Pantry Prose: Plastic Breath by Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi

After seven days of intolerable confinement, Izzy decided that this foggy afternoon was the right time to free herself. And, if she could manage, Clara.

She had been testing her crippled body since the morning darkness, inundating her extremities with signals to flex, and, with any hard-earned luck, move. Her weak arms appeared up to the task; she guessed her weight to be just shy of one-hundred pounds. Her legs, however, remained stubborn, anchoring her to the bed. For all the training she had subscribed to these counterparts, none was more rigorous, more vital than her breathing regimen.

Izzy’s relationship with oxygen had always been of a toxic nature. A university athlete who had relied upon her immaculate lungs for victory, it had been an unreliable ankle that decided ten metres from an important finish line was the time to snap, end her career, sink her into the depths of depression, and enrol her in a new, lifelong sport: smoking. Three packs a day, four when she was feeling particularly good (or bad), for fifty years.

And now the ghosts of cigarettes past were preventing her, in spite of her cooperative arms, from liberating herself, and, more importantly, Clara.

Izzy exhaled a laboured breath, painfully inhaled another. She should have been accustomed to it by now, but the air filtering throughout her sanctuary still tasted as artificial as it smelled. She felt the rather stale intake race through her mouth and nostrils, hoping to reach the pair of black bags that kept her going for no real purpose.

Save for Clara.

The clean dose of oxygen reached her ashen lungs, then exited her mouth and nose in another laboured exhalation. Izzy imagined the polluted molecules warning the new wave of respiration about what corruption lay within her.

She looked to her right, locked eyes with the never-blinking Clara, and, with a look that said “Don’t you dare move now”—she couldn’t risk precious breaths on her roommate’s deaf ears—began the arduous journey.

Izzy watched as she willed her right arm across the centimetres that felt like kilometres of bed. The feeble limb made pitiful progress before stopping entirely so she may regain what energy she could.

A surge of anger propelled her arm against the plastic sheet dividing her and Clara. Her hand slid down the thick material until it landed in the crevice between the sheet and edge of the bed. Using this newfound leverage, Izzy began pulling her weight with her right arm, while pushing against the mattress with her left. The juicy idea of giving up had crossed her mind, just as it had when her former severely fit self, besieged by physical and psychological cramps, had desired to slow her run to a crawl at the three-thousand-metre mark. Her conditioned lungs had burned then. Now they were volcanic.

But the agony and certain death would be worth it. Not only for herself, but Clara, who had never felt a pang in her endless life.

Izzy now found herself at a ninety-degree angle: the top half of her body sprawled laterally across the bed; the bottom half remained affixed to where it had been since she embarked upon this suicide mission of sorts. After a quick mental team huddle with her barely-working parts, she used her right hand to push against the plastic sheet. The damn thing was like a wall of concrete. Her reluctant body threatened to pull the plug on the whole operation, but a little bit of that wholesome anger, and a lot of thinking about what would happen to Clara if she failed, helped free the bottom of the plastic sheet from between the mattresses. Izzy exhaled so deeply, the fog outside of her only window found its way to her eyes.

One breath.

Her vision slowly…

Two breaths.

…slowly…

Three breaths.

…returned.

She felt her old nemesis oxygen assisting her rushing blood to restore her vision. But she knew better; death had brushed past her.

Move it, she urged herself.

Izzy hadn’t intended to escape by falling on her head, but as she shimmied herself closer… closer… closer, then over… over… over the edge of the bed, it seemed the only way. Her head free of the plastic sheet, the faint aroma of cooking bombarded her olfactory. She couldn’t help but sacrifice a valuable breath to take in the recipe she had shared with her daughter long ago. You’re using too much garlic powder, she thought, the seasoning burning her sinuses. But that was Isabelle: too much or too little of everything.

Her shoulders hanging over the edge of the bed, thinned blood rushing to her head, Izzy wondered—not for the first time—what Isabelle would think when the time came to trudge upstairs, check on her dying mother, and find her however she ended up. Hopefully, with Clara in my arms, she thought.

She wondered if her daughter would even care.

The pair of Izzy’s had lived a life of few kisses and plenty of bites. Izzy had made the cliche attempts to live via her namesake (Isabelle’s ankles were still intact, after all). Her daughter had indeed run; not on the track, but away from home, turning the typical one-off act of rebellion into a quarterly sport. When she was home, Isabelle would blame Izzy for all of her life’s unwanted biographic details: the casting out of her father, the selfish act of naming her after herself (never mind the tradition), the reason for her isolating unattractiveness, the asthma and other varieties of respiratory ailments courtesy of her chain-smoking. That her only child had decided to punish her by never marrying, never having children, was not lost on Izzy. Still, when Izzy had become too ill to breathe on her own, it was Isabelle who rushed her to the hospital; and it was Isabelle who brought her home, tucked her into bed, and made sure the oxygen tent kept her alive.

But after seven days of intolerable confinement, seven days of embarrassing baths and changes, seven days of no words exchanged save for begrudged greetings and farewells, Izzy had decided that this foggy afternoon was the right time to free herself. And, if she could manage, Clara.

Beloved Clara.

She could no longer see her only friend, but knew she was right where she had left her. I’m coming, she thought, hoping the suffocating air out here wouldn’t render her a liar.

Like in the old days, when slower competitors somehow cruised past her, good old-fashioned anger fuelled her cause, and she writhed her dangling body further over the edge of the bed like a fish out of water. A fish that wants out of her damn bowl! she goaded herself, and grew angrier at her handicap. The fingertips on her right hand touched something cold, hard. It took her a moment to realize she had touched the floor. Her left hand, still pushing against the bunched-up comforter, worked alone to send her over the rest of the way.

In the space of seconds, Izzy saw the ceiling, then her abdomen, then her legs, the latter two crashing down on her. Within the same seconds, she had felt emptiness beneath her, then the same cold, hard floor forcing itself into her neck and spine. Precious breaths were knocked out of her, and the fog returned, this time most certainly accompanied by death.

It took her a few moments to realize that death smelled an awful lot like garlic. A few more moments, and Izzy understood she hadn’t died… and that her daughter wouldn’t have heard a thing if she had. She remained alone. On the floor. Alive. For now.

Alive enough to save Clara.

Slowly, surely, Izzy wriggled away from the bed until her dumb legs hit the floor. Still, her daughter remained downstairs, oblivious, or willfully so. But in case obliviousness turned to awareness, Izzy needed to move as quickly as her lame body would allow at this late stage in the race. Last one-hundred metres, she implored.

Since sitting herself up was impossible, she needed to figure out how to get Clara to come down to her level. Could’ve just grabbed her, and brought her into the tent, she scolded herself, save yourself this stupidity. But she knew it wouldn’t have been fair to Clara, to have her lifelong companion go from breathing one brand of plastic air to another. No. She wanted Clara’s first breath to be one-hundred-percent, certifiable oxygen… even if it was tinged with garlic.

Izzy flexed the fingers on her left hand, expecting to feel a break, akin to that long-ago ankle, that would prevent her from crossing this finish line. Everything felt in working order. Hand shaped like a spider, the fingers crawled along the floor until they found the nightstand’s feet. They climbed past the bottom drawer, then the middle, then-

She stopped, having reached as high as she could go. She looked at the progress her hand had made, and was angered and disappointed to see the tips of her fingers so close to the top. So close to Clara.

No longer able to uphold itself, her arm fell to the floor for her daughter not to hear. Her shallow, disparate breathing became shallower, more disparate. The retinal fog grew thicker. And she was certain the last time she would see Clara was in the memories she had very limited time to relive:

Sneaking into her late mother’s bedroom—this very same bedroom—to sneak a peek at Clara, high on her shelf.

Receiving Clara on the eve of her mother’s passing—in this very same bedroom—on the condition that she pass Clara on to her daughter, should she have one, when her own end was near.

Asking Isabelle to take Clara off the shelf, and sit her on the nightstand; the plan to release Clara had been confirmed, all the more so by her daughter’s routine sneer and remark: “Ugly thing.” Even had Isabelle loved Clara as much as she had, Izzy felt it her duty to finally free her.

Come on, you useless cigarette-holder. Last fifty metres.

Her nicotine-stained spider-hand rediscovered the nightstand’s feet, and, once more, began its ascent.

Past the bottom drawer.

Forty metres.

Past the middle drawer.

Thirty metres.

Past the bottom of the top drawer.

Twenty metres.

Finding the top drawer’s knob…

Ten metres.

…where it hung…

Come on.

…unwilling to move.

COME ON!

Her hand sprang back, the drawer with it.

Sliding.

Sliding.

Sliding.

Until the heavy piece abruptly stopped, having reached its limit. The nightstand leaned slightly forward, and Izzy glimpsed her legacy as the dead meat filling of a floor-and-nightstand sandwich. But the nightstand had other plans; before it settled back into place, it made sure to shake free the tall, glossy box.

The impact was painful, a sharp corner hitting her perfectly in the eye, but nothing compared to the torture her lungs were putting her through. Instead of fog, there was rain. Izzy blinked the burning tears away, bringing not the nightstand into focus, but a face.

And what a beautiful face it was. Skin made of meringue. A faint smile on pink lips barely formed. Rosy cheeks forever pinched into dimples. Black eyebrows arching over a pair of unblinking bejewelled eyes. Had they seen Izzy? All the Izzy’s? From Grandma Izzy to this sorry-excuse-for-an-Izzy?

They stared at each other for some time, Izzy refusing to blink, like her little friend, lest she slip into death during one of those slivers of blackness. The smell of garlic was fading. She couldn’t tell if her daughter was altering the recipe in some way, or if her senses were gradually shutting down.

Last ten metres, she thought. Perhaps her final thought.

Izzy used the left hand that made this final reunion possible to locate the pristine cardboard flap above Clara’s head. Not with anger, but love, Izzy tore open the lid that had sealed the doll in her prison for three generations, and watched as Clara took in her first-ever breath of fresh air.

Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi spent a decade penning an eclectic bibliography of award-winning short and feature-length screenplays, before transitioning into the world of prose. 

