Winning Stories 2019                

1. GIGS  by  Lindsey Danis

 

       “I’m having the dream again. You know, the one where the Mexican guy breaks in and holds me hostage while searching for I-don't-know-what. Then I escape out the front door, but while I’m running across the lawn he finds me.”

       Jeanne wipes the sink while she talks. 

      “Don’t be racist,” I tell her, blowing a bubble. Grape gum. I found it in my pocket this morning and since I’m short on cash it’s my lunch. 

      “I’m not racist. Sometimes it’s a white guy in the dream.”

      “Sometimes a white guy holds you hostage and you escape?”

      “Yeah. And he catches me too.” Jeanne looks over at me, eyebrows raised like she’s waiting for a laugh. 

      I scrub an imaginary stain on the bathroom counter. I thought it would be fun to work at the health club, because I could use the gym for free. Instead I’ve gotten two fungal infections. Then there’s Jeanne. Spending time with her is like hanging out with my Aunt May after she’s started in on the hooch. 

      Two days later, Jeanne slips on the bathroom floor, and the manager has to call the ambulance. I’m trapped in the bathroom while she's going over her last wishes out loud. “You’re not gonna die, Jeanne,” I tell her, staring at the grout, which is the color of dingy oatmeal. 

      “You’re gonna make it through this,” the manager says. She’s Jamaican, with a sexy-but-scrappy look going. Her long braids fly out when she leads the Zumba class.  

      “Will you call my daughter?” Jeanne asks. “I want her to meet me at the hospital.”

      I stare at Jeanne’s liver spots as she clasps the manager’s hand and wonder if Jeanne is racist against black people or just Mexicans. 

      Then I take Jeanne’s phone. “What, Ma?” the daughter keeps saying. “You know I don't like getting calls at work.”

      “Hey actually, it’s Tracy... I work with your mom. She fell at work, and we got an ambulance coming to take her to the hospital.” I hate how my voice rises, like I’m not sure this is happening. 

      “What hospital?” The daughter sighs. 

      The paramedics exchange a look, count to three, and lift her to the stretcher. I hold the phone out, my tongue gone dry. “This is hers. And a relative’s on the phone.” One of them takes it. 

      I wave goodbye to Jeanne, then go back to cleaning. I go over everything until the grout shines, until I no longer see Jeanne with her legs akimbo, her tongue sliding everywhere checking whether she chipped a tooth. 

      Then I mop up, dump the mop bucket, and tell the manager I quit. 

      “You can't quit on us. You know we’re in a bind with Jeanne.”

      “It’s better this way. I’m not good at this.” 

      “Oh, you mean you’re too good to clean, is that right?” One corner of her mouth curls up. 

      I don’t want to end up like Jeanne is what I want to say to her but don’t. 

      When she starts yelling about notice periods, I walk out. 

 

      There’s this weird ad campaign on the subway. You’re NEXT is all it says. The artist is some Keith Haring knockoff, a big heart outlined with lots of other hearts, all done in tropical colors. It feels like some kind of curse from Jeanne, but maybe a love curse. I freak myself out wondering if she’s passed already and she’s on the other side rearranging subway ads to send me subliminal messages, like some old country fairy babushka. 

      Soon as I get home I call the temp agency. “I’m available, and I’ll take anything,” I tell the receptionist, sifting through the empty refrigerator as if Jeanne can send me some snacks.  

      That night I get shitfaced with Dmitri from downstairs, trying to delay the inevitable realization of how fucked I really am. We’re up on the roof. He tries to point out constellations but the city's too dirty so only a couple demented stars shine through the haze. “In my country’s astrology, we have this myth about the river that divides the sky,” he says. “The celestial river, we call it.” 

      “That’s astronomy, asshole.” I wrestle away the vodka. Dmitri takes it back and drinks half the bottle, then tries to give me a kiss. His fingers rest on my crotch, lightly stroking the fabric of my leggings. I press my legs together and steal another sip. 

      On the balcony below us, one of the fancy apartments is having a dinner party. The sound of rich white people laughing grates on me and I start wondering if there’s a way to sneak down there and grab some appetizers. I’m so hungry. Plus it feels better to hate rich people than be racist. They’re the ones screwing everyone over. 

 

      The agency calls in the morning. They're offering $17 bucks an hour for me to wear a costume and hand out menus for some restaurant opening. When I get there a guy shoves me into some hideous yellow prom dress and slaps a wig on me and says, “You’re Belle. From the Disney movie, you know?” 

      “No,” I croak, wishing I hadn’t smoked all those cigarettes with Dmitri. 

      “Unbelievable.” He stares at me a long minute and I bite the inside of my lip. Whatever he sees in me, it’s got to be bad.  Then he snaps his fingers and says, “Hold on.” 

      As he walks down the hallway, I start thinking for $17 an hour why didn’t I lie?

