Hi Hanif! I love this idea - here is mine.

Thank you for reading it.

Monika x

Picture this 

In her mid-twenties, she leaves the disappointments of her country for something different, and therefore, better. She arrives intending to stay for six months, a little shocked from the way she’s treated like a criminal at the border. It’s 1989. 

WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE HERE? They bark at her when they see the dark green of her passport, the way she struggles to push out unfamiliar, and therefore tentative, words from a rather beautiful mouth. 

To learn English. 

They demand proof: what school? Which address? Why English? Where will you live? What are you worth? Why should we listen? 

And right before they stamp her passport, one of them tells her, you’ll be scrubbing my toilets in a week. That’s what you people do. 

Now picture her trudging back and forth to class in the rain, marvelling at the monstrous synergy of the Bakerloo line and burying her face into her jacket to stay warm. On alternate evenings, she works at the local Nisa as a cashier, pretending to be European and therefore, legal. Most evenings, to her relief, she is surrounded by people who look like her, who speak her language, marvelling with her over the way none of the locals speak to each other on the underground or dance in the street. Picture a woman who radiates warmth but who is afraid of being discovered, deported, degraded, who buys international calling cards once a week, rings home to lie about how well she’s doing, who cries on the phone when she hears her parents’ voices and pretends it is laughter. 

Picture this: two months before she’s due to leave, she meets a man who seems different, and therefore, better. Turns out he, too, studies English at the same school as her. Turns out he, too, frequents the Nisa she works at, knowing she isn’t European but choosing not to pry. Turns out he, too, is a stranger in this land. 

On their first date, he invites her up to his flat and she thinks, ah, I know what this is. But she goes and he spends an hour showing her photos of his nieces and his nephews, telling her about his homeland, the way his family slowly clawed their way out of poverty and the way that scars. A story she knows well. They communicate stubbornly, trying to be funny and witty and charming in hesitant English. On their second date, they fall in love. And then her visa expires. 

Picture her meeting a great love and the promise of adventure, then returning to her home in exquisite agony. Picture the kind of love that worms its way through multiple time zones, cultures, and continents, refusing to give way. They write letters, they call, they search for words in dictionaries, until he says, marry me or let me go. Marry me, or let me go. 

Picture this. A woman tells her parents she’s leaving her home to marry a man she’s known for three months. Who comes from a county they’ve never heard of and speaks a language they don’t recognise. Picture the strained faces of a mother and a father listening as their eldest tells them her husband-to-be has used up all his savings to buy her a one-way ticket so she can marry him in his hometown, ten thousand kilometres away. 

Picture a woman in a red dress, signing her marriage certificate and shivering from the cold. Beside her, a translator, ensuring she’s legally consenting to what she’s doing. Behind her, a room full of strangers, crowding forward to get a glimpse. In front of her, her husband, who won’t let go of her hand.

Picture young love growing older, but never stale. 

Now finally, picture this: an incredible woman gives birth to a daughter compelled to tell stories. As her daughter reaches twenty-five and begins to understand what it means, as a woman, to journey alone into the arms of a stranger in a hostile country, she is astonished at her mother’s ferocity, but also, her recklessness. She thinks of all the ways it could have gone wrong, even though it didn’t. She thinks of how her mother would collapse in terror if she were to follow in her footsteps. One day I’m going to write about you. She tells her mother. 

Picture a woman who looks like she swallowed the sun gently frowning, her face covered in freckles. 

About me, daughter? What is there to write about?

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He remained in bed. He lay motionless and listened to the sounds that came from the adjacent kitchen. The babble of the water running through the coffeemaker, the scratch of a lighter, igniting the gas stove. He recognized the opening of the French window and felt fresh air wafting up to his bed. He heard the neighbors on the street, greeting each other. Their soft consonants making him wonder if it was the same language he spoke at home. There was yet another lighter and the faint smell of burnt paper, just before the flame reached the tobacco. She was smoking. He pictured his aunt standing halfway in the open door, a cigarette in her right hand, the other one propped up against her elbow. Tightening her faded rose colored dressing gown as if it was not summer but early spring and still cold outside. Looking out across the backyard her gaze would not wander very far. The dark gable of the next house, a line of outgrown spruces and a low brick wall above the mossy streak of grass would close the horizon.

He drifted into sleep again. He had gone to bed on time, albeit somewhat later than the curfew his mother had left with her sister. Whenever he came to spend the vacation, his aunt would move to the couch in the living room. He then would sleep in her bed, under smooth sheets smelling of detergent. Last night though he had stayed up late. There was a second TV set in the bedroom.

Television was a different matter in this household. Much more about entertainment and less of the only occasional educational device it was at home. In the afternoon they had watched the reruns of the Olympic Games in Los Angeles from the previous night. In clear daylight, without precedent discussion. In fact, she had suggested to watch television.

That’s why he had gone to bed just a little late. It had been already shortly after dinner, that the prospect of watching television in bed had excited him more than he had been able to handle. His heart had raced when he had flipped the switch after he had said goodnight. He had held on for a minute or two, carefully making sure the volume was completely down. First, he had watched a crime show. Elderly men in beige-colored trench coats had interviewed frightened elderly women in brownish living rooms. Then he had noticed his aunt getting ready for bed and finally settling on the couch. He had waited again for a while before he slipped out of bed. When he had been sure that there was no sound from next door, he had turned up the volume a bit. He had listened again and had turned the knob further until he had been able to understand what was being said.

Later, the program had changed from detective stories and other rather family-friendly shows to a different sort of entertainment. As soon as the word “playboy” had appeared on the screen he had realized that by now he had reached the inner realms of the forbidden territory. He did not know exactly what the word meant, but he had heard his mother use it to describe the new conductor of the church choir. Her voice had been full of the resentment. A nuance he noticed whenever she talked about certain things. Things that children were told were yet beyond their comprehension. He had watched a short film which apparently had been shot at somebody’s home kitchen. A woman had been baking an apple pie. He had seen women baking apple pies before, but none of them had acted or moved in the way the woman on the screen did. She had kept smiling and waving at the camera. Halfway through the recipe she had taken off her apron under which she had not worn any clothes apart from her underpants. He did not understand why she was being told to rub some of the flour on her breasts, to push them toward the camera. He could not make out why she would be asked to so such a thing. There was no possible connection to the pie she was baking. He had not made it to the end of the program, afraid he would fall asleep with the TV still on. He had turned it off, put the set back into its original position and had gone to sleep.

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I'd love to do this but do you mean 8th Feb as that's today :-) ? X

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I hope you like this, Hanif.

With Love from Me to Paul.

She had known for some time that she was to marry Paul although she had to admit he had no idea of her existence. The sight of other young girls screaming, swooning and adoring him did nothing to alter the fact that one day when the time was right, he would find her. Her love for Paul was comforting when she was despondent. It made her laugh when she was feeling rational and cry when she felt unloved.

This story is short but true. I've heard it told so many times in various forms that it might even have happened to me. To set the scene, imagine the dark, charismatic father and the cream-skinned voluptuous mother. Three handsome, articulate older brothers and a rambling, untidy house in North London. Faded wallpaper, worn carpets, music, smells of oil paint and egg curry. A girl with crooked teeth, a slightly cross-eyed stare, long thin limbs wobbling like a colt.

I'll rush through this next part: a phone call one evening; a snapped sitar string; a drive to Abbey Road; Norwegian Wood; peering round the door; let her come in; a handshake, a greeting; a smile and a wave from him.

Then came visits to each others homes and exchanges between the celebrity couple and her family about Indian music. Or art or fashion but in any case she was just a silent observer with nothing to offer to these conversations. After the first dinner, she took George's cigarette butts to school to show her friends. In a non-smoking family they seemed exotic. She liked the evenings when they came to her home and played music and the times when he'd turn up alone unannounced to talk about ragas and talas with her father. And then one day they asked if Paul could come too.

Her child reaction was to jump up and down and rush to find clean socks. As a woman she felt like throwing up with fear. Neither one thing or the other she swung from excitement to despair. It was too soon. In five years their age difference wouldn't matter but now? This evening? In all likelihood it would be her only chance and this was not the right time.

Out of school uniform and hovering at the top of the stairs she felt sick. Leaning over the bannisters she heard adult chatter and laughter that spilled into the hall. That was where the historic meeting had taken place fifteen minutes earlier and years later the biographers wanted to know exactly what had happened. George had his foot on the sitar case and Ravi said the first lesson was not to do that. And what else, what else did they say? It was of no interest to her. She was waiting for Paul.

He arrived and she made her move. Head down she strode into the room, saw a large bowl of peanuts and grabbed a handful. Dead cool, she shoved them into her mouth and looked around for somewhere to sit. There was only room next to Paul on the sofa. He looked up at her and smiled with his head slightly tilted. She sat down abruptly, grunting as she pointed to her face stuffed full of nuts.

The questions started, gentle, amused, kind. What do you like doing? How is school? Then when she didn't answer, perhaps remembering how it is when you're young he said, it's difficult. I used to say bloody old teachers! and she thrilled at this empathy and that he'd used a swear word. Turning her face to his and swallowing she meant to say, it's hard and it's lonely sometimes.

Instead, she stared at him and said, "I have no idea what you mean. My teachers are excellent and I'm doing well." Her head was hot and she tried to tell herself to shut up. To say nothing and try to look appealing would be better. Or to kiss him. Or dare to tell him that she loved him, wanted him. "I like my school very much," she said hanging her head. He was lost to her.

He was smiling as he gestured to the tablas, the sitar, the paintings, the incense burning on the mantlepiece next to the bronze statues of Shiva and Parvati and told her he could understand that. "Because you've got all this." She looked around at the shabby furniture and the stained rugs but was unable to see what he saw.

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Wonderful idea, here’s mine!

The widow’s breakfast.

“Leo, is that you?”

“Sorry Mum, sorry sorry sorry! Lost track of time!”

I really had. I had been nearly but not quite snogging Chris Weatherly behind the 180 bus stop near Catford Dogs. He was 15, a year above me, so mature, so unavailable, so addictive. Was I really 2 hours late home?

“Leo darling, you know how I worry when I don’t know where you are. Can’t you try to understand….”

She sucked deep on her little dark brown roll-up. I greedily inhaled her exhaled smoke and went on the offensive:

“No Mum, I can’t. Ok, I’m unreliable, but I’m a teenager. You have to understand me, because you’ve been a teenager. I don’t have to understand you, because I’ve never been an adult.”

Pleased with my logic, I rammed home one more killer argument.

“And besides, I’m immortal, ok?”

41 years later in Berlin, I stared vacantly into the fridge. I took out a large floppy lettuce leaf, added a stack of Pringles and a big squeeze of mayonnaise. I rolled it up and bit in, still standing, staring into the fridge. All the main food groups, fat, salt and even a green thing, and no washing up. The perfect widow’s breakfast. For the last three days, people whom I hadn’t seen for years, or whom I hardly knew, or who hardly knew Marc, seemed to be constantly trying to tell me something. Phone, text, email, whatsapp.

“So sorry about Marc”

“So sorry I didn’t make it to the hospital”

“So sorry we lost touch”

“Yes, we’ll come to the funeral”

“Can you make sure it’s on a Thursday?”

“Will there be vegetarian food?”

“Can uncle Dieter come?”

“Well he’s better off now he’s not in pain, isn't he?”

“Cancer research is really making progress, in a few years people won’t die of it any more”.

”He should have tried the keto diet”.

“Time is a great healer, it will take about a year.”

None of these people asked, “what was he like”?

Marc was my gorgeous companion for 24 years. A tall and lovely German guy with a wicked sense of humour and a love of Pringles, technology and other people’s dogs. I admired so many things about him: the way he would pay with his mobile phone in shops, when I would still be fumbling around trying to figure out how this apple pay thing worked. So smooth and nonchalant. The way other people’s dogs adopted him. He slipped into their lives like another little dog. Just like he slipped into mine. Wagging our tails, incredulous at our good fortune (you’re back!! Hello!!) Leaping over fields and snoring gently in each other’s dreams.

His funeral was to be my tribute, a grandiose affair in Berlin. I booked the Kulturbrauerei, a splendid trendy venue. The world must be in no doubt about whom we had lost. It was going to be the wedding party that we never had. We had been married in hospital a month before he died, and he never came home. He got dressed for the occasion in his favourite sky blue shirt and red socks. I had showed up an hour before with two hastily bought antique gold rings, a surprise for him. At our wedding there was the wonderful lady from the registry office and a lovely guy called Michael, also a cancer patient. I smuggled in a little bunch of flowers and took them away again afterwards. For some reason they were forbidden in the Berlin hospital because of corona. I never understood the logic of that.

For the funeral, 60 people came from all over the world. People said it was the best funeral they had ever been to and they wished they had known him better. I couldn’t help the sneaking suspicion that far fewer people would have come if it had actually been our wedding.

And now? 9 months on. Weeks go by without me using my voice. There is nobody dragging on a little brown roll-up, worried sick about me. There is no tail-wagging when I get home. I am closer to Marc when I am alone, and I feel like a wild bear. I am enraged when people avoid my grief, or try to define it for me. When they don’t even try to understand what it’s like. But why should they? I am 1000 years old and they have never been my age. And I’ll be ok: after all, I’m immortal.

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Hi Hanif. What a wonderful way to create a community. Here's my story...with thanks for reading it.


Two lads are approaching me in the corridor outside the science lab.

“She’s got dead eyes, that one. Go on. Pretend to punch her in the face. She won’t blink”, says the tall one.

“OK”, says the short one.

I see them. It’s my party trick. I know blinking doesn’t actually help if you’re hit in the face. I appear self-reliant, aloof, disconnected. I like it like that. No-one gets to me. Taunts don’t penetrate. They’re just raindrops on a cabbage leaf.

The short one throws a play-jab at me.

“Hi Sean”, I say, and carry on walking.

“Ha. The bitch didn’t even wince”, says the tall one.

I have a cello endpin in my coat pocket. It’s about 18 inches long. If I ever really felt under threat, I’d brandish it. It’s quite blunt actually, but it would be fun to see the reaction.

Because I play the cello a lot, I don’t have finger prints as such on my left hand. Well I do on my thumb, but the other fingers are pretty calloused, from fingering the strings. I think this would be useful if I ever committed a crime and forgot my gloves. The thing is, I’d need to feel pretty angry to commit a crime, and I don’t. I don’t feel anything much, truth be told.

Mum says it’s because I’m at an age where I like Kafka and Camus and their existential philosophy. That I’ll grow out of it and not to worry.

Dad says why can’t I be more like Pangloss and see the positive and be grateful for what I have.

They’re both right. They’re both wrong.

We had a talk at school about epigenetics this week. The teacher said that trauma can be passed from one generation to the next because trauma changes the genes and then, when you’re born, you have some of those genes in you. I think that’s silly. People spend too much time overanalysing and labelling each other with syndromes and victimlike diagnoses. I keep my own counsel, thank you very much.

But there is one thing. I don’t think Dad is happy. He appears all jolly and flirty but somehow it doesn’t seem real. He never talks about his youth but I know came here on his own when he was 14, just before the war. And then he was immediately shipped to an internment camp in Canada. He’s got a scar on his neck. I don’t know how he got it. It’s safer not to ask.

If I’ve inherited the effects of Nazi hatred, then I’ll always have it lingering and there’s nothing I can do about it. And if I haven’t inherited it, then I’m just intrinsically disconnected and separate, no reason, and there’s nothing I can do about it. Isn’t that what they call a Catch 22?

I’ve got choir practice after school today. I only really go out of habit, Wednesday and Friday evenings. But this evening, if that baritone Mr Lewis comes up and strokes my back again, I’m going to pull out my endpin.

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What a great idea! I'll be in the south of Spain -- escaping the cold Amsterdam winter -- but this will be an inspiration to find a cafe and sit and write.

I went and signed up as a paid subscriber in order to join in on the fun. (I should have done this earlier, I know.)

Until now, my "short" stories have all been roughly ten times as long as the wordcount limit for this competition, so this will be an interesting experience.

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When I visit a museum or gallery I begin by getting up close to the painting. Looking at the brushstrokes, textures and colors. It’s only when I take steps back that the entire scene comes into view. Ah, now I understand.

My life is like that too. I’ve been taking steps back from the canvas in hopes of making sense of it. 26 years ago, in 1997, I left Israel and moved back to Baltimore. So I measure the distance from that time. I don’t measure it from 1985, when I arrived in Israel, a 22-year-old, right out of college, with only a few memorized Hebrew prayers on my tongue. But that couldn’t buy me a cup of coffee. And it was 38 years ago when I flew from Israel to Greece. And from Greece to Israel. And back again.

This story begins when I travel alone to Santorini. Well, returned really. My mother came to see me in Israel and we toured Greece together. Back in Israel, I put her in a cab with Mahmood, an Arab who lived near my kibbutz and sent her off to Tel Aviv to fly home. One week later Mahmood took me to Tel Aviv and I flew back to Athens and hopped on a ferry to Santorini.

Yannis and Demitris told me to call them if I came back. They wanted me to work in their club on the far side of the Island, on the beach. We had met in a disco on the top of a volcano, and drank Ouzo together while my mother slept in the hotel. Their dark thick curls matching my own. We danced and laughed as they taught me bad words in Greek. Mouni. Skyla. Gamo. Their white teeth flashed and their athletic bodies moved with mine. They were like twins but not. But maybe. I never knew for sure.

“You. We need a woman like you in the club.”

I swung my hair and swiveled my hips, delighted to be the woman they wanted. “Yes,” I said, surely way past drunk. “I’ll be there.”

You see, once you visit Santorini, it’s hard to believe you can live anywhere else.

Yannis and Demitris met me for coffee in Thira, at their friend’s shop, who had sent them word I had arrived.

“You stay with Lefteris,” they told me. “He’s good. He don’t like women so much so you safe.”

Good to know.

They were building the bar called Panselino’s (Full Moon) on the black volcanic beach, Perissa. A place for me to stay near the bar would be ready soon. I thought I would be safe there too, but both men had keys. They also had wives. Tall, thin, blond Nordic women who also fell in love with Santorini and found a way to stay. I thought they might ask to touch my hair.

Lefteris’s place was a small house painted white, with blue trim, like every structure on the Island. My cot in the metal frame was next to a window that opened up to the Southern Aegean sea. Deep aegean blue that went on forever and began nowhere except for perhaps the beginning of time. Santorini was a fantasy and I was living in it.

My days began with black kafe, Greek yogurt (before we knew it was a thing) and thick Greek honey from local bees. Nude sunbathing followed by Greek feta, fish, beer and bread. Then disco. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Every day I would see the cruise ships arriving, flooding the island with tourists seeking turquoise and silver jewelry, boatloads of loud spring breakers seeking adventure, and lonely men seeking women. I pretended not to speak English, answering in Hebrew or the few Greek words I picked up. I never wanted to be American again.

Lefteris, which means “free” in Greek, it turns out, was not gay. He was bi. In 1986 AIDS has barely made its way to Greek shores, and I don’t think it would have stopped any of us it had made its way to the Island.

