Category Archives: Fiction

The Sweetest Thing

I’ve bought 5lbs of modeling chocolate. I’ve got something important to make.

 

I always loved chocolate, and was rarely allowed it. Mum locked the cupboards. Chocolate was a treat or a reward, and had to be earned. The next day she would make me stand on the scales and show me my shame in numbers.

 

As soon as I left home, I was free to eat all I wanted but it seemed I was never full. I buried myself in layer on layer of comfort. Mum said I was a disgrace.

 

‘I don’t care,’ I said, ‘I’m done trying to please you.’ But it wasn’t true. Her approval and her disgust were all mixed up in my head.

 

I met a girl. I thought she saw the real me under the folds of my disguise. We were friends. Until one night I misread her kindness and tried to kiss her. She recoiled.

 

I immediately saw my advance for what it was: the clumsy lurch of a greedy child. I tried to apologise but the words got stuck in my teeth.

 

It was later that the anger took root. It was when I saw her moving around, unaffected, still smiling and existing, as though I’d never touched her. Hot rage grew in me like a gnawing hunger.

 

It has to be chocolate. You can’t easily make the same kinds of shapes with buttercream, marzipan, or fondant. You can’t mould a person.

 

I make her beautiful. I carve her hair, shape the curves of her body, pinprick her eyes. I don’t give her a mouth, so she can’t tell me I’m not good enough. She can’t tell me no.

 

I stand her on the kitchen counter and look at her a while.

 

Then I smash her, and swallow her piece by piece.

 

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Ashley at the the zoo

I took my nephew Ashley to the zoo the day his parents divorced.

His mother, my sister, was celebrating her officially-recognised freedom by taking a plane to St Lucia with the photocopier repair man from her office.

I helped Ashley climb up onto the viewing platform so he could stand eye-to-eye with the giraffes. His little face was pink and streaked with snot, and utterly serious.

‘You are very tall indeed,’ he told the animal lumbering towards him, and held out his chubby hand to be sniffed.

I thought of his mother, on the beach by now, strawberry daiquiri in hand, and hugged Ashley to me as we watched the gathering clouds.

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Celery

I hate celery. I’m annoyed about hating it, since I generally pride myself on being an unfussy eater. But really, what’s the point of it? It’s like corrugated cardboard. It looks as though it should taste of nothing, but in reality it’s revolting, and the worst thing is that its appearance does nothing to warn you of this. It’s the disguise I resent the most. At least porridge, the only other thing I won’t eat, looks like something you don’t want to put in your mouth.

It was the third date. Everyone knows the third date is The One, the pivotal moment. We agreed I would go to his flat and he would cook, and we both pretended I would get a taxi home (my toothbrush and spare pants were, of course, stashed in my bag). The smells from the kitchen were divine. Onions, garlic and white wine. He was cooking risotto, and as I watched him stirring in the butter and cheese at the final stages, generous, indulgent handfuls of parmesan, I thought, I like this guy.

He lit candles. We sat down and tucked in. I smiled at him as I brought the fork to my mouth.

And that’s when I saw it.

You can’t pick celery out of risotto.

I’ve trained myself to eat olives, and raisins. But I won’t do that for celery. Celery doesn’t deserve my time and effort.

I ate the risotto, I felt it was only polite. But there was no fourth date.

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The Hiding Tree

 

The tree I can’t stop looking at stands in the middle of the green, in the middle of a village whose name has too few vowels for my English tongue to properly pronounce.

We’re here for a wedding; Mike’s old school friend is marrying Agnieszka, at last. We’ve been promised three days straight of vodka and dancing, so we decided to rent a small house a little way from the venue, so that we can duck out if we need to.

The secret no-one but us knows yet is that I’m pregnant, so while the dancing will probably be okay, the vodka certainly will not. Mike will switch my shot glasses for water when no-one’s looking.

There is a plaque, brown and gold, in front of the tree, commemorating its success: it was recently named International Tree of the Year.

