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.

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.


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:


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.


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.