Short Fiction ~James W. Wood
Dedicated to Emmanuel and Beatrice
Jonah Buitschafer remembered what he’d been working on when old Johnson clattered down into the bunker. He’d been framing an extension to one side of the old man’s survival chamber, reaching into the dark earth with his nail-gun to join two pieces of timber.
Old man Johnson had big sweat patches under the arms of the baggy white T-shirt that engulfed his skinny frame. Holding a length of two-by-four up against the rocks and mud, Jonah watched as the old man barrelled towards him. Leaves and filth skittered off the old man’s boots, his thin chest heaving.
“It’s happening. I’m locking myself in. You can stay or go,” Johnson’s breathing slowed down a little as he spoke. Jonah stifled a laugh. Play along. He said he’d stay, thinking the old boy would realise his error before the day was out and he’d earn himself another few fifties, cash. Old man Johnson climbed back up and made the place airtight, turning the upper port-hole lock he’d stolen from a decommissioned Russian submarine until it squeaked shut against its metal casing.
Jonah wanted to get home at the end of his work day, but it turned out Johnson had a shotgun hidden in his bunker. Fully loaded.
“I ain’t lettin’ you out, boy. Not for nothin’,” - the old man’s gun barrel shook as he aimed it at Jonah’s chest. As the hours went by that night and the next day, it became clear what had rattled the old man. A series of mass poisonings in major cities around the world. People collapsing in the street, dying in violent spasms, their bodies twisted into absurd shapes where they fell – on the street; in bars; in their beds, as they worked, slept or ate. Most governments exercised well-rehearsed emergency management plans. But they had no blueprint for dealing with super-massive extinction spreading through their villages and towns. Whole populations reduced to bands of scavengers. The rank perfume of decay in the air.
Within days, curfews were established and security cordons set up, according to their radio. Reports over the internet told Jonah and the Old Man that cholera and typhoid proliferated among those who were left. Children lay weak from dysentry beneath the golden domes of the Place Vendôme in Paris; cities such as Sydney, Toronto and Leeds succumbed to lawlessness. Only some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, from which there had been no reporting, might have been saved from whatever was happening. To Jonah, it sounded as though human civilisation had putrefied, and now lay dismembered on this rock that continued to circle the sun to no obvious purpose.
Jonah and the old man ate cans of beans and franks heated up in the bunker’s microwave, the thrum of the generator they used six hours every day in the background. They listened to the radio telling the horrors that were unfolding above them as they drank distilled water from the crates the old man had stockpiled. They pissed in a chemical toilet, and slept in Army surplus sleeping bags. They barely ever washed. They read the internet, their expressions blank, and played interminable games of chess without exchanging a word. After a while, the internet reports reduced in frequency until finally they heard nothing more.
Years later, the old man was long dead and Jonah was still underground. Jonah remembered the day old Johnson died. A few months after they’d enclosed themselves against the poison that spread across the world outside, or “upstairs”, as they called it. Jonah came out of the chemical toilet at the far end of the bunker and saw the old man leaning forward against the kitchen table. He was too far away – maybe fifty feet – for Jonah to see what was going on.
As Jonah got closer, he called out but there was no reply. Knowing Johnson to be somewhat deaf, Jonah raised his voice. Johnson’s legs remained motionless, feet covered by the same boots he’d worn for months since he’d closed them in, the same scabby pair of jeans cladding his legs as they leaned over the table.When he got to the worn oak table, Jonah found the old man slumped against it, hands cupped in an attitude of prayer, blue eyes wide open and staring at something clutched between his blue, mottled hands. Jonah prised those hands open and found a picture of the old man with his mother, taken when he was a little boy. It must have been eighty years old.
Some months later, Jonah reached the end of his supplies. Little fresh water left, almost no food. Time to get out, find God knows what upstairs. Upstairs: A reverse heaven, a place that held nothing he could remember clearly any more. He pulled together his workbag and tools, switched off the computer and generator, then put his foot on the first rung of the ladder that led up to that old Russian submarine hatch. He was leaving home to go home.
Outside, the air was cold and bright, an April day like any other he’d known in his first thirty-eight years of life. He was 49 now. Old. Or older, at least: dark hair that ran to his shoulders with full-flowering grey streaks spreading out from his temples, lines around his mouth and eyes, dark rings not just from being underground, but from age. His body had slowed, fat accreting round his middle. He looked for his truck, which he’d parked – unlocked – about fifty yards from the supposedly “secret” entrance to Johnson’s bunker. At first, as he’d expected, he found nothing.
But as he searched, the outline of his old Ford flatbed became discernible through a thick mess of brambles. There was no way he was getting through that. So he slung his toolbag over his shoulder and started walking the three miles of dirt road back down to Lytton, its buildings emerging as murky shapes from the mist in the valley below.
When he reached Lytton, he found emptiness. Everyone either dead or gone. The old sign that adorned the town’s only pub – it had barely hung on even when the place was open – lay broken beneath the entrance. The windows smashed in, window frames half-rotted away. Looking around the main street, Jonah found the same story. Not death, but the destruction of property that follows death, with no-one around to claim their rights. The pharmacy at the end of main street had taken a particular battering. Jonah went inside its mildewed, dust-streaked entrance and found thieves had long since stolen all the drugs: there wasn’t a scrap of inventory left in the place except for baby clothes. Jonah guessed there wasn’t much need for those any more.
After a few hours rambling around, Jonah stopped for a drink from his canteen and the last few long-life biscuits from the bunker. Then he found his way back to what was left of his house. The eavestroughs he’d hung so carefully from his roof lay half-collapsed against the ground, one corner still clinging absurdly to the roof. His windows had been staved in, of course: from outside, he could see what was left of his belongings jumbled up in piles in the centre of his living room. Unpainted for ten years, his old home now resembled some sepia photo of a decayed building, dark patches blotching the ancient paintwork. Rotting cladding hung half-on, half-off the interior wooden studs and joists that made the guts of his home. Mice and rats had nested between the joists. Jonah went inside.
The looters hadn’t taken anything precious or sentimental. The pictures of him with his girlfriend in the pub of the local Royal Canadian Legion were still there. He thought of her briefly, certain she was dead. Remembered walking with her up at the riverhead, holding hands that summer when they’d first met fifteen years ago. The plans they’d made together – all gone. His vinyl records remained, though his stereo had been looted. In the kitchen, no tins or bags of food remained, cups and dishes smashed, but the refrigerator and stove stood silent watch, inert. No electricity supply to bring them to life existed.
Jonah turned the tap at his kitchen sink, but nothing came out. As he looked through the window, he thought he saw something in the neighbour’s yard, then dismissed it. Then he looked again. Someone was watching him from inside his neighbour’s ruined house.
It was a dark shape, moving in the shadows inside his neighbour’s property. The person was scrunched up against the wall of what used to be Tommy’s kitchen. Buitschaffer ran out through a ripped-out hole at the back of his kitchen on to the remains of his back porch. He shouted over the collapsed cedar fence at the figure:
The shape disappeared. Buitschaffer called again. This time the shape came out from the darkness. A man, about Buitschaffer’s height, skinnier though – and younger. Dressed in a filthy black hooded top with some rock band’s name from decades ago on it, a mad yellow logo Buitschaffer dimly remembered seeing on walls and posters over twenty years ago.
“What up, G?”
The youth took out a cigarette and lit it from a cheap plastic drugstore lighter.
