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We stayed a good while.
It was Janey’s intervention, a left-hook to our pre-prandial bickering. “Turn here!” she’d yelled, indicating a randomly sprung detour.
First surprise was when Stan quit bad-mouthing his sister. Then Malcolm pledged to ditch his neighbour baiting habits; a bone of contention since the 80s. Several what-might-have-beens suddenly pitched themselves down a fault-line, followed by the coy slither of money gripes. I shook out our Scary Monsters Of The World tablecloth and we picnicked on strawberries, arranging crockery carefully to reveal bewitching scenes of kindness and bravery. Janey whittled a doll chain from napkins. We pretended not to want to hold hands likewise.
We came home before Monday, of course. We still have to earn a crust. But we feel lighter. So much so that sometimes, under a beckoning chink in the cosmos, we rise. Gaze down and remember how small and significant everyone really is.
The Unknown Traveler
All that was recovered in the end was a jawbone.
It was hauled up in a fisherman's net and set the town gossips aflutter; they scattered like seagulls; crying the story far and wide of the mystery of the poor dead soul who had been flung from the sea as if his jaw were a piece of crust; unwanted and tossed aside.
He was the missing brother of a weathered sailor who fell overboard one stormy night.
He was a wife's long absent husband who tumbled into the sea from the rocks.
He was every child's fearsome pirate captain come to life.
It was a certified ghost story; a haunted exhibition put under a glass case. Here lay the unknown traveler. The adventurer. The answer to every unsolved case and any bittersweet story that needed resolving.
They never found another bone, but built him anew in a thousand stories.
A Cold Autumn
The last time we spoke was deep in the cold autumn of 1973, in front of a shuttered store on Front Street. I found him brushing crumbs from the lapel of his corduroy jacket with one hand and brandishing a crust of bread in the other. Tall and thin, with curly dark hair and horned-rim glasses, his appearance was intense and scholarly from across the road. Nose-to-nose, however, there was desperation in his eyes and spittle at the corner of his mouth. He tried to hold onto a coherent thought while asking me for money. I, his only son, turned him down and walked away.
When he was found near the railroad crossing east of town, I was the one they called. The side entrance to the morgue was frost-covered and locked, but I remember turning to face gorgeous, metallic starlings wheeling and calling in bright shafts of morning light.
Ten thousand years ago, civilization began deep in the desert where vast trading cities sprang up. Chief amongst their public servants were water carriers who transported their precious cargo to every corner of these cities of sand.
But now, with the melting of the polar caps, is the time for not scarce but abundant water. Time for creatures that feed on the thermo-chemical energy spewed forth from fissures on the deep seabed: time for the sleeper sharks who nose through the carcasses of long-dead whales; the giant squid braiding their 40-metre bodies through the murk; the glowing sucker octopi, each tentacle waving a string of tiny lanterns.
We surface creatures, clinging precariously to our thin, airy crust, inhabit only the hinterlands, while the heart of darkness which will give birth to new civilizations is a thousand metres down. Our crust must crumble to allow the future to bubble forth.
At Amber's house, I get to have peanut butter and jam together. When I told Mum, she frowned and said it was extravagant. I kept it a secret that I enjoyed being extravagant.
At Noah's house, I pick out the cucumber because it makes the bread go soggy. I eat the cucumber even though it's slimier than bogies because Mum said it's rude to be wasteful.
At Lucy's house the sandwiches are served in four small squares with the crusts cut off. At home I'm only allowed to leave the crusts if they've gone green.
Whenever I have friends to my house, Mum goes out and buys bread with seeds in it. I don't know why because I much prefer the Tesco's own, medium white loaf that we normally get.
On the long almost empty beach only the harsh call of seagulls and the whisper of the incoming tide breaks the silence. The sun has turned the tips of the waves to diamonds. But the woman ahead of me sees and hears none of this as she searches, gaze fixed on the sand. Suddenly she stops, picks up some object and carries it to the waters edge. She washes the crust of damp sand from it, studies it, then tosses it into the sea.
In the distance something breaks through the water for a moment before disappearing back beneath the waves.
As she watches she smiles. She turns and walks away towards the cliffs that line the beach. I would call to her, ask her what she is doing but her smile chills me and I walk away.
Interesting fact No. 46 - about ninety percent of an iceberg is below the surface of the water
He points with the spatula.
"Yeah." Moving it out of oily flick range.
Odd for him to notice.
Odd too for her to ask, "Like it?"
She doesn't care what he thinks. Though she makes an effort on Special Bonding Nights.
"It's very interesting."
On trend, yes. Ludicrously expensive, yes. But... interesting?
Oh gawd, she knows that tone.
More Dad-ipedia. He often has interesting things to say, but that boring teacher's delivery!
"Crusting is a step in leather production..."
She zones out.
"...so, your bag's like you!"
She's back, blank-faced.
"You weren't listening?" crestfallen.
"Yeah, fascinating, just repeat that last bit?"
"Leather that's tanned but uncoloured, without surface treatment, is "In the Crust". Like you Sweetie when you've not got all that slap on."
Always some lesson. And the Moral of the Tale is..."
"Lay the table will you love?"
He means well.
Further Bouts Of Discomfort Are Inevitable.
Changes are subtle but over the years they become clearly visible to those who know where to look. Bruises don’t heal between attacks. Cuts are inflicted upon the half healed stitches of the previous assault but carefully covered, made light of. The human body adjusts, withdrawing into itself, preparing. It becomes attuned to pain.
Muscles learn to taughten in preparation, blood vessels dilate to increase oxygen. The skin thickens from repeated abuse and pain receptors dull the sensations. Pulse rate quickens, visible at neck and temple. Eyesight sharpens. Attention focuses. Eyes on the prize.
The body builds a tougher mental shell around itself, a carapace to ward off the inevitable collisions.
But it is not a shell, that’s an inadequate comparison. Instead, it is a multi-layered, but still vulnerable crust built from years of bruising encounters.
Now step into the ring.
Full of cold.
Shudder by the fire.
Hungry, stomach rumbles.
Cook from scratch?
No motivation for that.
Reach for the tin, pull the ring pull.
Smash it into a pan.
Fire up that hob.
Four minutes should do it.
Spend the time, preparing bread.
Rip the crust off that Tiger Loaf.
The margarine is in the fridge.
No scrimping, thick spread, it's one of those days.
Four minutes flies by fast.
Get that in a bowl.
Can't taste anything any way.
Might help, crack some black peppercorns.
They float to the top like lifeboats in a strange milky sea.
Avoiding pea Whales and carrot Krakens.
The Pepper corn boats soon fall victim to the Tiger Loaf Iceberg.
Om Nom Nom.
Revenge on a plate
There was a thin crust of something covering the entire table. June didn´t really want to know what it was. She had the feeling she would have to call in an entire battery of scientists and maybe even archaeologists to find out anyway. So better just leave it. Problem was that she was the one who had to get it off before opening. ‘Why are people so freaking disgusting?!’ she called out to the empty room. Before she knew it, her vindictive streak had kicked in. She went to the kitchen to pick up a bucket and a knife, and with the concentration of a surgeon she scraped it all off in tiny flakes. Just an hour later the gang of young men who had been sitting at the table the evening before arrived. If they noticed their sandwiches being crunchier than usual, they didn´t mention it.
I should have read the manual
I choke as you lay sleeping. Tears roll without reason, flowing like a dam that burst its banks. I let them run, swallow in silence, afraid to wake you. Watch your chest rising. Your eyes flicker. Hands grasping onto dreams. Heart pounds. Nerves dancing. My fingers pick at the crust in your eyes, like crumble cooked to long. Baked onto the dish. I pull the edges, your skin tugs, your face crumples. Pink and objectionable. I pull once more. Quick as a plaster stuck too long. The cries come and I drown in screams. Regret washed down with incompetence. Shush, shush. Too late. We cry. Pace the room. Holding on. Lost. Together.
