Petra Kamula

Three days from Granada

The forearm of sky is in my throat.

I left Granada three days ago.

A blood sky dissolves the sugar lump sun.

Shadow walks on my back with the feet of birds.

I remember: your hands in my hands, resting.

Days move. I do not move. Wake up in me.

Lorca’s tongue is in the ground.

Dust paints all faces until they are yours.

On the valley floor, a man’s voice cuts

upwards towards me, from beneath Iglesia Santa Ana.

In another country you are lying in bed

dark lashes moving clockwork against your cheeks.

 

Petra Kamula graduated from the UEA Creative Writing MA in 2011. Her poems and short stories have most recently appeared in Poetry Review, Magma, Lighthouse and Cordite. She is currently based in Sydney, Australia.
Twitter – @petrakamula

Lucy Sweeney Byrne

CATARACTS

From an extensive and
Highly detailed study
Taken out in the field
Over a period of, God,
More than
Twenty-five years now;
With copious notes
And gallons of blood
And other liquids
(And hope, etc)
Given to me
And from me
In return
(As is the custom);
I have concluded,
Definitively,
That fellow-feeling
And disinterested
Empathy
Are fictions
Created to
Pacify, and so
Survive
Relatively effectively
For a set time.

***

I don’t know about you, she said, but
For me, there’s this strange
Ache; in the hands.
A throbbing.
It’s like
The blood in them,
Has been set alight!

Do you know what I’m saying?

And now it’s boiling over,
Like it can’t
Be contained.
I can’t seem to hold it in.

Like it wants
To flood; break my
Banks. Or to rip the
Seams, which only just
Hold together
The ends of me.

***

The girl across the carriage didn’t speak a word of English, and so hadn’t understood any of what had been said, although she did smile encouragingly, and nod her tawny head. Her eyes, too, appeared red, although perhaps she was just tired.
Above her in the storage rack was a box with a latticed metal front, presumably hers, although I could not, from my position, see inside.
It was night, and so instead of the land passing by (fields and then, sometimes, trees, and so on, looping) we could only see ourselves, doubled, but backwards.
I’d understood almost every word, having studied English abroad for a year in Brighton, but continued to pretend to read my novel, rather than engage.

***

A girl in blue denim jeans feeds another girl in blue denim jeans the last bite of her doughnut from a white and pink-striped paper bag as they walk along North Avenue, and they smile and chew, and it’s only then, after all of a rolling Saturday filled with the usual nothings in late August, that they can go back to her mother’s empty house and fuck one another, sweat, clasping fistfuls of hair, almost crying with the lack they hadn’t before known they were holding.
Tongues, fingers, in; explore and discover, and they lie back after, panting, and listen to a car engine pass below, dark now, light across the wall, and think of later, and feel themselves begin to grow hungry, now, again.

***

He told me to go fuck myself and I asked him what does that even mean and he said trust you to first off take it literally, and second to not fucking know.

***

There’s one official palmist in the Republic of Ireland. Her name’s Jane Grey. On her website, she has written the following;

“… I have studied hands a few years now. I find that lines change so I always take a photo, so later if the person would like a reading you can show them the drifferece between the hands. I always go back in to the past to see if the person is holding on to any thing then try to solve the problem, and I try to help them get back on track. I travel to the persons house and I do private reading and partys. I can also help couples, and I specilise in helping you find love and happyness. So if you would like a reading please call Jane.”

***

His balcony overlooked a street of well-dressed activity on the outskirts of downtown Chicago. Buildings were still lowrise, but the area was dense, boasting independent coffee shops and bookshops with handwritten signs saying ‘no photographs or cellphones please!’. On weekends in summer there was constant human din from the open-fronted bars and restaurants, and sometimes if he couldn’t sleep through it he’d come out on the balcony with a Heineken from the fridge and a notebook, and try to catch snippets of the conversations happening down below. He’d smile, and shake his head, as though someone could see him. But they couldn’t. He was high up, and nobody thought to look. Which was good, because he only wore his dirty old robe, and sometimes not even that.
He wondered why those who considered themselves ‘cool’, why those people below his feet (below his limp dick, his anus, his bunions), would choose to be cool and young and free, in a city like Chicago. Why go to an almost-best place? Why not just go to one of the best? New York, London, Paris. Moscow even, would be better than this. Tokyo, Beijing. How could you consider yourself a proper thing, a person at the forefront of something, in a place as ‘not-quite’, as ‘nearly’, as this?
To him, this was just a poor imitation of other, more authentic cities. Chinese whispers had warped it, along the way somewhere. It was like a fucking Coors Light ad down there.
Whatever. What did he care? He’d only come back here to die. His sister had died already, three months ago now. She’d had an anurism while some dark-skinned guy he hadn’t known (and didn’t want to know) was fucking her in the bed back there, in the middle of the afternoon, apparently. And since he was her only living relative, he’d gotten this place. So here he was, with money in the bank and no mortgage and a balcony, for listening to those people down below, who didn’t see him anyway.

***

Nobody thinks of California as a desert now, but it is. You can pour as much water as you like into a place like that. But if it’s a desert, it’s a desert, and that’s that. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Something like that can’t be maintained indefinitely. It’s bound to dry up.
He sat back in his chair and intertwined his fingers on the table. She filled his glass, saying ‘mmm’, and nodding absently. She was still listening for the door.

***

Right, so this is it. Just like that. I d’know what I’m supposed to do now. You could’ve given me a bit of warning, to be honest. Given me a chance.
I did. I wrote you a letter in red marker and stuck it on the fridge two months ago, telling you I thought things weren’t working. That we needed to talk.
You know I’ve been on a diet. I haven’t been near the fuckin’ fridge. You did that on purpose. I think you wanted this to fail. Well, here, you can have your ring back. It was ugly anyway. I’m taking Rodolfo though. I’ll catch the late train, tonight.
…There’s really no need to be cruel.

***

I love watching birds fight over the last scraps of crumbs thrown by a child or an older person. Only people at the very stretched-out fingertip ends of life ever feed birds. One out of intrigue, the novelty. And the other out of a sense of affinity, I guess.
They break up the bread into chunks using those small, unwieldy hands, or disperse the crumbs gradually, like ugly snow. The children are usually with their parents but the older people are almost always alone.
I don’t throw bread myself, being young and healthy and full of purpose, but if I see a child or an older person throwing it I stop to watch. Birds don’t share, or take turns, or ration. They don’t give a shit about all that. It’s a frenzy. I like that. I like their honesty.

