Sunday 22 June 2014

That's all folks!

Well, either you are completely sick of flash-fictions, and you won't even be reading this. Or, like me, you find them a source of endless wonder, and now you're all disappointed that they've come to an end.

Either way, I think all those writers deserve a massive round of applause, and we thank them for their words.

We will be back for next year's National Flash-Fiction Day, if not before. But in the meantime, keep writing, keep reading, and most importantly, keep flashing!

Calum Kerr
Editor and Director of National Flash-Fiction Day.

Saturday 21 June 2014

'Jump' by Rob Walton

“So how many’s that?”
“Five this year.”
“Yes, well.  That’s the way it goes.  This is the way it goes.”
Wordsworth looked down and gestured for me to look down with him.  We were high, seriously high.
“I’m not sure I like it up here.”
“Come on then.  Let’s go inside.  You only need to ask.”
Inside was reached through a door which seemed to have neither lock nor handle.  The furnishings were a settee and a wooden dining chair.  The chair was on the settee.
“Make yourself comfortable.”
I wasn’t here to carp, so I sat on the settee, removed the chair and put my feet on it.  I wouldn’t want to over-egg this, but I was profoundly uncomfortable; almost in pain.  The settee fabric was surely designed to relieve itches and the colour was there to make whatever mismatched outfit you had chosen look fantastic.
“I don’t think so.”
“All right.  Thanks.”
He left and returned within a minute.  He offered me a large glass of red.  In his other hand he had a Lidl carrier bag.
“You got one in there have you?  Is it – hang on!”
I stopped myself.  The wine was unbelievably good.  Not only above my expectations – but seriously delicious.
“Not bad, eh.  Twelve quid a bottle from the bloke next door.”
“Does he – is he – does he know -  ”
“Yeah, he’s a vintner.  Just part-time now, like, but he still knows the way to a man’s, you know.”
I drank some more and he shook the bag.  I finished my glass and he shook the bag again.  I leant forward and put the glass down on the chair, next to my right foot, and felt my hamstring getting annoyed with me.  He shook the bag in my face.
He put his hand in the bag and brought out what would surely be number six.  I licked my lips and made some noises which were new to me.
“I had one, but not like that.  Not quite the real McCoy, but not terrible either.  Made by a reputable company but not what Peter Tynan would have had.  Not what you’ve got there.”
“Lad in my class.  He had all the best gear, authentic stuff.  Walkman.  Not one from Tandy like me.  He had all the proper outfits, all the accessories.  Scuba diving, camping, polar expedition.  He didn’t do the Blue Peter making stuff.  He bought – ”
“Shut up a minute.  You’re getting on my nerves.  I want you to make a choice now.  Clothed or naked?”
The last one had been naked as far as I could tell, so I stuck with that.
“Correctamundo.  Let’s do it.”
I followed him down the corridor, back on to the balcony.  He took the plastic figure and placed it on the ledge.  He knelt down so his eyes were level with Action Man’s.
“I was going to save you, but this fucker’s got murderous intent.”
And he pushed.

'Betwixt' by Thaddeus Howze

Paolo will sit in a dimly-lit coffeehouse after work.

Dirty work often required something to wash the taste and the smell from one’s mind. Paolo Diaz was an Agent of Order and of Chaos. Two monsters which invaded his dreams as a child.

They came on the fire and smoke, burning his eyes and nose, flames set to drive his family out of their homes. As Paolo died, he railed and cursed a heaven which allowed such evil. And these two came, one a visage of soothing beauty. Cold to the touch, she lifted his chin, examined him and deemed him worthy. “He will grow strong and beautiful.” The other monster, slapped him in his child’s face and said he was broken. “Listen to the screams in his head. It is all he will ever hear in the dead of night.”

He went to work for them. As such, his work lay Between.

The smell of burning coffee soothed him. It’s bitter aroma filled his nostrils, taking him to his childhood in Colombia; before the fire, when he was happy.

Paolo hated his job. Not the work, but the people. His hands trembled with the exertion, the rough fabric gripped tightly as he held the corrupt businessman over the edge of the roof. He marveled at the strength he had been given. The man was as light as a feather but heavy was his soul, heavy with the evil that men did. He was out of balance, this businessman, Victor Dawson. His spiritual checkbook declared bankruptcy. Paulo was here to repossess his soul.

Paulo smelled the fear, the man was redolent with it. Dawson offered Paulo money, wealth, women. Paulo declined politely. He no longer needed such extravagances. Paulo was a man between; he was between here and there, thither and yon, left and right, good and evil, gifted and cursed.

Blessed now with the strength of ten men, unable to touch anyone tenderly for fear of harming them. He was promised this power would come with the capacity, a sense of rightness. As the man dropped to the pavement, his sins expunged, Paulo felt no right.

Or wrong.

He was an agent of the Balance. He was Between. He listened for the solid meaty sound. He noted the slight bounce and then the horrified screams of passersby.

Paulo stepped from the roof himself and was between here and there.

He appeared on the street, suddenly but no one noticed, he was Between their awareness of now and then. He was now. They could see him but didn’t.

His work completed, his phone received a text. “Well done, Pachjo”. He hated when they called him that. Only his mother could call him that as a child.

He already sensed the next place he was to be. His next subject in need of Balance would be in a coffeehouse five blocks from here.

He hoped he would have time for a cup. Of course he would.

