You will be dick

by Miranda

Inspired by Bee Wilson's good, good Radio 4 series: Sweetness and Desire: A Short History of Sugar

‘You’ll be ‘dick’ like your mother,’ my father-in law told me over lunch. He is German. Dick translates as fat.  What he meant though was: ‘You are dick.’ Maybe I had unwittingly exposed myself, by accepting his offer of pudding. 

Mother was dead when he made this observation.  She was also fat.  Lovelorn she was only able to rely on a chocolate and caramel surrogate. Until Motor Neuron Disease made it impossible to swallow.  But my father-in-law has never acknowledged her dying, and has no idea how it went. Motor Neuron Disease robs you of everything, even chocolate.

Mum fell by hours and days and weeks from millionaire shortbread and Diet Coke down through blueing bread to gavage.  Soon we had to pump protein packs directly by tube into her stomach.  They smelt of school dinners, of hospital trays, of wrong.  From the first day that sticky plastic syringe was put to use, there was a yeasty heaviness that hung about her, the house, my hands. 


Each time we loaded her lunch I wondered whether she had been able to mark the last time she tasted love.  Whether she had enjoyed the soft sweetness, or if that final square of Dairy Milk had been rushed, undone, unenjoyed, forever laced with the sourness of guilt.

Dick guilt. 

ALS, as this neurodegenerative disorder is called in the US, progresses rapidly.  It is fatal.  Nerve cells deteriorate, and along with cell death the ability to regulate muscle.  Yet scientists writing in the Lancet have found that what makes MND blaze slower through a body is a high calorie, high carbohydrate diet.  A millionaire shortbread affair.

Mum first lost control of her mouth - the elocuted sound of her gave into slur. Without the ability to chew and to swallow she lost all motivation to eat.  Loss of weight, both muscle and fat, is common as this disease progresses.  Obese patients, research has found, live longer.  Yet she did not.  Because what had kept her from stepping over the edge into rampant obesity was guilt. 

Guilt killed her months earlier than necessary.  Nerve loss ran down her neck, killing first the swallow, and then, within a year, the breath.

Although my father-in-law uses health as his excuse I have always suspected that what motivates him, when he judges others, is Selbstachtung.  Self respect.  Fat is a letting go, a miserable lovesickness that we should not force into the face of others.  

For me there were only two possible responses: to eat or to starve.  So I went with the latter.  Because much more essential than living or loving, is winning.  Though there is some irony in knowing that if I ever start slurring, the choice to eat would possibly save me months.

The conversation was over as quickly as it began

by Lara Holden

Lara is writing her first novel.  A romance.

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The temperature was unusual for the time of year, the midday sun still blanketed them with warmth despite October fast approaching.

The four of them sat, perfectly content in a small alcove between the evergreen trees.

There was a radiant breeze which smelt delicately of ferns, damp earth and the embers of the disposable bbq which was cracking as it died a few metres away.

To him it was summer, home. 

There was something in the air that day.  It felt as though anything could happen.

It was comfortable, serene and yet held a mystery and wildness none of them could fully explain.

They spent the afternoon in this hazy spot playing innumerable rounds of bullshit and drinking copious amounts of beer.  They laughed endlessly at Callum who had been showing off his new guitar skills, serenading them with rendition after rendition of ‘fairy tale lullaby’ which was, as far as they could tell, the only song he had mastered.

They spent hours mulling over those big life questions, the questions that teenagers often ponder while drunk on Sunday afternoons.

‘I don’t reckon I’ll live past 25 you know. Destined to die young,’ Alfie blurted out in a matter of fact kind of way as the penultimate game of bullshit came to a close.

‘How many of those have you had,’ said Harry, glancing, as he spoke, at the mounting pile of cans at his feet.

‘Ha’ Alfie chortled. ‘Good question, I’m serious though, always known it’

‘You’re mad Alf, don’t be so depressing,' interrupted Sophie, 'I’ll be needing you to stick around until I’m at least 83 and a half.' i

‘Yeah man, 25 is when all the fun really begins, Ill deal,’ said Harry already shuffling the deck.

The conversation was over as quickly as it began.

He thought back to that moment as he walked calmly along the Bridge, four years to the day since that afternoon.

It felt to him a life time ago and yet every moment of the day still played vividly through his memories.

His heart was beating faster than it ever had done. It was an odd sensation as his mind was so still. He could hear every pulse of the muscle in his head as though his heart was trying to remind his brain that it was still here, still alive, to recognise the life left to lead.

It didn’t matter anymore.

He reached the centre of the bridge and looked over absentmindedly at the city below. It seemed so small and insignificant from this height.

He climbed over the thick steel bars and balanced momentarily on the surface. He pressed play on his iPod and turned up the volume to drown out the wind.

All he could hear from that point forward was ‘fairy tale lullaby’.

Then he leant forward and was gone.

Perhaps painted green

By Laura Manzur

Laura was reminded of her earlier love of writing when she started to co write songs with her daughter.  She is currently working on a short story, and also her book of poetry, inspired by family.

Mike Petrucci from Unsplash

Mike Petrucci from Unsplash

I think it was a corrugated iron building, perhaps painted green.  It sat on the corner of our street.  Inside was one vast room.  The ceiling seemed tremendously high, and it smelled of polished floorboards. I do not remember the other children, just the noise of playing, so many voices that I couldn't pick out just one.  I recall the wooden painting easels, with big black surfaces.  There were little troughs at the bottom for our paint pots, and big rusty bulldog clips at the top.  I could not reach the apex even when I stretched up high on my tiptoes. I could not reach those bulldog clips.  I believe I enjoyed painting. Dutifully covered with a plastic apron, to avoid thick paint splodging a contradicting pattern to my 70's dress.  A homemade dress my Nan had sewn me.  It was a time before I  knew my picture should be recognisable, when colours were haphazardly splashed across clean white paper.  I can still smell the paint, and the feel of it drying on my fingers, and that pure enchantment at the freedom it offered.

