The Read More Project features some of the best prose, poetry, and narrative non-fiction around. We regularly publish work from a variety of writers, with a special focus on new and emerging writers. These works will span genres, styles, forms, voice, and more – we want our corner of the literary world to be as varied, as eye-opening, as challenging as possible.
All Poems and Stories
They say cold air does you good when you’re drunk – a bit of outside to help right the senses. That’s what they say, right? It helps the buzz settle and the world stop spinning. Then, you fall into a blissful post-drunken sleep that even the most irritating alarm clock can’t wake you from.
It’s now almost twenty years since those headlines, following Charles Davidson’s strange disappearance in 1965. As someone who knew him well, it was to my door that the media initially came. At the time, I told them nothing, but as I now start to feel my years, I realise I ought to set down these biographical observations.
Eugene and Carol sat on their sagging porch outside the house they bought when they were young and oblivious to the tight grasp of this flyover country. Their land was hard, but Carol, at least, remembered when it had been harder. Hard in a way most had already forgotten.
To Arthur’s eyes, speckled with dim cataracts, and to his mind that was slowly untethering itself from solid ground, the green tour boat drawing alongside the little wooden quay floated like an exotic dragonfly he’d once watched hovering and dipping amongst banana trees in Burma. As the boat drew closer, it disrobed from its hazy disguise and presented itself whole and ordinary, inviting in the way that only real things can be.
Randolph Minster woke up squint on Monday morning. Although his bed was straight on all three plains, and although he was relaxed and sunk flat when he awoke, it seemed his body was bent to the right and determined to stay that way. When Randolph stood at the toilet to void yesterday’s liquids, he stood askew. When he padded around his little kitchen making boiled eggs – five minutes for large soft boiled, toast notch three on the dial – he was undeniably squint, as if gravity’s pull had moved a little, but always to his right.
People faint now and then. Eva envies their respite – she’s been awake for nearly 26 hours, and Matt too. The night before, they stopped at a small lake surrounded by poorly assembled tents. The moonlit water shone like heaven. Yesterday’s driver had warned against bathing. Matt obeyed, Eva tried to, but others were scrambling in, cooling off.
Dom entered the shabby bus station and walked past a shabby pigeon, which said ‘Alright, mate?’
Colin knocks on my door at 6.56 pm.
I spot him through the window at least 10 minutes before our date is due to start. His too-big overcoat is drawn tightly around his skinny torso, and his hands are rooted in his pockets. I watch him through the blinds as he approaches my door, rocks on the balls of his feet for a moment, then leans in, as if scrutinizing a notch in the paintwork
Tawny just thought people had stopped noticing her. Perhaps the bus driver hadn’t seen her outstretched hand. She didn’t speak loud enough in the coffee shop. But standing in front of the bathroom mirror that night, she saw only the room reflected back. After staring at her toothbrush for some time, she picked it up, and it appeared to float unaccompanied.
Before getting underway with this little letter, we must ask you a rather pressing question. You see, it seems simply vital that we understand how to properly address you. “Dear Kate” – it just sounds ever so churlish to write to a lady as dignified as yourself and to commence in such a common manner. “Kate” does have something of a plebeian ring to it, wouldn’t you agree? Certainly, it doesn’t seem fit for a Duchess
All high schools are pathetic, as are all high school students, high school existences, high school achievements. That your team beat anyone else’s, ever, you should forget two days after graduation. We’ve fabricated childhood – damn you, Locke, damn you, Rousseau – then built traps to keep young people in it – that comfortable space of “for your age” and “improving” and “participation.”
Everything was beautiful: blueschist states of mind. The night sky was complete and we knew it, thanks to the old mnemonic. Mother didn’t show us anything per se, but she bought the book in which I learned the trick: a Junior Collins Encyclopaedia that included a comprehensive chapter on the subject of Space. It was simple and beautiful, the way certain things are: nine words forming a coherent and logical sentence that perfectly aligned to its raison d’etre.
I remember the day when Charles’ parents moved to town. They came from the city, which was an intimidating thing for us in our small slice of English countryside. They hadn’t had Charles yet, but they did have another baby, about two years old I think – I never learned its name.
I pronounce the words as I scrub toilet bowls. The clerks are on their way back home. The lamps on the desks are off, but still warm. The sweat on the keypads drying. The trains murmur on a dark blue horizon.