Previously published in 30 Cubed SF Journal -​​

'Cuts Like A' by Simon Sylvester

The crowd fell silent as Marco took the stage. His cloak was lined with red satin. His moustaches were waxed into devil tips. The flat broad blades of his knives clashed at his hip. Across the stage, his wife was cuffed to a rotating disc. The wooden boards were scarred with countless knife strikes. Marco shrugged off his cloak, flexed his shoulders, cracked his knuckles, and spun on his heel to hurl the first knife. There were gasps from the audience as it flickered through the air and thudded into the board, inches from his wife’s neck. Marco grinned. God, how he loved showtime.
His personal challenge was to land the knife close enough to make her scream, to make a fool of her. That night, he succeeded three times. Once, the blade landed near enough to nick her arm.
The audience loved that one best of all.
After the show, he berated her cowardice.
‘You’re nothing without me,’ he sneered, and poured another calvados. ‘I could find another assistant anywhere. Anyone could do your job.’
He drank, and insulted her, and drank some more, and she sat there, cowed, bandaging the nick on her arm, and said nothing. He drank. He drank until his eyes grew dark, and the world rotated like a wooden disc. His last memory was his wife helping him out of the chair.
Marco woke with a thudding hangover. Every few moments, gravity sucked at his eyes and ached in his brain. Maybe he’d been too hard on her. He should apologise. When he opened his eyes, the world was spinning. It took him longer than it should have to realise why.
The auditorium was empty. His wife stood across the stage, wearing his cape, carrying his blades.
‘Miriam?’ he croaked.
‘You’re right, Marco,’ she said. ‘I’ve been thinking about it, and you’re right. Anyone could do my job.’
‘Miriam,’ he said.
She raised the first knife.
‘I wonder,’ she said, ‘if anyone could do yours.’

'Eight Thirty-Eight' by Tracy Fells

6:38 am: Jackson’s eyelids twitch. Facial muscles contort, pulling back in horror. In two hour’s time his dream will come true.
6:59 am: Jackson opens his eyes. A sunbeam slips through the gap in the curtains warming the bedroom; dust particles dance in the morning’s glory.
7:00 am: Crickets chirp from the mobile on the bedside table heralding the official start of Jackson’s day.
7:07 am: The TV double-act recites road traffic statistics. Warning drivers to look out for pedestrians at two critical time-points in the day. Six twenty two in the evening is a deadly time for foot-commuters when the number of fatalities peaks… but Jackson is already stepping into the shower and doesn’t hear the second, more lethal, time of day.
7:08 am: Hot water jets over Jackson’s head and shoulders. Shampoo runs into his eyes trickling down his cheeks like frothy tears
7:21 am: Jackson checks emails one-handed while towel drying his spiky hair. 
7:34 am: He pours boiling water into the travel mug, even though he knows this scolds the coffee, swallows a handful of vitamin tablets and a capsule of fish oil, resembling a prehistoric globule of tree amber.
7:58 am: The tube station is shut. Iron gates bar the entrance where a group of commuters hiss like a snake charmer’s basket.
8:24 am: Flicking onto Twitter Jackson tweets how he would have worn trainers if he’d known he was going to have walk all the bleeding way to the office!
8:28 am: The iPod’s battery dies. Without the numbing soundtrack a chorus of attention-seeking horns and the whine of brakes assault Jackson’s empty ears.
8:32 am: Jackson plugs the earphones into his phone and normality is resumed. An envelope pings onto the screen. A text from his mum. Jackson laughs. She hasn’t got the hang of predictive text.
8:36 am: If he cuts across the traffic before the lights change he can take a short-cut through the shopping arcade.
8:37 am: He steps from behind the yellow Peugeot, stagnant in the queue for the lights. The bus driver doesn’t quite see Jackson.
8:38 am: Jackson feels the sun on his face. The screeching ringtone of seagulls from his phone announces another text. The sky stretches across the city like an inviting ocean of blue.
8:39 am:

'Cat’s Eyes' by Karl Russell

The dead man came and lay with mummy again last night. Stanley just moved over to let him in, and mummy would have slept right through it like last time, so I had to do something. I arched and hissed like crazy, but when mummy woke, all she did was shoo me away. I spent the night on the landing, listening to him wheezing and groaning, doing the thing again.

Mummy was crying in the kitchen this morning, but she doesn’t know why. She just feels tired, like she isn’t sleeping properly. I wish I could talk, but Stanley says we can’t do anything, so why worry? He only cares that his bowl is filled. I tried to cheer mummy up by rubbing against her legs, but she tripped over me and yelled at me. She’s never done that before.

The dead man came back later on, when mummy was in the garden. She just thought it was the wind, blowing her skirt up. I could see his friends, standing by the fence, watching; they’re more here than before, but still not enough to touch her themselves. I tried to claw them but it goes straight through. I pointed them out instead, staring at them and crying, but mummy just called me a stupid moggie and walked right through them. Quick as a mouse, the dead man flew down and bit her ankle. I saw his dirty teeth digging in as she fell, but when she sat up, all she saw was a few red scratches, and me at her feet. The dead man and his friends were laughing at me, and I know he did it just to get me into trouble.

Now I’m locked outside and mummy’s on her own with the dead man and his friends. Stanley is blaming me for missing his supper, but he can go and howl. He thinks that we can just get another mummy. I don’t want another.

I tried the windows and both swingly doors, but mummy has locked them. Someone has anyway. I can hear them laughing and screeching, getting ready for doing the thing. Sitting on the windowsill I can see them too. The dead man is sitting on mummy’s lap, scraping holes in her tights. Mummy doesn’t see it but she’s scratching where he touches, tearing her own holes, right through to the red underneath.

I want to go in yowling and slashing like a tiger, to save mummy and show her what is happening, every day and night, before they are all here and ready to do the thing. She’s so tired, I don’t think she could take it if they all did it.

But then Stanley comes by, smelling of something lovely and fishy, and he says that the woman in the grey house has put out tuna for us.

Maybe a new mummy isn’t so bad an idea.

I follow him down the road, and leave the woman in the blue house with her friends.

