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Short story, Thriller

The Widow of Warren Street

Author: Moxie McMurder

Illustration: Mark Smith

Some say her name was Betty, others will tell you it was Louise, but everyone this side of the river knows her as the Widow of Warren Street. I’ve heard she was beautiful, 20 years old and newlywed to her childhood sweetheart. No one remembers his name either.

They were love’s young dream, but it was cut short when her husband was sent overseas to fight in the war. They wrote to each other as often as they could, the only way to ease the heartache of being apart. But after a few months the letters stopped coming.

Waiting by the window she would look for the postman and would run out into the street to ask him the same question.

Did he have a letter for her? The answer was always the same. No.

Soon she started waiting outside her front door. No matter the weather. She would walk up and down Warren Street looking for the postman, suddenly scared she would somehow miss him and her chances of getting a letter from her husband.

The neighbours began to talk, she had stopped eating, her clothes hung off her. She had stopped sleeping leaving her eyes red and weepy. She stopped brushing her hair and never seemed to change her clothes. They all felt sorry for her but no one spoke to her. People kept to their own back then.

Some will tell you that a letter arrived on the day of her funeral, 3 months after the last letter her husband sent.

They’ll tell you it said her husband had been badly wounded but was still alive.

And some people will tell you that two men from the army arrived at her house on the day of her funeral to tell her her husband was dead.

There’s even a story that there was a letter and it was from her husband. He had written to explain he had fallen in love with another woman. That he wouldn’t be coming back to her and that he was sorry.

No matter what came after she took her own life, the Widow of Warren Street still walks up and down the street late at night.

Her shadows creeps across the houses as she passes, her wild hair seeming to be alive, reaching out and licking at the stones.

My neighbour saw her ghost once, spoke to him, or so he says. Said she was looking for a husband. Her red eyes and pale face seemed to plead with him before her hands reached out, quickly as if to grab him.

He saw the scars on her wrists, painful and raw. He ran. He told me he could hear her sobbing the whole way home. A strange sound, echoing down the cobbled streets. Said he could have sworn her sobs turned to screams but that could have just been the wind.

So young men returning home late at night are warned to avoid Warren Street. Don’t speak to weeping women. If you see a shadow of a woman with wild hair you must run.

You don’t want the Widow to propose.

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Short story, writing competition

You know nothing about the summer ( The Gauntlet runner up )

Author: Matt Kirby

Illustration: Mark Smith

You might think you know something about the summer, or the sun beating down on you, but you know nothing. Me, I know everything, lying on the ground of central Baghdad during the searing summer months with no protection from the elements. Here the sunshine reigns supreme, 46 degrees of dusty vacation nobody wants.

Of course you wouldn’t just lie on the ground given the choice but I’ve been stuck for thirteen long years of stagnant scorching. Once I stood tall casting my gaze across the square and beyond whereas now I lounge staring solemnly along the ripples of heat-soaked ground.

My ego is but a tiny morsel of its former self. Try having the occasional rabid dog emptying its bowels on you. Oh sure it dries quickly enough but that smell lingers long in the heat. Then there are the kids climbing all over me, no respect for history, no concept of dignity, declaring that it is they who are the kings of the castle. Well I used to represent a king-of-sorts, reaching to the sky with pride.

I had the best view in the house when it all kicked off. Everyone knew it was coming; it had been on the cards for years, the only surprise being that it took so long for them to arrive. I was gifted the perverse pleasure of watching the most fearsome fireworks display of all time.

Hauling me down was part and parcel of the whole experience, a symbolic gesture of victory and defeat. I could hardly blame them, for I represented the past, my boss Sadaam, and a dark chapter in the history of our great nation. But they acted in such a hurry, giving no thought to what they’d do with me when I’d been removed from my plinth, or with the country after the invasion had ended.

So I’m left in the dirt to spend my days reminiscing about how things used to be. The past was far from ideal but we could rely on certain standards that have yet to return. Whilst I can’t see as well as I once saw, and the sideways view is nothing if not tedious, I see enough to tell you the truth.

We still have foreign troops in our country. Can you imagine it; the great state of Iraq blighted by this shame. There is the violence which haunts us without signs of an end. Still the suicide bombers are leaping expectantly into an afterlife that they cannot guarantee to find. And the ruins are everywhere, the scars of relentless bombing, so much yet to heal and be rebuilt. If tears could come to my eyes I would have shed many.

