Amy Finlay – Fiction

Child of the earth

People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.

The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden.  If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.

Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.

One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.

“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.

“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”

Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.

Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.

A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.

It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.

“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.

Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.

“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”

“Gives the mind something to focus on.”

“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.

“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”

“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.

“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”

At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.

She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.

That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.

The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.

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Steve Legomsky – Fiction

The Case of the Missing Sock

Yes, I am fully aware there are bigger problems in the world, but this is exasperating.  I do the laundry, bring it up from the basement to my second-floor bedroom to sort it and put it away, and find an odd number of socks.

The first time it happened, OK.  No big deal.  I assumed the missing sock had been left behind when I last emptied either the washer or the dryer.  Surely it would show up in the next batch.

So before starting the next laundry, I carefully inspected the insides of both the washer and the dryer.  The missing sock wasn’t there.  I got down on my hands and knees and surveyed the cold, hard, concrete floor areas around both machines.  No luck.

This was annoying.  No more annoying, I realize, than the daily frustrations anyone else has to put up with, but aggravating nonetheless.  I buy expensive socks, and losing one means losing a pair.  I also don’t have that many pairs of socks without holes, and sock-shopping is the last thing I have either the time or the inclination to do.

I started my new batch of laundry.  When I eventually got around to hauling it upstairs to my bedroom and sorting it, I was surprised – and frustrated – to discover an odd number of socks yet again.  I was getting agitated.  What the fuck is going on?

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Gregory Hill – Fiction

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL RECOUNTING OF MY BIRTH

I took my first breath in the year of 1942, during the final song of a performance by the Stables Family Band at the Bijou Theatre in Cumber, Wisconsin. It was August as hell and my mother was playing fiddle.

The birth occurred without the aid of a doctor. Rather, I slid out of my mother’s well-practiced womb and splashed upon the wooden stage between her shoeless feet. In anticipation of this, Mother had worn her wedding dress that night. She’d been wearing it for seven straight days.

The dress had first belonged to my grandmother, who had sewn it for her own wedding. Grandmother had bedecked the dress with hideous, cascading folds and frills and fluffy things in order to hide the shameful bulge of her belly, a bulge that would eventually turn into my mother.

These many years later, the dress’s white cotton had aged into the color of sunstained newsprint, and it was perforated with moth bites. After an unlaundered week as stagewear, the cotton had acquired several additional hues, the perforations had expanded into holes, and it was as pungent as a pond of panther piss.

In spite of this, the dress looked great on Mother. Everything always looked great on Mother. Even in her mid-thirties, she had remained a dish, thanks to her lifelong loves of performance, moonshine, amphetamines, and rigorous fucking.

My first memory, planted that firefly and frogsong evening, is of my babyhead colliding with the Bijou’s age-warped stage.  The impact jiggered my soft body all the way to the bottoms of my convex feet.

My phlegmy nostrils, desperate for oxygen, drew in a teaspoon of air dank with the funk of Mother’s unwashed, bare feet. One of these feet rose and then stomped the floor adjacent to my head. Birth liquid splashed upon my brand-new skin.

My universe consisted of a cotton sky, a hardwood floor, and two stocky legs. From the murky and mysterious Other Side of the Dress came the whoops and hollers of an audience. Vibratories of hundreds of boots stomping in merciless unison shook the wavered floorboards below me.  My untouched fingers spasmed into involuntary fists. 

 In the dim light afforded by my birthtent, my untrained eyes followed my mother’s bare foot as it lifted its blood-speckled toes and dropped them floorward, and then did so twice more. My abode fell into complete darkness.  The stage curtains had closed.

Of some concern was my inability to inhale. My nostrils had by now become clogged with a quantity of phlegm far beyond the pneumatic power of my tiny lungs.  I redirected my respiration to my mouth, a procedure that required me to shift the tip of my tongue to rear of my throat. This endeavor should have liberated my breath, but it did not. My convulsions had by now settled into the lackluster mouth-stretching flops of a fish tossed to the bottom of a rowboat. I found myself becoming disillusioned.

