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Dan has persuaded Amanda to accompany him on a cruise of the Faro Islands, to see the eclipse. But are they being followed? In this chilling tale, we find Dan must make hard decisions, in order to safeguard his marriage. "It’s our first night on board so we dress for the occasion: me in my best bib and tucker, and Amanda wearing her plungiest neckline with the white gold pendant I bought her for Christmas. We’ve barely sat down to dinner when I hear, ‘I don’t believe it!’ which makes me think of that character on TV, but the chap bouncing towards us looks too young to remember the sitcom. He stops in front of our table and smiles at Amanda. When she doesn’t speak I look at her and see she’s staring down at the table. The skin on her neck is a mottled pink. Perhaps she’s seasick; but we’ve barely left Newcastle and the North Sea is like a millpond. Thinking this must be an acquaintance of hers, I stand up and hold out my hand. He grabs at it with a sort of damp, two fingered slide, saying, ‘Felix, you must be Dan,’ while his eyes slip over me and back to Amanda..."
Opportunity could be about to knock for a young musician. "Jon had experienced enough knocks in his eighteen years of life not to want to invite more. Losing his Dad had been bad enough but then Mum remarrying a tosser who ran a shop was another kick in the whatsits. Apart from all the personal stuff, he got really bad hay fever. A flower shop, for fuck’s sake, it couldn’t have been worse...."
Brindley Hallam Dennis
On the road, escaping from a confrontation a young man unexpectedly returns home, but when his friend retells the story, does he get it right? "Billy and Geoff had gone down to London, with a few of the others. They were staying over in somebody’s house, so they were on their best behaviour. But the folk they were staying with turned out to be OK. Because no-one had eaten yet they all went down the local pub, which served chicken in a basket which was all the rage in those days. Now, Billy was having difficulties with his woman at that time, and Geoff was fooling around with anyone, on account of having comprehensively fallen out with his own woman a few weeks before. So, what with the drinks, they were getting on each other’s tits. Then Geoff started giving Billy hard beans about the way he was treating Sam – that was Billy’s woman – and saying that if he wasn’t careful somebody else would do the Doctor John on her, somebody else will, you know? So Billy told him he could effing well have her, and he took himself off into the night..."
Rebirth in Earth
An estranged daughter goes to her father's funeral. "I am sitting on the fourth step curling my toes around the stair where the carpet is worn; the naughty step. I was left there once, forgotten; so I’d picked at the wallpaper. And here it is now, the same ripped hole. It’s almost time for my father’s funeral. A man who insisted on a vertical burial underneath a tree. This, of course, is understandable – he was a sixties teenager and wore a garden in his hair. I now imagine his body being lowered into a hole feet first, then being covered with soil, then being topped off with a baby oak. I can see the roots winding themselves around his neck. While picking at the wallpaper, once again – it’s been twenty years – I hear a van arriving. So, rising from my naughty step, I turn and give it a little pat before descending to heaven knows what. The van is yellow like my plumber’s, except this one has REBIRTH IN EARTH written on its side – thankfully with no painted flowers. Dad is inside the van, inside a cardboard box painted blue with lots of clouds on it. It looks like a screensaver..."
Beware Green Eyes
Ceinwen E. Cariad Haydon
A young girl's ghost friend turns out to be a liar. A story for readers of 9 years of age or older. "It all started on a Friday in February when I stayed home from school with a bad cold. I’d had my twelfth birthday the week before and I’d got a chill at my ice skating party. The rink was a temporary one put up in the town centre each year from November through to February half term. My birthday had been the last day. At least it hadn’t snowed, I could remember at least three birthdays when my celebrations had been cancelled because of the weather. So, I was off school and for the first time I was alone in my house for a whole day. Mum and Dad had gone to work and my younger brothers were at school, even though they’d made a drama of coughing and spluttering their way through breakfast as they made a play to stay off too. I think that buildings sound different when people go out and they’re empty, or almost empty. I was still there of course, but I was tucked up on the living room sofa and lying quite still. I heard the central heating pipes knock and moan gently as the hot water passed through them. The clock on the mantelpiece quartered the hours into minutes and seconds with brisk, quiet ticks. The eaves dripped and splashed as ice melted in the reluctant, shy sunshine of the early spring day. I watched a spider as she spun her web in the corner of the window that looked out onto our garden and I swear I could hear the silken skein being stretched into a silvery geometry all of its own. The fridge buzzed and slept and buzzed and slept as the thermostat regulated the temperature. I was mesmerised by the insistent hum of home and the liquid gurgling of my gut. I’d slept the night before with my nose blocked and my mouth open and swallowed a lot of air that was now singing its own tune. I must have drifted off but then my doze was interrupted and I sat up with a start..."
