2019 Winning Stories

No Answer by Eamon O’Leary                                   

The brass bed, overdue a rub of Brasso, creaked with relief as Tommy swore, farted and swung two gnarled legs onto the icy linoleum.  Except for rheumatic big toes which stuck out the top, his clammy feet found comfort in a pair of originally tartan slippers.  Over skid-marked Long-Johns, he wore a pair of shrunken pyjamas and an Aran sweater, minus the elbows.

Yanking back the green floral curtains, he saw a frost-covered window both inside and out.

“I’m going to shoot that fecking dog.  Yap, yap, yap since six o’clock.  Non-fecking stop.  I’m not taking it anymore, do ya hear me, Rose?”

No answer.

He went along the landing to the airing cupboard where, on the door, a thermometer hung from a nail.  Taking a brown notebook from the pocket of his pyjamas, he noted the temperature along with the time and date.  After turning on the immersion, he went to the bathroom, took a piss, left the seat up and didn’t bother flushing or washing his hands.

Back in the bedroom, he rummaged under the bed and pulled out an air rifle and a box of pellets.  Dragging over an armchair only fit for the dump, he positioned it at the metal-framed window, whose hinges squealed when opened.  Shivers reached his toes when an icy-clean breeze met the foul air.  Before sitting, he went back to the airing cupboard and turned off the immersion.  Then, with the ambush set, he plonked himself down on the chair,  his index finger exploring high into one of his nostrils.

All the details of his morning – except the subconscious nasal adventure – entered the notebook.

The silver circular tin originally held two hundred and fifty pellets.  Seven, he’d used in a former unsuccessful dog-culling exercise.  He sat counting as the lazy sun made an appearance and cleared the frost, but there was no sign of the doomed dog.  With a broken spring burrowing its way up Tommy’s arse and droplets from his almost pious-blue nose running to a constant flow, he suspended operations, but not before finishing the count.  ‘Two hundred and forty-three’recorded in the notebook.

In the dirt-encrusted kitchen, he heated a pot of porridge that he’d left soaking overnight in milk and honey.  He stood and ate a bucket-sized portion.  On the table sat a stack of books, mostly classics.  A pair of ladies glasses on top of the pile.  A lonely cup, saucer and spoon lay among an array of medications.  Everything covered in dust.   

When he’d finished breakfast, Tommy crushed a handful of oats and stood, arm outstretched, outside the back door.  After a short wait, his robin friend landed on a nearby whitethorn tree and made a few cursory security checks before coming to rest in Tommy’s palm.  Redbreast made short work of brunch, while Tommy gave him the latest news.

“What d’ya think? Should I shoot the dog?”

The robin took flight without answering.

“Ungrateful little bollocks.”

The details of breakfast and conversation were noted down.

In the bathroom, he shaved and washed his important bits in lukewarm water.

“Maybe it’s not fair to shoot the stupid dog,” he told himself. “Maybe it’s that eejit who owns it I should be going after?  Did ya see the state of him, Rose?  All tight trousers and stripy shirts and what about the dog?  I mean an alsatian or a labrador or even a fecking cocker spaniel would be a man’s dog, but a bichon feckin’ frise?  Yeah, he’s definitely a queer hawk.”

No response.

After checking the immersion was off,  he left home, his departure confirmed by the clattering of the cast-iron knocker as he pulled the door shut.  The dog barked, and Tommy cursed.

His two-up-two-down, the sole surviving fisherman’s house, sat on top of the hill.  The rest snapped up and razed by developers.  Tommy refused all offers.  Not even a house in the new complex and a barrowfull of money could shift him.

“Me father lived here, and his father before him.  I’ve lived here all my life and I’ll be buried from here,” he’d told them.  He’d won.  They’d redesigned the development around Tommy’s place.

A narrow road corkscrewed its way from Tommy’s house to the village.  On one side, breaks in the stone wall gave glimpses of heather, gorse and coarse grasses, with the never-ending sea beyond.  Opposite, sad, hungry-looking cattle picked at sparse grass in irregular fields. 

A leisurely five-minute walk for most, but with thumbs clenched inside white-knuckled fists it was, for Tommy, a daily nightmare.  His route was like a jigsaw, crisscrossed with moss-filled veiny cracks.  Stepping on a crack ensured imminent bad luck and disaster. 

Relief came when he reached the road in the village. 

McCarthy’s pub, its neon sign swinging from a rusted bracket, shared a corner with Murphy’s grocery.  The Post Office, Curls ’n’ Colours and the boarded-up Yangtze River completed the business district of the village.  Opposite, facing the elements, stood a solemn, cut-stone church and two-roomed school.  All the buildings shared a sparsity of customers.

Tommy’s education had ended after he’d learned to read and write.  He joined his father on the fourteen-footer, hunting down the herring.  A tough life for little reward.  He minded the few pounds he made.  A match was made between himself and Rose and three kids followed.  She’d sworn that “All three will go to college.  That’ll be their passport out of here.”

A good result.  Two accountants and a teacher.  She’d moved well up from the back row of the church on Sundays.

Nowadays, Tommy enjoyed the half-moon foreshore,  gathering driftwood, wondering what stories of storms, giant waves and foreign parts these bleached relics could tell.  It mattered little after he’d dragged them up the hill.  They’d all end up the same way, clobbered by his hatchet and fed to the fire.  Date, time and relevant details recorded in the notebook.  Other days, depending on the tides, a bucket of cockles made for a change from the staple diet of boiled spuds and streaky bacon. 

Of late, usually on a Sunday, Tommy took an evening constitutional as far as the pier.  Once a thriving haven for fishermen, including Tommy, it now hung on sadly, slowly succumbing to the endless waves.  A single insipid light at the seaward end flickered as if signalling the inevitable.

