Pantry Prose: Rêverie by Evan Hay

Dribbling saliva, slumped in the deepest of rêveries, he was approached by a French accented usherette- a veritable caricature, advertising a take-me-from-behind coquetry; she tottered wantonly, making a beeline towards him. Sporting patent black stilettos, & sheer Hi-Vi stocking tops, with ripened honeydew melons squeezed into plunge-cut white silk blouse ‘you are not ‘ere to see the peeping show I ‘ope?’ Despite horny Mediterranean tones wafting a frisson across his prostate gland- Monty just managed to feebly shake his head; spent, unable to accommodate whatever she had to say, or offer. In a vintage styled slim-line tray, hanging from her fetching, slender bronzed shoulders, by an ebony black bespoke cord, continuously bearing the word psychopomp in a bold white text, were presented several uniformly sized ice-cream tubs, all gaudily badged glacé- ‘a final treat perhaps, something for the road? They’re only £9.99 each.’ Trying to make light of hellish migraine, toothache, heartache, a 360-degree grave discomfort, Monty mouthed ‘my mum don’t let me carry big change like that’. It didn’t matter- nothing did any more, nor would it ever again, as dark curtains descend, signaling an end to proceedings. She was uncannily strong for such a pretty young thing, twiddling him up from his seat, onto her shoulders in a fireman’s lift (as if this sort of activity was second nature to her), it really was a fantastical intervention; she provocatively guided him to his final resting place, an act which she whispered was ‘in the interests of good form.’ Laid out under an Afghani flag of convenience, spectacularly physically & chemically restrained, rendered to a pimped-up black site shipping container of carnal humidity, Monty witnessed a truism (humanity is set to destruct). Hackneyed conspiratorial sub-plots, par for the course: wealthy people, organised, confederated to extract whatever they desire whenever, wherever, & from whomever they fancy, well protected from repercussions, aided, abetted, systematically catered for by institutional intermediaries, business people, & servile providers (bleeding obvious, as lame as dedicating a movie to the proposition that rain is wet). A black-&-white metric montage rapidly leafed through Monty’s inner directory of drastic disaffection; polemic streams of subconscious & unfolding flashing vitriolic scenes presented in butchered mental forms. Sir Robert Maxwell holds hands with Dame Shirley Porter, prancing over autumnal casualties strewn around a bloody decapitated mediaeval battlefield. Incognito, an avuncular press baron contacts Benjamin Netanyahu, who gladly, without arrière-pensée, decants everything he knows concerning a haunted Saxe-Coburg Gotha. Malicious, victorious forces marshalled by Alan Greenspan carry severed limbs aloft as trophies, atop spiked banners inscribed with Supremacy, Misogyny, Colonisation & Freedom; waving goodbye as they jauntily march to loot a nearby abbey, passing as they do, an elderly Mohel under a convenient covenant pavilion, performing a bris on a newly born Jeffrey Epstein. Prince Andrew temporarily leaves the tribal ceremony with a prawn sandwich, to be intimately debriefed by insouciant teenage Mossad Agents, burlesquely attired in counterfeit Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Monty hears Royal laughter, mention of operant conditioning, Stockholm syndrome, Fiat currencies, regulatory capture, Black Death, inter-generational, international, state-resourced, trans-Atlantic fist-fuckers of humanity, neo-feudalism, austerity, & Leviathans. Fluctuating betwixt life & death, drifting over any sense of identity, vis-à-vis the origins & basis of inequality; reflecting upon subjugation, propaganda, guilt. ROTL, an acronym, pops up unexpectedly. A day release kid from YOI Feltham transported back & forth over a week’s work experience in the warehouse at Bourne End, told Monty his Student Support Worker counselled him in respect to resilience in social environments. To succeed, was predicated, fundamentally, on disengaging from peers &/or family involved in criminality. Upon the boys release from incarceration on temporary a licence at 16-years of age, for good behaviour, he was rewarded nominal assistance towards achieving social stability in a half-way house, inhabited by products of backgrounds rich in shared exogenous factors: small family flats, rented by unhappy parents, battling, blaming, adventurously polygamous, accusatory, uneducated, inarticulate, unconfident yet enthusiastically domestically violent, unskilled migrants, without faith, property, land, gold reserves, fine art collectables, off-shore bank accounts, cash savings, family assistance, or career prospects- showing little love, or interest; separating during their children’s primary school years. In the fullness of time, unprepared, socially disconnected, & without any reliable access to material resources, a youth sets out to survive, & avoid repeating the miseries experienced whilst resident with their progenitors. Sounds like a plan, but this leads to the endogenous factors i.e. being an average person, minus star qualities, & incapable of earning much beyond what is required just to keep a roof over their head. What a contrast, muses Monty to a multitude of antecedents, despots, frauds, slave owners, facilitators, as guilty as hell, whose descendants aren’t expected to, make reparations, or disconnect from those associated support networks, & their affiliates, the status quo, eternal partners in international crime. Cui bono?

