Wednesday 28 February 2018


by Robert Ferguson

bitter tea

How prepared are you? This thought hit me like a hammer, as I sat at the table outside my favourite café. I had listened to the news on the BBC, as all ex-pats do – don’t they? still? – the calm lady’s voice telling me from far-away London that those not far away from me over the border now had the means to blast us all to atoms, literally. And the thought hit me - not for myself, I had an air-ticket, and a protective company and an Embassy who would do everything to get me out – but the thought hit me for all these sweet, gentle people around me, the people who had laid my coffee in front of me on the table and would soon bring me my breakfast waffles and syrup, imported straight from the powerful US of A, the tiny lady who cleaned up my flat after me and did my washing, that older guy over there pushing a desultory brush over the pavement in front of |his Aladdin’s cave shop. How prepared are you? Because they won’t end the world, even they aren’t that mad, or the other madman in Washington. They won’t end the world. What would be the point? They don’t want to die any more than anybody else does. They want their creation-ending weapons solely as levers – “We’ll do it if you don’t let us…” – and then they’ll march across the border and take exactly what they want, which is everything. And that includes you, your watch, your cash, your brush, your shop, your body, your whole future, your very life, if you try to oppose them. So how prepared are you for that day?

Because they’ll do it, you dear, kind, gentle people, of whom I’ve become so fond since I’ve been living and working among you for so many months. And they’ll make it work. They are prepared, you see, have been preparing for years. They have the trucks and the weapons and the strategically placed fuel-dumps, and the rifles and the ammunition supplies, and the grenades, and the helmets, but above all they have something you don’t have, something crucial to success, something you’re going to have to find pretty quickly, as they roll over your sprinkling of a Border Force, and whatever defences your great allies have allowed you to have. They have, in spades, the passion of knowing that failure is not an option. And it’s passion that is going to win this war.

I looked around me at the quietly busy, sunny, everyday street, and couldn’t imagine its people growing sufficient passion in no time at all. Afterwards they might find it, after it was too late, and the bayonets were at their throats, or in their chests, the patrols in the darkened streets, their menfolk herded off into camps and starved, and their tiny, docile, smiling women ... well, armies the world over and throughout history have dealt with captured women in just the same way. Then, even they might become passionate, but by then such passion would be nothing but an added danger to them. Passion overwhelms perception so easily, the perception of the weaknesses in a plan, the perception that the available resources are too few, the perception that, possibly, the famous plan might fail. Then, they’d throw away their lives anyway – later than their eventual conquerors might have foreseen, but throw them away they would.

And I sat there, to my lasting shame, thinking these thoughts dispassionately. These weren’t – aren’t – my people. I have come to like them, but my people are far away, and safe; and so is my home, my lounge, my bedroom, my kitchen, the places where I’m safe, the things I’ve gathered and stored there while I travel, knowing that, in due course, I shall return to them and they’ll still be there. The cafes are there where I go for breakfast when I’m home, the shops I go to when I need bread and milk and steak and tomatoes and … None of these are under direct threat, so there’s no need for me to feel passionate about them, is there? I can sit here prescribing for a far-off people among whom I just happen to be at this peculiar time, but won’t be when passion is the only possible salvation for them. Will I?

Or will I still be here? Will the panic that will bloom just like the threatened mushroom-cloud prevent me from leaving, despite my pre-booked air ticket, and the calm, English ladies and gentlemen at the Embassy “making every effort, Mr. …to get you onto a plane. However, …” How long will the Embassy staff stay here, as foreign in this country as I am myself? They too will have homes to get to in England, and they will be far greater prizes than I would for the invaders who are looking for levers on the world stage to add to their nuclear power. Would I even make it to the airport? Taxis? Company cars? You must be joking. The drivers and their families will take them for themselves. Wouldn’t anyone? And even if there were transport available to get to the airport, would it get through the completely chaotic melee which will be traffic that will clog every possible city street and country road? And that is without the prospect of having your personal transport commandeered, if not by the military – probably in full retreat: fleeing, if they still have the strength – then certainly by stronger, younger civilians, more determined to escape, with more passion to fuel their determination to preserve their lives. A European, an alien, taller and with a white face, and alone, I would be a readily identified as an easy target, however I was trying to get from the town to the airport.

As I sat thinking these thoughts over my cooling coffee and congealing waffles, and the city street continued to be the same as it always is, the sun to shine, the shopkeeper opposite to sweep,  I began to realise that my own passion was rising and growing; and I was ashamed, because it was rising out of fear, sheer, selfish fear. But growing it was, and it was time to put it to use, and get myself home.

Back in my flat, I lifted the telephone to call England and tell my company what I was doing, and then thought, “No. They’re in England. Foreboding news, but it’s only news. There’s always news, and it lasts about thirty-six hours before something else takes its place. Sit tight,” they’d say. “Safeguard our interest. Don’t look as though we’re the sort of company who panics at the first sign of difficulty. This contract is too important to us for that. Just sit it out for a day or two and see how things go.” But they were there, and I was here, and the threat was real and not very far away.

Grabbing a small back-pack (mustn’t look like a refugee at this stage, trying to escape with all my worldly goods), I packed it with food and drink that would keep, and keep me, for a few days, just in case. One spare T-shirt and pair of pants, and my spare sandals (comfort, not elegance, let alone dignity, was what I would need if it really did all go wrong) and a good old-fashioned scrape-razor, light in weight but powerful in avoiding the appearance of a fugitive. The white skin and round eye-sockets were bad enough, though the face would soon tan; but I certainly wouldn’t want an untidy stubble all over it. That was exactly what would stop the casual glance of policemen and soldiers on patrol. All the cash I had laid by in its hiding place went into my cotton money-belt, hooked around my waist beneath my shirt. My cell-phone? Yes, its GPS might help if I were forced away from civilisation. Then off, down the stairs on the first leg of my escape.

