1000words

where pictures make prose

Napkins, Teacups, Ribbon

JubileeNapkins

Mel has chosen Union Jacks. She’s hoping they’ll say street-parties and bunting; maybe infuse the atmosphere with some goodwill and warmth. She folds each one and lays it on a saucer.

“You can’t make them like us, you know, Mel,” Rob says, watching her smooth out the tablecloth as he prepares to leave for work.

“I know that,” she says. “I’m not trying to make them like us. I’m just trying to make it harder for them not to like Jack.”

She’s sure that they would rather not be coming to her house today. But it was made very clear to her when they moved to the village that “the Britherham Village School Mothers’ Meetings are held in strict rotation.

So this month, no-one can deny it’s her turn.

Teacups

When the doorbell stops ringing, Mel counts just seventeen. Which at least means everyone gets a teacup, and she won’t have to put out mugs.

Every woman milling round her living-diner is the mother of at least one at the village primary. They are all politely pleasant, and one of them gives Mel a noticeably genuine smile. “Hello there, I’m Steph,” she says, giving Mel’s hand an oversized shake. “Thanks for hosting. Here- I’ve brought cake!”

She passes Mel a huge jam sponge with a ribbon tied around it. It prompts a few ripples of “ooh!” in several conversations about how this child and that are doing this term.

No one asks Mel about Jack.

Mel goes to the kitchen to make tea, and stands staring at the small bottle on the high shelf while she waits for the kettle to boil. Her heart always sinks a little deeper when she sees Jack’s name on the label, looking so small next to 5MG TWICE A DAY.

And then she remembers Jack asking her if taking the pills will give him superpowers, and she’s smiling by the time she goes back to the dining room with tea.

There’s a sudden hush as she enters the room. Mandy, a mother from Jack’s class, is sitting with her lips pursed and her eyebrows raised. Mel sees Mandy’s eyes flit briefly to Jack’s school photo on the piano, as if checking that she hasn’t left her words behind on his face.

Mandy sees Mel watching her, and hastily rearranges her gaze onto the piano. “Erm- so who plays?” she says brightly.

“Jack,” says Mel, setting his name firmly in front of everyone along with the teapot. “He plays beautifully. His teacher says he’s very good for his age.”

Mel pours the tea. She tops up the pot. She pours more tea. And teacups are raised to faces, like bone-china masquerade masks.

Eventually Mel stops serving and hides behind her own cup for a while. She spots a chip on the rim, but it doesn’t matter. She knows that behind their masks, no one is looking at her. They’re looking at the little boy who disrupted the Class Assembly last week. Who once bit another child’s arm. Who has to be supervised in the queue for lunch.

Teacups clink on saucers, like awkward coughs in the silence.

And then:

“Bloody lovely napkins,” someone says.

Mel looks up. It’s Steph, the one with the genuine smile. She’s standing at the piano with a napkin in her hand.

“The Union Jack,” Steph continues, gazing at it thoughtfully. “You wouldn’t think it would work, really- all those stripes and sharp wedges crammed together, and all that fierce red and cool blue trying to share the same space.” She places her napkin on top of the piano, looking around at no one in particular. “But of course it does work, and it works very well. Just a little bit of space here and there, where it’s needed, and- voila! It’s bloody marvellous, don’t you think?”

Mel’s face begins to burn, and she stares down at her cup. It starts to feel like a small trophy in her hands.

And then someone says, “Well! Maybe it’s time we all had a piece of cake.”

And then someone else says briskly that “you know, we really ought to be gathering our thoughts for the Christmas Bazaar.” And there’s a gradual blooming of chatter, and a setting down of cups, and a searching of handbags for agendas and pens.

Mel smiles gratefully at Steph, and briefly raises her teacup in a small, silent toast. Steph winks, and then turns away to join a discussion about the raffle.

Mel walks over to the sponge cake on the table. She slips off the cheerful yellow ribbon and slices the cake, as generously as she can.

Ribbon

After they’ve gone, Mel doesn’t clear up. Instead she sits for a while just looking at what’s left: at her dining table, strewn with scrunched napkins and used cups.

It looks just like the table at 42 Pine Drive looked last month, and just like the table at 6 The Grove will look next month.

And for a moment, Mel closes her eyes, trying to feel just what it’s like to be them. No medication in her kitchen, no child therapists in her Contacts, and a sunny, clear future stretching before her like a yellow-brick road.

