Pantry Prose: It Looks Like You’re Writing A Novel by Andrew Williams

The cursor flashed on and off, a small vertical line counting down the seconds. Derek watched it blinking. Tick, tick, tick. Soon it would be time for dinner, time to help the kids with their homework, time to collapse on the sofa with a beer and spend another night watching repeats on the television with the wife.

Another day with no writing done.

Tick, tick, tick…

So much for the next bestseller. He’d managed to write a few pages a night once, but now it always came back to this – the blinking cursor, and the virtual page on the screen as empty as his mind.

The cursor flashed on and off. Derek though he could hear it sniggering at him.

With a sudden burst of frustration, his fingers flew across the keyboard. A string of random letters and punctuation spread across the screen, interspersed with the occasional mis-typed swearword. He selected the whole lot and pressed Delete.

“I need a miracle,” he muttered to himself.

Miracles don’t happen. Not really. Oh, sure, someone will claim they saw something happen that they couldn’t explain, or more likely they’ll claim someone else’s story must be true – maybe even spin a whole religion out of it. Sometimes they’ll pick some random fluke and claim a divine hand had a part in it, conveniently ignoring that a single child surviving a car crash means everyone else in the car had to die. And then there are those who declare the most commonplace of things are miracles, like the birth of a child or a rainbow after a storm.

But in fiction, miracles can happen. They can feel like a cheat – if your plot gets so out of hand you need the actual gods to descend from the heavens to sort it all out, you may simply be a bad writer – but sometimes, when they’re handled right, they can work.

I think we owe Derek a miracle.

After consigning the third wave of desperate gibberish to the void, a figure appeared at the bottom of the screen. It appeared to be a paperclip with eyes, and it was looking at him.

Derek was wondering whether he should cut down on the beer or take this as a sign he needed to drink more of it when he suddenly remembered.

“Clippy? But that was…”

Years ago, in another version of this word processing software, Clippy had been one of a range of animated “desktop assistants”, meant to pop up with helpful advice or suggestions when users were getting stuck. Clippy was the default. The assistants had been quietly dropped in later versions because users mostly found them deeply annoying.

But there he was, impossibly. Clippy the Desktop Assistant, a relic from another time, back on his desktop and offering assistance. Probably thinking he was trying to write a letter, or that he didn’t know how to work some basic function on the computer.

A speech bubble popped up.

“It looks like you have writer’s block. Would you like some help?”

Derek rubbed his eyes. Never mind the beer; there was half a bottle of scotch hidden at the back of the kitchen cupboard. Intrigued, he clicked on the button marked “yes”.

“Thank goodness for that. You have no idea how many years I’ve been cooped up on your hard drive.”

“Aaaaagh!” Derek wheeled around, almost falling off his chair. Clippy was no longer on the screen. He was right beside him.

A paperclip with eyes is cute when it’s about three inches tall on your monitor screen. It’s a very different matter when it appears in your study, six feet tall with eyes the size of footballs.

“What’s happening?!” Derek squeaked.

“Relax. You’re just having a psychotic episode.” The words had a metallic edge to them, which was understandable enough, but Clippy had no mouth to speak them with. “Now, are we going to sort out your problem or are you just going to sit there gibbering like an imbecile?”

Derek gibbered for a bit longer, and then nodded.

“Good. So, let’s start at the beginning. What are you writing?”

“N-n-novel,” stammered Derek. “It’s a-about…”

Clippy waved the open end of his metallic body – his hand, Derek supposed. “That doesn’t matter. As long as you know, we’re okay. Right. Do you have a plan?”

Right now, the only plan in Derek’s head involved the bottle of scotch. “Well, not exactly. I just like to write as I go.”

Clippy sighed. “Oh, a pantser,” he muttered. “It’s always a pantser. Look, you don’t need to work out every last detail ahead of time, but writing is a LOT easier if you have a vague idea where you’re going. You can’t start driving and just hope you end up somewhere fun. You plan a route, or at least a destination. So – rule one. What are you writing, and where is it ending up?”

Derek looked at the screen. In his head, images of cowboys on spaceships fighting dinosaurs flickered briefly and died. “Science fiction?” he volunteered.

“No, no, no. What’s the story?”

“Oh, that? Rex B. Handsome, the hero, is rescuing an Amazonian princess from the clutches of the evil warlord and his dinosaur army. In space.”

