Wednesday, 18 September 2019

Loves and Leaves

by Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik

pumpkin spiced latte

 

Why may not I be loved?
Why must always it be this way?
O’ why does the wind blow?
Why do the leaves decay?

Why must I be punished for
My transgressions against love?
Be reminded of my trespasses,
Tears fall with the cry of the dove.

O’ love does not love me,
Else, it would not treat me this way,
Yet the wind still does blow,
And the leaves do still decay.

Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Palvine Part 3


By Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik

spiced warm red wine


It was strange to see him outside. In the night air. He seemed happy, though I knew it must now be common place for him to be outside I suppose I didn’t really appreciate the feel of the chilled night air upon my skin and the soft sea breeze in my hair. As we walked further and further down the hill we talked more and more as we warmed to one another, he told me of his apartment on Rue de Liberte and of his new piano and of how he’d missed me so. Sylvester’s voice was soft and wanting. It was then that I asked the question I had been longing to ask; had he met anyone else? This I asked in a subtle whisper and was answered with a permissive story of Marius Chevallier and Camille Douchant who lived around him and I found myself smiling over the idea that Sylvester had friends. He told me that the former had lived in Brittany but had moved to Paris in his late teens to sell his paintings and that the latter did not know what she wanted to do with her life so she currently worked at a bar by the Seine and made extra money in the evenings. I was not sure if I liked the idea of my Sylvester meeting with women of the night but I said nothing. He seemed so happy in his new life as a Parisian pianist.

The life he lived without me.

As we approached the docks, a cool salted scene breeched my nose. The waves were fairly calm tonight though a few black storm clouds floated calmly above as if waiting to strike the boat as it crossed the ocean to our destination. Brittany. Then onto Paris by train. It was then that I noticed that Sylvester had taken hold of my left hand in his right and was gliding his thumb up and down my flesh gently. I looked at him for a moment and he spoke to me as he used to; “My dear, when we embark, may we make love?” he whispered in a tentative voice as if broaching a question best left unanswered. A question he was frightened of asking for he perhaps feared the answer. Why? Of course, I wanted him, of course, I love him, and how could he not know? Had he not felt love’s keen sting as I had- have?

He took my hand in his a little tighter as he lead me up the ramp to board the boat and helped me get my case up over the step. We looked at each other for a deafeningly long moment before we began with the other passengers along the narrow crimson-carpeted corridors and up the steep steps until we reached our cabin. Sylvester slipped the key into the golden lock, as he turned his wrist the key clicked, and he pushed the wooden door open. He looked at me again as he closed the door and I stared back almost blankly “I feel like a little girl on the voyage to the new world.” I whispered with a slight smile.  “It’s awfully cold,” I continued, attempting to seduce him somewhat.
“It is isn’t it?” H smiled “I shall have to keep you warm,.” he said with a short directed nod. “I know ways of keeping young ladies warm…” he murmured, his lips coming towards my ear. 
I took him in my arms and he began to kiss my pale neck and whispered sweet muffled words into my skin.

“I love you,” he whispered. 
I repeated him and found myself falling backwards against the door half slumped, awaiting his body to lead mine. He saw his chance and took it, in a deft sweeping motion he pulled my dress off over my head and pulled his shirt off and knelt down. He reached his hands under my exposed thighs and lifted me up to his shoulders. What happened next was a blur of happiness, love and him. Only him.




Monday, 16 September 2019

Darkness Descended


by Phyllis Souza

ruby port

 
1921—Southern California, ten miles east of the Pacific Ocean

Ten-year-old Laura posed for a photograph. To her mother, she looked stoic. Her mouth stretched wide turned down at the corners. Dark curls were hanging below her shoulders. A big bow pinned in her hair.  Snap! In a millisecond, the camera captured her sadness.
"Mama, I have a headache," Laura complained.
Emily placed her hand on her daughter's forehead. "You're burning up. Crawl into bed. I'll get you some water and a couple of aspirin."
A few minutes later, Emily handed Laura the pills.
"My throat hurts.”
"Don't whine. Take the pills."
Laura placed the tablets in her mouth and with a few sips of water managed to swallow.
Falling back, she dropped her head onto the pillow and fell into a restless sleep.
A couple of hours later, around three, Laura woke up with a stiff neck. Doctor Diaz, the family doctor, had been called to the house.
"It looks like polio. The beaches and theaters are closed. Worst summer epidemic I've seen in years." He put the stethoscope back in his black medical bag. Shaking his head, he said, "Terrible disease. Just terrible.”
"What can we do?" Emily asked.
"As far as I know—hot compresses may help prevent paralysis. Work Laura's limbs, bending her knees and elbows." 
Laura's father Manuel and her mother cut wool blankets into strips, dipped them in hot water, wrung them out, and then wrapped them around Laura's arms and legs.
After about a week, the illness passed. However, one of Laura's legs never developed as it should, and she walked with a limp.

