The Concealment

Deborah Major

Deborah was inspired to take up writing when trying to encourage her young children to read. She is currently working on two children's stories - The Drill Bus and Yolanda the Mermaid.

Bolstered by the easy victory of Mrs Rottenhagis, 9 Alpha went to war against another foe. A far more formidable adversary. One who had reduced many of their number to tears in earlier skirmishes. A teacher who had stuck her nails into the back of Jonny Craig’s neck and actually drawn blood.

Mrs Thomas was a slim woman who wore jackets with padded shoulders, which made her appear immensely tall. She taught her subject (geography) with an efficiency which would not have been out of place in the British Army. Sheet after sheet appeared on the over head projector to be hastily copied down by her beleaguered class. It was quite possibly the most boring lesson in the whole school. Maybe even the whole country.

Seated six around a table the most unfortunate children had to constantly crane their necks around to see the projector. One such child was Jonathon Mathews, who had arrived late with his bosom buddy Luke Alsop. Jonathon became fidgety with the arrangement and began to complain to his companion.

    “She ought to be sacked, I’m gonna get repetitive strain disorder.” Luke sniggered then began to cough as Mrs Thomas bore down on them.
    “I heard that Mathews.  Do you want detention to go with your lines for being late?”
    “Wasn’t me Miss,” said Jonathon, “it were Susan.” He said the first name that came into his head and Susan turned and scowled at him.
    “Do you think I was born yesterday?” screamed Mrs Thomas rather purple in the face.
    “Perhaps she was born today,” said Robert Mann but not quietly enough. With anger blazing in her eyes, Mrs Thomas swept over to Robert, picked him up by the lapels of his blazer and dashed him across the desk. He slid through all the books and pencils and landed in a heap on the floor. A pensive voice from the floor said,
    “You shouldn’t have done that Miss.  Now they will have to sack you.”
Mrs Thomas broke down and cried in front of the silent class.

9 Alpha had punished their next victim and even better, they could have her sacked. Strangely the whole class of thirty decided to conceal their victory. They never said a word.

Ten years on Mrs Thomas is still boring her students to tears.

 

Locked Together

Nicola Mann

Nicola’s main project currently is a blog about her son, Sawyer, who has Autistic Spectrum Disorder. The blog is a raw and honest account of how life changed when her son was born, addressing many issues (sensory problems, bullying, growing up with a neurotypical sister…) as they unfold in real life, as well as divulging fears and hopes for her son’s future. 

Nicola writes for fun, but mainly for misery. Some of her favourite short stories and poems have been born out her saddest times, which makes for some dark, gritty, sarcastic, and downright angry prose. With a lot of swearing. The Happy Sawyer blog is available here

 

The air was crisp with the cold, and the darkness swallowed us as we drifted home. Familiarity existed only in each other and in the silent whispers of the wind through the trees. We became part of the world that night - alone with the weather and the stars. The lights of the city threatened harder by the second as we made our way along our stretch - locked together as it should be. Our laughter, banter, playful flirtations and emotions filled the starlit sky. There was no moon that night. And one final, sweet kiss before darkness ushered me away from you once again. Away from you. And back to my husband.

Family Ties

by Jacqueline Mordue

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

  Jackie's grandmother was the only child of Heber, aged 26 at the time of this photo and Emily 46

Jackie's grandmother was the only child of Heber, aged 26 at the time of this photo and Emily 46

Em Eileen Rose sat as still as she could on the hard wooden footstool. The lace of her dress itched and scratched the back of her bare legs. Her brand new leather shoes felt stiff giving her feet little room to move freely. The bow in her newly brushed hair tugged, pulling against her scalp. She could feel the tension in the room as they all waited silently for the camera to take the photograph. Although young, Em Eileen Rose could also sense a deeper tension settling around the family. The gestures, the angry expressions, and muted suppressed conversations that passed continuously between her father and mother, made her feel on edge; nervous. She almost preferred the time she spent away from the family home with her Aunt and cousins. At least there was laughter then.

Film Making

by Sam Dean

Sam is a writer based in London and Cambridge.  She is currently writing a novel set in in modern day London, that shows us how events on the global stage impact the lives of normal people - with dramatic life changing consequences.
 
She has also written scripts for satirical short films and a comedy series for TV, ‘Random and Miscellaneous', that charts the hysterical dating dramas of a group of friends in an age when 'real romance' is based on texting.
 
