Fiction

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Cuckoo

Published May 20, 2021 by Naomi Rettig

I sit in my car chewing on nicotine gum and watching the mourners seep into the church. I don’t recognise anyone. Leaning back and closing my eyes, I toy with the idea of driving off somewhere else, anywhere else. My overnight bag is in the boot. I could. I wouldn’t be missed.

There’s a tap on the window. I open my eyes. Keith. My brother-in-law is attempting to smile, his face almost pressed against the glass. I stare at him and press the button. The window drifts down. His wobbly face twitches. It seems he doesn’t know whether to start talking while the barrier is lowering or wait.  He waits. I chew. The whir of the window stops.

‘Kate. Hello.’ He exhales, expelling the essence of peppermint and meat. Cheap sausages, I think.

‘Hello Keith.’ I don’t smile, hoping my sour face will encourage him away from my personal space. It doesn’t.

‘How are you?’

‘I’ve just driven six hours to come to my mother’s funeral in bank holiday traffic with a hangover.’

‘Oh. Yes.’ He straightens up and recedes from my window, fidgeting with his tie. ‘Are you coming in with us now?’ He glances across the car park to my sister and their two adolescents. It’s odd seeing her dressed in black. I only see her wearing florals, bright yellow, or tacky Christmas jumpers. Josh and Max are in matching black suits. One is tapping away on his phone. I think it’s Josh. They’re both the same height now.

I take out my gum, wrap it in a tissue, and pop it in my pocket. Keith hovers as I lock up then we walk across in silence.

‘Hello Kate.’ My sister smiles. It’s a tired smile. She looks old.

‘Jackie.’ I smile back, but I’m not sure it translates to my face. My Botox hasn’t had time to settle.

She takes a deep breath. ‘Let’s go in.’

The service is short. A brief history of Mum’s life accompanied by sniffing and snivelling from Jackie. Keith and the boys look like they’re waiting for a bus. Friends of Mum give their condolences to Jackie outside the church. I don’t think many of them know who I am. I’m a stranger. To everyone.

Jackie says thanks to the vicar then turns to me. ‘Do you want to follow us in the car to the wake?’

‘I’m going to give that a miss.’

Jackie’s face wrinkles. ‘Why? You’ve come all this way.’

‘Exactly. I’m tired from the drive. I’m just going to the house.’

‘Fine. Do what you want, you usually do.’ Jackie sighs. ‘I’ll call in later.’

‘I’ll probably be asleep.’ I walk off to my car, judgement smothering me.

I pull up outside Mum’s house. I see a curtain in the house opposite quiver as I lock the car. Nosey neighbours in their narrow semi-detached houses with their narrow semi-detached minds. Yes, it’s me, the bad daughter, the one that left and only comes back unwillingly for birthdays and Christmas.

Closing the front door, I drop my bag on the floor and stand still listening to the almost silent house. That bloody clock is ticking loudly. Leaving my bag in the hallway, I follow the noise of the clock into the lounge. Mum’s beige threadbare wingback chair is still shaped with the indentation of her. The burgundy walls are still depressing. The flowery curtains are still deciding what decade to fit into. I wander around the room, looking at all the cheap ornaments on display like I’m in a mundane museum. Photos in mismatched frames are everywhere. Most of them Jackie’s kids in various stages of growth. I stop at a picture of Jackie and me. We must be about ten. Linked arms, smiling on a beach. Morecombe, I think. We do look like twins. That was when I believed we were. About a year later, my nan told me I was adopted.

I sit on the sofa, taking the photo with me. I trace my finger over the two smiling girls with matching swimsuits and matching brown bobbed hair. Nan had told me not to tell anyone I knew. She said it would upset Mum too much. It hadn’t even been a real adoption. Apparently, while Mum was giving birth here in this house to Jackie, I was left on the doorstep. I often wonder how my life would have been different if, instead of Mum and Dad registering me as the twin to Jackie, they had handed me to the authorities. I knew Jackie was the favourite. I understood why. She was the golden child, and I was just a cuckoo.

I realise I’m crying. Not big ugly crying but tiny veins of tears trickling down my cheeks. ‘Oh, Mum.’ I say out loud to her chair. ‘Why didn’t I tell you that I knew? Why didn’t you tell me?’

The clock ticks. That bloody clock. I discard the photo frame on the sofa and wipe my face with the tissue in my pocket. I forgot I wrapped my gum in there and proceed to wipe it over my eyes. ‘Shit.’ Removing gum from my eyelashes, I stride over to the clock, remove the batteries and fling them to the floor. ‘Shit, shit, shit!’

‘I never liked that clock either.’ A voice says quietly behind me.

I reel around. ‘Jackie! Why aren’t you at the wake?’

‘I went, but it didn’t seem right that you were here alone.’ Jackie puts her handbag onto the armchair by the door.

‘I’m fine. You can go back if you want to.’

‘You don’t look fine, and I don’t want to.’ Jackie picks the batteries up from the floor. ‘I don’t think Mum liked the clock either.’

‘Then she should have got rid of it.’

Jackie places the batteries on the mantelpiece next to the now muted mahogany clock. ‘Think she felt a duty to Nana Babs to keep it.’

‘How ridiculous.’

Jackie nods. ‘How long are you going to stay here? You can stay with us next door if you’d feel more comfortable.’

I’d feel more comfortable on a bed of nails in the middle of a motorway. ‘I’m fine here. I’m going back home tomorrow.’

‘Oh. I was hoping you’d stay longer.’ She sits on the sofa staring at her hands and then erupts into tears.

I freeze. No automatic instincts kick in. Does she want me to console her? Give her some space? Say something meaningful? I opt for sitting next to her and placing my hand on her back. She still sobs but is now more subdued. I awkwardly stroke her back. We sit with my silence and her soft sobbing. I feel tears formulating in my eyes. I swallow them down. One of us has to be in control.

Jackie wipes her eyes and takes a deep breath. ‘I miss you.’

I don’t know what to say, so I say nothing.

She takes another gulp of air and sniffs. ‘With Dad and Mum both gone, I’m frightened you’ll disappear from my life and leave me too.’

‘You have Keith and your boys. You’re not alone.’ Unlike me. My hand is static on her back. I remove it.

‘But you’re family too. We grew up together.’

One of those statements is true.

Jackie turns slightly towards me. ‘I know we haven’t been close since you left. I know why. But I’d really like us to build bridges.’

My hands clasp themselves like magnets. ‘You know?’

‘Yes.’ Jackie nods. ‘Mum told me.’

My chest feels like my lungs have been punctured. ‘Mum told you but didn’t have the decency to tell me?’

Jackie frowns slightly. ‘I guess she thought it was more relevant to me.’

‘Wow!’ I lean forward, desperate not to faint.

‘Mum told me not to tell anyone, but I thought you knew somehow when you moved away and didn’t keep in touch.’

I focus on the swirly brown carpet. My stomach feels like it’s trying to replicate it. Or decorate it. ‘Nana Babs told me.’ I swallow down bile. ‘And also told me not to tell anyone.’

‘I wish I’d said something to you before now. This secret has been eating away at me.’ Jackie reaches across to her bag and extracts a tissue.  ‘I’ve felt such an imposter around you whenever you came to visit.’ She blows her nose. ‘A cuckoo in your nest.’

I sit up. ‘A cuckoo in my nest?’

‘Yes. I know Mum favoured me a lot of the time, but I think that was because of me being abandoned like that, and selfishly I accepted it. And now I’m so sorry because it pushed you away.’

My heart accelerates like a cheetah chasing an antelope. ‘What do you mean you abandoned like that?’

Jackie stops looking at the awful carpet and turns her focus to me. ‘Did Nana Babs not tell you the full story? I was left on the doorstep. Here.’

I take deep breaths. I don’t want one of my panic attacks right now. ‘But it was me on the doorstep.’

Jackie stares at me, her eyes wide and wild. ‘No. Nana got that wrong. I was the doorstep baby.’ She reaches out and grips my hand. ‘You thought it was you?’

‘Yes.’ My speech feels weighted with granite. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Yes. Mum and Dad were both O blood groups, but I’m type A. That means they couldn’t be my biological parents.’

I feel Jackie squeeze my hand. A spike of emotions rips through my entire body. I implode and spew out a strangled shriek accompanied by a torrent of tears.

Jackie hugs me and cries too. We sit entwined in grief for what feels like hours but is merely minutes.

Jackie releases her embrace and reaches for more tissue in her bag. She hands one to me and frowns. ‘You’ve got something sticky in your eyelashes.’

I laugh. ‘Oh, nicotine gum.’ I take the tissue and pick out the remaining gum.

Jackie wipes her eyes. ‘I can’t believe you’ve spent all these years thinking you were adopted.’

I finish picking at my eyelashes, satisfied all the gum is out.

‘Why do you think we bought the house next door to Mum?’

I shrug.

‘Because I felt an obligation to stay close and look after her. She took me in and treated me as her own. In fact, better than her own. I felt that I owed her.’

I shake my head, still processing. ‘Meanwhile, I ran away like a selfish brat. Resentful to you for being the perfect daughter with your perfect husband and your perfect kids.’