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.

More work from Evan on Ink Pantry

Pantry Prose: Jacob Mundy the Insurance Guy by Robert P. Bishop

Jacob Mundy stepped off the porch and hurried along the sidewalk, eager to get to the office where he would be safe from unforeseen hazards capable of injuring or killing him. The sound of screeching tyres startled Jacob. His head snapped up and he peered down the street. A car going too fast cornered the intersection ahead of him on two wheels.

The car frightened Jacob. He imagined being struck by the car as it jumped the curb, smashing into him, tossing him into the air where he turned several somersaults before landing on the car with his face pressed against the windshield staring into the eyes of the grinning driver. The last sound he would ever hear before sliding off the car to the asphalt where death awaited would be the crazed driver screaming, “Gotcha!”

Jacob bunched his shoulders and increased his pace, anxious to get off the street.

At eight o’clock, as he did five days a week, Jacob turned the key in the door lock of Crown Insurance Company. The office opened for business at nine but Jacob arrived an hour early so he had time to set things in order, make coffee and arrange the snacks and cookies most of his clients had come to expect when they made a business call.

After filling the printer and the photocopier with paper and checking toner cartridges, Jacob Mundy sharpened a dozen yellow pencils. He placed them on the right side of his desk next to a yellow legal pad. One last chore remained; checking the liquid soap, paper towels, and toilet paper in the restroom. They were sufficient.

Jacob Mundy had done these chores every weekday for the thirty-seven years he had worked for Crown Insurance, in this office, in this town where he was born. Of course, the coffee pot wasn’t thirty-seven years old. No coffee pot lasts that long.

Jacob returned to his desk, sat down and waited for the nine o’clock opening. He closed his eyes and dreamed of exhilarating adventures in far-off regions of the world where few people had the courage to go.

Jacob Mundy imagined himself alone in a kayak, navigating dangerous white-water rapids of a wilderness river, narrowly avoiding the jagged rocks in the raging water waiting to shred his boat and take his life.

He dreamed of drinking tea flavoured with yak piss on the vast steppes of Mongolia with nomadic tribesmen, then fleeing just moments before they planned to skin him alive and roast his balls over a yak-dung fire.

Naked and armed with a blowgun and poison darts, his body decorated with bright red stripes from the juices of wild berries, Jacob imagined going on a raid with headhunters in the steaming Amazon, then fleeing into the jaguar and snake-infested jungle when he realized his head was the one the tribesmen intended to shrink in a coming-of-age ceremony for boys passing into manhood.

But he was incapable of doing anything even close to these fantastic dreams.

Jacob Mundy was a frightened man.

So he read Hemingway, Jack London, C.S. Forester, Louis L’Amour, and books describing the thrills, dangers, and hardships of life lived on the edge, of brave men, fictional and real, standing eyeball to eyeball in a do-or-die duel with death. He went to Antarctica with Shackleton, sailed four thousand miles across the Pacific in an open boat with Bligh, and searched for the source of the Nile with Burton and Speke.

How he longed to be like the men in the books he read.

Jacob Mundy had never been out of his home town. He got a passport once, thinking he might go someplace, do something daring, but fear kept him from leaving as surely as if he were nailed to the kitchen floor with six-inch spikes.

*

At eleven o’clock, a tall, spare man with an eagle’s beak of a nose came into the office. Jacob Mundy stood up. “Mr. Mitchell, how good to see you again.” Jacob, always polite, extended his hand. Mr. Mitchell ignored it.

Mr. Mitchell sat down in one of the visitor chairs in front of Jacob’s desk without being invited and gave Jacob Mundy a bleak and humourless stare. “Visiting the insurance man is like going to the dentist. You know it’s going to hurt and cost big money but it has to be done so you get it over with as quickly as possible.”

Jacob Mundy forced a smile and absorbed the insult. Never once in thirty-seven years had Jacob Mundy ginned up the courage to tell a rude and offensive client to get out of his office. It would be so easy to do if he had the courage to speak the words. Instead, he said, “May I get you a coffee? One cream and two sugars, as I remember.”

Mr. Mitchell grunted a response.

