June Cruelty

Held to the brink, the mouth gapes its film of saliva. There is no more than the gossamer gorge of all those Skittles, crackling up between the teeth. We let go of his neck to see what would happen next. We watched as he scaled the red brick walls. Shouts from a football match. The air aglow with cut grass, laughter, nesting birds. The coming summer.

He got stuck and they watched him for hours from the safety of concrete. They came back after class had finished; no teacher noticed his absence. He was shaking now; it was visible even though he kept his hands stuffed in his pockets. People were crying, Chicken, Chicken, but maybe it wasn’t a game anymore. I told ‘Manda I was going for a walk and she shrugged. She wants in with Liam and won’t leave his side.

Scaling the circumference of a field, the image of that mouth wouldn’t get out my mind. All those teeth! Who knew wee Neil had all those teeth! Pecking like that at the sweets! The stickiness dripping down his chin and all the rainbow colours spilling out, coagulating on the playground. I thought he was going to choke.

The shouts got louder, even though I was now two fields away from the school. Stepped in fucking cow pat. Stopped at a burn to wash my shoes, the patent ones with the gold heart buckle, my favourites. The highness of the shouting modulates, like the tracks we had to listen to in Music Theory to understand what they called octaves and  pitch shifts. Maybe you could say it was a scream. I glanced in the water and saw among the rocks and silt the slow spread of a jellyish blood. A sheep’s? The breeze blew and I opened my mouth for a yawn the shape of a semibreve. There was silence then, a pause.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: iridescence, inconceivable)

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Exchange

It was the worst punishment his parents could have given him. Spending the best part of the year far away from his beloved city of Cologne, locked up in a small Scottish town to improve his English. Yes, he had always wanted to be an exchange pupil. He knew that English was an important language but didn’t come along well with his teacher and never achieved as high as he would like to. But first of all, why had his parents chosen Scotland? The people here didn’t even speak English! At least it was not the English he was used to from school. And second – and worse – why did they make him go during the second term knowing that he would miss Karneval, the big street party with people dressing up, huge parades with flood that were full of sweets and a lot of music and dancing? What else could it be than a punishment for his stepping over the line last Karneval, when he had more beer (one of the few alcoholic drinks he was allowed to have at his age) than he should have had, ending up in a police station for doing stupid things he didn’t even remember properly?

They could have given him any punishment: take away his mobile phone, lock him up in his room for a month or two or even make him accompany his grandmother to her weekly knitting circle. But they had not done any of these. His father had shouted at him the next day, his mother had told him how disappointed she was and his older sister had looked at him with disdain – nothing new here – but that had been all. Until half a year later when he got accepted for the exchange programme and he had noticed that it would be during the Karneval season. “Well, at least we don’t have to pick you up at the police station” had been all his father had said and he knew that this was the punishment his parents had planned for him.
The last five days had been the worst of his life. All these pictures of his friends on Facebook wearing costumes, celebrating Karneval in school and on the streets and watching the parades in the brightest sunlight. If it only had rained. But no. There was not justice in this world. At least it would be over this day. Once the big straw figure called Nubbel was burned, Karnval would be over and lent would begin.

He got up and put on his school uniform. It still felt unfamiliar, as if he had been wearing a costume for the last two months. He went downstairs and heard his host mother being busy in the kitchen. There was a delicious smell in the hallway. Was it pancakes?
“Pancake Day!” His host brothers, an eleven-year-old pair of twins shouted with joy, running into the kitchen. What?
He followed them and spotted a huge pile of pancakes in the middle of the table. Why did they have pancakes on a – as far as he could thing of – ordinary Tuesday? Usually all he got for breakfast was a wide range of cereals. Nothing to complain about but pancakes were far better.
His host mother must have noticed his confused looks. “It’s Pancake Day today. Don’t you have it in Germany?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“See, the day before Ash Wednesday we eat pancakes because lent is about to start and traditionally you can’t have them then” she explained.
Eating something sweet before you had to fast – that sound a lot like the main idea of Karneval. He grinned and helped himself with some pancakes. Pancake Day would become his second favourite day – after Karneval of course.

Rut Neuschäfer
What were your prompts?: Pancakes, Knitting, Sun

Who is Barry?