‘Ha!’ Jackie sinks back into the sofa. ‘Keith thinks he’s romantic if he changes his underwear every day, and the boys are obnoxious ungrateful ignorant teens right now. You have it right with your high flying career and luxury apartment in the city.’

I laugh and flop back into the sofa too. ‘What? My boringly glamorous head of accountancy job and my microwave meals for one. I haven’t even got a cat.’

We sit in comfortable silence in the uncomfortable room. I close my eyes and almost doze off.

‘Why don’t you stay longer?’

‘I guess I could work from here for a few days.’

‘You could always move in here. Permanently.’

I open my eyes and tilt my head towards Jackie. ‘That’s quite a big decision.’

‘I know.’ She nods, then leans back, closing her eyes. ‘Just want you to know that I’d like it if you lived closer.’

I lean back and close my eyes again too. ‘Would Keith letch at me over the fence if I was sunbathing in a bikini?’

‘Probably.’

‘Would the boys get on my nerves with their noisy music over the fence?

‘Probably.’

I peep across at her. She’s still got her eyes closed and is smiling. ‘Can we burn the clock?’

Eyes still shut, her smile expands. ‘Definitely.’

My smile twins with hers. My heart rate reconciles itself.

The Money

Published February 10, 2021 by Naomi Rettig

The grubby gym bag, bursting with twenty pound notes, lay on the kitchen table between them like a corpse on a mortician’s slab. Hannah and Ollie stared at it as if waiting for it to come to life. The refrigerator clicked and a clock ticked.

Hannah hauled her gaze from the bag to her husband. ‘Should we call the police?’

‘No.’

‘But it’s obviously not legal.’

Ollie glared at her. ‘No shit.’

Hannah lowered her head and fiddled with a button on her tatty pink cardigan. ‘How much do you think is there?’

‘Let’s find out.’ He stood up and leaned over towards the bag.

‘Don’t touch it.’ Hannah bit on her lip. ‘The police will probably want to test for finger prints, won’t they?’

‘We’re not calling the police.’

‘But…’

‘My garden, my property.’ He planted his hands on the table. ‘We’ve lived here five years, whoever buried this would’ve been back by now if they were going to. They’re probably dead. Or if  Mrs Monroe’s buried her life savings then technically it was ours the moment she sold the house to us. And she’s dead now so she won’t be turning up to collect it.’

‘She’s dead?’

‘Christ.’ He stood upright and rubbed his head. ‘Yes, I told you. About a month after we bought the house.’

‘Oh, I don’t remember.’

‘Of course you don’t, you stupid cow.’ He pulled the bag towards him. ‘Get me a drink.’

Ollie started taking out the bundles from the bag. Hannah went to the other side of the kitchen and poured Ollie a glass of whiskey. Her hands were shaking and she was almost tempted to take a sip herself, but she didn’t, knowing what the consequences would be. Fading bruises reminding her. Instead she stared out of the window at their small back garden, at the hole that was going to house the foundations for Ollie’s barbeque patio. She stared at the hole, imagining the pond that she’d always wanted there. She heard Ollie laugh and was plucked back from her dreams. She placed his drink down on the table.

‘Five hundred thousand pounds.’ He took a gulp of whiskey. ‘Half a million.’

Hannah flopped down onto the chair. ‘Oh Ollie.’

‘I need to think how to play this.’ He continued staring at the piles of notes. ‘I can’t just stick it in the bank, that’ll look dodgy. I can buy a better house, but can I pay for it with cash? Would that get flagged up?’ He chewed at his bottom lip. ‘Probably.’

‘What do we want a new house for? We can stay here and pay the mortgage off and still have enough to live off. You could give up work.’

‘Give up work and have to stay with you all day?’ He took another swig of whiskey. ‘And you know I hate living here with that creep next door.’

‘Ray’s not a creep, he’s just friendly.’

‘He wants to get into your knickers. And if you ever let him I’ll kill you both.’

‘Oh Ollie, you know that would never happen.’ Hannah twiddled the button on her cardigan again. The thread it was dangling from was getting thinner.

‘These notes might be on a wanted list, I’ve seen it on the telly. People get caught when they try to spend it.’ He pulled a note from one of the bundles and thrust it towards Hannah. ‘Take this to the shop and spend it. If we don’t hear anything then it’s ok to pay into the bank in drips and drabs.’

Hannah gingerly took the note. ‘Ok.’

Ollie scraped his chair back and stood up. ‘Now get me some food, I’m going to have a shit and a shower.’ He knocked back the last of his drink and left.

Hannah stared at the money. She had an urge to shove it back in the bag and disappear somewhere but her fear was greater than the urge. He would find her wherever she ran. She slipped the twenty pound note into her cardigan pocket then started to prepare his steak. Saturday was steak night.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Hannah crept back into the bedroom. She had mastered the art of peeing quietly and then avoiding the creaky floorboard on the landing. Drawn to the bedroom window she tiptoed over and peered out into the blackness. She saw a figure by the hole and stepped back, bumping into the bed.

‘Ollie! There’s someone in the garden.’

Ollie sat bolt upright then leapt out of the bed to the window. ‘Where?’

‘At the back, where…’

‘There’s no one there, you paranoid cow.’ Ollie got back into bed, rubbing his eyes. ‘Get back in here and make yourself useful now you’ve woken me up.’

Hannah glanced back out of the window, and seeing no one in the garden, started to doubt herself. She got back into bed wishing she’d kept quiet.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Hannah answered the door to a man she guessed was in his late fifties and her first impression was that he looked like an undertaker. A long formal black coat covered black suit trousers and he wore highly polished black shoes. He was over six foot tall, thin but muscular. He raised his black trilby revealing a shiny bald head and smiled.

‘Hello,’ he said.

Hannah smiled back. ‘Hello.’

‘I’m Alan. Alan Monroe.’ He continued smiling.

‘Oh, hello.’ Hannah frowned slightly.

‘And you are?’

‘Um, Hannah.’ She didn’t like that his smile didn’t extend to his eyes. He reminded her of a shark. All toothy grin with predatory eyes.

‘Hannah, you bought this house from my mother.’

‘Oh, yes, Mrs Monroe.’

Alan took a step forward. Still smiling. ‘Can I come in?’

Hannah’s fingers tightened on the door. ‘Why?’

‘Because I’d like to talk to you, more privately.’ He kept his shark smile in place.

‘Well, my husband’s not here.’

‘And?’

‘He wouldn’t like it if I let you in without him being here.’

‘I can wait on your doorstep, but the net curtains are twitching already.’

Hannah looked around at the neighbours houses, no one was twitching their net curtains. Neighbourhood watch hadn’t taken off here, no one gave a toss. She almost sighed with relief when Ollie walked down the drive carrying a four pack of cans.

Ollie looked Alan up and down as he walked towards him. ‘Can I help you, pal?’

Alan stopped smiling. ‘And you are?’

‘I’m her husband. Who the hell are you?’

‘I’m Alan Monroe. Cynthia Monroe’s son.’

Ollie stood inches away from Alan, looking up at him slightly. ‘So?’

‘Can I come in to talk?’

‘Say what you want here.’

Alan frowned. ‘You have something of mine and I want it back.’

‘I don’t have anything of yours.’ Ollie moved past Alan and thrust his cans at Hannah, who held them to her chest.

Alan took a step forward. ‘The hole in the garden tells me a different story.’

‘So I’m putting in a patio. Like I said, I don’t have anything of yours. Anything I have is mine, bought fairly and squarely from your mum. If you think any different then call the police.’ Ollie stood on the doorstep and folded his arms.

‘I don’t think that’s necessary.’

‘No, didn’t think so.’ Ollie stepped into the house, shoving Hannah into the hallway. He glared at Alan. ‘Now fuck off.’

‘I’ll be back.’

Ollie slammed the door. ‘I’ll be back, who does he think he is, the terminator?’

‘Oh god Ollie. What are we going to do?’

‘Nothing. That’s what.’ He pushed past Hannah, into the lounge, grabbing his beers and plonked down onto the sofa. Yanking back a ring pull he took took a swig.

Hannah followed him in. ‘But he’ll come back. We should just give him the money.’

‘You’re so pathetic. I’m not giving it back, it’s not his. He stole it from someone else, and now it’s mine. Food chain darlin.’ Ollie took another slurp from the can and switched the tv on.

…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

The bedroom light flashed on. Hannah and Ollie woke instantly. Ollie squinted. Hannah yelped. There was a gun with a silencer pointed at Ollie’s head.

‘I told you I’d be back,’ said Alan.

‘Get out of my house.’

Hannah noted that Ollie’s voice had less bravado than the day before.

‘Or what? You’ll call the police? I don’t think so. I will leave, when I’ve got my money back.’

‘That’s not happening.’

‘Then I’ll have to resort to dramatic persuasion.’

Hannah sat upright and pushed herself against the headboard. ‘Give him the money.’

Alan glanced at Hannah then back to Ollie. ‘You should listen to your wife.’

‘Shut up you stupid cow.’

Alan whacked the gun down onto Ollie’s head. It made a loud crack and Ollie cried and fell backwards. Blood ran from the gash. ‘Where’s the money? It’ll be a bullet next.’

‘No!’ Hannah screamed. ‘It’s in the airing cupboard.’

‘Stupid bitch.’ Ollie clutched his head.