I never knew there was such a thing.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s a very nice tree. I imagine it was surrounded by others, once, others that were felled to make way for what they call the ‘new’ half of the village, built in the 1960s. But this tree was spared. It has a fine thick trunk, and branches that stretch like worshipful arms towards the heavens.

 

But its history is the reason it was commended.

In the early 1940s a Jewish family hid in this tree for two years and so avoided deportation to Auschwitz. The villagers brought meat and bread in the night, paper parcels laid as offerings next to a hole in the trunk from which a thin white arm would emerge in the darkness to gather them.

Two years.

I imagine the curled bodies, matted hair, dirty skin, lying among the crawling creatures and rotting mulch. A life lived in silence and shade. I wonder how many they were, whether they held hands, prayed, dreamed. I think of them finally, finally, coming into the light, unfurling their limbs and blinking, spitting dust and leaves as their tongues rolled in their mouths, remembering at last how to form words.

 

The hole they came out of has been filled in, now, and I move closer to try to see or feel the difference in texture that belies the once secret doorway, but find no obvious clues. The deep ridges of its belly are as beautiful as wrinkles on the face of a lover. I lean into the bark, inhaling its scent. I reach my arms around the trunk and find that however hard I stretch, the tips of my fingers won’t meet around the other side. I imagine that the tree breathes and moves in my embrace. Turning my head, I press my ear against the wood and listen, the way you might hold up a conch in the hope of hearing the ocean. I am listening for voices, for heartbeats. There is a faint rustling, nothing more, and I wonder what lives this tree continues to contain, what beauty and hope now grow inside it.

When I step away, there are traces of bark, of damp moss, clinging to me, little slivers of brown and green on my clothes.

 

I place a hand on my still-flat tummy, fancying I can feel the shape of the life that we have already dared name in hushed conversations under covers, a tadpole, a bean, a tiny thing doing nothing but the business of becoming.

The tree stands, steadfast as a mother, yet ever changing, edging skyward in imperceptible shifts.

Its roots chart a course beyond anyone’s reach, whispering their secrets to the earth.

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Melissa Smit

Melissa Smit. Your voice, your very name

a lisp, your hissing tongue,

your backcombed hair.

Bubblegum pink and baby blues,

and blonde, so blonde, but I knew you,

I saw through

the wide-eyed looks, the way you took

a sherbet dip-dab to your lips

and licked, and licked

and locked on him, on him, my Jim,

my all-time love. Your whispered words

and berry mouth

too much to resist, your apple bite,

your serpent’s kiss.

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Boy on the moon

Some people think it’s made of cheese. I don’t, of course; I like science and things that are true.

Even so, it’s rockier than I thought. A hard and solid thing, not the ball of light it looks like from Earth, not spongy or even particularly shimmery. It’s just grey and dusty.

I’m glad to be here though. If only Joseph Dodder could see me now. Joseph Dodder is the naughtiest boy in my class, and he says the moon landings didn’t really happen. He says the flag would have waved, and it doesn’t matter how many times you explain to him about atmosphere. He’s a stupid boy, even though I’m not supposed to call anyone stupid, but I think it’s okay to say it about Joseph Dodder because once he pinched my arm so hard it left a finger-shaped bruise.

I kick a stone and it bounces and floats away, sort of taking its time, sailing through the air, but no sign of it coming back down, and I wonder how it is I’m here and I don’t just float off the surface and into space. I’m not wearing a special suit, like the astronauts did.

I learned most about the astronauts when we went to Florida. It was a special trip, Mum always said we couldn’t afford it but then some kind people paid for us to go because they said I should get my wish. ‘Trust you,’ she said when I told her I didn’t want to go to Disneyland, I wanted to go to the Kennedy Space Center. They spell Center like that in America, even though that’s not the right way. I’m smart with words, Miss Lane says so. She’s my teacher and she’s kind and smells of strawberries.