One night after Lefteris left the house, I began disco-dressing in gauzy white, which looked amazing next to my deepening tan, when suddenly I couldn’t breathe. Air was choking in my throat, not making it to my lungs. My chest was heavy and heaving and I clawed the window open for air. For some reason I crawled out of the window and climbed up on the rooftop, struggling to gain control of the most innate function of the body. Air in. Air out. Neither was working. My hands began shaking and my fingers clenched. My palms itched. Tears filled my eyes. I slumped down on the cool concrete rooftop and brought my head to my knees. Some ancient memory in my young brain said head to knees.

Breathe, I told myself. Just breathe. Slowly slowly. Siga siga, Schwaya schwaya. Layat layat. All my languages flooded my brain with the phrase for slowly slowly. Greek. Arabic. Hebrew. Everyone had an expression for it. Not just slowly. But slowly slowly.

So that’s how I slowly got my breath back. My head lifted up, and I gazed at the lights from the boats in the caldera, steady and swaying softly on the sea. Woozy, I stood up and got my bearings.

What the hell just happened to me? Panic attack? Did I have a panic attack? Was that my story? A beautiful, sexy girl, wild, uncensored. But I was also just a girl, almost 23, who left Baltimore for Israel right out of college. Then left the kibbutz for a bar in Greece. Alone. With dollars and drachmas derived from running false credit card charges at Lefteris’s friend Adonis’s jewelry store. ATMs, like AIDS, had not yet arrived.

I sometimes felt fat and afraid. I ate that thick yogurt smothered in thick, creamy honey, sipping coffee sweetened with syrupy condensed milk. Filling myself with thick things to help me feel less frightened. I was going to work in a bar, which I had never done before, assured by Yannis and Demitris that I would only have to pour Ouzo. Insane.

Still afraid but determined to make this work, I climbed back through the window, shook out my body and hair, threw on that disco dress, smoothed it over hips, and pulled up my cowboy boots.

Yasou I said to the orange and white cat, Gata, as I headed out the front door. Kalynichta.

Years later I learned I had severe allergies to cats. My throat would close, my eyes would tear and my palms would itch. Siga siga. Schwaya schwaya. Layat layat.

Make this work. That thought comes back to me as I look back over the decades. What exactly was I trying to make work? Who was I trying to prove it to? Should I have felt bad about my crazy adventures? At times scared and lonely but mostly drunk, tan, and happy. I was an anomaly amongst my family and friends. No one went away. They all stayed home and married each other.

I ended up living overseas for a decade. Leaving a trail of boys behind in Greece, Egypt and Israel. And a few other random countries.

Shame? No shame. I totally loved sleeping with men named Adonis and Hercules. I ended up marrying a Larry. So it was all worth it.


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Here is my entry. I just love a tight deadline!


Oh my God will you just give it a rest?

Normally, it’s a two-hour drive to Los Angeles, starting on Ventura Highway-U.S 101 at Queen of the Coast — the famous Rincon Point surf break — to the 405 exit for The Getty off Sepulveda Boulevard.

During inclement weather, defined as anything other than 75 degrees and cloudless, it’s a minimum four-hour drive. It’s drizzling.

“Takes time to look this good,” the passenger replies, turning attention back to the visor mirror.

Two hours into the trip and she’s still applying makeup. It is a painstaking, laborious task full of twists and turns and second guesses. Like the “shortcut” I’d been given.

My colleague e-mailed me: “These instructions were hard-earned and will relieve the tedium of the 101/405. It works better than driving the freeways. So here you go:

“The basic plan is to drive along the 101 until it jams,” enough time for my passenger’s bronzed foundation to set. “Then use Ventura Blvd. to get to White Oak Blvd.”

Delicately dabbing powder over her ground cover, the passenger takes care to avoid amending fissures with unwanted filler. “That makes you look old.”

She paid good money for the Botox and Restylane that she didn’t need, but it gives her a permanent look of peace, like her face had died and gone to heaven. “There may be no pain in heaven, but He never promised no wrinkles,” says she, buffing her cheeks with a blush called Orgasm. “So I’m planning on living fast, dying young and leaving a good looking corpse.”

Too late. You miss a lot when you’re busy being young. She’d been at that for so long, longer than putting on her makeup. In a culture where 30 is considered old, one wonders what might be accomplished if not for the pursuit of eternal youth. It’s never enough, which explains Dress Size 00.

From the 101 at Ventura Boulevard, we turn right on White Oak. We keep going until we hit another four-way stop. Out comes the eye shadow. “What do you think?,” she asks no one in particular. “Hussy? LaLa? Hustle?” All metaphors for Los Angeles and named for various shades of what is commonly known as brown, which is also a metaphor for L.A.

We swim up, down, and up the undulating streets, concrete surfers crossing Hayvenhurst, a road lined with white-knuckled, pinch-faced commuters trying to cut over to Mullholland Drive and the Mullholland/Sepulveda intersection.

Sitting at a stop sign, waiting to take our turn among the endless wave of commuters at the four-way intersection, she advances to a spray concoction: Make It Last All Day. I’m driving because when she does, she insists on doing her makeup at every interlude along the way. Turns out, you can buy a thrill.

Left on Mooncrest, right on Empress, left on Aldon. Pushing forward we cross Hayvenhurst to continue on Aldon and on to a stop sign on Bosque. Turn right. At the next stop sign, right on Ballina Road, uphill to steep Ballina Canyon Road. Turn right. Left on Royal Hills Drive and downhill.

Finally, Sepulveda Boulevard snakes into view. We take our chances on Sepulveda, a name derived from the Spanish term for grave digger, “sepultador de vidas,” one that buries life. Apropos for a museum specializing in raising the dead. Before Sunset, we know we’re at Getty Center Drive by the proliferation of surveillance cameras posted along the route, little one-eyed soldiers that see all.

Pulling into The Getty arrival plaza, four hours on the clock, she completes her lip liner and tops it off with a blood-red shade dubbed Urban Decay.

Face primer — check. Foundation — check. Concealer — check. ‎Highlighter — check. ‎ Powder — -check. Blush — check. Setting spray — check. Eye shadow — check. Eye liner — check. Brow liner — check. Mascara — check. Lip liner — check. Lipstick — check. ‎

All faces are covered.

“Ready for my closeup,” she says, laughing, and steps out of the car.

Then it starts to pour.

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Feb 8, 2023·edited Feb 8, 2023


Latexes. He could play latex - if happy to leave fifty points on the board. Is latex a collective noun or a specific thing, some kind of plastic or rubber or other man-made material destined for landfill?

In his early thirties and these were the lengths to which he went to avoid having sex. To which they both went; it takes two to Scrabble. They could have sex and sometimes they did. It had been tentatively scheduled, as it was most Tuesday evenings, and that, perhaps, is why they chose not to. Sex was cold, as was the flat, and forced, until it became warm and easy. And it would after ten seconds under the covers, after the first lingering kiss, but, who has the patience? Scrabble would take an hour longer but would neither require any mention of psoriasis, except to challenge the spelling, nor require an unwanted core workout. Scrabble would not make it hard to put his boots on in the morning.

This was easier he told himself, if not in this precise moment as the questionable word overrode his ability to see anything else on the tile deck.

L A T E X E S.

He considered floating it aloud but knew this would bring immediate challenge. A confidently played word could sneak under the radar but prior-warning would elicit a defensive response. If he’d had the required audacity to go for it, without consideration, the Scrabble board would still be nestled in the TV stand and they would be lying together, naked, flushed and spent.

It had always been this way. They were better, he thought, than young lovers. Better because the connection between them was seamless. Two that did not need to become one but had practically been one from the start. Sure, they’d bought under the bed restraints early on, they owned a ‘massage’ wand. He had even suggested they try out a strap-on on him before it arrived in an unmarked box, lest the neighbours sign for it, and it had turned out to be an order of magnitude bigger than he could accommodate. He could feel his piles burn at the thought.

They could have sex. They were just no more defined by it than they were by sitting in judgment of other patrons over a pint, cooking a five-dish feast from scavenged online Ottolenghi recipes or by planning trips to the concrete capitals of the former Soviet Union.

He was thirty points behind with around twelve tiles left in the bag. The big hitters were all already on the table, barring, of course, the ‘X’. The fifty-point bonus for playing his whole hand was likely to be the difference between winning and losing. It was now or never.

Her hand was moving to the official dictionary before he’d finished placing the ‘L’, building backwards, as he had been, from the adjoining plural he’d created on the board in as quiet a flourish as he could manage. It isn’t possible to play all of your tiles without some ostentation. She opened the book, flicking through the pages and skimming, skimming, skimming until she was deep in the LATE-s. Her face inscrutable she gently closed the dictionary and stood offering him a hand. A smile was creeping across her face as he took it and she encouraged him up and off the cheap IKEA chair at the kitchen table.

She kissed him slowly, her hand drifting to the back of his neck and up, through his hair. A Tuesday evening kiss. She led the way, the short distance, to the bedroom and pushed him down onto the bed before retreating to the bathroom.

This was good, he thought. When one schedules an activity, one should follow through, it was the whole point of scheduling. Sometimes you don’t know what you want until you start doing it. He undressed and laid back down. He could hear her in the bathroom as he felt at the scabs on his back. He resisted the urge to pick at them, the bedsheets already dotted with blood from ill-discipline.

The toilet flushed, the sink ran and the door to the bathroom closed. He turned on the bedside speaker and put on an algorithmically generated playlist. He made a mental note to try and improve the playlist quality for next Tuesday.

She smiled again as she joined him under the covers and he knew two things for sure: He was still in love and you can pluralise latex.

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Dear Hanif, you got me writing again after I had given up. Thank you so very much for that. I hope you enjoy this. --Jen Johnson



“You’re Queen of the Waddletwats!”

“You’re Lord Waddletwat of Waddletwat Manor!”

Maureen Eagan and I had a game: we would make up stupid words and mock each other with them. We were Catholic schoolgirls on the precipice of our 14th year, and in the time honored way of all such unfortunates we avoided the oncoming freight train of puberty by acting like idiots.

The coup de grace flew into my head. “You’re Pope John Paul Waddletwat the 23rd!” which too was unfortunate because Sister Mary James Patrice was coming around the corner ahead of us. Her eyes were lasers. Her fury was such that she could speak but two words: “POPE…WHO?”

We were sure our punishment would be horrific and we were right. We were, twice a week, to clean the nun’s convent. On separate days, lest we have secret fun making more neologisms.

I was taught how to dust things that did not need to be dusted, particularly the wooden pews in the chapel. My last task before leaving was to take the little Dustbuster vacuum and clean the stairs that went up to the nun’s private quarters. But under no circumstances was I to even think of touching the top step.

The job wasn’t as onerous as it first sounded. I grew fond of seeing the elderly nuns sitting in the living room making doilies. They were cute.

One day, as I vacuumed near the top step, I heard a noise. I turned off the Dustbuster and heard sobbing. The nuns were all in the dining room, who could this be? Of course I went on the forbidden step. I found myself in a long hallway of a row of rooms with doors closed. Except for the one on the end from whence came the sobs. Of course I went to take a little peek. And what I found shocked me beyond words and left me breathless. I dropped the Dustbuster.

There was a nun with gray hair sitting on her bed sobbing, rocking and by all appearances praying, in front of – I swear to you – a velvet painting of Elvis. She had it propped it up on her dresser next to her figurines of the Virgin Mary and The Infant of Prague.

She threw Elvis back under her bed, pulled a tissue out of her sleeve and mopped up her tears. She asked the obvious. “What are you doing here?”


Her eyes flew wide with horror as she asked “You aren’t thinking of becoming a nun are you?” “NO!” I said loudly and with such conviction that she calmed down immediately. Curiosity made the words come unbidden. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, it was a long time ago, but girls your age used to enter the convent.” I may have acted the idiot but for a girl who knew nothing of the world, at times I was able to put things together fairly quickly. “A long time ago…like in the 1950’s? The nun’s lips tightened. I had no idea what to say next, so I blurted “I like Elvis a lot too.” Not entirely true, but I had heard Dad play Elvis when he worked in his garage. She gave me the side eye. “Oh yeah? What’s your favorite Elvis song?” I did what I always do when I felt awkward. I acted goofy. “Well of course, it’s Hound Dog.” I paused, trying to read the room. I couldn’t. So I bopped my hips from side to side and sang “You ain’t nothin but a hound dog, a-cryin’ on a tire” This sent the mysterious nun into paroxysms of laughter. Next thing we started a raucous singalong to “Hound Dog”. We got through the first verse and were happily bopping. “Well you ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine!” Then I felt it. The long shadow of Sister James Patrice. Laser eyes. Could hardly form sentences. Finally yelled: “Get out of here Siobhan Kelleher! Get out! Don’t ever come back!” I went to grab the Dustbuster but Sister James said “Leave it! Just go!” The mystery nun said, “Listen to sister,” and I swear I could see the hint of a smile.

I ran down the stairs and out the front door as fast as I could. I ran until I couldn’t run anymore. Finally, panting with my hands on my knees, I found the words. The mot juste.

“Holy Elvis Jesus McFuckburger!”

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My submission:


On the day that he realised his son was a hardwired idler, Bobby Kalsi imagined for a moment burning down the large home he had struggled all his life to build for the benefit of his spoiled, lazy youth.

His wife stared at the feckless man child, nineteen years old and day dreaming.

‘Your name should be Lazybones, you lazy wretch. By your age your father was working three jobs to save the money to work his days and nights to give you the opportunities he never had’

But the boy Lazybones, young and still with time, told them he had youth on his side and the privilege of leisure. He said,

‘If my father didn’t work hard for his son to be lazy, and do the things he never did, working so hard, what was the point of working hard? For seventeen generations we have peasant blood. Why did you come to England, if not to allow your young son to live like a King, and break that generational curse of having to work hard?’

Bobby Kalsi sighed, and lamented to God that he had produced as an heir, a free thinking and day dreaming youth.

That night he dreamed of the factories he had worked in, the businesses he had started, bankrupted, and restored, the money he had secured for his family, and the time that had passed since his restless hungry prime years. At six o’clock in the morning he went to his son’s bedroom and slapped his face.

‘Wake up. You’re too young to be lazy. Laziness is the right of an old man, retired to rest his bones. You have six weeks to prove to me you deserve a room in my house’

Bobby drove Lazybones to the factory where he had worked when arriving in England and gave him a lecture about how when he was his age he had big dreams.

‘I have big dreams too, father, but they are dreams of small things’.

Bobby Kalsi sneered and drove home and at night lying next to his wife said,

‘We’ve been so blessed by God except for our son. An imperfect son. A nice son but a lazy son’

‘Someone must have put a curse on us by making our son so lazy, to waste his youth away reading books, staring into the sky, and sighing so much’.

Bobby Kalsi stared out at the sky, the lambent moon, and sighed like he was his own lazy son.

Many years later, when Lazybones had had success of his own, with his own small dreams, Bobby Kalsi woke him up at six o’clock in the morning to drive him to the factory where once he had worked so very hard and where once he had given his teenage son a lecture.

‘Son, I’m an old, old man now. And I’m ready to be lazy. Which is my right, as a man who earned that privilege. But you got to let me know. Was I a good father to you?’

‘No man ever taught anyone to work so hard at being lazy as you did. It was only by watching how hard working you were, that I knew I had to work hard at laziness. My youth challenged your age. But then age challenged my youthful conceits. And from that came all the success of my small dreams, and the ideas that came to me, on how to live and what life means.’

Later, as Bobby Kalsi lay in bed, he whispered words to his late wife, who he still felt by his side every night even though she was long gone to complain about everything in her next life. He thought of the years having passed, and the uselessness of years passing. There was a knock on the door. It was Lazybones.

‘Father, now I am going to be a father myself, I’m worried what will happen if my kid turns out to be lazy, and many other things like that.’

Bobby Kalsi imagined his late wife laughing by his side at this. He sighed and said,

‘All I know, son, is whatever we feared the most would be our destiny should never be feared because whatever it is, it is our only story to tell.’

Lazybones lay beside him in bed, and they drifted to sleep, where Bobby Kalsi dreamed of rebuilding the house he’d once imagined burning down in fury at his son.

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Feb 8, 2023·edited Feb 14, 2023

“Giovinezza” by Linda McCall Ricci

Ernesta woke to the sound of a commotion in the street below. People were running and shouting, calling out names, pounding on doors. A cold surge of fear swept through her body as she pulled the threadbare blanket over her face in dread. “Oh dio mio, not again!” she thought. Only two months ago, the whole neighbourhood had been roused before dawn by the clamour of Nazi troops storming into the Roman suburb. Lorries had come thundering down Via Tuscolana, German soldiers marching in strict unison, their jackboots hammering against the pavement, shouts of “Raus! Raus! Everybody out!” echoing through the streets.

It was still very early, but the midsummer sun had already begun to rise and was threading its rays through the slats of the green shutters, casting a stripy shadow on the wall of her bedroom. It reminded her of the shuttered hall where they used to hold Fascist Saturdays when Mussolini was still in power. All the youngsters had to attend back then for the obligatory gymnastics and singing of anthems. “Giovinezza, giovinezza, primavera di bellezza…”, they would bellow out as if their lives depended on it. “Nel fascismo è la salvezza della nostra libertà”,

“Youth, youth, spring of beauty, in fascism is the salvation of our liberty”.

“Hmm, so much for that!” thought Ernesta, turning the words over in her mind and curling up in tense anticipation of whatever was about to happen. But as she listened more carefully to the noise from outside, she was hardly able to believe what she was hearing. No, these were not German voices. There was no hostility in them. These people were locals. And, incredibly, they were laughing!

Leaping out of bed, she flung on her cotton shift dress and shuffled barefoot into the kitchen to see if anyone else was up. She found her mother there holding in her arms the youngest of her siblings, just two years old, his belly swollen and distended from malnutrition, his arms and legs dangling like fine threads of yarn. Also out of bed and positioned, as he always was these days, right in front of the stove, was her middle brother, the nine-year-old Luciano.

“How come…?” the boy was saying without looking away from the stove. “How come the other kids, they get to eat “mortadella” and lovely fresh “rosetta” bread rolls every day of the week, while all we get here is watered-down minestrone?” Luciano had got into the habit of spending hours on end staring at the stove, his big brown eyes fixed intently upon it, every now and again licking his lips as if savouring the dishes he imagined it was being used to prepare, sumptuous feasts conjured up in his mind, food he had never seen, let alone tasted.

“Eh, how come?”

“What on earth are you talking about?” his mother snapped.

“They told me, Mamma”, he said. “They told me it was a whole “mortadella” sausage, this big!” He stretched his arms wide to demonstrate. “They said they gobbled it all down and were so full they couldn’t eat another bite.”

“Oh, you silly boy! They’re just pulling your leg. Believe me, “figlio mio”, nobody has seen a “mortadella” of any shape or size in these parts since ‘39!” she scoffed.

