Touched for the very first time is a short story by Paul McDonald was the third prize winner, Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015. touched-for-the-very-first-time-pm
Sentinel Annual Literature Anthology
Touched for the very first time is a short story by Paul McDonald was the third prize winner, Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015. touched-for-the-very-first-time-pm
At one, we drove out to the hills, where we took a walk. We were there for about an hour, holding hands and talking. We talked about our children, our friends, and our jobs.
We had hoped for sunshine, but it was cloudy, the cloud hanging low and dark. It wasn’t raining.
The wind was nasty. I had a hat. She hadn’t brought one. Her ears looked red and sore. She didn’t complain, though.
We saw a tree we thought the children would have loved to climb. It was stocky with low branches.
After the walk, we drove down to the town and had lunch. Soup with rolls, and milky coffee.
She left me then, because she had to collect the children from school.
I walked to the train station and bought my ticket. Then I went into the waiting room, which was heated. A big, white room with long wooden benches. On one sat a woman, black and smartly-dressed. Her hair was rolled up at the back and sides. She wore no make-up. In front of her was a big suitcase she was busy with.
Sitting down on the other bench, I got my book out.
When she was finished with her case, she kicked off her shoes and stretched out on the bench. Her stockinged feet didn’t reach the bottom end. She put her bunched-up hands on her chest. She looked like a child. She closed her eyes and started to talk to herself in a language I didn’t know. She stayed like this for about five minutes. Then she sat up and called someone on her mobile phone.
She spoke in a loud voice. She screeched and laughed. She laughed with her whole body, doubling up, her hand on her chest and then across her stomach. She shook her head and screwed up her eyes.
My train came and I took it.
At five, I met up with colleagues at a pub for someone’s leaving do. I chatted with one, a bloke, about how pub life had changed over the last thirty years. We thought it particularly sad that the tradition of arguing the toss had probably died.
One friend had brought one of her own friends, someone we hadn’t met before. Short and plump, she had a nervous manner, and her eyes were heavily marked with black eye-liner. Noticing she was on the edge of things, I started talking to her. She was a twenty-nine-year-old mother of two. Her partner worked away during the week and came back at weekends – ‘to disturb her routine,’ she said.
I mentioned my two children. It was polite chatter.
We all ate and drank, and gassed. After two hours, we went to a pub where there was karaoke. The karaoke was presided over by a long-haired man who was just starting out on this business venture.
We wrote down on slips of paper provided by him the names of the songs we wanted to sing.
Most of the people in the pub were very drunk. Many were sallow-skinned and sad-looking round the eyes and the mouth. Some of them had a number of teeth missing. I was drunk. I decided to slow down. I had a longish train journey ahead of me.
We danced around the pool table.
A girl with broad-shoulders and a rolling gait – and dressed in jeans and a loose white shirt – walked up and down. She was staring at a thin girl in a short skirt who was sitting on one end of the pool table. They each had loose curly hair, possibly permed. I thought the broad girl had a pretty face and I watched her. The other girl had a pointy face. Hopping down from the pool table, she offered a hand to the broad girl and led her out of the room.
The twenty-nine-year-old, by now quite drunk, invited me up for a dance. As we danced, she pulled me up against her. She asked me if I really had children and I said I did, giving her my children’s names.
She said she had thought I was gay. She said, ‘It was your cardigan.’
‘Usually a clincher,’ I said.
She asked me if I was offended and I laughed.
‘What would you like me to say?’ I said.
She looped her arms around my neck and told me she was considering buying a vibrator. I told her to think long and hard before committing herself.
The two girls returned to the room, still holding hands. They were smiling. The broad girl sat at the end of the pool table and the thin girl stood between her legs. They kissed.
One of our number went up to sing. She did a soul song, and everyone was impressed.
We got excited, assuming our turns were coming up. But there was a problem; people who had arrived after us were being invited up to perform. Nominated by my friends to speak to the karaoke man, I went up. He was stuttering and panic-eyed. He said to me, ‘I’m having a terrible time. Can you help me?’
I had a go at sorting out his slips of paper, only it was dark and I was drunk. I found our slips and put them near the top.
Standing off to one side and still watching the two girls, I thought I might go up to the broad girl and tell her she was beautiful. I believed I might do it.
The plump friend sat beside me. She leaned into me, rested her head on my shoulder. Then she lifted her head and asked me my age. When I told her I was forty-one, she shook her head and stroked my face. I said the light was kind.
I was called up to sing. A friend filmed me on his phone as I performed. At one point, I made a crooner gesture with my free hand. I couldn’t hear myself and so didn’t know if I was in tune. I accepted the applause. A friend said I had done well. Thinking of home, I picked up my coat. The plump girl stood across me and when she asked if we would meet again, I said it was up to the stars.
I left the pub and walked to the train station.
I got off the train and started my walk home. People were coming out of nightclubs and making for fast food places. Others, standing about, were already eating – chips and burgers and kebabs.
I carried on, until I reached the art gallery. Someone was calling to me. I looked up. On the steps leading up to the entrance stood a man, who beckoned me over.
I reached the bottom of the steps. Because of the lack of light, I couldn’t make out his face; but I could see a hat, wide-brimmed and floppy, and flared trousers.
He asked me where I’d been and I told him. He cut across me, saying he’d been waiting for me for ages.
I was getting cold and so I turned to carry on home, only he came down the steps. He pulled me back by the arm and I faced him.
‘I must get in to see it,’ he said, ‘I can’t wait any longer.’
‘See what?’ I asked and rubbed my arm.
‘The painting,’ he said, ‘of a vase of flowers. But it’s no ordinary vase of flowers. It’s the vasest of vases and the flowerest of flowers. You must know the one,’ he insisted, and I wondered if I did.
