Short Story of the Month – ‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ by Maggie Harris

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ by Maggie Harris which features in her short story collection Writing on Water.

Writing on Water Maggie HarrisMaggie Harris’ short story collection Writing on Water  is informed by the Caribbean, where she was born, and Britain where she has lived as an adult, and through them, the wider world. Issues of belonging and migration feature, but alongside these are growing interests in voice, narrative, gardening and botany, music and family. There are both UK and Caribbean voices in these tales, told by children, migrants, mothers, grandparents.

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

Sugarcane for My Sweetheart

Maya is dreaming of kitchens. New kitchens. Not open to the air, wood-smoke kitchens; not kerosene stoves or coalpot kitchens. New kitchens. Kitchens of pine and oak and beech. Kitchens with solid wood doors and MDF shelves, kitchens with laminate and chrome, Mediterranean tiles, Victorian pulleys, cork and slate floors, quarry tiles.
In her dreams she enters those kitchens as she has taken to entering all those showrooms on lunchtime Sundays: with the slow excited steps of a traveller arriving. Eyes stray past customs, the loitering salesman, the swing doors past Immigration. Gleaming glass-fronted doors hold her gaze like shimmering tarmac. They draw her in like mirrors, framing the new arrival. Excitement is mixed with fear and longing, slowed by the shuffling progress of the queue.
Her kitchen measurements are clutched tight in her hands like a passport; over and over she checks them: the permit, the invitation letter, traveller’s cheques crisp and new in their plastic sleeve.
She has reason to feel afraid. On her return from the island the eyes of the officer had scalded Maya. They highlighted her like a spotlight, running her up and down as if they could see right through her. A chorus had risen from the queue like the tide, washing over her with a high Atlantic wave. In this dream her mother is by her side, her spirit hands even more frantic in death, fluttering a British passport that only Maya could see, tickets and boarding passes scattering on the desk like the plucked feathers of a broiling bird.
In her dream the showrooms stretch: long corridors of gleaming perfection. Miles and miles of shining flooring glide her on its conveyor belt, kitchen after kitchen smiling like models, preening their leaded light and bubble-glassed doors, their plaited cornices like wooden pigtails, their panels in Bermuda Blue, Nevada Blond, Pine Forest. Her dreams have kept up with fashion, solid pine and farmhouse oak that had once beamed their rustic Englishness, Middle England Agas nestling securely like the Cotswold Hills, no longer feature. Now chrome and beech and Shaker kitchens lure her, will her to run her fingers on their smooth fine grain, their granite and Corian worktops combining style and utilitarian twenty-first century designs.
The salesman disappears. Other dreamers have re-commissioned him; they sit in the conservatory-style office with their dream kitchen coming alive on a computer screen, Mr and Mrs Doggy nodding, car-window heads beaming. Their Cheshire smiles fill Maya’s vision and suddenly she is horizontal, being whisked along white corridors with ceilings of ceramic hobs, their halogen spotlights steaming her face like Granny’s Vicks. Perspiration is running down her cheeks, the small of her back. The steward has opened the aircraft door and Maya is descending. Heat washes over her like invisible rain. Tarmac ripples in the haze. The redcap boys run with their luggage trolleys. Water runs down her back. She is a dog in the shadows, turning over and over in the liquid heat, an insistent voice riding over the surf.
‘Maya! Maya!’
Denver is nuzzling his face into her neck. His hand rests on her hip. Her eyes flutter into a still-dark morning. She senses his body wakening. He is not yet, fully. In a minute he will be, and remember. He’ll turn away then, face his own wall, summon the energy to rise, get ready for work.
Beneath her the towel is damp and hard. Many washes in this limescaled water has wrung any softness out. She thinks of the towels in Uncle Danny’s bathroom, the white fleshy softness, her body cosseted, white tiles reflecting her face. There was no limescale back there. How she loved to hang the washing out then! Hook them on the line, watch them dance like kites in the wild wind, sing in a soft breeze. She had washed everything in sight, tea cloths, Uncle Danny’s clothes, her own. Just to smell them, feel them, watch them dry face up to the sun, unaccustomed in cold dank London.
The first thing they tell you when you return is to tek it easy, you back home now. So fill your eyes with the coconut trees, the endless beach, the boats turning out to sea. Lone fishermen pushed their bikes across the sand, their dogs nosing alongside. And the sky, the sky! That brilliant cobalt blue, stretching a panorama between memory and reality. Tourists didn’t make it this far. Here it was too rough to swim, the waves still angry at history, guarding the wrecks viciously. Their anger had moved from scuttles to schooners and jet skis, to slippery fishing boats with secret cargoes. And you try and take it easy. Borrow that inherent ambiance, live one day at a time. But soon you realise that what you’re doing is waiting. Waiting for time to stand still. Time has stood still for Maya in this particular place.
Waiting. Watching the shifting blues, the white haze, the fisherman becoming a dot. The clothes on the line have dried, her swimsuit a kitten at play, relishing this now-time, this brief sojourn before being folded into a drawer, nestling in the dark like a hyacinth bulb.

Finish reading ‘Sugarcane for My Sweetheart’ on the Seren website here.

Writing on Water is available on the Seren website: £8.99

Short Story Extract – ‘The Tribe’ by Jaki McCarrick

This extract is from Jaki McCarrick’s short story ‘The Tribe’ which is featured in her Edge Hill-shortlisted collection, The Scattering.

The main character’s rationale is unnerving and extreme – yet may hold some resonance with the situation we find ourselves in at the moment.

Jaki will be joining us for a special Q&A as part of the Seren Stay-at-Home Series tomorrow night at 6:30pm where she will be discussing her fiction and plays which include the award-winning Belfast Girls. Tickets are only £5 and are available here*.

 

A stranger from another time trespasses in an ancient landscape, where a primitive tribe live their modest lives. He has a dark yet necessary mission – but will he manage to complete it?

 

The Tribe

The American Dream has run out of gas.The car has stopped.
It no longer supplies the world with its images, its dreams, its
fantasies. It’s over. It supplies the world with its nightmares
now: the Kennedy assassination,Watergate,Vietnam. J.G. BALLARD

The images that came up on the screen were of a cold, forested environment. Beside me the lake was iced over and wide as a sea. There were trees all around frozen ponds and up and down mountainsides. I wondered if there was human life here at all. Nothing stirred outside, except for the unmistakable shape of an owl flying across the almost-full moon. I wrapped up in my boots and Gore-Tex and kept my gun close. Into a compartment of my backpack I placed another, more lethal gun and clasped the bag to my front. I secured my mask and hood then exited the POD (shorthand for the small machine that had brought me here, with its state-of-the-art Personal Odyssey Drive® system).
Outside, it was freezing. I’d never known cold like it. Not even on the coldest days in New York. In fact, it was not like any cold I’d ever experienced on the earth, anywhere (including the Northwest Territories where I had prepared for this trip).Yet it was so clean, so newly clean. I could distinctly smell pine, and the ice had a fragrant quality, close to mint. I knew that the tundra that covered the earth at this time had beneath it a multitude of flowers and plants, and it was as if the air now was full of the possibility of them. The season, of course, was spring.
​        I had begun to ascend the mountain when I saw what appeared to be a light. At first I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me. (I wasn’t hungry but I was tired and had considered returning to the POD, though it would have been dawn before I got there.) I thought perhaps the moon reflected off the snow, but the light was orange. Within a few steps I saw that a fire burned just beyond a redwood copse. (The snow on the trees’ laden branches made the copse seem like some outlandish installation, like those I’d seen years before in galleries in the Village.) My first instinct was to rush towards it. It had to signify human life – no animal as far as we knew had learned how to make fire. But what kind of beings had made this one? And what would they make of me? If they were the beings we sought, that I had hoped to find here, then could they speak? (We had presumed, perhaps conservatively, that I might encounter at best a protolanguage, and not, at this point, actual lexical structure.) I suddenly became afraid of what I might find, though I could feel the gun against my thigh, and it felt warm, as all security is warm, and that I was so quick to think of the weapons I’d brought with me gave me quite a jolt.
​        I gathered myself and tried to remember my purpose here. I checked that the vial was where I had packed it. It was. Cold and deadly as the modernity that had made it.

