Saturday, 8 May 2021

The Trip to The Lake

 

by Mari Phillips

Glühwein

 

I don't know why Jean invited me; she had plenty of company for the trip. Her three older brothers and two sisters. Maybe that was the problem. Too many of them, with their sibling hierarchy and rivalry. As her friend, we talked every day. Often about nothing, but everything in general. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, I remembered that one evening. We changed into something a little smarter for the last dinner. Glad rags with thermals for the sub-zero walk to the restaurant. The lights glittered like iced stars lining the noisy streets, clouds of breath suspended in the frosty air, with runny noses in need of handkerchiefs. People strolled arm in arm, huddled for warmth. Brave street musicians with fleecy ear flaps and fingerless gloves lifted voices and spirits. We walked ahead of the group. I was fed up with them, alternately bickering and bellowing about this and that, and probably me.

The restaurant buzzed, and tables filled fast, especially those clustered around the fire, its glowing logs and licking flames darting up the soot-streaked chimney breast. The service was slow, but we weren’t in a rush. We sipped tumblers of Glühwein while we studied the menu. I translated for them as they had a poor grasp of the language and conveyed their orders to the server, who stood with a fixed smile but wandering eyes. I relaxed momentarily and realised that the others had disappeared, leaving Jean and me alone. How rude.

‘They wanted to go for a walk… see the lake again.’ Jean apologised on their behalf.

‘Mm… we could have all gone together, afterwards,’ I said.

Jean didn't answer.

‘They don't like me, do they?’ A brave question to ask.

‘I’m sure that’s not…’

‘Don’t kid yourself, Jean. I can sense the tension. They barely speak to me. I shouldn't have come.’

‘But I couldn’t have done this trip without you. It wouldn't have been the same. Mum liked you - no, Mum loved you and this place, and that’s what matters. This trip is for her. The others didn’t give a shit about her; they just wanted a free trip.’

I pondered her statement. She was right. Jean’s mum had loved this place as much as I did. She’d asked us to scatter her ashes on the lake, and we fulfilled that last wish. Bugger the rest of them.

Plates of food appeared. Sauerbraten, Kartoffelklöße and Sauerkraut. We tucked into the steaming meat and potatoes. It was only as we spooned the last of the gravy that the errant siblings returned. No apologies or excuses, just a round of complaints about the service and the cold food. Jean threw me a glance, and we both stood.

‘We’ll see you in the morning,’ she said to them.

‘And hopefully never again’ I muttered under my breath.

‘The flight is 11am and pick up at 8.15am. Please try not to be late.’

 

We headed for the lake ourselves. To say our last goodbyes.

‘I just need to stop off at the hotel,’ Jean said. ‘One last thing, you wait here.’

She reappeared with a rucksack.

‘This is for us. I wasn't letting them have it all their own way.’

At the water’s edge, she opened the bag and produced a smaller urn.

‘Mum, this is just the two of us saying farewell, Jean and me. We love you. Bugger the rest of them!’

About the author 

Mari lives in Leeds, writes mostly flash fiction, with several published in Café Lit, and is working on a couple of ‘longer’ short stories. She also occasionally dabbles in poetry. She is a keen singer and traveller, both activities severely curtailed under lockdown.

Friday, 7 May 2021

Love/Food

 by R.J. Kinnarney

lightly carbonated water, one ice cube and half a slice of lemon

 

‘Brian!’ Her voice reverberates through the flat, like a pneumatic drill.

How does she always know? She was fast asleep a minute ago, when I crept out of bed.  When we sit across the breakfast table, I have almost to scream for her to hear me. Yet, in the dead of night, she can hear the suck as the door seal on the fridge releases itself. It doesn’t matter how stealthy I think I’m being, she always hears me.

I climb back into bed.

‘What have you had?’ she asks. I don’t respond. ‘Some of that pastrami and gherkins. I can smell them.’ She rolls away. ‘You know it’s not good for you, eating in the middle of the night.’

It’s not long before she’s snoring again. I lie and savour the taste of the pickle.

________________________

 

She glares at me across the breakfast table as my hand reaches for the cheese knife. ‘Not too much now, darling. You know it’s not good for your cholesterol.’

That’s what I take my statins for. What’s the point in advancements in medicine, if it means you can’t enjoy a little extra bit of taleggio that Luca at the deli put aside for you?

I cut off a corner of the cheese. She’s still glaring. I smile at her and pop the creamy oozing chunk into my mouth. She tuts, gets up and begins clearing away the breakfast things.

