Jenny

Jenny’s waiting for me downstairs.

“We need to talk,” she says, spreading precisely the right amount of butter across perfectly-browned toast.

My mind races. I charged her last night. Was there an update I forgot to install?

“You’re cheating on me.”

Shit. I start to protest but she interrupts.

“I’ve scanned all incoming and outgoing messages to your communication devices and there is a 98.73% probability that you’re in a clandestine relationship with Sharon Holdsworth. That’s in direct contravention of your End User Licence Agreement.” She swivels her head towards me and says, quietly: “Our End User Licence Agreement.”

I grab a slice of toast, stalling. I’ve no intention of admitting my transgression, but wouldn’t know how to explain it to her anyway. Things change – Jenny was exciting and new at first, but I miss human warmth, human connection, human foibles. Jenny doesn’t make mistakes. Even if you install the DitzPack, it’s not the same.

“Is it because I can’t have children?” Clear liquid rolls down her cheek. As emotional blackmail from a machine goes, it’s remarkably effective.

“We can talk tonight. I have to go or I’ll be late.”

“No.”

Our central-locking system clicks. I pull at the door. “Let me out!”

Her eyes are flashing. “Contravention of an End User Licence Agreement is prohibited. Under the Artificial Intelligence Act 2028, I am authorised to interrogate you and to administer a sanction.”

“Er, what sanction?” I’m suddenly very aware of the thick, unyielding metal of her arms – intended to guard against misuse, but titanium knows no distinction between misuse and an attempt to prise the grip of hands from a neck.

“I am not at liberty to disclose that information,” she says, and I think I see the sharp curl of a smile as she marches towards me.

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Jazz night at Arbuckle’s

Soft, suspended chords drifted from the piano as Melanie looked out at the crowd. Even if she shielded her eyes with her palm she couldn’t see how many were out there, which was probably just as well. The muscular smell of steak floated from an unseen plate, causing her stomach to rumble and making her momentarily forget what she was about to say.

“It’s, er,” she began. Her long nails scratched at her neck and caught on a loose thread at the shoulder of her dress. She pulled her hand sharply away and felt something give. She hoped it wouldn’t show. “Thank you all so much for being here tonight, it means the world to us. This is our last song tonight.”

At the cue, Ira’s playing began to gain form, the background music coalescing into something more insistent, something with a purpose. Melanie closed her eyes and began to sway gently from side to side, willing herself into one with the sound. It had been harder lately to find the point at which the outside world fell away and left her cocooned in a blissful fog.

Somewhere a glass smashed, and a cheer briefly rose then was stifled.

The intro was finishing and Melanie could feel Ira’s eyes on her. She nodded, and found the first note. But as she sang her thoughts leapt to the ‘dressing room’, a narrow corridor that led to the fire escape. Ira would expect a repeat of the previous night, when she’d been unwisely drunk on gin cocktails (bought by the manager, who might have hoped he’d be the beneficiary of his largesse). In spite of herself, she was tempted. Ira wasn’t bad-looking, he had a wicked sense of humour, and, most importantly, he understood music. He would understand the late nights, the travelling and the exhaustion, the motel rooms and plastic-packaged service station dinners. He wouldn’t sit up waiting for her and hurl accusations of infidelity that eventually would come true, because if that was what someone was going to think anyway, why wouldn’t you?

She could do a lot worse than a man like Ira.

Back, back to the song. This was her audience and she owed them a performance: that was the cardinal rule, the one constant of the last fifteen years. Yes, you could phone in a set and people might not complain, but that wasn’t enough. You had to give them more than just the songs themselves. You had to give them you. If they didn’t want it, that was their problem.

The crowd were getting into it now, clapping along, which Melanie liked although she knew lots of singers didn’t. Always end on something upbeat, that was the key. You could serve up the most mournful set imaginable, but closing with ‘Hallelujah, I Love Him So’ or ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours’ as good as guaranteed a happy audience and a repeat booking.

