Thursday 28 March 2013

Neanderthal Man

Neanderthal Man
Jenny Palmer
Mann's brown ale 

Jackie had been working on the idea for some time. She’d done all the research. Technology had worked out that they were shorter and stockier than us, by and large. Their heads were a different shape, less rounded.  The bone structure on the right arm was thinner than on the left. This was due, it was currently thought, not to their habit of throwing spears, as had previously been thought,  but because they used their right arm for scraping animal skins which they then wore as clothes.  A woolly mammoth’s skin would certainly be warm, Jackie thought. But they’d have to kill one first. No mean feat.  
            Jackie had embraced the idea that European humans and Neanderthals shared up to as much as four percent of their genes, whereas Keith didn’t like it at all.  It meant that the two species must have interbred at some stage in their evolution. But he’d agreed to do the genetic test, reluctantly.
            ‘I don’t like where this is going,’ he said, when the results of the genetic scan finally came out. Jackie suspected that what he didn’t like was the revelation that his Neanderthal gene count, at three and a half percent, was higher than hers at two and a half per cent.
            Jackie was not deterred. She had been working towards this final manifestation for years. It was all so amazing. Scientists had finally cracked the Neanderthal genetic code. Why wasn’t Keith interested? They could calculate the age of an individual from its teeth of all things. They could see how much a tooth had grown from one week to the next, from one day to another, even.  Neanderthal babies grew at a much faster rate than those of Homo sapiens.  That was because they had to survive in harsher conditions while humans could take their time and learn things on the way.  It was why our brains had developed more.


Keith had always thought of himself as the cleverer in the relationship. He was a historian, the older of the two and had been the first to get his professorship. 
            ‘Men have come a long way since the days of cave men,’ he had commented when he’d first met Jackie at the Faculty party. She had seemed suitably impressed and one thing had led to another.  
            That first encounter with Jackie had set off a train of thought. Keith had started including gender roles in his articles. The territory wasn’t exclusive to women. Men had something to say about the development of the human psyche since the days of hunting and gathering.
            These days they often weren’t the main breadwinner. He had experienced it himself when Jackie had started earning more than he did. She was guaranteed a job because her subject was more popular, he told himself.  He’d written about how human lives weren’t determined by biology any more. It was good to hear a man saying it and his article had gone down well with the public. It had proved that historians weren’t just stuck in the past. 
              He’d followed it up with an article about the effects of the industrial revolution on women, on how it had liberated them from the drudgery of housework and the slavery of the kitchen. He’d written about how the First World War had helped women get the vote. When they had stepped in to do a man’s job they had proved themselves trustworthy and showed what they were capable of.   His articles had showed how much gender roles had changed in the modern world. He’d thought Jackie would be pleased but she’d barely commented on them.
            All Keith ever heard about these days was Jackie’s work.  Why couldn’t she leave it at the university like everyone else? She was for ever telling him about the latest developments in her field.  He’d never said anything for fear of causing an argument but sometimes it felt like she was, well, boasting. It was like she wanted to rub it in how well she was doing.  It was enough to know her work was in the forefront of science and technology. He didn’t need to hear about it all the time.  
            So he’d gone along with the genetic test. She’d never have let him forget it if he hadn’t.  But constructing a life-size facsimile of Neanderthal man on their kitchen floor was, in his opinion, a step too far. To add insult to injury Jackie had actually asked him to pose for it.
            ‘It’s just to get an idea of the proportions,’ she’d said. 
            ‘How can my proportions help, for God’s sake!' he’d protested.  ‘Surely they could have come up with something in the computer graphics department.’
             But Jackie had insisted.
            ‘It’ll make it more life-like,’ she’d said. ‘There is only so much we can do on a computer. We can guess the bone structure but we have to put the skeleton together and stick on the clay by hand.
            ‘Yes, but in our kitchen?’ he’d protested.
            So there the thing was in the middle of the kitchen whenever he came down to breakfast. It wasn’t that bad while Jackie was still working on the torso but once she’d put the head on, it had started to feel weird.  It was as if the creature was watching his every move: putting his cornflakes in the bowl, pouring on the milk, chewing even.  It felt as if he couldn’t do anything without being stared at. 
            ‘You’re just being paranoid,’ Jackie told him. ‘It’s only bone and clay when it comes down to it and a bit of Plaster of Paris.’
            When Keith analysed it and finally pinpointed the problem it was the fact that the creature bore an uncanny resemblance to himself that irked him. Surely Neanderthal men were structurally different from humans. He had this over-riding sensation that Jackie was trying to supplant him in some way by creating another version of him, one that she could mould and shape as she wished.  She barely even talked to him these days so intent was she on finishing the project.   She’d get home from work and start straight away.  She’d devote the rest of the evening to her creation. . She never cooked these days.  He had to get his own meals.   
            It was this last episode that finally clinched it.  She’d already covered the creature’s body in skin from head to toe. All there remained to be done was to insert the hair. One night when he was just dropping off to sleep, he caught her with a pair of tweezers about to pluck out the hairs from his chest. 
            ‘What the hell do you think you are doing?’ he shouted. ‘This has gone quite far enough. It’s Neanderthal or me.’
             And without further ado he marched into the kitchen, grabbed the first thing he could lay his hands on and set about demolishing his likeness.