Armed with a fishing rod, a torch and his thermometer, he timed the walk to coincide as best he could with the full tide.  With the thermometer hooked to the rod, he lowered it into the water, retrieving it minutes later.  Date, time, temperature and a comment entered the notebook.

A white bundle of fur sitting on the windowsill inside the house next door greeted Tommy on his return.  It barked.  A lot.  Tommy shook his fist and swore.

He slammed his front door.  “I’m back.”

No reply.

Warming himself by the fire, he placed a candle on the narrow, wax-covered mantelpiece.  A pile of sympathy cards and an eclectic collection of dust-coated photos cluttered the limited space: babies, children of all ages, college celebrations and weddings.  In the centre, a black and white portrait of a smiling couple on their wedding day.  Only memories now.  The visits from Australia and America petered out when partners and grandchildren arrived.

“Will ye be coming home for Christmas?”  A regular plea.  “Your ma will be disappointed if ye don’t come.”

“Da, you know we’d love to, but with the kids, it’d cost a fortune.  Why don’t ye come to us?”

“Maybe next year.”

Over time, the weekly phone calls tapered off.  Now they were down to just an occasional duty call.  Skype and Facetime alien to Tommy.

 He’d never felt the joy of a newly born grandchild wrapping its fist around his little finger.  No longer babies, they were strangers to him now. 

He’d given up on organised religion years earlier and preferred the direct approach.  After checking the immersion was off and before climbing into bed, he’d kneel by the bedside and have a private chat with Whoever Was Up There.  It always ended the same;

“Take good care of her.”

Callers to the house were rare, except for Jack McCarthy, the postman.  Almost as old and wizened as Tommy, and equally cranky.  They enjoyed sorting out the problems of the parish, the country and the world.  Agreement on any issue a rarity.  The perfect match.

As the days shortened, December crept along and the first of the Christmas post.

“I’ve a few for you today, Tommy.  Any of the kids coming this year?”

Tommy grunted.  He threw the cards into the grate unopened after Jack left.

The sun hid its face on the last Sunday before Christmas.  A sky laden with snow hung heavy over the village and delivered its cargo as Tommy prepared for his trudge to the jetty.  An effortless journey for once, a light powdery dusting covered the cracks.  The full tide was in, so he took his reading.

Date, time and temperature recorded and a comment – ‘Perfect.’  

About to strike out for home, he found his way blocked by a group of children singing carols, huddled together like a flock of lambs outside McCarthy’s pub.

What a stupid place to bring these kids, thought Tommy.  The coldest spot in the village…

Oh, should’ve known.  ’Tis that eejit living by me that’s in charge.

Not the dog-owner, but another adversary of Tommy’s, the recently arrived long geek of a schoolteacher.  There’d been some problem over a parking space.  Tommy didn’t have a car, never drove, but that wasn’t the point.  One child shook a collection bucket in Tommy’s direction.  He stopped.  The teacher, expecting an outburst, held his breath.

Tommy rooted through the pockets of his oilskins.  Yellow from top to toe, he looked like a giant canary standing under the light.  A few bits of twine and an oily rag didn’t augur well for the collectors with their feet, fingers and faces shivering.  Pulling down a zip in the cumbersome coat, Tommy took a crumbling wallet from within the layers.  With hands over his mouth, the teacher watched as Tommy emptied note after note into the bucket.  Fives, tens and even a twenty.  The children danced and whooped, except the bucket carrier, who stood motionless, eyes fixed on the bundle of notes.

“I’m back.”

No answer.  He missed the smell of Christmas baking.

Tommy went up to the bedroom.  His only suit, smelling of mothballs, hung in the lopsided wardrobe among an array of dresses, some long, some shortish, all old.  Winter and summer overcoats and even a full-length fur coat, complete with foxtail collar.  Holding the hanger, Tommy satisfied himself that a rub of the iron would restore the charcoal grey suit to its former glory, and set about the task.  He managed a crease as sharp as a razor on the trousers, the knees shiny from years of grime transferred from palms to pants.  A size eighteen collar shirt, formerly white and now a delicate yellow, together with a wide maroon tie got a smoothing of the iron.  He spotted what looked like a gravy stain, a relic from a wake or wedding, and doused it under the cold tap before giving it a pat of the hot iron.  With a frenzied enthusiasm, a pair of mould-encrusted shoes were polished back to parade ground standard.  He changed into the suit and brogues and after checking the immersion was turned off, returned downstairs.

Taking the photos from the mantelpiece, he sat by the fire examining each before putting them all back except the one of the young couple.  As the fire died, he blew out the candle and put the photo of the newlyweds in his breast pocket.

“Not long now, love.”

 He placed the small brown notebook on the mantelpiece and tugged the front door closed after him.

The dog next door barked.  Tommy gave him the thumbs-up, laughed and headed back to the pier.

****************************

Living Stones by Elizabeth Pratt

Every week, at the botanical gardens, Marie sets up her easel and tries to capture the beauty of the succulents. It’s very hot in the glasshouse – of course it is – and she has forgotten to bring a clean rag to wipe her forehead. She feels as if the moisture is being drawn right out of her. The succulents and cacti, nestled in gravel beds beside the tiled path, squat unaffected.

The succulents are not brightly coloured, nor in bloom, but they have subtle differences in shade that Marie enjoys more than ostentatious lilies or the hothouse flowers. She’s come to the gardens with a group and most of the others have gone off into the depth of the gardens – one elderly painter is determined to “capture the innocence of the sweetpeas”. It’s that kind of artists’ group. No-one else shows any interest in the glasshouse or its contents; once again, Marie is alone.