His work often explores the lives of everyday people who find themselves trapped in the complex labyrinth of physical, mental, and emotional illness and isolation, self-doubt and self-reflection, and must find a way–if any–to confront themselves and the world around them, in real and surreal settings. 

Currently, several of his short fiction pieces are enjoying stays in multiple publications. 

Pantry Prose: What’s the time, Mr. Wolf? by Evan Hay

Mark my words, apart from being a seminal thinker & slimy foreign art monger, Vas Pretorius DeFerens was something of an enigma to friends, enemies, & medical science alike. Allegedly he was a proud possessor of either three or four perfectly formed testicles, which tourist coach parties of the incurably bi-curious & naive were regularly welcomed to examine (upon a reasonable payment of corkage), just so long as they proceeded slowly through Vas’s open fly- at which point invariably he brutally resynthesised those tiny teeth into a sudden playful biting unity, normally after drawing a groper’s attention to some trivial detail of architraving, weather, etc. (as advertised, I‘ve completed my memoirs as a short story; a quite draining & frankly illegal process which necessitated breaking all 37 of the past Labour government’s Police & Criminal Justice Acts. But in the name of Mammon, what can you do?) So it’s all quite fascinating, & whilst I have no obvious quarrel to pick with any man’s physique (with the sole exception of Eric Pickles), I mention these positively material facts to warn that you’ve unadvisedly strayed from the path, & night must fall. Keep up. You youngsters could learn a lot if only you paid heed.

Let me confess without duress: I really can’t legitimately claim to understand Vas’ nature, despite the fact (& source of endless gossip) that we spent multiple lunar months engaged in a perfervid co-habitation in a Hoxton studio; such was his delightful mastery of disinformation, dark propaganda & intoxication that, I never managed to arrive at a final figure for his testes (fleeting glances, all from dangerous angles, tentatively recall they were jet black & vulcanized like his durable character). Whatever ginger evidence I have I lay freely before you; they’re only crumbs I spare, each liable to be snaffled up by a myriad of nocturnal beasts coming to life in bracken & furze, but follow them as best you can- it’s too late to turn back now. Alas, there are no garnished spicy vol-au-vents to sustain you. You’re in way over your head I fear.

Vas’ legendary libido was immune to entropy or ennui. His grinding demands were a continual worry, unconcerned with tradition, expense, or, to be frank, practicality- I’d often discover Dutch gentlemen’s magazines (of a kind featuring photography of undraped women) squirreled away in the oddest of places. I knew they were his as Superintendent McGregor, my old Vice Squad pal (since gone freelance), verified his inimitable paw prints. These were good old days of covert cash transactions, my boy. Investigation also found disturbing designs & working prototypes for- shall we say gadgets, in many more than one of the two-hundred & thirty-six secret compartments of his secretary. Now, I don’t think for a moment Vas’ ‘preferences’ particularly interest you- you’ve got enough on your plate as it is, looking at those dreadful holes in your old worn boots (are they hand-me-downs?) & the sheer depth of snow round here. But they do cast a slanted light on a brilliant criminal mind, & whilst it may be the case that you maintain law is crime- I make no excuses, offer no apologies. Vas will always be a veritable villain. Not in business practice, where all’s fair & little love guaranteed, but in his damnable lack of honour regarding aesthetic criticism. Vas’ self-promotion, remarkable before he met me, became nothing less than lupine afterwards- for goodness sake no, I wouldn’t climb that tree if I were you; it’s the first place they’ll sniff out silly. Do get a grip & take some responsibility for your plight! I digress: so I woke up one morning, a little after noon, to find an estate agent’s clerk staring at me with undissembled fear. Back in the glory days of the Great Boom, you understand, when any property vacated before teatime would be occupied & fully furnished by vespers, at a sixty percent mark up. On reflection, that stunt had many of Vassily Perestroika Deferenovitch’s hallmarks- handcuffs, treacle, an anaconda, a mousetrap in the first aid box; but how long had he been planning it? Before he met me? After I said what I did on demand about his precious book lionising Andy Warhol? Maybe it was thin skin or sheer caprice- it scarcely matters does it? Pardon me? Oh, howling? I don’t think so. No, my mistake, yes there it is, right behind you.

I reliably heard a week later, through McGregor, that he’d shackled up with Sir Hugh Corduroy in Belgravia. Nice but dim, a remarkable chap, Sir Hugh, could stammer incoherently in no fewer than eight Arabian dialects. Gosh! Hottentot, Farsi, Yiddish, take your pick: he was incomprehensible in it. Anyway, as you may know, previously he was respected as a patron of the arts, pillock of the church, & former director of the V&A etc. Tolerated by peers, trusted by subordinates, feared by staff, a great Englishman – before you could say ‘Duchess of Gloucester’ he’d pen a more brainless Times diary than Sir Roy Strong. No, trust me, I have clippings. In retrospect it seems accumulatively predictable that a lifetime of total emotional deprivation should have led him into Vas’ gingerbread parlour. OK, pipe down, I’m telling my stories have patience, but yes, now you mention it, they’re all around you. Man up. Where was I? Of course, what followed was contemporary folklore- how Sir Hugh, through Vas’ ‘Caliban Arts’, traded the Elgin marbles for Andean wood carvings of doubtful provenance, his Rembrandt sketches for an acrylic tennis racquet pixillage- cats & umbrellas also featured, if memory serves, that’s right- created by a second year arts student, some sordid strumpet of no good breeding- his Vermeer for a breeze block & tarpaulin ‘installation’, his entire portfolio of primary shares for a chance to wrap the outside of Acton in back issues of The World of Interiors: such insatiable insanity. Destruction ensued, as night follows day. I fondly recollect running into him behind King’s Cross one wintry evening, in the company of a young Wandervögel; that such a renowned member of Blighty’s Establishment should fall into rank disrepair, honestly one shouldn’t laugh. I can still picture his ragged silhouette hunched against a brooding February sky, insipid light shining through his fallen arches, rain that spluttered from his choked guttering, & a colony of zoonotic bats hanging around uncomfortably in his cracked façade. He was totally spent, utterly ruined. Died later next spring, ulcerative colitis returned the post-mortem, although the cruel whisper in Whites opined he was burgled to death. No! Don’t start running, that’s what they want, they’re simply waiting for it. Have you learned nothing? That’s better. Anyhow, after inheriting Corduroy’s estate, Vincent Pietro DiFerrari consolidated his much heralded renaissance by leading a popular national crusade to recapture & repatriate all those treasures he himself had shop soiled to sell abroad. Amazingly, or rather inevitably, he once again came up trumps (turned out clauses written in invisible ink were legally binding after all, on the principle of caveat emptor & tuff-titty). There never was any lawful chance to stop the bounder (he was consistently one step ahead), but after that carnival of criminality nobody else even tried. He branched out; diversified, pretty soon there wasn’t a pie in the proverbial pantry innocent of his thumbprint. His Tavistock Square pied a terre became a swinging hot spot, precisely the placed to discuss perspectives in post-structuralist criticism, have one’s nipples pierced, take a heroin overdose, play the Cocoa Futures’ market; swaggeroos & mountebanks from five continents perched there. Arbitrageurs, faith healers, nihilistic young rock stars, depraved heiresses with thousand pound orchids in their hair & many faces of Satan tattooed across the length & breadth of their inner thighs. All these were nothing more than local colour, background noise to VPD’s glaring blaring bray. Well whistle if you must, by all means, & respect for trying, but do you really, even in your wildest dreams, think they appreciate Mozart?

Oh, Vas, I’ve met a few genuinely great men, but only one colossus: he became a cultural reference point, the zeitgeist incarnate. He was the opinion former’s opinion former, intellectual fashion leader, international trendsetter, pathfinder & trailblazer. The New Man- one of his wheezes, the New Woman too, for that matter, the New World Order for all I know (he hasn’t written me recently). Rottweilers, eco-friendly washing powder, Porsches & red braces! You’ve never thought about it, have you? But red braces! Like unavoidable diamond bullets of truth! The genius of the man, the anti-mensch, the monster! At his peak, countless leading institutions from the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons to the Bilderberg Group accredited him. He’d grab a canapé & a glass of Moet at the Soviet ambassador’s daughter’s sixteenth birthday party (Order of Lenin First Class on his ample bosom), before dashing off to a debriefing with some CIA Head of Station behind Victoria Coach Station. Crikey! A wanky conceited cunt he may’ve been, but Vas was paid a sum not unadjacent to thirty thousand pounds sterling by a British Broadcasting Corpse to propagate his philosophy for one hour every Monday morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme: the horror. I recall the last time I saw Vlad Perrier Difference: live on ITV evening news, barrelling through Heathrow, reporters armed with the sacred light of truth cowering before bodyguards licensed to kill & armed with electric cattle goads. It was only a week after the Crash I believe- he wasn’t the sort of Johnny to hang round waiting for women or children, no sir. Everything created has a sell-by date, he remarked, almost to himself, before turning triumphantly to face down his inquisitors. I’ll be back, he said.

Meaningful pointed questions were being asked by then, OPERATION SCAT came to light, & fifty fat middle-aged merchant bankers woke with headaches to discover their virginities defiled. We, willy-nilly his disciples, awoke with hang-overs to discover our palettes no longer smeared with the actual colours our eyes beheld; in order to have fun one must retain at least a memory of youth. The rest you should know, & here we are. Well, anyway, those were the end of days my friend- when the scary forest was just a distant line on the horizon, & many & sweet were the birds that sang. Well, I haven’t time to stand out here with you chattering all night. Excuse me, but I’m a busy man. Yes I’m sure I’d feel the same if I were as poor as you. I still maintain it’s a lifestyle choice, so own it. Oh, come now, don’t take on so- here, you can have my handkerchief, you cannot see in this light but it’s a red spotted jobbie. Is there a safe route out of here for you? Not really, I made an effort to assist with directions but they’re just breadcrumbs. I wouldn’t pin too much hope on crumbs. Listen, if you’d stop crying for a moment. And let go of my hand. What’s that? Yes indeed, they’ve got big eyes haven’t they? Don’t let them see that you’re afraid, it excites them! Look here, I don’t mean to be unkind, but sadly it’s your own fault, really. In any case, I’m truly sorry, but it’s sauve qui peut nowadays. Well, goodbye sonny. And yes, bonne chance to you, too. Bye. I beg your pardon?