“Mamma, I think something’s happened,” Ernesta interrupted. “There were people cheering down in Via Tuscolana. Did you not hear them?” The kitchen looked onto a courtyard, so the sounds from the street had not reached her mother’s ears. At that instant, her older brother Carmelo came rushing into the room, out of breath and talking thirteen to the dozen. He too had heard the laughter and had been up onto the rooftop balcony to see what was happening further down the road.

“They’ve gone!” he shrieked. “The Germans have gone! It’s over! They’re coming to liberate us!” Their mother made the Sign of the Cross and kissed the limply slumped head of the underfed baby on her arm. “There are hundreds of people heading down Via Tuscolana, Mamma. It must mean that the allied armies are on their way up from the South. That must be why everyone is going that way. It has to be!” With that, he lifted his sister up off the ground and spun her about in a full circle. “You see, Ernesta? We did it!”

Ernesta and Carmelo did not ask their mother’s permission to go and join the crowds but simply slipped out of the apartment while she was still busy teasing the hungry Luciano. “Mortadella indeed!” they heard her mock.

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Feb 14, 2023·edited Feb 14, 2023

Thank you for the encouragement to write and for reading this.


“Christos, would you pierce my ear so I could have an earring too?”

Christos stared at me. “𝘔𝘢𝘵𝘦. Your dad would deep fry my balls. With feta.” (Dad ran the best Greek Cypriot restaurant in East Finchley).

I could see this. We looked at each other, defeated. Then Christos brightened.

“Does Eleni wear earrings?”


“Bring me one.”

I nicked a clip-on from my sister’s jewellery box and inventively, mum’s Blu Tack. Christos snapped off the pink flower and Blu-Tacked a silver stud to the backing. It wasn’t perfect. The earring pinched and you could see a gummy blue frill around the silver. But the stud caught the light when I spun in the mirror and I loved it.

From then on, Christos slipped the earring into my hand when I came up to his room. By unspoken agreement, I took it off when I left.


It was 1974 and Christos had arrived from dad’s village, Patriki, to help in the restaurant. Christos was seventeen with blue jeans which seemed to have been eaten by an animal, as there were holes in them, showing gold-brown skin. He must have been cold. He had thick dark hair, like me, but had somehow painted gold bits in. Most curiously, a tiny piece of silver glinted in his earlobe. Naturally this raised a question. When dad sent me up to Christos’s room to fetch him for his shift, I seized my chance:

“Are you a pirate?”

Christos grinned. “What makes you think I’m a pirate?”

He clearly didn’t want anyone to know. I met his eyes, and discreetly touched my finger to my earlobe.

His eyes widened. He gave a subtle nod.

I was emboldened to ask where his parrot was.

He pulled me against him confidentially, and I felt he was not cold at all, but warm. “Parrots are so last season, darling”, he whispered, “for pirates.”


Still, I was disappointed. He must have sensed it because later, when I was sitting on the kitchen counter, watching him gut and dice, he told me that there 𝘸𝘢𝘴 a parrot, Adrian, but he got seasick, so he had to stay home in Cyprus with Christos’s mum.

All that summer, I went up to Christos’s room and lay on the floor, looking up at the ceiling which he had painted black like a night sky and hung with paper silver stars. He lay on the bed and we listened to punk and disco on grooved black discs.

One afternoon, he looked across at me. “I have something new for us.” He slid the vinyl out with careful fingers. The man on the record cover had dark liquid eyes, and when the needle met the vinyl, a glittering, high-stepping, teasing universe rose around us. Caviar, cigarettes, dynamite, perfume! The whisper of secret lives and hidden places “to avoid complication”. It was seductive and electric, and I felt its insistent question - “Wanna try?” - getting under my skin, warmth spreading and pooling as if I was being lit from deep inside.

“Christos - who is it?”

“It’s Freddie”.

There were two boys in my class called Freddie but this voice was too alien and extravagant, too 𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘦, to be English.

“Where’s he from?”

“Middlesex. Well, Zanzibar really. But he’s Indian.”

It seemed unlikely. “Freddie the Middlesex Indian from Zanzibar?”

“His real name is Farrokh.”

𝘍𝘢-𝘳𝘰𝘤𝘬. I said it to myself that night before I went to sleep. Farrokh who was Freddie. You could change things, then. If they didn’t fit you.


I took the lesson to heart. Forty two years later and I'm still a North London boy, only it's Highgate now, in a big old house. Lucky and lonely. Complications all over the shop but people are mostly kind. After LA, a lady, very proper with silver hair, standing on the steps of the Highgate Literary Institute, shook her walking stick at me and shouted, “you hold your head up Mr M, there’s worse things happen at sea.”

I sang for Freddie when he died, and my own love Anselmo was taken too, and Christos. Secrecy still gives me a thrill but not only how you'd think. Christmas time, you'll see necklaces of tiny lights strung between the shops all down Highgate Village. I pay for them on the quiet. Not that I'm an angel. I still go up West Heath for a fuck. But mostly I go because I want to see a black sky with silver stars and remember.

© 2023 Juliette Rose

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Feb 10, 2023·edited Feb 10, 2023

Thanks for the opportunity to post this, Hanif. Your story is remarkably courageous and I wish you well in your ongoing recovery. My story is titled "Fixing things" - thanks for taking the time to read it. I am on twitter @ahumblewriter.

Fixing things

I bought the door handles at a car boot sale on an autumnal muddy field filled with people prepared to sell a fragment of their life for pennies on the pound, to an eight-year-old boy. The air was thick with hot coffee, sausage baps and anticipation. I was unaware of how prescient a purchase they would be nor the memory they could forge.

Ahead of me lay a vast plain of possibility. Rickety decorator’s tables were repurposed as shop counters for knock-off VHS videos, crumpled magazines and boxes of mechanical detritus, all sharp-edged and tangy with oil. Somewhere in this mercantile warren, there must be toys I could buy with the twenty pence I gripped in my pocket so tight that it might fuse with my skin.

We always arrived early, sleep still crunchy in the corner of my eyes, the morning dew heavy on the grass. On this day, a low haze hung over the rainbow of cars giving an otherworld quality to my memory.

My father bought a hot drink and wandered off. My mother gripped my hand in that overly tight side of comfort that I now apply to my own children in the presence of strangers. We started to browse the wobbly tables. You have to be methodical she told me. Go up one side, then down the other. Don’t deviate, that way you won’t miss anything.

Rolling this eroded memory in my hand as an adult, I recognise that the boy-me paid no credence that my parents had exchanged nothing but silence when he walked away. My mind was focused on the task at hand: extracting value for money for my twenty pence. Now, that mutual silence takes on a greater meaning, a portent of unhappiness, the silence between them a no man’s land agreement that no words were better than soured ones in front of me.

I daydreamed of what toys I might find, imagining Star Wars figures, complete Scalextric sets - batteries included -, or perhaps peeling away a dusty rug to find a working Atari 2600, for twenty pence. Not for the last time, I learned that dreams can be brittle when braced against the winds of reality.

We’d already weaved our way through two-thirds of the field and I had found nothing to buy, despite my mother’s encouragement; I had been too fussy, too worried about what might be next to consider what might be here now. My mother had a carrier bag full of purchases: a hand blender, a set of doilies, and some books. She’d also bought a music cassette for the car. It had a picture of a blonde woman with a face I wanted to touch, holding a guitar that pushed up against her chest which rose up. I remember feeling tingles in my tummy seeing that picture, juxtaposed against my growing panic at the thinning cars and the hot coin in my pocket.

The door handles were a silly purchase. I had a throbbing sense of injustice at my inability to find any toys worthy of my coin. A hard lump had formed in my throat and I held back tears. The handles were clumped together in a clear bag. There were about ten of them and I had no idea whether they were internal or external handles but the bag was heavy and to my eight-year-old mind, ravaged with panic, represented value for money.

I pulled out my sweaty warm coin in exchange for this bag of door furnishings. ‘What on Earth are you going to do with those?,’ my mother laughed. I didn’t answer because I didn’t have one, but I bought them anyway. I was silent on the way home, scowling at my misfortune and didn’t pay any attention to the frozen tundra of my parent’s conversation.

It was months later, the handles long-left in a dark mahogany drawer, that the argument started. I don’t remember by who. It doesn’t matter - maybe they’d been arguing for months when I was at school. It ended with my mother, a woman of kindness slamming the door on her way out. My father, a man of equal kindness, left slumped in the lounge. On the floor, in front of us both, lay the broken door handle, an innocent victim of circumstance.

In that situation, I did what any just-turned-nine-year-old would do.

I lied. I put my small hand on my father’s shoulder and said, ‘It’s okay. I can fix this.’

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Feb 8, 2023·edited Feb 10, 2023

Boxed in

Boxed in. Bred on sanitized bark mulch under the well tempered light of mother´s plant lamp as long as expertly recommended. Watered by the constant confidence of your father. Made to grow in directions set by well-disposed counsellors in your best interest. Invited to promising assessments fresh from university.

And now you find yourself in a glass-roofed patio to experience the team-spirit that evaporates from lactose-free latte macchiato served by the brown-eyed barista from Morocco, friendly and respectful as you are and quick with a joke. Which you are not.

´There is no second chance for the first impression´, you were told. So you smile cautiously at your fellow novice around the bar table, not too bright, not too poised, just openly. Your boss joins you and gives everyone a look. Her smile is just right. „Good morning everybody! I´m Sea. Sea, like the ocean, and I´m supposed to be your boss. A word, which I don´t like at all.“ Again a look for each, firm and friendly. Shy smiles back from all of you. Sea goes on. „You already helped yourself with coffee, latte, chai and what else? That´s good. All dietary constraints met? Even better. It´s not always the case, but Amine is very good at it. “ A warm look to the barista.

„´Amine´ is Moroccan and stands for ´trustworthy´, and trustworthiness is key to our success as well. Designing financial products, selling financial products, representing the company to all of our customers, all this is based on the trustworthiness of each and everyone at ClimateFinance. Not only for the sake of the company, not only for your carreer - but we all are on a mission: On a mission from earth. So welcome on board!“

Sun bursts through and Sea has blown your mind. What an elegant curve she went from barista to climate. What a chance for you to join that team, to be of meaning, to make a difference, to be part of something big and rightful, to turn world´s fate last minute. Sea heads of to a wide staircase leading downstairs and the group follows. Mother Goose on clacking heels.

While on your way, leery questions ring in your head: ´Does she always makes that speech?´ ´What will she say, when Amine is not on duty?´ ´Could it be, Sea is not a she?´ A voice probably from your father´s side. He quite enjoys irony, not always respectful. You wipe them aside and go on. They ring remotely again as your group reaches the last oak step and stops for a moment, impressed and bewildered at the vast office space layed out before them.

Here the sun shimmers display-friendly softened through the blinds on the right. Wall high backlit diasecs illuminate the left side with sparkling streams, flourishing plants and smiling children of all the world colours. In between, rows of light-gray cubicles fill the room from front to end, ten in each row. In total more than hundred. Five supervisor offices watch from the rear. All brand new.

Sea leans over one of the partitions, grabs a silvery headset, helds it in the air and with a voice almost shrill now she exclaims: „Before we start the beginners training, I want all of you to take a seat. And before you do so, I have a nice suprise.“ You all wait and stare, her voice climbs even higher: „Be proud, you are the first to work in this brand new expansion! So, until more of you are turning up, feel free to select any of the cubicles, hang up a picture of your pet or your significant other, place your personal mug and your Homer Simpson statue right beside. Do whatever it takes to make it your home, the box of your choice!“

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'I want to see you, are you available?'. 'Yes', she responded, in 30 minutes. She closed up her workshop and sent him her address. She hadn't noted his name but would ask him later. She rode her bike home. A woman next to her at the red traffic light said 'You know what?'. 'What?'. 'You can wear a helmet over your hat'. 'I know'. 'Well, if you know, you should wear one, you never know what could happen'. The woman then rode through the red traffic light, narrowly missing the pedestrians on the crossing, while holding up her hand to wave them away. She wanted to catch up to her and tell her that she was a public danger, but the cyclist had disappeared through every red light. She found him sitting on the step in front of her door. They smiled at each other.

Upstairs he admired the view, and she agreed that it was unusually beautiful. He kissed her neck and she said, 'I'm going to take everything off. Before you go down on a woman who has just arrived on a bike, make sure she's washed'. 'No time', he responded. She caressed his hair and admired his enthusiasm. She hadn't been touched like this in four months. They still didn't talk. Her friend S had talked about sex like this between men and she had wanted it. No information exchanged, no questions asked, no preparation, nor over-thinking.

When her previous lover had offered to see her, he'd text her just before they were to meet, when he knew she was waiting, and he'd not turn up at the appointed time. He'd bombard her with messages to let her know that he'd see her at the hotel for a short time the next day. She ended up expecting this and always took a few books with her. His eventual appearance was her reward. When after a year they stopped seeing each other, she functioned normally each day, but cried every night for a week. 'When you want to call him, call me instead', said her friend L. She talked to his absence in her cold bed, and listened to Leonard Cohen's Leaving Green Sleeves, while acknowledging that she had become the duped lover in captivity. She stopped eating but didn't tell anyone. Her friends would have brought her food. The problem wasn't food but addiction. Her body broke out in sores and she caught the flu. After a month she recovered but continued to write poems, sad lines, mostly about him.

It wouldn't have occurred to this man to have left her waiting. He had texted her when he arrived two minutes early. He seemed too young to know about bad behaviour, or control. She caressed him and he told her he loved her soft skin. His body reminded her not to crave her absent lover. "When is your birthday", she asked him as he lay on her chest, too tired to continue. He added the year. When he asked her, she left off the year. He already knew her age. They talked about music and films, and he was funny. Eventually at 3am he said he was going home. She put on the pink cashmere jumper that had been covering the lamp and watched him dress. They hugged, she shut the door, still knowing nothing about him.

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She could accept that spooning is not for everyone, but it was for her. Sex begets high biochemical rewards, while affection is more of a mortgage, regularly paid to ensure ongoing presence. She luxuriated in the capitulation to slumbery warmth with other men.

There was method to his refusal. He barricaded himself with pillows, guarding his figure like a moated castle. Throughout the night, his body never splayed, it was always collected, its outer limits drawn inwards without fail. The sight of his tucked limbs stirred her disquiet. She occasionally lobbed her arm around his ribs, hoping that he’d pick up the hint, but that body’s resolve was stony.

“That’s just how this body needs to sleep, it’s not personal” she consoled herself, with screeching stridency. Being deprived of so many tactile interactions during the pandemic, when touch was scarce currency, did not help. It stunned her to witness his agile sexual body turn to a locked, silent trunk, on her bed. In conversation, he was incisive, in sex, very generous, in sleep, merciless. It seemed like a reasonable loss to take, so she took to exile in her side of the bed.

She relished his relentless questions, there was so much he found worthwhile to discover about her. He worked hard to understand her spotty logic. She issued intelligent remarks, while wanting to be appreciated for her cooking.

They moved from dating to cohabitating in short stints, for three days at a time, then he’d go back uptown to concentrate on work; “Having your body around is too distracting.” The omission being, her sensual body, her sleeping body remained an unworthy object.

They interlocked and scattered while ambulances raged and emergency rooms overflowed.

His sexual interest centered, predictably, on her breasts, where the maternal dimension finds full expression. She indulged his maladroit efforts with kindness, as so many women do, for failing to find the necessary vocabulary to instruct without diminishing their partners. The quiet and the sense of threat of the imposed city curfew heightened his hypnotic engrossment, while body bags dotted their news feeds. Their minds ill prepared to process such an unprecedented , global circumstance, it felt exquisite, heavy loaded and yet, nostalgic right as it was happening.

His whispered recycled indecencies about her figure, the caliber of his desire for it, lived long in recollection, giving her warmth that prickled, not cradled.

They bridged their encounters with spasmodic correspondence.

“ I wish I could nestle in your lap and smell you until I recognized something.”

“ Recognize what?”

“I don’t know, but I’ll tell you when I find out.”

Songs and articles were exchanged, truncated explanations about the crux of their family dramas doled out, as they fooled themselves into thinking they were getting to know one other.

When he’d return, they’d would feast on each other, and eventually, that body would freeze in place becoming deaf to hers. Mornings thickened in emotional texture and her own body becoming heavier when it came to pulling herself out of a mattress, where her absence wasn’t delayed by a stray arm holding her back. The converse operation was not true. His moated body, no longer weighed by her investitures, woke up limber, readier for the day.

Perhaps it was the precipitous domesticity that caused this, she considered, demarcating a last instance of autonomy onto the topography of the mattress became fundamental.

In their following encounter, he came freshly showered, to find her in her office chair. He spun her around, and sat on her lap, legs spread in a welcome reversal, his erection peeking from under the towel. This inversion of positions with him feminized on her lap, transfixed her, and she would have prolonged this, but he soon brought her onto his lap and wasted the transgressive oomph.

They eventually proceeded to a horizontal thrusting stage, face to face, inescapable to each other. Their controlled, measured motions sent her into orbit, as a satellite of herself, perambulating delirium, while his attentive servitude doubled as a congratulatory ceremony, lauding himself as the capable agent of her trance, as if her pelvic adroitness didn’t contribute much.

From beneath him, she cupped his face intently, caressed it devotedly and a crisp slap erupted out of her right palm. His startled eyes, now hyper awake, his voice skidded:

“Why did you do this?”

She felt numbed by her involuntary action, and understanding was beyond her.

But not beyond her body. Her body was vocal.

Thank you for being Hanif, Intimacy has changed me in profound ways.

I thank you kindly,


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Thank you for this blog and space, I find it inspirational. This is my story set at the time of another Royal Wedding.


Other teenagers rebelled by smoking dope and giving blow jobs behind the garages, Anne’s rebellion was to play rounders.

Anne worked hard to stay under the radar. She knew that being clever or opinionated would curtail her already scant glimpses of independence. Her father was well known in their street for his outspoken views and fondness for drink and parties. John was not a man who tolerated being outshone.

It was the Summer of 1981 and the buildup to the Royal Wedding was everywhere. Chat amongst her mother and neighbours speculating about the dress made her swerve the lounge and head to her room. Anne loathed the idea of a street party, it filled her with resentment and rage. No doubt, her father would be a charismatic host, a side to him that he rarely showed without an audience.

Anne had resolved to absent herself from the spectacle of the wedding, she privately harboured republican sentiments. Anne planned to cycle to the beach and stay there until the wedding was over.

The day of the wedding was beautiful. The skies were blue and the air still. Seagulls squawked overhead and settled on the rooftops opposite Anne’s window. Anne pulled a sensible skirt over shorts and stuffed a bikini in her bag. She hugged her conceit (and bag) to herself over breakfast. Leaving the house unnoticed was easy. Her father was busy rearranging furniture and her mother was engrossed in the kitchen.

The road to the beach sweeps and twists through a valley and the hills widen and part at the sea. That morning the tide was out and a wide expanse of sand was revealed. Anne’s relationship with the beach began at birth. It wasn’t the prettiest beach but it was her beach. It had everything, including caves that she had loved exploring with her father before he became angry and sad.