The streets were warming up, and getting busier already. Fewer shops than usual had opened, and from those which had, the local radios were broadcasting what seemed likely to be news broadcasts rather than the usual gentle, tinkling Oriental music that I understood no more than the words that were all around me. No taxis. I began to walk, quickly. “Taxi. Taxi,” I shouted several times unsuccessfully, until one stopped, already carrying three passengers in the back seat. “Airport?” the driver asked, and that boded ill already.

At the airport, the driver’s implied prophecy was coming true. Eventually getting to the airline desk, I presented my open ticket, and asked, "Next London ‘plane?” 

“Not this morning, Sir,” he said, whistfully. “None scheduled today, I regret.” He made to give me back my ticket, more with the air of giving someone a keepsake than anything likely to contribute to the recipient’s well-being. 
“Anywhere in Europe?”, I almost begged, “India, Australia…” 

“Nothing out of here today, Sir. Sorry. Too dangerous, the airlines say.” 

The walls of the terminal building almost cracked under the pressure-wave of something flying very low, and very, very fast. Everyone ducked. Beyond the big glass wall at one end, a Russian-built Mig flashed across the flatness of the airport. You could see the bombs slung under either wing. It really was happening, and I was stuck in the middle of whatever was to come. Singapore, 1942, all over again.

The harbour! That was it! Get out on a ship, to anywhere. It would only defer the horror if nuclear weapons were actually deployed, but time, a little more life, was worth more than money in this situation. I pushed through the crowds to leave the terminal. Outside, taxis were queuing up to drop hopefuls, for whom I knew there was no hope here. I dropped into the back seat of the first, hardly giving the fat American lady time to get out. 

“The harbour, please,” I said. The driver glanced at me cynically, drawing down his eyebrows in a frown, but not wishing to risk his fare by telling me I’d be no better off there than here.

Crossing town, the traffic had built up, complicated by the number of cars with carts hitched roughly to their rear and piled high with the essentials of a family’s survival. Handcarts, similarly loaded, filled the gutters and criss-crossed where they could through stationary traffic. They would soon find out how essential those essentials are, I thought. Refugees always start with everything, and end with nothing as they journey on. Hey, I suddenly thought as reality hit me, I too am a refugee.

The crowds at the quaysides were worse than at the airport, and more frightened, the range of their dangers increased by all the vehicles trying to get as near to a gang-plank as possible with their accompanying carts, and those which had simply been dumped when their owners, having obtained passage – or at least having paid for it – had no more use for their erstwhile pride and joy. I dashed from ship to ship, starting with those of European lines, but most had withdrawn their gang-planks, and the rest – European or other – had stationed large, heavily-armed and very effective guards at the tops of their gang-planks to prevent anyone, even with a white face, getting near. I stopped a British sailor who was pushing to make a safe return to his ship. 

“There’s nothing leaving,” he told me, “there are said to be gunboats out in the channel, and they’re certainly not ours.”

By mid-afternoon, I was in despair. There was no sign of enemy troops down here at the harbour yet, and the gossip said that, so far, they hadn’t entered the town; but rumours suggested that the President’s palace had been bombed from the air, and the army had fallen apart earlier in the day. What more could I do? Nothing, that I could see. At least I hadn’t ‘phoned England and shown myself up not only for a panicking fool, but also for an incompetent one who couldn’t escape and get home when he should have done. At least, back at the flat I’d be in comfortingly familiar surroundings for a while. I could always cower in the luggage-cellar, if there were a threat of nearby street-to-street fighting; but I doubted there would be. The enemy would want minimal casualties among the locals: enough to subdue, but not enough to adversely affect the re-opening and efficient running of the local high-tech industries. And that included me, of course. I was an asset! Handled right, I could negotiate safety of some sort, perhaps, just until things quietened down, and London persuaded China to get me out.

So I walked back to the flat, slept, and the next morning went down for breakfast in my usual café, and the world was different but the same. The uniforms of the policemen on the nearby intersection were a slightly darker green. The lorries full of troops rushing around the streets were more numerous, and the other vehicles remarkably few. But otherwise, nothing much was different. The sky was blue, the sun shone. My shop-keeper neighbour was brushing his pavement again. I’d go down to the plant later. Probably have to walk all the way, but daren’t be thought to be abandoning productivity, for whichever master. I’m just a little cog, I thought, feeling smaller than I have since I was a small boy, but I’m still alive. Wait and see what happens. It could be an awful lot worse.

Tuesday 27 February 2018

A World of My Own

By Valerie Griffin


sparkling elder flower cordial


I always sit on the same rock. A smooth, humped boulder jutting out of the sand, outcast by the craggier rocks further along. It’s where I come when my head fizzes, when I understand the words but not the sentences, when my thoughts become blurred. I sit here often.

The day is warming up. Clouds spread thinly above me and into the distance, fine like angel hair. The smell of seaweed drifts across from the rock pools, triggering a briny taste in my mouth. The bay is shaped like a horseshoe and the water is calm. Tiny wavelets roll up the beach in lazy ripples, flattening out as they stretch across the dampening sand. I like to watch, see if I can catch the moment between the stopping and the starting to roll back.

In the winter, when the sea is rough, white horses ride the angry waves, racing towards the shore, leaping up before pounding onto the beach, showering the air with a salty spray that mists everything it touches. But as I said, today it’s calm.

The soft sand squidges between my toes as I walk down the beach towards the sea. It’s gritty with broken shell fragments, different shapes and different colours. I like walking on the sand, feeling the pull of my muscles. It’s good exercise for my legs. With each step my feet sink briefly into the sand, dispersing the upper warmth and exposing the cooler layers beneath. Nearer the sea, the outgoing tide has soaked the sand, leaving the surface colder, harder, corrugated. I try to avoid the tiny holes left by the tiny, unknown creatures…they might pop out.

