The Alpha and the Beta
Short Fiction ~ Steve Wade
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
As though I were from his own bloodline, he accepted me into his den. We formed an instant alliance. We existed as a pack of two: alpha and beta.
At first, being the newly arrived subordinate, I learned to scamper out of his path. As alpha, he made no effort to step over or walk around me. My yelps and cries of pain did, however, awaken in him the tenderness of a dam. Always, having trodden on my paw or flank, he’d let out a guilty bark, scrunch down beside me, soothing sounds coming from his throat, while he caressed me with his forelimbs.
Outside our den in the Big Space my role shifted from beta to caretaker. Attached to each other by a cord made from dried cowhide, connected to a cowhide loop about my neck, we two became one. Through the cord, I could feel his every intention. He decided where we went and what we did. But my designated duties were to alert him to danger, to forewarn against obstacles or enemies.
“Easy Lobo,” the alpha said to me one evening when we were returning from a ramble when the Big Light made way for the White Light thrown by the Moon
Although I never learned nor mastered the Alpha’s strange tongue, we have always understood each other. And right away I understood from his tone that he sensed what I already knew. Behind us, in the shadows, we were being stalked.
Through my own deep-base growls, I jerked my head quickly towards the alpha, and then back to the threat before us. I could feel the hackles bunched on my neck. My lips I curled back as much as I could to ensure the attackers could see the whiteness of my canines against the pink of my gums. My threat worked.
The pack’s leader, a long creature who smelled like unclean death stopped before he was within ambush distance. His subordinates aped him. That’s when the alpha unhooked from around my neck the cowhide cord that connected us.
I bounded forward, my gums curled, my teeth bared and dripping saliva, in my throat a snarl. In his panic to flee, the leader fell backwards, exposing his throat. I pounced on him, closed my jaws about the vulnerable flesh. His cowardly subordinates abandoned their leader. While he squealed like a worried hog, they fled.
But the alpha approached at his usual pace - a cautious one. With his head tilted sideways, he felt about while crouched till he touched my back. Through his touch I felt a kind of healing lightning. And the sounds he made soothed. But he then turned his attention to the sickly cur in my jaws. This I got through the shift pitch in his voice. His tone became harsh, yet filled with what I knew to be a warning. I could almost guess what he said. He’d told the cur to quit struggling, to cease his screeching, and to surrender to my jaws.
The enemy complied. He left off screaming, his flailing limbs grew flaccid, and he tilted back his head, offering me his throat.
I, in turn, slackened my jaws, but continued to press my teeth into his vulnerable neck flesh. But, even towards such an ailing cur, my instincts compelled me to honour the laws of combat. He was surrendering.
“That’s it, Lobo,” the alpha said. “Good boy. Leave it now.”
I released his throat, and moved backwards. Slapping my tongue in and out through my teeth in disgust.
“Here, Lobo,” the alpha called. “Home, boy. Let’s go home.”
And home we went, bruised and wounded, but undefeated.
There were other attacks during our long companionship, but together these we countered and survived. Our loyalty to each other was as constant as the shift from Big Light to the awakening of the Moon. But the Great Grey Prowler, his voice hoarse through howling in his efforts to sway my allegiance, never relented.
My body. Unable to turn my loyalty, he concentrated on my body. He weakened my bones as he weakens the branches of a tree, and my joints he stiffened the way he takes control of a wayward and wending river by freezing its surface. In pain and zapped of energy, I lost complete interest in food - all part of the Prowler’s plan. For without sustenance and liquid, the body finds no need to continue, to suck in oxygen and pad the earth.
The alpha, my leader, stayed with me until the Great Grey Prowler emerged from the Forest of Dreams to claim me as his legion.
“Come,” the Prowler said to me. “It is your time.”
Ready now to give the huge wolf, as dark as deep grey storm clouds, instant allegiance, I felt myself slipping from my own skin and loping after him. But behind me I heard strange sounds from the alpha. I twisted my head about. He was weeping. In his arms he cradled my lifeless body. Only then did I understand the enormity of our friendship, and why he, the alpha, depended so much on my guidance.
