Beneath the Hawthorn | Alastair Brady

It was spring when I first laid eyes upon him in that way, this particular way, his oat blonde hair glowing in the sun like honey swept back in a neat wave, trimmed tightly down the gentle slope of his strong neck until it reached the crisp white of his collar. Those deep russet eyes, lowered at their outer corners, flicking between soft faces and lacy dresses; his pearly smile, those delicately carved features of David unbound by stone, had the village girls swarming like hopping finches.

I had seen James Everleigh like one sees a ghost since I was a boy, from the dusky framed window of the bakery at the centre of our village as he passed by. It was as though he was the subject of a painting I could only enter in my most fantastical dreams, subdued in waking life to mere observance. Some days looking up from the dough my father gave me, I half expected to see him clothed in white crowned with a halo, followed by some vast feathered wings, floating across the cobblestones in my windowed work of art. And all the while, I was begging for this portrait of a young man to step forth into my realm; perhaps if I was lucky, I would be offered a chance to be allowed inside the recesses of that frame which had trapped him for so long, to see him in the flesh.

And that lovely spring day was the first time I saw him outside the captivity of his own canvas. The lush sage walls around us, towering oaks speckling light upon the grass, blushes of peonies and hollyhocks, ivory washed tents and trays of silver, tiny china cups and dainty cakes, alabaster suits and stark white gloves: at long last, his painting had consumed me, made me a part of it. And from the moment his eyes locked with mine across the Earl’s garden, my life unfolded into an enchanting, dreamlike haze.

He perfumed the air with the fragrant scent of roses as though he carried some hidden bouquet; the raw freshness of an entire garden somehow embedded itself into his skin. And it was roses all the same which soon guarded us as we sat for hours amid the leafy sanctuary on a fountain, whose lily-padded water rippled in crisp rings while dappled sunbeams sprinkled us with bronze. His gentle voice was warm as day, tender and smiling, quite apart from the ostentatious prattling far beyond the foliage.

It was here when we fell in love.

Like the painter enraptured by the divine subject of his canvas, I fell deep into the depths of his eyes; swept away in the brush strokes of his hair; the earthly, delicate March palette that was James Everleigh. Feathery touches across my fingers linger still, the tap of his knee ebbing at my own, the way our heads drew closer as we laughed until I could feel the soft wisps of his locks brush mine. Steadily we grew quiet, allowing a silence to settle between us like that of a petal floating down.

My lashes fell by the gentle puff of warmth against my cheek; the last thing captured before that moment was nothing but the profound brilliance of a young man and the glow of his enamored face surrounded by a garden which remains to me so vast and enigmatic, I could only think to close my eyes to feel what I simply could not describe. There, far from the village party, I felt the tranquil lips of James Everleigh against mine. And never again was I to forget them.

*

Days later, I learned the flowery scent anchored to his clothes pursued him from the flower shop at which he was employed. I visited him there, and James came to visit me, quite to my mystified wonder as he deviated from his usual window-framed path and entered the bakery. I felt a sense of privilege to be in his midst. Soon, it was just about every day.

We would often take long walks down the rivering white road, columned with trees woven above our heads to the lake not far from the village. Cascading each other in magnificent splashes of water radiant against the summer sun, we would swim for hours in the water within the arborary refuge, between the banks overflowing with green, the canopies teeming with birdsong. With the water gently lapping at our smooth, glistening chests with so little space between us, our curious hands would explore the other’s skin as if in the dark, breath wavering, captivated by the sheer presence of one another. And presiding above this haven was a tremendous hawthorn, under whose braided trunk James and I sat against, gazing up at the great, verdant branches meandering towards the sky. Here, I would nestle myself under his arm so he could lay kisses to my cheek. Other times we read aloud from books, imagining what it would be like to have a place of our own; even once or twice I wove him a crown of the fresh white blossoms.

This tree became a place of solace for us both, far away from the inescapable confines of provincial society, blind to the threats of ignominy. Here nature forced no such commandments, asked nothing of us, provided shelter from the outside world with God the only witness to my worship of the saint whom I deemed most worthy of my devotion. From the leaves drawn in light, to the dimples in the soft white fabric of James’s shirt, nature itself was magnified the way I picture it would appear before one dies; this amplification to all the details of existence.

Sometimes, I would say, “James, what will happen? As we grow old, how shall we live? Will I be forced to leave you?” for the thought worried me greatly.

And James would always say, “This world brought us together, and it shall not tear us apart. But if it does, I promise I will follow you and in every life, I will love you, again and again, until the world will let me call you mine.” And he would place a kiss upon my temple, the roses instilled within his skin intoxicating me, subduing all uncertainty.

Then the war came.

*

I remember the world fragmented piece by piece, falling away like brittle and rusted leaves. I felt I clung to James harder then, while slate grey suits turned to rough khaki wool as the beast of war lured young men marked by tall tales to its claws; flashy scales and hell-red eyes, an inferno erupting seven levels down. Flags flapped on every corner, paste stuck the horrid words to every stone and day by day, we watched them all march blind away. James and I vowed at our hawthorn never to join, my slender form encircled by his embrace shrouded by the old tree, vainly hoping nature might keep the beast at bay

It did not.

*

That November, we were whisked away in carriages packed full of village boys barely outside their schools or their mother’s arms, faces deepened from laughter as incessant as the engine roaring down the tracks. Under a bag I held James’s hand, the passengers all too careless to see as I watched our village shrink further and further behind me.

Then came the camp, the sergeants so severe, driving their lessons deep within our brains, screaming on while the bayonets plunged deep within the burlap, the stultifying marches wearing down the soles of my cumbersome army boots. Our bodies ached each night they grew stronger and leaner. Even the hand of James with which my fingers were intertwined, bridged across the space between our beds at night, felt calloused and rough. And though his body grew hard and sinewy, his mild eyes persisted in their compassion. One could always recognise the kindness still laden in his smile no matter how much of that ardent youth was stripped from us during those habitual, dreary days.

It wasn’t long until those jagged pewter waves embossed with foam thrashed against the sides of the vessel slicing through the sea, England now a distant memory lost somewhere in the phantasmal fog beyond the rails.

And despite knowing of our destination – James was so beautiful then –  the way his hair whipped errantly about his face turned towards the bow, the iron sky billowing behind his finely traced, fair silhouette.

As the water gave way to sand, the land dipped to drab fields and tiny stone cottages peppered across the countryside. James and I rocked and swayed with the other boys venturing down the uneven road in the back of the ragged little military motorcar on our way to a camp not far behind the frontlines. It was there when I saw for the first time the devastation ravaging the landscape, torn asunder from the craters impaled into the flesh of the earth, the trees like spindly, black veins jutting up through the mud devoid of all life; my stomach became twisted as another portion of my reality, painted in the works of James and our time in the village in a dizzy spell of green and burning white, succumbed to disillusion. It felt as though my nightmares had bled from my mind, having crept along the barren terrain and consumed all in its path.

No amount of our singing and comradery could account for the horror we could feel rising like the tide, growing closer each night. Not even the bare, knotted tree James and I found ourselves under from time to time could offer the same sort of security as our mighty hawthorn skirting the edge of the corrugated lake, its naked arms powerless to the rain which would pour down upon us. In a feverish yet sweet attempt to recompose familiarity, James and I wrote each other letters which we read aloud to the boys sometimes, saying they were from girls back home. Those nights were always enjoyable around the fire, the men hooting and whistling after we finished, telling us how lucky those girls were to have us.

