Wild bears

1,626 words – approx. 6 minutes

Clare had sex four and a half times before she decided it wasn’t for her. The final time, she pushed off the man – a floppy-haired art student two years younger than her, who said things like ‘What’s the damage?’ when the bill arrived – and said she wanted him to go. To her surprise he did. Who knew it was so simple, so much like demanding to see the manager? 

Since then she’d spent the night with a few men, out of kindness. (They looked so happy! And so relieved when she insisted that no, really, it was fine!) She was sure to keep her contact with any individual man irregular and infrequent, as she only had one excuse – otherwise they would start to wonder about the amount of blood she must be losing. She worried sometimes that they would realise that her mind was elsewhere, and that she was pretending to shake the ketchup out of a particularly obstinate bottle, or that she was counting each stroke and calculating its factors or whether it was a prime number. But telepathy was an inexact science, and embarrassment a powerful silencer of questions.

Eventually she stopped seeing men altogether. The decision was liberating, and led to further lifestyle changes. She signed up to yoga, and started buying her lunches at night. In the bright excitement of the midday markets she could easily spend five pounds, even seven, whereas the tiredness of the evening lent itself more to limp-crusted sandwiches and crisps.

She told none of her friends about any of this, except for Barbara. “Do you think you’re a lesbian?” she asked, as specks of vinaigrette-drizzled tomato fell from her bruschetta.

Clare thought for a moment then pulled a face and shook her head. “None of it appeals.”

Barbara shrugged and tipped three sachets of sweetener into her coffee. She was studying to be a lawyer, so needed to look after her teeth.

Clare hoped that her newfound sexlessness would communicate itself to men in some way, perhaps through pheromones. To make sure, she started to spend time in the independent bookshop on Martin Street and pretend to read Proust. The only men who came in were older, or else bloodless in some undefinable way, and for a while she thought she’d found a way to avoid the routine exhaustions of their attention.

She had not.

The sound that roused her from her book was more of a cough than a greeting. The man was much taller than Clare, who was short and squat, forever being offered seats on the tube that she took gratefully (hey, she was tired). He wore a t-shirt that said Rules are for fools. “You like Proust?” he asked.

“Not really.” She nodded to his t-shirt. “Do you think that’s true?” He made a noise. “If rules are for fools, we shouldn’t follow any of the rules. But wouldn’t that be a rule in itself? The inescapable conclusion is that we’re all fools.”

He smiled with his teeth, as you would at an unfamiliar dog. “Are you a student?”

They met for coffee the next day. In a spirit of openness that seemed like it should accompany new friends she told him about her recent decisions, about yoga, then the lunches, then the sex. He didn’t appear to mind, although in hindsight he had begun to stir his latte more vigorously. In the evening as they drank beer from mismatched glasses he slid his hand up her leg.

“Hey!” she shouted, and then when neither he nor anyone else reacted, “That’s my leg!” as if perhaps he hadn’t realised.

There were similar encounters with two different men in the coming weeks. Each time she was sure she’d been clearer than ever, but it was no use. They were shiny apples that when you turned them were cavernous, grinning like a skull, with a worm for a tongue. She began to scowl at any man in the bookshop, and tut “Men,” during lulls in conversation with her friends.

“It’s not their fault,” said Barbara from the next cubicle. “It’s the pressure society puts them under.” Clare rolled her eyes. It seemed to her that the problem wasn’t that men were under pressure from society, it was that there wasn’t enough pressure, and that they were capable of interpreting whatever she did as meaning whatever they wanted. This felt like an important discovery that could explain a lot of things, although she hadn’t a clue what to do about it.

It would be easier, she decided, if she had a boyfriend. At university she’d reached a deal with her housemate Niall that if men started to dance with her (an awkward, concealing preposition – it was never with her but at her, to her), he would come over and place a hand on her shoulder. “Sorry mate,” the men would say, and wander off, buttoning up their shirts, even though Niall was five foot four and thin as a ryvita. She’d still had to be careful; she wanted a boyfriend for practical reasons, not as a pet. She knew those men, the ones who said “I’m so happy when I’m with you,” then let the next sentence hang there unsaid and the obligation steal over her like nightfall, or the flu.

Barbara was nonplussed. “You want a boyfriend, but you don’t want sex?”

Exactly,” Clare almost shouted, then apologised as the couple in the row behind hushed her.

“I don’t get it,” said Barbara, and reached for the popcorn.