*

I saw them sitting around the fire, their backs against a circle of high stones. Some of their young ran from caves and were followed by females who evidently disapproved of them out in the cold air. I could smell something roasting on the fire and saw within the flames a long slim-headed beast. Suddenly, the group rose to their feet.They began to make sounds out of the back of their throats which reverberated throughout the hills. The sounds seemed to pass from being to being in a perfect choreography of polyrhythms; it was quite like what I’d heard of Flamenco music. They were covered from head to toe in taupe, grey and dark-red furs, which looked to be the pelts of rabbits, some kind of arctic-like fox, and bears. The group sang its song to the fire, to the beast roasting on the spit, and to the moon and icy expanse – and though I could not understand a word (in so far as their song was composed of words), I felt, somehow, that this was a song of praise, perhaps, even, of welcoming the spring.
​        After a while, one of the older males loosened the beast from the two thin poles it hung from and set it down on a long flat slab. He cut furiously into it with a hand-axe made of what seemed in the moonlight to be quartz or river-flint. He made many piles of meat, and only when he gestured did the group gather around the slab to eat. They were talking. The sound was unmistakable: laughter, grunts, jesting, the aural characteristics of human engagement, all the sounds that one might hear in any modern crowd. These hominids were clearly enjoying their food. It was then I realised that other than the energy biscuits and apples in my backpack, I’d no further supplies until I returned to the POD. The POD itself had enough food for a few more days of my explorations here; the rest held in reserve for the journey home (if I would, indeed, return). I slowly unclasped the pack and squatted down beside it. I was so hungry I devoured two of the three biscuits and washed them down with a small bottle of chemical-tasting water.
​        Within a few minutes I could hear a commotion. I stood up and saw a fight break out between two males, between them, a young female clinging tightly to a rock.The smaller of the two males was eventually trounced by the other and stole off like a honey badger into the woods. The tall, rangier male brought the female towards two older females who laughed as they walked her back to the caves. Quickly, the peace returned. After the meal, the taller male quenched the fire and moved the stragglers along. There was something civilised and quite authoritative, I thought, about this creature hanging back to tidy up the remains of his tribe’s revels.
​        As I would need daylight in order to proceed with my task, I decided to remain where I was. Below me nothing stirred except three or four brindled dogs that looked like small wolves gathering in the centre of the valley to finish off the meat.There seemed also to be a constant rumbling sound, which I supposed was a distant ice storm (perhaps signifying some kind of metamorphic activity in the region). It was as I found an over-leaning bank of earth, under which I planned to sleep, that I heard the other sound. It was terrible and gurgling and instantly recognisable. I looked down and saw that the tall authoritative tribe-member stood in the empty valley below, a pole pierced through his chest, pinning him to the white earth. The others began to emerge from their caves and the sides of the valley. The young female and the group she had been with ran to him. They screamed and cried and pulled the pole from the tall male, at which he dropped to the ground. I heard a sound, if not an actual word, repeated again and again by one of the older females. ‘Orvey! Orvey! Orvey!’ she seemed to cry, as she continually tried to wake him. And I knew, somewhere in the depths of my being, that the sound – for how could I call it a word when I was yet to be convinced that this tribe was in possession of what could feasibly be called language? – meant: child.

*

This is an extract, read the full story on the Seren website

*All ticket holders for the Seren Stay-at-Home Series get an exclusive 30% discount code to use on the Seren website. Get your tickets here.

Short Story of the Month – ‘Scream, Scream’ by Glenda Beagan

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘Scream, Scream’ by Glenda Beagan which features in The Green Bridge: Stories from Wales.

The Green Bridge is an entertaining anthology of classic stories from twentieth century Wales. From Dylan Thomas to Ifan Pughe, the familiar to the revived, from the rural west of Caradoc Evans to the industrial south of Gwyn Thomas, the politics of Emyr Humphreys to the relationships of Dorothy Edwards, all Wales and all human life is here.

 

This is an excerpt, read the full story for FREE on the Seren website here.

Scream, Scream

It is quiet on the ward. There are only three bed patients. Nurse

Sandra looks at her watch. It is so still. There is the faint hum of a

mechanical mower on lawns far away, that is all. No birds are singing.

Mrs Jessop is snoring quietly. She’s had a bad night. It is on the

report.

Linda is about to make her move. Nurse Sandra senses it. She

smooths her apron, flicks through a magazine with studied

carelessness watching sideways through her hair as Linda shifts her

slow carcase off the bed. Even now as those bare arms emerge Nurse

Sandra has to steel herself. She looks up, clenched. Sioned, the

anorexic girl in the top bed is semaphoring wildly. Linda begins.

“Is my heart still beating?”

“Yes, Linda.” Nurse Sandra sighs, tries to smile. How well she

knows this never ending litany.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“Can you hear it?”

“Not from here I can’t, no.”

“Come and listen.”

“Again, Linda?”

“Yes. I think it’s stopped.”

“No luv, silly. Course it hasn’t stopped. You wouldn’t be sitting

up talking to me if it had stopped, would you?”

“No.”

“There you are then.”

Now the familiar pause.

“Is my baby dead?”

This was the bit she dreaded. Day after day, hour after hour, the

same question. And still she dreaded it.

“It’s a long time ago now, Linda.”

“How long?”

“Two years.”

“I killed my baby didn’t I?”

“No, you didn’t kill your baby. You know you didn’t.”

“Heroin killed my baby.”

“Yes.”

“Not me.”

“No.”

“But I did really. I know I did.”

Nurse Sandra gulps. Linda never wants platitudes. Sometimes

she’ll accept them. Mostly she won’t.

Nurse Sandra still finds she winces inside at the sight of those

arms: the half healed scars she’d cleaned of pus months before are

still lurid among the tattoos, the roses, crowns and mermaids, the

names JIMMY and MOTHER, the waste, the pointlessness. Linda is

dying, her liver, which is all of twenty three years old, is ready to

pack up on her. She has respiratory problems. Her legs are hideously

ulcerated. She has come here to die because there is nowhere else for

her to go.

“Have you got a fag?”

“I don’t smoke, Linda.”

“Mrs Jessop smokes.”

“Mrs Jessop is asleep.”

“When she wakes up?”

“You can ask her when she wakes up.”

“Will she give me a fag?”

“She usually does, doesn’t she?”

“She always does.”

A giggle. The ghost of a giggle.

“She always gives me a fag to make me go away.”

Linda is not averse to exploiting the unnerving effect she has on

people, and Mrs Jessop is easily unnerved. So is Sioned. Linda

changes tack. She knows the answer before she asks the question but

she wants a reaction. She wants to see those dark eyes close, that pale

skull shake its negative.

“You don’t smoke, do you Sioned?”

Sioned is pretending not to be here. She does it well. She is now

so thin she hardly makes a ripple under the blankets. She is

disappearing. Tonic insulin seems not to have had the desired effect.

She is seventeen, always tiny, admittedly, but now she weighs just

four stone.

Mrs Jessop sputters into consciousness. Stretches, yawns, sits bolt

upright.

“Oh.”

“Good morning Mrs Jessop. For this relief much thanks.”

Nurse Sandra walks up to the bed.

“How are we this morning?”

Mrs Jessop can’t remember how she is. Bleary still from night

sedation, she blinks, owl-like, registers Linda’s looming presence and

makes an instinctive move for her handbag, proffering the packet.

Linda beams.

“Ta, Mrs Jessop. You’re alright, you are. You’ll be going home

soon.”

She slouches off to the top of the ward again.

“If you’re going to smoke you go to the sitting room, Linda.”

“Aw, just this once, Sandra.”

“Sitting room.”

“Can I go in the wheelchair, then?”

“You know I can’t push you. I can’t leave the ward.”

“There’s only Mrs Jessop and Sioned, Sandra. Nothing’s going to

happen while you push me that little way. It’s not far.”

“If you want to smoke you go to the sitting room and if you want

to go to the sitting room you have to walk.”

“You’re a tight bitch, Sandra.”

“Yeah, I’m a real hard case.”

“Can I have a light, Mrs Jessop?”

“Not on the ward, Linda.”

“I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to Mrs Jessop.”

There is an edge in Linda’s voice but she no longer has the energy

to put that edge into action. Nurse Sandra gives her a look. Now it’s

a battle of wills and Sandra will win because she has the will to win

and Linda has not. The girl’s efforts have already exhausted her. She

wants her cigarette but she does not want to haul herself down the

corridor to smoke it. In the end the cigarette wins. It always does.

She starts to move down the ward again, painfully slowly for Sandra’s

benefit, holding on to the beds.

“Can I borrow your lighter, Mrs Jessop?”

