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Discover the short listed stories chosen for the LoveReading Very Short Story Award, though they be but small they leave a mighty impression!
The sky is darkening – not in the usual way but with unnatural speed; it brings with it a silence that is disquieting. Ominous.Gulls that had been reeling and squawking off the cliffs have mysteriously disappeared from the sky. Only moments ago, the soaring song of rising larks had accompanied them to the top of the headland; now they are mute; the birds have all gone to ground.Other people – perhaps twenty, maybe as many as twenty-five – have been drawn to this same commanding spot as if by portent or a shared instinct carried in some ancient particle of DNA. Perhaps it’s down to race memory, past generations who once gathered in this same place to bear witness.On the way up, she’d caught snatches of excited conversation – a carnival spirit; now there is only whispering.It is almost upon them. A collective hush descends on the small crowd as if by divine command; faces turn upwards to wait for the spectacle that is about to take place. To her left, the silvery streak on the surface of the sea dims and then finally goes out. Where there had been summer warmth the air is chilly; the fine hairs on her arms stand up in response.‘This is it,’ Kyle says. Reluctantly, she sits down next to him. The dry grass feels rough against her bare legs. She can smell the sheep poo that’s been baked by the sun that is about to all but disappear behind the moon.From his rucksack Kyle pulls out his binoculars and the piece of white card he’d saved from the recycling. He’d already explained to her how this would work, how you only needed to point one of the lenses at the eclipse and an image would beprojected straight through the eyepieces onto the cardboard. The other lens is capped off – it isn’t allowed to watch.In the morning news there had been a sneering feature on the myths that had grown up as a way of explaining such events. A Norse tale blamed wolves for eating the sun. In ancient China it was dragons. Native Americans believed a bear had taken a bite out of it. The ancient Greeks took it more seriously; to them a solar eclipse was a sign the gods were angry; it foretold coming disasters and destruction.Kyle is staring at the image on the cardboard. Seen his way, the coming eclipse resembles a diagram in a textbook. She notices the small red stain in one corner from their takeaway pizza. He’s set the whole thing up in between them so they can watch together.In her head she tells him, you might as well be watching it on television. She’s tempted to say it out loud but that would only spoil the moment for him. ‘‘Remember, don’t look at it directly.’ This was ostensibly meant for her but he’d raised his voice so that it would carry to any foolish person around them who might be about to do so. ‘Just one look and you could go blind,’ he adds for good measure.The darkness intensifies; it’s now impossible to make out the contours of the land or the line where it meets the sky. The colours of the day have all but drained away; the world has entered The Twilight Zone.Some people are staring skywards, sporting glasses that look far too cheap to ward off the destructive powers of two heavenly bodies set on what, from this angle, appears to be a certain collision.‘I think we’re approaching maximum,’ Kyle tells her. His sharp elbow digs into her ribs to make his point. ‘Look,’ he says, ‘or you’ll miss it.’To please him, she glances down at the facsimile he’s created, the scaled down version of this momentous event he appears to be content with. His way is not hers – never was.Drawn back to the heavens but not quite trusting herself, she shuts her eyes and lets the moment take her.By the gradual lightening of the shades of red inside her closed lids, she knows the peak has passed. How strange this slow process of coming back to herself – to the promise of warmth on her skin. She opens her eyes, to watch the old world being reborn. Monochrome is being overlaid with colour. The strange spell broken, birds wake and remember their songs. A distant lamb cries out for its mother.Kyle caps the other lens of the binoculars, folds the blank card roughly in two and stuffs both in his rucksack. Standing up, he says, ‘We should head off before the crush.’She wants to linger, to lie back and find shapes in clouds; to follow the progress of the boat that’s just a speck on the horizon as it moves across the newly sparkling sea.Instead, she brushes the grass from her legs and follows him down the steep hill heading for the point where the narrow path will split in different directions.
