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CHAMELEON

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

 

‘Argh! Jesus fucking Christ Jemma!’ Carl screamed. ‘What was that!?’

‘That, my love, was me injecting air into your vein, sixty millilitres of it to be precise and you have approximately fifteen minutes left before you die.’

‘What!?’

‘The air bubble will work its way up your body and when it fills the chambers of your heart it will cause a cardiac arrest.’ Jemma slid the silky black blindfold from Carl’s eyes, smiling sweetly as he blinked in defiance of the light. ‘A post mortem will reveal just that, a plain old boring heart attack, brought on by an energetic afternoon of sex and alcohol,’ she continued smiling at him, ‘a lot of men would think that was a good way to die.’

Carl attempted to move his arms and legs but he was still securely handcuffed and tied to all four iron bedposts with Jemma straddled across him. ‘Is this part of the game? Jem?’

‘No silly, I’m not playing games now, this is real and your time is ticking. Tick tock.’ She tossed the empty syringe to the side of the bed and ran her hands through her hair.

‘I don’t understand?’

‘I know you don’t, that was my plan. If you’d understood you wouldn’t have been so easy to manipulate. I’ve had an unfair advantage, like playing chess with a monkey, and now its checkmate to me.’

‘You’re not making sense.’ Carl tried to move his arms again. ‘C’mon Jem, unlock these. I love you.’

Jemma leaned forward and kissed Carl’s forehead gently. ‘I know you do baby, I made that happen. But I don’t love you, I just pretended to.’ Her smile dropped, leaving behind bitter cold eyes boring into him.

‘For eight months?!’

‘Yes, for eight months. I’ve hated you for eight months. And loathed you for longer.’ Jemma reached over to the bedside table. Sipping champagne from the glass her breasts in their cream lace cups lingered teasingly over Carl’s face. She felt his body respond below her and she sat back, adjusting herself against his naked sweaty flesh. ‘So predictable.’

He bit on his lip, struggling to reverse his primitive reaction. ‘You never loved me?’

‘No. Now baby you need to be thinking quicker than this to work out why I’m murdering you. I’d like to see the realisation on your face when you do, that would be an extra thrill for me, but your death is the end goal of my project. Tick tock.’ The icy eyed smile manically returned.

Carl squirmed and the metal circling his wrists cut in causing him to recoil into the bed. Jemma steadied herself with her hands on his chest. She smirked at him. ‘Steady there bucking bronco, you know, I’m actually getting turned on knowing that you are about to die. Up ‘til now I’ve had to fake every moan and groan that I made when you touched me. I wanted to vomit and scrub myself with bleach after having sex with you…’

‘But you were…’

‘Lubricant. If you cast your tiny mind back to every time we’ve had sex you’ll remember I always excused myself first to “freshen up”. What I really meant by that was that I had to prepare myself with lubricant because the thought of you touching me made me as dry as the Sahara.’

‘Didn’t know I was screwing a psycho,’ Carl’s confused face morphed into anger, ‘you’ll get locked up for this.’

‘I won’t get locked up silly, everything has been planned. A post mortem won’t show up anything other than a tragic accident of nature. A tragic accident that happens in about,’ Jemma glanced at the clock on the wall, ‘ten minutes.’ She pursed her lips and blew him a kiss, ‘tick tock.’

‘What about where you injected me you stupid bitch?’ Carl sneered.

‘Oh, you mean the injection hole in your arm? The same one where you gave blood from this morning?’ Jemma fluttered her eye lashes and spoke in a high husky voice, ‘Oh Carl, there’s a blood bank outside Asda, you could be a hero and donate, and then I could reward my hero with fun and naughty games.’ She focused sharply into his eyes and dropped her voice back down, ‘I think those were my words to you. A rattle of handcuffs and your brain sank to your dick. Sadly predictable, again, but simple for me to work with.’

Carl’s sneer had gone. ‘You fucking bitch.’

‘Yes, I suppose I am. I’m going to take that as a compliment.’

‘Why do you want me dead Jemma? What have I done to you?’

‘You ruined my life. So now I’m taking yours,’ she pressed herself down, her lips just millimetres from Carl’s, ‘and my name is not Jemma.’ She winked and stretched across for the champagne bottle. ‘We’ve drunk it all. Oh, there’s a little left.’ Holding the bottle above him she poured the last drops onto his mouth, arched down and licked his bottom lip provocatively.

‘What the fuck?!’ Carl wrenched his head away from her, ‘you’re crazy! Who are you?’

Jemma laughed. ‘I’m totally sane. And I created Jemma just for you, you should be flattered really.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I know. Poor baby. I’ll tell you more. Do you think we have time to open another bottle? Shall I risk it? Yes I think I will. This is definitely a celebration moment.’ Jemma dismounted Carl and sashayed out of the bedroom in her patent stilettos. For a brief moment Carl’s eyes strayed from her heels to her suspenders and bare bottom before she disappeared from view. He frantically tried to sit up, twisting his legs but they were firmly tied with rope and his wrists were not going to slip free of the handcuffs. Lying back despondently Carl shut his eyes.

His mind drifted back to when he first met her. Eight months ago, a hot August day, he was wilting, selling flowers on his stall when Jemma breezed by to buy some. She was as fresh as a daisy, smooth blonde hair perfectly in place, a thin blue dress that hinted enticingly at her not so hidden underwear, bright blue mesmerising eyes, red stilettos and a killer smile. That smile. She bought yellow roses to celebrate moving into her new flat, which happened to be just around the corner from his, he asked her out for a drink to celebrate properly, ‘can’t have a celebration without a bit of bubbly’ he’d said. How could she have played him when he was the one who chased and caught her?

The pop of a champagne cork shocked him back to the present. Jemma emerged back into the bedroom with the bottle fizzing over. She looked slightly different, he squinted at her trying to work out why.

‘Good, you’re still alive,’ she strode back over to the side of the bed, watching him study her, ‘oh, yes, I’ve taken my lenses out. No need for me to pretend I have blue eyes anymore. Quiet a relief really, they make my eyes tired and itchy.’

Carl’s voice was almost a whisper as he frowned in confusion. ‘You’ve got green eyes.’

‘Bingo. We have a winner. I’ll let you into another little secret Carl, I’m not a natural blonde. But I think you might have guessed that already.’ She gestured to her pubic hair which was on full display to him.

‘Who are you? What do you want?’

Jemma placed the bottle on the table and sighed. ‘Carl, you are wasting time, your time, not mine, I have all the time in the world but you have limited minutes to work it out.’ She sat to the side of him on the bed and stroked his hair. ‘You know what I want, I want you to die. That is going to happen. And you met me before, before I became Jemma.’

‘I’ve never seen you before, when you moved here that was the first time I saw you, I swear. Maybe you’ve mixed me up with someone else?!’ He swallowed hard and his eyes pleaded.

‘I would never get you mixed up with anyone else. I introduced you to Jemma last year but you saw the real me two years ago.’ Jemma studied Carl’s eyes as they flickered with thoughts and questions. ‘As well as my green eyes my hair was brunette and short. And I dressed quite plainly. Not a girl you would’ve looked once at.’

Carl’s breathing grew more rapid and his hair was wet with sweat. ‘I’m not feeling good. Phone an ambulance Jem. Please.’

‘If you say my real name I might phone for help.’ She poured champagne into her glass.

‘I don’t know who you are.’ Carl closed his eyes.

Jemma clenched her jaw, her cheek pulsing with rage. She downed the contents of the glass in one gulp and hurled it full force at the wall. A startled Carl reopened his eyes, he’d never seen her angry before. She scrambled back on top of him, grasping his hair tightly in fierce fists, pinning his head down savagely. She thrust her snarling face into his.

‘You do know who I am! Say it!’

Carl trembled beneath her. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘Sorry for destroying my life?’

‘No, I’m sorry, I’m sorry I don’t know who you are.’

Jemma’s hand released Carl’s hair and swung out and back slapping forcefully across his face. He gasped, wide eyed. She took a deep breath, closing her eyes for a few silent seconds and then gently placed her hand on his cheek where a red imprint was already rising up. ‘I shouldn’t have hit you. There’ll be a mark there when they do your post mortem. I’ll say I slapped you during sex because you asked me to.’ Jemma’s hands trailed lightly down Carl’s torso and she gazed at his chest lost in thought, her shoulders now rounded forward.

Carl was hesitant to interrupt her eerie trance but the ticking of the wall clock in the silence mocked him. ‘Why Jemma?’

Jemma lifted her head up. ‘Hmm? What?’

‘Why did you come to me as Jemma and not the real you?’

‘To snare you. I stalked you for months before. I followed you to pubs and bugged this flat.’

‘You bugged my flat? Is it still bugged?’

‘No. I don’t need it anymore. It served its purpose.’

‘Which was?’

‘To find out what you liked, what made you tick. I needed to be the perfect woman for you. And I was wasn’t I?’ She searched deep into his eyes for confirmation.

