THE PRESSURE OF STARTING OUT IN LIFE by John Sayles

One bad night we were kept awake by the bombs. We were told the Germans were trying to hit the railway marshalling yard which was fairly near. I recall hearing goods wagons being shunted at night - clang, clang, clang up and down through most of the night.

Possibly 1943 I recall seeing my first black man! A convoy of American ammunition lorries passed by and all the drivers were Negroes smoking big cigars and throwing out sweets to the children watching them go by. It was about this time I fell into the River Nene by the Custom House key. I was throwing stones at the fish and fell into the water. Having recalled the experience of seeing lovely green bubbles all round me as I came up to the surface I’m conscious that this interesting pleasure went some way to soften the hard words and concern the adults expressed when eventually my explanation was made on returning home. Not, at that time being able to swim, I was lucky to surface by the iron key-side ladder. Having managed to climb up out of the water standing, crying in a puddle of water wondering what to do. Nearby American soldiers made a fuss of me and gave me my first chewing gum and some money for the bus home. Being too embarrassed to say much at the time I did not say I had my cousins old rusty bike round the corner. Cycling home with excitement with a tale to tell having met my first Americans and given sweets and money. It was only later that I had pangs of conscience and thought God had punished me for throwing stones at the fish.

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LOVE LOST AND FOUND by Bryan Thomas

It is cool and misty this April morning. I am high in the desolate mountains of northern Greece. The sun tries but fails to break through the haze and wispy clouds writhe mysteriously through the packed cedars in the valley. It is the day before Easter, when Greeks roast whole lambs and the spits are being set up in the centre of the village. The smell of fresh charcoal reminds me of summer in my parents’ home in England.

My father is tending the glowing barbecue, carefully arranging the coals. My mother is yelling for him to clean up the mess he made preparing the skewers in the kitchen. He goes without a murmur. His sycophancy infuriates me. I query how he stands the harassment. ‘I love her,’ he said.

My own memories of Carole overflow again as locals in the Marketplace gather to talk, to sip tiny cups of strong coffee and to drink Retsina, that fishy mountain brew with a hint of rotting pines that here and only here tastes right. The barber is at work and fish and vegetable stalls are busy as I wander through the chatting groups returning friendly greetings of Yassus or Kalimera. Under a tree at the far end of the square I spot a small tent covered with mystic symbols. Over the canvas doorway a name, Arocel, and, below it, a word I guess means Clairvoyant. Is it curiosity or anticipation that makes me stroll over, raise the flap and walk in, hoping she will speak a little English?

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BLENDED FAMILY by S. Bee Boothroyd

All in the Mix

“The thing is mum, Adam's two boys are visiting us this weekend, so we thought a trip to the funfair might be good,” Gina began over the phone.

“It's fine, love.” Molly blinked back tears. Molly and her husband Tom had really been looking forward to seeing their grandchildren.

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WAR/FAMILY by John Davies

The train drowsing through colourless towns for three days, Captain Johnny Hughes had re-read Betty’s letters. The condition of their younger sister Frances was deteriorating.

The carriage suddenly pitching into the perfect darkness of a tunnel, Hughes closed his eyes, concentrating on the clattering of the train on track. When daylight resumed, Hughes saw that his old regiment had commandeered the compartment.

The Cheshires were cast in a spluttering half-glow, sprawling over the dingy carriage seats. Playing cards, the soldiers smoked and drank extravagantly. Languishing on their seats, dozens of boots dangled into the aisle.

Sitting opposite, Ronnie Toal was waiting for Hughes to increase his bet: “Cost yer more than that to see me, Hughesy, me old mucker!”

The left side of his face was shattered, stripped to its bone and working sinew; but this seemed of little concern to his old friend, swigging from a stained silver hipflask. “I’m wise to your game, mate.”

Hughes gripped the arm rests of his seat, closing his eyes as the laughter and shouting of the soldiers swelled in his ears like a night-tide.

Hughes dazedly climbed down from the train at Chester. The arrowed iron of the station clock’s flinched to its next calling as he scanned the crowd for his sister, wondering if he would still recognise her. Those heading for the trains looked his way, saluting as they noticed the rank of Hughes’ crumpled uniform.

Clutching the ticket he had been given for his belongings, a tremor ran through the back of his hand, pulsing the small inkblot tattoo. Occupying the window of the derelict tearoom, Hughes’ shot-through reflection rubbed at a smear on its shirt cuff, the dark spreading. He thought of Frances in the hospital, hoping that the doctors had somehow managed to control her convulsions.