When she steps through the door, it is as if she has turned up the volume in my head. As she shakes the rain from her umbrella every song we ever shared floods the space between us:Glam rock.Dubstep.Pet Shop Boys and The Communards.She pushes her way between the tables to my corner and I catch that medley of 90s pop we put together for a joke one New Year. The Spice Girls and Chumbawamba sing her into the plastic chair opposite. Our whole history crescendos on to the sticky table top, shaking the crusted ketchup bottles, rattling the cutlery in its grubby metal canister.She can’t hear anything.We are less than one minute into the five she has allotted me and she is already checking her watch. It’s not the watch I gave her.“I’m here then,” she says, and she still hasn’t looked at me. “What do you want?”Thank God I thought of my lie before I came here. If it wasn’t ready – lined up on the tip of my tongue – I might tell her the truth and then I might cry and then she’ll never believe me when I tell her how fine I am now, how absolutely fine.“I wanted to give you this,” I say, and I slide the cassette across the table, pushing a path through yesterday’s crumbs. “Found it in an old box when I was clearing out the loft.”She knows it for a lie. She knows that in the four years and seven months and sixteen days since she left, this tape hasn’t ever been packed away. And she knows – she can tell by the look of me – that I don’t live anywhere that has a loft, and if I did it would have nothing in it.Her eyes flick from the oily sheen on my coffee to the cassette, but she doesn’t lean closer. She doesn’t read the 29 years of song titles written in her neat capitals and my sloppy scrawl: Kajagoogoo and Culture Club, my life and hers. She would rather watch flies zapping themselves on the electric blue bars in the window than remember how we danced to 1: Wake Me Up Before You Go Go, on the night we first met, or how we used to sing along to 14: La Bamba, on the bus home after closing.She slides the cassette back towards me. “I don’t listen to that stuff anymore,” she says. “I don’t even have a tape player anyway.”Of course she doesn’t. Andrew has probably bought her one of those dock things for her iPhone. Maybe they’ve got an Alexa. He’s probably rigged up a sound system which costs more than six months rent on my room so they can listen to jazz as they cook tagliatelle and sip a little red number that wasn’t even on special offer. She doesn’t need my mix-tape.I waste another 20 of my seconds trying to think of something to say. I want to tell her how it feels to spend four years (and seven months and sixteen days) losing someone piece by piece, song by song, and still feel as if it’s me who is lost. But I don’t have words like that. They won’t come. Not without the tunes to back them up.“I shouldn’t be here,” she says, and she gets to her feet, even though she has only given me three of my minutes. “I don’t know why you asked me. We have nothing to say to each other.”Nothing.But not like we used to say nothing. Not like the nights when we sat listening to 3: Careless Whisper. The nights when our silences were filled with other people’s longings; when her lips fitted mine like a grace note before the melody.And still I can’t say it. Even as she turns away, briefcase clutched to her chest – a talisman between her world and mine – I can’t tell her that I needed to see her because she once saw me complete The Times crossword in eight minutes, and she knows how I take my tea. She knows I exist. I will settle for five awkward minutes with her – even if she no longer dances in the shower to Madonna – because she is the first person I ever loved and the last person who ever gave me a last chance.So, instead, I say, “Sorry.”And perhaps I’m saying it for asking her here – for begging her to meet me for a coffee in this place so far removed from the bars where she buys her skinny cappuccinos on the way to her board meetings. And perhaps I’m saying it for everything that went before – the empty bottles and the empty apologies and the empty promises to change. Neither of us knows.She is already at the door, cassette not in her hand. And that’s something, isn’t it? At least I still have our tape. I follow her out into the street and finally, just as she reaches the door of a cab, I do it. I sing. I stand in the street and I belt out East 17 like it’s Christmas 1994 and she’s discovered the diamond ring I left in her stocking and I’m content with one small glass of wine at dinner and Andrew – bloody Andrew – is 20 years into the future.But maybe it is louder in the street than I realise, because when those forbidden notes collide with the back of her head, they don’t stop her. She doesn’t turn. She doesn’t give me a smile to remember her by. The only thing she leaves behind is fading music pumping from the taxi stereo.And it isn’t a song I know.
They called you the ‘problem child’ while you were still in my womb. ‘You’re carrying a girl, I just know it,’ my ma-in-law sighed, glaring at my distended stomach, her lips disappearing in disapproval. ‘A problem child, already causing you to be ill. You’re falling behind in your chores,’ she grumbled, her few remaining teeth clicking with ire.‘Problem child,’ her cronies, the other village matrons echoed, as they chewed paan and gossip under the mango trees. ‘Definitely a girl, and big with it,’ they twittered, their gleeful malice drowning out the birdsong. ‘No grandson for you,’ they told my ma-in-law, who emitted a put-upon groan. ‘Instead, a problem child.’‘Don’t pay them any heed,’ I whispered to you later that night as your father, snored beside me on the mat, while on the other side of the one-room hut, two arm-lengths and one sari-curtain-divider away, his parents slept.‘You are my golden child.’ I murmured in the susurrating dark, fragranced by night jasmine, punctuated by the drone of crickets, the whirr of mosquitoes, the rustle of nocturnal animals and the howl of neighbourhood dogs.Under my palm, in the waters of my womb, you danced assent.‘Problem child,’ they cursed in dismay when you were born. ‘Dark as foreboding and ugly with it. No hope for this one.’‘My golden child,’ I crooned when we were alone, marvelling at your bronzed radiance, your exquisite perfection. ‘Problem child,’ they said when, as a toddler, you scratched away at the pastes they applied to whiten your skin. It was the exact shade of cinnamon spiced coffee which I thought beautiful but they deemed too dusky for a girl, declaring that it would scare away prospective suitors in the future if something was not done to lighten it. ‘Problem child,’ they said when you ate food from your father’s plate, refusing to wait for your own meagre serving of leftovers, after he, as man, had been served first, the best and choicest morsels. ‘Problem child,’ they said when, in response to their sighs of: ‘With that dark colouring and chubby body, it will be near impossible to find you a suitable husband; you better go on a diet and apply skin lightening pastes’, you retorted, eyes flashing, ‘I will not as I don’t want to get married, ever.’I thought you looked stunning, fiery eyes glowing in a face bright with defiance and I told you so later, when we were alone, my golden child. ‘Problem child,’ they said when you vehemently vetoed their order, disguised as advice, that you give up your school learning to take up housekeeping and sewing classes.