What Sleeps inside the Convent?

Written by Sophie Ramshaw

 Photograph by  Andrew Amistad

Photograph by Andrew Amistad

The old Convent looked over a small, craggy town below. It teetered on the edge of a grassy hill that had become overgrown and riddled with moss and splintered vines throughout many decades of isolation.

I pushed my palm onto the brittle surface of the convent's doors. It creaked open and I felt the heavy weight of the wood ease open. The sudden smell of dusty linen and ancient furniture bombarded my personal space like a musky-scented hobo, causing my face to crinkle as I tried to stop it from further entering my nose.

'This place is supposed to be what?' I said, turning to face Sean, '40, 50 years old?'

'Around that.' She replied.

I switched on my flashlight and briefly shone it over the rotting floorboards that surrounded our feet. As I stepped across them they would squeak annoyingly and I found myself tip-toeing over as many as I could.

'And why are we here again?' I asked.

'A dude came over to the flat and said his sister and a group of her friends came down here as a dare last month – you know, to try and stay the night. And well, you guessed it, none of them have been seen since.'

As my light passed the ripped, soggy wallpaper and exposed plastered boards, I could see an almost never ending abundance of dust floating in the stream of light emitting from my torch. I coughed suddenly, having the unpleasant thought of all the crap floating about the air entering my mouth as I breathed in.

'So?' I continued, dislodging the thought and covering my mouth with my sleeve.

'Well, the dude thinks something supernatural is afoot.'

'And how does this "dude" know to come to us?'

'Our boss forwarded the guy to me. Said the two of us'd be able to help his friends.'

As we were talking we wandered into an old dining area. A mouldy couch covered in dust and mouse droppings sat in the corner accompanied by a large stone fireplace. The fireplace itself looked quite out of place, all things considered. It fit the run-down, shoddy abandoned convent theme that everything else seemed to uphold, yet it gave me an uneasy, almost sickening feeling. As I looked at it I felt it had been used recently, unlike everything else which seemed as if it hadn't been touched in decades. There was no dust, no droppings, and a lot of soot.

'We take house-calls now, do we?' I said. 'We'd better be getting paid.'

'Oh, don't be like that, Mrs. Spoil Sport,' said Sean, leaning over to me to wrap her sword-clad arm around my shoulders. 'This is rather exciting isn't it? An adventure, I'd say!'

I rolled my eyes. 'We have far too many.'

'Not enough!' she added.

There was a soft scraping noise from the hallway we had just entered. Sean and I both jumped at the sound. Regrettably, her being the more composed one, while I assumed a position as if I were about to crap myself.

'What the fuck was that?' I whispered, swinging around to face the doorway. It sounded like someone running long, rigid nails along the sides of the plastered walls which encased each room.

Sean held up a finger and gave me the silent shh sign and begun to creep slowly towards the doorway. I followed quietly behind, making sure to step carefully passed the squeaky boards. I was about to whisper something to Sean about how ridiculous our job was, when I heard a loud scream. It was grossly high-pitched and echoed through the convent, disturbing the dust in the air as it vibrated off the walls.

'Sean!' I yelled, instinctively backing into the wall behind me.

There was no reply.

My fingers fondled the splintery wall behind my back and I flashed my light across the floor, slowly bringing it higher and higher. I called out to Sean again but to no avail. I was scared and alone with no one by my side to quip to. I heard a second scraping sound, this time to my right. I managed to control my breathing and scan my torch towards the sound.

A set of mouldy stairs hung under a blackened window leading up to the second story. Despite the cold air around me, my palms felt clammy around the stiff handle of my torch. I took a step forward, heard the floorboards creak discomfortingly with my weight and froze, trying to compose myself and prepare for a lighter gait.

Why does Sean always get to carry the sword? I thought. Oh, that's right, you're a weak-ass bitch and she's a badass. Now you're stick with this flimsy-ass torch.

Then I remembered something.

I kept my light steady on the stairway in front of me and attempted to search for the small dagger I had brought with me. I shifted the light from my right hand to my left, and continued to search. The cold surface of the handle stuck out from my coat pocket and, bringing it forward, gave it a disappointed eyeing. It was small and pathetic and provided little in the way of comfort or protection. I breathed silently and took another step.

A coldness gripped me and squeezed and my body started to tingle and shiver.

If I fucking die from this... my mind shouted at me.

The stairs were damp and almost mushy. The rotting weight of them bounced underneath my boots and made me want to choke as I imagined the disgusting mould lapping at my feet and legs. I closed my eyes for a moment and shook my head, knowing my imagination was starting to impeach my reality and generally just fuck with me.

The stairs took a turn and continued up and I continued to follow them, one damp step at a time. When I reached the end I scanned the area with my flashlight; it flickered for a moment and I tapped it gently against my thigh – praying the battery was still useful for at least a little while longer. In front of me was a long hallway, wide and soot-covered. Burnt and decaying doorways lined the path in front of me. My heart started to hammer in my chest and I hoped it wasn't as loud as it sounded in my ears.

My foot stepped out in front of me and I gazed around the hallway cautiously.

'Sean?' I whispered, though I'm not entirely sure why. I knew she wouldn't answer and I assumed it was just because hearing a voice, even if it was just my own, made me feel a little more safe and grounded.

The door to my left was slightly ajar and a pungent whiff of something old and dead oozed from the opening. My hand grabbed the dusty doorknob and, deciding it was a bad idea, pushed it open anyway. The back of my hand shot up to my nose and my eyes began to water. A stench as strong as hell exploded though my nostrils and sent a bad taste down my tongue. I gagged and choked, all the while trying to do so quietly and discretely.

I squinted and looked up, my light following my eyes. The room was dark and black and ashy, and part of my mind kept telling me to leave and find Sean, while another, more self-destructive part, told me to keep looking. There was a clump of dark objects piled up and discarded in the far corner of the room. As my eyes squinted further and strained to make out what they were seeing, I noticed a mangled hand jutting rigidly from the congealing form. My light flickered again and my eyes widened. A pile of bodies, old and new, young and old, all glued together with varying months of blood. It laid there like a chunk of withered garbage. I saw the face of a young teenage girl sticking out from a group of other assorted burnt body parts, her neck was broken and her eyes had exploded. She looked more recent than the others but was still stiff and rotting.

I stepped back into the hallway, closing the door softly in the process and stared blankly at the chipped wood. Nope. I thought. Nopety, nopety, nope. I then realised why the fireplace downstairs appeared so uncomfortable to me and like it had been used recently. Whoever was doing this – whoever had Sean – was burning people alive, cutting up their favourite pieces, and dumping them here like trash. I breathed in a deep lung-full of air and let it out slowly, turning back around and resuming my trek through the hallway.

There was a splattering of bones grouped together by my left and I gave it a wide birth. They looked old and bleached and far too small to belong to any adult. Another door to my right looked slightly ajar. I peeked through the sliver of opening. Thankfully there was no foul odour coming from this room, however the faint aroma of the last one still clung to my nose. As I peeked inside I tried to listen for noises. I could hear a faint shuffling and my mind conjured up images of monsters and grotesque Cronenbergy creatures riffling through sheets of leathery skin. But the sensible part of my brain assured me it was most likely rats.

All I could see were various issues of ancient newspapers, some scrunched up and others left to loosely cover the floor. Back into the hallway, my flashlight began to flicker again – more aggressively this time.

'No, no, no!' I whispered to myself. With a fizzled ping, the bulb went out and I was left in complete darkness, staring hopelessly into the hallway's abyss. I blinked hard for a few moments, believing that would help speed-up my eyes adjusting to the dark. Eventually they did and I continued down the hall.

As I took a large step over what appeared in the dark like a wet mound of tissues, I heard a series of muffled voices. My ears perked up and so did my heart. Quietly and precisely I sneaked over to the door where the voices came from: the last one on the right. There was a set of windows beside it, but they were all blackened out and although bits were broken off here and there and splintered in some spots, it wasn't enough for me to get a good look inside.

I swallowed the dry lump in my throat and crouched behind the door, placing my ear on the thick, cold surface and tried to disregard all the germs probably etched into the ancient wood. Or maybe it could be infested with maggots instead? Or termites? I closed my eyes and ignored my brain, focusing only on the voices from the other side of the room.

You're all sick!' I heard Sean scream. My heart jumped as I heard her and I couldn't decide whether to be relieved or concerned.

'We are not sick, my child,' said another voice. It was icy, high-pitched and had a very distinctive, authoritative tone about it that reminded me of a high school teacher. Calm but bitchy.

My jaw tightened and I noticed a large round keyhole positioned under the doorknob. I didn't want to risk opening the door in case it squeaked – which it most likely would – and give away my position and Sean's only hope of rescue. I leant down and scoped through the keyhole. It wasn't ideal and I couldn't see much, but what I could see, I didn't like. At the end of the room was an odd-looking contraption covered in rust and grease. It looked like a huge version of something you would thin pasta through, and Sean was tied to it with her sword leaning on the wall behind her, too far away for her to reach.

'So this is what you freaks spend eternity doing?' Sean continued, glancing down at her tied-up hands and back up at someone I couldn't see.

There was a loud group of cackles, thick and splintery. I thought I identified three people, but it was hard to say for certain with the unusual pitch of the voices. I wanted to cover my ears and run away, but my body stayed where it was.

'Deary, deary, deary,' said the authoritative voice from before. 'You make it sound like something's wrong with us.'

I saw Sean blink at them and knew the look she gave them well: a face to say 'bitch, please,' before they continued.

'You little whores always come in here with your gangs and groups, getting drunk and smoking God-only-knows-what, only to end up being sick in our halls an hour later, all in the name of “fun”. We all find it rather disgusting and sinful.' There were some grunts of agreement and this time I definitely placed two other people in that room besides Sean.

There was a set of windows on the back wall and a pale light streamed into the room. My eyes were thankful for it as it helped me to see some lanky shadows stretched along the brittle floor.

Someone sighed and I heard a chair creak coarsely along the noisy floorboards. 'Life was wonderful back in the day, wasn't it, Sister Jenkins?' someone said, sighing again. They sounded softer than the first person, but still had a scratching timbre to their voice.

'People respected us back then,' the authoritative one agreed. 'Not like you Jesus-loathing hippies nowadays.'

Sean's head shot back and she looked almost bewildered. 'I'm not a hippie,' she mumbled – confused and almost offended. 'Steampunk, if anything.'

'Shut it!' the second one spat. 'Or we'll mangle you faster.'

'Oh, please do!' Sean spat back. 'Listening to you lot babble on about eating fucking people is really starting to bore me, quite frankly!'

Someone let out a gross and phlegmy grumble.

My eyes started to strain as I peered through that keyhole and my toes were cramping against the grotty floor. I saw something move in front of the door and step up to Sean with a stiff gait. A long black cape stretched down to the ground and was covered in a hefty amount of dust. As the they kept walking up to Sean I noticed that whatever that person was wearing, it wasn't a cape at all. It actually looked more like a tunic.

'Sister Mary,' the tunic-wearing shape said, turning around, 'shall we put this Godless creature out of it's misery?' I gagged when I saw the thing's face and wanted desperately to vomit right there on the spot. A decomposed coil of skin clung loosely to a bony face and eyes that appeared bloodshot and mossy popped glassily from their sockets. A pair of cracked lips tightened as they attempted to form words and a tuft of grey hair stuck out from under their black habit.

Zombie nun! My mind screamed. Zombie nun! Zombie nun! ZOMBIE NUN!

I burrowed my head between my knees and somehow managed to hold down the uprising bubble of tingly barf clinging to my throat. I looked back up and through the keyhole and hoped they hadn't heard my gagging. If they had they didn't show it.

The softer one spoke. 'Dispose of her, Sister Jenkins.'

'Your vote, Sister Annabel?'

Sean and the nun leader both looked at someone out of my viewing range and I assumed so did Sister Mary, who was also out of range. I didn't hear a response, but something must have been agreed on because Sister Jenkins clapped her rotting hands together and turned back to face Sean.

'Wonderful,' she said.

There was a crank on the side of the machine and Sean flashed a worried look at it. A moment of silence hung stiffly in the air and I honestly believed Sean had some sort of cunning trick up her sleeve. I was wrong. Sister Jenkins brought one craggy hand up to the crank and wrapped her unnervingly thin, stick-like fingers around the wheel. As she began to turn it I saw a rare amount of fear in Sean's eyes as her body began to jerk closer to the flattening part of the machine.

Oh holy shit! I thought. She's really gonna get mangled!

I screamed as loud as I could, slamming open the door with more force than was probably needed as I quickly found out it was unlocked. I came crashing onto the dirty floor, head-first, and coughed as the dust entered my lungs. Sister Jenkins stared at me with her mossy eyes as my head darted around the room. Two other nuns occupied the area, one with long white hair spitting out from holes in her habit and her jaw ripped completely off, and another sitting on an unhealthy-looking chair with bits of her face collecting sadly in her lap.

'Mrs. Spoil Sport!' I heard Sean yell, half relieved to see me, half worried for my safety.

I grimaced at the nuns before looking back up at Sister Jenkins who blankly gave me a frown. Closer up she looked even worse – like a collection of wet newspapers stuck together with faeces and glue. Its now or never. I stood up and lunged at her with everything I had, spearing her in the chest with my tiny dagger. I heard the chair creak from behind me and crash against the floor while I grabbed onto the frail sleeves of Sister Jenkins outfit.

It was hard to tell because of her zombified face, but I was fairly certain she winced as I thrust the dagger in her chest. She pushed me to the floor with a mighty shove and glared down at the handle jutting from her torso. Sister Mary and Sister Annabel were quickly behind me and Sean yelled at them to leave me alone. With my dagger somewhat occupied, all I had left was my flashlight. I brought it up and swung around, smashing it into the side of Sister Mary's shins.

She kicked me back to the floor and I felt the air escape my lungs.

'Get away from her you undead son of a bitch!' Sean yelled. She pulled against her ropes and barred her teeth. She grunted and yelled and Sister Jenkins tutted at her.

'Language,' she warned and Sean spat on her. She stepped back, horrified, and I saw the small glob of spit trail down her grey, decaying face.

Taking this opportunity, I coughed, took a deep breath and began to quickly crawl my way over to Sean. Sister Annabel grabbed one of my legs and pulled me back. 'Get the fuck off me!' I screamed, kicking back at her with all my might. 'These shoes are new!' I managed to hit her in the stomach and she keeled over while gross jaw-less sounds gargled from her throat and Sister Mary gave me a terrifyingly vengeful look.    

My eyes widened and I made some embarrassing squeaky sounds as I frantically got to my feet and ran over to Sean and the mangle.

Sister Jenkins turned the crank hastily and Sean's head got pulled down, getting closer to the machine. I threw my flashlight at the nun and it bounced off her leathery face and smashed against the floor. She snarled at me and continued to crank. I grabbed the handle of my dagger still thrust deep into her chest and pulled it out. A spurt of gooey black blood oozed from the wound and dripped down her tunic. Grabbing her shoulder, I spun her around and threw her into Sister Mary who was hot on my heels.

They both stumbled back and landed stiffly on the floor.

'Untie me!' Sean ordered.

'I am, I am!' I clumsily cut through the furry rope tied around Sean's arms and legs and turned around, only to get bitch-slapped in the face by Sister Annabel. I wilted beneath the pain and the room began to spin. I shook my head and saw her hand coming back at me full-throttle. I screamed as I flung my dagger around and Sister Annabel's hand came clean off. It thudded on the floor and rolled for a bit. I stared at it for a moment, quite impressed with myself. The Sister clutched her bloody stump as her knees buckled beneath her.

'Awesome,' I heard Sean say.

'Thanks,' I replied.

She then ran over to the door and kicked Sister Mary in the face.

'Sean!' I said, picking up her sword. 'Here!' I threw it the best I could and she caught it with one hand like the badass she is. The tip of it was sharp and shiny and the moonlight from the windows beamed off of it and followed its movements like a dance. She lifted it high in the air and brought it down on Sister Mary, who dodged, preventing it from decapitating her, but still getting caught in the side of her shoulder. A shrill, piercing scream fired from her mouth and made me wince. I looked down at Sister Annabel clutching her stump in front of me.

'How do I kill them!?' I yelled.

Sean grunted as she pulled her sword out of Sister Mary's shoulder, using her foot for leverage. 'Remove the head or destroy the brain,' she answered with a few more grunts and snarls. 'Shaun of the Dead rules,' she added.

I nodded and gazed back down at Sister Annabel. She cried voicelessly over her missing hand and her habit hung misshapenly off her head and for a moment I almost felt sorry for her. Maybe she hadn't been like this when she was alive? Maybe she had been a good person. Maybe zombification had turned her bad? Her head tilted up and she punched me in the kneecap with her other hand. I fell to the floor, smacking my elbows harshly against the noisy floorboards in the process.

She stood over me, dripping slimy squirts of dead black stump blood over my coat and I realised I didn't care who she used to be. Sitting up, I slashed her throat with my dagger and kicked her to the ground. Sitting atop her, I stabbed her head so many timed I lost count. I panted as I stood up and saw a bundle of maggots slime their way out her jaw-less face (or what was left of it). I gagged again and screeched as I saw the mixture of oily blood, white hair and maggots, then looked up at Sean.

Sister Mary's bony fingers were clasped around Sean's blade as Sean tried to bring it closer to the nun's neck. Her fingers shook against the force and quickly began to give way. She tried to kick instead but her body couldn't control two things at once under the pressure and her arms gave out. The sword shot down and sliced through her decaying neck, quickly and efficiently, like it was nothing.

I smiled and Sean gave me the thumbs up. That's when I realised we were two nuns down, one to go. My eyes shot around the room and my heart somehow managed to beat even faster than it already was. Sister Jenkins ran up to me with a brick in her hand. I stepped back with my bloody dagger by my side – ready to thrust at any moment. Sean grabbed a tuft of hair poking out the back of her habit and slammed her head to the ground. Her eyes popped further out of their sockets and her baggy skin rippled like a pool of water. She ripped her head forward forcefully and left a chunk of scalp clutched in Sean's hands. Sean looked at it for a moment before flinging it away with a grossened shriek.

