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by Ann Abineri

I leave the office late. Most of the narrow winding streets are quiet and dark but every so often warm light and smokers spill down pub steps to the pavement. There are as many medieval churches as pubs, maybe more.

I turn north and look for Nick. He is standing so close to a lamppost that he seems to be wrapped around it. His bushy fringe protrudes from a coat hood with a fake fur edging and his legs look so, so thin in skinny jeans. His complexion is tinged blue by the recently installed streetlights, modern eco lights that illuminate the street below and not the sky above.

Nick gazes intently upon the car’s windscreen but does not realise it’s me. He’s only interested in cars that slow down. I drive past, unnoticed.

He used to stand in a more sheltered spot in the same street but the Council installed a speed bump to slow traffic and it meant that headlights dazzled him as they approached. He doesn’t have long to make a decision. Getting into a car is rewarding but risky.

I drive round the one way system, asking myself why I didn’t pull over and speak to him, wondering if I should just head home. On the back seat, my briefcase is full of Serious Case Reviews. But I find myself driving back through the city, praying that Nick will still be standing alone. I wonder if he’s already in someone’s car, heading for a deserted carpark or out of the city. This is the night that something will go wrong and I will blame myself forever for not stopping. I speed up, swing round the corner, through a traffic light just turning red.

He is there.

I slow down early, to give him a chance to recognise the car. His face registers a resigned smile.

‘How ya doing’ he asks, eyes still scanning the street behind. I gesture towards the passenger seat.

‘Do you want to come back for a while – bath, telly, hot chocolate?’ I don’t mention the clean comfortable bed because I know he will choose to fall asleep on the sofa.

Nick sighs. It is a Monday, a quiet night in the city. I suspect he’s got money from the weekend, enough for everything he needs this week. Prices of the things he uses are at an all-time low in this city, flooded by dealers and the young.

He takes one last look up the street, ducking his head sharply at the sound of a distant siren. Being constantly alert is in his deepest nature. I know he’s worried about missing a trick, letting a regular client down, being off the scene even on a Monday. But above all, he’s afraid of, the warm house, the clean bathroom, the full fridge. He does not want to put himself into the position of facing choices, of considering even the most remote possibility of getting clean versus the temptation to empty my purse and let himself out at dawn.

He sighs and opens the passenger door.

‘Any chance of macaroni cheese, Mum?’ he says, as I drive us home.

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Jean

by Fionn Shiner

 Jean reached inside her bag and checked for her keys and purse. They were there. She breathed a sigh of relief. She stood up, then walked around the chair, and then sat back down again. Jean reached inside her bag and checked for her keys and purse. They were there. She breathed a sigh of relief. Her lip was trembling slightly and her hand was clutching her face.

‘What are you looking for Mum?’ Jean’s daughter asked.

‘Oh nothing darling, I’m just making sure I’ve got my keys and purse.’

‘Mum don’t worry about that, we’re not going anywhere soon. Why don’t you take your coat and bag off?’

‘Thanks love.’

Jean took her coat off and hung it up on the back of the chair. She put her bag on the floor. Five minutes later she walked in with two cups of tea: one for herself and one for her daughter. She picked up her bag and checked for her keys and purse. They were there. She breathed a sigh of relief.

***

‘You know, your hair has got so much darker love,’ Jean said to her son.

Every time she saw him, she was struck by just how much darker his hair was. It used to be blonde, but it was now dark, dark brown. Like her Dad’s.

‘I know Mum, it used to be so blonde didn’t it!’ he replied, smiling at Jean.

Jean looked at him. She loved her son and he loved her. Jean loved all her family, and they all loved her. Jean loved all her friends too, and they all loved her. The conversation moved on. Jean’s daughter started talking about her time in Africa. It sounded so fun.

‘Oh love, I’m so glad you had fun, I’m so proud of you,’ Jean said to her middle daughter. She loved her daughter and felt so lucky to have her children around her. They were all getting older and changing and growing up before her eyes. It was wonderful and poignant for Jean to behold. She looked at her son, her youngest. She was struck by just how much darker his hair was. It used to be blonde, but it was now dark, dark brown. Like her Dad’s.

‘You know,’ Jean began, ‘your hair has got so much darker love.’

***

It was 6 30am and Jean was awake. She was an early riser. Always had been, always will be. She looked outside her bedroom window at the park opposite her house. The grass was shining with the silvery hue of morning dew and there were a few dog walkers. Jean knew them all by face, and some by name, as she often went for her morning walks at the same time as them.

‘I’m so lucky,’ Jean said softly to herself. She put on her shoes, went downstairs and left the house. She hadn’t been for her walk yet and she always felt so much better after her walk.
An hour later, she returned to her house. She had her keys round her neck. She made a bowl of porridge, ate two spoonfuls and left it on the side.

At around 12pm the same day Jean was stood in her bedroom. She looked outside her window. The dew had now dissipated but the park was still beautiful. Jean marvelled at how the autumnal sun was illuminating the park in a bright, golden glow.

