Pantry Prose: The Young Man and the Sand (a contemporary homage to Ernest Hemingway) by Joseph S. Pete

Nick gnawed rubbery chicken and mushed soggy green beans in the chow hall in Iraq, a country that was hot in a way that could break the stoutest of men. The climate was unforgiving, and so was the chow. The food in the D-Fac was either leathery straps of meat or slop spatulated on his Styrofoam tray, a far cry from the succulent oysters bathed in briny cold liquid he once slurped out of rocky shells in Paris, or the warm, meaty pasties he wolfed down as a boy in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Some food gave delight, while other meals were truly lost, just a way to shovel nutrition into the maw.

Nick gnashed the tough strands of chicken and deposited stripped bones back on the disposable tray, which he ultimately cast off as one would toss the rib cage of a deboned marlin. He nearly gagged on the sour broth of the day’s soup, wished he had a strong drink to wash down the tasteless mash of the watery green beans. But when the chow was gone, it was gone, like any other meal.

Dusty and sweaty after a long hike on patrol, Nick would enter the D-Fac after clearing his M-4 carbine in a burn barrel. He’d file into the long chow hall line, mechanically request the standard ration of protein, carbohydrates and vegetables, and make his way to an empty seat at an isolated table in the great circus tent where the soldiers congregated for chow.

Nick spent his days marching on patrol through the dust-swept streets of Iraq, past crowds of stern-faced men in sweat-stained dishdashas and steely-eyed women in gravely driveways. They strode past glowering young men camped out in Opels, trying to earn a living as taxi drivers with no fares in sight. No one seemed to want these American interlopers there. The unwelcome soldiers strode past all the scowling and resentment, hoping no one would start taking potshots from a distant rooftop.

Bedraggled under a scorching sun that left the land arid, the men just wanted to return to the relative safety of post, where they had gyms and shops and computer labs and all the approximate comforts of home. But the work there could be long and grueling too. Nick drove a flimsy e-tool into the earth to fill sandbags, cinched them and chucked them onto the pile until his back spasmed and his arms noodled. He sat in a guard tower through the wee hours of the night until his eyes weakened and eyelids sagged, dipping tobacco and instant coffee to try to keep them aloft. He worked midnight shifts guarding detainees, fighting off sleepiness, repeating mantras like ‘Stay alert, stay alive’.

Nada, nada, nada. All for nada.

The harder he fought, the less his efforts yielded.

The deployment was an unending blur. Nick was a man in a foreign country that did not want him, had no place for him. He pined for something as simple as casting a line into a clear pond, watching a sinewy boxer’s glove slap into an opponent’s jaw, or biting down into a freshly grilled burger.

The chow hall was a clean, well-lit place that evoked warm memories of home, or his occasional sojourns to Europe. It was a respite in a distant desert, at least until it wasn’t.

One day, a blast tore through the tent, submerging everything in thick black smoke that blotted everything out. Nick’s heart jackhammered, and he couldn’t breathe right. He could hear. That was it. That was all that was left of his senses. The screaming would haunt him. Nick heard pain and wailing as he flailed about.

The third-world nationals KBR shipped in to Iraq to spoon out overcooked food, they were the ones who bore the brunt of the explosion. It was quick and brutal and senseless.

Nick staggered through the smoke, plodding a step at a time, plowing into chairs and tables. Having cleared his weapon before entering the chow hall, a safe space where soldiers faced a greater risk from an accidental misfire than from the enemy, Nick fumbled around with a pouch on a flak vest and eventually extricated a magazine that he jammed into the rifle. He slid back the charging handle, chambering a round.

His heart palpitating, he held the carbine at the ready, as he had been trained by drill sergeants back in basic training on that red Georgia soil, and stepped forward into the blackness that enveloped everything. He trained the gun ahead of him and moved toward the screaming.

Nick slipped on blood underfoot, came crashing down on a fallen cafeteria worker. The man was pale and wheezing and bleeding profusely out of his thigh. The man needed help. He could die within minutes if his femoral artery bled out.

