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Another phone call, another late return. How many? I have lost count. Who she is I don’t know. Perhaps it is not just one. To distract myself from these possibilities I have my routine. Each time I take a little something from him. Some small thing that he will not miss at once. Something that he will one day want, will search for, puzzled at its loss.
At this rate though it will not take long until all the little things are gone. So what then? Well by then I will surely have had enough and I think I will just have to take something much bigger from him.
Here I am; me, the bottle. I don't touch it normally. Hard day. Hard times, like the novel. I would make this a novel but I don't know how. Time I have yes, since the youngest moved out, but brains, no. My daughter had brains, she took them off to study nursing.
Ice floats in this glass. Random movements, in patterns it has no control over. Inconsequential journeys, over in milliseconds. Does it erode a little each time it touches the side?
I pour more liquid on, drink it. She told me to start again, my daughter. But I'm lost, knocking into the walls, not understanding. At this rate my brain will melt.
Imagine myself being near him. See him all the time but he looks through me. Imagine him not looking through me, but seeing me. I'm not made of glass, or ice. I don't float. Here I am.
As the twin’s mother packed four sandwiches, two cookies, a piece of fruit, yoghurt, and juice into each of their lunch boxes, she sighed and muttered about growing appetites.
At lunch time, the twins detoured to a disused bunker behind the school, and collected the stored non-perishables from previous weeks. In Economics, they had learned about the fluctuating exchange rate, so they set-up their stall with a hand-written sign declaring the rate negotiable for any sale item. On the floor they laid the food, a dozen pens, pencils, crayons, erasers, rules, exercise paper, badges, collectors cards, plastic toys, and other items.
Sales were brisk. Some kids paid in cash whatever the twins asked, others bought with goods.
At the end of the first academic term, the twins had enough to buy their baby sister a My Little Pony training bike for Christmas. Plus, a selection box for sharing.
Monetary Cost of Selfies
Millennial Brad and girlfriend Amy with trail-guide Beth were hiking on a shorter (10km) Inca Trail to arrive at the Machu Picchu ruins. They started early morning hoping to cover the distance in a reasonable time, take a bus to the nearby town for the night, and then return next morning to explore the ruins. But, their habit of taking selfies and posting instantly on social media took over, costing valuable time. In mid-afternoon, Beth informed them that at their current rate of hiking speed, they would miss even the last bus. As a result, it would cost them $300 to hail a cab from the town to transport them there.
Wandering llamas and alpacas suddenly realized two human beings were flying forward in supersonic speed, with a third one in toe. The kind bus-driver waited a few extra minutes; lately this phenomenon had been happening quite often.
The Divine Wind of Self-Destruction
There was a kamikaze feel to the day, an idea that if things were inevitably going to crash and burn then at least I was at the controls, deciding the direction of destruction.
The summons came and I strode into his office, my heart beating at a ludicrous rate. He was sitting at his desk, eyes peering over his glasses, a raft of files splashed across the desk like some paper tide. I had no doubt that my industrial scale fraud had been detected. All I had left was a choice of method of execution. I decided to go out in style.
He looked back down at his papers.
“Well Derek…” he began.
I pulled down my trousers and bared my backside.
“Boss” I grinned “You can kiss my…”
“Employee of the Month! Congratula…”
His voice drifted off as he looked up.
Even Kamikaze’s can have off days.
The Tail of a Cub
“Life is a tale told by an idiot; what do you make of it?” said Ram.
Gopal said: That idiot must have been highly inventive. Else how could such complicated sequences of events in life be strung together in short space?
“ You seem to be right. An idiot cannot be a dull-wit, a moron or a nincompoop. Does a tale contain a moral at the end?’ said Ram.
"A story does not end with a moral; rather it begins with a moral. I mean, you conceive of the moral first and then develop the story.”
“You are right. How then does a fable differ from a tale?”
“In a fable we come across angels, fairies and animals.”
Ram asked,” How would you rate the two titles – A Tale of Two Cities, and A Tale of a Tub?”
Gopal got irate. “Enough, you idiot. Flee or I'll fleece you”
Top bloke, Gav. First rate. Right laugh down the boozer. Never skips his round. Straight up.
Banging girlfriend, too. Tiny waist, big tits. Shy. One of them birds that don’t know they’re fit. Gav likes her hair loose. He yanks out the stiff ponytail she wears for work so it spills down her back.
I don’t know how he keeps her. Little ginger clown like him. He can’t believe his luck, neither. She mentions a guy from work and he starts on at her: Who’s this Phil? You messing me around?
They leave soon after. We don’t see her again that week. When she reappears, she’s changed her hair. Swept it over one eye.
Gav keeps winding her up. Making out she’s thick until she blubs. He laughs, but the mood’s awkward. Someone changes the subject.
He doesn’t always know when to stop, Gav. Decent bloke though. Top class.
The Extra Good Discount Rate
"Okay," said the fruit seller. "For you, the extra good discount rate. It's slow. I'll sell you 100 bananas for $3.00, and then I'll throw in 20 more for free. You can't beat that price. What do you say?"
"I say, how can I eat 120 bananas?" said the backpacker.
At that price, how can you not?" said the fruit seller. "They will last four days, if you care for them. That's 10 per meal for four days. They are the perfect complete food. And you can invite guests to eat with you.
They are also the perfect currency. Everything is cheaper in bananas. You can give them to the ferry boat man or to the lady who sells smoothies. Also, they are nice for the homeless folk, or for bribes.
