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.

Rodney Ramos – Fiction

The Barrow Bovidae

Dawn stood on the street corner, wearing her usual faded work jeans smeared with soil. Typical archaeologist’s wardrobe. She looked up as I approached, tucked her plum-coloured fringe behind her ear and smiled.

         “You’re early for a change,” I said.

         “Did you remember all the stuff?”

         I flipped my satchel open to show her the notepad, graph paper, measuring tape, pencil, eraser and torch.

         “It’s so good to be out of that stuffy office for a change,” I said.

         “I know, today’s gorgeous,” she said, smiling. “Where’re we off to anyway?”

         “Seaforde. Apparently there’s some nice one’s at the back of the graveyard.”

         My study of Mausoleums had taken me practically all over the county during June. Most of the tombs I had surveyed held the skeletons of couples who had owned considerable wealth during their lifetimes. How romantic. Or maybe ironic, considering I was now climbing inside the ancient coffins to take measurements with my ex-girlfriend in tow.

         Dawn was a clingy sort of person. She had offered herself up as a volunteer to take notes for me, as I shouted out numbers in semi-darkness. Not too many girls would do such a task. Or maybe it was because of the perks to the job – like the fact that we had a casual thing going. My volunteer in more ways than one. In any case, she was happy with the arrangement, no strings attached and all that. Nothing a man could complain about, really.

         The artistic study was coming along well. I would plot a scale version of the Mausoleum, then sketch in the intricate stonework of the facade later. I had covered a nice range of mausoleums in my study – from the more elaborate nineteenth century style crypts, to the simple, weatherworn tombs of the seventeenth century.

         We went by bus. The journey took about forty minutes and was uneventful. We passed the house that I vowed I would one day own. I wondered how long it took to build it and what the perimeter measured. Dawn complained about her hay-fever. Once we got off, I navigated with my beat-up map and we found the forgotten graveyard down a stony lane.

         My eyes scanned the scattered gravestones that were like small rain-worn hillocks dotted around the site.

         “I don’t see any Mausoleums here,” I said, squinting against the afternoon light. “Do you?”

         Dawn shook her head. “Looks like there could be a barrow up there, though.” She pointed towards what looked like a miniature, grass-covered, Ayers rock on top of the hill. It was partly hidden behind a clump of trees, but appeared to be no more than about fifteen feet long and about six feet high. The grassy hillock certainly did look like a long barrow. I jerked my bag up my shoulder and climbed the weed jungle of the hill with Dawn at my side.

         As I approached, I noticed a metre-wide stone slab above two crudely hewn rectangular entrance posts, each no more than a foot thick. The passageway was blocked with soil and grass. Dawn and I worked to pull away the turf, until the entrance was clear.

         “Weird,” I said, scratching my ear. I bent down and entered through the narrow doorway. “Wonder why it isn’t marked on the map?”

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James Bates – Fiction

Heliophobia

“And, so, it is proven that too much sun causes skin cancer,” the anchor on the evening news said, looking past the camera, and, Lorrie felt, right into her soul. “Without a doubt,” he emphasized.

She picked up the remote and turned the set off, the anchor’s words, “Without a doubt,” ringing in her ears. Well, you didn’t have to tell her because she was a firm believer. Sunlight was bad, and Lorrie was done with it forever.

It had all started with a simple getaway with her boyfriend, Ron, to Florida that past February. The Minnesota winter was dragging on and on with endless cloudy days, freezing temperatures and an unrelenting, brutal north wind.

“Let’s go someplace warm,” Lorrie had suggested. “Get away for a while.”

Ron, ever the jokester, grinned and said, “I thought you’d never ask.”

Two weeks later they were lying on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, soaking up the rays, sipping cold drinks and, in Lorrie’s case, not being too diligent with the PSF 50 sunscreen. One day later she was writhing in agony in their hotel room, suffering from a second-degree sunburn that covered her body with a blistering rash. Her skin felt like it was on fire, like sharp needles pricking into her every time she breathed.

“I’ve never burned like this before,” she complained to Ron after they’d made an emergency stop at a clinic before returning to their room. “I’ve always just gotten a really nice tan.” She grimaced as sat up when Ron held a cup of ice water to her blistered lips.

As she drank thirstily, he took one look at the oozing pustules on her blistered skin and fought back a gag reflex. “Well, there’s always a first time,” he managed to comment, an observation she didn’t think was very sympathetic.

He set the ice water down and stood up briskly, obviously in a hurry get out of sight of his par-broiled girlfriend. “You take care. I’ll be back later. I’m going to the beach.” He quickly stuffed sunscreen, a floppy hat and a beach towel into a canvas bag while doing his best to avoid looking at her.

No, not sympathetic at all. “Thanks for nothing,” she yelled, but didn’t think he heard her due to the slamming of the door as he left her to her misery.

A week later she was back in her apartment in southwest Minneapolis. She worked writing technical manuals for an electronics control manufacturing company. The doctor at the clinic in Florida said that she’d probably experience heat sickness for a while and she definitely was, feeling nauseous and generally out of sorts twenty-four seven. She was also still sore from her burns. Fortunately, her boss understood her situation and told her she could work from home.

“Take your time,” Fran told her over the phone. “Just get that project done and we’ll take it from there.”

