Tuesday 31 December 2019

A Change of Tack Going Forward

by Hannah Retallick

red-top milk

I’d like to thank you all for gathering at such short notice. It’s been a rough time, I’m afraid, for the business, a state which I know we agree, unequivocally, cannot be allowed to continue, especially considering, of course, that it is usually, under normal circumstances, our most lucrative time of year.
Yes, indeed, well I’m just getting to that. We’ll have questions and discussion at the end. And a leftover mince pie, perhaps, har har.
No, of course not. I was quite obviously joking. There will be cups of tea, though, if Pat or somebody doesn’t mind serving them.
Ah, no milk could be a problem. Oh well, perhaps one of us could nip out to the shop next door at some point.
Thank you, Pat. You’re a star. Make sure it’s red top, har har.
Right, anyway, as I was saying, we are going to have to reconsider our tactics regarding advertising, rhetoric, message – the lot. It appears – due to the reduction in obesity figures, which may have been caused, inadvertently, by the success of some of our more rebellious competitors and compounded by body positivity propaganda – that people are in general becoming more complacent. Self-sufficient. Content.
I like that, Jeff. ‘Contentment is the enemy of business’…Yes, quite. And it has occurred to me that we are coming at it from the wrong angle. It seemed, of course, as we have all agreed in the past, that health was the most important thing, and that to sell health, primarily, in campaigns, is likely to produce the best results for our company, especially on the other side of the festive season when people are filled with such optimism. Health, health, health.
Well, we were wrong. There is a movement gaining momentum, which focuses not so much on eating habits, diets, exercise, but on overall health, in a way that is far out of proportion in my opinion. A movement that seeks to change how people think, to change the way they look at themselves, at their bodies, focusing on mental health first and foremost. And I believe this is responsible for the fall in our sales, not only in group attendance, but in food products, magazines etc. etc.
No, Shirley, I am not trivialising mental health concerns at all. That’s the last thing in the world that I would want to do, what with mental health being such an important issue. No, of course not. It’s just that I fear that people are so focused on their happiness that they fail to consider how they might improve themselves and fail to realise the continued importance of companies such as ours.
Yes, Jeff, a big problem indeed.
The fact of the matter is, we need a change of tack going forward, to think outside the box. So, let me pick your brains. How might we boost our customer numbers and loyalty?
Uh huh. Hmm…
Well, hmm, that’s interesting. Yes…
That is one way of looking at it.
The answer is, of course, staring us in the face: discontentment. I believe we should try to redress the balance, show our customers that they have strayed too far from self-improvement, and have, inadvertently, begun to look at things in the wrong way. It is our aim – no, our duty – to help them find the right path again. And, we must, of course, now have a brainstorming session, to come up with specifics for a new campaign. Keep the thoughts coming, throw ideas around, however silly you may think them. Let’s be creative.
Ah, our milk lady returns! Hello, Pat. Thank you very much.
Oh. I see. Only blue top. Oh well, I suppose we could water it down, har har! I’ll take my coffee black today, please. Thank you.
What does everyone else want?

About the author
Hannah Retallick is a twenty-five-year-old from Anglesey, North Wales. She was home educated and then studied with the Open University, graduating with a First-class honours degree, BA in Humanities with Creative Writing and Music, and is studying for an MA in Creative Writing. She is working on her second novel and writes short stories and a blog. She was shortlisted in the Writing Awards at the Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival 2019, the Cambridge Short Story Prize, and the Henshaw Short Story Competition June 2019. https://ihaveanideablog.wordpress.com/

Monday 30 December 2019

Always and Forever

by Tina Stager

sweet white wine

It was nice to hear your voice. It was so warm and pleasing. The sound is still so incredibly erotic and loving. For a long time, we had not heard from each other, and yet my heart was pounding when I listened to the sound of your voice on the phone.

Years had passed. Back when we were talking to each other for the first time, I was excited, like a little schoolgirl, and I know you did not feel any different. You told me later. I was so excited that I got wet hands, and the smile on my face grew into a laugh that did not stop. Yes, it's been a long time ...

It's been a long time since we met for the first time. It was November 2, 2002. I still remember today. I had just started working at that new bar when you walked in. I was so nervous. There were many guests that night, so I didn’t have much time to talk, but it was enough to know what I wanted. I wanted you. 

Shy and reserved, we greeted each other nicely.