‘Thank you.’ Alan smiled, turned, and started to walk away.

Ollie staggered from the bed and slammed into Alan’s back knocking him down. The gun flew across the floor towards the bed. The two men wrestled and punched each other until Alan managed to roll on top of Ollie and was pummelling his face. Hannah, shaking, got out of bed and picked up the gun.

Ollie looked up at Hannah. His one eye was closed and swollen. ‘Shoot him! Shoot him, you stupid cow!’ Blood spat out of his mouth like a rabid dog.

Hannah pointed the gun at Alan’s head and pulled the trigger. The sound from the gun with the silencer on was louder than Hannah was expecting. She recoiled back onto the bed like a ragdoll as Alan slumped onto Ollie. Sitting up she brought her breathing back under control. Ollie pushed Alan off and spat out a large globule of blood. They sat in silence.

‘Lucky we’ve got a hole in the garden for him to go in.’ Ollie spat out more blood.

Hannah stared at Alan’s body. She knew she should call the police but she didn’t want to be locked up. She needed to be free.

Ollie hauled himself to his feet and grabbed Alan under the arms. ‘Well don’t just bloody sit there, pick up his legs.’

Hannah placed the gun on the bed and then picked up Alan’s legs. They carried the body downstairs. Hannah dropped Alan’s feet a few times. Ollie swore at her. She was sweating by the time they’d lugged the corpse to the garden.

‘Where’s his shoe?’

Ollie whispered, but Hannah could feel the venom in his voice. She looked at Alan’s feet. One shoe on, one shoe off. ‘It must be in the house.’

‘Useless cow. Go and find it.’

Ollie rolled Alan into the hole while Hannah trudged back to the house.

She stood at the door watching Ollie. He was scratching his backside. She saw him notice her and she could feel his scowl even in the darkness. She strode towards him, shoe outstretched in her left hand. He snatched it from her and threw it into the hole. Hannah lifted her right hand up. It shook slightly as it gripped the gun. ‘Food chain, Darlin’ she said. Before Ollie had chance to react, she shot him straight in the heart, and watched as he dropped to the ground, his eyes wide and motionless. Next, she pushed him into the hole, where he fell on top of Alan, in a loving embrace. Tossing the gun in after him, she began to  shovel the excavated earth back on top.

Once completed, she lay on the grass, knowing she’d never be able to move house now. The makeshift graveyard tethered her here, forever. But, she was pretty sure the half a million in the house would help. Gazing up at the sparse stars she felt a calm radiating through her. She smiled. She couldn’t remember the last time she smiled. It felt good.

The Hair Slide

Published November 28, 2020 by Naomi Rettig

Monica wasn’t superstitious but she knew that her day wasn’t going to run smoothly for a Friday 13th. Having dropped her breakfast, peanut butter on toast, on the floor to be devoured by Jinx the Labrador, catching her finger in the kitchen cupboard, and tripping over a conker on the path outside her house, work at Craven Care Home wasn’t much of an improvement.

‘I’m not sitting by her, she’s a thief.’ Olive’s bony hands rattled her walking frame as she came to a standstill next to the dining table.

Beryl, seated at the table, shook her mop of grey hair. ‘The cheek of her! She’s the thief and a liar!’

‘Ladies please.’ Monica, already used to playing referee to these two after only a few days, was finding it particularly tiresome today. She’d only been on shift for a few hours and was already counting down to being home alone Jinx. ‘Let’s be nice.’

‘I’m not eating with her. I’d rather starve,’ said Olive.

‘Go on then,’ said Beryl. ‘Starve to death.’

Monica was frustrated that these grown up women were acting like toddlers. ‘Mrs McQuillan, come and sit over here.’

She steered Olive towards a table on the opposite side of the dining room and helped her to sit down, placing the walking frame by the side, like a playpen barrier. The dining room was heavy with the smell of cooked cabbage and disinfectant and the noise of pots and pans bashing about overshadowed the smatter of chatter from the residents awaiting their food.

‘She stole my hair slide.’ Olive’s eyes, milky with cataracts, stared at Monica.

Nodding, Monica glanced around the room. ‘I’m sure it will turn up.’ She caught sight of the metal food trolley with the wonky wheel heading their way. ‘Look, Joanne’s coming round with lunch now. Cod and parsley sauce, your favourite.’

‘I hope it’s not lumpy sauce like last week.’ Olive removed her false teeth and plonked them on the table.

Monica watched a globule of spittle slide from denture to table. ‘I’m sure it’ll be lovely.’ She walked away to the small tea room next to the kitchen. She didn’t feel hungry anymore.

Kyla had a coffee waiting on the worktop in the tiny tea room for Monica and stood drinking hers from a mug with the slogan I’m a carer what’s your superpower. ‘Thought we were going to have fisticuffs then.’

Monica grimaced and picked up her mug. ‘Thanks.’ It was a souvenir mug from Cleethorpes. No member of staff was from Cleethorpes or had ever been to Cleethorpes so it was a mystery mug in the staff cupboard that Monica had adopted. ‘I don’t know why they annoy each other so much. Ever since Olive arrived, Beryl has been more cranky than normal.’ She took a big slurp of coffee.

‘Cranky? That’s polite, she’s been a right pain in the ass. It’s not helping that Olive keeps going on about the bloody hair slide.’ Kyla rummaged under the work top and brought out a biscuit tin and yanked off the tight lid. ‘Custard cream or soggy gingernut?’

Monica still had the image of Olive’s saliva coated false teeth in her mind. ‘I’ll pass. Is there a hair slide? I haven’t seen one.’

‘Probably not.’ Kyla shoved a whole custard cream in her mouth. ‘Remember deaf Gordon? Swore blind he had a dog in here.’

Monica laughed. ‘Yes, the imaginary Goldie. Please shoot me if I get like that when I’m old.’

Kyla raised her eyebrows. ‘When?’

‘Cheeky mare, I’m forty-five not eighty.’

‘That’s old to me.’ Kyla reached for another biscuit.

The sounds of a busy canteen mingling with Chris Rea’s Driving Home for Christmas. Monica shook her head. ‘Look, just because you’re young enough to be my…’

‘Daughter.’

‘No, younger sister, doesn’t mean I’m old.’

‘Yeah, whatever,’ said Kyla, brushing some crumbs from the front of her tunic. ‘Have you made it up with your sister yet?’

‘No. Not going to.’ Monica drank some more coffee.

‘But it’s going to be Christmas soon.’

‘And? What’s that got to do with anything?’

‘You don’t wanna be alone on Christmas Day.’

‘I won’t be. I have Jinx.’ Monica faked a cheesy grin, she didn’t want to talk about her sister, it was still too raw.

‘He’s a dog.’

‘Exactly. Loving, loyal and doesn’t betray me. Plus I’ve put my name down for the Christmas Day shift here. I see you’ve got it off, what are your plans?’

‘Staying in bed with our Liam and eating chocolate all day. Probably pop over to his mam’s house for tea when we’ve finished shagging.’

‘Kyla!’

‘What? You could be having that too. I mean, not with our Liam obvs, but if you got yourself another man, a nice one, not like Geoff, he was a prick.’

Monica pictured Kyla’s Liam in bed. It wasn’t a sexy image. The first time she met him he was waiting outside the home for Kyla. He was swigging from a can of supermarket own cider and had a collection of dubious stains decorating his t-shirt. Monica imagined his underwear would be equally, if not more, dubious. ‘I’m happy waking up with Jinx and then spending the day here.’

‘See, senile already.’

‘Thief!’ Olive’s shout echoed through to the tea room.

‘Bloody hell.’ Kyla rammed another custard cream in her mouth and shoved the lid back on the tin.

Brian the odd job man appeared at the doorway holding a sprig of mistletoe. ‘Alright ladies?’ A waft of Brut aftershave entered the room.

Monica put down her empty mug and turned to Kyla. ‘Finish your cuppa, I’ll sort her out.’ She smiled as she watched Kyla take the lid back off the biscuit tin and squeezed herself awkwardly past Brian’s teddy-bear tummy. ‘Sorry Brian, duty calls.’

On entering the dining room her smile slipped away when she saw that Olive had thrown her lunch on the floor and was continuing to shout insults across to Beryl. Joanne the kitchen assistant was swooping in with cloths and a mop. Monica, being careful not to slide in the lumpy parsley sauce, escorted the still shouting Olive to her room.

Olive flopped down into the wipe clean faux leather chair. The bedroom was generic beige with white plastic blinds at the window. A painting of a lavender field was above her bed. ‘She’s stolen my hair slide. I don’t want her here.’

‘Well she has to stay here, her old care home has closed down.’

‘I don’t want her here.’

Monica sat on the end of the bed facing Olive. ‘Now come on, don’t get yourself all upset. I’m sure if you got to know her you could be good friends.’

‘I don’t want to be friends with someone like her.’ Olive turned her head and stared out of the window, grinding her gums together in a gurning grimace.

‘OK.’ Monica hoped that Olive’s teeth hadn’t been swept into the bin. Retrieving gunky dentures from the rubbish wasn’t a thought she relished. ‘Well, have a little rest here and try to calm yourself down. Getting upset like this isn’t good for your blood pressure is it?’

Olive ignored her and carried on staring.