Sam has two sons, and 'Film Making' is dedicated to her son Byron, an actor and film maker currently studyingfor a degree in creative media and performing arts.  His Media Production Company is called Fenland Tigers Media.  Byron is also a member of YAC and the show referred to in 'Film Making’ is a work they presented in the Edinburgh Festival Fringe Summer 2016, ‘Dr Who- Adventures in time and space’.

‘Would Byron mind filming the training presentation? We’ve been let down’, asks my colleague.

 ‘No, of course not – it will be good experience for him’ I find myself replying.

I’m not certain he actually will be interested at all, but I feel myself turning into the ‘pushy’ mother I despise, sensing an opportunity for experience and an entry on his CV. Something concrete to show for a long summer of ‘resting’.

When I get home that evening I ask my son if he is free on the day of the presentation.

‘Yes, why what do you want?’ He cuts to the chase, he senses a trap and a pre-arranged commitment.  ‘I’ve got Edinburgh Fringe to rehearse for remember!’.

‘Yes darling, I know that but this will give you another string to your bow won’t it? A Company training film– it would look really good on your CV..’

He looks at me, and through me. ’You’ve already said I will haven’t you?’ he states.

‘It would really help me if you could do it … it would be so tricky to tell the boss you can’t ..’.

He sighs and nods, resigned to his fate.

So, the following week I drag him out of bed at 6am, drive us 30 miles to work in North London, sign him in as a visitor. My workplace is now his studio.

Lights, camera, action… I hardly recognise him as he enters his world of filmmaking. Oblivious to the surroundings, the scene playing out before the camera lens is all he sees.  I watch him, his intense concentration and focus. He films, interviews, reviews and retakes, all with immense charm and style. 

The day rushes by as he edits, recuts, balances sound and vision… tirelessly to achieve his goal, and in the end its me who has had enough & says.. ‘Hey… Can we go home now?’

Fine

Tina had plans.  Big plans.  She took up an offer to do a ‘glamour’ shoot.  These were the kinds of men we were meeting.  The drug dealers, the addicts, and those at the scummy and amateur end of porn.  And because she was too scared to go alone, I traipsed along with her to an appointment one Saturday afternoon, at the wrong end of the Edgware Road.  The appointment was on the eighth floor of a tower block – a journey we made in a lift that was working, but with that familiar tang of piss. 

The man who let us in was medallioned with died yellow hair, and could have come straight out of Only Fools & Horses, had it not been for a worrying hardness around his eyes.  Inside, across each window hung dirty nets, a sallow, busy décor of competing patterns filling each wall and floor.

Tina had the eyes of a puppy and prowl of a cat, and when she was asked to accompany the man into another room, she sauntered off ahead of him, like any feline - sure footed and without hesitation.  I, as usual, grew desperate for a pee.

After a while another man ambled out of another room. He was younger, shaved, tattooed, his irritability washing up the corridor like a bad smell. He watched my breasts.  Then said finally:

‘You’re not interested yourself?’

I think I asked him if I could use his ‘loo’.

Later, back in the lift, I whispered:

‘So how did it go?’

She shrugged, fiddling her ring up and over the knuckle.

‘Yeah, it was fine.’ 

Boiling

By Anca Cojocaru

Anca likes traveling and experimenting with different cultures and languages. She loves reading books written by Japanese and Korean authors.

 I was thinking about it and I was impatient about what was going to happen. I was scared that I would do something wrong but I was so happy to do something so extraordinary. My mum and cousins were there as well. I could just hear what they were saying, but I wasn’t able to respond or to think much about their chatter. My mind was too busy. I needed to make sure everything was perfect.  I loved my clothes that day, they were my fancy clothes I wore just for special occasions. My mom was extra careful telling me to not ruin the perfect white of the top or the trousers. I had to make sure it was perfect as well. It was a special day for me.  But my sister, well, she didn’t have a care in the world while I was stressing about every move. She was laughing, crying, fidgety, trying to get away.  As soon as we entered in the studio, my curious eyes went through everything, the lights, the décor, the people.  Everything was scanned. My sister, on the other hand, was a nightmare. She started crying and wanting to leave. And I was wondering why?! It’s such a great adventure we can have together.  The décor was set, the pose was set, my unruly hair was set but my sister was completely unset. So much annoyance. She was ruining my perfect day. My cousins distracted her, showed her shiny objects to make her stay still. After a long wait, everything was over. She stopped for a second and the photo was taken.  It looks like we’re happy but the inside of me is boiling.

