Letter from the editor. Darcie Friesen Hossack

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Even as we present this, our Pandemic Issue, the attention of WordCity Literary Journal’s editors is very much turned towards Ukraine. Our hearts are with her people and her president, united in hope for peace, freedom and continued democracy. Our May 2022 issue, featuring a human rights theme, will be presented in honour of Ukraine. Our call for manuscripts may be found Here. Please join us as we stand in solidarity as a creative community of writers and readers.

Until then, in this issue, we look at the first two years of the Covid-19 pandemic and offer our gratitude to contributing writer and poet Anjum Wasim Dar for suggesting it was time.

In two years, we have seen the world unite and divide. We have seen lost lives and livelihoods. The loss of common ground and the relationships that once stood upon it. We’ve seen life-saving vaccines and truck drivers storm Capital cities in protest against them.

One of our poems this month is from Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations, who speaks directly to those drivers and the horns they blared for three weeks in our Capital, Ottawa. A short story by Sylvia Petter, meanwhile, gets in the middle of a group of protestors, and Olga Stein examines how WordCity Literary Journal came to exist just months after Covid-19 circumnavigated the globe.

In our Literary Spotlight, although not directly about the virus, we find Sue Burge in conversation about Poetic Prescriptions for what ails us, and I hope you find, as I did, that it is a salve for our times.

All three of the above women are editors here at WCLJ, and together with Clara Burghelea, Nancy Ndeke, Geraldine Sinyuy, Lori Roadhouse and myself, the issues we’ve created so far have been our way of pouring light and literature into the darkness that has been the world’s collective experience these last two years. I am grateful the time, talent and friendship of every one of them, and for every single contributor and reader who has made WordCity their literary home.

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Darcie Friesen Hossack is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers. Her short story collection, Mennonites Don’t Dance (Thistledown Press), was a runner-up for the Danuta Gleed Award, shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize and the Ontario Library Association’s Forest of Reading Evergreen Award for Adult Fiction. Citing irreverence, the book was banned by the LA Crete Public Library in Northern Alberta. Having mentored with Giller finalists Sandra Birdsell (The Russlander) and Gail Anderson Dargatz (Spawning Grounds, The Cure for Death by Lightning), Darcie is now completing her first novel where, for a family with a Seventh-day Adventist father and a Mennonite mother, the End Times are just around the corner. Darcie is also a four time judge of the Whistler Independent Book Awards, and a career food writer. She lives in Northern Alberta, Canada, with her husband, an international award winning chef.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Table of Contents. March 2022. Issue 14

Letter from the Editor. Darcie Friesen Hossack

Fiction. Edited by Sylvia Petter

Picture Perfect. by Cath Barton

The Marriage of True Minds. by Debra Kennedy

Bussing for Your Lives. by Sylvia Petter

Shock and Denial. by Doug Jacquier 

Non-fiction. Edited by Olga Stein

Women’s Happiness: Linking Writing with Well-being. March 2022 Editorial by Olga Stein

Creating the Pandemic. by Suzanne Steele

This could have been an ACCUTE Conference Paper on New Intimacies: Literary Communities in the Aftermath. by Olga Stein

A Bird-While. by Cal Freeman

Hypoxic Hours. by Anjum Wasim Dar

A Spark in the Ashes. by Anjum Wasim Dar

Books and Reviews. edited by Geraldine Sinyuy

Springing into Something Else. by Gordon Phinn

Literary Spotlight with Sue Burge

Poetry Pharmacy: Deb Alma in Conversation with Sue Burge

Poetry. Edited by Clara Burghelea

Messenger. by John Eliot

Sonnet for Floating. by Paul Ilechko

2 poems by Debra Black

What Hunger Costs. by Susan Glickman

Vile Bug. by Musa Aruna Chemnchu

4 poems by Emily Hockaday

A truck is not a speech. by Bob Rae, Canada’s Ambassador to the United Nations

adagietto. by Sorin Smărăndescu

3 poems by Patrick Connors

4 poems by Sally Quon

The invisible masks. by Ali Imran

Abuelita. by Juanita Rey

Gather. by Michele Rule

Pandemic Haikus by Anjum Wasir Dar

3 poems by Eva Tihanyi

It’s not too late. by Bhuwan Thapaliya

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WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Hypoxic Hours. non-fiction by Anjum Wasim Dar

Anjum Wasir Dar

Hypoxic Hours

“Mama, do you know what happened to you, a few minutes ago ?”
Speechless and numb, I stared at my elder daughter Sara. Her  pale face, reflected grave concern. Something had happened, for I felt my clothes were wet. I was sitting on the edge of the bed, in a daze, my mind foggy. I didn’t answer as I couldn’t speak. I just saw my daughter’s face, white as a sheet. I noticed that she was perched on the stool beside the bed, and was bending a little towards me.
I was thoughtless, unconscious of the time. In the small hours of the night, a severe cramp in my left leg woke me up. A loud cry of pain sent my daughter running to my room.
“What happened to me Sara?” My mind totally blank.
“When I entered the room, you were lying on your right side, with your hand on your left leg. I helped you and tried to straighten your leg. You managed to sit up, but the next moment you fell back on the bed, and became unconscious”.
“Ya Allah khair! Then, how did you manage? What did you do?”
“Mama Ji, I  did what I knew must be done in such emergencies.”
“Oh, my precious daughter, you just saved my life.”
Sara continued slowly, “I turned you quickly on the side, rubbed your back, patted it hard a number of times, for it seemed as if something was choking you. Your eyes were open but lifeless. Mama, it seemed you were having a fit and  gasping.”

As she spoke I could see how she was trying her best not to burst into tears. “I don’t remember, nor have any feeling about all this. I think I have fever,” I managed to say. “Help me now.”
The clothes and bed sheets changed, I tried to lie down but severe dizziness prevented it. “Give my back some support, dear. I can’t bend my head”.

Time seemed to stop. Then the Muezzin’s call for the pre-dawn prayer broke the intense silence. We both realized that the Angel of Death had paid an unexpected brief but pointed visit.

Dawn broke with a bright ray of hope.

“Mama try to rest. We’ll take you to the hospital at 11 o’clock. Why brother keeps avoiding vaccination, I fail to understand.”

Sara’s remark touched my memory and I heard my father’s often-stated words, “My son is my son till he gets him a wife. My daughter is my daughter all my life.” Father was not blessed with a son, but the Lord gave him four daughters.

I had no cough, but nausea set in from time to time. Passing through November 2021, Covid-19 attacks continued. Just a year ago they had taken away Salman, Sara’s husband. We could only pray and hope for mercy. The whole world was struggling.
“A tissue, a tissue, we all fall down.” Strangely, I heard  this line from the famous nursery rhyme, “Ring Around the Rosie,” which we used to sing in school in the kindergarten years.
“Mama, are you alright?” My daughter was instantly alert. She thought that another fit had been triggered.

“Sara, please hold my head for a while, it may stop spinning.”
“Were you trying to say something Mama?”
“No, no, not really,” I was again surprised at myself. This was no time to sing a nursery rhyme, nor a time to hum even. I felt extremely exhausted. My body ached all over.  Severe pain cut through the ribs as if someone was hammering them from both sides. “If I had a hammer, I’d hammer out a warning, I’d hammer out danger.” Oh Dear, first it was the “ring a ring of roses,” and now this. Some spirit is definitely trying to keep me calm. Why are songs and rhyme lyrics coming to mind, including Shakespearean dramatic poetry: “The winds did sing to me, pain pain, go away, away, go thy way.”
“Mama are you ready to go? Here, put on the mask, and let’s go.” My daughter’s voice broke the deeply painful but slightly musical trance. Something must have happened to my brain when I collapsed. Childhood musical chords were chiming in the cranium layers.

A sense of light movement prevailed as Sara drove the car cautiously. With my mind foggy and my vision blurred, I tried to keep my head straight.  I noticed that most of the people were not wearing masks. Covid-19 had not spared any corner of the planet. Many said  it was God’s wrath; many said “karma,” as humanity had gone astray, become ill mannered, selfish and ignorant. It was divine punishment. There were many theories circulating.

We reached the Diagnostic Center, and the Covid-19 test was conducted while I remained seated in the car. The result was positive.
Strangely, the rhyme “Ring Around the Rosie” surfaced again. Raging for two years, the Covid-19 virus had turned into a global pandemic. Compared with the Spanish Flu, it was no wonder that it was a reminder for me of the Black Death. My love for the history of English literature had been deeply stirred. Covid-19 would later be referred to as the hypoxic pandemic.

