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The Life Cycle of the Mayfly
A kinetic frenzy in the garden drags me from my melancholy. An undulating gauzy curtain dims the sunlight between the trees and the house. The mayflies have simultaneously reached adulthood from their nymph stage. They frantically swarm higher, vying for each other’s attention, bringing to mind the scene on the dance floor last night. I concentrate on this strange phenomenon, for fear the image of Danny and Charlotte pressed against each other will make me throw up.
The mayflies instinctively know the drill. This has been going on for millions of years. Their gossamer wings beat against each other in their desperate orgy. This is their one glorious day. The day they are born, the day they mate, and the day they will die. They have just twenty-four hours to pass on their genes.
I can’t help thinking this mating ritual would be appropriate for Danny and Charlotte.
The orange light of dusk withdraws from the kitchen, dragging long shadows across the grey linoleum, until my salty face dries. Our kitchen becomes a night garden of tiny flames, glowing in yellow and blue.
Mama chunks the fatty belly meat and I massage it with soy and garlic, the way her strong brown fingers smooth my crocodile skin, pressing lines across my chest and neck, willing my marbled covering to yield and allow growth. We eat in silence beneath the little pencil girl that hangs on the wall above the table. Its brilliance dims even Our Lady. Mama caught the joy in my eyes.
High over the city, on our roof; dirty white plastic chairs, a washing line punctuated with coloured plastic pegs, roof-felt holding the heat of the day, a mosquito coil scribbles light grey smoke into the sky and tiny yellow tomato flowers feast on the moonlight.
Best Laid Plans
Thermos filled, timetables checked, Benedict was ready. Perhaps, today, she would come. His hand grasped the door knob and the telephone jangled in the hall. Benedict hesitated.
Persistence rang through his conscience; he snatched the receiver to his ear, the mouthpiece to his lips.
Great Aunt Agnes, beloved Godmother, suggesting High Tea in a pretty bistro on the edge of Oxford, that very afternoon. Benedict, truly fond of Agnes, acquiesced, albeit with regretful pangs of chances lost.
Thus, dispatched from the 2.05 from Euston far before his originally-intended destination, his hopes continued Northwards without him.
Kisses first bestowed on Aunt Agnes’s papery cheeks, Benedict slipped into the chair facing hers. Afternoon sun danced with dust motes in beams and bounced highlights off a head of coppery tresses directly behind Agnes, and the flutter in Benedict’s chest told him he had seen that very hair on Crewe station three weeks ago.
In the small straggle of trees that as children we called a wood one stood taller than the others. As children it was our playground, girls competing with the boys to see who could climb the furthest. We ran races round it and carved our names and dreams on it. As we grew we played different games and competed for the boys. When school ended before we went our separate ways we gathered there one more time and marked our freedom by throwing our ties up into the branches. They streamed like pennants. Walking there today I saw something glittering in the sun. On a high branch turning slowly in the breeze like an echo of that first declaration of freedom a gold ring dangled from a piece of thread. I thought I knew who it belonged to. I hoped I was right.
Vanda moved the potted Orchid from the window at the kitchen counter to the semi-shaded window sill in the sitting room. It had been three years since she received the plant as an anniversary gift, and two years since he left. They were resentful little beauties, Orchids; it never bloomed once.
The florist had said that repotted Orchids were like the teenaged children of newly separated parents; they hated the movement between homes. But Vanda had no children. Her Orchid was a bitter, passive aggressive ex-husband that quietly held back on anything that would bring her the least bit of satisfaction after the separation.
Patiently, faithfully, Vanda watched it grow. She gave it space and met its impossible needs with little disruption and no complaint. She had high hopes and unwavering faith because someone promised that if she did, one day it would bloom.
The control panel dials indicate a status of 37,000 feet high above southern Iceland. Heathrow should be reached on time. The co-pilot has gone to freshen up.
Ten seconds later and the pilot starts to taste the chicken wings he had for dinner. In the aftermath of the turbulence he hears screams from the cabin and imagines the carnage.
He attempts to offer some calming words over the intercom but his mind is frozen. Dizziness creeps up on him. The instruments in front of him are mystifying.
The co-pilot returns and she asks whether everything is ok. He nods a reply without looking at her. He is grateful that he is wearing a jacket. The sweat is making his shirt cling tightly to his body. He feels jungle hot, clammy and uncomfortable.
He wonders whether she knows it's his first flight in command since his reinstatement.
Sam had reached the highest score in the human anatomy class that day. He had told me previously that his mother was an osteologist; someone who dealt with bones. So when he tried to sit down on his chair that day and failed to find a place for his buttocks to rest upon, he discovered nothing but empty space, his neck hitting the back of his chair before he crumbled down to the floor; his body a twisted mess. It was a joke, a prank; somebody had moved his chair away from him. The class howled with laughter, but a deafening silence fell upon them as Sam failed to get up again.
Now strolling around the school garden in the afternoon sun, that same day, I can still hear the sirens ringing in my ears and the sound that bones make when they fail you. A sound of hollow goodbyes.
This is my favourite spot. Strange but true. You probably imagine it to be a concrete jungle, I can assure you it’s anything but.
The air is fresher this high up. There’s always a breeze. It's like living in the clouds. Sunsets are amazing, the views cinematic, and there are always plenty of birds to eat.
Sorry about the blindfold on the climb, that narrow staircase is a closely guarded secret. You’d never guess this is the top of an empty multi-story car park. We can hide out here for days if I want. There are plans to demolish it. But then you know all about that.
Do you see those people on the ground, don’t they look like ants? If you circle your thumb and finger into an O you can peer down and watch them dance. I like to imagine crushing them with my thumb.
But love is a durable fire
He can hardly believe it. She said yes. They are walking on top of the moor, dry sprigs of heather crunching under their feet. Above, almost as high as the blazing sun, a skylark's song pierces the clear sky.