There were little chairs.  We placed them in a circle just before home time, and Mrs Humphry read us a story. I see her dark hair, slightly frizzy, and kind face.  She felt safe.  We had to put the chairs to the sides of the hall at the end.  My grandmother collected me, and even though the story was unfinished, I calmly put my chair to the side, waved goodbye, took her hand, and together we strolled home.

My Nan smelled of face powder, hairspray and cigarettes combined.  She sat chatting, cigarette in hand, with the ash growing longer and longer, seemingly unaware.  I watched that ash, unblinking, convinced it would fall and set the carpet alight, but always at the last moment, with a sharp flick of the wrist, she would tap it onto the awaiting ashtray.  Years later there were dark x-rays.  I can still hear the rattle as she struggled to breathe.

Caught: heavier in the hand, a little lighter in the memory

by Sophie

Sophie is an English teacher living in Cambridge. She is currently working on finding the time and a good enough idea to start writing. Here she is at two with her paternal grandfather asleep on the sofa having finished reading a story, and on a different sofa with her maternal grandfather, again caught unawares.

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The camera catches you when you’re not looking. The captor stalks, approaches quickly, quietly; one disturbance and they’ll startle, wake. A still, silent second passes. She squeezes the trigger and departs, leaving the scene exactly as she found it. She knows this is a rare find, the kind of moment that feels rich with retrospect and posterity even before it is developed.

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Months pass. She can’t believe her luck; to see the same creature, the same familiar and obsequious repose, in a completely separate location under the silent guard of another, seems almost immodestly fortunate. Nevertheless, she knows better than to pass up this opportunity. She knows a gift when she sees one.

Years pass. Birthdays, tantrums, health scares and oh my goodness haven’t you grown appear, disappear, reappear. Periodically we return to the pictures, a welcome still point in an ever-accelerating calendar. They’re striking for both their similarities and their differences, in the way incarnations of love always are. One upright and protective, the other laid-back and companionable. One traditional, the other parodic. But, above all else, what stands out is an unspoken, kindred instinct. Written on each face is an inalienable purpose, to care and be cared for.

Time takes a toll of course; only two of the three original subjects remain. Inevitably, one photograph now feels a little heavier in the hand, a little lighter in the memory. We study it more frequently, ask it more questions. It speaks both less and more.

The pictures still hang, proud trophies of an endangered species.

We Are Being Scammed - Part 2

by Miranda

Twenty months after that first letter from the Finders our family has all been found, a family scattered and fragmented in a tree that stretches horizontally over ten pages.  We are strewn across the Antipodes, North America and Europe, and amongst our number is a policewoman, an engineer, a farmer, a homeless free thinker and a conspiracy theorist.  Many of us believe we're being scammed.

Eileen, the probate genealogist tell us, has nine living first cousins, and seven dead ones.  Then in the next layer down - my layer - there are thirty-one living beneficiaries, two dead, and four ‘adopted out’ (a term used by the courts which means exactly what it seems). 

We beneficiaries who were, gratefully, not given up for adoption, receive a solicitor’s letter, which outlines how much our bequest might be.  At best I was expecting a muffin’s worth.  So when the news comes in I nearly fall off my chair.  It’s a holiday-of-a-life-time, a second hand BMW.  It’s why the ‘We’re being scammed’ mails have a note of hysteria.  There’s far, far too many of us for holidays and cars, AND there’s the solicitors fee, the finder’s fee, and a whopping 40% of tax.  Someone isn’t telling the truth.  Is anyone suggesting that Eileen mined gold?

The solicitors ask us to present a passport, a utility bill and a bank statement before funds can be released. It is this request that increases the unease.  Clearly we will have our identities stolen, and our bank accounts robbed.  But the itinerant free thinker, of no fixed address, is not listening.  First through the solicitor’s door, with nothing to lose, he presents himself for inspection.

It’s the ‘scruffiest London lawyer’s office’ he has ever seen he tells us: ‘mouldy, damp, items of clothing everywhere.’  And when he goes to relieve himself, he informs us that the whole ‘crew’ were just sitting round a table back stage eating fish and chips.   

There is panic.  The call goes out that someone needs to go in.  The itinerant cannot be trusted.  Clothes on the floor.  Fish and chips.  

I get on a train.  The conspiracy theorist imagines that since there are two locations for the solicitors online, the second address must be the scam. So I head directly to the first.  On Tooley Street it’s expensive.  Shard-proximity expensive, and directly opposite the office entrance is a huge suit shop, mannequined with an army of pricey solicitor uniforms. 

Inside, on the ground floor, there’s a security man at a desk.  I am given a badge.  Then told to go up to the second floor.

Everyone in the lift with me is suited, paunched, complaining, and getting off at floor two as well.  There I find the same logo as used on the letterhead, and behind an extremely posh reception desk, an under thirty receptionist, chosen for her presentation skills and her handling of flowers.  There is a large vase.  She looks baffled when I ask whether she is away with the faeries, and whether the letter I have received (I brandish it) is really, really from her firm.  

'Yes,' she shoos me back towards the lift, 'the office you need,’ she stabs the letter with a manicured finger, ‘is further south, on the Walworth Road.’

In the lift, on the way down, I ask the gentleman trapped alongside me what work it is that these solicitors do.  He lists words that I don’t understand: mergers, acquisitions, debentures, conveyancing, probate.  Clearly I must look bored, because he pauses, speculating on what it is that I might need:  'And of course we do marriage mediation too.'  