The Hot and Spicy Stuffed One
Massaging me, his cool fingers squeeze and shape me, smoothing on soft powder.
He picks me up and spins me round in time to Beethoven's overture, playing in the background of the warm, dimly-lit room.
Humming, he lays me gently on the table before teasing me with a smearing of tantalising, tangy sauce all over my body. I gasp as he scatters hot jelepenos, spicy beef and melting mozzerella, using his finger to scrape some off my body to taste. He looks at me with great satisfaction in his eyes, nodding with approval and says: 'Bellisiomo!'
I tingle with overwhelming pleasure as he prises my glorious crust slightly apart, and oozes in thick, creamy cheese. It ripples inside round and round.
He picks me up, holding me in his loving hands, before carefully wrapping me up.
I hope they enjoy eating me tonight as much as he enjoyed making me.
She smiled as she served herself a big bowl of chunky vegetable soup.
‘Delicious!’ She grinned.
She served herself another.
‘Just like Oliver!’ She beamed.
She was punctual for every meal and always appeared ravenous. She crammed each bowl and towered each plate as if it was her last. Her huge appetite didn’t betray her size. Dresses billowed from her bony frame like bedsheets blowing in harsh winds. He owed this incongruity to her active lifestyle.
He often wondered how she managed to digest anything.
“Oh Daddy, my favourite!’ Stew splashed the side of the bowl.
She zealously stacked a plate with thick, buttered bread. ‘I’m just going to enjoy this in my room whilst I-‘
'No. Tonight we will eat dinner together.' He interrupted.
She didn’t protest.
“I’d like to see you enjoy every mouthful.”
An acrid taste numbed the tip of her tongue.
“And those damn crusts too.”
The crust of the earth has its peaks
and valleys like the rest of us
reaching for better things than our mothers
clawed for at a broken stove, hissing
"the center's too raw to swallow" while
her milk smoothed down that rancid throat
our father gave to magnify our differences.
I'd dig deeper but she'd take my hands
and drive me out, my skin unmade
of that listless ground that cannot rise
to meet its maker, unconsciously conscious life
I cup now to measure its worth
in currencies it doesn't need to know
to understand its coming death and resurrection.
When I fell in love, I asked her to
take the black stone that formed that hallowed navel
and kiss it as she kissed me
on the days I disappointed her
my lips too cold to notice
how they'd numbed her to mistakes
I made burying what has been buried.
"So, do you know what you want?" two years ago, asked the waitress.
But, for Jeremy, that was deeper question, much deeper. Since he was a kid, Jeremy, has fought with the idea of wanting things, he avoided and went with the majority. He just nodded his head and kept to himself. And the inherent need of wanting, was almost extinguished in him.
For a job, he just followed his father's footsteps, walkingthe trail laid out for him. When was time to move, he just went to place picked by his wife who chose to divorce him two years later, without letting him know the reason. The dog that she chose to have, she left and after years staring at the furry being, Jeremy, discovered he was a cat person.
That discovery unleashed something inside Jeremy, the wanting came back and today he would had an answer: "Hambruguer... no crust!".
She said he was handsome, tall swarthy skin and built like a rugby player. She hadn't mentioned a name.
Martha stared at the baguette someone had brought her. She tried to open her mouth to take a bite. The hard crust rubbed her lip and made her jump. It was the first sensation she had felt all day. The throbbing on her lip seemed to wake her senses and she became aware of a deep hot turmoil churning in her stomach and a feeling of light headedness.
Handsome, swarthy, muscular. Crusts of information.
'Now Martha think', said the woman in a uniform, 'think hard, what else can you tell us, did she say how he spoke, did she mention where he came from?'
Martha stared at the woman, she tried to speak, nothing came out. The crusty baguette fell to the floor. Everything went black.
A Life Without Crusts
"I am so glad that I'm above all that. To earn your crust - what a grim expression that is! I have a life without crusts." She smiled thinly at her own witticism.
Reclining languidly on her chaise longue she continued expressing her thoughts aloud. "Less of the crust the better!"
With a refined cucumber sandwich in her elegant manicured right hand, her narrowed eyes glanced towards the hand-painted and beautifully in-laid rosewood sideboard gracing the alcove beside her wonderfully expansive Georgian sash window.
Giles entered the room- a look of crushed anguish on his face. She turned to face him. Her widening eyes froze as he stuttered.
" D-D-D-Darling, you're not going to believe this. Some bugger has stolen all our silver spoons!"
It is true, it was wet, sticky, more of a sludge. Yet fertility prevailed in this dark subterranean existence.
Human nature tried to take a hold but armies of microbial communities guarded the consciousness they sought. In the end there was nothing but a long hellish road to the stinking pit of globulei.
The single cell fathomed a future of necrosis and decided to stay nourished in the whole of life that it came from. Millenia of evolution pushed it to the surface and a crust began to form.
Species would rise and fall from this sphere of influence. Yet always would there be turmoil for those that considered themselves human.
Dawn approached in cycles beyond measure and Cicada knew it was time once more. Seventeen years had since past. The wings would beat for a moment. A moment was all that it took. A moment to rise, to fall.
It was warm, so warm and inky blackness was all around.
Outstretched fingers found other fingers but received no response.
Darkness, all consuming darkness, pressed upon eyelids. Silence weighed heavily. Straining ears heard only white noise.
Fingers explored tentatively, nervously and met resistance.
Eyes open. Blinking, searching but seeing nothing. Hand explores, moving from side to side, up and down. Fingers slide and wriggle, finding a crevice. A little pressure initiates movement. Breathing involuntarily stops.
A tiny shaft of sunlight appears, filtered through dust. Eyes focus. Breathing resumes. Dust particles swirl around the light. Brain struggles to calibrate.
Sunlight means air. Air means life. Life is hope.
Heart beats wildly in chest. Eyes strain to see beyond the blade of sun and try not to look at the cold, still fingers bent beneath rock.
In that moment Earth's crust shudders and splits sending down more rock, blotting out the sunlight.
Staying on Top
You want it.
But you don’t, can’t, won’t go there.
It’s all spread out there for you. The surface thin and smooth, like an ice rink. Easy. Your preferred milieu. Then the crust, crispy and enticing. Lying beneath is an infinity of – what? People say it’s rich and unmissable. But you just can’t manage to jump off the surface and break through.
Then there’s the person you meet, a potentially significant other, who splashes about happily and encourages you, Come on in! You dither on the edge. You’re 22, so millennially young, but you’ve seen things. Your grandad’s asbestos lungs. Your father’s cauliflower ear from the protest frontline. Your big sister’s nasty infection from the tattoo. You’ve detected disappointment and deception and despair. You’ve heard gnashing and wailing. You’ve smelt sulphur.
So no. You turn back. Strap on your skates and glide.
Every Single Sunday
Standing on the bridge, she threw with all her might and watched the broken crusts float down. A flotilla of ducks steamed along, just like they used to.
Closing her eyes against the bright sun, she could imagine him standing there, telling her about the different breeds; Mallard, Gadwall, Tufted. On Sundays after a mammoth lunch. And since it was every single Sunday, she had believed the ducks recognised them; it was homemade bread too, after all.
Blinking in the sunlight, she saw that it had all floated downstream or been gobbled. How the ducks never seemed to change, or the flow of the river; winding its way through the valley and beyond.
She would go back and tell her mum it was just the same and they would remember him, together.
See the duckies, Sal, Max says, standing with his hand on the back of my chair, throw your bread, you love the duckies, don’t you, eh?
He thrusts it towards my hands, numb even in these orange woollen mittens, knitted by somebody at the day centre. Clearly somebody colour blind. It’s freezing by this pond in this bloody chair when my legs don’t work anymore, nor my tongue, sat like a piece of dried ham in my mouth.
I hold the piece of crust as he stares expectantly at me. I’m 78, for God’s sake – why would he think I’d want to feed ducks every Sunday, like some overgrown toddler? Doesn’t he remember we used to like going to the cinema on Sunday afternoons?
