In the Space Between (part two)

Michael sat with his blue laptop balanced on his knees. The harsh glow illuminated his face in the darkening living room and created strange silhouettes and shapes across the walls. He scrolled through several news articles, all detailing the devastation Storm Sophie was creating outside. The snow had built up to such a height that it cut the window in half, only letting a narrow band of light through. He wondered if the name Sophie could ever have been theirs.

Michael stopped once more to study the visible layers each snowfall had made, like a stratum of rock. He could hear Anna tapping at her keyboard next door. She had been in her office all day and had only come out to make herself a sandwich just before two o’clock, complaining about the snow.

Michael closed the lid and chucked it on top of the green cushions they had bought in a small boutique on the High Street. Anna took long pauses between rhythmically beating her keyboard and he wondered what she thought about in those extended moments. He leaned forward and picked up his cigarette packet from the low, wooden coffee table. It had sat in the same position for the last few years, for so long it had left permanent impressions in the red high pile rug. He nudged the silver foil, which confirmed there was only one cigarette left. He knew there would be another sleeve in the office.

He knocked on the door, waiting to hear Anna’s voice on the other side. He beat the wooden surface again before turning the handle and stepping into the room. She had a pair of white earphones in each ear, her head faintly bouncing to a beat he couldn’t hear.

“Anna?”

She didn’t answer, so he approached the desk and opened the drawer next to her. She jumped, ripping the headphones out. One disappeared over her shoulder, balancing with the other one across her breast.

“You scared me” she exclaimed, holding her hand to her chest. She had painted her nails a different colour since this morning. They were now a garish pink that Michael didn’t recognise or like.

“I was just looking for more cigarettes.”

He noticed the cream pair of Sennheiser headphones sat at the back of her desk, an unused birthday gift from him.

“They’re in the filing cabinet” she said irate, before replacing the earphones and turning back to her computer screen. She was typing into a word document. He read part of the page and then tapped on her shoulder, but she swatted at his hands and continued typing.

“Anna?” He tried to take one earphone out of her ear but she pulled her head away. “Anna!”

“What! What Michael?” She ripped the earphones out once again and narrowed her eyes at him.

“Why are you working on this now?”

“What?”

“You don’t need to be doing this now.”

“I want to do it now, Michael.”

“But it’s pointless. The stats will all be different before March anyway.”

“It’s really none of your business. And what else am I going to do? We’re snowed in.”

“You’re right, totally right.”

Michael slammed the door behind him, instantly regretting forgetting the cigarettes. He went back into the living room and smoked his remaining one. The grey smoke tumbled around his head and stung his eyes. As it burnt to the end he got up and pulled the fibre optic cable from the back of the Wi-Fi hub. He sat on the sofa to wait, surprised he had never noticed how far his body sunk into the excessively plumped cushions.

“Michael!” Anna stormed through the doorframe. “The internet’s down.”

“Would you like me to take a look?”

“Yes. Please.”

“Okay, hunny” he grinned.

Anna gave him a thankful smile as he toyed with the black box, turning it around in his hands. He got on both knees and started fiddling with the plug socket. He switched it off and then back on, repeating this idle effort several times. The lights flickered in their pointless display.

“Is it okay?”

“Nothing seems to be wrong. Must be the storm.”

Anna picked both her arms up and then slapped them back down to her sides.

“I need it. I can’t write the report without the internet.”

“I’m sorry, Anna.”

She held one thin hand on her hip and used the other one to run through her hair. Today she had it down, straight and lank, and was wearing a black pair of silk harem pants with a loose cotton top. Michael smirked at her standing, lost, in the middle of her own living room.

“Coffee?” she asked.

“Sure. I’ll make them.”

 

 

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In the Space Between (part one)

Michael Thompson sat in his car and stared vacantly through the windscreen. Snow beat down on the roof, echoing loudly inside the small space. He could see his wife sitting at the kitchen table, framed by the large window. The room was lit up, while the rest of his home sat concealed in the evening’s shadows. She had already seen him waiting in the driveway; she saw him every night and had come to expect it. Just like he expected to haul himself inside to eat dinner in silence, to spend the evening in separate rooms, to work, to read, to watch different televisions.

