Savage Mystery Contest ~ Second Place
Janet Innes

Photo Credit: Edna Winti/Flickr (CC-by)

Alice shoved open the front door enough to peer inside. “Oh no.”

She shoved harder. Boxes and bags rustled in its wake. She stepped inside, stumbling on a pile of junk as her brother entered their grandmother’s house behind her.

They stood in silence for a minute, taking in the room. Gram hadn’t always been a hoarder, just since their mom, Gram’s daughter, had died from breast cancer eight years ago. Plenty of time to fill what had been a homey cottage to bursting. Gram had slipped at home and broken her leg last week, dying in the hospital a few days later. The city subsequently condemned the house. Alice and Paul had the weekend to clear it out before it was torn down.

“You know,” Alice said, her voice faltering, “we could just walk away. The inspector said they’d just trash anything left.”

The small living room was piled high with furniture, newspapers, boxes, umbrellas, cushions, photo albums, even a baby’s car seat. Unruly stacks threatened to topple over and although a cleared path led through the room to the kitchen and hallway beyond, it was barely wide enough for one person to walk. How had Gram lived like this?

“This is awful,” Paul said. “I had no idea she’d gotten this bad.”

North Kingston, Rhode Island, was a long way from Seattle, where Paul worked in tech, and from Milwaukee, where Alice ran an organic fruit orchard. Losing touch with Gram had come easily as they entered their thirties and settled down. After their mom died, and then their dad, from a heart attack the following year, there was no family hierarchy to enforce visits.

“I visited a year or two after Dad died,” Alice said. “There was a lot of stuff in the guest room, but I didn’t think that much of it.” She paused. “That was the last time I visited. How about you?”

Paul thought. “Marjorie and I visited once after Mom passed.”

Alice nodded. Her brother and his ex had split up five years ago.

They picked their way to the kitchen. The counters were buried under mounds of trash, and crusted plates and cups piled high in the sink.

Somewhere in this disaster lay their inheritance—a Babe Ruth baseball card, back from when he was a rookie player with the Boston Red Sox. One had been sold at auction for more than three million dollars a few years ago. Their grandpa had collected baseball cards all his life, and after he died fifteen years ago, Gram always told them she kept the card safe in the house for them.

“Oh—look!” Gram’s dollhouse, a real antique, sat on the kitchen table. Its front could swing open, allowing free access to the rooms inside. Alice peered through one of the tiny windows, hoping the interior would be spared the damage surrounding them. “It’s still okay!”

She played with this dollhouse until she went to college and decided dollhouses were too childish. Seeing it now broke her heart a little.

Paul snorted. “With all that crap piled in front of it, Gram probably couldn’t open it to shove stuff inside. Come on, let’s see the rest.”

The tiny bathroom was dank and filthy. The guest room didn’t even have a path. Gram’s room did, but clothes and boxes were piled on the floor and littered the bed itself.

The work seemed impossible. But black knot had hit Alice’s plum trees, the majority of her orchard. As a dedicated organic farmer, she couldn’t use fungicide, and all her efforts at controlling its spread by pruning had failed. Last year’s crop hadn’t broken even. She had to replant her entire orchard—an expense in both time and money she couldn’t afford. If they found the baseball card, though, her orchard could survive.


They tackled the bedroom first the next day. But Gram’s dresser drawers, closet, and storage boxes were crammed full of clothes, mismatched shoes, scarves, and purses, while the boxes and litter that surrounded the bed like a moat produced nothing but junk.

“Dumpster 1, us, 0,” Paul quipped as they hauled yet another trash bag out the door. He straightened in the fresh air, cracking his back. “Oof. This is why I sit in front of a computer all day.”

They shuddered at the thought of rifling through the disaster of a bathroom, and Alice spent several hours shoveling out the worst of it.

“I can’t keep working in the house knowing Swamp Thing might rise at any time,” she said. Paul, in the kitchen, merely grunted. He was clearing out the cabinets, shaking through old cereal and cracker boxes, sifting through weevils in the flour and rice.

The siblings stood next to the dumpster late Saturday, looking at the sky splashed with pink and indigo.

“This is horrible,” Alice said. “I feel like a vulture.”

“And it’s all trash. We haven’t found any of Grandpa’s collection and even if we did, what are the chances of it being in decent condition? She probably used the baseball card as a coaster and we’ve been sorting through all this for nothing.” Paul kicked the dry grass.

“If we hadn’t been so wrapped up in our own lives, maybe we could have helped her clear some of this out earlier,” Alice said with a catch in her voice. “We’re bitching about this now, but this was how she lived.”

“It’s not like we knew that. And Gramma had Opinions.”

Alice could hear the capital letter in her brother’s voice.

“You think she really would have let us clear this out?”

“I don’t know. But we could have tried. We should have tried.”

The pink melted away overhead, leaving a wash of blues.

“She never said she wanted us to visit! Whenever I talked to her, she sounded fine, said everything was great,” Paul said. But everything clearly had not been great, and Gram had not been fine. And how often had he talked to her, really? Maybe a couple times a year. It was easy to let things slide if they didn’t demand attention, like his job, and his son. And now Marjorie was getting remarried to someone who made way more money than he did and Alex was going to have a stepfather. As it was, he only saw his son a couple of weekends a month. How long until Alex shuffled him down his list of priorities the way he’d dropped his relationship with his grandmother?

Alice knocked her shoulder against his.

“We’re both at fault. I could have visited in the winters.” Except she hadn’t wanted to. She loved her farm, loved her home, sitting in front of the wood stove with Tiffany, talking about their plans for the new season. She’d bought the orchard four years ago and it still felt precarious. She hadn’t wanted to leave it to come to Rhode Island. Hadn’t wanted to leave the nest she’d created—and might lose.

She sighed. “We’re here now. Want to do the guest room tonight? Then we’ll only have the living room to tackle tomorrow.”

“Only.” Paul laughed without humor.

Armed with headlamps and a generator-powered work light, Alice was wearily sifting through the millionth stack of magazines when Paul let out a shout.

“Allie, look!” He triumphantly held up a clear plastic bag, with a familiar album inside.

Hearts pounding, they slid it out of the bag.

Covered in plain brown vinyl, the album’s pages crackled from disuse as Paul and Alice turned them, first reverently, then with increasing concern.

“These are all Topps baseball cards,” Paul finally said. “I gave Grandpa this one.” He pointed to Nomar Garciaparra. “Thought it was hot shit as a kid, but it’s not worth more than five bucks.”

Alice nodded. “We both gave him baseball cards for Christmas that year. Here’s mine, Roger Clemens. It’s sweet he kept them, but…”

“None of these are valuable,” Paul said, flipping through the album. “The whole album’s worth a couple thousand dollars max. Better than nothing…”

But not enough. Not nearly enough.

Alice rummaged under the bed, retreating with a squeal as something rustled back at her.

“Some critter’s under there,” she said, retreating to the protective shine of the work light. “Let’s head back to the hotel for the night. We make sure nothing’s tucked behind these cards, and then we can come back first thing tomorrow morning.”

“Sounds good to me,” Paul said. He brightened. “Maybe we won’t have to deal with the living room at all!”


But further exploration revealed nothing beyond an unmistakable odor of mildew and decay.

“I don’t know if these cards are even salable,” Alice said, wrinkling her nose.

Paul tucked the final baseball card back into its plastic pocket. “They reek, that’s for sure. I don’t want this stinking up my room overnight. I’m gonna go put it in the rental car’s trunk.”

“Good idea,” Alice said as Paul’s cell phone rang.

“Actually, Marjorie’s on the phone. Can you stick this in the car?”

She nodded as he picked up the call.

“Everything okay?” Marjorie and he only spoke when it was about Alex.

“Yeah, everything’s fine,” said his ex-wife. “Listen, I found an awesome summer camp for Alex that I think he’d really like. It’s a day camp, but it runs for all of July. They do STEM stuff, and hiking and archery and art.”

Paul rubbed one hand over his face. “Marjorie, Alex is seven. Why does he need camp? Little kids should be able to hang out in the summer. Plus, it’s March. Aren’t you getting ahead of yourself a bit?”

Her voice sharpened, as it usually did when they spoke about their son. “Since Ron and I are getting married at the end of June and we’re going away for a week’s honeymoon and then moving in to our new place, we need a plan. Who’s Alex going to stay home with?” Not you went unsaid. “And yes, it’s March. If we wait until May all the spaces will be filled and you’re going to have to find a babysitter. Last time I checked you didn’t have one lined up, so good luck with that.”

“Okay. But do we have to do this right now? I’m flying home on Monday. Can we talk about this then, please?”

“Applications just opened and I want to put one in a.s.a.p. I’m calling now because we need to put down a fifty-percent deposit.” She named the sum.


“Well, that’s why I’m calling. Can you swing the price?”

Although system admins got paid well, the cost of living in Seattle was high, especially after college loans and child support, not to mention the private school Marjorie insisted on. Her soon-to-be husband had offered to chip in after their marriage, but Paul’s pride wouldn’t let him accept financial help from another man for raising his son. No matter how disconnected he might sometimes feel from his own kid.

With a sinking heart, Paul quickly ran through his monthly budget. He’d hoped to take Alex away for a trip this summer, maybe to Disney, just the two of them for a week or something, but there was no way he could do both.

“Listen, I can’t deal with this right now,” he prevaricated. “I just spent all day going through absolute filth, and I gotta wake up and do it all again tomorrow. I’m exhausted and hungry and I gotta take a shower. I’ll be back on Monday. I’ll give you a call Monday night and we can talk then. Okay?”

He hung up and went into the bathroom to turn the shower on to scalding. Please let us find the cards tomorrow. Please, he thought desperately.


First thing on Sunday, Alice and Paul headed back to the cottage. The early morning sun shone on the peeling clapboards and highlighted the years of dirt on the windows. The brick chimney leaned crazily to one side, and the low stone steps were cracked and broken.

“She can’t have sold that card,” Paul said. “Wouldn’t she have fixed up the house if she had?”

“Or bought a whole bunch of useless crap?” Alice pointed out. “Think of how much stuff we’ve thrown out! All that money wasted. It makes me so sad. She could have lived so much better.”

“Yup. The whole thing sucks.” He put an arm around her shoulders and hugged her. “Well, let’s get started, and hopefully this will be over soon.”

Alice made her brother search under the bed in the guest room, staying near the door and away from last night’s rustle. But the only exciting thing he uncovered was a mouse nest, as well as some very distressed mice.

The day ground on, unrelenting. First the guest room emptied, and then the living room.

“Bills, magazines, newspapers, cards, recipes, all this shit!” Alice exclaimed, shaking out yet another mildewed paperback, just in case their grandma had tucked the baseball card between its pages. “She probably gave it to the paperboy for a tip one Christmas.”

Paul blanched. “Don’t say that. It’s gotta be here somewhere.”

But as the sun started to set on an empty room, they had to admit theirs was a lost cause.

“This is such a shitty legacy,” Alice said suddenly. “We’re not even sad she’s gone, we’re resentful we spent all weekend cleaning this and have literally nothing to show for it. This doesn’t honor her memory or Grandpa’s or anyone’s.”

She felt her brother nod.

“I feel like a gold digger. And it’s Gram! I loved her, you loved her. We had good times together. Remember we’d always play cards in the summer?”

“She taught me gin rummy and snap.” A smile touched Alice’s lips. “We’d drink cream sodas and she’d let me light her cigarettes for her.”

“Remember that summer…”

Finally, in the dying light and the cleared-out house, they reminisced, trading their favorite stories.

Alice sniffed. “I should have come visit more often.”

“Me, too. Sorry, Gram,” Paul said softly. He stretched his back, groaning. “You ready to get out of here?”

Alice nodded. On Tuesday she’d start calling her bank to see about putting a second mortgage on her orchard. It was risky, but she didn’t have a choice.

She turned. The dollhouse sat in solitary splendor on the kitchen table. “I loved this thing,” she murmured, walking over to gaze at it. “You opened it?”

“Figured I’d see if she hid it under the carpets,” Paul said. “Nope.”

“It’s not in much better shape than the house is.” Dirt streaked the windows and the faded wallpaper, and the peaked Victorian roof had missing tiles. Miniature tables and chairs sat askew where Paul had moved them. “Shall we take this out to the dumpster? I don’t think it’s worth saving.”

They hefted it between them. At the front door, Paul lost his footing on the broken stone steps. The dollhouse smashed on the ground.

“The one nice thing, of course it broke,” mourned Alice, kneeling at the wreckage. A broken wall caught her eye. “Hang on—Paul, is that—?”

The torn wallpaper fluttered in the evening breeze. Beneath it, a sharp white corner, covered in plastic.

Kneeling beside her, Paul gently peeled the wallpaper away. Babe Ruth grinned up at them, his Red Sox rookie card intact. Alice gasped.

“The house—Gram said the card was in the house!”

As the sun set, the sky turned the deep violet of plums.


Janet Innes is a writer and poet based in Rhode Island. Her work has appeared in Guilty and Lucent Dreaming. Twitter: @Janet_Innes_ Email: janet.parkinson[at]

The Wonderland House

Savage Mystery Contest ~ First Place
Robin Hillard

Photo Credit: Clarice Barbato-Dunn (CC-by-nd)

“Good riddance,” my father said, when Uncle Jasper disappeared. “Jane’s better off without that lump of dirt.”

I did not agree. After a traumatic holiday, I loathed Aunt Jane, but Uncle Jasper was still my favourite relative. He had been a wonderful playmate, always ready to share my dollhouse fantasies.

Aunt Jane’s dollhouse was a family heirloom. My great-grandfather was a famous cabinetmaker. He fashioned the dollhouse for a businessman who went bankrupt and could not pay his bill. Great-Grandfather kept the dollhouse and it stayed with the family, passing through the generations until my grandparents moved into a retirement home and it went to Aunt Jane.

As the eldest daughter, my mother should have had the little house, but my father was still in the army, we were moving through a series of defence force homes, and my grandmother would not trust removalists with the family treasure.

After my father left the army, my mother was able to realise her dream of a settled home, but by then Aunt Jane had the dollhouse. And, thanks to the argument on That Holiday, the sisters were not on speaking terms. For me, bad memories of my aunt were overshadowed by the excitement of meeting a baby giraffe at the zoo, after my mother collected me from the ill-fated visit.

Once we were in our new home, I was too excited about having my first pet to brood on the weeks I spent with a once-beloved aunt. My days were spent worshipping the fluffy grey kitten my father named Grisette.

Then Uncle Jasper disappeared.

He was a fly-in worker for Northern Mines and, after a two-week shift on site, he should have taken a plane to the city, followed by a taxi ride home to his wife. He never arrived.

Aunt Jane was waiting at the airport when her husband was due to fly back to the mine, but no Jasper turned up to catch the plane.

That prompted a call from a tearful Jane who wanted her sister’s support. My kindhearted mother took the phone. “Maybe Jasper met up with some old friends, and lost track of the time,” she suggested after murmuring the usual platitudes.

“Maybe he’s got another woman!”

When she came back to her cold dinner, my mother shared that waspish rejoinder with us. “Good riddance,” my father said, adding that Jane was better off without that lump of dirt. My parents were surprised that, in these troubled times, anyone would leave his job before he was certain of another one.

“Perhaps his deeds were catching up with him,” my father said. “And he couldn’t face the music.”

I tried to imagine the kind of music my good-natured uncle couldn’t face.


Eventually, Aunt Jane decided her husband was not coming back. She filed for a divorce, left a company which, I was sure, were glad to see her go, and sold her big house. She announced her intention to go travelling and, to my delight, gave the dollhouse to us.