He doesn't like seeing her smoke, but he's so high on love that when she reaches for her cigarettes he takes her box of matches. She stands still while he strikes a match for her. He gazes at her, overwhelmed by her beauty. A pretty pout as she inhales catches at his heart.
He drops the match and they walk on.
Black and Red
I feel the wind on my knuckles as I slam my full bodyweight forward. The noise in my ears gets louder and all I see is black and red. As my hand makes contact, more anger rages through my veins. I lean my body back, ready to swing forward again. My skin tingles as I prepare myself.
My fist makes contact with his face. Blood spatters from his nose as he falls back against a table. My body is still swinging forward, my knee seeking his lower stomach.
I relax, let the red wash away for a second. High on adrenaline, buzzing from anger, my body is dragged backwards by invisible hands.
“You shouldn’t have touched my sister,” I tell the lifeless body as a crowd gathers between us.
He dove from high above, hitting the water with enough force to delve into the murky darkness, his meal hanging from his beak as he bobbed to the surface. His feathers looked soiled; a sticky dark substance clung to him, changing him from light to dark.
He tried to take flight, but his feathers had become matted, useless. The fish forgotten as preening began in earnest to remove the inky rainbow, a foul tasting evil. He felt the cold seep into his skin from the ocean below, but his feathers were still dirty. He slowly started to sink into the sea as the dark poison ruined him, but even that didn’t stop his preening.
Death came to him, still he is lucky, the others will gradually waste away from the poisoned food and polluted mating grounds cause by the oil spill that caused his demise.
Mom’s high-pitched voice is clear despite the winds whipping around the old house. I grit my teeth and measure out another brandy, choosing to stare at a spot on the worn oriental carpet in front of the desk rather than meet her accusing gaze. I can feel it drilling into the top of my head.
Not sure whether to yip, yowl or growl, her old boxer looks up from the hearth and boofs at a spot between the mantle and the bookcase where mom is usually standing in her flowery sack dress and drooping stockings.
I gulp the tumbler, gathering strength and look up, “Please, ma, go to sleep, wouldya?”
She goes now, slinking slowly down the wall. She always goes once I acknowledge she’s in the room. I see more of mom since inheriting the old farm, than I ever did when she was alive.
A New Perspective
They climbed high up the hill, seeing the village reaching out to meet the coastline below.‘What do you think?’ he asked, and only now did she let go of his hand.‘It’s wonderful,’ she replied, shielding her eyes from the sun. ‘We can almost touch the sky.’‘Do you see the boats?’‘Yes,’ she said, ‘like ants on a river. And the birds, they’re so free.’He smiled, feeling she might at last be finding some contentment, some peace. They had both been bereaved of a great love but, holding more value in her happiness than his own, he knew then he had done some good, had given a small gift that he hoped would sustain her until she found herself once more. She had always come first; now she was everything.‘Thank you for bringing me here Daddy,’ she said, taking his hand again and squeezing it gently.
I finally left the university, where I lectured, because I struggled to find a reason to stay.
I walked around our town aftewards, looking for a sandwich shop. Slowly, I located one that was in a shade and I did what you do there, i.e. I ordered.
While I waited for my dish, I kept thinking abut my future, which suddenly became a travel without a map, so I felt both liberated and frightened.
Once I received my food, I wolfed the entire thing and paid for the meal. As I departed from the premises, I got shocked by a structure in front of me.
I never noticed our city had the skyscraper this high. I also never observed the inscription above the entrance.
'There is nowhere to go but up.'
I muttered to myself.
'Easy for you to say.'
‘Excuse me!’ The voice seemed to come from above. I looked up at a man in frock coat and top hat on top of an eight foot unicycle, gazing sadly down at me.
‘Hello,’ I said in what I hoped was an everyday-occurrence sort of voice.
‘Can you tell me the way to the railway station?’
I pointed. ‘But,’ I said, ‘I’m not sure you’ll get that on a train.’
‘Trains take bicycles,’ he said mournfully, ‘and this is less than that. Are there any low bridges?’
This stumped me. Although I knew the town centre pretty well, I’d never paid attention to low bridges or other overhead obstructions to one twelve feet high.
‘Forget it,’ he said, and wobbled off, zigzagging through the crowds. I would have followed, but my attention was distracted by a zebra walking on a tightrope, and he faded from my mind.
A Bit Like Flying
"Ladies and gentleman, we will shortly be landing at London Gatwick so please ensure that your seatbelts are fastened and your tray tables are stowed. Local time is 3:15pm, thank you for travelling with..."
It was my first time flying; I was just an awe-struck child looking out over the clouds and patchwork fields. I had never been so high up before, never felt so important.
The people on the ground were what truly amazed me, though - how could it be that they would be so much taller than me when I was on the ground, yet now they looked like dots?
They were growing all the time, however. Bit by bit so I didn't notice until I could almost make out their faces. I wondered if they could see me, could pick out my eager face amongst all the others?
Unlikely. I was just another child.
Selling My Sanity.
I look up at myself in the mirror, scrubbing at my skin trying to peel off the smile that I've etched onto my face. My voice still hidden after all the stories I've laughed along with - without listening to. I try to say my name but hear the voice of a woman who sounds nothing like the girl I was raised from.
I spend my nights trying to reclaim parts of me that I lose every day in work - to customers who have more money than sense. Respect is a foreign concept to them but the customer is always right. Right?
They pay my wages - my managers' favourite saying.
I work in a high end shop I can't even afford to shop in. The boost in my bank account doesn't make up for the direct debit taken from my mentality every day . I can't afford this life anymore.
This was the holiday of her lifetime. The pampering of Business Class, the unimagined luxury of her penthouse suite, magical views over Central Park at night, all totally thrilling. She found the Empire State Observatory scarily tempting but she took in a show, walked the High Line, played Tourist to perfection.
Last on her schedule was the Aerial Photography Experience. After the safety lecture and workshop on getting the best shots through the open door, she sat in awe as the helicopter soared over Manhattan and circled the Statue of Liberty. She was fearless, high on adrenaline. This was what ‘free as a bird’ meant.