“First time out of the hard drive in ten years,” sighed Clippy, “and I get this. I mean, I wasn’t expecting Hemingway, but still…”

“Look, are you going to help me or not?”

Clippy’s bulging eyes loomed large as the gigantic stationery item leaned in. Derek shrank back in his chair.

“You want my help? Then this is what you need to do.”

The screen filled with text.

STEP ONE – know what you’re writing.

STEP TWO – know what needs to happen.

STEP THREE – eliminate distractions.

STEP FOUR – drink a magic potion for inspiration.

STEP FIVE – the ritual chant to prime your mind.

STEP SIX – let the words come without thinking.

Derek frowned as he read and reread the list. “Magic potion? Ritual chant? What the hell?”

“Writing isn’t just something you sit down and do,” said Clippy. “It’s a sacred ritual. Otherwise everyone would be a writer, and not just the sacred and the mad. When you write, it isn’t actually you that’s doing the writing. You’re just the conduit.”

“You’re telling me that writing comes from God?”

“Do you believe in God, Derek?”

Derek shrugged. “Not really. I never took much interest in all that church stuff.”

“Then no, it doesn’t come from God. But it doesn’t come from up here, either.” Clippy tapped what would have been his head with the end of his… appendage. “Sigmund Freud would probably say it comes from the superego. Those new age nutters would talk about cosmic harmony or something. You’re writing about cowboys in space, so I’m guessing you’re a Star Wars fan.”

Derek nodded, deciding not to mention that his chief villain was a tall man in a black cloak and helmet, armed with a laser sword. Or that Rex was accompanied by two funny robots and a furry giant who only spoke in growls. Originality was overrated.

“So let’s say… it comes from the Force.”

“Are you saying that writers are Jedi?”

“It’s a metaphor, Derek. You know what those are, right? Being a writer and everything?”

Derek nodded, though he couldn’t recall the difference between a metaphor and a simile. They’d covered it in school, but he’d been too busy trying to imagine what Jennifer McAllister looked like naked and hadn’t been listening. He’d never found out about Jennifer, either.

“When you sit down to write, you’re not just writing. You’re opening a channel. You get everything ready at your end – that’s the ritual. And then you get out of the way and let the writing happen.”

“Okay. So what do I do?”

“We’ve already covered steps one and two – you need to know what you’re writing, and where it needs to go. Not just the whole novel, but the specific bit you’re writing. If you don’t know those, you could end up absolutely anywhere – or nowhere.”

“Right. Then what?”

“Step three, I think you’ve already covered. You need somewhere quiet where you won’t be interrupted. It takes time to get into the zone. Once you’re in, you’re in as long as you need to be; but if something brings you out, it’s hard to find your way back again.”

“Step four…”

“Derek! I’m home!”

It was six o’clock. Hazel was home, bringing with her the takeaway pizzas they’d be having for dinner. The kids were in tow, laden with homework. Derek felt a pang of panic – how would he explain the six foot monstrosity in their study?

But when he looked around, Clippy was nowhere to be seen.

Hazel planted a kiss on his forehead. “Did you get any writing done?”

“No, I think I dozed off. I had the weirdest dream.”

“Looks like you managed something,” she said, pointing at the screen.

The six steps were still displayed. Had he typed them himself? He must have. There was no way that could have been anything but a dream.

Step four…

He wished Clippy had told him about the last three steps.

“Come on, pizza’s getting cold,” she said.

“Coming.”

Derek saved the strange document, closed the word processor, then followed her to the kitchen.

It was a pepperoni pizza.

After dinner, he sat with the kids and tried to help them with their homework. Eventually they asked him to stop and he left them to it, ready to collapse on the sofa once again and let another day end in failure. He walked over to the fridge and took out his evening beer.

Drink a magic potion…

He stared at the can in his hand. There was no such thing as a magic potion, after all, but what if the ritual was simpler than that? Many famous writers were known to be heavy drinkers, but it wasn’t even alcohol – others couldn’t start without their daily cup of tea or coffee.

“Hazel? Do you mind if I go back to the study for a bit?”

“You want to write now?” she called. “You’ll miss Fame Idol!”

Derek shrugged, though he knew she couldn’t see him. “It’s fine. You start without me. I’ll be in later.” He didn’t know what she saw in that programme anyway – he only watched it because it was on.