But no, here he brings me, and here I sit, unable to tell him. Unable to remind him who I was, who I still am.
No appetite for charity
The man in the black pinstripe suit walked out of the subway station, ketchup dripping from the bacon sandwich hanging out of his mouth.
"Spare us a crust, mate?" said a voice, more in hope than expectation.
The gentlemen paused, his body coming to an abrupt halt. He stared down towards the floor, chewing casually while his eyes found the source of the gentle voice that caught his attention.
Its owner was a man, probably no older than 40 but he looked closer to 60, his face worn down by the streets. His frail frame was wrapped in stained clothing and he sat in a dirty sleeping bag on a cardboard bed.
"I'm sorry, I haven't any change," said the man, padding down his deep pockets. The action was mostly for visual effect.
With an apologetic shrug, he continued his journey. The beggar shuffled as the rain began to fall.
November 18th, 2082
This will likely be my last log entry. The rest of the crew are all dead, and the virus has pretty much finished me off now. It feels like the crust has completely covered my skin, but I can’t see well enough to be sure. It should have been obvious from the outset that we weren’t immune, but the government wanted to try anything to preserve humanity… anything. If you’re reading this, know that a species called humans once existed… and we ended up destroying ourselves. This is Gentry, signing off.
Crusts For The Pup
“We’ll go to Ginelli’s. Post-race tradition.”
Every time Zach had competed in a local race, he followed it up with a pizza and a pint at Ginelli’s. Today’s race was one of a busy autumn series, and Zach had trouble keeping track of which charity it benefitted.
“It’s not about charity; it’s about racing.”
Jonjo was somewhat dismayed by his friend’s uncaring attitude. Jonjo was surprised when Zach ordered a large pizza and a pint, and then asked what Jonjo wanted. Distance runners were known to be big eaters, but a large pizza?
Zach left the crusts, stacked neatly to one side. Zach also left two pieces of pizza completely untouched. He requested a to-go box.
Walking toward the car, Zach presented the box to a homeless man.
“Crusts for the pup, Coach.”
Blocks later, Zach explained “the dog died years ago, but Coach has his pride.”
Snow was falling softly on the metal ledge jutting out from the window. I could hear the gentle ping ping ping of snow that had formed a little too hard as it fell in lilting, rhythmic beats. Like a metronome dinging out the rhythm to the dough I was kneading on the wooden board near the kitchen sink. Kneading in memories of my grandmother as she bent over in the same spot years before when I was barely as tall as this counter.
"Now, Goose," she was saying, "take some of this flour and sprinkle it out here for me. Now not all in one spot! Just soft-like... Like you might sprinkle out feed to my ornery hens. Easy-like. See?" It was like fairy-dust floating from her experienced hand, making the dough that would turn soft, buttery; melting in the mouth.
For a moment this crust brought her back.
Grace Before Meals
The Mass-goers spill into the churchyard; honey pouring from a jar. Cries of "Grand day" and "T'will be a scorcher" and "Isn't Jimmy getting tall!"
Lizzie labours up that treacherous hill, sweating. Outside Calnan's house the smell of roast chicken wafts through the air, mingling with the aroma of gravy from Donoghue's.
No sign of a dinner from Maisie's. In bed again. You think she'd make the effort. And her poor children living on crusts.
Home. Hat off. Apron on. Down to brass tacks. "Did you turn off the oven at half-past twelve?"
Her girl gives a surly nod.
Lizzie creams the spuds. Forcefully. "Straighten that tablecloth and put the primroses in the centre."
Footsteps in the hallway. Already.
Anticipation bubbles. "Ah, welcome, Father. Won't you sit in your usual place?"
"May you be rewarded in heaven, Lizzie."
"T'is nothing. I'll serve up now. Maybe you'd say 'grace'?"
A Slippery Slope
Stella joined a fifteen day crash course in etiquette and deportment. She spent hours with a beautician and a stylist. She changed her walk, modulated her voice, and spent a fortune on clothes and accessories.
Roger found it amusing and it drove her mad. Why didn't he see how important the Hamiltons were. They were Upper Crust. Almost royalty.
Roger scoffed at the plain gold letter invitation. "It isn't about money. These old families don't care about money," she said.
"That's why they lost it. Hamilton is a credit risk. No banker will loan him a dime."
Stella glared. "Don't embarrass me at the dinner. I want to enter that set."
For months Stella couldn't believe it was she who had slipped. That too, over peas! Instead of using the mashed potato to make the peas stick, she had turned the fork over and scooped them!
The Secret of Medusa’s Hair Care
When she was very young her Grandma, Gaia, said to her, ‘If you eat up all your crusts you’ll get curly hair.’
And with this piece of advice the young gorgon was set on a life-time obsession. She wanted curly hair more than anything else in the world.
You could always tell where Medusa had been eating by the plates of abandoned sandwiches, with no crust in sight. She never ate an entire sandwich, it was always just the crusts.
Her sisters, Stheno and Euryale, valued her contribution to their lives, they could abandon their crusts safe in the knowledge that Medusa would make the evidence disappear.
As the years passed so Medusa’s curly locks grew in their luxuriousness, that is until Athena cursed her and transformed her locks into serpents.
Eating only the crusts continued to do wonders for her serpentine hair, it wasn’t bad for her waistline either.
The Burden of Time
Picture it this way: an old man, lonely, infirm, and feeling his grasp on reality slipping away. Frustrated by his inability to live as he once lived, he broods - the injustice of a long life weighs heavy on his solitary hours. Retrospect reminds him of the fullness of his 80 something years, the pleasures of his life before it all fell apart. Before he started falling apart. Memories are a small reprieve, but a dead end. The reflections resurface his heartbreaks and loss. It hurts, but he recognizes that at least the pain is something – a feeling. Something to fill what stretches out before him as a void of meaninglessness. He serves no purpose. His only offerings now are the crusts and crumbs of his decaying body. He is a weight, heavy and burdensome. There is nothing left to hope for. The clock tics off another minute. Pointless.
"Put you're bleeping fingers in the bleeping thing," she said. I was thinking: inside of it?
There is no better way to display history
Something like: man wants a dog, so man goes and he tries to get a dog, but man has got no money. Outside a beggar wrapped in bin bags wants to know: what is up? The man tells him. The man feels guilty for telling him, given his bin bag situation, his beggar situation. But the beggar hands him a crust, from a piece of semi chewed bread: try this. The man is encouraged to take the crust into the pet shop. Why not? He slams it down: I'll take that dog now. And sure enough the shop keeper couldn't be eager enough to make the trade.
Toast is a stratigraphic thing.
Lines of / different thickness.
on its side.
A stringless violin.
Eight hours from now I will be married. And when he enters me, he will find me without crust.
Eight hours later I will be returned to my father. “No one can buy bread that has no crust. Give us back our dowry, for your daughter is empty” my ex in-laws will say.
Another eight hours will pass and I will face my village elders. “The man who ate the crust must now eat the rest of the loaf. Tell us his name, he must marry you.” They will threaten.
Eight minutes after they have left, mother will find me lifeless: hanging on a rope on the tree behind the cooking hut. For what daughter can bear the thought of becoming her father’s wife, her mothers’ co-wife?
But all that is still eight hours away, and as I take tea with crustless bread; the future is not mine to see.
The park was dead. No tree branch swayed. It had been Milly's idea to come out here past midnight. Katherine was all set for them to drink their drinks until they passed out on the couch, but there's no use in arguing with your daughter. Not when you're in your late twenties and easily led.
The two drunks stumbled along the pathway. A loose feather floated by. Katherine shushed Milly. Nevertheless, the bread bag rustled with all the decorum of a suicide trying to asphyxiate himself in a similar bag. A crew of ducklings scurried out of the rocks. Milly threw some wholemeal scraps at them.
"No!" Katherine said. "Give them the crust. It builds up their beaks. They need to peck at something hearty."
Katherine finished her can of cider but stopped before the end. She passed it to Milly. Milly knocked back the dregs then wiped her lips.