And then Mel’s eyes are wide open again. Because thinking that way doesn’t last long. It never does.

Mel hums as she begins to clear up the mess; stacking teacups, discarding napkins. The yellow ribbon from the cake is lying stretched across the table, climbing and twisting round saucers and spoons. Mel picks it up and carefully winds it around her fingers. She puts it in her pocket. She’s going to give it, she decides, to Jack.

She’s going to give it to him the next time that he’s running in happy circles round the village green.

She’s going to tell him to hold it up high as he runs, and to let it fly behind him, like a small, bright banner in the wind.

(Author: Jacki Donnellan. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Natalie Bowers. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Breaker

UntitledClouds swept in from the west and the sky turned to soot. There was some thunder, a long way off, that sent part-timers squealing for the shore, for pubs and warm clothes. All the more surf for me. When the rain came, the surface drummed a frenzy of white and grey. It washed the salt off my face. I sat astride the board, swaying with the heft of the Atlantic, and waited for the next wave.

It took me a while to spot him, but someone else had stayed. Fifty metres away, he rose and fell on the swell of water, looking over his shoulder, waiting for a wave worth catching. When I caught his eye, I nodded. He nodded back.

The rain yammered harder, growing to a roar. The big rollers started to pound the beach. He and I rode wave after wave in the relentless rain. We gradually moved closer to each other, though we didn’t talk. He was grizzled, his grey hair cropped close. He wore a rash vest and trunks, rather than a wetsuit, though it was out of season and cold. He rode an old school long board. I hadn’t seen one like it for years. We surfed in silence for an hour.

The waves grew bigger as the tide ran out, sloping up and flooding into monsters. He was a good surfer. He was a great surfer. He caught the big rollers easily, and held his balance as if he rode the board on rails. The sea sluiced out beneath him, washing into foam, and he sank into the water, then turned and paddled back into the break, diving beneath the oncoming waves. I matched him, wave for wave. Sometimes we caught the same water, and I tried to ride it longer than him.

Then came the leviathans. Three metres, four metres high. Honestly, if I’d been alone, I think I would have left for shore. But the old man was fearless, and I was ashamed to be beaten. So I stayed and surfed the monsters. I was riding dragons. Each time I surfed the wave out, I kissed my tiki and gave thanks to whatever dark gods watched over me. Then, with fear and resentment in my heart, colder now and muscles aching, I turned and paddled back to meet the old man. He only grinned and caught another wave. We rode the sea into evening.

As it grew darker, I found myself scared of the surge, the power, the unstoppable catapult of ocean rising against gravity. The waves grew bigger, enraged that we had dared to challenge them. I barely cared about the old man. I rode in fear of my life, but couldn’t bring myself to leave. I was being tested by the ocean. As the light leached from the sky, the waves became black holes, sucking up the sea. I could only outrun them for so long. Eventually, they caught me. I fell, and the Atlantic closed around me in a vice.

I can’t remember much of being underwater. Only the headrush rolling undertow, tumbled and barrelled in a chaos of whitewater and sand. Wave after wave smashed across me, until I thought my lungs would split. When I finally fought my way to the surface, the waves were easing. Heaving for breath, I looked around. Somehow, the rain had stopped. As though appeased by my failure, the waves fell into a steady roll, measured and calm. Night had fallen. The old man was gone. The old man, the man who could surf it all. He’d fallen too.

And he hadn’t come up.

My first thought, God help me, was that I had won.

I searched. I swear I searched. I checked the water, then the beach. I looked for his longboard, his shirt, his body in the breakers. I couldn’t find a thing. I stayed out until the last of the light had sluiced from the sky and only the pull of the waves told me where the sea exhausted itself on the shore.

I meant to ask for him in town, but I never did. And after that, I always meant to move away. I thought I’d travel back to Spain, or get a dry suit and move to Thurso. But I stayed. I’ve surfed the same beach every day since. I can’t even remember how long ago it happened. Out there, embraced by the cold swamping of the sea, I’m no longer sure where I am or what I’m doing. I stand on my board, holding my balance, and lean into the surge of the swell. The sunset fades into a rime of colour. The water slops beneath my board. It sounds like there’s someone with me in the dark, although I know, of course, that I’m alone.

