Shorter Reads

Want to read a story with all the depth, questions and quality of a novel, written by highly skilled writers in about 5% of the space? Short stories can be heartbreaking, mysterious and incredibly detailed; for a perfectly formed, bite-sized smorgasbord of stories, browse our Short Story recommendations here.

Blind Spot

Blind Spot

Author: Paula Hawkins Format: Paperback Release Date: 14/04/2022

'How can you say things like this? How can you be so blind?' Since they were kids, Edie, Jake and Ryan have been the closest of friends. It's been the three of them against the world. Edie thought the bonds between them were unbreakable. So when Jake is brutally murdered and Ryan accused of the crime, her world is shattered. Edie is alone for the first time in years, living in the remote house that she and Jake shared. She is grief-stricken and afraid - with good reason. Because someone is watching. Someone has been waiting for this moment. Now that Edie is alone, the past she tried so hard to leave behind is about to catch up with her...

Witness

Witness

Author: Alex Wheatle Format: Paperback Release Date: 14/04/2022

To tell the truth? Or protect his family? Cornell is having a bad time. Kicked out of secondary school for a fight he didn't start, he finds himself in a Pupil Referral Unit. Here he makes friends with one of the Sinclair family. You don't mess with the Sinclairs, and when Ryan Sinclair demands Cornell comes with him to teach another student some respect, Ryan witnesses something that will change his life. Torn between protecting his family and himself, Cornell has one hell of a decision to make. This is published as part of the Quick Reads series, which aims to share the joy of reading with adults who are improving their literacy. It is Alex Wheatle at his best: a thrilling, pacy story that is full of moral complexity and insight into gang violence.

Voting Day

Voting Day

Author: Clare O'Dea Format: Paperback Release Date: 01/04/2022

Threaded with engaging detail on class, and the pull between traditional ideas about how women should live and the drive for female independence from men, Clare O’Dea’s Voting Day is an absorbing, read-in-one-sitting novella. Told from the perspectives of four women in 1959, on the day Swiss men voted against giving women the right to vote, the author reveals the differences between women’s lives and attitudes, and also what unites them. It’s a delicate, illuminating and immediately engaging work, told with elegance and insight as the women’s lives intersect on this decisive day. First we meet Vreni, a hardworking farmer’s wife who’s heading from the countryside for an operation in Bern, but not before she’s prepared her household for her absence. In Bern, Vreni meets Margrit, her daughter. With Margrit trying to forge an independent life, their time together reveals the pull between the old and the new, country and town, and intergenerational conflicts, but also the persistence of male control over women no matter what their age or location. The fact that it’s Vreni who tackles her daughter’s predicament also sheds light on the way assumptions about people can blind us from seeing the truth. While outwardly confident, in reality Margrit feels like she’s in a “thorny, overgrown forest from the most frightening fairy tales…lost and helpless”, while her apparently old-fashioned, downtrodden mother asserts herself with glorious verve. At the hospital we switch to Esther’s narrative. She’s a cleaner with connections to Verni and Margrit, a young mother who’s been abandoned by her husband and left in dire straits. In turn, hospital administrator Beatrice has been campaigning for the “yes” vote and is determined to help Esther. The four characters, and the connections between them, embody and amplify varied realities of women’s lives at this time — still restricted by men clinging onto power over public and private life, but straining towards a new era of greater equality. 

Homesickness

Homesickness

Author: Colin Barrett Format: Paperback Release Date: 10/03/2022

From the prize-winning author of YOUNG SKINS, comes HOMESICKNESS - a quietly caustic, startlingly beautiful and wonderfully wry new short story collection. In these eight stories, Barrett takes us back to the barren backwaters of County Mayo, via Toronto, and illuminates the lives of outcasts, misfits and malcontents with an eye for the abrupt and absurd. A quiet night in the neighbourhood pub is shattered by the arrival of a sword wielding fugitive. A funeral party teeters on the edge of this world and the next, as ghosts won't simply lay in wake. A shooting sees an everyday call-out lead a policewoman to confront the banality of her own existence. A true follow-up to his electrifying debut collection, HOMESICKNESS marks Colin Barrett out as our most brilliantly original and captivating storyteller.