‘Yes. Was it all lies?’

‘Yes.’ Jemma seemed to re-inflate herself with a large nasal breath, shoulders back, simulated smile reapplied. ‘You prefer blondes with blue eyes so I dyed my hair and started wearing blue contacts. You like long hair so I grew mine. You like your girlfriends feminine and sexy so I changed my fashion choices. You love girls wearing killer heels, a challenge for me as I have always just worn flat shoes, so I had to teach myself to walk on four inch spikes. Am I correct so far?’

‘Yes.’

‘I listened to your boring chat with your boring friends, Dave and Paul have got to be the most infantile jerks ever, and discovered your favourite films, music, football etc… did you really think I watched football let alone supported the same team as you?’

‘Yes.’

‘I even learnt what you liked in bed by listening to you having sex with the random slags you brought back from the pub. Did you really think I enjoyed doing that?’ Jemma raised an eyebrow at the question but Carl just stared at her mutely. The sadistic smile spread like a stain across her face. ‘You really are so gullible. Are you ready to tell me who I am yet? You only have a couple of minutes left.’

Carl started to sob. ‘I don’t know your name. If I did I’d tell you so you’d phone the ambulance.’

‘See, you really are gullible. I won’t be phoning for an ambulance. Well, not while you’re still alive. I’ll phone when you die and do my best acting, I’ll be hysterical when I beg for help because my boyfriend has stopped breathing. They’ll talk me through CPR while the ambulance speeds towards me, I will of course convincingly pretend I’m doing it, but really I’ll be finishing off the champagne, toasting your death.’ Jemma looked across to the smashed glass on the floor. ‘I’ll have to clean that up before I phone, I don’t want anything niggling at an over-zealous policeman. That air bubble must be nearly at you heart.’

‘Just tell me who you are. Please.’ Carl wept.

‘You first saw me two years ago. Two years ago today actually. It’s an anniversary.’

Carl’s eyes dilated and fixed on to Jemma’s eyes with tortured recognition.

‘I was sat in a car, travelling home from my honeymoon. Buzz in when you know the answer by the way; that air bubble must be knocking on the chamber door. I was in the passenger seat, my husband of seven days was driving. His name was Jake. Jake Jones. Do you remember that name?’

Tears plummeted painfully down Carl’s face.

‘I thought you might. Well, I hoped you would. You do don’t you?’ Carl didn’t speak. ‘Just nod if you remember his name.’ Carl nodded. ‘Good. I assumed if you kill someone you remember their name. I’m disappointed that you don’t remember me. But after all, you weren’t even looking at us when you hit us were you? Texting on your phone the judge said. You didn’t even realise you had drifted over to the wrong side of the road as you were so busy telling a girl what you’d like to do to her later. We didn’t stand a chance the speed you were doing. I was told I was lucky that I didn’t die too. Well I did. I died that night too.’

‘I’m so sorry.’ Snot and saliva mingled with Carl’s tears.

‘Did you know I was pregnant?’

Horror swelled in Carl’s eyes.

‘I was fifteen weeks pregnant. I miscarried two weeks later. On the day I was burying my husband. You killed her too.’

Guttural sounds came from Carl, he closed his eyes but the tears still surged.

‘Do you understand now? Do you understand why I want you dead?’

Carl’s voice was barely audible. ‘Yes.’

Jemma slid off Carl’s body and retrieved her skirt and blouse from the floor. She pulled the skirt on, zipped it up quickly and started to button the blouse. ‘I’ll leave the door on the latch, someone will find you.’

Carl observed Jemma with confusion, a heaving chest and stuttering sobs. The stench of urine filled the room as the sheet below him darkened. ‘Don’t go. Please. I don’t want to die alone.’

‘You won’t.’ She fastened the last button and smoothed down her skirt. ‘I didn’t inject air into your vein. I just stuck the needle into you.’ The painted on smile had been erased from Jemma’s face, she was now expressionless and detached.

Carl’s crying had ceased, a baffled snotty mess focussed on Jemma. ‘What? I thought you wanted me dead?’

‘I do. But I’m not a killer. Like you are. I want you to suffer as much as I do every day. I will make your life a living hell. I will make you wish you were dead too. I will make you kill yourself. This is just the beginning.’ She scooped up her handbag and the syringe in one swoop from the floor and headed out the door. ‘Tick tock.’

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COUNTDOWN

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

Sunday.13 days to go.

I haven’t written a diary since I was fifteen. I found it the other day and was transported back to those carefree days, the summer of eighty-five, cider by the river on a hot day, Simple Minds on the radio, ‘Don’t you forget about me’. Except, I had forgotten about me. Reading the teenage me I sound so vibrant and hopeful. Here I am now, anything but. I don’t recognize myself.  I don’t know why I’m writing this now, maybe I need a friend to talk to, but I haven’t got one. Diary, I will call you Claire. Claire is a nice name for a friend I think, someone who would listen to my ramblings over a glass of wine. I will obviously have to drink your glass of wine for you though, and I will chat to you every day. And chocolates, I think you’d be the type of Claire to share chocolate with me.

Monday.12 days to go.

I’ve had a shit day, Claire. I think maybe we can take it that every day is going to be a shit day so I don’t need to keep telling you that. Work was the usual. Vanessa was her top bitchy self, she ordered cupcakes for everyone in the office except me, because she thought I was on a diet. She didn’t need to say it as loud as she did. Becca squirmed on my behalf, then took her cake and retreated. I don’t blame her; I would have done the same. The urge to squish one of the cupcakes into Vanessa’s flawless make-up was high. I did it in my head. Slightly satisfying.

No sign of Malcolm when I got home, no take-away cartons, so he is eating out after work again. Or at his slag’s house.

I’m sat by the fire now, having our wine, LaVis Storie di Vite Pinot Grigio. It’s Italian and apparently is fruity with hints of ripe pear. I can’t taste any pear so they are very vague hints. It hits the spot though. Accompanied by a bag of Malteasers, standard size. Do you crunch or let them melt? I like to suck and melt myself.

Tuesday.11 days to go.

Vanessa ‘accidentally’ spilt my coffee over me today. She saw me coming through the door carrying it even though she said she didn’t. ‘Thank goodness you don’t wear expensive clothes’, she smirked and sauntered off. Bitch.

No Malcolm again this evening. His bed had been slept in when I checked this morning, so I know he came home at some point. I don’t know why he doesn’t stay at hers. He must think I’m stupid, or he doesn’t think about me at all. I should have left him years ago Claire, but falling out of love with someone doesn’t just happen overnight, it kind of erodes away, revealing layers you didn’t want to discover.

Our wine of the night is Cuvee des Vignerons, Beaujolais. A fruity style that goes well with chicken, lamb or cheese. I’m accompanying it with a Curly Wurly.

Wednesday.10 days to go.

Vanessa was on a training course today, hooray. The boss was in full perv mode, boo. He managed to collar me as I was photocopying in the stationary room. I offered to pass him down the staples but he said he didn’t want to interrupt me and he’d ‘just squeeze by’. A paralyzing smell of Jovan Musk assaulted my nostrils as he far too slowly rubbed his crotch across my backside, and then back again, as he retrieved the staple box. Either he didn’t have an erection or his cock was so tiny I couldn’t feel it through his non-iron polyester slacks. I’d punch him in the bollocks. If I could find them.

Talking of men with no balls, I saw Malcolm this evening. I was eating my microwaved Mexican rice when he came into the kitchen, said he had come home to freshen up as he was taking a client out to Oscar’s up town. Told me not to wait up. I didn’t speak, I wasn’t going to play along with his game of let’s pretend. I just finished my rice slowly. Years ago I would have been on his arm at a business meeting. Either he didn’t think I was an asset anymore, or he was lying and was going for a passionate night with the slag. Judging from the trail of Joop Homme left behind on his exit, it’s the latter. She bought him that for Christmas last year and he’s overused it since. I knew they were having sex when she bought him that, who buys their boss eau de toilette? Yes, Claire, a slag.

Wine of the night is Champteloup Rose d’Anjou, a perfect match to charcuterie. I’ve matched it with Galaxy caramel. The ‘sharing – but I’m a greedy bitch and not sharing’ size.

Thursday. 9 days to go.

Vanessa was back in full gorgon mode today. ‘I envy how you can wear sensible shoes and not care what anyone thinks. Although I guess because you’re so tall and broad you’d look like a transvestite if you wore heels.’ I’m now torn between a cupcake to the face or a stiletto in the head for her.

Malcolm graced me with his presence this evening. We ate separately, sat separately. I watched people competing to make the best quilt on TV, he did Sudoku. I’d forgotten how much his raspy breathing annoyed me. At least I won’t have to listen to that for much longer.

Wine of the night is Torres Vina Esmeralda, apparently it has delicate honey and fresh grape characters. I can taste the honey. Or that might be coming from the Toblerone accompanying it.

Friday. 8 days to go.