He gripped my arm again.
‘You put it there,’ he said, and his face was right up against mine, so that I could smell alcohol and dirt. I pulled away, saying I didn’t know what he was talking about.
He cried then.
‘If I don’t see the picture, I’ll go mad.’ He fell down, sobbing, on to the steps. ‘It’s a still life. It stops everything.’
I said I was sorry, that I couldn’t help him. He stopped crying, looked up at me with clear eyes.
‘No,’ he said. ‘I made a mistake. What was I thinking? I’m sorry.’ With a groan, he placed his head in his hands.
I carried on home, arriving there about twenty minutes later.
Having made myself a cup of tea, I sat in the front room. The light was off, moonlight came through the curtains. The telly was quiet. The books on the shelves were grey. The photos in their frames were blank. I switched on the light and the faces beamed at me. SLQ Continue reading
Star Gazing with the Green Man
Calling it a love story doesn’t quite explain it. It was a collision: his world of nature went smash-bang into my world of commerce. Of course, he couldn’t stay. Still, sitting here, miles from the city where we met, round bellied and sleepy, the January sun reaching through the dirt dappled window, I can’ help but reminisce.
It was the first Tuesday of March, Shrove Tuesday. In a seven o clock dash around the supermarket, stinking of printer ink, fingers aching from bashing at a keyboard, I bought the ingredients for pancakes. I would make them in my narrow kitchen, douse with lemon and sugar then eat them with my fingers, standing up in stockinged feet, washing it all down with a bottle of soave. Slut that I am.
‘Pancake Day’ had been big in my family. But while other villagers celebrated it then observed Ash Wednesday and Lent with excited self-sacrificing zeal, we simply gorged ourselves with fried batter and sugar then gave up nothing after. Winters were always hard in such isolation, so, for us borderline heathens the celebration of its end with a feast was necessary rather than religious.
So many bleak, bitter winter nights had been spent by a draughty window, staring at the mist hemming in our cottage, that I seem to have missed life as a teenager. I longed to get out and lose myself in a city full of fascinations.
Then, there I was, slam bang in the middle of the metropolis. But I was too busy to be fascinated by anything. My world was as small and grey as ever: my flat, to the underground, to the office and back again. Morning and night. And while my bank account grew, my life shrunk even more. I could barely breathe; it wasn’t the city smog that stopped me but the suffocating pressure and alienation. I was drowning among a tide of papers and monitors.
So, when I stood in the checkout queue, pancake ingredients in my basket, ravenously eating a sandwich I’d yet to pay for, I was incapable of feeling anything. I wasn’t even ashamed when the checkout girl shook her head in disgust as she scanned the empty butter stained sandwich packet. It might as well have been a flag emblazoned with the phrase, “lonely workaholic who was too ‘busy’ for lunch”.
I was still licking the egg mayonnaise off my fingers when I stepped out of the supermarket and into the underground station next door. It was then I saw it: a midnight blue poster pasted to the pale green tiles, silver pinprick stars spelling out, ‘Star Gazing. All Welcome. North Gate of the heath, 9 p.m.’ It was a dreamy, magical notice, shimmering and childlike.
I hadn’t looked at the sky for months. I didn’t even know you could still see the stars in the city, with all the light pollution. And surprisingly, even to myself, in that moment I decided to go.
So, after pancakes and wine I put on a coat, hat and perfume. I didn’t have any gloves. Somehow, I hadn’t felt the London winter merited buying them, although there’d been moments that year when it seemed as if my fingers and toes would snap off like icicles.
When I arrived at the North Gate of the heath, there was a small gathering of people, breathing streams of steam, each pretending to be an adventurer. I placed myself in the ring, smiled; there were nods and return smiles. But the smiles disappeared, when at eight o clock exactly, in the clear dark, there was a shaking beneath the grey tarmac, as if a slumbering earth was shifting in her sleep. And to add to the excitement, the moment the gasps and terror subsided there was a rustling in the copse that formed that end of the heath. The low branches of the oaks and beeches began to tremble; the squat bushes at the edge of the wood shook and parted. Our guide emerged, rising from the undergrowth as if he had been there all along. He strode towards us wearing brown and green, as if for camouflage. A tall, young, bearded man with shining malachite eyes, illuminated in the shaft of light from the street lamp where we gathered. His sanguine smile only served to delineate our sense of disquiet.
“Did you feel the tremor?” one of the group asked as he joined the circle, right next to me.
“I did. It’s just the earth shuddering from all the punishment she takes.”
His intoxicating scent of grass and coltsfoot along with his powerful presence were a heady mix. I swayed towards him. Then, as if it was a perfectly natural thing to do, he scooped up my right hand. “Your fingers are cold. Don’t you have any gloves?” His sonorous voice swept past me; I had to listen hard to catch it. He lifted my fingers to his lips, his warm breath making them tingle – the whole of me tingle. The rest of the circle just looked on. It may have been just a passing moment to them, something a young, free outdoors man might do to a city woman as she stood on the pavement, waiting to be shown what wonders the natural world still held. “My name is Ingram,” he said to us all, “there are some fascinating constellations visible tonight.” Then we went through the North Gate.
At the end of that night, after staring at the sky long enough for the pin prick stars to appear from the haze of streetlamps and lit office buildings, the group arranged to meet again at the weekend. Ingram said the sky would be slightly darker then, so it would be easier for us to see.
That weekend was the first time I hadn’t worked a Saturday for as long as I could remember. During the afternoon I went for a walk, bought a bunch of daffodils, made a meal with vegetables from the local greengrocers and climbed onto the roof of my block of flats to smoke a cigarette I’d found at the bottom of an unused handbag.
