What’s A Girl To Do?

BB Blue Bike
Lonely and Blue – Photo by Brian Bennett

Photography: Brian Bennett is an actor and theatre-maker from Dublin, Ireland. He is currently working on his first novel and a feature script to be filmed next year. He is also working on a photography exhibition entitled ‘Blue’. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianbennett84

_______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Short Story: Plastic Bags

 – By Alison U Miller

I’m red-wine drinking, mirror checking, window stalking, waiting for Oli to arrive and its driving me insane.  I arrived home from work in the city less than an hour ago but I’ve taken a shower, shaved my legs – just in case anything happens- ironed my white see-through (but not too see-through) shirt, caught the six o’clock headlines, hoovered the living room carpet and because I simply did not have time to do them, I’ve thrown all the dirty dishes into the basin and hidden it in a cupboard.  Well, I don’t want him to think I’m a slob.

And now I’m waiting.  I’m listening to Oasis. Loud.  Oli likes them too which is great news.  I pad up to the window, adjust my stockings a little higher, smooth my skirt back into position.  Great, you look great.  Slowly peep between slatted verticals hoping to spy his Golf GTI pull onto my driveway.  It’s a lovely car, sporty.  His other car is back home in Iceland.  I can’t remember what it is, must have been too tuned in on his husky accent to catch that part.  He doesn’t drive too fast.  I like that.

Where is he?  I said anytime; he said seven.  It’s already half past and I swear I can hear the tick tock of an oversized grandfather clock I don’t own in my head, chiming out the minutes, the seconds until he is here and I’m pulling open my front door, a flushed, generous smile on my face.  My tummy growls.  I should have snacked I knew it.  My head feels slightly woozy and I know I’m going to be drunk if I have another glass.  We are going to this chic Icelandic restaurant in town.  It’s beside the graveyard.  I’ve been but Oli hasn’t.  It was my idea; he didn’t even know it existed.  You get to cook your own meal if you want to, they bring you these square slabs like miniature tombstones, but unlike cold dead stone, these have been deep-oven heated.  You choose fish, fowl, game from the menu – I’m going to have duck, I think then cook it at your own table, by candle-light.  An up-market in-door barbeque.  I love it.  The chef is married to Bjork’s sister, I’m not kidding.

When his frown turned to a smile, I could tell Oli was happy I’d suggested that.  A taste of home.  He frowns quite often and I’m never sure quite what he’s thinking.  I think I talk too fast for him to keep up.  Or sometimes he doesn’t believe what I’m telling him.

What if he’s not coming?  What if he comes and he doesn’t bring a condom?  What if he comes and he does bring a condom?  I’ve never been nervous like this before.  But that’s Oli, for you.  He’s different.  Sincere.  Respectful.

We only met two weeks ago.  Is that all?  It seems so much longer.  He calls every night and we laugh and chat effortlessly.  I remember it took me all my time to say his name correctly: Olafur Jonsson.  The Jonsson part was alright, clearly, but Ola-fur?  Ol-a-fur.  When he says it for me in his deep accent, it sounds normal and I turn pink and flick my hair off my neck.  So now I just call him Oli and he doesn’t seem to mind.

What he seems to mind about a lot is how we met in a gay club.  I really can’t understand what the fuss is all about.  It’s hardly the 1970s.  He wanted to know what I was doing in there.

“Never mind me,” I scoffed, “what were you doing in there?”  It transpired that we had both gone with a gay friend, the club was open later and we could have more drinks and a little dancing too.  I am not suspicious of him in the least; after the way he kissed me so thoroughly in a quiet booth, I do not think he is gay.  I’m not so sure exactly what he thinks about me.

Two days later, he took me out to lunch and we munched foccacia and soberly discussed jobs and music and I asked him all about Iceland.  A cheek-peck kiss goodbye.  There were night-time dates; we wanted to see more of one another.  After a week, an amazing prawn croissant and several well-creamed frapucinnos, Oli made his move.  I had wondered where the arduous man of our first encounter had been hiding, replaced by such a gracious gentleman.  Second thoughts about me?  Not quite what he ordered?

But then it happened.  Okay, it almost happened.  He took me to his immaculate flat.

