Starlight Smoke


Starlight Smoke

Six packs. He slips them neatly in his pockets, stubs a cigarette out on the concrete, orange tip entering a galaxy of gum and gravel. Stars are incongruous tonight, too much warmth in the air; there’s something about a star that suggests silvery shivers and winter. Pieces of ice, dead shards of light.

No less than ten minutes till the bus comes, but for whatever reason he lets it pass when it does, trundling by in hot dark smog.

He wanders all the way up the high street, cuts down two alleys, across the park and up to the close along near Tesco’s. Takes twice as long. Ash stains on the buttons where folk have stubbed out fags. He can feel the crinkle of their fingerprints as he pushes the buzzer for flat 6/3. There’s always a delay; he pictures her listening to music under the sheets with her legs swinging long in the air. Smell of burnt pizza and marijuana. Sweat. Such a walk up the stairs.

– Hey.

– Hey yourself.

They kiss so casual now. He’s perfected it on the stage of street corners; the quick nip before she twirls away.

The flat’s in total shadow. She hovers in the doorway like a moth, briefly attracted to the light in the hall, before ushering him in. This is the moment he’d like to melt his tongue in the heat of her throat, but they don’t do that anymore. The walls don’t bear their bodies like before. They’re fixed to the ground, a distance between them.

Some kind of lo-fi dub thrums from her room. The vibrations stir in his gut.

– Kitchen?

– Sure.

Whir of kettle steam. Dirt-rich grounds of coffee. He watches her fuss in the cupboards, looking for mugs. Pulls out Silk Cuts.

– Want one?

– I thought you were gonna quit.

– Six more. Packs that is. Jason bought them in duty-free, seemed a shame to waste.

– I wish you wouldn’t in here. The landlady…

He lights it anyway, then lights another one on the glow of the first. Passes it to her. Electric twitch as they brush fingertips. She takes the longer drag.

– Damn.

– It’s been some day.

– I’ll say.

He watches her float by the cooker. There’s a 27% chance she’ll cook rice and chilli if he sits tight long enough. The smoke swirls up in wispish clouds from her mouth as she fingers a bottle of wine in lieu of the forgotten coffee. In ten minutes, the lipstick will dry with a reddish stain and the soft skin will peel and crackle, plastic. She’s prettier that way, a bit of a bee-sting. Later, her hair will drape over the sheets, tobacco scent gleamed with grease. In the morning, by the window, she’ll comb out the aroma. The nicotine mist comes off her as he reads her aura. Under her nails, skin flakes and fridge crystals. Suddenly, he wants to kiss her.

Steam from the kettle. Shuffling of slippers; the flatmate practicing speeches next door.

– Can’t keep her grounded, that one.

– I’ll say.

Her mouth breathes out greyish vapours when she talks. Soon, he’s feeling his hand in her hair, its sticky rivulets. His vision slipping out of focus. Somehow she’s with him on the chair and the candlelight flickers. Tiny particles spill like glitter against the window. There’s a sign on the wine saying ‘Recipe for Lust’. Together, entwined like this, they can only combust.

/ Maria Sledmere

(FFF prompts: galaxy, cigarette)


cherry melancholia

Photo by Manuela Hoffman

cherry melancholia
Maria Sledmere

rain on the lawn; the greenness
dark and deep. a handful of shells
clotted in the mud with the blossoms,
the pink ones
from the cherry tree.

she walks out slowly,
snow petals swirling round her,

in the garden she will lie
where the grass is softest. she will lie
staring at the glass sky,
a sleepful of memory.

just love, the garden will say,
just love.
she forgot the place where he kissed her once—
it wasn’t here

but she returns anyway,
the grass feels sweet underneath her,
the air tastes golden, the first taste
of crab apples in autumn. love
set her going in spring, a silk cut
from a willow tree.

smoke rises in the distance
to the smell of cherry pie.
once he kissed her eyes, her cheeks;
he told her she was cinnamon.

in the garden now she is older,
older as the trees are, ring after ring
in each year, each reel of string
that she unwinds.

they come to bind
the sweet peas with twine.
bitter berries,
summer wine.

she is older
and the pie in her mouth now
is cloying; she is older
and the leaves are dying,
falling with the raindrops, the poor branches.

The garden speaks
now she is older, the rings round her eyes—
old pools of light, cherry pie,
of melancholia.