Vanessa was training a new girl today, Anna, she’s temping for Mandy while she’s off having baby number three. Vanessa introduced Anna to everyone in the office except me. How petty. Bitch. I was the invisible employee today, no one spoke to me all day, and even the boss didn’t stop to look down my blouse while walking past my desk. I don’t know what’s worse, being the target of nasty comments or being ignored.

Malcolm announced he was going away for the weekend on a golfing break with Jeff. I happen to know Jeff is on holiday in Portugal with Marie, there’s a photo of them both with green cocktails by the beach on Facebook. We spent the hour before he left in silence. Him packing, me reading Take a Break magazine. I had red lipstick on and wore the navy polka dot dress he once liked. He didn’t notice.

Our wine of the night is Beronia Reserva Rioja, with earthy notes of leather and coconut – thankfully not too leathered. Me and the wine. Accompanied by a Snickers and the crackling of the fire.

Saturday. 7 days to go.

The sun was out today so I wrapped up and went for a walk along the river. It was so relaxing. I felt like I didn’t have a worry in the world. I wish I didn’t have worries Claire. I know other people have worries too, maybe I could cope with their worries better and they mine. My serenity bubble was popped by a family enjoying a day of sunshine in the winter. It’s crazy how someone enjoying life can expose how much you’re not. I watched this young family, laughing and playing, and I started to crumble inside. I always knew Malcolm didn’t want children, I fooled myself that I didn’t either. I indulged in crying when I got home. I’m not a pretty crier. My eyes now look like I’ve had an allergic reaction to shellfish.

Wine of the night is Valdo Oro Puro Prosecco, fruity and bubbly. Accompanied by a Toffee Crisp.

Sunday. 6 days to go.

It rained today so I went and sat in the National Gallery. I didn’t look at the paintings, I’ve seen them many times before, I looked at the people instead. I spent the day seeing the stories of people passing by. An old lady was sat looking at ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ by Turner. She dabbed her eye with a tissue, I sat next to her and chatted to her about the painting. It was her husband’s favourite, he died five years ago but she came every year on his birthday to visit his favourite painting. Her husband was dead, and I envied her grief.

Wine of the night is Oyster Bay Merlot, an elegant wine apparently. What is an elegant wine? Elegantly paired with a box of Matchmakers, mint flavoured. An elegant chocolate.

Monday. 5 days to go.

Nauseous start in work today, I caught the lift at the wrong time. Morning rush crush. The boss was stood behind me and groped at my backside for four floors. I stood on his foot but I think he liked that as he squeezed harder.

Malcolm spent the evening working in his study. I heard laughter at one point. I haven’t heard him laugh like that since, well, I can’t remember when. That felt more of a betrayal than the sex. How dare she make him laugh like that. Slag. I turned up the volume on Bake Off, I’d rather listen to Mary Berry talking about soggy bottoms than listen to Malcolm laughing about pert bottoms.

Wine of the night is Brazin Old Vine Zinfandel Lodi, best served with saucy ribs or spicy, meaty pizza. Or Thornton’s chocolate covered toffee, as I am.

Tuesday. 4 days to go.

The boss commented ‘nice blouse Jane’ as he walked past my desk today. Vanessa said he was being sarcastic, then gave me death stares all day. How can she be jealous of me having the attention from a lobotomized sweaty octopus?

No Malcolm this evening, just a text informing me not to wait up, ‘tied up in work’. I bet they laughed at that pun.

Wine of the night is Vignale Pinot Grigio, it has a refreshing finish apparently, so I’d better finish it. Accompanying it with a Crunchie.

Wednesday. 3 days to go.

I spent all morning working on a client’s proposal, and I know I definitely saved it before I went to the toilet, yet when I got back it had been deleted and the recycle bin had been emptied. Vanessa looked very smug with herself all afternoon.

No Malcolm this evening, apparently a client wanted to see Mamma Mia. A co-incidence that the slag loves Abba I’m sure.

Wine of the night is The Hedonist Shiraz, voluptuous and silky. Just like me. Maybe not silky as I have stubbly legs today. Having a bar of Aero. Mint flavoured. Family size.

Thursday. 2 days to go.

Vanessa went into photocopy just after I’d come out. She made a huge song and dance that she couldn’t use the machine as I’d broken it. We both know full well I didn’t. An engineer had to come out and fix it, he said it looked like someone had shoved a pencil where they shouldn’t. I know where I wanted to shove a pencil.  The boss had me in his office for an informal chat, said I needed to start impressing him more if I wanted to keep my job. He licked his lips slowly as he told me this, while staring at my chest, I wanted to be sick. After dry heaving in the toilet cubicle, I heard Vanessa and Anna come in. Vanessa was telling Anna, ‘Jane does things like that all the time, any excuse to spend time with Mr. Warren, it’s disgusting really. Throwing herself at a married man all the time, as if he’d be interested in a frump like her.’ Bitch.

More laughing in the study tonight from Malcolm. I can’t listen to it anymore; I’m going up to bed to listen to Puccini’s Madame Butterfly instead. It’s ok to cry with opera.

Wine of the night is Cuvee Chasseur Vin de France, an easy drinking wine. I can confirm this. Paired with Ritter Sport marzipan. I will finish it in bed.

Friday. 1 day to go.

Best day ever in work. I bought a coffee and walnut cake from the W.I. stall in the library on the way to work. I chose one with the thickest buttercream on top. I deleted all my files and contacts from my computer, then retrieved the cake from the drawer I stashed it in. I had such an adrenalin rush carrying it over to Vanessa’s desk. ‘I have something for you.’ Her face was surprise/confusion/pleased, until I planted it full on in her face, then it was shock/horror/disbelief. I’m not completely mean though; I’d removed the walnuts from the top first. Seeing thick buttercream clinging to her false lashes was very satisfying. I licked my fingers then sauntered back to my desk, I picked up my handbag and coffee. It had gone cold as I wanted it. I walked back to the still shocked Vanessa and poured the coffee slowly over her expensive hair extensions. The rest of the office seemed to be in mid game of musical statues. The boss had stepped out of his room on hearing Vanessa’s shrieks and stood motionless, joining in with the game of statues. I walked up to him, adrenalin running on ahead. ‘You disgust me. Don’t ever touch anyone again without their permission.’ I grabbed his crotch and squeezed as hard as I could. I obviously hit the mark as his eyes watered and he let out a guttural cry and crumpled like a string less puppet. I let go of his sweaty groin and he dropped to the floor. I didn’t look back, I just walked to the lift, smiling.

No Malcolm this weekend, my choice though. I told him I had a friend coming to stay and we were having a girlie weekend of DVD’s and face packs lined up, so was there any chance I could have the house to myself?  He was so keen to get a free pass for the weekend it didn’t cross his mind that I’ve never had any friends visit or even mentioned any friends before. He smiled at me. A genuine smile. Oh how I wanted that smile to be for me, not just at me. He will never smile like that about me again.

Wine of the day is Jackson Stich Sauvignon Blanc, a punchy wine I am teaming up with Terry’s chocolate orange.

Saturday. D-Day

I treated myself to a pamper morning at Chiltern Spa. Manicure, pedicure, facial, hot stone massage and some reflexology. Maureen doing the reflexology was concerned at the amount of blockages in my body, I reassured her I was aware of them and it was being dealt with. She gave me a complimentary Indian head massage. She knew.

I started to feel tearful, maybe all the sessions released emotions I didn’t want freed. I escaped to the cinema to be distracted by someone else’s story. I was distracted by Captain America. After being amazed by superheroes I dined at the Ivy, feeling like a film star with my freshly manicured hands and glowing skin. I enjoyed an exquisite meal of rocket soup with walnut and apple salsa, fillet steak with a green peppercorn sauce, and burnt banana & butterscotch tatin with rum and raisin ice cream. I had a sedate stroll home and watched day turn to night. A curtain coming down on the final act.

Wine of the day? Hell no, Claire we’re having champagne of the day! Louis Roederer Cristal, with notes of apricot, hazelnut and Danish pastries! Blew £150 on this, it better be good.

My letter to Malcolm is written and placed on the hall table. It’s complete bullshit, in it I blame him and his affair for my suicide, declare my undying love for him and saying I can’t go on anymore knowing he is with her, blah blah blah. I know the guilt will eat away at him and slowly sink their ship of passion. It’s bad of me I know. I’m choosing to die today because I don’t want to die a slow and painfully lonely death as the cancer consumes me, but I want him to suffer too. I’m a horrid person. Although I’m not really that horrid, otherwise I would have made my death look like murder and framed him. See, I’m not that bad Claire. Just lazy.

I’m sat by the fire now, black and red negligee on, hair and make-up perfectly done. I have the one hundred co-codamol I’ve stashed by my side, and I’m washing it down with the champagne. I’m sharing my last moments with you Claire, but I’d rather be dying in the arms of someone who loves me. No offence. Would that make this more difficult though? Probably. No one is going to miss me, no children, no friends, and no loving husband. I wonder how long it will be before she moves in here? If haunting is possible I’m going to stay here and scare the shit out of her. Every day. Slag.

