After one of the toughest judging periods in our 3+ year history, we are proud to announce the winners of Lucent Dreaming’s 2020 Poetry and Short Story contests. Read the winning poems and short stories below, and in our upcoming 8th issue. Our winning pieces comprise the judges’ unforgettable favourites, often timely, some dark, and some that bring us close to tears. We were blown away by the overall quality of entries for both categories, and this made our final judgements all the more subjective.
1st place winner
Eleanor Bradley ‘Zoom’
When the signal interrupts
You glitch, pixelatedly, scatting
From pose to frozen pose.
I like those unguarded frames
Of your face in in-between state,
The upturned eyes,
the incomplete gesture,
Which makes you look
like a martyred Saint.
The buzz and burr of your
Mechanised voice seems
Apt for these loading days
Eleanor Bradley is an English teacher and lives in a tiny cottage in the Cotswolds with her husband and daughter. She is new to writing.
2nd place winner
John Gallas ‘cold heights’
I’m the first thing here
since it snowed.
Superstitious of perfection,
I walk in the dunes and watch
the white beach unroll
I go up Glas Hill
chewing a marram-stalk.
Clouds push over the sky,
where the moon, the sun and
the stars still gather.
Way below, two lifeboats leave the harbour
burbling side by side.
Far out, against the world’s
I watch them part.
whisper with ice.
In Old Nat’s yellow caravan
the sill is stacked
with cold-coloured candles.
Who knows what he loves.
He seems content. Quiet as a deer.
And on bitter days
a thin wisp of smoke.
The tide is ebbing.
In Briggwood, crows
are pitching in the windy pines
and I think
for a moment,
as I open the home-gate,
if it were not for gravity
I would take them the biscuits
in my pocket
and then go on
up to the stars.
John Gallas. NZ poet, published by Carcanet (www.carcanet.co.uk). 22 books and counting. Biker, wanderer and beachcomber. 2021 look out for ‘The Extasie’ and Petrus Borel’s ‘Rhapsodies’ translation (both Carcanet), 200 tankas (New Walk Editions) and ‘Wasted by Whitemen’ (Cerasus). See www.johngallaspoetry.co.uk
3rd place winner
Katrina Dybzynska ‘Gods of time’
Gods of Time
Clocks used to hesitate. Moon faced to let us believe
in the possibility of returns. As if for a joke
a cuckoo would jump out.
Cogs were getting stuck, springs crackled.
They requested careful offerings
of oiling and winding up.
Time was sensitive
to temperature and movements.
The early clocks were showing only hours.
Minutes we could keep in the pockets,
like pilfered change. The clock ruled only in the living
room, elsewhere we were free.
Before time became the herald
of a new order, before it claimed
even a hundredth of a second
we could make deals with it.
We would bribe it to peek into tomorrows
or to review yesterdays. Then the gods of time disappeared
replaced by unerring electronic digits,
unresponsive to bargains or prayers.
Katrina Dybzynska is a nomadic writer with texts published in the US, Ireland, Australia, Germany, and Poland. She’s been awarded second prize at the Red Line Book Festival Poetry Competition in Dublin. Her debut concept poetry book received Grand Prix at the 2017 Rozewicz Open Competition. Recently featured in anthologies: “Beautifullest”, “POETRY in the TIME of CORONAVIRUS” and The London Reader’s issue on stories from the lockdown. Dybzynska lives in a campervan, probably parked somewhere at the edge of a cliff.
Harsh Ramchandani ‘Where the sun was’
Where the sun was
When we used to visit
in the summer
you were old as oak
Your cabin scented with
Cedar and smoked latakia
stubbornly lit by oil lamps
We chased fireflies with you
rode on horseback
and settled under the stars
Till we grew up
forgetting the summers
that you never did
You wrote us letters
even when we didn’t
and I would give anything
to take back the words
“We’re too busy grandad”
City life, you told us
was far too lonely
for a man of your age
and in time we stopped
asking you to come
In your letters
you used to send us pictures
of the sunshine and the sky
This year the coroner called
and my heart bled cold tears
when I learned what happened
In the remains of your cabin
we found your packed bags
where the sun was still shining
Harsh Ramchandani is a Hong Kong based writer. Currently working in the IT industry, he writes as a creative outlet and as a way to raise funds for the various causes he supports. You can find some of his published work on www.harshchan.com
Short Story Category
1st place winner
Quentin Brown ‘PepperMint’
In such a small town, everyone knows everything about everyone else. Their address, their birthday, their mother’s maiden name. You have grown used to living in a town where your skin is peeled away, layer by layer, your soul dissected and presented for inspection to people with nothing to do but exchange secrets behind cattle sheds. Sometimes when walking the streets, you catch sight of someone with shadowy, anxious eyes, and pity blossoms in your chest. No matter how hard they try, the mystery they hold so close to their heart will be exposed. You wish you could tell them to run.
Except for Pepper. That woman has more darkness in her eyes than anyone you have ever seen, and yet no-one knows a damn thing about her. She appeared overnight, propelled into the town by the desert wind, and spends her days trailing from door to door with a rusty shopping cart full of ancient artefacts. Threadbare scarves, dull jewellery, and broken dolls with eyes that remind you of the way the dingoes howl at night. You have never bought anything from her. Each of her objects vibrates with a dangerous history, and it scares you. When she has gone to each and every house, she simply disappears, as if the blazing sun has reduced her to a pile of charcoal. No one knows where she goes. But she is always back the next day, at exactly 8:03am.
Here she is now, knocking at your door. Your hands pause in the middle of scrubbing dried chunks of food away from the dishes piling up in the sink. You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and wipe your wet hands on your shorts. You go to answer her. The heat rattles your bones as soon as you open your front door. It is a tangible weight holding you down, pressing you into the orange earth. Pepper’s mouth stretches into a smile, and you can almost hear the joints in her jaw creaking. The burning sun illuminates the stray hairs on her head, on her coat, on her chin. She stands hunched over, as though the passing years are eating her from the inside out. Her mouth is set in a permanent sideways scowl indicative of a stroke, and her jaw works furiously up and down as she chews a piece of peppermint gum. With each exhale, you can smell the mint on her breath. Long after she is gone, that scent lingers in the humid air, thus earning her the moniker of Pepper, short for Peppermint. No one knows her real name. The feeling of her warm breath on your face disgusts you. She keeps her eyes fixed on you as her gnarled hands, which bear no ring and bulge with veins, curl around an aquamarine scarf draped across the handle of her trolley. Enthusiastically, she brandishes it in front of your face.
“Pretty scarf, eh? Pretty! Pretty! Only five coppers. Bargain, five coppers. Pretty! Bring out the blue in your eyes.”
Your eyes are brown. You smile politely. “No thank you, Pepper.”
Her grin does not falter. Hurriedly, she drops the scarf back into her trolley, as if it was rotting, and immediately seizes a thin gold chain that glimmers in the sunlight.
“More your style? Hm? Hm? This one ten coppers.” She rummages in the depths of her trolley for a bit and pulls out a charm in the shape of a bird. “Tell you what, special deal for my friend. I will give this to you to put on the chain. Make it real nice. Good luck charm! Only three coppers more. Special, just for you.”
“That is very kind of you, but I am not really looking for a necklace.” Pepper drops the necklace and charm back in the trolley and starts searching for something else to try and sell you. Hurriedly, you say “sorry Pepper, I am really quite busy at the moment. I do not think I will buy anything from you today.” Pepper turns to look at you, still grinning. You can see some spinach wedged between her two front teeth. For a moment, you think she knows you are lying.
“That is okay! Next time, hm? Maybe next time.”
You smile at her wearily. “Maybe next time,”. She nods enthusiastically and sets off to the next house without another word. You close the door firmly and press your forehead against it with a sigh, closing your eyes. You tell yourself that next time she knocks on your door, you will not answer. You tell yourself this every time.
“Was that Pepper?” says a voice behind you. You turn and see your son standing in the kitchen, dressed in navy shorts and a white shirt. A blue backpack rests on his shoulders, stuffed so full with books that it seems to pull him backwards. His brown eyes look so much like yours, but his tousled black hair reminds you of his father. Scraps of skin fall from his sunburnt nose as he wipes his face on his sleeve.
You remind yourself to keep your tone light. “Yeah, it was.”
“I do not like her. She is scary.”
“She cannot hurt you.” You swear to yourself that you will never let your son anywhere near that woman. “Come on, put your shoes on. It is time to go.”
Your son shoves his grimy feet into a pair of strappy sandals as you sling a leather handbag over your shoulder, and together you step outside. Everything smells like the coal that once made the town rich. The sky is painfully blue and dotted with frail cloud wisps. The blazing yellow-orange-red of the desert is dotted with sparse vegetation, scattered like the last hairs upon the head of a balding man. Underneath every tree is the bones of an animal who thought the shade would save them. The sun smiles as it sears your skin and you cannot help but wonder if you will be the next victim. Even the houses seem to be silently weeping for water. You do not remember the last time it rained. The dusty roads are barren and cracked like chapped lips. A singular car drives past, the driver angrily fiddling with the radio that spews nothing but static. The sound grates at you and you bite your tongue until it bleeds. You swear that the walk to school takes longer every day.
