Pantry Prose: Sundae by Matthew Waldron

Mum and Sandra wear wide-brimmed, white hats, sun-blessed swirls; floppy folds like just-set meringues. Their long, summer dresses feature small floral print designs; leaves and flowers cascade, stall, twist upon tension points and light bodily sweat, pinch into something new, origami, fabric-style.  

Ian and I walk across the car park with Mum and Sandra, who both giggle conspiratorially behind us. Occasionally they speak in drawn-breath voices; rub-squeaked balloons, or amp up North-Western accents, drag vowels out; musical words on heavy chains tied to a rock. The tarmac reveals tiny oily pools, which bleed brown-black, erupt randomly upon the surface with lightning-strike cracks and filigree fissures; an over-baked cake. Steam rises in genie-lamp coils and question marks; school kids in back of bike shed tradition, exhaling from hesitant drags, laughter-gasping on Mum and Dad’s missing cigarettes.      

Minutes ago, James and I peered inside the glass domes of an ice cream parlour, as though the contents were precious jewels in a museum case; new, to us, a range of potential ice cream flavours to stimulate our senses. An accumulation of sweet scents combined in strip-light, hazy atmosphere; an opened, rust-rimmed honey jar; finger-squashed overripe raspberries; traces of cheap chocolate, tanged by silver paper wrapper; cardboard-y vanilla.  

Wall`s Vanilla Ice Cream was rare luxury for us at home; ice cream, much harder then, in both consistency and availability. Occasionally, I recall chocolate ice cream with a questionable cocoa content; Neopolitan, tricolour flavours suggested, rather than submitted authentic tastes. But now, right in front of us, Tutti Frutti – really? Rum and Raisin – what? Toffee Fudge, chunks embedded in marbled dessert, gold nuggets ready to chisel out with tiny teeth, teased by tantalised tongue, new for trial taste, lick delicately, rapidly, as though prompted by drought-dry mouth.

As well as a helter-skelter, ice cream run escaping from his castellated cone, Ian is entranced by cars. ‘Red TR7, Matt. Seen it?’ He points a Mr Men plaster-wrapped forefinger (always with the Mr Bump, my brother) towards the sharp wedge sports car. ‘Look, there’s a Capri over there. Bit like the one in The Professionals.’ Images: criminals, arms twisted behind backs, garage-greasy hair, stubble chins greeting bonnet, mouths of chip fork tine teeth, tar-stained tongues, post-watershed retort; traffic cones, dustbins, cardboard boxes, bags filled with mystery (air) struck by car-skid arcs, gravel spraying out like residual shotgun blast towards the stand-back camera crew member. Most of James’s excitement, however, was reserved for the quotidian: ‘Matt? Matt? Look! Blue Ford Escort…white Cortina…brown Vauxhall Chevette…orange Allegro!’ His relentless flicker eyes behind NHS spectacle-glazed daze; two electric blue damselflies sparkle, each trapped in their own oval of lapis lazuli.

I carefully lick at the ice cream, nibble initial taste of nothingness from chocolate nibs, crunch melt fragments on my tongue to produce a taste just shy of cacao gone vague, just a sugary representative. It doesn’t matter; it feels so good. My eyes blink, trap light, fuel fantasy to bliss, as I tease out a deep embedded chocolate chip; jutted, a loose brick from the remaining igloo shape of decadent dessert. The extra weight in my hand almost disappears. I open my eyes. The ice cream has fallen away from its soggy-edged host, leaving only a mint-green ring as a reminder of our brief, beautiful marriage.

Loud laughter emanates from Mum, Auntie Sandra and James; explosions from popped paper bags. I stare at plop dome-melt on road. My eyebrows arrowhead down, shoulders, hunch, fold; a rain-soaked Rook. I walk away; kick at the stick with scuffed-toe trainers, embarrassment and disappointment.  

Auntie Sandra unclips click-y, gold metal twins to search in her handbag. She picks out a credit card with her lightly freckled fingers, holds it up to us briefly, emphasises intention with a makeshift tool. Sandra kneels on the ground; I see thin, white lines radiate, send signals across her tanned ankles; imagine melted tar and hot gravel touch her knees; unwanted sticky kisses. Sandra carefully scrapes, lifts the mini-mound of dark chocolate chip-dotted, pale green ice cream, a melting sugary transfer left behind. I watch Sandra place the ice cream back on my cone, which, unaware, I still hold entrenched within my suntanned fist. Still angered with shock, cherry-pied with embarrassment, I freeze in sympathy with the remaining scoop of marble-melt flavours. Eventually with incredulity at Sandra’s action (is this grown-up behaviour? It’s not hygienic, is it?), reluctance relinquishes to acknowledge the gesture; I submit. Result: a broad, mint-choc-chip moustache, cold-lipped smile. My laughter like the last nestling, coaxed by an adult to fledge, soon joins them; a chorus of mirth.  

The first voice of rain, whisper-filled balloons appear, polka dot-pattern our path, shiny drops of satin, which sing quietly, evaporate, sigh; disappear.   

Pantry Prose: War by Andrew Williams

“They’re coming! They’re coming!”

The tunnel turned to chaos as the warning spread along it. Soldiers ran back and forth, on alert for the enemy but unable to see them. The workers milled about in confusion, trampling each other in the dark. Adam shrank back against the wall as three burly soldiers ran past, looking for a way out.

“It’s the Reds!”

Another shout, somewhere near the surface. Adam joined the throng of workers as they fled deeper into the earth, soldiers rushing past and through them to reach the front lines. Another attack! The raids were all too frequent now.

Adam had never seen a live Red before, had never been this close to the front lines before, but he’d heard the stories. About how they fought with poison, so even a glancing blow could leave you dying in agony for hours afterward. About how they broke into the nurseries and stole the children. There were even rumours that the Reds ate their prisoners, but that was probably just a story to scare the young.

But the Reds were ferocious, that much was true. And now they were at war.

“Workers, this way!”

It was one of the soldiers, standing guard by one of the branch tunnels. Adam didn’t question the order; he just followed the crowd and ran for the entrance. Soldiers were expendable. Without the workforce, it didn’t matter how many soldiers they threw at the Red army. Soldiers still needed to eat.

“Adam! What’s happening?”

“Rumin! I thought you were dead!” Adam rushed over to his old friend. “I heard the lakeside tunnel was flooded.”

“It was.” Rumin turned away. “Some of us were able to dig our way out. Most of us… drowned.”

Adam tried not to think about the polluted waters that had broken through during the last rainstorm. The rain made the war far worse – dirt tunnels turned to mud, collapsing and destroying them. Hundreds, thousands of them dying in darkness and terror, because they couldn’t spare the time or resources to fix the tunnels in the first place.

“It’s the Reds,” said Adam.

“Another raid? So soon?” Rumin shook his head. “Did you see them?”

“No. The soldiers rushed us down here straight away. Can’t risk the workforce anymore. We’re too valuable.”

Rumin sighed. “I think we’re losing an entire generation to this war,” he said. “All the Queen wants now is soldiers. Says it’s fight or die out there. Why won’t those Red bastards leave us alone?”

Adam dropped his voice. “Maybe it’s not their fault. Maybe we’re the invaders.”

“Adam, don’t say that! If anyone heard you could get us both executed!”

“Well, maybe it’s true. We’ve been spreading out a fair bit lately. Maybe we’ve spread out into their patch, and they’re just defending themselves.”

“We had no choice.”

“Do they?”

“I’m not listening to this.” Rumin shoved him away. “I’ve got work to do, Adam. They need me down in the stores. If you want to talk treason, go find your Red friends.”

*****

The battle only lasted a few minutes. Most of the Red raiding party was dead; the survivors fled to report back to their leaders. This tunnel was no longer safe. Adam sighed. That meant they’d be digging a new one before the end of the day, and he was already exhausted.

But first, he had a far more unpleasant job to do. Adam and several other workers followed a squad of soldiers back to the tunnel. No-one spoke. No-one wanted to think about what was to come.

The smell hit him first. The tunnel was filled with corpses – some were Reds, but others were not. A thousand bodies. Some of them he’d probably spoken to in the tunnels before now. He might have brought them food. He may have cleared away their detritus. Now they were just detritus themselves.

There was no room for feelings in war. Friend or foe, the bodies had to be removed. There was no time to separate them out, no safe route to the surface for proper disposal. Adam picked up the nearest corpse and carried it down the tunnel.

Down to the pit.

It had once been nothing more than a rubbish dump. Now it was known as the pit. Down here in the dark, you couldn’t make out the difference between the fallen – or even between the corpses and the other waste that still found its way down here.

All you got was the stench.

Adam dropped his burden onto the pile, where it landed with a crunch upon the remains of its forerunners. He turned away, heading back up the tunnel for the next corpse. They didn’t shock him anymore. He’d already seen too many.

The next body was that of a Red. In death, the Reds looked very much like Adam himself. Adam wondered whether this soldier had friends waiting back home. Whether he’d heard the same ludicrous, but somehow compelling stories of eating babies that Adam had heard about them.

Back down to the pit. Another body on the heap. And another.

Wearily, Adam trudged back up the tunnel. He was hungry, but food was scarce, and it would be some time before his next meal. Out on the surface, there was plenty of food to be found – but a lone civilian couldn’t survive up there. Hopefully the Queen would agree to another scavenging run, as soon as she could spare the soldiers.

Most of the soldiers were young now. Younger than him. The veteran troops had mostly fallen to the Reds, wasted on retaliatory strikes. The younger ones – well, they were keen, but they weren’t experienced. They only had a basic level of training to fall back on. Could they actually win this war?

*****

“Adam, I’m so sorry.”

Adam looked up from his meagre meal – little more than a few mashed up leaves.

“What is it, Tru?”

She looked at him for a moment, but she couldn’t hold his gaze. “It’s Rumin,” she said.

“Oh, no.”

“He was shoring up the lakeside tunnel when the waters broke through again. I’m sorry, Adam. He didn’t make it. Not this time.”

“Rumin…” Adam sighed. Drowning was a horrible way to die. Despite his hunger, he no longer wanted the food in front of him. “How bad…?”

Tru shook her head. “No survivors. The Queen is having that tunnel sealed off – we can’t use it now. Adam… they’re saying the Reds did it. That they sabotaged the tunnel. But how?”

“I doubt it,” said Adam. “Just the tunnel giving way. I can’t imagine a Red getting that far into our tunnels without being seen.”

“The Queen is calling for another raid on them.”

That meant no spare soldiers for a food run. Adam looked at his tiny meal again, wondering when the next one would be – and whether it would be smaller still.

Somewhere in the distance, the cry went out again. “The Reds are coming!”

“Adam? Will this war ever end?”

He shook his head. “I don’t know. I hope so.”

Tru dashed away, ready to take the children to safety if the line broke. It hadn’t happened yet, but if the Reds attacked in force, there was no guarantee the troops could hold them.

Adam finished the last few bites of his meal, brushed off his antennae and headed for the tunnels, ready to do his part to protect the nest.

Pantry Prose: Flotsam by Ali Hepburn

Flotsam

Flotsam (n.) 1. Floating or washed-up wreckage

  1. Discarded people or things

I am the sea. My limbs meld seamlessly into briny waves which lick about my ankles. Within me, ships are wrecked and fall wordlessly to the floor to be colonised by brittle-shelled creatures. From me, seaweed grows, lank and rubbery, in fronds tossed carelessly by my churning motion. I crash against cliffs, and sweep away the unsuspecting to a cold and lonely death, filling their lungs and taking them for my own.