Author Bio
Jenny Palmer returned to her native Lancashire in 2008. In 2012 she published her childhood memoir called Nowhere better than home  about growing up in rural Lancashire in the 1950s and 60s. She continues to write short stories, poems and articles on local history.  

Thursday 21 March 2013

The Last Laugh

The Last Laugh
Alison Peden
Cointreau and Lemonade (Mum’s favourite tipple)

Abandoning my car in front of the A&E department, I raced in. She was already in the resuscitation area, hidden behind a curtain. I heard a nurse say, 'We've got a DOA'. I'd watched enough TV programmes to know what that meant. My heart lurched as I realised there was more than a curtain between me and the woman who had given me life.
The medics continued to work on her empty, lifeless body. Eventually I could no longer watch and I begged them to stop.
'Just one more try,' pleaded my aunt, who had joined me behind the curtain. We held hands, gripping tightly to each other, as if fearing that letting go might result in one of us being drawn closer to death.
The medics pushed and pressed her body one more time, but we all knew it was futile.
Once it was all over we were led away to a private area; other members of our family had collected in there expecting the worst.
We hovered, unsure of the correct protocol, still shocked and confused by the events of the evening. Eventually a nurse called us into another room. On a small white hospital bed, covered in a thin, green blanket, my mother lay peacefully, with no evidence of the trauma she had endured. All of us sat around the bed, whilst she lay in her final place of rest. She looked asleep, and we spoke in quiet tones, as if afraid we might disturb her.
Over time the volume of our voices increased, as the situation became more normal. We stopped going over what had happened that night and began to reminisce about happier times.
There was a gentle knock at the door, and a young policeman poked his head round, clearly anxious not to intrude on our grief. He checked his paperwork was in order and asked if we wanted him to remove my Mum’s wedding band. I nodded and he began to pull, gently at first, then more forcefully. The ring was stuck fast and he looked flustered and concerned. A voice piped up from behind me],
“If you suck her finger, that will make it easier to slip off.”
The complete horror on his young face was enough to send a ripple of laughter through the room. He hurriedly finished his paperwork and practically ran away.
All the time in that room, I had a strong sense of my mother’s presence, and I know she would have enjoyed the warped humour so typical of our family.
Too soon the nurse informed us it was time to go. I left reluctantly, feeling that I was abandoning her, so powerful was my belief that she was there with us enjoying the last laugh.

Author Bio
Alison Peden is married with three daughters, a stepson and a beautiful granddaughter. She spends much of her spare time writing short stories.

