Alien by mud howard

The first time I found Arches was two years ago. I was excited about London back then. I fantasized about the sticky web of public transportation. I dreamed of the long journeys spent reading science fiction novels, scribbling love letters, people watching with ferocity. The unexpected intimacy that comes from smushing yourself up against a stranger, their stubble in your eye. I listened to Adele and called it a “case-study.” The city seemed so clean and fancy —bathrooms with plastic doors and locks, all glass airports, large roundabouts with no stop signs. Announcements sound in the underground stations warning people to “take care on the escalators” (so thoughtful).

 The person I was falling in love with lived in London. We were young, with fresher scars and better boundaries. My second night in the city, we took MDMA and saw Mariah Carey live at the O2. Mariah was 46 in a silver sequin dress and still slaying it. Priscilla and I made out all night. I rode the underground the whole way back with lipstick smudges all over my face, as if I had eaten a pomegranate with my hands behind my back.

Back at home in the kitchen, we were both peaking in our separate neuroses—me, furiously compiling to-do lists on every spare piece of paper I could find, her, scraping candle wax off the kitchen floor with a butter knife on all fours. We filled up the tub with warm water and threw a pink bath bomb in. The glittering ball crumbled in our cupped palms and spilled out the edges like a living organism coming apart. Rose petals and Epsom salt unfurled into the pastel water swirling around our two newly bonded bodies.

Two years later, I’m sitting in The Arches Wine Bar on an ordinary night. It’s not snowing outside, but the wind will bite your face if you go out without a scarf.  The old brick walls of the bar still crumble. The bartender’s platinum blonde pony-tail still swings. The French woman painted in her silver-blue gown on the tiles of the corner table still weeps. I don’t even drink wine, but somehow, I’ve got a glass of house red in front of me. It’s hard to say no to the servers; they are the type of women who chase men into the street for looking at them the wrong way.

I moved here for love. My partner and I have been together for about two years now. We are both foreigners to this country; she’s a Kiwi. We met at a Latin American restaurant in Oakland with pink walls and the best fish tacos you’ll ever taste. We are a good match for each other, and our relationship has been a careful, stressed-out, messy dance between borders. You never quite realize how straightforward it is to fall for someone of the same nationality as you, until you don’t.

My relationship with London is a bit more complicated now. I go to my first info session for my Creative Writing MA and Monica Germana, a young, polka-dotted professor with an eyebrow piercing, asks if I knew that the immigration centers near the airport are called detention centres? Have I ever seen the documentary on Netflix about the centre outside of Gatwick Airport? It’s just awful when you think about it.

I think about it. I think back to those immeasurable hours spent pacing and crying and not eating in the maze of holding rooms beneath the airport. The buzzing fluorescent lights. The thick plated window glass. The people curled up in balls trying to sleep on crooked lines of plastic folding chairs. I remember how thin yet enormous the line felt between ordering takeout on the couch with the person you love and having all your belongings stripped off you and placed in large plastic bags with colored tags.

 Sometimes I walk through the underground stations—the labyrinth of Euston, the spiral descent of Goodge, the blunt edge of Mile End—and stare deep into the CCTV, searching for the eyes of a border officer tracking my movements. I still have the card they gave me at the Colnbrook Detention Centre tucked into my wallet. Now, every time I cross a border, my fear is a palpable fruit, fleshy and beating in my chest. Your relationship with a country changes after something like that.

 When I finally got into the UK, my partner and I moved in together in a red brick flat in NW London, around the corner from Arches bar. It is the kind of apartment you’d imagine yourself living in if you had never moved to London. Arches is one of those bars that fills you with other people’s memories the minute you walk in. 80s ballads puff and shimmer out of the small speakers tucked up in the back corners, amongst the twinkling lamps and rusted kitchen appliances hanging from the ceiling. It’s tiny: the size of a double-wide trailer, max. That’s probably a very American way of describing size, but what can you expect. I was raised in a city with the best green chile you’ll ever taste, but I live in a country with a sky grey as steel.

Ride the silver snake of the Jubilee line to Swiss Cottage station. Walk down the hill too steep to skateboard on. You’ll pass the beige building on the right, where the second-story flat leaves the curtains open to brag about the size of their bookshelves. You’ll pass the Tesco Express on the left with the bored security guard checking Grindr behind the glass doors and the 24-hour ATM out front. Once you hit the roundabout, veer right towards Fairfax, towards the supermarkets and the corner stores with fruit ripe enough to steal. First, you’ll pass the luxury bathroom interior design shop (wouldn’t be London without one) with marbled sinks and stone blue bathtubs big enough to fit 4 drunken adults in on a Friday night. Everything in the shop costs half as much as a houseboat, but it’s easy to look and laugh at.

You’ll notice the ancient willow tree, older than any of your living ancestors, drooping its braided leaves in the center island as the traffic orbits around it. The tree looks dead, like a lot of things in this city, but it’s not. The men in the first two corner stores before Zara Cafe might harass you or wave, depending on the day. Somedays the way they harass you will be to wave, friendly at first, but then promptly followed by a wink and a quick up-down of the eyes. Best to avoid them all together, unless you need a few Anaheim peppers. The safer store is Fairprice Superstore, around the corner, up at the end of the block. The men who work there just sell you things you want to buy.

A stone’s throw from South Hampstead, Arches is nestled between two dry cleaners. When I walk by the shops, I have childish desires to hide between the crisp white dress shirts hanging in their ghostly shells, to feel the warm plastic brushing against my face and between my fingers and get drunk off the smell of fresh linen. Sometimes I stand outside of the dry cleaners and imagine being small enough to crawl inside the washing machine and never come out. Arches is the opposite of a dry cleaner: dark, red, soft, pulsing glow. It’s a dim, twinkling, fertile zone.

If the UK was even remotely close to a fault line that could shake out an earthquake, this place would be the first to go. The room is a litany of lost things. Dragonfly Tiffany lampshades dangling from the ceiling above the tiny black staircase. Cobwebs crawling up the chains like algae from the bottom of the sea. Seventeen porcelain light fixtures scattered across the room speckled with bits of warm orange peel. Empty wine bottles line every ledge not filled with bowler hats or rusty trumpets, mason jars or cookie jars, whole shelves of pre-war toys. Tall red candles jut out of orifices with waxy waterfalls splashing down. Each candle wears at least a decade of wax frozen into lumpy bulbous skirts, fit for Victorian queens. Old photographs of men with well-manicured mustaches hang from the wall. The ceiling is made of collectable stalagmites: copper saucepans big enough to bathe babies in, blackened kettles and gas lanterns, thin violins and black-haired dolls with missing limbs.

The clientele are 80% men while the staff is 100% women. You might catch a rare glimpse of the woman who runs it if you walk by before 12 on a weekday or 10 on a Saturday. Once, I saw her step out of a taxi in a bright orange wool coat and six-inch heels. Her hair was a curtain of black ice cutting the afternoon in half. Her thick liquid eyeliner moves up instead of out. Even without the heels, she is taller than me and she knows it.

The women who work here are all mid-30’s to 40’s English-as-a-second-language Eastern European no shit femmes. They have that high feminine power that takes your eyes and breaks them. They remind me of the Russian women I grew up with—my friends’ moms who tattooed on their eyeliner and owned more snakeskin heels than could fit in their condominium-sized closets. Working class women. Bright blonde hair with at least one butterfly tattoo type of women. Never leaving the house without a handbag type of women. The type of women who buy watches and cufflinks for their boyfriends and count the number of times he wears them.

Seasons in London are measured in greyscale. In the winter, babies have sleeping bags built into their strollers. The night tube is an intoxicated circus. Southerners yell extra loud when they are drunk because it might be the only chance they get to actually say what they mean. Craft beer is expensive, wine is cheap. Clean clothes always get a bit crunchy when you hang them out to dry. The city was built when people were smaller and shorter. The weather is shit, the streets are hectic, and houseboats may be the only sliver of romance left in this city, but I would spend another night in a room with no windows just to be here with the person I love.

 

 

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mud howard is a non-binary trans writer from the States. they write about queer intimacy, interior worlds and the cosmic joke of gender. you can find more of their published work here.

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Called Me Trouble by Juan Rios

                                 Mistake is my last name.
                                 Called me trouble.

                                 A prophet without church.
                                 A terrorist in the house of God.
                                 A mistake shaped by nature.

                                 Love revolution,
                                 evolution without love.
                                 Love me tender.

                                 Put me in jail for my desires.
                                 Lock me in without a key.

                                 A detour in the wrong direction.
                                 Highway alleluia.
                                 A unicorn without horn.

                                 Misunderstanding and
                                 glasses in the pouring rain.
                                 Never too much.

                                Never,
                                too much.

 

 

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Juan Rios is a queer poet based in London. He has developed community based work linking cultural institutions and underrepresented audiences. Striking for survival as a coping mechanism would be his mantra sometimes. You can find more of Juan’s work here.

Contact Juan

 

Transgender by Karim Harvey

                                 Pronouns exist to describe me

                                 But I am embodied in the endocrine

                                 rhythms of the river

 

                                 Inclusive in every hand that reaches

                                 out to the beat of the march

                                 I cannot be explained away as only

                                 transgender

 

                                 Or fluid as my tears

                                 I am beyond meaning

                                 Once I was in grave doubt

                                 But I knew time would apprehend the moment

 

                                 Yes I swim in water

                                 I have removed

                                 To be free

                                 Ask Cis and the queer folk who answer me

 

 

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Karim Harvey is a poet and you can find more of his work here.

 

Contact Karim.