I reach the edge of the water and stand, looking out across the bay. The surface twinkles under the mid-morning sun and is dotted with boats, leaving churned-up white trails behind them. The sand tickles the soles of my feet as it falls away with the outgoing wavelets, only to be pushed back again by the next incoming. The clear water laps over my toes and I gasp at the coldness, the downy blond hairs on my body standing to attention, rigid with shock. It travels along my insteps and rolls across the top of my feet, stopping just short of my skinny ankles protruding beneath the hem of my rolled up jeans. The silky water then recedes, sliding away and leaving my feet covered in a film of grains. I stay at the water’s edge. With each sensory ebb and flow, on and off my feet, I can feel the fizziness in my head easing, my thoughts unscrambling.

About the author:

Valerie lives in Weymouth and belongs to two writing groups. She has had short stories and flash fictions published online and in anthologies. She is also a compulsive letter writer and is currently working on her first novel. You can find Valerie on Facebook and on Twitter @griffin399.

Monday 26 February 2018

Years and Years

Kim Martins

vanilla cappuccino

Yes, it was him. He walked into the Red Oak Cafe and, for a fleeting moment, she thought he had spotted her tucked away in the corner by the window. She preferred the obscurity of corners filled with fake flowers and checkered tablecloths. She sipped the froth of her vanilla cappuccino (with an extra shot and a dollop of cream).

They had met in the cafe years ago, when it was called the Lygon, and the oak tree in the outside courtyard was as lanky as they were. They sat together at this same window table where she listened to the heartbeat of her future. But she learned that rushed promises are not always kept.

His hair was thinner now and his waistline fuller. He carried himself with that same steely confidence.

A woman with long, peppery hair waved to him from a table near the cake counter. She wasn’t the type Peggy thought he’d go for. Chunky silver rings and organic colours. She probably ordered a decaf soy latte and ignored the carrot cake (with cream cheese frosting).

He threaded his way towards her. Their smiles connected. Warm cheeks pressed together.

Peggy pulled out an old newspaper clipping she kept in her purse and looked at the grainy photo of a younger man. The clipping read: “Bob Templeton. Missing. Beloved husband of Peggy. Last seen Christchurch. May 10, 1996. Reward.

She ordered another vanilla cappuccino (with lashings of cream) and tasted the sweet deceit.

Sunday 25 February 2018

My Gran

Susan Eames

lemon squash

I must have been about ten when I realised there was something odd about my Gran. Up until then she was simply my cuddly Gran with a roly-poly smile and waddly walk.
We lived in a seaside town. Summer was the best time of year. Not just because of the weather, but because there was an endless supply of holiday children to make friends with. And if a new friend turned out not so nice after all, it didn’t matter because they’d be gone soon enough.
When Gran wasn’t at home, you could find her on the pier, feeding the seagulls. She would make up little bags of stale bread to distribute to the holiday children who always seemed to think feeding seagulls was a good game. We local kids knew better. Seagulls were nothing but greedy, smelly, noisy birds who’d peck your hand and draw blood if you weren't careful.
Gran’s house and garden was open to all the neighbourhood children and she always invited the holiday children too. Summertime at her cottage was brilliant. There’d be kids swarming everywhere and with so many new faces I could never keep track of them. Sometimes when a mum or dad came to collect a holiday child it would turn out they weren’t even there. I couldn’t tell you how many children must have visited her over the years. It was a place everyone loved to come and play because she had a massive garden with loads to do and she served endless supplies of lemon squash and home-made cake.
I was lucky because Gran allowed me to help her bake the cakes. None of the other children were allowed anywhere near her kitchen.
Most mornings during the summer holidays, I would walk round to Gran’s cottage after breakfast. She always kept her backdoor open. I only had to lift the latch on the side gate and walk around the back.
The backdoor opened into a small utility area and I would shout, ‘it’s only Karen!’
I had learnt to shout out to Gran before I went into the kitchen because once, when I didn’t, I gave her a huge fright and she got angry with me for startling her. She had just come out of the walk-in larder and I had never seen her so mad before – her eyes rolled in their sockets so that I could only see the whites.
She slammed and locked the larder door. ‘Karen, you must never, ever just walk in without warning. What if I’d been holding a hot kettle – or a bowl of cake mixture? Well, I might have dropped it! Now you just promise me you’ll always call out to me first, you understand?’
‘Yes, Gran. I’m sorry I frightened you.’
She took one look at my contrite expression and straight away went back to her sunny self.
‘Just so long as you understand, poppet. Never walk in without warning.’
And she hugged me so that I was crushed against her pillowy bosom. She kissed my cheek and nibbled my ear until it almost hurt before she pushed me away with a chuckle.
Gran was a farmer’s daughter and the walk-in larder was where she hung rabbits and game birds that she turned into delicious pies, casseroles and stuff she called ‘terrines’ which I thought looked horrible. The locked larder was strictly off limits and I had never set foot inside it. Not that I wanted to. All the really interesting stuff was in her pantry. I loved the pantry. It smelled of cinnamon, vanilla and honey. All Gran’s baking ingredients were in the pantry and every Saturday I would trot in and out, fetching and carrying the ingredients that she needed to make her magical cakes. Mounds of flour, butter and sugar were weighed by nothing more complicated than Gran’s practised eye. I was in charge of the eggs. I had to break them into a bowl without getting any shell in it and ‘beat them like Old Mother Hubbard’ until they were frothy. Once Gran poured the mixture into the cake tins she would give me the bowl to lick.
By ten o’clock we’d hear children arriving. It always coincided with the first batch of cake to come out of the oven. Gran would go out into the garden and warn them that the cake had to cool down first, so they might as well find a little job to do. The jobs were easy and fun, especially when you knew the reward was freshly baked cake. Soon there’d be kids all over the garden, picking flowers, or weeding or planting seeds in Gran’s vegetable patch, or feeding the rabbits and chickens in the pens at the end of the garden. She had even a hung a tyre from the oak tree, so we could play on that too.
When I started hearing the rumours I knew they were rubbish. Just stupid kids’ talk, you know? But they made me notice oddities I’d never questioned before, like how Gran would lick a child’s grazed knee before applying Savlon; stuff like that. There was only one way to lay my doubts to rest. I would have to investigate.
It took over a week to find where she kept the larder door key and several days more to find my courage.
While Gran was busy digging up potatoes in the vegetable patch I unlocked the door. A putrid smell slammed me back. Racks of rabbits and pheasants hung from the ceiling. I gagged, gulped a breath and walked in. Beyond the game, right at the back, larger bundles hung from hooks.
The rumours weren’t rubbish after all.

