The conversation was over as quickly as it began

by Lara Holden

Lara is writing her first novel.  A romance.

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The temperature was unusual for the time of year, the midday sun still blanketed them with warmth despite October fast approaching.

The four of them sat, perfectly content in a small alcove between the evergreen trees.

There was a radiant breeze which smelt delicately of ferns, damp earth and the embers of the disposable bbq which was cracking as it died a few metres away.

To him it was summer, home. 

There was something in the air that day.  It felt as though anything could happen.

It was comfortable, serene and yet held a mystery and wildness none of them could fully explain.

They spent the afternoon in this hazy spot playing innumerable rounds of bullshit and drinking copious amounts of beer.  They laughed endlessly at Callum who had been showing off his new guitar skills, serenading them with rendition after rendition of ‘fairy tale lullaby’ which was, as far as they could tell, the only song he had mastered.

They spent hours mulling over those big life questions, the questions that teenagers often ponder while drunk on Sunday afternoons.

‘I don’t reckon I’ll live past 25 you know. Destined to die young,’ Alfie blurted out in a matter of fact kind of way as the penultimate game of bullshit came to a close.

‘How many of those have you had,’ said Harry, glancing, as he spoke, at the mounting pile of cans at his feet.

‘Ha’ Alfie chortled. ‘Good question, I’m serious though, always known it’

‘You’re mad Alf, don’t be so depressing,' interrupted Sophie, 'I’ll be needing you to stick around until I’m at least 83 and a half.' i

‘Yeah man, 25 is when all the fun really begins, Ill deal,’ said Harry already shuffling the deck.

The conversation was over as quickly as it began.

He thought back to that moment as he walked calmly along the Bridge, four years to the day since that afternoon.

It felt to him a life time ago and yet every moment of the day still played vividly through his memories.

His heart was beating faster than it ever had done. It was an odd sensation as his mind was so still. He could hear every pulse of the muscle in his head as though his heart was trying to remind his brain that it was still here, still alive, to recognise the life left to lead.

It didn’t matter anymore.

He reached the centre of the bridge and looked over absentmindedly at the city below. It seemed so small and insignificant from this height.

He climbed over the thick steel bars and balanced momentarily on the surface. He pressed play on his iPod and turned up the volume to drown out the wind.

All he could hear from that point forward was ‘fairy tale lullaby’.

Then he leant forward and was gone.

Catching Cherry Out

By Lynn Keller

Lynn has been writing short stories for about 10 years. She’s managed about 6 so maybe they are not as short as she thought!

The tickets had taken several hours on the phone to finally secure and a rash decision had been made. Monday night it would have to be - we’d work out the practicalities somehow.

So, the practicalities…even if I managed to leave work at 3.30, it was going be 4 hours minimum - too late!  I was going to have to do something I’d never done before (or since) - take a sickie!  What if I was spotted? A wig - that would do it, and sunglasses and I’d wear something I would never normally be seen in. Problem solved by a dress (usually reserved for smear tests), tights (shudder!), shoes with high heels (borrowed) a chenille cardigan (Lord help me!) Mick Jagger had better be worth it!

So Monday morning, phone call made, lie told. Stomach bug - something I’d eaten - need to sleep - planning file on desk - should be straightforward - phone if there’s a problem (please don’t, I won’t be here, that would be another lie (didn’t hear it, must have been asleep)).

The Rolling Stones did their thing. The atmosphere was tangible, the volume filled Wembley Arena and even the crappy plastic seats and sawdust on the floor- left over from the Sheepdog trials at the Horse of the Year Show - were forgivable. The wig was a mistake. Apart from looking ridiculous, the nylon strands made me sweat to soaking point and the scalp rash it left behind was itchy for days. Wearing sunglasses at a concert was also a questionable choice. It’s pretty dark anyway, and let’s be honest, you just look a bit of a twat trying to be cool. But, the fear of being caught was the overpowering thought so the wig, sunglasses and the tights (don’t get me started on the tights), stayed.

The other thing that stayed was the fear of being found out, forever expecting someone to have seen me and expose me. The only way out of that would be another lie. And what if I exposed myself by talking about it or talking about my scabby head? This was hell!

The final straw came 2 days later. Cherry was a lovely lady, a part-time colleague with one major fault that drove us all mad. She would lie about anything and everything though had an amazing knack of never beinh caught out. She arrived at work on the Wednesday and announced in the staff room what an amazing night she’d had on Monday at Wembley, seeing the Rolling Stones. Her highlight was being ‘pulled out of the audience by Jagger onto the stage’. This never happened - I was there! I knew it wasn't true and there was absolutely nothing I could do or say to expose her whopping, great lie.

Fine

Tina had plans.  Big plans.  She took up an offer to do a ‘glamour’ shoot.  These were the kinds of men we were meeting.  The drug dealers, the addicts, and those at the scummy and amateur end of porn.  And because she was too scared to go alone, I traipsed along with her to an appointment one Saturday afternoon, at the wrong end of the Edgware Road.  The appointment was on the eighth floor of a tower block – a journey we made in a lift that was working, but with that familiar tang of piss. 