Truths of Tragedy

by Kri Dennett

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The Tyburn Tree in Marble Arch marks the spot where witches dropped.
Women hexed by desperate men who hunted them for games and pence.
In 1621, Winchmore Hill, an offering was found;
Elizabeth Sawyer, said to be possessed by Tom the demonic hound.
She refuted the claims and stood her ground.
A strong willed woman who tested man.
For this she paid the ultimate price; first they took her eyes so she could not see, and then they hung her from the Tyburn Tree.
And down the road just by the water another woman was took to slaughter.
For she was cursed with a Devil’s Mark; only it was the same dark spot the man who killed her wore.
Thumb to toe, a swing and throw; will she sink or will she float?
If she sinks she’s innocent and if she’s buoyant she’s a witch.
Either way she will drown, now in the Thames forever a hidden treasure.

South of the river in 2018 a glass land stands; the global hub for the modern day slave where the City hides an early grave.
Sixty hour weeks of sweat, tears and turmoil turn hopes and dreams into fears.
Migrants used to serve the bankers who leave the tip tray dry; greedy wankers.
Out of their seat and on their feet with stomachs as full as their pockets.
Their glutton claims back the price of the lunch, meanwhile their server scrimps and saves for a three-pound Tesco meal deal.
‘Your service was great!’
‘Dziękuje kochanie…oh I’m sorry, you don’t understand? God bless my ignorance for speaking more than one language in this ‘equal’ land. You find treasure in what the Queen speaks, but I find it in my mother’s tongue.’
Said the young proud Pole; an unsung hero who makes Big Ben tick,
for twenty-four-seven beats nine-to-five.
Migrants come to find their treasure, but soon discover its hidden well within; it’s time to escape before the diggers arrive.

Back to Marble Arch it’s the present day.
The crowds pave their way from Baker Street to Trafalgar Square; rainbow flags and Pride tote bags dance in mid-July heat.
Time has turned the throwing of bricks into the throwing of paint powder.
From high above the gold-glittered faces shine; an open treasure chest as
there’s no hiding in Pride.
There’s no more riots or police defence lines, just ‘Love is Love’ tees and ‘Yass Kween’ signs.
Hate doesn’t have the power to last forever, it just moves in phases to another unfortunate mask.
In the way a tortured spirit chases from one body to another.
The pubs, banks, shops and red-top papers all lick their lips as they listen to the march’s raucous sound, but all they see is the power of the pink pound.
The LGBTQ; tomorrows headline and this month’s profit.
It’s a cash in, henny.
But no acceptance or money will ever forget the Soho bomb, chemical castrations, public humiliation, laws of segregation and incarcerations all because of same sex love.
Now the fight begins again for our Trans siblings, just rest assured that love always wins. Queer love.
No longer hidden.
Just a treasure.

It’s the digital makeup era and the city is trying hard to make up by turning tragedies into treasure.
They turn our torture into Halloween tales.
They give us a room in a museum.
But only the smallest one.
They put us on the cover of Time Out.
But only for one day of the year.
To romanticise us is to try and pull the wool over naive eyes.
After all, treasures hidden in heartache are still hidden treasures.
But it’s a little too late.
It’s a culture rape.

And you too can be a treasure in this city.
Just hide your queerness; they only want it for Saturday night entertainment.
Hide your feminism; they only want it in the history books.
Hide your blackness; they only want to stream it.
Hide your eastern culture; the only want to eat it.
Hide it all because they’ll steal your treasure.
It’s appropriation without any appreciation.
And when the time comes your authenticity will be your freedom.
Wear it like a peacock bouquets its feathers.
That’s your treasure in the Western man’s world.
This isn’t Americanisation.
It’s maninisation in the hetero matrix; you’re either on the outside looking in, or you can join the hunt.
The default.
Grab a suit, take out a mortgage and chase a marriage; you’re a modern day slave.
You’re vanilla now, baby; but they’ll never take your treasure.

In this city of trends you kneel to the normative or face raised eyebrows.
The city gave me a life but I made lemons of it.
A bitterness to my palate and a lump in my throat.
Living in sour segments of time.
The acid has tarnished my treasure.
When does treasure become a burden?
Is it when the weight of prejudice, death and power latches onto the gold?
We will never be your next poppy field; you will never turn the blood we have lost at the hands of corrupt greed into a tale of sacrifice hidden by the beautiful, innocent life of flowers.
This land tells a tale of those begrudged; witches, slaves and queers.
Their pain romanticised, forced to forgive for a legacy in the classroom, but never forgotten by those who see.
Who really see.
Why must we find our truths through tragedies?
Victims of an adapting space that yearns for peace, equity and equality;
their footprints forever hidden treasures.

 

Kristian Dennett
Kristian
 Dennett
is Sheffield born and London reborn. He specialises in Queer writing; focusing on screenplays and articles with LGBTQ themes.

Contact Kristian

Etant SDF

by Hamour Baika

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The first time I accidentally came to look at the world’s most famous clock, it took away my breath. Not because I was awe struck. Rather, I found it hard to breathe as I tried to swallow my sobs. I was tired. And hungry. And cold. I’d come to London to go to school, with full scholarship and stipend. But it came long after the deadline to apply for school accommodation. I hardly made it in time to register for classes. Upon landing, I left my big suitcase in storage in Heathrow, took the Tube to Holborn, and went to the Student Services Centre. Within a couple of hours, I had my first stipend cheque in hand. I found out I could go to some cheap hotels with shared rooms, called hostels. All I had to do was to cash the cheque. It went downhill from there.
           “How do I cash this?”
           The woman at the Financial Support Office looked at me sideways. “Have you heard of a bank account?”
           I guessed as a Middle Eastern guy, I looked to her like a savage creature, unfamiliar with modern institutions. I didn’t ask anything else.
           As I rehash this memory, I pat my back pocket, touching the thickness of my wallet. It’s still there.
           “What’s wrong?” He asks.
           “Nothing. All good.”
           “Is this reminding you of… your hard times?”
           “A little.”
           He grabs my hand and pulls me, walking away from the Westminster Palace.
           “When we get to LSE, I wanna check if the bank is still there,” I suggest.
           On my first day at the School, I noticed that NatWest sat next door to the Old Building. I entered and told the teller I wanted to open an account. In hindsight, I should have asked if I could cash the cheque. But I didn’t know better. The teller said my debit card would be mailed to my address in two weeks. Two weeks? My $120 had turned into a meagre £75. I’d already spent six quid on the Tube. You want me to live on 69 pounds for two whole weeks? I had to calm myself down. Be cool! Nobody likes a hysteric Middle Eastern drama queen. Don’t be a stereotype. I didn’t have an address. No pre-arranged accommodations. I begged some guy who I had noticed earlier at the Student Services Centre to let me use his address. He took pity on me. And boom! I got a bank account. To become active in two weeks!
           And that’s how I ended up temporarily sans domicile fixe. When the library closed that day, someone told me the computer lab in the Old Building was open 24 hours. I searched on Craigslist, found the cheapest shared room possible, and took down the phone number.
           “I’m calling about the room.”
           “The bed? Yeah, it’s in my room.” The guy had a foreign accent. “The bed, well, it’s a couch really. We share the room, but it’s perfect because it’s not pricey at all. Water and electricity included. Phone is extra. There’s a chair and a desk. Five guys in the flat. All students.”
           “Great.”
           “Yeah. You saw the location, right? It’s pretty good. Access to everything. Banks, grocery shops, laundry. We just ask one thing: no gays. Nothing against gays, but you’d share a small flat with five guys. No one should have to feel uncomfortable.”
           “Yeah, of course.” I could still pass, right? I didn’t think I was that obvious. “Sounds great. When can I come and see it? Tomorrow?”
           “OK. Call before you come. Don’t forget you have to pay first and last month upfront.”
           I hung up. My one-pound coin fell into the belly the phone. I had £68 left to last me two weeks. No need to look for a place. I couldn’t afford to pay for the first and last month upfront. I went back into the computer lab. An old guy wearing some sort of uniform walked up to me and asked for my student ID. He looked at it and walked away, not asking for anyone else’s.
           After I wrote to my mom that I was staying at a hostel tonight until my stipend is processed in a couple of days, I took my bag and went for a walk.
           Soon I found a grocery store. I found large bags of “crisps” for 73 pence. When I was ready to go back to school, I realized I didn’t know the way. I asked a policeman. He told me to make a right and go straight for several blocks. I turned right and after one block, I faced a fork. Which way is straight? The one on the left or the one the right? The key to whole city was called an A-Z book. £5. That was my food ration for a whole day.
           I spent the night at the computer lab, pretending to be writing emails to folks back home. By 5 a.m. I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. So I went for another walk. I found a street along the river. The same one we’re walking on right now. When I saw the lights in the Houses of the Parliament, the sky was still dark blue. I looked at the buildings and hoped I could just go back home.
           By gods’ intervention, I found a McDonalds on my way to school. Surely it couldn’t be true that a Big Mac cost only £2! That was the first good news I got in London.
           At the Old Building, I found a “loo” with only one toilet and sink. One could lock the door to the whole thing. So I locked myself in, washed my socks and lay down on the ground. Not sure how long I slept, but my socks were almost dry by the time I had to wear them and go back outside.
           I discovered that there were showers in the basement. The hot water treated me well. I spent a long time under the hot water. Some days, I would soap my body twice. Three times. Just as long as I could stay under the hot shower. Until one evening, someone else at the showers noticed how long I stayed there.
           “I’m sure you’re pretty clean by now.”
           “Excuse me?”
           “Sorry, I didn’t mean to be creepy.”
           He came out of his shower. The drops of water looked like pearls on his olive skin, dripping off of his ling hair as he ran his fingers through them. He looked like a Bollywood superstar. And he was talking to me.
           “Siddharth!” He extended his hand.
           I told him my name and shook his hand, afraid my body was going to display my instinctive attraction.
           “You’re already clean! Me, I like it dirty,” he winked and walked away.
           I had to turn on the cold water before I could leave the shower. I guess it took me too long because he was nowhere to be found when I went into the hallway.
           Maybe he’ll show up the same time tomorrow. I showered there at the same time, the next day, and then the next day. On the third day, I lost hope.
           For two weeks, I napped in the library and the computer labs. Sometimes, I would walk all night.
           We reach the Somerset House. The fountains spray particles of water onto our faces.
           “I was so stupid then,” I confess. “If I looked nice and I flirted a bit, I could go home with people. I could have slept on their beds, eating their food for breakfast. If they were nice, I could even ask them if they could pay for my Tube ride.”
           “I must admit I am happy that my husband wasn’t a former sex worker though.” He squeezes my hand.
           “Not really a sex worker. I was even a virgin at the time. I could’ve at least dragged it out with you so that I could sleep in your bed a few nights before I let you… So stupid!”
           “You were stupid! Not that you should’ve been sleeping around with anybody willing to take you home. But you should have told me. I would’ve invited you over.”
           “I didn’t wanna look like a needy loser.”
           “Needy winner,” he corrects me. “You won my heart!”
           “Charmer!” I push him towards one of the fountains. It wets his jeans and one side of his shirt.
           “What the hell!”
           “Thought you like it dirty!”
           “You rascal!”
           He pulls me toward himself and kisses forcefully my lips. I’m now also partially wet.
           I gaze into his shiny brown eyes. “I love you, Sidd.” My hidden treasure.