'Full Marks' by Elaine Miles

I wish you’d stop standing there, gawping.  Surely you’re not that stupid.  Did you honestly not see this coming?
Teacher training didn’t prepare you for this, did it.  Didn’t prepare you for me, fifteen, hot ( let’s not deny it), bursting out of my uniform, desperate for a shag.  Or so you think.
Big mistake, letting me stay behind so many times.  You should at least have kept the classroom door open.   Did you really believe I was that interested in Chaucer?  I fucking hate Chaucer.  Got those questions off the internet.  You seriously thought I was that keen?
You know what they say.  Don’t get mad;  get even.  It’s nothing personal.  You just happen to fit the profile, that’s all.  Poor you.  Old enough to be disgusting, far enough from retirement to be destroyed.   And, most importantly, you remind me of him.
I can’t fix him, so it’s going to have to be you, I’m afraid.   And who are they going to believe?  Traumatised,  pre-pubescent schoolgirl or sagging, overweight, divorced English teacher?  It’s a no-brainer.
Oh, please don’t beg …that is so pathetic.  Begging’s pointless.  I should know.
I expect you’re thinking, ‘Why me?’  While I’m thinking, ‘Why not you?’  Not that I blame you.  I used to ask myself that question all the time, but I was just a kid then.  I know better now.  Because life’s random, isn’t it.  Stuff happens and we’ve just got to deal with it.  We’ve got that in common now.  Random stuff, just happening to us.  That’s nice.  Gives us a special bond.
And I’m fresh kill.   Confused?   Let me explain.  You see, I’ve still got last night’s battle scars which’ll give my story a really authentic feel.   Stroke of genius on my part, don’t you think?  He doesn’t normally do it on a Tuesday  night, so I really had to think on my feet.  Took him by surprise when I fought back  because normally I play dead like I’m not even there but this time I pushed him  off me and he was livid and I thought you stupid bastard you’ve played right into my hands which is fucking ironic because it’s been the other way round up to now.   In more ways than one.  See what I did there?  Did you enjoy the wordplay?  You taught me how to do that.  You should be proud.
 I freshened up the scratches on my legs when you were droning on about The Wife of Bath earlier.  You didn’t even notice, did you.   You want to pay more attention.
So when I go crying to the headmaster any minute now, you won’t stand a chance.
You look a bit pale, Sir.  You should sit down.  Oh, for God’s sake,  don’t blub … do you honestly think I give a shit?   What?  Am I scaring you?  It’s not like I’m going to attack you with a knife or anything.  I’m not getting mad.
I’m getting even.

'Left Untitled' by Anna Tveritinova

It was getting dark outside and it was only 2pm. He noticed there was a small gap in the window and thin stream of cold air streamed through. He shivered and pulled over his green velvet jacket. He looked back at the room illuminated by soft yellow light. It felt like an oasis of life in midst of winter wilderness. He could sit here for hours, enjoying the sound of scribbling pens, ticking clock, and wind outside. But today he decided to finish early. The holiday spirit was already here and the students would be too distracted to do anything now.

“Alright. Time is up. Pens down.” What followed was a mix of groaning and relieved sounds. With reluctance test papers were passed to him. He delicately collected them and put them into his briefcase. “You can go now, today we can finish early. Have good holidays. Get some rest.” Happy faces streamed past him and he watched them with melancholy, already beginning to miss them. He returned to his chair and resumed staring outside.

He woke up from his daydream as the bell rang. Students began streaming down the corridors. Soon enough it was quiet again as they all went home, leaving behind much greater silence than the one they interrupted. He stood up, feeling the heaviness of his thin bony body, packed his briefcase, put on his coat and hat, and left. He met noone in the corridor and had noone to say bye to, not even the cleaners.

As he stepped outside, the cold wind greeted him with hostility. His body became tense as he prepared to fight the weather. Just then he looked up at the sky and even though it was still covered densely with eternal clouds, he could imagine the vast universe and space that lay behind.

He went up the stairs and took out his keys. His wife and daughter won’t be home for another few hours. He turned his key and entered the apartment. The wooden floors creaked. The boiler was working and the air was hot. He took off his shoes, placing them next to other pairs. Just then he noticed an unfamiliar pair of boots. He frowned and with caution walked deeper into the apartment past the living room and into the kitchen. There was a new freshly opened bottle of red wine on the table. Noises from a bedroom lured him in and when he slowly opened the door he recognised his wife’s nude body in someone’s arms. Without saying anything he closed the door, took the wine and went to his daughter’s room. He sat on her bed and looked out of the window onto a small snowy park. He put on his shoes and made his way to the park, still holding the bottle. It occured to him how strange he was going to look - a lonely man sitting in the park on a cold winter afternoon, but he didn’t care any more.

'Angela Breaks Free' by Ninette Hartley

I’m a tad fed up.

Cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing, making beds, moving through forests of detritus left by family of one husband and three children. It’s time to stop, time to change.

Isn’t there a piece of paper somewhere that says I have a degree, that I am a graduate, a person? Is there a photograph? I can't remember who I was before…

Before I was Mrs - before I was Mum - before I was - Love. Do I have an actual name?

Ah yes I remember it. Angela.

I peel off my yellow marigolds and throw them into the sink, rip away the Keep Calm and Carry On apron. A cup of coffee would go down well so I make one and take it into the living room so that I can think.

Before my brain turns to mush and I forget all my dreams and aspirations and lose my identity as a person, I must make some time for myself and exercise my grey matter. They (the family) think I can’t use the computer but today I’m going to prove them wrong.

Today there is to be a big change. I go to the study, (usually my husbands domain) sweep his desk of papers, turn on the computer and Google...'distance learning'.

There are tons of courses to choose from, so many subjects I'm confused but I pick History. I'm going to do History. I will learn about the Romans, Hannibal, the Egyptians I will read and write, discover and enjoy.

I take the first step and fill in the online form. I wriggle in my seat and try in vain to stop the smile on my face from bursting into full-blown laugh.

The front door crashes and a herd of elephants thunder down the hallway.

'Mum, what's to eat?'

'You'll have to wait,’ I call, I can’t do anything at the moment.'

‘We’ll have to wait? Why are you ill or something?’

‘I’m something,’ I reply and smile.

