I am Unimpressed.

written by Stephanie Heaven-Terry
edited by Betty Doyle

I am unimpressed.
A birthday cake, a card – ‘blank for your own message’.
A column of stone,
sunken feet in suckling Earth
staring out to sea.

I’m… disappointed.
A rock to whet a knife.
Smog at the table in the evening.
Pale flowerbed,
clutching miserable air
scraped onto a fork

I’m unscathed. Scratches
on the bannister where
a flower-pressed mouse
lies flat
and more steps
push up

Wiltshire Rock

written by Stephanie Heaven-Terry
edited by Betty Doyle

My palm on the rock, spread
a rumble of heat, down the wrist, up the knuckles
back and forth, back and forth.
A beating sun,
a drum,
three-fingered man, fabricating sound

The biggest butter slabs, fenced off
a circle of sweetcorn stuck in the grass.
Thick, thick heat –
Avon sweating shyly,
the universe watching slyly.

Till’ fizz of dark, Smooth edges reach
Warm butter, like salve,
in slick mirrors, neighbouring rivers.
Cooling, cooling
cosmic gel,
and dust, the stuff of old friends.

Run Rabbit Run

written by Leah Bennett
edited by Hannah Clarke

 

 

Hear our footsteps? The momentary crunch, ever wonder if that sound lingers around for others to hear?  If sounds did linger then you’d never be able to go anywhere that was quiet.  Can you imagine that? No silence in all the world, always noise, always movement, always my mind always.

Shh! Now follow my lead, that’s it, light subtle movements, almost as if you’re one of them.  Rabbits I mean! That is why we’re here isn’t it, this is your first rabbit hunt.  Ah! The woods, home of all tales.  Just imagine, if trees could talk, the secrets they’d tell!  They’re the beautiful tongue-tied story tellers, we can only fathom what things have met their ever glaring gaze.  Anything could happen here and there’d only be the withered old topiary to silently call.

No Finn don’t interrupt me.

Hiking! That’s what this reminds me of.  You know when I was about your age I used to come up here with my dad and we’d hunt rabbits together.

No please don’t call me Mr Penningsworth, that was my father, you can call me Lance.

You see young Finn, the beat has changed and, as these leaves do, we must all dance along to the change, as if they were seasons.  Just like the trees, welcome the wind to relieve their aching branches of the paralysis of holding up the leaves, we too must find our own breeze to break the hum drum of our own lives that engulfs us.  Don’t you agree boy?  Hear that? The sweet chitter chatter of birds oh they’re the authors of the sky!  Who knows those seemingly innocent chirps we naively associate with the greeting of a new fresh bright sunny day.  They have to fresh, they can’t be yesterday’s chirps unless sound lingers of course then they would be.  And if that’s true then what else doesn’t progress?  Like an eternal groundhog day Finn we are in an eternal groundhog day and they call it living.  The birds chirping could be the toxic spillage of many a cloak and dagger fable for all we know.  Finn, take this breath, feel renewed, breath in as if it’s your first fresh breath of the morning and make it different from the one yesterday.

Oh yes! Good eye! I see the fluffy vermin too by the rabbit hole! Haha! As if it thinks it can hide from the eager barrel of my gun.  You take this one.  That’s right hold the gun up…slightly higher and…Pull! Oh, so close, better luck next time champ.

Now? Yes. Yes! No? Soon? Okay soon.

No I wasn’t talking to you…who was I talking to? No one, I didn’t say anything.  All this fresh air is getting to you.  I told your mother not to let you stay cooped up in your room all the time.  You’re free, you’re a free bird and a free bird should be allowed to fly.  Now you’re here you can.

See champ, the thing is, these rabbits you see all flouncing around perking their peachy pink noses up to the sky, they’re small, they’re insignificant, they’re ours. They’re a lesser being.  Do you know what that means? It means we own them.  We get to do with them whatever our hearts desire because they are powerless and weak, unable to stop our intentions, just as we are to the mighty lord, the ultimate oppressor.  He has dominion over us just as we have over such creatures as these.