Oh, suppertime, I guess.

Evan Hay exists in Britain & rather than follow spurious leaders- over the years he’s intermittently found it therapeutic to write out various thoughts, feelings & ideas as short stories to be examined, considered, & interpreted by clinical practitioners who may be able to offer him professional psychological assistance.

Pantry Prose: The Killer by Sunil Sharma

The killer was about to strike the unsuspecting victim, the gleaming dagger raised in his right hairy hand, cold eyes fixed and remorseless…

“Watchman?”

“Yes, Saab.”

“Go, check the water-level in the storage tank. Fast.”

“Yes, Saab.”

The killer was about to strike…

“Watchman?”

“Yes, Saab.”

“You must get up, when residents of the housing society come out of the lift or go to the lift.”

“Yes, Saab.”

“People always complain. Say you sit in the chair, buried in a fat Hindi thriller. Never get up. Never look up. Just that. Reading. Sitting in the chair only.”

“Saab, it is a good habit.”

“What habit?”

“Reading.”

“You are not paid to read on duty here.”

“I always remain in the lobby of the building. As there is nothing much to do, I read a novel.”

“Do not argue, moron. I am the secretary. I can fire you immediately.”

“But, Saab, I just explained. I read in the afternoons. It is better than sleeping in the chair, during hot humid afternoons of Mumbai.”

“I said do not argue. If you do that again, you are out. You guys! Very rude and lazy.”

The young watchman said nothing. The thin secretary glowered and then left.

“They pay only six thousands for a twelve-hour duty. Even that amount is not paid on time,” said the older watchman.

“They think they own us. Call us rude. Say all guards are rogues,” said the younger one.

“Do not worry. Things will change. Do your duty.”

“Do not think too much. We are poor folks. We have to be tolerant of these rich rascals. They have money. Power. We have none.”

“OK. I always do that. But it hurts.”

“But it does not mean they should insult us. Hurt us. We have no money. But we are human beings, like them only. We too have respect. Our Izzat.”

“Young man, be patient and calm. You have not seen the brutal side of the world yet. Treat yourself as lucky. You have got a job. A uniform of a private security guard. An I-D. In Mumbai, an I-D is gold. At least, you earn money. Other migrants are not that lucky.”

“Yes, I know.”

“Then?”

“I felt hurt.”

“You hurt easily. Change. This is a jungle. Predators roam here…freely.”

The young security guard said nothing.

“Even I feel restless. They scold me, too. Once a drunk resident slapped me very hard. They openly abuse and curse those who watch their property.”

“The other day, a woman shouted at me. They make me run for errands. Some of the men fight on any excuse. Humiliating!”

“Yes. I went through all this. This is my fifth year. Guarding these rich bastards.”

“Where were you earlier?”

“A worker in a textile mill. It closed down 20 years ago. Did odd jobs. Got a family.”

“I know. You have to survive somehow.”

“I am school drop-out. Cannot do the office job. This one is easy.”

“Yes.”

“There were others. Many drifted away.”

“Where?”

“Crime.”

“Crime?”

“Yes. Crime is the other side of the story of a megacity.”

“How?”

“It is easy.”

“How?”

“Temptingly simple and fast. Good money in it. Sense of power, also.”

“How?”

“The crime bosses recruit the discontented ones from the mushrooming slums. Life stinks there for these half-animals. They are all a disillusioned, bitter lot. Desperate to do anything for money. Life is a big hell.”

“Yes. No power. No water. A 10×10 feet room of sheets and ropes. You go out to relieve. Long queues outside the three public toilets. Three toilets for more than a hundred people. Hell!”

“Crime offers easy money.”

“And a lot of women and drinks and good food.”

“Yes. And lot of cash.”

They grew quiet.

“One of my close friends became a hired killer.”

“Who?” asked the younger guard, the reader of the thrillers.

“Lal Chand. LC we called him.”

“How did it happen?”

“He was small and thin. A weakling. One day he got beaten by a person in his chawl. That goon always taunted his younger sister. LC objected. The local goon beat him black and blue.”

“Then?”

“Next morning, LC killed him before the neighbours.”

“Was that so easy?”

“Nope.”

The older one was quiet for long.

“In fact, LC had called one of his cousins, a sharp shooter for a dreaded gang. He hovered in the background. The goon was surprised to see a quiet LC and grew more aggressive. LC took out his revolver and with a shaky hand and goaded by the accompanying professional killer, his cousin, shot him three times. The surprised goon went down in a heap.”

“Then?”

“He became a local hero! That puny man! Once a timid who could not swat a mosquito, swiftly turned into a fearless hero.”

“Then?”

“The police were relieved at this elimination. LC did their dirty job. No witnesses. Nothing. But LC became the new goon. He terrorized. Drunk a lot. Went to bars and splurged money on bar-girls there.”

“Wow!”

The older guard looked hard at the younger one in his twenties. “The end was not that cheerful.”

“What happened?”

“The cops killed him in a staged encounter.”

“Why?”

“He was a threat to a powerful older don operating from Africa. That don paid the cops who killed him in broad daylight. Before hundreds of people. Killed him in cold blood.”

Before the younger guard could say something, a harsh voice called out: “Watchman.”

The younger one ran towards the A-Wing of his housing society.

That same night, a drunken resident abused him and hit him in the belly, for not standing up from his plastic chair. “Who has torn my bike’s cover seat? You blind? Bastard, can’t you keep an eye on the strangers coming into our society? You useless shit! Getting paid for not doing your job. Stinking idler. Bastard.”

The older one rushed out and pacified the drunk in his early 20s. The young guard cried in pain, doubled up on the cold marble floor of the well-lit lobby of the high-rise. The man shouted and stamped his feet and then left, cursing.

Same night, in his troubled dream, Raj Kumar Kurmi, 22, from a remote village, turned into a gleeful killer, going on a spree of killing and shouting hoarsely at the dead in a thin and piping voice.

The action took place in slow motion:

First: stabbing the landlord of the tiny village in the bloated belly five times. Long dagger, in the moonlight, dripping with fresh blood. He shouting: “This one for insulting my elder sister and raping my wife of thirty days.” Then, in a fast motion: Stabbing the money-lender for cheating him out of his one-acre land, at the edge of the village nestling in the region of the brooding Himalayas, near the border with Nepal; followed by the killing of a local politician who spread caste-hatred among the folks there, and then, fleeing from a stunned village, arriving in Mumbai and then, enraged and foaming at mouth, killing the rich of the high-rise and the young drunk resident, laughing manically, in the moon-lit night, while fresh blood dripped from his long curved dagger, a wolf, surprisingly, howling in a far-of forest, on that cold night; then, he, becoming that wolf in the jungle…

Setu

Pantry Prose: After The Fact by Perry McDaid


I had been in some sort of daze, oblivious to everything but the end goal of escape from reality on the work of a favoured author. Even the news that an old classmate had been arrested for subversion barely impinged on my consciousness. The Christmas melancholy with all the memories of past missed opportunities overwhelmed me. Depression had eclipsed my senses.

I had no idea how I’d got in. The Derry Central library had been closed to the public for this hour. Perhaps it was the haircut, I told myself, recently trimmed as a concession to my lazy approach to hair care. Then again, it could have been the generic blue-green coat I had bought from an army surplus store in an effort to eke out my paltry finances; or something about my bleak demeanour. Maybe it was even an honest to goodness act of God.

Whatever the unexpected sequence of events which allowed me access, there I was: snuffling through an array of books which failed to pique my interest; an oddity in itself, for I have always been an avid reader and love books of all sorts.

In saying ‘all sorts’, I’m excluding ‘pass-offs’ unimaginative authors insist as being their own creation and, of course, the assembly-line titillating trash identifying themselves as romance novels: the sort worshipped by some women and most shadow-hugging teenagers. I was considering re-reading an Asimov when I felt a tap on the shoulder.

“He wants you.”

The police sergeant and I shared an awkward moment: he; surprised and offended that an unauthorized civilian should be present; I, offended and surprised that a cop should not only materialize in my local library, but have the effrontery of laying a hand upon me. What I actually verbalised was:

“Eh?”

The cop’s eyes shrank to their normal suspicious little slits, as he gave a non-committal shrug.

“Carson: The Condemned.”

Now there was a tragic and macabre example of alliteration. The political party elected by Carson’s peers, one of the more intransigent schisms of republicanism, had been refused their mandate by the occupying forces.

Nowadays the ‘occupying’ bit was less of a physical presence than a financial miasma and a briar patch of governmental procedures choking independent decision-making like a drawstring on a medieval purse.

Despite the futility of their situation, the more established republicans had pursued diplomatic avenues to block the reintroduction of the death penalty. However, paranoia and egocentric ruthlessness had brought the death squads in from the cold, the same cold which gripped me as I recognised their insignia as they blocked the exits.

Some artiste had designed a new coat of arms for them: sable hound rampant on a maroon and chevron gules background – or something along those lines. I was concentrating more on being invisible than accurately memorising their silly badge.

No civilians remained within the building, save for one tremulous desk-clerk. I had been so absorbed in my private thoughts that I had either blithely walked through or entirely missed the silent evacuation; my unheeding wandering from aisle to aisle frustrating detection until now.

“Will you see him?” The civility was uncharacteristic. I grimaced, nodded, and followed the uniform up the central aisle to where Carson sat, unfettered, in the middle of the library. The placement was equidistant from any potential escape route. I knew him well. My legs made the decision for me. Without transition I found myself sitting opposite him, four eagle-eyed assassins looming over us.

“Jimmy,” I offered by way of greeting.

“Thanks for saying yes,” he acknowledged. He was giving nothing away. Big Brother could do his own dirty work.

“Don’t even know how I got here,” I assured him hastily; nightmare scenarios racing through my brain. Why me? Had he somehow assumed it was I who informed? Don’t be daft, I scoffed at myself. What do you know? You haven’t seen him since he joined.

“I’m not …” I sought to explain.