She has been coming along on outings with the Grafton Area Artists for the past two years and still feels like a newcomer. The group was founded in 1949, when people found time for that sort of thing. When the secretary told Marie the history of the group, Marie asked if the secretary was a founding member. That earned Marie no favours; the woman stiffly said that she was only sixty,thank you very much. Marie tried to tell the secretary: I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I can’t tell with people. I don’t know anything about them.

She is bad with others; she doesn’t know what to talk about with them. She is an only child and didn’t mind until she went to school and saw that others had practice with friendships. Her parents are dead, now, and she’s forgotten what the three of them used to talk about. It must have been something, because she looked forward to their dinners. She hasn’t had a conversation with anyone in weeks, and even then it was only a few minutes with the man at the framer’s shop. They talked about non-reflective glass.

A few months ago, on her first visit to the gardens, Marie saw a girl in a stained sleeping bag, sitting against the wall next to the heavy entrance gate. It was early April and still cold outside. The girl didn’t speak and didn’t seem to take notice of anything around her. There was a tattered paper cup on the pavement in front of her and the girl stared at it fixedly. She was young, but Marie could say no more than that; a teenager, if she had to guess, a white girl with sallow skin and lank brown hair that curled against the collar of her faded denim jacket. Even from the minibus window, Marie could see the girl’s face was bruised, her lip cut and swollen. Why would anyone attack a girl who didn’t speak, but just sat there? Marie had a heavy feeling in her stomach and thought the violence must have had something to do with sex; the girl might be a prostitute.

Months later, June, and the girl was back – Marie saw her hunched in her sleeping bag, turning her head from the exhaust fumes of the minibus that brought the artists for the day. The caretaker at the gardens assured the group that he’d been trying to move “those types” along for weeks. No joy. If anything, the girl looked more settled. She’d got a knapsack, even: army surplus and greasy-looking. It was held closed with a length of plastic rope.

   * * *

In July, Marie works in the glasshouse. She prefers the glasshouse because the architecture of the place is magnificent. That’s a word that should be saved for truly wonderful things, and the wrought-iron arches and crowning spikes make the structure something extraordinary. It’s been described as a Victorian monstrosity, though. Marie doesn’t understand why people must be hateful about a thing. There was a review, the other week, of a small painting she’d done. The critic was widely read. He wrote, “Marie Galla’s offering manages to bring a chill to the collection. Her painting, Sunlight on Foxtails I, is weirdly cold and aloof, approaching clinical. One can only hope she will include some of that sunlight in further studies or, perhaps more mercifully, that she will leave the paint in the tube.”

The review is on repeat, booming in her ears as she works. Marie wishes she had never agreed to show the work.

Focus: She drags her thumb against the bristles and directs a fine spray of paint, trying to get the texture of the Lithops, the ‘living stones’ cacti. It’s actually a succulent. The curators get very cross when Marie confuses the two. She doesn’t pay attention to the names and classifications but to the colours, and she’s not capturing the milky-white eggshell spatter on the surface. A slightly different shade, but somewhere in the human brain it must be detectable because it gives the plant – she’s okay saying “plant”, isn’t she? They are plants? – an extraordinary beauty. Something about it evokes the sea and a change of depth. Or is it the drift of a cloudy sky? A hopeful shade of nimbus that heralds sunlight and the end of a storm.

Whatever. She’s not getting it.

She chose to work in the arid collection instead of attending the botanical drawing class because the thought of a crowd of people chatting and laughing always makes her feel panicked. The light in the glasshouse is very sharp and bright and the heat is relentless. After only a few minutes, she feels that she can’t breathe. She needs a break.

Outside, the air is fresh and cool. She seeks the shade of the central pergola and sits on a bench, closing her eyes against the dizzying colours of full blooms around her. Takes a breath in, lets it out slowly. Far off, she hears the muted conversations of garden visitors and she shrinks back, trying to blend into the froth of wisteria. She doesn’t know how long she sits there, but it feels as though she could hide away forever. After a while, she gets up and goes to the café by the fountain. She hesitates, watching the people from a distance. Couples sit in the little café and talk so easily, gesturing and laughing. There are mothers with pushchairs, absently rocking them as they chat. An elderly couple shares a towering piece of cake; they haven’t yet run out of things to say to one another. She feels the flutter of anxiety and tries to still it with rational thoughts: it’s worth facing people, if only because the coffee is good. She doesn’t have to talk to anyone except the barista. She might go a little crazy if she doesn’t talk to people at all, so she decides right then that she will make a routine. She’ll make an effort with people at least once a day.

* * *

August is better. Marie no longer paints, but she returns to the gardens and the glasshouse every week to work in her sketchbook. She’s trying to get images out of her mind– really the same image, over and over, for six weeks now. It will replay in her head until she manages to capture it and get it on the paper. She’s been that way since the beginning. Not obsession, it’s not like that. It’s just that things stick out in her mind and catch passing thoughts. Snag them, snare them. She doesn’t notice the time until she feels the drag of weariness. She needs some coffee.

  There is some commotion at the café. Marie goes around the side of the squat building to see what’s happening. The caretaker has the girl cornered. The girl’s eyes are rolling and wild; she’s trying to climb a concrete wall that is miles too high for her small frame. The caretaker waves his arms as if warding off a charging cow, or a black bear. Marie, suddenly angry, pushes through the small gathering of spectators and shouts at the caretaker, ‘What are you doing? For God’s sake, leave her be.’

‘She’s bothering people,’ the caretaker says. ‘Begging and looking to thieve. They come around here and steal wallets.’

‘Has she taken something?’ Marie feels a knot of disappointment and cannot understand it.

‘Only ‘cause I stopped her,’ the caretaker says.

‘So, “no”, then?’

