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‘Make up your mind - which is it?’ Auguste whirled towards me, hair flying.
I rubbed the goose pimples on my arm, and swallowed, hard. ‘I — ‘ I cleared my throat. ‘Se serrer?’ I tried, with more hope than conviction.
He pounded on the desk,’No, no no, a thousand times no!’ He sighed. Tell me them all.’
I stuttered the words, heart racing and mispronouncing in my haste. ‘La courge; la gourde; le jus; le sirop; la foule; la cohue. . .’
Auguste stood, and picked up his cigarettes. ‘You,' he said, 'will fail.’ He pointed at me, something like triumph in his voice. ‘Just like last time. Le bon dieu knows, I will still be tutoring you when you are twenty years old.’
As he left the room, I whispered, ‘Le squash.’
His Great Matter
In a dim corner of the palace library, the king glittered discretely. The oak table before him was piled high with the knowledge of his kingdom: parchments, legal documents and pre-eminent works of theology.
His majesty was applying his not inconsiderable powers to the great matter, the annulment of his marriage. He would have literally bent himself to this task if he was not restricted by his stiffly bejeweled tunic.
Over the last hour, his position had shifted, and he now sat facing the window overlooking the forests - where someone waited for him.
Picking up his quill, he added his own thoughts, in Latin, before taking his leave.
What was this insightful comment he had taken care to squash into the margin? Perhaps it could be translated to the simple layman as, “This doesn’t apply to me.”
Take a look in the mirror.
You were away in a conference when I noticed the old counter foils in the recycling. Payments of two hundred pounds to my niece every month of two thousand and four, the year she was seventeen. She was a miserable moody teenager but I adored her. You however always ignored her, which I thought harsh. Now, ten years on, she only visits when you're away. I fly downstairs to a diary entry for two thousand and four; Must be strong for Aunt Emma. When you return I confront you, and you say it was for driving lessons as a treat. As I squash your face against a mirror, you tell me it was my fault for neglecting you.
Their marriage was a game of squash played by two singles, blindfolded. After so many years they both wanted to cut the invisible harness pulling them together but could not find it and kept cutting through their wrists.
Recently she stopped watching telly. Instead, she bought a cage and put a wild pigeon in it. She called the pigeon Armageddon. That was her telly she told him.
He wanted to tell her he had stopped wearing tights and only wore metal bangles these days. Her reflection on the wall was dark and angry. He thought she would not bother with the truth so he bought himself a telescope to watch the stars at night.
The 2.05 from Euston to Carlisle will change at Crewe. This, Benedict knows.
Benedict doesn’t know yet that between trains he’ll meet Imogen on the stairs, struggling with her battered tan-coloured suitcase.
He doesn’t know that he’ll carry it for her, over the footbridge to Platform 4, or that he will notice that her hair is as neat and shiny as the conductor’s brass bell, or that her perfume will mingle with steam and coal dust to linger in his clothes.
Benedict doesn’t know that he will lift her suitcase into the luggage compartment before slipping away to his own pre-allocated seat, where he will gaze out of the dusty window and look straight into her eyes.
He doesn’t know that she will squash her freckled nose against the glass of her own dusty window or that as their trains pull away in opposite directions, his heart will leave with hers.
Whatever You Say
I lay freshly loved in a tangle of body warm sheets with one well placed fold covering my groin. She stood with a hip tipped and head bowed, the tight curls of her long brown hair covering her upper nudity like a mermaid.
She ran the lace bra through her fingers assessing the tangle. Each of her delicate movements echoed forethought, choreographed, although somehow she was automatic and never considered, as if she were powered by grace.
Her phone beeped and she pinched it off the bedside table, suddenly human again. The screen lit those milky-way eyes. She scratched the end of her nose and glanced up.
"We're still on a break, right?"
Her typed reply came before I could muster my own. Then her smile. A freezing cramp ran though my chest. She dressed quickly, jamming bronzed feet hard into her pumps... Squash.
The day she died, he couldn’t bring himself to wash the teacup she had left half full. Cold now, its congealing milk formed a ledge on the inside of the china. Her living lips had touched this last. When they were warm. Not the greasy cold of that thing in the coffin.
Here, there were fragments of her. White threads of hair on the brush. The trace of a tidemark in the bath. Each an exhibit in this museum of her. And so, he vowed to preserve it.
In the months that followed, he washed his cup and bowl in the trough outside. Slept on the spare bed, stopping to press his cheek into the pillow that still bore her scent.
Neighbours called, angled heads stole glimpses of inside. No, he needed no help, thank you. They’d just squash all that remained of her out. Each priceless relic of her.
Bugs and boys
At six Joe Joe was a humanitarian. He wouldn't kill a mosquito. Even during the height of the west nile scare, Joe Joe was their champion. How would I like to be swatted or squashed by something the size of a building??
At 10 Joe Joe was an existentialist. What is the meaning of life? Bugs had their reason for existing, but what about humans? What's our role on earth.....
Now 14, and over 6 feet tall, he's dropped one of the Joes. Now existenialism has turned into nialism. What's the point? Who cares? There's still a tiny corner of sweetness.... but filled with fits or anger and remourse. Joe doesn't give the bugs a second thought. Swat.
It was a romantic scene. The solitary couple hand in hand in blissful silence walking by the river the trees blazing in their autumn best. Idyllic. If the couple hadn’t been her husband and another man’s wife. She watched from the bridge as they wandered away from her down the path, growing smaller and smaller. She lifted her hand and pinched the pair between her finger and thumb as if to squash them. But she had a much better idea. She raised her phone and as they turned back and kissed she captured them and pressed send to all. As she heard the twin chirp of their phones she took one more infinitely satisfying picture that was just for her.
Although aware of the whereabouts of your blue sock, you searched for it; and I pretended to not know it was in your school bag. My ignored Squash your revolt and wear a pair, son grumbles, as you longed to burn the blue; other colors of the pairs, too. Your teen cranium had craved chaos, like wearing only one sock. And I'd been like you, much worse, those fearless years, hurling eggs at night into professors' bedrooms.
Space and flight
Dawn arrived. Easterly winds brought a record number of Goldfinches to the Yorkshire coast that day.
Lars' gravelly voice filled the silence. 'If there is one thing she longed for, it was space. Just last week, she flirted with that mansion on Gunnerside.'
Dana smiled. 'Flight was his favorite word. We moved house eight times in ten years.'
That afternoon, when we lay entwined in each other's arms, I said to him, 'Isn't it a bit of a squash?' He held my hand, and we wafted into the air. 'We belong to the open sky, my dear, encompassed by limitless space and intrepid flights.' We followed the Goldfinches as they soared into infinity.
The Telegraph reported that it was the first time a double coffin was used in Yorkshire.
Evelyn put her crochet work down and set aside her spectacles. Aged 94, her vision was clouded by cataracts. She was the eldest of five children born in hard times to a miner and a pottery lass when infant mortality was high. Two siblings died. Disease was rife. In her teens, Evelyn caught Tuberculosis and was sent to a sanatorium in the country.
