Issue 8

Snowflake

by Namya Naresh

Gravitation and gratification, ruled their bodies

like pendulums they swung, back and forth

The lines of the city were masters of their souls.

The lines of the city were the creators of their homes.

Redundancy, hypocrisy, autonomy

‘What’s mine is yours, Honey!’

They lied to one another.

‘Life is good,’ they lied to themselves.

The darkness in which the city now lived

harboured, haggard, almost killed

the joy of the sun and the magic of the soul.

Their warm bodies were their only familiar home.

Every sunset pulled on their heartstrings

for every sunrise meant another day had begun.

She grew older and he grew sadder.

An empty nursery and elegant mourning.

At the very end came the snow, radiant and pure

a blanket of white upon the darkness below

with it the light of a new day, warming hearts with its cold,

whispering new beginnings into the lost and forlorn.

She awoke to a new world that morning. A pure world. At least on the surface. While she lay in the comfort of her dreams, the snow had tucked the city in a blanket of white. As she looked out the window she saw that her big city had finally become the snowy English town she had always dreamt of. With it’s white rooftops, salted trees and cushioned roads. After months of slowly losing the magic of the city, it was rich and luscious around her again. She ran down and soaked it all in. She touched the snow on the floor that turned to ice as her warm hands gripped it tight. She could feel it inside her. Pure happiness.

But the sky slowly lost its light the snowfall began to stagger and soon its crystals stopped plunging from above. As the invisible sun began to set, the snow began to melt and the magic slowly weakened.

She closed her eyes, felt the last of the snow on her face and held on to the magic of the moment. For fear that, if she kept her eyes open for too long, the magic might disappear and it would all be just tedious snow like it was for the Londoners bustling around her. That afternoon, as darkness took over the city the purity washed away with the rain as though it had never been there in the first place.

Freedom Train

by Bob Boyton

1

The hostel want more ID off me than old bill need to put you away for three years but I
tell ‘em I’ll be a good boy and get loved up with my key worker in the morning so they
book me into a double.
After that they keep me hanging around for a couple of hours then they give me the
room key tell me to go up to 39 on the threes.
When I get there I knock on the door, out of politeness, ‘new bloke here mate.’
The door opens and I walk in.
I see a black guy in his early thirties sitting back down on his bed along one of the side
walls.
My bed’s along the opposite wall.
All he’s wearing are a pair of black boxers and flip flops. I can’t help noticing plenty of
muscle on his upper body, looks a bit like a middleweight I used to know.
He’s looking at me the same way I’m looking at him, neither of us with any ‘ag, just
checking each other out.
He could be an ex fighter who’s kept himself in shape.
I say ‘Hi.’
He leans forward half getting off the bed and shoves his hand out, either he’s relaxed or
he knows how to pretend.
‘Fitz’, he says.
I shake his hand, ’Ray’.
I notice his eyes, yellow and brown, hardly any white, like a cat, must be contacts, good
if you get ID’d, you can take ‘em out.

2

I sit down on my bed, half way along it. The sheets are whiter than I’m expecting and the
bed’s a lot softer. I feel relaxation spread its way from my arse down to my boots.
I rub my face.to try to get rid of the tredness.
He seems alright so far but I wish he wasn’t there so I could just crash out. After the
kickings I’ve had today all I want to do is go to sleep, be grateful I’m not in lock up and
start thinking again when I get up in the morning.
He says, ‘shut de door mon.’
As I reach forward and shut it I see a short brown plastic stool that’s been hidden
behind it on Fitz’s side of the room, on the seat of the stool there’s a round shaving
mirror, five or six lines on it chopped up and ready to go.
Fitzy half sits up again, sticks his foot out and hooks it round the stool to drag it over so it
ends up between us.
He’s sitting up now, almost opposite me. I’m looking down at the white, thinking he’s
playing chess, that could be anything, all ready for him to get someone up, fuck ‘em up
or take the piss.
We could be back on a poxy landing somewhere, only in here he can be more blatant
with his gear.
I can’t think of a move, I’m so tired the top of my head’s coming off.
He almost shouts, ‘ousewarming innit.’
He can see I don’t know what comes next.
He chuckles, ‘you tink it’s poison?
‘Let me show you mon,’ he takes out a twenty pound from under his pillow, does a line
up each nostril.

3

I’m looking at his face as he comes up from the mirror, watching for the quality of the hit,
thinking I’m behind with him already, but hoping the stuff’s rubbish, then seeing his face
telling me it’s probably primo which drops me further behind. It’s three or four years since
I did some but I used to love it a lot and watching him I’m hungry for it again, full of
wanting to blast off and forget meself, besides a line of that I can fight him all night if I
have to, even if he’s the one knows the dance steps right now.
He breathes out and gives me the twenty, ‘Is good stuff mon.’
I look at those eyes that aren’t their real colour, then in my chest it feels like surrender as
I bend down to the mirror and throw my three months AA out of the window.
I do a line and the rush is a rocker, freezing my brain until I can talk again.
‘Yeah that’s good Fitz,’ and then I’m going like I’ve never been tired.
‘Yeah lovely, and know what, I haven’t even had a drink for three months, that is good.’
‘Knew you’d like it mate,’ he says.
That’s about the last word he gets in because now I’m on one, telling him about the pearl
diving, getting back from the job at two in the morning, having to go out for a run, three
or four miles, almost like roadwork in the old days, just to tire myself out, because
otherwise the walls are going to come in at me, then I start the story at the beginning
how I used to think I was going to be middle weight champion of the world and where I
ended up with that.
Fitzy chops up a few more,
I’m saying, ‘You’re about the first geezer I’ve talked to since I got out.’
Fitzy gives me a smile.
I feel like I haven’t been warm for about a million years until just now and I wish I could
explain it to him.

4

I’m trying to make my mind up whether it’s a good thing to tell him about the passport
and having to have it on my toes when he says, ‘yeah knew you’d been a fighter soon
as I see ya, teef as well innit, I sees you I reckon plenty a porridge, just like me. Tell
you bout my last lot, seven months remand in the Ville, my brief reckons I’m on for a
bender goin to walk it, I said only one doin any bending is me in some other geezer’s cell
and I don’t like it up the bottle. Then I get three years sentence, after I’ve been nutted off
he don’t say anything to me at all, can’t look at me in the face.’
I say, ‘Yeah, like most briefs mate, everything’s cuntish.’
Fitzy chops up a few more and now we’re both going.
Nicks we’ve both been in, what happened to a geezer who tried to cut him in Leicester,
five days I done on the block in one place, all about the diesel treatment because
keeping on getting moved from one nick to another is better than grassing.
I don’t even know how long we’re talking because I’m in the time tunnel but I know we’ve
talked loads before Fitzy has to go out.
He stands up, puts on a pair of black joggers and tucks a money belt down inside them,
Help yourself, be appy,’ he says nodding towards some more he’s cut up on the mirror.
‘Bitta business’ he says as he goes.
I don’t even really want any more coke, but without him the night’s gone a bit cold so I do
another couple of lines.
Ten minutes later he’s back, with a Tesco’s bag he didn’t have when he went out.
A minute later there’s a knock on the door, I look at Fitz and down at the mirror, to say
‘shall I get rid of it’ but he says, ‘safe mon,’ and gets up.
When he opens the door it’s one of the crack heads I saw in the canteen, the way he
looks at me he thinks I’ve stolen his train set, sold it for smack.

5

‘Dahn the corridor mate,’ Fitzy orders him.
He goes out after him, then comes back on his own about a minute later.
For the next half hour it’s like rush hour on the tube, I even hear Fitzy outside in the
corridor telling them to line up properly and keep the noise down.
That finishes and he comes back and gets another wrap out of his pocket, shakes it
gently onto the mirror and does the business.
I’m wondering where he’s put the money, in his pocket or the Tesco’s bag he’s slung on
the floor then I remember the money belt.
Now he’s going top speed, all about boilings he’s seen in Highpoint except he calls it
Nighpoint, the way he’s telling me about it it’s almost he doesn’t think I’ve ever seen it
happen.
Then he stands up again, ‘could be good mate, you n me, make a whole heap a
money,’ then he looks me in the eye and he holds his cock through his tracksuit bottoms,
to let me know he’s not just talking about the dough we could get hold of.
‘Bout ten,’ he says but I see a shadow cross his face before he goes out the door.
This time he hasn’t left any out and it begins to die down a bit.
I reckon he’s had well over his ten minutes when I notice an alarm clock on top of his
bedside cabinet, see it’s half past four.
Five o’clock and he still hasn’t come back but there aren’t any knocks on the door so he
must have gone out, for a meet.
I’m still hanging in space with the coke stopping me sinking as I sit there pondering what
he’s said, knowing I could stay here, go to work with him, and the two of us have a bit of
the champagne life. Spend the money, all the powder I want, and feel those muscles as I
discover his cock.

6

But I remember his face when he was telling me about the boilings he’s seen, know he
can still see the sugar being put in the cup before the water’s drawn off so it’ll do more
damage, still hears the screaming in the middle of the night and looks out the window for
the ambulance because the last time they let him out they did but they didn’t and if I wait
for him I’m probably going the same way.
I don’t move though because I’m potless skint, way behind with him for all his Charlie,
still thinking about his muscles and I’ve got no place that feels like home.
Six o’clock and the cokes lying down but I’ve realised the shadow that crossed his face
just before he went out was the shadow of the jailhouse and he isn’t coming back.
I make myself stand up.
There aren’t a lot of places to look but I get lucky straight away, four wraps and eighty
quid in tens in a rip in the bottom of his mattress.
All I’ve taken off is my jacket so I bung that back on and I’m out of the room, hoping I can
find the right staircase.
I crash down the stairs and this time’s God’s smiling, the bottom of the stairs brings me
out right by the canteen.
I knock the wraps out to a couple of likelys who’ve got a oner between ‘em.
Outside I turn away from Kings Cross and trouble.
A black cab comes along with its light on, my first one for years.
‘Victoria Station.’
Class A and Old Bill, Police and Thieves, I’m leaving them all behind.
I get on the one that’s leaving first, almost asleep before it pulls out.
My freedom train.