“I know,” he reassuringly waved away my denial. “I spotted you on the way in and asked Beaky to let you stay. The Managing Director is here as a witness that you come to no harm.”

“Heh,” I grinned weakly. “I thought she was a clerk.” The relief I felt was belied by the constriction I felt in my ribs.

“Oh she wanted to leave a representative in her place. She said she had a meeting to attend.” He grinned maliciously. “I insisted it be the top boss. I remember how it was.”

“She’s not too happy.”

Incongruously we laughed. It petered out into an uncomfortable silence.

“How long?” I asked to break the eggshell moment.

“Forty two minutes,” Beaky interposed. Identification wasn’t difficult.

There was some movement at the entrance and a wild-eyed delivery boy thrust a piping hot tray into the hands of one of the squad, before turning on his heel and beetling off back to the relative safety of the nearby takeaway.

“Hey,” the squad member began, “you forgot…”

“No charge,” came the incrementally distant whimper.

Another took the special constable’s place as he bore the tray to the table. He waved his Sniffer around the dish and plastic bottles before and after carefully removing the foil.

“Bacon and eggs, Spaghetti Bolognese and two bottles of mineral water. Enjoy your last meal, Carson.” Some people have a knack of vocalising sneers.

“I’ll try, Pig-face.”

The burly form of Beaky positioned itself between them as the squaddie sought to vent his displeasure. Sullenly, he returned to his post. Carson chowed down as if nothing had happened.

“The other bottle’s for you.” He gestured towards the unopened mineral.

“No thanks,” I croaked nervously, but determinedly, “but I’ll take a swig of yours.” The dead man smiled gratefully.

“Symbolic. I’m innocent, you know?”

“Does that ever make a difference?”

“Asking the wrong guy. Tell my father the evidence was dismissed. My solicitor had all the guff, but they got to him.”

“He still have it?”

In disgust, Carson spat a bit of gristle at one of the guards, not Beaky. His eyes told me that finding the solicitor would be an exercise in futility. Worm food.

“Still,” he feigned a yawn, leaning back in his chair to stretch his gangly limbs, “you know me.”

“Back-up?”

“Kerr-ching,” he uttered in imitation of an old till drawer as confirmation, and finished his meal. His eyes misted, yet an urgency played around the irises. “Tell Caroline and the kids I’m not going anywhere, you get me?” He lifted my shaking hand and pulled it to his heart.

“No probs,” I promised, dry-mouthed at the salute of old comrades.

I don’t remember what we talked about for the remaining half hour, only that he smiled and cried, laughed and lied as I strove to fill his remaining time. When he left he merely shook my hand and blew a raspberry at the Managing Director on the way out. It had always been an ambition of his, he had confided during those final minutes, to make at least one pompous ass soil their underwear. From the insidious odour oozing from behind the desk, I think he’d achieved that goal.

Naturally I wasn’t allowed to move from my place until plates, utensils and bottles had been counted and removed; the tables and chairs checked top and bottom; and I had been frisked and searched. This duty fell to the one Carson had dubbed pig-face. Obviously disappointed, despite having the sadistic pleasure of subjecting me to a humiliatingly thorough search, the pig grunted, chucked the tin-foil into the nearest bin and stormed out of the building.

Only after the Land rovers and assorted armoured escorts had cleared the block, their engines fading into the distance, the public begun to timidly filter back into the library, and the terrifying stink of well lubricated weaponry been drained by extractor fans, did I dare to rise.

The shadows, which had slumped across the aisle as Carson and I had talked, sprang to attention as the sun shouldered its way through the cloud cover. Cautiously glancing about me, I retrieved the tin-foil from its resting place and read the electrolysed print: a combination number to a safe.

I’d pass his message on to his wife and family, but first I had documents to relay to the International Court of Human Rights. He never called his wife by her first name, opting instead for Morf – an affectionate rendering of her maiden name, Murphy.

Anyone else would have used ‘Murf’, but Carson had always loved Tony Hart’s creation. I suppose he’d reckoned he would lump the two together. The quirks of sentiment, eh?

The barge which bore the Christian name Jimmy had so subtly stressed, ‘Caroline’, was moored next to mine on the Shannon. I couldn’t imagine how he had arranged it all, or how I was going to manage turning up on the Carson doorstep after so long.

I definitely didn’t know what I was going to say about his execution. I didn’t know a lot of things, but I knew that when I finally visited his family, I wanted to be able to look them in the eye and promise that his name would be cleared.

Irish writer, Perry McDaid, lives in Derry under the brooding brows of Donegal hills which he occasionally hikes in search of druidic inspiration. His writing appears internationally in the Bookends Review, Red Fez, 13 o’clock Press, Curiosity Quills, Aurora Wolf Literary Magazine, Amsterdam Quarterly, SWAMP and many others.

Pantry Prose: Tulip Mania by Susan Dean

The year 1636 saw the Netherlands in the grip of an enormous and unlikely demand for all things tulip bulbs! So great was the demand, that people were making fortunes on the stock market; the rarest of bulbs could fetch as much as the cost of a house, each. Every day the stock market was bursting at the seams with brokers and buyers all shouting, pushing and shoving in the fight for tulip bulbs. A number of people believed they would make their fortunes overnight. Hubert van Meissen was one of them. Now middle aged, he had been born an opportunist and was convinced that tulips would be his future, the gateway to the aristocratic lifestyle he had always dreamed of living.

Indeed he had already purchased a large, airy, spacious house in one of Amsterdam’s most exclusive areas; now to complete his show of new found status in the world, he needed a wife. It was after another hectic morning in the stock exchange and while in a coffee house with some of his friends that he noticed an attractive and very young woman preparing to leave the coffee house with two older women, her chaperones. Before leaving the coffee house himself, Hubert made enquiries regarding the young woman, and the proprietor informed Hubert the young woman’s name was Anna-Marie Helzing, a frequent visitor to the coffee house. Van Meissen decided he would like to meet this Anna-Marie Helzing and planned to frequent the coffee house more often and find a way to contrive an introduction.

About a week later Hubert van Meissen’s luck was in while walking down the strasse heading for the stock exchange, when he spotted Anna-Marie Helzing and her chaperones entering the coffee house. He hesitated for a moment then made for the coffee house. A little brass bell above the entrance tinkled as van Meissen opened the door and stepped inside. Then, seating himself at a small circular table covered in a bright red, chequered cloth close to the three women, he ordered coffee.

For some time Hubert sat sipping his coffee and eavesdropping on the conversation of the three women until it became obvious that they were preparing to leave. Then, he suddenly moved his chair backwards as if to stand up and bumped into the back of one of the elderly ladies. As Hubert had planned, her coffee cup from which she was about to drink the final drop tipped forward and spilled down the bodice of her gown.

‘Oh, my goodness,’ gasped the surprised elderly woman as a small brown stain began to spread over her bodice. Pretending concern, Hubert began apologising profusely and quickly produced a handkerchief for the lady to dap at the stain with.

Hubert began introducing himself and offered to purchase cakes for the ladies by way of an apology for his clumsy, foolish behaviour.

‘Cakes,’ replied the second older woman. ‘I’m afraid, Meneer van Meissen, that is out of the question, although kind of you to offer, but we are about to leave as miin man has business associates arriving for luncheon and we are expected to attend.’

‘But I insist,’ pressed Hubert. ‘We are yet to be properly acquainted and I will also pay for a cab for you ladies. Now, how does that sound?’

‘Oh, very well. I suppose one little cake won’t hurt,’ replied the woman who now introduced herself as the young woman’s Moeder and her dochter as Anna-Marie. The second older woman was the young woman’s Tante. Hubert pulled up a chair and sat down. Indicating for a waiter, he ordered cakes and soon found he had the two older women eating out of the palm of his hand, particularly when he emphasised his wealth and status in the community. The dochter, Anna-Marie, seemed a little less interested at this stage.

The result of this meeting was a number of accidental brief encounters, and before long Hubert had asked permission of Anna-Marie’s parents if he may ask her to go walking through the parks and along the canals with him, which were soon added to by way of dining out, theatre and concert evenings.

By the time Anna-Marie’s birthday came around, Hubert had discussed marriage with her parents, who had agreed with enthusiasm as van Meissen was clearly wealthy and had a more than suitable home for a bride. So Anna-Marie was not only delighted with the gift of a puppy, but acted surprised as young ladies were expected to at the marriage proposal and engagement ring purchased at great expense from Amsterdam’s diamond quarter.

Arrangements were hastily made and the couple were married within the month, with Anna-Marie moving into the beautiful spacious house with a servant to do the cooking and chores. On arrival Hubert surprised her with a gift of a beautiful green and blue parrot in a cage, which had been suspended from the ceiling in the hall of the great house.

Shortly after Hubert and Anna-Marie had settled down to married life, Hubert invited a friend to dinner who was familiar with the thriving art community in Amsterdam to discuss with the couple Hubert’s wedding gift to Anna-Marie. She was to have her portrait painted, and the three of them sat round the table discussing this intention while waiting for the artist to arrive.

Anna-Marie was the first to notice a tall young man approaching the house, and shortly afterwards a knock was heard.

‘Ah, that will be Matteo,’ laughed Hubert’s jovial friend as the servant opened the door. The moment their eyes met, Matteo and Anna-Marie were attracted and could barely keep their eyes off each other throughout the discussion to arrange for Anna-Marie’s portrait to be painted, and a considerable sum was agreed. Almost simultaneously as the young couple met for the first time, the parrot flew from his cage, which had been carelessly left open, and disappeared through an open window. Matteo, who couldn’t wait to be alone with Anna-Marie and get to know her better, wanted to begin immediately and suggested the following morning; Hubert having noticed nothing agreed.

At ten am the following morning, Matteo arrived with his artistic accoutrements in a cart and was shown to an upstairs room that had been prepared for use as a studio and he began setting out his materials. First the easel, then one or two canvases were propped against one wall and a table beside the easel was spread with paints and brushes. Then he set about a nervous wait for his subject to arrive.

