The Conspirators

These days, she writes with urgency, pen moving steadily over paper, filling each page with shaky handwriting. Her tiredness shaken off like an old, heavy coat. She smokes more than usual, inhaling deeply as she watches the sun set through the window behind her desk. The only half-opened curtains throw shadows on her face, dust twirling in last rays of light. The days are getting shorter and nights colder, and since the start of the uprising fuel prices have doubled. They cannot afford to leave on the heating throughout the night. She sleeps with two blankets wrapped around her, but she is still cold. She stubs out her cigarette, then glances at her phone.

Quietly, she closes the door and hurries along darkening streets, as if movement itself constituted a kind of salvation. When she reaches the main square, she fastens her pace and looks back briefly, hoping no one is following her. She turns into an alley with electric wires crisscrossing overhead, like branches of trees. Mousa has left the door unlocked in anticipation of her arrival. She slips inside.

They exchange a tender embrace. “How is mother?”, she asks. “Same old. Refuses to leave the room where they arrested Ali.” She nods, not wanting to probe further. They gather a few things – folders, documents, Ali’s camera. Mousa’s room is sterile, almost clinical; resembling a conscious attempt not to leave a personal trace. Before they go, Mousa pinches her arm, a smile flickering across his face. “To everything there is a season, my dear …”

The streets are empty by now, curfew having started an hour ago, and they drive along in silence. A dog barks somewhere in the distance. The sky is dark but clear, dim moonlight filtering through the clouds. Through the front window of Mousa’s Toyota she can make out the silhouettes of houses rolling past. As they approach the outskirts of the capital, residential streets give way to warehouses and the occasional farm. Mousa lights a cigarette, tapping the steering wheel. She’s lost in thought when she spots what appears to be a checkpoint at the end of the road. In an instant, she frowns and turns to Mousa, knuckles turning white from clutching her bag. Mousa motions her to be quiet, slowing the car until it comes to a standstill. He reaches for his phone and types a few words. It lights up with an incoming call. “Are you sure?” Mousa whispers. “And a time to every purpose …” he mutters to himself. “It’s deserted. We’re in the clear.” He squeezes her hand.

They park the car at an abandoned factory site. Before the uprising, tires were produced here; a rusty sign still indicates the name of the owners, who have long left the country. A burned-out vehicle marks the entrance of the main building. Mousa touches her shoulder in affirmation as they enter. Inside, they are greeted by a group of six, two women and four men, “fellow conspirators,” as Mousa likes to call them, sic semper tyrannis. Saleh, the tallest, his unruly hair held in a ponytail, invites the newcomers to sit. He has positioned a small satellite television on top of two empty boxes. “Just look at this.” He motions towards the TV; it flickers briefly before an image of the leader appears. Dressed in a suit, he is addressing parliament, his voice reverberating from the marble ceilings:

Seventy-four years ago, our noble countrymen shed their blood in the struggle for independence. Out of independence, we created order and progress. Now this order has come under threat. We are engaged in a great fight to contain the forces of chaos and darkness unleashed upon this soil by traitors of the homeland. To those of you in the ranks of this nation without honor, who side with the terrorists, let me say this: I am willing to rinse the streets of this country with blood, to drain the last ounces of resistance, until this nation is once again pure and worthy of my guidance.  

Saleh switches off the TV and turns towards the assembled. “This is insane. Absolute madness.” Mousa nods; others concur. Their voices blur together and then slowly fade away. Her gaze wanders for a short while, a shiver running down her spine. Later, she will remember only fragments, her recollection fractured like glass shattering on concrete. The doors burst open. Men in uniform enter, shots are fired. Mousa flinches; Saleh screams, hands thrown up in the air; bodies tumble over one other. She makes a dash for the exit, and from the corner of her eye catches sight of Mousa. He appears calm, and when their eyes meet, she recognizes the expression on his face, an expression she knows well. I’m sorry.




When to take a pregnancy test and when to prune roses

Remove all remaining leaves. That way you can see the structure of the bush clearly.

Don’t think about him. You had three pints and a Bacardi – give yourself a break.

Cut dead wood. Brown is dead, green is living.

He says ‘to be honest’ all the time and you loathe people who say ‘to be honest’.

Open up the centre of the plant. Take out crossing branches. They can rub.

Picture your kid saying ‘to be honest’ all the time.

Remove any thin, weak growth. Anything thinner than a pencil. 

His dick is huge.

Cut above an outward-facing bud-eye. New stems grow in the direction of the bud, so the goal is to encourage them to be outward, not inward.

He’s never been out of Tipton St John.

Protect freshly cut canes from rot by sealing wounds.

You’d be a neglectful mother.

Clean up the surrounding area underneath. Leaves and branches should be disposed of as pests could be lurking.

He’s a safe bet.

Feed your roses.

His dick is huge.  




The Wrong Person Goodnight

“What time is it?” one voice asks into the phone.

“Did I wake you?” another answers. “It’s about half three.”

“Has someone died?”

“Not yet. It’s far more serious than that.”

“Well in that case I’d better sit up.” The sound of pillows being punched into place filled the dark room. “Where are you?” he whispered.

“Walking home.”

“I can hear your feet.” And he could, footsteps on solid ground. “Are you drunk?”

“I drink, therefore I am.”

“I’m sleepy, that’s a little like being drunk.”

“I’ve got up my drunken shield, concocted of the majority of one bottle of white wine, at least one shot of Sambuca and several gin cocktails. Now I can say anything, ask you anything and not remember it in the morning.”

“You got something to say to me?”

“I do.

“Give me one sec then.”

He swung his feet out of the bed and took large, slow steps towards the door, taking a glance back into the room as he closed it conspiratorially behind him.

He sat up in the single bed of the spare room, bringing the sheets around him so he looked like a miniature Buddha in the dark. He listened mostly, speaking only occasionally to let them know he was still conscious, still listening. Saying only okay, yes, I understand, it’s fine, really, it’s fine.

“And that’s about it.” They finished.