My father disagrees. He is a fisherman on rocky island fragment surrounded by inky waters, and yet he fears the ocean. There’s a reason for it, of course. He never speaks of it, but shortly after my birth, my mother was out collecting cockles on a stony reach of shoreline not far from our weathered cottage. The low tide revealed an expanse of shining black pebbles and amongst them a plentiful bounty of shellfish. She was a stranger to those on the island, so I imagine her to be unlike myself and my father; like most islanders, we have sallow skin and dark hair, but in my mind, my mother was gold-spun and delicate, flitting around like a sky-creature, buffeted by the wind that blows low-slung across the sea, casting foam in subdued off-white globs onto the beach. There are no pictures of her, of course. Returning from his boat that evening, my father found me swaddled and bawling where the tufty sea-grass meets the high tide line. Beside me, a basket lay full to the brim with yellow-white molluscs, still damp from the sea. My mother was nowhere to be seen, but she wouldn’t have been the first person caught unaware by the incoming tide, cut off and swept out by the waves.

I dream of her trying to get back to me, pale hair flying starkly against a backdrop of murky seaweed, wading through ever-deepening surf, pulled back by the forceful currents and disappearing from sight. Knowing this, I should be terribly afraid of the ocean – but I am not. I can’t bear to be away from it, and in its closeness, I also feel closer to her, even though I know she is gone.

On an island there is no escaping the sea, but my father tries to warn me off. He tells me, when I was very young, I was playing outside the cottage; one moment, I was settled with a toy in the bright, brisk weather, the next, I’d toddled down to the rock pools which dotted the shoreline. He looked up and saw me squatting by a salty puddle as a towering wave crashed over me. Pulled spluttering from the icy water, I’d been unaffected by the experience, but from then on he had been exceptionally careful to keep me from the sea, to prevent the same ill fate from befalling me as befell my mother.

He is a taciturn man, curling his tongue around his few words with a sailor’s burr. His placid grey eyes contrast with mine, which are dark green and quite unlike any I know – the colour of the oyster-weed which thrives on salty air, or of the ocean itself when winter sunlight penetrates it at the right angle. My childhood was solitary, with my father so often away on fishing trips. I’d watch his tiny sailboat skitter across the waves before bobbing away out of sight. Once he was gone, I would start doing the things he wouldn’t allow me to do, which I had promised that I wouldn’t. I started to swim.

The very first time, I was eleven years old and tall for my age. The yearning I’d felt all my life for the sea was stronger than ever – enough to cast aside niggling doubts and warnings. The late spring air was still sharp, flicking the wave tops into peaks. Ocean westerlies permeated my nostrils, fresh and slightly fishy, lingering on my lips in grains of salt which mingled with the slight tang of blood where they cracked in the sea-drenched air. But the tide was ebbing and I knew that there would be enough time before it turned and crept back up the beach, leaving me out of my depth. Barefoot and shivering, I faced the water and edged towards it, tiny stabs of anxiety jolting through my stomach. Lapping around my ankles, for a moment the cold water sent steely jolts right through me – but then the sensation began to change. A warmth was spreading from the tops of my toes and upwards, and it was my skin exposed to the fresh air that felt shivery. My instinct was to wade deeper, letting it envelop me. It didn’t feel like a threat or a danger. It felt like a homecoming.

Waves tugged at me, but I didn’t strain against them, I let them pull me to and fro in a gentle rhythmic motion. Emboldened, I pushed my feet off from the stony sea bed. Instinctively I knew to kick my legs and pull myself through the water with my hands, swimming further and further out, until the beach disappeared beyond the swell of the waves. I dived below, keeping my eyes open wide as the murky green water filtered past my cheeks, taking in the strange sea plants flapping in the dingy water.

Then something changed. I could sense it, shifting and churning in whirling eddies, the current suddenly stronger – much stronger than me. I pushed towards the surface, but the sea gripped onto me as if clawed hands had seized me and were dragging me deeper. Straining against it, I eventually broke free, breaching my head and gasping for oxygen. Seething storm clouds had all but blocked out the sun, and in the struggle, I had lost any sense of the direction of land. My eyes began to close involuntarily. Adrift, a lethargic weakness soaked into my limbs, and I imagined a new feeling of being gently carried along through the water. When I opened my eyes, I was almost at the beach and able to drag myself through the last stretch until I could pull myself onto the pebbles. I thought I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar shape moving in the sea, but the last light was seeping below the horizon, and I put it down to a trick of the shadows playing through the rain on the water’s surface.

Knowing that I had limited time to dry off before my father arrived home, I hurried back to the cottage and lit the fire. I was strangely unshaken, but more than that, it was like missing pieces of myself were slotting into place. I felt a little guilty then; I’d always assumed that those were gaps that only my dead mother could fill. Nevertheless, although I knew little about swimming, I suspected that my ability had been above average for a first attempt by an eleven-year-old child. Also, I was intrigued to know how I had returned to the beach; the sea was my guardian and incredibly, I couldn’t wait to return to her.

And so this has continued over the last few years.

Tonight, my father and I sit by the fire, clouds curdling beyond the glass. We’re about to go to bed when a noise pierces through the darkness, a howling scream, differentiated from the wailing wind, almost human. I go to the window and look out. It’s dark, but a bright moon reflects sharply off the rough tips of the waves, dashed about by the rising wind. Straining my eyes, I see something black bobbing beyond the shoreline. I squint, and as the shape comes into focus, I realise it’s a person. Unthinking, I rush outside. My father’s voice echoes, ‘Stop, it’s not safe!’ from somewhere behind me, before the sound is cut off by the merciless wind. I carry on.

The water is cold as I wade in. They aren’t at all far from the shore, and it doesn’t take long to paddle out. Closer now, I see that it’s a woman. I wonder if she’s dead, her long hair slick and black like sealskin, her skin completely pallid. Her eyes are closed, but she doesn’t have that vacant, absent look of a corpse. I haul her unconscious form back to the beach, the sea silently relinquishing its grasp on us. By moonlight, I notice a red stain blossoming from her side, and suspect that this is more the issue than the water, though I can’t begin to imagine what has happened to her.

My father has reached the beach, and he stares wordlessly down at us lying on the pebbles, his face as white as death.

‘We need to get her inside,’ I shout against the cruel song of the wind.

This seems to shock him into action – he bends down and lifts her up, carrying her back to the cottage, laying her on his bed without saying a word. I examine her wound; the cause of the injury quickly becomes apparent – I gingerly extract the long metal tip of a harpoon, the kind used for killing whales. Fortunately, it looks relatively superficial. I pack it with bandages to stem the bleeding

‘You could have died,’ my father says, monosyllabic as ever, while I towel dry the sleeping form on his bed. He says it factually, but mentally I defy him, as I’ve done for years.

He resumes his silence without mentioning my swimming ability, and I wonder if he suspects that this wasn’t my first time in the water. Glancing at him, I see that he isn’t looking at me; he’s staring at the woman, her sodden hair fanned out across the pillow, shiny like wet samphire. With a haunted look, he turns and leaves the room. The front door clunks as it shuts. I expect he’s angry with my risk-taking, in his quiet way, and has gone out to sleep on the boat.

I sit by the bed in a creaking wooden chair, and at some point, I doze. When I awaken, light is filtering gently through the curtains, betraying the weather’s lightening mood. My patient is sitting up in bed, sipping from a steaming mug, with my father sitting nearby, silently. Her eyes, now open, are the deepest green, like rock pools. We ask her nothing, allowing her to regain her strength. We give her fish stew, which she loves. I know she won’t be with us for long.

The days meld. Then, one morning, there she is, standing on the beach. I pull on my boots and make my way down to her, leaving my father sleeping. She’s looking out to sea, which reaches her toes on the outbreath and dissolves into her like she is fabricated from some submarine element.

‘Aren’t you going to say goodbye to him?’ I ask upon reaching her.

She shakes her head.

‘But why?’ I say. She doesn’t reply, staring at the waves. I know her, then. I’ve known her for a while, but it hovers tacitly between us, that unspoken understanding.

At length, she asks, ‘Don’t you feel it – the pull of the ocean?’

I do, I’d always known that yearning, and now, more than ever, I can feel it drawing me in. It’s part of me, of what I am, just as it’s part of her. But I think I knew that too, somewhere amongst all the stories.

But before I reply, she nods, understanding. The sea is only half of me, and the other half is stronger now, pulling me in the opposite direction, towards the cottage.

I turn and walk away from her, from the sea, and I know that behind me, she is also walking away, towards the sea; again, away from us.

My father is sitting inside, his eyes dull. ‘I thought you’d gone,’ he says upon seeing me.

‘Where would I go?’ I ask and light the stove, hang the kettle to boil. Outside the sea yawns and laps the beach in ceaseless motion.

Pantry Prose: Red by Andrew Williams

The bus pulled to a stop. She trudged off, shopping bag in one hand, pulling her scarlet hoodie closer to her against the cold. A faint smell of stale vomit and cheap cigarettes greeted her. She wrinkled her nose in disgust. This was not how she’d wanted to spend her Saturday, but there had been no arguing with Mum.

“You always loved visiting your grandmother, Jessica,” she’d said. “I don’t know why that should change now.”

Jessica! Only her mother and her teachers called her that. To everyone else she met, she was Red.

“Granny’s old and can’t get out much these days. I just need you to drop off some shopping for her and then you can do what you like. But it wouldn’t kill you to spend some time with her, you know.”

Mum hadn’t spent any time with Granny herself for at least a year. She was always too busy, always caught up with work. Always sending her daughter to the Darkwood Estates instead. Red wasn’t surprised. Granny wasn’t exactly all there these days; she was half deaf, and if you spent too long with her she’d be going through photo albums of baby pictures – some of Red, some of Mum, some of people she didn’t even know – as if she hadn’t seen them all a million times before. No, it wouldn’t kill her to spend time with Granny. Not unless she died of boredom.

But that wasn’t why Red didn’t want to go. It had never been a good neighbourhood. Even as a little girl, Red remembered gangs of youths and boarded-up shop windows. It was worse now. These days the only people you saw out in the daytime were either selling or doing drugs. Or both.

A pack of druggies were watching her as she got off the bus, wide eyed and twitchy. “What you staring at, you perverts?” she yelled. They didn’t seem to hear – or care. She walked past them towards the block of flats where Granny lived. They wouldn’t follow her. Well, probably not. Best not to hang around. She wondered what they actually saw in their chemically addled brains – if they saw her at all.

She ignored the security intercom. It hadn’t worked for months. Nor did the lock on the main door. She pushed the door open and headed inside, straight for the stairs. She never used the lift. It was old, and slow, and smelt of piss. She wasn’t planning on getting stuck in there.

The first floor flat was home to a foreign woman, one of those weird little countries that used to belong to Russia or something. She lived there with about sixteen children in just three or four rooms. At least one of the little brats was usually running about on the landing – but not today. She carried on up.

The second floor flat was home to the Axeman. At least, that’s what it said on his T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. She’d never asked his real name and didn’t care to. He wore a bushy, grey beard and some faded jeans, like he thought he was some sort of rock star. He stood in his doorway, watching her, fingers lightly caressing the neck of a battered, old guitar.

“Hey there, Red,” he drawled.

“Hey,” she replied, flatly. Just another pervert staring at her chest, though there was nothing there worth staring at, and wouldn’t be for a year or two yet.

“Wanna hear my latest song?” He strummed a few chords on his guitar.

“Not now,” she said. “I’m off to see Granny. I can’t stop.”

“You’re a nice girl,” he said. “Not many nice girls round here.” He strummed another chord.

Red ignored him and carried on up the stairs.

Granny’s flat was on the third floor. A tattered “welcome” mat sat outside, along with a small potted plant. Granny called it her garden. Despite all the efforts of the foul air, the occasional dog and Granny’s clumsy care, it still clung to life. Rather like Granny herself, thought Red.

As Red went to knock on the door, it swung inward. It was unlike Granny to leave her door open. Red suddenly felt sick. She carefully stepped inside the flat, placing the shopping bag inside the door as she went.