 

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Hamour Baika is a Middle Eastern author in the making. He wrote his first novella around the age of 12, an ET fan fiction. A series of migrations has led him to the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, where he’s grown roots. You can find his work here.

Contact Hamour

Hollow People

by Ali Mulaga

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           So I’m standing on this bus crouched next to the door, anonymous in a sea of commuters. My headphones are on at full blast so as to annoy the poor sardines next to me (kidding– I just like my bass loud). It’s so typical, the buses are full, the trains are full, but other than the turning of the wheels and the low roar of the engine, the only socially acceptable sound to emit is the occasional heavy breath or annoyed grumble.
           
During the lull of a song I think I hear someone speaking, so I pause the music to listen.
           “Why is everyone so sad?” a man asks to no one in particular. “I’m lookin’ around at everyone on this bus, and you all look so sad.”
           It doesn’t take long to identify who it is. He’s the only person on the bus talking, and loudly. He stands on the bottom step of the staircase, perched up and facing the crowd, speaking to everyone as if we’re there for him and not just going wherever we’re going. No one is reacting. No one even seems to be listening, but they must be because even with the Gorillaz playing at full volume I could hear this man preaching. Look, the dude is clearly a crackhead so I get why no one replies, but his monologue is probably the most profound philosophical tangent I’ve stumbled upon in real life and this is the reaction. Not that I’m about to tell him that.
           The bus is in standstill traffic. I can feel everyone around me wanting this guy to shut up, I can almost see the fantasies about telling him off. The cheers that would follow. But no one does. We all avoid eye-contact, and he carries on, undeterred by the lack of engagement from his audience.
           He digresses from his rant to comment: “This kid is looking at me like I’m weird, and that’s making me feel weird.”
           I stand there on the bus with my headphones over my ears and no sound coming out, fully attentive. He rambles on without pause and goes on to talk about economic class. He shouts about how taking the bus is so middle-to-low class. Everyone with money is out there driving their nice cars, their nice Mercedes and BMWs and here we all are standing on an overcrowded bus with metal rods that are hollow inside.
           Just to check, I give the light blue rod next to me a little tap.

           On my way to my friend Knot’s house later that night I’m sitting on the silent tube. Couples stare vacantly into the distance in opposite directions, categorizable only because they get on and off the tube together, not because they’ve actually said any words to each other. People give wary looks to the weird man reeking seventy percent of beer and thirty percent of pee but maybe they avoid him more because every few minutes he mumbles to himself and starts coughing up what seems to be both lungs and probably his stomach too. A woman asks the girl next to her to turn her music down. It’s really loud. Some people flip through the newspaper. Flip through, not read. I’m sitting on the silent tube, and I start to think maybe it’s not just the metal rods that are hollow inside.

           Isn’t it weird how people stand on escalators? It’s doing half of the work already, so just… walk up. It’s seems like more effort to be walking and then suddenly having to find footing, stop for a while, read advertisements, entertain the self, and then be aware when the top approaches, only to walk about fifty meters and do it again. Just walk up. It’s the same with moving walkways and people who take the elevator at the gym–  why?
           
I guess it’s none of my business.

           Some would say I’m late. I say time is an illusion; what is ‘late’ anyway?
           
“Late is when you show up after 10:30 and it’s no longer free entry,” is Knots’ smartass answer.
           Fine. So long as there’s still enough time for me to smoke a spliff before we go I’m not bothered.
           “Do you even have your ticket yet?” he asks.
           “Ticket? Where are we going?”
           “There’s this club in Camden. Koko,” my friend Matangi says. “It’s in an old theater.”
           “A club?” This comes out as a drone. “I say ‘let’s do something fun’ and you guys want to go to a club?”
           “Yeah, the website says they’ve got some good music on. Cool indie, alternative dance, eclectic pop…”
           None of this sounds appealing (what is ‘cool indie’?). I guess it’s clear from my face because my so-called friend says, “Come on, don’t be so… yourself. New year, new you! It’ll be fun.”
           “I’m sure it won’t.”
           Matangi smiles knowingly. “They said there would be bubbles.” She shows me the page when I call bullshit.
           Grudgingly I agree to go. But somewhere not that deep down I know there’s something better I can be doing with my life.

           I lose my friends in record-setting time. We don’t even make it onto the tube platform before I don’t know where anyone is or where I’m going. Vaguely I remember that my personal hell tonight is in Camden, so that’s the direction I go in. There’s absolutely no certainty this will work out. For all my crusades and rants about technology there are situations where yes, perhaps it would be useful to own a phone.

           When I find my friends standing in line outside Koko I can’t tell whether or not I’m relieved because now I have to go in. It takes me a while to cut through the line and when I do Matangi is waiting by the bouncer.
           
“You pay ten pound yeah?” says the bouncer when we get to him.
           “Isn’t it free entry?”
           “Until 10:30,” he says. “It’s 10:31.” Of course it is.
           “Let’s just go to the Blues Kitchen,” I suggest. “Or anywhere else.”
           “Everyone’s already inside.”
           Once we’re finished being robbed at gunpoint we walk inside and immediately have to start yelling at each other because there’s a Drake remix more shit than the original blaring over the speakers.
           “Where are our friends!” I shout.
           “What? I can’t hear you!”
           “What is this music?”
           “What’d you say?”
           “This already blows!” I complain, at this point talking at rather than to her.
           “Should we find the rest of them?”
           They’re on the dancefloor trying to dance. The DJ’s playlist must be titled something along the lines of “how to make people sway awkwardly” because that’s all that’s happening. Occasionally there’s a huge silver beach ball people tap around. No one seems to question the fact that we are not at the beach.
           After about twenty minutes I can no longer take the mindless shuffling and head upstairs on a quest for bubbles. The club being an old theater is labyrinthine and in seconds I have lost track of where anything is or where I’m going. I start to ask around but no one seems to have seen the bubbles. Someone suggests that it’s the large beach balls people are throwing around.
           “But beach balls aren’t bubbles.”
           A shrug is the only reply.
           Somewhere above I look over the edge and into the pit I earlier escaped. From up here it looks nothing like club scenes in the movies with the strobe lights and the good times. It looks more like the floor has gotten so sticky that moving around feels like molasses. They all look like zombies, aimlessly staggering around to a beat. And same with everyone upstairs, sitting alone at tables nursing warm beer. They stare at their phones, with the occasional look up to confirm that no one is paying any attention to them.
           No one seems to question the fact that it doesn’t look like anyone is having fun. Here they all are, hollow people in a hollow room, trying to figure out what mix of uppers and how much will it take to not care about how much fun they’re not having. Well, at least it isn’t just me. Except, I don’t take uppers because I like to know exactly how much fun I’m not having. Kind of like how I know I’m too high to deal with the bullshit of being here and somehow simultaneously I’m nowhere near high enough for it.
           In the bathroom I roll a joint. Retrospect is the realization that a grinder would have been a good idea.
           It dawns on me that for the second time in a few hours that I’ve completely lost my friends with no way of finding them. It must be something about the way I tend to wander off without saying where I’m going, but who can say really? At least finding them will kill some time. I check the dancefloor first, and it doesn’t take me too long to find the main staircase. When they aren’t where they were when I left I weave through the throng of bodies and see no sense of familiarity as I pass face by vacant face on my way to the opposite stairwell.
           Eventually I find them on the first floor, leaning against the railing looking out into the stroby abyss.
           I announce my presence. “Does anyone else really feel like smoking a joint?”
           “Oh god,” says Grace, looking over at me. “Please.”
           Over his shoulder Knots tells us,  “If you leave I don’t think you can come back in.”
           “Well, I’m convinced. Let’s get out of here.” Grace and her boyfriend, Mute (not his real name– I’ve always wanted to ask but his name is also the problem) are the only ones that want to come with me, so the three of us make a hurried exit for the door. We get lost in the labyrinth for so long I eventually become convinced that they’ve done this on purpose and there is, in fact, no exit. And then we see the glass doors, push them open, and draw in the freshest breath of crisp night air.
           The closest station is literally in front of us on the other side of the street, but we turn and walk down the other way. A kind stranger lets me borrow their lighter.
           “Well thank fuck that’s over with,” Grace sighs when I pass her the spliff.
           “Oh thank god, I thought it was just me. I felt really lame for a second. How is this thing that everyone says is fun so actually horrendous?”
           “I can’t believe we were there for so long.”
           “Yeah,” says Mute.
           “I knew I didn’t like clubs,” I say. “Don’t actually think I’ve ever been to one and now I know why. I should just stick with my gut, this is exactly what happened to me with pickles.”
           “Pickles?”
           “Pickles are wack, don’t let anyone tell you any different. I did, and I regret it.”
           “So why did the rest of them stay?”
           “Matangi and Knots are all squeamish about smoking in public after the police searched them that one time on Matangi’s birthday,” I explain. “ But look at how not arrested we’re getting!”
           In fact, there’s no one on the street we’re walking down. Gone are the beats manufactured from synthetic happiness, replaced by the random hum some buildings make, the wind rushing in the spaces between. London at night carries its own life, the subtle yin to the day’s boisterous yang. The streets empty, there is no roar of traffic, no stench of gas, but the conversation of people who pass by on the other end of the street carries its melody over.
           Grace and I chat– I feel personally victorious when Mute contributes a full three sentences to the conversation– and for a while none of us realize that we have no destination in mind.
           “Let me find a route home on my phone,” Grace says, mapping it out. When she gets it, we follow her, our conversations dancing around the world and back again. I learn about travelling in Morocco, how creative and cool a city Bristol is, and dream about living in the consistently beautiful Italian countryside. No one seems to notice how bad at directions Grace is until she says we should be at Kings Cross station and all we see is some chicken wire fence blocking off some construction.
           “Oh shit, I typed in Kings Cross the area, not station.” And then we’re on our way again, Grace apologizing for the mishap.
           “Don’t worry about it,” I tell her. “This accident has been much more enjoyable than something I didn’t actually pay ten quid for.”
           “I know what you mean, I actually really like walking around London at night.”
           “Me too. It’s a shame I only do it when I’m trying to get somewhere.”
           “Yeah, same here. I should do it more, we live in such a beautiful city.”
I look around, breathe in. “How lucky are we?”

