Sunday, 17 June 2018

And.... breathe!

And... that's all folks.

The flood is over for another issue, and you can flop about on the sand, gasping for breath, and waiting for the waters to return.

For now, thank you for reading.

Until next time...

Saturday, 16 June 2018

'Ten Reasons to Write' by Dorothy Rice

It’s more socially acceptable than talking or muttering to yourself.

If you write with a pen, pencil or quill, or alternate hands on the computer keys, it leaves one hand free for the candy bowl.

Your family and friends will label you the, “quiet, serious” type. When called upon to join in on a conversation you’d rather not be part of, you can look up and say, “Oh excuse me, did you say something?” eyelids fluttering as if you’d just emerged from a fugue state.

You will be amazed how quickly this catches on. In no time at all, others will be making excuses for you. You won’t even need to open your mouth. “Oh never mind her,” your sister, friend or colleague will say, “she’s a writer.”

After awhile, you may not need to talk at all. Said sister, friend or colleague will do your parts for you, while you happily scribble away, perhaps offering the occasional distracted nod, so you aren’t taken for anti-social or rude.

Snacks are not an interruption to the creative process, as they might be for other professionals. Actually doing it well—writing that is—is super hard and requires constant fuel. Easily manipulated items such as cookies and chocolates are perhaps preferable. But the occasional cheesecake or ice cream sundae may be called for. Maneuvering a fork or spoon while avoiding spills onto the page or (heaven forbid) the computer keys, can be tricky, but worth the extra effort.

Staring into space or into the swirl of steamed milk on your cappuccino is entirely acceptable behavior for the writer. It’s called “thinking,” which is something all writers must do. Trust me.

Some say walking is also effective and that it brings the added benefit of counter-acting the tendency for the writer’s muscles to atrophy. But there are, as yet, no empirical studies to back up these claims. My own research, on the other hand, amply demonstrates the critical role of unabashed snacking and staring dreamily into the world beyond your eyeballs, or behind them, if you’re so inclined. You might even experience an epiphany!

I’ve no idea how many reasons that is. I’m a writer, after all. I can’t be bothered with mathematics. But here’s one more, an important one.

Writing is the fountain of youth, seriously. Better than face cream or intermittent fasting, better than cross-word puzzles or learning a new language. You may look like a dinosaur on the outside, but inside, man, you are nimble as a grasshopper, and springy too.

Oh dear, the candy bowl is empty. Nothing between the couch cushions or beneath my thighs. Not even a stray Skittle in my bra. My eyelids are heavy, so heavy. I set the tools of my trade down, plump the pillows, and slump to a prone position.

Two hours later, I pick up where I left off.

Oh yeah, restorative naps, another excellent reason to write.

'Solo for Two' by Barbara Renel

She drags her suitcase away from the bottom of the escalator and sits on it. She watches the metal stairs unfolding, disappearing, backs of heads going up to the Main Line station, faces coming down – an elaborate choreography of avoidance as people, pushchairs, bags, shoes, criss-cross in front of her, left to right, right to left, Victoria, District and Circle Lines, blue, green, yellow routes, exiting, entering.
            The clasps of her suitcase unsnap. Inside, a black leather case, battered, curved. She takes out the violin, tightens the bow and waits for his introduction. She imagines the opening broken chords of his piano, chords that will gently ascend, descend, support her melody. And she plays their song, their story.
            There’s an Egyptian limestone statue in the British Museum, two seated figures, a man and a woman, their clothing androgynous, height distinguishing one from the other. She’s holding one of his hands with both of hers. They are looking straight ahead, certain of their relationship.
            Her melody is sustained, buoyant, floating on his piano. She ascends slowly adding a note, taking another step, moving further away, but always returning to the beginning, home. There is no drama in this music, the song serene. Their story is simple, timeless.
            The provenance of the statue was unknown, the figures labelled anonymous. She has a photograph of her teenage-self standing next to it. When she re-visited the museum the figures were smaller than she remembered. Recently they have been identified as Horemheb and Amenia. It’s an important statue now, preserved in a protective glass case, unreachable.
            She takes a breath and gently slows towards the final notes. She listens as the last sound echoes then disappears. She loosens her bow, returns her violin to its case and closes her suitcase, ready to move on.






First published: Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine 10:1(April 2017)

'An Unexpected Fall of Snow' by John Holland

She stands in the darkness of the back garden wearing her red water-proof coat and green wellingtons. Underneath only her nightgown. It is 4 am and the garden has a covering of snow. Something she was not expecting when she left her husband sleeping. She has two carefully folded white sheets under her arm. A green plastic petrol can in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other. She feels the cold wind like a sharp slap on her face; a bitterness cutting into her legs, through her nightgown. Making her body tense. Her hands rigid. 
She thinks she has never seen snow this white, this luminous. Never seen the garden so beautiful. Or desolate. Like a secret world. For what the night does not hide, the snow does, flattening, folding itself around contours. Trees stand like silent witnesses. Huge white hands pleading to the dark sky. She looks at her footprints that make plain the short journey she has taken from the house. Her tracks defiling the covering of snow. If it does not snow again, or thaw, her tracks will be obvious in the morning. She does not know if she cares. 
She takes a few more steps, hears the snow creek, almost groan, under her feet. Finds the garden incinerator next to the compost heap. Wipes the snow from its lid with her bare hand. She places the sheets on to the lid of the container. The scissors allow her to cut across the outer seams of the sheets. She tears. It takes all her strength but there’s a satisfying ripping noise that echoes into the silence.
She places the torn pieces in the dry bottom of the incinerator, carefully splashes them with petrol, lights a match and drops it in. Nothing. The match has extinguished. She tries again. The reaction is immediate. An orange flame surges from the sheets to the top of the incinerator. She steps back. The snow under the incinerator legs melts. She continues cutting and tearing, dropping more strips of sheet in the fiery container. A circle of green is now spreading outwards from the incinerator. Like a growing oasis in a cold white desert. 
The heat is so intense she has to throw the strips from some feet away. Flames lap the top of the incinerator, so that her face begins to feel sore from the heat. Her back still cold. Her boots squelching in the green under her feet.
She hears the distant sound of a train. Impatient drumming fingers. Fainter, fainter. Like a memory, a longing. Walks a few steps towards it, raises her head to listen until it is silenced. She sees a band of silver grey at the edge of the sky. And wipes her tears with the back of her hand, as the strength within her grows.