He returned to the study, beer in hand. He opened the can, took a deep swig, and stared at the blank screen.

The cursor blinked. Tick, tick, tick.

That’s what he got for thinking his dream had been real. Magic potion, indeed.

In the other room, the first of the Fame Idol contestants started singing, or something that could charitably be called singing. He could do better. He shut the study door (that was step three; no distractions) but the caterwauling still came through, a little muffled.

He slipped on a pair of headphones and opened up his music library on the computer. Something to drown out the noise…

Scrolling down the list, he wondered when he’d last actually listened to any music. He’d fallen in love with Hazel at a karaoke bar, the two of them singing some cheesy duet together. Here was a song they’d played at their wedding – and here were some they’d danced to in the evening (and sometimes more than danced).

Ah, perfect…

He took another swig from his beer and leaned back in the chair, lost in the music.

The explosions sounded like drums all around them. Rex yanked the steering column to the left and the ship lurched sideways just before the missile could strike.

“Grrrawrrawwl!” complained Fuzzwhump in the passenger seat.

“Sorry, pal, no time for a turn signal.”

X-34 squealed in protest in the back. “Sir!” he cried, his silver-plated head swivelling in alarm. “The odds of us escaping a Nova-class destroyer are…”

“Don’t tell me the odds!”

The squat dustbin-shaped robot in the corner only beeped and buzzed. That’s all it ever did, but somehow managed to express a surprising amount of weary cynicism in the process.

“Look, we can hide in that asteroid field. When they’ve given up, we’ll slip back out and then we can go rescue the princess.”

Though how they could take down the velociraptor guards when their blasters were almost out of energy, he didn’t know…

Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. Check out Andrew’s website.

More work by Andrew on Ink Pantry here.

Pantry Prose: Press Ganged by Evan Hay

Malevolent idle hearsay was received, functionally, without question, via email the following morning, from an unaccountable personage; an unspecified decision maker, or more likely an irritable opinion influencer. Either way, in respect to reliable, prospective contractual renewals, its source was deemed to be a mission critical figure: one wielding personal enmity with minimal concern for individual ramifications, consequently borne by any operative accused of displaying militancy. It probably was, Monty imagined, that stressed-out réceptionniste bloke, with his impressionistic, brilliantine black Barnet, who brusquely barked at him, unexpectedly, without explanation. Who in their right mind was enthusiastic about being screeched at, by total strangers, from point-blank range? Especially, when in the midst of heaving great, precarious weights on wheels, up slippery concrete steps, drenched by horizontal pissing rain? It was wrong on multiple levels. Monty wasn’t licensed to move an HGV (its driver dashing off for an eyelash) & so couldn’t have legally or safely re-parked it across Judd Street, even if he’d wanted to!

For experienced corporate liveried porters, west end deliveries were customarily simple enough, guiding fully-loaded sack-trucks straight down from pavement sited trap-doors, into pub cellars, by way of near vertical steps. An architectural wonder, east of Fitzrovia, the Renoir by contrast, sat pretty amidst a modernist, open concrete retail precinct, needed front-accessing. Poor porters schlepped sack-trucks laden with heavy, varying shaped boxes of booze, over sizable distances from a tight side street past dozy, meandering, haphazard middle-class shoppers, with nothing pressing, or schedule critical to complete within the ambit of their free time- entering the targeted bierkeller only after an irksome slalom, running a gauntlet, via the movie theatres grandiose interior. Uptight, stuck-up staff therein viewed grubby, disruptive labourers as necessary evils, forever warning them to be careful, not to scratch marble walls, leather sofas, damage BAFTA award-winning décor; blemish their hitherto compliant hygiene standards, or tourist quality environment (his chatty driver informed Monty, that some earnest punter wearing a silk paisley cravat, & working terribly hard on a laptop, pulled up a Polish agency porter as she pushed through the centres swanky wellbeing lounge, complaining about an ‘appalling reverberation’, & enquiring if lubricating oil could be found on her lorry, to quell a dreadfully annoying squeak, emanating from her sack-truck wheels). Aggrieved, Monty delivered as instructed, so he felt discriminated against, randomly, for a fault perceived in, & attributable to, a stationary vehicle. Today’s temporary worker was designedly without representation; fair game in a blame game, featuring irresponsible management, casting allegations devoid of substantiation. Zero hours contractors casually deleted: with plenty other mugs cheaply available, replenishing a neo-liberal firing line.

