Short Fiction ~ Rayna Haralambieva
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
The father wipes off the sweat running down the back of his neck. He axes again and curses the tree, the village, his life. The mother watches from the inside, hanging quietly like a ghost by the window. Her eyes, worry-soaked, follow her husband, as he lifts a heavy arm yet once again. The chestnut sways, cracks, withholds.
The mother sinks back into the kitchen, turns on the radio to dumb the groans of the dying tree. The whistling of the pressure cooker sounds like a crying child. She boils the tomatoes because then it is easier to peel them. She turns up the volume of the radio, hums along a pointless tune. She stirs the aubergine in the frying pan – she always fears it getting stuck to the bottom. She was taught how to make imam bayildi by her mother who was taught by her mother and so on. The recipe has kept coming to life in the hands of all those women, each of them choosing to think that there’s something unique to their way of doing it. It’s the most perfect thing in their lives, one could say. They wouldn’t get it wrong even if they tried. The origins of imam bayildi are shrouded in legend. One legend has it that the imam fainted from pure bliss when his wife served him this dish. Another one claims that he fainted when his wife confessed to the amount of olive oil that had gone into the dish.
The father comes in to have a break and eat. There’s something wild in his eyes. He tells his wife that he’s going to get the damn thing down before the sun dares to set. The mother sprinkles coriander over her husband’s portion, tries to steady her shaking fingers. She fiddles with the cutlery, as he starts swallowing the patlıcan in big mouthfuls. She holds the fork, puts it down, takes it in her other hand, looks at it, puts it down. It looks like a ritual that no one but her wants to take part in. She watches a thin stream of blood-red tomato sauce run down the corner of her husband’s mouth. It lands on the white of the tablecloth and grows its stain in it. The mother slips out of her seat quietly and comes back with another plate. She puts it on the table and then starts eating. They eat like this, in silence, interrupted only by the clink of forks on plates, each one locked in the dungeons of their own thoughts. The father tells her to stop the circus show without looking at her. His voice bears the undertones of things private and unsayable. She gets up quietly and puts the third plate away.
The father goes back to grappling with the tree. The kestane ağacı refuses to move as if it knows that its roots belong in this soil. The mother, thinner than a shadow, watches from behind the curtains. She sees the muscles in his body strain, as he tries again and again. The tree refuses to go. She can’t bear this, hopes it collapses all at once.
The father swears under his breath. He could let the tree be, but now it’s too late. He has already wasted half a day and when a job needs doing, it needs doing. That’s what he knows from his father. His wife tried to remind him how the tree was there when his father was a child and how he himself has taken his first steps near its roots. She remembers seeing his moustache twitch, the way it does only when he is taken by surprise or by grief. The way it did when they lowered their son’s coffin into the ground. But then he turned his back, wheezed as if he had a blocked nose and had to force the air out. He said that the chestnuts splashed everywhere in the patio and it was too much work for her to clean it every morning. She insisted that she was fine with that, it was her morning routine and she didn’t mind. But he was already walking away and left her with her words hanging in the pressing heat of the day.
She watches him struggle against the strength of the trunk. He throws his arms up in what looks like a prayer or surrender. Then, he does something odd. He embraces the trunk and rests his body against it. It reminds her of a fairy tale that got her scared as a child. She remembered crying, huddled in her grandmother’s skirt that smelled of dust and melons.
The father thrusts the axe deeper into the tree. He is not one to give up. He starts cutting its branches which he knows is pointless, but it gives him pleasure to watch the tree lessen. He piles the branches into a heap, then starts jumping on them and shouts, just once, but there’s something in this shout that scares even himself. With its cut-off branches, the tree looks like a clumsy drawing made by a five-year old.
The mother turns the volume up, she cannot watch this anymore. There’s a sad tune on the radio, but she’d rather have it than what’s around. It sings bozuk, something broken, as if it picks the tunes running through her veins. She imagines her blood clotted by all this sadness. She goes to the oven and turns it on high. In the meantime, she washes the chestnuts she had collected from the patio in the morning. She turns them in her hands and feels the prickles nudge the worn-out skin of her palms back to life.
Rayna Haralambieva is a Bulgarian writer who writes mostly in English. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in, among others, Reflex Fiction, Litro, Flash Frontier, Bath Flash Fiction. She recently won the Gold Award in Creative Future Writers’ Award Competition. She teaches Spanish and leads creative writing workshops for children – the best storytellers of all.
Short Fiction ~ James W. Wood
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
People say there are no more manned lighthouses – and that’s nearly true. But Peter Finlayson was keeper of the last. A third of the way between Shetland and the Faroes, Sulland Voss lighthouse was out of range of wifi, electrical currents and civilisation itself.
