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 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