“Want one of these?”
Buitschaffer shook his head.
“You new around here?”
The young man pulled back his hooded top to reveal a thin, stubbly face, pale from lack of sunlight. Eyes so deeply sunk in their sockets their colour was hardly discernable. Dark green? Hazel? Buitschaffer looked around him. “I live here. Or used to, anyway.”
“Ain’t nobody live here, brother. We all live underground.” The youngster emphasised the word “all” and Buitschaffer understood he meant tens, hundreds, maybe more, of survivors. “Come on. Better get before anyone sees you. They shoot on sight.”
The young man turned and started walking at speed towards the back of Jonah’s neighbour’s garden, vaulting what remained of the three-foot cedar fence, long since swallowed by weeds. He stood in the access road behind Buitschaffer’s property.
“Come on, man!”
Buitschaffer followed without thinking. The young man led him to another burnt-out property on the other side of the access road behind Buitschaffer’s house, and then inside and down a flight of stairs into a cellar. The air stank of human faeces and rotting wood. Decomposition of some kind or other. Jonah caught up with him as the young man banged on a grimy, rusted metal door.
“Open up! Incoming!”
Buitschaffer heard the squeak of rusty locks turning, and the door rolled slowly to the left.
Inside, a digital sepulchre. Rows and rows of screens emitting an ethereal light. Tech devices of every kind: TV screens, cell phones, digital readers. Buitschaffer walked a few paces behind his new friend with the hoodie, taking in how he strode with confidence among the chairs, desks and mattresses that filled this cavernous space, each slouch-station filled with a person of indeterminate sex and age. All transfixed by their screens.
“Hey everybody!”, Hoodie shouted. “This is – oh wait, I don’t know your name.”
“Jonah”, he answered.
“Jonah”, Hoodie repeated. “De profundis clamavi, Domine. Am I right?”
Buitschaffer stared at him. He had no idea what the guy was talking about. Hoodie just snickered to himself. “Don’t worry about it. Relax. We have everything you need. And maybe you have something we need? We’ve been watching you. We know you know how to drive a nail like a man. And cut wood like a pro.”
Buitschaffer looked at him, trying to read that thin, nervous face. “What do you mean?”
“Which bit? The bit where I said we have everything you need? Oh, that bit’s easy. See, we get supplied by the Government. A big drop, once a month. Everything. Cigarettes, medicines, food, electricity, water, propaganda – the works, my man, the works!”
Buitschaffer picked up the mad glint in the youth’s sunken eyes. He must be full of shit. Jonah decided to get out as fast as he could. But he was curious. Who were these people? What were they doing here? Hoodie strutted a few paces further, behind the last row of Lay-Z-Boy chairs. A morbidly obese man with thick glasses, a dark T-shirt and five-day stubble slumped in the chair nearest Hoodie, his fingers flying over a controller as he played a video game. The fat man reached a pause in the game and popped half a cake bar in his mouth. Reaching downwards, Hoodie pulled up a flat pack of half-litre bottles of mineral water.
“These doing it for you, O patience in distress? Or how about these?” He banged on a hatch on the back wall and it fell open. Inside the hatch was a freezer compartment full of frozen steaks, burgers and chicken. “Feast ye, Jonah! Break your fast, homeboy!” And with that, Hoodie handed Jonah a bottle of water from the flat-pack and grabbed a pack of frozen chicken breasts and a box of frozen pork ribs.
An hour later, Buitschaffer had finished eating. He felt drunk on the cheap food, quickly and poorly roasted in an old electric oven powered by a diesel generator that belched filth into the sky. Jonah was struggling to stay awake, his belly straining, full of grilled meat. Buitschaffer had not eaten meat since he’d been locked in the bunker, and its effect was intoxicating. Hoodie licked his rib-greased fingers and belched indelicately.
“Here’s the problem we have.” He pulled out a pack of cigarettes and eased one into his mouth, lighting it with a rainbow-coloured Zippo decorated with a space alien face on one side. Then he offered Jonah a smoke. High from the meat, Buitschaffer accepted the cigarette this time in the hope the nicotine would keep him awake.
“We’re as comfortable as it comes,” Hoodie said. “As survivors, the government gives us the basics. And through the internet, we have access to all the knowledge we want. So we could leave our compound any time, Jonah. Just like you left your little burrow up there in the hills.”
“But what about the” –
“The people who I said would shoot on sight? The armed gangs marauding around the Okanagan, in fact the whole planet, looking to kill survivors? They don’t exist. End of. They are non-individuals in non-homocidal groups, my man!”
Hoodie paused, watching as Jonah drew tentatively on his cigarette, coughing a little as he exhaled the smoke. Jonah had quit smoking in his mid-twenties. What he was smoking for now, God only knew.
“Did it ever occur to you that the whole thing was a set-up by governments, man? There were too many of us, and we were getting restive. We stopped voting the way they wanted us to, so they had to take care of us – and blame it on someone else. Kill us all, and let God take care of us. Well, they did a good job. Trouble is, they did too good a job. Now there’s not many of us left – and they’ve decided they really do want to look after us, after all. Otherwise, who’s gonna do the shit jobs? Who’ll be the pigs on their data farm? They need someone to govern, right? As they appear to have belatedly realised.”
Hoodie smirked and drew on his cigarette. Jonah put his empty plate down beside him and tapped the ash from his cigarette into the meat grease on his plate. The rest of the figures in the cavernous room kept watching their screens, faces fixed on whatever they were doing – playing games, watching TV, surfing the internet. Even the big guy in the dark T shirt hadn’t asked for any food. Jonah sat upright and looked at Hoodie.
“So what is it you want me to do if you already have everything you need?”
“Simple”, Hoodie replied, eyes gleaming in his sallow face. “We want to know how to make things. You know, buildings. Trenches. Fix things for ourselves. Get this place going again.”
Early next morning, Buitschaffer stood with an open toolbag in front of a bunch of disinterested onlookers. He’d met the rest of the crew he was supposed to train as they bedded down for the night yesterday – mostly the ones who’d spent the day in front of their screens. A few others came in from foraging expeditions just before nightfall. The ones who had been out foraging returned with rickety shopping carts stuffed with junk of every kind – old clothes, technology, stuffed toys.
Now Buitschaffer faced the whole group on a grassed, flat area outside their bunker. First he taught them how to prepare a piece of ground. Then he showed them how to cut wood to length. How to use a plumb-line for corner cuts. He explained that future lessons would cover framing, flooring, and siding. Hanging doors. Drywalling – or plastering, as the old trade used to be called.
After the lesson that day, Jonah put Hoodie, the fat video games man and a few others to work for him as labourers. Within a week they had their first building up – a long shack. No-one was sure what to use it for, but it was there. The gang were mostly young, unkempt, and of every ethnicity and gender. Buitschaffer noticed three of the women, one barely a teenager, were pregnant, and he feared for the world these children were being born into. But now was no time for fear. He had to teach them how to fend for themselves.
He taught them how to dig trenches and repair siding and plug drywall. He showed them how electrical connections work, and how to repair plumbing. As the days went by, Buitschaffer could tell the gang’s fascination with him was fading, their opinion changing. Where they previously treated him with deference, Jonah sensed growing resentment. Resentment that he was more capable than they would ever be: able to drive a nail straight, tell good wood from bad, and mend and repair his own house.
