The Dark Empty
Short Fiction ~ Susan Cardosi
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
The woman is eager to rise when the alarm sounds. She tip-toes across the hall to wake her son.
“Sweetie, it’s time to get up for school,” she whispers happily.
“But I’m busy dreaming,” he groggily retorts.
“Sorry, but I’ll make you a waffle.”
“Of course,” she promises.
He grunts his body to a vertical position and rubs his eyes. She considers what a handsome boy he is with his shiny, blonde hair starting to curl at the ends and the carefree happiness in those brown eyes. Both consolation and melancholy sharpen her breath for noticing today. He scoots off to the bathroom in his fraying superhero pajama pants that used to be too long. Is he taller today? she wonders, Is that possible? After he closes the door, she waits to hear the sound of the sink before continuing to the kitchen.
The waffle iron and batter fill the house with their familiar smells of morning, which usually speeds his preparation. The boy soon slides into his kitchen chair while stuffing his backpack with notebooks and folders. She sets the waffle topped with blueberries and syrup in front of him, “What’s on the agenda today?” Merely hoping to hear his voice for as long as possible.
“We’re dissecting earthworms,” with a slight tone of disgust. “You don’t think they feel it do you?” The question surprises her, something he has never considered during these breakfast encounters.
“No honey, they are specimens for science. They can’t feel the dissection.”
“I know that, I mean when they die to become specimens.” Her bottom lip quivers. There is a change in her son this morning, as though he is finally becoming aware of his world.
“What do you think?” she asks.
“I guess when all things die it must hurt a little, even an earthworm. Dad said he wasn’t in pain, you know, before it happened to him. That he would just fall asleep and not wake up, but...” So much to say. Her eyes begin to water as she looks at the clock, only a few minutes left with him today.
“I think about your dad a lot. I wish he was here with us right now.” Their eyes dart to the empty chair at the table.
“Me too.” He smiles at his mother and finishes his waffle. “I better hurry, the bus is coming,” acknowledging its brakes squealing around the intersection down the road.
She helps him with his backpack at the door, secretly smelling his head with a deep inhale, before he runs out across the thick, dandelion yard and slowly disappears into the ether of the in-between.
The bus driver rolls slowly past the house waving at the woman on the porch, just like every morning, as though it offers solace. The children stare, remembering the boy who went to school with them. He loved superheroes and designing paper airplanes. A few days after the funeral, the kids folded their own and showered her yard with airplanes from the windows of the school bus. The beauty of that moment kept her alive that day, and the next morning the loop began.
The accident that took her son was months ago, but young spirits often get stuck and need a guide. The woman feels her husband’s hands on her shoulders. His soft voice and breath in her hair, “He’s starting to understand. Soon enough, he will be able to see me and break the loop. Then…”
“You will guide him to his afterlife and both be gone, again.” She desperately wants to hold onto her blessedly cursed life.
“I know what you’re thinking, but you promised me. The universe will bring you to us one day. Please don’t force its hand. I kept you from living for too many years when I was sick, and now,” he gears up for the only argument they have left as his wife turns to face him.
“Stop,” she says calmly. “Have I ever broken a promise to you?” Shaking his head, he both wins and concedes. Missing his marriage and dreading the permanent goodbye, he takes in her scent and kisses her.
“Maybe I’ll name it Promise,” she says after a while hiding under the covers with him.
“Grief, loneliness, everything that whispers from the dark empty. Even when it claws at me to see if I can still bleed, or tries to pull me farther and farther inside until I’m lost. I’ll never escape it, so I’ll keep it next to me. Look,” she wriggles loose from their cocoon to reach for the shoebox of saved paper airplanes. Between everyday’s loop, she writes stories about her husband and their son inside each one. “Promise and I will fly these all over the world until I am with you again,” but when she turns back, her husband has disappeared.
With a sigh she grabs her pen.
Susan Cardosi is a fiction and essay writer living in Los Angeles. She was a bookstore manager and buyer for many years, and has since created content and written articles for museums, literacy advocacy groups, and Fostering Families Today. Susan is a foster and adoptive parent and youth advocate. She received a bachelor’s degree after studying communications, literature, and dance at Otterbein University. She is currently looking for a home for her paranormal romance novel and ghostly murmurs short story collection. Find her spouting opinions and recommending bazaar tales on Twitter @cardosi_susan.
Family, After All
Short Fiction ~ Susan E. Rogers
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 13
Mick Nolan didn’t think he had ever been so nervous in his entire sixty-eight years. Not when he boarded the plane in Dublin at age twenty-two to leave Ireland for good. Not the day he started the construction job in Atlanta, a brawny greenhorn with a brogue nobody could understand. Not even twelve years later when he signed the mortgage for eighteen thousand dollars on the seventy acre watermelon farm a few miles from Gainesville, Florida. He stood with his thumbs hooked in his pockets and checked the arrivals board for the tenth time. The flight was due to land in eight minutes.
The phone call from his cousin Mary in Dublin replayed in his head.
Maggie’s gone, Mick, God rest her soul. Awful troubles for the girl. She’s only twelve, you know. I’ve had her with me for two weeks now, but I’ve got my own six to care for and there’s not much left over. I can’t keep her, Mick, I just can’t.
The men’s room was only a few steps from where he waited. His stomach churned and his hands trembled as he turned on the faucet to wash them. He studied himself in the mirror. His hair was a mass of soft white waves that had framed his face since he was thirty. Wrinkles circled his eyes and whispered his age. An old man about to father a twelve year old.
He had no experience with children except his own nieces and nephews and that was over fifty years before. He’d lived alone since he came to America, set in his ways after all these years. How could a life-long bachelor be able to give this one what she needed? Especially after all she’d been through and a whole ocean away from everything she knew. Mick shook his head. It was only right – the girl was family, after all. They would figure it out together. He was her last hope.
He wet his palms and ran them over his head to smooth down his hair. At least he could look presentable. He turned off the taps and reached for the paper towels.
The public address system announced the flight from Dublin had arrived. Mick took a deep breath and walked to stand near the bottom of the escalator. Butterflies danced jigs in his stomach. Maybe he should have had a shot of whiskey to fortify his nerves at the airport bar. No, that wouldn’t do. A two hour drive home was ahead of him. Besides, he had given up all but a nip before bed, strictly medicinal, to help him sleep. His tongue felt like sand as he ran it over his teeth. He reached in his pocket for one of the peppermints he always carried and popped it in his mouth.
Two figures at the top of the escalator drew his attention. A flight attendant held the hand of a tall, young girl. A skinny thing with braids and a freckled porcelain complexion, she held tight to a pink plush rabbit. She was the very image of her grandmother, his own younger sister Alice, at that age. Mick recognized the blue and green plaid skirt of the convent school even after all these years. Her shoulders in the white cardigan slumped as her bowed head watched the moving steps beneath her shoes. At that moment, her sad green eyes looked up into his gaze.
Gracie raised her head and her glance met the eyes of the wrinkled old man standing at the foot of the escalator. Instantly, she recognized her mother’s face haloed in the thicket of white hair. The same laughing blue eyes and delicate upturn at the end of his nose had complimented the strawberry gold of her mother’s wavy mane. She bit her bottom lip as her mother’s words came back to her.