The flat was dark and cold, but that wasn’t unusual. She’d never known anyone as miserly as Granny. “Why waste all that money on central heating?” she’d say. “I can easily put on another jumper, and that costs nothing.”

Red shivered, not just from the cold. She hugged her hoodie tighter around her and headed through to the bedroom.

“Granny?”

The bedroom was in darkness. Feeble, pastel curtains blocked out most of the daylight, dull and grey, but still let in enough light to make out the furniture. Most of the bedroom was taken up by a double bed, covered in pillows and cushions and enough blankets to smother an army. Amongst the furnishings, Red could dimly make out a frail figure.

“Granny, it’s me. I’ve brought you some shopping.”

“Thank you, dear.” The voice was raspy and choked, not at all like Red remembered it.

Granny sounded really ill.

“Granny, are you all right?”

“Come closer, dear,” Granny replied.

Red took a step towards the bed. All she could make out were Granny’s eyes, wide and bloodshot.

“What red eyes you have, Granny,” she said. “Have you been at the Pernod again?”

She took another step forward. Granny reached out a hand, snatched at her. Red screamed as the hand grasped her around the wrist, a grip far tighter than an old woman should have.

“Those are some sodding great big hands you’ve got,” Red yelled, trying to pull away.

The figure climbed out of bed to follow her. He was scrawny and filthy, his clothes stained and tattered, and he smelt very bad. He was gibbering nonsense that she couldn’t make out as he came for her. Red fought to escape from his grip; he was too strong, pulling her closer.

“Pretty,” he cooed, his face close to hers, revealing a rapidly disappearing set of blackened, rotting teeth. They reminded Red of the posters in her school, warning them about drugs. “This is what meth does to you!” they had exclaimed.

“What disgusting breath you have,” she gasped.

His other hand grabbed her around the throat.

The posters at school hadn’t mentioned meth turning you into a deranged psychopath. Right now, Red felt that was its most important feature.

She clutched at the hand around her neck as the meth-head pulled her back towards the bed. She kicked out in terror. He didn’t seem to notice her feet hitting him. She tried to scream again, but the grip around her throat was too tight.

She felt herself thrown onto the bed, heard his wheezing laughter. Her vision was growing dark, and her lungs were on fire. Then, suddenly, there was a loud crash. The hand loosened around her throat and the wheezing stopped. There was a thudding sound as a body hit the carpet.

Red fought herself upright, coughing as she fought for air. She looked down at the creep sprawled on the floor, blood seeping from his head.

“Are you okay?”

Red looked up. The Axeman stood over her, still holding the remains of his guitar in one hand.

The police came and took statements. An ambulance came for the meth-head. Red sat numbly while it all went on. The Axeman, whose name was Dave, offered to look after her until her mother came to pick her up.

Granny was fine. She’d spent the last hour visiting the foreign woman on the first floor, cooing over sixteen sets of baby photos. She didn’t understand a word the foreign woman said, but she couldn’t hear her properly either, and the two women had simply talked to each other in their own languages without listening to a word the other was saying. Granny said it was the best conversation she’d had in years.

Mum was in a panic. She promised that she’d never send Red to this hellhole on her own again and, after checking that Granny was safely back home and the flat secure, they drove back to civilisation.

Mum forgot all about her promise, of course, the next time work caught up with her and Granny needed some shopping. Red didn’t argue. She just smiled as she took the carrier bag. It would be nice to see Granny again.

Besides, she didn’t need to worry. She’d be perfectly safe.

She stepped off the bus, smiling at the druggies as they watched her walk across to the flats. They wouldn’t meet her gaze. She watched them slink off with their tails between their legs.

Word had got round. The Axeman would look after her.

You don’t mess with Red when she’s in the ’hood.

 

Pantry Prose: Fine Dining by Andrew Williams

“Why, look at you! I could just eat you up!”

The young boy beamed, revealing a set of crooked teeth.

“What’s your name, cutie?”

“Timmy.”

“Hello, Timmy. I’m Carol.”

She sighed. Timmy was the cute, little boy she’d always dreamed of mothering. She’d offer to take him home right now, but there was no way Malcolm would stand for it. She couldn’t even talk him into coming to the orphanage tonight. Adoption? He’d kicked up a fuss at the cat shelter. Malcolm was happy with his columns of numbers and didn’t want anything messing them up.

What was she doing here? All these poor children… it had felt like the Right Thing To Do, a chance for her to Make A Difference. All the wealthy people were helping the poor these days, and if she wanted to move up the social ladder she needed to show her charitable side. Not that Carol had much charity to offer. Malcolm’s salary wasn’t in the same league as these wealthy benefactors, and her efforts to dress the part had left quite a dent in their credit cards. She was still hiding the monthly statements from him.

“Why, hello darling!”

Carol turned to find an old woman heading her way. Despite her small frame, now somewhat withered and bent, she powered through the other guests with the unstoppable force of a juggernaut. Younger, more beautiful ladies gave way before her. Tall, powerful men moved aside to avoid crossing her path.

“I heard you talking to that young boy.”

Carol’s eyes swept over the woman’s dress, a sleek affair that somehow accentuated curves where the curves themselves had long ago disappeared, and which Carol suspected cost more than her own house. She’d spent what she’d considered a small fortune on her own dress, but she was dressed in rags in comparison. And there was something familiar about the old woman, something that Carol couldn’t quite put her finger on.

“I… I was only…”

“It’s all right, dear. I know what you were doing. And I feel the same way, believe me. Did you say your name was Carol?”

The woman put a kindly arm around Carol’s waist – she couldn’t quite reach her shoulder – and led her through the orphanage.

“Y-Yes,” she stammered.

“A lovely name.” The old woman smiled, a faraway look in her eyes. “One of the little girls I raised a few years back was a Carol. She was so sweet… I’m Felicity, dear.”

Felicity? Carol thought back and remembered a magazine article from a couple of months ago. Of course! Felicity Cardwell! One of the wealthiest women in the country… and famous for her charity work. And something else, something that she couldn’t quite recall…

Oh well. There were always rumours about the fabulously wealthy. People could be so jealous.

“It’s such a shame,” Felicity said, as they walked through the crowds. “All these poor, unwanted children. All going to be shipped out of here, moved to other institutions, just because no-one has any use for them. Such a waste.”

“Surely all these people… this is a charity fundraiser, isn’t it…?”

Felicity smiled sadly. “It won’t work, I’m afraid, my dear. The orphanage is closing its doors for the last time, and the local government has already decided to demolish it. I believe Mr Tesco is hoping to build one of his ghastly supermarkets here.”

Carol paused, calculating just how much sympathy to put into her voice. She wanted to sound caring, but retain that aloofness that rich people were supposed to have. “Oh, those poor children…”

Felicity didn’t seem to notice. “Well, my friends and I have plans. Would you care to join us, Carol my dear? I’m sure we’ll get on famously.”

“O-Of course!” Carol could barely speak with excitement. Join Felicity Cardwell! Even dour-faced Malcolm couldn’t moan about that. Thirty years of working at the bank had done nothing for his social mobility, and now here she was, hobnobbing with the nobs!

A hush fell over the crowd as the host of tonight’s event spoke up.

“Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please. I am delighted to present tonight’s special guest… Lady Felicity Cardwell.”

Carol dumbly joined in the applause as her new friend made her slow but stately walk to the speaker’s podium. Despite her small size, she seemed to fill the room.

“My dear friends,” she began, “thank you all for coming. As you all know, tonight the local council has rejected the final proposals for the continuation of the Green Hill Orphanage. Already they are making plans to parcel off the children to nearby institutions – mere livestock to balance against their books.”

Carol wanted to let a single tear fall down one cheek at this point, but the best she could manage was to make her eyes water a bit. She wished she’d had more time to practice.

“Since they won’t let us save the orphanage, I have another proposal – we fund our own home for these children, and save them instead. I have the perfect place for them, and all I need is your support. With our combined influence, we can ensure these children all have the opportunity to remain healthy and well fed.”

There was a round of applause, and Felicity stepped down.

“Felicity,” Carol said. “I loved what you said, and I really want to be a part of this… it’s just, Malcolm and I don’t really have the money to…”

“Hush, dear. It’s quite all right. I’m just glad you came along tonight.” Felicity winked. “After all, I think we have a lot in common. Let all these good people worry about the money. Your company is all I need.”

“Th-thank you, Felicity…”

“Not at all, Carol my dear! Listen, would you be available next month, say, the twelfth? I have no doubt that our little event tonight will be a rousing success, and I’d like you and your husband to join me at our celebration dinner.”

“Well, I don’t know… Malcolm isn’t keen on these social events…”

“Just you, then. I quite understand if you can’t make it.”

“No, I’ll be there.” Carol smiled. There was no way in Hell she was going to miss an opportunity like this. Dining with the rich and powerful!

When the twelfth came around, Malcolm declared he was unavailable – he had to stay late at the bank, etc. etc. Carol knew it was all an excuse. Well, to Hell with him. She was secretly glad to go alone – the new dress she’d bought was twice the price of the last one and had maxed out two credit cards in one go. Malcolm would be frothing at the mouth when he found out. But it didn’t matter right now.

News of the orphanage sale had filled the press. Felicity was praised to the heavens for her efforts with the children, while the local council’s only comment was something bland and official about funding reductions. She was the darling of the press (and not for the first time). And yet Carol still had a vague recollection of some scandal, years ago. Something to do with her husband’s death?

The taxi dropped her off outside the address Felicity had given her. A large house, hidden behind heavy, steel gates, looked imposing against the setting sun. But she pressed a button, announced herself over the intercom, and the gates rolled aside to let her in.

Once she arrived at the house itself, she was surprised to find it filled with children as well as the guests. She recognised many of the faces from the orphanage event amongst both the children and the adults.

“Darling! You made it!”

Carol turned to see Felicity sailing her stately way across the room, the crowds parting at her bows as she approached.

“There are so many children here,” Carol remarked.

“Yes! All orphans,” Felicity replied. “Some of them you might remember from our last event. They closed that orphanage down, I’m afraid, but we pulled some strings and arranged for them all to come here. Isn’t it marvellous?”

Just then, Carol spotted a familiar crooked-toothed smile amongst the children.

“Timmy!” she cried.

Timmy looked up at her, still beaming.

“I think you’re my favourite,” she added.

Timmy laughed and ran off.

“Yes, I see what you mean,” smiled Felicity. “I might have chosen him myself, except I prefer girls. Shall we go and mingle? Dinner won’t be for a few hours yet, I’m afraid. Do go on ahead, my dear. I just need to have a word with the chef.”

Carol wandered through the crowd, a little in awe of the company. Amongst them she recognised more than a few celebrities, a few Hollywood actors, a couple of high-profile businessmen, even a few politicians. Most of them ignored her; some regarded her coolly, but didn’t deign to talk to her. For all her efforts to be a social climber, Carol had never felt so out of her depth. She sipped at a cocktail, even the waiters slow to serve her, and wondered what she was doing here. Even the playful children seemed to have abandoned her.

Perhaps Malcolm had been right all along. They should just be content with their lot rather than dreaming of better things. He was just a branch manager, after all, not the chairman of Lloyds. And she was just a housewife.

“My dear, are you all right?”

Carol looked up from her melancholy to find Felicity at her arm.

“Come along, dear. It’s nearly time for dinner. Shall we sit down?”

The smell of fine dining soon had Carol feeling much better. Two enormous dining tables stretched along the enormous room and she took a seat at the first of these beside Felicity. An array of cutlery gave her a brief moment of panic, but she’d studied several books on etiquette and she knew the rules. Start from the outside, that was the way.