Two stops further down the Northern line, at Elephant & Castle, I find gentrification has not yet got the better of Walworth Road.  The sub-office looks like it was once a Jobseeker’s stall.  There is a stingy, narrow counter, and glassed off access to a receptionist, who I peer at through the smudgy window.  Screen open on a database the receptionist is stapled to a desk surrounded by mountains of cheap cardboard wallets in the kinds of colours you’d never want to give to a wall, a dress, or a shoe.

The woman is nested amongst the chaos, degrees older than her Tooley Street colleague, whose only irritation was me and the flowers.  When the glass screen opens there is a desk, a cheap table for overflow and more filing in piles across the floor.  When I announce that the family believes that she and her firm are a scam, the woman flumps into her cheap chair. 

She's sick of the sight of the Eileen Freeman paperwork, she tells me, and levers a blue folder from the overflow table, where it is balanced atop a bulging pile of three.  On the flap is written the deceased’s name in felt tip, the word ‘probate’ and a case code.  She shows me the wide, wide family tree and a list of people she has sent letters to, ticks and highlighter slashes marking the margin with a code.  

‘A relation on Eileen’s mother’s side,’ she tells me, ‘organised the funeral and informed us that she had died.  The pity of it is that his own brother was lost in the waiting.  Now it’s only himself left alive.’

While on her father’s side there is me, and a diabolical thirty-nine moaners.

I ask her if I can have his address to thank him. 

‘Did he know Eileen well?’

‘Not so much. They’d not seen one another in those last years. It’s what happens I suppose as the time drifts by.’

This is no scam.

Against the conspiracy theorist’s clear instructions I offer up my bank details.  I am informed that perhaps it would be cheaper if the office sends me a cheque.  

‘It's forty-two pounds for a bank transfer, and that could eat things up,’ she replaces the folder back on its pile. ‘Tell your relations to send in their identities.  Poor Eileen should be at rest,’ she gestures at the gaping blue files.  ‘It’s time we put her away.’ 



Back on the Northern line I think about the forty-two pounds for a bank transfer and it eating things up.  Perhaps, I wonder, it’s the beneficiary letter that’s the problem.  It has a typo.  A too-many-zeros type typo.  The sort of thing that happens amongst cardboard, discarded clothes and smudged glass.  Shall I warn everyone?  No, I tell myself.  I’ll just order them to post in their identities.  Because not one of them will risk being scammed for a muffin sized legacy.  Then poor Eileen would remain on that cluttered desk forever.

We Are Being Scammed - Part 1

by Miranda

We’re being scammed one cousin screams down an email from far, far away.  We are being scammed. 

It has been over two years since Finders, the international probate genealogist firm wrote.  They make money from hunting families for those who die isolated, and alone.  Intestate.  My protestant Scottish relations have too much money & too much anxiety about keeping a hold of it, that there is not a chance they would do something so daft.  But on the other side, for the Catholic Doyles life’s only preoccupation is survival.  As Eileen grew nearer death, her confidence thin, she perhaps believed that she had nothing to leave.  She was worthless.  Literally. 

But Eileen was not.  She was actually worth a great deal.

Not that we know that when the introductory letter from the genealogist comes in.  It writes that Eileen is a once removed cousin and I am the first of our ragged, unwieldly bunch to be found. I am delighted.  The letter lists only one of my brothers.  I wonder whether I should tell the firm about the other two.  Do they count? 

I consult a cousin and am told I need to be fair.  Guileless and gullible as a toddler I shower the genealogist with news of the eleven aunts and uncles that Eileen had, her possible seventeen cousins, and most importantly, because the seventeen are dying off like roses in August, I give them a full list of the next in line – me and a ghastly further forty-six.

The bleating about scams is understandable.  We are a family who have been scammed before, lied to by our parents, who have been lied to by theirs.  It’s bound to make us wary. 

It is months before anyone asks about poor Eileen.  About her life.

Here she is as a girl, standing beside Granny, my grinning Dad out to the far left.  Eileen wears the kind of dress that can terrorize a wearer.  Those white ankle socks too.  Those shoes.  All of them can get dirty, and not through any fault of our own.  This is not a family good at keeping the linen clean. 


It is one of the few photographs of Eileen that remain.  House clearance has undoubtedly done for everything else.  The rubble of her existence filched and trashed.   But before all that disaster we find her at a family wedding with her hands clasped.  There is still so much story ahead of her, and as she peeks over the edge of her bashfulness to camera, no-one can know how the rest of this narrative will go. 

Yet the family around her know just how things for Eileen have already gone. 

In 1939 her cousin Richard pitched up one afternoon at Glasgow Central.  He had travelled by charabanc, boat and train from Ireland, desperate.  He was thirteen.  His clear instructions were to save his little brothers and sisters from the children’s home and for that he had to find work.  The getting by, the surviving had begun. 

Eileen’s father, John, was a drinker, the kind of drinker that burned a temper.  Self employed, he worked from home, repairing vacuum cleaners, picking broken ones up at auctions, and selling them on.  Richard arrived just before New Year, and for a treat Uncle John took him to Celtic Park.  The boy remembers standing in mud, the snow falling down, miserable.  Not only was Britain at war, but Celtic lost, a loss drowned long and hard in the pub.  By the first week of January the boy had fallen sick. 

When the doctor called, he diagnosed Diphtheria.  In Glasgow diphtheria had broken out, with a mortality rate of over twenty per hundred thousand.  Lancet articles talk in terms of an epidemic.  Within a few days his Aunt fell to the infection too, so sick with it that she spent two months in hospital.  Then four year old Eileen succumbed.  The only person to escape the plague was baby John.  Richard still remembers that when Eileen came out of hospital her leg was in plaster, a deformity that would never be cured.  Then she started to lose her sight.  Richard paused in the telling: 

‘I still think about it you know.  Still think that it was me who brought that diphtheria into the house.’