1925— Manuel died from tuberculosis

The parish priest, still a little hung-over from drinking too much wine the night before, gave a brief eulogy. "Dust to dust."  He cleared his throat. Then said, "Manuel was thirty-nine. A husband. A father. Although he wasn't a churchgoer, he was a Christian. The priest gazed at the few mourners gathered at the side of the grave. “And if you were to ask him if he’d come back, no doubt in my mind, that Manuel would say, no."
Clasping his prayer book to his chest, "Now let us bow our heads and pray, Our Father— May he rest in peace."
Emily, dry-eyed, stood next to her daughter. Laura sobbed while staring at the plain brown casket.
"Laura, stop crying. He's gone. Let's go." Emily said. "At least we still have a home. No money, but a home."
"Mama, please. I don't want to leave Papa alone." 
"Don't be such a baby. Everyone's leaving. And so are we." Emily grabbed Laura's arm. "Come on."
Laura, dressed in a black coat, wept as she hobbled behind Emily to the curb of All Souls Cemetery.

Fishing boats unloaded

Dressed in a white uniform, and wearing a hairnet, Emily left the house early every morning to go to work at a seafood cannery.
A bugle like sound blasted throughout the Pacific Tuna Cannery Company. It was time to go to work. Emily used a timesheet to check-in. "I hate this place," she said to herself. The pungent smell of fish filled the air.
Along with a hundred other women,  on each side on a long table, a large pan at each station, Emily, stood all day with a knife in her hands cleaning fish.
The first thing she did when she got home was to pour a hefty helping of "Lux Flakes" under hot running water into the bathtub. With a bar of Ivory ififty one hand and a washrag in the other, Emily immersed herself in mounds of bubbles. "Ah, this feels so good."
As relaxed as she was, she still fervently lathered up the cloth with soap, and scrubbed her face, neck, arms, and legs, trying to remove the stench of fish.


1933—The neighborhood grocery store

A bell tied to a screen door jingled. Laura slowly limped into the grocery store. Joe Pimentel, the proprietor, stopped stacking canned goods on shelves, and pleasantly said, "Good morning, what can I get for you?"
"One can of tomato sauce and an onion. I'm making chicken soup for dinner. My mother's favorite."
"How's your mother?"
"Complains a lot. But she's okay."
"Still working at the cannery?"
"Yeah, still working. If it weren't for my leg, I'd probably be there too.”
Leaning in close, "Sunshine, you're much too pretty to pack tuna into a can."
Laura blushed, "Thank you. But I think not."
"Excuse me for a minute; I'll get an onion. And the tomato sauce." Joe walked away.  A minute later, he came back with Laura's order.
A few days later, Laura paid another visit to the store.
She waited at the counter for Joe to come out from a back room, where she presumed was where he slept. I wonder if he has a girlfriend hiding in there?
 "Sorry to keep you waiting. I needed to get a saucer of milk for Tigger." Joe set down the dish on the floor near the empty wine barrel that he used as a table.
"That's okay.” Feeling embarrassed about her thought, Laura looked away, in fact, she looked all around the store, “Where's your cat? He usually runs over to greet me."
"He's around here someplace." Joe called, "Tigger."
An orange striped cat darted out from under the counter on the other side of the store and came running.
"Don't tell me. Let me guess. You need an onion and can of tomato sauce?" Joe laughed.
"Oh no, just a couple of slices of baloney and a loaf of bread." Laura brushed away a strand hair away from her face, "I bet you think I use an awful lot of onions and tomato sauce."  
Just then the cat jumped on top of the counter.  "Well Tigger, you tell him I need 'em to make stews, meatloaves, and soups." Laura chuckled, flashing a beautiful smile.
"It seems like everybody wants a baloney sandwich these days.” Joe sliced two pieces off a big roll of Bologna.
As she handed a dollar to Joe to pay for her purchase, he grasped her hand. "I'd like to call on you. Maybe stop by your home sometime?"
"Oh, I don't know." Feeling the warmth of his fingers, she paused. Gazing into his soft brown eyes, and and as he gazed into in hers, she said,  "That would be nice."
"Perhaps tomorrow, around seven."
"Tomorrow around seven is fine."

Joe paid Laura a visit

Although Joe was at least ten years older than Laura, he came calling. Three months later, he asked her to marry him.
When Laura told her mother about the proposal, Emily laughed, "Joe asked you? What did you say?"
"I said, yes."
"That's ridiculous. Why would Joe do something like that?" Emily pursed her lips and lowered her voice, "I'm prettier."
"What did you say?"
"Nothing." Emily raised her hand in dismissal.
Laura knew her mother was comparing herself to her daughter and had been surprised that someone, like Joe, could have proposed marriage. Emily was jealous.

First Anniversary

With his heart filled with love, Joe handed Laura one dozen, long-stemmed, red roses, and said, "Happy Anniversary." He kissed her on the cheek.
"Oh, Joe, they're beautiful," Laura buried her nose in the flowers. She inhaled.  "They smell lovely, I can't believe it's been a year."
"The happiest year of my life."
"Mine too." Laura smiled. "I'll get a vase.” She hobbled over to a counter, put down the flowers, leaned over and took an Art Deco container out from the cabinet under the kitchen sink.
After a pot roast dinner, Joe poured Marcella wine into two glasses. He raised his drink, "May we have many more years."
"Yes, many more."