The first course was a rich, dark soup. It was quite unlike anything Carol had ever tasted, yet somehow familiar, and she considered asking Felicity what it was – but no. There was no sense in showing off her lack of culture. Instead, she picked up what she hoped was the right spoon and began to eat, blowing on each spoonful just as the man opposite her was doing.

But it was hard to focus on the soup. That half-remembered scandal Felicity was supposed to be involved in still nagged at her memory. Something about Sir Cardwell, and the mystery surrounding his death all those years ago…

Red wine was served, and plenty of it. Carol drank a glass down in one, if only to steady her nerves, but resolved to take it easy after that. There was no sense in getting drunk and making an even bigger fool of herself.

“Ah, the main course!” Felicity beamed. The waiters began bringing out plates – each one giving pride of place to an enormous, rare steak, garnished with a small quantity of artfully placed vegetables.

“Eat up, my dear!” grinned Felicity. “This is what we’re all here for, after all!”

The guests around the table rapidly stopped their conversation, eagerly digging into the meat and gulping it down, their faces a mix of carnal desire and exquisite, rapturous pleasure. Carol cut a small piece from the end of her steak, gently chewing and savouring the flavour. It was quite unlike any steak she’d eaten before, yet tender and cooked to perfection.

As the empty plates were taken away and the desserts prepared, she turned to Felicity. “That was a wonderful meal,” she said. “Where are all the children? Do they eat this well, too?”

Felicity eyed her strangely. “The children are well fed, if that’s what you mean,” she replied. “We don’t give them any of that processed rubbish they got in the orphanage.”

Carol sensed she’d committed a faux pas, and changed the subject. “I think it’s wonderful that you provide a home to all those children,” she said. “There are so many unwanted children out there.”

“Indeed,” mused Felicity. “We do all we can to bring them in. I’m amazed that more of high society doesn’t do what we do. Such a shame to let them all go to waste.”

Carol nodded.

“Listen, my dear. We’re heading for another orphanage next month in Yorkshire – they have so many children there, and we always have room for more. Would you care to join us?”

“I’d love to,” Carol replied.

“If only my late husband had been as keen as you are, my dear. The tough old goat never did agree with me, even after he was dead. Ha!”

Of course, some of the more sensationalist rumours about Sir Cardwell’s death had been a little… macabre. But those were just silly rumours! No-one actually believed it could be true!

Carol looked around. Where were all the children? A horrible thought occurred to her.

“Where’s Timmy?” she asked.

Felicity smiled but said nothing.

Carol’s eyes widened, and she fell back against the wall. No! It couldn’t be true!

She slid down the wall and began to sob.

Felicity looked down at her. “My dear,” the old woman smiled, “I can’t let you go home like that. Let’s get you cleaned up – I think you should stay for supper…”

 

Pantry Prose: Eat At The Weather! You Chin-Tie Fanfold Rainhood Squadron Member You! by Lavinia Murray

I’ve got spoons in my drawers like everyone else, but their unusual shape is because they’re a 1/24 scale rendition of my pelvis on a stem — that’s dessert spoons — and a 1/12 scale rendition of the top of my skull — teaspoons. My knives are all cambered exactly like my ribs. Fun at mealtimes guaranteed and what a talking point when guests struggle to control what covers their plates and I charge them for the dry cleaning they’ve necessitated! Oh yes, my home is decked with ad hoc mock marvels. I’ve got a packet of ‘Instant Iceberg’ purchased from my local outdoor pursuits shop, plus an ice cornice and crevasse in my freezer, part of the Global Glaciers Collection which me and my buds play swapsies with down at the ice rink or the local’s market meatsafe. We enjoy exchanging geological features, especially these intermediary sorts that are really solidified weather. Talking of which, we intend to bring out a range of Weather On A Stick popsicles so whatever it’s doing in the wide yonder, you get to carry your own temp and meteorological preference around with you. Hot irradiated lollies with a UV range equal to that of a 3 day heel-to-toe trek along the Equator, sticky lollies with a humidity level found only in former cotton-weaving towns, established mildew blooms and rainforests, and gum-jamming spit-robbing droughtpop with ash-like dip and dehydrated liquorices dipperstick. Drippy drizzle and dogspot dropping and dripdrip strangely regulated rain that wobbles just before it lands lollies, the wrapper doubling as chin-tie, fanfold rainhoods. And grey lollies, part household dustbunny, office airscrape, commuter fug trail and extract of exhaust puther and after-lunch breath for that mid-city mid-season midday weathermug.

I’m going to loose my Instant Avalanche on a friend this afternoon. I have my little searcher’s probe ready to jab at the slab and locate her — as have my fifteen friends — so it’s hide and seek — and she’ll be supplied with a little hot-weather lolly which she can use to tunnel through and shift her location if she doesn’t want to be found — this melt-then-refreeze strengthens the tunnel structure so we may not be able to get her out. If that’s the case then it’s heigh ho, we’ve created our seventh snow queen in a row.

 

Pantry Prose: Super Moon by Matthew Waldron

A full moon tonight. I anticipate a no-show; the view occluded by coagulated, thick porridge cloud. But when I open my front door to venture outside and walk toward the dark, wet-rimmed basin of meadows, in the curl of neighbourhood cul-de-sac, between roofs of two houses, a knocked over cup of cappuccino spills into the sky. Moon, a bright foamy incidental drop floats in slow creamy swirls of liquid darkness.

In this fluid world an image rises: a beautiful young woman in a train carriage. I hadn`t noticed that she was there earlier, one of several corner-of-the-eye moving shadows – passengers choosing seats. But she must have been, ever since our departure from the station. So, here I am returning from an always unnerving ‘bathroom visit on a train’ experience: the automatic sliding door; an unwanted embrace; doubt and fear of whether the door will lock, unlock; the motion of the train; to sit or stand? Rivulets of soapy water and piss curl, writhe, overlap like a coiled slumber-disturbed nest of snakes. Mucky shoe prints merge, begin to lift away, become an historic universal sole above once sparkly white floor. Now, I’m walking unsteadily between rows of seats which seem to wobble like loose teeth in a big, open-mouthed yawn, smile. The train speeds, judders and jolts; its carriage swings gently from side-to-side like a pregnant cat’s belly.

There she is. Cinnamon sprinkled onto long, molasses hair; her complexion, oiled olive wood; enough of a gentle smile to intimate friendliness; perfect, lipstick-less lips. Her dark, chocolate eyes appear to wait, anticipate, hold mine. Is she looking at me? I turn around. There must be a much younger, more attractive person behind me. The cliché of my action realised, my mind turns around too. She is looking at me. My heart does a double-kick drum beat; fever glows behind my ear lobes; heat prickles the few hairs on my chest with a light sweat. I do nothing.

Arriving at my home town station, I get up from my seat. The young woman, still sitting two rows away from me, initially a post-daydream background blur, now frosted glass, now crystalline, HD-ready – beautiful. No. Stop there. No. She’s at least twenty years younger than me; that makes me old. Old enough to be… no, stop there too. Deeper thought will only exacerbate existentialist woes; taking a walk on an almost-set concrete path, then a surprise splash of reality will arrive like an ice-cold drink thrown in your face. I’ll carry the moment home and nurture it for a while, this, our unborn child. Wait. There she is again, a soft form elegantly positioned on one of the foyer’s battleship grey and blood-red, metal seats. With that same look she turns around to follow me toward the exit, then along a length of hand-smeared, fag stub-stabbed, rain-beaded glass façade.

Look at me. Look at me, you idiot. Come on, Yusef. Yeah, I clocked the ‘Hello my name is: badge’. I bet wearing it makes you feel that weird mix-up of embarrassment and pride, right? I’m not stalking you; I’m waiting here for my taxi to arrive. It’s cold outside; it’s cold enough in here. This seat’s freezing, and those oh-so-sensitive automatic doors opening and shutting don`t help. The invisible eye of the sensor’s acting like a kid who’s discovered what curtains do for the first time. Why are they opening now? Surely it can’t be triggered by a few leaves blowing across the taxi bay? Okay, okay, I said I was waiting for a taxi, right? Well, I’m actually waiting for my dad to pick me up, okay? But, if I told you that, it would just make you think I’m a young, naïve girl, wouldn’t it? Hey, I’m young, but I’m old enough for you. Yeah, I live with my currently happily divided parents; but hey, economic necessity and all that, post-uni, between jobs, part-time study to pay for. I’ll get my own place eventually.  Everything’s cool, right?

Look at you, staring at the moon as the clouds budge out of the way for a millisecond; simultaneously trying to forget me, and dwelling on the moment in that little melancholy way of yours. Poetic guy, hey? Yeah, me too, I’m a poetic girl. You see? I know you, because you’re like me.  

You probably think that I’m too young, right? I’m not stupid, blah, blah, blah… ‘age difference’, ‘what would our families think’, et cetera, et cetera. This has nothing to do with our families; this is about us. Don’t you get it? I know you feel the same as I do. Look, there’s an obvious connect here, not just a dodgem car bump of chemical-hormonal reaction. We’ve seen some of each other, you know? Yeah, however brief, due to your lack of eye-to-eye commitment, shyness, concern about age. Hah, age concern, right?! No, we’ve seen character, intellect, warmth; we’ve seen the soul. Availability is key, sure thing. Listen: I wanna yin-yang with you, you handsome lanky lunk of self-denial; you errant, miscellaneous, beautiful man. I can tell you’re single; single guys are always easier to read than single girls. You look so ‘please, Mummy, I’m lost’; your blushes and awkwardness dead giveaways. The fact is you’re free. It takes two to tangle, to tryst. Try it. Take a risk; be brave, honey.

Late autumn, early winter. I arrive at an intersection, of sorts, where wealth meets, well, dirt-poor, to put it frankly, if a little insensitively. Like most borderlines – invisible, yet a difference always tangible. I watch three guys shuffle by, stooped like wind-blown garden canes. Hands are stuffed into pockets, just a glimpse of pinked white haloes, the nakedness of their wrists. Destination performed in silent mutual agreement. These guys wear heavy woollen coats, the colour of coal; well-worn coats where the wool has bobbled, fuzzy outlines appear on shoulder seams and arms, reveal vague chase-me traces of land on horizons. I notice a star or satellite appear in the slowly clearing sky like a splinter of glass flying away from a bottle neck break.  

There’s an unreachable heart-shaped red apple at the top of a solitary tree in Valentine Road. One isolated fruit in upper, wiry untamed branches; thin tangles like desperate fatigued arms, webs of veins and arteries. No intermittent touch of care to nurture and create a plentiful yield of sweetness and strength for this tree.  

Another Christmas due, and I know it’ll appear all too jack-in-a-box soon. Families in my neighbourhood have already prettified windows with garlands and slow-pulse LED snowflake and icicle lights; uncertain, hesitant shifts of colour like a reader looking for the right page. I feel so alone. Why? My parents are with me, or rather, I am with them. I have friends, so why do glimpses of other people’s lives like the warm, tantalising glows from strangers’ living rooms with apparently happy families inside make me feel so sad? It is theatre I’m watching, isn’t it? Are these families content all the time? Is all life theatre?  

A short walk from my parent’s house, across a gravel drive and around the block, feels like a long, long ramble – in my mind at least. That apple tree hasn’t made me feel any less lonely. There it stands, neglected, yet it still bears fruit. I should Flickr and Facebook a pic of that one at the top. It’s large; a proper burst of blood red. I’ve got a stupid idea in my head that if I were tall enough to reach up and twist it free, all of my dreams would come true. Hah! What a big, stupid kid I am. I can hear someone walking nearby through the leaf-covered path. The sounds are all scrunches like crushed crisp packets and broken biscuits. Come on, Mara, girl, pull your leggings up, get your act together, sharpen your senses, be sweet now.