Buitschaffer moved out of the gang’s compound. He slept in his old, newly fixed, house. There was still no water or electricity, of course. But he’d mended the roof and switched out the rotten siding, covering it with some paint stolen from the gang’s lair. He’d found some emergency candles he could use, as well as digging himself a latrine in the yard. He preferred being alone to sitting underground in their cavernous bunker, watching them stuff themselves with processed food, mooning over re-runs of old TV shows on YouTube, playing video games, or consulting with other survivors in on-line chat forums. Buitschaffer had his library of books and his vinyl records, even if he couldn’t play them. In the mornings, he liked to get up and run through the town’s deserted streets, then come back and take a shower with rainwater from the makeshift boiler he’d rigged up in front of his house. After a simple breakfast, he’d check the crops he’d planted in his freshly-dug vegetable beds and read while he waited for his pupils.
Mostly he read the tatty copy of the Bible he’d been given as a schoolboy thirty-five years ago, the stories of Daniel and the guidance of Leviticus. He lost weight, and cut his greying hair into a severe crew-cut. He now resembled a monk as much as a labourer, like a figure from the Old Testament with power tools. Jonah had plans. Plans to use these people to rebuild the town. Get the generators working again and secure the water supply from the reservoir. Grow fresh crops. Repair the roads.
The few members of the crew who agreed to work for him showed some improvement. Their flabby limbs took shape, and they began to take an interest in gardening, even if they struggled with the basics of carpentry. For the most part, though, he couldn’t get them interested in anything. They were content to sit with their video games, packaged cookies, sports drinks and muffins doled out by the government. In another age, you might have called them useless: in this new world, they were normal.
The day they came for him, Jonah woke up with a sore head from the red wine he’d discovered in a neighbour’s basement. He had zero interest in trying to show the gang how to do anything except recover from a hangover. He turned up anyway because he’d promised he’d show them how to fell trees – use saws, mauling axes, wedges. How to judge the way a tree would drop from the twist in the trunk – and how to allow for that in the angle of the cut.
As he pulled on the starter of his saw, he noticed that blank look in their eyes, the same passive anger he’d seen when he met them. They probably couldn’t wait until break time, Buitschaffer thought, when they could go back down below the earth and sit in front of their hand-held screens, fading into digital oblivion with cheap entertainment and shrink-wrapped snacks. They sprawled on the ground, watching as he cut into one side of an Alder at 45 degrees, removing a thick triangle of trunk. Then he steadied himself behind the tree, spread his legs and started the back cut. One minute later the hundred-foot Alder lay on the ground, ready to be bucked. By now the sun had risen to the point where Buitschaffer could feel its heat on his neck and forearms, a thin rivulet of sweat slipping down his spine. He had acquired a serious thirst and needed some water.
He asked for a drink and a girl looked at Hoodie, who nodded and handed her a bottle of water from his bag. She walked over to Jonah with the bottle, which looked like any of the rest from their compound, GIFT OF THE CANADIAN GOVERNMENT on it in white letters. As he twisted the cap off on the bottle, Buitschaffer noticed some of the gang were playing a gambling game on their mobile phones. He raised the bottle to his lips, seeing their faces lit up with excitement, their minds closed to everything except what was happening on their screens.
Buitschaffer drank long and deep. As he closed his mouth and drew the bottle away from him, he felt the burning begin in his throat and tear through his trachea. He fell to the ground and saw the fat man in the black T-shirt heave towards his body wielding a knife. As if some spirit had taken him, it seemed to him that he now stood outside his own body, watching the fat man pierce his side with the knife. Then he saw his life’s blood leave his veins as the gang kicked and stomped him. And he saw them turn from his corpse and slowly trudge back to their computer screens, their video games, internet and junk food. His arms lay sprawled at the side of his body and his spirit flew away from the scene: it was finished
A 2018 recipient of the British Columbia Writer's Award in Canada, James W. Wood’s work has appeared in leading journals around the world, including The Times Literary Supplement (UK), The Boston Review (USA), The Fiddlehead (Canada), Poetry Review (UK), and others. Wood has authored six books of poetry, including Building a Kingdom: New and Selected Poems, 1989-2019 (High Window Press, UK, 2019) and a pseudonymous thriller selected for the Rome Film Festival in 2011. He has been nominated or shortlisted for nine literary awards, including the Bridport Prize and T.S.Eliot Prize. www.der-jimmelwriter.com
Short Fiction ~ Cyril Dabydeen
About the head Mr Romelli’s bent on showing to his class. Yes, a human head. “What for?” Susan asks. “What for?” replies Mr Romelli. And the Rideau River with twigs, bramble, parts of an old chair, a sofa floating with the current. A dead beaver too, somewhere. Indeed, specimens Mr Romelli will bring to his class: he being the best science teacher the school ever had. Who else believes? Susan makes a face.
Mr Romelli’s vigil it will be once again. A human body floating-- with the river casting a strange or magic spell, ah. Susan rubs her eyes; she’s his neighbour, see. Go on, tell him. Not what he really wants to tell her, that she couldn’t be a science teacher--not like him.
So when did he first spot it? A human head!
The current’s moving fast. What...if? Mr Romelli’s with his students, some incorrigible or just pesky. Not inquisitive souls?
“You will all be scientists, so what d’you know?”
“Know?” asks Korbain, a blonde boy at the back of the class who makes no bones being himself, he says. Yah, real bones. The others skitter with laughter.
“Now what d’you really see?” Mr Romelli tries cajoling them.
One girl hoots back at him; sure, fluffy-headed Chloe.
Mr Romelli’s dedicated, and he will bring genuine “things” to his class. Once a racoon, then a mint. A keen eye he has. Really a dead mint, creepy animal. Birds, other specimens. Beautiful, yeah.
Susan indulges Mr Romelli, as she expects him to tell her everything. There must be no secrets between them; she blinks an eye.
Christ! Mr Romelli will really surprise her. Not avoid her?
Now students being students must learn facts, not fiction--by observing real specimens. Morphology, yes. Phenomena, Mr Romelli calls it, about what was once alive, but now dead.
Who else will be a scientist among you?
Susan, in her science-teacher guise, makes a gargoyle’s face; she’s maunders along to the river’s edge. Now will Mr Romelli surprise her with a heron’s bones picked up in his latest vigil? Chiaroscuro, the river’s light changing. “Look good,” Mr Romelli calls out.
“What d’you see?”
“I see nothing,” heckles Korbain, as others desultorily follow along, one or two dogging Mr Romelli. Susan’s more cynical.
Christ...for what? Chloe and the others laugh again.
“It’s what was once alive,” the blonde boy hisses.
Susan looks at each student with menace in her eyes. “Because of what was once... alive?”
“Yes-yes,” comes a response.
Mr Romelli indeed hopes to find a real body floating in the river; he wrinkles his bushy forehead. Now what else is coming down the river? How soon will it be? An Inuit man or woman fallen into the water after a drunken spell...with the police coming to get her? Racist pig!
Susan inhales a strange miasma. Oh, fantasizing about who the students imagine her to be at the drop of a hat. Never be a genuine science teacher, like Mr Romelli? Water rising, the river casting an ancient spell. It’s night-time again, see.
She closes her eyes, traipsing along, with more days and nights ahead; and what she’s planning to do? Murder, d’you call it?
A real human specimen, what the students genuinely want to see.
Korbain heckles again. Will he call Susan a bona fide teacher now?
Mr Romelli, where are you?