When Subha began working for us, I was twelve, and she said she was seventeen. It seemed a big age difference at the time, despite the fact that I was already taller than she was, and broader too. She was the latest in a long line of full-time housemaids that my mum had employed and subsequently fired for various reasons: stealing my old stuffed animals, taking extended holidays to their hometowns, and the most recent, moonlighting as a sex worker.
As any sensible person would be, Cylia was wary of long-distance relationships. Given the lack of options in her own vicinity however, she was inclined to look further afield, succumbing to the smorgasbord of electronic dating sites. Eventually, her search reached such sequestered spaces, the depths of some of the most seldom used applications, yet she had little to show for it except for some faded sparks, clumsy comments and innumerable unopened messages, each with a hint of potential, though probably promising disappointment.
He paid the man, got out of the car, and took off up the driveway. It was a long driveway. More like a dirt track, with various winding twists and turns. He could not see the house; the track was surrounded by large trees and high untrimmed hedges. When the driveway finally opened up, and he did see the house, he was taken aback.
I was visiting St Kilda. I’d come to see the colonies of gannets, when – for no reason I can think of – I found myself remembering Simon. Simon in his black jacket. The two of us in St James’s Park. But that’s the way with memories, isn’t it? They come to us in ripples. Then they’re gone.
My German Grandmother Was Totally a Bitch, and Also So Much Cooler than Yours by Shannon Frost Greenstein
Certain things are absolute, compulsory. There are universal experiences of a German grandchildhood that link so many of us in a complicated daisy chain across space and time: holiday cookies. Hiding an ornament shaped like a pickle on the Christmas tree. Church, specifically Lutheran church. Being early. Raggedy Ann dolls and Hummel figurines and Black Russians and, at the foundation of it all, resilience. Grit.
I’ve been going through a bit of a rough patch recently, what with Sarah leaving and everything, and, well, I guess I’ve been looking for some sort of escape, a project to take my mind off the situation at hand. I never thought that project would be joining Hetton-Le-Hole’s Premier Lazer Tag League, but then life throws you a curveball every now and then, doesn’t it?
Nancy and Sean were sat outside Coco’s Cafe, at a cast iron table that was warming in the sun. Leftover foam was drying in their coffee cups and imprinting itself on the china. Pigeons waddled close by, eyeing up scraps of baguette that had fallen to the concrete, unsure whether to approach. Sean was cleaning the lenses of his tortoise-shell sunglasses on the corner of his blue linen shirt.
Sammy pronounces it more like “kit-hen” when he points to the upper right-hand part of the diagram. It’s a common problem for a lot of Somalians, that harsher “-ch” that doesn’t exist in all languages. We’ve done a sheet like this with cutesy drawings of architecturally unsound houses every week for the past month that I’ve been coming to the refugee centre. This week there are five rooms: a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, an empty living room, and a hallway.
I fantasise about quitting all the time. I storm into human resources, slam my notice down on Adam’s desk, say something witty and cutting, then spin on my heels and strut out of there like I’m King Arthur. On my way out of the office I sweep my colleague Megan off her feet and into my arms before heading to the stables, where I steal one of the company horses and ride off with my love into the sunset. I hear the staff applauding and cheering from the windows as we disappear over the horizon.
Outside, heavy, wet snow falls on this serene little city and clings to trees, hedges, power lines and parked cars. Inside the classroom, Mr Khatri disrupts the idyll by dimming the lights and introducing a Holocaust film to his twelfth grade, world history students. For the next forty-five minutes, Tanner and the others are deluged with eviscerating images.
Though female, I never knew how to keep my peace. And I knew feminine docility wouldn’t help me make my way – especially after my father died, and his will became known.
A name like Juliet was a burden, especially when your father had wasted the last of the family fortune on drink and your mother had pretended to endure migraines for two decades. My assets were: an expensive education, one fine gown not yet pawned, and a reasonably pleasing person.
My name was Jill, once upon a time, but I altered it after my brother’s infamous tangle. He told a slanted tale to disguise the fact that he was nothing but a common thief – and a murderer to boot.
Born of melted bone-stew, my first forbears
Were conjured to bind and to sustain. Poured
Into the cracks and creases of your wares,
They sealed flaws forever. Then you soured
On such strength, and so
Somewhere, dear Reader, there exists an imaginary handbook on how writers must write their stories. The first chapter of this imaginary handbook dictates to writers how they can and cannot start their stories. There is a list of the ways in which one must not begin the plot under any circumstances. One of these rules mandates that the story must not open with its hero in bed.
