Maybe that was why Franny liked Dot. He had roughly cut hair and used to smoke rolled cigarettes that smelled like damp leaves and thunderstorms. He called me Topper, which I didn’t like very much, and never made eye contact with anyone other than bus drivers, which Fran thought was quirky but Jack and I strange.
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You bump into them on the stairs, in the lift, while picking your post from the letterbox. Some you’ve known for years. You say hello, ask about their grandchildren, or their pets. Some still avoid your gaze but they will keep the door open for you if they see you carrying groceries.
The first time I saw the spider, I was two bites into a midnight bowl of store-brand generic Cheerios. Movement caught my eye, something fast and primal, flashing behind years-old jars of pasta Lisa had left behind.
I get to school early because I want to hop on the tall swing set before anyone else, the shiny blue seat waiting to carry me away.
I stop dead, startled. Her image catches my eye, small and desolate, staring out from the laminated paper. A monochrome photograph with a screaming pink border – it’s hard to miss. Someone has neatly attached the poster to a street light opposite the river, so that anyone walking toward Stratford centre will see it.
For a country that prides itself on lemons, we only have three groves in the town. One is perched high above the cliff road, the tree roots sprawling over the brick wall. The other is a private residence, and you can only glimpse it from the right side of the house, the lemons flashing like orbs of light.
Voices rasping, eyebrows beetling, they declared: “This is it. Your lives shall be ever foul. You think yourselves valuable. Cogs in the machine. But when one of you falls, ten spring from the dirt in your place. What They owe you, They shall never give you.”
We have our happy routines: Job Centre on a Monday, Wetherspoon’s on a Thursday, kebabs on a Friday at the start of the month, then beans with a flipped egg to garnish when the giro runs dry. The boys keep the kitchen clean and I do the lounge. The bathroom is no man’s land – it’s functional, but you wouldn’t want to be trapped there for longer than needs be.
Though the Outcasts were apprehensive of The Towers, few could resist the strange longing they compelled. Nobody should hold themselves to blame for this, the Ultras taught. Lusting after the cold and distant reminders of their loss of paradise was no sin provided each Outcast understood the shining obelisks for the harbingers of hell they truly were.
In this way, Carl Trampler’s military career ended in a less than honourable discharge. And in those days a discharge like that could mark you for life. You would never get any decent kind of job, like at GE in Schenectady, or even with the Post Office.
The letter fae the agency is burnin a hole in ma poakit. Should ah huv telt her about it? Ah think mibbe ah should’ve, but then ah remember the way she’s been puttin me doon and how she’s been bang oot ay order. Nae chance.
I once put a suit that cost as much as your car in the bin. The jacket had a bleach splatter just below the breast pocket. It had been a really unique shade of blue. Kind of like my mother’s eyes I would tell people, even though I couldn’t remember what colour eyes she’d had. […]
My eyes fly open. I look up. And up. And up. I cannot see the ceiling. There is no ceiling. There’s nothing above me but void and I grip at my sheets to hold on, suddenly sure that if I let go, I will fall upwards and into that looming, gaping emptiness–
My plucking had gotten very bad by then and I was starting to wonder if my flesh was trying to speak to me. It would mutter to me, not only at night, but also in the day, when I was listening to customer’s voices. The tweezers were much too harsh to use on my eyelashes and so these I removed, gently, by pulling them out with my forefinger and thumb. I pulled up my jumper to look at my stomach, noting how my hips jutted out at sharp angles, how my breasts slumped, barely filling the cups of my bra. There was satisfaction in the harsh curve of my collar bone and the spareness of my skin.
He always comes in wearing a towel, the two edges tucked into themselves to stay up, just below his chest. Water slides down his body, drips onto the floor. I feel he does this on purpose, attempting somehow to make me feel ashamed of my pudginess, my post-sleep sweatiness, contrasting his gym-bought body with my own.
I saw myself shrug off a cardigan, Alec’s t-shirt and the floaty trouser things I substituted for pyjama bottoms – grimacing slightly at the state of myself – and when I took off my underwear, my skin came off with it.