Her first idea was to try the Rainbow Bar. But they were out and proud now, which she was mostly happy about, although couldn’t help thinking it was little selfish. She endured an awkward night of platonic, sympathetic rejection, before returning despondent to her flat. In truth it had been her only idea. Out of desperation she called her mother. “You should be aloof with men, they’re easily bored,” her mother said after faking a heart attack that Clare had called at all. “Like bears.” She’d moved to Canada when Clare was at university, and now related everything to North American wildlife.

She practiced her ice-queen look in front of the mirror until she made herself uncomfortable. She knew that at first men would see her as a challenge, but she just had to trust in the process, like therapy. Her first opportunity to practice was at dinner with Barbara. “Are you constipated?” Barbara asked, loudly.

“I’m trying to be aloof,” Clare snapped. It was difficult to be aloof when the entire restaurant thought you had recalcitrant bowels.

Nonetheless, she was keen to try her new tactic out for real. There was a new bar in town, and on its first Friday night it was offering a free cocktail to everyone who came. Mojito in hand, she danced.

After a few songs and another mojito she started to get into it, closing her eyes. When she opened them a tall, muscular man was accommodating her moves with his, loosely outlining her body with his hands. Not unattractive, she thought, in the same way a chair could be handsome. She went along with it for a bit, but then felt his hands large and warm on her waist. She moved them away, firmly.

His demeanour changed. He stopped suddenly in front of her, his body like a brick wall. “Cock tease,” he said. Clare ignored him, but he blocked her way.

“Excuse me,” she said, not meeting his eye. She knew he was looking at her; heat radiated from him.

Then another voice: “Are you alright?” It was another man, young and slim, but confident in a way you couldn’t teach. He was looking directly at the man.

The first man looked from him to her, shifting his weight. “She started dancing with me,” he said. Like he was apologising, only not to her, thought a part of Clare that had kept its distance from the scene. Then he did address her: “You want to be careful. People might think you’re a slut.”

“There’s no need for that,” the second man said, but the first man had already gone, the crowds parting briefly then closing behind him like vertical waves.

“Thanks,” she said.

He waved her away. “I hate guys like him. Enjoy your night.”

Later, Clare called Barbara from the nightbus. “You should have got his number!” Barbara screeched when Clare recounted the evening. She’d put Clare on speakerphone, and her voice distorted with volume.

Clare sighed. “That’s not-” But Barbara was drunk, almost certainly on wine (white, of course – less risk of staining), and already starting to build a case.

“You just need to meet the right guy,” she said. “I’ll ask around on Monday, I think one of the guys in accounts just broke up with his girlfriend.”

How could she explain that there was no right guy, or girl? It would sound defeatist, a problem to be solved, when it was just a fact. She sat the phone on the seat next to her and listened to the rhythm of Barbara’s oblivious voice, her head juddering against the window. Eventually the indistinct sounds rose to a climax then stopped, as if waiting for applause.

“Clare?” She could just about make out words if they were separated by beats of silence. “Clare?” Her stop was coming up, but nothing was stopping her from staying on until it reached the end of its route and turned around to do it all again. She could use the money she’d been saving on lunch to pay each day’s fare. She might get in the paper.

“Clare?” There was a rustle as Barbara brought the phone to her ear. “Are you there? Hello? Hello? Hello?”

Marshland

Denim jacket, black shirt, white top with black stripes. No, dark blue. No, black. Shit. Blonde hair, purple tinge. Shoes, what shoes was she wearing?

Water hammers against the sink. The plates and cutlery sit as the foam rises around them. He turns off the tap.

Denim jacket, black shirt, whi-

He closes his eyes. Focus. The hollow hum of pipes echo through the walls, the distant rain of the shower above it. No telling Hannah’s schedule. Some days she can sleep through til the evening; other times she lies on the sofa, half-covered in a rug, eyes staring like a mannequin.

Denim jac-

He snatches a sheet of paper and scrawls down as much as he can remember about Sammy’s outfit, leaving words unfinished to leap to the next. When he’s done the page is filled with large, loose writing. It’s a form of relief; thin, watery, unsatisfying, but relief nonetheless. His breathing slows to a more deliberate pace, reminding him absurdly of cattle. His hand is shaking. He feels faint, as if he’s had a glass too many with a Sunday roast.

He places his hands on the counter for support. The bottle stood by the sink is only half full; had that been yesterday? Memories can be slippery. He pulls out the stopper and sniffs. Plum, blackcurrant, dark chocolate. No trace of vinegar. The glasses had been a wedding gift from Hannah’s parents, and the wine eddies around the sides of the bowl as he gently swirls it.