Breathing hard, Anne leaned her bike against the sea wall. She had expected to have the beach to herself but on the sand, small pockets of people were laughing and talking. Anne hesitated then wriggled out of her skirt and stuffed it into her bag, her T-shirt followed. The air was warm and the smell of the sea enveloped and relaxed her. She smiled involuntarily and lifted her head to face the sea. Shouting and clapping were coming from the sand. Anne realised that people were waving at her.

“Come and join us” a young man Anne recognised but didn’t know, yelled. A chorus of voices joined in, beckoning Anne onto the sand.

Anne’s normal position in life was that of an onlooker but that day she became a participant. Walking down the slipway with more confidence than she felt Anne made her way to the group. A distant cousin Garth was there and shouted, “escaping the wedding? You naughty girl”! The group laughed and welcomed her into the ‘anti-royal bloody wedding club’ with the offer of a drink and entreaties to join a game of rounders. “I’m not any good” she warned them as she put her sandals under her bag.

The beach was empty apart from the group. The sun glistened in the shallow pools and Anne fought feelings of awkwardness and chatted with a couple of girls. The game of rounders was chaotic and fun. Anne relaxed into herself and ran hard without a thought as to how she looked.

The game finished and the group gravitated towards the sea. Anne ran to the water and as she shrieked at the coldness, a boy with sun-bleached blonde hair grabbed her hand and pulled her to him. He kissed her on the lips, Anne paused, looked at him and kissed him back.

The rest of the afternoon was spent lazily on the beach. As the tide came in, the group moved gradually towards the jetty and eventually sat in a line on the sea wall. The blonde boy draped his arm around Anne's shoulders and wrote his phone number on her hand.

Eventually, the group started to break up. Anne kissed the boy goodbye accompanied by cheers and whoops. Cars tooted as they overtook Anne as she started her cycle home. She waved and laughed as the blonde boy shouted something to her and blew a kiss as he hung perilously out of the car window.

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I rang Pascual’s doorbell and immediately wanted to run.

People like me, who didn’t go to college, recall high school clearly. About a decade ago, Pascual was employed by my school as an art teacher. He had made a bit of a splash documenting low-income, minority kids in his town. Images of basketball games – sweaty, intense faces in close-up, kids shooting up in grimy fast-food toilets, young mothers pushing strollers, boys wincing as they got gang tattoos — he was recapturing his childhood. The Boston Globe ran a feature. It described his work as a slice of ghetto-Americana, of the young, dispossessed and hopeless. Our school hired him in a hopeful move. Our last art teacher was a sixty year old man who wore a tweed jacket and talked for hours about Degas’ brush strokes. He took us to the museum and there was yelling and farting and one of the kids lit up a cigarette, right in the main gallery. We got thrown out.

It wasn’t so much that Pascual knew how to use cameras and print pictures, he knew how to talk to us. He showed us pictures by Gary Winnogrand, Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Susan Meiselas, Nan Goldin and Carrie Weems. Everyone sees worlds that maybe only they care about, he told us. These guys showed us theirs. What’s yours amigos? You got your own private America? Go find it — that camera you hold in your hand is similar to what they held in theirs. We’d never heard of these artists but the pictures got to us faster than the texts we read. He bring his own books to class and pass them around. Three or four would huddle over one and turn the pages slowly, reacting to the images. Some were silent, some couldn’t stop blabbering. The photographs were about being young, about watching the world from a street corner, hanging out with the homeless, seeing patterns on buildings. Some were about the aching loneliness of grown-up life.

At the end of the first class he gave each one of us an egg—like the kind you’d buy at a supermarket. But these eggs had a special stamp on them. If we could return the egg to class the following week, intact, he would lend us a camera—a real one that used film. The morning of that class, my idiot older brother picked up my school bag instead of his and the egg rolled out and smashed on our linoleum floor. I had to wait another week before touching a camera.

Our small art class started taking pictures. Pascual resurrected an old darkroom in the basement that hadn’t been in use since Bill Clinton was president. We crammed in with a red light on, patiently waiting for the images of our parents, pets, siblings, bicycles and friends to appear. After hanging them to dry, just like clothes on a line, we went home. The next day when we came to school, they were already tacked to the wall near the entrance for everyone to see. It was like having our own art show every week. Nobody squealed, smoked or lit their farts. No one ever missed art class. However, the school thought that the darkroom was expensive and unnecessary—why couldn’t we just use digital cameras like everyone else they said. Pascual argued back. He insisted that it was the act of taking pictures, precious frame by frame, and then bringing them to life, that taught kids patience and concentration. He hated digital cameras and refused to touch them. Guess who won that debate? Pascual left the one real job he had ever held, in an economy that was tanking.

I found out a few years later, quite by accident really, that he was dealing on the side. He opened the door and barely looked at me. ‘Yeah, I got your text. Hang on.’ He was gone for a minute. I heard a baby cry. He returned with a CVS bag and held it out. I took it, but it was too big to shove into my pockets. Awkwardly clutching it, I asked, ‘so, you still do photography man?’ He looked at me intensely for a moment and then said, ‘check that all your stuff is in there. I’m a gonna close the door now.’

I peered past him and saw a bookshelf. And on that shelf, unmistakably, were those books. Books of pictures that had briefly opened our hearts.

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Hi Hanif. This is a lovely idea. Thank you.

The Watcher

They are trapped in a screen by a virus. Meetings are remote. Students eager but solitary. She is in control. Glad to share her knowledge. Then a message.

“Can I talk to you?”

“Of course. How can I help?”

“I’m a bit stuck on something.”

“Stay on the call after class and we’ll have a chat”


“I will record our call, okay with you?”

When the call ends, she is changed. Reluctantly, she presses playback. Those huge dark eyes; the soft mouth, the skin so pale and the black, black hair. Her breathing quickens. What is happening? She is his senior by a generation. This can’t happen. Must not.

“Delete this,” the voices say.

“I can’t,” she answers.

A week passes and the voices soften. She is in control again.

Out on the newly washed pavements, he puts his collar up against the rain. Waits in the shadows for a glimpse of her. She is at the window.

He gazes, she stares out. And moves to the door

How did he….Does he feel…Is it the same for..?

He nods. She steps back. He enters.

Exhilarated at their wickedness, they sit in the dark watching each other breathe by the light of the fire. Her hands lie perfectly still. His hands are clenched. Their questions tumble like excited children in their collective mind. But silence wins. They wait. The fire glows brighter in the darkness. The fire knows everything.

Then with a sudden despair, he speaks. She listens to his frantic declaration; his inability to think, feel, hope for anything other than her. His betrayal of everything he thought he knew. Everything he knew he wanted. How all his recent ambition and desire to succeed lies buried.

She is elevated to paradise and listens in reverent adoration as he pours out his grieving heart. Someone needs her. Loneliness has packed and gone; space in the house is filled with joy and love.

But the trumpets of doubt and blame drown him out and she starts to say no. No. This is wrong. There will be scandal. I am your senior. You must see, this is impossible.

He continues on.

“This must be. This must happen. Us. Not you, not me but us.”

There is silence for a while as they rest from their labours of persuasion.

Clock ticks. Minutes slide. Thoughts arrive and depart and still no tentative hand has reached out.

She takes a deep breath and turns to him with a simple vow.

“Yes,” she says. And meets his adoring eyes with faith. “I do love you. I do want you. You have caught me out. I accept.”

He falls to his knees in adoration.

Days move quietly in their own rhythm. Sometime later, they are trying to plan for the indeterminate future which awaits them like a plague mask.

Some notice he is quieter than usual. One or two ask if he is all right. He is. And his smile is broader than before. Which one onlooker sees.

Then looks at the screen and sees again. Her eyes have settled on his for one split second. They are brimming with happiness and love. The onlooker sees.

Term ends. They can be alone. Discover themselves anew.

But the onlooker hasn’t finished looking.

The onlooker is a watcher now.

He lurks, he waits, he plots and plans. He is bent on destruction of happiness.

One night he springs on the young lover, triumphant.

“Where are you going? Apple for the teacher?”

The dark eyes widen in alarm. He runs.

The watcher returns triumphant to the kitchen. “You’ll never guess..... “ and he gleefully spreads the story like a carpet of shame.

A sign here, a whisper there. The rooftops are alive with scandal.

Trapped in their own desire, they beg each other to stay, to hide, to wait. Promising eternal love which would endure always.

But defeat comes as they know it must and they whisper their goodbyes through heartbreak and pain.

She moved away to live elsewhere. Anonymous and alone.

A lifetime further on, she saw the Watcher. Older and just as lonely. Angry and impotent all at once. He looked at her with disdain and she looked at him with pity.

“You haven’t won,” she said. “You will never win for you cannot have what I have had.”

He left without a backward glance.

The accused continued on her way; a smile came to her eyes. And she remembered what it was to be truly happy.

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Hi Hanif, a youthful story here, thanks for your ongoing compassion to others under your extraordinary circumstance....>


We were living in a house on Dupont Street. Bats clustered in the attic, squeaking like door hinges, rustling like crushed cellophane, clambering around, leather wings folded, crawling in tight quarters. They’re crepuscular—meaning active at dusk and dawn—so we could hear them if there was no wind, their murmurings, their bat palaver jibbering down through microscopic cracks in the plaster, through the high crown mouldings in Esther’s room, over her bed, over her desk, over the 60-watt lamp with the pull-toggle made of brass, her pillows, her pyjamas tossed to the floor, the posters she liked. We coexisted, but it was inevitable, from time to time, that one of those bats would get lost or venture out upon some mission we couldn’t understand, and it would drop down from the ceiling, and at times like those we’d be filled with a kind of electricity hard to describe, we’d jump and run and swing ineffective badminton racquets into the swivelled and jacked-up air until it tired from its exertions and fell to the floor. Then we’d throw blankets over it, pin it down, feel it surrender, and we’d call on Esther to wrap it up, carry it outside to the street, shake it out like laundry. Off it would go to some other roofline, eave or soffit, to some pliable entry-point we never could see. Hard to remember, looking back, how many bats we had together as a family on Dupont Street. Then of course Esther left, she finished school, went to Montreal, rented cheaply on Rue Ste. Famille, met certain kinds of friends, worked at a late-night restaurant, called us on Sundays to say hello. And the bats? They were still there under the crown moulding. They could have been dangerous, but they never touched any of us despite the proximity we shared. We co-existed, as I said before, almost like family on those days and nights—especially the nights—when we could hear them shuffling behind the cracks in the plaster, murmuring over her bed, over her desk, her pillows, her pyjamas thrown to the floor, the lamp with the pull-toggle made of brass, while downstairs there we were, you and I murmuring too, in the kitchen, our coffees half-spilled into saucers, thinking to ourselves what the hell, what the hell? it’s past two in the morning…three…four until the sun came up and there we were, waiting for a car door, for footsteps, for anything, for her, for Esther, you and I and our bats jammed together on Dupont Street, the bats getting more sleep than we were, all of us, all of us, all of us living in Esther’s thrall.


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Hi Hanif, here's mine


A black screen. The first dark twang of the Cure: a Forest

de dum. de dum. de dum. de dum.

whooooosssshhhh...we're right there with them inside a beaten up black Mini hurtling through the night: flat fields, north Norfolk. He's got one foot up on the dashboard, changing gear with the chord changes, tuned in to the cassette as it squeaks and groans, he's got the base so low the car rattles and hums and she feels it deep in the groin. He's focused on the winding road ahead, she's focused on the skinny joint she's trying to roll. He cuts the headlights. They hardly dare look at each other, they're so inside the moment neither of them want to break it, they both know it’s a great moment to die.

He's baby faced, snake hipped, brown skinned, yellow hair standing up all over his head, a feather hanging from one ear. A stained vest stretched over his narrow torso, he smells of cannabis, stale sweat and burnt hair gel. She's smooth skinned, kohl rimmed eyes, a mass of tangled hair all bleached blonde crimps bushing out from under her faded black beret. She's got long legs in ripped black footless tights, she smells of sandalwood and sex. They're both glassy blue eyed. They're both wrecked.

They're half-way through art school. It's 1983.

Fast forward to South London and the relentless machine gun pulse of New Order Blue Monday: 'How. Do you feel? Tell me now. How do you feel?' Everyone's on the dole. There are squats full of artists and musicians: this creative generation are the last of their kind. Never again will there be this kind of space and time for dreaming. Never again will sub-cultures be so strong, so tribal, before everything got speeded up, got branded and went mainstream. There are no Boris bikes, no Jobcentres or Oyster Cards. No satellite dishes, phone masts or LED billboards. No Docklands skyscrapers or Regeneration. No CCTV. No Starbucks. And no fucking 'Baristas'.

What there are, are brilliant markets full of hand-made stuff (no cup cakes) and vintage clothing from the '60s. Pubs full of smoke and Dub and conversation (no Skysports). The Ritzy cinema every Monday for Benefits night (show your UB40 at the door). Free GLC urban festivals. The only Tate Gallery is the familiar old pile at Pimlico (meet me on the front steps), Francis Bacon's our greatest living artist and no one gives a fuck about 'Goldsmith's Next Generation'. London is angry, burning, filthy, intense.

They're in a cold squat off Coldharbour Lane, another long empty day by the fire on a wet winter Sunday. Another evening skip-hunting for wood like urban gypsies. Another night of random people dropping by and hanging around too long with the familiar refrain: 'You make the tea, I'll skin up'. They could really do with a change of scene.

(The strange circular harmonies of The Cocteau Twins pulse through the scene in a language unknown...)

They're yearning for a great escape. Something exotic. Not for them a quick trip to Spain on a dole cheque then back in time to sign on. That's what their friends are doing, heading for a commune in Barcelona where you can live dirt cheap on hardcore drugs (there were flyers in Brixton Wholefoods about it). They've got to get away from that kind of shit. They've sold their souls doing crap jobs for months to buy their tickets out of there: one-way tickets to Bangkok from a cocky Australian in Earls Court, he's been everywhere but he's still stupid.

The camera sweeps an aerial shot over London as they fly out from Heathrow

'London Calling to the zombies of death. Quit holding out, and draw another breath...'

They can see the River but London is calling no more.

They'll never forget their first whiff of Asia. Of heat and dust, jasmine and spice and in the back alleys, the peculiarly human stench of poverty. Full moon, they’re on the beach downing hash milkshakes and magic mushroom pancakes and dancing like maniacs all night to Techno with dreadlocked German hippies then half-drowning in the warm sea at sunrise. He smokes opium and talks to the animals. She chants Buddhist mantras and sings to herself. They’ve run out of money but they’re never going home.

'This is. The Happy House. We're happy here. In the Happy House. We're in. A dream. In the Happy House. We’ve come. To scream. In the Happy House’.

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Jesus in the clouds

One Sunday afternoon, I was dispatched by my father to get an evening meal of burgers and fries from the local Wimpy – both my parents worked & my father, (although my memory of this detail is hazy to say the least) had only just moved from a night shift to daytime hours, whilst my mother continued to work a night shift at Heathrow Airport – a big employer of many of the local Asian community.

We were a family of 7 – my parents, 3 sisters, a cat, and myself, and I knew a family-sized Wimpy would be a large haul.

As I stepped out into the street lined by Victorian terraces, my head was full of worrying thoughts about weeping crucifixes and images of Jesus seen in the sky – an evangelist paper had been thrust through the letter box – doorstep bible-thumpers were a common occurrence, before they moved their activities to less sensitive areas, considering the mixed ethnic and cultural make-up of the town we lived in, then, as now, but it was more than likely that they had been there long before the arrival of immigrants like us, given the number of Kingdom Halls, Methodist Congregations & Pentecostal ministries, that mostly catered to locals and a thin Afro-Caribbean population.

A thunderstorm had just passed and left in its wake enormous cumulous clouds in a dazzling blue sky, like a Technicolor backdrop to a de Mille religious epic – the bright afternoon sun had turned the glistening streets into a river of gold all the way from our street and into the Broadway, and all the way up to the cinema (which I would pass on my way) and to the Wimpy just next to it, and beyond that up the great swathe of South Rd, to the train station perched on the very top of the railway bridge.

The air would have smelt of ozone and fresh wet earth, but my thoughts would settle on inexplicable anomalies of nature, and my stomach was gripped in a knot of anxiety – would I see Jesus in the huge cumulous clouds, and what would I do about it? – The universe, life and its mysteries loomed large and the astronomy & science fiction books that I pored over in the local library had already filled my imagination.

Before Sunday trading, the streets were largely devoid of people and traffic, fewer people owned cars, but the sun after the rainstorm had bought out wanderers – the walk through the listless Broadway went without incident - I passed the usual landmarks like “The Arcade”, now blocked by a padlocked chained gate, and dreamily imagined what might be found in the toyshop in its deepest recesses, a regular destination on a Saturday, where cheap joke-shop toys might be bought - “Whoopee” cushions or powders which, when added to a victims coffee, would result in a headache - they hardly ever worked…

Two things became clear as I walked past the stately entrance of the Odeon – movies were a safe refuge, no matter how strange the ideas depicted in the “B” Grade horror and Sci-Fi movies were, luridly illustrated in film posters, lobby cards and black & white stills on the walls either side of the entrance.

Jesus in the clouds couldn’t easily compete with “King Kong Escapes”, a Toho film with a giant robot “Mecha-Kong”, dinosaurs and, yes, King Kong.

My memories of the Wimpy itself are blurred except for sitting waiting for the cook to prepare the order – the design of the Wimpy “bar” was such that you could sit around the grill in a semi-circle and watch the cook fry the onions and burgers, whilst perched on a high barstool – it seemed very American and futuristic, and above all, comforting – maybe it’s to do with the profusion of red leatherette and chromed stainless steel and the smell of frying burgers, onions and chips, eventually delivered, with sachets of ketchup, salt & pepper, in voluminous white paper bags.

Anyway, as I made my way home to the waiting mouths, I had made up my mind not to look at the evangelist paper, and quietly cursed its intrusion on my day, looking forward instead to relishing an evening meal of Wimpy burgers, chips and sachets of salt, pepper & Heinz ketchup, to the sight of my mother quietly attending to the evening prayers before the shrine on the mantelpiece above the fireplace – although, damn, I forgot about the Songs of Praise on TV…

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Dear Hanif,

Here is my short story. It's called The Importance of Rulers. I hope you enjoy it. You can also read it on my substack page https://eleanoranstruther.substack.com

Much love


The Importance of Rulers

'Rulers are important because without them we wouldn’t know how long anything is and we couldn’t build buildings or make maps. Rulers are made up of exact divisions of measurement, Imperial or Metric. Imperial uses units called inches, feet and yards, Metric uses centimetres, metres and kilometres. The Imperial system was mostly used in the last one hundred and fifty years but since then we use metric.'