How different would it be, we wondered, holding each other’s gaze through the whipping flames, if they knew the writers of such things sat across from one another? How happy for us would they be then?

Suddenly, a rhythmic stampede of feet. A long streak of khaki, dotted by ashen, metal olive. To the ears of birds there came songs never heard in this part of nature, untouched by the hands of man and were now echoing down the sombre road like the melody of ghosts.

Oh how my memory muddied like the maze of trenches we lined, backs to the sludgy walls, James’s clammy hand gripping mine all out in the open, bits of dirt already freckled on his cheeks, his pitch brown eyes boring into my own. He said not a word, but I could tell what he was thinking for he squeezed my hand once, then twice. I clenched my jaw, spit becoming thick, my throat made tight as if by a stone. Our helmets softly pinged together in these few beats of stillness.

Then came the solitary whistle, piercing the air with a fearsome shrillness. And in one swift movement, we were clambering up the ladders to the hellacious sounds of rapping guns scything down our lines, the singing shells bulleting through the air and striking down against the black earth in monstrous blows of fiery smoke.

But my ears rang terribly as if I were underwater, drowning in soil and the grey, heavy fumes lurking along the desolate stretch of mud. With my weapon raised, I found nowhere to shoot, the strange fog having engulfed the battlefield and beside me, boys dropped liked flies with a spray of crimson. Everything seemed… slow… and languid, sounds and shouts all muddled together in one eerie, capricious roar. And as I dragged my face to look at James beside me, I saw he was yelling, about what, I didn’t know. Taking his rifle in one hand, he trudged towards me, grabbing clumsily at my side during which I dropped my gun, helplessly trying to make sense of his words.

He yanked up the bag at my side, fumbling for the buttons. Only then, as my eyelids pulled back in horror was I finally able to make sense of one dreaded word.

Gas.

James crumpled to the ground like a ragdoll, his blood splattering against my discoloured webbing, and I lurched for him, one hand still clutching my tube helmet now sticking to my palm, the other frantically grasping for my love writhing in the mud. I could see the hole in his hand, the wound in his leg, caught in the tail end of machine gun fire. His name escaped in one sharp cry before I too was ripping the mask from his own bag as I began to cough and hack, my eyes growing blurry, my head spinning from fear, his hands still weakly struggling to fit the cloth over my head, and my hands trying to do the same for him. And suddenly, all at once, I collapsed, fainted, shadows beginning to swirl around us.

And a mantling silence consumed me.

*

I remember waking up to darkness, feeling my eyes open, something soft against my hands and my head. Gradually sounds came back; the gentle voices of women, the murmurs of men. But the blackness sent me into a fit of terror and I began to shout out, shrieking first for James, floundering atop the cushioned surface, until a hand caught my own.

“Victor!” it said breathlessly. It squeezed my hand once, then twice.

“James,” I mumbled, my voice breaking.

Carefully, I took hold of his arm, my feet just grazing the cold, stone floor, and wrapped my heavy arms around him, felt the heat of his chest and his warm breath.

I knew I was alive then, for I could feel hot tears pouring out of my eyes and smearing under whatever cloth was wrapped across my face, the thump of his heart drumming firmly against my ear.

*

Days later, the two of us were discharged from the hospital all the way back to England, hands guiding me this way and that, but I always knew James was near for I knew his own touch against the small of my back. Of course my family was happy to hear I was home, safe and sound, though blinded. My sight never did return. It was recommended I stay with my aunt, my uncle having died in the Boer War, and was told she would take good care of me. But I wanted nothing more than James.

And so my wish was granted. My family purchased a tiny cottage near the lake for the both of us—minus the innumerable visits from my mother and sister—the almighty hawthorn just visible from the front door, or so James described to me. He described everything to me, from our home to trees, while seasons passed us by. The trickling of rain beading down the windows; the colours of flowers he would bring home from the shop, that scent of roses following him again. And as I grew older, he described more things to me. How London changed, how the world was changing, and how it was remembering the boys who never returned home. But I knew of the things he wasn’t describing to me, too. About the people who stared at me and those like me, marked by the consequences of war, with antipathy as I walked blindly through city streets. About people bloodthirsty for revenge against those who stole their sons… and about the tears in his eyes when we would lay in bed at night, saddened I could no longer see the gorgeousness of life. But with a strangled smile, trying to see the light in all, I would always tell him the world seemed all the more beautiful with him to describe it to me, how love felt all the more powerful when one could not see, for the most profound things in life can only be experienced when closing one’s eyes.

And one spring evening, just before the sun was set, James and I decided to have a walk to our hawthorn tree, as we did less those days in my later age. So I took up my cane in one hand, my other in his, and we walked down that rivering white road columned with trees woven above our heads.

And upon reaching the tree, he helped guide me down to the plush grass beneath those twisting braches now blooming with the fresh white blossoms. I leaned my head against his shoulder so he could press a kiss to my temple.

As I closed my eyes, I wept at the image of his handsome face in my memory, still surrounded by the garden, the one whose light speckled face laughed with me among the roses, whose face I always remembered the same way. The one whose face never changed, the one who never grew old. Whose body I was forced to leave an ocean away.

And as my frail, quivering fingers traveled down his body, tracing over his words from all those years ago embedded deep within the stone set between the aged roots of the old hawthorn winding through the grass, I could feel his soft lips fade from my skin.

“I promise too,” I whispered.

And a mantling silence consumed me.

 


Alastair F. Brady is an aspiring illustrator and writer of early 20th century fiction for adolescents and adults and has had numerous recognitions for his moving and imaginative pieces of art and literature. Alastair is currently working on a full length novel as well as illustrated young adults’ books. He is also a WWI re-enactor and freelance photographer.

He can be found on Instagram at @alastaircreates.

Wind Chill | Rosey Lee

“Chef, the guests at Table 5 asked if you would stop by,” the hostess said.

Free was the hottest new restaurant in Atlanta, and Chef Maymie was used to guests requesting special time with her. Her innovative approach to the chef-driven dining experience was unexpected in Atlanta, and people couldn’t get enough of it or her creations. Diners interacted directly with her and the kitchen staff instead of waiters, but there was always one table too impatient to wait for her to come by at the end of the meal. She appreciated the excitement around her largely plant-based take on Southern favorites, so she took entitled guests in stride.

“Okay, tell them I’ll be there in a few minutes,” Chef Maymie said. She finished her check-ins with the line chefs and headed to the dining room, grabbing a massive basket of fresh cornbread muffins to distribute in place of the assigned commis chef.

The restaurant was filled to capacity, and the energy was palpable in the 125-seat dining room. The kitchen door flung open, and a group of local culinary students burst into applause as Chef Maymie approached their table with the muffins. She tried to quiet them, but the rest of the room joined in. She made a mental note to send the students an amuse-bouche assortment.

“Mr. Butler? Ms. O’Hara-Butler?” Chef Maymie asked, approaching Table 5. For the first time since she opened the restaurant, Chef Maymie felt out of place. She reminded herself that she and her therapist had prepared for this moment. She followed her therapist’s advice and spoke to her fear. “I have overcome. God is with me. It’s healthy to hold others accountable for their actions. There is strength in forgiveness,” Chef Maymie thought.

“Yes, lovely to see you! It’s been so long,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said, hugging Chef Maymie as Mr. Butler shook his head. Chef Maymie paused and then eased away.

“Scarlett, honey, calm down,” Mr. Butler said to his wife. “Chef Maymie, she’s been looking forward to seeing you all week. No one took care of our daughter like you. Cat had lots of babysitters over the years, but you were our favorite.”