I was thinking about it and I was impatient about what was going to happen. I was scared that I would do something wrong but I was so happy to do something so extraordinary. My mum and cousins were there as well. I could just hear what they were saying, but I wasn’t able to respond or to think much about their chatter. My mind was too busy. I needed to make sure everything was perfect.

I loved my clothes that day, they were my fancy clothes I wore just for special occasions. My mom was extra careful telling me to not ruin the perfect white of the top or the trousers. I had to make sure it was perfect as well. It was a special day for me.

But my sister, well, she didn’t have a care in the world while I was stressing about every move. She was laughing, crying, fidgety, trying to get away.

As soon as we entered in the studio, my curious eyes went through everything, the lights, the décor, the people.  Everything was scanned. My sister, on the other hand, was a nightmare. She started crying and wanting to leave. And I was wondering why?! It’s such a great adventure we can have together.

The décor was set, the pose was set, my unruly hair was set but my sister was completely unset. So much annoyance. She was ruining my perfect day. My cousins distracted her, showed her shiny objects to make her stay still. After a long wait, everything was over. She stopped for a second and the photo was taken.

It looks like we’re happy but the inside of me is boiling.

Fifteen

By Francis Bainton

Francis is a bibliophile who writes whenever he has the time.

Though it was the kind of occasion that one really should remember, I can’t actually recall the day itself particularly well. I remember the bare facts: we had finished school, it was a hot day in late June and I was with friends. I was fifteen soon to be sixteen and the summer stretched ahead of me, a swathe of days without responsibility. In the years to follow I would begin to count how many of these luxurious summers I had left before life beyond education, but on that day I was just happy to be with my friends without the framework of school holding us all in place.

I can’t remember what we talked about. I can’t remember how I felt from moment to moment. I can’t remember who was absent, though some were. These details, however, are vivid:  

Beneath the shade of a tree, I exchanged my bright green t-shirt for a friend’s loose sand-coloured one.

In town, I walked with a friend through the newly-completed shopping centre as he pushed his bike. We talked with great animation in the bright, sterile space. 

At the place that had been our regular after-school haunt, we all posed for a photograph on a bench, where we packed in together tight and laughed and smiled, squinting at the camera in the sun.

We got on a punt, went down the river and pitched up by a tree. A couple of us swung from a conveniently low-hanging branch. 

I wish dearly that I could remember it better, and I worry that I never will. I have a few pieces from that day, and I have two or three friends whose own memories are other pieces to the bright jigsaw. The few photos that were taken are available to me, when I sit alone looking at a screen, even if the old friend who held the camera is not.

The Hill

By Mary Jennings

Mary has been running in Cambridge and East Anglia for some years now and also coaches others.

I’m thinking about that hill again. Yes, I knew it was there but the sharp turn out of the village car-park out onto the main road is at a 90 degree angle and obscures the view. The sight of that long slow hill is always a shock.

A narrow ridge high about the roadway on the left-hand side , runners trying to pass or be passed with little room to do so and anxious about slipping and sliding down into the traffic . It’s always a dull grey morning at this stage, this section overshadowed by trees with the long branches hanging above us and hedgerows threatening to push us away into the road.

Now the hill is beginning to get to me, 200 meters in, the slow steady rise results in torturedbreathing, grunts and grimaces of those around me, my breathing is ok, it’s the muscle just above my knees that’s feeling it.

Count. And so I begin.  After counting up to a hundred, I close off one finger on my left hand, a count of one hundred is approximately 100 meters, nine more to go, the hill is  about a mile long.  Another 100 plods of my right foot, another finger closed off. Hard-going. Must do more hill-training, I remind myself yet again.  But difficult to find hills in the flatlands of Cambridge. Left-hand is now a fist, 500 meters, half-way there. Start again with the fingers on the right hand.

Pace dropping but I will not walk. Head down. Don’t stop. Pass that runner just ahead, he’s having difficulty, more than me it seems. Watch out for the narrow ledge. Will he move to let me pass? Probably too much in his own head of painedbody, to hear me behind him.  I’ll need to speed up to pass him. Can I do it? Push on.