“Okay,” whilst listening he had moved to the edge of the bed and rolled up the blind of the bedroom window. Outside, black plastic bin lids radiated with the amber glow of a single streetlight. A back yard door swung on its hinges. Something moved in the darkness. Or perhaps he had just imagined it.

“I’m about to go into the tube, can I call you right back.” This wasn’t exactly a question that needed answering.

He went to the bathroom. The light was harsh and abrupt. After pissing he splashed cold water onto his face, as if he was in a film. His face was lined and mottled from sleep. Idly he put his hand down into his boxers.

The phone vibrated on the cistern. He moved quickly back to the spare room, sat down and answered.

“The tube was horrible.”

“Are you walking home alone?”

“I’ve got you for protection.”

“I’ll keep on the line.”

“You haven’t changed your mind during the ad break have you?”

“No,” he laughed through his nose. “I haven’t changed my mind.”

“What’s home like now? Does everyone still go to The Neighbourhood?”

He laughed. “No, Neighbourhood’s gone. There’s not many people around anymore really.”

“We’ve all drifted away. I think we’re in need of a good funeral or wedding, something to bring us all back home.”

“There’s always Christmas.”

He stretched his arms out in the dark, arching his back uncomfortably, keeping the phone to his ear.

“I drove past our old school last week,” he said after a pause. “They’ve rebuilt it, into the shape of a cross.”

“That old place.”

“Other stuff’s being done up. We got a couple Costa’s now, a market, all that kind of thing.”

“Everything’s everywhere.”

“Except people, we’re still just in one place.”

The line went quiet, except for footsteps.

“It’s better to have said it, I couldn’t have not said anything.”

“I know,” he said. He didn’t know what else to say.

“I’m back now,’ the voice said abruptly after a protracted silence. “Ever the gentlemen, walking me back to my door.”

“Here’s where I kiss you on the cheek.”

“You want to come in for a coffee? That’s what they say isn’t it, in films?”

“I believe they do.”

“Except this isn’t a film. Imagine how sad I’m going to be when I realise I’m old and my life wasn’t actually a film and I’m nearly dead.”

He slept in late the next morning and was woken by the hairdryer. He sat up and rested his weight on the ball of one shoulder. The dryer clicked off.

“You were up late.”

“Yeah,” he lowered his chin towards his chest. “I got a call.”

“Strange hour.” She looked and didn’t look at him in the reflection of the mirror whilst combing her hair.

“Was an old school friend,” he stared deliberately at her, waiting for her eyes to meet his.

“Oh yeah,” she said, looking at her own reflection. “Anyone I know?”

“No, I don’t think you ever met.”

She dressed in silence. Before leaving the room she turned to him, “don’t forget to make the bed,” she said.

“I won’t.”

“The spare too,” her voice came from out of the room, already moving past the threshold and away from him.




Unfit for Execution

I.

Can you dream your own death? Once, while sleeping, my life was spared because I had a cold.           

One by one, people in single file were being flung off the subway platform onto the tracks. It was winter, a season no less harsh for existing only inside me. I was five and traveling alone; the adults wore worn, scratchy coats that flapped like the flags of defeated countries as their bodies fought the air. The tunnel’s acoustics amplified their screams, the only sound besides the thud of bodies. Everything was regimentally organized, and I took my place in line.

            When my turn came, I explained in reasoned tones that I should be allowed to live because I was sick. The executioners, also bundled in big, drab coats, huddled to consider me: a child coughing, sniffling, wheezing, hardly able to breathe.  They nodded and waved me away.

II.

At the age of 17, I dreamed that the executioners returned, still wearing bulky overcoats but now standing in the kitchen of my parents’ house. There was no food, for this was a place of hunger in a country of famine. At stake this time: not my life, but control over knowledge that affected the future of humanity. An object that resembled a ping pong ball contained the secret of the universe; a hidden spring, if touched just so, would unlock it. We grappled for its possession, scuffling on the black-and-white checkerboard floor like breakaway chessboard knights. Could the world, here in this kitchen, be won or lost to the sound of panting, the odor of cold, dirty wool? The wall clock, ticking its impatience, commanded me to seize the moment. So I did, wresting the ball back. Realizing that the executioners could retake it before I found the hidden spring, I crushed the ball in my hand.

            The men froze and stared, coats heaving with their still-ragged breath. An eye like a Cyclops’s filled my palm and a voice through my lips declared, “The eye/I? sees all things.” I stood with my enemies, listening for more, but there was just silence. And cold.




Letter from Irene Hecht to Ise Frank after Jana Revedin’s book, “Jeder Nennt Mich Frau Bauhaus: Das Leben der Ise Frank.”

Cover image: Everyone here calls me Mrs Bauhaus. The Life of Ise Frank A Biographical Novel

Letter from Irene Hecht to Ise Frank after Jana Revedin’s book, “Jeder Nennt Mich Frau Bauhaus: Das Leben der Ise Frank.”[1]

  Munich, Winter 1945

Ise,

I did miss you. Why I was committed to you in the first place, I don’t know. Perhaps, it was the way you spoke to me, your vivid voice. Adorable, Barthes once said, a voice that vibrated between gravity and lightness, qualities I didn’t acquire but envied. You achieved a well-formed voice which was ahead of time while mine was lacking. Your voice was your weapon and language, your style. I didn’t lack style but your worldly voice muted me. You were in control, Ise, and so I retreated, sinking into a sphere of reticence just listening to you. What we cannot say we must pass over in silence as, Wittgenstein knew so well, the absent voice. Sure, there were times I wanted to challenge you but it wasn’t a competition. I didn’t play language games, certainly not in German. I couldn’t meet your perfection and the gap between my intention and expression widened as time passed. I pretended my interest in your tastes and freely exhibited my deficits. Your perfectly formed voice too often injured me but you didn’t hear it. I am still working on my image here and, perhaps, I should stop, since speaking to you is anyway, a redundant idea.

Irene


[1] “Everyone calls me Frau Bauhaus: The life of Ise Frank.”




