Category Archives: Fiction

A Time for Every Matter

A short story by

John P. Asling


This is Grace’s moment.

Just step into the aisle. Make your way up to the front of the church. To the microphone standing erect beside that man framed in the colour photograph. That man perched on a pedestal. That man smiling down on the incense-shrouded congregation. That man dwarfed by the looming wooden cross.

It is the first moment of silence in the hour filled with precious words sung by the royally garbed women’s choir, spilled with tears of grief, solemnly pronounced by the ageing pastor before the grey suits, black dresses, bowed heads.

Like ‘hero’, ‘courage’.

Clutching a scribbled note in her blood-red painted nails, Grace turns toward the aisle. She’s a bloke away from stepping from her usual seat in the back pew and she hesitates, hoping he will discreetly let her past. In that moment, Bible words read by the dead man’s brother echo in her soul.

‘For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.’ 

For everything? Every matter? There is no season for what he did to me. No season and no reason.


Everett and Grace were paired for the night at the homeless shelter in the basement of their church not far from the city centre. This was the first time they had worked so closely together, though she knew him from church. He talked to her a little about his children.

‘Thanks for taking care of the girls. They love you looking after them. You’re so good with them,’ he said one Sunday.

She didn’t offer much in reply, partly because she was shy, but she was also somehow wary. If you asked her, she couldn’t tell you why.

‘It’s okay, they’re very well-behaved, those girls.’

Everett and Grace worked side-by-side, blowing up mattresses, putting on the thin fitted sheets, threadbare blankets, bleached pillow slips. How uncomfortable those narrow beds looked to Grace crowded into that basement meeting room, but at least it was warm inside. Outside it was a bone-chilling January. Everett and Grace made tea and set it on the communal table and kept the supply of broken biscuits donated by the factory replenished. The men and women booked for the night – twenty-five – were hungry and thirsty when they first arrived from around the borough. Some of the ‘guests’- the shelter leader insisted on calling them that – perused the box of used clothes Everett and Grace had set out, trying on woolly hats and jumpers. 

Grace was always surprised they never looked like the homeless people she saw on the street near the station. They didn’t look to be much worse off than her. And that scared her. Was this her next stop now that she had been let go at the nail salon, her rent overdue? Everett explained that the borough had ‘screened’ the people using their church shelter because it was run by volunteers. ‘We do this out of our best Christian instincts, but of course we aren’t trained.’

Everett and Grace warmed the lasagnes baked by the church ladies group, prepared the garlic bread the men’s group made, set the tables, prepared the tea and filled the water jugs. Then they took a break.

‘The demographics are changing,’ he said, adding milk to his mug of tea. And to hers. She just watched. He was up on the refugee situation because he is an elder and spoke often to the minister. Grace listened, blowing softly on her steaming tea.

These ‘guests’ were mostly Eastern Europeans and North Africans working in restaurants or doing day labour. One was a tall man with a thin moustache who grew up not far from where Grace’s father was born. Grace heard him talking to one of the locals who got tired of sleeping in his car and came to the shelter for the first time.

‘I can’t go back to my country. I’m a dead man if I go back there. No way, I’m going back there. But God, it’s cold here now. I sure could use that hot sun on my back,’ the African said.

The other man laughed a moment then caught himself. ‘You’ll be alright here. It’ll come good.’

Grace was wiping tables nearby, took it in, especially the part about her father’s country in Africa, but kept her thoughts to herself.

Two volunteers were missing from the overnight roster and Grace said she would stay on, not having to get up for work in the morning. She’d get breakfast, cut down on expenses, every little bit counts. She was thinking that way more and more since losing her job.

Everett said he was available too.

‘Keep the team together,’ he laughed easily but his eyes were stern. She had noticed that over the years since Everett joined the church from the other side of the city. She knew him from his greetings at the church door, his speeches at meetings and the time he preached on ‘charity’ when the pastor was on leave. Some Sunday mornings she worked in the nursery where his two youngsters were an island of serenity in an ocean of manic children.

Grace wondered why Everett wouldn’t want to get home to his wife and two small girls with bows in their hair. Grace had looked after them in the church nursery again last week. They played together with Barbie dolls and didn’t need any fuss from the carers. She guessed he just wanted to help out. He had that kind of reputation at the church.

It was a long night at the shelter. The aroma of the vegetarian lasagne eventually gave way to the stench of men’s feet, body odours. The three women in their curtained-off corner hid under their blankets. Just before lights-out an older man with shaking hands began cussing out the youngster next to him for shifting his mattress too close. Everett went to calm them down. The leader had to step between the two labourers wearing coloured ball caps trying to use the same plug for their phones. Grace finished cleaning the kitchen. Things quieted down by midnight.

Grace looked through her emails on her smart phone, then closed her eyes, just resting. Everett read a book in the dimly lit hallway, stayed awake all night. The leader read her Bible.   

In the morning Everett offered to drive Grace home. She usually walked but agreed when the shock of frigid air hit her as they left the shelter at six o’clock. Frost enveloped Everett’s sleek red car but it started immediately. He reached very carefully across her to help with the tangled seat belt.

‘There, that’s better, Grace. The children get them messed up,’ he laughed. Those eyes. Grace nodded, thinking of the pretty bows and the Barbie dolls.

‘Those girls are lovely,’ she offered, too tired for much talk.

‘The joy of my life,’ he responded. ‘They love it when you take care of them.’

They drove in silence towards Grace’s cramped flat but Everett suddenly steered the humming red sports car down an alley, stopped abruptly, and locked the doors. Grace’s heart nearly stopped. Her mouth was dry. She couldn’t speak. This time Everett’s reach was sudden, brutal. She smelled his foul breath, felt her clothes ripped from her body. She gritted her teeth, managing to spit out, one word, ‘No.’ He was deaf to her. The touch of him, the sound of him, the rocking of the car. Grace thought she would die, wished she had died.

Back in her flat, Grace let the hot water of the shower mix with her wailing tears. She stayed under for a long time, thinking. I am no longer a woman, just a piece of dead meat. Because of that man. Everett. He has eaten me up, tossed me aside like a carcass. She tried to pray but somehow God had died when that man, that Everett forced himself on her.

