Pantry Prose: Spangles, Swarfega And Silk Stockings by Sally Shaw

“Get out!” The Scholl clog belts the shut bedroom door, its vibration whacks my back.

“I know you’re there, you…you retard, give them back now or I’ll cave your fat head in.”

I suck hard on the sweet, it fizzes on my tongue. I slurp in a deep breath, flick down the door handle and shove open the door. Dangle the red and white packet of Spangles clasped between my thumb and fingers, through the unguarded space, like a flag of surrender.

“Hey Sis, this what you’re looking for?”

I withdraw my arm sharpish and slam the door shut. The second clog bounces off the door, swiftly followed by the door being flung open. Bud catapults herself out the bedroom, clutches my shoulders her swiftness knocks me to the floor. She plops on top of me.

“What’ve I told you about touching my stuff.”

She’s got me in a Big Daddy hold on the narrow landing. I’m flat on my back, her knees squeeze into my ribs, the wind is squashed from my lungs. Her body weight is diverted down her arms to hands that pin my wrists above my head, flat to the golden square-ridged carpet. The force of Bud’s body pressing on me has lodged the Spangle in my throat. The packet of Spangles, my fingers tighten like a vice around them as the sweet ambushes my air.

“Give them back, you bitch.”

My eyes shout HELP. Her eyes scream I HATE YOU. The Spangle red flashes and then black.

“Told you I’d make you give them back.”

The pressure pops off. I’m discombobulated, rolled on my side coughing, in the centre of a golden square a half-sucked Spangle. I stare at the sweet, let it come into focus, the bedroom door clicks. I stretch my arm out, crawl my hand across the contours of the carpet like a crab on Southport beach. I grab the Spangle, a brief fluff check, not enough to put me off. I sit up, press my back against the bedroom door and put the sweet back in my mouth. Enjoy its sharpness as the gravity of what’s happened smacks me in my face. I keep perfectly still for what seems like ages before I go to our swing at the bottom of the garden.

Bud is my twin sister, younger by twenty minutes. When we were born she was so tiny the midwife wanted to send her to the hospital. All the incubators were full of other small babies. My dad had an old heat lamp for chicks. Dad and Mum are in shock they’re expecting one baby, me. So, when my mum thinks it’s over and the final push is for the placenta, it’s an almighty surprise when the placenta has a head, arms, and legs.

Placing Bud in a Pedigree Chum box beneath a heat lamp seemed the right thing to do. That’s where it started, the bond between Bud and Dad. He’d check on her like she was a day-old chick. I was placed into my cot and my mum took charge of me. Mum took care of both of us when our dad was out at work. When he got in from work dad took charge of Bud. Bud got extra feeds and was put into doll’s clothes. I can’t bear witness to any of this, I know it through the stories my dad told us and the many photographs. The Pedigree Chum bed is famous and there are loads of black and white photographs of Bud beneath the heat lamp. The photograph our friends ask to see over and over again is the beer glass one. When Bud is a day-old, dad pops her inside his pint glass. I often laughed to myself as dad took our photographs. Each photograph would take ages and ages as he held the light meter. Our faces ached with smiling for so long. I often wonder how long Bud was in that beer glass. The thing is, she survived none the worse and we became two, until we weren’t.

The Spangles episode is the latest and nastiest of loads of scraps, between us recently, has got me thinking. It used to bug me, Dad and Bud. Like the time a year ago, Nan Goodall had put money in our thirteenth birthday cards. We’d set our hearts on having a pet tortoise each. Bud and me drew a picture of how we wanted the tortoise’s house and run to be. We knew dad would be able to build it and we’d help. What niggled me the most was this, there was one slop jacket, Bud got to wear it, an empty Swarfega tin, she got it, screws needed tightening, Bud got to use the screwdriver. I didn’t make a fuss. The tortoises have a lovely house and run. Mine is called Fred he’s narrow and small, Bud’s is Sam, he’s like a walking rock. In the winter they go in the Pedigree Chum boxes with ripped up newspaper and air holes punched in the sides. They’re lowered through the hatch beneath the coconut doormat in the kitchen. Dad says the constant temperature in the space under the floorboards stops them waking up too early and dying. I wish dad would pick me sometimes to tighten the screws or to get the empty Swarfega tin. I never battered Bud for it, because when it was her and me, well we made a good team.

We’re twins but we don’t look the same and we’re not the same. I’m big and for that reason they call me Lobby and my hair is straight and blonde, Bud is small and has wavy mousy hair. Mum says Bud is determined. I remember when we were small and getting on mum’s nerves, mum went to rattle the back of Bud’s legs. She told mum, “You can smack me, I won’t cry.” I couldn’t do that. I felt safe with her. We shared our toys and we made friends together, so apart from Dad thinking more of Bud than me, being a twin was great. We were best friends and now we’re not.

The swing I’m sat on thinking about all this, Dad made from railway sleepers and the seat once had a rope in the centre so both me and Bud could sit side by side. That rope is gone. I sit and swing back and too. I half expect Bud to come bombing down the crazy paved path waving her precious tin above her head, accusing me of stealing whatever. She doesn’t appear.

The tin sits on the windowsill in our bedroom, above her bed. My bed is against the wall, Bud’s is in the best spot the furthest from the door, she’s got a bedside table and the windowsill for all her stuff. I have a bedside table. We share the wardrobe and drawers, we don’t share a bed anymore. She puts the things she doesn’t want me to see in her tin. The Spangles were in the tin. I saw her hide them, two days before she flattened me on the landing. I took my chance to pinch them during the night when she got up for a wee. I managed to find the tin in the dark, flip off the lid, got my hand stuck for a sweaty-few-seconds, heard the toilet flush, prised my hand free of Spangles and all, lid back on and dived back into my bed. I slid the Spangles under my pillow and there they stayed until the morning. I hid them down my sock as I got dressed. It’s Saturday so I’m wearing my lime green trousers, mum says I ought to wear more dresses, like Bud. It’s the raised lid on the tin that set her off, and me making a dive for the door.

The swing makes me feel better. I’ve located some fluff on the roof of my mouth picked up from the Spangle. I spit it out. I lean forward while my legs scoop the air to swing higher and then I’m still. I’ve hooked my arms around the ropes so I don’t fall. I close my eyes, I don’t know why ‘cos I’m not tired, I’ve only been up an hour. My brain plays a trick on me. It’s not this Saturday, it’s the one two weeks after we get the tortoises. We’re out on our newspaper rounds. It’s my first morning, the bag’s heavy. I can’t read Mr Tootle’s neat handwriting on the tops of the papers of the addresses. I can’t even read the words on the road signs. I don’t know what to do. I get off my bike and sit on a garden wall.

I’m not sure how long I sit there but my bum’s numb and cold. I couldn’t move cos I’m scared until I notice whose wall I’m sat on. It’s Janet Dixon’s gran’s. I lug the bag strap over my head onto my shoulder, get on my bike and start to peddle in the direction of the newsagents.

I’m going to tell Mr Tootle I can’t read properly. I approach the playground where me and Bud loved to play, it’s too early for playtime. I pull on the breaks and rest one foot on the pavement. The roundabout turns slowly. I don’t see anything at first. As the roundabout creaks round two bodies, one on top of the other, come into view. My heart’s going like the clappers. I can’t move, I gawk at the legs that come into view. Flesh-stockinged legs relax beneath his blue jeans. I puff out a load of air, it’s not a murderer after all. It’s teenagers. I feel sick. I recognise those shoes, and the bike up against the slide. I head across the playing field instead of taking the short cut over the playground.

On my way out the shop, I spot dad’s car pulling out of the carpark opposite the playground. Dad didn’t see me, he looked troubled. Turns out Mr Tootle isn’t as nasty as Bud said. He’s going to have a think what job I can do. I meet up with Bud at the top of our road.

“You finished quick for your first time, took me ages to find my way when I started.”