'Easter Egg' by Andy Cashmore

‘…and Kyle is a great guy and a half-decent actor to boot. We’d get up to all kinds of crazy stuff on set - oh wait, just quickly here’s a great scene where he’s just told Curtis, my character, the whole shabang and look how angry, how tight his face is. That’s because this scene took us a whole afternoon. We kept on cracking up whenever he walked in shot because on the first take the tree tree there fell over and tripped Kyle up. We took a ten minute break so they could clean his make up off the floor. But every time Kyle walked on set he would hesitate around the tree and the team would burst into laughter. It was funny the first few times but the director, our lord and saviour Mr Bergerac, got mad. Then when we tried to do the shoot properly the bloody tree kept falling down. And if it wasn’t the tree it was the stop sign, even the gas pump somehow fell over. Now this was my first major shoot, but I was certain things weren’t supposed to fall over. So after about twenty takes where we only get as far as the second line - a quick pause for Susie kicking that guy in the crotch, that still makes me cross my legs - but yeah we’d get as far as line two, so I say to the director maybe we need a set that doesn’t fall asleep to the script. Bergerac lost it; it was the worst moment of my career. He yelled at me for thirty minutes. Kyle was shaking his head and people were telling him to calm down. He made all these threats like he’s going to fire me but we’d already filmed so much it’d cost more than he could afford to refilm. So we get back to filming and pieces of the set keep falling down and after three hours Kyle is pissed. You could call it method acting, but I really admire how he turned his frustration into his art. Speaking of turning frustration into art, in this scene if you look in the curtain, while me and the lovely Susie are lustily staring at one another, you’ll see Bergerac shagging a runner. That’s my favourite Easter Egg. What? Don’t stop recording, you told me to talk about my experiences, say interesting things, I’m sure everyone will want to know. Mrs Bergerac can use this as evidence in her custody battle. I said don’t stop. This was meant to be my big break and that bastard Bergerac ruined it. Fine, I’ll talk about the film. It’s not as if you have the money to redo this commentary. Anyway, why was I talking about this? That’s it, Kyle’s great acting and his hilarious antics off camera. Yeah we’d get up to all kinds of crazy things. One night after filming we went to find Bergerac’s car…’

'Me, But From The Future' by Tino Prinzi

I was looking straight at what looked like me, but it couldn’t be. I mean, yes – it was me. His face, height, frame, every visible detail of the man stood before me was me. But it wasn’t me. He looked deflated and hopeless.
“Who are you?”
“It’s me George. I’m you, but from the future.” He sounded just like me. “You must listen to me. I have–”
“No – I know where this is heading. I’ve seen this kinda thing in films. You’re gonna say that some kinda evil is going to steal something seemingly pointless and take over the world and out of the billions of people I’m the only one who can stop it.”
My future-self stared back at me with a vacant expression on his face. I didn’t think he was expecting me to just snap at my own face like that.
“I don’t have time to gallivant around the world on some silly quest to save the future. You of all people must know how little time I get to relax. You come traipsing in from the future, disturbing me on my holiday–”
“In the future, George, there is no Thailand.”
“I don’t care! I’m enjoying it now – at least I was until you came along and started bothering me. I was quite happily unaware of our troubled future. Now please, go back and just deal with it yourself.”
“George. Listen to me. You don’t have to go on some quest.”
“You have to die, George.”
“Oh well it was either a quest or death. You’re all the same. If you’re gonna come from the future to annoy me on my holiday, which you of all people know I saved and waited a very long time for, then the least you can say is I get to go to some exotic paradise and drink coconuts and catch a tan. But no – it’s the ‘you’ve gotta die’ twaddle.”
“If you don’t die then terrible things are gonna happen.”
“If I died then how would you know that these things aren’t just gonna happen anyway? I mean, you, I, will be dead. So how would we know, eh?”
I could see my future, shabby, tired self pause. My future-self looked around him, looked around me; warmth, sand, clear waters, loungers, booze and sunshine. I wondered if the future me had forgotten what it was like to get away from it all. I know I had. It was like I could see the many miniature versions of him behind his eyes all sitting around a vast table discussing the next move.
“You know what?” he said. “You’ve gotta good point.”
Half an hour later we were soaking up sunshine on loungers, drinking cold beers, and listening to the sea lap the sand with its gentle caress.
“So what about the future, future-George?”
“George, I’m on holiday – it’s not my problem.”

'The Death of Love' by Julie Lees

“She’ll be the death of you, one day!”
My mother’s words seemed to echo around the room. I’d dismissed them over thirty years ago with a slam of the front door after I’d walked through it, just as you did a few minutes ago. My mother and I never spoke again. I loved you, and that was more important to me than the claims of an embittered middle-aged woman, who no longer had time for her husband. Now, I know better. Now, I realise she could see in you what she’d witnessed in my own father. But I didn’t listen, and now I’m paying the price, just as she did when she died at the age of fifty-six, alone and penniless.
I can picture you now as you were then: hair the shade of roasted chestnuts, strawberry-blushed lips, legs well turned and lithe and adept at encircling my waist. But it was your shoulders that entranced me: porcelain-smooth and soft against the brush of my mouth.
Love, or should I say lust, does strange things to a man’s sense of reason. It warps his thought processes, strips him of logic and exploits his dick. Not that I was complaining. Not then, anyway.
It was great, for a while. I just hadn’t considered that the sex would seek an escape so soon after the marriage, closely followed in its wake by any leftover love. The bickering was itching to get started. We didn’t hinder it. “You said this …” was met with “But you said that …” until eventually neither of us said much at all, at least not to each other.
That was until today. Today I had a review at the bank. The kind where they try to sell you a more expensive account with lots of additional features you’ll never use. I’d avoided it for years, ducking their calls and destroying their letters and statements. It came as quite a surprise when they mentioned the regular withdrawals – small amounts, no more than £20 at a time, and not exceeding five per month – that had then been deposited in another account, going as far back as their records permitted. They can only speculate as to how long it had been going on before that. It came as quite a shock when it was revealed the account belonged to you and a final transfer made today had cleared the existing balance, wiping me out entirely. Imagine discovering that on your fifty-sixth birthday?
You were already packed when I arrived home, and unrepentant. Your thirty-year nest egg was about to buy you a better life, you said. I wanted to hit out, hurt you, but the pain in my chest left me hamstrung.
The chequer board floor felt cold and hard against my face as I listened to your car reversing off the drive. I could see a bottle top sitting upended beside the kitchen bin, a spattering of crumbs keeping it company. You could have cleaned up before you left.