“Johnny?”

Betty’s voice hesitant, she smiled at her brother’s startled expression, at the way he tensed at her touch. “It’s only me, you silly bugger!”

Johnny turned towards his sister, almost lost in their mother’s wool coat. Black hair, pale skin; her cheekbones sharper than he remembered. Bird-bone fingers clutching at air – feeling for something they had once held in the past, which could never be held again. Betty began to cry as she embraced her brother.

At the entrance to the station, an illustrated poster urged citizens to extinguish all light each evening, as a despondent cartoon Hitler seethed from his Luftwaffe cockpit, hovering over a darkened land.

“All fresh today!” Selling daffodils, a girl no more than fourteen watched them hopefully; her large eyes dark-smudged, peering out from a threadbare shawl.

“Remember how Frances could name most of the flowers by the time she was six? She liked daffodils the best.”

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ECHOES OF A BROKEN LAUGHTER by Som Adedayo

One evening in June, after dinner, Mama went mad. She sat on the verandah with her back to the wooden window picking kola nuts. The cloud above looked like ice against the blue sky and the moon shone brightly. It shone on Baba’s alupupu parked against the uncemented wall, on Mama’s three parallel lines on the sides of her cheeks straining away from her ears and on my head, shaved bald like the egg of a local fowl.

‘The moon will burst tonight,’ Mama said with a russet kola nut clogged to her teeth. I laughed.

The children soon returned with bats in the sky. Mama once said that bats travelled in the evening because they could see better then. She chased the children away with a long cane. ‘Won’t you kids get something over your sagging pants?’

The children came back in gowns that slipped over their shoulders, trousers and knickers fastened with tube rubbers and supported with hands, faded wrappers tied up to their breasts and faded oversized blouse that reached their knees. They sat, half-rounding Mama’s pile of kola; it was tales time. She told them the story of the sky. The sky was a suspended stream a little above houses, within the reach of human beings. But when they washed their oily hands and shit-stained anuses in the sky, it rose up there, far from reach.

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OBSESSION by Zoe Dunn

For as long as Evie could remember, which wasn’t all that long, she had always been fascinated by the meat aisle. The deep, rich colour of the beef joints an abrupt contrast to its neighbour of pale chicken and pork. Their soft flesh of dissected pieces covered in tight clear wrap that begged for her fingers to gouge through its shiny surface and claw along its cool and tender fibres.

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A WORKING CLASS ADOLESCENCE by Luke Hilton

After kicking the ball I noticed that mum had come outside to speak to Bill. She must be wondering why he was crying. I could smell the chips cooking inside, so I knew we wouldn’t have to wait long for lunch. I looked at them from round the side of the house. I wasn’t well hidden but neither of them seemed to look at me. Mum started crying too. I wondered where dad was. He had never cried, so I was worried what he would do if he saw so much crying. I wanted to ask them why they were crying but I was afraid, although I didn’t know why I was so afraid. Mum had her arms around Bill’s shoulders and I heard him say that he can’t do anything. I wanted to go and tell him that he was very good at football, so what he said wasn’t true, but I stayed where I was and watched. His face had gone very pink in the sun. I heard mum say you’re not useless and I was confused because I didn’t know what uses people were supposed to have and I wondered if Bill was useless then maybe I was too, because he seemed to be a lot better at helping out with things in the house and with DIY than I was. I was watching them without hiding myself now. The smell of the chips was very nice but what I was seeing was making me sad. I didn’t know why they were sad. I thought if we just had chips they might both feel better. There seemed to be a sudden change in the mood. Everything had been bright and easy, but at that moment, the smell of chips began to grow smoky and bitter, and a heaviness seemed to push down on me.

I stepped out nearer to them and looked into the open door to the kitchen. The black smoke from the chip pan was rising up the wall and billowing out against the ceiling. The wall had been turned black by the smoke which I didn’t know could happen. There weren’t as many flames as I thought would be part of a fire, but they were there at the bottom, which is how I knew it was a fire and not just a different way of cooking chips. The smell wasn’t nice like it usually was, and it made me feel strange. It was like how when you are given chocolate but it’s that dark chocolate that doesn’t make you feel happy. I looked closer at the chip pan and saw that there were still chips in there but they were all black and like sticks.

Even though I wasn’t worried about it I ran outside and called to mum and Bill to tell them that there was a fire, because I knew that after they had dealt with that, although we wouldn’t have chips, and the nasty smell of burned oil would still be around, they wouldn’t be crying anymore.