Through to the living room where he closes the curtains. When he’d come back from work he’d had to open them, even though there’d been no more than an hour’s dusky light left in the day. He wouldn’t let the house spend the whole day in darkness. His novel sits splayed on the coffee table, weeks overdue from the library. He has no expectation he’ll be able to concentrate on it, and so it proves. The words dance and refuse to arrange themselves into anything beyond an impressionistic blur, and a character he doesn’t remember is now under suspicion of murder. He puts it down with a promise to return it tomorrow. Weekends are the worst, the hinterland free from structure, and a task will help. He flicks through several channels before settling on a panel show.

Hannah comes downstairs, a small towel wrapped around her head. She sits in the corner of the sofa, her legs tucked in, but she lets him kiss her cheek. Her face is pale and bare these days, on the brink of something – tears, perhaps, or an apology. They watch in silence until the studio audience’s laughter seems mocking, a candle in a cave.

Wind whines down the chimney. They’d left the photographs up, but their presence is a constant reminder of decisions yet to be taken, conclusions yet to be reached. He avoids looking at them now, suspects Sammy and Hannah do the same. What happens to pictures that are no longer seen? Do they lose some vital quality, like sunflowers deprived of light? The thought is too large. He feels saturated, needs wringing out. The one image they did take down has no human life at all. A landscape of the marshland that hung above the fireplace, picked up from the market during a short-lived attempt to promote local artists. It now sits in the loft; he’s been meaning to take it to a charity shop, or put it on eBay, or leave it out the front like an old fridge for someone to take.

The chime of his phone. There was no end of calls and texts at first, to the point that he bought a second handset in case the police needed to contact him. Ex-colleagues, distant cousins, even a couple of university friends who’d found him online. It happened to lottery winners as well, he’d read somewhere. He did his best to keep the conversations clipped, but people always wanted to insert themselves into your tragedy, holiday there for a few days then return, their bags stuffed with duty-free. Now it’s slipped from the thrill of loss to an altogether less appealing prospect, every message is a surprise.

It’s the badminton lot with an invitation to drinks. He replies quickly to say he can’t, which is true, if incomplete. Once on a training course he’d been shown an exercise in which you had to fill up a jar with different sized stones. The trick was to start with the largest, then the next largest, and so on; the final step was to pour sand in the gaps that remained. “Or beer!” the instructor laughed through his moustache. The same applies to conversation, only he just has one giant boulder that blocks the jar and leaves everything else bouncing to the floor. And if he didn’t bring it up himself he know the subject would hang in the air, thickening like mist until they were all soaked through.

But that’s not the only reason. You never know who’d be somewhere like that; there’s never been an arrest, and the last lead sputtered out months ago. In the kitchen he pours another glass, a little fuller this time to finish the bottle. Hannah must have turned the television off, and the silence begins to settle once again like dust. Could you hire a cleaner for silence, someone to come round once a fortnight and brush it all away?

He returns to the washing up. He’d forgotten it was still there, but tells himself he was just letting the dishes soak. There’d been no food in the house so he’d ordered takeaway, the korma sliding from the container like paint, and Sammy started eating even before he prised the lid from the pilau rice. Hannah ate in small, meek forkfuls, and when it came to clearing up scraped almost half her plate into the bin.

As he wipes and rinses the suds, the house phone sits silent and squat in its base. It was blinking red in the afternoon, and he approached it carefully, as if over-eagerness could somehow affect the message’s contents. But it was just the media liaison, confirming the plans for the anniversary, his words hard to make out over the background noise. A reporter going to the re-enactment; an appeal shown on Look East. He’s confident, he said, but either he’s bullshitting or he must be the only one who’s not long since lost faith that there will be anything beyond more unverifiable sightings, well-meaning speculation, and outright cranks. At first the police were all action, stressing that the first 48 hours were the most important. Then the 48 hours had passed, then a week, then a month, and now almost a year. No-one talks about urgency anymore; it’s chances, breaks, luck. The language of gambling.

The dishes done, upstairs he pulls out a number of boxes then rolls out some wrapping paper on the bedroom carpet. They’d bought it last year when Sammy was in her Hello Kitty phase; He’s never been sure whether it was ironic, and hasn’t dared to ask. She seems permanently pitched on the edge of insolence. So much like her sister. He checks the time. Two hours now, and she still hasn’t texted. The boy – the man – who’d collected her was tall and slim, in dark jeans and a leather jacket, and seemed to find something amusing. He’d grinned and introduced himself between wet smacks of his chewing gum, then he and Hannah watched their daughter walk towards the blue Vauxhall outside, arms swinging by her sides, a hand lightly pressing the small of her back. For a few minutes he can lose himself in the routine of scissors, sellotape, and wrapping paper, but he finds his thoughts pressing in like fog over the fens, accompanied by a smothering, helpless guilt that nothing he does for Sammy, not even wrapping her birthday presents, can ever only be about her again.