'Full Belly Moon' by Rachael Dunlop

The horse chestnut tree cracked and toppled during the night when no one was watching. Inside the ripped stump, the wood was still warm, damp, golden, when we looked at it the next morning.
‘They do that, horse chestnut trees,’ said the old woman next to me. ‘I’ve seen it happen four, maybe five times in this park over the years.’
The huge trunk had pulled away from its own stump as it had fallen, as if it were trying to make a run for it, pull itself free from the snare of its own roots. For just a moment, it flew. And then it fell.
‘Last time it happened,’ the old woman continued, ‘over there, on the other side of the park, there was a babby killed.’ She leaned on the handle of her shopping trolley as if at a bar in a pub. ‘It was in a pram, the babby, its mother was just over there in the playground, pushing an older one on a swing. Shocking.’ She didn’t sound shocked. She looked at my stomach and nodded, waiting. I resisted the urge to cradle the swell of my belly as I’d seen other women do, protectively, one arm under, one over. Once it was out, this kid that was rooted into me, it would be on its own. Sooner it learned that, the better.
‘Did you see the moon last night?’ I said. ‘A super moon, they call it, when the moon is at its closest to the Earth and angled just right, so it’s as big as it ever gets. I saw it, even though it was still light with it being midsummer’s night. A big silver penny on a pale blue sky.’
The old woman grasped the handle of her shopping trolley. Protectively. ‘Can’t say I did,’ she said.
‘Maybe,’ I said, ‘this tree was reaching for the moon.’ No one was listening. The old woman had moved on to join a gaggle of gawpers standing around the crown of the tree. Birds’ nests were scattered on the grass. Things that should be up were down. It seemed wrong to look at them.
I felt a foot, inside, pushing up at the top of my belly and I pushed back with the heel of my hand. ‘Don’t reach for the moon, kiddo,’ I said, ‘you’ll only fall.’

'The BirthdaySuit™' by Wendy Booth

Amid a cherry-scented cloud, Chantal patted every inch of her body with Deodorising BirthdaySuit™ Powder.  Already regretting the second tiramisu, she knew this would be a squeeze.  Inside-out, on her wardrobe door hung the second skin which had become less fashion item, more part of her.

Since their inception, these breathable rubber skins had evolved to give customers the taut, twenty-something body they craved.  Few would consider their summer wardrobe before donning a BirthdaySuit™.  But, in winter, the unexpected advantage of a BirthdaySuit™ was its insulating quality.  Many wore short skirts, baring their year-round tans and partied in strappy tops with no need for coats.

Hitching the suit up over her puckered behind, Chantal glimpsed the reflection of her now smooth round bottom and smiled.  For a lady of her age, she was generally blessed with curves in the right places.  However, now, women (men-shaped BirthdaySuits™ were still being prototyped) worldwide were squeezing into BirthdaySuits™ tailor-made to give them a sleek, shapely, blemish-free (optional) body.  Chantal admired the custom-made birthmark on the suit’s left hip and the smattering of freckles on the shoulders, replicating her own imperfections.  This Blemish Technology was one of the latest improvements resulting in her buying this model, last year.  Recently, the market had shifted from celebrities and the super vain to the girl-on-the-street, following enhancements making it more practical for the trials of daily life. 

The first major iteration included orifice vents, which allowed bodily functions without removing the suit.  Next came the seam-free model, making the join with the wearer’s neck almost undetectable.  Of course, the apparent youthful body juxtaposed with an aging face could easily cause confusion or even anger.  The expression of horror on a young man’s face was something most BirthdaySuit™ wearers became so accustomed to, they were virtually oblivious.

As she hauled the thing up over her square shoulders Chantal wondered if she had grown taller overnight.  She dragged in half lungfuls of air and vowed to lose some weight. The transformation was complete – this was usually when the dizziness hit.  Her sister had cracked a rib squeezing into her suit and a friend had actually passed out - while driving.

She zipped her pencil-skirt and remembered the pre BirthdaySuit™ days, when her children were small.  Muffin-tops and roll-over-bellies were almost fashion statements.  She pined for those all hanging out days.  Surely, there must still be places in the world where beaches welcomed cellulite celebrating, batwing bobbing, flab flaunting ladies in bikinis happy in their own skins?

As she scissored downstairs, another load of junk mail hit the doormat.  A leaflet caught her eye. Chantal inched her way to the floor, avoiding stretching this model’s weak spot.  Vital as orifice vents were, a harsh tug could cause immediate and embarrassing damage.

Barely room to breathe, she snatched the leaflet between her fingers and stood again, caught her breath and read the bold script.

BirthdaySuit™ Supreme. 
Fresh blossom fragrance.    Even smaller waist.  New mahogany shade.
Only £7,995

'Chief Mourner' by Virginia Moffatt

The woman was there again, sitting in her usual spot:  the corner of the back row on the right hand side of the church. Her long black coat was buttoned round her thin frame, her grey bob,neat and tidy. Since starting the job in Spring, Jake had seen her in the same pose at every funeral service. Each time he and the pall bearers conducted their two-step shuffle down the aisle, he was conscious of her eyes staring at the casket,  the sniffle of her sobs resounding through the church.
Who was she? Why was she there?  She was gone before the final hymn or favourite song of the loved one conveyed the deceased on their last journey. No-one knew. The only thing certain  was that she was a recent arrival in town, only ever sighted on these occasions. It was as if  her career of perpetual mourning was all the life she had. And no-one could say why.
Today, Jake was going to find out.  For once, he wasn't  needed to bear the coffin out of church, the deceased sons were doing that.  His fellow pall-bearers took advantage of the break and went to the pub, leaving Jake to pace up and down, his collar turned up against the chill of the November east wind.  His fingers were frozen by the time she slipped out of church, head bowed down, body still shaking from the emotion of the occasion. He approached her cautiously, as if she was an injured animal,
                "Are you all right?"
                "Yes, thank you." A soft voice; a pale face, one that had barely seen the sun, and the saddest eyes he had ever seen. And there was something familiar about her, something he couldn't quite put his finger on.
                "Did you know the deceased?"
                "No." She started to walk down the path.
                "Only...I was wondering... I've seen you before."
                She turned, "Ah."
                "At every funeral... You are always there." She stood for a moment, weighing up his words. At last she sighed, "I suppose it won't hurt. I'm unlikely to be here for much longer.  I was away for a time...for a long time. And everyone I knew, everyone I loved , they died in my absence." 
                "So..." The doors of the church clattered open causing him to turn in surprise. When he turned back she was gone. His curiosity piqued, he resolved to speak to her at the next opportunity.
But the next day, she wasn't there, nor the day after that. A month went by, and there was no sign of her. Till one lunchtime, Alan pointed to a headline in the paper: Family's horror at the child-killer next door Her picture, now and then; the old grainy image that had made her a bogey woman for thirty years. He wondered if she was as bad as they said. And he knew he could never ask. 

