Tuesday, 20 March 2018


 Ray Bradnock

gingerbread chi

The summer sun was beating down, and I decided my walk had already taken enough out of me to warrant some liquid refreshment.  I looked at the map, and ascertained I was between villages, or indeed hamlets.  I was never sure where the cut-off point lay.  The next mark of a capital “PH” for Public House showed as being approximately two miles away, and I remembered it appearing as “The King’s Head” when I had looked up my route the previous evening on the complimentary wifi at the hostel.
Imagine my surprise then, as I rounded a bend some thirty seconds later and was met by the sight of a nearly full car park adjoining what appeared to be a pub.  I consulted the map.  Nothing was marked.  My rudimentary orienteering skills, and curiosity about whether the map was wrong, were easily out-ranked by my thirst.  I looked at the sign rising above the cars; “Bogart’s Coaching Inn” would do for me.
Brushing my dusty boots off on the obligatory family of captive bristle hedgehogs by the doorway, I stepped over the threshold.  The room I entered was busy, and a cursory glance from the lunchtime clientele seemed to pass without any worrying reduction in the volume of chatter taking place.  I had passed the in-comer test, and did not appear to be viewed as an escaped axe-murderer.
As I approached the counter, I could see no major influence that would give the establishment a name linking it to my initial reaction to seeing the sign from the roadside.  Plenty of pastoral scenes in paintings of woods, cows, waterfalls and wildfowl, but not a film noir photograph in sight.
I surveyed the choice of draught taps before me, salivated, and looked up at the landlordly figure.  He smiled.
“Of all the bars, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.  What’ll it be?”
His granite features betrayed not a flicker of sarcasm, irony, or satire.
I pondered my reply, as I mentally scratched my head trying to confirm if I had really heard him correctly.  This was surreal.  Undecided, I decided on a pint of lager.  I paid, and took it with my now discarded rucksack towards an empty table in the corner.
As I wandered away, I caught my boot on one of the uneven flagstones, and stumbled into a prominently displayed seven feet tall magnificent example of taxidermy labelled “North American Grizzly, 1926”.  The landlord tutted in annoyance.
“Of all the bears, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.”
I apologised sheepishly, and continued on past my ursine foe, to the table.  I made it without further incident and sat down.  I took a couple of slurps from the cool glass, and set about projecting my route for the rest of the day, as well as the week ahead.  The map was in my rucksack, which I reached across the table to extract.  I realised it was wedged in the chair opposite me, and I couldn’t lift it to get to the pocket in question.  I rose from my own seat, and rounded the table.  As I carefully re-positioned the rucksack to allow me the correct access, I changed my stance and succeeded in jolting the pint of the old man sat at the table next to me.
“Of all the beers, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.”
His worn light grey shirt was now a darker grey in places.  I immediately resumed my new found favourite hobby of apologising, and offered to replace his drink at once.  He nodded grumpily, and I went back to the now unoccupied hostelry owner.  The landlord monitored my return to his immediate environment with a gaze that would have suited a bird of prey.  He had watched what chaos I had caused since my arrival, and was not impressed.
Replacement pint in hand, I turned to my table.  I collided with a uniformed member of staff bearing a badge showing her job title of “Pub Procurement Manager”
“Of all the buyers, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.”
The host was now becoming a bit pissed off.  His demeanour was changing perceptibly from landlordly, to despotic lord of the manorly.
In my defence, I managed miraculously to not spill any of the pint during the collision, and furnished the old man with his refreshment.  Better perhaps to remain near the counter and the landlord, to minimise any further mischief ensuing.  The stools were sparsely populated, most people preferring tables; I soon discovered why.  I chose one, and for the next twenty minutes I was forced to listen to the man on the next stool telling me why the four known alternative printing systems for producing colour illustrations on beermats should really be a question subject on University Challenge.  As the man left for a toilet break, the landlord looked at me knowingly.
“Of all the bores, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.”
The man’s trip to the toilet had set me off thinking that it would be a smart move on my own part to visit the facilities before I left to continue my journey.  For clarity, and not wishing to hit or upset any more people, I enquired of the landlord as to the toilets, and he pointed me in the opposite direction to that which the beermat print guru had taken.  I obeyed, and found myself in a former cowshed, converted to a toilet block annex.  I returned to the room, and asked why I couldn’t use the toilets inside the pub.  The landlord pointed to my feet, and then to a sign with left and right arrows that said “Boots” and “No Boots”
“Of all the byres, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.”
My thirst had been slaked, and after a couple of pints and a bladder evacuation, I was ready to resume my trek.  I donned my jacket, and stepped back to swing my rucksack towards my shoulders.  As it passed upwards, one of the straps snagged on a rough piece of metal projecting slightly from the copper-edged counter.  I looked pitifully at the landlord
“Of all the burrs, in all the world, you had to walk into mine.”
I needed to get back to the outdoors, and with a farewell nod to mein host, I passed through the exit portal.
For some reason my thoughts were split between what had just happened to me in the last hour, and my remembering the fact that my pre-booked accommodation for that night was at the “White House B&B.”