This evening was unlike all the others. Michael pulled himself into the hallway, both shoulders hauled inwards and his head dipped down. She didn’t wait for him to go into the kitchen, to kick off his shoes or to ask how her day was.

“Michael?” She lingered in the doorway. He watched as her mouth stretched open and snapped shut. Her lips twitched with built-up strength. “There’s nothing keeping us here” she said.

His coat was too large for him now, the bulk made him resemble a fat brown cow. Michael unhooked the three oversized buttons and slid it from his shoulders without effort. He kept wearing it because it was expensive; his colleagues noticed the things that were valuable and the things that weren’t.

“America is a huge market. This is a brilliant opportunity for me.”

Michael hung the dripping material on the iron stand they had bought from an auction house last January. She had loved its ostentatious detail, so he had pretended to as well.

“We should call Pete. Cancel dinner tomorrow” he said.

“Michael, do you understand what I’m saying?”

He didn’t listen to her words, but felt the rot that crept beneath his coat and burrowed its way into his skin. It swam through his veins, causing hairs to stand up and muscles to tense.

“Do you understand what I’m asking?”

It was like a poison that dried his mouth and accelerated his heartbeat. The smell of overcooked lamb burnt his nostrils as he moved toward the kitchen.

“The radio said it’ll get worse over the weekend. Some homes further north are being evacuated.”

“Michael. I really need you to listen to me. I understand this must be hard.”

“Something about the El Nino cycle? I don’t know.”

Anna brought her hands up to her face, cupping her cheeks between her red fingernails.

“Michael, please” she said, the noise muffled in her palms.

He pushed past her in the doorway into the kitchen. She had already placed a bottle of golden single malt on the table, along with his favourite glass tumbler. A wedding gift. It had a natural slope and several large bubbles trying to escape the thick base. Michael picked it up and rolled it around in his grip. It wasn’t the decoration, but the faultless balance it possessed in the hand that he liked. He let each finger extend- pausing to feel the muscle stretch- until it was sat on his flat palm, which he twisted with a flick of the wrist. The glass split as it hit the new stone floor that had cost his whole bonus.

He heard her familiar gasp behind him and imagined how she might raise her right hand to her mouth, thin fingers bent. Michael carried on towards the red Rayburn stove and took the lid off the bright orange casserole pot perched on top. Lamb stew. Every Thursday. He picked out a lump of overcooked, floury potato and rolled it between his fingers.

“This is crap.”

“If you had come home when you said you would…”

“And I can control the bloody weather now can I?”

“I’m just saying, it’s not my fault.”

Michael switched on the kettle and picked up the salt cellar. He sprinkled flakes over the stew with his hand up at a height, so he could see the white mineral fall before it disappeared into the brown sticky sauce. He added black pepper, a stock cube and boiling water. Along the windowsill- carelessly tiled in blue and green- were pots of herbs. Some heads were bushy, some like bare trees growing up from the soil. Michael opened the drawer and observed the stack of stainless steel knives, recently sharpened with matching thick black handles. He thought of feeling the ungainly weight in his grip, and the keen edge of the blade. Instead he picked up a pair of scissors. Two cheap, blunt blades in blue plastic. Michael snipped the heads off several of the plants, catching a glance at the heavy snow outside, before sprinkling them into the pot.

“At least it might be edible now” he said.

“There’s no need to be nasty, Michael.”

“Is there not?”

Anna sat at the table. Her dark hair was tied back into a bun, framing her bare face. When they were young she had made the effort to curl and gloss the strands. She had used lipstick and had shaved her legs every day. They talked, not just about dinner or the weather but about the important things. They had sex. She whispered her secrets, he spoiled her.