He would never see her at a funeral  again.

'Becoming Nemo' by Anne Summerfield

Her school taught Latin, was old-fashioned enough to see this as something a teen might need to learn. But it was the Cambridge Latin project, so they got Ancient Rome brought to life, and as part of this the teacher allocated them Latin names. He came with a prepared list and seemed taller and more bespectacled than ever, rising to the occasion of those unreligious baptisms. Mainly the names were translations of all or part of their surnames, nothing too outrageous, sometimes there was a choice depending on how the translation worked out. So her friend whose surname was Warman became Bellicosa – warwoman since she was a girl - and though there was amusement around the word ‘belly’ she could tell that that the newly-minted Bellicosa liked this. Others were also named happily. She was given a choice between Agricosa – ‘old hag’ they all said - or something meaning summer which also provoked far too many jokes. She said no to both and the teacher was kind, says he’d have another think. Just for now she could be ‘Nemo’ -  no one.
     But she never stopped being Nemo, never changed or replaced it. Instead it became something to grow into like the gym slip and the stupid St Trinian’s style hat bought from the extensive uniform list. Instead it became who and what she was in any crowd, at any party. She could hide behind the name like she could hide behind glass. Invisible, overlooked, she slid silently through the world like a minnow in a stream. Which was especially useful to MI5 who were also impressed by her classical education.

'Tiger and Turtle' by Sinéad O'Hart

Truth be tol’, I feel like hell the day Turtle and me decide to ride the rollercoaster.
‘They ain’t gon’ let us on,’ I say. ‘Les’ jus’ bounce.’
‘Fool, I know the ticket guy, ai’ght? No sweat.’ I can’t do nothin’ but shrug, and hope my head stops hurtin’ soon.
Eventually, we facin’ the top of the line.
‘You two jokers, right?’ says Ticket Booth guy. ‘Git. You gotta be this tall –‘ he points at some grinnin’ fool on a billboard – ‘to ride.’ But Turtle, he know a back door. Soon, we on board.
My head bustin’ like a neverendin’ punch, an’ Turtle talkin’, but I ain’t hearin’. Two seats in front, there’s a tiger sittin’, stripes an’ tail flickin’. He turns, growlin’, an’ I smell his meat breath.
Coaster starts movin’, an’ I lean across to Turtle, real slow.
‘Turtle, man,’ I say, so low he can’t barely hear.
‘What you sayin’?’ he yells, leanin’ in. He soun’ like a freight train.
‘Turtle, man! Up front. Up front!’ I’m flickin’ my eyes in Tiger-boy’s direction but it ain’t no good. Turtle, he refuse to see.
‘What in the hell wrong wit’ you, boy?’ He fling hi’self back into his seat and fol’ his arms like he waitin’ for church to start. ‘You crazy.’
‘You don’t see nothin’?’ The tiger smilin’ at me now, his teeth shinin’ gold. Plenty o’ room in that ol’ mouf for me an’ Turtle too, and then some.
‘Ain’t nothing there to see,’ Turtle say, lookin’ out at the world. ‘No, sir.’
My head fit to bust, then. Feelin’ like my skin gon’ split, startin’ right at the top o’ my head, flayin’ down to my footsoles. The ol’ tiger, well. He turn, his shoulder ripplin’ like a black an’ yellow ocean, like a cornfield full o’ shadow. He turn s’more, one giant paw comin’ to res’ right on the seat in front. My brain screamin’. The tiger’s eye like a dyin’ star.
‘Turtle, man – I ain’t feelin’ so good,’ I say, an’ it the truth. My eyeballs fit to come pop right out my skull and lie, fizzin’, on my fool cheeks. I need to get out my seat, but the coaster flyin’ by now. I strugglin’, Turtle beside me suckin’ his teeth, leanin’ out the side.
‘Quit yo’ wrigglin’!’ he snap, turnin’ to me with his eyes wide.
An’ then the tiger, he pounce. He fall like a hammer, like a mountain. He brung night with him, pure dark, full o’ noises and danger and the stink o’ death. Then I hear Turtle screamin’, an’ my head explode. I bust up an’ out, th’owin’ off my skin, my self, an’ my arms ain’t arms no mo’, my hands ain’t hands.
I got claws longer n’ my ol’ body. I got pelt. I got teeth.
So I sink ‘em, ever’thin’, into ol’ Tiger-boy.
As we fallin’ out the coaster I hear him laughin’.
Welcome, chile, he say. I knew it was you.

'Blink and Smile' by Jo Gatford

I don’t use that hackneyed line. I’m not on a stage, but in a supermarket queue. My line is worse than “look into my eyes” but it works, drawing attention to hers, instead: “My God, you have beautiful eyes…” And she’ll look away sideways, give a purse-lipped smirk, leave it there on her mouth longer than she needs to, and then - there it is – right into my gaze. She has to take those few little moments to decide if she’s flattered, freaked out, or if I’m worth flirting with. All I need is a slow blink and a smile.
The blink is the clincher. By that point I have my hand on her shoulder – just enough weight behind it to anchor my words – and the suggestion of acquiescence whispers across the checkout. Her eyes close and her heart rate slips a few beats per minute. I tell her not what she needs to do, but what she wants to do, what suddenly seems like the very best idea, to void the till and open the register, to shift her hips to the side as the drawer shoots out. Her conscience is clean, her intent pure. The purpose is not to violate, but to nudge, like a kitten weaving through her ankles, edging her towards the kitchen.
There’s never more than a couple of hundred, usually, in supermarket cash registers – but that’s plenty enough for five minutes of magic. I rub her collar bone with my thumb as she slides out the notes. Nothing quite like that little plastic clack as the cash holders run empty. She hands over the money with a face so empty, so serene, it could be a portrait on a dinner plate. If she’s sweet enough I’ll press my cool palm against her blushing cheek, tell her how well she did, how wonderfully she moved, how very, very pretty her eyes really truly are.
The store’s closed-circuit camera footage will show her consent and not every manager will believe her story. But even when she’s fired, she’ll retain a vague sense of accomplishment, she’ll remember the warm pride of pleasing some paternal figure she thought she’d outgrown. She won’t see me afterwards, tapping my cigarette into the puddles outside the automatic doors. She’ll frown at me when I half-cock a smile – just another pervert staring at her tits – and she’ll pass by to a bus or a car or a train or a wet walk home at the end of a shitty and wholly confusing day.
And I must resist, as she goes, complimenting her eyes.