(prompts: eloquent, garden)

The Firebrand

Evelina Maplin was a figure shrouded in mystery and Turkish tobacco smoke.

Hector Maplin, former owner of the once-respectable Maplin’s Printmaker’s, had died over a decade ago, and even he had outlived his business. But his daughter and heir, Evelina, still found a use for his clanking old steam powered press. She was the author of some sixty-eight printed works of a political and dissident nature, under the pseudonym of Everard Cartouche. What’s more, these were not the intellectual musings of the bourgeoisie suffering from chronic ennui – far from it. These were pure vitriol: outlandishly anti-establishment raving, often accompanied by viciously-scrawled satirical cartoons, from an utterly degenerate working-class, unmarried, formally uneducated woman of loose moral character, who, despite her almost legendary standing amongst her supporters, simply could not be tracked down by the appropriate authorities.

I, however, took it upon myself to discover this singular woman, and give her the place she deserved among the chronicles of the poor. My project was not an easy one, but it was my life’s work, and I could not bear to see it published without at least a perfunctory article on this typewriting- troublemaker. It had taken over a year and much careful probing of the most knowledgeable (and lucid) inhabitants of the more dilapidated boroughs even to discover that the name Everard Cartouche was a nom-de-plume, and that, indeed, the writer of these monstrous attacks on the hierarchy were in fact the work of a hand belonging to a member of the fairer sex. After three tireless years of questioning and trawling birth registers and old police records, I was able to patch together a vague profile of this girl, and only a matter of days ago, a name and an address. And finally, there I stood, upon the doorstep.

Her headquarters were the dingy attic above her father’s out-of-business print shop, though to this day I never discovered her permanent abode. The street was as narrow as they come, the buildings on each side leaning toward each other like two infants exchanging a sheepish, tiptoed kiss. The blacked-out windows belied the lively history of political dissent and rabble-raising that was once achieved in this ancient printing quarter, on rickety wooden machines punching out elaborate pamphlets challenging religion and royalty, society and science.

The front door was firmly padlocked, but on closer inspection of the premises I found a passage leading to a back courtyard, with an ancient and (I hoped) out of use privy, and a few lines of sorry laundry, floating on a weak breeze. The sun was setting, and the yard, with its weeded clutter of cobbles, was filled with a ruddy, stifled light.

The door to the old print shop was ajar, leading to a wormy wooden staircase which climbed into the thick darkness. The scent of tobacco could already be detected, and this is what I followed to the object of my several years of study. I climbed as quietly as I could manage, though the rickety boards groaned and shuddered with every step. As I grew nearer to the top floor, I could see a dim yellow light around the frame of the trapdoor leading to the attic, and I could hear a furious clacking sound amidst a cacophony of whirring and hissing. Abandoning my usual courtesy, I decided it best not to knock, lest I startle my prey into locking the door and hiding herself away. Instead, I quietly raised the trapdoor and climbed the dusty ladder.

Miss Maplin had her back to the entrance, and she was tapping at the keys to a monstrous typewriter – the beast had to be some twenty or thirty years out of date – whilst an equally gargantuan steam printing press chuntered behind what can only be described as a mountain of miscellaneous pages, both loose and cheaply bound, forming almost a half-wall in the centre of the room. She had not heard me enter, but, alas, my figure created an eerie shadow in the light of her single oil lantern, and she ceased her typing and whirled about, causing the fat cigarillo she held to spray a flutter of ash onto the desk at which she worked. A lick of flame erupted on a stray page, and quickly spread to a large stack nearby. Stifling a scream, she attacked the fire with a moth-eaten shawl, but her in her panicked state she knocked the lantern off the desk, and a new, greater blaze emerged as the burning oil spread over the piles of dry paper – perfect kindling. Cursing like a sailor, Miss Maplin attempted to put out the flames with her foot, but envisioning the disaster if her petticoats were set alight, I intervened, dragging her away from the growing inferno.

“We must leave, Miss Maplin!” I pleaded, and half-carried her through the trap-door, kicking and screaming.

Once we had fled the building, which was fast filling up with smoke, I caught my breath and attempted to address the terrible misfortune of my visit to the clandestine malcontent. Before I could muster a word of comfort, she throttled me:

“That’s my life work!” She shrieked. “Up in flames! Who are you? Saboteur!!”