(Author: Simon Sylvester. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Billy Plummer. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Lost Socks

lost socksMy orange Bic lighter flared against the end of my Newport and my eyes flicked to an astonishing sight. Hung in the Virginia evening sky as if it were some big-butt clothesline was a cloud in the shape of a men’s athletic sock. I tugged on my cigarette, but my eyes stayed glued to that cloud.

To my right, the door to the Rinse and Roll Laundromat clanged open and I hoped it wasn’t a customer who needed change or dryer sheets. My break was short enough—fifteen crappy minutes—and I hated when they needed something when I was on my time. Mara came out then, hauling a basket of clean clothes to her Honda, the beat-up jalopy a lookalike for its owner with dings in the driver’s door and the right bumper scraped and separated from the rest of the car. She dropped the pile in the trunk, tightened her messy ponytail and waved. “See you next week, Deedee.”

I nodded back and blew a few smoke rings for entertainment. “Yup, next week. I’ll be here.”

Without fail, Mara did her laundry every Wednesday at five o’clock. She slammed shut the trunk and eased into the car, her ponytail slipping loose again.

Through the laundry’s window, I spotted a woman with half her body leaning into a dryer, likely looking for a lost sock. Did she think the machine had some hidden compartment? As if. She could have at it as long as she didn’t go all the way in, shut the door and take the machine for a personal spin. A group of knuckleheaded frat boys had done exactly that last Saturday night and only my bluffed threat to call the police got them to leave. Even with my scuffed Converses standing on the right side of the law, I didn’t want any contact with the cops.

My gaze shifted back to the cloud. The sock in the sky looked like the same kind that Daddy wore when Lulu and I were kids, the same ones that our dryer hungered for. He used to joke with Mother that the dryer only liked the taste of his socks and none of ours. That was back when Daddy cared enough to make jokes. Back when he still worked for Vandermass Furniture as their top salesman.

After Vandermass fired Daddy, he stopped joking.

A cool April wind wheezed through the parking lot and I rubbed my arm, the left one still crooked around the elbow after it broke when I was twelve. It was Thanksgiving, a few months after Daddy left the furniture company, and he had tossed me across the dining room like I was a rag doll. He said he didn’t like the way I chewed my turkey. Declared I did it in an ungrateful style. I told him that I didn’t know how to chew any other way. If I’d have kept my damned mouth shut, my arm would be straight today.

And if one of Daddy’s socks went missing then, Mother felt it all over her body. One time he got so mad, he kicked in the dryer door.

Eventually, he left us, taking his obsession with missing socks, his punches and fists, his anger at the world, and at us, with him.

“We’re better off without him,” I said to Mother, though my throat burned as if the words had been soaked in bleach.

My sister, Lulu, nodded agreement. I was the older of the two of us and back then she always went along with what I said.

Mother never agreed and was never the same after Daddy left. She blamed his leaving on many things; her most ridiculous theory was in thinking that if she hadn’t lost so many of his socks then he wouldn’t have grown mean and left us. When dryer sheets first came out, she ran over to my apartment, crying, too, and said, “If these had been invented earlier I wouldn’t have lost so many of Daddy’s socks.”

I told her, “Dryer sheets aren’t a cure-all. They make clothes softer. They don’t prevent them from going missing.”

“I think you’re wrong.” Her eyes were set on some far-off place where things would have turned out different. It was a place where she and Daddy would have turned out different.

Customers at the laundromat often wondered where all their socks disappeared to.

I blew smoke rings in the air and said to nobody, “They go up to that giant sock cloud.”

Then I laughed, the kind of good hard laugh that shakes your bones and makes your eyes water. I wondered what Mother would say if I told her I’d found all of Daddy’s lost socks.

She’d surely ask me if I was using again, her voice quivering with worry.

And I wasn’t. I was clean and had my six-month chip as proof. After a few more puffs it was time to go back in, my break was over. I ground the cigarette under the heel of my sneaker and headed inside to check if any of the customers needed anything.

Someone always needed dryer sheets.

(Author: Sharon Kurtzman. Story: All Rights Reserved. Image via pixabay.)

We Make Use of What We Have

CastleShe’s taken many soldiers down the line, but he is the first who can speak French so fluently.

“Studied it in university,” he smiles, accent gratingly perfect. “Along with Latin and literature, and I graduated at the top of my class.”