‘Where is the pastor’s loving God now?’ Grace collapsed onto her bed, falling into a morbid sleep. 

Grace stayed in her bed for days, ignoring her buzzing phone, not eating, not answering the door, not caring about anything, anybody. Like she was dying. That man, that Everett, he did this.

Then she got up, pulled her curtains. Fuck him. I ain’t letting him kill me.


‘It’s not your fault just because you got in that posh car with that Everett,’ Grace’s friend Frankie fumed a week later. ‘You gotta say something. You gotta go to the police. You gotta tell.’

Grace knew Frankie never trusted Everett, his young wife, perfect kids. She’d say, ‘What’s the matter with women his own age? There’s something about that man, Grace. You see it too.’

Grace never responded to Frankie on this.


Frankie sent Grace a text early one Saturday morning a few weeks later saying Everett had been stabbed to death. Grace felt like her heart stopped beating. Again.

She went online and read about it herself, sitting up in her frigid flat as the groan of morning traffic started growing on the street below. ‘Jesus,’ she whispered. ‘That man, that Everett. Dead.’


‘A 45-year-old man was stabbed to death early this morning as he attempted to stop a gang fight outside an after-hours club. Everett Winston, a broker, was pronounced dead at University Hospital at 4 a.m. A Met spokesman said the investigation was ongoing. However, one woman, who refused to give her name, hailed Mr. Winston as a “hero”. ‘He told them all just stop fighting. He put his body on the line, took a blade.’ The Met said while they were still gathering information, it appeared the slain man’s “courage” prevented major bloodshed. Mr. Winston leaves a wife and twin three-year-old daughters.’

Frankie phoned Grace a few minutes later. ‘Hero? What’s that Everett doing down there at that hour? I’m sorry ‘bout those two little kids but what’s that man doing there with all those bling girls and those gangsters?’

‘Looks like he was some kind of hero, Frankie.’

‘You know better than that, Grace. It’s like that Hollywood guy. They never who they say they are.’

‘Maybe none of us are, Frankie.’

‘Don’t talk shit to me.’

‘I just don’t know.’


The bloke looks over at Grace like he knows what’s on her mind. Was he Everett’s friend?  There’s nobody at the ‘open mic’ and the pastor is asking if anyone else has anything to add about ‘Brother Everett, who laid down his life for others’. There’s been plenty of folks talking about all the good things Everett had done at the church, leading that building committee last year, donating money for Syria. Grace makes herself skinny so she won’t be touching the bloke beside her as she moves closer to the aisle. He doesn’t move but Grace gets by. The pastor is talking about what the newspapers have been saying about Everett but Grace still hears those Bible words spoken by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to be born and a time to die.’

Shit, when’s my time to be born, my time to live?


Grace never told Frankie about the envelope. Frankie would have shrieked like the time her father hit her for smoking weed. She’s loud about protecting her rights. That just scares Grace.

She had stopped helping at the shelter after Everett attacked her. She told the shelter leader she needed to spend more time looking for work after losing her job. Grace had done Frankie’s nails and then Frankie flashed her silver sparkled fingers at the mall and told their friends Grace needed business. Grace set up shop in her squat kitchen and a few of the girls came over the next week and got their nails painted. She charged them a few quid, helped her get groceries. But she knew she had to find another job.

Then the envelope arrived.

‘Sorry for what happened the other night. I possibly misread the situation. Hope this ends the matter.’

‘This’ was £100 in twenties. Grace looked at it spread out like a fan as it fell from the envelope. Misread? Fuck. The matter? The rape.

She took the envelope to church next Sunday, sat in her back row, eyeing Everett and the pretty wife in their pew. When elders came for the Offering she put the envelope with the £100 in the basket. The note was there too.

Grace met Frankie after church for coffee at the cheap café beside the station. Frankie grabbed her best friend’s cold hand across the table at the back where they always sat.

‘You gone to the police yet? Grace, you can’t keep this all to yourself.’

Grace took a sip of her coffee, dabbed her unpainted lips with the napkin.

‘No police, Frankie. I got other plans. Maybe I forgive him.’

‘Well, maybe I’m gonna’ talk to his pretty wife, then.’

‘No, you ain’t.’

‘Yes, I am.’

‘No, Frankie, this is my battle.’

That was before Everett became a hero.


Grace thinks the pastor is going to close down that open mic before she gets to the front of the church. Grace moves toward that stiff microphone, thinks about those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to mourn and a time to dance.’

I’m not mourning and I am not dancing. I am moving up there.


After coffee in the café, Grace ignored Frankie’s phone calls for a few days. She didn’t tell her about the envelope and she didn’t tell her about going to the ‘Memorial for a Hero’ at the church. Frankie’s folks would be there so she would know about it but Frankie mostly does the opposite of them, like staying out late and avoiding church. Grace used to be like that. Since her father died from drinking and her mother moved to America with that Warner, she’s got no one to protest against. Except now there’s Everett. Fuck him. What’s he done to me?

Grace dressed for church like it was Sunday, sat down at her kitchen table and took her notepad, ripped out a few sheets and started scratching out all the words that had been bouncing around inside her head. Her whole body shook like she was on some carnival ride while she wrote. Then she headed out the door to church.


Grace’s short legs are moving quickly towards the front of the church and she is almost there. The pastor doesn’t want her up here. His drag dog face is telling her that. The choir of sweet-scented ladies are glaring down at her. The big cross is judging her. She hears those words again, ‘hero’, ’courage’ and but can’t fit them alongside Everett’s – ‘Keep the team together’. She can see the fan of twenties on her kitchen table. Grace hears those Bible words read by Everett’s brother.

‘A time to keep silence and a time to speak.’

Grace’s time of silence is over.

‘The Good Book says…’ SLQ



John P. Asling is a writer and editor living in Blackheath, London, and has published poetry and fiction in Canada and the United Kingdom.


Acting Apart

Short story by



            It had all been nonsense.  “Forever shall I be faithful to the duty of a married woman,” she had cried, in the peculiar language of poetic drama, not the language of life.  Her eyes had shone, her bosom had been elevated as though to welcome the sword of martyrdom.  “My husband’s glory was of the battlefield; mine shall be the glory of a virtuous wife.”