Twenty minutes later two pairs of footsteps were heard on the stairs, and both Hubert and Anna-Marie entered the room. Matteo’s eyes lit up at the sight of Anna-Marie, as did her eyes at the sight of him. The sight of the lovely Anna-Marie this morning, a little more scantily clad than the previous day, excited him, and as he indicated for her to sit down on a chaise longue, then picking up charcoal and paper, he asked her to lower her pink silk dressing gown to reveal her slender long neck and sculpted shoulders. He felt the merest trickle of perspiration slide down his torso. Feverishly he began to sketch, trying hard not to spend too much time gazing at the way her neat, small, pert breast swelled slightly while resting on the weight of her arm, as the silk dressing gown slipped a little lower causing her white cotton chemise to fall from her shoulder.

Just as Anna-Marie raised her dark smouldering eyes towards Matteo, her lips parting slightly, Hubert gave a short cough and dropped his watch back into his pocket, which brought the couple back into reality with a sudden start.

‘I think that will be enough for today. We have a ball to attend this evening and I do not want my wife to tire herself. Anna-Marie, get dressed, please. I want you to rest now so you will enjoy the evening more.’

‘Perhaps, Meneer van Messien, you would care to inspect the sketches before I transfer them to a canvas?’ gushed Matteo.

‘Very well,’ replied Hubert. ‘You go ahead, my dear. I’ll ask the servant to bring lunch to your room and to you here,’ instructed Hubert turning to Matteo.

‘As you wish, miin man,’ replied Anna Marie, pulling both her chemise and dressing gown up around her shoulders as she moved towards the door and left the room.

‘These are very good drawings,’ murmured Hubert thoughtfully. ‘Yes, begin work. My wife will sit for you again tomorrow.’ And with that van Meissen left the young artist to his work.

A short time later van Messien was heard leaving the house. Moments later a note slid under the studio door. Matteo left his work, picked up the note and read:

come down to the lower floor

my boudoir is the third door on the left.

AM

Without a moment’s hesitation, Matteo left the studio and descended the stairs only to be met by the servant on her way up with his lunch.

‘Oh, Meneer Matteo, I was just bringing you your lunch. Don’t you want it?’ questioned the surprised servant.

‘Yes, of course,’ replied Matteo, ‘but I need some air first so I thought a short walk. Please leave the meal in the studio for me.’

‘Certainly,’ replied the servant who continued on her way upstairs.

Careful not to attract attention Matteo knocked softly on Anna-Marie’s door.

‘Come in,’ a soft female voice bid.

Matteo opened the door and stepped into the room, closing the door behind him and locking it. Anna-Marie was stood beside the dressing table still wearing what she had worn for the sketches.

‘Matteo,’ she gasped and a moment later they were in each other’s arms, each searching for each other’s mouths, kissing passionately, exploring each other with their tongues. Matteo’s hands moved towards Anna-Marie’s waist and untied her dressing gown, which slid down to the floor; then, with arms raised, her chemise came off revealing her naked body. Matteo began caressing her small perfect breasts while Anna-Marie tore at Matteo’s shirt, which he quickly pulled off. Turning Anna-Marie around, he lifted her onto the bed and, still kissing and caressing her body, teased her legs gently apart and slid his hand between them. Anna-Marie gasped and tore at the lacing on Matteo’s pants, aware of the stiffness beneath the fabric. At last her hand caressed his cock and she guided him inside her. Their skin glistened with sweat as they moved together in perfect synchronisation, both enfolded in ecstasy. Peaking at the same time, they then lay breathlessly entwined and fell into a deep slumber.

It was late afternoon when they both woke. For a few moments they lay still, listening to the patter of rain drops on the window pane. Then a clock chimed five pm from somewhere in the house.

Anna-Marie gave a start. ‘We must part, my love, for now. Miin man will be home soon and I must be ready for the evening.’ With a lingering kiss, Matteo reluctantly left.

Regular love-making afternoons began to take place, meaning the portrait did not come along as quickly as expected, and the servant began to grow suspicious, then so did van Messins. With Matteo making feeble excuses, such as the paint being a problem, it was taking longer than expected to mix it to the right colour and consistency he would often claim, but van Messiens kept life normal.

Then, as the weeks passed, the air grew cooler as the seasons began to change, leaves changed from green to brown and began falling from the trees. Then came the day van Messeins returned home to find the servant standing waiting in the hall for his return.

‘She’s packed her things and left with that artist this morning,’ the servant sniffed. Van Messiens just shrugged, poured a glass of wine and waited for supper. This would be the start of his downfall, although he did not yet realise it.

The following February 1637 just one year after van Messiens dream appeared to have become a reality, the mania for tulip bulbs came to a dramatic end. Overnight the stock market crashed, leaving a number of newly wealthy people destitute. Shattered and numb with shock, van Messiens returned to his beautiful house, which would soon be lost to him in a daze.

As when his wife left, the servant was standing in the hall waiting for his return. When he walked in, he looked straight at her and said, ‘I’m sorry.’

‘I know the whole of Amsterdam knows,’ the servant replied solemnly. ‘It was the least I could do to wait for your return.’

With tears in his eyes van Messiens gazed about him at the large spacious rooms and antiques, then he looked at the servant. ‘I’m sorry I can’t pay you, I’ve nothing left to give.’

‘I know, Master. It will be fine,’ she gently answered.

‘Before you go, you know the silver chocolate pot?’

‘Of course,’ replied the servant.

‘Then find something to wrap it in. Don’t let anyone see you with it. Take it. You should get something for it to feed your family,’ instructed van Meissens. ‘Then go before the bailiff’s arrive.’

Alone now, van Meissens took a bottle of wine from a cupboard. He sat at the table and drank until the bottle was empty. He then left the house, leaving the door open for the bailiffs, and walked dazedly down first one strasse then another, gradually filling his pockets with stones. When he reached the canal he stood for a few moments looking at the gently rippling water reflecting the blackness of the night sky; then, sitting on the canal wall, his feet dangling in the water, he gradually eased himself down further and further into the dark water, feeling the weight of the stones pulling him beneath the water’s surface, until only one or two air bubbles could be seen. Then nothing but calmness.

Two days later a farm labourer walking along the canal noticed a body floating face down in the water and raised the alarm. Several people came hurrying to the scene and with some effort pulled the bloated body of van Meissens free of his watery demise.

Pantry Prose: King Melvin and the Green Castle by Andrew Williams


It’s hard work being a king. At least, that’s what kings would have you believe. All those heavy crowns and the repetitive strain injury from all that royal waving. I imagine at least one king must have met his end after toppling from a balcony, too (though it’s quite plausible that some assassin gave him a push).

Yet, somehow, I think kings have it easier than they make out.

Kings are lazy. That’s all there is to it.

Even on the chess board, the king is the laziest of the bunch. Those bishops and rooks are zipping all over the board. The knights are the champions of jumping. The queen – well, she’s the busiest of them all. Even those slow moving pawns can be forgiven, as they march slowly into the jaws of certain death. But the king? Not him. He’s skulking at the back, hiding behind his army, never moving more than one square at a time except for darting into the shelter of his castle.

No. The average king is only interested in doing the least he can get away with. Work? That’s for the peasants. The occasional gala event, perhaps opening the odd library or hospital, and spend the rest of the time on hunts and at balls and feasts. No sense doing anything that might upset the people.

Once in a while, however, a king breaks the mould. A king takes power with energy and enthusiasm and some downright bizarre hobbies. They inspire their subjects, terrify their enemies and put all the other kings to shame. They don’t tend to last long. Regal duties soon crush their outgoing spirits and leave them as bitter, twisted old men, if they don’t get assassinated in the meantime. That balcony is looking particularly tempting tonight, your majesty…

And sometimes, cruel irony alone is enough to bring them down.

One such go-getting, unusual king went by the name of Melvin. I know, I know. You can’t believe there could ever be a King Melvin. The history books do tend to overlook him, it’s true. They tend to skip over the gap between Henry XVIII and his uncle’s wife’s grandson, Henry XVII (what can I say? I think the scribes lost count – it was a confusing century) and declare that either one Henry ruled longer or the other started earlier, or even that the kingdom spent three years in anarchy. Perhaps historians prefer it that way. Trying to explain King Melvin is… difficult.

For one thing, Melvin refused to wear a crown. He had the most magnificent hair, which he kept on a stand by his bed at night so he wouldn’t crush it in his sleep, or vice versa; a bouffant wig some six feet high and home to three birds, a family of dormice and a small butler that could attend to his every whim should the regular butler be off on holiday. A crown, he said, would be taking things too far. On royal occasions when a crown was demanded, the royal potato wore the crown instead. (Sorry to disappoint you, but the potato was a Maris Piper, and not the King Edward you might expect. That would just be silly.)

King Melvin was a kind and friendly king, often throwing gold from his castle windows to the starving peasants below. This went a lot better after the first attempt, when he started first taking the coins out of the sacks that held them in his vault. Three peasants were crushed in that first deadly display of generosity.

He also had a fondness for nature. At the start of his reign, it was not uncommon for King Melvin to be seen going for a gentle jog in the forests around the castle. This was brought to an equally gentle end after three bears, two wolves and a confused badger had to be executed for threatening the life of the king. Melvin was sad about all of these, especially the badger, and he proposed an alternative – he would live in a brand new castle, made entirely from nature, and he could smell the fresh grass and the woodland flowers without ever leaving his home.

It took two years, but the finest architects, weavers, forestry experts and farmers found a way. The new castle was not so much built as grown. The walls were a light frame of saplings strung with ivy, the carpets were the freshest of spongy forest moss and the walls were clad with tall reeds and grasses from the river banks. The entire castle was a living sculpture, every blade and petal still living and growing. Birds nested in the parapets and insects buzzed happily over the canopy of leaves that formed the roof. The people were immensely proud of the Green Castle. Even Versailles could not compare to the grandeur of this bold undertaking.

And perhaps all would have been well, if it were not for King Melvin’s unfortunate hobby.