"Okay," said the backpacker. How many can I get for $10? Is there a super extra good discount rate?"
Moving the remains.
We were having cake in the rectangular room that smelt of marzipan, with the door closed to preserve heat, when my friend came in with a letter bearing a smooth red wax seal. The others looked but she deterred them with a nod. I scanned the crunchy parchment that said the cemetery were sorry that my Grandfather's remains, along with seven others had been moved to make way for an oak tree from the Woodland Trust. My mind asked where were his bones? before reading they'd been transferred to a room in this very house, and my Father had approved it. I wondered about the seven, and saw a zombie party. I'd rated my Grandad, but hadn't envisage sleeping with his coffin. When my Father arrived, he showed me a secret room just off mine, and I knew when I tasted dust, if he was staying , I was going.
“… at any rate, I can’t be expected to be in two places at one time!” Payton says between gasps for air. Brook smiles. Payton never could keep up. She increases the pace as they reach the end of the block.
“You can’t imagine what it’s like to raise three kids.” Payton manages her patronizing smile, despite her breathlessness. “Feel lucky you don’t have any.”
Can’t have any, Brook mentally corrects her. Something Payton already knows.
“So Colton has to uber it to work from the airport. And this upsets him. You have no idea what it’s like to have such a needy husband!”
That’s right, Brook agrees. Have to have one before you can experience that.
As they jog by Brook’s house Colton smiles at her from her upstairs window.
At Payton’s house they embrace like they do every day.
“Always and forever,” Brook agrees.
Millie’s finger dangled over the icons on the glowing screen of her Smartphone. The face of the young man with just the right amount of hipster stubble stared back. The caption Rate Me under his dimpled chin.
Millie thought back to her high school yearbook. Under her picture showing an acne-ridden teenager was the caption ‘a people pleaser’. How she’d hated that picture, more so that caption. It hadn’t come as much surprise though, considering she’d been, at best, invisible.
Still, there were plenty of other worse captions they could have used, she figured.
She looked down again at the cheesy grin of the guy on her screen. He looked quite nice; sounded amicable in his profile. Quite a crowd-pleaser, in fact.
As she tapped zero out of five on her ‘phone, she reflected how she loved the power of invisibility technology provided.
As Others See Us
They were sat on the pew right at the front.
Mother was wearing her best coat and hat but I couldn't smell the mothballs, which was strange. Father had on his black suit, the one with the shiny backside and was wringing his bonnet in his hands. Elspeth was dressed in my good skirt, if you please.
The Minister came in, wearing his black frock with the long white collars hanging down and his lips were moving at a fair rate, but I couldn't hear a word.
Then they all stood up, with the old red hymnbooks in their hands and started singing, but no noise came out. Mrs Stewart was banging away at the piano keys, and didn’t make a sound.
Then Mother went up and looked into a long wooden box and she started to cry.
Curious, I peeked inside.
There I was, naughty besom, lying fast asleep!
“12 Quarsecs...you’re joking?"
“Unfortunately it’s not a function my kind evolved”
“This is a perfect platymass. You wouldn’t find another one of these in the next 6 rings! And even then it’ll be a half clone spawn of its sister!”
“Apologies, but that is the going rate”
Racksun desperately needed 28 for transport to the inner halo’s. P-567, who controlled everything on this Hala-forsaken ring, would soon learn that Racksun couldn’t, or wouldn’t fulfil the latest contract. Meaning he’d be the next.
Options raced through his head. He’d never been scared of death. As a hunter, he’s famous for it but now he had things to do, things that couldn’t wait.
The octopedal vendor begrudgingly extended its appendage to collect the platymass and another with payment.
The Quarsecs didn't spill as the gamma-shot cut through the vendor's midriff. Racksun turned and checked his wrist-tablet for the next nearest vendor. 14 to go.
‘Can I buy you a drink?’
‘Gin and tonic.’
‘One gin and tonic.’
‘And for you?
‘I still have some.’
Sipped his beer. There wasn’t any. Drink came, five pound note left.
‘Keep the change,’ he said.
‘There isn't any.’
She sipped, sighed.
‘What's your name?’
‘You on your own?’
‘How about you?’
He gestured to the dance floor, to some peroxide hair in second rate loafers.
‘You don't like dancing?’ she said.
‘Sometimes. Depends who with.’
‘Where are you from?’
‘East... Hackney. You?’
‘Why are you out on your own?’
‘I'm an alcoholic.’
‘Just had a long day.’
‘What do you do?’
‘I'm a prostitute.’
‘I work in a bar.’
‘Hackney? Which bar?’
‘I would’ve thought you got free drinks.’
Two out of Ten
'I don't rate this one much,' he says, sneering at Girl on a Fence.
I think she's beautiful but she looks sad, sitting there. Sorry, I mouth. He's rude.
We pass her by and go on to the next painting.
The art gallery is too quiet for all I want to say to him; all the reasons this won't work. His sneer has just compounded weeks of indecision.
By the time we're in the next room I've decided.
Firm, I say, 'It's not you - well actually it is. Goodbye.'
On the way back I pass Girl on a Fence. I stand in front of her and again, think how beautiful she is; how young, with all that life in front of her.
Just as I turn to leave, something catches the corner of my eye.
She's smiling at me.
"What's your rate?"
I never thought I'd answer this question willingly.
I stared at the ceiling as the client pushed his way in and out on top of me, trying to ignore the sensations my sensitive body was experiencing.
I closed my eyes, pretending it was him - my love - instead. I gave him everything, including myself.