I look at her legs, they’ve got knee length socks on, maybe another girl has the same shoes and bike. Must be that. I don’t mention the incident on the roundabout or seeing dad. As we cycle side by side I’m bursting to tell her about Mr Tootle. When she finally notices I’ve not got my newspaper bag I tell her the whole story about my reading. She stops, turns to me and tells me I was brave telling Mr Tootle. That’s the last time she’s nice to me. As we’re pushing our bikes into the garage something drops from her coat pocket. She’s not noticed so I pick it up, a silk stocking dangles in front of my face. I stand stock still, the thought of the roundabout spinning in my head. I watch Bud as she rests her bike against mine. She turns around, my face must’ve told her what I’m thinking.

“What? What’s up with you?”

“I saw…” she spots her stocking lurches at me, snatches it, “Keep quiet.”

The swing’s stopped. I open my eyes. Later, that Saturday after the roundabout incident, Bud came storming into the bedroom, bounced face down onto her bed screaming. She lifted up her head and turned her blotchy face to me. “Snitch.” I didn’t explain.

I squeeze my eyes shut and make a wish. The swing wobbles as she shuffles in next to me. A Spangle is pressed into my palm.

Sally Shaw has an MA Creative Writing from the University of Leicester. She writes short stories and poetry and is working on her novel set in 1950s Liverpool. She is inspired by Sandra Cisneros, Deborah Morgan and Liz Berry. Published online by NEWMAG, Ink Pantry and AnotherNorth. She writes book reviews for Sabotage Reviews and Everybody’s Reviewing.

You can find more of Sally‘s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: My Insatiable One by Sabrina Mei-Li Smith

         The breeze releases Ceris’s hair. It tumbles down her back as the artificial wind subsides. Trains vanish into the miasma of tunnels and eyes adjust to a world not ruled by sex, absinthe and narcotics. Her world is private. Ceris exists between the setting of the sun and every new dawn. She’s separate from the smells of drying wool, from commuters who move around like water. Ceris tugs the fur tighter and strides the length of Hackney Downs platform. Adverts meet her eye line, maps for long-forgotten tube stops, overflowing rubbish bins and polystyrene cups live on the floor. Stuff that doesn’t matter. London offers anonymity. Somewhere to hide but no privacy. The freedom to be a nobody within its own contradictions.

And she loves it… like an infatuation with a terrible boyfriend.

The poison and

Love

Of London.

          A boy shoots Ceris a curious glance from the British Telecom phone booth. She glides by with hands thrust into her white, fur coat. Ceris checks out his brown chin-length hair and needle-thread cords. He’s one of her people, somebody who wears second-hand coats and walks the streets with holes in his shoes.  His brown eyes follow her slow walk. One knee-high boot in front of the other.

        “Hey?” he says. Maybe into the telephone handle, maybe to her? Maybe they’ve met? Maybe not? Ceris ignores him and carries on. Night people vanish by now.

        Stepping on the escalator, daylight, rain, headaches await. Two teenagers brush past in school blazers.

        “It’s what’s-her-name? Courtney?” one says, over his shoulder. The other tugs his friend by the bag strap.

        “Courtney Love?” he laughs but they’re up and away, barging past suits and up. Ceris ignores them and their stupid half-insults. She stares at every advert on the ascent: musicals, paper cups, televisions, and pure black T-shirts… Ceris smiles to herself, like a private joke.

         There’s a newsstand at the top. Commuters buy chewing gum, tissues and cigarettes. They stand in a single-file line to pay the frowning Indian man. Sometimes Farrand says ‘hello’ to him but today the newsvendor is busy. He digs his hands deeper into the pockets of the stripy money belt.

      “I can’t change that,” he says with a raised eyebrow at the fluted five-pound note waved under his nose.

      “It’s money isn’t it?” says the suit. He slams down The Sun and runs to catch his train. Ceris catches the vendor’s eye. He shrugs.

      “Prick,” he says. Her eyes become wide but she doesn’t smile back.

      “Is he a prick for buying The Sun or not having change?” Ceris asks.

       “Both,” he says. She gives him a half-laugh and turns towards the concrete grey of the early morning. “Wait,” he calls.

       “Why?” she asks with a frown. She can do without the vendor’s ‘funny’ banter. Farrand isn’t with her so she doesn’t see why she should chat if she doesn’t feel like it.

         “Don’t be an on-your-period little madam. There’s something,” he says gesturing to the overstuffed wire racks of papers. Out of habit, Ceris eyes gaze to the top row. The women with blank, pornography faces stare back.

        “No thanks,” she says. Rudeness is a mode of defence. She turns on her heel.

         “Oi, Ceris, isn’t it? Speak to your boyfriend, then. He got it already,” he yells after her.

        “Farrand’s my manager,” she says under her breath and walks through the doors of the tube station. Taxi drivers try to park up, swearing escapes car windows in the nose-to-tail crush. She steps onto Hackney Road and its puddles, chalky dog-shit, potholes. For a moment, she looks up at the pigeon-coloured sky. She loves days like this, where she can do fuck-all and watch time pass. Ceris takes a turn home, south down the concrete road, avoiding splatters of multicoloured vomit and MacDonald’s cartons and watches newspaper dancing in the wind. She pulls fur. It’s freezing.

        Ceris crosses the road, past a greasy café, past grimy Chinese takeaways and stops by the flat. Her keys have vanished. The shop underneath her flat is open. The yellow sign reads ‘PATEL’S POUND SHOP’.  Another new blue-tacked advert sits in the front window.  She fishes through her suede handbag and her fingers brush change, tampons, broken eyeliner pencils, loose matches, and gum. Her eyes study the advert as fingers hunt… 

It’s not an advert.

Ceris sees something that looks a bit like her face. A shock of blonde, a crystal blue eye? There’s a weird moment of mental disconnect as she looks closer. It is her face. But she doesn’t recognise the person staring back. It looks too polished, too alabaster, too perfect than the everyday face she sees in the mirror. Ceris takes a deep intake of breath.

It’s the front cover of Knight– a soft porn mag.

          “What the fuck?” she asks nobody. Lorries zoom and expel gas. Cars swish past. The world goes on but Ceris stands still. Nausea rises up from the feeling of surrealism. Is this shock? This is weird. So fucking weird. Ceris gawps at herself. Herself? On the front cover of Knight? Underneath her head and printed in bold capitals is the legend ‘AMATURE PHOTOGRAPHY SPECIAL’ and in smaller letters ‘COVERSTAR: CHERYL ‘CERIS’ LEWIS’. The wind blows her hair with waspish energy. Holy Fuck.

          “Ceris, babes, it’s too early. My bones feel like fucking glass,” says a voice. She doesn’t turn around. She doesn’t have to. Farrand seems to just know when she can’t find her keys.

          “Did you do this?” she asks, staring at the picture.

          “Nah, nah. Mrs Patel stuck it up first thing,” says Farrand.

          “No, I mean… Knight?” she asks.

         “Knight’s reputable, it’s a photography mag,” he says. Farrand’s warm hand touches her shoulder and she turns. Ceris looks up at Farrand’s androgynous, cat-like face. She shrugs his hand away.

            “Fuck sake Farrand, what if my mum sees this?” Ceris says pushing the door to the Pound Shop. Sitar Tabla and incense warm the skin. Farrand follows her, holds the door to stop the tinkling wind chime. 

              “Ceris, baby, you said ‘modelling’,” Farrand says, running a hand through crude-oil coloured hair. Twiddles it. Mrs Patel’s in deep haggle with a local landlord about the price of tiles. She pays her upstairs tenants no attention.

                 “I said no porn. Singing yes, modelling, ok. This can’t stay,” says Ceris striding to the window and peeling BluTack off the glass. Farrand’s hand lands. He pins glossy front covers down.

               “Baby, you’re not topless,” says Farrand. His tone implies boredom.

               “That’s not the point,” Ceris says, pulling at the paper. Farrand’s hand remains. A huge tear rips across Knight– Ceris’s eyes.

               “You’re being stupid. Where you been, anyway?” asks Farrand. He knows Ceris had a date.  He knows where she went and who with. He knows everything. He’s trying to humiliate.  

               “I’m not embarrassed by the number of men I’ve slept with,” Ceris says through a yawn. Her eyes yearn for sleep.

           “Babes, I’m embarrassed. By the fucking quality of them. You’re giving it away. Try escorting,” says Farrand. You. Cannot. Believe

-the shit that comes out his gob.

