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The sea was cool, as she had hoped. She crouched and slipped a hand beneath the surface, where rippling light stripped away the veneer of rings and coloured nails. Spray soaked her expensive dress, pushing her back into the stifling air. She stopped a scream: her hand had gone - no pain, no blood, just nothing - as if it had never been. She looked back at her friends, who were too distant to include her in their photos.
The waves slid towards her feet, dimming shock and bringing promises of escape from the heat and weight of perfection. She tried to forget the cameras, always present, always picking at her pores, her smile, her split ends, until her nerves were frayed beyond repair.
She removed her clothes with the remaining hand, ignoring the cries behind her. She struck out into the surf, and felt herself dissolve, layer by layer.
Finally - peace.
Standing in the station cafe queue, waiting to order a cup of tea, I watch two young children chasing one another and laughing. Their mother holds her baby, helping him to join tiny grains of sugar together on the veneered table top. When I was a child tea was often served in earthenware pots. You could ask for tea for two. Sixty years later tea is sold in single pots; one for each customer. This is useful for me now. Sometimes there are tables for one as well as pots of tea, but not today. As I sit down with my drink, the empty chair opposite seems to cry out to me, yearning for company. I throw my coat into the gap. Then the train is announced, and the happy mother gathers up her brood to leave. I follow reluctantly. Going home is the most painful part.
The driver door had scarcely shut when Angela broke down sobbing. It was a risk, giving in like this in the school car park. But she’d driven when stressed before; she nearly killed herself and those around her.
The day had started off so well, with her not wanting to die.
Like blotting paper soaking up acid, she’d absorbed the clamouring decibels and petty spite of class upon class. She hadn’t shouted. The only indication there’d been anything wrong was a slight tremor during a repeated instruction.
Now, she bared her teeth and screamed as she hung onto the wheel.
Later, each kilometre Angela put between herself and the school helped her gain more control. She spoke out loud, sometimes yelling, reassuring herself she’d made correct decisions.
In the morning, she stood on the doorstep of her house and breathed deeply. Yes. I can do this.
Would the veneer hold?
One step forward, two steps back
Politicians filed into the House; groups of three or four, or solitary members, cards held furtively close to their chests. Row upon row of grainy, green leather seats packed on either side of the chamber. The stench of old boys clubs, whisky and tobacco hovered in the air. Incessant chatter filled the void, papers shuffled, knowing nods and winks to allies.
‘Order, order,’ the Speaker demanded.
A minister stood to address the House at the despatch box, the raucous cacophony abated. She reeled off strings of facts and figures; the truth shrouded in a veneer of lies. The opposition jeered and hissed, an occasional ‘here, here’ escaped from the government benches. A junior shadow minister responded, drowned out by catcalls from the government. The division bell rang; members sauntered to their respective lobbies. Fifteen minutes later a red-faced Prime Minister attempted to set out the next steps.
Behind the veneer casing of her record player, nine-year old Debbie examined the shiny lumps of solder and the circle of paper membrane that pulsed like her heart. Debbie played her records loud so she could sing-along without her mother shouting at her to shut-up.
Behind the singer’s smile, on the cover of her favourite album, Debbie recognised a sadness and, years later, watching a made-for-TV-movie, Debbie learnt about self-loathing, loneliness, anorexia and—at thirty two—the wasteful death of that beautiful woman.
Behind her smiling Twitter profile picture, Debbie—fifty-three next birthday—has a solid-oak side-board, grown up kids, a husband who loves her and her own playlist on iTunes. She’s worried about her hair loss and nervous too, because Saturday night she's due to sing solo at the charity concert, a dream come true, but Debbie’s best friend Sue only wants to talk about her upcoming gall-bladder surgery.
Special Agent Mittens showed his ambivalence toward his Mossad appointment by peeing two steps from the operating table, giving his antenna such a switch that the feedback in the control room had every headset yanked off in pain.
In addition to that tail transmitter, Mittens had cochlear and retinal implants that relayed to handlers as the inconspicuous cat might amble through terrorist strongholds. After years of trial and error with zooform sleeper agents since the so-called ham-radio (considered bad taste if not outright treif), Mittens was top-of-the-line.
In the operations van, they high-five and whisper Mazel Tov as Mittens is dropped across from the City Park where Tehran’s senior nuclear technicians are known to feed the peacocks. But celebration turns once again to thrown headsets as after two steps, a speeding ambulance reduces Mittens’ espionage career to a red veneer on the pavement at the corner of Kayyam and Davar.
A veneer in his room served as a sign of Mr. Walters' opulence. Still, the latter couldn't stop the incident.
He returned after a business trip to his home, while I walked inside his house. I could've panicked, yet I decided to keep my cool.
I know how to deal with such situations, but something felt different this time. His demeanour seemed odd, he looked as if he knew I was inside his dwelling.
He entered the living room, where I hid behind the closet in that place. Mr. Walters laughed.
'You're in a lot of trouble!'
I had no clue what to do.
'Fine, let things be your way.'
I heard him leave, so I stopped concealing myself.
Suddenly, I felt a sharp pain in my back.
I turned around, he gave me a smile.
'Funny, you all bleed the same.'
Knocking on Sixty.
My new boss is the Svengali of the garage forecourt. His disciples are of an ilk; teenage, long blonde tresses, thick rimmed glasses. I'm convinced that, like a used car salesman, he's road tested them all.
I'm not sure if he's filed a change of business permit, but can't rule it out and I'm refusing to offer assistance at the pumps these days, for fear of compromise. The veneer of respectability is rapidly declining. Sweaty truck drivers and women in timeworn pyjamas our only clientele.
I face him today, a minion sandwich, nobody looking me directly in the eye, as he drones on about a recent infraction on my part. I am mortally afraid to reply. I have no idea what trumped up charge he's even levelling at me. He glances up, obviously waiting for an answer.
'It is what it is ' I state ambiguously, then rise and leave.
Emily’s elegant fingers glided across the keys of her new, richly veneered, piano, captivating the small audience of her parents and, Pierre Lachere, a family friend. The middle-aged Pierre was the piano’s purchaser, a present to mark her 20th birthday.
