Short Fiction

Steve Toase

Red Clay

1.

From our cab we saw the road obscured by thick red clay, a quilt of receded floodwater washed from crop bare fields on either side. Every so often an abandoned possession poked up through the mud. A mobile phone long out of charge. Three cheap, rusted, pans. The frayed edge of a blanket hooked, flag like, on the splintered corner of a bed. Beyond the blockage we saw what was left of families gathered. They looked for limbs and faces in the surface. Clay hardened to brittle porcelain in the bake of the sun. There was no way for us to reach them.

2.

During the night the potters came, breaking off the crust and digging down to the still moist clay underneath. In plastic buckets they carried away as much as tired shoulders could bear, each tying the razor sharp metal handles to thick rope draped around their necks. Rattan screens and rotting food were left proud of the clay as if the earth itself bristled at the potters’ touch.

Fingers still bleeding from moving rubble the potters shaped red clay into coil pots. They crushed grog for each vessel from smashed, fine china and computer monitors prised from branches of the few remaining trees. By the roadside they built kilns with breeze blocks. Until the morning they fed the fires with wall slats, plaster brushed off into ant hills of dirty white powder.

3.

The next day the searchers came, each looking for one unblemished object. Such things were sparse. A single child’s building block. A cheap, plastic, biro with the ink dried to stone. A slightly tarnished butter knife. When found the searchers placed each in a  red clay pot. No letters marked the uneven surface. There were no names to remember any more.

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Masimba Musodza

The Gevgelija Policemen’s Club

As the Vardar caught the last of the sun in a myriad flashes of light, Grigor crossed Negorci to his own flat with a growing sense of shame. The looks on familiar faces said it all; they had all seen the picture. They called such pictures ‘viral’ for another reason, but Grigor thought that everyone looked like the people had all caught a disease. In a way they had. Some stared, as if fighting the urge to just come up to him and say it to his face: you brought shame to our country! You should have just let them pass, everyone knows they want to to go Europe! He thought he saw a smirk of vindication when he made brief eye contact with Dimitar, the old street sweeper. You are a monster, all cops are monsters. Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw a man swipe his mobile phone and show it to the woman beside him. Grigor dared not look back, but he felt their eyes bore reprovingly into his back.

Then, mercifully, he was plodding up the stairs to his flat, his good hand fumbling for the key. He found it just as he got to the door. When he opened it, Kaliopi swept him in to her arms, then shrank back in horror back as he winced and raised his bandaged hand for her to see.

“Your hand!” she exclaimed.

“Nothing serious, only cuts,” said Vadar, smiling. “Those barbs on the fencing are sharp! But, I should be fine, although I need help getting out of my shirt.”

Kaliopi walked away from him. He followed her, wondering if they would get right to it or sort of work towards it by him asking how her day at the museum was. She had tried to call him about six times that day,  after the picture came out. He hadn’t had the heart to answer her, or anyone else. Hadn’t the heart to reassure them that what they had seen was not what it looked like.

In the kitchen, he circumnavigated her to get to the sink. As he washed his good hand, she muttered to herself, “ If I had known that my husband was going to hurt himself dragging children under barbed wire today, I wouldn’t have made pleskavica.”

“I can eat with one hand, thank you!” said Vardar. She looked up and saw the flash of annoyance on his face. An apologetic look came over hers. “I am sorry, darling. But, it’s on the news, and we haven’t talked about it…..”

“We’ll talk about it over the evening meal, like we normally do with everything that has come our way so far.”

She nodded, understanding and acquiescence in one single gesture.

As they ate, he told her. “There was a stampede, Kaliopi. Our commander was trying to explain to the Syrians that they needed to stay calm, and we would let them in in groups. The message was relayed to the back of the crowd. But, at that precise moment, someone discovered that the fenced area was unattended. They all surged towards it. That girl was dragged under the wire.” He choked, then continued, “There are smears of her blood for at least three metres. When I came across her, she was screaming her head off. I guess that is what attracted the attention of the journalist. I was getting her out of the barbed wire when he took his picture. It was at that precise moment that Kiril appeared. He misread the situation, and tackled the reporter.”[Text Wrapping Break]“What do you mean he misread the situation?” Kaliopi asked.

Grigori shrugged. “He did not know what was happening. He thought I was attacking the girl and the reporter was going to make this known to the world. Put it this way, Kiril did not help. The picture was already online, and is now viral.”

She looked at him and loved him. She reached a hand across the little table and squeezed his. “What are we going to do, Grigori?”