‘No man wants an over-educated wife,’ they snapped, angered by your disobedience. ‘You’re a handful as it is. Hai, we dread to think what ideas more studying will put into your already swollen head!’‘I don’t want to get married,’ you reiterated even though you knew they’d never take you seriously, as they just couldn’t fathom any woman desiring a future that didn’t include a husband and children.‘Problem child.’ They called to your retreating back as you flounced away.‘Do what you want to, go where your heart leads you, my golden child,’ I told you later, when we were alone. ‘Problem child,’ they cursed when you left the village to pursue your dreams of higher studies, to realise your ambition of making something of yourself instead of slotting into the too-small life of drudgery and servitude to a censorious husband and in-laws that they deemed right for you. They were shocked that you could want more, you of the dark skin and imperfect body, you mere woman. How dare you entertain ideas above your station, wish for more than your lot? ‘You will come to no good. Problem child.’ I was never a problem child. I did what was expected of me, married the man three times my age that they chose for me, and here I am still, doing their bidding, never a problem, never standing up to them, either on your behalf or mine, only cheering you on in secret, always dutiful, incredibly unhappy and unfulfilled. ‘Golden child,’ they exulted when you returned to the village a success story, the first woman CEO of a world-renowned multinational company. ‘Golden child,’ they sang as they thrust their ‘eligible’ sons at you; your complexion, your body, your many degrees from the best universities, no longer a problem but, all of a sudden, just right for their precious offspring. You looked over them, at me, your face softening as you smiled, your eyes shining with love. And in that moment, they finally saw what I had always known: how beautiful you were, how truly golden. You took me away from that village and my constrained, tiny life there, my golden child. You afforded me the golden future I had never dared dream of for myself, but had always envisioned, hoped and prayed for, for you.
“I need to make a number two pencil,” my son says from the back of our family car, a 1967 VW bug. “What’s that, dear?” I say as I drive him home from school. “I need to make a number two pencil.” “You mean for class?” He’s only just started first grade, and I can’t imagine any of his classes, even art, would force him to take on such a difficult project. “No,” Josh says, “I just need to do it, for myself.” “Okay,” I say. This makes sense. His father fancies himself a woodworker and Josh takes after him, spending the whole weekend following Bill around, helping him with projects. Sometimes I feel like I only see him when I drop him off and pick him up from school. But this time, Josh has told me about his project, and I think this is my chance to bond with him, to spend time together. I just need to plan it out, so I don’t have to ask Bill for help. I don’t want him taking over the thing. This after-school traffic gives me a little time to plan. First, we’ll need wood. I figure Josh would prefer a natural looking pencil to one made from scrap lumber, which Bill has piles of in the garage. I imagine Josh and I going out into the yard, breaking off a small tree branch and cutting it to pencil length. Then I realize it has to be dried wood, not fresh. We’ll have to find a straight stick on the ground—maybe at the park. That’ll be nice. Plus, a thin stick won’t need to be cut. We can just break it off. Avoiding the saw is a good thing. Bill is never conscious of child safety. Once, he had Josh repair an exposed wire on the extension cord with electrical tape, while the cord was still plugged in. “He has to learn about electricity one way or the other,” Bill said later after I yelled at him. “Better than in a lightning storm.” Another time, when they built the doghouse together, Bill had Josh hold the nails while he hammered. “What were you thinking?” I asked him. “Well, he’s not strong enough to wield the hammer,” Bill said, as though he were the paragon of parental judiciousness. It’s my husband who insists on keeping this old VW, repairing and restoring it, though parts can now only be found on antique car websites. It needs so many repairs and he’s always behind on the work. Right now, only one blinker works and there’s a rust hole the size of a dinner plate on the rear floor. I told him that one day Josh is going to fall through it, but Bill just laughed. “Josh knows about the hole,” he said. “He throws nickels into it when we’re on the highway and watches them spark.” That was hardly comforting. All this makes me feel fortunate that I’ll be doing this pencil project with Josh. I wonder where I can buy graphite, then realize I can just take some from the retractable pencils in the office. For the hole, I figure I’ll have to use a drill, which I’m sure I can figure out, though I wonder if Bill has a drill bit long enough for a pencil. I decide I’ll just have to drill from both ends and hope the holes meet. Maybe we’ll pick up a few sticks at the park, in case the first couple don’t work out. Of course, I’ll do the drilling, and only let Josh watch, if he wears goggles. Yes, I think, this is coming along. All that’s left to figure out is how to get the lead in the hole without it breaking. I wait at a red light, puzzled. It suddenly seems miraculous, how a simple pencil is put together. No wonder Josh wants to make one! When the light turns green, it comes to me, the perfect solution: I’ll drill the hole slightly bigger than the lead, then fill the hole with glue. The glue will help the lead slide in, and when it dries, it‘ll keep the lead in place. I smile, feeling rather proud of myself. Perhaps I’ll start repairing things around the house myself. And Josh will become my assistant. We’re just a few blocks from our house when I tell Josh, “I have it all figured out.” When he says nothing in response, I glance in the rearview mirror and see he’s no longer in his child’s seat. The hole! I think. He’s fallen through the fucking hole! I whip my head around to look for any remnants of my son, and there he is on the floor, squatting over the rust hole with his pants down. “What the hell are you doing?” I say, stopping the car. “I’m making a number two, like I told you,” Josh says. “Pencil,” I yell. “You said pencil!” “Yah, that’s what Dad calls it,” Josh says, “‘number two pencil.’” He smiles as he poops effortlessly through the hole in the floor. “Stop,” I yell. “You can’t do that in the car!” “Dad lets me do it all the time,” Josh says. I shake my head, understanding now that I’ve lost him completely to Bill.