I arrived at the North Gate, clear headed and relaxed, joining the waiting circle. Ingram silently walked towards me from the direction of the wood, immediately taking my right hand in his. I didn’t pull away, rather I let his warmth envelop me. We held hands for most of the night.
I kept returning to the star gazing circle for the whole of March and most of April; no longer was my Saturday spent at work. Instead, I’d wake early and go about my domestic business while noticing every last detail around me: the shifting clouds; the shade of the sky; the daisies pushing through the gaps in the pavement. I let my skin feel the wash of rain and the kiss of the spring sun. The world was alive again.
By mid-April, Ingram and I were seeing each other alone. We would walk on the heath, or around the garden squares, or stroll beneath the hornbeams and plane trees that lined the avenues off the high street. We watched the bare branches take on their clothes, a whole palette of greens, splashed with pink and white blossom.
By the end of May, the wood that bordered the heath was thick and dense again. We negotiated it with a torch one night, Ingram leading the way, holding my hand. At its very heart, in a place invisible to the road or path, we stopped.
“Why are we stopping here?” I said.
Ingram didn’t answer. Instead, he took his pack from his back, pulled out bed rolls and blankets. “It’s going to be a dry night. Let’s sleep here.”
“But we can’t see any stars,” I murmured, feeling foolish and a little afraid. “Yes, but we know they are there.”
“I’ll make a fire.” Almost instantly he set about clearing the leaves and undergrowth, creating a stone circle with found rocks. I stood in the clearing with the torch, wondering whether to turn and run.
Soon, we were in the orange glow of the flames, stretched on the blankets, a ring of darkness around us. His daytime scent of grass and coltsfoot still lingered and there was a crackle of magic that seemed to have come alive with the dancing fire. He leaned over, put a hand on the curve of my hip, kissed me. His warm, sweet tasting mouth was soft and insistent. It was a potent sensation. He smelt earthier now, and when I reached up to his hair, I could feel waxy leaves tangled in the soft curls. I cannot remember the details of what happened next but I remember the feelings. We made love and it was, by all accounts, the most thrilling, profound night of my life.
When I woke, to the song of a blackbird, even in the densest part of the wood the stippled sun shone through. Ingram lay next to me, his face glowing gold, the blanket over his shoulders strewn with emerald leaves and vegetation. He opened his eyes, they shone a hypnotic black. “How do you feel?” his voice was a whisper.
“Alive,” I said.
“You know what I’m going to tell you, don’t you?”
I nodded. I had always known. His leaving was inevitable. Yet, I wasn’t bitter or even upset; instead I felt an overwhelming sense of liberation.
“I’m sorry. I have to go.” I sensed his regret; I think he wanted to spend the summer with me.
“I won’t forget you,” I murmured as I stood. The mellow, woody air was sensual against my nakedness. He just lay there and watched as I pulled on my clothes. I turned to leave. But as I was about to step out of our enchanted circle, I looked back to say a last goodbye. I could barely make him out against the verdant carpet of spring.
On the High Street, the rising sun bled orange across a clear sky. The early shopkeepers and marketeers wore shirtsleeves and thin jumpers. Vivid fruit and flowers were being unloaded from the back of vans. There seemed to have been a change. It was the beginning of summer.
And what a splendid summer it was, hot and sultry. I yearned for Ingram but I didn’t feel alone. The streets were busy; people in the neighbourhood I had rushed past so many times, were friendly to me now. They’d beckon me for pavement coffees, invite me for beer garden drinks.
It was September before I realised I was pregnant. Upon my discovery I momentarily wished for Ingram but that gave way to rejoicing at his precious, parting gift. Even though I was alone, in a small city flat, I felt nothing but hope and excitement. I trusted – and still trust – that fate will provide for her, just as fate and nature gave her to me in the first place.
Soon, despite the city glowing ochre and bronze in the autumn light, the pavements strewn with amber leaves from the steadfast trees, it no longer bewitched me. I resolved to move somewhere a child could be closer to the earth, could see the uninterrupted stretch of night sky that is the canvas for the constellations.
Now, here I am in my narrow, rickety cottage in the midst of winter, the raging fire merely biting the ends of the draught from the ill-fitting front door. The frost is thick and hard across the garden. The nearest shop for milk or a newspaper is a fifteen-minute walk, but I can walk at my own pace and breathe again.
Every so often I feel the fluttering shift of tiny hands and feet inside me, then a bold, boisterous kick. She will be born in February. Her name is Muna. All I can do is hope that one day, next spring, he will return to see her. SLQ
Lynne Voyce has had more than fifty short stories published in books, magazines and online. She has won and been placed in many competitions. Her first solo short story collection was published in December 2014 by Ink Tears Press. It is available from their website and on Amazon in first edition hardback and Kindle. Lynne is currently working on her first novel and blogs outlining her journey. She lives with her husband, two daughters and various animals in Birmingham, where she works as an English Teacher in an inner city comprehensive. She is an avid reader, watcher and talker.
Star Gazing with the Green Man by Lynne Voyce won second prize in the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015 judged by Alex Keegan.
In the Kingdom of Complaint
It’s a business lunch at Angelini’s. Kitchen noises marry sotto voce conversations in a restaurant the size of a small fishing boat. All the waiters speak Italian. With crooked teeth and the beginnings of a paunch, these men are clearly not in pursuit of the ubiquitous movie career. They are career waiters, magicians of sanity amidst the illusory drama of a lunch meeting in LA.