“The public will want a head,” he said, glumly.

“The job,” she said, her voice barely a whisper. They would have to put off having a baby for another year at the least. Unless…..

“We will talk about your sister’s offer later,” he said firmly. “This may all blow over. All the Syrians are at the railway station right now. They will be on the train, off to western Europe.”

“Except for the girl,” said Kaliopi. “She is in hospital”

They continued with their meal in silence. Then, she went to the living room to have a Skype chat with Atina, her sister in the English town of Middlesbrough. Normally, Grigori would do the dishes. Tonight, he was incapacitated. He brushed past her, announcing that he was going to the shops.

They were waiting for him at the new McDonald’s, which watched the Vardar, and fed mostly tourists. In the evening, none of the total strangers he passed recognised him, for which Grigori was immensely grateful.

Goran and Petar, still in uniform,  sat at one of three occupied tables in the basement, attended by the remains of what looked like cheeseburgers and chips. Goran nursed a tumbler of Sprite. They acknowledged his entrance with grim nods, Petar moving to allow Grigori room to sit beside him.

“Are you in, now?” Petar liked to get down to business.

“Do I have a choice now?” said Grigori. [Text Wrapping Break]“There are always choices,” said Goran, philosophically. “Do you make this one, Grigori?”

“Life has made it for me,” said Grigori.

Petar leaned closer and put his arm around him. “Don’t look so down, Grigori. Walk away from this with courage, and enter your new life with the knowledge that you will benefit from this mess. You will lose from it if you go like a lamb to the slaughter.”

“What do I have to do now?” Grigori asked.

The other two policemen looked at each other. Goran smiled. “You want to start right away?”

“Might as well,” said Grigori.

“We are moving a family today,” said Petar. “Toše is taking them from the railway station right now.”

“I am afraid you won’t be needed in this one, Grigori,” said Gorin decisively. “But tomorrow, if you are dismissed from the force, as we all know you will, you can join us. Do you mind leaving town, we need someone with your skills to be based in Radoviš for a very important part of our operations. There is already a vacancy at one of the schools for a teacher, I think Kaliopi would find that news most persuasive. For you, I have a cousin who is starting a security company.”

A mobile phone burst into life with a techno loop. With a groan, Gorin stretched so he could retrieve it from his left-trouser pocket. He mumbled a few words, then began to rise. “We have to go,” he said. “I am glad you are coming on board, Grigori. Good night, and say hello to Kaliopi.”

The two men left Grigori to think about the Syrian girl, her face lacerated by barbed wire. He would make it alright for her, for all of them, he pledged. Today, it had been his job to keep them out. His superiors were going to take away his job for doing it properly. Tomorrow, he would have another job, one that would help that Syrian girl and her family. He was now part of a human-trafficking ring.

He looked up as a two men came down the stairs into the basement, their footsteps ponderous on the wooden boards.

Excerpt from a forthcoming novel of the same name 

Cath Bore

Waterbirth

Summer days are magic, the sun high up, blue sky over his head. He zones in on the blue. It’s beautiful. He twirls all the way round, the sky’s blue everywhere! He stands straight on his tiptoes, stretches as far as he can and goes tall. He can see the sea! It’s blue like the sky, bright blue over the line, dark blue below. Imagine blue water! Imagine water. Imagine it, cold and clear, dribbling down his throat. Gulping it fast, gobfulls, loads of them. Then sipping slow, neat, showing everybody he’s got good manners after all.

He goes towards it, slow at first then faster. It’s a long way. He keeps on, walks for miles and miles, over mountains and hills, round bends, down steep slopes and up, his calves hurt, stretched then shrinking, toes flexing, muscles straining.  He stops under a sky turned navy. His throat hurts, dry and sore. He really needs to drink. He swallows, throat shedding rust, walks some more. It’s not far now to the sea, the water.

He’s cold, freezing, teeth start to chatter, the air heavy and wet, damp on his skin. He looks down. Water! It’s everywhere. He wants to drink it, swallow it all down. You need it, water. That’s what his mum always says, we’re 80% water and without it we die, you can live for days without food but water, that’s another thing.

But the water, this water, it didn’t look like this from a distance, the blue sea he was promised. It should be blue but turned pewter now instead. He bends forward and the surface blinks to black, his face looking back at him. The sea smells of metal and salt. It stinks. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, a shrunken slug slathered in dry paste. He thinks of all the water he’s ever drunk, clean and sparkling, the time – the number of times more like – he’s let the tap run, emptied a glass down the sink, not even watched it dribble down the drain, turned his back instead and walked away. One drop, one droplet or even smaller, he’d have them all now, he’d lick the sink dry. Maybe one drop of the sea, he could drink that, the water sloshing around him right now, one tiny drop, it’s the water he wants out of it. The sea, it can keep the salt and the metal for itself. If he wishes hard enough, it might work. It won’t though, will it?

