Shirley Marx

The Bath

George Majestic was restless. He needed lights, movement. Pearl was watching television. He let himself out the front door, jumped a bus at the lights and got off at Ronnie’s Retro. The upstairs room was his old haunt. The red velvet interior never changed. It was womblike, a place for the lonely, for misfits. It eased chance conversations, encouraged sexual liaisons.  The jukebox loomed in the corner, wide and solid, a chrome confection of art deco. He remembered the girl in the polka-dot halter-neck, that formidable cleavage. They jived to the wailings of John Coltrane. George led her into a corner and wooed her with his poetry. She liked it. She blew smoke softly at him through her lovely large lips. ‘What you really want boy?’ she breathed. That was the first of his infidelities. 

Ronnie’s was almost sedate. After a few drinks, desultory conversation with the barman he returned home. In the back garden he lay on the ground. He gazed through the mulberry tree branches. Amongst its leaves stars pricked the indigo sky. He took a swig from the gin bottle. It tasted best that way. 

The garden was cluttered with his collections salvaged from the river and dumpsites – rusted hubcaps and bumpers, parts of an ancient plough, tangled wire and burglar bars, a working treadle machine, and an enamel bath that he lay in when reading and thinking poetry. ‘One day,’ he told Pearl, ‘I’ll become a sculptor and recycle it all. This discarded scrap has a social history.’ On summer nights he sat with his friends around a fire that burned between fitful grass patches, bottles clinking, talking dirty between gusts of laughter, flames casting shadows on the rusting heaps. Paraffin lamps hung in trees, sleepy dark smoke curling from their yellow wicks.

George had put his beehive against the tool shed. Pearl tried to persuade him to get rid of it. ‘It’s dangerous George. What happens if those bees escape? I’ll tell you what happens – they’ll chase the people down the street and sting them and cause havoc. You’ll have bodies lying around. You’ll be blamed and they’ll arrest you. Trust me.’ He didn’t trust her. Not because he imagined she’d gone off over the years and fucked anybody else. But she didn’t love him. And he wasn’t much lovable. In spirit she’d left him years ago.

He waved his bad hand at her. Bad because two of his fingers had been shot off leaving an ugly gap of pink and violet scar tissue between the thumb and remaining fingers. He said they were shot off in the war. ‘Which war?’ asked Pearl. For distraction he enticed the bees out of their hive and they fastened themselves round his head and arms like a soft brown-fur wrap. Pearl screamed and ran into the house slamming shut the doors and windows. ‘Jesus George,’ she shrieked behind the window. We are incompatible, thought George, as he fell asleep clasping the gin bottle.

Next evening George and Pearl had supper at the Greek café round the corner.  Pearl wanted to go out.  They sat at a table painted in a hard bright shell of blue enamel.  George drank Retsina, she toyed with a coke. She broke the silence between them. ‘You know, I feel I’ve got to get away. I need to be on my own. And I think you need me to go. You’re a kind and generous man but you don’t like me.’

George took a gulp of wine. ‘Put yourself in my shoes. This is where I’m at. Life and death. I’m not going through this again.’

Pearl sucked a prawn. ‘I want to understand,’ she said, ‘from the person I met long ago to the person you are today – you don’t come home, you don’t -’

‘I have to do my work. I’m a poet. It takes me all places. It means sleeping in the street or under an archway, hanging out in the pub.’

Pearl’s voice was rasping,  ‘OK, so what are you actually saying? Are you saying I don’t treat you with enough – respect? Because I resent your absences?

You said it.’ 

‘You know George, you’re an I-person and I’m an Us-person. I always wanted us to work as a team. You don’t understand that.’  Pearl blew her nose.

‘Never learned otherwise,’ George muttered.

That night he lay in the enamel bath. The mulberry leaves fluttered. They sounded dry and tired. Like his marriage. He was physically absent but she was in a cul de sac. Then he remembered the shoebox. He’d been in the attic looking for his old Basie records. The box was tucked in a corner, WRITINGS scrawled across its lid. He adjusted the light of the paraffin lamp and pulled out a wad of paper tied with ribbon. He untied the ribbon and read ‘To my George’. To him?  He sat up. Climbed out of the bath and lit another lamp. It was a love poem. He read the next page, and all the others, slowly, reading and re-reading. Several of the writings were diarised fragments – about events, the longing for a child, the miscarriages, the death of their dog Chippie causing Pearl great heartache, even a short ode to his enamel bath; the loneliness during his absences and night disappearances. Their married life recorded with a dazzling clarity.

He was seized suddenly with a choking pressure in his throat.  Gripping the shoebox he stumbled upstairs, his eyes wet. ‘Pearl? Pearl, can I come in? Can you forgive me?’  She pulled him towards her. Folding her big arms round his thin body she kissed the scar tissue on his hand.

‘Get into bed George, you’re so cold.’