             “A singer, not fucking porn! You said you’d find me a band, a recording contract,” Ceris says. Farrand told her it would be ‘fun’. It’s not the first time he’s lied to her.

             “Hey, hey? No swearing. No trouble,” says Mrs Patel, looking up from tile-based conversations. She waves her fingerless gloves to waft Ceris and Farrand out of her shop.

              “Sorry, Mina baby. Ceris’s annoyed” shouts Farrand with a smile designed for Mina Patel alone. Mrs Patel says something in quick Hindi to Farrand and they laugh.  Ceris’s face feels flushed, reddened, shameful.   

             “Pretty white girls use looks to make money. Won’t be around forever,” Mrs Patel says, she makes a face, wraps tiles in a newspaper, and rings prices through tills. Ceris looks up at Farrand’s achingly green eyes. He’s so serious. Too serious.

             “C’mon, babe,” he says and grabs. Ceris shrugs him off. Mrs P raises an eyebrow but says nothing. Hindi sitars whine but give no answers.

              “Nah,” Ceris says. Farrand raises his palms up. He grins from ear to ear, looks at Mrs Patel and says:

            “White girls?” to laughter.

           “What do you think you are? Some sort of pound-land Pimp?” Ceris spits, blood thumping through her temples, crimson spreading cheeks and chin.  Farrand aims his fixed Cheshire cat smile. All teeth and nails.

              “Baby, your choice. Let hysteria pass and then we’ll talk,” he says, spins heel. Gone. The smell of unwashed sweat, patchouli and spice linger. Ceris shreds glossy paper into confetti shoves Knight-trash deep into pockets of her second-hand fur. Mrs P and the landlord whisper behind hands, firm eyes glued to her long, tall figure. Ceris feels like shit stepping out in the brittle-cold street, confused but never alone.

Sabrina Mei-Li Smith is a PhD scholar, writer, lecturer, and researcher in the discipline of creative writing. She lectures on De Montfort University’s undergraduate Creative Writing B.A. Her first play, The Holy Bible, received Arts Council funding In 2019. She specialises in writing with marginalised individuals, and challenging accepted narratives, through writing residencies with Writing East Midland’s Elder Tree project, and Leicester City Council’s Memories into Healing Words project which documents the narratives of Leicester’s elderly, street-homeless, and Irish Traveller communities. She runs specialised and mainstream creative writing workshops for Leicester City Council’s Adult Education College and has been a writer in residence for Coalville Writes 2019. Sabrina was part of De Montfort University’s National Writing Day Creative Writing and Practice Research Conference in 2020. She writes for Feminist Trash Store on topics such as intersectional feminism and is a reviewer for the Chichester Centre for Fairy Tales, Fantasy and Speculative Fiction. 

Pantry Prose: The Chimera Narasimha Epic Battle by Balu Swami

Chimera was having a bad day. A string of bad days, in fact. She thought it was the goat overgrazing the hair on her back. Actually, it was a monkey on her back. The monkey was telling her to go East. Places to conquer, enemies to vanquish. Of late, she had been seeing visions of lion-like beasts – just like her – in distant lands. She was itching to match her strength against theirs and wage do or die battles. Could another creature match her speed and strength? Is there another being that possesses her prowess – a fiery breath that could destroy an entire forest, a serpentine tail that could inject poisonous venom, and a goat on her back with enormous horns that could spear an enemy to death in an instant?

She listened to the monkey and headed east. She crossed many rivers, climbed a number of mountains, swam across a vast body of water for days on end until she saw land on the other side, land vastly different from hers – arid and dry. Along the way, she stopped to hunt wild hogs, hares and birds on land and buffaloes, turtles and crocodiles in the water. The goat grazed on grass on land and survived on sea weeds in the ocean. The snake survived on rodents, rabbits and birds. Once on land, Chimera went looking for a mountain and found a kopje. The kopje was surprisingly thick with vegetation. She found a low-hanging canopy and went into hibernation. Months later, she awoke to the smell of humans. She roared and breathed fire. The humans scattered making shrieking noises. The next day she set out hunting and found all sorts of kill neatly lined up at the edge of the canopy. She understood the feast to be a tribute from the terrified humans. As days went by, she started to feel anxious again. This time, she saw a vision of a shape-shifting beast whose head alternated between that of a lion and an eagle. Within days, she heard a thunder louder than any she had heard followed by torrential downpour. She could sense the presence of a monster being somewhere close by. Chimera switched to war mode and went out looking for the beast. She found him/her in a pasture. The beast had a human face and the torso of a lion. As Chimera got closer, the head turned to that of a bird with a long beak and the torso turned into a bull’s. The bull developed wings and one of the beast’s spines turned into a tail. The form shifting was so disorienting that Chimera had difficulty focusing on the heightened sense of danger.

The two beastly beings fought with everything they had for two nights and a day. Every time, Chimera had the other beast cornered, she/he would fly up in the air and attack Chimera from behind. Chimera’s fire breathing did nothing to faze the enemy who doused the flames with waters from the sky. Finally, Chimera hit upon the tactic that won her the battle. When the enemy landed behind her, instead of whirling around to face her, she duped the enemy into thinking she had been fooled. When the enemy got close enough, she unleashed her tail and stung the enemy several times. The venom instantly killed the other beast. Chimera’s victory roar travelled to the end of the earth.

Narasimha heard the roar. As an avatar of Lord Vishnu, the protector of the universe, the half-lion, half-human Narasimha recognized it as the roar of a heavenly beast. Narasimha had descended on earth for the sole purpose of killing the demon Hiranyakashipu, who, armed with the powers given him by Lord Brahma, the lord of all creation, had begun terrorizing Gods, Godmen and God’s devotees alike. After killing Hiranyakashipu, Narasimha, in a fit of rage, had drunk the demon’s blood. As a consequence, Narasimha had turned into a demon himself and had begun to terrorize the world. Having terrorized nearby villages, he had set out to rampage villages on the foothills of the distant mountains. It was then that he had heard Chimera’s roar.

Narasimha set out in the direction of the roar. Excited by the prospect of battling a worthy challenger, he raced, leaps and bounds, up the snowy mountains with heavenly peaks, the abode of all beings celestial. He trudged in the snow for days and nights until he reached a pass and waited there.

After slaying the form-shifting beast, Chimera had started towards the world he came from when the monkey commanded her to go further east. In a vision she had that night, she could see Narasimha waiting for her at the pass. Chimera left the arid land behind and reached the snowy mountains after many arduous days.

Narasimha and Chimera could sense each other’s presence even from a very long distance. Eventually, they met in the middle of the pass and the epic battle began. It was ferocious from the start. Narasimha’s advantage was his speed. He could move at the speed of light, so he manifested himself in several places at the same time. Chimera would see Narasimha near a tree, a rock, a twig, all at the same time. When wind kicked up snow, Chimera saw Narasimha in every particle. But Chimera was bigger and stronger and had more weapons. Their roars echoed in distant valleys. The fires they breathed melted snow on the peaks and started avalanches. Hundreds of villages at the foothills were destroyed. The melting snow swelled up the rivers that flooded the plains a hundred days away. The holy sages who had gone into meditational trances many moons ago, awoke to the sound of thunderous booms, bangs and blasts. They beseeched the Gods to intervene and put an end to the death and destruction caused by the demons.

On the 10th day of the battle, Lord Zeus, the king of the Hellenic skies, appeared before Lord Indra, the king of Indus heavens, to plead with him to end the battle. Lord Zeus said he himself was helpless since taking Chimera’s powers would mean breaking sacred vows: powers ceded to Chimera shall remain hers until her pre-ordained death at the hands of Bellerophon, the slayer of demons. Lord Indra confessed to his own inability for the same reason. Even though Narasimha was his brother, he had no control over Narasimha’s demonic powers.

The two Gods went to see Goddess Pratyangira, the personification of all energy, good and bad. Pratyangira gave Lord Zeus power over Narasimha and gave Lord Indra power over Chimera, thus ensuring that no vows were broken. At the 11th hour on the eleventh day of the battle, Lord Zeus took away Narasimha’s lightning speed and Lord Indra took away Chimera’s ability to advance. Narasimha became disoriented and started backing away. Chimera wanted to advance to make the kill, but her legs kept retreating – the tail had taken control of the body. Soon both demons headed towards the lands they came from.