“The thing is, it was difficult to get anything done when there was constantly so much to see. Because it’s not like you could simply choose not to look – whether you liked it or not, your eyes would still rest on the bed, on Auntie May’s ridiculous night robes, on your big toe or on the tomato splash on the kitchen wall.
As I unscrewed a pipe from below the sink and pulled out a knot of clogged hair, ground coffee and potato peel, he told me of his latest plan: he was going on a trip to a small caucasian republic called Kirkazstan.
“Not haunted. Alive. I read about it, once. This professor said that these moors change – the topsoil, the heather, the scrub – it constantly renews itself in a never-ending cycle. Reason why they never found that poor boy, and probably never will. These moors are shifting, changing. The very landscape is just as alive as you and me.”
The man with the long black umbrella which was shut and dry because it hadn’t rained all day, he might’ve been thinking about stabbing the pigeon with the silver pointed end. I know you shouldn’t make assumptions, but the guy looked pretty intense, and you can’t help but imagine lugging an umbrella around on a sunny day would leave you pretty angry.
I can’t deny I got a bit of a shock when I first saw her lying there. Right next to the bins. The rep had been wrapped loosely in an old tarpaulin, but somehow it had fallen open. I pulled the tarp aside a little more and saw that she had one leg bent underneath her body, eyes closed, her uniform intact but smudged with dirt.
When I see you now, it’s tiny glimpses. You’re at the office, where I’m supposed to be working, but instead am mostly twitching my eyes about the room, trying to catch you. You follow me on the bus, where I can almost see your reflection in the misty windows.
She could only watch him, silently noting that she should be doing something to help him, ease his suffering somehow, but she couldn’t. All she could do was feel shades of some sort of compression. Time passed. All those moments and days and everything in between seemed to just press together, bound with dreamless sleep.
But he didn’t. He kept looking at the hanged man. I glanced about; no one seemed interested in doing something. I thought to myself, perhaps I should act. Yes, I should. Well, I did nothing too. I kept looking at the dead for a while then continued walking, aware of the music that started to fade behind me.
Karen was a brilliant woman, effervescent with ambition and energy. She could see through all fakery and pretention and she could prize from you your deepest thoughts just by opening her eyes and giving you a quizzical look. I became her lover, because I wanted to, oh how I wanted to, but also because it was impossible to deny her. It was as if there was some kind of destiny that drew me towards her.
When Clive saw Erica standing at the bar, he was uncertain whether to approach her. He watched as she ordered a large glass of white wine – pinot grigio? Sauvignon blanc? – and deftly wove a path through the knots of early evening drinkers, to a solitary table in a quiet corner of the room. She hooked her handbag over the back of the chair and started to read the newspaper that had been tucked under her left arm.
The day, ten months ago, when his parents had told him and his brother, Filip, they were moving to England, had started in peculiar fashion. It was a Saturday and both his parents were at home when Jakub woke up. Mama and Tata should have been at work for at least two hours.
He sits next to me staring ahead, his eyes shaded by the cap’s peak. He doesn’t hold my hand. I look at him through the rearview mirror and I swallow that image of him. My eyes dilate to take in more until my own reflection is merely a fragment.
Your daughter sits crosslegged on the living room floor with a shoebox resting on her lap. Tiny clusters of mould creep up its sides. You stand there, keys dangling from your fingers, the mud from your shoes seeping into the welcome mat.
I wanted to be a good mother, one that sniffed my baby’s head with deep breaths to inhale the newborn smell. After dutifully reading parenting books and baby naming books, I felt doubly cheated again: still no baby and still no name and no nostrils full of new life scent.
I wrestle a pack of tissues from my bra – the only place to put them, as my funeral garments are short on pockets and my bag is so tiny it barely fits my phone – and pass them to Willow, then Nai. Willow’s been clutching my hand since we left her parents’ house this morning, as though she’s afraid of losing me too.
She had been a student of history, three years his senior. He worked at a tyre factory though he was, in his spare time, an avid reader. They were to elope four years later, in the autumn of 1968, though the exact details of this ceremony remain unknown.
My brother and I liked words, he would always use the ones I didn’t really understand. I made a mental note to find out what rustic meant. Perhaps it was something like ‘rusty’, in which case he was right, it was almost the right colour for rust. In fact, if that’s what the word meant, everything looked pretty rustic at the moment.