Helen’s room fuzzed into focus as my eyes adjusted to the painfully bright lights. A water glass on a bedside table, a monitor whirring gently on top of a trolley, Aunt Janet sitting in position; Helen lying in a propped up hospital bed, her breaths ragged and rasping; and an empty chair waiting for the next sentry.
I killed my parents’ beloved Golden Retriever. I didn’t murder her, but simply wore her down, did her in. That’s what they tell me.
It feels like the night they first met, ten years ago, at this very bar. When she last saw Théo in person, he was twenty-nine and she was eighteen. He was a businessman and she was an au pair. The lines on his forehead and cheeks have deepened, and there is grey at his temples. Emma wonders how different she looks to him. The emerald nose stud has gone. She has lost the roundness of her cheeks. The thin skin around her eyes has started to crinkle when she laughs. But she can apply makeup better now, almost as compensation.
“Yeah, you fucked up,” Kyle, his foreman, said as water squirted out of the copper pipe. “You’re practically forty and you can’t solder a joint?”
That’s not much better.”
Every day the dabbawallas ferry about 170,000 dabbas across the island city. Their accuracy in delivering the right lunchbox to the right person with only a colour coded symbol on the dabba is a subject of research in many business schools across the globe. For most of the dabbawallas are illiterate, yet their accuracy is rated as a sigma six or at 99.99%, which means one error in six million, on par with some of the world’s best organisations.
For a brief period, it seemed my parents’ marriage might survive my dad’s fling with the Yugoslavian manicurist from the salon above his shop.
After several attempts, I realized that it’s impossible to describe an experience one hasn’t lived through. The third line was contained within the experience itself; it was enveloped in numbness, and the poetry would only be revealed when the experience was described.
I wasn’t trying to get into anything serious when I responded to the ad. I mean – I was serious, but I was serious about not being serious.
Our father had a mantra he used to deliver with the zeal of a revivalist preacher: My Daughters Will Become Educated Women.
The things dehydration does with you. It prevents you from forgetting, maintaining the lust for water at the centre of your field of vision every second of your waking hours. And then when you put your head down on the sandy rough ground beneath your feet and sense your mind drifting away somewhere to a place of sweet rest and blissful emptiness, after barely two minutes have passed you find yourself dreaming of water again, of vast oceans and seas and lakes and bountiful life-giving rivers and you’re awake once more, dry and solitary.
The canal tapered away from us, dappled with light in the hazy afternoon sun, relentlessly straight and level. I’d developed the habit of gazing at it, hoping the sense of distance it created could take my mind somewhere else.
But Venice is different.
You want to be jostled among the crowds, jump on and off the waterbuses, amble down alleyways, over footbridges, take a turn too many and get lost only to have the delight of finding your way back.
After this routine had been established, she began stressing the dangers of the world to Tommy: Don’t run, we could slip and crack our head open! Careful in the bath, we could drown. Make sure we chew our food properly or it’ll get wedged in our throat and we’ll choke.
If Rex walked with any urgency at all, it was because the evening was getting on and, should he fail in his quest to locate his son (and he was nearly certain he would), he wanted to get back to his own lonely existence before it got too late. There wasn’t the urgency of the father who fears his child is in danger; Paul was risk-averse to a fault.
But he wouldn’t answer me then. He was still panting from nausea, like a dog in heat. The absence within him filled my belly, plunging me down into a borderless uncertainty. When there was no more room for silence, he instructed me to collect the wheelbarrow and supplies from the shed down by the cattle grid. I ran back towards the house, my boots slipping against the wet grass. It had been raining hard that morning, and the night had a heavy dankness about it, the air plump with its lingering residue.
If you seek ghosts, winter is best. Choirokoitia when the sun shines enough to warm, not heat the air, and tourists with their many tongues cursing the climb and climate have not yet begun their pilgrimages. Here you need your imagination.