Mission accomplished, the Hellenic God entered into a pact with the Indus God to seek each other’s assistance henceforth in battling demons that threatened heavenly order. The pact ensured peace on earth for a long time to come.

Balu Swami is a new writer. One of his pieces is in Flash Fiction North.

You can find more of Balu’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Beach Gods by Perry McDaid

“I’m okay. I’m fine. Seriously … no rush,” the man on the stretcher claimed, his arterial blood staining the pandemic-proof material.

Mór Ríoghain, her pale Irish skin shining with sunscreen, watched idly as an amateur longboarder with horrific gashes from a curious bull shark was carted up the beach on at considerable speed by two bemused paramedics. She noted the care they took not to shake anything off the stretcher despite their haste.

“He flat-lined,” she heard one protest.

“Eh?” The man had to be restrained from sitting up.

“Say nothing, just hurry,” the other responded as they passed so close, that she had to shield herself from the sand kicked up with a copy of Vogue.

She waited until the ambulance’s wail was eclipsed by the liquid respiration of the sea, before nudging Arawn on the double beach towel beside her. The Welsh-Gaelic god’s SPF50 sunscreen stuck to her elbow.

“It’s Siesta Key and a delightful eighty four degrees – give me a break.”

“You didn’t even look.”

“Sharks aren’t supposed to like shallow water,” he grumbled.

“You reading the tourist brochures? These buggers swim into ornamental canals in gardens and swimming pools, never mind shallows, or haven’t you been paying attention.”

“They creep me out. I leave that side of the business to–”

“To whom? Me??”

“Ummm…,” Arawn voiced uncertainly, the pitch of his tone rising and falling in tune with the breakers.

“Not to mention the backlog.”

“Aaaah…”

“Do you need Céibhfhionn as a phone-a-friend?”

Arawn peeled off the sunglasses and rolled onto one elbow to bestow a withering glare. “The last thing I need on holiday is the Gaelic goddess of inspiration with her ‘there … see … doesn’t that cloud just look like a shamrock … don’t the waves sound like…’ and on and on and on. She’s a pain. I just want one … one day of relaxation where I can just escape my eternal responsibilities and just chill. Is that too much to ask?”

“That glare is just terrifying,” Mór Ríoghain yawned, wiping the unwanted sunscreen from her elbow with an absorbent pad, and reapplying her own. “It’s a wonder you don’t slip down the beach into the sea: you’ve that much of the stuff on you.”

“We redheads have to be extra careful,” Arawn advised. He leaned back and slipped the shades back on. “You’re the goddess of death. Why don’t you sort the poor bugger out?”

“He’s Welsh … your branch of the business,” she quipped.

Arawn mumbled something.

“What?”

“I thought you were enjoying this time away together. I thought we made a connection.”

Mór Ríoghain rolled her eyes behind the Versaces. “Of course we did. We just need to be aware–”

“Look, who believes in us nowadays anyway?” he interrupted. “Most of them are Christians.”

There was a … silence. Even the rollers were dumb. Only the combers whispered their apprehension.

“Arawn … Treoir chun Báis … Reaper …. Angel of Death,” Mór Ríoghain began sternly.

Beachgoers halted their speculation about the victim’s chances of survival to gape at the storm clouds which had suddenly appeared overhead. A bikinied forward missed a spike as the beach ball was whipped from under her by a vicious gust. Gulls lifted into the air as great black crows swooped out of nowhere.

“You have become too wrapped up in mortal perception. We are who we are, no matter what labels they assign us. I escort the victims of conflict. You do the misadventure stuff. Don’t forget the last hassle with a guardian who lost himself in his own desires.”

She hoped Arawn remembered. He’d just about missed that particular cut, saved only by his naivety and sincere repentance.

He grimaced and sat up. “Right … okay … stupid of me! I get so caught up in human rituals that I forget myself.” He looked longingly at the sea and the sun which warmed his alabaster skin. “I was just so looking forward to… Hold on, there must be someone dying from conflict-based injuries somewhere. How come you’re not moving?”

The strange manifestations and uncharacteristic winds vanished as if they had never happened. Mór Ríoghain eased back on the blanket and let her grin spread beneath the floppy wide-brimmed sun-hat. “I’m a woman. I can multi-task.”

Irish poet and writer, Perry McDaid, lives in Derry. His diverse creative writing – including more than 1000 poems and 300 short stories appears internationally in the like of Anak Sastra; Amsterdam Quarterly; Aurora Wolf Literary Magazine; Red Fez; Brilliant Flash Fiction, Alfie Dog and Bookends Review and his latest novel Pixels, The Cause and the Cloud Cuckoo is available for order online.

You can find more of Perry’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Hercules by Abigail George

Emotions run high. Knees go weak. Elaine thinks about kissing him all the time, kissing his warm lips, being his partner, being the chosen one amongst all of the girls.

Elaine thinks about another late-night rendezvous, visits to theatres and museums, gifts of flowers, books, and chocolates, long and relaxed lunches, and early dinners. She dreams about having a beautiful home. Henry London meeting her parents, introducing him as the “man of my dreams”. She dreams of building a life together, a future, a life, starting a family, of becoming Henry’s wife, but Henry is a closet bisexual.

Only his closest friends know this, and secretly they laugh behind Elaine’s back, calling her love, a passing phase, an infatuation. All her life Elaine’s been a joke, had few friends, never had a proper boyfriend until university days, to Elaine Henry is more than a man, and she’s never felt like this, this glorious anticipation whenever they meet in the evenings, usually in Elaine’s out of the way flat. Henry says he likes “slumming”.

To this Elaine has no reaction. “Why do I watch so much television, so much Netflix, soap opera after soap opera, what did Henry mean by “slumming”. Maureen laughed at first when I told her, then she took my hand in hers, and kissed it, and not for the first time have I wondered that Maureen has romantic feelings for me. I could never tell Henry. He would tell his pal Epstein. I’d be a joke; Elaine told her diary.

She smiles, she cooks, she irons (perfectly) his shirts sometimes, she loves him. Epstein, Henry’s business partner is his lover, and confidante. They’re both handsome, rich, and can have any partner they want. Epstein and Henry are voracious lovers, Vikings in the boardroom, Vikings in bed. Elaine had a lovely smile, all the interns and volunteers said so. She was the epitome of style and grace on a budget, they tittered.

Yes, Elaine had a lovely smile. But would she be able to keep up with Epstein’s appetite for women and men, Henry London’s captivating life, his multi-million rand lifestyle, Paris on a break, Cambodia on a summer vacation, Hawaii next to the pool for Easter, Namibia on a weekend, and then there were his holiday homes dotted all over South Africa. Shame, poor Elaine, the girls tut-tutted amongst themselves. She really has no idea what she was letting herself in for. Elaine was lonely.

In her loneliness, she dreamed about sailing, boating for beginners, and Martha’s Vineyard. Sometimes she read Gillian Slovo, or Anne Tyler novels. Anne Tyler beat out Gillian Slovo for her favourite novelist. She discovered the love story between Zadie Smith and the poet Nick Laird, felt like Smith on Henry London’s arm. Confided in Henry of the aspects of her mother’s creativity in her childhood, and mental illness in adolescence.

Henry made her feel lonely. There were evenings when he was in one room, and she was in another, feeling lonely. Elaine can’t cope sometimes. She does the line of cocaine, and then sneezes. She listens to Carly Simon because Henry London loves listening to Carly Simon. Her only friend, the chubby Maureen says that Henry, the love of Elaine’s life is vain. He smokes a joint halfway, Elaine smokes the other half. She wanted to be seen as cool, as completely belonging girlfriend body and soul to Henry London.

Elaine doesn’t like Epstein. He said once that he wanted to come in her mouth. Elaine was shocked, went to the bathroom and cried, smoked a menthol cigarette, thought of how it made her feel when Henry called her sweetheart, suggested something to listen to other than Carly Simon in the evenings when they went to his mansion in Summerstrand, and, besides, Henry liked it when she smoked.