The audience wanted an encore. Their slap-claps and stomp-bomps walloped the pink folds of my wet ears.

Mother’s toes massaged my chest with apologetic squeezes, working my ribs and lungs. Mucus oozed from my nostrils. My teeny diaphragm jerked up and down noncommittally. My fingers groped for my throat.  There they encountered a tightly coiled rope of flesh. To be murdered by the very umbilicus that had sustained me heretofore. My first brush with irony.

Unseen by me in the midst of this unseen struggle, the curtains spread open. As was the tradition, the band approached the lip of the stage to perform one final song. This intimate moment was the conclusion of any Stables Family performance, barring those that were cut short by a slow-motion drunken slugfest between members of the band and/or the audience.

With Mother following the rest of the group to the front of the stage, I was dragged along rivuleted planks by my own umbilical cord. The tugging spun my body once, twice, until the cord unwound from my throat like the last inches of thread spinning off the spool.  

The band had by now assembled in a line, their eyebrows dripping sweat and their limbs poised begin the encoric tune.


#

My first contribution to the Stables Family band was a single squawk in the midst of that brief moment of silence.

Squawk, I did, and there proceeded a longer-than-brief moment while band and audience alike attempted to reconcile what they’d just heard with the fact that there were no geese in the auditorium.

Mother, being as she was both a natural ham and unnaturally stoic, flapped her bow-arm up and down and replicated upon her fiddle, as best she could, the squawk of my first exhalation.

The noise thus explained, the recently-pregnant silence was replaced with hooting and hollering and general glee.

On that August evening of 1942, as I took my first unencumbered gulps of air, as I lay dripping upon a wooden floor under my grandmother’s hoop dress, the Stables Family Band performed what is considered one of their finer versions of one of their lesser songs, A Light in Yonder Glade.

As captured by an art-deco microphone operated by a Purple Hearted, certified Radio Technician Third Class, the show was being broadcast across thirty-eight states from the mighty needle of WOZI’s 50,000 watt AM transmitter just up the hill. It is said that the slender, two-hundred-foot iron tower lured fireflies with its weird, crackling noises. The fireflies would spiral around this electromagnetic god until they became so saturated with ionic madness and that they would splatter in small static explosions.  It is further said that the accumulation of guts had rendered the tower practically luminescent.

Anybody who listened to the broadcast that night–huddled around their vacuum tube radios or driving in their large iron cars–will claim they heard something special.

I’m not so sure about that. If something special did happen that night, it had nothing to do with me. 

GREGORY HILL

Amy Finlay – Fiction

Lady in Red

Like many well-meaning people, Felicity and Roy Williams thought moving to a new town would signify a fresh start. But they were to discover, as everyone eventually does, that troubles are rarely left behind. Felicity, a well-respected heart surgeon and Roy, a mediocre dentist, had just celebrated their pearl anniversary when Felicity detected the scent of cheap perfume on one of her husband’s shirts. This wasn’t the first of Roy’s indiscretions and it wouldn’t be the last. Her mother had warned her about marrying a man of such character but ironic as it is for someone in her profession, Dr Williams was naïve in matters of the proverbial heart.

They had paid little heed to the realtor’s warnings and local gossip that said their new home was apparently haunted.

‘It can have one hundred ghosts at that price,’ Roy had laughed handing over a cheque.

There had been reports of a woman in red, objects levitating, things that had been reported missing had turned up mysteriously in the town lake. The previous owners had packed up and moved out after a month.

‘Their loss is our gain,’ they toasted over champagne on their first night in the house. The hope that things would be different hung in the air.

It took one month for the ghost to show itself. A plump, corseted woman with drop pearl earrings in a blood red dress appeared in the doorway when Felicity was doing the laundry.

‘You’ll want to check those shirts for lipstick stains,’ the ghost said with a smirk. Then she disappeared into the thin air, not showing herself again for quite some time.