After work, Monty stood, radically disaffected, vengeful & scheming retaliatory scatological assaults- visceral dissension events assertively aimed at pointlessly debasing a cute, artistic, cultural whatchamacallit- Bloomsbury’s beloved Renior (opened in 1972 by the late Millie Miller, a creative space, a complex multi-purpose venue benefitting choice, cultivated audiences, absorbing discerningly selected films, & assimilating vibrant, mini-lifestyle festivals). Described by literati as a sumptuous haven for Flânerie; an opulent auditorium, wherein viewers, presented scrupulously crafted images of beauty & power, are cordially invited to comfortably confront, & cerebrally examine the scrumptious complexity of ‘absence’. Time Out magazine accorded it the legendary status of a trusted Delphic Oracle, an accessible focal point of third-party voyeurism situated upon Camden’s coveted multi-faceted map of aesthetic aspiration. Whetting his appetite for vandalism, & dishonourable disservice to brutal modernism, Monty incredulously read, & re-read, uncompromisingly fawning reviews of upcoming repertory, or independent films to be screened, posted inside the foyers plate-glass entrance: ‘Hamish McHamish’ caught his eye.

Bi-lingual, written by a sage St. Andrews based BBC producer (no doubt a chinless chattering-class wonder with a tiny jaw line & huge, easily bored brain) whittling her contemplative days away inventing impressionistic narratives. This tokenistic Art House instance being dotingly created in gentle collaboration with BBC Alba & the BFI, appropriates the legend of Hamish McHamish, an intensely earnest Gael, who stows away from the Isle of Skye’s rolling winds, shrieking like amputated voices of the damned, to escape excessive hardships meted out by supplanting C18 Lairds, enforcing brutal, authorised Highland Clearances, promoted by a United Kingdom for His Majesty’s Pleasure. Press-ganged & sent to sail seven seas as a cabin boy aboard a gay old lugger named HMS Petulant. Hamish runs ashore on those salaciously Friendly Isles, where lubricious local customs challenged visitors to nominate one of their gang to pleasure tribal maidens in a cooperative gesture of exogamous brotherhood. Being foolhardy, ginger, & savagely sunburned- got Hamish volunteered by sniggering shipmates. A brief, noisy preparatory ceremony sees him stripped, oiled, & bedecked by reeking giant petrel feathers, before being carried aloft to a Jiggy-Hut. A first hint of alarm occurs upon noticing disjecta membra from previous participants- what Hamish imagined as an idle shag-fest, momentary, & transient, was instead a deeply spiritual vaginal mission to render nubile virgins unconscious by way of deep-c multiple orgasm. Tribal custom decrees- succeed, & live a fêted existence attributive to a Chief, or fail & face public castration, followed by death-by-warthog.

Based entirely on academically verified, anecdotal eye-witness accounts, recounting how power evolves to compel folk to do its bidding via violence, remuneration, or blackmail, starring Mark Zuckerberg. This true-life Georgian adventure culminates in desperate attempts to escape mutilation in a requisitioned tribal canoe, & high life or death drama, fought out in blood curdling oar-to-oar combat, afloat upon a tranquil turquoise bay. Hailed by The Observer’s Lifestyle supplement as an intensely didactic cinematic triumph; a magically managed script sensitively parsed historical tensions between longings for a hereditary life lost, with a claim to profound personal enrichment as part of an Empire, from a challenging perspective held by a dispossessed, itinerant subject, from the margins of late-Enlightenment, Hanoverian Britain (an inventive sequel, seeing the protagonist return to Skye, serving his community as a native vanguard of colonial civilisation, shock & awe, minus any trace of reservation or remorse, is in the pipeline, awaiting Arts Council funding).

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

Read more of Evan’s work here on Ink Pantry.

Pantry Prose: Glitches by Andrew D Williams

Nobody knew how it started. Nobody was entirely sure when it started, either, but it wasn’t long until everyone knew.

And by then, of course, it was too late.

People don’t think about the little numbers. They dream about big numbers – a lottery win, or a rich old uncle dying and leaving them with a huge inheritance – but that isn’t how most people become rich. It happens a bit at a time, often before you notice.