He needs a pen. He reaches into his coat pocket and finds a plastic-windowed envelope from the RAC. A renewal letter he grabbed from the mat yesterday before Hannah could see it. He’ll call tomorrow to cancel it. They can always take out another one.

Once he’s written the labels, he checks his phone. Still no message. He won’t call her, they’d promised her that. She’s having fun, that’s what teenage girls do isn’t it? It’s a good sign, shows she‘s resilient. But for a moment, just for a moment, he allows himself the pathetic fantasy of getting in the car and driving into town, of finding Sammy and bringing her home. Then the vision shifts and he’s sucked into the familiar tour of last known surroundings: the Prince of Wales, outside the post office on Kellen Road, and… where? He strains, as if effort could reveal new information. As always, there is nothing.

Downstairs the television is still off, and Hannah is still there. He joins her on the sofa, and moves his hand cross the fabric, stopping less than an inch from her fingers. He can’t quite bring himself to touch her, to force a decision that would set things in motion one way or the other. He only told the truth, that a body could mean closure. The counsellor assured them that anything they said would stay within the four walls. But it hadn’t; it had followed them home and settled over them like a chill. Outside the rain spits against the windows. They sit in front of the blank TV set, and they wait.

The trouble with mother

2,178 words – approx. 7 minutes

There would be words later, but for now father just looked down at my muddy, wet boots and walked off, leaving Jonesy to deal with me and my self-pity.

Jonesy – or Jones, as he was to father – had always been one of the kinder staff members, not as quick to lose patience as others I could mention, and more willing to allow minor incidents to go unreported. I had been secretly delighted the previous year when he was the one father decided to keep on as an all-purpose employee, although I suspected then the decision was more driven by his youth and attendant low wages than anything else.

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If there’s anything we can do

1,737 words – approx. 6 minutes

No-one saw Harry Fletcher reach the top of the stairs and lean heavily against the wall outside his door, a roar in his ears like the sea. He was relieved – with people would come questions, concern, misunderstanding, or sympathy. You never knew how quickly news travelled these days, how much time you would have to yourself.

He’d had to fight to convince the hospital staff to let him leave unaccompanied, but in the end they had better things to do than argue with a stubborn old man. The steps had been a challenge though; it would have been good to have had someone to lean on. It was several seconds before he had his breath back and could open the door, the lower lock turning anti-clockwise as you’d expect, the upper one clockwise, contrary. He scraped his feet twice on the mat and went inside.

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The dogs

Forget the sand you knew as a child. Forget the thick, wet sand you pressed into crude castles; or the hot, dry sand you sank your feet into, wriggled your toes under to cause tiny earthquakes, and later tipped out of shoes for days to come. That’s not sand.

This is sand. It has more in common with misting Yorkshire rain than anything solid, the way that without you noticing it settles on you like new skin, and by the time you realise it’s part of you, coating your hands, stinging your eyes, cracking between your teeth.

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Jet fuel can’t melt steel beams

2,745 words – approx. 9 minutes

It starts, as so many things do, with a joke. It’s not a good joke; it’s a wizened raisin of a thing, shrivelled and drained of any insight or wit by overuse. It’s not even a joke that’s spoken aloud, but one spotted on the t-shirt of a man with a takeaway coffee as he leaves the Sunshine café on an autumn lunchtime.

Nevertheless, it starts with this, and weeks later another man, who had not in fact seen the joke himself, is in an almost empty carriage of early morning subway in New York.

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The ward nurse

2,196 words – approx. 7 minutes

The first time it happens is on a Tuesday, an accident. It’s her twelfth day on in a row, all of them thrumming with latent danger. The ward is short-staffed, and there’s no time to think if she’s to complete her rounds. She has to operate on instinct alone, and even that might not be enough.

She has a system, but this is coming under increasing strain as more patients are admitted, each of them needing regular water, or pills, or to be helped to the bathroom. She scuttles up and down the low-ceilinged halls, the chlorine tang reminding her of swimming pools. Her own bathroom breaks are timed for when she is already going down those corridors, so she doesn’t have to go out of her way and lose precious seconds.

There is a constant ache behind her eyes.

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The town that elected a computer

2,390 words – approx. 8 minutes

The first artificially intelligent mayor was a disaster.

The people of the town had become tired of politicians. There had been several scandals involving finance, relationships, and favours, and at the third recall election in five years, a majority of ballot papers were returned spoiled, or simply dropped to mingle with the leaves that covered the pavement.

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