When we finally had our first date, we had dinner together and could not meet our eyes with embarrassment. An unbelievable tension was in the air, and I would have loved to take you into my arms at the time. It seemed like a liberation when we went back to my place after dinner. You had offered to me to put up a shelf I had just bought. 

You asked me to pass you the screwdriver, and as if by chance, our hands touched and slowly, we came closer to each other. The beginning of an incredible night!

The next morning, we sat silently at the kitchen table, unable to speak. It was not necessary, because we knew what the other thought. Incredible farewell pain lay in your eyes, and your hand was holding mine tight. For hours!

At some point, it was time. You had to go, and I felt the desperation in you and felt that something was wrong.

You were gone, and the grief started ...

Pain and tears were the results... for both of us!

But I did not want to give up so fast, and so I decided to fly you in. One and a half hours on the plain for not even a full day. One and a half hours heartbeat ...

16 hours with you.

Pleasant hours in which we ate together, laughed and loved each other.

Hours that burned with both of us in the heart and soul, and we have not forgotten until today. Sixteen hours in which a band has bound us for the rest of our lives, no matter what we do, connecting us inseparably, even as each has long gone their own way.

I still see you in front of me when I brought you to the airport, unable to accompany you on the platform, angry at the upcoming farewell, and your inability to enter into a future with the woman you love. I see the desperation in your eyes very clearly in front of me and still feel the pain we have felt.

No - your eyes are not lying.

After that, everything was much worse. More torment and more tears until I can no longer bear to see you suffer so much. I ended the relationship against my heart and against my feelings.

For months I screamed silently with grief. I fell asleep with unprecedented pain in my mind and woke up with a broken heart in the morning. It was over!

I could not stand sunshine and blue sky. The music that we heard together brought tears to my eyes, and again and again, I had the pictures of our time together in mind. They did not want to get out of my head.

But I am a fighter, and so I rummaged through my defiance. I did not want to suffer anymore, and I did not want to be alone. I plunged into a couple of relations with men, but they were far from what they were we had each other. My heart was not free for another man, and I knew it.

In between, we had contact again and again, and every time my heartbeat when we talked on the phone. The longing for you grew more significant still, but your fear was not defeated. There was no point in waiting any longer for us to come together someday. I understood it, albeit slowly.

I started to live a new life, but in my heart, you have a special place. Nobody will dispute it. 

Yesterday I heard your voice, and our conversation lasted for hours. Hours in which we dreamed together again of Later. From our porch, where we will one day sit to watch the sunset in front of the Mediterranean sea. Hand in hand and silent ...

About the author:

Tina currnelty lives in Spain. She is a single mum, a language teacher and a writer. Two months ago she started writing her first novel.  She aims to publish several short stories before finishing her book. 

Sunday 29 December 2019


by Michal Reiben

hot chocolate

I admit it, I spoil my six grandchildren. I buy them far too many presents. Now it is stuffed, cuddly animals they were asking for. Amongst the numerous stuffed animals, I also buy them a Panda. I’m ashamed to admit it even though I am an old woman, I constantly cuddle that Panda until it is time to hand him over. Thereafter for about a year, I wrestle with the yearning for a Panda of my own. As a child, my favorite toy had been a stuffed Panda. I keep telling myself, ‘I’m a stupid old woman and if people discover what I’ve bought for myself  they will laugh at me.’ Eventually, I give in to my ‘longing’ and I buy myself a medium-sized Panda, about the same size as my ‘childhood friend’. I keep him on my bed but if I have visitors I put him amongst the other toys I keep in my house for when my grandchildren came for a visit. Every evening before going to sleep I cuddle and kiss him, as I do so I am transferred back in time to when I was a little girl and miraculously I can see my mother’s ghost standing next to my bed. She is laughing her bright, cheerful laugh which rings like a bell, it always makes me feel happy when I hear it and all I can do is smile.