“Get a light from someone down there.”

“There won’t be anyone down there. They’ve gone to OT.”

“Get a light from Sister Annie, then.”

“Where?”

“In the office.”

“Is that where she is?”

“Yes.”

“Are you sure? Is she on her own?”

“It’s not time for the doctors to make their round yet, Linda if

that’s what you’re worried about.”

“Is Dr Patel on today?”

“I don’t know.”

“She’s on holiday,” says Mrs Jessop.

“Is she? How do you know?”

“She told me.”

Linda looks sulky. She likes to think she has a special relationship

with Dr Patel, that she is her confidante. To compensate for not

having received this piece of information she makes an extravagant

balletic swoop towards Mrs Jessop, hands moulded into a parodic

impression of an Indian dancer’s.

“She’s promised me one of her old saris, Dr Patel has. She said I

could have one. She likes me.”

“You’ve been pestering her again, haven’t you?” Nurse Sandra

cuts in, wishing Linda would really get off the ward and go for her

smoke. Linda glowers.

“I like Dr Patel. She’s alright.”

In a moment of rare humour Mrs Jessop chuckles to herself.

“She’ll be going home soon.”

Nurse Sandra smiles. “She’s got a long way to go.”

Just then the scream.

A vehicle must have drawn up, but they didn’t hear it. The front

doors have opened and the scream has come in, has forced itself in,

breaking through their innocuous recitative. This is the aria, a full

blooded aria.

Continue reading ‘Scream, Scream’ on the Seren website here.

 

Short Story of the Month – ‘Jumping Off’ by Sarah Evans

Our new short story of the month is ‘Jumping Off’ by Sarah Evans.

Emma, a female wildlife photographer, is filming a family of barnacle geese. As the fluffy chicks take their first steps into the world, the cliff-edge of uncertainty lies before them. But what lies ahead in her own life, and is it worth the risk?

Sarah Evans has had many short stories published in anthologies, literary journals and online. She has been shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Story Prize and been awarded prizes by, amongst others: Words and Women, Stratford Literary Festival and the Bridport Prize. Her work is also included in several Unthology volumes, Best New Writing and Shooter magazine.

 

Jumping Off

This is an extract. Read the full story for free on the Seren website.

Emma trained her binoculars on the ledge set high into the cliff-side. The grey was flecked by mustard-coloured lichen, the monotony broken by twigs poking out from a sprawling nest. It was one heck of a hike.

‘You OK with it?’ Chris asked, eyes creased with concern; clearly she looked as crap as she felt.

‘Sure.’ It was her turn, she had sod-else to do and no way was she playing on feminine weakness.

‘Best route starts just behind that outcrop.’

She strapped her camera across her back and listened with impatience – unfair, he was being helpful – as nausea rose; if she was about to puke, she didn’t need an audience.

‘I’ll be fine.’ Only one way up.

It felt good, stretching thigh muscles and easing into the climb, following the path that meandered round the side of the sheer face. Breathing in the frozen nothing helped to settle the rebellion in her gut. A boulder barred her way and she sought hand and footholds to scramble up. Her foot slipped as she heard the penetrating rise and fall of a wolf-whistle. What the hell…? She twisted her head to peer down. Simon’s long-nosed lens was pointed her way – on her stuck-out arse no doubt – and his arm was waving mockingly.

Damn it! How could she have been so mind-blowingly stupid.

She reached the top of the rock and paused to sip water, swallowing all that idiocy down. Now was not the time to dwell on her current disaster.

Eventually, she reached the stone-strewn top, hauling herself up into the blast of wind. She was heaving for oxygen, muscle-sore and sweat-drenched as she bent into the gale and stumbled towards the cliff-face. Getting closer, she crouched onto all fours. Closer still and she was crawling on her stomach like a lizard.

Her hands grasped the edge, rocks crumbling under her grip. Cautiously she eased herself forward until she could see the line of the drop. The nest was below and to the right. She unstrapped her camera, securing it in a hollow, the lens providing a magnified view. Sticks and moss stuck out from beneath the black-white body of the female goose. No sign either of eggs, or of the male, though he would be out there, somewhere, faithfully performing his duty, finding food – somehow – amidst the desolate landscape. The nest-site was optimal in terms of avoiding predators; in every other respect the choice seemed downright irresponsible.

Just as she had been. She clenched her hands, inhaling the scent of sour clothes. Six weeks ago, she’d spruced herself up for the TV awards ceremony. She’d mingled with the bubbling crowds and answered questions about her job. How exciting, people gushed. All that visiting far flung places and capturing spectacular sequences on film.

The reality was months away from home in the most inconveniently remote locations. No sanitation, shelter or communication. Always too hot or frozen solid, too dry or dripping with deluge, crawling with insect life or harbouring predators. But the worst of it was the mind-numbing tedium. Wildlife neither appeared nor performed on demand.

Small rocks spiked her breasts, thighs and belly; her neck was stiff from craning. Come on goose! Budge! She couldn’t leave without an update. The barnacle goose stood, unsteady on her spindly legs, and waddled to the edge of the nest. Two eggs lay there. Dirt-yellow. And starting to crack.

Continue reading ‘Jumping Off’  for free here

Short Story | ‘Transit of Moira’ – Maria Donovan

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landings taking place this week, we thought it pertinent that we share some moon-themed writing from our authors. ‘Transit of Moira’ comes from Maria Donovan’s collection of short stories Pumping Up Napoleon.

In Pumping Up Napoleon, Maria Donovan takes us on a bizarre, funny and often touching tour of death and laughter, love and space travel. Her light, humorous touch allows darker strands to surface repeatedly – dislocated, lonely lives, out of sync with their surroundings are set alongside human oddity and tenderness. These understated, well-crafted stories constantly surprise and engage, producing a fine, enjoyable and thought-provoking collection.

 

Transit of Moira

At ten-past-midnight by the Tokyo clock, Gavin started floating down the service corridor. Most of the passengers were Japanese and would be strapped to their bunks by now; the only people he expected to be awake were a contingent from the West Country of England, playing endless games of gin rummy in the recreation pod. It seemed like a safe time to go clean the glass in the Bubble Observatory.

He was therefore intensely annoyed to catch sight of a pair of beige open-toed sandals of the kind old ladies wear – the ones with the patterns of little holes punched in the leather – floating ahead of him, kicking a little up and down as if their owner thought she was swimming. Further up were light-brown nylons, the flapping edges of a petticoat and an orange-and-yellow flower-print dress – an ensemble Gavin mentally labelled ‘hideous’. She wasn’t supposed to be in here. This corridor was for crew only. She wasn’t even suitably dressed for zero gravity! Gavin didn’t say anything as he hauled past her, just turned and glared.

She was a silver-haired old lady with a determined but contented look on her face and all she did was nod and smile at him, which annoyed Gavin even more. When he got to the Bubble Observatory, well ahead of her, he thought about bolting the door behind him, but it was against regulations. Suppose she couldn’t manage to get back the way she’d come? He couldn’t really leave her floating there all night, like some over-fed, expiring goldfish.

Gavin rose to the top of the Bubble and began wiping the glass with his specially-impregnated rags; gone were the days when he could dream of space travel scented by leather seats and mood perfume. As usual, the glass was covered in finger marks and, as usual, Gavin wondered why people couldn’t just hold on to the handles that were put there for the purpose. How many more times would he have to wipe the breath and snot and sweat of the world’s most boring passengers off this glass before he could retire? He could count the days, but unfortunately there were still three-thousand-and-twenty-four to go (Gavin was younger than he looked). By then, as he well knew, if he spent all his time in weightlessness, his wasted body would be useless back on Earth. He’d be condemned to spend the rest of his years in space or on the Moon, breathing canned air. But what did it matter? Wherever he went, he was sure to end up surrounded by scuffed plastic.

Earth; people always said the same things about it: ‘It’s so beautiful; it’s so blue; it looks just like a marble’. When he looked down at it, he always reminded himself that, though it did look peaceful from up here, really it was as busy as hell and full of tortures. You knew that once you stepped off the ferry you’d be put in line, processed, stamped, herded, sent here and there, told where you could stop and where you couldn’t. He was glad to be up here, on the out-trip, going lunar.

‘I always said I’d see the Moon before I die.’ The voice at Gavin’s elbow startled him.

She bobbed gently, using, he noted at once, the appropriate handles. This ought to have soothed him, but the fact that she was smiling, evidently quite at peace with herself and the Universe, irritated Gavin so much he broke the company code and retorted: ‘It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, you know.’