Ill health was not the only wolf to prey on hard pressed communities. Overcrowding was common, causing families to squash into houses unfit for human habitation. Children often slept top to toe on makeshift beds. Want also prowled the dark ruinous slums. Many families simply could not afford to feed their children. For this reason, when her father was laid off, Evelyn was boarded out, first with family friends, and later in service with a wealthy family. As her parent’s health declined, she sacrificed herself to their care.
The leather was cracked, the springs were compressed on the left side and someone had used the arm rest to squash out his cigarettes. But there it was: a new-to-Bob captain’s chair for his 1977 Dodge Tradesman with the opera windows and Pegasus mural.
At first it seemed that all was left to do was to tack down the shag, install the wetbar and talk Mabel into going parking with him up at Gauley Tower.
But ever since Bob put in the new/old seat, the van ran hot. And even though he hadn’t used too much WD-40, oil was bubbling up around the floorboards.
Frantic calls were made to a mechanic but Bob realized it was too late when he found the sliding door lolled open one morning, the rejected chair spewed into the condo parking lot. A peaked Pegasus now spewed not rainbows but a green arc of vomit.
'Us sardines have to stick togevver, mate. Life's hard enough as it is. Have you niffed the body odour of twenty sardines squeezed into a tin? Course you ain't. Who'd wanna do that? We have delicate stomachs, us sardines. Delicate bones, too. We squash easy. Ouch! it hurts just'a fink of it.
'Me, I'm allergic to tin. Come up in hives, I does. Gawd knows why they're considering me fer food. Me allergies an' stuff, that's why I don't holiday in Cornwall. All them tin mines. Not to mention the freezing water in January! And them sharks! Nuff said, eh?'
'Absolutely. You poor thing. I don't understand what we're doing here, though. I was perfectly happy swimming in the Algarve.'
'Ha! You stuck-up toff. We're heading fer toast. Brown bread, dead! Y'know, even if it kills me, I'm gonna makes sure someone chokes on me bones!'
Sam retreated to a bathroom from a party, which he entered to squash his despair. That didn't work, though he persevered for a while in spite of his numbness.
He checked himself in the mirror of the toilet. While his face was ravaged by alcohol and drugs, his smile stayed on.
However, he felt something's changed, he knew what he had to do, so he opened the door of the lavatory. The festivity continued to rage as he glided between all the people around him to reach the exit.
Once he got there, a drunk stopped him. The man burped, before he growled the following.
'Where do you think you're going?'
The barfly became serious.
'I used to have one.'
The inebriate then nodded towards him.
Sam walked away.
They were left on the doormat like a basket of unwanted puppies, breed unknown. Yellow, flying-saucer shaped, with a note that read, 'Can you use these?'
I threw one for the dog. He spat out the mangled mess, not impressed with his new toy.
I used another for putting practice, but the shape was all wrong, so I sliced it with a six iron instead.
That left four. On each, I drew puppy-dog eyes, button noses and turn-downed mouths, and pinned on name tags. Nestled in serviettes, I left them in the basket, on her doorstep.
The next morning the basket returned with a stack of four golden patties, each with their name tag. Her note read, 'squash fritters.'
I ate Cute, But, Useless and Man, in the order she had arranged them - Useless Man, Cute Butt - and they left a good taste in my mouth.
Boots of Wrath
She seemed a normal little girl, but every day after school, as other children were settling in with snacks and cartoons, she’d do something different. No matter the weather outside, she’d change into her galoshes and go for a walk. Her parents thought nothing of it, even enjoyed that she was such an outdoorsy type.
But she had an evil streak no one saw. Instead of going to jump in puddles, or explore the woods nearby, she’d set off hunting. For what didn’t matter, as long as it was alive. Mice, ants, beetles, turtle eggs; it was all fair game. When she found them she’d squeal with delight and squash them into the ground, extinguishing their lives.
After hours she’d return home, boots covered in the blood and guts of her victims. Adults thought her a perfect angel, but her sly smile hid the sinister darkness she harbored within.
The Blue whale was known to be myth. Surely such thing couldn’t exist? Or so I thought before it appeared in my small room one day. Its bulbous body crammed into the corners of my walls. The Blue whale told me he had come to make me brave. All he wanted was all of my trust. With his hulking body crowded above me. I could hardly decline. The blue whale lit brighter into a harsh fluorescent blue.
The blue whale seems to grow bigger day by day. He expands. His body rams into my wardrobe it’s bent and cracks are forming. I watch his large tail squash my bed frame. Covering my body in cuts and losing the pain of fear was the first step. The only way to truly be free is to take one last step into a dark place. A place where I’ll feel nothing at all.
Keep in direct sunlight.
I wanted my son to know I haven’t always been like this; bag-eyed and stooping, so we drive to my parents' house and go to the end of the garden; a lollipop stick pokes from the ground.
I point to it.
‘When I was ten, I filled a bag with all my dreams and buried it here to keep them safe. I crammed it with every dream I had. It was a squash but, I got them all in.’
He looks at me and nods.
I use a shovel, he bends over and flings the dirt between his legs like a hound. I lift the bag from the hole while he paws his jersey with muddy fingers. Inside the bag, only brittle scraps and faded idols.
I look at him and nod.
I see now that this was no place for dreams.
‘Keep yours with you,’ I say.
It's now or never. The taxi's waiting.
Check list: holdall, money, keys to flat.
Deep breath - leave now.
My heart is breaking at the same time it's beginning to soar.
I'll be okay. I'll get used to being on my own. I'll get used to having freedom.
Mind control is a killer. He may as well have put his hands around my neck and squeezed.
I close my front door for the last time. At the gate, I turn briefly to squash the letter into the mailbox.
He'll be gutted but he won't try to follow me.
He's not a violent man but I've reached the point where I feel I can't breathe.
If only I could be stronger when I'm with him! But all I can do is move on.
We've all got just one life and I have to live it my way.
An Antidote for Stress - A Perfect Weekend Break in Greece
We prised ourselves out of the charter flight seats drenched in sweat. My white jacket insisted on blooming remnants of hot chocolate despite my efforts with soap and wet wipes in the cubbyhole toilet.
We de-planed, un-crinkling our limbs, squashed clothes and egos.
We queued at the car rental desk for twenty minutes, but the car was ‘off-site.’ Half an hour later the taxi dumped us in the middle of the road outside a taverna boasting, Moto Car Rentals. I wished I’d changed into shorts, and my face was on fire.
‘Apparently, it’s the second car on the right after the motorbike,’ my husband said. The inside looked tired like us, but the keys were there.
Mountains, and olive groves later the car lurched, a flapping noise heralded a flat tire. The tools were swimming in grease. We were out of wet wipes, and nothing fitted the wheel nuts.
A variety of Squashes
‘Mum, I’ve been playing squash and I’m thirsty. Could you make some squash?’
I glared at my eldest and put down the iron.
‘Get off me you fat oaf, you’ll squash me. Ow.’ Outside I could hear sounds of a fight breaking out between my youngest son and his friend, Jake.
‘If I need to come out there, I’ll squash the pair of you.’ I banged the window shut and reached for a jug when the doorbell rang. I went and opened the door.
‘Hi, I’m just dropping these off. I’ve grown squash this year and thought you might like some.’ Jake’s mum offered me an armful of assorted gourds. After promising to catch up with her later, I put them down on the kitchen worktop and turned back to the ice cubes.