About the author

Susan A. Eames left England over twenty five years ago to explore the world and dive its oceans. She has had travel articles and short fiction published on three continents. After several fascinating years living in Fiji she has relocated to West Cork in Ireland .

Saturday 24 February 2018

Amelie at the Window

Penny Rogers

hot chocolate, with a measure of brandy

Christophe Pichon was still there. The blurry glow emanating from the gas lights in the dairy across La Place de la Republique made him look so handsome. Amelie sighed; she was in love.
                The October afternoon had turned into a chilly evening; by 6.30 it was almost dark. Christophe shuffled in his badly fitting boots. His left foot hurt. He had broken it in 1906 when he had tried to ride the greengrocer’s horse as a dare and it had never properly healed. On this cold afternoon he had been outside the dairy for almost an hour. Mr Lemonier had told him to wait there; he had a job for him. Christophe had no idea what sort of job. Work from Lemonier usually involved long hours and little pay, but he needed any work that was going.
                Amelie wriggled in her chair, willing her wasted legs to move. Soon Odille would come to put her to bed. Oh the indignities of it all. She closed her eyes and imagined Christophe carrying her downstairs and out into the world. He would take her to Lourdes, she just knew he would. When she was cured and able to walk he would marry her as soon as she was sixteen. They would always be happy together and never ignore each other as her parents did.
                Across the street Mr and Mme Fischer were arguing. They usually had a row after the second or third absinthe, but today they had at least four before the tension began to build. Raymond Fischer had come to the town as a young man, running away from something, or someone, in his native Alsace. He still spoke with a curious accent that made the locals laugh. Behind his back they called him choucroute, they never called him that to his face. He still had a temper although the years and alcohol had slowed him down.
                In the room above the milliners shop, Amelie picked up her sewing. But it was too dark to see properly, the parrot’s wing would have to wait until the morning.
                In the shop below Mme Gaudin was undecided. Should she go for an ostrich feather? She liked ostrich, but she had seen in an illustrated paper that in Paris the ladies preferred peacock feathers this year. Her indecision was taking time, and Mr and Mme Lemonier were impatient to close the shop, they had other things to do. But Mme Gaudin was a good customer, so there was nothing they could do except agree, suggest, agree and suggest.
                Outside the tabac, relations between the Fischers were deteriorating in response to the quantity of alcohol they had consumed. Marie-Pierre had married Raymond soon after he appeared in the town. The red-haired son who arrived less than two months later could not possibly have been his, but to his credit Raymond treated the boy as his own. The epidemic of polio that claimed Clovis, and many of the town’s children, broke his heart. Marie-Pierre’s heart broke too, but she hid the pain in hard work and increasing amounts of absinthe.
                Most evenings Amelie watched the altercations between the Fischers with a combination of horror and amusement, but tonight she paid them little attention. Her eyes were fixed on the dairy until it was too dark for her to see the angelic profile of her beloved. She vaguely wondered where Odille had got to, she wasn’t usually late. Below she heard her mother saying ‘Au revoir’ and ‘Merci beaucoup’ to Mme Gaudin. Then the sound of Mama coming up the stairs. She saw Papa cross the street and hurry to the dairy. To her amazement he was soon in conversation with the adored Christophe.
                Her concentration on the unusual sight of her father talking to the man she intended to marry was broken by shouting from the tabac. Marie-Pierre Fischer picked up a chair and smacked it across the head of the inebriated Raymond. Blood and invectives flowed across the square.
                Mama came into the room. ‘Odille won’t be coming any more. I’ll have to care for you myself until we can find someone else.’ Amelie’s heart sank. Her mother was never gentle. ‘What’s the matter with Odille’ she ventured. Mama sniffed ‘No better than she ought to be.’ She busied herself with her daughter’s nightwear, muttering ‘catin’ and ‘prostituée.’ Amelie was none the wiser but didn’t want to upset her mother even more by asking questions.
                As the autumn dusk turned rapidly to dark, a few more gas lights were lit. Amelie stayed glued to the window until the last possible moment. It was just as well that she could not hear the conversation between her father and the object of her devotion.
                Meanwhile outside the tabac, Amelie noticed the Fischers preparing to make their way home.  Raymond could hardly walk; the arms of his wife, strengthened by a lifetime of hard work, held him just about upright. The proprietor was telling them, as he told them almost every day, that they weren’t to come back, that their custom was not worth the fuss and that they would have to pay for the chair. In truth the chair was fine. Raymond’s head less so.
Illuminated by the feeble light coming from the dairy, the conversation between the milliner and Christophe was reaching a crucial stage. Amelie’s father wanted a dogsbody, or as he put it a bon à tout faire. He wanted someone on call all day and every day, ready to do everything from looking after the Lemonier’s smallholding to keeping the shop’s primitive drainage system working, as well as collecting and delivering orders.
‘So, Pichon, will you take the job or not?’ From her room above the shop Amelie saw the young man step back and shake his head. She wished that she could hear what was being said.
‘For all that work it doesn’t pay enough. And I need day off at least once a month.’ Christophe knew he was beaten but thought he’d give it a try.
An exasperated Lemonier shrugged his shoulders. ‘For what I am asking you to do it’s more than enough. And don’t come to me asking for days off.  If you don’t want it I’ll soon get someone else’. He paused, waiting to play his trump card. ‘You’ll have to marry her you know. If you don’t take this job you’ll all end up on the street.’
Christophe shrugged, there was nothing else to say and his foot hurt badly. ‘All right, all right. I’ll start tomorrow.’
At 7.25 Amelie was in bed with a cup of hot chocolate placed carefully on the table beside her bed. Her mother had clearly resented the wiping, the washing, the holding, the lifting and the dressing. But Amelie closed her eyes and dreamed of the future, WALKING down the aisle with the man of her dreams. Christophe went off to find Odille and tell her that he had a job; the wedding could go ahead next week.
                In her room above her parents’ shop, Amelie drifted off to sleep. She wondered why her cup of evening chocolate always tasted so much better than the insipid drink she had in the morning, one day she’d pluck up the courage to ask her mother. But for now she slept, dreaming of the day she would become Madame Pichon.