Did Eileen limp I ask.  Those who met her and knew her once the family moved to London, can’t be sure.  What they can be sure of though is that when it came to Jesus she was devout.  They are also sure that she waited.  Waited till her mother’s death, before she felt able to marry herself.  Here she is, aged twenty-one, with her mother in Princes Street Gardens before the waiting was begun.


It would be another fifteen years before that wait was over.  Paddy waited too. Was it simply that Eileen’s mother did not like him.  God for sure did not like either of them.  Because within months of marriage, while at work inspecting a trench, it collapsed. Paddy was buried alive. 

Alone again, back in her mother’s house with her little brother, the childless Eileen mourned. Though she prayed each day, confessed freely to the priest, and took communion as regularly as she could, there was still more tragedy to come.  Baby John in his fifties, the one lucky enough to avoid Richard’s diphtheria, committed suicide three days before Christmas, leaving the now blinded Eileen all alone.  Together they had lived twenty five winters in the house where he died.  Where their mother died. A home that was cleared and sold, food for solicitors, for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, for Finders, and for us. 

‘The only scam is how these buggers hoover everything up,’ another cousin tells me.  ‘The worst of it is that each one of those scam-accusing-phone-calls the family makes,’ and he’s right, there have been a few, ‘earns them more.’


by Dan Crego

Dan has started, and occasionally finished short stories for a while now. This time it’s serious.
“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”
― Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys

My father sits in his chair and carefully slices the apple into about six or eight pieces. He puts down the knife, one of a silver-plated set that was our “best”. It lies next to the apple slices on the plate, balanced on the right arm of the armchair. The room is quiet, the TV is turned off, dormant behind the heavy doors of its cabinet.

I close my eyes, and I can see him, his right hand holding the knife between thumb and forefinger, poised over the plate; his cheek slightly bulging from the last slice he has placed in his mouth. But I can’t see the room clearly. Sometimes, it is the living room in the small flat over the hairdresser’s shop that my mother owned. We lived there until I was eleven years old. Sometimes it isn’t.

I close my eyes again, and Dad is no longer in the flat over the hairdresser’s, faint smell of peroxide, hairdryer and stale beer (a shampoo for ‘body’) rising through the floorboards, but in our 1930s semi a mile further west and a couple of small notches up the social scale. It is a classic inter-war semi-detached house, with the two reception rooms ‘knocked through’, and a small ‘sun lounge’ or conservatory added onto the kitchen, overlooking the garden. Dad looks relaxed (not a frequent state of mind for him), he is happy and concentrating. Our dog, Sandy sits by the chair, pushing her nose against his arm and wrist, ingratiating herself. Dad looks at her, raises a forefinger, says ‘wait’ and then gives her a slice of apple which she gobbles down. The room, is divided into ‘lounge’ and ‘dining’ areas, the patterned carpet imprinted by the weight of the heavy reproduction furniture and the Ferguson Radiogram at one end of the room. A menorah on the sideboard waits patiently for Hanukah; Sabbath candlesticks take pride of place on the centre of an oval silver-plated tray. All are watched over by Tretchikoff’s Green Lady, her face reflecting love, acceptance and detachment.

On Friday nights, my sister and I wait eagerly. Dad brings us our comics – not available locally until the following morning, but Dad through some mysterious alchemy connected with his working ‘in town’ can source them twelve hours ahead of the rest of the Universe. He stands there in the hall, wearing his overcoat and carrying his homburg hat, filling the hall with his presence, with his male-ness, with the romance and allure of having just journeyed from the centre of the city. He was in no hurry to remove his overcoat, to hang up his hat; he was content simply to watch his children, marvel at his family, imbibe that precious commodity, his home life. I didn’t understand it then, but I understand him better now.

Was he the quintessential 1950s Dad – “Hi Honey, I’m home”? Not really. But it wasn’t co-parenting either. My parents’ roles, particularly my father’s, seem like an English, suburban north-west London version of the American dream - a scaled-down version. Our Ford Consul had chrome and even fins (sort of), everything reduced proportionately to meet the aspirations of a Britain not long out of rationing and austerity.

Almost thirty years later, I am sitting in a quiet room in the basement of a hospital, next to my father. He died a few minutes ago. I look at my father and see the familiar features, even his expression. But everything now is different. His soul has departed; I am alone in the room. How can this be?

I look at my father and imagine him eating the apple. But imagining is not living. Here, in this world which we did not imagine, but has to live in, soon it will be time for my tears. Soon it will be time for me to make the arrangements for the funeral; time to make the phone call to Israel and to cope with the grief at the other end of the phone; time for me to walk with my wife behind the coffin under the bright blue winter sky, listening to a beautiful voice singing Hebrew songs behind us; it will be time to say goodbye. Soon the grief will seem unsupportable.

But now is not yet that time. I sit in the chair in the quiet room from which my father’s soul has departed. The mystery of life and death is here. I imagine the apple, I imagine my father alive, content, in his own home with his family. The Green Lady bestows her benediction; Sandy the dog looks up at her master; the clock ticks; a shout from the alley behind (this, according to Joyce is God); distant rumble of a goods train on the west coast main line. All is still there, as I sit in the hospital basement room: in his noble philosopher’s face, the high forehead, the acquiline nose, receding hairline, long-ish grey hair. I remember the apple. I remember my father.

The Chicken and the Sofa

By Vix Ford

Vix thinks about writing a lot but rarely puts pencil to paper.  Her mannequin blog is available to read here.

