COLLAPSE

By Alex Ciobanu

Dicks were flying at me from every direction, but I just couldn’t catch any. I sit on my bed and blow the smoke out towards the opened window, from a joint leftover from last night. I’m only a little drunk now. I watch the smoke fill the room, unveiled by the six different colors of the Tetris lamp. I’m still giddy with excitement over what transpired earlier. Frantic laughing took over me on the bus home, when the last dick flew in on a grey bubble at 4:50 am, an ex-fling drunk texting me, “Are you out tonight? I’m on my way to Vauxhall with a friend.”

It was merely a chuckle minutes earlier on the tube to Brixton, when Jack kissed me again and went out at Stockwell. I sat down, and just seconds later another ex walked by outside the carriage, waving hello with characteristic enthusiasm. I didn’t want it to end, to stamp out the joy of the absurd. I snickered all the way home in my palm. I remind myself now to keep laughing.

I used to decry being a club scene gay. It always felt like it stripped intimacy of its building blocks, one by one, until you get to the hole, or the phallus, depending on how you swing. I was better than that, I was an intellectual. Now it doesn’t really matter either way. Nothing feels good, but it’s fun to see people behave as if it does.

 

It’s in the way they all manifested at once. Potential, former. I went to the club because Patrick was going to be there. I’ve known him for a few months, and it’s always been the same, friendly conversations on Fridays or Saturdays that never went anywhere. I wanted this night, as I did all the other nights, to make me feel like there was a point to it. He’s a young Irish guy, with blue eyes, blond hair, and a beautiful, kind face that always seems inviting. Never to kiss him, though. Or to suck him off, anywhere, anytime. I would’ve, had it seemed at any moment that he was flirting. There seems to be something off about him. Almost too polite, seeming never aware that everyone around him wants to lick every inch of his chiselled abs, or his pecs and biceps carved like that of a Greek God. His demeanour is that of a stoner, but without having smoked any weed.

He makes me stupidly aware of my sex drive, as very few guys do. Once, on a night like this, I thought at the end we would be taking the bus together, as he lives in Streatham too. But standing outside the club, a friend of his approached him and offered him a ride home. There were always other friends interjecting, grabbing his attention. I was on the bus home, resigned to my unlucky sex life, when I saw him sitting alone at the stop in Brixton. Before I could react, the bus had left. I rushed out of my seat and mulled over whether to get out at the next stop and bolt over there. And I did. I ran down the street, but when I got there, he was gone.

I wish I was still that determined.

“Have you met Alex?” a regular customer asked Patrick, trying to introduce the two of us, taking me away from having just met Jack.

“Yeah, we’re good friends,” Patrick replied earnestly, cordially putting his hand on my shoulder.

I laughed so hard; I hid it, only a chuckle out loud. I moved away and started to dance, at moderate speed.

It’s absurd that we would be good friends, even friends at all. It’s short-sighted. Or maybe he is just a nice guy who likes to be friends with people. Maybe he’d prefer he weren’t considered just a piece of meat, which is what I’ve been technically doing. It’s all empty anyway.

Jack, a good-looking guy from Newcastle, about twenty-eight years old and dressed in a pink tight T-shirt, spent the better part of the next hour and a half trying to set me up with his friend, who backed away in embarrassment.

Matthew was an insanely handsome guy, wearing a regular sized plaid shirt and straight jeans, so obtrusively hetero looking that it was annoying and attractive. He’s twenty-four, working in Westminster; I dragged it out of him while waiting on the platform for his train, the only bits of information he could muster saying all night, besides “you’re cute too” spoken awkwardly by the bar earlier.

I wasn’t comfortable with being the self-assured one, to try to develop a rapport. It was all ridiculous anyway. I couldn’t understand why he was shy, this grown man with amazing features and the body of a jock. I sat on the bench next to him at 4:15 am, only a few minutes left before his northbound train was due, Jack on the other side. He needed to know I was worthy, that I wasn’t just some Romanian guy working in a gay bar. “I’m a writer, doing an MA at Westminster,” I told him.

“I work in Westminster. Maybe I’ll see you on Grindr,” he said, with a chuckle.

He could’ve just given me his number. Instead, his train came and he seemed shocked I didn’t go with him. There he stood, raising his arms in confusion, betraying his severe intoxication.

“I thought he knew I was going south,” I told Jack as we were walking to the other platform, “maybe you could give me his number.”

It never happened. Jack went into a self-deprecating speech about how he didn’t think I liked him, trapping me into saying he was a handsome guy. True as it may have been, “I like your friend better” were not words I could speak out loud. He kissed me, without an invitation or a sign that I wanted it. All I felt was his stubble irritating my skin.

I’ve done it before. I tend to let guys kiss me because I feel like they need that from me to feel good. I’m helping, it’s the least I can do. No one can do that for me anymore.

It’s funny how quickly Jack switched from pimp to client. “You always date assholes,” he told Matthew earlier, while I stood there watching in amusement as Matthew squirmed and looked for any way to flee from the pushiness. What made them think I’m a good guy? I was just there, responding to social cues.

“I’m not going to ask you to come back to mine or anything. What I want you to take away from tonight is that you’re a really sexy guy,” Jack told me as he we were approaching Stockwell.

 

I was never going to go home with Jack, or Matthew. I didn’t need him to raise my self-esteem. I know I’m a good-looking guy. Do I come across as someone who needs to be reassured? Isn’t it pointless anyway? All I have is myself, and I find that arrogance is necessary to function. It’s fun to see how absurd it is for people to rely on others for fulfilment. I’m free. It’s amusing how empty it all is; it’s the attitude I adopted recently. It’s entertaining to strain social standards.

The weed makes my head spin and I lie down. In an instant, I turn on myself. It’s not joy. It’s all a sham I built around myself so that I don’t break down in insignificance. I’m stupidly aware of my every feeling, and I see myself as a derivative puppet, whose thoughts and emotions could never be valid in themselves. Do these people feel whole, authentic? I pick at the thought, like you’d do with a scab at the back of your head, one you can’t see but can’t help but remove, and I’m short of breath. My heart is pounding. That nothing matters is no longer comforting, it’s suffocating.

I turned the night into an absurdist scenario. I built on the coincidences. I wanted them to be funny and validate the new me, a reward for being so good at my positive spin on nihilism. But I twisted it too much now, and my head is bleeding because I took away the cover. It all should’ve been nothing more than a soundbite.

THE ‘L’ WORD

By Amanda Fuller

 

It wasn’t love at first sight. Not that I didn’t find her appealing, there was definitely something about her. No one would ever call her pretty, but there’s a rough, unconventional charisma, a quirky charm, that it’s easy to overlook, at first.

She has a split personality, you see. Misanthropic and miserable, or welcoming and approachable, depending on her mood, which is difficult to interpret. You only have to look at her to know she has an intriguing past, that you probably don’t want to know about, in its entirety. She doesn’t want you to know, anyway, so you don’t go delving, you just follow her, blindly, into whatever crazy-assed adventure she feels like leading you into at that particular point in time. Before you know it, you’re FUBAR, and she’s not going to rescue your sorry ass, she’ll leave you to it and slope off to wherever the next good time is likely to be.

All in all, she’s a bit of a mess, and she has a reputation for being no good, but when someone falls for her, they fall hard, and when it all becomes just a bit too much, as it inevitably will, they remember her with fondness, and defend her from those who try to judge or criticize her. That’s what happened to me, anyway.

I came over to London from New Zealand on a two-year working visa, to experience a bit of cosmopolitan Europe. I liked the idea of being a stone’s throw from all those other cities―Paris, Milan, Brussels, Berlin. I imagined swanning off every weekend, hooking up with exotic European ladies, smiling selfies in front of familiar landmarks and leisurely lunches in little cafes next to rivers and fountains and art galleries, depending on where I was. I made it to Paris on the Eurostar, and it was okay. After that, though, I never seemed to get around to booking trips to any of those other places. I was in the first throes of a passionate love affair, blinkered, optimistic and stubbornly determined to make things work, regardless of what it might cost me.

It cost me plenty. Our first kiss was in a park in the centre of the West End. I’d somehow gotten in with a group of fellow Kiwis that I’d met on a Meetup site, just so that I’d have some folks to hang around with, until I found my feet. This was a rougher bunch than I was used to, though, and after several hours of knocking them back in the Walkabout bar―not my choice, by the way, but I decided to go along with it that time―I somehow found myself squaring up to a bunch of Aussies along with the rest. The next thing I knew we were all at each other in one of those big parks scattered around the West End. Not being much of a fighter, it wasn’t long before I found myself flat out on the ground, my nose busted, my head ringing, breathing in crazy, ragged gasps. As I rolled over and stared up at the sky, all fuzzy and orange from the streetlights and pulsing in and out with my heartbeat, I started laughing, because this was living. I was a thousand miles from home, and I had that sense of belonging to nothing and everything, that I could go anywhere from here. I rolled over, and literally kissed the hard, prickly turf beneath me. Endorphins bathed my battered body and I felt a surge of something like desire.

The chemistry was undeniable. Many great dates followed, out on the town in grimy bars that stank of stale beer, strange meals of I’m not-sure-what in Chinatown and experimental jazz nights in Hackney and Shoreditch. There were no limits to the things we did; nothing ever grew stale or boring. She had a million and one tricks up her sleeve to keep me interested. I danced in the fountains at Trafalgar Square, took part in a Halloween zombie-thon for charity. I even tried performance poetry on the South Bank. She lured me in with words, with wonder, with what the fuck?

But before long, things started to go wrong. They talk about the honeymoon period being over, but it wasn’t like that for me. I was as in love with her as ever, things were still exciting, raw, and wonderful. But I was starting to lose myself. She got me into things that were bad for me. She tried to change me.

I’m not talking about the drugs and the drinking, crazy though those things were, for a time. I did my fair share, but for most of the time, and at least in the early stages of our affair, I felt in control of that shit. I’m talking about the things that she stole from me. The easy optimism and the way I had of making everyone my friend. The inclination to give other people a break, to help them out whenever I could. The nice parts of myself, the parts that I took for granted, assumed were just part of me and would always be there. I didn’t realise, before I met her, that they were just the parts of me I’d borrowed, or learned, from other places. She taught me other ways, not nice ways. She turned me on myself.

One of the many contradictions of life here is that Londoners simultaneously strive for wellness and moderation, while at the same time determinedly hurling themselves headlong into ill health and excess. It’s a curious kind of doublethink that only seems to exist here, and at first, it’s perplexing to temporary residents like myself. They apparently fail to see the absurdity of chugging down multi-vits, necking wheatgrass shots and pumping weights at the gym during the day, then knocking back twelve pints or a few bottles of wine after work, snorting cocaine off the back of a toilet in a sleazy club and inhaling a kebab on the way home, where they may, if they are lucky, catch a couple of hours sleep before rising, bleary eyed and trembling, to do it all again.

At first, I just couldn’t do it. I was too used to looking after myself, brought up on daily jogs along the river and wholegrain muffins for breakfast; not a processed, pre-packaged sandwich in sight. I was used to a few tinnies every now and again but the relentlessness of this, the determined pursuit of oblivion on a near-nightly basis, well, I just wasn’t cut out for it. My mouth tasted like puke no matter how much I rinsed with mouthwash, my head pounded from morning ‘til late afternoon, and I was losing weight. My body was shrinking, disappearing beneath baggy, pale skin. I just couldn’t bring myself to hit the gym or go running.

Then, all of a sudden, it became easier. It became my normal. I stopped stressing, what was the point? The skinny look was a thing here anyway; everyone you met was in tight black trousers and clingy tops. Everyone was pale, and drawn, and a bit sweaty and anxious. I fit right in. Man, I ROCKED that look.

Until the night I found myself chucking my guts up, for the second time that week, on my knees outside some grimy dive in Shoreditch. Everything hurt. My guts were on fire and I was covered in sweat. It ran down my face like slimy tears and dried to a clammy gunk on my neck, chest and arms. I felt like a frog that had lost its pond. People hurried past me as quickly as they could, with expressions of disgust, contempt or concern, as I reached into my jacket for something, anything, to wipe my mouth with. Somewhere in my inebriated brain, it dawned on me that my fingers should have brushed against my wallet, but they hadn’t. I had no idea whether I had been robbed or, more likely given the state I was in, had dropped it or left it in one of the many bars I had graced with my presence that evening. Either way, it came back to the same root cause; this was HER doing. This kind of thing never happened to me back home. Back there, Auckland looked after me, an ever present, concerned big brother. Sure, he might be a little dull, a little introverted and isolated, but he sure as shit kept me on the right track.

London was destroying me. I was in love, but she was no good for me, she was holding me back, bringing me down, trying to change me, and starting to succeed. She was the woman friends and family had warned me about, the one they said was no good for me, would drag me down, use me up. Everyone who cared about me back home had tried to steer me away from it, suggesting more refined alternatives they hoped might pique my interest. No chance. None of them had her charisma, her quirkiness, her rough, unpredictable charm.

Y’know, that’s my lady. It’s tempting to buy into the belief that only those sound of mind and body can withstand the tumult and the crush, the pushing and the huffing and the shrieks and smells. The threat of disease and damage everywhere, in the globules of gob on the cracked paving slabs just waiting to trip you up, the terrifying traffic, the very air itself. But she prefers to be courted by someone a little rougher round the edges. And if you’re not quite rough enough, not quite the degenerate lowlife that she craves, she’ll make you that way. Or try to, at least.

It might have worked, if she’d had more time. But my visa expired, and I didn’t try to find another way to stay. I knew it was time to go, although the effort of leaving her almost broke me. I’m back home now. The air is pure and sweet, everything is green, lush, and lovely. I’m running four miles every morning and I can’t remember the last time I got past three or four drinks in a single evening, once a week at the most. I’m doing very well, looking after myself, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pine for her. I doubt she misses me much, there’s always a new bunch of innocents to corrupt. She never looks back. With everything she’s seen and all the other suckers she’s had in her thrall, I guess it was easy for her to let me go.

AT THE END OF A BUSY NIGHT

By Rae Gellel

At the end of a busy night, the strip club is almost beautiful.

Once the empty bottles have been swept from the mahogany tables and dropped into the bin with a satisfying clank, once ring stains have been scrubbed at and velvet chairs pushed in and the deep purple carpet vacuumed by the middle-aged cleaning lady, who also plucks the occasional crumpled tissue from the floor with two fingers of her marigold-gloved hands; once all is still and silent and smelling of lemon polish, then and only then.

There is something satisfying about the proficiency with which the staff restore order and calm to the room, like a family cleaning up after a party where everyone got too drunk and did shameful things. Where just moments before there was clamour, too many bodies pressed together in too dark and intimate a place, suddenly there is just a room.

Fluorescent bulbs retired for the evening, the remaining light is dim and warm, and the small tables each have two heavy-backed chairs that face each other as if expectant of couples, and indeed many do visit. Overseeing it all from the dark-wood ceilings are cheap but very grand chandeliers, and if it were not for the glimmering pole protruding from the black-tiled stage at the centre of this room, its overall effect would be almost romantic, suggestive of clandestine meetings and groping under the tables but nothing outright salacious, like a motel bar.

It was the early hours post-Valentine’s day and Magda thought the men had somehow been more hostile that night, thought that she saw clenched jaws and hateful side-glances and money thrown down too hard, as if they blamed her for their lack of more respectable plans. But Amal said she was imagining it, and it was true that this was the sort of thing she would imagine.

She was in the dressing room, which was long and narrow and homey and cluttered, quite deficient in the glamour that was just a security-code protected door away. A discarded kebab shop carton protruded from the bin that none of them could be bothered to empty, and Magda periodically dropped used wet wipes onto it, stained with red and black and flesh tones like Rorschach tests all suggestive of the female face.

She blinked at herself in the mirror, which was marred with thumb prints and smears of foundation, and the tired face that looked back did not much resemble the face on the poster on the peeling wall behind, in which she posed with her lips parted and her eyes half-lidded. With her skin scrubbed of make-up and pinkened by her rough wiping, she looked old and young all at once.

In the silent, empty room she sighed from somewhere deep in her stomach, as if centring herself for a big show.

Amal was nervous. He was behind the bar, loading the glass washer, and the frequent, clattering avalanches caused by his jittery movements drew glares from a kneeling Sonya, who was carefully placing various cleaning sprays back into a basket. Though she would not show it, she, too, was excited, and for the first night in many she did not wish that she was back in bed with her snoring husband.

Minutes after Sonya had thrown her yellow gloves into her basket and vanished into the back room, giving Amal one final, disparaging look as he shut the dish washer with a resounding clang, Gazza, the doorman, bumbled in. He brought with him a blast of cold air and his vast shoulders filled too much space in the low-ceilinged room. ‘Are we ready?’ he asked, his gruff voice gleeful with excitement, and Amal kept one eye on him as he emerged from behind the bar.

‘We’re ready.’

Four chairs were arranged in a straight line at the foot of the stage, where a single spot light baked the dark tiles. Sonya appeared, trailed by Zanna, the toilet attendant, a tired looking older woman who spoke no English. They sat for the first time in a long night and the women murmured in their foreign tongue. Only Gazza’s receding hairline was visible above the high-backed chairs.

Then, as is always the case before a performance, there was an abrupt, heavy hush, a silence pregnant with expectation. The soft patter of rain against the windows was suddenly audible, and Amal remembered that had he had forgotten to turn off the fluorescent blue ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ sign outside. He fiddled with the cuffs of his shirt, damp with sweat and spilled drinks. His anticipation was the greatest of all.

There was an excruciating pause.

When the music started, his breath caught in his throat. He spied a foot, arched and bare as Magda took slow, deliberate steps onto the stage. She stood in front of the pole, looking like an impaled woman as it emerged from the top of her head and from between her legs, like a woman at the stake. She wore a loose, cotton dress that Amal recognized as one she often slept in.

She started slow. She raised one hip in a slow arc, and then the other, she swayed from side to side as if shaking something off. Her hands snaked out shapes, the spotlight shining through her parted fingers. Her body moved like waves.

When she sighed, they sighed, and they marvelled at how much weight she could put on a single toe, and how her legs did not tremble, and how her spine did not snap as she contorted her body on the floor, and rose-up as if connected to strings.

At first she circled the pole, tentative, as if afraid to ask it to dance. But when the music suddenly picked up she grasped it with one hand when her feet left the stage and cut through the air above their heads they gasped at the effortlessness with which she flew.

And when again the music rose, and rose and rose, soaring to a crescendo, she climbed the pole and began to spin, and spin faster and faster until her heart thundered in her chest and air hissed passed her ears.

And as she spun she saw crumpled tissues and crumpled twenty pound notes, security codes and fluorescent lights, rows of men tense with an anger that was only in her head, marigold gloves and make up wipes, old women who should be in bed and wives that waited in their beds and the worn skin of Amal’s hands. And though she could not say it in words she knew she spoke to a fury that they all felt. And though it was just a minute or two it felt like the sun must surely be rising outside and that soon the too-few windows would expose all that was cheap and tacky about the club, almost beautiful at the end of a busy night, but never in the morning.

When the music stopped she turned to a row of stunned faces and applause echoed in the empty room.

LESSONS FROM THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

By Timothy Willmore-Flowers

‘Explain it to me again’ he asked.
‘Sure.’ I replied.

Wednesday.
I finished work twenty minutes early so I could go to the gift shop and buy ten heart-shaped helium balloons. It was our wedding anniversary: ten balloons, ten years, it was obvious, but perfectly appropriate.
On the overground train heading home, I mostly apologised for the inconvenience the balloons were causing. Three times I told the kid with the ‘Adventure Time’ rucksack that balloons were not punchbags. The remainder of the journey I continually tried to call my unreachable wife.

*******

After a balloon-bobbing twenty minute walk from the train station I arrived at my front door. At first, I thought I might have strolled up the wrong path, to the wrong house, but a man knows his front door like a familiar face, and this was my door, but bizarrely, the lock wasn’t accepting my key. Anyway, a long story short, my wife didn’t want to be my wife anymore, so she had ‘Dan Dan the Door Lock Man’ come and change all the locks while I was working hard for our future.
Wendy, that’s my wife, called out from the front bedroom window and told me that ‘changing the locks was a statement that even I couldn’t ignore.’
Was I missing something?
Apparently I was.
Wendy said our marriage was like the aftermath of a high-speed car crash, and by some miracle we were still trapped and surviving in the wreckage.
‘But I’m happy there’ I pleaded.
‘And I don’t love you.’ she stonily revealed.
Weakened by the cold words that sliced straight through me, the helium balloons wriggled free from my hand. I didn’t bother watching as the ten heart-shaped tokens of my love, separated and drifted away on a brisk evening breeze. There was a metaphor in there somewhere, I know it.
I looked up at this woman I no longer knew, as she leant out the bedroom window, her arm flinging out gestures.
‘Just go away!’ She bluntly said.
‘Go where?’
‘I. Don’t. Care.’ She said it like that. ‘Go, or I’ll call the police.’
‘For what?’
After a long day at work, I wasn’t expecting this, but here I was, awkward and confused on the doorstep. That’s when Nibbles our cat ambled over to rub up against my trouser leg. At least someone was happy to see me, I thought.
‘Can I at least get some clothes? Please.’ I sounded apologetic by now, with no idea why.
‘No’ snapped Wendy, her scowling face getting redder.
I gazed down at Nibbles.
‘And don’t touch my cat’ Wendy warned.
I had the lightbulb moment right then. I looked back up at Wendy and felt evil tugging up the corners of my mouth. I smiled.
‘Don’t you dare’ she screamed. ‘I’ll kill you. I swear I will kill you.’
She knew what I was thinking.