I Dwell in Books

I dwell in books, works of art, the afterlife, while doctors gather symptoms and label incurable. A princess wore this disorder, and a well-known beauty; in the Netherlands I qualify for death by euthanasia. My mother and son visit this morning, we stare at his sympathy card: no words, he drew stickmen and flowers and Mother painted it smooth. Papers to sign, radio plays low. Panes of glass shiver in August air; the news broadcasts forest fires, yet forecasted rain still called dirty. My roommate wears the name of my mother’s mother; a ghost I assumed, invisible, until I awoke to her shadow on bed curtains, huge and mute and starving. I call for you, Anne, Sylvia, Franz, Vincent, clouds, rain, storms.




Daytime Moon

On Saturdays Mr. Mathur came to the apartment to teach my mother the Hindu way. A retired jeweler, his life was now devoted to spirituality. He wouldn’t take money so my mother often gave him little presents of flowers or fruit. Her job at Paramount did not pay much, which meant sometimes on Saturday mornings she grabbed a pair of scissors and walked around the block, returning with a couple of our neighbor’s Bird of Paradise blossoms. Every day at Paramount the producer made her cry and every day my mother hid in the Ladies Room until she got over it. One Saturday she overslept and said to me, “Go to Ralphs and get an orange to give to the teacher.”

January was orange season and the orange turned out to be six cents, no tax. Outside the store someone was calling my name. Freddie. Since preschool he had been in my class. Now we were sophomores together at Uni High. More importantly, Freddie straddled a cherry red Honda scooter. He said, “Wanna go to Hot Dog On A Stick?”

My mother and I used to go all the time, except now we were nearly full time vegetarians. In high school, she had worked at Hot Dog On A Stick, wearing the crazy hat and squashing the lemonade. I would have liked to have worked someplace after school to earn some extra money but she said I couldn’t because of my poor grades.

Freddie and I sat on a concrete wall eating the hot dogs and watching the sun bang off the ocean. The scooter belonged to his uncle and his uncle was in the Marines. Freddie was pretty sure his uncle would give him the scooter if his uncle got posted to Okinawa.

“The guru,” Freddie said. “What does he do?”

I pointed to the hot dog. “This is a delusion. Once you begin a life of meditation, you can see that.”

“The hot dog?”

“No. The wanting the hot dog.”

            “You meditate?”

            “No.” Even my mother did not meditate all that much. She lay in bed with the pillow over her head.

By the time we got back to the apartment, the lesson was over, but Mr. Mathur was still around, standing with my mother on the sidewalk, and pointing to something in the sky.

 A daytime moon. Only half of one, tilted towards the sun, a silver tennis ball that floated just above the palm tree.

“Oh, hello, Freddie.” My mother smiled when I handed her the orange.

I hadn’t thought about it before, but were the moon and the sun ever supposed to be in the sky together? One gave way to the other, right?

“Where did you get that scooter, Freddie?” my mother asked.

A narrow white cloud was streaked across the sky. At the beach today children had been playing and I felt the urge to join them though Freddie and I were too old to play in the sand.

“My uncle,” he said.

Mr. Mathur was pleased with the orange. An orange was an excellent fruit, he said, the color especially. Man could never produce anything as amazing as an orange. He peeled the orange and split it into four parts, one for each of us. After he ate his part, he folded the peel in half and ate that.

The orange was delicious, the best six cent purchase I had ever made. Also I have never been able to replicate that moment.




Violet

Violet after the divorce, wanting for newness. Deciding to leave England, to go somewhere else. To go to Mexico, Honduras, and Nicaragua. Violet in an aeroplane on her own. Violet walking on the smooth floors of the airport.
Violet as expat, migrant. Moving to Granada, Nicaragua, learning Spanish properly this time.
Violet taking lovers, taking walks, taking painting-classes, taking another shot at life, and then another. Violet becoming freckled. Her hair greying. Violet taking a long hard look at herself. Violet liking herself.
Violet visiting Masaya Volcano National Park. Violet loving that place. Seeing the lava. Laughing on the bus down, even past the chicken factory stink. Violet’s big teeth catching the sunlight when she laughed. Violet meeting somebody called Sofia, speaking with her. Violet and Sofia taking walks together, taking tea together, crying together, cooking for each other.
Violet and Sofia drinking Maracuja juice on their balconies. Violet and Sofia making love, sometimes. Sofia dancing to the BeeGees and Violet snorting hot tea, laughing. Sofia dancing more when Violet smiled, and then even more when Violet was quiet. Violet reading the news. Violet trying to understand. Sofia and Violet talking about Ortega.
Violet beginning to feel very tired. Violet trying to read long books. Violet not reading, and not going outdoors very much at all. The sun slipping through the sides of Violet’s blinds, lighting her living room through curtains. Violet emailing her family with silly pictures, jokes from the internet, anything to say hello.
Violet feeling very tired, one day. Opening her curtains, and looking out at green.
Violet not opening her curtains the next day. The last day. Violet feeling very slow and very tired. Violet lying on the floor, tired and in pain and watching a lizard climb the wall the whole afternoon, it felt like. The lizard flickering. Violet dying on the cool floor, in the afternoon, with light coming in through the closed yellow curtains. Violet found, hours later.
Violet dead.
Violet as email login, as lost password book, address book, phone call. Violet mourned. Violet laid out on a strange bed. Violet in an urn on Sofia’s lap on the bus. In Sofia’s hands, against her body as she walked. Violet in the green of the National Park. Violet in Sofia’s palm on the slope of the volcano. Violet as smoke on the breeze. Ash. Violet as empty urn. Taken home. Violet as volcanic glass, strands, strung across the landscape, like fair hair.




Checkpoint

A flag was fluttering in the wind. Its design could not be seen clearly as the cloth kept waving and creasing up high on its pole. A man was looking up at it. He knew that it had three horizontal stripes; a white one between two blue, and in the centre was a six pointed star.