She wrapped the dolls and furniture in bubble wrap, and put them, together with the house, swaddled in a blanket, in the back of her van and drove to our house. Although they had talked on the phone, it was the first time since That Holiday the sisters had met face to face. They spent a happy afternoon remembering their childhood games.

“Really our parents were very remiss, letting children play with such a valuable antique,” my mother said.

Aunt Jane disagreed. “The house was originally made for little girls, and we were very careful.”

“The Wonderland House,” my mother said softly.

I knew that name from my mother’s stories, and from the book we read together at bedtime. I had called my favourite doll Alice, after Lewis Carroll’s little girl and drawn pictures of my mother playing in the Wonderland House.

“Remember our tea parties?” Aunt Jane looked almost pretty when she smiled.

I smiled too. Those tea parties were one of my favourite stories. My mother would tell me how she and her sister made tiny foil cups for the dollhouse dolls and used a dropper to fill them with Coca-Cola coffee.

“We made cakes from biscuit crumbs for those lucky dolls,” Aunt Jane said, turning to me for the first time that afternoon, “but, of course we had to drink the coffee ourselves and eat little cakes. They were almost too tiny to taste.”

There was only one bad moment on that visit. As Aunt Jane was leaving my mother murmured sympathy for poor Jasper.

“He would have been a good man,” Aunt Jane said, ‘if he had not been led astray.”

I did not know why that comment made my mother so angry. She pushed Aunt Jane outside and slammed the door behind her. For no particular reason, she gave me a slice of chocolate cake before putting everything away.

Whatever she may have said about the way her own parents cared for an antique, my mother trusted me with the Wonderland House, and let me set it up in my bedroom.

That night, as I unwrapped the dolls and furniture, I remembered the games I’d played with Uncle Jasper. He would have enjoyed putting the tiny pieces in the little rooms but, this evening, I only had my kitten to keep me company. I loved Grisette, but she was not as good at thinking up ideas as Uncle Jasper had been. He would introduce the dolls to some activity, then later we would copy the game “in full size” as he called it.

After we had a tea party—only pretend as Uncle Jasper was not interested in making tiny cups—we would go into the kitchen and have “full-size” tea and cake. He made a string skipping rope with rolled paper handles for the little girl doll and followed that by a cutting a length of rope and attaching wooden handles to make a “full size” one for me. He would sit in the shade and to watch me skip. He also made a tiny ball for the Alice doll and took me outside to bounce a tennis ball.

We never included my aunt in these games because, as Uncle Jasper explained, “Jane is funny about her toys.” I did not like hearing the Wonderland House described as a toy, but it was fun to share a secret with a grown-up.

When he was home, Uncle Jasper was free all day, but Aunt Jane had a regular working week, so there was plenty of time for our fun. The housekeeper, Mildred, was supposed to keep an eye on me, but when she finished her work, she’d settle in front of the TV. I agreed with my uncle that we should leave her be.

The days with Uncle Jasper passed happily as we played with the Wonderland house, following that with “full size” games, and short visits to the girl next door. I realise now that when Jasper described these visits to his wife, he made it sound as if I spent most of my time with my friends, while he played golf.

Everything was going well until, one afternoon, a bomb scare closed Aunt Jane’s office and the staff were all sent home. We did not hear the van pull up, and my aunt came inside to find Mildred dozing in front of the TV while we were moving from the dollhouse to a new “full-size” game. The girl doll, Alice, lay in her tiny bed and I was scrambling into the big one that took up half the room.

The man doll was in bed with Alice, telling her a story and I knew Uncle Jasper would climb in beside me.

Aunt Jane was furious. I thought she must have really loved the Wonderland House to be so upset when we played with it.

She blamed me for “teasing your poor uncle,” and yelled insults while Uncle Jasper twisted the hem of his untucked shirt.

I was packed off to bed and a phone call to my mother had her booked on the next flight.

I did not see Uncle Jasper again.

The following day, when I came into the kitchen for breakfast, Aunt Jane yelled at me again, and sent me straight back to my room without as much as a piece of toast.

Luckily, my mother had managed to get an overnight flight. I did not spend too long sobbing into my pillow before she came in to hug me, throw my clothes into a case, and carry me out to the hire-car.

We stopped for pancakes on the way to the hotel, and with a few gentle questions my mother was able to make sense of the scene.

“I could strangle my sister,” she said, patting my shoulder. “It’s not your fault, lovey,”


The following days were full of treats, to make up, as my mother said, “For your aunt’s unkindness.”

I enjoyed going to the cinema, having ice-creams, and visiting the zoo, but I wished my mother would not include Uncle Jasper in her condemnation of the relatives. I tried to explain that he did not mean any harm when he let me play with the Wonderland House.

I told her about our games, and she agreed that there was no harm in having tea parties or bouncing tennis balls and her only comment about the doll’s story time was to suggest that in the narrow bed we might have found the “full-size” game uncomfortable. “You probably wouldn’t have bothered with it.” Which was what I thought at the time.

Now we had the dollhouse.

I opened the hinged front and peered into the little rooms, then I undid the bubble wrap and put each tiny piece of furniture into its proper place. I unwrapped the dolls and introduced them to Grisette. She tried to poke Alice and, looking at her sharp little claws, I decided she should play with her own toys. I tossed a twisted pipe cleaner, and she was happy to chase it, batting it with her paw and pouncing, like the tiger she probably imagined herself to be.

I turned back to the dollhouse, stroking the tiny fridge that my grandmother made, to bring the kitchen up to date. Each generation made some small change, as they would in a real family home. I thought the last little parcel must be Aunt Jane’s contribution, but she lacked my grandmother’s sensitive touch. The bottle was tiny on a human scale, but it was still way too big for a dollhouse.

I needed a magnifying glass to read the words “Drink me” on the minuscule label. That must be a potion for the Alice doll which, of course, I would have to drink for her. I was old enough to wonder whether the liquid was Coca-Cola or tap water, but young enough to be drawn into the game.

I decided the bottle was too big to go into the dollhouse. As I pulled out the tiny cork, it rolled across the floor. The movement attracted Grisette, but when the cork rolled against the wall, and she lost interest. She looked around for something else.

I had the bottle open, ready to offer the potion to Alice before drinking it myself, but as I reached for the doll, Grisette butted her head against my hand and sent the liquid splashing into the carpet. There was a smell of burning wool and a black-edged hole.

What would have happened to the little doll if she drank the potion?

What would have happened to me?

Aunt Jane had been almost pretty when she talked about her childhood games, but what had she been thinking? Had she really rung my mother for sympathy? Or was she playing her own nasty game? Did she want to hurt the child she blamed for the loss of her husband?

My aunt had filled the bottle and written tiny letters on the label. And she had talked about the tea parties where the girls ate and drank for their dolls. I heard again the words: “He would have been a good man if…”

I knew my mother blamed Uncle Jasper as well as Aunt Jane for the dismal end to That Holiday. What would she say when she saw the evil liquid that burned her carpet and might have burned me?

Would she hold my kind uncle partly responsible for Aunt Jane’s act? Or would she see the Wonderland House as an evil influence that was dangerous for us all?

That was how my child-self thought about the world.

Tonight, as an adult, coming to spend Christmas with my parents, I see a different world.

I know, and know my mother knew, the antique dollhouse was not the cause, or even the trigger, for Aunt Jane’s fury. It was the sight of a narrow bed, a little girl scrambling under the sheets, and a husband with his shirt hanging out. Had there been no dollhouse, Uncle Jasper would have found a different game to lead me along the path he had chosen.

I also know my aunt was not quite sane, that in her sly, twisted mind, a little girl had stolen the man she loved.

We had a wonderful evening. Over dinner my parents gave me news of friends from my father’s army days that still kept in touch, and we remembered the frantic housecleaning before the inspection that preceded every move. We laughed about my mother’s struggles as she established her garden in the present house and remembered the antics of a young Grisette, who was now a very dignified, elderly cat.

We did not talk about Aunt Jane, Uncle Jasper or the bones that had recently been found near the town where I spent that ill-fated holiday.

Now, in my old bedroom, I open the hinged front of the dollhouse and take out the Alice doll. Then I put her back, close the front of the house and gently pick up the mat I once put over a burnt hole, to hide the evidence of my aunt’s malice.

When I was living at home I’d become so used to that mat, that I rarely thought about the burnt carpet. Tonight, I look at my old room with fresh eyes. I remember how happily I arranged the dollhouse furniture, and how determined I had been, to hide the evidence of Aunt Jane’s final gift.

I have answers to questions that puzzled my younger self. I know why my aunt was so angry when she came home unexpectedly and why my parents detested my uncle. I can imagine the “music” my father said Jasper could not face. I also believe I know why my aunt’s husband never took a taxi from the airport and can guess where my aunt parked her van while she waited for his plane.

As I lie in bed, I say a quiet prayer to the powers that twice saved me from the evils of twisted adults and blessed me with parents who protected me.

But there is one final mystery, as I reach back through the years, trying to understand the incomprehensible complexities of my child mind. Why would a little girl, surrounded by her loving family, think she had to hide the evidence of a woman’s bitterness?

But that’s what children do.


Email: robin.hillard[at]

This Funny Thing Called Murder

Annabel White

Photo Credit: Jo Naylor/Flickr (CC-by)

At one point or another I wanted to be a painter. But you know that already, don’t you?

It was summer when we met and we were sitting in that room at the back of the church, a woman in a floaty skirt explaining something to us about brushstrokes. I was wearing this dress I’d taken from my sister, my thighs sticking uncomfortably to the red plastic chair underneath me. I can’t remember what you were wearing. Whenever I think about you now you’re always just in overalls. You’re lying on the floor in overalls right now. I’m washing my hands in the kitchen.

I don’t think we spoke on the first day, although we did on the second and by the third you’d splashed a line of red paint across my cheek. We each had a canvas in front of us, perched on some flimsy-looking easel. Your paintings were never very good but I thought it was sweet that you tried. I must have told you that; I can’t think why else you would have splashed me. The others were shocked but I thought it was funny. You laughed and ducked when I tried to do the same to you and right then it felt a bit like love, didn’t it?

On the fourth morning you started waiting for me outside of the church and there I spent the rest of the week, stuck precariously on that ledge of knowing you wanted me and having no clue what to do about it, afraid I might do something to make it all go away. You walked me to the bus stop on the final day and I thought about saying something, I wondered why you hadn’t, and then the words all got stuck in my mouth and I said something vapid like best of luck for the future. You gave me a nod, then I got on the bus.

The painting course was only one week and you were just some guy but everything bad that’s ever happened to me followed quite soon after that so there must be some relevance to it, I suppose.

I was meant to go to art school. I’d been accepted for the following year and there was definitely a moment, some point in the past, before you and us and all of it going wrong, when I thought it might happen, that I’d become everything I wanted to be. But then all that stuff happened with my parents and all that money I’d been counting on disappeared and there I was a year later, still at home, flipping food-truck burgers in a peach-coloured cap and polo shirt. My boss was this dumpy guy called Neil. He was always sweating, even in winter, and mostly he just sat outside smoking cigarettes while I served the customers. Now and then he’d come inside to give a few futile orders, to assert some kind of masculine authority. He told a lot of jokes I made a point not to laugh at and I’d always catch him staring at my boobs.

I was dating a trainee accountant with shiny hair on the day you came by. His name was Aldo and he had these freakishly long arms. His skin was so pale he sparkled in the sun. You hated him, remember? We’d been together exactly two months and I was wondering if he knew, if I should remind him that night it was our two-monthiversary, when I looked up and there you were, asking for a burger with cheddar and onion. Your hair was longer than it was last summer. You were looking at something on your phone as you spoke and I wasn’t sure you recognised me. It wasn’t until I said ‘ketchup’s round the side’ that you looked me in the eye and asked if I was still painting.

‘A bit,’ I said, though really that was a lie because by then my paints had mostly dried up and for some reason I was pretending I couldn’t afford more. A year or so later I would move out of the food truck and into an office where I answered the phone for an insurance firm. We’d be living in that tiny place off Hamilton Court, my hair would no longer smell of processed meat, and soon after that I’d give up painting completely. It was too hard to try and too painful to fail, easier to make up excuses.

‘Are you?’ I asked as I passed you your change.

In your right hand was the burger and in your left hand you were holding a can of Dulux. Your overalls were splattered in duck egg blue. You lifted the can, mockingly. ‘Oh yeah,’ you said. ‘I’ve gone pro.’

I only saw the accountant a few times after that.


It was a year later to the day that my grandmother died. We had tickets for a concert, some Scandinavian group you’d loved as a teenager, and we’d rented a room in a fancy-looking hotel round the corner. You were excited because you wanted to stand on a sticky floor in a dark smokey crowd with people bumping into either side of you. You wanted to stare up at the men who’d made the hopeless fifteen-year-old version of yourself feel something. You wanted to feel that again. I was excited because I liked going out with you, because we never did things as a ‘couple’. You hated my friends, they weren’t keen on you and in time I grew tired of their saying I could do better, of listening to their judgments of you masked as concern. What started in bars and parks and public places moved to sofas and bedrooms, and the highs and the lows of our first year together went on like that, concealed behind closed doors. So that’s what the concert meant to me. The publication of what we usually kept so private. Us.

I’d just sat down at my desk, barely had a second to catch up with overnight emails, when the call came through. My sister was driving down, she said. She’d be here tomorrow. My boss gave me the rest of the day off. I called and called but I couldn’t get through to you. I walked out onto the high street. The sky was bright and offensively blue. I listened to a man on a saxophone play a song I couldn’t place. I gave him five pounds, then I walked into Tesco and bought two bottles of Merlot.

I don’t tend to drink wine but my grandmother was an alcoholic and I wanted to do something private, to pay my respects in some kind of way. She mostly drank red, which is the reason I never do. Even now, when I close my eyes, I can’t see her face. I can see her long frail fingers wrapped around a wine-stained glass, the smear of her lipstick on its rim, stale cigarette smoke filling the air. But I can never see her face.

I called you again and you didn’t pick up, so I ran myself a bath and lay in the scalding water, drinking glass after disgusting glass as I cried.

You were annoyed. You couldn’t see why if I was drunk and upset in the bathroom, I couldn’t be drunk and upset in a sweaty bar with Scandi-rock pulsing through us. We couldn’t get our money back on the hotel and you hated it when I drank this much. I cried some more as you poured the remaining half-bottle down the drain and six days later I got even more hammered at the funeral. You were never a good actor and I liked that about you at the start, but you played the part of supportive boyfriend appallingly. A lot more people voiced concerns after that.


She wasn’t a rich woman, my grandmother. The house was rented and all the money she had went on her lifestyle. But she owned this mirror, this ridiculous six-foot mirror that she’d decided to leave to me. It was huge and golden with spirals and tiny decorations all over it. Cupid and his arrow, peacock feathers, roses and thorns, random shit like that. I used to stare at it for hours, finding something new and different about it every time I looked.

When I was eight and my sister was nine, we were cartwheeling along the corridor of her house and one of us, I can’t remember who, kicked the mirror and it cracked. It wasn’t a big crack but it wasn’t the kind of crack you could hide either. I blamed my sister and she blamed me and no one ever got to the bottom of it. There was a time when I would have been able to say with certainty which one of us was lying, although somewhere along the way my memory of the truth and my memory of the lie merged together and I don’t know what actually happened. I’m not sure if I started to believe the words coming out of her mouth or the ones coming out of mine.

You didn’t want it. You said it was too grand, too embarrassing. You didn’t want people thinking we had that kind of money, not that anyone ever comes here anyway. The crack’s bigger than it used to be but I remember that one clearly. I remember the night, the fight, your foot in my grandmother’s mirror, the sound of shattered glass. I remember that one was you.