 Fall turns to winter

I'm so tired. I'll lie down a few minutes before I start dinner. Laura held onto the armrest of the sofa and lowered herself onto a cushion. Stretching out, she closed her eyes.  Don't let Joe see you resting. He might think you're sick. 
 She remembered what her mother said when she saw her napping: 'Goddamnit, you know I'm hungry when I come home from work.  Just because you're tired, that's no excuse.'  
She rested for ten minutes, and then slowly getting up, shuffled to the kitchen. While standing at the sink peeling potatoes for dinner, Laura's began to cough continuously. Her chest hurt. She felt hot. Beads of sweat formed above her upper lip and across her forehead.She saw stars and everything blurred. Laura collapsed.
When Joe walked in and found Laura sprawled on the floor, he rushed to her. "Laura. Oh, my God, Laura."
He dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around her.  He noticed blood in the corner of her mouth.
Billowing white curtains floated like ghosts reaching through an open window. Laura lay flat on her back in bed. She'd been diagnosed with tuberculosis.
At seven in the evening, Emily stopped by the modest home attached to the store.  She had swept her hair up into pompadour, her eyebrows were plucked into an arch, and and she had painted her lips painted red.
Joe sat at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and looked up when Emily barged in without knocking. "You're made up. Going someplace?" he asked.
"Only here." She smiled. "Thought you might like some chicken soup."
"Thanks, Emily. Put it on top of the stove."
"You must get lonely, with Laura being sick in bed.” She put the pot down on a back burner.
“I’ll heat it later. I’m sure Laura will enjoy it.” He took a sip of his coffee.
"I guess I better check on her." Emily knocked, cracked open the bedroom door, and holding onto its edge, she popped her head into the room, "How do you feel? I brought dinner."
"That's not necessary, Joe knows how to cook." I hate that she stops by here every night. She doesn't care about me. I know what she wants.
"Doing my duty, that's all. Doing my duty." She closed the door.
Tears trickled down Laura's cheeks when she heard Emily's laughter in the kitchen. I wish she'd stay away.

Darkness descended 

A few weeks later, the flame of a candle sitting on top of the nightstand was reaching the bottom of its wick, it sputtered as Laura struggled to take her last breath.
Joe drowned himself, but not in religion. He didn't believe in God. Not in his work, because that didn't matter anymore. Not in liquor, it only dulled his senses. None of these. He wanted a wife. So, Joe married Emily. 
Within a few months, Emily changed.  No longer the laughing, carefree woman he'd known, she nagged and spent money as fast as he could make it.  He felt like an insect caught in a black widow's web and needed to cut free. 
Joe divorced Emily. He sold his store and journeyed by boat to live near his brother in Brazil.
Emily continued to work at the fish cannery. She kept her eyebrows plucked, put on her makeup, and still wore her hair in a pompadour. She looked good, but would never be able to wash away the stench of fish.


About the Author
Phyllis Souza lives in Northern California and is retired from a long real estate career. After taking several on-line writing classes, she started writing flash fiction and short stories. Her stories have been published in CaféLit, Spillwords, and Friday Flash Fiction. 

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Present Tense

by Kathy Sharp

bitter lemon

‘I go for a walk in the park,’ says Robert with infinite care. ‘It is nice there. The flowers are pretty.’

‘Very good,’ says his mother, wiping away tears. ‘What else do you see there?’

Robert frowns, squeezes his eyes shut. ‘The children play football. They kick the ball. It goes through the greenhouse window.’

‘Oh, dear,’ says his mother, trying to keep her voice even. ‘That’s a good story, though.’

Robert is all smiles, pleased with himself. ‘Crash!’ he says. And then his face falls and he goes quiet.
His mother pats his shoulder. He doesn’t often speak, not since the accident. But sometimes he tells little stories. It’s all she has left of the man he used to be.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Milly and her Iridescent Pantyhose

by Robin Wrigley

pink gin



The first time I spoke to Milly was at the check-out counter at Sainsbury’s. I had seen her just about every day as she passed my house on her way to sit on the bench seat outside the village church, but until today the opportunity to speak had never arisen.
     The first time I saw her I nicknamed her ‘of iridescent panty hose’ as it was an Australian journalist’s description of Rudolf Nureyev’s appearance when he first performed in Sydney in the seventies.
     I learned her name was Milly simply by asking the fellow in the village newsagents who seemed to know everything about everybody including myself and I had only been in the village a matter of days.
     She was an elegant lady in her late seventies, always well turned out with much attention paid to her make-up and the different bright coloured stockings carefully colour coordinated
with her outfit.
     ‘Excuse me young man but I couldn’t help noticing that your shoelace was undone.’ The voice came directly from behind me. I turned to see Milly.
     ‘That is of course unless you had intended them to be undone as I understand it is a fashion with young people today,’ she continued.
     I thanked her and bent to tie my shoelace.
     ‘You live in Arnmouth don’t you? Just moved into the Ivy House I understand,’ she continued   before I had a chance to reply as I returned to standing.
     By this time the lady at the till had passed all my purchases through and asked me if I needed help with packing as I had so far not managed to put my few purchases in my bag. I got the impression she was more interested in Milly’s interrogation of me than serving me.
     I put my items into my bag, paid and turned to Milly.
     ‘Would you like a lift back to the village?’ I nearly added her name to the invitation but stopped short realising how improper that would be. ‘My car is in the car park and I am going straight back to the village.’
     ‘Thank you, that would be very kind and save me both the walk to the bus stop not to mention the exorbitant fare the bus company charges these days.’ This was said more to the cashier than me, who nodded approvingly. They then started a conversation as if between old friends, so I retired to a seat close by and waited for her.
     Milly and I walked slowly over to my car. I offered to carry her shopping, but she declined even though she struggled with a walking stick.
     ‘No that’s kind but I manage this quite well every Thursday by myself and prefer to do so even though my son does offer to do my shopping for me. Heavens only know time passes slowly enough as it is and if I don’t get on and do these things under my own steam I might as well pack up and move into the nursing home. Of course, that is what my son would like me to do but they’ll have to carry me there kicking and screaming before that happens, I can tell you.’ She allowed herself a brief smile.
     As I opened the passenger door for her, having been permitted to put her shopping bag into the boot, the first thing she said was, ‘This is rather a grand car, what do you do that allows you to go shopping in the daytime?’
     The drive home was short and pleasant during which time Milly managed to extract from me my life history and only stopped short from asking how much I earned and how come I lived on my own. At one point I felt she was going to ask if I was gay. About all I learned from her was that she had been a widow for ten years and had a son, an agricultural estate agent who lived in the next village.