You have to be brave and strong for your daughter. It was my heart’s voice. The virus raced right up to the brain. I tried to block the attack, but it slipped by and pinched the childhood memory portion. The nursery rhymes are sounding to restore your strength and protect you. You are one of the best kindergarten teachers. You kept the young learners  happy by singing to them and with them. You will shine forever. Twinkle on, and don’t wonder who you are, for you are a bright, glittering star. My worried and grieving heart was trying to comfort me.

We reached the hospital. As the car stopped, an attendant with a wheelchair opened the car door, and within a few minutes we had reached the waiting room next to the doctor’s office. My daughter answered questions about my medical history, symptoms and complaints. The file was ready for the specialist. He listened attentively, writing his notes with great skill and speed. In between, I heard him say, “criminal.” Then I was wheeled up to his table. He peered at me, smiled a bit, then assured me, “We shall give you the best treatment we have. You will be fine Insha allah. Your x-ray shows the enemy lurking in the lungs, but it hasn’ gone far. We shall catch it and kill it.”

I was wheeled back to the large waiting couch. A lady nurse approached, drew the curtain, rolled the drip stand closer, and asked, “Which side is comfortable?” I stretched out my right arm. Luckily the needle went straight into the vein and the cannula was set.                                   Antibiotics and anti-viral meds were soon mixing with my blood. My war against Covid-19 had begun.
“I heard the word ‘criminal.’ What was the doctor referring to Sara?”

Sara said, “Mama! He said, “It was criminal, NOT to get vaccinated.”
“Oh I see. What did he explain about me.”

“Mama, he said it was a seizure, a rare reaction to the Covid infection, and that we shall defeat the virus with the Mercy of the Almighty. This combination of antibiotic, anti-viral and steroids has cured many.”

It was intravenous antibiotic for a week, then tablets for a month, chest X-rays to be repeated after a week, and then I was able to go home.

Oh, home, what a blessing.
For many days Sara was my constant companion. She had seen her husband fight the fever, bear the cough, the painful restlessness — until he was put on the ventilator, until he was no more. When his body was being lowered in the grave, light rain fell. How brave she had been during this trial. Only she knew in her heart and soul.

“It was all the Lord’s blessing, His help and love.” She later said. Her silent prayer: “Please Allah ji. Make my parents well soon, amen”.

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Anjum Wasim Dar is a Kashmir, Migrant Pakistani. Educated at St Anne’s Presentation Convent Rawalpindi. MA in English Literature & American Studies. CPE Certificate of Proficiency in English Cambridge UK British Council LSE.

Writing poems, articles and stories since 1980. Published Poet. Won Poet of Merit Bronze Medal Semi Final International Award 2000 USA. Worked as Creative Writer Teacher Trainer. Educational Consultant by Profession. Freelance Writer.

 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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A Spark in the Ashes. non-fiction by Anjum Wasim Dar

Anjum Wasir Dar

A Spark in the Ashes

“From the ashes a fire shall be woken” — J.R.Tolkien.

J.R.Tolkien’s poetic expression stirred the ashes in the sorrowful soul, blew them away a bit, and began to awaken the saddened muse, still in shock from the killing wave of Covid -19. It had struck harshly, crashing like a hurricane and suffocating like thick smog, taking our son-in-law to the land of No Return.
Death was striking all over the planet.

November 2020 dragged into December and a word flashed somewhere on the screen. It glowed and caught my attention: “Christmas Poems.” Wondering whether there was still time to submit, I texted a short query to the Editor, a listless halfhearted attempt on my part. I had read the name, which was the main reason it caught my eye. Hmm in Canada, so far away, was my first reaction, but soon my hesitancy vanished as the truth dawned on me: everything and everyone was so far away in these times. It’s Ok, I comforted myself.

The response from the editor was unexpectedly friendly and encouraging. It made me feel special.

Ah, Christmas is a time of new beginnings.

I had written some lines of poetry when I was in Nottinghamshire, UK, the fairytale land of  Literature. I felt as if I was walking on the pages of history, stepping on cobbled streets, passing by dimly-lit lamp posts, gazing in awe at the high castle walls, imagining Robin Hood and his gang hiding in the nearby forests, hearing shouts and cries of “Aye” and smelling the odd aroma of wine. It was real, inspiring, and added greatly to my literary activities.

I submitted the poem. I knew the editor would like it, and soon came the reply: “This will certainly go in this issue.”

I smiled to myself though my heart felt heavy.
افلاک کی وسعت میں تںہا ہی رہنا ہے

نہیں چاہیے تھا دوری کا گماں کرنا
In the boundless universe
a star, destined to be alone,
kept in orbit, swimming,
should not moan, in its safety zone.
(My own translation of my Urdu poem)

And so, I found myself traveling to far off lands — the power of words pulling me all the way to WordCity, magnificently holy, clad in a white gown, and elegant in speech and style.

I am in my home town, where pine trees grow and snow falls, where skies are blue when clear, where quietude fills the atmosphere in the morning hours, along with smoke from coal fire in small braziers, surrounding the huge iron gates of training centers and boarding schools, providing some warmth to the guards on duty.
Summer days and nights are different though. More serenity prevails. A cold, white blanket covers the green and brown, but cannot hide the beauty beneath for long.
“There is not a particle of life that does not bear poetry within it,” Gustave Flaubert wrote. The quote led to more poetry.

Suddenly inspiration glowed; the golden rays sent warmth to the dying ashes, a spark flew and there was light all around, as if the sun had cut through the nimbus cover. I heard joyful laughter, and laughed a little at the humor. I saw blood on the hand cut by a broken cup, I sensed a sorrowful loneliness, and then I felt the soft finger tips of the expertly composed words of WordCity .
With respect and wonder, I share here what the muse gave:

Just on the other side, just a few thousand miles
across the globe, across the oceans, across the prairies,
it is cold, set to become colder
,
yet it is absurdly beautiful,
poetry expressed in blue, on rugged rockson sentinel pines,
here beauty and severity go together.

I felt cold but strangely calm. My heart felt lighter as acceptance of Divine Will became stronger in me. A door closed only to open another. From the hot sandy lands to the cool snowy landscapes, poetry began to hum a new peaceful song, sweet in togetherness, warm with collective fire.

Just random but serious thoughts

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Anjum Wasim Dar is a Kashmir, Migrant Pakistani. Educated at St Anne’s Presentation Convent Rawalpindi. MA in English Literature & American Studies. CPE Certificate of Proficiency in English Cambridge UK British Council LSE.

Writing poems, articles and stories since 1980. Published Poet. Won Poet of Merit Bronze Medal Semi Final International Award 2000 USA. Worked as Creative Writer Teacher Trainer. Educational Consultant by Profession. Freelance Writer.

 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Springing into Something Else. a review of books by Gordon Phinn

GordonPhinnPhoto

Springing into Something Else

Books Under Consideration:

Beautiful World, Where Are You; Sally Rooney, (Knopf Canada2021)
Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2021)
Nothing Could be Farther from The Truth, Christopher Evans (Anansi, 2022)
Vagabond, Ceilidh Michelle, (Douglas & McIntyre, 2021)
Apart, a Year of Pandemic Poetry and Prose, Courtney Bates-Hardy & Dave Margoches, eds, (Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild 2021)

Some years ago, after encountering some internet chatter on the then new literary phenomenon, I read Sally Rooney’s first novel Conversations with Friends and found it more promising than accomplished.  It seemed to be a product of a minor talent, adjudged and packaged by agents, editors and publicists as their best hope for the next big thing.  Her subsequent story, Normal People, seemed to hit the popularity charts on a rocket-like trajectory, becoming what the biz calls a word-of-mouth bestseller, and its video adaptation, courtesy the BBC, one of the most talked about of the season.  All somehow missed by moi, until, that is, the steamroller of publicity surrounding her third washed over me without apology.

Beautiful World, Where Are You found its place on my reading table, vying with several other intriguing titles for my attention.  I picked it up on several occasions, finding it almost immediately turgid, both in its narrative unfolding and its regular rhetorical bombardments.  And oh yes, its plodding character development.  Whether it’s Felix, the feckless boozer and warehouse picker, or Alice the successful novelist hiding from her shameful fame, Eileen the paycheck-drawing literary journal editor bingeing on low self-esteem, or Simon the tall, handsome, and some might say debonair, hero from every romance novel of the last century, the personalities drawn from her localized Irish culture preferences seem less like clichés that a critic might spotlight than vacuous non-entities suffering from Rooney’s oft stated failure (in many interviews) to create situations and characters beyond her life experience, sticking, as they say in creative writing classes, with what she knows.