“My neighbour runs an interesting business.  It’s the burial for dogs,” he told me.  “She makes a lot of money. It’s based on an old Viking tradition.’

When Oli removed most of our clothes, I noticed his hairy chest.  He would have made a fine Viking, not only was he blonde and hairy chested but his strange silences and intensive stares seemed to define what I imagined a real Viking to be like.   I half expected him to grunt, hauling me down until I fitted into him: having his wicked way with me.  Burning villages.  Preparing for battle.  Taking women forcefully.

I’m getting turned on again.  I wish he’d hurry up.

We’d kissed and rolled around the floor of his everything-its-place living room.  Then we’d stumbled down the hallway and kissed and rolled around his pristine-clean double bed.  Flushed, and perspiration drenched, I felt tropical fever hot.  Panting for breath.  Gasping in anticipation.

And then a sudden flattening heart-rate, a cease-fire of action, a change of mood when he said “Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” into the clammy darkness.

‘Go ahead,’ I squeezed out, my voice small and tight.

“Have you had many one-night stands?”

“No.”

“Do you carry a condom?” An unexpected giggle escaped me.

“No,” I said, fighting to disguise my amusement.  It wasn’t that I found his question so absurd; it was the weight of his tone, his school teacher sterility.

“Do you?” I ventured.

“Usually,” there was an uncommon emphasis on the ‘s’, his accent sounding more foreign somehow.  “I didn’t think I’d need one tonight.”

I liked his answer.  A surge of respect swept through me.  I nestled closer; chest hair tickled my side.  He must like me, more than just another girl, another conquest.

“Do you use condoms?”  An interrogation; a flicker of irritation ignited. I felt his clean shaven face pressed into my arm,  spied the shape of his clothes in the dusky half light, not scattered randomly but folded, sensibly on a chair.  I disliked the implication of my being unclean, somehow.

“It depends,” I said, carefully, “different if you’re in a relationship, isn’t it?’ I waited for his reply.

“Yes, you’re right.’  I imagined sighing out loud, relieved and feeling pleased as if I’d passed some kind of test.  Oli squeezed me against him.  “Let’s go to sleep now.”

The next time we were alone, the same thing happened.  But I couldn’t stop laughing when he asked, “Have you got any plastic bags tonight?” in that sincere, foreign voice of his.  He laughed with me when I told him, “No?”

As I drifted off into frustrated sleep, I wondered if he felt intimidated by me or if he had some kind of problem, surely not at his youthful age……why go so far and stop…did he simply want to be sure of me?  Were all Icelandic men cautious and willful?  Could I be learning a lesson here?

I’m red-wine drinking, waiting for Oli to arrive and it’s driving me insane.

Scots-born Alison U Miller writes poetry and prose. She studied English Literature at the University of Aberdeen. In 1996 she won the Alan Spence Creative Writing award and prizes in Lanarkshire Writer of the Year. Her poetry and articles have been published in The Scotia Bar Poetry Anthology, The Evening Times, Gloss Magazine and Orlando Sentinel.  She completed her first novel Jaded Genes whilst living in Florida and is searching for a publisher.  It’s a gritty, character driven story about identity and family turmoil.  Curtis Brown called her writing ‘mature and well written’.  Alison considers it not a bad starting place. Follow Alison on Twitter @MillerMatters

BB Pearse St.
Crowded Alone – Photo by Brian Bennett

Short Story: The Autumn of Youth Summer Camp

– By Paddy Doherty 

Seville; Spring 2012.

The sun sheepishly slips away to another part of the world. We’re drinking on Helen’s terrace. She’s just moved into a new apartment with a German girl, an English guy and a Danish guy. The Dane is geeky looking, and seems disconcerted by our presence as he lurks from cupboard to cupboard in the kitchen. He strikes me as the type of guy who hates living with other people, someone deeply frustrated with his house-mates’ lack of respect for the house. He probably just wants to cook and clean and go to sleep, and maybe get up early at the weekends to take pictures of churches and castles and whatever other shite has been left lying around from years ago.

The German girl and English guy, who none of us have met before, are quite sociable. They pitch in with their opinions every now and then, especially when the subject turns to travelling. The English guy is getting on my nerves a little because he keeps going on about Hong Kong and New Zealand and a million other places that he’s been and attempted various different extreme sports.