As you get closer to the centre of town, you pass a nameless café. The metal tables and chairs outside seem to bend and warp under the heat of the sun. There is only one customer: a man composed entirely of rolls of fat topped with a satisfied smile. A waitress with mysterious stains on her blouse passes him a beer. Condensation drips down the glass bottle the same way sweat drips down the back of your legs. As you and your son get closer, the man lifts the beer in your direction. “It is a right scorcher!” he exclaims. You smile in his direction, and feel your skin stretch uncomfortably across your skull. You hurry on, pulling your son alongside you, give thanks when the school comes into view. You know he will be safe there.
The school consists of a single red-brick building with a roof that seems to be caving in. The children huddle in small groups, talking in hushed voices. You swear there are nowhere near as many children as there is supposed to be. They all look up at the sound of your footsteps, wild eyes shining through matted greasy hair. One of the members of a group standing to the far left raises his hand in greeting, and your son responds with a smile. You squat down to give him a hug, holding his fragile body close to yours.
“You have a good day, okay?” you tell him as you pull away. He nods enthusiastically and wriggles from your grasp, running to join his friends. “I love you!” you call after him. He does nothing but raise a hand in acknowledgement of your words.
On the way back home you stop at the local farmer’s market. Most of it has already gone, nabbed by those who woke alongside the sun. What is left rolls around the bottom of wicker baskets, bruised and half-rotten. You trail your greedy fingers across them, hoping to find something salvageable. Eventually, buy a bag of apples from a man with too many teeth. As you continue walking, you take an apple and bite into it. It tastes like the blood and sweat that farmers water their fields with when the drought has set in. You pretend not to notice.
When you pass the café again, the man is still there. He lifts his beer in your direction, and you can see that it hasn’t even been opened yet. “It is a right scorcher!” His voice is vacant, and his eyes are hungry. You fix your gaze to the road in front of you, keeping it there until you reach your house. When you step inside, the dust and dirt on your shoes leaves brownish streaks on the floor, and you sigh heavily. You decide to ignore the stains and continue with the dishes in the sink. You place the apples on the counter and turn the cold tap on, but the water comes out uncomfortably warm. When you finally finish and pull your hands away, your skin is red and irritated. You dry your hands on your shorts and open the mini fridge, taking a cider.
You walk to your desk, which is pressed up against the window in the living room. The splintered chair creaks under your weight when you sit down and open your sketchbook, peeling apart the pages hesitantly. Your art feels stale and stagnant, like humid summer air. The lines are scratchy and erratic, a reminder of how you cannot get your hands to stop shaking. You prop your chin on your cupped palm and begin sketching the bottlebrush tree growing outside your window. The bristling crimson blossoms remind you of a lit match.
As you work, flies begin buzzing around you, settling on your arms and legs, seeking sustenance. You twitch each time you feel them on you, and they hurriedly leave, only to settle on a different patch of skin seconds later. As you become more focused on your work, you barely notice. Instead, you pull out some watercolours and start applying them to your sketch. You cannot get the colours right. You sigh and sip your cider. It is lukewarm.
When the time comes, not a second too soon, you walk back to your son’s school. You pass the café again, and the man is still there. He raises his unopened beer in your direction. He opens his mouth and screams static. You frown and glance at him. You can see sunburn blossoming on his sweaty skin. You can see the birds gathering around him, waiting for the opportunity to strip his bones of flesh. You look away.
Your son is waiting for you at the school gates. He is bouncing on the balls of his feet, tiny hands gripping his backpack straps. As soon as he sees you, he runs at you, face and eyes wild. You hug him tightly. He smells of sweat and crayons and shampoo. Then he pulls away and points across the courtyard, at another young boy and his mother standing hand-in-hand.
“Can I go stay with them tonight? He got a new video game and I want to play,” he says. The words trip eagerly out of his mouth. You look at the boy and his mother again. The mother smiles at you and waves. She looks like a pin-up model from the sixties. You like her. You know her. You walk over to them, keeping a crafted smile on your lips. Your sons begin talking in hushed voices and you address the mother.
“Are you sure you can handle both of them?” you say. Some people would say this as a joke. But you are serious. You need to know.
She laughs lightly, tosses a hazelnut curl over her shoulder. “Of course! I will call you if anything goes wrong.”
A million tragedies flash through your mind, and you blink to clear your thoughts. You look at your son again. He seems happy, and that is all you want for him. So you smile wider and nod. The mother’s eyes grow bright, and she reaches down to clasp the hands of both boys.
“See you tomorrow!” your son calls as he is dragged away, his sandaled feet skittering to keep up with the mother’s long stride. You raise your hand in farewell and turn back home. It feels strange going back without him, as though you left your right arm at the school gates. You fidget and scratch your skin, and do not even notice when you start drawing blood. You walk past the café. The man is gone. The unopened beer is still there.
When you get home, you sit on the porch and smoke, watching as the sun sets and the sky mimics the colours of a bad bruise. As the first stars appear, you start to see eyes glowing like embers, peering at you from between tree branches. You do not know what they are, but one of them opens its hungry mouth and screams at you. You scurry inside and double lock the door. The darkness presses against the windows, and you cannot help but imagine the glass shattering and blackness pouring in like water until you drown. You turn on the television for some background noise to distract yourself, but all you get is static and garbled voices in languages you do not understand. The one working channel is the news, so you leave it on as you cook spaghetti bolognaise. You eat while reading a book of poetry, the television still on in the background. You find something comforting in the routine, emotionless, mechanic voices of the newsreaders. You finish eating, wash your dish, and get changed into pyjamas. As soon as the garments touch your skin, they become sticky and sweat-soaked. You switch the television off and retreat to your bedroom, switching on the fan that is pointed at your bed. You lie under a sheet, using your arm as a pillow, and eventually fall asleep to the rhythmic whirring of the fan. A waxing crescent moon hangs high in the sky, curved like the edge of a scythe, and watches you until daybreak.
You are startled awake by a flock of cockatoos screaming as they fly past your house. They sound so human. The noise echoes in your ears as you mix a strong coffee and sip it while staring out the window, watching the rest of the town wake up. They are slow to come out of their houses, preferring to stay inside and hide from the oppressive heat. The bravest walk with bare feet, seemingly unconcerned by the calluses that form when their skin comes in contact with the dead, scorched earth. You realise that you still have not cleaned up the brown stains on the floor from yesterday. You wet a cloth and scrub at the floor, but the dirt is stubborn and does not want to budge. By the time the floor is clean, your hands are filthy and there is rust beneath your nails, as though the earth is determined to engulf you. You wash your hands in the bathroom sink with a soap that looks ugly but smells pretty. The bathroom mirror is cracked, and when you look into it you can see a million reflections of yourself, stretched out across eternity. They are all judging you.
As you leave the bathroom, you hear a knock at the door. You check the time on the clock that hangs in the kitchen. It is 8:03am. You take a deep breath, close your eyes, and go to the door. Your hands are still slippery with soap, and it takes a moment for you to unlock it. When you do open the door, you have your rejection speech bristling behind your teeth. I’m sorry, I’m busy you will say. Maybe next time you will say. It is very kind of you, but I am not interested you will say. All of that dies when you see what Pepper is carrying in her arms.
His arms and legs are splayed out at unusual angles, bent and crooked with his fingers curled, as though he his grasping for something. His pale skin sags from his body, revealing his ribs and hip bones. His eyes are still open, and you can see the desert reflected in them. His jaw hangs open, revealing toothless gums crusted with dried blood. And on the side of his head is a singular, perfect bullet hole.
Pepper smiles at you and holds your son up higher. “Twelve coppers, hm? You want for twelve coppers! Good price for small boy in the woods! He is pretty, hm? Pretty boy!”
The earth heaves under you, and you fall to your knees.
All you can hear is static.
Quentin Brown is an 18-year-old author based in Adelaide, Australia. He writes for young adults and his work is based in the genres of fantasy, horror, and romance. His poetry and short stories have been featured in numerous publications, festivals, and local protests defending the rights of marginalised groups.
2nd place winner
Mari Ellis Dunning ‘A Change of Skin’
A Change of Skin
Come through. Step over the stream, that’s right. I’ve got no tea to offer, I’m afraid, I don’t drink it anymore. But I can recommend the gooseberries from that bush over there. The juice is so sweet when they’re ripe. Go on, take a handful.
We don’t get your sort here often, not this deep into the woods. There was a hiker once, lost. He crouched on the log right next to where you are now, looked relieved to see someone, until he realised what I was. Or maybe what I wasn’t. A someone, that is.
You’re not a lost hiker though are you — I thought you might be, when I saw you pushing the branches aside, clambering your way through the shrubbery, but you don’t have the right gear for it. No rucksack at your back like an overbearing shell, no hard-toed walking boots anchoring your legs to the mulch of the forest floor.
If you’re not lost, you must have come all this way on purpose? Have you been here before? Not many make it this far deliberately, but I can see you’re determined. I suppose you want to know my story? They always do. Why else would you have dragged yourself through nettles and underbrush, let the thorns snag at your skin like little hooks?
I can show you some photos of me as a child, or as a teenager, if you’d like. It wasn’t obvious to anyone else at the time, but I think, looking back now, you can see in the photos how awkward I was, how my bones never fitted quite right.