Michael took two glasses from the cabinet above the stove, and was careful to avoid the shards as he padded across the floor. He sat in the chair opposite her and poured the ochre liquid into each tumbler. Half full. They both took short sips as they stared at the ground between them.

“I’m sorry” he said to split the silence.

“Ok” she said.

He lifted a cigarette from its white packet and held it between his lips before hovering the lighter’s flame in front of his eyes. His breath forced it to flitter briefly.

“You can’t always look at it like this, Michael.”

He lit the end of his cigarette and inhaled a gulp of smoke that enhanced the burning tip. He puffed his chest steadily, before it collapsed back.

“Look at what?” He said.

“At life. As unfair.”

“And you don’t think it’s unfair?”

“Well, yes. It can be, but at some point you have to move on. It’s been a year.” Her face widened, drawing attention to the lines that spread out from her eyes, the dark circles and the red puffiness. Her olive skin had lost its glow. “Or don’t. But you need to decide if you’re prepared to make this work” she continued, crossing her arms tightly, unaware of how it pushed her breasts skywards so that they appeared like half-moons above her pink scoop neckline. “I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t come, Michael.”

“Yes you would.” He felt her words more as a warning than a release.

“If you can’t forgive me I need to know. I’ve had enough, you have to start talking to me” she said, watching the snowfall hit the window. It made dense strikes against the glass.

“I don’t know, Anna. I don’t know what’s best.” Michael studied her face. Her once plump lips were now just a narrow, pale line across her face. His cigarette was smoking close to its tar stained stump. Anna reached for his packet across the table and removed two, handing another to Michael. She held hers in her svelte hand- turning it around- before she bothered to search for a lighter in amongst the glasses, flowers, whisky and yesterday’s empty wine bottle.

“What does that mean?” she asked as she watched him crumple his used cigarette into the glass ashtray with the base of his thumb. “Do you still love me Michael?”

He hesitated for a moment, then gave her a smile that was turned down at the sides. “Of course.”

They both knew he wasn’t sure anymore.

“Even after this?”

“Of course” he replied instantly, expecting the question this time.

Anna’s lips curled back into her mouth as she stubbed her half smoked cigarette into the glass ashtray. Her chipped and painted nails were too long; they dipped themselves into the spread of ash.

“Could you have ever loved two people, Michael? Like, really loved them? Had the right time for them?” she asked.

“Why are we doing this, Anna?”

“I tried. Tried to love two people. I love you Micky, that hasn’t changed.”

“This isn’t going to help anyone, Anna. It’s done now, it’s not going to change anything.”

He stood up from the table and looked around the room. Six years of marriage had created this. The pots, the pans, the cups and the food in the fridge. Every knife and fork and spoon. The tiger loaf in the bread bin. The cookery books, the diet magazines, the rioja wine, the cheese board and the unused pasta machine under the sink. Their lives had become messy and entangled and routine.

Michael spooned the stew into two bowls with an olive wood ladle. Soft purple onions and lumps of potato sat in the puddle of nut-brown liquid, which splattered up the sides of the sides of the blue Denby cereal bowls. He chose them because it was all he could remember owning before he had met Anna. Only two had survived from the set of six, and each breakage had been a crack into his memory.

“Can I have one of the bigger soup spoons?” she asked as he moved towards the cutlery drawer, balancing the two bowls. He took out two teaspoons. She looked at him with annoyance- he recognised the way her eyebrow raised slightly and her face tilted- but she said nothing.

The stew was too thin. He had added too much water, he decided. She had probably wanted it to be thick, so they could eat it with the French loaf she had already hacked into slices. He avoided the crusted end and dipped a soft wedge into the liquid anyway.

“You’re punishing me.”

“That’s ridiculous, Anna.”

“Is it?”

They finished eating in silence. The strings of lamb were tough, and he had to keep drawing them out from between his teeth.

***

What stops you from writing?

I started ‘Just Stories’ to build confidence in my prose. Of course, almost immediately I have found myself not wanting to write (hence not posting for a few days).