I’ve lost count. Drat.  Was that 49 or 59? Start again at 40.  Why does running prevent my brain doing something simple like counting? Paula says she counts – does her brain go to mush too. Keep on going on. The sky opens up a little above the horizon through the tree canopy. Brightens me up.  The hill begins to level out.

A yellow-coated marshal shouts ‘well-done’. It feels like she means it just for me yet there are 300 runners ahead of me and she has congratulated us all. The course turns left, the road opens up, the sun widens, three miles still to go. But the hill is behind me.  Hurrah.  Til this year’s Saffron Walden 10K in September. 

Hills in the flatland of Cambridge City wanted desperately by middle-aged runner – Google only gives Hills Road which has not even one hill never mind hills plural. But I will find them.

The perfect body & how to be DICK

A great book excerpt by Lindy West in the Guardian on how women must be small, and starved, to be acceptable.  My father-in-law doesn't find me acceptable at all.  Even so I'm caught, furiously and stupidly, trying to avoid his predictions about weight.  He can't win I goad myself, without realizing that he already has.

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

Mother was dead when he made this observation.  She was also fat.  Until Motor Neuron Disease made it impossible to swallow.  But my father-in-law has never acknowledged the dying, and has no idea how it went. Motor Neuron Disease robs you of everything, even chocolate.

Mum fell by days and hours 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 something had tasted good.  Whether she had enjoyed its soft sweetness, or if that final square of Dairy Milk had been rushed, undone, unenjoyed.  Forever laced with a sourness of guilt.

Only men come down chimneys

by Nadia Ranieri

Nadia is scientist with a strong passion for books. She writes for hobby.

It's the morning of the 6th of January and I just can't wait to go downstairs. I hope the old lady brought me lots of candies! I've been a good girl.

Yesterday, before going to bed, my sister and I left a dish with some cheese and bread near the fireplace. We left a glass of wine too as daddy said the old lady might appreciate it. It is very cold outside and she'll travel all night to visit all the kids of the world so she'll need some wine to warm her up. That's also what daddy said and I think it is true.

I still don't get how she can pass through the chimney though. I never saw the old lady but everybody talk about a large woman with a generous bottom. She must have some kind of magic power, like Santa Claus!

Since the fire was lit, my sister and I were afraid that the old lady might burn her bottom. If she does so she'll run away and never come back. She'll run away with all our candies!
Last night, I was so worried that I almost cried but mummy told us that the fire will be gone when the old lady comes and she'll be ok. I was not sure about that but mummy's always right so my sister and I went to bed without any worries.

Now it's morning, I wake up my sister and we run downstairs towards the fireplace.
Next to it we find two big filled socks, one has my name on it and the other one my sister's and are about the same size. The cheese and bread and the wine are gone! She was happy when she left our home. She'll be back next year, I'm sure!

Orange Juice

By Valerie Hutchinson

Nearly half a century’s reading later I am intrigued by life writing; what curious, sad, funny, shifting things families are - hurrah for the treasure trove of memory which yields tantalising clues to who we were and who we are.

One evening freedom reigned.
Parents out. But our TV viewing was
shattered.  My little sister Katie appeared
in her blue fuzzy hat worn for bed, to
ward off nocturnal tangles, (it didn’t work),
mournful, bubbles issuing from her mouth.  

Let’s ask the neighbours, we older sisters agreed.
My soft slippers spilled over the pebble path.  
I asked for help with the bubble storm, returning
with Fay and Mike and warm concern.
Katie sat on Fay’s knee as fat tears mingled with
bubbles in a bowl beneath Katie’s chin.

Fay calmly relayed their phone number as Mike,
Napoleon aficionado, recalled ancient battle dates
but not personal details when questioned by 999.
With shaky voice, his trembling hand replaced the
receiver.  The cavalry was on its way.
‘Want one?’ he offered my big sister a cigarette.

The door-bell severed rattling nerves.  
Mike, grinning, jumped to answer.  
Strange blue lights blinked in the hall.
Aliens invaded in black boots and silver
buttoned jackets, carrying strange shiny cases
containing what?   

Mum and Dad returned.
‘Why’s Katie sucking a lollipop?’ Mum whispered.
‘Watch where you keep your shampoo love,’ the
aliens chided Mum, snapping their cases shut.
They ruffled Katie’s blue head, then blue lights,
boots and silver cases vanished.