***

My friend fell in love with this guy who loved her back and Jaysus you should’ve seen them, they were mad about each other, tied at the hip. Even got each other’s initials tattooed on their ring fingers! And then being the foolish young things they were didn’t they go and get her pregnant. She was worried and had a little cry over a cuppa and we told her not to worry we’d be there for her whatever she decided and so would he surely. And to be honest she was a little excited too because they were in love and God what harm to have a baby when they were so mad about each other, they’d certainly discussed it and it’d be so amazing really, as well as hard work and all that.
And so she cooked him a nice dinner and her mother agreed to not be home that night especially for them to talk it out and make plans just the two of them, adults, parents even. So when they finally sat down, she told him she was pregnant and he stopped eating and didn’t say much, and slowly the foetus in her stomach sank. Then after dinner she’d expected him to stay and all but he didn’t, said he’d an early morning and needed time to take it in, but yeah of course it was exciting and yeah of course he still loved her and they’d make it work whatever they decided. He gave her a big kiss then and held her close and she was sort of reassured but also not at all actually when she looks back now. So then the day after the next when she’d still heard nothing she called his house and his brother told her he’d moved and no he didn’t know where, and she didn’t hear from him again.
And so two months later just before she ran out of time, with tears pouring and no more words for asking she went with myself and her mother to the clinic and undid the whole thing and now we don’t really talk about it any more.

***

It was cold, out there, and open. Unnervingly so. They’d said the ground would be hard. He’d wondered, uneasily, if it’d be cold where she was, breathing, and if she’d see it too; warm mist white as lungs depleted, before fading. It’s always there, breath. Cold just makes you see. Usually, you forget.
Something moved across the horizon, but he couldn’t make it out. It was too far gone. He grasped the biting shovel’s neck, upon which he’d leaned, to breathe, and resumed. His hands had grown red raw and pained from the cold and the motion of it, repeating.
Nobody spoke. It’d feel too loud, the vibrations disturbing, resounding. The whole thing, it was too echoingly wide. Soundless thoughts abounded, in garish, vulgar colours, flitting between crunching exhalations. They looked at the ground as they worked.
The body waited patiently, aside, frost creeping furtively into exposed extremities, fingertips, unheeded now. There was, he noted, a snake, in a circle, tattooed on the back of her left shoulder. It appeared to be eating itself. This disconcerted him, and so he resolved not to look again.

***

From an extensive and
Highly detailed study
Taken out in the field
Over a period of, God,
More than
Twenty-five years now;
With copious notes
And gallons of blood
And other liquids
(And hope, etc)
Given to me
And from me
In return
(As is the custom);
I have concluded,
Definitively,
That fellow-feeling
And disinterested
Empathy
Are fictions
Created to
Pacify, and so
Survive
Relatively effectively
For a set time.

 

Lucy Sweeney Byrne is a writer of short fiction and poetry. She graduated with first class honours in English literature from Trinity College Dublin. She has had her writing published in Banshee and Headstuff, and has work forthcoming in The Incubator and The Stinging Fly. In the last few years Lucy has lived in London, Madrid and New York, and is presently residing in Wicklow, Ireland.

NJ Stallard

The Threesome

I look at your spread legs
And pale bones curving up
In the four am light
Like dust.
And I imagine Mira’s mother
Who once told me how she slept
Face down in the pillows
Throughout the 1970s.

Your dedication to the moment
Seems the same
And it’s better because
I don’t know your name. Julie
Or Jennifer, or Gelareh.
He opens the bottle of beer with his teeth
Four hands. Come here.
We get started, like rain.

It’s January. I moved in yesterday
A temporary solution
Like this. We laugh
As I compliment your
Lies. And he slams you
Like a banshee
Or an office drawer
Is this working?

‘You seem reliable’
The Spanish student had told me, handing over the keys
‘I cleared the wardrobe. Except the coats’
Later I found: a wooden bead bracelet
An empty bottle of Dior Homme
Flight socks.
Six hands keep three mouths quiet
Like marble.

I protect these things more than I protect
Myself. Or you, or you
Those possessions. This threesome. So reliable
You climb over a photo of the Spanish girlfriend
Printed on a pillow
She’s topless. Smiling
Now we have a foursome, you say
Now we have a party

So let’s raise our bald bones
And think of Mira’s mother
Bury my face in it
Bury everything
Now we have a party

 

NJ Stallard is a writer and editor, based in Istanbul. Her recent work includes an essay on Turkish circumcision and an upcoming poem ‘I am the daughter of Jennifer Lopez’ in the next issue of Galavant.

@njstallard @tweenplath

Laura-Blaise McDowell

4am Virgins

As soon as it turns night time, out comes the darker side of life, you know what I mean? There’s this thing that happens and it doesn’t seem to know me. I certainly don’t know it. We’re down by the grave yard. I know. Teens lurking with the dead, October folly, all those scary movies and newspaper headlines rolled up right into one big flaming pumpkin, our silhouettes carved in its flesh. And yet here we are. There are six of us, an even number, don’t you know.

I’m wishing I wasn’t wearing this fucking scarf. Cara’s looking gorgeous with her slender neck angled away from the moon and I’m thinking that maybe I’d look gorgeous if I too revealed my neck and maybe if someone thought I was gorgeous, then I would feel something back. Because at night time when this dark side comes out in everyone it doesn’t happen for me. When Viv looks at Cara and you can see the feast in his eyes, when Cherry looks at Chris and you can just see her swelling. Those feelings that I see spilling out of them, it just doesn’t happen for me. There isn’t even a trickle. I can see that Cara’s beautiful, that Cherry has the nicest auburn hair anyone’s ever seen, I can tell that Viv has great arms and it wouldn’t feel bad to have them wrapped around you, that Chris has these happy eyes that could make a statue smile, and Dean is just about the coolest looking human being there is. But when I realised that my thoughts should maybe go a little further, and I tried, nothing. I wasn’t interested, and I’m not interested and that’s just the way of it. And usually, you know, I don’t feel that there’s anything wrong with it, with me. You forget something isn’t there when you don’t miss it, right? Especially when it’s not something you’ve ever had. I’ve never had an X­box, for example. I’ve never wanted an X­box, and therefore when I’m chilling out at home, the lack of X­box doesn’t even enter my head and if I see a picture of an X­box online, it doesn’t make me feel anything, I just scroll on by.

But on nights like these, when we’re hanging around, getting drunk, and everyone starts to look thirsty for each other, I’m still just thirsty for whatever we’re drinking. And when Dean tries to put his hand on my waist, it just feels like when my cat sits on my back when I’m doing homework, except less comforting. When Fidget sits on me I know it’s ’cause he likes the heat and he’s my buddy. When Dean touches me it’s a different heat and we don’t feel like friends anymore. Cara told me that when Viv touches her she feels little sparks, like you do when you hold a sparkler and sign the night air, but the sparks are everywhere, all over her, even all up inside her. I didn’t know what to tell her then, ’cause I don’t feel that way, ever. When I kiss people, it’s just tongues and teeth and loud music. There’s no real feeling, and I’ve no inkling to do it again, you know?

Whenever anyone’s tried to get me to go further I bail, because I can fake caring about kissing, I can deal with hands and mouths but I don’t care to try and fake anything more than that. When I tried to explain to Cherry once she used the end of her makeup brush to deposit me to the left of the mirror, and said in my God, the worst tone possible, ‘Babe, you just haven’t found the right guy yet.’ She looked herself, not me, in the eye as she said it and raised one eyebrow, taking my confession as evidence that she was just so much more mature than I was. Just because she fucks Chris behind the chapel every night and ‘loooves it.’ And that’s her prerogative you know? I’m not getting shitty because she enjoys sex. I’m getting shitty because she thinks I just don’t know ‘how’ to yet. There are no characters in any of the books I’ve read, any shows I’ve seen, who point blank don’t enjoy sex. Who don’t have romantic feelings, period. So I don’t know if maybe Cherry’s right, and the right person will just set me alight one day but I’m kind of hoping they don’t, just so she can be wrong in that fucking bathroom mirror with gum in the cracks.