So here I am, D-Day. Death day. It’s our wedding anniversary today. I knew he’d forget. Twenty years ago I said I do. Now I’m saying I don’t. I have to throw you in the fire now Claire, our conversations over wine are not for anyone else’s eyes. You’ve been the best friend I’ve had. I’m sorry.

 

 

NUTS

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

I stop pumping up and down on Harry’s chest. I think I have broken two of his ribs. He is dead, it won’t bother him. It looks like I tried my best to revive him though. I only started my revival attempts when I couldn’t detect a pulse anymore. So I guess you could say I murdered my husband.

I stare at his lifeless body. Part of me feels sad. I stroke his hair. I’d like to say he looks like he’s sleeping, but he doesn’t, he looks dead. We were so in love in the beginning of our whirlwind romance. Our first date was in an art gallery and we bonded over abstract art and champagne. Harry whisked me away the following week to Paris and proposed at the top of the Eiffel Tower. A downward spiral followed, passion turned to possessive obsession, mind games and manipulation.

A siren outside snaps me back. I sweep over the apartment quickly, double checking myself. I’ve placed the note telling Harry not to eat the pie on the floor, seemingly fallen from his view. His plate and fork still on the breakfast bar, my plate and fork washed up and put away. A buzz at the intercom. I answer. Footsteps run upstairs.

I fling open the door. ‘Quickly, you have to help him! He’s eaten nuts and is allergic to them.’

The paramedics rush over to Harry. I feign distress.

Glancing at my watch I note I have plenty of time before I meet Marcus at the airport. He’s whisking me away to Rome. I met him on the same website as Harry and he’s fallen for me. He wants me to leave Harry. Marcus is diabetic, but I’ll help look after his insulin levels. I’m sweet like that.

STILL HERE

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

The rhythmic low beeping of a machine lures my consciousness from its hibernation. I can also hear what sounds like a small bellows breathing life into a small fire. I try to open my eyes to see where I am but the inky black darkness remains. I can’t even feel my eye lids attempting to open; I can’t feel anything. I try to move my arms, legs, anything I can but I have no sensation anywhere. It smells of a hospital wherever I am. That acrid clinical smell, sterile and sour.

Why am I in a hospital? How did I get here? I have no recollection of an accident or any explanation of why I would be in a hospital, I remember eating out with Michael. His sister Grace and Harry just got back from their honeymoon and we were having a post wedding celebration. We’d dined at The Maple Tree as it was Grace’s favourite – Michael thought it pretentious and over-priced with smarmy waiters but is always generous with Grace. I think he still carried the guilt of her blindness, even though he was only young at the time of the accident. Maybe I’ve gone blind? Oh don’t be stupid, people just don’t go blind for no reason, and even if they did they would still be able to move or feel something. Surely?

Grace always amazes me, some moments it’s easy to forget she’s blind as she moves with the elegance of a dancer and seems to glide effortlessly through life, enchanting all who meet her, while I’m a clumsy klutz always managing to trip over my own feet. I wish I could feel my feet now. I wish I could feel anything now. Grace certainly lives up to her name. She reminds me of a ballerina, willowy thin with wispy blonde hair always tied up in a bun. Michael has the same blonde hair, short but still wispy, and the most vivid green eyes. His eyes were what mesmerised me when we met, almost recognising each other from previous lives. The five years we’ve been together seems like a glorious lifetime and I can only remember my life before him in fuzzy detail, but my life with him is always clear and in sharp focus.

I hear a door open and the squeak of rubber soled shoes on a floor. Hello. Can you hear me? The squeaky shoes move towards me. I can hear paper moving. The door opens again and another pair of shoes enter the room to wherever I am, not so squeaky though as the first pair of feet.

‘Oh, you nearly done? Her parents are on their way up.’ My parents are here?

‘Yeah only jotting down the vitals.’

‘Anything changed?’

‘No, nothing.’ Nothing? What do you mean nothing? What’s going on?

 The squeaky shoes and the not so squeaky shoes fade out followed by the door closing. Come back, I’m here! My parents are on their way up, I must be in a hospital, I must have been in an accident, why can’t I remember and why can’t I move? I listen carefully but only the noise of the machine beeping and the bellows blowing disturbs the silence. Time drags like weighted quicksand.

The door opens, slower and more cautiously than before, a few seconds of silence and machines pass. Did I really hear the door open? A clip clop of heels accompanied by heavier solid footsteps move towards me.

‘Oh George, she looks like she’s just sleeping.’ My mother’s voice is such a wonderful sound to me even with its forlorn tone. Mum! I’m here! I can hear you! I can smell her Nina Ricci perfume. Is she kissing me or stroking my hair? I can’t feel her but a sudden waft of strong scent must mean she’s close.

A chair scrapes the floor, heavy legs on tiles, being dragged towards me. I see a blue plastic chair in my mind. Why am I seeing a blue chair? Is my brain trying to compensate for my eyes not working? I hear a faint deflating sound as someone sits close by. My Dad? Why is my Dad not speaking? The image of the chair in my head changes from blue solid plastic to green padded vinyl, morphing Dali-like in my mind, playing tricks. I picture my Mum sat in the chair, fluffy plum cardigan with deep pockets like abysses that can produce tissues, nail-files, cough sweets or mints on demand, red floral skirt and tousled uneven bob, the same shade of chestnut brown as my hair.

‘Here.’ Mum says. Yes! I’m here Mum! Can you hear me?

‘I’m alright.’ Dad says. ‘I don’t need it.’ Dad! Can you hear me?

‘It’s ok to cry,’ says Mum, ‘let it out.’

‘Don’t fuss woman, I don’t need to let anything out.’

I’ve never seen my Dad cry, I can hear him sniffing, is he crying now? Don’t cry Dad, I’m here. They sit in silence, an occasional sniff from my Dad and some throaty sobs from my Mum is their only dialogue. I float helplessly in black space, tortured by their emotions, longing to move my arms to hug them. Concentrate. Think about moving your arms and make it happen. As much as I will my arms to shift even slightly I still cannot feel them. Are they even still there?

Why is Michael not here with me too? He could comfort my parents for me. Oh God, he might be in another room injured too. If we were both in an accident. Or if Grace was in the accident too he would be in her room knowing my parents were here with me. Yes, he must be at Grace’s bedside. She’s the only blood family he has.

I try desperately to remember more details, panic is scattering my thoughts like disturbed cockroaches and my claustrophobic cocoon closes in. Think. Focus. Go back to the restaurant and remember.

I remember the desserts, key lime pie. We all had the same. Well, we nearly all did. Grace squealed when Harry told her key lime pie was on the menu as they’d had that on their wedding day in St Lucia. She insisted we all had it. Unfortunately the waiter informed us that they only had three pieces left. Grace said that she and Harry simply had to have the same, they had also done this with their starters and main courses, so I opted for the raspberry cheesecake. I remember dropping the red fruit sauce onto my pastel pink dress giving the illusion that I had been shot, and Grace apologising to me for missing out on the key lime pie as it was so divine. I remember Harry having too many tequilas and being told off by Grace for telling us rude jokes and I remember Michael taking Harry’s car keys from him and nominating himself as driver as he had only had two whiskeys.

Michael was driving, I was shotgun and Grace and Harry were in the back. Harry’s tequila’s had hit him hard in the fresh air and he had tripped on the gravel in the car park and head-butted his car. He kept saying sorry to Michael, thinking it was Michael’s car. We were winding around the country roads, no other cars, just our headlights on full beam. Harry had shouted that he was bleeding, his head was bleeding. Grace was demanding Michael drive us to a hospital, faster. Michael was telling me to get a tissue from the glove box, it was only a little cut to Harry’s head. I got a tissue and tried passing it back to Harry but he was too drunk to take it, holding his head and moaning loudly. Grace was too busy telling Michael where the nearest hospital was. I reached behind me as far as I could to Harry but my seatbelt kept jamming. I undid my seatbelt.

‘The doctors will be here soon.’ Dad says.

‘No.’ Mum says. ‘Don’t let them. Don’t let them take my little girl away from me.’

‘She’s already gone Mary.’ No Dad! I’m here! I’m still here!

My Mum’s sobs increase. Don’t cry Mum, please don’t cry, I’m here, right here. Just listen really hard and you’ll hear me.

‘It’s only the machines keeping her body working,’ says Dad, ‘you know that. They explained it.’ His voice is monotone, detached, as if he too is trapped somewhere else. No Dad, make them give me longer! I’m still here! Your little girl who used to be your best garden helper, remember? We grew the greatest tomatoes that one summer, they were so vibrantly red and perfect in shape, remember? You said it was because we grew them with love. Give anything love and it will flourish you said.

The sound of the door opening is followed by footsteps, too many for me to distinguish. A mixture of squeaks and thuds my only clue as to my executioners.