It made her feel slightly nauseous sometimes, gave her a headache, but it was worth it just for the look that Henry London gave her. He would tell her that he was grooming her for a better life, that all small-town girls deserved French perfume. The European fashion designed-clothes, the cocaine, Henry London’s life, his partner in crime Epstein made Elaine feel forlorn, sad, wretchedly depressed.

She thought it was romantic braving winter with Henry on her arm, when they walked into an expensive restaurant, or a nightclub for drinks, or into his house, and when she walked into his bedroom she felt as if she was walking on air, as if she could float up to the ceiling with happiness, and joy painted on her face for the world to see, and afterwards Henry would hold Elaine’s hand in bed as if he was a gentleman.

And she, the backward, religious gentlewoman-lover would smooth her hair, ask him if it had been alright for him, he would stroke her arm, said it had been perfect. She would wake up in the morning to breakfast, Henry’s father had often made breakfast for his family in the mornings, now he lived as a recluse in Louis Trichardt, and slept with his housekeeper who was of mixed-race descent, from Saint Helena.

The housekeeper’s parents had come from Cape Verde. Rufus Epstein took Prozac, besides other illicit drugs. He was a social animal, an extrovert, subjected his lovers to public arguments, drug-induced tantrums. He drank, and wasn’t ashamed of it either. Henry confided in him that Elaine made him gentler, kinder, Epstein laughed at this in Henry’s face, told him to come on a binge-drinking bender with him.

Epstein invited Henry to sleep with multiple partners that night. Henry said that Elaine was coming over to his house later that evening. Henry was going to cook his famous chicken. Epstein said that Henry was becoming to use to Elaine’s self-conscious and innocent ways. Epstein told London that he was a fool, a coward, that he was coming to romanticise love, and even worse romanticise life. Elaine was a little girl. Wait until she’s jaded, Epstein suggested wildly, or you ask her if another woman can join you in bed, watch her face fall, watch her react.

Watch her response to you, and watch the love, and respect go out of her eyes for you. But Henry London wasn’t surprised by Epstein’s reaction, Epstein all along had been secretly in love with Henry for years, and Henry had known this (all along), played along with it, used it to his advantage in business dealings. Elaine the mouse, had turned into something competent, someone of value to Henry London.

She was, by all male accounts that he spoke to, something wanted, something desired now that she was on Henry’s arm at all the right social gatherings, parties, functions. Elaine was a socialite now. Henry could even see the desire in Epstein’s eyes, but he also knew that Epstein wanted to make a mockery out of Elaine, he wanted to sabotage her squeaky-clean reputation.

And that was one of the finest things about Elaine, Henry thought to himself. She was so innocent. She wasn’t like the women in his entourage, who had seen everything, had done everything, travelled to death, experienced, and tasted the world. Elaine unusually did most of the talking at the dining room table at Henry’s palatial mansion, in the bedroom, while Henry London did all of the lovemaking.

I thought that nobody would ever love me. I was so scared of him, not intimidated, just scared. He was a man’s-man, Elaine told her diary. It was Epstein who had proudly given Henry London the nickname “Hercules”. Elaine had been a virgin before she had slept with Henry. He had been confused when she at first refused his advances.

Girls liked Henry London, girls loved Henry London, most of them wanted to sleep with him too. Henry had to court Elaine, woo her, promise her the world, be kind, and considerate, sweet, and gentle. Elaine wanted a husband. Maureen had told her that every girl secretly wants their very first boyfriend for a husband. It was a dashing Henry London that “awakened” Elaine physical body, and soul, and spirit.

She felt elated lying in Henry’s arms, thought of him as a kind of prophet when it came to a woman’s body. Then there was Carly Simon’s voice again, telling them both to worship each other all over again. Elaine had even read one of her stories to Henry. Henry London had clapped his hands at the end of the reading, and called it energetic, and intelligent. Elaine thought that she would die of happiness, her face painted with joy again for all the world to see.

“Rita is a woman who has had visions from childhood. At night she always left her bedroom door ajar, slept with the light on, with the bible under her pillow. She is visited by men and women who have passed on to the hereafter who think that they are still in some indefinable way connected, tethered to this world, this earthly plane and to the ones they have left behind. Children, husbands, spouses, pets.

She believes her auditory hallucinations are very, very real and that it is her duty, her moral obligation to record the conversations that she has with them be they writers and poets who have suffered the anguish and despair of suicidal depression (Assia Wevill, Sylvia Plath, David Foster Wallace, and Anne Sexton). Be they South African men and women detained during apartheid.

(Dulcie September, George Botha, Biko aka Frank Talk), men and women of African, British (Anna Kavan, Ann Quin), North American, Dominican descent (Jean Rhys) or from the Biblical era (for example Moses, Jonah and the whale, Elijah, Job, Noah, David, Solomon, and Jesus key figures in the history of civilization).This she does fastidiously handwritten in black Croxley notebooks.

But when people around her can see that she is different, special in a rather extraordinary way they begin to doubt her sanity and she is found to be certifiable, told that she should get plenty of rest, be put under psychiatric treatment and put under the care of a team of doctors. She soon though discovers her identity. Its borders in the powers of her own feminine sensuality, her ego.

The perpetual balancing act between the psychological framework of her intelligence, and intellectualism, and the final analysis of the sexual transaction. With that said she rises to the occasion and meets her new life head under feet. She soon finds herself in the tiny one roomed library of the hospital and begins to read everything she can get her hands on from Doris Lessing but most importantly the genius poetry of T.S. Eliot.

Once she surrenders to the fact that everyone around her thinks that she has lost touch with reality she pursues love with an art second to none. She is or rather becomes Orlando in an asylum and finds that she must play her role in this establishment’s class, gender and economic system. She becomes a phenomenal African version of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando.

Beautiful, wanted, adored, worshiped by men and women for her intellect in a dazed, confused world where pharmaceuticals, head doctors with textbook knowledge of case studies are the elixir, the essence of life. She negotiates the shark infested waters of having intimate relationships with both men and women acutely aware of the danger she finds herself in of engaging in licentious behaviour.

Of losing more than the fabric of her psyche, her soul. The safe world as she knew it as a child, youth and adult in her twenties. She finds herself in danger of losing everything. In the hospital Rita has flashbacks, embodies another personality that she, and her psychiatrist Dr Naomi Prinsloo calls ‘Julia’, she writes and she journals.”

Epstein walked in then completely naked into Henry’s bedroom. Elaine caught unawares blushed deeply. “Little girl,” he said nonchalantly, “it is time for you to smell the Malawian-roasted coffee beans in this room, and grow up.”

Abigail George is a writer who lives in a coastal town in South Africa.

Pantry Prose: Hotel Paracas by Robert P. Bishop

The woman pulled the wide brim of her hat low over her eyes to block the glare of the sun bouncing off the smooth surface of the sea just yards from the table where she and her husband sat, waiting for their drinks.

“The drive from Lima wasn’t so bad, was it?” she asked. The sun turned the sea silver, like the surface of a mirror. A flock of Peruvian pelicans swept in low over the sea, wings outstretched, holding formation like a flight of warplanes coming out of the sun.

“No, it was not so bad,” her husband replied. His hat shaded his eyes. He peered at the sea with indifference. He found it boring, uninteresting. He wanted a drink and looked around for a waiter. “The road is pretty good. It’s a good road.”

“I didn’t think the drive was too bad,” his wife replied. “Long, but not tedious.” She squinted her eyes against the sun reflecting off the sea. “Of course, you were the one driving. I’m glad you didn’t think it was bad.”

“How would you know? You slept most of the way.”

“Yes, I did. It is such a boring drive. Sleeping makes it bearable. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy the drive.”

“It was all right,” the man said.

The pelicans made a wide loop and still holding formation, flew back toward the man and woman, crossing their front with wings outstretched, gliding above the sea’s smooth surface.

The waiter appeared and put their drinks, picso sours, on the table.

“Mmm,” the woman said after picking up her glass and taking a sip. “It’s good.”

“Yes,” the man said. “It’s a good drink.” He looked at the sea. The sun was low in the sky. The sea shimmered in the afternoon light. The man squinted his eyes against the glare but did not turn away from it.