Not to worry, pet. I’ll always be here with you, Gracie, no matter what.
The past month squeezed hard on Gracie’s heart. She barely thought of anything else – her mother dead and her whole world shredded to bits. At first, they sent her to live with her grandfather, but after the broken nose two weeks into it, the priest had her removed and brought to Cousin Mary’s. The ruckus in that house – sharing the bed with three little cousins and somebody always coming or going – only added to Gracie’s confusion. She was used to being alone and cried each night until sleep rescued her. Brothers and sisters might have been nice, but she was too old to learn to be part of a family now.
Her breath sucked in with a catch. The nice woman squeezed her hand and smiled down at her. Gracie held on tightly. She knew she had to go with that old man, to live with him because nobody else wanted her. A tear dripped onto her shoe. She swiped her nose with the back of her hand and squeezed her rabbit tighter, the only constant friend she’d had through this ordeal.
They came to the end of the escalator and Gracie lifted her foot high to step off. She saw the old man nod. The nice woman guided her to him and gave her shoulders a gentle nudge. Stopped three feet away, Gracie didn’t move. Mick crouched down with his hands on his knees, his eyes on a level with hers.
“Hello, Gracie. I’m your Uncle Mick and I’m pleased to meet you.”
The softness of his tone and the cadence of his speech were the echo of her mother’s own voice. Gracie shuffled one step forward. Mick held out a peppermint and she slowly reached for it. He smiled and she lunged forward to loop her arms around his neck. Hanging on with all her strength, she sobbed into his shoulder as he hugged her back and crooned in her ear.
“Not to worry, pet. I’m here with you now, Gracie, no matter what.”
Susan E. Rogers lives in St. Pete Beach, Florida, retired from a Social Work career in Massachusetts. Retirement was a catalyst for beginning her life-long ambition to write. Her other interests include genealogy and psychic spirituality, and she often twists these into her writing. She has written and collaborated on numerous genealogical articles. She self-published her first book ‘Uncovering Norman’ in 2018 about her own psychic experiences. Since 2020, her short fiction has been published in anthologies and has appeared in several literary magazines. You can visit her author website at www.susanerogers.com and social media pages on Facebook and Twitter.
Short Fiction ~ Rayna Haralambieva
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
Shriek, clack, shriek.
I look out of the window. I strain my eyes, push my gaze far out into the last slithers of the dying light. Silly bird, you scared me. I wave my arms at it, a scarecrow of no use. Shoo. The crow quietens but doesn’t move. We stay like this, looking at one another, still, undecided.
I go back to bed, hold the album in my lap. Cradle it, smell it.
When Ronnie was two, he was vicious with pictures. He would rip them and make an airplane, a frisbee, a ball.
He would shove the paper ball in his mouth. Spit it into pieces. No, baby, why did you do that? He would throw a tantrum as if it were me who had broken something precious. I would hush his crying and cradle the remains of his baby pictures.
I look at the pieces. Little finger, elbow, ankle. I am missing a piece of his T shirt near the collarbone. I try again. I re-arrange the pieces, move them around again and again, not quite. The lower part of his arm hangs in the wrong place and the patches of his T shirt don’t match.
Tap-tap, caw. Not you again. I slip into the kitchen. I shovel a handful of muesli, throw it out of the window. Go, now, bird, and don’t come back.
Crows recognise and remember human faces. Once you make an impression on a crow, it can remember your face for as long as six years.
Ten minutes later. Clack-clack, beak on the glass. This time, much closer to where I am sitting on the bed crunched over the pieces.
Its beady eyes fixed on the picture I am not giving up on rebuilding. Shoo. What are you looking at?
Crows have better eyesight than humans. We can only see light as a combination of three primary colours, while crows’ eyes perceive combinations of four colours.
I remember when Ronnie teared it into pieces. He was crying his eyes gummy, fat snots falling off his nostrils, barely able to catch his breath. No, Ronnie, you’re a big boy now, I said and didn’t go to him, didn’t take him into my arms. Tired of being awake all night, tired of Richard having slammed the door, tired of the world spinning with me falling behind. No, Ronnie, now, be a big boy for goodness sake. Leave mummy alone for a minute, will you. I said and closed the door shut.
The lights, the wee-woo, wee-woo piercing my ears, the boots thumping up the stairs. Ronnie’s face blue and glassy and still. They forced the paper ball out of his clenched mouth. One, two, three, again. I heard but couldn’t process.
Crows are natural empaths. They genuinely feel for others and want to help.
It’s been a month now since I first saw her. Sheila, I called her.
Sheila keeps me company on days like this. When the sky presses low and I hold on to pieces of pictures that still hold his milky breath.
This one now. He’s grinning in a sway. His tiny hands curled around the ropes to hold himself tight. A toothless smile, cheeks big like grapefruits. I can’t decide where the red patch goes – is it part of his hoodie or his jumper? I show it to Sheila and wait for her to decide. She looks at it and caws. I wait some more. She can do it. She’s done it before.
Crows like the process of having something to accomplish and gain a sense of achievement at solving things.
But Sheila keeps staring at them and makes strange cries. She looks at me. I look away. What’s the matter, Sheila? Caw-caw-caw fills up the room. She stares at the pieces of my Ronnie. I bring some seeds. She wants none. Now, the cawing has turned into a cackle. Her eyes pierce through something I’ve been holding down for a while. The cackle is hurting my ears and I can’t look at her looking at him no more. She flaps her wings as if warning she’d leave. The cackle goes through the house. Shakes floor, bedframe, guts.
Crows hold funerals for the dead. When a crow dies, others gather around the remains to honour the dead.
Rayna loves stories for their power to heal and charm. Her fiction is published or forthcoming in, among others, Reflex Fiction, Litro, Flash Frontier and Bath Flash Fiction. She aspires to have an entourage of writerly cats.
Short Fiction ~ Rose Morris
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
It happened thirty years ago.
They were young. They were giddy with love and sunshine.
She closes her eyes and she’s back there: Portugal, 1991. Hitching a lift.
Through a break in the hedgerow, the blue-purple swell of the Atlantic.
She sharp-nudges him awake.
Let’s jump out here, she says. She’s twenty-two, and impetuous.
But, aren’t we … shouldn’t we …? His drowsy brow is furrowing, his eyes quizzical, because this lift is heaven-sent: it’s going all the way from Sagres to Lisbon.
Please, she says.
He shakes his head and leans forward to get the attention of the driver.
What are you like? he says, laughing, as the car pulls away.
They shoulder their rucksacks, and walk past a clump of houses and a closed shop. Before long, they reach a gated track. The scramble down is steep and hot, but the deserted beach is long and beautiful.
Paradise, she says.
He laughs. I thought we’d be drinking rum in Lisbon tonight, but I guess this’ll do instead.
She kisses his freckled nose.
Later, she emerges from a heat-lulled doze to find the light changed and a breeze goose-pimpling her arms.
She scrambles up, muzzy with sleep, rubs her eyes and scans the empty beach.
Alarm traces a bony finger along her spine.
She runs to the water’s edge, her eyes darting back and forth across the swell.
