Books From The Pantry: Escaping Wars and Waves: Encounters With Syrian Refugees: drawn and recorded by Olivier Kugler: reviewed by Kev Milsom

In December, 2013, I travelled together with Julien Rey from Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to Domiz Refugee Camp (Kurdistan, Iraq). Accompanied by two Syrian Kurds, Mazen and Amer, who helped us with translations, we met open-hearted people who invited us into their tents and houses where they told us, over a cup of tea, about their lives back home, their escape from Syria and about the living conditions in the camp. My opening words to the people I met were, “Hello, my name is Olivier Kugler. I am a German Reportage Illustrator, based in London. Médecins Sans Frontières commissioned me to portray Syrian refugees in order to help raise awareness about their situation. May I interview and take photos of you? ’ The photos won’t be published, but I need them as reference for my drawings.

For most of us, it would be fair to state that 2020 has not been the greatest year within living memory. At times, surrealism has merged into a new form of normality; not aided by the notion that things may perhaps get a lot worse before they start to get back to any form of what we perceive to be everyday ‘normal’. At such times, it’s important for us to realise and recognise that while we may have to don a face mask and perhaps queue a short while to enter a well-stocked supermarket, for others across our planet their lives have been shrouded in the darkest, deepest surrealism for a long while. Likewise, as we look forward to future halcyon days when we can again flock en masse toward sunlit beaches, or travel on public transport without the aid of any damn irritating facial armour, for some people this level of normality is lost in time and may never return.  

The 2018 book, Escaping Wars and Waves (Myriad) allows us multiple, enlightening glimpses into the daily lives of people torn from their homeland and forced into new, uncertain lives. Put simply, it is a book of highly educational words and inspirational illustrations. Every page is packed with sketches of the people Olivier Kugler met between 2013 and 2017, as he followed the trails of refugees fleeing from Syria, into neighbouring countries and further onward toward Europe.

Every page portrays a harrowing personal story. In Iraq, we meet some psychologists who have formed a mental health team to care for refugees. Their plight is tough, for Syrian men tend to view any offer to aid their mental health as an affront to their masculinity. Similarly, Syrian women are not comfortable with any aspect of psychology improving their personal well being, although some women do come into the mental health unit, sometimes using their children’s medical needs as the main reason for attendance. One of the centre’s psychologists, Ahin, shares her thoughts concerning her child, Kawa. 

The happiest day of my life was when Kawa, my baby boy, was born. He is seven months old now. We would love to go back to Quamishli where my parents are. They haven’t met their grandson yet. Every night, before I put Kawa to bed, I tell him how beautiful Syria is.

Still in Iraq, Olivier was waiting for a translator to join him, in snowfall and freezing temperatures. A local man, Muhamed, took pity on the shivering illustrator and gave him hot coffee from his roadside stand; sternly refusing any payment. Muhamed is 55 and fled Syria 15 months ago. One day, a helicopter appeared and randomly began destroying houses in his Damascus street. Muhamed, his wife and daughters barely escaped with their lives as their home was flattened by a bomb. They ran with only the clothes they were wearing. He cries when he speaks of his wife. She is severely depressed and no medication is available for her. 

One Syrian lady, Vian, does visit the mental health team here. Her husband had been arrested 16 months earlier. She has not seen him since. Their youngest son was born only 7 months ago. She is unsure if he will ever get to meet his father. 

Some younger refugees struggle to make the best of their situations in the Iranian refugee camp. Djwan has found a living, renting out some sound equipment. He earns around £30 – £50 for each rental. He also supplies chairs so that people can sit and listen to music. To raise morale, he teaches break-dancing in the camp. In Syria, he had been in the army but escaped, along with several others. 

Many of my friends died. During one mission in Boyedah, I was on a roof, surveying the area. A man tried to kill our colonel. I was calling and screaming at my comrades for help. Moments later, a rocket-propelled grenade was launched and hit the tank dead on…there was a lot of fire. Two of my friends were in the tank. They burned to death. They became ashes.

On the Greek island of Kos, Olivier meets Claudi, a Swiss market trader. She explains that her business profits are down 50% because of the incoming refugees. Locals get nervous around them and she now has to find a trading spot in a quieter location. She says she does not blame the refugees, as they are her friends. Sherine, a physiotherapist from Aleppo, tells Olivier that 30 of her friends and family had escaped from Syria. Half of the group were on Kos. The rest of her group were still in Turkey, still attempting to join them. This had been her 4th attempt to reach Kos. Initially, their boat’s motor had broken. On the second attempt, they were intercepted by pirates at sea, who stole all their fuel. 

The tales of people losing all their money to traffickers is common, with many refugees saying they have given people everything they have to board a boat. Often, the traffickers take all of their money and are never seen again. 

In Calais, France, we find three young Syrian men sharing a simple tent. The point is made to Olivier that Europe is no ‘promised land’. They don’t want to be here and want to get back to their homeland. One poignantly states, ‘I prefer Syria, but without the war’. They say that Médecins Sans Frontières have been exemplary and that Britain gives them most of their food. The men say that initially, the French gendarmes used to catch them trying to escape to Britain and jokingly say, ‘Bad luck, but try again tomorrow’. Now, they are referred to by many as ‘jungle animals’. In Calais, several right-wing fascists regularly attempt to find refugees and badly beat, or cripple them, while stealing everything they own. On his last night in Calais, Olivier meets a confused-looking Afghan gentleman. He has lived in London and wants to get back there. He says sadly, ‘I miss Croydon’.

In the English city of Birmingham, we meet Wisam and his wife, Hadya. Their story is typical of countless others who have literally ran for their lives. They have moved from country to country and felt unwelcome in all. They have been told, ‘Why do you come here? All you do is eat our bread!’. Refugees have been charged up to 10 times the regular price of food, compared to the local population. Back in Syria, it was common practice for soldiers to open fire with machine guns on random houses. Wisam was shot several times in his legs and he is now disabled. Here in Birmingham, with their three children, Wisam and Hadya are beginning to find stability again. In Syria, they had owned a couple of shops, selling beauty products. Wisam was always in work, but one day everything was taken from them and suddenly they had nothing. Wisan got his family free from Syria first and then tried to join up with them. He tells how he paid good money to find a place on a small fishing boat. The capacity for the boat was 150 people. Wisam says there were nearly 500 on the boat when he tried to cross the Mediterranean to get to Italy. Meanwhile, at the same time, Hadya learned that some other boats had capsized and sunk to the bottom of the sea, killing around 800 refugees. She feared one of them was her husband and did not know how to tell their children.

Each story in this book is personal and meaningful. The reality of each refugee’s tale is given face on, with absolutely no sugar-coating. This is what happened. This is how we got here. This is what we have lost. Usually, as Ink Pantry reviewers, we focus on the prose, the grammar and where the writing takes the reader on a literate, creative journey. Here, the writing is nothing less than the often harrowing truth. It simply is. Each illustration on every page is remarkable, because Olivier manages to capture the ‘soul’ of everyone he meets and draws. In a world often tainted by ignorance and lack of awareness, Escaping Wars and Waves should be a mandatory read in schools and libraries, for all children and adults. For anyone who dares to suggest (as I have sadly observed all too often on social media) that these people have ‘deserted’ their country and are therefore ‘cowards’, or even that they are treated lavishly – being given absolutely anything they want – I would simply say, read the book and try…just try…for the very briefest of moments to understand their personal experiences. 

I am very grateful that I had the chance to meet the people I portrayed in my drawings. I feel connected to them and want to thank them very much for their patience and trust. I hope that their circumstances have improved significantly and wish them, and their compatriots, all the best.

Books From The Pantry: An Accident of Blood by Charles W. Brice reviewed by Giles L. Turnbull

The poems in Charles W. Brice’s latest collection, An Accident of Blood, are heavily autobiographical and portray a sobering mix of strength and fragility.

The collection, presented in four sections, kicks off with poems focussed on the experience of growing up. The opening poem, The Fishes, is about keeping secrets, being in a gang, and being thrown out of a gang for not keeping the secret. The way this poem is delivered perfectly captures the young boys’ spirit, allowing readers to imagine similar antics from their own lives:

Okay, Joe said, you can join.
Great, I said, what’s it called.
The Fishes, Joe said,
but that’s a secret.
You can’t ever tell anyone
the name of our club.
Do you swear never to tell?
Yes, I said.
Then Joe taught me the handshake.