The champagne consumed at the evening’s small birthday gathering encouraged a relaxed atmosphere. Later Pierre stole up to Emily, standing alone on the balcony overlooking the chateau grounds. Always confident, his purchase of the piano he thought would be the clincher. He slid his arm around Emily’s waist and gave her a slight pinch.
“You know I’ve always admired you, Emily” he breathed in her ear.
Emily at once divined his purpose.
“Pierre, I’ve always respected you as a friend, but my piano isn’t the only thing with a veneer it seems. “
Emily pushed him aside and re-joined the other guests leaving Pierre crestfallen, but wiser.
The life I want the world to see
“You have no new messages” she said again, her tone ridiculing me. He said he would call, he said he couldn’t go a day without thinking about me and yet two days later there she was, still saying “you have no new messages”.
I switch the app to social media and search his name. I look at his updated posts and see him staring lovingly into her eyes. I know this is a lie, and I know he doesn’t love her like he loves me.
I post a picture of my own, my husband holding my shoulders staring into the camera smiling. Regardless of the mess my life is internally, for the outside world, the veneer of the life I want to portray remains intact.
6oz SR Flour
She beats the eggs, the same way she beats herself up about the end of their marriage.The recipe doesn't call for it but she shakes in vanilla, never one to follow rules. She sets to turning the sugar and butter together, like her and Rob once. The wooden spoon melds it to a fluffy, almost white colour. Like her wedding dress, then. For a light and airy cake she sifts in the flour, tapping a sieve deftly as she recalls the first years of marriage, the running downstairs with her heart full, like she might sail away on love.
After the cake cools she pours a thin veneer of melted chocolate so that it drizzles down the sides. Icing already hides the imperfections, it cleverly covers where the very centre has been ripped out by her carelessness.
The parents were still fighting in the next room—perfect. She slipped down the corridor and—yes! The bedroom door was open. The baby was there—asleep.
A quick stab then she'd flee. Often the child never awoke, but sometimes she'd miss and it'd screech—alerting the parents. She'd had a close call last week.
This time she wouldn't miss.
She aimed for the neck and stabbed—a jolt flashed through her. She'd hit something—hard. Fear flooded her, but the child was still asleep ... she gathered herself and drew the blade back. She wouldn't be stopped by whatever this veneer was. It didn't have to be deep—just a tiny nick. The poison would take care of the rest. The baby would suffer then die and she'd be long gone—
"What was that!?"
"Nothing babe—just swatting a mosquito. It was trying to get through the baby's mosquito-net."
The day they moved in they found the trunk, the size of a tea chest in a corner of the loft. So many years it must have stood there. Laced with cobwebs, the hinges rusted, the veneer cracked, faded and peeling. Only the lock had held firm and he insisted it stay that way. He loved a mystery and to imagine the treasures it might contain was a game he played, filling rainy days and dull evenings with the images he conjured. A game played less and less over the years as they pulled away from each other. The day he finally left she took a hammer to the lock, her heart momentarily lifting at the satisfying crack as it gave way. Inside there was only dust and the crumbling and torn pages of a book the handwriting too faded to read.
The Queen's Head
Approaching her nineties, Pam still pulled pints behind the bar most nights, despite her son now running the pub.
“I’d get bored sitting upstairs watching telly and hearing all this going on down here,” she would say.
Always smiling, ribbing the regulars and with a ready, suggestive laugh, Pam was the reason many of the locals pulled up a barstool. ‘The Queen’s Head’ was her stage, her domain.
Yet, beneath this veneer lay a hard shell. Pam had had to be tough; bombed out of two houses in the war, orphaned at sixteen and left to bring up three siblings, then her own children, single-handedly when Ron died. People expected her to sell up, get a day job, but Pam was made of stronger stuff. Not that the men propping up the bar knew any of this. To them, she was Pam, bawdy, bantering, never one to take life seriously.
She leaned and kissed with yearning the scorched, dry mouth of the man with the mask. She remembered the summers in the village, that very night on the ravine, away from father’s control and the constant comments of their mother. His childish body was steaming, he started fondling her hesitantly in the dark, and she, the youngest of the girls, palpitated, blossomed suddenly upon his demand. Even then his eyes were squeezed shut. Never again was she so worried, neither with the kids nor with her grandchildren.
Beside them the oxygen mask foamed defeat like a metronome. He whispered for the urinal, she helped him with naked hands, and looked at him greedily now that he was hiding once again, her elder brother she was losing.
His wife kept watching them from the half-opened door, speechless. Her nails mired in the mahogany casing, traumatizing its walnut veneer.
Covered in blues, purple and orange, she wears a black vest. Her skin was a deep brown. She appeared to be colour from, head to foot. But her shoes were white.
With a wedge heel. Her precision with the Palette knife was quiet deft. She hacked at the canvas, scraped across it with great noise and gusto. As if to attack its very weave.
I swallowed gum and waited. I figured this was going somewhere, fast.
I chewed and chewed and swallowed. The man beside me endlessly scratched his beard.
Mounting tension, noises,grafting colour onto colour. She gave the veneer, of a tropical bird attempting to fly away and, was forever trapped.
Beads of perspiration trickled down her back, creating a damp stain all along her spine. I watched the other students for their reactions. When I looked back at the Lady in colour, she lay crying on the floor.
He still smells of the sea. Salt-coarse hands stroke her hair, her face, her neck. She has broth on the hearth and two bowls ready but he tells her, wait. His shyness is as when they first met, the veneer between man and boy falls away so easily. He presents his gift. A wooden spoon. It is clumsily carved but beautiful in its own way. A heart for his love, an anchor for his livelihood, a cross for their faith. She smiles as she holds it, then moves his hand to the curved swell of her stomach. She tells him,
You need to add a cage. And two balls. Two? He kneels before her. Presses his cheek to her belly. She runs her finger over the love spoon and smiles.
“What? Again?” he exclaimed. “You assured me of deliveries every day to make up for the debacle of the broken ignition key – I lost a full week’s work over that, through no fault of mine, and now this!”