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Ruth Shepherd

The light of day begins to fade

The light begins to fade.It’s early evening. He sits at a table for two facing the door. Through half draped windows an overcast sky, the muffled sound of traffic on the main road . Inside the dim light of energy-saving light bulbs. The plants on the windowsill dull green and limp. Sita music is playing in the background on low volume. On each table is neatly placed a yellow ochre menu, a white china pepper and salt pot and a small vase of white carnations with magenta edges. Prints of paintings on silk surround the walls: elephants, courtiers of maharajahs and dancing women. A smell of cumin and coriander. Two waiters hover in the empty space. They leave him alone. He holds his menu open. His eyes shift up and down the blue writing. Then he peers over the top of his glasses.

He sees her before she arrives. He shuffles in his chair. His shoulders lift slightly. He breathes in. The waiter opens the door. She enters. She wears a fitting pink cardigan, jeans and grey trainers with a slight platform. Over her right shoulder is a black satchel. The strap presses slightly into her exposed flesh. Her hand rests on the opening buckle. She sees him. She pushes her fingers through her hair. A recent cut. Short with a hint of burgundy. A slight squinting of her eyes. The frown on her brow intensifies. She hesitates. The waiter speaks a few words to her. She turns her head towards the man at the table. Her ribcage expands. She walks to his table and sits on a chair opposite him. Her legs face out towards the door.

An absence of smiles, their faces motionless. She leans closer to him across the table. They make brief eye contact. She opens her mouth slightly, speaks a few words. She takes an envelope out of her satchel and places it on the white paper cloth. She lightly brushes her fingertips over the seal. She rises and leaves the restaurant. He beckons the waiter and orders chicken bryani with rice. His usual.

The horse chestnut trees are in full bloom. Cascades of white cream lanterns. A lone man beats a rhythm on the metal bars of an exercise frame. Three boys run and jump on the skateboard ramp chased by their young pit bull dog. He sits on a bench nearby. His usual seat. The widest vista in the park, rippling green after a warm spell and torrential rain. His mind drifts to the rolling hills of Clarendon, Jamaica. He would ride a donkey up and down the hill running errands for his mother. He came to England on the Windrush in the early sixties. His wife and two small children follow. Now long retired he walks. He lives alone near the park.

Suddenly two crows squawk loudly, diving for each other. A frantic flapping of wings. They fly away. He is left alert. His heart beats more rapidly. He takes of his cap and put its on again. Moisture gathers on the palms of his hands. He knows this is the time. He puts his hand in the right pocket of his jacket. The envelope. Still unopened . Neatly folded in two. He takes it out and with his thumb nail tears along the top .The letter effortlessly opens in his hand. His eyes scan the page urgently.

Dear Dad .

It is the eighteenth of January,
the gales rage around me at a hundred miles an hour.
I am camouflaged in my small car amongst the larches,
in a nursery of meaning.
I have been here before.
The engine is running,
a hosepipe of monoxide.
I lie on the back seat a cushion under my head
music plays on the radio.
I am not hungry
my stomach is full of pizza.
Poison fills the airways of my lungs
and my cells surrender to toxic
blood.
I am dying by my own hand,
crossing the line.
I am paint sliding from its canvas
no longer fixed to white washed walls.

Much love, H x

He pauses. The bottom of the page. He pants with a shallow breath. His hands go cold. He closes his eyes. He places his hands on his chest. His mind races. Memories of an earthquake, the shudder, large cracks appear in the earth. The electricity pylons fall. The lights go out. From the back of his eyes he sees spiral undulations of pink and yellow. They descend into deepening purple. He opens his eyes and looks up. The early evening sunlight catches the silver rim of his glasses. The park is empty. Time for chicken bryani. At the usual place.

Erika Coetzee

The disappointment

Stanley knew it was now or never. He committed himself to the whoosh of the revolving door and passed the Point of No Return. He had told his family when he left home that morning, “I am going to meet with Destiny”. But they thought he was speaking figuratively, so largely ignored him, although one had mumbled “See you later”.

The lobby surprised him. Stanley was expecting it to be grand, what with all the Important Things that happened in the building. But nothing could have prepared him for the shining ochre floors, the glorious chandelier, the domed high ceiling, the majestic pillars. “Oh boy”, he thought to himself, “After today, nothing will ever be the same …”

Stanley approached the polished curve of the reception desk. Behind it, a man with small pince-nez glasses regarded him with apparent disdain. From the set of his jaw, and the way he tapped his fingers on the counter top, Stanley immediately knew he was a man who didn’t Suffer Fools Gladly. 

Stanley cleared his throat. “I’m here to meet with Destiny”, he said quite boldly.
The man behind the counter gave a deprecating smile, “Do you have an appointment?” he asked snidely.