Travel broadens the mind, and lengthens the anecdote.

‘I did a sky dive in Mexico, I never thought I’d have the balls, but I did it! I nearly shit myself though!’

Oh yeah? Well I went canoeing in Galway once, and I did shit myself! Beat that, dickhead!

The German girl is sitting in a nice blue dress, cradling her legs from the breeze. We’re all sprawled across the terrace on blankets laid out by Helen. She always prepares for company in this way; providing crisps and crackers and other unnecessary nibbles. She’s made some tortilla omelette for us as well, and is telling our friend Anthony that it’s not that difficult to make. Anthony’s either genuinely interested in this or doing a very good job of feigning it.

Helen’s also wearing a dress, but hers is red, and she’s wearing navy tights to go with it. I sense she’s a little put off by the presence of her new German housemate, because even though there’s not much between them, the German is definitely prettier. Helen’s still very cordial though.

Ken and Linda have come along for the first time in a while as well, but it’s not long before they slip back into couple mode, kissing and fondling like we’re not even in the room. It always annoys me when couples act like this. It’s not just because I’ve never had a boyfriend, or a proper one at least, it’s because it looks pathetic and childish the way they just hang out of each other like monkeys from a tree. Whenever anyone speaks to Ken, Linda immediately starts stroking his hand defensively or cuddling up to him like she’s marking her territory, and I’m thinking it’s only a matter of time before she squats over him and takes a piss.

Anthony has a funny story to tell about one of his students saying the alphabet but I can’t be bothered to listen to it. I’m hungry and wondering when we’re going to leave, or whether Helen is going to rustle up something else for us to eat. I go out into the kitchen to get another litre of beer from the fridge. Helen follows me and starts saying how nice it is that we’re all together again and that we’ve been really bad for meeting up recently. I nod and agree, but as we’re talking, I’m making snide internal remarks about her – calling her a cunt and the like. She’s talking about how this is the type of night she’s been needing for the past few weeks; just a few close friends and a few beers and a few bottles of wine and a chance to find out what’s been happening with everyone. This annoys me because she’s always going on about this in one way or another, everything revolves around the group. She seems to want this idyllic social life like something from a coffee ad or some American sitcom. I reckon she’s one of those girls who grew up wanting to be in the cast of Friends; to waste away in the Central Perk Cafe retelling the same old stories again and again until there’s no life or truth left in them whatsoever.

We go back outside and I put on my hoodie and take my warmer shoes out of my bag to put them on. Anthony has a story about a guy from home that did something once and we’re all listening to that. I get bored and start watching Ken and Linda fidgeting with each other and I’m wondering whether they’re just counting down the clock until it’s reached a respectable time to leave. Helen has waited for Anthony to finish his story so that she can talk about one of the first drunken nights we had together. We listen and count the embellishments, but no one says anything or refutes her claims except for Anthony – who claims not to remember any of it. She is prepared for this, however, and quickly rebukes his challenge by reminding him of ‘the state he was in that night!’

The German girl has stopped listening, and I’m staring at her now, wondering what she really thinks of us. But I remember at the same time that most people probably aren’t as judgemental or as cynical as me, and I’m reminded that this is something my mother once said about me when she’d thought I wasn’t listening.

Drab conversations float from person to person but they always make their way back to Helen or Anthony. Helen’s trying to make plans for us all for the following weekend; month; summer; year; and has a few ideas for things to do after that as well. I nod along half-heartedly at her proposals and make vague commitments that I have no intention of honouring. I look over at her English housemate again and wonder if I’ll be drunk enough to fuck him later, or whether he’ll be drunk enough to try it on with me. I can’t decide if I’ll bother my arse with him and think about how it might just be easier to pick up a horny Spaniard in whatever club we end up in.

Helen tries to get everyone to agree to a festival in June before our contracts finish. Anthony says he’s definitely going to go, but Linda reckons that her and Ken have other plans and aren’t that into festivals anyway, because of all the mud and rain and music. They drift out of the conversation again and Ken starts kissing her neck. Helen’s housemate says he doesn’t think he’ll be able to go and reminds us that he’ll be home by then and that he’s not actually a TEFL teacher. His company have just sent him here for six months because his job is really exciting and allows him travel around the world whilst making shit loads of money. And he’s fucking amazing at it but still down to earth enough to hang around with a couple of native-speaking English-teaching imbeciles.