The Perfect Crime

The Perfect Crime

Author: Vaseem Khan, Maxim Jakubowski Format: Hardback Release Date: 03/03/2022

It’s rub your hands in glee time with this collection of 22 hugely engaging and eloquent crime stories from around the world. The editors for this book are Maxim Jakubowski who is current chair of the Crime Writers’ Association (CWA), author, and former publisher, and Vaseem Khan author of two crime series set in India, co-host of the Red Hot Chilli Writers podcast, and who currently sits on the board of the CWA. In their introductions, Maxim and Vaseem both note that until this century, there was a lack of diversity in crime writing. Maxim says that he is privileged to have witnessed an explosion of crime writing by authors of all colours and ethnic backgrounds which has encouraged a new readership in the process. While Vaseem speaks more personally about his journey into publishing and is passionate about literature being a powerful means to change society for the better. Together they have invited authors from a variety of cultural and ethnic backgrounds to contribute, and in reading these stories you can not only travel the globe but also experience new thoughts and feelings. Some of the authors are well known to me, and particular favourites, so I immediately turned to their fabulous tales. That’s the joy of an anthology isn’t it, dipping in and out, returning, sinking in and letting go. Then I explored the stories where I hadn’t yet met the author’s writing. Oh boy, what a reading thrill that was, I will most definitely be keeping an eye out for them in the future. With an assortment of writing styles, locations, times in history, and characters, the plots sizzle and evoke a variety of emotions. The Perfect Crime comes with a massive thumbs up from me and marches straight in to sit as a LoveReading Star Book.

Star Books
Charlie

Charlie

Author: John Biglands Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

“Hello, Charlie,” says Ella, with a smile. “Is it a nice one tonight?”Charlie never talks. Ella stares at his huge, pink eyes. Why isn’t she frightened of Charlie? He does look kind of scary. The yellow horns, curving up from his head like inverted commas, the lines of haphazard teeth. And then there’s his size. Ella has no idea how big Charlie is. He seems to fill the whole room as he looks down at her in the bed. Yes, Charlie should be quite scary. Why isn’t he? Perhaps it’s the fur? Yes, that’s it, she decides. It’s just not possible to be scared of anyone completely covered in green fur.Charlie bends down and lifts Ella from the bed. She nuzzles her face into the soft fur of his chest as he cradles her in his huge arms. She closes her eyes and listens to the slow, heavy thunk of his heart.Tonight it’s a nice one. Ella is at the playground. The swings are super-sized and take her out over the treetops. At one point she falls off and lands face-first, but the ground just bends underneath her like a trampoline and throws her back into the air. This becomes the new game. She bounces higher and higher, the trees shaking as the ground stretches beneath her socks.Docka is there of course. She spots him at the top of one of her bounces. His yellow eyes staring malevolence at her between the trees. But he comes no closer tonight, and she soon forgets about him. She just keeps on bouncing. Then she has an idea. On the next bounce, she holds out her arms and stays floating above the park like a helium balloon. She giggles. She loves the ones where she can fly. Then she sees Charlie galumphing towards her, dragging his hands across the grass like some enormous, green gorilla. Ella sighs. She never gets to fly for long. But it’s impossible to be cross with Charlie. He is, after all, entirely covered in green fur. Sometimes, it isn’t a nice one. Ella can tell from the look in Charlie’s eyes. When he picks her up, he strokes her like a kitten. Sometimes, he even kisses her forehead with his huge, purple lips before he sets her down. That’s when she knows it’s going to be especially bad.Then she’s running through endless, grey hospital wards full of chemical smells and blinding striplights. And, whenever she looks back, there he is, Docka. His mouth a forest of syringe needle teeth, his voice a dull bass note.“It won’t hurt.” That’s all Docka ever says.Slower and slower she runs. Her muscles gradually morphing into useless, gelatinous blobs, until she can no longer move. Then she turns to face those smiling, yellow eyes.“It won’t hurt.” Charlie has a song. There are no words. Just a sweet, humming tune that never seems to begin or end. Sometimes she hears it whilst Docka is still chasing her. It’s not that Charlie ever exactly rescues Ella. There’s no clashing battle between the monsters, nor does he snatch her from Docka’s jaws in the nick of time. She simply finds herself in those monstrous, green arms, weeping into the softness of his chest and listening to his gentle humming. Often, she’s still singing Charlie’s song when she wakes up. Once, she was sure she even heard one of the nurses whistling it on the ward. Today though, something is different. She’s remembering things. Usually, she forgets. But today, as Charlie picks her up from the hospital bed, she can still recall her mum smiling at her and stroking her hair, and her dad wearing his ‘be strong’ face. And she remembers looking at the doctor, just as she went over, and watching the perfect line of his teeth melt into a familiar, needle-sharp smile.Ella buries her face in Charlie’s fur, but something is wrong. She looks out from the security of Charlie’s arms and sees Docka, still grinning at her.Ella flinches, this isn’t right. She’s never seen Docka when she was with Charlie before.“It won’t hurt,” says Docka.She looks up at Charlie and two big, yellow teardrops drop onto her face. They smell of lemon.“Charlie?” she said.He shifts her gently in his arms and sets her down before Docka.“Charlie!” she screams.She feels Charlie’s giant hand stroking her back, and she hears his soft singing. Then he pushes her towards the lines of teeth.“It won’t hurt,” says Docka, opening his jaws. It doesn’t hurt. It reminds Ella of the time she fell into a river on holiday. A shock of cold punches all of the air from her lungs. She curls up into the foetal position and tightens her fists into balls. Then, after a long silence, she opens her eyes.She knows this place. She recognises the persistent beeps from the bedside machines and the too clean smell of the ward. She’s spent many nights here. She shivers as she stands up.In the bed in front of her is a boy, not much younger than Ella, surrounded by tubes and machines. She winces as she sees the way the plastic forces his mouth open, how the needle raises the skin of his arm. She knows how that feels. She wants to rescue him, to pull all those foreign things from his body.She walks over to his bedside. He seems so small. As she reaches her arms underneath his fragile body she pauses, noticing that her arms are covered entirely in orange fur. Then she picks him up, the tubes melting through his body like ghosts. She cradles him in her arms and he opens his eyes.“Hello,” he says, with a smile, “Is it a nice one tonight?”