She doesn’t even bother to try out her English with him.

They sneak through the forest in a winding way, like two deer keenly aware that hunters could be behind any gnarled tree. As a child she would pretend that there were elves and monsters in the woods, bent on kidnapping her until her father beat them back. Now there are worse things, she knows, worse things that have snatched her father away and she is helpless to claim him back. She is helpless, but she can have some measure of revenge when she takes soldiers down the line.

She’s taken gruff men, rough men, and scared men to the castle, an old thing crumbling like stale cake left out much too long. Its walls are ancient and ugly, but they shelter from the wind and eyes. She used to think it was haunted, when she was young. Oh, but she would trade anything to believe in ghosts again!

“We’ll have to wait until Paul returns at first light. He can take you across the border into Spain.”

“Excellent,” he nods, adjusting his bloated pack. “I could do with a rest!”

She cocks her head to the side, curls bouncing with the movement. “You may miss the next boat at this rate.”

“There’ll be another. Besides, ha ha,” he says, grin sheepish, “it’s my fault we’ve dallied.”

“Yes,” she mutters, “it is.”

When they finally set up their provisions beside a stone wall, they each—to the other’s surprise—produce flask from jacket pocket. His has brandy, he says with a tone of pride, the very same he’d left England with. Hers is barely full with the dredges of a Bordeaux found, she explains, in an abandoned barn during her last trip down the line. The bottle neck had been broken and jagged, but miraculously upright. It had only taken cheesecloth to strain the glass shards away.

“Say, that was a good idea!”

“We make use of what we have, don’t we?”

They clink their flasks together.

“If you leave the parachute here, I can destroy it.” She eyes the cumbersome pack on the ground. “I’ll make sure the Boche don’t find it.”

“I’ll keep it, thank you.” He gives her another sheepish grin. “My daughter wants it.”

“She is in the habit of jumping from planes as well?”

“Not at all! She’ll make a wedding dress, she tells me.”

Her eyebrows lift. “That’s… very clever.”

“Gets it from her mother, I assure you.”

“This castle,” she says, looking about their shelter, “was a present as well. A father gave it to his daughter on her wedding day.”

“Oh, is that so? A fine gift.”

“But I think a parachute is much more practical, these days.”

“Ha ha, indeed it is!” He nods to the tarnished ring on her left hand. “And what did your father give you?”

Her smile falters. “Nothing. He’s buried somewhere in Charleroi, we think.”

“Ah. I see.” He clears his throat, lifts his flask. “Cheers, then, to your father.”

“To your daughter,” she sighs, raising her meager wine. “May she have a lovely gown.”

He takes a long drag, wipes away a brandy droplet with the back of his arm. “We make use of what we have.”

“Yes, we do.”

(Author: Kris Weldon. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Natalie Bowers. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

The Promise of a Pink Moon

Pink MoonThe swollen sky was ribbiting out grit, stony purple patters against the thin, metal walls of the caravan.

Hazel closed her eyes, and pressed her face to the shabby suit hanging on the back of the closet door. She ran her fingers over the buttons, the lapels, taking deep breaths to ready herself.

A soft cough came from the bedroom, one that would soon grow, and gain, and fill the air like the baying, black waters that had swallowed their planet.

#

“The amazing paper skin girl!” Will read, uncrumpling the balled-up promo poster that had hit him on the shoulder. Hazel flushed –she’d been aiming for the bin- but he waved her ‘sorry’ away with an idle flick of his hand.

He reminded her of a fighter pilot from a romance novel; like someone who’d blow smoke in the face of the sun. He made her want to shield her eyes.

He smiled as he looked from her and back to the sepia photo he held in his hands. There, with her thick, spidery lashes and her Louise Brooks bob, a far cry from the wan-chewed-nail-wreck she’d become.

“So, you’re like a walking notepad?” he said, “You’re-”

“It doesn’t matter. I blew it,” Hazel said, thinking of the panel, of their stony faces as she etched a delicate lotus across her ribs with a hunting knife. Stupid to think that she’d stand a chance. “And what’s your trick?” She asked, tired of talking about herself; tired of herself.

“I hammer nails into my face,” he grinned. “I don’t have a specific talent. Hopefully being human will make me freak enough.”

He was right about that. They were the laughing stock of the cosmos; destroying their own planet and begging for quarter, now, in camps amidst the constellations.