I always knew I was different. Not in the clichéd way all kids know they’re different — I was actually right, I just didn’t know how or why. This is how it went.
The one who found me — my cree, that’s what we call them, those that find us, care for us from afar — she plucked me from the shrubs, my face red and bitter as a currant. I was furious, she said, scowling and thrusting my fists at her. She had to unpick the thorns from my slick of dark hair once she’d untangled my squelching body from the clot of branches, carried me beyond the shadowy canopy and into the sunlight.
Earlier in the day, she’d been scaling the edge of the forest, where the houses meet the trees. You know the place, you must have come from there to get to me? She heard weeping pouring like music, melodic and sweet, from an open window. A couple whose baby was born blue and stiff. Bloodied bed sheets. Drooping tulips at the bedside.
Of course, she was an opportunist. We all have to be, in this world, don’t we? Besides, this is how we pollinate, it’s not unusual, just unheard of in your circles, maybe. She explained this all to me later, on the night she came back for me. Told me who I really was. Told me where I really belonged.
That first evening, she’d waited until dusk, then crept through their window, lithe as a ballet dancer. The baby girl was still splayed in the cot, dressed in pink stripes. If not for its total stillness, the rigidity of its chest, it could have been sleeping. My cree was quick, working with nimble fingers. Always make sure to carry a needle and thread, if you’re going to come with us, she told me later.
She peeled the baby like an avocado, sliced her edges with a clean blade, carefully rolled the skin from the sides of its tiny body, fingers first. She took great care working the wrinkled knees, the sagging ankles. Pulled them loose like old carrier bags caught in a tree.
Then she swaddled me in the baby’s flesh as though it were a blanket, sculpted it around my bones like play dough until it clung, a second skin. A new skin. I was cloaked in the slink of tacky flesh, lapped like a bear cub. That’s when I became, for all intents and purposes, human.
She left me, bawling, in the baby’s crib, waited outside to hear my new mother rushing in to me, crying about a miracle. Calling for my new father. I wonder now, if on some level they knew what I really was. Whether it matters either way.
No need to flinch, it was a long time ago. It’s getting cooler now. Why not sit down on that trunk, it’s shaded from the breeze here. I really am sorry about the tea — like I said, I don’t drink it now. My taste for human things has lessened, since I came back to the forest. They told me that might happen. My memory of the human world is lessening, too. Faces have become like watercolored paintings, swimming in and out of focus. Places, too. I know the smell of our back garden – cherry blossom and cut grass – but I don’t remember what shape it was, or whether or not we had a shed.
Anyway, do you want to know what happened next?
I grew up in their home. It was an ordinary upbringing, as far as I’m aware, though I was coddled a little, I suppose. They named me Hope, their miracle child. They dressed me in rainbow colours and braided my hair every day. Sung to me. Watched me like they couldn’t believe I was real, like they were waiting for me to disappear. Maybe that’s what pushed me to leave, eventually. Ironic, isn’t it?
When I was little, I would spin cartwheels across the rugby pitch, somersault around the goalposts — and I would feel my skin shake loose each time. I ached; constant shin splints and popped hip bones.
I dislocated my elbow at twelve. Had to push it back in, buckle it in its socket. I had to give up gymnastics then — I was too prone to injury. I could see it disappointed my mother, she’d always wanted me to do well in gymnastics, always cheered for my cartwheels and forward rolls. She came to every practise. You remind me of her a little, actually. There’s something in the slope of your shoulders, the cardigan tied at your waist, the faint smell of coconut wafting from your hair.
When I showered, my fingers would bubble, disintegrating like wet rice paper. At thirteen, my back began to itch, puckering a rash between my shoulder blades, pushing out and blistering like the skin on overcooked milk.
I didn’t dislike school, necessarily, but it held little interest for me. I would gaze through windows for hours, use a compass to scratch song lyrics on desks. Use a sharpened pencil to drag along the warm flesh of my thighs. Once, I carved a boys’ name there, watched the blood bloom in beads as they formed letters. Teachers said: Hope has so much potential, if only she would apply herself. Hope is very intelligent, but she needs to speak up in class. I rolled my eyes at school reports, knew my parents were happy as long as I was.
My poor parents. My mother daren’t ask anything of me. When I came home one evening, knees grazed and grass stained, stinking of cigarette smoke, she only turned away, let me pass her in the hallway without comment. She waited until later to ask how my evening had been, whether I really was at a friend’s like I’d said. The fug of smoke clung to my hair even after I’d showered, but I think it was easier for her to keep quiet, to pretend everything was perfect, even when I became a teenager.
I was always tall for my age, always mistaken for being a few years older than I was. When we all reached fourteen, I would be the one to buy the alcohol from the corner shop, volunteered by my friends to curl my hair, wet my mouth with lipstick, arch my cheeks with blusher. We shared bottles of vodka and swung dizzyingly upside down from the climbing frame in the park, the pitch behind us tilting like a seesaw. We penned our names on the bars in black marker: We were here.
We sloped behind the slide to let boys touch us in ways we pretended to like. By then my wings were spiking between my shoulder blades, pushing at the hollows so I couldn’t let anyone hold me close, had to guide wandering hands away from my back, to beneath my waist. I didn’t know at the time what it meant, only that something was changing in me. Hope has so much potential.
I was perched at the edge of the bed combing my hair, thinking about very little, when my cree came to me late one summer evening. I’d been staring at the blackening sky through the window, watching the stars sprouting one by one, watching the dull moon bobbing. I was feeling unsettled. Right here. Right in my stomach. I’m sure you know that feeling?
She materialised there in the window, framed by the night, tall and enchanting. I felt an instant pounding, here in my chest, felt the furled wings scratching at my back.
She told me, then, what had happened, how she’d plucked me from the brush, given me over to the grieving humans wrapped in a doughy parcel of their own flesh and blood. She’d been watching me, she promised, been keeping an eye on my growth all that time. She’d come back when she saw I was blooming to full height, saw that my wings were threatening to claw through.
As soon as she drew near I felt something stir inside, something primal. She looked like me, I thought, tall and creamy and sharp at the cheekbones, thin at the elbows.
She told me I could stay, if I wanted to, safe in the human world. Or I could shed the borrowed skin and head back to the forest with her.
I felt sorry to leave my parents, I really did. They’d been good to me, especially my mother, but I had to learn the roots. The core of me. You’d have done the same, wouldn’t you? Of course you would have.
At first they came in search parties, my parents amongst them, trudging through the gorse with clumsy legs, pulling branches from their roots, tripping over stumps. Calling my name. Calling Hope, Hope like it was some desperate incantation. Swinging torches like miniature suns over the canopy. They thought, then, that I was missing. Kidnapped. Dead. From where I hid, I could see the pain in the wide set of mother’s eyes, in the way the light bounced from her pupils, small and black as hard currants. I saw it in the hard stance of my father’s shoulders, the tight movements he made as he wound his way further into the trees.
I wasn’t proud of it, didn’t want to hide from them, to let them believe I was gone forever. But I had to. Humans can’t know about us. Yes, that includes you, but it’s been so long since I’ve seen a human face, and you feel familiar to me. Besides, who would ever believe you?
I know what they say about me, I’ve heard the rumours fluting in and out of the trees, from the mouths of backpackers and thrill-seekers passing by, looking for our clan. I’ve heard them speculate, share stories about the runaway girl, the feral girl, the daydreamer who took it too far. Away with the fairies, they always say. Mad, they say. But it wasn’t like that. You see that now, don’t you? You do so remind me of my mother. But you’re right, you should leave, the sun is setting and it’s getting close to dinner time. I live mostly on juniper berries and wild hares, cup my hands to the stream for water, but the others are not so gentle. They didn’t all grow up in your world, remember. Here they come now. You should really go. Can you hear the snap of branches? Can you hear the shuddering of leaves?
Mari Ellis Dunning’s first collection, Salacia (Parthian, 2018), was shortlisted for the Wales Book of the Year Award 2019. The Wrong Side of the Looking Glass, a poetry collection written in collaboration with Natalie Ann Holborrow, launched with Black Rabbit Press and Infinity Books earlier this month. Mari is currently a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, researching the relationship between sixteenth century accusations of witchcraft, the female body and reproduction/fertility. She lives on the west coast of Wales, in Llan-non. This short story was written as part of a collection for which the author was awarded a 2020 Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary, supported by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of Wales.
3rd place winner
Alex Matraxia ‘Club Kids’
In the McKnights’ living room, old furniture and ornaments sat motionless for over two decades. Allen, the only son of the McKnights, was present in the room even in his absence. His image decorated the mantelpiece – an obsessive archive of his childhood (birthdays, first bike, school photos) ran linear from one end of the mantle to the other; an adolescence made material and seemingly permanent, suggesting not just a past but a trajectory towards a desired future.
Despite the comfortable size of the house itself (typical of most North London suburban homes), the living room was relatively small, though ornate, furnished with the McKnights’ love for antiques and forgotten heirlooms; it was a room where different stories came together, curated by the family’s own wilful decision to recycle an entirety of pasts in order to style their own present. No matter what Allen did with his personal life, the living room would continue – if he grew into something entirely unexpected, it would hardly affect the line of photos on the mantelpiece. If anything, they would grow in different directions – Allen and his photos, two identities stemming from the same alleged source, both suspended by the potential of the other.