Thank God, she says, thinking she sees him, raising her hand to wave. Not him. A cormorant, bobbing on the swell.
She swallows her panic down into her guts.
He’ll be at the tent, she says. She’ll find him pulling on jeans and sweater, chilled from his long swim, and he’ll tease her for panicking. She careers across the beach, scrambles over the dunes, and picks her way across scrubland to their camping spot.
The tent is empty.
She hurtles back across the dunes, shouting his name over and over.
If you’re hiding, come out now, she hollers.
But he wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t frighten her.
Sometimes she wishes he’d treat her badly, just once. She imagines wild drama, and a passionate making-up. But he’s been gentle and considerate every day of their six years together. And he always lets her get her own way.
But maybe today is different. Maybe he’s getting back at her for sabotaging their lift to Lisbon. That’s it! He’s tucked in the dunes watching her. Five minutes from now, she’ll be raging at him and he’ll be shame-faced and remorseful, promising never to scare her again.
It’s not funny, she calls, projecting her voice first one way, and then another.
I mean it, she cries. I’m really scared now. Please, Davie. Please.
She wheels around and around, her eyes frantic searchlights sweeping across the beach and the dunes and the distant headland. And then back out to sea.
She rushes back to the shoreline and stares impotently into the waves. Suddenly vicious, they heave and crash at her feet as she yells his name, over and over, the dense salt air stinging her throat.
Chrissie, she chastises, for God’s sake get a grip. She shakes her head hard, her hair flying across her line of vision. There’s another explanation. There is. There has to be.
Hanging tight to the fraying hope that he’s tricking her, she races back over the dunes to their camping spot, hurtling again into the empty tent, starting up the steep track, changing her mind, running back to the beach, dashing first one way, then the other, eyes everywhere, calling and calling him. Her breath is ragged, her legs buckling, her concentration skittering, unable to settle, unable to think.
She bends double, hands on her knees, head down, trying to slow her breath, struggling to find a foothold in her mind.
Okay, she decides, this is what’s happened: he thought he’d just meander along the beach while she slept, didn’t intend to disappear from view, but something distracted him, fossils perhaps, so he strayed further, way off beyond those distant rocks, rooting in the sand, losing track of time. He’ll reappear any minute, and she’ll laugh at herself, at all her wild panic.
She walks slowly back to their towels and sits down. She’ll stay calm. She’ll wait. She’ll try to read for a while.
Half an hour later, she scrambles to her feet for perhaps the twentieth time.
This time, the truth, refusing to be kept any longer at bay, looms over her, its hands reaching for her throat.
By the time she reaches the road, her knees are buckling, her breath spent. She bangs on the first door she reaches, crying out her panic. A man opens it, startled, calling behind him for someone else to come. A woman appears. A child is sent to fetch a neighbour, a young man who questions her in broken English, searching for shape in her incoherence.
As she tries to steady herself, ragworms of hope gnaw through her livid mind.
Perhaps he decided to walk back up to the little shop, and surprise her with wine and food for dinner. Perhaps someone invited him in and he’s playing cards in a small back room.
Or perhaps sunstroke invaded his tender mind, and he grabbed his passport and left her while she slept. He’s left a note in the sleeping bag. He’s hitching alone to Lisbon. Can blistering sunshine affect the brain like that?
The young man is waiting for her to articulate her distress. She suddenly sees herself through his perplexed gaze: a straggle-haired young woman, wearing only a bikini and flip-flops, half-deranged.
My boyfriend went swimming, she says. He hasn’t come back.
Where she lives now, no-one knows that he existed; that three decades ago, she sacrificed her lover to the malevolent ocean. She, his tragedy.
She looks out to sea.
Lapping at her feet, the moonlit tide.
Carried on the swell, his ghostly voice.
When the water is waist-high, she hesitates, looking skywards.
A gull cries out, above her.
Rose Morris lives in County Cork, Ireland. For decades, she stymied her urge to write. But longing will have its day and in 2019, Rose finally threw off her shackles, becoming a founder member of the Irish Writers Ink group, and beginning to write regularly, openly and in earnest.
Her first novel, There Will Be Tempest, will shortly be sent out into the universe to look for a home.
Rose has recently turned to short fiction, since when she has been placed or listed by Fish Flash Fiction 2021, Strands International, Lunate 500, and Bray Literary Festival. Her biographical writing has been published in two editions of Childlike.
Rose has a passion for books (of course!), wildlife, the sea, old friends, new ideas, fresh air, bright colours and hot chocolate.
Short Fiction ~ Emma Venables
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
The pram protests the potholes on Budapester Strasse I throw all my weight against it and almost laugh – I’ve lost so much of myself these past few months that my force is meagre. I hear myself groan with the effort, expending energy I can’t afford to lose, but the pram chunters forwards and I manage to save myself from meeting the mud, the sand, the fragments of lives long lost.
I straighten my spine, listen to its crick and crack. Almost gasp with the relief. I let go of the pram for a moment, push my hands to my head and try to dispel the thoughts, the acknowledgement of all kinds of hurt, with pressure on my temples, my cheeks, my jaw. Something my mother used to do, to herself and me, when motherhood and childhood got too much for us both.
A man walks towards me. I try to make myself compact – chin down, eyes down, shoulders hunched forwards – as if I can somehow infantilise myself at will: become a child pushing a dolls’ pram, rather than the grown woman I am. I sidestep as he gets closer. My ankles wobble against the earth’s camber. I hear the thrum of my pulse. He does not reach for me, does not drag me to the darkest places amidst the rubble and tear at my clothes. I turn and watch him until the debris conceals all but the top of his head, and then I take the pram’s handlebar and continue on my way.
Now isn’t the time to wonder how I’m going to make it home, but I find myself drawing the journey in my mind, illustrating it with Berlin’s jagged edges – the broken arm of the standpipe on Pariser Strasse, the body of the National Socialist hanging from the lamppost on Augsburger Strasse, the gaping shop fronts on the Kufürstendamm that look like mouths with fangs ready to sink into looting flesh – us Berliners continue to rummage, continue to hope, despite knowing there’s nothing left.
I inhale, feel the city’s dust-laden air clog up my lungs and cough it out. Would the journey be easier, more worthwhile, if I had someone waiting for me in the lopsided apartment with the cracked windowpanes? If I were to open the door to my mother’s cool hands upon my forehead, her relief that I made it home in one piece, with the twigs I’ve managed to pilfer from the Tiergarten? If Walter were to enter the hallway moments after me and wrap his arms around my waist, rest his chin on my parting and ignore the tickle of lice, the scent of unwashed hair? These ghosts, voices, questions mingle with the pram’s rattle in my mind. Tinnitus for the defeated.
I lift my face to the sky. Rain has begun to fall. Patches of moisture form on my shoulders. My hair clumps about my ears. I rub my breasts, frown to stop myself from sobbing at the damp patches on my dress. I’m not sure if they’re from the rain or from expectation unmet. I want to bash my chest for not being enough for her, for its insistence on continuing to try several days after I laid her beneath the broken cobblestones in the courtyard. Makeshift grave. Makeshift crucifix. Makeshift prayers.