Eventually it’s twelve o’clock and there’s talk of the neighbours complaining and that it might be time to leave. Then Anthony mentions that Harry is in town and that he might meet up with him. The others all say something to the tune of: Harry! I haven’t seen him in ages, what’s he up to? But the truth is we haven’t seen Harry for a long time because Harry has found a better group of people to hang out with and hasn’t wanted to see us. He had only hung out with us out of necessity, when we were all at that hostel together where we first met.

Anthony might be the only one holding onto the notion that they’re still friends, because Helen certainly knows, and is unenthusiastic about meeting up with him for precisely that reason. Nothing depresses her more than the thought that our little fuckwit posse might not necessarily be the cool gang.

That’s what expat life is like in a nutshell, a fucking summer camp.

Ken and Linda couldn’t care less. They only hang out with us so that they can tell their workmates that they met up with friends at the weekend and didn’t just walk around the city holding hands like a pair of love-struck idiots. The two newbies have nothing to say about Harry, and I suspect they might be forming a similar impression of us and soon joining him at the fringe of our little group. I cringe when I think of the word group and how it sounds so much like Helen and the way she obsesses over our social life.

Helen mentions that a few Spanish guys she met one night are going to Malandar, and that we should go there because the music is always good: ‘you can have a dance and a cheap drink; plus some of Pablo’s mates are fucking fit!’

When we get there it’s the same old story; la misma mierda. Helen goes off with one of them and Anthony has gone to meet friends at a gay bar, which he never invites anyone to, because, for some reason, he’s not quite come to terms with his sexuality, and probably hasn’t even come out of the closet back home. Ken and Linda abandon ship and I’m stuck with the German girl and Helen’s house mate, and they’re stuck with me.

The music is really loud and rocky and people keep bumping into me, but none of the guys that do are interested in talking. I down my third whiskey and coke before realising I’ve got no more money, so I start dancing with Helen’s housemate in the hope he’ll buy the next one. He tells me his name again and I try to memorise it: Alan, Alan, Alan; but I just end up calling him Dave instead. He is polite and dances with me a little, but I soon realise that he’s actually into the German girl. He keeps looking past me at her while we’re dancing. I move in closer to him and flash a hand over his cock, but just as I’m about to try to kiss him, I admit to myself that he’s not really interested, so I fuck off outside for a cigarette even though I don’t smoke.

The first guy I ask says he doesn’t have any, but then a fat friend of his offers and so I start talking to him. He puts his arm on the small of my back as he crouches to listen. This is all the encouragement I need. The second time he does it, I pull him over to the wall and start groping and kissing him with enough tongue to ensure that he knows he’s getting laid tonight if he just comes back with me, which he does.

When I get him home he doesn’t want to waste much time with foreplay. He pushes my head down to his cock for a blow job. I deliberately apply too much tooth so that he will want to have sex instead, which he does.

He’s too heavy when he’s on top so I manoeuvre out from underneath and mount him, grinding and grinding until I feel him inside me. I ask him if he’s cum already, but he says nothing. I get off and he starts touching himself to harden up, but then I discover that he just wants to masturbate over me, so I let him cum on my chest and try to remember exactly when guys stopped wanting to have sex and started wanting to just ejaculate on things instead. Then he falls asleep and I take out my vibrator and give myself an orgasm with that, all the while thinking about how it’s funny that the orgasms are quicker and vastly more reliable with it, but there is still something about having that weight on top of you. When I’m finished I check the time on my phone and see a message from Helen which says:

Where are you?

Paddy Doherty, 25, is a native of Longford currently living in Seville. His stories have appeared in the Irish Independent, Boyne Berries, The South Circular and Writing4all Anthology.  Check out Paddy’s Blog.

 

The Last Place To Lose Its Snow

Dawn Galway Bay Susan Prediger
The Prom in Salthill, Galway – Photo by Susan Prediger

Susan Prediger was born and raised in the USA, and has lived in Berlin, Germany, and, for the last 14 years,  Galway, Ireland. Her award-winning photography has been exhibited by the Galway Arts Service, at the Botanical Gardens, and other venues around Ireland.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Short Story: Black Snow

– By Michael Crossan

Ruth breathed on her bedroom window. Scratched boo with a fingertip.