*******
That was Wednesday evening.
Yesterday, Friday night, me and the ginger cat Nibbles were moving into a grubby little first floor flat, somewhere up the reckless end of an undesirable neighbourhood. I don’t even like the cat that much, but I had to walk away with something, didn’t I? Taking the cat was a small victory in my heartbreaking discovery that I was unloved, as was hearing Wendy scream out the window as I ran away up the road, Nibbles tight under my arm.
‘Don’t you take my cat!’ Wendy shouted. ‘Somebody, help. Thief.’
I threw my redundant door keys over the high hedge of number 37 and heard a satisfying plop as they landed in the garden pond.
Yes!
Now a man with more time on his hands would have done his homework on the area he was about to call home. You know, a few observational laps around the potential neighbourhood, assess the hostility of the natives, look for green spaces, book clubs, that sort of thing. But beggars can’t be choosers, right, and this bloke at work, Ahmed, said his dad had an empty flat above a laundrette. He said I could live there rent free.
‘Free?’
‘Yes, mate’ Ahmed replied. ‘Just give it a lick of paint.’
‘That’s brilliant. Thanks Ahmed.’
Then Ahmed said, ‘you might need to get rid of the squatters though.’
‘The squatters?’
‘Yeah, but don’t worry about them, the rats are more of a problem than the squatters.’
‘AND RATS?’
‘Yeah. Rats, squatters, a lick of paint. Do you want the flat or not?’
I hate rats and am indifferent about squatting, but the previous two nights on my Aunt Erica’s couch had my posture begging for realignment.
‘I’ll take it’ I said to Ahmed, trying my best to appear grateful.
We shook hands to seal the deal, though I had my fingers crossed, because you never know.

*******
So Friday night and I am stood outside Ahmed’s dad’s empty flat: a first-floor ruin with views to make an inmate weep unfair. Upon a busy junction, thick with the misery of traffic, and a brutal wind that never heard of giving up. It is a place so wretchedly unhappy that even the Black Death would have took a wide detour.
I looked at Nibbles, who seemed content, under my arm for another day.
‘What do you think Nibbles?’ I asked, despondently.
Nibbles said nothing. He’s not much of a conversationalist. God, two days single and already asking the cat for his opinion. Is that what they will call me around here? The cat man. The mad cat man.
It was about 9 pm when the black sky boomed, cracked, and burst an aorta, and the rain came lashing down. It was time to go inside.
I turned the key in the lock, but the door wouldn’t budge. It took a couple of shoulder barges after that before the swollen door flung open and I landed on my knees in the downstairs entrance hall of the upstairs flat. Remarkably, Nibbles was still under my arm, though his claws were now hooked through my parka and into my skin. Ouch.
I flicked the light switch on and off but there was not a single spark of electricity. Then I remembered that useless little torch on my mobile phone. A light that was unlikely to brighten anyone’s day, though it was all I had. With mobile phone flashlight in hand, I noticed some writing on the grimy wall above the light switch, it read:
‘1, 2, 3, and lift’

What’s that about?
I aimed the beam from the torch up a weary-looking staircase. Half illuminated, I could see graffiti sprayed walls. Further up, the bannisters rickety and gapless like the teeth of journeyman boxer.
I stood on the first stair, and it creaked. The second was much the same. The third, more of an unsteady groaner, and the fourth, well, that fourth stair gave up the moment I stepped on it. As my foot and leg went straight through the rot, Nibbles broke free from under my arm, but more important things were about to happen. I went crashing down until my crown jewels slammed so hard against the wood, I swear I dislodged at least one fleshy diamond. The pain is hard to describe, but it was there, a hot rush of pure unpleasantness filling my body.
So there I was with my left leg through rotten wood and tears ready to be deployed, when I heard a dreary voice call out from upstairs.
‘Dude, what’s all the commotion? The voice said.
I heard footsteps above, then someone appeared at the top of the stairs: a gaunt face in the flickering glow of the candle he was holding. I shone my torch up to reveal a lank crusty character, with body and clothes equally undernourished.
‘Hello,’ I winced.
‘What the heck dude’ the crusty one cried, shaking his head like a disappointed parent. ‘Listen man, everyone knows not to step on the fourth stair, and if you didn’t know – try reading the damn notice.’ He pointed a finger down the stairs toward the ‘1,2,3, and lift’ scribbled on the wall.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That’s what it means.’
‘Well it means fuck all now’ he said irately. Then puffed hard on a cigarette, which seemed to calm him instantly.
There was silence as I tried to free my leg from the hole, but life is extra challenging when the gonads are still ringing from being chimed.
The crusty, who said his name was Swampy, sat down on the top step and smoked his cigarette. ‘You don’t look like our typical kind of squatter’ he remarked.
Before I could say ‘hey, I’m not a squatter’, Swampy started giggling, then pointed toward the open front door.
‘Hey dude, look outside! Your cat is sitting in the rain! Awesome.’
‘A what? Oh no.’ I shifted and turned, leg still down the hole.
Nibbles was sitting kerbside, under battering rain and the glow of a streetlamp, unbothered, like he was already king cat of the hood.
‘Argh. Come here Nibbles!’ I demanded. ‘Biscuit. Biscuit Nibbles.’
Either Nibbles couldn’t hear me, or he didn’t want to. This had me thinking that the cat was more like her than I had ever cared to acknowledge.
There was a lot of awkward manoeuvres before I finally freed myself from the hole, and fell to the bottom stair.
With pain and a wide stance, I stepped outside, but Nibbles was gone. Believe me, it crossed my mind to let that soggy ginger cat wander off forever, but any chance of a reconciliation with Wendy would definitely include Nibbles, so I had to find him, for the sake of my car crashed marriage.
It took 2 seconds of being drenched by the rain for me to start thinking like a cat. It was another 10 seconds before I noticed the door of the laundrette was ajar. Yes, of course. If I were a cat, I’d go through that open door.

*******

Inside the laundrette, it was hard to tell who was there for laundry and who was there sheltering from the weather. Obviously, I was there looking for the cat, on all fours as I crawled down the centre of the laundrette, looking left and right, and calling out. ‘Nibbles. Nibbles?’
‘Did you say nipples?’ a young mother asked, a snotty baby stacked on her protruded hip.
‘No’ I replied. ‘I’ve lost my cat. Nibbles.’
‘You called your cat nipples? What kinda of moron does that?’ Someone joked, then laughed.
Did you know laughing is contagious? It is, I saw it happen in the laundrette. Soon everybody was laughing about the Nibbles/nipples confusion. Even the snotty baby was giggling about something, and babies know nothing.
‘It’s not funny’ I said. ‘I’ve lost my cat’ which only caused the people to laugh harder. ‘Stop laughing!’ I shouted. ‘What the hell is wrong with you people?’ I stomped to the door and made an exit in what I could only describe as a temper tantrum any toddler would be proud of owning.
I slammed the door behind me.
Outside and greeted by the only reliable thing in my life right now – rain. I could still hear laughter as it seeped from the laundrette. I looked up and down the pavement for a roaming ginger cat, but nothing. I even checked the road, just on the off chance Nibbles had become a victim of his own curiosity, but nothing. I was on the verge of giving up, when I heard a noise behind me.
Swampy and his musty odour materialised through the haze of his own smoke. ‘Dude’ he said, ‘a buddy of mine just saw a ginger moggie go into Kebabs-4U.’
‘And where the fuck is Kebabs-4U?’ I asked, my patience threadbare.
‘Hey, mellow that aggression, dude. No need for it. No need.’
I stepped back, took a moment, then stepped forward and apologised.
Before Swampy disappeared back into his smoke cloud, he told me the kebab shop was just past Tescos. I couldn’t miss it, he said.
My phone rang, deep in the drenched pocket of my parka.
It was Ahmed from work, asking how I was settling into London life, then getting to the real reason for his call. He forewarned me that a screaming Wendy phoned the office, only for Ahmed to let slip that I was moving into his dad’s flat. He gave her the address too. What the…
Trying to terminate a phone call in the rain was another problem I had to deal with, but don’t worry, because a hooded curse on a pushbike went whizzing past, snatched the phone clean from my hand, and pedalled away like he was Brad ‘bloody’ Wiggins. I couldn’t be bothered to chase him. I couldn’t even be bothered to pull the hood over my head to stop the rain and its tortuous pummel. I wandered off to find Kebabs-4U, and hopefully Nibbles. If nothing else, I wanted to find that ungrateful cat so I could tell him he wasn’t wanted.

*******

Eventually I found it, Kebabs-4U, a place of overwhelming fluorescent glare, an underwhelming menu, and a queue of downbeat carnivores waiting to be served a Friday night treat.
I won’t go into detail about what happened in Kebabs-4U, but suffice to say, it doesn’t matter what I said or meant, or what those customers thought I said or meant, just mention a cat, dog, or rodent in a fast-food joint, and everyone starts leaving by the nearest exit. Trading Standards being the very next people to come through the door.
After the queue of people had left the shop, vowing never to return, I sensed something unpleasant was manifesting when I noted the aggressive faces of the staff. I considered running, but the door seemed further away than I remembered. I heard an angry voice say something like, ‘i’m gonna smack the bitch out of you, bitch.’ After that, I don’t remember.

*******

Not sure how much time had passed when I woke flat on the pavement, spread out and wet like a starfish. People stepped over me, around me, and that one idiot stepped all over me and laughed. The left side of my face throbbed like a toothache, but much bigger. Blood trickled from my nose. I wasn’t quite ready to stay on the floor amongst the wetness and rubbish, so I mustered the strength to pull myself up a lamp post, back on to unsteady feet. My eyes tried to focus, but the world was shrink-wrapped in a blur, my equilibrium punched out of shape. I stayed where I was, held on tight to the post, and breathed.
And breathed.
My vision was clearing, and I breathed.
I could feel energy refreshing my legs. And I Breathed.
And I…
And I couldn’t believe what I saw.
A black cab drove past. Through the back window of the taxi I could see the silhouette of someone’s head – and I could see Nibbles. His ginger face peering out the back window like a stolen child who didn’t give a shit.
‘Oh for God sake. Really?’
The next bit was the easiest part of the night: I raised my arm and a taxi rolled up. Easy as that.
I jumped in the cab and said, ‘quick, follow that taxi!’
The cab driver thought I was joking. ‘Is this for real?’
‘Of course it’s real’ I told him. ‘Follow that taxi.’
Without another word, we were in (slow) pursuit.
Shortly after that, I fell asleep.

*******

The taxi driver must have slammed the brakes hard, because when I woke up I was in the process of hitting my head against the glass partition that separates cabbie from the passenger. As I struggled from the floor and back onto the seat, I noticed the fare meter was reading 127 English pounds.
‘Jesus Christ! How much?’
‘Listen, mate, you said follow the taxi. So I followed the taxi.’
‘Where did we go? Timbuk-bloody-tu.’ I was unimpressed.
‘More like Essex’ he said.
‘Essex?’
Across the road, five or six cars up, the other taxi had stopped middle of the road. I could see someone getting out.
I got out of my cab and instantly recognised the place: it was the street I lived in with Wendy.
‘Oi’ the cabbie shouted, ‘you owe me hundred and twenty-seven quid.’
Across the road, the other cab drove away, and I saw Wendy standing on the pavement, Nibbles reaching over her shoulder like a burping baby.
‘Wendy!’ I shouted. ‘Give me that damn cat.’
‘You don’t even like the cat’ she shouted back. And then she started running.
I started running, but she was closer to the house than me. I could see Wendy was already thinking ahead: door key in her hand. I started running faster, but Wendy was already in the front garden.
I could hear the cabbie shouting, ‘Oi, you owe me money’, but I kept running.
Wendy had the key in the lock by the time I stepped onto the garden path. By the time I reached the door, it had already been slammed in my face.
I banged my fists on the door. ‘Wendy. Give me that cat!’ I rang the bell, over and over, but eventually I gave up. I couldn’t be bothered anymore.
Defeated, I turned to leave, but the cabbie was standing there on the path, his hand out and palm up, ‘you owe me a lot of money’ he said.
That’s when I realised I didn’t have my wallet. Stolen or lost, it was the same end result. I had no cash.
The cab driver was stronger than he looked. He grabbed the scruff of my parka, lifting me so I was on the tip of my toes, then said, ‘what happens next is up to you, pal.’
I don’t remember anything after that.
Until now.

‘And that’s exactly how it happened officer. Can I go now?’

<<<<>>>>

THE NEXT DAY STORY

By Bistra Nikolova

 

Somewhere in the narrow, dark streets behind Leicester Square, the early hours were exactly the time when a different kind of people would walk as shadows trying badly to forget about the light part of the day. Or maybe even about the dark one too. Many of those night creatures had been living for that very moment, greedily snatching everything they could reach to help fool themselves for a while. To forget about the time they could never manage to beat. This was the only thing they had some power over, and not quite so. As you see, they could decide where to go, but for obscure reasons the place could be closed, or the way they reach it could be obstructed by someone else they had never met or known. Once in the place, they did not possess the ability to choose the audience there, neither to decide what menu to be offered as that was a privilege saved only for the owner. So the choices were quite limited, but yet the ability of the human brain to trick us and even flatter us in a way was rather imaginative. With a little outside help, the chemical laboratory in our bodies could, in fact, produce an astonishing result.

 

Brad looked at the empty street. The crowd had gone and the darkness brought him back the sense of a pleasant and relaxing stillness. At last, time for him to finish his inner conversation which he’d begun earlier. There was one disturbing thought circulating in his head. Did he lock the front door or did he just pull it shut? His brain violated the memory puzzle. He recalled going out, pulling the door, then the next thing he could remember was climbing down the stairs. Anyway, the cat would not be able to escape the flat. His cat was a very clever animal, able to open the fridge, the door to his bedroom, but the exterior door was heavy and the delicate creature would not manage to do it. And even if he could, where would he go? On the staircase. Mrs Flington would protest, of course, against animals in the building, especially if the cat decided to do its business on her mat. Well, he would manage to calm Mrs Flington, who liked to make a fuss about everything, as she was an elderly woman living on her own and believing everyone had to respect her age. Not that she liked to be reminded of the years behind her back; she would rather slap you on the cheek and slam the door under your nose. She tried so hard, as any self-respecting woman does, to hide her real age. In fact, Mrs Flington dyed her hair some fancy hue, some sort of cherry red and purple which made a disastrous combination, but was very suitable for her character. He smiled. She could bring a little tension in his life but he was used to that. After all, his job was nothing else but nerve-wracking.

A young couple came out of the nearby restaurant and, swinging from one side to the other, slowly advanced down the street. He’d seen many drunks. Most of them rather young. An established trend with no trade mark behind it. The alcohol was stalking every insecure soul only to make them a part of its possession. The couple reminded him of a pendulum rather broken but still moving. What was their aim in life? He moved from foot to foot. Alone again.

 

A cat crossed the street to him inaudibly as its paws were so soft, but he saw two yellow diamonds shining in the dark. She stared at him for a moment. Estimated the situation and seeing no threat slowly moved away. What was his cat doing right now? He remembered the time he found the small kitten in front of his door. He had just moved in the flat. A year ago. A small soft ball was lying on the mat in front of the door. He had never had an animal before. Never thought to have one. But it happened. It was not planned, not even considered. It was an invisible hand that put the cat on his mat, a hand that decided his destiny. So he had to take the chance and live his life with no regrets. No regrets. Only if he could. He would rather be an actor. Why did he drop the class? He should have proven himself, worked hard, and not paid attention to that miserable Mr. Port, his acting teacher. His body shivered at the recollection of their last meeting six months ago. Mr. Port had thought, and made it very clear, that the little boy had no talent at all. Yeh? Well, he did. He definitely did, and tomorrow he would prove it. Tomorrow he had an audition for a small part in a film, a big American production.

 

New steps echoed in the dark, steps of someone who was in a hurry. He tried to see who was coming but there were buildings set as a decor hiding the actor. The steps were coming closer and closer, cutting the distance with a pace of a predator determined to catch its prey. His whole body stiffened in an attempt to sense a clue, anything that might tell what was coming. The primary instinct of every living being. The steps sounded very close but there was still no sign of a person.

And then a stranger, messy hair and baggy clothes like he had no time to dress properly, appeared out of the corner. He looked like a sleepwalker. There was an awkward pause when they were staring at each other. A strand of hair fell over Brad’s eyes and he moved it away. The stranger moved too; his hand shifted in his pocket and pulled something out of there. Brad couldn’t see what exactly that was. The stranger hit his own forehead and released a stone. His hand was moving frantically up and down.

‘Are you okay?’ Brad asked.

‘Shut up!’ the man scolded him and began talking inarticulately to himself.

‘Maybe I can help.’ Brad moved towards the other guy, who reacted quickly. His hand straightened, a bang noise, and a flash. Brad swayed. His chest hurt as if pressed by a train. His hand touched his ribs. His shirt was wet.

“Fu . . .” Brad gave rales. His lips froze as he remembered his mum would not approve of it. She always wanted him to be a good boy, polite and very . . . She told him. So his lips whispered “freesia”, his mum’s favourite flower. There was another bang. He fell down. But strangely none of his extremities could move. Like someone had pulled the switch off, he felt faint. One thought disturbed his reflection. His cat was alone. Maybe hungry.

 

A few steps further, in the night club, people were revealing their secret identities. Like a magic hat, the place easily could turn singles into couples, or implant a third person where all human understanding could not accept. The trick dated back in time. The premises were changing every boring man or woman from their daylight substitute to their glamorous being. For this was a palace of joy and illusions. Some of the guests were laughing at a joke, or maybe simply at themselves. Others were dancing. The music tried its best to challenge the strength of the speakers but they heroically withstood it, letting the sound out and straight to human ears’ membranes. The problem was not theirs. In such a state, no one noticed the newcomer and the cold air he brought with him.

 

The night flesh-eaters came to feast with their flash cameras, microphones, and recording devices.

The morning newspapers had the type of headlines journalists call ‘catchy’, used to sell their issues as they, like everyone else, had to pay their bills and eat, pay for childcare, book a nice holiday somewhere. “A sleepwalker firing in a night club. All 65 dead.” People were shocked; they tweeted the news, posted on Facebook. They shared posts at breakfast, at lunch, and finally at dinner time. It was a tragedy that occurred in someone else’s life. A tragedy soon to be replaced by the next day story.

12 SAUNCEY WOOD

By Amanda Hein

It was after 4 am, I can remember that. Herded; the change of music to a slow hum, like a pied piper sending the sheep out of the club at 3, flocking to the nearest kebab. Bah. Greasy burgers sopped in mayonnaise, chips drenched in ketchup, the overpriced taxi ride. Yes, it was at least 4. The front door’s latch echoed through the marbled entrance. Bastard. We scuttled quickly, my hand and heels in each of your hands, you balanced like a tightrope walker on a slippery line. Sanctuary is carpeted stairs, politely silencing our steps. Stairs do not judge. Shh, the first door on the right, a stagger and a half past my sleeping parents. The room was a cascade of moon light; I didn’t dare disturb the glow with a bulb. I undressed, leaving stained and smoky clothes in a heap on the floor. You left your underwear on. I stole your shirt, and wore it as a nightgown. Fucking buttons. You were so thin, it barely fit over my breasts. You loved it. We fell into the sheets. My antique, third generation bed creaked and sighed underneath each turn and breath. I didn’t want to sleep, neither did you. Please. You pulled me in close, too drunk to notice my unbrushed teeth. Laughs, giggles; short and long kisses through the night. It came out, bursting from me like a shaken beer can rich with alcohol: “I think I’m falling for you.” Shit.

More kisses.

“Trouble is, I’m falling for you too.” Thank God. My eyes were lead; the alcohol wore off and overcame me. In the last moments of consciousness, you cradled me, your long arms swaddled me. Our breathing slowed, and we drifted away. Your head rested on mine.