“What shall we do here?’ the woman asked.

“I thought you wanted to see the Islas Ballestas.”

“No, you said you wanted to see them.”

“I never said I wanted to see them. I mentioned them but I don’t remember saying I wanted to see them.”

“I remember you saying you did.”

“Well, if you remember it, I must have said it. I don’t know why. I have no interest in seeing them.”

The woman took another drink. “Islas Ballestas. What a strange name for a group of islands. What does it mean? It must mean something.” She looked at the sea and took another drink.

“It means crossbows in Spanish,” the man replied. “I don’t know why the islands have that name.”

“It is such a strange name. Everything about this place is strange. Even the drinks.” She held up her pisco sour glass. “Why would anyone name islands after crossbows?”

“I don’t want to see them,” the man said. “You have to stay on the tour boat. Landing on the islands is forbidden. You have to stay on the boat and look at them from the sea. I don’t want to do that.” The man drained his glass and looked for the waiter. “Do you want to sit in an open boat for two hours looking at a pile of rocks surrounded by the sea?”

“No. It doesn’t sound very exciting. I don’t want to do that.” She finished her drink. “Order more drinks.”

The waiter took their order and went away.

“The tour boats are crowded. You sit next to people you don’t know for two hours. You can’t even get up and walk around. I saw pictures of the boats. They look awful. I don’t want to spend any time like that.”

“Then let’s not go,” said the woman.

“The islands are barren. Nothing grows on them. There is nothing to see except some arches cut into them by the sea. And maybe some animals. Sea lions and birds. Of course, the boats are open. There’s no sense in going in an enclosed boat. You can’t see anything from an enclosed boat.”

“Let’s not go see them, then,” said the woman. “There must be something else to see. Something not so tedious and uninteresting.” They were interrupted by the waiter bringing their drinks

A middle-aged couple came onto the terrace and sat at the table next to the table where the man and woman sat.

“Hello,” said the newcomers. “You’re Americans, aren’t you? We’re the Andersons, Jill and Ron, from Billings, Montana. We haven’t seen you at the hotel. Have you just arrived?”

“Yes,” the woman said. “We arrived this afternoon.”

“You are visiting, then,” said Mr. Anderson.

“We drove down from Lima,” said the man.

“Oh, Lima. I’m sure that’s an interesting city. It’s so big,” said Mrs. Anderson. “Our guide book said one third of Peru’s population lives in Lima. Nine million people.” The woman looked pleased with what she said about nine million people in Lima, as if reciting a well-known fact made her important and elevated her social standing.

“Yes, it’s a big city,” the woman said.

“It must be horribly crowded,” Mrs. Anderson said.

The woman didn’t say anything. Her husband looked at the sea and another flock of Peruvian pelicans flying in formation low over the water.

“We’ve been here, in Paracas, for two days,” Mrs. Anderson said. “This is the most fascinating place. There is so much to see.” The waiter brought their drinks and went away.

“Have you taken the boat tour to the islands?” asked Mr. Anderson. He smiled at them then looked toward the sea.

“No,” the man said.

“Oh,” Mrs. Anderson said. “Well, we enjoyed seeing them ever so much. The arches are spectacular, and very photogenic, if you are a photographer. Are you a photographer?” she asked the man.

“No.”

The Andersons finished their drinks. Mr. Anderson signaled the waiter for another round.

“There are colonies of sea lions. Everybody on our boat was taking pictures of them. It was very exciting,” said Mrs. Anderson.

“Yes,” said the woman.

Jill Anderson smiled at the woman. “You absolutely must see the local museum. Are you going to see the local museum?”

“No.”

“You must not miss it. The displays are fascinating. You should see them. There are human skulls that are cone shaped. They are over a thousand years old. Can you imagine?” Mrs. Anderson’s eye opened wide. “Cone-shaped heads. Now that is something to see. And there are holes in the skulls. Yes, holes have been cut through the bone. Square holes, not round ones.” Mrs. Anderson blinked. “That must have hurt.”

Mr. Anderson said, “You bet. Even bumping your head hurts. The pain of having a hole cut in your skull must have been brutal. With primitive tools, too. And they didn’t have anesthetics either.” He took a drink of pisco sour. “I don’t know how anybody could stand that. The pain, I mean.”

“Seeing those holes made my skin crawl.” Mrs. Anderson shuddered and said, “Ugh.”

The woman and her husband looked at the sea and didn’t say anything.

“Those holes. That’s called trepanation,” said Mr. Anderson. He nodded his head and waited for the man or the woman to comment on his knowledge. When they remained silent, Mr. Anderson continued. “See, it was fashionable to have a misshapen skull. They did that by tying boards to the front and the back of the heads of newborn babies. That’s how the skulls were deformed. The bones were soft, you know. But when the skull was deformed the brain was deformed, too. That caused mental disturbances. Which is expected, of course. You can’t deform the brain and not have consequences. People went crazy and acted as if they were possessed by demons. Medicine men cut holes in the skulls to let the demons out.”

Mr. Anderson smiled, proud of his knowledge and pleased he was able to pass it on to the two Americans sitting at the next table.

“I think they were shamans, dear, not medicine men.”

“Whatever.” Mr. Anderson waved his hand dismissively and took a sip of pisco. “Anthropologists think that’s why the holes were cut,” Ron Anderson said. “To let the demons out. To us, it’s a strange thing, naturally.” He took another swallow of pisco. “Nobody believes in demons anymore.”

“It’s still horrible, whatever it’s called,” said Mrs. Anderson.

The man and the woman remained silent. They looked out to sea and saw the pelicans flying by again, low over the water, searching, hunting.

The Andersons got up. “Maybe we will see you at dinner tonight. We’re leaving in the morning,” said Mrs. Anderson.

After the Andersons left the woman said, “I don’t know why people are like that.” She finished her drink and said to her husband, “I want another.”

“Like what?” The man signaled the waiter for another round of drinks.

“Always butting in. They could see we were enjoying ourselves, sitting here in the sun, looking at the sea, not talking. They spoiled it. Why did they intrude? Why did they do that?”

The man laughed. “I don’t know. Do you want to ask them? We will see them at dinner.”

The pelicans made another pass, flying close to the sea’s surface. The man and woman got up and went into the hotel.

“It’s no good anymore,” the woman said as they went in.

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

Pantry Prose: The Last Piano by Gary Beck

Alright. So everyone thinks I’m crazy. Even my mater. But I’m doing what I want to. Ever since I was a kid I fell in love with the piano. I listened to piano music on my iPod. Then my Dorfer when that was available commercially. My favourites were Beethoven, Chopin, Thelonious Monk.

Mater indulged me with lessons and bought me an old time electronic piano when I was five years old. I practiced every day for hours and my tutor android, Erasmus, struggled with me every day for me to do my regular learning tasks. I did velocity exercises every day, played simple études over and over and lost myself in the cleanliness of the majestic sound.

I was highly proficient at the age of 10. I persuaded mater to let me play with an adult chamber music group, violin, cello, viola. Of course I had to go with Erasmus and my bodyguards, Jim and Veronica. They were cool, but Erasmus could be a pain in the ass. He’d tell me the rules on the way to rehearsal or a concert. He’d tell me everything I did wrong on the way home. But at least I got away from the house.

We played at people’s homes, big mansions like mine, for a handful of invited guests, as well as the resident families. Most of our concerts of contemporary composers lasted about 20 minutes. I was surprised that people would listen that long. But some of the elite people prided themselves on supporting high culture.

We were well known by the time I was 12, the ‘Off-World Quartet’ getting a lot of attention from anyone claiming to be educated. I actually earned my own credits. I had a family account that I never really used, since Erasmus took care of all my finances and expenses, but it felt good to earn my own livelihood.

I was 13 when I heard some people after our concert talking about a retro club where they played old time jazz. mater and pater were away somewhere at my next concert and I asked Erasmus, Jim and Veronica to take me to the club, the Hidden Chord. They resisted at first, until I offered Jim and Veronica 5,000 credits each, then they agreed. Erasmus objected strenuously. He kept saying over and over:

“That is not allowed,” and only stopped when we got to the concert house.