After wheeling around, scanning for threats, Nick thumbed the safety on his rifle and cast it down so it clattered on the concrete floor. He fiddled with the cargo pants, pulled out his gloves and pressed them into the gaping wound, applying as much pressure as he could muster to staunch the wound.

‘Medic!’ he called. ‘Medic!’

No medic emerged from the ashen haze.

He hunched down toward the man, keeping pressure on the shrapnel wound, whispering that he would be okay, everything would be okay, they were going to take care of him and make sure he would get home. He would be okay; he would make it.

‘Where do you come from?’

‘Myanmar,’ the man coughed. ‘Myanmar.’

Blood trickled from the man’s lips, streaked down his cheek. Colour drained from his ashen face as he shuddered. His clammy skin was all gooseflesh and flopsweat. Nick moved aside when the medic arrived so he could see and assess. He grabbed his rifle and swept around again.

‘What the hell happened?’

‘Suicide bomber, posing as an Iraq policeman. Damn, put pressure back on that wound.’

Nick grabbed his bloodied gloves, pressing them back into the oozing puncture. The medic readied a bandage, affixed it and started tying a tourniquet. He twisted the stick around to stop the hemorrhaging.

The air suddenly wafted with the pungent scent of manure. The dead man’s intestines emptied themselves as the last vestige of colouring blanched away from his waxen flesh. It was all for naught, all their hustle, all their effort. He was gone. He would never return to his wife’s embrace, to his children’s clingy hugs.

‘You can be destroyed,’ Nick said, genuflecting and saying a quiet prayer over the dead man, ‘but you cannot be defeated.’

Nick later realized the man was never defeated, but only in the sense that he had never been fighting for anything in the first place. As Nick rested in a plush library chair one brisk fall day, it occurred to him all that bluster and bravado led to young men, bystanders really, bleeding out in puddles where they had dished out mashed potatoes. There was nothing to romanticize. There was no nobility in scooping mashed potatoes for soldiers of another country, and there was certainly no nobility in such a senseless death.

He could hear his dying platoon sergeant later telling him only a fool would believe you couldn’t die if you didn’t give up, which was the best bulldung he could come up with while trying to comfort the bloodied, bullet-ridden man.

The epiphany that they all died for little purpose still hit Nick in the gut even though it occurred many years after he returned home, married in an old barn and sired children of his own, who grew up strong and sturdy like tree trunks, went on to study law and medicine. He made a career for himself, strolled the leafy streets of Oak Park, and dined on pan-seared trout at white-tablecloth restaurants that prided themselves on elegant continental cuisine.

He renovated his stately brick home several times, and one morning, while stepping out of the glass shower, collapsed onto the bed with a brain hemorrhage.

In his dying moments, he thought not of his wife, his daughters or his son, but of that dying man he failed to save in the chow hall. He wished he could have tried harder, got there faster, pressed harder, done something differently. He wished the medic had been more skilled or that the chow hall bomber struck at a different hour, when he was out on patrol. He wished he had never seen that man’s glassy eyes, which haunted him for years in the ash ends of late nights when he was dulled by drink. He wished it had been him instead of the thirteen who died that day, but then figured that in the end the relentless crush of time defeats every man. Whether you stalked through sandy streets with a belt-fed machine gun or helped your child build a rudimentary castle in a sandbox, time would destroy you just the same in the end.

Pantry Prose: A Taxi Made Of Mouths by Lavinia Murray

The sister tore a wisp of smoke from the fire and blew her blue nose on it. Her hindquarters fluttered with the effort.

Better!

Then she took out her latest phone, dropped it and smashed it with brass door knockers (shaped like hermitages) which she had glued to the soles of her shoes. Everyone in her address book died quite expressively on their doorsteps.

The sister said, ‘Hello, I’m’ – (checks) – ‘in the middle of Memory in a taxi made of mouths. Just pulling into Spring.’ She spoke to no one since all those she had previously spoken to were dead, victims of the Winter Cull.