_______________________

 

‘What would you like for your lunch?’ It’s only 11.30 but we’ve always got up early, so 12 is a reasonable time for lunch.

‘Is there any more of that chicken and chorizo stew left?’ I know there is. I can pretty much draw a detailed diagram of what is in the fridge at any given moment. She knows that I know.

‘Why don’t you have a piece of salmon? With some of those lovely greens? I’ll spice it up for you.’

‘I think I fancy the stew.’ I am already imagining what it’s going to taste like. Second day stew is the best. And her stews are outstanding. How am I supposed to diet, when her cooking is exceptional? I’ve been mollifying her with this reasoning for 57 years now. She doesn’t call it reasoning; she calls it an excuse.

She stomps off to the kitchen and I can hear the stew being turned out into a saucepan for reheating.

It’s as delicious as I imagined it was going to be. Probably more so. But I always fancy a little something sweet after lunch.

When she’s settled down for her afternoon nap, I gently open the sideboard and reach to the back, where I know she’s hidden the dark chocolate gingers.

‘Brian!’ How does she do it? ‘Think of your diabetes!’

________________________

 

She’s going through the fridge, sorting something out for dinner. I busy myself at my computer in the living room.

‘Brian!’ This is trouble. ‘Where is the second of those mini pizzas I made for you?’ She’s now standing in the doorway, with the face of a disappointed headmistress. ‘I told you about the news on TV and how dangerous high fat diets are and how they can cause memory loss.’

I don’t answer.

‘Well, did you eat it?’

This is going to be good. I wink at her. ‘I don’t remember.’

 

About the auhtor 

R. J. Kinnarney lives with her family of orange animals and her own purple hair – note: the animals are tamer than the hair. Words lie out there in all sort of places. Links to online and print published works can be found at rjkinnarney.com Twitter: @rjkinnarney


 

 

Thursday, 6 May 2021

Crackpot

by Denise Cooke

cafe mocha 

"Scaredy cat!”

“Shurrup!”

“Scaredy-Nerdy cat!”

Josh is most ANNOYING eleven year old in the whole world. Always playing tricks on me, waving that humunguous spider right up to my mouth or teasing me about my pigeon-toed running. Not to mention hiding my fave book and his yucky slime gunge ball in my bed and even farting in my face at times.

So I thumped him.

“OK, dare you! Mum’s nagging Dad to finish the pointing. So tea's deffo not till after five. First to Crackpot Hall? 1...2...3...GO!”

So we were off, racing down the steep footpath towards the River Swale, kicking stones, jumping puddles, the autumn leaves whirling down amber, red and gold confetti and Josh slashing the heads off the shrivelled cow parsley with a stick he'd snapped off a rowan bent by the wind. Brown bands of bracken were streaked across Kisdon Hill ahead. Toy sheep on the opposite fellside were huddled against grey stone walls, matching the gloomy clouds scudding by.

"If it rains I'm turning back.”

“Chicken!” Josh, wheeling round, grinning, made clucking noises. I couldn’t catch up to aim a sneaky thump so slumped out of breath against the stone stile. I love greeny white mottled lichen - pretty patterns to trace with my grubby finger.

“Josh! Hang on! Its not Fair!”

He was disappearing round the next bend of the Coast to Coast trail. The narrow track rose again sharply towards the remains of Crackpot Hall. Dad said it was abandoned in the 1800s when lead mining stopped. That must be ages and ages ago ‘cos the flagstones, huge stone chunks and old twisted iron bits of railings and machinery lay scattered around like huge Lego pieces.

“Hey Em, up here!”

Josh wobbling on top of a huge mound of what I think Dad calls a ‘spoilheap.’ It’s the earth and rubble and stuff that they dug out to make the tunnel - no, Dad says the 'level.'

Crossing the springy turf towards him, I nearly step on a dead rabbit. Its insides are a gluey snotgreen mess, white bones protruding, one eye socket a black hollow, one glassy eye fixed on me. URGHH!

Josh leaped down and scrutinized the corpse. " Its mixamastitis that causes that,” he pronounced solemnly. He picked up its velvety paw.

"Delicious. Shall we take it back for tea?”

“I don’t like this place - it makes me feel funny. Let’s go down to the waterfalls instead.”

“Nah, Mum made me promise not to go in. It’s dangerous after the storm.”

“ And we’ve been told not to explore round the shafts and hushes..so there!”

