After Lockdown The Town Moor was invaded by the hoi polloi. Muriel missed the times when she could stroll with her dachshund undisturbed except for occasional dog walkers. Now it was a free-for-all with zealous cyclists, neon joggers and anxious families competing for social distance. When Sammy died a year before the Pandemic she stopped going for walks. She felt excluded from the camaraderie of the dog scene. People looked uncomfortable when they met her, yanking their pets away as if she was the Angel of Death. She’d missed the exercise and fresh air, the gossip and the joyful sight of dogs running free. But the Covid cloud had a silver lining and these days she could blend in with the masses, trudging the straight and narrow paths anonymous behind her face covering.
Muriel liked to sit on the bench where the paths crossed, a stout figure with red hair, wearing a tweed coat and emerald green scarf. She would study the Newcastle skyline; the curves of Central Motorway, the Civic Centre tower, the rooftops of Spital Tongues and the amputated Chimney Mill. The cattle grazing on the Moor were incongruous against an urban backdrop. She had scattered Sammy’s ashes at precisely this spot.
Muriel experienced an intense grief at the loss of her dog whereas when her mother died thirty years ago she felt only confusion. At the age of twelve she’d accepted her father’s version of events and his desire that the matter never be discussed after the funeral. Christmas was always a difficult time of year for Muriel. Mother had drowned herself in the River Tyne on Boxing Day after yet another marital fight. These rows happened so often that Muriel stopped feeling upset when her mother made dramatic claims that she wanted to die before disappearing into the night. Sometimes father and daughter drove out looking for her along the riverside. Father would beg and grovel until his wife climbed into the car, then they would return home and go to bed as if nothing untoward had occurred. Eventually her father despaired, gave up on these rescue missions. He sat at the yellow kitchen table and drank vodka. Muriel hid in her room and listened to BeeGee records. When the police called to inform them that mother’s body had been discovered under the Swing Bridge Muriel was playing How Deep is Your Love.
So on Christmas Eve, nine months after the world had changed into a dystopia. Muriel visited her favourite bench on the Moor to think about the past and to remember happy times with Sammy. She wasn’t looking forward to Christmas Day. Since the divorce she usually spent it alone and this year was no different. The air was cold and crisp. Muriel closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She could almost feel the warmth of Sammy’s body pressing against her legs, almost feel his tongue licking her outstretched hand and hear the jingle of his brass name tag. So real. Muriel felt a shadow fall upon her and opening her eyes saw a woman silhouetted against the late afternoon sun. She wore a diaphanous dress of pale gold despite the chill. By her side was the biggest dog Muriel had ever seen with a thick, curly grey coat and green eyes like a wolf.
‘My dog like you’, said the woman in an Eastern European accent. ‘He see you’.
‘Those green eyes are unusual,’ said Muriel. ‘What type of dog is he?’
The woman laughed. ‘He is special breed from Carpathian Mountains. He chooses you. He has waited long time. Now you take him.’ She began to quickly walk away not following the path but across the rough grass.
‘What? Hey! hang on a minute,’ called Muriel. ‘You can’t just leave him here. I don’t want him.’
The woman kept on walking. ‘Hey, stop!’ shouted Muriel. She leapt up and tried to follow but the dog circled around growling. She watched helplessly as the slim figure of the woman drifted away across the moor dissolving into dusk.
The dog stopped growling and for a long moment he and Muriel locked eyes. Then he took off at a trot in the direction of Exhibition Park. Muriel found herself following but she wasn’t sure why. She could go home and phone the police to report the incident. The weird woman had abandoned her dog which was surely an offence. There was no way Muriel wanted him. She tried to imagine his shaggy bulk ambling around her small flat and her brain would not compute. Muriel had to run to keep up with the dog. She felt ridiculous. They passed a jogger going the opposite way and he gave her a cheery wave. She found herself waving back. God knows why. He was a stranger and she didn’t like men with beards. In her experience facial hair signified secrecy.
By the time Muriel reached the avenue of trees in Exhibition Park the sun had set. Large snowflakes, luminous in the lights were spinning from a deep violet sky. They skirted the disused boating lake where a lone swan cruised. The water was turgid, ice forming at the edges. The abandoned café was boarded up and adorned with graffiti. Apparently Elvis had fucked Tracy and Ronnie was a virgin. The dog stopped to piss on a lamp post, then started sniffing the litter under the rhododendrons. Muriel collapsed breathless on a bench.
Suddenly, she noticed a figure standing on the bandstand and in the same instant, the street lights began to go out, one by one. A tide of darkness swept over the park. She turned rigid with fear. She listened intently but all she could hear was the distant throb of motorway traffic and a faint hum from the nearest lamp as it expired. After a while her eyes adjusted and she could see bare branches outlined against the sky and a shimmer on the lake. No lights showed on the horizon. Muriel remembered her mobile had a torch but when she checked it was lifeless. No signal and no torch. She’d only charged it that morning. Then she saw a pair of green eyes glowing from the shadows. The grey dog was still there, watching.
Muriel wanted to call out to him but her lips refused. Spittle frothed at the corners of her mouth and words congealed on her tongue. A weary numbness spread throughout her body. She tried to stand but couldn’t. Her phone dropped to the ground as her fingers weakened. She slumped against a picnic table. The snow continued to fall and a frosting soon covered her hair and coat. My God! Was she going to die here? She remembered her friend Bob had died in his sleep from an undiagnosed brain tumour. Muriel had difficulty breathing; a tightness in her chest. She tried to count each breath the way she’d learned in meditation class. But she couldn’t concentrate beyond number three.
Her mind flashed a jumble of images, strange faces scrolled by in a grotesque procession. The visions coalesced into one face. A dark bearded man wearing a hooded robe. He had a striking, angular face with a hooked nose and brooding eyes. He towered over her. Muriel wasn’t sure if he meant good or ill. Then his face transformed into that of her mother, plump and youthful. They were alone in a small red boat drifting further and further out to sea. A dazzle of sunlight refracted on the languorous waves and Muriel felt an exquisite joy. Her mother was struggling to row the boat back to shore with only one oar. Perspiration beaded her face. Muriel looked back at the distant beach and saw all the people she had ever loved standing in a line. They were waving and shouting words of encouragement. Muriel did not wave back. She trailed one hand in the warm water and gazed at the open sea.
I’m supposed to be dead”, Amy would say to the visitors wearing plastic smiles as they edged around the door into Room 1, Ward 5. It was gratifying to see them squirm at the mention of the ‘D’ word. In bleak times a girl must get her kicks any way she can. When Amy failed to defeat her illness, stubbornly refusing to rise and sparkle from the sheets like a New Year firework the number of visitors declined until only the troubled and lonely returned. They stopped bringing cheery cards, gifts of scented soap, lip balm and chocolates. Instead some of them drank her afternoon tea, ate her biscuits and ‘borrowed’ the taxi fare home. They all needed a sympathetic ear. There was Linda who was plagued by too many happy memories, Steve who was working out why his wife left him nine years before and Carol who couldn’t decide her next holiday destination. Amy tried to remember that just because she was dying didn’t mean others weren’t entitled to their own misery. It must be a hard choice between the Trans Siberian Express and an Alaskan cruise, after all.
Amy found terminal illness hard work. The doctors, nurses and visitors must be kept happy. It was considered bad form to show pain or fear. One must be positive and grateful at all times. “When you’re smiling…the whole world smiles” and all that shit. It was indeed true that even now there were things for which she was grateful. For a start, she had a room of her own and was no longer trapped with the dementia patients in Room 8. Amy’s new room didn’t have a view unless you stood on a chair and revolved your head like the demonically possessed girl in The Exorcist. Room 1 faced a brick wall with a row of identical windows. The sky could be seen only as a reflection in their glass panes. The best time was when the sun came up and flared in the windows opposite and a solitary seagull perched on her window sill, feathers so white, so exquisitely sculpted that Amy could almost taste the ocean. She imagined the bird swooping low over turquoise waves and then spiralling up into a pure blue sky.
The other thing to be grateful for was the night. Amy loved the night. It was the only time she felt safe. During the day an endless procession of strangers burst into her room without knocking regardless of her situation or state of undress. Dignity was a lost cause. To the army of uniforms she was no longer a woman but a lump of meat to be processed. During the day, she was lost even to herself, her mind focused anywhere but in this body, in this room. She felt she was looking down at herself from a great height, her body meant nothing more than a discarded old coat, too battered even for a charity shop. But at night as the ward gradually fell silent the real Amy returned. Sometimes she would talk to herself out loud, ‘I am Amy Baxter. I was once a teacher, a daughter, a sister, a wife. I am good at baking, knitting, gardening and pub quizzes. I am a loyal friend. My favourite meal is gammon with pineapple and chips. I prefer dogs to cats….’ After the ten thirty drugs trolley had squeaked its way from room to room, the footsteps, voices, slamming doors and buzzing alarms in the corridor lessened. Occasionally Amy heard a patient crying or shouting but it was not like Room 8 where the poor sods with dementia wailed all night and she never slept at all.
It was in Room 8 that Amy first started seeing the visions. When she arrived they put her in the bed near the window. The day was stormy. The ambulance had lurched violently in the gusts of wind on the journey to the hospital. She’d kept hoping they would plunge off the road on one of the hairpin bends so her suffering could be over. No such luck. It was cold in Room 8. The old metal windows were draughty and Amy pulled the blanket up to her chin. She was glad she’d brought her favourite yellow cardigan to keep her warm. She’d knitted it herself, embroidering the cuffs with small blue spots. She closed her eyes and tried to rest. After a while a nurse brought her a cup of tea. When Amy looked up she suddenly saw a jagged white light pulsating around the edge of the window frame, where the aluminium met the wall. She rubbed her eyes and blinked hard but the light was still there. “What’s that light?” she asked the nurse pointing at the window. “It’s the sky outside”, said the nurse. “I know that, I mean what’s that white light streaming around the window?” Amy looked up at the ceiling where there was a ventilation vent. To her astonishment strange rays of light were filtering through the metal grid. It looked like a scene from Star Trek. “And up there, look!” she said to the nurse. “Can’t you see it? It’s like the wind coming in. I can see the wind!” “There’s nothing there pet”, the nurse said. “It’s not Christmas you know. No fairy lights for you.” Amy heard her go out into the corridor and say “The new one’s seeing fairy lights and she hasn’t even had her morphine yet!” Then laughter.
Amy hoped the lights would go away. She didn’t like seeing things other people couldn’t see. Did it mean she was on the verge of death or insanity? The next morning she could still see the lights but more faintly, wavering like thin silver strands. She tried not to look and never mentioned it to anyone again.
After Amy moved into her single room the weird lights vanished. She squinted at the window and tried hard to see something special but no, it was all completely ordinary. But then one day she was taken downstairs on a trolley for a CT scan. The lift was crammed with people, people of various age, race and build but one thing united them. They were all illuminated. Waves of intense colour pulsed from each human body, as if they all emanated a personal aurora as spectacular as the northern lights. Blues, greens, purples, all the colours of the rainbow. Tears welled in Amy’s eyes, not from her pain but from the beauty of each translucent soul standing shoulder to shoulder in the lift. She felt their hopes, dreams and fragility as concretely as she could see the nicotine stained fingers of the porter as he pressed the button for Level 1. When the lift doors opened the scene changed. People dispersed in different directions and they were back to being dull, normal humans.