‘Should be thanking me. People like that, poking around. Druggie, probably. Dangerous.’ He starts to spit, stops himself. Glances around at the people who are watching and straightens up. ‘There’s no bother, everyone,’ he tells them. ‘It’s sorted.’

Then the girl moves, faster than they had expected, and slips between Marie and the caretaker. Her feet scrabble along the gravel path and she’s away, disappearing into the copse of deciduous trees. The caretaker tries to give pursuit, but it’s clearly hopeless. He breaks into a run, immediately slipping on the wet leaves and falling to his knees, right there in the middle of the path.

He huffs, swears, ‘Bloody hell!’

There are half a dozen people standing outside the café and nobody moves to help the caretaker. Marie finally walks over and offers him a hand. ‘What’s this girl done, anyway?’

He shakes his head and gets up unassisted, brushing the knees of his uniform and rubbing a kneecap behind a torn patch. ‘Caught her in the skip round the back. Messing about.’

Marie frowns. ‘Why would she be in the skip?’

The caretaker shakes his bald head and throws his hands up, exasperated. ‘Scrubbing about, taking food. It’s thieving. She’s got to get out of here. Private property.’

‘It’s not, actually,’ Marie says, aware she’s being contrary. ‘But she’s gone, now. It’s alright.’

She doesn’t know why she feels the need to calm him. She doesn’t want him looking for the girl, that’s all. The caretaker isn’t listening. He walks back to the café and makes a show of checking the wall for damages, as if concrete would give way.

Marie’s hands are shaking, as if she’s been attacked. As if she were the one running, panicked, lungs heaving.

She heads back to the glasshouse. She wants to go home.

* * *

She notices the smell, firstly. It’s sweat, stale beer, rainwater. Hints of ash and dry leaves. It’s not unpleasant, and there is a hint of hay or grass. The girl must be sleeping in the gardens, then, after the gates close for the night. And she’s here, in the glasshouse. Marie holds very still at first, then rides a surge of indignation and turns the corner to confront the girl. The girl stands by Marie’s easel, her face close to the sketchpad. She can see her own face, all the sketches. It’s obvious that Marie has practically stalked her. For a moment, Marie cannot speak through her mortification, and her breath is ragged. She pushes through the panic: ‘Please don’t look at that – it’s not – ‘

The girl looks up, tilts her head. ‘That’s me.’

Marie swallows the copper taste of fear. ‘I’m sorry, I’ll take them down. I’ll destroy them.’

‘No, don’t.’

‘You don’t mind? Is it okay?’ Marie is aware of holding very still, frozen in place.

‘Yeah, it’s okay. They’re…good. I like how you-’ The girl’s eyes are the colour of a summer sky. She looks back at the sketches.

‘How I what?’

The girl touches her own face, then reaches a fingertip to trace the images on the paper. She’s unsure, trying to find the words. She shakes her head, lifts her thin shoulders and lets them drop. ‘I like how you make something out of nothing,’ she says.

***********************************

THE CURIOUS KOI by Peter Kelly

I’m hungry. That means the food will arrive soon. Who is it who brings the food and scatters it on the water? Why? Is it actually for us? How do they know when I’m hungry? Or am I hungry because it’s about to come? If so, how do I know it’s about to come? What would happen if it didn’t come?

Here it is. The first sign is always the shadow on the water. Everyone else knows this, so when the shadow appears they all rush to the spot under the bridge where the first food lands. I’m the only one who goes to the other side of the pond. I know the feeder will move there next, while all the other fish are still scrabbling for the first handfuls. That gives me half a minute on my own to eat as much as I can manage, completely unmolested. By the time the others realise and come to join me, I’ve almost had enough. Why don’t they realise this as well?

It’s always the orange-coloured fish who get over here first. Does that mean orange fish are cleverer? Or are they just faster? There are more orange fish than any other colour – could that have something to do with it? The white one is always the last, but he’s so huge he just pushes everyone else out of the way. Is he slow because he’s big, or just because he’s lazy and knows he has no need to rush?

There are lots of other colours in our pond. As well as orange and white we have black, silver, red, blue and yellow. The blue fish has a red spot on his head, which means all the others believe he is superior. He has a reputation for being the wisest koi in the pond.

I wonder what colour I am.

This thought troubles me for a number of days. I even rush to the bridge with all the others when the feeder comes, as I can’t concentrate like I used to. After feeding time I go to the quiet end of the pond and try to flick my tail around far enough so that I can see it. I can’t get it round that far, even after several minutes of furious thrashing. Exhausted I swim back to the others, but they all rush away. I hear the mothers telling their children I may have something contagious that will make them mad too.

I spend the next couple of days exploring every area of the pond to see if there is anywhere I can catch an image of my reflection on the water surface above, but to no avail. Still, by this time all the other fish have forgotten their earlier concerns and don’t react when I swim around with them. Terribly short memory, your average koi.

I decide on a new plan. I’ll ask the others. I’ll offer a trade – I’ll tell them what colour they are if they tell me what colour I am. They must all want to know. It’s our colours that set us apart, after all.

“Hello. Can you tell me what colour I am?” I ask the next fish to swim past.

“Hello. Good bye.” There is only the briefest pause between the two greetings – just enough time for two koi to cross paths.

This goes on for the whole day. Always the same response. It’s ridiculous. It’s as if they didn’t care. Or perhaps they just don’t understand. Now I think about it, the other fish don’t look particularly intelligent. That’s why none of them has copied my feeding trick. I’ll have to try the wise one. I’ll swim over to him now.

“Hello, wise koi.”

“Hello, curious koi.”

“What colour am I?”

“Why?”

“That’s not a colour I’ve ever heard of. Which other colour is it closest to?”

“It’s not a colour. I want to know why you want to know.”