The shallow skid of pond is semi-iced; parchment paper patterned with greasy shadows of grass and leaves. Nearby, a working men’s club with windows of sheet metal and padlocked doors; a sign; black, rusted twelve-spoke mine wheel; the clock that tells you nothing, tells you everything; a simple profile of miners, angular in shadow, spade-dig at a forty-five degree bank of coal, forever digging the now, or the past. I walk past it towards what the club folks call Adam’s Tree. I see a familiar face, and my own Adam’s Apple bobs involuntarily in an awkward gulp which drowns my breath. An apple at the top of the tree remains firm, intact, red as blood. A few other fruits, sparse, decay on lower branches, moistened, rain-darkened, colour of burnt toast. God, Yusef, stop being such a drag-heels mope-along, man.

If I reach out to it, do I reach out to you? Carol song in the distance wraps around me, forms a halo of melody and nostalgia, tremulous, tentative: spider on her silken web. I feel so not alone – Merry Christmas.

‘Weren’t you (on the train earlier),’ we both begin a start-up stutter, knowing that we know the answer already. So what happens now, a Happy New Year?

Pantry Prose: Hire Hari by Robyn Cain

indian

The Auntie from India knew nothing about telephone etiquette. Whoever picked up, she kick-started a fast spiel like a child who’d had a full day at the fun fair.

‘Hellooo. All okay? So hot here. . .’ Information on her various religious excursions to temples followed by social and local news moved quickly to problematic. ‘…and the thief solicitor, he’s demanding more money. I paid him that ten lukh Rupees we talked about. I reminded him we agreed the figures before he took on the case but now he is asking for more – ’

‘Auntie.’ I finally got a word in. ‘I’ll get Mum for you.’ Taking the instrument I tried handing it to Mum who was chopping the onions, mouthing Auntie.

‘Put it on loudspeaker.’ I noticed Mum grimace and knew it was because her sister regurgitates the same verbal diarrhoea. Fortunately, Mum was not timid at interjecting. ‘I told you not to pay up front.’

‘But…he came recommended,’ Auntie said defensively.

‘Probably bribed people to say it. Don’t pay the chura anymore. Solicitor indeed!’

‘But…he can’t carry on working the court case if I don’t pay another five hundred Rupees. At least that’s what he says.’

Mum cleared her throat, and leaned forward confrontationally. ‘They are like blood suckers taking everything from the poor people.’ She sighed. ‘Tell him a bit now and more when the case is finished.

‘Sister, can you transfer more money?’

‘Why do you want more when there’s still plenty in the account?’ Mum snapped.

‘Juswant…took all…he’s emptied the bank account.’

‘You gave him our pass codes? Why?’ A long cringe-making pause. ‘Why’s your son done that?’

Another slice of silence, then Mum let forth a stream of words that slapped whip-like against the air. All of a sudden it was difficult for me to breathe. A few more moments and my ears would start buzzing. Hearing Dad at the front door it was as though he’d brought fresh air with him, and I breathed again. And then wished I hadn’t. He was waving a wafer-thin airmail letter.

My sister and I are both Daddies’ girls. He is the cool moon to Mum’s hot sun, and, to tap into a cliché, our closeness is envied by all because we eat, sleep, drink and watch everything together. His startling explosive swearing shocked Mum into ending her conversation. Looking from him to Mum who’d paled, I decided it was best to remain quiet.

‘This is blackmail.’ The letter sounded like a rustling leaf in late Autumn as he scrunched it. ‘I’d rather pay someone else than be related to their kind. Marriage? What, because I have two daughters? Never!’ He continued expostulating as Mum successfully prised his hand open, retrieving the paper with its neat, densely packed lines formed by the Hindi lettering. ‘I don’t want her, or-or her worthless son, or his loutish, any-any of his associates anywhere near my family. How dare…they’re snakes. You can’t trust any of them there…and they want to come here!’

*

I helped with dinner. Multi-tasking, Mum alternated between giving me instructions and telling Dad the latest news from family and friends.

‘It’s a good family. Sorting out a marriage could help take the pressure off all of us. The engagement can be soon,’ Mum said.

‘Someone getting married?’ Shyna had descended to take a mini break from revising for her History exam.

‘Yes,’ Mum said evasively. ‘Add half a teaspoon of garam masala. And butter the roti. Hurry, they’re getting cold.’

‘If we’re going, can I wear a mustard-coloured lehenga? And get my hair straightened?’ I asked.

‘No more questions!’ Deftly flipping and browning the final roti over the gas flames, she added it to the pile.

Betair we’ll tell you when you need to know.’ Dad’s lips twisted familiarly in a wry smile, softening Mum’s impatient glare at me. Had she then stormed out he’d have given the usual unnecessary explanation: ‘Your mum is bravely keeping sane for all her family.’ Or: ‘You know she only raises her voice when she’s right and we’re wrong.’ Shyna and I can’t wait for the time when she’s wrong. The one good thing to come out of recent events was bearable captive family time after our evening meals; engrossed in their issues, Mum and Dad nagged us less.

‘Why do you believe everything she tells you? Drug dealers? That’s what happens when you spoil your children. What does she want us to do? We can’t stop him. They are not my responsibility!’ Dad gulped down half his lager and, taking the remote control off me, started flicking through the television channels.

‘They could kill him…’ Mum pointed out.

Dad scratched his bristly chin thoughtfully. ‘That’s easy over there. I hear it’s less than five hundred pounds nowadays. Stabbings used to be popular but now tablets are more popular.’

‘Oh, that’s all right then,’ Mum said sarcastically.

Mum got her way and another money order was sent to Auntie. That was months prior to sorting visas, legal papers and booking tickets to India.

Thankfully the great day of departure arrived. While we stuffed ourselves inside it, the usual amount of labelled luggage was loaded into the taxi’s boot by the driver. For once, the train was packed. Standing close, Shyna and I sent coded texts to one another and had nothing to complain about at the journey’s end.

After Mum’s luggage covered the short distance between being tagged and put on the conveyor to disappearing through the plastic flaps, we accompanied her to be frisked by security. As a female uniformed officer was patting down Mum’s salwar-clad outside leg and up the inside, she beamed back at us and said very loudly, ‘My plan will get rid of them for good.’

Thankfully it was in Punjabi otherwise there could have been a number of deductions that the airport authorities would have made – some good, some bad. And of course she may never have got to board her flight.

Startled, we looked at Dad. ‘What plan? Dad, what’s Mum talking about?’ I asked.

‘You’ll find out when your mum gets back,’ he replied and added, ‘What are my lovely girls going to cook for their old dad tonight? Only joking. How do you say, you know, when the cat is away…?’

Either side of him, we hooked an arm through his and urged him along. ‘While the cat’s away the mice will play,’ Shyna said.

‘A-ha. Tonight is special time off so we get a takeaway,’ he said. ‘And we don’t tell your mum.’

*

Our welcoming her back in Britain again was double-edged. We’d enjoyed Dad’s no rules but we’d missed Mum’s strictness. Her cases by the wall looking like open-mouthed gargoyles, we sat together listening to Mum, and it was like the three weeks without her had never been.

‘Juswant’s really in trouble. He’s got in with the drugs cartel people from the next town. I had many long talks with the family. Everybody had ideas. Bring Juswant here. Or to another of our family in America or Canada. Or marry him off so he becomes a man. Anyway, it’s going to be difficult but we can sort it all. Shyna, pass me my bag.’ A quick rummage and Mum handed an envelope to Dad. His can of lager mid-way to his lips, never made it as she took it off him.

‘What’s this?’ Perusing it, he burst out laughing. ‘Hari Hound?’

‘Are we getting a dog?’ I asked excitedly. I had been expecting one every Christmas just like in the adverts on television.

Dad pursed his lips as he scrutinised the paper without his glasses. ‘Hm. For all your life’s complicated needs, there’s Hari the Hound here to help. Need help to find your other half? Missing information? No job too small or big. Just like bloodhounds, we sniff out the problem and get any job you need doing, done. Lots of needs in that. What, because they need it?’

‘Oh, does that mean we’re not getting a dog then?’ I asked but was completely ignored.

Dad asked, ‘And what’s he going to do? You trust all this…this Hari stuff?’

‘My gut said so. Dad went to Ludhiana with me specially to check them out, and met Hari. He thought the trip worth doing.’ Mum sounded self-satisfied.

It was Shyna that dropped the bombshell the next evening. Obeying parental orders I went to fetch her. Taking the stairs two at a time my rushed entry to her room was foiled. The door was locked.

‘Shyna, what you doing?’ I pressed down on the handle and pushed but nothing budged. She never missed her favourite television soap. Hunkering down to peer through the keyhole, I just about made out her form on the bed. Not a good sign for someone as exuberant as her. Standing up and tapping lightly, I called, ‘It’s me.’ All the locks in the house were well oiled so I barely heard it turn. She let me in but returned to her previous position. ‘You okay?’

‘I’m being married off.’

‘You got to be kidding. And you’re not old enough. You’re not, are you? And they can’t really make you…can they?’ Her immediate thump on the pillow with balled fists spoke for her.

She snorted. ‘Legal age is sixteen, and I’m nearly that, and in two years you’ll be too and we’ll find out then, won’t we!’

What a horrible thought. ‘But…how do you know…I mean, when did they tell you, ’cause I’ve been around the whole time and…’ I didn’t want to believe it.

Undoing her plait, she scraped back her hair and started re-doing it tighter than necessary. ‘They don’t need to tell us, do they…anyway, I heard Mum onto one of her friends and then she and Dad were arguing about it. That’s her big plan, remember? You know what Mum’s like, she’ll make Dad do what she wants.’

‘He doesn’t always give in.’ It sounded weak even to me. ‘At least not every time.’ With anything parent-related, Shyna and I were usually thinking on the same rung of the ladder. Mum could be evasive and talk with double-tongue, keeping everything open to conjecture. Dispiritedly slipping out of my pink rabbit-headed slippers, I joined her and sat lotus style.

‘She was saying, Mum that is, that she had heard good things about “the boy”.  Makes sense now why Dad didn’t go with her to India. He stayed behind to spy on us.’ There was a catch in her voice. She rubbed at the point on her throat where it hurts if you stop yourself from crying. I always did the same.

‘We’ll have to get Dad on our side. Then they can’t make us do anything we don’t want to do.’

Shyna’s look was disparaging. ‘It’s nothing to do with “they”. You’ve been wanting a dog and have you got one? No, because Mum doesn’t want all that mess and cleaning. She’s the boss. I told you I thought they were up to something, didn’t I? And now the big day’s here. That’s probably why Auntie’s visiting.’ She twisted her lips exactly like Dad did, her voice bitter. ‘For my wedding.’ Pulling at my ponytail, she thrust it away forcefully stinging my skin. ‘Get it?’

I nodded and rubbed my cheek. ‘And she’s bringing – ’

‘Her son and a couple of his friends here,’ she completed for me. ‘I haven’t got much time. Wouldn’t mind but Dad doesn’t even like any of them. It’s all Mum’s fault.’

I didn’t understand what she was saying but I felt the dread move along my legs. My feet had already gone numb. ‘I don’t think Dad will let it happen. Besides, don’t they come here and you’ve got to be married there? Not the other way around.’

‘Doesn’t matter. They’ll make me. How can I embarrass them and say no? I think the best thing is to pretend to be sick tonight. And in the morning they can’t make me go to the airport with them. Then I’ll pack and stuff.’ All of sudden energised, she sat up with alacrity. ‘We know Mum puts her cash in the old toffee tin. You go get that while she’s watching television and I’ll check online.’ She took a noisy breath. ‘There’s bound to be places for vulnerable girls. Plus, we’re Asian. Look, go back downstairs. Tell them I’m not feeling great. Tell them I…I’ve just been sick in the toilet. Just copy me in the morning, okay?’

‘I can’t take her…it’s Mum’s money and it’s stealing.’