There had been much more of the same. 

Thus, she had dismissed Yevgeny Onegin.

It had been nonsense because in Prince Gremin, Tatyana had married a man old enough to be her grandfather. Forever would be a brief interlude; then she would be free to marry again.  She must have known this even while she quivered in her ecstasy of renunciation and the polonaise snapped its grand heartless rhythms in the adjoining ballroom.

Striding –  did he sometimes break into a run?    along Nevsky Prospekt at a pace that caused stares, Onegin asked himself where it had come from, this sickness that caused women – and men, too –  to step aside from the simple facts of their lives and force themselves into scenes that might have come from novels or Italian operas.  Before the drama of Tatyana’s grand renunciation of him there had been, years before, when he was a visitor at her father’s house, the drama of her grand declaration of eternal love for him, made in a letter carefully composed to exhibit spontaneous unrestraint.  The same sickness had infected poor Lensky, whose response to Onegin’s harmless and entirely aimless flirting with his sweetheart, little Olga, had been to fling himself into the role of outraged lover from whom honour demanded the drama of a duel.  And he had died in consequence, for he had obliged Onegin to shoot at him, and a sensible man does not treat the conventions of society with contempt, foolish though the conventions may be to the eye of reason.

The same eye of reason disclosed to Onegin that he, too, had been prey to the self-dramatising sickness.  His response to Tatyana’s grand renunciation had been to embrace the Young Werther role, writhing in despair at his beloved’s marriage to another.  (Youngish Werther, anyway!)  Mightn’t he actually have blown his brains out if his friend Hermann hadn’t snatched the pistol from him?  And there, in Kazansky Cathedral, mocking him with its colonnade shaped like a woman’s embracing arms, he’d stood in vain through hours of mumbo-jumbo in hope of a divine presence because he’d heard she attended there.  He’d even flung himself to the floor in a full prostration –  he, an unbeliever!  Yet for all the intensity with which he’d felt his despair, it had still been this mad play-acting.  He had hidden from himself the same knowledge that Tatyana had hidden from herself in order that it shouldn’t impede her performance of the faithful wife forever renouncing her true love: the fact that her married state was bound to be brief.

That knowledge had been released into consciousness only now, unlocked by solemn newspaper columns reporting the death of Prince Gremin.  As he swerved around the squad of prostitutes sweeping the cobbles as punishment for plying their trade the night before, he did not neglect to ask himself whether this descent on the general’s house wasn’t a further exercise in drama, the scene in which, just when the heroine’s abandonment is at its most intense, the rejected lover she really loves, sweeps in to sweep her off.

That was not the way to look at it.  On the contrary, it would pre-empt drama.  It would be a simple acknowledgement by two rational creatures of facts they both knew full well and would thus eliminate at a stroke the play of hints and manoeuvres, contrived meetings that looked accidental, letters left on tables as in that English novel about old lovers that the French had translated.  Such directness might shock the conventions, but a sensible man knew when not to take the conventions seriously. 

Conventions created drama.

But already she was gone.  A servant in dirty ill-assorted clothes attempted the hauteur he might have seen his former master display in sending a pedlar packing to inform Onegin that immediately after the funeral of “his Great and Very Noble Prince Highness” and without waiting for any of the memorial services, “her Great and Very Noble Princess Highness” had departed for an estate in the Ukraine. 

“The name of the estate is…?”  Would a journey of a thousand versts and an unheralded invasion of Tatyana’s distant seclusion cross the border from directness into drama?

The servant’s face opened in what seemed an attempt at a smile of warmth and recognition.  “God be with you, Pavel Davidovitch,” he said.  In a rush a newcomer had ascended the steps behind Onegin and was entering the house like one who had the freedom of it.

“The God of my fathers and yours, Fedya,” the man called gaily in reply, then halted to compose himself as though only now realising that he had overtaken a gentleman.  He bowed to Onegin and disappeared indoors.  Certain features of the man’s image lingered while Onegin retraced his steps to his lodging and his thoughts discovered the reason why Tatyana had fled to the Ukraine.  She pretended a grief-stricken retreat from society, fearing that if she remained in St Petersburg the force of her love for Onegin, which she had not omitted to confess to him in the course of her grand renunciation so as to make it perfect, would, now that she was free to marry him, drive her to some impetuous action which would mire her in scandal.   A woman could not flout convention as a man could.  The man had a swarthy face, a hooked nose. 

The man who had the freedom of Tatyana’s house, whom the servant had greeted while leaving Onegin unanswered, was a Jew.

Yes, he looked like a gentleman, and to the eye of reason, rather than to the eyes of good upstanding Russians, most of whom were blockheads, was it obvious that a Jew could not be a gentleman?  But Our Father the Tsar had decreed that the Jews should remain in their Pale in the territories to the south and west, forbidden to contaminate the pure heartland of Holy Mother Russia, where the knowledge still lay close to the soul that the incursion of the admirable and odious Napoleon must have been due to sins committed by the Russian people.  And could the Tsar’s decree be other than a good and wise decree?    for according to the principle of autocracy so happily ruling in Russia, the only measure of what was good and wise was what the Tsar decreed.  Still, though the Tsar ruled by the grace of God, he did not quite possess God’s omnipotence.  Like lice in barracks, Jews could be found in St Petersburg and Moscow if you looked for them, and many impecunious persons, such as Onegin’s friend Hermann, looked for them.

That thought reared up like one of the bronze horses erected a few years later on the Anichkov Bridge.

If a Jew could come and go as he pleased in the house of Prince Gremin, then Gremin, like poor Hermann, must have been in hock to the moneylenders.  And in that case –  and the fact that the door had been opened by a scarecrow of a servant made it the more likely    then love (Onegin’s own love for Tatyana, her love for him) had a powerful second.  If anything remained of Tatyana’s old self-dramatising devotion to her prince, perhaps even causing her to toy with the idea of remaining a widow to his memory forever (even a virgin forever?    there had been no child of the marriage), prudence would soon knock it on the head.  Her husband’s money gone to the Jews and thus not available to keep her in the style to which, from an unpretentious country home, she had become accustomed – well, this was not calculated to inhibit her love for a gentleman of large and unburdened estates. 