Adapted from www.bomberjacksondoessome.com

The Starring Role

By Kristian Dennet

Sophia watched the audience as the curtain slowly fell. Like a shop awkwardly closing its shutters for the night. The faces in the audience only looked in one direction; all eyes on Rene, the venerated star of the show. As Sophia wondered why that couldn’t be her, a hand grabbed out and dragged her off of the stage. Sophia was used to this nightly occurrence yet it still always took her by surprise. “Soph! For the millionth time when the chorus plays for the second time you need to be off the fecking stage! It can only be Rene for the final bow. This must stop.” roared John, the director. Without a single breath Sophia strutted off knowing that the following night she would wait on the stage for even longer, maybe even taking the final bow with Rene.

Show number two-hundred-and-fifty. An anniversary show in the minds of musical performers. A signifier to the actor that they have endured and withstood an entire year of the physical and mental battles a script has given to them. The same script. For some of the stars performing the same script nine times a week. Like Sophia. She only has twenty lines within the whole musical. When she wakes her inner voice immediately recounts the first line. “Well, thank you for such a grand gesture Madame!”, whilst she brushes her teeth she imagines the dance moves she must perform in the second song, before sighting the other meagre lines within the first two scenes over breakfast. Everyday granola and yoghurt, and everyday those same lines ranging from two to six words long. During her journey to Aldwych theatre, where Sophia half-lives out her dream, she recalls her remaining lacklustre lines concentrating on how little they add to the narrative. Like clockwork her final line always climaxed within her mind at Charring Cross station, her final stop on the northern line. Two-hundred-and-fifty. And still nobody had asked her for an autograph, only posing for a few selfies with ‘fans’ who don’t even know her name. Tomorrow will be a momentous day for her, yet she couldn’t help but feel bittersweet and disappointed.

But now it was time for pre-celebrations. Every fourteen shows the cast celebrate in gluttonous style, as their contracts stopped them from tasting the forbidden fruits that are liquor and junk foods. A ritual of excess. Today the fourteenth show fell on performance two-hundred-and-forty-nine, gifting the actors two days of liver-destroying, cholesterol-raising hedonism. “Don’t call me cunting Rene. You know how creepy I think it is. My name is Alexa.”

“I’m sorry R-, Alexa…”

“Yeah, well if you’re sorry you’ll join me in getting the fuck out of here and going for drinks. We’re boycotting the other losers if we’re with them tomorrow evenin’. I can’t pretend to be nice two nights in a row.” Within minutes of her final utterance an Uber was already pulled up outside the theatre. Within the same amount of minutes the car had already pulled up outside of Dandelyan bar in South Bank. Sophia was already dreaming of the sugar-dipped glass rim of the cocktail glass touching her lip. After a silent journey with Alexa glaring at her phone screen as it glared back the constant refreshing of twitter mentions that congratulated her on the evening’s performance, she needed something to give her joy. Even after two-hundred-and-forty-nine nights of the same tweets in the show’s post-hour comedown, Alexa’s ego still thirsted for the unified gratification; drinking it like clockwork until her eyes got tired of the screen’s backlight.

“Twenty-quid for a Hugo?! Do they grow the elderflower in the bar or something?” Sophia gassed

“Darling it’s fine, I’ll pay the bill just order whatever,” boasted Alexa. Following an hour’s table service and four rounds the tab totalled one-hundred-and-sixty-pounds.

“Are you jealous of me? I see the way your eyes grow whenever my fans catch us and they don’t know who you are. I wouldn’t blame you hun…I would be too, it’s natural,” Sophia was caught off guard by this, and her tipsy tongue couldn’t lie. But it could plan a response that both pleased and shaded Alexa at the same time. “I envy you. But I’m not jealous. I have plans of my own, and remember you’re ten years older than me…When I’m your age I’d like both fame and a family. I’d hate to be lonely at thirty-five…” She was pleased with her response, Alexa’s slit eyes and fake smile was the exact response she had predicated. A lemon. Her words were like a twist of lemon to the pallet of Alexa’s already bitter soul. Suddenly loneliness and longing danced within Alexa’s mind as echoes filled her heart. The cure for this was another two Negronis. Sophia sipped water, sobering up as she watched Alexa drown her psyche in a dark lake of Italian spirits. As Sophia bathed and soaked in her newfound power over the leading lady, karma brought her down to earth when Alexa passed out as the bartender brought the bill to the table. Two-hundred-pounds for a litre’s worth of liquid courage and an evening with the enemy. As Sophia’s fingers reluctantly entered her Topshop purse she recoiled at the thought of her contract earning her five times less than what Alexa takes home. Sophia overcame her bitterness by taking a pair of tweezers and stabbing Alexa’s Miu Miu clutch, smiling at the now imperfect leather and feeling a cathartic twinge in her chest.

Fireworks lit up the inside of the Uber ride home like a strobe light, lulling Alexa into a deeper sleep and settling Sophia’s sense of sourness. Sophia had used Alexa’s finger in the club to unlock her phone and order the two an executive ride back to Alexa’s apartment. “Christ on a bike I can smell the gin coming out of her nostrils!” chortled Lenny, one of North London’s highest rated drivers; what he lacked in tact he made up for with an AUX cable, phone charger, out of date wine-gums and stolen Fiji water bottles. “Yeah…she’s…having a tough time at work, and with money…She’s one of my backing performers so I thought I’d treat her to a night out. I must have treated her too much.”

“I wish I had mates more like you! Although she won’t be thanking you in the morning, that’s for sure!” admired Lenny.

“She definitely won’t be thanking me! In fact can you drop me off just near Archway station my love? I’ll not be going back to hers; I fancy my own bed tonight.”

As Lenny pulled up by the abandoned pub next to the station Sophia climbed out and stood for an entire minute. Still. Transfixed. Numb to the February cold that bit her ankles. ‘The Archway Tavern’ read the sign adorning the glorious Victorian architecture of the detached building. A beaux-arts canvas flecked with comical late-nineties signage free in its stature, surrounded by post-and-neo-modern erections all breathing the same typography. Even though they were open to business the shops all looked tired, wishing they were closed down and not overworked by consumerism. The juxtaposition invited Sophia to juxtapose herself with Alexa. Alexa was the tavern that everybody remembered and photographed in awe, whilst she and the other crew were the repetitive and featureless row of retailers that people used but didn’t care about.

Sophia’s joints began to creak as she noticed the time on the clock of the tavern. Three A.M. Rehearsals were only eight hours away. This meant her routine for eight hours of solid sleep was out of sync. Sophia picked up the pace so that she was only four minutes from home, abandoning her preferred speed that would take closer to seven minutes to reach her front door. With time against her and a headache burrowing itself within the pits of her eye sockets Sophia began to care less. It was at the lowest point of giving a fuck that she noticed she was being followed. Turning around she spotted the fine feline as it tried to keep up with her, desperate and slow in its manner with a heedless limp. She allowed her stalker to carry on, knowing nothing bad could happen to her if she wondered behind. She actually enjoyed the company deep down, nine-point-five out of ten times she returned home alone, so this was a joyous occasion. Sophia began to plan what she would do with the cat for the remainder of the evening; where it would sleep and the bedtime stories she would tell it. All she had to do was get it through the front door without anybody else in the house noticing it, which was difficult as the cat began to grow louder and louder in its injured state. Groaning, even knocking into everything like a toddler who had eaten too much chocolate. Once Sophia’s house was within view she hurried to the entrance, leaning on the Georgian door whilst tapping the lion paw knocker with her shellac fingernail tips as she watched the spectacle of the debilitated cat drag itself across the street. As it staggered up the mosaic step she began to open the door, enjoying its intense stare as it clearly relied on her for help. Is this what it feel like to be loved? To be a mother? She thought.

Inside the house was warmth met Sophia with a personified sense. Kissing her cheeks. Evolving from tender and blue in colour to soft and rosey within seconds. After Sophia’s new friend finally crossed the threshold of outside space to inside space, the door closed gently before she double-locked it. Inside. Chained and bolted. A triple sense of security was felt by all. The next challenge was getting up the six sets of stairs that led to Sophia’s bedroom. She lived in a five-bedroom house illegally. With the four tenants paying the landlord in cash monthly at a slightly lower rent to the other tenants in the area. Even though they all shared the same safe space the five felt like strangers to each other. After two years. Still unaccustomed. To Sophia the savoir faire of London seemed only to be alive when it furthered the careers or financial gain of its inhabitants. Not like back home in Harrogate where she could spend half an hour stood talking to a neighbour about bin collections.

After yet another intense and time-consuming performance of dragging claws and yanking fur up the stairs the two were outside a row of three white doors. Against white walls. And white rails. And beige carpets. No pictures or rugs. Like an empty gallery space. Once in her bedroom Sophia took off her mask. Cleansing wipes removed her light dusting of makeup, as well as the film of air pollution that deposited on her face throughout her day in the city. The ritual was complete when Sophia was free of her clothing, noticeably her bra, as a rush of freedom reenergised her body. Now she felt light. Completely herself. Like the antithesis of a drag queen; she only felt whole without all of the feminising embellishments she had to wear to be taken seriously. Almost forgetting about her guest who recoiled in the corner of the room, still unaware of its surroundings. Purring, eyes widening. Unsure if it was in its usual nightly resting place or if it was experiencing the tropes of a new bedroom, like a yuppie high on MD having a one-night-stand.