Sister Jenkins ran back at me, still holding her brick. I took a deep breath and threw my dagger at her like a carnival knife.

Please hit, please hit, please hit.

It pierced her shoulder and she stumbled backwards slightly. Sean spun her around and kicked her in the stomach. She keeled over and offered Sean the perfect opportunity to uppercut her straight in the face. An eyeball popped out and skimmed across the floorboards, leaving a trail of black goo behind it. I jumped forward and grabbed ahold of her head, keeping it held back so Sean could finish the job.

Sean looked up at me and winked before stabbing Sister Jenkins square in the forehead with the dagger freshly pulled from her shoulder joint.

There were a few last moment gurgles as Sister Jenkins finally died... again, I guess. And with her last breath she cursed the both of us to eternal damnation, which was fine by me as this whole experience had rather put me off religion for a while.

I collapsed back on the ground and flung my head towards the roof. I laughed, loudly and joyfully. 'We did it!' I sang. My bones ached and my muscles felt like they had been betrayed.

'We sure did.' Sean came and sat beside me. She let out a long hearty sigh and smiled. 'Well done, Mrs Spoil Sport,' she said. 'Well done indeed.'

My hand twitched and shook and Sean grabbed it with her own and gave it a squeeze and we sat there for a while, exhausted and allowing our bodies to calm down a bit.

'What was their deal anyway?' I asked.

Sean shrugged and shook her head sternly. 'Zombies be crazy,' she said.

I flashed her an unsatisfied glance and she sighed.

'They were the resident nuns here back in the 60s,' she continued. 'They didn't tell me how, but they came back to life and stared eating whoever came here. Mostly drug addicts and kids who wanted to prove they weren't scared of the place.'

My mouth pouted in disgust and my brow twitched. 'That is so gross,' I said.

Sean nodded.

'I think I found that guy's sister by the way,' I informed her – suddenly remembering the entire purpose of our visit.

'Oh?'

'Super dead. They're stacked up in one of the rooms all burnt and mangled.'

She nodded again. 'Sounds about right. I guess we'll have to tell him his friends were partially eaten by cannibal zombie nuns who cooked 'em up in a creepy fireplace and ate 'em for brunch before we could get here.'

'It's the right thing to do.'

There was another moment of silence. The moonlight from outside flooded the room and ghosted over the mutilated zombies with their bloodied faces and debris-covered costumes.

'Kebabs first?' Sean suggested.

'Yes,' I agreed. 'Yes indeed.'

No Strangers, Only Friends not Met Yet - Part I

Written by John Rogers

Osheaga-2017.jpg

There are no strangers, only friends you have not met yet”, said the Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

The truth of this I found during my visit to Montreal towards the end of summer, in late September 2016. My purpose was mainly to go to the annual Osheaga Music and Arts Festival and get into the music but it proved to be much more of an experience.

The adventure started with a conversation with two happy youths, Brody and Julian, in their mid-twenties on a stuffy train stuffed with indie-rock music fans heading for the Festival in the Parc Jean-Drapeau on Île Sainte-Hélène.

Islands for me have always held a fascination since I spent two years in Tasmania as a Disc Jockey when I was in my early twenties.  It seemed it was a long way from Australia, as indeed it was, nearly two hours flying time from Sydney to Hobart. It was my first real time leaving home and it was time to grow up after nearly two years in country New South Wales, two hours by road from where I had lived with my parents and siblings and easily reached if I got homesick (as I did for the first year after leaving).

However, there’s isn’t any real mystery with Île Sainte-Hélène. It is actually two islands, the other being Round Island, both in the neck of the Saint Lawrence River. Five minutes by train from mystery-dispelling downtown Montreal, there is no real sense of being isolated and away from civilisation.

The separateness, I think, is actually in the mind and comes from getting away from urban life to play for a while. In this case I was going for immersion in music and the celebration of music and performance.

Back to that stuffy train at Sherbrooke metro. My chat with Brody and Julienne on the platform was triggered when I spotted three-day passes for “Osheaga” in lanyards around both their necks. With my own two-day pass around my neck (I had not managed to get a pass for the third day) I was deliciously, but not frighteningly, nervous about being on my own. I thought if these two guys are going there, I’ll talk to them and tag along at least to the entrance gates of the festival site.  Brody and Julienne were more than excited, they were pumped up and keen to talk about what the festival meant to them, which bands were at the top of their must-see list. Always useful to know other people’s preferences because they may know something you don’t or something which affirms your own choices.

Brody, an electrician from Queensland’s Sunshine Coast and on a two-year visa to work in Canada had only recently got in to indie-rock music and was open to exploring new bands of the genre, as was I.

Julienne is a theology student and musician studying at a Montreal College and also counsels young people in a non-denominational church.

Sensing my knowledge would be of bands of years before he was born, Brody asks me why I am going to a festival of music very much of the past two decades, the implication perhaps being that he thought my "bag" would be 50's through to the 70's.

I tell him my story is one of discovery which started in the past five years with hearing alternative Nevada rockers The Killers on the BBC Radio Two Breakfast Show and their exciting, pounding drums-to-the front, lyrically intriguing song "Human" inspired by a line said to have been written by Rolling Stone magazine contributor Hunter S. Thompson.  He had in a critique of the American way of life, commented that America was “raising a generation of dancers”, people who follow a pattern and choreography instead of thinking for themselves.  The Killers’ songwriter, Brandon Flowers, put a twist on that, using the singular, “dancer”, asking “are we human?”  Not long before I heard "Human", a light had turned on for me with another song.  On the verge of retirement and freed from thinking about the discipline and strictures of speech-writing, I had heard the inspirational and glass-half-full lyrics of "One Day like This” by Manchester alternative rock band Elbow. It had come at a time when I was nearing a crossroads, about to leave a lifetime of writing for the next stage of my life in which I needed to have other creative activities to fulfil me.

Of course I didn’t go into as full an explanation as that. Brody’s eyes would glaze over quickly I would expect. It was sufficient to pique his interest that I mentioned The Killers and London indie rockers Noah and The Whale both of whom he was familiar with.  As part of this developing conversation of temporary bonding musically, Brody asked “You must have seen some great bands?”

“Yeah, a few,” I said with a smile.

As a 25-year-old radio journalist with Australian rock radio station 3XY I had seen The Rolling Stones at the Kooyong tennis stadium in Melbourne on a sweltering hot day.

“2.30pm SATURDAY 17TH FEBRUARY 1973” - stated the ticket. Ten years before as a teenager I had seen The Beatles in Sydney, seen being the operative word because of the wave of screaming which started from the moment they came on stage to the end of their set as they walked off.

I vividly remember the Stones. It was the only time I was to see them on stage.  Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman (guitars) Charlie Watts (drums) with Nicky Hopkins (keyboards) and Bobby Keys (saxophonist) were sheltered from the sun by a canopy while several thousand fans sat in the open on the tiered stadium seating waiting for the front man, the main actor to come forward. The group had kept us waiting after the opening act, Melbourne’s progressive rockers Madder Lake had finished their great set including their current hit, 12lb Toothbrush (I have no idea what it was about, maybe it was nothing) stretching it from nearly five minutes to more than nine minutes long.

We were mesmerised and aurally assaulted by Mick Jagger and the boys. They were still in their 30s then and in their rock ‘n role prime, we expected they would go on for years but the thought of them in their 70s still rolling was as remote as commercial rocket flights to the moon.

I still have the stub of my ticket -Section 18 Seat X13 - to that concert and smile at the note on it that declares clearly in capital letters there was no chance of the weather making any difference to the concert schedule: “RAIN or SHINE – “WE PLAY”.  It was certainly shining that day, the relentless sun taking the temperature to the high 30's in the shade.  The stands of the stadium were populated by people and their red Esky ice chests crammed with cold drinks and ice, lugged there for the long afternoon by rock fans, me included, wearing flared jeans, tie-dyed shirts and floppy felt hats.

Only the day before I had sat alone, wearing shirt and tie, in those same stands as a reporter for radio station More Music 3XY, writing a 30 second “scene-setter” for afternoon news bulletins.  It was a “colour piece” in keeping with the “with-it” youth image of the radio station. The appearance of The Stones on the stage, Mick in white bell-bottom jeans as I remember, was met with a roar of cheering approval which swelled as the band kicked off their set with "Brown Sugar".  We all sang and rocked along as Mick strutted the stage.  The poses he struck would continue, little did we know then, as part his trademark performance for the next four decades.

The band finished with "Street Fighting Man". Someone else who was there said Mick threw rose petals from a bucket and yelled “we gotta go, we gotta go”.

At the mention of the “fab four” as they were dubbed by the media, Brody’s eyes had widened, “wow, you saw The Beatles.”

“Yeah, but I couldn’t hear them above the screaming of the audience.” I said.  His eyes told me that this did not diminish his admiration for the fact I had been there at a history-making time.

I, and my sister who had come with me to the concert at Sydney (New South Wales) Stadium, on a trip organised by a radio station, did not realise the importance of the occasion, and like many there only realised that in later years. The memory has become increasingly rosier.  In my mind’s eye, I can now see us sitting in the Sydney Stadium, or at least we were sitting while the other acts on the bill entertained us, until The Beatles came onto the stage. From then on we were on our feet.

Fresh-faced youthful, wearing their specially-made suits, they plugged the guitars they were carrying into the amplifiers. The opening chords of "I Saw Her Standing There" kicked off the set list I believe, although I doubt anyone heard it over the deafening screams of the audience enveloped in Beatlemania. My sister and I were both swept up in the hysteria, for that was what it was, as the Liverpudlians swept through ten songs, winding up with the Little Richard classic, "Long Tall Sally".

I’m not sure if the crowd quietened even a little for the two ballads, "Till There Was You" and "This Boy", perhaps they were too carried away for that. Then it was over, the four boys had left the stage with a simple “thank you very much” from Paul McCartney.

Half an hour later my sister and I were back on the bus going home.  I wrote a report on the concert for the school newspaper, nervous that I would be told off by the headmaster for taking a day off from school without permission. However there was nothing said, the headmaster either turning a blind eye to my report or not reading it at all. I prefer to think it was the former.

Brody was talking to me again on the Osheaga festival-bound train. As if he had tuned in via some portal to some thoughts of mine from a week earlier after seeing an interview with John Lennon touching on drummers in bands, Brody wants to know what I thought of Ringo Starr’s drumming.

“I saw an interview with John Lennon”, he says.  “They asked him who he thought were the best drummers in the world and would Ringo be one of them”?  Lennon laughed and said “he wasn’t even the best drummer in The Beatles”. He was referring to McCartney’s drumming which started and developed like his playing of the piano during the musical growth of the individual Beatles.

I thought Lennon had been needlessly unkind and he could have been less candid, but then Lennon did not pull punches and never had, behaviour which stemmed it seemed from a troubled childhood and teenage years.

“Okay, Ringo wasn’t a great drummer,” I said, “but his four-on-the-floor style, left-handed with the sticks was very much part of the texture of the Beatles’ sound." If you listen to pre-Ringo Beatles, with Pete Best’s drumming, the sound was pretty colourless beat-wise”.  It was the main reason why George Martin, the Beatles record producer told their manager Brian Epstein that Best’s drumming was not regular enough for him to do further work on developing the group. Martin says in his biography All You Need Is Ears that he decided a session drummer Andy White could come in and he would do a better job than Best, which Epstein accepted, knowing the group had already been talking about dumping their drummer. I know the timing of this has been disputed. But in the end, on the first single by the band, Love Me Do, it was Ringo who played drums. An alternate version with Andy White drumming was not used. I recalled Martin’s comments that Ringo was “a good solid rock drummer with a super steady beat… above all he does have an individual sound… a definite asset to the Beatles’ early recordings.”

 “Yeah, I like Ringo’s drumming,” Brody responded, “Charlie Watts in the Stones isn’t an exciting drummer either. He’s a reliable, dependable beat in the mix, central to the sound.”  We were on the same page. He had obviously listened to a lot of music and not just from the present day. I was impressed and so was he, it appeared.

Our train was nearing Parc Jean-Drapeau.  The conversation was petering out as we began anticipating the excitement of the rest of the day. There was no time to chat further to Brody or to Julienne about his counselling or ambitions.  But the time had been well spent I thought as I disembarked from the train with hundreds of other fans of music intent on a good time to head for the Osheaga festival site.

To be continued

The Candle

Written by Sophie Jayne Whitrick 

 Photograph by  David Sonluna

Photograph by David Sonluna

She wasn’t sure what it was that comforted her so much about a candle's flicker. It might have been that gentle glow; a hug, a hug like only your mother can give you. Those arms that can stitch a torn body back together.

Eyes dry, itchy, in need of a shutter, but her mind mesmerised by the flame, as it spread from flicker to roar. Reminding her of winter days of sledging and snowball fights, wet and chilled to the bone. Ma stripped the sodden clothes off her and shrouded her in Great Grandmas heavy crochet blanket. Moved to huddle by the black stove, the warmth of the flames licking her warm again, the hot chocolate in her pipes burning a sweet burn as it’s gulped down.

Blink. She smiled at the young her and the laughter she had shared that day. The flame of the candle continued to dance to the rhythm of the beat created by the draft passing through the window. She past her hand through the flame; left, right, left right.

She sat on her mother’s knee, in the safety of her arms. Her father to the left, feeding the flames of the hungry bonfire. Her brother to the right, poked the fire with a stick, making fire flies dance into the sky. They all looked up at the glowing ashes, floating up into the starry night sky, picking out their favourite constellations of stars, chatting sweet nothings into the night.

Blink. She thought to herself, to most lighting a candle is just an ambience; a handy way to make the room smell like fresh pine in the center of a city. No. To her it was a life line to home. A direct link to some of her closest childhood memories. When she felt her lowest. When she felt the furthest away. That flicker of light ignited that dark whole inside and made her feel that little less lonely.

Coma

Written by James McCann 

 Photograph by  Lou Batier

Photograph by Lou Batier

1

It was a blisteringly hot August afternoon, the type of heat that under the right conditions evokes thoughts of eating barbecue and drinking a cold beer with friends. Under the wrong conditions it makes the mind conjure up images of prison camps or a murderous beach from an existential novel.

The route was a long, wide road with new, sticky, hot, black tarmac, the fumes rising almost as fast as the temperature. The birds in the tall trees that lined the road like ominous, intimidating guards gave out a song as sweet as honeysuckle wafting through the air.

The peacefulness was broken by the ambulance's wailing sirens piercing the sweaty, stillness of the day.

The accident had happened relatively quickly, though it seemed to go in slow motion when remembered. The small, second-hand hatchback was Joy's new favourite toy. It was bought with the money her grandmother had given her. Joy loved her grandmother.

Joy was everything William had ever wanted in a woman. She was 5'9’’, with a mass of dark brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders and down her slender, curved back. What made William fall in love with her were her faces: as dumb as it sounded he fell for the funny faces she unintentionally pulled every so often.

William was proud that he wasn't a stereotype. He loved books and reading and was every bit the sensitive book worm, the type of character usually portrayed by a weedy geek with glasses and a Bill Gates hair cut. Yet, underneath his baggy shirts and plain, solid coloured clothes was the physique of a professional fighter.

William -  never Bill or Billy - loved lifting weights and combat sports. He got his kicks from knowing that for any woman willing to look past the nerdy exterior, there was a surprise hunk waiting. Other than his 17 inch arms and 44 inch chest he couldn't for the life of him see why Joy was with him. Self-confidence wasn't really where he excelled.

It was a scenario which made their friends laugh. Here you had a couple who were, respectively, a 5'9'' model and a hunk with a classical 50's matinee idol jaw-line, and neither could see what the other was doing with them.

They had decided to go for a drive in the countryside, along the long, sometimes fast, sometimes slow, winding roads that lead a car past farms, both working and abandoned out here, sandwiched between fields of grazing cows and sheep.  In the distance could be heard the occasional bird-song. William believed that if they stopped the car they'd be able to hear the chirping of crickets.

It was William's idea to have a picnic out in a field. He'd been secretly mentally planning all types of things to do this summer with Joy that would make her forget all about her ex, whomever he may be. Such was William's insecurity that he had long-since devised a plan: he would do every romantic and sexually wild thing he could think of in an effort to fulfil this amazing woman’s dreams of the ideal man. 

After the food had all been put out, William got to the real reason they were there. He leaned over and gently held Joy's left cheek with his right hand and kissed her. He adored her and he treasured every kiss they shared, as he believed he was on borrowed time. One day, maybe soon, she'd wise up to the obvious truth and leave him for someone she deserved.

2

The beach front was quiet, desolate. The sea was lapping at the stony shore, the small waves crashing against themselves rhythmically so that was almost soothing. It was the way Bas had come to know it, and if not love it then certainly be comfortable with it.

There was a chilly breeze coming towards the land from over the great grey-blue ocean, the type you didn't mind particularly walking in, provided there was a warm fire waiting for you once you went back indoors.

Silence.  

William walked, quite bewildered, along the beach front’s concrete walk way, the white surface cracked from years of use and weather. He was now wearing the most comfortable pair of black boots he'd ever owned, black trousers, a black jumper and a warm black wool coat. It contrasted with his pale white skin.

He stopped walking and stood at the side of the green wooden bench: all the rest were brown. Any thought in his head about the relevance of this green bench was out of his head as soon as it entered, and if there was indeed any significance to it, it was lost on William.

Bas, a bald man in his early 40's and dressed exactly like William, was sat on the single green bench , just staring out at the nothingness that lay beyond the sea. His stare was an odd mixture of intense concentration and complete absence.

‘I wish you could see this,’ Bas told William. They'd just met - not even that really - yet there was such ease in Bas's voice that anyone would have thought they'd been friends for decades. ‘because there's nothing to see. It's so peaceful.’

Summoning up enough courage to actually will the words out of his lips, William asked the question that consumed his thoughts and wracked his brain.

‘Are we... dead?’

‘No. No-no. Sit, sit’

As William sat down, he instantly felt weak for being afraid to ask; not just that question but any question. He could sense something about Bas that told him the bald man was a great man, or at the very least he knew something great, or maybe had something great to say.