And the same prudence made him patient.  The envisioned pursuit of Tatyana to the Ukraine would indeed be drama, not befitting people whose lives were governed by reason.  She would be back.  He could wait for the meeting.  And there should be no further attempt to confront her in her home, where, he felt obscurely, influences lurked that might work against the progress of reason on earth that the German philosopher promised. 

It was at the Prussian ambassador’s, many months later, that he learned that she was back in St Petersburg; at the house of a senior official in the army ministry who had recently been ennobled, that she declined many invitations on account of headaches; from a doctor with whom he played kaisa billiards, that he had recommended air for the headaches; from a beggar, that, in her carriage, she had passed the very spot where, an hour before, Onegin had been stationed in case an airing took her that way.  Each piece of news brought a fear that her need of money, far from aiding his cause, might damage it, for it would be just like her to say that she wouldn’t marry him because she couldn’t be sure that love alone, in dramatic purity, was her motive.  At a ball, as a polonaise played, which could be a good omen or a bad, their eyes locked from afar; he could not find her later but his reason forbade him to yield to the belief that the crowd was deliberately keeping them apart. 

Could one say that destiny was slowly engineering a meeting between them, their wills playing no part in the process?  But of course, one did not believe in destiny; to believe in it was to accept that one’s life was a play written by another. 

If destiny did bring about their meeting, it deputed the details to old Countess X.  She was said to possess the secret of winning at gambling and Onegin’s friend Hermann had some crackpot scheme to clear his debts by beguiling the old lady into revealing her secret, a scheme he pursued by wooing some girl who was her ward.  Accompanying Hermann to the Countess’s apartment, Onegin learned that Tatyana was expected at a forthcoming music party at which guests were to be ravished by the piano-playing of the celebrated Irishman, John Field, revisiting the city of his first triumphs.  Onegin professed so intense a love of nocturnes so insistently that if Countess X did not extend an invitation to him, it must count as a snub of the first order; and she managed both snub and invitation together, saying, “You make it abundantly clear, sir, that my party would be incomplete if you did not have the kindness to attend.”

On the night of the nocturnes ladies and gentlemen nodded to them as though their rhythm were that of a trepak, and were so appreciative that for the most part their conversation did not drown the music.  Tatyana arrived when people were already seating themselves for the music and greeted Onegin with a distant but calm bow, then rather drew attention to herself by listening to the music in a distant but calm silence.  At the interval, when some crowded around the Irishman, who was old and ill and plainly drunk, with praise, and others, with even more enthusiasm, exited in the direction of the refreshments, Tatyana did neither, risking comment as she hastened to the library.  Here Onegin discovered her at another, smaller piano, picking out notes, for all the world as though she had not stationed herself there for their long-fated encounter.

He fired his bullet immediately, like a rational person.  “You love me and I love you.”

She absorbed the shot without ceasing to trace the notes of Field’s Nocturne in C Major.

“Tatyana, those are the only facts.  The rest is play-acting.  Your grand renunciation was all nonsense, and you know it.  Will you lie about your heart or about the fidelity of mine to you?” 

“That is the melody, is it not?  Yes, I acknowledge the fidelity of your passion for me and I shall not lie about my heart.”  The words seemed not attended to, so intent was she on repeating some notes.

“Tatyana!  Oh, my dearest, my angel!”  But it was awkward to embrace her as she sat at the keyboard, and so insecure was his balance as he stooped to do so that, though he registered the heat of her flesh through silk, her vigorous push overbalanced him to the floor.

 “I will not lie about my heart.  It is pledged to another.  I shall marry Pavel Davidovitch Edlin.”

“And who the devil is that?”  But that was how outraged fathers in novels addressed daughters who had professed a liking for someone unsuitable.  For that matter, her It is pledged to another was literature-speak, too.  Could people not help this, performing like automatons whose voices and phrases and tones and poses came from the books they’d read, the conversations they’d heard, the scenes they’d witnessed?  It was as though people weren’t real, uniquely expressing their own unique feelings and thoughts, but were mere channels for something else that could not be resisted.

He struggled to his feet and struggled to find a different way of putting his question until recognition flooded in and the latter was unnecessary.

            “The Jew!”

            “A good man!”  Her eyes blazed into his, then elevated themselves to the icon shelf that conventional respectability exacted even from a notorious free-thinker like Countess X.

 “How can you, a Russian woman, marry a Jew?”  And when he had said that, and in the silence that threatened to continue forever, he knew he had spoken words that were written by another and that the drama in which they figured was not his own, yet he also knew he could not have helped himself. 

He said, “I humbly beg your forgiveness.”

 “I forgive you.  One has to say that, it is what we are taught, what well-bred people say.”  Something in her broke open and fury cried, “But I do not forgive you!”  Then the fury in her went out, and it was as though positions were reversed and she were begging his forgiveness. “He came to see my husband on behalf of a mother, a widow, whose son had been taken by the army for twenty-five years, as they do with the Jews, the young men.  He pleaded with my husband to spare her son.  I knew that saving this boy would be good.”  Her pleading manner vanished.  “I discovered I wanted this more intensely than I had ever wanted anything.”  Pause.  “I made sure that certain papers disappeared.  The boy returned to his mother.  I seemed to have discerned a purpose for my life.  Since then I have interested myself in the fate of our Jews.”

 “And if you were troubled by the new disease you would marry a man with the cholera.”  But he said it gently, almost tenderly, remembering his efforts to ease the lot of his serfs in the face of his neighbours’ hostility, and wondering whether this piece of devotion on his part to the good of others could furnish an argument about how well he and Tatyana were suited.

“I am engaged with others in establishing a Committee for the Friendship of Christians and Jews.  We shall endeavour to bring to the knowledge of the Tsar how loyal our Jews wish to be and how merciless and brutal are those who act in his name.  Through my love for my husband all my powers shall be at the service of good.  My happiness shall lie in the happiness of a suffering people from whom the lash and the shackles are withdrawn!”

“No-one,” he shouted, frantic at the ineffable stupidity of her project, “will pay the slightest attention to your committee of Russians and Jews.” 

“Not Russians and Jews.  Christians and Jews.”  Her bosom lifted in the old way and her eyes shone in the old way.