Writing is a big part of my private life; it has helped me to get through rough times and as a child I would use my made-up worlds to escape from the real one. My stories are what I hold closest to my heart.

So what stops me from putting pen to paper? What makes my skin tighten, my hair stand up, at the thought of sharing them?

  1. Being accused of an exaggerated sense of self worth. This is my #1 hang up. Doesn’t it make your face turn crimson just thinking about it? When I approached my university lecturer with this, his answer? “F*** ’em” in his gruff Northern Irish accent. “If the literary reference is taken as pretentious, then f*** ’em. It’s your job.” Basically, if it sends one person to that essay, that book, that film. If it gets someone talking about an issue, or even thinking about it. If they agree, or disagree with you? Then you have done your job as a writer, to contribute to the big debate. I didn’t know how to take this at first. I wandered home frustrated and cursing the money-grabbing university. A few short stories in, and I began to get it. The key is to find a topic you do know well, that you have a firm understanding and experience of. That you could fight to the death over. Write, and go from there.
  2. Being no good. This doesn’t just relate to writing, does it? If you cook a large meal for friends, you want them to like it. You paint a picture, present an idea at work, organise a holiday. Whatever it happens to be, you want it to be good. Not just for yourself, but for the other people to think so too. Bottom line, we want to be liked and appreciated. You are being guilty of point #1 here. Transcend this; be no good, write bad drafts. James Thurber said “don’t get it right, get it written.” Beckett, “ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.” Hemingway went as far as to suggest we’ll never get there at all, when he said “we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” So you may as well just write the damn thing. Do you listen to Mozart and hear genius? Look at a Picasso and see pure talent? These men went through years of hard work and effort, yet we still see their finished drafts as first drafts. We forget the thousands of chords, the millions of brushstrokes, all of those hours, spent on their training.What I am trying to say, is that good writing comes after bad writing. Excellence is the product of practice and good editing, so don’t give up too soon. Just remember there will never be such a thing as perfect.
  3. Being considered overly sentimental.There is a trick to this one: we have to earn the emotions we want our audience to feel. This can only be done through honesty. It can be tempting to put characters in situations and events which produce an effect, and be done with it. However, doing so runs the risk of making the characters serve the story instead of the other way around. Your reader will feel ripped off. Oscar Wilde said “a sentimentalist is one who desires to have the luxury of an emotion without paying for it.” In other words, work for those emotions. Choose the harder path, it will pay off.
  4. Being considered boring. Your writing is not the place to be shy, either. The stakes have to be high for your characters, in whatever that means for you. After all, we are seeing them at one of the most important points in their lives. Even the quiet epiphanies are crucial.The best way to avoid being boring is to avoid the predictable. Consider your audience’s expectations (I find a mind map comes in handy as a visual reminder). What are they waiting for? What do they think will happen? What do they know? It is up to you what you do with these expectations…Will you meet them, exceed them, frustrate them? Never IGNORE them. That is boring.
  5. A lack of time.This is very rarely actually true. Most of us manage to get an hour in front of the television in the evening, or could afford to give up a half hours sleep on a weekend, or even have a spare hand ready for a pencil whilst you eat your dinner.  Writing is hard work and you will absolutely have to find time for it. But it is seldom a matter of having no time, rather of changing your schedule to find time. It is tough (I have worked fifty hours a week whilst doing an MA, and found time to write short stories. I understand.) Stand back and look at your routine objectively. Worst comes to worst? Buy a voice recorder.
  6. Having the will. This is similar to point #5, but worth pointing out separately. Nobody can give you the will to make these changes, in order to keep writing a part of your life. If you find yourself resisting that little too much too often, perhaps consider another avenue. Writing does not bring happiness or money, but it can make you fulfilled. You will probably never be happy with a final draft, but you can be content that you tried. If this is enough for you then get writing, because the world wants to read it.