Olfactory senses are stirred in The Smell of Home in Wyoming with reminiscences of feeding a horse an oatcake, how to approach it from behind, and the smell of the barn: Warm horse fragrance, creek of leather / saddle, breath mist before us— / a synesthetic blast of beauty.

It is easy to empathise with poems that relate to the effect of his growing up with an alcoholic father, for example in the poem, Deal Me In, which relates the despair of how his father’s gambling debts all-but wiped out his mother’s household savings:

During a night of failure-to-grow-up
daddy, drunk and deluded, sat with hoodlums
at a poker table and said, “Deal me in.”

Leukemia is a particularly powerful poem of lives and deaths, in which the sister of his best friend dies yet he survives, and the death of his dog, ‘the same morning that my dad, / rumpled and red-eyed, arrived / home after a night of drinking and whoring.’ The statement, ‘I lived.’ separating the death of his friend and that of his dog, says all that needs to be said but the poem isn’t done yet … ‘He mocked my cries rather than face his embarrassment. / He made fun of my grief while my mother / railed at him for his drunken infidelity. / I knew then that, / in the family I called mine, / there was no place for me, / no place for me on this earth.’

The intensity of the personal poems eases up with a scattering of more whimsical subject matter. In The First Time, the title hoodwinking the reader into expecting a poem about loss of virginity, is rewarded with a poem about the creation of a perfect Italian pasta sauce — rhyme augmenting the lines like herbs enriching the sauce.

Was his name Luigi, or Antonio, or Amedio—
who first threw garlic into olive oil? Did
he slice it thin, inhale its pungent fragrance
on his thumb and think, maybe a little oil?
Did Maria, or Beatrice, or Sofia, one of his
lovers, dip a soft digit into the mix, exude bliss,
kiss his lips, prance the room, dance and swoon?

There are four ekphrastic poems that take inspiration from famous artworks. The Land of Cockaigne is a wonderfully succinct example, after the 1567 painting of the same name by Peter Bruegel the Elder. Cockaigne, being a mythical land of plenty, the brevity of the poem perfectly captures Bruegel’s unflattering imagery. The ten-line poem includes the observance that, ‘Memory and desire silence / the squeals of the slaughtered— / never spoil our appetites’. In a manner akin to the cow that approaches the table in Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, urging diners to enjoy, “Something off the shoulder perhaps … braised in a white wine sauce?”, in Brice’s version of Cockaigne, ‘Even boars come / with knives attached.’

Pork Chops in Raspberry Vinegar Reduction is a decidedly insightful take on the ingredients for a successful relationship. Beginning with the sprinkling of herbs over two thick pork chops dredged in olive oil:

Let them marinate for an hour or two.
Tell him it takes many ingredients and time
to make a relationship work.

… continuing with:

While the chops are browning
marry a quarter cup of water
to a quarter cup of raspberry vinegar.
Tell him that the recipe for a good relationship
means always putting the relationship first

before the wise culmination:

Serve immediately. Tell him that
nothing of importance can be solved
after 11 PM. Always kiss each other goodnight,
you might not get another chance.

The politically-charged Section III features poems addressing topics including the Vietnam war, Hilary Clinton and, in the craftily-titled poem, The Trumpet Shall Sound, the Trumps.

Melania appears in stiletto heels,
Hurricane or not, you can still make deals.
Commerce revolves on a gigantic wheel,
And Trump sits atop it.

Charlie Brice is the author of Flashcuts Out of Chaos (2016), Mnemosyne’s Hand (2018), and An Accident of Blood(2019), all from WordTech Editions. His poetry has been nominated for the Best of Net anthology and twice for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Sunlight Press, Chiron Review, Plainsongs, I-70 Review, Mudfish 12, The Paterson Literary Review,and elsewhere.

Books From The Pantry: Forest Dawn: by Michael Forester reviewed by Kev Milsom

All those years ago, when I left my family home, I hugged many of the tall Scots Pines that ringed the gardens, towering in silent majesty over the crumbling edifices of human existence – the house, the outbuildings, the possessions now consigned to the skip. A year later, I passed by that house again. The new owner, with his different map of the world, his different understanding of value, had felled every one of them. I felt great pain – perhaps that of the trees, certainly my own.

This book (and talented author) both remind me somewhat of the supermarket, ‘Aldi’. No, it’s okay, I’m absolutely fine…please bear with me.

Every now and again I shall purchase a bottle of red wine from Aldi and, being a cagey spendthrift (no, not a miser, just careful), I shall usually plump for a nice £3 bottle which does the trick, because a) Aldi have excellent wine merchants and b) my taste buds have adapted nicely to their £3 range, which is comparable to the £20 range of wines at Tesco, or Sainsburys. Since becoming disabled, my eldest daughter occasionally goes shopping for us. She knows I like red wine, but she doesn’t drink a lot of it herself and therefore picks out something from the £10 to £15 range, because she thinks that is what I would choose also. So I get my wine and, naturally, my £3 taste buds are completely blown away by the difference in quality. Thus, I make the new bottle last twice as long, because every sip is utterly delicious and definitely not to be rushed. Which brings us neatly (via the scenic route, past the vineyards) to Michael Forester’s latest book, Forest Dawn – Reflections of the Rising Light.

This is Michael Forester’s new collection of essays and poetry, succeeding his awesome 2017 book, Forest Rain, which we were honoured to review here at Ink Pantry. The focus this time is for the author to ‘illuminate the profound that hides in the simple and the eternal that shines through the commonplace’. As such, the book begins in fine fashion with the inspirational essay, ‘A Pound of Peace’.

‘A pound of Peace, please, mate,’ said the man in front of me in the queue at the market stall. His shopping bag was packed full and I wondered how he was going to fit any more into it.

‘Beautiful bit of Peace this is,’ the stallholder commented, weighing out a pound on the scales. ‘You’ll not find better in the market today.’ The customer smiled his thanks and pressed the Peace down into his bag that was already bulging with Worry, Regret and Frustration. It looked precariously balanced as he walked away. I wasn’t surprised to see it topple out and splatter into the gutter.

‘And what can I do for you today, sir?’ The stallholder’s voice brought my attention back to the table. ‘How about some Pleasure for your supper? Just sprinkle a bit of Indolence on it and fry it in Indulgence – beautiful!’

Tempted, I checked my wallet. ‘Sorry,’ I replied, ‘I’m all out of Trust to pay you with.’

‘That don’t matter’ he retorted. ‘I take all the major cards – Gullibility, Foolishness, Ignorance. And if you’ve got that new one, Complacency, I can even give you a discount.’

Each carefully crafted essay and poem carries a stream of messages via positive metaphors and symbolism. The description of a dream leads to a lesson in forgiveness. A childhood memory of a spider focuses on the myriad of choices we face in this lifetime. The recollection of a faulty wire in a garage door looks into angels and God’s sense of humour…and so on, throughout the thirty-two chapters of the book.

The writing in all the essays and poetry is direct and thought-provoking. Michael’s sense of humour and skilful writing creates a steady platform between some of the harsher subjects covered (such as refugees fleeing from their war-torn homes), meaning at no point are we feeling that this is all part of a grand, egotistical speech and we are being lectured to. Michael’s talent as a writer is both simplistic and genius; he draws the reader in like a magnet. We’re never pulled in, but merely guided by Michael’s total command of the written word. Another bonus…we also learn from what is being presented to us.

I raced through this book’s wonderful predecessor, Forest Rain, as it is an utter joy to read. This time around, something seems different for me. The sheer joyousness is retained, but I found myself tackling this book in smaller chunks, as after each chapter my head was swimming with what I had just ingested. If Forest Rain captured the energy of an energetic teenager passionately exploring the world, Forest Dawn seems to me to be somehow maturer and worldly-wise in its approach.

Michael’s humour shines through his writing, as demonstrated in a short poem called ‘Oh My God!’, which immediately took me back to being a young 1970s choirboy; my 7-year old mind earnestly trying to make sense of the vicar’s authoritative sermon.

‘Repent!’ he shouted.