Barry was the most famous homeless man in the whole city. He even had his own Facebook page, though it would be some miracle if Barry even knew what the Internet was. The kids liked to follow him as he ambled around town carrying nothing but a plastic bag and the beaten-up ukulele that he’d grown famous for playing. Nobody ever found out what it was that was in that plastic bag. There were rumours, of course: the deeds to some long-lost property, a rotting pile of fruit, stolen designer jeans, a dead cat, high-grade crack, a divorce certificate. But anyone that asked poor old Barry what was in his bag got a tirade of jumbled words thrown back at him and sometimes a vigorous handshake, but never what you might call an explanation.

The best Barry-sighting hotspots were some corner on North Bridge, outside a Starbucks on Queen Street and a lonesome bench on the outskirts of the Meadows. You could hear his pensive strumming as you strolled nearby, and then as you approached there was Barry himself, wearing the green parka, ripped denim flares and the Nike trainers that, as some have observed, smelled curiously of pondweed. Humbly occupying such spots, Barry would entertain the locals and reap rich rewards from eager tourists who chucked whole banknotes in his Burger King cup. You could hear him crooning ‘Wonderwall’ and the Stereophonics’ ‘Have a Nice Day’ over his out-of-time ukulele accompaniment. He played the same songs and if somebody gave him a request, he tended to repeatedly growl the name of the tune over a repeated strum of minor chords rather than actually try to play it.

To many, Barry was an ‘Edinburgh Legend’.  Many university students volunteered for the local soup kitchen specifically in the hope of getting an opportunity to bestow upon Barry a handful of biscuits in person. They wanted him to learn their names so they could tell all their friends that Barry knew them. School children would post sightings of him up on his Facebook page, noting that he was spotted near the Stockbridge market, buying a can or two from an offie or even trailing into the Jobcentre. Very rarely would any of them work up the courage to actually talk to Barry. They preferred to indulge in in-depth online discussions about the state of Barry’s hair, what was in his bag this week, what tunes he had been playing.

The sad thing was that it took a while for people to notice that Barry had disappeared. He was not part of their lives, really; he was just an element of the city’s mise en scene – the atmosphere that they took for granted. There were plenty of other buskers, beggars and street performers to take his place. But eventually, the comments started flooding in on Barry’s Facebook walls, as people began speculating about where he was and what had happened. Was he in jail? Reunited with his long-lost son? Applying for X Factor? The questions multiplied and the answers blurred into lost causes and imagined chances.

He even made the local news. The paper ran a half-page article on ‘Kids Praise Unsung Homeless Hero’, whereby school children from an assortment of inner-city schools garbled on about how much they loved Barry, as if he were nothing but a cartoon character who had finally won the rights to a Hollywood movie. Nobody made any real effort to find out what had happened to old Barry. Eventually, he dwindled out of the conversation as people began to get excited about the Fringe, and then Halloween and Christmas. Nobody on the Facebook page paid a single thought to how Barry was managing, out there in the streets during one of the coldest winters of the last decade. Eventually, people stopped posting on his wall and the Facebook page was taken down; not out of respect, but because it wasn’t getting enough daily hits.

A few years passed and the city remained as sparkling and alive as it always had. The kids grew older and forgot about him.

It was only when I was returning there the other week, visiting my Gran who lives in Brunsfield, that I saw the message scrawled on the wall: ‘Who is Barry?’. Something about that message really got to me; because you know what, nobody knows Barry, nobody knows him at all.

(Prompts: ‘who is barry’ graffiti, denim)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