When I was a girl there were four maidens’ garlands hanging from the church rafters. Now I am grown there are five. The fifth is the prettiest, of course. On the silk gloves tied to the middle her name is stitched. Elizabeth Longshaw, aged 22, August 17th, 1823. When I bow my head in prayer I feel the fingers point at me. I did not want to help make her garland. I wept and protested my grief was too much. But my mother insisted. ‘It is the duty of the village,’ she said, her eyes wet with tears. ‘We will honour her memory as we have always done with those maidens who die afore they are wed. A bridal bouquet cannot be hers; this garland takes its place.’ So my trembling fingers helped bend the wire into shape and fasten the paper ribbons and flowers to the frame. I was careful not to cut my fingers on the sharp edges. We could not have blood on our hands for it would stain the purity of the wreath. Sometimes a dog barks in the churchyard and I am forced to remember how it happened. Our screams had set all the dogs of the village barking that day. As Elizabeth’s head slipped under the foaming waters, the sun had slipped behind a cloud and the summer of my youth was over. The master had been the first to arrive at the river. He tore into the water in his riding boots and fine jacket, while women with flour-whitened arms clattered from their kitchens, all driven by fear that it was their child. Elizabeth’s mother was amongst them. When she saw us girls, waist-deep in the river, our hands thrashing the surface, she ran in, her skirts ballooning around her. At each call of her daughter’s name her body lurched as if pierced by arrows.Elizabeth. The girl who stole men’s hearts with the blue eyes of a kitten and the voice of a bird, gentle and sweet. The girl who loved to laugh and sing, lifting the hearts of all those around her. She was everyone’s darling, but loved by one man more than the others, and more than was right. We knew she stole to his bed in the middle of the night, saw the looks they gave each other when they passed on the lane. She did not warm our hearts with the tenderness of her smile. It did not take long for the body to rise to the surface downstream. The beautiful ivory face drifted through the water, willow fronds caught in her golden locks. The master bent to lift her, and as he walked back over the bridge to the church, his face was set to match the stillness of the body. But as he laid Elizabeth gently on the stone floor of the church, there was pain in his eyes. When the priest came running to join him at the altar he turned away to hide his tears, and we knew. In Elizabeth’s lifeless body were his hopes and dreams of a love that would never be celebrated with fiddles and dancing. And our faces, too, showed sorrow at losing our friend. We told them then, in the church, of how it had happened. We four girls had set out with Elizabeth that bright August morning for our picnic. The lanes were full of the scent of honeysuckle, a summer blue sky untroubled by clouds. Our laughter rang out in the valley as we skipped to the meadow, singing of lovers true. We were as free as birds, our arms unburdened by work, our legs lightened by the promise of a summer’s day that belonged to us alone. Elizabeth wore a pretty new red ribbon in her hair and we teased her about it. Anna merrily swung the basket that held the bread and cheese and the white linen cloth. When we reached the riverbank we unfolded the cloth and cast it into the air before letting it drift to the ground. When our stomachs were full we lay back, our faces warm in the heat of that day. The cool water beckoned us when the sun was at its highest. Slipping off our stockings, we splashed into the icy water, squealing in the coldness, the pebbles slippery beneath our toes. Emily glimpsed a trout, and we all hastened to see the mottled brown back weaving through the river. As we leaned closer to the water, something stirred. It was not the trout but the water itself that moved. It stirred up stones from the riverbed and tossed them around in tiny circles. As the circles grew bigger our legs could no longer be seen in the frothy spume. Our bodies were pulled into the torrent, an invisible hand dragging us below. We fought our way through the raging waters until we reached the riverbank, then lay, hearts pounding, amongst the reeds. And still we heard the roar of the whirlpool that, we said, had taken Elizabeth. At eventide that same day we four friends carried the garland behind her coffin,and, after her body was placed in the earth, we raised it to the rafters in the church. Then, heads bowed, our hands came together in a circle of friendship. And we thought of when our hands last came together. Upon the head of Elizabeth as we held her beneath the water until she struggled no more. The paper flowers are brittle now, the gloves greyed with candle soot of many years. I think they are as cages for pretty little birds, these garlands. Cages from which the hearts of those lost too soon have flown. And when the fingers point me out, I tell myself that Elizabeth, with the voice of a songbird that tempted the one she should not have, was only set free by us.