When Steve came to visit, clutching a carrier bag full of photos of his ex-wife for Amy to admire, she tried to tell him about the life-affirming experience in the lift. He interrupted her story by saying it must be her drugs and could he have some please? After that, every time he texted to say he was on his way to the hospital she replied she was too tired for visitors. One time he turned up without texting and she pretended to be asleep. He never came again.
Amy’s evenings in Room 1 became more solitary but she didn’t mind. She didn’t watch the small TV which was set so high on the wall that it hurt her neck to look. Instead she would ask the nurse to open the window. It would only open about four inches to prevent suicides but that was enough to let the scent of rain and the sounds of the street into her room. Amy loved the birds who sang at night, their song mingling with the traffic noise, sirens and raucous drunks staggering home from the pub. One night she heard a man shouting“fuck off” over and over again at seagulls who were screaming loud enough to wake the dead. She imagined him out there with his bag of chips and the birds circling around.
Every night as her room darkened Amy would switch on the small spot lamp by her bed. One by one moths drifted through the open window forming an iridescent cloud in the pool of light. She liked to watch their hypnotic dance until she fell asleep. When she woke in the morning she found moths of every hue adorning her pillow like precious jewels. The nurses complained, some of them were afraid of winged creatures and ran shrieking from the room. The ward manager said it was unhygienic and in future the window must be kept closed at night.
On Amy’s last night she begged the kind Polish nurse to open the window.
“Just one more time,” Amy pleaded.
In the morning when the nurse brought breakfast Amy had vanished, her hospital gown cast off on the bed. A kaleidoscope of moths filled the room, shimmering over the walls, the ceiling and every surface. The largest and brightest was yellow marked with tiny blue spots. She was the first to leave, leading the others and fluttering out into the fresh cold air.
Amongst the Flutterers was first published on The Purple Hermit blog about a year ago under a pseudonym and in the second issue of The Haar.
a bijou creative arts e-zine named after the Scottish sea mist
Unlike any previous generation we live in an age of obfuscation. We grapple with new concepts such as post truth, fake news, alternative facts, propaganda and conspiracy theories. We can no longer be sure of anyone or anything. We have lost trust in institutions and systems that previously went unchallenged. Even our lovely new friend on Facebook could turn out to be a catfish! And now, to cap it all we have a Pandemic to deal with. Human interactions have been reduced to digital media, hugs are virtual. We talk to screens and from behind a mask. When we leave home we are no longer greeted by a friendly smile from our fellow humans but an anonymous face covering. So the theme of Behind the Mask for this first edition of The Haar seems to have struck a chord. I’ve been overwhelmed by the quality and variety of submissions. A very big thank you to all the talented people who have sent in their work. It’s been an exciting task reading through everything and putting this feature together. I’m sure it will be an equally rewarding experience for readers. Please keep on scrolling to the very bottom of the page and don’t miss any of the treasures to be discovered in The Haar. Comments can be left below and also on the Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/thepurplehermit/
Contents in Order of Appearance:-
Unmasked Masks by Mandy Beattie If the Face Fits by Tom Murray Love Hurts by Leah Davis Survival by Meg Macleod Mask Me…by Magenta Kent Bistable Illusions by Georgia Brooker Ahead by Mass Index Double Bind by Double Bind When Two Worlds Collide by Kevin Crowe Glass Mask by Ian Pearson Canto 99 by Knotbrook Taylor The Immoral Lobster by Toby Goodwin Fold Lines by Ursula Troche Night without Horizon by Ursula Troche Bolted by Alastair Simmons Through the Yew Hedge by Magi Sinclair The Worlds Behind The Eyes that Plead by Ian Tallach Smiles or Tears? by Rukhsana C Denham Pebberdy – Still Alive and Unmasked by A Quiller The Picture Above Your Name by Louise Wilford Beyond by Jenny Bruce Essential Items Only by Emma Mooney Beauty from the Unexpected by Mandy and Alexandrina Beattie This is not a…by Ursula Troche Day 357 by Nikita Shackleton Termination by Nikita Shackleton Like an Angel by Trudy Gritte Dead Ahead by Nikita Shackleton Shhh!…by Crippled Pink
UNMASKED MASKSBy Mandy Beattie
To the chemically-challenged lockdowns are a library of then, now and next where masks are a must — those mole-hills the ‘Auld Alliance’ at the door between two fields of nature and unnatural where you dab poison on pulse points and oxters embalmed alive in wearing-wardrobes of formaldehyde, rubbing alcohol and a smorgasbord of chemicals in a snub of noses unmasked —
Faux-friends sucked Soorags in a guddle at being chemical-free around me and others’ muted — now you know a smidgeon more about lockdowns, masks and mole-hills every breath a mirror of bared teeth and chemical spills self-harming skin and self and everyone else while Mother Earth cowns for all nations regurgitating and recycling chemicals and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide through emery lips in masks and stubble on bones seen only in bubbles and morgues Zoom and FaceTime —
An archeological dig and dicht unearthing my palette of kohl mascara and damson above moss-green and Oil of Attar I AM Scheherazade in A Thousand and One Nights in this clusterburach of a Jackson Pollack painting I AM litmus among lichen foraging for truffles in Microsoft Meeting and Skype — Scotia Primula burrowed below mole-hills I AM wild things resurrecting rising with snow drops wearing a bouquet of Persian Violet Stargazer Lily and Peace Rose
Mandy Beattie, is a feminist from Caithness, with an MA in Social Work Practice & Research. Her poetry is a tapestry of stories and imagery, rooted in people, place & the natural environment, set at home and abroad.
IF THE FACE FITS By Tom Murray
Underwear and socks the top left drawer of the chest of drawers, masks to the right. Each mask neatly folded, and when Joe was younger laid out in order of the occasion. For a long-time the Yes, I’m really interested in what you’re saying mask was his favourite. He remembered the first time he had worn it, the careful lift out the drawer, taking out the pins and unfolding it, careful not to bend the ears, they were particularly fragile, and running a not too hot iron over the creases. Then rolling the mask down his face. That first time he had forgotten one of the pins and it had stabbed him in the mouth. Still, he didn’t let it ruin the day. As he had gotten older though he had begun to see the necessity of carrying more than one mask when he ventured out into the world. This was brought home to him one day when the Yes, I’m really interested in what you’re saying mask had cracked mid listen to a conversation about the history of combustion engines. From then on, he couldn’t quite get a mask, any mask that fitted him as snugly as the Yes, I’m really interested in what you’re saying had. Then one day he read an article on the new improved Weight of the World on Your Shoulders Mask in his monthly Masks for Every Occasion magazine. Our promise: a mask and face truly as one. He didn’t believe that for a minute of course but still he took the plunge and sent away for one. When it arrived, at first, he put it away in the drawer and tried to forget about it. It had been a mistake buying it he told himself. Every day though when he opened the drawer there it was staring up at him. Every time he would ask himself–What would be the harm in trying it on? Then right in the bin it would go. It was a Tuesday when he finally rolled it over his face. He tried not to like it but this new improved mask you didn’t need to smooth and would you believe it, no pins. He was still determined to try it only the once but the once turned into twice and before he knew it a week had passed. The furrowed brow and eyes slightly downcast, his face a snug fit for the mask, and best of all, it kept people at bay. It had crossed his mind at one time of ordering the grumpy mask. He had seen the effect of that though of making other people grumpy, and he was a kind soul really, he didn’t want that. The Weight of the World on Your Shoulders made people slightly sorry for him wondering what could have caused that look on his face! Not enough though to ask him. Worrying became as natural to him as interest in things had been in his youth. One worry was should he order now the Too old to care what anyone thinks mask for when that time rolled around. It would be here soon enough. Getting one now could save him quite a bit of money. He decided not to get one but to worry about whether he was making a mistake not getting one. This decision was made in that time between wake and sleep when he dreamily caught sight of himself frowning in the wardrobe mirror. He couldn’t remember if he had taken the mask off and laid it neatly back in the drawer like he usually did. Or if he was still wearing it.
Leah Davis is a pop portrait artist, focusing primarily on the female figure and self portraiture. Her practice has previously explored psychoanalytical theories on human behaviour, women’s empowerment, Pop Culture and societal attitudes. Davis is originally from Thurso, Caithness. Her website is:www.leahdavis.co.uk
Survival By Meg Macleod
because love is rare and appears without definition she makes excuses she spends hours painting in the gaps sorting through splintered blossoms of her expectations
in the family friendly jigsaw she frames the abuse
everything outside the frame fades sunlight is shaded music is muted points of reference clipped into a perfect thorny thicket behind which she disappears her voice a whisper no-one can hear
Meg was born in 1945 in England. She lived in America and Canada before moving to Scotland in 1974 where she now resides on the north coast in a house looking out over the sea towards Orkney Islands. Meg has a BA in Fine Arts. Her beautifully illustrated book of poems entitled Raven Songs is available to buy from Amazon.
Magenta Kent is a visual and performing artist based in the North of England. She loves to make images with anything she may come across such as dead bees or the charcoal left from a burnt out greenhouse. She will incorporate objects with fabric and handmade paper. In fact, anything goes!!! She also enjoys writing poetry and is working on a book inspired by dreams.
Bistable Illusions by Georgia Brooker
There is always the other way of looking at the young woman in furs whose neck becomes the old crone’s sunken chin, their lines of ink alive in each other’s shadows.
In a world of restless mirrors, can the mind only be in one place at a time? In this uncertainty of surfaces, where the writing’s always backwards, there must be some trembling field of vision which holds it all in focus within that vacillating tryst, between the Mask of Love; the single, blurring face that, unasked, splits in two, and kisses.
In previous chapters, Georgia Brooker has been a teacher, librarian, bookseller, editor, bibliophile, and occasional author of poems and stories. Nowadays, she is mostly mum of two and veg-gardener in-chief, and writes when no one is looking.
WHEN TWO WORLDS COLLIDEby Kevin Crowe
They met on the Moor. Neither knew the other, both were seeking someone who was seeking something.
They met, they did what they had come to do, then left, to return to their worlds.
Reverend Philip Keeler, scourge of all liberals and humanists and founder of a breakaway free Presbyterian sect, was back at his unadorned desk. In his mid twenties, he still retained the dogmatism of youth. His round chubby face disguised the asceticism he claimed to believe in and wished to impose on the world, an asceticism that was visible on the bare walls of his office, decorated only with plain white paint and dark brown bookshelves containing heavy theological texts.
He had made his peace with the Lord after his most recent instance of weakness. The more his human fallibility manifested itself, the more determined he was to do his best to eliminate evil from the world. He took as his motto: “love the sinner, hate the sin”. He knew God loved him, just as He hated the sin. His faith told him God would forgive him each time he succumbed to temptation, but he also knew God required him to fight immorality wherever he found it.
He proof-read his latest article for the church’s website. He was proud of his ability to present an argument in a coherent and irrefutable manner. He believed those who refused to accept the rightness of his reasoning were blinded by propaganda from the left-wing liberal lobby. The texts were clear: God had created male and female, and to ignore this, to treat male as female, was an abomination.