‘Mum, have you made the squash yet?’
‘If I hear the word squash one more time…’
Mould has colonised his orange squash, spreading over the surface like pond lilies. Orange squash, cheese and onion crisps, and Kit Kats: those were his favourites. Good mums know that kind of thing. Drink more water, eat less chocolate, the dentist said, but I loved to spoil him. My mum never spoiled me; she was never there to spoil me.
I tried my best. The best I knew.
Three years ago, there was a bruise. Too big, too purple. Three years ago, they wanted to know why. Three years ago they asked me if I really thought I could keep him safe. Three years ago they told me that my best wasn’t good enough.
They took everything: his teddies, his toys, his clothes. Everything except his orange squash.
I place the bottle back in the cupboard, and close the door on memories
What can I Give You?
"Coffee? Tea? Squash? Any food? Hot soup? Ham sandwich?"
Yes. Yes please.
And ten marlboro lights.
Slip them into my pocket and I promise not to catch your eye.
Touch my arm with your warm living fingers.
Tell me that the end is a beginning.
That the world is not this hospital corridor of fifteen doors and that my lover, my friend, is not behind the last door on the left.
Bring me a deckchair on a beach an evening of jazz the last rays of the sun on a pub bench clean clothes ironed sheets tomorrow tomorrow tomorrow.
Take away today.
And thank you for asking.
The Freedoms of Houseflies
A housefly landed on his lap and traced a path of random scurries across the white linen. It looked like a comedy drunk staggering around a darkened room.
He felt the rising urge to bring his flattened palm down and squash it against the pristine sheet, to see it as a blackened smear. He willed his brain to send hot impulses through hollow nerve tracts, to raise the ghosts of muscles and fire them to one last glorious paroxysm of contraction.
The fly stopped still. It looked now as though it were listening out, sensing its danger, the ripple in the air before the bang, the echo in the rocks before the sniper's bullet. He saw the iridiscence of its stiffened wings and the quivering of its stubby limbs. A minor consolation. Then, in a blink, it flew away, escaping to where he could not follow.
And Nothing Else Mattered
'Get ready! Stay focused. Always! Run! Jump! Get a firm grip of your racquet. Feel it. Hit the ball with a strong forehand!'
'Again! Take the ball again and practice your backhand. Stronger next time! Good, that's very good! Repeat! You want to win? Hit harder! Do you know what success is? Constant hard work and little achievements, day in and day out. And repeat. That's what success is! You will learn discipline, sacrifice, tears and sweat. You will know rejection and failure. And doubts. You don't stop when you're tired, you stop when you're done.
Are you done today? Not yet? So keep training!
Run! Get that ball!
Stop talking about your dreams, live your dreams!
And don't loose focus!'
It all came back to me today, at his funeral.
The days when there was only squash and nothing else mattered.
My father, my coach. My hero.
"Look, just kill it!" Janet said hurriedly as she followed my gaze, "We can't have anyone finding out."
The fly had been buzzing around the wardrobe ever since we'd locked it, as though it knew what lay inside. I knew that I should kill it, snap my fingers and catch it. But I didn't want to watch something else die.
"Squash it! Come on now."
"It's not a big deal. Flies can't be witnesses, I'm fairly sure that's a law."
"Excuse me if I'm a little on edge," Janet huffed, "Alright fine. Let it live if it means so much to you. But if someone works out what's really happened here-"
"They won't," I said, with as much confidence as I dared to muster.
I tapped the wardrobe four times for safety, and pictured the face of the corpse that lay inside it. In my head, it was smiling.
Two jugs sat on the formica table; vivid orange and cloudy yellow. I filled two plastic cups and nodded to the pair who sat side-by-side, hand-in-hand on the vinyl seats.
Siblings, like us.
Expressions hollow, desperate, numb.
Like us.I picked up the drinks, sloshing liquid onto my fingers, and carried them away. The world had shrunk to the waiting room, the corridor, and beyond where she lay under a white sheet and faded blue spotted gown. Wires snaked away to the machines which declared a lie.My brother took the cup wordlessly. She had already gone before he found her, unconcious.
I knew he almost regretted calling them. Two days of false hope and pain.The breathing tube had gone but her mouth was still open, slack. Machine blips gradually slowed.I sat down, licking sticky fingers.We sipped lemon squash and waited.
What Do You Know?
It's been two weeks but her father remains confused.
The doctors ask the same questions every day:
Do you know where you are?
His answers vary:in the kitchen; at the butchers; Japan, when she knows he's never held a passport.
Do you know what year it is?
It's always 1988, thirty years ago. She's racked her brain but can't think of anything momentous that happened when she was twenty-five and he was fifty.
Do you know what the date is?
It's the 25th of June or the 17th of November or the 31st of January.
Today, when he's asked the date, she watches her father's eyes slide past the doctor, his hand tremor towards the Times lying on the tray table.
'8th June, 2018' he says.
She laughs at the cheat but the doctor's pleased. 'A clever strategy. Well done, sir.'
Hope, squashed away in the bottom of her heart, stirs.
The crash reverberated in Melanie’s head. A huge crack starred the reinforced glass partition behind her. All of her energy morphed into a sharp, excruciating pain in her shoulder. Nothing existed except gasping, enveloping agony: not her partner, not the court, not even her sprawling body on the floor. She and the pain were one.
After a seeming eternity, a red, sweaty face materialized out of the mist of pain. An expression of astonishment and mild concern on his face, Tom bent over her.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Briefly overriding her agony, Mel snarled back at him:
“Do I look alright?”
“Okay, well… I think you may have broken something in your shoulder,’ Tom conceded, meeting her fury with an exasperating grin. “And I hope for your sake the squash club has good insurance coverage,” he added. “But look on the bright side. You’ve won!”
Summer sunlight wakes him early. Sitting up, he squashes one between thumb and finger, not thinking about it. Dozens more riddle the bed, after all.
His good neighbour has lent him a new book with wondrous natural drawings. He flips through the pages, vaguely curious.
Then he sees it. A freakish, foreign monster. From deep underground, or far beneath the ocean, perhaps. Multiple hairy legs dangle from its bulbous, armoured body. Possibly not hairs at all, he thinks, but spines.
He can read well enough to see ‘Flea’ printed below.
He slams the book closed; shoves it on the end of a shelf where shadows hide its presence. His Bible is never placed there, in that forgotten corner.
Later, as the sun dips low, he squashes another one between thumb and finger; perturbed, but not fully believing.
Setting the Story Straight.
‘If another fifteen year old schoolgirl describes me as feisty in her latest essay, I’ll scream. What kind of word is that anyway?’
‘It means–’ piped up Mary.
‘I know what it means. Can’t they just be a bit more original?’ replied Elizabeth.
‘Better than being described as virtuous and pleasant. Pleasant for god’s sake,’ said Jane.
‘They always describe me as bookish and pedantic,’ said Mary.
‘They have a point,’ retorted Jane.
‘So how are we going to set them straight?’ said Elizabeth. ‘Set up our own blog and say it like it is? Wickham has one, only his claims he’s actually a nice guy. As if.’