      The guy comes back holding an accordion. “Alright. Italian restaurant promo. Pay is $13. It’s all we got today.”

      “What’s my motivation, street urchin chic?” 

      “Very funny.” He looks past me as a delivery guy walks in. 

      I head to the subway, cradling the accordion. I have to go sideways to fit through the turnstile. I snag a seat opposite that ad campaign with the hearts. Someone’s torn off a bunch of the paper; the ad looks as ragged as I feel. 

      I text Dmitri, but he doesn’t reply. I scroll through my phone, looking for someone else to reach out to, but then the train comes and I sit and watch its doors open, then shut, then it’s gone and I’m alone in the station. Three more trains come by and I start thinking how if I were a different person I’d show up at Jeanne’s hospital room with flowers.

      I think about the party last night, all those carefree people with stuff like cake and fancy cheese, and Jeanne and me on food stamps. There’s nowhere for a thought like that to go. 

      I head to the gig, pass out flyers, get a sore throat from all the shouting. At lunchtime the restaurant owner invites me in. He gives me some pasta. It tastes amazing, and not just cause I’m hungry. I tell them I’ll do anything, wash the dishes, if only they can give me a job. The guy walks away like he didn’t hear me, but then he comes back with a business card and says it’s not a promise but he might be able to get me a spot bussing tables. 

      Instead of going home I hit a bodega and pick up some of those colorful daisies. I tell the hospital receptionist I’m a niece, I can tell they don’t believe me but they let me go up anyway. Jeanne’s snoring and her daughter’s watching talk shows. She’s none too happy to see a stranger, but I sit down anyway. I tell her about my day, hamming it up about the accordion, and she starts laughing. “She gonna be okay?” I ask. 

      “She’ll be fine,” her daughter says. “Ma’s a horse. Trouble is, she don’t take care of herself.”

      “Her and me both, I guess.” 

      When the nurse comes in, I get up to go, leaving the flowers on the edge of the bed. I take the accordion back to the temp office and sit outside instead of going home, watching the way this town empties out at 5 p.m. After a while it’s just me and the cleaning crews going into the office buildings. 

      The building opposite me reflects the sunset, all lit up with fire colors. Reminds me of that ad. You’re NEXT. Maybe it’s that kind guy from earlier, but I start to think about what could be next for me, how it could be something better than what’s now. How it could be up to me. How I could make something of myself, if I could only fix on what it was that I wanted, instead of reacting to what I didn’t want or who I didn’t like. 

      I figure I’ll call that guy from the Italian restaurant. I’ll get a job bussing tables, maybe I can work my way up to waiter. I’d be good at that. I know how to make people laugh. And there’d be food in it. Every day.

      Now that I could get behind. 

 

2. YOU'RE NEXT CHICKEN!  by  Gráinne Daly

Beneath the sodium glow of an old lamp, they held their menus and studied them as if they were contracts. The tallest of the two men pointed to something on his one, prompting the other man to point to his and show it to his blonde partner who sat across the table. Not to be left out, the brown haired woman leaned towards the blonde who pointed to something on hers. The two women nodded in unison. The men resumed their silence and continued to study the menus. A waiter appeared and emptied a carafe of water into four glasses. The taller man spoke to the waiter and pointed to something on the menu. The waiter nodded and retreated. He glided back moments later and poured a drop of red wine into a glass. The tall man swallowed it and nodded. Four glasses were then filled with red wine that were clinked together; mouthfuls supped, menus set down. The waiter reappeared and collected the orders, scooped up the menus and shimmied off towards the black doors that covered the kitchen. Their decisions now made, the four resumed their conversation. Glasses soon emptied. Another bottle was brought. Refills. Chatter. Nods. Laughs. The blonde woman’s shoulders shook when she laughed, and the conversation must have been humorous because she shook constantly. Her head bobbed up and down and she only stilled to take a sip from her glass. The smaller of the men sat opposite her and looked into her eyes, his dripping with love. They wrapped their calves around each other’s beneath the table, the hook of her ankle folded neatly on his. A perfect rope of legs. 

      Tall man and brown haired woman’s legs were obscured from my view, but she leaned back so far in her chair that it would have made it a great effort for hers to link his. It was as if it she wanted to rock back on two legs, the way we did in school, but she resisted the final push. Or maybe it was back trouble. He reached over the table and placed his hand on hers. She smiled at him and reached for a bread roll. He passed her a petri dish of butter. It was the first thing I had noticed when I arrived: the petri dishes. I have seen the fries served in cages and steaks cooked on slates, but petri dishes are a first. It’s only a matter of time before mains are served in a saucepan. 