I was born out of a lie. My mother stood at the altar,  looking across at my father, bloodied bits of toilet paper stuck to his shaving cuts, with the knowledge that for his nuptials his own mother had shaved his face that morning, and she ignored her rising disquiet. Indeed I come from a family built on lies and truths, like most of us. The lies seem quiet, discovered in dark corners where few people look. They rarely get mentioned in anything but hushed tones. The truths are much more brazen. They are spat and spluttered, quickly and sharp, like knives. They hurt more somehow.

There are lies that are big, there are lies that are painful but the lie that stands out for me, from my own upbringing at least, is not terrible, not life-ending, not based on years of deceit. It was the time I was suspicious of the meat on my plate. I questioned my Mum. ‘It’s just chicken’ she told me ‘Eat it up’. I did. It was tender, tasty and my plate was left clean. I don’t remember how the lie was discovered but it was-the truth was out. It was not chicken. It was rabbit-the same soft, warm, sniffing rabbit I had petted a week previous when visiting my Mums friends who were rabbit breeders. I was heartbroken. My choice had been taken away.

Being truthful in a calm and clear way became more important to me when my own motherhood began. I became acutely aware of the everyday lies we tell our young, to extend their already vivid and colourful imaginations, to smooth over the harsh cracks of life, to get them to eat their peas. None of it sat well with me and I decided to lie as little as possible. I never mentioned Father Christmas. I never said Granny’s pony had gone to fly in the sky on a long holiday (although Granny did). I never told them that greens would put hairs on their chest.

However, in the end I did lie to my children. For all of their lives we had sat, snoozed, laughed, cried and had photographs taken on a giant red L-shaped sofa. It was huge. Great for making castles out of, it cut the open-plan room in half, and was subjected to much jumping, accidental baby wees, spilt teas and crumbs. It provided a comfortable place for years of breastfeeding, reading and cuddles, and it was very much loved by us all. When the father of my children and I finally went our separate ways I found myself desperate to create my own new look, my own way, my own style. I began to hate the sofa for reminding me constantly of that which was now broken. I wanted to get rid of it. But it seemed cruel for them to lose their beloved sofa on top of their Dad moving out, so I lied. I told them it was flea-ridden (we had a flea-troubled cat at the time). They cried. They made me save the corner piece. They asked me to make them capes out of the covers. They drew all over the back in marker pen and we all posed, intentionally, like a pretend happy family before it got carried away to the dump.

I have always known that when my children find this lie out, they will struggle with it. I have been conscious of it every now and again, particularly when they moan about my new sofas. It has been 7 years now but they still miss it. Tonight I have told them. One of them cried and the other questioned what else was not true.



by Dan Crego

Dan has started, and occasionally finished short stories for a while now. This time it’s serious.
“Writers, unlike most people, tell their best lies when they are alone.”
― Michael Chabon, Wonder Boys

The photo is black and white, 3 inches by 3 inches, instantly redolent of the Box Brownie camera, picnic lunches, Ambre Solaire suntan lotion, our Ford Consul on whose back ledge, behind the sometimes quarrelling heads of my sister and me, our dog Sandy would sleep contentedly on the long drive back from Brighton, Worthing or Bognor Regis, as we slowly made our way through the endless, mysterious and definitively Gentile south London suburbs, over Hammersmith Bridge, back to the familiar tree-lined semi-detached avenues of North-West London, and finally down the unpretentious self-respecting High Street, with its Odeon cinema, its greengrocers, bakers and butchers, its solid and protective every-day-ness and welcoming banality. Home.

My Dad stands in the centre of the photo, my sister is to his right looking imp-ish and summery, although her right hand is nervously raised, slightly hiding her face, the first hints perhaps of the adolescent storms to come that will tear across our family, rattling windows and up-rooting trees, leaving behind the acrid post-storm smell of ozone, lingering traces of which remain with us and between us today. I am sitting on a ledge to the left of Dad, my spindly limbs on display, angular and alarming enough to have prompted Mum to take me aged five to our family doctor. Dr Cohen, a fleshily substantial and stethoscope-wreathed pillar of our community, living embodiment of all our upwardly mobile ambitions, imperiously waved away her concerns. Fat, thin, or in-between, we were all on the Up. That is what mattered. I was on the studious path, even then Oxbridge and the professions could be glimpsed, through a glass, darkly. Others were on the business track, begging space on market stalls to sell t-shirts and teddy bears, working the angles and the arbitrage and disdaining my path of geekiness as I disdained their worldiness. We were all of us learning, learning, learning.

In this photo, as in many others from that time, I seem to combine equal measures of joy and anxiety into one facial expression, a feat which you may think is either a trick of the camera’s deception or witness to a precocious sophisticated sensibility on my part, a Kierkegaardian appreciation, at age seven, of the angst at the heart of life’s existential struggle.

In truth, it was neither; in truth, it was just the way I was. In truth...But then, how much truth do you actually want?

No-one will find me out

By Miranda

My family are not readers. Inherited wealth often leads to a good deal of inbreeding, or as my husband puts it ‘lack of hybrid vigour’.  Horse & Hound is about the best that they can manage. They will never realise, I tell myself, that I’ve written about them at all.  

That was before I’d wound up on Radio 4 and the broadsheet newspapers.  Then news travels fast.  Especially when it’s bad.

But gratefully there are others in the audience when Auntie C- turns up.  Her hair is a tepid yellow, set like concrete, and her mouth curling down as it always did.  Not the sad face of upside down happiness, but the lip edges dragged disagreeably, permanently south. 

She’s in her tweedy uniform though the sun is shining outside, and she’s driven a whole hour and a half to get here, to this small and beautiful bookshop, hidden down a side street in Stockbridge.  It is clear she is on a mission.  My stomach twists over what that mission could possibly be.  To bully I am guessing, because she has bullied me before.