“Sounds good, Fran. Thanks. I’ll do my best.”

Lorrie settled into her ergonomic chair, flipped open her laptop on her desk and began working on her new project, writing detailed specifications for a new energy saving thermostat. A week went by, her burns were on their way to healing, and she was pleasantly surprised at how much she was enjoying the peace and quiet of working at home. She could focus on her project much better without all the extraneous office racket, and there were no interruptions to break her concentration. It was quite nice.

Mostly.

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Jane Burn – fiction

The Aching of a Hidden Hare           

                      

    It’s amazing what you can hide beneath a hat. Most folk don’t give you a second glance but it’s not worth the risk. I have to stay alert. The day I go bare-headed will be the day someone looks my way and snap! My secret would be today’s painful trend. #Freak. 

    My face would be splashed across every front page. I’m used to being hounded  back then it was hounds yowling after my feet. Now, you’d set a different pack of dogs upon my scent. When newspapers flutter through the park, I’ve see the way people look, hunted beneath the weight of headlines, doomed by ink.

    I have learned, through the years to be discreet. Hares have a passion for the dark  have an inbuilt fear of you. We, who have been born shape-shift witches have spent centuries run to ground or tied to a flaming stakes  burned for the crime of healing herbs, scorched for our different skin. We remember poor Isobel Gowdie, all those centuries ago. How we cowered, we leftover twelve of her coven’s thirteen. Like it was yesterday, I taste her smoke in my throat.

    We make secrets of ourselves. At dusk’s call, I slip the invisibility of undergrowth, shake the pins and needles from my limbs. I shroud the pelt that creeps up my neck  fold my ears inside a cap, turn my amber eyes to the floor. Nobody pays much attention – they cross the street, rather than pass too close to my lolloping form. I wish you understood. Wish I could smile my cleft smile. History ought to be kinder by now. I have kept myself a secret for too long.

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On Finding A Little Glass Jar on the Forest Floor

            

    It saw me coming as I followed the strange and scented path, spied me through its belly’s eye and winked as best as it could, out from behind the blur of its algae skin. Thick and bubbled, cloudy with age, I stooped to clutch this odd egg, bedded in its needle nest. The lofty pines, straight as stair-rods almost made an ominous arch above my head, as if they would close me beneath a confined skin of weighted air.

    I scratched it free with my fingers, wiped off the worst of the mud. As if it were a shell, I held its chilly bulge against my curious ear. At first, I only heard the sound of a phantom sea but after a moment, I began to sense forming words and found it had a tale that it had been aching to tell. It had been waiting to empty itself of what it had kept in the crypt of its hollowed mind, all these abandoned years.

    It told me how once, many years past, a man and a woman had walked along here, bodies close but never quite touching – how the man had loomed as she leaned her back against the bark, arm pinned like a great branch, how the leaves had whispered with worry when they felt her uncertain love. How her doubt swelled in the heavy air between them, how he angered at their almost kisses, how his mouth always seemed to arrive, just as she had turned away her head. 

    It told me about the way she sought comfort from the forest – the way her fingers had made timid caterpillars, creeping through the moss, the way she watched the shape of light pool between each twig. She was not convinced that she saw forever in this man – the jar’s cool circle of a mouth was sure of that. She sometimes thought he slipped her sidelong, crab-wise glances – they peeled from his eyes, settled upon her shoulders like filthy snow. By the time she had reached to brush them off, he would be smiling again, podding her into his coat against the cold. He was too fond of such public displays of chivalric flair.

    The jar told the story of the time that he had brought her here and how they sat in stilted conversation, how she would stay his hand when it journeyed across her withdrawn leg, how he would tut and draw it back, ask her how much longer? Ask her when? 

    The sky had spread its stippled view above them, free as the skirt of a gingham dress. She had wondered whether she should let him make love to her. After all, he had done so much for her hadn’t he? Didn’t everyone tell her all the time how he was a keeper, a real catch? He had told her that he could easily get it from someone else and she had tried, but he had sung that line if you go down in the woods today and she could not shift the thought of bears from her head.

    She had packed a basket of apples and bread, salmon spread. She took up a knife and dug at the jar’s paste inners, clattered around its crystal neck. She thought about her mother’s life of beating rugs and bowing to the Sunday roast, and how the picnic was knocked to the ground when he suddenly rolled toward her, too strongly, much too fast. How big he loomed above her, how the floor seemed full of awkward stones beneath her back. 


    Time ate the wicker of the picnic basket. Mice ate the abandoned crumbs, but nothing could swallow the jar’s man-made glass. It held onto its secret, mixed with the forest’s terpene breath. The jar had sat where it had fallen, kept its silence through the years, sat while roots grew longer and poked through the winter’s fallen dead like weathered bone.

    It saw the woman’s mother walk the path, call to the ghosts of deer that flicked behind the trap of knotted trunks. Once her foot had brushed the jar’s exposed rim and its memory spilled, redolent as spikenard. It heard the mother cry why don’t you write? The underground stirred, its contents safely held. The woman’s mother kept on saying it’s just not like our Cathy, to up and leave like that.

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Jane Burn is a prize-winning poet, writer and illustrator based in the North East. She is a working class bisexual with a late diagnosis of Autism. Her poems have been published in many magazines and anthologies and she has been nominated for the Forward and Pushcart Prize.