           The platform on the night tube is alive. People are buoyant and vibrant on their way home with some friends with beer cans no one bothers to put in paper bags. No one looks sad, though there is that one guy passed out on the bench.
           The chatter is so overpowering it’s almost a strain to hear the train coming in. It’s full enough that we can’t sit down, but Grace scores the perch seat next to the side door.
           “Ah hey, you got the best seat on the train!” I tell her. The guy on the other perch spot looks over with a small smile.
           “You’re right, it really is the best.”
           “Trust me, the seats are overrated. Not even that comfy.”
           He laughs. “Do you wanna sit?”
           “Yeah, why not.” I perch and introduce myself. “What’s your name?”

           You know, come to think of it, I never did find those bubbles. Talk about false advertising, huh?

 

 

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Ali Mulaga is a full-time creative writing student, part-time hooligan. She Writes poetry and the ocassional disgruntled letter about vegetables. You can find her in her hammock somewhere.

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Consolation

by Namya Naresh

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When people say the world works in mysterious ways, my inner voice laughs out loud. Yes, it very literally laughs in my head vibrating throughout my body. Because I do not believe that is true. At least I didn’t.

I’d say it took me on a journey. But that just sounds stupid doesn’t it? Like we live in an ideal world where everything eventually works out. But we don’t.

Do we?

No. It wasn’t a higher force that I can’t comprehend. It wasn’t supernatural. It wasn’t a self help book.

It was me.

I did it. I changed.

I opened myself up and turned hope into reality. No. It was always reality. I just let myself see it. Acknowledge it. Believe it. Trust it.

Trust myself.

I walked out of my apartment that morning and found myself paralyzed by the sun. It had been so long since I felt its warmth on my face. One of the things I took for granted I guess. I had spent my whole life hating the heat. I spent my time cribbing, crying and wishing for it to cool the fuck down. Except it wasn’t just the sun, it was my life. I wanted everything to just take a beat and chill. I was over heating and slowly drying up inside. Now I was standing on the other side. I got what I wanted didn’t I? Moved to a cold country and slowly froze into an ice popsicle. The sun became a distant cousin who almost never visited and I became stale.

But that morning, I was warm.

After I recovered from my momentary paralysis I refocused on my day. It was late and I had to run to class now. I hated running. I hated sweating. Dolled up in all my layers that were meant to protect my body from the cold, underneath them I was hot and sweaty.

Just my luck.

I suppose I could have run through the streets, stripping off layer by layer as the people around me wondered if I was having a mental break down. It might have been liberating. But liberation wasn’t in store for me. Not yet. I walked at an even pace, melting inside. By the time I made it into my class I was late and stinky.

I brought it on myself. No one else to blame.

It was a normal day and I was sitting in a normal class. I had sat through that class all semester, bearing it. And it was always the same. Average. Like me.

You know those moments when you pretend you are listening but really you are dancing in a meadow in New Zealand? That was me. Except it wasn’t so much of a meadow but my garage back home where I sat and aggressively applied to college. I was so determined back then. I knew exactly what I wanted.

I wanted to become a writer.

So there I sat in class, months later getting exactly what I wanted. And yet I was not fulfilled. I sat there going over all my failures. I had failed to get a decent job, I had failed to enjoy this city because of the cold, I had failed to write as much as I thought I should have been writing. And yet as these rants invaded my brain I was scribbling down ideas on my book. Ideas to turn into proposals for jobs, ideas for pieces of writing, ideas for what I was going to go home and cook. Half way through the class I realized what was going on. My body was literally rebelling against my inner voice’s annoying and depressing verbal onslaught. The scribbles on my notebook were exactly what made me who I am.

I am an ongoing battle.

The very battle that made everything I have done in my life possible. As long as I had my scribbles and my ideas I was succeeding. My ability to constantly come up with new ways to get a job and new things to look forward to, was my success. I was a success because of the simple fact that I hadn’t given up yet. And I wasn’t going to. In that moment I looked at the students around me and realized that I had always been a girl who wanted to become a writer.

Now, I was a writer.

Simply because I had decided that I was. And no one, not even life could take that away from me.

Trust myself.

A huge weight was beginning to lift off me. I found myself squashed and breathless underneath. As I caught my breath I wondered, was this my moment? Was London my city? Was I going to bloom into the flower that I was always meant to be? I sound like my mother. I wasn’t a flower or even a bud. I was the London sun. The sun that’s always there but is shadowed by the clouds who reign over it.

The clouds, my fears.

I was the sun that you couldn’t always see but when you did, its brightness and warmth would paralyse you. It would stop you and make you admire its rare brilliance. I was always told that I was brilliant. I was always told that I was beautiful. That didn’t make me brilliant or beautiful, it made me dark and bitter. Being told what I was, only made me see everything I was not. That day I saw myself for who I am. I am made up of moments of brilliance that don’t come along very often. But that doesn’t mean that they are not there.

It’s a start.

 

 

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Namya Naresh
is a writer from India, taking on the city of London as her bottomless source of inspiration. She writes short fiction, poetry and is working on her first novel. She strives to create a beautiful blend of reality and fiction within the pages of her writing

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The Commuter

by Harriet Weston

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The platform was cold and empty, just as I liked it. No distractions. No delays. With my feet planted firmly, I waited.
           3, 2, 1…
           
Soft rumblings forewarned the tube’s arrival. The doors opened to a partially filled carriage, the commuters segregated within their own pods, and a metallic voice announced the station. Interrupting the voice was my Transport for London app, beeping at me from my watch to tell me the train had arrived. A quick glance told me the number of the seat I had paid for.
           I sat without another look around me and activated my pod. Immediately the hushed noise around me was silenced by an opaque wall. The pods were a godsend by TfL. When the price of the tube rocketed a decade ago, Londoners demanded more of the service. TfL’s answer was to carve out more lines, specifically for those within the central zones, and to install pod seats. Pods were controlled via an app through a phone or watch and once activated sealed you in from floor to ceiling. It meant that those who had the means paid for privacy, hygiene, and isolation. It was a slice of heaven in an otherwise hellish day.
           Gradually the pods became obsolete as crowds thinned out on the tubes due to rising fees. People, like myself, still cherished the physical cut off, despite the lack of crowds. The smallest noise could set me off and I needed silence. Though not a great way to relax, the pods allowed me additional time to prepare for work. Relaxation was a luxury these days. I had to be ruthless and take time where I could find it.
           I sighed. Another day. Another project.
           The particular project I was working on was a goddamn nuisance. Stress seemed to spill from me, filling up the pod. My shoulders ached. I could have sworn I had shrunk from the amount of tension I had been carrying around.
           Speaking of stress, I checked my phone. My boss hadn’t called to check up on me. I wondered what was holding him up. He usually liked to ping me at least twice on my commute, giving me tasks to complete before arriving to the office. I was on my way to becoming the beta to his alpha. Just a few more months of hard, life-sucking work until I was rewarded with the same hard, life-sucking work on a much higher wage.
           I smiled at the thought.
           The train jolted.
           No! Please don’t—
           My watch beeped. Delay.
           They were rare enough not to warrant my immediate aggression, but I paid through the roof for this service to run on time. I growled, hoping my will would power the train to move faster.
           If I was late by even a minute, my boss would be on my back and my chances of becoming manager would shrink.
           My fingers played with the edges of my coat, anxiously fiddling with a loose thread. What could be holding up the train?
           As the train began to inch forward again, my watch beeped to announce I had received a message from the TfL app.
           Our sincerest apologies for this delay to your commute. Another line has been taken out of service due to an electrical fault. As a result, this train will detour to cover stops on that line. An additional 30 minutes will be added to your commute this morning. We apologise for any inconveniences caused.
           