Ray Bradnock

Monday, 19 March 2018

Midsummer in the Country

By Andrea Williams 


The ‘Green Man’ is the epitome of the classical, traditional English country pub.  You will have seen it in any of a dozen films.  White rendered walls, red tiled roof, some roses around the door, lawn to the road sprinkled with weathered benches.  You know it so well already I hardly have to describe the Dickensian interior either.  When I moved in to the village I was delighted to find it there. I was even more delighted to find that it was as good a pub as it looked, with a landlady who was friendly, always prepared to stop and pass on the gossip.  The locals and regulars who gathered nightly in the cosy, comfortable panelled bar ensured that everyone knew everything about everybody, and inside a month I was one of that everyone.  

One of their number was an extremely talented wood carver, Daffyd Thomas by name,  his work was displayed in the main entrance hall.  Carvings of Green men were all over the pub, but the hallway linking stairs, dining room and lounge bar has a lighted glass display cabinet with  carvings for sale, small studies of hands, a pair of matching feet that morphed into roots.  The central piece was the head and upper torso of a green man, complete with foliage breaking out all over it, not stylised, but carved in lifelike detail.  It was a sort of threequarter depth, flat at the back, hung against the panelling, cut vertically half way through the ears.  Truly a stunning work, named for the pub, or the pub named for it; either way its quality was appreciated, as its price tag, on a small stand beside it was £15,500.  Not something I could ever afford.  

On the shelf below was a study of a hand, slightly conventional, in that it was outstretched upwards, the forearm forming the base.  You’ve seen pottery versions as ringstands.  The thing about this was the detail that the carver had incorporated - all the little lines around the knuckles.  The fingernails, the cuticles, all lifelike, though polished.   What lifted it to the status of ‘Art’ and the £5,000 price tag, was the incorporation of a diamond studded ring on its ring finger.  It was somehow embedded around the finger, and was being displayed on a slowly moving turntable to show that it was a continuous gold ring.  Beautiful, artistic, and a puzzle piece all in one.  At a more prosaic level, I know how to cast metal rings in place into wood, and it’s something that’s common enough on the handles of certain makes of bit braces.  Very fiddly and time consuming, especially so if you then had to carve the housing for the diamond.  I thought it underpriced given the work involved and I would have bought it solely to appreciate the effort made in its creation.  

The back bar, or public bar, as it said over the door, was entered from the lawned area via its own ancient Tudor headed doorway and matching nail studded oak door.  Even the latch was oak.  It operated with a length of binder twine, and casual visitors who asked were told that the binder twine dated back to t’he third reaper binder machine in the county’ coming to the village in 1897, and the oiled twine that came with it on a huge reel was still in use whenever a new twine was needed, though they were down to the last five yards or so.

It made a good story, often good for a pint for whoever told it.  I admired the veracity of it being the ‘third’ machine, a nice detail that genuine tall tale tellers appreciate.  

I thought I was included into the elite company of local barroom regulars that knew everything about everyone after a few months, but I wasn’t - quite.  It was well over a year later, coming up to midsummer, that I was invited to join a small group of regulars who were in the tiny oak panelled room off the bar we called the snug.  It was Roy Brown who came to find me in the bar and escorted me in there.  It was crowded, and when I looked around there were a dozen others sitting and standing around.  No, there were eleven others, six women, five men, all known to me except for one young lady.  I say young, but she was in her late twenties, good looking in a modest way, dressed conventionally for the country, which is to say that she had wellies, and a look-alike for a Barbour jacket over a used but trendy jumper and worn jeans.  She introduced herself as Rebecca, and said she was ‘thrilled to be allowed to join in.’ Daffyd Thomas was standing in the far corner, a very worn and grubby looking duffel jacket showing its age concealed his other clothes, and his black beard, long grey hair, and piercing black eyes looked over the company from his great height, for he was over six feet tall, and lean with it.  He broke the silence that had descended when we entered.  

“We are twelve.” he pronounced.  I didn’t like to say that there were thirteen of us, and he went on.  “Midsummer is almost here, and we must honour the year as we have always done.  We twelve will do midsummer honour.  And now we join hands in the oath.”  at this point Roy pushed a card into my hand, and someone did the same to Rebecca.  It had on it the words of an oath to keep secret what was to come, and to keep the ancient ways.  I was in!  A secret circle of Gaia worshippers, or animism believers, or something - and I had been included. Whoopee! 

The party broke up immediately after, and my attempt to ask a question was silenced, and I was told ‘You will be called.’ and that was that.   Next evening, I waylaid Roy, and didn’t stop until I had more of the story.  Daffyd was some sort of priest/druid /haman who presided over ten novices and two noviciates each year at a ceremony held on top of Stone Hill on midsummers eve.  

“You’re kidding?” I said, “and do we all dance round that big stone naked with flaming torches?” 

“No, no torches. Wait and see.”  was all he answered, and he clammed up, and eventually became a bit threatening unless I shut up.  So I did.  