I said before that these more… active rulers pursued pastimes that were a little strange. King Terence III held yodelling contests during his reign. Queen Alfreda was so fond of cake that she ate six cakes for breakfast every day. When she finally died of her outrageous obesity, collapsing with simultaneous liver failure and heart failure just as she was walking down the aisle to marry the Duke of Pembrokeshire, even the wedding cake was in tiers. Compared to the knife juggling King Michael IV or the Elvis memorabilia so loved by King Phillip IX (not the singer Elvis – this was long before his time – but Elvis Cooper, the bawdy jester), King Melvin’s obsession was positively tame.

King Melvin loved to collect thrones.

Small thrones, large thrones, gold thrones, silver thrones, bone thrones, lone thrones, twin thrones, trombone thrones, moaning thrones, groaning thrones, home thrones, work thrones, thrown thrones, lost thrones, found thrones, thrones of swords, thrones of skulls, thrones of games… he didn’t care. Whenever he found a new throne, he had to have it.

Soon every visiting dignitary or merchant looking for a favour knew what to do. Buy the king a new throne, and he’d shower you with gold, and he’d even take it out of the sack first. The floor of Green Castle was packed full of royal seating. The annual festival’s game of musical chairs could last for days as there were far more chairs to take than people to sit in them.

As the throne count went up, Green Castle grew ever more cramped. Finally, something had to be done. The king summoned the architects, the forestry experts, the farmers, the weavers, the thatchers and told them that the castle needed expanding. They needed more throne room.

A quick survey of the surrounding area ruled out the land to the north (too rough, too rocky) and the south (arable farmland, vital to the kingdom). The western expanse was no use – that’s where the old castle still stood, and several armies over the last three centuries had failed to take it down, so demolition seemed unlikely. To the east, the old forest still called Melvin for a last jog. He didn’t have the heart to cut it down.

There was only one direction left to build, and that was straight up.

Construction work began that very day. An old weeping willow, spiralling up from the floor, served as a staircase to the upper level, where two lines of young oak trees provided a second floor via a network of branches. A carpet of foliage covered these branches. With space to move at last, King Melvin ordered his collection of thrones moved to the upper level. Downstairs, the business of ruling the kingdom could finally proceed – and the next game of musical chairs would be over in less than four hours.

Perhaps, in hindsight, they should have known. The King of Monaco, on a flying visit from his homeland, was so impressed by Green Castle that he gifted King Melvin with the largest, most extravagant throne that had ever been built. Mahogany framed, lined with gold and jewels, cushioned with the finest down from the fluffiest of pipistrelle bats, it was a dazzling and irresistible gift. Twelve footmen were needed to drag it up the curving willow to the upper level, where it was given pride of place in the very centre of the upper floor.

There was a lot of ominous creaking, and then came a mighty crash. The new throne had proved too much for the delicate natural timbers of the castle. As it came crashing down, so too did dozens more thrones of all kinds. The castle groaned and shivered, and then the sapling walls and the grass cladding folded in on itself. To the horror of all who watched, Green Castle collapsed inwards. King Melvin, along with his retinue, was crushed to death beneath his own throne collection.

King Henry XVII took over the kingdom, moving back into the main castle. He didn’t collect thrones, or indeed collect anything – aside from dust, and taxes. He lived another fifty years before falling off his balcony, but he was one of those boring kings that never did anything special beyond that. He’d learned a valuable lesson from his predecessor.

People living in grass houses shouldn’t stow thrones.

Pantry Prose: Cherry Scones by Sally Shaw

Once there was a slip of paper, folded into four. It sat in the pocket of a heavy green overcoat.

Dorothy hurriedly fastens the large buttons on her heavy green overcoat. The click of the lock signals a release. She slams the front door of the detached house.

***

Dorothy flinches as she eases the white turtle neck jumper over her head, and down the contours of her shoulders and back. She picks up the black stirrup pants from the bedroom floor and sits back onto the bed. He turns towards her; opens his eyes before drifting back to sleep.

***

The kitchen welcomes him with the smell of freshly cooked: eggs, bacon, baked beans, and fried bread. One place set; one napkin, Daily Mirror, one cup and saucer.

***

Dorothy is on her knees scrapping a mixture of smashed plate, eggs, bacon, baked beans, fried bread and blood into a dustpan.

She holds her breath as he dips the fried bread into the yolk of the egg, he pauses: “Perfect, now why couldn’t you do that the first time?”

She pours the tea as he swallows his last mouthful of breakfast; removes the plate and places the cup and saucer before him. Her grip intense on the plate – as he slurps the tea she closes her eyes – waiting “Spot on.”

A silent sigh as the plate sinks beneath the Fairy bubbles. She watches as the grease floats to the top. If allowed to smile, she would at this image, as it impersonates her underlying feelings.

The chink of his china cup alerts her to be swift. A neatly wrapped package swops places with the china cup and saucer. He picks up the greaseproof paper package, held together with string and smells it: “Salmon?”

Dorothy nods. She hands him his flask of tea. He places the flask on the table; unwraps the neat package to reveal two perfect white triangles. In silence he selects one triangle; peels the bread apart, exposing the pink flesh. He rises to his feet; takes four deliberate steps towards Dorothy. He throws the triangles at the toes of her suede boots and places the heel of his black Oxford shoe onto the pink flesh and twists: hissing through clenched teeth; “It’s Monday.” A fine shower of spittle shocks her eyes. He turns around hesitates glances at the clock, puts on his collar and leaves.

***

“Ladies it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to Mrs Darby our speaker this evening and judge for the best scones competition.” Dorothy stands up. “Thank you, madam chair…my talk this evening; ‘Life as a vicar’s wife.’

***

“In third place Mrs Blackburn, in second place Mrs Smith’s cherry scones and in first place Mrs Green.”

“Thank you, Mrs Darby, a delightful talk and I hope you will join us for tea and scones.”

***

She closes the front door and leans against it. A shard of light glows under the parlour door, her body is frozen with dread, a moment to realise. She hangs her green coat next to the black overcoat with the velvet collar and goes to make a pot of tea.

He grabs her wrist as she sets the tray down, his eyes seeking what is not there. Once released she sits down and drinks her tea. The mantle clock chimes ten, Dorothy clears away the cups and goes to bed to wait.

***

Dorothy waits in the Little Blue Café on the high street staring out of the window, she thinks to herself, what secrets are the people that pass by hiding. Gentlemen hurrying along in their over coats and trilbies; are they kind to their girlfriends or wives? Young ladies laughing and chatting rushing to work; are they truly happy?

The waitress brings, her toasted teacake and milky coffee. “I thought it was you, it is isn’t it…Mrs Darby?…you probably don’t remember me, I bet you meet loads of real ladies being married to a vicar and all…”

Dorothy recalls that evening of course she remembers her, it’s the cherry scone lady; Mrs Smith who should have won first prize if she wasn’t the vicar’s wife and it wasn’t the WI.

She remembers, she remembers him coming up the stairs, his dark shadow over her and then she felt the heaviness of his darkness.

Mrs Smith orders herself tea and toast and tells Dorothy about little Billy and his verrucas and Nellie and her nits. Then she stops and asks: “So, how are you?” No one has asked Dorothy this for so long it takes her breath away. She finishes her coffee and starts to talk.

Mrs Smith listens, she does not try to make Dorothy feel better, she is not shocked. Dorothy knows she is not alone. Mrs Smith has lived the same life. She understands the fear that stops her fighting back, keeps her in check. Mrs Smith does not question; she writes her name and address on a slip of paper and carefully folds it into four. She takes hold of Dorothy’s hand; pressing the paper into her palm. Mrs Smith pays her bill and leaves.

***

Dorothy hurriedly fastens the large buttons on her heavy green overcoat. The click of the lock signals a release. She slams the front door of the detached house; hesitates, then runs towards the Underground Station. She takes the Northern Line not knowing where she is going.

She slides her hand into her coat pocket; pulls out the slip of paper – unfolds it and reads the address. Dorothy steps from the train at Warren Street.

Sally Shaw is a full-time MA Creative Writing student at the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry, gains inspiration from old photographs, history, and is inspired by writers Sandra Cisneros and Liz Berry. Her short prose, A School Photograph, has been published online by NEWMAG. She worked as a nurse for 33 years and lives in North Warwickshire with her partner, three Pekin Bantams and Bob the dog.

Pantry Prose: Happily Ever by Marty Carlock

Bad enough that he left me for another man, but I’m told the blighter is still gorgeous. Slim, dark-haired (no doubt with a touch of grey at the temples), with that winning smile, almost bashful, but certain of himself.

And I am not. Gorgeous. I look a good deal like my mother, who in her day looked like the dowager queen. Queen Mary. They had a lot in common. They liked their little tot of gin at the end of the day. They liked dogs. They wore rather outrageous hats. My mother didn’t ride, though I’m not sure the old queen did either. The queen herself, today’s queen, did, as a girl. No longer. I never rode.

So I’m obliged to see him for the first time in twenty-two years. Melinda was two when he left, Priscilla four. Left me high and dry with a pair of pre-school children. Didn’t care.

I just realized, he said. When I met Henry. I was sandbagged. Instantly. Something that has never happened to me before.

Not with me, you’re saying.

He had the grace to colour a little. I fear not, he said. Out you go, I said.

We were schooled to pull up our socks and do whatever we had to do. Duty. Whatever was expected. That was what made it hard to deal with. He was refusing to do what was expected. There he was, a golden boy at Chase, and he threw it all over to go follow his dick.

Sorry. I try not to use improper language. But I also try to speak honestly.

Oh, it’s a good deal easier now than it was then. We were the talk of the club, I’m sure. I made sure I got the club membership, along with everything else I could. I never rode, but I had tennis lessons early and often. I’m moderately good. I’m always in the running for the club singles championship. I have won sometimes. Even though I don’t cover the court as easily as I once did, my game enables me to play on a high level.

In all respects I’m a competent woman. Except in retaining a man, and I don’t consider that my fault. I’ve had a spectacular success in selling real estate. Something about the English accent dazzles Yanks. My clients trust me, and the sellers are inclined to cave in to whatever terms I propose.

I’ve made sure word gets back to him. As I said, I haven’t seen him since that last court date. But the girls have. He hasn’t been too insistent. Clearly his love life is far more important than his progeny. But I have insisted. You need to know him, even though he has done this to us. He’s your father. You need to know who your father is. And what, I suppose. Although it was some years before they realized what.