“Aw, c’mon. I’ve found the entrance. And I pinched Dad’s torch from the dresser. Five minutes, Em. Per...lease.”

So we were standing before a little brick-edged opening, almost hidden at ground level. I felt like I was in a Harry Potter film. Fern fronds waved at me around its arch and mounds of mossy cushions, sprouting tiny, yellowing stalks, made me want to squeeze them. They were dripping wet and spongy so I wiped my fingers on my jeans, closed my eyes tight and took a step inside.

The earthy, fetid smell made me want to gag. The torch was flickering and Josh did that old Halloween trick of shining it under his chin to make him look like something out of The Nightmare before Christmas.

“Give over! Can’t you make it brighter?”

The torch played its faint beam on the tunnel ceiling. Vaulted...faded brickwork, sandwiched together with crumbly mortar. Like a drunk firefly, the torchlight was jerking further away, forcing me to follow. Water was dripping through the cracks, reminding me of rancid, dead flowers in Mum’s best vase. Smelly slimy stuff. Next thing, the torch was revealing that we were standing in sluggish flowing water and - and was that a trick of my eyes? Or did I see something moving down there? Don’t rats seek water? And what’s that rat disease?

Clutching wildly at Josh's arm, I slipped and the torch flickered and was falling, falling.

“Idiot!”

He splashed around searching.

“You’re the idiot! Now you’ve wet my jeans!”

“You have, more likely!”

More splashing in the darkness, followed by his sharp intake of breath.

“Ow! I've just stubbed my toe! What the hell?...”

The atmosphere suddenly feels colder. My throat tightens and I gulp - a sour taste in my mouth..

“Something sharp. Feels hard- like metal. Two. A track? ”

“Dad’ll give you what for when he hears about the torch. I can’t see. Let’s just get out!”

Something soft brushes my cheek and skitters away down the tunnel. I want to scream and scream ( like in ‘Just William’) but can only splutter, my hoarse cough echoing around.

Bird? Bat? Or Dementor?

Then I'm hearing it.

Clicketty-click, cloppetty-clop...coming closer and closer...clicketty -clunk...

I'm sensing it, rather than seeing it. My eyes ache. A blurred outline of a pinched white face, a vision, a boy's face...rag clothes - pushing, panting - shoving something - piled high -rocks, black, glistening edges - acrid smell- clicketty - click - CRASH!

I feel the walls swaying, crumbling and falling in on me......

“Hey Em! You OK? It’s OK. Emily!”

I'm lying on the sodden grass looking up at the leaden sky. It hurts. A kestrel is circling overhead. With an eerie cry it swoops down on its prey.

 

About the author

Denise Cooke is a scriptwriter and fledgling novelist, who was an English and drama teacher in a previous life.
She has been writing fiction in a Leeds Writers' Group for the past year and is working on her debut novel. 

 

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Threat to a Mother

 

by Mark Winson

coffee served only by one that knows it needs sugar

 

The paddy fields extended from the ramshackle farm out into the distance, until the dense barrier of the rain forest stopped them from reaching any further. Like the face of an uncluttered hairbrush, the rice that grew from their shallow waters surfaced as the seed had been scattered, devoid of any pattern, but for the arc of the arm that threw it.

 It was early in the morning, the warmth in the ground held there overnight seemingly playing with the cool air, a sagging mist waiting to catch a low flyer or confuse the eyes of a wandering animal. Nonetheless, the way it clung to the legs of the workers, the way it rolled over their busy shoulders, was more than welcomed. Even those accustomed to the balmy temperatures of the day, struggled moreover as the sun climbed overhead. The water too, had something about it, an aroma that always seemed to be refreshed overnight before the inglorious mud was disturbed once again.

The crop had been fashioned into ordered blocks, each one the size of half a football pitch, each with well-designed borders allowing Pacon and his workers to travel between them. However, these throughfares were made as narrow as possible, every last fertile metre dedicated to the business of production.

‘Come on Ake. Put your back into it!  Oh no, you can do better than that Mapi!’ It seemed from such words that a worker might resent Pacon, but as their boss he had an understanding and curl to the side of his mouth that gave his game away.

‘We don’t see your plantings thinning out any!’ Mapi threw his comments back at him like a ball from a bat, but banter was something that carried everyone through, the thing that bound them together as the extended family they had become.