The McKnights’ front door opened to the sound of stifled laughter. The hallway, illuminated by the street lamps outside filtering in from the large windows, filled with the sound of muffled conversation. They removed their high heels, and placed them next to the muted black and brown leather of the McKnights’ formal shoes under the staircase. Seb, lavish and graceful and still considered tall when out of their six-inch heels, stumbled into the living room, one arm clutching onto a bottle of unopened wine and the other arm arched over Allen’s shoulder. Seb gazed at the room with a sudden, performed solemnity, ‘What a dump!’ Allen broke out into subdued laughter. Seb collapsed onto the sofa (a beige paisley piece which though ordinary was large and comfortable), their legs flaying gracefully as they fell, as if their legs were a parachute relieving the descent of their body.
Allen was alarmed. ‘Watch where you put yourself hun, if you get makeup on the sofa I’m gonna have to answer to that in the morning’.
Seb’s entire face was caked in light blue makeup, a heavy set of wing-like lashes, and a deep purple set of lips, so rich they appeared to be bleeding. ‘It’s already morning, Allen. I always find this funny about you –’
‘That you care. When we’re out, you don’t give a shit about anything and I love you all the more for it. And then whenever we leave you turn back into such a drag’.
‘Very funny.’ Allen stared into the room, not quite taking it seriously though strangely committed to it, as if it was a set, a living room in a play.
Allen’s eyes fell on the set of photos his parents had displayed above the fireplace, and compared those images to his own hands, decorated in cheap rings and nail polish. During the night his nails embodied something more permanent, the practice of glamour that defies the casual temporality of decay; yet now seeing them against the backdrop of his own home, they struck him with a severe sense of time.
‘Fuck my life’ sighed Allen. Seb looked up from their phone where they’d been watching their Friday night re-played over and over through instagram stories. ‘Oh? What’s the matter darling?’
‘None of this lasts. That I have to take this all off before they wake up.’
Seb sat up and stretched, their painted toes curling upwards as they rested them on the coffee table. ‘So – they still don’t know?’ Allen remained silent.
‘I guess it’s obvious really’ said Seb. ‘This room really is a sort of glum shrine to you – well, at least one side of you.’
‘The only side of me, as much as they’re concerned.’
Seb opened the bottle of wine and poured it into the mugs lying on the coffee table. They both sat crossed legged on the sofa, seemingly child-like as they sipped from their mugs, Seb’s joy made radiant through their playful hostility.
‘I’m always buying the booze for us’ said Seb. ‘I swear it’s the only reason we’re
friends, Allen. You hang around me for the cheap wine.’ ‘Cheap time, Seb, I hang around for a cheap time.’
‘God, I feel I’m going to be sick – all over this ugly rug!’
Allen was close to taking the comment personally until he looked at the rug and remembered how banal he found it, a series of cream and brown squares.
‘Lord, it is horrific – they think it’s vintage.’
‘Where do your parents find this crap?’
‘Dead people’s homes.’
Allen downed his wine and slumped onto the sofa’s arm in a way that struck Seb as lumbering and inelegant, as if Allen had no intention of performing his melancholy, which struck Seb as uncharacteristic.
‘Oh, you’re upset? As in, actually quite upset?’
‘I told myself, Seb, that when you came back to London I would tell them. I wouldn’t be dressed up, but like, I’d at least tell them something. And now you’re back. And I haven’t.’
Seb leaned in as if to hug Allen but then hesitated, realising how unfamiliar it was to comfort a creature who was genuinely upset. During a night out, Seb played up that they owned the night itself, that everyone’s personal dramas were easily resolved merely by confiding in Seb. In confiding, they were somehow relieved of their burden. Seb had this affect on people. Though now that they detected a trace of authentic sadness, they seemed at a loss.
‘I hate that I have to store all my goodclothes at your place, or Aaron’s or Sam’s’ sighed Allen. ‘In a few hours I have to get undressed and give you this version of me, to take away in a carrier bag. That’s all I’ll be come sunrise, just props in a plastic bag.’ ‘Well then’ interrupted Seb, reorienting their emotions. ‘These next few hours are dedicated to you – this you – and, well, what time do Mr. and Mrs. McKnight usually wake up?’
‘Mum’s trying to prepare for Easter on Sunday. So probably like 8ish?’ ‘Well then, we’re going to have to finish this bottle before 8ish, while the night’s young!’
‘Yea – yea, that’s true.’
Seb refilled Allen’s glass and as they tried to cushion their friend in their own personality, Seb couldn’t help but feel that in some way the living room was staring at them. The family albums and photos of Allen (Allen McKnight specifically) seemed to place Seb between two worlds. They continued to drink in the dark space as the living room became timeless.
The bottle was empty, its hollowness made audible as Seb began to blow on it.
‘Kris?’ asked Seb, turning to Allen.
‘What about Kris?’
‘Is it in my head or was that bastard being a particular cunt to me tonight?’ Allen laughed and then waved his hand gently, dismissing the thought.
‘No Seb, they just haven’t seen you in ages. It was their way of welcoming you back to London.’
‘Oh bullshit, I haven’t been gone that long darling.’
Allen sat up, struck by a bolt of sobriety. ‘It feels like ages, to be honest. When you’re at uni it feels like there’s something missing to the night.’
Seb relished the comment and their legs sprang into the air as their head knocked back.
‘Well I keep saying you’ve got to visit me in Manchester, sugarplum. The scene there’s just as grand as the one here, and the queens are less vicious. Everyone’s less vicious in
As they were speaking, Seb fished out some rolling paper and tobacco from their small mock-Chanel purse.
‘Seb hun, you can’t smoke in here.’ Allen’s eyes took on an anxious weight. ‘Oh come on darling, you’re going to withhold my only relief?’ Seb’s expression dropped, conflicting with the grimace impressed onto their made-up face.
‘If they smell smoke they’re going to wake up –’ insisted Allen.
‘Oh – oh yes. I forgot where we were for a moment.’
Seb slowly managed to raise their body from the sofa, an act that seemed to require a lot of labour. Now that they were on their feet, Seb began to interrogate the room. They picked up odd objects decorating the shelves: a little wooden globe, a swan-shaped music box, small lithographs signed by an artist who Seb had never heard of. ‘Your parents’ style is so ugly that it almost borders on camp, you know?’ Allen laughed but then his joy retracted as he noticed Seb eyeing up the photo collection of his impersonal past. Allen feared that Seb might be judging, cackling in their head. But rather than interrogate them seriously, Seb moved over to the right-hand side of the mantelpiece and walked slowly down to the left-hand side, inspecting the photos in a reversed chronology.
‘What are you doing?’ asked Allen, enjoying the sight of Seb’s dramatic investigation. ‘Let’s be honest, these aren’t you in the pics’ asserted Seb. They lowered their voice to a whisper. ‘We both know that’, and from a whisper their voice rose up again with a certain pride of revelation. ‘So rather than watch you grow up into somebody you’re not, I’m going backwards in time. I’m watching you get younger and younger until you’re back to step one, a blank canvas’ – indeed, the earliest photo in the series was a sonogram scan of Allen as a foetus. ‘And then you’ll be anything, anything at all. Just sheer potential.’ Seb’s voice again lowered into demure sentimentality. ‘Which is exactly what you are now.’
Allen fell back in relief and remembered the entire history of his fondness for Seb; that Seb was always there, not just for him but for all their friends, to remind them that anything was valid. Allen no longer felt like a link in a chain but rather the source itself, emanating a series of waves, each one carrying a different potential of personhood. This entirety, while overwhelming, was also wholly reassuring, it ruled out the possibility of bad choices.
Seb fell back on the sofa, pulling out their phone and resuming their scroll through instagram.
‘I’ve noticed your followers have gone way up recently’, Allen noted.
‘It’s the Manchester scene. They actually think I’m someone special just because I come from London. They think being from London means you’re successful – ’
‘Rather than privileged.’
‘Exactly… exactly. Makes sense. Fantasy and privilege, two boys tossing each other off.’ ‘Not necessarily’ countered Allen.
‘No. Not necessarily. But usually.’
They both wistfully fell into silence. Allen began to scroll through instagram stories, watching four or five different stories all covering Seb’s rant in the smoking area after being heckled by someone passing by. They both realised they were watching the same person’s story and then fell into one another other, trying to muffle each other’s laughter. ‘You know, they’re my favourite places in the world’ mused Seb, as if thinking aloud.
‘Smoking areas. There’s something about them that feels ancient.’ Seb spoke with a certain sense of prestige; they often did while drunk, where their mood would shift from a messy riot into a soliloquising sort of fag-Hamlet. ‘Right now, there are smoking areas all around the world where a life that isn’t here is happening. Infinite stories that exceed our knowing and are passed on with each toke; anecdotes, true or false – stories of origins and destinations – each person becoming a character for a new audience in the dark.’
Anyone else would feel at least mildly self-conscious being so grandiose, or would at least make their listeners feel self-conscious on their behalf; the sort of conversation that aspires to be real and then usually exceeds itself to a level of parody; but watching Seb speak offered Allen a strange security.