      I had decided on a safe-mains: grilled chicken on a bed of celeriac. It is risk-free. No bones, no shells, no great chewing challenges. It says ‘healthy’. A nice feminine dish that suggests I’d be full with a measly breast of chicken and a spoonful of celeriac. It is a perfect date dish. Of course, I hadn’t yet ordered. There was still an empty glass opposite mine and a fold of cream linen unfurled in its silver napkin ring. A glass of lemon coloured wine sat in front of me. Just the one, I hadn’t ordered a bottle. Yet. And so I looked at the menu again, for confirmation that soup would be the better option to the Brie tartlet. Chicken wings and crab claws were instantly disqualified, for obvious reasons. The Brie would melt on the tongue and could be managed efficiently, with minimum chewing or fuss, but the soup was downright unpretentious and so had ‘winner’ all over it. The soup it would be. Brown haired lady sighed loudly. Her mouth had fallen open after she exclaimed “Diane” a little too loud. 

      She was looking at the blonde, who I can now call Diane, and in turn Diane was staring at her hand, eyebrows arched like there’d been an overdose of Botox. Smaller man, her partner, was kneeling on one knee, an empty box in his hand. She was wearing its contents: a round and quite substantial solitaire. She stared at it, smiling, bringing her right hand to her chest, every few seconds. Small man whispered something to her and she whispered something back. Tall man started to clap. A middle-aged couple at a table beside the window joined in and this lead to an outbreak of clapping from all diners. Three waiters appeared and stood beside their table, they flashed smiles at the couple then clapped small man on the back. Flutes of champagne manifested. Brown haired woman joined Diane in a thorough examination of the ring. Small man seemed to loosen his shirt collar and nodded when tall man pointed at the champagne bottle. They motioned for another. Their mains arrived. 

      My phone screen remained black: an archive of nothing. No missed calls. No new messages. Full signal. Empty glass. I called for another, and then got brave. I started on the bread rolls. What is a wheat farl when someone is an hour late? And a slice of sourdough covered in creamy butter from a petri dish? I had only washed the last piece of sourdough down with a sip of sauvignon when I realized I would have to be even braver. Why eat mundane chicken when I can feast on slow braised pork cheek with port wine and honey... and a side of roast 

potatoes? I reached for the menu again. I hadn’t looked at the desserts, dates being the provenance of no sweet stuff. I had waited long enough. Banoffi with Baileys and a wedge of homemade white chocolate? Triple chocolate mousse with a Seville orange jus? Raspberry cheesecake with ginger biscuit base and ménage of summer fruits? Diane squealed. Someone dropped their cutlery. 

      In what must be described as a replica of recent events at their table, Diane sat eyebrows arched to heaven, staring at brown haired woman, “Karen” she said, both hands now raised to her chest. Karen’s tall man on bended knee before her held out a box holding a very large diamond ring. It was a square cut and the size of Cyprus. She took it from him, box and all, and looked at it with interest. He remained on his knee. Everybody looked in their direction, waiting for the nod that meant they could break into applause. Karen removed the ring from the box and held it towards the lamp. She squinted then held it away from her as if to get a better view, then back to the light. She held it towards Diane and said something to her, Diane nodded, Karen nodded back. Tall man adjusted his kneeling knee. And then the door opened. 

      In he walked, flushed, forehead glistened with sweat, holding a beautiful bouquet of roses. He looked around, surprised to find a restaurant in silence no doubt. When he saw me, he rushed towards the table. I instantly regretted the bread. He had only just put his hand on the chair when the place erupted in clapping. Karen must have liked the ring. He turned, looking to see why his entrance had prompted such hush and now uproar. I think it was my handbag strap that was the culprit, but whatever it was that he tripped on, he lunged forward and folded onto the floor. He landed on his knees beside my chair, the pretty pink roses dumping into my lap, petals everywhere. I could feel some thorns tear through my tights. The eyes of the restaurant were on us, him on bended knees, me tidying my arrangement of flowers onto the table. Removing some petals from my hair. His face burned red as he looked up into my face. I leaned forward to help him up and he leaned forward to grip me but we screwed it up and ended up giving a sloppy hug. Then Diane said it, or maybe it was Karen, I wasn’t looking up, but it came from their table. She called out for the whole place to hear “you’re next”. And with that, the clapping continued even louder than before. 

 

      I got the chicken. He got the bill. 

 

3. YOU'RE NEXT  by  Tracy Fahey

 

      ‘I wish you’d be careful.’ Her brittle fingers pick at the napkin, pressing it into tiny folds.

      I look hard at her from under my fringe. ‘What?’

      Her neck reddens like it’s been slapped. ‘You know, because of this stuff on the news…’ Her gaze stays firmly on your side-plate, as if she could materialise another cupcake out of the pink crumbs by sheer force of will. ‘I worry about you.’

      I look at her, the sister who always did everything according to the rules. Her hair is pitch-black, flat to the skull, poured into a shining pony-tail. Her floral dress is pretty without being provocative; the pointed heels of her shoes dainty but sensible. I feel a sudden surge of hotness in my chest, rage at her comfortable life, her kind husband, her gleaming house.

      ‘I’m only going on a date. With someone I’ve already met.’