Saturday 28 December 2019

The Greeter

by Jim Bates

hot apple cider

Jerry and his wife Jane have been next door neighbors of Lauren and I and for many years. He and I talk regularly, usually while one or the other of us is working in the yard or doing something else outside. He's a nice guy, maybe a little conservative for my tastes, but he's kind and decent and a good neighbor. Over the years I've heard many stories about his strong willed mother. So when he told me about Helen and how she first got her job at Macy's, and then how she'd been injured and unexpectedly laid off before finally becoming a volunteer Greeter at Macy's, it prompted Lauren and I to do something we hadn't done in a few years - we decided to take a drive into downtown Minneapolis to see the holiday lights and displays. Maybe we'd even run into Jerry's interesting sounding mother.
            We went on a Thursday afternoon, the second week of December, driving on I-394 for half hour into downtown and then parking our car in the lot A ramp. We walked five blocks across the city with the expressed purpose of going to Macy's to view the recently opened 'Old Thyme' Christmas exhibit on the eighth floor, but as we came through the Seventh Street revolving doors we were lucky enough to see Helen. We'd never met her before but Jerry had described her well; there was no doubt the friendly, white haired lady who welcomed us with a "Merry Christmas! Thank you for visiting our store like we were long lost friends, was her. We introduced ourselves as friends of Jerry and she was charming and gracious and couldn't have been nicer.
            We only chatted for a moment or two before more people crowded in so we left and made our way through the crowded aisles to the escalator and then up to the Christmas exhibit on the 8th floor. That's' where the Old Thyme Christmas theme was really put on display for all to see. A bustling, cobbled stone street scene had been created, and we walked along wide-eyed, admiring the quaint shops on both sides with workers inside illuminated by the glow of warm yellow lights. There were mounds of cotton snow all around, and the scene was populated with men and women out and about, carrying packages, dressed for winter in old time wool jackets and coats with colorful scarves and hats. There were children playing - ice skating and pulling sleds, and dogs running and cats hiding behind corners, and trees everywhere decorated with pretty ribbons and bows and ornaments and lights that twinkled. And, of course, softly playing in the background were the melodic strains of traditional Christmas music.
            After Lauren and I viewed the exhibit we wandered around on various floors, window shopping and looking at other festive displays. We even saw a jewelry counter decked out with sprigs of evergreens adorned with tiny silver and golden ornaments and red bows. In a word, the effect of the entire store was enchanting.
            When we were finished with our browsing we made it a point of making our way through the crowds back to where we'd entered, just to say good-bye to Helen, but we didn't get the chance. She was talking to a young Somali man with "Asid" on his name tag. They were carrying on an animated conversation and seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, and we didn't want to interrupt them. I noted she was wearing a red carnation on the lapel of her jacket, a gift, no doubt, from one of the many friends of his mother Jerry had told me about.
            Lauren and I left then, feeling good and infused with a little more Christmas spirit than we'd had before we entered the store. It was nice to see the older lady and the young black man together. With all the crap on the news lately about people not getting along, and everyone freaking out over the color of someone's skin or their choice of religion, it was good to see those two together and how comfortable they were with each other. It was really good.
            We walked through the crowded downtown sidewalks toward our car. The sun had set and every building had displays of Christmas lights on, filling the night with an festive glow. If it were to start snowing, it would have made the scene perfect. And then it did. We smiled at each other and Lauren took hold of my arm. Was it the time of the year? The seasonal festivities? Or could it happen anytime or anyplace? We didn't know, but for one brief moment the world felt right and in sync with itself, and we walked along smiling and nodding greetings to complete strangers. Sound weird? Maybe, but it felt like it was the right thing to do and that was good enough for us.
            We took our time walking to our car, talking about what we'd seen at Macy's and about Jerry's mom, enjoying each other's company and the fresh snow drifting down and the pretty, colorful lights of the city - even the cold bite of winter in the air. And, most especially, the growing feeling that maybe Helen was on to something. Maybe it really was all about opening your heart to others and putting differences aside. Maybe it was about seeing those who were not the same as we were as people first and foremost, and not getting hung up on the color of their skin or where they worshiped. Maybe it was all about being humane and treating people with decency and respect, like Helen was doing; and like her friends were doing. And if that was the case, we were more than happy to join her. Which gave me the inkling of an idea.
            Make no mistake, the city was loud. There were buses blasting by and cars speeding, kicking up slushy snow, and horns honking almost non-stop. In a way, it was kind of a madhouse. But, balancing the mayhem, there were also carolers on the street corners and bell ringers for the Salvation Army, and people like us, out having a good time, enjoying the soul of the city and finding  joy in the season.
            Foremost in my thoughts was Helen. In my mind I saw her back at Macy's talking to Asid and how comfortable they were with each other and how happy they seemed. It was little things like what she was doing that were making the world a better place, and she was doing it for no other reason than it was the type of person she was. And so was Asid, as well as all of the other friends Jerry had told us about: Clare, Simon, Leon and Rico. They were open and generous with each other. Skin color and religion didn't matter. The type of person you were was what counted the most. I wanted to be part of that world. 