“Well good luck,” she said as Will was called in, the words as empty as she felt. She’d lost her mother in the flood. Her sister. Everything. Luck was a brittle branch across a raging river, a tease, no help for the drowning.

But then the post arrived. An artist’s visa. A bunk on the circus steamer heading for Amaranth, the planet named after an undying flower.

And as she boarded – one amongst the buzzing dozens – she saw Will.

#

Hazel pulled her sword from its scabbard, and wrapped her fingers around the handle. On her knuckles were the words H.O.P.E and L.O.V.E; white welts on the pink of her skin, the letters plump as liquorice laces.

Will had engraved them into her hands a few days ago, using his nails. He’d been fit enough to sit up, then, and he’d tried to calm her as she raged on about how unfair it was.

“Of course it isn’t,” he’d said, grabbing her hands and making her promise as each letter took shape.

H-O-P-E.

L-O-V-E.

Both words the same.

#

“Tonight! Behold the marvels of the human anatomy! Her body a map, a canvas, a screen for the secrets of her soul!”

Hazel would raise her sword as the spotlight found her; use it to nick at her arms and her legs, her skin performing, blossoming, as soon as the blade touched it.

It didn’t hurt.

As careful as any calligrapher she’d etch her symbols, howls and whorls and primitive dots and dashes, then letters, words; the scratches of sound as humans clawed their way through history, transferred to the trunk of her being.

It didn’t hurt

The marks would have appeared with a nail file, let alone a sword, but Hazel knew about the thrill of the spectacle. She knew what the audience wanted as they sat crouched in the bleachers, their dim eyes fixed, their nacreous claws clacking and clapping together.

Will would massage her after each show, both of them squeezed into a tin bath around the back of the main tent, drinking smuggled hooch as the planet’s twin moons shone pink. The performance would make her memories bubble and blister, and Will would rub herb soap into her shoulders as she lanced them, keeping his mouth shut and his hands steady, even as he found the deep scars across her wrists; the ones that weren’t art. The ones that had hurt.

#

“One more time?” Will said, as Hazel knotted his tie and smoothed down her black dress. She helped him down the steps of the caravan, pausing at the bottom to loop the mask around her ears, over her mouth.

They’d known the risks about Amaranth before they’d arrived. Hostile environment. Adaptability. Storms. “A small percentage could be affected.”

It never occurred to Will to be careful. He thought the universe would change to fit him, even now, with his lungs full of ground-glass-dust that left him gasping for each and every breath.

Selfish, she’d called him, irresponsible. But she knew he was a chancer. He’d taken a risk on her; the strange sullen, girl who pulled away from him whenever he got too close. He’d coaxed her back into herself, reminded her that freedom – from worry, from self-protectiveness, from numbness – had consequences, but that it was worth it; that life was to be breathed in, lived, no matter what.

#

“You set me on fire, my paper girl,” Will said as she wheeled him into the empty marquee, trying to hold back the coughs that made his whole body buck.

“Yeah, yeah,” Hazel smiled, but it hurt her to see him looking so old, and weak.

“Well, some you win, some you lose,” Will joked, but Hazel could see that he was shaking.

“We won,” she said, understanding the inseparable pairing of joy and sorrow. One would die without the other. All or nothing, always. The odds Will liked best.

He smiled and pulled her forward; ran his finger across the skin over her heart; wrote her name there, and his. She kissed him on the lips, stood back as he bowed his head, waiting.

She raised her sword.

(Author: Nicola Belte. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: lrargerich. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Spire

Hire PurchaseThe cameras revealed nothing out of the ordinary that day.

When the offsite video feed was reviewed following the event there were no unaccounted for deliveries to either the lobby or the loading dock and no persons of note seen entering or leaving the building. No unusual seismic activity was recorded by the geologic monitoring facility in the area. The foundation and primary structural supports had been inspected only eight months prior and reported as having no significant abnormalities. It was as if the edifice had simply collapsed in on itself for reasons neither the building owners nor the government agency investigating the incident could explain.

Jenn was on the forty-seventh floor when it happened.