“I’m not sure I remember being your favorite, but that’s okay. Things turned out pretty well for me in the end,” Chef Maymie said.

“Yes, we’re so proud of you!” Ms. O’Hara-Butler boasted. “And the restaurant is gorgeous. When I read about the grand opening in the newspaper, I knew we had to come see you and try your famous cornbread muffins. By the way, I love the way you’re spelling your name these days. You’ve really reinvented yourself.”

“I didn’t reinvent myself. I’m still the same person I always was. My name is still spelled M-a-m-i-e on legal documents. I added the y for everyday use because I got tired of being called Mammy. You know, the kind of Freudian slip that has no place in the twenty-first century,” Chef Maymie said coolly.

Ms. O’Hara-Butler recoiled. “Oh Maymie, I apologized for that. I didn’t mean anything by it. We loved you like family,” she said.

“Actually, you never apologized,” Chef Maymie said. The situation had haunted her for years, and she felt empowered speaking up for herself now.

“I am sorry. Please forgive me,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said.

“Thank you,” Chef Maymie said. As she turned to signal for one of the commis chefs to finish passing out the muffins,  she saw someone familiar exiting the restroom. “Is that Cat? She’s all grown up.”

Ten years had passed. Chef Maymie hadn’t seen Cat since the day Ms. O’Hara-Butler had called her Mammy. It had been the worst time to quit her babysitting job in the palatial mansion in Buckhead, one of the wealthiest communities in the country. She was just about to finish her master’s degree in food science and start culinary school. She really needed the money.

“Maymie! ” Cat squealed, running toward her.

They held each other in a long, rocking hug, their customary greeting when Chef Maymie picked up Cat each day from kindergarten.

“This is the most excited Cat has been all week,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said. “She doesn’t talk to us much anymore. You know how teens can be.” Cat rolled her eyes at her mother and slid into the booth. “We’ve been trying to get reservations forever,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler continued. “I even left several messages, but I figured you didn’t get them.”

“No, I received them, but you know how chefs can be,” Chef Maymie said, winking at Cat.

“I had the hardest time believing you were a chef because you told me during your interview that you couldn’t cook,” Ms. O’Hara-Butler said.

“I never said that I didn’t know how to cook. When I said ‘I can’t cook,’ I meant that I had no plans to do it as part of my babysitting job. You wouldn’t even pay me minimum wage. But I slipped Cat a few of my homemade treats every now and then,” Chef Maymie said.

“See, Mom, I told you!” Cat hissed at her mother. Cat pivoted toward Chef Maymie. “I told her I remembered eating a cornbread muffin like the one pictured in the newspaper article about you, but she didn’t believe me. She thought I was just trying to make her jealous.”

“Chef, they need you in the kitchen,” interrupted the commis chef as he relieved Chef Maymie of the basket of muffins.

“Okay. I’ll be right there,” Chef Maymie said. She turned to her guests. “I’ve gotta run. I hope y’all enjoy your meals. But, Ms. O’Hara-Butler, I have to know, did it work?”

“Huh?” Ms. O’Hara-Butler asked.

“Did it make you jealous that you’d never tasted any of my food?” Chef Maymie asked.

“It did.” Ms. O’Hara-Butler sighed, her cheeks reddening.

Chef Maymie smiled and walked away. “Bless her heart,” she said under her breath.

 


Rosey Lee is a New Orleans, Louisiana native who lives in Atlanta, Georgia. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, Bending Genres, Barren Magazine, Turnpike Magazine, and elsewhere. Her flash fiction chapbook, Beautiful, Complicated Family, will be released in late 2019. Follow her at roseyleebooks.com and @roseyleebooks on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Race Home | Angelica M. Ramos-Santa

Hung on the sky blue walls of a backwoods art gallery, a picture of a woman calls out to me. She stood at a “colored” bus stop in Manhattan surrounded by women the same stature. Her head was turned toward the right and her forehead was creased with worry. Her fingers gripped the straps of the purse that hung from her right shoulder, a vice. Her hair was slicked back, not a curl out of place and the collar of her shirt looked so stiff and starched I could almost smell the box of detergent through the glass.

My eyes were drawn to hers and the thin lines between her eyebrows which, would be invisible to those who don’t understand her struggle. I could hear her screaming inside from the solemn look in her eye. I wished, in that moment, I could jump into the frame, back to the sixties, to tell her that the future holds no worries, but that would be a lie.

The bus will drop her off last when the sky is darker than her skin. Men of all colors will sit outside bars lining the street corners as motown’s sweet music softly drifted in the wind. Drunkenness knows no division. She can smell the alcohol on their breath even from her distance. They will hoot and holler at her as she would begin her five block walk home, alone. She has to ignore the drunken compliments and the nasty things, hoping that she will be able to just make it home without having to pull out her knife. What good is a knife most days, anyway, when the men are twice her size and hunt in packs like coyotes? She could have stared up at the night sky once or twice, making eye contact with the moon.

“You know,” she would whisper to it, “You only shine because the rest of the sky is dark.”

The rest of her walk home would be silent, staring straight ahead. She’d see people walking about. Single men. Young couples without chaperones. She won’t look at any of them. She won’t want any trouble. She just had to make it home in time to feed her babies and her husband.

Just three blocks away from home, a man will call out to her. She will keep walking with her head down. He would keep hollering. His voice will boom, like it was getting closer, so she would bolt away, in her short chunky heels and skirt, wishing she was closer to home.

“Hey!”

She’ll freeze, tired and out of breath.

“Lady!”

“Look,” she’ll wheeze out, panting, “ I don’t want no trouble. If you want money, I don’t have any. If you want anything else, I have nothing to give you. Nothing, you hear? Now, you leave me alone. I’ve told you the truth, I have nothing.”

“Okay, Ma’am but…I was just looking for directions to the bus stop.”

Her breathing will calm as she points in the direction she came from, “Sorry, boy. It’s a few blocks that way, on the corner between two bars. Once you smell beer, you’re there. Can’t miss it.”

Standing in the gallery, I picture her walking that last block or two home, rushing through the door, her purse dropping to the ground with a new unimportance. Hugging her babies tightly, she would breathe in the scent of their skin and the smell of detergent on their clothes. Her son would shyly tell her that he stained his good shirt and for a moment she wouldn’t care because she came home to all of her children there.

Having a black or tan child is dangerous and yet, relief would wash over her the same way it will wash over me, one day. My kids will be a mixture of both. She prayed back then the way I will, years from now, for their safety. We pray they get the chance to live without fear. We pray that our sons don’t lose their lives on street corners holding up a pack of candy or a cell phone to prove their innocence. We pray that our children will be able to speak the language of their people freely without hearing, “This is America, speak English.”

We pray that our daughters can safely walk the streets alone and not be preyed upon for the clothes that she wears or the color of her skin being the fantasy of a cruel fetish. We pray that the world will love our children the way we do, the way we will one day, even if they are all pepper but no salt or pepper and spices stirred together. We pray that a social construct is no longer a reason to take children from mothers and mothers from children. We pray that the police won’t show up to family barbecues and leave with our fathers in handcuffs. We pray that one day mankind will also mean womankind and be color kind. We pray, I tell you. That’s all we have left to do.

 


Angelica M. Ramos-Santa is an undergraduate student at Susquehanna University, majoring in writing. As a Hispanic female writer, she dreams of going onward to grad-school to teach and inspire the next generation writers. She believes that everyone has the right to dream big.