‘I’m so sorry we couldn’t do more Mr and Mrs Grant.’ Says a solemn male voice. ‘Would you like to stay here or wait in the relatives’ room?’

No, no, no! I’m still here! Please, someone hear me!

‘I want to stay here.’ Mum says. ‘I can’t leave her.’ Yes, Mum. Stay here, don’t let them turn the machines off. I just need more time. I haven’t told you how much I love you, you need to know that. When I was younger you would kiss my forehead when I was ill and tell me you’d made the germs go away as they were scared of you. I need you to do that now Mum, I need you to make these doctors go away, because I’m scared Mum, I’m scared.

‘Come on Mary,’ Dad says, ‘she’s already gone. Let’s get out of the way and leave the doctors to do what they have to do.’

A scrape of chairs and my mother’s cries are overwhelming. I don’t want to listen to this, why did my hearing have to stay with me, Mum, please don’t cry, I can’t bear this.

‘Goodbye sweet pea,’ whispers my Mum, ‘I love you so much.’ I love you so much too Mum. Don’t leave me. Mum!

‘Nurse Barter will look after you.’ Says the solemn man. ‘Linda, take Mr and Mrs Grant to the relatives’ room please.’

No! Please! I’m still here! Mum? Dad? My Mum’s guttural wailing ebbs away in the distance and I imagine my Dad’s big strong arms wrapped around her, holding her up, holding them together as they grow smaller in the corridor outside.

I can hear the click of switches and paper rustling. Is this it? Is this how it all ends? I’m not going to go with the click of a switch. I’m going to bloody well stay here until I can move my useless body again! You hear that? Can you hear me you stupid people?

‘They can’t hear you.’ Michael says. ‘Your shouting is wasted.’

‘Michael! You can hear me?’

‘Of course I can silly.’

‘I knew you would! I knew you’d hear me!’ Its ok, everything is going to be ok. ‘You need to tell them quickly, the doctors, tell them you can hear me.’

‘I can’t.’

‘Why not?’

‘They can’t hear me either.’ He emerges from the darkness, I can see him so clearly. He is so handsome and radiating a soothing glow as he smiles at me. ‘I’ve come to meet you, we no longer belong here.’

Michael holds out his hand to me. My hand reaches out to his. I can feel his touch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ONE HOUR

Published September 2, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

Bournemouth: 1.09 pm

Barbara switched off the radio and looked around the room. Her lounge didn’t appear to be any different. The blue and cream striped sofa, with non-scattered scatter cushions, took up most of the space. A cream rug was positioned perfectly in front of it, all of its fringes fastidiously aligned. Aromas of furniture polish and potpourri lingered placidly. The soft ticking of a brass carriage clock, marooned on a circular lace doily, on the sideboard was the only sound in the room.

Barbara noticed her hands were trembling, she grasped them together, squeezing to keep them steady. After hearing the news on the radio the stillness of the room was no longer a comforting calm to her. The news reporter’s voice, which was being broadcast on a repetitive loop, still played in Barbara’s head. ‘In approximately one hour an asteroid will collide with our planet. The asteroid is so vast in size it will obliterate Earth from existence. There is nothing we can do to stop it.’

 

Bermondsey: 1.09 pm

Stephen dropped his empty mug into the kitchen sink and bowed his head. ‘Shit.’

‘Stephen, hush your mouth.’ Coral said as she placed her hand softly on his tense shoulder. ‘The kids’ll hear you. You gotta pull yourself together, now.’

Stephen snorted and shrugged her hand away as he turned to face her. ‘We’re all gonna die in an hour, a bit of cussing not gonna hurt no one.’

‘Now listen here baby brother, I got three kids through there and I don’t want them cryin and scared, so get yourself together and be funny Uncle Stephen ‘til the end. OK?’

Stephen’s nostrils flared as he stared at Coral. ‘I aint your baby brother, I’m twenty one.’

‘Well then be a man, baby brother.’ Coral raised her eyebrow before she turned to take a container of milk out of the fridge.

Stephen sighed and walked past her towards the lounge, stopping in the doorway. ‘Glad I missed my bus home last night y’know.’

‘I know. Me too.’ Coral kept her back to him, avoiding eye contact. ‘Now scoot, get from under my feet.’

Stephen hesitated a moment, watching his sister preparing drinks like she’d done so many times before, he took a deep breath and left the kitchen.

 

Brighton: 1.09pm

Tom flicked the radio switch to ‘off’ and looked across the room to Sophie. She was already gliding across towards him. They drew together like magnets, Tom wrapped his arms tightly around her, her face nuzzled into his neck. She inhaled his musky scent and squeezed him tightly in return. His hands moved slowly to stroke her hair, her beautiful golden hair that smelled of succulent green apples, and then he cupped her face, her perfect elfin face, in his reliable calloused hands.

‘I love you so much Soph.’

She searched deeply into his watery eyes and smiled. ‘To the moon and back?’

‘To the moon and back a million times over.’ He returned her infectious smile.

Sophie raised her eyebrows. ‘A million billion?’

‘A million zillion.’

They kissed tenderly, their eyes continuing their conversation. They hugged each other tightly again.

‘Our tree?’ whispered Sophie.

‘Yes, our tree.’ Tom softly wiped away the tears from under Sophie’s eyes with his thumbs.

They silently and calmly gathered up items from the hut; some bottled water and a fruit salad that Tom had just been preparing. Tom held up a dusty bottle of champagne but Sophie smiled and shook her head so he placed it back in the cupboard. She carefully slid her knitting off its needles and put it into a hessian bag along with a tartan blanket and the water and the fruit. They slipped their sandals on before taking one last glance around their homely hut. Tom carried the bag in one hand and held Sophie’s hand in his other, their fingers snugly entwined.

 

Blackpool: 1.10pm.

The Jack Daniels bottle was a quarter empty on the passenger seat. The stench of whiskey and sweat hovered thickly in the confined space of the car. Tom Petty’s ‘I won’t back down’ blasted out from the Chevelle’s stereo. Jason’s head was reclining on the leather head rest and his eyes were shut. A blast of a horn outside whipped them open, revealing a bloodshot left eye. Jason looked out of the window but whoever had disturbed his melancholic meditation was already moving away at speed. ‘Tosser.’

He had watched people rushing away on foot and in cars, all trying to get somewhere, be somewhere else, escape. There was no escape though. Jason laughed at their stupidity. He had parked up in the small car park overlooking the sea front. He’d grabbed the bottle of Jack from the off licence in the high street when he’d heard the news, it had felt good just helping himself to it and walking out without paying, he now knew how the thieves he arrested felt. An hour didn’t give him enough time to drive over to his kids at Leeds so he’d chosen to park up, watch the sea and drink.

 

Bournemouth: 1.13 pm.

Barbara closed her eyes and recited the Lord’s Prayer. On opening her eyes she kissed the cross hanging around her neck and took her telephone book out of the sideboard. Finding her daughter’s number she picked up the phone. There was no dial tone, nothing, just dead air. Barbara sighed and replaced the handset in the cradle. She felt a guilty relief. If she’d got through to Kirsty she wasn’t sure what she would have said.

Barbara put the telephone book back in its correct place and took out a small photo album. Sitting on the sofa she slowly turned the pages, watching Kirsty grow up, laughing and smiling with her dad, Barbara herself always happy to be a spectator behind the lens. They’d never had a close bond. Barbara had provided all the practical things Kirsty needed but just couldn’t give emotionally. Kirsty had been a ‘Daddy’s girl’ and her distance widened after he had died, emotionally and then physically when Kirsty had moved to New Zealand. Barbara gently touched Kirsty’s face in the photo.

 

Bermondsey: 1.13 pm.

Coral bustled into the lounge with a tray of drinks clinking together, she set it down on the table in the middle of the room.

‘Milkshakes!’ said Kyra clapping her hands, she was next to her sister Michelle on the brown leather sofa. Stephen was on the floor with his nephew Jerome playing with a fire truck and Gary was pacing slightly, hands stuffed into his jeans pockets, by the television.

‘I shut it off.’ Said Gary looking at Coral. ‘Just kept sayin the same thing. And the phone’s dead. Can’t get hold of no one.’

Coral nodded, ‘I ‘spect everyone is tryin to call everyone else and it’s got jammed up. Everyone’ll know we’ll be thinkin of them.’

‘Yeah.’ Gary frowned. ‘I feel like I should be doin somethin,’ he shrugged his shoulders, ‘but I dunno what.’

Coral moved closer to Gary, stepping over a police car on the floor. ‘Do what you do best, carry on bein the best dad and best husband.’

Gary bit his lower lip and nodded his head. Coral glanced around. Michelle was fiddling with her charm bracelet, Jerome and Stephen were still toying with trucks and Kyra was blowing through her straw to create large bubbles in her pink milkshake. Coral took a deep breath. ‘Right then. How about a movie afternoon? Who wants to watch a film?’

All three children put their hands up in a chorus of ‘yeses’ and were instantly chatting amongst themselves.