She had stayed late that evening to finish up some work during the hours when the office was empty and quiet. It had been overcast and gray when she left her apartment that morning and by the time she arrived at the building the wind had picked up and a light drizzle had begun to fall. The afternoon brought with it a sudden about-face in the weather with the sky transforming to a brilliant, cloudless blue that reflected the sun making it appear impossibly bright; now the enormous golden orb was slipping slowly below the horizon line leaving streaks of deep orange and purple in its wake.

She loved being alone in the building. Everyone was gone now except for a handful of custodial staff and it felt like the whole place was her own private castle turret, as if she were some modern-day Rapunzel. She would wait for it to get dark and then walk up to the giant glass panes that looked out at the city. The lights from the high-rises glowed over everything and she would stare out from those massive windows and squint her eyes, letting it all bleed together until her head began to feel fuzzy and it seemed like she could just float away into that glow and let it carry her off across the night sky.

No matter how many times she witnessed this scene it was always magical. There was something so indescribably wonderful about it that it made her feel giddy; it was the way Christmas morning had felt when she was a kid, that flutter in the stomach after just waking up. She had actually tried to have her schedule permanently changed to an evening shift, but her boss wouldn’t go for it, though he never seemed to object to her staying late as long as he didn’t have to pay her overtime.

It was a little past nine o’clock and Jenn had finished everything she needed to do for that day and had even started in on the outline for a future project, though she had stopped herself before she got too far so she would still have a reason to stay late tomorrow. The night sky was so clear that she could actually make out several constellations, which was normally difficult due to the persistent cloud of smog hanging above the city, not to mention all that light pollution that she adored so much.

She stared up at Orion the hunter, shifted her gaze over to the big and little dippers, and then looked out at the golden towers of light all around her. Jenn wondered how many people were looking back at her from their own floors high above the street where the cars and pedestrians moved along in miniature.

Somewhere outside she heard the wind gust past the side of the building in a barely audible whoosh that sounded almost like a sigh and suddenly she wished that she could stay there in that moment forever. Jenn slowly closed her eyes until the lights began to stretch and bend, melding together and streaking into one another. The feeling came over her then, that sense of serene calm like the first moments of sleep where reality starts to slip and dreams begin to invade and take over.

She let herself slump to a sitting position, her knees gently buckling as her back slid down against the glass. She rested the side of her face against the cool pane and continued to gaze out, her eyes narrowed down to slits now letting in only tiny glimmers of light.

The last thing she remembered before drifting off was the whisper of the wind as it sighed past the building again and vanished into the radiant glow from her beautiful spires of light.

(Author: Peter Emmett Naughton. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Dirk Knight. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

A Sense of Proportion

BrickMy boy has no sense of proportion. More of the same, I think, as I watch him assemble another monument of giant Duplo blocks dwarfing the huddle of minifigures on a knobbly town green. I feel for them, the Lego people. Why always giant structures and parade grounds and triumphal arches? Why do Sam’s worlds look like they’re designed by Albert Speer? Why is he such a tool?

I raise this with Netta when she’s back from work and she says I have too much time on my hands. I can tell from her sigh that the conversation’s over, so don’t push it; she’s been feeding and clothing us long enough now that we both know where I stand. I cook, wash up, then watch the boy for signs of megalomania as she plays with him. Then we sleep.

In the morning, I’m flicking through the index of one of our manuals on operating the modern boy. Dr. Skvorecky (mid-70s purple cover, beard) tells me I have to understand the boy’s coming from an animal place. I should imagine that he can imagine only dominance and subjection. I try this, rolling the words to see if they roll anywhere towards helpful, while Sam hammers on the MDF of the side table with the Big Noise toy hammer that makes a big noise when you hammer. He keeps hammering until I pacify him with Lego and stretch out on the sofabed to watch him build.

When Sam starts to explain his approach to architecture, I’m surprised. He’s not, in general, a great explainer. I’m just building what I feel, Dad, he says. I start to reply, but he holds up a hand. Look, he says. In empathising with the Lego people, rather than me, vis-à-vis the monumentalism of my work, you’re really projecting your fears about the scale of your presence relative to mine in this household. It’s like Skvorecky says. It’s ok that you feel threatened, but you’ve got to let me stretch out before you rein me in. And didn’t you say you thought Karl-Marx-Allee was pretty cool that time? He’s wordier than usual. That and the fact I have to angle my head back 10 degrees to look him in the eye is what makes me pretty sure I’m dreaming. I take it on the chin, in the dream. You’ve got me, I say. I did say that about Karl-Marx-Allee that time, so maybe it’s down to me.