I push the pram around the corner. My knuckles blanch with the effort of keeping it upright. I notice a woman walking on the other side of the street. My heart slumps in my chest. I want to avoid the women as much as I want to avoid the men. She smiles at me, raises her hand in a half-wave. I squint in an effort to unblur her edges, try to find some familiarity in her threadbare coat, laddered tights, the toes that peep through her shoes. She must be about sixty, but then again, we all look older than our years nowadays.
The woman walks towards me, ankles skirting the rubble. I wince as she misses a piece of cracked guttering by a hair’s breadth. She doesn’t notice her surroundings. Her eyes are fixed on me. I know what’s coming and I don’t know if I can bear it once more. I’d spin around, pram and all, and walk in the opposite direction if I could, but I don’t have the energy, the coordination, the navigation skills to get home through streets I once knew by heart but now I can no longer differentiate between one bombed-out block and the next.
And so, I wait. I wait for bony fingers on the pram’s hood. I wait for the sag of the pram against the woman’s weight. I wait for the woman’s features to draw into the expression older women seem to have when bending to greet the next generation. I wait for her to step back, hands to her cheeks. I wait for her to put her hand on my arm, shake her head. I wait for her to give me her only handkerchief to help soak up the milky mess blooming on my dress. I wait for her to walk away, the fingers on one hand poised as if still clutching the pram’s hood and her head bowed, mourning the silence, the presence of wooden limbs where chubby flesh should rest.
I wait like a woman in line for the guillotine as the other woman walks past; she keeps her eyes on the ground and her hands in her frayed pockets. I watch her until she disappears from view and feel the loneliness that comes from loss and avoidance. Could I call her back? Beg her to look at, to acknowledge, the branches gathered where my daughter should be with her fists jammed into her mouth and her belly convex with nourishment? I shake my head. I would laugh at myself if I had the energy. I lean my weight against the pram, force it forwards in the direction of home.
Emma Venables' short and flash fiction has been published in magazines and journals such as Mslexia, Lunate, and The Cabinet of Heed. Her short story, ‘Woman at Gunpoint, 1945’ was a runner-up in the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize 2020. She has a PhD in Creative Writing and has taught at Royal Holloway, University of London and Liverpool Hope University. She can be found on Twitter: @EmmaMVenables.
A Plague of Monsters
Short Fiction ~ Oscar Windsor-Smith
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
These lucid dreams come to Max Lowman in the chill stillness of never-ending dusk. Around him muffled whispers merge with the chirrup of birdsong and the slow rhythmic sigh of some sleeping beast. Something shimmers in the margins of his unfocussed sight, invading his mind and what now passes for his life.
The spectral being inclines what might be its head as if considering Max’s unvoiced question. It nods; a leisurely movement, it has all the time in the universe. ‘Think of me as agent,’ it purrs, ‘I serve clients with interest in the health of humankind. Please note I did not say the good health.’
It must be reading his mind.
‘How unfair. Now you imagine me as monster when I am only an honest broker engaging whatever resources come to hand. Your personal contributions are appreciated by the way.’
Max is sure he has made no such contribution. No. No, he had no part in this.
‘Ah, yes. Outraged denial is a common reaction. Come, let us visit some of your inputs to our cause.’
In a sparsely occupied up-town office, Max reclines in his upholstered executive chair. A microphone headset sits askew on his close-cropped hair; his fingers dance over a game console. His dilated pupils flick restless between three monitors on his desk and through a clear safety screen at the thighs of a shapely colleague.
Blushing, she wriggles, tugging-down the hem of her skirt.
Max chuckles. ‘Dream on, Lexi.’
Glaring over her mask, Lexi O’Connor flicks Max the finger. ‘When you’ve lived in a golden age of health, wealth and instant gratification, it must be hard to accept your world is ending.’
Max snatches off the headset. He slings it down and leaps to his feet. Now he’s right beside her, pushing his face into hers. Spittle flecks his lips. ‘That’s bullshit.’
Lexi starts, rolls back her chair, putting distance between them. ‘Get away from me!’ she hollers pulling a Kleenex from her sleeve and wiping her face; eyes alight with loathing. ‘And wear a mask you disgusting bastard.’
‘Wear a mask,’ Max parrots, ‘Like you and all the other mugs?’
Sidling back to his desk, Max glowers. ‘You believe in this hoax?’ Flopping back in his chair he rams the headset back on, glancing at the red columns and downslope graphs on his financial monitors. ‘It’s just a blip in the markets. I’ll better my sales quotas once the panic’s over.’
Max snatches up his game console and turns to another monitor. ‘Anyways, if so many people are dying, where are all the bodies?’ He’s shouting now, ‘Show me the bodies.’
Lexi is heading for the female rest room. She whips around. ‘You stupid juvenile prick, Max. Do you honestly think this pandemic is like Assassin’s Creed? People aren’t dying in explosions or hails of bullets. They’re expiring alone in ITUs, drowning in their own fluids, choking for breath.’
Max isn’t listening. He’s on a ZOOM call with a bunch of buddies. ‘Okay, guys, party’s at my place tonight. Last one in pays for the entertainment.’
Max Lowman’s mortal form lies amid dozens of other wrecked lives. Most, like him, are moribund and bed-bound whilst others toil, selfless and exhausted, in scrubs and PPE, vainly trying to save them.
The agent drifts above the inert body, into whose glassy lungs a ventilator strives to pump oxygen.
‘You were correct, my friend,’ the words echo in Lowman’s fading dreams, ‘there are monsters at large in your world; their names are Greed, Ignorance and Narcissism.’
Gliding over row upon row of beds the agent surveys each sad intubated body. It reads the name above each and stops briefly at one recording Lexi O’Connor before returning to its protégé. ‘Just think, Max,’ it sighs, ‘you achieved all this single-handed. Can you imagine what thousands like you will accomplish?’
A final shudder of denial heaves through Lowman’s corpse.
The agent gazes down. ‘You gave exceptional service, Max Lowman,’ it whispers. ‘Sleep well.’
Oscar Windsor-Smith is an English writer from Merseyside, now resident in south Hertfordshire, UK, with fiction and non-fiction prose and a smattering of poetry published in diverse places, in print and online. His short fiction has appeared in a number of anthologies, most recently in the Departures anthology from Arachne Press. He graduated from the 4-year BA creative writing course at Birkbeck, University of London, in 2018, having specialised in screenwriting, but is returning to his first love, short and flash fiction.
Short Fiction ~ Deborah Appleton
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
They told me he wasn't coming home now. They would move him on to that nursing home, get him stronger after the stroke. They kept nodding at me, it was all agreed, probably a month, maybe two, keep him under observation. Would I be all right at home, they wondered? I didn't say anything, I didn’t dare say anything. They brought me back. They were worried. It’s ok, I told them. I’ve managed here for over sixty years. Well, that stopped them. They looked me up and down. They took me in with their eyes. I know what I am. I’m as strong as an ox that’s what I am. Good farm stock, never had a day in bed. We both came from that. My people were wheat farmers from Canada. Walter’s from the Nebraska, cattle people. By the time I told them that, I knew who was stronger.