Take a Dose of Exercise
Someone said cycle. I said okay: cycle around lake. Man-made pond lake. Dirty algae bloom risk sick dog lake. Don’t let dogs off leash walking track. Don’t eat ducklings dogs. Ducks eat bread. But crust left like the green slime on the water's surface. Lake not first but second. Long loop river loop skips wetlands loop first. Colombo Road before that. Said someone said it must be for fifty minutes. Any less there’s no benefit. Any more there’s no benefit. If you can hold a conversation it’s not enough: there’ll be no benefit. You’re not pushing hard enough. You won’t benefit. Conversation in head. Not enough. Can’t stop the conversation in head. Not enough.
Beyond Her Station
She arrived quickly, painlessly. Head first down a water slide to gasp her first breath. Bonny,cuddly and colic free. Milestones all exceeded.
A fast walker and a smart talker; she recited the alphabet and wrote her name before the other kids stopped sucking their thumbs. A child prodigy dissatisfied with simple answers.
A scholarship to Grammar, she excelled, and became the Dux Litterarum. She left as the girl most likely to succeed. Oxford welcomed her.
She married money, two kids, manor house with a long curved drive and manicured lawn. Only guests of substance were invited to her glossy featured dinner parties.
She wore black power suits, networked and rewarded loyalty. The city fawned over her. The glass ceiling was cracked; she was ready to burst through.
Why her? After all she's not what you'd call upper crust, and she has a ghastly cockney accent.
The pies, the pies! Who ate them all? It was me; I ate them all, and the tarts and the rolls. But it’s the noble pie I favour with its golden top and melting, oozing innards desperate to be freed.
When I listen carefully, I can hear the crackle of the crust and the sizzle of steam escaping through the perforated pastry as the pie evacuates the oven. Its inviting warmth is too much to bear so I pacify my lips with a lick.
I linger and surrender my nostrils to the hearty aroma then relax as I delight in anticipation. But if I’m not quick, my pie will harbour a soggy bottom and cook will be disgraced. But to be polite and cut a delicate slice or to steal a mighty forkful is a dilemma for me. My tummy complains. Oh what the hell, I’ll plunge in a knife!
Mid January Shananigans
Thunderous, unfamiliar groans emanate from deep within my anatomy. Earthquakes measuring at least eight on the Richter scale shake me to my very core.
I stand outside at three in the morning questioning the meaning of life, is living is really worth all this? My mind is hazy and my muscles spasm uncontrollably.
I am overcome by a wave of nausea but nothing seems to exit my existence. I go to my bed and it welcomes me lovingly but sleep escapes me.
I roll off the bed and head for my minuscule sitting room. I begin watching the TV but its off, so what am i really seeing? A reflection of memories of a raucous Christmas.
My money has vanished and my body yearns for nourishment but all I have is this crust of bread.
If money be the root of all evil, then I must be at my holiest.
A Crust of Clouds
Amy looked out at the day. The sun had been shining. Then in the distance, the clouds began to gather; small wispy clouds which soon swelled and darkened. A crust of big dark clouds in the distance grew closer.
At last, thought Amy, some decent rain. Oh, how we need rain. The humidity had grown steadily over the past days. The weather report indicated that the humidity was here to stay. The week ahead would see more of the same.
Around lunchtime, the rain came lashing in. It came down in buckets. What had begun with a thin layer of dark cloud had now become the whole loaf of bad weather. The only thing to do was to pick up a good book, spend these hours waiting for the rain to abate.
And thus it was that Amy and her books and her house disappeared in the flood.
After the movie, they went into the Italian restaurant for pizza, and had the same argument. One week she won, and they ordered the thin crust. The next week he won and ordered his favourite Chicago style deep pan special. He should have been the bigger person and let her have her own way but why should he? Well, this week he would. Unknown to her, he had his pizza fix yesterday when his office celebrated a successful case.
As usual they had a ten-minute wait, and the argument started. For the life of him, he didn’t know why he continued with it, except it was his choice this week and he didn’t want to make it easy for her.
When the waiter arrived, she jumped in before he uttered a word. He shrugged, at her smug grin, and ordered lasagne, extra cheese.
It was never the same after that.
How Do You Win?
Phew! Finally at the gluten-free, vegan, super-eco-friendly café. It looks delightful. Jungly paintings creeping up the walls, tables decked in pretty vintage table cloths. And a cake display case filled to kill.
We spread ourselves out amongst worn and comfy cushions. School bag, sleepover bag, bicycle helmet, my bag. Peel off rain-soaked coats, scarves, gloves. And bask in our well-earned sense of arrival. Especially the dog, who hates trams. And there’d been three.
‘Now which cake would you like, Sweet Pea?’
‘And I’ll have the lemon, please,’ The rosy-cheeked, milkmaid-fresh waitress
placed a pink slice with strawberry cream filling nestling in a biscuity crust, and all to die for, in front of my granddaughter, a lemony cream one for me.
I tucked in.
‘What is it, luv?’
‘Don’t you like it?’
‘What don’t you like, pumpkin?’
The Next Best Thing
For those inside the working day started shortly before dawn; far too early for some. In fact Jimmy hadn't even been to bed yet — but that was his own fault, the others told him. Their biggest mistake was not realising just how tired Jimmy was, or understanding his ability to fall asleep practically anywhere. If they had they probably wouldn't have left him in charge of watching over the baking bread. And they wouldn't now all be rushing to cut off the burnt bits.
The queue outside, unaware of the drama unfolding inside, had waited long enough. They pushed and jostled, noses pressed to plate glass, until the bakery doors looked ready to give. Moments before they did, the manageress flipped the sign to open, hoping the aroma of burnt toast wasn't too obvious. After several apologies, she set about selling the next best thing since sliced bread — crustless.
A bottle clinks nearby. Hank sets down his potted meat to scour the scorched wasteland of the Smithfield Shopping Plaza Something was picking its way through the slag. I’ll be damned, he thinks stroking his grizzled chin. A kitten.
Hank offers the meat tin. The trembling thing aught not be away from its maw yet. But it manages the food. It even purrs.
Hank’s smile threatens to crack the crust of his face. He’s a match for the scenery. A crème brûlée of a man.
Growls somewhere. Dogs.
Dogs if he was lucky. He tucks the kitten into a satchel by his chest.
Near here is an abandoned peanut field in which is a thicket in which is a graveyard in which is a grave in which is a woman in which is a heart he loves.He'll hunker down there tonight, build a fire, reflect on a good day.
Above the town
An inquisitive insect, feelers probing, Geoff watches a pair of buzzards above the trees. Factory smoke catches his throat, a banner declares a bargain sale, a helicopter throbs.
Penetrating cold of a park bench. Pigeons cooing. A wet dog, trailing an aura of disobedience, shakes muddy water into the air.
Another town, another season. A crust of ice on the window. Snow covered alleys leading to foreign lives. The swish of skis, the glare of the sun, aching muscles after a black run.
Six spoonbills coming in to land. Unusual birds in England, with such extraordinary beaks. Figments of his imagination?
Memories with no titles. Blue becomes beige, possessions relocate, words play peekaboo. Geoff grinds his teeth and looks up, vowing to prise open the cracks in the clouds, follow the chinks of light and shatter the stale patterns of an over-long life.
From myside of the judges' table I can almost see Jimmy salivating.
'A delicious plate of food, mate,' he says, his canines glinting with pleasure. 'I could lick the plate clean.
'For me the balance is perfect. Your sauce doesn't overwhelm the sweetness of the pork,' adds Marian.
'It's an odd cut, chef,' says Jean-Pierre. My neck tenses, my scalp prickles, but he continues 'Unusual butchery, but it works for your recipe.'
There's still the dessert, frangipan in a sweet crust, but I already know I've won. The main course was my supreme achievement, the rest is bonus.
It's all down to the ingredients, of course. Cooking needs love. And I've done you proud, my darling. You tried my recipes, you savoured my herbs, my aromatics, my rich sauces. You absorbed my subtle flavours into your own flesh. And together we have won MasterChef.