It hurts to swallow, like rocks jam his throat, rub the membrane raw. He needs to drink. He’ll die if he doesn’t, he knows that much.

But he has to keep away from the water.

Barry Fentiman

Tarabulus the Ferryman

When the devil comes to take you, there is no fire and brimstone, no fall into a lake of flame. That is the devil of the bible and the next world. There are deceivers on earth and it is they you must fear.

No, the devil of this world will put his arm around you and carry you to a promised land. He will hold open his elegantly tailored jacket and ask you where you want to go, and he will take you by the hand and lead you there.

Daddy will take you to see your heart’s desire. He will lead you out of the desert to the bright fires that burn many horizons from the place you were born. And he will tell you that they burn for you my special one. There will be running water and no men with guns. It will be paradise.

Look here! What do you want pilgrim? A diploma? A house? To be on TV?

They are all there waiting for you, all you have to do is follow this man of many names. You will soon be worth a fortune.

So says Shad The Salesman. Appearing at your side like something from a Clive Barker story. Buttoning his jacket of pure starling silk he will usher you to the shore to meet his friend Tarabulus The Ferryman.

And you will be as damned as any sinner my friend, though your only sin was to be born in a time and place of tyrants. For hell is very much of this world, and you can go there any time you like, all you have to do is say yes. There may even be official paperwork for you to sign. A mere formality of course, it must be seen to be written, but trust me traveller, it is not written to be seen.

For The Ferryman must be paid and he will take whatever you have to give him.

And so the mortification of all that you possess shall begin so that you may make the crossing.

First he will take the money that you made from selling fruit in the market. Expenses must be met you understand? Then your mobile phone. Just for safe keeping, there are dangers you understand.

Then he will make you naked. He will explain that in the land of others you must look as others do. He will tear the very threads from your body if you deny him.

And then you begin to understand. But it is too late.

Tarabulus will not return what has been freely given.

Next he will take the skin that your mother washed before you were taken away and he will brand it so that you will be known as one of his children.

Then he will take the tongue that tasted the snow the first time that you went to the mountains. And he will hold it in his hand. You will speak to no-one but him. You will speak when he says that you can. You must obey this for your own good. You will die, you understand?

Then he will place you in darkness. He will take the eyes that ran rivers as the doors of the truck closed. When they are opened you will have got what you desired and be grateful. But you must not look at him. You are dirt, you understand?

And in darkness you shall live for you are a creature of Tarabulus now and will do as he wishes.

You will stitch buttons until your fingers bleed if he wishes it.

If he touches you, you will welcome it. For he is The Ferryman and he has made a new world for you.

You will bleed for him until the day that never comes. Be thankful he says for you are deserving of this. Is it not all that you asked for?

You will hear the wind and the sea beyond the walls of your paradise and dream of what is out there but fear it in the same measure.

Tarabulus is father, mother, brother, and keeper.

He is also defiler, drunkard, and slothful. His men have fear but no respect. And they are forgetful.

In seeing the light you run towards it as a drowning person seeks the surface of the sea.

And freedom is a world of frights and sensations. Of rain and the smell of heather.

And the people speak to you in words that you do not understand.

Fallling crying rescue into the arms of a watchful confessor.

You sleep and dream strange dreams of fire and foulness. And The Ferryman’s hand outstretched awaiting silver.

Awaking in a house built of bricks with windows allowing light to touch you.

You have learned nothing of politics or philosophy but much about economics.

You have been on television.

And the man with the kind eyes asks you to tell him your story. Taking notes. Nodding here and sighing there.

And so you fall in genuflection for six weeks and 3 days and tell him the story of Tarabulus The Ferryman and how he took your body and hung it like game for his feasting.

But Tarabulus The Thief has stole away. Just a businessman on holiday. His palace scourged by flames, his minions fled. But he will return. He who walks by choice in fire becomes a thing of it and does not feel its burning.

You are clothed and awake in the place of others. Fearing sleep for the visions that it brings.

And so you pause. You have your tongue, your eyes, and the skin that you stand up in.

In the waiting room for the promised land as the confessors mull your fate. Yes, yes, you understand.