So enjoy your summer, safe and secure, free and easy, soaking up the rays, wherever you’re blessed enough to be. But you know nothing about summer, like that of a fallen retired statue in an Iraqi summer, and if you’re lucky, for luck is all it is, then you never will.

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Short story, Thriller

In The Garden of Krakow ( Part 3 )

Author: Timothy Connolly

Illustration: Mark Smith

 

That night he dreamed of Krakow. He walked. His footsteps ringing like bells. The streets empty. Not a soul in sight, and the chill hinting that there were none to be seen. The neon lights passed him. Red. Green. Pulsing. Arterial. Made up of gas‐flame blue. With a silver hue. Covering him in its dew.

He passed a nun on a mobile phone. Incongruous in her hands, as she ordered the newest magazines. Her face melted. Flames covering her head to heel to leave blackened flesh a falling.

The priest looked at him with a light in his eyes and covered with the soot of his betters.

He passed a school. A child watched him go by as she ate her ice‐scream with a spoon.

He walked and could feel it following him. All this time. Since he had left. He heard the sigh in his ear. The nails on his back. Its hand sliding in between his legs. Firm breasts pressed against him.

Soft lips touched him with the sharpness of its teeth.

He looked up to see the woman’s great black eyes.

***

The hammering at the door woke him. 5:00 am. On a goddamn Saturday morning. Fuck his life. Who was this? He stumbled out of bed and cursed the day he was born. Couldn’t he get one night’s rest? Couldn’t he deal with that dream in peace? The hammering increased and he could feel it like a blow to the head. His anger grew. First that woman, then that priest and now this fool at the door. He was sick of this shit. He was a plumber, for Christ sake, not a detective, with a drinking problem and an ex‐wife.

He flung open the door.

‘Do you want something?’

The man came in stinking of alcohol, dirt and day old aftershave. Stubble marred his chin. His hair like grease on his head. Marcin sized him up. Muscles knotted his frame. Bones showed in his face. Needle marks, healing, but not healed, bloomed on fresh skin. Marcin would have thought he was a football hooligan, but he knew, on some level, that this guy was some special kind of prick.

‘Why the fuck are you in my home?’

The football hooligan stuck a yellow finger in his face, ‘Listen here, chap. Me brother and me sister had a chat with ya, but you can’t see your arse from your elbow. But, I’m here – ’

‘Son, you’re about to get your ass whooped good and proper.’

The brother fumbled in his pocket, but Marcin was already on him. A knee to his balls sent him gasping and he followed it up with an elbow to the back of the head. Marcin grabbed his ear and, the hooligan shrieking all the way, he opened the door and chucked him into the hallway.

‘Tell your sister and your brother who did this to you. I am sick of this shit.’

He slammed the door. Fury bubbled in him. He couldn’t rest. He couldn’t relax. He couldn’t even sleep. That goddamn lump of metal had crashed into his life and uprooted everything. He flung the chair into the table. Sat down. Goddamn, but he was going to show them what he was made of. He’d figure this out. That woman wouldn’t know him as a fool, and that priest wouldn’t treat him like a little child.

He looked at it. Really, really looked at it. What could have caused those marks? Something curved. Something with a little bit of leverage. But, here, what’s this? The scrapes went wild. What was that? Something had happened. Something had changed. Something had… broke.

The dawning truth almost blinded him.

‘Oh Christ.’

He stood up from the table. The day turned to night, the shadows grew, and the sun died.

***

Marcin found himself at that apartment again. It opened at his knock. The smell of cinnamon wafted out. He stared, with that same lead in his stomach, at the person who opened the door.

She was barely five. No marks marred her skin and there were no shadows under her eyes. Clean hair. Immaculate clothes. And none of that smoggy muck that filled your senses as you walked out the door.

‘Is your mommy here?’

‘No, but big sis, big brother, and mean brother are here.’

He wondered who was who, but, before he could ask, she opened the door. She led him in. The three figures in that blood‐red room watched him and told the child to play outside. They watched him as he walked in. They watched him as he dragged a chair from the corner. They watched him as he sat.

‘I know what happened.’

The thug had bruises like blooming lips. The priest stood in the shadows of the sky. The woman’s figure filled the room like a burning cross.