There are four of us: the soon to be exhibited artist, my art dealer dealmaker boss, his girlfriend and me. As my boss is a demi-regular, we’re seated pronto at a four-top near the window. Pleasantries are exchanged. Water arrives. Scorecards come out.
“Yeah, reminds of me of Italy. We spent a summer there.”
“Oh which part?”
“Tuscany, you know that area?”
Phrases bump and grind their way out of the mouths of the players. The artist’s pitch begins. Then the girlfriend swings into action. Sun is in her eyes. Terrible. Let’s all re-position our chairs, squeeze together to the left of the light. Oh dear. Still not right. Let’s try another arrangement.
She hoists her palm towards her forehead to block the sun. The blue of her eyes glistens. Her face is wide and pale as the moon and she apologizes with such delicacy, we scurry to nudge our chairs towards the corners of the table, attend to her needs as a roomful of fellow travelers pretend not to be inconvenienced by this myriad of rearrangements.
I realize I am here on false pretenses. My queries regarding process and transport of the artist’s large-scale panel paintings garner little attention from the dealmaker. No exhibition specifics (my area of expertise) will be addressed. The conversation stays rooted in memories of meals eaten in Italy and the New York art scene of the 1980s and 90s. Smiles are exchanged in rapid-fire sequences, red wine – a wonderful bottle, yes I’ll have another glass – and sparkling water flowing as freely as their recollections of a more desirable past.
Despite all the pro-forma civility, I understand yet again, sadly yet again, I am not here to participate in this discussion; I am used as ornament. I order an arugula salad and listen.
The dealmaker’s girlfriend is the widow of an artist, a very New York artist, an artist revered – His colors, man, I love that – by this living artist at table. She spends her days providing care and maintenance for her husband’s paintings. Though eulogized and buried, acknowledged as officially deceased by all the banks, credit card companies and medical facilities that devoured the last years of his life, her former husband continues to weave his needs into her present. She lives in the truly swell flat he purchased for them in the 1980s. The sale of his work continues to pay her bills. I feel confident the ‘sun’ that blinded her moments ago is yet another incarnation of his shadow, once again attempting to hypnotize her.
My dealmaker boss orders more wine and holds forth as to the status of wine making in the States. When the bottle arrives, he insists on subjecting the test glass to a series of whiplash motions along the tabletop. Though he explains the necessity for this seeming violence, it feels excessive to me. As he sniffs at the decidedly ‘shaken and not stirred’ wine and contemplates what I can only imagine are memories of wines past, he launches into a story about a tour of the ‘fields’ with the ‘most important vintner in France.’ With every additional detail, he safeguards himself from interruption by increasing his volume. By the time the specifics of bottle year and bouquet come tumbling forth, his approval of the wine choice secured, there is nothing for us to do but murmur appreciative non-sequiturs and re-read the menu again.
The artist’s eyes dart furtively from speaker to speaker. I wonder if he has noted, forty-five minutes into the meeting we still have not mentioned his upcoming exhibit. Nor have we actually spoken about his artwork.
Behind me, the front door swooshes open and then clangs shut. The bustle of fresh-faced hipsters, loafer-wearing elders and women of a certain age with the bust-lines of a twenty-something continues. Food orders are placed. The waiters are patient – Can I get that without tomatoes? Is it vegan? No sea bass? Business as usual I suppose. Past tense reveries and disappointment seem to rule the day.
Yet outside the sky remains so very cheerfully blue.
I head for the ladies room where I am greeted by a bowl of orange tulips, yellow edged with black centers. They’re placed near a designer sink barely large enough for hand washing but are splayed open with such carefree excess I forget about the trio back at the table. Beauty might yet win the day. I resolve to emulate these flowers during the remainder of this meeting.
I check my lipstick and look myself in the eye. You are not this business, I whisper to my reflection. This phrase gives me such pleasure I repeat it several times. You are not this business. You are not this business. No matter how I inflect it, every time I say it, relief floods my limbs like medicine.
It’s really no wonder she keeps company with the dealmaker. Though I have come to understand him as a man who honors the size of the check above all else and conjures insult when a hotel’s turn-down service fails to deliver (I have written many a letter of complaint for him), perhaps she’s lonely or weary and he’s noisy; he’s a distraction from some larger grief and perhaps that feels like kindness.
Throughout the meal, between bites, they complain sympathetically. Joyfully. Knowing glances arrive as punctuation to choreographed expressions of dismay. The horror of undercooked veal. The reliable inefficiency of parking attendants. What a time we live in, eh? The daily assault on a refined sensibility astonishes. It’s a grievance driven life and they are intimates in this distress. But, a silver lining does exist, as he desires attention but no real involvement and she remains essentially married to her deceased husband, they are perfect for each other. They can shop for pillows, discuss the best kind of olive oil and where to order it, sigh in unison about the sorrows of his adult children and her mother ‘s illnesses and never breathe their secrets.
The artist has now ordered his third glass of wine. I surrender all hope of discussion regarding his exhibition. Everyone has a spoonful –Wow is that good. Yes, but not as good as what you can get anywhere in Italy – of sorbet.
But the great rogue I know as happiness is elsewhere. He’s exited this four-top and pitched his tent with the valet parking guys, the ones whose voices bounce back and forth like a song, the ones smiling at the traffic on Melrose, enjoying their time amidst the cacophony of Southern California.
As I watch my boss and his girlfriend evaluate their gluten free biscotti, sunlight strips the features from their faces. They ooze contentment and I have no wish to begrudge them their pleasure. But I can no longer un-see my dismay with the tone of this chatter, this entire enterprise. My days as a hired hand in the kingdom of complaint are numbered.