What is he talking about? I just want to know. Isn’t that completely natural? Doesn’t he want to know what colour he is?

“I’ll tell you what colour you are, blue koi.”

“Thank you, but I already know what colour I am.”

“How do you know?”

“You just told me.”

Damn. Outwitted by an overgrown goldfish. An overgrown blue goldfish.

“So, will you return the favour, wise blue koi?”

“I might. If you tell me why you want to know.”

“I just do.”

The big blue koi swims round me for a few minutes. I can’t tell if he’s puzzled, contemplating or just laughing to himself.

“Aren’t you going to tell me?”

“Why?”

“That’s not a colour I’ve ever heard of. Which other colour is it closest to?”

“You haven’t told me why you want to know.”

“I have.”

“Not really. Tell me what you will do with the information.”

Good question. And not one I’ve given any thought to. Until now.

“It will help me to understand who I really am.”

“You’re a fish. In a pond.”

“I know.”

“So why do you need to know anything else?”

“I just do.”

“You’re here. You can’t get out. You get fed every day. And the net above the water means the herons can’t get you. Your existence is totally defined. What more do you need to know?”

“I want to know what colour I am.” I hope my frustration doesn’t show.

“What colour do you think you are?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then guess.”

“Am I orange?”

“What would it mean to you if you were orange, curious koi?”

“You mean I am orange!”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You didn’t say I wasn’t orange.”

“True enough.”

“So am I orange or not?”

“Yes.”

“Then why didn’t you just tell me I was orange in the first place?”

“Who said you were orange?”

“You did.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did. I asked if I was orange or not, and you said yes.”

“That’s correct. You are orange. Or not.”

My head is starting to hurt and I’m feeling hungry. It must be feeding time. I swim over to my special spot where the feeder will throw his second batch of food. But he doesn’t come for ages.

I think about what blue koi said. Why do I want to know what colour I am? What difference will it make? No one will treat me any differently – they already know what colour I am. I spot blue koi nibbling a reed, so I go over to him.

“I’ve thought about it, blue koi.”

“Good.”

“So will you tell me now what colour I am?”

“If you tell me why you want to know.”

“I want to know because I’m the curious koi.”

The blue koi stops nibbling and seems to be thinking. I’m not sure how you tell if a fish is thinking, but that’s the impression I get. I wonder if I look different when I’m thinking. Perhaps I should ask him – once he’s told me what colour I am.

“What colour is that fish over there?” he says.

I look. Close to us there is a group of five fish, all different colours. Which one does he mean? Why can’t fish point?

“Which one?” I ask.

“The huge one on the left.”

“White,” I say.

“Then we have a problem.”

“Why?” This is starting to get very annoying.

“Because I think he’s silver.”

“No,” I reply. “The one over there is silver.” I orient my body towards the fish I mean.

“You mean the one with the lavender tinge?”

“What’s lavender?”

“Purple.”

“Then why didn’t you just say purple?”

“Is that the one you mean?”

“Yes,” I reply, trying not to get annoyed.

“So what is she then? Silver or purple?”

“What does it matter?” I ask.

“I think it matters rather a lot, don’t you? If we have different opinions on colours, how will it help if I tell you what colour I think you are? You might think that’s a different colour altogether.”

As I’m trying to process this, the wise, blue, very frustrating koi swims away. Then a thought occurs to me. I rush to catch him up.

“You again?”

“Tell me which other fish are the same colour as me. Then I can call that colour whatever I like.”

“You’re making progress, curious koi. That’s good.”

“Well? Tell me!”

“I’m sorry, but there aren’t any other fish the same colour as you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re different. You’re translucent, almost see-through, so you don’t really have a colour. You’re what they call a ‘ghost koi’.”

I wish I hadn’t asked!

***************************************************

THE HOUSE OF RESENTFUL WOMEN by Valerie Thompson

The house was situated on the outskirts of town, near the plastic recycling centre.  It had an official title, the Haberdash-Winterton Home for Unaccompanied Second Citizens, though townspeople liked to mock it as the House of Resentful Women.  It was a building that’d lived several lives.  Once the home of a bluff Georgian squire it’d passed through several generations of the Haberdash family before they finally went bankrupt.  The beautifully proportioned bedchambers were coated in thick mustard coloured paint and partitioned off into mean little spaces thought appropriate for boarding school children.  Years later, after the school failed, it became a wartime convalescence home and by the 1970s it had been parcelled it up into shoddy bedsits, and it’d stayed that way until the Ministry of Control made it the subject to a compulsory purchase order.

Natasha had been admitted a month after her dismissal from Winterton Chem & Oil.  A fact she found grimly ironic since her former employer was the home’s sponsor.  Her room was on the top floor, affording Natasha a view of the grounds with its immaculately maintained lawns and topiary.  She guessed that the lawn was kept looking good by liberal use of Winterton’s Spray-Ex, a product officially blacklisted but which was still shipped out to developing countries.  It’d been Natasha’s increasing awareness of Winterton’s shadier dealings that had in part led to her redundancy.  ‘You’ve got an enquiring mind,’ her manager had said.  ‘Isn’t that a good thing?’ she’d asked, and he’d laughed.  Of course, being unmarried hadn’t helped and remaining childless once her thirtieth birthday had passed was the final straw.  ‘We’ve the company surrogacy programme,’ a H.R. assistant had told Natasha before her dismissal.  ‘If you could only buckle down and get promotion you’d be eligible.’  The assistant, a fecund twenty-two year old whose desk was already cluttered with photographs of sandy haired twins, had regarded Natasha with a mixture of bewilderment and pity.  ‘Don’t you want to be a success in life?’

On a dank February morning the words replayed in Natasha’s head as she lay in bed, her eyes tracing the lines of the cracks in the ceiling.  She shifted uncomfortably on the thin, spongy mattress.  There was a crackling, then the tinny sound of the home’s tannoy system.