The police are called in, and the fire-service people come next. They start pulling a body out of the river with a long fish net close to Mann Avenue. Mr Romelli claims he’s the first to have seen it. Yes, in your dreams. “Did you really?” asks Police Sergeant Bannon.
“Now I want...”
“The head, please, for my students.”
Korbain and the others will examine the skull, just as Mr Romelli wants them to do...a true specimen to satisfy their curiosity; he also wants them to study character traits more than physiognomy. Neurons. Sure, morphology. ~
Susan imagines Mr Romelli in his basement and growls to herself.
Christ, what? What she sees as her first object lesson. But what if no one believes it’s a genuine head—for she must convince them.
Chloe trills with laughter, yah.
“Ask the police,” Mr Romelli cried out in his sleep.
Susan wishes she’s much older than twenty-three going on to thirty. And Mr Romelli’s in his late fifties, yes. A death-wish somewhere. He will really surprise his class...not just the police.
Not ever surprise Susan?
She walks along Cummings Bridge heading down Montreal Road. The river pulls her along, in a delirium.
“You sure?” Mr Romelli asks.
“A new specimen?”
He’s in a narrow passageway, in semi-darkness. Look good.
Who’s looking, if not Susan?
Dragging the river with him; a whole creek too. He shrugs. Susan also shrugs. A tryst...or rendezvous. And she will have her own specimens, as images appear and disappear. Eyes look back at her from crevices and corners. A guttural noise, somewhere. The water’s pulling her in, and she starts going under. Please, Mr Romelli...help! He knocked on her door in the middle of the night once!
“Why are you here?” she called out.
“You wanted me to come...”
“To meet you at the river only, Mr Romelli.”
The students indeed expect Mr Romelli to bring his one amazing specimen, Korbain insisting on it. Chloe makes a face, a hard face.
Susan’s fidgety. “There’s no time to waste,” heckles Korbain.
“What d’you mean?” asks Susan.
Chloe mimics her now from the back of the class. Girls being girls.
“Life’s really like that,” Korbain smirks.
“Are we talking about specimens only?” Susan becomes tense.
“No,” then, “er...yes,” sniffs another.
Mr Romelli’s distraught because he stayed up late last night; and he’d seen creatures with neon eyes. What Susan expects him to say about casting his own spell when he knocked on her door one night not so long ago. “I felt unnerved,” he said, “which is why I came.”
“What if the devil’s after me?”
“It stuck its tongue out...from the river.”
“It really did?” Susan asks.
The boy named Korbain laughs once more. Chloe also laughs.
Susan squirms. And Mr Romelli...she expects him to be, well, morose or melancholy. Imagine him going to the river into marshy ground with the students trouping not far behind. Silhouettes and shadows. Korbain with flashlight in hand, crouching.
Susan rubs her eyes; and she isn’t a biology teacher for nothing.
Not what Mr Romelli thinks, eh? “Why not?”
Yes, why not?
She starts calling out names, obsessively. Not ever what Korbain and the others want to hear. She pulls the latch of Mr Romelli’s door, and it swings open. Chloroform or iodine? She’s not nauseous.
Really...what? Yes, being a biology teacher and doing a dissection with a long, sharp knife. Shadows trouping along. Korbain... Chloe...Mr Romelli. Where are you? What about the latest specimen?
Susan grips the knife, and goes down to the basement.
Is he ever there...alone? She sees a head mounted on the wall.
“Really you...Mr Romelli?”
The students are agape, being almost in a shroud in the classroom.
Susan talks about what she dredged up in the river. Eyes being all, neon or phosphorescent. The water pulls everything under at the Cummings Bridge by Montreal Road.
See, Mr Romelli’s head is the only specimen she’s found.
The students gasp, Chloe loudest. What else will Susan say?
“Come on, Mr Romelli,” Susan demands, “everyone’s waiting to hear from you—now it’s just your talking head.”
Her eyes leaden, strange-looking.
“End of lesson,” Mr Romelli says, words she hears like an echo.
The police siren bleating, and alarm bells ring. Susan indeed stands before her own class. Police sirens become louder, which no-one else hears. Mr Romelli looks hard at everyone, being a head only. The Ottawa River calling out. Tell them about a body once more!
Cyril Dabydeen’s books include My Undiscovered Country (Mosaic Press), God’s Spider (Peepal Tree Press, UK), My Multi-Ethnic Friends and Other Stories (Guernica Editions, Toronto), and the anthology Beyond Sangre Grande: Caribbean Writing Today (Mawenzi House, Toronto). Previous books include: Jogging in Havana (1992), Black Jesus and Other Stories (1996), My Brahmin Days (2000), North of the Equator (2001), and Play a Song Somebody: New/Selected Short Stories (2003). His novel, Drums of My Flesh, had been nominated for the 2007 IMPAC/Dublin Prize, and won the top Guyana Prize for fiction. Cyril’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, e.g. Poetry (Chicago), Prairie Schooner, The Critical Quarterly, World Literature Today, The Warwick Review, Prism International, Canadian Literature, the Dalhousie Review, and in the Oxford, Penguin, and Heinemann Books of Poetry and Fiction. Former Poet Laureate of Ottawa (1984-87). Taught Creative Writing at the UofOttawa for many years.
Short Fiction ~ Prathap Kamath
The rays of the 7 am sun seeped in through the translucent window panes gently warming Ahalya’s eyelids. The inside of her closed eyes perceived a pink glow on which so many shreds of broken threads floated in slow motion. She knew it was time to get up and the first thing that came to her mind was Ramu. Yet, as was her wont, she concentrated on one of the dancing shreds and followed it all through its downward spiral against the glowing pink screen of her eyes. It dipped and disappeared at the bottom and surfaced at another corner of her eyes challenging her to give it another chase. And then Ahalya opened her eyes to the euphoria of a Sunday.
Ramu was lying beside her just as she had laid him the night before. She wished he also had the facility to close his eyes during night so that she could have kissed them open in the mornings. She turned to him, drew his face towards her and pressed her mouth on his narrowly parted lips. They were only mildly cold because outside it was summer. This was better, she thought, than the colder lips he offered her during Christmas. He stared at her with his glassy eyes that held in them a scarcely perceptible smile. She rested her head on the mount of his muscular chest and ran her hand slowly up and down the smooth surface of his torso. His stomach was tight, six packed, with the columns of his synthetic muscles making sensual cuts over his abdomen. She heaved a sigh and picked his right arm and placed it on her side. He lay hugging her that way as long as she wanted him to and till time allowed her no more leisure to prolong her lazing with him in the romantic glow of the morning. There were her Sunday chores of washing and cleaning to take care of.
“Oh, how beautiful and eternally young you are my love,” Ahalya spoke under her breath as she smoothed herself out of Ramu’s hug and got out of the bed.
She lifted Ramu from the bed and set him standing opposite the life size mirror at the other end of the room. His polythene body was light despite his 175 cm height. She stripped him off his shorts, his night dress, gently lifting him from the floor to make room for it to ease out of his feet. Then she stripped herself and stood naked beside him facing the mirror with her right arm around his hip. He had looked her age two years back when she had admitted him into her life. Now he still looked the same with his cute, tight, black body of an Olympian swimmer, but the tone of hers had dimmed, its contours begun to loosen. Her breasts and stomach were a little saggier, her thighs more flattened out, her face slightly broader and chin tending to double. She glanced at Ramu from the corner of her eyes and then at his face in the mirror. He didn’t seem to mind her ageing. His smile was still lovingly the same as the one he had two years back. His love for her too would be intact, she knew. She stood on her toe, he was two inches taller, to kiss him on his cheek. She then dressed him in his white T-shirt and blue denims and flicked off a speck of dust that had settled on his cheek.