 The work was far from easy, Venezuelan farmers having their problems. Just to establish a decent area to farm, they cleared acres of twisted trees and large leaf plant life, but they couldn’t stop the bizarre Amazonia creatures from paying a visit. Especially the snakes. Their rolling backs and skipping elastics were plentiful. Most had become accustomed to them however, brushing them aside with an expert and practised stick, a sharp word and a bold step into a quickly fashioned lay-by.

Women were considered to be a part of the team, the right and proper thing being to support their husbands. Pacon’s wife, Francisca, would ordinarily have no hesitation in joining the fray, realising that more hands lightened the work. However, as soon as she became aware of the fact that she was pregnant, she flatly refused to venture into what was regarded by some as unnerving waters, a telling shiver running down her back at the mere suggestion.  

‘What if I fall?’ she argued with both hands on her hips and a panicky tone to her voice.

‘Then you fall into the mud,” Pacon said simply. ‘We all fall into the mud from time to time. It’s not as if baby is even showing as yet. You have no bump to worry about.’

‘No, I’m sorry, but no!’ She was adamant, the mere thought of something going wrong outing itself as a weeping ribbon of sweat across her forehead. She held a hand to her belly protecting what she knew needed protecting, feeling little kicks of a contract even if there were none. ‘You men don’t understand. You can’t understand. You have to trust me when I say there is a something, a something that a mother inherits that will have her defend herself as such. All mothers for that matter.’

‘Come now, I can protect you. I have as much love for our child as you do. Depend on me, look to me for the arm to rest on… trust me!’

‘You can do all that and more my Pacon, but you don’t have the something to see what I can see.’ There was little point in arguing about what couldn’t be quantified, described or given a name. Pacon had to accept that his working day would start a little earlier and finish a little later.

  

Snakes were one thing, but the legendary Anaconda was another entirely and not even regarded as such. Pacon had grown up being fed by incredulous stories of the Anai-kondra, the name given to the snake by some, meaning ‘to kill an elephant.’ A Boa Constrictor, giving birth to its young without the alienating egg that severed the inherited links of criminality, it was regarded as a shape shifter, the original creator of the earth’s waters and a vicious threat to humanity.  He had only ever seen what he thought were its periscopic eyes and flared nostrils peeking from below the water surface, perhaps an expanding wake from a powerful tail, and yet, he believed all the abounding stories. Twenty and thirty metres long the braggers suggested, an Anaconda would take some of the white-tailed deer from the edge of the forest and if that were the case, they would certainly have no problem seizing a small child. It was a fact that hadn’t escaped Pacon since his impending fathership was revealed. Nevertheless, he continued to trivialise all the excuses that Francisca put to him, all the reasons she gave for keeping out of the water.

It wasn’t long before the argument of there being no bump, was replaced by the fact that whenever Pacon placed his hand over it, the baby stopped kicking, whenever he placed his ear over it, it fell silent.

‘That’s because you haven’t the something I talk about,’ Francisca argued. ‘I know he’s there all the time, every last minute. I don’t forget, only then to be given a reminding kick.’

‘I don’t forget either. I always think about him, about her, I’m always considerate. I just think that a little exercise in the fields would be more than beneficial.’

 

As the season turned, the workers relaxed into a more comfortable climate. Only seventy-five degrees in May, it meant that the job of picking the crop was easier. There was a cleaner and fresher smell in the air, but for the rice as it was pulled from its moorings, musty bubbles from the mud bursting upon the surface. Standing in the shallows, Pacon’s dependable feet remained cool, the top water being easily palmed over his face to refresh it. The light of his character was seemingly shining through, whistling songs and part ditties that came to him on a whim, well into whatever blew from his lips. He was almost in a world of his own.

Suddenly, the background chorus that rose from the forestry, began to shout and bawl. Known as the ‘Bird Continent’, the rattling chainsaw song of the Capuchin, the chattering of the Macaws and the warbling finches seemed constant, but a fear of life now began climbing above the canopies. They had seen something disturbing. Upon the throughfare between the stems and panicles of rice, a submarine’s wayward torpedo glided through the water. A sleek green back rounded by black bands appeared and disappeared, its subterranean pattern of scales surfacing momentarily to slip through the air, leaving only little aquatic tornados to swirl on the surface. Two beady eyes and lazy but functional nostrils led the charge, but it was the wake from this that Pacon spotted first.

   ‘Anaconda!’ he yelled, for the benefit of the other workers, who were quick to check behind them and lift their legs as if both could be out of the water at the same time. He was equally quick to react, his stick held at the ready, parting the rice plants with less of an eye on any damage he might cause. ‘Get out of the water!’ he yelled to those close enough to the bank to do so.