‘Right now’ continued Seb. ‘Lives out there are drunkenly being made. Imagine.’ They both stared off into the distance, looking at nothing in particular but reimagining the smoking area, a space that was weirdly outside of time, where alternative and equally viable realties could emerge, be cultivated and celebrated. Where you could act entirely out of character and nobody would question it as odd – suspension of disbelief.
Seb yawned and reclined on the sofa, now shifting their naked feet onto Allen’s lap, bringing him out of his meditative state. Allen began to see Seb as another emblem of suspended disbelief, as a space outside of time all onto themselves. ‘God’ Allen mused aloud. ‘I really have missed you.’
Whenever Allen studied his parents’ furniture, they became objects that not even familial possession could solidly fix; instead they flickered in and out of objecthood, having changed meaning in the hands of every family that had once owned them. The only things that didn’t change meaning were the photographs. Most of them were taken by Allen’s mother, a few shot in black and white to render the aesthetic more nostalgic, anticipating a future retrospection; to create a world that ultimately had no real complications.
‘How comes you wanted to stay here?’ asked Seb, their hand placed dramatically on their head as if nursing a hangover.
‘You mean, in this place?’
‘I mean London, darling. Why did you stay here? You could have come to Manchester with me.’
‘And studied what? There’s nothing I want to study’ lamented Allen.
‘I reckon you chose to stay here, to make yourself miserable on purpose.’ Allen detected a strain in Seb’s voice that was neither interrogative nor pitiful but which he nonetheless found disconcerting, like a pair of headlights closing in on him in a dark road.
‘Do you like it, Allen, secretly? Having two lives. Maybe it’s what keeps you going.
What puts fire in your belly.’
The headlights seemed to pass over Allen’s head but their glare had been so confronting that he was left blind on the imaginary highway.
‘Fuck off. Like I really want to be living here? With the Nazis of suburbia upstairs?’
‘Then why’d you stay? Why didn’t you run away with me?’
‘People know me here. I have my own scene, and it feels like – something special, whenever I go out to see them. When they get to see me.’
‘Something special – there’s nothing special about going out. Everyone is so obsessed here with being special, craving fame, like they need that dream as a point of contact to justify what they do. In Manchester nobody tries to justify what they do. It’s all ephemeral – the sun’s our enemy but time – time is gracious.’ ‘When you want it to be’ countered Allen.
‘When you want it to be, of course.’
Allen tried to get onto his feet. ‘God, this is hard. I feel sick.’
Seb chuckled. ‘See, it’s labour. Everything we do is labour. Putting makeup on, taking it off, walking in heels when pissed –’
Allen was only half-listening, as if Seb were a voice in his head, a dark conscience. It was always hard to tell when talking to Seb if you actually agreed with what they were saying, or merely agreeing to it because you were co-opted by, if nothing else, suspension of disbelief.
‘Do you hear that?’ Allen moved over to the window where he heard rustling in the large oak tree in the front garden. Seb, still reclined on the sofa as if it were a shezlong, seemed uninterested. Then all of a sudden Seb also heard rustling.
‘What is it?’ Seb asked, sitting up to try and get a clear view through the window. A pair of luminesce blue eyes smoothly peered through the branches; a cat’s head slowly emerged into a spot of light entangled in the tree – a slim, streamlined face sifting through the leaves – its head seemingly disembodied and its fur was a rich black that at the same time appeared silver.
‘Oh Allen, bring it in!’
Seb passed over to the window gazing at the incredible face, which in turn was staring into the house with a regality that was definitively inhuman in splendour.
‘I love cats!’ bawled Seb. ‘We used to have one when I was little. It’s something about the way they move on their toes that I adore, so graceful and cool as if they’re leaving a gay bar.’
Seb tried to open the window but the cat suddenly retreated into the tree’s shadow, and after a moment of rustling they saw it leap off of one branch onto another on a neighbouring tree – then they watched as it paced the length of that branch and then leapt onto another. Allen felt momentarily elated, something about the cat’s ability to move without having to think about movement – was its freedom simply illusory, made more glamorous by the backdrop of night?
‘What a pity’ sighed Seb. ‘I was hoping it would grace us with its presence.’
They both moved back onto the sofa, sat up on either end like children trying to find a way to entertain themselves.
‘What are your new friends like, Seb? How’d they compare?’
‘What, at university? Oh they’re a laugh! I want you to meet them. Terry stalks your instagram, she says you look fab. I always tell her I’m gonna drag you up to Manchester one day.’
‘That’s nice.’ Allen retreated into the sofa, not out of anxiousness but trying to test, in his drunken state, whether or not the living room would get smaller the further he moved away, even slightly.
‘Oh Allen, you’re such an odd drunk. You make everything feel so serious without saying so.’
‘What are the boys like, in Manchester?’
Seb’s eyes dilated and shone like the lens of a projector. ‘Oh Allen, they’re – delightful! Argumentative, punkish, hung and delightful.’
‘You always did have a type.’
‘And yet you never did.’
It dawned on Allen that the entire time he knew Seb, they rarely changed. They changed between night and day, as did all of Allen’s friends, but something minimal and concentrated seemed to persist in Seb that marked them as definitively Seb, something Allen questioned with himself.
He turned to Seb, again trying to see in his hazed state if he could make Seb appear smaller by sinking into the sofa; but the opposite, if anything Seb seemed to get closer, larger, now like the projection itself. After a few seconds of delirious half-consciousness, Allen had realised that he’d just kissed Seb on the lips; a shy, hesitant, slow kiss. He sank back into the sofa, his head – like a smoking area – now a smouldering space of selfsupporting contradiction. He’d known Seb since secondary school. They were sisters who worked together to find a family in the night. It had not been a fatal attraction that caused him to kiss Seb; rather he feared a hollowness at the core of the otherwise vital friendship. What if Seb’s love for life, the timelessness, was merely a masked lack of anything substantial; that Seb were merely a combination of what everyone wanted to hear – a joyful hostility – what everyone wanted to confront in order to find affirmation in themselves, tenderness from an enemy. The kiss was like pressing a hand against a movie screen, to feel one’s way through what could be real. Allen’s curiosity morphed into guilt, and then remorse, and then a huge fear of his own personal shallowness. Seb simply sat there with a smile on their face – an inaccessible smile that often surfaced at the most obscure moments. ‘You know we’re not like that, don’t you Allen?’
Allen nodded. ‘I don’t – don’t know – I’m not sure why I did that.’
Seb fell back into their reclining pose, their eye-lids fell, and Allen imagined a strong wind being stirred from their descending lashes, a wind that would affect small vibrations in the atmosphere and shape the future – an entire temporality, induced and half-made by those heavy lashes; that if it weren’t for their night out and their stumbling back into the living room, the wine and the unexplainable kiss, then all of future history would be different, channeled down a different route. Those lashes, flaunting their own artifice, were the stuff that time was made from.
‘Obvious really, why you did it’ said Seb. ‘Love.’
‘Yea, I suppose you’re right.’
Seb appeared half-asleep, though they were still smiling. Were they smiling in their dream, Allen wondered? Had the dream world seeped through into the real world – that Seb’s smile was a testament to the porousness between waking and sleep, an upward curving bridge between the two? Or did Seb always smile when they slept? Allen tried to remember all the times he had fallen asleep (or passed out) with Seb beside him. In his memory, it seemed that Seb really was always grinning even in an unconscious state. But none of it mattered anyway because time was now in flux; Allen had complicated their friendship by enacting what had always simply been implication, false flirtation for the sake of flirtation for the sake of amusement for the sake of ending boredom. That’s all flirtation was; that’s all love was, as Seb often said – an attempt to end boredom. ‘You’re not still thinking about it, are you darling?’ Seb spoke with their eyes still closed, their smile only growing.
‘You’re not asleep?’
‘I never sleep. I only perform sleep.’
‘You talk way too much crap.’
Seb opened one eye and Allen forgot how blue Seb’s eyes were. A heavy, sapphiric blue.
‘I don’t suppose the McKnights have snacks somewhere?’ asked Seb.
‘I’ll find us something.’
Allen headed into the kitchen. As he left he turned back to see Seb lying on the sofa in the dim light; like a scene from an absurd tragedy. He returned from the kitchen with a large Easter egg, wrapped in gold foil with a red bow tied around it.
‘Holy crap! You laid me an egg! Allen darling, what you wouldn’t do for me.’ Allen broke into the egg and held out a rough half of the chocolate shell, handing it to Seb who simply broke off smaller portions to lick.
‘I’ll never know why people do hardcore drugs when they could just have chocolate’ laughed Seb.
‘What’s the situation like at uni?’
‘Intense. I’ve seen people banging on doors at 6am asking for a fix.’ ‘Crazy –’
‘Some of them need it though. To make them more interesting. For some of them, their lives just revolve around their degrees. So they do drugs, and then they become a blast. No way I would I hang out with Terry if she wasn’t hooked on Valium. It gives her problems. I think that’s something I learned about myself at uni. That I need to hang around with people who have problems.’
‘So that’s why we’re friends?’ Allen asked solemnly. ‘Because I have problems?’ ‘No. Because you choose to have problems. I guess that’s what I meant. I need people who choose to have problems.’