‘No?’ she said. ‘It looks good from here.’

They were long past the Neutral Point and accelerating towards the Moon, though you couldn’t tell how fast the ship was going. Behind them the Earth had dwindled to a bright blue disk; the lunar sphere hung before them, pockmarked, shadowed and mysteriously empty, apart from the sprinkle of red and white lights on the Sea of Tranquillity. Stubbornly, Gavin persisted. ‘Neil Armstrong’s footprint,’ he said. ‘I ask you. How does anybody know for sure that’s Neil Armstrong’s footprint?’

‘Have you seen it?’ said the old lady. ‘I’m Moira, by the way.’

Gavin didn’t give his name and he even put his hand over his name badge, as if he were putting hand on heart. He said, ‘I’ve never seen it and I don’t want to. You might as well look at my footprint in the dust.’

‘You’re probably right,’ said Moira. ‘Or mine. Perhaps I’d like to see mine.’

‘The Moon is full of footprints. It’s not like you think it’s going to be.’

‘How do you know what I think?’ said Moira, her head on one side as if she really did have a mild interest in his answer.

‘You’ll see. It’s all canned music and souvenirs. You can’t just wander about. They make you see things whether you want to or not.’

‘Is that so bad?’ said Moira. ‘It is for some people,’ muttered Gavin sulkily. ‘Anyway, I got cleaning to do. And,’ he added as a clincher, ‘I’m not supposed to talk to you passengers.’

Without asking, she took a cloth from his pack and began making circular motions on the glass. ‘Look at that,’ said Moira. ‘My face among the stars.’ When she said it, Gavin looked at his own reflection, something he usually avoided doing as much as possible. He was wearing the expression of a man with a bitter taste in his mouth.

Moira didn’t speak again for some time. She rubbed at the glass with her borrowed cloth and looked at the lights in the dark. ‘Have you ever seen a shooting star?’ she said.

Gavin couldn’t resist scoffing: ‘Not up here,’ he said. ‘And not down there.’ He pointed at the Moon. ‘No atmosphere!’ In the weak lunar orbit things either disappeared off into space or kept going round and round, eventually falling onto the surface, where they stayed, because no one would go and pick them up.

He remembered his first trip, leaving home, when it had all seemed like a big adventure, as well as something to do until a better job came along. How he’d loved to see those bright streaks of burning rubbish flare and fizzle out as they tried to touch the Earth. But now, he knew it was just another kind of pollution. Soon the rest of the Solar System would be polluted too, and eventually the Galaxy and then the Universe…

A flash of diamond-bright sparks flew past the window, ice crystals catching the light of the sun. ‘Oh!’ exclaimed Moira. ‘How lovely!’

‘Urine,’ said Gavin. ‘It’s the voiding hour.’

‘Isn’t it marvellous,’ said Moira, shaking her head, ‘how even your own waste products can look wonderful in space?’

Gavin couldn’t bear it; he gritted his teeth and rubbed harder, as if he might rub out the stars, while Moira made dreamy circles with her cloth. ‘I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,’ she said.

‘It’s nothing special,’ said Gavin. ‘These days everyone’s an astronaut.’

 

Moira was in the Observatory often after that, or bouncing off the walls of the service corridor, poking into spaces no passenger should know about. Though Gavin saw her, he always hid until she’d gone away. So he couldn’t tell the Captain anything much about her when she went missing.

They had docked in the orbit of the Moon by then, and the passengers had all disembarked. Moira’s absence wasn’t noticed until the whole contingent went through immigration and the numbers didn’t add up. A search was made of the area, all the restrooms were checked, and every cupboard in the transit shuttle was opened. There was no sign of Moira.

Gavin and the rest of the ferry crew were put on alert and ordered to check every locked and unlocked space on board the ship and every item of inventory for clues. Then Gavin was summoned to the Captain’s quarters. ‘You were seen talking to her in the Observatory,’ he said. ‘We have it on visual. What were you talking about?’

‘Nothing much,’ said Gavin.

‘What we’re after,’ said the Captain, ‘is some clue as to her state of mind. We’re not trying to apportion blame.’

Not yet, thought Gavin. Blame will surely follow.

‘How did she seem to you?’ said the Captain. Gavin tried to remember. She had smiled a lot – and she said she wanted to see the Moon before she died.

‘Captain!’ A voice in the air interrupted Gavin’s thoughts before he uttered them. ‘One of our space suits is missing.’

At first no one believed an old lady like that would know how to operate an airlock or even want to try. The space suit was fitted with a standard locator device, but it had been turned off. There was a whisper among the crew that murder had been done, and some of them looked sideways at Gavin. He didn’t mind: it would encourage them to leave him alone.

Then the visuals for that area were checked again and the whole crew saw Moira standing in the airlock and waving goodbye. She even blew a kiss as she stepped out backwards into space.

 

That night, with a full set of new passengers safely on board, the story was officially put to rest. It seemed Moira had no relatives on Earth to inform and so the Captain would be spared the difficulty of writing any letters of regret.

Half-past-one by the Tokyo clock. The ferry left the Moon’s orbit and Gavin went back to polishing the Bubble Observatory. It was quiet; just how he liked it. But the smell of the cleaning rags caught the back of his throat. Angrily, he rubbed harder.

Then his heart lurched as a star-shaped object crossed the face of the Moon. He knew at once what it must be: Moira in her white suit, spreading her arms and legs to the Sun.

Pressing his fingers to the glass, Gavin saw himself – a ghastly open-mouthed reflection superimposed on the face of the receding Moon – and it scared him. But what made him truly uneasy was the suspicion that, if he had been able to get up close, he would have seen that Moira was still smiling.

 

Pumping Up Napoleon is available on the Seren website: £6.99

 

Maria Donovan is a native of Dorset and has strong connections with Wales and Holland. Past career choices include training as a nurse in the Netherlands, busking with music and fire around Europe and nine years as a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Glamorgan. Her fiction is often offbeat, exploring uneasy relationships, mind and body: ‛My Own CVA’ was a prizewinner in a competition run by The Lancet; and ‘My Cousin’s Breasts’ was shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize. Her flash fiction story ‘Chess’ won the Dorset Award in the Bridport Prize 2015.

Maria’s debut novel The Chicken Soup Murder  was published in 2017 and was shortlisted for the Rubery Book Award, fiction category.

The Chicken Soup Murder is available on the Seren website: £9.99

 

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Short Story of the Month | ‘Hands’ by Rebecca Ruth Gould

Our new short story of the month is ‘Hands’ by Rebecca Ruth Gould.

 

‘What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them.’

 

Rebecca Ruth Gould’s work has appeared in NimrodKenyon ReviewTin HouseHudson ReviewWaxwingWasafiri, and Poetry Wales. She is the author of Writers and Rebels (Yale University Press, 2016) and translator of After Tomorrow the Days Disappear: Ghazals and Other Poems of Hasan Sijzi of Delhi (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and The Death of Bagrat Zakharych and other Stories by Vazha-Pshavela (Paper & Ink, 2019). A Pushcart Prize nominee, she was a finalist for the Luminaire Award for Best Poetry in 2017. She lives in Bristol and teaches at the University of Birmingham.

 

Hands

 

This is an extract. Read the full story for free on the Seren website.

 

What struck her most about him were his hands. They were long and lanky, like his body. Even more remarkable than their shape was the way he used them. When they first met, he shook her hands boldly and directly, as if it were a perfectly normal thing to do and not a violation of the law in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Taken aback, she forgot to respond. Her hand hung limply in his palm, until he dislodged it.

Just the day prior, she had read about a poet who had been arrested after returning from abroad, for shaking a woman’s hand. She wanted to warn him: You shouldn’t do that. You might end up in jail for shaking my hands. But he must know what he was doing, she reasoned, and who was she to tell him how to behave in his own country?

His hands didn’t fit anywhere, not in his pockets, or at his sides. They dangled oddly from his arms, like an expert swimmer more at home in a lake than on dry land. The lines on his palms were long, stretching from his wrist to his index fingers. If a fortune-teller—like the one she had just consulted with in Hafez’s tomb in Shiraz—had been asked to read his palms she would have predicted for him a long life, a fulfilling marriage and many children. His hands were like an autonomous body. She imagined them keeping her warm at night, soothing the aches in her back, providing a resting ground for her lips, caressing her hips.