He made a few minor changes before posting it, and then began his preparation for a meeting taking place later in the week. He was an expert on the science of Creationism, even if he said so himself, having written many papers debunking the basis of evolutionary theory. He was eagerly anticipating a forthcoming reading and book signing promoting the latest blasphemy by some professor he’d never heard of, and looking forward to entering the lion’s den. Like Daniel he was confident he would emerge unscathed. He prayed at least some of those present would see the error of their ways.
His mind wandered back to the events of the previous day. Horrified, he became aware of his erection. He fell to his knees in prayer, asking the Lord for the strength to avoid future visits to the Moor.
Professor Stephen Strachan was not best pleased. There were lots of things he should be doing, particularly as later in the week he was going on a speaking tour to promote his latest book “The Insanity of Religious Belief”. Instead, he was having to deal with the minutiae of his professional life. One of his admin staff was sick, so he was having to update his website himself. Not only that but, due to maternity leave, he had to cover some undergraduate seminars. He really didn’t see why he should have to teach, repeating the same facts ad nauseam to different groups of disinterested students. He thought teaching was for those who were intellectually incapable of carrying out original research and he managed to avoid it most of the time, but on this occasion he had no choice.
Oh well, might as well get it over with, he thought. He lifted his thin, slightly stooped six foot frame from his chair and made his way to the lecture room. He smiled to himself remembering the encounter from the previous day. He didn’t know the young man’s name or anything about him, had never seen him before and didn’t expect to see him again. Afterwards he had gone to a favourite restaurant and ate and drank his fill. He took pride in his metabolism: no matter how much he ate, he never seemed to put on any weight.
As he entered the lecture theatre, he noticed a rather attractive young man sat near the front.
Lorraine Strachan was having a bad day. The medical research unit she headed was under pressure: it had been made clear her team had to run at a surplus or, at the very least, break even, so she had bid for work from the private sector. Successfully, possibly too successfully. She now had more work than she could cope with, and her request for extra staff had been rebuffed, so in a bid to keep within deadlines, her staff had cut corners, with the inevitable result. She had spent most of the morning attempting to calm down an irate client.
Her day was about to get even worse: her receptionist delivered a large envelope. “A courier just dropped this off. Told me it was private”. Lorraine examined the foolscap brown envelope: apart from her name on the front, there was no indication of its contents. She opened it. A letter, signed “from a well wisher”, said the photographs had been taken the previous day at a gay cruising site, known locally as the Moor. Her hands shaking, she looked at the images of her husband having sex with another man.
She stared into space. She felt sick. She felt like screaming and throwing things at the wall, but she wouldn’t let herself lose control, not here, not at work. She choked back the tears, swallowing the rising mucus. As calmly and steadily as she could, she stood up and walked out of her office.
She had no idea where she was walking. She just pounded the pavement, thinking as she went. Why? she asked herself. Was it me? Don’t I satisfy him? The physical side had never seemed that important to him, and there was a time she wondered if he was being unfaithful. But this? She had never suspected this. Perhaps they’d been photoshopped. She shook her head. She doubted anyone could fake the things she saw in the photographs.
She began to doubt all the meetings he claimed to have attended: the many science seminars and the seemingly never-ending humanist or secularist or atheist events. All the conferences and anti-religious campaigns, all the planning meetings: were they genuine? Were any of them genuine? She rarely showed any interest in his passions and she couldn’t recall the last time she’d attended any of his events.
Well, that was about to change. She didn’t know when she would confront him, but confront him she would. She would begin to attend some of the events – starting with the first of the readings he was supposed to be giving to promote his latest book. She wouldn’t tell him, just turn up. At the very least it would cramp his style.
The advance publicity had worked. News of the event had spread across both mainstream and social media and Stephen Strachan’s Twitter account had become even more popular. The hall was filling up nicely. There would no doubt be some who would attempt to sidetrack the discussion in order to defend superstition, but he had plenty of experience of dealing with them.
Copies of his book “The Insanity of Religious Belief” were displayed on a large trestle table below the stage as were his earlier scientific texts, some of which peers had described as ground breaking. Although his work on evolutionary biology was not well known outside scientific circles, he had gained an enviable reputation for his popular books belittling religion, and had even hosted radio and TV programmes.
Among those congregating in the hall was the Reverend Philip Keeler. He had dispensed with his clerical collar and was wearing a shirt and tie. He browsed the books on the trestle table before taking a seat near the front. He hadn’t read the book, nor did he intend to: he wasn’t about to spend money on blasphemous texts. In any case he didn’t need to: he reckoned he knew what would be in it, and anyway the heathen would be speaking and he would respond to his words. The Lord would put the right words in his mouth.
He was busy checking his notes and collecting his thoughts, so didn’t notice the woman who sat next to him.
Lorraine Strachan found the venue easily enough, despite the best efforts of her SatNav. She had scanned the photos onto her mobile phone and, in the lobby of the hall, she discreetly looked at them, surprised to recognise the other man in the photographs. The bastard must really think she was stupid, flaunting his queer bit on the side so publicly. Or perhaps he just didn’t care. The divorce would cost him: the royalties from that silly book of his for a start. And what better way to destroy his reputation than a public scene?
She stormed to the front and sat next to Philip. He didn’t even look up. Surely he must have heard her: she had hardly been quiet. Perhaps he was deaf. Or more likely just plain rude.
He looked up.
She smiled at him, and said: “He’s married, you know.”
Philip furrowed his brow, puzzled. “Er. Who’s married?”
“My husband, he’s married to me.”
“Well, of course he is, he wouldn’t be your husband if you weren’t. Whoever he is.” Was she some sort of mad woman? he thought.
“You know damned well who he is. Don’t fucking lie to me. Don’t compound it by lying.” She realised she was beginning to shout. People were staring at them.
“I haven’t a clue what you’re talking about. I haven’t a clue who you are. I really don’t…”
At that moment Professor Stephen Strachan walked onto the stage.
Kevin Crowe is the author of the short story collection “No Home In This World” (2020, Fly-on-the-wall Press), is editor of the Highland LGBT+ magazine “UnDividingLines” (https://undividinglines.wordpress.com/) and has read at the Scottish Parliament, Glasgow’s Aye Write Festival, John O’Groats Book Festival and Highland Pride.
Ian Pearson trained as a scientific glassblower and set up his own studio in Thurso in 1990 where he still works mainly on commissions, one of which is this mask for an artist who is developing environmental and biological art. His website is https://glasscreationsirp.co.uk/
Please keep scrolling to see more wonderful writing and artwork…the best is yet to come!
Canto 99by Knotbrook Taylor
Year by year, the monkey’s mask reveals the monkey: Matsuo Basho
I wanted to be that man. Up the telegraph pole: with the special belt. The harness holding him up. I wanted to drive his truck; wear his rugged mask of efficiency. Saw him as I left the village: braced in a sling; working up a pole.
I paused at a field, to make a note about the cows; wearing masks of consanguinity. Earlier, on the community page, a man was reading actual psalms, divinity his mask. I sent him a message; what is a Psalm?
Looked out from the top of a hill. The forest wasn’t wearing a mask; it was wearing a veil. Beyond; the mountains wore blankets; hiding their slopes and faces. The silent cars, on the silent road, wearing silent silver masks.
I paused on the bridge; was overtaken by a jeep. It stopped, a man got out wearing fighter pilot shades, but even behind his mask, I knew who he was. An old friend. We hadn’t spoken for many years; it’s good to know: that you can still like a person even after such an interval.
Hit the main road for a short distance. Saw two beekeepers; they were wearing all over body masks, (like they do in care homes these days), they were doing something with a couple of hives. At first, I thought they were spraying things into the air. Then I realised it was an impressive tornado of angry bees. Unhappy at the disturbance; their masks, like their gloves, were definitely off.
Knotbrook Taylor is an Angus based poet. His first chapbook ‘Beatitudes’ was published in 2007. The Museum of Scottish Lighthouses in Fraserburgh commissioned his second collection ‘Scottish Lighthouse Poems’, published in 2011. In 2014 he won the Erbacce prize for his collection ‘Ping-Pong In The Rain’.