Wednesday 6 March 2013

A Different Kind of Breakfast

A Different Kind of Breakfast
Olivia Smith
Double vodka and coke

Tapping my nails on the bar, one of them instantly snaps off. The bare nail now exposed, just sad traces of glue left clinging to it. Darren always says my acrylics look cheap, with football shirts and a beer belly being the only fashion statement he’s made recently, his style advice goes on ignored. I realise the girl behind the bar is purposely ignoring me, she’s a sad looking thing really, mousey brown hair and an outfit fitting for a librarian. In a thinly veiled attempt at getting her attention, I loudly clear my throat. She pretends not to hear. Every man in this place is looking at me and yet I have to go out of my way to get this virgin’s attention.
‘Excuse me, sweetheart,’ a saccharine smile etched on my face. She sidles over, head pointed to the ground. ‘I’ll have a double vodka and coke please.’ She stares back at me blankly.
‘Maam, its 9:30 in the morning.’
‘Fine and a bowl of cereal then,’ I sarcastically respond. Embarrassed, she pours my drink in silence, over compensating with the amount of vodka poured, I think I like this girl after all.
Sensing a pair of eyes boring into me, I turn round to trace their owner.  Across the bar stands a man; flashy suit, orange tan and veneers that threaten to blind. I politely smile; he unfortunately mistakes my good manners as an invitation to come over. Briefcase in hand, he may as well have ‘wanker’ scrawled across his face.
‘Hi,’ he remarks. Tired of him already, I make no efforts to acknowledge his presence. His eyes travel down to my chest; the ogling eyes making me wish I hadn’t put quite so much padding in my bra this morning. ‘How are you?’
‘Good,’ I force myself to reply. He quickly turns his head, presumably to check he’s not being watched.
‘How about you let me buy you that drink?’ My early morning alcoholism apparently not a turn off.
‘No, thank you,’ I reply. He produces a £50 note from his pocket and slides it in my direction. Sexual propositions practically a part of my daily routine at this point.
‘You know, it really is a shame you won’t let me buy you that drink.’ He thumbs the note that so offensively rests on the bar top. I stand up straight, towering over him in my six inch stilettos.
‘Dear, the only real shame,’ I whisper delicately into his ear, ‘is that your mother decided against your abortion.’ Mouth hanging open, he goes to say something then thinks better of it, promptly putting the money back in his pocket and heading to the door.
My phone starts to buzz; I read the message on the screen. It’s Darren saying he’s almost here. I feel oddly calm, maybe it’s my inner confidence shining through... maybe it’s the double vodka. Either way, I feel ready for what’s to come. In he walks; I can tell he’s attempted to make an effort, a checked shirt presumably purchased at Primark and jeans that, for a change, don’t have any holes in them, just a noticeable ketchup stain right down the front.
‘Hi Sweetie,’ I say, kissing him on the cheek. I lean in to kiss him again on the lips but the gesture is not returned. Staring at me, I can see him trying to quash his annoyance.
‘What are you wearing?’ he blurts out, catching me off guard.
‘What? You told me to make an effort for your parents.’ I say, attempting to defend my dress and heels.
‘No, that’s not what I said. I said don’t come dressed as a tart and here you are looking like a bloody prostitute!’
‘A high class one though.’ I joke, trying to change the mood.
‘Look, my parents are already having a hard enough time dealing with this. You don’t need to rub it in their faces.’ I can feel myself turning red under the mask of makeup I so generously applied.
‘I guess I could go home if you want,’ I say, staring at the floor, ‘I could get changed.’
Darren realises he’s upset me. ‘No, no it’s fine. You look cracking, it’s just me, I’m just nervous that’s all.’ He takes my hand and guides me out of the bar, I grab him tightly.
