Growing Pains by Abi Henning
On the first occasion, it was instinctive. The butterfly had been irritating, fluttering garishly around her head, tickling her cheek and begging for attention like the painted narcissist it was. Pinching it between two fingers and holding it up to her face, eyeball to antenna, she felt it quiver in desperation before popping it delicately into her mouth and chewing it to a pulp.
After that, the dam was broken. Flies were overly sweet- fizzy too, like cola bottles-but were plentiful and filled a hole when nothing else flew by. Moths had a sort of ashy taste, like over-grilled meat, but, followed up with a spicy horntail wasp, were perfectly edible.
People ignored it in the main: the beauty of living in England where no one likes to make a
fuss. Or at least, they ignored it until the hamster incident. After that, if they saw her so much as glance at their pets, they would remember an urgently impending hair appointment and usher her out of the house, clicking the door shut behind her with cool finality.
After several false starts, she’s managed to find a job which fits her bio-rhythm. The darkness is soothing and the bubbles in the tanks half-hypnotise her, lulling her through the day’s work. As for food, crickets have long been a favourite and the lizards seem content to share the supply. The loss rate of stock is not too much higher than before her arrival; she's such a hard worker they're reluctant to let her go for the sake of a few measly fish.
The fluttering in her stomach increases day by day. She's evolving. She watches the workmen next door as they make the finishing touches to the nursery and hums a contented tune.
My Name Is Alex by Keira Sun
“What’s your name?”
A lump crawls up my throat. “Just Alex, thanks.”
I just thanked the barista for deadnaming me. Good job, idiot. Way to go.
Can’t blame her, though. I know what she sees when she looks at me. A baby face. Chins for days. Boobs too big to be anything other than what Mother Nature intended them to be. I don’t look like an Alex; I look like the kind of woman Alex would swipe left on Tinder, if he were real. But Alex isn’t real, so here I am.
My coffee comes in a cup that says “Alex”, followed by a heart that looks a lot like someone started to write a lowercase “a” and changed their mind halfway through. I plop down in an empty chair, feeling like there’s a hole in my chest where my lungs should be. I take a sip out of the heart-Alex cup. There’s three lumps of sugar in this thing and it still tastes like yesterday’s ashtray.
I’m not fine.
I’m so not-fine it takes me a minute to notice there’s another scribble on the cup, underneath my name. ‘Sorry’, it says, in small, timid letters. I squint. The barista also drew a… cookie? A manhole cover? The moon? I shrug it off. Her ‘sorry’ makes no difference, and now I want a cookie.
Or all of them.
I resist the siren song of empty carbs long enough to maybe not feel bad about giving in this time. A bag of Skittles sugar cookies won’t kill me, right? And if they did…
...would that be so bad?
The Slav Defence by Daniela Norris
Some people go through life as if it were a game of dominos. They spend ages meticulously arranging their blocks, just to watch them all collapse when one tumbles. Me, I’d rather live my life as if it were a game of chess.
I saw him in the café, ordering a double espresso, no sugar.
He’s in his forties, about twice my age.
I smile, but he looks right through me.
I hold the door open for him. He carries his steaming little cup into the frosty morning.
The best openings in chess are the Queen’s Gambit, the King’s Indian Defence and the Slav Defence. Life works like that, too. Today, I choose Slav.
Do you know how to get to Fulham High Street, I whisper as he walks past me.
I am looking for a bookstore.
Bookstore, he says. You are not from here.
I always felt as if I was watching everyone around me struggle against the current, unnecessarily.
It’s that way, turn right, second left, and left again, he says.
Can you show me the way? I ask.
He doesn’t say no. No one ever says no.
We walk down Gonville Street, people rushing past.
It’s a second-hand bookstore, I say. He nods.
We walk to Hurlingham Books, I thank him and go in.
He waves at me as he walks back – did a detour for me, how sweet.
I glance at the books and take the wallet out of my pocket. His wallet.
I take out the cash. There’s plenty.
Someone left this here, by this shelf, I say as I hand it to the man behind the counter.
Then I hurry out, towards the opposite direction.
Today’s job is done. It’s a check, mate.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery by Phil Temples
Angga Homata released his wildly popular work, Laskar Pelgishi, in 1995. It took him just a little over a year to write the semi-autobiographical novel describing life on the Indonesian island of Bintan. Even though it went on to sell five million copies, Homata was incensed that an additional 15 million pirated editions were produced. Even after producing three successful sequels to Laskar Pelgishi, Homata could not leave well enough alone. Over the years, the wealthy author spent nearly every Rupiah trying to track down and prosecute the sources of the pirated editions. It was an expensive endeavor, given there were hundreds of pirates scattered throughout the country as well as across southeast Asia. Homata’s litigious tendencies eventually bankrupted him; he died a poor man. In his honor, an additional 35 million bootlegged copies of Homata’s sequels were produced posthumously.
The Turkey by Annette Edwards-Hill
Mum said we had to invite Bill for Christmas dinner. “He’s Dad’s oldest friend, also he’s offered to bring a turkey.”
Over dinner Bill tells us the story of how he got the turkey. The neighbour hit it with his truck when he was driving home.
“Taking the back roads”, says Bill, “had one too many at the pub.”
Nobody has made a move on the turkey. It stinks. Like it’s been left in the sun too long. There is a faint scent of marmalade intermingling with the rotten meat. Bill says he stuffed it with oranges. He sits at the other end of the table, the furthest point from the turkey, Dad’s seat.