Off-Script | Angelo Lorenzo

The mirror did not lie about my age. With only eleven minutes to prepare, I dabbed my face with the sponge of the foundation, then smacked my lips after I applied lipstick. Although my hairline had reached the top of my head, I managed to cover the lines in my skin that traced the corners of my eyes. I’ve always believed these lines had deepened because of laughter and smiles for the benefit of my viewers.

I picked up the script from my dresser table and read the questions I had to ask. This would be the first time that I’d see him after a long time, and I didn’t know this thought could give me shivers despite being fully clothed in my suit and trousers in the dressing room. Speaking my lines out loud took a while, but this had become my routine every night so I wouldn’t stutter in front of the camera. We’ve always been shot live, and the script was crucial to keep things in order.

I barely noticed the time as I kept shrugging the memories that gradually came back as my temples throbbed. But three knocks on the door suggested Ramona checking in on me. I opened it and saw our production manager standing outside.

“Five minutes before show time, Sir,” she said, raising and opening her palm to gesture the number with her fingers.

I nodded and sighed. “I’ll be there.”

With one more glance in the mirror, I buttoned my suit. The sleeves had loosened as my arms had thinned. What would he think of me? I asked myself. But I knew that question was not important.

I went to the studio where the program will be broadcast live. From the backstage, I emerged to the stage where two couches were situated on the center. Between them stood a table no higher than the knees of any guest sitting over the couch. On the stage’s backdrop, the LCD screen attached to the wall played the opening title. Overhead, lights shone. Beneath the stage, rows of seats were occupied by tonight’s audience – folks that waited in line outside the studio’s building since this afternoon. On the stage’s edge stood the cameras and the teleprompter.

I heard faint cheers, but the staff assigned to signal the audience’s reactions calmed them down. The live broadcast did not start yet, but viewers at home could already see the opening title playing in their screens.

Before I sat on the couch, Ramona darted towards me to pin the lapel on my collar. “Is he here?” I asked, knowing that the microphone was not yet turned on.

“Yup. But Frenchie is still doing the necessary preparations for him.” She patted my shoulders as I straightened my suit. “I bet she’s still savoring her time with him.” She chuckled.

“I wouldn’t wonder why.”

In all the years that Ramona had managed production, this routine never tired both of us. From small talks about what the guest was doing before the show started, to asking about what could be done differently every night to increase ratings, these random topics helped with the nerves.

The upbeat music of the opening title blared throughout the studio before the voice over spoke. “Find out the latest celebrity news straight from the source!” the cheerful male voice intoned. I remembered hearing it being recorded for the first time by one of Ramona’s acquaintances in the entertainment industry. That man went on to voice trailers for the network’s film production company.

I looked behind us and saw the opening title playing a clip of Miss Universe 2015 Pia Wurtzbach in a blue sparkling dress sitting over the couch where she stated that she’d never forget Cagayan de Oro as her hometown despite being based in New York City for her year of reign.

“You’ll do great just like old times,” Ramona said as she adjusted my tie. “You even made a beauty queen laugh. I heard your guest tonight has dated her once.”

I shook my head. “I can’t confirm that unless I ask him. How old is old anyway?”

The screen shifted to a scene that showed filmmaker Brillante Mendoza, with his trimmed moustache sitting on the same couch where Pia had sat. It was in 2016 when I interviewed him about his film that made it to the Cannes Film Festival.

“From inquiries about pop culture trends to political revelations!” the voice over continued.

The screen shifted to a clip where former President Rodrigo Duterte waved his hand to silence my question. “How would you feel if you were a father to a minor who’s been shot dead on the streets because he was mistaken as a drug user in your Anti-Drug Campaign that encouraged extra-judicial killings?” I remembered asking him that question.

The former president scoffed. “I can make more sons.”

The next day, that statement made the headlines.

“What do you mean how old?” Ramona asked.

I sighed. “I’ll be a senior citizen in fifteen years.”

It was meant as a joke, but Ramona did not laugh. “Then there’ll be fifteen more seasons of…” The voice over uttered the name at the same time, “…Call it a Night with Jim Jimenez.”

As Ramona scurried back to the backstage, I sat over my couch, and crossed my legs. The lights shone brighter and the audience cheered and applauded after the staff’s signal.

“Good evening, Philippines, and let’s call it a night!” I said my usual introduction. The audience cheered and the opening music ended. Then came the usual spiel about today’s events and the most recent triumph of our guest who had arrived in the country after attending a prestigious awards ceremony last week.

“Now we all know Shane Santisteban has started out as a matinee idol in showbiz. For over a decade, he has starred in various teleseryes and movies.” I shifted in my seat, leaned forward, and brought my elbows over my knees. “But it wasn’t until he got the role of an activist in a critically acclaimed film by Filipino-Canadian filmmaker Farrah Fedora that he has hit his biggest break yet. He finds himself in Hollywood and…” I coughed.

I cleared my throat in a second. My eyes shifted to the teleprompter’s monitor in which the lines in the script glowed in green letters. “I’m sorry about that.” I mumbled, almost to myself. Mistakes rarely happened, and it took guts to avoid another one tonight.

I continued, “…his most recent achievement is not only the box office success the film entitled, “Freedom’s March” has generated, but also the Oscar he now has in his sleeve. What a feat!” I spread my arms and stood from the couch. The audience cheered as the staff raised their hands to signal the cue. “He is the first Filipino to win the Oscar in the best actor in a leading role category. Here with us tonight, everybody, is Mr. Shane Santisteban!”

The crowd erupted as I stood. From the side of the stage, the same entrance from where I had passed through earlier, Shane took gallant steps in his black long-sleeved polo, fitted jeans, and leather shoes. Minus the cape and mask, he looked like Zorro taking a break from doing justice. His teeth shone as he smiled and his stubble glazed his cheeks and chin. Tall and broad chested, age treated him better.

In his hand was the golden miniature statue of a bald man standing. His Oscar trophy glimmered beneath the lights as he presented it to the audience and the camera. His gallant stride led him to the center of the stage where he stopped to see me. I offered my hand, but he wrapped me in his arms instead. I tasted the mint of his perfume through my nose.

I didn’t let my surprise get the best of me especially when we were airing live. So after he placed the statue on the table, we sat across from each other. The audience’s cheers and applause gradually ceased.

“Welcome to the show, Shane,” I said.

“Thank you for having me, Jim,” he responded, crossing his legs. To the audience, he addressed: “I can’t believe I’m finally here with Jim Jimenez!”

“Finally,” I snickered, not taking his response too seriously. I began asking him the initial questions in the script, which were manifested by the teleprompter’s screen. I’ve familiarized most of them, but I had to look at the monitor sometimes to make sure. Who did you call first after you received your award? What were your thoughts before Julia Roberts announced your name from the envelope? When did the producers inform you that you got the role after your audition? Where were you when you knew about it? How did you prepare for the role?

Shane uttered his answers too lightly with casual shrugs, brief pauses and occasional chuckles. “I did call my mother backstage after my speech. But she saw the Oscars live. In fact, she may be watching your program now.” He waved to the camera. “Oh, I thought that Tom Hanks was gonna win, but my expectations failed me.” He seemed honest as he looked at me and winked. “I was taping for a commercial when the producers informed me. I was in Manila and my manager spilled the good news after she received their e-mail.”

To the last of the initial questions, he made a lengthy pause. He arched his back and leaned against the couch’s backside. “Well, it’s a challenge to play the role of an activist in the Martial Law era,” he said. “I read history books, interviewed survivors of Marcos’ regime, and tried walking across EDSA before principal photography took place.”