‘I could leave so easily. Just sail away.’ Bas's voice disrupted the silence and broke into William's thoughts like a strong tide destroying a child's sandcastle. ‘Can you hear them?’

What the hell was Bas talking about? William couldn't hear a damn thing, not even the usual squeaking of sea gulls that goes hand-in-hand with the seaside.

‘I can't hear anything.’

‘You will do.’

‘Hear what?’

‘Don't you think it's funny? The way that some people have all these plans but never act on them until something happens?’

‘You mean like a near-death experience?’

‘Near-death? There is no near-death. When it's your time, it's your time. Everything else is just Death nipping at your heels and whispering in your ears, “I'm coming for you, get moving”’

William took his time to let that sink in.

‘I don't understand’

‘I know, that's the point’

‘The point is that I don't understand?’

‘Exactly!’

‘That makes no sense at all’

‘No it makes all the sense in the world, you just don't understand that it makes sense.’ Bas's voice was running the complete rollercoaster, rising and sinking to emphasise certain points. Bas's true meaning was hidden, masked behind the words he was saying. William couldn't completely understand what the man was saying, but he knew for certain that this was the most important conversation any two people would ever have.

This was all  surreal. Here he was, William, sat on a beachfront with a man he'd never met before, being told some extremely confusing things, and yet he remained calm. And there were no birds in the sky.

There were no birds .

A tingle started in William's chest. It worked it's way through his torso and down his limbs, at once both making them buzz with the life of a thousand pin pricks, killing them dead, frozen in time.

William's hand sprang up towards the left side of his chest, it was more of a reflex than a reaction, and it took him by surprise how quickly his limb moved.

‘It tingles, right?'

‘Yes. What is it?’

3

The doctors were rushing around furiously, the beads of sweat forming intricate rivers in the furrows of their brows. The smell of disinfectant, blood, bleach, motor oil, grease, and the faintest smell of Joy's perfume still on William's unconscious, limp body mixed in the air to form a cocktail of aromas.

Bas, draped in a long, black, wool coat, looked every bit the weary gatekeeper, waiting for his shift to be over one way or another. He stood among the speeding doctors, side-stepping each of them as though there was any need.

‘Clear!’ a voice boomed, as the paddles were thrust deep on to him, leaving deep, bright pink indentation marks on William's pectorals. The jolt of electricity rushed through William's body, momentarily arching it off the table with a violent shudder.

‘Zap him again!’ Bas commands the medical staff. No one seems to hear him.

The doctors and nurses rush to check William's pulse, or more specifically to see if it has returned. It hadn't. At the same time a nurse squeezes a tube of gel onto the two paddles held in the hands of one of the lesser experienced male doctors.

‘Zap the son of a bitch again!’

4

‘It's getting close,’ Bas tells William in a somewhat sombre tone. Did it mean he was leaving or staying? William's head was stuffed with so many questions at this moment that none were given more attention than the others, resulting in a completely blissful mind. It was Zen-like in it's emptiness.

‘I can't understand, all the fighting. It's so peaceful here down off the shore.’

‘What about it?’

‘It's getting closer.’

‘What is? Fighting?’

‘Time. You've got to go.’

William felt a sharp, shocking pain ride through his body like electricity on the loose and looking for trouble.

‘I want to stay.’

‘No, you don't.’

‘I want to stay.’

‘You can't. You have to go!’

Another rush of electric pain took control of William's body, contorting it into an ugly, pretzel-like shape.  Breathlessly, William gets the words out.

‘I want to stay.’

‘You can't. She needs you.’

‘Joy?’

‘No.’

William stands up, slowly at first then up straight with a sort of urgency. He stared at Bas, who still kept his eyes fixated on the nothingness he saw over the horizon of the grey-blue ocean. Whatever was out there, William wished he could see it. Or did he? He thought.

‘Goodbye, William.’

Turning to leave, William broke into a trot and headed away from Bas, back along the way he came, never stopping or even pausing to think of how the bald man by the sea knew his name. The only thing William was concerning himself about was answers.

How did the man know him? Where was this place? What could the man see out there? And who in the unholy name of Hell was the  “She” the man was talking about?

And just like that, William disappeared.

Bas looked off, it seemed further into the distance now than ever before. He closed his eyes, inhaled deeply through his nostrils, giving off a sort of hiss sound, opened his eyes and stared out to the horizon, at the very point the sea kisses the sky.  Thinking of someone from very long ago, he whispered the words ’I love you.'

5

The hospital corridor smelled like... clean. That's the only word for it, it smelled like clean: sterility.  The first thing he'd noticed when he awoke was that the ocean had gone. What an absolutely ridiculous thing to think, waking up in a hospital bed and noticing the ocean wasn't at his feet.

The second thing to catch his eye, and the first conscious thing he looked for, was Joy. He felt sudden and total relief, like when your body dumps a rush of adrenaline and it hits your chest dead centre.

As she wheeled him down the corridor in the hospital, William's only thought was how lucky he was. Not to be alive, not to be back here, but just to be with her. Her. He had assumed that he'd been away for some time: Joy wasn't wearing the same clothes. William spared a moment, a very short moment, to ponder whether these things were justifiable. Shouldn't he be enquiring as to what happened? What caused the accident? These things he assumed would come to light eventually, usually people can't wait to let you in on all the juicy details of an accident, especially one that you were involved in. But that could wait, the only important thing on his mind was Her, Them. Together.

‘I've got some good news to tell you.’ Joy's voice almost cracked with excitement as she told him. ‘I'm pregnant.’ But William already knew. And he knew it was going to be a girl. After all, as Bas had told him on the bench, she needed him, and they hadn't been talking about Joy.

William paused for a second, then gripping her shoulders together, he told her ‘I think I already knew that.' Joy's face revealed her complete, utter, and total confusion. ‘I'll explain later.’ He reassured the mother of his unborn daughter.

And soon-to-be-father and soon-to-be-mother walked towards the exit, arm-in-arm, never more in love, and passed the door.

If you should go over to the small glass window in the door, with it's wire mesh criss-crossing through the glass, you'll see Bas. Asleep in the bed, a shell of what he once was, with tubes and wires coming out of him, hooking him up to countless machines and mechanisms that are keeping him alive.

And sat next to him, at Bas's right, in the same chair that she's been sat for who can remember how long, is his wife. Clutching his hand, and crying once again into the bed sheets.

Dusty Dog: an Autobiography

Written by Louise Wildman

unnamed.jpg

I don’t remember the first two years of my life too well, but I’ve never forgotten how cruel children can be. The petting farm I was part of allowed children to grab my paws and drag me around, and throw me in water. I’ve never lost my fear of these small humans.

I grew so afraid I was no use to my masters, so they threw me away to a pound.

A young woman who worked there took me away from that. I was so happy I’d found someone who treated me with kindness, but she wasn’t around for long. When she left, the man she had sex with took me to another home, and I found myself with his parents. They didn’t hurt me, but I felt I was in the way.

The man also had a sister. I was moved again into the place where she lived.

She used to smile when she looked at me, but she wasn’t the only person who spent time there. She couldn’t move her hands or arms, or walk or stand or even eat with her mouth. Other people helped her with these things. Some of these people were nice to me, but many weren’t, and would lock me out of the house for hours and hours, and tell me I was a bad dog for shedding my fur. Some would kick me.

After six years there, I no longer knew which way was up or down: I knew deep that love existed, and I knew I had love to give, but I was so afraid. I hated people coming near me when I was trying to sleep, because it usually meant a kick or being thrown out yet again.

Although a few people would make me lovely meals and pet me, I was often hungry.

I didn’t see many other dogs, because I very rarely was taken outside walking, and I grew to hate any dogs I’d smell near the house.

I used to love going out in the minibus. It was pretty much the only time I got out of the house or yard. It was so exciting seeing all the people, movement, and dogs! I wasn’t allowed to bark though. I’d get into trouble if I did.

That was all right. I got to sit next to a child who was also a grown up, who was nice to me. I liked him, although he’d sometimes shut me in his room for too long. In the bus I’d lie down next to him and enjoy the movement of the bus. When he got off I’d be able to get out for a few minutes too and smell all the new smells, before they’d get me back on for the journey home.

I loved television! Well, only with dogs or other animals. Then I’d rush up to it and bark! C’mon - if you’re prisoner in a house, faced with pictures of freedom, wouldn’t you too?

One day a new woman arrived. I was afraid of her, but she kept looking at me and talking softly. It felt so long since anyone had actually really looked at me, I didn’t know what to do.

I went to her, slowly, and with lots of stops to go on my back to show her my submission. She patted me!

The second time, she took me for a walk! I was afraid she was going to leave me out on the street, that as soon as I let her out of my sight she’d vanish. She didn’t though.

She kept coming back.

She came with another woman who couldn’t walk, but this one could talk and use her hands and arms. I was a bit afraid of her though, as she tried to grab my paws. The nice one would stop her. She kept her eyes on me and made sure I was comfortable.

They took me to a big green place where there were lots of other dogs. I saw something moving out of the corner of my eyes, and - I don’t know what it was, but I felt a stirring of recognition. I ran after it. But then stopped, confused.

The woman saw, and she ran after the thing, and kicked it towards me. Again I started to run, feeling an excitement I hadn’t felt for years. But again I stopped. It was too confusing.

I started to smell out for her, and would be at the door when she arrived. She came back more and more. She and the other lady took me to the green place with dogs many times, and I learnt to remember what a football is. I love football.

I started to relax with other dogs too.

After a year, she took me in her car to her place for a night. I didn’t know whether to be afraid or ecstatic. I think I was a bit of both.

Not long after this she took me again. When she took me back, I was ready to get out, but instead she left me in and came back with my bowls, then we went back to her place. When she put the bowls down on the kitchen floor I was so happy.

On the walk after that I was smiling so much my face hurt.

She travelled a lot, but took me with her! AND the minibus we went in was exactly like the one I used to love! HEAVEN! I didn’t mind staying in strange motels and hotels, because I was always with her. I think the phrase she used was “smuggled in.” She was careful to sweep up all my fur each time. I shed a lot of fur.

She’d also play nature programmes for me. Especially dog ones. Sometimes she’d play them on the computer and laugh when I’d leave the images on the laptop to bark at the TV. Seriously? I was telling her I knew where it should be shown!

We had a favourite game. We’d be in the car, and I’d be lying down (passenger seat, no matter who else might be in the car), and she’d tell me there was a dog around! I’d leap up and try to find it. When I’d see it - often with help from her - I’d bark my head off. We loved that game!

I knew I had cancer. I told her when she took me in. It was very small then, and I had three beautiful years with her. I loved her more than any words can ever say.

I’d always known, deep inside me, that this was what life should be, and thanks to her, now it was. I blossomed. My face changed shape! I lost all the tension around my muzzle. My football skills grew legendary. I learnt to sing! She said it was the husky in me. I say it was because I wanted some of her particularly delicious smelling food.

At first I was hesitant to trust her completely, but towards the end I knew she loved me truly and deeply. I’d never have allowed someone to press my belly to help me wee, but I knew she wouldn’t hurt me on purpose. She did a few times, but I knew it was accidental and I knew why she was doing it. I thanked her every time.

As the cancer grew she started feeding me by hand. I loved that. She did too. This time was so precious for both of us. I know I could have eaten many meals from the bowl, but there was no turning back once I’d tasted the first class service. We laughed at, and with, each other as she fed me each tender piece.

When it was time for me to go, she carried me up the road to the Big Sleep. She had to keep putting me down as it was long way. I was a bit wobbly and couldn’t walk. I knew the end was here. But that wasn’t the important thing: I was seen. I was loved! I loved! We had achieved what I’d thought was the impossible dream. And it had become truth. I never knew much about the poet Keats, but he was right: truth is beauty, and beauty, truth.

I know how much she misses me. But I’ll be back. With her. Somehow.

unnamed (1).jpg

Remember

Written by Victoria Simons

7ccb42c82fc0e75901527fa38ae48b54.jpg

The first thing I saw when consciousness hurled me back into reality was the outline of an empty whiskey bottle, swaying drunkenly, taunting me.  I was momentarily absorbed in the hypnotic rhythm of the object, before my thoughts were scattered by the pounding of a familiar headache: a ceremonial gong sending thoughts scarpering frantically into their correct positions.  This was only partially successful: there were glaring gaps in their ranks. Perhaps it was fear of what those gaps contained that caused my inner eye to be swamped by a striking red when I tried to focus in on their darkness. The more I searched, the more I could only see the flashes of red. A shiver of heat shook my body.

Most markedly, was the empty space in the bed beside me, though I was comforted by the fact that the sheets and pillows were disturbed; somebody had slept there last night.  I can’t have been that bad.

Tentatively, I began to survey the rest of the room from the bed for clues about what had happened. There were no traces of last night’s clothes, everything was in order on the polished white dresser.  Each drawer of the black chest was firmly closed.  Every piece of furniture completed the regular pattern of alternating black, then white, black, then white.  It didn’t fit. The careful comparison of the rigid uniformity with my technicoloured mess of memory chastised me, as she knew it would. The room which was supposed to feel most homely felt almost clinical: I couldn’t lay my eyes on one aspect of the space that was my own, my choice, my input. Perhaps this was also intentional. The sense of isolation I already experienced daily due to ‘intoxicated detachment’ was amplified by my wife’s insistence on dominating the décor department of our supposed shared life, so that I could not recognise a single article of comfort.

Whatever the reason, our bedroom was spotless. Cunning bitch.

There was no use entering the kitchen with caution or stealth: she was there waiting for me. Her sharp business suit with the cold reflective sheen winked sadistically at me as it caught the light, her movements around our home were quick and agile like a serpent waiting to strike. I tightened the tie on my rugged, once soft dressing gown which she hated, clutching the worn fabric closer to my skin. I recalled how I used to admire her elegant dancer’s physique: the ladylike mixture of strength and poise.

‘You said you really fancied some porridge, so I took the time to make it for you, with blueberries! Remember?’ Her tone was jovial but her expression betrayed whatever act she had chosen to adopt. ‘Remember?’ The stony set features of her chiselled face were a clear challenge, but I didn’t know the rules. She knew I didn’t. Yes, that was the challenge! I was to entertain her fancy today by attempting to perform the impossible task of learning the unlearnable. Uncovering what was lost in the depths of drunken memory. She would wait like a patient dog trainer whilst her undisciplined, stupid mutt wildly launched itself at the apparatus, knocked over the cones and finally to her shame and disappointment, pissed all over the course in his desperate attempt to please her.  

It had been better at the start. When I would come in from work, hang up my suit jacket on our communal hook and be met by the heavenly scent of baking. She would swoop in like a homely mother hen, haphazard splodges of cake mixture adorning her mousey hair, which was loosely waved with kinks from her relaxed up-do the day before. Grinning mischievously she would giggle:

‘’Oh sweetie, I’ve made a mess of the kitchen again…’’, to which I would playfully reprimand her, wagging my finger, before sweeping her up in my arms and taking her to our bedroom. Laughing gleefully, she would eagerly do whatever I asked of her, and everything was how it was supposed to be.

I can’t remember the last time we made love. Though as she’d point out, I can’t remember a lot of things.

My inability to recollect certain events is something she particularly revels in holding over me like a guillotine, poised in an ever thought-out, and carefully positioned anticipation for when I fail her latest test. I’m sure she sharpens the blade in her spare time, admiring her polished reflection in the cold cut metal, picturing my blood splattered across its metallic-

RED. Recognition slapped me across the face. My neck was snapped back to the present, as my eyes locked onto the blinding redness. Dangling from her delicate white fingers was the red which had lingered in my memory, betraying alcohol’s promise of painless darkness. The crude red laced underwear that did not belong to my wife.

The guillotine plummets. The disgraced head of the criminal was being held by the executioner up to his family, friends and strangers. Adulterer! Adulterer! I was still conscious but that merely mocked me; my life had been irretrievably terminated, what remained was hell. Red, red, red dripped from my head. The faces, faces, swum until they became a grotesque multitude of flesh. Unrecognisable, flushed with red, the bodies squirmed and screamed in pleasure? Pain? The boiling of blood sent sickness surging through my decapitated being until it overwhelmed me. Piercing through the deafening rush of emotion was the heart wrenching question:

‘’Remember?’’ Beautiful doe-eyes, startled and hurt, tainted by the awful red.

‘’Remember?’’

***

My mind was suddenly cast back to our honeymoon. We’d agreed the destination together: I’d succumbed to her childhood dream of Venice and she’d let me select the traditional hotel with the elaborate gothic architecture, completing the perfect visage of mystery and romance. Gaily, she insisted on organising the entirety of our journey because I had worked so hard to support us living together. I was touched. The lads down the pub would rip into me mercilessly for this relinquishment of control: whoever had heard of a fiancé stepping back on such an obviously masculine matter? But she was not just a woman, she was the love of my life. I used to laugh at their cocky claims of experience, the laddish smirks, the boisterous banter, when all they had experienced was the female body; the exterior of a being, the almost inanimate. But, to my shame, my laugh gradually morphed itself into a snigger of bitterness and envy, my pitying eyes acquired a look of greedy lust until I was no longer distinguished from the men I sworn myself greater than. Why had I ceased to value what was once priceless? Why had I forgotten what had once been my highest priority? Why did I choose not to remember? It was my depleted sense of manhood, egged on by those pigs, which led me to screw the girl from the bar whilst my faithful wife stayed at home.

***

‘’Remember?’’

I can never forget.

Miss McKenzie

Written by James McCann

 Photograph by  JJ Thompson

Photograph by JJ Thompson

Miss McKenzie was a good teacher. She loved her children, and they loved her, and had it not been for the personal feelings of the parents they may have said she was a great teacher. You see, despite her being a very capable, very enthusiastic teacher, she was also a tall, beautiful blonde woman in her late twenties. She had an amazing body and could have been a man-eating home-wrecker had the mood taken her, but that wasn't who she was. She didn't ever flaunt what physical gifts good genes and the luck of Mother Nature had given her. She rarely wore make-up, always wore professional, loose suits, and was never going to be the type of woman to wear kinky knickers and peek-a-boo bras beneath her everyday clothing.