Surreptitiously releasing her safety harness, she stood, lurching slightly as the pilot rectified the helicopter’s pitch. It was always the plan, precisely why she’d blown her life savings. She stepped into the void and momentarily revelled in what it was to feel free.
An icicle hangs on Rudolph’s very shiny nose that isn’t very shiny anymore. I bend down toward an old pine cone that winter has blanched and gnarled.
My first touch at the dead red bulb brings back Sam’s giggle when he slathered snow on his tongue the first time. I see little eyes in the dim glass world of no light.
Then from a universe away, a shifting of planets, a crashing of stars, a crackling high above my head like a lightning strike.
A line comes to mind, “Eight maids a-milking,” and I enjoy a comfortable smile no one else will ever know. Angel wings, angel wings, glued on and lovely, my Gracie’s first-grade play. A mother now. Eight maids, Gracie. Can you count them?
The branch strikes hard, my soft spot unhinging, the pine straw filling my eye.
They sit at Cocoa's on High Street
surrounded by chatter and clinking porcelain.
'How was last night?' Sally watches him from under her fringe caressing her cup.
'Yep.' Nat looks out the window forgetting his chocolate.
'Did you?' Sally takes a sip.
'Nope.' Nat spots cocoa stains along her top lip. His fingers gesture. He hands her a napkin. 'Kylie was drunk.'
'What!' Sally wipes her mouth, imagines kissing his lips.
'Out of it.'
'Katherine left with Jordan. Kylie puked all over me.'
'Had to help her home, missed my own bus, had to walk.
Nat thinks about Katherine, imagines touching her hair.
Sally thinks about Nat, imagines sliding her hands into his across the table.
'I really like her you know, Katherine I mean.'
'I know.' Sally picks at the bottom of her empty cup with her spoon.
When mother died everyone was careful to be sad, none more so than Bernard, who had less cause than most, his mother being the reason for all his insecurities and failures in life. Fortunately, living alone, there was no one to hear him singing "I've Got a Golden Ticket" upon hearing the news.
After the funeral, they dug out the will from a buckled Jacob's cracker tin. He was disappointed, not surpised, that all was left to Jane - mother hadn't had a high opinion of him since puberty - but he was confused to be declared trustee of Tussle, her decades-deceased macaw.
The solicitor confirmed there was no mistake. To Jane's relish and Bernard's alarm, old Tussle was dug up and pinned together. Later, Tussle was left on his kitchen table like a strutting dinosaur.
"Evil cow," he said.
"Pretty boy," said a voice from far, far away.
An orange ball pierced the cold, blue sky. It rose high like a proud fireball, shattering reality and waking terror. It's pale light revealed the destruction below. It was our last, and strongest, bomb we would ever create. Demons danced on the wind, cutting down everything in their path, leaving melted, charred rubble, hot with sin and lacking any chance of redemption. We decided that fate for millions. The sky lit up with death's white, but only for a moment. What followed was a glass landscape of boiling oceans and molten rocks. From inside our bubble we watched, lazily, casually. I remember picking my zucchini. What a good day.
All Black and Red
The mirror said that the strapless silk dress accentuated my hips.
It was darker than midnight and sparkled with delicate ruby red dots. I felt taller and elegant. I turned around. The mirror admired my hair piled high on my head.
I searched for my black shoes with ruby red stiletto heels. A voice from the mirror said, ‘You can’t wear those!’ I jumped backwards, but I felt good and besides the dress was too long without them. I sat on the bed. My feet slid easily into them and under the narrow straps.
A light feeling carried me down the wide sweeping stairs. My husband greeted me with raised eyebrows, sparkling eyes and a kiss, ‘Happy seventieth, darling.’ Arm in arm we faced the family as balloons, streamers and poppers exploded.
Only later did my feet admit that the mirror was right about those shoes.
After writing, we walked outside. Fat, sluggish drops of rain settled in the corners of my eyes. I kept my hand to his forehead, shielding his brow and our wishes from washing away.
The bamboo we'd planted last year started out his height; now it taunted mine. It was easy to promise his wish then, crowning the sprout. Lifting him up, he struggled to secure his tanzaku as high as he wanted, fighting to keep his eyes fixed on the slick stalk. I couldn't read what he'd written, a matter of height, pen, and wet. The ink traced toward a corner of the yellow paper.
I hung my green piece on a branch well below his and folded its bottom corners into a cup to catch his runoff.
He asked if the rain would ruin our wishes. As a magpie flit between the branches, I assured him they were safe.
The shooter positioned himself at a window in an empty office on the fifth floor of the 24 story high rise and made his preparations. It was his intention to pick off as many people as he could. He had an automatic rifle and enough ammunition to make this possible. Before leaving home that morning he kissed his wife and daughters for he did not expect to return . . . ever. He brought the rifle up to his head, resting it against his cheek, and held the stock tight to his shoulder maneuvering it until it felt comfortable. The scope magnifying his target ensured success. He zeroed in on his first victim. An elderly woman. He placed his finger on the trigger and delivered his first shot, and then another, and then another. Followed by dozens more. Just another mass shooting statistic in a country gone made.
Andrea stood on tiptoe and stretched every muscle to the limit. Even then, she could only just get her fingers under the corner of the battered leather suitcase stored high up on the top of the glowering oak wardrobe, which had belonged to her grandmother.
Tattered stickers from around the World were plastered all over it: Bali Hotel, P & O cruises, Venezia, Miami – not an EasyJet flight number in sight. They flapped drily against her fingers as her hand caressed the surface of the case. When she’d been a little girl, looking through the treasures from Grandma’s travels and hearing her stories had always been the perfect rainy afternoon activity. It was no surprise that Andrea became a stewardess on a cruise ship as soon as she was old enough – itchy feet ran in the family. She’d been in the Mediterranean when the stroke happened. Now Grandma was gone.