The snake had probably seen him but was more intent on making for the bank and shallows at the foot of the farm. The children were playing there, unaware, darting runs in and out of the water, playing hands splashing their chasers. With a sudden realisation, there was a barrage of names then shouted by panicking parents.

‘Abiro, Estero! Get out of the water! Run! Run!’

‘Tacito, Tacito, quickly, quickly… the Anaconda!’ As if rehearsed, little feet ran without condition, no backward glances, no doubting their Father’s words. Their laughing and smiling faces had disappeared, tightened with an immediacy, as the men ran to put themselves between them and the snake.  The fact that they were the men and that the men would always be called on for such things, was expected and accepted.

As the green back rose to the surface and the coils of the snake rolled in the water, Pacon slammed his stick down horizontally, the loud splashing a deliberate attempt to frighten. His face was rippling with worry lines, his body wet and quickly sweating, the bubbles from his racing feet breaking the surface as the smell of rotted encapsulation ran up his nose. Finally, as he intercepted the undulating body, he pinned its tail to the bottom with the stick held between his dutiful hands.

‘Quick, quick, help me, all of you!’ One by one the charging men, realising Pacon’s plan, did the same, working their way up the panicking animal metre by frightening metre. ‘You next, you and you, keep hold… don’t let go!’  Each had their part to play, each depending on the other, each with eyes waiting for the turning head and striking jaws that would dislocate as they bit. Each could see the rolling trunk displaying the massive girth around the snake, suggesting it must be at least eight metres long. It was obviously hungry, must have been, despite the apparent bulbous belly that probably contained another deer, or God forbid, a child from another village consumed as a starter to its main course.

 The snake’s violent thrashing began to soak the men, the rising mud clinging to their clothes, their heartbeats faster and faster, whilst the children turned with trembling hands and terror in their eyes. A terrified shouting was coming from all directions.

‘Father, Father, kill it, kill it Father!’

‘Be careful Father… no… stay away from its head!’

Another stick across the Anaconda’s writhing back and its head turned and glared at Pacon, as if it knew he was the first to react, as if it knew he was the one that wanted it dead. Nevertheless, the noise of the screaming children was the only thing Pacon could hear.

Bravely, one of the men then dived upon the beast’s surfacing neck, but its massive muscles simply threw him off, his eyes wide, expectant of a following attack. He staggered backwards on all fours, before managing to stand and uncontrollably wield his stick in the air, crashing it down onto the animal’s head, again and again. As the example was seized upon, all the men together, thrashed the leathery body which shook almost comically as the painful signals from each blow travelled the route to its brain.

Pacon was sweltering in the heat of the moment, but within it, he began to sense a victory. The snake rolled over and over, until as it slowed, seemingly floating entirely to the surface, its white underbelly turned to the sun. This was more than any of the men had ever seen of an Anaconda. The children cheered, they could see the fight draining away from the animal, the men after standing for hours in the rice field finding a strength that they thought had been exhausted.

Suddenly, Francisca came running from the house, her pregnant belly bouncing side to side, no doubt angering the shaken baby.

‘Stop! Stop! You’re going to kill it! Stop, stop now!’ Pacon looked up. He thought she would be relieved, thought he was doing the right thing protecting the other children, protecting the inevitable arrival of his child.

‘What? What?’ He was confused, the fear for his wife travelling up through his body and tensioning his shoulders as she ran to the shoreline. He stopped, as did the men, looking at her quizzically, the great snake rolling over to show the dark of its back again and take in the air it needed to avoid drowning.

‘Can’t you see?’ Francisca was pointing. ‘Stop jumping to your fateful conclusions,’ she scolded. ‘The snake… it’s pregnant!’ She held her precious belly with two hands as the men in a timely realisation finally stopped their attack, the great animal taking in a saving breath. There it was again, the legitimacy that Francisca felt nullified the alleged risks, the insistence that they had to listen to before it was too late. The snake, so silent in the water, the black patterns reversed direction as it turned and slunk slowly away. It needed to look for another beach and shallow water to provide a sanctuary for its new-born… rescued by a motherly ‘something’.

About the author

Mark lives in North Wales. His creative bent has re-surfaced in his early retirement. Having worked in the RAF and Scout Association, his real life influences result in a style he describes as 'quirky fiction'.