      ‘Yes.’ She refuses to be thwarted. ‘But no-one else knows him.’ She drops the napkin and reaches out a bone-thin hand to me. ‘Oh darling! Please be safe. Especially after everything with Ellen.’

      I swallow; her name lodged like an ice-shard in my chest. Ellen. My eyes close. You. You in the group circle in the grey room; face slick with tears under the white fluorescent light. I stand up and bang one hip heavily against the table.

      ‘I’m always careful,’ I say. My voice is iron.

 

#

 

      The sun beats white on my face as I walk across town to work. It’s still March, but the slightly chilled air is spiced with car fumes and crushed grass. I’m still angry at her. That stupid, cowed expression as I left, her lips nervously worming over each other. I’m still thinking about her when I turn down the side-street.

      The old entrance to the closed museum has burst into bloom. There’s a tangled mass of flowers tied to the rusty railings there; a blaze of bright petals and bits of card. I slow down. This is like something I see when I don’t take my medicine. But I did. I took it today. I look again. Oh, that’s where that girl…I stop and let the dark thoughts trail out my ears like smoke. Instead I look at the flowers. Most are wreaths-rings, studded with bristly carnations.  There’s a spray of fresh pale pink roses, heads smooth and perfect as candle-wax. A bunch of bluebells, wrapped in string. I look at the cards; sad scrawls, laden with blessings. Some of the ink has already blurred in the morning dew. And then behind them – I squint – a wooden board with a joyously smeary painting of a rainbow heart. Across the centre is a printed sticker that says simply – YOU’RE NEXT.

 

#

 

      YOU’RE NEXT. It drums through my head later that afternoon as I sit at the desk. YOU’RE NEXT.  I look out the sun-dazzled pane like a sniper at the sunglassed people moving far below me. Each one of them moves with such clockwork purpose, as if they knew the precise route, tick-tock, tick-tock, which their lives are marching down. One neat step, followed by another, day after day until the toy train is derailed, until someone stands on the Lego house, until everything is broken and strange. It’s only when my boss calls me that I realise I’m standing with my face and hands pressed to the window-pane, like one of those splayed cartoon cats.

      I sit down to type up notes from the meeting earlier. As I do I thumb through my tiny mp3 player and set it to radio. Instantly, my ears fill with a summery tune I vaguely remember dancing to years ago. I bob my head and type in time to the music. The words line up sensibly, one after the other, black type on white screen. It calms me, the staccato beat of my fingers, the order and precision of it all. 

      ‘Another tune to remind us the summer is just around the corner! Now we’re looking through the papers this morning.’ The DJ’s tone turns instantly from light to sepulchral. ‘Terrible news over the last 48 hours, of the girl killed on Little Street. It sounds like it might be linked in with the murders of the other two girls last year.’ She’s interrupted by her co-host, a man with a deep voice. ‘Even before that, Lindsay. Remember that case from years ago, never solved? Ellen, that was her name. Ellen Lloyd.’

     

       I wrench the buds out of my ears like they were red-hot. 

 

#

 

       I go to the group a lot, but I almost never say anything. I like to look at the others, mostly. They’re all so different. Angry kids, sitting spiky and angular in their chairs, the older people, sunk back like grocery bags, the ones like me, with the faces soft and dazed with a shock that keeps unfolding.

      I remember the first night I heard you speak. 

      ‘Why does it keep going on?’ Your voice was low, but the murmurs stopped. You clasped your hands in a tight white knot of fingers. I remember your jaw was tight and grim. ‘It’s been years. Why doesn’t it get any better? Why do I keep missing Serena? Every week I’ll find something of hers. Maybe a letter, half-written, stuck in a book. An odd sock in the laundry, too small to be mine. A tin-opener in the wrong place, the wrong place she always left it.’ You bow your head, weighed by the meaningless detritus of what’s left behind. 

      I feel a pulse of something that might be sympathy.

      A few weeks later I showed you the photograph I carry in my wallet. The colours have faded, but you can see the three faces; Marina, Ellen, me. We’re in gingham dresses and buckled shoes, faces squinting and laughing up at the camera. We are our future selves in bud, fearless of the future.

      You touch the photo carefully with one finger. ‘You all look so happy,’ you say. Under the white hum of the fluorescent light, your eyes glitter with wetness.

#

You were the best of us, Ellen. Your hair was the brightest; your smile was the biggest. Everywhere you went, people clustered to you, to the sound of your laugh raining down. You filled people with hope. You made them remember why they were lucky. And you made me laugh, you always did. Even on those dark days when my radio signal was jammed; when no-one else’s voice could come through.

 

#

 

      We sit and drink our coffee. It’s what we usually do at meetings anyway, but it feels strange to be here, on the red leather seats of the diner, the empty white tables to our left and right. You smile at me. Even though your mouth moves, your eyes still look wary, trying to calculate the trajectory of the evening spooling ahead of us.