The Moon

“Miss. Miss! MISS!”
The teacher turned round to the boy who had called her, the tenth time in this period, suppressing a sigh. Thirty minutes to go for lunch time.
“What is it this time, Cameron?”
“See, why does the moon have to carry a lantern, sticks and a dog? Nobody is going to recognise it. That’s so stupid!”
She had to give him credit that at least this question slightly touched what they were doing at the moment which was discovering Bottom’s character traits. After having asked for a pencil, a rubber, the permission to go to the toilet (several times) and inquiring in a whiny voice why he was not allowed to go there, after having complained about being hit by the boy sitting next to him and after having thrown an empty bottle through the classroom, he had finally opened his copy of the Midsummer Night’s Dream.
“People at Shakespeare’s time thought that there was a man like this in the moon.”
“That’s a really stupid thing to believe.”
“The moon was a mystery these days. People didn’t know what we know today.” For a moment she thought that she had caught his interest. He looked at her as if he wanted to ask another question. She was sure he would ask for further information about scientific knowledge in the 16th century. Maybe she could send him to the library to research a bit on his own. It would lead him away from the characterisations but that seemed to be a small sacrifice if it meant she managed to get Cameron Miller interested in a topic in English class.
“Miss, I don’t want to read this crap!” He stood up, threw his book against the wall, missing Orla Smith’s head only by half an inch, and sat down again. Grinning.
She shouted louder than she had ever shouted at a pupil before. She sent him off the classroom and gave him detention. What should she do with this boy? He refused to participate in class, fooled around and disturbed his classmates. When he was in, it was nearly impossible to have normal lesson because he demanded her whole attention. He was a pain in the neck for all of his teachers who agreed that nothing good would ever become of Cameron Miller.
She could not know that the boy, who had high fived his best friend while walking out of the room celebrating that he had driven her crazy again, spent every night on the telescope observing the moon. She could not know that twenty years from now he would be a leading engineer for NASA and that he would look down to the moon from space and mutter: “An old man and a dog… pathetic. But the play was not that bad at all.”

(Prompts: Shakespeare, Technology)

By Rut Neuschäfer

The Thirteenth Witch

The orange flames danced round the cauldron, entwining with each other  before moving on to their next lover.  Steam rose in spirals towards the moon, and they sat motionless, breathing in the perfume of the potion, sweet, spiced, and yet such a clinical smell.

“Is it working?” Phoebe asked hoarsely, watching in fascination as bubbles began to blossom on the surface of the yellow liquid.

Luc didn’t answer.  His eyes were closed, and she had the impression that he might be praying to the devil for help.  Or maybe he just couldn’t bring himself to look, couldn’t bear to see the result of the months of planning, of stealing dolls and long nights gazing at the sky.  In case they were the wrong results; in case they had failed their test.  There was no resit.

Phoebe gazed up at the moon, at its dancing threads of light, the essence of the potion.  They seemed to extend towards them,  Phoebe thought, unravelling from the moon in anticipation, shimmering with hope.

“Get down.”

Luc spoke the words in a barely audible whisper, and Phoebe hastened  to obey.  They moved  forward and fell to their knees beside the merrily splashing liquid.  Phoebe watched the drops chase each other across the surface, each one slightly bigger than a tear.

“Stop looking at it,” he snapped, “remember, you can’t go inside it.”

She tore her eyes away, almost blushing.  Even in a situation as tense as this, she still couldn’t shake off how he made her feel.  She was at once transported back to school, and she stood beside the teacher’s desk as he berated her for having missed out the two final questions in her homework assignment.  Maths, she thought it had been, and when the calculator had broken she had given up.  There was no point going solo, and she would have used the computer but…

“Phoebe!”

She jumped, looking into his face, which was twisted with fury.

“What? Sorry.”

“Hands! Come on, this is it.  This is everything.  Don’t say the universe screwed up when it made you, for God sake, that it was all for nothing.”

She did not answer but held out her hands and linked her fingers with his.

“Ready?” he asked.

“Ready.”

They held their clasped hands over the cauldron, breathing in the intoxicating scent.  Phoebe kept her eyes wide open, focusing on the shining moon above.  She remembered Luc’s tip, and imagined that the beams of light were illuminating her thoughts, their own spotlight, causing them to stand out clearly on the stage of her mind, delivering their lines perfectly.

“The touch of every teardrop,
The wool of every lamb,
The notes of every birdsong,
The death of every man.”

Over and over she thought the words, heard them in her mind, felt them in the beat of her heart, smelt them in the potion, saw them in the moonlight, and tasted them in the blood that trickled from her lip as she bit down on it.  She tightened her hold on Luc’s fingers, or perhaps he was tightening his hands around hers.  There was no way of telling.  They were one in this moment, the same force, identical twins of power.

A warm wind began to blow around them.  Phoebe felt it lift her hair and throw it in front of her eyes, then pull it playfully away.  She felt his hands twist in hers, and soon the flowing music of a piano was emanating from his fingers.  The notes soared and dived, trickled and swooped, and somewhere underneath them she heard the long, tortured scream.  She forced herself not to wince, not to interrupt the steady stream of thought.  Some sacrifices were better than others.  That had been one of Luc’s first lessons.

by Sarah McLean
What were your prompts?: potion