‘Take that muck off your toe nails and that bloody
thing out of your mouth!’ Dad thundered at my older sister.      
Mike grinned nervously white teeth flashing.
The egg cup, containing Mum’s orange hair
thickening lotion, (It didn’t work) or orange juice,
Katie thought, disappeared as swiftly as the aliens,

Katie clutched two more lollipops, the aliens’
departing gifts.  We sisters sat stunned not by
the medical alert but ‘bloody’, never before heard
from my father’s lips.

Confession

By Lexi Griffiths

Lexi writes stories about real events with a fictional twist.

Anna pulled her crisp, freshly starched dress over her head and placed the flowery head piece onto her thin, blonde hair. She smoothed down her new dress, well, third, fourth or maybe fifth hand dress. It arrived last week in a parcel from Scotland; a few cousins had bore its worth before her.

“Why do you get the nice silky dress?” Anna asked sulkily, her eyes throwing daggers at her younger sister.

Her Step-Mother interjected and stated: “Be happy that you’ve got a new dress”

She watched as her little sister twirled and the sun glimmered of each silk trimmed flower.

Anna took her sister’s hand and stepped into a beam of sunlight, the sun shone off the imitation silk. Her dad said if you wore a shell suit and stood in the sun, it would catch fire.

 “Five minutes until confession begins,” announced Father Thomas.

Anna was excited; she’d always wanted to go to a real confession. After years of watching people go into the big brown box and reveal their deepest secrets, she couldn’t wait to reveal hers. Shortly after starting secondary school she started going into town, and left with one or two unpaid for goods. Most things didn’t have security tags then, so it was almost too easy. She realised if you wanted new things, this was one way to get what you wanted. However she was feeling a bit guilty so she was going to confess. Father Thomas walked over and led them all to an open room.

Anna stared like a deer in headlights “where’s the box?” she exclaimed.

Father Thomas chuckled “This is a modern church; we don’t have those any more. So what do you have to confess today?”

She thought for a moment, looked up at the sky and sighed. “I was mean to my sister earlier”.

Wham! Food from the Edge of Heaven

By Kelvin Agboh

Kelvin works in biological sciences research and is a student of creative writing. 

Looking at a picture of me as a nine-year-old I am immediately transported to a time before the internet, before religious based terrorist franchises and before marathon became snickers.  This was the early nineties and everything was possible. Communism and the threat of nuclear armageddon was over but the synth music and the shoulder pads remained. 

At the time my favourite sweets were the wham bar and opal fruits.  As a child I would save what pocket money I could finagle from my unsuspecting, tight-fisted (read: frugal) parents and spend them at our local corner-shop.  Opal fruits (now starburst) were small, tightly packaged parcels of wonder.  As my tiny fingers tried to work my way beneath the cumbersome folds the anxious wait would bring forth a Pavlovian salivary response and would continue as I enjoyed the citrus flavour and numerous E numbers.  The wham bar was similarly a tangy-flavoured sweet of dubious origin.  It was rectangular, smooth and tongue-pink in colour.  As kids we would cram a whole wham bar and attempt to carry on a conversation as this incongruous mass mixed with copious amounts of saliva vied for air time. 

The sensory overload led to a group of already fidgety children to a state akin to a crack head’s high and the subsequent crash - a coma victim.

Courage and Consequence

by Pu Shi

Amy (Pu Shi) is a language teacher and educational researcher.  She is also a student of creative writing in Miranda’s Wednesday evening class.

S was my best friend in school. We lived on the opposite site of the same road. Every day we walked to school together, walked home together and ate unhealthy snacks together. One day in winter the temperature dropped and I was made to put on a coat embarrassingly chunky. To my surprise and relief, that morning S turned up wearing a coat of exactly the same style and colour. So we went to school like two happy penguins.

That day after school I complained about the maths homework. She said she didn’t want to do it. I said there might be consequences. She said if we both didn’t do it, for any consequence at least, we would be taking it together. I thought that was a brilliant idea.

In the maths lesson the next day, the teacher asked everybody to put their homework on a desk at the front. As someone who had always fulfilled the teacher’s requirements, I sat still on my seat, watching everyone standing up to submit their homework. I had no red face nor faster heartbeats, for I knew that I wasn’t the only one and there was nothing to worry about.

Just at that moment, I saw S stand up, holding a piece of paper covered with numbers and symbols, putting it quietly onto that pile of homework.