I lean my face away from the glare and imagine an orange tulip behind my ear. SLQ
Marie Chambers received an MFA from the Professional Writing Seminars at Bennington College. Her work has appeared in The LA Review of Books. The Atlanta Review, Talking Writing, The Quotable, The Ilanot Review, Printer’s Devil Review, the Seven Hills Review, Ironhorse Literary Review, the California Poetry Society and (coming in the fall) Bookwoman, a publication of the National Women’s Book Association. She was a winner of the 2015 ARTlines2 Ekphrastic Poetry Contest for work inspired by a piece of art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (judged by Robert Pinsky and published by Public Poetry September 2015.)
In the Kingdom of Complaint by Marie Chambers was highly commended in the Sentinel Annual Short Story Competition 2015 judged by Alex Keegan.
A short story
Rolf had looked forward to meeting Cousin Ingrid. His mother had always said what a clever girl she was – never lower than fourth in her high school years, twice second, and once, in her penultimate year, top of the whole class. His mother had gained this information not directly from Cousin Ruth, who was in contact so seldom, but through Cousin Josef, who had some years earlier persuaded Cousin Ruth to send him copies of all her daughter’s report cards.
As she walked towards him, Rolf thought how well Cousin Ingrid looked, with her short blond hair, and her figure so solid and sturdy. He put out his hand, and was surprised to find her squeezing him around the shoulders and slapping his back in much the way a man might do. She even wanted to carry his case, but that he could not allow. “An old-fashioned gentleman, huh?” she said, putting her hands on her hips and drawling her words a little. “What you got in there anyhow?” she asked, observing him strain with the weight of the case. “Look like you came for the whole semester, not just a weekend.”
“I always carry my encyclopaedia and guide books,” Rolf replied with a hint of pride. “In case I have difficulty sleeping.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, slowly, looking closely at his face. “You’re serious, aren’t you?”
Cousin Ingrid had an automobile parked in the station forecourt. Rolf was very surprised that college students were permitted automobiles on the premises. How much freer things were here in the United States. And wilder too, at times. For instance, Rolf was much struck by the way Ingrid threw things. She began by throwing open the automobile door so hard the hinges buckled. Then she showed her almost unnatural strength by picking up his case with ease and tossing it onto the back seat. The instant they were both inside, she flung her seatbelt on, hurled the gearstick forward, and propelled them out into the traffic, seemingly indifferent to the blaring of horns. And threw so many questions at Rolf he felt his head spinning before they had even reached the campus. How was he finding Philly? How was Mom? Was the house as messy as ever? Wasn’t he hot wearing that necktie in this weather? Oh, by the way, she hoped he wouldn’t mind sharing a room with a friend of hers, just down the hall, a guy named Jim. And what was all this Cousin bullshit?
On this last question she looked round at him for the first time and laughed, not the cruel kind of laugh he had heard so often, but a sort of friendly dog’s bark that was like a second question in itself. He straightened his tie and simply said he had been taught it was respectful to give family members their full title.
“So what’s your Mom call you – ‘Son Rolf’?” said Ingrid, more sharply this time. But then she smiled, punched him lightly on the shoulder and added, “Anyway, you needn’t bother Cousining me, I won’t take it amiss, okay?” Rolf nodded and after a silence asked who Jim was.
“Oh, Jim Dodd, he’s a friend, on the soccer team I run. Kind of what we call a jock. You know, the big sporty type. You like sport, Rolf?”
Rolf stared despondently through the rather dirty windshield. He saw his mother, her grey hair tied in a neat bun, standing in the scullery, holding the huge steam iron that was her pride and joy and had been in the household since the days of her grandmother. Her smile, such a rare event in itself, was made almost ghostly by the gusts of steam, as she prepared to tackle Rolf’s school sports jerseys, which she would do with meticulous care, refusing the help of housemaids, as if polishing the armour of some heroic husband on the eve of battle. This picture then gave way to a montage of ball games, with people shouting at Rolf to catch it, or stop it, or hold it, and him invariably dropping it, or missing it or losing it; and his surname being mocked with bellowing sneers of frustration and contempt. The school was an enormous private institution, situated on the outskirts of a city many miles from his town, where no-one either knew or cared about his family’s local pre-eminence. Once, when he had been forced to play goalkeeper, someone had swung themselves up onto the crossbar above him, undone their flies and urinated on his head. The same boy later approached him with a grin, made as if to embrace him, and proceeded to sink his teeth into Rolf’s arm. The bite went right through his jersey, leaving teeth-marks in the skin for days.
Soon after those marks finally faded he began refusing to join in the games of his classmates. One morning, he painted his whole face bright red, using a watercolour set he had been given for Christmas. Terrified it was scarlet fever, his father had rushed him to the doctor’s; and Rolf would never forget the silence as the doctor took a long look at his face, shook his head, took out some cotton wool, dampened it under the tap, and mopped the paint off in slow downward strokes.
Ingrid was shaking his shoulder and gently repeating her question. By then they were turning through the campus gates. Rolf struggled to regain control, thinking that he should take his medication earlier than usual today.
That evening, Ingrid, Rolf and Jim went to see a film at a cinema in downtown Ithaca. Rolf sat in the darkness listening to the others laughing – Ingrid more loudly and freely even than the rest. Sometimes Jim put his arm round her shoulder and whispered in her ear. At one point, when he seemed to be attempting to tickle her, she caused several people to look round in amusement by shrieking with laughter, upsetting at least two boxes of popcorn, and giving him a firm slap on the thigh. Rolf wondered how an audience in his own country would react to people shouting out and slapping each other. He pictured his mother whirling round with a huge Shhh! and a glare of disapproval. And how would Ingrid and Jim have responded to that? In this sort of mood he could see them opening their popcorn boxes and pouring the whole lot over her furious face.