It was quite extraordinary, from that simple conversation in a supermarket counter a friendship developed over the next five years until Milly passed away. She managed to avoid the threat of the nursing home. Her walking stick became her constant companion and I proved useful by offering and been finally accepted to giving her a lift in both directions to town on Thursdays.
     When I once inquired as to how she managed when I was away from time to time all she said was, ‘I managed it before you came Roger and I will manage when you leave, which of course you will.’
     She was right, of course as I did leave but it was eighteen months after she died. I attended her funeral as did most of the village. She was buried in the churchyard next to the seat where she sat dressed in her iridescent stockings on any day fine enough to do so.
     About a month after her death I received an official looking letter from her solicitor informing me Milly had named me in her will and that I should contact his office.
     She left me her walking stick and the instruction that I might need it one day if I ever walked further than my garage.

About the author 

Robin, a relative newcomer to short story writing, has spent the majority of his adult life as a land surveyor and later a country manager working in over twenty countries world-wide. The variety of the situations he has faced and the people he has met inspired him to create many of the stories he creates. His stories have been featured both on line and in print with CafeLit as well as two other short story collections. He is a member of the Wimborne Writers’ Group.
    




Friday, 13 September 2019

Palvine Part 2

by Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik

honeyed mead


I found it hard to believe as I read and marvelled at how lucky I was to have found this note. Of course I still wanted to be his lover and of course I would come to him, I took a moment to flatter myself as to how Sylvester must have felt doubting if I still wanted him. I looked up into the thick gnarled branches of the blossomless tree and whispered my avid thanks into the air. I then regained myself and stood up hurriedly as I felt a droplet of water fall onto my hand realising that one of the famous September storms was about to unleash itself over the town. Grasping the note in my left hand I re opened the gate which had been blown half shut by the wind and ran down Old Oakbourne Street with the cold rain falling thickly and plastering my dark hair against my face until I could hardly see. What does a girl need to live in Paris? I had no clothes for the occasion, only a broken suitcase, hardly any make up and - now I came to think of it - no lingerie.

After a long afternoon at the shops, my note still clamped in my hand, I returned home to pack everything I would need in my battered suitcase, had a shower and caught up on some waxing. It was then that I dreamt of him; how had nine months changed him? Had he met anyone else? What was he doing to pass the time? Was he was wonderful as I had remembered him to be? I so wished that time wasn’t so cruel; that it hadn’t stolen Sylvester’s teenage years and that it had given us longer together. I wished that time didn’t march on in the way that it does for I could happily wait in this moment for ever.

Waiting for him.

As I packed, I began to realise that I would perhaps never see this place again: this town would cease to be my home and Old Oakbourne Street and Addison Avenue and all the other places I had once been a part of would slip into my memory and cease to be a part of me. Like all the good things in my life. Like beads on a string; cut the string and the beads scatter out onto the floor and into dark corners and soon you forget that you ever lost the beads to begin with.

Time ticked forward as I night drew in closer and I got my last things together and dressed in my coat and heeled boots and grabbed my case. I was very excited to see him. I closed the door to my old house with a heavy heart and began up the street to the corner to onto the lane and then onto Oakbourne Square then onto the end of Old Oakbourne Street. It was just as it had been the previous year; cold and dark and full of promise. It was almost nine. I held my breath. I once again opened the rusted gate and stood squarely under the now gnarled blossom tree. My senses heightened and my eyes once more scanned for the slightest movement to indicate that Sylvester was here and as the bells of Trinity Chapel chimed the hour, I closed my eyes and imagined him before me. My lover.

At the last chime of the bells, he appeared before me. An omen apparition it almost seemed. His hair was just as I had remembered it. His eyes. His cheek bones. His shoulders. He was beautiful. He looked at me with a look I had certainly seen before and leaned in close to my ear and whispered “We shall run and we both shall be free.” And with another look into my eyes, Sylvester kissed me. It was heaven. He took my hand and pulled me lightly down the hill to the docks from which the boat would soon leave. 