With only two days left Daffyd called to talk to me, and explained that it was a bit of a harmless jape amongst the villagers, and ‘we’ usually found a gullible tourist or newcomer to join in whilst he choreographed some marching around the ancient stone at the top of Stone Hill, and then a big reveal when the dupe, and everyone else, would throw off the white robes and be left there naked, and everyone enjoyed a bit of naturism followed by a booze up.  All good clean fun, as they say in rural areas, and good for tourism.  Never any shortage of volunteers these days.  He left a white robe, which he assured me was a ritual item handed down for many years, but I thought was more like a cheap white towelling bathrobe with the “Made in China’ label cut off.  

Two days later we met up, at 3:30 a.m.; twelve of us plus Daffyd, appearing by ones and twos from the young trees that surround the bare top of Stone Hill.  We’d walked up from the car park at the base of the hill clad only in our white robes, and it was a bit parky in the morning draughts, midsummer be blowed.  I wasn’t impressed with the ancient stone.  It was only about a metre tall, with not much about it that suggested it was green, or put there, or made by man, or anything.  There was some graffiti in the form of names and dates scratched here and there, and a lump of white calcite or dolomite or some other mite that looked out at the eastern horizon, but that was it.  Stonehenge has tons more presence, no wonder the crowds go there. 

About four o’clock the eastern sky could be seen getting  lighter, and Daffyd  called us to attention, as it were, and began on a long speech - about Gaia and the earth mother, and the turn of the year, and the Green Man who looked after the circle of life of all things, and how we honoured the turn of the year and its passing toward the long darkness when the sun shone elsewhere, and we would dance and sing and chant to give him comfort and companionship in his lonely struggle to keep the earth turning in its cycles within cycles of birth and death and light and dark…  

Eventually he stopped.  I think his cycle of breathing needed attending to. It was getting steadily lighter, and he had us gather in a circle on the east side of the stone, with himself at the other side of it.  Despite the chill, magic or not, it was a grand place to be at the very height of summer, next to a lump of rock they called the ‘summerstone’  watching the sun come up.  

As dawn approached we stood in our circle before the summerstone, with Daffyd Thomas at the far side.  Everyone began a chant, and then, slowly at first, a rhythmic swaying from the shoulders, then from the hips.  The chant was hypnotising, embracing, ancient.  It didn’t have words, and yet, as I picked up the sounds from my neighbours and repeated them it seemed that they were words.  Old words, words in a language from beyond recorded time.  The Eastern sky was becoming lighter, the sun god who oversaw us was returning at full strength once more.  Daffyd shouted something, and everyone threw off the white robes, all but me and Rebecca.  We looked at each other, and I shrugged, and threw off mine, and she felt the peer pressure to do the same.  She was the youngest female there, and I have to say that on any standard, she was the best looking.  If only I could have said the same about me.  I could only claim to have a better physique than the other men around me.  I shouldn’t have looked around.  A dozen middle to old aged people standing naked, chanting and swaying on a hilltop at dawn.  No one had anywhere that was taut.  Everyone has wobbly bits, some more than others.  They all wobbled.  Some had spare supplies of calories in rolls that overhung other parts of them, some of them had bits that were in the grip of gravity.  It was a grotesque spectacle, fascinating perhaps, but not pleasant.

 The chant grew louder, hypnotic in its intensity as the light grew.  Somehow it entered your head, then your being, then you were the chant, and the surroundings faded.  The first ray from the horizon flashed across the land and touched the summerstone.  Daffyd struck it with his staff, shouting something like ‘We welcome you and offer ourselves.”  and everyone stood stock still, rooted to the spot. 

Literally rooted, that is, my feet wouldn’t move, all the other’s feet I could see had turned green, then brown, leaves sprouting.   The outstretched hands became twigs, branches, leaves sprouting from people’s arms, their hair turning into wood, and then, horror atop horrors, writhing branches and tendrils appeared from their open mouths, curving around and over their heads.  I felt my own body change, felt my tongue spring into a life of its own and sprout, pushing out of my mouth and the green shoots of the new circle of life curving around my head.  My toes were growing down into the soil, my arms becoming bushy.  I felt the air in my leaves, the sensation of a thousand tiny parts of me turning to the light, giving me sustenance, eating the air.  The sunlight was spreading down the summerstone, and as I felt the last remnant of my fleshy body giving way to its new wooden self the light reached the base of the stone, touched the white, reflected back - and the leaves retreated.  It was the most amazing sensation.  I felt life flowing back into me.  I could do anything, I could run a marathon. I could climb Everest, no, I could RUN up Everest.  My head was clear, I could compute the boundary effect of a black hole, make a fortune on the stock market.  