“Good morning ladies.  Breakfast in fifteen minutes.  Be prompt.  Room inspections at 11.00am.  Be tidy.”

Another crackle and the tannoy was silenced.  Reluctantly Natasha got out of bed and listlessly straightened the covers.  She showered and dressed before heading down to the Refectory.  Breakfast was laid out on a vast mahogany sideboard.  Boxes of cereals, triangles of white toast, tea or coffee.  Natasha balanced a bowl and cup on the plastic breakfast tray, purposely using them to cover Winterton’s logo.  It was scattered throughout the home, the stylised W appearing on everything from paper napkins to window blinds.  The logo was on the back of Natasha’s chair as she sat down, and on the spoon she ate her cereal with.  She was nearly finished a woman came to stand nearby. 

“Sorry.  Can I sit here?”  The woman was thin and pale, her fair hair caught up in an untidy pony tail.

“Yeah, okay.”

The woman slid her tray on to the table, giving Natasha a nervous smile.

“I’m new here.”
“I can tell.”

“I’m Cassie.”  Another nervous smile.  “I won’t be here very long.  I’ve got a fiancé.  It’s just – well, he’s having doubts, but it’ll be fine, I know it will.”

Natasha glanced at the woman’s ring-less hand.  

“I’m Natasha.”
“Have you been here long?”

“Six months.”  Natasha didn’t miss Cassie’s sharp intake of breath.  “You get used to it.”

“Not me,” Cassie told her.  “I’ve got a fiancé.”

Natasha was touched by the hopefulness in the woman’s voice.  Most were already resigned to their fate by the time they trailed through the doors but Cassie, Natasha realised, was one of the small band still clinging to their dreams.  It was always worse for them.  She sipped her coffee.

“Is it freshly ground?” Cassie asked.

Natasha burst out laughing.

“That,” she said, “is the first proper laugh I’ve had since I got here.”

“I’ve a fancy latte machine at home,” Cassie said.  “You know, the ones you put little pods into.”  A wistful expression settled on her face.  “I’ve a lovely kitchen in my flat.  Shaker style cupboards, a really nice set of copper saucepans.” 

“You’ve still got a flat?” Natasha asked.  “It’s not been reallocated?”

“Oh, it’s been listed,” Cassie told her, “but my father’s overseas on business right now.  Nothing can be finalised till he’s back to sign the paperwork.  Anyway, Dad won’t have to authorise anything as Malcolm – that’s my fiancé – Malcolm and I, once we’re back on track – “  She paused.  “I told them, those jobsworths at the Ministry, that Malcolm and I just need some breathing space.  A few days.  A week at the most.  But no, I’ve passed my milestone birthday, I’m officially single.  That’s it.  All cut and dried as far as they’re concerned.”  As the words spilled out Cassie’s fingers shredded her paper napkin.  “It’s so inconvenient,” she complained.  “I’m having to take unpaid leave from work.  They wanted to sack me.  Can you imagine?”

Reality will hit her hard, Natasha thought, as a strident bell sounded. 

“Sorry,” she said, getting to her feet.  “I’ve got a class.”

“Oh?”  Cassie smiled.  “Are you learning a language?  I’ve always fancied Spanish.”
“No.  Not a language.”
Natasha might’ve said more but one of the home’s staff bustled up to Cassie, clipboard in hand. 

“Cassandra Smith?  You’re down for Induction.  Make your way to the main hall.”

“Okay, but first I need  – “

“Induction.  Now, if you don’t mind.”

Natasha left them to it, leaving the Refectory and walking toward the classrooms on the first floor.  A cork noticeboard was pinned with class timetables and posters.  No Smoking, a notice read.  No Drinking Alcohol on the Premises.  No Illegal Drugs.  No Illegal Recording Devices or Cameras.  The last one was new, Natasha thought.  Put up there as a reaction to the journalist who’d worked undercover, posting news reports exposing teachers and their outmoded classroom techniques.

The lesson bored Natasha.  A lecture on home economics, most of the women being destined for employment in catering or as glorified childminders to the spoilt offspring of executives.  Now the borders were closed to immigrants the need for au pairs, cleaners, waitresses and care workers was intense.  With married women no longer in paid employment the demand for the newly trained Haberdash-Winterton inhabitants was at an all-time high.  Natasha assumed an interested expression for the best part of an hour, then feigned interest in a practical class on getting babies and toddlers to sleep.

“Take care of them as if they’re your own,” the instructor solemnly told them.  “Remember, your conduct must be exemplary.  Always.”

They broke for lunch.  Natasha made her way to a solitary table at the far end of the room.  After a while Cassie wandered over.  Recalling her first bewildering week at the home, Natasha gave her a brief smile.

“Induction’s a waste of time.”  Cassie took a mouthful of her stew.  “Urgh, this needs salt.  They haven’t even let me phone Malcolm.  That’s my – “

“Fiancé.  Yes, you said.”

This fiancé business could get irritating, Natasha thought.  She imagined the others in Cassie’s induction class rolling their eyes and giving each other knowing looks as the mythical Malcolm was yet again thrown into the discussion.  As it was Natasha had to endure another ten minutes of talk about Cassie’s wedding plans.  It wasn’t until lunchtime the next day that they met again. 

“I’m losing patience with this place.”  Cassie banged her tray down on the table as she took a seat.  “I had to tell a doctor my whole – “  Cassie lowered her voice.  “ – sexual history.  As if it was any of their business.  Then – then! – he asks me if I’ve ever suffered from an unreported S.T.I.”  She flushed.  “The cheek!”

“No point getting angry,” Natasha told her.  “It’s only procedure.  Nothing personal.”