“Sorry” replied the Depot Controller “there’re just not enough parcels again today”.
“The other driver’s said they were run off their feet yesterday!”
“Really sorry mate, nothing I can do” replied the controller, the thin veneer of compassion slipping from his face as Harry turned to leave.
“Enough’s enough” muttered Harry arriving late at his first delivery the following morning due to depot staff mucking-up his schedule. He’d now incur a wage deduction for each parcel.
Fifty minutes later.
“I quit” said Harry, satisfyingly tossing the keys of the fully laden van onto the counter in front of a gob-smacked controller and, turning his back on underhandedness, he stepped forward with optimism.
What People Want
‘It was walnut veneer,’ he says, taking another grape from the bowl on the bedside locker. She doesn’t say anything, doesn’t even turn her head.
‘Are you sure?’ I say.
‘Course I’m sure. Bed, wardrobe, dressing table: all walnut. Worth a fortune. We should stick them on eBay.’
‘People don’t want that stuff now though, do they? Veneer?’
‘They go down DFS for solid pine.’
He fingers a grape into his gob, then another.
‘It’s got a blood stain on it now, anyway.’
He considers this as the grape pops between his teeth, and his eyes are on mine. ‘What do you mean?’
‘Where she fell…’
She turns her head and her white hair scrapes the white pillow. Her mouth is opening.
‘Want a grape, Mum?’ he says, and tries to shove one straight in, like she’s a letter box.
‘I want to go home,’ she says quietly.
After the funeral
Marianne knew she had to keep going. After the last guest had hugged her and left, she cleared the table and wiped the crumbs away. The veneer was cracked on one side. Jack's side, where he put his mug.
The table wasn't old. They'd bought it when he retired and they downsized. She'd wanted solid wood, but Jack had jibbed at the cost. Not because he was mean. Just suspicious in case them out there might get one over on him. And worried. Had to save so she had enough to live on when he went.
She'd known he'd go first. He'd never been positive about life. It was only work that had kept him going.
Her legs wouldn't support her. She found she was sitting at his place, head down on the damaged table. But knowing she'd survive, once the tears were over.
A Wrong Liaison
On a hot summer day, I pushed the door of a bookstore in a small alley. The bookshelves made of pine veneer smelt of old books, cardamom and days of innocence.
I touched the titles, read the blurbs, looked here and there until it came to my attention. A smiling man in a dark blue suit. It was love at first sight.
A mutual understanding.
We planned a vacation together. However, it turned out to be a wrong choice, made on an impulse. No matter how much I tried, I was bored to death. In sheer desperation, I tried to drown my mistake into the water. It didn’t work either. Rescued from the shore, the stupid blunder was back to my place. Again.
Now it will be stuck with me, like a bad marriage. Forever. A smiling man in a dark blue suit on the cover of a horrible book.
As he sat looking at his face in the broken glass – the result of the rage she had had before leaving him – he concluded that the ‘clown white’ make-up, streaked now from the sweat of his last performance, made him look as ancient as he felt.
Applying the make-up remover – to wipe away the mask he had worn for these past forty years - his thoughts returned to her and how she might be feeling. He had always considered that their life together had had at least the veneer of happiness, but then he had made the fatal error of ‘playing the fool’ once too often. So now he would have to seek her forgiveness again and ask if they could start over.
The irony he decided was that their marriage had become almost a mirror image of the show they performed every night, although without the warm applause.
A Five Star Review
Lucille left a review:
My partner had been nagging me to get a few of our holiday photos professionally framed. Although hesitant to oblige him, I approached Hackney Continental Framers and was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the work. For example, on collecting my newly framed snaps, I decided to surprise my partner by hanging them immediately in the dining room. Imagine my horror on returning home mid-afternoon to find him romping with Sonia from apartment 12C on the sofa. My reflexes have been swift since the year 8 field hockey championships, and without a pause, one of the frames launched from my hands at the pair, leaving a considerable dent in the wall above their adulterous heads.
Unlike the veneer of our relationship, the frame remained solidly intact, glass and all. Although I am unsure what I will do now, it speaks volumes to the sturdy craftsmanship.
Cake stall shame
Tom drummed his knuckles on the bar, the sound echoing around the empty pub. “Where is everybody?”
“They’re at the fete. Best close up and go down,” his wife Jan replied.
The village green was awash with people enjoying the bright spring sunshine as they surveyed the coconut shy, dog show and cake competition. Standing behind one impressive bake was Mrs Rotherhithe, who was presenting her signature Summer Berry Sponge. Gathered in front of her, the pack of salivating judges nodded their heads in winning approval.
They were about to offer a large red rosette, embellished with the words ‘First Prize’, when a sweaty young man spoke up.
“Hello again madam, was the cake up to its usual standards?”
Mrs Rotherhithe’s eyes widened, her cheery veneer crashing to the floor. “I think I need a drink,” she stuttered.
Tom turned on his heels. “I’ll open the bar,” he muttered.
Hey, Squirrel Lives Matter Too
It's impossible to out stare a squirrel. I've tried and failed many times.Today, as I watched you perched upright on a garden post, acrobatically, serene even, for a species better known as vermin to Pest Control; I didn't have time to use the camera on my smart phone. The plan: I want to capture Theodore eating next door's scattered brown bread; that's what I called you from Day One. Now I'm not even sure its you T, worried because you all look the same with a leafy green backdrop mixed out door urban veneer. Just now you did a shit that pebble dashed a patch of wood fencing in milky blobs, and turned swiftly to look straight back at me. No accident.
Across from the cliff edge of teeth I'm astounded by the whiteness of her veneers. Like fresh tombstones sprouting in her mouth. Her lips make shapes, a red maw crushing a row of square pearls.
"I'm sorry, what?"
"Why do want this job?" Teeth dazzling, distracting, fake.
My mind blows empty, nothing but tumbleweed blowing spinning from lobe to lobe. She's waiting, fixed letter box smile, teeth glaring.
"I'll fit in like... comfortable dentures. I'll fill the holes. Drill down to the bone."