But when they left I couldn’t stop shaking. The house was so quiet and I couldn’t stop shaking. I just stayed by the door there until a sound rose up out of me, an ocean sound, a wave coming in, it was glorious. I stayed by the door for a long time. I watched the light shift and shadows lower across our living room, my living room. Everything was so peaceful, so tender.
And then I got up. I went to the bathroom and washed my face. I put on some of that perfume my daughter Sharon gave me years ago, smells like lilies of the valley, still in the same box and everything. There would be Sharon to call, tomorrow, no rush. I filled the room with the fragrance, just standing there in the bedroom.
I put on the blue blouse with the small forget-me-knots at the collar. I always keep that one nice and tidy, the colour is good on me. I went into the kitchen and made a large glass of ice tea. I put in a big slice of lemon and stirred it up. Then I went out to the back porch, to Walter’s chair. I took my cushion from my chair and put it on Walter’s chair. I adjusted the chair so that I got the sunset on my face. I love that, when the heat of the day is gone. Walter’s chair is a big, roomy old wicker chair, still sturdy, comfortable. I have those sunglasses that protect my eyes from the sunspots. I breathe in the lily of the valley. Walter hates perfume. Walter hated perfume.
Walter is never coming home. I know that. They know that, but they are speaking to an old lady who has lived with her husband for over sixty years. They don't know what I am, they don’t know how I have lived. The young are so sentimental. “How many years have you been together?” They ask. “HOW many?” It means everything to them. They never ask anything else. And I would never say. I would never tell them how I learned to duck my head at certain times after dinner, learned to be busy in the kitchen on rainy weekends. Never left anything lying around on a countertop or a tabletop, any object that could be used.
A person gets tired with all that planning. A person makes mistakes, forgets and then a person gets tripped up. It comes out of nowhere, it always comes out of nowhere.
Oh, you hear about us women. They are on talk shows, there are articles in the newspapers, in the glossy magazines. Almost everyday you hear something. I would stop to read, stop to listen. But you don’t hear about the ones who stay. Sixty years, and they all smile. Don’t they see the bruises on my arms and the back of my legs?
Some of us can’t go, cant leave. I don't know why. I used to ask myself when would it be too much, until I got fed up asking myself. He got older, I moved quicker. In a dark room, I could put a chair in a different place. I could make things difficult. It got easier.
And now he’s not coming back. I shift my ice in my long, tall drink. I know what I am. I am an eighty three year old woman. I am as strong as an ox. I breathe in the lilies of the valley. Sixty years and I have been waiting. Does that make it better? I put my face into the strong heat of that setting sun.
Deborah Appleton worked for Cosmopolitan Magazine in NYC before moving to Nairobi Kenya to write travel books. She then worked on the west coast of Scotland. She currently spends most of her time in the mountains of Switzerland and is editing her first novel and finishing a second.
Short Fiction ~ Lindy Newns
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
Alyssia sets her phone to wake her up half an hour earlier than usual even though she’s exhausted and could have slept all morning given the chance. The car is covered in frost and it takes ages to scrape off, her engine running and the fan on. The roads are icy, snow in mounds along the kerb and her fingers are stiff on the wheel, but she gets there and at least the wards are warm.
Masked and scrubbed for another shift, she is hot after an hour. Everywhere, alien eyes and no chance of knowing what these strangers are thinking, even though they are not strangers and are probably as exhausted as her and, like her, trying not to think too hard. If you start thinking about human beings and human grief, then you are done for. No. Tick the boxes, turn the sheeted shape, make a note of the oxygen levels, repeat. Hour after hour for a ten- hour shift. Longer, because you have to hand over and that takes time and the paperwork has to be clear with no chance of being misread by another exhausted doctor or nurse.
And it is finally over. Alyssia removes her plastic visor, her surgical mask, the plastic gloves, and stares at herself in the mirror where she sees a woman she hardly recognizes. There are dark circles under her eyes, blotched cheeks and angry red marks where the plastic straps have dug in.
They have warned her about the protest going on outside, so she leaves by a side entrance. She has to wait to open the door because her heart has suddenly started to race; she can hardly breathe but she makes it to the car where she bends over and waits for the ringing in her ears to stop. A headache screws itself into her skull and she worries about her blood pressure. She is overweight, she knows it, and at more risk than most from the virus, but this is her job. She is saving lives every day and has no choice but to carry on.
She is just so exhausted.
Nevertheless, she has to get home. She can’t sleep in the car. There is another blizzard on the way. She drives slowly round the vast hospital complex. It’s supposed to be one- way traffic but sometimes there are drivers coming the wrong way, lost, and unable to turn back in the narrow road, so she takes it easy, using the time to practise some breathing exercises, get her heartrate under control.
Before she reaches the highway, she sees the protestors. They must have moved away from the main entrance. They block the road, wearing their heavy winter coats and hats against the cold, but no masks of course. Either they do not think they can catch it, or they believe that wearing one infringes their civil liberties in some way. They wave banners at her car. Set us free. Covid is a lie.
Alyssia suddenly wants to slam her foot down, ram into that crowd and hear thuds as the car hits; she wants to see bodies fall under the wheels, wants to feel the jolt as the tyres crush flesh and bone. Her right foot twitches. She is just so damn tired. She sighs. If she injures anyone, they will be taken to A&E and that is already full, ambulances lined up outside.
She leans her head on the wheel, closes her eyes. After forty long minutes, the crowd finally moves to let her through and she hits the highway just as the first white clumps of snow start to fall.
Based in Manchester, UK, Lindy's nature is curious and hopeful which helps with her day job supporting young unaccompanied migrants with English and emotional and mental issues. She has been shortlisted for several drama awards, but this is the first time ever shortlisted for flash, although she has had one piece published in Popshot magazine in the UK.
Short Fiction ~ R.J. Kinnarney
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
Lost again. Rita had walked the back alleys of the souk every morning and, every morning, she’d got lost. She found herself engrossed, wandering along, soaking in the rainbows, drowning in the spicy air. By the time she lifted her head, she was lost.
This morning was hot. Just like all the others had been. Dry heat, though. Not like the insufferable, suffocating humid heat at home. This was bearable. Home wasn’t.
She was sure that she’d passed this particular spice stall a hundred times already, its vast brightly coloured sacks of ground cinnamon, cardamom pods, ginger roots, neatly lined up. An army of spices. What she hadn’t noticed before was the stall next door. One man sat, bent over a rug. There were hundreds of rug stalls here, thousands if you counted them across the whole of the city but this one drew her eye. Maybe because the guy was taking no notice of people passing. He wasn’t trying to entice people in. He didn’t look like he was up for a morning of haggling. He was just getting on with his work.
Rita moved in closer.
“Sit.” The man didn’t look at her.
She sat on a leather stool. She watched as his hands moved swiftly backwards and forwards across the rug. He was sewing a rug right in front of her. Rita had never thought how rugs were actually made. There was so much she hadn’t thought about.
The man held his needle and thread up to the light. “Golden yellow. The colour that his hair would have been. The colour of the joy he would have brought you.”
Rita’s mouth filled with acid.
The man continued to sew. He took out another length of thread and held it high above his head. “Sapphire blue. The colour his eyes would have been. The colour of the fear you would have felt for him.”