Fathers of the children found it hard to appreciate her for her brain, whether they wanted  to or not, Miss McKenzie's pure beauty was breath-taking without effort; she just was. And the way she had no ego added to that beauty. It made her all the more alluring that she had no clue how pretty she was, she had no clue as to why men might want to shower her with affection and attention.

Mothers of the children thought it was all an act - it must be. No one could be that perfect, nobody could be so attractive and not know it. They all believed that Miss McKenzie knew her appeal and used it as a weapon. Yes, okay, fine, she was a good teacher, to an extent, and yes, the children seemed to like her well enough, but, well, you can't trust a woman like that. They could just tell,  that this Miss McKenzie had a secret. A deep, dark secret of the juiciest kind. The women, one and all, looked upon Miss McKenzie, and spoke about her, as though she were a super-bitch villain from a poorly-written soap opera.

Although Miss McKenzie wasn't completely aware of what both sexes thought about her, she knew that  a lot of relationships weren't as steady as they tried to appear be, at times even the most loving couple might not stand the sight of each other behind closed doors. This, she thought, was why people thought of her as they did. The men would have a wondering eye but she knew any woman would illicit the same reaction. The women would cast a scornful eye upon her just because she was a woman, and a long, but not too-long, married woman will become suspicious of any other woman.

It was silly, Miss McKenzie thought, because she had no interest in stealing any woman's man. She had no designs on anything to do with those thoughts. No, all that sex just takes up time, gets in the way of living. She had no interest in dressing up in full-length black PVC bodysuits, no interest in frilly or see-through underwear. Being pinned up against a wall and kissed passionately held no draw for her, neither did long walks in a summer meadow holding hands with a beloved, whispering sweet nothings to each other.

All Miss McKenzie was interested in was feeding.

*****

John King was a nine year old boy in Miss McKenzie's class, and although being too young to truly understand his new, underdeveloped feelings, he did feel that he was in love with his teacher and had a feeling that sex was going to be on the cards.

"What's sex?" Lenny Hart had asked.

"It's where you take off your clothes and kiss a girl" John had answered.

And that seemed like a good thing. He wasn't sure when or exactly how it was going to come about, but as long as she didn't try to take his Batman comics, he was okay with being married to her.

So it was no real surprise to John when Miss McKenzie asked him to stay behind one day, only for a few minutes, to help arrange the text books. It was true that the large history books had been mixed in with the large geography books, but John knew that it would be only a matter of days before they were mixed up again.

Miss McKenzie had left John alone, excusing herself briefly, and John thought she'd probably gone to get her bag of fruit. At nine years old, he didn't understand the complexities of an adult relationship, but he'd heard his father talking one time, and evidently if a girl really liked you she'd let you eat her peach. John preferred oranges, but he figured that when you're in love you have to compromise.

He put the right books in the right places, and was startled when he turned around to find Miss McKenzie stood a few feet behind him. She had been so quiet that he'd had no idea she was there. She was smiling at him, which was good. John had done a good job and was hoping to get a gold star on the wall chart. This was, John knew, going very well.

And then things changed.

Miss McKenzie's smile changed. It was still broad, and pretty, but it was false and incredibly creepy. Her mouth opened, and opened. It opened far too wide, and the tongue slithered out; a long, red-pink cone coming to a sharp-looking tip that thrashed just inches from John's face. He was frozen in place with fear, his legs felt like concrete, mounted to the spot. From deep at the back of Miss McKenzie's throat a puff of grey mist shot out into John's face. His eyes grew wide and his breathing slowed, and he stood there, motionless, catatonic.

The teacher's wide jaws opened further, the chin splitting down the middle into two, giving her mandibles that stretched out almost to the same width as her shoulders. The sharp, pointed tongue thrashed wildly and shot through the centre of John's forehead, and gripped the inside of the skull. Her belly rumbled loudly as she tasted the brains. The catatonic child was lifted and pulled forward by the tongue, the head slowly disappearing into the canyon of her mouth. The strong jaws came down, closing over the head first, the skull shattering like an eggshell, then the boy's body.

It was damned if you don't, damned if you do for Miss McKenzie. The smaller children were easier and quicker to eat, but the older children gave more energy and required less frequent eatings. She had to be careful with, when and where, and very importantly who,  she ate, but she was an old hand, having been doing this for over five centuries now. The boy's clothes weren't a problem, they could be digested easily enough, but she drew the line at shoes. Miss McKenzie didn't know if it was the rubber soles or the laces or anything else, but there was something about eating shoes which was binding.

She left two shoes, with the ragged cloth of John's trousers, blood-drenched, clinging to two short stumps that used to be shins. After letting out a belch, she picked up the two stumps and popped them in her handbag. The shoes she'd either burn or throw into the ocean on the way home, depending on how much time she had. The actual legs and feet would be taken home.  Miss McKenzie sometime got peckish at night.

Train Station

Written by James McCann

pexels-photo-258510.jpeg

Beth left the hotel early on Tuesday morning, powered by cheap coffee and the thought of having to catch the six o’clock train. The clip-clop-clip-clop of her black heels tapping out a rhythm under her feet as she made her way across the car park took her mind off the cold, but only briefly. As soon as she opened her mouth to talk to the taxi driver, the hot breath floating out in front of her brought her mind back to the cold, British, winter morning.

‘You for Rhodes?’ Beth inquired, wrapping her black wool coat around her and placing her arms on top of one another in an effort to hold on to the heat her body was producing. With a nod towards the exit of the car park the taxi driver answered ‘I am indeed.’ and Beth climbed in.

She was only carrying one bag; a little black suitcase on wheels with an extendable handle. The type first popularised by airline pilots but now everyone and their mother has. At least that’s what Jeff had told her. Jeff was full of information. Most of it was good, too. The information ranged from the type you could use at dinner parties (Galileo, not Einstein, originated the theory of relativity) to the down-right useless (if your car gets stuck in sand, let the air out of the tyres).

Jeff would be waiting for her at their home. Their home. Beth liked how that sounded, but wondered how much longer she’d be able to say it. Jeff would want an answer the moment she got through the door, she knew that. What she didn’t know, however, was what the hell she was going to say. It was a simple question to answer, very basic. Yes. Or no. Yay or nay.

He’d asked her in the right way, that was for certain. Beth couldn’t fault Jeff on that at all. She’d gotten home two nights ago to find the man in her life waiting for her at the door with a glass of white wine and a smile. A very loving smile.

The home wasn’t much, just a little apartment: one bedroom, one bathroom, one decent-sized living area and kitchen. It was all they needed. Neither was overly hot on the décor or the worktops in the kitchen, but neither wanted to sink any money into the place. If we’re going to live together, they decided, and live in a place we’re going to put money into, why not wait until we can sink money into a house?

Other than the two lamps, both of which were dimmed, the only light illuminating the living area of the apartment was coming from candlelight. A bottle of wine sat in a bed of ice in a silver bucket at the side of a table, reaching up like a zombie’s arm from a frozen grave. Two places were set, with a bouquet of rich, almost blood-red roses sat between them. Soft music lilted through the air, gently caressing Beth’s ears as she entered.

After they’d eaten, and drank the wine, Jeff had intended for them both to curl up on the deep, plump, white sofa and eat ice cream, whilst they watched some soppy, romantic movie. Then, he’d planned, they’d make love on the floor in front of the fire place. It was only a gas-powered fire, with white bars that turned bright, blinding-to-look-at orange as they got hotter, but it would still be romantic.

It didn’t go as Jeff planned.

He’d taken the empty dishes to the side board, then hurried (in a dignified way, if that’s possible) back to Beth. He stood at her left side as she was sat, and asked if she’d enjoyed the meal.

‘Of course I did.’ she answered.

‘Are you sure? I thought maybe I’d over-cooked it?’

‘No, it was fine.’

‘As long as you enjoyed it. Nice legs by the way.’

‘You’re making small talk, get to the point.’

Beth knew Jeff was kicking around the actual point, that there was something he wanted to say, and, being the always-behind-schedule businesswoman that she is, she wanted him to get to it, and get to it now, thank you.

Jeff knelt down on his right knee and took Beth’s left hand in his right, looked her dead-square in her green eyes and proceeded to explain how much she meant to him and how he wanted to do everything for her, and that he would if she let him.

It was everything she’d wanted to hear for the past three years but now it was almost overwhelming. Whereas she was expecting to feel comfort and security and love, she felt suffocated and imprisoned and claustrophobic.

What she’d wanted for so long she was now being offered and it did nothing but scare the hell out of her. How the hell could this be? The thing she’d been hoping for had happened and she didn’t like it.

‘I need to think.’

‘Oh… oh right. Okay.’

Jeff stayed for a moment where he was. The two of them confused, deeply in love and frozen in time. Jeff attempted to say something, his jaw moving slightly, his mouth never actually making a sound, just hanging in the air like a gaping cave.

Slowly, very lethargically, Jeff rose to his feet. He stood in silence a moment, then let go of Beth’s hand. He felt hurt, as though his very heart had been ripped out by some demonic, soulless beast.

‘I do love you, but it’s just hit me what it all entails,’ Beth tried to sooth Jeff, and make him see that he was asking a hell of a lot. For her to spend the rest of her life with him. For her to forsake all others in favour of him. For her to let her belly grow fat and inflated with his babies kicking inside. Jesus, she usually gets pissed off spending the entire weekend with him! The rest of their life together and she’d kill him, she just knew she would.

‘Here you are.’ the taxi driver’s voice broke Beth’s thoughts and brought her back to the harsh reality of the real world. She was at the station with what she figured to be a good fifteen minutes to spare before her train arrived to rock her home.

The clip-clop-clip-clop-clip-clop of Beth’s heels made a nice, relaxing symphony along with the long, extended roll from the wheels of the suitcase on the flat concrete platform.

The stations nowadays were no smoking (like the bars, clubs and council houses), so Beth had taken to chewing the ends of pens. It wasn’t so much the nicotine from the cigarettes as it was that she needed something in her mouth. An oral fixation they called, leading to no end of blowjob jokes from her friends and co-workers.

She sat down on a bench, placed the bag between her feet, and began to chew on the end of a pen she pulled out of her suit jacket pocket. She tapped the tip (not the nib) against her teeth in a steady beat to match the tapping of her right foot.

What would she tell Jeff when she got back? What could she tell Jeff once she got back?

A musky, strong smelling aftershave filled the air, Beth was sure she could smell oranges and old tobacco. The train would be here in less than ten minutes, then just half an hour to her station, then another ten minute walk home. Then she could smell Jeff’s aftershave and attempt to answer his question.

‘Scuse me, d’you mind if I sit here?’

Beth looked up her right and saw a tall, thin man, wearing a fine-cut dark brown pin stripe suit, a pair of Brogues and a brown trilby hat that sat upon a silver main of hair. In his right hand he held a beaten brown leather bag, that had an old brown rain coat draped over it. It was he that was wearing the strong aftershave.

‘Erm, go right ahead.’

As the man sat down Beth couldn’t help but feel he fit in well with the station’s aesthetic. It was plucked right out of the 1950’s, maybe even the 40’s. There was no TV monitor informing passengers of departures and arrivals, just a large, round white clock, decorated with large, thick black numbers. The red second hand, so thin in comparison to thick black minute and hour hands, jumped and jerked and jutted as it counted off the seconds.

‘Do you mind I smoke?’ the man in brown asked Beth.

‘I don’t think you’re supposed to-’

‘The health worries?’ the man interrupted. ‘Nonsense the lot of them.’

‘No,’ Beth continued. ‘I thought you weren’t allowed to smoke on train stations.’

The man guffawed with a deep belly laugh that deteriorated into a hacking, phlegm-filled cough. The type that reverberates in your rib cage. The type that Beth always thought sounded like gargling with gravel, the type that always ended with a sniffle and a sigh of relief.

‘I take it you don’t want one then?’ the man asked, tilting the beaten, crushed packet towards Beth.

‘No,’ Beth declined. ‘I don’t smoke.’

The man introduced himself as Barlow with a firm handshake and a warm, friendly smile. Beth saw a kindness in his eyes which somehow earned her immediate trust.

‘So,’ Barlow said, patting himself down in search of his box of matches ‘what’s troubling you?’

‘Troubling me?’ Beth asked in response, poorly trying to feign surprise. ‘Why should anything be troubling me?’

‘Ah now, you’ve got that look about you.’

'That look?’ Beth quizzed

‘The look of a woman who takes the most trivial of matters and lets them grow so big they weigh her down.’

Not only had Beth been letting the problem grow, she’d been feeding it. She’d been nurturing it, treating it with tit-bits of fear, of anxiety.

‘I’m supposed to…my boyfriend proposed.’

‘Oh.’ Barlow responded knowingly. ‘And you haven’t answered yet?’

‘No.’ Beth answered honestly. Adding ‘And I don’t know what to tell him, either.’

Barlow produced a hissing as a sharp intake of breath passed between his clenched teeth. His face displaying his acute concentration.

‘Not quite so trivial a problem, then.'

‘No.’

‘Any idea what you will tell him?’

‘I don’t know.’

Beth rocked her head back and closed her eyes, shutting them tightly, causing crow’s feet to reach out along her temples. She tried to gather her thoughts, pluck the right answer out of the darkness of her mind. Maybe she could see the answer piece together out of the shapes of red and yellow and orange splodges she saw dancing around in front of her as the sun light warmed through her eyelids.

‘Tell me,’ Barlow’s voice brought her out of the black dream world. ‘What is it exactly you’re having trouble with? What part of being married scares you?’

‘It’s just that - how did you know I was leaning towards saying no?’

‘Nobody ever has to wrestle with the question when they’re going to say yes.’

Barlow had a lot of knowledge, and intelligence behind those old, well-travelled eyes. He sat and tentatively watched Beth, waiting for her to spill the beans and tell all about her situation with Jeff.

She spoke at length about being with Jeff for the rest of her life. Of being with Jeff and having children. Of growing old with Jeff. Of celebrating, if that word could be used, birthdays and Christmas and anniversary after anniversary and Christmas and birthdays again and again with Jeff. Of attending parties and work functions with Jeff. Of being trapped with Jeff for the rest of her life.

A cool breeze blew through the small station, it was more of a platform really. It brought with it the smell of flowers that reminded Beth of childhood summers at her grandmother’s house. The memories clashed terribly with the stark, grey, cold, winter morning.

Barlow leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and cupping his chin with his right hand. His brow furrowed, causing lines to run along between his hairline and eyebrows. Beth thought that the lines on Barlow’s forehead looked like a series of fleshy Grand Canyons.

‘Seems to me,’ Barlow said, relieving Beth’s anticipation, ‘that you’re not asking the right questions.’

‘What do you mean?

There was a sense of urgency now in Beth’s voice, whatever Barlow had to say, she wanted to hear it desperately. She had only known Barlow for a few minutes, but already she knew whatever he had to say was worth listening to.

'What train did you say you were catching?’

‘What?’ Beth asked with some confusion. ‘What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘You know, not many trains run through this station these days.’

‘What?’

‘Your train, which is it?’

‘Err,’ Beth tried valiantly to search through the muddled files in her mind to locate the right information. Finally, after a small, silent, searching eternity, she answered. ‘Chasington, I’m going to Chasington.’

Barlow nodded. ‘Nice place that. Mostly fields though. Can’t see them building too much there.'

Chasington hadn’t been "all fields" since 1963 when the last remaining field had been ploughed up, turned over and built on. Beth was beginning to think the man in the brown suit might just be a little senile. Or crazy.

Regardless of whatever Barlow’s mental state, Beth wanted to know what he meant by not asking the right questions. Why was he being so cryptic?  Was he actually being cryptic at all or was he just nuts?

‘You told me that you keep asking if you can live with him for the rest of your life.’

‘So?’

‘So, the question is, can you live the rest of your life without him?’

Beth was stunned into silence. It was the most obvious question, and one that cleared everything up. She might not be able to live with Jeff year after year, but she knew for certain that she couldn’t live one week without him. The past few days had been the longest she could remember that she’d been away from him, and even then she’d thought about him constantly.

Could she spend the next fifty years with him?

Possibly.

Could she spend the next fifty days without him?

Absolutely not.

‘You’re right.’ Beth repeated over and over. ‘You’re right.’

‘Chasington train doesn’t run through here.’ Barlow said, disturbing Beth’s thoughts.

‘Sorry, what?’

‘Chasington train, the one you want. It doesn’t run through here.’

‘It doesn’t?’

‘No,’ Barlow answered, shaking head slightly with a grin. ‘Not enough of a market, I suppose.’

‘Then where does it run?’ Beth demanded in a panic.

‘You need the next station over’ Barlow instructed her, finally producing a box of matches from a pocket. ‘Just pop down the road. Then turn right and just walk a little bit. Can’t miss it.’

Frantically, Beth stood up, grabbed the extendable handle on her bag, and made her way to the end of the platform, clip-clop-clip-clopping with a mad whhurrlll from the bag’s wheels.

‘And good luck, miss.’ Barlow said to her, lighting the match with his thumb.

‘Thanks,’ Beth said over her shoulder. ‘I’ll make the train’

Bringing the match to the tip of the cigarette, Barlow said softly to himself, ‘That’s not what I meant.’

Beth was a good two hundred feet from the platform, walking along the pavement towards the road, when the wheels on her case got stuck in something. She bent down to untangle a vine that had wrapped itself around the wheel, and saw that the pavement was over-growing with plant life; a lot of reaching, sinewy weeds and vines stretching out across the cracked, damaged paving stones.

‘I’m sure this wasn’t like this when I came in.’ Beth said to herself. She looked up slowly, towards the platform she’d just come from, dreading what she knew she would see.

Dilapidated. The platform was a relic. The track, what little could still be seen of it, poked up between over-grown grass and broken shopping trolleys like a dead, rusted brown-red snake.

The area where just moments ago she’d been sat talking to a man called Barlow was now nothing more than a flat, graffiti-covered slab of concrete, with weeds and wildlife homing up in its cracks. There was no way this place had been the working station that Beth had been sat in many, many decades.