Jacob Mundy’s hands trembled as he poured the coffee. He disliked contentious meetings with unpleasant clients and did everything possible to ease tensions, not for the clients, but for himself and the disquieting fear these odious people stoked in him. He wanted to believe his clients would not harm him physically, but their anger over insurance problems frightened him nonetheless, generating in him the belief a policy holder might become violent if a claim were ever denied. Jacob Mundy made sure this never happened.

He became known as a mild and inoffensive man who never challenged anyone.

Jacob set the coffee and a plate of cookies in front of Mr. Mitchell and said, “How may I help you?”

Mr. Mitchell slurped some coffee before answering. “I’m putting in a claim for vandalism.” He picked up a cookie, examined it then put it in his mouth and chewed. “Somebody slashed my car’s roof last night.” Mr. Mitchell picked up another cookie and popped it into his mouth.

“Oh?” Jacob said.

“Car’s out front. Let’s go look. You can see what I mean,” Mr. Mitchell said. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, stood up and started for the door without waiting to see if Jacob were following.

Mr. Mitchell pointed at three long cuts in the fabric top of a bright blue Volkswagen Bug convertible. “Some little shit did this in the night.”

“Yes, I see that,” replied Jacob Mundy as he looked at the gashes. Jacob noted the fabric was shrinking, pulling away from the metal frame and some of the seams were starting to open as the threads gave way. The top was deteriorating. Replacement costs would come out of Mr. Mitchell’s pocket unless he could get Crown Insurance to pay. The slashes in the fabric would do that. Jacob understood this but didn’t confront Mr. Mitchell on the fraud.

“Let me get some pictures,” he said to a smirking Mr. Mitchell. Jacob used his cell to take several photos. They returned to the office and completed the forms for replacing the fabric top at no cost to Mr. Mitchell.

After Mr. Mitchell left, Jacob sat his desk, agonizing over his inability to call Mr. Mitchell out on the obvious fraud. Why hadn’t he said to Mr. Mitchell, “That top is old and worn out. You’re the one who vandalized it. You’re trying to scam Crown Insurance for the replacement costs. Well, that isn’t going to happen. Pay for it yourself, you lying bastard.”

But he hadn’t said those words.

Jacob Mundy wiped away the tears on his cheeks and went to lunch.

A creature of habit, Jacob went to the same café every day at the same time, sat at the same table and ordered the same thing, a tuna salad sandwich, a cup of vegetable soup, a pot of hot green tea and a glass of water. He always read a book as he ate. Today he was reading a biography of John Morton Stanley, survivor of the brutal Civil War Battle of Shiloh and famed African explorer.

Halfway through the sandwich Jacob heard a commotion at the table behind him. He listened, trying to figure out what was happening. A woman was pleading with a man to leave her alone. The man refused and the woman’s voice became agitated. The woman implored the man to go away.

Jacob put the sandwich down. He thought he detected fear in the woman’s voice. Impulsively, he stood up and approached their table. “Leave her alone,” Jacob said. “She doesn’t want you bothering her.” Jacob felt his knees quiver and his heart race. “Now go, please.” Jacob thought his voice, never deep or masculine, sounded shrill and thin.

Startled by Jacob’s unexpected appearance and demands, the man said, “Hey, ok, I was just leaving.”

After the man had left, the young woman said, “Thank you. He is such a rude and horrible man. You saved me.” She smiled at Jacob.

“I did?” He felt out of place, as if he didn’t know quite where he was.

The woman laughed. “Yes, you did.”

Jacob looked at her, bewildered by her response and by what he had done.

Gathering her things, the woman stood and said, “Thank you again,” and left.

Feeling awkward and embarrassed over his intrusion, he was unable to finished lunch. Jacob Mundy returned to his office, sat at his desk and thought about what he had done. He couldn’t believe he was capable of such outlandish behaviour. Confronting a stranger was something he had never done in his entire life. His hands trembled when he realized how daring, how brave, he had been.

Jacob fired up his laptop, opened his financial folder and studied it for a few moments. He knew he was well off, having invested substantial sums regularly for thirty years. He thought about that for several moments. All that money. Jacob Mundy closed his eyes and felt excitement surging in him.

He closed the financial folder and emailed a letter of resignation to Crown Insurance, effective immediately. Then he looked for a travel agency, found one and called.

“Khartoum,” he said in response to the woman’s question about destination. “It’s where the Blue and the White Nile meet to form the Nile River,” he added for the woman’s benefit, and maybe for his own as well. “Just one,” he replied when asked about the number of seats to book. “Yes, a one-way ticket is correct.”