‘It was the spoon. It bent. As if this,’ he took that damned piece of metal out of his pocket and threw it on the floor, ‘had broke it. I can see what happened. She was playing, or not, and it slipped, or not. It bent. It broke the safety valve and gas began to seep out. That immigrant couple came here, they slept here and they died here. All because of that goddamn rusted spoon.’

The priest licked his lips, ‘Can we punish a child for what she did not know?’

‘If it kills somebody…’

‘Listen here, you mess with me sister and you won’t be safe no matter where you go.’

Marcin almost stood up, but the woman broke past all of them.

‘Who cares? Really. You’re asking me to care about an immigrant couple? While my little sister’s future is at risk? You are worse than a fool if you think I will do that. You are worse than the lowest of the low, worse than druggy mothers and garbage fathers. You are worse than anything.’

‘People are dead.’

The priest banished Marcin’s words with a raised hand.

‘We are at a crossroads. Like all people in life. We have three roads to walk upon. One down. One up. And one leading only God knows where. You have to make your choice Marcin. You have to choose what to do. I will not choose for you, my sister will not persuade you, my brother will not force you and God will not show you. It’s your choice in regard to my baby sister’s life.’

‘Perhaps this will help your choice,’ she threw a package on Marcin’s lap with a glint in her eyes.

The envelope spilled crinkled bills on his faded pants. He could buy his ex‐wife a dinner with that. Of sumptuous steak and red wine. No, open a business. Keep his body warm in winter. Have his belly full and his throat wet.

He looked at that woman, with her jewels, her hair, all the trapping of wealth. She must have ties. People to talk to. People to see. People to help him get on his feet. And all he’d have to do is…

He shook his head and stood up. The money fell in a fan around his figure.

‘No. Keep your coins, woman. Keep your god, priest. Keep everything that you could ever offer me. A couple is dead.’

‘If you won’t take me sister’s money, perhaps I’ll take your ‐ ’

‘Stop brother. We all have to make our own choices.’

‘I ain’t letting her end up like m – ’

‘Let him go,’ the priest’s cloud grey eyes watched him, ‘We all have our choices to make.’

Marcin walked out of that red rimmed room into this frozen world. Shadows walked about in coats. The snow fell. Blackened trees reached for the skies. The streetlight had soft curves that stroked him as he passed. What should he do? What could he do? A child’s life lay in his hands. Accident or not, she had killed somebody. He walked on frozen grass. It crunched underneath. But did he have the right to ruin her life?

It was as if he were walking up a gradient. The lights of the city below, the stars above, and darkness everywhere. A burning pillar blazed toward the sky. A recess led into the deep‐dark earth and, when he walked between, his soul trembled.

He smelt smoke. The neon hurt his eyes as he entered the pub. The bar felt slick to the touch. The drinks were harsh. The drinkers worse. Throughout the laughs, the shouts, the screams, the television played the usual torrent of evil. He turned to the man next to him and asked what was going on in this world. The stranger had the tired eyes of a day‐time drinker.

‘Nothing new, my friend. Absolutely nothing new.’

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Short story, writing competition

WINNER OF THE GAUNTLET- WE WERE KIDS

Author: Nesbit & Gibley 

Illustration: Teapotsforelephants

Our instructions were clear: exit the bus in Tolbridge, walk 11 miles south-east, turn left at the farmhouse and walk to the sea. Bring some beer, bring some board games but don’t tell Mum and Dad.

We convinced our parents we were all going to summer camps, so they were happy to pay for the journey. Following the notes, we exited the bus, made the route, and arrived. Sat on the clifftop, meters from a 300 foot drop, was the cottage.

It belonged to Agnes Howler’s parents. They had enough wealth to gold their belt buckles, silk their shoelaces; this was just one of their dozen homes. It had been years since they stayed, as they forever spent their time in the African sun. Because her parents hadn’t been to the cottage in years, there wasn’t any electricity, nor a single drop of fuel for the generator. There was also a problem with the plumbing, which meant no running water. But we accepted it for the price of an underage, unadulterated party. We cooked in the dark using camping stoves, we boiled water from the sea and we went to the toilet outside.

There were six of us in total. Imogen Tully, the Bradley brothers, Jim and Dick, Marcus Dahl, Agnes and myself. All of us friends from school. We spent days trekking the high cliffs and plodding along the thin beaches, collecting shells and picking up driftwood for the evening fires. We skipped stones and built sandcastles, like we were eight year olds.