It stood above a watchtower where a sentry was sitting at the top. A long barrier with thick iron strips at the top and bottom blocked the path.

The traveller called to the sentry. “Do you speak English?”

A face looked down. “Of course.”

“Can I get through?”

“Maybe not today.”

Three men were sitting by the side of the road, dark skinned and scruffily dressed, with large bundles next to them. The man walked over, wheeling his suitcase.

One smiled at him. “Welcome.” He sat down and they passed him an orange. He peeled and ate it quickly, without feeling any taste. As they talked among themselves, he listened to see if he could understand but he knew too little of their language. Then they said a word that he had heard before. It signified something like revolution or resistance but here it referred to a specific movement about which he knew little.

After landing at the airport, there had been two short interviews, with a lengthy wait between them. He replied to his questioners directly. Towards the end, they seemed sympathetic about his choice of destination. After collecting his suitcase, he met up with the driver then it was a two hour drive. It had gone smoothly up to this point. He gave an anxious look to the barrier. If they didn’t let him through, he did not know what he was to do.

There was a figure on the other side of the barrier. He got up and called. “Are you Bill?”

The man replied, “Hi, Mansoor.”

That was something; his contact from the university was there. Some months before he had interviewed Mansoor on the phone and then offered him the job.

He had been drawn to the idea of living and working there. Reactions from friends and family were unpredictable. Some were genuinely impressed. Others acted supportive though he could tell that they thought his decision strange. His mother had given a shocked gasp.

After a while two boys and a girl came from the darkness. Each had a rifle strapped over their shoulder. They joked with the waiting labourers as they positioned themselves by the barrier. A loud electronic alarm signalled its opening. The soldiers looked at the workers’ papers and let them pass.

Mansoor stepped forward and handed over his passport. One of the boys leafed through it. He asked, “Where is your visa?”

Something had been troubling Mansoor but he had put it to the back of his mind. “They didn’t stamp it at the airport.”

The soldier spoke in his walkie talkie then said, “You can’t go.” Mansoor started to wheel his bag. “I said you can’t go.”

His shoulders sagged. He looked over to Bill. He walked towards him so he was in speaking distance. The soldiers followed. He was trying to calm his mind.

“They didn’t stamp my passport.”

Bill frowned. “What?”

Mansoor put his hand through his hair. “Shit, shit, shit.”

Bill turned to the soldiers. “It’s not his fault. He’s new here. He doesn’t know what’s going on. Security at the airport should have given him a stamp.”

Mansoor added, “They knew I was coming here. Isn’t it on computer or something?”

The boy shook his head. “There is no computer. What is the purpose of your visit?”

“I’m a teacher at the International University.” His voice was quivering.

The first soldier spoke on his walkie talkie again then turned to Bill. “I’m sorry. He can’t go through.”

Bill spoke to Mansoor. “You have to go back to the airport. I’ll call the driver.”

Mansoor was told to move away from the barrier. The alarm sounded again as it closed. The two boys and the girl headed back to their barracks, leaving him alone.

A pack of dogs approached the watchtower. Mansoor watched them. He took his suitcase, walked past the plain buildings and stopped by the roundabout leading into the checkpoint.

How could this have happened? He had to fight his tiredness and focus his mind. Maybe at the airport they would refuse to stamp his passport. Then the experience would be over before it began.

He looked over to the other side of the barrier but it was all darkness. He needed to know how people lived with death and he suspected that he could find out there, with those who lived within that space. He watched the lights of the cars in the distance, hoping that the taxi would arrive soon.




Love in the Time of Corona

I write while he’s in the other room. Every time I get up he looks at me and gives me a quick smile. Smiling is nice and so is raising your head, but I would rather he keep his down.

I read an article about breaking up in the time of corona. The article was published in a big American newspaper, and is written from the point of view of the woman who won’t stop apologizing as she knows that there are more important issues out there. The only bit worth reading is where she describes her six months’ relationship with Paul and the bags of rice they used to buy in the supermarket. They were ten-kilo bags, that don’t cost anything, and that she can no longer afford to get because she’s too weak to carry them up the stairs. The story ends well though. She tries to be optimistic as it means being “a good citizen lately” and she says that, eventually, she’ll find another guy to carry her bags.

It was a friend called Sarah who sent it to me. She’s a journalist, which gives her an authority on these kinds of things. I guess she expected me to tell her how deep the story was, which I would have done if he hadn’t come back into the room. I feel like bursting into tears. It’s Monday morning, normal people are working, from home maybe, but they’re working, while we smile at each other and cry. There’s also that hour every day we spend walking. In the most cordial way, we talk about our childhoods, about the weather, which is grey, and about things that are happening, like that time we saw a little white dog make a disabled child cry. There are also the meals we’re going to cook and the shopping we’re going to do; there is no one more pleasant than us.

Lately I have been thinking about my previous break up with a guy called Tamir and about our last phone call. I shouted at him that if he called again, I was going to kill him. I remember that it was a hot summer’s day, and that my landlord was on a ladder fixing the AC. He had a fat belly and a builder’s bum, as is often the case with this kind of man, and I shouted, “I’ll kill you”. Tamir knew it was a joke and so did I. Besides being tall and heavy, Tamir was a former soldier, but I meant it and he never called again, except to tell me that I owed him money.

Now, it’s different. We’ve been together three years, and Dean is thirty-one years old. He has curly brown hair and for the past two months, he has been watching television. I talked him into coming with me to Paris and now he’s stuck in my mum’s apartment, who is looking after her own mother, ill with cancer. Our apartment is in a suburb of Tel Aviv, surrounded by palm trees and cockroaches. Dean lost his job after buying himself this trip to Paris. “Talk about an idea”, he said, and he’s right. I’m in the same situation, with 374 euros in my bank account. He didn’t want to come here but he did it out of love and now we’re going to break up. Who could have predicted that a month after moving here, corona would lock Paris down? But who can predict anything these days?