Beth was sure she could see a small trail of smoke creeping up into the air.

Beth could swear she could smell a burnt match on the wind.

It's Just a Phase

Written by Perverse Psychology 

 Photograph by  Peter Forster

Photograph by Peter Forster

Her eyes unwillingly opened.

She knew it would be there, looming over her.  And it was!

Sleep seemed to be the only way she could escape its hold on her. Even then it sometimes managed to find a way to creep into her fantasies and ruin the mood.

For months she’d tried everything to shake off the heavy black cloud that had unexpectedly decided to cling to her. But it refused to leave.

Upon waking, her inner voice told her that she alone controls the way she feels, that the black cloud was merely a figment of her imagination and all she had to do to make it vanish was to think happy thoughts, smile, and to be grateful for all the wonderful things that filled her life.

All the wonderful things that filled her life?

A well paid job, a caring Husband, three healthy, mischievous children, a small but close group of friends, A decent house, holidays abroad at least once a year…..

She listed everything that should make her feel complete, content, and alive!

The corners of her mouth began to turn upwards. A glow started to develop inside, but fizzled and died before it could explode.

The heavy black cloud scowled at her, violently slapped her cheek and suffocated her body.

It sat there on top of her, sucking every ounce of energy, draining her emotions, and replacing them with toxic thoughts and destructive perceptions of herself.

She heard the morning chaos erupt in the other rooms as her husband tried to defuse the commotion. She heard him tell their three balls of frantic energy to calm down and keep quiet as Mummy was poorly and needed rest.

Her body ached to go in and help or to just join in and add to the mayhem like she used to. But no sooner as the thought sparked in her mind the heavy dark cloud spat violently in her face. A reminder that he was in charge and he decided how she should feel.

Her tablets lay next to her on her bedside table. She didn’t need them. She could defeat this on her own. It was just a phase. Everybody has spells when the heavy black cloud visits. . .

Don’t they?

Karma's a Biblical Bitch

Written by Sophie Ramshaw

 Photograph by  Tim Martin

Photograph by Tim Martin

Tony Roffman was a bit of an asshole. Not for any one specific reason. Just in general. He knew it and so did everyone else. So it didn’t come as a surprise to him when a small group of prideful and respected townsfolk arrived at his house one morning with their complaining faces armed and ready. He opened the front door with a flamboyant swing and let out an obnoxious and repulsive belch.

The townsfolk stared back at him, unimpressed.

'I didn’t know I called the Village People,' he said, smirking to reveal a layer of yellow teeth with greasy cheeseburger remains still prominent in sections.

'Tony,' began Amanda, 'we need to talk.'

He was barely listening. Far too engrossed in staring at Amanda’s cleavage popping out from under her tight sweater to notice anything else. Her chest swayed a little as she thumped a cricket bat in the palm of her hand. His grin became thinner and he let out a deep, throaty chuckle under his breath.

'Hey!' shouted Dave, the town pastor. A total cock-blocking douche-bag in Tony’s eyes.

Tony shifted his gaze from Rosy and Rebecca (the names he had given to Amanda’s breasts) and faced Dave. 'Hello, father,' he said with a bow.

'Amanda, get behind me.' The priest held out his arm and gently pulled the girl to his side. Dave wasn’t a particularly strong man, and the priest outfit did little to help his already rather  un-intimidating image. 'Now listen here, Mr. Roffman,' he continued. 'We don’t want to exacerbate this, but this here is a nice town and we don’t want anyone destroying that. If you continue with your disruptive behaviour, I'm afraid we're going to have to take matters into our own hands.'

Tony cackled in response, spit spraying Dave’s face, and the hot smell of rotten kebabs and flat beer wafted from his mouth. 'All you panty-wearing, Jesus-loving, goody-two-shoes ain’t gonna do shit!' He leant against the door frame and made a show of scratching the crack of his ass and smiled at the disgusted faces of the mob. Noises of revulsion were heard throughout the small crowd. He considered bringing his fingers to his nose and taking in a large whiff just to see the further horror on their faces, but ultimately decided it wasn't worth it.

'Tony,' said Dave, causing the man to briefly look up. 'If you don’t leave, things may not go well in your favour.'

'I’ll leave,' he replied flatly, creating a sea of stunned and incredulous faces. 'That is, if the dear old priesty-kins here kisses my big, hairy ass!' He turned around and slapped his backside at Dave while hooting away like a manic clown.

Dave sighed.

As Tony went to stand up again, still in the midst of a severe laugh attack from what he thought was one of his best jokes yet, Dave brought forward a sharpened pole, making sure the pointed end aligned perfectly with the middle of Tony’s rear. He plunged it forward with one swift movement and the pole went directly inside the man, popping through the seat of his pants and causing blood to spurt from the pierced skin. The pole rocketed through him, impaling Tony on his own porch like a spit roast. The faint sounds of his muffled screams could barely be heard as the tip of the pole exited his mouth and stayed there, jutting out like a broken bone.

'Well that’s that then,' said Dave, clapping his hands together and waiting for the pain-filled gurgles to die down. He turned to Amanda, who smiled and whipped out a small notepad. He grasped the bottom of the pole and tugged it free with a juicy squelch and held it up triumphantly to the crowd. They cheered and he nodded humbly before straightening his neckband and patting the spurts of blood off his chest with a small handkerchief.  'Who's next on the chairman's list?' he asked.

Amanda looked down at her notepad and nodded, circling the fourth name down. 'A homeless man on Gabriel Street who has been flashing women as they pass.'

Dave nodded. 'Off we go then.' 

They all hummed and sang as they walked off down the street, making their way to Gabriel Street where hopefully this next one would be smart enough to accept their terms.

Saving Lives

Written by Rachael Cheeseman

 Courtesy of  Netflix

Courtesy of Netflix

Dot, dash, dot, dot: L

Dot, dash: A

Dash: T

Dot: E

Late. Again. She didn’t even need to consult the chart to decipher the Morse Code. She was all too used to that particular pattern, and she was growing increasingly used to the strange heaviness that settled over her upon hearing it. It was an unsettling but all consuming weight that pushed her down and tightened her chest. It didn’t hurt her. Not in any physical sense, at least, but it reminded her of pain nonetheless. She supposed she was actually quite fond of Hopper. He was unusual. Awkward and uncertain at times, strong and in charge at others. And every so often, when El personally believed him to be at his best, he was silly. It was the silly version of Hopper that would put on the voices of the characters in the books they read together, and who taught her how to make a barricade out of her Eggo’s so the syrup didn’t touch the other food. It was silly side of him that danced in a way that never failed to make her laugh and told jokes she was sure only he would think were funny. She didn’t really understand them, but she liked to hear him tell them regardless. However, the very best thing about silly Hopper was that he so often led to the sweet version of Hopper. Sweet Hopper took some getting used to. The first time he had ruffled her rapidly growing hair she’d thought perhaps there was a cobweb caught in it that he was brushing aside. He’d chuckled at her nonplussed expression, until he realised that meant he was the first person to touch her in such a way, then his expression had darkened. Since then he had progressed to one armed hugs, pats on the back and this strange thing where he would lightly punch her in the arm when he was especially pleased. The contact was foreign and peculiar but El found herself craving it. It made her feel accepted, something she hadn’t felt since Mike.

Mike.

Her eyes drifted to the makeshift blindfold beside the old television set. She had time to kill. What would it hurt to check in on him? Except it did hurt. It hurt to be so close but unable to make contact. It hurt when she saw how much he missed her but it hurt even worse in those moments when he was able to forget about her. Sometimes she caught glimmers of him enjoying a life like the one he’d had before she’d dropped in and made a mess of everything. He’d be smiling, laughing with Dustin and Lucas, playing one of their games. She’d watch until she literally couldn’t see through her tears. No. She wouldn’t look in on him. Like Hopper would say “There’s no good can come of it.” So, the real question became, what should she do?

First things first. El grabbed the plate of dinner Hopper had left out for her and promptly dumped the vegetables out her bedroom window. She frowned at the growing pile of broccoli. Hopper insisted it was good but, in El’s experience, rats would eat pretty much anything and even the rodents wouldn’t touch the weird green stuff. And if the rats wouldn’t eat it, she wasn’t going to go anywhere near it. She replaced the missing vegetables with two extra Eggos and settled down to her feast.

She was just bringing the first forkful up to her mouth when she spied the coffee maker out of the corner of her eye. She shook her head, determined to focus on her meal but her eyes kept being drawn back to the bizarre contraption. Hopper said coffee was no good for her. But he drank it all the time. How bad could it really be?

El was only vaguely aware of the mess she was making in her haste to tear open the coffee and pour it into the compartment. She wasn’t sure what the small paper circles were for, so she decided not to bother with them. Instead she hastily emptied the coffee granules into the machine and filled it to the brim with water. She placed the jug underneath just as she had seen Hopper do countless times, and at the click of a button she was rewarded with the loud sputtering noise that always made her think the machine must be broken, but that Hopper assured her was perfectly normal. Whilst the coffee machine got to work, El’s eyes alighted on another way to keep busy.

Hopper’s record collection was extensive to say the least. He’d told her all the names of the bands and singers when she’d first arrived but she had long since forgotten all but a few that were his favourites. She picked a record at random, placing it on the turntable and lowering the needle, just the way Hopper always did. She didn’t know exactly where the needle was meant to sit so she nudged it forwards and backwards a few times. It made a peculiar, zipping sort of noise that made her smile so she continued swinging the arm to and fro, delighted to see just how loud a noise it could make. She was just considering seeing if she could make it play actual music when she spotted the rusty old pair of roller skates in the corner.

Hopper had told her there wasn’t enough space to skate in the cabin. He’d promised to take her out one day and teach her how to use the odd, wheeled shoes. El bit her lip in indecision. That had been 83 days ago. Perhaps if she pushed the couch to one side she would have enough room to at least have a go at skating. Leaving the record playing to screech and crackle, El raced across to the skates tearing off her beaten up old sneakers as she went. Her hands shook in her haste to fasten the buckles of the skates and they didn’t quite fit her feet but she couldn’t have cared less. Just standing up proved to be exceptionally difficult but eventually she found she could just about keep her feet under her if she clung to the bookcase. Every tiny movement nearly sent her flying as her feet jerked and slipped beneath her. It was a little frightening and difficult but unbelievably fun. Even when her momentum sent her feet skidding in opposite directions and landed her squarely on her butt, surrounded by the books she’d pulled off the shelves in a desperate attempt to remain upright, she still couldn’t keep from grinning like a fool. She hadn’t quite mastered standing in the skates but she was too excited to get moving to hold off any longer. She pushed off from the bookcase sending even more volumes clattering to the ground as she careened across the cabin straight into the dining table, colliding with one of the rickety wooden chairs and sending both them to the ground in heap of tangled limbs and splintered wood. Dazed but unharmed El tried to right herself when she spotted the coffee pot beginning to overflow. Obviously, she’d done something wrong. Hopper’s coffee never looked like that. The machine was pumping out a thick sludge that smelt burnt and bitter and was quickly oozing its way along the work surface and splattering onto the floor. In her rush to stand, El momentarily forgot the skates still affixed to her feet. She crashed into yet another chair, sending it skittering across the floor, before she gave in to scrambling on her hands and knees desperately trying to find something she could use to haul herself back to her feet. The, she would find a towel or a cloth or anything that might be useful in cleaning up the sludgey coffee. She grabbed hold of the cupboard door to her left and it nearly swung clean off its hinges under her weight. She crumpled to the ground once more, digging through the cupboard for something that might help. There was no towel in sight but what she did see froze her in her tracks. The box of lucky charms was partially obscured behind the tinned meats but there was no mistaking that packaging. Hopper had told her there were none left. She’d suspected he wasn’t being entirely truthful at the time, she hadn’t wanted to accuse him of lying though. He’d saved her from freezing and starving and he’d not hurt her or asked anything of her since. It felt wrong to question him when he’d shown her such kindness. Almost without realising, El found her hands reaching for the brightly coloured cereal box, all thoughts of the coffee long forgotten.

When the door to the cabin swung open some indeterminable time later, El was still sat on the kitchen floor amidst handfuls of dropped cereal and broken chairs. Her feet were still wedged firmly into the roller skates and thick, gloopy coffee covered a good deal of the counter top. Books were strewn haphazardly around the cabin and the scratchy crackling of the record player was the only sound to be heard. Hopper’s eyes opened wider than she’s have believed possible as he took in the scene before him. His mouth moved wordlessly, at first, then he found his voice.

“What in God’s name happened here, kid?” El locked eyes with him, not entirely sure how she could express everything that was inside of her. Her fear, her frustration, her gratitude and her loneliness and all the questions she had burning her up inside, questions about who she was, about the world, about the man who had taken her in and why he cared what happened  to her and whether she could trust the feeling of safety he gave her, the happiness he’d brought her. Hopper waited, the vein throbbing in his clenched jaw, his narrowed eyes pinning her to the spot. In the end she said the only thing she could.

'You were late.'      

Day Trip

Written by Jean Roberts 

pexels-photo-276551.jpeg

How long am I going to be here?

'How long am I going to be here?' I ask the young woman behind the desk. Can she hear me? I don’ think she’s listening to me. 'How long am I going to be here?'

'Barbara, but why don’t you go back into the waiting room, and someone will be with you soon.' the young woman behind the desk tells me.

How does she know my name? 'How do you know my name? Do I know you?'

She smiles at me, and tells me, again, that someone will be with me soon.

Her name is Cheryl. Her badge says "Cheryl". Cheryl looks like the girl who works in the Post Office. Do you work in the Post Office? 

Where’s my watch? Did I forget to put it on? I’m sure I put it on. Maybe they took it. That Cheryl looks a bit… dodgy. I give her my ‘I know you’re sort’ look, and she smiles at me, but I’m not taken in. Not for a minute.

Waiting around like this is such a waste of my time. I should be in… I’m supposed to be at… now. Oh what did I do with my watch? This waiting room could do with cheering up a bit, it’s very… well... grey. Pale grey walls, dark grey chairs. They don’t look very comfortable. Are they chairs? They look like chairs, but, they look… stuck together. And they’re screwed to the floor. Very odd, very odd indeed. Or even a bright picture on the wall. A nice landscape, or waves. Waves are nice. Waves can be so calming. Their sound can be so relaxing. I went to the seaside once. Not flowers though, flowers are depressing. They remind me of funerals. There were lots of flowers at father’s funeral. Which died.

I don’t know where I am exactly. That’s a nice garden down there. Very orderly, and not many flowers. Mother likes things to be ordered. A place for everything and everything in its place. That’s her motto. Even when I was a child, everything had to have a place.  

The door behind me slams shut and makes me jump.

‘Barbara, my name is Louis, would you like to sit down?’

‘Well it’s about time,’ I tell him, ‘do you know how long I’ve been here?’  

He smiles at me and asks if I want to sit down again. So I sit, and he sits, opposite me. On one of the grey chairs that are screwed to the floor. Those chairs are very odd. He looks young. He has nice eyes. Kind eyes. He has a green cardboard file thing with him, he opens it and starts looking at the papers in it, but when I try to look, he closes it.

‘Barbara, do you know where you are?'

He’s got a nice voice. I tell him I don’t know, and that I don’t know why I’m here either.

‘How are you feeling?'

'I’m very well.' I say, but he still hasn’t told me where I am or why I’m here. He looks at his papers again, then gives me a little smile before answering me.

‘Barbara, this is your home. This is where you live.’

I’m confused. He must have made a mistake. How can this be my home? I ask him.

But he tells me it is, and that today I went out without anyone knowing. He told me I went to visit my mother and I should have told someone I was planning on going outside, he said. I don’t remember, but when I ask if I can go again, maybe next week. He looks, well, almost sad.  Then in a very calm voice he says, ‘No Barbara, that won’t be possible.'

Mediocre

Written by Maquaela Adria

pexels-photo-247195.jpeg

Once upon a time in a land not so far away, there lived a girl just like any other named Xandria Dubois. Now, Xandria was seemingly plain. She had untamable brown hair, mud brown eyes, and had always been somewhat overweight. When it came to talent, Xandria could sing but not well enough to be noticed, and she could paint but not well enough to make a career of it, and she was smart but not the smartest in her classroom. In all, Xandria was perfectly average.

Although somewhat unfortunate when it came to her attributes, Xandria did the best she could to make sure that she stood out. Unfortunately for her, this task was impossible due to one thing: the land where Xandria found herself was full of people who were more beautiful and more talented than she.

In order for there to be some sort of balance in the land where Xandria lived, Mother Nature had tried to make sure that the talent and beauty were not unevenly distributed. This meant that none of the most beautiful in the land could excel at anything, whereas those less physically blessed were able to excel at many a thing. If this rule were to be put on a spectrum, those with immense beauty would be put at one end, those with immense talent would be put on the other. Xandria would be placed perfectly at the centre of the spectrum. Despite this, she believed that everyone deserved to be noticed and that, deep down, there was something special about her.

Although life was not hard for Xandria - as she had many friends and enjoyed many things - she was never anyone's first pick: whether it be her younger sister, Diäna, who was definitely on the beauty side of the spectrum, who managed to steal the spotlight when it came to their family as well as the entire kingdom (she was, in classical fairy tale terms, “The Fairest of Them All”) or her brother, Ephron, the youngest sibling, who managed to steal the spotlight when it came to talent, as he was known to have the voice of an angel, Xandria was never the highlight.

As she grew older, Xandria became more accustomed to her way of life. Everyone she loved abandoned her for someone more beautiful or talented. Everything she aimed to be a success in earned her nothing more than fourth place. But even though she was unsuccessful and alone, she kept pushing herself, always having that constant belief that everyone should be noticed.

And yet the years wore on, and Xandria did not grow any more beautiful, nor any more talented. After so many years of people telling her that she was nothing more and nothing less than herself, Xandria became distant and cold, and she lost her belief that she would become someone. Thus, she closed off her heart, turned off her mind and banished her soul to avoid the hurt and humiliation of being nothing but mediocre.