The ponderous, and indeed relentless, emails between Eileen and Alice that regularly punctuate the narrative sections, raise the spectre of almost every coming of age novel where over-educated and failure-to-launch Millennials mix it up with the crème de la crème of poets, philosophers, artists and musicians without gaining much insight into their inner selves and soul purpose beyond the convenient clichés of their cultural moment.  They chatter about life, the universe and everything but resist the challenge of fully embracing that life and getting on with it.

That Rooney has the right stuff, or at least some of it, is not in dispute.  Some brief descriptive passages can really knock the ball out of the court, hinting at the promise of more extended future triumphs, but many young prose stars have this in spades, and I can only attribute the fawning reception of many mainstream articles to a desire not to offend the industry’s creation of star power, at least not yet.  As Caleb Crain mentioned in a recent article in the Atlantic, “I suspect that many readers will miss the ruthless speed and economy that Rooney displayed in her first two books…”  I’m not entirely sure I saw it in the first place, but maybe I fell to napping in all the babble.

A final gripe would be the pages and pages of text without any paragraph indentation, an endless stream of verbiage that throws in description, dialogue and rumination without space or pause, resulting more in headaches than illumination.  Such innovation seemed bracingly revolutionary fifty or more years ago when rebels rocked the castle walls of modernism but now merely tries the patience of those who dutifully scaled those walls and got inside.

*

One of those intriguing titles was Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit’s newest collection of essays.  Focusing almost completely on George Orwell’s love of gardens and their cultivation and then contrasting his loving delight in such with the darkness of his later and now legendary dystopian fictions, Solnit replays many well-known elements of his biography, spotlighting at every turn his devotion to nature in all its glories while serving up roses as the star attraction.

The cottage industry of Orwell criticism and appreciation, long recognized and often gently mocked as praise for St. George, continues unabated.  Each devotee must find a new angle from which to view the icon.  Rebecca Solnit, that impressively productive champion of the essay form, has settled on roses.  Eric Blair, as he was known to his friends and intimates, appears to have been a lifelong afficinado of flowers, bushes and trees, and nature’s bounty in general.

Biographies, of which there have been a few, tend to concentrate on his eviscerating social analysis of the poor and downtrodden, as in Down and out in Paris and London & The Road to Wigan Pier, the confrontation with the competing political ideologies of the thirties, Anarchism, Fascism, Communism, and what’s that other one, oh yes, Democracy, as in Homage to Catalonia, and that deeply disturbing dystopian evocation of Stalinism, 1984, with more than a couple of nods to the dark side of colonialism and imperialism, as evinced in Burmese Days.  And in a disquieting note, one can trawl through the index of Michael Shelden’s 1991 authorized biography Orwell, looking for any mention of gardens or roses and come up empty handed, as I just did, moments ago.  Perhaps Rebecca might explain this away as yet another tiresome example of that disturbing contemporary ailment, ‘mansplaining’, but I suspect she just dug more deeply into the diaries and letters than others.

The continued delight of her expository prose, exemplified in many previous titles, over twenty as far as I can see, aids and abets her meandering gaze as she slips into many side trips, inspired by the flower in question:  its cultivation throughout history, its swapping from culture to culture and its current mass market role in Mother’s Day and Easter, when millions of bunches, mostly of buds that will never bloom, are airlifted en masse from the vast factory greenhouses of Columbia to the markets of urban prosperity thousands of miles distant, leaving behind the underpaid and overworked wretches of capitalist globalism and depositing more than their fair share of carbon along the way.

Like many of her social activist colleagues Rebecca has a number of bête noirs which raise their heads in most of her output and this collection is no exception.  While I often find her focus to be wrong headed and ill-considered, the fluent drift of her thought and the charms of its svelte expression continue to stimulate and provoke.  If you are a new arrival to the overflowing basket of her cultural contributions I might recommend her memoir Recollections of My Nonexistence as pure reading pleasure while this work might be more rewarding to the confirmed Orwell lover.

*

Some, if not all, that I found lacking in Sally Rooney’s work I discovered in spades as I read through the short stories of Christopher Evans in his first collection for Anansi, Nothing Could Be Farther from the Truth.  A basket overflowing with alluring little beauties, whether sweet or spiteful, Evan’s fictions fling themselves into the far corners of literary reach without sacrificing the gloriously ruddy nub of the everyday.  Characters come face to face with their confusions and fears without the torments of self-pity and whining above and beyond the call of duty other storytellers all too easily indulge in.  The mad conflicts of daily life propel themselves into unseemly collisions without the wind-up mechanisms of motivation insisted upon in the creative writing courses that Evans has bravely survived to disseminate the many variations on his darkly comic vision we see here.  The ghosts of Latin American magic realism are deftly evoked in A Dissection of Passion, satiric jabs at New Yorker profiles in The Passion and Fugue of Edward Frank (by one ‘Jane Gopnik’), the power fantasies of male students in You, The Truthteller, the smooth transition from realism to surrealism in Over the Coffee Table and Down the Hall and I Don’t Think So.

I was charmed and suitably diverted by all the entries in this magical mystery tour of fictions by this rising star.  His giddy enthusiasm and seemingly limitless reach remind me of Zsuzsi Gartner and Lisa Moore.  But the sprinting of young turks does not always morph into the enduring vision of the long-distance runner.  But I suspect Evans could be the exception that proves the rule.  Highly recommended.

*

I have a fatal attraction for memoirs, as perhaps you have noticed, and this time around it’s Ceilidh Michelle’s Vagabond.  After a first novel, Butterflies, Zebras, Moonbeams, Michelle has turned right into the popular memoir genre of young folks trying to escape a less than chirpy childhood to venture into the big bad world and finding that it easily lives up to its reputation.  Fleeing Nova Scotia for the dregs of working-class Montreal, a drug dealing boyfriend, the apartment from hell and those bone chilling Montreal winters, thence onto her sister’s couch in rainy Vancouver where Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi tempts her to the spiritual life in a California ashram, or at least check it out. There she is welcomed as a visitor but not quite as a devotee, whereupon she resorts to her cash free last choice, the homeless shuffle in exotic locales such as Slab City and Venice Beach.  And there she sleeps rough, – the boardwalk, overgrown back gardens, parking lots and the like, getting chummy with the scruffy and smelly clientele that capitalism reserves for its reservoir of the useless.

As you may have heard, Venice Beach has come a long way down from its sixties heyday when Ray Manzarek squatted down with college pal Jim Morrison on the sands and listened to him sing the poetic melodies of the several of the songs that wound up on the first Doors album, and is now the haunt of runaways, the transient, indigent, and hawkers treating the tourists to their trinkets.  Michelle’s collage of the many she met and befriended in the chaos that she convinces herself is some kind of quest is fascinating and disturbing in equal measure.  I say collage as the narrative is episodic in the extreme, encounters and interactions rolling indiscriminately into one another without the transitions ‘normal’ life imposes.  Of course, this is a reflection of the intense but unfocused consciousness that the almost continuous drug high delivers to its users.  But in perpetrating this conceit the author inducts her readers into the same trap, an abysmal confusion of character and identity as she dumps the conventions of the narrative line into a mish-mash of textures and impressions.  Okay, so it’s all one and every moment is sovereign, but such anarchic fluidity can be more adequately managed.

Conversely, her descriptive powers are well up to the gutter grime she endures for the benefit of drug trips of every stripe and the seemingly endless promiscuity that works as some kind of oasis between the regular panics of random violence and exhaustion from hunger and thirst.

For example:  “We sprawled out under the fig tree by the dog park, vodka drunk.  Tonight I was comfortable.  I was full.  I knew the streets, I had my friends, and wasn’t that the feeling of home?  Full stomachs and a place to sit?  Usually I felt like a squirrely ragamuffin, ashamed and defiant in it.  All of that was washed clean in vodka.  I was baptized in the singing waters.  I felt bold and tough, merry and beautiful.  When the vodka got low, Alex and Jay came stumbling along as if they’d been cured by our dwindling supplies.  They had the good LSD.”

Replacing the unsatisfactory home life with the movable feast, even the scaled down version, has its temporary triumphs.  Shortly thereafter we see this: “As we walked along to buy smokes at the store, I trailed my finger across the white wooden slats of picket fences and over the prickly hedges that penned in perfect beach homes.  Drifting easily from open windows came the sounds of glasses tinkling, a jazz horn, a sleepy piano.  People danced lazily across their million dollar living rooms.  A film of curtain pulled across a yellow pane.  They wanted to be seen.  I saw.  I did what they wanted me to do: I longed. I wanted to sink my teeth into their lives.”