But for now, we’re all down by the grave yard, drinking, and Dean’s hand is on my waist. Again. And he wants to kiss me. Again. And so we do. Again. Because how weird would it be if I were to hold off this time, when I’ve let him so many times before and as far as anyone else is concerned, we are fast becoming a ‘thing.’ Dean told Viv who went straight to Cara, that he’d stopped kissing other girls, that he was focussing on me. And I don’t know what to tell him. ‘Sorry man, I feel so sexual attraction to you. Your tongue feels like a small fish flopping on the shore of my disinterested mouth.’ Probably wouldn’t go down too well. We’re sitting in the old part of the yard, where none of us will know any of the people buried there, ’cause there’s this kid from our school, Barney, buried in the newer bit and we don’t want to disturb him, you know? A statue of the Virgin looms over us, illuminated by the streetlight over the wall. Chris and Cherry disappear for a while and when they come back, all her lipstick is gone. We’re all laughing at them and with each other and for a while I forget about Dean’s hand on me, till he leans in and whispers, ‘Now it’s our turn, babe.’ I move away from him a little and lean back against the gravestone. I shake my head and shrug apologetically, although I know I’ve nothing to apologize for. His stupid brow creases a little and he looks around to see if the others saw, but they’re not looking. ‘What?’ he mouths. I shrug again. He moves closer and whispers ‘What’s wrong, babe? It’s been weeks?’ He means since he started ‘focussing’ on me, and now it’s time for me to give in, right? Like a good little girl. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t give a fuck what my friends do, that’s their business and I’ll remind anyone who doubts their character because of it. But it’s just not what I want to do. I don’t feel it. I don’t need it. It’s not me. There are plenty of other things that I enjoy and that get me excited. Other bodies just isn’t one of them. But he doesn’t get it and I’ve finished my vodka and I’m feeling stupid so I move closer to him again and I say in my head that I’ll try it, that maybe then I’ll feel it and I’ll feel like the others and it will be okay. So I relax myself and I lean in and kiss his neck underneath his long hair and I can feel his face smiling as he goes to get up and take my hand.

And when eventually I get down, down deep on the ground with him he calls my name into my hair and I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything or that I’ve changed, I feel like it hasn’t happened, and it hasn’t, as far as I’m concerned and this doesn’t feel like anything, God, I’m almost angry with myself, looking up at the sky. And when we get up, he looks pleased as he breathes heavily through his open mouth and looks at me like he loves me and I feel sick. I didn’t expect to do this tonight, I mean, I’d thought about it and decided never. Not till I felt it, you know? Not till we were more than ghosts cut out in a grave yard with Mary praying for our dirty little souls all strewn on the gravel. Not till we were more than virgins at four AM, playing with what we thought was the truth and the meaning behind God. Sex. Love. Could this be it? It isn’t though, I know it. He’s the coolest, but I don’t feel a thing and I’m sober now.

‘Do you wanna, um, go out, for real?’ he says, shrugging his leather jacket on and wiping my hair from my cheeks. ‘I could take you out, y’know? I’ll take you some place nicer than this anyway…’ And how can I say no, when he’s standing there, looking like a motorcycle sunset and I’ll be the envy of all the girls in school and if I did say no I’d have to give the reason, right? So I smile, but only with my mouth. I feel sticky like a squashed insect and take his hand, back to the others.

 

Laura-Blaise McDowell a 23 years old human from Rathgar, Dublin. Having completed her undergraduate degree in English and Sociology in UCD, she has returned to its hallowed halls this year to pursue a Masters degree in Creative Writing. She was in a music video as an infant and is unlikely to reach such lofty heights again.

Jenna-Marie Warnecke

SPACEMAN
When your friend decides
to become your lover,
it’s like a science fiction movie.

Before your very eyes,
he peels off his top layer,
the friendly human body-mask,
to reveal a skinless creature beneath.

His eyes are his eyes
but now they pierce you
like laser guns.

His lips are his lips,
his mouth is his mouth

but what once joked
now coats you in wet touches,
the slime of a tongue,
action not intelligence

and the voice you could pick out
of a crowd
plummets to moans and whispers.

Your friend is gone.
He left without goodbye.

And the body-snatcher
who took his place
is greedy, rushed,

probing for evidence
to take back to his home planet
before morning comes.

 

Jenna-Marie Warnecke is a poet, essayist and fiction writer whose work has appeared in Narratively and Potluck Magazine. She lives in New York City.

James Bennett

five waking hours

 

1-2

lights out ambitiously early. turn over.  arm under pillow. breathe in. sigh.

think of a nice thing that could happen to you.

a wank usually helps. dozy post-cum is one of your least annoying selves and might actually let you sleep. porn or imagination? feels like an imagination night. who will it be? someone easy. marlon brando in streetcar. this one is all about the biceps. you begin at the hands and allow the gaze to move upwards along the normal-sized forearms. and then bang. they explode like two cartoon bombs. how did they even get there? nobody lifted weights in the fifties.

start off slowly but then get lazy or carried away. not bothered drawing it out. cum in today’s underwear left carefully beside the bed for this purpose. make an effort to feel it from the tip of your dick all the way back to your prostate and as far as the anus. cheap and cheerful. throw the boxers on the floor.

your brain sends you dark mists. enjoy them. you are so close to sleep now if only you can manage not to want anything. avoid the drink of water and the post-cum piss and you are gone. but these things are rarely avoided.

reliably it is the piss that gets you up. don’t want to wet the bed. you don’t do that anymore. because you have put it off for as long as possible some semen has coagulated in the urethra and there is a three second delay from the release of the sphincter to the appearance of the urine stream. it appears two-pronged. the dried cum snake-tongued your piss. this is rock and roll.

back to bed now and i am awake. thinking of concrete things. the worst.

 

2-3

count the sheep maybe. except instead of sheep it’s all the good things that are gone. berlin in the twenties and new york in the seventies. and penny lane from almost famous. but they didn’t know the things we know. there was more space on the dancefloor. now there are all these men who want to shake your hand. it’s disheartening.

what exactly are you lamenting? images of dead cities or your metaphorically cluttered dancefloor? sometimes it’s hard to keep up.

let’s all put on our serious faces and think about world war two.

no one moves to touch you here. why is that? want and do not want this.

at times like this i often almost save myself by becoming sentimental. but i hate sentimentality. it’s the new folk religion. they serve it up daily in the church of the culture (which incidentally is the culture itself) (welcome to the meta-incestuous spirituality). older folk religions looked like a wise combination of grit and mercy. now it’s all mercy and no grit which in the end helps no one but gets a lot of quotes posted on instagram.

sometimes i wonder if i’m just an arsehole. not that it would make any difference.

when you want to hurt yourself you are unstoppable. the mind jumps into the mincer and the body turns the handle. then they get sad and miss each other. by which time one of them has been minced. and it was the other one that did it.

i feel sick now i really do.

it’s been so long. it occurs to me that i am a monk and that there are things in the culture that aren’t forgotten. persistent and sticky magics. so this is my take on monasticism. like the skinny gay boy from the history boys. posner. and look at the state of him at the end. no thanks.