We were sitting on the front steps of Lidl eating pastries. Flakes catching on our jumpers and floating off down Duke St. It was a rare, sunny day and we were chatting about masks. Jimmy thought it was ridiculous. Not the masks themselves, just the way folk were treating them. Letting the nose poke out, or letting the kids go back to school without having to wear them. “I mean it wiz jist so the parents could get back tae work,” I was sayin. Jimmy was a skinny guy. He had Buddy Holly glasses, short hair, and a brown beard that went ginger in the sun. “Aye, right enough,” he said, “but I’ve seen droves ae kids heading doon the road, no a mask in sight.” He took another bite, an apple turnover. Jimmy always had a bit of a sweet tooth, I didn’t. I had a cheesy croissant. I’d enjoyed the first couple of bites, but it was very dry. “I mean, it’s a moot point, Jimmy. The kids aren’t high risk.” I took another bite, unimpressed. Naebody likes a dry croissant. “Aye, I know, but the kids spread it tae the parents. Whit’s the point in having everyone inside if the kids’re gonnae spread it anyways.” We were both in dark clothes and we had washable cotton masks on doubled elastic straps around our chins. We were halfway up the steps, looking out on a large patch of construction across the main road. Men in high-vis jackets were digging and turning cranes. Causing loud, metallic, sounds to thunder down the street. I had my backpack on the step next to me, so did Jimmy. Mine was plain black and his was this ridiculous orange colour. “I’ve got to say I like your new bag,” I said, suspecting that it may have been a gift from his missus. “Oh aye, it’s lobster-orange.” “I mean… it’s no exactly subtle.” He frowned. Jimmy was about ages wi me, maybe a bit older – twenty-six or thereabouts. We were at the age when we tried to stop thinkin about age. “I like it,” he said. “It’s not very practical though, is it? You’d see it a mile away.” “Well…” it looked like a satchel and it had a plasticky sheen on the outer lining. “…yer probably right, but Chantelle wiz pleased at me taking it oot.” “She willnae be pleased if you cannae get any work done.” “Pff,” he took another bite of his turnover. A little bit of apple sauce dribbled out and rolled down his top. He tried to wipe it with a sleeve, but it smeared. We said nothing for a moment, watching the construction, watching the cars. Then he turned to me and went, “Did you know that lobsters are immortal?” “Are they?” “Oh aye, I wiz reading aboot it on Reddit. The life cycle ae a lobster goes roond and roond. When it gets auld enough it sheds its skin and a bigger lobster crawls oot. And, the thing is, when the lobster gets too big it’ll get stuck in its ain skin and it’ll die.” “That’s weird.” “Aye, so the article wiz sayin that, if some cunts took it upon themselves to help a lobster moult every year, then it would live forever. Like, over the generations, the lobster would get bigger and bigger, always shedding its skin with the help of these people.” I laughed, “Like a group of lobster worshippers, like a cult for an immortal lobster.” “Imagine some, fuckin, thousand-year-auld, fifty-foot lobster worshipped by a group ae mad shellfish fanatics.” At that moment there was a sharp sound behind us. Incredulity’s the word; a sound of pure disdain and surprise. I looked over my shoulder to see these two middle-aged lassies by the Lidl entrance – a few steps behind us. There was a baldie, burly security guard in a fashionable, black mask holdin his arm across the sliding doorway. One of the lassies was trying to get past, but his arm was like a tree trunk. “Nae mask, nae service,” the guy wiz sayin. “But the fuckin vaccines oot already, get fucked,” she said. Her pal looked embarrassed. The two of them were in white strappy tops and they had blonde hair flapping about in the breeze. They were about the same height. It’s weird how groups of pals all tend to look alike. Me and Jimmy look similar anaw. “Hen, I’m sorry. I don’t make the rules,” the security guard said. “Let us in, we’re only after the wan thing. Fuckin dobber, man.” The lead lassie went for the door again, but the security guard didn’t budge. “C’mon Jessie, we can go doon that corner shop,” the second lassie said. “Guy in there’s never got a mask on.” “That’s no the point,” the first lassie barked, making her pal recoil. “Am wanting a bottle fae here.” “Hen, it’s no happening,” the security guard said. A small queue started gathering behind them, an elderly couple in masks and a group of teenage boys, also in masks. “A’ve got a medical problem,” the first lassie said. “If you cannae wear a mask, you can always order deliveries – or there’s the personal shopper service.” “Fuckin arsehole.” The girl stomped her foot, turned, and then stormed off. Her pal sighed and followed. They took a right, went down the disabled access ramp behind us and continued across the car park. “It’s no that annoying,” I said, turning back to Jimmy. “I get folk bein frustrated and that, but it’s no hard wearin a thin piece ae fabric over yer face.”’ “Ken, it’s the easiest thing in the world. Can be a bit tricky to catch your breath when it’s hot, and it clouds up ma glasses.” Jimmy took another bite. His turnover was now about the size of a coin. I’d put my dry croissant on my knees, sick ae it. “Aye, but it’s a jist mild inconvenience,” I said. The two ladies continued across the car park. At the far end, there was a huge section of metal, temporary fencing covering a crumbling brick wall. It had presumably been put there out of fear of a collapse. The fence also blocked access to another set of stairs that were a bit of a shortcut onto the street. The lassies strolled right up, squeezed through a gap between two metal sections, and continued around the corner. The fence had been that way for months. You could make the argument that it was for safety, but it was a massive inconvenience. People constantly cut through. The gap between those two fences was widened and slightly bent from so much thoroughfare. “That’s another thing,” Jimmy said, through another flaky mouthful. “I heard some folk dinnae want the vaccine.” “Immoral! That’s, fuckin, immoral as fuck,” I said. “Get yer fuckin vaccines, people. We’re aww tryin tae make the best ae this and some bastarts are jist takin the piss.” “They might be scared ae needles.” “Fuck that, naebody likes needles. It’s immoral, man. Putting your ain comfort before the lives of others is immoral. Doing the right thing is so uncommon these days, man. We need more ae it.” “Thing is, I feel like our generation’s been forgotten aboot,” Jimmy popped the last morsel of apple turnover into his mouth and stood up, brushing the flakes off his legs. “We’re the wans losing our shitey bar jobs, we’re the wans who’re gonnae inherit this economy, we’re the wans with the crippling mental health problems, drug problems, porn addictions.” “I’ve no got a porn addiction.” “Never said you did.” “Aye, and I don’t. Plus, it’s no like we’re goin out of business.” Jimmy grinned, “Speakin of,” he said, and he gestured for me to follow. I stood up, tossed the rest of my croissant for the seagulls, and we walked off the same way those lassies had gone. Jimmy stepped through the gap in the fence, and I did too – looking at that wall anxiously. We didn’t say anything as we continued down Duke St. There was faint nattering from pedestrians and the hum of car engines. Heavy, metallic sounds from the construction behind us. We crossed at the lights and continued east past the barbers, the takeaways, and that lovely mural at Duke’s Bar. “Seein anyhin?” Jimmy said. “Nah, no yet. There’ll be something.” “Aye, we can check that alley further doon.” We continued along through the gentle hustle and bustle. Folks in masks, a group of the elderly in a queue outside Boots, a group of weans on BMX’s. Eventually, we got to the far end where the shops dissolved into tenements and the dual carriageway. “Here, you’d better do something about that bag,” I said. “Why?” “If we’re spotted, it willnae take Einstein to guess which wanker wi the orange backpack it wiz.” “Alright, alright.” He took it off, “Will it fit in yours?” “Maybe,” I took mine off and unzipped the top. I moved my crowbar to the side and pulled the RF Code-Grabber out, wrapping the wires around the receiver. I shoved it in my back pocket and widened the bag’s opening. “Aye, that’ll be fine.” He compressed the lobster as much as he could and shunted it in. It was awkward, but with some elbow grease he managed it. I put the – now bulging – bag on my back and we continued around the corner onto a flat stretch of road lined on one side by scrap land, and on the other side by tenements. The street was empty save an old BMW 8 Series, a nineties one. Glossy, white paint. “That’ll dae,” I said and pulled the Code-Grabber out. “Hold on,” Jimmy said, grabbing my arm, “masks.” “There’s naebody around.” “Might be cameras, you never know.” “Alright, alright.” I pulled my mask up over my chin and nose. I could feel the heat of my breath. I could smell that cheesy croissant on my tongue. “You keep an eye.” Jimmy took a spot by the street corner, leaned against a lamppost, and pulled his own mask up. I strolled casually up to the car and started fiddling with the code-grabber. It was a combined walkie-talkie and a garage door control that we’d jimmied together with the help of a series of YouTube tutorials. It had a sliding knob on the side so we could check all the frequencies. I scrolled to the mid-range; German cars generally sit about there. Tried it, nothing. Scrolled again, nothing. Normally took a while, even with the older cars. Scrolling through every increment until I found the right one. After a few minutes, I got it. I hit the clicker and the brake lights flashed. “We’re in.” “Soond.” Jimmy jogged down to the driver’s side. I got in the passenger door. Jimmy was quick; he pulled a flathead screwdriver out of his pocket and removed the panel under the steering wheel. He fiddled for a minute, finding the right wires. “Careful, these wans lock if you touch the third fuse,” I said. “I ken, I ken.” He reached over and started rummaging around in my bag. Well, in his bag inside my bag. He pulled out a pair of pliers, skinned two wires, and started sparking them. Blue light flashing across his face. “You know, I was reading about this Facebook-Guru this morning,” he said. “Guru?” “Aye, like a wise cunt. He wiz sayin we should be forgiving all these immoral mask folk and the folk who don’t want the vaccine.” “How’s that?” I was looking out the window, scanning the street. There was still naebody. “Well, he wiz saying that we should imagine everyone’s a tree, right. Like, when you’re walking aboot a forest, some trees aren’t as well-developed cause they’re no getting as much sun. Maybe a few branches are warped, or the leaves are a bit dry.” The car sputtered and stalled. He twisted the bare wires between a thumb and forefinger and tried it again. “And we don’t hate those trees, they’re jist fuckin trees, man. So, we should feel the same way about people, ae? Like those lassies outside Lidl, they’ve jist no got enough sun, ken?” “That’s a nice thought,” I said. The engine shuddered into life. Jimmy released the handbrake, put it into first, and revved twice. “Let’s sketch.”
Toby Goodwin is a twenty-five-year-old musician and writer based in Glasgow. He mostly writes contemporary fiction, but also dabbles in crime, memoir and sci-fi. He likes going for short walks on the beach, and he loves cheesecake. Here’s a link to Toby’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/TobyGoodwinWritesStuff/
Fold lines By Ursula Troche
Story was overhung folded too, it hadn’t really started instead it was just hanging there until it fell off from the top
then it lay there, long, stretched, strong unmistakably moving, something is going on in the field outside where it had walked, ahead of me
that’s where I learned about directions they line up when you least expect to read between the lines, trying to make a point instead
but there it was, like an animal casting me in its outlines, still holding on to myself I wondered if that was me now, migrated.
Night without Horizon By Ursula Troche
The night has no horizon, earth and sky look undivided now, in this large, vast, dark and sparkling space amplified and limitless, as if eternal, over and everywhere again. The scant light on us a combination of street- and moonlight so you and me become outlines to touch, our faint surfaces become sources of depth, down to inner regions
whereas during the day I walk the edge and try not to fall, it’s such a thin line to cross before there is a place to stay in, to find space in, and even with- draw, and draw your outlines, then read between the lines of you, find poems in the spaces that arise in turn, here I find an oasis, at last, here is a place in the light, too, for the two of us
then a call emerges: I stumble across earth deeply, along parameters and miles of consciousness untouched, unnoticed like a palimpsests below concrete
upon this massive moment I encounter textures of time turning upside, then down and tumbling, from this edge to the next, finding everywhere a threshold, in need of metamorphosis and I begin to understand the cause of change: For if space transforms then time will do so too. We are here, for better or for beauty, embedded into the dimensions that hold us across borders, between countries, with a sense of promise that we might know one night.
Ursula Troche, writer, artist, and double migrant on the Irish Sea Coast in West Cumbria. Inspired by space and (translation) places and the in-between, inner lives and hidden stories. She has work published in English and German, and a collection is being translated into French. More details at: About | ColourCirclesite (wordpress.com)
Bolted By Alastair Simmons
Inside our minds there are horses Wild galloping the moor The stable door never bolted While we sleep Black eyes sharp in the white moonlight To the land we can never name But always know
Alastair Simmons lives on the Northeast Scottish coast, finding inspiration in the landscapes of Scotland and Northern England, and also it’s cities. And the gardens he creates, working as a gardener. “Poetry is about finding connection and expressing that feeling, whether it’s people, nature or worlds we find ourselves in.”
Magi Sinclair writes about her piece:- “This is a small, mixed media image of a yew tree /hedge that had been cut through the middle to make a path in Langwell Gardens, Berriedale, Caithness. I was shocked and intrigued by the colour of the severed branches and limbs. It looked like they were weeping blood, cut through to reveal the bones of the tree”. More information about Magi’s work at http://www.magisinclair.co.uk/
The Worlds Behind the Eyes that Plead By Ian Tallach
Vessels branching from an optic disc -too fragile, almost, for the too- brisk coursing of the too-strong blood -convulsing, molten, pushing up the crust and pulsing with the thud of every new command to live, to be, to stand above the dust
as transient as this- as permanent as this-
Vessels growing from an optic disc -fluttering images, inverted on your retina, like frightened birds with no escape, ensnared behind the shutter of your memory, with disconnected quivering and shards of fractured landscape
as violent as this – as delicate as this –
Vessels coursing from an optic disc -around earth’s core the pressure-flood of magma multiplies veins thrust up through the quaking ground. Above, the too-strong blood is still constrained by aching flesh – this incidental miracle of dust and love
as arbitrary as this- as undeliberate as this-
Vessels wander from an optic disc -uneven as the branches of a tree, fragile as the veins inside a leaf and scattered as the stars -the universe at peace- but still, inside, the too-strong blood is crying for salvation … for release
Ian Tallach worked as a paediatric doctor for seventeen years. He became medically retired with Multiple Sclerosis in 2015. The two positives arising from this have been time for his children and the opportunity to explore writing. He also loves Toucans.