After a year of all this convivial calamity, when the reverse charge call is made from the San Francisco Public Library to the “precarious family, a family built on contracts and negotiations, long distances and misunderstandings” it is plain what Michelle now wants to savour, the once daring enterprise having collapsed into danger and disease.  What is not clear is how much she is willing to work to achieve it.

*

While Lillian Necakov’s, il virus, an intimate, surreal journal of 78 days during, was first out of the gate in these turbulent times,  Apart, a large anthology of over 200 pages and 70 contributors, chockfull of poetry, essays, memoirs and fiction, is the first Canadian literary production of this scope reflecting the years of the virus panic now seemingly drawing to a whimpering close.  You can bet it won’t be the last.  A more predictable agreed-upon theme would be hard to find.  And with such a large crew of writers and modes of expression there will inevitably be highs and lows, with each reader finding their likes and dislikes as they progress through “the year”.  My own peaks would be the essays by Sharon Butala and dee Hobsbawn-Smith.

It’s a touchy, tendentious topic and one expects frayed nerves and overwrought reactions rendered in tones of rage and sadness, but they are held in check here.  Perhaps by editors smoothing out the rougher edges and perhaps by writers censoring themselves.  After all, aren’t we the polite Canadians showing the world the efficacy of apologetics?  I imagine a US or UK equivalent would be riper with rage, but time, as they say, will tell.

Some lost their precious relatives, some their livelihoods, some their favourite restaurants, others their precious freedoms.  Few escaped unscathed.  All were joined in uncomfortable strictures.  Myself, I often joked about taking my ‘still legal walks around the lake’, observing the taped off benches and warning signs.  We all have stories to tell and will be doing so for as long as the young folks, still to sprout, will listen to us.  Meanwhile, the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild is to be thanked for getting the ball rolling.

*

Gordon Phinn, Oakville, (Feb24/22)

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Gordon Phinn has been writing and publishing in a number of genres and formats since 1975, and through a great deal of change and growth in CanLit.  Canada’s literary field has gone from the nationalist birth pangs of ’65 – ’75 to its full blooming of the 80s and 90s, and it is currently coping as well as it can with the immediacy and proliferation of digital exposure and all the financial trials that come with it. Phinn’s own reactions was to open himself to the practices of blogging and videoblogging, and he now considers himself something of an old hand. His Youtube podcast, GordsPoetryShow, has just reached its 78th edition, and his my blog “anotherwordofgord” at WordPress continues to attract subscribers.

Phinn’s book output is split between literary titles, most recently, The Poet Stuart, Bowering and McFadden, and It’s All About Me. His metaphysical expression includes You Are History, The Word of Gord On The Meaning Of Life.

 

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Literary Spotlight. The Poetry Pharmacy: Deb Alma in Conversation with Sue Burge

literarypharmacy5

My interviewee for this issue seems very apt.  In these troubled times I am turning more and more to words to provide solace and so am thrilled to be chatting to Deb Alma.  It’s not often you meet someone who has made her belief in the therapeutic power of poetry her life’s work, and in such engaging and creative ways too.

Deb, I first knew of you as The Emergency Poet.  Could you tell us a little bit about your life behind the wheel of a converted ambulance?! What was your mission?  Where did you go?

Sue, thank you so much for this opportunity to sit back and reflect on what I do.

I set-up Emergency Poet in 2011, travelling in my vintage ambulance to offer poetry on prescription. The idea was to explicitly mimic a Quack Doctor piece of theatre; to be a little ridiculous, and fun and free to whoever wandered in. I felt it had something in common with gypsy fortune tellers and palm-readers and that it was connected to magic and not to be taken too seriously. It came directly from an evangelical zeal to share poetry with people who were frightened of it, because in the UK I think something happens in our secondary schools.  Pupils are asked to examine texts as though they are forensic scientists, prising out the meaning and the poet’s intention, and in the process being thoroughly put off. Most people in the UK do not read poetry. I wanted to literally go out on the road and try to change that.

literarypharmacy4

‘Patients’ would be invited into the back of the ambulance, given very good attention and asked a series of non-invasive and enjoyable questions. After listening carefully I would pull out a poem from my doctor’s bag. I’ve prescribed Love After Love by Derek Walcott for a broken heart or for not loving yourself enough; Postscript by Seamus Heaney for those feeling stuck, or jaded or overwhelmed. It’s not quite as simple as this poem for this condition, it really does depend a lot on listening and responding to the individual’s particular circumstances and their reading habits.

I have been to libraries, festivals, schools, conferences and more, all over the country. I have even been invited to New Zealand, the UAE and the USA to talk about, or do my Emergency Poet work.

Do you have any interesting encounters or incidents you could share from this era?  Fondest memories?  Worst nightmare!

I did love taking the ambulance on the ferry to Northern Ireland a couple of times and working in various libraries there. All my worst nightmares have involved driving a van without power steering, in city centres, across moors and hills in fog, parking in tight spots…

One of my favourite events was in Shropshire as part of a wild swimming project called Dip, and parking in an apple orchard on a hot summer’s day, with dripping wet people lying on the stretcher!

I can’t imagine a nicer combination than wild swimming and poetry!

You now run the Poetry Pharmacy in Bishop’s Castle, Shropshire, UK.  Can you describe the shop and its ethos for those who haven’t yet been able to visit?

literarypharmacy2

We are situated on the Shropshire/ Welsh border, in the pretty little town of Bishop’s Castle. I describe it as ‘the world’s first walk-in poetry pharmacy’. It’s a beautiful Victorian shop, a former ironmongers, with original shelves and a mahogany counter.  It’s filled with books of poetry, philosophy, psychology, and ‘well-being’, as well as ‘pills’ and other literary gifts and products, to address emotional issues or for self-care.  I make my own ‘poemcetamol’ pills for the shop.

The bookshop is laid out unusually into sections such as ‘Talking to Grief’, ‘Be Alive Every Minute of Your Life’ and ‘Matters of the Heart’ and the poetry is not generally displayed A-Z by poet (although we do that as well).  For example, Jacqueline Saphra’s ‘All My Mad Mothers’ is with other books on motherhood, and Julia Darling is located amongst books concerning ill-health. A Poetry Pharmacist (me!), will be able to prescribe suitable poetic remedies. There’s also a coffee shop with good coffee and locally made cake. The coffees are freshly ground and served in chemical flasks and are named after some of the Romantic poets; eg Byron is described as ‘powerful, rich, dark and smoky; a kick up the arse coffee’.

literarypharmacy6Quirky coffees

We also have a workshop and performance space, where we have held Poetry Spa days, paper-cutting and book art workshops, a death café, book groups, a regular poetry writing workshop, open mic events, book launches and more.  We have an outside courtyard and an extensive and largely donated poetry reference library where writers can come to find a space for quiet writing and reading and one-to-one consultations offering Poetry on Prescription by appointment. The idea seems to work.

This is a really big concept for Bishop’s Castle, which is a very small town.  How do you survive with such a niche business?  What is your secret weapon as a businesswoman!

I am only slowly starting to see myself as a businesswoman, and less of an arts practitioner. Beginning to employ staff has been a slightly scary enterprise, but it’s the next step of investment in the business after seeing that the idea of a Poetry Pharmacy does seem to work.

literarypharmacy1

I guess we survive partly because it’s so niche. No-one else is doing it and we are located somewhere very beautiful too, so people seem prepared to travel out to us here in the middle of nowhere. We also have an online presence, with a web-shop and our poems in pills that we make and sell. We are always looking for funding and collaborative opportunities too, although I do often feel a little overwhelmed. I am learning to be a bit more business-minded, which sadly means saying no more often. I always want to try everything. I have set up a grandly titled ‘Advisory Board’ of critical friends who can kindly roll their eyes at me…

literarypharmacy7The Love Box

As a poet, how do you think your approach to stocking poetry books differs to other owners of bookshops and also bigger bookshops which might stock a few shelves of poetry?

This is a key and important difference from other booksellers. The books are displayed in ways outside of the conventional A-Z categories, which means that the book buyer, and significantly, the non-poetry buying general book browser, can have some help finding poetry books that they might enjoy. I have the luxury of featuring poems on the café tables as poem of the day, or in the window; I can display them face-up on tables and their context makes them less intimidating somehow.

How do people react when they first enter such an unusual shop?  Have there been any interesting incidents?