I didn’t know what penting was, but I promised there and then, I’d definitely re-do it more in future.

‘All ye like sheep have gone astray!’ he yelled.

I thought of new season’s lamb with mint sauce and some potatoes.

‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand,’ he snarled.

I looked at my hands. There was nothing on them, certainly not a kingdom.

‘I see you, sinner,’ he said.

I checked my flies.

The writing throughout the book is top quality, in terms of pace, tone and depth. Every chapter leaves a trail of fascinating, informative foam in its wake, along with the knowledge that, as readers, we’ve been privileged to share in this gentleman’s Earthly journey and what he has learned from it so far. It’s a masterclass in creative writing and the author should be extremely proud of what he has created here.

As I said at the end of the Ink Pantry review for Forest Rain, this is an excellent book and I sincerely wish that I had written it. Nothing has changed.

And we are but flying fish, breaking the surface for a moment, to bask in the reflected glory of a transient elevation.

Get your copy of Forest Dawn: Reflections of the Rising Light



Michael’s Website

Books From The Pantry: Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution by Maggie Shaw

Congratulations on your new novel, Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution. Can you tell us about it? Have you an extract that you could share with us?

Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution is a sequel to Diviner’s Nemesis I – Avenger but can be read as a stand-alone book, too. Both books are set in 1970s London against a backdrop of occultism and the paranormal. In Diviner’s Nemesis II – Retribution demonic forces are amassing against the protagonist Liz Graham to remove her as head of the psychic society P.S.I. Her husband Alec’s plot to destroy her predecessor Jonathan Keast, leaves her defenceless against Keast’s schemes to depose her. Can Liz destroy the evil powers at work before they destroy her?

A short extract from the book: part of section 3.5:

Outside, the night was cold and damp and still. The heavy fog deadened the lamplight and the sound of their footsteps, and enveloped the sloping fellside around them in a foreshortening grey curtain of silence. Liz confidently led the way along the streaming path beside the fell wall, at one with the elements. Though she felt disturbed by the aura of death overshadowing the crag, the messages from the rocks reassured her that should anything threaten her in that eerie walk, men would spring up from the very stones in her defence.

Keast followed her cautiously, using her as a shield against Alec’s men who he knew would be waiting among the rocks ready to kill him as mercilessly as he had killed two of them earlier. The eerie trek brought to his mind another bleak night when he had followed a woman who had shown him the way to a darker destination. All the women he had loved had had the power to elevate and destroy; but he could not understand even now why they had used such powers so capriciously. He stopped on the path and spoke to chase them back into the past where they belonged.

‘Liz, how can you live with this solitude?’

‘I’m a Celt: I am one with these surroundings. There is no solitude here,’ she said. She turned back to look at him and laughed as scornfully as he had so often laughed at her.

‘You thought this night was yours, Jon, didn’t you; but even you are frightened now. All Hallows Eve is far older than the syncretic Christianity which adopted it and spawned your bastard faith. This night is Oidhche Shamhna, Samhain, when the gates of Hades, Ynys Wair, are open to receive the dying sun. Tonight the spirits rove the earth again to torment those who once tormented them. For the next six winter months nature will sleep with the spirits in the underworld; but if you join them now, you will not return with them in the spring.’

She turned and walked on down the path, leaving her unexpected threat hanging in the air. He hurried after her, knowing not to retaliate against her bizarre tirade because she could easily extinguish the storm lantern and disappear into the night, leaving him to the fate she had threatened to bring down upon him.

A video of Maggie reading another extract, part of Section 1.6.

When did you first discover your love for writing?

I have always written stories, ever since my childhood – it’s just a part of me. I wrote my first story soon after I was able to write. It was about a working horse that broke his milk-cart traces and escaped to the mountains to live with the wild horses in a hillside cave.

You are also a musician. Do you write your own songs?

Yes, I also write songs, and again, I have been writing songs since my childhood. The first song I can remember composing was a sea shanty about a storm. My stories are a good source of inspiration for the songs I write. I am in the process of recording some of them for my new website which is due to go live in the next month or so. It was also good to be able to perform songs like ‘Merry-go-round’ in the ArtSwarm video magazine series.

Who inspires you?

Inspiration comes from the everyday things around me – a chance remark in a conversation, anger at an injustice, compassion for those struggling with life. My Christian faith, recovery discipline and my own back story are all fertile sources of material for stories and songs. People who have influenced me include the Inklings writers Charles Williams, J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis, and from my childhood, Alan Garner who lives in nearby Congleton. Landscapes that have inspired me include London, Scotland and the Lakeland valley where my family farmed for several generations, Ennerdale.

Have you any other projects on the horizon?

My next project, which I hope to complete this autumn, is to publish my novella Eregendal which I wrote when I was 21. This is a fairy tale-like fantasy about a heroic quest that goes wrong, in the genre of Visionary Fiction. The name of the leading character, Eregendal, is now also the name of my indie publishing house.

Maggie’s website

Books From The Pantry: She-Clown and other stories by Hannah Vincent reviewed by Yang Ming

Women are often seen as resilient creatures in the face of adversity. But beneath this façade lies something deeper: vulnerability and the desire to be a better version of themselves. That is what British writer Hannah Vincent hopes to convey in her debut short story collection, She-Clown and other stories. Packed with sixteen fierce and funny feminist stories, this extraordinary collection is a delightful read.

The stories are told from the women’s perspective. They are brutally honest, raw, witty, and at the same time, moving. There is Charlie in the title story, She-Clown, which was shortlisted for the Manchester Writing Competition 2017, and Words & Women Competition 2017. Charlie is She-Clown, a magician who performs magic tricks at children’s parties. When the girls’ mother introduces her to the party guests Charlie realises she knew some of them. They are men who previously treated her with no respect by engaging in sexual acts with her. The ordinariness of the magic tricks she performed emphasises the absurdities of life, as if women are meant to clown around for them. But Charlie is enlightened when the girls’ father, Tony, who first mistook her as ‘She-Clam’, explains that ‘There’s no difference between male and female clams, did you know? No difference in colour, or markings, no mating behaviour. So only the clam knows who’s who and what’s what.’ This metaphorical commentary brilliantly encapsulates what gender equality means.

While Charlie gets a glimpse of reciprocal attraction, others are seeking to find freedom. There is Charlotte in ‘The Poison Frog’, a simple story about an unlikely friendship between a frog and a girl, with a hint of surrealism. First broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2016, it tells the story of Charlotte who lives with her mother, even though she’s thirty years old. They are a close pair often seen together for grocery shopping and dental appointments. During their visit to a specialist, Charlotte’s mother discovers there’s a poison frog living in her throat! Over time, Charlotte is strangely drawn to it. After a successful operation, she takes the frog home. She takes care of it like a human companion. She dresses the frog up with a bonnet from one of her mother’s dolls. She even takes it for a walk where her neighbours chirp, ‘Morning, Froggy!’

The unexpected appearance of the poison frog marks as a turning point in Charlotte’s life and she begins to understand what makes her so happy. Fundamentally, the story asks the question of how much does one willing to fight for what they want, achieve it without destroying a relationship?

The collection ends perfectly with the story, ‘Woman of the Year’. It’s achingly funny yet empowering. Written from a second person perspective, the reader gets invited to a formal luncheon in ‘so-called intelligent buildings where no one can hear you when you are inside.’ Everyone is seated at a table according to the first letter of their names. The reader is reminded again the reason behind the invitation that ‘someone thinks highly of you, considers you worth inviting, wants to celebrate you.’ But who invited them?

As everyone tries to figure out who invited them, the conversations at the table begin to flow freely around the reader. You listen to their life stories and their achievements as if you are right there with them. The luncheon drags on until an impending storm throws everyone into disarray.

Writing about women takes a lot of courage and sensitivity. In this case, Vincent delves deeper into the feminine psyche, and incorporates them into her characters. With a greater understanding of their emotions and behaviour, these characters become sublime and multi-faceted. She’s a talented writer whose strength lies in turning ordinary stories into something extraordinary. Ultimately, She-Clown and Other Stories is a page-turner, and with every page, it will invigorate your soul. Now, that certainly establishes her as one of the freshest voices in contemporary fiction.

She Clown and other stories is available from Myriad

Special thanks to Emma Dowson.