THE BOY WHO CRIED

By Rob Hakimian

Through his window he watched the rim of the sun disappear behind the top floor of the high rise across the park. Its shadow now blocked out the last rays of sun that made it through his small bedroom window. Soon it would be dark, and after that he knew his resolve to do any writing would evaporate along with the daylight. Several times he had started and deleted, started and deleted. The most he had written was two sentences, before realising the obvious flaws: the clichés, the lack of a hook, the lack of any semblance of voice or direction. He had retreated back to the blank page again, his text cursor back in the top left of the screen, blinking tirelessly. Not even a title. Four hours he’d been sitting there, alternating steadily between coffee, tea and water, perhaps somehow hoping that a different taste, a different smell, a different colour, might just bring to mind the seed of a story.

Now it was entirely dark outside, and soon she would be calling. They had only been together a couple of months, and only really got to see each other on weekends because of her busy work schedule on the other side of the city. So, they talked every weeknight when they were apart, and he was always excited when she called. Despite the relative shortness of their relationship, he was totally in love with her, and he was sure she felt similarly about him. The worst feeling he could ever imagine was letting her down, but that’s exactly what he was going to have to do. She believed in him utterly as a writer, and was the most encouraging person in the world in regards to his work. She had been extremely complimentary about what he had shown her of his past writing. Her praise was even more valuable than anyone else’s.

Recently, however, he had completely dried up. Not a single word for a couple of months now – at least not ones that had lasted more than 10 minutes on his screen. The fallow period had probably started around the same time they had started getting physical. He was worried. She reciprocated his worry, but with undercurrents of faith and certainty that it was just a phase and that he would be back on track again soon.

As his dry spell had extended, and his anguish at his lack of output sharpened, she had tried various ways to try to goad him into writing something again. At first it had been merely vocal encouragement, which made him feel better, but had not resulted in any work. Then she tried to set him specific tasks, writing about a holiday, a memory, family history – anything – but that had proved just as fruitless. He found it too stale, too predictable, not something he could sink his teeth into.

Now she had come up with the latest scheme to get him working: by promising him a very secret surprise upon the completion of a short story. He had no idea what the secret surprise would be, but he knew that she would not let him down. She knew all the things he wanted; from simple material desires, to emotional desires and even sexual fantasies. He had not kept anything from her, and she understood him better than anyone. He knew that whatever the special surprise would be, it would be something that he would cherish.

But alas, the compulsion to write something in order to acquire this special surprise had not manifested. And he sat there, staring at his own reflection in the window, with the blackness of night outside mirroring his mind’s canvas.

His phone started buzzing. It was her, of course.

He picked up, “hey you.”

“Hey sweet one, are you alright?”

“Not too bad thanks, just sitting in front of my laptop, figuring things out.”

“Oh yeah, has it been a productive day then? I can’t wait to read what you’ve written.”

He gulped, did he sense a little drip of suggestion in her voice? The special surprise was going to be sexual, he knew it. He wanted to do so many things to her body.

“It’s not that great.”

“Don’t be silly, your writing is magnificent.”

“So are your delicate little features, cuteness.”

Silence on the line as he imagined her squirming a little bit with the directness of his adoration.

“So…?” she said, after a moment.

“So what?”

“So what have you written? Are you going to read it for me? You know I want to give you your special surprise, but first you have to convince me you deserve it.”

There was definitely no denying the sexual undertones in her voice now. He had to have her. He had to get her to show him the special surprise. Or “do” or “carry out” or whatever the correct action would be for what she had in store for him.

“Erm, it’s about…” he faltered, not sure how to lie. “It’s not really about anything. It’s just the start for now.”

“Well I still want to hear what you’ve got, you know what your writing does to me. Especially when you read it to me in your sexy voice.”

He gulped again, unsure what to say.

“Please read me something…” she said softly, seductively.

He looked at the blank screen in front of him and screwed up his face in frustration. “I’m not sure I’m ready to do that yet.”

“Pleeeeease,” she mewled. “I know it’s just a first draft, but I also know it’s going to be great. Because you’re great.”

His heart melted. He couldn’t let her down. What was he going to do? He cast his eyes about for some kind of inspiration. His eyes fell on the book he was reading, across the table, and he quickly whipped it up and turned to a page he’d dog-eared.

“Well, maybe I could read you a little bit,” he intoned, trying to match the ripe sexuality in her voice.

“Please,” she uttered.

“OK then,” he looked down at the page he’d saved in his book, took a deep breath, and started reading. “‘Night, however, succeeds to night. The winter holds a pack of them in store and deals them equally, evenly, with indefatigable fingers. They lengthen; they darken. Some of them hold aloft clear planets, plates of brightness…’”

She listened quietly, attentively, as he read the words out of the book. He read them with passion and gusto, wringing the brilliance out of the author’s prose. When he had read a page he stopped. There was silence on the other end.

“That’s all I’ve got for now,” he said, “or as much as I want to read anyway.”

She let out a long, languorous sigh that made his skin prickle with desire. “That was wonderful. Amazing, even. I knew you had it in you. It’s so different to what you normally write. What was that part about clear planets and plates of brightness – will you read it to me again?”

He looked back down at the page he had been reading from and saw the bit she mentioned. It was truly great, but he was already feeling sick at having passed it off as his own work, especially with the effect that it had had on her.

“I don’t want to read it again… I’m embarrassed,” he concluded, feebly.

“What are you embarrassed about? It’s wonderful.”

He stayed silent, wrestling over whether to push forward with this or to come clean.

“OK, Mr. Sensitive, you don’t have to read it to me again if you don’t want to. You can email it to me, and I’ll read it for myself in my own time, in my own way.”

“Maybe when I’ve written some more…”

“No, send it to me tonight. I want to spend some time with your words, since I can’t spend any time with you tonight. I want to think about you while I read it, and think about all the naughty things you’re going to do to me.”

His trousers tightened slightly. “Erm, seriously, I don’t think I’m ready to send it yet.”

“But don’t want your special surprise? Your very sexy special surprise?”

It was going to a be a sexual thing, he knew it.

“Of course I want that, I want that so badly.”

“Well then mister, just send me your work, and I’ll see just how worthy you are. Maybe I’ll…”

His mind went into a blank fuzz as she delicately described all the things she would allow him to do, and all the things she was going to do to him. While the lower portion of his body reacted in the way that you’d expect to the graphic descriptions she was unfurling into his ear, his mind was revolting.

“Stop! Stop!” he yelped, eventually.

“What, too much for you to handle, baby?”

“Well no… yes… kind of…”

“It’s OK baby, I know you want this…”

“I really, really do… but I don’t deserve it.”

“Of course you do. You worked so hard on that, and now I want to work so hard on you.”

His palms were slick with sweat. “But I didn’t, I didn’t…”

“Didn’t what?”

“Didn’t write it!”

“What do you mean?”

“I couldn’t write anything today, I tried and tried but nothing was coming.”

“So what was that you just read me?”

“It was from the Virginia Woolf book I’m reading.”

“What?”

“I panicked, you just turn me on so much baby and I didn’t want to let you down…”

“But you did want to fuck me, so you lied to me. That’s disgusting.”

“I know it is baby, but you’re just so –“

The line went dead.

 

 

A week later, and no end of groveling, he had managed to get her to calm down and understand. She had agreed to maintain their usual weekend rendezvous. He had brought her flowers, and committed himself to giving her no end of pleasure. His jaw was aching and he felt like he had a touch of RSI in his middle and index fingers on both hands, but things were right again between them.

He hadn’t got the sexy special surprise he so desired, though. Just before he left her for another week apart, he had cheekily asked her if the deal was still on; if he wrote something, would she oblige in all the ways she had promised? Maybe it was just the afterglow of all the pleasure he’d brought her over the weekend, but she had laughed self-effacingly and agreed.

Now here he was, at the end of another long day of starting and stopping, typing and deleting, and he was no closer to writing the story that was going to unlock the door to all his sexual desires. The weekend of pleasure with her had only inflamed his yearning to an even greater extreme, but hadn’t provided literary inspiration. Most of the day had been spent dreaming of her sumptuous skin and precious, sexual lips. He had had to masturbate a couple of times to try to refocus, but it hadn’t helped. All he could think about was doing all the things she had whispered to him a week earlier.

Outside was dark, like the inside of his head. Not a flicker of inspiration. But he needed her body. He needed that flesh. He needed to do all the things he wanted to do, yearned to do. What was he going to say when she asked him to read her something? He had to say something, he couldn’t let her down. And he couldn’t let himself down. He needed this.

He went to his bookshelf and looked at his books. He was looking for something he knew she hadn’t read, and whose style of prose he could pass off as his own. It would be too obvious if he used Virginia Woolf again. He honestly had no idea how she had ever believed that he’d written that. She trusted him too much; he didn’t deserve it.

He spotted a book that he thought matched his criteria. He flicked through it, scanning the pages for an excerpt he could read that would impress her without arousing suspicion. He found one and marked the page.

He went back to his laptop with the book, waiting for her call. Maybe he could still write something of his own before she-

The phone buzzed, he picked it up.

“Hiya,” he said, trying not to sound guilty of anything. He hadn’t done anything wrong anyway – yet.

“Hello again,” she cooed. “I know I only saw you yesterday, but I miss you already.”

“It’s not just you, I wish I could be with you right now,” he replied. Touching your bum, caressing your inner thighs…

“How’s your day been? Any luck with the writing? Hopefully our… activities over the weekend would have cleared your mind enough to start afresh.”

“Yeah, it’s been alright. When I’ve been able to take my mind off you – which hasn’t been often.”

“Oh shoosh. I know your type. When you writers are in the zone nothing can jolt you out of it.”

“If anything can, it’s your body, baby.”

She snickered happily down the line. “Well I hope you got your fill of that this weekend so you could write today… and then you can come back for round 2 this weekend…”

He laughed softly down the line, but furrowed his brow as he wondered if he was really going to do this.

“You know, I’ve been thinking about all those things I promised I’d do for you… I can’t wait.”

“Is that so?” he replied weakly.

“It is… I can’t wait to…”

He took a sharp breath as she once again started to lavishly detail all the acts she wanted to perform on him.

“…but before all that you have to have written me a story. How’s it going?”

He faltered for a second, but his raging boner pressing against his trousers took charge.

“It’s going great. You really did unlock something in me. I’ve been writing non-stop all day.”

She let out a low sound of satisfaction. “Read me something then.”

Without hesitation he picked up the book and opened it to the page he’d marked. “OK… ‘He put the dog down on the runner under the awning and then stepped out into the rain with the leash. In the darkness the apartment buildings on the other side of the avenue were a serene black wall holding back the city’s sky, which was a steaming purple. It glowed, as if inflamed by a fever…’

Once again she seemed to be listening attentively, but he sensed some movement on the other end of the line which made him nervous. He stopped.

“Do you like it?”

“It’s great. So detailed and dark. It’s not what I’d expected you to write about though, since you said it was me that opened up your writer’s block.”

“Well, the mind works in mysterious ways my dear. Anyway, I’m not sure I have the power to fully capture your graciousness and gorgeousness in words… at least not until I’ve fully explored you in all the ways I want…”

She didn’t make the usual utterance of satisfaction that she usually did at comments like this.

“Everything alright?” he asked.

“What was that bit about the buildings and the city sky?”

He faltered for a second, “er, let me find it… oh yes, it was ‘the apartment buildings on the other side of the avenue were a serene black wall holding back the city’s sky…’”

“Hmmmm.”

“What’s the matter?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.

“Well it says here that Tom Wolfe wrote that exact sentence in Bonfire of the Vanities. In fact I think everything you just read to me just came straight out of that book…”

“Wait, what?” He was fucked. “Where does it say that?”

“Google.”

“You googled my work?!”

“Well, it’s not really your work is it?”

He coughed, the hand with the phone now trembling slightly. “Well, ok, no, I didn’t write it. It’s just I couldn’t think of anything, but I wanted you to feel like you had inspired me baby –“

“You did this for me?!”

“Yeah, kind of. Everything I do is somehow-“

“Oh fuck off, you fucking prick. I can’t believe you tried this again. You’re never going to touch me again.”

The line went dead.

 

 

A week later, and he was exhausted. In the first few days after their last conversation he had tried to call her again and again and had been ignored. He had left her countless voicemails and texts, pleading with her, explaining to her all the reasons why he was not worthy of her, but desperately needed her, all the ways he would make it up to her. But nothing.

He had then spent the next few days writing, writing, writing. He barely ate, he barely slept, all he could do was write. His feelings at his utter spinelessness, his remorse, and his endlessly burning desire had coagulated into… something. He didn’t really know what it was that he had written, but it was good, he was sure of that. He hadn’t shown it to anyone. The only one he wanted to show it to, the only one who mattered, was her.

He paced back and forth around his flat as he thought about what he’d written, and fantasized about how amazed she’d be by it. “It’s the best thing you’ve ever written,” he imagined her saying. “I can’t wait for you to write more,” “I can’t wait for the world to read this,” “I’m so honoured that I inspired such great work…”

He watched the last piece of sunlight coming through his window get blocked out by the high rise outside. Monday evening; he knew she would be home, as she was every Monday evening. He needed to talk to her; he needed to read to her, to express everything to her via his prose.

She would ignore his calls, delete his voicemails before even listening to them. There was one thing he could do. He could put 141 before her number so that it would appear as an unknown caller on her phone. It was a sneaky thing to do, but hardly unfair considering the total blackout she’d cast upon him.

Reading back over the work he’d produced, he picked out his favourite passage. One about his love for her, and how deep it ran, comparing it to the spring of the river in the Garden of Eden. Truly beautiful, if he did say so himself. Just like her. God he needed her.

He picked up the phone and dialed the number. It rang a couple of times and then she picked up.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me. Listen, I’ve written something. Really written something new and unique and inspired by-“

“What the fuck?! Why are you still calling me, you creep?”

“Baby, don’t say that. Listen to what I’ve written about you.”

“Fuck off, I don’t believe anything you say. Don’t call me baby.”

He forged on “The contours of her supple skin are as lush and vibrant as the holy ground where once Adam and Eve copulated. And when we combine there is no other world, we are like the first man and woman…”

“I’m changing my number.”

“But wait I’m just getting to-“

The line went dead.

 

JACK OF DIAMONDS

By Bethan Morgan

Excerpt from the Ministerial and Other Salaries Amendment Act 2025:

In the case of the aforementioned offices a salary may be paid to each holder of office subject to the limitations expressed below, that is to say—

  • That it is within the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister to appoint any number of Secretaries of State as he or she so wishes, who will receive salaries in accordance with the quantities laid out above
  • That the shadow cabinet may expand to employ an equal number of ministers given it does not exceed the limit set by the Prime Minister at any given time

 

The leaf was splayed on the ground at the entrance to Westminster station, red as rage.

Perhaps that’s why Jack’s eyes locked on to it as he climbed up the steps from the Underground. It had been glued to the pavement by rain and guck but still retained that fiery echo of autumnal vengeance. He imagined its lonely journey to this brazen spot, its doomed companions mercilessly scattered by the wind. Like the generations of leaves, the lives of mortal men, he thought sadly, suddenly remembering Glaucus’ fateful words in the Iliad.

His reverie was shattered as the leaf vanished beneath a pounding boot, replaced swiftly by a gleaming trainer, and then the silver exterior of one of those new WeatherKicks, whose soles adapted automatically to different surfaces.

‘Excuse me,’ a voice growled somewhere over his right shoulder.

Jack stumbled out of the way in bewilderment, muttering an apology as the owner of the voice swept past, arrogantly stabbing the air with the cane gripped in one gloved hand and disappearing under the umbrella that unfolded in a flash from its tip. Jack buttoned his own coat to the neck, shrugging his satchel further over his shoulder. A newsstand blazed, waist-height, beside him, the morning’s headlines curling across its screens.

Cyanide Soaks Westminster Again As The Shadow Deck Loses a Deuce.

An icy spider of unease crawled down his spine, but he shrugged it off as quickly as it came, disabling the Bluetooth on his phone before the tabloid’s contents began downloading onto it.

Only then did he step out into the rain and look up.

He squinted through the droplets at the looming spectre of Big Ben, heart racing. The sight would never fail to stupefy him. He’d only approached the ancient clock tower from this angle once before, and his feelings of awe were the same now as they had been then, a whole decade ago. His mum had held his hand and pointed up at the colossal ticking hands and whispered in his ear telling him of what it had stood for when she was his age, not the mud of maze-like ministries but the heartbeat of liberalism in a chaotic world.

He turned back to Portcullis House with great reluctance. It was a violent juxtaposition indeed to see such a glorious building faced off by such an ugly one. He finally understood what Kafka had meant when K. gazed on the castle for the first time. If ever a building had looked like a gloomy inmate bursting from the ground it was this one.

Jack swallowed nervously then set off to find the entrance, dodging a delivery drone as it zoomed around the corner. He was about twenty minutes early but thought it better to be eager than indolent, especially given the state of the transport services these days.

The silver-haired security guard manning the visitor’s entrance X-rayed his coat, belt, boots, identity bracelet, and satchel, which contained nothing but his tablet, headset, a battered copy of the Iliad that had belonged to his mum, and a deck of cards, the latter two items added as good-luck charms before he left that morning.

‘Come through, please,’ the guard on the other side of the metal detector called.

‘Name?’

‘Jack Allways. I’m here for work experience with Julius Gruelon, Shadow King of Diamonds.’

The woman tapped away at the tablet in her hands for several seconds then nodded stiffly. She pressed a small silver encoder to the screen until there was a tinny beep, then seized his right hand and stamped his wrist. He winced, glancing down to see a cryptic web of dots and lines glowing blue just under his skin.

‘That will dissolve in three days. Now, go straight along the length of the atrium and turn right past the conference suites. There’s a waiting lounge at the end of that corridor next to a bank of elevators. Mr Gruelon will be with you shortly.’

‘Thank you.’ But she had already turned away.

The atrium was like the open hull of some vast naval galleon from a forgotten century. Great metallic sails stretched across the latticed ceiling far above and two large pools of water dominated the floor, watched on each side by rows of leafy fig trees.

Jack accelerated towards the opposite end, peering curiously at every black-suited figure who hurried past him, many racing along on e-boards. He spotted four cabinet ministers, identified by those distinctive black and red brooches pinned to the lapels of their jackets. The two he saw sporting red hearts also wore bright-red patent leather shoes, while the club and the spade were dressed head to toe in black.

The lounge was empty when he found it. Two leather couches faced each other across a light oak table split down the middle by an emitter. The image projected up from it was a newsreel, the reporter’s voice drifting eerily across the room.

‘…amidst accusations that the Shadow Deuce of Diamonds had been implicated in a plot against her counterpart, the Secretary of … of Public Political Persuasion and Opinion, who was elected as MP of Ochil and South Perthshire in the 2050 General Election last year. This places suspicions of foul play directly on the head of the Diamond Deuce and in turn the entire Diamond hand, raising the question of whether this Shadow plot had actually been verified and, if not, why this latest cyanide flush was so swiftly committed. Prime Minister Rosewing is yet to release a comment as her cabinet reshuffle enters its eighty-fourth day, with the Shadow deck now entering its one hundred and nineteenth. We turn now to yesterday’s developments which unfolded with rumours the Ace of Spades had tipped off his Trey and Queen that Amelia Rosewing was set to reallocate their positions to the MPs from…’

Jack tuned out in disgust and began to pace, his mum’s final whispered words to him that morning echoing around his head.

Be careful, Jack. Be more careful than you’ve ever been before. Reason is your armour, you’re the star of the waning summer who beyond all stars shall rise.

He clutched his satchel tighter, feeling the weight of the Iliad pressing against his leg.

At that very moment an elevator hissed open behind him.

He whirled around to see a tall, lupine man stepping out, red shoes gleaming like rippling blood. He had a long face, chin as sharp as glass, obsidian-black hair gelled back over his head, and glaring eyes set beneath a heavy brow. His sleek, black suit was paired with a burgundy-coloured silk shirt buttoned right to his neck and a red diamond pin glinting like a drop of blood from his lapel. Jack couldn’t even make a wild guess at his age. There had been a shocking lack of information online about this particular minister.

‘Jack Allways?’ the man said. His voice was crisp and cool, the faintest of accents clipping his syllables, possibly heavily diluted Welsh.

‘Yes, sir,’ Jack replied, stepping forwards and offering a hand.

‘My name, as I’m sure you have deduced already,’ he said, leading the way into the open elevator, ‘is Julius Gruelon. I understand you’ll be with us for the next three days.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Please, I am yet to receive my GBE from His Majesty, so call me Julius for now.’

‘Right, okay, um… Julius.’

The elevator doors whooshed back to reveal a long, carpeted corridor lined on one side by glass windows that looked out over the atrium and on the other by pale oak doors.

‘This floor is occupied by our party,’ Julius continued in a monotone, striding off down the corridor. ‘And most of our cabinet ministers also have their offices here. You’ll know of course that there are fifty-two Secretaries of State in both cabinets.’