Monica stood up and smoothed the bed down where she’d been sitting. ‘Anything you need before I go?’ When no answer came she turned to leave the room.

‘Forgiveness.’

Monica stopped at the door, turning back towards Olive. ‘Forgiveness?’ She waited for an answer but Olive just continued to stare out of the window. ‘Don’t worry about the broken plate lovely.’

When a reply still didn’t come Monica left to go and find the false teeth.

Olive closed her eyes for the last time..

Monica showed the funeral directors out and walked back to Olive’s room. She always felt sad having to bag up belongings of patients with no next of kin. Throwing treasured items into the trash always seemed so tragic to her. Lost in her thoughts she was startled when entering the room. There in Olive’s chair sat Beryl. For a split second Monica thought it was Olive.

She placed her hand on her chest and exhaled deeply. ‘What are you doing in here Beryl?’

Beryl was staring at the empty bed. ‘Forgiveness.’

Monica had started to walk towards Beryl but stopped dead. Déjà vu prickled through her body. ‘Sorry?’

‘Forgiveness. Looking for forgiveness.’ Beryl was still, her eyes unmoving from the sterile bed.

Monica glanced down to Beryl’s lap as a sparkle caught her eye. A hair slide of marquisate and silver was being slowly twiddled between Beryl’s fingers. ‘Is that Olive’s hair slide?’

Beryl’s looked down at the hair slide and nodded.

‘You took it?’

Beryl nodded again. ‘Yes.’ Tears leaked down the wrinkles on her face. ‘I’m sorry.’

Monica sat on the corner of the bed, just as she’d done with Olive on that last time with her. ‘It’s ok.’

Beryl smudged her tears away with her hand. ‘I wanted to take something of hers.’

‘Why?’

‘She stole from me. I wanted her to know how that felt.’ Beryl stared at the hair slide.

‘I’m confused now. What did she steal from you?’

‘Bill.’

Monica hoped this wasn’t another imaginary dog situation. ‘Bill?’

‘Bill was my fiancé.’

Monica would have preferred an imaginary dog, they were more easier to deal with than betrayal. She tried not to think of her ex-fiancé Geoff but his face launched into her mind evoking emotions she didn’t want to deal with. She focussed her attention back to Beryl. ‘When was this?’

‘When I was nineteen.’

Monica did the maths. ‘You knew Olive sixty-seven years ago?’

Beryl nodded again and let out a sigh. ‘She stole him from me and married him. He was my fiancé and she stole him.’ She turned her head and looked out the window. The rain was running down the glass in crinkled lines. In her reflection the rain appeared like tears navigating her wrinkles.

‘Were you friends then?’ Monica leaned forward slightly when Beryl didn’t answer. ‘All those years ago?’

Beryl carried on watching the rain. ‘No. We were sisters.’

Monica sat upright, she was confused, or thought maybe Beryl was confused.  ‘Olive said she had no next of kin. I knew she was a widow but I didn’t know she had you.’

‘She didn’t.’ Beryl turned to face Monica. ‘I stopped talking to her when she married my Bill, when she stole the life I should’ve had.’

Monica frowned. ‘But she was a young widow. She told me her husband had died six months after they were married.’

Beryl stopped twirling the hair slide between her fingers and her eyes widened.

‘You didn’t know that?’

‘No.’ Beryl swallowed hard. She closed her eyes and exhaled deeply.

Monica’s pulse was increasing and her mouth was dry. She was wishing she hadn’t delivered that news and was concerned that Beryl was going to go the same way and in the same chair as her sister. She was relieved when Beryl opened her eyes.

‘I left the country after their wedding.’ Beryl stared at the now unmoving hair slide in her hands. ‘I moved to France. I couldn’t bear to watch them live a happy life. They were both dead to me from that day.’ She started to cry silently and closed her eyes.

Monica leaned forward and placed her hand on Beryl’s. Monica thought of her own sister and their falling out. She made a promise to herself to drive over to Amanda’s straight after work, before she could have time to talk herself out of it. She didn’t want to be bitter and resentful. She needed to forgive, to move on. She didn’t want to become Beryl.

Beryl let go of the hair slide and held Monica’s hand. The distant sound of carols echoed gently through the corridors of the care home. Beryl squeezed Monica’s hand and Monica squeezed back. They sat in silence and the hair slide slid to the floor.

Marzipan Cat Zombies

Published April 20, 2020 by Naomi Rettig

Phil pushed the bookcase against the door then wiped the sweat from his forehead with the bottom of his Captain America t-shirt. He noticed his hands trembling and balled them into fists so his friends wouldn’t see.

‘That’s pointless. Cats can’t open doors,’ said Joe. He slumped onto the bed next to Rohan.

Phil looked across at his two friends. Joe was wearing his Chicago Bears top. His dad had sent it to him and he always wore it unless it was in the wash. His scruffy brown hair looked extra tussled after running here. Rohan’s turban still looked immaculate but his shallow breathing and sweaty face betrayed his fitness level. ‘Just in case. Cats don’t normally turn into marzipan and eat people either. We don’t know what they can do now.’

‘I don’t think they’ll be able to open doors.’ Joe fiddled with his neon green shoelace.

‘Well, just in case. Humor me.’ Phil paced across to the bed and kicked Joe’s foot.

‘Hey, guys, c’mon,’ said Rohan. His chunky glasses magnified his big brown eyes blinking back the threat of tears.

Joe placed his hand on his friend’s shoulder. ‘Sorry Ro, you ok?’

‘Of course he’s not ok numb nuts, he just watched his sister being bitten by a marzipan cat and then turning into marzipan herself.’ Phil pulled up his desk chair and sat down opposite Joe and Rohan.

Joe stretched out and lightly kicked Phil’s leg. ‘I’m aware of that number nuts. I saw it too. And old Mrs. Terry on the corner, all her five cats had marzipaned. She had no chance.’

‘What’s happening guys? What we gonna do?’ Rohan’s eyes flicked back and forth between Joe and Phil, like a mole emerging into bright sunshine.

Phil sighed and stared at the skateboarding scab on his knee. He had to be brave for his friends. He tried to keep his voice as steady as he could. ‘I don’t know.’

‘When will your mom and dad be back?’ Rohan threw his question in Phil’s direction.

Phil rubbed his eyes, his hands slightly trembling, he clenched them again. ‘I don’t think they’ll be coming back. It was on the TV before you both got here. It’s all over the place, the cats, they’re everywhere. The news said to stay wherever you are and don’t go outside.’

Joe pulled his legs up onto the bed and tucked them under himself. ‘They can’t be everywhere.’

‘They’re everywhere,’ said Phil through gritted teeth. ‘It’s marzipan madness out there.’

Rohan knelt on the bed, spying out of the window. He could see yellow cats, lots of yellow cats, almond assassins, prowling and pacing along the hydrangea-lined neighborhood. ‘They are everywhere. What we gonna do Phil?’

Joe frowned. ‘Why you asking Phil not me?’

‘Phil’s the eldest.’

‘Ro we’re all thirteen.’ Joe raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

‘Yes, but Phil’s still the eldest.’

‘By five days.’

Phil stood up. ‘Hey, I think who’s the eldest isn’t really important right now.’

Rohan sat back from the window and trailed his finger along Saturn’s rings on Phil’s duvet cover. ‘Yeah, well, I was just saying.’ He shrugged while staring into the universe on the bed. ‘I dunno what to do.’

‘We can stay here? Wait for help.’ Joe nodded at his own suggestion.

‘Help won’t be coming.’ Phil sat back down on his chair and swiveled back and forth. ‘Everyone bitten or scratched turns to marzipan and dies.’

Joe turned and took up Rohan’s spy post at the window. ‘Why aren’t the cats dying? When they turn to marzipan, why aren’t they dying, like the people?’

‘I don’t know. I didn’t create the mutant marzipan moggies did I?’ Phil dabbed sweat off his forehead again. He wanted Captain America to be real, to swoop in and save the day.

‘Didn’t they say on the news?’

‘They don’t know. But the people, after they’ve turned and are dead, they come back to life. Zombies.’

Joe spun away from the window and looked back at Phil. ‘Shit.’

‘So they are ok then?’ Rohan blinked hopefully towards Phil.

Phil smiled. ‘Yeah they’re fine.’ He dropped his smile like a hot potato. ‘Of course they’re not ok, they’re made of solid marzipan, doofus. You saw your sister. Did she look fine?’

Rohan ran his fingers along the hem of his camouflage shorts as a make-do comforter while staring at the fabric planets. Joe slumped under the window and bit at his nails. Phil rotated slowly on the chair, trying to think what to do. What would Captain America do? A clock in the shape of a rocket ticked behind Phil on his desk. The tick-tock silence was broken by loud meowing and human screams outside.

Joe spun around to look out of the window again. ‘Jeez. Mr. Howard has turned. He looks like a Simpson. He’s trying to get into the Kiplinski’s porch.’

‘If no help is coming we’re going to have to kill the cats ourselves,’ said Phil.

‘And just how d’we kill them?’ Joe got up from the bed and started to pace the small room. ‘I mean, I know how you’d kill a normal cat, but one that’s made of fucking marzipan?’

Rohan looked up from the planets horrified. ‘Your mom would freak at your language.’