As the cat became more aware and comfortable it also began to make more noise. Bollocks! Thought Sophia as she worried her landlord would hear in the room below. He didn’t like her having guests over, especially the feline kind. She didn’t want to be lonely so she gave the kitty a sleeping pill to ease its sprain and help it sleep. This only made its state even worse as it began to wallow, regurgitating bile and producing a piercing sound not too dissimilar to the post-orgasmic grunts of a human climax. After an hour of moans Sophia could no longer bear to be in the room. She tried scrolling through her twitter, liking dozens of Instagram posts, watching micro-clips on Facebook and even tagging Alexa in events she was interested in knowing that the pair wouldn’t be going to any of them.

Yet nothing could distract her from the noises. It was going to ruin tomorrow’s performance if she couldn’t get at least a fraction of sleep. Crazy. She had finally lost it, even after telling herself she was fine. It didn’t stop the voices, not coming from her own mind but from within the room itself. She began to hear fully-formed words coming from the cat. Entire clauses. Clauses that made sense. Clauses she didn’t like. Whole sentences that damaged her ego and made her feel less than. That was it. The feistiness was now rude, hitting too many nerves. Sophia began to feel physical pain. Her heartbeat rocketed as her migraine began to snap like a rubber band. She planned on harbouring her company just for a day or two, freeing it when it regained full health and consciousness. However the pillow under her head was too tempting, she knew it would do the trick…Silence. At last.

She smothered it until there was no more energy in her wrist. The toast now dripped in butter. As Sophia licked the knife clean, she swapped hands to smother the soggy slice in marmalade. No granola and yoghurt today she thought, today is going to be different. She stared at the breakfast for a few minutes before demolishing it in seconds. She swallowed her pills and hid the pills. Happy. Her new sense of energy made her feel normal again. It was time for the clock to resume so harmony could be restored. Her performance wasn’t just between the hours of seven-thirty and nine-thirty that evening. It was twenty-four-seven. Every action, facial expression and word spoken was well balanced and thought out in order to conform with the rest of the London bubble. After hiding last night’s incident in a dry cleaning suit bag in her walk-in wardrobe she let her morning routine begin again. Rehearsing the script for the show, getting dressed, applying her makeup – today heavier than usual – and taking an Uber to the theatre instead of using the tube. Today was a special day, it was show two-hundred-and fifty. The audience didn’t know it, but the entire cast had been excited about today for weeks. It then occurred to Sophia how on any given day she either felt totally uninterested and depressed, or totally high and happy with life. City life was extreme. It meant living in binaries. If London brought light into her life, it also brought darkness; if she found love, heartbreak would be waiting around the corner. A week of living lavishly brought a following week of budgeting and coupon hunting. Today, though, Sophia was only thinking positively about the night ahead. The negativity of the future did not exist.

“That vile bitch! I thought today she might not be late for rehearsals. Queen of fecking Sheeba. She forgets she’s replaceable. She’s no Meryl, or Helen. She’s barely even a fecking Olsen. Mary-Kate or Ashley could get more fecking cheers and tears out of the crowd. She’s only here because of the amount of Instagram followers she has!” John bellowed, knowing how to speak in only one volume and tone. Backstage at the theatre the cast and crew were walking on eggshells. What should have been a buzz in the air was now a chill, after Alexa had neglected to get to the rehearsals on time. With three hours to go before the show was to begin the night was now spoilt for everyone. “Hardly a surprise, this’ll be the fifth time since we started that she’s not turned up and Natalie’s had to fill in for her.” Muttered Andy, a producer.

“They don’t fecking pay to see Natalie. Who by the way fecked off to Dreamgirls over six weeks ago must you forget you fecktard…She is not doing this to us today, not on two-hundred-fifty. She can kiss her contract goodbye if she’s not here in the next hour. Has she replied to anyone yet?”

As John paced up and down the glitter-red path set from act-two scene-one Sophia cleared her throat. “Well, to tell the truth we were out quite late last night. We got an Uber back together, she got home around half three. We even Facebooked this morning so she’ll probably be here soon…”

“Well, to tell the truth THAT AIN’T FECKING GOOD ENOUGH! If she’s not here soon we need to tell twitter and all that shite that she not feeling well, for the fifth time. It’s either another hangover or she’s disappeared to Milan like the first time she didn’t perform. I hope for her it’s the fecking latter. And FYI Ms. So-bad-influence-phia, if she’s not here in the next hour then it’s you filling in for her because Natalie is too busy singing Beyoncé knock-offs. I know you know all Alexa’s words, I see you fecking mouthing along and you probably sing better than her…shame nobody knows you. Can we quickly drum up some publicity for Soph across the social pages? You’ve got an hour to try and get people excited to see her. Good luck.”

For the next hour Sophia sat watching the backstage door, squeezing her left hand until her index knuckle nearly touched her pinky knuckle. Hoping. Praying that Alexa didn’t turn up. Last night was heavy enough to keep her sleeping until the show started she thought. Even though her excitement had never been so strong, neither had her doubt. When the hour was up she disappeared to the toilet, punching the air and biting on her hand as she tried to hide her shrieks of pleasure. This was her chance to live out her dream, and it was totally unplanned and by chance. Even though the opportunity was gifted to her out of desperation she knew she deserved it. Finally everything that glittered was gold. After running through a dress rehearsal with Sophia as Rene the cast and crew gave her a round of applause. Whilst this was a nice feeling all Sophia could thing about was the gratification of the audience. The standing ovation. The autographs. The tweets and followers.

“Well, that was fecking nice to have a drama free run through. Well done Sophia. And not that it matters but Alexa sent me a text just before you started. “Sorry”, that’s all she cared to say people. If it goes well after tonight Soph, well, who knows.” And with a wink It was now less than one hour to the curtain call. The smell of fresh flowers filled the dressing rooms as an electrifying excitement began to build. Nobody was talking about Alexa, her name became a taboo. Synonymous with Judas. Sophia was finally on everybody’s lips. Just where she belonged.

The curtains opened in the darkness. A spotlight hit Sophia, as she opened her mouth Rene was reborn. The crowd cheered immediately after her first very ad-lib. A tear escaped as Rene watched the tears of audience members. She watched. Counting. Every single eye in the audience, on her. She forgot about the other cast members behind her. Is this was it feels like to be Alexa? Sophia thought with manic laughter swarming her mind’s peripheral. After the first act and three ovations Sophia sat in her dressing room, reading the hashtags and looking at the emoji’s of love being sent to her. Like artwork filling her mentions. Hearts in every colour. Yellow faces with happy tears, smiles. Digital high-fives. Icons of angels and dancing divas. She had broken the West End.

Walking onstage for the second act Sophia stroked Alexa’s dress, trying her best to walk the same way as Alexa did. Holding her posture with the straightness of last night’s Rene. It was during the final moments of the performance when the entire audience was stood with ruckus adulation that Sophia noticed a man and a woman who walked down the aisle of the theatre. Both with eyes on Rene, only they weren’t cheering. Or smiling. Instead they were there to do their job. Sophia spotted the handcuffs in the woman’s belt. They must have gone in the wardrobe she thought. The cat is out of the bag. They found her. She could see the headlines in tomorrow’s Metro now; ‘Former Leading Lady Spiked and Murdered By Leading Lady.’ She smiled as she took a bow. And another. Then slowly, her last.

Family Tree

by Naseema Khanom

I spy on the neighbour’s garden

an apple tree, six foot three

with perfect ripe reds and greens

growing towards the heavens.

Every spring without fail

doctors, lawyers

and pharmacists blossom

on every stem.

 

It is a mighty sight to behold

roots so strong, resilient

the rich soil, bountiful.

The good apples run wild

whilst the bad ones are left at home.

 

Week after week

wedding invitations jam the letterbox

saris, flaunted

sharp suits, rented

laughter, song and dances are rehearsed one after one.

Painted smiles are then packed away for the day

in the trunk of an aunty’s hefty kameez collection.

 

Windows wide open the Adhan begins to play

I look at their glistening white gate

and wonder what secrets are veiled.

On the ground lies a popped football,

a broken doll misses her head.

It only takes one to swipe the blade.

 

I wondered if the whispers are true

that the good son is hiding a bastard child

or that the daughter has ran away with a Chinese man.

The branches will not reach that far

her mother searches the map

and is met with strange names

and decided that the roots will rot.

 

I can’t live without him, he’s the one.

Hushed and chided

the family loudly divided

No tears flow for the wayward child

as she swings the sharp axe splintering its heart.

Picture courtesy of Qasim Alam. 

 

Recipe for Home

by Sajidah Iqbal

I want to make a home here, it’s just that, I don’t know

how to go about it. I wonder if it would be easy to do
it all over again; to carve my name on the bark of the
new trees, that don’t recognize me or leave my
footprints on the sands of the new ocean which
doesn’t own me. It’s so baffling, how can I clutch at the
spirit of this new city, so that it inspires and braces me?
How do I make it my new proud home? I left my home-
land far behind, many sleepless nights away. The
troubles and cares of adapting to, this new brilliant city
kept me up at night, at first the struggle seemed
exciting and then it crept on my mind and body like
poison ivy, numbing my senses and leaving me even
more desperate to be a part of London. I whispered to
God, “Please, I am trying to hitch a ride with this new
world, help me.” A vibe of hope electrified and made
me think, every day is a new day and is a blessing of
God, I won’t give up, until I make it my home.

From tomorrow morning, I will put in my best effort,
once again, but the first thing I have to do is, get a new
pillow, this one is twisted and gives me a stiff neck, I
look like a zombie with swollen, red eyes. You know
what, this struggle to procure sweet dreams has left
me busted. I have shopped for seven pillows, in the last

five months. But, I don’t know, why they can’t fill up
pillowcases just enough to make them soft and downy,
so they make you fall sleep instantly. Pillows here are
either too soft or too hard. Back home, we had the
best pillows ever, you just put your head on one and
you would drift off into the sweetest dreams.