'The Unexpected Trade' by Nicole J. Simms

While looking in all directions, Travis darted down the street with his baseball bat gripped in his hand. He knew he shouldn’t be out here, but he was tired of living like this; he needed a reminder of how life was before it all ended – a time where you could walk down the street without the fear of someone jumping out at you and trying to devour your flesh.  
Travis held his side as he reached the row of shops before him. He checked behind him for any oncoming attackers, and on seeing that he remained alone, he then stepped towards the shop in the middle and stopped. His attention focused on the gold coloured words ‘R Cuts’ that shimmered against the black base of the shop sign. ‘Phew, I’ve made it,’ he said.
He pushed open the shop door. The door creaked – the only sound to alert the occupants of his presence. He stepped inside and observed his surroundings. A solitary hairdressing sink with an accompanying chair was to his left, a single chair in front of a wall mirror was to his right, and a plasterboard barrier divided the room horizontally. ‘Hello, anyone here?’ he called, gripping his baseball bat.
Footsteps stomped towards the partition, and a gap slowly appeared in the barrier revealing a scarlet-haired woman. ‘What do you want?’ said the woman, stepping through the new gap in the partition and slapping a hammer against her hand.
‘I heard you still run your hair salon?’
‘Yeah, why?’
‘I need a haircut. Can you do it for me, love?’
The scarlet-haired woman threw her hands to her hips. ‘Don’t ‘love’ me, mate, my name’s Ruby.’
‘Sorry, bab, I mean, Ruby. So, the haircut?’ Travis ruffled his ponytail. ‘I’m tired of the Rapunzel look.’
‘What have you got to trade?’
Travis glanced at Ruby’s breasts, which were snugly hugged by her vest top. He smiled, pulled out his empty jeans pockets and shrugged. ‘I’ve got nothing but my body.’ He winked at Ruby. ‘You can have that if you want?’
Ruby rubbed her chin and glanced up at the ceiling. ‘Hmm,’ she said, returning her focus to Travis. ‘I think we have a deal.’
Travis dropped his baseball bat on the floor, ripped off his T-shirt, unbuttoned his jeans and yanked them down.
‘Bob!’ shouted Ruby.
Travis paused.
Minutes later, heavy footsteps pounded towards them, and then a bald-headed giant-looking man clutching a bloodstained crowbar walked through the gap in the partition. He stood beside Ruby. ‘What’s up?’ he said, scanning Travis from head to toe before his attention landed on Travis’s once-white boxers.
Travis yanked up his jeans; he wasn’t expecting an audience.

Ruby faced Bob. ‘Here’s another one for you.’

'A Lexical Guide To The Bulldog Breed' by James Burr

     I sit in the pub, the flames of the fire reflected in the curves of my glass, glaring at the young man, spiky hair thick with gel, year-old Aston Villa top hanging off his thin spotty frame.  I can hear his voice from my seat, at the other end of the pub.
     "Caned", he says.
     "Drunk."
     "Inebriated."  He smiles.
     "Intoxicated".
     "Pissed."
     "Cabbaged"
     "Pie-eyed."
     "Bombed".
     "Plastered."
     I glare across the bar at him, his loud voice making my head ache.
     "Loaded."
     "Merry."
     "Pickled."
     "Sloshed."
     "Soaked."
     "Well-oiled, slaughtered, lashed."  The man pauses to down his pint, his friends finding him one of the greatest wits they had ever met.
     "Fuddled."
     "Canned"
"Mullahed."
     "Half seas over."
     "Tanked up."
     "Stewed".
     “Stoned.”
     He pauses to think.  His face wrinkles as he does so.
     "Under the influence."
     "Blitzed"
     "Monged".  "Arseholed."  "Tiddly."
     "Tight."
     "Hammered".  He raises an eyebrow.  He's obviously remembered a beauty.  "Bacchic", he says proudly.
     But then he notices me watching him from across the bar, and shouts at me, "What's your problem, then?"
     I stare at him in silence, as the man shrugs his shoulders then says to his friends, "Ah, he's only jealous 'cos I'm a drinking man."
     He is, of course, wrong.
     But I would have been impressed - had I not known that Eskimos have twenty-nine words for snow.

'Waiting' by Gaynor Jones

Even with a pastel cloud of candy floss obscuring her face, the woman next to me is familiar. Flecks of sugar get caught in the scattered moles on her chin as she chews.

When the music starts, her body tenses.

‘It looks fast, but they’ll be OK. Is it your granddaughter you’re waiting for?’

‘My daughter.’

I can’t see anyone older than six on the carousel.

‘I watched her get on it. But I never saw her get off.’

 My skin prickles as I realise who she is.

‘I - I’m sorry. I saw her in the paper.’

We all did. Years ago. She was the story of the decade - until she wasn’t.

‘She climbed up on that horse, right there. But I never saw her get off.’

 The girl with the chestnut hair and moon-blue eyes beamed out from posters and milk cartons for years. Ubiquitous. Then she faded into background news, for everyone but this woman.

‘Today’s her birthday’.

‘Do you come back every year?’

She turns to me, chewing the now barren wooden stick between yellowed teeth.

‘I come back every day.’

She tosses the stick to the floor.

‘We’d argued, you know.’