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SADDNESS AND LIFE by Hasseb Rafaqat

Alvin now got up and instead of going to the cafeteria he went straight for the playground which was now covered in snow. He now started looking for something, something he was eyeing earlier from the class room, and at last he spotted it. It was a flower trying to bloom from the very thin patch of bare soil not covered by the snow. He was able to eye such a small yet wonderful thing from 20 ft. away and was determined to find it. Seeing it gave Alvin a gush of happiness, he felt something happy he couldn’t describe seeing that flower trying to bloom even in this harsh winter snow. It gave Alvin an undescribed joy and a sense of calmness and comfort seeing it.

“Hey, little buddy. You’re all alone too huh?” asked Alvin to the flower.

The flower kind of danced in the mild breeze flowing.

“Yeah, I’m not much loved either. My fathers always fight and I hate it, but whenever they do so, I run back to my room; to my wardrobe and cover up my ears.” Said Alvin to the flower.

“Hey wierdo, you do know that you’re talking to a flower, right?” said a familiar shrill voice from behind.

“What is it to you? I can talk to whomever and whatever I like.” Shouted Alvin, “Go away Sara.”

And the girl named Sara left Alvin and his flower alone, but three senior boys had spotted Alvin shouting and now were coming towards him.

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KNACKERKNACKER BANG BANG by Alec Sillifant

Sir Gilchrist Temple pulled the telescope from his impeccably tailored frockcoat’s pocket and put it to his eye. It whirred to half-length then stopped. Sighing loudly, Temple lowered the optical device and wound the small key in its side. ‘Why the buggery hell do they have to mechanise every bloody object whether it’s needed or not,’ he thought with some annoyance. With the mainspring primed once more the telescope opened fully upon being raised, the view it afforded was unwelcome. “They’re gaining on us, Webb.”

“Bound to be, sir, we’re running out of floatcoke,” said Webb, wiping the back of a soot blackened hand across his sweaty and equally soot blackened forehead. “Won’t be long before the balloon sack starts to deflate.”

“That is a cold hand in the showers after rugger,” said Temple, still sweeping the sky from the rear hatch of the gondola. A streak of steam was closing in fast. “Egad, looks like one of the infernal aero-wasps has released a stinger. The floatcoke may outlast the sack yet.”

Webb lowered his head to take in the view from the glass bottom of ‘HMS Knackerknacker’, so named because of the noise the Mark II steam-converter made, a swarm of three dozen copper insectoids carpeted the canyon below. “The mechano-mites are still keeping pace with us. If we land amongst that lot we’re goners, sir.”

“Determined little blighters, I can’t believe they’ve followed us so relentlessly.”

“I know,” said Webb. “From the deserts of Sudan, through the gardens of Japan; from Milan to Yucatan, you’d think they couldn’t but they can.”

Temple lowered the telescope, which compressed itself noisily. “Brace yourself, Webb, we’re about to experience a sudden loss of altitude.”

“Through the docks of Tiger Bay, down the road to Mandalay; from Bombay to Santa Fe, little bastards find a way,” said Webb, still mesmerised by the shifting platoon below him.

“Webb, stop reminiscing and bloody well hold on!”

The stoker looked up, his slack face soon animating as he saw the approaching stinger, piston rod and beam mechanism going like the clappers, come into view and slice a huge rent in the canvas of the balloon sack with a jabbing blade on a flywheel that spat boiling water droplets as it rotated. He clamped his hand upon a rail fractionally before ‘HMS Knackerknacker’ began a rapid diagonal descent. “We’re going to die!” said the sooty stoker.

Temple’s forehead wrinkled deeply. “Pull yourself together, Webb, such cheerlessness is unbecoming of an Englishman.”

“I’m Welsh,” said Webb, his face grimmer than a slate mine on a wet Bank Holiday.

“Oh,” said Temple, “carry on then.”

“We’re going to die…and it looks like rain.”

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DARK HUMOUR by Suzanne Thorpe

SERIAL TILLERS

Search for the bodies …

The news that the police forensic team were to dig up the gardens came as a shock to Lydia and Alice. They had just planted candytuft whilst the white radishes were at a crucial stage in their germination, so what right did these flat feet have to trounce over their land?