By the time she was seventeen, she had almost completely hidden away from the world and covered herself in a veil of darkness. Although her friends had tried to pull her out, one by one they eventually stopped trying. Her family persevered for a while longer but there was only so long that they could last. At the age of eighteen Xandria was nothing but the shell of who she used to be.

Those with talent yearn to be with the beautiful and those with beauty yearn to be with the talented. Who then shall yearn to be with me?

+

On the other side of the large kingdom lived a man of quite the opposite predicament. Prince Aaron was not only the heir to the largest and most prosperous kingdom the world had ever seen, he was also blessed to have an abundance of both talent and beauty. However, to him, it seemed more like a curse.

Ever since a young age, the prince had been forced into activities he hated just because he was good at them. He hated horses but he was the best equestrian in the kingdom. He hated art yet his paintings were worth more gold than a house. Most of all, he hated how people looked at him and only saw his talent, beauty and riches. He felt as if he were a perfectly carved puppet that existed only to entertain and be controlled.

The worst of it was that he didn't get to choose whom he was to marry as that (along with his many activities) had been chosen for him. The name of his betrothed was Diäna. He had met her once when he was fifteen and she was eleven. Even at that young age, Diäna had been the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. She was slender and athletic, had long dark hair and deep green eyes. Everything about her drew you in. Aaron hated her on site. He didn't care if she was the nicest person in the world or if she had the glossiest hair. He hated her for the same reason he hated himself. She represented the way of life he wished did not exist. They both represented the fact that you cannot become more or less than who you were born to be.

Every night since first meeting his betrothed, Aaron would sneak away to pray to Mother Nature at the Hallowed Oak that stood tall in the courtyard of the Palace. He prayed for a way out of the system. He prayed that She would send him a way out of this cycle that She had created. He prayed for a miracle. She never answered. He prayed for five years and still no answer came.

That was until the night he met the family of his betrothed. He didn't notice her at first. When he had arrived at Diäna’s house, he was met with the bustle and noise of a large family. They greeted him at the door and ushered him inside. From then he was bombarded with questions and compliments. Through all of this, how was he meant to notice the quiet girl reading in the corner of the large sitting room?

When he first saw her, he noticed she was plain. Her dark hair, dark eyes and slightly overweight figure were nothing like her sister's features. Due to this, he had automatically assumed that she was on the talent spectrum. But as the night went on and he looked around the room, he came to notice that he only saw two names on all the trophies and certificates that hung on the walls, Ephron and Mrs. Ellisandre Dubois, both of whom he had been introduced to. It was then that he deduced that she must be modest. This idea flew from his mind when he finally heard her speak.

‘Father, mother, I feel as if I have had my fill of socializing for the night. May I retire?’ She spoke as if she had a thousand armies behind her. Each word held as much prestige as the next. Aaron found it hard to believe that this girl was anything but confident.

Ellisandre spoke in response. ‘You have not said one word to anyone all night, Xandria. How have you been socially fulfilled if you have done nothing but read?’

‘We both know that I do not need to talk to understand what is going on. In fact, the less attention I pay the better. See, as I was reading, I managed to deduce that our lovely,’ Aaron noted the venom in the word and winced as he anticipated the next – ‘Prince Aaron seems to have no interest in marriage just as Diäna has no interest in men.’

Gasps rang out throughout the room as Xandria quickly excused herself and went towards what Aaron assumed was her bedroom. Adoration for the girl shone in his eyes and he knew right then that she was the answer to all his prayers. Xandria had no cares for conventional thinking and behaviour. Somehow he was enticed by her brash honesty.

‘Diäna...’ her father started questioningly.

She cut him off before he could get further. ‘Xandria is right. She's always right. God knows how when all she does is hide away in her room and the library. I only went along with this marriage because I could see no other option but I may as well tell you now. I met someone. She's from the town over and her name is Isla. We're in love. I was planning on running away with her and leaving this all in a letter for you to find but I guess now it's out there.’

Aaron could see the rage in her father's eyes as she spoke. Before there could be an outburst Aaron interrupted. ‘If I may: as right as Xandria may have been, she was wrong about one thing. I am interested in marriage. I've just come to realize that you've offered me the wrong sister.’

‘You're choosing me over Diäna?’ her small voice echoed around the large room, breaking the silence that had accumulated since Aaron had spoken.

‘I am.’ Aaron admitted as he stood and made his way to the doorway in which Xandria had been standing hidden from view.

‘May I ask why? I mean, I'm nothing but mediocre. I don't excel at anything and I definitely wouldn't win any beauty pageants.’ Xandria lifted her head so that she could look into Prince Aaron's ocean blue eyes.

‘I don't want all of that. All my life I have been surrounded by people that excel at everything and I have been forced to do the same. You, you're like a breath of fresh air. You speak the truth, not just what people want to hear. You have the ability to ignore the surface and see what's underneath. You don't seem to care for money or talent or beauty. In all honesty, I wish I had found you sooner.’

I seem to have everything in the world but now that I have met her, everything is nothing to me. All I want is her and her approval.

+

Xandria and Prince Aaron were married in the autumn of the following year. Their wedding was anything but extravagant. Xandria's dress was simple yet beautiful just like the ceremony itself. The wedding was held in the large park just outside the palace gates. And as she gazed upon the colourful autumn leaves, Xandria found herself wondering how it was that she got there. It was only at "I do" that she told herself that sometimes it's better to be the odd one out because maybe your odd is exactly what someone is looking for.
 

A Day Out

Written by Jean Roberts 

451637331.jpg

So, there I was, at the funeral, well when I say funeral, I actually mean cremation. Now, I’d never been to a cremation before, therefore I’d never been to a crematorium and, to be honest, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I’d been to quite a few funerals over recent years; I’d got to that stage in life when, unfortunately, the parents of friends were leaving this mortal coil, and at least once a year I was attending a funeral.  I think there’s a "seven ages of man" type of thing going on throughout our lives: we start off going to the weddings of friends, then the Christenings of their babies, then there’s the funerals of friends parents  (where I am now) and our own parents, and then the funerals of friends. (There are exceptions to this of course, like if someone dies young for example). Anyway, I digress. As I said, I’d never been to a cremation before, and although I knew roughly where the crematorium was, I didn’t want to get lost and arrive late.  I had this nightmare vision of crashing through huge oak doors that squeaked just as a heartfelt eulogy was being delivered. So I decided to set off a little earlier than I normally would to travel the twenty-five miles; just in-case there was a problem with traffic.

I arrived at the crematorium a good half an hour before the service was due to begin. The car park was empty, and apart from two young women, dressed all in black, who were standing around the side of the building having a smoke, and I assumed they worked there, doing what I couldn’t imagine. Well, the place looked deserted, and it crossed my mind that I was in the wrong place (irrational panic mode about to kick in). Just then, one of the large doors at the front of the grey brick building opened, a young man wearing a dark suit stepped outside, looked around, and then went back inside the building. So knowing there was someone there, I went inside.  The room wasn’t how I’d imagined it somehow, although I’m not really sure what I did expect.

It was a long rectangle shape, with a low ceiling, two of the walls covered in a dark brown wood veneer, and a large window along another wall, which overlooked a covered car port type of thing at the front of the building. Along three walls there was a bank of blue chairs, and there was one small side-table in between a couple of the chairs. It was all bit stark really, but this was only a waiting room and not the room where the service was to take place. There was no music, nothing on the walls, no flowers. Nothing. Oh except for some leaflets about who to contact when someone dies, which seemed a bit redundant really, considering where we were. Now, in a church or chapel funeral there is no "waiting room"; the congregation arrive usually well before the deceased and their family, and sit in the pews in the church (or chapel) where the service is to take place. So I sat there for what seemed like an age. Eventually (probably only about five minutes really), some people arrived who I recognized and they politely said ‘Hello’ as they walked past.  Of course you could see from their expressions that they had no idea who I was, but I said ‘Hello’ back to them anyway. Then more people arrived, and they all seemed to know each other and did the old air kiss to the cheek (the ladies) or a sturdy handshake (the men). Every now and then I’d catch someone looking sideways at me and gently nudging their neighbour, and whispering out of the corner of their mouths:

 ‘Who’s that then?’

‘I don’t know.’ was probably the reply.

Well, the funeral party (is that the right word? Doesn’t sound right somehow, having the word "party" in the same sentence as "funeral") finally arrived, and everybody stood up to greet them. (Greet?  Again, not sure about that being the right word), but anyway, once everyone had said their ‘hellos’ the family were ushered into the main room where the service was to be held. As I stood waiting for everyone else to filter through, I realised how sombre and slightly claustrophobic the reception room was, although it was not a small space. I don’t think the dark veneer walls helped, and the fact that there were no flowers nor anything on the walls just made the place feel… well, not very comforting I suppose. I appreciate it must be difficult to strike the right balance but I think it would have made Lawrence Llewelyn-Bowen weep. And, up until now I’d had a preference for cremation over burial, but now, looking at this room, the thought of my nearest and dearest waiting in here, depressed me, it really did. Yes, I know I won’t technically be present, but it’s just the thought of it.

But, I deviate slightly from the events of the day. Now, where was I? Oh, yes…waiting to go into the room for the service. Well, as I said, I waited until I was the last person to go in, and shuffled in behind a lady wearing a very nice black wool jacket, well cut, and you could see it was not off the sale rack in BHS; but the colour of the knee length skirt she wore with it was an assault on the eyes. In all my years, I do not think I have ever seen a pink so pink. Neon. I wouldn’t be surprised if it could be seen from the moon. Once I’d got over the shock, and my eyes could focus again, I followed her along into the row of chairs at the rear of the room, which were all that was left. Providence really, as the individual chairs were those sort of square, padded affairs they use in conferences, and I’m sure a lot more comfy than the wooden pews everyone else was sat on.

Music heralded our entrance, well, I use the term loosely; a CD of Pan-Pipe music, playing, if I remember correctly, Love is all Around, which bore no relation to the Wet, Wet, Wet version, nor come to the think about it, to the original version by The Troggs. It certainly wouldn’t be my choice of music to be sent off with, but each to their own, as they say.

As the congregation shuffled to their seat and settled down, there was the usual mass hushed mumblings of conversation, the music suddenly stopped (let us be thankful for small mercies), and a female vicar in her early forties was stood facing us, behind a lectern at the front the room. All at once there was an audible hush, and we were instructed to stand for the first hymn, in this case, Abide with Me. Organ music began to fill the room as we all started to rise to our feet. I noticed that just to my right, there was an alcove which housed the organ, and sitting at the organ was an elderly, round, jolly looking gentleman, looking very smart in a dark grey suit, and a full head of thick white hair. He really did look as though he was enjoying himself, his fingers ran along the keyboard like a demented spider, and I half expected him to start playing Oh, I do like to be Beside the Seaside, (it’s a song I always associate with organ music. Sorry.) Instead there were more mumblings as people began to sit down again. Someone came scuttling over to the organist and whispered something to him. It took him a few seconds to stop playing, at that point his jolly little face took on the expression of a child who had just been told that there is no tooth fairy.  At the same time I could see that in the front row (where the family were sitting) the vicar and a young man in a suit (who it turns out, was a member of staff at the crematorium) my friend and a couple of other members of the family of the dearly departed, were talking to another woman who was sitting in the front row. I couldn’t really see her very well, but she was definitely causing a bit of a problem, and there were a lot of agitated gestures going on. Well, after a few minutes, the agitated party sat down, with a lot of shaking of heads, the vicar went back behind her lectern, and addressed the congregation:

‘Apologies for the slight delay, ladies and gentlemen. We will now commence with the service. Please be standing for Abide with Me’.

She gave a little nod in the direction of jolly little man at the organ and we stood up. The organ music began, and Abide with Me was sung with varying degrees of gusto, and miming. As we were in the process of sitting down, I could see over the heads of those in front of me, and I could see the woman who was causing all the fuss a little earlier. Well, when I say I could see her, I could see the back of her head, sort of. I saw her black coated shoulders, and a black fedora type hat atop dark shoulder length hair. I could just about make out that she was wearing glasses. I didn’t recognise her though, and I knew most of the family, if only by sight.

Well, the rest of the service was straightforward enough. There were a couple of prayers, another hymn, a rousing rendition of Calon Lan this time. I love that hymn, as do a lot people I think. I’m sure it’s been played at every funeral I’ve been to. Then there were some eulogies from family and close friends. The vicar gave a short, touching eulogy, and there was some gentle organ music, and everyone stood up. Slowly, some members of the family who were sitting on the front pews started to move towards a door in the far bottom corner of the room.

As we all stood there waiting our turn to move forward to the exit, I noticed that the woman in black, moving slowly towards the coffin, which was on a raised platform affair just to the right of the lectern. Like I said, I’ve never been to a crematorium before, and all I did know of them was from the telly, and where the coffin disappears through a curtain in the wall. Well, there was no curtain, and no hole in the wall. As I wondered where the coffin would go, the woman in black walked up to the coffin, and quite unexpectedly, threw herself across it, crying ‘Daddy, I love you!’ and squashing the beautiful flowers on the lid in the process. Well, you could have heard a pin drop. Everyone turned to look at her. Somebody near the front fainted. And to top it all off, the coffin, and the woman in black, began to disappear into the tomb like platform. Suddenly, all that was visible of the woman were her legs, and shoes, flaying madly and pointing skywards. Wails of despair could be heard, but I’m not sure if they were from her or some other poor person for whom it all become too much, and as some people hurried out of the room, three suited men ran over to the coffin in an attempt to retrieve the woman from the chasm. But as they were leaning into the blackness, the coffin and its passengers began to rise to the surface again. At this point, the men managed to disentangle the woman from the flowers, and hauled her off through some other doorway, and she was not seen, or heard again. Not by us anyway. The whole thing was like a scene out of a Carry On film.

The rest of the proceedings went, I assume, as planned. The coffin descended into the bowels of the building, the congregation filed out of the room in a civilised manner, and shook hands and said the polite sounds of ‘lovely service’ or ‘she’ll be missed’. Nobody, as far as I know, mentioned the woman in black, nor the fiasco that had just taken place. I was the last person to leave the room and, do you know, the jolly little man was still playing the organ. He hadn’t stopped, while the mayhem was taking place, he continued to play something soft and soothing. Ironic really. Of course, he couldn’t see the coffin from his little alcove, and I suppose, amongst all the chaos, no one thought to ask him to stop playing.

I offered my condolences along the line of family, and the usual ‘Haven’t seen you in years, you’re looking well’ and by the time I reached my friend, most of the congregation had dispersed, and were on their way to their cars, and heading for a local hotel where a tea of light refreshments was being served. We hugged, and I simply asked if she was ‘okay’. We’ve known each other so long that’s all that was needed. And as we walked back towards my car, she apologised for the spectacle, and said that she, nor any of the family knew this woman. Unfortunately, she’d managed to sneak in to the service through the door by which everyone had left, and had just sat down. In the haze of grief surrounding the family, no one had really noticed her until everyone was seated, and when asked who she was, and that she would have to leave, she began to cry. Under the circumstances, and to save more upset, they decided to leave her be, not expecting for a moment that she would do what she did.

I didn’t go along for the light refreshments. As I said, I didn’t really know anyone there, and the only topic of conversation I had in common with anyone was the deceased, and the events of the fiasco of the woman in black, and that subject was probably better left alone.

I suppose you’re wondering if we ever found out who she was, the woman in black. Well, we did, sort of. My friend and I met up for lunch a couple of weeks after the funeral, and she’d had a ‘phone call from the undertaker, apologising for what had happened. Apparently, our woman in blacks name is Grace Edwards, and she resides in a nursing home about a mile from the crematorium. Well, poor Grace hasn’t got all her marbles any more, and gets a bit confused (to say the least). Although, she has enough of her marbles left to escape from the home on a regular basis, and she usually turns up at a funeral, but is usually very well behaved. Apparently. Breaks the monotony of day time telly and basket weaving, I expect. She also enjoys meeting new people, and really enjoys the ‘light refreshments’ that follow. She gets a ride in a motor car, and someone usually offers to give her a lift home. Grace was definitely having an off day that day, as it was my friends mother who had passed away. Apparently, Grace is under stricter supervision these days. 

I learned a couple of things that day though, one being that not all crematoriums have a hole in the wall and a little curtain, and the other thing being that I’m not sure about how I want to go now. My final ‘hoorah’. I certainly don’t want to be buried (they might get it wrong. The Victorians had the right idea with that bell!) and, I certainly wasn’t too keen on that waiting room at the crem. So I think when it comes to my internment, I think I’ll go out Viking style…on a boat in a blaze of glory, to a chorus of Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, with everyone whistling... badly.

The Other Side

Written by Katja Stein 

 Photograph by  Nicole Mason

Photograph by Nicole Mason

Since I was twelve I have been living in endless darkness. I was blinded by a water cannon in World War II. My mother pulled me through the masses of people running and screaming. I nearly couldn’t keep up with her but my mother would not let go of my hand. I stumbled and lost hold of my mother. When I got up again I heard screams behind me. Then shots. Without turning around I started to run. In front of me, the people started to slow down and screamed. There was a blockade. I was scared and confused and I desperately wanted to see my mother, to return to her. They shot teargas into the crowd. People were pushed from side to side, they were beaten and kicked. I could hear my mother shouting but I couldn’t find her in the crowded chaos. And then the water hit me. Directly in the face. I screamed. My eyes burned like hell. The searing pain shot through my head. I never knew water could hurt so badly. Then I heard my mother shouting.

'Elisa!' I was startled when she touched my shoulders. I couldn’t see her. Why couldn’t I see her?

'Mom?' I whispered full of pain. My eyes…

I heard her crying.

*****

I wiped the tears from my eyes, the memory now passing.

'Grandma? Are you alright?'

 I turned my head in the direction from where the voice was coming from. 'I’m fine, Tom.'

Footsteps. A hand on my arm.

'A memory of the war again?' It was a woman’s voice this time. Tom was 9. This was his mother.

'Yes. But they have lost their colours. It’s only black and white now, like our old TV.'