It was everything you’d expect: tall, white and built in the nineteenth century. Last upgraded fifty years ago, one day some official would decide this lighthouse was too expensive or too pointless to maintain. But Peter had signed up for three years as the keeper. At the time, it had felt right: unwilling to continue his work as a maritime engineer, Finlayson wanted to spend more time with his family and write about his travels to Shanghai and Panama, Gabon and Amsterdam.
But thirty years of seafaring had left scars on his hands and no experience of any other kind of life; his plans to write shrivelled away, and solitude in a lighthouse seemed like the answer.
The blue and grey, the grey and blue: the horizon not a line, more a grey/blue blur that grew lighter in daytime and darker at night. The supply ship once a month. The intermittent connection to e-mail, video-links and internet via satellite. The sound of gulls, the waves whispering and crashing constantly, so loud he found it hard to sleep for weeks at a time.
At first, there was optimism and productivity. He spoke to his wife and children daily. His salary, of which he had no need, was deposited in his bank account by the Government for his family’s use. He maintained a disciplined schedule, rising at four to check the mechanism that turned the giant reflective light at the top of the tower: the oil, diesel and electrics. Then his report to the mainland: nothing to report. Sometimes he might spy a ship passing in the night, identifiable only by a far-off light winking through the waves. Otherwise, nothing but birds and waves and wind in cacophony. If people thought this place was quiet, they should try it some time. It was like a radio, TV and sound system all at once: waves, birds, wind.
He wrote every morning for an hour. Stories of bar-fights in Sierra Leone, of spilled blood and bones broken, stolen love in Singapore doorways, contraband and drugs smuggled into Rotterdam. He had drunk deep of life – and now he sat alone among this raging sea, writing stories for an audience that didn’t and might never exist.
Six months in, his first visit home. No replacement when he went on leave: an admission his job was unnecessary. His wife’s initial welcome fading to that last night when she turned away from him, the mattress between them a chasm love could not cross. And the kids, smiles and hugs dwindling to indifference. After a few days of curiosity, they reverted to asking their mother permissions and questions as if he wasn’t there. And in many ways, he wasn’t.
After his leave, the launch dropped him off back at the lighthouse with supplies when there was calm on the waters. Each morning, the mechanical checks; then the empty page. Thoughts of making love with his wife; the slow creep of desperation. Consulting the i-Ching online, reading horoscope sites he’d previously ignored as nonsense. Looking up tarot cards, necromancy – anything to give him some hope that this emptiness might end.
Then one day, a smashed mirror. It happened after he’d been shaving. He straightened up after washing the shaving foam from his face to find his tired features, more grey than black in his beard, eyes sunken like some ghost vessel in a fable. Before the next thought occurred, he saw his face shattered into a thousand splinters and blood on his fist, the crimson pulsing from the white where knuckle met skin, where he’d bashed his fist on the glass in frustration.
He picked the shards from his hands and dressed the wound. Then he opened his desk drawer, took out a bottle of whisky, sat down in the mess-room and drank the whole thing that morning.
The blue and grey, the grey and blue: his prayers became litanies, recited five times a day between professional obligations, writing and, at last, drink. Prayers to be delivered from this place. To be reunited with the wife he now believed was betraying him with a fantasy cast of men who came and went in his mind; reunited with the children he could hardly picture after two months’ absence. And that last night with his wife played over and over again in his head, the gap in bed like miles over dark water, her silent face still seen in the lighthouse windowpane at night.
When at first he spoke to God, he heard only silence. Then, over time, God’s voice told him he would be released from here. God said his wife waited faithfully and his children spoke of him often. And in time God told him to paint strange ikons on the walls, hymns to the movement of the sea, paeans to the sealife flourishing beneath the waves outside his window.
As the days blurred into one, God’s voice grew darker – and he listened. Not to do so might have meant being caught on this rock forever.
OFFICIAL REPORT No. 230924/Sulland. In the absence of any communication from Lighthouse Sulland Voss these last few weeks, a Naval vessel was sent to investigate. On forcing open the door, our entry team found Finlayson at the foot of an unintelligible mural he had painted throughout the living quarters. Whales and fish featured, together with images of the sun and moon, waves and clouds and lightning. The mural included a huge image in which devils and saints murdered and copulated inside the deceased’s head. Finlayson’s corpse was bagged and tagged and placed on the vessel for return. Next of kin have been informed.