The way I see it Finn, you’re my rabbit.

Run Finn! Run rabbit run! Don’t look back! Your feeble squeaking is to no prevail.  Who will the birds tell?  Rely on the pitter patter of your tiny feet as you pray to the god you don’t believe in to save your sorry soul!

Silence.  Sounds don’t linger, we know now.

Yes! Yes! It’s done.  Didn’t you see? Oh what can I do to silence you, my whining mind?  It’s Finn, he’s looking at me with those dead eyes clinging onto life as a leaf does to its branch, slowly bronzing over.  You couldn’t be saved.  The beautiful sadness that runs through you Finn will feed these ancient poets, make them grow stronger than ever and oh how I envy you.

 

Love Song

by Pete Pringle
edited by Tanny Hossain

 

‘What is it?’ Di asked.

Numb, Freddy just sat there. Sinking silently into the passenger seat of the family people carrier they’d bought years ago in the hope of having children. But that had never happened. Not from a lack of trying though. They’d given up after the second miscarriage. Well, Freddy had. And he couldn’t stand the idea of Di having to go through it all again. They’d drifted apart since then.

‘Stop hogging the middle lane!’ he muttered.

‘Why don’t you just shut the fuck up?’

Freddy started thinking back to when Diana had once filled his soul completely. Now it seemed to him like she just didn’t want him around. He could see her raging inside. He could hear her saying what she’d usually say when she was angry before the words left her lips, ‘Why don’t you just fuck off out of my life?’ Even he had to admit though that he was being a bit presumptuous.

The sat-nav blurted out some instructions. He ignored it. He wasn’t driving. The blue motorway sign for junction 36 on the M6 flashed past. He didn’t really know how she was feeling about ‘them’. They just didn’t talk anymore.

‘What is it?’ she asked again.

Freddy carried on looking out of the car window. The rushing fields blurring. The dotted white line solidifying. Was the question she’d asked him too overwhelming? Besides that, he didn’t want to get into an argument. Not again. At least, not today; please, not today.

Things had been like that for a while with her. She’d snap at him more and more. Each time she did it felt like she was slamming another door in his face. Every day she was letting him in a little less. So he’d learnt to stop responding. Thinking to himself that two can play that game. But she’d still try and pry something out of him, and he’d sometimes something would slip out.  She’d just scream at him, ‘I can’t believe what comes out your mouth sometimes.’ And then he’d say, ‘Okay, well, nothing then!’  But sometimes he just wouldn’t answer, and then she’d dig, and dig, and dig. Just like how she was doing now, like a dog chasing after a cat. And the more she dug, the more he’d shut up.

He remembered back to when they’d first met. It never used to be like this. His thoughts drifted back to the first time she’d come around to his flat at Uni. They were supposed to be studying for exams but they ended up listening to music all night.

‘I really love music’ she’d said.

‘Do you?’

‘Yeah, I could live on it.’

‘Surely not literally? Does it get you that bad?’

‘Yeah! Sometimes I feel like I could burst when I listen to music. Only with certain songs though, and especially love songs. It’s as if I’m at a feast and I just have to overeat, and then duh, I lose my appetite, and eventually I get sick of the song. It’s not like I quite hate the song, but it gets to a point where I just can’t stand it anymore. Do you know what I mean?’

He remembered thinking she was so cute when she just thought out loud

‘Yeah, it’s funny that, I get that way too’

‘You know like that song you were playing just then?’ she asked.

‘Which one?’

‘The one that was on when I got here? What’s it called again? ‘Baby’ or something like that?’

‘Oh, Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti?

‘Yeah, play it again, I liked it.’

‘It’s cool, huh?’

‘Yeah. I think it’s one of those songs though, it’ll never sound as good as the first time you hear it. But I guess most things are like that. You kind of have to chase after the moment.’

‘That’s so true. When I first heard it, it was like wind blowing over a bank of delicate flowers.’

At that moment, he remembered how Di had kept her head still while her eyes dropped away, pursing her lips at the same time. It wasn’t quite a look of disappointment but more like ‘does he actually know what he sounds like?’ She was probably thinking ‘What sort of crap was that?