After the departure date was set and the flight details worked out, Jacob emptied the wastepaper cans, refilled the printer and copy machine, cleaned the coffee pot, topped off the soap dispenser, put fresh rolls of toilet paper and paper towels in the restroom, turned off the lights, then closed and locked the office door for the last time.

Jacob Mundy never looked back.

As he walked toward his house, he thought of all the things he had to do before he left; get the necessary vaccines, find out what visas were required and so forth. Thinking of the many tasks that lay ahead, Jacob stepped off the curb without looking.

Two EMTs bent over the inert body. “He’s dead,” one of them said. They put the body in the emergency vehicle and drove away.

A man in the group of people that had gathered to gawk at the accident announced, “That was Jacob Mundy, the insurance guy,” as the crowd began to drift away.

Robert P. Bishop, a former soldier and teacher, lives in Tucson. His short fiction has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, and elsewhere.

Pantry Prose: Garden Of by john e.c.

Brian dug for victory. The lawns and flower borders disappeared. The invasion of potatoes, cabbages and onions began. ‘Soil for the stomach,’ became his mantra. It was in those lean times that he became a master at producing giant vegetables. ‘Making the most of sun, earth and water,’ he told his nodding neighbours. Wanting to do his bit, he freely gave away most of his prodigious produce to nearby hungry families. In the post-war years he became famous in the local circle for his prize marrows and leeks. He was awarded many cups and rosettes and his sisters made sure he was buried with several of them.

A retired army officer called Teddy returned the garden to its floral state. With his wife Vera under his command, they grew regimented rows of Salvia, Antirrhinum and Delphinium. Enemy weeds were instantly repelled and every plant knew its place and orders. But, after Teddy’s fatal heart-attack in the Dahlias, Vera let the garden be at ease. The weeds, which had lost many battles, finally won the war. Vera became very fond of gin and made a great drinking friend in Marge from the WI. From that time onwards, the only thing that really blossomed in Vera’s life was Marge; sweet, fragrant Marge.

Come the Summer of Love, the garden had pretty much gone native. Where once stood Lupin and Heliopsis, there was now Cow Parsley, Wild Carrot and Teasle. And this being the Age of Aquarius, it was freely embraced in that state by Sandra and Tony. They had no intention of denying the natural rights of woodbine, brambles and ivy. The shed became Sandra’s meditation retreat and Tony cultivated his favourite weed in the greenhouse. All in all, the garden was a great place for communal love-ins and naked freak-outs. Concerned neighbours felt some private relief when Sandra and Tony both suffered a string of bad acid trips and had to move to an institution with an even bigger, but tidier garden.

In moved Ronald, a young Anglican clergyman, his mind firmly fixed upon the devil and all his works. He had no vision of transforming the garden into Eden anew. Like Adam’s fallen race, nature itself had been twisted and deformed by sin and there wasn’t much sense in trying to rectify that with secateurs and a spade. Actually, stinging nettles and tearing thorns were to be encouraged, reminding tea-drinking guests of the vile corruption done to God’s creation through man’s rebellious transgressions. It was the constant promotion of such undiluted theology that led to Ronald’s own expulsion from the garden, the bishop moving him on to a quieter, country parish.

During the reign of three consecutive families, the greenery was generally deemed more of a nuisance than a delight and hacked back to the edges. In came timbered patios, barbeque pits, crazy-paving and a pebbled drive. What was left of the lawn, after years of mis-use and neglect, was eventually replaced by artificial turf. The plum trees were felled and replaced by a concrete base for a trailer-caravan; and the pond was filled-in, so that a hot tub could be erected. Trampolines, paddling pools and rabbit hutches occupied the rest of the encroaching dead space. Once the last family had gone, it took all the remaining energy of an ex-school mistress to help nature reinstate itself within the garden. She laughed to her daughters that the garden would probably ‘see her off, early doors’, and it did.

In Jerry’s time, the garden was less of a private place and more like a park, especially for the neighbourhood children. The gate was always open and the garden was often filled with the joyful sounds of youngsters climbing trees, playing hide and seek and making daisy-chains. Jerry helped them to construct dens and, once inside, the children would get close as he told them wondrous stories from his imagination. One evening, when a mother was reading to her child ‘The Selfish Giant’, she was told by her little girl that there was a man at number thirty-seven who also had a lovely garden and liked to share it with little children. Later in the week, Jerry had to answer the door to two officers of the law who asked many questions and made him hand over his computer. Thereafter, the gate was shut and bolted.