Friday 23 February 2018

Budgies and Bingo

by Alyson Faye

Earl Grey tea 

Pulling up outside Aunty Elsie’s terraced house, we all pile out of the Avenger. Dad grumpily sucking on his pipe, Mum wielding her sunken Victoria sandwich like a weapon and me, all long white knees socks and beige jumper. The one Elsie had knitted as last year’s Christmas present.
“It would be rude not to wear it,” Mum had stated, as we’d endured our usual sartorial stand off in my bedroom.
I look about 50 I think gloomily, catching sight of my reflection in the car window. I sense movement in the front room even before we touch the knocker. Elsie and Blue Boy are keeping their eyes open for us. We march into the hallway in single file, our heads bowed.
Mum pushes me hard right in the direction of the front room. Reluctantly I go in. I smell lavender and camphor. Doilies adorn every surface. Waiting in the window is Blue Boy. His cage has pride of place. The budgie watches me with its blank shiny button eyes, all beady and spiteful. A bit like Aunty Elsie really.
“Blue Boy likes you.” Elsie croons lovingly and with a total disregard for the truth.
The flea infested bird hates me I am certain. It’s viciously pecked me several times when I’ve attempted to feed it, as per Aunty Elsie’s instructions.
Mum brings in the second best china service for us to eat off along with her collapsed cake.
Elsie eyes it. “See you’ve still not learnt the knack of getting them to rise?”
Mum smiles wanly. She long ago retired from any verbal battles with my Dad’s aunty. Historically she’s always lost.
Elsie pokes her long bony index finger through the cage bars to tickle Blue Boy’s breast feathers. The horrid bird lets her. I shudder at the thought of any such contact and sit on my hands.
Now to my total embarrassment, Elsie starts singing to him. Blue Boy perches with his head on one side, gazing at her. He looks like a broken marionette I realise. I’m suddenly reminded of the puppet show I’d gone to with Mum.
Dad breezes in, “How did it go at the bingo then Elsie?”
He’s all fake jovial. This is his social face. It’s painful to watch. “Win a fortune did you?”
Elsie smiles, but fails to look warmer. “That’s for me and Blue Boy to know Derek. It’s my money and my business.”
Dad falls silent. I turn to gaze out past the sticky lace curtains to the road where I begin to count the number of blue/black/red cars driving by in the next fifteen minutes. I watch the grey day turn wetter and more ashen. I tune out the adult chit chat as best as I can.
Years later, when I’m at Uni. Elsie died. In her will she bequeathed us Blue Boy’s bird cage because, ‘she knew how much we’d loved him.'

About the author

Alyson writes mainly flash fiction and short stories. Her work has appeared on Tubeflash online,on the premises, Three Drops journal; Raging Aardvark's new anthology 'Twisted Tales' and Alfie Dog. Some of her stories are available as podcasts. Chapeltown is pleased to have published her Flash Fiction Collection Badlands.   


Wednesday 21 February 2018

Three Minute Warning

By Robert Ferguson

frothy coffee

“Fifteen minutes to curtain up”. The speaker in the corner of the ceiling always squawks and crackles, so that, if one didn’t know what it was saying, one couldn’t possibly guess its message. And that new ASM has such a ghastly Irish accent. That doesn’t help. And now the dresser is late. Fussing about with her own bits and pieces, and gossiping with her peers, no doubt. And last night’s tights haven’t been washed. They’ll have to do, still clammy from the perspiration that pours off me under the lights. And the nerves. Oh, if only I could overcome my nerves! How I shall get that first, barking entry on pitch, without myself squawking, goodness knows. Still, it’s gone all right in the first couple of performances.

Hum. That’d be the answer. Hum arpeggios up the range. Loosen the throat. Stretch the body and shoulders. Hum. Now some aah’s. That’s good. At least in this theatre the audience can’t hear the racket from the dressing-rooms, as everyone warms up, voices, instruments, especially the brass and the horrible woodwind squeaks as they damp down new reeds. What a joy for a singer not to have to carry a huge instrument everywhere. Well, at least few musicians are pole-vaulters, and there are only three double basses and one harpist in the orchestra. Singers just have to avoid coughs and colds, which, in the damp of this theatre, is easier said than done. Oh, for an electric fire, like the ones they gave us in Leeds, though they do dry the air most dreadfully. More aahs, more hums. Chin in for the tone! Head up to open the airway. You’d have thought that came naturally after so many years, but….oh, well, nobody’s perfect, I s’pose. Everyone has a weakness, or several, in my case, and that first leaping entry is mine, especially after climbing three flights of stairs to stage-level in the almost dark, and then the blackness of the wings, and the pain from the inevitable bruises on the shins, and holding one’s breath so as not to cry out…