Barry Charman

Razorwire

The wire in her hair tugs, the little girl cries – she doesn’t understand – her mother pulls her free. She urges her, on on on. They can’t stop. She thinks of the doll they dropped all those weeks ago, how the girl had cried, but they couldn’t stop, couldn’t look back. They had struggled to the shore, the cold air rushing towards them, like a mocking embrace. Now, she sees the fence looming ahead, in her dreams it was shorter. She never imagined the wire, they’ve already crawled under one sharp coil, now they must do it again. She wants to stop running, yearns for it all to finally stop. A new home. A peace. A pause, at least. The girl is sobbing. The tunnel beyond the fence is a yawning mouth, she feels it will swallow them whole, but she will do anything to keep her baby safe, she scoops her up, rushes forward.

The night is suddenly alive with tension. Hands have her. There are voices, whistles.

She falls to her knees, her baby girl tucked up between her legs, as safe as she can be. She holds her tight, sobs, waits for more men to come.

Waits for it to end, so it can all begin again.

Keith Parker

Intersections

I sit in my garden reading,
It is the hottest day of the year.
The bells of the cathedral faint in the distance.
They toll for a `Saints Day` I can`t quite remember.
A woodpigeon beats its evening prayer as I pour some wine,
take in the scent of rose and buddleia and lilac,
poppy and astrantia flicker on the edge of vision.
Above me swallows and swifts plough the air for insects,
while blackbirds squabble in the apple tree.

The hot wind I enjoy on this English evening
has come from Spain and France passed on from Africa.
The cathedral was designed by Frenchmen using
Roman and Arabic designs. The woodpigeon sits
in the apple tree, first cultivated in Kazakhstan.
A man passes in a T shirt made in Hong Kong.
That`s why the blackbird who has recently flown in
from Russia is squawking, as he sits on my
trellised fence made in Poland. I watch him, amused,
sitting in my German chair, sipping  my Italian
pinot grigio, recalling that this is indeed
the feast day of St Barnabus the Apostle, a Cypriot Jew.
I breath in again the scent of flowers Roses from Asia,
Buddleia from the Caribbean, lilacs from the Balkans.
I close my book, second hand from  a District Library in Michigan.
The swallows and swifts drift away above me in the cooling air
migrants from south of the Sahara who have come here to breed

Shelley Day Sclater

A NOTE from Edinburgh at the time of various International Festivals and an international refugee crisis summer 2015

I saw a man dive into the General Waste. It was an extra-large bin they put there at festival time. I watched as the man dived in head-first and disappeared into the trash.

No-one else saw.

Now there are many tourists in this city at this time of year. In the frenzy and bubble of festivals and ice cream and big wheels and life-on-sticks and acrobats and dancers and people standing still, and a giant trampoline that goes bounce bounce bounce, mostly the tourists don’t pay attention to people trashing themselves, don’t pay attention to anyone except themselves.

There are travellers and travellers and the best travellers are the ones with the passports the ones with the logos on teeshirts or logos on luggage or preferably both, logos on everything. The best ones are the ones with the money to buy the logos and the rest, the rest can go beg.

Beg beg beg go the other ones, begging like dogs, lying on pavements, lying low like dogs. Put your heads down, be invisible, we don’t want to see you, we want you invisible. We want you to skulk, skulk away like dogs, bellies low to the floor.

You crouch so small behind your squashed cardboard Starbuck cup. Your hand is shaking. You’re not used to this. You don’t want this. You didn’t expect this. You don’t know what you expected, but it wasn’t this.

You keep your head low, head down, hang dog, hang low, hang the dogs. You let the people pass, let the good people pass, let them float by facing forwards always forwards, let them glide uninterrupted.

I saw a man dive into the General Waste. It was an extra-large bin they put there at festival time. I watched as he dived in head-first and disappeared into the trash.

No-one was looking.

About

Reception conditions for the refugees in Calais are worsening and there is an increasing death toll of refugees attempting to cross the channel from Calais to Dover. People are getting together all over the UK to send basic aid, that is not being provided in the holding camp in Calais. Writers are in the unique position to be able to express their concerns about the situation that the state does not seem to share.

Writers for Calais Refugees is an anthology in support of people seeking refuge.

The anthology is now closed for submissions. Thank you for your continued support and to all the writers that have sent their fantastic responses in, it’s been amazing. Please spread the word and keep checking in to see the two poets featured every day! I hope you agree the standard has been very high and that the writers have been putting into words your feelings about the plight of the refugees.