Elizabeth scratched her nose. At least she’d remembered that bit. They’d done Achievements of The Empire last term. She glanced around the classroom. It was quiet with work, only the scribble of answers and Jason at the back, kicking his chair. She patted her palms softly together under the desk as she read over what she’d written. Tests were frightening until you got going, that’s what her mum said. Mostly in History they had to remember Henry VIII’s wives and she’d spent ages after supper last night memorising the dates of the Roman Empire. If only someone had told her it would be about measurement she wouldn’t have been so scared. Rulers were one of her favourite things. Her mum had one at her office that slid up and down the tilted board and made sure everything was straight. Her mum was an architect and when Elizabeth was little, before school started, she used to spend blissful afternoons curled under her mum’s desk. It was supposed to be annoying for her, at least everyone made a face like, poor you, we won’t be long, have a biscuit but she loved it; her mum scratching out lines with a razor, the scrape, scrape through the board, the carpet prickly beneath her cheek. Then school had started. That’s when everything had gone bad. Having to get undressed in front of the swimming teacher. PE in her pants and vest. British Bulldog in the playground and being bashed by boys and picked on by girls. Hiding in the library. Milk at break that made her gag. Day after day in this classroom where no one learned anything and everyone was cross or loud or screaming or being told to sit still. No more days under her mum’s desk. No more mum hardly at all. She was always at her office and Elizabeth was always here, and after school if her mum came home before bedtime it was a miracle. At least there were weekends when she could see her, save up her week in stories about what she’d learnt and what she’d achieved. A good mark in history, that kind of thing, something that got her mum’s attention. She picked up her pencil and carried on.

'This is because most of the rest of the world uses it. The metric system is based on tens. The Imperial system is harder to understand but in the United Kingdom we prefer it and always talk about miles not kilometres. In France they use the Metric system. You would need a very long ruler to measure a mile, a mile long ruler in fact! But most rulers are 12 inches long. If we didn’t have rulers it would be very hard to make charts for timetables or chores and we’d have to use books to draw straight lines. Also geometery needs rulers. It would be very hard to draw a square, for instance.'

She was pleased. Everyone else was sucking their pencils and scrubbing out sentences except Jason who’d already asked for a new sheet and probably wouldn’t finish anything. She read over her work, crossed out the ‘e’ in geometry and looked at the clock. Ten to three. From her satchel she pulled out her sketch book and with it balanced on her lap, carried on with her drawing of ants.

She’d already drawn almost a complete colony in cross section. It looked like the sketch of an ant-thropologist on a study in Africa. Her mum had made that joke and after she’d explained it Elizabeth had laughed, mostly to show she was capable of complicated wordplay. She drew a new passage from the ant nursery buried at the bottom to the surface where a cricket was being dragged towards the hole. She loved ants. They weren’t complicated at all. They looked as if they were all over the place but actually they were organised. Each one was important, they all got on and they had a mother, a queen who was there all the time, who took care of them, who ruled them – she stared at the title of the composition that their teacher had written in fat letters on the blackboard. THE IMPORTANCE OF RULERS. Then she looked at her answer. The big hand of the clock ticked to exactly three o’clock.

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Well, no time like the present. Seize the day. This was in my head this morning. What wonderful idea, Hanif. Here is my story on Youth...

Young People

By Barbara Fischkin

Young people told her they liked her, admired her. They found her witty, although they may have simply said she was "a hoot.” She was 68. Anyone younger than her was a young person, these days.

She often liked young people back. The Youth. But there was a problem. It was with the young people who were her bosses. They liked to “fire,” her, although that is not what they called it. These young people were told by slightly older young people that they must never say: “You are fired.” But that is what it was. These young people fired her for the strangest reasons.

These young people worked in academia. Academia is a dangerous place for youth.

She was most recently fired over a Covid issue. No. Not vaccinations. She’d gotten those.

Until she was fired, she had worked for America’s “largest urban public university.” Mostly as a part time public relations writer. This university had 25 campuses A kingdom. She wrote for the Chancellor of the kingdom and his staff. This meant she had to write nice things about him and take great care to spell his name correctly. She also wrote nice things about the people in his kingdom. She had worked this job throughout a dozen years from a laptop in her house. She felt that she was one of the inventors of remote employment, as the world knows it today. From various offices in a home that was often under renovation—Hurricanes Irene and Sandy could be characters in this tale—she got the work done.

The university was closed due to the Pandemic. Not long after it reopened, her younger (fifty- something boss) called her cell phone to announce that half of their team, the Chancellor’s communications staff, was out with, yes, THE virus. He added that this was also a summoning. He was, under orders from those other older youngsters above him, to require her to work her fifteen hours a week in person. In an office where people got sick. She noted her job had been remote for years. Her common sense prevailed. She refused. Two weeks later, she was fired. She asked her younger/youthful boss if her refusal to work in a virus-ridden office was part of the picture. His reply: “It didn’t help.” The honesty of youth is so refreshing. She, too, felt refreshed, young again and ready for a battle. It may be ongoing. Anger sometimes gets a bad rap.

She writes this, trying to adhere to the word count of 750. Young people mind word counts. How? They summarize.

There was one year in the midst of this employment when she did not work part time for the Chancellor. Instead she worked full time at one of the university’s colleges. She created and wrote the college’s first ever hard-copy magazine. Yes this college was a little behind the times, although to its credit it also put the issue online.

She knew this college was done with her early on because she made a drastic error. She said hello to a president from another college—a guest speaker—without the permission of her own university’s president. Yes, this did seem like a page out of a Gulag handbook. It got worse from there. After a year she was fired by a much younger assistant to the president. This University and its college really loved this younger assistant. He made an obscene amount of public money. He drove fancy cars.He often did not show up at work.

He was honored as a local superstar: One of “forty under forty.”

One more summary: A different university. Private. Earlier. She was fired after four years for creating and running what was deemed a stunning journalism program. She was replaced by the younger friend of a younger professor, both theorists. They liked the theory of journalism better than journalism itself. The “better candidate” was hired with tenure—tenure had eluded her despite publication of her first book, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction on immigration—and despite a contract for two novels. The better candidate had written a book about “the reporters who covered OJ Simpson.” He had, somehow, neglected to interview her husband, who had covered OJ to a fare-the-well.

She is now writing her fourth book. This one is a historical novel. It includes youthful characters and an octogenarian who continues to survive the worst but peppers his survival with youthful nonsense. She wonders if she can still make fiction as ridiculous as the truth. Well, if she feels young—and she does— she can do this. Last summer she surfed the ocean.

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Dear Hanif, what a gift you are to us, Thank

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Ciao Hanif --thanks for this prompt, this is the first piece of fiction I've written in many years. I needed a sign to just do it again and put something out there.

Once, I must have been 6 or 7 at the time, my grandma brought my siblings and me to her vegetable garden, on a placid summer evening. Potatoes were ready to be picked from the crumbly ground, and we were ready to get our hands dirty, a pale, quiet sunset permeating the air. My grandma was giving directions left and right—pick them from here, no, not there, darling! Be gentle, yes, brava!

Then, we did not feel tired or hot. We were busy looking for those underground treasures, warm and wet in the womb of the earth.

While diving our hands into the ground, squatting down so as not to sit on the dirt, my grandma would tell my mum about the gossip from the nearby village. We could see it in the distance: just a hill away, towering over the fields, the graveyard, the stream leading to the main valley, the church tower overseeing its inhabitants.

—Do you remember Maria, from the old hotel?

—Oh yes, that wicked old lady! What about her?

—Well, she died! Yesterday morning, didn’t you hear the bells? And then Augusta also called me to give me the news… well it’s not like we’re devastated, you know? Poor old soul, God bless her, but she wasn’t exactly a saint! —My grandma commented, crossing herself and then quickly kissing the side of her index finger.

—It’s sad nonetheless. She was such an important figure in the village back then…

—For sure she was, that’s unquestionable! Her being a pleasant lady, though, is something else…

My grandma pensively stared at the old hotel in the distance, right at the end of the village. An ugly, yellow building from the 60s, an eye sore compared to the rustic, stone houses holding onto the hill.

—It was a different time, you know? When everything was more alive, and young people would want to spend their summers here. That’s how people put up with Maria: she organised the best parties in the area, and people would drive here from all over just to dance for a couple of hours! It’s not like she did that out of charity, let’s be clear, but she did know how to get people together. Everything’s ended now.

My grandma kept talking about the lively past of the village, mentioning people that were now dead, or almost there. Like Claudio, a poor but smart fella who got so drunk once, he climbed the church tower and loudly rang the bells, waking up the whole village. Grandma swore she could still remember the sound of it, and you should have seen the grin on his face! He looked so happy it was impossible to be angry at him, even if everyone had to wake up at dawn the next day to start harvesting, and we had such dry and hot weather we couldn’t take a day off.

—But grandma, how do you know about this? What were you doing in the village that late at night?— My sister enquired with a naughty look on her face.

—I was young too! Those were the years when your grandpa was courting me. Liane, my friend at the time, was already married to a foreigner, and they would always invite me to parties so that I could find a husband. That’s how people met each other back then. We would walk for good half hours in the dark to get to parties, stay until midnight, and then walk back, hoping to avoid any stray dog on the way.

My grandma’s words lit on chimerical visions of a long gone past, made of hope, uncomplicated misery, late-night dances, sun-tanned summers, frugal food. An hour later, chewing on the roasted potatoes we picked, I could almost taste the nostalgia of that lost youth.

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Title: Too soon

Word count: 750

The day we buried my father, my mother received an automated message from the hospital. His lab results were in.

“A bit too late for that now”, she said. “Damn, this country.”

“I hope they’re good though”, I said. A brief, shapeless chuckle slipping out of my mouth.

She looked at me with sponge-like eyes, dripping with rage, grief and bemusement. It was perhaps a bit too soon to laugh, I thought.

“You can laugh if you want, you know”, I said, putting my hand on her shoulder.

Death and laughter behave like mortal enemies but they have a lot in common. Both are all-consuming, overwhelming. Their source, mysterious. Their occurrences, unpredictable. Their grip, suffocating. Sometimes, they team up. In 1920, Arthur Cobcroft from Australia was reading a five-year-old newspaper and was so amused at the differences in commodity prices between 1915 and 1920, that he died.

“Want to hear a joke about death?”, I asked my mother a few weeks later the death.

“No”, came the reply. Then a pause. “Alright, go on then.”

“A servant is out in a market in Baghdad when he encounters death. He runs back. Trembling, says to his Master, “I just saw death and it made a threatening gesture!!! Please lend me your horse so I may avoid my fate. I shall go to Samarra where Death will not find me.” The master lends him his horse. The servant mounts it, and as fast as the horse could gallop, he goes.

Then the merchant, feeling indignant, goes down to the marketplace and confronts death: “How dare you threaten my servant?”

“That was not a threatening gesture”, explains death, "I was merely surprised to see him here in Baghdad because I have an appointment with him in Samarra tonight.”

My mother looked away. Her shoulders were shaking as if she was holding back laughter.

As the days went by, visits dwindled and we were left with the deep, dark quiet of the after-death. Somedays, we would forget he was gone and relive the shock of his absence all over again. The clock would strike one and my mother would get up in a hurry because “it was time for his medicines”. The medicine box was like an archeological site, a reminder of death’s interruption. His pills for Thursday, still in their place.

“I wonder if, in the end, he re-lived the painful things he had chosen to forget”, she would often worry. Or God forbid, the pleasures he had experienced with previous wives, I thought to myself.

One day, a memory popped into my head…a scene from my Aunt’s funeral a few years earlier. Her body was laid out on the veranda of her home. Mourners circled around her; relatives, friends, neighbours and some people who only ever showed up at funerals to squeal for a bit, and snag a nice meal. They were weeping, sniffing, praying; some begging Allah to forgive her, some begging her to forgive them, some begging her to come back. In the midst of this commotion, the door opened and out walked my cousin. She approached the body, stared deep into its lifelessness and then looked around, observing the mourners.

And then she started laughing.

“Why are you all crying? You think she is dead? She is just sleeping, you fools.”

Things got awkward.

“Look! She is just sleeping.”

She kept laughing, maniacally .

Some elderly woman got up and smacked her across the face with a force that only elderly Pakistani women can summon, even if they are walking with clutches or laying on their deathbeds.

“She is not sleeping, your mother is dead! Show some respect!”, she whispered loudly and firmly.

Silence fell. The weeping continued. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

My father was a lifelong heart patient but it was dementia that eventually got him. The disease was far more agonising than the heart attacks he had become accustomed to; an existential wilderness that consumed him bit by bit till there was nothing left but a body, a living relic; a lifeless life.

We think of memories as sentimental recall - the smells of our lovers, the smiles of our children, emergency contact numbers. But there is a corporeal memory too; our bodies know how to swallow food, our hearts pump away even when we’re unconscious. All of that collapses when our memories become distorted. In the end, he simply forgot how to breathe.

How could anyone laugh about it? But we tried.

What else could we do?

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Thanks for doing this!


There’s an empty space across the street where my neighbor Bernard’s Cadillac usually sits. Earlier today, I looked on through the window as a tow truck pulled it onto the bed and took it away. Bernard watched the whole thing from his front porch, too.

I wonder if he’s down a car now, while the bank is one car richer, but I can’t say for sure. That’s just how it tended to go down in my family.

My dad used to have a silver Toyota Highlander. A 2002 or 2003– something of that era. He bought it after winning a lawsuit involving a faulty ladder and an ankle injury that made it so that he never walked right again. I had tried to talk him out of an SUV because I was a teenager with convictions on gas use and a different definition of the word “need,” but my appeal didn’t really go anywhere.

Dad also had a habit of not paying his bills.

One morning, the Highlander wasn’t in the driveway anymore. They had hauled it off in the middle of the night. I can still picture the house illuminated by the tow truck lights. I can feel the heavy engine rattling in the fog.

The next afternoon, Dad had me drive him to the impound lot south of town. We went in the ‘94 Camry that had recently become mine. He paid $28,000 cash to get the Highlander back, which to my knowledge was pretty much the extent of the settlement money.

The way money came and went around Dad was disorienting. Always enough to splurge on something appealing, but never unheard of to come home to find the internet disconnected and him screaming at a bill collector over the phone. The dark financial cloud was part of a bigger volatility, a life lived at the end of a yo-yo string.

I didn’t really see it that way, though. Frayed nerves and constant crisis were just the water I swam in.

These days, I wake up in the morning and tend to my routine: I practice yoga, I meditate, I write. When I’m finished, I do work that is meaningful to me. On the weekends, I sleep in a little and then drink coffee while I catch up on reading. I have a wife and two dogs and a house and a garden that I love very much, and they all love me back.

Life is stable. There is peace in the air.

The repo man is a ghost of the past.

And sometimes,

all the smooth sailing makes me squirm.

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Wishing you all good things, Mr. Kureishi.

Here's my story: The Day I Grew Up (748 words)

I was nine years old when my mother took me to the funfair.

Normally, my father would've come too, but he was busy My mother said this didn't matter: she'd pay for the rides, I could have candyfloss; I'd enjoy myself, as I always did.

She drove the car to the funfair. It was a bumpy ride, as she wasn't familiar with the gear shift. Whenever I looked up at her from the passenger seat, her expression was serious; but when she realised I was looking at her, she'd smile, look down at me, and ask if I was OK?

She asked me this several times during the journey; I'd got a bit sick of it by the time we arrived.

The fair was held in a big field, with people everywhere. Lots of families - two kids, two adults. In our family there was only one kid (me). I'd once asked my mother why this was? She'd told me there were reasons, and she'd explain them to me one day.

I was allowed to go on all the rides except the ferris wheel, which I'd been on once and had found scary. I wanted to go on it again, but my mother had been clear there was no way she'd allow this, though I could still go on everything else. She said it made sense to try the carousel first, as that wouldn't wear me out. I wasn't sure what she meant, but I was happy to go along with it.

When I'd finished on the carousel, I went to find my mother, who'd told me she'd be waiting by the Trampoline Tent. I found her there, talking to a person I'd never met before. She introduced him to me, and told me his name was Jason. Jason smiled and reached down to shake my hand. He said, 'Hello, squire'. This was what he called me for the rest of the time we were with him. I wasn't sure I liked it, but I supposed it was OK, as my mother didn't ask him to stop calling me it. My father sometimes called me 'squirt', which she didn't like, but he wouldn't stop, even when she asked him to.

Next, I wanted to visit the Haunted House. I was a bit surprised when Jason came with us. I could remember a time when I'd been almost too scared to go in the Haunted House, but now I didn't find it all that scary. The axe that came down and stopped just before it chopped you in two was a bit slow and, now I looked at the blade, it was made of plastic. The squawking bird that came towards us out of the dark was a puppet on strings; and the vampire at the exit was a tailor's dummy with fangs pasted onto either side of its mouth. Still, it was fun, and my mother and Jason made a big thing of pretending to be scared when the blade came down, though I could tell they were only doing it for me.

When Jason went to get candyfloss, I asked my mother who he was. She told me he was someone she knew. Had she known him for a long time? Yes, for quite a long time. How had they met? She didn't like that question. She said I didn't need to know how they'd met, but she'd explain it to me one day, just like she'd explain why I didn't have a brother or a sister. Then Jason returned with the candyfloss, and we set off for the Rifle Range.

I went on all the other rides, and at the end Jason persuaded my mother to let me go on the ferris wheel with him. I screamed a lot, but not as much as the last time; and when we came down, he told her I'd been 'a very brave boy.'

The next morning, when I got up, my mother was crying. This was very frightening to me - more frightening than the ferris wheel. She had a mark on her face. I asked her what had happened, and she told me she didn't love my father any more. She was going to leave him and take me with her. We'd be going to live somewhere else, with Jason, the man I'd met last night. She was sorry about the way this had happened; but there were reasons for it, and she'd explain them to me one day.

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Why Don’t You Shut Your Mouth

It’s been a year without my mother. At times I feel so much lighter. The demanding demands and decades of obligations finally released. My chest expands with greater ease as I breathe in and softens with greater ease as I breathe out.

Yet at times, I still feel heavy with the deep grief of my youth. So heavy that I can barely lift my head off my soft warm pillow and I stay wrapped in my cocoon of comfort for days. I give myself this gift of deep-grief-rest and with this permission to pause comes the spaciousness to remember who I am and unlearn who she told me I was.

My mother spent most of her days hurting. Lost in the gravitational pull of depression, anger, self-loathing, and soap operas. She was infected with the misogynistic lie that she was worth less because she was a woman, and this was a lie she never freed herself of.

Mom taught me early on that it was normal for my voice and my dreams to be violently squashed, just as hers had been.

A memory that arises for me often – I am sharing a meal in my sisters' backyard with my mother and sisters. It’s difficult to swallow. The bandages on my throat still fresh with dried blood as we wait for the surgeon's call. My phone rings and I step away from the table to walk toward the woods. I answer the phone and pause at the edge of the bike path. Three bikers ride toward me, the youngest child ringing her bell wildly as the doctor and I exchange brief hellos. I take a long slow breath and say “Tell me”. My surgeon shares the news in his pleasing English accent “Unfortunately Kate there’s a bit of cancer in you.”

For a moment I don’t speak. I just watch the back of the bikers ride away. The ringing bell has stopped. It’s so quiet.

A deep calm comes over me and I say “Okay. What do we do next?”