On our last day, with the sun clamped behind the clouds and the infamous furious winds battering the clifftop, we remained indoors. We only realised then that we had three copies of Monopoly, two boxes of dominoes, and a pack of cards to entertain us. Although, being as close friends as we were, it wasn’t a problem. We drank the rest of the beer, cooked all of the sausages, and swapped stories from our childhood, shouting over each other as the strong winds contested our voices. We only braved the wrath outside to drain the beer we drank.

We all met up for a coffee last week. It’s been twenty years since our stay at the cottage and twenty years since we’ve spoken. Everyone has come so far. Imogen is a teacher and happily married to a marine biologist, Jim and Dick have their own furniture business, and Agnes is a successful author.

We only spoke of the future; where we all hoped to be in the next ten or twenty years, where we’d like to be living. Of course, it was all an effort to dodge the subject of Marcus, and our memories of him.

We had a laugh, though. Jim and Dick are still jokers and Agnes can really tell a story. We did our best to hold a smile, to let each other know we were all okay.

We never blamed ourselves for what happened. It was summer, and we were kids.

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Short story, Thriller

In The Garden Of Krakow ( Part 2 )

Author: Timothy Connolly

Illustration: Mark Smith

He left the apartment with sweat dripping down his back.

Christ, that had never happened before. A woman offering that. Christ, that. Jesus, he hadn’t known what to do. The only thing he could think of, besides that, was to get the hell out of there.

He didn’t even get the money. The snow touched his blush as he remembered what happened. She probably thinks he was an idiot. ‘Don’t worry, I can find out what’s wrong with your machine.’

She was probably mocking him. The mucky plumber man. His Kinga would know what to do. His wife, well, his ex‐wife, would know what to make of a woman like that. Whether she was a strumpet, a seductress or the Virgin Mary herself.

He sighed as he stepped between a shadow reaching for the stars. He needed vodka. Like a baby needed milk. Like he needed his wife. But, unfortunately, she had left him. His mind turned black.

Focused on the metal in his pocket. What could have marked it like that? A bit of machinery caught? But it’s so goddamn unusual? Perhaps he should find out and show that lady he was no fool.

Marcin went home and opened the door. He looked at the mess. His mother had cleaned, and then his wife had cleaned, and, when they were all gone, he had been unable to. Clothes lay on the floor. A nude woman looked at him from the wall. The picture of the pope squinted through months of dust. Marcin felt a moment of absurd guilt. He really should clean, but Christ, the pope himself is hardly going to visit.

He turned the television on low. Just to hear another human being. The news played a scene of starvation and disease.

The pierogi flavoured the air like burning wax. His fingers pressed on smooth metal as he popped open the can. Ancient paint flaked off his skin. He could feel the silence in his apartment. As if the ceiling reached to infinity. The dust in his fingers. The grain of the wood. This feeling of weight…

The piece of metal lay before him on the table. What could make that mark? It was not accidental, of that he was suddenly sure. No other metal was ruined. No parts were bent. Nothing was amiss except for this single hunk of icy steel. He remembered the woman’s black eyes glinting from the sun. He wondered what had happened to those immigrants…

His doorbell rang. And, still thinking of that piece of metal, he got up and opened it.

‘Marcin,’ the voice spoke with the scent of smoke and old leather. He blinked. The man before him had silver at the side of his hair. Lines ran along his face, his eyes were pale and the pink of his lips flaked. White blazed from his collar like a dying sun.

‘Yes… how can I help you, Father?’

‘My sister sent me. You may have met her today while you carted off that damned contraption?’

He blushed when he remembered.

‘Eh, we may have said hello.’

‘I’m sure you did,’ he looked at him as if Marcin had forgot his schoolwork, ‘May I come in? The night is cold, and these bones are so old.’

‘Of course… Of course, Father.’

He let him in. The light grew bright. Showing the magazines, the dirt, the lack of a woman, and ending with the dusty picture of the pope. Marcin covered the magazines with a rag, and dusted the neglected Pope. Smiling, he looked at the priest. The priest stared at him.

‘Eh, so Father, what can I do for you?’

‘It’s what I can do for you.’

He stopped himself from scratching his head. The priests used to frown at that when he was a schoolboy.

‘Sure, sure. Sit down please,’ he fiddled with his thumbs. ‘So, how can I… No, how can you, help me?’

‘My sister was telling me about the man she had met. An unfortunate meeting as our brother should have arrived. My sister should never have called you. I have to ask… have you met him yet?’