“So that’s what got the tabloids and blogs on social media raving!” I said. “Many thought what went on in your mind walking all by yourself under the heat of the sun.”

He guffawed and the audience echoed. “That was me preparing, but activists during the People Power Revolution must have experienced worse discomforts. Farrah’s historical biopic did magnify the Filipino spirit of courage to achieve democracy during an authoritarian regime.”

Shane had changed so much since I last met him. His perpetual smile marked his confidence and his cheerful mood made me comfortable despite the shivers I got earlier. All the while, I nodded, clapped, and sometimes finished off his sentences when there was a word he couldn’t remember. Perhaps, he couldn’t remember anymore what happened long ago.

“So, what’s next for you?” I asked another question.

Shane gazed at the audience, and the lights from the ceiling gleamed over his eyes. His smile faded gradually as if he found himself in deep thought. He faced me and leaned forward.

Then he reached for my hand over the couch’s armrest.

“I wish to start over,” he said.

I pulled my hand away from his, turned to the camera, and said, “We’ll be back after the break.”

“What? The show only has thirty minutes to air and it’s commercial-free!” I heard Ramona speaking through the entrance that led to the backstage. I couldn’t blame anyone for my decision. But if Shane wanted to bring things back, I couldn’t afford to expose what we had on live television. It’s not that I wasn’t open about my identity; it’s just that I couldn’t forget what he did many years ago.  

In the hallway backstage, Shane attempted to follow me just as he did after I walked hastily from the set. “You can act as you wish in your film projects, Shane, but not in my show.”

He held my shoulder and pulled me to face him. “Jim, what else can I do?”

“Stop with the publicities!” I gritted my teeth. No one was in the hallway save for us, and I tried to keep my voice down before anyone could have an inkling about our conversation. Regardless, the staff must have been aware what was going on as he was following me. But everyone was busy running the program and technicalities despite the commercials going on.

“Isn’t this fame already enough for you? Why bother to attract attention in my show?” I went on.

“It’s not attention that I want, Jim, it’s—”

“Why now, Shane?” I took a step forward. “After all these years? Do you think you can just easily step your way in my life again to bring back what you lost? Do you think it was easy for me to agree with the producers’ decision to have you tonight? We’re no longer in college, Shane, and this isn’t Cagayan de Oro, so whatever we had before is gone. You lost it the moment you denied your true identity and denied us in your interview with Boy Abunda years ago. All for the sake of your image… “ Boy Abunda was the Perez Hilton of the Philippines before he retired.

I pointed at him and he stepped back. “Now look where it got you — an Oscar to your sleeve and millions of dollars in your bank account. Perhaps a mansion in Beverly Hills is the next step? Congratulations!”

He reached for my hand again. “I don’t… I don’t need all of that. I am trying to set things right again… with you…”

Years ago, an English major and a Journalism student met in a stage production of Francisco Baltazar’s Florante at Laura. Many lauded the tale as the Filipino version of Romeo and Juliet, but it did inspire another love story that ended in tragedy. That English major was an aspiring actor who became an understudy to the role of Florante. During the premiere, the lead actor had a flu and the understudy took his place. After the play, the Journalism student interviewed him for the college paper, and even if he didn’t ask for his number among his questions, the understudy gave it by his choice. Eventually, meet-ups turned to dates turned to a semester’s worth of relationship before life after graduation tore them apart. The English major moved to Manila to pursue acting, starred in minor roles that led to major ones, and led to a breakthrough in Hollywood after auditioning for a monumental film that depicted a triump in Filipino history. The Journalism major, however, stayed in Cagayan de Oro City and worked as a reporter for a network, before pitching an idea about a commercial-free late-night talk show to producers in the same network whose main headquarters are located in the Philippines’ capital. Many years later, they reunited in the show.

So much for remembering the past, I thought, but you can’t help remembering when the situation requires you to.

“Don’t play with me, Shane,” I said.

He stepped back and sighed deeply, looking to the floor.

“It’s been over for years. We’re grown-ups now and we’ve made our choices.”

He lifted his face and his eyes filled with tears. “I wasn’t the one who broke contact. I tried reaching you, but you never responded. You blocked me on Facebook, you never replied to my e-mails and texts, and you never answered my calls.”

“Then you must have thought about that before denying us and denying yourself to the public,” I said, my voice breaking. “You could have been the voice of our community, Shane. People like us needed to know that there was at least someone winning out there, making other people see us in a new light. You have the talent and the influence, yet you chose to hide yourself.”

“Yet if I revealed me, I wouldn’t reach this far.”

“Then is all this more important to you than being true?”

He took a few steps toward me, and he reached for my hands. I didn’t shrug him off this time. His shoulders shook with his sobs.

“It’s never going to be enough,” he said. “All this… Jim, are you even happy?”

“What does it look like to you?”

“Excuse me, Sir!” Ramona appeared and called from the end of the hallway. “Three minutes before the show returns.”

She must have heard us. But the hell I cared. This was the first time I saw Shane in tears. There was no script for this moment. But I had to remind myself that he was a great actor.

Three minutes later, we were in the couch again. The Oscar statue was no longer standing on the table. The crew must have taken it and will return it to him after our interview. With the night getting late, I had to explain to the producers tomorrow why the show ended much later than it should.

The lights brightened and the music played back. The audience cheered and clapped. This time, however, I could see many of them standing from their seats.

“And we’re back!” I said. I faced Shane who now sat with both his hands clasped together and his lips pursed. He looked more uneasy than he had been earlier, as if his confidence had just evaporated by the warmth of the glaring lights. I felt bad about myself for confronting him like that. I shouldn’t have made him regret about his decision years ago. If he was not comfortable exposing his true self then, this could probably be the time to start over. Wasn’t that what he said before the break?

“So, Shane…”

He looked at me, and his eyes no longer shone.

I looked at the teleprompter and read the next question. I looked back at him and I knew that this moment wouldn’t happen again.

“Shall we continue from where we left off?”

I knew that question was not in the script, but I asked it anyway.

 


Angelo Lorenzo is a writer based in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines. He writes about the arts and culture scene in his hometown, and contributes articles to local newspapers and national media organizations such as Rappler. Currently, he is taking his Master’s Degree in Literature at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan

The Clairvoyant | Patrick M. Hare

 

I never met Thomas Calame. As he died in 1956 – well before I was born, much less interested in art – I came to know him as we do most artists: first through the lens of their works and only later, if at all, through stories, biographies and informational placards. With Calame, however, even his works are becoming less well-known with the passing years; so much so that a painting of him (Rene Magritte’s La Clairvoyance [1936], in which a man in a dark suit is depicted painting a bird in flight while looking at an egg on a side table) rather than a painting by him is the most viewed work with which he is associated. It is perhaps not surprising that Calame’s fame is waning; he was never a master painter nor a bold conceptual artist, the two requirements for lasting impact on the canon. Likewise, he has so far failed to fall into one of the accidental frenzies that grips the art auction world. No biographies of him exist and barely a line is devoted to him in the encyclopaedias. His paintings can be divided into two groups, distinguishable not by their different techniques – for he painted simply and realistically throughout his career, favouring simple colours and bold lines – but by their subjects. Like the surrealists with whom he is grouped, many of his paintings depict impossible things: gravity-defying cities, labyrinths that were also tigers, the corpses of mythical beasts in still-life. As surrealist works go, these are generally considered rather pedestrian. His other works depict the startlingly mundane: eggs, birds, landscapes. Within this group of prosaic subjects are several hidden depictions of the unthinkable – the future.  