But he had a bullet left to pierce this performance, get to her soul. 

 “Would I be right to infer that before your husband died you nourished a guilty passion for his successor?  I will not say that you deceived him as the world understands that phrase, but it appears you went behind his back to effect what your new husband wanted.”

“Your reproach is not that I nourished a guilty passion while my husband was alive, but that I did not nourish a guilty passion for you.”

“But you loved me, you did.  You told me so on the night -”

 “- on the night of my grand renunciation, as you call it.  But that, you have perceived, was all nonsense, play-acting.  All nonsense, and that must damn whatever confession of love for you it may have included.”

She had risen from the piano, and the manner in which she swept from the room showed how well she had learnt the deportment befitting the exalted role in society brought to her by Prince Gremin.  “Tanya, don’t get all princessy,” he cried after her, but the music was beginning again and she did not return.

The tune was a Russian song, In the Garden.  In the garden at her father’s house he told Tatyana to forget the love she had professed in her letter.  Why was Field playing a Russian song?     Wasn’t he here to play his own compositions?  That was a conundrum to challenge a philosopher.  “The tune is mere coincidence, for there is no destiny to mock us.”  After Field, composer of a piano fantasia on In the Garden, was gone, they found Onegin in the library, saying that aloud to no-one, again and again. SLQ



Paul Brownsey has published around 80 short stories in Europe and North America.  His book, His Steadfast Love and Other Stories, was published by Lethe Press, New Jersey, USA.



A short story by

The sport of cycling attracts a particular type of sadist; one who revels in the punishment of screaming lungs and burning legs. Riding was the only time Luke Robson felt in control, really in control – it was him against the road. He had spent all week daydreaming about racking up the kilometers and now he was free, if only for a few hours.

            The city was still heating up in the late morning. North Africa was always hot, just another thing that Luke couldn’t control. He was supposed to be overseeing the installation of a new municipal water system, but things weren’t progressing much.

            “How’s work coming along?” asked Gabby.

            “Slowly, love, slowly. We’ve hit a roadblock with another community that wants to be ‘compensated.’”

            “God. People have always got their hand out here.”

            “Well it’s not that sim—”

            “I thought it was supposed to be wrapped up by now.” She always cut him off. And now she was even less patient.

“Still tinkering? I swear you pay more attention to that thing than you do to me.”

            Luke looked up from his brake calipers, like he’d been caught in bed with another woman. “Just getting ready to go out. I’m doing the whole loop today, can’t wait.”

            Gabby pursed her lips, “What time will you be back? Greg and Amanda are coming for dinner.”

            “I didn’t forget, I’ll be back to help I promise, just don’t expect me to go running off to the shops if you forget anything, not after six hours in the saddle.”

            She sighed a tired sigh, “I don’t know how much longer I can do this on my own Luke.”

            He paused “Do what on your own?”

            “This,” she waved an arm out of the window at the heat. “I’m pregnant if you haven’t noticed, I don’t want to bring a child up in this, this dustbowl. I want to have the baby back home.”

            “But we talked about this, Love, we agreed,” Luke laid his hand on Gabby’s shoulder. “We’ve got everything we need here, and besides it’s no good for a family to be apart.”

            “I just want what’s best for the baby.” She was raising her voice now.

            “And I want what’s best for this family. Look, let’s talk about this when I get back OK?”

            “Mmm, we’ll talk later.”

            She gave him a peck on the cheek, leaning from a distance because of the baby bump. She always kissed that side to avoid the scar on his right eye. Luke thought it looked like a faded viking battle wound, but Gabby encouraged him to wear his sunglasses for photos. The Bond villain scar had come from a fight with a burglar he had lost in his own Yorkshire home. Really, it was the crowbar that won the fight, the kid had scarpered in fear and was never caught. There was no damage to his eye, but people always stared, they wanted to know the story.

            Over the past few months, he had been working up to this ride, ratcheting up the distance. The route in question was a 140 km loop with a lot of cumulative elevation, it had been used as a stage on the World Tour a few years back. He wasn’t physically gifted, if anything he was skinny, but Luke was determined, and that goes a long way in cycling.

            Luke carried his bike down the compound stairs and asked the doorman to open the gate. Freedom.

            The wheels cut a path down the road, the air rushing past his ears. The rear cassette spun like a football clacker as he freewheeled around the bends. The roads weren’t as bad as they used to be, although the tarmac laid down before the big race was starting to crack. He looked out for potholes and stray rocks.

            Luke maintained a steady pressure, driving the gears, up to eighty revolutions a minute in his hill climbing gear. As he snaked up the incline, a pickup truck struggled up behind him. A gangly teenager sat in the back, staring.

            “Come on round,” he motioned for it to overtake.

            The vehicle drew level, engine screaming, its thick exhaust fumes engulfing Luke. It eventually got in front and disappeared over the brow of the hill. Luke clenched his teeth and chased it.

            At the top, the treeline broke and a vast, lunar mountain range appeared. The tiny buildings looked like they had been sprinkled from a great height. Some tiny white specks shifted in a dusty field. Luke looked up at the high sun and started down the slope.

            As Luke’s speed increased, so did his confidence. Up to almost 70 kilometres per hour, he didn’t want to lose momentum. He gripped the brake levers and ducked down to minimise air resistance. According to his cycle computer, he was about two thirds of the way round the course and making good time.

            The road was starting to flatten out, and Luke snaked left past a small group of mud brick houses. The bend was tighter than it first appeared and the bike drifted out, toying with a shallow ditch. Luke fought to keep the bike on tarmac, but the front wheel entered the jaws of the trap at too high a speed. It dug into the dirt and Luke felt the rim crack under the pressure of the impact. He knew he had no chance of controlling the fall. As he tried to unclip his shoes from the pedals, a thought flashed into consciousness. Instead of thinking of his wife, his family or his unborn child, the face of his teenage assailant with the crowbar came into focus. He flew through the air, finally separated from his charge; reaching to protect his face rather than relaxing for impact to avoid broken bones. He shut his eyes.