James W. Wood's work has appeared widely in anthologies, magazines and newspapers in the US, UK and Canada. The author of six books of poems and a novel all published in the UK, 2024 will see his first collections of short stories published in America and Britain. Most recently, work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Sinister Anthology (Ink and Quill, USA), Porridge (UK) and Black Cat Mystery Magazine (US) . Shortlisted and nominated for many awards, he won the 2022 House Journal fiction prize in the US, and is the recipient of awards from the Canada Council for the Arts and the BC Arts Council.
Short Fiction ~ Olga Wojtas
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
“Splice the mainbrace!” ordered Sylvester.
There was no response from Alexis, who was making patterns in the dusty earth with a twig.
“You have to say ‘Aye, aye, Captain!’” Sylvester prompted.
“I want to be the captain,” said Alexis. “You’re always the captain.”
“You’re always older.”
“Of course I’m always older, stupid,” said Sylvester.
Alexis turned his back on the lake and the boat. “I’m not stupid. I’m tired. I want Lucy to put me to bed.”
“That proves you’re stupid,” said Sylvester. “I told you Lucy’s not going to put you to bed ever again.”
“I don’t believe you!” said Alexis. “You’re a liar!”
“I’m not a liar!” said Sylvester, shoving him.
Alexis shoved him back, and they tussled for a while until Alexis began to cry and called for his mother. She turned briefly and told them both to behave, before continuing her promenade round the park with their father. Alexis retrieved the twig and returned to his patterns.
The light was fading and Sylvester noted with satisfaction that they were now the only children there. Most of the grown-ups were in couples, but Sylvester particularly admired the single gentlemen lounging on benches, surveying the smoke curling up from their cigarettes. One day he would be a gentleman, able to do exactly what he wanted. But this was almost as good, being taken out to play at the very moment when he would normally be sent to bed. He had managed to snatch his boat just as they were leaving in the hope that he would be allowed to play beside the lake. And now he was imagining himself to be Great-Uncle Granville aboard HMS Minotaur at the Battle of Trafalgar.
“A Spanish vessel is approaching!” he called to Alexis. “Stand by to fire cannons!”
“I’m cold. I’m tired,” said Alexis. “I want Lucy.”
“She’ll be gone by now. Mother said she wanted her and every last scrap of her belongings out of the house by the time we got back.”
“But we need her! Who’ll put us to bed? Who’ll dress us? Who’ll give us breakfast? Who’ll give us lunch? Who’ll give us supper?”
“We don’t need anyone. We’ll sleep under the bushes. We’ll forage for berries and mushrooms in Kew Gardens, and fish for trout in the Thames. And we’ll catch rats and roast them on spits.”
Alexis’s lip trembled. “I want Lucy,” he said. “You’re making it all up.”
“If I’m making it all up, why are we playing in the park in the middle of the night? I heard every word. Mother said Lucy was a sludge and had to leave immediately.”
“What’s a sludge?”
“You’re such a baby! You don’t know anything! It’s a girl who kisses boys.”
Alexis thought. “So if Lucy promises not to kiss us again, can she stay?”
Sylvester snorted. “Boys, I said, not babies like you.”
“I’m going to ask Mother,” said Alexis, scrambling to his feet and running across the path to his parents. He was already babbling excitedly as he caught up with them. “Mother, Mother, if Lucy - ”
His father’s voice cut across him. “Go and play with your brother!”
Alexis crept back to the lake. It was virtually dark now, but he thought he could see some roses in the distance. In the spring, he had picked a pansy, yellow with delicate mauve streaks in it, and brought it home to Lucy.
“Here,” he had said. “I chose this present specially because it’s pretty just like you.”
“Oh, Master Alexis!” she said. “It’s the most beautiful present I’ve ever had. I’ll press it and keep it in my prayer book.”
Sylvester continued to battle with the Spanish naval vessel, exchanging volley after volley but ultimately confident of victory.
“Sylvester, where’s your brother?” came his mother’s voice, sharp and high.
Sylvester scrambled to his feet.
“Just here, Mother. I – I don’t know. He was here - ”
Alexis stumbled on through the dark in search of a perfect rose.
Olga Wojtas is a journalist and writer, half-Scottish and half-Polish. She has spent most of her life in Edinburgh, but has also lived and worked in Aberdeen, Grenoble, Newcastle and Washington DC. She has had more than 20 short stories published in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK and USA, including Gutter, New Writing Scotland and The Mayo Review. She has won a New Writers Award from the Scottish Book Trust and was an Edinburgh City of Literature Story Shop reader at the 2015 Edinburgh International Book Festival.