‘There’s a radio in the kitchen. Bush. Looks new,’ said the shorter man. The taller man nodded and Terry understood what that meant. He shouted,‘You can’t!’But the two men ignored him.It hadn’t taken them long to look round the maisonette and Terry felt both scared and guilty. Scared because these two men wore grey suits and carried clipboards and though the suits were old and the cuffs frayed, still they were suits. He was only twelve but knew it was not a good thing when two men in suits knocked on the door. And the guilt he felt was for letting them in.Terry ran into the kitchen. His mother sat at the small table, drawing on her cigarette, picking at the cracked Formica table top.‘Mum?’She looked over to the radio. Dusty Springfield was singing You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me. ‘What else is there?’ she said then sang along in a whisper with Dusty.‘Do you know where dad is?’ Terry asked.She forced a smile and gently raised a hand to cradle his face.Terry understood. He hadn’t seen his father for weeks.One of the men called to her, ‘No telly?’She shrugged.Terry went back to the men. ‘Oven?’‘Worthless. Maybe if it was clean but …’‘We have a set of best china,’ Terry tried.‘A full set? Nothing missing?’Terry looked to his mother who shook her head.The other man tapped a pen against his clipboard. ‘Jewellery?’Terry’s mother nodded towards the bedroom. There was a small box covered in torn pink satin on the bedside table. Terry brought it. The taller man opened it. A tiny ballerina jerked upright and turned as it played a staccato and metallic version of Tulips From Amsterdam.‘Junk,’ said the man, sifting through the brooches and bracelets. ‘What about a wedding ring?’‘Pawned,’ whispered Terry’s mother.The taller man sighed. He looked to the shorter man who shook his head. ‘The Bush might cover a quarter of it.’Terry watched the looks pass between them. They didn’t want to be here. They didn’t want to do this. But they had grey suits, clipboards and a court order, whatever that was. ‘No. Please.’ He stood in the kitchen doorway, trying to fill the frame. ‘She needs it. It’s all she has.’‘Terry,’ his mother called softly, ‘it’ll be all right.’No one believed her. One of the men moved into the kitchen.‘Wait,’ said Terry, ‘The Captain will know what to do.’‘Don’t,’ said his mother but he was already gone. He ran round the side of the house and up the stairs to the maisonette above. He rapped furiously at the front door, peering through the opaque glass, calling, ‘Captain, Captain!’‘Terence?’ The Captain asked softly, but not quietly, as he opened the door. The Captain’s left sleeve dangled empty and useless. Though it was no surprise Terry’s eye was drawn to it.‘Captain, some men are here. Mum doesn’t know what to do, they’ll listen to you. Please, come.’‘What men? Why …’ but the fear in Terry’s eyes was reason enough for The Captain. He took a jacket from the peg in the hall. It was awkward to dress with only one arm but he had a method. Terry waited at the bottom of the stairs then led the way through his own front door.His mother was still at the kitchen table, silently tearful. The two men were at the sink, discussing the radio that now played Sunny Afternoon. They stopped talking on seeing The Captain. His left jacket sleeve was folded sharply and the cuff pinned neatly to the breast pocket. The missing arm held their attention.Terry’s mother looked up as The Captain came in. He was not a big man but held himself tall and straight.‘Gilda?’ he asked.Terry’s mother forced a smile and drew on her cigarette.The shorter man stood to his full height and passed a paper to The Captain, who smiled easily, putting the man back at ease without a word. The Captain read the paper carefully. One of the men started to speak but The Captain hushed him with a gesture that was neither arrogant nor aggressive.‘I understand,’ said The Captain. ‘Gilda, where’s Archie?’‘Dad’s not been around for days.’ Terry answered for his mother.The taller man in the suit coughed. ‘We need to take something.’The Captain looked around but came back to the radio as Cilla Black sang the opening line to Alfie. Gilda smiled; a smile not of happiness but of ironic acceptance.‘The radio,’ said The Captain.The man in the grey suit nodded.‘But she needs it. Without it …’ Terry’s voice faded.The Captain understood. He had moved in upstairs last year. He heard the radio every day. Every day he heard. More importantly, he heard the sweet, heartfelt voice that sang along. He heard Gilda singing.At first the radio had been a disturbance, especially late at night. But the more he’d heard Gilda sing the more he’d understood.He looked back at the court paper before returning it, saying, ‘The radio is mine. I bought it last week. I’ve just come down to pay the balance.’ He tugged his wallet from a back pocket and put two five pound notes on the table in front of Gilda.Gilda’s eyes watered as she passed the money to the men in suits.‘Expensive radio,’ said the taller man.The Captain stared at the man who looked away and started to write the receipt. The Captain smiled at Terry and gently instructed, ‘Best make your mother a cup of tea,’ before touching her lightly on the shoulder and turning to leave. He was half way down the hall when the suited man called,‘Aren’t you going to take your radio?’The Captain turned. ‘It sounds much, much better down here.’