‘Coral baby?’ Gary frowned. ‘There’s less than an hour…’

‘Hush now, we’re goin to have a movie afternoon for the children.’ Coral raised her eye brows at her husband. ‘I need us all to be happy and be havin a good time, when we…’ She swallowed hard and Gary pulled her into a tight bear hug.

 

Brighton: 1.13pm.

Tom and Sophie strolled quietly up and along the dirt lane just like they were sauntering off on one of their regular picnics. Birds were quieter than usual and a light breeze tickled through the leaves on the trees. Open fields of lush green peeked through hedgerows enticing them to stray from the track and enter. They did so near the top of the hill. Squeezing through their gap in the hedge it was only a short walk through a buttercup dotted field to their tree.

A magnificent oak stood alone and confident in the field. It had become their tree from their first picnic date here two years ago. For every occasion since then their tree had featured, even in their hand-fasting wedding last year, where a few friends had gathered with them to celebrate love and life. Tom spread the blanket out and they sat on the ground in symmetry beneath their tree.

‘It’s so peaceful.’ said Tom. ‘It already feels like we’re the only people left on the planet.’

Sophie’s hand gently rested on Tom’s. ‘Do you think they’ve got it wrong? Do you think maybe we’ll be ok here?’

‘I think they sounded pretty definite.’ Tears trickled down Tom’s face and he wiped them away with the back of his hand, turning to Sophie. ‘I love you so much, and if there is another life after this one I will find you again.’

‘I know, I love you too, and we’ll be together for eternity.’ Sophie’s lips rose in a smile but the smile failed to reach her eyes.

 

Blackpool: 1.15pm.

Jason pulled the phone out of his jeans pocket and pressed redial for his ex-wife. Expecting the engaged tone again he was surprised to hear it ringing. After four rings it was answered.

‘Hello?’

Jason sat up straight. ‘Amy it’s me, Jason.’

There was a moments’ silence. ‘What do you want?’

‘I want to speak to the kids.’

‘Not happening.’

‘C’mon Amy, don’t be like that.’ Jason sank back in the seat.

‘I’m not being like anything. The kids don’t want to talk to you. I told you that last week when I had both of them crying cause you didn’t take them bowling like you promised. You preferred to shag some slag off the estate.’

‘It wasn’t like that.’ Jason rubbed his forehead. ‘Look there’s not much time left…’

‘Time ran out for you ages ago. You’re too late.’

‘Please Amy, don’t be such a bitch, just let me say goodbye.’

‘Piss off.’ The phone beeped as Amy hung up.

Jason pressed redial. It rang once then went to voicemail. He hit the end button and dropped the phone onto his lap. ‘Fucking bitch.’ Grabbing the bottle from the passenger seat he unscrewed the top and took another huge swig from it. Some of the whiskey spilled down his chin and he wiped it away with the back of his hand. Putting the bottle back on the passenger seat he picked up his phone again and scrolled through the contacts list. Stopping at ‘Beth’ he hesitated and then scrolled down to ‘Claire’.

 

Bournemouth: 1.19 pm.

The images in Barbara’s album flowed onto Kirsty’s children. These photographs had arrived in birthday and Christmas cards. She’d never really looked at them closely before, just filed them into the album after a quick glance. She’d had yes/no conversations on the phone with them when Kirsty made the dutiful birthday and Christmas phone calls, but knowing now she’d never meet them compelled her to study the pictures.  Kirsty had suggested chatting via Skype with them all but Barbara had kept putting that off, protesting that she didn’t like technology.

A flutter of ‘why’ butterflies filled Barbara’s mind. Why did she always wait for Kirsty to phone her? Why didn’t she just pick up the phone first for a spontaneous chat? Why hadn’t she visited Kirsty and her family? Too late for why’s now. Closing the album she looked at her hands rested upon it, mottled and plump, her nails painted a perfect shade of coral. She sat eerily still with the sound of the ticking clock counting down.

 

Bermondsey: 1.21 pm.

Coral pulled away from Gary. ‘I’m fine. Let’s not fuss.’ She wiped her eye with the back of her hand. ‘I got somethin in my eye, that’s all.’

Stephen stood up. ‘I’ll close the curtains, make it dark like the cinema.’ As he drew the curtains he paused and looked down. He could see others running, walking and driving off from the estate. From nineteen floors up they looked like ants. Where were they going? To try and get to their loved ones? He was grateful that he wasn’t in his own flat alone. He quickly closed the curtains, his hands trembling slightly.

Gary plonked himself down on the sofa between the girls, the leather releasing some air that made them laugh with its rude noise. ‘C’mon then, what film we watching? Stephen get them DVD’s out from under the telly.’

‘Frozen!’ said Kyra.

Michelle rolled her eyes. ‘We’ve seen that a million times.’

‘A million million times.’ Jerome said, abandoning his truck. ‘I wanna see Teenage Mutant Ginger Turtles.’

‘No way!’ said Michelle. ‘And its ninja not ginger, stupid head.’

‘Hey hey, that’s enough.’ said Coral, she looked across at Stephen. ‘Little brothers are never stupid heads, annoyin and silly, but never stupid heads. Why don’t we let Uncle Stephen pick the film?’

Stephen cocked his head to one side and raised his eyebrow at Coral. ‘Armageddon?’

‘That’s why.’ Gary glared across at Stephen.

 

Brighton: 1.21pm.

Sophie unpacked the fruit salad and ate a small chunk of melon. ‘This is the juiciest and the sweetest melon I’ve ever tasted, here, try.’

Tom leant forward and Sophie held the melon to his lips, brushing it lightly across then she giggled as she fed it to him.

‘Delicious.’ Tom smiled. ‘You’re correct as always.’

She leant forward and her lips brushed his hungrily. The passion in their kiss was intense, just like the one on their first date, when they both realised fate had gifted them to each other.

 

Blackpool: 1.22pm.

Jason touched his phone screen and listened to it ringing. He was about to hang up when she answered.

‘Hello?’

Jason smiled and rested his head back. ‘Hey Claire.’

‘Jason?’

‘Yep it’s me.’ Jason’s smile broadened. ‘How you doing?’

‘How am I doing? Are you kidding me?’

He laughed. ‘Yeah I know, crazy shit going down.’

‘Oh, do you mean the end of the world shit or the fact you used me for sex and haven’t called for months?’

Jason’s smile dropped. ‘Aw Claire, don’t be like that, we had fun, you know I had a lot on my plate with work and my ex…’

‘Tell it to someone who cares.’

Jason’s voice grew louder and snappy. ‘Look, I’m calling you now aren’t I, I want to be with you when it all goes tits up.’

‘I don’t believe you. I bet I’m just the nearest person to you.’

‘Don’t be stupid, I want you, I can be there in, like, five minutes.’

‘Well I don’t want you here, I’m with my family.’

‘C’mon, you know you really want to be with me.’ He laughed. ‘We can have some fun.’

There was a short silence on the other end. ‘Have fun by yourself you wanker.’ The call ended.

 

Bournemouth: 1.25 pm.

Barbara placed the photo album away and opened her writing bureau, where she retrieved a small round box of violet creams. Taking them out to the hallway with her she put on her beige brogues and cashmere coat. She checked her reflection in the mirror, smoothing down her silver bobbed hair and she reapplied her coral lipstick that matched perfectly with her nails.

Carrying the chocolates and hanging her handbag over her wrist she left her bungalow and locked the door. Barbara was the only person in sight and she noticed that the birdsong that usually greeted her outside was absent. Taking in a deep breath of air she took ten steps to the bungalow next door and knocked. There was silence from within and Barbara was about to turn away when she heard someone unlocking the door. It slowly opened about four inches.

‘Hello?’ Said Barbara.

‘Hello? Said a voice from within.

‘Hello, my name is Barbara Maitland. I live next door.’

The door opened a little more to reveal an elderly lady with fuzzy white hair and startled eyes. ‘I don’t know you. Have you just moved in?’

‘No, no I’ve lived next door for ten years.’

The old lady looked Barbara up and down while pursing her thin lips. ‘I haven’t seen you before.’

Both ladies just stared at each other. Barbara broke first. ‘Well, yes. Have you heard the news?’

The white haired lady looked blank. ‘Do you mean the explosion? Or has there been more news? My television stopped you see.’

‘No nothing new.’ Barbara shifted her weight from one hip to the other.

The white haired lady blinked a few times, as if she was sensitive to the daylight sneaking in through the slightly ajar door. ‘Righty oh’.

The ladies stared once again at each other, like two cats who had wandered into a garden at the same time.

‘Are you on your own?  I have these lovely chocolates you see.’ Barbara held up the violet creams. ‘And I didn’t want you to be on your own when, well, when the end comes, so I thought we could maybe sit together and share them?’

The startled eyes brightened and a smile spread across the fuzzy haired lady’s face, the door opened wider. ‘I’m Margaret, come on in, I’ll put the kettle on.’