Before they said goodbye that magical night in Tehran, she asked him why he decided to shake her hand. Without answer he waxed lyrical, in a different direction. “I dream of working wonders with my hands,” he said, “I want to become a perfumist. I want to make magic potions and aphrodisiacs based on ancient Iranian traditions.” Although it was not an answer, it opens a new mysterious horizon onto his soul. She wanted to know more.

Continue reading ‘Hands’  for free here

Short Story of the Month | ‘The Purging’ by Drew Martyn

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Purging’ by Drew Martyn.

 

‘One cloud and a couple of vapour trails lazed against a heat-paled blue sky and a warm afternoon slid slowly into evening; I was aware of none of it. I was seventeen and cool, she was sixteen and hot: that’s all you can see at that age.’

In the lazy days of summer, two teenagers are forced to grow up quickly as they are thrown into the real world by events beyond their control.

 

Drew and his family live in Wales where he enjoys writing, football, music and real ales. He’s had dark fiction published in a number of print anthologies including Horror Library volume 5 and Fortune: Lost and Found as well as online and in magazines including Isotropic Fiction and Dark Tales. In Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (May 2017) he toyed with sword and sorcery prose-poetry. In the past he’s also contributed articles and conducted interviews for a UK soccer website. If asked about inspiration, he’d witter on forever about Ray Bradbury, William Trevor and especially Georges Perec, so probably best not to…

 

The Purging

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

One cloud and a couple of vapour trails lazed against a heat-paled blue sky and a warm afternoon slid slowly into evening; I was aware of none of it. I was seventeen and cool, she was sixteen and hot: that’s all you can see at that age.

Her name was Alison. She had a body to turn heads and a face to turn hearts, and I swallowed hard and said something inane at the first smile she gave me. It was summer holidays, no school, time for fun. Time for growing up into the real world – and I had a lot of growing up to do and not much time to do it in.

She took me home to meet her family.

I’d heard a few things about them, mostly from Alison. That was ok: listen to her stories and her family were okay. But I heard rumours too. And then someone told someone else who told someone who told me… and those rumours I didn’t like one bit.

But, anyway, we were here, walking onto her estate. The people we passed looked surprisingly ok. Normal. They didn’t have two heads, or bite the heads off kittens or carry machetes or grenades. They didn’t snarl or even growl as we walked past. Most of them didn’t even frown.

It was a typical housing estate: a warren of streets, narrow alleys and short cuts, cars half-off half-on the pavement, some tidy front gardens, a few of them anyway, some just rubbish tips for the couldn’t care less brigade.

“My house is just up here,” Alison said as we turned a corner. I slowed the pace.

“It’s ok,” she reassured me, laughing. “Honest.”

We passed a few bedraggled houses, the ubiquitous mattress in one of the front gardens, a rusty pram in another. And then, for no apparent reason, the houses suddenly looked cleaner, more looked-after. It took me a few yards to realise it was because they didn’t have flaking paint on the doors and windows. And the cars were parked properly. And the lawns were mowed. Lawns? I realised these houses here had the first grass and flowers in front of them that I’d seen on the estate.

“Mine,” said Alison, opening a wrought iron gate. It squeaked a bit as we walked through. I suppose it had to give some sort of nod to the neighbourhood. Or a warning to those inside the house.

That thought both scared me and made me realise I was being a snob. Ew no; one didn’t tolerate unoiled hinges where I came from, certainly not.

I can be a prat sometimes, I reminded myself.

On the other hand this house even had coaching lamps, shiny and polished, each side of the front door. Nice. Bit over the top, common maybe, but nice.

I can be judgemental, too. Goes with being a prat.

Shit, she was opening the front door! I hung back but she grabbed my hand and pulled me along like some toy dog. A waft of soap and Brut hit me as we walked in. I was about to meet the family.

 

This is what I knew of them:

Da had a reputation that could scratch diamonds, and fists to match. This town was his town.

Ma loved her own. For everyone else there were razors and bullets, mostly wielded by her tongue. Mostly (apparently).

Big brother Paul took one look at me and said: “Get her pregnant and you marry her, or you’ll never see her again.” This wasn’t a threat, this was a vision.

I didn’t listen. I didn’t care. After all, I reasoned, what’s sight worth, when love itself is blind? Oh yeah, I’m a romantic. Bit of a poet, me.

In other words, an all round total prat.

 

Inside, her house gave no indication of being anything special. It looked sort of nice. Tidy, like. No dead bodies. No suitcases full of money. And definitely no guns.

“Hi Da,” said Alison.

Da stood in front of a large sideboard mirror shaving with a cutthroat razor, a bowl of soap suds in front of him, his white vest splashed grey with soapy water, his braces hanging to his knees.  A radio in an upstairs room spoke loudly of last year’s moon landing and something about The Beatles disbanding.

As soon as I appeared, Da turned into a statue, the razor blade slicing my reflection, only his eyes moving, following me.

“You Mike?”

“Yessir.”

Even if I wasn’t, I’d have had to say “Yessir” to that voice.

“Don’t call me ‘Sir’. Don’t call nobody ‘Sir’. When you’re with my girl, other people call you ‘Sir’. Understand?”

I almost said “Yessir.” Instead, I said “So they should.”

It was the right thing to say. He chuckled and carried on shaving.

“Thanks Daddy!” Alison said, grinning.

Mam called out “Alison” and Alison led me into the kitchen. Mam wiped her hands on a tea-towel and threw it onto the sink before turning around to face us.

She looked at me for a second, then “Why don’t you sit down, love?” in a way that said, quietly and gently, “Sit down or I’ll rip your throat out.”

So I sat down.

She looked me up and down. Like Alison, she had big blue eyes, but Mam’s were a mother’s eyes, an assessor’s eyes, looking for weapons and chinks in armour.

I looked at Alison.

Mam leaned forward. That meant “Stop looking at her. Look at me, good boy!”

She said “Still in school, love?”

I nearly lied, saying I had a job, maybe that would go down better. Mothers liked that sort of thing: mature young man and all that.

What came out was “Yes, I am.”

Mam’s eyes smiled then and she nodded. “It’s good you didn’t lie to me,” she whispered. I felt like she could see into my soul, and I blushed. Not cool.

Continue reading ‘The Purging’ for free here

Short Story of the Month | ‘A Legend of Flight’, Kate Kelly

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘A Legend of Flight’ by Kate Kelly.

The night you didn’t answer.

I tried to call but each time your phone rang for a while, then went to voicemail. I didn’t leave a message. I’d already texted you twice…’

A group of bored teens spend the summer smoking, drinking and laughing, gathered around a statue in their dump of a town. Their fun ends when they realise this lifestyle has consequences. 

 

Kate Kelly is a marine scientist by day and a writer by night, with short stories published in a number of magazines and anthologies. Her first novel, Red Rock, a Cli-Fi adventure for young adults, was published in 2013. A collection of her short stories, The Scribbling Sea Serpent, is also available. Kate and her family live in Dorset and when she is not writing she can be found wandering the remoter stretches of the South West Coast Path. You can find out more about Kate’s writing at https://scribblingseaserpent.blogspot.co.uk

 

A Legend of Flight

The night you didn’t answer.

I tried to call but each time your phone rang for a while, then went to voicemail. I didn’t leave a message. I’d already texted you twice.

“Is he coming?” one of the others asked. Meg, the Goth girl, face bristling with piercings. “Did he score?”

Of course you did. You’d never let us down before.

The tall boy was scratching. He looked strung out. Face acne pock marked. Jeans torn. He lolled on the raised bed by the side of the road – crushing the dry feeble flowers, worn thin and summer-scorched.

We met as we always did, as the night grew humid and the dusk gathered round. There wasn’t much else for us to do in this dump of a town, so we came together, desultory, drifting, to wash up by the monument they had built on the edge of the High Street; the only thing this town had to be proud of.

It was simply a landmark to me. Somewhere to meet. Until I met you.

It was a plane, made of brass.

Did you know that this town is the home of powered flight? You told me as we sat together that first night. I didn’t know. The plane was part of the fabric of the town, the way the shop fronts, or the parking bays were. I never thought that it might be here for a reason. You made me look at it in a different way.

In 1848, you said. They built an aeroplane – they built it in a disused lace factory. An aeroplane powered by steam.

I laughed – That’s just crazy.

But you pointed to the statue we were sitting beside, the long tail and weirdly ribbed wings, like some freaky prehistoric bird. This is it, you told me. The first steam plane. Kind of crazy steampunk.