Three minutes later I hang up with my next steps secure. I approach the table littered with the remnants of another uncomfortable meal together. They look at me expectantly and ask if that was my surgeon. “No” I tell them – determined to keep this truth close to my heart for time to process without a barrage of their questions and fear.

My older sister Kellie starts sharing how much pain she’s in and is looking forward to her knee surgery. My mother says, as she often does, “Your pain is nothing compared to mine. Wait till you get my age.”

My sister's face registers the hurt and she instantly shuts down her share, as she often does around my mother. “Mom” I say “we know you’re in pain but please stop saying that. We have pain in our lives too.”

She turns to me and says “Why don’t you shut your mouth Kate”.

I look at her for a moment, and exhale as I crouch down in front of her so that our eyes are level, and she has a clear view of my throat. “This wound in my throat is here because I’ve spent fifty years of my life shutting my mouth Mom and I won’t do it anymore. Not for you – not for anyone.”

I hear my sister Karin gasp. I slowly stand and walk into the house.

Through the window I watch them and I feel their discomfort as they pretend nothing has happened.

I pause, and breathe, and become aware of how fucking good that just felt.

I feel a tremendous tenderness rise within me and spread throughout my body. Tenderness for myself. Tenderness for my mother. Tenderness for my sisters.

It’s not about the cancer in this moment. It’s a deep knowing that I have just untangled one of the last threads of childhood fear that was wrapped around my throat. I know in this moment that my healing process is growing deeper and wider. I know in this moment that I will no longer shut my mouth.


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Hello! What a lovely idea. Here is my entry.

Something in the Water

The three boys stood in a tight huddle under the bridge, staring intently at something in the water.

Perhaps it was one of the brook’s few fish. Emma had never been fond of them, translucent and bug-eyed as they flashed against bare ankles and struggled vainly against being scooped up into jars. Oliver had even tried to build a river in the garden for one of them, spending all day digging a rough channel into the grass that ran in a ring, an inch deep at most, all but ensuring the thing spent its last days choking on mud in pained confusion.

‘What are they doing under there?’ Marjorie set down her beer. It scraped against the damp stone, dislodging a minuscule red spider that ran into the nearest crevice. ‘It’s never good when they’re this quiet.’

‘Yeah.’ Emma’s throat was dry. She picked up one of the cheese and tomato sandwiches balanced precariously on the stone, the food and drink inches from the sluggish brown water. ‘Never good.’

‘Remember the frog?’

That tiny thing, breathing with its whole body as its severed leg twitched a few feet away. ‘Don’t make me remember it.’

This was the last picnic before school, before uniforms and new friends and the gradual stripping away of this, the innocence that clung to their boys now like the droplets of water shimmering on Oliver’s knees. Nothing in life was certain apart from changes of this kind, sad ones, so when the sun came out today and Marjorie called saying come, the water will be warm, Emma knew she should do it despite her headache and the full laundry basket and the feeling, irrational but nagging like a bad tooth, that choosing idleness today was unwise.

Oliver bent down. Marjorie’s sons clustered around him, silent.

‘It could be flowers again.’ Emma swallowed the sandwich and forced a smile. She shouldn’t sound so defensive. ‘Do you remember that?’

‘The bouquet?’ Marjorie closed her eyes, smiling. ‘God, they were sweet.’

Who knew why the flowers had been floating there that afternoon? Marjorie had always maintained they were due to a spurned lover, a supermarket bouquet chucked in a fit of passion, but to Emma the source was unimportant. What mattered was the joy of their discovery; the boys had been small then, too small to have learned that they weren’t supposed to find beauty in daffodils and damp purple irises. They had swum and played and thrown the flowers up in shining arcs, taken fistfuls of dripping petals to make crowns.

Wonder. Such wonder in their faces as they played with the flowers, and such wonder as they looked down at the dying frog. Innocent then and innocent now; how frightening innocence was.

One never knew, when looking at one’s child, if the next moment was going to be full of wonder or horror. They were so very capable of both.

‘Have they found something in the water?’ Marjorie craned her neck. ‘I can’t see.’

‘It looks like it. Maybe a fish?’

‘I hope so. God forbid it’s an injured bird, or some other animal that’s fallen in.’

Oliver had scared Emma once, just after Lacy had been born. He had a cold that week, a brutal one that left him scarlet-cheeked and covered in snail-smears of mucus, so Emma had sat him down and told him very seriously that he couldn’t play with his sister, couldn’t even touch Lacy until he was better, because if he did Lacy would get very sick and have to go back to hospital. And Oliver had nodded solemnly, had understood completely—which meant that when Emma discovered him crouched in Lacy’s cot that afternoon, coughing onto the baby’s face again and again, she couldn’t pretend to herself or anyone else that her son didn’t know exactly what he was doing and why.

‘Oh, God.’ Marjorie stood, brushing the crumbs off of her jeans. ‘They’re coming out.’

I don’t want a sister. An innocent, dreadful answer from Oliver upon questioning. She can go back.

‘Mummy.’ Oliver climbed onto the stone. His face was wet, his eyes like stars as he held out his hands. ‘Look. Look.’

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Boyfriend’s beaten to a pulp. Left to bleed in front of the local. Cold night. Sea air. Frigid wind. Too many men. Alcohol. Small town. Intellectual poverty. Financial poverty. Cultural poverty. I am screaming. Not in fear. At them. They say it’s my fault he’s there like that. I fucked the faggot. Now I have AIDS. Unfuckable. Unlovable. At seventeen. They’re furious they didn’t get to me first. They’d been relentless, yet unsuccessful in this pursuit. As my breasts began to bud. Becoming a man in this place is eviscerating. Becoming a woman even worse. My banishment brings relief. An escape plan. Best laid. My mother senses my predicament. She kicks me out before I can leave. $20 Greyhound bus ride paid for with money stolen from my grandmother. Big smoke. Sex. Drugs. Cops. Beatings. Young homeless allowance. Indignity of the dole queue. Doof-doof music. Raves. Recovery parties. Elaborate hand sewn costumes from thrift store bedding. Rice with cumin. Five finger discount green apple and taramasalata. Fucking and drinking and loving and dancing my way through clawing hunger. Acid helps too. I look amazing in these hot pants. Can’t afford the rent. Sleeping in the shed. Of someone else’s 10-person share house. Overflowing toilet. Shit everywhere. Tripping hard again. Techno beats. Then, a big city job with a multi-level marketing company. An MLM cult. Of exploitation and male ego. My days begin with a fanatical group motivation session. Trauma bonding for misfits. Followed by hours of solitary and fruitless door-knocking in suburbia. Even the sad and lonely don’t want what I’m selling. I haven’t slept for days. Coming down again. Boss offers me a place to crash. My own room. So nice of him. I fuck him for the rent. Disgusted. I fall in love with my girlfriend whilst moving out with the hot boyfriend I met on the black and red death caps. Before long there are track marks on his left arm. They slowly work their way across both arms. He spent the rent money again. Just like my father. He distracts himself from the increasing viciousness of his come downs. By insisting I’m cheating on him. He enjoys the primal surge of the yelling; likes the feeling of shoving me around. It dawns on me that now - at nineteen - I’m already too old for this shit. It turns out I’m also quite pregnant. I seriously consider a disastrous plan to pull pints and dicks in the titty bar with my ex girlfriend. Before I really start to show. I don’t know. I’m a swirl of pregnancy hormones. I do know I am going to be clean and sober. I need to eat. I need calm. Be nice to patch things up with my mother. I hitch a ride to the truck stop town she moved too. Arrive at dusk. Fall into a deep and exhausted sleep. Wake to her new boyfriend creeping outside my window. He’d kicked her around like a football. She’d tried to leave him. It's impossible in a small town. I can’t be here. I hitchhike back to the city with the truck driver my mother insists on. After no more than five minutes of sizing him up. The city is more forgiving. Through word from a friend, I find a room in a fourteen-person commune. I’m now twenty-ish weeks along. I will end other less meaningful pregnancies with relief, but it won’t be this one. I understand the potential of this; of community, of home. I will not squander this moment. Home turns out to be a slummy haven for anti-establishment vegetarians who thrive on policing the kitchen. It suits for a while. It is the community I need. The sad, poetic junkie in the room next door pays the rent with her pussy. My sister soon moves into the room on the other side. I can breathe. Even if I hardly see her for her shift work. We are bonded in fire. Not long after her arrival I wake alone. Labour pains. So excruciating I am for once, floored. My sister’s at the club. I leave a note with $20 taped to her bedroom door. Meet me at the hospital. I take a taxi to emergency. He hates me for screaming in his cab. But not as much as the nurses I avoided for nine months. They inform me I am squarely and officially in the at-risk category. Slowly they warm to me in the chaos of my making. Peace comes later, when my sister finds me in the dawning light of the birthing room. With her, a G-string thong. A punchline contained within the going home clothes we had not known to pack. I give birth to the father we lost to heroin seven years ago. She is beautiful.

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Hanif, I have the feeling that we’re all lying down next to you: youth, a shared spliff. Nice.


“You’re going to live… in Athens! Why?”

That same question from everyone, spoken in that same quiet voice people use when confronting an old person who’s losing her marbles.

“You’re at home, mum! You’ve lived here twenty years,”—my kids’ concerned faces mirrored those on the HR leaflet that counselled: Retirement should be planned— “you have everything you need: friends, language, beautiful streets and… proper sewage pipes! Why swap that for the dirt and unpredictability of Athens?”

I didn’t know.

But it happened. One morning, house gone, books stored, I stood on the sill of leaving, watching polished sunlight drift over perfectly manicured gardens. A careful breeze, ruffling nothing. Soon I would smell breakfast brioche and café au lait. Soon I would hear that affirmative bonour, bonjour, bonjour ring down the street: song of praise for getting through another night, arriving safe in another same morning. Not soon enough! My taxi, a Mercedes Benz, (they all are) idled up, its engine purring; its chauffeur with his Sunday morning whispering; its boot opening for my case, on oiled silence. And I was gone.

“You know Athens?” Yiannis, the taxi driver asked on the other side, as I slid into a seat imperfectly mended with black tape.

“I’ve visited before,” I tell him in a sentence punctuated by dust puffed out from my seat as I moved.

“From England?”

“No, London… I grew up there.” I mentally calculated the forty odd years since leaving.

“Oh London,” he waved his hands indicating some unreachable mecca. He was thirtyish—going on forty—an Adonis beaten about the face by the daily grind.

“Why you come?”

I hesitated. “Athens reminds me of London,” I said, and we both laughed. Ridiculous.

When Yiannis jumped from the car to tie a package of ribbon-wrapped leftover cake on a garbage bin I looked quizzical.

“Imagine it’s for someone you know,” he said— pointing to the many garbage bins decorated with these elaborate tokens along the route—“We have to.”

A memory surged: my grandmother washing a bottle of milk before leaving it next door; or polishing our old shoes for the family down the road. I quashed it. Young London, like my youth, was long gone.

Yiannis held up a cigarette. “Can I?” I’d prefer he didn’t, but I nodded. He cranked up the rebetiko, his thumb tapping the wheel, his young back belligerently tensed, at home, anywhere. And I’m there, again, in London. Fourteen, poor, watching school pass the bus window like a bad dream then getting off at Imhofs. A music mecca with its private booths, ashtrays, limitless LP requests; and me—belligerently at home—inhaling freedom, getting high with Parker and Fitzgerald. Yiannis tapped ash and we exhaled together.

We screeched to a halt: a girl, early twenties, in the road, with her eyes streaming black make up. “Yes, I don’t mind,” I said, as he helped the broken girl onto our broken back seat. Under her elfin beauty, a sharp-edged pain. He’d have picked Mariangela up even if he weren’t smitten. There was kindness once in London, too. I was sixteen when I was hired to take the coats at a smart club in Queensway. I slept in a café waiting for my wages but those kind Queensway ladies of the night I worked with took me in, gave me a private room with a lock until my pay check came.

Theodorakis on the radio; they laughed, sighed, pulled their history out from a common back pocket and sang along. Mariangela held my hand, translating, and I felt nostalgic for Earls Court and red Harry, his rebel songs of Ireland and Spain. They said he was old. I didn’t know what that meant, I was at home in his voice when he sang to me.

Yiannis’ eyes were closing Mariangela’s open wounds.

She wanted coffee. We parked… next to a memory, empty but for the dash of drying colour.

A laundromat in Fulham.

I’d pulled him inside. We’d missed the last bus; there was violence in their taunts. Rain against the window and my young face in his black hands, my lips learning fire. Warm rain, a torn curtain of coloured light and under my damp coat, my girlish skin, breathless… and… what? I pushed his elbow back to see…his sad eyes giving me his pain to hold.

Mariangela hugged me and Yiannis grinned as they dropped me off.

I waved, knowing why I’d come.

Tenderness: often dirty, always unpredictable, ageless; at home here.

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A boy she didn’t know wanted to add her. Her mother was talking at her. She took her thumb out of her mouth and added him back. Then she added another friend. What was her mother saying over there? More interesting were the four-hundred-and-thirteen friends she had. Eleven more than Evie’s. Fifty-two fewer than Zach's. Beyond her screen, her red bra poked out of her top. She liked it. He would like it. She took another photo of the ceiling and sent it. Her mother repeated the question. Sausages and mash, please. Then she wished she’d gone for nuggets and chips. Her teddy smelt of old socks. She pressed its ear to her nose and inhaled. Its head was loose, but she would not let her mum sew it back on. Maybe today it would fall off. Using her other hand, she took a photo of her forehead. A tease that prompted another message from the boy. He had dark hair. His bedroom was blue. He wanted to see more of her. She chucked her teddy onto the floor and balanced her phone on the headboard. The lighting made her skin green. She thought she looked fat. Too fat to get a reply from the boy. She scrolled her feed for funny things, to forget about being fat. A cat was opening a door with its paw. She scrolled on. A girl was trapped in the rubble. She scrolled on. A baby was getting a face massage. She scrolled on. The boy’s message appeared on top of those other things. The heat of her thumb revealed it. She read it and absorbed it. Nursing what he’d asked her for was like telling a lie. Dinner was called. She would not look her mother in the eye, just in case. Her second helping swelled in her belly. It was hateful and painful to pull her abdomen flat for the next photo. She must stop having seconds. It was Mum’s fault. It was always her fault. His reply was instant. I want to fuck you, he said. He showed her his dick. Her eyes fogged up. Only once before had she seen a man’s penis. In a series, rated fifteen, which she shouldn’t have watched. Her heart hadn’t beat as fast as it did now. Her mouth hadn’t gone as dry. Her skin hadn’t felt as dirty. She let go of her phone. Then she picked it up. The video message was gone. It repeated in her head on a loop. She blocked him. From her phone and from her mind. Blocked. Blocked. Blocked. She plucked some hairs from her right eyebrow. It throbbed nicely. The hoodie she found on the floor was her dad’s and it came down to her knees and covered up how grown-up she was. It was too late for that. The secret banged like fists on glass. Her father might say she was a ruined maid. Her mother might say she was a ruined generation. She would say she was fine. And she scrolled on. A huge dog hugged a sleeping baby. She scrolled on.

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Dear Hanif,

Thank you so much for this. I hope each day becomes a little easier and brighter as you continue your recovery. All my best wishes, Jolene Handy

Here is my story:


“The Hare and the Hatter don’t know anything about making tea and that Dormouse is a complete drag,” Bertie said to Meg, nonchalantly.

“Bertie, are you ok?” Meg had been Bertie’s editor for decades and she was in disbelief that Bertie would take things this far.

“I’m fine, Meg! Drink your tea and have a cookie.”

Like everyone who knew Bertie, Meg adored her. She was kind and funny and brilliant and was one of the foremost living authorities on the work of Charles Dodgson, better known to the world as Lewis Carroll.

Bertie always looked like she’d just danced off a Cameo in her pink dresses, white chignon and black Capezio’s.

“My signature look,” she’d say, “It’s part of my brand,” and then she’d laugh. But marketing was no joke to her. She’d taken to social media like a teenager, a kind of hero-explorer to her octogenarian peers. She especially liked Twitter.

“I want people to know about and read my books. You’ve got to stay curious and be in the public square. Everyone, not just the young people,” was a favorite mantra.

Her work meant everything to her. She’d had suitors, but her fidelity was to books and her independence. She also enjoyed a good party and a well-made Manhattan. And she loved to laugh.

She’d spent her life dissecting every word Carroll had ever written. Alice had captivated her early, with its possibility of the nearness of other worlds. She thought of herself as an Alice Evangelist.

But now she’d made a claim so mad that the literati were clutching their collective pearls. What was worse was she’d made it on TikTok, her newest obsession.

Her video was short and to the point.

“Wonderland is real. How do you think I know so much about it? I’ve been going for years. Stay tuned!”

Her reel went viral on TikTok. BookTok exploded. #BertieinWonderland was trending with her fans on Twitter. Those who wanted her ‘Cancelled’ believing this was some slick ad campaign to sell books started the hashtag #Bertiegate and #ByeByeBertie.

Meg needed to know what was at the heart of this wild statement. And the publisher didn’t want a fiasco. So far, this had only increased Bertie’s popularity. She had always been a colorful personality, but this was something different and earnest and needed to be kept kooky within reason.

“Bertie, you’ve got a lot of people shaking their heads, what’s going on?”

“Meg. I’ve wanted to tell you for years. I can access Wonderland. I’m running out of time to share this. So I thought I’d just put it out there.”

Meg was so struck by a pang of sadness at the thought of the loss of her friend that she momentarily forgot about the Wonderland affair.

She gathered herself and took Bertie’s hand. “Are you ill, Bertie?”

Bertie smiled at Meg the way a mother smiles at an adult child.

“No, Meg. Really, how many years do I have left, though? I can’t leave this world without telling my story.”

“But, Bertie..”

“Come with me, I want to show you something.”

They walked to the back of Bertie’s apartment, which was large by New York City standards. Once inside her study, Bertie took down a tapestry, behind which was a small door that opened to a tiny room.

The walls were covered with reproductions of illustrations by John Tenniel from the first edition of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

On another wall, next to a mirror, were the twelve illustrations done by Salvador Dalí for the 1969 special edition of Alice.

“This is where I sit and drink tea and read passages from Alice, surrounded by these illustrations. And after a while something happens and everything gets still and I go somewhere else. I go to Wonderland.”

Meg was moved by the emotion and sincerity in Bertie’s voice and she started to feel lightheaded.

“It’s powerful, I know. I’d love to take you to see it, Meg, to experience it. To make sure it’s not forgotten.”

Back home, Meg poured a double Scotch and stared at the wall. Could this really be? Bertie had an uncanny reputation for finding messages in Carroll’s work that eluded all the other scholars. No, this wasn’t possible. But she wanted to be there for her friend if this was the beginning of some sad end. But Bertie was perfectly clear and aware that what she was saying defied credulity. Meg fell asleep on the couch, still fully dressed. She did not dream that night.

A few days later she was at Bertie’s door.

“Okay, let’s go.”

Bertie hugged her. “Really, Meg?!”

“Bertie, I don’t know what to make of any of this. All I know is that I care about you.”