But now I have to see him. I asked Priscilla, Is your father coming? She looked down before she answered, Yes. No need to be dodgy about it, I said. I’ve always said he’s your father. It’s right that you invited him. She looked up, relieved. Have you asked him to give you away? She glared rather angrily at me, shook her head. Give me away? What right has he to give me away? I’m not a possession of his. I’m scarcely a daughter of his, for god’s sake.

Well. And is his friend coming?

Husband, she said. He and Henry got married when it got to be legal in Massachusetts.

I exhaled at length. You should have told me.

I didn’t know until now. When I invited him. He asked whether his husband was invited. I said of course. I said, any invitation always includes one’s spouse.

Good, I said. Thank god he didn’t invite me to that wedding. Did he invite you and Melinda?

Not me, of course. Or I would have known about it. I don’t know about Melinda. I don’t think so.

And do you want anybody to give you away? Or is that concept so passé?

I’ve thought about it. If anybody did, it should be you. But I don’t know.

If I have a choice, I think I’d rather not waddle down the aisle.

Mu-ther. You do not waddle. Your posture is absolutely perfect. Enviable. She paused. But you might think about trying a different hair style. Something a bit more contemporary.

Yes and lose forty pounds, shall I?

She blushed a bit again. The hair style is doable, you know.

Damned if I’m going to be one of those women who goes on a killing diet for a month just to fit into some fashionable sort of garb for a wedding. Or gussies herself up in some unsuitable way. Nobody looks at the mother-in-law anyway.

Except you know he will. Just to ask himself what he’s missed.

And be damned glad. You know, darling, you’re too smart for your own good.

Tears started. Oh mum. I hope the same thing doesn’t happen to me!

I was startled. You don’t think…? I took a big breath. But Brian is such a hunk. Macho.

Yes, but who would have thought Daddy…? Now her face crumpled and the tears fell in plenty.

We do not give in to emotion, ordinarily, so for a moment I hesitated. Then I pulled her to me, awkwardly, I suppose, and let her cry. I didn’t know what to say to her. At length I murmured a litany, repeating, It’s all right, darling, really.

Twenty years dead, whatever existed between him and me. And this was the first time anyone has mourned it.

Marty’s fiction has been published, or is forthcoming, in the American Literary Review, Carbon Culture Review, Crack the Spine, Edison Literary Review, Evening Street Review, Fiction Fix, Glint Literary Journal, The Griffin, Halfway Down the Stairs, Hawaii Pacific Review, Inscape, The MacGuffin, The Madison Review, MARY: A Journal Of New Writing, Menda City Press, Minetta Review, Moon City Review, Old Red Kimono, Pennsylvania English, riverSedge, Phantasmagoria, Sanskrit, Schuylkill Valley Journal, and The Storyteller.

For almost 20 years Marty was a regular contributor to The Boston Globe, over 30 newspapers, magazines, some 1,600 articles, is author of two editions of A Guide to Public Art in Greater Boston, writes for Sculpture and Landscape Architecture magazines, and reviews fiction and nonfiction for the Internet Review of Books.

Pantry Prose: Trash Day by Orit Yeret

(Image by Orit Yeret, taken in NYC)

Orit Yeret has a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Haifa in Israel. She is a lecturer in Modern Hebrew and is currently employed at Yale University. In her spare time she enjoys photography, painting, and writing short prose and poetry in both English and Hebrew. Her work is forthcoming in Borfski Press and Drunk Monkeys.

Trash Day

Monday morning, 6:00 a.m.

The sound of a garbage truck backing up in the alley underneath Prince’s window.

Prince jumps out of bed in a panic. Without putting on shoes or pants, he storms out of his fourth-floor apartment window and climbs down the fire escape. As he makes his way down, he catches a glimpse of his own reflection—his hair is messy, his face unshaven, and there’s a fresh cut above his right eye that, for the moment, has stopped bleeding.

The city that never sleeps seems to be under some kind of spell—half-dazed, half-awake—much like Prince’s current situation, only he is on the move. Skipping the stairs, two at a time, he waves at the sanitation workers who have already started loading up the truck.

Wait! Wait!” he shouts, begging, as he makes his way down.

Please!” His pleas become louder as he approaches them.

The two workers stare at him, puzzled. They are wearing long, dark-green overalls with reflective lights. Prince is wearing a white T-shirt and pinstripe boxers. He is now in front of them, trying to catch his breath, crunched down, resting his palms on his knees.

Whew!” he exclaims as he inhales heavily.

That was quite a run,” says one of the sanitation workers.

What happened? Lose something?” the second worker says and starts to laugh.

As a matter of fact…” Prince begins to talk, slowly. “Yes! Did you happen to see an old bedside table…red wood…sort of vintage-looking…only has one drawer…” Prince looks around.

Haven’t seen it,” one of them says. “Anything inside, Marco?” he calls out to the other worker, who goes to check the truck.

Nope!” Marco replies.

Sorry, man,” the worker says, and starts rolling the trash bin toward the truck.

Hey!” Prince stops him. “Wait a minute…” He notices the worker’s nametag. “Luke.” Luke and Prince now stand on opposite sides of the trash bin.

Yo! What’s the holdup?” Marco yells from the truck.

You have to help me out, man.” Prince holds his head with both hands. “I don’t know what to do!” He stares at Luke with a desperate look in his eyes.

What’s the problem here?” Marco steps out of the truck and approaches them. He examines Prince from top to bottom and then turns to Luke. “Junkie?” Luke throws his hands in the air.

Prince is now pacing back and forth, barefoot, in the dirty alley. Marco signals Prince to calm down. “We’re not looking for any trouble here; just let us do our job.”

You don’t understand!” Prince says. “It was in there… It was in there and now it’s gone!”

Luke and Marco exchange a confused glance.

Sorry, man.” Marco then says, “Whatever it was, there’s nothing we can do.”

Luke and Marco start rolling the trash bin toward the truck again.

Please!” Prince cries out. “You have to help me!” He falls on his knees.

Oh, shit…” Marco says. “What the fuck, man?” He turns to Luke. “Get the fuck up, man!” he says to Prince, but Prince doesn’t move and keeps saying, “Please.”

Marco backs up and changes places with Luke.

Calm down, man,” Luke says to Prince in a soothing voice. “Get up. Come on.”

Prince listens to Luke and stands up.

What’s so important about that table?” Luke asks, taking off his gloves.

My dad’s watch… It was in there…” Prince stifles his tears.

And?” Marco intervenes.

Prince stares at the two of them for a moment.

This is a waste of time,” Marco says to Luke, but Luke continues to look at Prince without moving.

And…” Prince finally says, “He died a year ago, and that’s all I have of him…that watch.”

Pshh,” Marco makes a noise and averts his gaze.

Sorry to hear that, man,” Luke replies sympathetically.

So why would you throw the table away?” Marco jumps in again.

I didn’t!” Prince replies angrily. “My…” he hesitates, “…boyfriend did.”

Okay.” Marco holds his hands up. “To each their own, that’s what I always say.”

So why would he…?” Marco starts again, but Luke signals him to be quiet.

We sort of got into a fight last night.” Prince paces in place and rubs his forehead. He accidently touches the cut above his eye and makes a face as he feels the burn.

And that’s his handiwork?” Luke points at the bruise on Prince’s face.

Not intentionally,” Prince explains. “He threw a book at me—my book, actually—and it hit my head… Anyway, it’s all my fault.”

Oh, good…more to the story.” Marco taps on his wristwatch to indicate to Luke they need to get moving. “We’re on a schedule, you know,” he says to Luke.

What happened?” Luke asks Prince, curious.

I…cheated on him…during my latest book tour.” Prince looks away, embarrassed to meet their eyes. “It’s not like I planned it… It happened. He found out and…as you can see, all hell broke loose.” Prince points at the trash bins, which Marco and Luke notice are filled with clothes, broken dishes, and a shattered mirror.

Marco fishes out the pieced mirror from the bin. “Seven years of bad luck,” he mumbles. Luke nudges his arm as a sign to keep silent.

Prince comes closer to the bins. “What a mess…” he sighs. “Truth is, I don’t care about all of this,” he points at the bins, “but the watch—it’s all I have…all I had. He knew I kept it there.” He begins talking to himself angrily. “He knew it, and that’s why he did it…to hurt me.”

Like you hurt him,” Luke says all of a sudden. Surprised the words came out of his mouth, Marco and Prince stare at him.

What?”

Luke mumbles, “I can deduce things too.”

Hey, buddy.” Marco turns to Luke with a smile. “No one said you can’t.” Marco tosses the broken pieces into the bin and comes closer to Prince.

Like I said,” Marco puts his right hand over his heart, “there’s nothing we can do… It’s Monday morning, after the weekend…” Marco wipes off his forehead. “There’s lots of trash, lots of trucks around town… Sometimes we do three, four rounds before noon.” Marco turns to look at Luke, who nods at him in approval.

But you have to,” Prince begs again and, in a desperate move, clutches Marco’s overalls. Marco removes his hand with a swift move.

Like I said, sir,” Marco continues, “there’s nothing we can do. Start loading up,” he says to Luke, turns his back to Prince, and walks away in the direction of the driver’s seat.

Please,” Prince tries to appeal to Luke, who is now wheeling the trash bin.

You shouldn’t have done that,” Luke says to Prince.

I know,” Prince scratches his head. “I didn’t mean to…” Prince points to Marco’s direction.

Not that,” Luke explains, “your boyfriend—you shouldn’t have hurt him like you did.”

Prince looks at him, shocked. “You’re right, I was an asshole. Shit, I am an asshole.” Prince paces back and forth, just now realizing his feet are cold and wet.

Luke stops wheeling the bin and lifts his head to locate Marco. “This watch,” he then turns to Prince, “why is it so important to you?”

I told you, it was my dad’s…” Prince explains.

And he passed away, yeah, yeah,” Luke intervenes, “but it’s not just that, is it?” Luke comes closer to Prince. “See, if it were just that, you wouldn’t be running down the street in your underwear at 6:00 a.m., probably suffering from a concussion, by the look of this bruise, digging your feet in yesterday’s trash, now, would you?”