She shuffles her papers, makes marks.
"That's enough for today. We'll be in touch." She nods to a skivvy who looks about twelve. The girl takes me to the door and shows me out apologetically.
Walking home, running my tongue around my teeth, I pep talk my battered soul with an inner monologue.
Do I really want to work for a gob full of whiteness?
Janet gave up her search, switched off her newsfeed, and got high.
Buried deep somewhere under a chemical blanket, she was unable to block out the event, and Janet began to cry reliving sitting in the park, and the moment she saw the lost toddler. The familiar shape of the young girl’s face, the colour of her hair and her skin tone, all were flashing signals. The confirmation hit Janet the instant she heard the frantic Mother shout.
Hearing the girl's sobs, Janet saw her tears as she reached out to the child.
“What are you doing?” The Mother, not doubting her instincts, scooped up her girl and threw a look that scolded.
Holding her composure with a veneer of normalcy, Janet spends her time sitting in the park. She sits and waits, hoping to one day escape the despair, of not being allowed to hug her granddaughter.
The Perpetual Life Cycle of the Pathological Liar
At some point each day I tell myself I’m going to leave. Whether it’s the hint of someone else’s perfume on your clothes, or the veneer of your excuses when you tell me where you’ve been.
Today I pluck up the courage to ask whether you have a lover. Anger slides off you like knives, and a dining room chair isn’t the only thing that gets broken. You tell me how disappointed you are in my lack of trust. It’s what our relationship was built upon.
Later, you caress my weakness, and my body once again betrays me to fall under your spell.
And you tell me you forgive me.
You forgive me.
Such a lark wasn’t it. Such a piece of theatre.
Me writing to you, the girl over the road. The girl I’d watched washing her car. Saying I was a Russian spy, needing help with enemy surveillance. I bought all the props for when you came over; caviar, black Russian cigarettes, vodka cocktails.
We were spawning salmon, thrashing up white water in some Siberian river, jumping waterfalls with the strength of our tails, oblivious to the ending. Ovulating and milting till we made a suffocating soup. But shackled to workaday mornings, under close interrogation, we made false confessions, applied smooth veneers, ignored disguises till we believed our own stories.
We moved your Russian sage plant over to mine. I bought you fur-lined accessories. We lifted each other out of the water in nets, saw the rainbow scales rub off on our hands.
The world isn't a safe place - or is it?
Bony fingers seize my hand. It's naughty to pick at the top of the table. But where the wood shows through I can get my fingernail under the loose edge of the walnut veneer.
Grandma gives me a hug as she says, 'We all pick at things - our noses, spots and pulled threads - especially when we're bored or tired.' She leads me into the kitchen. 'Which are you?'
'What can we do about it?'
'Make some scones?'
'Raisins or cheese?'
I look up into eye so blue that they glitter with kindness. 'We'll do two batches' I say, and can't help smiling. 'Tommy brings batches of gum, licorice and smarties to school.' Does she really care what happens to me? 'He steals them.'
My mouth feels stiff, I haven't used it so much since Mummy disappeared.
The Man Who Turned Into a Bicycle
She recoiled in horror at the hunched body of the man she loved. He couldn’t stand upright, perpetually in brace position with clawed hands set like rigor mortis and feet fused with metal. She couldn’t define where flesh ended and bike began.
She had been delighted when he got a hobby. He became fit and lean with the veneer of a man half his age. His mood lifted.
She watched helplessly as hobby became obsession and then in shock at the transformation from man to bicycle. Perched on the saddle, he looked just like other enthusiasts on the roads - he could go anywhere on two wheels but was debilitated otherwise. He couldn’t snuggle beside her on the sofa in front of the TV - he sat on his bike in the lounge, where she sat in the dimple the years had created in the upholstery, whilst his dimple lay vacant.
It’ll give you a veneer of respectability, the nuns say.
Bruises blush, burn, blue, blacken.
It’ll give the child a future, the doctors say.
Gums bleed, teeth loosen, tongue ties.
It’s better than the streets, the nurses say.
Bones break, bend, bond, heal.
Haud yer wheesht in future, the neighbours say.
Words curse, cut, course through strained veins.
Do it for us, for family, for reputation, parents say.
Tears seep, sting, stop.
I’ll not bend a knee and beg, he says.
Spit lands, venom on her upturned, defiant face.
We told her, we warned her, they all say.
Dirt lands in rat-a-tat drums on pauper’s wood.
She stood before me with a saintly smile. So clean and virginal in her crisp white uniform.
I cowered beneath the hospital sheets. The jaundiced curtains were drawn closed around my bed. I could sense the crane of necks from those expectant creatures in the same wardroom.
“Would you turn onto your side for me?” she asked sweetly
As I tried to maneuver my aching body into position, I saw the hypodermic syringe in the kidney basin on my locker.
“That’s good, just hold nice and still”
I shivered and started to shake.
“Ooh,” she said: “look at Mrs. Peters shadow on the drapes, what is she doing?”
I glanced up and instantly felt the sting and pain as she pressed the dose into my buttock.
I looked at her and that innocent veneer had become a mocking visage.
The Vampire Ogrencisi
The Turkish Lord sat in a remote desert and drew a circle on the sand drawing the same insignia carved on his obsidian ring. It was the shape of an upturned cross. He rode his horse with a heavy girth and crossed the mountains to the monastery of nuns who were about to help a young woman give birth. Her child belonged to the friend of the Turk whom she killed. He took the child, a girl, and raised her as his.
In time, she grew up without seeing him.
One night, at the age of sixteen, she peered through the banisters of their castle and saw him. He wore a ring and through its veneer he saw her and climbed the stairway. She kissed his obsidian ring and felt his mouth claw on her wrist to suck her blood. She was his and she would forever be sixteen.
I just sat there that morning with my mouth hanging wide open
“What you need,” Mr. Watkins said, “is a little veneer.”
I could hardly believe my ears. That is exactly what I had said to Mrs. Roberts earlier that same day.