The First Kiss Fallacy
I feel myself being taunted ludicrously as my every senses were baffled by the pervading presence that unsettled the harmony of my being. Sugary tales about one’s first kiss haunt me with something I’m now definitely sure is mere fantasy. There was no tenderness, no warmth, no comfort, nor sweetness – instead, I was overwhelmed by the heavy musk of “masculinity” while the sensation of chapped skin on me made me feel as if I’d been ensconced to navigate the map of the earth’s crust, tormented by the light stubble that stings the soft flesh of my upper lip while my mouth was practically slobbered by a prodding tongue –
And, as I lie down smelling the freshly cut grass, my face contorted most wretchedly from the mocking question innocently imposed upon me. I turned my head with a glare directed towards my unsuspecting friend, and shouted in indignation, “Kissing sucks!”
Living on a Moon
What does ‘life’ need? You say: an energy source, like the sun, or thermal vents hidden deep beneath the ocean. You say: a protective shield, like the magnetic field, to prevent galactic rays from incinerating fragile cells.
But what makes it ‘life’? You stutter. You talk about DNA and genes, passing along information from parent to offspring. You talk about life-chemistry.
Where else could ‘life’ take hold? Your voice gains strength. Someplace with a lot of water. Like Jupiter’s moon Europa. Hidden beneath the thick ice crust is a liquid ocean. Or Titan, Saturn’s satellite, enveloped in dense clouds of volatile methane. You’d have to give up smoking there, one spark can light up the entire moon.
Or maybe on Charon, Pluto’s faithful companion, in a cold ammonia ocean. On the fringe of our Solar System. The rays of our dying sun may warm it up, on our way out.
From cradle to crust.
She told me she hadn't had a night from you in a decade, so I offered my services. You always liked our one to ones, and I guessed you wouldn't say who I was, or maybe I've altered too much for your ancient brain? "He's got a dreadful case of cradle cap", she warned, " even though he's no baby, but I suppose he is now, and he'll always be mine". To me, you were a sadistic beast, but I do pity your maternal wife. How didn't she see through you? Oh hang on, yeah, you ordered her from a magazine. Someone at the food bank told me. I worried about giving you your own way, and it did dent my fun when you laughed with ruby eyes as the knife went in, but the three spectacular six's appeared when I scraped the crust from your dead head.
It was Rosie who told her (Marie had never heard a teacher say it) but it seemed to be true because nobody did it. The packed lunches can’t sit at the school dinners’ tables.
Rosie who was the fastest. With the silky French braid that bounced on the small of her back when she raced her year group around the yellow boundary of the netball court.
Marie’s mum looked at the photo in Shout! "Your hair’s too thin for that."
On the day Rosie wore her brother’s checked pants, the teachers grouped in the lunchroom to agree that, technically, technically, the girl was still in uniform.
Marie mashed the soft centre of her sandwich into her mouth and balled the rest in the cling-wrap as she slid along the bench, still chewing.
Mrs Bryant stepped in front of the bin. “Have you eaten your crusts?”
Marie turned back.
Easier That Way
There were no two ways about it, it was a strange way to earn a crust.
Not that Eddie told many people what it was he actually did. No. On the rare occasions that anyone asked, some guy in a pub maybe, a random who hadn’t got the hint and who was trying to strike up conversation—or more likely, a girl he was trying to hit on—then he’d admit to contractor.
It wasn't that he was ashamed. It was just easier that way.
And it wasn’t a lie. Not exactly.
Claiming he was a contractor was broad enough to let them draw their own conclusions. Boring enough that the conversation would quickly be steered away to something else.
Something more interesting than him. Or the real reason why he was there.
A Wonderful Job
Paulette slowly sank to her knees again, feeling with a gloved hand and a weary sigh the ache in her back. She had been working for most of the day, the first she had been able to spend in the garden since the clocks had fallen back. She had tidied and tied, scraped at the crust, dug and planted. Despite her stiffness she enjoyed cutting back the old and introducing the new.
'Isn’t it a lovely day?’ called Mrs Calen from across the lattices and palisades.
'Beautiful for the time of year,’ smiled Paulette.
It was more than a labour of love for her; it was a promise fulfilled, a dream she wouldn’t let wane.
'You’re doing a wonderful job,’ she heard her mother say, sensing her looking over her shoulder approvingly.
The lavender her mother had planted just before she passed away caught in the breeze and nodded happily.
Maybe another time
After the initial explosion, the heat lashes outwards, scorching upturned faces. Inside the car a furious orange ball roasted roars and spits across the dark. Paint peels back, upholstery throws black columns upwards, shiny white metal shines. Surrounding foliage cowers back, blackens and browns as overhanging trees struggle to catch floating, escaping embers. Field like furrows lead from road to dyke, their hard edges forming a waved crust as water solidifies within. Onlookers form a loose semi-circle, arms raised against the fires fury as Police, Fire and Ambulance arrive. From the debris field a throbbing buzz. A mobile ‘phone goes to answer machine. “Jim. Tom. ‘thought I’d catch you before you left; no problem. Fixed the stuff with the car … mostly. ‘needs another pair of eyes though. Call me when you get this.”
One fireman wretches the driver’s door outwards. Another switches off the engine and kills the horn.
It’s a long way from Mount Olympus but a good place for a holiday
They sat at the open seam of a place that would later be called Hawaii. Aphrodite was roasting chestnuts; Hera had borrowed Poseidon’s trident to make toast. Zeus and Apollo were hunting but would return by sundown.
Athena gazed into the magma, “it’s nice to have a break from the mortals.”
The earth rumbled, spitting out hot lava.
“Shame it fades so quickly,” Aphrodite sighed, “those colours would look great on Mount Olympus.”
“Really?” Hera snorted, “how long before something caught alight?”
“Flames are pretty,” murmured Aphrodite.
“Aphrodite, your nuts are burning.” Hera was organising everyone, as usual. “Athena, where’s your mulled wine?”
Athena was studying the lava. She pushed the amphora towards Hera, without looking up.
The returning hunters found them gazing into the fire below the earth’s crust. The magma pulsed hypnotically as they settled beside their fellow Olympians.
Ash fell slowly forming human-shaped boulders on the landscape.
Little remains of my grandfather's house: raw rafters, warped planks with hints my uncle invested in paint. The windows gone, time and twisters took them, and much of the roof. What is left of that sags, a silent submission to gravity. The woodstove survives, cold to the touch, with no memory of the fire it birthed, the precious prairie timber which fed it, the crust it gifted to kneaded dough, the warmth against winter's whip.
Now this place knows only mourning doves' song; winged squatters unperturbed by my presence, as ifthey know I lay no claim to now. The old boards have stories I will never hear--the birth of babes, reading the Word by kerosene lamps, the last breaths of men. The songbirds may know, but they woo the living in flight; a future of nesting and fragile eggs. They owe no belated dirge to long lost kin.
The snow fall Thursday was five feet. Soft and wet it laid itself like a silvery drape across the mountain pass. A cold evening shade cooled the surface. Frozen drops glittered on the surface of the icy cover.
The last storm squeezed down under the weight of the new layer. Another snow would compact the crystals into a dangerous cake with an icy crust that disguised the depth of the chasm below. Forty feet of avalanche waiting for the right vibration.
Two young friends decided to leave work to answer the lure of the powder. Untouched and pristine was the air above timberline. The path down was slick and fast with little sun against their faces.
The first sound besides the laughter of adrenaline was an echoing crack. Nature's explosion of ice and limbs slid down the soft under layer. Lost in the white, two bodies buried until spring.
JJ’s mother made him a peanut butter sandwich with the crusts cut off. Usually, she dropped the crusts into Buster’s dish when she carried JJ’s plate to the table. But last week JJ’s mother started saving the crusts in a plastic bag on top of the refrigerator.