‘It’s dead in the water. People’ll just think we’re trolls. No-one’s going to believe Charlie and I hooked up long before he came to Netherfield, are they? Mama saw to that. She couldn’t have done more to squash that rumour stone dead.’
I Thought Girls Are Suppossed to Play Nice
Looking for an easy “A” during my sophomore year in college, I signed up for squash. Thinking it couldn’t be so hard to hit a little ball with a big racket in a closed room.
It was a pleasant surprise when my roommate, Mary, told me that she was taking the same class.
Being tall and somewhat athletic, I thought I would have the upper hand on short and pudgy Mary. I was wrong. She played hard and with a steady hand, running to hit every ball. I missed the ball more often than not.
After losing game after game, I threw my racket in the corner and shouted, “I thought girls are supposed to play nice!”. Mary’s cool reply, “Girls are supposed to play to win!”
Mary got an “A”. I received the only “C” I ever had during college.
I squash the palms of my hands into my eyeballs in an attempt to blot out your words and the sound of the door slamming behind you. My mouth is so dry I want to retch. I wonder who I might be if you didn't hate me. I cast an eye over the sea of empties littering the kitchen table. My face sinks into my hands once more as I wonder who I might be if I didn't hate myself.
Count on Me
Before I go out each day, I check all the appliances are off. I do this at least five times for each one. I worry that someone is watching me, even inside my house where I live alone. Once outside, I venture to the shops to buy the paper. I count each step, has to be an even number.
Safely back home I open the crisp pages, read each horrible event across the world. There’s quite a squash inside my brain; reasons why it’s not safe to be me. But I don’t want to be without any of them. They have become my comfort.
A Squash of Commuters
A squash of peak-hour commuters sit in a train carriage. They would be a mob of commuters if they were moving under their own propulsion. Or a pride of commuters if they had better green credentials.
When the water floods the underground they become a pod of commuters. And when they emerge from the wet and the dark to a post-apocalyptic future they become a colony.
The underground tunnels protected them from the worst of it. As the years pass and the population dwindles, they look back on the days when they were a squash with longing and guilt.
A scarcity of commuters is all that remains.
Bewildered, my Dad froze, unable to fathom the sin assigned by my indignant son.
"Don't squash it!" he repeated firmly, confident in his four years. "We take them outside, Pawpaw," he offered grudgingly, a reluctant explanation of the obvious.
The spider skated hopefully away - the hovering shoe stilled by conversation.
Shaking his head, lips pursed, brows arching to hairline, Dad silently acquiesced - a savior of spiders, now. Unconvinced, but game to play by the rules, he walked to the sink and emptied his cup of ice. Grabbing football headlines - always recycled unread - he swiftly cupped the crawler and deftly slid the thin sheet underneath. Delivering it to the furthest garden corner, confident of its rapid return, he finally spoke.
"I didn't know," he shrugged, shaking his head. This custom was not one he had taught, but keeping the peace definitely was.
We Couldn't Resist
Bill and I were carpooling to work-- one hot, sunny morning-- when I spotted an impromptu bake sale on the way. I wanted something to eat so I asked him to stop.
The first table I walked up to had a sign that read:
My Zucchini Bread Squashes The Competition
Assuming the proprietress had a sense of humor, I said, "Good morning cupcake, I really like the way you creped your table."
At first she was confused but then she got angry. "I don't have...Who are you to call me cupcake!"
Turning quickly to Bill I said, "Can you cover me? I'm short on bread."
"You two need.." the proprietress started to say before Bill cut her off.
He turned to me in mock anger and said, "Will you quit waffling and pick something. I'm baking out here and I need to get to work."
On Thursdays we play squash. I lose. He is older and out of shape. He sweats and grunts, gulping bottled water. I miss a shot and feign frustration. I won't make it easy for him, it will be a close match.
It is all about the game. Everyone thinks it is about the money, but the game is the hook. I reel him in slow, he won't notice. He considers himself a good judge of character. He could tell from the start that I would fit right in, he could use my energy. Between squash and golf and long business lunches he knows me well now. He trusts me absolutely. I extend my reach into every part of his business, biding my time. Waiting for the day that I pull it all apart.
I wonder if he will cry, like dad did when he took his job away.
On the Extinction of Species
Tarquin’s the apprentice in Conrad’s greengrocers. They sell more short-dated bacon than broccoli. Conrad kept the fishmongers too, before it went belly-up. He says there’s more money in cucumbers than cod.
In the shop’s backyard Conrad guts spent hens and sells them for a tenner each. Tarquin hangs them in the shop window under a sign that says ‘free-range organic’ and watches blood drip onto the rhubarb.
Conrad says he could make a better living selling used stamps and buys bin bags full off the internet. He sorts them into extinct countries in his cubby hole next to the toilet; Biafra, Rhodesia, French Indochina. He says that if he found anything from The Kingdom of Prussia he would never again stick his fingers up a chicken’s arse.
He says ‘Kabocha squash are the next in thing’.
Tarquin repeats to himself ‘kabocha, Biafra, Prussia, papaya, kabocha’ in between not serving anyone.
He held her
She felt squashed by his presence even when he was simply in the same house as her. She always knew that he wanted her, since she was 10 years old. His desire expressed itself in the way he pinched her little nose, of course like cousins are meant to do teasingly to their ‘little sisters’.
His desire showed itself in the way he held her gaze a second or two more than is appropriate whenever they met in family gatherings.
The day when she felt him massaging her shoulders, accompanies her like jinn. The unseen beings made from smokeless fire.
He was only meant to collect charcoal so his mother could light uunsi and enjoy the perfumed smoke that lifted the air and everyone spirits. He wanted her, like she always knew.
‘Stop!’ God spoke through her for she hadn’t the strength. He ran like a thief caught too soon.
Flights Of Fantasy
We always had a drink after the game. .
“Rumours,” Frank exploded on Friday evening, “I hate them and now this latest one about Greenways. They don’t help us police at all so we nip them in the bud before they sprout.”
“Same with me,” Harold said, “how many conspiracy theories cross my desk every week? I blue pencil the lot. They never see the light of day in my newspaper.”
“No different in Finance,” Len put in, “my salesmen come to me with ideas of speculation and risks. No, I tell them right from the start don’t even think about it.”
They turned to me. What did I think?
“I agree,” I nodded, “we never let these flights of fantasy get off the ground. and you can see why, the reason is obvious,” I swept an arm around the bar, “we are all members of the Squash Club.”
Then he says, "That's all Folks"
I drew my first characters on her birthday, behind a locked door. I added white gloves to hide bruised knuckles, substituted a broken rolling pin for the skillet. I drew her more like Red Hot Riding Hood than Jessica Rabbit, because we weren't married and she had an ex named Roger.
I storyboarded every moment; two snarling twisters rioting in little boxes with thin black borders that went on forever. I wanted her to see me every thought. She didn’t know I knew about Harvey until she saw his caricature in a screen test, the punch line was weak but she laughed through tears.
She and Harvey never made it to the altar. We took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and sold Harvey’s ring for an Acme subscription.
Looking back, it’s all gags; anvils, bombs, and mallets that do no damage as we just squashed, stretched, and snapped back again.