I could never tell if it was a robot, or a microphone, or an actual person standing on the other side. I would say her name, and just like that, she would appear.
He could not help but recall his earliest childhood memory, when they had both been no more than 6-years-old and had only just met at primary school. At this time she looked boyish and revelled in this look, proudly displaying her scrawny, ragged ginger hair.
He took everything away when she passed. Shoved into boxes in the garage. There was only one thing left, a painting of a smiling, rosy lady holding a chocolate bar to her lips. Quite hideous, Mariella, he had often said. They could see it from their bed, where they would lie like two curled up watchdogs.
They had expected warm, white sand and high waves. They had seen themselves in the southern heat, in cotton clothes and shaded glass. They were sitting beneath enormous parasols where iced drinks were served at welcome intervals. The surfers were young and skilled.
For all these actions he alone has been given credit, and from the whole gang he alone became an angel, while his friends have been sent to burn in hell’s thieves section.
Most people never literally roll their die. You might knock it off the bar as you reach for your drink too quickly, only just making out the etched number through the suds before both bubbles and die pop and disappear into nothing.
However not every bot is built equal. We have a few that just aren’t up to the high standards of our prize-winning entrants. They might have a few bugs, they might be a bit aesthetically displeasing, or they simply might be a bit dull. This year saw the creation of the least equal bot ever sent to in to our humble tech magazine.
After about an hour, the bus deposits us on the side of a road marked ‘Laoshan’. Green and imposing, the mountain looms ahead of us as we follow signs for the visitor’s centre. Walking up the long, open drive, we’re surprised to see a race set-up, complete with banners, a podium, and a finish line.
“Truthfully,” she said, “I’m not sure where I’ve been. There was a lot of alcohol involved, you see. But I know what I was trying to do. Make up for lost time.”
We took the property out of necessity, and because even though it was a basement suite there were no tenants upstairs, leaving us to the quiet of our own lovemaking or shouting in the mornings. We had even become used to the sound of the mother next door, who screamed at her small children in Mandarin after breakfast as they walked towards the car.
The examiner hasn’t said anything for a long time, not since we first pulled up to the junction. What is her name again? Tade, I think. Perhaps I should say something, just to break the silence.
As soon as the words formed in Arthur’s mind he corrected them. The bench was not his. It belonged to the council or some such faceless body. It was just one of a number of identical wooden benches spaced alongside the path that meandered round the edge of the park.
She turned to me, seemingly apologetic for the disturbance. Mum never liked fighting with him in front of me. For as long as I can remember they kept their conflicts private, sheltered from my prying ears. I remember at my eighth birthday party last year, they left for half an hour and came back more frustrated than before.
Contrary to what you might think, Old Blue was not my dog. Blue was the lawnmower that led to the salvation of my dog, who was also named Blue. Together, these two formed the strongest, inextricably entwined cords of my youth. The one, a black lab puppy; four and a half pounds of love, joy and energy that filled my waking hours and slept by my side.
Yes, he responds. He already knows what type of questions you will ask, he has already answered the same kind of questions many times. The cinema will do just fine, especially if it’s an old movie. A matinee. People will have seen it before, they won’t mind a little light chatter.
“Is she going to get us out of this hole?” Gary asks, though not seriously. If he was asking a serious question he’d stare at his duty manager to press for a serious answer, but instead he continues sorting paperwork.
The truth is that those who made it their business to solve this mystery were wasting their time, for the simple reason that he had not disappeared. There was, of course, a mystery to solve, but it was a different one.
She’s meant to be at the movies tonight with Sal and Nancy and Marigold who she doesn’t like. Marigold’s thick as mud and thinks she looks like Barbara Streisand, but she’s ugly as sin. I’m glad she can’t go. It means he won’t have to put me to bed later on.
Every time I see a snowflake, I think of her. Every time a flower blooms, I think of her. Every time the heat swelters, I think of her. Every time a leaf falls, I think of her.
That morning at the kitchen table Kenneth had formed his hand into a fist and brought it down hard onto the tablecloth with sunflowers on it, which masked a polished pinewood surface. “I don’t want Grape Nuts” he said with absurd emphasis, in a querulous voice that saddened and diminished them both.”
She stood just behind the safety line where the train pulled in, twenty-seven inches from the edge of the platform. Cozy in her white fleece jacket, nuzzled beneath a peach scarf that chased the line of her sculpted jaw, she was oblivious to the noises of the station around her.