The sister had opinions about Spring, and they were these: Winter wears Spring like an ill-fitting prosthetic limb. Cumbersome. Made of chipped ice and lumpen sugar. Cumbersome. The sun, cumbersome. The sky is wet rubber, bliss blue. Birds oodle along flight corridors like the tweaked sweat of athletes. Lambs straddle the green glass conveyor belt and they are pitched about for being too sweet for this life. Their fleeces show immortal, mother-of-pearl cracks.

The sister took an apple and lifted a tree from it with a movement like tugging matted hair from a brush. And another tree from the apple, from the apple core. She dotted the place she was standing in with trees. A whole orchard. Above them the wind carried the delicate rattlings of the cosmos, mostly wet plopping sounds.

Spring. The greengrocer was seated on his nest and was busily hatching-out horses and impressionists. The impressionists were so good they were impossible to tell apart from the horses. Spring was doing its thing with things.

The sister watched the Spring Ritual man dance in his great dapper clobber. Spring Ritual Man stopped and laid shadows at the base of the street lamps the way people laid wreaths at cenotaphs. All showy deference. He laid them respectfully; small ones, larger ones, teeny like crossed fingers. He bowed his head and the sister imagined he was updating his prayer profile. Then he moved on with a swish like a mermaid might do in the doldrums. A Spring Ritual woman followed him with the Nervous Paint, she crept out of the edges of his broad costume and painted shadows stretching from the street lamps, and these shadows shifted a little; they fanned out; they shut tight; they slewed and swelled and rolled themselves right up around the sister’s passing door-knockered feet. They were loud-banging uncertain shadows.

The shadows were painted on every season, the old ones (these would be Winter’s) scraped up by a machine that recycled them, spewing the shadows into the night like a wood-chipper macerating a felled tree. Sometimes, and only in Spring Time, only out of sheer high spirits, the sister tore off a wisp of shadow and wiped away her tears with it.

Better.

Pantry Prose: Sundae by Matthew Waldron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: War by Andrew Williams

“They’re coming! They’re coming!”

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

“It’s the Reds!”

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

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

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

“Workers, this way!”

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

“Adam! What’s happening?”

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

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

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

“It’s the Reds,” said Adam.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We had no choice.”

“Do they?”

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Down to the pit.

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

All you got was the stench.

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

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

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

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

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

*****

“Adam, I’m so sorry.”

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

“What is it, Tru?”

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

“Oh, no.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Adam? Will this war ever end?”

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Flotsam by Ali Hepburn

Flotsam

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

  1. Discarded people or things

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so this has continued over the last few years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shakes her head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Red by Andrew Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey there, Red,” he drawled.

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

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

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

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

Red ignored him and carried on up the stairs.

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

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

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

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

“Granny?”

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

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

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

Granny sounded really ill.

“Granny, are you all right?”

“Come closer, dear,” Granny replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What disgusting breath you have,” she gasped.

His other hand grabbed her around the throat.

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Fine Dining by Andrew Williams

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

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

“What’s your name, cutie?”

“Timmy.”

“Hello, Timmy. I’m Carol.”

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

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

“Why, hello darling!”

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

“I heard you talking to that young boy.”

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

“I… I was only…”

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

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

“Y-Yes,” she stammered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Th-thank you, Felicity…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Darling! You made it!”

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

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

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

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

“Timmy!” she cried.

Timmy looked up at her, still beaming.

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

Timmy laughed and ran off.

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

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

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

“My dear, are you all right?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carol nodded.

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

“I’d love to,” Carol replied.

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

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

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

“Where’s Timmy?” she asked.

Felicity smiled but said nothing.

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

She slid down the wall and began to sob.

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Super Moon by Matthew Waldron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Hire Hari by Robyn Cain

indian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sister, can you transfer more money?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘They could kill him…’ Mum pointed out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I’m being married off.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where’s Shyna?’ Mum asked.

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

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

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

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

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

‘But, Dad, I don’t feel – ’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My sister was right. Indian hospitality was hard work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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