Of course, there are good times. Saturday, we drank a bottle each, opened the windows wide and danced. The blue sky had turned dark, and the music we’d put on was nice – Italian songs that make you get closer to each other.

Before it finished with Tamir, we didn’t drink. We would party and take drugs and then walk home in the middle of the night. It was Jerusalem, and we were surrounded by ruins. The Muslims would be calling the dawn prayer and the Eritreans walking along in their white suits with their children who would run away when they saw us. They would go into a church above the club, and as we left, our pupils loaded, we would see them happy and singing. It took many nights to say goodbye, and for me to shout that I was going to kill him.

But Dean and I, we dance and drink. That Saturday we both ended throwing up. We threw up and then we smoked cigarettes at the window. Neither of us brushed our teeth. Neither of us cared, and we almost kissed to show it. A long time had passed since people had clapped at their windows, and the neighbors’ lights had gone off, but we weren’t sleepy. Outside, in the street, a homeless guy went past. He stopped under our window. He had a broom and lots of plastic bags and he started to piss. Dean saw it before me and told me not to look. He stared at me for a minute. Then he began talking. He told me that it was late and that we should go to bed, that maybe tomorrow there would be a flight but that tonight, there was nothing else to do, except, perhaps, dance.




Halloween Flash Friday: Best Laid Plans

The sound of the dripping was starting to make the captives twitchy.

The tap, tap, tap on the roof of the container had been going for at least twenty minutes and as I shone my torch around I could see that Jeremy was close to losing it. With each ting on the roof, his left amphibious eye blinked while his right human eye scrunched tight. His muscular frog-like legs writhed and strained against the net I’d put him in, and his snake tongue flicked in and out of his mouth, a slow hissing sound accompanying the dripping like the percussion of a cymbal.

At least Megan, strange half-feline half-person that she was, had curled up and gone to sleep. I’d provided a cardboard box and in she had climbed. Though, I ventured a guess, there was a chance that if she was startled or aggravated all that purring could turn straight into claws-out violence.

Then there was Lena, a creature I couldn’t quite categorise. Each slice of the torch light illuminated something different. She must have been an early experiment, ‘a blend’ as I’d heard them referred to on the news. Parts of her were human, but only a few. I could recognize bear in the shape of her snout, orangutan in the orange of the fur on her arms, lemur in the stripy tail, and perhaps a Komodo dragon in the draping bits of skin that hung like stalactites from her legs. She looked the least like a person of the three, and yet was the only one who could talk.

Lena watched as I moved slowly towards the door. I considered going to find out the source of the dripping, turning my torch away from them.

‘I wouldn’t if I were you’ she growled at whisper pitch, her voice like gravel in a blender.

I hesitated. ‘What do you mean?’

She didn’t answer and I turned the torch back in their direction again. Though her eyes were still closed, Megan’s tail was flicking side to side. Jeremy’s tongue darted in and out to the rhythm of my racing heartbeat. Lena’s bear mouth broke into a slobbery grin.

‘If the dripping stops it means all the blood has run out of whatever Simon has up there.’

‘Simon?’

In this moment I considered that my plan to ‘rescue’ the subjects of the climate change adaptiveness laboratory had not been well thought through.

It might, I supposed, have been useful to find out just how many subjects they had been holding there. There seemed to be a chance that it had been a mistake to ignore the empty cages in the lab as I dragged the creatures I had drugged and rescued out of their own.

In addition, as Lena looked at me and Megan’s tail flicked and Jeremy’s tongue darted, I realised that, specifically, I should have thought about what would happen if I didn’t get them ‘out’ of the dimly lit facility the scientists had been keeping them in. Like, for example, what I might do if I ended up trapped with them in the warehouse of the facility, hiding away in a shipping container at the edge of the dark space to avoid the guards. Or, the potential that we wouldn’t be the only ones in here. I’d always wished myself to be better at planning, but never more than at this moment.

The dripping continued, though I couldn’t ignore that it was slowing down. Now that it could be blood I wanted it to carry on forever like a gentle rain. I turned back away from the door towards my captives waving the torch over each of them. I put my free hand in my pockets so they wouldn’t see it shaking.

‘Lena, just out of interest, what would you say Simon is, exactly?’

‘That depends.’

‘On what?’

The dripping had officially stopped. None of us could deny it. In its place there was a scuttling sound and then a thump as something landed on the roof of the container. I dropped the torch in fright, kneeling down and crawling towards it. Once I was down there, standing felt difficult on jelly legs, so I stayed put.

Jeremy had become deadly still, his tongue firmly inside his mouth, no longer making any effort to escape the net. Megan’s back arched and a low meowl began to echo out from her, her fur standing straight up on ends. Even Lena, whose aggression towards me had been palpable in her beady bear eyes to this point, was looking up at the roof, shrinking into herself.

‘Lena?’

‘It depends,’ she said, retreating to the point of the container furthest away from the door, ‘on how hungry he is. Sometimes he changes form to fit more in.’

There was more scuttling moving across the roof, quick and persistent, then another thud as Simon, or whatever he’d been eating, landed outside. A short silence followed, where I imagined that Simon was full and would appear to us all now as an ant or something equally tiny. This was a short-lived hope.

The handle of the container began to rattle. I had tried to close it as best I could from the inside with my leftover wire, but it wouldn’t hold for long.

I crawled back along the floor to cower among the three I’d hoped to save. The door creaked opened and a gigantic, furry arachnid leg hooked around it. I turned off the torch.

Next time, I committed to myself, I’d plan better.




The Rose

A white rosebud makes a beguiling appearance

The Rose

       At last it was just the two of them. Marianne had assured the others that, no, she didn’t mind. She was happy to stay. 

       Often Marianne found it essential to lie, but this time it was the truth. This room, which was bland as a bedroom in a hotel, had a soothing quality. And since everyone had gone, the place was quiet.

       The last words she’d heard him speak were ten days ago. That was on her earlier visit, during which he hadn’t once acknowledged Marianne. Her father’s silence wasn’t a surprise – it was something she was accustomed to. Even so he was quieter than usual.