Thursday, 12 September 2019

Palvine Part 1 (this is an a sequal to The Curious Affair of The Palvine Residence)

 by Mitzi Danielson-Kaslik

warm port

That had been all I had seen of Sylvester Spence Palvine. The note on the piano. Nothing more. Yet, if that note had not existed, I do believe I would have tricked myself into believing that Sylvester was simply a figment of my imagination. I looked at the words he had written nightly and stared blankly at the swirly formation the ink had left upon the thick cream parchment and almost watched as my hot tears re fell onto the page and re blotted the ink. The same tears that had fallen so thickly and had prompted me to plant the tree. Blossoms for Sylvester. I so wished he had seen the May blossoms.

As the summer escaped me and the nights grew ever longer and the leaves on the blossom tree turned copper crisp and cast themselves to the wind, I felt myself beginning to forget Sylvester and the night we had spent together. It frightened me. I feared that I would forget what had come to pass between us, though I was increasingly realising that that wasn’t much at all. It was the most precious memory I had and I prayed I would never lose it.

My struggle drew me to a quote from Peter Pan: Never say ‘goodbye’ because saying ‘goodbye’ means going away and going away means forgetting. If truth be told, he and I never did truly say goodbye so I had hoped that memory would be kind and time would forgive me and allow me to keep him alive within me. It only dawned on me that Sylvester Spence Palvine might, in fact, no longer be alive. I had then attempted to banish such thoughts from my mind, though with it I seemed to banish thoughts of the man himself from entering my thoughts which was surely not my intention.

I truly loved Sylvester.

But if had been so quick to fall in love with him, perhaps I would love again, but that thought was of little solace now.

So, for the better part of nine months, Sylvester Spence Palvine cased to exist as a part of my life. Life went on. Sylvester became a whisper from behind the door; the cold steam which clouds the mirror; the voice that guided me through the passage ways of my mind. He was a part of me. I continued to live as I had previously; alone and singularly wondering where life would take me.

It was a dull autumnal day that brought me back to The Palvine Residence. It was Halloween again and I somehow felt compelled to return. Though I did not go in the evening, it was almost as if I suspected there to be a pumpkin there, though all logic told me otherwise. I did not then know why I felt this way, but it seemed as if something was calling me to the now leafless blossom tree. So, with a heavy yet oddly hopeful heart, I returned to the iron gates of The Palvine Residence on Old Oakbourne Street. To my surprise, I had not actually re-visited the house for around six months and the paint work of the exterior was further peeling than it had been when I first had noticed the pumpkin precisely a year ago. The blossom tree still stood, thankfully. Thick ivy grew over the gate and the recent rain had rusted the fastening to such an extent that I had to press my entire body weight against it for the gate to open and allow me passage into the estate.

I tripped over the threshold and into the once driveway of the place and looked around, scanning my surroundings as if I were suspecting to see him hiding in the corner of my eye. He was not hiding. He was gone from this place. The prison of the world’s design. I sat down beneath the tree and placed my head in my hands. I closed my eyes.

Would this not all have been easier if I had never seen the pumpkin and never spoken to Rita Pearlhall and never met Florence Parker and never allowed my heart to be captured by a man of… - come to think of it, I didn’t even know how old Sylvester was.

I cried.

I missed Sylvester with all my heart.

It was at that moment as I whispered his name into the wind that I felt something land squarely in my lap and opened my eyes sharply. It was a small piece of paper. I turned it over and felt it smooth and fine beneath my finger tips; thick black ink had left a swirly formation upon the cream surface of the parchment. I knew this handwriting.

My Love,
I am so sorry I could not contact you sooner, but I only knew you would come back to the house today. I do so hope you are happy and will not think ill of you if you have met another. I have left this place for Paris and have just established myself there in the artists’ quarter of the city. I wish you, if you still wish to be my lover, to meet me with your things under the blossom tree you so kindly planted for me tonight as the clock strikes nine. We do not have much time. We shall, if you are willing, take a boat to France and board an overnight train into Paris and from there I will take you to my new home.
Until this evening,
S.S.P.
I marvelled at his words. I would see my lover again.

D


Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Schadenfreude

by Maxine Churchman

still water


Something was up: terse welcomes and furtive glances as I entered. No-one met my eye. On my desk stood a plastic toy goat; they all knew. My face burned with indignation as I heard stifled sniggers. Sitting, I pretended not to notice.

My phone bleeped indicating a new message. It was a video snippet showing my humiliation. The goat charged, bang, splat, I landed face first in mud. I imagined it was someone else and realised it looked hilarious. I chuckled. Laughter broke out as my colleagues crowded me. I was astounded, they weren’t laughing at me but with me.

About the author

Maxine Churchman lives in Essex UK and has recently started writing poetry and short stories to share. Her work has been included in anthologies by Stormy Island Publishing, Black Hare Press and Clarendon House Publishing. Her interests include reading, walking and teaching yoga. She is also in the early stages of planning a novel.