Author photo by Antonia Reeve
Short Fiction ~ Robert Kibble
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
FFS I'm with her 24/7 365, and now, on our birthday, she comes out with all the neediness. I need you, she says as she swoons. So I can't spend the day chilling, recovering, recharging. She needs me as she struggles with the terror that hours spent idle might unravel everything she’s achieved. I've been seeing the cracks. Her career hasn't taken a direct-enough path to the megastardom she feels ought to have followed from her undoubted stardom.
She's got adoring fans a-plenty, but it's never enough. Some fans don't appreciate her latest album enough, or newer fans haven't dived into her back catalogue. Some fans complained when she was so drained from five shows in a week (and a case of Cristal and a truckload of coke in between) that she collapsed after the first song. They demanded their money back. She'd technically performed, so she went off on one. Ungrateful little shitweasels, she called them. I stopped her tweeting, asked how she'd have felt. Eventually we announced a special concert: for the best fans, so understanding. God, she's a mess.
But she has to be. It's the part she plays. It’s how she differs from me. Somewhere underneath that self-abusive glamour there's the young woman who sang her heart out when her first boyfriend dumped her for that stupid tarted-up bitch with the impractical pink nails and eyelashes so long she admitted she couldn't cry for fear they'd fall off. That young woman who threw her emotions into those raw early songs, so painful, so true. They tore at my heartstrings and made me love her. Made me stick with her all this time, even as she changed.
She set a course to self-destruction, and she isolated me. She's taking me down with her. I had dreams – not grand dreams of stadiums chanting my name, but of a boyfriend who would love me for me, not for what I'd done or who I knew. Of a little house with a garden, a little summerhouse where I could write songs. For myself.
She won't let me go. I tried to quit, but she laid that trip on me. You're my foundation, she said. I need you. You need me. She swooned, and did the thing about not living without me. It's gone on too long. She can't get out – she's too deep, but me...? I could survive, but I can't leave her. I'm weak, and she knows it. If I leave she'll find me, grind me down. Eventually I'll be back, watching the horror show.
It has to end. Before it takes me down with it.
I can't leave her.
She has to leave me.
She has to die.
Tonight is as good a night as any.
I know how it happens. She's delusional about her drinking, thinking the coke keeps her alert, and she's a sucker for a midnight drive. It's stormy tonight, and she's always loved the roar of the ocean. The paparazzi caught her once, driving drunk.
I covered for her, of course. As she slurred through excuses, I found the words needed to limit the damage, making the story part of her act, part of her troubled soul, a reflection of those visceral songs of the damaged young woman. If only she was able to transition to a calmer maturity, but they won't let her. I won't let her.
She will die, and be immortal. She will not mature, she will not adapt, she will not be found. A car by the beach, empty bottles, coke everywhere, shoes left behind, and such seas that no body’s expected. She will be gone, I will be free. Her vast estates will go to charities, the ones she tearfully supported after her first publicised-and-photographed stint at the Priory.
As for me, I'll take the untraceable petty cash. I'll be gone, invisible. Never to be heard of again.
I'll have enough for that little cottage. Enough to lie low.
I'll write songs, and maybe some poems. Ones to reflect who I am now, who I can become, not who she wants me to be. Not about my first boyfriend, or the tarted-up bitch with the impractical pink nails. Not any more. I’ve grown. I’ve outgrown her. I need to be me. I can’t do that while I’m also being her.
Maybe once I give her up, erase her from me, tell my alter-ego that’s all she ever was – an act – maybe then I can finally heal.
Robert Kibble lives west of London with a wife, a teenage son, and a cornucopia of half-finished writing projects. A few have been published over the years, which – it has to be admitted – is very pleasing. If only a less creative day job wouldn’t keep getting in the way, he’s sure it would be more. You can find him on @r_kibble on Twitter or at www.philosophicalleopard.com where you’ll find more short stories, links to his novels, and musings on why zeppelins don’t ply the skies.
Short Fiction ~ Aneeta Sundararaj
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
Michael Yogendran was an idiot. An intelligent man, but an idiot, nonetheless.
Since I had nothing to lose, I was free to criticise him. For one, he didn’t have the book-opening etiquette I expected from someone of his stature. I did not like that he placed my most recent non-fiction work on the table and opened it until the spine was crushed. How on earth could I collaborate with such an uncultured and uncouth man?
I stood up, reached out to pick up my book and put it into my leather satchel.
He stopped whistling.
“Thank you for seeing me,” I said, and turned to leave.
“No. No. No,” he cried out. Standing up, he pleaded, “Ms. Lola, you’re the ghost writer I’ve been looking for.”