You’re not making any noise in the living room. I’m looking at myself in the mirror and I’m thinking I should probably polish it. I lift up my shirt where the skin underneath is smooth and soft and sometimes beige, sometimes black, sometimes blue. I examine myself in my grandmother’s mirror before I walk back to the living room and sit next to you on the floor. I stroke the side of your cheek and I whisper your name.


Do you remember the trip we took to Scotland? The rain didn’t stop and that Volkswagen I’d insisted on renting barely made it five miles. We chugged to a halt on this tiny road overlooking the loch. The afternoon faded into evening and we walked down the path to the rocks to the water. Huge grey clouds hung over the hills and the loch spread out flat and vast in front of us. The water was dark and freezing; you squealed like a child as we waded into it. It was a noise I’d never heard you make, and I laughed and laughed when you did.

That night we slept in the van with the doors wide open, the rain occasionally spitting on our faces. You wrapped me in the blankets, you said you weren’t cold, and when you kissed the tip of my nose, I brushed the hair off your forehead and you smiled. It was nice. We were both happy that night. You told me about the summers you used to spend in the Lake District and the little house on the hill your parents always rented. You told me about the pub in town, the one your dad took you to, the beer he’d let you sip as he said things like don’t tell your mother and there’s a good lad. The women he spoke to were the kind your mother hated and they would squeeze your cheeks and tell you what a heartbreaker you’d turn out to be. ‘Just like your father,’ they’d say and you’d look at your dad, who would have his arm wrapped around some woman you’d never seen before, and you’d smile politely as they laughed.

There were fights, you said, when the two of you got home. You’d go straight to bed but you’d hear them through the wall. She’d shout at him for being a drunk, for keeping you out past your bedtime, for doing who knows what with who knows who. Sometimes you’d hear a slap or a scream or a plate smashing in two though in the morning everything would be in perfect order again. You said those trips were the only happy memories you had from your childhood and when I pictured your spindly ten-year-old legs barely making it to the second ring of the bar stool it almost broke my heart. By your eleventh birthday your father was dead and by your twelfth your step-dad had moved in and he wasn’t the type to take his step-kid to the pub, much less the Lake District. Then three or four years went by, you moved out of the house and you never saw the inside of it again.

We saw your mother that one time in town, a couple of years after Scotland. She smiled with her mouth not her eyes and said that you looked well. You spoke to the ground not to her and before she walked away she passed you a couple of notes from her purse and told you to look after yourself. You were in an awful mood that night. I bought the wrong type of milk and we were all out of tea bags and you told me you wished you’d never met me. I said that I could have done so much better, that I should have married the accountant, that I’d be rich and happy and somewhere far away if I hadn’t been weighed down by you. I don’t know what you said next, if you said anything at all. I was washing the dishes and I remember your reflection behind me in the kitchen window, your hand in my hair, the look on your face as you yanked me to the ground. The zip on your jeans and the cold hard kitchen underneath me. It would have been three years ago now.

The next place we moved to was bigger. There was an extra room, a tiny windowless space off the kitchen. The estate agent made some uncomfortable comment about kids and the two of us looked anywhere but each other. You came home one night with an easel, just like the ones from that course we once took, and you put it in the middle of the room. I tried to paint, I really did, but something inside of me just couldn’t. You bought oil paints in every colour with money we didn’t have and on the evenings you weren’t around, I stayed in that room, staring at the blank canvas.

One night you came home, you were drunk and in one of those moods where you looked at me like I was the best thing that had ever happened to you. On other nights I was a dumb bitch, a waste of space, so ugly no one would ever want me. But that night you talked about going away, you wanted to take me to France, you wanted to know what the world looked like from the top of the Eiffel Tower. You opened the door to the spare room; I always tried to keep it shut. We were laughing as you undressed me and I stood behind the easel as you painted my body onto canvas.

‘Look,’ you said as you pushed the brush into blobs of pink and white and brown. ‘It’s easy.’

The painting looked nothing like me. My breasts all distorted, my thighs too wide. I refused to let you hang it. We did it a few more times though. We’d take turns. Sometimes you lay out on the sofa, your legs spread and your penis served like something on a platter. It was easy to paint you like that, just impossible to paint anything else. The naked portraits are hidden under the bed at the moment. I’m not sure what I’ll do with them.


You’re still warm to touch and I’m thinking I should probably call someone. You look strangely peaceful, lying there like that. It’s the closest I’ve felt to you in months. Tonight was different in so many ways. I’ve fractured my wrist a few times now, got punched in the face at least twice. The bruises on my stomach always heal and I hardly see the ones on my back.

But it was the first time you had your hand round my neck and in that second your eyes locked in mine, there was no air in my lungs and I thought fuck you really might do it. You didn’t, of course, you don’t have it in you but I couldn’t wait around until you did.

You were so drunk you passed out on the floor. It was easy after that. All those years I’ve kept the carpet so clean, it’s funny to think about now. All those fights that started when you trailed mud through our house or smashed cups of tea onto the floor. All those hours I spent on my knees, scrubbing stains out of it. Now the blood pools out in bright red splodges, running like rivers through the thread of the carpet. I dip my index finger into the source, the pool by your neck, and I draw a thin smear of blood across the cream fibres. I do it again and again until brushstrokes of blood go back and forth in circles around us. Your face is blank and you’ve definitely stopped breathing. The room is splattered with raindrops of red and in a way it sort of looks beautiful.

One might even call it art.


Annabel White is a writer based in London. Her fiction has been published in Mslexia and Brilliant Flash Fiction. My non-fiction has featured in The Release, Twentyhood Magazine and Sick Love Zine. Email: annabelwhite123[at]

Return to Richmond

Tony Press

Photo Credit: Alpha/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

Zeke followed the crowd off the train and into the streets of Richmond. It was his first visit in six years. It things went as planned, or, perhaps better to say, as hoped, his next trip would be with all his stuff, not that he possessed that much. He ordered a Lyft and gave an address in the Carytown neighborhood. It was a good place to have lunch, he had heard from two locals sitting across from him, and he didn’t remember anything better, so why not?

Yellow roses held sway on the small table beneath her bedroom window. Their scent, their shape, their fragile solidity, Annie appreciated all of it. She treasured the line from the Willa Cather story: The roses of song and the roses of memory, they are the only ones that last. May it be so, she requested, of the universe and anyone who might be listening. Even the letter carrier, just now walking by.

Xavier Puentes was Annie’s father, and he was dead. Annie had cared for him his last four dreadful months and, as is often the truth, relief had come only with the final breath. He had lived merely fifty years but had packed decades into some of those years. He was tired. His body was tired. Time was up.

When Annie’s call came, Zeke had been dozing in his tiny studio in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, listening to the Mets and Pirates. He woke, spoke, listened and spoke again, and within minutes was planning his journey south. The Amtrak schedule offered two choices from Penn Station: 3:25am and 10:35am. The early one would be perfect, giving him a late morning arrival in Richmond.

Very few people had come to the funeral, which had surprised Annie. Her surprise, too, surprised her. True, there was no family in town, or even within a three days’ drive, but she’d guessed some of her father’s old co-workers would show. Apparently, they hadn’t reached the “forgive and forget” stage yet. Or maybe they’d gone straight to the forgetting.

Under ordinary circumstances, Zeke wouldn’t have been home when Annie called. He would have been at his job in lower Manhattan, slinging hash—the vegetarian version—at a joint that had been running too long to be called “up and coming” but still hadn’t made a name for itself. Maybe the owner shouldn’t have called it The Nameless, but that was her call, not Zeke’s. Still, it was fortunate he was home, thanks to an unexpected private party that chose to bring in its own cooking crew. A night off with pay was a rare and beautiful thing.

Technology, like most swords, most doors, most fences, had two sides, but neither had helped Xavier. Not in the end. Not in the hospital, not at home with hospice, and not with his old career. Once television repair was a solid career, and so it was for him, until it wasn’t. Then the boss had everyone train in VCR repair. A bit later, the boss, with Xavier’s help, had torched the place, planning to split the insurance 80/20.

It turned out that a custodian named Wally Covington, who’d been the last of the cleaning crew to be laid off, had kept his key, continuing to sleep most nights in the backroom. Including that night. Three days later, the boss confessed, though not giving up Xavier, before killing himself. Xavier’s co-workers, however, had a well-founded suspicion of his complicity. And, it turned out, they had liked Wally more than Xavier.

Reflecting on her father’s next to last set of words: Mija, estaba con mi jefe. Tengo culpable. Soy un asesino, Annie recalled the days immediately after the fire: boss’s arrest, the jail suicide, and the embarrassment of the sheriff that such a thing could happen on his watch. The stories in the paper focused more on that than on the death of Mr. Covington.

Quicker than quick, a Lyft driver named Stuart appeared in a bigger than necessary car, and off Zeke went toward Cary Street, and Weezie’s Kitchen. Both of his train neighbors had urged it upon him, though they each threw three or four other names in his direction. If you like good food, you’ve come to the right place. One added: “The Rich in Richmond is really for the food. Maybe it didn’t use to be, but now, yes. Trust me.”

Picking through her father’s clothes, Annie created three piles. One for garbage, one for Goodwill, and one, much smaller, for grasping, though she couldn’t have said why. Well, she could say why for one of the items, her father’s grey-and-red Richmond Flying Squirrels T-shirt. They’d been at the ballpark together when he bought it, only last season, and it was still in good shape. They shared shirt size, too.

On the ten-minute ride with Stuart, a friendly tour guide, Zeke began to think the whole town was secretly paid by the Chamber of Commerce. “Yeah, the wife and I have been here five years and we ain’t going anywhere. Good size, good people, good weather… oh, and the food. The food. What brings you down here, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Next week, Annie knew, required some semblance of normalcy. Her school had granted a week’s personal leave, and also placed an excellent substitute in her classroom, but on Monday, she’d be back. It was Spring, Steinbeck time: Of Mice and Men for the freshmen and, for the juniors, The Grapes of Wrath. It was her favorite time of year. And bingo, she realized yet again, each book ended with a kind of beauty in death.

A menu could be a beautiful thing to read. Twice, Zeke asked his server to please give him more time, he was having such fun savoring the pages. He had been wrong before, but this time he suspected the product would match the promotion. He chose the “Traditional Bennie” but with veggie sausage, and Kate-the-server agreed it was a good pick.

Longing, longing was a word she never used, laughed when she heard it or saw it, and yet. And yet, she was longing for Zeke. She must be. Why had she called him if not for that? When had they last talked—two years? Three? She considered “confessing” her use of the word “longing” to her juniors, a word that was omnipresent on the right side of the board, on the list of words to avoid, or, at a minimum, to think twice before using. Especially in writing. Especially in her class.

Killer food, that’s what Zeke would say if he were to Yelp this place. Flat-out killer. Even if he were not a professional, “New Yawk professional,” at that, he would have appreciated this food. Anybody with half a brain would, as long as their taste buds were intact. The vision, too, was important: the food arrived well-displayed on the plate. This was a nice landing. The rest of the day, he confessed to himself, about that, he was nervous. He walked out to the sunshine and soon was in another car

Jumping at the sound. A black SUV in her driveway, a Lyft sticker on the window.

It was happening. Zeke grabbed his bag and jumped onto the driveway.

He’s here. Look at him.

God, she’s beautiful.

Finally, they thought.

Even now, five years beyond, they relive that moment.

Dad is a memory, and they focus on the good parts, not his hatred for Zeke.

Catalina is three.

Billy is one.

All is well, in the small house, the classroom, and at Zekes Heartland Café, Fine Food from Z to A.


Tony Press tries to pay attention. Sometimes he does. His story collection, Crossing the Lines, was published by Big Table. He claims 2 Pushcart nominations, 12 years in one high school classroom, and 25 criminal jury trials. He lives near the San Francisco Bay. Email: tonypress108[at]


Inés G. Labarta

Photo Credit: Max Jackson (CC-by-nc-nd)

When I learned that Miss Barale had been a piano virtuoso I was ecstatic. Back in the 1940s, she moved to England from Italy thanks to her musical genius. A bit like I’d done. Well, except she was escaping fascism and I was just running away from Spain’s economic cataclysm and Dad’s dream of me becoming a famous pianist.

Dad was a bit of a melomaniac. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor, he used to say, classical music blasting out from his stereo. Mussorgsky, Borodin, Tchaikovsky. The Russians were always his favourite. Once, he’d found hundreds of classical music CDs in black bin bags nearby a radio station. Tossed away after being digitalised, I guess. Dad had to get some custom-designed shelves to store them at home, and even after that, there were CDs on the counters, under the beds, stacked next to the laundry basket in the toilet.

He wasn’t one of those parents who force their children to play piano eight hours a day. I chose it. My mother had a small Casio keyboard that she left behind when she moved out. She used to practice Bach Minuets on it. I hate Bach. But I was fascinated by the machine, so I kept playing it on my own. Dad got me classes—first a small music academy around the corner, then a private school, then the Madrid Royal Conservatory. I developed tendonitis upon tendonitis and still couldn’t make my hands wider or stronger to play the pieces I knew would impress juries the most at piano competitions. I was good, very good, but I wasn’t brilliant.

I found a black-and-white recording of a young Miss Barale playing Petrushka, Stravinsky’s most diabolical piano composition, at the Royal Albert Hall. Long curly hair and large hands taming that beast of a piece. Her performance gave me shivers, as if I was seeing her tickle a Siberian tiger under the chin to make it purr.

I began to think that if I could master that piano piece too, maybe there was a chance of me becoming a virtuoso after all.


I chose to work as a domestic in the care home because I knew it would feel familiar. Dad was already old when he had me, and I’d been raised by him and his friends. Soft skin like tracing paper. Flesh that folds and wrinkles. The pearly colour of fake teeth. Bodies that grow small and angular.

Dad wouldn’t have approved of this job, though. He had spent most of his retirement savings to take me around Spain for piano competitions and concerts. But, after I went to study History and Musicology in England, all our savings were gone. I was lucky I could live with my friend Lily, a mature student I’d met at university and who let me stay with her rent-free. And with Dad not being able to get out of the house anymore, he needed someone to help out. He couldn’t afford a carer on his pension, so I sent him money. When he asked, I told him I earned it teaching piano lessons via Zoom and promised I’d keep attending orchestra auditions as soon as they reopened.


‘How is your dad doing, María?’ Lily asked.

‘He’s good,’ I said. ‘Takes his clove of black garlic every morning, natural antibiotic he calls it, plus a bit of fennel to avoid bad breath. He says that’s how he’s going to live until he’s one hundred.’

‘Worth a try, am I right?’ Lily chuckled. ‘And how’s work?’

‘Not so bad,’ I said. ‘When I clean the corridors I always see residents pacing up and down, all day long. They call them Wanderers. In the evening, as they get tired, they start leaning forwards more and more… We’ve to watch out for incontinence pads on the floor, I think they slide down the bottom of their trousers’ legs… The other domestics think it’s funny, but you know, I couldn’t stand being always indoors. I’d end up just like them.’

‘Are they not allowed out?’

‘Not since lockdown.’

Truth is, I felt a bit guilty about my job. Lily turned eighty-three in November. Like Dad, she was in a high-risk category, so she’d also decided to not go outside until things cleared up. We’d agreed we shouldn’t physically see each other and we kept ourselves to different areas of the house. And what we shared—the kitchen, her piano—we disinfected constantly.

‘I’m cooking tonight,’ I said. ‘Shall I bring a dish to your door when it’s done?’