The higher we go
Is this a conspiracy, to discredit the church?
Don’t be melodramatic darling.
Don’t darling me here Sheila!
We all know of your relationship Pastor Mac. I mean, it’s a small town.
This is wrong, heaves the Pastor. I won’t have it in the Lord’s House.
Why do you think the bake sale is always a success Pastor Mac? You think we would have been able to pay for the paving last year and the bursary fund…
It’s the brownies, Sheila explains. Why stop a good thing Mac my darling.
I’m a preacher. How will I shepherd, how will I Minister…?
Your sermon at Easter. You were as high as Moses when he saw the burning bush.
T’was one of my best sermons.
I suppose people will tire of them eventually. Of course, I know nothing, nothing at all.
At the hnnng the birds stiffen; at the ronch they scatter. Kirk makes big noises when he throws but he’s skinny, all effort and no distance. Juggy hups next, looping over-arm. Zig ughs his fatboy weight into it. Pete will hfff last; he’s oldest and biggest. He cleared the canal once, whack, and always makes a galump-splash at least.
I’m ready to win today; watching the Olympics with Mum let me into a secret. The half-brick is a gritty chunk of rough edges. I take it in both hands and spin like I saw the big men do on the TV. They call it throwing the hammer, and I turn until I’m dizzy fast and rraagh, aiming high.
I fall on my bum, the gravel rips my shorts open. Pete’s mouth hangs open. The world whirls. At the smash the boys stiffen; at the weeewaaa they scatter.
The Pop Up Playground
Gather the children one by one. Need to be smart to get each one. We will put out flyers to entice them to come. Smiles for miles for everyone.
“Come one, come all for great family fun. Visit this beautiful park and see a community come to heart. Great fun for all ages, no need to bring a harp. We start at 11 sharp. There will be music, balloons, face painting, big cats, small cats, jumpers, swing sets, and high slides. Don’t delay we won’t hesitate to turn away.”
Gather the children one by one. The mommies and daddies won't know what is to come. Lock the cages and throw out the keys. It will be screams and cries for everyone. A sparkle here. A flash there. Blind them with beauty. They don’t understand duty.
Gather the children one by one. Cry out there names. No time for good-byes.
The Scent of Betrayal
You thought you had it all figured out. High on your smug certainty and dollops of pity for the broken ones who’d given up on happy ever after. You were invincible. Until the night he crawled in beside you and you smelled her in your bed.
The room tilts and you’re trapped in a vortex. Your body paralysed, your mind running through dark woods, trying to make sense of the insensible. You know that perfume. You bought it for her last Christmas. Mel. Your Mel. The one you’ve always relied on. The one you’ve been super glued to since fifth grade. Now, beyond all reason the scent of her, in your bed, leaking from your husband’s skin.
The bright edges of your life shatter beyond repair.
Fool. You thought you had it all figured out.
Under A Boundless Sky
Muchaala’s eyes flicker open like her parched mouth, struggling to drink in what she sees. For moments, it’s her sky, its wings spread wide and the flat canopy of the Baobab cradles her.
She feels weightless on the high branches, afloat in the communion between her and sky. She dreams its dream. Her mind running away with her, farther than her feet have, far from a motherless home, a father bent low by the broken earth. His life: a rut dug in a land of rift valleys.
She has crossed dusty fields, imagining countries, to this lone tree, expecting to hear his voice: “Muchaala, come home!”, his downcast eyes sadder for looking up.
There is no returning. Her back pressed against the hull. Stagnant dinghy on stagnant sea crammed with hopeless faces, of new lives not yet begun, though they have left old ones behind.
It was definitely him and he’d definitely smiled, a smile that unleashed a surge of not forgotten desire. Elsie gripped the railing. The guide’s speech became a ruptured list of words; Notre-Dame...Deux cent soixante-seize...Sacré Coeur.
The face in the crowd had sent her reeling back four years. That time, in yellow ballet flats, she had bounded the 600 stairs.
“Are you okay?” Liam’s cool palm covered her hand.
“Fine, yes. I’m just not great with...heights.”
“Oh, Love! Why didn’t you say?” His alarm shamed her. “Let’s just go back to the hotel. You’re shaking like a leaf.”
Liam guided Elsie towards the lift, placing kisses on her head for each protest.
The doors closed and she leaned against him, slipping off the four-inch high going away shoes to press her heels against the cold tiles.
“You funny thing,” he said. “Didn’t you do a bungee jump once?”
Baby Lee realized she was never going to be as tall as the man standing in front of her. His shoes was black and big but she wasn't threatened. Her hands were too small to grab them completely so she tapped them until the man pulled the shoes away.
She saw large hands lowering themselves and pulling her from her waist, raising her so high, she thought she was flying. She opened her hands and laughed, kicking out her legs to keep herself going.
Just then, the man's face appeared; his large kindly smile mimicking hers but not as charmingly. She patted his chin, trying to tell him to make her fly again but he only kissed her hair and pressed her softly against his chest; his sweater warm and snug against her cheek. Perhaps she would just sleep here for now...
"How much time, doctor?"
"Three months at most..."
He always loved those shoes. Yellow with black stripes. I would have cringed and offered half-hearted thanks had I opened a box to find them, but not my brother. Ben wore them everywhere: to school on the first day, through the woods for family hiking trips, and to the many high school football games I dragged him to. Rain or shine, those beloved bumble bee sneakers walked out the door with him, and it showed. They were loved and worn through, Ben would say. You couldn’t even tell, with all their scuffs and scratches, that they had taken their wearer ten stories high. You couldn’t tell that they had fallen just as far. I stared across the table at his personal effects, yellow and black sneakers sitting on top. He always loved those shoes.
The Black Balloon
A black balloon was floating high above my head. It followed me wherever I went.
The smudge of lipstick on my slice of white bread with the strawberry jam and butter spread unevenly was the last thing on my mind. I washed down my breakfast with black coffee, quaffing it without giving much thought to it as if the lingering taste was the residual of a memory. The balloon was still there.