I stared at him. “Really?”
“Yes.” Opening his palm and inviting me to sit, he added, “Please, sit down.”
This psychiatrist practically bubbled with delight, removing his glasses and rubbing the rim between his fingers, when he explained what he wanted out of this book project – a coffee table book entitled Stuffed in Malaysia that showcased the nexus between food and our state of mind.
To my utter surprise, I was charmed. Also, unbeknown to me at the time, this book, which we would begin to work on a month later, would one day become a bestseller.
I agreed to meet Michael at a café, rather than his clinic, once a week to ensure that we were not distracted. Where he provided the medical jargon, my task was to dumb down the complex theories, conditions and treatments, and then create stories to illustrate and explain his success stories.
When I was working alone at home, though, I analysed everything connected to him: my sense of yearning, his every word and message to me, and what he wore to our meetings. That’s the sort of blinkered view a woman gets with unrequited love.
Was I in love with Michael, though?
Well, I’ll tell who I was in love with once upon a time – a hotelier named Vikram Singh. The memory of what we had – mostly sadness and longing on my part – haunted me like a bad fairy-tale. In time, though, recalling Vikram-Lola became a practice of transmuting my fear of uncertainty into wisdom and love. Friends called this the lesson of ‘embracing the guru within’ espoused by spiritual masters the world over. I framed it as the time between the demise of Vikram-Lola and the possibility of Michael-Lola; a time I called Guru-Lola. I was convinced beyond reasonable doubt that it (I couldn’t decide if Guru was male of female) took over my creative process. It was able to pluck out words from a space within, long-forgotten by Lola, and take a story on a new adventure altogether. There were times I wept from the stunning beauty of the texts created during Guru-Lola.
When I became aware that Michael was the first person I thought of when I woke up, I studied him more than ever. Michael worried silly about the details of his outer world. My all-purpose chiffon sari was as suitable an attire at a gala fund-raising festival hosted by an Odissi dancer, as it was at a book launch of a desperate-to-be-woke junior member of one of Malaysia’s nine royal families. For Michael, though, it mattered that he wore a batik shirt to one and a suit to the other.
This sort of compartmentalisation in his outer world was a reflection of the inner workings of his mind. It was as if he opened one drawer in his brain, took out the information there, put it into words and that was it. Such was his focused concentration that what he wrote hardly warranted much editing. I, on the other hand, would write one paragraph of a story, let it percolate in my psyche for a time, then revise and edit endlessly. Where his text was all factual, mine was all drama and emotion.
Love, even if it was analysed through a rose-tinted veneer of my mind’s eye, was an enjoyable process. I pictured sitting in a leather chair with my feet tucked under and book in hand while Michael typed away on his laptop at his desk. From time to time, we would venture to the balcony and admire the stunning garden beyond. We’d make plans to celebrate Stuffed in Malaysia making us both award-winning writers.
It took courage to dream like this. Until now, I’d always been on the outside looking in at other couples’ happiness, observing how they lived their lives.
Wouldn’t it be nice to be exactly like that?
Therein lay the important words – to be exactly like that. In those moments when I was plagued by my fears, I made all sorts of presumptions about Michael-Lola. When it became a habit, I questioned everything else as well. Why did a cat turn up out of nowhere in the flat? What’s the meaning of finding cigarette butts outside the front door? Could a charlatan be right that his divination confirmed the failure of Michael-Lola?
Worse, what distress it must be to have all your desires handed to you on a silver platter? Once you committed yourself to a path, though, a labyrinth of uncertainty and new dreams appeared before you. Like a jumble of words that you rearranged until they conveyed your thoughts to the letter, you arranged your dreams. You shouldered those spousal responsibilities. You kept the past firmly in the past. You moved your world to be with the one you love. And, on a cold morning, several months after your wedding, with your belly swelling from the child you’ve made together, you looked out at the dew-covered lawn of the bungalow you now shared with your husband.
It had become exactly like that.
Aneeta Sundararaj is an award-winning writer. She trained and practised as a lawyer before deciding to pursue her dream of writing. Her writing has appeared in many magazines, ezines and journals and, to date, she’s worked on some 13 book projects. Aneeta has contributed more than 250 feature articles to a national newspaper. Her most recent and bestselling novel, The Age of Smiling Secrets was shortlisted for the Anugerah Buku 2020 organised by the National Library of Malaysia. In the past, stories about the real-life Ladoo, Aneeta’s much-loved dachshund, were compiled into a collection called ‘Ladoo Dog: Tales of a Sweet Dachshund’. Throughout, Aneeta continued to pursue her academic interests and, in 2021, successfully completed a doctoral thesis entitled ‘Management of Prosperity Among Artistes in Malaysia’.