‘That’d be nice.’

Lily had forgotten to eat lunch again.

‘At least you left your room…’ The piano was in the hall, set against the stairs, and when I came in I saw she’d been fidgeting with my scores. ‘You’re trying to learn Petrushka too?’

‘Sounds interesting when you practice.’

‘It’s driving me mad.’

‘You only need time. I have lots. Maybe I can play it before you,’ she joked.

‘Sure,’ I laughed. Lily had also grown up playing but had dropped it when her family pressured her to study medicine, like her father. She’d ended up as a biologist in a lab in Oxford, having only gone back to practising piano after retirement. I very much doubted she could ever play Petrushka. Then again, I wasn’t doing brilliantly either.


I’d met Miss Barale through my job in the care home. She lived on the fourth unit, which I was scheduled to clean every time there was a shortage of staff. That’s where the patients with less mobility stayed. They were normally in the last states of dementia or had suffered a stroke. Miss Barale was short, with a curled skeletal body, bulging cloudy eyes and wispy hair like antennae. I’d heard one of the other domestics say she looked like a crustacean. I thought that was mean, and I told her.

I wasn’t supposed to talk to the residents or interact with them in any manner—I wasn’t a carer—but I liked to greet them and chat when no one was around. I made a few friends that way. Like Mr Jenkins, who often forgot he couldn’t walk and tried to stand up out of his wheelchair. He loved to flirt and always dressed smart and colourfully: yellow-knitted vests, black-and-white oxford shoes. Or Mrs Orwell, who had been in the WAAF during the war and spent hours watching the bird feeder by her window. She taught me how to distinguish between different kinds of finches. And Miss Barale, of course. The rest of the staff referred to her as The Screamer. Whenever you entered the room she’d start mumbling to herself (she may have been blind and immobile, but her hearing was acute) and when you got near her she screamed her lungs out. The carers thought she was just babbling but after a few days, I was pretty sure she was speaking Italian.

‘Chi sta venendo, chi è là, shh, shh, vai vai, non mi toccare, vai…’

I memorised her words and improvised different ways of spelling them on an online translator. That’s how I understood that she didn’t know where she was or who we were. I used the same online translator to teach myself a couple of sentences to communicate with her.

‘Buongiorno signora, si trova in una casa di cura, mi chiamo María e mi prenderò cura di lei. Va tutto bene.’

Despite my atrocious accent, it worked. Sometimes Miss Barale would mumble back to me, still a bit nervous. I couldn’t understand most of it but I kept repeating ‘Va tutto bene, tutto bene’ like a lullaby, and she let me go around the room.


No matter what, it was my job to clean the basement every afternoon. I was the new one, and none of the other domestics would take it. A room with fluorescent lights reflecting on the white walls that seemed to be out of proportion with the rest of the floors. Too vast and open. As if the space inside the care home had expanded underground, defying all logic. In reality, this basement also belonged to the building next door: a research centre for neurological diseases.

The basement was noiseless, apart from the humming of the freezers and the cold storage unit that you stopped hearing after ten minutes or so. I took advantage of being alone and played music on my headphones—I’d already learned to hide my phone in my uniform. I downloaded different piano versions of Petrushka and I listened to them again and again, memorising the polyrhythms, the glissandos, the tremolos…

It was there I started hearing it again. The banging. At first, I thought it was something wrong with my headphones, or that the music files were corrupted. But when I took them out, it was clearer than ever.

Like a thousand rock-cold hands banging on invisible doors.


The corridors in Lily’s house were high and narrow. Darkness gathered like clouds around me. I switched on the light by the stairs before I sat on the cold tiled floor with my back against the door. I missed Lily’s smell. The warmth of her wrinkled hands. Her ocean-vast blue eyes.

‘They keep brains in these fridges in the basement,’ I told her. ‘It’s for some Alzheimer’s research they do… I needed special training to clean the dissecting rooms.’

‘In the care home?’

‘Yes. They cut the dead residents’ skulls with a large serrated knife, get the brain out, then put a handkerchief around the head so the family doesn’t notice when they bury them…’

‘Have you seen that?’

‘No, I only clean afterwards. But they told me. Would you donate your organs to science?’

‘Well.’ On the other side of the door, Lily took her time before answering. I pictured her sitting on the green armchair she had in her bedroom, dragged to the door to talk more comfortably. We hadn’t seen each other for months. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so.’

‘I wouldn’t mind donating mine. I mean, once I die, I don’t care what they do with my body. It’s only a carcass.’

‘I don’t like the idea of someone touching, cutting, looking inside,’ Lily said.

‘But you used human bodies when you were at university, to learn and stuff?’

‘I did. I messed up some of my dissections. It’s not always respectful.’

‘But at that point, the human is all gone. It’s just meat.’

‘Maybe. But when I die, I don’t want anyone tossing my organs around.’


Glorianne was the most experienced domestic in our team and, as our self-appointed boss, she made sure to keep an eye on me during my first week.

‘Hey, María. Want to sit outside for tea?’ She had crunchy coiled hair and black-rimmed glasses. I’d seen the other domestics took turns to bring her strong black coffee, four sugars, before the start of every shift.

‘Face masks and aprons are running out, huh?’ Glorianne took out her BLT sandwich carefully packed in two napkins and foil.

‘Yeah. I’ve noticed.’ My lunch consisted of a box filled with mashed potato soaked in cheap olive oil. I was saving every penny to send to Dad.

‘It doesn’t surprise me,’ she continued. ‘Aaron, my brother, he’s a nurse at the Infirmary. He told me that someone stole three thousand face masks over there.’

‘From the hospital?’

‘Right before lockdown. Someone smart, I guess. Bet they made a lot of money selling them.’

After her sandwich, Glorianne rolled a cigarette.

‘You Italian?’ She asked me.


‘They have it bad in Spain now, don’t they? I’m from Malta. It’s easier to control things there. Small islands, you know? Why are you here anyways?’

‘No jobs back home. I’m a pianist.’

‘Well done you,’ Glorianne said and, for the first time, she smiled at me. ‘Do you know we have a bit of a celebrity pianist here? Miss Barale. The Screamer. I know she doesn’t look like it but, back in her day, she toured all over the country. Stuck here for twenty years, though. Good that she has no memory now and can’t miss it.’


‘Today at work there was a bit of drama,’ I said to Lily, gulping down my soup. We both ate and chatted on our side of the door.

‘What was it?’

‘We don’t have face masks or aprons anymore. Gone. I think Glorianne thought I may have taken them.’

‘Why you?’

‘Because I’m broke, and I have Dad back home. But it’s all right. We chatted, cleared things up. We’re both Mediterranean. She told me as long as I’m not Italian, I’m OK. She hates Italians. Mafiosi, she called them.’

‘This Glorianne sounds quite the…’

‘No, she’s nice. But today everyone was complaining and then Mrs Hampson, the director, went out and bought us tons of these paint face masks… Glorianne says they’re not great, really, you need the proper ones to be protected… ah, and Mrs Hampson bought bin bags too. She told us to cut a hole in the bottom, for the head, and to use them as aprons.’

‘When will you get the new equipment?’

‘Don’t know. It’s all going to the NHS at the moment, that’s what Glorianne says.’

I didn’t tell her about the banging I kept hearing day after day. Or what my coworkers whispered in the staff room. They didn’t feel safe. So many were getting ill, and not only the residents. The cleaning team had always been understaffed but now things were much worse. And the personal carers kept quitting. One of them was in the hospital, struggling. Who knew if she was going to come out of it.

I took my temperature every night when I went home from work and started obsessing with the glands in my throat—were they swollen? Painful? To keep calm, I focused on Dad’s motto: life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor.


The cold storage unit they had in the cellar to keep the residents who passed away got full. They received another one, three or four times larger. They had to put it in the backyard. It was white on the outside and looked like one of those shipping containers that are repurposed into offices, or classrooms. But windowless. It was spacious, so it could take corpses from the area when the funeral homes started having waiting lists.

Every day, when I went to work, the first thing I did was to see if Miss Barale was still in her bed on the fourth unit. I made myself invisible to the other residents—I had received two warnings for cleaning too slowly, a third one meant a disciplinary—but she was the exception.

In my broken Italian, I complained to her about a burning pain that started in the joint of my thumb and went all the way up to the elbow. Petrushka was a meat grinder and I was stupid enough to put my hands in it every single day, for hours. I envied Miss Barale’s hands. Even when eaten by her arthritis—curled rigid fingers—they were still sizeable and wide. I’d read somewhere that Russian composers wrote the most difficult piano pieces because Russians have larger hands than the average European. That was some bullshit, though. I’d seen a video of a Russian virtuoso playing Petrushka. This guy was younger than me, but had already toured the world to perform in all the main music venues: La Scala, Viena Musikverein, Sidney Opera House, you name it. Yet, watching him play Petrushka was painful. He frowned, clenched his jaw and ground his teeth as if he was wrestling to lift an impossible weight. Fat drops of sweat hung from his hair and fell steadily on the keyboard. When he finished the three movements and stood up to salute the audience, his tuxedo looked wrinkly and wet, as if he’d been sleeping rough for weeks.

In the black-and-white videos, Miss Barale had the stern look of a Roman statue. Her hands fluttered across the keyboard like birds.

One day, I put my headphones in her ears. I was hoping she’d tell me her secret. Petrushka wasn’t about hand anatomy or physical strength. This piece was a fiendish mental labyrinth with only one way out.

She became alert when the first chords broke the silence. This was her own recording from 1964. From there, her cloudy eyes remained stuck on the wall. She didn’t utter a word, not even her usual mumbling. Her fingers started shaking. One could have mistaken that slight movement as a tic.

I recognised the sequence.


‘I’ll never finish learning this damn piece,’ I complained to Lily. ‘Stravinsky composed it for someone with sixteen fingers. I can’t move them fast enough. It’s like Olympic gymnastics for my hands.’

‘Maybe it’s all that thinking you’re doing. People assume brains keep all the memories,’ she started tapping at her side of the door, ‘but they’re stored all over the body.’

Her tapping was reproducing Chez Pétrouchka, the piece’s second movement.

‘When I was working in the labs, down in Oxford, we did quite a few experiments on cellular memory. We wanted to prove it,’ Lily said.

‘Hasn’t it been proved already?’

‘No. People still call it a pseudoscience. But we got somewhere. We started with flatworms. We trained them to associate light and open spaces with food. That’s not your normal kind of behaviour in flatworms. When they were good at that, we chopped them and fed them to other flatworms. Those learned the tricks much faster.’

‘Because they kind of ingested their memories?’

‘We went a step further. We tried with rats.’


‘Exactly. We used mazes with them. Then we fed them to other rats and…’

‘Did it work?’

‘It did. We had two different groups. One where rats had fed on their relatives, another where they only got the normal diet. The first learned much faster. But see, that’s not that different from what we used to do.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Ritual cannibalism was something that happened in prehistoric times. You know, people believed that eating organs from their deceased, like the brain and the heart, would pass on some… characteristics. Skills. Inclinations.’


‘Can you hear that?’ I asked Glorianne.

We were on our ten-minute break in the staff area. The room was windowless and felt more like a cupboard: lockers stacked on top of each other against the wall, mountains of coats hanging from the hooks, street shoes all over the floor. That day, there were no other domestics around the sticky table, fighting for the chairs that weren’t broken.

‘Hear now? It’s happening again.’

‘What?’ she said.

‘The banging. It’s always going on… in the unit below… Where is everyone, by the way?’

‘I can’t hear anything.’ Glorianne took the coffee I’d brought her. ‘Have you put four sugars in this? It’s so bitter.’

‘But it’s always there,’ I insisted. ‘Can you not hear it?’

‘Come on now, don’t be like the others. Saying that they’ve heard Mrs Pryce strolling down the corridor with her walker even though she died three years ago. Ghosts?’ she scoffed. ‘Nonsense. You die, you go to Heaven, or down there if that’s what you deserve. We don’t linger around. By the way, are you free this Sunday coming? We have another one down on sick leave.’

‘Yes, that’s fine,’ I said.

‘I just don’t get it. Who can afford to be on sick leave for two weeks? If I have to come to work with a temperature, I will. Won’t be the first time.’

‘Wait… there it is again… hear the banging now?’

‘I mean, is Mrs Hampson going to pay my food bills? Or my rent? I have three children to take care of all on my own, so don’t have time to play Mother Teresa. And you, come on, let’s go to work. Have to clean six units now between us.’

I’d also thought the banging was in my head. Tiredness, maybe. I was doing extra shifts almost every day. For a moment, I even feared it was some sort of defect or illness in my ears. But I only heard it when I was in the care home. It never followed me outside.

I decided to check for myself. The next time I caught it—wheeling my trolley down the fourth unit—I stopped and closed my eyes. It was coming from below. I left the trolley on the corner and followed the noise.

Bang, bang, bang.

Down on the second level, the corridor lights switched on as I went in. Squeaky floor, baby blue walls, white doors. Nothing else.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I felt lucky to be alone in the corridors—no chance of being spotted and getting another warning—but then, I realised, something was wrong. No Wanderers pacing up and down. The day room was also empty. Naked tables, empty chairs. Dust snowing on the unoccupied sofas.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

The sound came from behind the locked doors.

Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang.

I put my ear against one of them—the gesture felt familiar, I almost expected Lily to talk from the other side.

Someone slapped against it.

The bang reverberated on my skull.

I jumped back and ran away towards the stairs. I tripped and rolled down. I sat on the landing, dizzy. The only sound I could hear now was the pounding in my head.


Like in the old times, I was putting five, six hours on the piano per day. Right after work, I’d go straight to it. I didn’t even bother with food. The keys were teeth, and I was their meal. I didn’t need the scores anymore. It’s not that I had them in my head and could visualise them at will. It was all in my fingers. They remembered. My hands hovered over the keys, assuming their position. I released them. As the music started, my mind went blank. It was like floating inside warm, golden light. A space where thoughts couldn’t form. My cells disintegrated. The melody went on and on and on. And on, and on, and on…

It struck me, right there. What the banging was.


Life is like a symphony, and you’re the conductor. That’s what Dad used to say. A symphony orchestra has at least one hundred instruments organised by families—string, woodwind, brass and percussion—all with their own internal hierarchies. It’s not easy to hold the baton to impose harmony on them all.

I tried to make things right.

As soon as I arrived to work the next day I looked for Glorianne. I wanted to tell her about how I was sure they had the residents locked in their rooms on the first and second units and wouldn’t let them out. Who was feeding them? Who was helping them wash, or put their clothes on? Why hadn’t we been told?

I checked the staff room and all over our unit and the rest of the building, but I couldn’t find her. Maybe she’d also gotten ill. I worried. It had to be very bad if she hadn’t shown up for work.

I spent the rest of the day shivering while scrubbing the floors in the basement. Wondering how one could play a piano piece that emulated the effect of dozens of instruments with only ten fingers.


I thought about going to the press. To tell them that we didn’t have personal carers anymore and that most of the domestics were on sick leave. And the banging. But when I tried to make sense of what had happened—give the events a chronology, cause and effect, I froze.

Even my first day at the care home is blurry.

The only clear image I have is from the exterior of the building. A four-floor concrete monstrosity with rows and rows of small windows. Empty sockets facing the bleak landscape of the bay.

Inside, I only remember pushing my cleaning trolley down the corridors. The clicking of the bleach tablets inside the plastic buckets. The colour-coded cleaning tools. How it hurt to breathe in, with the thick mint balm they made us apply under the nostrils.

And the noise. Coming from behind the locked doors in the corridors.

Bang, bang, bang.