Joe stopped his pacing. ‘My mom is probably almond paste right now. I don’t think she’d fucking care.’

‘You’re such a grown up.’ Rohan pulled his knees to his chest and wrapped his arms around them.

‘Fuck fuck fuckity fuck.’ Joe continued his pacing.

‘Hey, c’mon, both of you.’ Phil stopped moving on the chair. ‘We have to eat them.’

‘What?’ Joe stopped pacing.

‘The cats,’ said Phil. ‘It said on the news, the only way they can be stopped is by eating them.’

‘Eating them?’ Rohan grimaced.

Joe held his hands up. ‘Can’t we just chop their heads off?’

‘If their heads are chopped off they just morph back together. Same if you squash them.’ Phil mimed squishing and growing with his hands. ‘They just go back into their cat shapes. Guessing it’s the same for the people too.’

‘I can’t eat people,’ said Joe, clasping his face with his hands.

Rohan wiped his hands down his thighs. ‘I can’t eat cats. I’m a vegetarian.’

‘It’s bloody marzipan. Without the blood. Perfectly vegan and fine for your religion.’ Phil twirled around in the chair to face Joe. ‘Just like eating the marzipan fruits your Auntie Gayle gives you at Christmas.’

‘Eating a non-moving marzipan apple the size of my thumb is a bit different to eating a full sized marzipan cat in attack mode. Or a relative,’ said Joe.

Phil stood up and walked across to Joe. ‘We can stun the cat, or person, first, by whacking them with something and then eat them quickly.’

‘Can you stun marzipan?’ Rohan asked.

Joe shrugged. ‘At least we won’t have to worry about finding food.’ He attempted to laugh but just made a snorting noise.

‘Maybe we can make a pact though.’ Phil patted Joe’s shoulder. ‘I don’t think any of us want to eat our own family.’

Rohan gasped. ‘No!’

‘Gross,’ said Joe.

Phil looked across at Rohan, then back to Joe. ‘So why don’t we agree that if we get in a ‘situation’ with family one of us others will deal with it.’

Rohan started to cry. ‘I can’t.’

Joe slunk over to the bed and sat next to Rohan. ‘Look Ro, I know it’s hard but we gotta pull together here.’

‘No, I mean I can’t. I can’t eat marzipan.’ Rohan stifled his sobs. ‘My diabetes. I haven’t got my insulin with me.’

‘Shit.’ Phil kicked the bookcase. He’d forgotten about Ro’s diabetes. Why didn’t he bring his insulin pen with him? Why did he have to think of everything all the time.

From the other side of the door there was a hiss of a cat. Phil leapt away from the bookcase and door and almost landed on Joe’s lap as he launched himself onto the bed. The cat started scratching at the door.

Joe gripped Rohan’s knee. ‘Christ, maybe it’ll go away?’

The scratching at the door continued.

Rohan swallowed hard. ‘How can marzipan make a scratching noise like that?’

Joe realized he was holding Rohan’s knee and let go. He frowned at Rohan. ‘I don’t know, shall we open up the door and find out?’

Rohan hugged his legs again and lowered his head.

‘Sorry Ro,’ said Joe. ‘I’m not feeling myself.’

Phil shuffled across the bed a little. ‘You’re looking a little yellow Joe. You feel sick?’

Joe shook his head. ‘No. Just a bit spaced. Like you? Don’t you feel spaced?’

‘Wired. I’m feeling wired. Not spaced.’ Phil turned his head to Rohan. ‘Ro?’

Rohan shook his head and edged away a few inches from Joe.

Phil stood up slowly. ‘You haven’t been bitten have you?’

‘No,’ said Joe. He stared at his laces.

Rohan slid off the bed and stood next to Phil. ‘Or scratched? You might not have felt a scratch while we were running over here.’

‘No, I’m fine.’ Joe clenched his hands.

‘You’re definitely more yellow now. Look.’ Phil pointed to Joe’s bare legs, not covered by his shorts.

‘It’s the light in here.’ Joe grabbed the pillow from the bed and tried to cover his legs.

‘Shit Joe, you’re turning, look at the scratch on your arm!’ Phil took a step back, bumping into the chair.

All three boys looked at Joe’s arm. It was definitely yellow. There was a gaping gash, about an inch long, and thick yellow pus paste oozed out from it below his sleeve.

‘No! Oh God no. Guys you have to help me!’ Joe cried as he stared at his changing body.

‘We can’t do anything,’ said Phil, gripping onto the back of the chair. ‘There’s no cure.’

‘Then you have to kill me.’ Joe stopped crying and sniffed. He held his arms out. ‘Eat me.’

‘Jeez Joe! You’re not fully turned! I can’t eat you.’ Phil grimaced.

Joe lowered his arm. ‘Ok. Well, get ready.’

‘I don’t think I can do this,’ said Phil. He sat in the chair shaking his head.

‘You have to,’ Joe pleaded. ‘Rohan can’t or he’ll go into a hypo.’

Rohan shifted slightly from side to side, sniffing.

Phil looked at his friends scared faces, he needed to keep their spirits up. ‘There are bits of you that I really don’t think I can eat.’ He nodded towards Joe’s crotch.

‘Christ Phil! You can’t leave just my wiener running around after people.’ Joe rubbed the pus paste into his arm as a bit more oozed out. ‘What kind of sicko does that.’

‘What kind of sicko eats your wiener!’ Phil made a snorting noise as he laughed and stifled a cry at the same time.

Joe laughed and wiped yellow tears away with his sticky fingers.

‘Can’t you just leave?’ Rohan mumbled. ‘You could eat that cat on your way out.’

‘Wow. Really finding out about my friends now.’ Joe smiled at Rohan.

Rohan limply smiled back. ‘It’s because I’m your friend I don’t want to eat you.’

Phil took a step closer to Joe. ‘C’mon Joe, take one for the team. I’d leave if it was me infected.’ He placed his hand gently on Joe’s shoulder. ‘I’d push you out the door but I don’t want my fingers sinking into your fat marzipan middle there.’

‘I’d eat you if it was the other way around numb nut.’ Joe stood up and stepped towards the door. ‘I’ll eat the cat, then run away from the house, draw any others away.’

Rohan wiped his eyes. ‘Thanks Joe.’

‘Sorry bud.’ Phil’s voice cracked.

Joe nodded. ‘Get ready to slam the door.’ He started to shove the bookcase out of the way but his thumb mushed into the wood. Sighing, he scraped it off, remolded it, and stuck it on his forehead. ‘Unicorns rule.’

Phil laughed. ‘Numb nut.’ He dragged the bookcase away from the door and held the door handle. He locked eyes with Joe. ‘Ready?’

Joe nodded and smiled at Phil and Rohan. Phil yanked the door open and Joe shot out, Phil slammed the door behind him. Phil leant against the door and closed his eyes. Rohan sat on the bed, leant forward, and held his head in his hands. Cat screeching and scuffling outside the door was agony to listen to. There was a final high pitched feline howl then the landing fell silent.

After minutes of stillness, Phil stopped leaning against the door and turned, pressing his ear up against it. ‘Joe? You still there?’

‘Yes,’ said Joe from behind the door.

Rohan lifted his head from his hands. ‘Why didn’t you run?’

Joe’s voice sounded muffled. ‘I don’t want to die out there on my own. I’m scared.’

‘He’s going to fully turn any minute.’ Rohan whispered to Phil.

Phil nodded, then talked to the door again. ‘Did you eat the cat?’

‘No. Well, I tried to eat it, but it’s very struggly. I ate its leg. It’s not happy with me. It’s just staring at me now. I’m sorry’

Phil placed his hand flat against the door. He would have probably stayed too. ‘I’m sorry too.’ He turned and looked at Rohan, and raised his eyebrows.

Rohan nodded and stood up from the bed. Phil slowly twisted the door handle and opened it.

Joe was sat on the floor, not only was his skin bright yellow but his hair had turned from dark brown to yellow chunky strands. His thumb was still on his forehead.

Phil opened the door wider. He could see an angry looking marzipan cat in a crouching attack position further along the landing. ‘Put your thumb back where it should be, I can’t take you seriously.’

‘If you’re going to be marzipan, we will too,’ said Rohan.

‘No you should stay safe.’ Joe shuffled to his feet, removing his thumb from his head and molding it back onto his hand. ‘I’m just being selfish.’

‘You’re not being selfish. You’re just scared like we are.’ Phil shrugged. ‘No one is safe. If we don’t have our families we only have each other, but if we don’t have each other what’s the point in hiding out.’

The cat rocketed itself through the doorway, hissing and lashing out in a frenzied Catherine Wheel of almond rage.

‘It got me!’ Rohan stumbled back rubbing his leg.

‘Me too,’ said Phil.

The cat limped back out on its three legs, its tail twitching like a caffeinated cobra. Joe shuffled into the room and slumped his sticky body onto the bed.

‘D’you think we’ll still know each other when we turn?’ asked Rohan. ‘You know, when our brains are marzipaned?’

‘Yeah, sure we will.’ Phil put his arm around Rohan. ‘Friends and numb nuts forever.’

Joe widened his mouth into a Joker’s grin. ‘Marzipan’s for life, not just for Christmas.’