The tears that he shed he wept from sightless eyes. Something my living instincts never programmed me to understand. I remained and watched him fumble about for tools in the garden shed. My body he buried beneath the pear tree in full blossom. Ignoring the snarled orders of Death, the huge wolf all birds and beasts know as the Great Grey Prowler, I returned to my master early after the next sunrise.
At first, the alpha was terrified that I had cheated Death of one of his rightful minions. But, as soon as he felt the life-force beating beneath my pelt, he slowly accepted me again as his most loyal companion. Blind though he is, the alpha is the only one who sees me now. For he sees me with vision greater than the eyesight of an eagle - he sees me with his heart.
Steve Wade’s fiction has been published and anthologised in over fifty print publications. He has had stories shortlisted for the Francis McManus Short Story Competition and the Hennessy Award. He has won first prize in the Delvin Garradrimna Short Story Competition on four occasions. Winner of the Short Story category in the Write By the Sea writing Competition 2019. First Prize Winner of the Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Writing Competition 2020. His short story collection, ‘In Fields of Butterfly flames’, was published in October 2020 by Bridge House. www.stephenwade.ie
Coming Home for Christmas
Short Fiction ~ Susmita Bhattacharya
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
The cabin was compact – like the capsule she’d been living in for the last six months. The blue and white linen and beige bulkheads were not the same as the insulated sleeping bag she tucked into at the end of the workday, attaching herself to a post so that she didn’t float around the station like a ghost ship untethered from its navigational route. It was ironic she was feeling seasick and claustrophobic right now. The Channel was a bit choppy and the boat pitched and rolled like a theme park ride – the egg cup rides she went on with her dad as a kid. It felt strange to be back on her feet, not floating away at will, gliding in the air like it was the most normal everything thing to do.
Shona stumbled out to the deck and inhaled deeply. The fresh, salty air filled her lungs and she greedily sucked in more air. Breathing recycled air for six months was one thing she did not miss. She still heard the ticks and whirs of the machines in her head, and sometimes turned towards a gurgling sound, nervously looking for a fault. But no, it was all in her mind, just like she kept hearing her cat mewing, whimpering, crying - long after she had been buried in the garden.
It was a clear night. Stars covered the expanse of the sky and Shona spotted the International Space Station speeding round the space highway. She smiled as she imagined what her colleagues were doing at this very moment. Would they feel her eyes on them? She watched at some of the passengers also on the deck, eyes glued to their phones, missing the beauty of the night sky. She heard someone say they’d return to watch the sunrise, as they made their way inside. Shona smiled. What if she told them she was used to seeing sixteen sunrises in a day? Would their eyes widen with envy or maybe disbelief? What if she told them she spent the last Christmas up there? Christmas up in space with a much of scientists, no family and no tree– was that a desirable experience?
Last year, there was a delivery of fresh food for them at the station by a SpaceX Dragon cargo ship. Turkey, corn-bread stuffing, gingerbread biscuits and hot chocolate. There had been singing – a lot of singing- and a Santa hat making competition, which she had won. She had saved her waffle ice-cream cones and a baked bean tin and put them to good use. She smiled at the memory. The five of them, so far away from home and yet that was home. They’d then sat together, sucking on eggnog flavoured sweets, looking down on the Earth – the swirling blue swathes with wisps of white, like the marbled-effect gift paper she’d wrapped her father’s last Christmas present in. The greens and the browns appeared as they revolved around the planet, looking somewhat like a Christmas jumper, much like the ones they had on.
Shona watched the coastline as it came nearer. The sulphuric harbour lights lined the shore like a string of golden beads. She felt the knot in her stomach grow tighter. She was getting closer to home. Families crowded around her. Santa hats and tinsel, Christmas jumpers and scarves, the energy of their excitement washed over her, leaving her feeling empty. There was no one to come home to. It was going to be a lonely holiday. As she moved towards the lower deck, she took one last look up to the sky. The pink and orange bled slowly into the inky darkness. One by one the stars disappeared into the morning glow. She ached to see the bright spot racing around the Earth – the one which was no star at all. In fact, that was the place she could be her true self. That was the place she called home.