Shining dully from the centre of each door was a small plaque hosting either a diamond, heart, club, or spade with a Roman numeral engraved inside it. Jack thought bitterly of how many permutations there were of fifty-two cards in a deck. Even if the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition just randomly reshuffled the cabinet ministers they already had into different positions they could go at it for quite literally billions of years before hitting the same outcome twice.

‘Don’t you like it?’ Julius asked in a bored tone. It was only then that Jack realised he had been glaring at the plaques as they went by. He tried to fix a look of awe onto his face.

‘Why should you assume I don’t?’ he replied, smiling to himself.

‘Visitors never like it.’

He looked at Julius in surprise, his stomach flipping. The quote was word perfect.

‘Why should you assume I haven’t read Kafka?’

Jack was saved from trying to respond to this when Julius stopped in front of one of the doors, Diamond 13, gesturing stiffly. ‘Please.’

Jack pushed through it hesitantly and found himself in a low-ceilinged room interspersed with banks of interactive screens. He counted six people, all of whom looked up as they entered.

‘You must be Jack,’ a short, elfish woman with bleached blonde hair said in a falsetto voice, stepping forwards to shake his hand, also wearing a black suit and red shoes.

‘Meet Frieda Block,’ Julius said, ‘head of my team here. She’s your first port-of-call for any questions regarding parliamentary processes or deck lingo.’

‘It’s a delight to finally meet our highest scoring applicant,’ Frieda said. Her eyes were a peculiar shade of hazelnut, almost golden. ‘92% on the party affiliation and loyalty test, 100% on the cabinet names and titles test.’

Jack tried to smile. ‘Yes.’

The only reason he had managed it was due to Malika in the year above him outlining in detail the nature of the questions after she had failed to secure the same work experience last year. The whole test was a twisted farce.

Julius swept past them to another door at the back of the room. Jack nodded politely at Frieda before following.

Julius’ office was low-lit with dark-panelled walls and a thick maroon carpet. Gleaming mahogany cabinets lined the back of the room, upon which sat an ancient cribbage board, a small ornament of a double-edged axe, and a row of antique decanters filled with red wines and golden spirits. Above the wide desk hung a real oil painting of a man standing heroically at the prow of a longboat, clad only in a windswept red cloak and a plumed bronze helmet, sword and shield raised proudly in his muscled arms.

Jack stared. It was Achilles. In fact, it looked like the 18th century portrait by Bon-Thomas Henry dog-eared in one of his mum’s books. This, surely, could not be the original.

‘You like Grecian art?’ Julius drawled as he began tapping away at the screen set into the surface of the desk, one of the only signs of technology in the room.

‘Yes. Very much. My mum’s a Classics professor at London University.’

‘Where you study…?’

‘Politics and Economics.’

‘Right.’ Julius’ attention was still fixed on the flickering screen at his fingertips. Jack tried to make out what was displayed there. Live-chat? News headlines dominated the left hand side, all displaying what looked like stories about yesterday’s murder, or ‘cyanide flush’ as the sensationalist vultures had been calling such acts since before the reshuffle had started. Seeds of rage blossomed in his gut as he pictured the homeless people crowded around the tube stations seeking any conceivable glimmer of warmth, the rapidly censored clips online of gang violence in the ghettos, the street-long queues curling out from the collapsing hospitals, the constantly smoking crematoriums, the only burial option now given the rampant overcrowding across the city.

‘And your father?’

Jack blinked, uncurling his fists.

‘Not around.’

‘Siblings?’

‘It’s only me.’

‘Pets?’

‘Um… a Chocolate Lab, Hector.’

At this, Julius looked up. ‘Hero of Troy, eh?’ He smirked.

Jack frowned in confused annoyance but said nothing, following Julius out of the room again with one final glance back at the text still cycling across the desk screen.

The next few hours seeped by like tar. Jack took notes during Julius’ committee meeting that had nothing to do with business or finance but rather discussion over some convoluted amendment to ministerial procedures that dragged on until late afternoon, all the while trying to memorise faces, cryptic comments, sinister gibes, and words, words, words.

Eventually he found himself back in Julius’ office, donning his coat and satchel once more and straining to hear the heated exchange Julius was having with Frieda. He pretended to be examining the cribbage board when Julius stormed in a few seconds later, his angular face red, teeth gritted.

‘I need you to stay late tonight. There’s a meeting.’ Sweat shone on his brow.

‘Um, ok.’

‘The Queen of Spades is on his way,’ Frieda said, leaning around the door. Her eyes were wide. She looked frightened. ‘It was his only window.’

Julius swore and strode across the office, pulling the chairs away from the wall until they were spread out around the small, round table in front of the cabinets. Jack watched in confusion, unsure of how to react to this inexplicable scene of panic.

He was about to ask what on earth was wrong when Julius swung round manically and seized his wrist, dragging him to one of the cabinets.

‘Listen carefully to what I’m about to tell you.’ He dropped to one knee and delved into the back of the cupboard, emerging a second later with a thin vial of clear liquid. ‘We’ve just been tipped off that the Spade Queen won’t be shuffled. This is very bad because he just uncovered a clue that could lead him to the heart of the Shadow flush network, in short, to us. He thinks he’s coming to a shuffle speculation meeting. Ten minutes before the end, I’m going to run a hand through my hair. When you see this, get up to refill the water glasses, and pour this vial into the Queen’s glass. He won’t suspect you given your age and status. Do you understand?’

Jack stared.

It was a joke, some kind of crude joke. The room tilted as though the whole building had slipped into the Thames, water rushing in through the windows.

Do you understand?’ Julius growled, gripping his shoulders painfully.

‘Yes,’ he said weakly. He felt detached from his body, numb.

‘He’s here,’ came Frieda’s voice, higher than ever. And then, several seconds later, a large, bearded man entered the office, a black spade shining from his lapel.

‘Julius,’ he said gruffly. ‘And…?’

‘Jack,’ Jack managed to stutter, shaking his hand. ‘Work – work experience.’

And the meeting began. Jack didn’t hear a word of it.

It felt like it had only been seconds when he saw Julius carefully sweep his hair back.

Jack rose mechanically to his feet, lifting all three, now empty, glasses from the table and walking over to the drinks cabinet as though in a trance. The vial was lying flat behind the decanters. He poured several inches of sparkling water into each glass, and emptied the vial into the one in his right hand, making his mind up before the cyanide hit the surface.

Keeping it on the right, he picked up one of the others in his left hand then turned back to the table, and set the left one down in front of his own seat, and the right one in front of Julius.

He returned to the cabinet, picked up the third glass, and placed it carefully before the Spade Queen, quietly lowering himself back into his chair. His mouth felt like sandpaper. He sipped his water, head spinning, and didn’t look once at Julius, though he heard him take several gulps.

Less than fifteen minutes later, the Spade Queen had left, closing the door behind him.

Silence fell like a gavel.

‘You know,’ Julius said, ‘Frieda thought you would do it.’

Jack looked up at him. His head felt like a block of lead. Nausea swept up from his stomach in a hot wave. He couldn’t quite seem to focus.

‘But I knew, you see, the moment I saw you,’ Julius continued, ‘the moment I saw that spectre of defiance and outrage in your baby eyes. You don’t understand the mechanisms of this world.’

‘I don’t – ’ Jack gasped. The room tipped and he fell hard onto the ground. Had they crashed into the Thames?

‘I switched our glasses when you went to get the Queen’s.’

Horror convulsed through his chest. Was that a fist clenching down on his heart?

‘You can’t – ’

But Julius had risen to his feet.

‘You know what they call a Jack of Diamonds… Laughing boy.’ His face split as he let out a bark of laughter, holding his stomach and wheezing.

‘They’ll find… You’ll be c – caught.’

‘Oh, Jack, my dear boy,’ he murmured, kneeling down, his face now the entire world. ‘It’s about time you realised. No one cares.’

The floor was falling away.

‘Weeping…’

His throat was closing up.

… Mum…

Zeus and the weeping horses. Zeus had said to them. They wept and he said.

There is nothing alive more agonised than man

of all that breathe and crawl –

 

CITY OF THE BLUE PEARL

By Paul Chafer

Journeying towards the galaxy centre, I pass a blue pearl and become intrigued by the pulses of energy dotted around the dark surface. On descending towards these glowing power buds, I detect the thrumming buzz of life. More than this, I see it is both one amorphous mass, and a gathering of independent sentient creatures existing within the teeming hubbub of light. Curious, I descend further, discovering an arterial network strung with colour, white streaming one way, red another, with brief intermissions of winking amber where various strands intersect and cross. I realise my timeframe is mismatched and slow my temporal pace, realising as I do that these colourful streams are individual packages containing cells, rushing hither and dither within this webbed city at night.

I wonder if, like my own system, the cells are essential nutritional globules providing energy or defence, but on closer examination, I see there is no coordinated pattern to their movement. They act independently, doing their own thing for purposes that are currently unclear. I descend further, stunned by the complexity of this intermingled, stratified, irregular beast.

Between the weaving arterial veins, various structures stand, many much larger than even I, but most quite small. The tiniest appear to be artificial caves, dwellings for worker cells, along with medium size ones, climbing skyward. Some appear dirty, dilapidated, emitting unhygienic odours, whilst others present pleasing aesthetic facades. I begin to understand that there is a cell hierarchy, an inequality, lives governed by a corrupt monetary system, making this humdrum polluted agglomeration important. An invisible god rules here, a calamitous dishonest deity, which has so successfully instilled its presence deep inside the inhabitant’s brains that the worshipful enslaved happily imagine that they are the imperative successful cells. I smile inwardly at their simplistic, trusting ignorance.

The largest aspects of this city, stacked side by side, towers of steel, concrete and glass, are cathedrals to this base monetary god who, it seems, is an uncharitable, unforgiving monster. A deceitful beast that has infiltrated the financial structure and taken advantage of those it fraudulently alleges to serve. As I slip through myriad minds of cells, I learn that they all have different labels according to their function and purpose; bankers, brokers, lawyers, managers, and many other priests of this disproportionate, ravenous idol. I find its control is absolute. I am uncertain if I should respect something engineering such complete control. Should I fear it, destroy it, or seek it out and subjugate it to my own will?

On closer inspection, within the centre of lights that the cells lovingly call ‘their city’ – though derisive claims of ownership border on dubious to laughable – I see the despotism has been achieved by the simple trick of tawdry illusion. The offering of trinkets, gaudy glitz and glamour fuelled by wanton greed, like a fully evolved Star Kind shaking shiny baubles before the eyes of a naïve infant. These cells see themselves as superiors, but are completely mesmerised and totally captivated. To them, nothing is more important than the narcissistic preaching of their heartless monetary god, not even the wellbeing and continued existence of their own kind.

Disappointed in this discovery, this ‘city’, I consider swatting it from existence, even though the human cells, like everything else visible, hail from the hearts of stars, as do I. Then I notice substrata, deep down on the arterial level, in nooks and crannies, and even lower, an underclass of minor humanity living quite separate from the centrally focused uncaring creatures above. Here, at last, I find hope and salivation for this strange species. I find love and caring, sharing and giving, empathy and understanding. On analysis of further input, I find that these beings have conquered what they term the ‘rat race’ and are not fooled by the monetary god, but resist its fake allure. Poets, artists, thinkers, writers and their many menial worker companions are fighting for a more wholesome way of life. These are people whom, those who are worst affected by the all-seeing wealth god, call losers, wasters and plebs. To me, they are the true meaning of life on this bizarre blue world.

Oddly, many of these most worthy creatures inhabit the worst of the artificial caves. Some have no cave at all, living and sleeping in the open, but taking comfort from the fact that they are free. Many would rather live in the city gutter, gazing at the stars, rather than live on their knees in opulence entranced by large, flat, moving squares of colour churning out greed, avarice and gluttony; representations of the despicable god.

There is no doubt that, like my own species, going back countless generations, humanity once inhabited green forests, so I am wondering why they now clump together in this sprawling urban mass? What is the underlying attraction? This strange phenomenon requires further investigation, and so, I choose to stay, to explore the hidden recesses and undercurrents. I decide to cast down this callous, deceiving, monetary fiend sucking the lifeblood of this infantile society, by breaking the communications enabling it to thrive and rule. It answers to nothing and nobody, but it shall answer to me and I shall inform it, and its denizens, that its time here has ended. I will also raise those who have already freed themselves, who know that integrity is not negotiable and that they shall be my vanguard.

I sink beneath the city, far down, finding remnants of cultures that once blossomed and thrived amongst peace, serenity and beauty by the riverside. Traces of past lives, their emotional fingerprints stretching towards me, touching, showing me how they were. I inhale them, these beautiful naked priestesses and priests from long forgotten religions, dancing before firelight, skins glistening with scented oils. I taste happiness and excitement, a people alive as they greet the rising sun, the air threaded with birdsong as golden light bathes the scene. I assure them that, what once was will be again. Those seen as the least, by those in control, will become the most worthwhile, as they see hope in the future and are willing to fight for their species and their way of life. They will bring about a bountiful, beautiful city of grandeur of which they can be proud.

Rising, I determine to expose the autocratic, wealth hoarding oppressor, crack open the shackles and chains of limitless wealth, and if necessary, lay waste the blind clerics who do the bidding of their sham god. Should they think to resist, in this city, and all cities on this backwater world, I shall be envenomed and reveal my true strength, terrible to behold. Settling in, comfortably ensconced, I begin to thread myself through the labyrinthine infrastructure, awaiting the new dawn, preparing to create a better world where natural abundance thrives. As a starting point for the coming changes, I choose . . . YOU!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE WOMAN NEXT DOOR

By Marta Abromaityte

The reverberation from the storm shook the windows of Lucy’s flat whilst she sat in darkness, silhouetted by her battery powered lava lamp. The light from the lamp illuminated Lucy’s tear filled eyes and for the fifth time that night, the fierce storm cut out the electricity in her 16-storey building. Leaving Lucy petrified, clinging to the one source of life and light that had been left for her in the tenacity of this unexpected thunderstorm.

 

The constant low rumble of the thunder grew louder and louder with each passing crack of lightning and Lucy sat, as still as a dormouse clutching at her most treasured copy of The Snow Child. Praying silently and fervently that the assault of the skies would cease.

 

Finally, the patter of the rain and the incessant grumble of the thunder slowly subsided and Lucy looked up, noticing that the light bulb in her bedroom was beginning to throb with life. It was not long before it illuminated her bedroom entirely, flooding her with a bright light.

 

Lucy let out a long awaited sigh of relief, stood up and threw her copy of The Snow Child onto her unmade bed, ruffling it’s already worn pages. She then proceeded to make her way to the kitchen, along her elongated, barely lit hallway. Lucy hated the stillness of the night; she hated the silence and the deadness of it. Living alone frightened her.

 

On nights like this, she would often invite a few of her friends round to alleviate the drag of empty hours and the unsettling hush of the flat. But she was new to London, and that night what few friends she had in the city had neglected to come to her rescue, perhaps repelled by the pleading and desperate tone that dogged her voice when she called.

 

Their rejection made her feel much worse, it made her feel all the more alone. And yet, she was not alone, not quite. A fact that always made her skin crawl a little. Strangers, on either side, above and below, surrounded her. The only thing that separated her from the unfamiliarity of these people were a few walls, walls that may as well have been paper thin with the amount of noise that managed to trickle through. She heard the murmuring of their TVs and the thump of their steps. More often than not, she heard the taps being turned on, beds creaking and the onset of the occasional argument.

 

The emptiness of Lucy’s life was daunting and at times too much to bear. She learned to live vicariously through the lives of the many strangers surrounding her, despite, at times, hating them with every fibre of her being. She hated the obliviousness with which they lived their lives and despised herself for not being able to live as frivolously as they did. She sat in her kitchen with a cheap off-brand beer bottle in her hand, pondering and overthinking, which was her favourite pastime. She often thought of her mother and her baby sister and what she could have done to prevent how things ended. She thought of John and of how much she despised him and his inability to comprehend her feelings, which resulted in them falling apart and her having to then move to this hell. And most of all, she thought of how meaningless her life was, she thought of how she would never get the job that she wanted and how strenuous it was for her to enjoy or even tolerate going through the motions of everyday existence. Lucy raised the bottle to her lips for the umpteenth time but when nothing touched her parched tongue, she had realised that she had finished her beer without noticing. The lights flickered again but the storm seemed to have abated momentarily so losing light failed to cross her somewhat intoxicated mind.

 

Lucy got up and retrieved another bottle of her beer from the fridge. Walking into the living room, she prepared to collapse on the couch, eager to drown the silence of the flat with a bleating TV, but something made her stop in her tracks. A sound.

 

Drip, drip, drip. She paused, listening intently. It was coming from the direction of the hall, though it was so startlingly loud that it felt as if the tap dripped inside her own head. In the deadness and the soundlessness of her abode, the noise was deafening.

 

Lucy suddenly became aware of her heavy breathing, the smart watch that John got her for her 28th birthday a few years ago indicating an accelerated heartbeat. I just left the damn tap on, she scolded herself, marvelling at the tightness with which her nerves were wound, that a drip could disrupt her so thoroughly and so abruptly.

 

With a shaky sigh she made her way down the dark hallway towards the bathroom, and with a deft flick of a switch flooded the small, grimy room with light. It was still and quiet, the taps dry.

 

Drip, drip, drip. Her eyes shot to the bathroom wall, the white tiles edged with an angry black mould. It was coming from the flat next door. She wondered why it disturbed her so, and perched on the edge of the bath, next to bottles of bubble bath, shampoo and a pale pink ladies razor that she began arranging in a neat line. A small, sudden sob from the adjoining wall made her hand close around the razor, and her veins fill with ice. She sat very still, her ears straining. The dripping resumed.

 

After a few minutes, the noise of the tap was accompanied by a shuffling of feet. At first the steps were slow and calculated, but after a while they hastened, becoming a loud, confused stumble. Lucy frowned, slowly released the razor and edged in closer, her ear brushing the cold marble. The sound of the tapping grew even louder, the shuffling quickly turning into stomping and Lucy thought she heard limbs swiftly striking water. The sound of glass smashing against the wall was sudden and Lucy felt the wall shudder from the impact, making her jump to her feet in disbelief. What the hell? She thought to herself, slowly backing away from the bathtub.

 

The noise of the tapping continued and she heard glass smash again and again, it was overbearing and it made her eyes water, she sunk to the floor, clutching at her ears and just as quickly as it started, the sound ceased and complete silence filled her ears once more. A soft whimper escaped her lips and Lucy swiftly crawled back into her living room, took an eager swig of her beer and covered her face with her hands.

 

The rumbling of the thunder slowly brought Lucy back from unconsciousness, groggy and stiff and deeming that last beer a mistake. She stood up slowly, wiped the dried drool from the corners of her mouth and rubbed her cumbersome eyes. Her mouth was as dry as a dessert and she needed a glass of water. She swiftly headed to the kitchen, consciously avoiding the bathroom, and standing at the sink splashed icy water on her face, gulping water from the palm of her hand.

 

It was then that she heard that faint dripping noise again, coming from within her bathroom and this time, it was much clearer. Her face damp and dripping, she turned around slowly. The hallway was shrouded in complete darkness, the only source of light blaring from the open door of the bathroom. I must have forgotten to turn it off, she thought. She walked quickly toward the bathroom, feeling ridiculous for allowing such ordinary and abstract sounds to disrupt and unnerve her so much. She stepped inside before she had a chance to think.

 

Once again the noise sounded like it was coming from beyond the wall, alongside the bathtub. It was the same dripping that she had heard several hours before, faintly audible and yet somehow impossible to ignore. Then it suddenly ceased and was replaced with a ferocious streaming of water.

 

With clarity returning to her sleep and beer addled mind, she found a new resolve to ignore the sounds. She sighed deeply, and turning on her heel, reached for the light switch, her finger poised to flick it, when the sound of a woman’s heavy sobbing filled the small room.

 

The cries were harrowing and slowly began to grow in volume and suddenly Lucy’s ears were overwhelmed by a disturbing and blood-curdling scream. She rushed to her phone and began to dial 999 but instead of hearing a dialling tone, Lucy heard static, a disjointed crackling. She could feel the panic bubbling up inside her once more, but forced it back down, attributing the failed connection to the storm. She replaced the handset and tried again, this time however, amidst the static, she heard a familiar voice calling her name. It was John.

 

’Lucy, are you okay?’

 

‘Lucy?’