Denham Pebberdy – (Still) Alive & Unmasked By A. QuillerSteve Allinson Investigates…
GREAT EXCITEMENT HERE at The Benchcombe-Worthy Advertiser – it’s not every day a music legend comes out of retirement… but that’s exactly what Denham Pebberdy III is doing! Yes, Denham Pebberdy – singer-songwriter with prog-rockers, Harmonic Spittoon… though many may remember him best as the voice of Mr Broom in the popular 1980s’ children’s TV series, Nothing’s Too Dirty For Jim The Janitor. So, grab those flares, fumigate the Kaftan and get yourself down to the Benchcombe-Parva Social Club on Saturday 28th. Billed as an evening of Music – From When Music Was Music, expect intricate keyboard-driven opuses, anecdotes aplenty and, for the first time in over 40 years, a live performance of Spittoon’s so-nearly-a-hit single (it reached Number 53 in the Charts), The Nomadic Aggravation Of The Libertine Oracle. In anticipation of Pebberdy’s return to the public stage, I went to interview him to find out more… Arriving at his home – an unassuming semi-detached cottage on the edge of a village – I am greeted by a Fedora-wearing, exuberant fellow; mustard cords, jade shirt and crimson waistcoat. I ask if this is Pebberdy’s new look. He smiles, then explains matter-of-factly these were the only items in his size at the local charity shop. Apparently, they’d thrown the hat in for free. I consider it prudent to move on; both subject-wise and locationally. Pebberdy shows me through to his living-room. Even a Spartan would find the place… spartan. No TV. No sofa. Nor any other furniture… but for the single, threadbare chair beside an open fire-place; inside which, incidentally, appears to be the half-charred remains of a broken piece of skirting-board. A quick glance round the room confirms the absence of such woodwork. It’s suddenly very humbling to realise just how some people have to live to make ends meet. It’s then I notice the small conservatory off to one side. The difference couldn’t be more pronounced. A keyboard, two guitars and an amp take pride of place. Whatever else Pebberdy is prepared to sacrifice in life, his music is clearly sacrosanct. I suddenly feel a new-found respect for the man. ‘I would offer you a drink,’ he says, ‘but… well, I’ve not been down the shops in a while…’ I reassure him it’s fine. I certainly don’t want to cause embarrassment. I ask if we can begin the interview and he obliges, indicating that I should take the chair. I politely decline, insisting he sit while I stand. He asks if I’ll be taking notes. It’s my turn to smile now. I show him the hand-held digital-recorder I’ll be using to capture everything we say to one another. He whistles in approval; genuinely interested in the advances in recording technology. I make a mental note, I’ll send him one in a few weeks’ time – a thank-you for agreeing to see me; he’d not wanted any payment… We begin by covering familiar ground – First, his moniker. An affectation. There’d never been any Denham Pebberdy the I, nor II. It had just somehow seemed right; fitted with the times. Next, the band. He’d co-founded what would later become Harmonic Spittoon with Eustace Bathurst at art college in Hove in 1968. Then, they were known as The Bathden Twins; a folk duo. Despite their posh-sounding names, neither had come from well-off families. By day they studied, worked evening shifts, then took whatever gigs they could find in the small hours. Pebberdy was employed in a local abattoir. Bathurst drew an income from life-modelling; posing nude for (mainly) ladies of a certain age. Pebberdy told me he never enquired too deeply what other arrangements Bathurst might have had in place… but I do wonder about this, as there’s a track on Spittoon’s 1977 album, Deputised Permission, called Meat. Ostensibly about Pebberdy’s abattoir experience, it’s tempting to read more into it. Consider the chorus, You’re led to your fate, No time for hate, You took our bait, To us you’re just meat… After college, the pair relocated to London. More part-time jobs. More gigging over the next five years. It was during this time they began to experiment, to develop their progressive sound. They took on a bass player, ‘Bernie the Bass’ Corrigan, as well as a drummer, Ian ‘Sticks’ Munroe; leaving Bathurst on guitar and Pebberdy playing keys and singing. 1976 saw Spittoon formally launched; Pebberdy confirming the name was his attempt to portray sonic harmoniousness, alongside his distaste for the antics of the embryonic punk movement. Signed by Kudos Records – also in 1976 – Spittoon released their first LP, Accidental Adventure, towards the end of that same year. Thanks to their by-now heavy gigging on the London and Home Counties scene, the album sold sufficiently well for Kudos to promise a second album release. Accidental Adventure peaked at Number 74 in the UK charts but, unusually, proved a top-five seller in, of all places, the Catalonian region of Spain. Pebberdy informs me their then-manager, Freddie ‘Fingers-In-The-Till’ Worthington, attributed the success of the album to its cover… a toy pistol firing one of those flags with the word ‘Bang!’ on it. Said flag bore horizontal yellow and red stripes. Seemingly, it had been taken by Catalonian pro-independence supporters to be a thinly-veiled reference to their Estellada Vermella (red-starred flag). The band, perhaps sensibly, avoided visiting to play live; no doubt fearful of sedition charges being levelled against them by the Spanish government. That didn’t, however, prevent their manager, Freddie, from capitalising still further on their new-found success; a re-working of track three on side two, ‘Going Out With A Bang’, was quickly released. Had the national government not banned all air-play, it might have helped Spittoon get a foot-hold on the European continent. Freddie and the band parted company soon afterwards – Freddie disappearing; together with all their royalties. Undeterred, Spittoon began recording their second – and what would be final – album, Deputised Permission. Pebberdy recounts how he and Bathurst chose to produce the album themselves. I ask if the title is a nod to this. He says it might be, but he can’t remember. In fact, he confides he can’t remember much about the recording sessions at all. It’s ‘elephant-in-the-room’ time. I prepare to ask Pebberdy about the break-up of the band. Just two weeks after the album was released, the members went their separate ways – not even the almost-successful, aforementioned Libertine Oracle single enough to keep the four-piece together. In previous interviews I’ve read (granted, the most recent dates from the 1990s), Pebberdy has reacted in one of two ways to such questioning – violence towards the interviewer; or towards himself. I’m ready to make a dash for it… But Pebberdy takes it in his stride. ‘Drugs… women… and more drugs…’ He sighs. ‘One of those things… you know.’ I ask if he’s seen any of his former band members since 1977. He says he hasn’t. I ask if he’s interested in a reunion. He says he isn’t, and that The Eagles had it right… ‘When Hell Freezes Over’. I point out, as politely as I can, that The Eagles did actually get together again; that they embarked on a highly lucrative tour under that very name. He shrugs, then mumbles, ‘Sell-out’. I’m not sure if this is a reference to The Eagles’ success, or to their – in his eyes – lack of musical integrity. I choose not to pursue it further. I check my watch. We’ve been talking now for over an hour. Time for the ‘big one’ – the reason for Pebberdy’s come-back. I ask him when he first discovered he was trending on social media; that he’d become ‘a thing’? He replies that the counter assistant in the local pharmacy brought it to his attention a couple of months ago – he’d only popped in for a tube of cream to soothe a particularly-intimate area – asking him if he was ‘the Dirty Broom guy?’ Near enough, he’d thought. He confirmed he was. The assistant had asked for a selfie, had posted it on Facebook… and all this had stemmed from that. Little-known fact, readers. Pebberdy wrote the theme tune to Nothing’s Too Dirty For Jim The Janitor. It was released as a single, climbing to Number 28 in the Charts. But it’s the B-side that interests us. In homage to John Cage’s ‘4:33’– the song commonly mistaken for mere silence… when Cage intended the music to be the listener’s audial environment itself – Pebberdy composed 33:4… as the name implies, just over thirty-three minutes of one continuous D chord, played on a Hammond organ, which terminates with the sound of him clearing his throat into a spittoon. Conceptualised and recorded in 1978, it was his way, musically, of drawing a line under his band-days. I ask Pebberdy how this piece – or, rather, the final three minutes or so of it – came to be included as the B-side of the Jim the Janitor single almost a decade later. Again, he can’t recall. What he can recall, though, is lawyers for the American-owned Reality Media Inc contacting him recently to apologise for the company’s inadvertent sampling of the end of ‘33:4’ on one of its market-leading, shoot-em-up Virtual Reality games; the snappily-titled Drop Down Dead in DodgeCity. The scene in question allows players to test whether they’re quicker on the draw than the feared outlaw, Long-Breeches Madigan. The shoot-out takes place in a saloon. If the player wins, the D chord commences, swelling in volume as a bar-tender slides them a whisky along the counter-top; after which, a buxom good-time-girl who’s chewing tobacco projects said baccy into a spittoon… and all to Pebberdy’s original sound effect. Pebberdy tells me that, from the discussion he’s had with their lawyers, Reality Media Inc clearly wants to avoid a costly legal case. I ask Pebberdy if they’ve made him an offer. He confirms they have… though he declines to talk figures; nor when he’ll actually be paid. He adds that it’s thanks to this he’s now acquiring a whole new generation of fans. Plus he’s getting to do the come-back gig he’d secretly always hankered after. Just the one, I ask? We’ll have to wait and see, he replies. For now, this new generation – these Dodge Cityers, if you will – may only equate Pebberdy with being their Spitter… their Dirty-Broom Guy… but I’m hopeful, in time, they’ll find their way to Harmonic Spittoon’s back catalogue and come to appreciate his wider, genuine talent. All together now – and be careful where you aim – Hhccch Pttiiingg!
The Picture Above YourName By Louise Wilford
The self-conscious tilt of the hat-brim screens half your face. Camouflage. The scarf, climbing your neck and cradling your chin, composes your anonymity. There’s no revelation in the grainy curve of lines down each thin cheek, from the gloom of your nose to the passport smile. You’re concealed, lost in plain sight. Cheerful wit sculpts your online chat. There, you cloak your courage in irreverent wit – you consider your words with care, hiding your caution, controlling your discourse.
But when we talk, alone, in the sleepless hours, connected by a mobile mast somewhere out on the hills that lie between us, your voice is rough as water falling over rocks – and much deeper than I guessed. Your words waver from cool to hot, veined with an electric wire that flames against my ear. Your talk is woven of folktales – goblins and were-folk, the forested landscapes of your living and your life. I can feel your laughter in my veins.
When we meet, will I know you still? Will you smell of grass and clay, of the trees you climb, and the stone walls you build, of the wind rattling through reeds at the water’s edge? Will your face be puckered with squinting at poems, skin coarsened by outdoor life, pale eyes narrowed from staring at the clouds? I know the hole you make in the world. I might not know your face, your flesh – but I know your midnight voice, the mask-less dreams that hold you tight when you cannot sleep.
Louise Wilford’s work has been widely published. In 2020, she won First Prize in the Arts Quarterly Short Story Competition and the Merefest Poetry Competition, and she was awarded a Masters in Creative Writing ( Distinction). She is working on a fantasy novel. Blog: https://louviewsnewscues.blogspot.com/
The natural world and history have always intertwined in the execution of Jenny Bruce’s artwork. Archaeology, both ancient and industrial, and engineering likewise play large parts in her expression of the visual world through the creative mediums of painting,writing or poetry. Social media. Facebook sites:- Jenny Bruce or Sharing Art with Jenny.