I knew. I’d read every word of the interviews as a teen. Our nation became armchair detectives. Until we remembered our chores, our lives.

‘I only put her on to give me five minutes’ peace. You know how children are.’

I think of tantrums, untidy bedrooms and refused meals. As the carousel slows to a stop, I watch the exit gate like a hawk.

 My daughter bounds over.

‘Mom! Can I ride again?’

I embrace her, tight.

‘Of course! I’ll go with you.’

I turn to the woman, inadequate.

‘It was nice to meet you.’

I squash my daughter onto my stomach as though I can envelop her back into the safety of my womb. I marvel at the miracle of her hair, feel her warm tummy rising under my hands, inhale her laughter. We pass the woman on the bench over and over, until the last time, when the carousel starts to slow, when I look over and she is gone.

'Jasmine And The Darklit Corner' by Ashling Dennehy

I wanted to plant Jasmine in our garden.

I imagined us reading on the patio, surrounded by its scent on summer evenings, after the tang of barbequed food and cedar smoke has wafted away.

Jasmin draws bees and good fortune, keeps away jealousy and midges. It was the scent of my teenage years, when things seemed infinitely more urgent and I would smoke on the flat roof outside my bedroom window at dawn. I'd come back peaceful, smelling of its perfume instead of rancid ash.

But our garden faces the wrong way and our house blocks the light needed for what I want.

I went with my husband's suggestion. After he told me that my Jasmine would grow twisted and ugly outside of full sunlight, he kept right on talking until I was encircled by disenchanting options. I nodded and asked questions about pruning but I have long since forgotten the answers.

Now, we have Clematis. It grows like weeds, stretching out grasping tendrils that, when unable to find purchase, pull at me as I walk to the shed for paper towels or washing powder. I skirt the edges of their reach and I carry sharpened, red-handled pruners whenever I venture outside my own back door.

Every now and again I hack at them with shears, reefing the twisting vines until the entire plant seems to cave toward me, as if to smother me bodily. I wonder if one day those arms will reach out and pull me into their darklit corner, their haven of shade.

As I sit at my kitchen table and pay the bills, I wonder why anyone would build a house that faces the wrong way.

'Off the Peg' by Debbie Taggio

A grubby hand punches through the open window of my musty-smelling estate demanding money;  his arm hairs tickle my nose and my eye follows his pointed finger along a muddy track to a youth wearing an oversized radioactive green hi-viz gillet.  The youth beckons me onwards, stopping me with a Native American How, indicating my trading spot for the next four hours.



Mourning my Sunday paper lie-in, I unload a horde of essential-at-the-time junk onto the dewy grass and fight with the bent legs of my dad’s saggy pasting table to display my dusty bargains.  Professional car-booters rootle through my unwanted chattels with black-Friday style abandon, firing questions at me like a Guantanamo Bay interrogation:

'Jewellery?'

'Designer bags?'

‘Porcelain?’

‘Gold.’

Yes, and I’ve put them in a special box along with the Faberge Egg over there, marked MUG.

‘How much for Alanis Morrisette, luv?’

‘CD’s? 50p.... luv.’  I say, getting the hang of the lingo.

Rummaging around in his jeans pocket he places a groinally heated coin into the palm of my hand which I throw like a burning ember into my cash tin.

A woman grinds the fabric of a Next suit my husband bought for a christening between her nicotine-stained fingers, sniffing the length of the trousers like a lover kissing a woman’s arm.

‘It’s only been worn once,’ I offer, '£3?'

'50p?  It's for my son, for court.   It might not fit and I don't want to take the risk.'

'£2? You can't get much for two quid these days.'

'Sorry luv, 50p's me limit, its the risk...'.

'Yes, you said. Fine.  Far be it from me to deny your son a decent outfit to wear in court.  What's he done?'

'Nothing luv, he's the brief!’

'The things we call signs today' by Elaine Dillon

When the ground was hard in winter, you’d tell me the birds couldn’t get to the worms. You drizzled a tap over the stale end of a loaf, tearing beak-sized chunks, and I made it my job to carry the bowl down the garden. The brittle blades squeaked, bending under my feet. I inched forwards, following the long plumes of my own breath, your corduroy knees at one elbow.

Heavy wingbeats and burbling coos signalled the arrival of the pigeons on the telephone lines, their fat bodies sagging the cables.

"Greedy birds,” you'd say, as we watched the robins hopping round the outskirts, searching for a gap amongst the plump, cobalt feathers.

Robins started to visit me, after you died. Christmas cards would have us believe they are a winter bird, but they came in incongruous seasons; landing on the stone sill of my kitchen and cocking their head, peering in with one shiny eye. I wonder if you knew the legend of the robin’s red breast. It's said that he flew to Jesus, comforting Him as He died on the cross, and is forever stained with His blood. The robins watched my lips through the glass.

Kirsty chews the corner of her mouth as she listens to me talk about the birds. Then she talks about the sweets you always had in your pockets, and how you drew kids like swarms. I watch the window mist over with the steam from my cup. A kid’s trike has been abandoned outside but the colours are muted under the condensation, until the glass starts to run with heavy beads of water. Kirsty sighs, tells me there was talk too. She curls around the mug she is clutching, hiding it inside the folds of her coat that fall forward with a curtain of dark hair.

I think of the play-park at the end of the street. When I was done with the swings, you’d take my hands and spin me until my feet left the ground, going faster and faster until sky, grass, and the faces of children I didn’t know all became one streaky circle. Your big, laughing face was the steady centre in my blurry world.

You’d lower me carefully, my feet dragging a giddy arc in the bark chips, where I’d rest pink cheeks and inhale the woody flakes, the dampness seeping quickly into my clothes. When I rolled over, you were already twirling another, as the kids flocked around you chirping me, me, me, me, me!