We were forced to wait years to be together, and he cheated on me several times during that period.
I forgave him.
He did it again.
My eyes sprung open. I had fallen asleep, and remembered what I was doing when I realized I was stuck in another sleep paralysis episode.
And then I saw it: tall, cloaked, wearing a hood enveloping an endless void, looming in the darkest corner by the door - faceless, eyeless, but staring into me, my soul.
At least the shadow of my love is always with me.
A Pair of Fools
The sky was blushing rosy shades of pink as the sun kissed below her horizon and our boat slowly began to sink.
At the rate the water was swirling around our ankles already, we'd be half submerged well before the sun finally succumbed to the evening's advances. The day had begun so well, too. Holding all before it with the promise all great summer mornings did. With breezes that flirted through thrown wide windows and glinting, gleaming waves that majestically crested and curled into the shoreline like a beautiful woman's adorned finger. Beckoning us toward her. Come, come out and find me, adventure had sung and we'd fallen for the serenade, hook, line and sinker.
And now here we sat, a pair of fools with wet ankles, sunburned heads and only one oar. At the very least, we'd brought enough beer to sustain us for the duration of the event.
Rate of Return
Yesterday, Deputy Director Faraday addressed staff on the disadvantages of switching to a digital platform, even though it was the current year. Just after, he slipped on a loose piece of carbon paper. He hit his head on an oak-paneled desk and spent the night in a brief coma.
Meanwhile a Trans-Ural Shiite group managed to detonate an EMP in the ionosphere over Paris. The world went dark.
Today, Deputy Director Faraday awoke, immediately rushed to hold an emergency meeting. He beamed as he listened to staff reports. A full off-line accounting of what was needed where and how. Thanks to the slow rate of tech adoption under his leadership, the Bureau was going to pull through this with no break in services.
He smiles at a mimeographed bill of lading. No terrorist was going to stop this morning’s delivery of gorilla pellets to the National Zoo under his watch.
Abu-Ashraf walks to the kitchen. The furthest, darkest corner of his shop. We watch him pass the astrolabe on a high shelf beside a brass menorah. Pass the wall hung with old musical instruments. A huge wooden camel, pharaonic figures, Arabic coffee pots, copper trays. Stop beside clusters of Moroccan lamps and old prints. Elinoar says that the katayef of Abu-Ashraf are rated best in all Nazareth. As if hearing his name, he appears in a red checked apron, one hand holding freshly made lime juice, the other a book. He puts it down, turns to a page. A photograph of him. Same apron, same background. “No better katayef anywhere,” the article says. We wait. On the plate, small half-moons of pancakes, doused in honey syrup, some filled with cinnamon walnuts, others with soft goats’ cheese. Light and delicious. I ask Abu-Ashraf how he makes them. He just smiles.
At this rate
"At this rate you're going, you'll never pass your piano exams,"said Mrs Johnson, her face scrunched up like a bulldog's. "Listen to Jamie's..." Susie was not about to let herself be put down. In her best adult voice, she said,"Who says so? I'll show you!" She stormed off, fists clenched. The thought that Mrs Johnson favoured her star pupil, Jamie, sent a fresh flow of energy running to her fingers. The fingers hit the piano with sharp staccatos. Her eyes were blurry after a night of practice and notes started to swim around her. She blinked her eyes to chase those weariness away. She watched with glee at Mrs Johnson's surprised expression as she opened up the letter from London School of Music. Jamie snatched the letter over and glimpsed at the results. "Hey! There must be a mistake!" "None at all," said Susie. "I worked hard for it."
The Fitbit Game
“Geezus, Nick! Don’t sneak up on me like that!” Marney glanced at her Fitbit. “Look.”
“That’s what you did to me, my heart rate. Maximum is 175 at our age. You almost scared me to death for real.”
When she took out the trash that evening, Nick popped out of a can. “Quick. Read the Fitbit,” he said.
“Hey Marney, let’s see who can scare who into reaching their max.” He smiled more broadly than she’d seen in years. “Without going over, of course.”
They made a rule to do the scaring themselves, to keep it simple and mostly pop out from places. And, oh, did the marriage get fun. They were 45-year-olds playing like kids again, creating, planning, laughing together. They made love. Nick won. He scared Marney to 175 popping out from under her car. On her chance to tie, Marney went over, and scared Nick to death. She lost.
'We need to discuss these drawings you've been sending me.'
'Do you have to call them "drawings"?'
'It's becoming very clear that your mind is deteriorating at an alarming rate.'
'Why are you using such weird words? You sound like you're learning to be a therapist from watching CSI.'
'CSI's about police. And nobody really talks about it anymore.'
'I knew that. I'm being ironic.'
'No, you're not. I'm not having this conversation with you again. And for the record, I'm speaking like this because I'm very nervous and this is the only way words can make it out right now.'
'Damn, I tried so hard with that tangent.'
'No, you didn't. You haven't in months. I know it's tough, but everyone's still positive, right? What's changed?'
'I'm not dying anymore. And I don't know what that means.'
'Want to talk about it?'
Manny buried himself in work, so he took most of our jobs. None of us wanted to question him why, we sort of liked he did everything. However, we feared this could destroy him.
I invited him for a lunch, he seemed on the edge. We visited a restaurant near our offices and we ordered. Surprisingly, he did not touch his food.
Somehow I tried to chat with him...
'Your rate is way up, you could get promoted.'
….but he didn't bother, he gazed at his dish.
It was like this throughout the entire meal, until he replied.