‘Look at me trying to sound all poetic and shit.’

He smiled at himself knowing how crazy it sounded,

‘It brought a sort of warm cosy feeling over me,’ he continued.

He couldn’t help it, even though he knew he sounded like a total idiot. It was just the way she made him feel.

‘That sounds crazy, but it doesn’t surprise me, especially coming from you.’

They laughed.

He’d walked over to the CD player in the corner of his room. Its walls were plastered with posters; Jimi, Bob, The Zep, Nirvana. He stopped the song that was playing. He remembered thinking that the moment was lost. He smirked to himself thinking of how bourgeois bohemian he thought was back. Not knowing what life was really like with the ginger bum fluff hanging off his chin. Trying so desperately to be a man of sophistication.

‘Why’d you stop it Freddy?’

‘Well, as you said, we don’t want to spoil it.’

At the time, well perhaps a few days later, he remembered thinking about the power of love; how it had come to him like rolling waves at high tide, how it had caught him so unawares. It wasn’t something that he could identify easily with though, because as quickly as it’d seemed to have appeared, in one hot minute, it had disappeared. Perhaps, it was because of this, and this alone, that he’d felt so fantastic. It was marvellously irrational to him, especially when he’d looked at Di, and she’d looked back at him with that peculiar quizzical look. She had tilted her head, and as she did her hair fell lopsided over her shoulder. And it was in that moment that he knew. She was the girl that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.

Now he asked himself why. Why on earth hadn’t he just let the music play on? The thought didn’t linger. He spotted a black cat sitting on a drystone wall in some small village they were rushing through. Besides, that was over ten years ago now.

Meanwhile, he just carried on looking out of the car window. She must have been watching him sitting in his little trance as she ran her hand through his hair.

‘Keep your eyes on the road!’

He’d flinched and told her not to do that, he didn’t like it. And this upset her of course. So teary eyed, she snarled back at him.

‘Well, what is it?’

Freddy tried to explain himself but she wasn’t really listening. It wasn’t that he minded her running her hand through his hair; that’s not what he meant at all. It was more that she’d shocked him, her touching him when he didn’t expect it. She started ranting and a dullness came over him. He was now oblivious to her rants. He went back into his little cocoon of looking out of the window. The world rushed by, and she ranted on, and on. He just stopped listening.

A yellow fog hugged the horizon in the distance as the sun kissed the approaching night. October is such a miserable month, he thought. Di used to be so innocent like the violets she grows on the kitchen window sill in late February. He slid into his seat.

He wished things could have stayed like how they used to be but they were both getting older. And his hair was thinning. Thinning that’s an understatement. He was almost bald. He’d read reviews about those supposed hair loss treatments online but they seemed to be a farce. He didn’t know what to do. The proverbial cat had got his tongue. How the hell am I going to tell her how I feel?

He looked over at her as her face was lit up every so often by passing headlights and thought of how delicate and sensible she still was. He somehow knew that he’d never get the courage to tell her. Stagnant. He sat just like how the yellow fog had been only minutes before. He could hear his conscious mocking him. Telling him that he was never going to be her hero. Would he regret later not telling her? He felt so emotionally paralysed that he just didn’t know anymore.

Freddy knew she was having a rough time with the menopause and all. He worried too; perhaps this was because he’d promised her father before she’d arrived at the church all those years ago that he’d protect her. But their relationship had somehow become euthanatized by time. And their lives seemed to be slowly grinding to a halt.

Just then their song came over the radio, and the DJ said something like, ‘this one’s for all the lovers out there.’ And it made him think of how he’d felt when they were together when they were younger. How it’d seemed somehow that their life together was always going to be free from pain. Sure, he still felt a longing for her when they were apart. And of course he still loved her but it had gotten messy along the way and it seemed that their love was just not the same. Even now when he remembers how he’d felt back then, his heart weakens a little. But his heart broke when she’d said to him that she’d only wanted to be friends. She’d said something like ‘You know that desire doesn’t last forever’.

‘What is it?’ she asked again.