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Perfection of Hopelessness

by Sally Zigmund

Russian Tea


I’m drifting in the warm shallows between sleep and wakefulness when Tatiana shakes my shoulder.
‘We’re to leave without delay. Orders!’ she spits, dribbling saliva in my ear. I wipe it away with my shift I wear overnight. I no longer have my broderies anglaises nightgowns I stitched with such care.
‘At midnight? That’s stupid!’ I hiss back. Anastasia’s head pops out from underneath her blankets like a kitten from a basket. ‘What does silly old Yurovsky thinks he's playing at?’
Mama’s voice is grey with weariness. ‘Mein Gott. Why won’t they leave us alone? Come, Mashka, help me. Ach. my back aches so.’
‘I’m here,’ says Maria. ‘Is it the cream blouse or the blue?’
Mama is the Tsaritsa to her fingertips. She will speak English although we have been ordered only to speak Russian.
‘What has changed?’ she asked, ferocious yet bewildered, some months ago when the train brought us here from Tobolsk. We had been prisoners there, too, but at least we could sit at the window and wave to the peasants passing by, watch chaffinches pecking the crumbs we threw to them, gaze at the clouds sailing above us, write and receive letters.
Here, the windows are boarded up.
‘What is happening out there?’
‘Nothing is happening.’
So they say and we accept. How can we not? We read books, we pray, we play endless games of bezique; shuffle the packs and play until we are numb with boredom, feigning hope. We are allowed to pace the garden for an hour a day when it is not raining. We suffer without complaint the summer’s sultry heat, the storms, the furious rain that sweeps down from the Urals. There is nothing else we can do.
I hear the rustle of cotton in the gloom as we dress. Downstairs, the slamming of doors, the thud of boots is that of falling trees; the whispers like the scurrying of rats through straw. Sporadic gunfire peppers the world beyond, a world that no longer exists for us: the forests, the mountains, the railway lines, the riven arteries of war. But who is firing at whom or why, we do not know.
It is unknowing that paralyses us, as surely as Alexey’s thin blood cripples him. We are diminished like the soldiers we sisters used to nurse in the hospitals of Saint Petersburg when the war was new and glorious. Not so long ago but we have grown so old.
Papa speaks from the shadows. ‘We are being taken to England. Cousin George will not abandon us. He was behind those smuggled letters and plans.’
Plans that expect eleven people (two in wheelchairs) to squeeze through a narrow skylight, slide down a drainpipe and dash across an open courtyard with machine guns angled towards every entrance.
Anastasia sighs in the darkness. ‘The English breed fine horses.’
‘Not as fine as ours,’ says Papa. 'Now, the Cossacks…’
‘…I have a fine troop of Cossack horsemen in my model army,’ pipes Alexey.
Why are we talking about horses?
Maria soothes Mama’s grumbles as she lifts her arms, shifts her matchstick legs, coaxes her into her clothes. Papa lights a cigarette. It fills the room with the stench of burnt manure. He, who once smoked the best, custom-made, monogrammed cheroots.
Maria says, ‘Let me straighten your collar, Mama. There you are. Done. Come on, Alexey. Your turn. Sit up for me, please, darling.’
‘Can we take the dogs?’
‘I am sure we can, but I will ask,’ says Tatiana. I hear her walk to the door.
‘No!’ Mama’s voice is sharp. ‘We do not ask! We do not beg.’
Tatiana pauses, her hand on the latch. ‘Someone is listening outside the door.’
So? I care not. Do I alone know this is the end? But it is not the end but the beginning of the life of perfection. I sit on the edge of my bed and close my eyes. The fitful conversation around me becomes no more than the sighing of the wind in the cherry trees that once blossomed outside my window. I dream of perfection. Papa dreams of becoming an English farmer; to wear tweeds, shoot pheasants. I think of summers on the Isle of Wight with our English cousins, when the Schandart slid through silky water into Cowes harbour on a swell of polite English applause; when the Russian national anthem wafted towards us on the salt air; waving to our cousins, King George and the Prince of Wales, by his side. There was once talk of us marrying and my becoming Queen of England. Nothing came of it. I am pleased. I would not, will not leave Russia. Russia is my soul. The Church of Russia is the one true church, the only one that brings theosis—union with God. Paradise. This is my desire.
I open my eyes. I raise an arm and examine it. It floats before me, thin and white as skimmed milk in the gloom. It is no longer my arm, no longer my body, but flesh and bone, being refined, sublimated in the spirit. I no longer bleed. I shun the food they give us. I have surpassed hunger. My prayers sustain me.
Papa mourns his routine, his daily newspapers, his bulletins from the war, official papers which he read with such attention to detail, signing papers in the way his father did and his father before him. What need is there of change? The soul needs to trust the path that leads to God. Accept. Endure.
‘They are taking us to Livadia,’ says Anastasia, rushing to Papa to envelop him in a hug. ‘The palace is far away from the fighting, is it not?’
‘Perhaps, my little schwipsig,’ he says, stubbing out his cigarette and lighting another. ‘Perhaps.’ There are times I envy her naïveté, her ability to poke fun at our gaolers behind their backs, mimic their accents and mannerisms.
       