‘Keep us,’ she whispered, scanning the Jericho Centre’s gardens. Snow dusted the bare oak. Gravel paths led to the gate. Eastward, far streetlamps twinkled. A fairy troop, thought Ruth. To the north, amber lights on high bridge cables blinked in a dull sky.

Grace joined her at the window. Fidgeted with her zipper collar. ‘I had a bad dream.’

Ruth studied the bridge. Stark iron like a goliath mantis over the river. ‘Tell me.’

‘It was spooky.’ Arms folded, Grace rested her cheek on Ruth’s shoulder. ‘You were in hospital. I wanted to visit. A stairway led up to the building. I was stuck on the steps. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t move. People stared from the windows. They looked scared. Like they knew I could never reach them. Then I saw it was you and me. Every window. I woke crying.’

‘Dreams suck.’

‘It creeped me.’

‘Poor babes.’ Ruth cuddled her friend. ‘Let’s go. While it’s quiet.’

A portal cabin at the gate, a bald watchman opened the door. ‘Jackets, ladies.’

‘Hat, mister’ said Grace.

‘My head is immune to the cold.’

‘Doubt it. Looks like mince,’ said Ruth.

‘Cheeky witch.’

‘We’re ok.’ Grace stamped a heel. ‘Booted up.’

‘Cars are buried in Kent,’ said the watchman. ‘Six foot drifts.’

‘Grandpa said a snowdrift is Satan’s cloak,’ said Grace.

The watchman pointed at a field. ‘There’s His pup.’ A fox bounded stubborn, robust fur deep in snow, a zigzag channel up a slope. ‘Vermin,’ he said, and shut the door.

Saturday nights, boy racers parked near the gate revving souped Fords. Funland cabs. Prize seats for hug famished girls. Tonight was Tuesday. The road was white and mute and barren. Ruth and Grace linked arms and headed toward the river.

‘Enjoy your shopping trip?’ asked Grace.

‘It was good to be out. Shops were mobbed. There were two Santas in John Lewis.’

‘How was aunt Flo?’

‘Quiet.’

‘Did she invite you to Christmas dinner?’

‘No. Dad’s going. But aunt Flo said she has a surprise for me in the New Year.’

‘Maybe planning a party for your sixteenth.’

‘Do you know something I don’t?’

‘Guessing.’

‘I had a party once,’ said Ruth, sniffing.

‘Nice.’

‘I was four or five. Cousins were there. I had balloons.’

‘Nutter doesn’t remember my birthdays. Not one.’

‘She’s sick. Schizophrenia is a disease. I think.’

‘She’s the disease.’

‘At least you met her.’

‘Wish I hadn’t.’ Grace blew into cupped hands. ‘I liked the thought of her.’

‘You needed to meet.’

‘She didn’t know me. Her own daughter. I don’t belong to anyone.’

Town centre, an empty car park, four juvenile boys, hooded in tracksuits, played hockey with a cola can. The girls passed and play stalled. A lank hoodie sat on a graffiti carved bench.

‘They’re from the home,’ he said.

‘Taking your fleas for a walk?’ bawled a beak face.

Ruth squeezed Grace and hurried. ‘Ignore him, babes.’

A chin scarred beanpole stalked them. ‘Brollies, crawlies. It might rain. You’ll get a wash.’ He high fived the beak.

‘Remember soap?’ Beak bent, choked in hilarity. ‘Muck necks.’

The girls jogged, slipping. ‘Inbreeds,’ shouted Grace, vapour breath, shiny hair wild in a gust.

Up a cobble lane they halted outside a kebab shop. Pungent aromas hurt thin bellies. Ruth foraged a cigarette from her zipper pocket. Flicked a Bic lighter. She inhaled; face flared orange, smoke drizzling thin from her nose.

‘Last one?’ asked Grace.

Ruth nodded. ‘Share it.’

They smoked in turns. Keen drags, passing the fag. Grace took a last pull and tossed the butt. ‘Wish we had money for a kebab,’ she said, stomping, December devouring worn soles.

‘A large donner.’ Ruth smacked her lips. ‘Tons of onions.’