Ten minutes to curtain”. Oh, do shut up! And this frilly shirt IS too small. Whatever size was my predecessor? At least this one is reasonably clean, but fastening this top button… Ugh! Will it never go? There it is, at last. Where is that dresser? I don’t often need her, but when I do, … and she’s never … “Oh, Bessie, at last! Am I glad to see you. Bessie, dear, at this stage, I really don’t care if the whole chorus-line has got itself pregnant. At least they’d stick out uniformly, and the fools in the audience would think it was symbolic of something. She may have a half-decent voice, but she won’t get far in this business if she can’t remember to take her pill every morning. Now, slack off the back of this doublet, if you please. No, I’m not putting on weight! On what they pay me here? You must be joking. Oh, and may I please have another pair of tights for tomorrow’s matinee? What do you mean, ‘wardrobe has got a shortage’? They’ve no right to have a shortage!. Of anything! They’re wardrobe, for goodness’ sake! It’s all those girls nicking them for their after-show parties and such. I know, and so does everyone else, but nobody does anything to stop them. Well, if the worst comes to the worst, could you buy me a pair on your way to the theatre? Yes, of course I’ll pay you for them. And the other pair, I’ll pay you for them together tomorrow. Now, come on. Get me into this coat. And give the buckle on that shoe a rub, if you will. Well I can’t bend down there done up like this, can I? No, I’m not putting on weight. Not an ounce. I’ve told you. We’ve less than ten minutes, you know, and make-up still… “Ah, Fiona, it’s all laid out, and I don’t need much, other than around the eyes. I’ve done the foundation, just touch me up, if you will, and then wig and powder. Oh, that wig is a mess. Do give it a brush and more powder, so it’s nice and white, especially round the curls at the bottom. And a good shake, please, dear, before it goes on, or I’ll end up as if I’ve  got chickenpox or something. Lovely! Pop it on for me. Steady on the hair. The real hair, such as there is left of it.”

“Five minutes to curtain. Beginners to the wings, now, please!” I don’t know what that girl did to the IRA, but she puts the fear of the devil into me. Oh no, I thought…I hoped, tonight…. “Excuse me, la…” Thank goodness there’s a hand-basin off this dressing room. Wash away vomit. Yukky smell, but can’t be helped. “OK, Fiona, just stab at the foundation  on the chin and beneath the nose, and powder again. And the lippie, I’m afraid. No, slightly darker, please, dear. The lights do take the colour, especially with my complexion. So sorry. Always happens, I’m afraid. OK, ladies, am I fit? Off we go, see you after the first act.”

“Three minutes to curtain. Quiet everywhere, please. Beginners to positions. OK, conductor on. Lights down. Curtain going up. Have a good evening, everyone, and enjoy.”

Tuesday 20 February 2018

Spontaneous Combustion

by Robert Ferguson

pepper sauce


He had not frightened me at first: one of those older priests, with the young face of a man who has enjoyed a placid life, not uncommon among those of his calling who had spent their lives in quiet rural parishes of the Church of England. But a firmness of faith and purpose was evident in the penetration of his glance, and in the occasional crystal hardness of his eyes. He was a tall man, imposing in the clerical collar and full-length black cassock that he always wore around the village. “What does he wear on holiday?” my classroom assistant Jane asked in a giggling whisper, when he came over to the primary school to take assembly every Friday. “Does he have a light-weight one to sleep in?”

But the children soon came to love and trust him, and he them, apparently. His assemblies were not formal. He simply took a chair from the side of the hall, placed it in the centre, and called the children to sit on the floor around him while he told them stories. Often it was a story of something Jesus had said or done, the meaning of which he explained to them with unfailing clarity, in language they could understand. Sometimes, on or near a Saint’s Day, he would tell them about the Saint, and why what he or she had done was an important example for their own lives. And they loved it. My colleague Jane, not a church-person, found his faith irritating, and would never call him Father, as he encouraged – gradually successfully – the village to call him whenever they met him in the streets and shops, and even in the pub on Thursday evenings, when he always popped in about eight o’clock, “To make sure you’re all still here and well,” as he said to the assembled company of regulars.

He was a very thoughtful man. He had thought long and hard about the issues with which people characteristically have difficulty with the Church and its teachings, and it showed in his refusal to judge or to preach outside the pulpit. But he wasn’t soft. Oh, my goodness no! In any village, there are always things going on, things the participants believe no-one else has noticed and everyone knows, but no-one mentions other than behind their hands. Ours was just the same, of course, and it soon became known that you could go to Father for guidance if you couldn’t handle life on your own. “Love your neighbour” was very much at the centre of his belief, and he demonstrated very effectively to those who needed it that the important thing about sin was how it hurt someone else. “How would you feel if they did that to you?” he’d ask the children, and presumably their parents when necessary. “Would you want them to be so deeply hurt in that way?”
He made changes in the church, of course. Every new parish priest does that. They make it “home”, which it is for them, they spend so much time there, so often on their own because, as he said, “Other people have to earn their living in their own ways.” Just as we hang a picture, or cover the sofa, in our own way to make the house our home, so he hardened the inside of our little parish church, taking out the carpets to expose the ancient stone floors, and introducing more candles beside tiny statues of his beloved exemplar saints. “Life is hard,” he’d say, when diehard ‘change is blasphemy’ people complained; “we need always to be reminded of that; and, as for the candles, remember that fire is the great cleanser, the one ultimate cleanser.” That was more difficult to understand, until the day of the Dreadful Event.

Despite there always being gossip in a village, there are some things which go on that remain secret for years and years. Ours was black magic. Our witches and warlocks had been pilfering candles from the church for ever, it seems, and Father knew about them and was watching them, but one day they went too far
and stole the Cross from the altar, and that was too much for him. The following week, he spent a lot of time and energy, not just encouraging but begging, pleading, more or less threatening, the whole village to come to Sunday’s service, which wasn’t a service so much as his denunciation of a dozen of our neighbours by name as occultists. “Do you not realise what you are doing to your souls?” he thundered out, “Do you have no fear of God’s judgement?”

But they didn’t, apparently. Within the few days it took them to get over their outing, they had begun to minimise their activities as no more than a hobby, and to gather support in the village against him. Protests were made to the Bishop, and the village turned against their vicar, or rather away from him. Few continued to speak to him. Few trusted him not to out them in their little scams and affairs. He was effectively ostracized, as the village went to Hell. So he went there for them.

The postman saw the flames first, glowing in the windows of the church, and called the fire brigade. The rest of us were woken by the sirens on the fire engines and police cars as they tore through the village to the church. The building was saved, and in fact not that much damaged. But none of the experts could explain how the fire had started in the centre of the stone floor of the Sanctuary which Father had extended, far away from any candlestick or stand. Or what had started it. No sign of accelerant, let alone matches, lighters, discarded candle-ends. Just that terribly consumed body, kneeling in the middle of the bare, bare floor, because his people would no longer kneel.