“See what we have for breakfast!” she cried while setting Ramu on the chair at the dining table opposite hers after a couple of hours. He had been custom-made for her with his limb-joints flexible so that she might have him in whichever physical position she wanted him to be in.
“Here’s your favourite egg omelette sandwich and orange juice.”
She put a plate in front of him and put another for herself, and served a sandwich on each. She filled the glasses with chilled orange juice.
“You should eat well Ramu. Eating well will make you age with me,” she gave him a wink. As she started munching the sandwich Ramu bloomed in a full smile and asked her,
“Why should I age?”
She studied him intently, savouring the cool citric sweetness of the juice mingling with the saltiness of the toast and omelette in her mouth. He stared at some point between her eyes, as still as ever, but the voice that broke from him had a metallic twang reverberating with innocent curiosity. Her love for him swelled like noon tide when during such Sunday mornings he broke his cavernous silence and breathed life out of himself.
“Yes, why should you age honey? Why should you ….? Maybe because when I grow old you would look like my son.”
“You will not get old when you are with me.”
Ramu is one of his kind. He soaks Ahalya in the sap of his love. She went to him and hugged him from behind and kissed him, her hair cascading all over around their heads. His breakfast looked at her in grim stillness.
She had nothing else to do on the Sunday except to bask in the sunshine of Ramu’s love. She had bathed before she had the breakfast; the fragrance of the herbal soap she had lathered lavishly all over her body was still suffusing the air around her, caressing her own senses. She let the water drip from the tips of her hair, wetting the back of her chemise.
She sat Ramu beside her over the sofa facing the TV and cuddled as much as possible close to him, absorbing the cold warmth of his body. She knew that the warmth had radiated from his love. The manly smell of eu de cologne emanating from his T shirt made the minutest pores of her body vibrate with a mysterious pleasure.
“Do you know how much I love you Ramu?” She asked him raising her eyes. He was staring at the TV. She knew that he had heard the question. “I love you more that anyone in this world.”
She saw the corner of his lips twitching. Maybe he wanted more proof to believe her than the beating of her heart against his arm. She took the album from under the tepoy and laid it on her lap. It was one and a half feet long and an inch thick. She opened its massive bind and pages where she had put the book mark the previous Sunday. It was the last page of the album where she and the man were photographed from behind. They, she in her golden yellow silk wedding saree and he in a royal blue suit, looked as if they were embarking on a journey. And sure they were. It was the story of that journey that Ahalya had been telling Ramu during Sundays.
“What happened to him?” The metallic twang struck her ear, the one near Ramu’s mouth, on her left side. She had placed his right arm across her shoulders; that way he could hold her close to his side. And then pressing herself as much she could against him, that was how she used to sit with him when she told him her tale. She had wanted Ramu to know everything about her.
He had been asking that question right from the first Sunday she had started telling her tale. Now she had reached the point in the story, the one where she and the man had started their journey together, where she could tell Ramu in a few sentences the rest of it. For, the journey had lasted only a month – a month that she had felt as a century though.
When the story reached its end, Ramu looked withdrawn into a state of coma. His side that pressed against her breasts was cold. She turned towards him to get a better view of his face. This was the moment she had been waiting for.
“Ramu ,” she shook him gently. He moved and shook like a doll, shaking a few times without volition. “No Ramu, don’t do this to me. Say something Ramu,” she shook him again, this time violently.
The clock on the wall ticked like a warning signal. Tik tik tik . . . She paused a second to fancy that it was reciting a poem to her, before she resumed calling out to Ramu in desperate wails.
“Did he do all that you?” his voice rose suddenly from a disembodied source, hitting against and ricocheting from walls of the small square room.
She saw through her tears that his eyes were moving as though they were surveying the room.
She nodded with no surprise in his change. A glow of joy spread across her face.
“Is it true that he stripped you naked and shut you up in the bedroom in mornings
before he went to the office.”
She nodded again without bothering to turn his face towards hers. He was looking straight before him, yet she knew he could see her as clearly as if she were standing in front of him.
“And that till evening when he came back and freed you, you were there without food or water.”
After a brief silence he asked a last question before relapsing into a coma again:
“And that at night he raped you and burnt you with cigarette butts?”
This time Ahalya couldn’t speak for her tongue had withdrawn into her throat like a paralytic’s.
Instead, she wiped a drop of moisture that had collected at the corner of Ramu’s eyes and ran her hand over his plastic hair tenderly like a mother.
As the day gradually wore out, and the pangs of hunger began to strike Ahalya’s stomach, she shifted Ramu’s hollow body towards the corner of the sofa, and walked to the kitchen to prepare her lunch with loneliness humming in her ears like a persistent drone.
The mannequin lay there, waiting for its mistress to remember it again during another of her spasmodic bouts of love.
Prathap Kamath writes poetry and short stories and has three collections of poetry and one of stories, Blood Rain and Other Stories (2014), to his credit. He teaches English at a college under University of Kerala.
Poetry ~ Richard Skinner
The Strata Building
Every window in the block
has a hooded figure in it,
maybe an anorak on a hanger,
or a jacket on a hatstand.
Or just people standing,
staring out over the city at night.
It’s difficult to tell
from this distance.
Millions of people come through here.
People of every colour,
all hooded, voiceless.
They made it from some distant shore,
up the beach, over
a bridge and onto a road,
where they start to walk.
They start to walk faster and faster,
then they are running.
I’ve heard that people run all the time
in the north country.
But the people here
are not at war.
They only stand and stare
out the windows of their block.
Perhaps they are ghosts.
The hungry ghosts
of all those who didn’t make it
and never will.
I want to reach out and touch them,
to lay my hands on their chest,
to energise their heart.
I cannot give them anything they need.
I cannot give them more life,
Their hoods might turn into cowls
for the dead, which we remove
before placing in trucks,
which drive all night
to the north country.
I want to reach out and touch them,
to lay my hands on their chest,
to energise their heart, turn
the distance they have covered
into something more
than standing at a window
staring out over the city at night.
I want to see the truth in their hearts,
which I know will be there.
I want to see the whites of their eyes
before I make a promise.
Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue
So, it is time to leave. Stay in groups,
pairs at least,
do not wander off alone.
If you must go your own way, make sure you have a horn
and a net. Do not worry about the noises
coming from the bushes to the side.
Keep your eyes ahead, one drop of fear
and they will strike. Steer by the stars but,
remember, when the water flows the other way,
the stars have turned upside down.
You are lucky if you see the goldsmoke.
You will have sage on your hands, to heal,
and wind at your feet, to fly.
When they speak a language you do not know,
you are safe,
but only for a few days. Do not stay
for they will think you are real. Stand up,
make the sign,
be ready to go. The time is now;
in the distance lies the future.
There is so much space ahead of you,
so much dark land.
Richard Skinner’s poetry first appeared in the Faber anthology First Pressings (1998) and since then in anthologies for William Blake, John Berger, CALM and Médicines Sans Frontières. He has published three books of poems with Smokestack: ‘the light user scheme’ (2013), ‘Terrace’ (2015) & ‘The Malvern Aviator’ (2018). His next book, ‘Invisible Sun’, will be published by Smokestack in February 2021.