It seemed, after numerous phone calls to the local council, that they had every right. The crop of local disappearances, five in all, had been attributed to a former delivery van driver, who according to the Evening Bugle had confessed, with pride, to no less than five murders. Yet why attack their garden and the two adjoining it? Well this glory-seeker lived on Warren Road and again, according to the Evening Bugle, would not tell the police where he had disposed of the bodies. So the garden to his terrace house, a small scrubby affair, with a part gravel front which sprouted dandelion and nettle, was invaded by a police forensic team with a small excavator. Lydia and Alice had to admit that it looked a lot better for it though. The gravel and weed had been usurped and the overturned earth became good clay top soil so it looked a lot better and at least some good had come of the disturbance. No bodies were found though which was to turn out to be a bad thing for them, and their marigolds and flowering current shrub. For the search was to continue across the road and what better soft target than the three gardens opposite the flats? Yet it was no time to go unearthing bodies for May was the time for planting sweet peas,

and stocks.

‘Some people,’ complained Alice, ‘have no consideration for others at all!’

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EXPECTATIONS AND EXAGGERATION by Antony Dunford

In all my years as Quiz Correspondent for the New York Times I have never encountered tension such as this. I remember Beirut in '85. I was covering the semi-finals of the International Middle-East High Stakes Bar Quiz and Bingo in the dining room afterwards - high stakes! I should say. The winner got the losers' ears on a necklace and a nice little trophy inscribed with his initials. Furthermore there was a war going on around us, started by the Somerset contingent accusing the Northumbrians of trying to smuggle a pocket encyclopaedia into the gaming hall. There was blood, and death, and professional mis-conduct. But even the corpses were more laid back than most of the competitors in the Packhorse this Sunday evening. The security is worse than at the Queen of England’s monthly quiz in the Stables Bar at Buckingham palace. It brings tears to my eyes thinking of that gross waste of rubber gloves.

There were six teams, carefully selected by the organisers of The International Bar Quiz World Cup. The selection process, which I had rather embellished for the general public in my daily column, was not as international as I had been led to believe. One team was a group of students who had come into the pub by accident. There were four of them, and every metaphorical gun was trained in their direction. The other five teams were, in fact, the regular drinkers in the Packhorse. When I challenged them about this surprising state of affairs - that five teams from the same small-town pub had made it to the final of an international competition that they themselves had organised - they were elusive.

I eventually forced the Quizmaster, a suspicious looking character by the name of ‘Honest Cyril’, to talk me through the earlier knockout rounds of the championship. Turns out there hadn't been any. I pressed further and he claimed that there had been no other entrants. I asked him about advertising. My question was along the lines of ‘Has there been any?’ He protested that they had run an extensive international advertising campaign. He showed me a one-inch high advert ‘Quiz, 9p.m.’ was all it said. Not where, or what night. No other details. It was an advertisement in the feed section of Frome Pig Breeders Quarterly, the Winter 1993 edition. I challenged him on his use of the words ‘extensive’ & ‘international’ in his description of the campaign, Frome Pig Breeders Quarterly having a circulation of two. He explained that his sister had used a copy to line the box in which she kept her hamster last time she went to Spain, and that they had run the advert more than once.

In other words, twice.

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FAILURE AND SUCCESS IN LOVE by Denis Zaslona

CHEEKY PANTS

L

SWEET BUM

Warren Tuttlebee turned away from the anonymous declaration of love etched into the window frame of the Birmingham outer circle number 11 bus with a lump in his throat and an ache in his heart.

‘If only someone loved me enough to call me cheeky pants,’ he sighed.

If only Megan would say something kind to him just once, then maybe he could write a declaration like that and mean it.

Whenever Warren became emotional he was compelled to fixate on the title of an appropriate love song. Taking a shaky breath, Warren whispered, ‘What can I do to make you love me?’ The young woman sitting next to him got up and moved to another seat. Warren didn’t notice because he was remembering the time he had publicly declared his feelings for Megan. He was fifteen and driven by hormonal explosions and unrequited love, he’d broke into the school one night and carved a heart into the door to girl’s toilets. Inside the heart, ‘W loves M’. Now, at twenty-eight, he was married to ‘M’ but things hadn’t turned out as perfect as he had imagined.

Warren’s love for Megan had changed from the hot, tummy tingling longing to be with her, to the development of body reflexes needed to dodge a thrown ash tray or empty vodka bottle. His colleagues within the self-employed drain cleaning fraternity said from the start that marrying the goddess of his school years because she was pregnant, was a mistake. Of course, it might have been better if the child had been his, or if little Beckham’s first uttered words while staring at Warren hadn’t sounded like, ‘sucker’.

Warren wiped his eyes and between sobs muttered, ‘the first cut is the deepest.’ The shoulders of the man sitting in front of him tightened.