"I feel like we've seen all of this a thousand times," Shelley said. "You know, in the movies."The others all nodded or murmured agreement. They weren't just being polite. Countless movies featured a lovely woman— in this case, Shelley's sister Becca— lying motionless in a hospital bed, while her loved ones kept watch, waiting, and hoping, for her to wake from her coma.Just like in those sentimental movies, they had brought flowers, pictures, and gifts. Just like in the movies, they sat with their sister, aunt, daughter, reading to her and telling stories about their past, their voices a bit louder than normal to cut through the sound of the ventilator and occasional electronic beep. However, what happened next was not part of any movie they'd seen.The family smelled Murray before they saw him: he arrived on a cloud of General Tso's chicken and egg roll, complete with a hint of grease."Hi everyone!"The family murmured their greetings, their surface politeness barely disguising resentment. Rebecca and Murray had only been dating for a few weeks when she got in the accident, and they all felt he was overstepping by acting like Becca's boyfriend. And they knew they all felt that way, because they discussed Murray every time he left. Which never happened soon enough.His eyes flicked around the room, taking in the fact that there was no table or shelf space left anywhere, and only the one empty chair. He unbagged the food, flattened the paper bag on the remaining chair as an impromptu tablecloth, and flattened his butt on the floor."Well I never," Debbie muttered. Then, more loudly, she added, "Did you bring enough to share?""Not for you," Murray said. He ducked his chin at his lap. "Becca calls this sitting 'criss cross apple sauce'.""We know," Rebecca's mother said. "We taught her that."Murray bobbed his chin twice more, then turned his attention to the takeout containers. The ginger and chili powder smell grew stronger. While Murray was saucing up the egg roll, Debbie launched another salvo, the (barely) subtext of which was, you don't belong here. "Didn't your mother teach you it isn't polite to eat in front of people?"Murray chopsticked a bite, and chewed methodically before answering. "She sure did, but begging your pardon, ma'am, but this isn't about you. Or me.""Well I never," Debbie said more openly.This time Murray didn't pretend not to hear. "And that's okay. Again, this isn't about you. Or me. This is about her."He poked some General Tso's toward Becca's still form, then popped it in his mouth. While he was chewing, he did something strange. He took the hot mustard packet and squeezed a little on his shirt.When his mouth was empty again, he started talking."Our first date was a set-up. We both had friends in relationships who were tired of us being third wheels, and thought we might make a good couple. Or at least, give them a break."Murray stretched his mouth wide, an intentional yawn, and tongued a little cabbage to a place where he could chew it. Once done, he started speaking again. "They were so right that I feel like I should be sacrificing small animals to them."He shook his head, then looked out the window and into the past. As he did, a small smile lit his face. "Dave and Shari, and Carol and Tegan, all knew we both liked Chinese food, so they made reservations for us at Bamboo Palace, over on 11th. She was already there, so when I stepped around the bamboo screen at the cash register, bam! There she was."He looked at Rebecca. "I was so…overwhelmed, I ran into a highchair. I think I was bleeding by the time I got to the table where she was sitting, and I think she knew it."His hand found his folded knee and rubbed it absently. "Anyway, we ordered a bunch of dishes to share. She liked oyster sauce, I didn't, so she ate some things, I ate others. But we shared the General Tso's and the egg rolls. I was reaching for the hot mustard with one hand when my other hand touched hers. The jolt moved through my whole body, and the hot mustard went…"He gestured at the intentional spill on his shirt."She saw the spill— I mean, who could miss it?— and smirked a little.""She does have a good smirk," Shelley said. "Almost a sneer.""Almost," Murray said, bobbing his chin. "But not quite. Anyway, for some reason the fact that she was amused calmed me down. We had a good rest of the first date, and at the end…"He raised another piece of the General Tso's, and bit it. He chewed and chewed, as if he were stalling for time. Then he swallowed, quickly and dramatically. And stood up. He walked around the nearest machine as if it were a much larger table, and leaned in to kiss Becca, twice, slowly and gently.When he was done, he lingered, but closed his eyes. "I know we haven't been together that long, but I— I love her. And you guys have the stories and the blankets covered, so I thought I'd try to reach her with smell. The smell of our first date. The smell of our first kiss. The smell of our mingled breath."By this time, tears were leaking from the corners of his closed eyes."Oh my…" one of the women said."Hey Murray," Shelley said. "You're gonna want to open your eyes."When he did, Murray saw the faintest smear of General Tso's sauce on Becca's face. And the faintest trace of a smile. The first, faint, response to anything Becca had given since the accident."And Murray," Shelley said. "You're gonna want to come back tomorrow."Murray couldn't speak. He just stood there nodding and crying, surrounded by the smell of General Tso's. And hope.