Hilda

Hilda

Author: Jane Lo Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

All week Eve hoped for the typhoon. She checked her Apple watch religiously, keeping tabs on the cyclone tracker between lessons and sometimes even during them, when her students’ heads were bent over their grammar exercises and compositions. There was a time when Eve would have been sorry to miss a day of work. In those early days of teaching, she really believed she was a good teacher, someone who was making a difference. And maybe she was – the cork board behind her desk was covered with thank-you notes and cards, with Teacher of the Year Awards and the Starbucks coupons that came with them. But when Tom left, a change came over her. It was as if he had taken not only her heart, but her calling, too. Almost overnight, she found she could no longer stand her students: every question they asked grated on her nerves, every misdemeanor felt like a personal attack. She saw her students with fresh, unsympathetic eyes: they were stupid yet entitled, unbearable. She hid her change well, though. Her students didn’t notice that her smiles were now strained, her responses given through gritted teeth. A typhoon was coming, though. There was that, at least. The Hong Kong Observatory said Hilda would be the strongest typhoon of the last fifty years, more destructive than Mangkhut, the tropical cyclone from three years ago which had immobilized Hong Kong for two whole days and worse even than Wanda, which had torn through Hong Kong in 1962 and left over 70,000 homeless in its wake. On Thursday night, the Observatory stated that according to Hilda’s cyclone track, there was 90% certainty that Signal 8 would be hoisted early the next morning. This notification popped up on Eve’s phone as she was marking the first of thirty-two book reports. Breathing out a great sigh of relief, she stuffed the entire stack back into her tote bag. She thought about calling Tom, casually mentioning that tomorrow was going to be a T8 day, and would he like to come over for a drink? But when she imagined herself stammering through a Hello Tom, she could hear his irritated response, perhaps a For God’s sake Eve will you stop calling me. She switched on the television instead. Avengers: Endgame was on. Eve thought Tom looked a bit like Chris Evans. Eve tossed and turned through the night, checking her watch every few minutes, disappointed each time the weather icon still read T1. Sometime in the early hours of the morning, she finally drifted off. When the alarm on her watch woke her at the usual time, 6:15AM, she got up immediately, jamming her feet into her slippers and reaching for her glasses the way she did every morning. Outside, the storm was raging, the heads of the trees tossing violently in the wind, the sky the color of slate. Taking a deep, shuddery breath, she forced herself to look at her watch again. T3, it read. Eve blinked, looked again: it was a 3, she hadn’t misread it the first time. Her hands shook as she kept reading: Typhoon Signal 3 was hoisted at 5:48AM. AM and PM sessions of all kindergartens to be suspended for the day. Primary and secondary school students to proceed with caution to their schools… Eve felt faint. It took longer than usual to get to school, the wind constantly threatening to lift her skirt and turn her umbrella inside out. Upon arrival, she headed straight for the staff washroom and soaked up the rainwater that had collected in her shoes with paper towels. Despite her best efforts, the flats remained damp. They stank and made squelching noises as she trudged up to her homeroom. The usual circus awaited her. Two of the boys were throwing punches in the back; the rest of them were throwing spitballs onto the blackboard. The girls were huddled in the corner, hiding something, probably a mobile phone or an iPad, both expressly forbidden in the student handbook. Eve could see that one of the girls was already in tears. She dropped her bags onto the teacher’s desk and stared out the window, dimly aware that her students were closing on in her with their barrage of requests and demands, but just then she couldn’t hear anything but the howling wind. She would have to call Tom another day.