Now arrives Jane, escaping the city and the divorce. The garden is in full bloom, though somewhat disordered. Jane holds her hips and surveys the mess; she shakes her head, but is optimistic. She feels that with a little time and TLC, the garden will be able to regenerate and probably look better than ever it did before. Her first job is to clear out the shed. Ridding it of cobwebs and rusted tools, she replaces them with her paints, brushes and blank canvasses. Satisfied with that, she takes a relaxed walk around the garden, breathing deeply the green; refreshing her senses on Willowherb, Foxglove and Honeysuckle. And finding, in the most abandoned corner, as though emerging from hiding, Forget-me-not and Selfheal.

john e.c. is the editor for Flash Fiction North, which is devoted to publishing shorter fiction and poetry.

Pantry Prose: Yob by Evan Hay

One enchanted evening in Whites: so let us start honestly, without indulging in faux ideological one-upmanship, nor casually pretending that back-in-the-day I sat in snug splendour upon a warm seat of influence as a committee member in the Comintern; or even gigged as junior editor of Lotta Continua. I did, but that’s a whole new scandal, a cast of thousands etc. Today I remain a gentleman, albeit one of diminished means, with precious few foolish accoutrements to declare bar my congenital masculine geniuses- these lamentably on occasion will entrance me into forgetting that discretion is indeed, more often than not, the better part of valour (as so happened recently).

Do you know those times? We’ve all likely had them- in your local enjoying a quiet drink most probably after having watched a Chelsea game; quietly & unobtrusively discussing sedulous thoughts with a few select spars prior to sensing someone parked up at an adjacent table, prattling inanely to silly pals, spouting immature observations based solely on their own two-bob myopic ignorant blinkered opinions. As the night passes you’ve maybe had marginally more pints than you’d originally planned or accounted for- slowly yet ever so surely becoming increasingly pissed. Still you can’t help hearing that obstreperous background persona non grata making reckless-imbecilic comments, repeatedly getting louder, noisier, darker- lazily, carelessly playing to a crass gallery of unkempt dummies. Forebodingly you gradually become a soupçon over bothered. Still convincing yourself that you’re more mature than him, you let it pass: no dramas. Urbane anger management clicks in but tellingly your mate actually revisits the bar- when you thought he’d disappeared for a well earned leak- hence unknown to you he offers up yet another unexpected pint of Punk IPA (one of over the eight) & indebted you honourably, albeit reluctantly, accept his generosity (loosely thinking ‘I really must be meandering home to attend to Mother’) whilst also imagining this prophetic pint could figuratively tip one over a rocky precipice. However those stellar Whites ‘homies’ easily assure & flatter you otherwise, as they always seem to do, so obediently one stays put- temporally muzzled.

Nevertheless eating away at your customary happy chemically charged mood swing is a frigging stale banana, sat at an enormous adjoining walnut dining table, that you’re now certain is looking for trouble. Still you’re a refined cultured European, a fully-grown renaissance adult- in stark contrast to this giant wank*r & tableau vivant of associated gimps. You like to think that you’re well above gratuitous childish friction, but no, you just can’t handle it any longer. Full of drunk-wired-bravado, you suddenly turn around snarling, hot sang noble arises, adrenalin pumping- a visceral grievance evident in both expression & body language. Each moment seems to flow in slow motion: friends cautionary voices faintly distant- inaudible, as if you’ve cotton wool stuffed into both cauliflower ears. Clenching fists, you alter states, as if some chap’s randomly flicked an emergency switch: you flip! Not only ready but determined to have a right royal tear up & your primary target’s that Berkshire sat in the VIP reservation. In milliseconds you abruptly stand, erect, spiritedly up-out from a deep leather Chesterfield, approaching the targeted ugly boor (multiple frit knob-jockeys dotted around him) who senses a legitimate anger & unadvisedly jerks up in quasi self-defence: ultra violence erupts, loud voices, screams, tears- but noticeably no tiaras.

Diamond cut crystal glasses get smashed, antique teak tables knocked over. You deal with it, delivering a proper straightener- a real one sided row. That annoying unprepared twat’s suddenly on the wrong end of numerous hard knuckled blows; aristocratic blood is spilled, staining your newly tailored clothes, it’s all across his newly decorated boat race too & his pink, possibly Hollister, or similarly inappropriate branded t-shirt’s now claret-red. His fair weather entourage swiftly departed, melting away from one’s testosterone, clearly flustered now meekly mincing, simultaneously with style, into Boodle’s. He alone remains cowering upon a rich Axminstered floor- his effete spindly legs instructed by his brain to no longer support him due to a barrage of vicious heavy punches rained down upon his battered canister. He winces, peeking up submissively to seek mercy. You glare back admiringly down upon your handiwork, declaring yourself victor as nothing’s coming back. And then finally, post-carnage, you make a swift exit. Heading home, strolling down St. James’s with senses heightened, still shaking slightly with rage cum fear, & feeling as if one’s head needs a fucking enema. Piece by piece one truly considers what’s just happened & whom one’s just totally mullered: only the bleeding Duke of Westminster. MOTHER!