Books From The Pantry: Ann of Green Fables: pocket- sized reflections of cosmic proportions by Christopher Gilmore: reviewed by Kev Milsom

Photo credit: Claire Faulkner


‘All-round inner and outer good health
Rate higher Ann than bad wealth
Feeling fine in fresh air I feel rapture
Science now onto carbon capture
Though storage or dispersal problematic’.
‘Grandad, Mother Nature’s got her own solution
Like me autistic with outer and inner pollution’.
‘She’s no sinner, just asthmatic’.

Over the course of time, it’s become (slightly) clearer to me of the importance of poetry within the field of creative communication.

As a wannabe poet, I’ve often twisted and turned over finding just the right word/rhyme/phrase to insert…a real ‘head-turner’ that absolutely nails the full scale and majesty of what my mind sees; squeezed masterfully into perhaps 4 or 5 words within a line.

Does it make sense? Is it relevant? Is the rhythm digitally correct to the nearest zillionth of a heartbeat, or does my poem (that sounded utter genius at 4am) compare equally in the cold light of day? In some ways, I’ve always admired poets who seem to be able to bypass the frustrating ‘yes, but what might other people think?’ aspects of poetry creation and get straight through to the luscious green fields of creative, raw inspiration.

To personify that last sentence, please allow me to introduce you to Crewe-based poet, former actor and drama teacher, Christopher Gilmore. Christopher’s book, Ann of Green Fables, is packed (literally) with a variety of poetry exploring one constant, recurring theme of the current global environment. I use the adjective ‘packed’ in good context here, as the book contains almost 460 items of poetry upon its pages, with illustrations by Tony Smith, Michael Crouch and Mary Macgillivray. Christopher’s poetic style has a unique flavour to it and certainly doesn’t pull any punches in its delivery, such as ‘Darkness’, issuing a clear warning to humanity.


If a distant date dawns no daylight
If man bloats our frail planet with blight
What wasn’t created will get incinerated
Mankind reimagine your ego’s might
Our blue global kindergarten some sun-soaked some Spartan
To higher classes way past Paul Tarsus
Heaven on earth now disheartened
Nature Spirits in the slough of despond

The book begins with a list of all poems, followed by some excellently-phrased essays concerning aspects of global warming and the ecological state of our planetary abode, thanks to the efforts of humanity.

‘Animals can teach us much. Instinctively, as Soul, in not fearing death they seem to know we all survive more than one life. 

How well this is illustrated by the lives of snakes, frogs and butterflies. 

These creatures in one lifetime morph through a series of many bodies – symbolizing the continuum of all of life’s energies whatever its form or lifestyle and temporary physical needs’.

Also intriguing for me is that Christopher isn’t just focusing his goal upon beating a single, environmental drumbeat through 459 individual poems. There is also a questioning, philosophising, spiritual depth here to his writing which I personally found exciting, as typified in a poem titled ‘Om-ni-al?’.


Isn’t odd that God’s everywhere
Deep within seas as well as in the air –
God is here, God is near
God’s clear in all we love
That flows from way above
Each to their due, through me and you,
Through all the beauties of repartee
Talking to a tree

In these uncertain days of home-confinement – questing for creative inspiration to fire our imagination and understanding – one could do far worse than journey through Christopher’s poetic world. The passion demonstrated through every line of his poetry is admirably undeniable.

Watch this space for the release of Ann of Green Fables!



Books From The Pantry: The Missing Girl by Jenny Quintana: reviewed by Kev Milsom

You disappeared in the autumn of 1982, when the leaves switched their wardrobe from green to burnished brown, and our mother made great pots of jam from the fruit we picked in the garden. I was twelve, with clumsy clothes and National Health glasses. You were fifteen, crazy-haired and willowy’.

As a wannabe successful author it’s always been my personal belief that if I was to complete the very, very, very difficult task of creating a stunning, debut thriller, the novel would need to have various qualities to it. Firstly, it would need to be readable, from the very first sentence and then hold the reader firmly to every page from there on, in much the same way as I was captivated as a teenager by Douglas Adams’ opening line in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, who masterfully allowed us into his thoughts with, ‘Space is big’.

Secondly, the successful debut thriller would need to do exactly what it says on the tin…namely, to thrill the reader and keep them on the edge of their seats. Thirdly, the characters held within the pages would need to be relatable, relevant and non-cardboard-like in their delivery. Fourthly, if I were the author, I would need to hold the readers into that wonderful fantasy ‘grip’, where they become enchanted by my writing, especially all that descriptive stuff that sounds so easy to produce, but actually really isn’t.

Jenny Quintana’s 2017 debut novel, The Missing Girl, achieves all of these above qualities, which is probably why it has been acclaimed so much and been excitedly promoted by publications such as The Sunday Times, institutions such as Waterstones, and even lauded by the formidable sofa-king and queen combo of Richard and Judy.

Let’s start with the plot line. It’s the modern day and Anna Flores is returning to England from her home in Athens, because her mother has passed away. A part of the reason that she resides in Athens is because of long-standing fragilities within the family home, especially since the mysterious disappearance of her elder sister, Gabriella, in 1982.

Coming home to less-than-sunny England naturally evokes some strong memories for Anna; most of them unpleasant and revolving around what may have happened to Gabriella, over three decades on. In returning ‘home’, Anna must confront remnants of her past, which systematically begins to reopen old doors. Now, with both parents dead and her sister missing, Anna feels very alone, surrounded only by mounting prompts to try and solve the family mystery once and for all.

Jenny Quintana demonstrates, with ease, what a strong writer she is on every page of this novel. As a reader, you find yourself being carried along effortlessly from page to page. Jenny skilfully manages to involve us at every twist and turn and at absolutely no point do we feel left out of what is occurring. There is a gentle build up of pace, to establish the characters and story-line and then, just as we’re feeling comfortable, the pace quickens and we’re carried along to the next, invaluable piece of the ‘jigsaw puzzle’. What’s most important about all of this is that we want to get there, because we care about the main character and her story.

This is a very difficult book to put down and it makes me realise two things. Jenny Quintana can write extremely well. Furthermore, I now want her to finish her next project so I can read more from her creative, skilful mind. Over to you, Jenny.

Books From The Pantry: We can order the same or taste each other’s (Part 3 of 3) by Mark Anthony Smith

Spiced lentil soup

I am in awe when Marie video calls me. She lives about four hours away in the car. Yesterday, she showed me the old trees in the deer park. The gnarly oaks have been there far longer than we have. The phone reception isn’t very good where she lives. I blame it on the space conkers.

I looked for other places of interest in her locality on the internet. There are some hills where a music festival takes a place and a village green where a film was shot. There are towns with cobbled streets and buildings with their own historical characters. Some of them are magpie houses.

She phones me today from the quarry I mentioned. She had forgotten about this beauty spot. Marie is glowing after the bike ride. The slight breeze is fanning her hair as the sun bounces off the brilliant white chalk. I am flabbergasted. “That is so thoughtful and romantic,” I say.

Marie takes me everywhere with her video phone as I sit in my high-backed orthopaedic chair at home. “I must get back now,” she smiles. “There’s not many people about.” It is quiet. I sit feeling warm and in love. What a romantic gesture!

She texts me after an age. I have been worrying because the country roads are perilous for cyclists. She had popped to the post office on the way home and is now sat at her table with a bowl of spiced lentil soup. That memory has really stuck as it is steeped, as the hills, in a strong emotion.

Coleslaw Wrap

“You normally have to turn the oven on to cook,” I laugh. Marie is so appreciative that someone has made her tea after work. “No-one has done that for ages,” she says. We eat our wraps filled with coleslaw, cucumber and slices of cheese. Marie has her obligatory sweet chilli sauce. “Tell me what happened again,” she continues.

“I’ve got cervical myelopathy but I didn’t know. I went all through the army without a glitch and worked in care for over 12 years. That’s including working with people in mental health with The National Health Service. I was alright until I started running three years ago. Then I started getting pins and needles. I went to the doctor’s. I went to the doctor’s again. I thought it was residual stress or something psychosomatic. At last, the doctor sent me for an MRI. Then I got a phone call on a Friday afternoon. I couldn’t take it in because of my pains and the shock.”