 

Bermondsey: 1.25 pm.

‘Frozen it is then.’ Said Stephen. ‘I got a mean voice and can nail those songs. I think we should see who can sing loudest.’

‘I love you Uncle Stevie.’ Kyra gave Stephen a huge smile that revealed her two missing teeth.

‘I love you too Titch, and Chelle and my main man Jerome.’ Stephen looked across to Gary. ‘And your dad.’

Gary glared again. ‘Don’t be a muppet.’ A slight smile flickered on his lips then disappeared.

While Stephen set up the DVD player Coral went into the kitchen and when she returned she had a huge bowl of crisps and a packet of treat sized chocolate bars in her hands. The kids’ eyes widened like Jaffa Cakes when they saw.

‘What!’ squealed Michelle. ‘Where did they come from!?’

‘I have a secret hidin place. Or two.’ Coral squeezed the bowl and chocolates onto the table next to the drinks and sat on the sofa next to Kyra, Gary and Michelle.

Jerome scrambled up onto his mother’s lap and squished in beside her. ‘No room Uncle Stevie!’

‘That’s ok lil man, I’ll sit in front of you, like we’re in a for real cinema.’ Stephen pushed the table out a bit and sat down on the floor. Jerome plonked his feet onto Stephen’s shoulders and Stephen sniffed at the little feet in their blue socks. ‘Pooh! Stinky feet!’

Jerome giggled. ‘Stinky feet.’

‘Right then.’ said Coral. ‘Everyone tuck in, Gary press play. Are we all ready to ‘let it go’?’

 

Brighton: 1.28 pm.

They lay back on the blanket and Sophie took her unfinished knitting out of the bag and nestled close at the side of Tom. They linked hands and studied the sky.

‘It’s such a beautiful day.’ said Tom.

Sophie squeezed his hand. ‘Yes, it is.’

‘Elephant.’

‘Where?’ said Sophie searching the sky. ‘You can’t see an elephant.’

‘Yes I can, there.’ Tom pointed with his free hand. ‘Next to the lopsided butterfly.’

‘I think that’s a moth.’

‘Really?’ Tom laughed. ‘Ok’.

Sophie smiled. ‘You know I’m right.’

The clouds swirled and teased with different shapes as Tom and Sophie lay peacefully.

‘Bunny!’ said Sophie, then gasped slightly and reached to her tummy. The unfinished knitted baby blanket was resting where she had placed it not long ago, it moved slightly. She placed her and Tom’s interlinked hands on her tummy.

Tom felt a small kick too. ‘I think she likes the name Bunny.’

‘Bunny it is then.’ Sophie started to cry as Tom held her. He kissed her forehead and kept his hand protectively over Bunny. His tears followed and flowed with hers.

 

Blackpool: 1.28 pm.

‘Crazy bitch.’ Jason lurched for the Jack Daniels but knocked it over, the brown liquid started spilling out onto the seat. ‘Fuck’. He picked the bottle up but there wasn’t much left, knocking it back the alcohol clawed at his throat. Opening the window he tossed out the empty bottle. He shook his head and grinned at the thought that he was worried about the interior of his car when it was going to be blown up along with him. The grinning turned to hysterical laughter. The laughter turned into wretched sobbing.

Jason lifted his t-shirt up and used it to wipe his face, tears and snot were blotted up by Bon Jovi on tour. He stared at himself in the rear view mirror. Both eyes were now bloodshot and his face was red and blotchy. ‘Loser.’

 

Bournemouth: 1.31 pm.

Barbara stepped into Margaret’s home, hung her coat up in the hallway and was seated in a wing-backed pink chair, with floral embroidered headrest. Margaret shuffled off to the kitchen to make the tea. Barbara surveyed Margaret’s lounge. It was a cluttered room of ornaments and dust. China cherubs and a ceramic spaniel were staring at Barbara from the table to the side of her. The paint on the spaniel was worn away giving it a look of alopecia. A row of Victorian dressed dolls were on a shelf jostling for attention but Barbara’s eye kept getting drawn to a faded black and white photograph hung over the electric fire in the middle of the room. The subject of the photograph was a little girl with curled hair tied in ribbons and a broad dimply smile. The rattle of china cups heralded Margaret and the tea.

‘I thought I’d use my best cups, not often I get a visitor.’ Margaret’s eyes sparkled and her smile took years off of her.

Barbara opened the chocolates and placed them on the ring stained table in front of them while Margaret poured the tea.

‘Help yourself to milk and sugar.’ Margaret sat down in the chair next to Barbara taking a sip of tea. ‘Ah lovely, if I do say so myself. Can’t beat a good cuppa.’

Barbara poured some milk into her tea. ‘Thank you. Please, have a chocolate.’

Both ladies took a chocolate and popped them into their mouths.

‘Mmm.’ Said Margaret. ‘That’s lovely, I haven’t had one of those in years.’

‘They’re my favourites.’ said Barbara smiling, she looked up at the picture again. ‘That’s a lovely photograph, who is it?’

Margaret beamed. ‘My daughter Pamela.’

‘Oh, I bet she looks a lot more grown up now.’

‘No.’ Margaret’s smile faltered a little. ‘She died not long after, that’s the last photo we had taken of her.’

 

Blackpool: 1.33 pm.

Jason phoned Amy again. As he thought, it rang twice then went to voicemail but instead of hanging up he left a message. ‘It’s me. I know you don’t wanna talk to me and I get that so I just, like, wanna say I’m sorry for being such a crap husband and I wish it could’ve been different, I wish I could’ve been different. I just wanna say goodbye to the kids, and you, I love you, I never stopped. I’m just a loser.’

After hitting the end button he typed a text message to Claire. He read it back, his uncoordinated fingers, disorientated by Jack Daniels, made the words practically unreadable. He deleted it all apart from the word ‘sorry’. He then changed the recipient from ‘Claire’ to ‘all contacts’ and pressed send.

He cranked the stereo up to its highest volume and opened his glove box. Tom Petty was now singing ‘It’ll All Work Out’. Jason took out the handgun he had confiscated illegally in raid a few months ago. He should have handed it in but decided to keep it. It made him feel powerful having it close by. The cold metal felt comforting in his hands. He looked at himself in the mirror. Instead of seeing a puffy faced middle-aged man, red and tear stained, he saw Robert De Niro. ‘You have to think about one shot. One shot is what it’s all about.’ He ran his fingers through his heavily gelled hair. ‘I’m in control. I say what happens.’ He sat back. He released the safety catch. He closed his eyes. He held the gun under his chin with both hands. He pulled the trigger.

 

Bournemouth: 1.33 pm.

Barbara put her cup and saucer down. ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

‘Oh you haven’t, we were blessed to have had her for the five years that we did. My husband’s already with her and I’ll be with them both very soon.’ Margaret placed her hand gently onto Barbara’s arm. ‘Have you got anyone waiting for you?’

‘My husband Gerald.’ Barbara looked down to the floor. ‘My daughter lives in New Zealand.’ She looked back up at Margaret with tears in her eyes. ‘I haven’t been a good mother to her.’

Margaret moved her hand down to Barbara’s hand and squeezed it tightly. ‘Don’t be hard on yourself. Mother’s aren’t perfect. I let my daughter play by the river on her own. You have to forgive yourself.’

Tears escaped from Barbara and she nodded her head, squeezing Margaret’s hand in return. ‘Thank you.’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breakdown

Published August 14, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

I’m aware of someone looming over me. I feel the weight of their shadow hover across my chest. I hear the someone swallow, a natural reflex, but alarmingly sinister as I hide behind the dark of my eyelids. I try to steady my breathing. Whoever, whatever, lurks, seems to be in no hurry to attack. The presence sits on the end of my bed. I don’t know what is going to surrender first, my heart or my bladder.

I launch open my eyes. Judd Nelson is perched on the bed by my feet. In navy blue pajamas. Sexy navy blue pajamas. He smiles. I don’t smile back, this is a dream, there is no other logical explanation. I study his face closely, I’ve never had such a high definition dream before, every wrinkle, every handsome, gorgeous wrinkle…

‘Hello.’ He smiles again.

I am mesmerized by his eyes, his deep dark brown eyes like pools of delicious chocolate…

‘Oh, this isn’t a dream.’ Judd interrupts my thoughts again.

I play along with my dream. ‘I’m struggling with this being reality.’

‘It isn’t reality.’

I sit more upright in my bed. ‘Hallucination?’

‘Nope.’ He shakes his head. ‘Nervous breakdown.’

‘I’m having a nervous breakdown?’

‘Yes.’

I smooth down the duvet covering my lap. ‘I feel quite calm for someone having a nervous breakdown.’

‘That’s because you’re in your breakdown assessment zone. Or BAZ.’

‘Are you sure this isn’t a dream?’

‘You’re definitely having a breakdown.’ He smiles again. ‘Your physical body has gone into a coma, only your mind is functioning.’