Sunday 18 February 2018


by Carolyn Belcher

warm milk 

Jemima was sitting on the bottom step of the stairs. She had her ‘hopeful’ coat on. It was the coat she hoped her mother wouldn’t make her take off. Her mother didn’t like the coat. Jemima did. It was red. Red was Jemima’s favourite colour. Mummy had said the coat was too small. It was to be put away for the baby who was in her mother’s tummy. Sometimes Jemima wondered how the baby had got there. Mummy had said something about eggs. Jemima liked eggs, particularly a dippy egg with soldiers.
‘Please can I come with you?’
‘Do you promise to be good?’
‘Yes?’ There was a question in Jemima’s voice as though she wasn’t quite sure what good meant when you went shopping. Jemima liked shopping. The supermarket was full of exciting things to buy and interesting people to help. Jemima liked helping people.
Her mother didn’t seem to notice the question in her voice. Nor did she notice the coat. She was too busy looking for her car keys. ‘Where did I put them?’ she said in her impatient voice.
‘Daddy says--’
‘I know what Daddy says, put them on a hook in the key cupboard. But sometimes my mind doesn’t work like that, especially when I’m in a hurry.’
Jemima knew all about minds working in one way and then another. One day, Jemima’s mind told her she did like brussel sprouts and the next day it said, ‘yuk.’
‘Oh here they are.’ Her mother pulled the keys out of her coat pocket. ‘Right, we’re ready.’
‘Are you going to do a big shop or a small shop?’ asked Jemima.
‘What day is it?’
Jemima screwed up her face. ‘Now let me see,’ she said. ‘I’m going to nursery school this afternoon, so that means,’ she ticked the days off on her fingers. ‘Monday, Wednesday or Friday.’ On Tuesdays and Thursdays I go to nursery school in the morning. I think Monday was a long time ago.’ She put her finger on her lips. ‘Is it Wednesday? No. On Wednesday I went to Sarah’s house for tea. It’s Friday. And on Fridays you always do a big shop. Am I right?’
‘You are a very clever four year old, Jemima Wiggins. Get in the car, please.’
‘Which shop are we going to, Mummy?’
There were two supermarkets in the town where Jemima lived. One was near all the other shops. The other was near lots of houses with very small gardens. Jemima was glad that she, her mother and father didn’t live there. Her house had a long garden with a tyre swing hanging from a tree at the bottom. Nana said there were fairies at the bottom of the garden. Jemima hadn’t ever seen one. But sometimes she saw grasses or leaves on bushes move when there was no wind, and she thought, that must be the fairies. They’re hiding from me.
‘We’re going to the supermarket where they sell clothes, Jemima. I could do with some new leggings for pilates and you could do with some pyjamas.’
‘Can I choose them?’
‘Of course.’
‘Can I choose your leggings?’
‘Yes, as long as they’re black.’
Jemima pulled a face. I don’t like black. I like red.’
‘I need black,’ said her mother.
In the supermarket Jemima said, ‘Can we do jamies and leggings first?’
‘I think that’s a very good idea,’ said her mother, and pushed the trolley over to the aisle where they sold trousers.
Jemima hung back. She had noticed a woman looking at some tops. The woman picked up a white top. It had lacy sleeves. It was pretty, but Jemima knew that it wouldn’t look nice on the woman. She had to help her. The woman would be sad and cross if she bought it. Jemima didn’t like feeling sad or cross. She felt sad when Sarah didn’t want to play with her. She felt cross when her father wouldn’t push her on the tyre swing. He told her she had her, worm, face on. Her worm face was the one in the rhyme.
Nobody likes me. Everybody hates me.
I’m going down the garden to eat worms.
She went up to the woman and tapped her on the arm.
The woman jumped. ‘Are you lost, dear?’ she said.
‘No,’ said Jemima. ‘My mummy’s over there.’ She pointed to the trouser aisle. ‘I like helping people to choose. That top is nice but it won’t look nice on you.’ She shook her head. ‘It will make you look--’
‘Jemima come here at once. I am so sorry,’ said Jemima’s mother. Her mother had her cross face on. She took Jemima’s hand. ‘You’re going to help me look for leggings. That lady wants to choose her own clothes without your help.’
‘That’s alright dear. I wasn’t sure about it. She’s helped me make up my mind.’
‘See Mummy?’ Jemima had her happy face on. ‘People like me to help them. That lady has a big bottom and a big tummy. Her tummy is bigger than yours. The white top will be here.’ She pointed to the middle of her mother’s belly. ‘She would show people her big tummy. I don’t think people like seeing big tummies.’
Jemima knew that her mother’s tummy was big because of the baby in it. Sometimes the baby slept in her mother’s tummy and sometimes he kicked. You couldn’t see the baby doing that, but her mother let her feel the baby moving and said, ‘there. Can you feel that kick? I think he’s going to be a footballer with a kick like that.’
The first time she had felt Tyler, that was going to be his name, kick, she had asked her mother if it hurt? Her mother had shaken her head and said, no. Jemima wondered why. When James kicked her leg it hurt. James was a boy in nursery school.
‘The lady should buy the red or blue top.’ she squirmed round. ‘Perhaps she’s got a baby in her tummy, or her bottom. Can babies be in bottoms?’
Her mother squatted down. ‘No, babies can’t be in bottoms, and you promised to be good, Jemima.’
‘I am being good. I was helping. I wanted her to buy the blue one or the red one. They are better for people with big tummies and bottoms.’
‘It isn’t good to tell people that the clothing they want to buy will make them look fat?’
‘Because it’s rude. Come and choose your pyjamas,’
‘I thought we were going to choose your leggings first.’
‘We were. But I think we’ll do that after.’
I’d like red jamies.”
There weren’t any red pyjamas. But they found some pink ones with red hearts on them and pink was almost as good as red. Then they found her mummy some black leggings and made their way to the groceries’ aisles. Jemima’s mother told her to stay close to the trolley. ‘I don’t want you to get lost,’ she said. Jemima liked the word, groceries. It was a growly word. Sometimes, when she was on her own in her bedroom, she practised growly words, making them sound like a lion. Grrrroceries, grrrapes, grrrrumpy, grrrrizzle.