Lockdown

Published April 13, 2020 by Naomi Rettig

Day 21
I don’t know why I’m writing this and I don’t know who I think will read it but I feel I must write something down in case something happens to me. I’m scared. Maybe I’ll be less scared if I keep a journal, I might read it back and say ‘Kelly you’re just being silly’. I have about thirty minutes a day to myself while he has a bath so I’ll write then.
This lockdown is making everyone stir crazy so I can’t blame him for what he does. It’s being stuck in here with me day after day, that’s enough to test the patience of anyone he says. I’ll hide this little notebook in the drawer with my sanitary towels, he never searches through that as he thinks it’s disgusting. I wish he wouldn’t say that. I wish we could be the way we used to be, at the start. I love him.

Day 22
He hit my face today. He’s never done that before. I guess with me not going out he’s not worried about anyone seeing the bruises. It’s always been my legs, stomach, back and arms, but today it feels like the first time. He loves me and he’s sorry. He’s always sorry. He says I make him hurt me. I wish I could make him happy. I’m frightened. I love him.

Day 23
More hits to my face today. I feel ashamed. I looked in the mirror and I felt ashamed. I’m trying my best but I don’t understand what I did wrong today. He said I looked ugly and I’d let myself go so maybe that’s why he was upset with me. My ribs are hurting too. I feel sick and don’t feel like eating. I’ll cook a roast tomorrow, he loves a roast dinner. I love him.

Day 24
The dinner wasn’t hot enough today so I had to eat mine off the floor, even though I wasn’t hungry. It was difficult to swallow it down with his foot on the back of my neck and while I was crying. I tried to stop crying as this just made him madder but I couldn’t. I try my best to be a good wife but I don’t know what to do. I cried when he made love to me. I love him.

Day 25
I’ve got cystitis. He couldn’t go to the chemist as there are too many sick people out there and I’d be endangering him so I asked if he could order something online but he told me that would be a waste of money. I complain too much. I didn’t want sex this morning but I didn’t complain. I love him.

Day 26
I don’t recognise myself. He shaved my head. There was a hair in his food so he shaved my head. I have black and bloodshot eyes, and no hair. I look disgusting. He’s right, no one else would want me. I don’t know what to do. I nearly phoned his mum but when I called her in September she told me that he was my husband and what did I expect. She would say the same now. I’m scared but I love him.

Day 27
I don’t think I can take much more, I can’t even bare to write down what he did to me last night. How can he love me and do that? I don’t know what to do. His family won’t help me, I’m not allowed to leave during this quarantine and even if I was I wouldn’t have anywhere to go. I haven’t spoken to my friends or family in so long, I wouldn’t know what to say. He says they all hate me anyway. I don’t want to cause problems for anyone else. I’m a disappointment to everyone. I’m going to try and search on his laptop for a refuge or someone I can talk to. I’ve got the landline but I don’t know any numbers, only 999 but it’s not an emergency. I don’t want to cause a fuss. I’ll wait for him to have his bath tomorrow and I’ll find a number. I’ll get help.

Day 29
Can hardly write. Think hands broken. Forgot to delete history. Made him so angry. Chest hurts. Everything hurts. Can’t see left eye. Phone ripped out. Laptop smashed up with my head. Got to get out. He’ll kill me if I stay. I’ll leave tomorrow bath time. Don’t know where. Need sleep now. Maybe I deserve this. Need help. He needs help. I love him. Why?

*****

(According to the Office of National Statistics about 4.2% of men and 7.9% of women suffered domestic abuse in England and Wales during 2018. This equates to about 685,000 male victims and 1,300,000 women. Murders related to domestic violence are at a five year high.
One in four women and one in six men will be affected by domestic abuse during their lives. On average 104 women and 30 men are murdered every year in England and Wales due to domestic violence.
On average domestic abuse victims will have been assaulted 68 times before reporting it to the police.)

National Domestic Abuse Helpline 0808 2000 247

Men’s Advice Line 0808 801 0327

Derek the Pineapple

Published March 25, 2020 by Naomi Rettig

I used to be a pineapple, called Derek. But now I’m a human called Dave. Oh how I wish I’d stayed a pineapple, life was much more uncomplicated back then. Be a human they said, it’ll be fun they said. So I put my reincarnation request in. They lied. It’s much better to be a pineapple, oh how I miss those tropical days and balmy nights. Soaking in sunshine, growing and glowing with golden sweet juiciness, hanging out with other pineapples, chatting, laughing, sharing jokes and dreams. Magical underestimated days.

Being a pineapple is stress free. Being a human is not. Being human is complicated and not easy to grasp, I think it would take a couple of reincarnations to master it. I don’t want to try again. Pineapples, we’re easy, we’re all the same, humans come in different shapes, sizes, colours, religions, sexes, classes, intellects, emotions. Pineapples are pineapples. Pure love and enjoyment. I’m going to request to be a pineapple again. Or a mango. I knew a mango, Michael. He was cool.

The Suicide Cat

Published December 9, 2019 by Naomi Rettig

Beth stood at the edge of the cliff, her eyes closed, listening to the waves thrashing against the rocks beneath her, feeling the wind slapping her, and whipping her hair across her face. Thirty-six years had culminated to this resolution. Thirty-six years of struggle and pain and feeling out of place. Thirty-six years of angst and self-torment. Even with her eyes closed, Beth could feel the moon shining a spotlight onto her. This was her moment, her final curtain call, time for that final bow.

She listened to those wonderful waves calling her name. About to take a step forward into the salty wet audience, she stopped herself. She listened again. It was definitely a cat meowing. Confused she opened her eyes and blinked to adjust to the moonlight. Taking a few steps back she turned around. Nothing. She could see the gorse bushes pushing against the wind, spiky warriors standing their ground, the blackness of the coast path in front of her, leading to inky blobs of rocks and boulders. It was ten o’clock on a deserted clifftop, her mind must be playing tricks on her, maybe as some cruel final encore. See, you are totally mad, jump off and disappear. A meow again, this time louder.

Beth peered into the darkness in the direction of the sound, still nothing.

‘Hello?’

Another louder meow was followed by two twinkling eyes materialising out from path in front of her. A black mini panther, the size of a domestic cat. The cat meowed again and slinked towards Beth, tail twitching in the air, stopping just in front of her.

Beth crouched down and held her hand out. ‘Hello. What are you doing up here?’

The cat cautiously approached her outstretched hand, sniffed, then rubbed his face against it. Beth scratched him under the chin and stroked his skinny body as it weaved around her hands.

‘You shouldn’t be up here, this wind will blow you off the cliff, you’ve got no weight on you, you silly thing. Do you live close by? Have you even got a home? What am I going to do with you?’ Beth continued her monologue of questions as the cat revelled in her attention and the wind played with her hair.

Beth stood up. ‘Well I can’t do this with you watching me. Do you want to come back with me?’

The cat meowed with perfect timing.

Beth smiled. ‘Just for one night though, I’ll postpone for one night. I’ve no more nights paid at the hotel so I’ll find you somewhere else to go in the morning. Deal?’

The cat meowed and rubbed against her legs.

‘Come on then.’ Beth started to trek back down the coast path towards the bay and the hotel. She glanced behind her, the cat was following her. She chatted to him as she navigated steep banks, slippery leaves and gnarled tree roots attempting to trip her. Every glance back was met with the vision of the black shadow with stars for eyes trotting after her.

Sneaking the cat into the hotel wasn’t a problem. Beth’s room was on the ground floor and there was a back door leading into her corridor from outside. Six stealthy feet scuttled along the corridor and into the room. After flopping onto the bed and partaking in strokes, head nudges and purrs, Beth called for room service, a tuna sandwich, a ham sandwich, and a chicken sandwich. The cat ate the contents of all three and lapped up water from a fine china saucer.

After a cleaning and grooming session the cat curled up next to Beth on the bed and slept soundly. Beth slept soundly for the first time in a long time too.

Beth observed the different shades of black fur on the cat as the morning sunlight seeped in through the curtains. Darkest brown tinges and indigo hues mingled in with the sleek tarry blackness. She felt calm and relaxed watching his belly move in and out contently and rhythmically with her breath. The cat yawned, opened his eyes slowly, and stretched his paw out into her chin, splaying his pads in a furry high five.

‘Good morning to you too.’

The cat licked his fur three times and stood up for a full body yoga stretch. Beth opened the curtains and made herself a coffee and the cat jumped off the bed, sitting knowingly by the patio door.

‘Time to go or do you just need the loo?’

Apparently it wasn’t time to go. After a toilet trip to the hotel flower beds the cat strolled back in for a wash before breakfast. Room service was ordered, extra sausage and extra bacon. Room service was eaten.

Beth’s suitcase was already packed. She’d packed it last night before going to the cliff top. She’d ask them to store her luggage for her until she decided on an altered plan of action. She dialled reception. ‘Hi, this is a strange question but is there anywhere on the island that rehomes cats or takes them in?…No, I found one this morning, I know pets aren’t allowed in rooms.’ She winked at the cat, the cat blinked back. ‘Oh ok, could you book me a taxi to take me there please?…Yes, as soon as possible…Thank you.’

‘I don’t take cats.’ The taxi driver shook his head to confirm this point. ‘They make a mess.’