Poetry ~ Daniel Wade
Don’t trust the calm reigning over tonight;
your language cannot be written
in ink, carvings or braille, and you’re
one of the last left alive to speak it fluently.
Your langauge is a beach without stones,
an ocean without lighthouses, a subway
burrowing through its concrete tunnel
like a steel anaconda, its windowed
belly filled with straphangers
headed for anywhere and nowhere.
And I know it only when you speak it,
your voice a sizzling tonic in my ear.
Unable to ignore the noise of my neighbours
Spraying their hands with disinfectant and castile:
The world carries on, behind closed doors.
Taking it day by day with slow depletion of stores
I get all my news online, my weekly shop as well,
Unable to ignore the noise of my neighbours
Who stand far apart, for the sake of each other’s
Health; fine by me, I don’t much like people.
The world carries on, behind closed doors.
I make the most of my self-imposed shelters
Like a phoenix brushing off the last ash-speckle,
Unable to ignore the noise of my neighbours,
Even with Season 3 streamed, virtual tours
Of the Met and Louvre earmarked for appraisal.
The world carries on, behind closed doors.
Today, the sun bubbles white, its molten
glamours Lost on me, who caches dust like a pearl
As the world carries on behind closed doors,
Unable to ignore the noise of my neighbours.
Ghazal: Small Hours
Last night we DM’d each other well into the small hours:
an unplanned ritual we’ve come to share only in the small hours.
I wouldn’t call it flirting, more a soothing back-and-
forth motored by its own shy rhythm in the small hours
between two people, becalmed at their nightly berth;
funny how inhibitions melt away with the small hours.
It’s not like I’m forward enough to move things between
us any further than polite banter in the small hours
but still, it’s good to chat and surrender our few lean
secrets, exhume our thoughts with the small hours,
fuel each other’s insomnia (though sleep is a priority
for us both), and hope to achieve, with the small hours
over Messenger, some savoury semblance of intimacy.
I’m alone with you as I’m alone in the small hours
telling myself, this is enough. This is the closest
I’ll allow you to get during the small hours.
But if you were here, holding me holding you,
would our chemistry be the same, as in the small hours?
There were broken pallets stacked up
in the warehouse yard, round the back
of M. O’ Byrne Hire base, in Inchicore.
Good for fuck-all now. Except for making
firewood, maybe. The day before,
in Phoenix Park, we loaded them onto the lorry
as the sun leathered our brows
to red creases. We winced from the grip
and strain of muscle against the weight
as we lugged centre folding tables
from backroom to twistlock.
The ratchet strap buckle clicked
as we lashed them to the scuffed floor.
All around us, marquee tents were dismantled
and tail-lights flashed as if in alarm
as lorries backed up. A flatbed trolley waited
to be stacked with amp cases and monitors
and wheeled onto the tail-lift.
I stuffed my work gloves
in my arse pocket as my wrists tanned.
It was mundane work,
but the cash was always in hand.
A small crew, we were:
Maynard, who did these jobs when he wasn’t
slapping out jazzy basslines in the Inter
Tuan with his Germanic precision
Chris with arms thick as mooring lines
Tristan who whistled Breton folk-songs as he worked
Cutter jangling his keys as the lorry backed up
Paul thé Prepper, who said that he told the fella
who built his flatbeds to make them,
and I quote: “basically apocalypse-proof.”
Maynard drove us back into town
at quitting time
and we laughed at his Tom Waits impression.
It was a long day
and worth it for the cash in hand.
I asked myself afterwards,
would you rather be doing this,
sweat seeping through your t-shirt
and your tendons bristling,
the feeling of quitting time
and the extra few bob in your pocket,
than scratching your balls in some overheated office,
shooting emails back and forth?
Just another member of the blow-in crew?
Ghazal for Zaira Taranum
The smell of smoke lingers all night
and by morning, there’s a chokehold of soot.
Tomorrow isn’t a guarantee for anyone;
each redacted name remains legible in the soot.
The flames’ sour gold, visible to anyone
and everyone, melts by the hour down to soot.
Missiles dive in polished metallic harmony,
snuffing air before they hit, belching out soot.
What whiff of blood now needles your nose,
as you army-crawl through crimson turf and soot?
Corpses are identified only by the rings they wear,
keepsakes of fealty, nearly lost to the soot.
The smell of smoke gives you away, guarantee
of tomorrow reserved for no-one, keepsake of soot.
More than 700 former Army personnel have stayed in residential homes provided by a support
organisation over the last 12 years.
- Irish Times, June 28th, 2017.
Then: he grabs his rifle, levels it, tries
To ignore the screams; putrescine
Or cadaverine sting his nose as tracer-
Fire scorches the sky, a flock
Of bullets in slick flight, today’s ashes
Shipped home to Ireland, shrapnel
And limbs, heli rotors whisking Congolese
Wind to gale-force, sand-drifts salting
His throat, leftover musk of battle.
Now: bare-knuckled in April, out
On his arse and limping down the quays,
He vomits smokeless shell casings
Over a stone wall, grains of flint lodged
In his septuagenarian eye.
Rain pounds the tarmac like rubble
And the Liffey’s back on night patrol,
Husks of acid pooling in splotches
Of green, white, orange. Lying huddled
As he once lay huddled at many a Lebanese
Gully stricken by roadside bombs
In the glare of a shop window display,
The sleeping bag he takes cover in
Is a winding sheet, his mind a blueprint
Blotched with the bidding of nations.
Blood blends hotly with rain; he lurks
Across the way from the veteran’s hostel
In Smithfield, unable to bring himself
To walk in. This is what he’s come home
To instead: Lariam soaking his bloodstream,
The moon’s searchlight glimmer, his bones
Clinking beneath taut layers of flesh
As he re-fights his nightly battle with the cold
Slashing through the cardboard mattress
He salvaged from a wheelie bin, each
Shiver a jab from the finger of death
To jolt him awake. A man of disappearances,
Named after Emmet or Wolfe Tone
Or whoever was Taoiseach
The year he was born,
He now walks like he’s being watched,
Like he’s on holy ground scorched
Coal-black by grenade blasts
And not vast enough to harbour
The dead: let him and all else
Find their outpost; see that it lasts.
Daniel Wade is a poet and playwright from Dublin, Ireland. In January 2017, his play The Collector opened the 20th anniversary season of the New Theatre, Dublin. In January 2020 his radio drama Crossing the Red Line was broadcast on RTE Radio 1 Extra. He is also the author of the e-chapbook Iceberg Relief, published by Underground Voices. Daniel was the Hennessy New Irish Writing winner for April 2015 in The Irish Times, and his poetry and short fiction have appeared in over two dozen publications since 2012. http://www.danielwade.ie/
Poetry ~ Five Poems by George Szirtes
A Drunken Boat
My ears full of prose
I ventured up the river
of myself for verse.
Rimbaud's redskins shot
volleys of arrows at me
I was pleased to say.
There's poetry yet,
I thought, as one arrow pierced
me through both ears
and both open eyes.
When I was a child
their enormous sails blustered
in fierce city wind.
They were my mother
in ghostly dress when the wind
tugged at her dark hair.
She flew with the sheets,
skirts flapping and half our clothes
flying off with her
in sheets of laughter.