I looked at the statue and thought about nutty nineteenth century inventors building their flying contraption in amongst the cobwebs and lace, dreaming of flight. Maybe something meaningful had once happened here.

Maybe.

Sally had brought me along that night. This is where all the cool kids hang out, she said. But it was you who told me about the plane.

We were all bored. We were always bored. There wasn’t a cinema in this town and the youth club was full of little kids. We were fifteen, bigger than youth clubs, ping pong and orange juice. And yet not big enough to join the older kids in one of the town pubs, dated décor and loud live music on a Saturday night.

We watched the people come and go, and listened to the throb of the music in the dark. We didn’t dare try to go in. They all knew us.

Sally often stole cigarettes off her mum and would pull them out of her jacket pocket with pride. Sometimes they were slightly crushed and we’d straighten them out and pass them around, each trying to inhale as much as we could before passing them on. At first I coughed, but after a while I got used to it. Then I knew I was one of the cool crowd.

There was a shop opposite where we used to sit, gathered around that plane. Sometimes a fat girl from the year above us worked there. We would pull faces at her when she wasn’t looking and laugh and laugh. She wasn’t one of us. She wasn’t one of the cool kids. The tall boy handed round some menthol cigarettes. I don’t know where he got them from but they were foul.

We smoked them anyway.

 

Continue reading ‘The Walk’ for free here.

Short Story of the Month | ‘Flowers’, Emma Timpany

Flowers Short Story Emma Timpany

It’s World Book Day today and we have a new story for you to enjoy – Emma Timpany’s ‘Flowers’ is our Short Story of the Month.

‘This is the place: four fields in the shape of a rough parallelogram…’

Searching for a space to plant the seeds of her flowers and, indirectly, her future, a woman forges a subtle bond with a man undergoing his own struggle.

Emma Timpany grew up in Dunedin, in the far south of New Zealand, and now lives in Cornwall. She has a lifelong love of short story form. Her first collection, The Lost of Syros, was published in 2015. Her short stories have won three awards, including the Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon Trust Award, and have been published in literary journals in England, New Zealand and Australia. She is co-editor of Cornish Short Stories: A Collection of Contemporary Cornish Writing and author of the novella Travelling in the Dark.

 

Flowers

This is the place: four fields in the shape of a rough parallelogram. On her left, one part of the closest field is enclosed behind wire mesh. A path runs through long, wet grass towards a gate in the fence. Ahead of her is an open-fronted barn with a caravan parked inside it, a chimney rising from its roof.
She cannot see anyone. She is about to leave when, looking again, she notices a figure kneeling inside the fencing.
She walks over but he does not seem to know she is there. He wears a suit, some kind of woollen weave, not tweed.
Hello.
Hello.
He is young, younger than her. He stands and wipes his hands on his clothes. His hair is flat and yellowish. Despite his smile, his face is the wrong kind of white. He has been ill. Is still ill, perhaps.
Rachel said you wanted someone to grow flowers.
Yes. He shakes his head as if confused. I only just woke up. I still have to sleep a lot. But I remember now.
She doesn’t know what to say. She doesn’t know what she was expecting but it was not this.
Are you cold? he says. It’s cold today.
And bleak, she does not say, this place is bleak.
Let’s have some tea.
The barn smells of dirt and straw, the caravan of damp. His bed is a heap of sleeping bags and blankets; the cups are stained with a thick layer of tannin. Roll-up butts huddle, crushed together in a jar lid.
Sit down. Here. He moves a pile of books from a seat. Rachel said you were a florist.
Well, yes. Sort of. I never meant to be. It wasn’t what I wanted.
He lights the camp stove, rolls a cigarette.
My family were. Florists, I mean. My grandfather lost his job in the Great Depression. Five kids and nothing to eat. So my grandmother started growing flowers. She doesn’t know why she is telling him this. She doesn’t tell anyone this. She shakes her head.
I don’t have any biscuits.
It doesn’t matter.
I only have goat’s milk. Is that okay?
Yes. She has never drunk goat’s milk. That’s okay.

 

It is raining. In her mind the earth has a red tint but now she sees that, under the rain, the soil is deep brown, black, almost. He has laid out some beds within the wire mesh, six rectangles of soil. The fence is to keep out the rabbits which will otherwise eat everything.
Look. He points to a line of feathery green leaves. I planted them in December and they’re up already.
Are they a type that grows in winter?
No. I was late putting them in because I was in hospital. All this should have been done earlier, in the autumn. This soil must be good soil.
It looks like good soil but she will not know until she starts to work it. The rain is heavy now, too heavy for her to begin.
In the shelter of the barn, he shows her rows of tools. Most are old but some are new, their dull, silver light an oddity amongst the rest, the well-used and the worn.

 

The next time, there is no sign of him, though she scans the field for a crouched figure in suit. Inside the barn, still air that could mistakenly be called warm but is only the cessation of wind. Through the caravan window, she sees him curled up on his side, blankets heaped around him, holes in the bottom of his socks.
She climbs over the rabbit fence and puts a bin bag, filled with bags of bulbs and packets of seeds, down by the side of the bed of freshly dug earth he indicated, last time, that she could plant. Returns to the barn for tools along the path of beaten grass. Begins to mark out a row.
The rows of vegetables in the neighbouring beds are all perfectly straight. By contrast, the trench she has made wavers. She goes back to her row and tries to even it up, mentally making a list of the things she will need – bamboo poles, string.
The soil smells slightly of iron, of leaves. Small stones appear occasionally but it has a lightness to it. She opens a packet of bulbs – tulips – and looks at them in the dim light. It is three months past the optimum time to plant them. She bought them cheaply from a local discount store but they look in good condition, a bright brown, shiny sheath on the outside of the pure white bulb. Plant at twice the depth of bulb. She lays them out fifteen centimetres apart then covers them.
The beds are larger than she thought. She adds sawdust to the list in her head. The last seeds she plants are poppies. Light, tiny, they are indistinguishable from the soil as soon as she sows them.
You’ve been busy. He is wearing an old oilskin over his suit.
Yes.
What have you been planting?
Bulbs, she says. Seeds. She fumbles for the packets and hands them to him. Her jeans are soaked from where she has been kneeling.
These are nice. He holds the empty poppy packet.
They were free. I wouldn’t have bought them. Because the flowers only last a day or so. Still, I can use the seed heads.
That’s a shame. About the flowers.
It’s often the way. The most beautiful don’t last.
He is looking at her rows.
I should have made them straight. Next time I’ll bring some string.
I’ve got some. Poles and string. Didn’t you see them in the barn?
No.
Before he got ill, he tells her, he was a set designer. Now he works on the field. The quiet here, the growing things. It is his way of making himself better.
Look, peregrine.
She does not want to look but, raising her head, she follows his finger to where the bird flies through veils of rain.
We should go in. Shelter from this. Do you want tea?
No, thanks. I’m soaked. She is cold now, having been still for so long. The thought of sitting in the caravan is not a pleasant one. I’ll be back next week.
She knocks mud off the spade and fork and carries them back to the barn. He opens the caravan door; warmth from the camp stove drifts out. Condensation fogs the windows. He is smiling at her, and she wonders what he is going to say.
Could you bring some milk when you come next time? I can’t have dairy. Goat’s milk. Or soya.
Sure, she says.
Back at the car she takes off her gumboots, her soaking coat, and loads them in the boot. Strips off her jeans and wraps her lower half in a blanket. Drives home that way.