We have two very different sets of customers; those that happen upon the Poetry Pharmacy and those that have beaten their way to the door. We aim to be an enjoyable experience for both. Lots of people drift in for the coffee shop and end up buying something from the bookshop. We do not appear intimidating or specialist, despite the name. We look welcoming and we are. The antique shop fittings and the pharmacy theme mean that people really enjoy their visit. And we get a lot of positive feedback and many returning and regular customers.

We have had a few people thinking we’re a real pharmacy mind you!

How do you find time for your own poetry and what do you think are your main themes as a poet?  I know your partner is also a poet.  How do you give each other space to write and are you each other’s first or last critic?!

The Poetry Pharmacy is such a new and multifaceted business that I simply do not have time for my own writing. I wish I had a few lives! I am very, very slowly working on my next collection, which may or may not be focused on my Indian mother and her Muslim culture as part my life. My partner James Sheard is a very fine poet, but he’s not writing much either. Oh dear!

Jim won’t share anything with me until he’s finished it, he works and works on a piece. I tend to share first drafts with him so I can pretend that it would have been good if I had taken time to edit it!

literarypharmacy3

What’s next for you Deb?  Can you share any future plans?

I am trying to get some help, whether from investing in staffing, setting up an advisory board or seeking funding support, in order to be able to develop some of the interesting collaboration approaches that are coming my way, now that we are to a degree established. Lots of exciting things going on, but all at very early stages. I have to focus on actually being business-like. So much still to learn!

Thank you so much Deb, for taking the time to chat to me.  I am desperate to pay a visit to this amazing space. It has made me think why I love certain poems, what emotions they tap into and how they would make others feel. In my dreams I see Deb getting a huge funding pot and being able to create a chain of Poetry Pharmacies so I can amble out from my village on the other side of the UK, to my local branch, and get some much needed poemcetamol!

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Deborah Alma is a UK poet, editor and teacher. She has worked using poetry with people with dementia, in hospice care, with vulnerable women’s groups and with children in schools. From 2012 she was the Emergency Poet offering poetry on prescription from her vintage ambulance. She co-founded the world’s first walk-in Poetry Pharmacy in Shropshire with her partner the poet James Sheard in 2019.
A mix of the therapeutic and the theatrical, Deborah offers consultations inside the Poetry Pharmacy and prescribes poems as cures as well as dispensing poemcetamols and other poetic pills and treatments.
She is editor of Emergency Poet-an anti-stress poetry anthology, #Me Toorallying against sexual harassment- a women’s poetry anthology ,Ten Poems of Happiness and, co-edited with Dr Katie Amiel, These Are the Hands-Poems from the Heart of the NHS. Her first full collection Dirty Laundry is published by Nine Arches Press.

Go here for a virtual visit of the Poetry Pharmacy:

https://poetrypharmacy.co.uk/

 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Bussing for Your Lives. fiction by Sylvia Petter

CrankySylvia

Bussing for Your Lives

I’d been to visit a cousin on Lake Constance close to the Austrian border. He was an anti-vaxxer. My best friend had also gone down the rabbit hole. Part of me wanted to understand. Another part didn’t.

“I’ll drive you to the border,” he said. “There’s a bus going straight to Vienna. I’ve booked you on it. You’ll get to see another viewpoint.”

“No borders in the EU,” I said.

“Only for Switzerland,” he said. “The bus will be waiting on the other side,” he added.

I wave goodbye and get into line. I’m a bit nervous. I usually take the train, but this was a direct Friday bus to Vienna, and it was free.

“Is this your first time?” The young woman behind me with a toddler on her hip asks.

I nod and turn around to face her. She has red, curly hair, a dusting of freckles on her nose and cheeks. Wholesome.

“You’ll see. It´s great. Everyone together. United in a cause. All types. All ages,” she says, scratching her nose.

“All desperate to go?” I ask, now worried that I might be in the wrong place.

“We´re doing it for our children. So, they have a better life. So, they won’t be fooled.” She pulls her child, a girl with her red hair, up in her arms and kisses her on the left cheek.

“What do they check?” I say.

“Have you got a mask with you?” she says

I nod. “Of course,” I say. I feel in my pockets. Damn. Forgot it.

“Appearances,” she says and pulls a pink mask out of her pocket. “Here, take this.”

I hesitate.

“It’s clean,” she says. “Brand new. We look after each other. I always have a spare,” she adds.

“Where are you from?” I ask.

“I live in the Emmental,” she says and turns her head.

I had visions of Swiss cheese with large holes.

“I came by train,” she continues as if correcting her statement.

“But originally?”

She looks at me. “America,” she says. “Georgia, but I’m Swiss now,” she quickly adds.

“But why?” I ask. “Why become Swiss?”

“FACTA,” she says and puts her child down. Straightens up. “We want to be free. Free from the banks.”

I see her t-shirt “Freiheitstrychler”. See the Swiss antivaxxers bearing down on Vienna. Hear their cowbells chiming.

She’s wearing the t-shirt. I spell it out and say: “Free from vaccines?”

“We can live here one with nature.”

“Why not just do that?” I ask. “Why take the bus? Why go to Vienna?”

“We want to save them,” she says.

“But it’s Friday,” I say. “The demo’s tomorrow.”

“We’ll sleep in the bus, “she says. “We always do.” Her toddler starts coughing.

“Sleet rain is forecast,” I say weakly.

The line starts moving and I’m reminded of a recent headline about American missionaries infecting people in covid-free Kiribati.

But this was Europe; the virus was everywhere and knew nothing about borders, real or imaginary.

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Vienna born Australian Sylvia Petter trained as a translator in Vienna and Brussels.  Founding member of the Geneva Writers´ Group, she is a Humber College Toronto creative writing alumnus, holds a PhD in Creative Writing from UNSW (2009) and is a member of the Australian Society of Authors, Sydney, and GAV and IG_AutorInnen, Vienna.

Her stories have appeared online and in print since 1995, notably in The European (UK), Thema (US), The Richmond ReviewEclecticaReading for Real series (Canada), the anthology, Valentine´s Day, Stories of Revenge (Duckworth, UK), on BBC World Service, as well as in several charity anthologies, and flash-fiction publications.

Her latest book of short fiction, Geflimmer der Vergangenheit (Riva Verlag, Germany, 2014), includes 21 stories drawn from her English-language collections, The Past Present (IUMIX, UK, 2001), Back Burning (IP Australia, Best Fiction Award 2007), and Mercury Blobs (Raging Aardvark, Australia, 2013), and translated into German by Eberhard Hain, Chemnitz.

She has led flash-fiction workshops in Vienna and Gascony, France. Writing as AstridL, several erotic stories appeared in anthologies in the US (Alyson Books) and the UK (Xcite) and subsequently in her collection of 17 erotic tales, Consuming the Muse, (Raging Aardvark, Australia, 2013.)

In 2014, she organized in Vienna the 13th International Conference on the Short Story in English.

In March 2020, her debut novel, All the Beautiful Liars was published as a Lightning Bolt eBook by Eye & Lightning Books, UK, and came out  in 2021 in paperback and audio.

In July, 2020, she served on the jury for English-language flash fiction for the Vienna Poetry School’s second literary magazine “Gespenster” issued in October. Her antifa novelette in flash, Winds of Change, was published in April 2021 under her imprint FloDoBooks Vienna-Sydney. Sylvia blogs on her website at http://www.sylviapetter.com where there is more on her and her writing.

 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Picture Perfect. fiction by Cath Barton

CB.Dec2021.4

Picture Perfect                                                                                                         

The gîte looks exactly as advertised in the brochure: Blue pool, shady terrace (for long, lazy lunches), vineyards dripping with ripening grapes stretching into the distance. Three spacious double bedrooms. Peace and absolutely quiet. Perfect for a relaxing family holiday.

The only thing it doesn’t say in the brochure is that it’s a long way to the nearest shops, but for the moment Nina, newly arrived with husband Ed, isn’t worried about that. She’s floating in the blue pool. The trilling of her phone on a lounger by the pool pulls her back to reality. It’s her daughter Alice, calling from the airport back in England to say she will be late getting there, she doesn’t know how bloody late, and she could do without this after the term she’s had. Nina makes soothing noises. She’s looking forward to having the family together again after Alice’s first year away at university.

Nina and Ed have driven down over two days. They watch their carbon footprint. Ed is not Alice’s father but as good as; he loves her to pieces. He’s from California, so that’s the kind of thing he says. There’ll be Josh coming too, the son they spawned together. He hasn’t called, so when he is going to arrive neither Nina nor Ed knows. But that’s the way it is with Josh and now he’s eighteen he is able, as he likes to constantly remind them, to make his own decisions. Let him be, Ed tells Nina, it’s best not to ask the boy too many questions.