'Yes, this business is the one thing I am good at.'
'Surely, there are other things as well.' I assumed.
He shot me a look.
He retreated to his service.
It must be said that despite his success he left us later on.
His heart gave up.
One Door Closes...
Geoff had noticed his hair thinning at an alarming rate.
For perhaps the third time this month, he was unclogging the trap in the shower tray. He removed the slimy, rodent-like blockage and inspected it closely. Had someone been letting themselves into his flat and secretly using his shower whilst he was out? It was hard to believe all this hair was his, and yet the reflection in the bathroom mirror said otherwise. He would soon have moulted enough to start knitting a set of matching winter garments.
The strangest thing about it was, what he was losing from one area, he was gaining in… others. His back, for example, was considerably hairier than it had ever been before, Geoff noted, swivelling his torso from side to side to study it from the best possible angle. What he might lose in new hat purchases, he would save on thermal underwear.
Terry loved car-boot sales. He bought anything: furniture, old tools, dolls. He had a particular thing for recipe books, which was weird because he never cooked. Not a sausage.
Miranda moved in next door. Miranda was a go-getter and a minimalist. She added a wet room, a glass extension. Over Terry’s shonky fence one day, Pat, Terry’s wife, confided in Miranda. ‘At this rate, we won’t be able to get through the front door.’ Miranda had noticed something was amiss from the state of their garden.
‘I’ve a skip arriving tomorrow’, said Miranda grandly. ‘Have a purge while he’s at work. I’ll help.’
When Terry saw the skip, he was furious. He spotted a screwdriver (one of nineteen he owned), in the heartless pile of precious things. 'Save me,' it seemed to cry out to him. It was this screwdriver Terry used to kill Pat.
Miranda moved not long after.
"First rate," you say with a grin, because you always were all about that '50s aesthetic. I used to love that about you.
Of course, with the 50s aesthetic inevitably comes the 50s misogyny, the need to protect, the need to shelter and support. I’m all for being safe, but independence, I think, is more the trend of modern-day, and I like to keep with the times.
The child coos in my arms and I shush her quickly. I haven’t thought of a name yet. You seem surprised.
"But you’re so ... organised." As if you still know me.
Times change. As I said, I like to keep with the times.
"So who’s the father, if you don’t mind me asking?"
Panic. Too fast, I blurt out, "Gregory."
I may have moved on with my life, but that doesn’t change the fact that I don’t know one single person named Gregory.
So Mr Editor
So, you didn't rate my last piece 'Mister Editor'.
How nice for you, sitting there in your plush office reading, I'm guessing, half-heartedly, my literary effort.
Then nothing, not a word from you.
You have no idea what it took for me to write that piece. As I bang on the keyboard with blood seeping from my fingertips only to stop for one more swig of wine. I reread the piece. Was it a grammatical error that caused you to cast me aside like a half eaten spare rib at one of your 'showbiz' barbecues?
I'm sending you this to tell you, to shove your competition up your 'editorial column'.
Ah the ping in my email tells me finally, you've
managed to send me the bad news.
Wait, what? you'd like me to meet with you?
Oops wine spill on to laptop. Quick wipe the keyboard, don't press the send.....
We were stumbling down west 12th at 2:00 AM with a bottle of third rate vodka and I kept stepping on your heels over and over and I tripped you for what felt like the thousandth time and you cursed at me then we collapsed into laughter. Grasping each other’s shoulders, we laughed until we made no sound, until our cheekbones were sore and our eyes were rheumy, until we sunk to the dirty pavement. I imagine us from a distance, alone on the street, just two figures convulsing in the dark, and it makes my chest ache. Because that happiness belongs to those two silhouettes, and they don’t look like us anymore.
‘The music’s charming,’ breathed Auntie, ‘and what little poppets!’
The music was anklung, a Javanese instrument consisting of two bamboo tubes in a bamboo frame. The ‘little poppets’ were twelve offspring of Pak Hidayat, each representing one note of the scale. Altogether one octave and a half. Each child solemnly shaking his/her anklung under dad’s stern gaze.
Six little boys and six little girls, all in their colourful sarongs.
Had he bred them specially?
Where was Ibu Hidayat? Busy producing the next note?
Would he go for the two full octaves?
Did they ever rebel? When did they go to school?
The rate of tourists was constant, the whole day long.
What happened if one was sick?
The music was indeed enchanting, there in the middle of the carefully tended kampong, with its gently waving palm trees and the scent of jasmine.
Even death would not be an option.
Clive pulled his blanket around his shoulders as he shivered in the cold. Huddled under a concrete, graffiti adorned, motorway bridge; the moonlight sought him out. Reflecting off the algae infused puddles of water by his feet, it illuminated the contours of his craggy face; bestowing him with an otherworldly countenance.
Clive peered at his reflection in the water, "I've a secret" he whispered cryptically to himself. Grinning, he shuffled towards the foundations of the bridge and began to dig.
His shadow loomed as he worked. Clive scraped with his finger nails at the dirt and grime, searching. He cackled with delight as he located the aperture, he'd been searching for. Eagerly reaching in, he pulled out an ancient, mobile phone and dialled a number he’d scrawled over a yellowing, stained serviette. ‘Yes,’ he rasped. ‘That is my rate. It’s nonnegotiable; you can take it or leave it’.
Tides of joy
I could feel the soft undulations of her body beneath me, like the rise and fall of gentle waves lapping on sand, then the oncoming tide building into a storm of waves, ever deeper, ever higher, until the intense and overpowering breaker surged to swamp us, leaving us spent and quiet in the shadow of rocks that sheltered us, on that last day before returning to the city.