A reverence for life
It was crawling about on the floor, an insect of some sort. Following mazey routes. It advanced quickly forward but then went round in a circle to its starting point. Stopping occasionally, presumably having found something microscopic to eat. When the light glinted on its back the colour seemed indeterminate, sometimes purple sometimes green.
I had an ethical dilemma - should I kill it or let it be? It had a right to life and was only going about earning a living in the way evolution had ordained for it. I wondered how much DNA we shared.
I remembered when Mother caught a mouse. She triumphantly informed Dad, expecting him to stride forward manfully and dispose of it. Instead he asked, 'Have you fed it?’
We laughed at him but I grew to appreciate his reverence for life.
Anyway, I stretched out my foot to squash the insect, DNA or not.
On my birthday I got to choose the program. But the lurid birthday card (a throbbing heart) kept me rooted in place.
Please don't tell me, long after the occasion, that it conveyed real feeling.
A lawnmower droned somewhere near the water, where grass grew or something like it. An electric toothbrush made music in the can, where you readied yourself for my big plans. A fly buzzed around my head as I tried to decide what I wanted to do.
I clapped my hands sharply and squashed it midair.
You thought this signalled my impatience and exited the can foaming at mouth.
That birthday was scotched.
Please tell me, after all this time, that this was the plan, after all, to squash me like that fly.
That first harvest my Papa let me participate in the pigeage was hot. The autumn of a blistering summer where my sister and I ran barefoot through vineyards and, with the same feet, scoured clean, lowered in to the wooden vat for the grape stomping.
Feeling them squash between my tiny toes, squealing with delight as the juices tickled like liquid fingers, I had never felt so happy.
It was later when, on my way to bed, I heard the noise in the outhouse and, on wine-soaked tiptoes, crept closer to take a peek.
There I saw Mama, long auburn hair draped around her neck, head thrown back against a wall with her long, lithe, brown limbs twisted around the bare bottom of my Uncle. Wine was running down her shins and dripping from her toes in to a pool that glistened in the moonlight.
Best Days ...
Desks rattled as the girls heard the approaching clack.
There was a whimper, terror tangible.
From the back a titter. Helen always laughed when she was nervous.
The girls stood as one, as the inky habit pushed backwards into the room.
She swivelled, marched to the front and slammed her books down.
Good afternoon Sister.
Face pinched, she pushed her spectacles over her beak with ramrod finger and glared to the back.
There was a collective intake of breath. They knew exactly the direction of her ire.
You. Are you too important to stand?
Stand then girl.
Then get out of my class now!
She turned to the board, scribbling furiously.
Helen stood, winked at the others, then shuffled to the door, her bottom firmly wedged into the seat of her chair, like a squash into a pickle jar.
Squish, Squash, Go
It was always a bit of a squash. Crammed into the back of the Escort, me and my two older sisters would snuggle our way into the back seat between bags of groceries, toys and bedding. We were only going on holiday for two weeks, but the car was full to overflowing of everything we could possibly need to ensure we felt at home when we got there.
I always sat behind my father who drove - my mother refusing to drive anywhere which required her to go on the motorway. She would complain of getting ‘jelly legs’ at the thought of driving above 30 miles an hour. And then complain when she told my dad to take the next right and we ended up lost.
This would never happen nowadays. Satellite navigation systems rarely misdirect you. But it wasn’t a proper family holiday without a wrong turn or two.
The small jars of applesauce, creamed carrots, spinach, and acorn squash were neatly arranged on the lower shelf of her kitchen cabinet awaiting the big arrival. Mary Ellen tossed them into the trash can along with the gift baskets of baby formula, cloth diapers, and assortment of teething rings given to her at her baby shower last month. They were no longer needed. They represented a heartbreaking reminder that once again she fell short of producing a child.
A Judicious Use of Artificial Sweeteners
It took me ages to get the formula right. I chopped and crushed and blended; by the time I’d finished, the recycling box outside the back door was full of empty packets.
The girl on the till at Tesco, laughed as she whipped all the bottles past the scanner.
‘Kiddies’ party?’ she asked. ‘They must be a thirsty lot!’
Back home, I lined them up along the worktop. With no idea which would work best, I had high hopes for Ribena and Lime Cordial. However, after an hour or so of diluting, mixing and tasting, it was clear my best option was Robinsons Real Fruit – with no-added sugar. The artificial sweeteners left a coat-the-mouth aftertaste: perfect for disguising the tablespoon of crushed Paracetamol I stirred into it.
She was sitting next door, swearing at the television.
‘Here you go, Mum,’ I said. ‘Have a nice glass of squash.’
These skinny jeans don't half squash... But... Blimey, I could use some WD40 here!... You have to make an effort when you get to our... oof!... age. Jesus.
Back to the meat market. Dry-aged. Matured for flavour. Hung. At least until I pulled these bloody jeans on...
'Free Entry for Ladies Up To 9pm' says the sign outside. There's a black line biro'd through the last part then someone with a red marker's added 'We'll pay you to come in!!' I hover outside, hoofing circles in the car park gravel, wishing I had a cigarette to explain my not going in. Three men approach, tight polo shirts, tats. Pack hunting. Eye me up and down, nostrils flaring. Music escapes when they open the door, stops when it shuts. Apparently, 'it's a celebration'. A woman walking her dog looks over and I look down at my loafers.
I study the colourful plumpness of the vegetables, the blinding glare of metal where the sun hits the blade of my knife, the grooves in the heavy chopping board. The sharp points of my hip bones press against the counter. There is an ache deep in my stomach. A faint lightheadedness behind my eyes.
At first, chopping onions is easy. Then comes the smell, sweet and fragrant, and I open the window to let it out. My arms tire halfway through peeling the squash, the small, pale one we grew in the garden. It’s just a little too hard, like the pears I made into a tart the day before, still uneaten in the refrigerator.
You know cooking ruins my appetite.
A dinner of chorizo spaghetti and butternut squash - an exotic treat for a man more accustomed to food from bags and boxes, defrosted and unimaginative.
‘What’s the occasion?’ he asked, hoping for an upturn in their relations.
‘Nothing special’, she answered, ‘just fancied a change.’
He failed to catch the anxiety in her tone, the plasticity of her smile.
She felt desperately trapped, craving release from this man who had at one time filled her with such hope and passion she thought the exultation would live forever. Now she was blunted and diminished, prodding at her meal without eating, eyes dulled, spirit defeated.
She watched him closely, waiting for it to all be over, longing for something different. Too late did she realise that true change comes only from within.
Macerating alone in the darkness his ghost would sometimes come to her, the bitter hint of almonds filling the cell.
Just a Tad Off
He takes a step, but comes no closer to an answer discerning between
squish and squash.
The mismanagement of a vowel is sometimes inconsequential. Soup and soap bear little difference; both can be delectable, pending your selections. Boot and boat each claim watertightness, but they equally sag and sog after even the smallest of punctures.
Another step tests the
squish or squash.
If his name was Ted or Tod, he doubts he would care. But it's not. Tad feels a compulsory pull towards the short straw. Tad imagines the sharpened peak of an A pierced the hull of his craft, impaled his investment, skewered his savings. If Tad stood for anything, he trusts he could endure. But it doesn't. He doesn't. His world is reduced to a slight I or a squat A. So he spends his days deciding whether his boots
squish or squash
while rationing a sudsy cake.