C- married the legitimate member of the family.  He inherited everything.  I’m not sure then why she is here to bark.  I have not even mentioned her in the Untruths, though I could have.  But it was a lie that I felt too worried to include.  One where she is shouting at Mum's graveside and we’re all having to pretend that she is not. 

So now we have to drag through a ghastly repeat at this sweet, sweet bookshop, Golden Hare, in Edinburgh.  Less a shout than a barbed heckle, which is never loud enough to eject or to yell down. 

Proof that I am not lying, I tell myself.  Look, my family really are bonkers, diabolical. I have not exaggerated them at all. 

I need the loo

by Miranda

It’s 7.51 on a Monday morning. 

Already I’ve been awake four hours groping around for erudite things I might say on Start the Week if asked.  Since we’re supposed to be talking about selves I’m thinking of Robert le Page’s ever changing shirts.

The only self-shirt I have in this empty hotel cupboard is threadbare.  It reads simply: ‘Someone’s going to find me out.’

I manhandle the ironing board over to the window with its view of Broadcasting House.  I wonder if the BBC is the reason why this is the first hotel room I’ve ever stayed in to house an iron.  

An iron, but no wifi. I am bonkers with myself, and without distraction the bonkers is worsening each second that ticks past.

It’s 7.59 and I begin to iron.

It’s 8.27 when I find the first guest in the foyer and am all over him like a dog.  Does he know how much I loved his show?  Does he?  Smelling panic the man keeps well back.

Green Room reached the second guest arrives, in red dress, looking as marvellous as she always did.  Gratefully she has no idea who I am.  My once being her student seems to have passed her by.

Then the presenter, more stroke struck than expected makes his way up the corridor.  As he enters his mouth clenches against our shock. Then his eyes find mine.  He says something about his childhood, which I am too panicked to catch, a swallowed sentence, no detail and no allusion.  This grown man has read me I realise, and his empathy reaches out. 

Finally the fourth guest strides in.  He is complaining that Hay Festival is a bloody nightmare to get to, motoring for hours across grass, whole weekend shot.

It’s 8.49.

A smiley female producer arrives.  Two million listeners she announces, and please on air DO NOT to be nice about anyone else’s book.  Irritates the listeners no end.

I need the loo. 

In the cubicle, pants down, there is no relief.  None.  I don’t want to pee, I realise but flee.  Ironed, or not, the found-out-shirt is fitting.  I will get utterly found out.  This is a live show.

A picture can tell a thousand lies

By Nykhil Emanuel-Stanford

Nykhil is a productive procrastinator. Editor by day, inspiring writer and wine connoisseur in her dreams. She'll be documenting her (real) life and travels shortly, stay tuned...

I have a great smile. I think it’s one of my best features. And my laugh, even better. It warms you, it’s inclusive, it “validates the joke”, as someone once told me. If there’s a camera on me I can’t help but show teeth.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But are any of them the truth? A photo is just a moment in time: a brief snapshot of a wider reality and the events surrounding it. But problematic because we spend the rest of the time trying to either re-enact or fill that space.

This so-called adult life often feels like a party that everyone rsvp’d to about five years ago, and I’ve only just found my invite. I’ve had to rush around to find an outfit and a gift, and now I’m late! All the good nibbles are gone and the prosecco has started to go warm and flat.

In this haze of confusion I often look through my old photographs. For every detail that the memory triggers, another is lost, and my emotions manifest themselves in the strangest of ways. Past doubts seem irrelevant, and what I was once so sure of is suddenly concerning.

Was I really happy then? Did I do or say the right things? Was he the love of my life? (He definitely wasn’t). Those are just some of the small things I obsess over.

I’ve realised recently that the biggest lie that I’ve told for years was to myself;  That I was confident in my choices and living my best life by aiming for the same as everyone else. What I am is a confident performer and that’s a very different thing.

I’m getting closer to myself these days. But she’s changed a lot from the person I thought she was and wanted to be. Life is hard. Pretending to be a fully functioning adult is even harder.

They say that laughter is the best medicine. And the laugh of my thirties is going to be more honest. More bold. More true.


By Noemi Olah

Noemi is a strategic marketer and a passionate campaigner, who, after years of fighting for a more humane society, now made peace with her creative self by writing fiction.

In general I like this photograph. It represents a happy phase in our lives. However, this set up, with me and my brother hugged by our father would be unimaginable today. And not because we do not see each other anymore. I and my father have had our fights and even though our relationship now is as peaceful as the Lake Balaton behind us on this picture, it would be simply impossible to take a similar one now. A tiny harbinger on this photograph already signals today’s – arguably – inevitable situation.

My mother took this picture with our old camera and said “smile” before she pushed the little red button. My father hastened her to push it because the sun were blinding us. I remember wanting it to be over, but not because of the sun but because I was thirsty. That’s why I am holding a bottle of Theodora Quelle sparkling water. That was my favourite, but only because my mother liked it and I thought drinking sparkling water was adult-like.

And even though I was eleven, I thought I was mature, because the school year began the week after and I would start it in a new school. I was excited to see my new classmates and was wondering whether they had spent their holidays abroad. But even if they did, I knew I would not exchange mine for theirs.

I loved the Lake Balaton. I loved the sound of the calm waves, loved its sweet taste and its smell mixed with sun oil and Lángos. I loved to play with my brother in the water and remind him that I could swim better. I hated when my father sent us outside claiming that our mouths were already blue.

But when you’re eleven, you listen to your parents and don’t talk back. I couldn’t even tell my father when posing for this picture that his arm was heavy and he shouldn’t have pulled us closer with that almost unnoticeable force. I listened to my mother instead and smiled.