Most people have left, but a few stragglers remain. The party began to dissipate maybe an hour ago – Kylie isn’t sure. She checks her watch: four thirty-five. She vaguely remembers Doug leaving. It didn’t seem to matter by then that she didn’t know anybody here. They were drinking and talking and everybody was friends. Doug had introduced her to his friend and then soon she was talking to somebody else, and then somebody else again. And the drinks were coming and the cocaine was being shared and it was just fun.
Yesterday it rained from lunchtime. The whole of the previous fortnight, we’d been sweating in the mid-thirties and so we were dressed only in light clothes for the journey. The sky didn’t seem to take any enjoyment from its performance. By the time we got to the hotel, we were shrunken with cold.
The man behind the desk had introduced himself as Albert Ryman the first time he and Haytham met, and Haytham hadn’t believed it for a second. He was tall and thin, with white hair and black glasses that framed his face. He always wore impeccable suits. But it was all a little too perfect: the hair too well-maintained, the jacket and shirt too complimentary, and the tie knot always impossibly symmetrical. His glasses weren’t crooked in the slightest. Everything about him seemed cultivated, right down to the pretence of humanity.
As the overwhelming underdog, and the American, the crowd was rallying for him. Now approaching four hours, the match had matured, building like tantric sex or ostinato music composition. Twice a woman had legit screamed out prior to the conclusion of a point, prematurely anticipating its end; once just before a phenomenal backhand stroke from Rodrigo which went crosscourt zipping right past Tristan’s eyes seeming to emit heat and hum like a missile. Tristan was right to let it fly, it had landed just out.
I’m not sure, but I think the phrase “Gloves Off” may have originated in hockey. In a demonstration of perverse chivalry, the first step in the all-too-common hockey brawl is that the opposing players will throw down their gloves prior to trying to cold-cock one another. This may have been due to the fact that early hockey gloves had stiff little edges that could possibly poke an eye out and clearly, beating the shit out of someone does not include poking out an eye.
The Earth was beset by a great psychic panic. We have seen them before. The dancing plagues. The birth of Christianity. Suddenly, the things we knew were uncertain. Worse, in fact; what we knew, we knew to be false. But what new things we needed to know, those things we call the truth; we didn’t know those yet.
Through the open door he can hear the clutter of cutlery being pushed into the dishwater basket – forcefully, with annoyance, just as everything Wanda does. In the background, KLW3 and Dolly Parton’s nasal drawl praises ‘The Coat of Many Colors’ her mama made for her. He can hardly picture Miss Big Boobs Parton in any coat, never mind in one of many colours, but Wanda likes the sentimental stuff.
Although they never met in person, I often spoke to Alex about my austere Presbyterian upbringing, the type of ideals that the family pursued and how hard it was for an outsider, not born and bred in Middlebury, population 513, to be accepted by the local community. You were either in or out – there was no middle point. According to an unspoken agreement, the Middlebury community held monopoly on moral values and any other lifestyle was sinful and condemnable. Rooted in traditions and immutable ways, life seemed to move in circles there and no one expected any changes.
Those who were home either waved at me—some ladies even sending flirtatious kisses)—or ignored me, eyes fixed on television screens or laptops. Many were out though, and each suite was a stage on which I imagined a life story playing out. The props were comic, sad, intriguing, revealing or puzzling. The stuff folks collect is surprising. Suggestive.
The rain started on Olivia’s second round of houses, and reached its most torrential by her fifth. That day she walked more than she had ever done in her entire life, knocked on countless doors, spoke to hundreds of strangers.
She parked up on the side of the road. It was already dark – quarter after seven. The only things that lit the neighborhood were lampposts and windows from seemingly lively houses. She made sure the shadows camouflaged her car, certain nobody would remember seeing it there the next day.
As the afternoon deepens, and the shadows get longer, the Parrot watches as the chickens start to come out to peck at the dry ground of the courtyard and the near-baked grass in the garden. Signor Lucan watches too, ready to shoo any bird that tries to nibble at his prize tomatoes.
I was in no condition to be driving an eighteen-wheeler. The medication kept me tethered to the world around me, but rendered heavy machinery out of the question. So when the dispatcher called me for an international run, I flushed the pills.