“The doctor told me I had cervical myelopathy. I was born with it. It’s congenital which means it happened at birth. My neck is too narrow in the middle and all the nerves seem to get sore. The pains affect my peripheral nervous system because the nerves run from the brain to my arms and legs through the narrow part in my neck.”

I told her about the operation. I was so scared that I had arranged my will and a funeral plan. But on the day, I was trying not to watch morning television in the waiting room as I lay on the bed. They gave me oxygen. Then, five hours later, I woke up from swimming with dolphins, elsewhere, back on the ward. I was gagging for a brew. I tried to lift my head off the pillow but my neck felt really weak. I was wired and bandaged with a tube protruding from the front of where they’d removed two discs. There are two discs outstanding. One of the ‘actioned’ discs decompressed but the second one didn’t. I just take it day-to-day. It’s degenerative but I try to be positive.” Marie tells me how strong I am. She says that she feels safe when I’m with her. That makes me feel stronger.

Vegetable Samosas

We have pet names but Marie knows I’m a private man. After she finishes work, I meet her outside with salad, vegetable samosas and her birthday prosecco. I remember cutlery and two tumblers from my kitchen. She is pleased to see me.

We head to the squirrel park through narrow roads and heavy traffic. I turn her radio off. She’s used to that by now. “Oh my goodness! I could have been raped today,” I said. “It’s a good job I didn’t answer the door in the buff. I didn’t think it was you.” It was a diminutive old lady with glasses. She said, “I’m Linda” and burst in looking for a leak in the bathroom. She totally caught me by surprise.

Marie laughed as I continued to call her “Londa.” It was a standing joke since Marie had texted ‘Hoya’ for ‘Hi-ya’ once. We managed to park eventually but the ticket machine required a PhD to enter the registration number and other details.

We laughed at the squirrel antics and tried to coax one with our cucumber. “I should have brought some nuts,” I laughed. Apparently, if you drop nuts on hard standing, the squirrels come and get them. The park was sunny and busy. We ate our food then walked to the old remains. I felt really stiff as Marie pointed from the diagram on the board to where the pantry used to be. There wasn’t much left of the castle now.

One of our favourite pictures was taken in the squirrel park. Marie says she looks like an elf and I look like a giant at a festival. She takes really interesting photos.

A Chocolate Rabbit

It is round about Easter when Marie brings her daughters to visit at my flat. I struggle to open the carton of cranberry juice. “Are you struggling?” I tell Marie that I have become more clumsy as I drop things, stumble and feel stiff when it’s cold. My pains are unbearable at times, too, and I sleep more because of the increased medications. “I’m alright,” I say, “I’m a strong chap.”

I pour the juice into tumblers for Katie and Joanne. They are always smiling and polite, I notice, from having said “hello” a few times on video calls. Joanne hides behind her mam on the sofa whilst Katie talks about school and the youth club she attends. Marie’s eldest is throwing and catching a bouncy ball as she talks. Joanne peeks out and takes some interest.

The ball has an iris printed on it. Katie catches the blood-shot eye. I joke about bouncing it off the ceiling. Marie mentions about how much of a person’s eyeball must be hidden. I say it’s like isostasy in mountains. We only see the tip above ground. “There’s a lot we don’t see.”

People don’t see my pains. Sometimes, I wince or cry out but people either don’t see it or choose not to. We can never really know what is going on in a person’s life, below the surface, unless they choose to tell us. Marie can see that I’m deteriorating. I mask a lot but I’m a positive chap. The girls are full of life and make me laugh.

I find some Easter eggs I chose the day before and the girls are really appreciative. Marie gives me a chocolate rabbit. “Do you know what they do with the rabbits that don’t get sold? They snap an ear off and cover them in Santa Claus foil.” It was nice to see the kids at last.


The last time I had a date with Marie was just before she visited with her children. Being a man, I didn’t have enough toilet roll in so we passed through all the Saturday night revellers for our necessities. We were hungry, too. I hadn’t been to the Turkish Restaurant since I took my kids on my birthday.

I was in pains but I felt like a rock star. I was also more than aware that Marie wasn’t wearing any knickers. They were on my bedroom floor. It was freezing but she said, “I’m wearing stockings.” We joked about one of the Mr. Men with long arms as we were seated near the window. Marie and I tore through the vegetarian kebabs with rice and a side portion of chips.

Looking back, our selfie looks like we were on holiday. Marie is looking over her shoulder with a huge cocktail in view. The glass has brightly coloured straws and parasols which were in keeping with the mediterranean decor of the restaurant. I had my usual latte in a glass mug with a tiny handle. We had the sweetest baklava afterwards. I can still taste the almonds and honey. What did we talk about? We mentioned horse racing and fox hunting. Some of the horses had been injured on television during the steeplechase. I think the vegetarian option had prompted animal welfare chat again. Our last date was so varied and colourful with great food.

Nil by Mouth

I am on peg-feed now. I don’t really have any concept of night or day. It’s more a fleeting timelessness. Sometimes, I feel like I am floating, but beyond that, I can’t feel any sensations, even when I’m being bathed or hoisted. I am only anchored to this life by the weight of my memories now.

I think I can smell Marie’s favourite scent. But is her perfume a memory as she brushes her fingers through my hair? I only know she’s trying to comfort me because she is giving one of her commentaries. “I am stroking your hair and thinking about our lives.” I listen to her. Listening is all I can do. It hurts that I can’t communicate or tell her “I love you.” I’m just lucky that she spends time with me in my bedroom that I can’t see.

She tells me that she remembers that I went to Canada, with the army, and fed gophers some biscuits on the sub-zero prairie. She says how brave I am to have driven a wagon through cross-country snow. I feel happy but I can’t raise a smile.

She talks about how we each juggled separate university studies whilst raising young children. “That’s temerity,” she says. Then she is laughing about the time we had to nip out, late at night, for a plaster. “The garage forecourt assistant must have thought we wanted contraceptives at that hour.” I feel happy but I can’t convey that.

Marie sings our favourite songs and reads from children’s books. Then after I try to follow the competitive squirrels, that finally learn to share, she might read an excerpt from a novel I like. She has all the time in her world.

She knows me well enough to know that I’d still want to share my experiences. It hurts me that I can’t communicate that. But I’m happy that she persists and keeps me updated. Marie knows me well.

Marie talks about what she has eaten and what the girls are doing. Joanne volunteers with rescue animals and is studying for a veterinary degree. Her eldest, Katie, is still happily finding her feet. “Have you ‘seen’ your girls?” I can’t answer her. But my eldest talks to Marie and keeps her up-to-date on their visits and my health. My children keep me safe in this disappearing life.

Marie sings. She sings until it’s time to go. She kisses me, pulls her coat on, and I drift until her next visit.

Angel Delight

I feel weightless as I head towards the pin-prick of light that grows brighter and wider until it engulfs me. My smile gets bigger as the last of the pain melts and I am weightless. It is all bright. The brightest.

I look for the narrow gate. But he asks me softly, “What difference did you make?” I felt confident. “I loved and acknowledged others.” He smiled. He saw what is in my heart and told me to return another day. I visit my girls. I go to Marie.

She is sobbing at her kitchen table. She looks so small because I am not governed by material laws. It would have broken my heart before. But now I am no longer following the same rules. She blows her nose. Marie dries her reddened eyes. She looks confused. I whisper. I whisper but she can not hear me on an auditory level.

Marie senses something and smiles. She laughs. Then she gets up from her chair and goes straight to her car keys. “I knew they were there all along,” she tells Katie. Then I wait for her. But it doesn’t feel like waiting.

Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. He graduated from The Open University with a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences. His writing has appeared in Spelk, Nymphs, Fevers of the Mind and others. In 2020 he is due to appear in Horror Anthologies published by Eerie River and Red Cape Publishing. ‘Hearts of the matter’ is available on Amazon.

Books From The Pantry: We can order the same or taste each other’s (Part 2 of 3) by Mark Anthony Smith

Carrot Cake

The chiropractor asked if we are married. Marie said we weren’t. I smiled as I was able to remind Marie about her past medical history. “I’m not interrupting, am I?” Marie laughed despite her back ache.