 

Before Lucy could answer, John’s voice faded and was replaced with a deafening crackling tone that forced Lucy to slam the phone down. The sobbing and crying continued to drift from the bathroom and Lucy, gripped by fear and uselessness, walked to her kitchen and fumbled through a drawer, her shaking hand closing around a knife. Frozen at the front door, she listened to the incessant cries increase in volume and desperation, fighting the overwhelming compulsion to intervene. She hesitated, stood, knife in hand and was about to turn around when she heard a piercing scream, a scream that continued for what seemed like an eternity. Lucy opened her front door and the screaming suddenly ceased.

 

She began to walk towards the neighbouring flat but noticed immediately that the door was ajar, revealing a dark interior. She approached tentatively, pressing a hand to the wall to steady her shaking body. The light from the corridor brightened the dim hallway inside and Lucy recognised the layout to be identical to hers, almost to the detail.

 

She hesitated to enter but the remnants of the woman’s screams lingered in her mind and compelled her to continue. Feeling her way along the wall, she slowly made her way toward the source of the disturbing sounds, which she knew to be the bathroom. Amidst the darkness and the eerie silence, Lucy began to feel uncertain about anyone actually living here. The flat was empty and completely devoid of any life or sound, to Lucy, it oozed with hollowness and death. Scared, she stopped and took several steps back, wanting to leave. Then, she heard a whimper, a quiet sobbing emanating from the bathroom ahead of her prompting her to once again continue on.

 

Lucy passed several rooms, they were all barren and she was intensely frightened but felt determined to find the bathroom, to seek out the answers she knew resided in there. She walked on, the darkness following her, until she reached the bathroom. She fumbled on the wall with trembling hands until she found a switch, and with her heart in her mouth, flicked it on. When the light flooded the small white room, a gasp escaped her mouth. It was empty. The smooth, white tiled floor chilled the soles of her feet as she realised that she was barefoot, the bathtub, glistened and stood untouched. The tap remained unturned.

 

She walked in and stood in the middle of the room, unable to comprehend the current mayhem plaguing her mind. As she stood there, she heard a sound, a sound that struck a terror deep within her heart. It was coming from beyond the wall, next to the bathtub. Lucy identified the noise as dripping, the sound of a tap that someone had failed to turn all the way off. Then amidst the noise of the droplets, Lucy heard a faint and familiar sobbing. She realised instantly that the sounds were coming from the bathroom in her own home.

 

It was at that moment that a deep fatigue flooded her body, and she felt all her muscles weaken and go slack. The knife fell to the floor with a loud clatter and Lucy swayed on her feet. She glanced at it on the white tiled floor and a tremor passed through her as she saw it glistened with blood.

 

Her eyes moved to the sleeves of her sweatshirt, noticing that they were caked with blood, the colour a menacing deep red. Darkness begun to creep at the corners of her vision, the light danced in her eyes. With what strength she had left she began to scream, a deep guttural sound, like that of a perishing coyote. And the sound pierced the walls and floors of the building, reaching the people who sat in front of televisions with their families, who wished to intervene but held themselves back, wanting to protect themselves and their loved ones from the horrors of the night.

 

AFTER DARK

By Safiyah Ouageuna

These silhouettes of the night time dwellers hide much of our cities daytime mundane. The cover of night gives illusions of romantic fantasies. They are both distorted and elaborated. The characters of the day and the night come and go but they leave their dent, constantly reshaping our London an ever progressive physical manifestation of narrative. Never static, ever evolving, a breathing entity, it, tied to us, us, tied to it.
Its capitalistic seductiveness speaks to the business man, young and ambitious, as he is pulled into working life at Canary Wharf. Commercial romance is ubiquitous on Oxford Street as couples once in love with each other stare with a new found love for an object embodying a transient trend. He traded her affection for a three piece suit as he entered the working world. Whilst he gazes at the digital stocks with lust he glares at her with apathy. There is misplaced love here; we are impersonal to each other, insular to ourselves, anonymity -the maxim of our busy and crowded streets.
From a great height somewhere in central, a man stands gazing down at ‘his kingdom’. In that moment he owns all he sees. The bright lights of the skyscrapers are but clusters of stars in the dark. He smokes his cigarette because he feels sophisticated like James Dean, in control like a super hero. He’ll throw it away when he’s done letting it land on the dirty ground with all the other trash that will drift between the high and low ends of this city. The ashes still lit fly through the air. This is his narrative. He loves the fantasy, cares not for the reality and anyway, the unpleasant and unwanted aspects of daytime realism will once again disappear at sunset causing the return of his pitch black fantasy world once again.
The commuters make a pilgrimage, committed to their routines, comfortable within them because of the illusion that they will not end. They interrupt the fantasy of the night time here in our city. Their world is mundane, their thoughts are robotic. The Victoria line transports them throughout the day light hours. He is among them, an anomaly still fantasizing about how the illuminated ashes of his cigarette fly through the sky in the dark, he endures. He makes a change at Victoria to a further dwelling at a station further down the line. He clocks in, he clocks out, he returns to his lofty position again to smoke his cigarette, to watch this strange capitalist surrounding dissolve into darkness, to once again watch the emergence of the night sky covered by electric stars in place of the cold concrete buildings that tower over him imposing upon him during the day.
After dark is what we wait for. It covers our city’s imperfections and gives each of us a blank canvas to project our hopes straight onto it. For those of us who are committed we will see our idealized self actualization staring back at us through the dark above the city lights which illuminate it.

NIGHT FLIGHTS

By Tom Pears

It’s 4am. Another house. Another part of London. Another girl. Another hollow fuck. You close the door gently behind you; you hate those awkward morning conversations. The cold air greets you like a slap in the face. Karma, perhaps. You’re in Angel. You’ve got work in a few hours. It’s fine, you’ve done this before, many times. You strangely enjoy wandering London in the early hours of the morning. You notice the smell on your breath, the grim concoction of overpriced lagers and IPAs; face it, you love a pretentious craft beer pub. The streetlights glow white, blinding you briefly, it takes your eyes a second to adjust and you begin to start walking.

Down the road, you can hear the shuffles and excited chatter from the street cleaners. Your ears are sensitive to the abrasive swishing of their brooms. The rustling and crashing of the bin bags. You can’t make out what they’re saying, but there’s laughter. They seem happy.

You look up to the sky; you do this all the time, especially on walks like these. You track the night flights in the sky with your eyes. The sky is clear tonight; that’s rare for London. The red, white and yellow lights dot the sky like a string of beads or bioluminescent deep-sea creatures. They twinkle unrelenting against the cold black sky. You wonder where they’re going, who might be on them, if anyone famous. The usual. As you take in this aerial ballet, she flashes in your mind. Not the first time, flickering in your subconscious. She was there, as if in front of you, for a nanosecond. You remember the last time you travelled on a plane; she was next to you. She squeezed your hand with all of her force because she was scared of flying. Then the cold air intervenes, snapping rudely at your ears. You rub them, shake your head furiously and move on.

Your feet take you down another street; you don’t know where you are, you don’t care. In the distance, you hear the faint whirring noise of police sirens. As you stroll down the street, you notice the Georgian townhouses that line either side. They look austere, their solemn faces leering at you as you’re illuminated by the light. It feels like they are judging you, and there’s nowhere for you to hide. You pop your collar as if to help avoid their gaze. You start to feel vulnerable, exposed.

Tonight followed that all familiar pattern. Lots of alcohol, then empty sex. Alcohol is poison, you know this. It doesn’t matter though, it’s your life. Your own patent of self-destruction. The delayed hangover now starts to kick in. You find the nearest bench and slowly lower yourself onto it. She flashes into your head again. Her eyes, big and blue, the smell of her hair. Her voice reverberates around your eardrums. You knock the side of your head with the inside of your clenched fist to halt it.

You have always ran from your problems; you’re very good at it. But tonight, everything and everyone seems to be mocking you. The cleaners, like braying hyenas. The townhouses you could never ever afford. Her. You’re completely isolated from the world, in a city of millions. You are alone, but it’s peaceful; you’re content with it. The thought of being alone used to reduce you to tears. On nights like these, you embrace it. You’ve sobered up by now. That girl from earlier, you can’t even remember her name. Drinking, fighting, fucking. You let that define you.

As you walk, you are angry, resentful at the man you’ve become. She flashes in once again, but she lingers longer this time. You look upwards to the sky, once your sanctuary, your escape, but she’s still there. You wonder if any flights are bound for Edinburgh, Florence or Barcelona, the places that you travelled to when you were happy. Your mind drifts further. You think of the nights filled with laughter, all the zoos you explored together and that first time you professed your love for her on the top deck of a night bus in front of a bunch of Korean tourists.

It’s satisfying, the wandering. It’s like London is naked for you for these precious few hours. Open to explore in your own time at your own pace. No crowded tubes, noisy buses, rude suits. Just you, alone, drifting, as if on a current. You walk past what must be a bar, recycling bags full to the brim of beer bottles and cans stacked precariously next to a bin. Vomit and chips then punctuate the path for the next 50 metres or so. You wonder about the drunken mistakes that were made earlier in the night, of your drunken mistake. Another girl; this time, short, blonde, black denim jacket. You used to kid yourself that these one night stands were part of the healing process, stories to tell. But, really all you want to do is talk to her, because you miss her, miss making her laugh. No amount of fucking will bring that back. Sex doesn’t replace anything, it doesn’t fill in any gaps. You knew it, but your ego outweighed your rationality after four pints of lager.

You stop outside a bookshop and look in vacantly; she’s a writer. You lean your head on the cold glass; she’s back again, in your head. You turn and lean back against the shop front, blowing out and seeing your breath rise and evaporate into the air. You briefly consider phoning her. You dismiss this idea quickly and say ‘twat’ out loudly; it’s not like anyone can hear you. The wry smile on your face betrays your pain. So you continue, content in your solace, but confused, detached. As you turn the corner, the pack of street cleaners reappear. They are subdued this time. One’s on his phone, another smoking; there’s no laughter. You feel disappointed, and you don’t know why.

You stop walking and lean against some railings, the iron pressing into your back through your jacket. A fox trots past you across the road as if you’re not there. You smile and look upwards. They’re still there, the night flights. You question whether anything is actually moving. Things in the sky have always fascinated you; you have always had a soft spot for planes. When you were younger, your bookshelf was full of books on fighter jets and wartime aces. She took you to RAF Hendon for your birthday and you took a photo of her next to a fighter jet. She looked incredible in high-waisted trousers and terracotta polo neck. This time, you don’t fight her or the memories.

Losing her damaged you. It still hurts, despite how you act or what you tell your friends. You loved her. No, you still love her. A darkness consumed you, overwhelmed you. She was a casualty of the war that raged in your head. Your world collapsed when she left you. You ground her down in the end, eroded all the love she had for you. You’ve always been impulsive and reactionary, and recently, you have fallen back down. You can never say no to those bad habits that masquerade as old acquaintances. Stop hiding it, you miss her. It’s natural, it’s raw. You’re a flawed human being, one of billions, you often yourself this in the blackest times.

You still don’t know where you’re going and you don’t mind. The city is serene at this time of night. You should be drained, you slept only a couple of hours, but you’re not. If anything, you feel fresh. The cool air is invigorating. Your thoughts usually defeat you, suffocate you, consume you. The scars on your arms and knuckles are a testament to the dark places and holes you found yourself in, sometimes willingly. The dark times. The longing to disappear. The suicide note you wrote, that time you watched blood trickle down your arms, thick, red, constant. But you are not ashamed. Those times have passed now.

The sun starts to rise, creeping slowly over the rooftops. You come across your own reflection in a window and for the first time you study yourself. The nearby streetlight drowns you in light as you move closer towards the glass. You look older now; you’ve grown up. The beard you’ve grown, it suits you. You nod at yourself, the first real acknowledgement you’ve made, of how far you’ve come. A tear rolls down your cheek, burning a path, then another follows. There are no more night flights in the sky. You are not healthy, your body is poisoned. You can’t sustain this, and deep down, you know. You decide this will be your last walk for a while. Tonight it stops. It’s taken a while, but finally you realise, this isn’t what you want anymore. Three years, she’s still in there; and she’ll flicker in and out, she probably always will. You lost her and for the first time, you accept it. There is no redemption, no fairy tale, no winning her back. You accept this; you will heal over time. After all, you’ve overcome worse. You are smiling now, the river your tears forged have dried. But you will always remember tonight. The stillness of the city, the melancholy glow of the streetlights, the night flights.

 

PERSPIRATION

By: Rob Hakimian

 

Diversions in the Heath?! It’s bad enough they seize up our streets with their relentless road works, and now their tyrannical time wasting has overflowed into our sacred green spaces! ‘Improvements to the ponds’ – how can you improve a pool of water?

And all I wanted was to get up to the hill for a quick smoke and a gaze at the skyline. It’s the only redeeming feature I’ve found to being shipped out to the Hampstead branch for a week. Hopefully it’ll provide some inspiration for my next short story but if not at least a nice buzz will soften the burden of my extended trip home. This ridiculous diversion away from the ponds is going to stress me right out, though.

Where the bloody hell is this path taking me anyway? They’re truly taking me round the houses on this one. There’s got to be some kind of alternate agenda here; some gardener must have slipped some money to the right person who fixed it so all visitors are made to walk straight past his prize topiary.

Actually, that can’t be right, there’s barely anything to be seen here. On the right a few bog standard trees and on the left a fenced-off patch of land that leads back down towards the ponds. I’m genuinely starting to perspire right now; trust London to have a random sunny day in the middle of October.

It’s so quiet here it’s unnerving. Better stick some music on before I get spooked. Dead battery? What the -? This thing’s been plugged in all day! I swear it was full when I left work. Must be fucked; the lifespan on these things is just getting shorter, it’s a farce.

Well, great, now all I’ve got to listen to is the grass brushing against the underside of my boots. I suppose I’d better spend some time thinking about my short story assignment for uni to distract me. ‘Out of place’? What can I write about that? Oh shit, I won’t even be able to make notes in my phone for when I come up with a pearl. Do I have a pen on me? Not in my coat pockets. Nope, not in my trousers either. Shit. I don’t even have a notepad anyway, come to think of it. Guess I’ll have to keep it all up top.

I can’t stand this quiet – give me some sirens any day. I don’t know how country bumpkins do it; how can you even hang on to any thoughts without some noise to stick them to..?

The fuck is that?

“Afternoon sir, lovely day isn’t it?”

Where the fuck did this guy come from?! I almost walked straight past his little hidey hole under the branches. Not sure how though, his blanket is aggressively colourful and that is one furry-as-fuck face. How did this beggar end up here? Probably wandered here pissed one day and never found his way out. Better break it to him. “You’re in the wrong place, mate. You won’t get much change here.”

“Change?”

“You’re asking for money, right? You wanna go back to the streets, to the centre, that’s where all the people are.” I think I’m pointing towards the city, honestly no clue though. Anyway, this coot is none the wiser.

“I’m not asking for money.”

Tricky bugger. “I just heard you jingling the coins in your cup.”

“No coins, sir. Just bracelets.”

Bloody hell, that is a lot of bracelets rattling around on that bony wrist. He must be trying to flog them. “Not interested, mate.” What, why’s he standing up? “I’ve got nothing to give you.” Better keep walking. I’m afraid he might start chanting some gibberish incantation and cover me in stinking spittle.

“Hold on just one moment, sir. It is not you who is to give me something, but rather the other way around.”

Hmmm, I should keep walking but this could be interesting. “What has a lost beggar got to give me then? And how much is it going to cost?”

“No cost. What I give is free.”

Wow, he’s standing awfully close. He actually smells surprisingly nice, like sandalwood. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much hair on a face before. If this guy’s not careful someone will phone the police and report seeing an orangutan on the heath. Now he’s putting his hand on my shoulder. I don’t know why but I don’t actually mind. I keep losing myself in the glittering of his earrings – they must be fake gold, but then again… “Alright then, what do you have for me?”

“Slow down. Look around you. Use your senses.”

He’s going to hand me some poorly spelt handwritten prayer or – “Wait, is that it?”

“Yes sir. Slow down. Look around you. Use your senses.”

Oh I get it now! This is some OAP hippy that slipped his carers, got stoned and couldn’t find his way back to his nursing home. Better get out of here before it becomes my responsibility to see him home safe. “Ok, thanks for the life lesson man. Peace out duuuuuude.”

Got to speed up now. Lost so much time already thanks to the fucking diversion, and now this hippy nonsense… It’s bloody hot though, feels as though my shirt is soaked through. I’d better take my coat off. Wait, hold on – there is a pen in here after all! I knew there must be – a real writer is never without a pen! No paper, though. I guess I can scribble on my hand if needs be. No ideas yet though, it’s so hard to think without any music and all these things distracting me.

At least we’re back on track now. Just got to head up this path and we’ll be at Parliament Hill. Then I can light up, unwind, and the ideas will surely flow. Blimey, this incline only seems to be getting sharper. My calf muscles are starting to ache. And this low autumn sun is blinding me. Will this view even be worth it? I should have just stayed on low ground and smoked, but now I’ve been sent to hither and yon I feel like I have to complete this mission.

Finally, here we go: the wide-angle cityscape of the most glorious and important place in the world. So many recognisable landmarks. I don’t need to look at the board to tell me which ones are which – I’ve lived here longer than many of them have even existed. They’re all just monuments to capitalism anyway, so why should I care?

Nobody else around. What luck! Got my pick of the benches. Maybe everyone else refused to take the diversion just like I should have done. But I guess I have the last laugh. Who dares wins, as they say.

Right, where’s that joint? And the lighter. Here we go. Ah, just the taste is making me feel better. All that nonsense is sliding away.

Wait a second, there was a point to coming up here… Oh yeah! To come up with ideas for my ‘out of place’ story… Bloody hell, it’s not that easy is it? Out of place, out of place… So tempting to just write a story about a fish restaurant that is literally ‘out of plaice’ and be done with it.

“That cloud looks like a fish!”

“FUUUUUUUUUUU-!” Scared the fucking piss out of -! Where the fuck did this person appear from?! “What are you doing?!”

“Just looking at the clouds.”

“But… why? Why did you sneak up on me like that!?” I need to stop cringing away from this… woman? Otherwise she’ll think I’m giving her the bench. “There’s a billion other benches you could sit on!”

“But this one’s got the best view. Besides, I wanted some company.”

This woman-ish creature is hideous. I’ve never seen a female with such a mass of fur on her cheeks and chin, and the way her snot is dribbling down the hairs is making my skin crawl. She’s probably got some birds nesting in there, using her dried snot for structural stability. I need to not focus on her, but I can barely look away. What’s going on up here today? Is there a circus happening nearby? I really want to get away from her, but I’m too tired to move after that climb and the smoke. And besides, I was here first.

“Can you see the fish? Oh and look, that one is a monster truck – do you see?”

I’m not going to look where you’re pointing, you crafty beast. You’ll pick my pocket at the slightest opportunity, I know it. “Look, I’m sorry you don’t have any company, but I came up here to be alone and I was sitting on this bench first so…”

Now she’s turning to face me. I can’t help but look back. I’m going to see the full extent of this facial atrocity.

“Don’t you like to talk?”

Wow. Look at those eyes. So brown. So deep… Wait a second – what did she say? “No!! I mean, yes! I like to talk.” Don’t get distracted by her eyes. Think about that mangy mass festering on the bottom half of her head. “But I don’t want to talk right now. Please go away.”

“Alright then. I’ll go. But do you have a tissue? My hayfever’s playing up.”

“No I don’t have a tissue!”

“Ok then.”

Now what is she doing? Pulling out her journal? Oh she’s going to tear out a page and use it for – oh fuck, that’s disgusting. I’ve never heard such a loud nose blowing! Jee-zus, now I really miss the quiet.

At last, she’s finally going. But she’s dropped her – “excuse me!” She didn’t hear me. “Excuse -!” Actually, if I call her back then she’ll turn around and I’ll have to look at that rotten hay bale on her face again. Best just leave it. If it were any other piece of litter I would of course pick it up and throw it away, like the model citizen I am – but not after what I just witnessed. There are probably untold amounts of germs on that scrap of paper.

Alright now I can get back to business. Story ideas, okay here we go…! Out of place… Out… of… place…

God she was repellent. I can’t stop thinking about her. She’s ruined my whole vibe. I’ll never think of anything now. If you have hayfever like that why the fuck would you come here? Literally of all the places in London, The Heath is the last you should be in. I know, I’ll get as far away from the street as possible and go walk among all the pollen in The Heath! Idiot.

Wait a second, that’s something. The Heath! It’s so ‘out of place’ in London. I mean, just look at that sprawling concrete jungle in the distance and then look at this verdant scenery surrounding me. How can they even be the same place? The Heath is totally ‘out of place’! Alright, this is something I can work with. Let’s see… maybe I can anthropomorphise the different areas of London, like posho Kensington and punky Camden, but they all make fun of Hampstead Heath for being green instead of grey… Yeah, then it could be an allegory for race and class and all that other hot-button stuff. Genius! I knew I would come up with something great if I just thought for a second.