Stanley was taken aback. “Doesn’t everybody?” he stammered. “I never realised I would have to  … make an arrangement in advance …”

Stanley had rehearsed this visit a thousand times in his mind. Over the last three decades, ever since his 27th birthday or so, Stanley had periodically succumbed to feelings of profound dissatisfaction with his Life. Time and again he had considered coming here, but then he would be swallowed back into the great waves of everyday, and would put away any thoughts of Drastic Action. But never in all his imaginings did the story unfold quite like this.

“It might just be your lucky day”, sneered the nasty receptionist. “Alas, our new Customer Service Policy does not allow us to turn anyone away. So no matter how negligent or lazy you’ve been … you still stand a chance …”

“A chance of what?” Stanley couldn’t help asking, feeling a shiver of excitement. The receptionist looked him up and down with such haughty indignation that Stanley almost fled without further ado. “A chance to Make your Mark of course,” he finally whispered.

Stanley thought it best not to ask any more questions. With a brief nod of thanks to the man behind the counter, he followed the other visitors towards the elevators, where a big sign with an UP arrow promised “All Significant Matters”.

While he waited, Stanley noticed that the  six elevators were labelled with neatly engraved brass plaques. One said “Pregnant women and children only”, so it was clearly unsuitable for him. Another said “Impressive Individuals” and Stanley was quite sure this would exclude him too, as he had never been toasted with French Champagne or had a bridge named after him. Neither the third or fourth elevators seemed quite right either; their labels read “Strictly for Black Sheep” and “Foreigners”. The plaque above the fifth elevator was “Losers”, and even though Stanley was prone to losing bets and umbrellas and hope, he had never quite scraped the Bottom of the Barrel, and he felt that this must count for something.  The sixth elevator, for “Promising Cases”, was (quite unbelievably) out of order. “Oh dear”, panicked Stanley quietly to himself, “What shall I do?” 

After some deliberation, Stanley decided to take the stairs. As he climbed his way up the building, he passed departments dealing with Masterpieces, Great Debates and Scientific Breakthroughs. There were directorates dedicated to Critical Contributions, Spiritual Awakenings and Epiphanies. None of them seemed to offer quite what Stanley had in mind. Eventually he settled on an office simply labelled “Room 808: Miscellaneous Enquiries”.

“Excuse me,” said Stanley, catching his breath. “Is this where I can …. meet face to face with …. uhm … Destiny?” 

“Certainly,” said an efficient-looking woman behind a computer. “Here, fill in this form in triplicate … giving your personal details HERE and the specific nature of your enquiry HERE. ” She made big red crosses in the relevant sections.

“I …. don’t really have a specific enquiry … as such …” mumbled Stanley apologetically.

“So … why are you here then?” asked the woman, with an exasperated sigh.

“Well, I was hoping for more of a… general chat… you see,” replied Stanley, feeling severely foolish.

“General Interviews, Room 1102,” she said stonily, turning back to her screen.

Stanley made his way to Room 1102, where he found a lengthy, slow queue meandering all the way down an extremely long corridor. From there he was referred to the 14th floor for a Basic Assessment, then to the basement to file his Track Record. And so it was that Stanley was sent from pillar to post all day long on his 57th birthday in the Building where Important Things happen.

When he finally left at closing time, a passing bus sprayed muddy water all over his duffel coat. Dismayed, Stanley shuffled into the nearest eatery and accidentally bumped a toddler playing on the floor, dislodging the olive that would otherwise have choked her. It popped onto the ugly flowered carpet and because she didn’t choke, her mother didn’t dwell in depths of misery for evermore but rather painted beautiful portraits and the toddler grew up and had children of her own and they lead Interesting and Meaningful Lives.

But Stanley didn’t know any of this as he peeled off his dripping, muddy coat. He ordered a drink and set about reconciling himself to being a man who would Never Amount to Much.

Annemarie Hendrikz

Aching for another chance

Ben is no longer in a hurry.  Just exhausted, dirty and terrified of the wooden box on his lap.  He leans into the once familiar gate, seeking comfort – not only for his aching city back. He remembers hanging the gate, sitting on the hand-drill while his father turned the arm and wood-shavings curled out of the hole like fantastic flat worms and mixed into the pungency of sun-baked fynbos and his father’s pipe.

As soon as he’d found the box he had tried to open it with his pocket knife – ‘the one you must always carry on account of the python’.  But the six screws needed more exact handling, demanded a rusty respect and now he is grateful that the moment of opening had been herded into a more roundabout destiny.  Why had he burned with a need to know?  Mama had not told him what was in the box, only that he would find it at chest level and an imagined arm’s length nearer the surface.  And that is exactly where – eventually, after hours of searching and digging – he had found it.  Terrified or not, he must do it.