I remember being introduced to veneers when I was an apprentice. Handle them very carefully I was told, with love and affection. They are not to be trifled with, and will give protection for years. I hoped Mr. Watkins had received the same sound advice
You could say we bonded in that we both used our preferred glue. The difference was where I worked with wood Mr. Watkins selected porcelain.
“My goodness as good as new,” Mrs. Roberts exclaimed, as the gleaming surface of her kitchen table smiled up at her. And that is exactly what my wife said when I flashed my freshly protected smile at her.
Cracks of loathing
After four years together, cracks in the veneer of their relationship began to appear. He started to criticise even the smallest details, like the way the dishes were put away in the cupboard or what she'd decided to wear to work that day.
She was being slowly suffocated, gaslighting it's called these days but she was too weak to do anything about it. When she did stand up for herself, the fury and rage followed by days of hardly talking to her so disturbed her that she dared not do it again.
An awful sense of self-loathing grew at the same pace as her self-esteem ebbed away until she became a kind of robot.
It was her fault, she was too dependent and had been too young and hopelessly impressionable when they'd first met. Now it was too late because she'd forgotten who she really was.
Pancakes, Tales and a Clock
As a child, I remember the battered old clock sitting atop granddad's mantelpiece. A memento from the war, the clock took pride of place despite its cracked face and worn veneer body.
I remember eating grandma's homemade pancakes, topped thick with strong salted butter. Granddad would sit me on his knee with those weathered but gentle hands of his and tell the most amazing tall tales. My grandparents were the soul of that home, but the clock was its heartbeat.
When the clock struck four, it signalled the end of my stay and it was time for me to go.
My own grandchildren aren't interested in tall tales or a beaten-up clock. It sits, alone, on my mantelpiece now, my fading memories it's final companion. We share a fate that old clock and I. It's nearing four o'clock.
A Fragment Of Marilyn McGuire
Marilyn always thought the worst.
Her outer veneer had been applied coarsely to her delicate inner crumbly shell.
‘Bye Rufus,’ the mongrel was steaming up her window as she stepped gingerly down the uneven stone steps. As Marilyn purposely battled past the accumulation of overflowing dustbins, that congealed towards the end of the slimy flagged path, she was careful not to catch her clean, tatty cream mac. The stench of stale dog poo bags and last nights fish and chip wrappers made her feel sick.
‘You Marilyn McGuire?' said the postman as he rushed to her by the open gate.
‘Yeah, that’s me.'
‘Here you go.'
‘Oh, thanks, I wasn’t expecting anything.'
Marilyn looked concerned at the large brown government envelope. It started to rain. The cold, splodges discoloured the paper as she opened it. Astonished as the contents of the tax rebate revealed itself to her, she smiled vehemently.
Jenjen_1970 Would not recommend
"I should have heeded the other one star reviews of AgeErase’s so-called Miracle Serum. Alas I was enticed by its ludicrous claims. Who could resist a flawless, baby-soft complexion or becoming the envy of women half your age? How gullible was I! It doesn’t glide on like dew as the packaging claims. Rather the vile-smelling goo has the consistency of PVA and gives my face an unnatural orange veneer. And so much for wrinkles vanishing overnight - if anything my crows’ feet are now more like crows’ legs. Not worth the postage. Avoid!"
The "crows’ legs" bit is probably over the top but I click submit anyway.
At school other mums - barely out of school themselves - say wow what’s your secret? I talk about acid peels, collagen smoothies, cutting out caffeine. And every day I post another twenty reviews so they’ll never find out my secret. Nobody will ever find out.
‘The veneer of a man says nothing of his underneath,’ said Mum. ‘God knows what he’s got going on inside.’
Most of the regular workings, I reckoned. And given most of us have them, probably the odd malformed git-bit. Still, I considered him superficially: nothing chipped off; no stuff hanging out; not the slightest whiffing hint at mildew.
‘Solid pine,’ I said. Melamine, mahogany, ‘The way to find out’s still the same.’
Singing in a Thick Jumper
I arrived late, sweat sticking my jumper to my back. Chap on the door welcomed me, pointed where to sit, handed me a song sheet. I wanted to run. Usual dread, not belonging, struggling for breath.
Rows of people faced the stage, echoing a woman at the front. I still wanted to bolt. They wore summer clothes, knew what to do. I was baking in my thick jumper, knowing that I stank. How had I thought I could join?
Then, they sang. Bass voices did the backing, mids sang the main melody, and the highs - oh, the highs. They made the song soar. My heart slowed, my breathing calmed.
Silent for days, my voice had shrunk. Realising nobody was judging, I sang. Forgot about wearing the wrong clothes. Ignored the smell clinging to me. I was part of the music. I'd mend my veneer. The music would heal me.
Something other than my smile
The shyness of my teeth prevented me from laughing a natural laugh. The dentist reassured me, "Your problem is simple, you need dental veneers".
I shared my new photos with my friends. Their comments shocked me, "Your shyness was charming, your smile is no longer attractive"
Incarnations Have Nothing To Do With Flowers
My partner gave me a progenitor DNA testing kit. Oddly, the test's results failed to indicate my ancestors; instead, they listed my three most recent incarnations.
These former lives unsettled me. I took the day off and did some research.
First, I typed 'hazel pigtoe' into a search engine. Details appeared about a now vanished aquatic bivalve mollusc.
Afterwards, I had one of my sneezing bouts. This seemed to confirm the truth behind my second incarnation.
Finally, I went to a zoo. A three-toed sloth moved leisurely in my direction. It then gave me what I'm sure was a smile of recognition.
Back home, I told my partner about the test's results.
'So the human self you present to me is a veneer,' came the reply. 'Your true nature is that of an extinct invertebrate, a nasal bacterium and the laziest creature on earth.'
This observation does not bode well.
On Sumach, blinking strings of Christmas lights hung with old twist ties light the cracks in broken windows and split veneer, a half-moon is on its back rocking in the severe cold warning at the edge of the tenements near the misplaced Mercedes Benz dealership marking the cross into civilized territory and we still avoid eye contact, the look of disgust on one guy’s face is palpable while he stares at a sex worker who’s staring at me because I’m an easy target for her amusement, white-knuckling my purse, sweating though it’s cold, until the streetcar shakes and screeches into a turn on Broadview, out of the projects, to the station where we burst from the doors and start breathing once our feet touch ground and we part with a secret we can’t tell, like drunk strangers who fuck and wake up hungover, pull on our clothes and slink away.