Beth thought that was ironic considering he was wearing most of his breakfast remains on his sweatshirt, which was indeed sweaty too. ‘It’s my therapy cat. It’s for my anxiety. My disability cat.’

‘I don’t care if your leg has fallen off and your cat is carrying it, it’s not getting in my cab.’

The cat, in Beth’s arms, stretched his mouth wide in a yawn. Beth knew the cat was silently swearing at him. ‘But he’ll stay on my lap the whole time and it’s only a fifteen minute journey.’

‘No.’

‘I’ll pay you double the fare.’

‘Get in.’

The fifteen minute journey occurred in silence. The taxi tore through the tiny country lanes from the south of the island to the north. A fluffy bull, dangling from the rear view mirror, swung along to Coldplay. He’s trying to hang himself, thought Beth, having to put up with this mediocre droning. The cat sat happily on Beth’s lap. His left paw dangled over the edge of her leg and gently rested on the back seat. Beth smiled and whispered ‘rebel’ in her mind.

Beth paid the taxi driver but he drove off from the old farmhouse before she had time to ask him to wait. She kissed the top of the cat’s head and put him down on the driveway. Two chickens stuttered by in the background, the cat observed them casually while staying close to Beth’s legs, tail in the air, alert and wary.

A woman appeared in the garden to the side of the house, carrying a basket of washing. She was short, robust, with sparse spiky grey hair, wearing a blue shirt, jeans tucked into green wellies and a chunky cream cardigan. Beth would guess she was in her late fifties or early sixties.

‘Can I help you?’ Her voice was blunt and it didn’t sound like she wanted to help at all. She walked towards Beth, washing basket still in her arms.

‘Hello, yes, I hope so. I’ve got a cat.’

The woman stared down at the cat, then slowly back up to Beth. ‘Yes, you have.’

‘Well, it’s not really my cat, I found it last night, and it needs a home. The hotel I was staying at gave me your address.’

‘Oh they did, did they.’

‘Yes.’ Beth watched the woman, the cat watched a rogue chicken streak across the drive. Beth felt she was hostage negotiating. ‘I was hoping you could give the cat a home, or you might know someone who can.’

‘Why didn’t you just leave the cat where it was to wander back from where it came?’

‘It was on the top of Beauport Bay cliffs.’

‘At night.’

‘Yes.’

The woman’s face remained impassive. ‘You don’t live here on Jersey then.’

‘No, I was staying at L’horizon hotel.’

‘Was?’

‘It was my last night last night.’

The woman shifted the basket of washing to rest on her right hip and sniffed. ‘What time is your flight?’

‘My flight?’

‘You said it was your last night, are you flying home today? Where is home to you?’

Beth felt herself tense up, where is home seemed a more philosophical than geographical question. ‘Oh, I, um, I’m from Wales, I haven’t booked my flight yet.’

‘I see.’

Aware she was stood soldier-like Beth tried to relax her stance by shifting more of her weight to her left side, she fiddled distractedly with the strap of her bag across her body.

‘What’s your cat’s name?’

‘I don’t know, and it’s not my cat.’

The cat rubbed against Beth’s legs.

‘What’s your name? Or do you not know that either?’

‘Beth.’ Beth found herself in automatic soldier stance again.

‘Well Beth, my name is Susan. Not Sue, or Suzy, or Sooze. Clear?’

‘Um, yes.’

Susan turned and marched off towards the house. Beth and the cat stood side by side watching her.

‘Well don’t just stand there waiting for a bloody written invitation, and bring your shadow too.’

She disappeared through the door and Beth hesitantly followed her in, her shadow padding behind her.

The kitchen was cluttered with crockery, books, and plants, an assault of colours vied for Beth’s attention. An aroma of moth balls, dusty libraries and Deep Heat challenged her nostrils. A large hefty wooden table was in the centre of the room with various sizes of crocheted coasters and placemats of a kaleidoscope of colours scattered on it. Susan was filling a kettle by the cooker.

‘You can have tea from the pot with me or a coffee, only instant coffee though, I have no time to mess about with those silly plunger things.’

‘Instant coffee is fine, thanks.’

The kettle boiled, Susan clattered about with a teapot. ‘Sit down then.’

Beth sat on one of the wooden chairs, the cat jumped up on her lap, massaged her legs while he got comfortable then curled up.

‘And you think he’s not your cat?’

Beth smoothed his fur as he purred. ‘I can’t look after a cat.’

‘Nonsense.’ The teapot, wearing a green and yellow crocheted cosy, was plonked on the table, followed by a mug of coffee emblazoned with ‘I love Ibiza’, followed by a tin of malted milk biscuits.

‘Thank you.’ Beth glanced at her mug. She doubted that Susan had been to Ibiza.

Before she had chance to ask her, an elderly German Shepherd plodded into the room and over to Susan. Susan ruffled his head and smiled.

‘This is Jim. Jim, we have visitors.’

Beth was slightly taken aback by Susan’s smile, it transformed her face so much. She turned her head to the dog. ‘Hello Jim.’

Jim slowly walked to Beth and sniffed her leg and the cat. The cat opened his left eye and studied Jim’s large damp nose and inquisitive eyes. After a brief moment Jim turned and plodded back out of the room.

Susan delved into the biscuits and started to munch on one. ‘Do you like animals?’

‘Of course, I like them more than people.’ Beth looked up to meet Susan’s studying of her. ‘Sorry.’

‘Don’t be, animals are nicer than people, they don’t let you down or leave you.’ Susan pushed the biscuit tin towards Beth. ‘Don’t stand on ceremony.’

‘Thanks.’ Beth took a biscuit out and bit off half.

‘So if you leave your shadow here, what are you going to do next?’

Beth was glad she had a mouthful of biscuit to stall for an answer. She could hardly tell a complete stranger she would probably go throw herself of the cliff tonight. She shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’ Her shaky hands picked up her coffee and she was self consciously aware Susan had noticed this.

Susan slurped her tea. ‘Won’t anyone miss you?’

Beth’s hands gripped the mug handle tight. Had Susan read her mind? She stared into the abyss of coffee. ‘No.’

The following silence felt so deep to Beth, she had an urge to fill it. ‘I have no job, no family, no partner, no children, no friends, just a rented apartment full of dreams and regrets.’ Shocked at her honest revelation she shoved another half of a malted milk in her mouth to stop herself revealing anymore.

Susan nodded solemnly and slid the biscuit tin back towards herself, also taking another biscuit. ‘But now you have your shadow.’

Beth twitched a smile as she looked down at the sleeping cat, her eyes watered. She brushed off an escaped tear and desperately tried to swallow down the remainder of her biscuit without choking.

Susan swigged more tea and topped up her cup from the pot. ‘Do you have bags? A suitcase?’

‘Oh, yes, my suitcase is in storage at the hotel.’

Susan nodded. ‘We’ll go get it after lunch. You can stay in one of my spare rooms. It’s not fancy but it’s got a comfy bed, wallpaper, and a nice wardrobe.’

‘Oh, I couldn’t stay here.’

‘Why not? Are you a thief, a murderer or an arsonist?’

‘No.’

‘No I thought not, so you can stay. Until you decide what you and Shadow are going to do next.’ Susan nodded towards the cat. ‘He thinks you’re someone worth hanging around for, that’s good enough for me.’

‘But, I wouldn’t want to put you out.’

‘You won’t be, I’m not offering you the swanky hotel services you’ve been used to. A bed and board for you both in return for helping me look after the animals here in the kennels. Again, not a hotel, so you’ll eat what I cook for myself or cook and clean up after yourself if you don’t like my cooking.’

Beth realised she’d been holding her breath and exhaled deeply. ‘That’s really kind of you.’

‘Not being kind, I’m using you for cheap labour, my arthritis is playing up and you’ve come along at the right time.’

Beth looked down at Shadow on her lap, then back up to Susan. ‘Yes, I think I have.’

Margaret

Published November 19, 2019 by Naomi Rettig

For the first time ever, Margaret severed a head. Not just any head, the head of her husband. Her now ex-husband. She was surprised how easy it was, considering she hadn’t meant to decapitate him. Her upper arm strength and swing action had shocked both her and Eddie. His face, suspended in petrified disbelief, gawked up from the blood sodden rug. Margaret watched how the crimson fluid delicately shaded the peonies in the pattern. She sat in the armchair, breathing heavily, and dropped the axe to the floor with a dull thud. Sinking back into the tatty brown leather she allowed herself to smile. Which turned to laughter. Followed by docker swearing at the unresponsive head.

She jerked her leg out and kicked the headless torso. She laughed again. With her breathing more controlled she stood and rolled the body onto its back. She kicked it hard between the legs.

‘You won’t be forcing anyone now will you.’

Margaret kicked Eddie’s torso again, with more force, but it was like kicking a sandbag. She stared at the lump of a husband and then sat back down, closed her eyes, and exhaled deeply, using the breathing techniques she’d learnt in counselling sessions. She could hear her therapist Lynne telling her to inhale for five then exhale for eight.

She obeyed Lynne’s voice. She felt calm. She thought back to meeting Lynne, and that timid frightened wren that she once was, scared of everything and Eddie, especially Eddie. Margaret didn’t think she’d be able to tell anyone about what Eddie did to her but she did and Lynne gave her tools to make her stronger. To rebuild herself.