       Marianne shut her book. She got up and approached the bed. His head, propped with many pillows, was turned towards her. His mouth was open, as if he’d been struck by something he wanted to tell her and then changed his mind.

       Suddenly it struck Marianne she might now say – or do – whatever she liked and there was no danger.

       It was an unlooked-for gift

       On the table beside her was a buzzer. Pushing it would spoil everything. But the gift was too great and Marianne had no idea how she might use it. She pressed the button.

*

       ‘There are things we need to do,’ they told her.

       ‘What things?’ Marianne wondered, but didn’t ask. They might reckon she was odd, discussing her over coffee and biscuits midway through the shift. Or while sneaking a quick cigarette.

       ‘Yes, of course,’ she said – and went to reception where there was a display of cards and crafts for sale, along with a shelf of old paperbacks.

       Marianne looked carefully at each item, wishing she’d thought to ask how long the necessary things would take. In the meantime it would show the right spirit to buy something. But what?

       Those painted stones were not too bad. Marianne picked them up individually before deciding the oval one was best. She liked how it grew warm, the way it fitted snug in her palm. Automatically Marianne reached for her purse, then realised she’d forgotten her bag.

       ‘I’ll be back,’ she told the receptionist.

*

       As soon as Marianne walked in she saw they’d interfered. So that was what things meant.

       His mouth was closed. They’d straightened him and pillows had been taken so he lay almost flat. They had brought in a rosebud, a white one – except rather than hunt for a vase they’d left it by his face. Marianne couldn’t think why.

       Had they wished to suggest the man in the bed was a special bloom, a flower? If so, it was laughable. They didn’t know the first thing. Her father was brambles, ivy, a curved thorn.

       Or was the rose meant for her?  Perhaps Marianne was supposed to sit having fragrant, uplifting thoughts till the others came.

       Soon her relatives would pile in and she must decide what to tell them. But the sun had moved and, in spite of the shut curtains, the room was stuffy. She couldn’t settle. Something – a voice almost – was nagging at her

       Go to the window.

       Cautiously she approached. What harm could it do, letting the light in?

       The room looked onto a small courtyard, dotted with shrubs. It was the sort of place where people might drag out chairs to enjoy the weather. Someone could walk by.

       Open it.

       And if they did pass, if they glanced in, what would they see?  A visitor and a dim shape.

       Still she hesitated. The absence of locks and catches didn’t mean a thing. There’d be a rule – same as there was for pillows and roses. It’s just Marianne couldn’t work out what the rules were.

       You heard….

       The air was almost unbreathable. Marianne blamed the rose but having sniffed – she didn’t want to touch –  it had no perfume. More of a sensation, really. Like when some winged creature, a bee, kept crashing against glass, desperate to escape. 

       Only the far-off buzz of a television. No insect. Even so Marianne opened the window.

       And then her father was gone.




The Painful Love and Gratifying Hatred

I do the same thing every night.

I climb the moaning stairs and head straight for the nursery. I change my little one and sing her the sweetest songs I can think of. When I rock her, lullabies punctuated by the squeaks of my old wooden chair, I fret. I fret about the things that run in families: the tendencies and fates that flow through us, inherited as blood. I think of the darkness that seeps from one generation into the next—the curses that are passed down and played out—decade after decade. Even in the midst of these profound thoughts, there are realities that flutter just over my head: the ironic patterns that connect our lives behind our backs, and the experiences that we are completely unaware we have in common.

I lay Dolly down in her crib with utmost care and tuck her favorite blanket under her chin:

Adorable.

Rubber.

Perfect.

It brings me peace to know that the madness of my family—the loneliness, the hidden symmetry, the inaction and the violence, the painful love and the gratifying hatred—cannot live on through her.




Sugar Free

It was cola he gave her in the end. A long, glass bottle of it. And she: waiting on the lounger – legs crossed, one Achilles resting against her shin, flip-flops flat, the skin of her soles stretched smooth. Toes twitching as she curled her hair, sun-bleached nuclear white, between fingers.

            ‘That was a big hill,’ he said. ‘You must be thirsty.’

            And she was and she drank. Tilted the bottle, drew it down her neck in smooth gulps that, on another day, on a cooler day, on a day without him, might have made her think of a dog throwing up like hers did that time he ate Bolognese for four in one sitting. Slobbered it up as violently as her bracelet had rattled up Henry’s nose, her mother holding the black handle like a lead, scowling at her: that serves you right. I told you to clean your room.

            The cola made her teeth feel cloudy. A tongue over them didn’t shift it.

            ‘Is it good?’ he says. Watching her. He is good at watching her.

            Through the fence mesh at the beach. When she followed Mum back from the pool like a duckling, hair dripping and glued to her back like sticky weed.

            ‘Don’t stop. See if you can do it all in one.’

            She wondered why there wasn’t a bottle pushed against his lips. But that was the way. He was not thirsty.

            He watches.

            ‘You like it?’

            She’s concentrating on two things at once now.

            ‘Down in one. Come on. It’s only fizzy pop.’

            And he leans to her then. Eyes wide in a way she had not seen before.

            ‘You like it, don’t you? In your mouth.’

            With the pad of his index finger he helps her along. The tip at the glass bottom, tilting it.

            Now: bubbles up her nose and she might choke or spit it over his sun-lotioned bowl of a belly and he would not like that. So she keeps it in, eyes watering.

            He asks again, ‘Do you like it?’

            She nods. Yes, she likes it. Very generous. What’s your name?




Streetkid Refugee

In a whisper of wind, they embark, watch their campfire’s cascading sparks reduce, clutching meagre possessions, no identification.  Their own rags of courage burn fiercely into this night that becomes their significant memory, huddling on the damaged deck, fire fading to specks of disappearing light, no lifelines, no hum from a ship’s funnel or horn hooting an emigrants’ farewell over the Indian Ocean you could call melancholy, towards a chaos of fish flying through clefts between towering waves.