The taxi ride is silent, with the driver seemingly preoccupied, staring at us both in the mirror. I catch his gaze; he just smiles back looking somewhat embarrassed. As we pull up outside of the restaurant; I spot the breakfast buffet through the windows. ‘Maybe you could just wait here for a moment.’ Darren says, staring at the floor of the taxi, a discarded ten pence piece resting there.
‘And why would I do that?’
‘Look, just please. I’ll just go in, say hi to them and then you can follow. Please.’
I shrug my shoulders. ‘Fine then, I’ll just wait outside like some scruffy little dog.’
Darren makes his way inside. As I stand on the pavement, a deafening wolf whistle is sounded in my direction from a passing car; the blaring sound recently becoming the accompanying soundtrack to my life. Deciding Darren has had long enough to prepare his parents, I saunter on in. I can hear the clicking of my shoes against the floor. Sat in the corner I spot them, a fairly unfortunate looking couple to say the least. Darren’s father is the spitting image of his son, with the exception of a greying moustache and a slightly more protruding stomach. His mother, oh my, a plump little thing whose mere presence makes you feel a bit sad. The kind of woman you presume has so little intimacy in her life she classes visiting the gyno as a date.
‘Mr and Mrs Lloyd it’s an absolute pleasure to meet you both.’ I stretch out my hand for them to shake, ‘And can I say you both look lovely.’ A bold red lipstick and an ability to lie being a must have for any social occasion.
‘Mum, Dad,’ Darren chimes in ‘This is...’
‘Oh,’ Darren’s father awkwardly laughs, ‘I’m sure we can guess who this is.’ Unsure how to take that comment, I take a seat instead. Everyone shovels food into their mouths, grateful for the opportunity not to have to speak. I watch as Darren’s fathers eyes move up and down me, finally resting on my neck and staring intently.
‘So,’ I say, desperate to abate the hideousness that is this breakfast. ‘What is it you both do?’ They desperately look at one another, hoping the other will answer first, as the silence grows increasingly more uncomfortable Darren’s mother ends it.
‘Well, we’re both retired now, so not a great deal really. And what about you? Do you work?’
I pause for a moment, contemplating how to answer this. ‘I did yes, I worked as a nurse for many years but due to recent changes in my personal life they decided it was best to let me go.’ His parents don’t let their intrigue get the better of them. Both politely nodding but showing this is as much as they are willing to hear.
The four of us exit the restaurant, leaving behind half eaten croissants and prying eyes. We stand there awkwardly unsure how to act. I take the lead and grab Darren’s mother’s hand. It seems so tiny compared to mine as I cup it, delicately.
‘It was lovely to finally meet you.’ She smiles at me, the same fake smile that I too have mastered, so perfectly, over the years. We exchange pleasantries and move like puppets, social expectations being our guiding puppeteer. Darren’s father bobs his head at me.
‘Well it’s been good meeting you. In all honesty I’ve never met one before.’
‘He means we’ve never met any of Darren’s previous partners before.’ Darren’s mother interjects. I choose to dismiss the comment and promptly hail a taxi.
Later that night we start getting ready for bed. I take off my makeup, the wipes transitioning from white to a combination of peach and black. I observe my reflection, the strong jaw line and crooked nose. Rifling through my wardrobe I finally find an outfit to wear for the next day’s job interview. Darren walks in and sees the clothes on the bed.
‘Looks like a good choice.’
‘Looks like bull shit if you ask me.’ I can’t hide my resentment, I blame it on the clothes but I know my anger rests with the situation. The grey pants and blazer, a hideously dull shirt and tie. Darren puts his arms around me to cheer me up.
‘Let’s go to bed, ay? Big day tomorrow.’ We get in bed, his warm body cuddling into mine.
‘Good night Darren.’ I say kissing the nape of his neck.
‘Good night Martin,’ he delicately replies.

Author Bio
Olivia Smith is an aspiring writer in her final year at Salford University, studying English and creative writing. English has been a passion of hers since a very young age and she aspires to be a published writer.