The man who let us in was medallioned with died yellow hair, and could have come straight out of Only Fools & Horses, had it not been for a worrying hardness around his eyes.  Inside, across each window hung dirty nets, a sallow, busy décor of competing patterns filling each wall and floor.

Tina had the eyes of a puppy and prowl of a cat, and when she was asked to accompany the man into another room, she sauntered off ahead of him, like any feline - sure footed and without hesitation.  I, as usual, grew desperate for a pee.

After a while another man ambled out of another room. He was younger, shaved, tattooed, his irritability washing up the corridor like a bad smell. He watched my breasts.  Then said finally:

‘You’re not interested yourself?’

I think I asked him if I could use his ‘loo’.

Later, back in the lift, I whispered:

‘So how did it go?’

She shrugged, fiddling her ring up and over the knuckle.

‘Yeah, it was fine.’ 

Fifteen

By Francis Bainton

Francis is a bibliophile who writes whenever he has the time.

Though it was the kind of occasion that one really should remember, I can’t actually recall the day itself particularly well. I remember the bare facts: we had finished school, it was a hot day in late June and I was with friends. I was fifteen soon to be sixteen and the summer stretched ahead of me, a swathe of days without responsibility. In the years to follow I would begin to count how many of these luxurious summers I had left before life beyond education, but on that day I was just happy to be with my friends without the framework of school holding us all in place.

I can’t remember what we talked about. I can’t remember how I felt from moment to moment. I can’t remember who was absent, though some were. These details, however, are vivid:  

Beneath the shade of a tree, I exchanged my bright green t-shirt for a friend’s loose sand-coloured one.

In town, I walked with a friend through the newly-completed shopping centre as he pushed his bike. We talked with great animation in the bright, sterile space. 

At the place that had been our regular after-school haunt, we all posed for a photograph on a bench, where we packed in together tight and laughed and smiled, squinting at the camera in the sun.

We got on a punt, went down the river and pitched up by a tree. A couple of us swung from a conveniently low-hanging branch. 

I wish dearly that I could remember it better, and I worry that I never will. I have a few pieces from that day, and I have two or three friends whose own memories are other pieces to the bright jigsaw. The few photos that were taken are available to me, when I sit alone looking at a screen, even if the old friend who held the camera is not.

Malaysian Mustard

by Chris Oubridge

Chris lives in Cambridge and works full-time as a researcher of molecular biology.  He has written, directed and performed in several well-received one-off sketch shows and spoof pantomimes.  He is interested in writing scripts for stage, film or TV and strongly suspects
that he might have a novel or two in him.  Science fiction and comedy are his favoured genres.

I used to play in the thicket with my friends, Simon and Tim - only ever with one at a time, though, because they didn’t like each other.  The thicket was wasteland and we boys considered it our own.  We built dens, lit little fires, dammed the stream, made bridges, or scooped up grey clay from its bank with our fingers and made pots and figurines.

When we were twelve years old, men came, fenced off the thicket, cut down the trees and started building a house.

When the house was finished, a family moved in: a couple with two daughters.  Emma and Caroline Marshall were thirteen and fourteen, respectively.  They were tall, pretty and excitingly curvy.  Emma had bobbed red hair and freckles on her nose, while Caroline was blond and curly.  We three boys were besotted immediately.

I was invited in to the Marshall’s house before either Simon or Tim.  In the kitchen I was given orange squash while the girls and their mother made ham sandwiches. They were discussing the relative merits of English, German or French mustard.  We didn’t have mustard at home, and I didn’t know anything about it except that it could be hot.  I felt rather ignorant and unimpressive, sitting there quietly with my orange squash.

“Have you ever tried Malaysian mustard?” I asked, choosing an exotic country at random.  “It’s unbelievably hot.”

“I’ve never heard of Malaysian mustard.” Said Caroline.

“Oh, you should try it if you can.”  I said.  “I think you’d like it.”

“It’s strange that we don’t know about it.” Said Mrs Marshall.  “We lived in Malaysia for five years when the girls were small.”

It was such a little lie.

In the Phone Booth

By Isobel Smith

Isobel grew up in Jersey, but has lived in Cambridge since the age of 18, apart from two hot years in Texas in the 90s. For most of her working life she has produced factual reports, but has recently become interested in the craft of story telling and is working on a fictionalised account of Capability Brown's life.

My 20-year-old self calls home, a Sunday ritual observed since starting college. Outwardly I may look an adult but inwardly I’m still very much a good girl. The conversation starts bizarrely, Mum saying

“Are you sitting down?”

“Mum, I’m in a phone booth, remember.” I wonder where this is going. And then a sequence of words tumble out that I scarcely recognise.

“Peter is dead. He lost thousands of pounds … stock market crash … compulsive gambler … she swore she’d leave him if it happened again.”

I find it hard to understand. Is she really talking about Dad’s best friend? The man who likes squash,  who marks the passing of each week with a dash around the court chasing a ball that barely bounces, followed by a pint. Is this the same person my Mum is describing? Why didn’t I know? Why don’t the grown ups say what people are really like?

I  picture him, my Dad’s best friend, deciding to leave this life, his body hanging from the bedsheet-noose, and jumping into the next.