‘Don’t fucking say that –’ Allen was surprised by his own protest. He rarely swore at Seb seriously – he rarely objected. But he felt his own personality slowly slipping away into Seb’s narrative, something he finally felt Seb had no right to do, for better or for worse. ‘I’m not like that, Seb. You know that. I don’t decide when I’m going to feel miserable and when I’m ok. Like, Christ, you sound like my mum or something.’ ‘I’m sorry darling, but then, why do you stay here?’ Seb began to smile.
‘I don’t have a choice!’
‘Careful, you’ll wake up the Nazis.’ Seb’s smile grew larger, and Allen began to finally acknowledge the fun that Seb was having at his expense. ‘Of course you have a choice, darling.’
Allen stopped eating; a slow and burning nausea was starting to rise in his stomach.
He buried his head in his hands.
‘I used to think you were a good person, Seb. I thought we were good people.’
‘We are’ replied Seb. ‘In our own way. We’re bad people with big hearts.’
Allen took some minor satisfaction in the remark but then it felt rotten, it became another example of Seb speaking for the sake of speaking; sentences which sound like they make more sense than they really do.
‘You’re going to have to leave soon, by the way’ sighed Allen.
‘And call the after-party off early?’
‘I need to get changed. Take this costume off.’
‘Fine. But promise me one thing, Allen. Next time I come back from Manchester, you will tell them?’
Taking his head out of his hands, Allen stared back into the living room. The entire space was a monument to his own passivity, a world he’d grown into and never directly challenged. It wasn’t Seb who threatened to rewrite his narrative. He realised that now, that Seb was no higher power, that Seb was just Seb in their small, ridiculous glory. ‘I’ll go hun’ said Seb. ‘But let me piss first. And takes the tape off my balls – talk about choosing pain.’ Seb stood up and with slow grace placed a kiss on Allen’s forehead.
Seb giggled without smiling and then left the room.
It was all under his control, it was doable, finally apparent to Allen; he had choices, he could write his own life as he lived it. Seb couldn’t touch that, only gesture towards it. Time was easy. Time was gracious. It was so simple now, to have time grow into entire forests of possibility – to have cats leaping through the forests, from every branch onto every other branch – large blue eyes the size of the moon, overseeing everything. His parents couldn’t touch that either; he owed them unconditional love, but in a way that too was simple, perhaps even easy. He would be responsible for his own birth – and it wouldn’t be perfect, just as Seb was imperfect – a bad person with a big heart – but it would be his, and it would be untouchable.
When Seb returned, their hands still wet, Allen was stood in the centre of the living room; his sparkling makeup reflecting some of the outdoor light, creating a small sphere of radiance around his head.
‘I’m going to tell them, Seb.’
Seb smiled again but it was an entirely new smile that Allen hadn’t seen before; it was sincere and soft. If anything, it was pride.
‘Allen! When I get back from Manchester you’ll be a new person.’
‘No. I’m telling them tonight. Well. This morning. When they wake up. I’m not getting changed. I’m never getting changed again.’
Seb embraced Allen who started to cry, small but audible tears as if defeated and victorious all at once.
‘They either accept you or you’re better off without. You know that darling.’ ‘I know that’ replied Allen.
‘And I’ll always be here and so will everyone else on the scene.’
‘I know that.’
‘And nobody’s perfect.’
‘How are you feeling?’
‘Well at least stop crying for Christ’s sake, your makeup will run.’ Seb took this moment to light a celebratory cigarette. ‘A shame we have nothing to drink. You could use some Dutch courage. So could I.’
‘I mean, they’re going to be in for a ride anyway. May as well get the most out of it.’ Allen went back into the kitchen, returning with a bottle of gin that looked notably expensive, a wide black bottle with ornate writing on the label furnished with a red wax seal. Its beautiful exterior captivated Seb.
‘Is that –’
‘Expensive. It’s my dad’s.’
‘Whether your dad’s or the devil’s, it looks beautiful.’
‘He drinks it only on special occasions. It’s from Poland or somewhere.’
‘Darling, I couldn’t think of a more special occasion.’
The two of them refilled their mugs with the almost blue liquor, and Seb raised theirs for a toast, ‘Here’s to a future without any expectations.’ Allen raised his. ‘To a shitty future, completely free –’
‘To a future of melodrama and turmoil –’
‘To a future of doubt and dreams –’
‘Of broken hearts –’
‘Of broken homes –’
‘Of angry exes –’
‘Of unrequited love –’
Seb toasted, and then softly closed their eyes. ‘And all those other wonderful things.’
The living room began to take on a pinkish hue as the sunrise became imminent. Things that were shrouded in dark musty shadow were now emerging into a newfound glow. Objects, perhaps in the absence of sleep, unable to dream, participate in a different cycle, in which when the day ends their meaning becomes dormant, hidden in the material, having no agent to negotiate their meaning with. Come daybreak their meaning resumes, recharged with possibility for what they might mean today. These objects insisted through history, but they also took on new meaning every hour.
‘We’re losing it’ cried Seb, slurring and pissed. ‘The darkness! It’s leaving us! Our home, our shelter, lost into the violence of day!’
Even for Seb, the drunkenness had taken on a whole new pompousness, Hamlet impersonating Hamlet (and badly). Allen leapt onto them, his black cactus-like hair almost stabbing Seb in the face.
‘Oh shut the fuck up!’ – he was hysterical with laughter.
‘Get off!’ screamed Seb – ‘You horrible big man!’
‘I’m not a man! I’m a nothing! And that’s more than what you are!’
‘Careful! You’ll wake Mr. and Mrs!’
Allen flopped off Seb and rolled onto the floor, trying to control his laughter. ‘Fuck it’ sighed Allen. ‘They’re going to be awake soon anyway. May as well get this show over sooner rather than later.’
Seb reached for the gin bottle to refill their mug but the bottle was empty.
‘Did we drink the whole thing in like half an hour?’ asked Seb.
‘It was only half-full anyway.’
Throwing the bottle to the sofa, Seb then rolled onto the floor.
‘Let’s play a game’ suggested Seb.
‘Role-play. Let’s pretend!’
‘Pretend to be who?’ asked Allen.
‘Whoever you can do the best impression of!’
Allen ran over to the stairs and grabbed Seb’s heels; thrusting his feet into them, he then hobbled back into the living room and lunged for the empty bottle, pretending to swig from it. His performance of being pissed seemed indistinguishable from his actual drunkenness, and he stumbled around the room, the heels and his pink crop-top transforming him into a sort of raging flamingo, almost knocking over the photographs on the mantelpiece.
‘You do me justice by simply being able to stand in those things’ laughed Seb. ‘Oh Allen!’ shouted Allen. ‘You never have anything fun to say! You’re way too serious.’
‘Seb!’ cried Seb. ‘Keep your voice down! You’ll wake up ma and pa!’
‘Oh Allen!’ cried Allen. ‘Haven’t you learnt anything from me? Don’t give a shit about anyone! Anyone but yourself!’
Seb quietly lost their enthusiasm for the game, standing up from the floor, their tone now half-interrogative, less subsumed by the thought of acting.
‘Really, Seb?’ asked Seb. ‘You don’t care about anyone?’
‘Nope!’ yelled Allen. ‘As long as my friends give me a free fucking cigarette in the smoking area whenever I snap my fingers, then who the fuck cares what happens to them. Who cares what happens to anybody? Who cares what happens to you, Allen!’ Seb took a seat on the sofa without saying a word. Had they screamed or flipped the table over, Allen would at least have something to interpret, but Seb’s silence was otherworldly. Allen insisted on the game.
‘Oh come on – lighten up!’ yelled Allen. ‘Come on!’
Allen stumbled over to the sofa and tried to rest his arms on Seb’s shoulders, but falling, he accidentally embraced Seb with full force.
‘Stop it, Allen’ said Seb. ‘You’re not me. I’m not you. What a stupid game this was.’ Allen began to crawl out of his impersonation, back into himself, discomforted by Seb’s newfound severity.
‘Shit – I took it too far – shit – Seb, hun, I’m sorry.’
‘I’ve never done that before’ whispered Seb, almost to themselves.
‘Role-play? Me neither.’
‘No. Not that. I’ve just never seen how other people see me. How you see me, Allen.’ Seb was usually invulnerable and yet here they sat with an expression of melancholy. ‘How can you not think that I care?’ asked Seb. Allen tried to speak but he forgot how to, as if words weren’t used for speaking. ‘What do you think I am, Allen? A monster?’ They sat there in mutual silence. The room became brighter, the sun emerging over the roofs outside and a more saturated violet broke over the houses, decorating the living room with a cool, subdued light.
‘It’s not your fault’ Seb gently reassured, turning to Allen. ‘I am what I am. I’m imperfect, like the rest of the world.’
‘No, Seb hun, I’m just pissed. That’s not how I see you.’
‘Nothing wrong with imperfection, Allen. It’s such a reliable thing to fall back on. There are no false fronts. Not like happiness that always pulls the rug from under your heels. No, it’s just fine.’
Allen turned and rested his feet on Seb’s lap. Seb hardly took notice.
‘How do you see yourself, Seb?’
Allen, though trying to avoid eye-contact, felt the pressure of Seb’s glare; Allen had no way to know for sure, he just felt it, Seb’s uninterrupted gaze shining onto him with the encroaching light of dawn.
