Last summer, in late August, I was out for a late-night walk with R. (feeding the foxes as usual) and I saw two young men waiting, waiting under a street light. And out of the dark, we saw an extremely tall person, not obviously male or female, approaching. I wondered – is that who they’re waiting to meet? They were swathed in black, and wearing flashing cat ears attached to a headband. They swayed as they walked. I watched, the moment seemed to stretch time. And then they walked past the young men, and walked past us, disappearing back into the dark. And I thought, what if?
Because she’d said, be there, and the boys are new to this, they turn up early and stand on the corner, waiting.
Expecting a late summer night, they are dressed in jeans, t-shirts, and near-identical Trimm Trab trainers. They weren’t to know that August would be turning itself inside- out, blowing and drizzling its way to autumn, pricking their skin with goose pimples.
The boys pace up and down, heel-toe off the edge of the kerb, illuminated by streetlights the colour of Lucozade.
She should be here.
Yeah. She should be here by now.
A short-short story, Pink Orange Red appeared in Ellipsis Zine on 8 December 2022. Thanks to Steve Campbell for selecting it.
Belly, which was published in Ellipsis Zine in 2019, is included in Best British Short Stories 2020 (Salt Publishing). Thanks to Nicholas Royle for selecting it.
Vanessa couldn’t believe her luck when Reggie asked her out. I’ll treat you to a Nando’s, he said. He drove her to the West End in a silver Volkswagen Golf GTi. Vanessa didn’t dare ask where he’d got it. They abandoned the car down a side street off Charing Cross Road and ran laughing towards Trafalgar Square.
Read the rest of the story in the anthology, available from Salt, or online at EllipsisZine.
Moustache is my favourite sort of story to write. Short-short and sweet. It was published in Ellipsis Zine on 19 June 2020.
He decided to grow a moustache because he knew she loved them. He nurtured it carefully, at first trimming it himself. Then, when she made what he took to be a disparaging remark about stray hairs tickling her lips when they kissed, he started going to the Grooming Club, a barber’s with the traditional red, white and blue rotating pole mounted above the shop façade.
Belly is the result of writing around 3,000 words trying to imagine various scenarios in fast-food restaurants, chance sightings, getting completely sidetracked by researching the origins of Landseer’s lions, and the Great Disappointment that is teenage romance. Only a few hundred of the words survive in the final version. The story is like a memory of something that I haven’t actually experienced. Belly appeared in Ellipsis Zine on 1 July. You can read it here.
Before the sapling appeared there was nothing but weeds and rubbish at the end of the alley. The locals dumped their bin bags, and foxes looking for food tore them apart. A woman taking her usual short cut home wondered, Who would bother planting a tree here?
She noticed that someone had shoved an umbrella into the sapling’s branches. Its spokes were broken, its limp canopy folded like crow’s wings. Eventually, bin men cleared the rubbish away but they left the umbrella behind.
Walking past every day, the woman noticed the sapling and umbrella growing closer, nestling together. The streetlights illuminated them at night. It was an unlikely romance.
One night the woman was caught in an icy shower of rain. She stood for a moment and considered pulling the umbrella from the clutches of the sapling. Maybe she could use it, prop it open with her fingers until she got home. But the umbrella’s handle was hooked protectively around the sapling’s trunk, and she knew the sapling would tug back, cling to the umbrella. So she left them alone and made her way home.
We were so envious of Kathleen for being with Johnny, they’d been together since she was fourteen. We were so impressed, cos he was five years older than us. We were so jealous, even though he hit her sometimes, slapped her face – but they were always together. Johnny was interested in the British Movement, in the NF, in National Socialism, he said they had something, he said they were onto something, and I wondered about the scar that began at his top lip, skin laced tight up to his septum, I wondered whether he’d once had a cleft palate, I couldn’t help wondering whether he’d ever tasted glass from the neck of a broken bottle.
Cloth Against Skin was accepted by an online magazine in December 2017. I was really pleased. It was obvious from the finished issue that care was taken in the selection of stories, that the editors had been thoughtful when considering how they would fit together. I wasn’t anticipating that the layout of my story might be changed. The story is short, under 1,000 words, but the format of it is very important to me: the separation of paragraphs and the italicisation of some sections is there to convey and emphasise the theme and meanings. The story lost some of its power due to the loss of formatting, so I’ve decided to post it in its original form here.
I arrive in Southampton from Port-of-Spain hoping that I’m suitably dressed for an English summer:
An iris-yellow dress cinched tight at my waist.
A white pillbox hat with a little net shading my eyes.
White kitten-heeled stilettos that lift my feet off the ground.
The breeze, though, is unexpectedly cool; it embraces me like a shawl. I’ve heard about the cold of winter that drains the blood from your fingers and toes, but I haven’t felt it yet.
I take the train to London where my cousin Rita is waiting for me at Waterloo station. She lives in a house with two bedrooms, one for her and Alan and one for their son Errol – no spare room, but she said I could stay.
At night I sleep on Rita and Alan’s settee and dream of being adrift in the Atlantic, but when I feel furtive hands creeping across my skin I am wide awake, holding my body rigid. I keep my eyes squeezed shut and wait to be left alone.
In the morning, sitting at the Formica table in Rita’s kitchen, Alan’s eyes won’t meet mine. They are blue and fathomless like the ocean that separates me from home.
I meet a man called Patrick. He buys me a pearl-pink glass vase and a weekly supply of carnations until I agree to marry him. On the day of the wedding, Calvin, Patrick’s best man, whispers in my ear that I am making a mistake, that I should go away with him.
I say yes to Patrick anyway.