With no idea of compass bearings what do these thin dark-skinned expatriates expect beyond this slow throb?  Peace?  A drier heat?  Pirates?  Just the pull of waves?  A sporting nation?  Exile in a wise civilisation?  Or some miracle, some myth of a fair go arising from the fog of dubious hope hanging over their island-hopping trek like a judgement?

Landfall behind him, a damaged tear-duct he calls his sad eye often weeps, especially when he recalls the scent of cinnamon peeled.  He believes slave-wages unconnected to slavery, opportunity emblazoning his thoughts, belongings in grey plastic bags, his ideal a three-bedroom house built from cream bricks, a palace, lights precious candles, primes his English reading discarded newspapers.

In the remembering time before sleep he forgets to snuff the candles.  Flames flicker through his night, burn, bend, refuse to die.  The darkness of sleep, what he loves, blesses him with a dream, the sound of creaking planks, its echoes.  He swims through a blossoming sea, sky streaked, festooned with fireworks.  




The Vital Heart of the Flash Fiction Story



Catherine McNamara introducing, her Flash Fiction Course.

I didn’t fall for flash fiction straightaway. There was an attraction, but I wasn’t sure about this fleeting, incisive form until I tried to nail it. Not so easy. Pulled off, flash fiction is an acrobatic feat, leaving an arc on the air and a gasp in the audience. Several years after my first efforts I think there is a mutual understanding between us. With dozens of flash pieces out there and a collection to be published in February 2021 – I realise this form has taught me ruthless technique and a visceral understanding of story.

How so?

I would describe myself as a short story writer. A pretty wordy short story writer, trained in the compression and intimation and the dance-with-the-reader that is the short story form. Very quickly, I realised that with flash fiction these devices would not be enough. I would need more rigour, less flair and artifice, more cogent material. Plot? Well, yes. And also no. I realised I would be going into the gritty workshop of story creation – the cogs and wires, the oil and motion. What is story anyhow? And where should both the reader and writer end up in 800 words or less?

As with everything, I decided to feel my way. Of course, many of the same rules that govern the short story, the novel, even the screenplay and the poem, come into play. An investigation of our humanity and our place in the cosmos. Even in a story that speaks of stray dogs. And yet. We are playing a different instrument here. Word count requires delivery and displacement. The reader must be yanked in by the first syllables. It is not enough to delve and display.

I read the greats, and suggest that you do too. I also confess that I initially approached my flash fiction quest as an exercise – physical and gruelling – a daily sign-up to the first paragraph. An entry point. An idea worth climbing into. A search for a seam of words leading to story gold. I developed many techniques for squeezing stories out of anything. Some of us work visually; some of us with a clock ticking; some of us write succinctly and some of us must slash away at the page. One thing in common: a surrender to voice. And in the editing phase: a fearless discarding of the obsolete or obscure. The vital extraction of story.   

For the past four years as Litro Magazine’s Flash Fiction Editor, I’ve read a lot of flash fiction. All types. From the clichéd themes – lost loves, illness, dementia – to aliens having sex, visits from the Buddha, incandescent women, families and their fridges. As an editor and reader, I am happiest when my ideas are torn apart. When I fall for a piece with raining frogs or talking trees or a stringent conversation on a country lane. Anything can sing. Anything can climb above and grow wings.

This September/October I will be teaching the Litro Flash Fiction Masterclass where I will be sharing these ideas and putting you to the test.

You can sign up for the classes Here.




Inheritance

There is a legend in my family, that the women came from the sea.  That they pulled themselves from foam, toes clinging to stones, eyes wild and dark, with magnificent hair.  They fell into the arms of the men on the shore:  men who sailed and fished, who had drunk so much salt water their blood ran with it, who had sea kelp wrapped round their ribs and salt in their bones.  They gave up the sea for those slender, human arms, hands tough from years at oars.

         When I was a child, on the days she couldn’t stand to speak to me, my mother drew me baths, added kitchen dye, and left me in the light that melted through the windows.  For years, I lived in discolored skin, softly turquoise, lapis lazuli where the dye could settle–– the creases in my palms and the bottoms of my toes, my navel a refuge of the deepest hue.  In the tub, absorbing soap:  that was where I memorized myself.  The baths became a place to take stock:  first an itemization of physical changes–– skin going soft in the places that were meant to go soft–– then a time to search the folds of my mind, the deepest pockets of conciseness, seeking traces of the sea.  Our bodies hold collective memories, and I hunted my mind for the wraiths of my ancestors–– the ones who gave up the water–– for the knowledge they stole from me.

         When I was not in the bath, I was watching my parents.  I watched the way they touched each other, his hand along the bridge of her back, her legs draped along his knees.  I watched her pat vivid color on her mouth, then his lips taking it off.  I watched them for signs of more than momentary enjoyment, for something that might sustain them through the volleys of accusations, the battering of melodramas.  There was nothing, not in even the tenderest touch, that convinced me love was enough.  My ancestors made a poor bargain, when they relinquished the ocean.

         Now, in the nighttime, while my parents sleep, their land-tethered bodies resting on featherbeds, I walk the long way to the ocean alone.  Cliffs leap up on both sides of the path, strangers stalk through the deeper darkness between cottages, and in the winter it is a struggle to pull myself over the dunes, but in the dark no one can see my fingers work at unthreading my mother’s necklaces, or watch me wade past the breakers to return the pearls to the salt water.  If I make the requisite sacrifices, perhaps the sea will accept me.  One night, when I have gathered the necessary courage, when I sink into the depths and the waves envelop me, do you think gills will grow in the skin that wants to remember them?




The Moon-Reading God Tsukuyomi Fails to Read His Wife

     Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto thought that his sister-wife would value cleanliness more. Their father had washed the both of them into existence from his eyes after all, he from the left, she from the right; but ah, they were already placed on opposite sides from the very beginning weren’t they, but still, that didn’t mean he should be banished just for valuing cleanliness so.

            “The food she offered had been expelled from her mouth, nose and genitals,” he tried reasoning with his wife. “Her rectum, even. She deserved the sword.”