ESSENTIAL ITEMS ONLY By Emma Mooney
Helen swings into a space in front of the D.I.Y. superstore, giant orange letters inviting her in. She lifts the face mask from the passenger seat, hooks it over her ears and looks in the rear-view mirror. Today’s the first time she’s worn it and, Jesus, she barely recognises herself. She scans the car park, checks and double-checks that no one is nearby before getting out of her car and walking to the entrance. Stepping onto the yellow circle on the ground she remembers a game they used to play in the school gym: sharks and islands. She looks at the concrete shop floor in front of her no longer sure she wants to be here. But too late. A young boy wearing an orange apron raises his hand and beckons her to come in. Helen looks over her shoulder at the small queue that’s already formed behind her, each shopper standing on their own island. It’s probably safer to go forward. Inside she follows the one-way system, scanning the signs above her head for the plumbing aisle. The drip, drip, dripping has kept her awake every night since lockdown and, if she doesn’t fix it soon, she fears she’s going to go insane. The tap washers are hanging on hooks at eye level, but she never thought there’d be so much choice. And nobody warned her that wearing a face mask would steam up her glasses. She takes out a tissue, wipes her glasses, and then folds it into a small square and tucks it into the back pocket of her jeans, making a mental note to bin it as soon as she gets home. Thankfully the packets are labelled on the front so she doesn’t need to touch anything. Nylon, polythene, rubber. How is she supposed to know what kind of washer to choose? Eeny, meeny, miny, moe. She unhooks a packet of nylon washers and, trying to handle as little of the packet as possible, she carries it in a pincer grip toward the tills. She stops. The automatic doors to her right swoosh open and she gazes in. Empty shelves and pallets stare back at her but her eyes are fixed on a single weary plant in the corner and her cheeks sook inwards as she remembers… All the kids in her street would congregate together, dirty faces and dirty knees, cap guns stuffed into the pockets of cut-off jeans. They’d make their way down to the bottom of Jimmy Jackson’s back garden at the end of the row of terraced houses because that’s where, among the jaggy nettles and the long grass, the rhubarb grew. The plant was ginormous and they’d take turns breaking off a stalk and dipping it into a poke of sugar. Helen steps forward and, once again, the doors to the garden centre slide open. She slips the tap washers into her pocket and crosses the threshold. The air is warm and still and she pulls down her mask to breathe in the sweet scent of honeysuckle. If she’s imagining the smell she doesn’t care. She picks up the potted rhubarb with both hands and laughs, already imagining her granddaughter’s face as she takes her first bite.
Note:- Rhubarb can’t be harvested until a year after it was planted.
Scottish writer, Emma Mooney is the author of A Beautiful Game and Wings to Fly, both published by Crooked Cat Books. Emma graduated with a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Stirling and is currently working on the edits of her next novel. Checkout her work at http://www.emmamooney.co.uk.
Sometimes there is beauty from the unexpected. The vibrant flowers of this textile piece have bloomed from humble beginnings. When Mandy Beattie moved into her house which was built in 1880 she found a pile of old potato sacks in the attic. They may have been up there since the year dot. Her mother Alexandrina was inspired to use one as the foundation for this fabulous rag rug, a special gift for her daughter. Mandy says that it is now one of her most treasured possessions. Thanks to both of them for sharing this personal story and image.
This is not a… By Ursula Troche
‘Ceci n’est pas une bouche’ – ‘this is not a mouth’, I wrote on my mask, paraphrasing Magritte’s ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. Magritte’s point was that this was just an image, not the real object. So there’s a dimension of unreality to images which we so often overlook. Reality then, is layered, and images and objects aren’t the same. And now, in pandemic times, it seems we have to make do with layers. When we meet, we often meet online, and see each others’ images on zoom – and when we meet in reality, we have to put a layer between our mouth and ‘the real world’. It’s unreal somehow and at the same time our new reality. Things are not clear or direct, everything has to happen in roundabout ways. It’s a dull, fuzzy, foggy picture – but not like the haar which is physical – now we are not exposed to anything we can touch or feel! It’s a surreal situation. We are exposed to the virus, which we are trying to protect ourselves from with our masks, but the danger is impossible to see. It sounds like another episode to the old film ‘The Invisible Man’: now it’s this virus that we have to hide from – try not to let it catch us, in the absence of a sign.
We are on the run. We might have been on the run from ourselves before. Now the past emerges too! Then it was us, now it’s a virus. Or both! This pandemic is so symbolic – though it’s worse too. We have to deal with us as a collective as well, as we are all exposed to the effects of what went wrong – and that is to do with environmental degradation, deforestation. The virus has hit us like a nuclear accident, and is a sign that our system is cracked – and so are we, with it.
Behind the mask, our inner life might spill out. The past lies there in pieces, as therein lies the truth? What does each layer that we have to carry on our mouths and noses do to us? Ironically, with the mask on, we are more exposed to ourselves than without. It’s as if now, behind our physical mask, we are more naked than we had ever been with any mental masks that have been part of us before. Or maybe it’s now that all our previous masks are coming out. The painfulness of not being able to connect freely is revealing things that had been hidden before. The mask, our paper curtain, like a little tiny Iron Curtain, but battling not only with ‘the other side’ but with ourselves too! I remember, at the beginning of our lockdown, remembering one of my favourite songs, with the title that now acquires another meaning This Masquerade!: “Are we really happy with this lonely game we play, looking for words to say… We’re lost, in this masquerade.”
Masquerade! Maybe we can only identify it now, forgetting what masking had been going on so far, some of which so inbuilt into our society that they have become normal. The dangerous normal: environmental degradations, deforestation, practices that have made this world ill, and so the virus is just a sign for us to stop. Metamorphosis in need. And yet the lockdown is hard.
Unrealities of life revealing deeper realities of the subconscious, and there comes out life again, but not as we expected it. Questions. What will life be when this is over? When we can take the ‘lockdown masks’ off, will we replace them with our masks of old? Look out, the answer my friend, may be blowing in the haar…
Ursula Troche, writer, artist, and double migrant on the Irish Sea Coast in West Cumbria. Inspired by space and (translation) places and the in-between, inner lives and hidden stories. She has work published in English and German, and a collection is being translated into French. More details at: About | ColourCirclesite (wordpress.com)
a strange dawn uncurls oyster pink I am breathing alone in my shell
Termination By Nikita Shackleton
I am squeezing my Self into an empty crisp box. Guards wearing smiley masks watch from three rifles distance. Muted comrades observe from a perspex Zoom
box. Guards wearing smiley masks watch my hands tremble as I clear out my desk:- driver’s license, a diary with twenty-twenty visions, a framed photo of a kitten in a tree.
My hands tremble as I clear out my desk:- a notebook full of redactions, a wee feisty cactus, a broken compact mirror, tampons, lipsticks, tissues and a stained pair of pants,
a notebook full of dictations, a wee feisty box of Black Magic, a blunt pencil with teeth marks, my first draft of an Utopian Manifesto, A Dummy’s Guide to Democracies, an empty
box of Black Magic, a blunt pencil with teeth, an eraser shaped like a penis, a list of dreams, an emergency jam jar and a wedding ring. In the bottom drawer I find the forgotten;
an eraser shaped like a vagina, a list of dreams, the one who truly loved me, the candle burned at both ends, the first rainbow ever seen, secret wishes, a rope bridge with the missing link,
the one who never loved me, the candle burned the dirty girl I hated at primary school, the key to the midnight garden. Shushing faces observe while I squeeze my Self to an empty crisp.
CONTENT WARNING! Racism, racial slurs, hate speech in the following story which may offend.
LIKE AN ANGEL By Trudy Gritte
Doris stumbled out onto Dulness High Street in a state of humiliation. Her English rose complexion flamed an unflattering shade of tangerine. Like a statue she stood in the middle of the pavement hindering the tidal wave of Christmas shoppers. Snowflakes tumbled from a grey sky but Doris never noticed. Her brain was in overload. She was struggling to comprehend what had occurred within the dimly-lit interior of Kaleidoscope Gift Shop and Café.
Doris was tempted into the shop by the cute rolling pin in the window display, hand-painted with images of Santa and his reindeer, it would have been perfect for making her mince pies. She loved Christmas so much. She could never have enough tinsel, baubles and fairy lights. So she ventured into Kaleidoscope for the first time and was astounded by all the beautiful Christmas decorations and gifts. But when she looked at the label on the exquisite rolling pin she was dismayed to see it was made in China. So that was that. Derek wouldn’t tolerate anything Chinese in the house. Doris browsed the shelves admiring the jewellery, notebooks, pictures, cards, porcelain and knick-knacks. She fell in love with a jade bracelet but that was made in China too. Derek was quite right. They were taking over the world with their rolling pins and jewellery. The last straw was the cat calendar. It was the sweetest cat calendar she’d ever seen. Doris simply adored cats! But that was Chinese too! Can you believe it! Didn’t they eat cats in China? Or was it dogs? She wasn’t too sure now.
The amount of foreign garbage for sale in this shop was unacceptable so Doris marched up to the counter to complain. Well, not so much marched as shuffled because there was a long queue of people with happy faces and loaded baskets. She had to wait her turn and that was unacceptable too. The woman in front was fat and smelled of garlic. Three small children were hanging onto her coat, faces smeared with chocolate. Riffraff. They really need to stop these people breeding.
At last it was Doris’s turn. She looked up and there was a tall black woman smiling down at her with one of those veil thingies wrapped around her head. A hib-jib or was it a hobnob? Something like that. ‘How can I help you, madam?’
‘I want to speak to the Manager, please’, said Doris.
‘Well, that’s me. Is there a problem?’
‘Isn’t there someone else in charge, who is the owner of this establishment?’ asked Doris.
‘I am the proprietor of Kaleidoscope. Please tell me what the problem is Madam because I have customers waiting.’
‘You have too many foreign goods in this shop. I am proud to be British and I only buy British.’ Doris straightened her back and tried to look imperious. She heard a snigger from the young woman standing behind her. Doris cast a dirty look over her shoulder noticing purple hair, a nose stud and an orange coat. What right had she to laugh, some tart who didn’t even know how to dress properly.
‘I’m sorry you’re disappointed Madam. My stock comes from a variety of sources and I’m sure much of it is made in Britain.’
‘Such as what? Show me’.
I’m sorry but if you don’t intend to buy anything will you please step away so I can serve this lady.’
Doris grabbed a carved wooden goose from a revolving display stand. It was wearing a festive garland. She waved it in Hobnob’s face. ‘Is this British?’
Hobnob checked the base of the ornament. ‘No, this one is made in Germany.’
‘’Germany!’ Doris snorted with disgust. ‘After everything they’ve done!’ She realised that people were staring at her.
‘I really must insist that you step away, Madam. If you don’t like my shop then please leave.’
Doris suddenly noticed cakes and pastries for sale in a glass cabinet by the café area. She quite fancied a nice cake for tea. It would be a treat for Derek, take his mind off being made redundant.
‘Have you got any Victoria Sandwich Cake? ‘ she asked.