Johnny Seven

Johnny Seven

Author: Chris Cottom Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

You take your piggy bank to the toyshop and ask for a hammer. You know you have enough: your pocket money for most of 1964, the ten-shilling notes from Christmas, the sixpences for walking next-door’s spaniel. The shopkeeper smashes Piggy and counts your five pounds, his assistant climbs the shiny wooden ladder to the top shelf, and at last it’s yours. Assembled, it’s one yard long and four pounds heavy, your Johnny Seven OMA. One Man Army, seven guns in one.   It’s the cricket term at school and you miss the cut for the second eleven, despite getting this year’s Wisden for your birthday, but you tell everyone you’d rather be the scorer anyway, sitting in the pavilion. You have to make up the scores for a few balls, because you’re too busy deciding where you’d set up the Bipod-Mounted Repeating Rifle of your Johnny Seven. Get it right and you can cover the other side’s every fielder from Square Leg to Backward Point. And both umpires.   You become a prefect, wear long trousers and sit at the Headmaster’s table every lunchtime, eating Spam and semolina as part of a hand-picked cadre of personal bodyguards. You yearn to stow the Automatic Pistol of your Johnny Seven inside your blazer, but the Head is a Quaker and, in a hail of enemy fire, would doubtless elect to go down unprotesting.   You go to Big School and endure double physics and cross-country and so much homework that you’d have been better off a hundred years earlier, forced up a chimney in return for a ladle of gruel. But then you wouldn’t have the Anti-Tank Rocket Launcher of your Johnny Seven to blow up the carriage of your wicked overseer, so you’re probably better off with feet per second per second and pubeless indignity in un-curtained showers.   After Parents’ Evening you decide to try harder with quadratic equations and cosines and tangents and gerunds and subjunctives and talking to girls. You’re hopeful of getting a girlfriend on holiday in Normandy to try some French kissing with. You don’t get one, but you tell Baxter at school in September that you did. All the girls were French and you couldn’t speak a word to them, but you’ll try harder with French vocab now because there’ll be girls there again next year, although Baxter says you should get your parents to try St Tropez where women wear topless swimsuits. There’s no need to tell him that you had plenty of fun this year exploring wartime fortifications and determining where to aim the Anti-Bunker Missile of your Johnny Seven.   You celebrate the sixteenth birthday of your girlfriend Annette snogging on the couch in front of The Generation Game. After the ten-month torment of top-half-only, you risk a fingertip under the top of her tights, and for once she doesn’t snatch it away, maybe because she’s now legally old enough to get married. A week later, Annette finishes with you and starts going out with Kevin McGrath, an acne-scarred Upper Sixth pillock who’s already passed his driving test and even sometimes drives to school in his mother’s Safari Beige Hillman Imp. It’s just begging for an Armour-Piercing Shell from your Johnny Seven.   Girlfriend-less on a wet Saturday, you pay a child’s fare for the bus into town, buy ten Benson & Hedges and a box of Bryant & May from the tobacconist, and shoplift a copy of Men Only from the newsagent. After smoking two cigarettes on the return bus you get off halfway to puke into a litterbin, and start walking the remaining three miles in the rain. You chuck your sodden but unopened compendium of airbrushed lovelies into a hedge just as someone toots you from a Safari Beige Hillman Imp, and Annette waves as she and Kevin speed past. You wish you had the Grenade Launcher from your Johnny Seven. That’d teach the bastard, and of course you’d rescue Annette from the inferno seconds before the Imp explodes, her clothes torn titillatingly into rags which only just protect her modesty.   You take a year out before university and do six months as Assistant Photocopying Officer in a local engineering firm, enabling you to progress from a moped, a Honda 50 in Elephant Grey, to a Ford Anglia, eleven years old and Seafoam Blue. By now, Kevin is flashing around town in a red Triumph Spitfire, open-topped in all weathers, with Annette in a head scarf ever-present in the passenger seat. You Interrail around Europe with Baxter, who you now call Brian, and pick up a brace of braless late-hippy frauleins at Le Gare du Nord who accompany you south for a fortnight’s grape-picking outside Bordeaux. Brian gets the pretty one, but yours lets you do it with her and at last you’re a man. You don’t tell her that it was almost as satisfying as pulling back the lever of the Tommy Gun on your Johnny Seven, pressing its release button and hearing that explosive rat-a-tat-tat. She wouldn’t understand. Because she’s a girl, and also a German.   As you count the days to retirement you get your son Johnny to fetch your Johnny Seven from the attic. As he struggles down the ladder, he tells you that boys don’t play with this sort of thing anymore, they’re not really PC, and his wife would have a blue fit if you so much as showed it to their kids. He checks his phone and says there’s someone on eBay asking eight hundred for a boxed one, collection only, from Clacton. You say you wouldn’t let a child anywhere near a weapon of this calibre, and he can put his phone away because you’re not selling yours, not for eight hundred, not for eight thousand, not now, not ever. You’re planning one last mission, you and your Johnny Seven OMA. On your last day in the office.