 

3-4

help me on this one. i’ve got the waves. good thing bad thing good thing bad thing the end. that would appear to be it. i have new things that calm me down these days. it’s the immensity of the known universe and of course the vast portion of reality that remains unknown to humans. you can’t sleep now so try it. there’s this analogy that really soothes me (see how i’m shattered into thought now). it goes like this. there is only a small fraction of the entire electromagnetic spectrum that can be perceived by the human eye. it’s called light. so say there’s another spectrum within which all other spectra and phenomena are contained and there is only a small part of it that can be perceived by human consciousness. this would be what we call reality or the physical universe. anyway it probably doesn’t take much discourse to knock that one down. but i think it’s pretty.

blind terror. by now merely an initial formality. duvets and wombs. take me back there. crawling skin that screams for you to fuck or sleep between your parents.

infinite death. of the self. no the planet now the universe. time. finished and over. swerving sharp from the biggest number back to the final zero. every flavour of fear.

my ribcage is full of moths.

fuck. this gets harder every time. i wish i had gotten up earlier today.

drink the water. wet. a concrete and easy sensation. no wonder people turn to drugs.

some people say that suicides happen in clusters and that deep sadness begets itself. i think it should be stopped. maybe i will absorb it or my share of it. i think that means staying alive. such a brave boy.

please please all i want is for them to know about me and how happy i am and how easy i am with my affections. please. i do not want to be the sad boy. please please. i do not want to be the sad boy any more.

 

4-5

in all my fantasies there is a camera or an eye. i am a triangle of eyes. a three-point stream of vision. you will not know me. i will not know myself. i am a dead river of unreal pictures rotting at the edge. i am three mirrors falling into zero. i am the seen.

is it possible to want to shag someone and also to laugh with them over toast while at the same time believing that western romantic love bears all the hallmarks of a cult and that desire is inextricably linked to melancholy and absence?

i would like to die at an intimate tropical breakfast.

i am in love. i am in love with breathing. i like breathing many different kinds of air such as the cold fresh variety that is found near the sea. best experienced in the morning or late evening. this is a great air to be surprised by. i do also like warm indoor air. especially on weekend afternoons when it has been suffused with coffee and lavender.

cock and balls. arse.

if heaven and hell were real they would be the sky and the sea. the sky is infinite light and air. seeing and breathing totally. the sea is of course dark and there is definitely no breathing. this is why i want to be buried at sky.

time be good (to me) (i’m scared).

 

5-6

edit me it hurts. i’m pointing everywhere at once.

and yet when we were on the beach it was cold and i liked it.

you did this to yourself but i suppose it was inevitable.

can anyone turn me off for a few minutes?

if i ever fall in love then who knows? what if it involves rocky outcrops and shared socks? god help us.

 

James Bennett was born in Wexford in 1992. His work has been published in Crannóg, Icarus, Belleville Park Pages and Berfrois. He lives in Barcelona and tweets @_j_ames.

Caitlin McGregor

raspberries

i order a raspberry and white chocolate muffin
purely for the raspberries

she orders a caramel slice
i take note of this and am unimpressed

she is older and much more married than I am
which is fine and unfortunate respectively

how is your family
how are your studies
how is your poetry coming along
there are not enough raspberries in this muffin

i break bits off
and put them in my mouth
and search for berries with my tongue
but all I’m getting is white chocolate bits
and they’re too too sickly sweet

she says:
so i read your poem about the raspberry muffin
you should have ordered raspberries straight up
if you only wanted raspberries

i say:
i guess unrefined sugar tastes better
after you’ve pretended to like the refined stuff for a while

the raspberries are at the bottom of the muffin
wet and tart here we go here we go
i devour them in the unrefined manner of an animal
the juice runs down my chin like blood

 

Caitlin McGregor studies creative writing at the University of Melbourne. She mostly writes poetry, short fiction and memoir, and has work published or forthcoming in The Lifted Brow, Scum, Talking Soup and Judy’s Punch. You can find her on twitter at @caitlinmcgregor.

Pia Ghosh-Roy

White Christmas Brown

 

 

 

The leaves were rusting around the edges when we moved to England. Our first autumn. A season hitherto read about in books, seen in Hollywood films in which lives run amok in Central Park or on aerial photographs of Canada with its autumn spreading like forest fire. Autumn seemed like an appropriate season to start life in this new country – the sky was blue, the air cold, the trees wore more gold than brides in India. Nature was obviously throwing us a party.

We moved in – my husband and I – with our Indian lives folded into two large suitcases. We moved in without expectations or anxiousness. Young and eager to explore a land that was inextricably connected to India, and hence familiar in many ways; like an old house that has been described, and its rooms told and retold to you, since you were a child. After their two-hundred-year camping trip, the British left us an odd mishmash of a country, especially evident in Kolkata where I grew up, always a little British in its ways. My grandfather in his starched white dhoti having buttered toast and scrambled eggs for breakfast, my father quoting Shakespeare while sitting in the balcony his body glistening with mustard oil, warming himself and his bucket of bath water in the winter sun. A mulligatawny culture.

And so, in England, this foreign yet familiar country, we settled in like print on paper.

 

identity /ʌɪˈdɛntɪti/ n. the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is.

I studied in a convent school in Kolkata, run by Keralite-Christian nuns, with a chapel above the classrooms. The school sat in a largely Muslim neighbourhood with a mosque just around the corner. I am Hindu by birth.

At the start of our school day, we would all line up for our morning assembly in the school’s inner courtyard in order of height, and in a squashed concertina of faiths – Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs. We would recite Our Father in Heaven, crossing our hands in front of our solemn little faces: “In the name of the father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.” To us, it was much like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.
Our ambi-religious lives had two compartments – there was life in school and life at home – and they never contradicted each other, they were never at war. They simply co-existed. You would kneel at the school chapel praying for an exam to be cancelled as easily as you would accompany your parents to the temple on the odd weekend. You grew up with no sense of religion. Religion was a sum of its festivals. Something to participate in, to partake of. And so you visited your Muslim friends on Eid to eat homecooked biryani, you waited breathlessly for the frenetic days of Durga Puja, and you hung up stockings at Christmas.
There was no idealistic purpose to this, no lofty cause. We certainly didn’t get a pat on the back for being accepting of differences. The differences just didn’t occur to us, that’s all. Maybe because there was so much of it.

 

Identity. I, dent. An oddly self-fulfilling beginning to a word that is a fragile concept. A word easily dented by its definition: the characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is. The invisible fine print: characteristics visible to the naked eye. That is, the characteristics made up of gene and geography.  A convenient grid, unnuanced by life, personality or experience.