We went early and a nice man in a suit met us and told me I was a VIP, which stands for very important person, and showed us the place where the relatives watched the rockets launch. We sat on metal benches called bleachers and looked out over very flat ground that went on for miles. It was quiet and I squeezed my eyes closed tight and tried to imagine the flames and booming noise there would have been.

Joseph Dodder says that if the moon landings were real, how come you can’t see the stars in any of the photographs, but he doesn’t understand that the moon is so bright that when you’re on it, it blots out all the other lights. And now I’m here I know that’s true because the sky is black.

It makes me think of other black things, people dressed in black although some were in colour, and someone reading out loud about putting out the stars. I remember Mum crying and people hugging her, and me not there.

I want to tell Mum, it’s okay, the stars are there, I just can’t see them. I want to tell her no-one packed up the moon; I am here.

 

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The cure for selfishness

You were first told you were selfish when you were five years old. You had crept into the kitchen and eaten the last of the fairy cakes, the one that was meant for your sister when she got home from ballet. You scrunched up the waxy paper, not before tipping the last of the crumbs into your mouth, and hid it in the bottom of the bin, but as you turned around your mother was standing at the door.

 

You were also called greedy and lazy, and these labels took a little while to peel off, but left no lasting marks. ‘Selfish’ on the other hand was like one of those cartoon rain clouds, hovering stubbornly over your head, following you around even on days lit by sunshine.

 

As you grew to take up more space in the world, you decided to try being unselfish by being undemanding. Against all the impulses and wants of your body and mind, you tried not to make noise, or be noticed, once not speaking for an entire week. You wore all black and ate only crackers broken into tiny pieces. You tried to dissolve, into the background, into the air, but your very attempts at disappearing were called ‘attention seeking’ and you reeled from this, confused, as though from a slap.

 

Some part of you must have been strong, though, because you got out and got away, fueled by the idea that there was somewhere else, a place you could be better than you had been. If you moved, you could change.

 

‘There is no such thing as altruism.’ The staple debate of undergraduates around kitchen tables, late at night, up and down the country. ‘There are no selfless good deeds.’ At one of these tables you found the man who would become your husband, and while outside you agreed with what was being said, inside you nurtured the fervent wish that you, you would be different. You would try.

 

You tried charity. Giving money, belongings, time. Walking a mile in another man’s moccasins. You ladled soup for the homeless, bagged up clothes for refugees, ran miles in t-shirts emblazoned with the names of diseases that would never be cured, not in your lifetime. Sponsorship, bake sales, and driving old people to Sunday lunches in draughty village halls.

 

You tried having children. Lots of people said this was the cure. But it’s the ultimate act of narcissism, of course: create something in your own image, then worship it. Defend it to the death, your selfish gene, with your lioness heart.

 

You tried caring for your parents, eventually going back there, drawn by stories of weight loss and sight loss and memory loss, a litany of absent things that nonetheless weighed down your heart like so many stones.

 

You tried, after they died, to lose all self-absorption once and for all, by becoming utterly unconcerned with self-care. You took down all the mirrors. You stopped washing your hair. But of course this was its own form of selfishness, because the children you raised and worshipped had themselves grown up and your behaviour brought them to your door, which was after all the thing you most wanted.

 

There isn’t much time left now, and you’re tired and running out of ideas. Downstairs the two boys who grew into fine men are saying to their father that they will stay, just for tonight, one of them will have the pull-out bed, and the other says he’ll go out and get chips for everyone. And you smile, even though the spectre of all those less fortunate than you, the dispossessed and the sick and the starving, still hovers at the edge of your thoughts.

 

It might be time to draw the curtain on a life’s effort that opened out with the telltale dusting of icing sugar on your upper lip, and narrows to its end now with more comfort and attention than you could ever have hoped to deserve.

 

You close your eyes and think maybe you’ve figured out the cure. Here’s what you could do: you could forgive yourself. Maybe.

One day.

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