‘I remember this story that a therapist told me once when I was a kid’ said Seb, slowly. ‘My parents thought I was mentally unwell growing up. Because of – well. You know. On the subject of body dysmorphia, a therapist told me a story about a guy who was like – a psychiatric marvel. He thought that he was made of glass. During a session with the therapist, he pointed to a window and asked the doc what he could see. And the doc said that he could see the street, cars and buildings and people. And the patient replied, “You’ve missed the glass in the window. You didn’t see it, but it’s there. That’s me.” I don’t know why but I really remember that story. If anything, it was inspirational.’ ‘I never knew your parents made you go to therapy?’ Allen took his feet off Seb. ‘The patient said he was able to turn this feeling off and on at will, some switch in his mind, where he could be there and not there whenever he felt like it. I don’t know why, the story just always stuck with me.’
Seb’s joviality returned, their narrative becoming increasingly rhythmic, dramatic, abundant in a personality that seemed present and absent and thus omnipotent. Allen smiled and slowly pressed his hand over Seb’s, ready to insist that it was unromantic until he noticed that Seb knew this already, an introspective grin on their face that showed Seb was thinking of themselves in that moment, indifferent to whatever was happening around them.
‘Are you happy, Seb?’
‘I’m imperfect. That has its own sort of happiness. It has moments.’
‘Most of the time I’m just miserable. And I guess that has its moments too. That’s why I’m so serious. It’s why I care.’ ‘I know darling’ reassured Seb.
‘I’m happy when we’re together’ explained Allen. ‘When we hang out.’ ‘Yes –’
‘And I hate the thought that I’m going to come out to my parents in like an hour and you’re going to leave me in a few days to go back to uni. I hate the thought of you not being here for me.’
‘Will you stay with me for now?’
‘Don’t go home, when they wake up. Stay here with me.’
‘Like, as backup?’ asked Seb.
‘As support. Because you care. Because I know you do.’
‘Yes I know you care or yes you’ll stay?’ asked Allen.
‘I’ll stay. I’ve fought one pair of parents before, I can fight another.’
Seb, taking note of Allen’s hand, held it tighter. Seb sat back and gazed into the living room again. It was strange, they thought. How much the room seemed to have changed in the last few hours, even though everything in it was still the same as before, just with new meaning. Seb ran their finger along the coffee table.
‘I’ve always rather liked this table’ mused Seb. ‘It’s the only thing in your parents’ house that’s actually chic. It’s the one silver lining in this museum of crap.’
Allen then removed his choker, decorated with a series of large metallic thorns. He removed the art catalogues and mugs off the table and turned it onto its side.
‘Just because I like it doesn’t mean I want it darling!’
‘I know’ said Allen. ‘That’s not what I’m doing.’
‘Then what are you doing?’
Holding one of the metal thorns at an angle, Allen began to carve into the table below its base. Seb slowly read their name grow into being, in child-like but lively letters emerging in the table – ‘Allen&Seb’. Allen then carved a heart around the inscription, etched into the table over and over again until the heart was no longer a heart but a protective ring that made the names stand out all the more, that drew attention to them not as words but as bodies in their own right, pressed up so close against each other that it was difficult to see where the one name ended and the other began.
‘My my, Michelangelo!’ Seb blew a kiss into their thumb and forefinger, hailing it a masterpiece.
Allen placed the table back upright, his hands still holding onto it as if he could feel the table moving, not in space but through time. The table was a family heirloom, something inherited from his father’s mother’s mother, or something like that. It persisted through time as a part of the McKnight body, their blood baked into its wood. In merely inscribing it, Allen felt a shockwave of history pass through it, an electrical current moving from the table into his own hands. He had rewritten history and the future. It really was that easy, he thought. And it will be passed on, perhaps someone will turn it over one day or perhaps his mark would forever be unseen until the day a later generation decide to throw it out, its style too anachronistic to pass for vintage. Would the names survive its physical destruction? Would history be kind to them? Really, none of it mattered. If time was that easy to control then it didn’t matter. Nothing could be more gracious than the here and now.
Birds began to sing. Birdsong in the suburbs was a surreal thing in itself, the thought that something beautiful could persevere in the regimented landscape. Allen thought back onto the night, trying to follow how it had lead him to this point in time. The night seemed an anomaly in his life. Perhaps because it would be the first day of something new that was also not so new. Seb crossed their legs and turned to stare out the window. Allen mused over the sheer joy of their hubris that he doubted would last the night.
‘What am I going to say?’ asked Allen.
‘What do you want to say?’
Allen’s face suddenly struck Seb as distinctly adolescent in panic. ‘I don’t know, Seb, I don’t know.’
‘Don’t torture yourself darling’ said Seb offhandedly as they collected the mugs from the floor and took them over to the kitchen.
Allen wondered if there was an alternative timeline where they came out at a sooner date. How their life would have been different. So much time seemed wasted.
‘I don’t see why you would want it any other way, darling’ insisted Seb. ‘Wasted time is the best sort of time.’
‘I could have stopped hiding years ago.’
‘You would be someone else. Whatever’s happened, while not ideal, it’s made you the person I know.’
‘Perhaps I’d be happier.’
‘Perhaps, but perhaps not. You have support now. You have a community. Before you just had me.’
‘That would have been enough –’
‘No. It wouldn’t have.’
They heard footsteps upstairs. A rustle of impending dressing gowns.
‘Oh fuck’ Allen murmured. ‘Fuck!’
Seb embraced Allen; they held each other there in the living room which seemed to have been anticipating the morning itself; a room that was abundant with time, flowing through the walls – a torrent of decades and hours, and in the centre of its whirlpool, Allen and Seb (Allen&Seb) embraced in a room that was always hospitable to their arrival, their departure, a room adorned with the morning sun that filled the entire space, shadows washed away into an infinity of light.
Allen walked away from Seb, hesitantly passing over to the foot of the staircase. Seb watched from the living room as if a ghost watching Allen from another world. ‘Who’s down there? Allen? Are you awake already?’ – their mother’s voice, taught and neurotic.
Allen held their hands together; their hair, a parade of gelled-up thorns, their bright blue lips, body piercings – martyr-like – on display. Time was gracious and they felt as if the morning itself had wrapped around them.
A small woman with coal hair and a grey dressing gown stood at the top of the staircase. Her shadow rolled down the stairs, meeting with Allen; or perhaps Allen’s shadow rolled up to meet her.
‘Allen?’ she asked. ‘Is that you?’
‘Yes. It’s me.’
Alex Matraxia is a London-based writer, interested in queer identity and its relationship to urban space, memory, and myth. Their work has previously appeared in The ISIS Magazine, The Oxford Review of Books, and ASH, an annual anthology based in Oxford. They are the recipient of the Martin Starkie Memorial Prize (2018), the Graham Midgley Poetry Prize (2019), and they are the recipient of the Future Creative’s Writing Prize, awarded Platinum (2020); their work is to be included in the Future Creatives’ upcoming publication, Tomorrow.
Rosemary Doman ‘The Conservatory’
Each day, Emma watched for the large white van pulling up in her driveway. At first, she’d hidden herself behind the thick lounge curtains. Now she felt bolder, stronger. If her hair straggled in tousled clumps onto the shoulders of her milk stained housecoat, she no longer cared.
When the conservatory walls were being fitted, she had carried the baby to the window to show him the workmen unloading the van of its gleaming cargo. “Unbreakable,” she murmured, turning away from the glare that bounced off each sheet. When roof, lights and other appliances were in place, and the floor tiled, the conservatory would be finished. “It’ll be ready for use in two weeks, as we guaranteed your husband,” the works manager assured her, adding a little nervously, “Assuming, of course, it passes Mr Bryant’s stringent quality checks.”
“That’s good news!” Emma had responded with a smile, feigning an enthusiasm she couldn’t feel. It wasn’t she who wanted this “all seasons” conservatory, or even the extension to her kitchen, although she’d tried to take a professional interest in the drawings. Her mind was still too tired to grasp all the technicalities, but the conservatory looked (from an architectural point of view) to be a fine specimen. Why they needed the extra room in a house that seemed to swallow up all her energies, she couldn’t understand. There were only the three of them counting the baby, and he didn’t yet take up the space of a single kitchen cupboard.
He was growing all the time, of course, despite her terrors when they’d first held him out to her, a bluish pink contortion of tiny limbs, smelling of salty fluids and streaked in blood. Her blood. Little wonder he’d screamed when she stretched out her shaking arms to take him, after twenty-three hours of pain on the unyielding hospital bed. He must have looked into her eyes as she’d forced herself to look into his and seen the panic and exhaustion there.
Robert had been delighted, naturally, a son, whose tiny screwed up features gave him back himself. “Another quality Bryant product!” he’d laughed. It was true. Except for the glint of copper in its downy cap, the child seemed wholly his. “He has his mother’s hair,” Robert had conceded to the admiring nurses, gently laying one honey gold strand of hers onto the newborn head. This loving gesture temporarily overcame her annoyance that the baby was a boy. Then, taking the child from her, he marvelled again at the diminutive mirror image, as if he, not she, had undergone all the trauma of the birth.