In Kolkata, Christmas Eve meant a walk down Park Street. A road more than a street, much like high streets in the UK but without the sense of déjà vu and the well-behaved traffic. We went there to look at the Christmas lights, hammocked across the street, from one building to another, a shamiana of stars over a river of honk-happy cars. A large Santa moved its motorised arm in a jerky wave, and a giant Christmas tree glittered next to a bar called Trinca’s. Before taking the taxi back home, we would stop at Flury’s, one of the city’s oldest tearooms, its menu caught in a colonial time-warp, to buy a rich, moist fruitcake. I don’t like fruitcake, but that was the ritual. Christmas wasn’t complete without it.
Soon after our move to England, and before we knew it, autumn had passed. The trees had gone from brown to bare, and we were onto our first English Christmas. To us, it looked like the Christmas found in books, a beautiful cliché straight out of Dickens. There it was – the frosted pavements and bare trees, chestnuts, mulled wine and mistletoe. How exciting it all was! Everything was exactly as I’d imagined it to be. Complete with carol singers knocking on doors, standing in their huddle, their beautiful songs wafting out in puffs of synchronised fog under yellow lamplight. This seemed like the best part of my new Christmas; in this foreign land, a group of singers singing all the songs I’d sung in school, and knew by heart. In India, I’d had the Christmas trees, the fairy lights, I’d written letters to Santa when I was little, but we’d never had carol singers in woolly hats and long coats come knocking on our door.
So, we waited for them to knock. It was Christmas Eve. I’d peeped out of the upstairs window and had seen them singing at a house further up the street. Ours was a short street of old, terraced houses, not many in a row. I ran downstairs and switched on the light to make sure they knew we were home. The sound of the carols crept closer, one house at a time. I had chocolates and a ‘Merry Christmas!’ ready. When they knocked, my husband and I opened the door with a big smile.

They were a group from the local church. Old and young. Red-faced from the cold, gloved, smiling. When they saw us, their smiles turned awkward. It was a smile I would come to know well. The English Smile. Not a stretching-out of the corners of the mouth, but a pushing-up of firmly closed lips, so that what you get is a fine balance between Polite Greeting and Apologetic Grimace. A spasm of facial muscles with infinite uses; to say hello, to say thank you, to cope with any unforseen eye-contact, to acknowledge someone you’d rather not stop and talk to, to apologise for things that require no apology, like when you come out of a public toilet and encounter the person who’s been waiting outside to use it after you.

Our carol singers smiled that smile, and then shuffled a step back from the door. ‘Oh, we’re sorry,’ one of them said. The others echoed in; more muffled apologies: Sorry, sorry. And before we knew it, they had moved on to the next house.   
We stood there holding the door, looking at each other. The same confused question on our faces. What happened? Sorry for what? And then almost immediately realisation followed. We’d forgotten we looked different, different from the other families on our street who’d opened their doors to their songs.

To that group out singing on a winter evening, we were just two brown faces. And to them, brown was outside the bounds of Christmas. Outside the bounds of the Christmas they knew.

 

The characteristics determining who or what a person or thing is. Damned things, definitions. Flat. Singular. Handed down like old clothes.


The carol singers did not know of the crazy cauldron that is India. They did not know of all the Anglo-Indian friends I’d grown up with; very brown, and very Christian. They knew nothing of all the Silent Nights I’d sung in school. They had apologised because they didn’t want to offend us, didn’t want to force us into a Christmas they assumed wasn’t ours.

But that evening, their apologies only reminded us of how far we were from home. Their sensitivity to our differences only showed us that we were different. It was a difference we’d once again forgotten to notice.
In their hurried leaving, the carol singers had made a beautiful pattern of trails in the snow; it would turn to muddy slush by next morning. We closed the door and went inside with our chocolates and our unspoken Merry Christmas. And an odd awareness. Of having been put in our place through an act of misplaced courtesy. Of being made to feel like outsiders by the British sense of good manners, which can create distance quicker than a rude word.

We quickly laughed it off lest it spoil our Christmas Eve. We took the roast out of the oven, sat next to our fake Christmas tree next to our fake fireplace, sipped our wine and listened to the carol singers singing a few houses away: Joy to the world.

 

Identity in an ideal world would be colour blind. And blind to every other parameter that bends our perception like puppets. It would not be stamped on by sight, but determined, if it must be, through a slow simmer of action and conversation. And till then, left alone. Without definition.

It’s been quite a few years since that December evening; we’ve just crossed another Christmas, our ninth in this country. It looks less like Dickens’ Christmas now. It’s my Christmas. England is as much home as India is, it’s where our daughter was born. We ignore the differences, we celebrate the differences. The stuffing in our roast is flavoured with cumin and fresh coriander leaves. Our daughter waits for Diwali just as she does for Christmas. Christmas might even be winning, what with flying reindeers and jingly bells and a jolly old man who slips down chimneys with gifts.   
Now, when the lady at the supermarket till wishes the man before me on Christmas day but doesn’t wish me, careful in her manners, mindful of culture, of the brown skin I wear under my coat, I wish her. ‘Happy Christmas,’ I say cheerily. Immediately, I see her face relax, it breaks into a big smile, not The English Smile this time. ‘Happy Christmas, love!’ she wishes me right back. And in an instant, for an instant, we’re both eased, and somehow connected.

 

Pia Ghosh Roy grew up in India and now lives in Cambridge (UK). Her fiction and essays have been published in the UK and US. She was shortlisted for the 2015 Brighton Prize, longlisted for the 2015 Bath Short Story Award, and highly commended at the 2014 Words and Women Competition. She has worked in advertising as a copywriter in Kolkata, Mumbai, Bangalore and London. Pia is currently working on her first novel.
Blog: Peppercorns in my Pocket / Twitter: @piaghoshroy

Jonny Keyworth

Lucille’s Balloon

Lucille could track her existential dread by the fluctuations of her bowel. She had odd pet-names for these fluctuations: sometimes it would be the ‘Bo Diddley’ week, when she was gassy and bloated, then it would be ‘John Coltrane’ week when she was suffering from bouts of diarrhea and sweating; I do not even want to inflict on you ‘Thelonious Monk’ week. I can tell you all this as I was Lucille’s GP for 36 years. You can tell (I presume a certain level of intelligence in my readership) from the phrasing of the last sentence that I am no longer Lucille’s GP. But I am getting far ahead of myself. I risk flouting the principle associated with Anton Chekhov (Again, I am presuming my readership are familiar with Chekhov), known as ‘Chekhov’s Gun’: the principle that every narrative element should be necessary, i.e. “if you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there”. But in this case, please replace gun with Lucille’s bowel.