She was looking at him when he turned to her. He smiled at her.

‘Remember this?’ he said as he leant forward and turned the radio up.

 ‘Dreams of you all the time, feel so good I wanna get that right, ha, ha, ha, just can’t wait til tomorrow, come on baby let’s shake it. Oh baby, you’re so baby….’

‘No… I can’t say that I do.’

The Friend

 written by Stephanie Heaven-Terry


The otter,
downy hairs, pierced cheeks
sleek as silver shears
and ears soft as bleach water.

The friend,
She recites Hamlet, “I knew him!”, laughing
It looks you dead in the eyes,
Exhales dust.

The otter,
Poses by old tomes and tufts of parchment
likely to be just printer paper 
and collects scabs

The otter,
has porous hollows, screeching in thirst.
Marrow like old sponge.
Gentle cracks.

The otter,
sings a dull note when knocked
and even more satisfying when broken.

Medicine Boy

written by Tom Owens

Selling this stuff made him feel important. The others sold shoes and clothes, or stacked shelves full of cupcake holders and beef jerky imports and other useful items every shopper needs. He didn’t sell that though. He sold help. He sold advice. He sold relief. Illness and bodily annoyances were his enemies, and paracetamol his trusty sidearm.

He had to do a course, he had to learn. ‘I earned my place here’, he thought to himself each day. The others simply walked up, handed in a piece of self-proclaiming paper, maybe spoke to the management about how good they can be, then got the job. Not him. He was the only applicant. Arriving in the nick of time and saving the branch from closure, most likely. They needed that Saturday-lad and he made sure they got one. They got a good one.

“A mouth ulcer? No problem. Try this Liquid Anbesol. It’s far better than Bonjela.”

He always used that one. ‘Now they know that’, he thought, ‘thanks to me. I passed it on. No more ulcer, way more knowledge.’

Most days though he would not be on the front lines, meeting the needs of the many souls who popped in for a needed pack of plasters. Most days he was working in the background, where the magic happened, in the fabled dispensary. Customers only get a glimpse of this fabled land, where medicines are sorted, filed and placed into their most convenient positions. He remembered being this sort of virgin; how quaint. Now, the big green delivery boxes gleamed as the middle-man brought them in (quite carelessly lumbered atop a trolley) and placed them on the dispensary floor. Sorting the boxes’ contents were like a dance:

He would grab the lids and throw them off before grabbing a handful of meds. The fastmovers went on the neatly stacked shelves and to the back went the Cetraben (steds). CDs no longer meant music, that abbreviation had changed for him, ‘C’ meant Controlled, ‘D’ meant Drug, and they rested near the Insulin.

Oh! What a joy his civic duty was, to ensure that this place of healing remained neat and clean. When a patient rolled in, waving that green paper in his face like a written plea for help, he could go straight to the back and have their bag of gold, frankincense and/or myrrh ready within a record time of 2 minutes, 33 seconds. Though, of course, the boss man had to check first – sign the boxes and give a pharmacist’s stamp of approval, but this was not really necessary: he knew he had chosen wisely.

Except for that one time he dispensed modified release Metformin instead of regular Metformin, but we don’t talk about that.

Yeah, he quite liked his job. It paid the phone tariff, the Netflix bill, the days out with the other guys. And he was pretty good at it, he supposed.

Except now he had to leave. He wasn’t going to be living here anymore. Things in his life were changing, the world around him moving on. He had done his course here, was a qualified assistant now, and was enjoying being the locals’ favourite medicine boy. He remembers the last person he served: a simple case, just a woman with bad corns. He told her she should try her GP. He remembers saying goodbye to co-worker Pam, locking the door, handing her the key. He promised a text before she hurried off. Must want to get home quickly. He remembers grabbing those grubby shutters and pulling them down.

Let them try and find someone else.

The Switcher

written by Alex Smith 

I met the Switcher at the edge of a pier, on a rainy morning in February. That was what they called him: no name, no forwarding address, not even a phone number, just “the Switcher”. He was tall, and lanky, and drooped against the iron railings like an old coat hanging off a peg. Younger than I was expecting, or at least he looked it. He couldn’t have been a day over thirty, with his bright skin and clean-shaven cheeks. He looked out over the blacky-grey sea and waved at me.

