry I didn’t come and see you play tonight, Jack.
You can’t be dead, Jack. You’re my brother.
You know everything. And you said you would always look out for me.
I remember you telling me to work hard because hard work always pays off. I’m sorry I nicked your boots, Jack
Where are you, Jack?
I close my eyes.
You’re there.
Inside me.
I feel a thump in my guts.
That was you, Jack, wasn’t it?
I’m sitting on the steps. I’m cold, and Sarah Freeman’s sitting right next to me.

I didn’t see her arrive. Did I tell her you died? I don’t remember. Her arm is around me, but I don’t care. I just want your arms around me now. I want to feel you.

Why didn’t I come to watch you play tonight, Jack? I am so, so sorry.

*

Lizzie, Jack’s Sister

30 October 2018

Jack asked us all to go and watch him play football tonight. Huh, I’d rather stick pins in my eyes. Luckily, I have plans. It’s bloody freezing, and the thought of spending a couple of hours on the sidelines of a footy pitch is a ‘NO THANK YOU’. My friends Sally Walsh, Lucy Freeman, Tash Markham, Alice Bicknell, and I have the evening planned. The Prosecco is in the fridge, along with a bottle of Tanqueray and several cans of posh tonic. It’s the Bake-Off final, and it will be a fab night.

I can hear the pizzicato Bake-Off music winging its way through the kitchen. Noel is chatting with Sandi. I love Noel Fielding.

This is so much more fun—and warmer than watching my brother play football. The signature bake is doughnuts. Not that impressive (though, to be fair, I have never made a doughnut in my twenty-six years of life – why would I? Greggs have delicious doughnuts at six for a pound). The technical is outside in a fire pit—so ridiculous. That Paul Hollywood is an arrogant git.

A phone is ringing.
We ignore it. It rings again—and again. My guts feel weird.
Why is Dad phoning? The game hasn’t finished yet.
I feel the blood fall out of my face, through my body, and slump against the wall—dripping down into a crumpled heap. I pull my hair. I want to be sure that this is not a dream—some awful, horrific, bad joke of a dream.

I can hear Sandi and Noel laughing in the background. I wish they’d stop. Don’t they know what’s just happened?

Sally’s rushing around. My world’s stood still and my friends are on speed. They’re talking, but I can’t hear what they are saying. Tash, Lucy and Alice are on their phones, finding a taxi or something. I don’t know.

I don’t care.
Why didn’t I go and watch you play, Jack?
I remember watching you when we were little, and I wanted to be just like you. And that time, you wrapped your strong arms around me when Tommy Sittbung (you called him Tommy Shitbum—do you remember?) broke my heart. You told me I shouldn’t be with him because we could never marry and have children with a ‘shitbum’ name. And you smoothed my hair, and you wiped away my tears, and you told me that I was an amazing girl who would one day find the person who was good enough for me.

I remember believing you.

I remember crying with you when we discovered Daphne Beauchamp was sleeping with Daniel Frost.

Why didn’t I go to the match, Jack?

My eyes hurt. I close them, and there you are, resting on the inside of my eyelids.

I hold my breath.
I feel a thud in my heart like you’ve just swept through it. I love you, Jack.
Don’t go, Jack.
I’m afraid to open my eyes.

*

Daphne Beauchamp

30 October 2018

I am so excited. Jack called this morning. He wants to talk.

I fucked up. Monumentally. I never thought I would, and when I did, I never thought he’d get past it, but he has. I really think he has.

I’ve known Jack since, like, forever. We started dating when we were 15. I used to watch him play football. He was good—like, really good. He was gutted when he didn’t get into the senior team. It was a real shame, too. He could’ve been anything he wanted—except a professional footballer—and that was what he wanted more than anything else in the world. Or so I thought. I felt a bit sidelined myself— like football was more important than me—than us. Not just more important but like it was the only thing that mattered to him. That’s when Daniel Frost and I started getting close. One thing led to another, and wham bam, and he thanked this ma’am. I don’t know what got into me. Well, I do—Daniel Frost—but I don’t know why I did it. I loved Jack—I still do. I just felt so bloody lonely and neglected.

I look back now and think I was like a proper spoilt brat. I hurt him so badly. I hurt myself so badly. I hurt his family, especially my best friend, Lizzie. The only person who didn’t get hurt was Daniel Frost. He thought he was the bee’s knees. Well, that was a couple of years ago, I have tried so hard to win back Jack’s respect, and now it looks like we might even get more. He asked me to meet him in the pub after tonight’s game.

The Bake-Off final is on. I’m a big fan. Lizzie and I used to watch with the girls. I bet they’re watching it together tonight. I wish I were with them. I miss them.

I’m putting my make-up on, not too much—I don’t want to look tarty—but enough to show I’ve made an effort. It is fricking cold outside. I shall have to rethink the outfit I was planning on wearing. I dig out thick woollen tights with my almost too- short skirt and biker boots—that’ll do.

They’re making edible landscapes on the Bake-off—nom-nom. I still can’t call who’s going to win. To be honest, I don’t mind. I like them all.

My phone is ringing, but I don’t answer it. It’s too early for Jack to be calling. The game hasn’t finished yet. They’ll call back.

Now the landline. Mum’s shouting at me to pick up the phone. My heart misses a beat.
I feel a bit weird.
It’s Alice. She’s crying, saying something about Jack.

I don’t understand.
I do not understand.
Fear is seeping through my veins, but I can’t tell which direction.
Up, down, all around.
My head is spinning, my heart is racing, and the phone falls out of my hand. I can hear a wailing, I don’t know where it is coming from.
Oh my God—it’s me.
He’s dead.
They say you were running on the pitch. They say you just fell.
What do they mean—just?
I’ll never be able to make it right with us, Jack.

You will never know how sorry I am, Jack.
Oh my God! I will never feel your arms around me again. Jack, I love you, don’t be dead.
Please, please, please don’t be dead. DO NOT BE DEAD!
I close my eyes, and there you are.
I can feel your nose touch mine, tip to tip, like an Eskimo kiss. I feel your breath on my cheek, on my neck. My heart jolts.
I feel you pass through me—taking a piece of me with you.
I don’t yet know if you left a piece of you with me.
Have you, Jack? Have you?
Can you forgive me, Jack—can you?
How can I forgive myself?
I don’t want to open my eyes.
Don’t let this be real.
I don’t want to live without you.

Tarina Marsac is a British writer who lives in South-East London. She is studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

She is a wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. Her biggest challenge has been to find space in her life and allow herself to take it. After years of writing from the dining table, the coffee table, a blanket-covered lap and her bed, she is now writing in a room that is sometimes her own.

mushrooms

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.

band

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.

M.L. HUFKIE WAS BORN IN CAPE TOWN IN 1984. HER BIRTH, DURING THE LAST DESPERATE YEARS OF SOUTH AFRICA’S APARTHEID POLICY AND SUBSEQUENT CHILDHOOD IN A COUNTRY ON THE BRINK OF CHANGE AND PLAGUED BY POLITICAL UNREST HAS LEFT A PROFOUND IMPACT ON HER. WITH A MINORITY VOICE IN THE UK, AND THE WORLD AT LARGE HER AIM IS TO CHALLENGE DOMINANT NARRATIVES FROM A MINORITY PERSPECTIVE. SHE’S CURRENTLY IN HER FINAL YEAR OF AN MFA AT BIRKBECK WORKING ON A NOVEL ENTITLED VOICES FROM THE SOUTH. READING AND WRITING ARE HER PASSIONS.