It was something that she said that weighed heavily on my mind. Even with the passing of time with the tasks that needed to be completed, other tasks that came in between and the time purposely lost in pleasure still could not keep me from thinking about her. It was like that coffee, the bitterness lingered.
I decided to forgive her. I heard a pop! The balloon had vanished.
It is 4 pm.
The tram trembles as it snakes along the tracks making it hard for me to read. I give up and turn my attention to the characters before me. Months of upper class southern university life has affected my standards and shielded me from the experience of hardships; the tram journey salvages the standards I was brought up around and grounds me in the reality of Manchester. Several drunk men exchange crude, barely audible remarks. I edge in towards the side of the tram and try to avoid obvious eye contact.
We near the centre, the tracks running high above the city, as I watch the glowing sun engulf my home, distorting the dirty town into something beautiful and false.
I step off the tram at Piccadilly Gardens and am instantly overwhelmed by the smell; a medley of urine, weed and beer intoxicates me but I'm smiling.
I’d given up hoping to get one over on Jimmy until yesterday.
Growing up together, same age, we always had a friendly rivalry. How high can you kick a football, throw a stone, climb a tree, fly a kite? Whatever, I never managed to beat him.
When he joined the Parachute Regiment that was it, there was no chance I’d ever become an astronaut.
I landed a job in Singapore and yesterday, home for the first time in years, I drove from Heathrow up to Suffolk to see him.
He was delighted to see me but nothing had changed. His garden hedge was the tallest in the village and I swear he’d had an extension on his roof.
“What do you think of that?” he pointed to an enormous 4WD sitting on his driveway.
“Very impressive,” I acknowledged then indicating my own vehicle said, “but this is a Hire Car”.
'Rise and Shine'
I watched them load the square rig sailing ship with wheat. Once dark I snuck on board hiding in sail storage. Nerves and excitement shook my cold body, but I knew I had to explore the world.
A yell woke me. I was bundled off to the Captain. Luckily he needed deck-hands and took me on. My first lesson was to climb the rigging. I was so scared I had to shimmy back down. My head hung in shame. The mate beat me with rope each failed attempt, making it harder.
One evening I decided to crush this fear. Up the rigging, I went. When nerves overcame me, I hung on tightly. Gingerly I arrived at the mast top. I was full of pride yet still fearful. Determination got me climbing nightly until I realized the dread had vanished and I could look out from on high with joyful wonder.
“I loved getting tires with my dad,” says Steve, sitting in the lobby of Goodyear. "Loved the smell of new rubber.”
Marie nods, staring at her iPad. Steve's unsure if she's nodding at him, or Word With Friends, one of a dozen she's playing with Mary. Wonders if there's a 12-step for it.
American Idol plays on a soundless TV.
“Should we get the wheels aligned? It's extra.”
“Should I go to Tahiti with our therapist?”
“And never return?”
She nods, her face green from the screen's glow.
He hears sharp bursts of pneumatic wrenches removing lug nuts. Imagines wheels coming off.
“If you could bring one thing to a desert isle, would you choose me or Word With Friends?”
He studies an aisle of Michelins stacked high against the wall. Feels a vibration. Checks his phone.
YOU, silly, ain't no Wi-Fi on that island :)
The Tide of Change
Back in the summer of 1865, the river burst its banks. Ain’t no clever way of talkin’ about the Abolition — the river gone burst its banks. A fearful amount of rain and a fearful high water level.
“Best stay inside,” they said.
Animals gone and food all ruined, as if the war didn’t take enough. When it finally stopped, I set sail; worked all over the state.
I was only a boy back then, but I’m still fightin’ to keep my head above the water. With all the free folks, there ain’t enough work to go around. We're just fighting against each other now. I guess the tide don’t change that fast after all.
I twisted my head to look at Charlene, while holding the picture in place.
“Higher?” I asked, unable to interpret her demented hand-flapping.
She was stuffing a sausage roll into her mouth while gripping a full glass of wine, which didn’t help. She grimaced and emitted indistinct instructions. I eased the unwieldy frame up a bit, balancing it against the wall. It was large and flipping heavy. My temper was fraying. Just a little. Once again, I ventured an enquiring glance. Charlene’s expression was not encouraging.
“Well?” I demanded. “is it good enough for you yet?”
My hand, slippery with agitated exertion, slipped on the metal frame, pushing it inwards. The top fell outwards. The glass shattered. Charlene’s artwork fell on my head, tearing in several places. The frame sat on my shoulders.
“Looks like that’s as high as it’s going to get,” she said, after a moment’s silence.
The 'Mad' Woman in the Attic
I stand on the edge of the parapet, high above the flames licking the house. I breathe in the acrid smoke. This is freedom - freedom from my windowless cell, freedom from Edward's abuse. And perhaps I have helped other women be free too, for they shall never suffer the same misfortunes as I. There was a young lady here recently, a governess - what was her name? It does not matter; she has fled to safety. I wish I could have gone with her.
I see Edward calling to me. He is pleading, eyes wide with fear.
Please, come down from there.
His wimpering voice makes me want to laugh. It is he who is afraid now, trapped inside his own home. I smile at him, hoping he sees the defiance in my eyes. I pray to God it is the last thing he sees.
It is another breathtaking African sunset over the dam. The estate is secluded, surrounded by high voltage electric fence and we have no keys. He took them with when he drove to town. I thought we would be all right. We have some food and I can boil the tap water. The boys were bored, so I let them play in the garden with his old rugby ball. They are not his sons.
They kicked the ball over the fence and I must get it back before he arrives. An electric shock cannot be as bad as his rage when he does not find everything in order. The boys hold the fence high with sticks, so I can climb under it. I retrieve the ball, I run, and I score a perfect try into the dam.
We are really in trouble now.
The sea tugs at the land. The shingle is sucked and released, sucked and released. A sandcastle stands firm against the surf but its fate is sealed.