The same is true with a plague. One or two deaths don’t grab the headlines (unless the people who die are famous, of course). It takes thousands, millions of deaths to get people’s attention – and by then, of course, it’s already too late to prevent disaster.

And so it was with us.

There are 26 letters in the English alphabet. We all know that. Every child knew that. And it was a child who first noticed what we hadn’t – one of them had gone missing. I know, that sounds insane. How can a letter go missing? But it had. We all remembered there were 26, but however we tried to count them, there were only 25.

What letter was missing? I can’t tell you. I mean it – I really can’t. I don’t know what it was, I can’t even tell you any words that contained it. The spelling of those words has changed, you see – in every book, on every computer. Oh, yes, the computers. Touch typists everywhere started making mistakes. Lots of them. Statisticians studied those mistakes and concluded that the missing letter was on the bottom row, somewhere between the Z and the C keys. But they couldn’t eksplain what the missing letter might have been.

It happened again, a month later.

The world had just started to settle down again. There was a popular concept on the internet: the “Mandela Effect”. So many people remembered Nelson Mandela dying in prison, despite his emerging very much alive to lead his country, that they suggested reality itself had changed. They were remembering the true past, in some parallel dimension, and they’d somehow ended up in the wrong version of events.

The rational version was far simpler – a lot of people just remembered it wrong.

And so it was here. The idea of 26 letters in the alphabet was a Mandela Effect – people were remembering a false history. There had only ever been 25 letters. You simply had to count them…

Oh dear.

No matter how anyone tried, the count came out as 24. Another letter had kwietly disappeared from the alphabet. There were no clues this time. Touch typists, still adapting to the lower half of their keyboard, seldom did anything more than accidentally add a tab in the middle of a word, and that rarely.

But it was hard to convince the world that there really were only 24 letters in the alphabet when you’d spent the last month convincing the world there were 25.

Another month has passed, and people are getting scared. Now there are onli 23 letters in the alphabet. Some enterprising ioung chap had the bright idea of carving all the letters in stone, siks feet high, on the plinth in Trafalgar Skware. And now there are onli 23. I counted them maiself.

There’s no gap, no sign. It’s like he onli carved 23 letters in the first place.

It’s impossible. It’s insane.

Mani people are turning to religion, praeing to any gods they can think of. English professors have suggested several new letters to replace the missing ones, but thei argue over what these should be, what thei sound like and where thei should be used.

Have we all gone collectively mad? Is this the result of some foreign power, brainwashing us?

I’m scared.

The worst thing is, it could happen again nekst month. Or even todae. How would we efen know? Our lifes could change efen as I tipe these words…

Things are worse, but there has been a breakthrough of sorts. Researchers haf found a recording of a children’s nursery rime that teaches them the alphabet – while it doesn’t include the missing letters, we can at least identifi where in the alphabet thei belonged.

Of the original 26 letters, we haf now lost numbers 10, 16, 22, 24 and 25.

We chust don’t know what they are.

But does it realli matter? We seem to be able to conferse happili enough with chust 21 letters.

A funni thing, though – people are digging out their old Scrabble sets from their attics and cupboards, and thei all seem to have a lot more blank tiles now. I’fe found mine – there should only be two blank tiles, according to the box, but I seem to haf… sefen blanks.

Wait, no. I haf eight.

Whi did I put that one blanc tile before the Ls?

19 letters nao.

Eferione gnos there are fief faoels in the alphabet, and that is still true. A E I O U are all still present and correct. It might be ferri hard to rite uithout them. But somehao I find it harder to read than I used to. The missing letters are gone, but ue still ecspect to see them.

I leaf the Scrabble set out all the time nao. It helps me to no huen another letter fanishes from our collectif consciousness. So far, thei haf all been small letters, onli one or too of each in the bocs nao replaced with blancs. But huat if one of the bigger letters is necst?

And uai is this happening at all??

The second roe of mai Scraggle poard has nao turned planc.

Planc? Uai does that sound rong to me?

All these uerds sound rong lateli. Too much empti space on mai ceepoard. Reading gifs me a headache after chust a feu minutes.

Huen uill it end??

I heard the neuz today. Oh boi…

There iz a roe of four planc tilez on mai Zcraggle poard tonight. One of our more important letterz haz nao disappeared. Zomehao I thought there might be more of an impact, iuet oue maic do uith other letterz.