For the whole lesson I didn’t hear a word. During the break my tears burst out like tap water. I didn’t have the language to explain nor the strength to argue. For the first time in my life, I saw the importance of not trusting others. I understood that in order to ‘be yourself’, you had to have the courage to bear the consequence, alone.

 

The safest place to do your drinking is at home

In the burns unit the doctor was this big Scot.  I’d scalded my feet.  And no, it wasn’t the drink. Making myself a cup of tea was what did it.  A cup of bloody tea.  Anyway, once they got me in to the hospital it took a long wee while to cut my slippers off.

And like I was saying there was this big fierce Scot and when he came on his rounds, he didn’t call us by our names, but by our bits.  The bits that were burned.  So I was FEET.  The woman in the bed next up was HIP.  She’d fallen out of bed and landed against the heater.  There was an ELBOW.  Don’t know how she did that.  And an EAR. 

I never heard what the big fellow called the next patient that arrived.  They rolled her in just as I was shuffling out.  She'd tipped hot tea between her legs.

A story from my aunt.

A white Lie

by Susan Spencer

Susan has been teaching English, with passion, in the UK and overseas for the last forty years.  She is starting to compile a collection of her Dad’s stories.

I had arrive in Bagamoyo, Tanzania as a 25 year old volunteer with VSO and I was going to change the world.  That was in the late seventies.  I had already met the Head teacher who told me that I would be teaching African literature to school boys.  He suggested there were principles about teaching African novels and poetry within the socio-political framework advocated by Julius Nyerere, the innovator of African socialism. 

One, the literature was not to be taught by white women.  Two, there were very few copies of the texts.  Three, would I like to be the new Head of Department as I was the only English teacher in the school.  The Head teacher also introduced me to my house mate, who he assured me, would look after me. 

On my arrival, my housemate disappeared to her bed room for three days.  The light in the bathroom didn’t work and the toilet appeared to be leaking.  I felt physically uncomfortable, culture shocked and thought that my new house mate didn’t like me at all.  Personalising, even back then. 

The short and heavy December rains had started and it was hot, heavy and humid.  90 degrees Farenheit and 90% humidity.  I confused the sounds of heavy downpours on the corrugated iron roof with the sloughing of the coconut palms.  The views of the Indian Ocean were spectacular and when the sun shone, the beach was paradise.  I forbad myself to take in this beauty, as it exacerbated my emotions of loneliness, boredom and homesickness. 

And I was very hungry. 

There was a choice of three stoves: charcoal, gas and paraffin.  The charcoal stove was beyond me and the gas oven had families of small rodents living in it, attacking my skirt when I dared to open the oven.  I raked through the cupboards and found eggs, flour and paraffin.  I opted for the paraffin stove.  I remembered Lake District holidays and the use of the Primus.  I would make pancakes.  Squatting on the floor of the kitchen with my pancake mix, I lit the stove and instantly the whole of the kitchen floor was alight.  I screamed and two colleagues rushed into the kitchen.  They hastily, and handsomely, introduced themselves and beat the fire out. 

Life settled down after that.  The rains eased, I started teaching and my housemate, Uronu, emerged from her bedroom: pregnant, hospitable and polite.  Her disappearance in to the bedroom was not my fault then.  My VSO fridge also arrived which also relieved any tension.  Uronu cooked beautiful meals on a charcoal stove, served on flowery crockery.  A gossip announced to me that everyone thought that Uronu was my cook!  This notion was completely.  So in the spirit of collegiality and Tanzanian socialism, I strode off to the market, three miles away in the heat of the day and bought meat, tomatoes and potatoes.  I would make a stew.  I would brave the paraffin stove.

My mastery of the paraffin stove was marginally better and the stew bubbled ferociously on the precarious ring. 

I laid the table and served the food on the flowery crockery.  The meat was impossible to chew and the potatoes had disintegrated to a pulp.  The whole meal was inedible and was quickly dispatched to a huge pit in the bush, which was the communal dustbin. 

To save my face Uronu said, ‘The market probably sold you a tough bit of meat.  It’s quite difficult to cook gently on a paraffin stove.  Do you usually put potatoes in stews in England?’

‘No, we only eat chips!’ I lied.

 

Diminishing Norms

by Linda Oubridge

Linda is interested in beliefs and superstitions at the everyday level, in a world of diminishing norms. 