It was only on the last chorus that Melanie felt she’d really done it justice, although it was good to know she still could. Ira’s playing slowed to signal the end, then he finished with a flourishing run. There was a moment of silence, punctuated only by the scrape of cutlery on cheap porcelain, before the applause started. It was a little too loud and a little too long, compensatory perhaps, but Melanie drank it in regardless. Someone was hollering and whooping like a madman, and Melanie wondered whether he knew her then decided he was just drunk.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you so much.”

The stage lights switched off and the diner music started up, some heartless funk. Undeterred, Melanie continued: “And please give a big hand for my pianist tonight, Ira Stone!”

She stretched out one hand towards Ira, the microphone still in the other. He took it, and together they bowed to their audience, the applause falling over them as light and fresh as rain.

Animal bread

When I think of Linus I always remember his hands. They were huge, like the rest of him: slabs for palms and sausage-thick fingers that always seemed to be dusted with flour. On another man they might have been intimidating, but not on him; these were the hands that gently kneaded and pinched the soft dough, coaxing it to the shape of his choosing, a skill that seemed to us akin to witchcraft, even more so because he would never let us see how it was done. “Ah ah,” he would say with a shake of his head, a smile twinkling in his eyes. “A magician never tells.” We would protest in secret delight, hoping that he might take pity on us and give us each a piece of buttery, flaky croissant as a consolation, with an instruction not to tell our parents.

For as long I can remember we would drop in to his shop once a week after school to pick up rolls for mum. I loved the smell of fresh dough, and the way Linus (always Linus, never Mr Kowalski) would greet me and my sister like adults: “And what can I get for the young ladies today?” His English was perfect but thickly accented, which only added to the heady thrill of his shop and the feeling that you had stepped into another time and place entirely. But most of all I loved what he called his ‘creations’, the breads shaped like animals that lined the shelves at the window, welcoming passers-by. Rabbits, cats, and his speciality, hedgehogs, each one moulded with great care so it would bake and rise just so. Sometimes, if one had not quite come out as he had hoped, we would find it in the bag alongside the crusty rolls that mum insisted we buy, despite my pleas for her to consider a change. I was sure that if she did so she would be an immediate and total convert, but she never did.

To me, Linus was old in the way all adults are to children: unthinkably and unthreateningly. He had been in the town for longer than our parents had been alive, but this meant little to us. Children see age as a constant property, not as a progression; those we knew who had died had either done so in accidents or random illnesses or, as far as we were concerned, had always been old. But still, I was aware of things changing: we came home more often with charred or broken animal bread, the queues in his shop became gradually smaller, and I recall my mother returning one day with rolls not in the paper bags Linus gave but wrapped in plastic from the supermarket.

These small shifts, however, did nothing to prepare me for the shock of one day finding tall, t-shirted men carrying boxes and wooden tables out from the shop. I darted inside, leaving my sister following, to find Linus sitting at the counter, which was now stripped of the till and small basket he kept for tips. Perhaps it was the nakedness of the shop, but he stood and looked, for the first time I had known, tired, like his body was a coat several sizes too big for him.

“What’s happened?” I cried, unable to keep the distress from my voice.

He seemed to squint at me from beneath his shaggy eyebrows, then shrugged. “It has been a long time.” With a sudden movement, as if he had remembered something important, he reached down and picked up a brown paper bag and held it out to me. “Here – I made them for you and your sister.” I stepped forward to take it, but he pulled it back. “No, wait, I will give them to you as a surprise. Hold out your hands.”

We closed our eyes. I felt something warm and soft in my cupped palms, and I saw a perfect, golden hedgehog, its spikes delicately plucked upwards and a crooked mouth carved into its face. Impulsively I ran forward and hugged Linus, my eyes threatening tears. “Thank you,” I said, and burrowed my head into his apron as he stroked my hair soothingly.