“You are a daughter to me, Meg. Now, I’ll go put the kettle on.”


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Hanif, you are an inspiration and I feel for you, admire you, thank you.

Don't give up, ever. I love your postings and I wish you the best in your recovery.

Thank you for this writing competition.


You are born, grow, speak, learn, feel, think, love and wonder.

Thinking about your youth today leads to memories, nostalgia, anger, happiness, those vital elements of life. From a young age concerned about the environment. From books the information that leads you to consider never having children.

Books? Yes, a big part of your youth.

It’s the first job you have, shelving books in the public library, one evening a week. Your mother is a librarian, the house full of volumes. You read endlessly, discover so much. Losing yourself in the written word only enhances your solitude. Alone yes, but not lonely, the books are like friends. Even though school is a heavy obligation you do have friends. But honestly? Reading is better. Books offer journeys to places never imagined, to conclusions never expected.

You are happy and carefree as a child. Primary school is special, finding friends for life. Memories of being squashed in the car with a load of kids coming home from school. No seat belts. Everyone pleading, screaming and cheering to get the Dad who is driving to go 80 mph over the reservoir. No one’s Mum ever does that, but he does. It is as exciting as standing on the edge of a platform when a non-stop express races past. That moment of almost being sucked in on to the rails as the train roars by, that bang and rattle that fills your mind, the high that leaves you gasping. It’s the game between life and death. Swopping innocent excitements for intentional ones is part of the challenge of youth.

Your mother, the strong woman, the Boadicea of the family. The hard work ethic is her mantra. With scant respect for your Dad, she is the one wearing the trousers, sorting things with military precision. She walks all over him, like the heavy roller she pushes to iron out the lumps in the lawn. He escapes. He finds freedom in the bars and pubs of London.

It’s a struggle to be seen, to be heard. The sandwich between two brothers, sharing the house with a grandmother and warring parents. All wrapped up in themselves. How to prove you really do exist, with feelings, needs, desires?

A new life.

Like getting a haircut, getting rid of all those dead ends.

It’s university, the first boyfriend, then lots more. From fantasy to the real thing, that’s what absorbs you now. Boys, booze, drugs and rock and roll. Oh and studying, yes, of course. But more importantly the shout for freedom is the change from imagination to reality, a permanent smile lighting up your face. An occasional trip home, giving breezy uninformative replies to your parents’ questions, impatient to get back to the excitement.

Unconsciously searching for the security you once felt in your mother’s arms. That feeling of hope that the post-war generation felt then and still feel now. That childish innocence turns into awakening and discovering. It is exciting at the time, but there is nothing to prepare you for the ups and downs of life. When your best friend dies it’s a struggle to understand. There is something so sad about a short life. How unfair is it to have your life snatched away in a car crash? The drunk driver does not only end the life of your friend but also his own. There is no justice for such a thing, no understanding, and certainly no forgiving.

Youth ends with the realisation that life is a struggle. Reading about it in books is one thing, living it another. Life is watching 1984 come and go, and a new century begin. Stunning your friends with why you don’t want to bring children into this world that’s falling apart. Their anger, their lack of understanding.

Life is unfair but wonderful, full of happiness and sadness, of things gained and lost. Relationships, friendships, learning that dealing with people isn’t always easy. The thing is to keep an even keel, to fight for your rights, to love and learn to forgive. Even if the security of your mother’s arms is elusive you look for other ways to achieve something similar.

Fond memories of youth.

Writing about it from a place of solitude today.

In the garden, surrounded by birdsong, phone and laptop close.

You are today what you were then.

Still growing, speaking, learning, feeling, thinking, loving and wondering.

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Feb 21, 2023·edited Mar 4, 2023

Thank you, Hanif -- wishing you the best in your recovery -- and thank you for The Kureishi Chronicles, which has been so shocking and beautiful -- thank you.


"At nineteen, you're either dead or perfect." -- F. Scott Fitzgerald.

A new father, a youth of about twenty-two, can’t pay for nappies. His wife has a broken tooth. The baby is crying. He leaves, and within an hour, returns with £100. What did he do? What you’re imagining is what he did.

A young woman lives alone on an island. It’s not exactly an island, connected to the mainland by a strip of earth that’s submerged at high tide. There's a reason she chose to live this way. One night, a group of three men enter the woman’s home while she’s sleeping. In the morning, the woman has a shower as hot as she can stand it. Indifferent, she cuts the sharp, yeasty bread in half. A cup of lemon beer. The dog loops the brine.

A man approaches a girl of about twelve as she’s waiting for the school bus. Can I give you a ride? No, I’m waiting for a bus. A few weeks later, the same man, dressed in a hounds-tooth suit in pale yellow tones, pulls over as she leaves the station. Would you like a ride? No, I’m walking home. I could make you famous. A few months pass. An orange VW bug idles on the curb. Is this you? The man, this time in jeans and T-shirt, wire-rimmed glasses and sideburns down to his beard, proffers a photograph. An Asian woman is standing in front of a wooden fence in Autumn, squinting at the camera. No, it’s not me. Oh, I thought you were her. We were engaged to be married.

At the age of nineteen, I joined a matrimonial website for Asian singles. Cajoled, I switched my video on. No, I’m not remembering that correctly. I took a photograph of myself, naked from the neck down, for him to masturbate to. The part of me that’s survived everything that ever happened to me did not, at the last moment, include my face.

A father escorts his fourteen-year old daughter to the car after a group recital at her high school. Ensemble pieces, monologues. You’re so fat. Why are you so fat compared to the other girls? The girl, whose body has developed fast, does not think of herself as overweight. What worsens her mood are not her father’s thoughtless words, but rather, the embarrassment she felt when the cast assembled for their last bow. In those moments, her cheap black leotard and tights, laddered now in places, were conspicuous in contrast to the emerald green catsuit of the girl on her left, and the mauve catsuit of the girl on her right, a raven-haired beauty who was given the role of Secretary Bird.

At the age of twenty-five, the outer limit of youth, my mother stood before a glass case containing the Kohinoor diamond, screaming: “You took it from us, now give it back.” The Beefeater on duty escorted her to the exit, pitchfork alert. Afterwards, mum and I ate cheese and pickle sandwiches on a crumbling wall above the Thames, which shone and spat below our feet.

A boy walks away from the girl he loves, then turns to apologize. At that exact moment, an older man approaches the girl, who is sitting on the bleached grass of Hyde park. The girl responds politely when the man, a stranger, asks her a question. No, I don’t want an ice-cream. To the boy, this scene is one of betrayal, evidence of the girl’s lack of presence or intensity in their nascent relationship. Revenge is a dish best served cold, the boy writes on an anonymous postcard, in his signature loopy handwriting, before posting it with a flourish the next day. What kind of relationships did he have as a grown man? Perhaps good, perhaps bad.

A nineteen-year-old man falls in love with a man who lives as a woman. Every morning, this woman wraps her bright sari anti-clockwise around her waist and tucks it in with precision. Stylish, kind, beautiful, the woman is well-liked in the community. That the man and the woman are together is an open secret. One day, the man tells his mother he wants to marry her. Only then does conflict arise. Only then is the man forced to leave his community.

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Thank you Hanif for starting this community. I wish you a full recovery.

Here's what I wrote for the competition.


by Loren Edizel

He had been mumbling again. Interminable phrases came out of his thin lips, and he whispered urgently what all his children, eight of them around the bed in various poses of fatigue, had concluded was incoherent nonsense. This had been going on for days while their mother and eldest sister busied themselves around the room, emptying the potty, giving him sponge baths, combing his hair, changing his pajamas. He looked old in captivity, even though just a few weeks before this illness he had climbed on the roof in that catlike weightless pounce they admired, his arm muscles glistening with sweat, thick black eyebrows in a frown as he tried to replace the missing tiles blown away and broken by the hurricane.

He gestured to his youngest daughter to approach. The four-year-old glanced at her siblings as if questioning the safety of this request before moving closer. She took in the musty medicine smell of his body and the black nose hair that crept out of his dark round nostrils in small curlicues. He grabbed her small pudgy hand. “Sing me that song again,” he whispered, wide-eyed. She had learned it in pre-kindergarten, a Japanese song about a train. Not knowing what the words meant, she frequently distorted the phrases when she was asked to sing it and moved her lips in exaggerated pouts when she tried to make sounds like “chee chee” and “uuiwohh”. “Sing it again” they would all beg, smiling in anticipation of her extended vowels and pouts, clapping when she was done. Her father would lift her up in his arms and kiss her cheeks, burrowing his nose into her neck, making her giggle.

Now the stranger in her father’s body demanded his favourite song. She moved her head from side to side, eyes focused on her trapped limb. “Please,” he whispered in his cavernous new voice. “I love it so when you sing to me.” Her mother had come to stand next to her, touching her shoulder, nodding encouragingly. “No! Let go of my hand!” the child shouted and pulled it out of his grip running out of the room. They heard a door slam down the corridor. The seven siblings, embarrassed by her outburst, looked at their father with bewildered pity.

“Why?” he looked as though he was going to cry. His wife caressed his head, then his abandoned hand, “She is upset. She loves you.”

He whispered a few things no one understood. They all moved closer straining to hear. He began to cough. His wife lifted his head, rearranging the pillows to help him. “Do you want water?” She brought the glass close to his lips. It dribbled from the side of his mouth and into his collar. Not noticing, she continued tilting the glass. He pushed it away causing the rest of the water to spill on the bed. His protuberant eyes lifted toward the ceiling in exasperation. “I’m sorry” she said now removing the cover. “I’ll change the sheets.” The eldest daughter, as if on cue, approached to help. His pyjamas were also soaked and would need changing. The siblings left the room.

Mother and daughter were trying to contain their frustration as they quietly moved his heavy limbs to remove his clothes. He was not helping them. “I want to hear her sing before I die,” he whispered now and repeated it a few times in case they did not hear. “You will not die,” the daughter said. “You’ll get better.” He closed his eyes ignoring them as they busied themselves, moving, pulling, turning, and finally buttoning down his clean pajamas before covering him with fresh sheets.

The women opened the door and left the room. Some time passed as he dozed off. Evening descended in a purplish hue around the objects of the room. He opened his eyes to find his family surrounding his bed, and his little girl beside him, staring at his face. “Oh, my angel,” he smiled. “You’re here.”

“Will you get well if I sing?” she asked looking mollified, and began the Japanese train song, stretching the many vowels and “chee chee”s in exaggerated pouts. Focused on doing a good job, her eyes were fixated on the view in the window beyond her father’s bed where pink and orange clouds paraded above the setting sun. When she was done, she looked at him expecting he would ask her for an encore, like in the old days. His eyes were closed, a smile hovering on his lips.

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Dear S,


It's been a while. Thirty-two years actually. When I see that number, and the encrusted life I now own, it seems unnatural – perversely multiplied. It can't be true that I still feel this way - a third of a century later - about someone I knew for barely two months. What a strange thing the memory is. What odd curators we are - shelving and cataloguing some moments but not others, of visceral longing too much unacknowledged at the time – irresistible, real and deeply strange, but now so divorced from the blood blind compulsions of our youthful senses.

I do know, of course, you are no longer here. I know that, of course. I heard the news from a friend of a friend – a text, some months ago. Almost offhandedly she told me: how odd I thought until I realised how much of what I’d stored inside was entirely unknown to anyone except myself. When she mentioned your death in passing, along with the odd lurching sensation of a silent fall from a tall building I saw you - instantly - before me, in your black leather bomber jacket, your ever so slightly reddened by the cold March air ice blue eyes and your tight ponytailed dirty blond hair - perched for the first and last time on the edge of the bed in my flat on Redcliffe Gardens, applying lip balm habitually with your long fingers. It was your dry skin but too an under-managed manifestation of your vulnerability, and so a flash of hope that you weren’t en-tirely too lovely and perhaps not en-tirely beyond my reach, after all. You didn’t stay long, perhaps half an hour - but your visit meant something I suppose neither of us could bring ourselves to acknowledge, then or afterward. Time had run out before I realised the clock was running. I loved your silly travel letters from Tokyo and Adelaide, hashed out on flimsy blue paper in terminals and hostels.

Aren’t we just animal spirits? First, predominant, hormones bursting, bloody and startled, resplendent and chattering without the time, need or inclination to reflect? Then spirits more, reflecting on what we did, what we felt, our animal selves dutifully contained or compromised by an embarrassment of later riches and failures? I don’t have answers S-. I only know that I think I can recreate what made you you, that even now I want to recreate what made you you, without ever having had the chance to discover it then. I'm our last remaining record-keeper. Without me we cease to exist. I suppose, after all those months since I heard, this is what seeped into my consciousness, that I feel the need to speak to you, to make up for lost time and lost chances: chances not taken when I knew there was some spark between us that only required one of us to ignite, with some trivial act of courage. For whatever reason, neither of us embraced the courage we might have had. Perhaps we felt it was inevitable and thus unnecessary to hurry along. We'll never know. It's too late. But what do I do otherwise with all these evergreen thoughts? Do I pile them high, at last, on the bonfire at the bottom of the garden and stand, contemplative, alone, as the particles of a life unlived dissemble themselves in the intense heat and float way into the winter night as I stand shivering in my borrowed winter boots? Do I preserve them in jars, for occasional inspection? Or should I reanimate them, bring to them new life, that we might not cease to exist after all?

Forgive me now if I choose the last. I feel it is something I should do - that I want to do - as selfish as it sounds. I'll treat you fairly, I promise. Only I want you to come alive again, in some way that only I could bring about. I know you wouldn't mind, entirely too much.

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Thank you for this. Reading you (plural, refering to both Hanif and everyone who wrote in the previous entry) is a pleasure that brings joy to a dull office job. Here's a little homage to old people.



You are being mocked by yourself. The handsome man you once were grins at you from a pool somewhere in Nice, fifty years ago. Don’t you wish you were here? Don’t you wish you were me? A gorgeous album cover, that was.

“How many are there?”

You ask, looking away from the record between your hands and at the several piles on that table over there.

“Just a hundred.”

Your assistant says. It’s a PR technique, saying just before delivering a big number to make it seem smaller. You can take a hundred little stabs, as long as they are just a hundred.

You hold the pen again.


It really was one of the worst records of your career. You wonder who's idea was it to reissue this commercial failure. They must have made their numbers, of course. After all, the record label is not a charity.


Statistics said it would sell —fifty year anniversaries do. More so when you have the sorry aftermath of the artist still around to scribble his name over the plastic wrapping. As if it was necessary for you to mark this like a dog marks its territory.


You could piss on it, if you wanted to. And you kind of do. This is me and this is mine. Yes, it’s still you. After all these years, it’s still you, somehow.


It’s strange when you think about it, as you do when you stare at copies of your own former visage. How people can choose the version of you they prefer. Young or younger.


You still had the voice then. The looks. It’s funny, you never meant to cut yourself on the sharpness of your own looks.


Vanity is not something you can hold onto forever. Now at your age your best choice is dignity. You’ve shed your youth like a snake sheds its skin.


You’ve become the mere lingering proof of a once so lusted after casanova. Whatever you’re desired for now you owe it to him.


You will never


be as




“Everything alright?”

You assistant asks.

You look down and see you messed up. You meant to sign your name but ended up with some deranged scribble. The face of the beautiful man is now obscured by black lines. Who’s laughing now?

“You could do them tomorrow as well. Couldn’t he?”

The first half of the sentence is directed at you. The second, at the record store’s owner, who’s working on something behind one of the shelves.

“Yeah, no problem.”

“It’s been a long day. You spent the whole morning at the studio and you barely got any sleep last night.”

You wonder why she felt the need to explain this to you. But in reality she was right in doing so —you thought this morning was yesterday.

So even though you tell her you’re going to rest, you go back to your studio, back to the song you were working on this morning. You’re in the process of mixing the vocals, deciding what goes up, what goes down, what sticks to the background. It’s an old demo, first recorded several decades ago. You’re adding instrumentals, making it pretty for a surprise release. It’s the thousandth time you’ve listened to that man’s seductive voice, the man that was you. How beautiful he believes himself to be. How unspoilt. You couldn’t reach those high notes these days even if you prayed. Effortless it was, back then. You have recorded some backing vocals for him to lounge his luxurious notes over.

Now your voice is half-gone, your skin cleft by as many lines as a sequoia ring. And you wonder why you feel ashamed of being alive. You’re staying after the encore with a drink still in your hand, old man. You survived the best decades and beached on these less fanciful ones. You outlasted your best self. Then strangely enough this shame turns to burning pride when the self-doubt becomes self-assertion. Now you’re living with no one’s permission, after no one's desire but yours. This is for you and you only. You earned this.

This is why you shake things up a bit. Relegate that young man —old man, since he’s from further back than you are— to the background. Put your age-compromised vocals to the front. You should be proud, for you survived beauty.

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Hello Hanif,

What an exciting idea. Here is my short story, with much gratitude X


The taste in his mouth of alcohol and cigarettes turned his stomach. Kyle peeled his tongue off the roof of his mouth, reached out a hand and found a can. He took a sip, it was warm, sickly. An aging energy drink. His smell repulsed him. He fumbled around in the ashtray overflowing with butts for the remains of a joint. Blur the edges.

She smelled of chewing gum and cigarettes. Sweet. Long limbed, and lip-gloss. A honeyed tan, all sea salt and sand. She’d smiled at him. The club was packed. He’d watched her for a while. Weeks now.

He scratched his groin, felt the need but brushed it aside in favour of a shower. His own smell now overwhelming him. Shaking, he climbed into the bath, the water spluttered over him from the shower head. Soapy water pooled up around his feet as the hair in the plughole pushed his own filth back at him in disgust.

“Get down here now” a woman shouted. She was coherent for this time of day he thought. The back door was swinging. The door had clearly been kicked in. He’d lost his keys at some point Kyle remembered. The light coming through the kitchen window hurt his eyes. He hurt.

The club was dark and packed. He was weaving and fell onto her. She’ll be ‘Hi’, I’ll be ‘Fancy a joint?’. Her dress, once floating, now damply clung to her nipples and belly. Her long lean neck, he gazed at the beads of sweat running down, the bass, the pulsing, swirling, warm descent. The floor was more comfortable than expected. The cold air as security threw him through the fire door onto the seafront slapped him round the face. It stung.

He looked at the door, then at his Mother. Guilt rised up in him like bile. ‘You little prick” she spat at him. The spoon on the work surface with its used filter came into focus. She had a coldness and cruelty that never failed to hollow him out when using. She knew it. Derived pleasure from it. Mother love. When she hadn’t, it was remorse and a pleading need that Kyle took an overwhelming but deluded relief in as he tried to be the man he wanted to be. She wanted him to be. He betrayed himself in pleasing her. Her tee shirt long and stained hung from her bony torso. His own mother repulsed and terrified him in equal measure. Words stuck in his throat. The towel round his waist felt increasingly cold as the outside air clung to it’s dampness, He could feel the crumbs and dog hair sticking to the bottom of his feet. “Fuck you” his head screamed, but the words wouldn’t come. He ran up to his room.