All six screws come out smoothly.  The lid shifts as Ben pulls out the last screw and he catches his breath on the smell – a whiff of stinkwood and something else, both smells entirely familiar. He slides the lid open further.  It sticks half way.  Still it’s a biggish box and he can get his hand in.  He brings out the chisel, wrapped in an almost disintegrated oil-cloth.  The carving edge is worn concave; the wooden handle now fits in his own palm, the squiggly Italian name and unbelievable year etched into the wood at the top.  How could he not have known this would be in the box.  Of course!

His grandfather had been a sculptor, but his father, the man of this box, the man whose hand belonged to the chisel, had made furniture.  Exquisite, handcrafted pieces.

Memories crowd in like a stampeding herd, he can hardly make out details but the energy of it rocks him.  Enormous tree falling – seemingly silently after the whine of the saw, held in slow motion by the stinkwoods and yellowwoods still standing, waiting their turn in years to come.  The soaking beams in giant oil troughs; the rats – sometimes caught unaware in the night – lying oil-smooth, face down, tail straight the following morning, looking like snorkel divers.  The long strips of riempie hanging from roof-hooks like giant biltong sinews.

Ben reaches into the box again, not looking, feeling.  Cold, smooth with patches of something crumbly.  Another memory stirs; the two-shelf bookcase near the fireplace in his parents’ bedroom.  That’s all there was –their bed, their chair, the huge fireplace, the bookcase, and on the bookcase the jade green…..yes!  He pulls the carving out, the curled up almost formless but unmistakably cat body, now slightly crusted – with what?  It looks like miniscule barnacles, but as he rubs the fist-size sculpture on his cords the crust comes off and the stone takes on its original murky gloss.

His hands – his fingertips – tingle as though strange and new blood is pumping into them after years in a vice.  Without touching he knows – suddenly and with a riptide of memory – what else he will find.

He had heard the big saw on that autumn mid-morning, but ignoring the ban – sure that it was only for when he was young and didn’t understand the dangers – he had rushed into his father’s workroom, heart a drum in his throat, stomach clawing under his ribs, clutching the immaculate cream-coloured envelope with the magical embossed stamp of the Franz Liszt Academy of Music on the left – above his name and address.

He remembers his father’s shoulder, his hand on it momentarily.  He remembers his father’s startled blue eyes and then the astonishment in them and the sound that came from his father’s open mouth.  At first he hadn’t known what it was, the hand that shot across the workbench, the blood that squirted from his father’s arm.

Nobody ever blamed Ben.  Not to his face anyway.  Not even when, five years later his father took the gun in his good hand and ended something for himself, nor when two years after that Mama died – some said of grief.

Ben didn’t take that scholarship. He never did learn Hungarian, nor stand again on the Fisherman’s Bastion where he had held the hand of a parent on each side and looked down on the Danube river that had inspired the first music he fell in love with – at three, listening to Mama.  He did study piano, his mother had insisted, but locally and with a reticence that kept his brilliance at bay and sent him fleeing to law school as soon as he completed the doctorate she had set her heart on.  He had also kept on playing in the amateur quintet.

The small box comes out of the bigger box easily. Stinkwood too, also with a sliding lid, the 27 delicate white hand-bones at peace on the soft brown leather inside.

He hears his father’s voice again, telling of the dignity of hands, his own hands, his father’s hands, his grandfather’s hands.  The gift we can offer the world his father had said, the roughest and the finest skills, the touch most intimate.

Ben places the objects carefully back in the box.  He knows what he must do.

Vanessa Moffett

Our Hearts – count beats

Rachel had run for so long without looking back, but she could not ignore a dying man’s wish. She climbed the stairs reluctantly and slowly. “I’ll follow with tea,” called her mom.

Rachel didn’t answer. She stood in the doorway and looked with stranger’s eyes at the small, sparsely-furnished bedroom. Pink and blue floral curtains framing a steely grey sky, posters of Jim Morrison looking down on rag dolls and frilly cushions. She sat on the narrow bed. The rough crocheted pattern pressed into her legs and she remembered Ouma’s slow, crooked hands making it for her birthday. Sweet sixteen and never been kissed, crooned a laughing Ouma. The irony hurt.

Feeling too big for this child’s room under the eaves, she slipped off her expensive shoes and curled up, fitting her body to the familiar hollow. She closed her eyes, hearing the tin roof ping and pop. A massive roll of thunder exploding directly above her started her awake. She tussled with the stubborn window, opened it wide to swallow fat, cold raindrops. Lightening illuminated the darkening room, showed her mom, standing in the doorway carrying a cup of tea.

“Just like old times,” said her mom. “You always loved being part of a storm.”

Rachel took the tea, two rusks on the saucer. “From Auntie Nora, especially for you.” The tea was milky, so sweet after years of drinking black herbal concoctions. Rachel sipped, then dunked a rusk.

“You’re too thin. Men like something to keep them warm.’ Her mom laughed wryly, patting her own midriff, then broke into a sob. “Your Dad …” She blinked tears away and stood up. “Come down when you’re ready.”