‘Miss Barale is dead,’ I told Lily while I played with the pasta in my bowl.

‘The pianist?’

‘Yes. She wasn’t there when I went to do my rounds. Passed away yesterday.’

‘Was it…?’

‘Yeah. She’d had it for two weeks. I didn’t know. They only gave her painkillers.’

I dropped the bowl on the floor.

‘Dad was admitted to the hospital. A neighbour called me.’ My tears were solid like a tennis ball, down at the back of my throat. Hard to swallow.

I knew the hospital he was in. We’d been there before when they had to extract his gallbladder. Rooms were small, but they faced a park. At this time of the year, he would be seeing black poplar trees with their new lime-coloured leaves

‘That’s good, María. They’ll take care of him there,’ Lily said. I knew what she meant. Miss Barale hadn’t been given that chance.

‘I hired a private nurse to stay with him day and night… I don’t want him alone.’

I thought of the residents at the care home, quarantined in their rooms. Without carers, we were now in charge of bringing them food in trays. Some of the domestics refused to enter the rooms. They said it wasn’t their job, and that they were scared of getting near the residents without proper face masks and PPE. I still did. Tried to clean them a bit, if they let me. Calm down their cries. Give notice when I found out someone had stopped breathing.

‘He may get out. He wants to see you again, that’ll give him strength,’ Lily said. ‘I can lend you money if you need it. For the nurse.’

‘No, no, I’m fine. All I’m doing is to pay a stranger to hold his hand. It should be me there, changing his bedpan, helping him eat.’

‘But you can’t travel there now,’ Lily said. ‘And it doesn’t look like countries are opening borders any time soon.’

I checked my phone. Nothing. I felt nauseous every time I thought I’d felt it vibrating in my pocket, or discovered the red notification of a missed call.

‘You’re getting better at Petrushka,’ Lily tried to change the subject. ‘I can’t get past the first page.’

‘It’s all over now. Without Miss Barale, I…’


‘Well, I was just hoping that she would, you know, eventually teach me or at least explain to me what is that I…’

The cries came out of nowhere, dry and raspy. I hid my face behind my hands even though I knew no one could see me. I thought about the black body bags left on the beds because the new cold storage unit was full. They looked like bin bags. Like the ones Dad dragged home years ago, full of CDs, as if he’d found a treasure.


I moved through the large bright space of the basement which seemed to contract and expand like a giant heart. I felt very hot—the fluorescent lights shining on me like piercing suns. The bin bag tied as an apron melting with my uniform onto my bare skin. I had forgotten to check my temperature for days. Not good. I took off my face mask. I couldn’t breathe.

The refrigerators went on with their humming. Rows and rows of them, glossy white. They seemed to move ever so slightly, almost as if they were breathing. I blinked to focus my vision.

I wondered what the brains inside looked like. If they were all in containers, or in bags. Would they have tags attached to them? Perhaps small labels noting the weight, who the brain belonged to. Maybe some information about the person.

It couldn’t be that difficult to locate Miss Barale’s.

I imagined her playing Petrushka at the Royal Albert Hall, packed full, her fingers repeating a perfect sequence of movements that emulated the melodies of a whole symphony orchestra. All the neural connections sharp and sublime waves pouring over her body.

What would it be like to taste them?


Inés G. Labarta is a fiction writer currently living in the southwest of England. She has published a collection of middle-grade novels—Los Pentasónicos (Edebé, 2008-2010) and two novellas—McTavish Manor (Holland House, 2016) and Kabuki (Dairea, 2017). Her forthcoming novel, The Three Lives of Saint Ciarán (Blackwater Press, 2023), was described by Toby Litt as ‘exciting and provocative’. She has an MA and PhD in Creative Writing from Lancaster University and is a Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Plymouth. Twitter: @InesGLabarta Email: ines.g.labarta[at]

The Busy Day

Hannah Hopkins

Photo Credit: convex021/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

“Had a busy day, love?”

He looks at me from behind his notepad. His eyes are red, milky, lined around the edges.

To him, it’s just another day at work. He’s glancing at his watch, dreaming of his wife’s homemade cooking, thinking of the car ride home, the half-drunk can of Coke in his cup holder, the cigarette he wants to roll. He wants it over. He’s waiting for freedom.

I’ve lost all of mine.

His partner is entertaining the children. Keeping them busy so he can ask me questions.

Had a busy day?

The words hang in the air. He’s making small talk. He’s glancing at the mess around us. Wrapping paper strewn about the floor, a pile of assorted junk on the table, crumbs on the chair I haven’t cleaned, the faint smell of cooking in the air.

Had a busy day?

Not a question, but a judgement.

“Yes,” I say. I can struggle to speak, can’t look at him. “My son’s birthday.”

Resentment boils inside. He’s making me chat. Small talk. After everything that’s happened. He wants to understand, but his attempts to force normality proves he never will.

You, with your balding head, your big strong arms, the thing between your legs that buys you privilege and safety. You’ll never understand…

“Lovely. Special day then. How old is he?”


I look over to him and his brother playing with their toys. They’re happy, shielded, innocent. Somehow, it makes it worse. They’re acting out the safe and normal life all children deserve. He wanted to take it away.

And no one gives a damn.

“I’m going to have to go over some questions,” Officer Chit-Chat says. “You might have answered them before, but it’s important we ask them each time there’s an incident. Understood?”



I listen, answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ as he goes through his list, lowering his voice on the words ‘strangled,’ ‘choked,’ ‘drowned,’ and ‘sexual consent.’ Violent words uttered inches away from innocent ears. I worry for them. It’ll traumatise them. Hover in their subconscious. Manifest later in their life. But it’s too late for all that.


There’s a pause as Officer Chit-Chat looks at me again. I wonder if I should offer him a cup of tea. It seems absurd. We sit in silence. I choke on my sentences before they leave my mouth. There are many things I want to tell him, but they stay trapped inside my head.


See my eyes? They didn’t always look like this. They had life once. When I used to be someone. A real person. I wasn’t destined to sit in mess and chaos barely holding on to myself. I was meant for more. And it was all taken.


My eyes drift towards the window. It’s dark outside. The neighbours’ Christmas lights are up. They twinkle at me, taunting me, blinking as they say, ‘you should be happy.’

My mind drifts to the Time Before, when dewy-eyed I’d stepped onto a street of terraced houses filled with young students and into another night of fun. Life was romantic then. Tinted with a cinematic quality that bathed everything in gold. Bad Things happened, but they were far away. They didn’t happen to me or anyone I knew. Not really. Not in a way that couldn’t be fixed by alcohol and denial. Bad Things were for the news. Or for stories you nodded at but forgot straight after. Drama, not trauma. It was all just part of the story. Growing pains. Nothing serious.


There were boys who hurt girls, of course, but they didn’t mean it. They didn’t understand. Boys will be boys. And besides, as they so often reminded us,


There are two sides

To every story.


In the Time Before I walked the streets shielded by friends, protected by low inhibitions. No fear. We yelled into the night, stumbling, and laughing, drawing attention to ourselves. I wore short skirts and danced with boys I didn’t know. I went into strangers’ houses, walked home by myself in the dark, never questioned that pervasive feeling that came when I woke in someone’s bed without remembering the night before.


It was Wonderland. An illusion. I was never safe. I just didn’t know it.


At the beginning of the end, I arrived at a bleak, brown house and opened a rusted gate, weaving past smokers and overflowing bins to find the front door. The Cure was blaring, the upstairs windows were open, all sorts of smells wafting out.


Inside, the smell of aftershave and sweat, faces I didn’t recognise. I went into the living room, stepping over an abandoned mattress being used to bobsled down the stairs, and sat down among bottles and ashtrays and strangers who argued about the best James Bond films and looked at me and my friends with a desire I took as a compliment.

I joined in their debate. They watched me enthralled. Behind the make-up, the body on show, there was a brain. Who would have thought it? I let their surprise nurture my confidence, let it feed my power.


A thrill.

An addiction.

A rush.

Dice I rolled every night.

Not knowing how high the stakes were.


I walked into the kitchen and found him standing there, a red party cup in his hand, a leather jacket on his shoulders. His face wasn’t nice, but he was tall and charismatic. I could tell from the way he filled the room. He commanded something. I poured myself a vodka lemonade into a cup with lipstick on the rim and looked up.


Our eyes met.

And something exploded.


He walked over; his eyes fixed to mine. They held me with intensity. Electricity. He had me. A movie moment. The first connection.

He had me.

From that moment on.

I talked and he listened. He said things that came straight from the pages of a novel. It was what I wanted to hear. What I wanted to believe.

So I did.

‘I’ve never felt like this before. It was meant to be. No one will ever see you the way I do. No one will love you as much as me.’

And love me he did.

Until he didn’t.

Until his eyes turned cold.

Until they were empty.


Until he threw things and screamed the worst insults I could imagine.

Used all my fears against me.

And when that wasn’t enough.

Used his fists instead.

He was tired. Struggling at work. Going through a rough patch. I was lazy. I was weak. He worked so hard. He expected things to be done. People react to anger in different ways. Men will be men. What could I expect?

And besides, as he often reminded me

There are two sides

To every story.

I learned fast. Do what it takes to keep him happy.

And he’ll keep his fists away.

From me and the children.

If I make him angry, he’s not responsible for what he does.

And I can handle it.

I can keep this balance.

Stop everything from falling apart.

I know him.

Except I didn’t.

He was a monster.

I’d invited into my life.

Swearing blind he was an angel.


“I did my best to protect them.”

Officer Chit-Chat looks at me, his mask slipping. He’s confused.

“I did my best to protect them. And when things got bad, I got us out. Kept us safe. I was careful. I was so careful…”

I stop talking. I’m losing my composure. If I make myself look like a Mad Woman, no one will listen.

Officer Chit-Chat clears his throat.

“Do you have any idea how he might have found you? Anything you might have posted online? A friend who might have given your address?”


“Alright. Well, I think we’ve done all we can do here for tonight. You have my suggestions. A list of charities to call. They’ll help you get a restraining order.”

I smile.

A piece of paper was never going to stop him.


Officer Chit-Chat and his partner get up to leave, their eyes glazed with thoughts of evening plans.

I see them to the door. Say goodbyes. Nod my head as they remind me of their safety tips, the places to get information.

When I close the door, the horror breaks free.

It comes out in waves. Tears pour down my cheeks.

“Mummy’s crying.”

“Mummy’s okay, darling.”

I drag myself up the stairs.

For bath, story, and bed.


Holding it together.

Like I always do.

My seams are bursting, but I can’t spill out. Not in front of the children. Otherwise, it’ll be me they turn on.

As if it’s my fault.

He turned up.

Wanting to hurt us.

Wanting to scare me beyond repair.


I put the children in the bath. Soap, warm water, bubbles. I listen to their chatter. I watch their cheeks turn pink. Cut their nails. Clean behind their ears. Wash their hair.

I put my hand under the shower head to check the water. Red pours into the bath.

Red like passion, anger, fear, heat, and blood.

Red like murder.

I close my eyes and open them. The red is gone.

Everything is pure and proper.


I pull the children from the bath and wrap them in towels.

I follow them into the bedroom. Hours earlier I stood at this window, my eyes meeting the gaze of a man who could destroy me and feel nothing.

And his eyes looked at me in shock

When I left the boys watching T.V.

Went into the yard and found the crowbar in the shed

Snuck through the alleyway that led to the other side of the road

Crept up behind him

Heart in throat

And struck him once on the head

The only way to be sure

He could never hurt us again.

The light in his eyes faded.

Mine grew cold.

And Officer Chit-Chat would never suspect

The bleary woman he met today

With mascara on her face and coffee stains on her shirt

Would be capable of such things.

Had a busy day, love?

Don’t check the garden shed, officer.

I’ll have a busier day tomorrow.


Hannah Hopkins is an emerging writer currently working in education. As a survivor, she wishes to use her experience to help others through the medium of fiction. She is studying a creative writing course through Oxford University and is working on a young adult novel. TikTok: @whathannah_writes Email: hannahelliehopkins94[at]

The Last Thing You Ever Gave Me

Sarah Hills

Photo Credit: Sarah Ross/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

After twelve months, your letter arrived, Henry, posted by your solicitor. She enclosed it, as per instructions, with a short one of her own that told me the directions of your will had been carried out, that members of your family had chosen not to contest, that the sending of this letter was the last instruction. She said I could contact her, if I wished.

Your letter was exactly as you had read it out to me that last day. Nothing I had said had changed your mind, obviously.

I had wondered if you might leave me at least a modicum of your money. A little recompense at least, but no. You always were a poor sugar daddy.


As soon as I had returned to my hometown (home still, despite my parents having moved south, heading for the sun) I looked for work. I was a college dropout, failed student. The only job available was at a bar and pizza restaurant, close to the harbour on the river. It fitted the bill: work that would fill the evenings, leave me exhausted, bringing only dreamless sleep in the early hours. In amongst the crowded noise and dim lighting, I was forced to shout, forced to talk to people, to shed my shy skin like a convulsing growing reptile. From the moment I left you I determined to shut out the words, all the fancy, fiery, sparkling, expanding words you encouraged me to play with. I kept only the functional ones, like normal people use. The ones without power. I visualised the abandoned vocabulary like the peeled off remains of sunburn, dead flakes, so much dust and ashes.

In my fresh damp skin, I met Dave there, one of the bartenders. One late night, Dave and I, having finished our shifts, betting we could be friends, took leftover pizzas to the benches by the river, and ate them there, hot and steaming in the still chill air of November. You would still have been alive then.

We talked about our recent pasts. His string of casual girlfriends and my sugar daddy. My words garnished lavishly with bitterness among the black olives and mozzarella.

He cocked an eyebrow over a triangle of pizza. “Your tutor tried to get his leg over and when you told him to piss off, he still hung around? He must have been after something. Jesus.”

I had taken his sympathy and raised the bet to casual sex, which he accepted because he had form that way, as he had explained. That was just the start and, with a bottle of wine from the late-night garage on the way home, we drank our way to bed. I was glad I had never slept with you; I had no trace of your skin on mine to erase, no memory of your body against mine to compare anyone too. Dave had a good body, dark against my light, lean against my soft, he had clever, gentle hands and lips made for eating and kissing, not language. He was not haunted by the need to articulate everything, not cursed by dancing words in the middle of the night.


I buried you so far down I thought you had gone with the words.


You were not a proper sugar daddy, Henry. Though I wanted you to be. Me, a grey shadow at the back of lectures, seminars. Words danced in my head but died against the backs of my gritted teeth, kamikaze, before exploding backwards across my tongue in all kinds of clever fireworks I never let off. I welcomed your advances after tutorials. You, the antique star of the Literature department, your books long ago published and too far dissected by generations of students. Your reputation of disgustingly randy lech ran before you like a rank smell. I was not choosy. I only wanted to touch greatness, even half-buried greatness. I wanted to trace its pattern with my fingertips and compare it to mine, find out if words cast spells in your head the same way.

My flattery did not gain your attention, nor the way I could quote your books at you. I was just one of a multitude of mimicking voices, you could not hear my hushed voice amongst the din. You only noticed the way short skirts slipped up my thigh as I turned in my chair, the way my blouse skidded across cleavage to give glimpses of creamy curves that made your fingers twitch and your mouth salivate. It was a physical thing that I was prepared to give. Like I offered treats to the elephant at the zoo just to be close to that sheer mountain of strength, to experience that moment of communication.

I lured you to my flat and you were, oh, so willing. I lit candles, warmed red wine and made the bed with clean fresh sheets. I left your books out, casually spilling their words from open pages, bookmarked, dog-eared, thinking to flatter you, but I realised later that they acted like gravel scattered across the carpet, piercing your flabby bare feet with sharp points, grazing your ego with the hard rebukes they had become.