He started again on what should have been on the way home in our hover car. But I was determined. When he said:

“I’m obliged to tell your mater…” I held up my hand.

“You’ve been a good tutor, Erasmus, even though you tell me what to do all the time. I’m going to the club. If you don’t stop arguing I’ll tell mater your programming is obsolete and I need a new tutor.”

“That’s not fair,” he protested. “I’ve been with you since you were born. I’ve always done my best for you.”

“True. And I appreciate you. But I’m going to the club. Either come with me cheerfully, or start looking for a tutoring position somewhere else.”

“Where would I go? I was designed for you.”

“Then grow with me.”

“Alright, Brandon.”

“And no sulking.”

“Yes, Brandon.”

The club was dirty, smelly, loud and full of ganja smoke. I loved it. Erasmus insisted I wear a respirator, which I only did when we were outside, but he was right this time. I listened for a while getting used to their playing. There was a core group, drummer, bass, some kind of horn. Musicians kept joining them, playing for a while, then leaving. An old guy played the electric piano for a few minutes, then stopped. No one else played it. The group started something that sounded familiar and I went to the piano, sat down and softly played some thematic chords. Another horn joined us and blared away for a while. When he was done, the bass nodded to me and I just let music flow from my fingers.

I lost track of time, like every time I practiced or played. Other musicians came and went, but the bass kept letting me lead. It felt good. They stopped for a break and the audience applauded loudly. The bass thanked me.

“Come back any night and sit in with us,” and he gave me a handful of credits.

Erasmus ushered me out, with Jim and Veronica in their usual positions, one in front, one in back, Erasmus next to me. I lay awake for hours that night thinking that it felt just as good in a different way as playing with the Off-World Quartet. I suddenly had the image of playing alone on a real piano, the old kind, made of wood and stuff. It sent a thrill through me.

In the morning I had Erasmus search the web for a piano. Naturally he mumbled about how useless it would be since we had excellent electronic pianos. But I ordered him to do it. He normally did everything lightning quick, but this time couldn’t find anything. I was disappointed, but couldn’t get the idea out of my head. I started practicing the Appassionata. After 2 months I was making progress with the Allegro assai. A month later I actually played the entire Opus 57, albeit slower then it was written. Erasmus begrudgingly admitted it wasn’t bad.

Then one day, a miracle. Erasmus found an ancient Steinway Concert Grand in a curio shop. It emptied my account of all the credits I had earned, plus some. It came to the house on one of the few days people went out without respirators. A good sign. I had Erasmus put it in my living room area, then I tried it. It sounded strange and off-key. Erasmus tuned it, polished the wood and oiled the moving parts. I tried again. It still sounded strange after a lifetime on the electronic piano, but it was definitely in tune.

I practiced every day on the wooden beauty that Erasmus called the ‘old box’. He kept warning me that it was a very fragile instrument and it could break any time. But I dismissed that, saying:

“You can fix it.”

I made a special request to mater for my 14th birthday that she invite her select friends to our house where I’d give a concert. She consulted pater and wonder of wonders he approved. The date was set. I practiced diligently. The big night came. The guests arrived and despite pater’s misgivings that 25 minutes was an awfully long time to listen to music, everything was ready.

Most of the people knew me and applauded when I bowed, then sat down. I began the main theme, in octaves, quiet and ominous. Just as I was getting the feel of the down and up arpeggio, there was a loud screech, then a thud and the strings broke. I was horrified. Erasmus rushed to the piano, looked, then shook his head forlornly.

“The metal plate that hold the strings broke, then other parts broke.”

“Can you fix it?”

“Maybe in a year or so, if I can find replacement parts.”

He went to mater and told her that I could continue on an electronic piano, but pater decided we’d have supper instead. I sat there stunned as the guests fled into the main dining room. I stared at the beautiful instrument that I had become so obsessed with.

“Can we find someone to fix it?”

“I’ll try, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

I got up and went to my room, already accepting I would never play the Appassionata on a real piano.

Gary Beck has spent most of his adult life as a theatre director and worked as an art dealer when he couldn’t earn a living in the theatre. He has also been a tennis pro, a ditch digger and a salvage diver. His original plays and translations of Moliere, Aristophanes and Sophocles have been produced Off Broadway. His poetry, fiction and essays have appeared in hundreds of literary magazines and his published books include 21 poetry collections, 7 novels, 3 short story collections and 1 collection of essays. Published poetry books include:  Dawn in Cities, Assault on Nature, Songs of a Clerk, Civilized Ways, Displays, Perceptions, Fault Lines, Tremors, Perturbations, Rude Awakenings, The Remission of Order and Contusions (Winter Goose Publishing, forthcoming is Desperate Seeker); Blossoms of Decay, Expectations, Blunt Force and Transitions (Wordcatcher Publishing, forthcoming are Temporal Dreams and Mortal Coil); and Earth Links will be published by Cyberwit Publishing. His novels include a series Stand to Arms, Marines: Call to Valor and Crumbling Ramparts (Gnome on Pigs Productions, forthcoming is the third in the series, Raise High the Walls); Acts of Defiance and Flare Up (Wordcatcher Publishing), forthcoming is its sequel, Still Defiant); and Extreme Change will be published by Winter Goose Publishing. His short story collections include: Now I Accuse and other stories (Winter Goose Publishing), Dogs Don’t Send Flowers and other stories (Wordcatcher Publishing) and The Republic of Dreams and other essays (Gnome on Pig Productions). The Big Match and other one act plays will be published by Wordcatcher Publishing. Gary lives in New York City.

You can find more of Gary’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Shadows by Balu Swami

“CE” was the hottest selling gift item that Christmas season. It was marketed as a sleep aid, but something about it caught the imagination of all sorts of buyers – sleep-deprived seniors, millennial hipsters, spiritual energy types.

Matt and Linda didn’t belong to any of those market segments. They were both middle-aged professionals who experienced occasional stress-induced insomnia. So, with all the click baiting and push marketing, it was no big surprise that “CE” ended up on Matt’s list of gift ideas. He was like that, somewhat impulsive but mostly a lazy buyer. Linda, his wife, on the other hand, was a cautious buyer. She would research a product inside out before she would commit to buying. First, she needed to know how they came up with the unusual name for the product. The product literature was just a standard regurgitation of the health benefits of sleep and the sterling accomplishments of the female founder and CEO (degree in robotics from MIT and MBA from Harvard). So Linda worked the search engines and found that the founder happened to be a Buddhist from Nepal who wanted to call the product Chakra Energy. But her marketing team found it too new-agey, so they settled on the acronym and went about creating a mystique about the name by not explaining anywhere what it stood for. She also researched the science behind the device which was basically a patch and a console. The user would stick the patch to her forehead before going to bed. The console supposedly would pick up neuromuscular signals from the patch and transmit them to a machine learning system. The system would analyze the signals and determine whether the production of melatonin was optimal. If it was below optimal, the system would stimulate the pineal gland to increase the production of melatonin. Although she found the science dubious, she decided to buy it since it sounded like a fun gift.

She also found a bunch of stuff on the web that she found oddly interesting. The product was a huge hit with the new-agey types who attached a lot of metaphysical significance to the location of the patch on the forehead which happened to be the third eye Chakra in the Tantric tradition. By unblocking the third eye Chakra, “CE” was supposedly clearing the channel to the crown Chakra (the head) which controlled sleep. Linda soon lost patience with the claptrap and turned her attention to the next item on her gift list.

They had a good laugh on Christmas day when they found out Santa had picked the same gift for both of them. They decided to try it out that very night. The next morning, Matt said “I had a strange dream last night.” “And I got one for you. But you go first,” said Linda. “Okay,” said Matt, “so I was on the golf course with Tom and a few others. One of the others was Jeff.” “Jeff who?” she wanted to know. “We don’t know anyone by that name.” “Your brother Jeff. I asked him how you were doing and he said, “Fine. She is living with mom and dad.” “In that cowpoke town? Never” she said laughing. “Okay, here is my dream” she said. “I was on the phone with you and I hear the roar of the ocean in the background. I ask where you were and you say Belize.” “Then what?” he wanted to know. “Then nothing. End of dream.” They both thought it was weird that, in both dreams, they were separate from each other. Later in the day, Linda thought back to the many times Matt had expressed a desire to live by the ocean when he retired.