The Fat is in the Fire

I tried to shout out to my father in silent stretches and tugs at his shirt. I was the age that my crown just came to his chest, so I couldn’t see ahead. People were pushing me from all sides, a steel pinball between my father and the other men, all of whom were carrying some form of weapon. Guns, pickaxes, baseball bats, metal poles and hammers. Some people must have had torches because streaks of white light led us down the road out of town. I was at a half jog to keep up with their longer legs. It was as though my heart was trying to pump honey through my veins. I was broiling, burning as black smoke rose above their heads.

They had already beaten him. He had fresh red bruises along with older, greener ones. He was naked and hunched. Someone had shaved a straight line out of the greying hair on his head. I moved closer, taking advantage of my slender frame, so that I could see him more clearly.

One of his eyelids was so puffy and purple that he couldn’t open it. He was shouting something, or trying to. It wasn’t English. The crowd was throwing stones like popcorn.

It took four men to hold him down. I recognised one of them, Grady’s brother. He used to take us out to his back yard and teach us to shoot. He was cutting off one of the man’s ears. The old guy was fighting back, wriggling his legs and punching out his fists. It made them laugh. He was cut up badly, the curly black hair on his chest was matted with vomit. His nose was bent too far to the left and was splaying blood all over the ground.

It was red, like mine.

Nobody wanted to miss the spectacle, so I was sent back to town for some rope. The other boys my age were selling lemonade, whisky and cigarettes. I ran until it felt like I was trekking through snow.

I found the rope in our garage, a room attached to the side of our house filled with half-empty paint cans and gardening equipment. It was heavy and I had to wrap it around my neck in order to take the weight. I was worried I would miss it; my father was always offering my services for odd jobs to the neighbours. I couldn’t wait to tell my friends at school that I’d finally been to a real lynching.

The crowd was waiting for me, starting to get impatient. They beat their fists into the air and cheered as I pushed forward. Beer spilled, feet mingled and tripped over each other. I squeezed through and found Tony and my father up front, spitting on the naked man. Tony was a heavy set hick in his late fifties. Not the sort you’d expect to be my father’s drinking buddy but he was, all the same. He wore a brazen grin, and slapped my shoulder.

They helped the other four to haul the man on to a door and held him there. Tony grabbed me by the back of the neck, a cigarette limp in his mouth.

“Kid, d’ya wanna see how ta tie a real knot?” There was a pull on the word real, his mouth stretched into a smirk. My father cut up my rope into long sections with his pocket knife and handed me one.

“Constrict’r knot.” Tony took a puff of his cigarette before stamping it out under his black combat boot. “Throw yer rope over, like this.” He guided my hands through the holes drilled in the wood, whilst he held down the man’s arm. “Then come over again to make an ‘X’. See?” I kept my eyes down to my hands. “Come over the standin’ bit, this bit. Then just tuck the workin’ end up through the centre there. Pull it, pull it Kid. All the way through.” He stood up proud and smacked his flat palm down on the wood. “Fuckin’ impossible to get outta that.”

I stepped back instinctively and the men picked up the door, two at the arms and two at the legs. I dared myself to look at him. His one-good-eye was so wide I thought it might pop out. He was silent. They rocked him like a swing towards the fire. Flames played as shadows across his face and naked body. His penis dangled like a shrivelled shrimp. He didn’t move, fight or squirm. I wondered why, did he know he deserved it or is that what terror did to you? I remembered the time I had been caught stealing a note from mother’s purse. My eyes had popped out of my face too.

The crowd booed and somebody shot up into the air. Everybody flinched, and then erupted into cackles.

The bonfire had grown twice the size since I’d first arrived, and I was so close the heat burnt one side of my face. I could hear the crackles of popping wood over the crowd’s jeering. It hurt.

“Bloody brilliant, aye.” Tony came up behind me and handed over a lemonade. It was sickly and garish in colour. I nodded, but couldn’t look away from the man being doused in gasoline. He was sputtering, and spat some into the crowd. My father struck him with the end of his gun, which forced blood and vomit to erupt from his mouth. It sprayed across the ground and landed at the crowd’s feet. They were screaming and chanting and pushing me forward.