Kate brushes the wig and settles it on her head. Gazing wistfully at her image, she imagines how she looked before. Angrily she snatches the wig from her head and flings it across the room. It lands squarely on top of Felix, in transit from the cat-flap. The startled feline struggles free from the hairy appendage and Kate shrieks with laughter at her bewigged and indignant cat.
Turning to the mirror, she sees again her starkly bald head, but beneath, the remnants of a smile. Then she knows, she can beat this thing that threatens to destroy her. She sees the contrived coiffure as a veneer that merely disguises her baldness and resolves to wear a stylish hat or a bright coloured headscarf instead.
Felix settles on Kate’s lap, purring contentedly, kneading her robe with sheathed claws. Kate knows the wig will never be worn - except by Felix, of course!
Hands over ears, eyes on the clock, five more minutes.
With scrambled nerves and patience spent, Louis watches the tic, tic, tic of the second hand, counting down the moments until his ordeal is over.
He grasps his hands together to hide a growing tremor, avoids all but the most fleeting of eye contact and mumbles from his script. Three minutes to go. Conscious of his task's futility, he strives to maintain a veneer of quiet indifference, in the vain hope of masking the turmoil that rages inside of him.
Thirty seconds left. From near the back of the class, an elegant, paper dart floats in a gently climbing trajectory high above the feral horde, drawing all eyes and silencing all tongues. Dipping abruptly, it picks up speed on the downward arc, striking the substitute teacher full in the face.
Laughter explodes, the bell rings,
and mercifully, the class depart.
The Price of Eggs
An egg cracks over a hot pan. Gloopy albumin dollops out in a flattening sphere, a raw sun at its midst. I see its transparency cling to metal heat and turn white, the buttercup heart cradled in a new shape. No chicken, this. It has defied fate, and become a thing of beauty. It glistens and has clear boundaries. It is me, I decide. When the veneer cracks and my core bleeds out, I will rise from the inferno, change from see-through to albus and let my heart be cocooned safe again. Frying pan or fire, I will prevail.
In one mouthful, you swallow a whole fried egg.
Walking down the courtroom steps, the ‘not guilty’ verdict ringing in her ears, she felt as though her thin veneer of self-respect was cracking and crashing to the floor.
'You’re innocent, free to go,' her lawyer said, except she wasn’t. She was a cheat and a thief and she’d got away with it, thanks to the clever words of her Barrister, nothing to do with truth and justice.
She felt ashamed and wanted to crawl under a stone.
Not far along the road she spotted a security guard outside a posh shop, and noted the CCTV cameras strategically positioned.
She entered, and immediately picked up an expensive vase and threw it to the floor, causing an almighty crash.
She began stuffing items into her bag, and then it came, the hand on the shoulder, the police, and the arrest.
Perhaps this time she would be given the punishment she deserved.
How To Make Your Husband Better At Small Talk At Parties
They whisper about him. People say she married a robot.
Kath can see Jim now, nodding along as Sophia witters at him, interjecting with an occasional ‘yes’. It’s all he ever says. He’s awful at small talk. So mechanical. That’s why people like Dave and Warren are mouthing ‘I. Am. A. Robot,’ at each other. It infuriates her.
At home, she asks Jim if he had a good time.
She roots in the drawer for a screwdriver and opens a flap on his back. She fiddles with some wires.
‘How do you feel now?’
‘Good, thank you, darling. Yes.’
Darling? Definitely an improvement. She doesn’t like people saying she married a robot, but it was true nonetheless. Still, with further time, she could enhance Jim’s veneer of humanity. It would make parties more bearable. Maybe she could even code in some jokes.
‘I love you, Jim.’
The Grand Engine menaced in the gloom while my unfocussed mind anticipated our final journey. Our skin reflected the noxious taint of the shattered beige and green floor tiles. I sought distracting patterns in the fragments. Terrifying masks coalesced from each idea, denying me respite. A startling mechanical shriek and radiant cloud shrouded The Engine. Panicked demons surrounded their mechanical charge. I saw the spectre of purity accompanying the cloud. While others pointedly ignored the scene, I dared to hope.Heaven was breaking through! The Controller appeared, his face a study in disregard, as mechanically inert as The Engine itself. He awaited a solution, daring his minions to fail. With a seething whistle, the gap was closed, and hope dissipated into the rafters. The quality of The Controller’s face changed to a smile, enjoying his minions’ self-congratulatory laughter, his veneer slipping for a moment.I surrendered to my Doom.
Race the tide for home
I watch with awe as guillemots, kittiwakes and terns, wary of egg thieving predators, fight for space on the ledges of the sheer cliff or soar through the channel between my seaward viewpoint and the chalky face. But have I stayed too long?
I scramble down to the pebbled fringe of the island to see the first veneer of tide slip across the sand scoured, sea washed causeway, my mind still filled with images of puffins, noticeably fewer now, dropping clumsily to green tussocks on the cliff top edge of the down, clown bright beaks overstuffed with pilchards, as in Chaplin haste, they waddle to rabbit burrows, borrowed for this year’s nest.
I had found the vestiges of the old bird hide I sought, hauled plank by plank from mainland foreshore in childhood days, and now race the tide for home, but only at the steady pace of aged legs.
The Colours of You
It was green envy started the little white lies held together by a flimsy sticky orange residue of truth that caused you to see red and lash out in purple rage: how your shrivelled yellow heart must have quivered opaque cream tears that mingled with the endless cups of amber tea when you were questioned by the boys in blue: at the funeral your black veil did scant to hide your iridescent indigo eyes sparkling like freshly-mined coal and the pink lip-glossed veneer of a fake smile did not fool me: I always thought you transparent.
Bright lights and fanfares. The dream of so many.
The taffeta rustled, shimmering in the light of the flash bulbs.