I survey my body and my surroundings. Everything is clearer and in more detail than a dream, but I can’t feel the duvet as I’m touching it.

‘You can’t feel anything physically,’ says Judd, ‘but you can feel emotions.’

‘So what happens now? We stay here in my bedroom until my body repairs itself? You are staying with me aren’t you?’

‘I’m staying for as long as you want, you created me here. And it’s not your body that needs repairing it’s your mind.’

‘How do I do that?’

‘You just need some time out, to refocus your mind, it’s a very powerful tool and can correct itself. If you want it to.’ He stares intently at me.

‘Well of course I want it to,’ his gaze is melting my internal organs, I can’t feel this physically but I know it’s happening, ‘although being trapped in my bedroom forever with you is quite tempting.’

He laughs. Loudly.

‘Oh, obviously not for you then.’ I know I’m blushing. ‘Are you even allowed your own opinion? I mean if I’ve created you shouldn’t you agree with me?’

‘I’m here as your voice of reason, subconsciously you’ve created me that way. And I didn’t laugh at the thought of being with you for eternity, that would give me the greatest pleasure.’

I don’t even care if he’s saying that because I’m making him say it. My internal organs are continuing to melt. I think I just lost a kidney.

‘I laughed because we’re not trapped in your bedroom.’ He stands and pushes his arm through the wall. It just glides through and back, like a plane through a cloud. ‘We can be anywhere you imagine. Just concentrate and focus.’

‘Concentrate and focus?’

He stands by the side of my bed. ‘Yep. Try it. Where do you want us to be?’

‘A beach.’

‘Great. Now think about the beach you want us to be at. Is it deserted or are there other people there? What season is it, hot or cold? You won’t be able to feel the temperature but it will affect the look.’

I start to imagine. My pink carpet subtly undulates. The carpet fibers change into sand, the palest beige sand, almost white. ‘Oh wow.’ The walls of my bedroom slowly dissolve revealing a beautiful blue skyline meeting an equally majestic turquoise sea that I can hear gently lapping close by. My bed morphs beneath me and I’m reclining on a padded wooden sun lounger with an identical one next to me. ‘This is amazing.’ I see a figure in the sea. ‘Is that Jenson Ackles waving at me?’

‘It is if you want it to be.’ Judd is still stood next to me. ‘Can I suggest you imagine me into beach wear, these pajamas are a bit warm.’ He winks at me.

I concentrate and imagine him to be wearing a pair of shorts and a kitsch Hawaiian shirt, bright pink and yellow. He is instantly transformed. I will save the speedo look for later.

He looks down at himself. ‘That’s better.’ He gestures to me.

I glance at my Minion pajamas, hardly suitable for this beach. I imagine a black swimming costume with a pretty floral sarong wrapped around me. I am instantly wearing this. I rearrange to sarong over my legs.

‘You look a bit self-conscious.’ Judd sits on the spare lounger. ‘I should point out that you can imagine yourself to be any shape that you want, and alter yourself in any way if it makes you feel better.’

‘Really?’

‘Yep.’ He shrugs.

I imagine myself thinner. I watch as my body neatly deflates to a smaller size, but stays taut and reveals nicely defined muscles. ‘Oh wow!’ I convert my black swimsuit into a gold bikini. I inflate my breasts a little. And a little more. ‘Is this what heaven feels like?’

‘Yes,’ Judd stops looking at my chest and makes eye contact with me, ‘I mean I don’t know, I’ve not been there.’

‘It must be. I am in heaven right now.’ I lie back on the lounger.

‘You are feeling happy? Content? Relaxed?’

‘Yes, yes, and yes. And we can stay here for as long as I want?’

‘Yes. Well…’

I sit back up. ‘What’s the well for?’

‘Well the longer you are not mentally connected with your physical body, I’m not sure how easy it will be to go back.’

‘I’m on a beach with you, Judd Nelson, why would I want to go back?’

‘For all that you have in your real life.’

‘Let me think about that. I’m a waitress in a dingy bar surviving day to day on tips, I’ve been single forever as I don’t trust anyone, I have no family that I speak to, and my social life consists of playing online scrabble with strangers and posting photos of food on Instagram. It kind of seems like a no brainer. What am I going to miss out on if I stay here?’

‘Food. You can create whatever food you want here but you can’t taste it. You can give us cocktails here but you can’t drink them.’

‘I can live without that.’

‘Ok, Smells. You can’t smell flowers, coffee, the sea.’

‘So, I also can’t smell nasty smells. Not a problem.’

‘Touch. You can’t feel physical touch here.’ He touches my arm, his fingers caressing my skin. ‘See.’

‘Yes, exactly, I can see you touching my arm, that makes me feel emotions, and that’s enough for me.’

‘For the rest of your life? No touching, tasting or smelling?’

‘I can see and I can hear and I can go anywhere I want and imagine anything I want. That is enough for me. This is the reality I want now.’

‘Shall I flick the switch then?’

‘What switch?’

‘There’s a switch that will cut off your mind from your body permanently, you will remain physically catatonic in hospital but exist permanently here.’

‘But won’t the hospital switch life support off?’

‘No, they will still detect brain activity so keep your body plugged in.’

‘Ok then, let’s do it.’

‘You sure?’

‘Never been surer.’ I settle back down on the lounger. ‘Flick that switch, let’s get this adventure started with a bang!’

Judd clicks his fingers. ‘Done.’

A cascade of pretty firework explosions fills the sky, but silently as I don’t like the loud noises that accompany them. A Caribbean steel band plays in the distance. I jump up to dance. My toes fall off.

‘What the…?’

Judd looks at my feet casually. ‘Ah, you’d forgotten your imagination can be a bit of a prat sometimes.’ He smiles. ‘Put them back on then.’

I look down at my feet stumps and scattered toes. I imagine them back on. My toes wriggle through the sand and back into place.

Judd stands up and moves in close to me. He wraps his arms around me, I can’t feel them but it feels good. ‘Can I kiss you?’

‘Of course.’

Melt. There goes my spleen.

 

 

 

Touch

Published July 17, 2016 by Naomi Rettig

A stranger on a train made me cry. They didn’t say anything to me, they didn’t look at me, they were probably completely unaware of my existence, yet they had a profound effect on me.

On a busy train to London the carriages filled up. I tend to avoid having someone sit next to me by letting my face drop into ‘resting mode’. My resting mode face is a serial killer/prison warder combo. Plus, it helps that I am large, not many people want to squeeze into a seat next to the fattest person in the carriage. Especially on a warm day. Anyway, this particular day all the seats had filled up so I stared into space out of the window as we pulled into Reading station, resigned to the fact that I would have to share my personal space for the final half hour of my journey. I hate having someone in the seat next to me as I usually get people with foul aromas that smell of fish, urine, garlic, rancid armpits, or a combination of those. Or people who eat. But not pleasant things like mints or lemon sherbets, I get people sitting next to me who eat egg sandwiches, and, I kid you not, some woman once ate pilchards next to me, heads and everything. I had to close my eyes and coat my nostrils in peach lip balm to avoid vomit rising.

On this occasion though the only odor that wafted my way, as a man sat down next to me, was a delicious aftershave.  Lap tray down, laptop out, head down, answering his emails. I don’t think he even gave me a first glance let alone a second. I was pleased I hadn’t been joined by a reeker, an eater, or indeed a reeky eater. I carried on watching the countryside whizz by. Then something strange happened.

I was suddenly aware of the warmth from the strangers’ arm. Our arms were touching, aligned. Nothing remarkable, nothing exceptional, just two people squished together on a busy train. To someone else that may have been the end of the experience. But I felt an emotional surge. Feeling the warmth from another human being was quite overwhelming.

I have been single for a long time and those closest to me (my mum and my daughter) are non-touchy feely people, no I love you’s, or hugs or affection. Which is fine for them, that is who they are. I however am a touchy feely person. But I have lived without physical human contact for such a long time that I’d actually forgotten how it felt. And I don’t mean in a sexual way, just in the sensory form of touch. Sat next to the man on the train, absorbing his body heat I wanted to cry. I wanted to cry because it felt good and I remembered the feeling of being physically close with a loved one. The random thought that went through my head was ‘if I was sat on a sofa with a partner this is what it would feel like’. (It’s irrelevant that I don’t have a sofa to go with a non-existent partner). I also wanted to cry because I thought of everyone else having someone they love to hold and touch, yet all I had was this random stranger on a train. I felt sorry for myself and I hated that.

The experience has passed. I’m now back to feeling fine with my unwritten no contact clause. It now doesn’t bother me again, just that one moment on the train. Obviously it made a difference that the man on the train was good looking and wore a wonderful aftershave, if it had been the lady in tweed from a few weeks earlier who smelled of onions and eels I don’t think I would have had the same experience.

So the moral of my tale is enjoy your human contact, be it on the sofa next to a loved one or sat next to a stranger on a train. But don’t go touching random people or holding hands with strangers, that might get you into trouble. Just be thankful.