‘If you don’t we’re going to starve. You want to die? We aren’t going to find jobs straight away, are we? Take just a bit then so she won’t notice, eh? Look, I’m thinking on my feet here.’

I was about to tiptoe into Mum and Dad’s room, when Mum summoned us. Shyna motioned for me to go down while she hurried into the bathroom, locked the door and started coughing.

‘Where’s Shyna?’ Mum asked.

‘In the bathroom. I think she’s not well. Feeling sick she said to say.’ Whenever Mum looked at me I couldn’t do untruths. Mum passed me on the stairs to check for herself.

I don’t know how Shyna passed the lying-to-Mum test but she was believed. It’s a pity because as well as Eastenders she ended up missing out on her favourite dinner too. With the visitors from India coming, Mum had prepped loads. In addition to the saag, she’d made spicy lamb meatballs, and instead of roti to go with them, she did something unhealthy – puris. Dad and I made sure they didn’t go to waste. I even beat him by eating three fresh green chillies to his one with my dhal. It was worth it because he gave me five pounds.

As the evening wore on, my stomach started churning and I just couldn’t get myself to look at Mum and Dad. All I could think of was how much I’d miss them. When everything was cleared away and I told Shyna about Mum making a feast, she just laughed and said I wouldn’t understand even if she told me and then said, ‘It’s like the ritual of the last supper. I’m the sacrificial lamb.’

I had numerous suggestions ready to leap off my tongue, the prime-most one being telling Mum and Dad everything. In the morning, a very happy-looking Mum forced a terrible-looking Shyna to eat some dry toast. Acting like a martyr, Shyna nibbled and swallowed slowly but did whisper, ‘I’m starving,’ as well as opportunistically grabbing quick bites of mine whenever Mum had her back to us.

‘Girls, hurry up. We’re walking to the station and what with them working on our line, we can’t afford to miss our train.’ Dad was already wearing his coat.

‘But, Dad, I don’t feel – ’

‘Coat, Shyna!’ Mum interrupted with the voice, and Shyna was frozen. I followed suit hurriedly.

Safely ensconced and speeding towards Shyna’s doom and gloom future, I couldn’t help noticing the distorting effect of Mum’s face reflected off the carriage window; with the slightest of movement her expression was Machiavellian, one minute angelic the next devilish. I nudged Shyna, drawing her attention to it. She nodded obliquely.

As if she knew, Mum’s lips stretched a litter farther, deepening the creases either side of her lips. Some smiles were like laughter you couldn’t help mirroring. Our mum’s were as rare as the opportunity to lick a bar of gold.

‘You okay?’ Mum asked Shyna. Caught off guard my sister nodded. ‘You tell me straight away if I need to get you anything. I’m going to need both of you well and helping me take care of our visitors.’

‘Or we’ll never hear the end of it.’ Dad grinned but Mum’s glance wiped it off.

‘Good.’ Mum nodded, and the action caused her lime-green and orange diamond-patterned head scarf to slip. We had been waiting years to see it disappear but its colours refuse to fade. Her brows knitted together in a frown. Tutting, she pulled it up, shooting a silencing glare at us as if knowing that one of us was going to comment on how the hideous thing matched nothing in her wardrobe. The remainder of the journey was made in silence, broken only occasionally by the occasional comment from Dad about Hari Hound to Mum.

‘Ten weeks is so long,’ I couldn’t stop myself from saying when we got to Heathrow Airport. ‘I mean…every day…’ The enormity of what was about to happen had finally hit me.

‘They are not going to be with us all the time. They’ll be doing sightseeing. And going to stay with other relatives. Don’t worry…it’ll pass really quickly.’ Dad’s face didn’t match his reassuring words or tone.

Shyna spoke up. ‘Even with short stays with other relatives, it’s still a lot of days spent at ours. Aren’t they going to be stuck in their ways? Won’t they turn us into their servants?’

My sister was right. Indian hospitality was hard work.

‘You girls should have worn your Indian clothes.’ Mum seemed distracted as she looked at the signs for directions. All of a sudden she grabbed Dad’s arm. ‘We don’t all need to go. It’s only a few calls. I’ll meet you back at that cafe,’ she said to him and headed for the public telephones. She was gone for a long time but when she joined us she was like the feline who’d trapped her mouse and was anticipating the play to come.

‘You managed to get through then?’ Dad asked.

‘Yes. Everything’s sorted. I spoke to you-know-who.’ She leaned forward and when we followed her cue, she laughed and touched my cheek. ‘He said be careful here and make sure we’re not overheard. Just good precautions.’

‘Okay…but are…ahem…arrangements in hand here? Are they ready?’ Dad whispered loudly.

‘I went and checked. And Hari has been good. Efficient. All the information they need he’s given them. Including what they’ll find secreted. Just wait.’ Mum looked over at the people queuing for food. ‘I think I’m a bit hungry. Hm…a full English will keep me going until my sister and her entourage lands. Anyone else hungry? Shyna?’

We kept a close eye on the notice boards and were ready and waiting at the right place and time. Mum spotted her sister and managed a royal wave. The two young men nearest her were deep in conversation. They stopped briefly to cast an interested look in our direction.

I moved closer to Mum who put her arm around me. Something about them didn’t feel right. I could feel the knot inside my stomach and the onslaught of indigestion. ‘Mum, Shyna can’t marry either of them,’ I said urgently.

‘Marry? Who said so? Of course she isn’t.’ Mum looked from me to Shyna. ‘You’re too young for a start. What on Earth makes…’ She was looking in the distance. Airport security officers were leading the three newly arrived Asian people away.

‘Right, time to go back and kill more time,’ Mum said.

‘What’s going on, Mum? Dad?’ Shyna asked.

‘The officers must suspect them of carrying something illegal and trying to sneak it into the country. Or of course something else they shouldn’t,’ Dad said. ‘Not going too easy on whichever of them is the culprit, eh?’ He winked at Mum.

‘I totally agree with you.’ Mum nodded. Hearing her mobile ring, she answered. ‘Hello. Yes, Hari. Oh yes. Exactly as you said. Into the luggage? Uh-huh. Very good. Thank you. There’s no point in waiting for my sister, is there?’ She smiled back at Dad and pulled me close. ‘Yes Hari. I’ll definitely be recommending your unique services. The second half of the payment by bank transfer okay? Good. Bye bye.’

Pantry Prose: Monkey Business by Andrew Williams

monkey

“Lemons. Lemons everywhere. Yellow, curved, with those odd little nubs on either end. Nothing but lemons, an endless sea of them stretching from here to eternity. To be honest, I’m starting to get a bit sick of them. Now and again, just once, I’d like to see something different. Like an apple, or a banana. But no, it’s just lemons. That’s all we ever get around here.”

Malcolm stared at the words he’d just typed. Gibberish, absolute gibberish. As if the Bard would ever deign to come up with such trash. He tore the paper from the typewriter, fed a new sheet behind the ribbon and started again.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was one of those times somewhere in the middle that could be better but could be worse, like a rainy Tuesday afternoon.”

No, that still wasn’t right. Malcolm glanced over at his neighbour, an elderly chimp with the odd patch of grey in his fur, whose page was already overflowing with references to ghosts, daggers and witches. Still, his spelling was pretty atrocious. Malcolm took pride in his spelling.

But if he didn’t start channelling some Shakespeare soon, there’d be no peanuts for him tonight.

Malcolm concentrated, meditating on the collective sound of a thousand typewriter keys tapping out their staccato rhythms. His fingers flexed.

“Maria, I’ve just met a girl named Maria. And suddenly I’ve found how wonderful a sound can be…”

Oh no. Not again. Even the lemons were better than this second rate musical.

Why was he struggling so? Just the other week he’d dashed off three scenes from Coriolanus without a second thought. He tore out the defiled paper, screwing it into a ball and tossing it amongst the growing pile of rejects around his desk.

“Jim, I’m taking a break.”

The greying chimp didn’t reply, lost in the flow of dialogue and dreaming up arcane spells for his three witches. Malcolm didn’t try for witches any more. The last one had ended up with red shoes, green skin and an army of dogs with wings that she set on innocent Kansas farm girls.

He headed to the kitchen for a cup of tea. It was stone cold. He didn’t care. Anything to get away from the stench of failure emanating from his desk – unless that was the banana sandwich he’d lost last month, of course. The cleaners certainly weren’t that thorough these days.

“Hey, Malcolm. How’s it going?”

Malcolm looked up. “Hey, Cyril,” he said. “Could be worse, you know.”

Cyril, a spider monkey from Accounting, was the sort to remember everything you said and repeat it later in the annual budget meeting. All the typists in this section were terrified of him – there were rumours of more cutbacks. Once there were supposed to have been a million monkeys in the typing pool – now less than a tenth of that number remained, though they were told they were the best in the company. Malcolm wondered if the best had merely taken the opportunity to join the space program. NASA were always looking for new test pilots.

“Isn’t your PDR due soon, Malcolm?”

The dratted performance development review. Malcolm suppressed a shudder. He was dreading this – a meeting with his line manager to discuss his output. A few months ago he’d been producing a page of prose a day. Lately he hadn’t managed much more than a few stage directions in weeks, Coriolanus aside. But he was damned if he’d give those accountancy bastards the satisfaction of watching him squirm.

“This afternoon, actually,” he breezed, trying to sound casual.

“Best be off,” Cyril grinned, showing more teeth than pleasure. “I’m stocktaking the peanuts again. After all, we can’t let our hard workers go unpaid, can we?”

Malcolm smiled, dropped the empty teacup back in the sink and headed back to his desk.

“The PDR’s the thing,” he typed, “to prick the conscience of the king.”

Damned performance reviews. They were all he could think of now. He added another ball of screwed up paper to the pile below and started again.

“To be, or not to be, that is not really a question. My kingdom for a hearse! Cry havoc, and let dogs bring the slippers of war. To sleep, purchase a dream. Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. Do not meddle in the affairs of wizards. A plaque on both your houses, stating Roy Waz Ere! Bill Stickers is innocent! I once shot an elephant in my pyjamas…”

Gibberish! Sheer gibberish! Malcolm shivered at the thought of meeting his boss, a four hundred pound gorilla in a suit slightly too small for him. Approximately half a pound of that weight was made up of brain, and that might be overestimating it. But that was how the company worked – put the good workers at the bottom, and promote the bad ones to management, where they couldn’t get in the way too much.

Malcolm returned to the typewriter, dashing out a quick sonnet that seemed determined to focus on a young girl from Nantucket. The Bard was being particularly unhelpful today. It was a relief to escape from work for a half hour at lunch time.

Bananas again. And not fresh ones. More budget cutbacks.

As Malcolm threw aside the final bruised banana skin, he felt a large hand upon his shoulder. “It’s time, Malcolm.”

“Yes, boss. Coming, boss.”

They headed for the trees. Lowly typists such as Malcolm had to make do with cubicles, but management had their own trees, a miniature jungle of foliage in which to work. Malcolm found it strange that sunlight and greenery were considered essential for the upper echelons but a distraction for their underlings. Still, this was no time to philosophise about business management. He had the dreaded review to survive.

The gorilla took up home on a sturdy spot near the trunk and gestured to a nearby branch. “Let’s get right to the point. Malcolm, I’ve been looking at your output for the last month or so. I’m very disappointed. There was a time once when we could afford to slack off; a million monkeys all typing for eternity, how could we not get the job done? But with all these cutbacks – I’m going to have to let some of you go. Tell me why it shouldn’t be you.”

Malcolm decided not to mention the wife and six children back home. That wasn’t really what the boss meant, after all. “I’m just going through a dry spell, sir. You know I’ve always been a top worker in the past. I can do it again.”