      ‘This is nice,’ you say cautiously. I nod and dip my face again into the vast bowl of my coffee cup. Across from us a couple argue, quiet and angry. ‘If you hadn’t said that to him—‘ Distracted, I lift the sugar shaker, then set it down. I don’t even take sugar in my coffee.

       ‘Weird, isn’t it?’ You’re smiling at me again but this time it’s a relaxed smile that creases your eyes. ‘To be out with someone.’

       ‘Yes.’ It is. I look out the window and fancy I can see our reflections overlaid by other shimmering figures; the invisible ghosts all of us from the group carry around; those wraith-children and frail old shadows, the dead husbands, sisters, brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers, sons and daughters. I blink and they’re gone again. 

       I must check I’ve taken my medicine.

      You move closer to me. I can smell you now, a faint delicious smell of burnt sugar; caramel and vanilla on warm skin. ‘Relax,’ you say. And the faltering evening begins to tick back into life again.

 

#

 

      The light outside has dimmed to a velvety darkness. It’s time to go. The refilled coffee lies in small cold puddles at the bottom of the cups. You stroke my arm with one careful finger. I feel the downy hairs stand stiffly up in a light trail from wrist to elbow.

      ‘So you want to come back with me?’ You are smiling, but in the wash of neon from the window your teeth look pink, almost red.

      ‘Yes.’ I am sure. I was sure from the moment I showed you the photo. I knew by the look in your eyes.

      We stand in front of the rotating door. 

      ‘You’re next,’ you say nicely. You have a dimple to the right of your mouth.

      ‘Oh no.’ I put my hand on my bag and feel the hard lump of the Swiss Army knife. ‘I’m not next. You are.’

4. FIESTA  by  David R Thompson

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea, I thought, contemplating the historic streets and beautiful evening sunshine from my table.

      Sometimes, you think that there are certain things that you should have in your life. Friends. A weekend trip to somewhere abroad, something to show for your hard work, fruits for your labours. With a bit of luck, you can show it all off on Instagram. So you make it happen, but as soon as you get there, you realise it’s a mistake.

      It doesn’t have to be that way, of course. A weekend away can be nice. But it depends where you go, why you are going there and who you are with. There are times in our lives when we are lonely, desperate. We make bad decisions about who we should be with to cure us of our isolation.

      ‘Fucking beautiful’, said Karl, staring at a passing girl over the top of his lager. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in Kettering.’

      ‘There isn’t anything like that in Kettering,’ Jeff replied.

      We were sat at a table outside another bar in Malaga, slowly cooking in the sun, and reducing ourselves to a drunken and increasingly inactive and unimaginative gang of English tourists. We had spent the day slowly but surely exhausting our topics of conversation; which wasn’t that surprising, since the knowledge we possessed about each other had been gleaned from weekly five-a-side football and post-match visits to the pub, which hadn’t exceeded eight hours altogether – so this first day in Malaga was already a world record. We’d started early at the Wetherspoons at the airport, which had seemed almost compulsory at the time, but actually had only served to shorten the total amount of coherent conversation. Luckily, whenever it was my round, I had always bought myself a low alcohol variant of our drink of choice. Otherwise, I’d have probably been so drunk, I wouldn’t even have been aware of how bored I was becoming. Maybe that was why people drank. It wasn’t to have fun. It was to obscure the fact that life was passing by and none of it was bringing any opportunity beyond an expected additional drink. Life could be like that sometimes. It could be more about survival and marking time than it was about progress and achievement.

      ‘Let’s move on,’ I said.

      Taking this as an immediate instruction, Karl quickly downed his pint and got to his feet. ‘Where next?’

      I sighed and forced myself to sink the remnants of yet another continental lager. I thought quickly. ‘We should move down towards the beach.’ At least that was a good distance away. We’d barely left the street where our hotel was.

      ‘That’s miles,’ Jeff complained.

      I had anticipated this. ‘Yeah, but where do you think that girl was heading? We’re in fucking Malaga, mate. We’ve got to find a place by the beach.’

      Jeff struggled to his feet and we gathered our happy band together before moving off.

      We were at the Place de la Victoria, so headed south west down Calle Victoria so as to go around the Castillo de Gibralfaro. I had managed to conduct some research before we came.

      That’s how we got here.

      The early Spring sunshine and heat begins to subside as we move through the evening haze. There is a predictable relaxed and Mediterranean feel about the place, but there also seems to be more loud salsa music than usual coming from the nearby bars. And a lot of people in the street.

      ‘Is there something going on here?’ Jeff asks, sounding interested.

      As we walk on, we see a group dancing together, including two beautiful girls twirling together beneath their linked hands. Karl moves close and tried to join in exuberantly, but the girls scowl at him and he soon gives up.

      ‘Lesbians,’ he says.

      I notice the rainbow flags that decorate the outside of the bars as we walk past and smile wryly.