Susmita Bhattacharya is an Indian-born British writer. She won the Winchester Writers’ Festival Memoir Prize in 2016 and her novel, The Normal State of Mind (Parthian/Bee Books) was longlisted for the Words to Screen Prize at the Mumbai Association of Moving Images (MAMI) festival in India. She has been shortlisted for, and won, numerous prizes and awards and her work has been commissioned by magazines and for BBC Radio 4. Her most recent collection of short stories, Table Manners, was published by Dahlia Books (2018). It won the Saboteur Short Story Collection Prize in 2019, was finalist for the DLF Hall & Woodhouse Literary Prize and will be serialised for BBC Radio 4 Extra in January 2020. She lectures at Winchester University, facilitates the Mayflower Young Writers workshops in Southampton (An ACE funded ArtfulScribe project), and is a mentor supporting BAME writers for the Middle Way Mentoring project. Currently, she is working on her second novel.
Love Your Neighbour
Short Fiction ~ Stephen Smythe
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
“What do you mean, we can’t come in?” the man in the too-tight suit snarled. “What are you – some kinda funeral bouncer?”
Ibrahim had been going to English classes for six months and had not heard this expression before, although he gathered what it meant. He looked at the woman next to the man. Her eyes were red-ringed, the pallor of her face emphasised by the black clothes. Like the man, she was not wearing a mask. “I loved Mr Watson,” she said. “He always helped people on our street.”
“I am sorry,” Ibrahim said.
The woman caught a sob and the man snorted. “Let us in. It’s not a nightclub, mate!” He had no overcoat even though it was a cold, January day.
“The number of people in the chapel is the maximum permitted,” Ibrahim said.
“Quiet, please,” Ibrahim said.
“Don’t shush me, mate!”
“The service has already started,” Ibrahim said. He had closed the chapel door before the couple arrived.
“Why won’t you let us in?” the man demanded. “We’ve got masks - they’re in her bag!”
"No more permitted.”
“I can’t understand what you’re saying.”
Ibrahim wondered if his face mask was making it difficult for him to be heard, or whether the man was ridiculing his accent.
“Can’t you let us in?” the woman said, softly. “It’s freezing.”
Ibrahim stamped his feet. He had worked for the security firm in the shopping mall, but it was now closed because of lockdown. “I am sorry. I cannot.”
“How many people are inside?” the woman asked.
“Twenty,” Ibrahim said.
“I’m sure the Government says you can have thirty,” she said.
“Not here. The chapel is too small.”
“It’s doesn’t look that small,” the man said.
“There is social distancing inside.”
“Ridiculous,” the man hissed. “Get George. He’ll tell you to let us in.”
“You mean you won’t!”
Ibrahim said nothing. He looked beyond the man to where the headstones were. The sky was swollen dark grey and the naked trees seemed black. He longed for the colours of his home in Somalia and missed the lushness of Kenya – but not the camp. He felt safe here in this Lancashire town, in the north of England.
“It will not make a difference.”
“I’ve known Mr Watson since I was a little girl,” the woman said, crying as she rummaged in her handbag. “That damn virus!”
“See what you’ve done?” the man said.
Ibrahim wondered why the man did not comfort the woman. He waited for a moment until she dabbed her eyes with a tissue and appeared calmer. “I am afraid you will have to leave,” he said.
Ibrahim gestured towards the cemetery gates with his hand. “Please.”
“Make me!” The man planted his feet wide and thrust out his chest. A button popped off his jacket, and underneath part of his shirt was undone revealing a large belly.
Ibrahim had not expected to encounter aggression in a cemetery. But he was not afraid – he had known real danger in his twenty one years.
“Danny, don’t,” the woman said, putting her hand on the man’s arm.