            My idea suddenly crystallized. I stopped dead on the sidewalk and told Lauren about it and she agreed. We turned around and headed with a quick step back to Macy's. Thankfully, Helen thankfully was still there, in high spirits and just as cheerful as before.
            I walked up to her when there was a break in the crowd and re-introduced myself and Lauren as friends of her son. She immediately remembered who we were. We chatted for just a minute before I asked her the question we'd come back to ask.
            "Lauren and I were wondering if we could take you to dinner this evening when you're done working," I said to her. She didn't bat an eye, and nodded enthusiastically as I was talking, but before she could agree out loud, I added, "And maybe bring some of your friends from work along, too."
            And she did. And that's how we got to meet Asid, Simon and Rico (Clare and Leon couldn't get away). We had a nice meal together, good conversation and, before we parted, made planes to get together for following Thursday. Hopefully, it was the beginning of something permanent for all of us.
            And that may have been the end of the story except for one final thing. The next day I was out shoveling the five inches of snow that had accumulated since it had begun falling while Lauren and I were downtown. It had continued during our dinner with Helen and her friends as well as during our slow drive home and then long into the night.
            I had worked my way out to the where the driveway met the street and was clearing what seemed like ten tons of the stuff left behind when the city plow had gone past when Jerry drove up, slid to a stop and beeped. He rolled down his window and greeted me with, "So when are you going to break down and join the twenty-first century?" I was nearly too tired to laugh, but I did anyway. This was our long running joke about my insistence on shoveling my driveway and sidewalk by hand. Jerry, on the other hand, had used his powerful snow blower earlier, finished quickly, and then had run out to open the his hardware store before stopping home to drop off a gallon of milk for Jane he'd bought on the way. I was happy for the break since I'd been out for almost an hour and a half. The snow had been wet and heavy, our driveway was long, my arms were sore, and I was beat.
            I laughingly told him, "Never!" Even though I'd been silently wishing for one for the last half hour, picturing myself jauntily prancing up and down my driveway gripping a big, red snow blowing machine with both hands, merrily flinging snow fifty feet into the air.
            We chatted a while, being neighborly, before he turned serious.
            "So how'd your evening downtown go?" he asked.
            "Good," I told him, "Really good." I took my hat off and wiped the sweat from my forehead. "The holiday displays were great. Really pretty." But I knew that's not what he was really asking about. "The best part, though, was that we saw your mom and even met some of her friends."
            "Really? How'd that go?" He had a look between wanting to know and driving straight home without hearing my answer.
            Well, don't ask if you don't want to know and he asked, so I went ahead and told him about our evening, specifically about how happy his mother seemed and how nice her new friends were. "There's a guy from Somali named Asid and he and Lauren talked cooking. We came away with the recipe for a dish called Qado that sounded delicious. We talked with Simon about the conflict in the Middle East. He used to live in Lebanon but he's been in the States for fifteen years. He's a Christian and had a pretty unique perspective about the different factions of Muslims and all the fighting going on between them. And her friend, Rico, gave me a hint on how to get rid of those Japanese Beetles that were feasting on my Morning Glories last summer. He said all I needed to do was brush them off the flowers into bucket of a little dishwater soap and water."
            When I was finished with my re-cap of our dinner, Jerry was silent for a minute, looking straight ahead through the windshield, doing some heavy duty thinking, I figured. I told him, "Your mom said she wished you'd come down there. She'd like you to see where she works and meet some of the people she works with." I paused. He was quiet, thinking hard, I'm sure weighing the pros and cons, so I added, "They're good folks, Jer. You'd like them."
            Finally he turned to me. I always felt Jerry had a kind nature and I knew he cared a lot about his mother."I'm glad you saw her down there. I've been thinking about maybe going down there for a while now. My mom can be a force of nature, that's for sure."
            "I don't really think you have anything to lose. When was the last time you and Jane were in downtown, anyway?"
            "A long time ago. Thirty years at least."
            I didn't want to make a big deal out of it, but I felt a little nudge wouldn't hurt. "The eighth floor Christmas show is done up old fashioned and is kind of fun. Jane would like it," I said, just to push him a bit more.
            He looked past me to his home, thinking some more. Then he said, simply, "Well, what the hell. Why not?" I realized, then, he must have been ready, all he needed was a reason to convince himself. It was really that simple.
            We chatted a bit more, and I told him about parking in Lot A. Then I waved good-bye as he drove down the street to his driveway and turned in. I may have been mistaken, but I could have sworn there was a look of relief on his face. Like he'd told me many times before, he and his mother had always gotten along well. He must have come to the conclusion that it was time to move on and accept this new phase of her life. Besides, like I'd told him, her friends really were good folks. It wasn't going to hurt at all to get to know them.
            I finished my shoveling and walked up my driveway to the back door. I was thinking about Jerry and Helen. It was good he was going to make an effort to accept what his mother was doing and the new friends she was making. I know it sounds like a little thing and it may have been a long time coming and, yeah, I know change is hard, but you had to start somewhere. And that's what he was going to do. You couldn't ask for anything more than that. And, who knows, when all is said and done and for everyone concerned, next year might turn out to be a pretty good year.