Rita’s breath grew shorter and shallower.
The man drew out a length of deep red thread and held it up.
Still the man didn’t look at Rita. His only focus was the rug.
“Crimson red. The colour his blood was for a few short months. The colour of the anger that leaked from you.”
The man’s hands flew across the material.
Rita began to cry. A gentle, silent stream of salt.
The man reached for more thread. He held a length of darkest grey out towards Rita. “Deep metal grey. The colour of your husband’s heart. The colour of the sadness which he, too, feels.” The man looked at Rita for the first time. “Grey is the colour which binds you together.” He took the thread and snapped it, all the while looking into Rita’s eyes. “Take this.” He rolled the rug and handed it to Rita.
Now she realised that this had all been a ploy. “How much?”
“Take it. It belongs to you.”
She wondered whether the man hadn’t understood her. She took out her purse. “Money?”
“No. Please take it.”
Rita left the stall with the rug under her arm.
That night in the hotel, cradling the rug, she slept solidly for the first time in months.
She woke with the dawn, the sun touching her face. She reached across the vast bed and felt the empty space next to her. It was time to go home.
R. J. Kinnarney is trying to make sense of their tiny corner of the world, through tiny pieces of writing and lots of reading. Currently working on a novel, which looks at attitudes to war, communication, prejudice and what strength means. Work can be found at 100 Words of Solitude, Funny Pearls, Southam Book Fest, 101 Words, Daunt Books, Café Lit, Dwelling Literary, Sledgehammer and Pure Slush; soon to be at The Hungry Ghost, Free Flash Fiction. Links to online and print published works can be found at rjkinnarney.com Twitter: @rjkinnarney
The Eleventh Hour
Short Fiction ~ Valerie Troy
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 12
‘What are you banging on about now you cranky old fossil?’ accused Granny, playfully interrupting her oldest friend Ethel, friends for more than fifty years.
‘I’m not your oldest friend I’m your longest friend surely’ reprimanded Ethel.
‘Sure we’re not even old’ they compromised. In their mid-eighties now, they reside together in a nursing home, or as they call it, ‘Happy Sanctuary for Cracked Oul Wans’. Because by their own admission, they were happy, and a bit cracked too. They shared a room in the East Wing, or ‘Sunset Boulevard’, housing the homes more independent, elderly residents.
They’re a pair of scoundrels. When not tormenting each other, they were more than happy to mischievously torment the staff. Granny had a soft spot for Donal the physio. ‘If only I was a few decades younger, he’d be in some amount of trouble’ she speculated. Granny always had a keen eye for nice things and Donal was very handsome indeed. ‘No harm having a look’ she’d say.
‘You’d want your hips in better shape too’ added Ethel scandalously.
Granny was widowed fifteen years earlier, her beloved Jack taken by ‘the Big C’ as she called it, determined not dignify the cancerous horror that took him from her. Ethel walked the journey with her and she would never forget her kindness.
She was a proud grandmother to seven boisterous grandchildren - her ‘Kittens’. Notwithstanding this legacy, everyone referred to her simply as ‘Granny’. No one was entirely certain of its origin, but there is a view that it is somehow related to the grandmotherly way she dispensed nuggets of her intelligently curated wisdom. At a discussion on the merits of the Covid vaccine, she said ‘I’ll take it in my bare arse, through a rusty needle live on The Late Late Show if I have to.’
Ethel was the epitome of elegance. She never married. How such an elegant, engaging and witty woman remained single was a baffling mystery. Instead she powered her way through the Civil Service until her retirement. Always immaculately dressed, sitting with impeccable posture, ankles crossed, knees tilted to one side. Her Friday morning hair appointment something of a ritual. Covid restrictions necessitated a degree of hair care creativity. The home dye blue rinse didn’t quite work out as anticipated. Cobalt blue the outcome. Granny didn’t hold back, likening her new aesthetic to a snooker ball. ‘I’ll just give you five points for that do’ she howled through unstoppable laughter.
They kept abreast of world affairs through a trusty combination of the RTE Guide and iPads. The latter recently gifted to them by ‘The Kittens’. Initially baffled at the iPads determination to ascertain if Granny would accept cookies – ‘Of course I accept cookies, Chocolate Digestives are my favourite’, she eventually succumbed. Although she’d regularly wonder why such a sophisticated piece of technology fears she may in fact be a robot. ‘I’m not a robot, I’m an 84-year-old lady’ she’d protest, combatively wielding a rolled up copy of the RTE Guide.
The debate between the two on that particular day cantered around Ethel’s notion for a stylish Black-Tie funeral. ‘Sure what’s the point of a black-tie funeral when you wouldn’t even get to enjoy it yourself’ probed Granny.
‘I’d be the centre of attention’ negotiated Ethel.
‘As the ‘dead person’ at your own funeral, I’d hardly say you’d have much competition’ fired back Granny laughing.
‘That’s true’ agreed Ethel, admiring their logic. ‘But everyone will be wearing black anyway, I’m just suggesting they all glam it up a bit’ she furthered.
‘What about you? Can’t imagine you going out without a bang?’ she teased. Granny, never one to be outdone was desperately in search of an eleventh hour party trick of her own. She was determined to live life to the max, targeting at a minimum her 100th birthday just to secure her letter from the President. She explained that she had half a mind to order an ice cream van for mourners at her cremation, to lighten the mood. Her logic, which was admittedly outrageous, ‘sure everyone enjoys ice cream at a BBQ’.
‘What’ll happen us after we’re gone would you say?’ wondered Ethel.
‘Well, the way I see it, we’re trainee fossils and if we’re going to be fossils, and we get dusted down someday, we might as well be good ones’ explained Granny.
Ethel considered this strategy and felt it had merit. ‘You are dead right’ she said, ignoring the pun. ‘Let’s face it, our Bucket List days are over. Only thing left on that list is to give the bucket a right good kick’ declared Ethel, laughing heartily at her irreverent suggestion.
‘That’s it so, we’ll go six feet under with a bottle of gin, a couple of glasses, giving the thumbs up’ outlined Granny.
‘Don’t forget to laminate the letter from the President’ reminded Ethel as they finalised their plans.
‘Turn up the news there Ethel ‘til we hear the latest about this blasted virus’ instructed Granny.
Ethel passed away a few short weeks later, taken by ‘the blasted virus’.
It was a crisp morning in mid-October when her funeral mass took place. Granny forlornly looked out at the blue cloudless sky framing the orangey autumnal crunchiness of leaves from the massive oak tree gliding gracefully to their final resting place. The TV was on, muted though. Granny had no need for Department of Health statistics today. The damage was done. She watched the mass on her iPad broadcast on the parish YouTube channel. ‘There was none of this back in our day Donal’ she said, only then noticing the black bow tie he wore in Ethel’s honour, barely visible beneath his semi-transparent PPE. They sat apart but together in silence, Granny tightly clutching the iPad, missing her longest friend deeply.
‘It’s a lovely autumn day to celebrate a lovely woman’ consoled Donal.
‘It is surely’ replied Granny, barely able to find the words.