An extra thirty minutes!
           I whipped my phone out and called my boss. He didn’t answer. I tried again – nothing.
           Where the hell was he?
           I looked around on instinct. The pod’s walls enclosed around me were stifling, their soft blue not calming me in the slightest. The tension within the pod grew. My breathing became jagged.
           Accessing my pod’s settings, I changed the opaque wall to clear.
           I gasped.
           The carriage was packed with people. It took me a while to adjust to the sight. I hadn’t seen this many people on the tube in years.
           My breathing slowed as I took it in. So many faces. They were covered in dirt, all wearing uniform overalls. I peered at the logo on their chests. TfL maintenance. Probably finishing a night shift.
           I gratefully patted the walls and thanked the TfL gods for the creation of the pod once more. The number of germs they carried could put me out of commission for a week. Or longer!
           My body shook at the thought. Vile.
           Checking my phone for messages, I pondered what to do. Usually I would have tasks to work on, or at least talk projects over with my boss. But he was radio silent.
           I scrolled through notes on my phone, picking the most recent to peruse.
           The crowd in front of me jostled. Glancing up, I caught the eye of an older lady. She gave me a small smile. I blinked at her. Slowly, my lips raised. I hadn’t smiled at a stranger in so long, my face felt like it was cracking.
           The lady turned away as a colleague spoke to her. She laughed, her eyes crinkling with glee. When was the last time I laughed in such a carefree way?
           The fact that I had to question myself meant it had been far too long.
           The maintenance crew were a mixture of ages, the lady being the oldest. I would have placed her between 60 and 70, but that was too old to work, especially in such a manual role.
           I discreetly examined her, my notes forgotten. She was small and her hands gripped a pole to keep her balanced, with pale skin that was hardened and dry with grime. Her face was lined, no doubt from laugh wrinkles. The crow’s feet around her eyes deep. A smile seemed likely to break out at any moment, her lips naturally half-raised in good humour.
           We stopped and more people piled on. It was only for an instant, but I saw her humour slip and fatigue plagued her features.
           Deactivating my pod, I froze as the impact of smells and noises hit me. I pushed through my initial shock, sliding my phone into my pocket, and stood.
           The lady glanced at me in surprise. I gestured to my seat.
           She understood immediately and shook her head.
           “Please.”
           A tentative smile forewarned me of a full-blown grin. “Thank you.”
           She sat down, as I stood in her place by the pole. I breathed, trying not to touch anyone. The lady settled into my seat, visibly relaxing as she leaned back. I smiled and stood tall, holding the pole to keep steady.

 

 

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Harriet Weston is Bristol born and currently living in London as a freelance writer. She has a weakness for science fiction and coffee houses. You can find more of her work here.

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Joe the Barber

by Naseema Khanom

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Friday, 9 o’clock, Jummah, Mile End Station. In pendulum style, Imran crosses the dotted borders of Mile End to West Ham on the regular to get to his shop. The morning sea of serious faces wash over him, as he skids across the tiled floor in a rush to get to the platform. He gets stuck behind a large shouting Somalian lady, who shoots bullets of spit down a flip phone, the line cuts out and she stops in her tracks, to then hold it frantically above her head in search for bars. A long domino line of commuters stack up behind him. Her guttural squarks can be heard from a mile off, his fillings start to tingle in frustration. He tries to side step her trailing black burka before spotting a mirage, a small gap between her and the wall and he begins to calculate the chances of pulling through and making it out in one piece. The thoughts of doing a runner flashed through his mind but his knees are not cut out for it anymore. He has tried everything to conceal the bald patches, the belly and grey splashes on his beard, but the boys still call him Pops. Pops you’re getting fat, you’re so slow, come on old man put some muscle into it, la di da. He will never know the moment he turned from a young man to Pops. Life seems to bash and clang around him, before he knows it he’ll be buried deep inside the cold ground. He is getting too old for this young city.

Harassed, he longs for his bed inside his box home. When Saima and him moved in, he had joked that the new place was so small that you could barely yawn without touching the walls on either side. She didn’t see the funny side her nose met her brows. He always sensed her disappointed in him, as if he told her they were to live in a cardboard box outside on the road. She didn’t marry him for his humour. Students, single mums and loners littered his estate. A bunch of hang abouts, with tick marks on their shoes and untucked school shirts zigzagged on low bikes. No gooders who took refuge on his doorstep in the midday gloom. He takes pleasure in interrupting their irritating rap battles and bare fist boxing matches. He shines with pride in watching their foggy expressions turn startled as he threatens to kick them deep into the ground and turn to dust. They run away from the crazy old man who lives inside a box.

He is caught like a cow in headlights with his arse stuck in the air. The woman swerves sharply before smashing him into the wall. She was wondering what this stupid old man was doing, creeping up on her like this. She hits him with her bag before storming off, leaving him wishing he never left home.

Cut and fade

Underneath a ruin of scaffolding stands Joe the Barber. Sajid sellotapes the left window with black gaffer tape, whilst Nazrul watches him with his feet up, playing with a comb and a pair of scissors. He marvels at the outline of the boot print that left a perfect hole through the glass, he couldn’t decide if the cracks look like a map of the underground or the popping veins in Imran’s balding head.

From outside, the wall stencil declares that The hair makes the boy, the beard a man. Sajid shakes his head at this and assumes Imran was going through a midlife crisis, but Nazrul puffs air through his mouth and clicks his fingers brap brap brap. An assortment of floating heads of football players, MC’s and “Grime g’s” (Nazrul’s recommendations) are stuck on the peeling wall, the other half is covered in Google images of brown men donning a new fade. There are three red stools in front of white slab tables, mismatched mirrors and a plastic plant. These small details were Imrans idea of making the joint more appealing. He’s always harping on about how the other joints are out-doing them. They need to move on with the times. A black flat screen hangs low in a tangle of wires connected to an unloved VCR, it balances precariously on a black trolley and next to it is an Aux cable jammed into an IPhone which pops out ballad after ballad.

Nazrul’s legs shoot down from the table when he sees, Imrans floating head through the window coming closer and closer towards the broken glass. A look of red rage fills his face, his moustache begins to quiver and wiggle in all directions. He stares from the window to their sheepish faces, Nazrul dares a wave and Sajid wears a tight smile. It is going to be a long day.

 

 

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Naseema Khanom was born and brought up in Yorkshire and now has moved to London. She writes poetry, short stories, and has been published on series of fashion magazines online.

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There’s no Place like Home

by Tara Murray

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           Hampstead Heath. Two simple words, but something that was completely unknown to her, until a few days ago. When thinking of London, her mind always went to Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, and Big Ben. She had never heard of Hampstead Heath before. Someone had mentioned it to her in passing, nothing special, but when she heard the name, she was intrigued.

           “What’s a Heath? Where is Hampstead? Is it close enough to go to on my own without getting completely lost?” These were some of the questions that went through her mind after hearing about this elusive London spot. After looking it up on Google, she decided in that moment, it was time to make London her own and Hampstead Heath her destination. She had been in London for a few weeks now and she had yet to venture out on her own. This was her chance to explore someplace unfamiliar and she was going to take it.

           Coming from the United States, she didn’t have any data on her phone. Her life was a constant search for WiFi. Walking around London was like living in the 1900’s without phones. If she got lost, she was completely on her own, relying solely on the paper maps that were always bunched up and put to the side due to society’s dependence on smartphones. In reality, she had no idea where she was going most of the time. She was living her life in London based on the saying, “fake it till you make it”.

           Taking the tube somewhere she had never been, or even heard of was going to be an experience, and a scary one at that. She had planned the route for days. To say that she is a bit of a planner would be an understatement. She never left the house without knowing how to get somewhere and how long it would take. Living in a completely new country where you barely know how to get back to your own home is scary. How was she supposed to feel going to an unknown spot? She knew the anxiety would take over if she didn’t have a plan. She wanted the trip to be as easy and stress free as possible. Some places, that could happen easily; but not in London. Tube line closures and slow walkers were some of the normal occurrences in any London Underground Station.

           Sunday finally arrived and she was more than excited to finally discover this unknown area of London. There was obviously some fear as well but she was pushing all the negative feelings she had to the back of her mind. Although it was never easy for her, she was trying to stay positive and ignore the anxiety that was building up in her. She knew no matter what, today would be a good experience for her to have. She felt as though she was prepared for anything that life could throw at her, or so she thought.

           When she stepped outside the doors of her home, she was immediately met by the constant fall of rain drops. “Welcome to London” she thought to herself as she tried to shield herself from the drops of rain plotting to ruin her hair and makeup as she walked over to Baker Street Tube Station. The dreary Sunday afternoon was enough to make her want to retreat back to the sanctuary of her well-known room, curl up into her bed that was always calling out to her, and take a long nap. Against the loud screams that were filling her head, she continued on. She had been looking forward to visiting this new place and she was going to make the most out of this day if it was the last thing she did. She put her headphones on to block out the traffic and the strangers around her, letting the music carry her to her destination.