Sam’s pterodactyl scream wakes me up. He’s agitating to go to the park, but doesn’t need to be quite so insistent. I’m restless, it’s not raining, and the laundry will keep, so once we’re both properly dressed I drag him up the hill on his scooter to the private playground in front of the newbuilds. Thirty seconds after we get there, I’m in danger of losing my voice. SAM! I shout as he does that thing where he hangs back off the roundabout and touches one foot down every time he goes past me. SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM! Why does he do this kind of thing? I worry that I’ve encouraged him with some look or word. I don’t remember doing that, but it’s possible. Maybe I was distracted. What I do know is that I don’t want to have to tell Netta about his puppy fat greasing the innards of the roundabout, so, next time round, I apply some drag, and feel the eyes of the playground on us as I wrestle him over to one of the benches. When his glasses fall off, I put them back on so he can see what he’s scowling at. He’s on edge. I try to divert some of his misplaced energy into a new activity, but can’t stop him from scrambling over a bigger but fragile-looking kid as he announces he’s going straight to the top of the mini cargo net. It’s ugly.

“You really should stop him doing that”. A woman’s voice. Tall, proper overcoat, same face as the kid, stretched out. “It’s not right”.

“He didn’t mean anything”

“That’s not the point.”

“No,” I say.

“So, what will you do about it?”

“I don’t think I’ll be doing any…”

“I see.”

I feel a flood of love and protectiveness towards my boy. Some anger, too, tightening up round my heart. I deal with it by lecturing. I pretend to be Skvorecky, working on the beetle-brow and the precise form of words, which I almost get right. I mention the animal place. The transgressive act. She looks at me. “You’ve got to keep a sense of proportion,” I say. I know it’s a weak ending.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Means no real harm done. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

She mentions that there’s a combination lock going on the gate, and I say “Well, whatever” while trying not to clench too hard around Sam’s undersized fingers.

We leave it at that.

Back home we hit the freezer for ice cream sodas and work together on a medium-size monument, a cenotaph or a regenerative sculpture in a former mining town. I emphasise human scale, Lego-human scale, but I’m not sure he quite gets it. On reflection, I’m not sure he gets the idea of scale at all. Maybe I’ve been reading too much into it. I tell him I sometimes worry about him, but I don’t mean anything by it. I’m just worried, and want things to turn out right. I tell him, too, that I love him.

We work on the monument on and off until Netta gets back, and then we stop.

(Author: Tom Ryan. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Natalie Bowers. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

Morning Swim

Morning SwimBetsy shrugged off her flannel robe and dropped into the icy grey water of the Hampstead Heath pond. The cold hit every nerve-ending, burning her skin, and chasing the air out of her lungs. She relished the pain; a daily ritual that reminded her she was alive, that she could still feel. She adjusted her goggles and set off into the thick mist, a few quick kicks of breaststroke to get her blood flowing. She couldn’t see the steps at the far end. It was even more desolate than normal. Somehow it seemed fitting.

Her alarm had woken her at 5:30. She’d dressed quickly, crept across the landing past Albert’s room, and down the stairs. She’d fed the demanding cat, put the kettle on and prepared Albert’s breakfast. One egg, 30 seconds past soft-boiled; two slices of thick white toast, buttered to the edges and cut into triangles; one cup of tea, two sugars, strong and not too milky. 5:58 and not a minute later, time enough for him to put the radio on, ready for the headlines at the beginning of the Today programme.

“Here you go love,” she’d said to her husband as she’d elbowed open the door of his bedroom, and carried in the tray. Albert had sat up and turned on his bedside lamp.

“Toast’s bit dark. You fiddled with settings on th’ toaster?”

When would he realise that those would be the last words he ever said to her?

She’d picked up her carpetbag, unusually heavy this morning. Seventy-two years and her worldly possessions had been reduced to the amount she could carry. She’d stepped over the threshold, closed the door gently behind her, and hadn’t looked back.

Her body was beginning to forget the cold as she took the last three strokes to the far end of the pond. She turned neatly, pushed off hard from the side, glided as far as she could before pulling her arms once more through the still water. In the summer months it was often crowded, even at this time, but on a damp October morning, she was virtually guaranteed to have the pond to herself.