Jungle, 1971

Jungle, 1971

Author: Lesley James Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

She stared at the wallpaper for many hours, alone at the dining table, thinking, whilst doing her homework. She imagined snakes traversing it, and thought that would be appropriate. She sometimes contemplated adding them in with her crayons but wisely decided not to. She disliked the wallpaper because it symbolised things she disliked about life here. The wallpaper was a glum grey, mottled, with repeats of exotic flowers deeply etched into it. If you had some particular reason to look at it up-close, you could make out that there were colours. Dots of red, smudged pinks and maybe purple lines had once defined the design. Now it just looked monochrome. Monotone. Monotonous, like the grubby routines of life in the pub. The dirt of many years made your eyes blend it all into mousy shades of drab. There was that poem in school about guttering, choking, drowning; the gas here was grey, beery breath and cigarette smoke. It seeped into everything and would probably drown them all. The wallpaper did have a couple of advantages, however. The first advantage was that it was handy for Art. The Art Teacher was prone to setting random unrelated homeworks after the Monday I’m-Talking-Now lecture about how to use a pencil which rendered Art joyless. And for Homework, your topic is The Dockside/ Factories / The Train/At the Office. Nothing remotely accessible in these topics, as there were few resources to inspire or copy in the pub. No-one was prepared to take her to the library (in fact, it was discouraged because it was too much fuss and what about the fines?) so the wallpaper came in handy. This week’s topic was The Jungle, which was a bit better. A perfect use for the insane flowers on the wallpaper which could be traced with greaseproof paper and a soft pencil, then replicated. Next, the addition of a few of the larger snakes from her imagination. Then draw around the outline of some Swiss Cheese Plant leaves from the dining room, and you had a psychedelic early seventies trip of a jungle. It was going to be an imaginative rendition, full of colour, style and just a hint of threat. The flowers looked noxious. She planned to do Jungle in the lull after Sunday Lunch when whatever fight between her parents had died down, when her father had gone downstairs to the pub TV room to sleep it off, her mother had gone to bed to prepare for a night out at Bingo. With only religious programmes on the telly, she could have the lounge and the big table to herself, in relative peace. But Sunday lunch was a ritual and a flash point so you had to tread carefully. It was a race between her father and mother to see whether he could get drunk first or she could get the lunch on the table. For the child, it was a test of nerve to stay to the end. Otherwise, you didn’t get lunch. It had to be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, every week without fail, because your father won’t eat anything else. The mother perpetuated this myth. She was a slave to his every whim. But the dad never ate much of anything at all because he was too sloshed; he sometimes helped himself to the leftovers, cold out of the fridge, when the pub was dark and silent and lonely and he thought his daughter could not see. This Sunday, her father arrived at the dining table early, because he wanted the Sunday papers back from his child. She was combing The News of the World for new rude words, which was the best part of Sundays. He was drunk, and struggled to speak coherently, but the table was laid, so he sat down.In came the mother carrying plates loaded with Yorkshire puddings. So far, so good. Gravy ladled out. Silent eating and a bit of slurping. Yorkshires first, like they do up North. Then the main event of meat and three veg. At which point it started. The father complained about the food. Something about tepid slop and pigs’ swill. There was some truth in this. The mother annihilated vegetables to the point where the child begged to eat her carrots raw. She turned cauliflower into puree before cauliflower puree was a thing, by boiling it to a pulp. Swedes and carrots were mixed and thoroughly mashed. Marrowfat peas, unidentifiable as individuals, were cooked to grey mush. Fair point dad. And his wife hissed Well you shan’t have any of it then. If you don’t like it, I won’t allow you to eat it, you drunkard, as she ran off to the other side of the room clutching his full plate like a tennis trophy, daring her husband to come at her. He rose from the chair and said You stupid woman. You’re a witch and a bitch. You don’t know how to cook. Bloody cremated beef and baby-food vegetables. And the mother launched the whole plate of food, full force right at him, propelling it like a discus. He ducked. The plate hit the wall with a crack and a squelch. It adhered to the wallpaper just above head height. And slid down, slowly. Meat, peas, cauliflower the lot. Rivulets of gravy led the way. And so, this was the second advantage of the wallpaper: it hid gravy stains very effectively. Jungle got a B minus. The Art teacher’s comment read: Lacks realism.