           Making it to the station, she immediately realized how crowded it was. Walking through, she felt as if she was in a herd of cattle being driven towards the platform. They all had the same destination. There was no organisation when it came to the tube. Some would call it pure chaos. Everyone is constantly on the go no one looks or talks to each other. It was a dog eat dog world down there and she was determined not to become a victim. She finally made it to her platform after fighting the others for a space in the carriage.

           Her route to Hampstead was simple. Metropolitan line eastbound → change at King’s Cross St. Pancras → Northern line Northbound = her destination, Hampstead Underground Station. The few minutes it took to walk to Hampstead Heath was filled with her taking in the scenery. The area was so different to where she lived in London. Marylebone Road was busy to say the least. There was the constant cry of ambulance sirens through the days and nights. Cars beeped their horns at pedestrians, other drivers, and anything that got in their way. The peaceful walk through the back streets of Hampstead reminded her of the small American town she lived in back home. The quiet was something she had not experienced since arriving, but she still had the feeling of being in London. It was different aesthetically, to anyplace she had ever been to in the States, especially New Jersey, and she was immediately enthralled by it.

           The walk over to Hampstead Heath and to the top of the hill was, in one word, wet. The rain would not give up. She was never one to complain about rain or snow, but this was just unbearable. She was determined to make the best of the situation. So, she continued her trek up the hill, letting herself become immersed in the music radiating through her headphones and the stunning scenery that was all around her.

           When she finally made it to the top of the hill, she was amazed. Not only by the fog that clung to the buildings, but by how beautiful the view was even with extremely low visibility. She knew that on a clear day, she would be able to see London for miles. There was something about the gloomy day that made her love it there even more. The trees parted in the perfect area for anyone to be able to spot some of the tallest buildings in London. Through the fog, she could glimpse the BT Tower, a barely visible St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the bottom of the Shard. She had hardly any breathe after the walk up, but the view took whatever was left of it away.

           She had only been in London for a few weeks, but she felt like she was looking at her home from up here. This city enveloped in fog and fallen snow had stolen her heart and she did not want it back. Moving somewhere new is hard for anyone but, throw in the amount of anxiety she has had to deal with her throughout her entire life and it was the most challenging thing she had done. Everyday was a constant battle, worrying if she made the right decision, if she could actually do this and succeed. Sitting on Hampstead Heath, staring down at the bustling city of London, she forgot about all her worries, if only for a little bit. She felt as though she could sit up here all day and look at the city, her city. She felt like she was looking at a lost love, one that was finally found. In that moment, it was as though that view was just for her, there was no one else around her right then.

           She felt as though she was the only person in the world that was allowed the privilege to look down on her new favorite city, it was like a little slice of heaven just for her. This new view of London had been hidden away just for her to find. Staring down at the city hidden and protected by the fog, she realized this was where she belonged, this was where she had always belonged. London was where she was meant to be.

 

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Tara Murray
 is originally from New Jersey but has since moved to London to pursue her MA in Creative Writing. She enjoys writing fiction and nonfiction short stories

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The Knoll

by Emily Rath

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She wears a cape of winter grey

draped over her shoulders bare
they call her Prim
bow to dance
her suitors unaware,
of victims past and
lovers gone
regarding false identity,
mounting her in cold dominion
riding her absentmindedly.

A path is laid with daffodils
heads heavy from winter rain,
would you stand tall
Crowned
Radiant
if thousands trampled your mane?

A girl drinks coffee
watered by rain
sits under a
Rowan Whitebeam tree
amongst the treasures of quiet roses
the self can finally see

Prim opens arms
Wet and
Verdant
undressing Girl’s secret scars
washes memories of hospital
Away
while conversing with hidden stars

Girl asks Prim the answers to lore,
of knowledge owned by Destiny
Prim lays quiet, tired from Sun
and welcomes Moon’s neutrality

‘if Sun met Moon and Moon went blind
would Sun remain faithfully?
Would Moon release her dreams of courting
one younger than Sun’s infinity?’

buried beneath the earth of Prim
lay prayers left by
Dreamers like Girl,
relapses
pills
drink
drop down
from leaves
as Flowers
unfurl.

 

 

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Emily
 Rath is from Denver, Colorado.  She writes fantasy fiction and poetry.

Contact Emily

Travel Joy

by John Philip Gethring

photo for wsj

                                 The camera shivers through
                                 a quiet touch of eye contact
                                 shuttering a fracture of time’s square-ness.

                                 In it, friends dress
                                 tastefully gross
                                 formed to styles of denim queens.
                                 That of generations not present in their age.

                                 Evermore interesting,
                                 the billow of cigarette smoke
                                 shaping to a spray of iris flowers,
                                 purple, when is thought of dream.  And so
                                 broken are the laws of literature and singularity.

                                 Turn these haunts to falling weeks
                                 as fabric to the weave
                                 mechanism to the water.

                                 The drive home keeps us partly in motion,
                                 into the night and its flaw.

                                 A variant of red darkness creeps across
                                 her face, headlights bursting her
                                 skin to roses.

                                 The breath of rain fogs the road
                                 and our bodies steam
                                 behind sweating windows.

                                 Watch air become heavy
                                 with water, rinsing city lights to lambent phosphenes,
                                 rub the
                                 sleep from off our eyes.

                                 And say goodbyes to where we met
                                 our gypsy camp that sketched the
                                 planet, inviting friends to be lovers.

                                 Isn’t this all temporary? There’s too much
                                 ground to cover.

                                 Fit what we can in our pockets, stuff
                                 them with finesses
                                 of Grosvenor road, The Union
                                 where early mornings danced in the smoke
                                 of dry ice, light rays passing
                                 through us.

                                 River Thames, our muddy compass
                                 dumping the city’s imperfections
                                 into the North Sea and
                                 sunny-day-architecture
                                 folding with unexpectedness,
                                 people sharing half-smiles for
                                 the ephemeral splash of blue.

                                 But our particles collided beautifully here,
                                 in and out of moments,
                                 what a mess we have created.

 

 

John Philip Gething

John Philip Gething is originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, but is now based in the UK. His chosen genre is poetry.

Contact John

 

Nice Day for a Picnic

by Wayne Goodman

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“Nice day for a picnic.”

I looked up into the face of a middle-aged gentleman with noticeable sags under his steely-blue eyes made more obvious as he had bent at the waist. That toothy grin seemed amicable enough, but those mutton chops had significant amounts of grey and much of the hair on his head had previously departed.

“Beg pardon, sir?”

He straightened up and repeated his opening remark, “Nice day for a picnic.”

It was May 1895. I had just received notice that my request for employment with the National Gallery had been declined–again–and news of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s imprisonment brought another gloomy cloud over an otherwise gloomy day in London. The front page of Police News showed dramatic “Closing Scenes at the Old Bailey,” and the Evening Standard proclaimed, “The Abominable Vices of Mr. Wilde.”

My time at Oxford would soon be coming to a close and I needed to secure suitable employment. I sat upon the steps of the recently-dedicated statue of Anteros in Piccadilly pondering my fate.

The rather forward fellow bent down again and whispered in my ear, “Are you not Ajax?”

“Ajax?” I responded in a clear volume, “The Achaean? Trojan War and all that?”

“Ssshhhh! Keep your voice down, young man,” he admonished. He looked left and right, as if I had just revealed his secret identity to the world at large.

A moment later, a scholarly-looking gent about my age, height, hair colour and styling passed us and sat on the stairs of the monument a few feet away.

“Excuse me. Sorry for the bother,” my tormentor apologised and scooted off to the newly-arrived man. “Nice day for a picnic,” he began, and the two of them chatted for a few minutes before they walked off together toward Charing Cross.

As I reflected on this odd encounter, I looked up and saw one of my old mates from Oxford. “Algie!” I called and waved. “Algie! Over here!” I stood and greeted my classmate as he stepped up from the street.

“Why you old thing! What are you doing in London?” Algernon Horatio Fitzhugh looked rather dashing in a hound’s-tooth tweed jacket, his raven hair pomaded to the point of drowning. He was a year ahead of me at school and sat Literature.

“Oh, Algie, it’s been tough. My appointment at the National Gallery fell through, and then the news of Oscar.”

“Yes, poor Oscar. We’re all going to have to take more care these days.” He looked left and right, but I couldn’t tell if it was because he was nervous about talking with me or because he was looking for someone. “It’s so good to see you.” He continued to swivel his head about, which led me to believe he was seeking another.

“Algie, the strangest thing just happened. An older fellow came up to me and said, ‘Nice day for a picnic.’” Algie’s head halted in its search. “Have you ever heard of such a thing?” He then turned his eyes on me directly. “He thought I was Ajax or some such nonsense.”

Just then, another, even paunchier, middle-aged gent in a dark grey overcoat approached my friend, doffed his hat and greeted him with, “Nice day for a picnic.”

My eyes bulged at the now-familiar phrase as Algie turned to the newcomer, “Yes, indeed it is. Please give us a moment, sir.” He looked at me and said, “Sorry, but I’ve got to go.” Algie reached into his jacket and pulled out a visiting card. “Here. Pay me a call, and we’ll chat about the old days.” With that he strode off with the very gentlemen. Indeed!

When my composure returned, I glanced at the card: “Mrs. Borden’s Confidential Companions, 12-13 Greek Street, London.” While not familiar with that particular address, I believed it was in the area referred to as Soho, a neighbourhood well-known for its depravity.