This Friday we are eating out, we are planning to go to
a restaurant in Hounslow, “Taste of Pakistan”. I have
tried their food couple of times before, it’s really good,
especially their “Chicken Karahi” with its beautiful
tomato gravy and julienne ginger garnish. I love its
aroma, but every time I go there, something is missing,
I don’t know, I can’t put my finger on it, whether it’s
some kind of spice in the gravy or the naan which is
served along with the dish is not baked to a crusty
perfection or their repulsive metallic crockery puts me
off, or the specious air of originality about their food
drives me crazy, something is not there. I can’t name
it.

Before coming to London, the thing that fascinated me
was the concept of outdoor seating at cafes and
restaurants. Tranquil rose-trimmed terraces,
retractable roofs to cover diners from damned summer
rain, chic and comfortable seaters, scintillating glass
walls, bloom-filled terracotta pots and a clubby
atmosphere thriving with buzzing diners,

demonstrated the meaning of exotic and romantic for
me. After coming here, the magic stayed for a while
and then vanished somewhere, the delighted chirpy
diners turned into an annoying mob, and the rose-filled
terraces into a waste of space.

Where did I go wrong? Did I not make a genuine effort
in embracing you, London? Why did I end, screwed up?
Perhaps…. I never explored you in you, London! I tried
to pursue the beloved old faces in the new faces,
foraged familiar flavours in the new food, beat about
the new paths hoping to reach the old destinations and
searched for the tantalizing hot weather in your rainy
summer. I searched for the peace in pillows and not in
peace of mind. My search has been faulty, I have been
wrong all along, I was only looking at what I wanted to
see and was searching for what I left behind.

I took for the graciousness of strangers for granted,
who bent over backwards explaining directions when I
was lost. I was so immersed in complaining that I failed
to appreciate the mother-like kindness of the midwife,
who tried to comfort me in the moment of utter pain. I
was so busy kicking up a fuss about rains and cold that
I couldn’t spot the splendorous rainbows afterwards.
My prejudices never fully released me to value the new
world as it is. I wish, I had broken the shackles of past

affiliation and would have allowed myself to enjoy the
short-haul ride of summer, melodious songs of birds
and warm smile on alien faces. I ignored your true
essence and blissfulness, London however, I found out
the recipe of home.

Homesick Blue

By John Philip Gething

Homesick Blue
It is that sense of home,
that almost grieving addiction
for
a place.
Stitched into the fabrics,
sewn to its walls that
drip a color of youth. Like vines.
Veins.
We painted the walls pinstriped
Blue when we moved in.
american yankees.
I was seven years old. Would have my
own bed for the first time,
everything a parent works for.
Love was present, always.
We fought that house to the
ground and screamed at it to stay
together. Shouting matches.
In one piece,
a part of it.

*
I am weariness of the night,
playing cricket ballads
in a moonlight smoke

to sounds of country sleep,
sullen dreams, a finely lit home.
The crying night
sees me
stoned, a
sad music. The barn
we stored all belief
in a craft,
played our heart
strings
and drank of romance.
It’s all covered in dust now.
Brotherhood is
lupine, blood and wolves.
Remembering that time,
the laughing over
and struggling for breath.
We are the lively ones
in the forgetfulness of death.
*

Away I part, a stranger.
In new walls, material white
and boring.
Shapes all the same.
City lined sky
now the trees
shaking their seeds
to the dirt. Water. Needs water.
But rain falls different. A
mist in your eyes, tearing before
you cry.
But a blur, good enough to
hue the light and hurt.
Soon, I will build a house
of skin and bone, and love her
growing old.
*
She is amnesia. I have no sense of
place,
but within
Her.
Here and then I miss
my pretty home.
That sadness lives
as long as the day
we mourn for,
wanting light to return.
.
Then I hear the voice, and It
looks to me. With the same eyes,
in a pinstriped Blue shirt, against
a portrait of fire.
Our music is exchange of breath,
of
beating
heart.
Still beating.

One Too Many

By Roderick O’Sullivan 

“Flight 407 to London Heathrow is now boarding at Gate 34. American Airlines again apologises for the long delay, resulting from the earlier security incident. American Airlines thanks you for your understanding on the inevitable seating changes that have proved necessary to make up for lost time and backlogs. A complimentary bar service will be available throughout the flight. This is the last and final call for Mr Patrick Murphy. Will Mr Murphy please make his way to Gate 34 where this flight is now closing…”

“It’s swell having you back on board again,” said the smiling chief-stewardess. “To your left, doctor, as usual. First class, 2A. May I?”

The tall silver haired man handed over his jacket and in the same movement bent to stow away his briefcase. Settling into his seat, he adjusted the creases in his pinstriped trousers.

“Thank you, Cherry. And may I say how radiant you look this evening?”

“Oh, that bedside manner of yours. I’m beat already, you know it’s been chaos and the flight is jammed. Anyway they’ve arrested those two crazies carrying Kalashnikovs. Thank the Lord nobody was hurt. Can I get you anything, doctor?”

“Most kind, Cherry, but no thank you. All I need is a little simple peace and quiet to add the finishing touches to my lecture. Later a little Brahms and maybe, just maybe, a chilled glass of Chablis with my meal.”

“It was so fortunate having you aboard back in April when that woman took that turn. You remember?”

“Indeed; I hear she made it to hospital in Seattle. Didn’t she make a full recovery? I was never informed.”

“According to Captain Wainright, complications set in and she passed away some days later.” She smiled as her eyebrows arched. “I think they wait for you to come on board before having their seizures.”

“Sometimes I think the same, Cherry.” He stroked his beard then tapped the small pouch at his side. “I make a point of always carrying my emergency kit.” As an afterthought he added, “Anyway, one can only do one’s best…”

“I’m sorry, doctor for being so, so, erm, flipperant. I know you did all you could for the elderly lady. You were so composed…”

“Thank you, Cherry, and I think you mean flippant, not flipperant.” His quick smile disappeared. “May I say at this juncture just how very helpful you yourself were when the good lady lost consciousness. What an excellent nurse you would have made.”

“Oh, doctor, you do say the nicest things. Oops, this way madam …if you would excuse me…”

 

With ten minutes to take-off, the only empty seat was 3A First Class. As the last passenger entered, he bumped against the doorway and after taking two unsteady steps, tottered, scattering a bottle of liquor, a carton of cigarettes and a half-eaten sandwich from a duty-free bag.

“Whoa,” he cried, stumbling after the bottle as it rolled along the aisle. “Come here, me little beaut, you’re not gettin’ away that easily.”

The bottle had come to rest against the doctor’s shoe. Breathing heavily, the latecomer slowly knelt to retrieve it. He winked knowingly, straightened up and held the bottle aloft.

“John Jameson,” he said, showing an irregular row of chipped and stained teeth. “The only stuff, I’m tellin’ you. Would you be fancyin’ a tipple yourself, sir, seein’ that it was your good boot that arrested my liquid friend here. And he tryin’ to escape, no less. Aye.”

The doctor suppressed a shudder. “I rarely touch spirits, my good man,” he said, staring pointedly out the window. “Thank you, nonetheless.”

“You don’t know what you’re missin’. Good old John J.”

“Your seat is there, sir,” interrupted Cherry, using both arms to propel the man into his berth. “Strap yourself in quickly, you’re delaying us long enough as it is.” Her eyes rolled heavenward. “Mr Murphy has been upgraded from Economy, doctor. I’m sorry about this extrusion, oops, I mean intrusion…”

“Aha, doctor is it?” Murphy said, his ruddy face beaming. “That’s one for the books, eh? Me sittin’ right next to a real medical man. Put it there, sir.”

Murphy stretched forward and before he could react, grabbed the doctor’s right fist with his rough-skinned hands.

“Delighted, doctor, dee-lighted. Wait ‘til the missus hears just who I was sitting next to. Always knew you’d get a grander class of person in the First Class. PXBM at your service; that’s Patrick Xavier Boniface Murphy to all and sundry.” He inclined his head backward and squinted. “And who might you be?”

His lips forming in a thin line the doctor quickly withdrew his hand and muttered, “My name’s Dr….”

“Please fasten your seat-belt,” interrupted Cherry, making no attempt to conceal her exasperation, “and kindly allow the other passengers their privacy. You happen to be in First Class now, Mr Murphy, not Economy. Respect. Manners. Please get a hold of yourself and remember where you are.”

Murphy burped then whispered conspiratorially against the back of his hand, “Know somethin’, doc? I reckon her ladyship’s got up on the wrong side of the bed this mornin’.”

“Cherry?”

“Yes, doctor?”

“I’ve changed my mind. Would you be so kind as to bring me a large malt? Laphroaig.”

“Certainly.”

“Oh, miss? Miss.”

“Yes, Mr Murphy?” came the icy response.

“I’d like to order somethin’ from this here, complementary list o’ drinks. I’d like some of that Klug champagne. Make it a bottle while you’re at it.”

“You mean Krug, Mr Murphy.”

“Indeedy, bottle of Klug. The very man.” He rubbed his palms together. “Ah, ha, way to live, way to go.” Leaning across the aisle, he tugged the sleeve of the passenger in the adjacent cubicle, a sixty something-ish lady of Middle Eastern appearance.

“How’s it goin’ there, missus? I bet this Klug stuff beats the livin’ stuffin’ out of Matt Molloy’s pints of Guinness, what do ye reckon, eh? Eh?”

With a perceptible shiver, the woman shook her sleeve free, her smouldering dark eyes never deviating from the book firmly held in her grasp.

Murphy stepped backward and jostled the doctor jostled playfully in the ribs. “Have you heard the one about the one-eyed lesbian who…”

Brow furrowing, the doctor unbuckled his seat-belt and stood up. “My lack of interest in social discourse, Mr Murphy,” he grated, sliding his laptop free, “is due to my having to complete my lecture. Do excuse me.”