But Rachel didn’t want to leave the safe cocoon of childhood. She crouched on the floor, faint, raw, assailed by memories and emotions buried deep.

Her last summons to his study had been a descent into Hell. Stiff back to her, hard voice – a stranger throwing questions.

“Father?”

“Josh………….Just Josh”

His nurturing hands clenched the bible as he turned.

“I am shamed………..all that I preach………..a mockery……….just 16. I will not be judged by your sin.”

His plans fell thick around her ears, hurting. She swirled like the red leaves being cast adrift outside.

“She is our only child, let her stay.” pleaded Mom.

His face was granite, “Her actions were not one of a child. She leaves tomorrow.”

Rachel had accepted adoption, but this loss of love and home. Was his position in the community more important than her?

She had shut her heart, excluded him from her life.

Now cracks were opening.

Head between knees, deep stabilising breaths, blood pounding in ears. She scraped red nails through her long, dark hair. Treat it as a job and leave, she repeated like a mantra.

Wait. What was that? That whiteness? She reached under the bed and kneeling as she had done as a child, looked at the box between her hands. Slowly she opened it, and was startled by the tinkle of sweet music. Behind the twirling, golden ballerina, she saw her face in the little mirror, strained and thin.

Her precious stash now looked tawdry, childish. Old letters, movie ticket stubs, fake sparkly jewellery, lip-gloss. Incongruous amongst this was her small pocket bible. How well-handled it looked, phrases marked. Could this have been her?

Under the bible, a bundle of envelopes. Who had put them there? Her mother perhaps? Unopened letters, addressed in her father’s strong, slanting cursive. Deliberately, carefully, he had written: Rachel Botha, c/o Erica Botha, Cape Town; Rachel Botha, Boston College. U.S.A; Rachel Botha, 59 11th Street, New York City.

And below this, her own handwriting – hard and uncompromising: Return to Sender, on the first five. The other letters were simply addressed, Rachel Botha. The date on each was the same, 16 April – her birthday. One every year. Twenty years in total.

As she untied the ribbon binding them, a photograph fell out. She looked at it, puzzled.

Her Dad, standing gravely, holding a small bundle in his arms.

A baby. But who? She didn’t recognise the scrunched-up face.

But the blanket was a blow to the stomach.

How?

She felt sick. Felt again the stark loneliness of the “mother’s home”. No visitors. No exceptions. Grim-faced matrons reigned, reminding them of their perilous condition. Self-esteem grew smaller as bellies grew larger. A parcel from Ouma, containing the colourful blanket just days before she went into labour. She knew the rules. No-one ever saw their babies. Taken away to pre-arranged, adoptive parents immediately. Leaving empty, slack-bellied shells with aching breasts.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and a soft voice said, “He drove all night when he heard your waters had broken. Got there just in time to see him.”

“Him?” said Rachel, only then noticing the blue booties in the picture. Him. She hadn’t even known that.

“He christened him. Said it was only right, his being a priest and grandfather.”

Rachel turned the photo, 7 September 1969, Joseph.

“Broke his heart, handing him over, losing you.”

Sobbing, Rachel allowed herself to be hugged. Breathed in her mom’s warm-bread smell.

Clutching the photograph, she stumbled downstairs, into the stale smell of death. In the hospital bed beneath the window the motionless body was frail and thin. She bent and clasped his hand, feeling the thin soft skin. She looked deep into his old, saggy eyes, connecting with the spark still glowing there.

‘Look Dad.’ She showed him the picture. Surely that was a faint squeeze? She placed his hand on the small bulge hidden beneath her loose coat. As his tears spilled, so did hers.

“Yes,” she said. “This is a good home for children.”

Natasha Paulse

Finding the true meaning of life …

I feel a bit silly sitting here – sure I’m the only one who has remembered the pact we made ten years ago: that we would meet again at this precise time at our old hang-out, Jojo’s. It had been Shannon’s idea. ‘Wouldn’t it be cool,’ she’d said. ‘To see if we’ve done what we think we’ll do?’

Jojo’s is like I remembered it. Black walls, signed photographs of sports stars, old numbered jerseys and balls boxed into glass cases.

Amy is first to arrive. Olive-skinned, her hair still black and curly, she looks exactly the same, a grown-up version of the girl I first met in standard seven biology when we’d landed up as lab partners. We hug, and I remember how we’d clicked straight away – the moment we saw we’d both covered our books with a New Kids on the Block poster.

We met Shannon when she transferred in from another school. She stood out like a sore thumb, with her funkily spiked blue and purple hair, four earrings in one ear. She looked so weird we were afraid to talk to her, but we were fascinated by this girl who had so much attitude even the boys were afraid of her.

We later discovered Shannon was very much like us – just weird enough to be interesting. We were all single children, and our parents were, we thought, madly overprotective. This made us rebellious. Not that we took drugs and stuff like that, more a case of saying we were going to the movies and instead heading off to a party, one that our parents would never have dreamed of letting us go to.