 

From the highest point, where she now stands, and the high point opposite her, the land creases down, as if it has been folded on the diagonal, into the corner farthest from her. Because he is working near the bottom of the crease, it is hard to make out what he is doing.
She has forgotten the milk.
It has already started to bother her that it is his soil, his earth, his rules. That she is merely scratching, borrowing a few centimetres of surface. And yet she cannot imagine belonging to this place, it being hers. It is not what she would choose for herself. It is too high, too exposed. The jumbled boulders of the carn seem, at times, a reflection of her confusion. And then there is the cold, a deep earth-and-stone cold, the kind that gets in your bones. She wonders again what is wrong with him, what was wrong with him.
The quiet, though, also has a way of its own. In the way her life is away from this place, it feels like nourishment. Every action she initiates proceeds, un-thwarted, until it is complete. No-one else to consider except for the too-thin man she sees out of the corner of her eye.
She is planting Liatris spicata. The bulbs are dark, knobbly, a light hair of old, dried roots on their bases. Their hairiness reminds her of sea potatoes, found on the nearby beaches at low-tide. When she looks up she notices two parallel rows of bamboo canes, joined at their apex, stand in one of the beds.  Supports for beans, perhaps, or peas. Everything he does out here, in the beds, is so neat. But it is not neat in the barn or in the caravan.
No rain today but it is cold. Smoky-yellow light crouches at the edges of the sky. Next, she plants a row of Camassia leicthinii, a cultivar of quamash. The bulbs are white and smooth, small green shoots already sprouting from their apical points. It is far too late to be planting them. She tries to think of May, when these bulbs will produce long, straight, green stems, and then star-shaped flowers, blue and cream.
She hears the soft sound of his boots on the grass.  As she turns, reluctant to stop her work, she briefly wonders what he thinks of her. Her neck aches, so she rubs it.
More bulbs.
Yes. Look at these. She lifts an Eremurus stenophyllus tuber from brown paper, holding towards him the flat disc with leggy roots, like the dried limbs of a once fleshy spider.
And they’ll stay in the soil? Or will you lift them?
No. They’ll stay. They form clumps. Bulbs like these, perennials, reproduce themselves asexually. Clone themselves, basically. So you get more flowers year on year.
This seems to surprise him. She has no idea what he knows or doesn’t know about flowers.

 

The next time there are lots of people at the field. It takes her a while to find him. People talk to her, seem interested in what she is doing. They tell her things about the man who owns the field, assuming she knows more than she does. Without her prompting, his secrets spill out on the grass. They all seem excited by the fact that their friend has this surfeit of space. Many of them live on boats, in vans and caravans squeezed into corners of fields, fringes of towns and villages.
She sees him in the distance, reassesses his age down a notch and then down again. How aged he is by illness, by the experience of illness. It makes him more like her; it is the bridge that links her on one side and his friends on the other.
She has found out, quite recently, that her brother has been lying to her. For years, he has stolen from her, from the joint assets left to them by their parents. He calls what he did an act of love. It is not love. There is a chance that she will lose her house, lose everything she has worked for.
The friends start dragging dead wood into a circle. Some-one sets light to it. Bottles appear and a keg of beer. She plants Nectaroscordum siculum, an onion-paper fine sheath over its bulbs, which will one day be a handful of purple and green striped bells dangling from a wiggly stem. By the time she finishes, darkness is come. She looks over to the circle of light. The flames give his face the colour it normally lacks. She catches a glimpse of how he must have looked and how he might, perhaps, look again one day.

 

In the weak sunlight, the green tips of the first bulbs she planted poke through the earth, cast tiny purple shadows on the soil, and she sees what he has described to her but she has never really believed. There is a view of the sea. Distant, complex with lines of trees and land in the foreground and further back a skewed triangle of mint green water, a violet horizon.
Tomorrow, February tips into March. In the soil she finds a lime green grub, curled and sleeping. More seeds have broken through the earth; tiny as watercress, they tremble as if exhausted by the division of their first leaf into two. In the hearts of the hyacinths, flower spikes push upwards.
She knocks on the caravan door. No reply. She opens it, pulls a pint of goat’s milk from her pocket, leaving it on the floor where she hopes he will see it.
The goat’s milk was fresh today 28/2. See you next week?
She is annoyed that she brought him milk and he isn’t here. But she is also pleased. Words have stopped, are trapped inside her. She does not want to talk. She wants to plant flowers, row and rows of flowers, and wait and watch and tend them as they grow.

 

Thank you for the milk.
I didn’t bring any today.
What are you planting?
Lavender. She has bought plug plants and potted them on, hardened them off in her courtyard garden; against the vastness of the field, they seem tiny. She plants them through a layer of weed matting, cutting crosses and slotting one plant into each gap.
How long will they last for?
They’ll grow and get bigger for about ten years or so. And then they’ll die off.
As the day ends, she hears the sound of cars, footsteps and voices echoing down the track, the clink of bottles. The friends build a fire with new, dry boughs. They distract him, keep him busy, talking. In the fading light, he shifts from old to young, young to old.
Her back aches. She tidies her things and looks at what she has achieved. There is little to see; the bulk of her labour lies beneath the surface of the soil.
The sky is a serious blue, which means darkness is not far away. Through the still air she hears the sharp crackle of flames and smells dry wood burning.

 

Today she plants the last of the bulbs, some alliums, the Triteleia laxa, and the sweet pea seeds, pre-scored. The poppies and the cornflowers are through. The love-lies-bleeding. The soil is warming. The irises have produced grey, strap-fine leaves. A violet ground beetle scuttles away under her hand. An idea, a question, a friend of a friend – all of these things have led her here. Now, the hyacinths are opening. As she cuts through their thick, sappy stems, washes the dirt off the leaves and lower flowers, the few open bells release a clean, sweet scent.
He has also been planning and planting. She has helped him to lift off turf and peel it back, in preparation for a second row of beds.
The weeds have started to grow; the perennial buttercup, its net-like roots spread horizontally, is particularly hard to shift. She tracks the white roots of dandelions, zigzags of light in the dark soil, their wounds leaking a milky sap.

 

He digs for a while and then he stops and coughs. Whatever is wrong with him is taking its time to give up its hold.
He has gone to drink water, hand resting on the tap until the coughing eases. His clothes still hang on him like the clothes on a scarecrow. When was he last well? When did he last live in a house? She considers this coldness, rising from the earth, his enemy. She thinks he does not do enough to protect himself against it. How can he become better if he is not warm?
How will he get better if he drinks from filthy mugs?
He has seen her looking at him and now he beckons her. She climbs over the fence, her shoulders tense.
He points to a new ridge of earth by the side of the barn. From here she can see thin sticks are planted in it.
Willows, he says.
They’ll grow big.
I know.
Why here?
Because this is where the house will go.
You’re building a house?
One day.
To live in?
Isn’t that why most people build houses?
I thought…But she doesn’t know what she had thought.
He begins talking about dwelling rights, planning permission. The house will be built out of straw bales, with wool as insulation.

 

She cuts the Camassia leicthinii ‘Alba’, secures five stems with a rubber band and drops them in a bucket. The alliums are ready, tall Gladiator and the squat lavender starburst of Allium christophii. Once they are all cut and bunched, she moves them into the shade. Dahlia tubers lie in the trench. She covers them with soil, then plants sedum around the edges of the bed, a type with purple-black leaves and, come September, small, hard, ruby flowers.
She is beginning to realise that he did not think she would plant anything permanent. He expected that she would grow flowers from seed and harvest them, an annual crop. There has been this miscommunication right from the beginning, probably the result of her reluctance to talk, his assumption that flowers were grown in the same way as vegetables.
She tells herself it does not matter. Everything she plants, with a couple of exceptions, can be dug up again and moved. Like people, flowers travel: transplanted with care, they usually manage to re-establish themselves, to put down new roots.
Twice in her life she has tried to run away from flowers, the first time from her family’s floristry business, the second time when, out of necessity, she worked as a florist in London. Yet here she is, back among them. They follow her, it seems. Or she, unwittingly, unwillingly, follows them. They present themselves to her as opportunities, the only options.
She knows their common and Latin names. Some have been her companions since earliest childhood, their names learnt alongside her own; they have always been amongst the most important inhabitants of her world. The flowers she grows, that line up wonkily behind her back like a beautiful army, are not as delicate as they look. They are survivors.
She is ready to go. She walks over to where he is working, beside the willow bank.
Goodbye, she says.
I’m going to get a digger in, to grade the earth flat for the house, he says. I’ll get them to scoop out a pond while they’re here.

 

I brought you some milk, she says.
Come and see the pond, he says.
A shallow basin has been scraped out below the flower beds, the excess soil tipped at the southerly edge, building it up into a bank; the effect is pleasing, as if the far lip of the pond were somehow floating above the lower parts of the field.
In her childhood garden, there was a stream, dividing the formal beds around the house from the secret spaces of a stand of native bush. A simple bridge, arch-backed, connected the two worlds. She remembers what it was to paddle in that stream, the little beach of pale gold gravel it left before it exited the property, edged by a rustling screen of bamboo.
So water, yes.
Nothing exists without water.