Footprints from the past are washed away but remain in nature's memory. Neanderthals and others walked here; women and children hand in hand. The man carrying harpoons and fish. Their trace faded, swept away by the ocean but they remain in spirit, walking forever on this beach. Wraiths fading as they pass, children’s laughter carried on the breeze.
The sea, the sands, the ebb and flow of the tide and each fresh sunrise is eternal. Seagulls wheel high overhead, they have been calling to us forever.
The sandcastle has gone. The tide seeks to reclaim the land, to eradicate our footsteps. Its victory is transient. We are always here on the beach, Adam claimed it for our birthright.
Will There Be a Headstone?
She wonders what people will say at her funeral. Will anyone show up? She imagines an old colleague attending because she’d once shared her sandwiches with them or helped them fix the paper-jam in the photocopier.
But who will tell anyone?
What will be on her headstone? She isn’t eligible for ‘Beloved wife and mother.’ Would a stonemason carve ‘An efficient secretary’ beneath her name?
Will there be a headstone unless she makes provision for one in her will? There’s not much point.
She will, no doubt, be cremated and her unclaimed ashes left to moulder on a high shelf until they are thrown out. Perhaps she would be given to a grieving family by mistake. She pictures the family keeping her on their mantelpiece believing that she is Grandma. She’d be at family meals, birthdays and Christmas. It would make a nice change to be part of a family.
Not as it Appeared
High atop a dusty shelf, a secret was hidden—tucked away many years ago. Old worn books, alongside trinkets from their travels, lay haphazardly across the bookcase’s weathered mahogany bones.
William sat in his recliner, staring out the window. He was alone, with only visions that replayed like a movie in his mind; she making a batch of fragrant anise cookies, the children playing a game of jacks, and their boundless trips together.
His only companion since the accident had become a bottle. The brown poignant smell dripped from his parted lips. Sitting up from his chair, he stumbled to the bookshelf. His eyes scanned each book, each trinket, until he came to the top shelf. Reaching up, he grabbed at the objects he'd never seen before. Questions ripped at his heart—sadness was replaced with anger—as his wife's wedding ring stared back at him alongside unsigned divorce papers.
The Red Shoes
What little girl doesn’t like to dress up in her Mother’s high heels?
My favourite ones were the shiny, red ones with the pointy toe and sharp, spiky heels. It’s a good job they were red cos Mama never noticed the blood.
The boy next door with the frizzy hair told his Ma that he’d fallen over on to one of them fancy iron railings up at the big house at the end of the road. Apparently his shoulder never worked quite properly again – serves him right!
He never did come round to play after that. Which was just as well cos I hated him. When he tackled me to the floor and tried to lift up my skirt, the shoes were the nearest thing I could grab.
A Higher Calling.
Mummy, there's a girl up the pole outside.
And I was. Oh so high up and frozen solid. It wasn't the weather that caused my atrophy.(It was a balmy day.) It was fear; gut wrenching,buttock clenching, brain numbing terror.
My arms coiled around the aforementioned post, and though I could go no higher, fright forestalled my descent.
A crowd gathered, mainly children, but also a few curious adults. From my lofty perch I could hear their ribald asides.
Tom cajoled from below,like a horse-whisperer to an antsy colt.
Bring your right leg down, dig in, then your left........
Time to man-up and climb down.
Slowly I clambered earthwards and reached the bottom to a smattering of applause. I had a sudden urge to kiss the ground.
I faced Tom as he uttered those repeatedly dreaded words;
Ok, up again,you'll never learn unless you keep trying.
An Invisible Man
One of the few positives of turning 70 is that -- and please don't laugh -- one is eligible for free vaccination against shingles. No big deal but we septuagenarians have to grab every opportunity to hang on in there.
And now you are allowed to laugh because, although shingles is a painful nerve condition, yours truly tried to impress the pretty nurse with a witticism by asking as she hovered over me with the syringe: 'Can I now visit shingles bars?'
No, the nurse didn't find it funny either. She just called 'Next!' -- and that hurt more than the jab.
Although I've never been lonely, it's high time I accepted that I'm unlikely to make new pals at my age. I am simply invisible to the young.
'Just how do you think I feel?' cried my lifelong imaginary friend, Kevin, as we left the medical centre.
Your lipgloss slicks my mouth with candyfloss and diesel fumes. The taste remains, intoxicating, as you walk away.
I watched you high on the Ferris wheel, swooping, whooping voiced, face aflame. You clocked me, as you'd clock a camera. An insta-ready girl made flesh amongst this fool's gold, fairground world. I feigned cool, rocked my tomboy chic.
'Dope shirt'. You nod at Joy Division, hiding my leaping heart. 'Win me a prize.'I take three turns, a well-spent fiver, shooting ducks. You lean on my shoulder. My shaky aim somehow hits the target and you choose the soppiest of big-eyed bears. That's when you pull my face to yours and kiss me hard.I hold my breath.'I always wondered, that's all,' you say. 'Kinda nice.'
Then I'm left spinning, a carousel of ecstasy and doubt.
Kinda nice. I lick my lips. Yeah, it was.
A thin wire supported the foot. Every inch is an exercise in willpower. The balancing pole sways in the dead air. A second foot slides along the taught line. The watchers hold their breath. The body moves to catch its balance. Soon the wire begins to swing left and then right. It keeps a rhythm of a dangerous song. A gasp is heard through the silence.
There is no safety net today. Only the talent of the walker will save the attempt. An eerie feeling of deja-vu fills the room as the daredevil takes another step. The failure of an earlier walk fills the mind of the solitary artist.The blood of the family rushes through the veins of the trapeze performer. The distance seems to be miles. Finally, a foot lands on the platform. The small boy practices on the wire six inches high off of the ground.
Long Lost Love
Thursday night, eight o'clock?''Yes, that's great, after all this time.'Mitch punched the air in delight. He'd known Maddy at sixth form college. They'd been friends, nothing more. She carried on to university, she'd always been a clever clogs. Mitch joined his father's construction company.