“Say no more, doctor. Never let it be said that any member of the Murphy tribe ever put as much as a toecap in the way of expandin’ the frontiers of medical science.” To the stewardess he called, “How’s me old friend Mr Klug comin’ along there, missy? Chop, chop, what?”

“We’re taking off very shortly, Mr Murphy. You’ll just have to wait until we’re aloft.”

 

 

Five hours into the flight, only a muffled snoring and small movements of bedclothes disturbed the dark serenity in the First Class cabin. The sole light came from overhead 2A, its cone-shaped beam illuminating Murphy’s slouched figure like a searchlight. His shirt open, half-sitting, half-lying on his bed, he rose unsteadily to his feet and stepped across the aisle. He stared down at the doctor for a few seconds before shaking him by the shoulder.

“Sorry to be botherin’ you, doc,” he slurred.

The doctor’s sleep-filled eyes shot open, unsure of where he was. Blinking, he glanced at his watch. 2.43.

“What on earth is up with you, Murphy?” he growled. “Do you know what time it is?”

“Two things, doc. One, I’m damned if I can remember the words of the third verse of ‘My Lagan Love.’ Great song entirely. You wouldn’t happen to know them by any chance, eh? I’ll never get to sleep otherwise. As God’s me judge.”

The doctor half-rose from the bed, propping himself up on an elbow.

“No, Mr Murphy, I do NOT know the second verse or the first verse or any verse of your ‘Lagan Love’”.

“I’m all right up to…” With that he broke into instant song,

“But dew-Love keeps her memory

Green on the…”

“For heaven sake,” spluttered the doctor. “People are trying to sleep…”

“Cut out that bloody racket,” came a gruff male voice.

The doctor was wide awake. “Now look, I’ve had it up to here….”

“…I’m really sorry sir, really. It’s not me fault, it’s the drink, it does do funny things to me mind. Unless I can go to sleep satisfied about things like, then I do be tossin’ and turnin’ the whole night through. It can be the words of a song, me youngest being in trouble again or that eldest waster of mine being on the lash – anythin’ can put me right off me beauty sleep. Don’t tell me it’s weird, I know.”

“You’ve drunk enough to put a herd of hippos to sleep for a week. I’m amazed you’re still able to speak, never mind think about the words of songs…”

“…Not just songs. Poems are the worst, doc. I’m grand durin’ the day when I’ve tons of things to do and that but come the night and it’s a different kettle of fish. Soon as I start thinkin’ about poems I learnt at school I’m in real trouble. If I can finish the verses I’m all right like but if I can’t…” He didn’t finish the sentence but drained his glass in a swift backward movement. Wiping his lips with the back of his hand he continued in a tired voice, “And tomorrow I’m guaranteed to have the father and mother of hangovers. I buried the brother day before yesterday in Los Angeles – God rest hiss soul – and I’ve been on a rampage of a skite since they laid him in that cold cold clay. Aye. God, those hangovers.” He rummaged beneath the blanket. “Where the hell is it?”

“What are you digging for, man?”

“Me John J. It’s your only man at this stage of the game.”

“Haven’t you had enough?”

Murphy grinned crookedly. “One’s not enough; two’s too much; three’s not half enough.”

“For all our sakes, Murphy, let me give you something to make you sleep.”

In spite of the volumes he’d put away, a spark flickered in Murphy’s rheumy eyes.

“Like what?” he growled.

The years spent digging trenches and building motorways had honed his sixth sense to the presence of danger that no amount of alcohol or First Class travel could dampen. Blearily he took in the crocodile eyes, the dispassionate stare, the deep facial fissures. He shook his head as if to dismiss the cloying doubts that were tugging at the edges of his addled consciousness. This doctor bloke’s what real men should be like. Men who’ve seen it all. Men of education that you can really trust. For those few fleeting seconds some of the crooked gangers he’d served flashed by; Pudsey Ryan – a man who’d rape his own mother for a round of drinks; Gerry Collins who’d rob a blind man of his guide-dog without flinching. Yet both bastards had done well – one a government minister, the other running his own road-haulage firm – he shook his head again, trying to dismiss the unfairness of it all. You’re in First Class now, in with the real McCoy – educated folk – not like yourself – here it’s real class – people who really wanted to help other human beings…not like those gob-shites I have to rub shoulders with in the Queen’s Head…

He released his breath slowly, still reprimanding himself. Suspicions about a doctor? Shit, what was I thinkin’ of?

“What are you goin’ to charge me for the, erm, stuff, doctor?”

“Nothing. I’m giving you a helping hand. You’d do the same for me.”

“That’s sort of real kind, doc, it…”

“…It will also free you from your hangover. Judging by what I’ve seen you put away, you’ll be feeling pretty sorry for yourself in the morning.” He glanced at his watch. “Five hours to go. A half-decent night’s sleep is what you need. With what I’ll give you you’ll feel like a new babe when you wake up.”

“You mean with one tablet I can forget all this poetry thing, the hangover, the…”

“…The lot. It’s not a tablet, an injection. Faster, quicker, effective; gets into the bloodstream immediately – what your body is crying out for. A boost of multivitamins, electrolytes, essential minerals and a tincture of a mild homeopathic sedative. Never fails.”

“Good man yourself.”

“Roll up your shirt then back into bed quickly because you’ll …”

“…You’re a sound man, doc; know that?”

“Keep the voice down; sleeve up a little further; a tiny little prick…”

 

Cherry again shook the sleeping figure by the shoulder. “Doctor. Doctor. ”

His eyes stared unknowingly at her face before recognition set in. “Ah, good morning, Cherry,” he said rising on an elbow. “Breakfast already?

“We’ve thirty five minutes to Heathrow but I…” She choked back a cry and held a hand over her mouth.

“Whatever’s the matter?”

“I can’t seem to wake Mr Murphy,” she said, biting her lip.

“I’m not surprised seeing what he put away.”

“No, doctor, as First Class manageress I’m well used to people… you know. Mr Murphy isn’t just chilled out, he seems so still, so very still. And he feels, well, coldish…”

Her voice trailed off as her eyes pleaded with the doctor’s.

“I’ll take a look.”

Pyjama-clad, he threw back his blanket, slipped the emergency-kit from below his bed and stepped across the aisle. He seemed unaware of the handful of silent passengers standing to the front of the cabin, while another cluster stood apprehensively by the First Class exit. Murphy lay immobile on his back, half covered with a blanket, an arm hanging over the bed, his drooping fingers hanging above the carpet like a claw. The doctor moved quickly, first feeling for Murphy’s wrist-pulse, then the carotid-artery before bending down to place his ear over the wide-open mouth. Without speaking he loosed Murphy’s shirt and tie and placed a hand over the heart. After a short hesitation he straightened and spoke without turning.

“Cherry, please inform the Captain that one of his passengers has most likely passed away in the night. Have him alert Heathrow; have an ambulance standing-by with a resuscitation-team. I don’t consider there’s much hope but we just might be lucky. In the meanwhile try and keep everything calm with the rest of the passengers while I administer some adrenaline. It’s a long shot.” His dark eyes continued to regard the body. “Poor fellow,” he muttered, kneeling down in the aisle beside the body.

Zipping open his bag he quickly removed a tourniquet. In a swift well-practiced action, he snapped the top from a phial and in almost the same movement, flicked the ampoule upside down. Inserting a needle, he quickly loaded a syringe with clear liquid.

 

Captain Neehammer coughed self-consciously as he stood with Cherry behind the doctor. “What do you think? Any hope?”

The doctor didn’t reply but slowly stood up, his eyes still focused on Murphy’s face. After a short hesitation he said softly, “I did what I could. No response, I’m afraid.” As if remembering something, he bent down and gently closed Murphy’s vacant eyes. “May God have mercy on your immortal soul, Patrick.”

A voice from the small group of spectators said, “God be with him.”
“Amen.”
”You did all you could, doctor. Awesome.”

“Amen to that,” said the Captain. “I’ve alerted Heathrow. Team’s on stand-by. Thank you again ladies and gentlemen for your understanding. Now would you all please return to your seats for landing.”

“Excuse me, Captain.”

“Yes, doctor?”

“Will there be an inquest? Will my presence be required?”

“A post-mortem maybe; an inquest I think not. It’s obvious the man was grossly intoxicated. I saw him in the Departure Lounge myself, singing he was, could hardly stand. In the event of perhaps having to make a statement to the police I would be most grateful if you could leave your card with Cherry. From what she tells me this isn’t the first time you’ve been on board to lend a hand. May I express our heartfelt gratitude, doctor – we’re soon turning onto finals so, please, everyone… Cherry, cover Mr Murphy, we can dispense with seatbelt procedures. Excuse me.”

 

Captain Neehammer and crew stood upright in a silent semi-circle by the exit, watching the doctor make his way down the aisle. The police, forensics and ambulance-crew had been and gone and he was the last passenger to depart the plane. A yellow-uniformed cleaning-team stood in the vestibule.

The Captain shook the doctor’s hand and proffered an envelope. “We’re real appreciative for all your help, doc. Two open-ended First Class return-tickets for yourself and your loved one to visit the United States. At your leisure. A small token of Atlantic Airlines’ appreciation for your efforts.”

“I couldn’t possibly accept…”

“…Nonsense,” smiled the Captain, sliding the folded envelope into the doctor’s handkerchief pocket. “We all sure hope and pray that your next trip with us will be a sight more peaceful.”

“Thank you, Captain. And you, Cherry. Here’s my card should you have any formalities etcetera you’d like me to attend to. Goodbye.”

They watched as, hand-luggage in tow, he stepped onto the gangway, aware for the first time that he walked with a slight limp.

Cherry glanced at his card. “English doctors are much more, how shall I say, Clem, more mannerly and old-fashioned than our New York guys, you think?”

The Captain nodded. “You’ve a point there, Cherry. What was his name again?”

“Shipman. Dr Harold Shipman. Got a real doctor’s ring to it, don’t you think?” Her doe-like eyes remained focused on the departing figure until he rounded the corner into the terminal building. “Lovely man.”