I wiped the vomit on my shoe into the grass.

The man was placed on the fire like a hog roast. I’d never heard screams like it, low and guttural and wild like a bear. Or what I thought a bear would sound like, I’d never heard one before. He began to thrash around, convulsing and writhing behind the wall of smoke. Those closest to the bonfire eagerly stooped forwards, desperate to see the mingled agony in his face. I took another sip of my lemonade.

The ropes had burnt through but he didn’t have the strength to crawl out. His skin was melting, the flesh visibly hanging from his body as his howling dampened. He smelt of pork in hot oil, of fat in the fire. It was a nauseating, putrid smell; a sort of smoky, melting plastic, burnt hair stink. So rotten and thick that I could taste him. My literature teacher was a fan of JD Salinger, she would quote him when berating or praising us. He had told his daughter that the smell of burning flesh never leaves your nostrils, however long you live. But he was a Jew, a fact my teacher liked to omit, so I don’t know how true that was.

It was the smell that drove the crowd away. They danced and sang their way back into town, drunk and giddy and falling over their own feet. My father and Tony left with drinks in their hands, probably to the bar. I didn’t see Grady’s brother leave.

I stayed until the burning pile began to dampen down, until I could see his charred body. It was stiff and anonymous, I was cold. He would have been on the run for just over two years now. Two years since the President’s bill to have all Muslims deported. This turned into public beatings, and beatings can slip into killings pretty quickly. It became a witch hunt.

Some of the other boys on my street went down there the next day, they burrowed through ash to find bones or burnt pieces of flesh as souvenirs. I stayed behind to clean my father’s gun.

I wrote ‘The Fat is in the Fire’ as part of a small collection of short stories set in a post-apocalyptic, post-Brexit, post-Trump world. I wanted to merge the brutal lynchings of late 19th Century/early 20th Century America with the ‘witch hunt’ mentality that is emerging towards Muslims today. We rarely learn from the past, and it is all too easy to see how history could, and has repeated itself. 

 

 

 

 

Here goes…

My name is Kizzy, I’m twenty-five. My mother’s an alcoholic, my father’s a sociopath. Not the television kind, unfortunately. I am the eldest of five siblings (a mix of mothers and fathers and divorces). My childhood is a crazy haze of vinegar-dipped pennies, screaming, hiding, stormy beach-days off school, bad scrambled eggs, emotional mind games, caravans and bunged noses.

I was always determined not to mess things up for my kids. I knew I would go to university (neither of my parents did or wanted me to), that I would write, read, travel. I felt desperate to do something exciting with this strange and wonderful time. Be someone. I had a checklist.

Now, I’ve graduated with an MA in Creative Writing. Of course I’m broke, and living in my brother’s house whilst he’s away. His father died two years ago and left the three bed semi to him, so I’m looking after it with all the ghosts and bad paint jobs. I’m lucky in comparison to my comrades spewed out of university just a few months ago; I have a job. Lets not pretend its a result of my education or any hard work, though. Nepotism is a terrible, beautiful thing when you’re struggling to pay council tax on a house that’s not yours. Working with the in-laws brings the earth quickly back into focus.

All too swiftly I am finding the end of my checklist, and I can’t figure out how to turn the page. I don’t know what is next. I’m too scared of failure, too embarrassed by my writing, but ultimately I am terrified of not doing anything at all. I have never shown anyone, outside of my fifteen-strong class at university, anything I have written. is a common enough word out there on the internet, and I didn’t want to add any more. Self-esteem, Self-absorbed. Self, self, self. But I need to get out of my brother’s house, get a job I enjoy, stand up for myself and shake the guilt. Confront some things. I need to decide what it is, that exciting thing I’ve always wanted to be. This is the first step: get a bit of courage. Write and click submit. Somebody could read it, or nobody at all. I won’t know either way. I need to realise there are no consequences to writing a load of rubbish on a page, but equally acknowledge that I may have just a little bit to say about a little part of this world.