‘Can we buy some growly grrrrapes?’ she said.
‘What are growly grapes?’ her mother asked.
‘Green ones, red ones.’
‘But why growly?’
‘Because of the grrrrr,’ said Jemima. ‘Buy grrrreen grrrrapes.’
Her mother laughed. ‘You funny ha’p’orth? Did you hear what I said about staying close to the trolley?’
‘Yes. I won’t get lost.’ She wondered why her mother thought she might get lost. The grrrocery aisles went up and down. It was very difficult to get lost.
‘Fruit and veg first then.’ her mother said.
It took time. Jemima’s mother was a careful shopper. She checked everything she picked up before putting them in the trolley. When she was buying packets of things like biscuits, she always checked for e numbers. Jemima knew what e numbers were. They were things that were added to food or drinks in packets or tins or bottles or ready meals. Some e numbers were good and some were bad. Some made children too excited and silly.
Because Jemima’s mother took her time shopping, it was easy for Jemima to look around to see if there was anyone else who needed help. Soon, she wasn’t at all close to the trolley. She was near a lady who looked as though she was as old as Jemima’s great-granny. The old lady was looking at apples. Red apples, green apples, yellow apples and apples that were all three colours. Apples were not Jemima’s favourite fruit. She liked satsumas and grrrapes and strawberries best. Satsumas didn’t growl, but strrrrawberries did.
Jemima decided that the old lady would find it difficult to eat an apple. Satsumas would be better. Satsumas were easy to peel and felt soft and juicy in your mouth. Jemima’s great granny liked satsumas. She popped a bag of satsumas into the old lady’s trolly when she wasn’t looking and then skipped back to her mother feeling very pleased that she had helped another shopper.
In the next aisle Jemima helped a man to a packet of sausages. He had eggs and bacon in his trolley. Eggs, bacon and sausages were yummy together, especially when Jemima was allowed to help herself to tomato ketchup. If the man had children, they would be happy that Jemima had helped him to sausages. Perhaps she ought to go to the sauce aisle and find the ketchup? But she saw that her mother wasn’t in the meat isle any longer. Hunt the mummy, she told herself and skipped to the end of the aisle. ‘No, she wasn’t in the next aisle, nor the next, then she saw her in the aisle where there were lots of disposables. That is what her mother called nappies and things like that.
‘What are you looking for, Mummy?’ she asked.
‘Pads.’ said her mother.
The only pads that Jemima knew were pads to draw on. Nothing on the shelves in this aisle looked like a pad you could draw on.
‘Pads are near crayons,’ she said.
‘Not drawing pads. Pads for older people.’
Were drawing pads for older people in plastic packets that looked like packets of nappies, only smaller? ‘Pads for older people,’ said Jemima in a thinking voice.
Her mother looked at her. ‘Your great granny needs pads like this,’ she held up a packet. ‘They’re to keep her dry. Sometimes when you’re old you wet yourself a bit if you cough or laugh.’
‘I don’t wet myself when I cough or laugh. I sometimes wet myself if I forget to go to the toilet because I’m happy playing.’
‘Yes you do,’ her mother said. ‘And that reminds me, do you need to do a wee now?’
Jemima shook her head. She decided to look for an old person who might need pads. She glanced round. An old man was pottering down the aisle towards them. Did old men need pads? She decided to help him, just in case. She chose a packet, one that she could reach and when he was looking at toilet rolls she popped it in his trolley.
Her mother studied her list. ‘Right Jemima, we’ve finished. Let’s pay and go home. I’m ready for a cuppa.’
‘Can I ride on the trolley now?’
‘Ok.’ Jemima’s mother lifted her into the trolley and pushed it to a till that had just one person ahead of them. My old man, Jemima thought.
He began to put the items from his trolley onto the belt. ‘What are these? I didn’t want to buy these?’ The old man was peering at the packet of pads that Jemima had popped into his trolley.
‘They’re sanitary towels, Mr Rose. You certainly don’t want those. If you have a problem--
‘I don’t.’ said Mr Rose. ‘And I don’t need… whatever it is you think I might want to buy. These… whatever you called them must have fallen off the shelf into my basket.’
Jemima’s mother looked at her. ‘Did they fall off the shelf, Jemima?’ she whispered.
Jemima pulled her lips inside her mouth to stop words that might get her into trouble, escaping.
Her mother gave her a, we’ll talk about this later, look.
When they got home, Jemima carried the toilet rolls and kitchen rolls into the house while her mother dealt with the bags.
‘Milk and a biscuit?’ her mother asked.
‘Could I have an ice lolly, please?’
‘When do you get ice lollies, Jemima?’
‘When I’ve been good. I have been good.’
‘Have you? What about the lady and her white top? What about the packet of sanitary towels in Mr Rose’s trolley?’
Jemima knew it was wrong to lie. Jemima wanted a home made orange lolly. She looked at her mother. ‘I put the pads in the man’s trolley because I wanted to help him,’ she said.
‘What have I told you about helping people?’
‘But sometimes you tell me I’m good when I help. I helped you with the toilet rolls and the kitchen rolls. That was good, wasn’t it?’
‘That’s one being good and two being naughty.’
‘What if I put the toilet rolls in the bathroom cupboard? That’s two being goods.’
‘Okay minx. But next time--
‘No helping people in the supermarket?’
‘When you go shopping with me, no helping people in the supermarket.’
In her mind, Jemima skipped up the stairs to the bathroom. Really, skipping would have been impossible with the packets of toilet and kitchen rolls.
Mummy said, ‘shopping with me.’ That meant, if she went shopping with Daddy or Nana she could help lots of people. Perfect. Perfect was a new word. It was a growly word.