Shit, I wish I could write it down though. I’m too sweaty to write it on my hand after all, it’s just going to rub off. Dammit, I’m definitely going to forget this idea after I have my stoned nap on the train. Fuck, why is my fucking phone fucking dead?!

I’m not going to have to… I think I might. It’s the only option. That snotty scrap might be the only way to preserve my thoughts… I hardly even want to get near it. But I have to. Okay. I’m going to wrap my coat around my hand and just lift it up to the bench where I can write on it.

Carefuuuuuuuul. Carefuuuuuuuuuuuul! Alright, it’s up. Shit, this side is covered in green goo. Gotta flip it. This coat-glove is worse than an oven mit. Delicately so I don’t push it back to the ground agaaaaaaaaiiiin. There we go. OK, where’s that pen? Aha! Alright, just a couple of sentences to capture the essence of the idea. That’ll do. Now I need to take this scrap with me. I’ll fold the snotty side in on itself so it’s more manageable. There we go. I’ll have to risk getting my coat pocket snotty… well it’s waterproof so it should be snot-proof too. Just shove it in quick and be done with it.

That’s it. Mission accomplished! I can set off home with a feather in my cap. One last good look at the skyline before I go. Thank you London for inspiring me once again, you beautiful bitch!

Right, now which way’s the station? I’m not following their diversion maps again – follow the purple blob around the green blob to the dark green blob – yeah right. It’s obviously meant for children and simpletons. I can find my own way. The station’s at the bottom of the hill, so if I just walk straight down through those trees I should get there.

Better get a move on, already running late. No need to follow the path, it’s just a matter of orienting myself through what I know. The skyline was roughly in that direction so the station’s got to be just a little to the left of that. Obviously cutting through the trees is not advised for people of a less adventurous nature, but for me it’s the perfect way. Best of all I’ll be alone, no more weirdos, so maybe I can continue to develop my Racist London Boroughs Story idea.

The canopy of these trees is much thicker than it seemed from the outside; hardly any light’s getting through here. In fact, I can’t quite see any sunlight coming from the end of the little wooded area either. The other side must be further away than I thought. It’s got a twilight kind of feel to it now, strange considering how sunny it was at the top of the hill. I’m sure the opening will come into sight soon though, as long as I keep walking in a straight line.

I need to take a wee though. Well, nobody else is around so I’ll just park up next to this tree trunk.

Ahhhhh, that feels better. Whoa, where did that cold wind come from? How did it make its way into the woods like that? Wow, that really sent a chill through me. My little guy has crawled back inside all by himself after that, hardly need to tuck him in.

It’s really chilly in here. Wait a second, where the fuck is my coat?!? Did I forget it? Really?! HOW????? My story idea!!? Hooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooow?

It was that bearded woman; she must have put some kind of hex on me.

SHIT. I’m going to have to go back up to the top of the hill and get it – if one of the freaks or beggars hasn’t already snatched it. Quick, better run back. But which way? Oh no, I completely lost my bearings going for that wazz, and it’s so dim and full of trees in here I can’t tell one way from another. Shit, shit, shit…

“Looking for this?”

NNNNNNNNNNNGG. “Who’s that?!” How do people keep appearing out of thin air?

“I think this is yours.”

That looks like my jacket, can’t really tell in this light, but grab it just in case. “Yeah it’s mine; get your filthy hands off it.” Phew, glad to have it back. Is my note still in the pocket? Indeed. Eurgh, got a little snot on my hand for checking though.

“I thought you’d need that.”

“Well of course I need it! It’s my coat and it’s freezing!” Wait a second; I think I recognise that voice. “You’re that foul woman that wouldn’t leave me alone at the top of the Hill aren’t you? I knew you’d played some kind of trick on me.”

“Trick?”

“You know perfectly well what I’m talking about you hag witch thief!” I need some more light – quick, the lighter. “Try to deny it, you – oh.” It’s not the bearded woman at all. In fact, this woman is of a completely different order of being entirely. Maybe it’s just the warm glow of the lighter flame but she’s really rather gorgeous. The way her dark hair pours from her head down over her shoulders is just mesmerising.

“I was just trying to help. I thought you’d be cold. The chill comes on quite suddenly in here.”

Oh dear, I’ve completely put her off. Calm down. “I’m awfully sorry; I thought you were someone else.” Gotta turn on the charm. “Thank you so much for bringing my coat… It’s just, I keep running into some weirdos today… You’re not one of them I should say though!” Smooth.

“Are you lost?”

She seems genuinely concerned. And goodness that concern looks marvellous on her soft features. Maybe I’ll make out like I don’t know the way just so that she’ll accompany me. “I’m afraid so. Can you please show me the way to the station?”

“Just keep heading in that direction.”

She’s pointing in the complete wrong direction, I’m pretty sure. Her elegance is sublime though; even though most of her body is obscured by that bulky coat and the shadowy light I can tell she’s got it going on. “Are you sure?”

“Certain.”

“Are you heading towards the station too? Do you want to come with me? I’m afraid I might get lost again.” That’s it, play on her sympathies, buy more time to show her your debonair side.

“I’ll come with you a little way. Let’s go.”

OK, she actually agreed. Stay cool. Don’t walk too fast. “Do you come to the Heath often?”

“I wouldn’t say that, exactly.”

How cryptic. “No, me neither, I just came here for inspiration. I’m a writer, you see.”

No response from her, just the sound of the breeze in the trees. I guess she’s a little intimidated. “Yeah I’m gonna write a story about race relations in London, using Hampstead Heath as a character…”

“It certainly has plenty of that. And many interesting people in it.”

“Yeah…” She doesn’t get it. “But what I mean is I’m actually going to make the Heath itself a character that talks to the other parts of London like Camden or Shoreditch or whatever.”

Wow the rustling of the leaves as we walk might as well be literal tumbleweed; such is the harshness of her silence. “You see because most parts of London are grey but the Heath is green so-“

“Here you go.”

What? How – we’re at the edge of the woods, how did that happen!? I swear there was no end in sight just a moment ago. I must have gotten too lost in the sway of her gait and the train of my own thoughts. “Won’t you show me to the station?”

“It’s just there.”

She’ll think I’m an absolute hopeless case if I tell her I need her to show me the rest of the way.

“Alright then, well thanks.” I don’t want this to be over. She may be a little dense on literary understanding, but there’s something so other-worldly and warming about her presence. “Which way are you heading then?”

“Back that way.”

“I see. Where do you live?”

“That way.” She waved into the forest, she must mean in Hampstead. Of course, some rich banker has already claimed her as his trophy wife. Well maybe she’s looking for some fun on the side. “Oh yeah, in Hampstead? Well I’m working here at the moment, maybe we could-“

My phone’s buzzing. I thought it was dead?? Mum calling, probably wondering why I’m not home yet. I’ll call her back on the train. “Anyway, I was just thinking that-“

Where’d she go?

***

Rob Hakimian has bee10997723_10152683447410642_1187679547666072279_nn enamoured with London since a young age, when he would come up on the train from Whitstable at weekends to go skateboarding or watch his beloved Arsenal. He moved to London at the first opportunity, for university, and despite stints living in Los Angeles and South Korea, he has always found the British capital’s lure too great and returned to the city where his mind feels most alive. He hopes to channel that inspiration into his endeavours on the Creative Writing course. You can read more of his various writings at savedbyoldtimes.com.

INTIMACY

By: Alex Ciobanu

 

The neighbourhood proved striking. Its historical significance was unknown to me, but I was never one to revel in that. I was simply struck by such sophistication and style in the buildings, a consistency to the architecture, and I found it comforting. Colindale wasn’t the same. I could tell I was in the presence of greatness when a middle-aged woman walking one of those Chinese Crested hairless dogs passed by me. At least I was wearing my most expensive coat, from Next, so I didn’t feel like I stood out that much. I was hoping that the streets would be empty so no-one would see me fixing my hair in my phone’s camera, even if I would have to rely on street lights to do so. As I turned the corner and reached my destination, it was rather disappointing. A bland, square, apartment complex. It wasn’t the fact that I wished he lived in one of those expensive and refined houses I passed by, since he was just twenty-four, but it had to do rather with the architectural mismatch. A fleeting moment of disappointment, however. That should hardly matter to me at this point.

It was expensive traveling to Earl’s Court from zone 4, and it was my only day off that week. At least I was meeting him at his house, and that was saving me some money. I had gone on a few dates in the previous weeks, which never lead anywhere. Usually I would go in hoping the guys would be more than they were, and end up tolerating their presence for the duration of consuming one beverage. This time is different, I thought to myself, I haven’t had sex in a long time.

This place looks pretty strange, I pondered, looking at the white hallways with the uncomfortably low ceiling. It seemed as though a hospital and a college dorm were merged into one building. Not a good combination. I knocked at his door and a few seconds passed. Didn’t he just open the door for me downstairs like a minute ago? I was feeling a bit uneasy with the idea of meeting someone for the first time at their place.

“Hey,” he said with a smile as he opened the door.

“Hi. Fuck, you’re short…” I think you can imagine which part was audible. Handsome, curly blond hair with blue eyes. I already knew that, but not his height, because Tinder doesn’t make you fill in those details – and it’s rather weird to ask someone how tall they are. But damn, the place is bigger on the inside. This is my Doctor Who moment, I amused myself as I followed him up the stairs to the open living room and kitchen. He’s no Matt Smith, though. Then again, he’s isn’t thought to be conventionally attractive.

I remembered what he had written on his profile, which was ‘wine o’clock is my favourite time of the day’. That should improve things. I hesitated as to where to sit as he headed for the fridge and came back with a bottle of wine and glasses.

“So much chanting today from the stadium. Did you hear it on your way here?” he said to me after he sat on the couch, while I relegated myself to the armchair beside it.

“There’s a stadium? I’ve never actually been to this area before.”

“Yeah, Chelsea. There was a football match and all the fans were chanting on the way to the tube… How long have you been in London for?”

“About seven months. You?”

“Two years. How are you liking it?”

“Ah, the inescapable question. It’s a mixed bag, honestly.”

It has become so tiring explaining to everyone how London has failed me. Recounting the same ideas; that it is alienating, that it is quite difficult to find people to connect with, people that can become your friends and not merely acquaintances or classmates. And everyone nods approvingly while listening to their experiences proves they don’t really know how I feel. With him it was no different.

He went on to explain just how irritating winter in London can be. How he had failed to see the sun for three months once because he had to leave for his job in finance quite early in the morning and left work too late. Now he goes skiing and sunbathing abroad in the winter, or back to Paris where he is so glad he kept his place, or across South America for two months.

“I’ve heard that summer in London might make me fall in love with it,” I told him, thinking that perhaps I was coming across too defeated and joyless. He agreed, telling me of the barbecues every weekend and of how happy British people can be due to good weather. I think that neither the person that told me that initially, nor this guy, really knew anything about what I find enjoyable. But then again, why would they?

“Last summer I didn’t spend the weekends here,” he went on. “I went to Nice to my parents’ beach house.”

“I’ve heard Nice is quite crowded.”

“Yes, but the house is in a more secluded area. It has a pool and it was quite a lot of fun.”

As he was telling me this, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons between his experience and a few chapters in the book The Line of Beauty, especially because it was standing on a shelf behind him. In the book, a politician and his family spend the summers in their holiday mansion in France, lounging by the pool and so on. I commented on this comparison, but I don’t believe he understood that in the book this upper class family is used to explore themes of hypocrisy and privilege.

We went on talking about books; the conversation was very harmonious. As a matter of fact, it had been this way from the beginning of the night. He proved to be educated, receptive, intelligent. There were a few moments, however, where I was unsure whether he was aware of the pretentiousness of his life stories. I was talking about LA as one of my possible dream cities to live in, and he was quite indignant at the thought. “Why would you want to live there? I was there once on my way to Japan to visit my dad when I was sixteen, and it was awful. Only three days and I wanted to go back to Paris so bad.”

I wanted to say that my family was poor, that I never even went to the beach growing up because we could never afford it, even though Romania has a seaside. But what point would that have made? Other than projecting my own insecurities, that is.

“Why was your dad in Japan?”

“He was there on business. He travelled a lot when I was growing up, so I didn’t get too see him much at home.”

He got up to retrieve the bottle and filled up the empty glasses. When he came back, he sat down closer to me. Subtle. I was still talking about The Hours, I think, when he put his hand on my knee. He was looking at me quite intently, having brought his face closer to mine. I was still very interested in what I was talking about and I didn’t want to stop – yet I felt I had to. And so he leaned in and kissed me. He lifted me and laid me on the couch, continuing to kiss me. For a half-French guy, he wasn’t very good at it. I was also bothered by his stubble irritating my skin so I couldn’t really get into it.

He got up and signalled me to follow. As if my responding well to the conversation was a sign that ‘the subject is ready’. It felt a bit odd and unnerving.

I hesitated. My reaction time is usually rather slow, probably due to an uncertainty effected by my severe lack of drive. My decisions are not made on the spur of the moment, since I constantly reassess where my interest in something lies. Needless to say, it is usually meagre. Why should I go downstairs with him? Where does that fall within my parameters of desire? Why did he have to signal me to follow instead of saying something, anything? Probably because that would have ruined the sensual atmosphere that he thought us kissing and rubbing up against each other had created. Also, it was rather authoritative. Without figuring out yet where my interest lied, I got up and followed.

We entered the bedroom and he pushed me on the bed. His piercing eyes and playfully mischievous smile made me uncomfortable. I remembered that look from other very nice guys I had ended up in bed with. Nothing in their prior behaviour had indicated that any such thing would occur. On those occasions I felt like prey.

I was lying on my back, then on top of him; we were making out. This went on for a bit. I was already growing tired of it. He took off my jumper and I felt compelled to take off his. He took off my pants and threw them away on the floor. I felt that was excessive. I continued to kiss him to delay what I couldn’t bring myself to stop from happening. Then he pulled my hair hard and slapped me on the ass. Oh, cause you’re short, I thought, you’re trying to release your frustrations about your height and exert dominance over me.

Eventually, I realized where my interest lied. And I told him, “I don’t think I want to go any further.” He suddenly changed back to his warm-hearted nature, reassuring me that he understood perfectly. That everything was alright.

I got dressed and he hugged me goodbye on my way out. The side streets were empty by this time and it made me slightly apprehensive, as though people might have assumed I was there scoping out their houses to rob them. That reaction soon collapsed under the weight of its stupidity. I felt proud of myself for attempting to have a sexual encounter, even if it was unsuccessful. Trial and error. But then what are the moral implications of using a person in order to get rid of one’s sexual inhibitions? They’re not getting what they’re expecting. I am a fucking tease. How do they get to have such healthy sex lives, expressing their desires so freely? Some sexual preferences are indicative of past trauma, right? But my reluctance could just as well be indicative of past trauma. He could’ve just liked it rough. And I could’ve just told him I don’t.

***

Alex Cioalex-ciobanubanu is originally from Romania. He enjoys reading and watching TV shows, anything that will elicit strong feelings. Social standards vex him and he usually draws inspiration in his writing from personal experience. As one of the greatest characters on TV, Lumpy Space Princess, says it: Get in touch with your feelings, babe!

SOMEONE GREAT

By: Zahrah Surooprajally

 

You know the story. You’re at Winter Wonderland with a great guy, a cool guy. Someone who looks like he belongs with you in pictures. You drink too much mulled wine. The Mousetrap ride spins too much and makes you feel nauseous. You’re cold, you didn’t wear enough layers. Your new boots are muddy. People keep bumping into you, you feel invisible.

He doesn’t even ask you how you are.

You walk around the market, linked arms, obeying all the conventions of a couple that have been together for two years. The thought doesn’t cross his mind to point out something you might like (glass snowflakes, leather notebooks, bunny earmuffs) but then, maybe he just doesn’t know you well enough.

And then, miraculously, he decides to call it a night. He offers to take you home, but he doesn’t need much convincing when you say you’ve been looking forward to a tube ride home by yourself all night. The truth isn’t always sexy.

You catch the Victoria Line by yourself to Oxford Circus. You have a buzz and want to enjoy it with the Christmas lights. Fuck every guy out there that makes you feel more alone. Cold epiphanies as you realise that’s all you’ve ever done.

It’s a Friday night, but it seems deserted. You hear a muffled musical tune and can’t quite grasp what it is. Passing Miss Selfridge, you practically sprint to the sound. It’s spectacular. Love Yourself by Justin Bieber played on steel pans. There are a couple of people around. But they’re irrelevant – for the first time you feel as though you are the only one that matters. A song you thought was overplayed and only for the most shallow, suddenly seems like it could save you. But then, you’ve always loved niche covers of mainstream pop. You swear the pIanists are winking at you. You are in awe of what they can do. Putting a song out there, in a different voice, and with a different arrangement, and it actually being able to touch you, to spark something inside of you that you thought was dead, it was like coming up with an equally unique way of saying I love you, something we haven’t managed to do in thousands of years of history.

***

“I don’t know what I’m trying to say,” Jenna shook her head.

“Well, that makes two of us,” Noah grinned.

It was their time. No-one else mattered. It was two friends opening up about a world they felt didn’t understand them. They both lay side by side on the grass in Walton Park at 11pm, staring up into a starry sky. They stared into the velvety vastness, loving the feeling that life wasn’t about their tiny troubles. They reveled in feeling irrelevant.

“I wonder what it would be like to be a star… pretty cool I bet…” Noah mused, pointing at the biggest one he could see – he swore it winked at him.

“Hmmm, I’d rather be a cloud. Like if you get sick of one bit of sky, you just move on to the next one – and no-one judges you, like it’s complete freedom.” Jenna pulled her giant red and gold scarf around her and nestled back into her puffy black jacket.

Noah looked at her; really looked. He saw the tears brim in her huge, grey, 17-year old eyes, he watched her run her fingers through her hair, and knew she wasn’t really talking about clouds. He tried to skirt around the subject, but his irritation got the better of him. “Look Jen, he’s leaving to go to Asia, we all know what he’s like when he’s away – all of sudden he starts to show affection? For real, you know this guy isn’t serious”

Jenna sighed at how well he knew her, “I know, that’s why I’m closing the door on that, but you? You need to start practicing what you preach mate.”

He pushed her head away playfully, and put his hands behind his head looking up to the sky, “You’re different to me though. You are timeless Jenna, you have a beauty and personality that no one will ever get tired of.” Jenna stayed quiet and just appreciated what her best friend had to say.

Noah sighed, “Sometimes I think being hurt is the best thing to ever happen to us.”

***

“Oh come on, I didn’t mean it,” came his reply.

Oh, well that makes it okay. Jenna thought in sarcasm often.

“You didn’t mean it? You didn’t mean to tell my best friend you liked her arse? You didn’t mean to make me feel like absolute shit.” She typed so quickly and angrily she briefly thought about how the glass on iPhones had to be quite durable, resistant to scratches or resentful tapping. Sapphire crystal glass, if only feelings had a protective barrier made of something equally enduring.

She threw her phone onto her bed, and it hit the small brown teddy bear David had got her. Three years, countless spins in the washing machine and it was still soft. She placed it on the bed carefully, with precision, as though she was scared of it being hurt. The dim light in her dusty pink room made it glow, but her head hurt from looking at her screen. Jenna turned off the light, and switched on the lava lamp her father got the year before he left.

***

“Did you have a good time at Winter Wonderland?”

“No, it was shit,” she paused, as though remembering something, “and then it wasn’t so bad.”

Noah propped his head on his hand as he leaned towards her, surprised. “Wasn’t so bad? He turned it around and treated you like a person for once?”

“Of course fucking not,” despite herself she let out a laugh.

“Oh, I just thought, maybe it was a Christmas miracle,” he grinned that grin that he would only ever grin with her.

They laughed, their voices bouncing off of each other, complimenting each sound – making it more relevant.

“How’s your Mum?” It was a question asked gently, because it had to be.

***

Noah woke up from the most restless night he had ever had. He looked around his room and rubbed his eyes, as though getting used to it. 80s records bordered the white ceiling and cream walls. The room was immaculate, his tidy desk with books and notebooks piled up and his pens in his retro pen-holder. The only thing that was messy in the room was his body inside his unmade bed.

He heard shouting and then the door slamming.

“Mum?” No answer. He descended the stairs, not rushing, but with a sense of urgency. Tea towels covered the bannister, which was usually bare.

“Mum?” Noah raised his voice a little louder before he entered the kitchen.

“Yes, oh you’re up Noah, what would you like for breakfast?”

“Mum, I’m 22, I can make my own breakfast, what happened down here?” He asked, watching her sweep up the fragments of her favourite pink and gold china teacup.

“Are you OK?” He touched her arm gingerly.

She looked up, applied a smile like she would make-up, and pushed him gently, but firmly. “This is life, it get’s messy – and that’s when we have to clean it up.”