‘Mushroom pakora.’

‘Chicken wings.’

‘Stop it, Ruth.’

A man exited the shop carrying a family meal box. Gloved and parka’d like an Inuit. He dragged his eyes and loped to a sleek four by four. The fat wheeled guzzler pulled away, Eskimo man, bloat with revulsion.

Steamy flue heat had thawed a clearing. Grace sat on the warm cobbles. ‘He’s a stink.’

‘Pigs arse shite.’ Ruth kicked the slush curb. ‘Fuck hole.’

‘Wonder if he has a daughter?’

‘Daddy’s girl.’

‘I was a baby once,’ said Grace, hands cosy under her bum. ‘Funny that.’

On the main road a church service had ended, congregation flooding the square. The girls fused in the flock, pink and lime zippers loud in a beige and brown spill.

‘Excuse me, lass.’ The old lady poked Ruth’s arm. ‘Have you seen my Malcolm?’ she asked, her eyes wet and glad.

‘I don’t know him.’

Pencilled eyebrows rose to her woollen hat. Plum cheeks puffed. ‘He’s an inspector.’

‘Sorry.’ Ruth shrugged. ‘Maybe he’s in the church.’

‘Don’t be a fruit. Malcolm hates church.’

‘Are you all right, Mrs?’ asked Grace. ‘Shall I get the priest?’

‘Mother.’ A neat man, coat and scarf, cut between the girls. ‘Can’t leave you for a second.’

‘She’s looking for Malcolm,’ said Ruth.

‘Hmm.’

‘They’re angels, Malcolm.’

The man led his mother to a car. He turned and saluted the girls, a stiff middle finger.’

Elbows looped, they weaved out of the crowd. ‘Merry fucking Christmas,’ said Ruth.

‘His mum was nice.’

‘Ditty.’

‘Ditty sweet.’

‘He reeked.’

‘Turd.’

‘Pigs arse shite.’

Shivery, Grace nestled into Ruth. A road sign read half a mile to the dual carriageway. Traffic picked up. Cars, vans, trucks moaned past. Exhausts spewed black breath, rising sour and noxious in the dusk. On the embankment, Ruth squat and retched.

‘Holy pish.’ Grace spanked her spine. ‘You should have eaten something.’

Folded on her knees, Ruth vomited bile.

Grace massaged her neck. ‘Dump it up, babes.’

She heaved and puked a fizzy pool.

‘Chuck it out.’

Another sore retch, yellow slime strings swung from her mouth.

‘All up?’

Ruth spat on the snow. ‘I’m done.’ She rested sucking and blowing.

‘Take your time.’

‘That was grotty.’

Grace touched her hair. ‘Feel better.’

‘Much.’ Ruth rose and sleeved her chin. ‘I nearly fainted.’

‘Maybe we should wait.’

‘It’s nothing to do with that. You were right. We should have had lunch.’

‘I couldn’t. I felt weird all day. Hungry now though.’

‘Me too. I’d kiss dog shit for a fish supper.’

‘Freak. You spew your guts, now you could eat a whale.’

‘Mental, isn’t it.’

Zippers shut at the throat; fisted pockets, they walked on, teary cold. Sleet hit and died. A crow squealed. They glanced at each other. Shied away. Fixed on the path. A mutual trance.

Close to the bridge a van slowed and parked on a bank. The girls saw a gloved hand adjust the side mirror. ‘Here we go.’ Ruth nudged and tugged. ‘Paedo patrol.’

The door window rolled down. ‘You hitching?’ asked a man, silver beard, glasses.

‘No thanks,’ said Grace.

‘Anywhere you want.’

‘We’re out for a walk on the bridge,’ said Ruth.

‘I can run you.’

‘It’s right there.’ Grace pointed, blueish face crunched.

‘I can run you.’

Arms locked, they mushed up the embankment, boots slippy sliding. Ruth glanced back. ‘Wonder if it has a daughter.’

Gritted stairs led to the bridge’s paved walkway. ‘Last one up is a fart.’ Grace ran the steps nimble as a foal. ‘I can taste the sea,’ she yelled.

A truck grumped past. Ruth wagged a red numb hand at her red numb ear. ‘What?’

‘The sea. Taste it.’

‘I love that.’