‘We have Baklava, Key Lime Pie, Apple Strudel, Belgian Chocolate Cake, Tarte au Citron and Panetonne, all very delicious but no Victoria Sandwich Cake I’m afraid’.
‘’Key Lime Pie, that’s a Yankee dessert, isn’t it? Well they’re a bunch of big mouths. And I wouldn’t eat Baklava if I was starving. I don’t swallow anything unless it’s made in Britain’.
Hobnob and Purple Tart started laughing. A man wearing a Santa hat and holding a Winter Wonderland jigsaw, piped up. ‘Hurry up, you racist bitch’.
‘Yeah, clear off Mrs Fancy Pants,’ shouted a woman wearing a beret who looked like a Communist and they all started laughing. At her. At Doris. How dare they!
She couldn’t remember actually leaving but abruptly found herself outside in the cold, the smug tinkle of the door chime still echoing in her ears. Crowds of shoppers swarmed past, ignoring her as if she was a nothing, a nobody.
She couldn’t think straight. Now concentrate Doris. What else was on her list of chores? She spotted the Building Society across the road and recalled Derek’s instructions to make another withdrawal from their savings account. The money was going down faster than expected since Derek lost his job. Her hands trembled as she pressed the button for the pelican crossing and waited for the little green man.
Doris could see herself reflected in the building society window opposite; a slim figure with blonde hair in a pony tail, wearing a coat with a fur collar. She was not a racist, she said to herself. She was a good person. She went to Church every Sunday, she was kind to animals, she donated to charities. As she watched her reflection the snow stopped and a shaft of sunlight broke through the overcast sky. It beamed down on her like a blessing. Her figure was illuminated by an unearthly light. She was an angel descending from heaven. Her face radiant, white and pure. Mesmerised by her own image Doris walked forwards into the road too soon. Needless to say, the car that broke her neck was not made in Britain.
SHHH! ByCrippled Pink
Can you keep a secret? I have a guilty one that I’ve never told a soul. So I hope you’re sitting down when I tell you that a small part of me is enjoying Lockdown.
Along with the fear, boredom and grief there is a sense of empowerment. For the first time I am the one at an advantage. Covid has levelled the playing field. Stay at home, avoid people, protect yourself….easy peasy….what’s so difficult about that? For once, the tables are turned and the non-disabled are having to learn some resilience, self-sufficiency and come face to face with their own mortality. It’s about time, I say. Along with thousands of other disabled people that’s what I’ve had to do for as long as I can remember.
Historically, disabled people have been excluded from full participation in society by a non-disabled majority. We had to fight and struggle for years to win our rights as equal citizens but even in 2021 barriers remain. There is discrimination and prejudice everywhere. Despite the Equality Act of 2010 not much has changed. There are improvements in physical access such as ramps and lifts but in practice the environment is still largely inaccessible. Building regulations are not enforced. Hate crime persists. It is still more difficult for a disabled person to get a job or go on holiday or go to the the theatre. Many live in poverty particularly since the introduction of PIP. Whatever your disability, going out into the world each day is hard work, it require guts and determination to keep facing the endless challenges. Some are forced back into their own homes, existing in isolation and sometimes in chronic pain, on a low income and with minimal support from Social Care. Staying at home is the norm for many as they grow older. As for missing jolly trips to the pub…there may well not be an accessible pub within twenty miles of your home. Lockdown or not, meeting mates down the pub might be as likely as a trip to the moon.
If it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. In this Pandemic age there is a new normal. Disabled people have acquired survival skills that are proving useful. We are more resilient, emotionally self-sufficient, adaptable. We are accustomed to planning ahead and being alone. Disabled people tend to live on the cusp of crisis mode. There is no certainty so we learn to cover every possible eventuality. I bought respirator masks, hand sanitiser and extra food supplies a month before the UK went into the first Lockdown. Since a botched up NHS operation in 2018 I can no longer drive my car and must rely on Internet shopping. Lockdown doesn’t feel that much different to me but in some ways it is better. The miraculous advent of Zoom means I can catch up with long-lost friends, participate in meetings and online events I was previously unable to do. People have more time for each other, more time to talk, to care. People are learning to appreciate what really matters in life; the importance of loved ones, of the natural environment and the interconnectedness of the world. So when we surface out of the Pandemic I sincerely hope society will not return to the ruthless rat race of the bad old days. I hope, for once, we will be better.
Thank you for exploring The Haar at The Purple Hermit. I hope you enjoyed the treasure in the mist. The Haar will return with a new theme when you are least expecting…so keep watching this space!
Kind thoughts to all readers, writers and artists from Nikita Shackleton, 7th April 2021.
The smell hit her the instant she opened the door. A mix of cats, geraniums and cigarettes. Isabel hated smoking and potted geraniums in equal measure. She didn’t own a cat. She shoved the mountain of accumulated mail out of the way with her crutch. The paramedic placed her bags inside the hall and disappeared down the overgrown path without saying goodbye, still grumbling about how you were only allowed one piece of luggage in an ambulance.
Isabel closed the door behind her and locked it. Her hands shook and her heart threw summersaults of joy to be home, in her own private space, finally away from the prying eyes and probing fingers of the white coats. She’d thought this day would never come. She’d thought it was over, the end of the road, kaputt, finito, nothing left except bedpans, pain and humiliation. No future except days lying in her own stink, face down in a bowl of hospital porridge while the fat lady sang.
Panting with exertion she shuffled slowly into the living room and sank into the cane chair by the French doors that faced onto the garden. She’d missed her mountains, the light and emptiness of the vast sky. Her solitary room on Ward 3A looked out onto a brick wall. She couldn’t see the sky at all, not even a sliver. The only way she could tell if the sun was shining was by the light reflecting in the brickwork, the changes in hue. On a bright day the bricks gleamed like tiger’s eye. On a grey day they were a dull flesh pink.
Now Isabel surveyed her garden, still marvellous despite the weeds and rampant lawn. The hollyhocks blazed magenta. The roses drooped with lush scarlet blooms, the honeysuckle smothered the archway and on the horizon Morven and Scaraben glowed purple in the evening sun. She sat there for a long while, just breathing, in, out, in, out. She was alive. She was home. No one could hurt her now.
And then she saw the boots. Dirty workmen’s boots placed casually in the middle of the kilim rug she’d brought back from Turkey. They were caked with mud, one boot tilted as if they’d been cast off in a hurry, the soles worn, the brown leather wrinkled with age. Her chest tightened in panic and she scanned the room for other signs of disturbance. Everything seemed much as she’d left it the day of the accident other than a layer of dust and a few cobwebs. There were books and magazines in a tidy pile on the coffee table, logs stacked by the wood burner and dead daffodils in a stained glass vase on the window sill. Her grandmother’s vintage clock had stopped at five to five.
Isabel couldn’t bear to touch the disgusting boots with her bare hands so she nudged them closer with her crutch. One of them tipped over and a tiny square of paper fell out. Leaning unsteadily from her chair she picked it up and unfolded it with trembling fingers.
Written in red biro on a torn piece of graph paper was just one word, ‘remember’.
A dark tale from the mysterious peatlands of Scotland….
A small man wearing a hard hat waited at the side of the road just before the bend. Behind him a Toyota pick-up loaded with drainage pipes was parked in a passing place. On the opposite side a gravel track led up through freshly churned peat to the brow of a hill where a JCB digger was silhouetted against the winter sky. The man checked his mobile phone and shuffled his boots in the dirt at the side of the road. He noticed a dead rabbit lying at the edge of the tarmac. It’s rear legs had been chewed off by a predator but one eye was moving in the socket…alive.
A cold easterly wind blew in from the sea. All around him the ochres, rusts and browns of the mossy peat bog dissolved into a pattern of undulating stripes stretching out as far as the horizon. The man had twinkling blue eyes and a rosy complexion but his mouth was permanently twisted into a thin grimace as if he was trying hard not to laugh at a secret joke.
His name was Douglas Macleod but everyone called him Slip because like a fish he would always slip and slide away from troubled waters and swim towards the easy money. Slip Macleod thought he was born lucky. He inherited the family business, a Victorian farmhouse and five hundred acres at an early age. Within three years he made his first million. His wife was slim, blonde and never asked inconvenient questions, even when he indulged in ‘playing away’ and drinking weekends with his best mate Alec. At fifty he had good health. He could drink nine pints of lager, entertain one of those Glasgow tarts all night in the back of his Jag and still manage the seven hour drive home to the Far North without any sleep. A good weekend like that would set him up on a high for at least a month and the best thing was there were no consequences.
The sky darkened and the wind threatened rain. Slip had decided to continue his vigil from inside the truck when his phone exploded into the opening bars of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’. The screen displayed an unknown number and for a second Slip hesitated in case it was one of his dissatisfied customers, but then he pressed the green answer button.
‘Yep?’ he growled into the phone. There was a silence. ‘Yep?’ he said again.
‘Hello…hello…can you hear me?’ said a woman with a Glaswegian accent.
‘…first day…return…mind the way…Gordon please…’, the line was breaking up.
‘Ye what? Gordon who…? I canna hear ye woman!’
‘…got to listen…safe please…it’s coming…’
Slip held the Samsung up above his head trying to get a signal and moved away from the truck into the middle of the road. The screen briefly registered one bar and then none at all. The call disconnected and there was silence. Suddenly there was no wind, just stillness in the grass. Slip gazed into the distance where the silver ribbon of the floating road disappeared into the twilight haze. There seemed to be something moving towards him, a blurred shape too big and too dark to be the familiar blue car he was waiting for. Ferry traffic perhaps or a freight wagon loaded with refrigerated fish heading down the line, no headlights showing despite the November gloom. His phone rang again, now there were two bars of signal.
‘Bloody Vodafone,’ Slip said out loud before he answered. ‘Yeah, what is it?’
‘Watch out, it’s coming,’ said the woman.
‘Ye what?’ asked Slip for one last time.
He didn’t feel much. Just an immense pressure in the back of his head and then all the air was sucked out of him. The final moment he was lying at the side of the road looking into the rabbit’s eye.
Another piece of flash fiction mined from an old notebook. I wrote this just after my relocation to the Far North of Scotland fifteen years ago.
Tuesday morning Seagulls wail the sound of loss and loneliness as I make my way down the hill to the harbour. The road unfurls a paper scroll and the turquoise shimmer of the sea beckons. On the horizon I see a small red dot, faltering, almost lost in the haze; a warning, a sign, an anticipation of homecomings. Or unwelcome return. I stop on the bridge and watch the ochre discharge of peaty water cascading down the brae. The wind blows cold carrying the stink of diesel from below. I don’t want to go on. Nauseous, I lean against the railings while my stomach spasms, ejecting the loathsome bile of my fear into the river. I’m glad there’s no-one around, only a dog chasing ducks and barking.
Tuesday afternoon A small red dot on the road behind me, shrinking, getting smaller and smaller until I have to pretend I can still see him in the rear view mirror. An imaginary dab of scarlet on the tarmac like the smudge of a blood stain on a clean white blouse, an embarrassment, something quickly washed away and forgotten. No longer real. Just a story I made up or a dream or the memory of a dream. Ahead lies a clear horizon and an open road. If I look carefully I can see a small yellow dot; a pale circle of gold, insignificant, like a wary hitch-hiker hovering and waiting but getting closer, swelling bigger and brighter and more beautiful. Until I can see nothing else, my vision obscured by glorious yellow light.