He spotted her profile on Facebook; discreet enquiries to some of her friends from college he tracked her down. They'd both been divorced; she was also active on the dating sites, though their profiles had never matched.
They'd arranged to meet outside The Bear and Badger on High Street. Ten to eight Mitch stood outside the pub. He remembered his crush on her, he felt like a teenager again. Eight o'clock came and went. Mitch paced up and down to seem less like a loser who'd been stood up. At eight seventeen his mobile beeped with a text.'met some1 last nite soz mad'
It could have been me.
But for the separation of a scant few breaths between birthing pains.
She walked in her finery to the high table, delicate hand on his sleeve. Blue samite, sewn through with gold thread and malice, complimenting her honey hair and the sweeter words she poured into his ear.
I saw how she had tamed and subdued him, this silken barbarian.
I saw, too, how her hand shook as she handed him the cup.
It could have been me.
But he and his kin had already used me, damaged me, tarnished my worth, embittered my soul.
That gentle heart, unsullied and so beguiling to him, would suffer from the duty she’d had to perform.
Mine was cold and wrapped a thousand times in leather and iron.
When the poison took him, she would feel remorse but I would feel triumph.
It should have been me.
Martha can’t reach high D. She blamed the electric carving knife. It was that Sunday when Roger didn’t come home. The joint went cold, the crispy roast potatoes lost their crisp and the gravy congealed.
She didn’t blame Roger; how could he know she would soldier when he was gone with his fancy bit from the Red Lion.
No, it was the lethal carving knife to blame.
Getting back to this high D. It’s the highest D on her piano: a problem for Martha who is now a few fingers short of a handful. Thanks to the carving knife.
But Martha is a ‘thinks outside boxes’ gal. High D? No longer a problem. You can read all about it on her blog: less is more - piano playing with missing fingers.
In late July, when the carnival arrives in farm country, butterflies flee the field. You buy tickets for the Ferris Wheel; I stand in line for cotton candy and watch it whorl on paper cones.
We don’t come to wander. We enter the Labyrinth of Mirrors and look at ourselves. We laugh and perch paper cones licked almost clean upside down on our heads, like dunce caps, with sugar crystal glue.
A hawker lures: “Get your popcorn here!”
You: “When sticky fingers done.”
Me: “Let’s go!”
The Funhouse twists and turns past lurking monsters who jump out of hidden corners as we roll away to black.
Rocking high around the Ferris Wheel, I observe the crowd below. I picture caterpillars and fall, gypsy magic tents decamped, burnt grass, and vacant lots.
There were never any free rides.The Fair isn’t fair to rubes; we pay on our way out.
She thinks no one is watching. Her bare feet silently strum the floorboards. Chewed off fingernails play sawn off denim. As her unknown melody picks up speed, her head sways from side to side and her earrings become wind chimes that glint like cut glass in the rising moon. I wait for her voice to rise with it, notes as high as bird chatter, low as the tolling bells and bashful as the pink striped sky, but her lips never move. The words are hers alone. But when she catches my eye they belong to me too.
The Clock Ticks
The clock ticks away on the mantelpiece.
But in the womb, I don’t hear the ticks of each second that lead to birth and new life.
Then, through the years, every tick beats a second closer to understanding, to maturity, to achievement, living the life I choose: through joy, through heartache, the gains and losses of a life well lived. But still looking for understanding.
Every second savoured, through children, through grandchildren; through colleagues and friends, through city life, through countryside, through nature: the whole panorama of existence.
And still, I don’t understand why.
Every second the clock ticks, I am wiser, but no wiser.
Every second the clock ticks, a second closer to death.
And I reflect on the high points of my life. And the low.
Until the clock stops. For me. But still ticks away on the mantelpiece.
High and Low
“Why do you watch me?”
“Because you interest me.”
His answer took her off-guard. She goggled at him for several moments, as if the words were too difficult to sink in.
“Why? What do I have that would interest anyone?” Disbelief and suspicion laced her soft timbre. “What do I have to interest you?”
He sucked in a harsh breath, her timorous question rankling him.
Unthinkingly, he reached for her, the urge to comfort overcoming his reservations.
Something pierced him, brutal and sharp; his hand dropped to his side in a hollow agony.
A pained smile tugged at her lips in response, the ghosts of their touches, yet to cease violating her.
“I’m the lowest of the low, now.” She whispered, resigned to her conviction.
“But for me,” He protested. “You’ve always been my high.”
Above and Below
I am high in the air, deep in a grateful sleep, but at 59° North and 30° East, I jolt up. I look at the screen. Yes, the place that I haven't seen for 25 years is right below.
Planes used to preoccupy us in the summer; my friend knew all the markings, including those of enemy countries. The USA was the worst, and the worst offense was 'Reagan's poop ... on a swing'. My friend also talked about nuclear explosions; he had old cartridges and a home made mosquito prison.
I am too high up to see, why not allow myself a time-traveler's privilege then? I am flying above the 1980s. It smells of nettles, blueberries, pine-trees, and hot tarmac. The best ice-cream in the world is sold at the train station.
No. Don't go there. When the world that we expected to inherit creaked and broke up, it was a good thing.
His cough was worse.
“49 years since Woodstock. I probably won’t make it to 50. Better go now” Connor said to himself.
He put on his studded jacket, flared jeans and zipper boots and wrapped a badana around his head of thinning hair. He shuffled to his VW minibus, just like the one in ’69, to drive the 500-some miles to Bethel.
The VW barely made it over the state line before its engine died. Leaving it at the side of the road, Connor climbed the hill before him. He made it to the top in slow time, wheezing. He carefully took the joint from his shirt pocket and lit it. He inhaled deeply and, as he got his high, the music played in his head: Hendrix, Joplin, Cocker and the rest.
Connor giggled “Guess I didn’t make it back to Woodstock, but Woodstock made it back to me.”