Valerie Troy is an emerging writer of short fiction living in Dublin, Ireland. She is a Chartered Accountant and has a degree in Business Studies from the University of Limerick. Valerie is a member of Writers Ink online writing group and is currently working on her debut children’s novel.
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.
The Hungry Ghost
Short Fiction ~ Cath Barton
First Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
There had once been an uninterrupted vista across the park. The sun still rose behind the three-winged Georgian house – the worse efforts of man could do nothing to change that – but a tarmac road now sliced through the avenue of trees that had lined the original carriageway from the gates. The oaks to the west of the road had split and been felled, and those on the house side had grown so thick that its facade was hidden from view.
Marcia Brice-Martin, visiting with her husband from Ormonville, a one-street town of clapboard houses in the American Mid West, was none the less enchanted.
‘This is so pretty,’ she trilled to the girl selling entrance tickets from a window cut in a portacabin. ‘Back home we have only – ’
‘House and garden or just garden?’ interrupted the unsmiling girl. Her shift should have finished an hour earlier and she was feeling the heat inside the metal box.
‘Excuse me?’ said Marcia, who had forgotten to put in her hearing aids that morning.
The girl sighed and repeated the options slowly.
Marcia’s husband bristled and stepped forward. If he’d been back home, he would have had his hand on his gun. ‘Two tickets for the complete package,’ he barked at the girl.
‘Elmer’, Mrs B-M started in a high voice, ‘Don’t you think–?’
As he lifted an arm to silence her, she noticed, as she had earlier that morning, how prominent the veins were on the backs of his hands.
‘We will take the tour, Marcia,’ he said. ‘You wanted to come here. We will damn well see it out.’ He would have slammed his hand on the counter to emphasise the point, but there was no counter, only the sliding plastic window behind which the girl sat with the tickets.
Marcia, who would have preferred to have simply strolled round the walled garden before taking tea, knew better than to argue.
‘Tours start on the hour,’ the girl said in a flat voice. ‘Forty minutes round the East Wing of the house. Stay with the guide at all times.’
As they walked towards the house Elmer Brice-Martin stumbled and clung to his wife’s arm.
‘Your stick, Elmer, we should go back to the car and fetch it,’ she said, her voice rising again.
‘Don’t fuss, Marcia, it’s this damned gravel the English lay on their paths. Designed to trip a guy up.’
The Brice-Martins were nearing the end of the 3pm tour when Trenchant Collier, a local boy whose father had worked in the gardens of the house two hundred years previously, woke from a long sleep in one of the furthest greenhouses, which were out of bounds to visitors, and went in search of something to eat. As he entered the old kitchen, which had been kept exactly as it was in the early 1800s, except that the joints of meat and loaves of bread were plastic replicas, the boy was surprised to see the small gaggle of people dressed in clothes strange to him, and equally surprised when he bit into a loaf of bread and found it impossible to chew.
None of the visitors saw Trenchant, but Marcia felt his aura. She said nothing to her husband; he was a sceptic who preferred the feel of cold hard metal to stories of the insubstantial. In the conservatory tea-room they ordered cream teas, though, looking at the veins standing out on her husband’s forehead now as well as his hands, Marcia wondered about the wisdom of this.
‘Don’t you think–?’, she started as Elmer spread strawberry jam thickly on half a large scone.
‘For heaven’s sake, Marcia, can’t you let a man enjoy a bit of fruit?’
Elmer heard his voice ricochet off the glass of the conservatory roof like a spray of gunfire. The legs of the wicker chair into which he had squeezed himself buckled as he instinctively ducked down. He reached out for one of the table legs to steady himself, but caught only the trailing edge of the tablecloth.
Trenchant Collier, who just had come into the tea room, was still in search of something he could eat. The girl whose job was to stop children from poking their fingers into the cake icing had been distracted by the unfolding calamity at Table 3, and in any case would not have seen Trenchant pick up the apricot and walnut loaf which she had just taken out of the freezer and attempt to bite into it.
Marcia was wailing, thinking this was the heart attack she had long feared would carry her husband off. He, on his back like a stranded beetle, was impeded in his struggle to right himself by the tangle of tablecloth. The floor was splattered with sticky jam and cream and tea was trickling under the neighbouring tables. Trenchant picked up a scone rolling in his direction and smeared it with butter that had been left on another table. Relieved to find something edible, he sat down and watched the drama unfold.
Marcia, feeling Trenchant’s aura again, and now convinced that her husband was about to die, cried out even more loudly.
‘For heaven’s sake, woman, pull yourself together!’ Elmer, who had managed to get to his feet remarkably unsullied by jam and cream, sank heavily onto another chair which wobbled but remained upright.
‘More tea, waitress,’ he called to the hapless girl who was trying, single-handedly, to clear up the mess.
She scurried into the kitchen. Marcia felt Trenchant depart. Elmer was still with her.
The waitress brought tea and more scones. ‘On the house,’ she said.
Neither of the Brice-Martins had any idea what she meant, but both feeling somewhat shaken, tucked in.
‘You need to ask for the recipe for these, Marcia,’ said Elmer. ‘They’re real good.’
She did not reply. Her thoughts had turned to the ghost story she was going to relate to the Women’s Home Guild when they got back to Ormonville.
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 ~ Kasturi Patra
Second Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
I read the first few lines of the bestselling thriller for the fifth time. Still, nothing registered. The oil-stained suede couch sagged further, its springs creaking in agony, as I slouched to make myself invisible to the people in my parents’ living room. It was difficult to ignore their words though.
“Forty-two and still single, chhi chhi…are you sure she isn’t, you know…” Neela Kakima let those words hang in the air. I doubted whether she actually believed her hoarse “whispers” wouldn’t reach me in the balcony.
“Na na, nothing like that,” Ma sounded apologetic, “we’ve talked about that, too.”
Baba cleared his throat; he was an expert at squashing uncomfortable conversations be it the refugee crisis in Syria or his own daughter’s sexual orientation.
In my peripheral vision, I noticed Arnab Kaku rubbing his thick, hairy knuckles over his potbelly, bits of his protruding stomach visible from between the straining shirt buttons. His fingers adorned with gemstone rings, looked like a grotesque rainbow.
I threw up a bit inside my mouth when he stuffed his face with the jaggery sondesh and spoke with his mouth full, “Girls these days are getting too much freedom and that’s getting into their heads,” unlike his wife, he didn’t pretend to whisper, “I keep telling Neela how lucky we are to have a son.”
I chucked the paperback with a splat on the coffee table and stood up.
My breathing slowed down only after I reached my childhood bedroom upstairs. My parents hadn’t changed it much since Didi and I left—the walls were adorned with our artwork in crayons, the door of the steel almirah was studded with stickers from popular nineties cartoons—Powerpuff Girls, TaleSpin, Duck Tales. On top of the study table sat a picture frame that held a photo of Didi and me squinting at the camera, wearing identical batik printed frocks.
The soft, pudgy body squashing against my back, smelling of apple shampoo and cocoa butter, woke me up from my fitful slumber.
“Rinki!” I sat in a puddle of sleep induced daze mixed with the affection that I reserved only for my six-year-old niece. She crawled into my lap screaming, “Mashiiii”, I dipped my face into her curly hair wishing I could bottle her earthy scent of childhood and take it back with me when I left Kolkata.