'Oh Elisa…' The hand stroked my arm and squeezed it a little.

'Grandma, come with me. I want to show you something!' A second hand took hold of mine. It was Claire, my Granddaughter.

'I’m coming Claire, not so fast!' I stood and let her lead me by the hand. I heard a man's voice quitely speaking in one of the other rooms. It was my son, Frank.

'I can’t live like this anymore. I have to help her.'

The woman's voice, which belonged to my daughter in law, and Tom’s mother, Annika answered. 'I know honey, but we don’t have the money. And furthermore-'

'You aren’t even listening grandma!' I turned my head, unable to hear the rest of their conversation.

'I’m sorry Claire. What do you wanted to show me?' Claire put my hand against her face.

'Can you feel it?' I carefully touched her face and I felt cloth.

'Are you wearing a mask?'

Claire laughed. 'Yes grandma! Tom and I are blind now too. Like you. We can now experience the world like you do.'

 I smiled. 'Oh, Claire.' I love these children more than they could ever imagine.

'It is really difficult.' said Tom, which was followed shortly by a shattering noise.

 'Tom!' shouted Annika.

'Sorry Mom.'

I could hear Annika collecting the shards. 'What are you and Claire doing with these masks? Take them off before you destroy our whole house.'

'But mom!' said Claire indignantly. 'We are blind. Just like grandma.' Silence. I waited for Annika's answer but nothing happened. Then I heard her cry. 'Mom!' said Tom, horrified.

'It’s alright sweetheart. I’m sorry'. and she walked out the room.

'Did I say something wrong?' he asked.

'You did nothing wrong. In fact, I think you made your mother very proud.'

'Then Why is she crying?'

'They’re happy tears, Tom.' I reached out for them and they each took one of my hands. I squeezed them and smiled. 'It isn’t that easy to live in the dark, am I right?'

Yes! It’s very difficult! How do you do that so easily grandma?' You never bump in to anything.

'I can hear and smell better.' I could hear the kids start to sniff.

'I can’t smell anything.' said Tom, disappointed.

'You have to learn it. Come on guys, I‘ll show you.'

*****

One week passed and I had so much fun with Tom and Claire. Meanwhile they learnt where the furniture was and how to find their way around. And when I called them, it didn’t take long until they found me. But during  this time, while we were having so much fun, I didn’t hear a lot from my son. I was a little worried.

I sat with Tom and Claire at the dining table. They both tried to sniff out what I had cooked them.

'Spaghetti!' shouted Claire happily and started eating.

'You've earned it. You two are really doing great.' Suddenly, I heard a rustle and then silence. 'What is it?' I asked.

Claire sounded sad. 'You know, whenever Tom or I don’t wanna be blind anymore, we can just take off our blindfolds. But you can’t. You are always blind.'

I reached my arm in her direction and took her hand. 'You know Claire. I’m really proud of you and Tom, that you tried to live like I have to. And you can’t imagine how happy I am that you two don’t have to live in this darkness.' My voice trembled but I kept myself together. 'I miss the colours. I really do. How blue the sky is, how green the grass in front of our house is, or how red the tomato sauce on your T-Shirt would be.' I laughed and the kids joined in.

 'Oh grandma,' sighed Claire. 'One day you will see again. I’m absolutely sure about that!'

'We promise!' said Tom.

I heard footsteps coming from another room towards us. Annika and Frank were back home.

'Kids, come with me please. Your dad has to talk to grandma.'  I heard the scraping of chairs being moved and Annika left the room with the kids. Frank’s hand took mine and I put my other hand on top of his. 'What is it Frank?'

'I have good news. If you want, you can have your sight back, mom.'

I stopped breathing for a second. 'What?'

'There's a doctor offers special treatment for war-children. He also does eye surgery. He can take a look at you and give you your eyesight back.' I could hear his excitement. 'You could see again, mom.'

'How much?'

He didn’t answer immediately. 'Oh, it isn’t that much. Please mum, it would mean a lot to the kids too.' I let go off his hands. 'Mom?'

I put his hands in the seat of my lap and turned my head away. 'I don’t want the surgery, Frank. I love my grandchildren and they had so much fun last week with the masks. And I realized that I am who I am. I am blind. I am old, Frank. Don’t waste that money, son, just because you feel like you have to help me. I’m happy.'

'But mom, what about all your memories losing colours?'

I turned my head back to him. 'Do you know what the last thing I saw was?'

'No. You never told me that.'

'It was absolute chaos. There was a blockade and as a little girl I was standing there alone. One soldier turned around and shot the water in my face. That was the last thing I saw. An evil, grinning soldier.' Frank was silent and I took a long breath. 'I’d rather live in darkness than to see something like that ever again.' I felt his arms around me as he hugged me. His tears ran down my cheek.

'I’m so sorry, mother'.

I stroked his back. 'It’s alright. What happened, happened. I’m grateful that I’m still alive. I have a great son, a great sister in law and two amazing grandchildren. I’m perfectly happy how it is now. Don’t change it.'

He wiped off the tears from my cheek. 'I love you, mom.'

The Angels' Choir

Written by James McCann

pexels-photo-459451.jpeg

It's not like it is in the movies. I don't feel the need to search for any words, or gulp hard when I swallow. I'm not coughing up any blood. It is raining though, and I guess that's as close as this thing is going to get to a Hollywood ending.

The bullet kind of pushed its way in, it didn't tear with a pointed tip, most bullets are round-nosed anyways. It took, I don't know, maybe seven seconds before the realisation set in. I mean, obviously I knew right away what had happened, I knew when I saw the puff of smoke that I'd been shot.

But the first thing I knew was the burning. The type of burning sensation that you just want to scratch at. You know scratching will only make it worse, but you want to scratch anyway, and scratch until you bleed. Besides, there is a bullet lodged in my chest; how much worse is scratching at it going to make it?

Ask me how it all happened, go on, I dare you. It won't make any difference because I haven't got a clue. We just turned a corner of the street, bumped into some guy with a beard coming out of the liquor store and BOOM! Next thing I know I'm falling down with my chest on fire.

The "we" in question is myself - quite obviously - and Thaila. She's my fiancé and the woman on her knees cradling my head and crying hysterically. It's only about 9 PM, but it's already dark and, my God, doesn't she look gorgeous in the street light with her hair all wet and pushed back from her face. I wish I could stop her crying.

The man in the liquor store just stepped outside. Now Thaila's yelling something at him, I'm not quite sure what though. I think someone's just said the word "ambulance" but I wouldn't like to put any money on it. Shootings really aren't that common around here, so everybody's in a bit of a panic. And I wish Thaila would stop crying.

I can hear the most beautiful choir singing now. Don't ask me where it's coming from, because I frankly have no idea. I can only see flickering images of thousands, maybe even millions, of choir singers, all wearing long, brilliant white robes with a line of red on the front, running down. Is it a cross, like a crucifix? I can't really make it out. I can’t see anyone's face, all I see is head after head of curly blond hair.  And I wish Thaila would stop crying.

It's already too late. As the little man from the liquor store rushes back inside to pick up the phone in the hopes of summoning an ambulance for me, I know it's already too late.

Thaila smiles down at me now, through tears. She has no idea why I'm smiling. And I really wish she'd stop crying.

Someone's taken my left hand. It's not Thaila, and it's not a paramedic because there's no ambulance. The hand is large and strong, like a man's, but it's warm and gentle, like... home. I turn my head and I see a man. He is smiling at me with his eyes. His face is stoic, unflinching. But his eyes are telling me a million things at once and I understand them all with clarity. God, I wish Thaila would stop crying.

She will, eventually.’ The man just told me, though he never parted his lips. He has a square jaw, short, dark brown hair, combed back and wet, with what has to be a broken nose sitting on a very pale face. He is wearing a long black wool coat. It's raining quite heavily now, but the man is not getting wet.

He is giving me a message to give to Thaila. I look at her, hoping to keep the memory of her image forever. I open my mouth, and with no thought at all going into the words, I tell her, ‘He says we're always going to be with you. Don’t ever worry. We'll never leave you.'

‘Who? Who says?’ Thaila asks me, but he's not giving me an answer for her.

‘We'll always be with you.’ and, of my own accord, I add a simple, but heavy, ‘I will always love you.’

The man with the story-telling eyes lifts me up so I'm stood on my feet. The burning has stopped in my chest. I can feel heavy chains drop off me and slink to the ground with a defiant clunk. But Thaila is still crying; still looking down.

The man looks at me and nods, answering my question I hadn't even asked; I know that I am now dead. And the man is leading me to some place nice, some place good. And the choir of angels is getting louder. And the man is the embodiment of love. And Thaila has stopped crying, he tells me, and replaced sorrow with anger. And I know now who the man is.

And in time, once Thaila has replaced sorrow with anger, anger with hate, hate with love, she will know who the man is too.

And in time, Thaila will make him the man he is.  But for now, I am going to where these faceless angels sing in their choir.

Kitty and Chrissy

Written by Rachel Hubbard 

Kitty and Chrissy.jpeg

The house was large and empty and Kitty’s footsteps echoed loudly on the exposed wooden floorboards as she walked slowly down the hallway. Her fingertips ran along the dado rail as if savouring the memory of its touch and holding onto the house for a little longer.  

Her feet led her into the dining room where a group of people stood in a circle and wore downcast expressions. In that moment her shoes felt unusually heavy, their leather more like lead and their rubber soles melting into the floor and keeping her there permanently. Her eyes burned the more she looked at those infuriatingly rigid figures with straight arms and thick hands clutching destructive clipboards. A tingle reached her fingers and spread quickly to the rest of her body. All she wanted to do was to rush forwards and pound her feeble little fists against the man’s trim blue suit and let her irrelevant salty tears stain his waistcoat. Instead, she clenched those little fingers into a little fist and forced herself to smile.

A hand rested on her back;

‘Come along now Kitty.’ She was ushered from their prying eyes into the kitchen. Her big sister set about making a jam sandwich for her in the usual motherly way that seemed to be so effortless. It was only an hour after lunch but there seemed nothing to be said between them and so it had to be a jam sandwich through which they communicated. Chrissy put the plate down in front of her with a caring solemnity, her aged hands steady and still while Kitty’s trembled wildly under the table with childish rage.

Kitty's big sister looked down at that infant, that little helpless child with deep blue eyes filled with a sadness and it pained her. She remembered feeling that way, remembered the feeling of having your life torn from your soul, your air supply cut off by one sentence, one letter, one boy. Kitty’s tears made her sandwich soggy as she chewed on it slowly as if trying to let the sweetness seep into her and somehow make her happy. Chrissy couldn’t bear to watch. She excused herself out the backdoor and stood for a second in the garden.

Her shoes nibbled the edge of the lawn, frosted in an icy grey as it began to harden with the coming days of cold weather. The air carried a chill which hurt her lungs as she breathed. She hugged herself tightly to keep warm. The smart dress she was wearing only reached her mid calves, leaving her ankles exposed but the layers that created the en Vogue hour glass figure of that summer were warm and insulating. Her painted fingernails scratched against the softness of her cashmere cardigan but it was a useless distraction from her thoughts.

Letting the air sting her eyes, she welcomed the tears as her gaze swept across the garden; the tree under which they’d kissed; the swing where he’d given her a rose; the little summer house where they’d hidden from her parents; the stone steps that he’d carried her down to save her shoes from the rain; the well he’d wished in to come home. Despair flooded through every inch of her body and tears streamed down her cheeks; her limbs began to shake. Not wanting to make a spectacle of herself, she ran across the grass, making little indents with her kitten heels on the soft lawn.

The summer house was locked and the shed too full of spiders so she ran into the woods that bordered their garden. Naked branches stretched out and snatched at her skirt. She knew the damage they would cause but she let them do it. Her shoes were uncomfortable and beginning to rub her toes so she kicked them off and soon had ladders in her stockings. Although her vision was blurred and her clothes ruined she still couldn’t find a part of her that cared. She didn’t care about the row she’d be in or the new house or the new neighbours or how to drink champagne in polite company or whether or not to invite the Jenkins to their Christmas party. She didn’t care about any of it. 

‘Where’s Chrissy?’ her mother’s grip was firm and accusing on Kitty’s shoulder.

‘I don’t know.’ Kitty replied honestly but her voice sounded squeaky and untrustworthy as it echoed through the empty hallway, empty rooms and now very empty house. Her mother frowned. Kitty hated it. She hated how easy she was finding all of this, easily letting go of this wonderful house, Kitty’s Palace, Kitty’s Pirate Ship, Kitty’s Sanctuary. Her malicious thoughts were violently interrupted by the irritating tapping of smartly polished shoes. The man wearing these shoes frowned too. What did he have to frown about? He was the one profiting from this house! How dare he and all his little minions stand crowding their doorway on this fateful day.

‘Kitty, go and wait in the car.’ her mother said.

Chrissy’s lungs burned where she lay on the damp woodland ground, wincing with the pain in her chest and the stinging in her feet. Tears stung her eyes now more than the cold air. So much weighed down on her – so much she had had to think about; to worry about; to consume her time. This was the first time she’d had to think in weeks. To just think about anything besides what her mother drowned her life with. Here she wasn’t concerned about the church roof; the Scouts coffee morning or the new hospital opening.  Here she was free to think, to wander and explore the memories and the thoughts of her own wonderful, terrifying brain.

Her thoughts were plain at first - boring and mundane and she clenched her fists and curled her toes and willed her brain to summon her most painful thought. In a moment her eyes flew open, tears streaming from their corners and her breathing changed from a shallow pant to a staggered whimper. Sobs rose in her chest and soon she was unable to contain them and she turned over to shield her sorrow from the world.

Kitty watched from the car window as her mother spoke to the men in suits. They leaned into her with condescension as if she needed encouragement to construct and deliver a coherent and confident sentence. The men seemed to smile at her as if she too were a child. After some time, they bid their farewells and left. Kitty shivered at the thought of ever having to love a man like that, a man so spiteful, so cruel and so insensitive. She was distracted in her fury and didn’t notice her mother receding once again into the house. Kitty was confused by her disappearance.

Angela - for that was what everyone called her apart from Kitty and Chrissy, who simply referred to her as,"Mother" - walked quickly down the corridor, trying desperately to ignore her echoing footsteps. Her lips pursed in anguish as she saw the deep gash in the wall paper. Utter terror coursed through her veins and she had to remind herself of the immortal excuse. War changed him. Clasping her hands together she ran the last couple of steps through the kitchen and gasped with the cold air outside, or, perhaps, the shock of the memory; her husband staggering backwards, his hand dripping with blood and glass surrounding his feet from where he’d punched the kitchen window. ‘I’m sorry,’ his wails haunted her as she ran across the grass, making large indents with her high heels on the soft lawn.

The woods were cold and eerie. Angela had been scared of them when they’d first moved into the house, a bride of just 23. But she’d grown to love them. They were filled with memories that reached out like old friends to touch her legs and arms and claw at her dress in desperation, demanding attention she so often insisted was needed elsewhere.

Taking care not to let the sharp branches snatch and tear her skirt Angela tip toed silently across the dense woodland ground. She was unsurprised to find her daughter’s shoes abandoned on the side of the overgrown pathway and continued with them held at arm’s length to save the precious chiffon from the ever-staining mud.

From behind a tree, Angela could see a figure collapsed on the ground and weeping loudly into the crook of their arm. She went no further.

‘Christina,’ she said in a measured tone. There was a gasp but she didn’t look to see a ruined face stare up at her. Instead she looked away, trying hard to find the beauty in nature that her husband had always insisted was there. The sobbing continued and there was the sound of shuffling but Chrissy did not appear in front of her mother. ‘We all have to deal with loss, Christina. The whole country has been affected, as you well know. It is our duty to carry on, to do our best to continue without loved ones by our side. You know as well as I do that even if George had come back he wouldn’t have been the same.’

Chrissy had heard this from everyone. Not one person seemed to have any sympathy for her when in one moment she’d gone from seeing the world in vibrant colour to seeing everything in black and white. So she got up, brushed down her dress and looked in the unresponsive eyes of a face she knew so well.

‘Yes mother,’ she said and walked back to a house she would never see again and attempted to expel from her memory the name of a boy she would never forget.

The Puppet

Written by Rachel Hubbard

 Photograph by Nathan Anderson

Photograph by Nathan Anderson

It was October and the clouds threatened snow even though the air was not yet cool enough to sustain the delicacy of the snowflakes for, as they fell, they would fade into raindrops or land silently on the wet pavements and melt into oblivion. It was, however, cold enough for Michael to don a scarf; a necessary part of his dark, austere uniform as he dressed himself that morning, standing in front of the bedroom window and surveying the dreich weather he would soon endeavour to bear for the eight long hours that his shift lasted.

His tea was cold by the time he was ready to leave and he suspected Kate’s was too, though she still had another blissful half an hour of peace until the alarm would wake her. He leant over her sleeping body with romantic delicacy and kissed her soft warm cheek as gently as he could before carrying his shoes and tip-toeing from the room. He had wanted to stay for longer, to wake her up with his lips against her skin and climb back under the warm covers and feel their legs intertwine as she reached around his middle, sighed and whispered something lovely in his ear. But instead he pulled the front door shut with a definitive clunk behind him.

Outside the weather was worse than he’d feared. It was trying to snow but could only manage a pitiful sleet that wasn’t quite heavy enough to need an umbrella. So Michael walked with his head down and tried not to get it in his eyes. Normally, rain would run off his high-vis waterproof overcoat with ease but this sludge trickled down the collar and collected in the crinkles like cold, week-old soup. Michael hated the overcoat: underneath he wore a tie and collared shirt, a black pull-over and two proud silver stripes on each sleeve which indicated his progression from Constable to Sergeant. All of it invisible beneath that damned coat. The coat that made him look bulkier and louder than he was. Michael hated the coat and he hated the weather too.

Not even out of sight of his bedroom window he began to shiver and, with a grunt, he turned back to fetch the hat that he ought to have taken with him in the first place. In the few minutes it took for him to return to his front door he became convinced that this was God’s way of giving him the day off; that he should be so tempted to go back to bed on returning to the flat that he would just have to lie down and go to sleep. But his morals wouldn’t allow it and so he stole a look from the bedroom door and disappeared once again into the abyss.