The sun squashed through the treetops in dry shards that pushed me at the shoulders. Not hard; merely a gentle warm playground shove.
Huge tubes of love from far off, the galaxy was pointing and threatening to take me away.
A strong bird glided above on turrets and tufts of far flung wind, proud-beaked, its stark bird wings outstretched.
I leaned back as I recognised her and my eyes smiled wide. I leaned further and fell to be carried, seeing endless blue and feeling ripples of contoured life
massage my ground grazed back.
Wishing for a Wagon Wheel
I was a kid on the packed lunch table. Actually there were two packed lunch tables. There was the one where the fussy or rich kids sat. Their mothers packed brightly coloured lunch boxes, which nestled into each other. I don’t think there were many fathers packing lunches then.
On our table, aside from the girl who had Um Bungo cartons and a Wagon Wheel everyday, we all had a white sliced sandwich (Marmite or lemon curd in mine), an apple and a drink. My sandwich looked least nice because my mum wouldn’t cut the crusts off (it put hairs on my chest).
But, for fun, I would press my sandwich together, between my index finger and thumb, multiple times, all over, until it was a really thin version of itself. Then, drink the warm lemon squash in a smelly tall Tupperware, wrapped in a plastic bag because it leaked.
Mother chats to the milkbar owner whilst Maryann sits at the table watching her two brothers lost in boy talk.
She sips on her straw enjoying her lemon squash. Blowing gently she watches the bubbles form - rising up the glass and lazily toppling over each other as they tumble down the outside.
Maryann sees a fairyland of frothy effervescence and is dazzled by the rainbow colours.
Pursing her lips and blowing harder, some burst, and Maryann feels tiny pricks of moisture on her hot face. She wonders if a fairy has escaped and is sitting on her cheek.
Could she carry the fairy home to keep in a matchbox on the windowsill?
Taking out her handkerchief she carefully wipes her face and pops it back in her pocket. Now she has a tiny sister to play with.
Her solitude becomes bright bubbles of release.
‘Come on kids - time to go’
Come Dine With Me
Celebrity Chef left her cold. Colleagues gleefully dissected each Bake Off; she remained mystified. She’d never ventured inside an avocado. A steaming pizza was fine – tomatoes and pineapple for two of her five-a-day, plus beans and beet in her chocolate. Close enough.
But she was in love. No more sharing a KFC bucket before hopping into bed. Rob was a serious foodie. Proper restaurants with gleaming cutlery and sparkling glasses.
He cooked her a Thai curry with real lemongrass! Now she must reciprocate.
She wasn’t ambitious but she was flummoxed by the butternut squash. She poked and prodded the unappealing phallus. It seemed impenetrable, scarier than the real pineapple she’d courageously purchased. Did she slice, dice, boil, bake? Could she?
She sighed and removed the inevitable ready-made lasagne from the fridge. The squash mouldered for weeks, untouched, slowly shrivelling till Rob’s ribald comments consigned it to the bin.
“It's yummy…see?” Nana gulped it down, rubbing her tummy in an attempt to trick him to take a bite. “Nana likes it…mmm…your turn.”
“No,” he protested—pursed lips—a defiant pose.
“You want a cookie?”
His head bobbed up and down.
“Squash first then, honey bun.”
“No!” An adamant determination to get his way continued.
She put the bowl in front of him—just as determined in what became a battle of wills.
Sitting at the table—the stare down ensued—the showdown began.
“Henry, don't you…” were the only words she was able to say.
A plethora of green chunks flew high, decorating her hair, and face. It cascaded down onto her lap, dripping in buttery goo.
Her grandson’s eyes grew wide.
A smile formed on Nana’s oily lips, “Yum...”
A truce between them—she reached over, and gave him a bite.
“Yum…” he smiled back.
Chubby Chubby yuk yuk we hate you
The orange squash tastes thin and metallic. I'd forgotten how nasty it is. But that's all there is on offer at the Spring Fayre. It's being held on the playing field, amidst the scents of hawthorn and cut grass.
That taste, those scents, take me back twenty years. I'm going home after school. Janet and her pony club gang are sprawled under the chestnut tree, watching me. I have to pass them. As I approach the chant begins: Chubby Chubby yuk yuk...' I try to look as if I haven't heard, but I'm walking faster and faster, lumbering into a run as I get to the gate.
I don't say anything to Mum. She pours me a glass of squash and cuts a slice of cake. I eat it and take another piece.
I'm a size twelve now, but I still hate orange squash.
With all my heart
I put my pen down, a sordid mixture of tears and sweat trickling down my face. Doubts arise in my mind. I put them down, too. It was too late to turn back. My mind raced back to the moment that began this nightmarish cycle – the moment my sister left home to go to university. She was all I had. No brothers, no parents, nothing except her. Of course, I couldn’t prevent her going off to uni – it was her life, her choice, not my decision to make. I’d have just preferred it if she asked me beforehand.
So, I placed my pen on my desk, taking the paper and gently shoving it into an envelope. I took the mug of hot blackcurrant squash, drank it, savouring the bitter flavour, and placed that on the desk too.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper into the night. But that’s a lie, too.
She wakes before dawn to the sound of wind shutting the door and blowing her eyes wide open.
He’d risen to take his medicine. Night after night, day after day, he swallows pills. Every four hours, six hours, eight, twelve. Two at a time, three, four.
She doesn’t keep track. He still functions to control his pain. She barely manages hers.
She’d sampled a few. One small, round, white pill gives her the feeling she likes. She struggles with helping herself to more. He counts the pills in the bottles.
Best to squash the behavior before it gets out of hand, but she suspects it’s already too late. One is all it takes to trigger her addiction, to bring it back to life.
She crosses herself, gets out of bed and walks to the open window. Last night, she’d heard a nightingale. Tonight, she hears the wind.
Things My Mother Left Me With
A love of smoked cheese and Garibaldi biscuits; she used to tell me they were filled with squashed flies. A fear of cotton wool and communal salad bars. The recipe for Grandma’s poppyseed cake.
A box full of handbags and shoes she said I could grow into – Dad doesn’t know about them. The emerald earrings Dad gave her for their ten year wedding anniversary – she said they suited me better than her. (Dad doesn’t know about them either). My nose. My pale skin that burns on a cloudy day. Her scent on the winter coat in the back of the hallway cupboard – Dad threw out the rest of her clothes.
The pain of her absence at every birthday, Christmas and school production afterwards. A sense of disbelief that she really had gone, for good. The guilt that I didn’t see it coming and stop her. My father, broken beyond repair.
The journey from Bulawayo had been rough, but Mbuso had made it.
He’d got used to the looks on the tube. Oh, they were polite the British, he had to give them that. Not full-on stares, just sidelong glances. Today it had been a trip to the Town Hall, the council officials well-intentioned but over-stretched and impotent. The call to the Home Office? That would have to wait for another day.