When we left school, we’d drifted apart, our lives taking us in different directions, to different parts of the world.

Shannon arrives next. I hardly recognize her. She looks amazing, sporting short cropped hair and stylish jeans with not a patch in sight.

‘Ten years! I can’t believe it!’ say Shannon, sliding into the familiar old red leather booth named after our favourite, James Small. ‘I’m so glad we all made it, I thought I’d be the only one here.’

“Me too! Amy and I chorus, and we giggle like the schoolgirls we used to be.

‘So, Carly, did you bring it?’

‘Of course,’ I say solemnly. I place the box on the scarred wooden table. ‘Amy, have you got the key?’

Amy takes a key from her pocket. ‘I’ve kept this safe in my jewellery box.’ She fits it into the small brass padlock.

I let my breath out in a long sigh as Shannon opens the box – the one holding the predictions we made for each other’s futures. On top is a photograph.

‘Oh my,’ says Shannon. ‘How young we were.’

‘17 years old, and ready to take on the world,’ I say.

‘Do you remember the afternoon we wrote these?’ Amy lifts six letters from the box, and I see us again, scribbling furiously, the table cluttered with cheeseburgers, onion rings, chocolate milkshakes. We’d each written two letters, one to ourselves, one to another of our group.

‘Let’s just read the opening line,’ I suggest. I open my letter, covered in Shannon’s teenage scrawl. ‘ “You will one day see that home is where your heart is…”,’ I read aloud.

‘My turn,’ says Shannon. ‘ “Music will always be important in your life”.’ She folds the letter and smiles. ‘What does yours say Amy?’

Amy clears her throat and says dramatically: ‘ “People, places and things …”.’ She picks up the next letter. ‘Well girls, let’s see how accurate were we about ourselves.’ She scans it quickly and laughs. ‘I was going to become a journalist, report on the latest news, and eventually be discovered by CNN.’

‘A world famous rock star,’ says Shannon. ‘What about you Carly?’

‘Me?’ I ask. ‘Oh, travel the world, become stinking rich.’

The next hour flies by as we catch up on each other’s lives. Amy studied Journalism and is now in Public Relations at Media 24. Shannon is Manager of Sound and Programming at BMG South Africa. She did start a band after school, ‘but the money was lousy,’ she says ruefully. ‘So I decided to chuck it in and study Sound Engineering.’

‘Well, my life has taken me all over the world, I say. I tell them how I’ve travelled – London for six months, backpacking across Europe, the Middle East, and India. ‘When I came home, I went into tourism, and finally started my own business, CK’s Travel, arranging township tours all over South Africa.’

“That takes care of travelling the world,’ says Amy. ‘But what about the stinking rich bit?’

Well, two years ago I married a special guy – I met him in London …’

I stop.

‘Go on,’ urges Shannon.

Well, I always thought that money was so important, you know?’

The other two roll their eyes. ‘Tell us about it,’ Shannon drawls.

‘And then, my life came full circle. I realized you can be anywhere, any country, it doesn’t matter. If you have family and friends who love you, you’re the richest person in the world. So,’ I laugh and shrug my shoulders, ‘here I am – stinking rich! Travelling was great, I met so many different people, but you know something? It was only when I came back that I realized that home is where the heart is.’

‘We made such a great team,’ Shannon sniffs and blinks back tears.

‘Such good friends,’ says Amy.

‘We mustn’t lose touch. Friendships like ours keep us all rich.’ I raise my milkshake in a toast: ‘Same time, same place – next week!’

Mandy Soulsby-Bodart

Wandering lost

Wandering lost, stumbling drunk, groggy from lack of sleep, reeling from the endless round of pubs and clubs and parties, punchy from the noise, banks of speakers remorselessly thumping, ears ringing, head spinning, staggering out in a drunken haze, vomiting violently against the wall.

Must have been meths in the glass, surely he didn’t drink enough to be this ill, or could have been the tablets, Christ knows what they were.

He drags a pale shaky hand across his mouth, a sour smell in his nostrils and an acid burn in his throat. Even here he can still feel the pulsing sound reverberating in his chest, the building throbbing with the sound of the bass.

Hauling himself over to the railing at the edge of the pier, away from the claustrophobic sound, he leans over and stares at the dark tide rolling in, the crests of the waves incandescent in the moonlight. Gradually the cool damp air drives back the floods of nausea, salt spray welcome against his pimply cheeks.

He runs a hand through his short spiky hair, picks at the red encrustation on the side of the spike through his nose. Drawing his studded leather jacket closer around his gangly frame, he walks on, big-booted feet awkward at the end of his skinny legs, following the string of lights along the promenade, incongruous on the deserted beachfront.