Love in the Time of Corona

Love in the Time of Corona

Author: Rachel Rees Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

She’s sitting alone in a restaurant slightly more expensive than she can afford but which TripAdvisor assures her makes ‘the tastiest burgers in the city’. Jack loves burgers. His profile picture is a monochrome snap of James Dean eating one. After necking back half a bottle of wine and working up the courage to download Tinder, his decision to use an image of a dead celebrity rather than his real face had seemed witty and strangely profound. Now, sober and exposed, it strikes her as the calling card of a psychopath. A waitress passes by with a bowl of curly fries and her stomach rumbles. She’d prefer a curry, but it’s their first date and - if all goes well - she doesn’t fancy spending the next sixty plus years answering the question “How did you two meet?” with “I watched him sweat his way through a vindaloo, turn a worrying shade of puce and make a desperate dash for the bogs.” In the unlikely event that tonight resembles a fairytale, she’d rather it not be Shrek. Eyes on her phone, she scrolls down her newsfeed, articles on the latest climate crisis, government cock-up and Coronation Street spoilers flashing past. She doesn’t click on any, wouldn’t be able to make sense of them if she did. Her heart’s beating too fast to concentrate on anything other than the digital clock at the top of her screen. 19:09. He’s late. Why did she agree to this? She doesn’t want to meet the love of her life through the internet. She’s watched too many Cary Grant movies to settle for a courtship consisting primarily of fruit-based emojis and sympathetically lit dick pics. She wants romance. Old-fashioned, will-they-won’t-they, Darcy and Elizabeth, Ross and Rachel, Simba and Nala style romance. Is that really too much to ask? Apparently so. In her twenty-eight years of existence, the most thoughtful thing an ex-boyfriend’s ever done for her is walk to the late-night Tesco’s and buy a box of Kleenex when she was battling a head cold. Admittedly, it would have been sweeter if he hadn’t handed them over with a terse “It was either that or suffocate you with a pillow. You sniff like you’re kickstarting a chainsaw with your nostrils.” but beggars couldn’t be choosers. And, when it comes to love, she’s most definitely cash-strapped. A lost cause whose mother has even abandoned the obligatory hurry-up-and-make-me-a-granny schtick. Nowadays, whenever they’re stood behind a loved-up couple at the checkouts or seated beside a pregnant woman on the bus, she’ll just sigh and mutter “I used to have such high hopes.” As if her daughter’s eternal spinsterhood is now all but guaranteed. An unfortunate fact of life to be grudgingly endured, like the menopause or her glasses fogging up every time she opens the oven door. 19:18 He’s very late. Maybe he’s not coming. Maybe he saw her through the window, winced at the extra pounds she’s put on during the pandemic and decided not to bother. Or maybe he was put off by the bad dye job that’s left her with more roots than a Shepherd’s tree (230 feet deep, apparently. Contrary to reports, not every Millennial used furlough to learn Mandarin. Or make a fortune investing in Bitcoin. No. Some whiled away that precious oasis of free time obsessively Googling pointless trivia on their phones at two o’clock in the morning.) “Hello.” She jerks her head up. The man approaching her table is mid-to-late twenties, pale, with hair that’s slightly too long behind the ears and brutally short on top. Not quite James Dean, but no obvious Patrick Bateman vibes either. She’ll take it. He lowers his mask to smile and for a moment she sees their future unfurling in front of her. She’s not asking for anything too outrageous. There’s no surprise proposal at the top of the Eiffel Tower or fancy wedding on some far-flung, crystalline beach. Instead there’s a steady heartbeat beneath her ear when she’s laying on the sofa late at night. A hand squeezing hers as she walks into some dreaded family function. An arm around her waist and a line of heat against her back as she drifts off to sleep. Little things which keep the rising pit of loneliness at bay. “Hello,” she says, grinning up at him. “It’s nice to meet you.” “You too.” She rises to hug him and then wonders if she’s being too forward. “Sorry, it’s been a while since I’ve done this. That’s why I turned to Tinder. I’ve never really bought into the whole ‘tick, tock, better listen to your body clock’ rubbish, but after having eighteen months of our twenties effectively wiped out I’m definitely starting to feel The Fear.” He looks confused. “You know The Fear,” she elaborates. “Like sometimes I’ll be lying in bed, silently cursing whichever raging sadist invented alarm clocks, when it’ll hit me that I’m almost thirty and I’ve got no savings, no partner, no real career plan. Hell, I don’t even think I’ve got hobbies anymore - unless spending an hour scrolling through Netflix trying to decide what to watch before giving up and going to bed counts. It doesn’t, does it?” He shakes his head. “I thought not. So, what do you fancy eating? Not to rush you, but if I don’t order something soon the owner’s going to have me arrested for squatting!” Instead of answering, his gaze drifts down to the empty chair opposite hers. Her stomach sinks. “You came over to see if that seat is free, didn’t you?” “No.” “Oh thank god! For a moment there I was worried you weren’t my date and I’d just made a right tit of myself droning on about my sad little…” “Actually it’s just that our table is out of ketchup. Do you mind if I borrow yours?” “Of course, go right ahead,” she says, slumping back down. 19:27 Her mother is right. She’s definitely dying alone.