‘I’m so lucky,’ Jean said softly to herself. She put on her shoes, went downstairs and left the house. She hadn’t been for her walk yet and she always felt so much better after her walk.

***

It was 6pm on a Wednesday night and Jean had singing. She called up her friend.

‘Hi, it’s Jean, sorry to be a pest. What time are you picking me up tonight?’

‘Jean, singing isn’t on a Wednesday anymore, it’s been moved to Thursday. I’ll pick you up tomorrow at half seven.’

‘Oh OK, see you tomorrow!’ said a visibly relieved Jean. She went into the kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. She went back into the front room and sat down on the sofa and put the telly on. She called this ‘slobbing’. After an hour or so of watching mindless, brainless telly Jean looked at the clock on her wall. Date: 5th January 2013. Day: Wednesday. Time: 7pm.

Jean suddenly remembered she had singing. She called up her friend.

‘Hi, it’s Jean, sorry to be a pest. What time are you picking me up tonight?’

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Drips in Canon

by Val Whitlock

 The Costa café is crowded when you order cappuccino and a packet of three custard creams. You sit at the only empty table, and stare at snowflakes and bright red letters on the coffee’s lidded cup, which happily declare: ‘Feel Christmassy inside’.

...So here it is, merry Christmas, everybody’s having fun...is playing in the background. Automatically you start mentally working out the chord sequence of the chorus. It takes seconds: G Bm Bb D. It’s the Bb chord that helps the hook, you think. You move on to the verse, while sipping your scalding coffee and unwrapping the biscuits. You watch the other café customers. Everyone seems busy, involved, chatty.

The music changes to Wham’s Last Christmas. You listen with your singer’s ears to George Michael’s vocal and the detail of the arrangement. You scrape chocolatey foam from the bottom of the cup. The coffee machine growls and the girls behind the counter joke and laugh.

You scrunch the biscuit paper into the empty coffee cup and chuck it in the bin on your way out. You walk the customary route along the corridor to the lift. You press 1.

You walk past the nurse’s station to her bay. You sit by the side of her bed. No change since your visit earlier that morning. She is only vaguely aware you are there. She looks as small as a ten year old child lying there, her white hair fanned across the pillow. Her shrunken face looks like a spaceship alien.

The staff nurse comes to check on her. They’ll transfer her to a side room later, she says. Visiting time is over and the ward is quiet, apart from the sound of the drip alarms. Sometimes the lines get dislodged when the patient moves. The alarm beeps the notes D, A, Eb. Was it a deliberate choice to use that interval for a drip alarm, you wonder? A to Eb – a tritone. Diabolus in Musica – the devil in music, you recall. Now two alarms are beeping perfectly out of sync. A synthetic counterpoint. Drips in canon.

When it’s time to leave you kiss her cheek and hold her hand. She mumbles. It’s late evening when you drive home. The sparkling pavements dance and sing between the lampposts. Your car tyres snivel on the wet road. The windscreen weeps rivulets between the wipers’ heartbeat. As you turn into your street you are greeted by Christmas Toytown, with flashing Santas and reindeers marching across the roofs and windows, the houses’ eaves daubed with multi-coloured winking lights, and, in your next-door neighbour’s front garden, a giant blow-up snowman with a gaping smile.

You park the car on the drive and put your key in the lock. Your house is dark and silent. You remember your childhood Christmases. How you loved the lights. The tree. The fairy at the top.

You switch off the bedside light. The phone rings at 12.53 am.

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I belong here

by Gaia Holmes

I belong here,
Mistress of haar, Our Lady of the seals,
your angel, your fumbling nurse, your little star,
stumbling around in your size 10 wellies
and your clay-crusted fleece,
stubbing my toes on shadows,
walking to the village shop
to buy red wine and Complan,
waving at the locals,
letting the mad winds bruise my cheeks
and twist my hair into witch-knots

I belong here
cooking stone soup every day,
beach combing for hope,
scrumping kelp and driftwood to burn
in our evening fires,
cooling your brow
with lavender on a mouldy flannel,
singing love ,love, love.

I belong here
with the cracked windows
the damp, your denial,
the wild and the raw,
the lying dog-eared books:
How to live to be 100,
How to outsmart your cancer.
stacked between the jars of pills
and the sticky bottles of Morphine
on your bedside table:
I belong here in December
with you and your three white cats,
grinding your tablets
to powder at midnight,
as the Orkney gales rock the caravan.

I belong here
with your dying
and every dawn sky
seething
and blistered
with stars.

haar: In meteorology, haar is a cold sea fog. It usually occurs on the east coast of England or Scotland between April and September.

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Holding on

by Heather Wastie

In her more sentient moments
my mother dislikes herself,
says her silly old brain
is infested with worms

But mostly she operates in straight lines,
like the angry trajectory of my cup,
her move in a fiendish game of table-laying
with indeterminate rules to keep me in check

She will plummet to the floor
to pick up a fleck of fluff,
dart into the road
to pull up a weed

So I steer her to comfort zones,
skirt round the table at meal times,
settle her with a lap tray,
set a mental alarm for bath time,
sidetrack her in the street,
holding on.

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