Afterwards, she said she felt bubbles in her veins and had to walk about for a bit. I was pleased to walk, however awkward my legs were, as I’d sat through her hour of treatment. Marie said she could feel the benefits after just one session. We ordered carrot cake and shared some dandelion and burdock at an art installation cafe.

Then we watched a video in darkness. The screen projected large fingers with cardboard hands on each. They clapped like finger puppets. I wondered why I was restless. It was like not being able to sleep when Marie stayed with me. I wanted to be awake every moment as our time together was limited.

Marie was used to sleeping alone. So, we didn’t cuddle all night. We held feet instead of hands so she had space and didn’t get too hot. She no longer had to put a pillow between us to support her back. The chiropractor had been a really good experience and we felt intimate.

It always amazes me how Marie remembers song lyrics. Then, as I’m recalling her history to the chiropractor’s questions, I realise that I do listen. I just respond to the song’s melodies more than the words. I do attend. But it depends on the context and the purpose. I switch off when listening to music. That’s why I ask Marie to turn the car stereo off. I attend to her instead.

Beef stew

“It’s not my cup of tea,” she texts as she later says she had mushrooms and fried eggs for tea. I know that you wouldn’t eat beef stew. You’re a vegetarian, I text. Later, she asks me why I left my partner. It was the little things, I reply.

“I’d have pulled the gate off its hinges and burned it,” she says. I feel sad because I know Marie would do no such thing. She is being incongruous. I wouldn’t even need to ask her to close the gate a second time. Even with her hands full of shopping bags, Marie would go back and shut the gate. It is different with her.

She listens and remembers. I do tidy up after Marie. But it’s no hardship. I just like to be organised. I think that’s from being in the army. Marie still insists she’d have burned the gate.

“No! You would not.” Marie texts some laughter faces. She is teasing me. I can’t believe how tetchy I’ve been. I just know I listen more to her. I am older than I was. But I just give back what I receive. Marie has shown me love. And I have fed those loving acts with thoughtfulness.

The Full English

“I am absolutely gagging for a fried breakfast. Sausages, fried bread…” Marie laughs. Nothing else enters my mind as I help her with her coat. We head over to a cafe that takes me back to my truck driving days. I locate a squeezy bottle of mayonnaise and Marie finds a table. “They do vegetarian sausages,” she beams. “Don’t you like ketchup?” She knows I think tomato sauce is for girls. I growl like a man and she laughs.

The breakfasts are brought over and I am consumed by the extra large plate full with three slices of toast on the side. I go straight for the black pudding, mushrooms and beans. I chew as a tension is relieved. I can taste it. My eyes are closed as I slowly savour my mouthful.

“Why do you love me?” I look at her. I smile. “You should never ask a serious question when a man is eating.” I put my fork down and multi-task. It’s not a distraction because I do love Marie. “I love our patience,” I say. “We both have that.” She smiles and listens.

“When you’re outside, your dark brown hair looks almost ginger or red. You look so girly on bright summer days. It reminds me that you take risks and let your hair down sometimes. I love how youthful you look.” She smiles.

“Then, sometimes when you wear your glasses, you look like a school teacher. Do you remember looking like a surgeon, in scrubs, with that apron you wear at work?” Marie nods and laughs.

“Well, you remind me about how responsible you are as a mother and at work. I can’t believe you spin so many plates. You say I’m more laid back. But I’d wobble if I had to live your average day. You’re an enigma.” I think. “You’re my star!”

I tell her that she is preferred without make-up and that I will love her no matter how she looks. “It comes from within.” I tell her that eye liner almost makes her look oriental – or at least, Spanish. I talk about her face shapes and how long or round her cheekbones look at different angles. “You could pass for three or four different women.”

I love her because she listens and second guesses what I’m thinking. Marie seems to be one step ahead of my needs or wants. She always has time for other people too.

I take a few mouthfuls of my breakfast as she beams. Then I talk about the time she video called me on the train. There was a noisy crowd of football supporters who intimidated an older lady by shouting and climbing on the seats. Marie wasn’t afraid to confront them in a non-threatening manner. They calmed down before the conductor came. Then she reassured the lady. “I do fear that you’ll come unstuck,” I say, “but you do right not to ignore it.” Too many people turn a blind eye nowadays.

“I also really love the ways you spend time with your kids. You teach them traditional things. I mean, you can easily afford to ‘fob them off’ but you don’t. You bake, make jigsaws and craft. Your girls care about other children and they apply themselves instead of fritting their times away.”

“They do have fun,” she answers. “Yes. But they take a real interest in the environment and other’s difficulties. They’re beyond their years, really.” Marie smiles. She smiles a big smile.

“I think I love your deep, dark eyes best of all. Do you know where my favourite place in the world is?” She shrugs and scoops up some beans. “Your left shoulder.” We both laugh.

There is a happy silence as we eat. I tell her how I drifted through painful days for months. I talk about seeing everything brand new again and I talk about my writing. I love to write about the human condition; about social commentary but I’m also attracted to the escapism of horror. I just don’t quite know how to marry the two. I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I want to write about anything that feels real, alive or…dead. I laugh.

“Ah! The Horror – yes!” She loves to listen to me talk about books. Marie says I come alive with my passions. “I know you say it comes from within but it’s nice to have a muse,” I reply.

She smiles again. “Marie! You don’t need to worry about me. I have this knack of overcoming adversity because I have a strong faith. I believe in you too. You give me hope. And I’ll always look out for you. I always will. As much as I can promise…”

There is a silence as we comfortably eat together. She passes the mayonnaise before I even reach for it. She knows that I love her. It’s just nice to hear it sometimes. She can see how much I care by my purposes in life. Marie says, “actions speak louder.” And it’s true. I was bowled over by the milk-tray pillows and the trips out with the video calls. She always seems to choose the right presents, too.

I love to scrub her back and brush her hair. I like to moisturise her legs and make her green tea. These are all acts of love. Sometimes though, it’s just nice to hear “I love you.” It’s nice to hear words because words make things happen. We finish our breakfasts. I am stuffed but managed to finish the extra large plate. “I think we’ll skip puddings,” she laughs.


Marie gives me strength and convinced me to try spinach. I wrote her a poem:

Girl, 46

“Was your day OK?” It’s just you
look away and I don’t bee
line to your honey smooth
forehead. I don’t see your worries –
those collected in blemishes or bags or
even uneven sags that I don’t see.
You are not Exhibit A or B
or even C to be looked at like
a commodity. You are more,
my eternal amour. You
are my best sounding-board friend
and the perfect true love; my lover in dreams
and in each creamy rich chocolate
waking hour and day. The only
one with that timeless girl’s heart – like
the laughter of bicycle rides –
and that sunrise smile as you nurture
other smiles around you.
You wear it loosely, care-free
as you ‘pay it forward’ or tightly tied
back on those few fraught long days.
Your happiest actions
outshine all that is outward
as they come from somewhere
softly ageless and inside. So,
let me now ask you, please.
You are important to me,
“Are you alright?”
“Was your day OK?”

Haddock and chips

It’s a lovely summer evening so we head to the park with wrapped fish and chips. There are lots of dogs running free. I think people are more tolerant here. People in London would probably have their dogs on a tight leash. We get lots of “hellos” and eye contact. Marie and I find a park bench overlooking a quiet football pitch.

“Did you order extra chips?” There is a mountain of them. The server didn’t skimp on salt and vinegar either. I start laughing. “Bloody hell! That’s a heart attack waiting to happen.” Marie’s eyes widen. The haddock is absolutely swimming in fat. It wasn’t even drained from the deep fat fryer. She chuckles and says, “I think you’re supposed to catch it first.” We eat off the same white paper which is threatening to tear beneath the sodden fish.

Mitzi ambles over. She looks like a white Yorkshire Terrier. The owners vaguely call her but leave the dog to sniff at our tea. I’m not sure if to throw some chips on the grass. I ask Marie if I’m quite reserved. She smiles and strokes Mitzi. My fingers are really greasy. “I think you think about your actions on others,” she replies.

At last, the owners call their dog. We look over the field onto the horizon. Marie nuzzles into my shoulder. “We can’t just ride off into the sunset,” she says. “We both have responsibilities.” I feel sad. I’m going home early in the morning. I agree – although I’m trying to find a workable solution. There is silence. Then we find a bin for the daft amount of left-over chips and hold hands back to the car.