Nina notices, as she sits waiting for Ed to bring her a first glass of wine, that there is a fancy device for cleaning the pool, a sort of remote-controlled under-water hoover. She is pleased to see this, because she knows about the risks of picking up waterborne diseases abroad. Alice will tell her mother, when Nina repeats this at dinner that first evening, a late dinner because Alice’s plane was delayed for four bloody hours, that she is completely paranoid. This, Alice will say, is the south of France, not bloody Africa. Nina will purse her lips and want to ask her daughter if she could please refrain from using that word all the time, but there’s Ed jumping up before she can get the words out and saying let’s all have another glass of wine. Not very good wine, true, but there will be better after he’s checked out the local vineyard, he’ll say. And Nina will be itching to say something about watching how many units they’re drinking, and he’ll see that in her eyes. She will, of course, say nothing at all, drop her eyes and chew on the rather dry pork which Ed has (over)cooked on the barbecue.

Back in the promised quiet of the late afternoon Nina watches the water bubbling in the blue pool as the hoover does its work. The peace is disturbed only by Ed clanking around in the kitchen, preparing for the barbecue. Nina is thirsty, she knows she ought to have a glass of water before she embarks on the wine. But doesn’t. It’s wine which, as Alice will point out with a triumphant snort at some point in the long evening, is made from grapes from Different Countries of the European Bloody Community, and surely that’s no longer legal she’ll say. Alice has a lot of opinions; she always has had.

After Alice has eventually flounced off to bed, Nina and Ed sit in dulled silence for a while by the still blue pool, unspoken questions hanging between them in the still air like mosquitos biding their time.

Next morning Nina gets up early to swim in the blue pool. Ed does not stir as she rises from a night’s sleep disturbed by nameless fears. There is, as she walks across the terrace where the detritus of the night before litters the table, no sign of Alice, who has a room on the other side of the house. The water is clear and fresh. Bloody cold, Alice will say when she waggles a finger in it. But that will be later. For now, Nina is happily alone in a benign watery world. Her phone, which she has placed on a lounger, vibrates while she is in the pool, but she doesn’t notice. Only when she is towelling her hair ten minutes later does she see that there has been been a missed call. Not a number she recognises. Not Josh then, she thinks.

Ed and Alice both rise late and ask where the fresh croissants are, that’s one of the things you come to France for, they say together in an annoying chant, fresh croissants, decent croissants. Neither of them asks about the absent member of the family, and Nina is relieved about that, because it is bad enough one of them worrying. So relieved that, without demur, she drives the ten kilometres to the nearest boulangerie, where she is dismayed to hear that there are ‘plus de croissants, Madame, j’en suis désolé’, but cheered by the abundance of fresh baguettes and tiny, exquisite tartes aux fraises. When she returns with bags full of them Ed calls the price ridiculous and Alice says she can’t eat those bloody pastries, they are full of sugar. And this time Nina does say it. Please, she says, for the love of God will you stop using that word? And Alice shrugs her shoulders in the way that she knows will wind her mother up and mouths something, fully aware that that will annoy her even more. In spite of her determination that this holiday will be happy, Nina’s mood is changed, and she sits on a sun lounger, gazes at the picture-perfect pool and tries to practice mindfulness. Until the insistent unspoken question about the absence of her son tugs her into action. But when she calls his number there will be, as she expects, no answer.

At lunchtime Nina goes into the kitchen and makes a salad with tinned tuna, leaving her phone on the sun lounger. While she is doing this there is another missed call. Something twangs in Nina’s mind over lunch, and she snaps at her husband, who surely, she says, surely must care just a little tiny bit that he has not heard from his son? Ed puts his fork down when she says that. My son? he asks. Yes, your son, she replies, remember you were once capable of producing one, Edward?  Immediately wishing that she could pull the words back into her mouth.

Nina, Ed and Alice (who says nothing during this exchange) sit and gaze out from the shady terrace over the now-empty plates and wineglasses onto the indifferent lines of vines, baking out there in the heat of the day. This heat renders torpid everything and everyone that ventures out into it for more than a few moments. Even on the shady terrace cogent thought soon becomes impossible. The blue pool, with its hoover quiescent in a corner, looks inviting, but not one of the three has the energy to swim.

They go to their bedrooms for a siesta. Ed has drunk three glasses of the inferior wine at lunchtime, for there is, he says, no point in wasting it. He is on his back snoring before Nina has even slipped off her dress, dispelling her hope that they would rekindle some semblance of a physical relationship in the warm afternoon. She curls her disappointed body away from him, but sleep eludes her. On the other side of the house, she can hear Alice padding about in her room. Nina’s phone, abandoned on the lunch table, records two more missed calls.

In the late afternoon Alice, who after trying on all her new swimwear has selected a hot-pink bikini, is in the blue pool. Ed emerges from sleep, staggers across the terrace, and sits down heavily on a sun lounger. Through half-closed eyes he watches the young woman swimming up and down; under the still-bright sun the water is a coruscation of gold, pink and blue. As Alice pulls herself from the water the barely covered curve of her bottom arouses him. Ed knows that he should be shocked at his reaction but finds that he is not. He is excited by his excitement; it has been a long time. He is tempted to reach out a hand as his nearly-daughter passes his sun lounger but stops himself in time. She picks up a towel, wraps it around her body and pads off, back towards her room. Ed closes his eyes and indulges his fantasy. Nina, noticing his erection when she approaches the pool, bends over to kiss him and places a hand on his groin. He opens his eyes, gasps and, unable to stop himself, says Oh, it’s only you. And she asks who in God’s name he had thought it was?

Now it is Nina who is swimming in the blue pool. The water has warmed up, but no longer seems benign. She’s thinking about all those missed calls, worrying that there has still been no word from Josh. And there is something else nagging at her, something she cannot or dare not name. When she clambers out of the water her husband looks at the way her flesh sags and bags at the tops of her legs. He pats her bottom as she passes and laughs, over-loudly. Nina bats his hand away and says something which he doesn’t quite catch but thinks includes the words dirty old man. He lies back on the lounger, closes his eyes and returns to his fantasy of young, firm flesh. Alice, coming back round the corner just moments later to pick up her sunglasses which she had forgotten by the pool, sees him moving his hand in his shorts and watches, wide-eyed, before retreating to her room. Where she messages a friend back in England. She sends a photo of the blue pool. Wow, her friend will write back immediately, how lucky are you! And Alice, unable to put her complicated feelings into words, will select a string of cheerful emojis to send in reply and her friend will be none the wiser.

Ed barbecues local sausages for dinner, knowing that at least one of the women in his family will ask if they are going to have to eat pork every day, but he does not care. He swills down the last of the red and then realises that he should have gone out in the afternoon to buy the better wine and would have done had he not been distracted by the insistent demands of his body. By now he is, technically, over the limit for driving. He smooths his apron and his hair and goes over to Nina, who is sitting on the terrace reading a book. She can see what he is going to ask and tells him before he even opens his mouth that there is no way she is driving anywhere at this hour to get wine. Shit! he will say and she’ll reply that he can ask his son to pick it up on the way, surely he is on his way by now, isn’t he?

Ed will hold up his hands in a gesture of surrender and walk back to the barbecue, which is out of sight, but not sound, from the terrace. Alice is there now, complaining to Nina that the bloody stupid water hoover gets in the way when she swims, and she needs a drink this is supposed to be a bloody holiday sorry I swore mother but for Christ’s sake why couldn’t that husband of yours have gone and got some decent wine like he said he would instead of what he was doing. Her voice will tail off all the end of the tirade because she’s said too much, and Nina will be asking What, Alice? What was Ed doing? and of course there’s no way Alice is going to tell her.

After that it is Nina who, despite what she said before, gets in the car and drives to the vineyard, but it has closed for the day, there is just a worker sweeping up who is ‘désolé, Madame’. He tells her that there is a supermarket only six kilometres to the south-west which will surely be open, even at 8pm, and where they sell ‘de bon vin, vraiment c’est du bon, je vous assure.’

Nina drives what must be at least fifteen kilometres to the supermarket, where she puts two boxes of local red and a bottle of cognac into her trolley. As she turns towards the checkout, she sees a gangly young man with fair hair at the far end of the shop and feels a rush of relief. She waves and calls the length of the shop, Josh, Joshua, hey! But when the man turns it isn’t him, of course it isn’t.