When I read more about robins I find out they are a spring bird. They are about renewal and rebirth. A sign to forget the past, one post says. And I wait for one to appear.


'The Grey Man' by Emma De Vito

It was a typical Monday morning. Office workers strolled in lazily from the weekend which had left them feeling sorry for themselves. Daniel hobbled to his seat, switching on his computer which moaned about working almost as much as he did.
"Nice weekend?" Gerry, the IT technician, wandered into the office and directed his predictable question to its occupants. No response.
"Kettle's boiled. Do you want a top up?"
A young graduate looked briefly in the direction this question had drifted in from before returning to her work. 
This was Gerry Portly's life: dull, boring and depressing. The optimist in him made him believe someday, one of the many people he fixed IT related problems for would acknowledge his hard work and commitment; his dedication; his power and mastery of being able to solve most problems with 'try turning it off and on again'.
Walking to his desk, Gerry froze. Over the weekend, photographs of his nephews had disappeared. His laptop gone. His collection of pointless and ever growing hard drives absent. Had someone fired him without him knowing?
"Excuse me Mr Greaves. I..." The sentence hung there, expectant but unfinished as Gerry shuffled into his manager's office.
"Ah, Mr Hughes, thank you. Come on in. We're so glad you could start at such short notice. Our old IT technician, Gerry, just disappeared. Went home one day and didn't come back. Poof!”
Mr Hughes coughed uncomfortably, taking his seat. 
Gerry's ears were ringing. 'Disappeared'? 'Didn't come back'? 'Poof'? He was standing right there. 
"Er, Mr Greaves. I'm sorry. I think there's been some terrible misunderstanding."
His words trickled from him in rapid succession, falling on deaf ears as Mr Greaves and Mr Hughes were in deep conversation; it was like he didn't even exist. 
Didn't exist? The idea was absurd. But it did ring true. For weeks now, he had felt almost certain but not quite sure. 
He ran to the toilets, recalling how he had been repeatedly ignored. Trodden on. Pushed past. Disregarded. Gripping the sink, he looked in the mirror.
But he wasn't there. Staring back at him was vacant air.
He pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes and pushed hard, rubbing them repeatedly to try and make them work properly. But it didn't matter. When he took them away he still saw nothing. 
The door to the toilets opened, his colleagues voices’ drifting into the room. He dashed into a cubicle, locking the door quietly. 
"So, what do you think happened to him? A guy doesn't just disappear."
"I suppose so, but then, to be fair, he was never really here anyway. I mean, he was here, but not here if you know what I mean. He was like a ghost. Things got broken. Things got fixed. But you never saw who was doing it."
The toilet cubicle door swung open. 
Turning sharply, the two men looked to see who had been listening.
But no-one was there.

'Pernil by Christopher Gonzalez

My mom stabs coin-sized pockets into a pork shoulder. This allows vinegar to swish through the muscle fibers—like white wine in a sommelier’s mouth: in, then out again.

The vinegar is unavoidable, she says. It cleans the pork and kills all unwanted bacteria.

There are parts of myself that I know are unwanted by others, those angry men and women I see on TV. My skin is the sepia tone of a vintage photograph they’d rather keep locked away in a chest. Would they scrub the Spanish from my tongue? Perhaps they’d flense away our language, peel it back like a layer of porky fat and rub the wounds raw with salt.

I stand at my mom’s side, rolling unpeeled cloves of garlic in my palm like dice. I want to ask her if she is also afraid of those men and women. But, she’s busy. She reaches into the bowl to work the meat, and when her fingertips, too often riddled with paper cuts and random nicks, make contact with the acidic bath, they whiten.

Does it hurt? I ask.

She shrugs. I know the pain well, she says. You’ll learn, too.


originally published in The Airgonaut

'First Author' by Jan Stinchcomb

The female octopus gets a valentine in a bottle of ruby glass. It’s from a male who’s completely unremarkable, stubbornly cream colored, never varying. Eight-legged. Forgettable. The valentine is an offer of sperm. She can’t say no.

She can’t refuse because her body tells her that death is near and she must reproduce. It’s more thanantos than eros. She is neither sentimental nor philosophical, just plain tired. She starts looking for a den. From the time she was little and unlikely to survive, she already had a den in mind. It is an ideal cave, with a dagger-rock entrance, located not far from where she was swimming when she found the valentine. Off she goes.

In the cave she shatters the bottle and little fragments of paper drift away. Her sweetheart’s penis is inside, his detachable hectocotylus, filled with sperm. She inserts the organ and fertilizes the eggs before releasing them.

Now her life begins again. Everything, all the living and surviving, the motion and evading, has been leading up to this. She will never have another meal. She’ll guard the eggs, cover them with soft sand, and keep a current going so that these babies always have fresh air and moving water. It’s a fact that she will kill any predator who draws near, but it doesn’t take much to scare off a crab. The bigger fish are another matter. Sometimes she is forced to shoot a glorious spray of ink that blacks out the sea.

The cave is world enough.

The octopus loses her beauty. Her skin goes from violet to white, and her eyes, once coal-bright spots of intelligence, become milky, but she can still see her eggs. A miniature octopus is visible inside each one; every baby has eight quivering legs that look capable of pounding their way out.

One morning a fragment of red glass catches the light at the mouth of the cave. The first baby shoots out, chasing that red light. There is another baby, and then another. Endless babies. An ocean’s worth of babies.

Only one of these will grow to adult size and make it to a marine laboratory. At the laboratory is a scientist, an inspired researcher, who will shake each of the octopus’s eight long legs in greeting. There will be much discussion of touch, communication and consciousness. There will be grants. There will be octopus T-shirts for sale. The octopus will have a human name. He will be famous. He will evolve into an escape artist who can pass through a coin-sized hole. He will become an accomplished thief, a collector of shiny objects. One day he will steal the scientist’s favorite pen.