      Jeff and Karl begin to cotton on slowly as we move further down the street and see more and more same sex couples. To me, their theatrical exhibitionism and exuberance is infectious but my companions soon seem to react as if to some kind of threat.

      ‘Where’s the beach, mate?’ Karl grumbles.
      ‘A bit further on,’ I say. ‘Don’t you want to have a drink here somewhere?’
      We are starting to grind to a halt as more and more people push onto the street in

front of us. ‘Not here, mate. Too many fruits,’ Jeff scowls.

      ‘We might not have any choice,’ I say. ‘We can’t keep going much further.’

      The crowds close in and we can feel the heat of the passing bodies as they push past. We can’t see where they are heading and it actually looks like they are all squeezing into the area that we are trying to cross, as if this part of the street and collection of nearby bars is the place they are making for. I’m quite tall, so I can see over the heads of the people, and the bars around do look like they are striving to be the focus of attention. Their doors and windows are open and their insides seem to be spilling out into the street. Some have barbecues, or have counters displaying tapas moved outdoors. There is the delicious charred, meaty smell of chorizo. We have made it as far as the cinema on the Calle Alcazabilla and there is clearly a festival of LGBTQ films there, which appears to be a cause for celebration for the participants, and the whole area is packed with people. Some are throwing coloured powder paints over passers by and clouds of pale blue pink and yellow explode into the air like puffballs. Some of it lands on Karl’s Luton Town shirt, and he doesn’t look happy.

      Quickly, I grab him in a fraternal headlock and guide him to the side of the street where, miraculously, there’s a spare table. I don’t know how advisable this manoeuvre is with so much drink and anger inside him, but someone has to protect the English from the horrors of the foreigner and it’s safer that it’s me. Luckily, Karl doesn’t feel the need to take the matter further. ‘I’ll get the drinks in,’ I say. I leave him ruefully wiping pink powder of his shirt, looking somewhat crestfallen and outnumbered.

      The bar owner seems to have decided to enter into the spirit of fiesta and is simply handing out bottles of Estrella for free to save time. Karl soon cheers up when his drink arrives much quicker than he anticipated.

      ‘Cheers, mate,’ I say encouragingly, and clink bottles.

      He begins to down his drink as fast as he can, a vacant look on his face. Meanwhile, Jeff stares at his shoes, wondering where it all went wrong.

      Conversely, I’m rather enjoying myself. It seems a shame that my companions feel so excluded by such diversity, and that they seem more content to display an odd contradiction of the clearly welcoming culture.

      I see a chiller cabinet which is being used to display tapas, as is common in these parts. It looks old and appears to be habitually stored outside, and plugged in when needed. The back of the cabinet, plywood covering the refrigeration plant inside, is covered in graffiti. Someone has scrawled the words ‘You’re Next’ in a vaguely intimidating way, as if threatening the next terrorist atrocity against nearby persons. But the spirit of the fiesta has caused these words to be re-purposed and reclaimed. A huge pink heart has been painted to surround the words, and outlined in blue, yellow and green. Two small red hearts have been placed against the beginning and end of the words, like punctuation to again change the meaning, in the same way as two differently orientated question marks at either side of a sentence in Spanish make a phrase into a question. I wonder what the yellow and blue and pink paint has obscured, and assume that some hate- fuelled organisation had signed off the threat, but this had been painted over, in the same

way as this fiesta itself has overcome the historical mistrust of a truly inclusive community.

      Everywhere, there is music and Springtime and delicious-smelling food and happy people. I fail to see how anyone can have a problem with any of this.

      I look at my football buddies and suddenly feel sorry for them. It must be difficult to only fit in to and feel comfortable in a narrow range of experiences and communities. Their response seems to be to try to shield their alienation in an alcoholic stupor.

      I resolve to help them out as best I can. Once we move on from this bar, I‘ll find a taxi to pour them into, and ask it to take them to our hotel. Then I can explore this new city alone and see what I can find.

 

5. SONG CATCHER  by  Charlotte Fairbairn

He dreamt of being a song-catcher. He thought that one day he could go out onto the hill opposite the falling-down manse where they lived and put a net up to the wind and bingo, a song of all the songs would land in the mesh and be his.

 

To this end, each day that spring, when he came back from school, once he had run into the nursery and sat down at his painted wooden chair and eaten his toast and wiped the crumbs off his lips and licked up every last hundred-and-thousand and pulled out his books from his satchel and put them on the plastic gingham tablecloth where his plate had just been and done his spelling and read a chapter of his book and written out his sums on the squared paper (his favourite bit of doing homework), he would go to the cloakroom where the butterfly nets were and consider which one might be the best.

‘I wonder,’ he thought.