            A splash of cool water brought him back to earth. His neck and arm and chest hurt, must be the collarbone. Luke got to his feet and checked his appendages with a shaking hand, they all seemed all there. He was shivering, wet through, his cycling top was torn at the arm and sticking to his chest – a large puddle had cushioned his fall and reduced the damage, he had been lucky. He hobbled towards the buildings on the corner, his plastic cycling shoes clip-clopping on the tarmac.


The old man raised the teapot up high, pouring the steaming liquid with pinpoint accuracy. By now, the process was ritual, each step performed with perfect form. Luke picked up the glass with his good hand, and blew on the tea. His other arm was cradled in a sling, held in place by two large safety pins.

            “A salaam alaikum, you’re very kind.” Luke leaned back in the armchair.

            The old man grinned back at him through grey stubble. There were four more glasses to fill. He squatted down with the legs of a much younger man. Yazir and Fatima, the couple, sat together on the sofa in long plain robes, hands on knees. Their child with its big tuft of black hair, sat next to them. He couldn’t have been more than five, but he already had his own little cup, the tea cooling next to the others. He stared in silence, his gaze fixed on Luke’s scar.

            “D’où êtes-vous, l’Espagne?” asked Yazir

            “England. Angleterre. Sorry. Je ne pas Francais.”

            “Ahh Englan’ . . . very good. Musique.”

            “Yes, yes. Do you have a telephone?” said Luke making a mobile shape with his hand.

            “Le Queen – Le Champions, good.” Yazir was still thinking other British rock songs he knew.

            Past the mud brick doorway lay two bedrooms and a kitchen just big enough to hold the range and some pots. A breeze blew through the open window and Luke could hear goats clattering around in the pen outside. 

            After a few back and forth gestures, it turned out that they didn’t have a phone, but there was a neighbour who might be able to help. Luke was old enough that he remembered the time before phones, without distraction and without interference. The few hours each week that Luke left his phone at home he felt at ease.

            Gabby asked him to take it when he went out. “What if you get lost, or need help. What then?”

            She even put it in his back pocket once, but he took it out before leaving. He was going to get the full ‘I told you so’ now. Even with the cycle computer, the carbon fibre bike, the electrolyte drink and breathable fabric, Luke was now at the mercy of a goat herder’s neighbour . . . who was seemingly out. This might be the end of the unaccompanied rides into the wilderness.

            He settled back into the chair and tried to rest. There wouldn’t be much traffic passing on a Sunday night, he would have to wait and see. Yazir got up to look at the broken wheel, tea in hand. He tutted and shook his head. 

            The sun was setting, bathing the hills in purples and yellows. The family insisted on giving Luke the full tour. It was a spectacular location, nestled between mountain ridges. As well as introducing Luke to the goats, Yazir showed off his pride and joy – the vegetable garden. Luke had had to fight for space in his own pokey kitchen in order to install a tiny herb garden, now he stood before this veritable oasis.

            The garden was planned to perfection, every available space used. A pump handle well fed irrigation channels running between the plants. Luke tried to test out the pumping mechanism, but his neck and shoulder still hurt from the fall. The sunflowers, beans, and squashes peered out from between thick leaves.

            Inside Luke showed his cycle computer to Yazir and his little son. “It’s only 42 kilometers back to the city,” he said.

             The boy was more interested in trying to get into one of the energy gel sachets. Yazir snatched the packet from his mouth.

            After dinner, the neighbour arrived. Thankfully he spoke a smattering of English. He held his woollen waistcoat trying to catch his breath under his thick beard.

            “Hello, my friend, I Hamid. What your name?”

            “I am Luke, nice to meet you.” He smiled sheepishly, pointing to his collarbone, not able to offer his hand.

            “Where you come by, the city?”

            “Yes, I need to get back to my wife in the city,” he made the rounded sign of a pregnant belly.

            Hamid looked at the family, raising an eyebrow.

            “You have telephon’ number your wife?”

            Luke scrolled through his memory, but his wife’s number wasn’t in the rolodex. “Err, you can call the office”. He asked for a pen and paper and wrote the following note:

            Luke Robson had a cycling accident and is unable to come into work. He will return to the office when transport is available.”

            “Can you read it OK?”

            “Yes yes, my friend, I call wife OK?”

            “No no, it’s my office, the office. My company, you understand?”

            Hamid looked blank.

            Luke wrote down the team secretary’s name, and the number. He prayed the message would get through.




            The smell of fresh bread filled the lounge. Luke’s shoulder still hurt but he felt rested after a night on the sofa. The old man was scurrying back and forth with the tea set, whilst Fatima toasted some type of pancakes on a griddle.


            Hamid burst in through the wooden door, ducking as he entered.

            “My friend, your wife call many time.” His eyes were lit up. “She say no working today.”

            “Tell her I will get home when I can.” Luke looked out of the door at the road. It wasn’t worth going all the way to the neighbour’s farm to speak with her, the trucks would start passing soon.

            The old man offered tea to Hamid. He drank it standing up, shifting from foot to foot, babbling about important neighborhood business.

            Yazir and the boy were dressed and ready for the day ahead.

            “Good morning,” Luke greeted them as they came in. “Thank you again for your hospitality,” he clasped his hands together. He wanted to give the family something to thank them, but had nothing with him. “Can I help with your goats today?” he suddenly found himself offering.

            They would welcome an extra pair of hands, and there it would be easy enough to get back to the city. Besides, he didn’t feel able to struggle through meetings – handshakes and smiles. Apart from the grazes and sore collarbone, Luke was enjoying his freedom. Herding goats had to be easier than his usual Monday business.

            Hamid translated the offer of help to Yazir. The old man looked at his son and they laughed. Yazir slapped Luke on the back and pointed out toward the field.

            After breakfast the men headed out to drive the goats towards greenery. It was no easy task. The hills were barren. The air was still. It was early, before the heat of the day.

            “Yalla yalla.” Yazir directed the goats, giving the stragglers and occasional tap with his stick. Luke held the right flank, vigilant, Yazir was on the left and the boy in the middle, marching along. The boy watched Luke’s awkward shuffling steps in his borrowed sandals.

After nearly an hour of stopping and starting, they reached a small hill covered with scrubby plants and patches of brown grass. Breakfast had arrived for the goats, who consumed whatever they could. They stripped the leaves from low lying bushes and plants like they were pulling the meat off a kebab stick. This was all so simple – no protracted negotiations, no forms to sign in triplicate, and no need to think about the digital requirements and social media implications. The goats just ate.