Sometimes, JJ got chips or a pickle with his sandwich, along with a glass of milk. That hadn’t happened lately, so JJ had to settle for water – not the bottled kind that tasted good, but the smelly kind with the metallic taste from the tap.
Today, as she joined JJ at the table, his mother told him they’d have to find a new home for Buster. In a few days the bag of dogfood under the kitchen sink would be empty.
JJ could see tears in his mother’s eyes. He told her he didn’t care about Buster that much anyway. But he did.
The solicitor’s letter remained unopened. For his final day he chose the beach.
Blanched driftwood was heaped a sacrifice to spitting tongues of purple, green, red and orange. Fat foil bundles chucked in the centre and flanked by flames.
Gasped for breath as they swam, skin tingled; March sun warmed their backs. Swathed in towels they unwrapped foil baked potatoes; tossed them from hand to hand, popped them open, slathered fluffy insides with lashings of butter topped with Peter’s fresh rocket and feta salad. Bottles of Mythos propped up in the sand. They lay back catching the last rays.
The embers disappeared along with the dipping light. Jerry gathered the crusty charcoal sticks into a bag and swept sand over the ashes.
He tried the charcoal on paper, his sketches displayed freedom not seen since Picasso. He cancelled his flight and signed divorce papers, said goodbye to corporate madness.
“Eat your crusts, they’ll make your hair curl,” said Ma.
“Ooo, I’ll have ‘em,” said my sister Anne, shaking her bouncy curls at me.
“Gimme!” said Jimmy, reaching across the breakfast table to snatch the crunchiest, butteriest bread crust off my plate. Too late, because Jonno had already filched it while I was distracted by my consideration of the question of curls. Jonno’s hair was a straight as mine, and I suspected we both secretly preferred our languid locks. He liked to peer at girls from behind a cool, floppy fringe. I was practicing for the smooth, swaying, stewardess bob I wanted for when I was older.
I opened my mouth to explain how I always saved my crusts for last, and that I didn’t believe the curl story. But the others had already lobbed apples and homework into their schoolbags and disappeared with a clatter of bicycles.
You make yourself a lot of promises before you become a parent.
‘I will never have kids’ TV on for more than 30 minutes at a time.’
‘I will never overreact to their cuts and bruises.’
‘I will never cut the crusts of their toast just to get them to eat.’
‘I will never be too lenient when it comes to their mistakes.’
Funny how quickly these resolutions go out the window. First, it’s a little compromise.
‘Just five more minutes of TV then we’ll go outside, okay?’
Then it starts to snowball.
‘Who scratched you? Who?! Tell me! I’m calling the school!’
At some point, you lose track of what promises you’ve made and broken until one day you wake up and find yourself in the middle of the woods at midnight helping them bury a body. The less questions you ask, the less disappointed you risk becoming.
Those winter days were the best, when mother hated the cold and stayed home and I had father all to myself.
We would haul the sledge up the hill and career down with great abandon and even greater speed, tumbling out at the bottom and he would laugh and brush the snow from my clothes.
Then he would hoist me high on his shoulder, so I could sweep the weighty icicles from the pine tree branches that hung low enough for me to reach.
And we would roll and roll a snowball until it was bigger than me, making the hugest snowman ever, until the sun slipped away and the rosy glow of the kitchen light beckoned us home.
And by the time we gathered at the warm fireside and the crust of snow had melted from his moustache, he would belong to her once again.
They wait, a tantric pause hangs between them.
Preparation complete, two hours working towards perfection.
Softness flowing through fingers, moistened, gently massaged, kneaded, rolled.
Resting, warming, growing. More kneading, more rolling, waiting, anticipation.
Now the moment, the culmination, they break the golden crust and feel the light, warm, sense-awakening texture.
Lashings of butter and strawberry jam, the perfect climax.
“What do you do for a crust?” the old man asked Tim.
Confused by the question, his stomach rumbling at the mention of something that might be food, Tim realized he was being asked about his livelihood. Grateful for the underpass’s shadow that hid his blush, the thought of countless anonymous men came unbidden to his mind. Searching benighted parks for someone to service their cocks outside the illusion of their normal lives, they found Tim, who needed money more than love or honesty. Tim, who now felt the bruises and stains left on him by their self-hatred more than he felt the cold or hunger. Better to stay under the overpass than try to find something new, out in the world where he saw shame reflected in the passing faces of every man he wanted to touch.
Blinking tears away Tim replied, “Oh, you know, this and that.”
You are on the lookout for your next victim. She passes by, unaware. She does not even realize you are ready to attack. You stick with her like a crust, for all eternity. You know very well, After being thrown away, you are bland, meaningless. Disgusted, you inflict your company. Grasp at the foot of the distracted people, as a life sentence. You shape yourself, You stay there until the end. Your hug is so strong, There is no other way. Better to give you a name, resign with your uncomfortable presence. Because getting rid of you, once attached, is impossible.
You are ready to attack now. You know very well, after being thrown away, you are bland, meaningless. Disgusted, you inflict your company. Grasp at the foot of the distracted people as a life sentence. You stick with her. From now on she is crusted with chewing gum. Forever.
How to boil an egg
Never use a luminous watch, or a cuckoo clock, or an egg-timer with blue sand.
Never boil an egg from an odd number of eggs.
A brown egg from a white chicken will tend to be runny and vice versa.
A black chicken with a name beginning with J is best, like Julietta or Jinty.
Stir the water anti-clockwise and never lower in with the teaspoon you’re going to eat with.
Drink half a cup of tea, go outside through the back door, back in through the front door, push down the toaster then fold a tea-towel into eight.
When the toast pops up, lift the egg from the water with a bent spoon.
Never behead the egg with a knife as the hens will stop laying.
Tap at least nine times but not more than eleven.
Dip dip with the crusts as they make the smartest, bravest soldiers.
i like the way i let myself feel these days. it is a slow brew of acceptance; a goodbye breeze knotting through my hair. painful, invincible, apologetic; i breathe in and out and in and out and in and out.
i like the way i eased into my new skin; carve and shred and chop and stitch the old sorrows. my fingertips on fire and legs half buried, i like to flow with the streams in my veins.
i like the way i eat my breads; a burnt crust of rage and regret. sometimes, if i try hard enough, they quake inside; ghostly whispers and opera houses.
hiraeth, hiraeth, do i like to live?
Harry Mint’s pies were a legend in our village and not only at Christmas. An all year round tasty and profitable business, he called it his gravy train. They said pilots at the nearby RAF station never took off without a Harry Mint delicacy. That may be pie in the sky but he had his regular customers like the woman living in the small house at the bottom of the street, she liked Cottage Pie.. Old Tom ‘Slicer’ Bacon loved a Pork Pie and always Shepherd’s Pie for Mrs. Lamb. Steak and Kidney for Kate and Sidney and the local dentist would often come in for a check up. He liked a variety of fillings. Then there were the landed gentry up at The Manor, the aristocracy. Harry always put an extra layer of dough on the top of the pie for the upper crust.
21- today my son gave his birthday money to a homeless veteran like it was nothing. It was like watching his soul-- I saw my son’s soul rise from flat crust today; he is less of a child and more of a man...
19- I move to Washington D.C., take up an internship with a sushi chef a day after President Trump fired Sally Yates from the Justice Department. I want to change my life.
18- my Somali ex boyfriend calls me, he’s due out in two months, I instrictive cup my left eye and look at my boy. He'd said anywhere I ran, he'd find me.
On my 16th birthday my mother puts my father's military stars in my palms. Shooting accusations at my round stomach, she says he won’t come home this time. I saw the crust of her soul then, she was breaking a part...
"We have assembled here today in order to create something," said the first letter.
R noticed that he was shaped like a crescent moon. He must be C, he thought.
"But what are we supposed to create?" inquired the letter S. "I don't see the purpose of this," she hissed.
C noted her pessimistic tone and turned to U, who was quietly snoozing in the corner.
"Wake up, U!"
U sprang to attention, almost knocking T over.