He never took down a net. Or at least not for several months. He just sat there and weighed them up, all the net possibilities that there were in that dark room with all the boots and all the heavy, smelling coats. There was a shooting stick and he perched on it. He sometimes put one leg up over the other knee, leaned his elbow on his leg and scratched his chin in a pose he he had once seen on a statue in a book. And then he would slip into his song reverie, imagining the moment when the song landed, the feel of it pulling slightly as it touched the sides of the net, the flutter, the silky orange colour that the sky would go, the look of the thing when he brought the net gently to the ground, how just the very catching of it would make him grow from being a boy into being a man of greatness.

Yes, one day he would be a song-catcher. He knew it.

 

**

 

Summer. There were swallows. Sometimes too there were swifts that screamed high overhead. Tobias loved the holidays. He loved the summer. He would get up early. Sometimes he tested himself. Could he survive the early dawn cold in only a short- sleeved shirt? Could he run up the hill where one day he would catch his song in only his bare feet? There was no homework but sometimes Tobias did some sums on the squared paper, just to keep his hand in. Or he took a book – perhaps Huckleberry Finn, perhaps The Thirty-Nine Steps – and sat dramatically under the big lime tree that was on the lawn to the west of the old house and read out loud.

 

‘Showing off’, his grandmother would say. ‘Showing off.’

 

Tobias did not think it was fair that his grandmother said this. He just liked the feeling of the tree against his back and the sound of his words mixing in with the whirring sound of the old branches.

 

**

 

Tobias’s grandmother was what his mother referred to as ‘impossible’. She lived in a flat somewhere upstairs but she often came down and she often made comments. One day, that summer holidays, she came into the old parlour with the big windows that went to the floor. She had a stick in one hand and her small Pekinese dog in the other. She smelt of flowers and dust. The girl from the kitchen came in to ask her if she wanted tea and she snapped at the girl.

‘Course I do’, she snapped.

Tobias had come in from outside moments before. He saw the girl bite her lip. He saw the Pekinese half-close its eyes. He saw his grandmother lower herself into the moth- eaten yellow damask chair, grumbling and wheezing as she did so.

‘Been showing off again?’ she asked. She said it in a beastly old-people voice.

Tobias knew that his grandmother suffered from something she called Arthur-Itis. He also knew that she did not read books because she had been born at a time when girls were not particularly made to do homework. But Tobias felt very sensitive that day. He had had a dream in the night and it had upset him greatly. In fact, it had woken him up and when he woke, he was crying and his heart was thumping and it was almost like that time when he rolled out of the top bunk bed and hit the floor with a bang. The dream had involved long corridors and a whispering voice. The corridors did not end and he could not get out of them. The voice kept saying You’re next, you’re next.

Tobias got out of bed and sat on the floor and his hands shook and he cried quietly. He woke a few hours later in the same position and then he got dressed in a short-sleeved shirt and no shoes and thought the best thing would be to go to the lime tree (with Kidnapped) because maybe when he read out loud, the thump in his chest would go away and he would get back to that nice summer holiday feeling he so loved.

And he thought it worked, his plan, because when he came into the old drawing room, he was smiling. But then he saw the kitchen girl and she was upset and his grandmother was beastly and the Pekinese was staring in that half-blinking way and suddenly Tobias felt very sensitive all over again. He ran out of the parlour. He bumped into the girl with the tea but he kept going. He ran along the passage to the cloak room. The shooting stick was not there for some reason and the nets had fallen in a heap off the wooden hook and onto the floor. He did not know what to do. A word once said is hard to recapture. That was the last line he had read in Kidnapped before he came in from the lime tree.

 

Tobias went up to the nets. There was something beautiful about them lying there. Through his tears, he could see that. He picked the one that for a long time now he had planned to pick. It had long flowing lengths of white and twin bamboo handles. Somehow Tobias thought this net was probably a woman. He picked it up and swooped once or twice through the dark air. He would have to go now.

 

**

 

The hill watched him. The swifts paused, hovered while the little boy strode up the side of it. The clouds had gone away and when he was an old man, blind, fêted, nostalgic, Tobias remembered the particular beauty of that day. The little boy in his bare feet began to run. The net trailed behind him while he pushed his way up the slope. The little boy passed a gipsy riding along on a dun cob but he did not stop to speak to him as he might have done. The little boy ran on. In the distance, when the gipsy turned round and looked back, he thought the net looked like the veil of a bride.

 

The butterfly net flowed behind the boy and the gods smiled. He was barefoot and he was running. And he was drawing behind him a piece of billowing muslin that was almost his size. The gods looked at each other. They smiled and they began to blow a song. Out of their mouths and into the clouds, they blew the song of songs.

 

‘You’re next,’ they whispered, ‘you’re next.’

 

And the little boy raised his net, at the top of the slope now, and waited, in a silky orange glow, for greatness to come.