That was the moment, I thought, I would rate the pinnacle of our love. The ecstasy of a single point in time. But not now.
The true joy of family arrived and with it this moment of even greater delight, as the tide of twins sweeps me down to that same shoreline to paddle and splash, while she, rounded with another pregnancy, shelters in the windbreak, tidying away the picnic, guarding the towels and shoes, watching; and perhaps remembering, too.
Three sugars, a splash of milk and leave the tea bag in. That's how he always has it. He slaps a grubby pound coin on the thin formica worktop and reaches for a lid.
I want to help him so badly, do it for him, but he won't have it. I observe silently, while the lid skids around on the worktop, chased by his numb, gnarly fingers until at last he half pushes it off the edge so he can grab it properly.
He sees me watching him and one side of his mouth curls into something resembling a sneer. Behind him, from the lengthening queue, comes a groan of frustration. Getting the lid on the cup is an even bigger challenge, and at this rate, he'll be drinking his tea cold.
As he shuffles away I wonder, how could something so devastating have such a gentle name as stroke?
Temptations and Damnations
Thine eyes gaze skywards from my groin. Thy doting stare distinguishes me as thine Asura and thee mine Apsara. Thou levy thy endearment at a farcical harlot-like rate. Wilt ever thou relish my vigour and pleasure, not at the bidding of Plutus and his lust for guinea and sovereign. Thy flesh, warm against mine and tears rolls down the chest that thou embrace nightly. Shalt resentment of thy husband stare through the window of my home, I wilt nod politely my condolences. Thou sell thyself at the expense of thy children, of who rests in a cold room, riddled with dysentery and festering in excrement. Long have they waited for their mother's breast, but I urge thee to depart, for I shalt be nothing... other than selfish. Remove thine infinity ring of which thou hold so dear and instead be mine. At this rate, thou too risk's sickness.
Rate this App
I awoke to the sensation of rushing down a corridor, my eyes felt blinded by strip lights flashing by as I hurtled along. My head hurt and my body felt like lead. Oh God, am I in hospital?
Everything faded. I opened my eyes again and found myself in a white cubicle, in a white bed, presumably a ward.
“Hi, would you rate this App?” asked the grey horse.
“Sorry? What App?” I replied, feeling rather indignant because if I was in hospital it should be a doctor talking to me.
“The Life App”, he replied. “We appear to have a glitch in the system at the moment so any afterlife intakes are being given the opportunity to rate the Life App before proceeding to the next phase. Normally all would be transported automatically, however some refunds are available due to poor ratings. Would you care to rate this App?”
Mum - The crazy doomsday lady
‘I’m sorry Madam, you’re only eligible for rate three support. Please step aside and come back when called.’
‘But please, sir. I haven’t eaten in days. My dog is emaciated.’
‘Please, step aside or I’ll be forced to call security. Read the guidelines. Remaining sustenance is being prioritised for rate 1 cases. Families, young couples.’
Maria thought of her mother’s emergency stash of bottled water, tins and freeze dried meals. Enough to last for months. She thought of how she’d constantly admonished her for it, refused her ridiculous offers of foil blankets and torches. It had made a great comedy bit with her mates. Her crazed apocalypse-obsessed, over-prepared Mum.
When she’d died three months ago, Maria cleared her house. Took the survival kit to the food bank.
It was only now, scared, starving and alone that the loss truly drowned her.
‘Mum,’ she whimpered to no one, ‘I still need you.’
Life changing in a heartbeat.
As the contraction reached it's peak, I clung to the small metal handrails on the sides of the pool. My knuckles white as I focused on my breathing. "This too will pass" I said to myself, as I had during every surge for the past seven hours.
The room was lovely and calm, as I had requested. Lighting dim, music soft and minimal interaction from those around me.
Every fifteen minutes the midwife leaned over the side of the pool and listened to my baby's heartbeat with a small handheld device. Ba boom ba boom ba boom it said every time with only slight variations in speed.
Again she leaned forward to locate his heart, but this time the ba boom was eerily slow. Heart rate fifty.
A button was pressed and the room filled with people. In that moment I knew my life had suddenly changed direction forever.
The Way I See it
The notice set my heart thumping and pulse racing at pace. But how will my wife assess it? .I will remind her three years ago we came home from America, got a good exchange value for our dollars and started looking for somewhere to live. Half a dozen places interested us, we graded them on a ratio 1 to 6 and Albany Apartments came out on top. We were careful not to give it a higher opinion than deserved but their current rental standards suited us. We heard only one flat left so we rushed round there at a gallop to claim it..
We’ve not had a rent increase until now. I suppose when you consider rising costs of maintenance, degree of inflation and increasing taxes paid to local government perhaps 10% isn’t so bad after all.
I will tell Janet that’s the way I see it at any rate.
Ignotum per ignotius
Dear audience, you are with Flora Bernard tonight, and the secret subject we are talking about is among the following:
number one: a medical case
number two: an impostor
number three: a politician
number four: a buffoon
number five: an undefined object
number six: a GMO (genetically modified organism)
number seven: a blanc verse
So, who is the most radio-active? I dare you to rate.
Here is the clue for you: People were barely able to indent his field of vision. He pretended to have strabitus as a result of premature birth. During his school time he developed convergence insufficiency and was awarded with ill-assorted relationships. In the following years his juggling with diagnoses became public hobby-horse.