Prince’s face tightens. “What on earth do you mean? It’s the memory, of course.”

Luke stares at him severely.

All right.” Prince finally breaks down. “You got me. It’s worth a lot of money, like a lot, a lot…the only good thing I got out of that man. You know he disowned me when I told him I wanted to be a writer? Yeah…and when I came out? He told me I was not his son anymore.” Prince pounds his chest.

That damn watch,” Prince continues, “worth a couple of grand…enough to get me by for a while…I need it!” Prince recites with fire in his eyes.

Now, now,” Luke steps away with a satisfied grin. He attaches the trash bin to the truck’s metal arms. There is a loud noise as the bin is mounted and the trash piles on the truck. There are sounds of glass and china being further reduced and crunched together into tiny pieces.

So, what do you say?” Prince shouts over the noise toward Luke. “Will you help me? I’ll split the profits with you, promise.”

Luke smiles at Prince as he lowers the empty trash bin.

You know, people look down on us…because of what we do…” Luke wheels the bin back to its location. “But what they don’t realize…is that we know all their secrets.”

Luke winks at Prince and walks over to the truck. He grabs hold of the metal arm and jumps up; he taps the back of the truck twice.

You have a good day now, sir.” Luke salutes Prince as the truck pulls away from the alley and into the city street.

More Than Words: Orit Yeret

Pantry Prose: The No-Show by Robert Steward

Lisbon, Portugal 2003

I examine my watch; it’s ten past eight in the evening. My student should’ve
been here by eight. Maybe he’s just late. I check my watch again just to make sure, and that familiar feeling takes hold: he’s not going to show up. I can’t be certain, but with every minute that passes, it becomes more and more apparent. That’s when I start praying – praying to the teaching gods – for a no-show.

My student’s Spanish, from Valencia. He has his own business here in Lisbon and works all the hours God sends. He’s pale, serious, with black Brylcreem hair, which matches the colour of his suit. He always looks tired and stressed and has a five o’clock shadow. Sometimes I wish he’d go home to his wife and relax instead of coming here.

It’s now twenty past eight.

Come on, please!’ I say under my breath.

I might get to watch the football after all.

I sit at my desk, hoping. My eyes wander round the classroom. Among the posters of smiling students is a microphone sticking out the wall.

I wonder if Berlitz ever use that,’ I ponder. ‘Maybe they check to see if you use the method.’

I close my coursebook, International Express, which I borrowed from another school, but then re-open it again not to tempt fate.

Oh no – footsteps!

I hold my breath. The footfalls come closer and closer, louder and louder, with purpose. I try to prepare myself for the worst: the false smile, the Hi!, the Sorry I’m late, the That’s okay, don’t worry, the –

Phew. It’s the cleaner!

Olá,’ I say with a pang of relief.

Olá.’ He smiles and walks past the door.

In our lessons we talk about business, usually with the radio on. I find the background music creates an ambiance. But sometimes I lose myself in the song. I try to be present and conscious while he talks about his work, shuddering efforts to repress a yawn. But my attention wanders to wherever the music takes me: a beach, a road trip, meandering through an old city. I find myself nodding occasionally and feigning an expression of interest.

Oh my gosh. It’s half past eight!

I go to the reception.

Laura looks busy behind her computer – probably surfing the Internet. Behind her, five clocks show the time in different parts of the world: New York, Rio, London, Moscow and Australia.

He’s a bit late today, isn’t he?’ I tell the receptionist. ‘Did he call or leave a message?’

Er, let me see.’ She bites her lip. ‘No, he didn’t.’

That’s unusual.’

Maybe he’s stuck in a meeting.’ She pulls back a curl of blonde hair behind her ear.

Yeah, maybe. Are there any other classes tonight?’ I scratch my head.

No, just your one.’

Right.’ My voice tails off, collecting my thoughts. ‘Could you call me when he comes? I’ll just be in the classroom with the television.’

You want to watch the football, eh?’ Laura smiles.

Yeah, it’s the UEFA Cup final tonight.’ I grin back.

Força Porto!’ she lightly punches the air.

I didn’t know you liked football.’

Everyone loves football in Portugal.’ She smiles and shows me her Porto Football Club coffee mug.

I hurry down the corridor into the other classroom. On the table are a Shrek DVD and a baseball cap, and in the wastepaper bin a McDonald’s Happy Meal carton – evidence that the manager and the head of studies were here earlier. I reach up to switch on the television. First, there’s a fuzzy, grainy image, then the football comes on. The volume is high.

Deco toma la bola de volea pero su tiro se va abierto,’ the commentator yells, as Deco volleys the ball wide of the Celtic goal.

I grab the remote control from the table and turn it down. Then, I take a chair, turn it round so it faces the television and sit down.

I can’t believe my luck. All I need now is a bifana steak sandwich and a bottle of Super Bock!

What’s the score?’ Laura pokes her head round the door.

It’s nil-nil.’

Sorry?’ she frowns.

Zero-zero.’

Ah!’ she says, coming into the classroom. ‘Which team is Porto?’

I thought you said you supported them. Porto are wearing the blue-and-white striped shirts and Celtic are in green and white.’

Just then, Deco chips the ball to Alenichev, who volleys it from ten yards out; the goalkeeper parries the shot, but Derlei reacts quickest, slamming the ball into the net.

Derelei!’ the commentator yells. Goooool!’ he continues for about half a minute.

Goooool!’ Laura joins in with her arms in the air. Força Porto!’

She makes circular motions with her hands as if she were a Hawaiian dancer.

I don’t believe it!’ I say with my head in my hands. ‘Just before half-time as well.’

Derlei jumps over the Carlsberg advertising hoarding and runs behind the goal with his arms out-stretched, his face beaming. The Seville stadium becomes a sea of blue and white, bleached by the floodlights. The fans jump up and down and hug each other.

English teams are rubbish! English teams are rubbish!’ Laura sings like a child.

Celtic aren’t English, they’re Scottish.’

I didn’t know you were Scottish?’

I’m not, but –’

So why do you want Celtic to win?’

I don’t know,’ I say, scratching my head. ‘I just do. Anyway, I like their manager, Martin O’Neil. Is that the phone ringing by the way?’

Oh merda!’ Laura says, and runs out the room.

To be honest, I’m not sure who I want to win. I secretly like Porto – especially Deco, their creative midfielder. And I like their manager too – Mourinho. He’s so arrogant that he reminds me of Brian Clough, one of the best English football managers of his time. But, I still find myself supporting Celtic – maybe I do have Scottish blood.

In the second half, Celtic start brightly. Agathe crosses the ball into the penalty area from the right-hand side, and Larsson heads the ball, looping into the far corner of the goal.

Goooool!’ the commentator yells, a bit shorter this time.

Yes!’ I shout a little too loudly.

This time the stadium becomes a sea of green and white. There are scarves, flags – Scottish and Irish, big green hats.

What’s happened?’ Laura asks, running into the classroom.

Celtic have equalised! ‘It’s one-one!’

This is confirmed by the action replay: the ball slowly hitting the bottom of the post and going into the net.

Then five minutes later, Deco avoids a tackle, cleverly slips the ball to Alenichev, who beats the goalkeeper from close range.

Alenichev!’ the commentator yells. Goooool!’

Goooool!’ Laura mimics the commentator. This goes on for a full minute.

I don’t believe it. Every time you come into the room, Porto score.’

Laura laughs, but suddenly her face changes: ‘Was that the intercom?’

I didn’t hear anything.’

I’ll just check and see,’ she says, and leaves the room.

Celtic have a corner.

Thompson crosses the ball into the penalty area, and Larsson, unmarked, powerfully heads the ball into the net.

Larsson!’ yells the commentator. Goooool!’

The crowd erupts in the stadium.

Get in there!’ I shout, fist pumping the air.

I hear something above the din.

Robby! Robby!’

It must be Laura.

I crane my neck round the classroom door. Laura trots down the corridor, holding her beige cardigan together, her shoes making a light clapping sound on the vinyl tiles.

What’s wrong?’ I frown.

It’s your student,’ she says, slightly out of breath. ‘He’s just called on the intercom, and he’s coming up right now.’

What?’ I reply, incredulous. ‘But it’s quarter past nine! What am I supposed to do – teach him for fifteen minutes?’

She nods sympathetically, then pauses for a moment. ‘I know,’ she whispers. ‘I’ll tell him you’ve already gone.’

What? You can’t do that!’ I say in a low voice, a little tempted by the idea.

Yes, we can,’ she says. ‘You’re only supposed to wait half an hour for a student, and then you can go.’

Really?’ My voice rises up nearly into a falsetto. ‘But, he’s coming up now and he’ll see me.’

Go and hide in there.’ She persists, pointing to the classroom with the television.

Hide?’ I protest, knowing this will be a new low for me.

Come on, quickly,’ she says. ‘Then we can both go home early.’

I half-reluctantly go into the classroom and turn off the television.

I don’t believe it – hiding from a student, so I don’t have to teach them. What depths have I sunk to?

I try not to make a sound and find myself cowering behind the classroom door, my breathing shallow.

What if he finds out? I fret. It would be so embarrassing!

Boa tarde, Laura.’

It’s my student. Hearing his voice makes me feel even worse.

Boa tarde, senhor. Desculpe mas…

I can just about hear Laura apologising to my student, and I cringe with guilt. I bet he knows I’m here hiding from him. I’ll never be able to look him in the eye again!

I catch my reflection in the glass panel of the door; my teeth clenched together as
if I’d just dropped a precious vase on the floor.

The voices stop. But I daren’t move.

What’s going on?

I wait in silence; it’s almost deafening. My stomach is clenched, my mouth is dry; my heart beats so fast.

Boo!’ Laura pokes her head through the classroom door.

Oh!’ I jump. ‘You gave me a fright.’

Laura starts laughing.

Your face!’

Very funny.’ I frown. ‘So what did he say?’

Nothing much,’ she replies. ‘But, he did seem a little disappointed, though.’

Oh well,’ I say, feeling a pang of apprehension, but that soon goes as I turn the television back on to see if the match has gone into extra time.