The lengths floated by, one after the other; the rhythm easy this morning, each stroke one closer to freedom. She had thought she would feel more than this. Guilt? Sorrow? Grief at the loss of fifty years of marriage? But there was none of those, only the slightly-green water on her skin and the cool misty air in her lungs.

The question was: what next? Where were she and her carpetbag going? She had only thought as far as packing, and the pond. She had wondered briefly about going to stay with her sister Mabel, but that would be the first place he would look. She couldn’t face his pity, or him accusing her of ‘having a moment’.

“Stop being silly Betsy, just come home, why don’t ya?” She wouldn’t put herself through that. Or him for that matter. She wanted to leave both of their dignities intact.

His sister Elsie was out of the question, they’d never been particularly close, and she couldn’t just turn up on her doorstep having walked out on her marriage.

No. It had to be a place all of her own, for the first time in her life. Somewhere busy, with lots of other people around. A flat above a shop perhaps. She could help out in the mornings, earn a bit of pin money to top up the pension she’d just started drawing. It wouldn’t be easy, but she’d get by. She’d never led a fancy life, and wasn’t expecting to now she was in her later years. She’d been putting a little aside for months, hidden in a sock in the knife drawer. Ten pounds here, a fiver there, change from the shopping when she thought Albert wouldn’t notice. She had felt desperately guilty at first; it was effectively stealing, but Betsy had tried to rationalise it as back-pay for the years of house-keeping.

Albert had never wanted her to work; she’d given up her secretarial job soon after they got engaged. They’d both assumed that there would be babies for her to look after, but they never came. By the time they’d resigned themselves to being childless, it seemed too late for her to rekindle her career. Her job had been fifty years of getting dinner on the table and keeping the house spotless.

Betsy’s lungs were starting to ache, and her legs stiffening up with the effort. She glanced up at the clock; she’d been in the water fifty-two minutes. Another five and she would have time to get changed to catch the number 173 towards the West End. Or she could swim another ten and catch the 326 in the opposite direction. Which was it going to be? Where would she start her new life?

(Author: Kate Muggleton. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Jenny Downing. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

How to Cross the Street Without Dying

Chalk OutlinesHer hightops hopscotch between outstretched arms and legs, trying not to let dirty soles touch faded white limbs. Chalk outlines of neighborhood boys that fell in motion. White stains on pavement, like a pictorial teaching kids how to cross a street. On her way home from school, they are upside down, like krumpers on heads, legs waving goodbye.

A reporter stands on the corner and speaks into a camera about robbing youth. The neighborhood’s abuzz with the news of crimes that happen after dark. Old ladies scuttle onto flaking porches and tsk tsk when they see her walk by. Poppop says, He fell first. She’s not sure if he means that he’s the first chalk outline on her way to school, or, if she’s next.

She’s got no one to ask. She only has Poppop’s word for it and the empty top bunk for the last four nights. The other two are names that flit about the older kids’ conversations, the ones that skid off when they see Marco’s little sister coming. She matches the echoed names to a freckled-bridge nose crinkled at an off-color joke, and, the other, just the phrase, Tell your little sister to fuck off, under dark shades and flip-backed cap.

Everybody repeats, He fell into the wrong crowd. Wrong crowd. Wrong crowd. Like it was a choice on a multiple-answer test. Like Marco should have turned his pencil over to erase the darkened bubble, picked again.

Every time they cross over, her friend, Cherrie, says don’t look down, like they’re walking a tightrope. She places feet carefully, never looks up. Her gaze retraces the three boys, searching for any detail in the scribble to determine how she’s related. She reads the dead, deciphers their lesson on how to cross the street without dying.

(Author: Kim Drew Wright. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: el Buho nº30. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)

The Riverkeeper

RushesThe man lay in the long grass and watched the seal nose up the river, bolder on each new tide. It searched out the deep pools where the salmon quivered to rid the sea lice from their flanks. The fish felt him there and surged upstream. On past the fishermen and the lures that fluttered through the water stained by black peat hills. A week of shrugs and empty handshakes and the man knew what had to be done. The row boat was shouldered into the darkness. The lamp held low over the water. Behind it, an anchor raised in a hand shaking with hate.

 

(Author: Mark Eccleston. Story: All Rights Reserved. Photographer: Julian Povey. Image: Some Rights Reserved.)