If I close my eyes, I am in Livadia, our palace of dreams, my face tilted towards the sun I can smell the pines on the cliffs, the blowsy roses dropping petals along the paths. I can hear the crunch of gravel beneath my feet as I take Papa’s arm and walk with him through the restless palms, breathing the magnolias, bougainvillea, the drowsy scent of chamomile, grass and mint our feet crush as we stroll together. The dogs scamper after us, leaving looping silver trails in the lawns that slope towards the blue, blue sea. The shrubs are thick with swallowtails. Papa claps his hands and they swirl around us like confetti ...
‘This is intolerable,’ says Mama. ‘Why did they wake us so early?’
She snaps the thread of my dreams. The perfume is the stink of petrol, the crash of waves on the beach is the marching feet of soldiers going who knows where and who knows why.
‘Why will no-one tell us what is happening?’ Tatiana moans.
What will be will be. I mouth the words that comfort me. Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The door opens; an arc of light across the floor. We are silhouettes, casting shadows which will remain forever in this place. We are imprinted in its floors, its walls. It has absorbed us. We will always be here. Like the calendar on the wall that hasn’t been changed for weeks.
‘Follow me,’ snaps Yurovsky.
We step out onto the landing. We wait. Papa stands first in line, Alexey in his arms, then Mama, who beckons me to her side. My sisters and our four loyal servants follow.
‘What about our things?’ Tatiana is ever practical.
He almost smiles. ‘Do not worry about trivialities.’ I have a desire to hug him. He is right. I long to tell my family that perfection awaits us so why fear the future on this earth.  Yet we know not when exactly so we must always be ready. Perfection will come to us where Alexey will no longer bleed, Mama will no never feel pain again and Papa can walk his English fields forever in plus-fours. I also know they will not listen to me or smile at me and shake their heads. We follow fussy old Yurovsky into the darkness, as he casts furtive glances over his shoulder, counting heads, a nervous goose leading its brood away from the following scent of a fox.
Our progress is slow; one by one, we step outside, across a cobbled yard, then through another door; then down more steps into a basement. The air is cool and musty. I smell mushrooms, potatoes, a hint of last year’s apples and coal dust. Facing us is another door, open and flanked by two boys, one of whom shifts his rifle from his shoulder and uses it as a peasant’s stick to guide us as if we are pigs.
We are in an empty storeroom; its windows boarded, its walls featureless. A naked light-bulb hangs from the ceiling, feeble, apologetic. We arrange ourselves so that we face the door. Papa stands, still cradling Alexey who clings to him like a monkey. His child’s eyes, wide with curiosity, observe. To the left of Papa, Maria and Anastasia clutch each other’s hand. Tatiana’s back is stiff and proud. Behind us, our servants are vigilant, ready to defend us.
Yurovsky says, ‘You will wait here for the truck that is to take you to safety.’
‘Why are there no chairs?’ Mama’s voice is a cracked bell that clangs against the bare walls. ‘I cannot be expected to stand with my sciatica. And one for Alexey.’
Yurovsky cocks his dark head to someone behind him who is heard to mutter something I cannot make out but chairs are found.
Papa places Alexey on a chair next to him and helps lower Mama into hers. We wait. As if posing for a photograph, expectant, watchful.
The voice of my English governess. ‘Watch the birdie, Olga. Smile!’
The grating sound of a truck grows louder. Nearer. The sound of its engine fills the room, shakes the walls; the driver impatient, foot on the throttle. We wait.
The door opens. Yorovsky steps forward, a piece of paper in his hand. Behind him are more men—all strangers. ‘You will all stand … please.’ Why the politesse?
      Mama grumbles but struggles to her feet, pressing her weight on Papa’s elbow. Alexey would obey but cannot.
        Yurovsky coughs before he reads the document. He begins. He ends.
         It has come. Dear, Lord. I will very soon stand before you.
         The men raise their rifles. The stink of mouldy potatoes and damp fade and are replaced by the sweet scents of dew-laden freshly-mown grass, chamomile and mint crushed under my bare toes. I have found my perfection. Thanks be to God, blessed be thy name.  

Monday, 9 September 2019

The Purple Scarf


by Wendie Lovell

a glass of champagne with a splash of cassis


It was the scarves that first caught my eye. Brightly coloured scarves, swirling in the breeze, beckoning me inside the tiny shop in this charming French town. I stopped to take a photo. A magnificent backdrop against a bright blue sky.
 
   As I stepped inside, a tantalising aroma flirted with my nostrils. Incense? The small space was an Aladdin’s cave of trinkets. I wandered around, the relative darkness inside reflecting my mood. The shop appeared unoccupied apart from myself.

  My mind kept returning to the purple scarf I’d seen outside. I liked purple. With my life back home in shreds, I felt it might cheer me up, but how was I meant to purchase it if there was no one around? I caught sight of a bell on the counter. I would ring for assistance.

  A young woman appeared from behind the screen. She didn’t look well and I felt sorry for disturbing her.

  ‘Bonjour Madame.' I tried out my best French. ‘J'aimerais le foulard violet s'il vous plait.’ I gestured outside. She shuffled out of the door and came back holding the only purple scarf, but didn’t utter a word. “Merci beaucoup Madame.’ I said.

  She reached up and tied the scarf a little too tightly around my neck. I looked in the mirror and nodded, it was just what I needed. The price tag said 10 euros. I fumbled in my purse, pulled out a 10 euro note and handed it to her.