The man gritted his teeth and spoke quietly but firmly. “We’re going inside.”
“I am sorry, sir, that is not possible.” Ibrahim stepped across the chapel doorway.
“What are you gonna do – call your mates on that?” The man pointed at the radio wedged in a pouch on Ibrahim’s hi-vis jacket. He was the only member of the security firm there. The radio was connected to HQ for emergencies only, although Ibrahim let the man think otherwise.
The man edged closer.
“Please keep your distance,” Ibrahim said, stepping back.
The man looked him up and down. Ibrahim met the man’s eyes. Nobody blinked. They were the same height, although Ibrahim was in much better shape. The man unclenched his jaw.
“Danny, come on,” the woman said. “Mr Watson wouldn’t have wanted this.”
The man kept his gaze on Ibrahim, although his eyes had lost their fire. “Where’re they burying him?”
“I am sorry,” Ibrahim said. “There is already the maximum number of people permitted.”
The man opened his mouth but no words came out. He shook his head and turned to the woman. “The world's gone mad.” She eased him away, her palm on his back. Ibrahim heard him say, “Huh. Barred from a funeral. And by him!”
As the light faded, the cemetery due to close in a quarter of an hour, Ibrahim was alone. The rain held off and the mourners had left. They kept a distance from each other around the grave, although a handful hugged awkwardly. Ibrahim did not intervene, unsure about the rules. For that, he was glad.
Ibrahim completed his last circuit before locking up, the gravel crunching beneath his boots. He recalled the man in the too-tight suit: “Some kinda funeral bouncer.” He smiled, wryly. Is that what he was? He cut across the grass towards a grave filled in with freshly dug soil and topped with a wreath of white roses. He read the words on the temporary wooden cross. ‘Thomas Gerald Watson. 1948 - 2021. Love Your Neighbour as Yourself’. Ibrahim took off his beanie and smoothed his hair. He stood there awhile. There was the low purr of an occasional car passing on the other side of the railings. Suddenly, there was birdsong. He looked up. Even in the half-light, Ibrahim recognised the red face and yellow wings of a Goldfinch. It was perched on the bare branch of a solitary silver birch. As it trilled, Ibrahim wondered why it had stayed home and not migrated.
Stephen Smythe lives in Manchester, England. He achieved an MA in Creative Writing at Salford University in 2018. His flash fiction was shortlisted for The Bridport Prize in 2017 and longlisted in the Bath Flash Fiction Award, 2018. He was runner up for his micro fiction in the Bangor Literary Journal FORTY WORDS competition in 2019 and this year in the same competition his story was Highly Commended. In 2020, he had poems shortlisted and longlisted in The Eighth Annual Bangor Poetry Competition and his five minute play 'Mr Bombastic' was shortlisted in the Todmorden Book Festival Play and a Pint Competition (performance and result held over to 2021). His story 'Granny' received an Honourable Mention in The Strand International Flash Fiction competition -9.
The Beach Walker
Short Fiction ~ David Mohan
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
Brewer turns his back on the sea and takes the first train home.
The sun is beginning to touch the edges of buildings, all across the skyline. Certain windows glimmer as the train speeds past.
In one apartment building the green of an electric light stands out in the great mass of black surrounding it. A man stands facing the city, ironing a shirt in the phosphorescence of his kitchen. He is so concentrated he looks frozen, just standing there, staring into a grey crease of cotton.
The train passes a woman smoking on her balcony. She looks fresh from her bed, her eyes flickering in the light, her hair set loosely in place like a wig she put on to cover the mess of her thoughts. She has her handbag on the table in front of her. There is a spill out of it. He imagines a lipstick and a compact mirror, a spray of white mints.
He gets off one stop early and walks the long way to his apartment. He wants a little more of this air, this sunlight, before he goes to bed.
There are people sleeping in boxes outside the station – waking on beaches is nothing unusual for them. Finding shelter from the sea breeze amidst the dunes, trudging across cold, slipping sand, and wiry grass, is just another late night trek for such travellers.