Calame’s works are now scattered throughout the world, filling out the surrealist and modern galleries of provincial museums. The museum in Canton, Ohio has one and so I must have seen it growing up, but it wasn’t until I chanced upon one of his canvases (Self-portrait IV, a weedy lot with drifts of trash piling up against a peeling fence) in the Kunstmuseum Bern that I became interested in his works. A docent saw me puzzling over the painting one day during my lunch break and we fell to talking. She mentioned that one of the museum’s retired conservators, an Australian by birth, had known both Calame and several of his colleagues. In town for a conference followed by a week of vacation, I asked if it would be possible to meet the conservator for coffee. From that meeting and the several that followed it, I have assembled the following information/biography/sketch.

*

The Thomas Calame depicted in La Clairvoyance seems to be an accurate representation, for those who had met him described him thusly: tall, thin, even for the times, with a mushroom-like head, an impression only heightened by dark hair that seemed to have slid off his crown to lie clustered about his ears. The painting is also a good representative of his sartorial preferences – black suits with simple straight lines. While he and Magritte looked very similar at the time of the painting (which Magritte, with characteristic humour, described as a self-portrait), their appearances diverged as they aged: Magritte filled out, Calame did not. Magritte kept more of his hair, although it all whitened. Calame’s thinned and whitened on the crown of his head, but it stayed thick and dark below, giving his head its fungiform aspect. Among the things not captured in the portrait: Calame was partial to French cigarettes which he smoked continuously; he moved quickly with a very quiet step; talked little but when he did he would gesture emphatically with both hands. He was excitable, not given to socialising much. He had few friends, but he was fierce in devotion to those he did make.

Calame was born in 1907 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, a small manufacturing centre in the mountains along the French border. The only child of a reasonably well-off lawyer and distantly related to the 19th century painter Alexandre Calame, he showed an early aptitude for art. Unwilling to bring an instructor to their house because of the cost, his parents did begin sending him to study in town at the age of eleven. His education was challenging, as would be imagined of one with his ability, even though the precise nature of that talent would not be recognized for many years. Instead, adults described him as overly imaginative, prone to fancy, and unable to focus on the task at hand. His talent lay hidden so long because while he could easily draw or paint from his imagination, if asked to paint or draw from a model, be it a person, still life, or landscape, his brush or pencil would produce an image of the scene unlike that in front of him. Childish drawings of the view outside the classroom in the morning would depict a night scene during a different season. Houses in the distance would be shown in ruins, or new houses would appear in empty fields. Still-lives were grotesqueries, full of desiccated corpses and rotten fruit, or they showed bare tables, or piles of unrelated clutter. When asked if that was indeed what he saw, he could only respond with incomprehension. Demands to repeat his work would produce a different image. Thus obstinacy and stupidity were added to his list of character traits. Despite this, by the time he came of age, several of his paintings had made it into regional shows, and he developed a reputation as a promising young painter.

Catalogues record 137 paintings and drawings by Calame, of which thirty-one have been lost or destroyed. Seventeen of these, comprising most of his early output, have the distinctly dubious honour of having been destroyed in the first V-2 strike on London in 1944. Of the remaining fourteen, most went missing during the war from friends’ homes when the home was destroyed, or were presumed stolen or sold. To date, none have resurfaced.

The painting of the bird shown in La Clairvoyance (egg III) was one of only two series of paintings he is known to have produced: eggs I – VII, and a series of works titled ‘self-portrait’ that were discovered posthumously. It is unsurprising that neither series depicts in an obvious fashion either an egg or Calame. Both series are now distributed among half a dozen museums throughout the world. The egg paintings (two of which were destroyed in the V-2 strike) depict, in addition to the mature bird in flight in egg III, an omelet (egg II), a fluffy chick (egg VI), a cat with the broken body of a bird in its mouth (egg I), and a single feather stuck in the crook of a tree (egg IV). It is not clear if multiple paintings depict the same egg or if each canvas was created from a different model.  This point would reasonably be considered vital, as it would settle at a stroke the debate between determinism and free will. Calame, though, seemed uninterested in the question, relying on servants to remove and do what they would with his models. The supposition that an egg, or the egg depending on your philosophical bent, ended up breakfast for the servants is irresistible. The series was produced in Paris between 1933 and 1936, where Calame had moved in 1928 to gain more exposure. There he met Magritte, Max Ernst, Miró, and others active in the surrealist scene. He found a ready home with surrealism and its depiction of realities that are impossible, or at least very improbable. It was an easy field in which to paint purely from imagination. It did not afford enough of an income to live on, though, so for a time he painted by commission. This came to an end after he spent three months in 1935 working on a portrait of a prominent Jewish family. He refused to paint portraits after this, and indeed no more paintings of any subject are recorded until he moved to London in 1936. He appears to have spent most of the intervening years closeted in his rented room.

In moving to London, Calame was following Magritte, who was living under both the patronage and the roof of the poet Edward James. It was there that Calame asked Magritte to paint him. It was also during this time that Calame exhibited the egg series, as well a number of typically surrealist paintings. When war looked to be inevitable, he fled England for Australia, where the unchanging nature of the landscape provided him with a chance to have his brush produce the same scene others saw.

It is not known when he produced the series of paintings titled self-portraits I – IV. Some have suggested that they were produced in Paris after his failure at portraiture, but there is no record of their storage or shipping to Australia. I believe it more likely that he only painted them after arriving in Australia, having had a chance to come to peace with what they would show. The series is composed of the following subjects: An an open packing crate with the lip of a dark green jar lid just visible inside; a single tree off-centre in a level grassy field with farm-covered hills in the background; a broken body in dark cloths lying, head at an impossible angle, at the bottom of a set of marble stairs, a pool of blood spreading to encompass the body; an empty, weedy lot in front of a peeling wooden fence. Many people assume that these were titled whimsically in keeping with the proclivities or of his early friends. Those sympathetic to New Age mysticism and certain forms of Buddhism assume they are meant to show the universal connection between all living things. They are not these things, though, at least not fundamentally. He was simply being honest in the naming.

The paintings were not found until several years after his death, when a manager found them in a storage room he had taken out in Perth. He died in his small house outside Perth in 1956, following a fall down a full flight of stairs. He appears to have simply tripped. The fall broke his neck and fractured his skull. His will dictated that he be buried in his native Switzerland, but his estate was unable and his relatives unwilling to pay for transportation of his body from Australia. He was cremated, his ashes deposited in a small, simple urn, and this was shipped to his hometown. A proper burial was also out of the question. A cousin who had met him only once scattered his ashes on a field outside Columbier. I visited it before leaving the country, and while the field is intact and the tree is still standing, albeit with a number of rotten branches, it is only a matter of time until the growing town overtakes the field, leaving a peeling fence bordering a weedy, trash-filled lot in its wake.


Patrick M. Hare writes fiction and photophysics. He lives near 
Cincinnati, Ohio, USA.

He is on Twitter @NKUPMH

Bonnie | Steve May

Guess who came to the factory this morning…Steve McQueen. To pick up his new Bonnie. He had this girl, Maureen, from the office, sitting on the back for some photos. You should have seen her face. What a sight. Steve McQueen and our Maureen!

Me dad made motorbikes at Triumph Engineering in Meriden. He had a hand in the Bonnie from the word go. He’d come home knackered but buzzing from the factory and talk like a kid about this great new bike. He felt he had a stake in it even though he was only on the shop floor.