When I went to get the wine, you reached among papers on my desk and picked up words of mine.

I came back to find the full light on, and you sat on the hard chair reading, pen in hand.

Henry, I had dreamed there would be a beautiful connection between us. But you made it ugly. You said you could not make love to me. You would not let me take the texture of you between my fingers to find out how the fabric was woven. You refused my advances, even though I managed to put my leg over yours and balance on your knee for a fractal second before your cold eyes blew me away across the room.

You spread my words out, marked in red, and tapped the pages. You said the words were good, but I had much to learn.

You asked what writing was and I told you it was witchcraft, spell-making, about the way the words came together in my head and created things. You said that was not how you saw it, that you saw writers more as reed beds filtering the streams of life through them, giving words to what was there so that life was clearer, cleaner. You quoted Wittgenstein, said language was the net humans threw across the world to make sense of it.

I argued that took the magic out of it, how would natural language come through if you thought it was all about control? I remember you laughed and were surprised, saying you could not remember the last time talking about words had made you laugh.

You asked what else I had and, in the end, pressed between my over and under confidences, I gave you my secret black book and you went away.

I was left to comfort myself and finally cry myself to sleep, naked under my many covers.

For months after that, Henry, you lent me book after book, led me through poet after poet, story after story. We talked for hours about old writers and new, the stories that vary and repeat, the new ways words push through. You shook the little walls in my mind, until I let the night winds blow through, let the words in whenever they wanted in, allowed them to ransack the place, letting the pieces fall where they wanted.

We laughed a lot, about nights when words woke us, tingling free-falling lines in our heads, about scribbling notes in the darkness to capture the music of them. The spangle and glitter of language infected us until we were like children getting ready for Christmas. My first year summer semester, all of my second year; you were my university.


I told Dave I had received the solicitor’s letter.

He raised his eyebrows. “He’s dead? Did he leave you something then? Was he rich?”

“No. Poets are not rich. He had a house and a pension. Things you and I can only dream about, Dave. But there is a wife, three children and grandchildren.”

“Not so much a sugar daddy then, only a lech.”

I flinched at that, and Dave opened his black eyes wide, as if he could suddenly see me and all my emotions pinned out like a dead butterfly.

“You loved him,” he declared.


The sensation of you saturates through me, as if waves from the sea of you crash onto the shore of me, saltwater stinging through the sore sand, but you no longer have a skeleton net to hold you in, so I lose you, time and time again.

Both with you and without I am lost. You were the glue that held me together and now all the pieces of me randomly spin, disconnected, a diaspora of one.


I cried a little then and Dave slid an arm round my shoulders.

Which was how a temporary job in my hometown became a year and then two years, and a fling with Dave became a casual thing and then dissolved into a relationship. His words, when they came, were sweeter than yours, of course, saccharine, fructose-corn syrup, compulsive, consumptive, complimentary. My ego became obese, my skin swollen with lust. Which is not love. As you would have pointed out.

But it stopped the words free-associating in my head. They no longer woke me in the night chattering. Instead, I suffered from nightmares about the house burning down and, when I woke in the mornings, the smell in my nostrils was acrid smoke, charred air. On rare evenings I was not at work and Dave was out, I would find myself flattened against the sofa in front of the TV, turning up the contrasts and volume, as if the over-bright colours were a blanket pressing down, wiping out, silencing, the loud sounds mothballing, putting me on ice.

I do not know how long this would have lasted if Dave had not thrown in the towel.

“You are not serious.” He said. “You do not want to be here. You are passing through.”

When I protested that I had been here nearly three years, he said. “Not this place. Me. For you, it’s like we are still in the first week. You never talk about the future. You never say you love me.”

I opened my eyes wide and looked at him then and for the first time saw the pink around his heart and the blue around his eyes. I realised I was standing on the edge of being cruel. I stepped back, bowed my head, said my apologies. Afterwards I heard in his voice, underneath his walking-away words, the crushed dried petals of hope that this conversation would wake my love for him out of sleep.

But it did not, because it was not sleeping. There was never any life there.


All that time I had sat and studied under your direction, Henry, rather, your misdirection. Hours and days in the library, blindfolded head down, while you took the poems from my black book and let them out into the world. You published them under Anonymous, with a foreword from you. Then, as we dined in an expensive restaurant, you gave me the first copy in a tissue-lined box, your only ever present to me, on the last evening we spent together.

Sugar daddy. There was nothing sweet in you. You were canker, sourness, the bitterness of bile that burns from the inside coming up. I thought to learn from you, but you robbed this cradle of its gifts and took my rightful bow.

The food I pushed away as it arrived, my bones glued to my skin, no room within for anything.

You said, “You’ll thank me in the end.”

You said, “I’m dying, by the way. I have about a year. I wanted to do this for you.”

I said, “What is it you have done, but steal my tongue?”

You blinked at that. Pulled out the letter from your pocket then and read it to me: You wanted to set me free, from the beginning. To let my words out without the eyes of the world glaring at me, stopping me writing, blocking the creative process. You had set up a trust fund, and proceeds from the book, if any, would go in there and you could let me have them, as you saw fit. After your death, it would come to me, if anything. You did not think your wife would disagree, although you were not telling her, she was the jealous kind.

I pushed back my chair, screeches ripped across the floor, bats dive-bombing among the chandeliers. “Sugar daddies are supposed to give, not take.”

You smiled then. “My dear. This is the greatest gift that I could give.”

“To yourself maybe. But not to me. I would rather have sucked your cock than have you prostitute my words with your name stitched on.”

I had the satisfaction of slapping your old face and watching your mouth slam open and eyebrows ricochet up your brow. Then I left and left for good, heading straight back home before I even knew I should.


After I finished with him, all those sugar-frosted phrases of Dave’s rotted my teeth. I woke the morning after he left with terrible pain in my jaw. The emergency dentist, holding her head back from the swamp fetid air of my mouth, pointed out the rot in my back teeth, top and bottom. Warned if I did not sort things out my teeth would become black stumps.

I let her pull the worst out, drill remaining decay with silver-tipped points, the feel and the noise shivering down my bones like foil ripping between my teeth. I lay there with my eyes glued to the ceiling behind protective glasses against the glaring lights. Just because I am cursed with night witch wordsmiths, who hammer syllables into thin-lined spells, dropping them into my brain in the dark, does not make me immune to vicissitudes of viscous verbals.

I had imagined I was holding Dave as a shield against the world, against the words, but his own speech, denied its proper target of my heart, insidious, held itself in my mouth, pressed against my tongue, my teeth, until at least the protection of my enamel dissolved before it, at least it got to the root of something.

I lay on my back under the metal drill and let it drive home that all words have power and power must out or will corrupt.

And I think of you as I had first seen you, faded and, I realise now, mute. A writer with no more words. A person with no power. And how that must have hurt you, surrounded by books of your own words but unable to speak anymore.

That afternoon I nurse my numb swollen mouth and email the solicitor. Who emails back and transfers me the balance of the trust. The same as a year of working in the bar. Then for the first time I look to see how the book is doing out in the world and find people are reading it, quietly, steadily, and writing reviews that sparkle and distort my image of myself and I have to hold onto the table edge which is suddenly high off the ground, in case I fall. I put my hands in front of my face to stop people seeing me and then draw them back, for you have done that for me, you have put the mask of your name over my face.


That night words fall through the air towards me in my dreams, like burning fragments carried by smoke from enormous fires, raging just beyond the horizon. I can see the tips of flames licking into the air, clouds of sparks dancing, but although I walk towards it hard, I can never get any closer. I wake with tears on my face and the sweetness of wood smoke in my room.

The next night poems crash my dreams in chattering lines and will not let me sleep. When I put pen to paper under the bedside table’s dim light I can feel you in the room, just out of sight. Your smugness almost hamstrings my pen, but the lines are too good to waste. After all these years I am starving.

In the morning, I am afraid to read the words over. Words written at night are often puke spewed across the page in the daylight. But I hold my breath in against my heart and read them again and they still blaze along the plain lines like firecrackers.

At work I carry the knowledge of the page and your last letter like seedlings emerging out of the deep dark within me, wondering what they would grow into, where they might take me. I smile at students coming into the bar and while I still serve them ridiculous numbers of discounted shots, persuade them to at least eat the pizza slices alongside to line their stomach for their own good. I take my breaks outside on the waterfront of the river, smoking roll-ups and watching the dark water flow away under the bridge.

At the end of the night, hardly able to see my hands for the blur of spells buzzing in my head, I hand in my notice.


Now, after all my scorn and running halfway round the world, I find that I was always on my way back to you. The college have accepted me in to finish my degree; it turns out you left them a letter telling them your behaviour towards me was disreputable and deplorable—the last valorous act of a latterly honourable man.

I am standing by your graveside, Henry, mouth bruised, teeth lost, breath of a witch’s arse, words fresh and mad in my head, resurrected and holding the mask and lifeline you left me.

You can laugh the last laugh now.


Sarah Hills lives in Yorkshire in the North of England. She has recently started taking her writing more seriously. Email: sarah5064[at]

In a Name

Mary Chambers

Photo Credit: Kat Stan/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The street was an island, a village in the middle of a city, an expensive haven of art galleries and clothing boutiques. Here, suddenly free from the traffic that had occupied all my attention as I drove, was an archway leading to a mews, a lady cycling in a black straw boater, a child on a scooter in green school pinafore. From a glossy Arabic patisserie wafted the odour of rose-scented pastry; the café next door gave out the acrid reek of roasting green beans.

The buildings were narrow and high, with a presence that only central London buildings possess. Most of them had been divided into tiny flats. On wrought-iron balconies, twin chairs were arranged, suggesting brunch for two on a Saturday morning.

Viola was here, somewhere behind the blue door that led to the flats above the hairdresser. How could she exist here, I wondered, in the midst of this calm and order? My half-sister Viola was chaos and crisis. What I found behind that blue door would bear no resemblance to the hanging baskets on the streetlamps, to the exquisitely arranged creations in the cellophaned, beribboned window of the patisserie. How could she even afford to live here?

She had never invited me to her home before. She drifted in and out of our lives at will—always on her terms and never on her territory. My house, the cafe near my office, Hyde Park with my children at the weekend. She was ten years younger than me, and although our door had always been open to her, Viola kept her own life fiercely separate.

I had heard nothing of her for months. But today she had called me at work. “Come and see me. There’s something I want to show you.” And she had given me the address. “Today,” she insisted. “Can you come today?”

And so, obedient as always, I had come.

“Polly.” Her voice through the intercom was distorted, giving nothing away. “Come on up.”

Her flat was right at the top, an artist’s garret, up three narrowing flights of creaking stairs. She was waiting for me, her face pallid in the half light at the top. A spare, boyish figure, as she had always been, but when we hugged she was somehow rounder, fuller, a damp warmth of human scent that was not her usual odour of turps and linseed oil.

“How are you, Vee?”

She went into the flat ahead of me, not answering. The last time I had been in a flat of Viola’s must have been in her days at St Martin’s. Canvases, half-constructed sculptures in chicken wire and plaster bandages, a detritus of dirty clothes and discarded plates of toast. This might have been the same mess, transported only a mile or two across town, although through several years in time. A drift of laundry and shopping bags, papers, empty mugs, and a coffee table strewn with orange peel. A canvas stood on an easel by the window: a woman in a blue dress, bloated with pregnancy and glowing as if with a secret that only Viola’s paintbrush knew. Other work adorned the walls: pages from sketchbooks, taped up with masking tape. Splashes of colour, swirls of life, Viola exploring one medium after another.

On the sofa, a packet of nappies had split open and spilt onto the floor. The baby slept on the cushions, her arms flung up above her head like an abandoned doll. A baby so new that the vernix still crusted in the folds of her skin, the yellow plastic hospital clip clinging to her drying umbilical cord.

“I wanted to show you.” Viola crouched down and touched a finger to the baby’s cheek. She looked up like a child showing off something she had made. “I couldn’t tell you. I haven’t told anyone yet. I wanted you to see.”

My mouth was suddenly dry, all words startled away from me. I would wake up in a moment and this would not be true—that I was there with Viola, that Viola, lonely independent Viola, was the mother of a baby.

“She’s mine,” declared Viola with a sudden defiance, as if I had asked a question. But that, I did not doubt. My sister had never lacked the capacity to surprise me. It would have surprised me less to find myself ten years old again, and the baby Viola herself, the same sharp pale features, the same shock of soft dark hair.

“But Vee—do people know?”

“You mean the midwives. Yes, of course—they did that, didn’t they?” She pointed to the brown stump of drying umbilicus. “And they showed me how to feed her.”

“Are you breastfeeding?” How could I imagine my sister doing anything so maternal? And yet, at the same time, how could Viola do anything else?

“Of course,” she repeated. “That’s what they’re for, aren’t they?” She pressed her hands to her breasts. Through her splayed fingers I saw that the fabric of her shirt was wet where she had leaked, and I recalled the unfamiliar dampness of our embrace.

“Vee,” I began, but I hesitated. How are you going to manage? I wanted to say. Or Are you sure this is a good idea? But it was too late for that—the baby already a precious sleeping fact on the sofa before us. Who is the father? Where is he? Does he know? There were a thousand questions I could ask. But in the end, none of them seemed to matter—just the baby, and Viola herself, who was suddenly more than an artistic vortex around which chaos whirled—Viola, centred on this tiny perfect being that she had created.

“Vee, she’s beautiful.”

Viola looked at me with relief, and when she smiled, the smile transformed her, softening the angles of her face and giving her the same glow that she had somehow managed to catch in the painting by the window.

“She is, isn’t she? I love her, Polly. I never knew you could love anyone so much—until now.”

The baby snuffled and stretched, working her tiny mouth as she began to stir into waking.

“She’s hungry.” Viola gathered the infant into her arms, folding herself into the spot where the baby had been lying.

I sat on a stool and watched as Viola fed her daughter. She held the baby as I remembered her holding herself when she was a teenager—hugging herself, locking herself in, shutting the world out, her arms forming a barrier that kept her—and her child—in a safe place, beyond which the mess and the chaos did not matter. Within that embrace the two of them were together, like two parts of a single being.

“Have you given her a name yet?”

“Not yet. I’m thinking. It has to be just right, doesn’t it, a name?” She looked at me sharply. “How did you choose? How did you ever decide that Jack was going to be Jack and Georgia was going to be Georgia? How do you give a person something so fundamental as a name?”

I shrugged. Jack had always been Jack. And Georgia—Georgia’s name had grown with her as she grew in my belly. Georgina, we had thought. But Georgina had never been quite right, and when she was born she could only have been Georgia.

“It felt right. We just knew. You’ll know when you find the right name.”

Viola shook her head, gazing down at her daughter’s tiny face.

“That’s the difference between you and me, Polly. You always just know. You’re a real woman, aren’t you? You have instincts and you know how to respond to them—and you run a house and hold down a job, too. Multitasking!” She screwed up her face as if the word had a sour taste. “I’m not like you. I can’t do any of those things. All I know is what to do with paint. That’s the only time I ever just know.”

I had never before known Viola to comment on the differences between us, although James and I had occasionally pondered them. Viola wandered in and out of our home and our lives; she would wallow in the company of my children for an hour, showing them how to make pinch pots out of clay, or weaving Georgia’s hair into hundreds of tiny braids—and then she would go, picking up her aloofness at the door and departing, apparently with relief, back to her own carefully guarded separateness.

“You know how to do that,” I said, indicating the suckling baby.