The strange thing was that far from being scared, Felicity felt oddly comforted by the ghost. The woman in red proved to be helpful, even. When Felicity misplaced something, it would randomly appear when she mentioned it. One day when running late, the ghost located her car keys and in so doing saved the life of Tony Parsons, a local barber who had gone into cardiac arrest. When Roy fell asleep with the TV on whilst nursing a bottle of whisky the ghost would turn it off. A ghost could have her uses.

‘You know this used to be a whore house, right?’ her friend Sally informed Felicity one evening over their monthly game of bridge.

‘They say the mistress of the house killed a man in cold blooded rage.’

‘Don’t believe everything you hear,’ said Felicity. ‘I’ve had no trouble.’

One-day Felicity found a receipt from a jewellery shop for a gold heart shaped necklace in Roy’s trouser pocket. Her birthday came and went and her neck remained unadorned. Christmas yielded nothing but new gloves and bath salts. She could feel that sickening but all too familiar feeling returning to the pit of her stomach. A lingering glance was observed between Roy and Debbie, his dental nurse when Felicity surprised him at this work with lunch on her day off. Debbie who wore too much make up and had one of those Chinese symbol tattoos on her wrist. Felicity noticed a gold heart necklace lie between her ample cleavage. She was reminded of that Bible verse about casting pearls before swine.

As with Vanessa, Susan and Julia before her, Debbie and Roy’s fling was short lived. Dr and Mr Williams played the usual routine of confrontation, frostiness and eventual forgiveness, a dance well-rehearsed at this stage. One night when Roy was out, the ghost, whom Felicity had come to regard as a celestial housekeeper, placed Roy’s laptop on the kitchen table. His emails were open.

Felicity read the screen. It was an email sent from Roy to Debbie.

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E.F. Hay – Fiction

Mr. Boris  

It’s no mean feat, borderline miraculous, successfully discerning misleading characteristics from non-stop fake news, pumped 24/7 from schneid media outlets, 99% of which are owned & orchestrated by the 1% (on top of fulfilling commitments to loved ones, employers, or multiple legal obligations to antagonists persistently compromising social liberties). Striving to remain strong, stable, calm & rational, during today’s turbulent, impulsive, neo-mythopoeic times, people of moral fibre resist temptations to dutifully follow Tory subterfuge mugging informers into shopping neighbours to paramilitary government forces. In a spirit of good-fellowship some prefer cultivating beneficial, egalitarian, green shoots of communal recovery: forming sound cooperative friendships, based on common understanding. A few doughty citizens organise disintermdiated media funds, providing unlicensed public services (deciphering alarming, divisive, neoliberal spin); if unavailable in English Braille, certainly legible online for fully, or partially sighted, un-benighted same language readers (unofficial ideological deprogramming therapy). Independent, critical thinking, offers insights into various factors spawning growing concern over a global cluster-fuck that’s Anglo-American exceptionalism. Well-worn, spatchcocked fairytales, deeply rooted in jackanory Judaeo-Christian patriarchal hierarchies, evidenced by trumpeted, patriotic herd mentalities, observable in agitprop; crudely encouraged via disinformation channels controlled by entrenched plutocratic élites: poisonous, forlorn, easy-to-follow, perfidious tribal mantras, promoting angry xenophobia, washed down by happy-clapping, bleach drinking, self-harmers. 