“I am…a fellow writer, Miss Maplin.” I panted. “A journalist. A chronicler of the poor, to be precise. I…I simply wanted to meet you, to learn about your business…to write about you, for – for posterity. I never meant…”

“Well…” She spat. “That’s all very well then. For the poorhouse is where I’ll be going after this.”

Rachel Norris
What were your prompts?: Curiosity, Introvert/ink

Dear Sweetheart

You think: maybe this is it. The moon shines through the skylight and you sigh and rip up the page; the page made painfully white by the unwanted brightness. All the words that had only moments ago bubbled up in your chest now sink down again, forming a rock in your stomach. Another day now wasted.

What is it about these cool autumn nights that drive you to the silence of the attic? It is the children, who exhaust you with their endless longing. You love them really, but your love is a kind of virus, something that spreads and eats away inside of you; that mutates and morphs into a hard and enduring endlessness. You can rely on it, its certain dwelling. Sometimes you forget about it, but it will come back to you when you are not expecting it. That drawing on the wall: the crayon is fading but the shape is the same. Seeing yourself in your son’s image; you never thought it would turn everything inside out the way it has.

No, it is something more than the virus that drives you here. As you climb the ladder with your wearied limbs, you feel the thread again; you feel the thread pick up and you can visualise it, clear as the dark clot of leaves in the bottom of a teapot, clear as your first day at school and the image of his face. You are at work stacking shelves and suddenly you feel it all unravelling, as if you were having a panic attack or going into labour. You see the threads spiral out from the coiled knot, loosening and flailing like snakes. It leaves an empty feeling for days.

A summer evening of long ago; it happens on you by chance, as it always does. You click the keys of your typewriter, eking out words like it might kill you. You rely on the words to make things solid again: you need the feel of their tangibility. Crisp scent of grass and starlight in the air; he leans his head on my lap, he tells me about the time his cat died when he was five. You bite your lip. Everything seems fickle and silly against the cleanness of the page. It is a shame to spoil the whiteness. We bought strawberries; we whispered our thoughts about the future. He would buy a camper-van and travel America, and I would go with him after my degree. We would end up clever intellectuals on a lovely salary, then we would be free. Was it even true? Even once? The letters flash back at you and seem hollow and false. You light a cigarette and painstakingly stab a smouldering hole through every word. The smoke fills your lungs and you are calm. But still the thread unravels, and still you cannot weave it tight again.

The sound of crying downstairs. It will be your little girl. You do not go to her, though she is still a baby. You feed a new page into the machine.

In August you got ill. The typewriter echoes round the room, sounding loud and somehow alien, as if another person were typing it. You feel as if the moon could hear you, and the effect is uncomfortable, a conscious voyeurism. They took you to hospital and for months we could not speak; nobody would let me see you. I clung to alcoholic nights by the river with friends, the daydreams charred from the dull glow of so many winter fires. I let anyone kiss me, anything to take me away from you and your memory. You feel something rise up inside of you: the image clarifies. You hear it stronger despite the loudening sound of your daughter’s wailing cry. We only met once again; you probably don’t remember. A cold day in December, the streets powdered with snow, Christmas shoppers clogging the space between us. But I stopped and called for you. You talked of the weather and your mother and you did not look in my eye. You are addressing him directly now, imagining the glitter of his green irises gazing back at the text as you fire it out upon the paper. Electricity simmers through you, shuddering to the pulse of the typebars clicking upon the ribbon. I have thought about it for so long – that awful vacant day. I think about you now, where you are and what you are doing. All the letdowns, the disappointments. I gather up all the gossip I can, try to lace the threads together; you see, no matter what happens I still feel connected to you. I have two beautiful children and I wish they could meet you. I cannot explain it, but I know that if you wrote to me I would travel anywhere in the world to get to you. It streams out of you now and you are not thinking about what you are writing. When you are finished you release the paper from the machine and you do not read over it because it is no longer anything to do with this moment, this cataclysmic silence. The moon disappears behind thick sooty cloud. Now you are truly alone.

You lay the letter on the desk and take up your pen to sign the bottom. It has been so long that your signature seems odd and impersonal. You hover over it, hesitant.

The fountain pen bursts and its ink sprays out across the page. There is a fold in time when all sense slips away. But still you see the words underneath, enduring like the love you feel for your children. Enduring like the memories of that enchanted journey, the future promise of each sparkling place. You close your eyes and look again at the paper, and every speckle of ink reminds you of the freckles on his face.

(Prompts: journey, soulmate, ink)

by Maria Rose Sledmere