About the author 

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories have appeared online in CafeLit, The Writers' Cafe Magazine, Cabinet of Heed, Paragraph Planet, Nailpolish Stories, Ariel Chart, Potato Soup Journal, Literary Yard, Spillwords, The Drabble and World of Myth Magazine, and in print publications: A Million Ways, Mused Literary Journal, Gleam Flash Fiction Anthology #2, The Best of CafeLit 8, Nativity Anthology by Bridge House Publishing and Gold Dust Magazine. You can also check out his blog to see more: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com

Friday 27 December 2019

Getting On With It

by Wendy Pike

a giant cup of tea

“Shouldn’t you be getting up and getting on with it?” my husband shouts up the stairs.  Blatantly sarcastic his parting shot before heading off for an early start at work:  “Thought you had lots of work on today!”  Irritatingly, he is right.  I down the cold remainder of tea that he delivered with a kiss twenty minutes earlier and head downstairs to get on with it.

Still in pyjamas, toast in hand and with my breakfast coffee on the go, I turn on my computer at the other end of the kitchen table.  There is so much to do and I’m itching to crack on with a project that’s been hijacking my head far too long.

A blank document stares back at me.  That fresh, clean, white, unsullied space, so exciting today.  Yet at other times, in wobbly, confidence-waning moments, such a scary prospect.

Whilst ideas may be buzzing around my noggin like a hive of worker bees on steroids, putting them into honeyed words is always more of a challenge.  Tentatively I form a few lines for the intro.  Read them back.  Delete.  Re-write.  Delete.  Re-write.  Is it going to be one of those days?  I know what I want to say.  It’s the how I do that that’s proving so tricky today.  The hard taskmaster that is my inner voice cruelly snipes, ‘Get the start right or the whole piece will be a disaster.’  I’m cleaning it up a bit because that bossy boots inside my head tends to swear a lot when I’m working and things aren’t going so peachy.

“I can do this,” I say aloud.  Sticking with it, teasing out the words, the ones I’ve been trying to winkle out for the last hour or so, I eventually crack it.  The start anyway.  I treat myself to a sneaky break.  How do I celebrate my victory over the first para?  By unloading and re-loading the dishwasher, putting the laundry on and, before properly getting on with it, taking a peek at the mega time waster that is Twitter.

I realise I ought to get back to it but a cup of tea would certainly help.  Powered by tea, it’s all going so much better now.  A few more sentences become paragraphs and satisfyingly join the first one, filling the page.  The phone goes.  It’s a friend, also a writer.  I say, “Can I call you back, only I’m up to my eyeballs today?” 
“I understand,” she says “but it’s just a quick call.”  
So, fifteen minutes later when we’ve barely limbered up in the nattering Olympics, the doorbell goes.  “Reeeeally got to go now, someone’s at the door.”

The post lady’s face says it all as she looks me up and down in my jim jams, pink fleecy dressing gown and fur-lined slipper boots combo.  It’s no shock.  She saw me in the same outfit yesterday morning.  It’s incredulity with possibly a dash of disgust and lashings of disapproval.  “Parcel for you,”  she says while her eyes ask ‘What time of day do you call this you lazy slob?’ 

Affronted and switching allegiance in a nano-second, my inner voice leaps to my defence, ‘But I’ve been up ages and I have been WORKING.’  “Thanks,” I say scribbling on the hand-held gizmo, my signature, like a four year old’s made with a fat crayon.  My inner voice does a U-turn and reproachfully asks  ‘What actual time of day is this, you slob?’  It’s 11.45am.   