“The whole thing’s personal if you ask me,” Cassie said.

Natasha saw tears welling up in Cassie’s eyes.  Disappointment’s going to hit this one like a sledgehammer, she thought.  Poor cow.  Still, it’d make her more resilient and there were tough times ahead.  Second class citizens couldn’t afford to be so thin skinned.  Part of Natasha wanted to offer comfort to Cassie, but another part of her – the woman that’d endured six long months of dreary conformity – felt emptied of meaningful emotion, nothing left to give.  She knew she ought to sit with Cassie, console her, offer hope and solidarity, but instead Natasha excused herself and went for a walk in the grounds. 

It was a bright, clear day with a breeze that ruffled her hair and the leaves on the trees.  She watched a cluster of greedy starlings squabble over bread scraps thrown out for them.  Natasha walked on, hands dug into her pockets, and as she did a car came through the main gates.  Its tyres crunched up the main drive, and a window was wound down, a man leaning out. 

“Excuse me.”  He called out.  “Do you work here?”

Natasha was about to say ‘no’ when something stopped her.  An impulse.  How long since she’d acted on impulse?

“Err, yes.  I’m staff.  Can I help?”

He was fair haired, dressed in a conventional suit and corporate tie.

“I’m enquiring about Cassie.  Cassandra Smith.  Where’ll I find her?”

Natasha’s mind went blank.  Could it be him?  Was it the fiancé?  The knight in shining armour, or in this case a company car.  Come to slay the dragon and save his princess. 

“I’ve filled in her release papers,” the man said, rooting around on the seat next to him and proffering a bundle of paperwork.  “Do I give them to you?”

Something in Natasha made her hold out her hand.  Something made her accept them, to note the signature, to flick through the official forms as if it was part of her duties. 

“Thanks for these.  However – unfortunately – “ 

Natasha took a deep breath.

“It’s Malcolm, isn’t it?  Sorry to have to break bad news to you in this way.”  Natasha could hear her voice as if it was coming from a distance, from a person she barely knew.  “Cassandra left our establishment yesterday.  Another man claimed her.”

“What?  I don’t – “
Such confusion, Natasha thought.  If you looked it up in a dictionary you wouldn’t need words, just an image of the man’s face. 

“She’ll be married by now,” Natasha said.  “ A last minute secret wedding.”  She shrugged.  “It happens sometimes when there’s a child on the way.  The couple rush into making things official so the baby’s not classed as illegitimately conceived.” 

“But – but I thought – “

“I’m sorry you weren’t notified,” Natasha said.  “You’ve had a wasted trip.” 

Malcolm looked suddenly, coldly furious.  He didn’t speak again.  Within seconds he’d swung the car around and it sped out of the gates.  He was gone in moments, as if he’d never been there at all.  Natasha rolled the papers up, hiding them inside her jacket sleeve. 

Once back in her room, Natasha hid them under the bedside cabinet.  They might come in useful, she thought.  Cassie must’ve retained her passport, and maybe still had valid credit cards on her.  If I could get hold of those, Natasha decided, I might get away.  I might be able to locate a people trafficker who could smuggle me abroad to Italy or Greece where women were still legally full citizens.  For the first time in many months hope entered Natasha’s heart.  I’ve got the chance of a future, she thought.  I’ve just got to grab it.  As for Cassie – well, Natasha thought, life was a battle and with battles came casualties.  Sadly Cassandra Smith would have to be one of them.

**********************************************

White Sky by Jocelyn Kaye

The January gloom threatens to smother Sue’s house beneath its weight. I stand at the window; clutching an empty mug which has ‘World’s Best Husband’ emblazoned on the side. I can’t help but be transfixed by the white sky above. So thick and low I feel as if I could reach out and grab large fistfuls of the stuff and squeeze it until it oozes out between my knuckles like dough.

            My cousin was a student in England once and he had warned me about the famous English rain – how it was not the quenching, life-giving African rain we know about but a mean drab drizzle.

            ‘And the cold, Jabril!’ he’d exclaimed. ‘Days there are as cold as night. So cold, in fact it hurts to breathe in too deeply!’ But he hadn’t told me about the sky.

            The sky had been white the day I’d arrived in England for the first time, although that day it was finger-marked with dirty grey clouds. The raindrops on the windows of Sue’s car looked black when seen against the sky. I’d trodden in a puddle as I got into the car and the water seeped through my Converse and wet the bottom of my foot. I didn’t mention this to Sue though. I’d ignored the creeping discomfort and tried to concentrate on Sue’s excited chatter about how happy she was that I was finally here and about the new life we would have together.

            ‘We’ll have barbeques in the summer. You can do that fish thing you like,’ Sue had said whilst giving me the grand tour of my new home and garden. I couldn’t help but laugh at the tiny round contraption that stood there, rusting and forlorn.

            ‘This little thing would not feed a mosquito!’ I said, half amused, half perplexed as I turned the flimsy, built-in skewers.

            Now as I look through the window at the square lawn with dark tufts of mushed up grass and piebald patches of mud, I just cannot imagine ever feeling warm enough to eat outdoors here. Brave little white flowers have forced their way up in the borders and stand defiantly in the cold. Snowdrops, Sue told me. I haven’t seen snow yet, so I cannot say if it suits them. A lone robin hops about amongst them, beak tapping and scratching at the hard ground to try and find a meal. Giving up, it flutters quickly away. For some reason, I feel bereft.

            Placing my mug on the windowsill, I shiver and pull the sleeves of my thick sweater further down. I’m not used to this heavy wool, it irritates my skin and I have to wear a t-shirt underneath. It had been one of my many belated wedding presents from Sue.