Are you still there? Now, music. I am Flora Bernard and hope to hear from you in a three-minute song.
La-la-la life is extrajudicial…
“Don’t you want a canary? Or a budgie?”
“No dad. I told you, I’m going to train a champion.” He folds his arms. “How did you even catch it?”
“I crumbled my flapjack into the box and it flew in.”
We stand back and look at the fat bird, strutting around, still pecking at some crumbs.
Dad sighs. “You know the racing ones are a different breed. This is a wood pigeon, son.”
“But first rate racers are expensive. Besides, we already have the cage for him.”
He closes his eyes. “You’ll have to keep it out in the garage.”
“Yesss. Thanks Dad. I’ll train him to fly all the way to Barcelona.”
“With the bloody size of it, you’ll be lucky if it gets to Brighton.”
I stroke its back. “I’ll call him Silver Lightning.” I say. “He’s going to be a champion someday.”
Boxed In Again
Working to escape, screaming at the last hinge.
This is getting tedious…. What’s beyond that door?
It’s the thing.
No illusions-keep scratching, it’s bound to be soft somewhere southerly. That would be the belly of the beast… glutens all, mind you… I’ll have another, make mine a double.
do it .
At last, free and here I am. Gretchen fears the heat will damage her sweet hyacinth.
Come night, come hither, while the moon bursts over the bay. Illuminate the breakers in that hue- the one I found attractive- so many seasons ago.
This is not the life I made- meant to make. Experience is like copping a feel.
You say: “Spend money to look natural.” But we all know I’m original… Aren’t I just?
Tiresome sods all of’em.
Maybe what’s beyond the door is just a white elephant; another excuse to rate the underrated.
Davina looked stunning in a dress fit for a royal.
Divvy had been my friend for as long as I could remember and now, here I am, playing the dutiful chief bridesmaid.
'Pale lilac, babes. I know it's not your favourite colour but I'll love you in it.'
Standing at the altar, I feel insignificant - as insignificant as washed out lilac!
'If anyone can show just cause why they may not be lawfully joined together, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.' The vicar's voice droned.
I look straight at my ex in his morning suit, blond hair a little too long on his collar.
'Yes! She doesn't rate you.'
I swallow hard.
'I now pronounce you man and wife and you may kiss the bride.'
She'd won again.
A Longbridge apprenticeship was the best chance of getting out of our street
The factory got called different things – the Austin, Bee Ell, Leyland. It was easiest to call it ‘Longbridge.’ The place never changed when the name did.
It was only a bus ride away but most people drove.
The neighbour on one side sprayed wings in the body shop.
Baz from the other side was an apprentice.
The retired chap across the way had worked in carpentry, making the wooden parts of those half-timbered cars.
Even Dad had been on the track for a time.
During factory fortnight the whole area cleared. Cheap flights from Birmingham International to Alicante were heaving. Back home, the crime rate soared.
Baz from next door got put in borstal for breaking and entering. He’d been greedy, tried for a Betamax as well as the telly. Dad said the price of Longbridge cars was daylight robbery but that was no excuse.
No one laughed.
The Essence of You
Red, green and blue plastic connectors gyrate like writhing serpents before my eyes on a three-dimensional model in the middle of the lab.
I peer through the spaces between the double helix and sense my cheeks flush when my eyes lock with yours. The colours twirl faster as a breeze from the open window catches the model on its central pole, making me dizzy.
I imagine kissing your mouth, quantum bursts of red, green and blue strands of DNA connecting on the soft skin of our lips, swirling on our tongues, absorbed by osmosis into our veins, and spinning their way into our hearts.
The Epicene Kids
There was once a tribe of hedonistic night crawlers who tore around the metropolis at a furious rate, figuring that if they moved fast enough, with enough intent, élan and a pin-sharp style, that tonight would last forever.
For these kohl-eyed epicurean, epicene creatures, who played hard and prayed to the scions of sartorial correctness, and to whom music was a fuel. Music, especially the obscure kind, was their very lifeblood, and not merely to be listened to, but to be considered, digested, and then celebrated; through dance and devilment.
They moved quickly, quietly and were as serious as a straight razor, imbued with a cutthroat seriousness, had their own rules, and slept periodically, erratically, which produced periodic palpitations and bad bouts of: ‘the fEaR'.
They were the modernists, the Epicene Kids, and the world was theirs; at least for now.
While Rome Burns
“But Sir, the signs are overwhelming. Rising sea levels, extreme weather, glacial retreat…..”
The President shook his head. “Myths. Fake science. Flat earth bullshit.” Shouldering his bag of clubs, he clambered on to the golf cart.
“Experts say we’re two degrees from the point of no return,” the advisor continued.
“Experts?” echoed the big man, hooking his index fingers to make airborne apostrophes. “Never listen to experts. They have phoney agendas!”
The cart bounced off, across the green. One more try, the advisor decided. After all, wasn’t the future of humankind at stake?
“Right here, Sir,” he called, “There’s evidence. Wildfires, hurricanes……”
A giant thunderclap erupted, followed by clouds of choking dust. When the mist cleared, cart and passenger had vanished. Three black-suited bodyguards, guns drawn, stood dazed at the edge of a vast hole.
“...and sinkholes, Sir,” finished the advisor, clearing his throat. “All increasing at an alarming rate.”
Between the four walls of my parents’ home were two separate worlds.
In the front room was my father, always surrounded by friends from his home town smoking strong cigarettes. They made coarse jokes and remembered the good old days when they were happy.