He had remembered, this time, to Velcro his radio control to the outside of his jacket. It gave him some comfort to hear the muffled voices of his comrades as he began the very lonely walk to where there was “summit amiss”. 

It was mid-morning by the time he climbed the steep ascent of Gordon Hill. On a sunny day, he would relish the moment that he approached the top and was briefly blinded by the hot and powerful sun, but today all that welcomed him was a low cloud that hung densely over the dull, grey buildings of the village like a thick smog that was impenetrable and suffocating. Feeling wholly uninspired, he decided to take a moment to sit on the bench that over looked the East side of the village. This stretch of countryside was largely unpopulated with only a cluster of farm houses nestled in the valley and sometimes Michael would count the hundreds of sheep that aimlessly roved the opposite hillside.

With his head bowed against the wind, he progressed round the side of the large oak tree with the intention of settling on the bench now only a few feet away from him but when a slow creaking sound caught his attention he looked up and stopped dead in his tracks, air catching in his throat as he tried to gasp.

In front of him was a large branch of the tree which stretched out like a withered arm to the horizon ahead. From this branch was tied a rope. This rope was pulled taught by the body of a man, not much older than Michael. He was shocked by their similarity in age. It was as if the man was mocking him, asking him if he was really, really happy or if it was all an illusion. Or perhaps the man was foreshadowing something – wait until you get to twenty-two then life is simply unbearable. Michael felt a shiver run like an icy rain drop down his spine.

In training they had seen hangings before and they’d been taught the procedure to follow should they ever be in the unlikely situation of stumbling across one. Finding himself now in this position, there wasn’t one single part of the talk that Michael remembered. His mind had gone blank.

All he could do was stare helplessly at the man’s purpled face and bulging eyes, then his limp body that swayed ghoulishly in the breeze, and his hands and feet which hung lifeless and heavy. He wore an old blue jumper that had food stains dribbled down the front and his hair was ruffled and only one of his shoes had the laces tied. Michael blinked several times but at each moment that his eyes were shut, a part of him was scared that the figure might move as if it were all a joke. As if it was something he’d laugh about in the future with his friends and remember with humorous hindsight. It wasn’t a joke. But Michael would certainly remember this day with painful accuracy. The sensation of eyes, watching from behind, crept up his spine until he had to turn around suddenly. No one was there. Silly Michael...

The man! He turned back but found himself even more disturbed to find the figure still there, silently hanging. The poor soul’s eyes were fixed on the ground, out of focus as if in a daze. His pupils were dilated and Michael assumed he’d been on drugs. Perhaps it was an accident?

The hair on Michael’s arms prickled. He was unsure if it was because of the wind which seemed to have dropped a few degrees, or if it was because of the dead body which danced in the gusts before him like a puppet on a single string, head bowed in defeat, not wanting to address the audience but without a will to fight his master as legs moved slowly and wearily above the darkened village.

For One Night Only

Written by Jean Roberts

red-school-blur-factory.jpg

From the front the school, it looked exactly as it did back in 1984 when Trish left. As she walked through the doors into the main foyer, never in a million years did she think she’d be back here. Least of all for a reunion. Multi-coloured bunting had been draped around the walls, and a banner welcoming the class of nineteen-eighty-something (the banner had started to come away from its anchor on the right hand side, making the last digit unreadable). She could hear music coming from the main hall, and flashing lights pulsed through the glass panels dividing the foyer from the hall. Closing her eyes, for a moment she let the music wash over her and it took her back to those far-gone Christmas discos. There had been some good ones. She was deep in her thoughts, reliving the slow dance with Rob Harris. Her thoughts were broken by a vaguely familiar voice.

‘Trish. Trish Evans?’

The voice came from behind her. Trish turned.

‘It is! Oh my good God how long has it been? It must be, what, twenty five years?’

It was Buddug Hughes who, in her wisdom, had organised this "let’s meet on our fiftieth birthday reunion". In a bear hug of an embrace, Trish’s arms were pinned by her side as Buddug screeched in joy.

‘Buddug, this looks fantastic.’ Trish nodded towards the decor.

‘Oh shucks, it was nothing. Listen, come and meet the others.’

She grabbed Trish’s arm and began moving her towards the double doors which lead down into the hall. ‘Colin, Mary and Claire are here, and oh do you remember -’ Buddug paused and moved closer ‘Paul Wilson?’ she winked.

Trish’s heart sank. She remembered Paul Wilson only too well. The word "narcissistic" was made for that man, and she dreaded the thought of seeing him.

‘Before we go in, I need to pop to the loo, back in a minute.’

Walking down the corridor to the toilets, it struck Trish how faded the place was. It all seemed a lot smaller, the high ceilings weren’t so high, the corridor down to the Head's office wasn’t as long as she remembered it. It was ordinary. Very ordinary. Even the toilet block seemed smaller. Trish smiled at her reflection in the cracked mirror above a basin, remembering how her best friend Emma would drag her in here for a ciggie before French. It was a shame Emma wouldn’t be here tonight but who in their right mind would want to leave a two week holiday in the Maldives for a night at a school reunion.  Before coming here tonight, she’d remembered school as huge and, at times, intimidating and, if she were honest with herself, she had not been looking forward to this reunion. But school wasn’t big and scary, it was just a building. And even if Paul Wilson was still a narcissistic prat, he was still only just a narcissistic prat. And it might be good to see the old crowd. Ha! Who am I kidding? She said to herself as she pulled on the heavy green door and walked back up the corridor.

Along the wall there were photographs of Head Boys and Girls from over the years, as well as the other high achievers. The various sports teams and individuals that had won things were up there too; smiling holding their various trophies and certificates. She knew the names and faces, but didn’t know the people. Not in her circle of friends. She’d never been sporty, or a high achiever. Not really. And the thought of her face being on this wall sent a shiver down her spine; it had been known as the wall of shame to Lesser Mortals. Then she saw a face that reminded her of how feisty she’d been in school: Mr Bryn Edwards, or "Joe 90" as he was known by the Lesser Mortals. Gerry Anderson must have modelled his puppet character on Bryn Edwards they were so much alike. Mr Edwards was head of the Lower Sixth form and if ever two people had a clash of personalities it was Bryn Edwards and Trish. He liked to think he reigned supreme, and that no one should question his authority. And for the most part, no one did. But when he accused Trish of skipping classes in the middle of a common room of people, and walking away from her when she was explaining she hadn’t, it was a step too far. She marched after him to his office and said her piece. It turned out it was another girl, Trisha Everett that had been skipping classes. He never apologised. So they never spoke to each other for the rest of her time in school. His loss, she smiled.

‘There you are!’ Buddug was blustering down the corridor towards her, ‘You’re missing all the fun, come on.’    

As they entered the hall, the mix of heat, sweat and strong perfume almost sent her reeling backwards but Buddug held tightly on to her arm so there was no escape and led her to a small table just inside the room. She could feel the blood rushing through her veins again as Buddug released her arm and turned to the table. Scribbling something on a small piece of paper then turning back to face Trish and placed the sticky address label on her chest with such force she was sure she’d have a bruise tomorrow.

For the next fifteen minutes or so Trish moved around the hall, squinting at the name badges, smiling whilst trying to reconcile the face above with the squiggle of ink.

‘It is you, isn’t it? I’d know that hair anywhere.’ The voice came from over her right shoulder, the first thing she noticed on turning around was the glare of a disco light bouncing off a bald head, and below it, a round, red, sweaty face grinning at her.

‘Yep, I knew it was you. The hair, that’s what did it. That mass of red hair.’

As he moved in closer for a hug, Trish noticed the buttons of his shirt straining over the large beer belly.  Who the hell are you? Went through her mind. She was aware that his mobile phone was ringing, though it only just audible over the sound of the music. 

‘Your phone is ringing.’ She pulled away and pointed towards his trouser pocket. He nodded and smiled as he took the phone out, glanced at the screen, pressed the answer button, and mouthed "the wife" as he turned away.

‘He’s already on his third.’ The voice came from her left, and had a familiarity to it. When she looked to see who it belonged to, she smiled, seeing the face of one of the Old Gang.

‘Lenny! Good God!’ The hug was more than welcome this time. ‘You were the last person I expected to see here, I thought you lived in Oz now.’

‘I do, but they they have these things called planes you know.’’ He smiled and pulled out of the embrace, but still held her hands. ‘You don’t know who that was, do you?’ he nodded towards the man still on his mobile phone.

‘Not a clue.’

‘Paul.’

‘Paul?’

Lenny nodded, waiting for the penny to drop.

Trish looked at the man on the phone, then at Lenny. ‘Wilson? That’s Paul Wilson?’ She hoped that her reaction didn’t betray her slightly unkind thoughts too much.

Lenny smiled. ‘That’s what three wives and seven kids has done to him.’

She hadn’t seen Lenny in almost twenty years, and it was as though they hadn’t been apart for a single day. For the next few hours the two of them chatted and danced and laughed. You could always make me laugh, she thought as they mockingly did the moves to Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming and chatted to others neither of them had seen for years, with Lenny being a bit of a novelty having come all the way from Australia. He didn’t have the heart to tell them that the trip coincided with his nephew’s wedding.

It was a little after 1am when she arrived home, and as she sat in her living room with a mug of tea, the evenings’ events ran through her mind. Seeing some of the Old Gang was lovely. Colin and Claire still together, after however many years since we were fourteen, she thought. and Claire, still as scatter-brained and sweet. And Mary, of course, the eternal hippy. Her corkscrew hair still as wild as ever, the grey somehow suiting her wacky personality. Paul Wilson though. Although never one of the gang, he was a surprise, 'or more of a shock.' she heard herself saying to the empty room.

The biggest and best surprise was seeing Lenny. He hadn’t changed. A bit older yes, and the hair was a bit shorter, but he still had that glint of defiance in his eyes, and that wonky smile. He’d been her first big crush, and seeing him tonight reminded her of that, and gave her a warm glow inside.

She’d swapped mobile numbers with Lenny, and they’d all promised to seek each other out on Facebook, and keep in touch. And, maybe, just maybe they would.

Momento Mori

Written by Hannah Winspear-Schillings 

Black-Snake-Wallpaper.jpg

'Do you want help looking through them?'

She closed her eyes and shuddered. If she didn't look at him, she could almost convince herself that he was Johnnie. The voice was the same; deep and soft and rich, though the inflection was wrong.

Johnnie would have asked without that high-pitched question in his tone.

Johnnie would have done a great many things, but he would never do any of them. He had calmly hanged himself two days ago, and that was the very last thing he had ever done.

'No,' she said softly. 'I'll do it alone.'

'Anne -'

She flinched at the sound of her name. If she listened to him, she knew that he would end up persuading her. They would look through Johnnie’s notebooks together, frowning at the things their son had written and drawn, and convince themselves that they should have seen this coming.

It was the very last thing she wanted to do.

'David, leave me alone, please. I want to look through those notebooks by myself.' She softened her tone when she saw him staring at her. 'I- I'm sorry. But it was what he wanted. Give me an hour.'

'He wrote it in a suicide note, Anne,' said David, eyebrows raised as though he found her mad. 'He was deranged when he wrote that. I'm his father; I should be the first one to see them.'

'David, please.'

For a moment, they looked at each other. Then David sighed, and turned away.

'Go up and do it. I'll be up in an hour or so.' he said softly.

She turned away and went up the stairs without a word. She paused at the door and waited. Although that wasted some of the hour that David had given her. It seemed right to pause before she entered the domain of the dead. Johnnie's room was empty. Calm. As calm as the expression on his face when they'd found him. She closed her eyes as she thought about that, and David’s reaction, and her own. Somehow, it would have been easier if he'd committed suicide out of crazed despair, if they'd found him with tears on his face.

But no, he'd been calm. Smiling slightly. And his note didn't mention any "reasons" why a fifteen-year-old boy might commit suicide. He hadn't talked about suicide beforehand, or seemed depressed. He'd waited until both she and David were out of the house and he'd hanged himself so he wouldn't accidentally survive. In fact, sometimes Anne thought that he had deliberately gone out of his way to avoid displaying the traditional signs. He hadn't wanted anyone to stop him. Why?

Well, Johnnie had said that she was to read his notebooks. Anne stepped towards the first one; a battered black one, and opened it, half-expecting to find it full of despairing poetry. It wasn't. Instead, it was a rather good description of a nature scene. Anne frowned lightly as she read it.

There are no English trees, English rocks, nor cold English streams here, but the red dust                            remembers more than they ever could. The grey scrubland might still whisper old stories                                      about the people who used to overshadow them, but now they’re silent. The wind whips the                                   sand around, forming patterns. It looks as though the serpent has passed here.

Anne blinked, shook her head, and turned the page. The scene simply ended, with no indication of anything coming before or after it. Perhaps Johnnie had written it for a story. She’d never known he could write like this. Why hadn’t he shown her? Father Bryant praised him as quiet and diligent with his studies, but he had never commented on his writing. She wondered if they assumed he'd been scribbling down notes on their sermons. She looked at the next page of the notebook.

I come to a tree, gnarled and white, sticking up in to the air. The top branches of the tree                                    glimmer silver like a waterhole touched by moonlight. So close. I can see the Karatgurrk sisters,                                 or the Pleiades, up in the night sky, shining bright like the fire Crow stole from their digging                             sticks. Something black, sinuous and shining slithers down the trunk of the white tree. The Great                   Serpent slides towards me, the moonlight catching the colours of its scales, setting them all alight                          like rainbows. He looks at me, and there’s blood on his side. I touch the wound, and I hear the didjeridu.

I have to go back, now, but I'll return.

Anne frowned uneasily at the page. Fantasy, of course, and perhaps there was something here that was a clue to Johnnie’s state of mind. But what were the mentions of returning and "next time?” There was a strange looking red-brown blotch on the corner of the page. Frowning, she reached out to it.

Her fingers touched it, and she heard the drone of a didgeridoo in her head. Anne gasped out loud, and withdrew her hand. The didgeridoo noise vanished from her mind the moment her fingers lost contact with the red splotch. She eyed it, and told herself that she was imagining things. She was still in a fragile state of mind, consumed by grief and shock. She wondered if she should have brought David along after all. He was the steady, calm presence who always had a foot in the real world.

She sat down and continued flipping through the pages. A word leaped out at her from the mass of writing before she found another image, though.

die

Anne turned back and began to read from the beginning of the passage. This was one of the longer ones, and she found herself having to squint to make it out. The letters were scrawled and untidy. He’d written it in haste, she thought.

I went back today, and found the serpent waiting for me in the usual place. We stood                                             there beneath the boughs of the tree, and he explained to me what I must do. It wouldn’t                                           be easy, he warned. I assured him that I understood. I was willing to pay almost any                                             price to get back to the world I wanted.

He laughed at me when I asked. How could I pay any kind of price, he asked me, when                                                 I wanted to do it? It wasn't a price to me. I wouldn't have to give up my soul, or make a deal                                with a demon. Whitefella laws didn’t apply to this country, he explained, or any other stuff.                                    My soul, my country, my katjini, it’s all my own.

It's the giving up of the body that has to happen. The giving up of the body, he explained, is all                              part of getting to the Dreamtime. To the Tjukurpa. To the Altjira, the Alchera, the Dreaming.

To my own country, not this one. To my own laws and rules and beliefs, not these. I would                                   have to die, he explained. I would have to make sure that no one disturbed me before I died. And                           then I would have to wait and see what happened.

It's going to be a long time before I can do it. But I'm willing to wait. I can’t stay here, in this                        country. I can’t.

Anne closed her eyes and bowed her head, fighting to control nausea. Johnnie had been delusional.

Dear God, what would this do to David when he found out?

'Anne?'

She looked up. David stood in the door. His face was pale, and he was gripping the sides of the doorframe to keep from swaying.

'What is it, David?' she asked, dropping the notebook and coming over to him. Maybe the shock had finally hit him. He hadn't shed a tear since that first time when they found Johnnie.

'They called. We can't even have a funeral!' David snarled, and began to sob so deeply it sounded as though he might start bleeding.

Anne pulled him close, bewildered. "Why can't we have a funeral? Maybe not open-casket, but-"

It seemed to take David a massive effort to interrupt her. “Johnnie's body is gone!"

Anne closed her eyes. Standing there, with David in her arms, it seemed to make sense.

Just imagine for a moment, said her mind, in an almost pleasant tone of voice. Imagine that Johnnie died with that calm look on his face because he was absolutely sure that he knew where he was going. Anne shook her head violently, ashamed of herself for thinking such things with her husband sobbing, and her poor, deluded son dead.

'We'll find him,' she whispered to her husband. 'We'll find him. I promise.'

David started to answer, but his voice was overridden by a clear sound from below. Anne hurried to the window, thinking the constables had arrived. Did they have some news about Johhnie? Had they found—

She looked out the window. And her mind seemed to divide in two. The rational part told her that she was tired, and stressed, and seeing things. After all, they were in the middle of Central Australia. It wasn’t that unusual to see a snake in town. The clear sound proved to be a horn, when an automobile pulled up at their house a moment later.

The laughing part of her mind told her that beneath her a great snake was coiled on the grass. The serpent’s scales shone like a rainbow, flushed gold in the light of the sun. The clear sound had been its voice, lifted in a sound too rich and silvery to be called a hiss.

The rational part of her mind told her that even if she had really seen a snake there, she couldn't have possibly seen it from this height. Or the eyes. Especially not the eyes.

The laughing part of her mind told her that the snake looked up at her with Johnnie’s eyes. They were brighter than Johnnie’s had ever been in life, blazing with the clean power that filled the snake’s whole body, but they still had Johnnie’s soul in them. He had kept his spirit.

The serpent turned and slithered away as the police car pulled up. Her son turned and went into the scrubland, gliding across the ground so quickly. Anne felt herself start sobbing.

Both she and David were crying when the police came up, and not of much help. The police reassured them that they would get the body back, of course they would, it was an unusual crime but they would solve it, there was no need to worry about anything.