Drip, drip. Somewhere, water is creeping in, causing damage and decay. It’s dark. She’s standing, feet tight together, unsteady, unable to plant them firmly apart. Something unforgiving is binding her above the ankles, cutting into her numb calves. From the familiar drip, and the penetrating cold of the gritty stone floor, she knows she’s underground, in the back cellar. This ramshackle house was a project that never got off the ground; delayed by kids, work, money problems, everything else… The old place has two cellars, back and front. Each has its own lockable door. The front cellar stores books, pages warped from the damp, forgotten objects still wrapped in newspaper since moving day. It doubles as a makeshift laundry room, stacked with dirty clothes and bedding and a high-mileage washing machine. She knows she’s in the back cellar. She senses the sileage smell of the mower. The lawn now too wild to cut, the weather too wet. Tang of gas from the rusty clanking boiler. Fusty mildew on neglected camping equipment. Her hands are free at least. She tentatively reaches out and her fingers brush the rough wall and come away coated in unidentified residue. She takes a deep breath to counteract the clinging cold and fortify herself. Her chest is tight. She needs light. What time is it? It’s impossible to know if its day or night. Usually so many tasks, constantly checking the time, running late. She guesses the door is locked. The light switch is outside of the door. She’s trapped. Think. She remembers an old torch hangs on a hook on the door, amongst shopping bags stuffed into more shopping bags. If she twists her hips and shuffles her feet she can move, inch by inch. The dirt creeps between her toes. The bindings dig in. Something brushes her bare arm and she swipes at it, shuddering. A sound, she freezes and listens, alert to the slightest movement. Is anybody stirring above? Silence again. She reaches the door. Her fears are confirmed; locked tight. She gropes among the bags and locates the torch hanging by its cord. She yanks it free and holds her breath as she switches it on. Dim light, a small victory. She pulls air into her constricted chest, then breathes out deliberately slowly, like she’s riding contractions during labour. Stay calm. Scan the room. At the other end, how can she have forgotten? The coal- hole. Her escape route. Coal used to be dropped down from the yard, to heat the place. No cosy fires now, the chimneys only good for winter drafts, and dead birds. The hole is at hip height. Wooden boards are fixed across the entry. She can surely clamber up and out. The hole emerges into the enclosed yard, where it’s covered by a thick mossy flagstone. Does she have strength to push it aside? She stumbles as she hears voices, somebody moving around. The torch is dying. She’s moving, but paranoid she’s headed in the wrong direction. She’s at the hole. She reaches out, claws both hands around the edge of the loosest board, pulling hard. It easily wrenches free, surprising her and throwing her off balance. It’s rotten and weightless. She prises the others. As they come away, a smell pervades, a pungent familiar smell she can’t quite identify. There are noises like heavy breathing, or grunting. She peers up the shaft and makes out chinks of grey light around the slab. Is it dawn? With her legs bound, it will take all her upper body strength to get up into the hole. There’s a moment, as she’s turned off the torch, when she hesitates. Can she face what’s waiting for her out there? Is it easier to just stay down here and never come out? She focusses on the light. She can hear the pounding rain and feel cold air. She reaches up ahead of her for grips. Fingernails raw from pulling at the boards, she finds handholds between the uneven stones, and drags her knees up towards to her belly. Somehow (how?) she’s wedged sideways in the shaft now, in a sitting position, back against one side, feet pushed against the other, black with the remnants of old coal dust. She can reach up her arms and touch the flagstone. She’s able to push it upwards. It protests with a grating and scraping, but she can shove it aside, like she’s emerging from underneath a gravestone. Suddenly she opens her eyes, confused. Her body is stiff and she can move only her head. She’s in her bed. Above her the familiar spreading stain on the ceiling from the leaking roof. Chase up the roofer, get a cheaper quote. She can hear the rain thrumming on the old cracked window and the draft seeping in. Need to get a new window, the weather’s getting colder, how to pay for it? This black mould is no good for her allergies, her chest is tight. Her alarm says 6am. She turns it off before it sounds. She tries to move her legs and realises the dog is firmly wedged on top of them, leaving only her icy feet exposed, his tail is brushing her arm. He’ll need walking, in this rain. She looks left and the little body of an imposter, her youngest, is wedged between her and her snoring partner. With dismay she begins to sense the clinging of a wet sheet and the pervading smell of the child’s pee. More laundry. She can hear the older ones arguing in their attic room above. Is there anything for breakfast? She needs to shop. She’s on early shifts at work. She sighs, remembering her partner is travelling for work and will be gone all week. For a moment before she fumbles for the lamp, kicks off the dog, she hesitates. Can she face what’s waiting for her out there? Is it easier to just stay down here and never come out?