  ‘Ne reviens pas.’ She said. I was startled, why was she telling me not to come back? Not the sales tactic I was expecting.

  Pleased with my purchase, I sat in the little square outside the shop and ordered a coffee. I watched the scarves twisting and turning in the breeze, forming a rope of many colours. I ran my fingers over my silky scarf and it momentarily lifted my spirits. Oh the things one could do with a scarf!

  A week or so later, against the shopkeeper’s advice, I decided to return to the shop and purchase some more as presents to take home. I reached the tiny, vibrant square in the Bastide town and found there was a market taking place. It was difficult to spot the shop amongst all the hustle and bustle. Ah, but there it was, behind the fruit and veg stall. It was shut. I looked through the window and to my surprise it was empty and looked as though it was falling apart. I turned to the stall holder and enquired after the shop and the woman with the scarves.

  I shuddered when I was told that the shop had closed some years ago, after the woman who owned it had been found, her face the colour of the bright purple scarf she had been strangled with.

 

About the author


  Wendie has had two previous short stories published in CafeLit this year. This third story was inspired by a recent holiday in France.



Sunday, 8 September 2019

Sounds Unlikely

by John Nicholson

 

breakfast tea

 
The daughters of my best friends do not normally come to mind. Especially when I am washing up. Ruth is an exception.

It was the frog.

Sitting somewhere in the everglades of my kitchen sink was a frog that croaked. I swear. But all went silent. It must have seen me. 

Intrepid as ever I felt around in the water among the things I had put in it. A cereal bowl, a mug, a few bits of cutlery, a teapot lid, nothing else. I took out the little red lid and put it in the water I use to rinse things.

The frog croaked again.

Was it inside the lid? I picked the it out of the water, confirmed the frog was invisible, and put the lid back. It croaked at me again.

A stream of little bubbles had come up through the hole in the teapot lid to blow a froggy raspberry at me. 

That’s when I thought of Ruth. She would love it. A sound for one of her films. Croaking on demand, no recordings, electronic gubbins or a house-trained frog, just a teapot lid and a bowl of water. 

Perhaps I should write to Ruth, my Foley artist friend, and tell her, she who has trodden the TV tread of Inspector Morse  for her microphones, and danced the footsteps of Mama Mia, blending sonic scenarios with image and action. No I mustn’t. Give her a break. Mama mia, she would know I was losing it.

The trouble is I wash the lid every day. And when I do, Ruth and Foley come to mind. I play with it. I explore its resonance, its reverberations in different circumstances. In deep water it farts, a quick burst of bubbles. Immersed in shallow water it burbles like a baby. Would it be different in cold water? The lid is more than a plaything now. It is a research project in acoustics.

But last week, as I removed the last fork from the rinsing water, the draining board exploded. Plates slipped, pans clattered, and the teapot lid leapt to oblivion. It shattered into dozens of pieces on my tiled kitchen floor in an intense and splintering crash.

I blame Elizabeth David. Her classic recipe book had leapt from her companions on the shelf above the sink, my teapot lid collateral damage in her attempted suicide. Madhur Jaffrey, up there flat on her face, was next in line. Mmmm. Had Elizabeth been pushed? She might not have been easy company. Or is Delia doomed? Is there a serial killer up there on the shelf?

Now I have a whodunnit. I imagine culinary crime scenes and motives as I wash, rinse and drain. I dream up titles: Cereal Killer. A Menu of Motives. Raven’s Revenge. Slater on the Slab.

Science has given way to art, phonics to fiction. Kitchen sink drama trumps kitchen sink science.

Saturday, 7 September 2019

The Queen of Baked Alaska



Cathy Leonard  

a cup of Earl Grey tea

A shadow eclipsed the wedding shot of Lady Reece Beverly to Squire George Winthrop. Maisie Taylor clicked her tongue and raised her head to view the orbiting source of this hiatus in her perusal of last month’s copy of Hello. Ethel Stillman’s large frame filled the door of Dr Henry’s surgery and behind her, a double-shot to her pint-size, Arlen Stillman emerged hugging a crooked shoulder.

No caps tipped to Her Highness today. Most of the patients were blow-in yokels who didn’t know that Mrs Stillman had aspirations. Aspirations and one seat to share with the double-shot. Maisie watched the sixty-plus matron scope out the territory before directing her second-in-command to the three-legged stool at the end of the corridor that passed for a rural doctor’s waiting room.

Her skeletal smile belied the eruption flaring across Ethel’s neck and the unsoftened glare that followed her sighting of Albert Sweeney stretched across the battered two-seater, eyes buffered on the Dandy. It’s few Dandys that lad ever saw in his piggery, so not even a cosmic event was likely to scupper his gaze.

Maisie stroked the feather in her lapel, for Ethel was her arch rival in the Baked Alaska competition in the County Fair, and to downsize Ethel was accolades to her. She could forgo the fopperies of Hello would-be celebs for the foibles of a local one. And she knew something that Ethel didn’t.

Quietly steaming as the matron was now, fur rising on her faux-fox collar, hackles would soon eject at high speed. For Maisie Taylor was advised to keep her varicosed legs raised at hip level, and when Joe Carbery beside her went in to get his weekly blood check, she planned to ease her right calf into the much coveted vacated chair.