            ‘Welcome to England!’ she’d laughed when I opened it. ‘You’re going to need this.’

            ‘I don’t need presents. You’re all I need,’ I’d told her. Sue blushed and giggled, like a young girl. But she’s not a young girl, my new bride Sue.

            We’d married at a ceremony in Banjul, the capital city of my country, The Gambia. I was surprised but pleased that Sue’s guests came all that way, her mother, her grown-up son and her best friend. They eyed me with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion. Their tight, polite smiles in the photo that stands on the mantelpiece speak the words that they would not say to my face. Gold digger. User. Visa Hunter. I have to say that my friends and fellow band members had been more relaxed with their opinions.

            ‘Clever man,’ they’d said, clapping me on the back. ‘Your visa will last for two years, then you can divorce her, get half of everything and return to The Gambia a rich man! You’ll see Binta come crawling back to you then.’ They told me that I could open a music bar in our hometown Bakau that would rival anything in Banjul or even Dakar in Senegal. Binta would like that. My mother had simply told me to make sure I looked after my new wife, but her eyes were concerned and her clinging hug told me she would rather I stayed in Africa.

            My mother. I let out a long sigh. Can I stand this white sky for two years? The gaping of Sue’s neighbours, the abrupt halt in conversation in the local Spar shop? They know in their minds that I must have married Sue to get a British visa – what else could I see in her? This is because they think I’m young, good looking and black. Well. I’m not that young, I’m nearly forty but Sue is older, fifty-eight and that is bad, here. Like most Gambians, I am tall and have muscles from all the drumming I have done, whereas she is rounded and full and that is bad here too. And I’m the only African living in this place, this small English village because I’m the only one stupid enough to live here. There are no jobs, no proper markets or shops selling decent vegetables, fish or other things I need to make a meal with and as for the weather …

I rub my hands together, trying work some life into my fingertips that are numb with cold. Sue has told me to put the central heating on while she’s at work if I feel ‘chilly’. But I don’t like to. Not until I’ve found work and I’m paying the bills myself. But there isn’t much of a demand for African drummers here. No drums, just silence. Silence. Yes, that’s what I’ve found hardest to bear. The cold I’ll get used to in time, but this incessant ringing silence is alien to me, so un-African. In The Gambia there was always noise of some sort in the air. Friends or relations dropping by, the sound of cooking, the revving of cars or scooters. Birdsong, or the buzz of insects if nothing else. And above all, music.

I realise with a start that, with the exception of the odd decent track on the terrible radio station that Sue listens to, I haven’t heard music in the weeks that I’ve been here. Music is not just my profession, it’s my life’s blood. I need to hear it, play it, live it.

I bound over to Sue’s hi-fi, rummaging in the cupboards at the side where my CDs have mingled with hers. I find the one I’m looking for and slide it in, twiddling the volume and bass buttons until I’m happy with the sound. The kora – the African harp – of Sissokho Yakhouba floats into the air over and above jangly sing-song guitars.  And the room is filled now, not by winter’s shade and quiet, but with the sound of warmth, dance, home. As the music plays on, I grab my djembe from beside the sofa and beat out the rhythm along with it, my fingers are nimble and warm now, my palms flutter and pat the drum. I close my eyes and I am no longer in a semi-detached house in England, freezing cold and a forty minute train ride away from any other Africans. I, too am in the air, in the white sky. I am with the music. I am the music …

I was playing my drum the night I met Sue. My band had a regular Friday night slot at the large hotel she was staying at. Although the gigs we played there were always more sterile and perfunctory than ones we played in the clubs, they had been our bread and butter, never to be sniffed at. Besides, me and my band enjoyed showing the audience what Gambians could do; it was not just the Senegalese or the Malians who had the monopoly on good music. The guests always seemed to enjoy them anyway; nodding their heads, stiff and self-conscious at first and then eventually, when the cocktails and music had loosened their inhibitions, they would risk a dance, sometimes dragged to their feet by Ebou, the singer, laughing and gyrating with him.

Many of the guests were lone middle-aged women, some divorced, some widowed. We were often approached by them wanting more than just a dance – that is why many come to my country, for the sun, the beaches and a love affair with a younger man. I have had lovers from Britain, Germany and Holland and I have to say that I enjoyed the attention and the spoiling, the flattery and having someone hang on to my every word as I showed them various tourist attractions. Of course, that was after Binta left.

But Sue had been different to the others. I noticed her because she was up and dancing right from the start, her large hips unconsciously swaying along to the music. I caught her eye and smiled and we’d talked about my music afterwards for hours. Before I knew it, she’d extended her holiday and I’d found myself standing next to her at the town hall, words exchanged, pieces of paper stamped, a shiny blue sky watching over us.

Now, back in the room, the CD plays itself out, then the deafening crashing silence again. But now my spirit is soothed, and the drumming has brought life back to my fingers. Pressing the repeat button on the hi-fi, I check the time on my watch. Another wedding present from Sue. She’d told my that the gold strap looked so beautiful against my black skin and called me her African prince. I chuckle to myself at the memory, shaking my head. It amuses me that she thinks I am exotic; I quite like it in fact. Aside from my drumming credentials, I have always thought of myself as being rather ordinary.

Sue will be home soon, it being Friday when she finishes work earlier. I better start preparing dinner. How my friends would jeer if they could see me doing women’s work. But I like doing things for her and I believe that a man should look after his wife as best he can. I also like her buttermilk coloured skin and her soft round body. Her voluptuousness reminds me of African women, of Binta. Turning the volume of music down, I hear Sue’s key turn in the lock and I smile. I know exactly why I am here. For her. I married for love, not a visa. I am, as my friends said, a clever man. Through the window I notice the day’s last traces of weak sun begin to strain through and tinge the white sky with silver.