When a bank forecloses on a company it's a case of numbers of a spreadsheet, but for those giving and receiving the news... things are more immediate. Bad news travels fast, so we had to travel faster. This, in essence, was the notion that guided us. You get it, you give it, you move on. Do it right and you’re away before things get messy, before the condemned have had time to let the reality of their new circumstances sink in, before that hollow look they get in their eyes has had a chance to take root in your memory. Do it that way and it’s smooth and efficient. Do it that way and it’s as close as something like this gets to being a job well done. And that’s generally how it went. Most of the time. This particular call came in late morning one Christmas Eve and swiftly killed off any hopes I’d had of any early finish. That disappointment was then exacerbated by the fact my car wouldn’t start, having been left parked up with the lights on for a few days. I’d been drinking most nights, medicating a malaise that often reared its head around that time of year. Happily, my thirst meshed well with the festive season. Our office’s underlying culture of functional alcoholism always received a shot in the arm that time of year. Yet, that morning as I sat in the car park turning the key in hope and then without, I wasn’t feeling all that functional. Jump leads and attempted push starts proved useless. The battery didn’t need so much a mechanic as a coroner. I was calling a taxi to take me to the train station when Russell Boyd sauntered over, all three-piece suit and Italian loafers. He sparked up ceremoniously and took a long pull before acknowledging me. It never did to be too cosy with the underlings. “Shouldn’t you be out bringing comfort and joy to the masses?” he asked. I explained the situation. Russell’s smoke curled in my direction. “Where to?” “Grantham, Lincolnshire.” “Sounds a shithole.” He paused a moment, as if sounding out a thought and finding that it pleased him, “I’ll drive you.” I laughed and waited for the punchline. It came in the form of the central locking system of his gleaming, bottle-green Jaguar yipping eagerly to attention..."
The Lacquered Box
Yasuko works in a brothel in Tokyo. One night she is visited by a new client... "The front door was already closed against the storm, and I thought I was finished for the night. Crossing the landing, I was on my way to borrow a jar of face cream from Mayu, when I heard the bell. Then, Mama-san’s fulsome stream of welcome: of course it was not too late, it was her pleasure, she had the prettiest girls, as well as the most refined and cultivated... Her tongue ran on. That meant a stranger. How old? I paused, silent-slippered, at the top of the stairs. From here, you can see, in Mayu’s words, ‘close enough to spit’. Older men are generally sent my way. The ‘traditional’ clients, Mama-san calls them, those who like my tiny, doll-like feet and hands, and want to kid themselves they’re connoisseurs of high culture. I can even perform a tea ceremony and, in theory, play my late mother’s ancient koto, although I’ve not fitted the pick on my finger since I first left home. Fortunately, no client has ever asked me for that form of entertainment."
Lost children, a lonely woman, a secret witch...'October' was inspired by many things including empty nest syndrome and traditional remembrances of the dead. " The cherry-coloured school bus pulled up under the tall pines. Standing by her large bay window, the woman watched three children clamber in. She remembered her own boys waiting in the trees’ shade before they were old enough to go to comp. Watching the other mothers turn into their empty homes she recalled the silence waiting like a mouth. The woman went into her kitchen and dealt out bacon and eggs for her husband. For her sons there were poached eggs on toast and granola with orange juice. A warmed teapot – the husband always abhorred the bitterness of coffee – sat and steamed beside a ruby toaster. She herself took only milk for breakfast. Milk was a whole food. She was inclined to pick at the leftovers on their plates, though, like a little bird – or a carrion crow, her husband once had muttered. He had never been very nice to her, and any vestiges of civility were abandoned early on. Her table was well laid, and a source of pride to her. These days no one bothered to iron table linen, yet hers was crisp and clean beneath her polished silverware. A white candelabra furnished the centre of the table, a framed portrait of the family beside it. Miraculously, they had all been captured smiling. After the meal it was time to walk to school. The local comp was not far away. She did not really need to go, of course, but she enjoyed the walk, especially in this weather..."