When Cousin Ingrid had introduced them that evening, Jim had been very friendly to Rolf. “Hey Rolf, how ya doing, enjoying the States?” he had said, flashing his huge smile, almost crushing Rolf’s hand in his. Then, before Rolf could reply, he had chased Ingrid down the residence corridor, picked her up in one arm and held her over his shoulder like a trophy while she drummed her fists into his back. During the movie, Rolf had thought of a list of questions to ask Jim when they got back to his room, about his studies and family, but he did not get the chance. Jim had no sooner turned the key in the lock of his door than he was saying goodnight. “Listen,” he whispered. “Don’t bother with the couch, take my bed – the linen’s clean on today. See you in the morning, okay?” And Rolf had lain down on the tiny bed, staring at the ceiling, loosening his tie. For many minutes he thought that Jim might be joking, and would suddenly burst in, having tiptoed back down the hall and waited his moment by the door. An hour passed, two hours, and eventually Rolf, his headache gradually clearing, fell asleep, though he did not dare remove his clothes. He had been watching the shadows on the walls and wondering what Cousin Ruth would make of these sleeping arrangements. To say nothing of his mother. He must take care not to mention this part of his visit when recounting it to family members.
There were no curtains on Jim’s windows and Rolf woke at dawn. In the distance he imagined he heard someone moaning. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, got up and walked to the window. The room looked onto a playing field. He heard the moaning again, low but unmistakeable, like a distant engine. He was not a complete innocent, he knew what such things meant. He had read about them, illicitly, and gaining no pleasure from the transgression, in the wrong sorts of magazine, the ones he often found discarded at train stations and in public toilets. Now, torn between listening to the moans and trying to blot them out by humming, he wondered, not for the first time, if this was how he himself had been produced. From some casual union of young people caught up in all the laughing and shouting. In the milieu of his parents, casual union of any kind seemed unlikely, but he had once overheard his parents – or perhaps he should say Mathilde and Otto – mentioning that he had been born in the depths of the countryside, a wild and permissive place, inhabited by very low people. He had visions of a nocturnal festival deep in the valleys, a whole community gathered round a huge bonfire, in commemoration of some seasonal milestone. He saw torchlight, and dancing, and sturdy young milkmaids dragging drunken stable lads towards the hayloft…
And then he saw the days after he failed his final exams, the period before the cruel looks and the barbed remarks, when his parents, especially Mathilde, were simply stunned –too stunned, it seemed, to react. Their only son, not merely exposed as an inadequate, but the sole pupil in his class to be thus adjudged! Some days later he was sent to the doctor, the same elderly gentleman with horn-rimmed spectacles and silver hair, who had wiped the paint from his face all those years before, and who now referred him to a specialist. The specialist ran some tests and diagnosed his condition as “a progressively worsening displacement from reality and a failure to cope with the demands of normal social interaction”. As he withdrew into himself and his room, Matilde took every opportunity to remind him that had it not been for his father’s influence in the town, the doctor would have entered the diagnosis on his medical records, with incalculable consequences for his future. Meanwhile she gave it out around the town that her son was deep in study for a forthcoming engineering apprenticeship that his father had arranged in the United States, where he would be staying with her emigrée cousin, the well-known actress and director, Ruth Markham.
One night, hearing Otto’s voice in the hall below, Rolf had emerged from his room, gone downstairs and announced that he wished to contact the agency and begin a search for his real parents. Otto, who had just returned from work and still had his favourite velvet-lapelled overcoat over his left elbow, lifted his free hand and dealt Rolf a ferocious smack across the face. Rolf found himself lying face down on the hall floor. As he stared at its chequered marble tiles, his cheek smarting, his mind burning, he wished he had never been born, either in the countryside or here; and when Matilde helped him to his feet, he started screaming at the top of his voice and kicked her in the shins. She gave a yelp of shock, and jumped out of range, before Otto, flinging the overcoat aside, called Rolf a fucking crazy little bastard and punched him hard in the ribs. This time no-one helped him up, so he lay there until the doctor appeared and gave him a sedative.
Ever since then, he has been on his best behaviour. SLQ
I know I am loved
People ask me, what will you do when the dog’s gone, as if, you know, to prepare me? And no, I don’t know how I’m going to manage, but just for today I’m not going to think about that. Lying here on the grass in the heart of the estate, the trees around like a green womb, I am safe, secure. I breathe London, the scent of lime trees and dust, petrol fumes and humidity, the gray grainy smell of home, the sigh of a plane above is home, a sigh repeated again and again, like someone sighing in relief to be home.
London has so many of these tiny green spaces like little green hearts, beating the summer time gently away.
Here I was born. Here I got married. Here I drank and got sober, in the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in another age, before it was only for millionaires and immigrants.
Now London’s green arms hold me secure, rock me gently in the passing of time. I’ve made it.
I’ve made it. I’m 50. White trousers and blouse, red bag and sandals, turquoise toes, cherry lips going slightly soft. Big baby eyes, soft baby cheeks just beginning to fall in and wrinkle. Flat, east end voice, that I did my best to modulate. My hair a soft iron sheet down my back. If I were to have an out-of-the-body experience, so I would see myself, lying down there, on the green grass, all in white, red sandals and bag, sheet of grey hair. No one else has hair like me. The other day someone told me they recognised me across Victoria station by my hair. I’ve got a fringe like the dog’s!
There she is, peeping up out of my mobile phone, ears coy, dotingly groomed, black and white fringe immaculate. A pampered mutt with a fine salt and pepper mane. Forget breeds, she might have a bit of terrier in her. Little white neat teeth. She has that demure, daft look, like a grown-up daughter nestling against her mother: I know I am loved.