Then I was myself.  It was silent, the chant had ended, the very birds had stopped their chorus, we were no longer a circle of new trees and new life, just a set of assorted sad, overweight, sagging, sticklike, blubbery, naked people who said nothing to each other.  Mostly we didn’t meet each others eyes.  I searched myself for that wonderful vitality of a moment ago.  It had left me.  I was one of the sad naked people, still not beautiful, sagging in places.  I looked for Rebecca.  She was still there, now the only remaining tree.  I shouted her name, ran, still naked, across the space, and touched her, her leaves, her cheek, her flowing foliage., the upreaching hand, still with a wedding band on its ring finger.  Daffyd crossed to me,

“She is the most beautiful of us, so the gods keep her.  Her soul will endure.  If you too want to keep her, then come back with a saw.”  

About the author

When not writing Andrea makes furniture, repairs dry stone walls, and enjoy s Northumbria.  


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Sunday, 18 March 2018

Painting the Wings of Angels

 By Cath Barton  

a tot of whisky

Alfie has brought home something wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string. He puts it on the kitchen table.

You probably won’t be able to lift it,” he says with a beatific smile. My nine-going-on-thirteen- year-old golden boy.

What on earth do you mean?” I say. And then going to lift it I find that it’s true, the parcel’s too heavy for me.

What the?” I say.

He picks it up by the string between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand, as easily if he’s lifting a piece of paper.

Hang on, Alfie,” I say. “Put that down a minute.”

He does and I go to pick it up again and I can’t. And he, again, shows me he can. Easily.

So what is it?” I say.

I knew you’d be wondering,” he says, with that same disarming smile. “It’s a tin of paint. It’s not that heavy, you just don’t have any strength Mum.”

I frown. I’m tired.

It’s for my wings,” he says. “Mr King says I’m to be an angel in the school play. The nativity play,” he adds, unnecessarily, because what other play would they do at bloody Christmas, for God’s sake, what else do they ever do, even with a new teacher who must be crazy or at best thoughtless if he sends children home with heavy tins to paint the wings of frigging angels which if they’re going to do it at all they should surely be doing in school time in a room where it doesn’t matter if they spill the bloody paint on the floor or get it on the furniture.

I don’t say any of this of course I don’t. I do try not to swear in front of Alfie.

Made of gold is it then, this special paint?” is what I actually say and I really don’t know why there’s no good reason and I know it sounds facetious but I’m tired. So tired. It wears me out, this bringing-up-a-child-on-your-own business.

Ha, ha, very funny Mum,” he says, and goes off to his room, swinging his light-heavy parcel by the string.

Mind you don’t get paint on the carpet,” I yell up the stairs. And go and pick up the mess he’s left behind him just coming into the house.

There’s a knock on the front door at that moment and when I open it there’s no-one there. I stand and look up at the hill for a minute or two. There are shapes in the clouds, they could be angels with the setting sun shining on their wing tips. A big bird flies across the field between the house and the hill. It’s the barn owl, a white ghost, fetching food for its babies. It’s beautiful, and I stand there for a minute and breathe it all in. I feel better as I turn back into the house, but I know it won’t last.

I make supper for my baby, though of course he’s not a baby now, never will be again, the days of innocence are behind us. I call Alfie when the food’s ready and he comes clomping down the stairs and stands in the doorway of the kitchen. My glasses steam up as I take the hot dish from the oven and make him seem to shimmer. Then they clear and he’s still shimmering. He looks completely gold. I blink and he’s not gold at all. Sometimes I worry about myself.

After supper I tell Alfie he can play on his Xbox for half an hour and I pour myself a stiff whisky. Drink it while I do the washing up. I’m doing this most nights now.

Before he goes to bed Alfie tells me that he’s painted the wings. But he’s not going to show me he says, I’ll have to come and see him in the play if I want to see them. There’s no sign of anything like wings in his bedroom and I can’t think where he could have hidden them though there’s a smell of something like marzipan. I wonder if he’s been sniffing whatever was in that tin.

The next week there’s a parents evening at the school and I get a babysitter for Alfie and make myself go.

Mr Davies not able to come?” asks Mr King.

He should know that Mr Davies never comes because Mr Frigging Davies has not lived with us since Alfie was two and the school are well aware of that and Mr Sends-Children-Home-With-Tins-of-Paint King should have made it his business to find out about the circumstances of the children for whose welfare he has responsibility.

No,” I say, “it’s just me.”

He tells me how well Alfie is doing in school. I say that I was a bit surprised about the paint and he pretends to be surprised too.

Paint?” he says.

I’m feeling really tired and all I really want is to get home so that I can pour out a couple of fingers of whisky, it gives me strength albeit only temporarily and perhaps I should start taking the anti-depressants again too though you’re not supposed to mix them with alcohol and

What paint?” he’s asking. “We would never send a child home with paint.”

So I ask about the play and he laughs and says they haven’t thought about it yet but what a good idea, Alfie would make a brilliant angel, he’s got such a beatific smile.

And now I have to face the truth about that parcel and wake up to the fact that the drug dealers are at the school gates and it’s probably too late for Alfie already and I want to cry and confide in Mr King even, but there’s a queue of other parents and he’s smiling in a distracted kind of way and saying how nice it is to meet me and that he hopes Mr Davies will be able to come with me next time and then he’s stretching out a hand to the woman behind me. It’s only ever the mothers who come you’d think they’d realise but oh no.