“Malcolm, Malcolm. I’m worried about you.” The gorilla’s cold, dark eyes suggested otherwise. “I’m afraid you might have burned out. Sure, you’ve managed some great stuff. That page of Titus Andronicus – brilliant work. You’ve inserted long-missing lines into six different scenes of Romeo and Juliet. But lately – I think something’s cracked.”

To his horror, Malcolm saw the gorilla smooth out a crumbled piece of paper.

“Yes, we’ve been checking your reject pile. Paper’s valuable stuff, Malcolm. It doesn’t grow on trees. Now what’s all this about lemons?”

“Sorry, sir.”

The gorilla growled. “I don’t want apologies, grunt. I want explanations. Why lemons? What work of Shakespeare ever mentioned lemons?”

“Uh… sonnet number 56 mentions pomegranates… I think…”

“Shall I compare thee to a fruitcake, Malcolm? Lemons and pomegranates! Next you’ll be wittering on about rainy Tuesdays. Oh, wait. You did.” He unrolled another sheet. Malcolm looked down at the ground and wondered whether a fall from this height could be fatal. Perhaps if he aimed carefully and landed head first…

“Truth is, though, Malcolm, I’m short staffed. When the company first started this project we had all the funds you could want. Now no-one is interested in Shakespeare. Look… you’re a good worker. I think you just need a change of scenery. I’m transferring you to the Meyer department.”

Malcolm gasped. “Not the Twilight series!” he wailed. “It’s utter dross!”

The gorilla smiled evilly. “I know. Keep on writing this codswallop, Malcolm, and no-one will ever notice. You might even improve it.”

Malcolm headed back to his desk, collected his few possessions, and headed off down the corridor. It felt like a punishment. Perhaps it was a punishment. But if a million monkeys on a million typewriters couldn’t produce the works of Shakespeare, perhaps something a little easier might be worth a try.

He sat at a new typewriter, threaded a new ribbon, and fed in a new sheet of paper.

“Vampire Edward and his bride Bella sat at the abacus, flicking beads back and forth. ‘One! Ah! Ah! Ah!’ chortled Edward. ‘Two! Ah! Ah! Ah!’ joined in Bella. And there were no lemons or pomegranates in the room. No, sir.”

Malcolm sighed. Utter, utter dross. He carefully took the paper out and added it to the out tray for the printers. He could only hope it would pass as good enough.

“And if, by chance, I have offended,” he thought to himself, “who gives a monkey’s?”

 

 

Pantry Prose: Cardboard Box Time Machine by A. J. Hayward

cardboard

Find a large cardboard box, and with a broad permanent marker or similarly bold writing implement, write ‘Time Machine’ on the side. It must be written in black ink since no other colour will do the job. Open the lid and climb inside. Use the same marker pen to draw all the flight controls and instruments needed to control your craft. Set the dials and be sure to select Auto Pilot. Turn the ignition. There’s a stutter, a splutter, a mechanical hiccough then failure! It’s a used box, after all – damp, battered, with dog-eared corners – that Dad dug out of the garage, just moments earlier, especially for you to use on this sodden day. New boxes work best, but this one will have to do. It just needs a little extra help, a little coercion, a gentle knock here and there to get things going. Your eyes dart around the craft in search of Universal Adjuster, a tool otherwise known as a hammer. You pick it up and start tapping. Metallic rings and clangs resonate around the craft. Then a clonk!

‘Aha!’ you exclaim. ‘Inter-dimensional-space-bending-cardboard-box-time-machine-engines should not sound like that!’

There’s a moment’s pause for fiddling and fettling. The engine looks in much better shape now, and you use Universal Adjuster once more to check your work. The clonk becomes a delightful clang that reverberates about your ears and about the titanium inner skin of the capsule in which you are sitting.

‘Marvellous! I’m good to go!’ you say to yourself out loud excitedly, pleased with your work.

A second attempt of firing up the beast follows. And whilst crossing the fingers of your left hand you turn the ignition key with your right. To your delight, the engine roars to life! ‘I’m a genius!’ you shout emphatically, congratulating yourself.

Wheels spin. Cogs whir. A mechanical hum accompanies a gentle vibration that makes the ‘Arrggggh’ sound you’re letting out wobble like it does when sitting in the passenger seat of Dad’s car as he transverses cobbles. Stroboscopic lights – myriad in colour red, blue, green, white – flash before your eyes. And through the small oval-shaped, drawn-on windscreen of your highly advanced technologically superior Cardboard Box Time Machine (CBTM) a vortex opens. It looks just like a vortex that bath water makes as it escapes down a plughole. Except this vortex’s longitudinal axis falls along a horizontal, not vertical plane.  You notice how the vortex opening resembles a basking shark’s gaping mouth vacuuming plankton. It fills the entirety of your vision and it’s getting close to gobbling up the entire craft with you in it. ‘Gulp, here goes,’ you think as you reach down, push a lever forwards and whooooosh! Cardboard Box Time Machine along with its pilot enters at full throttle. Basking Shark Vortex opens wide and swallows. The craft lurches violently from side to side. It pitches forwards and backwards with ferocity. From the point of view of an observer standing outside, CBTM looks just like a small fishing vessel being tossed about by a violent winter’s ocean. There are bumps, twists and turns, and one or two 360 degree stomach-churning rolls and then finally there’s a sudden and abrupt stop. Splat! Your head hits the windscreen of the vessel as you’re hurled from a seated position at the back to the front.

‘Ooooouchy!’ you cry out whilst rubbing your head.

A rapid health assessment ensues. Feet-check: a quick toe-wriggle-all ten digits present and accounted for; legs-check: hands still attached to arms-check: arms still attached to body- check: body intact; evidence of cuts and bruises absent.

‘Pheeweee, that was a lucky escape.’ Counting yourself very fortunate indeed to have survived your fiftieth inter-dimensional trip through space-time and Basking Shark Vortex. ‘Next time, I might not be so lucky. I can live with a throbbing head, just,’ you add.

As the fogginess in your head begins to clear so too does the mist, or more precisely the smoke, that envelops your technological superior craft. A mental note is made to improve future landings. ‘Perhaps I need a crash course in inter-dimensional space-time travel,’ you think, chuckling to your own asinine joke. ‘Dad always said I paid no attention in class.’

The view outside the windscreen begins to present itself by degrees. You squint to enhance visual acuity. Perplexed by what you see, eyes are rubbed and refocused and a squint follows for the same reason as before. ‘That can’t be right, surely?’ is the question upon your lips. ‘Something has gone terribly wrong!’ naturally follows. The view outside your craft appears identical to that before the ignition was turned. Lots of head scratching, lots of ‘umming and arring’ and lots of wheels and cogs begin to spin and whir in your mind just as the wheels and cogs spun and whirred in Cardboard Box Time Machine earlier. You begin the cognitively challenging task of piecing together what clues you can find. You stare at the array of dials before you. The drawn-on altimeter indicates ground level, the attitude indicator level, airspeed and vertical speed indicators both show zero and the magnetic compass you so very diligently drew upon the interior of the cardboard box at the start of your adventure agrees with the heading indicator – both point north. All these readings are perfectly normal and exactly what you’d expect them to be at the end of an inter-galactic inter-dimensional flight through Basking Shark Vortex. ‘Humph.’ A sound reflecting your mental stumbling block. There’s more head scratching, more ‘umming and arring’ and new wheels and cogs are recruited to accompany those already spinning and whirring. ‘Hold on to your hats, it must be the fuel.’ A conclusion which is discounted as quickly as it’s formulated by a quick glance of the gauge; the tank is half full or half empty, depending on your point of view. In either case, it’s perfectly normal – nothing suspicious there – just what a space-time traveller might expect of her craft after completing the outward leg of a journey. ‘Well, I’m stumped!’ you say to yourself, disappointed at the impasse.

Just then a stroke of pure genius flashes through your time-travelled mind. ‘I’m a dingbat! Of course, silly me. I forgot to check the clock – that’s the first rule in “Time Travellers Companion to Time Travel” – Duh! Set the clock! Stupido!’ You now check the misshapen clock that’s drawn on the inside of your technological superior craft. It reads 1985, a fact that’s difficult to reconcile with the familiar view of the living room outside. ‘Normally, when I time-travel, time and place change but this time only time has changed – weird!’ All sorts of questions about time travel, the universe and your place in it cascade through your mind. ‘It’s the same but different place; the same but different living room…I feel the same but somehow different…it all feels the same but different…” Your thoughts trail off.

*

For those of you who can remember and for those who cannot and for those who are just too young to have been there in the first place, the latter of whom I envy enough to make passing reference, 1985 was memorable. This is the year that Thatcher quashes the British Coal Miners Strike, kills an entire industry and dispenses thousands of P45s. 1985 is the year in which the first UK mobile telephone call is made. An eccentric and deluded Clive Sinclair launches, and presumably rather wishes he had not, the C5 electric tricycle which achieves a head turning battery-assisted maximum speed of 15mph! Whoosh there it goes! Also making the headlines are housing estate riots in Brixton, London and Liverpool; Boris Becker wins the men’s Wimbledon final at – wait for it – just seventeen years old, a new record. And as if to offset that benchmark on the plus side with another on the negative, English football clubs are banned from competing in Europe and no wonder. During the European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool thirty nine people – mostly Juventus fans –die and 600 are injured when they are crushed against a wall in Heysel Stadium, Brussels, before the start of the game. As if that wasn’t bad enough, 500 Hippy travellers clash with police on their way to Stonehenge and a human-shaped hole, arguably, is discovered in the earth’s Ozone Layer by British scientists.

But for me the most significant event of 1985 has to be the Live Aid concert, conceived by Geldof and Ure as follow-up to their hugely successful ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ chart-topping, record-breaking single released the previous year. Both endeavours are inspired by Michael Buerk’s BBC News reports that beam haunting, grotesque images of millions of men, women and children dying of starvation during the 1984 Ethiopian famine.

Live Aid, billed as the ‘global jukebox’, is a dual-venue concert held conjointly in Philadelphia and London, with seventy-two thousand attending at Wembley. An estimated global audience of 1.9 billion, across 150 nations, tunes into the live broadcast and it raises over 50 million in relief funds. And I, like literally billions of others, become transfixed by the whole affair. BBC’s macabre images are etched permanently onto my retina, and, of course, I become swept-up in the excitement of seeing such big acts play at such a big venue for such a big and worthwhile cause. The Coldstream Guards band opens with the ‘Royal Salute’ and ‘God Save the Queen’. U2 play just two songs: ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ and a fourteen-minute rendition of ‘Bad’. Queen whips up a storm by playing some of their greatest hits including ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, ‘Radio Ga Ga’ and ‘We are the champions’, and occasionally Freddie Mercury leads a thick Wembley crowd in booming refrains. I join in at home watching in front of our push-button colour TV Set. We all do, I imagine. David Bowie performs ‘Heroes’ and remarks after introducing his band, ‘I’d like to dedicate this song to my son. To all our children and to the children of the world’. His words resonate well with the mood of the nation and of the world.

And to wrap-up this whistle stop tour, 1985 is the year in which the first .com domain name – symbolics.com – is registered by the Symbolics Corporation; .edu domains, for educational institutions, outnumber commercial .com’s. Microsoft releases its first version of Windows, Windows 1.0, which makes my Windows 7.0 look less like a dinosaur (or a Windowsaurus). And Back to the Future, starring Michael J Fox, is released, grossing nearly 400 million dollars worldwide. How reassuring it is that such big profits can co-exist with such diabolic famine.