And the story he writes will be his own. A blistering family history. A shocking tell-all. A best seller. Beyond the realm of the human imagination.

'Wishes on Stars' by Annmarie Miles

The closing credits rolled; the theme tune opening with power chords that would bring a tear to a Guns’n’Roses fan. They watched as she wrote with furious haste.

She was the most feared movie critic in Hollywood. Her words determined whether your premiere was attended by a cast of Hollywood’s finest, or the cast of Star Trek.

Wishes Puddlestock!

The name struck fear in the heart of every movie producer, director and pretzel vendor.



The music ended, and house lights faded up. Most of the film critics were already sipping Mai Tais on 42nd street, but not Wishes. Hunched over her pad, she guarded her words as they poured onto the page like molasses on homemade ice cream.

“She's taking too long dammit.” Ralph Ecclestein paced. A long review from Wishes was bad. Her five-star reviews were always less than ten words.

“Someone remind me to call Leonard Nimoy's agent in the morning.”

“Booking him for the premiere again boss?” Ecclestein’s assistant ventured the question; but no coherent answer came. Just a series of grunts and muffled swears as Ecclestein continued doing laps of the viewing booth.

“She had her eyes closed for most of it, m-m-maybe that's a good sign?” The meek voice came from a dark corner of the room.

“What?” Ecclestein swung around. “Who the hell are you? What are you talking about? Who is this guy?”

“Boss! He's the new intern. What do you mean kid? What are you saying? Get over here!”

“Well … It's just … I noticed her close her eyes a lot. She was concentrating hard. Especially at that scene. You know, where the mafioso confesses his love for the gal who’s about to have her appendix taken out by the her father’s rival; the one pretending to be a surgeon?”

“That's the best scene of the whole damn movie!”

“Yeah, well her eyes were closed for most of it.”

“Dialogue!” Ecclestein punched the table. “Dammit! She was concentrating on dialogue.”



The discussion continued. Oblivious to it all, Wishes Puddlestock looked up and noticed the empty seats and blank screen. She put her pen down and took a deep breath. Moonlighting for Mills & Boon was taking its toll, but as usual she was able to complete a brand-new story in less than 120 minutes.

She’d already reworded the review she’d written for Ecclestein's previous movie. They were always the same anyway.

She put her pen and pad away and wondered if this should be her last review. Writing love stories was really all she ever wanted to do; maybe it was time to start doing it with the lights on. It felt like the right time to tell people that Wishes Puddlestock was putting down her pen and taking up … her other pen.

She headed for the door and waved at the viewing booth, stretching her fingers out to assure Ecclestein of his five stars. He didn’t see her, he was busy on the phone ordering flowers for George Takei.

'Someone to watch over' by Brian Weston

From my vantage point I have a view into your world.
Your life history. Page by page.
Every morning you are the first one awake. At 6:30 you open the back door and let the dog out. You don't like the dog. The dog doesn't like you. You are not its master.
When the morning sun is out you raise your head up into the rays.
You engulf yourself into the warmth of the sun. For a second you look. Happy.

Then chaos ensues as the rest of the house awake. In the madness you blend into the background. Invisible in your own house. But I see you.
You go to say goodbye to her. The body language speaks volumes. She recoils as you move closer. Eventually letting you kiss her on her cheek. She swats your arm away like an irritating fly as you try to affectionately touch her. You look like you have been mortally wounded. Weighed down with sadness you slouch out of the house.

Calmness descends as the house empties. The house breathes a sigh of relief.
She potters about the everyday mundane that nobody likes to do.
At 1pm, Tuesday and Thursday her lover slithers into your house.
Her body language is different. They could not be closer. Passion and lust in equal measure. They make love on the kitchen diner floor.
The new flooring that you laid last Bank Holiday weekend. By yourself. On your own. Alone. I feel sick for you. I feel hurt for you. I want to tell you.
I know if I told you it would not hurt as much. But I am not allowed.
Those are the rules. My stupid rules.

Thirteen hours later you return.
You move silently around the dimly lit room. Like a considerate intruder.
You even pierce the film on the microwave meal as quietly as possible. Just to ensure you don't wake anybody from their slumber. Always kind, always thinking of others.
You start to eat. After a few mouthfuls you raise your head. Chewing, you survey your domain. When you finish chewing you still keep looking around the empty space in the room. You look lost. Alone. I feel a tear roll down my cheek.

Every morning you are the first one awake.
At 6:30 you open the back door and let the dog out.
Today you stand in the morning sun.
With your arms outstretched it looks like you are trying to hug the sun. I share a smile with you.

'Wishing for a Wagon Wheel' by Marissa Hoffmann

I was a kid on the packed lunch table. Actually there were two packed lunch tables. There was the one where the fussy or rich kids sat. Their mothers packed brightly coloured lunch boxes, which nestled into each other. I don’t think there were many fathers packing lunches then. 

On our table, aside from the girl who had an Um Bungo carton and a Wagon Wheel everyday, we all had a white sliced sandwich (Marmite or lemon curd in mine), an apple and a drink. Our mums went out to work. Mine was a nurse, mostly working nights. 

My sandwich looked least nice because my mum wouldn’t cut the crusts off (it put hairs on my chest). But, for fun, I would press my sandwich together, between my index finger and thumb, multiple times, all over, until it was a really thin version of its former self. Then, I’d drink the warm lemon squash in the smelly tall blue Tupperware, wrapped in a plastic bag because it leaked. 

There wasn’t any point in complaining about the smelly, sticky Tupperware, Mum had lost her sense of smell as a child having a deviated septum corrected. My right nostril was blocked too but every lunch time, I vowed that I would never have the operation to correct it and I would be the mum who would be able to smell yucky Tupperware AND cut the crusts off and definitely cut the sandwich into mini triangles too. I’d also be the mum who would put in a Wagon Wheel to cheer me up if say, Mrs Wilson made me copy out my poem as many times as was needed (in pencil, because my handwriting wasn’t ready for ink pen, trying not to let my hot tears drip on the page, while Jennifer Lawrence got a gold star) until I could work out what was wrong with it. 