Eddie had been such a charmer when Margaret had met him at the butchers counter when she was sixteen. He was handsome, funny, popular, and twenty-two, he could have had the pick of the village but he chose her. She felt so lucky. She would have done anything to keep him, and she did. Anything he wanted, he got, whether Margaret wanted it or not. Usually not.

Margaret had thought about ending her life many times to escape, a desperate solution for a desperate woman. Her daughter Lucy had made her think of other options. She couldn’t leave her with him, she’d already seen the way he was starting to look at her. She knew that as her own figure became less appealing Lucy was blossoming, and that’s what scared her the most, made her want to fight back, escape from her tormentor who was once her hero.

Life hadn’t changed overnight. Like mould it had started as small spores sparsely spaced and had spread slowly until she found it too hard to breathe. The young virile heartthrob evolved into an overweight lazy bully, the bright optimistic butterfly became cocooned. One-off demeaning comments developed into daily vitriol, the odd slap matured into routine beatings.

Margaret opened her eyes. She stared at the mess in front of her and glanced at the clock. It would be a few hours before Lucy came home from school. Plenty of time to clean up, she wasn’t going to risk jail for him. He wasn’t worth it. She’d wasted too many years on him already.

She’d pack a suitcase with his favourite clothes and passport and bury them in the garden with him. He used to tell anyone down the pub that she was a useless wife and he was going to leave her, well, now he had. A jolt of euphoric relief pulsed through her, she stood up and made her way to the garage to locate the spade, stamping on Eddie’s genitals on the way past.

‘No more Eddie, no more.’

Brexmeat

Published September 17, 2019 by Naomi Rettig

Tony scraped up scraps of cartilage and bones that the machine had spat out. He tossed them into the incinerator while whistling ‘Another One Bites the Dust’. The stench didn’t bother him, he’d been a butcher before being imprisoned, humans smelled the same as animals to him. Ben didn’t have the same stomach as Tony, and even though he wore a face mask it was a struggle to not gag constantly.

Tony wiped his chunky calloused hands on his already bloodstained apron. ‘C’mon lad, time for a brew.’

Ben didn’t know if he could keep a cup of tea inside him, but he wasn’t going to turn down an opportunity to get off the factory floor. He peeled his sweaty gloves off, left them on the table, and followed Tony into the small staffroom.

Tony already had the kettle switched on and was putting sugar in his mug. ‘Sugar?’

‘No thanks.’ Ben sat down on one of the blue plastic chairs and took his face mask off.

Tony smiled. ‘You’ll get used to it.’ He placed the mugs on the table and sat opposite Ben. ‘What you in for? Must be bad to be working production.’

‘Cyber fraud.’

Tony laughed. ‘What a waste. You’ve thrown your life away for hacking?’

‘I only moved money from one account to another, they got it all back, I’ll be out soon when I’m up for parole.’

Tony belly laughed again. ‘If you’re here in production parole isn’t on the cards for you.’

‘I don’t understand?’

‘Prisoners on the production line are never leaving here. Life means life here.’

‘But I didn’t get life, I got four years, so I’ll be out in two.’

‘So naïve. How old are you?’

‘Twenty-two.’

Tony stopped smiling and shook his head. ‘You don’t have any family, do you?’

‘No, how do you know that?’

‘Because if you’re not here on production because you’re a lifer it’s because you don’t have family. No one to miss you or report you when you don’t get out.’

Ben stared down at the table, trying not to cry or pass out.

‘Lots of people here are the alone.’ Tony slurped some of his tea. ‘Not usually youngsters like you though.’

‘But I got a sentence, in a court, they can’t keep me here.’

‘They can do what want, they’re the government.’

‘People need to know this.’

‘People need to not know this, that’s why none of us on production will ever get out or have contact with anyone outside.’

‘I can’t stay here forever.’

‘You don’t have a choice. Unless you want to kill yourself, that’s your only choice. But then you’d end up in a sausage or a pie like the refugees and illegals.’

‘Surely that’s better than butchering and cooking people every day.’

Tony shrugged. ‘Depends on your view. Roof over my head, food in my belly, library full of books, gym to work out in. Throats to slit every day. I got a better life in here than I did outside.’

‘Doesn’t it make you sick? Killing innocent people? And eating them? Sending them out to be eaten by the public?’

Tony laughed and finished his tea. ‘Lad, no one is innocent in life, all have sin. I used to butcher animals for a living, human carcasses are no different. I’m in here for life, for murder. I killed my wife for sleeping around. I was happy killing the woman I loved most in the world, killing people I don’t know is a cinch.’

Ben stared at Tony, frightened to ask him anymore.

‘And eating them? You eat the flesh of a cow or pig, there’s no difference with a human. Flesh is flesh. You’re not a veggie are you?’

‘No.’

‘Well there you go then.’

‘The government should tell the people what they’re doing.’

‘Too many snowflakes like you would have a meltdown. It’s better if they don’t know.’

‘It’s dishonest, it’s wrong.’

‘Says you, banged up for stealing.’

‘I was stealing from companies who could afford it.’

‘Still deception however you want to dress it up. How would you solve the problem? Millions of hungry people on our island with not enough food to feed everyone, no help from the EU as we stuck two fingers up to them, thousands of illegals and refugees turning up here trying to take our depleted food from us.’

‘I don’t know. But I know this is wrong.’

Tony shrugged. ‘Embrace it or die. Going through the motions will drive you mad if you don’t believe it’s for the greater cause. I’ve seen many that breakdown. A few months ago a lad about your age threw himself in the furnace. Jerry. What a waste. Burnt to a crisp like pork crackling. He had a lot of meat on him, would have fed a good many people. Selfish really.’

‘I guess he wasn’t thinking straight.’

‘Well if you ever feel like throwing yourself in the furnace, don’t. Give me the heads up and I’ll make it quick for you, neat slit to the throat. Might even make sure I get a product you end up in.’

Ben pushed his tea away from him, the urge to vomit was swelling.

An alarm rang out for a short burst making Ben flinch and a red light flashed over one of the double doors on the production floor.

‘Fresh meat.’ Tony stood up. ‘You been shown how to slit a throat properly?’

The colour drained away from Ben’s face. ‘No.’

‘Time for me to teach you then.’ Tony smiled and walked out the room.

Ben put his mask over his mouth and nose, took a deep breath, and slowly followed.

Tony picked up a six-inch knife from the wall rack. ‘This is the best knife. Sharp like a shark, cuts through flesh like a hot knife through butter.’

They walked towards the doors, silent now but red light still flashing.

‘Now you can watch me do one, then you can have a go.’

‘I don’t want to, can’t you do it all?’

‘I could, but you need to be able to do it. If you can’t do the whole job then that choice of sausage or worker will be taken away from you.’Tony put his hand on the door handle. ‘Don’t look into their eyes, it’ll make it harder for you.’ He opened the door and muffled shouts and cries began immediately.

Inside the white sterile room were ten naked people of male and female assortment bound securely by ropes, gagged and sat on the floor. Ages varied from twenty to sixty. All were shaking and wide eyed. Tony stepped into the room, followed by Ben who was struggling to pull his gloves on to his tremoring hands.

‘Start anywhere you like, some choose youngest to oldest or vice versa, I just work my way around the room.’ Tony seemed oblivious to the muffled cries and screams.

Ben automatically looked into sets of eyes as he scanned the room. He could feel himself hyperventilating and wished he would just pass out.

Tony approached the first livestock. A man in his forties, dark skinned, average build, trying to plead through his gag. Tony grabbed his hair and held him firmly upright. ‘You need to hold them still, it’s quicker for them that way.’ He placed the knife at the left side of the terrified man’s throat. ‘Start right over here and go in deep and slice across. The deeper you go the quicker it’ll be over for them. Don’t go doing stupid little papercuts coz you haven’t got the balls; it’ll make it worse for them and you.’ Tony sliced in one quick movement. Blood spurted out and then flowed down the naked man’s chest. The man’s throat gargled, his eyes grew wider, then he was motionless.

The remaining nine people screamed and cried from behind their gags.

Even with the mask over his nose Ben could smell faeces and urine as well as the iron aroma of the blood. It took all his focus not to vomit.

Tony turned and handed the knife to Ben. ‘You’re up. Better do one before you hit the deck.’

Ben took the knife reluctantly, his hands trembled more, and he felt so hot and sticky. Number two of the livestock was a pale Eastern European looking woman in her twenties. She was silent and staring at Ben with frozen terror. He put the knife tentatively to her throat, she pushed back against the wall and started to scream. Ben held her by her hair and gripped the knife with more force.

Ben’s mouth was dry, his tongue felt paralysed in its arid cave, he could barely whisper. ‘I’m sorry.’

Twelve Days of Christmas at the pharmacy (to be sung to the tune of Twelve Days of Christmas).

Published December 21, 2018 by Naomi Rettig

On the twelfth day of Christmas my pharmacist gave to me
Twelve senna tablets
Eleven paracetamols
Ten mills of methadone
Nine types of statins
Eight anti-depressants
Seven sleeping tablets
Six morphine patches
Five metformin
Four suppositories
Three furosemides
Two inhalers
And a jumbo pot of aspirin