She often spoke of her health (both physical and mental) as like a balloon. It was usually at this moment that my eyes would begin to glaze and the branches I could see from my surgery window suddenly became something of interest to me; any other time I would scorn those damn twigs as chancers and charlatans! I don’t like trees. But from the very fact that I am writing this right now (I’m not wearing trousers), I must have soaked in Lucille’s analogy about the balloon. Don’t get me wrong, every so often, Lucille would say something that grabbed my attention, it was not all monotonous dross; she often spoke about ‘drawing with scissors’, a strange analogy she would draw at long length and hit me with emotional weight. She somehow would always be my last appointment of the day and as she spoke with this look of profound fragility emitting from her posture and facial expression, that wonderful moment when dusk sets in and the air has that warm stillness, would flood into the room. The analogy revolved around an image that haunted her sleep of Henri Matisse sitting in a wheelchair in his studio, having been given three years to live, the studio now empty, all his work locked away in the vaults of French banks. He was in the midst of a bitter divorce with his wife, and lawyers were fighting over his valuable work. Matisse breathed heavily in his chair, which was in the exact centre of the room and he spun awkwardly in the chair taking in the void that was now his artistic output. Surrounding him on every side was a war-zone, as German troops clashed with their French equivalents. In the depths of his despair, Matisse reached over to a side table that was sprayed with various bits of paper and materials, the table just beyond his reach and his forehead begun to sweat with the frustration. With a sigh he swiveled in his chair to move closer to the table and the tip of his finger was able to tease a plain piece of white paper onto the floor where he could pick it up. He managed to pick up the large pair of scissors on the table, and cut a single man out of the paper. His limbs were flailing and limp. The man became the centre of Matisse’s The Fall of Icarus, which marked a new period in Matisse’s career; death and war lurking in the background.

“And what does this all mean Lucille?” I would often ask this.
“Is it not clear? I thought I had explained it with suitable length and clarification”
“Yes Lucille, I suppose it is”
“It breathes, it responds, it’s not a dead thing” She would then quote Matisse. Matisse’s mind processed colour at such a speed and with such depth, that eventually his body (his retinas) could not keep up. The very essence of his being, his creativity, was finally beaten by the body’s finitude and natural disintegration. The rest of his body followed suit and his artistic quintessence was finally shut off and destroyed. It became buried in the vaults of his mind, his physical being unable to carry out the necessary movements and processes to convert this quintessence into being. “It breathes, it responds, it’s not a dead thing”. It was if someone was going from room to room turning off the light, like a lonely janitor closing up a school that would never see another child, a shell to be left as an altar to education and growth. I understand how this image could haunt Lucille, I believe she feared that very process, the heavy reality of being, and I believe that’s why she found such solitude in the balloon and perhaps the bloated bowel. But it was not until Lucille passed from a nuisance to a void that I noticed this nuance and detail.

I’m not sure what it was that brought me to the realization that Lucille had stopped attending appointments. It was common, if not procedure, that patients would come and go; of course, they were sick and then they would get better. I obviously treated families and watched families grow and then deplete, and then grow again: it is just how life is. I had become accustomed to this stark reality and it had undoubtedly begun to erode any sentimentality I may have once enjoyed. But Lucille was the type of patient that would come to me with the slightest ailments, she would be sitting outside my door at the smallest sneeze or fart, so the realization that she had not been to see me for over a month, disconcerted me more than I ever thought it would. Lucille was always a nuisance. I joked with my secretary about her and made crude jokes to my wife about her, in pathetic heartlessness. I derided her for her meek, modest appearance and the slow labored way that she spoke. But it wasn’t until she disappeared that I really appreciated her emotional richness and honesty, and finally understood why she irked me so: she represented everything I was trying to hide, every weakness I sought to conceal. I cringe as I remember the way I would rush her along and push her to conclude and wrap up by clapping my hands and rubbing my knees. I did not give her the time that she deserved. I did not want to make this concession to my secretary; I am narcissistic enough not to want her to see my vulnerability, but I ummmmmmed and hmmmmmmed late into the evening with Lucille’s file open in front of me. Colleagues twisted their heads round my door to say goodnight and I did not turn from my desk and just offered a strange shaking hand, neither wave or hand signal. I breathed heavily and leant back in my chair, over and over; I breathed heavily and leant back in my chair, over and over; you get the idea. It was unprofessional to call Lucille at home; I really had no reason to call her, other than to calm my guilt. Perhaps she had just gone to another GP who may have given her more time than I did, or perhaps she went to a psychiatrist who may have been better placed to treat her. Perhaps she had been blown away by a strong wind. Eventually I picked up the phone with a clammy hand and begun to slowly punch her number onto the keypad, the 5 worn by my fingers over the years. Strangely the five was more eroded than the others, and I thought there must be more fives in local phone numbers, and I considered for a second whether to research this theory but the end of the ringing tone interrupted my thoughts. An answerphone crackled and the following message came from the phone into my ear:

“…”

The balloon. The bowel. Here’s me getting all maudlin, building up to this narrative crest of the wave, and I nearly broke Chehkov’s rule. The balloon, why isn’t that why we’re all here? Lucille would use the balloon to explain all her symptoms. She would arrive at the surgery in a jumper covered in balloons, each a different primary colour. With the balloons she could explain the fluctuations of her bowel (that’s where the connection is, sloppy): she would blow up a balloon till it burst to explain bloating and abdominal pain, she would blow up the balloon and slowly let out the air to explicate flatulence, etc. When she was feeling depressed she blew only a small amount of air into a white balloon, so it was limp and saggy, like an aged breast. She would explain it great detail the wrinkles in the balloon and how they represented her fears, and how the shapelessness of the balloon signified her uncertainty and dread. I have to admit I found it all a little contrived and overdone and I would roll my eyes until they were sore. But now, I see that there was something about the way she talked about joy, about the weightlessness that happiness brings to life, explaining the feeling through a red balloon filled with air and the way it would daintily move in the air; it was the only time I heard hope and strength in her voice. But the Doctor in me would prevail and I would ask: “But what does this have to do with your bowel Lucille?” Aha! The balloon is the beautiful deus ex machine (Again again, I’m am presuming some knowledge of Latin in my readership, and to warn you, I shall use two more Latin phrases in the rest of this piece, but due to writer’s guilt I’ve added footnotes), allowing me to retain some shred of experto crede.
“Can you not see Dr? Is it not so very poignantly clear?” I shall apologise for the late showing of the captatio benevolentiae and more the inevitable resignation of my authorial pretensions.
“Yes Lucille, I suppose it is”.

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Jonny is a writer based in East London, and has recently had fiction published in Ambit Magazine and Queen Mob’s Teahouse. He can be found online @jonnykeyworth and http://www.jonnykeyworth.com

Kat Gillespie & Alex Griffin

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Kat Gillespie and Alex Griffin are  two writers, editors and loose units currently residing in Perth, WA. Kat tweets @normcor3 & Alex @griffreviews.

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Alex MacDonald & Amy Key

G e m i n i

Always do your best to be articulate. We often
career around truth, like cycling past manure.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions – the important
ones like “what is faith?” and “where is truth?”
have never been so celestially integral. If you
find out the answers, don’t boast about it. Saturn
hasn’t aligned just for you. Share an important
moment with someone you otherwise wouldn’t.

Beware the temptation to kiss yourself in a mirror.
Beware wishing wells and umbrellas. Your element
is forlorn. Mercury has some apologising to do.
If someone from your past asks ‘do you remember
that summer?’ know it is a trap, a trap
made of gurgling confessors. Kindness will come
by way of natural phenomena – think underground.
Call me to hear how to avoid yourself.