‘Call me Jack – for convenience.’ That was the first thing he said to me. The Switcher – sorry, Jack – tossed a coin end over end through the air, and caught it without looking at it. ‘What can I do for you?’

I swallowed. The pier was mostly wooden, and rainwater coagulated into the gaps in the planks like festering mould. There were puddles growing beneath my boots.

‘I’m looking for a miracle.’

‘Well, I would hope so.’ He cracked a smile, and tossed the coin again.

‘I heard you were the sort of person to speak to.’

‘And where did you hear that, Mrs…?’

‘Ronen.’ I hesitated for a moment and held out my hand. ‘Katherine Ronen.’

‘Katherine.’ He stopped flipping his coin, but didn’t take the handshake. ‘Do your friends call you Kathy?’

‘Do your friends call you Jack?’

He grinned. ‘Let’s get out of this.’

 

We found a little cafe across the road from the pier, still close enough to see the pebbles of the beach rippling and rolling in the uneasy tide. I ordered a black coffee, and asked if they had any napkins. Jack ordered a full English breakfast – and it really was full, the plate on the edge of overflowing with grease and red sauce. It looked ridiculous put down in front of him, stick-thin as he was. He sat leaning back in his chair, like a school kid, while the waitress brought over our drinks.

‘You didn’t say before.’ He was still tossing his coin, and had made no move to touch his meal. ‘Who told you about me?’

I shrugged. ‘Nobody really told me anything, exactly. It was all a bit – well. You know. Forums and chatrooms, that sort of thing. People would say they’d heard rumours, and then other people would say they’d heard completely different rumours. But some of the details stayed the same, and I’d pick those details out, and sort of…’ I shrugged again. ‘I just figured out how to find you.’

‘Evidently.’ He whistled. ‘Bloody twitter. It’ll be the death of me.’

He leaned forwards and poured himself out some tea. ‘Used to be the case, that you helped work out a problem for someone and they left you well enough alone. Nowadays everybody wants to talk about it. As if secrets weren’t in short enough supply already.’

‘So you do?’

‘Do what?’

‘Work out problems for people.’

He spread his arms, balancing precariously on the back legs of the chair. ‘Depends on what the problem is.’

‘Right.’ I sipped my coffee. It tasted a little strange; I had only started drinking it without milk recently. It still took a little getting used to, and every time I put a cup to my lips I surprised myself by drinking something bitter instead of something sweet. I wiped my mouth with one of the napkins the unsmiling waiter had provided for us. ‘His name is Laurence.’

Jack held his mug with his free hand, drumming his fingers across the handle. ‘Laurence. Your son?’

‘Yes. How did you know?’

‘It so often is.’ Clink. Coin went up, coin went down. He snatched it out of the air, and threw it up again. ‘What can I do for Laurence?’

‘He’s dead.’

I thought that might get some sort of reaction out of him, even just a little one. Widened eyes, a gasp of shock, something. He didn’t even fumble his catch. This time, he caught it with his palm held flat. He held it out to me and I could see that the penny had landed on heads.

‘Okay. Natural causes?’

‘Car accident.’

He looked at me steadily, tea in one hand, coin in the other. He withdrew the penny, curling his fingers around it like it was a pearl growing in his palm, and set the mug down on the rickety little table between us. ‘Alright then. Shouldn’t be too difficult.’

I expected him to say more, but he didn’t. He unravelled a flimsy knife and fork from their plastic wrapper, and started to eat. He was a delicate eater, precise with his cutlery, squaring each mouthful with almost geometric precision before he raised it to his lips. I sat, sipping my coffee, watching him eat, and waited.

 

‘I suppose the only real question is, are you sure you want to do this?’

We were back on the pier. The rain had let up, though only a little, and the tide had grown even more restless in our absence; great swathes of shingle battered the thin beams holding us out of the water, and the sound of it grinding against the wood made me shiver in my jacket.