Succulent

Succulent

Author: Paul B. Cohen Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

She served him a meal every day. It was part performance, part servility, and it had a rhythm, as if it were a ceremony.Horace would sit at the head of the table. There were three other pinewood chairs; they remained unoccupied. Each place, one should note, had been set beautifully, yet there was no one else to use the cutlery.Horace was a patient man and would wait equably for his food. He sat with a straight back, only leaning forward to pour a glass of claret, like a man of angles. Sipping from his drink, he would stare ahead.Ten minutes would pass and then she would appear. Sometimes Horace fancied a gong had been struck to summon her as if she were a sprite or even a djinn. Sometimes, just before she entered the room, birdsong fluttered into his ears. He didn’t like birds but found the melodies enchanting.“Ah, Lila,” he would say. He liked the aspiration of the two word phrase. He would linger on the vowels.“Good morning, Horace,” Lila would reply, even if it were not morning. In fact, she seldom served him in the morning. It would normally be half-past one when she brought his food.Her meals were bountiful. On oval plates, salmon glistened; lamb chops were succulent, and her potato gnocchi was ethereal. She knew how to cook and present vegetables: green beans were slender, tender; tomatoes were intensely red, and asparagus were luscious green shoots.As he began to eat, Lila would hover, but only for a minute. She would take her leave, returning only to clear Horace’s plate when she knew he had finished.Then she would depart for the day.Horace was seventy-nine. He didn’t know how old Lila was. He was not an observant fellow. If he had only gazed at her, take note of her features, he might have said she was an elegant fifty-year-old. He was not a curious man, either, and he asked no questions of her. Counting traditionally, a year passed. Horace thought about his upcoming eightieth birthday, which fell on February 29th.If he were to mark his birthday, with whom would he celebrate? His wife Sheila was long dead. His son Howard was out of reach: they had not spoken for half a decade. There had been too many spikes of anger in their relationship to hope for reconciliation. Their connection could not find a plateau. They ignored each other.Once there was a neighbour, a Mrs. Johnson, who sometimes called in for a chat. She both smelled of roses and wore dresses with roses printed on the fabric. A religious woman, so Horace thought. She had moved away several years ago. At six-thirty, one evening in January, Horace looked up at Lila. How was it that she appeared younger than he remembered?“Lila, how old are you?” he asked.“I cannot tell,” she replied.Horace was puzzled. What did she mean? Was she saying she could not work out how old she was, or remember her age? Or was she denying the inexorable nature of time?He thought he should ask her again, but he never did. As I say, he was not a curious man. A month later, with his birthday in sight, Horace scrutinised Lila. He could not credit the sight. He was being served by a young woman. There could be no doubt of it. Lila, wearing a silky dress of a shade somewhere between gold and auburn, was surely no more than twenty.“Lila, how long have you been bringing me food?” he asked.“As long as you can remember,” she replied.“I don’t know what you mean,” Horace said.She merely smiled. On his eightieth birthday, Lila brought in a cake.“Happy birthday, Horace,”“But...I never said anything about my birthday,” he spluttered.“You are eighty,” she cooed. “That is a great achievement.”He was puzzled. Was reaching an advanced age actually an achievement?Horace stared at Lila. “Tell me how old you are...You look no more than eighteen.”“It is about how one travels,” she replied.“Some women would say it’s their face creams,” he said, thinking he was being clever.As if she were flirting with him, Lila traced her fingers through her hair. “Face creams?”For once, Horace did not start eating. What was this about travel? “I’m not travelling anywhere,” he said. “Are you?”“We all are. Eat your cake before your journey,” Lila ordered.“Only if you’ll eat it with me,” he said, wanting to drop the topic of travelling. He was amazed at the fact that they were having a conversation. It was unprecedented.“I do not eat the food I serve,” she said.“Just this once. Please...”She lowered herself into an adjacent chair. “Very well. We will eat together before your journey.”Before he took a bite of his cake, he asked, “What is this journey you’re talking about?”“It has many names,” she replied.“Does it? Tell me one,” was his request.Like a fond lover, Lila placed a forkful of her moist, dark, rich cake into his mouth. “Wait and see,” she said. Horace was stiff in his chair when they found him.A peaceful passing, the woman across the street said to the man next door. She folded her arms across her chest. “I wonder who that young girl who left Horace’s house was.”“Did he have grandchildren?” the man next door asked.“I don’t think so.”Down the street, Lila was playing hopscotch, with several other girls.Lila enjoyed the game, enjoyed dodging the cars. She felt that it was a good way to say goodbye to the neighbourhood, before her journey continued.