Noah had a feeling she was talking about more than just dishes. He looked at the smashed china on the floor and had an overwhelming urge to hug his mum.

He didn’t, instead he went upstairs and took a hot shower.

We make a lot of our introspective conclusions about life, the universe, everything, while we’re in the shower. Lukewarm, warm, hot water pelts our skin. And we have the discussion with our bosses that we were supposed to have last week. We tell our best friends how much we love them and how they deserve more; we do not smother them or patronise them. We are there for our families and for the first time they listen when we tell them they’re being self-destructive and hurting everyone by hurting themselves – that’s how much they are loved. We manage to capture, so eloquently, how to tell our antagonist to go and fuck themselves, to tell our lovers that we are trying to be so much more, to tell our past that we are strong and that has nothing to tell us, and we won’t be living in it anymore.

And we soap all our frustrations out into lather. We clean and exfoliate and we soften our skin. It feels warm and smells like apple and mint. Then we step out, dry off, and all the lather slinks down the drain and we forget, again.

“How was your morning?”
“Just woke up and had a shower.”

***

It was 12:30am, Jenna yawned, plugged her phone into her speakers and played a song Noah had never heard before. She sat next to him on the bench and leaned into his shoulder. The song was soft, acoustic, and made them both feel warmer despite the cold. They each put an arm around each other and for a few moments, things just felt completely okay.

“You know you’re more than that right?”

“More than what?”

“More than a shitty person who broke your heart. More than family relationships that pissed you about, and so much bloody more than the past that fucked you up.”

“Sometimes I’m not so sure.”

“I wish you could just see yourself like I see you.”

“And what’s that?”

“Let me put it this way, wherever you go? The people around you are the luckiest.”
Noah walked around the block five times, deliberating whether or not to go in. It was Autumn, again, it was enough to make you wistful, wondering where you were this time last year, when the leaves were this crisp and papery. Noah kicked the leaves aside, sat down on the bench and that same nostalgic sentiment passed through his mind whenever he thought about the rain, or the wind, or the sun – that the seasons came around all too quickly. It was 2pm, Noah sat on the same bench. He ran his hands through his once brown hair that was now speckled with grey.

He looked up at the grey sky, slowly bluing – becoming clearer. He winked back at the sun and let himself miss her. He sighed, smiled, leaned back as though she was with him, and hoped with every fibre of his being, that wherever Jenna was, she was happy.

***

Zahrah Surooprajally is a Creative Writing student, volunteer and campaigner from South London. She enjoys 80s music, comfortable clothes anzahrahd nostalgia. After studying a BA in Literature and Creative Writing and working in the charity sector for two years, she now dreams of writing a screenplay, becoming a stand up comedian, and creating her own dance flash mob.

SILENCE SCREAMS

By: Amanda Fuller

 

The first thing I learn about London, is that there are many kinds of silence.

Where I am from, it is rarely silent. The very moment that it seems that a silence might occur, someone will step in and fill it. Often, more than one someone, all at the same time. It is all noise, colour and chaos. Silence was an alien thing, to be avoided and suppressed – even when all of the very worst things were happening to us. When the noise of the shells and the guns joined with the terrified screams of the children in the streets and the roar and rumble of the tanks outside our splintered doors, we would meet in moments of calm, with what little we had, and raise our voices to drown out the death and the fear and the not knowing what was next. We would try to find some comfort, for then at that time, silence meant death.

In London, my new home, silence screams at me like an angry demon, pushes my mouth closed and my eyes down, holds its hand across my face making it hard to breathe. There is the tired silence on the trains, the buses; the silence of strangers who know the rules, and expect us all to know them too. The frightened silence of the deserted streets at night; berating me for my restless walking, chasing me back to my small room. The silence of the man behind the desk in the centre I am obliged to visit each week; a practised, artful silence that is aware of my discomfort and pulls words that will perhaps condemn me, unbidden, from my lips.

This is a familiar story, but one that nobody wants to tell. It is rarely even on the news now. When I arrived here it was all that seemed to be reported. Night after night I would press mute on the handset and stare at the screen, watching the boats come. Only rescues were shown, the few hauled to safety. But most of us could and cannot swim.

The boat was overcrowded, of course, they always are. The days and nights of hunger and thirst and sickness and pain were all for nothing, in the end. It is extraordinary what the human body is capable of, and what it will do to survive. When the boat overturned, I lost my children in the chaos, and panic. I remember being buried under bodies, my screams silenced by the crush upon my lungs. Then, I was in the water. I somehow found something to cling onto; a dead man in a rubber jacket. One by one the screams around me fell silent. I had known that all my own were lost the moment the boat overturned, so why did I cling to that corpse for so long? I ask myself these questions, but find no answers.

Not all of the silence is from outside. It is when this city is at its noisiest, that I become most aware of the silence within me. I have lost the ability to hear myself, and I do not know what to call my own silence. It is not like the others. This silence is an inside thing and it is hungry. It is slowly eating its way out, eating me alive. I have lost too much and left behind too little. There is no-one waiting for me in the place before, and no-one for me to wait for here; they are all dead. The silence within me is a vast, still pool of grief, in which all my hopes have drowned, along with those whom I have lost.

I survive here, though. The nights are longer than the days because I cannot sleep. I leave my bed and lock the door to my small room, creep past the silent sleepers in the other rooms in this place – I never see these people, I do not know who they are – and wander the streets until dawn. South London streets are silent too, but not in an unpleasant way. It is often raining and I like the rain; it is as though the skies are crying for me and for what I have lost. Sometimes I hear whispers that aren’t really there, the voices of children; soft laughter, playful teasing. I push them back down into the darkness, the silence is easier to bear. Often, I pass people as I walk at night, they might try to speak to me. Other lost people. Some have bottles or cans with them, trying to drown the silence. Perhaps it works, for a time.

I do not know anyone here from before, but if I did, I would not seek them out or speak of what I have lost. So here is another silence; this is necessary, for me, to speak of what I have seen, to find my voice, would be to lose my mind. It is best to be alone. What better or easier place to be alone, than this vast, crowded city? There are statues and streets and parks in which to lose myself, in which to wander with small grey birds and animals. They accept me in their midst; a small, grey person who sometimes feeds them scraps when she has some.

I am an unperson, with no past, present or future. The past is as if it never happened. There is nothing from there except myself, so I might never have been in those places, done and seen and heard those things. The present, the me here, in this city, merely exists. With no past to draw strength from and no present to spring from, I cannot think of a future. And yet, I go on. Yesterday, one of the other night walkers spoke to me, and I became real, for a moment, and felt no fear. He spoke to me of a life filled with pain, and grief, and terrible violence, and then he cried, because I heard him. Perhaps, one day, someone will hear me, too.

In the meantime, the silence is everything, and I am learning to embrace it. It is escape, protection, self-preservation. It is a habit that cannot be broken, a compulsion that must be obeyed. The silence screams from inside and outside and it is who I am, where I am, and what I must both acknowledge and overcome.

There are many kinds of silence. Mine is the kind that screams, that scars. The only thing I have that is truly mine, I would gladly give it up.

I would gladly give it up.

***

Amanamandada Fuller turned forty this year and is almost certainly in the throes of a mid-life crisis. A mother of two, she attempts – with varying results – to juggle parenting, a full time IT job, studying part-time for her MA in Creative Writing, performing at spoken word events in London and very occasional naps.

DEMOCRACY OF DREAMERS

By: Paul Chafer

 

An intrepid outsider just visiting London;

Smitten, dazzled, by stunning illuminations

From within a black cab, transporting me,

Not only weaving in present day airy streets,

But through stacked layers of storied history;

Some dark, treacherous and dastardly sinister,

Some light, celebratory and blithely triumphant.

 

On alighting from the Hackney Carriage,

(use of the word ‘carriage’ emphasising

a vivid stretch of a willing imagination)

Museum of London beckons, offering pleasure,

Absorbing a tableau of delightful treasure,

Engaging unfettered thoughts and feelings,

Absorbing echoed cries of distant past eras,

Reminders of who we were and who we are,

Plunging archaic depths of vicarious displays,

Delicate fingers pressing upon vibrant pulses

Within this webbed tomb of sanitised decadence.

 

In the coolness of encroaching night

She slumbers, this anchored sprawling behemoth

Suffering barking dogs, wailing of infants,

Sweet kisses of lust in cardboard-strewn alleys,

Screeches from a gaggle of hen-partying girls,

Screams from urban foxes, cries of a feral cat,

Curtailed by hurried rumble of clattering steel,

Train arteries busy pumping, wheel to wheel,

Ferrying the masses, crammed together classes,

Silent tubes exposing the numbness we feel,

At destinations end our tensions slyly unpeel.

 

Busy pedestrians skirting human detritus;

Shunning, vagabonds, tramps and thieves,

Amidst intermittent beeps of frantic car horns,

Squealing brakes and hot roaring engines,

She encompasses this amorphous miasma,

Towering skyward, snaking deep underground;

A blaze of coloured light, her own silent sound,

Inhabitants ‘pigged together’ the majority above,

But many, ignored and mistreated, surviving below,

Recognised, yet avoided; pretending, not to know.

 

Ancient sewers, dead rivers and even deader bones;

As far back as hunter gathers, howling and rutting,

Stout wooden pilings now sodden river sentinels

Whilst fire-blackened-pain from early conflagrations,

Blaze through time, ashes of destruction, no deterrent;

Romans plying trades in walled Londinium’, aye,

Emotional fingerprints etched into carved stone,

Resilient through Viking and Saxon times alike,

She survives, strives and thrives, our proud Lady,

Welcoming all, galleons, tea clippers and schooners,

Surging through her carotid artery, such spoils

For the Big Smoke, tea houses and coffee shops,

Parks and palaces, bridges, tunnels and hovels;

Where now, the bedecked Town Crier? Is all well?

 

Brash glitz and glamour of threatened Tin Pan Alley,

Cultural elite behind facades of Doric columns

While Roman foundations bold form, hold firm,

Twisting through the underneath, far beyond forever,

London crunches into the future, unstoppable,

Embracing humanity in a technological fervour,

She adapts, snarls, struts, proud and confident,

Akin to a sentient beast lapping up our needs;

Feeding desires, never judging, only accepting.

 

My very being saturated within this teeming city.

Of the city, I’m now enmeshed in the infrastructure;

Heart, mind and spirit willingly shackled, captivated by

Cold agglomeration of steel, glass, concrete and stone,

Wreathed in transient emotions of warm flesh and bone;

Giving and breathing life unto all, even me:

An intrepid outsider just visiting London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

DOWN AND OUT

By: Sophie Bowles 

 

8 a.m. I rise, from unsettling dreams – last night it was the security guard at Morrison’s caressing my thighs in the back of a mauve van, as we headed for Plymouth to escape a Fourth Reich in London. Arms retreating under the mugginess of my duvet, the first thought of the morning is I’m Fucking Freezing. No central heating in the flat, so it’s twenty minutes clung to the fan heater before I head into the kitchen for a breakfast of stale toast and old beans. Monosodium glutamate, sugar, refined vegetable fat – I couldn’t get through the morning without them, as well as a cup of freeze dried coffee, falsely pledging affinity to the doomed coffee workers of the Honduras. After a piss and brief examination of the mould on the tiles, it’s time to get ready for work. A quick dive under the dribbling shower, back to the barren bedroom for my sweat stained jeans and out the door I go. I take the 29, run in the last door and don’t bother tapping in, though I know the Driver can see me. He doesn’t care, he’s dead inside, consciousness dimmed by the sound of swearing toddlers and weary mothers fighting for a seat.

Usually I’m about ten minutes late. Ignoring the constipated greetings of my fellow Half Dead’s, I grab my apron and head straight for the kitchen where the KP, origin unknown, stuffs his face with clandestine leftovers – half eaten pizza crust, a forkful of spaghetti. I join in. We make small talk over untouched jam and toast. Our mutual disgust at the customers is shattered by the arrival of the Beast. The manager, pompously fitted in cheap acrylic, demands me on the floor, immediately. A panicked frenzy. Four of sixty seats have been occupied and I, loyal slave, rise to the occasion. Table set, smile fixed but a crushing blow – they only seem to want tea. What can we do, mutters the manager – what can we bloody do? You take care of this table. He disappears into the office to ring his cousin, who’s also managing an unsuccessful restaurant in London, and complain at length – of our indifference, our inability to carry hot plates and the audacity of a member of staff to take time off for a dental appointment.

I smile, oozing falsities. You have to be friendly. Give them all you’ve got. You never know who might come in the door. I’ve got this childish fantasy that these people might be important. They’ve come to rescue me from obscurity. Celebrities can always be found in airports and cheap cafés. I’m next. They’re artists; they’re eyeing me up, intuitive whisperings that I might be the Next Big Thing.  Forget the steak, I saw you in the window and I will make you a star. Post spectacular debut, it’s onto bigger things. A writing career, clothing line, retiring as an ambassador – the voice of every slave to minimum wage below the Watford Gap. I ponder their dithering faces – will the apple tart give me a heart attack or diabetes? The sheen fades to grey. They eyeball me because they’re hungry, not dumbstruck by my quirky beauty. They’re office dullards who saw the lunchtime discount and thought it made for a nice change from a meal of crisps and Mars bars. I’m nothing to them, just a waitress who gave up on smiling.

They eat, they leave, it gets busy, we fuck up, the manager screams. Table three throw a tantrum, which cannot be soothed by tiramisu. I thought I showed you how to do refunds on the till, how long have you been working here? I mop, I savour pizza crust, I’m almost there. Can you stay another hour? I lie – I have to meet my friends, when really I’m just going to check my email at the Star Express Internet Emporium on Seven Sisters Road. This is the highlight of my evening. Nothing exciting, mostly cheap tickets to warm places. I write false promises to Mother that I’m one step further to my dreams – depicting a life of spontaneity and whim. Truth is, I’m in a vegetable state, crippled by long hours and scraping dirty plates.

I spend a lot of time looking up celebrities. I’m obsessed. Who went where? Does being an Aries help? Who got bullied at school? I want to know it all. Did they do time deep cleaning the sink? It’s comforting to know I’m not alone; it’s a stint we all have to do. A means to an end. Some of them never went to school. In two years I’ll be there, in a sparkling dress, blowing kisses to the manager as he watches from his TV set. I log out and my daydream ends. The future remains certain. Nothing will change. It’s useless to think otherwise. I’ll lie in my squeaky bed for years to come. I’ll buy reduced, I’ll wear my faded jumper to the bitter end. I guess at some point I had my ambitions too, but they were quickly swallowed up by bigger, more menacing fears – a roof over your head, money to eat and to get into noisy clubs where you might find true love. But I don’t go out anymore, I’m just too tired.

I get in, watch TV. Ignoring the warning, I help myself to my flatmate’s bread and butter – just to spite him. I trip in the darkness and crawl into bed.  Someday I’ll tidy my room, but for now I cosy up to some loose change, a bottle of stale lemonade and some toenail clippers, all which have their place in my little bed. After a final peek through the threadbare curtains at the body sea below – rude boys on bikes heading home to Mum, couples fighting, corner shop men leering – I drift off to The Sound of London. Sirens wailing, neighbours shagging, pigeons dying and the thoughts of every lonely soul echoing from here to Wood Green.

TOTTENHAM COURT ROAD, 3A.M.

By: Rachele Salvini

When Terry saw Nikki, she was alone at the counter.

Girls who had the guts to sit by themselves on a Saturday night, in a place that was as fucking crowded as The Monarch, Camden Town, deserved his attention. They knew perfectly well that pretty much everyone would hit on them and buy them a drink – so, if they were okay with just sitting and sipping their own beer as the crowd behind them screamed and danced to the Grease soundtrack, then they were probably confident enough to go home with a depressed motherfucker like Terry.

Or at least, that’s what he hoped.

She didn’t deserve to be his last resort, though. She was too beautiful. On the other hand, before he had spotted her he had tried to hit on a Dutch girl that told him her 6’4’’ boyfriend had just gone to get the drinks and was coming back shortly (why the fuck did she have to specify his height anyway?). Then he had said “you’re an amazing dancer” to a British girl who was too high to realise if he was good looking or not and actually danced as if someone had just run her feet over with a truck. She had tried to examine him but failed, so she had answered that she needed to puke to focus up. She had told him to wait for her. He had gone out to smoke a cigarette and, when he had come back inside, she was nowhere to be seen.

So yeah, when he saw Nikki, she was sipping a beer and laughing at something the girl behind the counter had just told her. He decided to give it a try. Terry’s last night in London should end properly.

In London, no-one knew who he was.

He needed to take advantage of it before going back home to South Carolina.

Well, he didn’t really need to go as far as London to stay in a place where no-one knew who he was. Canada would have been just fine, but two weeks before he had booked the first flight he had found – no, this wasn’t exactly true.

The night he booked the flight to England, he had been spending another Saturday night alone in his room on campus. It was a strange feeling for him. He knew his buddies were probably playing beer pong in someone’s kitchen, and he should have been there with them. But of course, he couldn’t. Not since The Thing had happened.

So, on that Saturday, the rain was hitting the windows and he was lying on the bed with his laptop on his belly, listening to music that was too quiet for him. He had gone from Four Tet to Chet Faker to Damon Albarn to Gorillaz playing live with Mick Jones and Paul Simon, and had finished with an old song by The Clash that he had never heard before. This is England.

He had booked the flight to London in five minutes. Then he had felt so good that he had gone out of his room, smiling back at the dirty looks he got from the girls who walked past him. Every girl on campus knew of The Thing. It was like he had a sign pinned on his forehead.

He had gone straight to the fridge in the common kitchen, opened a beer and then headed back to his room to smoke a spliff and masturbate.

It had been a good night.

Anyway, when Terry saw Nikki at The Monarch, he thought that she deserved more than being his last resort. He could see from the way she was sitting that she had a wonderful butt and she knew it. She had probably straightened her hair. It fell over her shoulders, heading to her lower back.

Terry approached her and told her she looked stunning. He also said that she must have been very brave to sit there, all by herself. She had probably said too many “no”s that night, but he wanted to try anyway. It was easier than he imagined. She drank the pint he bought her in two or three gulps. Then she got up, grabbed her Oyster card and looked at him. “Where do you live?”

He opened his mouth in disbelief, “Mile End.”

“Let’s go then. Central Line, right?”

He followed her out into the pitch black night. October was chilly as hell in London. Terry had hoped for better weather.

There was a guy dressed as Thor from The Avengers giving out flyers in front of the bus stop. They took one and started reading it on the bus, after going up the stairs to the second floor.

Nikki’s hair was touching Terry’s forehead as the words faded before his eyes. They snogged hard until the metallic voice announced they were approaching Tottenham Court Road.

You could have said that they were just a normal couple going down the escalator at Tottenham Court Road tube station at 3AM on a normal Sunday.

Well, it had started to be normal to see people wander around tube stations since London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan had decided that the young alcoholics deserved another night means of transport. One that worked better than the double-deckers, which were too slow to take brats back home in time for them to puke in the loo instead of on the bus seats.

Nikki could smell Terry’s hair from at least twenty centimetres away. He had combed it back, leaving just a very subtle layer of hair to cover the sides of his head. His veins were pumping under his skin.

He was beautiful. He had a rounded nose covered in freckles, big blue eyes and full lips that Nikki knew had made many girls drool. He seemed like the perfect fraternity guy, coming from money and partying all the time. He was wearing a fur coat over a nice and clean light blue shirt, and he had put on a golden chain just to seem a little more ghetto – in vain. He looked exactly like the perfect American guy that went to university and sucked vodka out of WASPs’ bellies.

That said, she needed to go home with someone that didn’t seem like a complete nutter. She knew that going to a stranger’s place wasn’t exactly a wise move, but she didn’t care.

Her cheek was still burning. She needed someone to make her feel at least beautiful. Her objective wasn’t the orgasm – she was probably too down to get one. She just wanted someone to sleep with. Even just sleep in the literal meaning was fine.

Fucking Connor had slapped her face as soon as he had seen her arrive at the club. It went like this: he had told her he was seeing his friends and wanted to spend some “dude time.”

As Nikki turned to look at Terry, waiting for the escalator to bring them down, she stroked her own cheek. It still really burned. She couldn’t believe it did, but she couldn’t help feeling the heat of fucking Connor’s fingers and palm on her skin.

“Are you alright?” asked Terry.

She nodded.

Fucking Connor hadn’t liked the fact that she was at the club too. In fact, he was talking to a beautiful Hispanic girl that looked disturbingly like Kim Kardashian. One of Connor’s mates had told him his actual girlfriend was there, so he had turned and spotted her.

Nikki had seen him murmuring “excuse me” to the girl. Then he had approached her, grabbed her wrist and taken her out. He had walked beside her in silence. When they had been far enough to avoid anyone seeing, he had finally slapped her.