The problem was that Megan absorbed his love but gave nothing back. Warren gathered his self-control and concentrated on the question he’d brought onto the number 11 outer circle, determined not to disembark until he had the answer. How was he to get Megan to love him? He wasn‘t a fussy man, he could put up with having to clean her toenail clippings from kitchen sink and he really didn’t mind the occasional slap. He could even withstand little Beckham’s ankle biting and punches to his buttocks, if Megan would return just a little of his love.

Warren sat through the quiet early afternoon on his fourth circuit around Brum surrounded by gentle conversations about false teeth and pensions but no inspiration came. At times he thought of drains and inspection pits. He missed being out on the road rodding and pressure blasting but until either his stolen van and equipment was recovered and returned, or the insurance paid up, his one-man waste management business was at a standstill.

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THE PERILS OF HAVING A COLUMNIST PARENT by Marka Rifat

He was about to brew a mint Colombian latte, using a machine which had provided many a counterpoint to stories in his columns, largely thanks to his refusal to read the instructions or buy the right brand of capsule, when he noticed the time on his computer screen. Perfect. Wife would be bringing Ned and Aislin back from school in 10 minutes and they were bound to come up with something. They had never failed him, from birth to now, they were absolute gold, and as for Wife, that was a rather tricky theatre of war and he had often kept the velvet curtains there closed tight while he skulked behind the potted plants in the foyer for as long as possible. He automatically scribbled ‘Her Majesty’s Theatre of Conflict’ and ‘aspidistra’ on yellow squares and added them to the wall on his left which was thick with words and phrases. The paper pelt of the Post-it beast was rarely sheared. He pressed the button on the coffee machine, not that he wanted a hot drink, but a mini-anecdote could be handy. The coffee pod split mid-brew and the shed filled with the peculiar smell of burnt artificial mint with an earthy undertow of hot grounds. He pushed a wad of kitchen roll, supplied by his wife at the start of the year with barely suppressed exasperation, in the direction of the hissing brown rivulets, reached for his fragile thesaurus and slowly typed three sentences on a keyboard stippled with food remnants. His inability to learn how to type efficiently was another stalwart source of column inches. He was daydreaming about scheming Colombian drug lords being soothed away from the cocaine-white path of nefarious doings by the application of extreme mint therapy when he heard sounds from the house.

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LISTENING AND LEARNING by Corylus Monk

Have you got earplugs?...Oh, I do, love, I assure you! You wouldn’t believe the noise in the night. It never used to be a problem. The young man who was on top of me before – well, he was an accountant, you see. He had no life. I expect you know the chap I mean – spindly, pasty looking man, used to come in here for his paper. I had no complaints then. He was quiet as a mouse. No life, as I say. But perhaps he’s finally got himself one now. Apparently he’s moved in with a woman who has her own house in – oh, what’s the name of that area in London where the exclusive people go? With the big shop where you can buy a pot of face cream for eight hundred pounds? Not like here, dear! …Yes, that’s the one!

Now, tell me how they work. I just squish them in, do I? Is there a right one and a left one or are they the same?... I certainly will. The couple who have moved up there now are a very different sort all together. They definitely have a life; maybe a bit too much of a life. Nice-looking but noisy. You’ll have seen them around, no doubt? He’s a great big man with bushy eyebrows. He always seems to be in shorts no matter what the weather’s like. She’s tiny. It’s funny, when you see them together she only comes half way up him. I wonder about her health actually. She’s got dark circles around her eyes and has such skinny arms and legs, like a doll. Lovely hair, though. I think it’s what they call strawberry blonde. Nobody’s introduced us but I know their names because there are sometimes letters for them. Different surnames, I noticed. He’s a Mr John something and she’s a Miss Katie Spurling. Pretty name, don’t you think?

They’ve got a boy too… I don’t know, about four? Looks like his mum, big round eyes, but he seems shy. Quiet except when he cries. Then he has a voice on him! What with that and the banging and the music…Didn’t I say, they’re musicians? Well, I suppose that’s what they’d call themselves. The chap plays the drums and the lady plays the guitar and sings. She’s got a low, rasping voice, a bit like that woman on TV, you know, the one with all the yellow curls and the hot-pants?... Not really my kind of music, no. I don’t like to complain though. The ceiling’s paper thin, it can’t be helped. And I’m not blameless myself. Rusty sometimes barks in the night, so it’s all give and take, isn’t it?

How much?... Well, cheap at half the price, as they say… Let’s hope so. I’ve nothing against young love, but I do hear rather too many - er, details. And all that banging gives me a headache.

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