Shamed into getting dressed, I throw on some old, slouchy clothes, jettisoned from yesterday, found folded in a (neat) heap on the bedroom floor.  I realise I truly am turning into a slovenly individual as I haven’t yet had a wash either.  Ablutions completed, laundry pegged on the whirly washing line, I’m all set for work again. 

Reading through, tweaking occasionally, I’m about ready to launch into a new paragraph when the doorbell ding-dongs again.

It’s the parcel courier man, looking a bit frazzled due to the volume of Christmas deliveries he’s been tasked with.  Would I mind taking in parcels for my neighbour?  Sure.  Moments later but long enough for me to settle at my screen, the parcel man is back at my door.  Another neighbour is out, would I mind …?  Noting that the lounge is now temporarily transformed into Santa’s warehouse I hope my neighbours haven’t disappeared on holiday for a fortnight so that we’ll be stuck with their internet shopping clogging up our home for the festive season.

I carry on reading and tweaking but cannot concentrate properly because my growling stomach decrees it is officially lunchtime.

A quick rummage around the fridge confirms choices are limited to a cheese sandwich again.  So, surrounded by an ocean of beige cardboard boxes, I climb onto sofa island and snuggle among the cushions to watch as much of the BBC lunchtime news as I can justify whilst munching lunch.

Revived, I am going for it now.  No distractions.  No excuses.  Head down, typing for Queen and country.  It’s going marvellously well.  I’m surely half way there?  I should have made time for a loo break ages ago but I am so into it, I just keep going.  ‘I really love my job - when it’s going well,’ boasts my inner voice.

Then the phone goes.  It’s Dad.  “I know you’re busy.  I won’t hold you up.  Are you in this afternoon?”  With an imminent visit on the horizon, my concentration goes.  I’m struggling now.  My brain feels like it’s having to squeeze the story out.  The flurry of words that poured so splendidly onto the page not five minutes ago, evaporates.  I really must go to the loo.

Ding-dong.  “I won’t stop long,” announces Dad, striding in, past me, towards the kitchen, carrying a bulging, jumbo carrier bag.  From within the Tardis-like receptacle he proudly produces and places on the worktop, a catering sized pack of bacon, decanted into a multitude of small zip-lock packages, along with a gammon joint and several packs of sausages.  It seems he has taken Interflora’s long-standing Say it With Flowers advertising campaign to heart. Dad has adopted the sentiment but adapted the execution, putting his own quirky slant on it.  Alternatively, he prefers to Say it With Pig Products.

“Fancy a tea Dad?”
“No thanks, can’t stop.  I’ll be off now.”  And with a quick hug and a peck on the cheek he disappears as quickly as genie in a pantomine - but without the special effects.

So, after a long-overdue loo break, then ramming majority of the kind tokens of my father’s affection into the freezer, having solved the puzzle of how to fit best part of a pig into an already rather full ice box, I settle down to get on with it.  Again.

Frustratingly, I hit a wall.  I’m only just over halfway.  Time is short.  Am I panicking?  Possibly.  ‘Yoga breathing?’ helpfully suggests my inner voice.    

I put the kettle on whilst yoga breathing then multitask some more by eating a banana and drinking more tea before getting back to it.  To my relief, I find a steady writing rhythm.  But with time so short, I’m not content to just plod along.  I feel the need for speed.  My mind obliges by flitting, fast forward, to the ending which cannot be contained in my brain any longer.  Words, the right ones, in the right order, some even making sense, swiftly deposit themselves onto the page.  Hurrah!  Three quarters complete.

Smugly, I read through the ending I’ve just written.  I like it.  Just as I start to type, the cat decides now is the time to make her regular afternoon VIP appearance.  Usually it’s three o’clock on the nail, although today she’s quite late.  

Jumping onto my lap in the impossibly small gap under the table she purrs loudly as she treadles my meaty thighs in a trance-like frenzy of ecstasy.  Doing a poor Tom Jones impersonation I sing to her, What’s New Pussycat? My inner voice scolds, ‘Stop singing.  Get on with it.  Ignore the cat.’  Whilst the frenzied kneading of her claws is distracting and a tad painful, I am helpless against her feline charms and utter cuteness.  She insists on stealing my full attention by sneaking onto the table, standing on the keyboard and obliterating my view of the screen.
I hear the front door opening.  My husband is home from a hard day’s toil.  “Hi Ya.  What have you been up to?  I suppose you’ve been busy stroking that cat all day long.”  
My inner voice responds with two heartfelt words (one rhyming with a common aquatic bird and the other, off).  I manage a forced laugh.  “Shall I put the kettle on?”