'Sleeping Wraiths' by Christine Collinson


She trod determinedly across the rocky shore, a lantern swaying in her shaking hand. The moon shed a pale light on the sea; the tide had slipped out and only a soft wind stirred. 

Against the sky, the once majestic ship lay tipped and torn. Its tattered sails glowed like sleeping wraiths. 

All of the surviving crew had been rescued; she knew that. Yet she was curious to see, and to know, how it ended. She owed him that much. 

People spoke of a storm like none before. She had been stricken by the sound of its anger; thrashing around their cottage all through that long night.

He’d never spoken much about being at sea; perhaps he had been content out there. She gazed at the wreck through warm tears and she whispered to him, as the breeze stirred the sails into ragged, beautiful shapes.

'Two Hundred Years Ago We Would Have Been Dead By Now' by Louise Mangos

Forty years of twisting hands inside her belly, dragging at her guts for five days every month, as regular as a Swiss train.
Three natural births, each round head inherited from their high-browed father, burning as they crowned, leaving their imprints on her cervix and her memory like the sear of a cattle brand.
Five years of crimson flames rising from her breasts to wrap around her throat like a hungry serpent. Five years of the softening of flesh between her hips where she used to be as flat as a carpenter’s bench. Five years pressing her cheek against the cold glass of windowpanes, and grabbing menus from passing waiters to use as fans. Five years peeling herself from sodden bed sheets, and standing naked in front of the open fridge in the middle of the night.
But most of all, it’s the darkness in her head, the illogical anger and inexplicable shame. She spirals down, this feeling that her life is over. He no longer looks at her with hunger in his eyes. Someone needs to catch her in a safety net and persuade her that there is something worth living for.

'Saving His Pie' by Jan Elman Stout

The warden himself delivers Henry's special meal, cooked by another prisoner. Watches him eat. Henry’s request: chicken fried steak, French fries, green beans in fat back, cola, hot apple pie a la mode. He finishes the steak, fries, beans. Slurps the last sips of cola through his straw. Hears the tray scrape the metal desk as he pushes away the pie. “Not hungry?” asks the warden. “Saving it for after,” Henry says. The warden prays. Henry’s role in the botched robbery: never clear. Boom boxes, computers, sawed-off shotgun: his basement, his prints. IQ: borderline. Gurney strapped, Henry asks the warden, “Hold my hand?” The warden rubs his own hands together, takes Henry’s in his, checks the clock, nods. He's done this before. Anesthesia catches Henry. He sees steam rising from the pie, running rivers of ice cream. 


*

First published in (b)OINK; Issue 5; June 9, 2017

'Fall for Me' by Rhoda Greaves

I’m going to ask her tonight, definitely. Dad said, you’re not even twelve son, what’s next – extra pocket money for johnnies? Mum told him not to be vulgar, then smiled at me; that smile that makes me want to yank her to the knees by the hair: shout, I’m not a baby, Mum.

It’s in the sports hall like always, but this year they’ve got a proper DJ, not just one of the dads. There she is, all curled hair and sprayed-on glitter. I go to tap her shoulder, but James and Jeremy, in the opposite corner, look at me all, why are you going up to a girl? So, before she turns around, I jump on her back: mime a lasso at them one-handed. Dig my knees into her skinny hips and breathe in marshmallows. Then I’m falling forwards. I put out my hands but my landing is broken. I roll off. And her blood’s on my knees. More of it trapped in the grooves of my trainers.

What happened? says Mr Miller, with a face like a father’s instead of a Head’s.

And she looks at me through the bloodied fingers at her nose. And I look back, scared, with sorry in my throat. And she opens her mouth, spits a small red pool. Then she looks at Mad Miller: I’m sorry sir, she says, I slipped.

'Handyman' by Grant Stone

The plan was to do the place up and flip it but Mary knew that wasn't going to happen soon as she came home from work and found Reg sitting on the couch, tea towel wrapped around his fist. He'd started ripping out the old bathroom that morning. Got the ventilation grill half out before the chair slipped out from under him.

"For god's sake. There's a ladder in the shed."

"I didn't want to waste time."

He'd dripped blood right up the hallway and all over the kitchen floor. Hadn't bothered to clean it up, though the mess on the bench showed that he'd found the time to make lunch.

Mary squinted through the dried blood on his palm. "Did you clean it out at least?"

"Ran it under the tap."

"Could be infected. Could be tetanus."

"It'll be right. I just need a rest."

Flog off the first house, use that to jump up the ladder a little. Do that a couple more times and they'd be sweet. In a few years time she'd leave work, and they'd cash up. Early retirement in a place by the sea. Tauranga maybe, or Raglan.
 
Reg had plenty of excuses. Marty was going to come round and give him a hand, but he cancelled last minute. It was too damp. Too dry. Waiting for wood. He clipped things out of the Property Press, run down shacks in prosperous suburbs, bought for the land, knocked down and replaced with apartments. Wouldn't hear of getting professionals in.

Six months later Mary leaned on the ladder and looked up at the ventilation grill. Reg had broken the plastic clip and it now it didn't fit right.

She did her best.