Mbuso sat on the packing case that served for a chair, looking at the damp streaked walls of his so-called apartment. He opened the paper bag and removed the contents, placing the Squash on a plate on the floor in front of him. The Squash’s green flesh yielded to Mbuso’s sharp blade, exposing the orange flesh inside. Mbuso smiled, a little bit of home.
Miss Grenville and Billy
‘Today we’re going to practise adjectives. Remember, they are used to describe something.’
‘You awake Billy?’ Miss Grenville eye-balled the seven-year-old.
‘Yes Miss, the baby cried all night and kept us awake so I’m a bit sleepy.’
‘Sit by the window for a few minutes. By the way class, sleepy is an adjective as it describes how Billy is feeling.’
Miss Grenville took a small round object from her desk and held it up.
‘Who would like to describe this vegetable?’
The only sound heard in the classroom was soft snoring from by the window as Billy drifted off to sleep.
‘It’s yellow Miss and tastes yukky!’ The class giggled.
‘No idea what it is even,’ another voice said.
Miss Grenville sighed.
‘It’s called a squash. It’s yellow, it’s round and …’
‘Perhaps we’ll describe this flower.’
Taking a rose from the vase perched on her desk she inhaled deeply.
He was but a pumpkin
There were shutters for Windows instead of blinds when I opened them there were endless fields of pumpkins, zucchinis, cucumbers.
How I loved the colour of those pumpkins-Green, yellow then orange, not just any orange the colour of a glorious sunset.
-When do we harvest them Grandad?-When they're good & ready. You see these?
I did. Squash bugs.
-These aint dangerous to you but this is what you gotta do to keep 'em rooin'ing the crop.
I lay there in my bed hearing a creakin'. Jeepers creepers clicking legs from a gap in my wall. I pulled the blanket right up there to my chin & I saw 'em.
An army. A great army of them bugs. They crawled all over me like my head was a pumpkin crawling under my scalp like it's where I'd root my stalk.
I tried screamin' they silenced me. Feet like leaves getting me back.
Wings of Glory, Hearts of Fire
'It is much easier to squash ideas than to explore, build and develop them,' said Milton Wright to his sons. Orville and Wilbur were very much encouraged by their father's belief in them. Sketching out a plan, executing it and then seeing it fail actually disheartened the young men but they pursued their dream.
The North Carolina blue skies awaited them. It was on December 17, 1903, that the wings of their aircraft lifted up their spirits as it flew claiming the skies. The Wright Flyer was a bird with broken wings by dusk.
The Wright brothers went on to design better aircraft. They finally received their rights as pioneers in aviation but Wilbur did not witness it because of an early flight to heaven.
Orville said, 'Let the world remember us as two brothers who believed in dreams and in each other.'
It was disappointing close up. From a distance, watching the launch behind the wire as a child, it had looked so, so, well so utterly glamourous. That’s what had hooked me, the shining metal, the gleaming white letters climbing up the side. I have to be there, I thought, have to be in that glorious, glowing bird.
Close up it was surprisingly scratched, dented in places, like a battered old car. And on board, the crew area was a squash of seats, tattered covers, belts twisted and frayed. And the smell, a mix of autumnal rotting vegetation and the eggy wind usually associated with a large male dog.
There’s no going back, not once you’ve been accepted, enrolled and trained. So I sit here, wearing a badly fitting uniform, sweating through the nylon, perched on top of hundreds of tons of fuel, ready for take-off.
You are no bigger than an ink dot in bold font; yet assiduous and resolute to the last. You know, I watched you and your nuisance mates for ages, lifting 20 times your own body weight, apparently.
The kitchen Formica top with custard cream crumbs was all but juicy residue initiating a night invasion, food shining in the dark like gold you and millions of others have no eyes to see so follow the trail.
Over and over again, perfectly regimented movement calibrated better than a dance ensemble or military parade.
Next day, only you returned. Sole survivor of the powdery anthrax hurriedly bought from the struggling Pound Shop.
Feeling the tiniest of dotted white workers, you too fade without fanfare.
Nuanced movement only. Seeping pheromones from a wriggling black dot eventually squash under a fleshy finger tip.
Every Sunday the three female tenants of 7 Castle Road came together to cook a vegetarian roast.
This has become a ritual over the last year. Each played their part, one prepared and cooked the parsnips, potatoes and carrots. Another did the cauliflower cheese and stuffing. And the final housemate did the washing up and set the table. As it has been said this was a set ritual.
However, this Sunday was different for one they forgot to buy parsnips and two the final housemate's new boyfriend was joining. The other two were feeling uneasy that this routine had been disrupted by a big, hairy, grunty man.
This also meant having to cook extra food which sent the trio into a slight fluster and the prospect of having to squash four people around a tiny IKEA table was daunting.
A knock at the door. It turned out he was weedy.
No Punishment Like Guilt
There’s no punishment like guilt. It will squash and squeeze you into the darkest corners, forever left to look over your shoulder, constantly holding your breath, as a stranger starts to speak, trembling at every flashing blue light and avoiding your parents’ sympathetic gaze. You can no longer look them straight in the eye.
I know that enduring pain. I chose not to save my brother, as he splashed hopelessly and helplessly, sinking into the deep canal lock. I wanted only one of me.
Now the escape draws close. If I stumble forward, in apparent collapse, and roll over the edge of the platform, to be sliced and diced by the through train, no one will expect suicide and parents and friends can still hold their heads high: while they manage their grief over both twins, so tragically lost.
But I am, I’ve always been, a coward.
Nothing to Lose
Brian hauls his sports bag and racquets out to his bike. He aches in every muscle. He thinks he may have a fever too.The last thing he wants on this sunny Sunday morning is to take part in a squash tournament. But the bets are on and if he doesn’t win this final round, he loses everything.
He pedals, best he can, to the sports centre. The breeze through his helmetless hair cools him down somewhat. He barely notices that he’s shivering.
The squash courts are in sight when the trembling sets in. Brian wobbles on his bike. Wobbles is an understatement. The kerb rushes at him like a freak tornado.
The pathologist’s report is straightforward: Advanced stages of Lyme Disease culminating in loss of mind and muscle control resulting in a fatal blow to the head.
Ben carefully places the cardboard down in the shop doorway. A minimum of three layers would be required to combat the emanating cold form the concrete below. His sleeping bag is rolled on top, followed by a woollen blanket, recently donated by the 'Sally Army'.
With the display lights flickering, fully dressed Ben crawls into his homemade womb. His rucksack is adjusted behind his head to form a type of pillow, with his wordily goods acting as the filling. Pulling his 'Beanie' over his ears he lays his head down, noticing his breath, 'fogging' the surrounding air.
Thinking of the Four pounds and twenty three pence he has to survive off tomorrow he closes his eyes. Thoughts squash his brain, with recent events meandering aimlessly through his mind, he drifts into his escapism, sleep.
A Pressing Engagement
The hotel room was full, people folded in upon themselves like paper dolls. Arnold wiped the sweat out of his eyes and tried to raise his voice.
'Today... today we march...'
But their chatter drowned him out. Defeated, he tried to find a stool, but the amount of bodies pressed down on him, pinning his arms.
'Stop!' He could hear from those at the back. They were being forced against the wall.
Soon there were screams and noisy crying but still more people tried to come in. Men, for the most, in black suits.