The night train stops here,
just at that platform. You will
hear it approaching.
Here the journey starts
into that plump-heart darkness
you will not notice.
You will be dreaming
of the carriage and the lights
in the far distance
that sounds like your heart.
Long out of cities
he enters like the shadow
of several lives,
one of them his own,
but which? The street map is strange.
He cannot read it.
Once this was knowledge,
now it’s a shot in the dark.
He reads the drainage
and haunts the platforms.
They were obsolete
right from the start. But later,
reflecting on it,
seemed to be desirable
so they longed for it.
It was night. The wind
ran through their bones. They rattled
a little, quaintly,
as if uncertain.
George Szirtes was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a refugee with his parents and younger brother following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956. He grew up in London and trained as a painter in Leeds and London. He is the author of some fifteen books of poetry, roughly the same of translation from Hungarian, and a few miscellaneous other books. His first, The Slant Door (1979) was joint winner of the Faber Memorial Prize. In 2004 he won the T S Eliot Prize for Reel, and was shortlisted for the prize again in 2009 for The Burning of the Books and for Bad Machine (2013). There were a number of other awards between. Bloodaxe published his New and Collected Poems in 2008. His translations from Hungarian have won international prizes, including the Best Translated Book Award in the USA for László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango (2013) and his latest book for children, In the Land of the Giants won the CLPE Prize for best collection of poetry for children, also in 2013. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in the UK and of the Szécheny Academy of Arts and Letters in Hungary. He is married to painter, Clarissa Upchurch and recently retired from teaching at the University of East Anglia. For a fuller CV see his website at georgeszirtes.blogspot.co.uk
Poetry ~ Tsvetanka Elenkova (Translated from Bulgarian by Jonathan Dunne)
1. Jewel Orchid
The pistil gives off a smell
when you break it off
and unlike with a macro lens
where you see a part of the whole
here the important thing is the body
It is not a busy bee any more
though it does have a little tongue
but it is Aladdin’s lamp
turban on the left
flame-embryo on the right
even a skull lined with silver
or encrusted with diamonds
I turn it around
full face which is the most important
the forehead is enormous
and under the eyes the heart
I also love matchsticks
their burnt heads –
our mothers’ hairstyles
in the sixties
fungi that protrude
from rotting trees
Trees have a second life –
curly acorn martenitsi
we pin them
to men’s lapels
How uneven how thin
is the border the match
has burnt to
with a gradual blending
of black to dark yellow
like the riddle of the Sphinx
By which I mean
I also love gunpowder
3. Skakavitsa Waterfall
You who have a dot on your forehead
a nose like a pagoda
and a cross on your right cheek
a white dove spreading its wings
in the centre
You talk to me kindly carefully delicately
as I pick my way through the land of stings
saying my steps in time to the other’s
are more in the air
than on the earth
 Martenitsi are red and white adornments made of wool that Bulgarians wear in March to celebrate the coming of spring. It was traditional for men to wear two acorns, which could be real (the nut or the cupule) or made of yarn like the rest of the adornment.
Tsvetanka Elenkova has published six poetry collections and two books of essays in Bulgarian. Her poetry has been translated into fifteen languages and was recently included in the sixtieth-anniversary anthology of The Massachusetts Review, And There Will Be Singing. Two of her poetry collections have appeared in English with Shearsman Books: The Seventh Gesture (2010) and Crookedness (2019). Both these books have also appeared in French editions. She is the editor of a bilingual Bulgarian-English anthology of contemporary Bulgarian poetry, At the End of the World: Contemporary Poetry from Bulgaria (2012). The poems here in Jonathan Dunne’s translations are taken from her fifth poetry collection, Magnification Forty, in which she writes poems about things she has studied under the microscope and about waterfalls she has visited. She is editorial director of the publishing house Small Stations Press (www.smallstations.com).
Short Fiction ~ Janet Olearski
First prize, (Strands International Flash fiction Competition - 6)
It was on one of the days when Walter was returning from the cemetery that he saw his dead brother on the bus. He could swear it was him. ‘Same build, same hair, same ears, same everything,’ he told Barbara.
‘Why didn’t you go and speak to him?’ she said. ‘If it had been me, I’d have wanted to take a closer look.’
‘Oh no,’ said her dad. ‘I’d have missed my stop.’
‘Well, I don’t know about that,’ said Barbara. ‘It’s not as if someone sees their deceased brother every day, is it?’
‘What’s “deceased”?’ said Walter.
‘Never mind,’ said Barbara.
Walter was a solitary man, but a contented one. He had his own little rituals and routines, and that was the life he enjoyed. For five years he had made the weekly visit to the cemetery to tidy his wife’s grave. The way Barbara saw it, her mother was gone and visiting her grave wasn’t going to change anything or repair their shared feelings of loss.
A day or so after the brother-on-the-bus incident, Walter came down to breakfast with his three-dreams story.
‘I had three dreams about her,’ he told Barbara.
‘What kind of dreams?’ said Barbara.
‘Nice dreams,’ he said, ‘you know … about placing bets at the bookie’s, and doing the cooking.’
‘I don’t suppose she’d have been thrilled about any of that, especially not the race days,’ said Barbara. 'What was the third dream?'
'I don't know,' he said. 'I can't remember.'
Walter spent his mornings doing chores… things like shopping, or going to the launderette, and he spent his afternoons watching TV in his bedroom. He could watch films over and over and be constantly amused since he never ever remembered that he’d seen them before. It was on one of those typical afternoons that the doorbell rang at a time when no one was expected.
‘Who’s that?’ he asked Barbara. He always said, ‘Who’s that?’ as though Barbara was some kind of clairvoyant. It was a race day and he was watching the horseracing from Newmarket. He liked a bit of a flutter, though he claimed otherwise.
Barbara picked up the door phone. ‘Hello? Hello?’ she said, but no one answered. ‘I’ll go down and take a look,’ she told him, but he wasn’t much bothered.
She ran down three flights of stairs and when she got to the corridor leading to the front door she could see out onto the main road. Their front door was a mirror on the outside and see-through glass on the inside - useful for passers-by who wanted to check their appearance or comb their hair. Barbara couldn’t see anyone lingering outside in the road. She thought that maybe she’d catch someone loping up the street, some kid taking a chance at ringing the doorbell for fun, or maybe an acquaintance who didn’t think to wait, or a post office delivery van. Peering out, she saw only the street, for the most part empty, and the traffic passing – quite a lot of it. She looked first to the left and after that to the right … and then she saw it. The funeral procession.
There was a large black hearse, highly-polished, moving slowly down the road. Walking in front of the car was the undertaker, completely in black, wearing a top hat and looking like something out of Dickens. Other limousines followed, and they contained the mourners. She couldn’t see them clearly. She stood behind the glass and watched the cars pass, the procession holding up the weekday traffic, which moved bumper to bumper. She turned to go back upstairs but, as if doubting what she had seen, she returned to the door and looked again. The cortège had gone. Vanished. The traffic flowed freely.
When she returned upstairs and stepped back into the flat, Walter called out to her from his room.
‘Who was it?’ he said.
‘No one,’ she said.
Two days later, just as the horses in the 4:10 at Newmarket passed the winning post, Walter collapsed with a heart attack. Barbara tried to resuscitate him, helped by a woman from the emergency services who talked her through the steps over the phone. But Walter was dead on arrival at the hospital.