            That did not garner the expected reaction. His wife had frowned, turning away in disgust, disappointment, perhaps boredom, Tsukuyomi didn’t know, but the one thing he was sure of was that she was turning away from him not at what he had just said.

            It was the last time he would ever face her. Their chase would begin the next day after he was expelled from the heavenly realms, the moon forever playing catch-up with the sun.

            Tsukuyomi called after his wife’s back, trying desperately to reason with her.

            “It was dirty,” he said. “Filth. Expelled from mouth, genitals and rectum. Would you have placed your own mouth, divine and perfect, you who painted the world into creation, anywhere near such excretions?”

            And as he chased her across the sky and his weary feet across the celestial firmament wheeled the days and nights into being, the farmer-mortals sweated under the sun and into the crops they would turn into food, thick with satisfaction at their labour; They caressed each other’s arms in the cover of night blanketed by cicada song, redolent with the stink of the day.

            Tsukuyomi thought to himself:

            In a different elsewhere, perhaps she would have agreed, agreed that the food excreted (and vomited and hacked up) from the goddess Uke Mochi had not been fit for their table and relented to his advice. Husband knows best, she would say while leaning against his arm and looking up at him through her lashes. What do I know of such things? We deserve a better feast.

            In a different, different elsewhere perhaps he would have revelled in the filthy materiality of it, the abjectness and excess. He would not have minded putting his own mouth anywhere near mouth, genitals or rectum.

            Tsukuyomi is making his wife sing, the mortals would say with smiles upon their faces, on days when the wind was crisp with the promise of rain, a downpour that would bring relief from the stickiness of the sun and wash away the accumulated dust and grit of the land, when the moon was uncannily bright and magnificent in the sky. His wife is pleased and the crops will be plentiful.

            It would be taken up by the nobles in the courts who practiced the art of moon gazing, veiling their secretive smiles behind scented fans, coyly sneaking looks at each other when they weren’t looking up and speaking of the moon-reading god. Ah, no, he isn’t reading the moon today. He is scribing his heartsong in the bedroom.

            Again, and again, his name would have been spoken of, from low farmhand to elevated imperial, weaving itself into the fabric of everyday life instead of being shunted into the margins of history.

            A good omen and blessing, people all across the land would sigh, Tsukuyomi is making his wife sing tonight.




Our Fridge

There were mainly magnets on our fridge. Or photos of
Neil and me smiling. I liked the magnet that went Everything is Figureoutable
because it was different from the rest.

It was full of colour inside our fridge, like a play
when the lights come on. Sauces and chutneys and jars of floaty pickled things,
pinky-white ham and Dairylea. Shifting shapes. The Warburtons bread in the top
left corner, the pull-out bottom where the green stuff hid. Dad’s Tupperware boxes. One for sarnies, one for
reheatables. Neil’s Mega Muscle
juice.

Sometimes ice crept onto the back of the fridge and
Mum had to scrape it off. It made our knives bendy. And in the fridge-door, one
of the egg-holes was cracked so Mum told us to watch out when we opened and
closed it because there was a sixth egg wobbling there. We never broke it
though. We broke other things.

Dad’s footie
friends called Mum the Spaghetti Queen for a while and so she started to keep
spaghetti sauce in an orange bowl on the middle shelf and wear dresses where
you could see her tits.

I remember using that orange bowl to do my jelly
experiment. I popped Churchill into hot yellow jelly water and watched him swim
about a bit, then I put him in the fridge. When Mum opened the fridge she
laughed her head off.

We buried Churchill out the back and I knew Mum was
trying not to laugh when we said the Lord’s
Prayer. I buried a magnet with Churchill that said Neither Lost Nor Found.

When I turned ten, Mum made this fruitcake birthday
cake and it stayed on the top shelf forever. She said it was because it was
shelf-stable, not like us lot.




Shortlisted flash story (and WINNER) Isolation theme: Dust

Dust falls, captured by a heavy glass vase, distorting and covering its intricate flower petal design. It covers the windowsills, the floors, the ornaments, the nooks and crannies, a thin layer of dead skin attaches to static electronic surfaces, until it is removed only to return the day after. Time marches on but yet we stand still, sit still, lay still, scared stiff to move outside where pollen is whipped up and blown around in small cyclones. News bombardment 24/7, 7/11, 9 to five, the odds are 2-1, 5-1, 10-1, we’re flattening that curve, squashing the sombrero from that holiday you never took or had to cancel. Who’s zooming who? Sensitive information through the wires, down the cables, into ears of asymptomatic people. Nobody knows. A food parcel lacking ingredients arrives on the cleansed floor, of the cleansed tower block, several flights up. The deliverer, long gone, didn’t wait for the bell to finish its chime; he’s gone back to deliveries. A small-gloved finger pokes out from the door, through a gap barely large enough for a hand to fit through, and hooks the paper shopping bag handles. The pray is dragged in over the threshold and sprayed down. But something is missing, was missing, sold out, out of stock, only while stocks last, says the fine print of the receipt, they can only apologise. Scarf wrapped around the head, gloves to hide those dry, cracked clawfingers, and a baseball cap endorsed by Odidos; an imitation bandit ventures into tumbleweed Dodge with their heart in their mouth. Curfew ignored, follow the others through the maze of yellow one-way arrows fashioned from in-store tape. Mind the gap, keep your distance, observe the M6 chevrons, between one another in the cleansed store. Pollen and dust is not whipped up but someone sneezed two metres away. Tighten the scarf and breath held, yellow arrows observed and followed arbitrarily, ignoring special offers, avoiding the others, no milk today, no yeast today, no toilet paper today, no flour, no soap, while stocks last, while panic lasts, remember? Plastic shield guards the cashier, past the flimsy automatic gate, and out of the sliding doors, back into empty society where an exchange of glances with rare strangers are accusatory, a raised eyebrow and a scarf check. Return to the new settled dust that awaits tomorrow.