Vet says she might last another year. She can’t manage the stairs any longer, and as for walks, it’s me walking and her being carried, if you know what I mean. I don’t know how old she is. She came from Battersea Dogs’ Home 13 years ago. Might have been one, maybe two, when I got her. Although my hair was stone grey even then. You could say we’re both living on borrowed time.
Have to leave her indoors with John on a day like this. So hot. London’s got so hot in recent years; and humid. Sun soaks into you, like a steam bath. I swear a storm is building. In the charity shop the back door stands open behind the till, onto a small green yard of ferns and young sycamores and a black iron spiral staircase. That’s my London, my childhood. Stairs rang and throbbed with my steps. Only in those days it was a newsagent’s, and I remember running down with two and six and reaching up to slap it onto the counter for my mother’s Players No 6. We took it for granted the alley behind was magic and that when you looked through the round knot-holes of the wood fence it was into another world, of streaming sunlight.
Not like this hot muggy humid sun, that seems to turn you and everything else to moisture. My mother would have been horrified at my being damp and sticky on a hot day. Oh no, we can’t have any of that. Sit up and shake my clothes around and I’ll soon dry. There must be a bit of a breeze somewhere – and oh my God what’s that. I’ve flooded. A big red patch between my thighs. Of course it would be when I’m wearing white trousers. What would Mother say to this, what could she say? An ominous, urgent pulsating out. My God it’s like a torrent. Flooding out of me.
– This is my last period, I know intuitively, it’s going. I’m going. It’s all going, all those unused years of fertility, the link with my mother, long dead, how I came from her womb and for a few years we were women together, all the other women in my family, all the generations going back, my own life, pouring out in a red stream, the hand of time squeezing and squeezing my womb so its coming out in squelches. This must be what giving birth is like, squeezing your womb again and again. Kind of almost rhythmic, you could almost count it, one-two, one-two. I’m being squeezed by time, maybe dying. So relentless. This cannot last. This has to stop or I’ll die, I’ll be gone.
And I think, all that for 30 years – for what? Pain and discomfort every month. No kids. Just a monthly sloughing off, in which the veil between the worlds thins and you’re in touch with you, the inner you, the tiny red being that lives in your red womb. The tiny shouting pulsating shaking red woman. The one you normally manage to keep down, keep civilised. The one who keeps shouting, how things really are. And now she’s dying, the little red woman is curling up and bleeding to death.
And I’m thinking of other things; how impregnated the summer shade here is with dust and pollen and traffic fumes and hay, like the bit in Great Expectations where Wemmick says to Pip, of that dismal yard at the coaching inn, ah, the retirement reminds you of the country; so it does me. And I’m thinking of the proposition from the corner shop man the other day, when out of the blue he says to me, I’m going to Birmingham for the weekend, would you like to come as well! Well I was very spontaneous in my reply! Come off it, Mustafa, I said, what about John? I don’t even know you, I said, I just come in here for my newspaper and a bit of dog food! And I’m thinking of my mother and how I never did go to a grammar school and how I still have a chip on my shoulder about not being educated. And I’m thinking of running up and down the alley as a child and collecting sycamore wings, and peepholes in fences into the other world and the iron stairs ringing under me.
And it’s like all these memories are running out of me with the blood.
So I’ve got to walk away from all this, get back to the flat. The grass beneath me is flattened and smeared and as I lean onto it, to get up, my hand comes away red. I never thought I’d bleed into the earth. Very elemental; and there’s a faint tang of iron in my nose. I feel a bit sick, actually. Bit faint. A sinking feeling. My bag, put that in front of me, red shielding red. And start walking across the grass to the foyer, praying I’ll meet nobody. No chatty neighbours. Let the lift not be broken down, and dear God, it is working. Otherwise seven floors’ a long way up.
And rush straight to the bathroom, now at last I can peel off the red wet material. Wipe my inner thighs, white and puckering and now stained. Already the flood is stemming, like the last cry of my body, the last scream of the little red woman inside. I’ll never wear these trousers again. Straight into a carrier bag and into the bin. I should lose some weight. I looked all right when the white trousers held me together. Now look at me, all rolling tyres and wet thighs with greying hairs all matted and stained. Brutal, really; quite brutal, what time does to you. But that’s okay. I know I am loved. SLQ
Fiona Marshall is a writer and editor, and has published short stories, poetry and non-fiction. Her short stories can be viewed at Ether Books, www.etherbooks.com
A short story by Amanda Zaldua
I watch you, my love, drag your weary body to sitting and then sitting still for a moment on the edge of the bed, contemplating what? I don’t know. You slowly rise and spend time carefully making the bed, our bed, our love nest we used to call it, remember? We used to laugh at that. Then you go downstairs achingly slowly, supporting yourself with the bannister. You let yourself out, out into the cold morning bare foot, your cotton nightie barely covering your legs, your once beautiful legs. They used to turn heads, those legs. You pretended not to notice but I knew. You make your way down the street. Continue reading
Ron Jones has two stories in the April-June 2015 Sentinel Literary Quarterly; Bunjee and The Procession – first prize winning and commended stories respectively in the SLQ Short Story Competition (February 2015) Read the stories here
by Brindley Hallam Dennis
The first few stories I read, of the nearly one hundred that had been submitted to the competition, were not prizewinners. That was the luck of the draw. Of the following ninety, far too many were far too good to make a judge’s life comfortable.
I discussed my criteria with a friend. How will you go about it? He asked. I answered that I’d pick the ones that had the greatest impact on me. He would have taken, he said, what he called the ‘bureaucratic’ route, by which he meant having half-a-dozen elements against which he would judge each story.