'Mine' by Eden Royce

Mother wears me like a skin.
            Or a coat she can put away when no longer needed. 
Mother shows me off, exposes me when she wants the world to see. Covers me up when she’d rather not know I’m there, like a mole or a scar on otherwise perfect flesh. 
Mother takes what she wants from me. I gave you the ultimate gift. Can’t you give me a little something? Don’t I deserve it? 
My perfume scents her neck. My handbag has her life in it—phone, wallet, but my lipstick, which isn’t a shade that flatters her. The color makes her teeth look translucent, unnatural, as if they could move on their own, grip and rip without her knowledge or care. 
And they do.
I hide as much of myself from her as I can. I opened an account at another bank, online, so I will have my own money in case I might someday get out of this town and away. Distance myself from her sharp smile, her outstretched hand.
Don’t I deserve it?
She comes into my room as I’m getting ready for bed, combing my hair before I put it in braids for the night. 
Her sigh of longing makes me freeze. 
I wish I had this hair, she says, taking the comb from me and running the wide teeth through my locks. She combs from the scalp, which I never do, tugging through snarls until my head tilts back and I wince. Her gaze meets mine in the mirror, revealing a shadowy place where her memories tumble over each other, clawing for purchase.
No, I won’t say more. She’s... my mother.
The look in her eyes soon clears. Becomes determination, razor-edged and glistening. The comb’s raking gentles. It strokes through my hair, removing tangles in a thoughtful, methodical rhythm. Soft movement that keeps me stiff with fear. 
Because I know. 
She puts down the comb, then faces me. Runs her palms over my now detangled strands. She reaches under my waterfall of hair, her fingers curl into the flesh of my nape. Her nails press. 
Don’t I deserve it?

'Winning At Wembley' by Diane Tatlock

That's what started it. The lawn. It was in a terrible state. No clear edges, patches of daisies and dandelions. Even the moles had given up. It hadn't been cut for weeks.
     'Can't you get away from watching that football for two minutes? Get out there and cut the grass?' Lucy felt like the wicked witch he was always accusing her of being.
     'Gotta keep up with the action, haven't I? The boys'll be full of it when we get down the pub.' Wayne's eyes never left the screen.
     'What about later, then?'
     Wayne swung round. 'Look, Luce. I work all week. Need my downtime. Right?' He turned his back and resumed his shouting.
     Lucy finished folding the washing. 'I work too, you know. You still expect meals on the table, clean shirts to wear, though, don't you?' She slammed the laundry basket down on the worktop.
     'Oh, don't start. I don't need it.'
     'Just go then. Get out. Find someone else stupid enough to put up with you.'
     And that's what he'd done. Gone.
     
     The grass still needed cutting though. Lucy hauled the mower out and tugged on the cord again and again, but nothing happened. She plumped down, head in hands and wept.
     Sam waved as he walked past a couple of minutes later. 'Having trouble there, Lucy? Want some help?'
     'You're a life saver, Sam.'
     'Wayne not about then?'
     'Gone. Football more important than me apparently.'
     Sam showed her how to operate the machine. She decided  she liked the hum of it; the rhythm of walking up and down; getting the perfect stripes. Better than Wayne's version of Wembley she laughed to herself.

Wayne sauntered up a week later with that stupid hangdog look of his, a wilting bunch of supermarket chrysanthemums in his hand. But it was Sam lying out in the garden in perfect alignment with Lucy.

'Inside Story' by Sandra Arnold




In the city there were too many voices. Loud. Discordant. She couldn’t make sense of them. In the daylight their clamour ensured she walked into lamp posts, forgot appointments, drifted off at traffic lights. At night she lost sleep trying to fit all the pieces together.
So she left the city for the countryside. For an old house with a garden. To clear a space for herself. To listen. To think. In this place, where noise meant distant sheep and the occasional tractor rattling down the gravel road, she learned to listen differently. She learned to trust what she heard.
Sometimes she’d find herself kneeling in the flower beds, gripping her trowel until her fingers turned blue, unwilling to move until she knew exactly where the dead pets were buried and the ashes of a longed-for baby; until she  understood the broken dreams of the couple whose initials were carved on the plane tree; saw the love letters burning in the bin; heard the children singing in the river before the sudden silence; watched the old woman at the mailbox reading her son’s last letter; saw the old man so intent on videoing his young wife with the hitchhiker that he didn’t see who put rat poison in his tea.
Friends came to visit. They expressed doubts.  Perhaps a little too quiet? Not much happening? A bit dull? She marvelled that they couldn’t hear what was rising up through tree roots, creeping beneath bark, whispering inside leaves.

‘Awakening’ by Chris Drew

“It’s pronounced Err eye-va yo-coo-kill,” I say
Oriva yocokl?” he says.
“Almost. You’ve got to click your tongue at the end. Like this: yo-coo-click.”
Oriva yoco click,” he says
I nod, smile. He’ll never get it.
“What does it mean, anyway?” he says.
“Wasteland,” I say.
“Makes sense.”
He adjusts his scarf. His breath unfurls from his fur-lined hood and drifts away.
“Remind me why we’re here again?” he says
“Fifteen years. Crystal. Whatever I want, remember?”
“I thought you’d choose a decanter, or champagne flutes. You know, something traditional. Something you could keep.”
“How can you still not know me, after all this time?”
He crosses his arms, kicks ice off his boots. The crystals scatter into countless sparkling fragments.
“Maybe you’ve changed,” he says.
“Maybe you haven’t,” I say.
Removing a glove, I squat down and press my bare hand into the snow piled at the crater’s edge. Seven thousand feet beneath us, a lake of liquid magma lies dormant, waiting to erupt.
“I’ve had enough,” he says. “Are you coming?”
As he walks away, I step onto the ice cap covering the volcano and stride toward the middle of the crater. Snow falls and melts on my skin.
Lying flat, I rest my cheek against the frozen crust and close my eyes.
Deep, deep within the mountain, the fire begins to stir.

'Question Time' by Jamie Graham

Think of your ugliest friend…

No, not her - the other one.”

His words had taken her completely by surprise. Her muscles tensed as if glued to a horror movie at the cinema. Sitting alone in the dark, feet welded to the sticky carpet, eyes on stalks, fumbling mindlessly for overpriced popcorn.