I park my umpteenth mug of tea beside the computer.  As I re-read the whole piece, I wonder whatever was I thinking?  I hate the beginning.  It’s got to go.  I decide the ending I’ve just written would make a far better intro.  It means considerable re-structuring, re-writing plus I’m an ending short. 

Luckily, I’m totally in the zone.  The words are speeding onto the page, virtually writing themselves.  No stopping me.  My fingers are rapidly caressing the keyboard like a concert pianist playing Accelerando.  I’ll make the deadline.  Almost there.  Then a concerned head pops round the door.  It’s the other half.  Urgently he utters three little words.  Not ‘I love you’ but “When is dinner?”

My heart sinks.  I’ll have to press the pause button on my creative endeavours and pray that once I’ve prepared dinner I can still remember what I want to write - all the stuff that is bursting from within, so effortlessly right now.  Because after we’ve eaten and I’ve retrieved the frozen laundry from the whirly, I’ll be back to getting on with it, until it’s done.  Those pesky deadlines simply demand it. 

Thursday 26 December 2019

The River

By James McMillan


I am ready. I have got all the things I need to take with me, and I am waiting for the young copper with his high visibility orange jacket to drive up in the Police Land Rover. He will tell me I need to get to a safe place, and he will take me there. 

You know all the experts say the weather is changing. They should really be saying the weather has changed. There are too many storms now. It never used to be this bad. Now it seems madness to live in a cottage so close to the river. It’s a lovely spot in the summer, I have lived here for years but I don’t know how much longer I can bear it.  

I know most of my neighbours except the ones who live in London and just turn up at weekends and bank holidays. The old guard as we call ourselves look out for each other and when we hear there is a storm coming, we all knock on doors to make sure everyone knows. Because you can’t always be listening to television or the radio and not everybody has that internet thing. 

This one is going to be really bad. From the first time they mentioned it on the forecast they said we had to prepare well because it has caused terrible damage on its way here.  

I have closed and locked all the windows. I had a good supply of sand and sandbags so I have got them ready as with a bit of luck they can divert the water or reduce the amount that comes in. I have placed them outside my door so that I can move them into position when I leave.  

I have taken photographs of the inside of every room to help with my insurance claim which I will have to make. You wouldn’t believe the premiums I have to pay.  

I will turn off the power because it is very dangerous to leave it on. Then the very last thing I do is to put a sandbag in the toilet bowl to prevent sewage backflow. I could tell you fantastic stories about sewage backflow but I have learned it is better to wait until people actually ask about it. 

The council has an arrangement with our local church who will let people shelter in the church hall in emergencies. I have heard a rumour that the church charges the council the same price as when it lets out the hall for a wedding reception.  

I usually prepare a few sandwiches to take with me. Some voluntary people usually turn up offer us something hot to eat but I always say no. You don’t know what you are eating unless you make it for yourself.   

I always take a book to read, my toothbrush and my own toilet roll, the aloe vera one.  I also have earplugs as some families have very noisy young children. Some even try to bring their dog but that’s not allowed. I have seen a budgie in a cage there once. The change in temperature killed it but maybe it was old.  

Soon the rain will be falling heavily, the wind will scream, and the river will burst its banks again. Here come the coppers. But it is not the young guy who came last time. It is a young woman in the police car. It’s not the Land Rover and she doesn’t even has an orange jacket on. Are they so short of money nowadays? 

‘Mr MacDonald’ she says, a little nervously I thought. ‘That’s me.’ I smile encouragingly at her. ‘It’s time to go I suppose. I am all ready’. She frowns. ‘We have had reports that you have been shouting at your neighbours’. ‘Well I had to tell them about this storm that’s coming. It’s going to be a really bad one. They have got to move to somewhere safe. I have been doing your job for you’. 

‘Mr MacDonald’ she says and puts her hand gently on my arm ‘There is no storm coming this way. Look at the sky’.  

About the Author

James started story writing at the age of seven when his schoolteacher asked for a 'composition' on a day in the life of a penny.
62 years later, James has decided to be a writer.

Wednesday 25 December 2019

Christmas Echoes

by Dawn Knox


Gwen tipped the steaming contents of the foil tray on to a plate and carried it to the dining room.
Christmas dinner for one. 

She sat down in her usual place and eyed her guest on the other side of the table.

“Alexa!” Gwen said and waited until the whirling green and blue lights stopped spinning around the top of the Voice-Controlled Intelligent Personal Assistant.