With all the misfortune of the day, I decided it might be best to return to campus. I put Algie’s card in my own pocket and began walking toward the station. What kind of business could he be conducting?

In his own Oxford days, we did belong to a special boys’ club, which is how we first made our acquaintance. Due to our empire’s severe laws against any type of sexual relations between men, we had to be very discreet and sworn to secrecy. With the imprisonment of our Oscar, things looked to be getting even worse for men like us.

On the ride back to school, I daydreamed of languorous afternoons in the dormitory, starkers and unabashed with other like-minded fellows. We were far from home, healthy, randy young men who had biological urges that propelled us to have long sessions of sexual expression. At first, we were not sure how to satisfy each other’s passions, but after a few rounds of frigging by hand together, we graduated to using our mouths and lips upon each other. Some of the boys could not acquire a taste for the semen of another, but I relished the unpredictable flavourings. Those who did not preferred to have their partners slide back-and-forth between their legs instead, kissing optional. Some of us developed forbidden feelings, as we had no other outlet for our adolescent emotions. Even at this early stage in our lives, we understood these male-to-male relationships ran counter to society at-large and how the outside world had proper expectations and made unsolicited demands on our particular sex.

Not everyone chose to abide by the common rules, and some of us managed to maintain our surreptitious activities throughout the terms. I was just reminiscing about the first time I lay with Algie unrigged–and how surprising the enormity of his stiffy–as the train stopped at Oxford station. When I went to stand, I had to put a hand in front of my pants to hide the arousal caused by my reveries.

The subsequent month, once all of my classes had terminated, I traipsed back into London again for yet another disappointing round of interviews with yet more galleries. This began to worry me as my funds would evaporate after a week or so. I do not believe I was ready for the poor house just yet, especially with an Oxford degree in hand!

As I was near Tottenham Court, in Oxford Street and Charing Cross Road, I realised my proximity to the Soho neighbourhood. I pulled the card from my pocket to reacquaint myself with the address: 12-13 Greek Street.

When I reached Soho Square, I meandered along the paved paths, taking the southern way to the top of Greek Street. It seemed plain enough. Stately buildings lined the row, and I strode to the door marked 12-13. A large brass knocker in the shape of a bull’s head dominated the otherwise ordinary slab of wood. I lifted the thing’s head expecting it to moo or snort, but it merely created a loud “thud” when I let it free.

A moment later, the door opened a hand’s-width, and a rather tall woman in a conservative, high-collar frock addressed me through the narrow gap. “May I be of assistance?” Her voice sounded somewhat deep for a woman.

“Oh, yes, please,” I stammered. “I’m looking for a friend of mine who gave me this calling card.” I retrieved it from my pocket and slipped the card to the woman. She snatched it from my fingers, examined it quickly and handed it back. Her expression remained placid, neither acknowledging nor denying that I was at the correct place. “His name, ma’am, is Algernon. Algernon Fitzhugh.”

Her already arched eyebrows raised even higher. “I see. Well. You had better come in then, Dear Heart.” She opened the door fully and walked away along a narrow entrance hall. I have been referred to as “Love,” “Sir,” “Master,” “Mister,” and “Sweetie,” but never “Dear Heart.”

Once inside, I could see that her manner of dress appeared quite odd. She wore neither corset nor bustle, and the puce-colored dress seemed nearly vertical in its lines. Her chestnut hair appeared to have been plopped atop her head and knotted with a grey bow, yet it still managed to cover her ears.

She led me to a cosy sitting room with a few plush high-back chairs and a low table. Pointing her rather large hand, she indicated one of the chairs, and I sat down nervously. As I looked about the dark-panelled room, I could see stacks of ornamented china plates and cups, all in a creamy shade of light blue.

“It’s Wedgwood, Dear Heart,” the woman explained, “Old Josiah himself once lived here and left some of his handiwork behind. Would you care for some tea?”

When I looked into her eyes for the first time, I realised they matched the colour of the china almost exactly. “Yes, ma’am. If you please, ma’am.”

She elevated her chin as if looking for stray dust on the ceiling. “Please do not call me ‘ma’am.’ It makes me feel rather like an old lady. Mrs. Borden is the name, if you please.”

“Oh, as in Mrs. Borden’s?”

“Yes, Dear Heart, the very one.” She disappeared through a swinging door.

What had Algie gotten himself into? This mysterious woman, this mysterious home, this mysterious life. I just hoped he had not fallen victim to the undertow of immorality.

“Here you go, Dear Heart.” Mrs. Borden returned carrying a silver-plate tea tray with two Wedgwood cups. She set it on the low table. “I’ve already taken the liberty of putting milk and sugar in the cup. I know how you Oxford boys like yours sweet.” A hint of a smile wrinkled her face.

“How did you know I attend Oxford?”

The smile broadened. “Because of your acquaintance with young Algernon, of course.” She poured from the teapot a cupful each. “I’m afraid your friend is out on business at the moment, but you’re welcome to keep me company until he returns.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much indeed, Mrs. Borden.” I looked about the room. “Will Mr. Borden be joining us? I don’t want to seem improper.”

The woman’s smile turned into pursed lips, “There is no Mr. Borden.” She stirred using a small silver-plate spoon, which called attention to the size of her hand, especially with the pinkie extended. Two taps on the rim and she set the spoon back on the tray.

“Oh, I am truly sorry to hear that.”

“No, Dear Heart,” she placed the same rough, warm hand with slightly hairy knuckles upon mine. “There never was a Mr. Borden,” and she winked at me. I wanted to pull my hand back but did not wish to seem rude to my hostess, and it remained under her cover until she finally decided to take her tea.

We sat, sipping (and it was mighty fine tea at that), without speaking.

After several minutes, she turned to me and inquired, “Do you have your affairs in order?”

“I’m not sure what it is you are asking, Mrs. Borden.”

“It has come to my attention that many of the recent university graduates are having difficulties procuring positions at this time.”

Given that I had just finished another set of unsatisfactory interviews, she might have been reading my mind. Or, perhaps, my face.

“Yes, Mrs. Borden, many of my schoolmates are finding it difficult to procure proper employment at this time.”

“Are you one of those?” Her eyebrows arched higher again.

I decided to be candid with her because I frankly saw no advantage in prevaricating. “Yes. I had hoped that an Oxford degree would speak for itself. Up until now, it has remained rather hoarse.”

She smiled a little. It could have been my slightly humorous remark or a passing thought. “I don’t know if your Algernon mentioned this to you, but I do provide rooms for young men like yourself.” Her eyes seemed to examine me in a watchful way similar to a job interview. Or, perhaps, an audition of some sort.

“Mrs. Borden,” I set down my teacup, “while this appears to be a rather nice home, and I’m sure the rooms are top-notch, I am afraid that I could never afford the tariff as such.”

“Tariff?” She seemed surprised or taken a-back. “There is no tariff here, Dear Heart.” She slurped some of her tea.

“You mean I would be able to live here without paying you anything? That seems rather generous.”

She smiled and lowered her chin. “Case in point, you would earn money while you reside here.”

If I had had some tea in my mouth, it might have accidentally sprayed forth like an atomiser. What kind of rooming house pays you to stay there? “Are you suggesting I become part of your house service staff, Mrs. Borden?” What else could she have been hinting at?

“No, Dear Heart. We don’t have service staff here. I am proprietor, business manager and scullery maid-of-all-work rolled into one.” Her tight smile hinted at courtesan flirtation.

Again I had to wonder what kind of rooming house. Oh. Wait. That kind of rooming house. I reminded myself we were in Soho and took some more tea straightaway. My heart raced and I could hear the pulsations in my own ear.

“We serve only the cream-of-the-cream. You would receive a percentage of the fee plus whatever gratuities your clients determine. It’s all discreet and very hush-hush, you know.”

“But I never —”

“No, none of us ever, Dear Heart, but there comes a time in a young man’s life when he has to make some very difficult decisions regarding his future.” Her eyes lingered on my face, searching for an answer to her unspoken query. She drummed the fingers of one hand in sequence across the side of her cheek. “Such opportunities present themselves only fleetingly.” She stood and began walking to the entryway, as if preparing to usher me out to the street.

A thousand conflicting thoughts criss-crossed my mind like a train round-about at high speed. What if my parents found out? Where could something like this lead? Would this have kept me from obtaining a bona fide position? When would I receive an honest job offer? How would I have been able to pay for my next meal? “Wait!” I blurted. Mrs. Borden returned to the chair. “Would I have to be… you know… um… intimate… with these gentlemen?”

“Why Dear Heart, what do you think this is, a brothel?”

I looked around the rather comfortably-appointed room, with its dark, plush furniture, china rails, mahogany highboy, and ivory statuettes. A bit of butter-upon-bacon, if you ask me. Yes, it did give one the air of a bordello.

“Well, I can see where one might arrive at the incorrect impression; however, no intimacy–as you put it–occurs here under my roof. If a gentleman wishes a thruppenny-upright, he can find that sort of thing in Gropecunt Lane.” She pointed in a generally westward direction. “And, besides, if that’s all he wants: he’s no gentlemen. I only provide companions for the well-to-do: MPs, titled nobles, and the sort.” Her face shifted to a self-satisfied sneer. “My clients are select, discreet and proper.”

“I must confess, Mrs. Borden, that given the recent bad turn for Mr. Wilde we must all be cautious with our affairs, and I am currently attempting to procure proper employment with a local gallery.”

“My boys are all university-educated and well-bred. No laws are broken; although, some might be temporarily bent.” She giggled to herself. “As it so happens, I have a vacancy at this time. You shall be taken care of very well, and you can still pursue your scholarly interests.”