‘I’m sure.’

‘You understand the ramifications?’

‘I – I think so.’

Jack sighed. ‘Well, it’ll make more sense after we’ve finished. Let’s get going.’

He threw his coin to me, and when I caught it we were standing inside a hospital ward in the middle of the night. Dim halogen bulbs illuminated the corridor, and from all around them came the muted muttering of the ill and infirm. The rain of the pier was gone, replaced with an uncomfortable heat. I stumbled, falling heavily against a rough wall plastered with laminated posters. Don’t forget to wash your hands! I drew back, feeling light-headed. After the hiss of the tide and the roar of the rocks, the muted, uncomfortable silence of the hospital ward felt deafening. I was still shivering; I couldn’t stop. Jack watched without speaking as I regained my balance, as I fought back the urge to be sick. Eventually, the feeling passed. I straightened up and turned to him.

‘2003?’ He asked.

‘2002. First day of December.’

‘Ah. I was close.’

We walked together down the length of the ward. Voices floated over the blue curtains, pulled up and around the beds like palls. A nurse wandered past, looking harried, and barely glanced at us.

‘Are we, you know, invisible?’

‘Not exactly. More like unimportant. They tend not to notice me.’

I turned his penny over in my hand as he led me out of the ward and into the innards of the building. It was a two pence piece, battered, a little rusty even, and it was icy against my skin.

‘How do you do it?’ I asked him. He just tutted at me. Didn’t reply. I had known before I opened my mouth that he wouldn’t; it seemed like the sensible thing to say, that was all.

We found ourselves outside a door with a heavy, expensive-looking electric lock.

‘Fancy,’ I murmured. Jack chuckled, and pushed the door open. The lock bleeped as we stepped through.

The room felt familiar, even though I was quite certain I had never been inside it before. It was warm, even warmer than outside, the bulbs a glimmering orange; and, lining the walls, row upon row of incubators. Jack led me over to the closest three, these smooth Plexiglas pods, which I realised as we approached were occupied.

‘What happens now?’ I could hardly breathe.

‘Now,’ Jack said, ‘for the switch.’

 

As soon as he took the coin from me the illusion faded. Well – I call it an illusion, but I don’t think that’s quite the right word for it. Jack pocketed the coin without a second glance at it, and rubbed his hands together. The rain had stopped altogether now, and the pier was starting to fill up. Tourists, pensioners, yobs – all the sorts of people you’d expect to find on a pier at one o’ clock on a Tuesday afternoon.

‘Where is Laurence now?’ I asked him.

‘He won’t be called Laurence anymore, for a start,’ Jack told me. ‘And I can’t quite say. Could be his family won the lottery and flew off to live in Florida. Could be he fell off a climbing frame when he was three and ended up paralysed from the neck down. All I know is, he isn’t where he was before.’

‘Oh.’ I blinked. I was not going to cry in front of him. I refused to. ‘And I’m the only one who’ll remember… That?’

‘Yes. As far as everyone else is concerned, the other boy – he’ll be named Laurence, now – he was your son.’

‘And no one will ever know otherwise.’

‘That’s how this works.’

‘Right.’ I paused. ‘I have a daughter-’

‘Whose brother still died in a car crash, as far as she knows.’ Jack pushed himself up from the iron railing, and no longer looked like an old coat hanging off a peg. ‘History is different now. The world is different now, but no one knows that. That’s just how the switch works.’

I didn’t have anything else left to say after that. I thought about Laurence, or whatever his name was now, doing what it was he did in this new life he suddenly had. I thought about this new boy, too, this other boy’s face in my photographs, a new child living the same life – right to the very end, with the screaming and the shattering of metal and glass. There had been two, I realised. Two other occupied incubators, in the hospital.

I had been turning to leave, but I glanced back. Jack was still there, staring out across the sea. He noticed me watching him, and raised an eyebrow.

‘How did you choose?’ I asked him. ‘How did you choose which boy to swap?’

He smiled, and flipped his coin. It sailed through the air, end over end, and vanished into his palm as if it had never been there at all.