When Nina gets back the (burnt) sausages are cold. She makes herself an omelette and takes it out onto the terrace, where her husband and daughter have already drunk the best part of a bottle of the new wine and have stupid smiles on their faces. Ed pours Nina a glass of wine and she glugs it as she eats the omelette, too quickly. The wine and food feel greasy in her mouth. Ed and Alice are looking at her. Go on, tell us, they are saying. Nothing, she says, there’s nothing to tell. Yes there is they say, they want to know about the supermarket. Oh, oh, okay, yes, the supermarket. She tells them that it’s a perfectly good supermarket and that it’s open from 8am till 10pm. So one of them can go there tomorrow and buy croissants and get food for the day as well, she says and pauses, waiting for them to argue. But they don’t argue, and Ed says to Alice Hey! why don’t we go together, and the smile stiffens on the girl’s face as she says That’s a great idea, sure, brilliant, why not?

When Nina wakes next morning there is no residual warmth on the other side of the bed. She listens and hears only bird calls. In the bathroom she looks at her body in the long mirror and sighs. She pulls on a robe and goes into the kitchen to make coffee. Her phone rings and she grabs it.

Ed and Alice, returning from the supermarket, stop to look at the view. She points quickly at a hare running through a field of wheat and her breasts quiver. His groin is aching, and he wants, very much, to touch her. She turns and walks back towards the car but he, racked with desire, grabs the barbed wire of the field boundary to still himself. Alice is shocked to see the blood and takes hold of his hand, sending quivers through his body. She tells him he should be more careful, dabbing at his torn fingers quickly with a tissue and pulling away because she knows, of course she does, she is nearly twenty years old for Christ’s sake, not a stupid child anymore.

Back at the gîte, the atmosphere is febrile. Not one of the three of them can speak what they are thinking, and they disperse after breakfast to separate activities. At lunch Nina tells Ed and Alice about a phone call which she has supposedly – at last! – received from Joshua, full of apologies. He will not be coming this week, but maybe next. Nina is a convincing liar, and neither her husband nor her daughter doubt her. They are, they each tell the others, really disappointed, but it is not so.  Only later that day will worry about Josh reassert itself in Nina’s mind. And now that she has told the lie, she will not be able to share that worry with Ed or Alice.

The days settle into a pattern of early morning drives to the supermarket, lunches on the shady terrace and evening barbecues. In between meals Nina and Alice take it in turn to swim in the blue pool. They come to realise, as their skin begins to burn and peel even after they have applied sunscreen, that after ten in the morning it is too hot to sit in the open by the pool. Ed finds a comfortable chair on the shady terrace and keeps his eyes down on his book. Nina takes a lounger to the other end of the terrace, where she too pretends to read. Alice spends a lot of time in her room, talking to her friends on Facebook Messenger. They all take a siesta after lunch, during which they sleep off the strong local wine. It begins to look very much like the relaxing family holiday which the brochure had promised.

The long lazy days pass quickly. On the Saturday of the second week Nina tells the others that Josh has texted her. Sadly, she will tell them, he can’t join them, he’s been invited to Greece by friends. By this time, they have all settled into the illusions they have created for themselves and not even Nina knows whether this is the truth, or another story. Maybe next year, she tells herself, they’ll have a proper family holiday, all four of them. And she dives into the picture-perfect blue pool, turns on her back, floats and empties her mind.

*First accepted for publication in doppelgänger – Issue One, July 2018

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Cath Barton is an English writer living in Wales. She is the author of three novellas: The Plankton Collector (2018, New Welsh Review), In the Sweep of the Bay (2020, Louise Walters Books)  shortlisted for Best Novella in the Saboteur Awards 2021, and Between the Virgin and the Sea (forthcoming, Novella Express, Leamington Books). Her short stories are published in The Lonely Crowd, Strix and a number of anthologies. Cath is also active in the online flash fiction community. https://cathbarton.com @CathBarton1

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.
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The Marriage of True Minds. fiction by Debra Kennedy

Debra

The Marriage of True Minds

We sleep in separate bedrooms now and text to communicate. I won’t get within six feet of him, but I’m not leaving, nor is he, now that we both know our true minds.

It started with an earworm. A couple of weeks ago I was weeding one of the flowerbeds when my husband sat down on the gravel driveway a few feet away from me and started digging dandelions out with a trowel.

“I’ve had this stupid song going through my head all morning,” I said. “You know, that one about Sylvia’s mother.”

He looked up sharply as I went on. “It keeps going along until I get to the part that says Please, Mrs…… and I can’t remember the name. Mrs. Who?”

“Mrs. Avery,” he said bluntly. “I’ve had the same song in my head all morning.”

We furrowed brows.

“We must’ve heard it somewhere earlier,” he said.

But we couldn’t figure out where. We hadn’t been listening to the radio, hadn’t gone anywhere or had anyone pass by with music playing. It had been quiet, just the two of us, as it has been for how many months now? And why both of us?

“Well, that’s weird,” we concluded, shaking our heads, and went back to our weeding.

We’re both retired, so we got off easy with the pandemic—no loss of income, no real hardships, except a cancelled trip and the social isolation. But we were lucky there, too. At least we had each other. Ours was a comfortable relationship, without many arguments. Having both been through a previous marriage, we knew the value of thinking before speaking. And we were past the stage where hormones drove our behavior. It was a relief to be settled in a relationship where we knew each other so well.

But later, as we silently ate dinner, he suddenly asked how my ex-husband had ended up in the small town where I grew up. That didn’t just surprise me, but sent a little jolt of alarm through my body. At that very moment, I was thinking about my first husband, considering what attracted me to him so long ago when we were both young. But I didn’t let on, saying instead, “Where did that come from?”

“I don’t know, the idea just popped into my head.”

“Really.” I narrowed my eyes a bit and told him the story.

By the time we’d finished watching our latest show on Netflix and climbed into bed together, I’d forgotten the disquieting coincidence at dinner. Propped on our pillows, we both opened our books and settled down for an hour of reading, but he closed his novel after ten minutes, saying he couldn’t seem to focus on it tonight, kept getting distracted, his mind wandering to some other story he must have read.

The next day, I knew something was up. As we ate breakfast across from each other while fixated on our screens, he blurted, “You’re cheating.”

My face flushed and I closed the Scrabble game on my iPad.  “Everyone does it,” I said defensively. Who did he think he was? Not exactly a saint.

I went in to the bedroom and, as I picked up and hurled his dirty socks into his hamper, he came up behind me and exclaimed indignantly, “I am not a fucking slob!”

I spun around. “How did you know what I was thinking?”

He backed up a step. “I-I don’t know. But that is what you were thinking, wasn’t it?” He put on a hurt, miffed look.

What was happening here? This wasn’t telepathy; I wasn’t sending him messages. But somehow he was connecting with my mind, like Mr. Spock’s mind meld. And I didn’t like it. It was a violation of my privacy, a theft of my identity. My mind—my thoughts, my inner life, whatever it was called—was the only thing that kept me apart from him, that constituted my self. I didn’t want him in there. Fear and resentment filled me.

“Oh, don’t be such a baby. What if I was? Why don’t you put your stupid dirty clothes in the laundry hamper instead of strewing them all over the floor?”

“Hmph!” He turned and stalked out of the room, sneering over his shoulder, “I never knew you were so bitchy!”

He pouted all morning, staying away from me by sitting at his computer, surfing the net. That was fine by me, as I was left alone in my studio with no interruptions for a change. However, my thoughts kept pinging back to the curious invasion of my mind. I wondered if he could do it from afar or if we needed to be close. I decided to try an experiment.

At lunch time, I found him rummaging in the fridge.

“Did you know what I was thinking about while I was in my studio? I asked his back.

“No. Why would I?” He didn’t look at me as he picked out the peanut butter jar and closed the fridge.

I was encouraged. “Do you know what I’m thinking right now?” I was standing about eight feet away from him.

“No! And I don’t care.”

I took three steps toward him. “How about now?” I was a little less than six feet away.

He paused for a second and then slowly pivoted to me, eyes wide. “You hussy!”

He plunked the jar onto the counter and walked over to me, took my hand, and pulled me toward the bedroom. Now, this was not something that occurred often any more. Twenty years of marriage and aging bodies had eroded our passion. I pulled back, thinking of the few, unfulfilling encounters of the past couple of years. But he turned, kissed me with the passion of a young lover, and my body warmed to him.

The sex was breathtaking—better than any I had ever experienced, with any partner. He knew where to touch, how to stroke, when to stop. As I lay on the bed afterward, I thought maybe this mind reading thing wasn’t so bad after all.

“I’ll say,” he said.