*

The throbbing in your head has slowed to a manageable yet noticeable pulse. The smoke outside the windscreen has fully dissipated. Your thoughts organise themselves into a coherent whole. ‘I’m an intrepid inter-dimensional space-time traveller. I MUST EXPLORE!’ This, once voiced, acts as cue to spring the hatch and climb out of your technologically superior craft. Once outside, a cursory inspection of CBMT follows, if only to make certain the journey back to your present can be completed. The damage is worse than expected. Basking Shark Vortex has ripped off those dog-eared corners. You notice a gouge as long as your arm down one side of the fuselage as well as a hole about the size and shape of a little girl’s head in the windscreen. ‘Oh no! That’s never going to get me back!’ you say out loud in disbelief at the extent of the damage. Fortunately, and unlike the first, you paid attention to and complied with the second rule of ‘Time Travellers Companion to Time Travel’, which states: ‘For ad-hoc repairs always carry sticky tape’. And before going any further, you spend no more time than absolutely necessary repairing your craft. To ensure durability – and let’s face it inter-dimensional space-time travel is a tricky, death-defying feat of accomplishment, make no mistake about it. You decide, in your good judgement, to wrap the entire craft not once or twice in clear sticky tape but seven times, giving no regard to how you’ll climb back into CBTM. Now dizzy, having just run around the craft like a maniac, you stand back and whilst wobbling from side to side say to yourself, ‘Just the job, that’ll get me home…I hope,’ as if to give yourself a well earned, if anxious, pat on the back.

Uneasiness appears in your mind. ‘Wait! I’ve missed something.’ There’s a short-lived nervous pause. ‘But what is it?’ you ask, searching for the source of doubt. In pursuit of an answer, you mentally scan ‘Time Travellers Companion to Time Travel’ stored in your infinitely flexible, organic cerebral processor: your brain. You adhered to rule two but skipped rule one. Are there any other rules you may have skipped? A forefinger presents itself in your minds-eye and settles on rule three, which reads simply: ‘Take essential provisions.’ ‘That’s it! I’m hungry, silly me I forgot rule three. What a nana brain!’ And with that, you walk into the same but different kitchen, which is in the same place but different time to the one you left behind in your present. You learned on Tuesday, from your misadventures in the garden, sorry, ahem, African Bush, how very important it is to travel light. Losing a leg to a disgruntled crocodile in a different time won’t do, so you busy yourself rummaging around the cupboards hoping to find the three essential provisions for inter-dimensional space-time travellers: Jam sandwiches, full-fat cola and jelly snakes! There’s the bread, white of course – crusts binned, torn-off – discarded flamboyantly over your left shoulder. There’s the butter, spread thickly, and jam spooned on, generously. A freshly made jam sarney is folded in two and shoved, indelicately, into a jean pocket for later. Now for the cola. ‘Gutted!’ There is none, so a tin of IRN BRU spotted in the fridge is settled on. ‘It’s made from girders,’ you say, chuckling to yourself in the best wee lassie Scottish accent you can muster. And now for the most important provision of all: Jelly snakes. ‘No house is complete without ‘em. Come out come out wherever you are,’ you say as if to charm them out of the cupboards directly into your hand. Snake charming is not your forte, however. ‘Housewife is fired!’ you say, pretending to be a CEO sacking her PA. A melodramatic soliloquy commences in the form of ‘Humph! How will I ever survive?’ You suck in your stomach. ‘I’ll surely die of starvation!’ You now drop to the floor, curl up in a ball and feign agony. ‘I’ll never get back now. It’s just not possible. I can’t make it.’ Just then, out the corner of your eye, you spot a tin on the counter top marked ‘Treats’. Without a pause you jump to your feet, rush over to the tin and prise open its lid. There inside, you spot an array of familiar sweets and treats including Refreshers, Drumsticks, Black Jacks and Gob Stoppers. ‘Boooooooring!’ To your bitter disappointment, Jelly Snakes are absent ‘Drats! I’m dooooomed!’ Then a reprieve. Several silvery packets, all identical – the design of which you’ve never seen before – catch your eye. You pick one up, shake it. It rattles like a snake. ‘Curious,’ you think. You flip the packet over and it reads ‘Space Dust’. ‘Even curiouser,’ you think for a nanosecond. And before your hands are able catch-up with your thoughts, they grab hold of three packets, rip them open feverishly and in the blink of an eye your mouth is full of small exploding rocks.

‘WhoooooOOOAAA…hooooooOOOAAA…Brilliant! It’s like Alien Spray but different,’ you manage to articulate amid spitting out tiny fragments of dynamite. You grab a handful of treats, Space Dust an’ all, and stuff the lot into a jean pocket. You are a now ready to explore 1985.

A short shadowy figure appears behind the mottled pane of the kitchen door. Your first instinct, guided by rule four ‘Do not interfere with locals’, is to hide, and a full length cupboard offers a suitable spot. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself so you move slowly, without making a sound. You are now safely stowed, and through a narrow slit, left purposely between the door and its frame, you observe the shadow, which judging by its size and shape belongs to a boy. A loud single knock makes the glass rattle. Hundreds of tiny spiders crawl up and down your spine. It’s the hairs on the back your neck standing to attention. ‘Oh no, he must have seen me!’ you think. ‘I’ll stay just where I am, thank you very much. Better not break rule four, or I’ll be brought before the Council of Inter-Dimensional Time-Travellers again and last time it got nasty!’ There’s another knock, much louder than the first; then another and another and another. ‘This guy’s impatient,’ slips out, muttered under your breath.

‘Issy! Issy! It’s Maggot. Are you hiding from me again?’

‘That’s weird,’ you think.

You try hard to suppress all curiosity through fear of what the Council of Inter-Dimensional Time-Travellers might do. And whilst you’re trying not to think about what your punishment might be for contravening rule four, you also begin to wonder why a shadowy figure, a real Muppet with a truly ridiculous name, Maggot, is referring to you as Issy. And then it dawns on you. ‘Oh nooooooooo!’ – a thought played in slow motion. ‘I must have accidently hit the transmogrification button during turbulence.’ And, in fact, that’s exactly what did happen. Whilst Basking Shark Vortex tossed your technologically superior craft down its neck, a stray hand inadvertently hit a button labelled ‘Transmogrify’ and in an instant your body transformed from that of Jessica, a ten-year old animal loving African bush-baby who refuses to wear shoes, into Issy a very cute, adventurous tree climbing BMX chick who, by coincidence, also refuses to wear shoes.

The shadowy figure presses on. ‘Issy! Issy! Open up, it’s Maggot!’

Peals of laughter are now streaming out of your belly, through your mouth and into the ears of Maggot who’s standing outside the door waiting to be let in.

‘I can hear you laughing, Issy! Come on- open up, it’s Maggot.’

Throwing caution to the wind, you leap out of the cupboard and position yourself directly in front of Maggot; you on the inside him on the outside.

‘Okay, Maggot,’ you say whilst still laughing. ‘Tell me how you got that ridiculous name and I’ll think about letting you in.’

‘Come on, Issy, you know the story. You gave me that name!’

‘Did I now? Well remind me!’ you say, assertively putting your foot down.

‘Stop being mean, Issy. Let me in!’

‘No! Not until you tell me why I called you Maggot!’ you reiterate, standing your ground. Jessica and Issy have much more in common other than their dislike of shoes; both share a stubborn streak too.

‘Fine, here goes again for the umpteenth time. How humiliating!’ Maggot’s voice trails off into an embarrassed murmur.

‘Speak up, Maggot, I can’t hear you! Why did I give you that name?’

‘It’s because I stink of maggots! I carry a bag of ‘em everywhere I go so I can fish whenever I like! You happy now?’

*

That explanation about how Maggot earned his name is only partly true. Yes, he  carries  a bag of maggots in one jacket pocket and rudimentary fishing tackle – a reel, a hook and float – in the other, just in case a fishing opportunity presents itself. He’s potty about angling. He talks about it insistently; the fish he lands, the whoppers that get away. He dreams about landing perch, barbel and roach. You get the idea. He’s as mad as a very mad hatter about fishing as possibly anyone can be. Tucked away, in the inside pocket of his favourite jacket, and it’s his favourite because it’s his only jacket, Maggot keeps stashed a bag of Rainbow Kaylie, as Emergency Rations. Now, if you believe that you’ll believe almost anything. Maggot is addicted to that stuff. He’s just as crazy about that sugary delicacy as he is about fishing. One day, whilst Maggot is fishing in his favourite spot along the Llangollen branch of the Shropshire Union canal, not far from the Dusty Miller, Issy spots Maggot’s jacket hanging on a branch of a hedge, just behind where’s he’s sitting. It’s unattended and Maggot’s concentration is focused entirely on a bright yellow luminous dot bobbing about on the surface of the water. Nothing but him and the float exist in the whole world. Issy spots her opportunity, and the more playful side of her character, or rather the more devilish side, goes to work. She knows Maggot won’t notice a thing if she’s quick, and my goodness Issy is the quickest in the business when she wants to be. In one swift movement, she grabs a handful of maggots from one pocket and releases them into the bag of Emergency Rations. Now, a lot of girls would turn their noses up in disgust at the thought of handling maggots. But Issy is no ordinary girl. She’s doesn’t flinch. Anything boys can do, Issy can do better.

After planting Maggot Time Bomb, Issy leaves Maggot to exist in his world whilst she spends the remainder of the afternoon sat atop a nearby lift-bridge, to be in hers. It’s nearly tea time now and our two friends are feeling hungry. From her lofty perch, Issy can see a disappointed Maggot packing up his gear, dejected, head down, having landed nothing all day. And rather than climb down from the oak beam on which she sits, Issy shouts, ‘Geronimooooo!’ as she jumps straight into the canal below with a splash! Meanwhile, Maggot is walking up the tow path with both their bikes to meet her. He’s shaking his head in acknowledgement of Issy’s lunacy. That bridge is at least five metres from the surface of the water. It’s a jump he’ll never ever, not a million trillion gazillion years attempt, ever. Issy is no ordinary girl.

‘I’m starving,’ Issy says to Maggot as she’s climbing out of the water, trying her dastardly best to detonate Maggot Time Bomb.

‘Me too,’ Maggot replies. ‘Come on, let’s ride home.’

‘Sure you don’t need Emergency Rations first?’ Issy says, trying once again to trigger an explosion.

‘Good idea,’ Maggot says as he pulls out the bag of Kaylie from his inside pocket. ‘Here, you have some,’ he adds, offering the bag to Issy first.

‘Oh no, I couldn’t deprive you. Look you’re a bag of bones as it is! They’re your Emergency Rations after all, not mine,’ Issy counters, already smiling, knowing her encouragement will be sufficient to help plunge the lever…

‘Thanks Issy. You’re a good friend.’

‘Yeah right,’ you think, whilst trying desperately hard to hold down your laughter.

Maggot Time Bomb is primed! Issy’s friend throws his head back and throws the entire contents of Emergency Rations into his gaping mouth, which once full he closes. There’s something very odd about this batch of Kaylie, he notices. It’s lumpy. It tastes unusual and, wait for it, it’s wriggling! None of that perturbs this boy and none of that prevents him from doing what he does next. He begins to chew. Grooooosss! Each bite lets off a small explosion, and small packets of gooey slime hit every corner of Maggot’s mouth. He coughs and splutters. He spits. He sticks his fingers down his throat to eject any stray maggots he may have swallowed. Meanwhile, Issy is laughing hysterically, doubled-up holding her belly. It now dawns on our expert angler what has just transpired.

‘What did you do that for?’ Maggot asks angrily.

‘Just because, Maggot. Come, let’s go home,’ Issy replies, still laughing and feeling just a little guilty for having just put one her best friends through her expertly executed Maggot Time Bomb escapade. And that’s the true story of how Maggot earned his nick name and ever since that day it has stuck like a limpet’s foot does to a rock.

*

‘You sure that’s the whole story, Maggot?’ Issy prompts whilst chuckling to herself, recalling briefly the real story behind her friend’s unflattering name.

‘You know it isn’t, Issy. Let me in!’

‘Okay. You win. Open, says me!’ And with that, Issy opens the door and allows Maggot to enter the kitchen.