It was now middle of January. They were returning from a concert. It was snowing and the visibility was poor. He was trying to stay focused on the road and she was beginning to panic by the minute. All of a sudden, he heard her scream as a semi came up thundering down on the right lane at break-neck speed. The scream and the truck’s velocity caused him to swerve to the left lane where an SUV, horns blaring, barely missed crashing into them. The rest of the way home, she was too frightened to say anything and he was too angry for words. Both went to bed that night angry. The next day, he expected her to apologize for distracting him while driving and she expected him to apologize for his reckless driving. After a couple of days, they talked about house-related stuff but neither brought up the incident that night. In the following weeks, they sniped at each other at every little irritant – dirty dishes in the sink, socks on the floor, forgetting to buy milk – until it all built up to a big blow-up fight. This time, they didn’t talk to each other for over a week. One evening, she didn’t come home. Next day, he caught a flight to Oaxaca, found a beach front condo for rent and joined the small expat community there.

A couple of weeks later, a “fastest trending story” popped up on his phone. It was about “CE”. Its users everywhere were reporting a bizarre phenomenon: their dreams were portending real life events – lost cat found, law school admission, death of a dear one. Many were calling “CE” the Coming Events device. Just as he was finishing reading the story, his phone rang and it was Linda. She wanted to know if he had read the story and where he was. She told him she was with her parents in Montana. They were both silent for a moment. Then he said, “I’m ready to come home.” She said, “Me too.”

Balu Swami is a new writer. One of his pieces is in Flash Fiction North.

Pantry Prose: The Nazi on the Bean Bag Chair by Alex Antiuk

Looking over at Erik, I didn’t think twice about the large, well-wrapped bandage that consumed his leg. It wasn’t unusual for a patient to have a bandage covering either their wrists, thighs, calves or even their neck. It was the middle of the group, and Erik had only just reappeared. He had been present when the group started, but had been pulled out almost immediately after the moderator said, “Today we’re going to be talking about Interpersonal Skills.”

Erik was seated in the back of the room, completely alone in an oversize, heavily used bean bag chair. He kept shuffling around, his sculpted arms moving the bean bag aggressively. I noticed he even let out an occasional grunt, as he couldn’t find a suitable pose. 

But the moderator wasn’t phased by Erik’s return, and asked the group, “Does anyone know what F-E-A-R stands for?” The group was heavily medicated, and I could tell not the slightest bit interested in the acronym. But then a hand was raised. It was Jess, who always held a warm glow – despite her cheeks being whiter than a piece of paper, and her dangerously sharp bones always jutting out on display.

She quickly whipped her neck around, and in a screech, pointed directly at Erik and said, “I’m afraid of him!” The group turned.

Although they moved slowly, one by one eyes began to fall on Erik. He was still adjusting himself in the bean bag chair and had yet to sit still.

My eyes also slowly shifted, but then the moderator regained our attention. 

“Jess… We can discuss that later. But for now, let’s get back to F-E-A-R. Does anyone know what the F stands for?” The group was once again silent. 

The moderator then added, “It stands for, ‘Be Fair’. Not only to yourself, but also to others!” The group let out a collective yawn.

“Does anyone have an example of a time they acted, ‘Fairly’?”

Jess’s voice reappeared. It was even more frantic than earlier, and now had a newfound lividness too.

“Why should I be fair to him?”

Once again her neck craned towards Erik. But this time the group didn’t follow. They remained completely slumbered, and I too began to feel the effects of my mid-day medication regimen.

The moderator also didn’t initially reply – placing her hand-book in her lap and allowing silence to calm the room. 

But during this lull, Jess’s grotesquely thin frame began moving with the wind that rattled against the window of our therapy room. And with the moderators lips now seemingly glued shut, Jess didn’t hesitate before continuing her loud, now disgusted assault, “Did no-one else see The-Giant-Fucking-Swastika on his leg?”

The group of somnambulists once again began the arduous task of turning towards Erik. But before the majority could re-adjust their seats and land their eyes on him, the moderator suddenly snapped.

“That’s enough, Jess!” 

Her voice stung into our ears. It was the first time I had heard it take on a serious tambour. But then a loud, heavy ringing overtook the ward, and the moderator stood and smiled. She lifted herself up in one quick motion and announced, “It’s fun-tivities time! Who’s excited?” But the group retained its sleepiness and didn’t even let out the slightest inclination of life, until Jess interrupted the moderators professional excitement with a harsh, piercing scream.

It echoed loudly throughout the room, and I noticed a small stream of blood had begun to drip from Jess’s palm. Her overgrown nails were digging deeply into her skin.

But Erik didn’t seem to mind. 

Instead, I noticed he had finally found a comfortable position on the bean bag chair. And with his hands now behind his head, had no intention of moving for “Fun-tivities”. 

Alex Antiuk is a writer and former vitamin salesman from New York. Alex was also a winner in author Simon Van Booy’s Short Story Competition in 2018.

Pantry Prose: Roy by Balu Swami

When Roy first mentioned his bizarre idea of flight, we were sitting on the parapet wall on the roof of the community college building where he worked as a telephone operator (yes, it was back in those days) during the week and as a security guard on weekends. “What the fuck is a parapet wall,” he wanted to know when I used the English term for ledge. He said, “you mean the ledge?” We had a minor argument about it and I said “that’s what I was taught to call it.” In typical Roy fashion he settled the argument saying, “You are in fucking America. Speak American!”

I was drinking beer and he was drinking beer and smoking pot. He got up and started walking along the ledge with arms spread wide. He turned around and said, “If I jumped off the building now, I’m pretty sure I’ll start flying.” My hands had gotten clammy when he started walking on the ledge. When he talked about flying, my knees started knocking and I immediately got off the ledge. Laughing, he got off too.

That was Roy. He was short, sinewy, and steely tough. I have seen him lift a 300 pound engine with just his bare arms from under the hood of a car. And he was a wizard at fixing cars – foreign, domestic, no matter. We were first year engineering students at the local state college and he befriended me – a foreign student – for some reason. We did our assignments together either in his apartment or mine. I taught him thermal equilibrium and unit conversion and he taught me how to get class work done while drinking heavily and listening to loud music in the background.

Roy was, by turns, charming and crude. One evening we were at the local 7-11 picking up beer for the evening. As we were leaving, this highly attractive young girl pulled up in a black Corvette next to us. Noticing Roy, she flashed a sweet smile. Roy said to her, “What are you looking at? I won’t put my dick in your mouth.” The girl started crying and I pulled out of the parking lot fast as I could. I felt embarrassment, shame, guilt, anger. “What the fuck did you do that for?” I shouted and he simply laughed. Later, he admitted he was being a dick and promised he would make it up to her. He made it up to her by dating her. He had found her by following any black Corvette he saw on the road until he found the right one. He put on his best clothes, brushed his flowy blonde hair and waited outside her workplace. She tried to avoid him but he caught up with her and told her that he showed up just to say how sorry and ashamed he was for what he had said in his drunken state. A couple of days later, he showed up again and saw her this time with another woman, a colleague, maybe a friend. He could hear the other woman ask, “do you know that loser?” and saw the two of them walk away laughing at him. A week later, she smiled as she walked past him. A month later, they started dating.

After Wendy came into his life, Roy lost all interest in school and I saw him less and less. Both Wendy and I tried to convince him he should pursue his degree in engineering, but he was adamant in his belief that the professors were all morons and he knew more about engineering than any of them did. I tried telling him knowing auto mechanics is not the same as knowing engineering, but he knew better.

Although he gave up education, he didn’t give up alcohol, pot or hard drugs. Wendy began losing interest and soon found another guy – someone from work, one of the white collar types. One day, Roy stopped by my apartment looking a total wreck. But he claimed he felt happier than ever because he was freer than ever. No school work, no work work, no girlfriend bullshit. He was thoroughly enjoying his primeval glory.

A month later, I got a call from Wendy saying Roy had jumped off a building and killed himself. But only I knew he didn’t kill himself. It was his first (and last) attempt at flight.

Balu Swami is a new writer. One of his pieces is in Flash Fiction North.