The original Bonneville, a thing of beauty, a classic. A work of art in tangerine and blue separated by a single hand-painted gold pinstripe. Stripped down fenders; 115 mph; a real hot rod for for the US market. “The Best Motorcycle in the World” said the blurb. Who could disagree?

I was never a biker, me, but in 1974 I bought an ancient Honda 50 that managed 50 miles from Stockport to Leeds in just under 8 hours then clapped out, kaput.

It was Honda that eventually killed off Triumph; too heavy, too expensive. Though the Bonnie lived on, it was never the same as in those early days, when me dad raved about its sculpted tank and sturdy frame.

The Triumph Bonneville, a mythical machine, famed for jumping that barbed wire fence in The Great Escape. McQueen on top and a little bit of me dad in its battered frame.

 The Triumph Bonneville was first produced at the Meriden works in 1959. Steve McQueen visited the factory to pick up his new bike in 1964.


Born in Coventry, UK,  Steve May has worked extensively in the field of drama-in-education, including winning  an Edinburgh Fringe First with Wigan Young People’s Theatre and leading a Performing Arts Department at Sunderland College. More recently, living in Sunderland, he has worked as an acupuncturist and returned to his original passion of poetry. He regularly performs his work around the NE of England and further afield. He has had poems published in The Writers’ Café and the anthology Mixed Emotions and won the 2019 Shelter Poems for Home Competition, judged by John Hegley. He is a Poetry Society (UK) member.

He is on Twitter at @s_may_uk

Count Your Breaths | Chris Wright

Fine dreams of sweets and the soft lilt of her fading lullaby are torn at the fabric; broken by a terrible wail, like a bird calling out a predator until I have no choice but to rise and gasp and plunge through the surface of a stormy sea. When the distressed caw doesn’t become another and the sound stretches into the distance I know what is coming.

The patter of quick feet, the swoop of the bedroom door, Grandmother’s warm hand resting on mine, just for a second, in a moment of pure peace.

We take off down the stairs, out into the biting November cold, towards the shelter at the end of the street.

“Count your paces,” she shouts and we try to beat our score from the night before and, despite knowing that another fleet of German bombers sweep in from the South East, I am safe as long as she’s at my back, tracing the steps of my small feet with her own.

The dust that clings to the city weighs her breaths and slows her steps, gifting me more time lingering in dreams. Slower and slower it takes until full minutes pass for her to shuffle to my room, calling out my name in increasingly strained tones, chased by rack and cough.

I guide her down the stairs and through the front door, the pinching air stealing her stride. I pull and tug with all my little muscles can muster. “Count your breaths”, I shout like she is in control.

She falls by the side of the road, slumping down the neighbour’s wall, looking up at me with a rueful smile. I count to three and count no more.


Chris Wright is from Northern Ireland. His work has featured in several publications such as The Bangor Literary Journal, The Belfast Telegraph, Panic Dots, Broadsheet.ie and Unsigned. Chris is a Politics Graduate from Queens University, Belfast and is currently working on his second novel.

You can find him on Twitter at @_ChrisWrites

The Great Courtesan of Henrietta Street | Olivia Marsh

1755

Everything in London is filling it to bursting and the men never more so; in their multitudes, men are as common as the wet, muddied ballad papers that cling to the pavements. They strewn, like the chair and carriage traffic that clutters its way to the epicentre. O, glorious epicentre, where all the world’s best and worst scramble for coin, for lust, for love, for life, for death, for success, for posterity. Choices for the taking.

But in all that choice, she desires only him. Second-rate version of an heir that he may be. A third son? A fifth? She does not remember. She only remembers that he has loved her, or has professed it in so many words. He has whispered on a morning: “My angel, take yourself off and buy a dress, a gown a la Turque, and later, I will kiss you and kiss you until you are quite dizzy.” Everything beautiful she sets her fingers on was paid for by him. Bottomless fortune, indeed. There ain’t no such things. Not for third sons on a cadet branch. And yet…

And yet, there is a pimp far back in her memory who thrusts up her chin and says “Pretty pet, come along now, I’ll have you set in no time. You’ll beg no more, child” and he had indeed made her Duchess, after a fashion. Aye, her coronet was a man’s mettle, all bitter and white, but the luxury was the same. Only those who sleep soundly in their beds each night declare that a mighty harlot cannot look a fine lady in the eye and say ‘Aren’t we sisters, dear?’ The difference between her urine-soaked alley bed of old, and the silk sheets and fresh linen of new, is startling enough to make her fear ruination to the point of shudders and flutterings; when there is so much danger in London for a woman to fear; that is her nightmare. A flash of cash is enough for her to open up, out of passion, out of fright. What care she for figures, for the strange minutiae of it all? Yet, men make promises they cannot keep all the time, and they close the breach with kisses and sweat-doused nights and sweetness. She knows this, somewhere. It’s just that, this time, her heart has quite staged a coup. It has taken over.

Her heart has been cautious but never closed. But she fears she has given it to him, in particular, too freely, as he now speaks the words she has dreaded, the words she has suspected but never quite let herself consider for more than a moment.

“I am tired of you”

And now he says she is a strumpet. A doxy brought high and mighty by other men’s money, hard earned fortunes tallied up since the Conqueror. He says “You ought to have remembered that you were mine and mine alone. Instead, you go gadding about the city, always open for business!”

Always open for business! She retorts, she says she has been touched by no other since he took his brief leave, that she has pined only for him. If men have admired her in the streets, that is no fault of hers. Surely, surely, he did not expect her to lock herself away until his return? Surely, my love…oh, she speaks sweetly now, close as she is to spilling tears, surely he does not mean for her to be cosseted and owned?

But he does expect it of her. He expects a biddable mistress, a wife of sorts, though not quite. All warm and inviting, with a mouth to fill and kiss deeply, and flesh so soft and rounded that he can cup it in his hands as he thinks ‘Now this is having my cake and eating it.’ A pretty face to covet, rule and brag on, but never ever be bound to. And in this, he is not quite so different from the others. All the men before, even the pimp who healed her smarting wounds with kindness, kindness that came at a ‘Do as I say or I’ll blacken your eye’ kind of price.

Do not leave. Do not go, she hears herself say, I am ruined. Who will pay my debts? Our debts? she emphasises, debts we trotted up together in our love, in our merrymaking, in our plans for marriage, but he no longer hears her, he abuses her, he shouts and yaps like a fussing puppy.

Hussy! Wench! Snake! Dishonest jade! Lured me in like all your other lovers, who even now make their leave to queue at her door. How can I make an honest woman of a trull? A notorious one, black mould on my family name?

Honest women are what lying, cheating profligates talk of incessantly. A bunch of rakehells predisposed to burning, pathological hypocrisy. In every single syllable, there are visions of maidservants debauched, brothels much used, and dust collecting Bibles much ignored. Who are you to sermonise to me? she must have said. Who are you to pull my conduct apart?

But in the philosophy of it all, there is simply a woman (yes, a courtesan, but a woman all the same, lest, Reader, you be prejudiced against them and their trade) scorned, hurt, misled. A woman who trusted, who believed herself finally in the arms of a future, a new equal, a fine sweetheart to spark upon every night and day. She thought herself safe. She thought herself worthy. She thought herself out of all danger, of all instability past. She thought herself loved.

“I love you” she says, finally.

…and the phrase hangs on the precipice, uttered quietly, sounding monstrous loud, but it doesn’t quite account for the flaming sensation of joy she gets when she thinks of him or the feeling that her ribs might split open and pour out her heated blood every time she looks upon his face. Doesn’t quite cut it.