Short Fiction ~ Cath Barton
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
It was terribly hot on the top deck of the bus. Miriam thought she would faint, but what she saw two seats in front jolted her into alertness, and she elbowed her sister, pointing at the curly-headed man and the lion’s tail, though there was no sign of a lion’s body. The women looked at one another. As Miriam was about to speak there came a blast as of a circus band, and the man held up a banana to his ear:
‘Hello bra, I’m on a buskin full of pepsins. It’s very noisy. Much worse than anything in the cirrus.’
The man laughed, a high nasal sound. As he did so he half-turned; his face was painted white and he had two red circles on his cheeks, which creased with his smile. Miriam and her sister looked at one another again and leaned forward, but whatever the person on the other end of the call was saying was just a series of squeaks to them.
‘What’s that? I can’t hear you. Speak up.’
The sounds from the other end got louder, but, to the two women, no clearer. When the bus reached the next stop the people in the seat between them and the man who was talking got off, and Miriam and her friend slipped in immediately behind him.
‘Yes, yes, yes. Don’t worry. I’ve got the camouflet with me. So if we see the querimony I’ll be able to bring you back a piddock or two.’
The man held the banana away from his ear as there was something like an explosion from whoever was on the other end of the conversation. Then he laughed some more.
‘Yes. No. No. No procacity!You want anything else?’
Static on the other end. Then a woman’s voice.
‘Hello, Phyllis. Like I said to Clip, don’t worry. You go and attend to your poonacs.
See you later.’
As the bus approached Victoria Station the man turned.
‘Is this where I get off for Buckingham Palace?’ he asked, in perfect English.
Miriam nodded, her voice somehow stuck in her throat. The man pulled out a rose from somewhere, twirled it in his fingers and held it out to her.
‘Thank you, dear lady,’ he said. As he stood up and moved down the gangway of the bus the lion-tail twitched behind him.
Miriam turned to her sister, wide-eyed, and as she did so water squirted up out of the rose and fell on them both like a refreshing shower of rain. At least that was what she told people afterwards. She couldn’t remember any of the strange words the man had spoken, though. It was as if the water had washed them all away.
Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in South Wales. She won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella 2017 for The Plankton Collector, now published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.
Her second novella, In the Sweep of the Bay, will be published in November 2020 by Louise Walters Books.
Cath’s short stories have been published by print magazines including The Lonely Crowd and Strix, as well as in a number of anthologies.
She is also active in the online flash fiction community.
Short Fiction ~ Cyril Dabydeen
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
Her crinkly glare with her Russian-immigrant sensibility, I know, or not know. Winter a-coming, and being in Ottawa again--as she laments, “Now the only place where I want to be is at the bus station.” Her wry, but sardonic way, it seems. “And at the train station.” A pause. “The airport, also.” But why? Flashback: to St Petersburg, see. Not cold there, too? In Moscow also, where Lenin’s mausoleum is still intact, like falsifying time itself. “It all depends on what you’re looking for,” Vanessa counters. Now what am I looking for?
Slender or willowy she is, here in her new city, or new country, but like her predestined place. And she hated the former Soviet Union, and the kitchen-life culture she’d lived. Clubs turned into meeting-places, soirees, with conspiracies everywhere. Samizdat: books secretly passed around. And her father’s a poet, let it be said for good measure. Her escape valve, and remembering more family members.
Oh counter-revolution, like a new ploy. She tells me with style. Gypsy-like, you see. She’s indeed here, with time to practice a Flamenco dance routine. “It’s only in the past,” she says. What is?
“Being an artist,” she mulls.
“Not in the present?” I counter.
“Back there in my growing up we did everything the Communists didn’t know about. We read poetry, but we were not revolutionaries, just iconoclasts. We did more than poets like Yevtushenko or Mayakovski, see.” Acknowledgement of secret days and nights. “You have to keep being an artist to survive,” she adds.
Her going and coming: like who first went to the moon, and who or what was Sputnik? Who really was Yuri Gagarin, not make-believe. American Neil Armstrong walking tall, if ambling along on the moon’s surface. And poet Andrei Voznesenski had said that landing on the moon meant the death of the poet, words echoed by Canadian ambassador R.A.D. Ford who didn’t suffer fools easily I heard from his fellow diplomats.