Mel had appeared out of nowhere in her mind's eye as soon as the words had spilled playfully from his thin lips. And ‘the other one’ was poor Chantelle, mainly on account of her crooked nose and lone yellow tooth.

Brian looked across the uncluttered desk, cheap veneer shining under the artificial lighting. His eyes were almost an identical shade of blue to his shirt - but the tie was slightly out of kilter with the rest of his appearance. Old-fashioned, as if liberated from an uncle’s wardrobe for his first interview and never returned.

After an awkward, funeral-like silence, he continued.

“Sales, you see, is about getting into people's minds. Everyone has at least a couple of ugly friends, whether they'd like to admit it or not.”

Laura cusped her hands together to prevent them shaking. This interview wasn’t going as she'd expected. The stench of cheap furniture polish tainted her nostrils.

Sensing her shock, Brian spoke again.

“So, essentially, you'll be selling our new online service 'Genitaliapp’ - think of it as a kind of moral compass for MPs' nether regions. It's wearable tech that gives them a chastening electric shock ‘down there’ when their hormone levels get too high. It retails at ten thousand but it's a bargain compared to the potential lost earnings caused by an extra-marital affair or illicit encounter with the oldest profession in the world. Any questions?”

Laura was sure that “WTF?” probably wasn't the right thing to ask. After what she hoped seemed like a considered pause rather than furiously treading water, she blurted out:

“So, they pay 10k to get zapped in the emmm…privates?”

“Bingo!” Brian proclaimed, as if he'd actually just triumphed in the popular ball-based game against the blue-rinse brigade. He could practically taste the success, over and above a mouthful of his cut-price aftershave from eBay. The odour best described as 'wet wood’.

Laura wasn't sure what to say next. She glanced at the notebook in front of her where she'd jotted down a bullshit response to “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?” It certainly wasn't flogging a penile punishment app to the randy rich who should know better.

She needed a way out, like a claustrophobic sumo wrestler wedged in to a lift stuck between floors on a hot summer's day.

“Think of the twenty third letter of the alphabet…

And now a metal device used to secure boats.”

By the time the answers had sunk in, Brian was alone in the room. He could feel his blood boiling at how Laura’s interview had ended. The unwelcome jolt in his groin the final insult as he realised the prototype still needed work.

'A Couple 3' by Andre Lepine

Why can't you speak plainly? You told me you wanted to talk, with talk all caps in quotation marks like our relationship's in trouble. But now you start with a premise:

We think of the world as a series of 2s, when we really should see 3s. Believing 2 sides to every story forgets viewpoint 3, the (sometimes) objective narrator. Saying it takes 2 to tango neglects musician 3 providing a rhythm.

This feels like a lecture. Again you sit on our couch and speak around me, declaring your deep understanding of the world. What is there for me to say?

I could tell you that a number is divisible by 3 if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3. Take 24 (my age): 24 divided by 3 equals 8, while 2 plus 4 equals 6 divided by 3 equals 2. Or maybe you prefer 18 (months we've been together): 18 divided by 3 equals 6, while 1 plus 8 equals 9 divided by 3 equals 3 (there's your damn 3).

No, instead of math and science you speak about wordplay, though universal mechanics force us to perceive 3 dimensions. You expound about differing perspectives, yet fail to note just how many world religions share a reverence for 3 among their doctrines. And you make me listen to you analyze our relationship without once mentioning the 1 you're leaving me for, the 1 who makes this a 3.I just wanted to be part of a 2.

'PLEASE DO NOT BEND' by Rob Walton

If it didn’t say PLEASE DO NOT BEND on the envelope, she would always make a point of bending, creasing, folding if possible. Her ‘bad back’, wear and tear between the fourth and fifth vertebrae, meant that the folding sometimes hurt. But it was worth it.

Parcels could be shoved through the letter boxes, with the possibility of the brown paper tearing, with a smile on her lips, with the muttered, “I’ll give you eBay”.

She thought of herself as Gretel, wrestling control from her incompetent brother, when she left a trail of red elastic bands on paths, roads, occasionally garden gates. She would sometimes try to make it look accidental, haphazard, random if you will. She had absorbed the strange looks when people saw her practising in the sorting office.

Perhaps her favourite was keeping items in her bag if people looked out of windows expectantly.  “No, sorry, Mr Noris, nothing today.”  Going round the corner, “And there’ll be nothing for you tomorrow either.”

On her last round, on her last day, she slipped her own redundancy notice (restructure…efficiency…thank you...service) through the final box. The bag and jacket offered more resistance, but she managed.

'Ankles' by Susmita Bhattacharya

The day cousin Liz told me I had fat ankles I started hating myself. I was ten and she was fifteen. And she had kissed very boy on her street.
There she was, balancing perfectly in her stilettos, her honey tanned legs glowing in the soft evening light. She shimmered, all gold and white and pink while I took in her loveliness. My eyes swept from the swell of her bosom to the curve of her hips, down the length of her legs stopping to look at the beauty of those perfect ankles.
Her words buzzed around me like wasps, stinging me with their cruelty. Always the subject of ridicule: the shape of my body, the heaviness of my walk. I watched her giggle with the others, the bunch of flowers that she clutched in her slender hands. Her knuckles white and strained.  But I smiled. It was okay. It really was. She didn’t matter anymore.
The music started and I felt his arm link through mine. We walked slowly, passing friends and family, who looked at us through teary eyes and smiles. I felt her presence behind me, following me. This was my moment. The girl who always fell behind. The butt of all jokes.  But today, I was the one who made it to the aisle, while cousin Liz hung behind, perfect in her perfectness. Only a twitch of envy marring that perfect face.

GREEN STORIES: ‘Fruits of Labour’ by Holly Schofield

This piece is part of our Green Stories series, showcasing the winners of Green Stories ' first flash fiction competition in which wri...