Seven months later, Mia is born. She is such a dry-eyed, hushed baby. Sometimes I feel like tipping her out of her cot just to make her cry. Every day I hand her over to Esme to be looked after I feel so relieved. I leave Mia sitting in a room full of other babies, mute while the others gurgle and scream.
I catch the bus to work, sitting close to the open platform. I am unable to blend in with my surroundings but I’m used to the stares of Londoners now, their faces as bloodless as a winter sky. This is what they must see:
My stiff paper cap perched on my head, brown leather brogues on my feet.
My pale-blue dress with a starched white collar, thick black stockings.
My navy wool cape keeps me warm.
My nurse’s uniform protects me, tells them who I am.
Mia drapes her coltish body across the bed and watches me get dressed for a party. I have been promoted: I am a ward sister now. I stand in front of the mirror, but she is behind me stealing its attention, her face morphing from smiles to pouts to frowns. My daughter is nothing like me. She thinks being able to suck her teeth diverts attention away from her East London accent, her love of Marmite and Top of the Pops, her knowledge of no other country but this one.
I still relax my hair into waves and curls.
I still dust my cheekbones with powder that shimmers like moon dust.
I still paint my nails wine-red with lipstick to match.
My dress wraps around my hips and clings just so. With cloth against skin, I make myself visible.
After twenty years, Patrick breaks the strained politeness of our marriage to pursue a girl not much older than Mia. His body is distant and heavy with answers to questions I dare not ask. When I leave our home, Mia chooses to stay with him.
I retire and rent a house in a seaside town. I don’t have much to do except please myself, so I re-read all the books I own, drink strong coffee sweetened with condensed milk, and flick through my old records, returning to my favourites: Bessie, Ella, Billie, Sarah. I sing along. Sometimes I dance, awakening muscles that are usually quiet and still.
Every morning I wrap myself in an oversized parka that once belonged to Patrick, and I walk down to the sea.
My jeans are so worn the denim has washed away.
My hands feel snug in sheepskin mittens; they recall my first English winter.
My green wellingtons crunch the pebbles on the beach with each step.
Sometimes I think about going home – I wonder if I’ll die before I’ve made up my mind? My mother and father only exist in my memories now, and our house will be in ruins. Bats and birds will be nesting in the gaps of the galvanised roof, and green lizards will skim-skitter across the veranda where I used to sit and dream of coming to England.
It’s morning. The nurse comes into my room. She leans over me and her hands roll away the waves of sheets and blankets. My nightdress is unbuttoned and removed as if being unpegged from a washing line.
She says, stand, but I can’t – the frame won’t catch me if I fall.
She says, hold, and my fingers curl into my palms because of the pain.
She says, wash – my skin recoils from the tepid water filling the basin.
The nurse immerses a flannel and wrings it out briskly. She scrubs me as if she is cleaning a window. I am dried, and fresh clean clothes pulled on to my body. I have not chosen them:
Disposable knickers and a grey polyester vest.
Navy linen trousers, elasticated at the waist.
A moss-green jumper, its woollen folds nestling against my skin.
I’m strapped into a wheelchair, pushed into the lounge and given warm grey porridge for breakfast. The sour milk bleeds into the plastic tang of the beaker.
Afterwards, I am moved to the bay window where glimmering sunlight burns through the glass. I sit here for hours, and I can almost feel the catch-fire heat of the sun on my skin, inhale the sea breeze so it fills my lungs.
On days like this, I am no longer four-thousand miles from home.
Saturday 24 June was National Flash Fiction Day. It seems like a long time ago now, but what a joy to spend the day reading short-short, sweet, scary, beautiful, quirky stories as they were posted on Flash Flood journal every few minutes. My story Ms Anderson was included. This story has been brewing for a couple of years and started life as a much longer piece that included an in-the-classroom rant about Mr Breheny’s love for Steely Dan, and some of the narrative is from Ms Anderson’s point of view. I might post it on the blog sometime. It was fun to write.
This One’s Ours appeared in Issue 7 of the online journal The Nottingham Review. It’s a rare instance of ideas, thoughts & words coming together, being taken apart, coalescing over two years, and eventually working as a snapshot narrative.
Thanks to the editors of The Nottingham Review for giving it time and space in their publication.
Update, January 2021: As The Nottingham Review no longer exists (much missed), here is the complete story:
Manny’s heart beat fast and close as if it had found its way out of his body, concealed only by the thin white cotton of his shirt. He sat upstairs at the back of the bus with Paul, only occasionally looking down, amazed that they were holding hands, fingers interlaced.
Manny and Paul had grown up in the maze of a north London estate, a slip road away from the A406, that tarmac-kissed artery skirting the city and leading to its greater and outer edges. They were travelling down that same dual carriageway, and Manny found himself measuring time through the stop-start motion of the bus as it pulled up beside steel and glass shelters. To him, the bus was full of possibilities: the seats were covered in black and green fabric and splashed with scarlet, like blood spilt on grass. The stanchions waiting to steady its passengers grew from them in curves like the branches of trees aiming for the sky.
Manny’s mum was always saying that they were twins under the skin, partners in crime: cheeky, but not bad boys. Both were doing well at university.
So what are we now? Manny asked himself.
As Paul looked out of the window down to the street below, Manny gazed at his profile. There was no doubt about it. He knew, and his sister said it often enough: Paul was hot. His hair was shaved neat and low, his face framed by the sharpness of his sideburns. Manny smiled to himself as he took in Paul’s nose which – he teased his friend often – was broad and equine, with prominent nostrils. Why the long face? Paul’s skin was dark brown, darker than Manny’s. The quizzical wavy lines of his lips made Manny wonder what Paul was thinking, but Paul remained silent.
He freed his hand to press the bell for the next stop.
‘This one’s ours,’ he said.
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