‘No… Should I have?’

‘Good. It’s best that you don’t, lest he leave a stain. Let us two men, old men, wise men, talk this out amongst ourselves. Leave the women, leave the children, leave that man who you will not meet, it is just us. Two men all alone in a too young world. In a place where evil is rife and redemption infinite.’

‘I’m sorry, but…’

‘Go on my son.’

‘I completely lost you.’

‘Few people can follow,’ the atrocities of the television lit his eyes and formed a lullaby beneath his words. ‘But I hope you will. What do you see when you look out that window?’

He looked out the window. Streetlights spread like stars in the sky and, if it were not for this man, he would have felt like the last person on earth.

‘Some streetlights.’

‘What else?’

‘… the sky?’

‘Exactly. Light and dark. Two opposing forces that we must contend with. We all go from the light, every night, into the dark, and hope we are not spirited away. We fear the footsteps, as we should, in case we cannot find our way. We fear the strangers, as if they may take our soul. We fear ourselves, as if we will be swayed from this mortal realm. It is a terrifying place. This land of light and night. A place to tempt you, to corrupt you, to end you. But we all walk out again. We all remain pure. Uncorrupted and back in this heavenly realm. Where we belong. Don’t you agree?’

‘I have no idea…’

‘If somebody passes into the darkness, should you stop them from coming back to the light?’

‘Father…’

‘Just think, my child. The son of God. A man of free will, passed from father to child.’

He looked at the piece of machinery, and it blazed with its own scalpel glow.

He looked at the priest and his voice hardened, ‘Father.’

‘I’m saying all that can be said. I’m saying nothing. I’m saying what needs to be said.’

‘Get out.’

It was the priest’s turn to blink, ‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Get out. You are not welcome.’

His mother would have scolded him if she had heard him. Christ, he would have had some slap.

But, in that moment, he did not care. The priest stood up and left.

But his presence did not leave. Marcin could taste it on his tongue. It smelt of hot air, undulating candle flames and shadowed alcoves. It smelt of heaven, hell, and every dark crevice in between. He looked at the metal. He held it in his hands. He touched the scratches on its surfaces and wondered: Could this have kept the gas flowing?

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Short story

Paradise

Author & Illustration: Mark Smith

Three friends sat down to a pint in the Old White Horse. Each year since their graduation they had met, a longstanding tradition by which to compare their respective achievements. Today, they sat at a small round table, each with a pint of golden ale, and each with a dog patiently sitting under the table, waiting for errant crisps to fall.

‘Guys, every morning I take Gus out on the beach’ boasted Seb, looking down at the red-haired spaniel who panted in a little patch of sunshine. ‘He loves it there, the air is so….clean! Honestly, you should move to St.Ives. It really is the best!’ he continued triumphantly.

‘Well you can’t beat the history and architecture of Cambridge’ chipped in Troy, a college professor, who had an irritating habit of pointing with one arm of his glasses when making a point. ‘Not to mention the pubs – we wouldn’t move for the world, would we Bruce?’ He reached down to stroke the collie’s silky ears.

‘This beer’s nice’ said Dan. Dan lived in Luton.

 Under the table the three dogs were listening to their owners.

‘Pfft, I love the beach do I?!’ Said Gus, incredulously. ‘Do you know how annoying it is getting sand up your nose and nappies stuck to your ears? I have to have a bath every day because my coat gets ruined!!’

The other two dogs solemnly nodded.

‘And do you know how many fucking bikes there are in Cambridge?!’ exclaimed Bruce, an ill-tempered border collie ‘one of the fuckers almost took me out just yesterday, and I swear to God if I get evils from another Big issue dog I’m going to hire a punting boat and punt my way out of that hell hole’

The two dogs looked at Jan expectantly. She was Dan’s dog, a Golden Retriever.

‘Well, my friends, let me tell you of a place I call heaven. A paradise where MEAT literally lines the streets.’ The other two dogs leaned in a little closer ‘That’s right. It’s called doner meat, and every Saturday and Sunday morning on my walkies I have the most incredible feast. Cheesy chips, chicken burgers, vomit – it’s incredible!!’

Seb loaded Gus into the back of his Audi A3.

Troy loaded Bruce, rather reluctantly, into his Land Rover

They both watched on as Jan tugged on her lead, desperate for Dan to take her back to paradise.