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: Buzz by David Green

“What the fucking hell happened to you?”

Of all the people Ollie had wanted to avoid as he trekked across the schoolyard, Darren Malone was sitting not so pretty at the top of a lengthy list. Dazza, as he insisted on being called, (the daft twat), was the year’s resident big-mouthed bully. Like most bullies, Dazza liked to harass people based on his own insecurities – Dazza’s being his looks. A head shaped like an oversized rugby ball, and his features all curiously clustered around his bulbous nose. It gave him a cartoonist cast that would have been amusing if his cranium wasn’t the size of Sputnik and built like the proverbial you know what. Their paths had crossed occasionally. Being good at sports meant Ollie spent time in the company of people he’d rather ignore. Ollie liked his sports but would rather talk about books, movies or video games with the “geeks”. His tactic was to keep his head down, do what he had to do and get out. Not because he was afraid. Because he’d rather not interact with the preening cocks and their gushing teenage testosterone at the best of times.

This was not the best of times.

Ollie had missed the first month of what was his final year at high school. The big one. The one where it all counts. Or so Principle Fink had droned at an assembly before summer break. Fink was an all right principle, all things considered, but was incapable of anything other than boring students out of any thought of the teaching profession. Thankfully Ollie had missed that too, but had Ted, a kindred spirit, gave him the jist of it during the holidays. He had kept Ollie up to date with all the gossip that usually swirled around any place populated by teenagers. A natural storyteller, even he couldn’t make Finks proclamations anymore exciting than they were.

Ollie had been in hospital. It hadn’t been a surprise to him, in fact he’d been waiting for this operation since he was ten. Five years of dentist appointments, jaw moulds, braces, removed teeth and anxiety had led him to an operating theatre on a sweltering May morning in 1998. Never operated on before, Ollie had left his underwear on under his gown. The last thing he remembered, as the nurse had counted down from ten whilst they mixed the anesthetic into his bloodstream, was why did he have to be naked under a flimsy gown that revealed too much if they were working on his face?

Ollie had a recessive jaw. It’s common. What wasn’t so normal was just how recessive it was. If someone had a gap greater than two centimetres, an operation loomed. Ollie’s was 3.5cm and getting wider because of his developing body. He had been told at one of his many consultations that some parents insisted on the procedure if their child had a gap of a measly centimetre. For cosmetic reasons. ‘Eating’ through a straw, and having a bedpan for company on waking six hours later, Ollie had wanted to hunt down every one of those pitiful excuses for parents and do some reconstructive work of his own.

The jaw had been pulled forward as much as it could. Placed like the final piece of a demented jigsaw into the gaps where braces had manipulated Ollie’s teeth to accommodate the foreign invader. This meant that the jawbone needed breaking. With a hammer and chisel. In two places. Then bolted together with metal plates, wired up to resemble Fort Knox. There were two gaps at either side of Ollie’s bulldog grin so he could ‘eat’ liquid food. They hooked his left arm up to a drip that made sure he didn’t dehydrate, while the nurses attached his right arm to a machine that gave him sweet pain relief. His visitors asked him how he’d felt, but Ollie couldn’t say. He really couldn’t as it’s difficult to talk when you’re physically incapable of moving your mouth.

Truth be told, it wasn’t the best way to spend an unusually warm summer.

Ollie had been one of the shorter lads in the year, though years of playing football, rugby and Judo had lent him a sturdy physique. He looked like a dwarf from The Lord of the Rings, but less hairy. As fate would have it, puberty had decided that this was the summer to hit Ollie with everything it had. On top of the constant agony from his reconstructed face, downy hair had sprung out on his chin and top lip. As if the position his jaw had been in had held off the onset of fluffy manhood. He grew half a foot too. This would have been a very welcome change, as what boy doesn’t want to be taller? Unfortunately Ollie wasn’t able to eat solid food during his recovery, so what he gained in height, he lost in weight. He now resembled the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. With a jaw like Buzz Lightyear.

The jaw was unwired at the end of September, a few weeks earlier than planned, and for two good reasons. First, the smell. Ollie was in real danger of gagging on the putrid taste of it. Brushing his teeth was tricky, what with the sheet of metal and rubber bands covering them. Ollie could quite understand why people had stopped coming up to his stifling bedroom to visit him. Plus, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist.