Your house of dreams and wishes
is magic today, Sadge. Some real impressive
rabbit out of the drain shit. A stranger
will offer you a night on the town,
but what part of town is unclear. Remember –
Mercury Retrograde is not just the name
of your future tattoo shop. The moon will be dim,
so your balcony dinner will suffer. You may call me.

Even if (as some doomy pessimists suspect)
the creator of the universe is a cliché, the cosmos
is not ashamed of its gifts. What can you learn
from this? Don’t dismiss your Venusian disposition.
I ought to add a caveat: something
and nothing are too easily mistaken for each other.
This may be an unusual weekend.
Call. I have great things to tell you.

Don’t deny yourself an ugly space,
even angler fish have hearts in their volcanic bodies.
It would be foolish to turn away the Gods of hatred,
especially as they have made the journey to you.
Get perspective. If you lived on Pluto, your saviour,
your shadow would last for 65 days.
But you wouldn’t be able to breathe, either.
This is a recorded message.

Dear Libra, you did not notice the tree
sprouting again, but you did notice
the leaves. It is never the sharpness of the bend,
it is the speed at which you take it.
I have an astro alert for you:
its time to remove the lid from the box.
Your eyes are like bacteria in petri dishes,
no one can see what you’re thinking.

Something lives in every part of the globe.
This should give you comfort this week,
when a well-known friend, or brother, breaks apart.
If a friend, it’s hot water at bedtime
and only one open window in the house.
If a brother, that’s less clear. What’s obvious is that
you’ll know it when it happens, a key change.
As in music. As in locks.

To give your life gripping excitement
of a pinless grenade, one needs to introduce a deadline.
What haven’t you started? If you were
to plant that magnolia seed now, you’d
need to wait 10 full years to see it bloom.
Is there still time? Request a full, personal
birth chart now. I can’t pinpoint when you came into
the world, rendering this reading useless.

Time to relax that broken head: pull the phone
out the wall, follow its cord through the house,
release dust and let it rest in a friendly way,
follow the phone line outside and, with purpose,
pull it down off the telegraph pole.
Actually today could be busy. Get an early night,
as they draw further away from us.
This number is currently unavailable.

Leave it to you to fall in love with an adversary.
Pleasure and disgust are often in cahoots,
like being enchanted by a blocked pore.
The handsome stranger’s pillow talk
is a hokey lecture. Leave the stranger in the strange land.
‘If everybody had an ocean’ sang The Beach Boys
in ‘Surfin’ USA’. Your outlook is money,
love and ocean. Don’t forget your cossie.

Today every move you make is a kiss
and everyone is on fire. Take precaution.
Don’t walk over three drains unless you have to.
Remember, if you are listening to this,
then no one is strange or perfect. It’s time to begin
something new. Imagine yourself as the house
you grew up in, suddenly this unfamiliar room
appears and the light begins to open.

Roses are blooming in your garden, Gemini,
but still your heart is an investment piece
you’re ‘saving for best’. Hello dustbag.
Yet again you look to me to provide
the answers. I do not have them. Remember
what Violet wrote to Vita: ‘I remain for a long time
leaning on the balustrade with dreaming eyes’.
Its time to wake up. Never call me again.

Alex MacDonald lives in London. His poetry has been published in Poetry London, Poetry Wales, 3:AM Magazine, The Quietus and Clinic. He is one of the editors of Poems In Which.

Amy‘s collection Luxe (Salt) was published in 2013. Her poems have appeared in POETRY, The Poetry Review, Poetry Wales and elsewhere. She co-edits Poems in Which and is editor of Best Friends Forever (The Emma Press) – an anthology of poems on women’s friendships.

Annie Katchinska

The Queen/Little birds and beasts (from Wonder & Smoke)

I functioned in my entitled world
I sat on the train with Tesco sushi, sucking ginger straight from the pouch
I watched the train weave through luxury developments
I learned an unblinking spite
I learned You should astonish, constantly
I saw a bread roll dropped and frightened on Kingsway
My heart whirled
I had haircuts
I had several good jobs one after the other
I sat on the F R A G I L E R O O F
I made eye contact with homeless people
I tripped over on Fleet Street
I continued to schedule meetings and type Kind regards
The stars popped and rolled above me
I bought heel grips
I bought a cube of air in a luxury development
I swayed inside it
I couldn’t count higher than such-and-such a number
I thought the brilliant tap water was trying to shout but I didn’t say so
I believed no one
I sat in the bar with a nasty drink
I drank with my King
We fell in love
My heart bucked
I heard him referred to as a lovely lovely man
His gums were very purple
He gave me the keys to the castle
He gave me a box of vitamin shakes
I was referred to as exquisite – however
I saw the white arrows all over the road and followed them
I continued to sculpt my inadequate hair
I learned a remarkable 98% of every espresso is water
The cab jumped up and my head jerked forward
I couldn’t stop
I became influential
I tripped over, famously
I said “How stupid!” and the little birds and beasts tapped HOW STUPID to each other
I went to an expensive clinic
I enjoyed blame of all kinds
I went to Malta
I went to my King and grabbed him by the hair
My internal judge said this and that
One day on the street I met this green-eyed bitch

Annie Katchinska was born in Moscow in 1990 and grew up in London. Her Faber New Poets pamphlet was published in 2010, and her poems have been included in various anthologies. After graduating from Cambridge University, she spent two years living and working in Sapporo, Japan, before returning to London in 2013.

Roisin Kiberd

Social Justice Mercenary

She looked down at the space between her thighs. The chair was covered in itchy blue wool, just like the seats on the Tube. Was weight gain already setting in? A sedentary office life, spent staring into screens. Was it really all that different to before?

She didn’t used to care about weight, had made a point of not thinking about it. Back in heady times, played out in scrolling timelines. It had felt radical, though the number of eyes her writing reached then was nothing compared to now. One-girl-riot.tumblr.com, later renamed LadyRageBender. Up all night typing replies, drunk on the glow of the screen in the dark.

She had been hired only two months before, but it felt like a past life. A grubbier, messier one. Coffee gone stale when she was too tired to drink it. A cheap flat with low ceilings. That dismal feeling that the only friends she had left were those wanking over her DMs. But she had loved the extremity of it, the sense of a postgraduate precipice.

The set-up was decent though, she would give them that. Open-plan, with little food stations built into the walls. Everyone liked the granola bars, free from a new client. “FlapJaxxed”, marketed at men, and baked with whey protein isolate. The campaign had bodybuilders in y-fronts, on the sides of London buses. Bulked-up bodies, hairless as was the fashion that year.

AdWeek had declared 2021 ‘the year of the SmartGrain baked good’. Carbs were back in fashion, as long as they were augmented with actionable health benefits. Campaigns for BrainBran and SexRice were already in the pipeline.

She was recruited through social media, right when her Twitter reached the ten thousand mark. They said they were looking for new voices, “socially conscious” and “sassy.” The money was good. She had thought arts degrees were unemployable.