When they were sad, they complained about the rain and the cold or money and the exchange rate. All of them supported elderly relatives back home, too stubborn to move over but too needy not to rely on the steady flow of money sent back.
In the kitchen was my mother and the other wives, sharing knowing looks and gossip before sending me back over to the men with mint tea and snacks. My teenage sisters hung by my mother’s side, demanding a turn cooking or complaining about being stuck in the hot confines of the kitchen.
But I, the baby, could straddle both worlds, unseen.
I sit alone in an empty railway carriage when she gets in and sits directly opposite.
I stand alone in the changing room where she places her bag on top of mine.
I sit alone in a quiet cafe where she chooses the adjacent table.
The gym is virtually empty when she selects the rowing machine next to me. She's tanned and sculpted, quite unlike myself. I'd already watched her in the wall mirror, lifting the heaviest weights with apparent ease and barely a wrinkle in her lycra.
Feet strapped in, she manages at least three strokes to my one, panting and sweating. Quite unseemly. I return to my gentle pace and listen as Michael Buble croons his gentle encouragement.
I sneak a look at her monitor to see how our heart rates compare. Noticing that hers is dangerously high, I try to warn her. But too late, she's overboard.
Flooding with words
Today the words leak wet and dripping
Forming puddles and floods and flows
Picking up pace in currents and tripping
Where names and desires and substance grows.
I don’t know why or how it escapes
But I know to catch it in books like cupped hands.
And when the rate slows I feel it drapes
Luxurious reams of thoughts blanketing my plans
It’s that moment I know I must keep writing
Living in phrases, wonder and sips of pain
And I hope the urge will never stop biting
I’ll keep writing every time ideas rain.
Daily draining the ink from each pen.
Collecting drips, making waves again.
I would throw it up above my head and try to hit it at a certain point of its falling down. They say my entire arm has to be involved, and my shoulder. I want to hit strong, but it doesn’t seem to fall right. It must fall to a sweet spot: the palm of my hand.
That is called attack. And I don’t want my stupid fingers twisted as I attack.
“Just pass it over the net, it’s all you have to do,” they say, cheering.
For now, it doesn’t matter where or how strong it falls!
Smacking a ball, feet in the air is quite impertinent at the moment, I thought, when Yahya asked me to jump because I was youngest and should be able to fly and perform and rate higher than all.
“I have timing issues feet in the ground!”
A Chance Taken
She didn't look old enough to know the meaning of the words she uttered. Examining her earnest eyes, I saw desperation, fear, hope, belief.
'What are you offering?'
'Honesty, hard work, loyalty, commitment.'
'How old are you?'
'Did you see the pay rate?'
'I don't think...'
'Please, I need this. If I get a job, Ma will look after the baby. If I don't, I don't know what I will do.'
A face tells a thousand stories.
I watch this confident CEO. She's speaking to a group of disadvantaged teenagers, telling them they can be anything they want to be.
She smiles at me. I wave. I'm shaky now. She's strong and independent but she never forgot. She holds a forty-year-old framed Employee of the Month certificate up to the group.
'Forty years ago, someone believed in me, gave me a chance.'
How would you rate your overall experience on a scale of 1 to 5?
She found scoring questionnaires difficult and everything nowadays requested a score. The butchers, the library, even her last smear test, 5 for the young doctor and biscuits. Now the dating website wanted her to rate last night.
He'd arrived before she did 5, bearded 1, and the meal was nice, although there could have been more of it 4. She’d have appreciated less talk of the ex-wife 2. He'd paid 5, and she couldn’t remember the last time a man had put a hand up her skirt in a pub carpark 4. Sex on her kitchen worktops had been a refreshing change 4, although the earth hadn’t moved 2, but then it never did for her, so perhaps 3. She’d never liked sharing her bed 1, but he had left the toilet spotless 4 and went early 5. Average 3. Average was normal.
The smell was pungent. It stuck to my clothing like ivy. Creeping up my neck, into my nostrils. I tried to move the bag. More like an industrial rubble sack. I couldn't. My curiousity was getting the better of me. I was being paid a good rate for disposing of this. I dragged it along the garage floor and heaved it into the van. 3 more to go.
The last one was smaller. Lighter. Didn't contain as much I suppose. Each secured with cable ties.
Once I'd done I knocked on Mr McCormacks door.
A very striking woman answered.
Clearly not Mr McCormacks wife. A good 25 years younger. Atleast.
He shuffled to the door, she went into a nearby room. I could smell the stench. I was enveloped in it.
-Ah finished boy?
He handed me a thick envelope.
-Say hello to your wife for me.
Mr McCormack smirked.
Out Of Ten
Seven, three, four out of ten- oh look at that, I'm being judged again. You rate me, berate me, destroy me, create me, all with your eyes. Who are you?
I am clay. You sculpt me, undress me, make me squirm with your eyes- play with me, prod me, all in your mind. I am a terracotta army. Stone silence, solid stillness. A mannequin poised for your viewing alone. Fabric draped from my shoulder in a nonchalant way, subtly indicating that it's my choice to stay.
My eyes are glazed over, no, marbles, instead. As I try to conform to the standards in your head. Twisting, bending, contorting out of shape.
You do not see the tears in my eyes, the tears in my heart, how my mouth is full of lies and my head full of dark. As you rate that object- me- in the page of your magazine.