“We really should have had some tea,” Marie says. I fall back onto the pillows trying to catch my breath. “Yes. But the macaroons were tasty.” We have just made love again like we invented it. I feel like a teenager despite the aches. Marie has thought about everything.

The hotel room has a large window which overlooks the bar and eatery with a glass roof. I talk about listening to the rain on windows. “It’s like being in the womb. I love being snuggled up in bed whilst listening to the rain on the window.” Marie agrees. We make love again. Then cries as I moisturise her legs. “No-one has ever done that for me before,” she says. “Well, you ordered the array of ‘milk tray pillows’ for my neck,” I reply. I like to scrub her back in the bath, too. I like to show her a maternal love as well as the more manly kind.

I cuddle Marie and she drifts off. I am too busy with my thoughts. The hotel room has oriental-like sliding doors to the bathroom and a writing table. I think about making a quick coffee. Marie awakes as the kettle boils. I make a coffee. She is grumpy as she stomps to the bathroom. “I’m not Jesus, you know,” she barks, half asleep. Marie has to be up early for work.

I later ask her if she remembers that night. “Of course! But I don’t remember mentioning Jesus.” I smile. “That hotel room had the world’s loudest kettle.”

Cheese and Ham Baguette

The first time it happened was on my very few trips into town. The short bus ride really makes my neck and arms sore. There’s too much braking, swerving and accelerating and too many potholes. I don’t enjoy going out. It’s purely functional and I’ve had enough after two shops. I really can’t browse CDs – the pains distract as it feels like I’m standing on children’s building bricks.

I am sat eating a ham and cheese baguette with a latte. I bite into the hard crust and then there’s a shock. I wipe the sweat from my brow. I spit the tooth into the palm of my hand. My tongue searches for the new gap and I think about getting older. I finish my sandwich as I text Marie. “When did you last go to the dentist?” I frown. I am sweating more.

The second tooth presented itself on my tongue as I woke up at my children’s house. It really freaks me out. Marie talks about flossing and black plaque. I buy some flossing tape but it doesn’t become a habit because my arms hurt and the novelty soon wears off. “You should really go to the dentist,” she says. I hadn’t been for four years. I tell Marie that I’d rather saw my leg off.

I finally get to the dentist after a six week wait. Even for me, that is a long time not to see a specialist because I’m anxious about my tooth loss. I joke in the waiting room about the drill being a lawn mower outside. Something else in the clinic room sounds like a hedge strimmer. I wipe my brow. Marie is there, on the phone, to compliment me for being responsible.

A few days later, I am eating a chocolate bar that is cold and hard from being in the fridge. I feel my top left incisor free and covered in the chocolate I’m eating. I feel faint. It’s the third tooth in as many months. Marie is incredulous. “At least you’ve still got a nice smile,” she says. I brush my teeth more than once a day now.

Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. He graduated from The Open University with a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences. His writing has appeared in Spelk, Nymphs, Fevers of the Mind and others. In 2020 he is due to appear in Horror Anthologies published by Eerie River and Red Cape Publishing. ‘Hearts of the matter’ is available on Amazon.

Books From The Pantry: We can order the same or taste each other’s (Part 1 of 3) by Mark Anthony Smith

Sausage rolls

As a girl, I can’t see her now. Sometimes, I think I can see her back then. But memories are fuzzy things. They are elusive or become mixed up with something else. Some of my reminisces are concrete. They are set in a strong emotion like the first time I was mesmerized by a spaceship on the big screen. Others are composites like a cut-and-paste photo-shop. Try as I might, I cannot take myself back to my school days. I can’t see Marie in the school dinner queue as she ritually pays for her daily sausage roll and beans. That is the only constant from all those years ago. That we both ordered the same for our dinner each day. I didn’t know this, then. It’s only since talking with her that we realised we ordered the same school dinners. I look back.

Marie says she was quiet at school. It’s hard to imagine her like that. She did well and she didn’t like boys. They were too angry all the time. She is a lot more confident now in her mid-40’s. I still see her vulnerabilities, at times, but mostly, she finds an answer to most problems. I look at our recent photos. We are always happy together. And I tell Marie that she could pass for three or four different women depending on how she wears her hair or the angle from which the snap was taken.

She’s changed a lot since how I vaguely remember her outside the classroom in her school uniform. Her hair is longer and she’s a lot chattier. Marie is a manager at a fashion company. I think that has brought her out of her shell a bit. That, and the passing of time. She’s had children too. So have I. Two girls who are now at secondary school. They’re at the ages when I first knew Marie. I can’t really picture her.

We eventually left school and went our separate ways. I joined the army and Marie went to college. I never thought I’d ever meet her again. Nor did that question even enter my mind. I didn’t think about her. Then, she came back into my life 30 years later as I try to recall how she was at school. But I can’t really. I must have bumped into the teenage Marie. I’m sure I did. I just can’t think of a concrete situation where that happened. I just vaguely recall seeing her sometime, from recognising her back then, from an old school photograph. I want to think that I’ve always been there for her. But I’m sure she existed for 30 years without me. She probably didn’t even give me a second thought as I went through army basic training.

Now she has come back into my life, I don’t want us to go our separate ways again. I want to think that she is my one constant in this ever changing world. All those years ago, we ordered the same school dinners.

Scrambled eggs and mushrooms

I remember Marie seeing my newspaper article on social media. That’s when she contacted me and offered her help. She lives down South. But she could organise a supermarket delivery if I was short of food. I felt really blown away by her generosity. She always helps other people and she tries not to judge.

I remember us, much later, walking past a homeless guy. I was in pain and wanted to go home. I felt angry with myself because I had little patience. Sometimes, I give someone in need some change. But I was skint. He was the public face of the government’s social policies. I wanted to feel angry at the politicians yet they are faceless. So, the vulnerable people, on the streets, take the wrath instead. It’s not usually their faults. The notion of a meritocracy is a myth. I had to be reminded of this as Marie found time for him.

The homeless guy was called David. He had been a successful musician until he went bankrupt because of a few accidents at a gig. He hadn’t seen his children for six years. He said it was tough. Marie made him smile. She gave him some change too and never questioned whether he’d spend it on drugs or alcohol. “Live and let live,” she said. I agreed.

That’s the trouble with people nowadays. They don’t realise that a smile can make a difference. I try to smile and say, “Hello,” even when I’m in pains. It might be the only warmth someone has received that day. I try to make a small difference to others. Marie agrees. It’s the small gestures that make a big difference. I just get really annoyed that people see my pains but don’t make allowances for my unseen disability. They carry on talking even as I’ve lost the thread. I can’t keep up.

Marie saw past the difficulties reported in the newspaper article. She said I wasn’t weak at all. I was strong because I was standing up for others as I added my ‘case study’ to the mounting evidence. Those with disabilities are struggling like the increased homeless folk. Marie said, “don’t look at what you can’t do. Look at what you can.” Her understanding was like a ladder that lifted me out of a pit of unending days. I could look forward to her video calls. She made me feel sexy again. She genuinely listened and I was her sounding board. She never judged me. Her scrambled eggs tasted good. I wasn’t in the dark like a mushroom. Marie gave me my appetite back. I learned to love my world again as I adjusted. And Marie expanded the premature end to my travels by taking me with her when she video phoned.

It feels like fate. She is exactly the right woman to come into my life at exactly the right time. I began asking questions. I am still in pains but the world is new as I have lost my preconceptions about other’s appearances. Marie has awoken me. Her interest makes me question and listen again. It feels like a good thing.

Veggie Supreme Pizza

She doesn’t like the ways animals are treated. I went without meat for two days but wanted to gnaw someone’s leg off. I said I’d never eat meat if we ever lived together. I felt trepidation after saying this. I’m not sure I could stick to Marie’s principles. I like pork too much. We share a veggie supreme pizza for tea.

Marie tells me about cows that are constantly impregnated to produce milk. I find that horrifying, too. And she is nervous about confined spaces. We didn’t dwell on battery hen conditions. That can’t be a good life. Being cooped up in a small cage. I’m not sure chickens know any different though. We should be more ethical towards life.