Second, was the weight loss. It had been four months since Ollie had eaten real food. Had he known the wait would have been as long and tortuous as it had been, he would have had something more luxurious than a medium chicken McNugget meal with a banana milkshake on the afternoon before his operation. Post-op, his weight clocked in at just under seven stone. Now, this wouldn’t have as much of a problem if Ollie was still a tippy-toe over five foot tall. It was a problem because Ollie was now five foot eight and had been three and a half stone heavier. Ollie could think of a few people that would welcome that kind of weight loss, but for his consultants it was quite the drama.

Ollie had avoided mirrors over the summer. He bit the bullet the morning of his return to school. He only recognised his eyes glowering back. People had always said his eyes were pretty. At least he had them to fall back on. A summer in bed had turned him into a milk bottle. His dark hair, curling down to his shoulders and across his brow, exaggerated the pallor. Cheekbones so sharp they could have their own set at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The facial hair, that Ollie thought rather cool as teenage boys do, looked like someone had stuck the cuttings from a hairdressers floor haphazardly around his jawline to fool a weary liquor seller into selling eager teens some cheap booze.

That jawline. His eyes kept falling back to it. Buzz fucking Lightyear.

Ollie had dreaded that first day back. It was hard enough returning to school late, all the questions, the guarded looks, the open stares, the glorious rumours. He felt like a newborn horse, leggy and feeble, thrust into a world he didn’t want to be in. Unsure of what his new body could do. He looked like a different person, a strung-out Brit-pop reject desperately needing several hot dinners. It made a hard task even tougher. Ollie wasn’t sure he was up to the test.

“What the fucking hell happened to you?” cried Dazza, the daft twat, spotting him like an owl spying a scurrying mouse across a vast distance. Voice dripping with glee at the prospect of a fresh target. Someone to pour his teenage angst on. To burn the whole fucking thing down.

Ollie’s jaw ached. He was conscious of all the eyes on him. The whispers, the giggles, the pointing. It was hot. So fucking hot. He hadn’t been cool for what felt like eons. He thought about doing what he always did around Dazza. Keep his head down. Don’t engage. Ollie gave it great consideration, as empires rose and crumbled between the seconds.

“Go fuck yourself, you daft twat!” he screamed. Months of pent up aggression and fury unleashed, Ollie’s fist landed squarely on Dazza’s crunching, formerly bulbous nose.

David Green is a fiction writer based in Co Galway, Ireland, and has been published in North West Words, Nymphs, and will appear in forthcoming anthologies from Black Hare Press, Nocturnal Sirens and Iron Faerie. David is the host of ‘Off The Page’ a monthly open mic designed for aspiring writers to showcase their work.

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Pantry Prose: A New Challenge by David Green

I never wanted to be a retailer. It was one of those things other people just fell into. For me, it was a means to an end – some much-needed money to pay for my university course. My parents were right behind my academic endeavours. Well, right until they needed to give me some money so I could continue them. Since I was young, film had enraptured me, so naturally that’s the path I wanted to travel on; directing, screenwriting, set design, acting – I just wanted to be a part of it.

Happily, a rather prestigious film school in London had taken a shine to my college portfolio and had offered me a spot. Not being able to rely on any wealthy benefactors, I calculated that I’d have to work at least 2 and a half full-time jobs to cover the tuition fees and the dreaded London rent, and this was before other trivial matters such as food, clothes and utility bills.

So, I did an art degree while working a full-time job in a video game store. I found the job to be fun, and I seemed rather good at it. So much so they offered me a store manager’s position by the age of nineteen, with a decent wage for a working-class northern lad. I figured I could easily juggle the job, the degree and a healthy amount of social time, which really means drinking. I was wrong.

My art degree wound up where most art degrees do; stuck in the retail job with no idea of what to do next. I was twenty-four, burnt out and on my second mortgage because of the urgent advice of friendly bankers for the need to be on the market ladder. I’d become a little too fond of the old drink, too. My loving parents had moved back to Ireland a few years previous. With no real family around to anchor me or to dole out what I needed; an arm around the shoulder and a bit of advice. I drifted through life instead. Drawing upon the vast well of knowledge my twenty-four years afforded me, I surmised a new challenge was in order.

Now, in retail, a new challenge means ‘getting a new job’. It’s a buzz phrase that recruiters absolutely fucking love and amusingly means fuck all. An actual new challenge would have been to do something with my studies, to travel the world or to do a new, worthwhile degree. Anything else than to find another management job in retail. This is how I found myself, at almost twenty-five, being the only male member of staff managing a team of teenage girls at a rather well-known, create your own teddy bear, establishment.