In the back of the Union Hall, two drivers are pouring hot black coffee into thick white mugs sporting the International Brotherhood of Teamsters logo. They were a gift from a Vice President who came with Hoffa on last summer's visit. Dick and Chet accepted the box of mugs for the Local at the farewell bash, with lots of steak and beer.
The meeting drones on as the Treasurer reports the Local is in the black, no money missing, and the new pension fund projections mean "you guys gonna' be livin' high on the hog, compliments of yer Uncle Jimmy."
"You remember the three-piece suit what give us the box of mugs?" Chet asked.
"Sweaty little nervous guy, right?"
"That's him. He told me he thought you was a pushy asshole, Dick."
"Huh! I don't know why he'd bad-mouth me. I never loaned him any money."
She shrank back.
Bulging eyes, vicious as the words saliva-spat in her face.
'Bitch. I'm gonna kill you.'
She willed the tears not to fall. She tried to steady her shallow breathing.
'What do you want? What have I done to you?'
'Sod all. I just hate you, pretty girl.'
Deep breath. You've got this.
'Let's end it, what do you say? High five?'
The bully looked stunned. Her cohorts jeered. She smirked.
As each right hand lifted, one made a fist.
'Shit. You've broken my nose!'
From around the corner a girl and boy sped to the side of the one standing tall. The gang were nowhere to be seen.
'Proper high five, girl. You've ended this once and for all.'
My ex-girlfriend lived high above the nearest village, in a moorland cottage with her parents, three cats, and two nosy younger sisters. Her mother said I was a bad influence, and we could never work out whether it was because of my Marilyn Manson hoodie, or because she was only pretending to believe we were just good friends.
We'd hold hands under the desk at school, but in the street she'd pull away. I longed to kiss her outside the village church. Those old crones deserved a shock.
Fifteen years on, she posts pictures from Pride marches. I go night-hiking with my boyfriend's colleagues, too close to the city to really see the stars. When I describe the brightness of the Milky Way from her parents' cottage, I stumble over pronouns, feeling far from home.
'How high is he?' The judge asks me.
'Eleven three and three-quarter hands,' I reply.
'Don't forget the three-quarters, eh?' She chuckles, tucking a lock of grey hair under her sun hat.
I am taking part in the Welsh Mountain Show Pony Competition. My mount, Tim, has been behaving angelically and we are first in the line-up.
We faultlessly display the figure of eight with a smooth flying change at the intersection of the two circles. Tim backs four paces nicely even though I was sure he was eyeing up that tempting leaf on the show jump just to our left.
The red winner's rosette is within my grasp. The Mistchurch Times photographer stands ready to photograph us and I practise my nonchalant smile. Then it happens. Tim scents peppermints in the judge's pocket and nudges her hip. Her walking stick falls away and she tumbles onto the freshly-mown grass.
Thoughts of a Girl Departed
Adrenaline stung her fingertips as the car pivoted high in the air. The screaming of the tyres wrenched at her eardrums. She watched as the roof buckled in towards her and shards of glass and metal buried themselves in her skin, tearing back her flesh and splintering her bones. And as the blistering pain ripped through her, she felt nothing but soaring joy.
You're high on love and you don't notice anyone else. Well, of course, apart from lover boy. You and me, we've been besties since forever and now you've split from me. You know me better than my own mother, so you should get it now. I'm not one to take things lying down.
You remember last month, when you wanted to practice kissing? You wanted to be well experienced, ready for him, (he'd already given you the eye). For me things moved into another zone, I hoped it was the same for you. Given time, I'm sure I can make you see.
I wish I didn't have to this, but needs must. I'll try to make it quick, it's not his fault really. You'll be fall apart, for a while. I'll be ready and waiting with open arms and you'll be back where you belong. You see, sweetie, you're mine.
They say that’s where London used to be, but we don’t remember. We’ve seen pictures – sodden, then dried out, faded pictures. We’ve heard the stories – alcohol-soaked, never-to-dry-out, kaleidoscopic stories. We’ve felt their pain – sob-drowned, sinking, seeping pain.
Up here, we say we’re drookit when we’re wet, but they don’t know the word, so they haven’t started to worry yet. We say, ‘Dinna fash,’ instead of ‘don’t worry’. They hear it as comfort. And it is. Though false. If we used their tongue, they’d hear the lie. Up here, even this high, we all lie.
And I never did learn how to swim
With thanks to all the writers who have made this issue possible.Abigail Rowe, Agnes Van Zyl, Ahaa Jan, Allison Azhocar, Ansha Pandey, Anusha Anwer, Ashley Stassen, Carol Leggatt, Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon, Charlotte French, Christine Hayes, Christine Nedahl, Colin Alcock, CR Smith, Daniel Owen, David Silver, Donald H Gean, Edward Mortenson, Ellen Kirkman, Emily Hague, Emily Keverne, Frank Trautman, Guy Biederman, Hannah Whiteoak, Holly Kilmister, Ian Marshall, Isabel Flynn, Jan Brown, Jay Bee, Jeanette Everson, Jemma Morriss, Jenny Woodhouse, Jody Kish, Joyce Ann Wheatley, Justin Rulton, Karen Jones, Laura Tapper, Leonie Harrison, Les Pedrick, Lindsay Bamfield, Louise Mangos, Malcolm Richardson, Mandy Thorley, Marissa Hoffmann, Marlene Pitcher, Michael Rumsey, Misa Angelika, Mishael Martineaux, Mitja Lovše, Nancy Zielinski, Natalie Pearson, Natasha Carroll, Oliver Barton, Peter J. Corbally, Philip Charter, PJ Bourke Trapp, Roppotucha Greenberg, Rozanna Alfred, S. B. Borgersen, Sally Cotton, Scott Richburg, Seanagh Palmer-Pilgrim, Simone, Solitaire, Steven O. Young Jr., Susan Carey, Vicky Price
4th July 2018