Tabitha was different though. She seemed to like me without the assistance of alcohol, which was good because by the time I snuck her in, Dad was onto my antics and had locked up his stash.
I’d already been working at the site six months. The land had previously been used as a dumping ground, but with council permission and money, it was now a new green space with individual plots for members. The first task was to clear the land and prepare the soil. I spent months of Saturdays alongside other volunteers, removing utensils, plastic bags, old clothes and broken bottles from the ground. One day I dug out a telephone. I thought of all the buried conversations and wondered what had become of them.
Sadie and Riz. Riz and Sadie. It seems as if no one thinks of them as two individual people with separate thoughts and ideas anymore, but as one whole entity that lives and breathes in unity. They are an institution, their friends say. A perfect match, their families say. People ask themselves, are Sadie and Riz coming tonight? Or, do Sadie and Riz know about that? What will Riz and Sadie have to say about this?
Our relationship was on the 7th floor of the Hospital. They called us in, a doctor met with us and explained the situation. The relationship had sustained serious trauma and was now in life support. Now we had to choose, he said.
Hold on a minute. Start again. You’re at an art gallery, expecting some sort of critical explanation of a painting from an art student and you get a death threat instead? Maybe I was missing something or maybe I just needed to work harder at being good company. I leant in to inspect the painting more assiduously. Down at the bottom two men, who wouldn’t be warlocks at all as that would be childish, were hidden in the shade, one heaving forward as though fighting a mighty wind.
Desperate to escape poverty and drugs, they saved, borrowed, and stole to pay dangerous men to take them north, to a place where their children could be safe at school and not have to work for bad men with guns who sell drugs. Where they could work long hours for low pay but have something to send back home to their families.
Outside, the sun is glaring. The puzzle of tiny streets with tiny houses leads to the park. She finds her usual spot, a bench hidden behind the shrubberies that adorn the pond, makes herself comfortable, unscrews the bottle and drinks. One large, quick gulp.
Being crucified was nowhere near as painful as Sonny had always suspected it might be. True, whatever drugs his abductor had pumped into his veins were likely dulling the intensity of the experience somewhat, but watching the second stake being driven through his right hand, he felt no more than a peculiar ache as the bones split to make way for the iron.
When I walk through the orchards, I notice which apples seem starved of sunlight. These are the smallest apples, their color a uniform green-yellow, the branches of their tree unable to reach the next one over, leaves lacking in all but chlorophyll. This tree is weak, leaching what little it can when the others need nutrients too. I pull out the Swiss Army knife in my pants back pocket and begin to cut at the trunk, only specks of young bark flaking away from the mass. I cut until the sun leaves no more light for me to distinguish finger from bark – until everything fades to silhouettes and the moon reflects off the blade into my pupil, a piercing glare.
It felt a touch brutal. Like signing my own death warrant. And like they wanted me out. It wasn’t even a friend they were lining up to replace me. Maybe I should leave after all. In my head it was 50:50. In case I left – and just because – I’d been clearing out: old notes and notebooks, clothes, junk. Everything I had was junk.
My flat was small, top floor of a city tenement. What would otherwise be the living room became my studio, lit during the day by the industrial skyline through ill-fitting French windows which opened onto a tiny balcony. I slept in a box room just off the front door, and, when not painting, washing or cooking, spent the rest of my time in a white-walled annexe with only a sofa, laptop and bookcase. Such was my life. All else I’d left behind.
Sat opposite me on the other side of the room is a pale greasy teenager. Dark hair super-slick and sharply styled. He is dressed in a bright white shirt and brilliant blue tie. The trousers he wears have an all too neat crease down the middle. I suspect that this is their maiden voyage or that there is even the possibility that his mother has spent time ironing them to perfection.
Fry on a medium heat for 10 mins or until you start to feel good about yourself. Call mum because this cooking thing is really grown up and you’re proud of yourself. Also call grandparents and watch them struggle with technology.
I don’t think many people remember Lewis. Apart from the two or three people you’re really close to, you don’t remember anyone you went to school with, or even really care. At school, everyone has to play nice because for six hours you’ll probably share a class with them. But when they step into the real world they don’t need to play nice anymore. They don’t return the messages, and soon enough, you are left with a pitiful handful of people whose company you never quite grew out of.
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