But he feels chilled by his night spent under the stars. And grateful for this morning, its soft, diffuse, translucent light. The day will be warm, he suspects, but there’s still a little of the night chill in the shade of the big station arch. As he walks along, taking his time, he observes how the day re-claims the city in gradual subdivisions: lemony sunlight touches up the glass of the Financial District, golden tones drip down fawn and salmon coloured walls, bright, blinding points blaze at intervals.
The raffia bag he borrowed from his landlady pats his shoulder blades as he walks along, and he feels the subtle weight of the shells he’s collected, the loops and curls and spirals he has stolen from the tide-blackened sand. They are worthless things, of course. Even more so now he is back in what is supposed to be the hub of industry, and at the most restive, frantic hour of the day.
But these shells are worth something just the same: for the walks they compel him to take if nothing else. They are the reward of such walks. No: they are the evidence. Like the broken up sneakers he found once, or the seal skull. Inessential things. So soothing, so compulsive.
Today, after a little sleep, he plans to pick around at the edges of his city life before he commits to anything concrete. He will be like a fox scavenging for scraps in trash bags, or one of those gigantic gulls that swoop down onto squares, raucous and strutting.
And this evening it will be the sea train again, as always, and then it will be a blind search as the dusk crawls towards absolute darkness, and the tides re-set. He will be as free then as the sound of the sea, beachcombing till whatever time he likes.
But for now, he walks into a café that has just opened – The Bayside Retreat. A waitress yawns behind the counter as he slips through the door.
He orders a latte and curls up in a corner, his bag of shells whispering as he lays it down beside him. His threadbare trainers smell of sand grit and seaweed: a saltwater tang.
For a moment, falling into the warmth of the place, he is on another coast, in another town, far away, elsewhere. But that place is warmer, that beach has another quality, appears to be a white-hot bar when the sun is at its fiercest. And there is a house beside that ocean, and a family, although most of the time is spent wandering the dunes, and hiking the coast road, and fishing in tidal pools, and running, running and running, never still, never settled. And in this odd memory, that is, by now, as much a dream as it is a memory, there is no clear sense of inside or outside, of indoors and outdoors, as the house back then was composed as much of the beach as it was of a hallway, and as much of the dunes as it was of a kitchen, and the doors and windows were always open in any case, and everywhere you went you smelt and heard the ocean, as though it lived inside you, akin to the sound of blood pounding in your ears.
And so it is unsurprising to witness again a version of himself run from the beach, run in a wavering line up the staggered boardwalk and then through the wild, marram grass country of the dunes, and then through the open doorway of that little slanted, salt-caked house, and up the dusty, blue-dark hallway and stairs, and then along that dark landing to the room at the opposite end, facing away from the ocean, and into that musty, antiseptic-scented bedroom, and then to the seaglass jar on the dresser, where he would deposit the latest shells he had discovered, and see the soft white face of the person sitting up in bed turn towards him in the dresser mirror.
It was always a shock to see that face turn, at that moment, although it was always anticipated, always the wish that lay behind everything else, and so Brewer startles when he awakes, and finds the waitress standing over his table, frowning, her notebook lopsided in her hand, her voice, so light, so delicate, the flicker of a lighthouse glimpsed miles away.
David Mohan has been published in PANK, Hobart, Necessary Fiction,
Atticus Review, SmokeLong Quarterly, The Penn Review, The Seneca
Review and Westerly.
Short Fiction ~ Ruth Geldard
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
Ursula was on form. Holding court in her inimitable way, Hannah noticed her pause, as she made certain of her audience’s attention,
“So, there I am,” here she paused again to turn her palms upwards in mock helplessness, “doing a bit of light-dusting in the bedroom…”
Her husband on cue, said,
“You don’t do light-dusting my love, not even weightless dusting.”
“Don’t interrupt. So, there I am, looking through my bedroom window and what do I see across the road?”