'Clock' by Danielle McLaughlin

My aunt’s flat is like the inside of a clock:  small, shining, exact. A place of things impeccably ordered. Silver teaspoons with filigree handles; a pin cushion with a hundred pearl-headed pins; gold-rimmed china cups.
My aunt trails a finger across the bruise on my temple, but she does not ask, not yet. The asking will come later. ‘I could have met you at the station,’ she says, taking my suitcase, ‘I could have helped.’
I sit on her sofa with its row of red velvet cushions. I think I hear a soft whirring, like cogs going into motion. I listen for the tick, the tock, but it is my aunt boiling the kettle to make tea.
When she opens the fridge, I glimpse a plate of raw meat: a swollen, purple ox tongue from the market, a sheep’s heart with its marbling of fat.
Here, in this flat, my aunt makes time for me. We negotiate each other within the safe confines of its walls: me, striding and jarring, she, meticulous and precise. Big hand, little hand.
I am frightened as a wounded bird, wings clipped, spirit broken. In the days to come, my aunt will feed me slivers of heart and tongue. She will wind me until I am once more ready for flight. And on the appointed hour she will watch me burst forth, fly beyond her walls, primed for song.

First published in The Salt Anthology of New Writing 2013

'The Journal' by Susan Philip

It’s one of those days. A late afternoon lull, the children at school, dinner slow-cooking, and there’s you with not much else to do.

The garden shed beckons; it is time. You pull on your cardigan and old trainers and let the door slam. Trudging through wet grass, your feet squelch.

The air in the shed smells of dust and tastes of cobwebs and the earthy damp sends a shiver over your spine. The gnawing in your stomach grows.

Leaving the door open, you rummage for a torch and manoeuvre a chair from between two boxes. For a moment you sit in the semi-darkness, listening to the roof under the rain.

You think about how you followed him once. A Sunday morning, you woke first and waited on the porch. When he came out you begged to go with him but he refused, told you to stay home with mother. He walked in the direction of the river, carrying his fishing gear and you slowly followed, carrying a heavy heart. You kept out of sight, slinking behind trees whenever he looked up. Full of panther like stealth you made a child’s game of it. 

You flick on the torch and your gaze falls upon the trunk. Your mother gave it to you the day of his funeral. He was adamant you have it, not your brother, not your sister. You.

You lean over and sweep your hand across the top. A layer of grime dirties your hand; you’re not sure you want to see what’s inside.

Your name is etched into the clasp of the metal lock. A key on a thin chain rests at the base of your neck, just below the tight lump in your throat. Eventually, you reach for it and after a number of tries, hands shaking, you manage to prise the trunk open.

You never asked him about that day - didn’t know how, didn’t dare. You weren’t even sure what it was you saw. It certainly wasn’t fishing. The pole was propped against a tree and the tackle box, from what you could see, was empty save for a leather bound journal which he took out. He sat on the bank with his back to the river and you feared he would see you, but he was too engrossed in writing. Scribbling frantically and looking towards the base of an old oak, he watched and wrote, looked up, looked down. Then, just as you were starting to get bored, a woman’s laughter pierced the silence. Your father frowned and hurriedly scratched out what he had written. A pause, then more writing and, after a few minutes, more laughter. It was softer and he smiled and wrote faster. You watched, in awe, as he wrote her into existence.

Presently, you peer into the trunk. Your heart is racing as you pick up the journal, its cover cracked and darkened with age. Hurt turns to forgiveness and then you hear it: soft laughter.

'Dust' by Bridget Arregger

Dr Elizabeth Rictus sat stooped over her desk like a desiccated praying mantis, elongated legs entwined under the bespoke orthopaedic swivelling office chair, elegant long fingers stretched over the keyboard. Her long painted nails would have made typing difficult but they were needed only to hit a few strategic keys before activating the voice recognition software.

Dr Rictus tapped in the letters, ER, selected today’s favoured username from a list of anagrams and watched two more dots add themselves to the row representing her hidden password. She waited the briefest of moments as the website calculated her matches. She had 1000 matches available. Some, unknown to the website, were no longer viable. Her profile stated that she was an historian. Why would she lie? It wouldn’t appeal to all men but she didn’t want all men. She was taller than average; fit, active and very comfortable. She made sure that her photographs showed her luxurious home to its best advantage. There would be men who would wish to marry her for the house alone. She did not hide the fact that the building was in a remote part of the Fells where mobile phones did not work.

She selected a few likely matches as favourites. Waited to see who responded. Dusted the house while she waited. Needed to dust. While the builders had been busy, she had developed a most irritating allergy to dust.

Three responses. A good number. She chose one and tapped on ‘send an email’. Relaxed, swivelled and dictated. She told him a good deal about herself: her failed marriage, disabled son, daughter in Australia, house rules for the singles parties she organised. She could let the words flow. At the end of two crammed pages she stopped to allow him to catch up. There would be a few voice recognition errors but if he was as intelligent as his profile suggested, he would be able to work out the intended meanings. The more intelligent the better, she had found. Not streetwise. Or suspicious.

He responded in kind: his expensive divorce, his craving for adventure, his dream of moving to the countryside. He could touch type, he told her, with his eyes shut. An usual and delicious image. She sent him more photos. He responded with details of his city flat.

Before long, he requested that they meet, had found it surreal to correspond so fully without really knowing each other. They arranged a date in a convenient pub half way between their respective homes. Better for you, he said, to be cautious. She did not contradict.