She thought a lot, between the meetings and timesheets, about what had happened to her friends. Those who had something to protest about. One, she knew, was imprisoned. Another had suddenly disappeared. One was rumoured to have been recruited by the Singaporean government, who offered to pay her way through an Ivy League university in return for work as a spy.

The followers didn’t notice when she fell silent. A life lived online, however radical, was easy to compartmentalize and forget.

It was lunch time. She wanted to go to McDonalds down the road because it was usually empty, though she also wondered if buying chips would make her a part of the problem.

She chose the new Spring Season HealthFries, low fat and sprinkled with a proprietary blend of Vitamin C, echinacea and antihistamines. She took out her notebook to try to make sense of the week. Monday: Skype VR with the BrainBran people. Tuesday: copy for a campaign about euthanasia. Wednesday was busier: writing terms and conditions for a fitness app (she was known already in the agency for her marvelously innocuous Terms and Conditions. A past life spent debating with Reddit MRAs about consent had equipped her well).

Then after lunch she would be shown a new campaign for a beauty industry client.

She wrote a lot of copy and a lot of Terms and Conditions, but what she did most was offer approval. Keeping her in the dark till the last minute, they’d send over finished campaigns and ask for her reaction. She’d tell them if the work was socially sensitive, or might trigger outrage online. It earned her the title of “Campaign Arbitrator”: she saw herself as their reality check.

And they got it so wrong, sometimes. They objectified women, made off-colour jokes and senseless blunders. That print ad for calorie-controlled follow-on milk. The campaign where a man’s aerosol deodorant was so seductive he had to fight women off, literally, with a baseball bat. Every day was exhausting and disheartening and strange. She had to explain things, patiently and thoroughly. But they seemed sincere. They wanted to know, so that they could change.

Familiar voices in the next booth.

“I know this works because I’m a digital professional. Who converts. Big time.”
“We can’t prove it will sell. I don’t know who told them to jump on this bandwagon…”
“Ariana Grande is doing it, in her new video.”
“Yes, but Ariana Grande does a lot of things.”
“Suri Cruise..”
“Has she even hit puberty?”
“She’s a hottie. ‘All grown up,’ the Mail said. Look, it doesn’t matter if it’s a trend or not, women are still going to buy it. We just get a good campaign going, make them run scared…”
“What’s the copy again?”
“Let’s see. ‘Hey girls, feminism is the new sexy’ Or we have ‘Men love a feminist’ We’re going to A/B test it. Then, ‘Craving luscious hairy pits but patchy after years of waxing? Grow those babies back, with Talisse for underarms’.

Over the background music, bloated with HungerTech binaural beats, she noticed that her ears were ringing. She had not felt like herself lately. The fries tasted acidic. Were they potato, or one of the new SmartStarches?

“That blogger girl they hired, this one’s going to give her a nervous breakdown.”
She had never thought of herself as a blogger. More as a political activist.
“It’s going to do so well. Jezebel, Buzzfeed… especially if we get ‘called out’, you know? Like somebody famous takes issue with it.”
“Ok look, if that blogger girl.. what’s her name again?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ok, if she says it’s offensive, maybe turn it up a bit more, ok? Let’s run with this.”
“Brilliant. ‘Women, think for yourself, grow it back at only £29.99 for a month’s supply.’”

She was beginning to feel ill. She wondered why they weren’t in a proper restaurant that served wine with lunch deals for a tenner, like at Nando’s Plus. Gourmet lad food. They could afford it.
They were creative directors.

The ringing in her ears was stronger now. Still she could hear their voices, the laughter. She had made a huge mistake. She barely noticed as the table rose to meet her head, as she passed out face-down in her chips.

Roisin Kiberd writes about the internet, among other things, for Motherboard, Vice and occasionally others like The Guardian. She has also worked on and off in social media, including a year spent on Twitter as a brand of cheese. This is the first time her fiction has been published.

@RoisinTheMirror & roisinkiberd.tumblr.com

A. K. Blakemore

gregor

I.

i attempt to conceal my disgust as you draw your hard, squat body up to the dish of milk.
why? out of politeness?

the same reasons you’d roll from on top of me when the cat came into the bedroom.
hovering, i half expect you to lower a soft black tongue, or even a needle, but instead

you immerse your whole bulbous head. it looks inexact, and messy. i forget sometimes
we’re both new to this.

you lift away and point yourself at me – dark-eyed/somehow accusatory.

II.

i lead you to the bed with a trail of rotting lettuce leaves and hold my body
against your hardened forewings.

you’d laugh if you could see me a quivering believer
draped across the stone of unction
feeling for the word – a lay line –

some way to make things right with Him.

III.

complaints:
the silence of your over-wintering / anxiety makes your legs bleed /
this bedroom smells of dead leaves.

i cannot sleep on these mattress springs –
deferential to the purring

of your many dormant hearts.

A. K. Blakemore‘s first full-length collection, Humbert Summer, was released by Eyewear in 2015. She currently lives and works in South-East London.

Helen McClory

What Can Be Endured May Yet Be Unbearable

Here is the main boulevard, tree-lined and still, and in the elegant residential buildings lining the boulevard the thoughtless are asleep, the news having come yesterday to no riots, no sound of objection at all. But in the fourteenth building, up on the fourth floor, third window along, I have not forgotten it. The cup of coffee on my desk is six days stale, so then, what. A great deal of the universe has grown cold. In the kitchen there is a little blood on the tiled floor and my dog is missing, having snuck out by the door left ajar. Someone knocks. Delivery! Pizza and roses! He says, with a tight flourish, producing both from behind his back. I take them and walk back inside. He has an unusual accent and dank, long hair that looks like a wig. He sways but is not drunk. Ma Donna, he says, still standing there. We gape a while at one another. I have plum-scented votives burning on a wooden chopping board. At the sight of these he claps his hands. I invite him in because it’s very possible he is Death.

We sit on the sofa and he pulls all the topping off his pizza slice before eating it. I decide from this irrefutable proof that he must be Death. He rolls up the dough as small as it will go and laughs and pushes it into his mouth. His face is lumpy. Outside I begin to hear sounds of distress from down in the street. Death stands and presses his greasy hands against the window. I look around. There’s the cream fleecy blanket. That will do. I pull it around my body like rolling a map, no – a burrito. You don’t have to make plans or a future with a burrito. I remove the needle and thread out from their hiding place. x stitches caterpillar up the sides of the casing. Soon I’m clasped safe, with only my head left to the elements, though that won’t be for long. Death has opened the window. The fires have come, probably, and all the lost dogs are dancing on their hind legs. Hai doggies, Death calls down to the street. But here in my room in my blanket there is quiet, smelling of melted cheese and oregano. Death looks back at me and waves his ineffectual royal wave as I close myself up entirely.

Helen McClory is a writer from Scotland. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow and an MA in Creative Writing from UNSW, Australia. Her first flash fiction collection, On the Edges of Vision, was published by Queen’s Ferry Press in August 2015. Her debut novel, Flesh of the Peach, will be published by Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016. She can be found @HelenMcClory.