She sat back in her seat with a little rhetorical, shoulder shimmy. Everyone at their table, who had gathered in the intimate space of the wine bar to celebrate Hannah’s significant birthday, was looking at Ursula, all trying to work out what she might be going to say next.
Ursula turned her attention towards John, Hannah’s husband, who, catching her gaze shifted in his seat and picked up his beer. Ursula continued.
“You know the house opposite me, the one that’s been on the market for ages because they want a ridiculous amount of money for it? Well, the estate agent from Select Homes was standing right under the For Sale sign, with a whole family of Pakistanis!”
There was an immediate hush. Hannah opened her mouth to speak but noticed John clearing his throat to say something. She held her breath, curious to see how he would react and whether he would be able to suppress his natural inclination to avoid confrontation. He looked straight at Ursula and said,
Hannah flushed this was a first. Ursula looked bewildered, as though John couldn’t possibly have understood her, because surely if he had, he would have agreed?
She said, “Well would you want a hoard of foreigners living right opposite you, I mean really? It would bring down house prices for a start, never mind the nuisance from cooking smells?”
John shrugged and said, “Wouldn’t bother me.”
The sheer unexpectedness of Ursula’s remarks and casual assumption, that they were of like mind, took Hannah’s breath away. Recent political events had opened a Pandora’s box of previously suppressed racial intolerance in Hannah’s small, seaside town, but to hear it from the mouths of friends was unthinkable.
The echo of Ursula’s hateful not-in-my-backyard comments became a righteous slow-burn inside Hannah threatening to flare, and the strain of holding back was almost too much, but not wanting to upstage her husband, she tamped it down.
Later, after the candles had been blown out and the cake cut, the talk turned to the safer subject of this year’s Oscars ceremony, comparison of the various films and much lightweight talk of celebrities and their dresses. But Hannah, still burning, said,
“It’s a shame there were no black prize winners though, did you see that incredible speech by that actress about the lack of diversity? Oh, what’s her name, she’s been in everything?” John helpfully supplied it but did not look at her.
“She was so inspiring brought the house down.” Oh god, what was she thinking of? She was no match for Ursula, who looking at her quizzically, said,
“All this fuss about a few prizes, they should be able to give them to whoever they like simply on merit.”
“Yes, but as black Americans make up over ten percent of the population in the U.S.A., it would be reasonable to expect at least some representation, and of course on merit.”
“Why can’t they have their own Oscars, better all round for everyone?”
Hannah folded her arms, lowered her voice and said,
“Because that would be apartheid.”
Ursula drew a sharp breath, Hannah watched as she rearranged her face, softening her features into something syrupy, indulgent. If she was at all angry it didn’t show.
“That’s so typical of you Hannah, always contrary, I think you secretly enjoy being on the side of the underdog.”
Hannah was lost, unable to make sense of the disconnect between Ursula’s words and her facial expression, she would never understand the rules of this game. She looked across at John, willing his support, but he was deep in conversation.
The remaining birthday cake was cut up and wrapped in carry-home parcels. Hannah kissed everyone goodbye, when she got to Ursula, they managed to air-kiss without touching. Oh, the relief of stepping outside into the cold, de-toxifying night air. John caught her up and getting into step took her hand.
She didn’t answer just gave him a straight look.
“Well, I think that all went off okay didn’t it? It could have been worse…”
“In whose bloody universe? Our friends are racists for God’s sake! How could we not have realised?”
“I know! When she was talking, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.”
A sudden gust snatched at the left-over balloon, someone had insisted she take home with her, it danced stupidly on its’ artificial string hideous, gift-shop gaudy in luminous pink and silver with that unrecognisable number…
“Don’t take everything so seriously…”
Hannah was weary, she knew from experience that having said his bit, John would not want to rock the boat.
As they walked home the damned balloon began again to fidget, its’ annoying, urgent bumping suggesting a desire to escape. She didn’t want it anyway. It would only mope around half-mast between floor and ceiling, reminding her of birthdays past. She unwound the balloon’s string from her hand.