“It’s cold here,” Vanessa adds and heaves in. Does she mean just about the temperature? “I want to be only where it’s warm, and where the people are also warm, like in Barcelona.” To become a more authentic Flamenco dancer, maybe? Pause. “Spain, you must go there too,” she adds. A new place, like escape valve I conjecture. Now in Ottawa she can’t stand being confined in one place for long, not ever in winter. It’s like being in a wilderness. The Gulag, eh?
She laughs, and I laugh with her.
“Only as an artist you see it that way, yes?” She looks at me with almost jaundiced eyes.
My own changing self it is, in our immigrant-beingness, ah.
“As artists, we learn to survive.”
“Maybe,” I say.
Again the image: being at the bus stop, train station, the airport-- you see. Everything consequential. And always crossing borders. New refugees trekking or tromping along across Europe and now in the Ukraine. New political groupies, Nazis and neo-fascists, all in one fell swoop, it seems. Here now Vanessa no longer skates, nor skis, because . everything seems like an illusion.
“Why do people ever want to be away from where they were born?” she asks. And see, she will keep doing her Flamenco dance routine to make her spirit strong. She will endure, being an exile. Who’s really an exile? Flashback: her father writing poetry in a small apartment in Moscow--children’s verse and contemplating days and nights together—if not like what Voznesenski wrote, but with striking imagery for children to know everything about their beginning before President Gorbachev. Yes, long before Putin. Not about Stalin?
She takes more photographs with a bulky camera in her hand.
Images: the aperture opening, shutters closed. She remembers things--ducks moving along with their retinue of ducklings. Fucklings!
Red-winged blackbirds on a branch being skittish; they lean downward into the neck of the Rideau River. Winding spaces; and the river will soon be covered with snow.
“I will find my own place at the train station, the bus station...the airport,” Vanessa repeats to me, like her familiar song. A gypsy’s farewell it sounds like. A long goodbye, somewhere. “Really?” Yes, at St. Petersburg where she’d attended university comes back to her, like verisimilitude.
Her camera lenses become more focussed. Now being here where it’s so grey...in one lifetime, and even death seems like a curious journey she recently wrote in her journal. A bus moves off slowly not far away. The train’s locomotive noise next. An airplane drones high above, and another landing-place appears in sight. Everything with a lightness of being--even with a long winter ahead. And the waters below with the river meandering. She instinctively attempts another flamenco dance-move, moving one step at a time--enduring long.
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 ~ Francois Bereaud
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
Over the last hour the rain had intensified and she felt the tension build in her neck as she strained toward the windshield. She needed a bathroom stop, not wanting to go in that place. To make matters worse, she had left before dawn without eating and now her stomach was growling. She turned up the radio willing herself to drive a bit faster and ignore her bodily urges. In an hour she would be there. Security check, pat down, an hour-long visit, and then the four-hour drive home. Already she craved a hot bath and a glass of wine.
Her mind drifted and she thought of him as he was twenty years ago, a curly headed eight-year-old boy with a perpetual grin on his face. He was always the last to leave for recess, asking her if she had a job for him. He watered the classroom plants, erased the boards, and helped her sort the afternoon art materials. She knew it was against the rules to pay a student but she was young then and thought rules didn't apply to her. And besides it was only change.
Mouth full of Snickers and hair dripping from her gas station stop, she exited the turnpike and merged onto the small highway which led to the state prison. The last few miles of the trip were the most desolate and, in the rain and the grey, the land seemed primeval. She gripped the steering wheel tightly, taking deep breaths.
Since it was a small town, their paths had crossed several times over the years. Around the time of her divorce, she saw him at the supermarket. Then a teenager, tall and well built, he told her that he was going out for the high school football team. Later she heard that he had been suspended from the team due to an unspecified incident. A few years later at the drugstore, he smiled proudly as he told her about his graduation and job as an electrician’s apprentice. Then last year's front-page headline and picture (still the curly hair). Completely drunk and out of control. Bit a cop's nose off.
"You have got to be kidding me. You're going to see him? What the hell is wrong with you?"
Each time she pulled into the prison's visitors' lot, her brother's words reverberated in her head. The cop was a local boy too. Had spent his third-grade year in the classroom next to hers.
The demeaning security procedure over, she was finally in the visiting area. A few minutes passed and then she saw him coming down the hall, a guard on either side. Even in the baggy orange jumpsuit he seemed bigger, a result of weightlifting she guessed. He looked straight ahead, head shaved, no sign of a grin.
He came into the room and their eyes met. He smiled. For the first time all day she felt her jaw relax.