Efen zo, thiz iz cauzing great panic in poth the gofernment and the uniferzitiez.

At leazt our faoelz are all ztill here.

A E I U. A E I U.

4 faelz. Unly 4! Un ef aur faelz haz gun!!

8 planc tilez nau falleu the P tilez en mai poard…

Nuthing iz zafe!!

Te affapet nau ztands at 13 etterz. Unly aff ef uat it uaz.

Ue zeem tu mizz anutter efery dae nau.

Dicteneriez are fat uit ennpti pagez.

Ennpti? Uai duz tat zaund ueird to nne?

I can’t ztand it ani maur!

I tried te zcreenn, putt I couldn’t. Te zeund iz tere; I iezt cn’t rite it dun.

Unni 3 fe… fu… zpezu ietterz nu.

Zun peepz 4re uzing “4” 4z 4 zt4nd-in. It lucz gud, liec it fitz.

Ue 4ve tu nu 0un2 g0ne n40.

2efer4’ nn0re d1g1tz 4f peen put 1nt0 u2e 42 etter2 putt uen du2 1t end?

Un te0ri 12 t4t nun 0f t12 12 ree’. Ue 4re 1n 4 21nnu’4t10n.

1n te NN4tr1c2.

1 d0n’t n0 u4t te2e 24pe2 nneen n40 put te uurd 12:

GLITCHES

Ee eee eeeeeee eeeeeeee. (It has finally happened.)

Eee eee eeeeeee eee eeee eee eee. (All the letters are gone bar one.)

Eeee eee eeeeeee eee eeee. (Even the numbers are gone.)

E eeeee eeeee eeeee eee eeee E eeeeee eeee eeee eee. (I write these words but even I cannot read them now.)

Ee eee eee eeee, eeeeeee eee eee eee. (We are all lost, waiting for the end.)

I read back over these notes now and they seem like the ravings of a lunatic. The later entries are particularly hard to read – it look me weeks to decode the final entry, in which the position and angle of the single letter indicated what it actually was. What madness possessed me?

But I gather it wasn’t just me. Similar diaries, most far less detailed, have surfaced in other places. There may be more, their owners too ashamed to reveal them. They are the only works like this – all our books, all our keyboards, all are normal.

The Mandela Effect brigade are suggesting that our world, the simulation we live in, has been rebooted and all our memories reset. That sounds absurd to me. We are not in the Matriks, and there are still twenty siks letters in the alphabet.

ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWYZ.

See? Twenty… five…

Andrew D Williams writes psychological thrillers with a streak of dark humour. His stories question the nature of reality and those beliefs we hold most dear – who we are, what we think is true, whether we can trust our own minds – and combine elements of science fiction with philosophical questions. When he isn’t writing, Andrew’s time is split between swearing at computers, the occasional run and serving as one of the cat’s human slaves. Check out Andrew’s website.

Pantry Prose: Rêverie by Evan Hay

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

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

More work from Evan on Ink Pantry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob Mundy was a frightened man.

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

Mr. Mitchell grunted a response.

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

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

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

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

“Oh?” Jacob said.

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

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

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

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

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

But he hadn’t said those words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman laughed. “Yes, you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacob Mundy never looked back.

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Garden Of by john e.c.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Yob by Evan Hay

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

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

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

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

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

Pantry Prose: Buzz by David Green

“What the fucking hell happened to you?”

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

This was not the best of times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter

Facebook

Pantry Prose: A New Challenge by David Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter

Facebook

Pantry Prose: Plastic Breath by Alfredo Salvatore Arcilesi

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

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

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

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

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

Save for Clara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One breath.

Her vision slowly…

Two breaths.

…slowly…

Three breaths.

…returned.

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

Move it, she urged herself.

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

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

She wondered if her daughter would even care.

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

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

Beloved Clara.

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

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

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

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

Alive enough to save Clara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past the bottom drawer.

Forty metres.

Past the middle drawer.

Thirty metres.

Past the bottom of the top drawer.

Twenty metres.

Finding the top drawer’s knob…

Ten metres.

…where it hung…

Come on.

…unwilling to move.

COME ON!

Her hand sprang back, the drawer with it.

Sliding.

Sliding.

Sliding.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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