"What's going on?" said U.
"We're going to do something amazing," C said, pausing slightly before the adjective. The other letters seemed unimpressed.
"We're going to form a word."
C motioned for R to join him, then told U to move his lazy backside and bring S with him.
"Will you join us, T?" C implored.
T tottered over to where the others had assembled. "There," said C. "Crust!"
Manna from Heaven
The gulls squawked, dipping low over the portside street.
The man and dog huddled. One fingerless, gloved hand stretched out to late revellers, the other gently smoothed ruffled fur.
'Spare a copper for a crust, mister.'
Laughter rang from folk wrapped up in pleasure.
A bird swooped and landed. A beady eye, head jittering, viewed the ragged pair. It moved in closer and dropped a quarter slice of bread from its beak.
The only disturbance was an icy crust that started to form, looking like white petals floating on the surface, growing outwards to spread over the lake. Taking deep breath feeling it burn his lungs with cold, Nick started to reel in his rods. Fishing was over for the night, so entering his sleeping bag he prepared for a long night in the cold within his bivvy.
The sky started to lighten, so Nick cast his rods out; two towards the middle of the lake and one in the margin. The cold reached for his bladder, forcing Nick to find an area to relieve himself. Whilst looking he came across what looked like a naked human foot protruding from a bush, looking closer the foot was attached to a man who stared back with frozen eyes.
Things hadn’t been the same since the global destruction had begun last year!
The Top Table
Granny likes to feed people. Dad says,
'Gran would share her last crust.'
Me and my brother, Dan, get buttered doorsteps, with hunks of cheese. When Dad's with us it's something filling, like mince and dumplings. If Mum comes along too, Granny shows off with canapés or salmon en croûte.
When the vicar calls, with his whiff of stale incense and hairs poking out of his long Roman nose, she asks, in her posh voice,
She offers him egg and cress sandwiches, with the crusts cut off.
Today, I asked her how she decides what to feed us all.
'Well,' she said. 'Your Dad thinks he's a big, tough man, your Mum thinks she's top-drawer and the vicar's got no teeth.'
'What about me and Dan?' I said.
'That's simple. You lovelies get something quick and easy, so we can sit down together and have a good laugh.'
The sign on the gate said, ‘Old Clocks and Apples for sale’. A rusted paint pot lay below, brush welded to it by a thick crust of red paint. Beyond the wall, old apple trees stood laden and gnarled, the weight of their load dragging them down. The stranger shifted his own load, heavy on his back, and sighed.
‘This won’t do,’ he said, and fiddled briefly with his wristwatch, before disappearing.
The sign on the gate said, ‘Clocks for sale’ in red paint glowing with newness. Beyond the wall, a newly planted orchard offered promise for a far away future.
The stranger pushed open the gate.
A short time later, after tea and negotiations, he left, carrying shiny clock parts; cogs and wheels, and a half-used tin of paint.
Much tinkering later, he hung a sign at his own front gate.
‘Time machines for sale,’ freshly painted in red.
An Account of Creation
Plucking at pockets of clumped matter, his hands drifted about the universe. His hardy fingers fused the substances into a dense amalgamation. As the ball took shape, he spun it and suddenly cast it into the stygian black nothingness. He hurled other matter sourced from even more remote corners of the universe towards the revolving mass of iron and nickel. The twirling design wandered further from him while a benign smile rested on the face of the artist and he closed his eyes.
His normally vacant dreams were abruptly overcome with visions of other living beings dancing and sounds of flittering conversations.
He jolted awake.
With a single digit, he reached towards the crust that formed at the corner of his eyes. He flung the dream-infused material against the spinning ball, forcing it to fold across its surface. From the tiny creation soon echoed pitter-patters, cries, and laughter.
‘I have cancer, son’.
I continued munching at the slice of pizza I was holding. When I got to the crust, I looked up at my dad’s watery blue eyes. He smiled, sadly. Like an avalanche, memories came stumbling through. The way I, as a baby, sat on his shoulders while he ran down the hill and I learned how to fly. The time I climbed up the kitchen shelf and everything came crashing down. The sunny day we found a lizard in my bed, gave it a name and brought it to the mountains to live. That winter he held on to me when I cried but I couldn’t say why. That afternoon we went fishing by the river even though our house had just been burned down, because he had promised me earlier that day that he would.
I couldn’t finish the crust as I choked up.
I double-checked all the geological reports, re-read all the seismographic data and I knew it was there, waiting to be discovered. One enormous cavern, eight miles through the Earth’s crust: one great cavity deep into the Earth’s mantle of deformed rock. A bit like one of those holes in Gruyere cheese. And to get there I had to drill deeper then anyone ever before.
When I did it, there was shock and consternation. Sound sensors placed to monitor the state of the drill bit, as it ground its way down, picked up voices. Human sounding voices. British sounding accents. North country. I hastily recorded them and sent them to an expert who traced their origin.
One of three lost recordings, he said. Vanished down a sinkhole, he said. Early episodes of Coronation Street, he said. Ena Sharples and all.
But who the hell’s down there, watching them?
Blood spurt out of her severed artery. It shot against the red wall. And on impact skipped to form its own unique pattern. Immediatly he ran over, elevated her arm, and applied direct pressure to the bleeding site. And hoped that a crust would eventually form after it clotted.
"You know how I hate having guns in the house," his wife said earlier that day.
"But it's for our own protection," her husband replied as he started cleaning his pistol. "Lately, there've been robberies in the neighbourhood, and the police haven't caught the burglars yet."
"Let's have this conversation another time," she said. "I'm tired and I want to lay down."
Afterwards, after he studied the blood splatter, he wondered what color he'd paint the wall this time.
The Bird Feeder
Every lunchtime I make myself a cheese sandwich. I chew slowly, trying to fill long minutes. Occasionally I add pickle or a tomato. I never thought missing someone could feel like a physical ache. Sometimes it can be fooled, briefly, by keeping busy, but usually the pain is there. Dull, yet persistent. I always save the crusts for the birds and feeding them after lunch is the highlight of my day.
Lucinda peeled a long strip of paper from the back page of her notebook, folded it three times on her outstretched tongue and chewed it between her front teeth. She turned the wad of paper over and over in her mouth, separating and swallowing it bit by bit. The other women in the office assumed she was chewing gum; she didn’t correct them.
The baby demanded proper sustenance and so at lunch time she forced down a banana, followed by a cheese sandwich, leaving the crusts untouched.
The smell of Wendy’s tuna salad made Lucinda gag. She bolted to the staff toilets, leaned over the basin and splashed cool water onto her face and neck. As she looked up, she noticed the blue paper towels in the dispenser. She pulled out a few and inhaled their chemical smell. They tasted as amazing as they looked.
Not all Children Hate the Crust
There was only one thing, one little quirk, that separated me from the other kids growing up.
But it was enough to attract stares, the odd bully and, on the rare occasion, it was a friendship deal breaker.
Some adults couldn't even wrap their head around it- my mother for instance, who still thinks it's outrageously abnormal.
You see, unlike all the other children, I didn't want the crust cut from my sandwiches, I wanted the sandwich cut from my crust.
The crust, to this day, is the only part of bread that I will eat.
My crust was formed so long ago. Call it my skin, if you like. They both hold together a whole. It was thinner then, when I was young. Hot tears escaped so easily. I had to learn how to take my hits. “As you grow,” my mother said, “you’ll get a thicker skin.” A hard, cold crust to put over my flaming heart.
It did get thicker, my ever-evolving shield. The tears came less often. But when they did, they could bring down the mountains themselves.
Then, somewhere among the eons of gazing to the stars for answers, I realized something.
I make my own skin.
It comes from my own heart, not from the chaos outside. It can be thin where I want, and thick where I want.
I have a fire burning in my heart, and it will burn until it and I are consumed by time itself.
To Sell Cookies
“To earn a crust by baking cookies is much nobler”, he said. He understood.
Other people seemed to be contented, to want nothing more; but she wants to own her days. She told him once what she wished.