When I get home Alfie’s watching TV with the babysitter. She snaps it off as soon as I walk in the room.

What were you watching?” I ask.

She is evasive and Alfie is giggly and I think I can smell the marzipan smell again and I go all cold inside as I realise she must be the dealer oh my god and I don’t know what to say so I say nothing and Alfie goes quiet but I am so tired what can I do I just don’t have the strength.

I don’t mention the wings again. Or the paint.

When I get up in the night Alfie is standing in the doorway of his bedroom. He’s gold, pure gold. I blink and he’s a little boy and I want to cry because he isn’t going to be my little boy much longer and I can’t cope but I mustn’t cry in front of him so I smile and turn him round and bundle him back into bed.

I’m sitting on the sofa. I don’t know how long I’ve been here or what time it is. The whisky bottle is on the little table next to the sofa. Nearly empty now. And I’ve got the pills in my hand and I’m jiggling them. I hear an owl hoot and that makes me smile. And I think about my boy and his angelic smile and I know I’m not going to take them, those pills, not today, because tomorrow is another day and somehow we’ll get through, my golden boy and me.

About the author  

Cath Barton is an English writer who lives in Wales. Her novella The Plankton Collector will be published in September 2018 by New Welsh Review. Cath is on the 2018 Literature Wales Mentoring programme, working on a collection of short stories inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1

Saturday, 17 March 2018


By Marilyn Pemberton 

mild ale

I hold her tight to my breast; she is as light as a fledgling’s feather and I am afeared that the spring breeze will take her and waft her out of the window, straight up to the blue heavens.

But I’m not ready to let her go just yet.

The minister stands patiently at the head of the bed, his cheeks still flushed from the ride from the next village. His hands are cupped around the chalice as if he is waiting for some nourishing broth to cool, rather than to dispense holy water at this too-early christening.

He has just asked “What are you going to call her?” but how can I give this tiny scrap of skin and bone a name? A name will make her real; a name will make her impossible to forget; a name will need engraving on a head-stone.

I am glad the babe is a girl, naming will not be such a problem. The tradition in Matthew’s family is to call the first-born male Thomas. If we had had a boy instead, would we have to call him Thomas, even if he only lives a few hours? I argued against the tradition; I dislike Matthew’s elder brother and don’t want any son of mine to bear his name. Matthew had laughed when I said this. “You like the inn-keeper at The Bear, and Father Hammond, they are both called Thomas, you can think of them instead!”

Matthew had said that I could choose the name if we had a girl, and if she had been born when she was ready I was going to call her after the month of her birth. I thought that a girl called June was bound to have a sunny character, she would be plump and healthy and would be a great help on the farm. Following my own logic, I should call this little one May, but that name makes me think of white and pink blossom and fresh green leaves uncurling in the spring sunshine; it is not a name to give to my daughter, whose skin is wrinkled and hairy and whose pallor is pale grey. She looks as one already dead, but I can feel her heart still fluttering against my breast, like a trapped moth against a window pane.

I steal a glance at Matthew, dreading to see condemnation in his eyes, but all I see is concern and grief for now. The recriminations will come later, when he realises that it is my fault that our daughter has been born into the world too soon, and so cannot remain for much longer. I had been sitting in my rocking chair this morning, embroidering a coverlet for the crib that Matthew had taken so much pride in making. He had spent hours sanding it until it was as smooth as the surface of a frozen pond on a winter’s morning, and he had even chiselled little leaves and flowers on the sides as decoration. But all it needs now is a lid to become the bed where our daughter will sleep for all eternity.  

As I had rocked gently this morning, humming quietly to myself, something had caught my eye, glistening in the corner of the room. In truth the web was as fine as gossamer but to my eyes each strand was as thick as a piece of rope and I could not rest until it was gone. So I took a stool, another of Matthew’s creations, made sure it was stable and very carefully raised myself onto it. I made sure that I was balanced properly and only then stretched out my hand the small distance to brush away the offending web. It was then that the baby decided to give an almighty kick and I was so startled that I stepped backwards into nothingness.

It was my screams that brought Sam, one of the farm hands, from the fields.

In the end my daughter had come quickly and silently and even a sharp slap on her bottom by Old Ma Brown, the midwife, had raised no more than a whimper. She wasn’t ready to be born and was not yet fully formed. I thank God that Matthew had not seen her before I wrapped our unfinished daughter in the unfinished coverlet, for I don’t know what he would have done if he had seen the bud where an arm should have been. Old Ma Brown had then sent for the vicar and whispered to me that everything was probably all for the best, for life would not be easy for one such as her. But I had wanted to scream at her that I would have loved her regardless, for isn’t that what mothers do, love unconditionally? 

I wonder why God is punishing us so? We had waited until we were married before we had full sex and we both went to church most Sundays as we should.  Matthew sometimes took God’s name in vain, but I always told him off and I know he would have made every effort not to do so in front of the child.

But it doesn’t matter now, does it?