Jarred by hazardous climate change, pandemics, trade wars, isolationism, a dilution of faith in our worlds reserve fiat currency- Albion, clinging onto the Gulf Stream for dear life, outsources its credence, & bejewelled sceptre, to opportunistic handling by a blonde mopped conman (whose calloused mitts are more accustomed to fingering piglets, while slowly releasing his own, gross, irresponsible, un-husbanded, stinking life fluids, seeping through crooked, fidgety fingers, into blocked, figurative gutters). Barked on by a farrago of cross-market rentiers, index-lined, pensionable Boomers; voted for in culpable silence by a greatest, blue-rinsed racist, generation- subjects of falsehood, consuming tropical luxuries as if necessary birthrights. Little England, indulging in comforting rewards from leisure & retail industries; guilty of complicity in systems of international exploitation of the less privileged, hell-bent on ignoring that complicity, & unwilling to change its inherently exploitative lifestyle, or to vacate shady positions of relative privilege- rather, figure-headed by an Old Etonian Bullingdon Clubber, that electoral majority blames anyone & everyone else as part of a cathartic, trademark moral crusade, ofcrassself-forgiveness. Boris, their pussy grabbing leader, lurching from one policy cock-up to another with adolescent gusto, refusing to grow-up, or assume responsibility, instead punishing others by criminally neglecting basic needs: all guilt & retribution is instead poured down upon infidels. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is truly on an anarchic mission to fuck the planet in its ass, without exhibiting the goddamned common courtesy to give it a reach-around. 

Inspired by financial instruments (exerted penetratingly into lives of those too dim to recognise, or resist reversible morality) & tactical extracts from the ancient Levantine ‘Book of Boris’ – that’s the fourth synoptic gospel, the only one in which the character of Jesus of Nazarethfails to make an appearance. He wouldn’t have felt comfortable there. It loyally tells of the life & ministry of Mr. Boris, a questionable messiah, whose frank enjoyment of divine privilege is exceeded only by persistent attempts to evade all responsibility for said enjoyment (its consequences, & anything else for that matter). Like Jesus, whose life Mr Boris’ parallels & parodies, He was born in a Bethlehem stable, issue of a mystical union between the Holy Spirit & a St Bernard. Half-man, half-god, half-dog, half-biscuit, His childhood is conveniently unrecorded, His teaching beginning only after a gruelling 40-day drinking session, at the end of which Beelzebub came forth to him in the form of a horned ham-beigal, whichMrBorispromptly ate. Thus fortified, He took up the career of travelling preacher, gathering around himself a coterie of disciples lured by promises of ‘everything all the time’, a goal he attempted to attain by (a) masturbating until a nearness to God was observed, & (b) spinning around as quickly as possible. In the first instance his apostles experienced nothing more than sore willies, while in the second only sensations of dizziness, nausea, & acute futility. Thereupon His communion questioned Him regarding his credentials, & requested the return of monies advanced. Repeatedly throughout the text, Mr Boris’s appetite for violence & treachery is chronicled, reaching ever higher pinnacles of madness & insight. Yet there were those amongst His flock who followed in His footsteps whatever banal/painful fate awaited them. When Mr Boris changed water into methyl alcohol, there were those who held out their bowls for more: blind faith indeed. Unlike Jesus,Mr Boris’s story ends not in His crucifixion, but rather the crucifixion of the last of his entourage, too crazed or stupid to see what was coming down. Mr Boris, it seems, saw no need to die for the ugly sins of the world; quite the reverse. In contemporary posh British ‘thought’, Mr Boris presents a provocative & deeply ambiguous figure. To Melvyn Bragg He “stands at a crucial junction in Western history, the point at which the inchoate ‘I’ becomes the complex ‘me’’’ but then Melvyn Braggs asmug tedious git, who’ll be one of the first chivvied up the scaffold with electric cattle goads come the day of retribution. The ‘Boris’s’ don’t simply seek to judge: their primary concern’s not with truth, but propaganda, the massing of sound, the therapeutic use of paranoia. Mr Boris is, for his fey flock, nothing more than the ferocious beat of pastoral nihilism drumming through a culture of sedated panic, in which the atomising of individuals, in the name of The Individual, proceeds apace. Reflecting upon a friable Book of Boris teaches us that contemporary Conservative principles are inveterately cannibalistic; its body politic usurped by Cummings- marshalling unruly supportive throngs of bloated venomous egos, basically crowned by tiny, slippery, reptilian minds.

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