 

So many things are flowering: Liatris spicata, Eryngium planum, nigella, cornflowers, sweet peas. She comes early to cut the flowers, weeds a little, covers the soil in mulch to stop it losing moisture to the sun and is ready to leave by midday.
When she hears the caravan door open she looks up, expecting to see him, but a woman emerges and walks towards the standpipe to fill the kettle.
Hello.
Who are you? the woman says.
I’m the one who grows the flowers.
He comes out of the caravan, rubbing his hair.
When you’re finished, can you give Jo a lift back to town? he says. Are you finished?
Yes. Pretty much. Just tidying up.
We haven’t had breakfast yet, Jo says. We haven’t even had a cup of tea.
You can have breakfast when you get home.
Are you trying to get rid of me, Jo says, before I’ve had a cup of tea?
Of course not, he says. I’ll make you some tea. Would you like tea?
No, thanks, she says. I’m going soon. But I brought some milk.
As she carries the flowers to the edge of the track, Jo sits on one of the benches by the fire circle and talks to her. The things Jo says are funny in a pithy kind of way. She’s pretty, too.
He brings out two mugs of tea.
I’m off now.
Do you mind giving Jo a lift?
Not at all.
I think I’ll spend the day here, Jo says, stretching and looking around. It’s going to be a beautiful day.
Do what you like, he says. But you should know I’ve got work to do.
Don’t mind me. Jo lies back on the boards, folding her hands over her ribs, shutting her eyes. I’ll be just fine.

 

The pond water is pale bronze, the suspended particles of soil in it yet to settle. He is wading, thigh deep, forearms immersed, planting marginals below the surface. The scent of water is softly mineral, a note of freshness amongst the dry grass and the dust.
Flower buds form on the tiny lavender bushes; the leaves of the sedum are dark as wine. What is winter? Its memory lies in the earth, beneath the bark of the shrubs, the trees. It lies in leaves which tremble in the light. It lies in pollen, gold and grey, the bees collect and carry with them from flower to flower.
When she looks over to the pond again she sees him floating on his back, arms and legs splayed out, five-pointed as a fallen star.

 

Years later, on the day she comes to dig up the last of the flowers, he is not there. He has gone to work in Greece for a while, Jo tells her. On a sustainable building project.
Jo stands in the doorway of the house made of straw. I’ve got a flat in a proper house again, she says. I’m moving on, too.
The wool they’d used as insulation had been full of moth larvae. They’d had a massive infestation, as well as trouble with mice.
What sort of trouble with mice?
They were falling out of the ceiling onto my face, Jo says, while I was asleep.
What can be done?
Jo shrugs. Perhaps the moths have got into the straw. Perhaps the house will have to be torn down, and they’ll start again somehow. He’s gone away to have time to think things through.
Time to think. She had had it, in the hours that she spent here on her knees, eyes on the ground, hands in the good earth.
The willows he grew from sticks reach above her head. The lavenders have filled out from tiny plugs to dense, thick pads. They will remain, along with some other plants that are difficult to shift. Though she tries to lift them carefully, she is bound to miss some bulbs. After she is gone, they will put up their heads each spring, aiming for the light.
Will he think of them as a nuisance?
Or a gift?
Five years on she has managed to reclaim most of what was lost. Now she is moving to a new house with a garden big enough to hold all these flowers.
She walks over to the pond. On its green-grey surface, water lilies float, white and cream and copper-red,  stands of sedge and flag iris softening its edges, and she feels it, as she felt it when she was a child, flowers all around her: a sense of dissolution between here and now and whatever lies just out of reach.
Here.
All that has filtered down into the darkness has given life to flowers that open like a hand; in the centre of each a deepening of colour, which she can hear as if it were a sound.

Nothing exists without water.

She thinks of him and knows that he is well.

 

 

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Short Story of the Month | ‘The Walk’, Jonathan Page

Jonathan Page The Walk short story

Our new Short Story of the Month is ‘The Walk’ by Jonathan Page.

After the anniversary of his lover’s death, a man walks purposefully along a familiar hillside path and ruminates on the relationship that has come to define his life.

Ten years have passed since he bid farewell to the woman, the artist, he loved so dearly – and as her life and the last of her works become public property, he finds himself resisting calls to give up what little he has left of her.

Jonathan Page lives in Bronllys, close to the Black Mountains. He works as a senior technical author and writes literary fiction in his spare time. Jonathan was the winner of the Earlyworks Press Short Story Competition 2015 and the Earlyworks Press Flash Fiction competition 2017. His story, ‘The Hill Farm’, took second prize in the ShortStory.net Competition 2016. His stories have appeared in five anthologies between 2016 and 2017. His current project is Century, a novel of closely connected stories that spans a hundred years in a Welsh border town.

 

The Walk

This is an extract. Read the full short story for free on the Seren website.

John walks a path in the sky. The world falls green away, severe and pleasing in its scale. The soft dissolved fields are as far away as the sky. Cairns stand at intervals on the ridge.

He is full of love for this place. A skylark sews the air over the long drop, like a message to him, like something he should carry home for translation. The light blooms in the long grass and rocks cascade down the steep sides of the hills in suspended glittering motion. The rocks look like coal dust pitched from the end of a spade.

Every time he comes up top it feels new to him. The lark singing in plain sight. The way a rock carries the light on its back. But what do you tell people when you come down again, what can you say. You talk about a rock and a bird and you drift over your pint into more solid matter about the state of your legs or the path or the weather. Your pictures go unseen by others, as they must, as is their nature.

Pictures. His pictures began here.

His longing for Rose overtakes him and he sits on the ground with his hands about his knees. His first paintings were muddy things. He ridged the paint like he planted potatoes and cut paths with his palette knife. There was nothing wrong with them, they sold, but they were wrong. They hid what he wanted seen.

That was when, seventy-six? Rose had been painting a long time. Her pictures were sparse, a few lines and she was done. She smiled at his piles of unvaried muddy panels. Then she took him up here to walk and draw, though there was no intention to change him. He had lived in Llanandred all his life and never come up.

After those first walks he made simpler paintings using reds and golds and blues, the colours and strong architecture of the high moor. They came from his experience of a place and he was no longer so ashamed to draw from it. He had been a teller in a Bank the year before and it was hard to believe he was any good. His father did not think pictures proper work. He thought he shirked. He thought it a phase. He thought it sex.

John closes his eyes and sees Rose’s hand  – the skin thin and soft over the bones in her hand – cover his. The tickle of the air is the hover of her hand over his, about to rest upon it. Maybe the old bastard was right about the sex.

He goes on all fours, his bottom in the air, to help himself get up again. Part of him wants to stay where he is, sheltered by the small cairn and warmed by the sun. His bones are getting old. For a moment the path ahead intimidates like stairs in early childhood.

Come on you lazy sod.

Critics and dealers were always coming to the chapel to see Rose. He saw something switch off in their eyes when they learned the paintings at the back were his. She was the One they came for, the famous Rose Hartwood. If they praised his work it was to please her. If they asked him what he did and what he thought and what he liked it was to please her. They were not unkind, not unperceptive. He was her lover and her assistant, an anteroom they must pass through.

He did not mind. He did not begrudge. Without Rose he would never have left the bank.  Without Rose he would not have found love. Her work besides was extraordinary. She reinvented her work constantly and whatever she did worked. Besides he was still young – youngish – and assumed there would be more for him. He took his hunger to succeed for satisfaction. He took the dead eyes of the critics as proof that his work was truthful.

Later he found himself a footnote in articles and books. The writers and academics milked him for stories of their life together. The age-gap titillated and repulsed and sex was always on their minds when they talked to him. He was a means to an end, an aspect of Rose’s psyche.

A Rose by any other name.

When did he stop painting? Eighty-four or eighty-five, whenever Ted Brentwood’s biography came out.  Rose hated that book. It was a fiction, lies. She hated what he had made of her, what he had made of both of them. Still it secured her legend. It got her commissions and kept her in the public eye. It was glamour of a kind, to be Rose’s lover.

He could not make paintings nobody saw. They were props for his walk-on role. When he looked at one of his paintings his saw a shut door.

John stands on a peninsula jutting out into the flat below. The cairn he uses to shield him from the wind is spiky with slants of greenish rock and the light burns low on the opposing hill. The sun pulls reddish browns and slate and three or more kinds of green out of its rounded forms. One minute the hills are as severe as a vast falling wave, the next all curves.

He sees another walker on the slope opposite, a miniature red upright on the zig-zag path. John raises his hand and he sees the red figure pause and raise its hand to him.

John is nobody without Rose. The figure – a man or woman he can’t tell from here – may be the last person he ever sees.

Continue reading ‘The Walk’ for free here.