My linens are saturated in blood and need changing; I just want it all to be over and for everyone to leave me in peace to start my grieving. I clutch my daughter tightly to my chest and stroke her downy cheek. As I do so she turns her head slightly towards me and opens her mouth. I instinctively put in the tip of my little finger and she sucks, not hard, but she sucks.

I gasp and without giving a thought to the blushes of the men in the room I take out my left breast and put the nipple gently into her searching mouth. God be praised, she continues to suck, not hard, but enough. The pain of the milk beginning to flow is glorious and I feel a wave of emotion flow right through me, primeval in its rawness. As she sucks, her eyes open slightly, and she seems to look at me, to see into the depths of me, to recognise me. Even as I watch her cheeks begin to lose their ghastly hue and become tinged with a healthier pink.

The minister is looking everywhere but at me, and doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself or with the holy water.

“You asked me what we are going to call her, vicar. Well, her name is Joy, for she is and ever will be to me and Matthew.”

  And with my own tears I christen her. 

About the author

The Jewel Garden is available https://www.amazon.co.uk/Jewel-Garden-Marilyn-Pemberton-ebook/dp/B079ZY877T  or https://www.waterstones.com/book/the-jewel-garden/marilyn-pemberton/9781912582037

Website: https://marilynpemberton.wixsite.com/author
Member of the Society of Women Writers & Journalists
Member of the Historical Novel Society
Member of the Society of Authors
Blog: writingtokeepsane.wordpress.com

Friday, 16 March 2018

Near Death August 2006

David Deanshaw

red wine 

“Hello I'm Alan. I’m going to put you to sleep for a while. Are you right-handed?”
I nodded.
He lifted my left hand and the rubbed the back. “I’m looking for a good vein.”
I felt him insert the cannula.
“This will feel a bit cold at first. Think of the five things you enjoy doing most!”
He was right - it was cold. I thought I could hear a rushing wind. I got as far as a glass of red wine and that was all I remember.
Sometime later I heard a gentle female voice speaking my name, “Andrew come back to us. The first part is all over.”
I opened my eyes and tried to look around. But my head seemed to be fixed in one position. I could see a bulge at the end of the bed where my feet would be. I was propped up. There was a tube in my left arm. My right arm was free so I could feel the catheter with a sense of relief. My head was woozy. I closed my eyes.
Then the gentle female voice spoke again. She patted my right hand. “Come on Andrew, time to wake up.” I became aware of something tight around my middle. I groped with my right hand. It was a very wide dressing that was wrapped tightly around my body.
“I’m thirsty, can I have a drink? Please!”
The gentle voice whispered, “Of course. Here let me help you.”
She brought a plastic cup to me; in it was water and a straw. I felt like a child.
“Take your time; your inside will be very empty. You’ve had nothing now for nearly two days. Your insides need to settle. There may even need to be another short procedure, perhaps tomorrow. The surgeon will be coming to see you soon.”
“You were the last on his list today, because he knew it would take a long time. I think he may be relaxing and having a cup of tea. He’ll be here soon enough.
“Will he give me something for all this pain?”
“Oh yes, he has prescribed some morphine for you. But you mustn’t have too much. Oddly, it’s not good for you to have too much!”
She had such a nice gentle voice, it suited her manner.
“Here he is, now”
“Hello Andrew. How are you feeling now?” Mr Lacey had a strong and firm handshake. That continued my confidence in him.
“Thirsty, hungry and I have a pain somewhere down there.” I pointed to my middle.
“I did tell you that the problem was in a difficult place. The ileocecal valve is a bugger to get at. So you have quite a deep incision. I’m keeping you off food for the time being. The next twenty four hours will critical for you. You can have plenty of water; I have set up the drain pipe at one end and a drip to feed you at this end. You will sleep in this position; the nurses are available on this button to make sure that you stay upright. I do not want you sliding sideways one way or another and most certainly not on your right side.”
 He called a nurse over and asked for another pillow to support the area of the incision; and then a small one to ensure I stayed upright. A lot of fuss I thought because I was as comfortable as could be expected.
“You mean there’s more?” I did not like the sound of this too much. I hate anaesthetic at the best of times. It always takes weeks to wear itself out of my system. It stops me thinking any creative thoughts.
“I will give you something to help you sleep tonight. I’ll be back again in the morning. I’ll check the bottle to be sure your kidney is still working, and then I’ll decide what’s next.”
With that he smiled and left.
I was closing my eyes again when a new voice regaled my ears.
“Is there anything I can get you?” I wondered whether it was my imagination, or do they all have gentle voices.
“Yes please. Is there any chance of some kind of flavour in this water – like orange for instance?”
“Not tonight there isn’t. In your situation, we have to be patient.”
“You mean I have to be patient?”
“Yes, but when you are in my care, I will try and respond in any way I can help, within the surgeon’s demands. You have had a deep cut into your insides. He is a superb engineer, but he cannot wave a magic wand and get you better instantly. So we all have to be patient, especially you. We can talk if you wish, or shall I leave your door open?”
“Yes please.” With that I closed my eyes again. I think I dreamed of walking on a hillside somewhere in Wales. It had a river that babbled over stones. Beddgelert is one of my favourites. But I could hear talking. I was glad that my door had been left open; the room was so warm. But I did not know who or what was the subject of the conversation.
“He’s never lost anyone before.” This was a new rather mature voice.
“His notes are clear; if the patient survives the night, he will try in the morning to explore whether all is well.”
“Is it that bad?”
“The man had obviously ignored the pain, until he finally went to see his GP. It’s a good job he has private health insurance.”
“There’s a priest in the next ward, do you think we should mention this chap?”
Then the voices faded.
I had pain in my head as well as in my body. Their conversation could just have been about the value of private health insurance or about another patient. But it did disturb my thinking.
I have always thought that prayers might be worth more if the supplicant was on his knees. That was not possible in my situation. So I closed my eyes and just asked the Almighty if there was any purpose in me continuing to live.
He obviously thought so.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Dress