But I would not remain so silent for long…

A Lie in a Jiffy Bag

By Chloe Shaw

After many years working as a marketing copywriter, Chloe now enjoys the freedom and creativity of writing short stories and flash fiction.

The untruth arrives one September morning in a padded envelope and sits composting in the pigeon hole at my hall of residence until mid-afternoon. I’ve no idea what’s inside but delay opening it till I find some breakfast.

As I’m eating, I wonder what the package contains and who has sent it. My sense of anticipation increases until, swallowing the final chunk of sausage, I rip the package open.

First the note – “How dare you!” I reach further inside the envelope and pull out a wilted plant. It’s a common sort of plant and holds no significance. I don’t recognise the handwriting and I find no clues from the post mark. I’m baffled.

Later, back at my room, ‘Anna, Anna, there’s a call for you’. I run to the communal phone and listen to a man telling me in low rushed tones that his wife will be ringing me shortly. I ask who he is. ‘David’ he says and hangs up.

David? The David I worked with over the summer holidays? The quiet, conscientious man who sat at the desk next to mine in the admissions office, processing grant applications? Why would he be ringing?

A minute or so after replacing the handset the phone rings again. This time a woman. She doesn’t introduce herself and I listen to a stream of accusations. There’s mention of a plant and a letter. She tells me David’s bags are packed and he’s waiting by the door.

I don’t get the chance to respond. I want to say ‘Are you joking? I just wrote to thank him for the leaving card and present. Your husband is just someone I sat next to in an office’. But for the second time someone hangs up on me before I can speak and the sound of the handset slamming down rings in my ear.

Then I remember the jiffy bag. Of course, my office plant! That peace lily sat on my desk that whole summer. I left it behind without a thought. Had it taken on greater meaning since?

A lie.

Just off the edge of the remembered

by Amanda Jones

Amanda is working on two works of fiction - one a collection of short stories and another longer work that blends historical research and contemporary writing.

I remember the day began with an early start, so we would arrive in time to watch the Spanish fishing boats unloading their night’s catch onto the curved expanse of smooth round black pebbles of the beach. The women gutting the fish without pausing their rapid conversations. Out of sight, in another picture perhaps, nets are mended, bartering continues and news is exchanged but here we are, captured in the aspic of the camera’s eye.


At five, this was new to my little brother. His face glows with delight. He crows quietly with pleasure. One of the older fishermen, with brown, wrinkled hands cracked and marked by age and grime, had presented Jon with some tiny fish. In the picture, he holds one, suspended delicately between his fingers, while I watch with joy at his pleasure.

The tenderness of our parents frame the picture, Father’s camera lens shapes our image while our mother stands back, relaxed, pleased to observe our unity. We form a tender group, ignored by the bustle of the fishermen and women around us. We have abandoned the villa and my father’s parents for a morning together.

Forty years later, gem-like memories persist. A long drive up a mountain to visit a live spring in a cave, where we collected drinking water and smelt the cool mossy blackness behind the waterfall. The fish market, the plastic covered stool at the metallic bar where we shared a plate of fresh grilled sàrdinas, swimming and trips to exotic (for the 1970s) restaurants with live flamenco dancing.

The villa, with a curved pool whose glittering surface called to us from outside the shutters of our darkened bedrooms.

Here and there are occlusions, ripples of dissonant adult emotions. The darker shades of our grandmother’s erratic moods appear here and there, like a series of tiny unrecognizable insects, suspended in the amber of our childhood. Tears and recriminations appear just off the edge of the remembered, causing a faint distortion. Those were happy days.

The Last Photograph in the Album

By Garry Pope

Garry Pope writes film reviews for Take One, an independent magazine and website, and play reviews for Theatre Blog. He also writes book reviews for Great Shelford Village News. He read Creative Writing at M.A. and B.A. levels. He has written novels, novellas, short stories, plays and film scripts: all successfully unpublished! He is currently working on a novella about a theatre producer attempting to put on one last play before he dies.

23rd July 1989, Gatwick Airport. Left is my father, younger brother George, older brother Matthew and my mother. Our first family holiday, but only my father and George travel, as holidays are expensive, and it’s George’s birthday.


Thirty years later, weeks after my father’s funeral, only I attend his one bedroom bungalow and remove his belongings. Flicking through his family photograph albums, this is the last picture he saved.

They flew to Orlando. On their second day, in Disneyland, my brother George disappeared. My father, alone, other than Orlando’s police force, spent the following twelve days searching. He extended his stay for another week, at an astronomical cost. But returned home without George.

Matthew, then seventeen, soon joined the army and had little to do with us.

My mother, a whirlwind of love and anger, blamed my father. When my aunts arrived on Sundays with wine bottles, my mother always slurred, “John lost George in America.”

My father wore a constant smile. When he returned, he never smiled again. He increased his work to evenings and weekends. We saw him only at meal times.

When I think of my father, on his own in Orlando, I choke, as if drowning, wondering what it must have been like for him.

Five years after the disappearance, I turned sixteen and my mother left. I lived with my father until university, and then I too never returned.

I tried keeping in touch, but Matthew stayed abroad; my father seemed pained when he saw me; and my mother, with only anger and not love, distanced herself. Now we don’t even send birthday cards.

Years later, in London, I entered a supermarket, and saw my mother. She must have been forty-five and looked exhausted. She pushed a shopping trolley with a young girl in the seat. My mother smiled at her daughter and her daughter laughed. I didn’t approach them.

Back home, holding my father’s photograph album, I turn to a blank page and slide in a new photograph. This is my future child. If our baby’s a boy, I’ll name him George.