No doubt she prefers to sell cookies, cookies that she bakes. That's one way to save her from the estrangement, irrelevance and wastefulness of office hours, she thinks.
Weeks or months later, he said: “Wish I was your days so that you’d wish to own me too.”
He remembered her line! But could she ever understand his concerns, pains and wishes the way he does hers?
Franz was always up to something dodgy. You couldn’t like the guy if your life depended on it. He lures you into his schemes every time though. Again and again. With his hypnotic grin, you never stand a chance.
You need to earn a crust. That’s for sure. But not like this; Ma will never forgive you.
Later, in the cave, sorting through the haul, you ask, ‘Why d’ya do this to folks?’
‘It’s the thrill, man,’ Franz says. 'Donnit give ya thrills?’
Thrills? You have your own.
The heavy bejeweled orb leaves your hand; hitting him full on the temples.
Your body heaves like an erupting volcano. You can hardly believe you’ve taken control at long last. His meagre unconscious body is curved around the glowing haul.
You brick up the cave’s entrance. ‘That’s an end to it,’ you mutter.
It feels like you’ve given up smoking.
I'm A Big Boy Now
There was that horrible sound, of a deep rooted rumble before the asphalt cracked open and the two sides of Toby’s road became parted by a red, glowing gorge.
Toby and his parents watched in horror as the smouldering inner crust of the Earth sent plumes of heat up into the air.
‘What’s going on?’ a neighbour shouted from the other side of the now ruptured road and it echoed out of the mouths of others, all aghast at the sight.
He felt both hands taken by his parents. He was twelve but didn’t need to be treated like a kid. This may have been the apocalypse but he still had gone to Pete Finley’s birthday party on his own and kissed Jasvinder in the park and she’d beamed him a smile as well.
‘Stop daydreaming! Get moving!’ his father barked and Toby relented with a sober, ‘Yes, Dad.’
A Fugue of Silence
Not just four and twenty black birds baked in a pie but every avian species broiling beneath the crust of the Earth’s overheated atmosphere. Maestros of the air falling from branch and bough until a fugue of silence settles over the planet, that most ominous of sounds: the absence of birdsong. The air as quiet as the Somme at nightfall.
Perhaps it is envy that prompts us to smother their exquisite canticles, to suffocate and pollute the sky. For, despite our clever simian brains, we can never do what they can: our limbs will never be wings. Now, when we look up, every nest and roost is empty, as the oceans too soon will be. It is not the sun which has brought Icarus down but our own withering regard fixed, as steadfastly as the aim of a sniper, on the pursuit of our heart’s desire.
I tear off a piece of bread and fling it into the pond. The waiting ducks fall upon it immediately.
Some of the ducks scatter at the newcomer, but most are still intent on the floating crust. One duck sits off to the side, unmoving.
“You can’t mourn her forever, you know.”
I tear off more bread and toss it over the sitting duck.
“It’s been two weeks. Anja and Petru are getting antsy.”
The throng of ducks shifts towards the new offering. Two of them speed ahead, neck and neck.
“Mostly at each other, of course, but if you don’t get in there soon you’ll be left with nothing.”
The two leaders have reached their prize, pecking and snapping at it and each other.
A hand on my shoulder. I toss the last of the bread to the sitting duck. It does not move.
He opened two packets: cheese and onion, salt and vinegar. He buttered the white sliced bread and laid a quadruple layer of crisps over one slice, alternating flavours, then he pressed the other bread down on top and lovingly cut off the crusts. She picked at the sleeve of the black cardigan borrowed from her aunt, while her leg jittered up and down in her black school trousers. He slid the sandwich onto a plate and placed it in front of her but her kohl-rimmed eyes, the same blue-green as her mother’s, rolled as she crossed her arms and bit her bottom lip that had started to quiver. “What’s wrong?” he asked, attempting caring rather than exasperated, but her eyes moistened and the eyeliner threatened to run so she pushed back the plate and fled to her room mumbling that it wasn’t how Mum used to do it.
Upper Snodding Gymkhana
Tara brushed her pony, Marmaduke until his bay coat shone amber. The village girls only mock-friended Tara because she had a pony. Behind her back they mimicked the way she said yah, instead of yeh and Mummy instead of Mum.
'Thinks 'er's upper crust, 'er do.' Kerry said.
The day of the gymkhana dawned. Tara put on her hacking jacket and canary yellow Jodphurs. Of course she won the Welsh Mountain show pony class. The girls from the village were there; Tara waved at them but they looked away.
'Don't worry, darling,' Mummy said. 'They're trailer trash. Inverted snobs.' But Tara had a kind heart and when she offered Kerry a ride she really had meant well. How was she to know that the brass band would suddenly strike up the William Tell Overture which always made Marmaduke go crazy and bolt. 'Don't worry, he'll come back,' Mummy said, 'eventually.'
Fear drove her from the warm buttery rectangle of her front door in to a black oceanic abyss. Pure morning pooled around her lit only by the far off cold face of the moon. She fingered the keys in her pocket, thrusting her hands deep in to the fabric to keep warm. A noise in the shadows caused her to quicken her pace, the sudden exertion of effort thrusting plumes of smoke from her mouth as her breath hit the air. Finally she reached her car which was covered in a thin crust of ice diamonds sparkling in the silver light. She pulled out a credit card and slid it across the frosted glass, spreading icing sugar crystals to clear a view before slipping in to the driver’s seat and turning on the ignition.
We stare through the glass. Heat sears our cheeks and dries the moisture in our eyes. Hunger wrings its gnarled hands around our gut, distending our bellies and filling our mouths with soured wishes.
Time drags. The hours have turned to days, and then weeks, and then into a monster that has stolen our rationality.
We sit catatonic before the window, now on the verge of losing consciousness. We wonder why it is taking so long. We dream of being put out of our misery.
Finally she is here, with her padded gloves and a sweep of her arm. As the oven opens I think I shall die from the smell of crusty cheddar on the top of our macaroni cheese.
With thanks to all the writers who have made this issue possible.A. E. Praytor, Abigail Curry, Afrah Shekh, Alex Daniels, Alexandra Nicholson, Allison Lamberth, Andre Leite, Becky Spence, Benita Kape, Cal Craven Francis, Camilla Johansson, Carol Leggatt, Ceinwen Elizabeth Cariad Haydon, Chad Munger, Chris Espenshade, Christine Collinson, Christine Hayes, Christine Nedahl, Claire Smith, Colin Alcock, CR Smith, Cristina Bresser, Danielle del Castillo, Edith knight Adhiambo Ochieng, Elaine Dillon, Fern Bryant, Fran Byron, Frank Trautman, Franklin E. E. Kelly, Geraldine McCarthy, Gita V. Reddy, Hannah Whiteoak, Helen Buckroyd, Holly Betsworth, Holly Kilmister, Irene Joseph, Jacqueline Carter, James Cunningham, Jay Bee, Jeanette Everson, Jenny Woodhouse, Julie Johnson, Justin Rulton, Kate Bavister, Kate Jones, Ken Frape, Kholood Azz, Laura Besley, Laura Kuhlmann, Lesley Dargie, Linda Grierson-Irish, Louise Mangos, Lynda Kirby, Maddy Hamley, Marc Casson, Marjan Sierhuis, Mark Stewart, Marlene Pitcher, Mary Clark, Mary Davies, Matthew C. McLean, Michael Pickard, Michael Rumsey, Michael Stewart, Monique Lennon, Morgyn E. Marshall, Nick Fairclough, Oliver Tong, Pam Coull, Philippa Bowe, RD Rogers, Rebecca Field, Richard Warner, Rosanna Wood, Ruth Skrine, S.B. Borgersen, Sally Robinson, Scott Dukette, Shammah Hove, Steven John, Stuart Atkinson, Sue Partridge, Susan Carey, Tiffany Porter, Tim Hawkins, Tim Hayes, V.C. Sharma, Yeray Ruyman
21st February 2018