‘This is Natalie, she’s just joined us today.’ I take her hand in both of mine to welcome her.  The intimacy of this surprises her. She pulls back fractionally in spite of the warm smile. Her hand is freezing! The double-handed clasp is a standard church greeting and no practicing Christian would recoil from it.  Not a member of the God-squad then, that’s a relief.

‘Ola!’ She ventures, with some courage.  Like so many before her, she assumes that the sheer volume of black hair makes me quite indisputably Spanish.  I decide to leave this aside for now.

‘Ooh. You must be a very kind soul – your hands are so cold!’ I say, raising my not insignificant eyebrows. I always underestimate the power of these eyebrows, the drama of this face which requires so very little to over-animate it.

‘Well…yours…are very…hot!’ She seems relieved to have thought of a response as if it is some kind of test and withdraws her hand as soon as she can without appearing rude.  I think, how difficult it is for people to behave if you force them to move even a fraction outside the standard patter.

‘That’s because I have a cold, cold heart.’ I say mercilessly, shaking my head slowly but not breaking eye contact. I simply can’t resist the opportunity to play, to insert some unnecessary and quite meaningless drama. Offices are so dull. There it is, that tiny flicker in the eyes…fear.   Ah, she is not a fellow player then.  She is going to be a by-the-book kind of girl, all proper and correct. She will be part of the squeaky clean set, lovely, reliable, safe…a little bland.

‘Well, and where are you coming to us from Natalie?’

‘Ah, I have been at OCR for the past four years.’

‘And yet you seem unscathed!  I worked for them for two years myself before reaching full escape velocity and coming here to lick my wounds.’  She does not know what to say to this and gives a charming and utterly terrified smile.’ I nod and gesture towards a colleague to release her from the ordeal.

'Have you met Peter?  He's our online training manager and an outrageous thespian.  You mustn't believe a word he says.' 

Birthday

by Charlie Dear

Charlie, 22, is a recent graduate who writes crime.

I stood firm

Trigger finger ready

Eyes staring down the barrel

This is what three years of intense training had come down to…

I waited patiently. I didn’t flinch. The time had arrived. I scanned the immediate battleground through the scope.  I heard a rustle of discontent and quickly threw my body weight to my left.  Centering on my target, I slid among the reeds as my garish trousers tried to expose my clandestine plans

Zooming in, I now had eyes on the victim.

I lay flat on my stomach. Ready to make the telling blow.

I swept the immediate foreground and saw a rogue figure circling.

But what was with him? This unsettled me slightly.

I stood my ground, unsure whether to engage

He was approaching rapidly now…

I felt my earlier conviction vanish.

It WAS my Birthday cake!

‘Operation abort!’ I screamed.

Panic over, my weapon fell from my nascent hand as I hurtled over towards the plate of chocolatey happiness.

 

DON'T KNOW WHY I SAID THAT

By Michael O'Neill

It was my sister’s first helium balloon. A small thing, a simple thing, but no-one apart from me and her realised that she’d never had one before. And for a little time, she loved it. She took it round the house with her, an increasingly scratty bracelet of cheap ribbon hooped around her wrist. She tied it to her bed at night. She refused to go outside for its safety. She played with it in the lounge, trying to balance the buoyancy perfectly with little weights of plastic jewellery and paper. If she got it wrong and it floated to the ceiling, she would scramble up the couch to claw it back.

My parents were on holiday and our grandparents had come to look after us. Perhaps I gave an impression of mischief. I had learned in school that a day had twenty-four hours in it, and didn’t quite believe it. As a test I set the microwave to run for 24:00, resolving to check back tomorrow. I was told off for that, and of course a brother should be scolded for popping his sister’s balloon. Except I didn’t do it.

I was in the room, yes. I saw it happen, yes. Heard the pop, the silence, and the wail which only the truly heartbroken can summon. I went over to comfort her. We fought all the time, but there wasn’t much true ill-will in that; siblings just fight. My grandma came in then, seeing the poor popped husk, the crying girl, and her son’s son who had set the microwave going for hours. Perhaps she had made her conclusion already, but then through the blubbering: “He b-b-burst my balloon.”

It was, I think, the first lie that hurt me. Not because I was sent to my room, or because my grandma and then parents thought I did it. It was because, that time, I was trying to help. Perhaps she thought I did pop it, or just wanted this senseless sadness to be someone’s fault. I asked her about it last Christmas, eighteen years after the fact. “Oh yeah – sorry. Don’t know why I said that.”