She allowed a suitable time to elapse after the appointed time, phoned in a message to the bartender that she was running late and would the single man wearing a dark blue overcoat with white carnation please either wait or make his way to her house.

She had good feelings about this one. She folded a duster on her desk, swivelled gently and waited.

'The Idaho Kid' by Darren Seeley

She wouldn't look at me.  Not while this Idaho kid was around.   Only a few weeks ago she was still coming over to my house at least twice a week, and whenever me and Stan turned up at the beach, it was never long before she appeared. Beautiful Kimberley Vaughan with her golden hair and dirty mouth.   We were going to change the world.   Back then in the long days.  We smoked, wrote songs on our thrift store guitars, and slowly planned the revolution.

It was going to be so easy, so inevitable that the good would out, and our new land of opportunity, of peace and love would be born.  Kim and I would get married and make speeches about what was wrong and what was right, and we'd have a family, five kids and a simple house with a small piece of land.  Our destiny fulfilled.

But he changed everything.  His name was Stevie, the Idaho kid,  and Stan said he was here for the whole summer.  He was good looking I had to admit, but real dumb.  All brawn and no brain Ma would say and I tried to tell Kim he was only after one thing, but she wouldn't listen.  

'You're so jealous Donald Hagen,' she would tease, biting her lip and twisting her hair around her fingers.  

'I'm so not,' I'd tell her; but I was.  Sick feeling in my stomach jealous.  Couldn't eat for days jealous. 'I'm just worried for you,' I'd tell her. 'He's a stranger, why are you bothering with him?  He'll be gone again soon enough.'

She thought different. 'Stevie says his folks are looking to move out west. His dad's company has an office out here and they're going to relocate.'

She poked me.  'What do you think of that?'

That's what they all say, I thought.  And I'll be here to pick up the pieces again.  Maybe that is my destiny; just to put things back together.  Kim will run off into the sunset with the Idaho kid and forget the life we promised ourselves and I'll still be here growing an old man,  waving the stars and stripes and waiting for her to return.

'Fresh Roses' by Zeeshan Ahmed

As she passed through a flower shop, she noticed the fresh roses. She could see droplets of water on those. Fresh roses always reminded her of him. How she used to find fresh roses on her birthday every year. Every year, on her birthday, she would find them on the dressing table in the bedroom. She waited for the roses every year. It was the most beautiful part of her birthdays. A few times she had forgotten her birthday as well, and the roses had reminded her of that. He never forgot her birthday. It all started after their marriage. On her first date with he had taken her to a flower shop and given her a bouquet of roses: all fresh.

It was last year, in fact a month after her birthday, he had passed away. A part of her life had gone away, and she just had to live without it now. It was her birthday in two days, and she knew that there would be no fresh roses anymore. She thought she’d buy some for herself, just to keep his memory alive.

She woke up early on her birthday, as usual. She stood up and looked at the dressing table. There were no roses, fresh or otherwise. Tears filled her eyes and then she smiled. After she was done with her breakfast she decided to go out and get the roses. She put on her coat, and left her house.

She came back with fresh roses, and placed them on the dressing table. The door knocked.

She reached the door and asked “Who is it?”

“Special delivery!”

Confused, she looked through the peephole and saw a young man standing there.

She opened the door and the young man, in his 30s apparently, spoke “Good morning! Mrs. Matthews?” She nodded.

“Oh, you have a special delivery. I am sorry for the delay. If you allow us to place the stuff inside?” Still confused, she nodded. The man waved his hand and two more men, younger than him, came in with two large curtains.

“Can you guide us to the bedroom, please?” She couldn’t make sense of this and again she nodded and pointed to the stairs. “First room on the left.”

The men came down soon. They had the same cartons in their hand, empty now, it seemed. She then asked “But who sent that?”

“Why, Mr. Charles Matthews, your husband, of course! He had wanted to keep this a surprise. And, happy birthday to you!”

She didn’t know what to say. She said thanks to the man and reached the room: it was filled with fresh roses. Some in baskets, some in the form of bouquets. She sat on the bad, and picked up a bouquet. She noticed a small paper attached to it.

Dear Martha,

This is for all the years to come.
Happy birthday.


She kissed the note, and found she was smiling and crying at the same time.

'They Follow Orders' by Jonathan O'Brien

You are a Roman conscript, a Christian forced to fight in foreign wars but they train you well, teach you discipline and how to follow orders so you survive and return to the Nile, to your home.
            But you can't settle back into your old life, too much has changed, you have changed. There is no order to things. So you head into the wilderness, away from the disorder of town. Your parents are broken hearted. They had waited so long for your return. You don't look back.
            You wander in the desert till you find a teacher, one who walks the path ahead of you. He says his name is Palemon. He is ancient, his skin is old leather and he smells like a dead goat. He lives in a cave. You are so hungry you ask him for help. He takes you in and teaches you how to survive in the desert, how to find water, he teaches you the ascetic discipline, how to find God in everyday things. You follow orders. 
            Time passes and others arrive from the towns, many of them soldiers, looking for guidance, seeking God in the desert. A community begins, a brotherhood. Life is good for a while, you work together. But some men go to extremes, they starve themselves and create strange rituals, they stray into madness. Palemon dies and you worry for your sanity.
            In a dream a voice speaks, 'they need discipline' it says. You do as you are told. You use your army training. You gather the men, and stand before them to tell them your plan.
'An angel spoke to me in a dream and told me what we must do,' you say. You organize the men to build a proper camp, no more caves and holes in the ground.
            You write down the rules and regulations: chastity, poverty, obedience, rules on prayer and diet, fanaticism outlawed, meditation and prayers are to be supervised, monks must learn passages by heart. No more extremists.
            A few men don't like the new rules so they leave, you wish them well and pray for them, but many stay, happy to follow you and find God. You train them up, teach them discipline and how to follow orders, so they survive. Then when the time is right you order them to new places, to share the rules, to start again. They follow orders. 

'When my ex messages me after 20 years' by Alexandra O

Talk about mountains, how we grew up without them but wouldn’t leave them now, how our hiking boots’ plastic-tipped laces scar goldenrod blo...