The Lapse

The Lapse

Author: Denny Jace Format: Ebook Release Date: 01/03/2022

There was an ethereal beauty in the way that the boy’s body flew through the air. His hips lead the way, his shoulders and head thrown backwards, his limbs fluid. His body created a soft arc, like a replay of a tumbling gymnast. Then he hit the tarmac. The thud of raw meat on the butcher’s board. His bottom hit first, then his spine rolled flat. The back of his skull was last. And then, just for good measure, his head shot forwards on his stringy neck, before bashing against the tarmac a second time. ‘Did you find his shoes?’ I ask the police officer sitting opposite me.‘Mrs Cargil, if you could just answer the questions so that we can complete your witness statement. We appreciate how upsetting this is for you, but we do have a lot of people to interview.’I pull at the skin on my fingers as the scene plays out over and over in my mind. I regurgitate the facts to the officers; ‘The boy was crossing the road. He was running. The car hit him. He lay in the road like he was sleeping. And then his Mother came.’Photographic stills, the images flicker, scratching my eye lids. I don’t tell them how the mother crawled on her hands and knees across the tarmac with high shoulder blades like a stalking cheetah. Nor do I mention the howling sounds she made as she reached the boy and covered his body with her own. A human shield in a battle he’d already lost.‘Mrs Cargil, can you recall roughly how fast the vehicle was travelling? Do you think perhaps faster than the 40MPH restriction?’‘I’m not sure.’ I say. Fast enough for the air to snatch off his shoes.‘What about the driver. Could you see if they were distracted? On a mobile phone perhaps?’I remembered the car, sitting skewwhiff and empty. The driver’s door wide open as the engine purred on. The officers will say the car was white. I won’t correct them and say it’s pearl.‘I didn’t see anyone on their phone.’ I tell them as I automatically pat my jacket pockets in search of mine.‘Is the boy okay?’ I ask. The officers don’t answer. I’d watched the paramedics cover him with a blanket and leave him in the road, the need for urgent treatment had passed. They cleared us all away, the witnesses, the bystanders, the rubberneckers. Swept us to the kerb. The Mother stayed in the road, sitting next to her boy, in his blanket. Traffic slowly snaked round her, as she sang to him with one of her hands resting on his chest.There’s a white plastic cup with beige liquid nestled in my hand. It’s warm and I wonder if its tea or coffee. Or soup. It’s from a vending machine somewhere outside of this room, but not Costa because I didn’t manage to get there. Perhaps I should take it to the Mother. If she’s still sat in the road, she’ll be cold now. Tired and thirsty.‘Mrs Cargil, there were headphones found at the scene, the type that fit over your head. We are trying to establish whether the victim was wearing these at the time he entered the road.’They show me a clear plastic bag, which instantly I think is too big for sandwiches. Then I close eyes and remember the small camouflage lunch bag trapped under the front wheels of the car, sprinkled with the glittery shards of splintered glass from the matching flask.The officer slides the bag closer to me. ‘Mrs Cargil, could you look at the headphones please?’Through the plastic I can see them. Bulky and purple with huge, padded ear sections to protect the soft delicate skin of a child’s ears. I wonder what music he was playing before he took them off and wore them like a collar. Did he hear his mother’s voice, the urgency with which she called him? Her body reaching forward. Arms elongated, extending towards her child, yet not even her utter desperation to make him stop, could bridge the millimeter gap between her fingertips and his jacket.‘No,’ I tell the officer, ‘the headphones were around his neck.’I remember his face, how it was flushed from running. His cheeks soft and full, the absence of adolescent edges. He’d paused and so had time. Noise fell away into distant whispers as a strange silky silence descended. And then there was the tiniest suggestion of a smile, one of those that comes with a surprise. It made me smile too, reciprocation. But then I realized that it was fear, sheer panic as he understood what was going to happen. And so did I. Yet we both did nothing.‘How can you be sure the victim had removed the earphones Mrs Cargil?’‘Because they were around his neck when he looked at me.’‘When did he look at you Mrs Cargil?’‘The second before my car hit him.’