“Merry Christmas,” Gwen said, holding her glass up as if toasting the unit.

The clipped, disembodied voice of Alexa rang out, “Merry Christmas and a happy new year.” The blue and green lights flashed and died. 

Gwen was about to eat Christmas dinner alone in the company of an electronic gadget.

She sighed and picked up her fork. There was no disguising the fact that this was a frozen Christmas dinner. Nothing like the ones she’d enjoyed years ago at her mother’s table with her sister, Fiona.
Three women determined to enjoy Christmas without the man of the house who’d deserted them all.
Mother’s table now belonged to Gwen, along with the house – their mother having slipped away several months ago. Fiona had taken her share of the money and left after a senseless argument over their mother’s favourite bracelet.  

So many times, Gwen had picked up her phone to call Fiona but pride had stopped her. 

She hadn’t started the argument. 

She hadn’t begun the name-calling. 

It was up to Fiona to call her and apologise. 

Gwen wondered if Fiona was alone and lonely today, just like her. 

“Alexa!” Gwen said, more to hear the sound of a voice rather than because she thought she’d receive a sensible answer. She waited for the lights to indicate the unit was listening, “Where’s Fiona?”

“Hmm,” Alexa said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know that one.”

“You and me both, said Gwen sadly.

She pulled her cracker and put on the paper hat. 

Gwen sighed. She’d never spent Christmas Day on her own before. Alexa’s silky voice might sound human but it was a poor substitute for a real person.

“Alexa… I’m lonely,” Gwen said. 

The blue and green lights flashed.

“I’m sorry you’re feeling that way. Sometimes talking to a friend, listening to music or even taking a walk can help. I hope you feel better soon,” Alexa said and the blue and green lights faded. 

The sympathetic words sounded hollow. But that was hardly surprising. Alexa wasn’t programmed to have emotions.

“Alexa!” Gwen paused, “What should I do?”

“Hmm, I don’t know that one,” Alexa replied. 

Well, of course the unit wouldn’t know what to do. It didn’t even know what was wrong. 

But Gwen did. 

 “Alexa… Should I apologise to Fiona?”

“Sorry, I’m not sure.”

Gwen sighed. 

“Alexa… I wish you were a person.”

“Humans are cool and fascinating but I like myself just the way I am,” Alexa replied.
Who programmed the answers into Alexa? Gwen wondered. Everything the unit said was delivered in the same, expressionless tone. Perhaps one day, lonely people would really sit down to eat with robots who would be sophisticated enough to respond like a real person. But not yet…

“Alexa!” Gwen waited for a few seconds then asked, “What will happen tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow’s date is Thursday, the twenty-sixth of December twenty nineteen.”

Gwen sighed. Well, it was a personal assistant attached to the Internet, not a fortune teller. If only she’d telephoned Fiona before Christmas. She’d got as far as opening her contacts and finding Fiona’s number in the phone but she’d lost her nerve and hadn’t continued. 

Why was it so hard to apologise?

“I’m sorry,” she said aloud. Perhaps the more she practised, the easier it would be to say when it counted.

But suppose she telephoned Fiona and she wouldn’t accept her apology?

“I’m sorry,” Gwen said again, louder, her voice echoing in the stillness. But simply saying it aloud wasn’t the same as apologising to a person.

“Alexa!” Gwen said, “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Alexa replied, “Calling Fiona Blackburn.”

For a second, Gwen wondered if she’d heard correctly. She hadn’t asked Alexa to call her sister. Had she? 

Had she said it without realising?

She was about to tell Alexa to cancel the phone call, when the dialling tone stopped.

“Hello?... Hello?” The tinny voice which came out of the unit belonged to Fiona. 

 “Hello?” Gwen whispered. During the next few seconds of silence, Gwen closed her eyes, prepared to hear a click as Fiona cut the call. 

 ‘Oh, Gwen! It’s so good to hear your voice! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve picked up the phone to call you…”

Green and blue lights flashed on the top of the unit, as if Alexa were celebrating.  

About the author

Dawn enjoys writing in different genres and has had romances, speculative fiction, sci-fi, humorous and women’s fiction published in magazines, anthologies and books. She’s also had two plays about World War One performed internationally. Her current work in progress is a story set in Bletchley Park during World War Two. You can follow her here on https://dawnknox.com , Facebook here DawnKnoxWriter or on Twitter here https://twitter.com/SunriseCalls