            “What’s that?” Luke pointed out a small wooden sign.

            Yazir smiled. “For sale. Hamid sale.”

            It hadn’t even crossed his mind that people bought and sold land here. The quiet life must be pretty cheap, a few thousand for a decent plot. Luke suddenly found himself marshalling his own herd, calling the names one by one. Maybe staying here had been a mistake. The more time he spent here, the more he dreaded the return to the compound.

            An idea started to form in Luke’s mind. He had always wanted his own project. He wanted to provide the best life for his little family, and this was beautiful. Simple. It was as if the bright sunshine had scorched an imprint of the three of them there, pulling up vegetables, not locking the doors and windows like back in Yorkshire. Gabby would take some convincing, but Luke never backed down from a challenge.

            The rocks were too hot to sit on, so they watched the animals in silence and shuffled about to try and keep from overheating.

Luke rummaged around in his top pocket and extracted an energy packet. He pressed it into the hand of the boy, who looked at him wide-eyed. He ruffled his black hair. He reached into his pocket again to get his phone for a picture, but remembered it wasn’t there.

            When the herders returned, the family said their goodbyes and Yazir stayed with Luke to help flag down a passing car or truck. Luke stood in his bright cycling gear, much taller than the shepherd whose cotton robe reached his sandals. There was no sign of the crash from yesterday, no skid-marks, and no water on the road, evaporated. Luke’s bike lay next to him waiting patiently. A brown lorry approached the bend and Yazir squinted into the sun and waved his arms high.




            Luke straightened his back and rested on the pickaxe handle. Summer was coming to an end and he wanted to get planting in the hope he would have something to pull up by the end of the year.

            Even after softening the ground, digging was tough. He had put the well in a week ago, using a contact at work to get an easy-to-install kit. The fun part would come in a few months, but the tranquil farm life that he had craved felt a lot like hard work now, just a breeze and the occasional passing bird for company.

            Gabby had sent a few messages, but they still hadn’t spoken. She used to be his biggest supporter, cheering him on during his cycling races back in England. Not anymore. She had someone more important to think about, someone he hadn’t even met yet. The baby couldn’t grow up in some underdeveloped backwater. Too hot. Too dry.

            “It needs a bit of work, but it’s a wonderful place, great for a family,” he had said. “Not too far from the city, you have to see it at least.”

            “You’re mad if you think I’m going out all that way to look at a big piece of dirt. What will happen to the house back home? What about your parents, and mine? You’re just not thinking straight.”

            “That’s it. I am, it’s you who isn’t getting it. We came here to get away, to make a new start. We don’t need all of that bullshit to be happy. The garden, the mountains, and such nice people. It’s pure, Gabby.”

            “I can’t talk to you when you’re being this pig headed. If you do this, then you can count me out.” She folded her arms on top of her swollen stomach.

            “You can’t make threats like that” Luke’s voice was cracking. “I’ve already committed to it. It’s no money, and I’ll still be working. I’ll cycle in every day.”

            “There’s not even any mobile service out there, I had to call up that bloody madman four times to get a message to you.”

            “Well you never miss these things when you don’t—”

            “Arrgghh. It’s not up for discussion. I don’t want to talk about it anymore.”

            “So you’re just going to run home. I am doing this for us. You know I can’t come back with you.” He shut his eyes.


            Gabby was true to her word and had gone back to Yorkshire. She had cut him out of their lives. Nevertheless, Luke had spent his evenings and weekends preparing the house and the garden, getting ready for the arrival of his family. He still had eight months left on his work contract and was already thinking about whether to keep on gambling, or just fold. He still hoped.

            He got the occasional progress report from the grandparents. Mother and baby doing fine, she’ll come around. He had seen the photos, but Luke felt like Gabby had conjured his son out of nowhere and stolen him away before he could even lay eyes on him. At least he felt at peace on the farm; they would be impressed at how far it had come, he sent regular updates.

            He rubbed his eyes and thought about finishing up for the day. Why didn’t he just call it quits? Going back to basics didn’t seem selfish to him, but his family and friends had already rallied around Gabby and the baby. His back and shoulders hurt from digging. Just another few meters would do, then he could pop over and see the neighbours. It had been a while since he delivered a bike for the little boy, a thank you for everything they had done.


            The sun was beginning to cast its shadow over the hills. Luke needed to rest before the ride into work tomorrow. He lifted the pickaxe and started to head back towards the house. He saw a familiar figure making his way across the field in his robe and sandals. Hamid held his kufi in place as he skipped towards him. 

            “Luke, Luke! Incredible.”

            “What is it?”

            “Mrs. Luke call me.”

            “What? Are you sure? When? What did she say,” his heart was pounding.

            “She say you call her.”

            “She wants to speak?” Luke felt a surge of energy. “Oh Hamid, I could hug you . . . you.”

            He gripped his neighbour in a tight embrace. Hamid smiled, revealing a missing tooth.

            “En y va.” He turned and headed towards the road that led to his property, signalling for Luke to follow. SLQ


Philip Charter is a British writer who currently lives in Pamplona, Spain. Between writing fiction, songs and poems, he runs a blog about teaching and travel. His work has been featured in Flash Fiction, Storgy and Carillon magazines.

Reflections of Fate

Short story by JOHN A. BARRETT

Lionel Stone’s career at Wade’s Stockbrokers of London was over. His gambling habits, both at, and away from work ensured it. Certain to face fraud charges and probable imprisonment. Unless, he could replace the missing fifty thousand pounds … by Monday? His wife Sarah, had been patient with his reckless gambling, but she’d never forgive him for using his friends’ money while representing the firm.

As the commuter train gathered speed, Stone’s future spread hopelessly before him. His body ached and his breathing labored, as if he’d been kicked in the chest. Despair threatening to crumble his skull with vice-gripped tension. His inner voice screaming … failure!

Was his compulsive gambling a disease with no cure? Did he care anymore to wear the pretense of a grandiose lifestyle? Could he lose his wife’s steadfast support, along with the confidence of his friends and colleagues? Was the dreaded condemnation enough to …?