No longer earthbound the balloon soared off into the indigo sky, then slowed to linger over the church roof, as if struck by a sudden gravitational nostalgia, before picking up speed to smooch gargoyles and nuzzle chimney tops, before finally venturing off into unknown deep space shrinking to the size of one of those sherbet-filled, papery sweets, from her childhood, shaped like flying saucers, Spaceships? She remembered sating that unique, biting after-school hunger, walking home with friends, shoving Spaceships into their mouths with inky fingers, unified in the sole purpose of keeping them from dissolving for as long as possible.
Artist/writer Ruth Geldard has exhibited artwork throughout London including The Royal Academy. She has made written contributions to many Art Publications, worked in adult education, and has been an art materials demonstrator and contributed to art videos.
She once painted a portrait of Timothy Spall’s mother, Sylvia, live on air, for Radio 4’s Home Truths.
A 2018 Faber graduate, her short fiction has been shortlisted for the Fish Prize and published in various anthologies. She was awarded the sapphire Award for Excellence in Contemporary Narrative in 2015. Ruth was a finalist for The London Independent Story Prize and received an honourable mention for Spaceships in the International Flash Fiction Competition.
Ruth is currently editing her novel Lemon Yellow.
Short Fiction ~ Sudha Balagopal
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11strandspublishers.weebly.com/results.html
When the baby's heartbeat revs from the regular glug-glug-glop to a brisk dum-dum-dum on the monitor, when your contractions ride from dip to crest, a flurry of nurses prop your feet up on the stirrups.
You wiggle trembly toes, legs drug-deadened, while fraught nurses trot in and out, trundling trolleys and trays. You interlock frozen fingers while they discourse about the alarming pace of the fetal heart.
Earlier they pierced you and injected Pitocin when your contractions didn't progress.They followed that with the stab of an epidural. The numbness leaves you spiritless. And now, you're tired.
So, so tired.
“How are we doing?” the doctor asks. He's only checking on the foetus. “All set to deliver?”
You think of the couple waiting outside, perhaps pacing the lobby, perhaps crossing and uncrossing their legs, perhaps reciting prayers, perhaps rocking a tiny car-seat that rests on the floor, perhaps checking and re-checking a carry bag of frills and fluffy toys.
The doctor urges, “Almost there! Push. . .Puush. . . .Puuush.”
You fall back, spent, and the nurses urge, “Push. . . Puush. . . Puuush.”
One more hard heave, a strong squeeze, and she slithers out.
It's the wah, wah, wah, wails that send spasms into your uterus. Squalls that slice, sharp, in your chest while everyone flits about, removing vessels, papers, monitors, machines and in that blur of activity, you catch a flash of tiny, flailing arms and floppy legs before she sails into wide-open arms. They sweep her away even as you secrete bodily fluids, the room surrounded by odors of afterbirth.
You extend your limp hands; a wasted reach. No one notices. No one congratulates you.
Your fingers droop.
Someone―a no-one-special―asks a perfunctory, “Are you okay?”
You straighten and straighten the crumpled sheet over the contours of your now-empty belly.
Sudha Balagopal's recent short fiction appears in Matchbook, Smokelong Quarterly, Split Lip Magazine, Pidgeonholes and Milk Candy Review among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn. Her work has been nominated for Best Small Fictions, Best Microfiction, and the Pushcart Prize and is listed in the Wigleaf top 50. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
Short Fiction ~ Yvonne Clarke
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 11
I stole books from the library every Saturday.
We had a ritual. My younger brother and I pootled off on Saturday mornings to our local library, a formidable Victorian edifice surrounded by highly ornamented wrought iron railings. Roller skates on and clutching my bulging library bag, I attached safety reins to my reluctant brother and enacted my fantasy of driving a horse and carriage. He was lucky I didn’t have a whip.
The day it happened was my brother Chris’s fourth birthday.