"This way, Megs."
"Over here, Megs."
Yes sir, no sir, three bags full, sir. Her mind screamed a headline 'top model Megs found dead in hotel room's Foul play not suspected, say police.
Unlike her life, her death would have no veneer.
Grin and Bare All
Teeth tell your age, in spite of disciplined brushing and flossing. It started when I turned fifty and I noticed the yellow tinge. Expensive whitening toothpastes made no difference. Each time I passed a mirror I bared my teeth and checked. No matter how much time I spent on exercise and grooming, my gnashers let me down. I got desperate and stopped smiling.
At dental check-ups, I was assured my teeth were healthy. I asked about bleaching treatments and was advised against it; the results would be disappointing at my age (apparently).
Last month I ran into my dentist on the Metro. He'd been to a colleague's leaving do, had a few, and was quite loquacious.
'Mary,' he said. 'You'd be lovely, if only you smiled more.'
I was so surprised, I burst out laughing. He completely cracked my veneer. Now we're dating, friends say I look fifteen years younger.
What a drag
The first coat that Flo applied to the surface had to be thin and laid on like the slip of porcelain. A second coat was darker and smoothed with her fingers — contrasting shades of beige and alabaster pink daubed in the most discrete places.
Painting with refined strokes of black, the artist could see the image of a young woman appear on the façade. The overlaying veneer of the impersonator was colorful and full of sparkles. Hedda Lettuce played the part to perfection. Outrageous hand gestures timed to punch lines that made the audience roar with laughter.
No one could know, that Joe was Hedda. Without the wigs and lipstick, he was withered and sanded away. Unfortunately, there was no laughter involved.
A Crack in Time
Trains don’t stop here anymore. Once, mighty steam engines shuttled people to faraway places. Replaced by locomotives. Progress they called it.
In its heyday the town boasted two stations; one central, and this one, now sad and abandoned on the outskirts. It used to service the factory.
Economics closed the factory. Beeching closed the station. Progress he called it.
Mother Nature has reclaimed the platform; tracks and sleepers long since lifted, now an overgrown gully, thick with vegetation, weeds and bushes. A solitary rhododendron splashes vivid purple amid the foliage.
In the old, crumbling ticket office the faded veneer peels from the door, a shaft of sunlight picks out spiders’ webs among the floating dust mites. A vixen and her four cubs have made a den, oblivious to the ghosts around them.
Something lost; a silent crack in time.
Rumer bit into the coated chicken *snap* curses she thought as she felt the crown in her mouth loosen. Wiggling it out she set it down on the table. Shoddy workmanship that's what it was. She looked like a thug. Cursing the kiev on her plate she threw both into the sink & poured another glass of wine.
He would be home soon. This would come in handy when he did, she turned the veneer in her fingers. Self defense, that's what she'll say. Lashed out at her, she had to do it.
Intent on leaving his wife Kevin grimaced. The altercation when he walked through the door was more than he could bear. Parking 2 streets away he glugged the whisky, if I creep in silently, grab some things & leave she need not know I was ever there.
His wife waited patiently, toothless & emotionless awaiting his return.
Old school friends?
He noticed her in the coffee shop, the layer of make up on her skin and fake labelled clothes providing a veneer of quality over her superficial persona. She was still attractive enough, still turning heads and no doubt opening wallets.
Walking over to her below his real cashmere coat he could hardly contain himself. He felt elated and excited to come face to face with her after all these years.
"Hannah, I nearly didn't recognise you" he said, smiling as he approached.
Startled, and amazed at how this handsome and rich looking man could know her, she thought her luck had turned. Composing and fluffing herself up she shyly returned his greeting with a look of confusion.
"It's Danny from school, Danny the fleabag. Nice to see you, got to rush." He kissed her on her surprised cheek, laughing as her eyes pierced into him as he walked away.
Standing before the full-length mirror, Mrs Buxton felt like a warrior ready to battle with a dark force. She tugged at the stiff brown fabric of her suit. It was her armour, the cross around her neck her talisman. She would not allow them to see the slightest chink in her carefully constructed veneer of composure. Her silver-grey hair was combed tightly into a bun, tugging on her temples as she scowled. She bunched her hands into fists. She was going in unarmed, her voice her only weapon. Six weeks had passed, and how they had grown. But she would not be intimidated. Her presence was commanding. She would fight the good fight. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. She had wisdom on her side. She was Teacher Of The Year after all. The children of Buttercup Primary School simply would not win.
If you become perfect, he will love you.
If you lose weight, pay thousands for veneers to hide the shame of your snaggled mouth, get breast implants so your body conforms to his hands and his desires, wax your flesh to sheer, silky smoothness so you look clean and feminine, change your walk so you appear less like a builder’s labourer (which you are) and more like a catwalk model (which is the only kind of women he deigns to date), swap your Dr. Martens for stilettos because he loves the way a woman’s calf looks when impaled on vertiginous heels, close your mind to anything but that with which you should trouble your pretty head, shut your mouth when he is talking and always be available for sex whenever he wants it because that’s his right.
If you do all this.
If you do it for him, for him...
A Veneer of Respectability
A veneer of respectability. (End dragged out so it sounds like a sneer, a leer.) A patina of decency. A Ronseal of nice. A polish of twitch-shown tooth. They knock on my door and stand there with their leaflets and clipboards, rosettes fluttering in the May evening wind, their eye-bypassing smiles melting when they see that yes, I'm a big bearded brown man going commando in a floral Dot Perkins dress with fluffy slippers. "Hello," I say, and I might pivot my pelvis forward and rub my hands backwards from my belly to my hips so the viscose pulls tight across my big bearded brown man fruit bunch. "And what flavour of hatred are you peddling tonight?" I love how I'm so wrong for them, everything along the way worth it for this moment. I wish I had a thick foreign accent. Might make the dress crotchless before Election Day.
Bring back Veneer
The surface crust protects whatever lies below. It's there for a reason.The ache of failure, the ache of self worth, the ache of discontent, carried beneath the veneer of refinement. We smile and acknowledge, even scowl and disapprove, hiding the truth for fear of feelings, sentiment or upset.