The shops are closed up, tourist season over, the bleak mid-winter of discontent. He pauses to look at the dusty plastic icing in the baker’s window, unlikely colours and a thin coating of fly-specks, passes the rhythmic spirals of the barber’s pole.

 Next is a shabby store-front whose sign announces We Buy Junk and Sell Antiques! No shit, they got that right. Three-legged tables lean against under-polished Indian brassware, old travellers’ trunks with faded stickers, reproduction fire-screens in unskilful tapestry.

As he is about to turn away, a small puppet catches his attention – limp cloth body, mitten hands, bright beady eyes in a hard hook-nosed face. A smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. Once such a manikin was a living thing in the arms of his granddad, on the sands of Whitby.

That’s The Way To Do It! Mr Punch has beaten the devil, Mr Punch has vanquished Death Himself!

More than Granddad did.

Got to keep the tension, lad, that’s what makes them laugh – breaking off with a phlegmy cough, hawking brown spit into an empty cup.

 And, later, blood.

He leans his head against the glass, cool against his feverish skin.

At some point it must have begun to rain again, because he can taste salt water coursing down his face.

Gill Schierhout

The Final Watch

Robert Silverskein sits on a concrete bench near the sea.  The sea is like blood, darkening as the moon’s brightening sucks up the light. The red water meets the blue resistance of his eyes.  He watches the cold slow growing orb of the moon coming up from behind the sea.  He dare not allow his body to feel its hunger so he sits, stationary.  A girl’s skirt uncoils from around her slender legs with a gust of wind as she passes by. 
That’s generosity, he thinks, all that fabric!
“If you can sew…” their father had told Catherine.
She had sweated and slaved after school – the patchwork pink top, the grey pinstripe suit.  She had never sewn a circle skirt. 

Robert Silverskein is a man who believes in the dawn. He does not only believe it will come, he believes he aids its coming by keeping vigil. The golden path of the moon falls across the sea from the surf right out, further, almost to the horizon.  There the path seems to end, as if to follow it is certain death. 

Robert puts his hand to the knot of his stringy tie without loosening it.  He almost always wears a tie these days.  A civilised man, must, after all, recognise that he cannot be trusted to move freely in this world, there must always be a hook, an easy place to grasp at him, to hold him back. 

It is only when the moon’s halo is fully ringed around it, only when it is so firmly embedded in the darkening sky that it seems it will never be unstuck, that Robert Silverstein reaches for the small box in his pocket.  It is the sort of box that would ordinarily only hold one thing – a ring, or a locket or cufflinks.  Robert holds it carefully so as not to spill. 

How many times has he sat on this concrete bench? How many times has he pushed his hands into his right coat pocket and pulled out the box, felt the hard contours of the box, its embossed golden border, afraid to open the box, afraid to leave it closed?  This evening he snaps it open.  And so when a sneeze surprises him and he fumbles in his trouser pocket for his crumpled torn handkerchief, and his legs seem to cross and uncross on their own, it seems quite fitting, pre-ordained even, that the box tumbles off his lap, bounces three times on the grassy slope, hits a rock, and slides without so much as a splash into a dark rock pool below him, frightening an octopus’s slow sentient path from one hidden crevice to the next.

It is as if he is a boy again, half-sliding down slope to the shoreline.  He often wondered if Catherine’s secret messages, the ones she would throw out to sea in sealed bottles on the outgoing tide, were ever found.  At last his stick locates the fallen box.  Triumphant it rises, dripping the salty slimy soup of the sea. 

Robert must have been ready for this moment, something in him must have known it was about to happen.  He must have been preparing for it through the long confused period leading up to his recent diagnosis with Huntington’s Chorea, that cruel and incurable degenerative disease of the brain.  He must have been silently readying himself during the even more difficult times that followed; when his father, a pharmacist with ambitions for his son to be a doctor, disowned him, sent him to Halfway House and Sheltered Employment, but came back now and then, with no other purpose it seemed to Robert, but to remind him of his sins.   

Robert carries the small dripping box back to his bench.  He knows without looking that the golden curl, the gentle wrap of the letter C against the red velvet innards of the box, will never now be retrieved.  The hair is unstuck and sucked out to sea tonight, become one with the curious kelp.  The curl was dead, not only dead, but harsher than death, divorced from the head that loved it.   

There was another item in the little box, and the thought of this makes Robert’s breath sallow and unkempt.  Unlike the curl, the small vial now set free from the box will no doubt float.  Robert watches a surge of tide seeping into the rock pool and sweeping back out to sea.  His eyes find the vial, but not for long.  It is an awkward pharmacist’s gift to his son – a small quantity of cyanide in case Robert, still a decent god-fearing man, can no longer bear to watch the devastation in his wake.

Robert has not been this close to the water for years.  With only a passing, elated thought, he strips off his tie too.  He leaves it in a coil beside his carefully folded clothes.  But when he enters the water, it is as if surrounded by teachers, careful not to make a splash. 