[Dr Harold Shipman: History’s most prolific serial killer with 218 deaths, although he’s suspected of murdering many more victims. Convicted and sentenced for fifteen homicides, he committed suicide in Wakefield Prison, 2004.]

The Waiting Room

By Rae Gellel

It’s a waiting room like any other, that standard doctors surgery set up with the mismatching furniture and a pithy offering of well-thumbed women’s magazines. It greets you with an encompassing, inexplicable hush, perhaps the result of those awful hard-backed chairs that make everyone sit up so straight and formal, and the guests mutter to their companions in whispers and haste to mute their squabbling children or stab at their bleating mobile phones.

Except it’s not a doctor’s surgery and todays’ visitors know that. Their heads roll on their shoulders and their eyes are pendulums in their sockets, searching for a clue as to what planes may lay beyond this particular purgatory. Perhaps a few specs of blood on the lurid yellow wallpaper, the remnants of a Jackson Pollock reproduced by a gushing wrist? Claw marks then, a snapped nail embedded in the plaster, a testament to some wild thing’s last grab for freedom? No? Bars on the windows, bullet proof glass at the receptionists station? No. Nothing. Just a couple of painfully restrained posters embellished with stock photo-people in sadness-connoting positions; heads pressed against  rain-splattered windows; black and white and composed with a single tear leaking down one cheek; staring with rigid dignity into the empty distance.

Today’s three visitors are Celia, the young woman, overdressed as if for a date, and John and Margaret, the old couple, overdressed as if for church. John shifts in his seat, makes a dash for a magazine, slaps it back down again, picks his nails and yawns, flicks his eyes over the girls bare legs. Margaret elbows him in the ribs, hisses for him to not crease his suit, crosses and uncrosses her stocking-clad legs. She holds a purse primly in her hands, but her fingers hover skittishly over its metal clasp.

Celia is still, sunken almost petulantly into her chair. Her arms are crossed over a burgundy top that spills out a triangle of pale cleavage, and her two companions both note how the inky black of her extravagantly curled hair brushes pleasingly over the white flesh; John fleetingly, with embarrassment; Margaret with raised eyebrows, licking her back fillings.

The women are sat opposite each other, and smile beatifically, defiantly, when their eyes meet.

The younger of them is almost disappointed by the rooms’ unremarkable decor; she had expected a snake pit, a cuckoo’s nest, a cage to stifle the audacious, the dangerously creative, the non-conformist. The elder is relieved; such an un-formidable room could only front un-formidable patients with un-formidable problems.

In the corner of the unremarkable room is an unremarkable door. Their three lines of vision avoid it as if repelled by a magnet.

White strips of light bleed through the dusty wooden blinds from the window behind Margaret, igniting her white bouffant hair like a halo.

“Why are you here, then dear?”

Celia clears her throat, sits up a little straighter.

“Visiting my, er, partner.”

(My lover.)

“We’re here visiting our daughter.” John blurts, and Margaret’s head snaps towards him, eyes narrowed with vehemence. When she turns back to the girl, her smile is reapplied as carefully as her demurely pink lipstick.

“Not visiting her – not like that. She works here – an internship. She’s studying to be a doctor, a psychologist. She’s giving us a tour. We’ve not been to London before.”

(We are visiting her like THAT she’s mad our little girl has gone mad oh.)

“I see.” Celia noted the edge of panic in the woman’s powdered face with a faint disinterest.

(Don’t look at us like that, we were good parents. She was a good girl, a happy girl. It’s just bad blood, John’s blood. They’re all meloncholy on his side.)

“So how did you and your boyfriend meet?”

(My lover took me by the wrist and led me into a darkened lecture hall, whispered terrible, acid things into my ear, licked my neck, pulled me onto the teacher’s desk and devoured me.)

“We met at university here, in London. ”

(It was that university that did it. She wasn’t ready for it, wasn’t used to the city. She was always so quiet and studious – all work and no play, girls’ nights in.)

“Oh lovely, another student. What do you study?”

(We don’t study, we crawl inside of Plath and Lowe and Sexton, my lover’s ilk, my lover’s compatriots, and we wind our bodies around their words, the margins blotted with bloodied thumb prints.)

“American Literature.”

“Oh, interesting.”

There is a second of silence, marred by the whir of a passing car that momentarily blots out the creeping fingers of light from the half-opened blinds. On a poster behind Celia’s head, in the brief half moment of darkness, Margaret reads;

‘How well do you know your mother, your sister, your friend?

If you suspect someone may be at risk of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline today. It could save their life.’

The car passes. The room is flooded with light and quiet again. With its return is the sudden deafening crack of footsteps on linoleum, footsteps coming from the nothingness and everythingness behind That Door. It takes a second for their ears to swallow the sound, a second for their minds to digest it, to understand its’ awful meaning.

The breath is punched from their chests. Three sets of eyes share a fast, panicked exchange, thoughts swarming behind them like clouds of angry bees.

(We burned each other like we were preparing a shot of tequila, with lines of salt and ice.)

(It WAS my fault I was cold and unkind and jealous of her youth I held her at arm’s length.)

(Oh please don’t let Margaret cry, I won’t be able to bear it if she cries.)

The door swishes open. A nurse stands in the doorway with her hand on the solid oak, bespectacled and frowning. The visitors are all yet to breathe.

“Who’s here to visit Janet Downe?”

They share a final, reluctant smile, the couple and the girl, sat in their stiff chairs with sinking hearts; and then all three of them stand up.

Loud Speakers

by Oladele Oladeji

Open the fucking door! This is Frankie’s opening to expression and frustration. Ricky
replied, “I’m fucking my wife for Christ sakes. Haven’t you got any decency, you fucked up
waste of space?” It’s London. It was a very cold night too. We were in the depth of Epping
Forest. Trees stand erect, waiting to flourish, open land spreads further afield, the air smells
nicely, with the touch of peaceful days. Ricky and Frankie have been friends for about seven
years now, travelling around the country living as campers. Frankie has no interest in pets but
Ricky has got a bulldog. The dog is named Billy.

“Fuck the dog.”
“Fuck you too.”

London is our hub, hiding under its warm atmospheric feel, and its cold days. There’s no
joy when jealousy and anger reaches the peak of a man’s life. The nights are calm. Stars
smile too. Lights went as the moon came out. Ricky parked his caravan opposite Frankie’s
derelict caravan. Frankie was busy doing stuff inside his caravan. Ricky came out of his,
looked around for a while, then went back inside. Music started playing from Ricky’s
caravan, “I fought the law” the silence of the night sharpened with suspense and thrill. It was
a strange beautiful night. The moon kisses the earth. The clouds dancing as they travel.
Dogs howled in the distant. Frankie woke up. It’s quiet. He sat for a while, then started to
dream – Remy was sewing a black cloth. The sound of her machine rose. “How do I get me a
life that differs from the one I have now? I’ll like to stay, watch you sew. In London life is
mental. It’s turned me into a clown, like I’m a waste of space. I’m bare to my skeleton.”
Twenty years ago I dreamed I’ll be rich. But now I’m stuck in an old caravan, pretending
life is full of beauty. “Keep your fucking dog under control, you shameless twat.” Most
mornings the dog pitches outside my caravan, his saliva drooling. So I’ll deliberately walk
into the woods, hoping he’ll have gone before I return. But no, the fucking dog is there
seated, waiting for my arrival. He then walks away, gets seated outside Ricky’s caravan.

“That’s your home, you four legged beast. Don’t come round my way. I’ve got nothing to
offer.”
“Why wag your tail?”
“Woof”
“What’s that got to do with me?”

“Woof”

He’ll come seated again staring at me. We’re the least strand of the human chain. So, I’ll
bang on his door. “Open the fucking door! Ricky. It’s me, Frankie! I’ll keep banging until
you open the door.” He replies, “Get the fuck away from my caravan, Frankie. I need no one
disrupting my ride.” So they decided, Ricky and his wife, to travel, find a new life, stay away
from the fucked up loser, Frankie. London is a cool city. We bought our caravans intending
to run away from our past lives and start afresh. Frankie remembered life in London. The
morning newspapers, the dark, sonorous sound of trains. The smell of fragrance and stale
booze. He remembered vividly picking up a copy of the Sun Newspaper, looking through it,
and then chucking it in the bin. Ricky’s usual exclamations came back to him. Politics! The
entire world is fucked by politics and politicians. The silent breeze of the marches slammed
coolly against his face, his skin. Ricky says it all the time. The world is crazy. We’re the
clowns! Everything of our previous lives is gone. We are the insatiable clowns struggling to
get a life. We are human. In short, we’re damn hustlers. We run after lives. We beg for a life.
Our lips are wet, our eyes glow, full of pain. We’re the voices of humanity. You got your
dog, I’ve got my caravan, you’ve got your caravan too. I’ll move on then. The Lee Valley
Camping and Caravan Park. I’ll buy me a new home, make me some new friends. “Open the
fucking door, or else I’ll smash it in.” Ricky said, “You can fuck off, I’m having a good time,
you fucking twat. Find yourself a fucking life” It was a Sunday morning, so I drove my
caravan to the buyers. I got paid. Then I disappeared. I’ve forgotten about Ricky, and his sex
maniac wife. Maybe our paths will cross somehow, someday soon. We are floaters. We have
no anchors to hold us. We were determined to survive, we’re dying for life, we were hopeful.
We were determined to survive.

Maybe we’ll know who we are later in life. We’re holding onto the little lives we’ve got,
running after another life, the ones we dreamed. There’s nothing wrong in the lives we
choose. There’s nothing wrong in whom we are. Messing around with life is a dangerous
game. So we’re loud speakers. We’re the images of our future. The clowns of our world!
We’ll move away from what life has thrown at us. We’ll find another life. The routes to
success are pride, resilience, patience, hope – and a future. Life is full of love, if one tries to
find it. If one runs madly after it. Life is full of adventures if one rides along with it.