The mannequins in the shop window are sitting down for tea. One wears a rabbit’s head and dangles a pocket watch from her rigid fingers. The other wears a huge top hat, pulled down over a wig of orange curls, that bounce around a yellow bow tie.The table’s laid with second-hand crockery, cake stands and plastic flowers in makeshift vases; a clumsy attempt at the ‘Wonderland’ scene. Tiny aerosols, propelled from drafty corners, explode through the air then waft down onto Alice’s empty chair.In the back room of the Fancy Dress Emporium, Alberto hums a tune. His long, fine fingers carefully unwrap a parcel. It had arrived first thing, ‘special delivery’, but he’d waited for the lull, before opening it. He wanted to savour the moment, the unveiling of his precious Alice, the star of the show, his leading lady.He carefully pulled back the plastic bubble wrap. Such an intimate moment, his heart hammered, shortening his breath, his fingers fumbled. The shade of her polyvinyl body was authentic; her curves gentle and feminine. He lifted her from the wrapping; she was awkward in his arms, light and hollow. Closing his eyes, he imagined the weight of tissue and bones and the warmth of a beating heart.‘Now, let’s get you dressed Miss Alice’. He blushed at her nakedness as he laid her on the workbench. The painted arcs of her eyebrows looked high and defined; her left eyelid had clamped itself shut, but the right, a dazzling midnight-blue orb, stayed wide open and fixed on him. His hand hovered over her golden nylon hair; shoulder length - he’d been specific about that, seeing in his mind’s eye the length, in a bob, smoothed down under a blue headband. She was just as he’d imagined, absolutely perfect. Her dress had arrived last week, it would fit her a treat. He felt a small contraction in his stomach and then a stinging sensation in his nose and eyes. A wave of emotion, pride perhaps, rinsing through him. The jingling of the shop bell shattered his reverie and signalled the arrival of a customer.‘Two minutes.’ he shouted.He gently moved Alice away from the edge of the workbench. As he smoothed down a wayward chunk of synthetic hair, his finger caught on a sharp seam on her neck. He bent down to look closer, breathing in her chemical scent. He slid his spectacles from his forehead down onto his nose to enhance his vision. There was a tiny opening just below her left ear. A fault. She’d not been moulded together correctly. He jerked backwards, his hands retracting to the safety of his arm pits. Alice was defective, sullied. He grimaced and wiped his palms down his trouser legs to remove the unpleasantness of it all.Alberto loathed incompetence. He lived alone; ran his business alone to avoid exactly that. Now irritation was scorching the inside of his chest; melting pleura into acid that dripped into his stomach to feed his greedy duodenum ulcer.He’d have to send her back. But what about the shop’s display? The others were waiting in the window, their tea going cold. He could feel panic rising, his skin itched, like freshly cut shards of hair sprinkled under his shirt.Then a voice called out, ‘Shop. Anyone there?’‘I’m coming’ He shouted, his voice sharper than he’d intended.What to do with Alice? He couldn’t bear to look at her, she’d become more gruesome with each second that passed. He threw an old dust sheet over her, ensuring her face was covered like a ghastly corpse; then he trudged out of the back room and into the shop; the weight of disappointment stitched like lead into his pockets. Alberto watched the customer as she perused the rails of outfits. Her shoulders tensed as she considered pirates, princess’s, Batman; then paused to hold aloft a Naughty Nun, before sighing and moving on. She was average height and build, graced with inconsequential features, but Alberto’s eyes lingered on her hair, which, was fair and poker straight. He could hear the mannequins whispering their impatience, he knew they had noticed too.He cleared his throat then asked, ‘What about Alice in Wonderland?’ The words leapt from his tongue, and hope hovered like a hungry kestrel.The woman paused, for too long. Alberto wished he could swallow back the words. But then she began to unbutton her coat and said, ‘Okay, that might work.’‘I’ll fetch the costume, it’s in the back.’ His voice was high, anticipation raised the octaves. He chanced a glance at the window display. The Mad Hatter winked at him. He walked towards the door, double bolted it and, with clammy eager hands, turns the sign to ‘Closed.’The customer, unnerved by the sound, swivelled to face him. Her long blonde hair was tied back in a low plait. It swished like a horse’s tail, batting flies from around her waist.Alberto paused, now where did he put his scissors?