“This?” Viola touched a hand to her breast again. “This isn’t knowing—it’s just being. Just being a woman.” And she wouldn’t believe me when I tried to tell her that not all mothers found it so easy.

When the baby had finished, Viola turned her to face me, nestling her into the crook of her elbow.

“That’s your Aunty Polly,” she addressed the child chattily. “You’ve got an Aunty Polly and an Uncle James, and a Jack and a Georgia. You’ll get to know all of them soon.” She paused, staring at the baby as if filling her eyes with her, taking in every tiny detail, the same way she observed the details that made up her art.

Then, as if coming to a sudden decision: “Here,” she said. “You take her.”

She leapt up, holding the child out to me, and somehow I too was on my feet, my niece in my hands. I was not expecting her and I almost dropped her; Viola had to put out a steadying hand to give me time to collect myself. “Take her,” she repeated, as I adjusted my hold. “Quick, take her and go, before I change my mind.”

I stared at her. Surely she could not mean what she seemed to mean?

Viola was already propelling me towards the door. “It’ll be better that way,” she insisted—but her voice broke as she said it. “You’ll be a better mother to her than I can ever be. You’re already a mother. You’ll know what to do. They won’t take her away from you. You’ll let me see her.”

“What do you mean, Vee? Who’s going to take her away?”

“That’s what they do, isn’t it? Don’t they take babies away from unsuitable mothers? Nobody in their right minds would leave a child with me—I’ve never even babysat for one of yours! Look at me, Polly. What have I got? A studio flat full of stinking noxious chemicals. No job, no reliable income. What would I do with a child?”

The room had been full of questions ever since I entered it, and once Viola had started she couldn’t stop adding to them. “What if she cries and I don’t know what to do? What if I hurt her? What if I lose my temper and drop her out the window? I could have a moment of madness and push the pram out in front of a taxi—if I even had a pram, that is. They’ll take her away from me—they ought to, just for thinking those things—and it would break my heart.”

She was crying now—still trying to push me towards the door, but at the same time stretching out a hand to touch the baby again—half reaching for her, half holding back, like a puppet pulled about by too many strings.

“Vee,” I said firmly. “Nobody is going to take your baby away.” And I said it with confidence. “You might think those dreadful things, but you think them because you love her and you don’t want them to happen to her.”

“How do you know?” demanded Viola.

I thought of Georgia, sobbing and inconsolable night after night with colic. Of Jack, the baby who never slept. Of moments of despair, when James was at work and all I wanted to do was sleep. I could quite happily have propelled a little warm body from a third storey window—so I had thought. But I had never done it.

“You won’t,” I insisted. “Vee, I used to think those things too.”

She stared at me. “You? Really, Polly?”

“There were days when I couldn’t stop thinking like that.”

This made her pause, but after a moment she brushed it aside. “But you had James. James was there for you. What about me? There’s nobody here to stop me!”

You’re here,” I said. “You’re here, and the baby’s here, and you’ll stop yourself, because you love her. It wasn’t James that stopped me—James wasn’t always there. It was Georgia herself, Georgia and me together, somehow having to make it work.”

“You never told me.” Her tone is accusing.

“You never asked—nobody ever asked.” I hadn’t even told James of those terrible, almost forgotten moments. I hadn’t told anybody. “But I only thought it, Vee. Thinking doesn’t make you a bad mother—it’s what you do that matters.”

My senses were full of the baby in my arms: her warm weight against my chest, the milky smell of her, the comma-like curl of her fingers around mine. It would have been so easy to take her with me. Walk out of the flat, get her into the car—get a car seat from somewhere—and take her home. My family would make room for her: Jack would dote on her, Georgia would mother her, James would raise his eyebrows and remark on Viola’s inadequacies but would never dispute giving her a home. She would fill a space that almost seemed to be there, in my heart, ready and waiting for her. But she was not mine to take.

I placed the baby in Viola’s arms and Viola enfolded her, drawing her child back into herself with a tiny sob of relief.

“You do know,” I told her. “You know exactly what to do. You know how to love her—and it starts with knowing that whatever you might imagine, you’ll never let anything hurt her.”

Viola pressed her lips to the baby’s soft hair. “I do love her.”

“We’ll always be there if you need us. For both of you.”

She nodded.

“I’ll bring you some baby clothes. And I think Jack’s Moses basket is still in the loft.”

It was time to go. If I stayed, I might change my mind—might accept this gift that had been pressed on me, and run away with it. If I stayed, Viola would voice more questions. There would be more words to linger in the air and haunt her.

I would come back later. I would come often.

As I started down the stairs, Viola said my name. I looked back. The pale light from the skylight cast a silvered halo onto her dark hair.

“Lara,” she said. “Her name is Lara.”


Mary Chambers lives in Reading, UK, in a house between two rivers. She’s self-employed as a proofreader and copyeditor, and writes fiction in the gaps between reading other people’s writing and caring for her two children. In the 2020 lockdowns she self-published a children’s picture book, Alina Saves The Moon, with local artist-illustrator Leslee Barron. She is currently working on a historical novel. Email: mary.katalun[at]


Sophy Bristow

Photo Credit: Jenn Vargas/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Wishbone (1978, Age Five): My arm feels like the Christmas wishbone snapping as mum pulls my hand… ‘Leave it, Megan. It’s dirty’… ow, it hurts, and my knees are wet, marks on my tights, trying to reach the red circle, my favourite hairband… but mum snatches it and puts it in her pocket, I want to ask her for it, but she’s looking across the courtyard… I stare at the ground with shiny flecks to dance around, I want to go to that puddle, but her arm is yanking mine again… ‘It’s dirty here, Megan. What did I just say?’… she points at the spot by the wall with the coloured swirls where she always makes me stand, maybe they’ll let me in this time… ‘Stay here where I can see you, I won’t be long, I’m watching you’… but she’s still looking away as she says, ‘I’ll give it back later if you’re good, and we can play Operation’… wish-bone, funny-bone, knee-bone, round red nose… I can see a red circle on the coloured wall and I jiggle from side-to-side giggling because she always tickles me when the buzzer rings… but then she’s walking into the alleyway like last time, and that man is with her, his coat looks square and has shiny buttons… from the side his nose is the shape of my favourite green triangle chocolate… I’m not sure where he came from, but I don’t like him, and now I want to cry… I look at them, then back at the wall sploshed all over with swirls and blobs… I trace my finger along the bright lines, seeing if I can find a cat, a seagull or even her face among them… but it’s just circles, round buttons, red noses… I tap where my wishbone is… and every now and again I look over my shoulder, for her hand coming back towards me out of the dark.


[(1995, Age 22): Blinking through wind-whipped dust, I loop my arm through Tom Boyce’s and say through my smile—‘wait ‘til you see this.’ He pulls away and turns to look at the house perched in front of us on this north London street. It’s another in a line of angular Georgian buildings, with flat faces and multipaned windows making compound eyes. The stray crisp packets flitting around and unremedied cracks across the frontage mark it out as a student place. Number 26, where me, Katie and Natasha live. As I turn the key and open the front door, Tom and I can only make out a deep, green shade and the heavy smell of blossom.

I unhook my arm and pull on his hand. We go inside, but instead of a hallway cut by the angled light from a landing window, we step straight into the swaying layers of a garden. Instead of the sigh of pine floorboards, we feel newly dug soil underfoot, and a low branch creaks in the breeze. Reaching out, our hands brush, not plaster walls, but the tip-tops of leaves. Around us everything points upwards, hollyhocks stretching, peas and beans twisting around skinny poles…]


Butterflies in Stomach (1989, Age Sixteen): It’s pouring, and the salty taste of the sea runs down my face with the rain. I duck down a passageway to get away from cars spraying puddles and I shelter against a high wall. Shit, I shove all my shopping into one Topshop plastic bag because all the paper ones are soaking wet and falling apart. My fingers are numb and I flick at my pink plastic lighter trying to light a Camel Light, fuck, the wind keeps blowing it out, my hands are freezing. I really want that skirt I saw in H&M, did I get the right colour eyeliner, is Clearasil going to dry my skin out, should I get those Doc Martens, can anyone from school see me, did I go too far with Tom Boyce and will he call?

I peer up through the blur of rain and look around to see where I am. It’s like that place you always end up when you leave the cinema through the fire exit, blurry as you adjust to the light, broken glass crunching, graffiti yelling at you. I see the red circle painted on the wall opposite.

I’m here? I’m in the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it, the one where mum would make me wait by the wall while she disappeared off with that man in his buttoned-up uniform. Shit, my fringe is soaking, it’s in my eyes, it’s going to go frizzy, I can taste hair product on my lips, can anyone see me? I pull my hood up further over my head. Will Doc Martens go with a skirt, and how often did we used to play Operation anyway? I need to get out of here.

This alley is nothing, I say, nothing, just a thread in the web between home, school, and the playground where I sit on the swings with my friends Katie and Natasha, sipping MadDog 20/20, laughing so hard that we’ll still feel the cracks decades later. I’m spinning my web outwards, but it’s sticky, like the drink.

FROM THEN TO FOREVER in neon blue. DIRT CHEAP in dirty white. Big capitals on the wall like someone really-meant-business. Splattered red BUTTERFLIES IN MY STOMACH.

Oh god, you can’t be serious, someone has got a window open and is playing “Sunday Girl” really loud. I try to swallow but my throat feels like I’ve grown an Adam’s Apple and it’s choking me. I play the words of the song in my head; I can’t help it—dad used to listen to it all the time. I told him, of course I did, about what mum did here—he and I were sat in the living room one evening, the rain outside so hard it sounded like it would kill spiders, Parallel Lines on the record player, and I said that she used to meet someone, and she might have had an affair. Cold as ice-cream but still as sweet. After dad had left to stay with his brother Jimmy, I screamed at mum that I’d told him and she sat with a fixed stare, as hard as the sky and the sea fused together.

I need a lipstick, should I get Revlon Lustrous Paint the Town Pink, like Lauren in the year above? I like her red chenille jumper, she smells of Impulse and Camel Lights, I want to be like her. Can anyone see me?

The rain is lessening off, so I light another cigarette and cross the courtyard into the alley. The walls are too high for how wide it is, like one of those shipping canals in our Geography Today book, full of new horizons and boats loaded with cargo. Mum used to stand with that man right here in front of this bricked-up arch. I run the tips of my fingers over the brick with the Camel Light still in my hand, where does it end up? I take a long drag and the taste of tobacco mixes with salt and L’Oréal Freestyle hair mousse. Where will I end up?

Maybe I’ll get Katie and Natasha to play Operation later—please take out my butterflies first, sip of MadDog every time you get the buzzer. A few last drops of rain drip off the end of my nose and I blow out circles in short puffs. I can feel the geometry of the alley in my grasp, but I can’t see past the walls yet, because I’m still spun on the inside. Should I get a diffuser attachment for my hairdryer?

Can anyone see me?


[(1995, Age 22): …with the slam of the front door behind us, I see Tom search through the sweet haze, panicking to make out a landmark linking him back to the London street we’ve stepped off. But it seems like the walls of the house have folded down flat, and this garden we find ourselves in is expanding out on all sides. Its blanket of leaves covers us, and he takes a breath…]


Water on the Knee (1995, Age 22): …there’s no point stopping now. As I march forward, calling for Tom to follow, the garden rolls out in front, and beyond that a valley and a billowing tarpaulin of hills. Silent, we follow a path which keeps to the valley floor, clinging to the right of a river. The further along the valley we go, the hills close in on both sides, until the path turns abruptly, becoming a narrow sheep-track that cuts up the right-hand slope in slow, careful zigzags. We scramble up, running out of breath, until we come out ‘on the top.’ Satisfied, we turn back to look at the house, which is a crumb now on a vast green plate. I plonk myself on the ground, pulling him down and looping my arm through his again, more decisively this time. We rest our heads on the deep-sprung heather and look up through bored clouds. The city streets are spread out in the sky over our heads—the curved concrete of London Zoo’s penguin pool swoops like vapour-trails, the dome of St Paul’s is the white circle of an impatient moon, and buses buzz around like bees.

‘Does this ever stop?’ he asks, gesturing around by flicking his eyes, ‘how far could we walk for?’

—‘I’m not sure, I haven’t got to the edge.’

‘Does anyone else know about it?’ The twitch moves over his face, like a bird crossing the sky.

—‘I don’t think so. Katie and Natasha haven’t said anything.’

‘What… Well, I suppose… Where are we?…’

—‘The garden behind Uncle Jimmy’s cottage, it opens onto the valley. I used to come here all the time with mum and dad, before he found out about her meeting that man in the alleyway…’

His eyes flicker again, and he opens his mouth to speak.

‘But we’re in London, Megan, we’re in Finsbury Park…’

I turn on my side, rest my head on my left hand and put the fingers of my right hand gently over his lips.

—‘Shush,’ I say, smiling, ‘or I’ll smother you up, and if I do it out here, no one will ever find you.’

He laughs, but his eyes are still darting.


On the way back we pause at a small stream that crosses our path, running off the hill and feeding into the river. ‘Hang on, let’s stay for a bit, make sure the stream is running OK,’ I say. I bend down, but Tom Boyce, who doesn’t know the boggy ground, kneels at the stream’s edge and wrinkles his nose as damp seeps into his jeans in cold patches. Working together, we dip our hands into the nippy waters, pulling out any large rocks that block the flow, and patting at the silty borders to mould them into firmer walls. Once we’re satisfied, we brush down our hands on our trousers, jump over the stream and make for home.

—‘You seem like you know the stream well,’ he says. ‘You didn’t get your knees wet.’

‘Dad used to say that if we helped it run strong, it would hold our family together in the valley, whatever happened. That made mum smile, like when we played Operation…’


Spare Ribs (2010, Age 37): The air’s been knocked out of me, the stuffing is long gone. The courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it sits in the centre of the wide view from my open kitchen window, with the sea behind it. I flip myself up and fold myself over to look at it. From this height and distance, and with the weight of all my stares, I have managed to level the alleyway’s high walls and drain their sour filling into the salty puddle of the ocean. The courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it is now nothing more than a flat page that I gaze down on, and this morning the next chapter of its story dropped through my letterbox—a planning consultation to tear the courtyard down and build a carpark.

The developer’s brochure sits on my desk, and I glance up from its glossy pictures to look at the sea, flat, fused with the sky, and it’s like mum’s stare is back on me, saying never ask me about it. Sparkles on the water’s surface tempt me back to the shiny tarmac I danced over as I waited in the courtyard for her to return… But I focus back on the brochure’s open pages. ‘Go ahead,’ I mutter. ‘Raze it, build whatever you like on it. I’m just going to sit here and watch.’

Copies of Herizons, Bitch, and Bust, the ones with my flat articles about mothers and daughters, are fanned out on the kitchen sideboard, with some old Spare Ribs of mum’s that she’s let me take. On top I can see January’s edition of Ms. with a big red circle on the cover—hanging off the white bar in the middle is the silhouette of a young woman. My name is written in the bottom right corner, No Entry: Megan Bold on closed doorways, and I feel mum smile at me with the pleasure that she used to reserve for when we played Operation. My heart and stomach leap into 3D in my chest, threatening to pump me with air.

Stop, fold myself down, put myself away.

The spare rib she gifted me won’t collapse, it’s sticking out of my chest and holding open the lid of the big oak trunk that I store myself in, the one from her living room that I persuaded her to give me when she moved to the bungalow. All the old games are still inside, apart from Operation, which I think she must have taken with her and put up in the loft.