The dog circles the table sniffing the air. I go to get Dad. He’ll be outside smoking. I only get as far as the lounge then I turn back.
Back at the table the turkey sits untouched.
”Looking for your Dad?” says Nanna. “I swear I heard him coughing outside the bedroom window this morning.”
I don’t look at Mum but I know she is rolling her eyes.
Later we all get in Bill’s car. It’s so hot we have all the windows down. I sit on Mum’s knee.
There are other families spending Christmas on the neatly trimmed lawn, some lie on the grass, faces turned to the sun. Others carefully wipe headstones with handkerchiefs.
We stand in a circle while Mum kneels down and pulls dead flowers from a vase. Bill leaves an unopened can of beer on the dry pile of dirt.
“Wish we’d bought that bloody turkey with us, we could bury it” whispers Nanna.
At home the table is bare. Outside, the dog lies on her back in the sun.
Pretty Girls In Places Like This by Jane Copland
By the time I was standing on stage at the Congress Centre in Bloomsbury, plastic clicker in hand and a mic tucked behind my left ear, my sense of being othered was keen enough. He stood up in the full crowd. His hands rested on the back of the chair in front of him, inhabited by a woman whom I found myself watching. She leant forward as if the embarrassment of touching a stranger in a crowd was on her, not him.
He was gesturing; shouting. You’re fundamentally wrong, he bellowed. You can’t waltz in and say, I’m the expert!
He stood back. I noticed a flex from the woman as she checked: is it okay to move? She eased back cautiously. He was still standing, waiting for his answer.
I think, I said, that we’ll have to agree to disagree.
Chuffed but indignant: could you be both at once? He puffled.
Whatever, Melissa, he said.
I had spent thirty-five minutes delivering a presentation with the opposite opinion to his, an opinion based on my ten (not twenty-three, woe is me) years’ experience. Pray: pray to the ceiling-mounted stage lights, pray to the softly brushed floorboards, pray that nobody else asks a question. The man sat down and folded his arms. A quick turn of the head to nod at his neighbours. Showed her.
His review of my talk, emailed to me two weeks later, called me shrill. Another noted that I was hot.
We need more female speakers, they’d kept saying. Females, they’d said. They’d copped some shit last time because there weren’t any, they’d said. How few could they get away with? They’d settled on one.
I took my beer with me on the bus home. A bitter, a free token, like it knew and it understood.
In Framing by Rick White
When I think of my brother, I instinctively touch my right ear. When we were little, he would speak only to me and nobody else, whispering in to my right ear, never the left - in a secret language which we’d created. It was my job to speak on his behalf, interpreting our words in to the few common structures which I had learnt.
It drove our parents fucking insane.
Words like Aspergers didn’t exist in my parents’ vernacular, and so my brother was often scolded for not wanting to talk properly.
As we grew up, we stopped communicating in this way. We stopped play-fighting and real fighting and jumping out of first floor windows for fun until eventually, we stopped talking altogether. We argued - about money, and some other shit I don’t even remember.
And then one day my brother vanished, as if I had somehow made him up.
I realise now that I never asked my brother anything. Only told, only listened. I replay analogue recordings in my mind which skip and stick on the absent, useless questions; are you happy? Do you have someone to talk to?
I can still picture the boy who only I knew. But there is another person, the one who is missing. I scratch through police reports and second hand accounts to reassemble him - a pixellated image in shadowy relief; spectral in framing, the ghost of an aperture.
When I got the call that day, my hand went to my ear before the receiver did - some kind of vestigial reflex. His car abandoned, next to a bridge. No signs of a struggle was the phrase that they used. But that, I am certain, is only a matter of perspective.
Did Shakespeare Clean his Toilet? by Alan Joseph Kennedy
Once more… into the bridge… Pencils in a row, new sharpener, hot coffee, whiskey hidden, spliff rolled and ready… ‘Same old, same young, Bartholomew mused.’… I’ve written this sentence five hundred times, no idea what it means anymore. Capture the essence, the rest will pour out like honey, the Bard says. That’s a wicked metaphor… or is it a simile? ‘Same old, same young thoughts poured out like honey…’. Or…’Same young, same old honeyed thoughts gushed out…’ Shit. That’s crap.
‘Rowena? Can you…?’ Right… Rowena’s scarpered. Went off with…
Time for a smoke…
‘Same honey, thinking old, pouring sweetness over young nectar. Honey, sunlit ambrosia.’ That’s the one. Pure poetry in lotion. Start engraving my Booker Prize! Enough for one day. Let’s finish here. Always finish on a high. Always end up high… The kitchen floor looks dirtier since Rowena took the dog, useless little mongrel.
My first sentence will be worth a fortune. Like John Lennon’s scribbling. On the plaque over the door… Maybe one change… ‘Same old sweet thought, pouring honey over young ambrosia. Honey, sunlit nectar. Same summery delicacy. Honey, I’m home!!’ Nineteen words. A record! Whiskey unhidden! Memo to myself: buy new glasses, these are filthy… Is that the time? Twelve minutes, one sitting. I am… a genius. Rowena doesn’t fathom what that means. A cleaning rota? Does an artist know about household chores? Did Dickens sweep the floor? Did Shakespeare disinfect his toilet?