Alone in the carriage, daylight dissolved as the train entered the long familiar tunnel near his home station, his image reflected by the carriage window, amidst the interior lighting. Dispirited, Stone raised his newspaper, but a reflected headline from the window instantly caught his attention: ‘Outsider, Tainted Passion wins the Grand National at 100-1.’

That can’t be right, he reasoned, the Aintree race doesn’t run until tomorrow? He rechecked all the newspaper pages, but there was no such headline. Stone sneered, shaking his head. Probably wishful thinking from an old napping dream, induced by the rocking train. Besides, reflected writing reads backwards!

Regardless, the thought straggled his imagination. An omen, or a message from a guardian angel …? Yet as a gambler, Stone knew a horse called ‘Tainted Passion’ was in tomorrow’s race. He pondered the relevance, until the germ of an idea crossed his mind. Reinvigorated, he’d postpone the dire financial news for Sarah until after the race, or never if the horse won. He’d bet the last of his pilfered, stashed away funds and determine his future, either way.

‘Tainted Passion’ did win the Grand National, and as Lionel Stone collected the 100-1 winnings, he considered his extraordinary gift for seeing the future. Was it his destiny to be a wealthy man, a talent to use as he wanted?

Stone won more than enough to pay off his debts, although Wade’s irreparable tirade ensured Stone must leave the company, otherwise his shady dealings would be exposed to the Stockbroker’s Association. Then he’d never be allowed to conduct business in the city again.

Irritated by Wade’s discarded attitude, Stone quickly recovered, reveling in his good fortune. He opened a London office to advise, encourage and appropriate funds from willing investors in return for professional fees, plus performance bonuses.

Every working day, Stone took the train with a folded newspaper, while looking for the future, but it only worked when he was alone in the carriage, as today. The train came to the same tunnel of darkness, and Stone raised the newspaper to the business section. The reflected headline read: ‘Record High for Incorporated Oil Baffles Brokers’. That company had the lowest shares on the market for oil subsidiaries. This could make him a major player in the markets. And it did.

Within months Lionel Stone became a multi-millionaire, investors rewarding his business savvy with more investments for his profitable and respected business. He had an inner sense, telling him, and subsequently his investors, the right options, at the right time. Stone reasoned it also brought relief to Sarah’s earlier financial worries. His apparent gambling addiction, replaced by lucrative business strategies.

Wealth and popularity didn’t change him either. He still caught the evening train home each night, although he wasn’t often in the carriage alone, but he didn’t care. Stone had made a fortune, and could make the future work for him whenever he wanted, simply by leasing a private carriage. He’d heard that Timothy Wade Stockbrokers’ was in trouble and the firm up for sale. Stone incensed at the memory and manner Wade got rid of him last year. The way he resented Stone, despite him paying all outstanding debts, Wade never believed Stone came by the money honestly. Now Stone was a successful business executive, their situations were somewhat reversed. Wade close to bankruptcy, Stone ripe with more riches than he could ever imagine. Yet, Stone didn’t care about Wade’s misfortune, he wanted more. Revenge …!

Others also vied for Wades’ acquisition, but none more determined than Stone. He had to have it, but needed to know the actual selling price. He needed to peer into the future … again. He boarded the private train carriage with his newspaper and waited. The train stopped a couple of stations before the long tunnel, and Stone was surprised that his carriage suddenly had another occupant. A woman dressed in black, wearing a long coat and a wide brim hat with a veil obscuring her face, like she was coming from a funeral. The woman’s pose resembled his wife, slim, carrying an elegant air about her, as if she had once been a model like Sarah. Yet, there was something sinister about her, as if she had seen beyond the threshold … of darkness? Her body erect and still, head held high and looking straight ahead, as if contemplating an uncertain future.

The train began to move, but by the time it reached the station stop before the tunnel the woman remained in the carriage. Stone panicked! With urgency, he approached her and offered fifty pounds if she would immediately leave the carriage. No Response. Then he placed a hundred pounds on the seat beside her, but she made no move to take it, or acknowledge his presence. In a fit of rage, Stone yelled at the top of his voice that she should leave, he needed to be alone!

He was about to strike the woman, when she steadily rose from the seat, staring trance like through the mask of her shaded veil, as if deliberating a judgment. This was more than Stone could take. He opened the carriage door and grabbed for the woman, but she floated out onto the platform before he reached her, then disappeared. Was he going mad …?

The train started to move again, entering the tunnel within seconds. Stone reached for the newspaper’s business section, but no reflection of the future! Frantically, he turned to the front page, then caught a reflection: ‘Late Warning Kills Six in Devonshire Floods’. Nothing he could do about that. He crazily turned more pages, looking for a clue to outbid everyone else for Wade’s Stockbrokers. Then to his surprise, he saw his own photograph and a headline: ‘Business Magnet Lionel Stone Killed in Freak Train Accident’.

It can’t be true, it can’t be! His heart galloped, as he screamed to the empty carriage. He reached for the emergency communication cord and pulled hard, the train screeching to a halt just beyond the tunnel. Stone clambered fearfully out of the train, trembling with panic up the embankment to the roadway. He had to get away from the train.

Desperate to end the nightmare, he stepped in front of an approaching car, waving his arms with lunatic hysteria. The car stopped and Stone pleaded with the driver to give him a ride, but the man hesitated, unsure, suggesting he might drive on. Without further delay, Stone opened the car door and dragged the driver out, with the desperation of a man gasping for his last breath. Behind the wheel with lightning reflex, he drove off, distancing himself from the train, towards home … to Sarah. Free at last, and instantly relieved to be away from the train. Only one level crossing, then a straight road home.

Next day, newspapers announced: ‘Ministry of Transport officials have not yet identified the victim of a stolen car, who was killed at a level crossing when the gates failed to close for an unscheduled freight train. The investigation continues.SLQ

Touched for the very first time by Paul McDonald

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

A Do – short story by Simon Howells


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 – a short story by Lynne Voyce

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’m cold”

“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

Lynne Voyce

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 the Complaint – a short story by Marie Chambers

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.

“Nice place.”
“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

Marie Chambers

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.

Welcome to America – a short story by Nick Cooke



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 – a short story by Fiona Marshall


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,