The week that followed was a sensuous blur. I made sure to keep away from him, at least six feet, guarding my thoughts so that my mind could not be invaded—until I was ready. Then all I had to do was sidle up to him, conjure up an erotic image, and we were in bed again—or on the couch or floor. I was amazed at our re-awakened lust after all these years, at our age. Our lives were consumed with sexual desire.

But we still needed exercise and fresh air. With rosy cheeks, we went for walks around the neighbourhood, waving and smiling smugly. Who would have guessed what we, the grey-haired couple in the tidy little house, were doing every day behind those walls?

Until the day before yesterday, when we were out for our walk. A busty young woman jogged up the sidewalk toward us, breathing hard, breasts bouncing like a pair of melons. I was thinking how difficult it must be to have all that weight thumping on your chest, when suddenly I knew what was in my husband’s mind.

My eyes popped open as the girl passed us. I lurched to a stop and faced him. “You want to do what?”

He stared at me with a look of shock and growing awareness. Then he swallowed and lifted his nose. “It is not disgusting, even if I am old enough to be her father. It’s just a natural reaction.”

“Oh my god, I can’t believe you think that’s natural. You should be ashamed of yourself!” I stalked off in a fit of jealousy and repugnance, leaving him sputtering on the sidewalk.

How could I have been married to him for so long without knowing what he was really thinking? He was an animal, a beast. I could have believed this of my first husband, but this one was an educated man—he had a Master’s degree, which, I recalled, I had helped him attain. Fuming, I imagined him in seminars lusting over that slutty classmate while I edited his lousy papers. And that was years ago—I had sagging skin and wrinkles now. He was probably thinking of some young, fecund woman every time he kissed me. I walked for kilometers, breathing hard. Somewhere along the way, I finally realized what this meant—I could read his thoughts, too. I returned to the house, showered, and locked myself in my studio.

An hour later, I heard a timid knocking. I didn’t answer, so he talked through the door.

“Listen, I’m sorry. It was just an instinctive reaction, not something I would ever do. All men have those thoughts.  You know I love you, don’t you? And now you can read my thoughts, we’re kind of even.” Silence for a few seconds. “And think of what we could do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, now you’ll know what I want, how things feel to me, when we…you know.”

I considered this. It was worth a try, and we had nothing better to do that evening. But I wasn’t ready to face him just yet. “I’m coming out to cook dinner. Just go wait in the TV room until it’s ready.”

While I chopped and cooked, I settled down. Really, we were stuck together. It’s not like I was going to take off somewhere. Where would I go during this never-ending pandemic? And if I kicked him out, I’d be left alone. My family was spread out across the globe and, though I could see them virtually on occasion, I couldn’t physically be with them. Besides, they had their own pandemic stresses to worry about. And really, the sex…

I called him when dinner was ready. He looked sheepish as he sat down and I softened toward him. Maybe he was right. It was an instinctive reaction that men have, not really his fault. I brought the plates to the table and sat down, giving him a little glance of goodwill, a hint that I was ready to forgive him.

“Looks good,” he said. But I knew instantly that wasn’t what he was thinking.

“What do you mean? Not this shit again? I thought you liked the way I make kale. Maybe you should just prepare your own meals.”

He looked up from his plate and stammered, “I didn’t mean that. I know it’s for my own good.”

“Oh, don’t lie. There’s no point.” My temper shot up again, amplifying my voice. “Better yet, maybe you should get some young, bouncy-breasted thing to take my place and cook for you.”

He stared, his jaw slack, as I continued, outright yelling now.

“I’m sure she’d make you bacon and eggs every morning and greasy hamburgers and steaks every night, so you’d have a heart attack and she’d get your pension!” I looked daggers at him and growled, “But don’t you forget, that pension is mine, you bastard.”

I could sense his fear and confusion. He gulped. “But if we split up, we both get half of the other’s pension.”

I glared at him. Not if you’re dead, I thought.

“Okay.” He drained his glass of wine in one draft and took his plate over to the living room.

I gulped my wine down and stuffed kale into my mouth, chewed and chewed. I knew it wasn’t the most palatable stuff, but it was healthy, goddammit. I washed it down with more wine. If we break up, I thought, I’ll live to a ripe old age and he’ll get clogged arteries and intestines and suffer an early death. Ha! I would be triumphant, and people would say, “Oh, if only he’d stayed with her.”

And I would have my thoughts to myself, even if I was alone. However, he was right—our pensions would be split—I’d be living on a small, fixed income. And then there was the house. We’d have to sell it and split the proceeds. I’d end up in some cramped, noisy apartment. I’d be far better off if he died.

But how could I be thinking that? And if I was, was he?

I guzzled the last of the wine. Then, as quietly as I could, I got up and crept into the kitchen and turned on the tap to cover any noise from my movements. I peeked around the corner toward the living room. He was sitting with his head in his hands, back toward me, about eight feet away. I got down on my hands and creaking knees and, silently wincing, crawled up behind him, two feet, just until I could hear his thoughts.

Oh, what a jumble was his mind! “How did this happen? I don’t want to move. This kale shit is awful. I want another drink. How can I get to my whiskey? We were having such good sex. I don’t want to be alone. What about my income? We’re better off together, or, or…what if she died?”

“Aha!” I lurched up, causing him to leap to his feet and twirl around.

“You’re trying to give me a heart attack!” He clutched his chest.

“I know what you’re thinking. You can’t hide it.”

He dropped his fists and shot me an icy glare. “You’re thinking it, too.”

An impasse. We studied each other silently. His face, his body were so familiar, but his inner, honest thoughts were foreign, alien. Had we been truly happy, or just floating along in our tenuously connected bubbles, oblivious to the currents within each other? Where did we go wrong? Was keeping silent as harmful as lying? I thought back to when we first met, to what attracted me to him in the first place—his tentative advances, his shy eyes.

I realized he was thinking of me, too, of the curve of my hips where his hands fit, of my soft lips.

My eyes welled with tears. He came to me, wrapped me in his arms, pressed me to his warm body. We kissed, and I thought, yes, we can make this work, build a new and better relationship, a marriage of true minds. It was an evolution in humankind, prompted by a virus. Passion flared within me.

Then the image of Miss Melon Boobs flashed into my brain, from his.

“What the hell? I can’t have sex with you while you’re imagining some other woman!”

He looked stunned. “Why not?”

I rolled my eyes, turned, dropped my head, and trudged down the hall to my bedroom.

That was two days ago. Since then, we’ve kept apart, and we text instead of talking. I’m not sure if we can handle this evolution, if we can transform our relationship. For now, neither of us is leaving, but only I know where the knives are hidden.

*This story was previously published in Persimmon Tree online magazine, Winter 2022 Edition.

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Debra Kennedy is a retired teacher with a master’s degree in Education. She has been writing poetry and fiction, as well as painting, for most of her adult life, when she could fit it in between work and family. She has had stories published in Focus on Women magazine and Persimmon Tree online magazine. She is currently working on a novel as well as a short story cycle. When not writing, she enjoys cooking, hiking, biking, cross country skiing, and reading, as well as gardening. She resides with her husband in the Kootenay region of British Columbia.

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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Shock and denial. fiction by Doug Jacquier

Doug Jacquier 2[1]

Shock and denial

Rufus Hornblower, the ‘it’s only the flu’, ‘it’s your sovereign right not to wear a mask’, ‘vaccination’s a plot’ shock jock, was bewildered when he woke up on a hospital trolley in a warehouse, after he’d gone to ER about his severe breathing difficulties.

A doctor wearing full PPE was observing him closely and taking copious notes before noticing Rufus was awake.

‘Ah, Mr. Hornblower, you’re back with us; are you feeling better?

‘No, I’m getting worse by the minute, maybe even dying from that plague thing, so why aren’t you giving me any treatment?’

‘Oh, Mr. Hornblower, you can’t die from an imaginary disease, so we’re moving you to the big circus tent we’ve set up on the waste ground behind the hospital, or as we call it, the Centre for Observing Victims of Imaginary Diseases, or COVID for short. You’ll enjoy your time there, what with the clown school, the acrobats teaching backflips, tightrope walking lessons and, of course, lyin’ taming.’

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Doug Jacquier lives in Yankalilla, Australia. He writes stories and poems. His work has been included in several anthologies. He has recently published a collection of short humor, Raving and Wryting, on Amazon. He blogs at Six Crooked Highways.

 

WordCity Literary Journal is provided free to readers from all around the world, and there is no cost to writers submitting their work. Substantial time and expertise goes into each issue, and if you would like to contribute to those efforts, and the costs associated with maintaining this site, we thank you for your support.

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