I agree that all life is equal. But I believe in God. Man was made flesh to rule over the earth. So, I think all lives are equal. But only mankind was made in God’s image. That makes us his highest creation. But with knowledge comes responsibilities. So, just because we can cage a bird, it doesn’t mean we should. There is plenty of space to let farmed animals roam. It’s about maximum profit, I tell Marie.

“You believe in God?” I tell her I do. Nothing is an accident. There’s too much order about for our universe to just be the effect of a random explosion. You only have to look at the beauty of a rose to see that there’s a creator behind it. And I don’t think that when our physical body dies that that is the end. We live on, I’m sure. We have the capacity to love and think up poetry. I’m sure those attributes don’t die when our proteins wither. Einstein said that energy can not be created or destroyed. I think we just take on another form.

I said to Marie that if I go first, I’ll look out for her. In death, I will order her toiletries and find her car keys. I’ll fold her clothes and stop her if she doesn’t see the car as she’s crossing the road. I will always watch over her. She thinks that’s sweet. “But don’t you think it’s a bit creepy?” I think.

It’s true that I’m quite a private chap. I struggle to use public loos if there’s other people about. And I’m quite tactile in a relationship. But I don’t need to see my girlfriend’s ablutions or watch her shave her legs. I think about this. Or rather, I try not to. “OK,” I say, “Then I’ll always be within ear shot.” We both laugh.

Marie thinks there’s something more but she hasn’t made her mind up as much as I have. She asks me to explain God and I struggle. Not everything can be explained. If I knew all the answers then I’d be God-like. But I’m only made in his image. I’m not totally sure what that means. God is male. And yet women are made in the image of our Heavenly Father too. I think it’s more to do with the Trinity. So, it’s less about appearance because our eyes can deceive us. We rely too much on our eyes at the expense of our other senses. I think ‘in his image’ means we have a spirit and a soul as well as a consciousness. But I’m not all knowing. I don’t need to know everything. Love doesn’t need to be quantified to be looked on with awe.


Marie looks beautiful as we go on our first date. She calls it dinner even though she’s a Northerner. It sounds more formal than tea. She knows I have my dinner at mid-day. This is an on-going joke as I begin to sound ‘di…’ before I mock correct myself with tea. We go out to eat anyway. She chooses a Mexican restaurant.

She is wearing a short sleeved dress that I say looks oriental. The eatery is busy. We find a table for two near the window that looks out onto the street. I already know I’ll order a latte. Marie looks at the vegetarian options. I watch her as she traces the menu with her index finger and looks flummoxed. “I’ll order the same as you,” I say. She smiles. “You don’t have to order the vegetarian option. You like your meat.” She decides on a green mojito and a vegetarian enchilada made with mushrooms.

“But I want the same experience,” I remark. I talk about travelling alone, which is fine, although there is no-one to share the experiences with. Photos only go so far in painting a conversational picture. She listens. “Well, we can order the same or taste each other’s,” she suggests.

I order a latte and a burrito filled with ground beef. Marie won’t try mine. The portions are large and we end up taking half of it with us when we leave. It is really busy and I’m in pains. She helps me through the weave of tables. I think about the connotations and we laugh at something private.

Smashed Avocado

Marie orders smashed avocado on toast for breakfast. I quite like them. I’m not sure if an avocado is an aphrodisiac but I really don’t need a chemical high to feel aroused when she’s about.

There’s a mother berating her kids. She seems unaware of other customers as she swears and tugs at the boy’s hood. I tut. Marie says that she’d never talk to her girls like that. “Some people lack empathy and awareness for those around them.” I say it’s because everyone wants to be a celebrity. But, in truth, it’s probably more to do with socialization and parents. Either way, social media pulls people away from parenting and promotes people who are famous just for being famous. I drift.

“Have you ever had a car accident?” I mention the time a woman pulled out in front of me from a junction. She said she didn’t see me because the sun was in her eyes. Luckily, I was only doing 30 miles per hour. But she wrote my car off. I was alright. But the lady had popped home twice whilst I was waiting for the recovery vehicle and she didn’t even offer me a drink. “Again. That’s a lack of empathy,” I say. I ask if Marie has ever had a car accident.

Marie tells me about the time, in her twenties, before having children, that she skidded and her car left the ground. Her scarf had been cut in two by the shattered windscreen. She was lucky not to have more than a few cuts from glass shards. My mouth goes dry. I can see her back then. I go quiet and think about my own mortality and hers. I don’t know what I’d do without Marie. I don’t know why I picture her smashed up car when she’s alright. I ask her why we put ourselves through imagining past events that make us feel uncomfortable. “Why do motorists crane their necks to look at accidents?”

“People want to feel.” We are so unfeeling in our everyday lives as we rush about. We are taught to use our heads more than our hearts at work. I think people look at those less fortunate because it gives them reprieve from their own worries. We can feel better about our lives.

Marie makes me feel better as she says she takes less risks with driving now. “I’m more experienced and more responsible now I’m a parent,” she comforts. I smile. Being a parent does make a lot of people think of others outside of their own difficulties. It’s nice to care about others. The smashed avocado is a winner!

Pre-packed Salmon sandwiches

I hate travelling backwards. I tell Marie that the little boy I look after has never been on a train. “Well, he loves buses. Maybe you could take him. A train should be smooth on your neck.” This sounds like a good idea. I’m stuck in a chair every day on tablets. I could pace myself. “As long as they aren’t salmon sandwiches,” I say. She looks puzzled.

We talk about ‘best before’ and ‘use by’ dates. I always get them mixed up, I say. I don’t really. I just like listening to Marie being the confident expert as I pretend to be helpless. It’s a great way to flirt.

I was on a train once, coming home on leave, and a woman stank the carriage out with some supermarket sandwiches that were out of date. She was trying to describe the greyish salmon, over the phone, to customer services. Everyone was changing their seats as they held their noses. She opened the window. It was freezing on the train.

Marie wrinkled her nose. “I like trains,” she said. “I like the feeling of not being in control. You have to totally trust the driver. There’s nothing you can do if it crashes.” I think about rollercoasters and shudder. I think about staying sober on nights out. “I like to be in control,” I surmise. “Maybe your world is safer than mine.” We talk about ontological security. How safe are we in the world? “It depends on your safety net,” she says. “Whether you have people around you that are dependable.” I think. I say that past experiences definitely shape how you react to adversity in the present. She agrees. Then she asks me why I’m smiling.

“It just sounds like something a woman would say. Enjoying the feeling of not being in control, on a train, as the scenery hurtles past. Is it a sexual thing?” Marie smiles. “Most things usually are,” she winks.

Shepherd’s Pie

I remember the first time I saw Marie since leaving school. It was dark when she finally parked in the street. It seemed to take forever as she had a long drive. I could hardly eat my shepherd’s pie because I was so excited. Marie even had the confidence to pick me up from my ex-partner’s. We had texted and talked for almost two months over the phone.

I should have asked her what car she was driving as she announced, by text, she was here. I grabbed my bag of medications and felt anxious. I didn’t want to tap on the wrong car window in darkness. She saw me first. The distance between us seemed longer than it was. My chest was somersaulting. We hugged after thirty years. I wanted to remember every detail.

Marie drove smoothly. She eased her clutch instead of snapping at it. I didn’t even need to remind her about my neck. I asked her to turn the radio off. “Why?” I said that I wanted to focus on her with the least distractions. “You are funny!”

She parked in what was to be christened ‘her parking spot’ outside my flat. We held hands. We always do. “You looked like a rock star as you walked up the street,” she remarked. I laughed and offered her a green tea. We put some music on and she kneeled down at my feet. I leaned forward and rubbed her slight back. I couldn’t help laughing. “What are you laughing at?” I said I was just pleased to see her and that my mind was in neutral. “I wasn’t thinking of anything,” I said. Then, I laugh again. “A rock star? Well, what do I normally look like?” We laughed.

Mark Anthony Smith was born in Hull. He graduated from The Open University with a BSc (Hons) in Social Sciences. His writing has appeared in Spelk, Nymphs, Fevers of the Mind and others. In 2020 he is due to appear in Horror Anthologies published by Eerie River and Red Cape Publishing. ‘Hearts of the matter’ is available on Amazon.