Dad built Mom out of pipe cleaners when she died, sat her on the kitchen counter in fuzzy green dress and wire eyes. Took him days; barely three foot of her, starch-stiff ragdoll on the kitchen side but enough, big enough for you to press your head between her nylon bristle legs, small twin scars on your forehead where the wires catch.
“He’s always late, Lord. Always!” he complained to The Man Upstairs. His complaints went unanswered, as they always did, but it still made him feel good to lodge them. “It shows a complete lack of respect for the process.”
Robert Buckley looked around his bedroom for the last time. He thought he would feel sad, but everything inside him told him he was making the right decision. He latched his suitcase closed, annoyed that he couldn’t find one that stood out less, and set it by the door.
My mother bears the mark of the jellyfish. On the soft, pale inside of her right arm. It grows fainter as she grows older, but it is still just about discernible: a round stamp on the wrist and a single long tentacle, with a curl at the end, reaching almost to the elbow. It could be mistaken for a question mark or a fishing hook.
I knew we had been in the car for hours but time blurred. All I remember is the pinch of pain as my teeth bit away the skin on my left thumb.
The world ends while she is sitting in a doctor’s office.
The smell of antiseptic and cheap plastic furniture singes her nostrils as she breathes it in. She hears the fish tank burble and a patient cough into a face mask. An outdated magazine sits abandoned in her lap; she rubs her thumb against the sharp edge of its peeling corner.
The next best thing to Santa Claus is the Tooth Fairy. As inconvenient as wobbly teeth go, a very shaky tooth means another visit from the Tooth Fairy, and that means extra money! Even better, the older you get, the more generous the Tooth Fairy seems to be. Last year, after you turned 10, she bumped up the value of your tooth from a pound to two.
My mother was never the same after we buried Scott. When he died, soon after turning thirteen, she wept that it was too soon. Wept he was too young. Wept that no parent should have to bury their child. It was torture for us to watch him waste away, to know he would never again find peace in life. The cancer was in his bones.
The herring did not come. October brought damp weather and the salt barrels filled to the brim waiting for the hasty lads peering from the lookouts along the coast. The harvest time ordinarily meant the currents would be teeming with fish. None came this year. The boys kept watch atop the towers for the first signs of the fish. They kept watch through into Martinmas. Alas, the hissing flashes of the shoals thinned and died.
The route C3 timetable still hangs in the bus shelter: charts of undistinguished places linked by obsolete departure times. Admirals Court, Bishops Rise. Six and forty-two minutes past every hour. Weekend services operated by Travels with Bonzo Ltd. Panes of aged glass filter the light sour yellow and the early autumn shadows seem weighted with damp.
I look from the curtain-less window to the couch where she is lying and then back to the window again; I don’t know why she is still here. She did warn me this would happen. Not this, exactly, but something like this. She used to joke with me, she would say, “If I died, you’d be fine… you’d have some other woman here in no time.
When I come to, I am under the impression that I am having fun, or, at least, that I had been having fun at some previous point in the evening. She is underneath me and I am hard and an active participant. I don’t know what that means. I don’t even remember her coming back to my place. She is very skinny like she doesn’t eat at all; her hair is jawline short and she is only naked from the waist down. She is still wearing her tank-top and bra. I figure out what is happening and I am very confused. I just go with it.
“They would never do it now. It wouldn’t be allowed.”
The paper was delicate between the swollen joints of my mother’s fingers. She flipped the worn pages, and then her gaze caught on the photograph there. A small, tender smile lit her face.
Strips of moonlight were trying to help me find my phone in the disorientating black, and my fingers managed only to disturb the ornamental steroid cream that now lives behind the bedside table.
There was one unspoken rule: don’t go beyond the gates. If we did go out and cross the main road, we’d find ourselves in the village that had been consumed by our locality. The one time when, consumed by adventure, we’d try to sneak past the sleeping security guard at the gate, Ma’d spotted me on the way back from the high school across the main road she taught at.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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