 

6. MAMA  by Stephanie Asals

She’s a bad woman. We tried to tell people over and over again. But no one would listen. Lima, my big sister, and Mama always argue. Mama’s always violent. I don’t know why she is, but it’s always been like this. When we get picked up from school Mama waits in the car. I see the other parents talking to each other while Sam, Charlie and Lucy play in the car park. I wish I had friends like that but Mama says she’s too busy to be talking to the ‘air- head mothers’ and ‘rancid kids’, I know she just wants to get home so she can have another beer.

 

We drive five minutes down the road to pick up Lima – she’s eleven now so she’s started big school. We drive in silence because Mama says talking in the car is illegal. If it wasn’t I’d ask her why the car makes so many funny sounds. Mama never lets me sit in the front, but she lets Lima.

 

“In four years’ time you can sit in the front.” Lima says, looking at my scrunched up face in the mirror. I know that’s not true. Lima only gets to sit in the front because Mama gives up on the rules for her. Lima’s brave.

 

I get out of the car, carrying my book bag, and Cedric, the class bear. He’s mine this week, I’m going to read to him tonight. I don’t think Mama will let me keep him for the whole week. We stand outside the door, waiting for Mama to light her smoke before standing on the porch, she plays with the lock before stepping inside first. We’re not allowed toys in the house because Mama says we’re too messy, and they’re too much money. I hate my house, and so does Lima. She always shouts at Mama because she hates the peeling wallpaper, stained floorboards and locked rooms. We both hate that we’re not allowed friends.

 

Mama has a bad temper. She always stays in the kitchen, looking out of the frosty window to the garden, until Lima says too much and Mama has to ‘sort her out’. I don’t know why Lima hasn’t learned her lesson. I tell her to just sit down and be quiet but even when she does all the things Mama asked her to do, Mama will still say that Lima never listens.

 

Lima’s funny. She always tells me jokes and makes me laugh, she’s good at making me happy again after Mama did something bad. I wish I could cheer her up when something bad happens to her, but I can’t. My jokes aren’t as funny, so I just watch her cry.

 

I put Cedric in me and Lima’s rooms, and come back downstairs. I peep around the corner of the big room to look into the kitchen to see Mama give Lima her medicine, it makes her calm, she’s always bouncing around, it makes Mama nervous.

 

I ask Lima to play in the garden with me, she always agrees, even after taking the medicine. We play in the garden because the neighbours can see us, we know nothing can happen to us outside. Mama has a lot of pride, so she would never hurt us in front of people. The garden is my favourite, Mama bought us a huge pool, she did it after Lima fell down the stairs and broke her arm. Lima’s promised to teach me how to swim this summer. The best game we play is hide and seek. Sometimes we play it with Mama when she’s angry, but we take turns to be Mama when we play it outside.

 

We started playing tag first, but Lima gets tired quickly and went inside to get some squash. Being outside usually makes all the angry sounds seem quiet, ,but today is different. I can hear plates smash, and I can hear Lima crying. I know I can’t go inside to help, I’ve learnt my lesson. I sit on the last step of the pool, waiting for her to come out, she does. Her face is puffy and red, her voice sounds broken, but she’s not saying anything about it.

 

“Right, I’m going to count to twenty and you go and hide”, she says. She’s so brave. I begin to run to the edge of the garden, before Lima runs up

to me,

 

“Don’t come out until I find you okay? Just like we practiced”.

 

I run to the trees that are behind the pool. I always hide there, but she never finds me. I count with her, but still can’t hear her even though I’ve counted to fifty. I wait another minute before getting out of my hiding spot to see Mama holding Lima under the water. Mama’s very angry, she won’t let her get out, she’s pushing her under. I can see Lima’s hands grabbing the sides, but Mama pushes her back under. I can’t hear Lima, she’s silent, just like Mama likes it. She’s not trying to fight Mama anymore. I pretend I’m still hiding so

Mama doesn’t catch me looking and does the same thing to me. She’s going to start looking for me soon.

 

I look through the leaves in the pool, I can’t see Lima swimming, but I know she’s in there. Mama knows too. I see Mama run into the house, her hair is messy and her clothes are wet.

 

“Find me if you can”, I shout at Lima, looking in the pool, nothing moves. “Limaaaa. I’m over here!”, she’s not listening to me.

 

I hear Mama calling my name, but I’m too scared to answer, I don’t want her to do that to me. I look back into the pool before going in the house. Lima doesn’t look like Lima, she’s too pale. I know what that means, I know Mama killed her.

 

I walk into the kitchen to hear Mama on the phone, crying, she’s telling them that Lima fell into the pool, but I know that’s not true. I stand behind Mama, I watch her screaming down the phone but she stays completely still. She asks me if I saw what happened to Lima. I tell her no. She tells me to keep it that way. There used to be three kids, now there’s just me.

I wait until I see flashing lights. I hope the men will take me away. I hope they will see how bad Mama is. I tell them I want to leave, even if it’s without Lima. I know she’s want me to fight, and when I’m older and bigger I will. When I’m older, I will make everyone see how bad Mama really is.

***

© 2018 by Limnisa.