And the past is dissolved away, reduced to a pile of bleached old bones at the side of the road.
I was looking through some old notebooks today and came across this short story I wrote about twenty five years ago and had forgotten about. A simple tale of revenge written not long after my divorce...no coincidence!
The suitcase waited by the front door while Morven took one last look around the house. The bedroom had an abandoned air; the usual bric-a-brac missing from the dressing table and only her sequinned party frock hanging in the wardrobe. For a moment she paused at the foot of the double bed and memories both happy and sad raced through her mind.
When first married they spent entire weekends cocooned in this room, oblivious of the world outside. The passion and laughter of early times had soon faded into the silence of lonely nights when the bed felt like an expanse of lifeless desert. As she left the room Morven gave the duvet a final pat, smoothing out an imaginary wrinkle in the cover.
The lounge was polished, tidy and still. The gleaming fish tanks lining one wall were empty of the bright colours and flickers of usual inhabitants. Only silver bubbles gurgled through the water and reminded Morven of the way the fish pie was simmering in the oven. She laughed when she noticed Neil’s favourite collection of books:- The Secrets of a Healthy Aquarium, How to Look After Your Angel Fish, Discovering Shubunkins and The A to Z of Water Plants.
She gathered them up into a large casserole dish, added half a pint of milk, salt, pepper and a dash of lemon juice and placed it on the bottom shelf of the oven where the fish pie was doing nicely. Pulling on her coat, Morven checked the note on the hall table.
Dinner is in the oven. Just popped out for a new life.
She didn’t bother to lock the door and walked down the driveway without looking back.
This post is a little different – not poetry but the first short story I’ve written for a long time. It’s loosely based on my family history. Any feedback or comments would be greatly appreciated.
The passenger sun deck was anything but sunny. It was deserted except for a man with two huskies sheltering beneath an orange cape. A casual drizzle swirled from a concrete sky. Alina realised for the umpteenth time since arriving in Scotland that she was inappropriately dressed in her chic wool coat and cloche hat. The world around her spun shades of grey. Glassy waves frothed by the railings leaving lacy patterns of spume across the deck and marking her boots. The wind pummelled her eighty year old body like an invisible giant.
Alina clung to the metal rail and gazed into a whirlpool of cloud and water. She managed to suppress her nausea. The Pentland Firth felt as hostile as the English Channel in 1947 when she first arrived in Britain clad in her refugee rags. She looked down into the churning troughs of waves and imagined the exhilaration of jumping overboard, the shock of the cold. How long would it take to drown? Would it be peaceful or would her lungs fight for breath despite herself? She hoped the cold would take her first. As a small child she witnessed a Jewish woman drown in the River Dniper before the Nazis invaded. It was a hot afternoon and her family were picnicking on the shore when her brother spotted a body floating near Monastyr Island, long black hair trailing in the water like a death veil. Papa swam out but it was too late. Afterwards, Papa wondered if it had been suicide. Rumours were circulating about what the Germans did to conquered cities but no one wanted to believe them.
Alina peered into the opaque void looking for The Old Man of Hoy in the same way she’d searched the horizon for the white cliffs of Dover exactly sixty years ago. She was haunted by Vera Lynn’s song ever since she learned her parents had been granted EVW status and that they would soon begin a new life in England. On the boat crossing the Channel the idea of beautiful bluebirds and white cliffs filled her with hope even while helplessly vomiting. Alina was the only one in her family to be sea sick. Her brother, Ivan stuffed his face with salami sandwiches like there was no tomorrow and raced around the boat exploring. Alina arrived in Dover stinking and humiliated without achieving a single glimpse of the famous cliffs or bluebirds. Years later she found out bluebirds did not exist in Britain and she felt cheated.
There was no sign of The Old Man of Hoy. She’d seen postcards of the sandstone landmark in the Hamnavoe gift shop and bought one for her husband Dmitri together with a small box of Orkney fudge. For herself she chose a block of handmade lavender and calendula soap coloured blue and yellow like the Ukrainian flag. The soap was called Forget-me-not. She was groping around in her bag for a handkerchief when the ship reared and bucked like a wild horse. She lost her balance and grabbed at the rail wrenching her arthritic elbow. Her heavy bag slipped from her shoulder spilling objects across the wet deck.
“Let me help”, said the husky man. His face was weathered and unshaven. He crouched down picking up her purse, powder compact, lipstick, hairbrush, a packet of Jelly Babies and a leather album embossed with gold lettering in Cyrillic script. The man carefully shook off droplets of water from each item and wiped them on his trousers before replacing them in Alina’s bag. He released the dogs who began sniffing her feet. One of them jumped up placing paws on her shoulders and tried to lick her face. Alina recoiled, lurched sideways and began screaming at the beasts. “Get away, get away!”
She was suddenly back in the camp, tangled in barbed wire with the fetid breath of a German Shepherd in her face and strange guttural cries echoing in the night.
“It’s okay,” said the man, “they won’t hurt you. They’re just saying hello.” He steered her toward a seat. “Take a minute”.
“I’m alright, thank you,” she said but she was trembling. Her hat slipped askew half covering one eye and she straightened it.
A woman appeared beside them. Her face was scrunched up like a ball of wet paper. She held two plastic cups of coffee.
“Here you go, love. Have one of these”, she said to Alina. “I think you need it more than I do”. The kindness in her voice was unexpected and she patted Alina’s arm.
Alina suppressed tears. “Thank you,” she murmured. The coffee was too sweet but it was hot and soothing.“My name is Moira, by the way and this is my husband Alastair. Our scary fur balls are Snowflake and River. They’re completely harmless you know.”
“I am Alina Stepanivna Kravchuk”, replied the old lady. “I am sorry, I am afraid of big dogs”.
“Wondered what your accent was,” said Alastair. “Where are you from?”
“I am from Yorkshire”, said Alina. She put the empty coffee cup down on the seat and the wind swept it away in an instant. One of the dogs lunged after it, barking. Alina pulled her hat down covering her ears which were pierced with tiny gold hoops.
“You don’t sound like a Yorkshire woman” said Moira. “But it’s a lovely accent whatever it is. So are you a tourist? It’s the wrong time of year for a holiday”. The woman laughed revealing a broken front tooth.
“I am not on holiday, I do not believe in holidays. I am looking for my daughter”, said Alina.
She produced a photograph from her coat pocket and held it out to Moira. It showed a teenage girl with long dark hair wearing a gypsy dress, strings of beads and a serious expression. She was perched on the bonnet of a vintage Land Rover surrounded by moorland. The image was over exposed and faded with age. “She’s called Vita. Do you know her?”
“Golly Moses! I doubt it. Don’t know anyone named Vita. Do you Alastair? That looks like an old picture. My mam had a similar dress when I was a kid. Whereabouts does your daughter stay?”
“I do not have her address”, said Alina. Her pale eyes suddenly brimmed with tears and Moira noticed her cataracts. “I only have this”. She unfolded a crumpled newspaper cutting.
“Disabled artist storms Scotland”, Moira read out loud. “Orkney based Vita Kravchuk launches solo exhibition ‘Making Waves’, An Lanntair, Stornoway, October 2005. Her abstract drawings are inspired by the dramatic seas of the Far North.”
Moira looked closely at the small publicity photograph before passing it to Alastair. “Is that her in the wheelchair?”
Alina’s face contorted. “Yes, she is a cripple. A disappointment but we did our best.”
“My brother is visually impaired,” said Moira, “and he’s just as good as anyone else. Your daughter is obviously talented”.
“It was always art, art, art with Vita. All that modern stuff and fancy ideas. She never wanted anything normal like babies or a steady job. Such a difficult girl.”
“Well, you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”, said Moira.
“Pah friends! I do not believe in friends.” Alina rose abruptly and offered a pound coin to Moira. “For the coffee,” she said.
“No money required. The coffee is a small gift from a new friend,” said Moira. “Perhaps we can help you find your girl? We own a guest house in Stromness. You can stay the night with us and tomorrow we’ll take you to the art gallery where someone might know Vita. Alastair can carry your bag. It’s too heavy for a lady your age.”
The ship’s tannoy made a garbled announcement about their imminent arrival on the island. Moira grabbed Alina’s arm. The huskies were circling around and growling.
“No, no, no…” Alina protested, her eyes widening in alarm as she was escorted away.
Alastair interrupted, “Look, a puffin!” He pointed towards the stern.
Looking back, Alina saw a strange bird like a parrot, black and white with a curved orange beak and orange feet. It flapped extended wings in a menacing manner before landing on top of the ship’s emergency lifebuoy. The bird and Alina looked at each other for a long, frozen moment as it’s feathers slowly changed to blue.
The February air is zesty with unexpected sunshine and the northern wind softened to a breeze. Spurning my faithful duffle coat I reach for the cashmere coat with a fake fur collar that I haven’t worn since leaving London. This coat has been on a long journey and in storage for two years. Its chic appeal seems incongruous in this land of anoraks and woolly hats but why not be different today? Should I wear the sheepskin gloves or the fluffy angora ones? I go with the fluffy. The dusky pink matches my suede boots.
The street is quiet, not even the builders around and no sign of my elderly neighbor who likes to feed the seagulls every morning. A battered red pick-up truck rattles down the road towards the harbor trailing an aroma of fish. I’m heading to the village shop for milk and bananas. As my clumsy fingers place the house key in my coat pocket they dislodge a crumpled piece of yellow paper from the silk lining. It flutters onto the waterlogged front lawn. The sulfur color reminds me of old moss, the sort that clings to old stone walls.
It’s not a discarded shopping list or a receipt for some long-forgotten object of desire but a couple of cinema tickets; Twenty One Grams. It’s a poignant film directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu about how people’s lives intersect and fragment due to a random event. The story reveals the patterns concealed beneath the surface of everyday life. The twenty one grams refers to the amount of weight which is mysteriously lost at the moment of death.
I went to see this film on my thirtieth birthday, the first of March, many years ago now. We ate lunch in the roof top restaurant of an art gallery overlooking the Thames before going to the cinema. After the film we drank cocktails in a trendy bar in Knightsbridge. It was an enjoyable day in a faraway life. Tom and I were both in a good mood and we didn’t mind the cold wind, dodging the rain showers without an umbrella or searching for an elusive parking space. I didn’t complain about the dirty pavements, the crowds or the traffic. At that time I’d never heard of Caithness and living in Scotland was a romantic dream. I was wearing this same grey coat with a leopard fur collar. It felt like the wrong coat for a wet day.
Today I queue in the village shop while two incomers, a mother and teenage daughter stock up on junk food. They are horsey types who have adopted a feral lifestyle. The mother wears a red bandana and a dirty shredded t-shirt any eighties punk would be proud of. Her bare feet are encased in flip flops. Jagged green toenails protrude from a crust of mud. Both women exude a smell reminiscent of rotting potatoes. They spend more than twenty pounds on sweets and chocolate. As they exit the shop Elaine reaches under the counter for the air freshener and sprays it around in a protective circle.
On my way home I wonder if I’m wearing the wrong coat.