An early pre-dawn wind whips the ocean’s surface into small spinning tornadoes, like miniature lives they scud across his sight.  The bottle of cyanide is within his grasp now, washed back towards him in the sea.  He holds the bottle for a moment, triumphant, kisses it goodbye and tosses it further out, out to the gleaming path of the moon. 

For a while he floats on his back looking up at the rising morning star.  His father, driving to work along the ocean road sees a stringy blotchy man with slate grey hair and wasted legs, loping to the shore, drying off on his coat and replacing the peels of his clothes. 

Jacquie Clarke

The train

She didn’t know why she did it. Took the train that day. Perhaps it was the way the sun lit the sky even though it was only 6 o’clock in the morning. Or the shade of lipstick that she had chosen. Sally had found the lipstick right at the bottom of her make up bag. The shade of red had made her hesitate. But as she brushed her teeth the light reflected in the mirror and shone off her dark hair and seemed to whisper to her. And so she had reached for it. Sally had left the flat early that day. She hadn’t worried about making her bed and tidying the flat as she usually did before leaving for work. Sally was fastidious about her home – she knew that when you lived alone that the exact state the flat was left in would greet you when you arrived home. And her mother’s voice was usually loud in her ears. Sally also hadn’t agonised over her choice of clothes. Which pair of shoes would work best with the brown pants? What would elongate her thighs? Hide her love of the canteen doughnuts? Today, for once, the choice was obvious. The jeans still fit even though the button strained across her lingering belly. And so here Sally sat: on a train on a Wednesday in red lipstick and jeans.

The rhythm of the train was like a lullaby. The train rushed past the stations, but for once, on this morning, Sally’s breathing was slow. The traffic always made Sally’s mouth dry and her hands were usually shaking by the time her car pulled into the office parking lot. She glanced down: steady. As she looked out the train window at the passing neighbourhoods she felt like a foreigner in her own city. Children’s clothing on washing lines flapped and strained to fly free. The train doors opened and a man walked past all the other compartments to sit down opposite her. Sally shifted in her seat. The man sighed deeply as he shook open his newspaper and turned to the comics. He glanced up and looked at Sally, the smile in his eyes soft.  She felt her face warm and quickly averted her gaze back to the window. She studied his reflection surreptitiously: although the shoulders of his suit seemed too big and his shirt collar was creased, the man’s brown leather shoes glinted in the early morning sunlight. Sally’s father used to shine her black school shoes every Sunday evening. Every week he would say, “I will not send you back to your mother’s house tomorrow with those scruffy old shoes.” They would sit at the kitchen table with the brush and little golden tin of polish. Afterwards they would have their Sunday supper  – baked beans on toast  – and then she would bath in his big Victorian bath and wash her hair. She would sit on the stool in front of his bedroom mirror and her Dad would blow-dry her hair. She loved the strength of the brush on her scalp, and even though it pulled and the heat of the hairdryer made her eyes sting, she sat perfectly still. Her father had few rules, but shining shoes and clean hair were two of them.

As the train slowed at the next station the man folded his newspaper and stood. Sally got up after him. The man was lost in the pulsing of the crowd. She allowed herself to be pulled along by the rush, down into the dark subway and across the street. The crowd scattered in different directions, eyes down, arms swinging. Sally didn’t recognise her surroundings. The main street was filled with quaint and old-fashioned specialty stores. Bertha’s Haberdashery. Fine Clothing and Linen. Hubbard’s Leather Shoes. She stopped in front of the store window, scanning the different shoes on display. They took her by surprise. Hubbard’s shoes were in total contrast to the name of the store. Buckles, leopard print thigh high boots, platforms and Perspex heels. Sally smiled, savouring the joke. She was about to move on when a pair caught her eye. The toes were sharp and pointed, the curve of the soles looked unbearably uncomfortable and the heels dangerous. They were ridiculously impractical and wouldn’t match a thing she owned. But they were red and they were shining. Sally knew that those shoes were hers.

Sally hadn’t wanted to buy anything during her pregnancy. She seemed to lack the nesting instinct that had gripped her sister with such urgency. Even right near the end Sally knew she should at least have been looking at cribs. Her friends had nagged and pressured and teased. Sally had never told anyone, but she had actually bought one thing. A tiny pair of shining Nike trainers with a pale pink swoosh on the side. Size two. She had never seen anything like those shoes before and hadn’t conceived that anything that small could possibly be that perfect, that complete. But they were. Those shoes had filled every single part of her. Had made her catch her breath at the possibility, the hope of it all.

Sally told herself that she should probably have thrown them out or given them away by now. But they sat in her bedside drawer, with the price still attached. They refused to be moved. Those shoes were hers.

Sally noticed the sign in the corner of the window. The shoe shop only opened at nine. It was seven forty-five now. She looked across the road at the children’s park opposite. Sally would sit down on the colourful park bench and Sally would wait.