As if responding to a cue line from a play script, my mid-section grumbled its desire for nourishment.

 

 

Untitled 2.pngWayne Goodman has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area most of his life (with too many cats). He and his fiancé, Richard May, host a reading series called “Perfectly Queer,” which holds monthly events in San Francisco and Oakland. Goodman also hosts a quarterly ‘In-Conversation’ series called “Queer Words.” When not writing, he enjoys playing Gilded Age parlor music on the piano, with an emphasis on women, gay, and Black composers.

Contact Wayne

The Biscuit Tin

by Rachel Fallon

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                                 As the sirens wailed
                                 And the bombs fell across the capital
                                 They hastily gouged out the precious gemstones
                                 And hid them deep beneath Windsor Castle

                                 Returned to their refuge within the soil of the earth
                                 As it was before hands pried them from the ground
                                 and decided upon their worth

                                 Glittering symbols of a powerful Empire
                                 Forced underground as the Nazi’s raids begin
                                 Removed; Sitting in the darkness
                                 Shielded within an old biscuit tin

                                 Above houses turn to rubble; mounds of stone; not precious or shiny
                                 Once treasured for providing a humble home; a cherished sanctuary

                                 Hiding below the surface
                                 The most priceless of all
                                 The souls that lay across the tracks on the underground floor

                                 Unthinkable today
                                 As I stand on the crowded platform
                                 To imagine people talking, smiling, huddling to keep warm
                                 I look out at the crowd of impatient faces, moving silently
                                 Eyes down, the threat of terror causing an uncurrent of anxiety

                                 The resilient citizens who endured the Blitz
                                 The people who pieced London back together
                                 Brick by brick
                                 Surviving on rations with barely enough to eat
                                 Deserving more than crumbs off royal seats

                                 Mind the gap.

                                 Between the rich and the poor
                                 A homeless man shivers outside a supermarket store
                                 The crown jewels possessively sealed behind bomb-proof glass
                                 Gazed upon by a conveyor-belt of tourists
                                 Not looking to the future; too attached to the past

                                 It’s important to remember
                                 The most precious treasure we share
                                 Is that we are Londoners
                                 United by our humanity
                                 Not a shiny hat that an old lady wears

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Rachel Fallon
is a playwright from Manchester who also enjoys experimenting with poetry.

Arlington House

by Bob Boyton

Arlington_House_Camden_Town

Arlington House, Camden Town

1982 – You’d have been hard put to it to see the place and think it could ever be golden although Madness got one of their best songs out of it – ‘One Better day.’

Built in 1905 Arlington was the last of Lord Rowton’s Rowton Houses, offering accommodation to homeless and travelling working men.

Good lodgings by the standards of the time Arlington was still well enough run in the 1930’s to be approved of by Orwell during his jaunt amongst the down and out.

Hardly modernised after the second world war by the 1980’s the place had become a disgrace.

With 1038 cell like rooms Arlington was the biggest hostel in Europe. Many of the rooms were no more than seven foot by five. Most men could put their arms out and touch both walls.

Staff were mainly drawn from amongst the guys living there.  Wages and conditions of employment reflected how vulnerable they were working for an employer who was also the landlord. The main staff who didn’t live there were an alcoholic manager and some paid bullies who enforced Victorian conditions for the residents. Log books from the time show that men were fined £7 for bedwetting and evicted on to the street for repeat ‘offences’.

It was also well known but not recorded that the bouncers might want a backhander to allow residents who returned drunk at night back into the hostel. The residents weren’t allowed into the building during the day so perhaps not surprisingly some of them became street drinkers.

In winter 1982 I was secretary of Camden Trades Council, the body that coordinated the unions in the London Borough of Camden. We were approached by Arlington workers wanting some advice about how to join a union. We put them in touch with the Transport and General Workers Union

Rowton management didn’t welcome visitors let alone trades unionists intent on recruiting but around Easter time the lads who worked there smuggled me in for a meeting and to give me some idea of what the place was like. I was a railwayman at the time and used to eating my sandwiches in a cabin by the side of the track so I wasn’t fussy but I think this was the dirtiest place I’d ever been in. We met in the canteen known ironically as the Wimpy Bar. It felt more like the setting for a Victorian melodrama. It wasn’t gas lighting but I wouldn’t have been surprised if it had been.

Afterwards I was taken to a pub called The Good Mixer. The legend was when they’d put in the floor the builders had forgotten to get the cement mixer out of the basement and it had been stuck there ever since. The Mixer was managed at the time by a one legged man. He had one rule, you could do more or less anything you wanted, even have a fight and roll around on the floor but if you broke a glass that was an immediate ban. I think the lads took me in there to test my bottle, I must have passed the test or maybe it was a Thursday so they knew I’d just been paid and was holding money.

Not long after that meeting there was a brief successful strike to get two shop stewards reinstated who’d been sacked by Rowtons. The company should have learned the lesson but in September they sacked T.U. staff who’d walked out on strike after being lied to about negotiating rights.

The strike lasted thirteen months. I spent a lot of my spare time on their picket line. The trades council raised thousands of pounds from other trades unions and their members.

The Arlington House strikers weren’t typical trades unionists, a lot of them had been in prison, some had a serious drink problem and a few came with a history  it was more comfortable not to know about. At first I felt superior but the truth was that politics aside it wasn’t a good time for me. I was only a couple of weeks’ wages away from being out on the street myself.

By the time the strike ended in victory I’d left the railway and fallen out with the community project I’d been working for. Hearing I was out of work, the senior union steward at Arlington returned what he saw as a favour and got me a start as a cleaner. I was promoted to night support worker not long after starting, just as the hostel was being transformed into a home the residents could be proud to live in. It was a hard way to earn a living but  four nights a week for five years I was going to work in a building that embodied one of the few Trades Union victories during Thatcher’s dire decade.

A lot of the blokes who lived there were rehoused to their own flats and we ended up with a maximum of three hundred and ninety residents at any one time. A lot of the guys who stayed were injured or damaged in one way or another. The following two pieces are creative non fiction inspired by some of the Arlington men I was privileged to meet. For a writer they were hidden treasure.

 

 

Sylvester

           ‘I think of going home every year when June comes around but something always stops me. Ah, once yer

used to living in a big city and there’s nothing at home to look at but fields.’

 

 

Sylvester was in his late 60’s or maybe even early 70’s; a quiet, mild and always polite man I got to know

when I was working at the ‘Big House’. He was on the short side with a balding grey head and a gentle face,

as if none of the horrors of the world had touched him. At some point during the time I knew him best

he started a relationship with Susan who was a schizophrenic around 20 years his junior. Susan was either

pregnant when he met her or became pregnant by him. The child, David was taken into care a few days

after he was born.

 

Susan was a woman of middle height with untidy-ish curly black hair and usually wore a drab grey dress.

She seemed to have a low level of interest in the world – the two of them were often in the big house

having lunch in the canteen. Sylvester had no apparent mental health problem himself but appeared

to have little comprehension or insight into Susan’s condition.

 

I haven’t seen Sylvester walking around Camden for a long time now and he may have died and finally

made that trip home or perhaps he rests in St Pancras Cemetery along with so many barely remembered

Irishmen. There might be someone who knows what’s happened to Susan, her name must be in a file

somewhere but I haven’t seen or heard of her and it feels like the wind blew her somewhere else, let’s hope

without Sylvester to look out for her it’s a kindly place.

 

Michael

He was standing up in his room looking for something dry to put next to his skin. He’d only got out of bed

because his can was by the hand basin but now he wouldn’t go back, the bed was soaked right through,

he’d even pissed the pillow and the eiderdown.

 

His trousers were damp in the crotch and the pockets from the night before and he must have pissed over

the shirt during the night. He wondered was it the drink that made him piss so much? Sometimes it didn’t

happen and sometimes he remembered, he’d pissed the bed when he was just a kid, before he’d ever had

a drink.

 

He was shaking but not as bad as usual. He opened the can and got a bit down himself. He sat on the chair,

as he drank a bit more he looked around and remembered that he didn’t have any pants. He’d had to

carefully take off the pair he’d been wearing when he’d been caught short yesterday, taking his trousers

down and taking them off before he took off the pants trying to make sure none of it spilt out on to his leg

or his sock. He was glad he’d been wearing a pair of socks; the toilet floor didn’t look too clean. The place

had gone to pot these days.

 

A few more mouthfuls and he wasn’t so worried about having wet clothes. He’d put them on when he

finished the can, go out and act the clown, ‘Michael the mad paddy, thank you very much sir, thank you indeed,

thanks be to you on behalf of the Irish Government, and thank you to you too sir, I mean this most sincerely from

the bottom of my heart, and god bless you and all who sail in you and you’d better be thanking me as well.’

 

 

As he walked along the corridor he imagined greeting the boys on the steps, ‘will ye sing Skibereen’ one of

them called out but he wasn’t in the mood for singing yet, he only did that when he couldn’t think straight

anymore. He could sing on auto pilot when he’d had so much to drink that he couldn’t remember anymore.

Couldn’t remember all the thin white cocks he’d seen and seen them as well when they weren’t so thin and

white standing upright like Sergeant Majors, waiting for him to do his duty and give them some release and

him wanting to, right up until when he found some release as well, and then he had to go and wash himself

but even that didn’t take away the smell of it, and he would have gone to confession only he didn’t think the

priest would want to give him absolution for that because you couldn’t get it not for that.

 

 

IMG_0186

Bob Boyton is a writer and performer. You can find details of Bob’s novel here.

Contact Bob

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.