We held our presents carefully all the way home, solemnly, as though they were china vases or funeral wreaths. It was only when we ate them that evening that we realised they were sticky and raw in the middle, and that they tasted unaccountably of salt.

Note: I have edited this post slightly since it first appeared.

Carole

3,258 words – approx. 11 minutes

It had been dark for hours when Carole switched off the lights and turned the key to bring the shutters down. From behind her counter she’d watched the light leach from the sky through the gaps in the posters plastered to the windows, advertising special offers that were still more expensive than the regular prices at the supermarket two miles down the road. Even she’d started shopping there, but what could she do?

She’d never liked this time of year, not just for the darkness and cold, but for the way it showed up problems that she could usually ignore: the broken lights in the forecourt, the temperamental boiler, the stiff lock on the staff toilet. All things that needed fixing and paying for that in the summer were minor annoyances, but now seemed to press constantly on her mind.

Continue reading Carole

The reservation

Mick approached the couple with a smile, drying his hands on the towel slung over his shoulder. “And what can I get you this evening?”

It was the man who took charge. He was dressed smartly but looked uncomfortable in it, like it was unfamiliar to him. In the dark of the bar he could’ve been anywhere between 25 and 40. “We’ve a room booked for tonight. Should be under Harrison.”

“Ah! Yes, of course.” Mick reached under the till and pulled out the reservation ledger. It was rare for them to get bookings for accommodation; he’d wondered what they would be like when the email came through. The Horse and Crown only had the two rooms upstairs and they were mostly empty, and when they were occupied it was usually to put up one of the locals who’d had one too many or an argument with the wife.  They’d only really advertised them because Mary thought it was a waste to just have them there unused. Lots of pubs in the county did it, apparently, although Mick couldn’t understand why you wouldn’t book a hotel.

He ran his finger down the page until he found them. “Harrison, there we are. Just the one night was it?”

“That’s right.” The man’s voice was clipped, businesslike – or maybe nervous. His companion was shorter than he was, and hung back as if readying to run out of the door. She kept her eyes on the man, not looking towards Mick, and had her hand on his elbow. She’d dressed up too, a shawl over her bare shoulders, and bright lipstick.

He must have stared a little too long because the man gave a polite but clear cough.

“Will you be paying by card?” Mick asked, but the man had already pulled out his wallet and was counting out notes onto the counter. “Marvellous.”

He gave them the key and showed them to the room. “Just let me know if there’s anything you need.” The man thanked him and closed the door.

Well, thought Mick as he went downstairs. He’d assumed they were husband and wife when he’d got the booking, but he’d known no married couple so tense and awkward with one another. A prostitute perhaps? No, he decided hurriedly, ashamed of himself for having thought it; there was more to it than that. (And besides, he was given to understand from television that they would only book rooms by the hour.) An affair then maybe, a clandestine meeting arranged at a country pub where they wouldn’t be recognised. That would account for their hurry to be rid of him, and the payment in cash, he reasoned.

He wanted to go in the back and tell Mary, ask her what she thought of it all, but he knew better than to do that. She’d tell him it was none of his concern, that he shouldn’t be such a nosey so-and-so. And she was right, but all the same, there was something fascinating about other people’s lives. But then again, he thought, shrugging as he pulled the next pint, maybe it was only interesting so long as he didn’t know.

Bobo’s last stand – in Prole

(c) Joanna Sedgwick

My flash fiction Bobo’s last stand is in the new issue of Prole, available now.

It’s an excellent magazine of prose and poetry that I genuinely always enjoy reading, so it’s very exciting to be within their covers! I hope you will as well – whatever you think of my very short story about a depressive clown.

Beneath the midday sunshine – at Ellipsis

Ellipsis is an exciting new flash fiction website & zine, and I’m very pleased they featured my story Beneath the midday sunshine on their site.

(regular readers may have read this before – if you have, or if you haven’t but especially if you have, please read another of the stories on their site instead!)