'...Squash!' he heard, but it was too late. He should have hired guards for the door. Everything spun, and the voices roared louder. There was more crying, and then nothing but a dizzying darkness.
Coming of Age
Standing in my own hallway, the silence presses around me, as though I’ve put my head under the bath water; the rest of the world has become distant and separate.
It was nice of Carol to have me stay over with her until after the funeral. Mind you, the boys are very tiring - it’s all computer games. They’re my only grandchildren, but I just can’t seem to make sense of them.
In my 68 years, I’ve never spent a night in the house by myself. Still, ‘There’s a first time for everything,’ mother used to say. Along with ‘You’ve made your bed and now you’ve got to lie in it.’
Perhaps I’ll put the telly on for company. Where’s the controller? Oh, of course, he always used to squash it down the side of his chair, so he could watch what he wanted. Guess I get to choose, now.
The orange squash bottle lay on a bed of grass luxuriating in the sunshine. Each time a new load of hay rattled in on the flat-bed trailer, I took a swig of the tepid drink. It was warm enough to bathe a baby in. Sweat-covered arms didn't think to put the bottle in the shade.
I was six, too young to drive the tractor, too weak to lift a hay bale but not too young to notice the bottle of cider that took the squash in an amorous embrace. The cork plug popped. No one saw me drink the cider meant for the grown-ups. It tasted sweet and bubbly and made me giggle so I took another sip, and then another. When we drove home over Sunset Hill, the world tilted a little and glowed golden. I was distilled like the hay, a canopic jar of secrets waiting to unfold.
Dave boarded the coach in his crisp new ‘Je T’aime Paris’ t-shirt and waved his passport at the reverend, who looked puzzled. Then he squashed himself next to old Mrs Dawkins in the back row and immediately fell asleep.
Several hours later, he awoke to find Mrs Dawkins disembarking with the rest of his fellow tourists. He leapt to his feet and bolted outside. What first? The Eiffel Tower, perhaps, or the Louvre? He couldn’t wait. But hang on. That was the Houses of Parliament. And that was the River Thames. Why were they in London? Dave grabbed the reverend by the sleeve. ‘Why aren’t we in France, father?’ he demanded. ‘The sign said “Paris trip”!’
Puzzlement spread over the reverend’s face once more, but cleared as a thought struck him. ‘No, no,’ he told Dave, who looked like he might cry. ‘It said “Parish trip”.’
A rug by the gas fire, where you let me watch The Neverending Story instead of facing the bullies at nursery. You brought me orange squash and marmalade toast.
A blackcurrant bush we stripped every summer. Purple fingers, tart tongues.
A cabinet of knick-knacks. My christening shoes, silver-plated.
Photos of my cousins in confirmation robes. You wanted me to follow them, but by twelve I'd stopped believing.
An armchair where you sagged, watching daytime TV. I brought you censored tales of uni. You forgot what I studied, my age, my name. Your eyes drifted back to the screen.
A larder, which I locked you into when I was five, that Dad converted into a downstairs toilet when you couldn't manage the stairs.
A urine smell. You refused to let Mum change you, shaking your skull-like head. She made tea but you wouldn't drink.
A "for sale" sign in the garden.
A face, peeking
Even on the tips of her toes, Sophie could only just see over the wall.
Anyone looking from inside the Hamilton’s garden would have spotted a mop of red-blonde curls, a pink hat and awed eyes squashed against the brickwork.
But nobody was looking.
The Hamiltons instead, were doing what Hamiltons did on sunny June weekends - entertaining.
The men were in summer slacks and brushed cotton shirts, and the women in flowery summer dresses and understated jewellery.
Sophie imagined they would one day spot her.
“Our long-lost daughter!” they would cry, welcoming her in, admitting life had never been perfect until they’d found her.
Instead, Sophie turned for her home, some blocks away and rather more modest. There she would untuck the beer bottle from her father’s hand, and cook noodles ready for her mum’s return home. She would put herself to bed. Nobody would notice her there either.
The heat on the train smothers me. I can't wait to get out of London, it's been a long day and I'm exhausted. It was all a pointless trip. Still no job and I'm a good bit poorer. And the final insult? They appointed a young male graduate, still wet behind the ears, an arrogant little sod to boot. There's no way he'd have a tenth of my experience. Equality of the sexes? Pull the other one. Where am I? Where are we? I must have nodded off. I feel the squash of a thigh next to mine, another man-spreader, no doubt. I peep under half-closed eyelids. I have a neighbour in the seat next to me and I'm all ready to tear him off a strip for space invasion when I realise he is she: a heavily pregnant woman. I blush, smile, and shift to give her more space.
The second hand seemed to be moving unnaturally slowly. My eyes flicked to it as the interviewer spoke in his flat, monotone voice.
He was what I would call a whitewash man. His sleek, well-groomed hair was slicked back against his skull and, from within his beaming mouth, blinding teeth protruded.
It was all very well for him to sit there in his warm, comfortable office, telling me my own drawbacks, but I didn't want to hear them. I had known that the interview hadn’t gone well from the moment that I had sat down. I had mumbled too much and forgotten all of my figures.
My eyes darted back to the clock. It was a nice clock – large, with roman numerals around the edge. I didn’t have a clock back at home.
All I had were hungry mouths.
The interviewer smiled as he squashed my dreams.
With thanks to all the writers who have made this issue possible.Agusia Wolsoncroft, alison woodhouse, Andrea Harman, Andrew Flynn, Ann Sullivan, Benjamin Olsen, Carl Palmer, Carol Leggatt, Carolyn Ward, Cedric Anthony, Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon, Christine Bigley, Christine Collinson, Christine Hayes, Christine Nedahl, CJ Flynn, Colin Alcock, Crilly O'Neil, Damhnait Monaghan, Dana Sposeep, Danny Beusch, David Cook, Debbie O'Neill, Declan Tatam, Donna Frances Thomson, Elaine Mead, Ellen Kirkman, Emily Weatherburn, Emma De Vito, Faustine Ladeiro-Levent, Frank Trautman, Gill Kirkland, Gillian Ainsworth, Hannah Whiteoak, Isabel Flynn, Jan Brown, Jay Bee, Jeanette Everson, Jenny Woodhouse, Jody Kish, John Wigham Shirt, Joyce Wheatley, Julie Bowyer, Justin Rulton, KAPKA NILAN, Laura Tapper, Leah Gage, Les Pedrick, Lesley Anne Truchet, linda dewhurst, Lindsay Bamfield, Lydia Harman, Mahesh Nair, Mandy Thorley, Marissa Hoffmann, Mark Kuglin, Mary Davies, Melanie Harding-Shaw, Michael Rumsey, Mitja Lovše, Nadia Stone, Nafyar Abdi, Nancy Zielinski, Nick Black, NJ Joslin, pepethewriter, Peter J. Corbally, Rebecca Field, Richard Kemp, Rozanna Alfred, S.B. Borgersen, Sal Difalco, Sally Cotton, Sally Davies, Samantha Carr, Sarah Edghill, Steven John, Steven O. Young Jr., Susan Carey, Vicky Price, Vidhya Harish Iyer
6th June 2018