They dallied along the footpath. Leaned on the chest high railing. Below, broad waters lifted and fell and clapped. ‘Choppy isn’t it?’ Ruth gobbed a frothy blob. ‘It’s not the sea. It’s a river.’

‘Smells like shells.’

‘Maybe it is the sea.’ Ruth watched purple hills. ‘Grace.’

‘What.’

‘Do you really believe aunt Flo is planning a party?’

‘Probably sorted it weeks ago.’

‘Thanks, babes.’ Ruth climbed the rail.

Grace scrambled over and stood beside her, boots sunk in a snow shelved girder. Vehicles’ horns blared. The girls held hands and stared down at the syrupy blackness.

‘Do you think God is real?’ asked Grace, chilled and lost.

‘There’s a Devil. We know that.’

‘Mr stink.’

‘Old turdster.’

‘Pigs arse shite.’

They stepped off the bridge, into slappy icy air, and Ruth shouted, ‘So there must be a God.’

Michael Crossan was shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize 2011. And shortlisted for the Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award 2011. In January 2012, the Atlantic Wire published an interview piece about his Cormac McCarthy Twitter parody. His novel – Morningplace – is written. Three years work. The story combines naturalism – the way people talk and behave – and big unnatural, dehumanising situations. Think esoteric Twin Peaks. London editor, Gillian Stern, said Michael is her next big novelist. He is researching agents. Born in Scotland to Irish parents, he plans to settle in his forefathers Donegal and write a dozen novels. Check out Michael’s Blog and follow him on Twitter @MichaelCrossan

Olafia10-turning circle by old fish factory (1)
Turning Circle By The Old Fish Factory – Photo by Ólafía Lárusdóttir

Ólafía Lárusdóttir was born and raised in Iceland. She is an Arctic Biologist. Her interest in photography first started when she lived in Venezuela. Turning Circle By The Old Fish Factory was taken in Skagaströnd, in north Iceland.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Short Story: Petrol Horizons

– By Lane Ashfeldt

You drive into the village, make a right by the church, and you come to the beach. No one is swimming. The beach is the end of the road. You drive along it to the turning circle where the fish factory used to be, and you circle back again on the same road.

Ahead of you is the one shop and the bank that doubles as a post office. You pull up at the petrol station. Here is where you work. You keep the older folks’ cars ticking over, and you sell sweets, soft drinks, and cigarettes to schoolchildren whose lives are just like yours used to be a few years ago.

The children who come by the petrol station are never alone. They walk in small groups to school and home again, always surrounded by friends. When they reach school they pull off their boots and leave them in the cloakroom to dry along with the herds of other shoes and boots, then pad around the corridors in knitted socks, as comfy as if still at home. Many walk further to school than the short way you drive every day from your parents’ house to the petrol station, but you never walk it, not even in high summer. It’s safer to drive, easier to pull a car round you than it is to pull on a coat and gloves. In the car you can just press play, and the music surrounds you and keeps you warm.

The village is not far off the Arctic Circle and it can snow here even in May, although nothing like the snow in winter. Then it’s so cold your face hurts, so dark that if it blizzards as you switch off the petrol station lights all sense of direction goes, everything shrinks to dark points of ice that needle your face. Once you were so lost you fell into the sea while trying to find your car. That night the water was colder than snow, although scientifically you know that’s impossible. The sea was not properly frozen, only caked in a layer of ice that crunched as your foot sank into the inky liquid below. Lucky for you it was only knee deep.

Some winter mornings – but this happens less often now than it did when you were a child – you wake to that special thick silence that comes when the town is awash with snowdrifts. On those mornings you don’t open the petrol station. It doesn’t matter. Nobody is going far, those days. You and your uncle take out the diggers and work to clear the town of drifts. This might take one day or three, all depends on the whim of the skies. Until you’re done, people hole up indoors and eat dried food, waiting for the freeze to end. Waiting for the light that can seem as if it will never return. Your brother disappeared one of those dark hushed nights, any clue that might have led to him blanketed in pure fresh snow. The police have a word for this, you heard them say it when they stood outside your house. ‘Snowdrop’. They saw you watching, and they hushed and turned away. But the word echoed silently.