“I hate to break the aunt niece reunion but I have to,” my elder sister stepped into the room smiling affectionately, “Rinki, go down for lunch, I’ll come with Mashi in a minute.”
Didi didn’t ask me why I was sitting on my own in this dark room when there were guests downstairs, instead she took me in her arms. I rested my head on her shoulders just like I used to on nights when I was certain the monster was calling me from atop the palm tree outside the window. My visits to Kolkata wouldn’t have been so frequent if it weren’t for my sister and my niece.
At the lunch table, Didi tried veering the conversation into neutral territories.
“Congratulations, on your admission to the MIT, Riju!” Didi put on a big smile and looked expectantly at the young man who was grinning at his crotch while typing furiously on his phone under the table.
Neela Kakima nudged her son and muttered something, perhaps reminding him that my parents hosted this lunch to honor his “grand success”.
“Thanks,” he shrugged.
Didi gave me a sideways glance, I shook my head and put a little bit of rice mixed with chicken curry into Rinki’s open mouth.
“From the moment he ranked twentieth in the IIT entrance exam, I was certain that my boy is going to make it to the MIT,” Arnab Kaku beamed while his son was once again lost into the fascinating world inside his phone.
“Yes, Riju has always been a gem of a boy! From topping his classes to representing his school in quizzes and cricket matches. You guys have been extremely lucky!” Ma cooed while serving Riju the juiciest pieces of mutton, maybe, as a reward for his hard work.
Post lunch, Didi and I lay stretched on our childhood bed, our legs sticking out, our heads huddled in a single pillow, as we traded news of our lives. My parents had taken Rinki to their room for an afternoon nap. The three guests were in the guestroom, probably gearing up for their next meal.
After a while, I got up to make our favorite masala tea. On my way to the kitchen, I noticed my parents watching a Bengali soap on TV.
“Where’s Rinki?” I leaned into their darkened room searching for her small body lying curled up next to my mother.
“Riju took her to the terrace.”
I sprinted down the corridor and climbed two stairs at a time, my parents called out after me, but I didn’t stop.
When I pushed open the terrace door with a creak, there was no sign of anyone except for a few sparrows perched on the bird feeder pecking at the rice Ma had left for them.
The voice came from behind the water tank, a smooth, seductive whisper, so familiar sounding, like a silk scarf tightening around my throat. I instinctively grew quieter, tiptoeing to the place from where the sound came.
Rinki’s purple frilly frock was hitched up while Riju tickled her thighs, his fingers crawling upward, “I’m coming now, hau mau khau, manusher gondho pau…” those words that scared me as a child, the words of a monster who could smell human blood.
I shoved him so hard that he lost his balance and fell flat on his back. I could hear footsteps behind me.
Looking at the faces surrounding me, I let out a wail that I’d been holding inside for the last thirty-five years.
When I could finally breathe, I told them, “Arnab Kaku is indeed lucky to have a son who is just like his father.”
Kasturi Patra is a writer and editor. Her work has appeared in Jaggery Lit Mag, Litbreak Magazine, Bengal Write Ahead, Escape Velocity, 50-Word Stories, and Women’s Web. Her fiction is forthcoming in Lakeview International Journal and in TMYS Review. She is a reader for Voyage: A Young Adult Literary Journal. She recently won a novel pitch competition and her novel is forthcoming next year from Half Baked Beans Publishers. She is pursuing an MFA in Fiction from Writers' Village University. She lives in New Delhi, India, with her husband and four adopted animals.
Short Fiction ~ Brindley Hallam Dennis
Third Prize, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 10
The fact is, I never felt that far away, he said, from home. He sipped at his whisky.
It’s the other side of the world, I said.
But you don’t notice that, he said. It’s because we travelled by air, he said. You just sit in the plane. We couldn’t see out of the windows. If we’d gone by train it would have been different.
It would have taken a hell of a lot longer, I said.
But we’d have seen all that countryside passing by. We’d have had to make sea crossings as well. We’d have seen the distance, not just spent the time.
I could see what he meant, and I sipped at my whisky.
It was like that with Mel; with Mel and me. Only not like that. About distance being what you felt, not what it really was.
Sometimes I wondered about walking there, to where she lived. I wondered about putting everything I needed, really needed, into a bag and walking out of the house and keeping on going until I got there, to where she lived.
That would take days. It would take weeks. It would take the best part of a day by train, or even to drive down, but I never thought about taking a train, or driving. I always thought about walking there.
It’s not about just the distance. It’s about what you have to overcome to get there. It’s about what you have to overcome to start out.
That’s not all it’s about. It’s about it being a penance too. A penance for not having made the journey already. Every day on the road would be an act of contrition. Each one for a year of procrastination, near enough, depending on when you start counting.
It would be a demonstration too, a demonstration of how much you cared, of how sorry you were, at least, that’s what I told myself, whenever I wondered, about walking there, to where she lived.
It would give them time, as well, walking there, give them time to get used to the idea; time to work out what was going on, what it all meant, retrospectively, and for the future. That’s what I told myself too. And word would get down to her, word that I was on my way. Somehow, word would get down to her, because someone, someone, who knew me, would work it out, in the time it would take me to get there, walking, to where she lived. And that would give her time too, time to prepare for it, for me getting there.
It would be on Social Media, or a phone call, by word of mouth. He’s gone missing, they’d tell her. He’s walked out, they’d say. He’s vanished. Nobody knows where. And perhaps, then, they’d wait, to see how she reacted.
She’d know right away. Of course she would. She’d know.
I think he’s coming here, she’d say, and then she’d look at them, to see how they reacted. Where else would he go, she’d ask? Where else could she imagine I would ever go, if I walked out like that?
She’d still have time to think, after they told her, before I got there; time to make plans, to clear the decks, to get ready. She might even want to come out and look for me. The closer I got, the fewer roads there would be to look for me on. She could work it out, whatever the route I took, there would be fewer roads to choose the closer I got to where she lived.
And when I get there, where she lives, she’ll be watching for me, from an upstairs window, or behind a curtain, or maybe even on the threshold. And at nights she’ll leave an outside light on so that I’ll be able to find my way, and she’ll maybe even leave the door unlocked, because whatever people think, and whatever they say, I know she’ll be wanting me to arrive, and she’ll be wanting me to have walked all the way. It couldn’t be any other way, for Mel; for Mel and me.
It’s in the winter that I wonder most, about walking to where she lived, when the days are short and grey and wet. I wonder on the bleakest days, and in the longest nights. And then the Spring comes around, and I forget, and another year has gone.
Isn’t it? He says, and I realise he’s been talking all the time I’ve been thinking and I see that he’s filled up both our glasses again, but I have no idea what he’s asked me, nor what the answer is, and he, sensing that I have no answer, says, it’s a hell of a distance.
Yes, I say, it is a hell of a distance.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England within sight of Scotland. He writes short stories. Writing as Mike Smith he has published poems, plays and essays, often on the short story form and on adaptations from texts to film & TV. Many of his stories have been published and performed, sometimes by Liars League in London, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. He holds the degree of M.Litt from Glasgow University.