Two Women

by Emily Rath

 

A call across the ocean

unmuffled by the waves

a bridge at midnight reaches

to the other in the light of day

 

Her voice like a joyful sparrow

although her winter’s just come

the spattering of a snowy rain

obstructing half the sun

 

Sadness stained on white pillows

Black feathers reach for prayer

One lies weak in a tiny bed

the other’s in a doctor’s chair

 

rest.

holistic.

stage 1.

lumpectomy.

worry.

alkaline. 

hiding.

mastectomy.

 

is it an

Uncontrollable

Monster?

 

is it a

Passing Storm?

 

she bathes in blue waters

moves golden light within

hears whispers, wild and knowing

from the Colorado Mountains

 

Prayers and knots in her belly

the other wakes with sweat

Monday waiting

Tuesday cries

days built on prayer and unrest

 

when did the word lump become poison?

a lump of sugar tells all

evil and white, seductive demon

feeding the winter through fall

 

a plane crosses the ocean

and

Mother and daughter embrace

the bridge built in the darkness

holds light on Hope’s young face

 

Two women eat in the kitchen

the birds and cats don’t answer

the Mother smiles and cries from joy

with Love, she’ll cure her cancer.

WANT TO FORGET HOW TO REMEMBER WITH YOU

By Zahrah Surooprajally

 

The one thing I want to do is forget.

All the shit the other guys put me through.

You’re different. I love watching the sun set

with you. I don’t get bored. Get stuck like glue.

The rainy days in – we snuggle and fight.

We’re so different, but our souls are the same.

Clichéd? Love always is. Let’s dance the night

away. Take my hand. Close. Whisper je t’aime.

I’ll say Ana Behebak. It’s our thing.

You teach me the gavotte and I teach you

how to Bellydance. Then I let you sing

to me in Arabic. The way you do.

It’s been tough; shit, but there’s one thing I know:

you fix it all, but let’s just take it slow.

 

You fix it all, but let’s just take it slow.

Stop the phone calls, because you “need” to know

what I’m doing all the fucking time. No.

I’m done with this third break up shit, just go.

We go through the motions, like a TV

series that was never going any-

where. Yes I’ll roll you a cigarette. Easy

way to avoid the arguing. Many

thanks for doing the bed this morning!

Turned off Spotify when you heard our song.

Saw the texts. Don’t say I left you! Storming

off. Blaming me for the things you did wrong.

You weren’t the one, you are all just the same.

Our love is like hairspray when set aflame.

 

Our love is like hairspray when set aflame.

We want closeness, just to feel less alone.

Just want that posed picture in a gold frame

Reasons to keep looking down at our phone.

I really miss waking up next to you.

Numbing with Netflix and chill: smoking weed,

kissing me, holding me. I miss it too.

Dancing in the moonlight; I’ll always need

you. Broke my heart, why did you do that for?

Why did you fall for her? Why the lying?

I wait, with my Oyster card, by the door.

Knowing you won’t come but still I’m trying.

While you are waiting for the sun to set –

The one thing I want to do is forget.

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.

LEAKE STREET TUNNEL

By LJ Cadogan

 

my skin no better
than a graffiti stained wall
from where you tagged your name
over and over and over
until every brick was covered
in your signature mauve spray-paint

you only ever tagged me after sunset.

like all illegitimate things, I was

a secret held in the flap of gum

at the back of your mouth
before the wisdom tooth grew out

and you could say you knew better

 

 

US GIRLS

By Soraya Bouazzaoui

 

It had ended as incidents like these always do, with a rage so indescribable that Amal’s eyes were blinded by it. Burning hot like molten iron, and flowing through her veins as blood would, adrenaline accompanied it much the same. Her strength was unusual for someone of her small stature, barely reaching 5’5”. Luckily for her, the unruly and wild curls she usually left out had been pulled into a do at the top of her head. She had found the heat of University Halls unbearable during the summer, and with the vast amounts of drunk students loitering inside the six bedroom flat in Bethnal Green, she thought she chose wisely by putting it up.

The night had begun as most of the student parties Amal had gone to did, with her pre-drinking in that same flat, home to one of her friends, Ria; if she could call her that. The tall, dark skinned girl had left her braids fan around her shoulders, despite the suffocating humidity of her flat, her black septum ring matching the thick black eyeliner shaping her hazel eyes; Amal had always found it to be incredible that she could create a wing so perfect that it looked professional. She sat at the end of the breakfast table, the rest of Ria’s housemates engaged in loud conversation as they played a card game, of which she was left out. Naturally, she was the outsider, invited mostly due to Ria’s guilt, their one mutual friend no longer around to make the effort to include Amal for them.

“Do you want another drink?” Ria spoke up, coming to stand beside her in the small kitchen.

Her tone lacked warmth or a welcoming stance, Amal sensed. She knew Ria didn’t particularly dislike her, or find her irritating, but felt slightly uncomfortable by her presence. A forced formality to honour their old friend, perhaps.

“No thanks, I haven’t finished this one yet,” Amal replied, attempting to smile, raising her white plastic cup for good measure. Ria nodded, and motioned with her hand to the fridge.

“Well if you want a refill, the fourth shelf is mine. Help yourself.”

Amal nodded in confirmation, but was unable to make eye contact with Ria, who walked away to speak to someone else, leaving her there to ponder on her own thoughts. She continued to do so throughout the evening, as more people began to filter into the small kitchen, leaning against counters. The only two sofas were located on the opposite side of the breakfast bar, separating them from the kitchen in the open room. Watching Ria from the opposite side, she noticed the girl roll her eyes at the young man attempting to make advances at her, Ria’s shoulders relaxed, slouched almost, leaning away from the boy. He was someone Amal had only met in passing, since she wasn’t much of a talker. Merely a bystander, someone who tagged along.

That’s what took place with Clara in the previous two years of University, having lived in the same flat together. Amal had met Ria through Clara; they had gone to school together. Naturally, Amal felt like an invader, unwelcome to the close friendship that Ria and Clara already had, but tolerated nonetheless.

She didn’t question whether it was out of pity or genuine kindness, on Clara’s behalf, that made Ria befriend her. Only grateful that she had made a friend to begin with. She pushed down on the thoughts, reminding herself of where she was and who surrounded her, knowing best not to mull over such things in a place so public. Downing the contents of her cup, she moved towards the fridge, taking Ria up on her offer to refill her cup. She felt guilty, the stench of vodka and beer in the room reminding her all too well of her mother’s repeated chants about going to hell for such a sin.

“The party’s kinda dead, right?”

Amal turned around, the voice unfamiliar to her, though it dawned on her once she took in the features of the young man who stood before her. He smiled widely, revealing full lips. She remembered she had thought it charming, though the last time she’d seen him, it had been directed towards someone else.

“Only if you don’t know anybody,” she said quietly, noticing how his green eyes cast over the bronze skin exposed from her white cold shoulder top.

“Yeah, but you looked pretty underwhelmed, staring into space for that long.” He swayed on the spot, though tried to play off his intoxication with a light chuckle.

“You were watching me?” She asked softly, though she forced a smile, attempting to, at least, seem like she was flirting.

“Someone as pretty as you shouldn’t spend the evening alone,” he said, running his hand through his dirty blonde hair. She remembered him pulling a similar move before; he still hadn’t recognised her.

“Josh,” he said, extending his hand.

“Amal.”

She let him lead the conversation, wondering how long she could keep it going until he remembered her. Then again, she hadn’t been the object of his affection a year ago, Clara had. She wasn’t particularly memorable in the first place; Amal was quiet, easily overlooked and inconsequential in a life with a story like his. Perhaps she would’ve forgotten about him as well, had it not been for the way the events of that night transpired.

“What do you study?”

“Psychology, you?” she replied, though she knew already.

“Nice. Studying Marketing. Predictable, I know.”

Forcing a laugh, Amal pictured him years from now; in a nice suit, set up in a nice flat and working for some company in London where he earned great commission. Thriving in life as if he deserved good fortune. She forced herself to unclench one of her fists at her side, noticing how he leaned against the counter beside her now, invading her space.

“Do you live in these halls?” He asked, quietly this time. She knew what he was insinuating.

“No, I live in Unite. The one just down the road.”

“Ohhh, heard that’s a rough one.”

“Not as nice as The Hive, but it’ll do. I’m only there for one more year. You know anyone from there?”

He hesitated before taking another sip of his drink, and this time she could tell he forced a smile of his own. If she hadn’t have been looking for it, she probably wouldn’t have detected the lie.

“No, can’t say I do. All my mates live here, though I’m kicking myself for not going before. Would have met you sooner.”

She remembered he’d dropped the same line to Clara; had a conversation almost identical to this one. He knew exactly what to say, how to charm, and if she’d been anyone else, she would have thought him nice enough. She figured he could’ve easily come across that way, a good-looking boy making the effort to talk to one of the few girls standing alone, clearly an outsider, not as conventionally pretty, and slightly bigger than most. She supposed that she must have seemed like an easy hook up, oozing a lack of self-confidence, especially since she’d been drinking. lIf his back had been turned, she would have curled her lip in disgust.

The fist that came flying between them connected with his chin swiftly, and he fell forward into Amal, who stumbled back from his weight and from being caught off-guard by the blow. She turned, noticing the petite redhead to her right, her freckled face red with rage as she attempted to shake away the pain from her hand.

“What the fuck are you doing?” He yelled, rubbing his chin, as he stood upright, Amal taking a step back. His lip started bleeding.

“Making sure you know you ain’t fucking welcome here, you piece of shit!”

The redhead in question, Chloe, was another familiar member of Clara’s friendship group, though she had been an extension on Ria’s side, and lived in that very same flat. Her floral printed dress was stained with various splotches of red wine.