Snowdrop. A body hidden under fresh snow. And the killer chose their snowstorm well. It was months before they found your brother. Twelve weeks, three days and three nights. Short days and long nights that stretched pointlessly, each like the last. All that time your mother stayed in her bedroom alone. Neighbours brought hot meals for the family and sat with her. My son, you heard her cry out to them, when is my son coming home? No one had an answer. You were her son too, but she never spoke about you.

You examined old family photos, convinced she had always loved him more than you, ever since he was born. Just one photograph showed all seven of you together, in height order. Your mother stood next to him; he was the only child taller than her. So alike. Blond, happy, smiling at your father who took the picture. In the next photo he and your mother were singing. They often sang together. Old songs, from the island long ago. Campfire songs.

The church was crowded out for the service, and part of you wondered if the killer had chosen the wrong son: he could so easily have taken one who would have been missed less. One who was less alive. He could have taken you.

Your father was quiet as always, and strong. A month after the funeral he cleared your brother’s bedroom and began to sleep there. You found your brother’s hi-fi and record collection in the garage, and his guitar. One day you put on a record in a half-hearted effort to teach yourself to play. After maybe an hour, your mother stormed out of her bedroom and raked the needle hard across the record, scratching a deep line in the vinyl. You stared at her. Then she hugged you to her and shook with tears. Afterwards she began to cook dinners again for you and the other children. This made you think of how, in winter when there are just a few hours of slanted sunlight to see by, a fishermen will make do with moonlight to get some fishing done. Yes your mother cooked hot meals for you and your siblings, yes she cleaned the house, but you never again heard her sing.

Winter is long and dark, that’s true. Each time it comes and sits on the mountains, it seems as if it will never leave. But when finally the sun swings up over the mountains and melts the snow, everything burns brighter and for two or three months the whole village lives twice as much. Lawns outside bright-painted houses are crowded with bicycles, boats and trampolines. Children bounce skywards in slow motion, freed for once of their heavy coats, wearing fleeces or hand-knitted jumpers. And everyone has things to do – summer feasts to sing at, hills to climb, fish they must hang out to dry.

You sell a lot of petrol those months. Sweets, too. And high-energy drinks. People nod and greet you by name yet you seldom find two words to say back. Locked out of their sped-up world, you take their money and watch them leave.

The hours of your shift pass slowly. You wonder sometimes – rarely now, but still it happens – if the polite neighbour you just served was the one who killed your brother. How they met. Were they friends, or not? It never came out in the end who killed him and the police put the death down to a passing stranger, but you don’t believe this. It had to have been a local. Only a local would have timed it so well. His walk home after singing practice, alone because he’d stayed behind to rehearse his solo part for the Christmas midnight mass. Was it a grown-up, a teacher maybe? Or one of the kids from school? Many of them went away to study and never came back. You wonder, did your brother’s killer run away to forget, and keep on running until he was off the edge of the map? Far beyond this island and this language, to other islands and languages that you do not know.

As you finish at the petrol station tonight, the light is strong. It pulls you. Instead of going home you fill the tank and drive. Past your parents’ house, past the school, past the disused farmhouse on the edge of town where even now streaks of brown snowmelt cling to the barren hill. Here is where they found your brother: it’s always the last place to lose its’ snow. Only a local would have known that. You speed on. Past the farmhouse and its snowmelt, and over this mountain to the next town and the one after that. It’s late, and the road is empty save for an occasional silver truck all lit up like a fishing boat luring squid. You turn up the sound and sing along to the radio: these are new songs, songs that have a fast insistent beat. If one of the old songs comes on that he and your mother once sang, you punch the dash and change stations. It’s not that you don’t care. But… His time is over now. And you need the kind of music that keeps you warm and alive.

On this bright bright night the light slants endlessly so that you feel the world spin under you, the sun a crazy ball bouncing on this round horizon, a ping-pong tied to a bat with elastic string. The clouds deepen in colour until they’re like petrol floating on dark oily puddles of sky, then lighten again as the sunset segues into dawn.

You know then that your chance to sleep is gone. But why waste a sunny night sleeping? You can sleep when you’re dead.

Lane Ashfeldt grew up in Dublin. Her stories have won the Fish Short Histories prize and the Global Short Stories prize. You can read more stories by Lane in her début collection of short fiction, SaltWater