As the name would suggest, my day-to-day involved building bears for little children. The wee ones arrive in store and select what the more macabre side of my brain delights in referring to as “the skin” – an empty animal husk. Next, we attach the lifeless sack to an enormous tube that breathes life into it. I say life, but fluff would be a more accurate description, and we can make it as rigid or limp as anyone would like. We call these workers the “fluffers”, which is also a title for a person in a certain section of the film industry, but means something rather different. The job description is similar.

It doesn’t end there. The next task is to place a heart, filled with love and wishes, into the bear and to brush its polyester exterior with a tatty old comb. We can’t allow our newly created minions to escape the workshop naked, so we’re driven to sell a plethora of clothing accessories to these eager kiddies and their soon-to-be out-of-pocket parents. Last but not least, they create a birth certificate. I’ve seen some wild and fanciful names. Also, Ben. A thousand times, Ben. I used to like that name.

I barely care about any of this. Ironically, I find it quite a challenge to inspire my colleagues who, to a person, would rather be anywhere else on a Saturday than having created forty-odd teddy bears before noon. We have to be happy. It isn’t a choice. We’re rated on exit surveys on how happy we were whilst making the cuddly little bastards, and anything less than an eight isn’t good enough. Personally, I find a day where I’m a six to be quite the splendid achievement.

My life is far from ideal, and my work offers no escape. I’m going out with a girl who doesn’t believe me when I tell her I’m not happy. She says it’s just a phase I’m going through. I’ve tried to break up with her occasionally. The last time she told me that redecorating my house would make me feel better. I consider telling her I’m gay, just to see if that will end things.

I don’t want to think about my house. There’s this thing happening that people in the know are calling a ‘recession.’ All I know is that my mortgage payments have gone through the roof. I was cheerfully told to take out a variable interest rate as I would save myself plenty of money in the long run. My £250 a month fee has now turned into £600. I’m told by the advisors at my northern England-based lender to just sit it out and that “At least you’ll be chipping away at the interest!” Where would the world be if the banks weren’t so honest and helpful?

I find myself trapped at home and literally trapped at work. More often than not inside the shell of a six-foot-tall female bunny named Dot. I am the only person able to fit the suit properly, and so it has become my burden and nemesis. On a weekend, I wear the suit for at least six, forty-five-minute stints, and some days I’m encased for the entire day. My only relief is escaping into the storeroom to remove my rabbit head for some blessed fresh air, only for an eager seventeen-year-old to ask me what’s the best way to ensure a customer takes a pair of shoes and wig for their new best friend.

On one occasion, I’m told to carry out a disciplinary meeting with a seventeen-year-old-girl who I’d caught stealing bear clothes. I could understand if it were money, or even the teddies themselves, but I found myself bewildered at this amateur thief’s idea of a big score. Unfortunately, the interview ended up being scheduled in-between parties, and timing forced me to conduct the disciplinary in the suit, minus the head. I can only imagine what she thought. Inevitably, she became unemployed, and I escorted her off the premises, as protocol dictates. This meant walking on to the shop floor, in the full mascot outfit; the customers cannot see a bunny with a human head in any instance. I frog marched the guilty party away from the store forever, a solemn six-foot tall bunny hanging its head in regret and shame at the doorway.

It is another busy Saturday and the heat inside the mascot suit is unbearable. My nose tells me that our petty cash budget doesn’t cover dry cleaning. I take comfort because it is my sweat, as I stand in just my underwear so I don’t pass out. Then I realise I’ve only worked here for six months and that someone else must have perspired just as profusely as me inside this monstrosity. We use the mascot suit for children’s parties, which we hold in store, and is a most desirable bit of business for us. Dot is a big attraction for the partygoers. I could feel the love emanating from the kiddies if I wasn’t so numbed to basic human emotion. There’s dancing but no singing, as my voice would shatter the illusion that I am not in fact a giant female bunny. I entertain myself between hugs and photos with the image of whipping my rabbit’s head away to reveal the horrifying, sweaty reality beneath. A more rational thought takes hold. Perhaps I just need a new challenge.

David Green is a fiction writer based in Co Galway, Ireland, and has been published in North West Words, Nymphs, and will appear in forthcoming anthologies from Black Hare Press, Nocturnal Sirens and Iron Faerie. David is the host of ‘Off The Page’ a monthly open mic designed for aspiring writers to showcase their work.

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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.