Roger Noons


 A can of San Miguel

Her dress was too tight. She knew it, but thought Alex would be attracted to her curves and the three diamonds of pale flesh that he would see when she opened the door. She felt she might blush, but that also could be appealing; suggest that she was innocent of complicity, that seduction might be through innocence. After all he had refused when she had offered to meet him at the cinema, insisting on collecting her. Should he show the slightest sign of not wishing to watch a film, she would invite him in. With her parents away she had the house to herself. She had placed a bottle of red wine in the kitchen.
    After checking the time she visited the bathroom. She took great care applying her lip gloss and touching up her eyes. Much of the time, she wore little make up but tonight she had made a special effort. As she re-sheathed the mascara brush, she heard the ring of the door bell.
    Opening the door, her smile rapidly faded. I who are you?  
    The youth smiled. From behind his back he withdrew a bouquet of spring flowers. These are for Beatrice, from Alex, hes sorry but hes he been called home. His father has been taken ill.
    Im Josh, Alex and I share a flat. If you particularly wanted to see the movie, perhaps I could take you?
    She smiled, took the flowers from him and breathed, Come in Ill put them in water.
    He stood in the hallway while she hurried into the kitchen. Realising she had been rude, as soon as she had dunked the stems in the sink and added cold water, she dashed back. Im so sorry, please come into the lounge.
    She waved him to an armchair and said. Would you like a drink?
    He checked his watch. If were going to the cinema, we need to …’
    Do you want to see the film? she asked.
    Ive already seen it, he mumbled.
    Then let me get you a drink and we can sit and chat unless you …’
    He shook his head. A drink would be lovely, thank you. Do you have any beer?
    Throughout their conversation, she noticed, he had not once looked into her face. Perhaps the dress would achieve its aim; after all he was an attractive, clean-looking young man. Ill go and see, she said.

About the author 

This is Roger’s eighth year of submissions to Cafe Lit. His volume of flash fiction, Slimline Tales, has recently been published by Chapeltown Books.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

Bad Billy and Wicked Hannah's Wedding and the Lootenant's Dying Revenge,

by Robert Ferguson


I couldn’t believe it. I could not believe it! Billy had been banging her in that top floor apartment of the flop-house at 47th and 9th since he’d hauled her out as a hostage from the jeweller’s he’d done single handed all those years ago to make his bones. An’ now they wanted to get marr-ied? Or at least she did, I presumed. Billy marr-ied? Well, no more than the little runt deserved.

Well, I had to believe it. The word was good. Always had been, that word, from that one, inside the gang an’ turned by a couple of really big cops with ex-regulation billy-sticks who’d made it either that or his old woman got it. Whenever. Oh, that word had to be good!

So Billy an’ Hannah were coming down out of their fortress, out from behind the gang’s lines, the floors of mattresses and foot-soldiers and guns that had made winkling them out impossible for so many years. To get married in the ballroom at the Ogalala Hotel on 24th. I knew it well. Danced there regular’, when I was young enough to dance. I knew its layout, its music and its service intimately. It would be so simple. All I had to do was get the Captain onside.

I put it to the Captain in his favourite bar. He was horrified. “What are you trying to do to me?” he screamed in a whisper. “You know the Chief won’t let you get near Billy and Hannah. He’ll hate it!” 

“But the Mayor will love it,” I replied, “and I know where he drinks, too. And with Billy gone, and the Chief gone…well, promotions all round, maybe?” 

“Fix the Mayor and you’ve got it,” the Captain said, after a lot more whispered hisses, and a couple more scotches. 

“He’ll love it,” I repeated. “He’ll be counting the thank-you votes.” 

And he did - both. 

So, time to go to work. I needed to find sufficient cops who could play liquorice sticks an’ horns with their left hands, while handling their pieces with their right; an’ get a dozen shotguns fixed up as working trombones, and a dozen more horns with 38’s stuck down their bells. An’ get hold of a couple of dozen more who could wait table without pouring soup down the clients’ backs, or dropping burgers into their laps.

As usual, there were no volunteers. “Ooh, Loot,” they cried, “we’re cops not nancy waiters.” “Ooh, Loot, I ain’t played in a band since high school.” 