Francois Bereaud is a husband, dad, full time math professor, mentor in the San Diego Congolese refugee community, and mediocre hockey player. His stories and essays have been published online and in print and have earned Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations. He serves as an editor at Roi Fainéant Press and Porcupine Literary. The Counter Pharma-Terrorist & The Rebound Queen is his published chapbook. In 2024, Cowboy Jamboree Press will publish his first full manuscript, San Diego Stories, which is the realization of a dream. You can find links to his writing at francoisbereaud.com. Tweets @FBereaud.
Short Fiction ~ Georgia Boon
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 16
The technician was dabbing the coral paint into the dents in my nail when a man opened the door. He swept his eyes around the place like a cowboy surveying the inside of a saloon. The little pink and white wind chimes chinked above his head and he looked as though he might bat them away. A girl who I assumed was his daughter followed behind him and he seized her wrist as she crossed the threshold. She was around twelve or thirteen, her face still new, with that sense of motionlessness that only comes while we wait to see what our part in the world could be. He brandished her hand with a kind of disbelief, as though it was the head of a beast he had unexpectedly come across and slain.
The technician didn’t look up but I did. Each of the girl's nails had been painted a different soft pastel colour. I remembered slumber parties, shakily wavering over each other’s fingertips with tiny brushes from sticky little plastic pots of polish, adding stripes of colour and the little gems we had hoarded from the front of our magazines. The girl’s nails looked much fancier than that, painted with decent gel effect paint, but still I could tell they hadn’t been done in a salon.
‘I want these taken off,’ the man said, his eyes looking down, fixed to the floor with a mix of anger and shame. The technician shrugged and indicated with a nod of her head that he should take a seat.
I was immobile, my worn, lined hand still cradled by the technician’s, so I couldn’t move my things that were cluttering up the seats along the back wall of the salon, and which meant the pair couldn’t sit next to each other. I eyed the cloth bags behind me remorsefully in the mirror. They were filled with pears, honey, and raw milk cheese for tomorrow’s lunch. On the floor was a hessian bag holding three bottles of pinot, hopefully enough, along with whatever the guests would bring.
The girl had bunched up her legs so she could fit into an end seat furthest from her father. He relaxed into a middle seat allowing his legs to fall open and his knees to point away from him. Plastic trays like opened treasure trunks lay on a low table in front of the pair, stuffed with swatches of nail colours, some eggshell, some glitter, some patterned with jewels. I wondered if the girl might reach forward and fan the swatches out in front of her. But she didn’t even glance at them, her eyes fixed on her nails, sorrowful, as though looking for the last time at a beloved pet.
I could feel something begin to vibrate next to my thigh. I’d forgotten about the duty phone. Jesus. Noon on a Saturday. I’d been on the rota twice as often as anyone else in the office this year. I glanced up at the technician. She didn’t look back at me. One of my hands was under the lamp, the other still in her hand, the third coat only half done. I willed her to look at me. The throbbing continued. The fucking thing didn’t have voicemail enabled. The man behind let out a sharp grunt and now the technician looked at him. I could see him in the mirror jabbing his finger into his watch and gurning at her. She shrugged at him. She caught my eye as she looked back down and I tipped my head to indicate the faint sound coming from the phone. She shrugged once more.
The man seemed to have stiffened, sitting up straighter, and I could picture a rusty rod of metal running through his spine, grating whenever he moved, sending shocks through his teeth, filling him with rage and irritation. I watched the girl shuffle in her seat, re-establishing the distance between herself and her father. He seemed to remember then that she was there and looked down at her nails with a hard grimace. I would have liked to have turned to the girl and say something. I didn't know what, it all felt stupid. But most of all, I wanted to take her hand and tell her she could keep the polish on her nails.
The technician had finished the last coat and my left hand was under the lamp while she wiped down my right hand with the special oil they applied at the end of the process. The oil made the lines vanish for the time it took me to remember to check if they were still gone after each manicure. When the left hand was dry, she did the same and then studied each nail to check it was perfect.
‘Do you know what?’ said the man loudly, to nobody in particular. ‘It fucking stinks in here.’
The technician let my hand fall gently and stood up. She was much shorter than the man, but somehow she extended her frame enough to meet his eye, her head cocked to one side.
‘Go,’ she said.
The man stood up slowly. He threw a note at the technician.
‘I want them taken off,’ he said, and then he walked out, shaking his head.
I clutched up my bags and put double my usual tip on the counter. I pushed the door away from me, taking a last look at the girl as the windchimes chinked above my head.
Georgia Boon Georgia lives in the Cotswolds and writes about gender and belief. She has been shortlisted for the Alpine Prize and has been published in Shooter, The Phare, Popshot, The Amphibian and Stroud Short Stories.