"Be honest," he said and the white lie hid the truth.
"Don't hold back, I can take it." A grin of approval buried the distaste.
"What's your opinion?" she asked, hoping for a compliment.
But let's join social media . . . yay! Ban the veneer! Expose the underbelly.
And so the great betrayal begins. It's great! Try it! You'll love it!
But I don't have any 'likes'. I'm no good. I'm a failure. I'm inadequate.
You're better than me. You're nicer than me. You're cleverer than me.
Bring back veneer.
The Many Lives of Evelyn Forsythe
Evelyn Forsythe needs to decide who to be today. She looks at her shelf, long legs spilling out beneath an oversized shirt, still-brewing mug of tea in hand. Her face is curiously plain, as if sculpted to be forgettable.
Evelyn stirs the teabag with her finger. Steam rises. She doesn’t mind – there is no smoke detector to set off. In fact, there is very little of anything in the room. One door. No windows.
“I think,” she muses. “That I’d like to be Emperor.”
She plucks a mask off its stand, a weighty thing with strong features encased by an oak veneer. A Roman nose. Harsh eyebrows. A crown peeking out under dark locks.
Evelyn ties the ribbons of the mask over her closely cropped hair. She unlocks the door and steps out into a newly born world of her own making.
Perks of a War Child
The stench of corpses only start to linger after a while. When the bodies are fresh the blood is sweet with a salty aftertaste. It reminds me of the Gulf of Alaska where the Pacific and Atlantic meet but, don’t mix. War doesn’t bring peace nor does it build alliances. It builds fear; fear of the unknown. I dwell in the unknown, I thrive in the state of obscurity. In the shadows is where I battle the enemies from the depths of my soul. Cannibals aren’t acceptable in the normality of society’s world. Present day civilisation devour their peers daily. They don’t recognise their own cannibalism. These humans will consume everything from each other and have the audacity to call my race monsters. I place my veneers back on my fangs blending back into your world of discrimination. Whilst you justify all the insecurities of your actions daily
Stories to make your hair... part 4
It was a ‘marriage made in heaven’. But Margo, keeping her own counsel, saw beneath the veneer of the fancy multi-bedroomed (with large family plans) mansion, the oriental carpets, the slick new his ’n' hers cars parked in the double garage. And, naturally, under the stainless steel and granite of the super-designed, but unused, kitchen.
She's been allowed to visit her daughter just once. But now Priscilla’s phone call, ‘I’m tearing my hair out Mummy,’ brings her running. Well, more gurgling up in her sunshine yellow vintage VW Beetle.
That’s when she finds Priscilla, with exactly that, her hair pulled out, all over the Italian marble floor, missing a Persian rug by a whisper.
“He’s a pig Mummy,”
“You’re coming home with me.”
“But what about…?” Priscilla waves her trembling hand around the expensive dwelling.
“It’s only a veneer,” says her mother, finally speaking her mind.
When you grow up poor, you spend the rest of your life trying to escape it. I haven’t visited my mum in years. Can’t bear that run down place, or her in her shabby cardi in front of the telly. Instead I work harder, play harder, try harder to fit in elsewhere.
Lying on the dentist’s chair, having veneers put on my rotten teeth, I try to stop the thoughts creeping in, thoughts that I don’t fit in anywhere, that I’ll forever be floating between two worlds.
She walked from the churchyard along the rough path flowered with late bluebells and primroses and stared at the Victorian rectory that was her family home in the war. Still imposing, the wisteria draped over the Welsh stone door and windows to soften its facade.
He showed her inside, memories flooding back.... The hallway still had the veneer panelling and servants bell. She'd had the run of the house then; the favoured, indulged, only granddaughter, who wore his Panama from the hatstand to accompany him on pastoral visits, and sat under his office desk while he dealt with parish matters.
Upstairs, she peered into the bedroom remembering her mother's screams in the throes of childbirth with her brother. But it was his bedroom that triggered her. She had left the garden party on the lawn below, to search for him, and had climbed into bed with her cold motionless grandfather....
He’s changed. The blond ponytail has gone; his hair is dark and slicked back. The teenage acne has cleared up. He’s got veneers now; his teeth are as big and square as tombstones. When he shakes my hand, his wedding ring is cold against my fingers. I wonder who she is, whether she’s stronger than me, whether he’s ever wrapped those meaty hands around her throat and later tried to convince her she liked it. His lips curl back over those tombstone teeth. “Have we met?”
With thanks to all the writers who have made this issue possible.Abdul-Ahad Patel, Alex Daniels, Alistair Duff, Andrea Bennett, Carl Palmer, Carol Leggatt, Caroline Mitchell, Ceinwen E Cariad Haydon, Christine Nedahl, Colin Alcock, David Cook, Debbi Voisey, Donna Frances Thomson, E.C. Andrew, Elaine Mead, Ellen Kirkman, Frank Trautman, Gaynor Jones, Hannah Whiteoak, Heather Nicholls, Ian Rushton, If Onyia, Iro Nikopoulou, Isabel Flynn, Ivor Kite, James Dunford, Jayne Jones, Jemma Morriss, Jenny Woodhouse, Jessica Andretta, Joel Caldicott, John Cooper, John Harkin, K. J. Watson, Karen Jones, Katherine Olukoya, Kathryn Dixon, Kiira Rhosair, Laura Besley, Leah Prior, Lee Howell, Les Pedrick, Louise Mangos, Lucienne Cummings, Maggie Rogers, Malcolm Richardson, Margaret Dickson, Margaret G. Kiernan, Marissa Hoffmann, Marlene Pitcher, Marzia Rahman, Meredith Moody, Michael Pickard, Michael Rumsey, Mitja Lovše, Mohamed Mahmoud Ismail, Nick Black, OxTheFox, Ruth Skrine, S.B. Borgersen, Shalom Aranas, Shirley Elizabeth, Steven John, Trasie Sands, Ultan McDonnell, Vicky Price, Victoria Sinclair, Wendy Kelly
22nd May 2019