[(1995, Age 22): …me and Tom get back to number 26 as the sun sets in a red circle and sit on the back step eating peas straight from the pod. Tom Boyce fidgets and looks around and then tries to see how far he can throw the empty shells. He’s not saying anything now, just letting out long green breaths, and after a few restless minutes he gets up and strides off. As I hear the front door close the walls of the house pop back up, the valley disappears, and I am back in the living room with Katie and Natasha…]


Funny Bone (2016, Age 43): Blown like a kite towards the church, I fly over the floral arrangement that spells out ‘Linda’ in pink and red and land in my pew to sit alone in the front row at mum’s funeral, craning over my shoulder to see who else turns up. The stiff faces are backlit by a winter sun sieved through stained glass.

I gasp.

It’s the nose; he looks like the man who used to meet mum in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, the man who was always wearing his uniform with shiny, round buttons. Blinking, I see a woman, just behind, with the same profile, unmistakeable, like my favourite green triangle in Quality Street. I breathe faster and, as I do, I begin to re-inflate, greedy to suck in new air… I can see at least five people who have the profile—they must be part of a family… am I finally going to find out who it was?

Eyelid twitching, I stand up and start to walk around the church greeting people on my newly puffed-up legs. I want to know who this family is. Right now. ‘Second Cousin,’ says one of the faces, ‘Great Uncle,’ says another. What? This is mum’s family; these are relatives I’ve never met who have crawled out to say their goodbyes or atone themselves for years of staying away. I run my finger along the bridge of my nose, tracing the shape, I don’t have it, mum didn’t have it either. I take in rapid puffs of air. Why didn’t mum just say she was meeting a cousin or an uncle or whatever? Come on mum, why?

It’s so stupid that I start to laugh as though the tiny tweezers from Operation are reaching inside and tickling my funny bone. Come on mum, you’re killing me. My head expands like a soufflé as I gasp in huge lungfuls, and slowly, my fixed expression splits and then my body cracks down the middle through my heart to the ground underneath.

I gasp, tears roll down my cheeks. Can people tell I’m laughing? My hair is falling in my face, but I laugh harder, so hard the ground breaks open, and the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it bursts through, sending tons of concrete flying as it slots back in; I imagine its blocked archway opening up and mum rolling through, towards the red circle. The buzzer sounds. I’m practically on the floor laughing by now, like I used to with Natasha and Katie, laughing so hard I can’t stop. Come on mum, stop it, stop tickling me!


At the wake, people eye me as I stalk around studying them, so familiar although we have never met before. So, which of them was she meeting in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard then? ‘Not me,’ they say. ‘Courtyard?’ They raise their brows, innocent-like. ‘Uniform, no never, but you know who?… No, that’s…’ Their glance turns sideways.

I leave early because I want to go to mum’s bungalow and get to the bottom of this. Right now. I take the spare key from under the loose brick in the driveway, open the door, and climb up the ladder into the loft, digging through piles of Ruth Rendell thrillers, old letters, and beaten-up maths textbooks with names like Hess and Fletcher that sound more like spy stories. Finally, I find a Laura Ashley carrier bag wedged under the eaves. Inside, along with mum’s old copy of Operation, is a photo album wrapped up in some paisley curtains. I start to flick through it.


[1995, Age 22: …‘What happened?’ Katie asks, offering me her last Camel Light while running her other hand through curly auburn hair, which she dries every morning with a diffuser. ‘Where has Tom gone?’

I shrug.

‘I’ll go to the corner shop.’ She’s looking at Natasha with a frown and motioning at the cream telephone on the sideboard. ‘I need to get another pack of cigarettes, and I’ll get us some wine.’

‘I’ll come with you,’ says Natasha, standing up and pulling her dead-straight blonde hair into a knot with such determination she winces. She mumbles something to Katie and they nod at each other. ‘Everyone OK with white?’—but it isn’t a question. And they look at me, still frowning, but trying to smile…

By the time they get back, I am laid out on the floor, as flat as paper…]


Broken Heart (2056, Age 83): Maycroft Manor care home and I’m playing Operation on my own in my unit, like I do most days.

I am neither flat-packed, nor blowing up. I no longer use hair mousse and I only go out in the rain when someone is on hand to help me back inside if my mobility device malfunctions. Most importantly, I know, I am absolutely certain, that the MM-Assistants (I still call them nurses) can see me. They can see me in front of them, and they can see me on all the little screens that are in the Maycroft Manor control room, where they monitor my ‘machine’ that administers drugs and shocks as and when I need them. I know they can see me because they flash ‘yes’ when I ask them if today is Wednesday and ‘no’ when I say that I’d like to go down to the seafront. They look at me blankly when I pick up the little pincers and so I turn to them and explain, ‘the red nose lights up so you know when you make a mistake; you should understand.’ They’re renderings, of course, with identical bobbed hairstyles, and they communicate in binary—red circle for no, or ‘incorrect,’ white circle for yes; it’s all in the pupils. The manager explained that he programs them this way because policy states that healthcare contexts should seek to eliminate grey areas, but I know that the more advanced software is too expensive.

Looking at memories from above, replaying stories, making connections so there’s never an ending, isn’t that what people do when they get older? Testing the steadiness of my hand, I remove Adam’s Apple first, and then, still dialling in my touch, the Ankle Bone’s Connected to the Knee Bone next. It’s the courtyard-with-the-alley-off-it that I’m looking down on under harsh spotlights because I’m sure that’s where the illness has always lain. My memories are scattered around it—Wishbone, Butterflies in Stomach, Water-on-the-Knee, Spare Ribs, and Funny Bone. I extract them one-by-one, to be reviewed, restored, reconnected, and rebooted. They are alive and pulsing.

A dog-eared photo, out of place and eerie in this world of emojis, screens, and invisible waves, watches the procedure alongside me, propped up like the other crumpling residents in the neighbouring units here at Maycroft Manor. I found this photo in the loft, after the wake. Written on the back, it says: Mr J Lawley & Linda Lawley, Eastbourne, 1942. It’s a photo of mum, just a little girl, with her father, Jack. The scene is unmistakeable—they are standing in the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, in front of the bricked-up arch. The camera catches his profile—family nose, Quality Street green triangle. He’s wearing his policeman’s uniform with shiny brass buttons, just like I remember.

According to the Office of Births, Marriages and Deaths, Jack died two years later when mum was only seven, driven off the road by a speeding ambulance in the middle of a blackout.

I reach to retrieve the Broken Heart but my hand twitches and the buzzer sounds.

Bzzzzz. She kept going back there for a shadow. Like I kept going back to the stream in the valley, stuck, Age 22. Play again.

Bzzzzz. The alleyway-off-the-courtyard was a misconnection. A point where the wrong cargoes were spliced with the wrong horizons, a bad join where carefully packed memories and wishes leaked out.

Pass me the tweezers again please, Nurse, I’ve got to get this out.

Bzzzz. Bzzzz.

The Broken Heart is stubborn. Alarms going off, red circles flashing.


[1995, Age 22: …so, Katie and Natasha decide to fold me into an airplane and launch me back to my mother by the sea, flying high above the alleyway-off-the-courtyard, which cuts like the stream in the valley, but keeping everything apart instead of together. I dive down and then level off and drift in gently through the window of my mother’s living room, landing on top of the large oak trunk.

A love letter sent to the wrong address.]


Sophy Bristow is a writer living in Cambridgeshire in the UK. She has been shortlisted for the Fish Short Story Prize and has published flash and poetry in a few places including Lighthouse Literary Journal, From Glasgow to Saturn and Fenacular. She is currently studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow. Email: sophy.bristow[at]

The Red Balloon

Elisse Sophie Ahmet

Photo Credit: Lydia Brooks/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The young toddler loosely strapped into the navy blue pushchair was a pale boy of two. His fine mop of straight, sunshine blond hair was cut into a bowl shape that skimmed the long lashes of his almond-shaped eyes, which were flecked with shards of green. When he let go of the red balloon tied to the yellow stick that he was, until moments ago, still holding, those almond eyes widened to the size of large, unshelled walnuts. He began to wail.

“Oh no,” Eve said.

She moved around in front of the boy and crouched down to his level. The wind pushed her hair across her face and a few strands found their way into her mouth. She spat them back out again.

“Mummy doesn’t like it when Emil cries his big, ploppy tears.”

For once, Emil had slept through the night. Even more surprising, he was in a good mood. Pushing the pushchair to the Broadway Centre took about thirty-five minutes, and was mostly uphill. Now she was returning, pushchair laden with bulging shopping bags, Eve was sweating. Emil chomped through his floppy salty chips noisily. At least she didn’t have to think about the cat anymore. She was secretly glad when it ran away.

Her son’s face was a puce ball of furrows and folds and not for the first time did Eve wish she could hit him. She stood and assessed her surroundings. The golden M logo on the curved red plastic was still visible as the balloon bounced down the embankment of the dual carriageway. She looked from one side of the bridge to the other. Vehicles shot past and the structure wobbled slightly as they whipped underneath, vibrating through her legs. That was the reason they had come this way; Emil liked to wave to the lorry drivers, and Eve did anything that would stop Emil crying for a God-Forsaken-Second.

The balloon was slowly making its way towards the bottom of the bank until a gust of wind blew it directly in the path of a blue car. The driver was startled and honked their horn loudly. Eve’s heart paused. Emil tugged at her floral skirt and screamed at the top of his lungs.

“Okay darling don’t cry, please don’t cry.”

He pointed over and over again at the direction the balloon had taken. It had been free with the purchase of the meal he had smeared into his hair. A remnant of ketchup smudged across his right cheek near his ear. In his left hand, he clutched the toy unearthed from the cardboard box.

“Shush now sweetheart, we’ll go back soon and get you another one.”

A lorry pressed down on its horn. Eve jolted up in time to see the balloon dance furiously into the air and back onto the embankment. It jumped about on its stick a few inches as Emil wriggled out of his pushchair. He poked his arms through the bridge’s cold, grey railings. Eve snatched him towards her chest.

“What have I told you about getting out of that chair?”

His scream pierced her. He flapped his hands in her face and managed to scratch her eye as he squirmed to be let free. She dropped him with a thud and his arm hit the pushchair, which began to roll backwards down from the middle of the curved bridge. Eve swore.

When Emil was placed in her arms for the first time, he wriggled uncomfortably until Adem took him away. After that, Eve fell into a fitful sleep. When she woke sometime later, a matronly Black nurse handed over a plate of buttered toast and tea. She salivated remembering ripping up chunks of the warm, scratchy bread with her teeth.

Tyres skidded. The balloon was in the road again. It bobbed about and rested on the railing nearest to them. Eve scuttled over to the pushchair, which had rolled back to the entrance of the bridge and fallen over with the weight of the shopping.

“Stay there,” she turned and warned Emil. He froze on the spot.

Eve felt her chest; her nipples still cried milky tears when he mewled. Emil loved breastfeeding so much that she’d allowed him to carry on way longer than anyone recommended. She put a stop to it only when one of the other mothers made a dirty joke as she dropped Lina off at nursery. That morning, her daughter had gone in again without a fuss. Eve was starting to suspect Lina preferred to be there than at home.

Eve picked the pushchair up and scrambled to retrieve the melon that had rolled from her shopping bags, as well as the Kinder Egg she had bought for her daughter.

“Emil, look,” she called out. Emil was still frozen in his place. “Mummy has a surprise for you.” She rattled the Kinder Egg. As Emil approached, a loud sound shocked him into jerking his head towards the railings again. He could see the balloon in the road. He pointed and repeated his desire to have it back.

What was everyone at LINPAC doing while her son screamed and screamed at her? Friday afternoon; they were probably half cut from the small plastic cups of bagged white wine Joyce distributed. Working through a haze of alcohol until 5:30pm rolled around and they all left en masse for the George Arms.

Emil toddled towards Eve as she rebalanced all the bags on the pushchair. Behind her was a quiet street with a row of houses shielded by the tall trees. The embankment absorbed much of the sound and fumes from the violence of the road below. Before he reached her, Emil found the gap between the street and the bridge’s entrance and began to crawl through it to get onto the embankment. Eve immediately abandoned the pushchair, dropped the bags, and ran to where he was so fast she tripped on her foot. Her face smashed into the ground.

“Emil!” she screamed through the blood dripping from her mouth.

A third of her tooth was on the ground and another part of it was embedded in her bottom lip. She untangled her limbs and pushed through the small opening Emil had crawled through. Sliding on autumn’s orange and red leaves, grabbing handfuls of grainy dirt and broken beer bottles, she tugged at the back of the boy’s shirt, pulling him backwards with a severe jolt. He screamed.

She clutched Emil so tightly he squawked from the pain of it. Blood from her lip dropped onto his light blue coat. He managed still to blubber and sob about the balloon.

“For Chris’sake,” she hissed. “Will you stop crying if I go get it?”

Emil nodded through his tears.

“Then you have to wait here. Do. Not. Move. I mean it, young man. Stay here. Understood?”

He nodded again.

Eve backed down the embankment keeping her eyes fixed on Emil. He had stopped crying but kept his bottom lip upturned ready to begin again at any moment.

Eve’s foot slipped and she fell forward. She slid on her front further down the muddy hill. Something thorny embedded itself into her leg through her floral skirt and her lip throbbed with heat. She was nearly at the bottom. Emil looked on, sucking his thumb and rubbing his ear, which he did whenever he was sleepy. He was due a nap when they got back, Eve remembered now. She could hear him humming a tune from one of his cartoons. Pingu? Her foot reached the road. No, Thomas the Tank Engine.

Any moment now she expected to hear a crash. She couldn’t be sure if the cars were honking at her—the woman scrambling down the embankment—or the balloon, which belligerently moved across their eyelines without popping.

“Stay there. Do not move, Emil. I mean it,” she warned again from the bottom of the embankment. Her voice was carried away by the cars and lorries as they shot past. She turned away from him to see where the balloon was: the middle of the asphalt.

She climbed over the grey guard rail and the wind slapped her hard in the face. A purple sports car raced past, fluttering her skirt in its direction. She looked down the looming stretch of road. In the distance she could make out the hotel where she and Adem had their wedding reception. On the other side of the road, a field full of teenage boys from the school it was attached to. They were playing football, or hockey—she couldn’t quite see. Another car came over the edge of her line of vision. It was there and then it was gone in a matter of seconds. The balloon danced closer to her and she looked from it to where she stood, calculating how many steps it was. Maybe seven, eight? She could make it across the road and back if she bolted when it was clear. Eve turned back to check that Emil was still where she had left him. He was. The pushchair too, was where she had left it. If she was quick, they could get back in time for Emil to watch Thomas the Tank Engine before his nap. Ringo was always her favourite. She knew there were people who said that for attention, to be different, but she really meant it. His voice was so soothing. She often drifted off as Emil babbled along to his narration.

The sky had clouded over. A droplet of rain kissed her cheek. She had to be quick, Emil would catch a cold if she wasn’t careful. Lina needed picking up soon. The washing wouldn’t do itself.

She turned to wave at her son. And then she stepped out into the road.


Elisse Sophia Ahmet is a 32-year-old freelance creative copywriter of British and Turkish Cypriot heritage. Born and bred in London, she is interested in women’s stories, particularly feminine performance, identity, and motherhood. Her work has been published by Litro, Between the Lines, and Lucent Dreaming. She has a master’s with distinction in creative writing from Royal Holloway and is working on her first novel, The Other Side of the Island, an intergenerational drama spanning seven decades in the lives of three British Turkish Cypriot women—a grandmother, mother and daughter. Set against London’s racial, cultural and historical tapestry, it interrogates the connection between motherhood and mental illness, identity, and the legacies of trauma born from displacement. Email: elisseahmet[at]