I could see the logic in that. A story that ticked all the boxes would be the winning story: obvious. Most of the stories submitted to this competition would have ticked most of the boxes I would have devised: location, character, narrative voice, storyline, ambience, but I suspect I would have ended up with a ‘Ministry of Works’ (an archaic term that I hope still communicates its meaning!) story, ‘a horse designed by a committee.’ It would have been competent, reliable, worthy, politically correct, safe, and not too pungent. All the elements would have been in balance: nothing would have strained to pull the story in any particular direction. In short, it would have been without identity.
I don’t react to stories in that way, and I hope that you don’t either. Very many of these stories pleased me. Some made me laugh, one or two made me wince. A few seemed more like reports of stories than actual stories. Several were marred by slips of the pen, or of the mind; some had poor punctuation that made them difficult to understand. Some gave me the impression that their narrators did not know why they were telling them, nor to whom. One or two seemed like authorial wishful thinking.
Most were imaginative, exciting, told with passion and commitment. The worlds they envisioned were credible, compelling, often very like ours; sometimes quite different. The stories believed in themselves and, for a while, could be believed in. Reading through them all made me realise just how healthy the short story form, in English, is at the moment. But I had to pick out a mere six, for prizes, and High Commendation.
Though not tick-boxes, I do have two fundamental questions that I believe must be asked of stories. The first is ‘what is it about?’ This is the question we are almost certain to ask, or think of asking, when somebody tells us they have read something. The second is ‘what is it like?’ This is a question that writers are more likely to ask, because we want to know how it has been done. They are the questions that point to content, and to form. All art tries to balance those two, and it is the tension between them that gives potency to the work.
I’ve won prizes and commendations in the past, and I’ve also sunk without trace. In both circumstances I’ve reminded myself that it’s one person’s (or perhaps a small panel’s) opinion that has been swayed, for good or ill. It’s worth remembering that the success in writing is in the writing, it is only ‘recognition’ that anyone else can bring to you – and that is limited by their abilities as a reader as much as by yours as a writer!
The winning story haunted me. From the moment I read it, it remained in the back of my mind. I knew it was a contender immediately, and none of the subsequent stories shifted it from my consciousness. From the title onwards it worked towards its ending. I like powerful endings: Ambrose Bierce, sending us forward into a disaster that we cannot help but foresee in the last two words of The Coup de Grace; Ernest Hemingway, sending us back into the story with fresh understanding after the shattering revelation in the last sentence of A Canary For One. Yet here, I choose a story that has what we might call an open ending. The Weight of Dunlins is a story that is most definitely over though. The narrator has finished telling it, leaving us to wonder: how long ago did it happen? Is he still on the island? Might he meet her again? And think about the qualities of those two ‘wows’ they have exchanged: metaphors for the relationship between them.
The atmosphere of place, of people located in place and in time, is powerful. The relationship between the protagonists is uneven, and nuanced. That oblique title sets us off on a quest that the explanation of ‘machair’ only deepens, into a story that is at the same time both simple and ‘grounded’, yet also highly imaginative and ethereal.
My Second prize story is in a totally different genre: The Cranes soon loses its contact with objective reality, before even a foot has been placed on the first rung. Yet, as the protagonist climbs higher the glimpses of reality that he gets become sharper and more powerful as he distances himself from them. The final scenes, the final words, are terrifyingly real.
Third prize goes to Mah Sister, which I loved for the hutzpah of its language as much as for the neat twist in its tail. As this story progresses, a deft and light narrative thread gives way to a well-handled dialogue. If you havnae heard a Scottish accent before, get your ear in on the internet, and this story will sing to you! And if, like me, you laugh out loud, remember that it is your own assumptions (prejudices we might call them) that lead you to the comic surprise!
My three Highly Commendeds are Ganesh, The Cosmological Constant, & The 5A to Hangleton.
Ganesh is a simple story of human contact and communication in a moment of distress. The meeting, across class and culture, is credible and moving.
The Cosmological Constant shows us the wonderful, obsessive focus of the ‘corporate’ mind on the task in hand, oblivious of the chaos going on around.
The 5A to Hangleton takes us on a surreal journey, that seems entirely plausible, to the point of normality; but there is triangle of very real people behind it.
Results (June 2013)
Highly Commended, in no particular order:
Joy Clews – Ganesh
Rob Hawke – The 5A to Hangleton
Jason Hopps – The Cosmological Constant
James McKenzie – Mah Sister
Rhuar Dean – The Cranes
Colin Watts – The Weight of Dunlins
Congratulations to the winners and highly commended authors. These stories will be published in Sentinel Literary Quarterly magazine on 31st January, 2014. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd prize winners automatically appear in print. The highly commended stories may also appear in print, subject to space, otherwise they will be published in the online and eBook versions of the magazine. If you are a winner or commended author and have any questions regarding the publication of your work, send enquiries to email@example.com
For original, previously unpublished poems in English language on any subject, in any style up to 50 lines long.
Closing Date: 30th September, 2013
Judge: Todd Swift
Prizes: £150 (1st), £75 (2nd), £50 (3rd), £10 x 3 (High Commendation)
Fees: £4/1, £7/2, £9/3, £11/4, £12/5, £16/7, £22/10
For original, previously unpublished short stories in English language on any subject, in any style up to 1500 words long.
Closing Date: 30th September, 2013
Judge: Alex Keegan
Prizes: £150 (1st), £75 (2nd), £50 (3rd), £10 x 3 (High Commendation)
Fees: £5/1, £8/2, £10/3, £12/4