After choosing another book from the seemingly endless Thomas the Tank Engine series (I prided myself on extending my brother’s vocabulary), I headed for the adult library in an adjacent building. I tethered my ‘horse’ to the railings near the entrance. At eleven years old I only just qualified for an adult library ticket, but was still young enough to be overawed by the high ornamental ceilings and reverent hush of the interior. The echoing acoustic magnified every sneeze, snuffle and shush. This was my wonderland – a magical place of erudition and knowledge which meant more to me than any theme park. This was the space in which to banish rowdy thoughts; I wanted no one to intrude as I immersed myself in the papery, musty odour emanating from the reference section and the cloying, plasticky pong of the ‘New In’ novels.
Which section was it to be today: Fiction? I wallowed in P.G.Wodehouse (when I was happy) and Thomas Hardy (when I was full of pre-teen angst). Travel? My well-travelled father’s tales and his National Geographic magazines always fed me with a desire to know more about the world. Wildlife? Art? Music? The buffet of books was a feast for my eyes and a banquet for my imagination. But there was a problem: I could only choose three books; a near- impossible task.
Stealing became second nature. My bag could hold five books, so that’s how many I took. Maybe ‘snook’ is a better word, as I always returned them, but with the luxury of doing so in my own time. The frisson of escaping the librarian’s eagle eyes only added to the joy of attaining my literary stash – no electronics to catch you out in the 1960s.
But this day was to prove my undoing.
As I sauntered nonchalantly up to the ‘Books Out’ desk, my heart leaping as usual like a mad March hare, a voice from behind me declared in strident tones: ‘Excuse me, young lady….’
Dropping the bag of books like hot coals, I was off, down the library steps and through the park, pursued by a portly uniformed personage who showed signs of falling behind at every stride. But an ownerless greyhound wanted to join in the chase and launched himself at me with joyful abandon, causing me to trip on the path in an ignominious sprawl.
‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it again,’ I gasped, trying to hide the pain from my grit-grazed knees, holding back my tears and my fears. As the official helped me to my feet, I smelled the whiff of his stale tobacco.
‘Whatever you’ve done, love, you need to come back to the library with me.’
It was only as I was marched through the entrance that I remembered my little brother. He was nowhere to be seen. ‘My brother’s been abducted!’ I wailed, ‘Have you seen him?’
Cheeks burning with a combination of panic and shame, I was led behind the desk to an office emblazoned with the words ‘Chief Librarian’. The ultimate confessional. My heart was banging like a bird trapped in a cage. Would I be arrested? The worry of my missing brother, however, was far greater. I realised then how much I loved him, and a torrent of tears splashed down my mud-stained coat.
Mrs Black looked at me fiercely, a chief librarian’s glare.
‘You are a very lucky girl,’ she said. ‘But not as lucky as your brother. We found him wandering around the library, breaking his heart, totally lost. He said he was looking for his sister. He’s just here.’
And there, sitting on the floor in the corner of the office, was my brother, flicking through his Thomas the Tank book, sipping Sarsaparilla from a paper cup between hiccoughy sobs. Mortified and relieved, I gave a percussive sniff and threw myself at his warm little body.
‘I love you, Chris, I’m sorry. I’ll never leave you again.’
‘We weren’t calling you back to return the books, you know. We wanted to reunite you with your brother.’
My sins had found me out at last. I had learnt two lessons today. But, contrary to what I expected, Mrs Black was impressed with my bibliophilic zeal. She decided to make an exception to the three-book rule, just for me, and I soon became known by the staff as ‘Five Book Bethany’. I never had to sneak books from the library again. As for my brother, on our trips out together, I clung to him just as a barnacle clings to a rock.
Yvonne Clarke has been a teacher of English as a Second Language for twenty years. Prior to this she was a copy editor and content editor for a number of publishing companies.
She started writing flash fiction in 2019 and has had success in several flash and short story competitions, including the 2020 LISP Short Story Prize and the 2020 Worcester Arts Festival Flash Fiction Competition.
As well as writing she enjoys cycling, music, and anything to do with protecting the environment.