Barbara organised the funeral with – insurance policies permitting - no expense spared. Small and contained though his later life had been, she believed Walter deserved to have a memorable send off. She pushed away her grief until the arrangements were complete. Only then on the way to the cemetery, the sky fittingly overcast, did it seem to her as if she had at last fallen awake.
Looking about her, she saw that the cortège was taking exactly the same route as the funeral procession she had seen that afternoon just a week or so before. The Dickensian undertaker walked in front of the shiny black hearse, while Barbara sat in one of the limousines that followed on its tail. As they passed the front of her house, she saw the procession reflected in its mirrored door.
From where she sat, looking up at the building’s façade, Barbara strained to see the flickering light in her father’s upstairs window. It was, after all, a race day.
Janet Olearski’s poetry and short fiction have appeared in Constellate, Far Off Places, Wasafiri, The Commonline Journal, Bare Fiction, and elsewhere. Most recently her creative non-fiction piece ‘Smokers’ was shortlisted for the Queen Mary/Wasafiri New Writing Prize 2019. Her work includes the story collection A Brief History of Several Boyfriends, a novel A Traveller’s Guide to Namisa (forthcoming) and, as editor and contributor, The Write Stuff anthology. She blogs regularly on writing-related topics for the Dubai-based Emirates LitFest. Find her at http://www.janetolearski.com and Twitter: @JanetOlearski
Short Fiction ~ Neil Campbell
(Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition -6)
When I first moved in, my father’s things filled the flat. It took me a good two years before I could bring myself to throw any of it out, but gradually I started taking it to the charity shops. Soon, all I had left were the paintings and photographs he had on the wall. I had grown to like them, especially the photograph that was in his bedroom – the one where the woman had an exposed breast. And then there were the letters from his women.
I didn’t love my father. Nor had I ever worshipped him, not even as a child when you were supposed to. He never kissed or cuddled me. He would pat my head. He never spent time with me either – always away on business. I was never quite sure what he did all those years.
I wondered how my mother had felt about the letters. Had she ever seen them? Did she know about his women?
One day, I received a letter from a woman saying how sorry she had been to hear of my father’s death. The fact of receiving an actual letter was strange enough, but how did she know he had died? She also purported to have been my father’s lover – she said she could prove it. Had I ever seen a photograph of a woman with one breast hanging out? Well that was her, she said. How could she have known that, I wondered? Did he take the same picture of all his women? Could you put them all together and fill a gallery with their faces?
We met in my favourite café on the corner of Half Moon Lane – I will never forget it – and though she had obviously aged I knew straightaway it must be her – I’d looked at that photograph so often. She complimented me on my hair and skin and I felt at ease with her from the start. Her hair had turned grey, and it hung down in plaits, which she fiddled with all the time, unravelling and ravelling them.
‘It was brave of your parents to adopt you,’ she said, all the time playing with her hair. ‘Ironic, your father never wanted children when we were together. Little did we know. He used to tell me how people stared at you or made comments. And this was in supposedly metropolitan London. I can imagine how bad it would be if you lived somewhere else.’
We ordered another pot of tea and sat looking out of the window. My silence encouraged her to talk. It was like she hadn’t told anybody anything about her life for a long time.
‘I’m sorry to tell you this, but I know I was the love of your father’s life. I always liked your mother, she was good for him, got him off the drink, but with me he was wild, we had some wild times. Especially when we went to Brighton for the weekend. Do you know the Lido here? We got naked in there once and they threw us out. I was always taking my clothes off in those days. I had nothing to hide. I walk around my flat naked, even now. You should do it, it’s a liberating thing.’
I smiled, and she continued, ‘There is one thing I would like to ask you. I am happy being old, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. Since my own husband died, which was obviously very painful, I’ve felt a freedom greater than ever before. And because my mind is not what it was – I used to have a photographic memory – I find my memories falling away day by day. In many ways, that is a good thing, believe me, one forgets all the mistakes one has made. But I’m losing the good memories too. So, what I would like to ask is, could you possibly let me have the photograph that your father took of me? The one you say is still on the wall in his bedroom?’
I agreed, of course. It was of more value to her than me, though I liked the picture. It was a beautiful breast. Maybe that was what I’d always looked at, rather than her face. I said I would get the photograph for her, and we arranged to meet later that day, once again in my favourite café on the corner of Half Moon Lane.
When I took the photo off the wall I turned it to the light and saw the face in the picture more clearly, in a different aspect, and something about it troubled me. I dusted the photo – I had always been terrible at cleaning – and again a glimpse of the face made me ill at ease. Nevertheless, I wrapped the photo in a brown paper bag and put it in my handbag and returned to the café.
She was already there when I returned, fiddling with her plaits, her face bright with expectation. I sat down opposite her, in the window, and passed her the brown paper bag, which she took off me with trembling hands.
Neil Campbell is from Manchester, England and his latest novel Lanyards, the third part of a Manchester trilogy, is out now. http://ncampbellwriter.wixsite.com/website
Short Fiction ~ Brindley Hallam Dennis
(Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 6)
I never got used to telling stories in type, which is odd, I suppose, that being how I write this journal. There’s something about voice, though; not a recording, I don’t mean, but a real-time, live, face-to-face voice.
You’ve got no pace with a keypad, no intonation, no variation of volume, none of what my old piano teacher used to call expression. I hate emojis. You’ve got no grip either, on your audience I mean. They’re too far away, disconnected by the communication technology.
I was telling Jimi, little Jimi, about the last time we got snowed in. That’s so long ago now; more than a decade. If I were telling you this face-to-face you wouldn’t notice how many semi-colons I’m using.
I typed, Jimi, I’d been down to the Post Office. Jimi knew what a Post Office was; from other stories. I typed, and I was walking back up the hill when I happened to glance to my right; that’s to the north. I was just passing a farm gate, set into the hedge, where you could see through across the fields to the far distant hills of Scotland. That would be maybe twenty miles of countryside all across the Solway lowlands between. It wasn’t like seeing from a drone perspective. It was seeing from your own eyes; from where you were standing.
You could see, beyond the field next to the road, the houses and the hedgerows and the little patches of woodland and roads with cars moving along them and even a railway line and a train if you were lucky and then beyond that to the hills rising again to a false horizon against the sky.
And I sent all that in one go, and waited for Jimi to message me back, in case there was a question, because a lot of that would be under water these days. Then I typed some more.
Jimi, I keyed, there was something odd about that horizon on that day. Instead of the usual shapes of the hilltops, which I knew like the back of my hand because I saw them every day, it looked as if somebody had built a great white wall all the way across from east to west and reaching up into the clouds.
I wrote, I couldn’t understand it and went across the road and leaned over the gate, as if that few yards would make a difference to what I could see. And it did, I typed, because then I realised I was looking at a snow storm. It was coming towards me in a big, long, solid line, eating up all the landscape as it came. It wasn’t a wall reaching up to the clouds. It was a curtain falling from them, and I could see all the fields and houses and woods vanishing beneath it as it came.
And I sent that, and was going to go on and finish the story with what happened next, but Jimi messaged back.
Gotta go Gramps. We just got our licence to get into one of the old fashioned face-to-face shops with display units and check-outs and real serving staff, instead of the normal ones. Isn’t that cool?
And I remember thinking, normal didn’t mean the same to Jimi as it did to me; and that cool sounded so out of date.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes short stories. Writing as Mike Smith he has published poetry, plays and essays on the short story form. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com