To be sure, her man is handsome, pretty even, in or out of his stark white wig, at this moment powdered as vigorously as anything he does. In a poem, they may not call him an Adonis but he is beautiful enough to her. And yet, at the declaration, the words that seemed to be a cat set amongst pigeons, he pulls a face so hideous, so reminiscent of one’s first scent of vinegar or of horse manure on a summer’s day, that she quite startles herself out of half-fantasy that he will change his mind.

“Love, madam?’ he says, ever so gently, “how could a harlot know the meaning of the word?”


Olivia Marsh is an aspiring historian, currently studying for a Master’s degree in 18th century history. She is specialising in the social history of Britain from circa. 1660-1820, with a particular emphasis on the history of sexuality and of sex work.

She loves to write both prose and poetry in her spare time, inspired by the everyday lives and emotions of past peoples.

She can be found on Twitter at @myladyteazle

If it pleases the court the accused is 28, married, unemployed, resides at Vauxhall Gardens | Anita Goveas

Maria Fernandez reads out bits of the newspaper to her husband every day, although ink catches on her soap-worn hands. Last thing at night, when the babies are sleeping so he has no excuses not to listen. He dwells on the successful arrests of criminals, she likes stories of royalty that take her back to her Goan childhood, but it’s something they do together. She looks forward to it every milk-soaked, nappy-scented, shriek-filled moment.

“Anthony, the Princess Sophia Duleep Singh’s in court again for not paying her taxes! I thought you said she’d learnt her lesson?”

The Princess is one of her idols, a god-daughter of Queen Victoria. She’d grown up in the spotlight, a debutante, a fashion icon, a child of the last ruler of the Punjab. Transplanted by the British Empire and a man’s promises, shining out like her father’s Koh-I-Noor.

Maria’s read stories of the suffragists, seen cartoons, but she doesn’t read those out. Anthony says they’re all dissatisfied women who haven’t found their proper place. She can’t imagine why a respectable woman would end up in court, what would be worth the shame.

She loiters outside Hampton Court in a fur coat with a placard. Votes for women! What would they do with it? Better they stick to recipes. She’ll give us Indians a bad name” He turns over, exposes his fat reddening neck, and snores.

His rice had been overcooked today, he’d pointed it out for her own good. She’d made it one-handed while soothing their 5 month old who had the colic. She’d learnt to be ambidextrous at the hospital in Goa where she’d nursed him back to health, before she’d followed his dreams of a different life.

She makes sure to burn his favourite dinner the night she smashes her first window.


Anita Goveas is British-Asian, based in London, and fuelled by strong coffee and paneer jalfrezi. She was first published in the 2016 London Short Story Prize anthology, most recently in JMWW, OkayDonkey and X-Ray lit. She’s on the editorial team at Flashback Fiction, an editor at Mythic Picnic’s Twitter zine, a reader for Bare Fiction and tweets erratically @coffeeandpaneer

Links to her stories can be found at coffeeandpaneer.wordpress.com

Umple | Robert Boucheron

Over the centuries, Umple suffered more than its share. The documented history of the city is fraught with disaster: earthquake, famine, plague, and war. The tourist in the motorbus looks up from the guidebook surprised to see that anything still stands.

Located in the mountainous region of the Caucasus, amid a tangle of international borders and ethnic groups, Umple derives from the Greek omphalos or Latin umbilicus, meaning “navel,” as Gibbon explains in a footnote in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The name suggests a relation to Delphi and its oracle stone, or an origin myth in which people emerged from the bowels of the earth.

Dr. Delahanty’s archaeological investigation reveals a past that stretches back to the Neolithic Age. Stone substructures in the crypt of the cathedral, tunnels and vaults formed by massive slabs, resemble dolmens in Brittany and megalithic tombs of the western British Isles. Were the vaults erected by a pan-continental prehistoric civilization? This theory is debatable. Until Dr. Delahanty publishes his work in a format open to scholarly review, we have only his notes and rough field sketches.

In the fifth century, the Byzantine monk Euphemius mentions a fort or walled village, a primitive outpost on the distant frontier, peopled by barbarians of doubtful loyalty, and certainly not orthodox. As Gibbon relates, chronicles in Greek of the eastern empire are a horrid series of sieges, cruelties, brutal slaughter, lightning raids, forced conversion, conflagration, oppressive taxation, and denial of basic human rights. The list of attackers and bloodthirsty hordes includes Gauls, Persians, Scythians, Huns, proto-Germanic and Slavic tribes, Vikings, Tartars, and Mongols. Moslem warriors mounted on horseback and armed with flashing swords joined the battered city to their vast world empire. More recently, the Russians gobbled it up, only to disgorge it when their empire collapsed.

This tumultuous history of conquest and cultural disarray has left its mark. The architecture of Umple is a palimpsest of erasure, insertion, overlay, whitewash, and ambiguity. Is the city Western Asian or Eastern European? Old buildings that withstood the ravages of time are solid stone with minimal hints of ornament and style. They look like blocks of masonry anywhere, gray and mute, with casement windows like bright little eyes, peaked tile roofs like indomitable hats, and chimneys like fingers that stubbornly point upward. A stone arcade surrounds the marketplace in the center, ponderously vaulted to shelter buyers and sellers from the weather, and formerly from arrows and flying rocks. The carved fountain is a restoration of the medieval one. The heroic statue of St. Durans is modern, based on a grainy heliograph.

Parts of the city wall survive, especially where later buildings engulfed them. They show a variety of building techniques from several centuries, with obvious signs of rebuilding, repair, and reused material. Of special interest are the stones taken from houses destroyed one way or another. The Round Tower undoubtedly enhanced the defensive circuit, and the Gate of Martyrs may be the one mentioned by Euphemius.

Armed with a guidebook and a pair of sturdy shoes, the tourist will have to search for these landmarks. The Umpali do not bother about the past. They dispense with bronze plaques and interpretive signs. Few historic artifacts or works of art remain from all the carnage. There is no museum as such. The city is a memorial, they say.

The Caucasus was once considered the source of white skin, freckles, and flaxen hair, but racial theories clash with facts on the ground. Did each invader leave a memento? Whatever their complexion, the Umpali are light-hearted and grounded, nimble on their feet, and quick to tell you what they think in a dozen languages. Not because you will spend money, but out of the goodness of their hearts, they welcome you with open arms. They shower you with kisses, and they escort you to lodging, dining, and shops that feature curious handicrafts. After all they have endured, they maintain a cheerful outlook. They have gone through the worst, and the best is yet to come. In this, they resemble the Hyperboreans:

Beyond the ice and the north wind,
Beyond death, they have won
The exit from the labyrinth
To everlasting sun.

Nominal adherents of several religions, they believe in themselves more than anything else. Each home has a shrine of family portraits, framed and assembled on a fireplace mantel or the lid of a piano. Among the ancestors and children are objects—a lock of hair, a gold watch, a clutch of baby teeth. A mother places a bit of food from the family meal in a saucer there. She may light a candle.

If you ask her about this, she is wary and evasive. These are her loved ones, living and dead. They do not consume the food. She blinks away a tear. She begs you to accept another cup of the fragrant tea grown only here, on the rugged mountain slopes.


Robert Boucheron grew up in Syracuse and Schenectady, New York. He worked as an architect in New York and Charlottesville, Virginia, where he has lived since 1987. His short stories and essays appear in Bellingham Review, Fiction International, London Journal of Fiction, Porridge Magazine, Saturday Evening Post, and other magazines.

He can be found on Twitter at @rboucheron