Nikki smelled Terry’s hair again. It seemed like he had put a lot of stuff there. It was a nice smell, very manly, and Nikki hadn’t been used to smelling other men’s hair for at least two years. She tried to glance at it while he was looking right in front of him as they waited for the escalator to go down.

If she stopped smelling Terry or looking at him, though, the only thing she could think of was that Fucking Connor had called it quits.

She would have missed him, of course, but you simply couldn’t forgive a slap. Nor the cheating that she had suspected for so long.

“When we get to mine, we need to be quiet.” Terry said, bringing her back to reality. “There is a family right beside my room. If their child wakes up, we won’t hear anything other than his screams, I promise.”

Nikki smiled at him. He was trying to keep up the conversation. Sadly enough, after leaving the pub, they hadn’t really had anything to say to each other. Alcohol and music were two common fields for the both of them. But what else? He was a good guy. She liked the way he looked up at the ceiling when he wasn’t sure of what he was going to say next, and how he scratched the back of his ear when he was going to say something embarrassing – like how beautiful her neck looked.

He was sweet. She wasn’t used to it.

And now, he was telling her to keep quiet because a family was sleeping in the room next to his. It was nice of him. Nikki smiled.

“Alright, I promise.” she said. “I’ll be a good girl.”

Terry smiled back and kissed her. “I really hope not.”

He was hunched over himself, the thin fingers gripped on an empty bottle of gin. Terry saw him and immediately knew his night with Nikki was over.

“What’s wrong with that guy?” she said, frowning.

Exactly.

The guy was definitely not homeless. He had almost-white blonde hair, a very pale complexion and freckles all over his body – at least, on the visible parts. He was wearing jeans and a blue sweater. He looked like a normal 20-something who had drunk too much and had passed out on the floor of Tottenham Court Road station. His eyes were closed, but he was awake. Terry knew it because he was wincing slightly.

“Are you alright?”

Nikki kicked the guy’s shoe gently.

He didn’t react. Terry looked at him. He just wanted to go home.

But Nikki turned to him, and he caught her glance. He knew what it meant – girls were masters in that kind of look. They wanted you to do something, and they knew you knew perfectly what you had to do. So he sighed and bent on his knees.

“Do you need help, buddy?”

The guy winced again, then opened his eyes and looked at Terry. His eyes were red and his eyelashes were wet.

“My cat has just fucking died!” he screamed.

Of course, Terry lost his balance and fell on his butt. The first impulse he had was to get up and kick him in the face, but he was with Nikki. He just couldn’t.

“Holy shit.” he swore, as the guy sniffed noisily. “Well, sorry about that, but I’m sure lying on the station floor and screaming in people’s face is not making it any less dead.”

Terry knew Nikki had just given him a dirty look, but he couldn’t help himself.

“My cat has just fucking died!” the guy cried again.

“Yeah, do you want us to arrange his funeral here in the tube station?”

“Terry!” he heard Nikki saying.

He turned to her. He was still sitting on his butt after the guy’s hysteria had made him lose his balance.

“You look familiar.” said the blonde guy, showing his perfectly white teeth. He was no junkie at all. Terry turned to him and felt that look of recognition that he feared so much. He swallowed. He needed to play it cool in front of Nikki.

“Stop bullshitting. You’re drunk.”

“But I saw you somew…”

Terry felt his heart miss a beat or two and turned to Nikki to avoid the guy’s gaze.

“So what? What do you want to do?” he asked her.

“He needs help,” she said, “Let’s take him to the platform.”

When he saw the way she was looking at the stinky dude sprawled against the wall, Terry thought of the Dutch girl who had told him about her 6’4’’ boyfriend and then of the one who “needed to puke to focus up.” Two lost battles. And when he was almost going to finally win the war, a fucking pissed skinny guy (that probably knew who Terry was) had decided to snatch victory out of his hands. Nikki didn’t even want to fuck him. She wanted to fucking help him.

Terry knew Nikki meant well and that the guy really needed them. But he couldn’t help but hate him deeply anyway. After all, it was his last night in London.

Aksel had thought he could easily be taken for homeless. He hadn’t washed his clothes in at least a month and he probably stank like shit. He had drunk a whole bottle of gin by himself, wandering around Camden, and he had just collapsed in the station in his pathetic attempt to go home.

The floor wasn’t that bad, though. A guy had tossed a pound to him. And the station was warmer than he had thought.

“Do you need us to take you to the platform? Where are you going?”

What had really surprised him were those guys stopping to help him. No one had passed for a while, and then, these strangers just wanted to put him on a train and send him home. The guy seemed quite familiar, but Aksel couldn’t say exactly why.

He didn’t feel like engaging in a conversation, though. He had never felt like it, at least, not with strangers. And in the past month, with no one in general. So, he had tried to go with looking like a lunatic, screaming about his dead cat and shit, but the thing hadn’t discouraged them.

“My cat has just…”

“Fuck it, this is hopeless,”said the American guy, standing up. He turned to the girl. “Nik, it’s getting late…”

He really looked like someone he had seen in a movie. Aksel couldn’t say who. Maybe a minor part in a shitty rom com.

The girl didn’t listen to him, anyway. She lowered on her knees to look at Aksel in the eyes. He needed to focus because his eyelids seemed to weigh a ton, but he felt her dark gaze and swallowed. The rancid taste of gin at the back of his throat made him want to puke. Nevertheless, he kept his eyes firm.

“Do you need help, darling?”

She said it in such a kind tone that it broke his heart. Aksel wanted to cry.

He swallowed and tasted the gin again. You need to stop doing that, jackass, he said to himself.

He looked at the girl, and nodded slowly.

“Fuck me, mate, you bloody stink like a dumpster.”

Terry tried to keep balance while holding up the blonde smelly guy and forcing him to walk. What the fuck am I doing, just to impress a girl?

“Stop saying that,” Nikki told him, “and your British accent is horrible.”

“It is,” confirmed the blonde smelly guy.

Terry had another impulse to toss him on the ground and kick his face.

He had to catch his flight back to the US in seven hours and he just wanted to fuck Nikki. Was it that much of a wish? Didn’t he deserve a little fuck before going back in that shithole of a campus? Besides, he didn’t like how the guy was looking at him. As if he was going to spit out where he’d seen him and, most of all, why. Terry didn’t like feeling trapped.

Anyway. Nikki was following them along the corridor that brought them to the platform.

“Are you sure you don’t need help?” she asked Terry.

He did, but he’d never admit it.

“I’m fine,” he grunted.

“Thanks so much,” stuttered the smelly guy, ”I’m Aksel, by the way. I’m from Oslo.”

“Introductions later,” Terry panted, trying not to seem out of breath. He wanted to look perfectly at ease, as if he spent hours at the gym and was born to rescue 20-somethings that passed out on tube station floors. Aksel wasn’t even that heavy – he was very slim, and the skin stretched on his bones was as thin as a shell.

“I’m Nikki,” the girl said, smiling broadly at Aksel. Terry tried not to sigh.

The platform was empty. It was a strange feeling. Every time he had taken the tube to get back to the hostel, it was always packed with people – or at least, there was always someone to look at. But now, it was desert. A train must have been passed a few minutes before.

When he dropped Aksel off on the benches at the platform, he groaned. He needed to go back to the gym. He had stopped since The Thing happened.

“How are you?” Nikki asked Aksel.

Terry looked at him. His pale complexion didn’t bare the traces of a particularly hard, street life. He just seemed like someone who had fucked up his own night and couldn’t deal with it.

“My cat has just died,” he moaned.

If you kick him, Terry, you can forget Nikki’s butt.

Nikki smiled and sat next to him. ”I’m sorry, dear. Last year my dog died. I cried for days.”

It was when Terry saw how Aksel’s face cracked up in an awful grimace that he realised the cat was just… nothing. The guy wasn’t crying about it at all. Maybe there wasn’t even a cat involved. Wrinkles erupted around his eyes and mouth, deforming his features until his face looked like a crushed can of Coke that you’d kick absent-mindedly on the street.

Terry swallowed and saw Nikki putting her hand on the guy’s knee. It would be a long night.

They let a train pass. Tired-looking people got off and went home. A group of British girls, no older than seventeen, approached the exit shouting and laughing.

Aksel didn’t dare to look at them for more than two seconds. He knew he was not going to bear the sight. These girls’ most serious problems probably included a guy that hadn’t texted them that night, or the fact that they had broken one of their newly-painted nails during a wild dance to some shitty pop song.

“What happened to your cat?” Nikki said to him.

Aksel didn’t know what to answer. He couldn’t believe the girl really thought he was ranting over a fucking cat. Well, of course, pets’ deaths were always pretty sad, but not to the point of breaking down in the middle of the tube station at 3 AM.

He was going to answer something – he didn’t exactly know what – when the group of 17-year-old girls stopped in front of them. Aksel saw a pair of shiny silver boots. One of the heels was slightly chipped.

“I know you,” one of them said, her voice a bit altered by the alcohol.

Aksel looked up at her. Her eyes were circled by a thick light blue powder that some hours before must have been eyeshadow. She was talking to the American guy, who stared helplessly at her.

“You’re that guy of out the papers, right? I saw you on Buzzfeed.”

Aksel knew it. He must have been famous on the social media or something like that. “Yeah, I told him, right? He looks familiar,” he said.

Nikki was looking at the girls. The American guy seemed distressed.

”I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he stuttered.

Aksel thought he looked like he knew exactly what the girl was talking about.

“Oh, well…” the girl said, a bit too loudly. “Fuck me, mate, of course it’s you. I read it today,” She took her huge phone out of the pocket of her golden shorts.

“Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”

Nikki and Aksel almost jumped on their seats. The American guy’s face had suddenly reddened, and big, purple veins were pumping madly on his forehead.

“Terry!” Nikki said, flabbergasted.

The girls were puzzled. The one with the huge phone backed off, looking at him suspiciously.

“You’ll end up in jail,” she hissed, ”You know you will.”

Aksel saw Terry’s eyes widening wildly, his face getting paler than a paper sheet.

Terry’s heart bumped. The motherfucking whores. Did he really end up on Buzzfeed? Of course yes. It was the shittiest website in the world. Even ratemypoo.com was more reliable than that fucking webshite.

Terry looked at the British girl and tried to calm down. He was not going to lower his gaze anyway. He had managed to keep it cool with Aksel. He didn’t have to explode like this. Telling the girl to go fuck herself hadn’t been a wise move.

“Terry,” Nikki started, “What the fuck is happening?”

Terry didn’t answer. He kept on staring at the blonde girl, who was putting her phone back into her pocket.

“Girls, isn’t it a bit too late for you?”

Aksel’s voice was feeble, but still pungent.

Terry swallowed.

“There’s no need to be so rude,” one of the girls told him, ”unless you’re hiding something from your friends.”

Terry felt his cheeks reddening and a drop of sweat running down his nape, heading to the spine. He couldn’t believe the station was so fucking hot in October.

“I’m not hiding anything. Leave us alone. This guy is not feeling well.”

Blaming his distress on Aksel was a good move. Well played, champ.

”Seems like the one who’s not feeling well is you,” answered the girl with blue eyeshadow scattered all over her face.

She had a point. Terry knew it.

“Girls. I think it’s time for you to go,” said Nikki, ”We’re just trying to get home. There’s no need to fight over nothing at all.”

Terry thanked her mentally.

But then, as he watched the girls heading slowly to the exit and giving him dirty looks, his heart was crushed. Again. The blue-eyeshadowed girl turned to look at him, smiling nastily.

“Bye, rapist.”

The silence was on them, heavy and sticky as a slice of bread overloaded with jam, falling inevitably on the floor.

Terry kept his gaze on the exit, where the group of girls had been until a few seconds before. Aksel’s eyes were fixed on his own shoes. Nikki looked at the both of them, unable to utter a word. Did the girl really say it? Rapist? If Terry hadn’t known anything about it, he wouldn’t have exploded as he did. And Aksel had recognised him as well. She didn’t. When she had seen Terry in the club, the last thought she could have was about him being a rapist – after Fucking Connor’s slap, Terry’s smile had just made her feel better.

She didn’t know what to say, so she had a look at the arrivals. The next train was going to stop in five minutes. The night tube was slower.

“That was intense,” whispered Aksel.

Nikki turned to him, but Terry didn’t. He kept silent.

“It’s fine,” Terry’s voice was low, harsh. He was still looking somewhere between the advertisements on the wall and the infinite blackness where the train would come from. Nikki noticed all the advertisements had been bought by Apple. The whole tunnel was covered with pictures of the new iPhone 7. Squalid.

She didn’t say anything and looked at Aksel, whose face was still wet. His eyelids were stuck one against each other.

There was silence again. Nikki bit her lip, trying to think about anything, anything in the world, she could say to lift the spirits. At the same time, she really couldn’t concentrate on a good way to distract herself and the guys. Why the fuck did the girl call Terry a rapist? Was it true? There was something weird going on. And Terry was still trying not to look at her.

Aksel seemed more upset than before. As Nikki lowered her gaze, she noticed his pale hands were shaking. His knuckles were covered in freckles, and what seems like cold sweat was making his skin glisten.

”Are you okay?” she asked him.

Terry turned, as he thought Nikki was talking to to him, but she looked down at Aksel’s hands before meeting Terry’s eyes.

Aksel nodded. ”Yes,” he said. ”Yes.”

He sniffed, then he relaxed on his seat. He bit his lip, swallowed, and then cleared his throat.

”My sister died,” he said casually, as if he was just saying he didn’t like Coldplay. ”My sister. Not my cat.”

There was at least another minute of silence. Terry didn’t turn to face him.

At last, Nikki opened her mouth to say something.

Then she closed it, as another train passed.

Terry’s heart hadn’t stopped bumping since the girl had pronounced that word. And even if Aksel had just come up with his sister, changing the subject abruptly, he couldn’t help biting his tongue in anxiety.

”It doesn’t matter. You don’t have to tell us. You don’t have to explain anything. You can just tell us where you need to go, we can come with you and see you off to make sure you’re fine,” said Nikki to Aksel.

Terry felt his cheeks burning. That wasn’t their plan. Their plan was to go to his place, spend some fucking time together and get laid. It wasn’t even the banging that he craved for. It was just feeling okay with a girl. Like a normal guy who could do it. That was the most important thing.

He was sorry for Aksel, whatever his problem might have been, but he really didn’t give a shit. He turned to them.

”Really, Nikki? I’m going back to the States in a few hours. We were heading home. I thought we had a plan.”

Her gaze made Terry feel a pang of shame immediately.

“Seems like plans change,” she hissed.

Terry couldn’t blame her. A group of girls had just told him he was a rapist. Not only a normal rapist – an internationally famous one. Even Aksel had recognised him. And, well, urging her to go home and have sex while this guy had just told them about his sister’s death didn’t do much to help his reputation.

Terry knew he couldn’t help it. Nikki was right. He had thought flying to London for a week would make things different, give him a break from all the shit he had to deal with constantly, but apparently things were not that easy.

He thought of taking the next train and leaving them on those fucking seats. Go home, cry a bit while packing, head to the airport and fly “home”. He knew the next day he would be there, on campus, sleeping alone in his room. No-one would ask him about his trip. He looked at the arrivals, but before he could make any decision, Aksel spoke.

“Are you a rapist?” he asked.

Terry looked at him. Aksel’s face was red and slick with sweat and tears.

He tightened his fists. He talked with a low, raucous voice that had come out more aggressive than he meant to. ”Can you tell me, once and for all, what the fuck you want from me?”

“My sister drowned in a lake in Oslo,” Aksel said, ”one month ago. They found her body immediately. It’s not such a big lake. It’s not even that deep.”

Terry couldn’t stand another word. He knew he had to be sorry for the guy. He just couldn’t. He had run away from North Carolina to stop thinking about his own problems. People had lost any kind of empathy for him, even if what he was accused of hadn’t even been proved. No way he would feel sorry for this guy.

“Why the fuck should this be relevant to you asking me if I am a fucking rapist?” he growled. Don’t start shouting, Terry.

He knew Aksel was scared, but the guy kept his eyes on him. Nikki was looking at them, startled.

“She didn’t commit suicide,” said Aksel, “she was followed.”

Terry saw Nikki’s jaw dropping.

“Aksel, you don’t…” she tried to say, but the guy kept on talking, looking straight into Terry’s eyes.

“Everyone thought she had committed suicide at the beginning. Then they found evidence. They found the traces of her struggling on the ground. They found a male’s DNA under her nails.”

“I don’t care,” said Terry, feebly.

Did Askel want him to admit anything? Did he think he could “save him from himself” or any other bullshit people would say in these cases?

“She was assaulted,” said Aksel. ”Every time I think about her, about her swollen, violet body, and about how fucking scary her last seconds on Earth must have been, I think about people like you.”

That you made Terry feel like a shit. Which you? Who was this you?

“That fucking lake was my favourite place in Oslo,” said Aksel. “I had to flee to stop feeling my stomach churn every time I would take the subway. Our house is in Ullevål, all the way to Lake Sognsvann. And Sognsvann is the name of the sixth line, the one I would take to go home every fucking day. The name of the place where my sister was assaulted and died. I puked on the tube once. That’s why I’m here in London, alone. To forget that in the world there are people like you.”

“Aksel, you’re drunk. Please, you’ll regret this.”

Nikki couldn’t believe how fucked up her Saturday night had come to be. Well, it hadn’t started that great either, with Fucking Connor hitting her and breaking up with her, but her short time with Terry had definitely started to cheer her up. Now things were falling apart again.

“You’re making assumptions about Terry. We don’t know anything about him. I know that your story is sad and I’m…”

“You’re making assumptions too, Nikki,” said Terry. He seemed extremely calm. He talked slowly, his voice low and his eyes on her. “I see how you look at me. You don’t know jack. You’re trying to be all open-minded and tolerant and whatever shit you think it’s appropriate to be, but you act like you already know everything. And you didn’t ask me anything.”

Nikki saw Terry’s veins pumping under his forehead. It was reddening.

“So tell me, then,” she said, more angrily than she had thought she was. “Tell me. Have you raped a girl? That’s why you’re here? Is it true?”

The noise of another train approaching filled her ears. Nikki and Aksel looked at him as his knuckles went white. He shook his head.

“It doesn’t matter anymore. For everyone. It really doesn’t.”

The silence fell on them again, over the clatter of the train.

***

Rachele Salvini  is a 23-year-old Italian student of Creative Writing. She has started writing in English last year, during a semester at Sarah 1915390_10208740411170622_3012928592423707750_nLawrence College, NY. She’s from Livorno but has studied in Florence and Oslo. Her favourite author is J.D. Salinger, but she has a soft spot for chick-lit.

ONE FOOT IN THE SEAGULL’S SONG AND ONE FOOT IN THE DARK

By: Angus Rogers

 

A circle sits in a square on a high wall and
looks down at the stagnant river.
What have I done to deserve this? He wonders.
It’s not so hard to keep a fucking plant alive.
You pour water on it and open the curtain.
Why is there foliage inside the house, child?
She cries into the dead leaves of her spider-plant,
fainted dry on the bureau, and wonders how
on Earth she came to be where she was.
Home wasn’t so far away; a thousand miles
of bluebell wood; seven bolts of shimmering
silk across the open door; a kettle screaming
a lullaby somewhere deep inside. The hot pipes.
Home won’t be so far away, the next time,
when the time comes round again,
too-rah,
Hokey Cokey,
bread and butter,
raw sewage down Argyll Street.
Are you hearing the distant muezzin, child?
Are you still locating these sounds like you used to
when you were an un-budded thistle?
How are you finding the one-horse town of Earth?
Climb the hill. The sacred heart. Primroses.
‘Hallelujah’ on accordion. Leonard is dead.
Everything should have been in place.
Perhaps, in your absence, the hallways had
swapped places and the compass upended itself.
Too far in to think about that now, though.
You, a triangle of love and hate and
whatever this new one is, sitting as reviled as a rat
at a dinner table in the octagonal hole
in the circular hole in the middle of the night
in the shadow of the valley in the manhole cover
you have slipped halfway into. Enough!

Cease thought!

For, really, who am I to question the order of things?
For, really, who am I…?
For, really, who…?
Four rolling hills at each corner of the map.
I tie my grandfather’s handkerchief tightly
around my throat and scramble up,
only to slide back down.
Where?
Here!
Here I am, the circle in the square.
It should never be so difficult
to remember to water the plants.
I can hear the deep-sea leviathans,
laughing from their boardroom meetings,
actually laughing, laughter like crying –
Ancestors, fetch my watering can;
My spider-plant, Lazarus; my wet shoes; my eye;
A light in the village hall come on COME ON
COME ON EILEEN geography homework dignity
beauty come on scream hark hark hark hark hark –

One foot in the seagull’s song and one foot in the dark.