WARNING: Public Health Warning.  This is all made up.  I loved, when reading, the ghastly sense that it was true. Sorry if you feel had, Miranda

First Prize

By Alan Martin

Alan is trying to get his computer to to be a great author. It's working. So far he's succeeded in creating software with writer's block.

All the truth of the world lies in stories. The truth though, does not offer itself up in numbers, tables and graphs. We must dress the truth. Give it a name; give it a beginning; give it an end. The best truths wear a lie just as the best lies have a kernel of truth. The best lies make us who we are.

I won first prize in the Road Safety category at the 1989 Malmesbury Carnival Procession.  You can see it pinned to the front of my cardboard box. 

I'm standing in Malmesbury School's playground. No doubt, the music was Black Lace, the only record needed at any family event in England from 1986 to 1992. I'm learning about the emptiness in victory. 

First, the story's truth. I entered the Road Safety category. I made the costume. I arrived on the day. I beat the competition. I got the prize. Here, the truth has given us its best side, smiling at the camera. This is the story of the picture sitting on a grandmother's shelf. The truth misses the point.

The first problem was I cared not one bit about 'road safety'. I'd tried to channel whatever it is into my costume. I decided it was sign posts. I copied pictures from a road atlas onto the front and back of the box. On the sides, I painted scenes of a busy town. At the last minute, I got worried that Malmesbury is a rural town so wrote 'Wild Horses Ahead' on the box as an appeal to the judges. The first lie is my motivation.

The second problem was that my mother was on the Carnival committee. She picked out this victory like you might a children’s holiday camp or a Christmas present. 'Road Safety' was an unloved category, no one had entered the previous year. As it turned out, someone else had heard the same story. The girl was a little older than me. Her costume was a sports kit, with cardboard road signs safety pinned onto a set of sweat bands. We discussed how both of us guessed this was to be an easy victory with no one else there. The second lie was the competition.

Third and last, I did win, but I think the look on my face is evidence that the victory rang hollow. In winning there was an emptiness. Competitions are games that end, like stories. If we want to win, we become the storyteller, we choose the scene and the characters and act it out. And when we've won, we stand for the camera. The third lie is that ending. At the end, there is just an end.

If you're going to live a story, a lie, then don't pick one with an ending.

Truth & Lies at the Photographer's Gallery

by Miranda

The Photographers' Gallery in London, as part of #ConspiracyWeek, is featuring UFO material: slides, handwritten index cards and photographs featuring sightings of UFOs. Apparently Earth governments are suppressing evidence that they are in touch with extra terrestrials. There were an photographs with very samey looking flying saucers and index cards which said things like: 'looked up and saw this object moving slowly overhead.  Having a camera in hand Joe got one shot before it speeded up and flew away.'

In the same week I went to a brilliant Darwin lecture by Professor David Runciman on our greatest conspiracy theorist Donald Trump. In a talk, titled Dealing with Extremism, Runciman, standing in for Theresa May, examined the relationship between harmless conspiracy theories, extremism and whether in this post-truth environment political extremists and conspiracy theorists are the same. The full lecture will soon be available here and more information on his research into conspiracy and its impact on democracy is found here.

Gratefully someone at the Photographers' Gallery contested Runciman's findings.  In fact Donald is just an alien.

It's Knackered Mate

By Lynn Keller

Lynn is writing a contemporary fairy tale where a tree takes its revenge.

I shouldn’t need to remember this view - I’ve seen it so many times before - a man in an overall with his legs emerging from the van. This one is Alan and he lives in Wales, though he’s originally from Bristol. I know this because we’ve met several times before. Whichever AA man the legs belong to,(Glen in Devon, Dave or Geoff in Cambridge, Rob in Oxford) they are always accompanied by a range of sounds. Some of them are verbal: the sharp intake of breath; the fake cough; the guttural exclamations that roughly translated mean, ‘Bloody hell, what a state!’, ‘’This’ll take some sorting’ or ‘Nah, it’s knackered mate!’ Then there’s the ‘tool versus van’ noises. The stubborn wrench against bolt, the hacksaw versus pipe gnawing,  soldering iron against engine and, my particular favourite, hammer versus starter motor. This was one such occasion! The only thing that makes this memory any different is the second set of legs - Markus getting a lesson on how to sort it if (when) it happens again. Apparently, hitting a starter motor with a hammer is a 2-man job; one to use the hammer and the other (me) to ‘pump the accelerator’. This designation of tasks is not as sexist as it seems but is, in fact, chest related, specifically mine. It seems my 38D’s don't fit under the van! Passers-by do the sympathy nod and smile before getting into their fully functioning cars and heading off happy. I smile back with only a hint of envy and a thought of how much we would get if we sold it on ebay. When the engine finally kicks is, that old familiar smell emerges. The mix of slightly burnt oil, escaping petrol and pitch all merging to invisibly thicken the air. Relief! No tow trucks, no missed adventure, no embarrassing blocking of roads, no blame for holdups on the A48 read out on the travel news. Not yet anyway. See you soon Alan.


by Jacqueline Mordue

Jackie will be travel writing and blogging from her overland trip between London and Australia.

Em Eileen Rose ambled down the main street, her parents flanking her on either side. It was a rare opportunity to spend a little time with them. On this occasion both her parents seemed more relaxed, even managing a smile every so often. Lunch at The George Hotel in Bromsgrove had been full of catching up on news as well as sampling some of the dishes from the hotel's menu. Em was looking forward to spending a little of her newly earned wages on a new dress. Her father wanted to call in at the ironmongers to purchase some inch long screws for the farm plough. After accidently dropping the china teapot on the flagged floor of the kitchen, Em’s mother sought a reasonably priced teapot from Harvey's General store. The day was sunny if a little cold and the family had until teatime to enjoy together before Em had to return to Stratford.