“You went to high school?” I said. “You can’t read the Captain’s standing orders, let alone the dots on a stave. But you’ve got two hands, and decent balance. You can wait table, can’t you? You’ve been in a restaurant now and then since high school, I suppose? Take your wife out Saturday and watch how its done. No, definitely not on the Department’s expenses! Ok, who’s next.”

Then there was the weapons sergeant. “Ain’t no way you can put guns in musical instruments so the instruments still play. I never heard of any such thing, Loot. Is the Captain behind this idea? Whose budget’s carrying it?” 
“Look, Sarg.,” I explained patiently, “A horn’s a tube. A trombone’s just a longer tube. They both have an opening at the but end. And a gun is also a tube, but thinner and shorter. So what we need is some engineering, some imagination, an’ that’s why I came to you, Sarg.” I really larded it to him. “If anybody can do it you can. We just need a couple more holes for the triggers and magazines, shielded so the air doesn’t escape from the musical tubes. But keep them small, ‘cos nobody’s got to see ‘em under my guys hands.”

The breakthrough came, of course, with the first guy who took it on. One of the younger men in the Traffic team finally stepped up, bored out of his skull after four months of trolling round the filthy alleys of the Bronx in his squad car, and never getting out of it except to buy a hot dog and endless cups of disgusting coffee that the dispatcher never let him finish before they were cold. He actually did play in a swing band. Now! And once he signed up, and offered to rehearse any other volunteers, and I talked the Captain into paying three hours’ overtime for the operation itself, we finally began to put together a team. Waiters appeared, guys whose families ran pizza houses and spaghetti cafes in Little Italy, who had waited table from the age of eight in parts of the City that Billy had terrorised for years, and who had scores of scores to settle.

Sarg, down in the Secure Weapons Store in the basement, found an engineer friend of a friend of a friend who used to sell guns to the Mob, until going straight under the influence of his wife’s nagging and a 12-stretch up the river. Sarg. didn’t tell him the target. Just what the instruments and weapons had to do.

We had a team, and I could fix the hotel manager. He knew I knew enough about him and his family’s past to send him away for years. Also, several very nasty characters would love to hear who had told the Department about various meetings and dinners in the Ogalala that they had worked hard to keep secret, especially from the police. Oh, yes, I could fix the hotel manager! But I wasn’t going to put the arm on him ‘till Billy an’ Hannah were on their way to the ceremony.
It went well. Minutes before Billy an’ Hannah arrived at the front of the Ogalala in their great big armoured Buick, I had a quiet, short word with the hotel manager. He quickly agreed not to get involved. I’d guessed he would.  The band an’ the waiters were ushered silently out of the back of the hotel into vans, an’ replaced by cops; an’ nobody in the hotel noticed a thing. In fact, the only folks who did notice anything were the layabouts and bums and wino’s who did notice – well, those who could – that there were no cops on the streets. But they weren’t going to complain, just enjoy the quietest night in years. It was a big operation, really big, but worth it to get Bad Billy an’ his dame.

Into the hotel ballroom came the happy couple, and their bodyguards took places at tables around them. We noted who was where. They’d all be carrying tonight. The band started playing, an’ the dancing began. The boys were good! They swung! I was proud of them, an’ enjoyed the sound. Foot-tappin’.

When the time came, the “band” stopped playing an’ withdrew to the edge of the dance floor, an’ so did the “waiters”, forming a circle around Billy an’ Hannah. Two more of Billy’s heavies brought in the Padre, almost carrying him, one under each of his arms, and the poor, terrified Father, sweating hard, an’ hoping’ the Monsignor never heard about it, said the words in a muttered rush. Billy kissed Hannah long an’ hard, my boys brought in the cake an’ put it centre front on the little circular table in front of Hannah, and gave her the fancy, blunt knife. An’ my boys drew their guns.

Billy an’ Hannah froze, an’ I walked forward from the kitchen. No gun. Why’d I need a piece? There were plenty in there already, and more of ours than theirs. But I was wrong. Oooh, I was wrong, cos’ the paying customers rose as I walked forward and placed the muzzles of their guns in the right ears of my boys, whose pieces clattered to the sprung, timber dance floor.

An’ even then, I wasn’t worried. I’d learned this trade mounting ambushes in ‘Nam. And my second line neutralised Billy’s back-up boys, guns cold in the backs of their necks. More clattering on the floor, an’ the bandsmen and waiters recovered both sets of weapons. “Time’s up, Billy,” I said. “Sure is, Lootenant,“ Billy said, with that sneaky grin on his chops I’d hated and dreamed of for years.

                             *                *                 *

And that’s where the Lootenant’s story stopped, when I found it in the locked drawer in his desk. He’d never finished it, and for a very good reason. If somebody had to write the last lines, however, they would be these:

“Time’s up, Billy,” I said. 

“Sure is, Lootenant,“ Billy said, and Chief of Police Seringato, Seringato the Sicilian, Seringato the Take, walked up behind me and shot me plumb in the back of the head.