The going rate
I didn’t have any idea; not a clue; no inkling of the going rate. So … I bluffed. “Depends on what you want exactly”. Smug, I left it hanging between us. To see who’d blink first so to speak. “I want the full package, the works, the real deal. Can you manage that?” he countered, slightly belligerently. He wanted me to spell it out, make the move and commit. “Two grand”, said I. In for a penny. “One and a half, no further discussion” he responded. “Done.” I replied, sucking in air through my teeth to signify the end of negotiations. “When? said he. “Soon as you like” said I … more bluffing. “Tonight then, early doors”. Reality strikes and I try to back pedal. “Bit quick, might take a while longer to set up” I venture. “Tonight, no later than 7pm”. With that, I’m contracted to kill.
'Are you burning the midnight oil again?' Sophie sounded petulant.'I have to finish this report otherwise Tarkan will put me back on a zero-hours contract.' 'Would that be so bad, Kev? You seemed happier then.''Soph, this means a permanent job and a better rate of pay; I can finally stop Ubering till all hours.Sophie went upstairs and took a sleeping pill to quell her need for attention. Around 2am, a thread of noxious smoke crept under the bedroom door.A masked figure broke the window pane and climbed in. Sophie reached out for Kev but felt only emptiness. 'My husband is downstairs!' She stumbled towards the bedroom door.'Keep away from that door!' The fireman shouted asSophie grabbed the red-hot metal doorknob.
She still bears the scar three years later. The fireman didn't mind though, when he slipped the wedding ring on her finger.
"The murder rate in the quiet town of Jacobs Louisiana tripled overnight. A wife, Darla Dawkins, and her two sons, James and Peter, were found early Wednesday morning in their quaint suburban home; murdered in their own beds.
A source close to the Jacobs police department reports that each victim was paralyzed with the drug Vecuronium then stabbed multiple times. A county-wide search continues for the husband, a well known doctor at Ouachita Parish hospital, Dean Dawkins.
This makes the sixth confirmed murder in just three short months. Local police officials have set up a tip line to call with any information on this or any of the other cases."
John put down the paper as he sipped his chi tea latte and smiled. No one was going to find Dean. His eyes focused across the room at the latest prey. These arrogant bastards will pay. One way or another.
My Pal Fred
My pal Fred had two mouths: the normal one, and the one on the back of his head. He was embarrassed by it, never showed it to anyone and kept his hair long to hide it. I think I was the only one he ever revealed it to all the time I knew him. It was grotesque—about half the size of a regular mouth, with a few teeth-like shards and purple-brown lips. I didn’t tell him that, of course; I just said, “Nice.”
Fred, quiet most times, would surprise you every now and then. During class he’d speak out of his other mouth, confounding everybody. If mud could speak, I think it would've sounded like that voice. At any rate, his secret was never discovered.
“I wonder if there’s anybody else with two mouths,” he said once.
“Not likely. You’re one-of-a-kind,” I replied.
“Yeah,” he whispered, “Probably so.”
“Aren’t you afraid of the rates?” Jurek enquired, peering into the narrow space under my floorboards.
The bright beam of his torch app reflected dully off the damp sludge in the crawl space beneath my house; I don’t have a proper cellar. I tried not to panic. I couldn’t afford the high prices charged by regular plumbers; was he saying I had a major flooding problem that would cost a bomb, even at his very reasonable ‘black’ rate?
“What is your rate?” I asked.
Jurek looked at me.
“My rate? I don’t keep rates,” he said.
I turned to my neighbour for help - she had recommended Jurek.
‘What’s he on about?” I muttered. She chuckled.
“He means rats. His accent is terrible.”
“What do you think?” he says.
The entire dinner has been peppered with lame conversation eg: ‘do you prefer limes to lemons?’ ‘Tabby cats to tortoiseshells?’ and a plethora of meaningless questions to which Jane had no answers, even if he’d waited for them.
The blind date was a mistake. She should have shaken her head. Not nodded. And here she is opposite a guy who just can’t shut up, who eats with his mouth agape, and who asks weird questions without waiting for answers.
“What do I think?” she says. “About what? About the dinner? About the ambiance? About the muzak? About your pink striped shirt?”
“No,” he says, as if unaware they’d even had dinner. “Us? Do you rate us? At all?”
“Finally, “ she says, “a question I can answer.”
Jane stands, reaches for her handbag and heads for the door.
With thanks to all the writers who have made this issue possible.Alex Black, alex stivaros, Alexander Cox, Alva Holland, Anne Summerfield, Annie Dyer, Arthur Unk, Bill Cox, Callum Marquez, Carol Leggatt, Caysey Sloan, Chris Hayes, Christine Nedahl, Claire Allen, Clara Mok, Clay Sparkman, Colin Alcock, Deborah Ballantyne, Donna Frances Thomson, Eleanor Marvin, Emma J Myatt, Frank Trautman, genesis anntice, Hannah Whiteoak, J L Randall, Jacqueline Carter, James Dunford, Janelle Hardacre, Jet Vevers, John Dapolito, John Murphy, Julia Paillier, Julie Goldberg, Kate Jones, Kholood Azzouz, Lesley Dargie, Linda Woodhams, Lisa Zang, Louise Mangos, Lynda Kirby, M.D. Jayabalan, Maggie Shelton, Marjory Woodfield, Mary Davies., Michael Rumsey, Michael Stewart, Mitja Lovše, Philip Charter, Poppy Crossland, Rahman the Writer, Rebecca Field, Rosanna Wood, S.B. Borgersen, Sally Robinson, Sankar Chatterjee, Steven John, Susan Carey, T V Maitland, Vyara Kozareva
13thth December 2017