“Is that so?” Josh laughed out, motioning to two tall dark-haired boys by the door, “because I distinctly remembered Owen and Maz inviting me.”

“You think you’re allowed anywhere near this flat? You’re scum, you’re a fucking piece of shit after what you did to Clara!”

Josh laughed in a way that deliberately seemed patronising, and it made Chloe’s face visibly turn angrier, building up to a darker shade of pink, but that could have just been the alcohol.

“They dropped the case, remember? It’s not my fault she topped herself!”

Chloe raised her fist to go for him again, but she was halted by Ria, who grabbed onto her elbow. Her face was stern, but Amal had known her long enough to notice the conflicting emotions of anger in her dark eyes. She wanted to beat the shit out of him just as much as Chloe did, as they all did.

“He’s not worth it.” She mumbled, barely bothering to look in the boy’s direction, not for lack of interest, but in order to keep her own anger from escalating. “Owen and Maz live here too, we can’t control who they invite.”

Chloe forcefully pulled her grip away from Ria, tearing her snarled glare away from Josh to look at Ria with accusation. She turned away eventually, pushing past her and out of the kitchen; her night was now ruined. Ria followed her as the spectators in the room remained in stunned silence for several moments, Amal among them.

“How about we down the last of our drinks and head for Shoreditch, yeah? I need some fuckin’ bass!” Owen yelled out with forced glee, clapping his hands together, the lilt of his voice betraying his heavy Irish accent.

He received some cheers, and Amal watched as he headed for Josh, patting the boy on the shoulder. His voice was low, but still within earshot of Amal.

“Sorry mate, you know how girls get. The bathroom’s down the hall, yeah? Go  clean up.”

They parted then, Owen returning to his group, and Josh heading for the kitchen door out to the hall. She wasn’t sure why, maybe she wanted to see if he genuinely believed his bullshit, but she followed him. She knocked on the wooden door, waiting to hear him say ‘come in’, and entered. She closed the door behind her, the sound of music and loud chatter muted to a low hum.

“You okay?” She asked, watching him hover over the sink.

The bathroom was brightly lit, with the tiles noticeably dirty, and the toilet seat was broken, the lid placed beside it. It was expected in student accommodation, something she realised she’d have to get used to when she left home. There was a bright orange traffic cone situated between him and the small shower.

“Yeah,” he said, a tone of annoyance in his voice, “I’m fine.”

She watched as he dabbed a wet tissue to his lips in the reflection of the mirror, his eyes turning to focus on hers.

“Sorry about that. Not a great first impression is it?”

He seemed genuine then, a hint of tiredness in his voice. It was the kindest he had sounded all night, and if she’d been anyone, she might have felt bad for him.

“So what was that all about then, with that Clara girl?” She inquired, taking a step closer towards him, noticing the drips of water on the floor.

Discarded cups of drinks, some half-empty, were lying around in the bathroom, most likely left throughout the night during girls’ drunken therapy sessions. The last time she had had one was when Clara had admitted, in a drunken haze, what Josh had done. The sound of indescribable pain in her voice still felt as real to Amal on this night as it was a year ago. The mascara that had streaked down her face, how sunken the skin around her eyes had appeared, how skinny she had gotten. To everyone else, she had seemed fine, as if she could handle it. Amal knew differently.

“Some girl I used to know,” he scoffed, and this time Amal noticed the change in demeanour. “We hooked up once, she was drunk as shit, and she came back to mine. Next thing I know the police are at my door saying I raped her. You believe that? Raped her! Me!”

His laugh this time was bitter, and angry, as if an injustice had been done unto him.

“Once they took me in for questioning, they realised I’d done nothing wrong. I mean, look at me! Do I really look like the type to drag a girl away and force myself on her? She had way too much to drink, and regretted it. That was all.”

The rage that began to climb from deep within Amal’s chest was fierce, dialling up a notch with every word that left his lips. With every scoff that escaped him as he continued, and she bit down on her lip to stop herself from interrupting.

“I don’t know what it is with girls like that, you know? Acting like they want it, sending you mixed messages and shit. If you don’t want it, just say, you know? And it’s apparently my fault she killed herself.”

The memories of that night flashed through Amal’s mind, creating a lump in her throat, manifesting the urge to cry and feeling sick. It made it difficult for her to breathe as Josh jabbered on, bringing back the moments that she had chosen to forget. She remembered the devastation on Clara’s face, how her angular features had begun to wither away, how her expression crumpled when she’d been told they were dropping her case. There hadn’t been enough evidence; she’d left it too long. Amal recalled how Clara cried every night, then slapped on a smile during the day, despite continuously being called a liar, and a slut.

Worst of all, she remembered how useless she had felt. For even though she had said she’d be there for her, even though Ria and Chloe had vocally always fought her corner, Amal had failed to do so. That wasn’t her way; she wasn’t confrontational. Clara was the one who defended her, not the other way around. In the end, she’d been a terrible friend, being the weak one when Clara had needed her most.

“Worst part is, if it had been any other guy, they probably would have raped her, you know?” He continued, oblivious to the growing temper he was causing, “Girls like that, who get that drunk and dress like that, they’re fuckin’ asking for it.”

Everything from there on out became a haze for her. She didn’t realise when she picked up the heavy toilet lid, didn’t even notice the weight of it in her hands as she hit him on the back of the head. The scream he may have emitted was ignored. In that moment, her head consumed by images of blood, the time she walked into Clara’s unlocked bedroom, she lost control of herself. The images of Clara’s slit thighs engulfed her, the way her limp body leaned against the foot of her bed, her head bent. Body unmoving, chest no longer rising to indicate that she was still breathing. Blood, so much blood; that was all she could see for so long.

She kept switching from memory to the present, until it splattered onto her face. Until her breath had calmed down, and she let the weight of the toilet lid fall to the floor with a loud clatter. She let out a loud, disbelieving breath, taking in the scene in front of her, blood seeping onto the tiled floor.

The door to the bathroom was pushed open, and Amal barely had time to get her bearings before her confused eyes made contact with Ria’s wide ones, the former taking in the blood on her hands, on her white top, shaking her head in disbelief as she took a step back. Ria stepped into the bathroom, casting one glance back out to the hallway before shutting the door behind her, her voice barely audible as it broke in shock.

“Amal, wh-what the fuck did you d-do?!”

“I”―Amal broke her sentence, shaking her head continuously, voice beginning to take on desperation―“I don’t kno… he was talking about Clara, he was saying all these things and I just… I don’t know why―”

“Okay, okay!” Ria said, hands digging into her braids and pulling on them as she swore profusely, and took a deep breath, “Just shut up and let me think.”

She was silent for a moment, before forcing herself to look at the figure on the floor, bile rising in her throat.

“Is he dead?” She questioned, placing a hand over her mouth for a second, to make sure her drinks throughout the night didn’t come back up.

“I don’t know, he’s not moving,” Amal replied, voice shaken. “I was just thinking about when I found Clara,” she choked up, and as Ria cast her eyes back to Amal, she noticed the usually quiet and harmless girl lean over as if she were about to be sick, “when I found her like that and how I didn’t d―“

“Listen to me,” Ria interrupted, her voice far from the controlled and calm person she usually was, a thousand different scenarios running through her mind. “You were just defending yourself, right? He was coming onto you, he got forceful, it’s not like he doesn’t have a re―”

“Ria we can’t say that, I hit him from the back. I don’t have any bruises or scratches. I attacked him!”

Before she could lose control, and before the remaining members of the party would hear the commotion, Ria told her to shut up once more. She needed to think, knowing that, before anything else, she would have to wait until the people in the kitchen went out, not having a bunch of drunk people discover a might-be-dead body in her flat’s bathroom.

“Of all places, why did this have to be in my fucking flat?”

Amal said nothing, helplessly looking at the body on the floor, her hands wringing and shaking, as she stood there dumbfounded. Ria watched her, the wheels turning in her head, and took a deep breath. She was involved now; she’d made a decision when she closed the bathroom door behind her. She had to help.

“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” she said steadily, placing her hands up with open palms as a calming gesture to Amal. “We’re gonna wait until everyone’s left for Shoreditch. I’m gonna say you felt sick and you’re in the bathroom, and that I’m staying with you. Then we’re gonna get Chloe, and we’re gonna sort this out.”

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.

CIRCULATION

By Benjamin Corry Wright Kootbaully

 

I take a step from off the deck and in

To night; a heady lift of air, to steep

The week.

 

As light subsides, lungs open wide,

Exhaustion, engines, fall behind.

The grounds will rise at lower tides,

Unlatch the filters – serve the night.

 

My breath awakens freeze-dried streets again,

My spirit stirs this cast of featured bronze;

My smile returned, black liquour on my lips,

My eyes, acute with widowed innocence.

 

For London runs within my blood; to drink

In waves of scoured brass upon the Thames

Enlivens thought, as caffeine does; to sink

The weight of life to come when study ends.

 

I take a seat.

The cold dispelled, I meet the sun,

With weary eyes and absent mind,

Myself and London,

Intertwined.

BCWK

 

 

 

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 worse 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.

EXISTENTIAL CRISIS

By Sophie Raphael

 

The lights turn off and my existential crisis begins.

I am a lie and a figment of my own imagination,

Caught between who I want to be and who I’m settling to become.

I chop, re-design and change.

Should I be allowed to dream, to believe, to feel?

Fear of failure, I’m too afraid to fear,

It’s a burden and a weight on my tired shoulders.

I fear the dark, the shapes that shift with no rules,

Moving along my walls, waltzing to an eerie beat.

A tap drips; wind rustles the trees and loud breathing is heard,

Tormented, I twist and pull the sheets around me.

Sun rise,

Another night not slept.

I get ready and conceal my heavy eyes with heavy makeup.

Drawing a smile onto my face, opening the door to another day,

Knowing that it brings no meaning, purpose or value.

But I wait until dark to allow my crisis to begin once again.