It was as well she couldn’t foresee the sleepless nights ahead. Jonathan lay asleep in his downstairs basket, but it wouldn’t be long before he woke again She dragged herself upstairs to shower and dress. Last night had been one of the worst since she came home. Every time she tried to put him down, Jonathan had screamed, in mockery of the rituals the maternity staff had taught her. Rocking, burping, changing, walking to and fro with him until she was ready to drop – nothing seemed to help. Could he sense her fragility, her unworthiness as a mother?
That hospital doctor had certainly seen through her. How she’d frowned at Emma’s pleas that she was too exhausted to breastfeed her baby! When had Emma asked for a pill to ease the continuing pelvic cramps, the doctor’s vermilion lips curled in disapproval. “You’ve had a perfectly normal birth apart from the forceps,” she’d reminded Emma tartly, “and enough analgesics to deliver triplets.” It was the student midwife who brought her a glass of milk and paracetamol when Robert left – then summoned the doctor back to her bedside when she haemorrhaged.
After they’d removed the last of the placenta, she had slept dreamlessly for hours. Then the kind trainee midwife had encouraged Emma to put her whimpering son to the breast, like they’d shown her and the other new mothers on videos at Natural Birth ante-natal classes. How she’d tried! She’d been so keen to learn she’d borrowed the breastfeeding video, but the struggle to keep up with her insatiable baby had made her abandon natural feeding within a fortnight of getting home.
Like father, like son, she thought, as she listened to the workmen putting together the final sections of the conservatory, always demanding of her what she couldn’t give, however agonisingly hard she worked at servicing them. When sheer exhaustion prevented her from lovemaking, Robert had sulked and snapped. Jonathan, however, proved easier. After a few frustrated screaming sessions, he’d settled for a bottle. She was glad: it relieved her of some of the burden of caring for him. If Robert was home early enough, he could sometimes be persuaded to feed his son. At night, when she was at her lowest and the baby really fractious, he insisted it was for her to see to the baby, since he had to get up early to work.
She would stumble downstairs in the dark with the mewing child, watch its preying little mouth suck greedily at the warmed bottle, as she had once seen a spider suck the entrails from an ensnared wasp. With increasing desperation, she’d try to settle Jonathan, hoping that the night colic the health visitor had assured her was normal, would resolve itself at last. But as soon as she lay him back in his wicker crib, he yelled as if in agony, tiny chubby knees bent to chin, cheeks puce and creased, his whole infant being convulsed with rage and indigestion. Putting the bloated little body over her shoulder, she’d prowl resentfully round downstairs for the best part of two hours. Finally she retreated to the kitchen, still in the throes of its extension, where she could imagine the conservatory protruding like a transparent growth, obscenely swollen and ready to throb with its gadget-driven electronic life.
Her life had shrunk to an endless treadmill of feeding, changing, winding, so that she dwindled while the baby thrived, grew, despite his colic. She had her share of visitors, but since she was far from her home town, they were mostly Robert’s family or local friends. For these she put on a mask of contented motherhood, so they couldn’t see through to her resentment and despair. With dread she foresaw her life when the Jonathan grew to boyhood, wilful and destructive, with Robert aiding and abetting every unfeeling masculine whim.
At such times she wondered whether she would survive. Would anyone weep and cover her lifeless form with flowers? Would the conservatory become her glass tomb, as if she were the princess in the fairy tale, destroyed by the jealousy of those who feared a superior being as a threat?
Jonathan’s christening was planned for three weeks on Sunday. “We can show off the conservatory as well,” Robert gloated. He’d arranged caterers for their sixty guests. It would be very different from some of the other Sundays when she was on her own with the baby, while he pursued his career. She’d chosen the christening clothes, a silky, white suit with a jaunty cap and soft white shoes, swathed in soft tissue at the top of her wardrobe. Her own outfit hung beneath, a loosely cut Laura Ashley type print which she would wished could have been a size smaller. At least, Emma told herself, she had made an effort for an event which for her held out no joy.
“Buy yourself something befitting a company director’s wife,” Robert had insisted, and so she’d again complied, leaving Jonathan with a neighbour while she braved the nearest boutique. The thought of confronting herself in those ruthless fitting room mirrors made her shudder. In the last month of her pregnancy, she’d tried to avoid mirrors, hating the tent-like clothes which draped without disguising her swollen shape; hating the flat shoes which didn’t prevent puffy ankles; trying not to resent the fact that the baby, even more than their home extension, had been far more his idea than hers.
She’d have chosen to wait longer, consolidate her working reputation, but Robert had panicked that in three years she would be thirty. “We mustn’t leave it too late, Emma!” he had urged, just after their second anniversary, as if it was his biological clock running over not hers. “Don’t you want our child?” Many days she truthfully felt she didn’t want the baby, her unsought for motherhood sucking away her hopes, her independent life, her very self.
She had been a newly qualified city architect, when she and Robert met through a building project. Angered by his dismissal of her visionary design as too costly, she had, despite herself, fallen beneath his spell. Her parents soon followed suit. Disappointed as they were for at the rejection of her design, they saw Robert, unlike Emma, kept his imagination tightly reined, his perceptions pragmatic, his outlook firmly down to earth.
It was the week after the conservatory was finished, that without warning Jonathan fell ill. Seeing the weather change for the worse, she had wheeled him in from the garden . Watching the downpour from the heated glass structure, she was grateful for its warmth enclosing them like a womb, its fragile toughness somehow a support. Rain drummed on the polycarbonate roof, running down the walls in sheets. Blurring the outdoors to a misty dullness, it felt oddly hypnotic and comforting. Though his next feed was due, Jonathan slept on. He lay so still that for a moment Emma felt her own heart drumming loudly inside her, drowning out the rain. Was it fear – or was it hope – that pulsated so powerfully through her, made her feel giddy in the giant glass bowl?
What would happen if there were no baby to christen the Sunday after next? They would have to cancel the service, the caterers, all the invited guests… maybe hold another event instead. She turned the baby on his back, stroked his closed eyes, ran her fingers lightly down his cool, pale cheeks. Then she turned abruptly away, resisting the image of him lying blissfully still for ever. No wonder there were mothers so rock-bottom in despair that they would lay a hand ever so gently over the tiny face, hold it there until… With a start, she snatched her hand back, looking away in horror, as if she saw it reddened with his blood. Something inside her cracked. In rage and terror she began to beat her fists against the nearest pane, wanting to smash through the unbreakable wall, shatter the smug complicity of the domestic structures which kept her bound, weighted down in body and mind. Over and over again she heard herself scream at Jonathan, “I wish you’d never been born!” Sobbing violently in the depths of her depression, she failed to see the baby had woken: failed to hear his first pathetic, whimpering cry.
As if grieved to the heart by the knowledge of her rejection, Jonathan’s cries became more plaintive, miserably insistent. Guiltily, she seized him, noticed for the first time his pallid, sweaty skin, how limp he was, his fragile little body drooping like a flower on a broken stalk. He continued to whimper as she tried to comfort him, more so in the kitchen when she offered him his feed. She put him back in his pram, biting her lip as he grew paler, more unhappy, his crying not robust but pleading and very high pitched. As Emma bent to pick him up again she saw his eyes roll wildly and his whole body start to compulsively pitch and toss. She ran into the hall and summoned her doctor. When the ambulance arrived, she was almost too distraught to speak, but she choked out enough to make a neighbour understand that Robert must be rung at once.
Later, during the long watch in the stifling hospital ward, she sobbed hysterically as Robert tried to comfort her. “It’s all my fault if he dies – I wanted it, I cursed him dead!”
Bewilderedly he stroked her hands. “No – no, Emma! You mustn’t blame yourself. It’s a bad infection, like the paedetrician told us.” But as daylight broke, and the baby’s condition didn’t improve, he put his head in his hands and wept. “If only,” Emma prayed desperately. “If only!” In the throes of her guilt and grief she was unable to finish her prayer.
After four days, they were allowed to take their son home. His weight had dropped and he was fretful and still pale, but otherwise he had come through his ordeal. Nursing him through yet another sleepless night, Emma felt exhaustion overtake her joy at the child’s recovery. She listened to the rain strike fitfully against the kitchen window. Then, as Robert gently shook her shoulder ,realised she had fallen into a doze. “I’ll take him now, Emma love,” he whispered. “You go get your rest.” He carried the baby carefully in his large, tender hands through the kitchen into the unlit conservatory. Half-consciously, she stumbled after him and sat by Jonathan’s pram, dreamily watching as Robert steadily paced the tiled floor, with the restless child draped over his strong, broad shoulder. The love which had welled up on seeing her baby helplessly sick and his father grieving so powerlessly, resurfaced, dispelling her weariness with thankful tears.
The rain was winding down to a melodious patter as Robert laid their sleeping son in his pram and beckoned her. “Look,” he said softly, pointing up to the conservatory roof. And taking hands, they silently marvelled at the big, yellow moon, which, breaking free of its pall of cloud, shone like a beacon of gold above them.
Rosemary Doman is a retired Creative Writing and English tutor, who writes poetry and short stories. She has been published in a variety of short story outlets and anthologies and had success in a number of writing competitions.
Congratulations to all the winners who will be receiving their prizes very soon! Our Lucent Dreaming 2020 competitions continue with our Novella and Poetry Pamphlet rounds, open for entries until 4th December 2020. We are currently judging our Flash Fiction entries whose winners are due to be announced at the end of September/early October.