If I can raise something lunch-time it’ll be ok. He pulled his trainers on. Hood up, headphones in, music on. Dark, grey anonymity. The uniform of the urban ghost. His socks were stiff, the spot on his back was angry, rubbing against his sweatshirt. His head still hurt and he felt sick.

St James’ street was always busy. Lunchtime outside Morrisons delivered easy prey. Visiting foreign students and lost tourists. Tired, grey women, weighed down with shopping waiting for their buses home to their fat, lazy husbands provided ideal cover. Kyle slid into the alley, lit a butt and watched the cash-point machine.

He wore Gucci trainers and a Black puffer, proudly laughing, flashing his teeth. The boys around him laughed, approving his every move. Weak and naïve in their invincibility, Kyle despised their effortless, invasive presence. Gucci put his card in the machine, punched the keypad and the vent opened. Kyle leapt out of the alley, shoved the boy to one side and grabbed the notes. The boy shouting, grabbed Kyle’s arm and a woman swung round. Her bag struck him straight across the back of his knees. The concrete hit. Stunned. Blurred. His head hurt, girls’ voices, shoes passing. Gucci kicked him in the guts and as the wind blew out of him, from the corner of his eye, honeyed long limbs went up and up. The smell of chewing gum and cigarettes, sea salt and sand looked down at him, turned to her friend, whispered and they laughed. They laughed. And it stung.

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Is the competition definitely closed?

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Hi Mr. Hanif, thank you for this opportunity. Here is my story.




We are here in this glorious backyard on a beautiful summer day, raising hell, partying and having a blast. For all of you here, his friends, family, and people who knew Nigel, you know he would want this. If he had been here, he would join you all, blaring 2000s hip-hop music, lip-singing 'without me', passing around pizza slices and keeping the whiskey flowing. Oh my, he is going to miss his pepperoni pies.

He was my everything. I loved him; we built a beautiful life in this stunning old home, which he painstakingly renovated. The man was such a nerd about DIY and interior decorations. You all won't believe I did not have to pick a single curtain or paint colour for our entire time living together. Speaking of our life together, the man was all romance and wrote me these little love letters and notes all the time; they are my prized possession. Don't get me wrong, Nigel being Nigel, somedays life with him felt super long, but today at this moment, it feels like it wasn't long enough.

His life was our girls; they were his pride, his privilege and his soul. The moment we brought them home, except for a small corner, all of his heart was theirs. Just when I got used to third-wheeling in their relationship, he is gone.

Because of him, our life was filled with travel, books and art. If ever he got a wish, he would have asked to fly; that way, he could travel to more places, meet more people and experience some craziest things. Find me later, and I will tell you some of our travel stories.

Nigel loved, I mean loved, his work; most people can barely manage to like it. He worked so hard as a child welfare worker for three decades. He truly believed the ultimate blessing of his life was the daily opportunity to make a child feel safe and loved. The pain he saw and the heart-wrenching stories he dealt with took a huge toll on him. But he went to work every day with the same hope and love.

He was the most treasured friend, father, partner, colleague and caregiver.

For all the anguish and adventure, in the end, he lived his life...

"Nigel, happy new year! I hope you had a good break!

So how are we doing today?"

They had gotten into a rhythm now; the repeated questions got repeated answers.

"I am not bad, I guess. Happy new year to you too." Nigel sat down on his favourite couch.

The therapist looked through her notes and wondered how they had ended their last session. Nigel made a quip about giving homework during the winter holidays, and he had completed the writing exercise.

"Ah, did you write it, hand it over; let me read it." Dr Carmen took the paper from his outstretched nervous hands. And started to read with excitement.

....unconditionally. Today he has brought us all together, together in happiness and celebration. Celebration of his life, so please raise a glass. I am thankful for this good company!

"This was meant to be an exercise to visualise your future. You were meant to write what all you wanted from life. Your hopes and dreams, how you looked at tomorrow and every day after. Why choose to write it this way? It reads like an epitaph." The therapist now had a worried and shocked look on her face.

"You know how I am, Doc. I am used to living my life looking behind with constant regrets and disappointments. So I wondered what it would be like; if I looked back in the end.

Somehow this feels sure, a little more certain like it is etched in stone!"

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Hope you like this!

Warm Regards, Mriya

The Gallery of Youth

"The Gallery of Youth" read the sign right outside the photo exhibition. The man who was reading it gave a sardonic half-smile that was hard to look at. He, too, was hard to look at for long - your eyes told you one thing, and your head didn’t quite agree with it. He was dressed formally, and reminded one of a mannequin. He looked like one - proportional, objectively good looking, no vivaciousness, no vitality. Even in his age - he looked about 19, young as plastic, but his eyes were too empty and step too measured. He took another look at the sign, and walked in.

He surveyed the photos with the most interest he bestowed on anything, and a kind of feline satisfaction. He was the photographer, and reviewed his works carefully. They were good. Moments of life captured like a butterfly under glass. It wasn’t groups of moody, pimply teenagers wearing black,

sulking and posing - it was what youth really meant.

A chubby girl chasing a butterfly, racing in her blue nightie, front tooth missing.

Sepia photograph - an old man, eyes crinkled with his smile, selling balloons at a corner in a patched up suit.

A 13 year old boy jumping off a swing.

A neon coloured photo of two girls dancing in the middle of a street.

A boy sleeping with his teddy bear, dream catcher glistening in the window.

A middle-aged woman wishing on a ladybug, eyes screwed up in faithful obedience.

4 black-and-whites of five friends crammed into a photobooth, making faces.

A group of friends, laughing and pointing at the stars.

A vintage-looking shot of a young woman walking through a field, eyes closed, blowing away a dandelion.

Photos full of contrasts - sepia, black and white, colour, pop effects. Young people, old people, a few middle aged folks. But they all had that look that said it was their world. Not the world - indiscriminate, vast. Their world. Theirs to laugh with, argue over, cry to, wonder at, fight for, live for. You could see it in the steel of their spines, in the tilt of their heads and the look in their eyes - they would take that leap, because the world would catch them. It might be a long fall, it might hurt when they landed, but they had always been caught.

No one had caught him.


He went to the storage room and locked the door. All those photos, but the one that mattered most lay in his pocket. He took a deep breath and stared at it as if that’s where all the air went. He hadn’t looked at it in a long time. It was old, and crinkled, but you could still see the two people in it. A black and white, of course, because what else had existed then?

It was some kind of field or meadow - grass with a tree. It was a girl - tall, strong-looking, with short hair and overalls. She was sitting in the tree, clutching the trunk for dear life, because she was laughing so hard. And he was right next to her, obviously the source of her amusement (and near death). But it wasn’t him, not really. He looked about 15, and his eyes were shining, his face stretched in the largest, most foolish grin that pulled at his cheeks and put a dimple in his chin. He was alive, alive, alive. It was as if he was now just a pale shadow of that person.

But his eyes kept skipping over himself, roving over the girl’s blurry face. Her laugh. He would have done anything for that laugh. He could have gotten drunk on that laugh, so full of pure joy. She had been the light he chased, the guiding star. But then she had left, always so full of pride and what was right. She had run away, faked her papers, faked her gender, faked everything to fight. Leaving him. Always leaving him to chase after. But then she disappeared where he couldn’t chase her anymore.


He almost cried now, but he was too empty for that. How could it be that a hundred years passed and it still hurt as much as the day he got the casualty list? ‘I’m sorry,’ he begged, ‘I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to do without you, scared of what would happen to us all… How could I have known? How could I have known that I would never be young the moment I stopped growing old?’

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Dear Hanif - long, long time since i've done this... feels good to be starting again... thank you!


My Dad said his earliest memory was waking up in his Mum’s bed, white sheets and sunlight. My own little boy lies curled beside me asleep right now, a bundle of soft warmth and sharp elbows.

My Dad died seven decades after his earliest memory, blinded by illness and unable to leave his bed. He would lift his hands to the thin skin over his skull. ‘Am I still here?’ he asked. ‘You’re still Dad,’ I said.

I hold my son as he sleeps, astonished by his beauty. When he awakes, he will sit bolt upright and the day will begin without pause. He will turn and ask an immediate question: ‘Who is more powerful, Mum, creepers or wither skeletons?’ I will smile and catch-up, eternally catching-up as he accelerates into his day and life. He runs so fast and I remember seeing him run in the shallow surf of Pendower Beach, small feet pounding the sand, head flung back with sheer joy, strength and speed.

I just want to keep up with him as long as I can.

My Dad had told me about being a kid himself, about looking out of the window on a Friday and seeing men in blue overalls walking home down his Leeds street as evening fell. ‘I knew I didn’t want to be like them,' he said. 'I knew I never wanted to wear a blue overall.’ He had so many stories. Growing up, I learned about his pushing a chest of drawers in front of his bedroom door so his stepfather wouldn’t come in drunk and beat him. I had wished I could do that for my own brother to stop my mother who went in to beat him. Head in my hands, I'd heard him cry, long time ago.

Dad told me about running away from home and spending nights in the local YMCA where he revised for his sixth form exams. In a drawer, I have sepia photos of school rugby and cricket teams and I can search the faces of boys growing into men and find my Dad gazing back, his head tipped to one side, his nearly smile. I can still smell his skin and remember his warmth, or maybe a warmth I wished for.

I haven’t seen my brother in years. We lock each other out. Easier not to see, sometimes.

‘Tell me a story about your Dad,’ my son asks. My Dad was blind when my son was born, but he’d held him and sang a song: ‘Eeny Meeny Miny Mo’ followed by the wrong words, the words we do not say any more. When my son sings the same song, these days, it’s ‘catch a tiger by his toe’. I remember flinching as my blind emaciated Dad sang; phlegm on his lips. Head in hands, I waited for the end.

‘Tell me a story about your Dad’, my son asks.

I try another story, an earlier one. ‘Well, you know my Dad never knew his own Dad. He was taken into care, which means he didn’t have a home of his own. His Mum couldn’t look after him because, well, she had her own problems. But his headmaster cared about him and asked Dad to come visit his cottage one weekend. Dad had to take the bus from Leeds and then walk across the fields and narrow green lanes.’ I can picture him, straight backed, slender and tireless, walking into the cool grey dusk. ‘It took ages and he thought he was lost and then he saw smoke from a cottage and the man standing outside and they waved. ‘That day changed my life,’ Dad always said.’

I think he was forever walking towards a home but never arriving.

‘Then what happened?’ my little boy asks.

‘Later,’ I say. 'My throat hurts. Nearly time for school!’

Our kitchen is bright in the winter morning and smells of toast. The grass is frosty outside and I know we’ll need to scrape ice from the windscreen. I listen to my son reading his school book, mastering his sentences. I hold my hands round my teacup and the warmth it brings. It’s my Dad’s old tea cup – the glaze is mottled, and I see him drinking out of it long ago when his eyes were clear and blue and beheld me. ‘You’re a lovely girl,’ he’d say. ‘I never thought I’d have a daughter like you.’

I wonder about all the ways we escape. Did I escape?

‘I love you,’ I tell my little boy and the day begins.

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Thanks, Hanif. And you're doing alright. You're staying sane in one of the hardest scenarios to stay sane in. Hope you like this one. It's called 'It wrote itself, really.'

Keith’s life was not all it was cracked up to be right now. Three days ago he’d been working in Development at a product centre. Till this bottle business. They’d asked him to ship a thousand bottles of mineral water to the Pyramids for an ad campaign. He wasn’t really listening but it sounded urgent. He sent them overnight by courier. It cost a hundred grand. Next day there were a lot of internal calls and meetings. Colleagues peered at him over their partitions. Shut in her cube his boss scheduled a conversation in his calendar first thing next the morning.

Keith met his mates after work for a quick drink. Dutch courage and sympathy before an early night. Must be sharp for the meeting. ‘How did I know they should’ve been empty?’ he asked. ‘You can’t make a pyramid with empty bottles.’ Forget about it, they said. ‘It was a shit job. All jobs are shit.’ Twelve hours later he was at an underground party in Perivale. He texted his line manager. Polite and to the point. ‘Completely fucked on pills again. I won’t be coming in today.’ It wrote itself really. There was a guy in events at the rave.He thought he’d got just the job for Keith Pooter.

So two days later after training Keith is working the meet-and-greet team at a honeytrap party off Leicester Square. It’s for an internet service provider. Velvet ropes on the pavement funnel anyone who can walk up the stairs of an ex-nightclub. Signs promise free food and booze and a celebrity lifestyle. At the top on a landing between two rooms, Keith and his colleagues rapidly assess the customer. They make critical decisions based on socioeconomic markers. Likely bigshots they send right, into the Investors Suite. Nobodies to the left. They’re given a stick-on badge and a token for a free shandy and a glamburger. Then they’re offered irresistible phone and broadband packages to mindbending music. It's rammed in there. They’ve sent down twice to stock for more badges. In six hours Keith has sent only one bigshot to Investment. He was fifty and wearing suede loafers, the man with the huge pale eyes and he walked like a pair of scissors. But maybe he was just a nutter because he was back on the landing again. The horde was starting to die down. Three a.m. The West End is partied out and queuing for the sleeptorium. ‘There’s a horrible man in there who keeps asking for money,’ said the stranger. Then proudly. ‘I don’t have any money. I ought to go but do you mind if I stay out here with you?’ ‘Knock yourself out, mate,’ said Keith. Then he thought he should say something friendly. ‘Shit party in there then?’ said Keith.

‘Aren’t all parties these days?’ said the stranger. ‘When was the last good party you went to?’

‘Three nights ago. In Perivale. It was banging,’ said Keith instantly high again. ‘You?’

‘Almost thirty years ago,’ said the stranger. ‘It was –‘ and for once he was lost for words. ‘Mad was it?’ said Keith. He loved hearing about mad parties. The stranger’s eyes glowed softly and he began:

‘Picture an Elizabethan house on a low hill in the early 90s of last century. Picture us driving there six to the back seat in fast cars to the smartest party of the Season.

Rufina Countess of Desquetop

At Home

For Brenda Farthingale

‘Brenda’s 21st. Summer evening in the days of summer evenings. Cedar shadows run down the lawn to a lake. Randy twilight. In a marquee beside the house, strapless women with back-combed hair and collarless men in braces hammer the floor to Yazz and the Plastic Population. You can’t hear yourself think. Rufina wanted it that way. ‘You’ll make sure the music is very loud won’t you Brenda?’ she’d said. ‘I’ll turn it up to eleven,’ said Brenda. ‘Turn it up to thirty-five, darling,’ said Rufina. ‘I want to know you’re enjoying yourselves. And you don’t want to be drowned out by us oldies.’ She met us in the hall downstairs. ‘Rufina Desquetop, how do you do? I’m the responsible adult!’ But she went up before dinner. She had her own party in the attics.’

Rufina Desquetop

Requests the Pleasure of your Company

For An Evening of Sex, Food & Violence

A picture in his head of an exploded mansion. And the smell something of something odd like sulphur. ‘Mental. I remember it,’ said Keith Pooter.

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Hello, Mr Kureishi! Here's my submission.

The ballroom

He felt out of place. An old, decaying man surrounded by a crowd of ecstatic children, dancing frantically pressed against each other. It almost felt like a farce. He shouldn't be there, staining this place of careless celebration with the weight of his years. He was superfluous, awkwardly sitting in a corner of the bright room like a disembodied puppet. He could have left right after the wedding ceremony ended — he definitely should have — but an inexplicable feeling drew him to the party. Maybe it was the laughter he heard from the ballroom that held him back.

Furtively walking in, he couldn't help but feel immense sorrow weighing him down, and had to stumble to the nearest couch, afraid that he would collapse. His laborious breath and sluggish movements made him feel like an obscure monster among delicate faes, stranger to their lightness and bright. He was old, too old to dance the way they did. The shackles that retained his mind and his body, creeping out of the depths of his own self ever since he left the dawn of his life, tied him tightly to the ground — closer to the earth and closer to death; far away from the spring, far away from the wonder. These glory days now laid silent under the dust of the years. He watched over the party, curled up in the shadows. He could almost feel tears swelling his eyes.

A pleasant shout interrupted his mourning. Startled, he looked up to find himself face to face with a young girl, not older than fourteen. She wasn't particularly pretty nor well-dressed, moved too quickly and had chocolate stains on her sleeves, but in her eyes, in her entire being, the old man was able to see the light that used to shine over his early days. You could picture yourself holding this flame-like energy into your hands, the way you would with a precious jewel or a tiny bird. The old man's could almost hear resonate in her witty gaze the laughter and sobs and screams of the child he used to be — all of this whirlwind of emotions both devastating and edifying since he was now painfully aware that in youth there is the possibility of future: while it lasted, it made every moment short-lived yet eternal, because the concept of tomorrow was always there, somewhere, for the beholders of this light.

The kid smiled at him, and he smiled back.

And as the girl took his hand into hers he felt immense joy wash over his soul. Swaying along with the music, he felt it again. For a split second he grew back into the seemingly everlasting happiness that used to overflow his former self, feeling as light and free as a bird roaming the skies, headed to unknown yet welcoming horizons. His slow steps, her clumsy hops, their smiles and dazzling eyes…

Yes, in that moment suspended between two breaths, he was young again.

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I was running, and the only important thing was running. The heart in the mouth, the feet fast, and like the echo of words that had remained at home, in the bundle that shaped myself, under the covers.

Good night, see you tomorrow. We'll wake you up for the trip.

Meanwhile I ran and trees, roads, stone houses, stars and outlines of peaks slid alongside me, the sidewalk flew under my feet, the ladders and a desire to shout in the night, as loud as possible: yes, I did it , I am out!

And who cares about the trip tomorrow, about the creaking of the window that I also put olive oil in, about the footsteps capable of not creaking, about the fear that rumbles in the ears, swallowed up by the last strides, downhill, with the desire, always to let yourself fall.

It's only by slowing down, to dominate the breath, to cloud the sparkle in the eyes, to look like someone who had gone out for a moment to smoke a cigarette, that some doubts creep in.

What if they wake up? What if I get caught? What if I have to stay indoors for a month?

Stuff like that comes to my mind: adolescent doubts, as I rub on lip gloss ringing that bell

When the heavy wooden door opens, the smell and the music and the face of the guy at the door make me feel out of place for a moment. They look at me as if I'm asking for sugar.

I show the stamp on my hand and step straight, reflected in the mirror at the entrance, sucked in by faces and looks, looking for him. Other eyes, hands and hair embrace me: welcome back! You did it! Where were you?

-Did you run out of the window again? It's his voice, drawling... Bob Dylan's must be like that, I think.

It's his three-quarter face popping out of a bottle of beer, he hands it to me, and I'm sure his eyes are silver.

I don't know if I answer him, if I drink, or if I swim in his gaze, while we dance, facing each other, in the middle of that hole in the room, with everyone else around, until five in the morning.

And then here we are: two of us on a motorbike, drunk, with the streetlights going out.

A kiss with the teeth, another better, while the sky clears and the contours mix.

I don't remember exactly, because I was fifteen, or sixteen, or so.

I don't remember but, if I went back, I would do it again.

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